Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Exile: 9. Chapter 9
Halforth didn’t seem surprised to see me, when I approached. He only sighed, glancing once at me before turning back to watch the dark shapes of the trees before us, waiting for me to speak.
“Engroth spoke to me just now.” Which was of course obvious to him, for he had no doubt witnessed our conversation, even if he had not heard all. But I could think of no better beginning.
Halforth nodded. “Aye,” he said, still without looking at me. “I know what he asked you, for he spoke of it to me also.”
I turned around, looking toward the other side of the camp where Engroth stood against a tree, motionless as the stone kings who stood guard on the downs at Fornost. When, I wondered, had he last slept? Or had he fought in the Wild so long that he could sleep while still standing? “And what did you say?”
“I said the decision was not mine to make, and that you would answer him when you returned.”
In his voice there was no hint of his own thoughts, whether he would have agreed with Engroth, if it were up to him. I did not ask, for I feared to hear his answer.
“If I had given him the men he asked for . . .” I hesitated. “Could he lead them, now, and hold our retreat?”
“Had I not seen what they have done, I could almost pity the orc who crosses Engroth now,” he said, and his voice was dry. “If he leads our rearguard, you may be sure that many orcs will die. He will buy us twice as much time as any guard of the same number and led by another, on the same ground. Still, none of those who make a stand here will live to see Imladris . . . and only the Valar can say if the rest of us would make it.”
“I know,” I said quietly, and he looked at me for the first time, his face somber.
“Aye,” he said. “And he knows it, too.”
“There is but a slim chance any of us will live, no matter what we do,” I said, “and so he chooses the course of action that will lead swiftest to his own death.”
Halforth looked down for a moment, and when he looked up again I sensed a vast weariness in him, though his expression had not changed. “Aye.”
I closed my eyes, then forced them open again with an effort. It was difficult simply to think, when cold and fatigue numbed my mind, and I hardly knew even what questions I should ask of him. More than anything I wished I might leave this task to another, let Halforth decide what course we should take, lay my head upon the snow and go to sleep.
“My lord, you ask me to read the heart of another, and I fear I cannot.” His voice was tired, and he looked away, staring straight ahead. “I have fought beside Engroth many more years than you have been alive, and I know something of the wounds he has borne, but I cannot tell you what he suffers now, and if he will ever recover. Nor can I tell you if it is wise, to accept his counsel now.” He turned to me then, and I was surprised at the depth of the sorrow in his eyes. “I can only say that for three score years he was one of the greatest warriors we had. In a large part, ‘twas his strength, and the faith we all had in him, that held us together after your father died. But I also know that there are some wounds that do not heal.”
“Still, you know more of him than I,” I said. “And I can hardly know what weight to give his counsel, unless I know why he seeks death now.”
There was no sound, save for the soft rustling of evergreen needles in the wind. Halforth looked down at his hands, and I resisted the urge to apologize, to say it was none of my affair.
“It is because of me,” I said abruptly, folding my arms as against a sudden chill. “You said before . . .” He turned to look at me sharply. “. . . my presence brings back memories. Of events he would forget. This would not have happened, had I not come here.”
“My lord . . .” He stopped, obviously disturbed. I had the impression he was choosing his words carefully. “You have done only what duty and honor dictated, nothing more,” he said finally, formally. “There are none here who fault you for that. For good or ill, you belong here, with your own kin.”
If he only knew how little duty and honor, or love for my own kin, had had to do with my decision to come here! I turned away so that he would not see the flash of self-disgust in my face. He did not know that Elrond would have had me stay a few years yet in Imladris, before he learned of my love for his daughter. Nor did he know how I left Elrond’s house but a day after, out of frustrated love and wounded pride. I thought only of my own pain then, and fleeing from the reminder of all that I could never have.
I did not belong here, in command of this company, and I feared I could lead them nowhere but to our deaths.
“If I had not come here,” I said slowly, still without facing him, “Engroth would still be in command. It was my presence reopened these old wounds you speak of. Without me, he would have found a way to save you all.”
I heard him take a deep breath, letting it out slowly before he spoke. “If you had not come here when you did,” he said, very softly, “my son would be dead.”
His eyes fixed on me were very bright, but his voice was steady when he went on. “Engroth would never speak of his own thoughts, unless it were a matter of concern to us all. Not since—“ He stopped, turning around to look for our former captain. Engroth stood still at the other edge of the camp, but all the same Halforth lowered his voice. “I know not what effect your presence has had on him. But some things cannot be predicted, in this life, and sometimes no one is truly to blame.”
I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands together in a futile attempt to warm them. I could no longer feel my fingers. “He knew my father.”
It was not much of a guess. He had never known me, so it must be my father I reminded him of.
Halforth froze, then nodded slowly. “Aye,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Knew him better than any of us, I think. ‘Twas your father convinced him to come back North, to his own people, when they were both hardly older than you are now.”
A branch swayed near me, soft needles brushing my face, but I didn’t move. He walked a few steps away, to lean against the trunk of the tree. “Life in the Wild is hard, but to Engroth it has been crueler than to most of us. Even I do not know the full tale—only what the older Rangers told me, when your father was still alive.” He hesitated, and I waited, wide awake for the first time in days, and—I could not help it—curious.
“Orcs burned his village to the ground when he was barely ten years old. He was the only one who survived, and somehow he made his way south across Bruinen and into Dunland. ‘Twas ten years later when your father found him, living on the streets in a town not far from the Gap of Rohan.
“I do not know what Arathorn was doing so far south. Most likely gathering information. And if I know him, he was ordered to wait for reinforcements, but for some reason he decided to go in alone. There were many, in those days, who called him rash. But whatever his reasons, he did whatever it was he set out to do. And when he returned to Fornost Engroth was with him.”
His eyes met mine then, but I knew he wasn’t seeing me at all. “I was too young to fight with the Rangers then, but I know Engroth had not wished to return, and it took him some time to adjust to life among us. He was a formidable warrior even then, though more deadly with his hands than with a bow, but for nearly a year he would speak to none but Arathorn.”
“Why would he not wish to return?” I asked.
“You must understand, my lord,” he said, “he was very young when he left us. His strongest memories of the Dúnedain, I do not doubt, were of his home in flames and his family slain by orcs. Since that day he had to survive alone, in a foreign land traditionally hostile to our kind. After such a life, I am only surprised he trusted Arathorn enough to follow him back North.”
“Why did he?”
“No one knows, but I heard from my father and several others that neither would have left Dunland alive, if not for the other. Of what befell them, and how they escaped, there are many tales, but most are only hearsay. Arathorn, in after years, would say only that he did some very foolish things on that mission, and that Engroth saved his life. And Engroth never spoke of that time at all, to my knowledge.”
I almost thought I saw his lips quirk in a half-smile, but the expression never reached his eyes. “You never saw two men less alike. Arathorn was loved by all, even then. There was never a man more open, more generous, more kind. He was such a one as could lift men’s spirits in the darkest hour. He loved to laugh. He loved to sing. He was more than the chieftain’s son, in those days, and he was more than a chieftain to us. He was our friend.”
He looked up, and when the moonlight fell across his face there was a look there I had never seen before. There was weariness there, and sorrow, but I saw also a calm sort of pride, like a candle burning strong and clear through a snowstorm. I was reminded of his son, and a long night on the road to Sarn. And at the same time, there was the sudden feeling of looking at something I was only beginning to understand.
“I do not believe Engroth ever had any close friends, other than your father. He spoke little to any other, except when it was necessary. He was swift to anger, and often reckless, or so Arador said. But he was never one to speak of what was in his heart, for as long as he has been with us.
“Still, they were closer than brothers. He was with us for forty years before your father died, and in that time you rarely saw one without the other. In battle they always stood back to back, and none could stand against them. They both took great risks, and more often than not they succeeded. And all of us who stood with them in battle believed, as they did, that we could never be ultimately defeated.”
I shivered, remembering my first battle with the Rangers, the look Engroth had given me afterwards. And the faces of all the others old enough to remember my father . . .
“So that is why he hates me?” I asked, almost to myself. “Because I remind him of my father, but I am not the man Arathorn was—because I have come to take the place of his friend, and I am not worthy of it?”
Halforth shook his head sharply. “Nay, my lord!” he said swiftly. “’Tis not like that. ‘Tis not like that at all.” His voice dropped. “He does not hate you.”
“But—when I first arrived, at Fornost—?”
“It is not you he hates,” he said quietly. “It is himself.” I frowned, confused. “For living still, when your father is dead. And when you came to us from Imladris, dressed even as the Elves and knowing nothing of our ways . . .” He trailed off. “He does not see this as any failure of yours,” he went on. “Rather, he sees it as his failure, that he could not convince your mother to stay among her own people, so that his friend’s son would be raised by his own kin.”
Engroth has his own feud with the Elves that I am not old enough to remember, and none of the older warriors will tell me what is the reason. Hirion’s words echoed in my head. A feud strong enough that he would rather his best friend’s son be raised in the Wild, than in the safety of Imladris? Or could he possibly believe that Elrond and his family would wish me ill? “But why? Why would he hate the Elves so much?”
Halforth was silent for a while, and when he spoke I had to strain to hear him. “Did Lord Elrond ever tell you,” he asked slowly, “how your father died?”
I felt something deep inside me turn cold at those words. “He said only that he was slain by orcs.”
“Aye,” he said shortly. “’Tis true enough.” He turned then, looking back toward Engroth, but our former captain had not moved. “There are many versions of the tale,” he went on. “And Engroth’s does not show the Elves in a fair light.
“Your father was fostered in Imladris, even as you were,” he said, and I blinked, surprised. This I had never known. “Although at that time some of our people lived in the Angle between Mitheithel and Bruinen, and he knew his father and his lineage from the time he was a child. But he also counted the sons of Elrond as friends, from the time he was very young.”
I nodded, remembering good times shared with Elladan and Elrohir throughout my own childhood. They had never told me anything of my father, or what he was like as a child.
I wondered if he had known Arwen, when he was young.
“The Lords Elladan and Elrohir fought often against the orcs of the Misty Mountains, in vengeance for the fate of the Lady Celebrían, their mother. Many times they would seek out their enemies in their mountain caverns, and raid their sanctuaries. And if he was in Imladris when they set out, your father would often go with them.”
His eyes were haunted. “None of us thought this wise. The duty of the Dúnedain is difficult enough, merely to protect Eriador against incursions from the east, without taking the fight into the mountains themselves. But even Arador never tried to dissuade him. Only Engroth ever spoke to him of it, and argued many times that our future chieftain should not risk himself so in raids of little or no strategic importance, to avenge a wrong that happened over four hundred years ago.”
I had never thought of it thus, in Imladris. Elladan and Elrohir were my brothers, and the first time I had accompanied them in battle in the mountains, it had never occurred to me to question the strategic merits of such a raid. And if my father had indeed grown up with them as I had, I could understand why he would do as he had done.
What had Arathorn thought, when his closest friend advised him that his duty to his people should come before his love for his foster-brothers? Had my father ever wished, as I had, that his ancestry had been other than what it was, so that he might be free to risk his life for whatever venture he chose?
“This did not stop him from going with Arathorn, wherever he went. He was the one your father trusted most, and they were stationed at the same guard posts for most of the time Arador was chieftain. There were few battles of any significance that either fought in, when the other was not at his side.”
For the first time since I met him, I heard Halforth’s voice break, and he had to stop. Both his hands were clenched at his sides. “Ever since Arador died, your father had wanted Engroth to take command of one of the posts. He said there was no one he trusted more, in such a position of authority. But Engroth wanted to stay near him, and so at first he refused. It was not until three years after Arathorn became chieftain, that Engroth first took command of the guard at Tharbad. Four weeks later, Arathorn went into the mountains with the sons of Elrond. He did not return.”
There was a part of me that feared to hear the rest of his tale. Still, I had to ask him, “What happened?”
“I was at Tharbad the next day, when word came, and I watched Engroth ride away not ten minutes after the messenger arrived. The Elves told him that they were set upon by a force far larger than they had expected. Arathorn was slain, his eye pierced by an arrow, but his body was never found. Engroth was convinced he was a prisoner, and wanted to go after him immediately, but the Lords Elladan and Elrohir thought it wiser to wait until more warriors could arrive from Imladris. So he left their camp and went into the caverns alone.”
There were tears shining in his eyes now, and he made no attempt to hide them. “It was four days later when we attacked, all the guard from Tharbad and some more of the Elves, as well. We found Engroth sorely hurt in one of the lower caverns, after a fierce fight, but of Arathorn there was no sign, though we searched for days.
“Engroth lay in a fever for nigh onto a week, and afterwards he would say nothing of what happened to him in the mountains, nor how he came by his wounds. He would say only that our chief was dead.
“He believes,” he said gruffly, “that the Elves led your father to his death. And he blames himself, as much as the sons of Elrond, for not being at his side in that last battle.” He shook his head slowly, looking through me at some scene long past. “We all of us mourned Arathorn, and we still do. Engroth held us together after he died, would not let our grief sway us from our duty, even though of all of us he bore the greatest pain. But he was never the same.”
He reached out and gripped my shoulder, and I could feel his hand shaking. His eyes were distant, but slowly he seemed to focus, seeing me once more, instead of the chieftain he had loved. “’Twas nothing you did,” he said softly. “He has led us bravely and well these eighteen years, with no thought for himself, for the sake of your father’s memory. But some wounds do not heal, and all such sacrifices must be paid for. The only question is—when?” He squeezed my shoulder once, then let his hand fall, straightening as with an effort. “Go now, and sleep, my lord. We must move swiftly before dawn.”
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