Stewards of Gondor: Slashvese Arc
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Star and Stone: 8. Low Places
"Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle "Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death."–The Siege of Gondor, RotK, 104 "'Ought' and 'is' consort not with each other"–Amandil the Lesser, Of Nature and Desire
"Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death."–The Siege of Gondor, RotK, 104
"'Ought' and 'is' consort not with each other"–Amandil the Lesser, Of Nature and Desire
"Captain?" Aragorn looked up from his conversation with Belethil to see a sergeant standing nigh, holding a set of papers. With a nod and a wave, Aragorn bade him approach, and the man obeyed, presenting the pages to him. "These are the last, sir."
"Thank you, Narhil," Aragorn replied, quickly rifling through them, checking the final numbers for any obvious mistakes. "Is there anything else?"
"Very good, then. Dismissed." Narhil saluted both Aragorn and Belethil, then turned smartly on his heel and left the two officers alone once more. Not that "alone" was the most choice of words when one stood in the midst of the storehouse, watching as men hurried to put supplies in proper order. A standing general order to depart meant a company should be prepared to leave within a day's time of the issuance of the order, and thereafter with but an hour's warning, and so not only were requisitions being made, but they were being filled and moved immediately out of the storehouse and into company barracks. Hildar ought to be pleased to see the last of these forms, for it would now be a simple matter of noting how many times they had to be renewed, if Denethor did not choose to part on the morrow.
Belethil tugged a page corner down and stared at the inverted letters. Aragorn obligingly handed the sheets over, and waited while the Ranger lieutenant made his own inspection.
"All seems in order," Belethil said, with that peculiar soft-sounding accent which Aragorn was beginning to recognize as 'southerly' even in this southern kingdom. Words tended to come sliding off his tongue like honey off a spoon–slow to fullness and with a trailing of sound that grew thin at the end. But in all other respects, the lieutenant had the quickness required of an officer and a Ranger. Belethil returned the forms, and then he stretched, after the manner of a man eager for a race, a sudden grin creasing his saturnine features. "It should be a nice jaunt out to the mountains for us."
"If we go there," Aragorn reminded him. "The Captain-General said only to assume that was our destination to insure we would not lack the necessary supplies."
"He must know something if he would name the Ephel Dúath. He does nothing without purpose, or so I hear," Belethil said reasonably.
"True enough, though purpose is not always so easily divined," Aragorn reminded him. Belethil cocked an eyebrow at that, giving him a measuring, expectant stare, and Aragorn had to suppress a smile. Rangers were Rangers, whatever land they roamed, apparently, and given to more curiosity than might be deemed wise by those of the regular army. All such native inquisitiveness was for the benefit of the men, of course–so Belethil had claimed the past few days, whenever he questioned Aragorn, whose position as Denethor's aide had not escaped him, about the Captain-General's decisions.
But Rangers were also discreet, and in response to the other's skeptical, questioning look, Aragorn said only and mildly, "I know no more than do you in this instance, lieutenant." So he said, and glanced at the door to the storehouse. It stood open, and the light that spilled through it had that orange cast of early evening. Mindful of the hour and in the interest of forestalling further wheedling, he continued, "If you wish to learn our destination, then go and collect Hildar so that we may hold to our appointment. And take these–" Aragorn handed him the papers once more "–to him as well."
"Aye, sir," Belethil replied with evident glee and loped off to evict Hildar from what had been Ingar's office. Aragorn shook his head, but sighed then as he ordered his thoughts, laying out before his mind's eye the events of the day. And it had been a long day, readying the garrison for the coming (and still somewhat mysterious) campaign.
Aragorn, acting in Halthar's stead, had had the task of organizing who would stay and who would go, which often depended upon whether or not records and interviews showed a man trustworthy. It was not so great a problem among the rank and file soldiers, but officers, whether commissioned or otherwise, were now in short supply, and even among those who had escaped a cell, still there remained doubt as to loyalty in some cases, and such men would not long remain in Poros. Assuming they lived to enjoy it, Aragorn anticipated that several of the men he had assigned to oversee various units or to assist others in that task would find their temporary authority made permanent. Certainly, Denethor did not plan upon restoring to trust any of those currently housed in the by now crowded Poros gaol.
"Strapped we are for men, but not so much so that I would risk any of these returning to duty here. Let their own lords put them upon the walls of their keeps or before their treasury doors, if they will," Denethor had said when asked about the matter. "We shall make do with those we have."
And so they had. In the face of the inevitable confusion that resulted from untried men attempting to find their way about their new responsibilities, and the enormity of the order that Denethor had issued, the entire garrison had scrambled short-handed throughout the day. Nevertheless, the promise of honest work in the service of avenging Poros's collective shame had proved a powerful spur to action. The men had fallen to their tasks with refreshing energy and enthusiasm, for which their somewhat harried officers were grateful. It was, after all, pleasant to think that this affair was nearly at an end.
For a little while, Aragorn thought, knowing full well that the matter was only just begun. How it would play out beyond Poros, in council halls and battlefields, was yet to be determined. But so far as the common soldiery was concerned, the scandal and shame were nearly at an end, and life in the south could return to what passed for normal in a troubled, difficult land...
Just then, however, Belethil reappeared, with Hildar at his side, cutting short Aragorn's speculations on whither this affair might lead. Denethor's dour chief of escort gave him his customary brusque nod and said without preamble, "Let's be off, then, gentlemen, ere we are late." Belethil glanced at Aragorn, who merely swept an arm gracefully towards the door, and then fell in a pace behind, he and Belethil flanking Hildar. For although Aragorn might outrank Denethor's chief of escort, and Belethil, too, was a lieutenant, as the oldest of the three, and the longest in Denethor's service, Hildar was owed a certain deference. If for no other reason than that to hold with Denethor's hard ways so long deserves respect! Aragorn thought.
Together, then, they crossed the yard, passing the now empty gallows to enter the keep, and they went thence to the captain's quarters. One of Hildar's men stood outside, and as they approached, the guard rapped on the door in warning before opening it for the three officers. In they passed, one by one, and Aragorn raised an eyebrow as he glanced round the room. And not without reason, for it was spotless beyond even Denethor's accustomed abhorrence of clutter. Not only were the ubiquitous stacks of papers nowhere in evidence, but it seemed as if the Captain-General had engaged in a general cleaning of house, for the antechamber which had served as Ithrin's office bore no trace of anything identifiably Ithrin's, save the desk and the shelves.
And the shelves, Aragorn noted, want for books, to judge by the spaces left behind. Even the carpet that had covered much of the floor had been rolled back and lay now unobtrusively along one bare wall.
Denethor himself, upon their arrival, closed the book he had been reading and set it aside next to several sealed envelopes that lay neatly stacked upon the desk. He rose and gave them a nod. "Good evening, gentlemen," he greeted them sparely, and indicated that the three of them should take a seat at the table in the corner. And when they had, and he had joined them, he glanced at each in turn ere he said simply, "Reports. Hildar?"
"The last requisition forms were given in just ere now, sir," Hildar replied, and nodded in Belethil's direction, before he continued. "They should be filled before the night is out, and I shall send up the final figures tonight."
"Poros's defenses will be weakened, given the number of men you wish to take, Captain. Nevertheless, considering the lay of the land, it may matter little, save only if the enemy brings siege engines," the Ranger answered, for the land near the Crossings was broad and flat for the most part, with little to shelter either the enemy or the fort's walls from attack. "Against such, we can do little, and there has been too little time to properly scout the area. However, what my lads have seen and heard in the villages they have visited gives us no reason to suspect the Haradrim have gathered such resources at this time, and why should they?" Belethil shrugged slightly. "Their business with Poros was profitable. Why should they wish to take or destroy it when they obtain what they wish without the costs incurred by war?"
Denethor nodded, then looked to Aragorn. "Ælric?"
"As the lieutenant has noted, we shall have to rely more upon Poros's walls than upon the numbers of men within her should an attack occur while we are away. With Halthar imprisoned, we have no one above the rank of sergeant, and we have lost several of those to evidence of misdeeds or suspicion strong enough to merit at least a temporary suspension of rank," Aragorn said.
"Additionally," he continued, "assuming we will engage the Haradrim, I have tried to pick those companies which were most experienced and which suffered least from this business of Ithrin's. This leaves Poros itself with men greener than we might wish, and perhaps also more demoralized. What we gain in one company, we lose in the other."
"And the sixth company?"
"I have reviewed the records of those who remain and spoken with quite a few of them, my lord. Those I felt trustworthy, I assigned to Poros, though in different companies. The rest shall come with us, but again, rather than assign that portion of the company to any one position, I have dispersed them among the rest of the men and alerted the company sergeants. Should any man among them or even a number of them turn on us, they shall find themselves surrounded and easily subdued," Aragorn replied.
"Then we shall call that settled," Denethor replied, and gave him a fractional nod of approval, even as a knock sounded, and the guard poked his head in once more.
"Supper has arrived," he announced, and then stood aside to let the others enter. The men from the kitchens were quick–no doubt, none of them were eager to remain too long in the scrutiny of their Captain-General after a harrowing week under his sharp eyes. For his part, Aragorn was in no mood to complain if they worked swiftly; he had snatched lunch (which had also been breakfast) in hand in the form of an apple several hours ago and continued on with his work. By the attention with which his fellows, even Denethor, watched the food being brought, he decided they had likely done the same. Denethor nonetheless held them to the standing silence for the full count of five before allowing them to reseat themselves.
For a time, there was silence, as dishes were passed in an orderly fashion, and the officers of Poros set to the business of assuaging a long day's hunger. But at length, Denethor laid his fork and knife across the plate and set the plate itself forward towards the center of the table. "I imagine," he said, glancing round the faces at the table, "that there have been some inquiries as to what our destination is, and what we hope to accomplish." He paused, and Belethil, Aragorn noted, kept his eyes steadfastly fixed on his plate, though at least he did not blush. Too good a Ranger for that, he thought, ere he attended once more to Denethor's words.
"Our aim is not in question. So far as I can determine, the pattern of attacks, their locations, and the numbers of men we have lost at any one time point to a hidden company somewhere in the Ephel Dúath. Most likely, they move on the south side of the river to avoid both patrols and make their passage less evident to the Rangers, then cross into Ithilien at need to harry them before withdrawing back across the waters to escape to their lair. Our task is clearly to find them and put an end to the raids. However, I cannot say that fortune favors us especially in this matter."
Denethor rose, made his way over to the desk, and pulled open a drawer from which he retrieved a folded piece of paper. Shutting the drawer once more, he took up the three envelopes on the desk and then returned to the table, where Belethil, as the most junior of them, had risen already and begun removing empty dishes to a small stand near the door. Denethor, meanwhile, laid the envelopes to one side, then unfolded the other paper and spread it out for them to see. A map, Aragorn realized as Belethil rejoined them, but different from any he had seen before. Orange, red, green, yellow, blue, and brown covered the regions of Harondor nearest the Ephel Dúath in patches and streaks, and he noted several black squares, diamonds, and crosses of varying sizes in the mountains–towns, he would have thought, but that none of them were named, unlike the circles inked in further out into the deserts. Haradric settlements, Aragorn realized, as he skimmed through the foreign names scribed beside them.
"This is a miner's survey," Denethor said then, and tapped a patch of yellow. "Limestone," he said, and then his finger moved to blue: "Copper." Green: "Shale." Red: "Gold." Orange: "Iron." And finally brown: "Granite. Squares show us old mineshafts, long since lost, diamonds are abandoned quarries, and crosses note cave entrances." Aragorn chewed gently on his lip. There were, he noted, quite a few crosses.
"The last survey map was made in the early days of Narmacil II's reign, and since then only copies of that one have been created at need–some by the mapmakers in Pelargir, and by those in Minas Tirith after Osgiliath's fall. This one I had made for Poros when the fort came into my command," Denethor said, pausing a moment while his fingers traced lightly over the line of mountains, and down Poros to the crossings. A dry land, indeed, Aragorn thought, briefly amused, even as Denethor blinked and shot him a look, seeming to guess his thoughts.
"In any event, gentlemen," he continued quickly, "the problem we are faced with is clear. When once we posit Haradrim hidden in the caves or mines of the Ephel Dúath along this ten mile baseline, and rule out those caves known to be too small to accommodate the numbers needed to account for Ithilien's losses, we are left with some six possibilities, I judge, spread all along that line, and no further means to narrow our search. And as you know from your work today, it is a five day march to the mountains."
"The Haradrim might well have withdrawn by then, if they have not already begun," Hildar concluded. Then he frowned. "Why a ten mile baseline?"
"Because of the river," Belethil replied immediately, if a bit absently as, neck craned, he studied the map. "A large company would not wish to be more than five miles from water, and if the underground wells and streams in some of the caves have run dry, then the river would be their nearest source."
Denethor nodded. "Precisely."
"Even if we had sent scouts to the mountains a week ago, they might still be searching," Aragorn murmured, and glanced up at Denethor. "But we have sent no one. And what hope would we have of the Haradrim remaining so long?"
"What of Halthar?" Hildar asked, frowning as he looked to his lord. "Might he not know where they camp?"
"No," Aragorn replied, ere Denethor could answer.
"We cannot simply march to the Ephel Dúath with so many on so little knowledge," Hildar protested. "After such hope as men have now, they will not suffer disappointment."
"We could seek their contacts in the villages," Belethil said then, glancing from Hildar to Aragorn, and thence to the Captain-General. "There must have been names given in confessions. We could try for a ruse–"
"They would suspect a trap," Hildar said dismissively, a hint of a growl in his voice. "Your men have already been among them, asking questions about Poros, and did you not say the Haradrim nearly gutted them for such inquiries? Whom would we send? More strange faces, trying to pass themselves off to these spies? Were it my place to guard such routes and knowledge of them, I would not let such a one pass."
"Nor can we use any of those whom they might recognize and trust," Aragorn added. "We cannot trust any such to serve our ends."
"Then," Belethil replied, rallying once more and swiftly, "let us seek out those named, and force a route from them at least–"
"And if they had not decided to withdraw already, that would force them to it," Aragorn said heavily, and shook his head. "Besides which, it would be a lengthy, uncertain search–one spy leads to another, and then to another, and there must be but few in the furthest villages who know the way to that camp. One or two at most. How long would it take to trace the line of informants back to those few?"
Which was why he turned then to Denethor, who had sat silently by the while, listening. Waiting until we should see the futility of the hunt ourselves, he thought. How long has he known this, I wonder? Days, perhaps, for certainly, with his knowledge of the lay of the land in the Ephel Dúath, he would have had all the needed lines of the riddle by the time he had sentenced Ithrin to a cell, Aragorn judged, for saving only the map, he knew well what had crossed Denethor's desk. The Captain-General must have known well before tonight that a hunt would avail them nothing, unless by sheer luck. And yet this morning he ordered us to stand ready for an order to depart...
"What is our road, then, my lord?" he asked, and Denethor gave him a minute nod, as if he had indeed been awaiting just that question.
"We cannot uncover the Haradrim where they nest," the Captain-General replied by way of summarizing their discussion. "Time is against us, whether we seek the Haradrim directly or through their eyes in the villages. And as for the latter, the fact remains that we deal with men, not metal. If we seek only to use them to track the host, there is nothing to ensure that some other might not slip our net and send warning to the company to abandon its camp, or that even a watched spy might not risk some subtle signal to warn his friends away. Beyond that, there is the matter of morale: this must be resolved swiftly and in our favor." And as he spoke, his gaze touched on each man a long moment ere finally he turned his attention back to the map. "So," he concluded, "we shall not go in search of them. Rather, we must lure them to us."
"But... how, my lord?" Belethil asked, even as Aragorn's eyes narrowed. Lure them to us. Of a sudden, the puzzle changed aspects, and Aragorn found himself seeing it anew, in a different shape, from another side... Its underbelly, he thought, unpleasant suspicion flaring to life as reason pursued another, darker course...
"Very simply, lieutenant," Denethor said, too calmly, and Aragorn felt his jaw clench in reaction. "The villagers alone can find these Haradrim–they alone could bind that company to remain, rather than withdrawing. Therefore we must give the villagers–all of them, whether spy or farmer or even farmer's daughter–a reason not simply to bid our enemy remain but to bring him to us. And it must be a reason that cannot fail to serve our ends and that will travel swiftly." Once more, he drew his forefinger up the line of Poros, and then south into the wastes, 'til it encountered a circle. "One that will bring our enemy here."
'Here' was a settlement named, apparently, 'Khassid'. If there were anything remarkable about it, Aragorn did not know it, though he assumed it must have some tactical advantage at least, or else Denethor would have chosen some other mark. But all such considerations were as ash on the wind, as he asked sharply, "You would hold an entire village hostage?"
"Spies may have some loyalty and honor enough, perhaps, to refuse to play their part for us, no matter the threat. They may refuse to bear the message, or send warning instead. But among fifty men with families, there will be one at least who will find the price of that refusal too high," Denethor replied, evenly.
"And what of the Haradric company?" Aragorn demanded. "What certainty have we that they may not find the price of rescuing fifty villagers too high?"
"None," Denethor admitted, and held up a hand, when Aragorn would have objected. "Nevertheless, we have a better chance of success if we adopt this plan than if we adopt any other. You will recall that the Haradrim are bound to protect the villages against our incursions. If we take sufficient force with us, I do not doubt that there will be only one company large enough to contest us. And so our quarry will need to choose between their mission and their duty to their own people. Blood ties and obligation run strong among the Haradrim; I do not believe they shall abandon their own simply to slaughter a few more Rangers or to thwart us."
"And if they do not choose as we wish them to?" Aragorn asked.
Denethor raised a brow, as he replied, "I do not make a practice of threatening what I will not in fact do, captain."
"You speak of a purge," Aragorn said flatly.
"Say rather a siege," Denethor corrected.
"These settlements by all accounts are hardly more than hovels and tents! What walls have they to speak of for any to hide behind?"
"I believe Rohirrim call it a 'shield-wall'."
"And we reserve the word for those who have shields," Aragorn protested. "You have said yourself these are not warriors."
"No, they are not," Denethor replied, voice hardening a bit. "But this is Harondor. The rule of war here is both lawless and absolute. The Haradrim have undermined Poros and are swiftly draining the life from Ithilien. If the villagers will conspire thus against us, then be it on their heads to suffer the consequences. Indeed, captain, it is on our heads for allowing this situation to come to pass; there is no point in complaining overmuch of what necessity has brought us."
Which was one way of viewing the matter. But Aragorn could well nigh taste the bile in his mouth that such an admission brought, and he shook his head, as he swiftly changed tack and argued back, "Then since necessity speaks, be it on our heads to suffer our own failure and endure the uncertainty of other plans. The risk is otherwise too great that we will be forced to a massacre, and that only after the villagers have dwelt through many days of fear within our net. If we leave them unmolested, however, doubtless the Haradrim shall seek to use them again, and since we shall be expecting them, we may then have the chance to repay those who merit our wrath."
Denethor leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers before him, grey eyes fixed upon Aragorn's face as this impassioned speech was delivered. "What you say is not without merit, Ælric," he conceded then, as Aragorn fell silent, "but our first duty is to Gondor's people, including her soldiers, not to Harad's."
"Respectfully, my lord," Aragorn replied, in a clipped voice, "I must doubt whether we do well by Gondor's people, and especially her soldiers, if we ask them to do this. For it seems to me that if we desire to confront those who have butchered Gondor's men, then we may accomplish our end with patience, which also is discipline, and which surely the men of Poros need as they do water in the desert after the lawlessness we have uncovered here!"
"What they need is justice–"
"And I do not say otherwise, only question the means," came the swift rejoinder, to the hiss of a sharply in-drawn breath at Aragorn's right elbow. But he paid Hildar no mind as he continued intently, "If only because they served traitors, they have blood enough already on their hands–that of their own fellows in Ithilien. Shall we add to it that of the villagers, many of whom in their ignorance can bear responsibility for their own collaborators only as Poros's men bear it for their captain and officers?"
So he ended, and in the charged silence that followed was aware of Hildar on the edge of his seat, scowling vexedly at him, and of Belethil resolutely gazing at the map. Stiff-backed, they sat unspeaking, and Aragorn realized there would be little help from either of them in this matter. He was alone in his opposition, and it occurred to him fleetingly that he might well have found, at last, a particular quarrel with Denethor.
For his part, Denethor had not moved since Aragorn's interruption, nor given any indication of his thought, though his eyes were very dark as he gazed back at Aragorn, who refused to back down. But he spoke calmly, when at length he answered, and some of the tension in the room seemed to ease a little.
"One might also say that since they bear a similar responsibility, 'tis fruitless to argue they deserve to be untroubled. Our men are not so, after all," Denethor replied, and then leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table, still without breaking the lock of looks with Aragorn. "I will not deny, Ælric, that it would be a grave misfortune for us and for the villagers both, if the Haradrim held back in the hopes we would turn about and return to Poros. It is not an end I desire, for I do not desire a massacre, but we do not have a choice. Blood ties run deep, I said, but not so deep that the Haradrim would not accept the deaths of every man and boy in Khassid as a fair trade for our Rangers and also to deny us a confrontation that they would most likely lose. To break the scale, we need a disproportionate weight, and that we have at hand, if we will use it.
"Be assured that the Haradrim understand this–this would not be the first time that either Gondor or Harad has made such a purge. Moreover, the lords of the Haradrim know that they themselves have put these peasants in our path–they use them to gain a pretext for sending their own forces further into Harondor each year, knowing that their existence will be wretched and that many will die as war sweeps over them, whatever care we may take to spare them."
He shook his head, as he continued, "The squatters in the wastes are pawns awaiting sacrifice from whatever side of the board one examines the matter. A pity, but one owing as much to the Haradrim as to we here; we do not pause for such when our own men–whom we cannot replace so easily as the Haradrim can replace the settlers–are cut down with the help of these very pawns. If we would snare those who have in fact slaughtered Ithilien's men, then this is the surest way, and the swiftest, and will breed no more such raiders, nor further deaths among a company that can ill afford them, as your own plan would require.
"Beyond that, you do not know, any more than do any of us, how the Haradrim shall choose, although I at least know the years on which my judgment of them rests," Denethor said pointedly, and paused a moment, ere he finished: "The matter is closed. Are there any other questions?"
A brief silence followed, ere Hildar, after shooting Aragorn a look, asked, "Do we leave tomorrow, my lord?"
"The first hour after dawn for the main host. The cavalry will depart no more than an hour later. These are your orders," and here, Denethor handed each of them an envelope, distinguished one from the other only by a single letter–'H' for Hildar, 'B' for Belethil, Aragorn's with a dwarvish 'A' rune that more nearly captured the sound of a Rohirric 'Æ', at least as the tengwar were voiced in Gondorian mode. No detail too small, he thought rather caustically. "See to them."
And that was that. Chairs scraped as all of them rose, and carefully polite farewells were bidden. Belethil was already opening his envelope before they reached the door; Aragorn, for his part, waited until he had turned the corner in the hall to pause beneath a lamp sconce, where he read:
Ælric: Poros garrison has a company of sixty horses, in addition to the twenty that rode escort through Ithilien. Ready them to depart two hours after sunrise, and be ready yourself to ride with them. Cavalry will act as scouts and if needed, run down any who seek to leave Khassid before the net is closed and the message made plain.
Aragorn let out the breath he had been holding, and refolded the paper, drawing fingers along the creases with careful precision.
"Do you ride with Lord Denethor?" a voice asked somewhat stiffly, and Aragorn glanced up to find Hildar standing a little further up the hall, tucking his orders into his scrip.
"Aye, I do."
"Then we may share the labor between us–you have the lists; take forty of the men, and leave the other twenty, plus the escort, to me" he replied.
"As you wish," Aragorn said, with little enthusiasm, as Hildar fell in at his side. And after a silent while, during which the other's disapproving scrutiny was nigh palpable, Hildar asked abruptly:
"Will you contest the Captain-General in this?"
"I do not care for his plan," Aragorn replied, and was drawn up short then by the hand that landed hard and heavy on his shoulder.
Hildar cocked his head at him, glancing up the hall then down, ere he replied, in an undertone, "I care not what you like, I ask whether you will contest him when the time comes."
And Aragorn, feeling that hand tighten, raised a brow, as several thoughts ran suddenly through his mind, the foremost of which was a grim salute for bloody irony. We came to stamp out treason in Poros, to restore order, to put an end to the insubordination of the ambitious. And now the shadow of rebellion looms again, and it is my own! And so he wondered, too, whether Hildar's initial offer of assistance had not another motive behind it. The men of the sixth company may not be the only ones who are watched, he thought, seeing the way Hildar's eyes narrowed slightly. Denethor's chief of escort might not be the most imaginative of men, but he was Denethor's, head to foot and all between, as the oath went, and the Captain-General's safety was his abiding concern. If he thought it best to keep a watch on his lord's outland and apparently unreliable aide, he would not hesitate to do so. And so:
"I will ride under Lord Denethor's orders to Khassid, and hope that he is right," Aragorn said after a moment.
"And if he is wrong, and the Haradrim do not come?" the other pressed.
"I did not swear an oath to slay the innocent, lieutenant."
"And there are none such in Harondor, captain," Hildar said flatly, and then paused a moment, ere he asked again: "Should it come to it, will you contest him at Khassid?"
However, this time, before Aragorn could muster a response, a throat cleared behind them. Both men turned swiftly, and Aragorn felt his spine stiffen reflexively. For there stood Denethor, arms folded across his chest, watching them with, it seemed, great interest.
"I believe there are cavalry to ready," the Captain-General said mildly, eyeing first Hildar, and then Aragorn. There was flint in that gaze, and as he stared at Aragorn, something flickered in those grey eyes, ere Denethor turned to Hildar. "Lieutenant, see to the horses and the men–all of them. Ælric, walk with me."
"Aye, sir," Hildar murmured, and made haste to escape his lord's uncertain temper. For his part, Aragorn waited until Denethor had caught up with him, and then fell in wordlessly at his side. That seemed to suit the Captain-General, who apparently required nothing more from him at the moment than his obedience. They made their way to the outer hall, and thence out into the evening air.
May days stretched with the coming of summer, and although the sun had set and lamps were being lit, light remained still, a luminescent smear across the western sky. But if the west held any interest for Denethor, it lay not in the evening splendor. Rather, Aragorn realized, it lay with the nearly deserted practice yard, and something like anticipation knotted his belly as he followed his commander into that dusty square.
A few men were lounging there, recovering from their bouts, it seemed, and enjoying panted discussion of their defeats and victories that hour. Likely their shifts had ended late, or else they preferred the cooler evening to the heat of the day, despite the dimmer light, and a few of them peered curiously at the newcomers. Curiosity, however, swiftly gave way to apprehension as recognition set in: as Denethor approached, glances went round among them, and after a swift salute as greeting, they, like Hildar, hastily departed.
And Aragorn, looking after them, remarked, "That must grow tiresome, my lord." Which observation might perhaps be overbold tonight when he was quite obviously in the shade with Denethor. But then again, he owned his own mood at the moment was none too sunny where Denethor was concerned, all of which meant that he had for the first time little to gain by their usual circumspect sparring. No doubt, he thought, as he and Denethor shed swordbelts and their outer layers, stripping down to their shirtsleeves, that is why we are here.
"Tiresome or no, better they retreat if they doubt themselves in my presence," Denethor replied unsympathetically, and tossed him one of the padded practice gambesons and a helmet, even as he took another set of armor for himself. "I have no patience for those who cannot see a thing through without wavering." This, with a gimlet glance for Aragorn, who merely grunted acknowledgment as he tugged the gambeson into place, pulled the helmet's chin-strap tight, and then made for the sword rack. He was stopped, however, by Denethor's hand on his arm.
"Another time," the Captain-General said, and steered him instead towards the set of staves and blunt-weighted glaives racked against the wall. "I trust you have some skill with a spear or staff?"
The edge to his voice was clear enough, even without the usual bravado of practice yard challenges, and Aragorn smiled a little and thinly as he hefted a glaive whose single "blade" and length suited him. Turning then to Denethor, who had already chosen his weapon, he replied, with as much nonchalance as he could muster, "Am I not a Rider of the Mark?"
"We shall see," came the sardonic response, as he and Denethor drifted warily apart.
It was a well-known adage of the practice ground that flail-work crippled more men than any other weapon, but that for exquisite bruising, staves and their ilk were peerless. Which certainly matched weapon to mood this evening, although Aragorn felt compelled to remind his opponent, "We do have an early ride tomorrow."
"Then mind your legs," Denethor replied, and, suiting action to words, struck low, then swept up in a tight arc, as Aragorn dodged and then thrust–a quick, probing feint that was as quickly deflected. Another swift jab, a shift of grip, and the tip of the glaive wove a double serpent as Aragorn maneuvered deftly about in response to his opponent's parry and then withdrew a bit, circling smoothly.
Across from him, as his reflection in a strange mirror, Denethor matched him, pace for pace, with just that hint of lazy grace that would be the downfall of any man foolish enough to take it for overconfidence. Someone had taught him well, and the Steward's son came in again, this time wielding his spear from the center point as a staff indeed, thrusting towards his face; Aragorn grunted as the reverse end cracked across his left hip, then slapped the back of his arm as the weighted tip swung around and up in a blow that would certainly have hampered more than riding, had it landed. Nor did Denethor break off, but as Aragorn retreated, the Captain-General spun to bring the haft about again, aiming for his stomach.
With a snarl, Aragorn brought his glaive straight down between his body and the length of the other's weapon, feeling the wood shiver at the impact, then shoved hard and followed through with an underhanded swing that caught Denethor on the inside of his calf, momentarily unbalancing him. Even so, he did not fall, and a hard back swing and thrust forced Aragorn to one side, and then they faced each other once more, Denethor with his spear held in a taunting low guard, reminder of his earlier warning, Aragorn taking a high stance, palm flat against the butt of his spear as he circled the tip. His left arm ached, as did his hip, despite the padding, but it was of no concern: a little pain need not hinder and might go far as inspiration. Concentration narrowed, and he felt himself slip beneath the stream of his own thoughts, down through memory as, glimpsing an opening in Denethor's defense, he lunged forward once more...
Gil-galad was an elven king. Wood clattered, and bruised flesh twinged as the shock went through him. He had drunk those tales in as a boy, only to learn the terrifying truth of Gil-galad and Aiglos from his foster-father, who for this one purpose set aside the healer to take up a warrior's habit once more.
A spear is merely an edged staff, and as such, no Ranger can be without knowledge of it, Elrond said, and Aragorn dropped beneath a high swing.
Angles, child, your spearwork is a matter of angles, leverage, and control, the lesson continued, as he rolled under and inside Denethor's reach and swept wide–
You may not always bear a sword openly. But any length of wood can be a staff. If there is a standard–
His strike landed hard; he could feel it all the way up his arms, in the clench of his shoulders as he swung through–
–and then up, and rammed the butt of the haft hard into the ground, swiftly levering himself to his feet–
–a faggot for a fire, you may walk to all eyes unarmed without fear–
His glaive shivered as a defensive swing caught short against it–
–for your weapon is at hand.
And with a sharp cry, he thrust his opponent's stroke wide as he reversed his glaive, angling the blade low to sweep the other's weapon back... and stop with the tip of his own just over Denethor's throat. For a time, neither moved nor spoke, and the sound of their breathing seemed loud in their ears. Aragorn, as he stood over the other, grew uncomfortably aware that for all the swiftness of their final exchanges, he had not come out of them unscathed. From the slight wince that creased Denethor's face, he, too, was beginning to feel the bruising, and he drew his left arm in close to his chest, shrugging carefully. At length, Aragorn asked:
"Have we settled this, then?"
Denethor winced again, flexing his fingers slightly as he replied, "What I said before, about seeing a thing through without wavering?"
"Aye–" Barely had the word passed his lips than Aragorn cursed, as Denethor's left hand–the one beneath Aragorn's weapon–shot up, grasped the haft, and then shoved outward, forcing him to pivot slightly. He knew then that it would be a futile defense, even before he felt the sharp, stinging blow to the back of his knee that brought him down–hard–and Aragorn found himself staring up the blade end of Denethor's glaive, as his opponent stepped down firmly on the haft of his own weapon, pinning it.
"Now you know what it means in Harondor not to waver," the Captain-General replied, his voice low and intent... urgent, Aragorn thought, and hid a grimace. The blade dipped, and Aragorn felt the weight against his chest, as Denethor continued, "You might still have gained something if you had looked beyond a clean win tonight." And he leaned a bit into the glaive when Aragorn tried to rise even as far as his elbows. Easily, lad, Aragorn reasoned with himself, trying to muzzle his temper, which would hardly help him. This fight is hardly begun, and you have already made one mistake in thinking it so easily resolved. Lead with anger and you are lost!
And so, as calmly as he might, with such dignity as he could muster from his prone position, he responded, "Perhaps I might have. But you err, my lord, if you believe that you have my measure from the practice grounds alone."
"Do I?" Denethor asked, eyeing him shrewdly. "I will admit that you have surprised me from time to time, Ælric, but after your argument with Hildar, I begin to think you might be better spent in Poros. That perhaps you are not yet ready to close with the Haradrim."
"'Tis not the Haradrim who test me," Aragorn replied, flatly.
"No, indeed," Denethor said softly, without taking his eyes from Aragorn's face.
And with that pronouncement, the weeks of baiting and uncertain sparring crystallized. So all our contests come finally to this, Aragorn thought. All their sparring, all Denethor's incessant inquiries, the very measure of his will–of his loyalty, and so his trustworthiness–all of it hinged upon this one choice that Denethor now demanded of him. He could accept the necessity of the Captain-General's plan and surrender, which thought turned his stomach, or he could accept the tacit compromise offered and remain in Poros, hands clean and honor preserved should the Haradrim gamble they were being bluffed. He could even request Ecthelion send him to some other captain, and win his spurs in Gondor under another's command. And so long as I remain in Ecthelion's service, I will have not only Denethor's enmity, but his contempt.
Pride and the trouble such contempt would create for him aside, should it matter to him, given the nature of their quarrel, whether he had Denethor's esteem?
"I will make you a promise, my lord," Aragorn said at length, and then added, "An impertinent one, if you will."
Denethor quirked a brow. "By all means, captain," he replied, and despite the goading edge to his tongue, there was nothing of dismissiveness in his voice; Aragorn inclined his head slightly, acknowledgment and–ironically–thanks, both.
"Then I swear on my oath to the Steward and on my honor as a Rider of the Mark that I shall give you no surprises on this journey, my lord, for I tell you now: you may rely upon me to follow you into whatever dragon's teeth you may find set against Gondor–should there be ten thousand Haradrim ranged against us, I would be at your side in the charge if you ordered it," Aragorn said firmly. "But I am not a butcher–neither yours, nor Gondor's, and if there are any in Poros who would balk to become one, then I will stand with them against you and before the villagers at Khassid."
"I see," Denethor replied, eyes glinting in the fading light. "You promise me treason, then."
"What I promise you, my lord, is a captain who will take you at your word when you say you expect him not to leave his judgment in his saddlebags," Aragorn replied in a low voice, casting all caution to the winds as he ended: "Even when it would suit you better if he did."
Denethor stood silently awhile, frowning as he considered this proposal... or else Aragorn himself. Finally: "Very well," the Captain-General said, and stepped back. Aragorn did not rise immediately, wary yet. And wariness proved wise, for hardly had he gained his feet, than Denethor struck once more, ere he could even begin to move in his own defense. The blow came in on his off-side, and Aragorn grunted in pain and staggered as the haft licked across his back. But no more came, and even as he began to raise his own weapon reflexively, Denethor lowered his.
"For your impertinence," he said, mildly. Then, more sharply: "We leave the second hour after dawn. Do not be late."
And with that, rather to Aragorn's astonishment, Denethor tossed his glaive lightly to him, swept up his tunic and swordbelt, then turned on his heel and departed without another word.
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