Aragorn climbed the narrow stone steps that led from the jail, silent as only a Ranger could be in the darkness. He felt the presence of the Nazgûl and knew Saruman should be near. Where he found one, he was sure to find the other. With sword in hand, he felt as if he were emerging from quicksand. The cold steel of his sword had been like a gasp of fresh air and he grasped it as if it were drawing him out of the muck. Rather than question the fortune of finding Andúril in Edoras, Aragorn determined to use his weapon at once.
After returning the Dúnadan's sword, Hama had announced that at first light he would request an audience with the king to decide the fate of Merry and Gimli, for their imprisonment was in dispute. For the remaining dark hours before dawn, they were to remain in Hama's custody. Hama felt they were safer by his side than in a cell with no avenue of escape.
Pippin had followed Merry and Gimli, and the three had tried to convince Aragorn to do the same. But Aragorn would hear nothing of safety. Perhaps due to the growing span of time since he last had been forced to lay his hands on the palantír, his will and reason had begun to return to him. And since laying hands upon his sword, much of the fog had cleared from his mind. While his strength had not suddenly returned, his determination had. The result was a rash resolve to face an Enemy he could not kill and the wizard who had arranged to deliver him to that Enemy.
That was what he most desired: to face Saruman with a clear, if reckless, mind, and deny him obeisance, even if it were his last act. He knew his mood was dangerous, and that he cared little was perhaps the greatest testimony of such.
He slowed as the stairwell brightened with light from above and listened for a break in the silence. At first, only the guttering of a distant torch came back to him. Then there was a new sound, faint, whispering. Then again: footsteps. Light steps, not that of a man or woman. He pressed himself against the curved inner wall. The one approaching carried no torch, yet advanced rapidly. Before he could think more on it, the person rounded the corner.
Without knowing what he did, Aragorn drew his sword on Saruman. "You!" he said hoarsely, accusation heavy in his voice.
Saruman narrowed his eyes from a few steps above, in one sweep taking in Aragorn's weapon and his disposition. Another sweep brought Saruman's staff across his body at the sword.
Aragorn had lost much, but to his relief, not all. Without a thought, he swung at the staff with all he had. Saruman must have underestimated how much that was, or else, Aragorn looked far worse than he felt. For Saruman's staff jumped from his hands, clattering down the steps behind Aragorn. Saruman's eyes widened momentarily. "You waste your strength, Dúnadan."
"You waste your words. I hear them no more." Aragorn looked up at the wizard with clearer eyes than he had had in days. But though the compulsion to answer had greatly diminished, it had not entirely left him. As Saruman had spoken, the muddy waters had threatened to gather round his ankles and draw him down once more. If he listened further, he feared he would feel the tug of coercion once more.
"How came you by that sword?" Saruman said curtly.
"Silence!" Aragorn cried, reveling in the opportunity to bark orders at Saruman. He pushed the tip of the blade close to Saruman's neck. The wizard leaned back, but did not take his eyes off of the man. Aragorn was sorely tempted to follow through with his sword's threat. "I should slay you where you stand," he muttered. So tempted...
Saruman chuckled. "Yes, you should, really. After all I have done, you have the right, truth be told-"
"I said silence!" Aragorn shouted, pressing the blade into Saruman's throat. The ground had begun to soften, the stone beneath him turning to quicksand once more. He was not free. What must he do? His fey mood intensified. He stared at the wizard, watching as blood trickled down his throat. What to do with him? Where had he been headed? "From where have you come?"
Saruman was silent for a long minute, unreadable as ever. "The Golden Hall. A rather dangerous place for you right now, I dare say."
Aragorn narrowed his eyes. Did Saruman not want him in the king's Hall? Or was this a lure to bait him there? "Then why did you leave? Is not the Nazgûl there? I know you treat with the Nazgûl. I know your bargain with him. Did your negotiations go poorly?" he said bitterly.
Saruman offered a small, private smile that worried Aragorn. He still sensed the wraith's presence, so could not explain Saruman's exit. Had Saruman come for him? Had he known where Aragorn was all along? The anger that had simmered near the surface boiled over. He pressed his blade into Saruman so hard it pushed him into the wall. "You thought to hand me over to Sauron - and I would have done as you bid!" The latter was the truth that burned in him and that he could not alter. He had been as Saruman's vassal. And so close to being turned over to Sauron, it chilled him. Oh, to strike down this wizard.
A thought came to him, as clear as his own, yet plainly from another. Not this way. Aragorn closed his eyes, kept his sword pressed to Saruman. The voice was appealing, comforting, and not wholly unfamiliar. It was strangely unimportant that he knew not whose voice it was. He breathed deeply and opened his eyes to find Saruman smiling once more. The anger threatened again, but he took another breath to reign it in. "We shall return to the negotiation table you have deserted. I shall see the parties who bargain for me."
Saruman raised his eyebrows. "You are so foolish as to think to kill the wraith yourself?"
Aragorn's eyes smoldered. "I know I cannot kill the wraith. Perhaps it is not he who shall die tonight."
Saruman's lips puckered, then he smiled again. But he said nothing.
His hate shining in his eyes, Aragorn ordered the wizard, "Up!" still enjoying the role reversal.
Slowly, Saruman turned on the tip of the sword, with a glance to his staff, and began up the stairs.
Reminded of the staff, Aragorn commanded Saruman to stop while he descended the few steps to retrieve it. His leg burned with the strain, and he could not suppress a limp.
He wondered, as he picked up the staff, if he violated any rules of the Valar. He had never held a wizard's staff before. But he could not bring himself to care overmuch as he turned to his former captor. "Now, go." Not one to mistake the wizard for an old man, he trained his sword on him every step.
They made their way slowly up the stairs. They were in the rear of the building, giving Aragorn the thought that perhaps Saruman had been trying to slip out. But how would he have accomplished that before a wraith? Had the wraith allowed his departure? Had there been some distraction? Unlikely.
After a short time, a high-pitched screech reached Aragorn's ears, and his grasp on his sword tightened. He knew that sound. Did someone attempt to battle the Nazgûl? Suddenly, Aragorn felt the fetters of the Enemy's hold fall away. His mind was clearer, and his surroundings brighter. He felt stronger, more capable in facing Saruman or whatever foe lay ahead of him. The darkness of the Shadow had left with the Enemy, for this could only mean that the Nazgûl had departed. Would a Nazgûl simply leave? Saruman's step faltered. So he had not expected the departure of the Nazgûl. What did this mean for Saruman's plans?
When finally they reached the main level, he ordered Saruman to open the door that led to rear of the Hall. Looking into the dim room, he saw the most unexpected: a vision of a dead friend.
Aragorn remained where he was, his feet rooted to the spot by the sight of his lost friend, as Saruman continued indifferently into the hall. He had thought he was nearly free of Saruman's spell. Yet the morass still clouded his eyes, for before him in the Hall of Meduseld stood Gandalf. The impossible sight of his dear friend seized his heart, but Gandalf merely looked back at him. His grief for the wizard awoke anew, and he recalled all that had gone ill for the Company since the loss. All of Aragorn's decisions made in the wizard's stead had gone awry. How disappointed Gandalf would be. He must turn from this creation of his mind; perhaps then it would haunt him no more.
Beyond the image of the wizard, a mass of black cloth lay on the floor. In a moment Aragorn realized he looked upon the remnants of the Nazgûl. The Nazgûl had been destroyed. Was this why Saruman had left? But he had left before this had occurred, Aragorn was certain-
"Lord Théoden, I am surprised to see you at this hour." Saruman said smoothly, breaking the silence. He threw a glance to the shadows.
"I was awoken by a queer sensation. I knew the Enemy had come to Edoras. I believe what I felt in my slumber was its sudden absence. Very curious. I came to investigate - against the wisdom of my guards." He scowled at the guards who clearly had followed him into the Hall and now remained at attention in the wings, awaiting the call of their king.
Aragorn had not seen the king in the room. Was the king the one who had dispensed with the Nazgûl? Impossible. More questions crowded his mind, a mind still regaining itself, and yet the sight of his friend stayed his feet. He knew the wizard could not be there in truth. But Aragorn had never seen Gandalf during any of his nightmares. Why would he see him now, when he had begun to reclaim his mind?
"Your guards only wish the best for you, my Lord. Their duty is your safety."
"I need no wet nurse to look after me! I feel better than I can remember." Saruman scowled. Théoden shook his head as if waking from an unpleasant dream. "I dare say my mind is clearer than it has been of late."
The king's words roused Aragorn, and the man decided to awaken from his own nightmare. He stepped into the Golden Hall, bedraggled and thin, but with weapon in hand and determination in his eye. "And not only for the Lord of the Mark."
Gandalf was taken aback by the vision of Aragorn striding into the dimly lit Hall. Despite the poor state in which he appeared, Gandalf judged from the triumph in his eyes that he had been in far worse. His words told Gandalf his clarity of mind was not to be taken for granted either. He too had been through much since Gandalf had parted ways with the Company.
Gandalf nearly smiled to see that Aragorn had returned with Saruman. He had thought he would find the wizard easily enough, but he had not known how easy it would prove to be.
"Who are you to come charging into my court with drawn sword?" the king said, stomping a cane he leaned upon heavily as he stood before his throne. His frown deepened as he looked upon the weapon. "It is a fine sword, I will say, one of extraordinary make. And yet it is not enough, for you hold also a wizard's staff." Aragorn looked upon the king with uncertainty. Gandalf knew Aragorn had served under Lord Thengel, and wondered if Aragorn was familiar with his son. Théoden looked frailer than he should these days, and if Aragorn had met him years ago, there might be no recognition.
"Lord of the Mark," Aragorn bowed after sheathing his sword. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn. I beg apology for the intrusion. I have not found what I expected."
The king gave him a measuring look, not speaking for some time. It was clear to Gandalf that the king was gaining more possession of his faculties by the moment, and that it was to Saruman's great displeasure, confirming Gandalf's suspicions as to the manner in which Saruman had controlled Rohan. Théoden's sharp eyes encouraged Gandalf that whatever spell Saruman had surely placed on Théoden had lapsed in recent hours, perhaps as a result of his distraction with the Nazgûl. "Please return the staff to the wizard. It is not for your hands. Then you will tell me how you come to be in my court."
"Lord Théoden," Aragorn answered, suddenly more confident, "you request a long tale. But in brief, I was brought to Edoras by the wizard Saruman, who had imprisoned me with my companions in Isengard, then brought here, for what reasons I am yet unsure. For this, I am reluctant to return his staff."
Saruman interrupted. "You agreed to fight beside King Théoden. You swore fealty to me!"
Gandalf easily saw Aragorn warring with anger within him as he turned his gaze to Saruman. The man rarely had so little control over his emotions. Now they were just below the surface, as if his strength was spent elsewhere, and there was none left for such unimportant things.
"I have no recollection of such a promise!" He turned once more to the king, leaving Gandalf to muse over the revelation. He could now name the unusual note in Aragorn's voice as shame. "You must understand, lord," Aragorn continued, with a bitterness Gandalf had seldom heard from the Ranger, "Saruman bespelled me while I was in his hands. Once here, weaponless and still befuddled, I was forced into hiding when the Nazgûl approached, for others were convinced it came for me. With the departure of the Nazgûl, I wondered what new agreement Saruman had crafted." He looked to the cape piled in the corner. "I see it went in Saruman's favor."
Théoden looked at Saruman with narrowed eyes, then back to Aragorn, attempting to put together the pieces of the story as Gandalf had. "Despite your tale, a wizard's staff belongs with a wizard. You are no longer weaponless. For such reasons, I must insist you return the staff."
He looked at Théoden for a long moment, his uncertainty plain. When the man looked not once for counsel to his friend, Gandalf was certain Aragorn believed him not truly there. He probably doubted his mind because of Gandalf's presence. But Gandalf remained silent. Aragorn must regain trust in himself, and he could only do that himself.
Aragorn handed the staff to Saruman with great reluctance. The wizard's eyes grew smug as he grasped the symbol of his power. Aragorn continued. "I am not weaponless, thanks to the wisdom of the Rohirrim. This sword was lost on the fields of Rohan when we were first captured by Saruman's Orcs. I am told your scouts discovered the weapon and brought it to your court. Perhaps recognizing my need, the wise lady Éowyn and your equally wise doorwarden Hama sought to return the sword to its master." He drew the sword once more and held it up, looking upon its brilliance with admiration that surely never faded. "I would be that master, for this sword was remade from the blade forged in ages past and used by Isildur to cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand."
Gandalf's eyebrows rose as the tale became more interesting. He wondered what power had brought the sword to this place. It was unfortunate Aragorn had returned the staff to Saruman, but the power that had brought Andúril to Edoras was the power he would now trust.
"You claim the title of the heir of Isildur, long thought lost to Gondor?" King Théoden said, looking closely at the man. "And then you say this wizard, long a friend of Rohan, clouded your mind?"
Aragorn looked at Théoden resolutely. "I do." He turned to Saruman then, eyes smoldering. Saruman's arrogance only deepened. Aragorn's hate and bitterness concerned Gandalf, for they would not serve him. "Aye, and though laying my hand upon my sword has done much to free me, the spell remains, I fear. For I see another wizard in this room, one dear to me, but lost now beyond the circles of the world after his fall in Moria."
"You speak of Gandalf?" Théoden asked, with a glance to the wizard. Aragorn nodded. "I will admit not all is clear to my mind, but it is clearer than in recent days. I know your eyes see clearly," Théoden assured Aragorn. "Gandalf stands before you."
Aragorn gaped and allowed himself to look once more at Gandalf. Uncertainty and hope warred with each other in his face. "But... you fell. I saw you fall." His voice trailed off. "This must all be a creation of my mind. I am not free."
Gandalf scowled and finally spoke. "You indeed saw me fall. And I have returned. It is not a creation of your mind, Aragorn."
For a moment, Aragorn only stared at Gandalf, as if to be sure of what he saw. "Truly?" he whispered.
Gandalf smiled and nodded. "Indeed. It appears that while Saruman has been occupied with greater powers, his own has focused elsewhere, releasing your minds from their hold," said Gandalf. Saruman frowned at Gandalf, apparently not having considered such a consequence of his meeting with the Enemy.
"Our minds?" Aragorn asked, looking at Théoden. "The king was bespelled as well?"
"Under a spell?" Théoden asked gruffly. He thought for a moment. "Saruman has long advised Rohan in all matters. He would not betray Rohan so!"
"My friend, lord," Saruman said smoothly. "Gandalf comes, as always, with words of doom. He overstates matters now because he wishes to displace me here."
Gandalf ignored Saruman. "Saruman has held you under his spell for some time now, I would imagine. Through you, and his advice, he has controlled Rohan."
The king looked to Saruman for a long moment. He turned to Gandalf, with a frown of confusion and disbelief. Then he looked at no one in particular. "Dark have been my dreams of late. And my waking seemed more like a dream."
"May your dreams now be bright with the light of Lórien, where the feet of mortals have seldom tread." Gandalf then stepped toward the king and placed his hand on the side of the man's head. "You have now awakened, my friend."
The king jerked back and looked about, blinking. "You draw away the last of the cob's webs." He stared at Saruman, his confusion turning over to anger. "So much is but a faint memory. Even our last meeting." Théoden walked to his throne and sat heavily upon it, tossing his cane aside. "Could Saruman's deceptions have been so great, Rohan and I merely pawns on his board?"
"My lord, I assure you, I have not deceived you-"
"Much has Saruman planned for Rohan, even Gondor," Gandalf interrupted, overriding Saruman's defense.
"Planned?" Théoden asked warily. "What more could have escaped my notice?"
"Many designs had this wizard. I am quite sure he did not share them all with you. They began with Rohan and included all, even Sauron himself."
"I plan to fight Sauron, as will Gondor, once we have apprised Denethor of the situation. The king knows this," Saruman said tightly.
"No, I do not truly know what you have planned. Because I cannot recall our conversations, Saruman." The king frowned. "Whether or not he shared such strategies with me, I believe it is true that we were to fight against Sauron." He stood again, approaching Saruman with anger in every step. Steps taken unaided by a cane, Gandalf noted. "If Gandalf overstates matters, then why do I not recall more of your line of attack?"
Gandalf answered for Saruman. "Saruman held you under his spell much as he had Aragorn, I would imagine. But it seems he had other designs for Aragorn, indeed the heir of Isildur, for the wraith who descended upon Edoras tonight came to retrieve the Dúnadan, as had been agreed with Saruman." Gandalf emphasized his last words, staring at the wayward wizard.
Théoden nodded slowly. "If Gandalf accepts your claim, then I must do the same. Pardon my disbelief, Lord Aragorn," Théoden said with a bow of his head to the man. Then, eyeing Saruman with skepticism, he said, "You speak of deception, of power, of battles yet to be fought. Did you indeed plan such deception as Gandalf claims, Saruman? Did you intend to hand off this man to Sauron?"
Aragorn remained silent as Saruman glowered at Gandalf. Gandalf wondered how much the king or Aragorn knew. "Saruman now treats with the Enemy and the man is what they barter. But I suspect that was not Saruman's true intention." Théoden's eyes narrowed, but Aragorn merely glared at Saruman, who in turn glared at Gandalf.
Saruman's silence only confirmed for Gandalf what he had surmised. He shook his head. "I see your designs as plainly as if written. You seek to deceive all, even Sauron. I wager you never meant to send off Aragorn at all. He would be of greater use to you in Gondor. In eliminating the Ringwraith, I did you quite a favor, did I not? And yet, you must appease Sauron, while you work your lies. I only wonder how you would have played Denethor into your hands. For you knew you would bring down the wrath of Mordor upon Gondor, and that mayhap has already been set in motion."
"This is how you explain your intrusion into my plans? Perhaps I have upset your plans. You never explain your sudden appearances-"
"It is past the time for talk and double talk," Gandalf said sternly. "Have you described for Théoden how you would proceed to deceive the Rohirrim? For you will not stand beside any overlong. You wish to be at the head, alone, absolute in your power. And you would not be satisfied with rule over Rohan. Your designs are grander than that." Gandalf sighed deeply, suddenly weary of argument. "You forget your purpose, Saruman. We are caretakers here and nothing more. Those who are needed will be alerted and informed; we must allow them to lead their own people."
"Even into death? I fight to give them a chance! Leave it to them and all will be lost!"
"You underestimate them, Saruman!"
"You hope in them overmuch!"
Gandalf smiled wearily. "Or is it simply that I ask nothing in return?"
Saruman barked a laugh, but it was bitter. "You stand there and act the humble servant. If any were to defy you they would learn the cost and it would be dear. If I seek any position of power it is more a responsibility than reward. I am, after all, a caretaker."
Gandalf's patience grew thin for Saruman's speech that forgot the king was in his presence. The wizard no longer attempted to hide his aims for an outright ousting of the Lord of the Mark, and his army was the threat under which he would carry out his plans. Gandalf thought then of the new grove of trees north of Edoras on the plains. Without such intentions, the Ents had done a great service to Rohan. "Saruman, what are your intentions for those Orcs that marched to Rohan's doorstep, clearly at their master's call?"
Saruman's face darkened. "Those are my uruk-hai. They fight for me. They are not a threat to Rohan."
"Your uruk-hai?" Théoden asked, struggling with his returning memories. He seated himself once more in his throne, now expectant rather than weary.
Gandalf went on, hoping his words would make all clear for the king. "You should say, they are no threat to Rohan as long as Rohan obeys you, should you not? No matter. They threaten Rohan and others no longer. For the Ents of the Forest have awoken and decided they were finished with Orcs and their destruction. Your uruk-hai are dead, Saruman."
Saruman stilled, for a moment more as a statue than a living being. Then he erupted, pounding his staff into the tile floor. "You, Gandalf! You try to overthrow me ere I realize my intentions! You cannot bear to see me ascend to a power to which you can only aspire. You wish to take my place here, after all my labors. After all I have done for the people of Rohan! I know what is best for them! Out! Out with you!"
"I think not, Saruman."
Saruman laughed. "And what will you do, Gandalf Stormcrow?" As he continued, his voice grew louder, till he sounded truly mad. "I am Saruman the White. I say that Rohan will fight the Orcs on the plains. I say the heir of Isildur will fight for me along side Théoden, and neither shall Denethor refuse me. For I am Saruman the White! You sought to defy me once. Do you wish to attempt such foolishness again?"
"It need not progress in this way, Saruman," Gandalf said quietly. "There is no need for defiance, for foolishness, nor for any of this madness. Allow Rohan to decide the course of their future. We have no place in their history."
"And when Sauron lays claim to this land, what will you say, Gandalf? What will you say then to the people of Rohan? That it is part of their history?"
"Oh, come now, Saruman! You play the protector but you do not name your price! You have no intentions of leaving Rohan be! You shall take command of Rohan and then move on to Gondor. Was that your true plan for Aragorn? To place him on the throne as King in name only? As you wait for Théoden here to live out his years?"
"Enough! I will hear no more! Take him out!" Saruman gestured to the guards standing in the wings.
Gandalf looked to Saruman with a somber look, a trace of grief in his voice for those who knew him well enough. Facing Saruman before the throne of Lord Théoden, Gandalf declared, "You will hear all that I have to say, Saruman." And with that, he held out his arms, spreading his simple grey cloak to reveal the white robes beneath. Gandalf heard a gasp from Saruman as he revealed his power. "My friends were not wrong in their estimation of my health," he said quietly. "But I was returned. I am not, however, as I was. I am now Gandalf the White." This drew another gasp from the wizard. Gandalf's voice did not rise in volume as he went on, but rose in power. "You, Saruman, have no color." Gandalf held out his staff toward Saruman, and as Saruman's eyes widened in disbelief, his staff burst into pieces that tumbled to the floor like useless twigs.
Saruman stared at the bits of his staff strewn on the floor. His mouth opened, but no sound came forth. He turned to Gandalf, his face red with fury.
Gandalf raised a hand, halting any words Saruman might say. "No more, Saruman. It is over. No more."
"Over?" the defrocked wizard whispered. "Over?" He began to laugh then, quietly first, then it grew boisterous. "You think this finished, now that you have deposed me as you have long wished?"
"Finished, no, but perhaps a change in course long due."
"It is too late to change course! Sauron's army of Orcs marches across Rohan as we speak. The Rohirrim prepare to meet them on the plains. And you have destroyed the uruk-hai that were the only means of their survival in that battle. Now they will die in battle against Sauron. And they have Gandalf Stormcrow to thank for it!"
"I have heard quite enough," Théoden said suddenly. "I see now Saruman's deceptions and lies and what was my part in this. None stood as obstacles to you as you strove for your goals. You have controlled Rohan through me, Lord of the Mark. You have kept the heir of Isildur as prisoner. You, Saruman, are now prisoner of Edoras," and the king gestured to his guards. "Take him to a cell."
"You think you have finished me, Gandalf!" Saruman said, ignoring King Théoden. "My plans are already in motion. It is too late to stop them. This one of the Nine came in advance, but the army yet comes. It comes for him. He comes for them all - Rohan, Gondor, the World of Men. What will you do then, in the face of the entire force of Mordor?"
Gandalf lowered his head without response and waited for the shouting to fade as Saruman was led away. He turned to Aragorn, who had kept to the shadows throughout the confrontation. Despite a heavy sigh, Gandalf managed a weak smile. "It seems events bring us to Edoras one by one. It is good to see you hale, Aragorn."
"One by one by one," the man said with a smile that held more than he said.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.