19. The Ranger
Alagion: Legolas’s alias.
Note: When Aragorn is referred to as Strider, it’s Legolas’s POV. When Legolas is referred to as Alagion, it’s Aragorn’s POV. When they’re referred to together as Strider and Alagion, it’s somebody else’s POV.
Flashbacks in this chapter, denoted thus: **
At last, the rain had stopped. The tall, dark human riding along the edges of Mirkwood brushed water from his face gratefully. He had intended to stay well beyond the edges of the forbidding forest, but the storm had led him closer to the scant shelter its great canopy provided from the rain.
Now the moon had broken through the clouds, but a breeze was shaking more water from the leaves onto the Ranger. Glaring up at the branches, he thought, *Time to return to the open plains.* He had never attempted to penetrate the depths of Mirkwood in the twenty-five years he had been wandering, and still saw no reason to try. From what his foster-father had told him, the people inhabiting these woods, elves or not, were unlikely to be much more welcoming to him than the monsters that also dwelt there. Nay, this was not a place to dare alone if one had a choice. The Ranger hated evil creatures, and it was true that Mirkwood had more than her share of them, but the wood elves could take care of them.
Just as the human gained the edge of the woods, he heard a great crash from somewhere not far behind him, and a cry. The Ranger whipped his head around, halting his mount--that had been no beast’s call. More crashes came in his direction, so he rode a few paces outside the wood and turned back, peering into the darkness.
Someone was indeed coming, crashing mindlessly through the thick undergrowth. An elf? The man could not imagine what a mortal (other than himself) would be doing in Mirkwood. And yet…surely a wood elf would not make nearly so much noise--unless in great distress. Though he lacked the superior senses of the elves, the man discerned that more was coming toward him than just one as-yet-unidentified person. And the other noises did not seem to be made by people.
*Spiders! Chasing a victim!* The Ranger dismounted, seizing his bow and drawing an arrow back, heading cautiously into the woods. It did not take him long to discover the source of all the commotion. Several huge, loathsome black spiders were coming down from the trees into a small clearing, where a motionless figure lay prone and helpless on the ground.
An elf. What he was doing alone in the deep woods so far from the wood elves’ usual territory, the man would dearly love to know, but at the moment the fair being was in dire need of help. The nearest spider began spinning a great net of its awful silk, and reached out to ensnare its victim. Then it jerked away with a screech of surprised agony as the man buried an arrow in one of its eyes.
It took less effort than the man expected to convince the spiders that this prey was not worth the trouble of dodging arrows. The Ranger was no elf, but he was more than a fair archer. The spiders scurried away into the trees, apparently giving up in spite of their superior numbers. All the same, the man had no intention of tarrying while the creatures garnered more courage--or worse, reinforcements. He dashed into the clearing past several spider carcasses and swept the limp wood elf up into his arms. “I know not who you are, friend, nor how you came to be in such bad company, but I shall see you to safety,” he told the unconscious figure as he bore him away.
The Ranger placed the elf in front of himself upon his mount’s back and rode a safe distance from the forest. On the plains, safe from spiders at least, he found a copse of small trees that would suit as a camp, and carefully eased the elf down. After setting about making a fire, the man had time to ponder this rather strange event, and examine the wounded elf. As immortals go, he was quite young--perhaps it was youthful inexperience that had got him into that predicament in the first place. The man had seen few wood elves, but this one did not appear like those he had seen or what he had been told. Mirkwood elves were said to be dark, and this elf was fair. Under his green and brown cote, he wore a tunic of silver--Lórien’s color. Very odd. In more serious matters, his right arm was broken, and the man found two puncture wounds where the spiders had struck with their foul poison. Just the same, the poison’s effect had the benefit of keeping the elf unconscious--and probably numb--while the Ranger set the arm.
His ministrations done, there was nothing to do until the stranger came around. The man sat against the base of a tree, silently watching the elf, when he heard something approaching. Startled, he leapt to his feet, a hand on his sword hilt, and turned to see a gray horse running riderless across the grass. The Ranger relaxed and smiled as the horse stopped well out of reach of him, wariness evident in his large black eyes. He knew an elven horse when he saw one, and this one bore a pack--but no elf.
Assuming an unthreatening stance, the Ranger stepped back and spoke to the beautiful gray in elvish, “Hello, friend. You seem to be missing a rider.”
The handsome beast blinked at him, obviously surprised at being so addressed by a mortal. The man laughed, and gestured to the elf, wrapped in a blanket on the ground, “Might this be who you’re looking for?”
The horse’s whicker of recognition confirmed it. Overcoming a horse’s natural fear of fire for the bond to his rider, the gray approached the prone elf and nudged him gently with its soft nose, whuffing quietly. “Don’t worry,” the man told the animal. “He will awaken in a few hours.” He chuckled to himself, “Perhaps in the mean time you might tell me what your friend was doing alone this far from the elven king’s halls. Ah, well, I expect I shall soon learn the answers.”
Darkness. Not surprising, really. As he had fallen, Legolas had despaired of ever again seeing the light of day. Still, this was rather odd--other than being surrounded by blackness, this was not what the young elf would have expected of death.
Fog seemed to be swirling around him, and it was impossible to make his mind function, let alone his body. Then, odder still, sensations began reaching him, and it occurred to Legolas that perhaps he was not dead after all. The first thing he recognized as a physical feeling was a painful throbbing of his right arm. The places where the spiders had stung him were still stinging fiercely. He was still damped, but not as drenched as before, and he could feel warmth against his exposed skin. Moreover--he seemed to be wrapped in something tight.
Legolas felt a surge of panic--had he been taken alive by the spiders? Desperately, he tried to move, but his body felt leaden, and the result was barely a twitch. But the tiny motion did serve to tell him that he was not wrapped very tightly. If he could only gain the strength to move…his senses continued returning to their normal sharpness as he lay, waiting for the chance to scramble for freedom. At last, his mind began pulling out of the fog and he could make sense of what his senses told him of his surroundings.
Odd. This did not feel like a spider’s lair. He seemed to be lying on the ground, with a bunched-up cloak under his head. The quiet crackling he heard and the warmth on his face indicated a fire nearby. And he was covered in a blanket, not spider silk. If he had had the strength, Legolas would have sighed with relief. Someone had found him.
Which turned into yet another question: Who?
He would have liked to look around, but the poison had been powerful enough to close his eyes, and he could not seem to force them open. *I hate it when that happens!* There was nothing more disconcerting to Legolas than waking up to see only the backs of his eyelids. Especially when the sound of breathing nearby indicated that someone was with him. He tried again to rouse himself and succeeded only in shifting a little. *I definitely do not like being paralyzed.* He tossed his head.
From not far away came an exultant whinny, and the sound of a large, four-legged creature hurrying toward him. A soft nose brushed his forehead, and Legolas smiled mentally, *Well met, Lanthir. I am glad you reached safety.*
Then he tensed, for now someone else was moving, and they had two legs. To Legolas’s alarm, these were not the smooth, light steps of an elf, but the heavy, long strides of a man. *A MAN rescued me from the spiders?!* The idea seemed absurd. Surely a man would not have braved the vicious creatures to help an elf--for that matter, what was a man doing this far north on the western side of Mirkwood? Legolas felt inklings of suspicion creeping into his still-groggy mind. *If in fact he did risk himself to rescue me--what does he want with me?*
Legolas held perfectly still as the heavy steps halted, and a very large form bent over him. Praying he would have enough strength, the elf readied himself, summoning all he could muster. A hand lifted his chin, reaching for his neck--and Legolas lashed out with a kick from under the blanket, earning a startled grunt and a thud. Swiftly, the prince rolled away and tried to scramble to his feet--a feat easier said than done since the sudden movement made him dizzy, his limbs were sluggish, and he was still tangled in the blanket.
His vision protested as he spun back to face the stranger. The dark blur focused into a dark-clad man, much bigger than Legolas, with the hardened, weathered look of one who had traveled far. At the moment, he knelt in a crouch where the elf’s kick had knocked him, not holding a weapon but with one hand close to the hilt of his sword. His eyes, a lighter gray than Legolas’s, showed combined surprise and wariness as he gazed at the elf silently.
The man made no move, and Legolas also stayed where he was--mainly due to the fact that he feared he would keel over at any moment. His vision danced and his head was swimming dangerously; it was all he could do to face the man steadily. “Who are you?”
The man seemed utterly unintimidated--very strange to Legolas, for every man he had seen (not that he had seen many) tended to react to the sight of elves with combined fear and disbelief. But the man simply folded his arms--apparently not considering Legolas a threat at all--and replied blithely, “You would do well to sit down, Master Elf; the spider poison has not yet fully worn off.”
Legolas blinked and felt still more suspicious--the man had spoken in perfect Elvish! Determining that the man was coming no closer, at least for the moment, he let his eyes scan the campsite. They were on the plains, a safe distance from the dangers of the woods, and it was still night. There was Lanthir, and another packed horse--who also looked to be elf-reared! The sword the man wore also seemed to be of elvish make! Growing more alarmed by the second, Legolas managed a step backward, trying to look casual as he placed a hand against the bole of a tree for support. The intentions of such a character were even less predictable than if he had been saved by an ordinary man. Locking eyes with the human again, he asked in a low voice, “What do you want with me?”
He thought he saw a faint chuckle shake the man’s shoulders, which irritated him. With a rather humorless smile, the man replied, “I found you in the forest, a few moments away from giving the spiders an unexpected feast.” Pausing, with another irritatingly smug look, he added, “You’re welcome.” Legolas tried to narrow his eyes warningly, but only succeeded in increasing his dizziness. The man raised his eyebrows, seeing the elf blinking in attempt to clear his vision. “Better get off your feet, or the poison will do it for you.”
Legolas was torn by indecision--he suspected the man was right; the world was spinning again in a way that said the poison still had a strong hold on him. On the other hand, if he submitted to this mortal’s orders…the elf tarried too long. *Ai! No!* As his vision formed a tunnel, the last thing he saw was the man rising and moving quickly towards him, but Legolas had lost the strength to move.
His hands not on his sword, but rather extended as though to aid the elf, the man hurried over. Not a moment too soon, as for the first time in his life, Legolas fainted.
Aragorn caught the elf as he fell, easing him back to the ground. He chuckled to himself; he had not really expected the elf to heed his advice. Maybe the humiliation of this collapse might lead him to take note next time. He heard a whinny of alarm from behind him, and laid the blanket back over the elf before turning to the horse, “Peace, friend, I’ve not harmed him. Even elves have their limits.”
And this one had passed them, and faced the consequences. So suspicious, these wood elves. Aragorn had been raised by the elves of Imladris, but his foster-father had warned him that not all elves were as willing to have dealings with mortals. “Indeed,” he remembered Elrond saying. “Do not think that your ties to me will protect you if you are discovered intruding in Lothlórien or Mirkwood. From Lórien you would be expelled, but worse, from Mirkwood you might never leave.”
As it happened, Elrond had later taken Aragorn to Lórien, and with the lord of Imladris vouching for him, the elves had received him, but Aragorn still had yet to meet an elf of Mirkwood. So far, it appeared Elrond had not been exaggerating the distrustful nature of these people. A faint moan reached his ears; the elf was coming round again. The horse whinnied, and Aragorn grinned, “Maybe this time you’ll use a little more caution.”
He quickly straightened his face, but nearly laughed again when the young elf’s eyes opened. He blinked as though remembering what had happened, and then chagrin crept into his fair features. Slowly sitting up (with more care this time) the elf saw Aragorn watching him. “Who are you?” he asked again.
“You show precious little civility to one who probably just saved your life,” Aragorn said, mildly taunting him.
The elf narrowed dark gray eyes at the Ranger, “I might feel more gratitude if I knew the purpose of such pains by one who has yet to identify himself. If indeed your intentions were entirely selfless.” He sounded slightly mocking.
*Wood elves.* With a rather mocking nod of his head, Aragorn replied, “I am called Strider.”
“‘Strider?’” the elf repeated doubtfully.
“I am of the Dúnedain, the Rangers of the West. My right name would mean nothing to you, noble elf of Mirkwood,” the man said, laughing inwardly at the fabrication. *Knowing how the wood elves view my lineage, if you knew my real name you might try to kill me.* Elrond had warned him of that as well. Raising his eyebrows questioningly, Aragorn went on, “Perhaps now you might deign to give me the honor of your name, Master Elf.”
The elf’s suspicion had not lessened, if anything it had grown. “If you are but a mere Ranger, how is it that you ride an elvish horse, bear elvish arms, and speak an elvish tongue?”
Aragorn debated how much he should tell this strange elf, until deciding that if he wished to ever know the elf’s name, or what had happened, he must get past this mistrust. After all, it was still a troubling question, what an elf was doing alone so far south. (Besides which, the Ranger was perishing with curiosity!) Casually, he told the elf, “I have often passed through Rivendell in my travels. I am a friend to Elrond, Lord of Imladris.”
That got quite an impressed reaction. The elf blinked, looking doubtful, then evidently decided that friendship to Elrond was the only possible explanation for this strange mortal to be favored with such knowledge of the elves. Slowly, his skepticism lessening a bit, he nodded and said coolly, “Forgive me, Strider of the Dúnedain, I fear I have not shown you proper courtesy. We seldom see mortals close to Mirkwood, but your friendship to Lord Elrond would explain your lack of fear.”
Graciously (and laughing inwardly) Aragorn smiled, “Not at all. That little matter settled,” the elf’s expression suggested that he knew the Ranger was mocking him, “what might be your name, Master Elf?”
“I am Alagion, son of Langcyll of Mirkwood.”
“I am honored, son of Langcyll.” *A nice try, Master Elf, but that is no more your name than Strider is mine. Still, I shall let the façade stand for both of us for the time being.*
The elf seemed to have to mustered his dignity to speak again, “I am in your debt, Strider of the Dúnedain. You saved my life.”
Aragorn had thought at first to dismiss all talk of indebtedness, for as a warrior, it could be set aside as the proper deed from one to another, but now…he was intrigued. Elves were not solitary folk, and though sometimes distrustful of strangers, ordinary elves seldom had such great secrets that required the hiding of one’s name. *Therefore, the only conclusion can be that you are far from ordinary, Master Elf. I dislike taking advantage of your debt to me, but perhaps I might prolong our acquaintance. I still know not what a wood elf would be doing down here alone, and I suspect the answer will prove important. I fear you shall not escape so easily.* Smiling slightly, he said, “You are most gracious, Alagion of Mirkwood. I wonder, would you favor me with your company on my journey?”
The elf looked as though traveling with Aragorn were the last thing he wanted, but a life debt was a life debt. “Whither do you ride?”
“Haloel. I received a rather strange message from a friend there a fortnight ago. I shall go to see if he and his people have need of assistance, and these are treacherous parts to travel in by oneself.”
“Then I shall be glad to bear you company,” said the elf.
The next two weeks saw Legolas riding with Strider (or whatever his real name was) south towards Haloel, a small kingdom at the southwestern end of the Misty Mountains, not far from Isengard. Legolas knew the region by reputation: wealthy due primarily to the fame of its wines. It had been ruled by the same line of lords for as long as its vines had grown on the slopes of the hills.
Unfortunately, hearing the mere name of the place reminded Legolas of his father. Haloel wines were Thranduil’s favorite (the king had maintained trade with their merchants long after ending it with all other mortals.) Now the remaining stores of Haloel wines in the king’s caverns were the most strictly saved. *As if that association were not painful enough, we drank it at the banquet when Langcyll made his announcement--and then Father drank too much of it later that night.*
Legolas was beginning to think he would rather go to Moria than Haloel.
“Are you widely-traveled in Middle Earth, Alagion?” Strider startled him by saying.
It sometimes made Legolas want to laugh, other times wince when he heard his pseudonym spoken. He knew not what spur of the moment impulse had made him choose that alias (*Liar!*) but now he was stuck with it. Over the days, he and the Ranger had engaged in sporadic conversation. The brief talks were started by whichever one of them grew bored with the uneasy silence, but the dialogue always swiftly became stilted again because neither of them would yield any great information about himself. Then they would lapse back into silence again.
Occasionally, when stiff small talk tried their patience, they broke the monotony by baiting each other. It was in that frame of mind that Legolas replied, “Somewhat.” *Let us see what the mortal makes of that!*
Not much; Legolas thought he detected a shrug, but Strider dismissed the cryptic answer--and apparently was still too bored to leave off. He tried again, with a more specific question that Legolas would not be able to dodge so easily, “Have you ever been to Haloel before?”
“Nay,” the elf said, abandoning the thought of goading him.
“How fares your arm?” That had been a habitual inquiry from the Ranger, and it irritated Legolas no end to admit that Strider had done an impressive job of setting it. Had Legolas been mortal, he might have been crippled, for the bone had been broken in two places by his fall. As it was, it had been expertly set (with skill comparable to an elvish healer!) and Legolas had been able to take it out of the sling after a week, though it still ached a little. It would not hamper his fighting or shooting.
“Well, thank you.” Legolas, too, was growing weary of this stony silence. After all, he reasoned to himself, it was not as if Strider was not within his rights to ask Legolas to accompany him on his journey. It was a great risk to travel alone at these times, and Haloel was not so very far from Lórien. Even if the Ranger wished the elf to accompany him all the way to the province, it was not much out of Legolas’s way.
Mentally, Legolas sighed. *I have been taking out my own sorrows on one who does not deserve it--indeed, my debt to him is genuine, for I should most definitely be dead but for this Strider. My ill feelings should not be directed at this mortal.*
The resolution had an unforeseen consequence. For the past days of travel, Legolas had successfully distracted himself from his own troubles by directing his hostility toward the mortal who had so effectively (yet supposedly selflessly) bound Legolas to his service. But now, the memory of the events leading to his departure from Mirkwood and all he held dear had begun to hammer mercilessly at the son of Thranduil. During the last days of the ride, he found it harder and harder to keep his mind off his family, and there were times when such utter despair swept through him that he caught Strider staring at him--meaning that it must be showing on his face.
The question occupied his mind more and more as his trip with Strider took him further and further from Mirkwood. *Will I ever be able to go home again?*
He could not find the answer. But the questions, and the painful memories, refused to give him peace.
“You’re going away? But where? Why, Uncle Leg’las?”
“Running away again, little brother?”
“Do not do this, Legolas, not again!”
That night, Legolas was wrenched from sleep by an urgent shaking. “Alagion! Awaken!”
With a gasp of relief, the elf escaped the nightmares that had been drowning him. It took a moment to recall where he was, or the idenity of the dark-haired human looking down at him with concern. “Strider.”
“Are you well?” The Ranger smiled wryly at the elf’s shaky nod. “Bad dreams?”
Legolas nodded, trying to shrug it off. *Worse: memory.* Aloud, he said, “I shall keep watch, if you wish to rest. Now I am awake,” he added in a weak attempt at humor.
Strider looked surprised at the elf’s amiable tone--until today, Legolas had been barely civil when he spoke to the man. But the Ranger accepted Legolas’s offer and went to his blankets. Legolas rose and paced a bit around the camp, attempting to walk of the shadows of the dreams that still insidiously clung to him.
“Even now, all you can think of is yourself!”
“I am trying to bring an end to this, son!”
Legolas looked up at the stars, trying to find solace in them. But the truth of those last bitter words would not be repressed. *He was. He wished to make amends. It was I who would not allow it, I who refused to forgive.*
“I have no regrets at having chosen to join Langcyll’s company--”
“Did Tathar, do you suppose?”
*He did not mean it. He did not mean to hurt me. We had both spoken too hastily in anger. I knew it even then, and still I would not let him take it back.*
“Langcyll called you my jailer, did he? He underestimated the case!”
*I spoke so to wound him, far more than he did to me. I cannot believe I parted with him on such terms. Will I ever have the chance to right it?*
“Go, then! Go! And may I never see you here again!”
*Will my father ever accept me again after that?*
Trying to distract himself, Legolas glanced at the slumbering Ranger. Even asleep, there was that tension of one accustomed to the perils of lone traveling, and the prince had no doubt that Strider would be up like a shot, sword in hand, at the slightest noise. Men were so strange. Strider did not look to be more than a few decades old, but in that short time he had gained many skills it had taken Legolas centuries to learn. Yet men did not have the time necessary to gain the understanding that was needed of the world (at least for elves.) Legolas was not sure if that improved or lowered his opinion of humans.
*For all we traveled through Gondor, we saw little of men. At least this detour may prove useful in that respect, for I should like to know more of their ways.*
The idea of learning more of men reminded Legolas of his father, and he sighed involuntarily. Then, everything seemed to remind him of someone or something in Mirkwood. The question came again to his mind. *Will I ever be able to put this right?* He shook his head to himself, dispelling the dismal thoughts. *There is no point in brooding over it now, for I can do nothing until I have discharged my debt to Strider. When that is done, I shall decide what to do. Perhaps I will seek my sister’s counsel in Lórien.* And, he reasoned, twirling an arrow in his fingers, they were only a day or so out of Haloel. This Strider (now that Legolas was thinking a little more objectively) seemed to so far to have no sinister intentions--at least not concerning Legolas. With luck, he would release Legolas after they had found the Ranger’s friend in Haloel.
Sounds in the distance pricked the elf’s sensitive ears, and he froze, trying to identify them. He turned his head towards the mountains; the sounds of people were coming across the plains from the hills of Haloel. Not orcs. A scouting party from Haloel? It seemed odd; the small kingdom hosted a large and well-protected fortress at the center of its vineyards. In the face of any threat, its people could retreat to the castle and even withstand a siege for years, from what Legolas had been told of the place.
So what would men of Haloel be doing so far beyond its borders, heavily armed, but not carrying any shipments of wine (as Legolas’s superior hearing informed him.) The elf pondered this--for the humans were still too far away for their mortal senses to detect the travelers--and decided to err on the side of caution.
“Strider.” The human opened his eyes and sat up at once, unable to hear the approaching people but alert for trouble. He raised questioning eyebrows at Legolas, who told him, “We have visitors approaching.”
The human rose and walked to where Legolas was standing, gazing curiously into the darkness. “They are beyond my senses as yet. From whence do they come?”
Legolas pointed. “They come almost directly from Haloel, bearing many weapons, but no caravan of wine.”
That got the Ranger’s immediate attention. “The lord of Haloel is not in the habit of sending out war parties beyond his realm.” Legolas nodded. “What think you, Alagion?”
The prince regarded the distant men only for a moment before replying, “I think we might do well to give them a wide berth until we know more of their intentions.”
“I suspect you are right. Let us break camp and ride clear of their path. How much time have we until dawn?”
“Perhaps two hours. If we depart now, we can be well beyond their sights by sunrise,” said Legolas.
As they re-loaded and mounted their horses, Strider added, “We might also take a less direct route to the castle until I am able to contact Sarovin. I suddenly grow wary of Haloel.”
The plan was successful, and the sun found Legolas and Strider leading their horses carefully toward the foothills as they approached Haloel from the north, rather than from the east as most travelers would. Coming around a cluster of boulders that conveniently shielded them from view, the elven warrior and Ranger beheld at last the land of Haloel. Neat arbors of vines covered the green, rolling hills as far as the eye could see, and a small river meandered lazily through the central valley, with little dwellings and clusters of houses dotting the landscape. At the center of the valley sat the castle, a great stone construction that would easily hold all the residents of this fair land.
Fair it was, but what they saw troubled the man and the elf greatly. It was late spring; the fields should have been filled with workers tending Haloel’s famous grapes. But instead, among the green vineyards stood a multitude of tents, and many armed warriors milling about. Beside Legolas, Strider narrowed his eyes. “A siege camp,” he observed. “Haloel has been invaded.”
But Legolas could see further, all the way to the men guarding the walls of the castle. He could also make out more details of the encamped soldiers. “A siege, yes,” said the elf. “But not by foreign invaders. Remember the men we passed bore the armor and weapons of Haloel’s guard. They were not fleeing this attack, but patrolling outside the borders for any who approached the castle. And these men in the camp below carry the flags and weapons of the lord of Haloel.”
Strider stared at him, then squinted down into the valley in a vain attempt to see for himself. After a moment--and sounding slightly chagrined--the Ranger admitted, “My eyes cannot reach so far. What can you see at the castle?”
Distracted by the troubles in the valley, it did not occur to Legolas to be smug. “The men who hold the fort are not soldiers. They bear arms with without skill--and they wear the garb of peasants.” Turning to face Strider, he concluded grimly, “The folk of Haloel are rebelling against their lord. His symbol is on the tents and attacking soldiers. The farmers have taken the castle, which is built to withstand an assault, but the soldiers have the advantage in weapons and training. Seeing only this, I know not how long their defenses can hold.”
If the war being waged below them unsettled Legolas, the elf knew that Strider was still more disturbed, for he had no way of knowing the whereabouts of his friend. Glancing worriedly at the elf, Strider smiled slightly, “Perhaps if we could locate Sarovin, he might tell us what led to this revolt.”
“Have you any idea where he might be, or even if he still lingers in Haloel?” Legolas asked.
“His message said only that trouble was stirring in Haloel.” The Ranger chuckled, “When I see him, I shall pronounce him master of the understatement.”
“Indeed,” Legolas grimaced, gazing at the soldiers constructing a massive battering ram down by the river. He knew naught of the circumstances behind this siege, but his knowledge of sieges already lent his sympathy to the besieged.
This was the first siege the son of Thranduil had actually witnessed firsthand, and already he thought it worse than his mentors had described. War of any kind turned his stomach, but the siege had a horrible slowness to it that drained the life out of both sides until one was exhausted or starved into defeat. On the field, the soldiers of Haloel’s lord trained and planned at their leisure, able to bring in supplies, but the castle itself was a fortress not easily penetrated, and such an assault would certainly lead to many casualties.
But the situation for the peasants within the castle was still more dire. They would be able to fight only as long as their food and water supplies held out, and if they did not repel the attack before then…they would either be starved out or taken. Legolas could not be certain how the peasants were faring just by looking, but the men stationed on the wall held their bows with an awkward desperation of those who knew all too well the stakes of this fight.
It was then, while Legolas was observing the besieged peasants, that one of the men on the wall caught his eye. A smile quirked the elf’s lips. This man wore not the simply spun raiment of the farmers, but the rough gear of a Ranger, and a sword made by the craftsmen of Gondor. “I think I have found your friend, Strider of the Dúnedain.”
Sarovin, son of Tarodin, was organizing the peasants of Haloel atop the castle’s outer wall when one of the watchers called to him. “There’s someone up in the hills, north!”
The Ranger ran to the north battlements, staring up the face of the northern hills. “Where?”
“Ducking behind the trees and rocks, but they’re definitely making their way here.”
Sarovin scowled in the direction the guard had pointed. Lord Fompran--the now-deposed lord of Haloel--was constantly sending bands of soldiers to harass Sarovin’s men, and the Ranger had no doubt that there were also agents sent by Fompran within the castle. But Sarovin was too busy keeping the farmers rallied to seek them out.
His attention was grabbed suddenly by the sight of two cloaked figures popping out from behind a copse of trees and moving swiftly and stealthily toward the castle. “Strange,” he murmured. The pair were taking great pains to keep obstacles between themselves and Fompran’s camp, but making no effort to hide from the view of Sarovin and his men within the fort.
“Could they be friends?” asked one of the guards, voicing Sarovin’s thought.
“I do not know,” the Ranger murmured. “They’re certainly eager to get here. I would know more of their intentions before granting them entrance…but we’ve no way to signal them without alerting Fompran’s camp to their presence.”
“Ho, Sarovin, look!” exclaimed another.
The Ranger cursed. “It appears Fompran’s men are going to find out they’re here no matter what. Lend me your bow, Dersten,” he said to the farmer nearest him. “Whatever their purpose in coming here, I do not want Fompran and his marauders to learn of it before us.”
The two new arrivals were picking their way down a hillside toward the castle, but the route would take them perilously close to the siege camp. Now the clamor of the soldiers in the camp was obscuring the guard leaning indolently against the very boulder that the strangers were about to sneak around.
Sarovin took aim at the soldier, and the rest of his men exchanged looks. “Keep your bows ready for anyone who approaches the wall,” he ordered. “But do not fire unless I order it.”
The guards obeyed his command, and Sarovin readied himself. The strangers came from behind the rock, intending to dart toward the cover of another, but found themselves face-to-face with a siege guard. Before the man could sound the alarm, an arrow was embedded in his neck. The strangers froze, staring up at the wall where the shot had come from. “Ready your bows!” Sarovin ordered. To the newcomers, he murmured, “You have ten seconds to declare yourselves before I drop both of you.”
Almost as if he had heard Sarovin, the taller and larger of the two pulled back his hood. “Hold!” Sarovin exclaimed immediately. “Hold your fire! Bring a rope ladder at once!” he shouted to several men nearby. “Make ready to cover them!” Disregarding caution, he beckoned vigorously at the two to approach the castle.
Inevitably, the soldiers in Lord Fompran’s camp noticed and raced to cut off the intruders’ access to the castle. Sarovin’s men fired a volley of arrows at them--rather badly coordinated, but sufficient to create a gap for the newcomers. The Ranger watched anxiously as the two ran, swords drawn, towards the wall where the peasants had dropped the ladder. “Come on, my friend, come on!”
“That is the man you sent for?” Dersten asked. “Who is that with him?” The farmer indicated the fleet, slight figure just behind Strider.
“I do not know, but if he travels with Strider, he is a friend,” Sarovin said firmly.
Aragorn sprinted for the ladder, but a group of Haloel soldiers were close on his and Alagion’s heels. A larger mob of farmers had gathered on the wall, whether shouting in encouragement or warning, he did not know. He gained the ladder and started up, but knew simply by the sounds behind that the soldiers were far too close.
The Ranger whirled, preparing to do battle, but Alagion was between him and the soldiers, shouting, “Go!” Going for his bow and quiver, Alagion threw off his cloak, but in so doing, his long golden hair, fair features, and pointed ears came into plain view of all.
A great incredulous cry went up from all directions, and when Alagion notched an arrow and took aim at the pursuing soldiers, it was all Aragorn could do not to laugh. The soldiers--all thirteen of them--literally skidded to a halt in their tracks. Not that it surprised Aragorn with his experiences among elves, for even without seeing his face, Alagion looked formidable. Any ordinary man unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of his steely-black gaze would doubtlessly suffer a sudden loss of nerve. Alagion glanced back at Aragorn and again shouted for him to climb, and this time the Ranger did so. By now the soldiers had recovered their courage and charged the elf en masse, roaring with all the pumped-up bravado of those terrified of their foe.
Alagion proved their fears justified. Six men fell to his arrows in the time it took those watching to gasp, then Aragorn gained the top of the wall. Sarovin gave him a hand over, and there was no need to shout down to Alagion, for the elf had heard. He turned and flew nimbly up the ladder while pulling the back end behind him so the soldiers could not follow him up. The peasants of Haloel were as wary of him as the soldiers, and only Aragorn and Sarovin did not shrink back when the elf jumped gracefully over the thick outer wall.
For a moment, the elf, Rangers, and rebelling farmers simply stared at each other. Finally, it was Sarovin who broke the silence. “Well, Strider, I must say you certainly know how to make an entrance.”
Aragorn looked from his fellow Ranger to Alagion to the men, who were still openly gawking at the elf, and his sense of the ridiculous got the better of him. He began to laugh, and Sarovin quickly joined him, while Alagion and the other men stared as though wondering what could possibly be so funny. Catching his breath, Aragorn said, “You are one to talk, Sarovin. ‘Trouble stirring’ indeed. Never before have I seen trouble so stirred!”
“I knew you would make haste if I piqued your curiosity. And I see you are in favor with the elves, as always.” Seeming to remember his manners, Sarovin bowed to Alagion. “You have my thanks for your assistance, Master Elf. I am Sarovin, son of Tarodin of Bree.”
The elf bowed in turn, “I am honored, son of Tarodin. I am Alagion, son of Langcyll of Mirkwood.” *And there it is again; he hesitates at this name,* thought Aragorn triumphantly. *I wonder when I shall hear his true identity.*
“Mirkwood,” the murmured word rippled through the crowd of men. Aragorn dared a quick glance around and saw no open hostility, to his relief, but a good deal of wariness and doubt, even some suspicion. *How long it has been since men and elves could meet without fear,* the heir of Isildur thought with a pang of regret. Turning back to Sarovin, he gestured at the siege camp--which looked like a disturbed hornet’s nest with soldiers running about shrieking over the elf and second Ranger’s arrival. “How did this come to pass?”
His expression turning grim, Sarovin gestured to the farmers, “Just as all revolutions come to pass, my friend. Perhaps the people of this realm would be better suited to tell you of it.”
They were more than willing, as rebelling subjects are always willing to tell their part. “The lords of Haloel were wise and just once,” said one whom Sarovin identified as Dersten. “But not Fompran. He ruled Haloel in a prosperous time, but thoughts the fruits of our labor should benefit him alone. The kingdom grew richer, but we grew poorer.”
“He’s quadrupled the taxes of the workers since gaining power!” another man put in indignantly. “And at the same time, took control of the presses and wineries, paying us less than ever for our grapes and labor. We’re farmers, not slaves!”
“For years since the last tax raises, we’ve been petitioning Fompran to lower them again, or else pay more for our labor,” added another. “At first he would hear us and then dismiss us, now he will not even see our representatives. Says it’s our duty to do as we’re told by our lord!”
Aragorn grimaced and saw Alagion looking equally dismayed (despite a noble effort by the elf to display outward neutrality.) *I should have sent him on his way before coming to the castle,* the Ranger thought. *He did not need to be brought into this.*
Dersten went on, “Three months ago, we decided to stop working the vineyards until Fompran heard our petition and negotiated a compromise. He and his soldiers came and took over the fields, presses, and wineries, saying we would work on his terms or not at all, and he’d evict all of us, and our families.” The man smiled grimly. “But he’d left the castle practically empty to take over all the fields.” Several of the men smirked. “So we decided that if he put us out of our homes, we would return the favor until he saw fit to parley with us.”
“Not much chance of that happening,” muttered someone. “Greedy tyrant.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Aragorn saw Alagion make an almost imperceptible movement. One who knew naught of elves might have dismissed it as merely shifting position, but to Aragorn…it looked like a wince. *Interesting.* Aloud, Aragorn said, “I can guess what role you had in all of this, Sarovin.”
The other Ranger chuckled, “Quite likely. It was I who encouraged Dersten and his folk to refuse to work, and when the situation took a turn for the worse--I could scarcely fail to see it through.”
“Why did you send for Strider?” Alagion spoke up at last. Several of the men jumped. Aragorn had to stifle a laugh.
Sarovin smiled knowingly, “From the moment I arrived here, I thought Strider’s skills would be of use. These men have need of a strong leader, one stronger than I.” The last remark was directed again at Aragorn.
“What sort of leadership is needed?” Aragorn asked carefully.
There were several stifled groans. Dersten jerked his head at the open courtyard below. “Look for yourself,” he said with a note of acute embarrassment in his tone.
Aragorn and Alagion peered over the wall down into the courtyard. The clamor below, Aragorn had assumed, was the sound of men training and rigging more defenses. Now, with Alagion looking discomfited beside him, he saw his mistake. If the rebels’ food and water was rationed, one commodity was clearly in no short supply: wine. The courtyard below looked more like a tavern at closing time than a fort under siege.
Simultaneously (and rather slowly) the elf and Ranger turned their heads back to face Sarovin and Dersten. Rather unnecessarily, Alagion said simply, “Oh.”
Apparently torn between mortification and laughter, Sarovin raised his hands helplessly, “You must understand, my friends, these are not soldiers.” *You can say that again,* thought Aragorn. “They are merely farmers who have been pushed too far by a tyrannical lord. Even the most reasonable people have their limits. But now they’ve acted,” he shrugged. “They’ve not the faintest idea what to do next. And when they’re not guarding the walls or the gates, as you see, they’ve too much time and wine on their hands.”
“Does the lord of Haloel know of…that?” Alagion asked quietly from behind Aragorn. He seemed to be taking an interest in the situation against his own will.
“Not likely, for I think he has similar troubles in his own camp,” chuckled Dersten ironically. “It is a long ride to the nearest neighboring realms to trade for food and supplies, but wine is something we in Haloel have in near-unlimited abundance. So when our men are not on duty, I suppose they wish to distract themselves from the stress of waiting this siege out. The same seems to be happening in the siege camp, from what we can tell.”
Another man laughed, “And we have one advantage now. We have two Rangers and an elf. They have Fompran.”
Neither Aragorn nor Alagion had yet seen the lord of Haloel, but judging by the roar of laughter that went up from all (including Sarovin) it must be a rather bizarre comparison.
Fompran, Lord of Haloel by birth, was at that moment listening to the report from his soldiers about the incident at the wall. When the men were finished with their account, he cursed loudly and hurled his full goblet (it was always kept full) across the tent, leaving a red stain on the canvas wall. “Another Ranger is bad enough,” he griped in his nasal voice, “but an elf?! That’s all we need, immortals sticking their noses in this!”
“The elf and new Ranger are in the castle now, my lord.”
Limply flapping his rather fat hands for emphasis, the embattled lord exclaimed, “Well…then…DO something about it, Vrall!”
“What, you lordship?” his captain asked dubiously. “We haven’t even come close to succeeding in a direct assault against the castle--it is a fortress, after all. And we have no way of knowing where they are now.”
“Fah!” Fompran waved his hand dismissively (upsetting another silver goblet.) “We’ve got spies in that accursed castle, don’t we? Signal them!”
Vrall, hoping to avoid getting another glass of wine in the face (which his lord was wont to do) stepped back hastily. “What message do you wish sent, my lord?”
Wrinkling his nose and brow in thought, Fompran grumbled to himself for a moment before saying, “Without those Rangers leading them, that rabble would fall apart. I want them disposed of.”
“And the elf?”
“Kill him too, of course,” Fompran said in exasperation. Vrall started to depart, then the wheels of Fompran’s mind slowly began turning, and a better scheme popped into his head. “Wait!” Rubbing his fingers against his double chin, the lord murmured, “Perhaps I’m too quick. We want those traitors hurt in the worst possible way. Perhaps we can do worse than simply killing their foreign leaders.”
“Capture, my lord? That will be difficult,” Vrall said doubtfully.
“Well, as far as I know, it is your JOB to come up with the correct strategy, Vrall,” Fompran said petulantly. “You ARE after all the captain of my guard!”
Clearing his throat, Vrall said hastily, “Of course, my lord. Say only what you wish, and I will see it done.”
“Hmph, that’s a better attitude. Yeeesss, let us see. Very well, capture the two Rangers and get them back to the camp. Nothing will demoralize those worthless rebels like seeing their leaders executed in full view.”
“It shall be so, my lord. And what of the elf?”
“I don’t want any trouble with any elf lord, Vrall. Kill the elf in the castle--nothing fancy. If anyone comes sniffing around, we can blame it on the rebels. Hmmmm. Yes, I’m liking this more and more. Better yet, if we can enlist the aid of the elves seeking justice for their kinsman, the castle will fall even sooner.”
“Yes, my lord,” Vrall’s voice sounded decidedly skeptical, and Fompran glared at the captain over the rim of his goblet. “How many of your spies do you wish to set on this?”
“All of them. I don’t want any foul-ups. They can use any method they please, but tell them: Capture the Rangers. Kill the elf.”
Vrall, captain of Lord Fompran’s guard (by birth) was a little irritated to find their messenger was quite hopelessly drunk when Vrall came to order the sending of their lord’s message. “Curse it!” He saw little harm in letting his men indulge in Haloel’s chief export, but one would think Tegas would have the sense not to swill so much right before his shift.
“It’s almost twilight, Vrall,” another of his men said worriedly. “If we lose the sun, the mirror will be useless.”
“Well, Tegas is in no fit state; he’d jumble the message,” Vrall scowled. He did NOT desire returning to report the delay to Fompran; he was down to one wine-free tunic. “I’ll do it.”
His lieutenant looked doubtful. “Do you know the light codes, sir?”
With a shrug, the burly soldier replied, “A little, yes…and how hard can this message be, Nasemar? Tegas can even tell me the code, all I need is a steady hand to move the mirror!”
“Right,” Nasemar shoved the drunk messenger aside so Vrall could take the mirror. “All right, Tegas, snap out of it! Tell us how to send a message!”
Grinning stupidly and blinking rapidly, Tegas replied, “Well, I canna really tell ya that, Vvvvvrall! D’pends on whatcha wanna slend!”
Throwing up his hands with another curse, Vrall said, “We must say, ‘Capture Rangers, kill elf.’ How do I do that?”
Springing up eagerly, Tegas exclaimed, “Why, thad’s no problem--I could slend thad in my sllleeep! Here, lemme do it!”
He tried to take the mirror, but Vrall and Nasemar irritably shoved him away. “Get off, you drunken sot, you’d wind up telling them to join the rebels! Just tell me the code!”
“Blah! Alright, alright, don’ hit me! Id’s very simple! ‘Capdture’ is two short blinks, then a long blink. ‘Rangers’ is long blink, short blink, long blink. ‘Kill’ is one short blink, then two long blinks. ‘Elf’ is one long blink. Nnnow, didja ged all that?” Tegas folded his arms at Vrall with dramatic expectancy.
“Of course--if a drunken fool like you can manage it, a babe could. Now,” narrowing his eyes in concentration, Vrall angled the mirror to catch the sun. “One short blink--bah! Onnneeee shorrrtttt blinnn--curse it! This is harder than it looks! One short--there! Now another short…argh!”
From their hiding place in a storeroom in the castle, several of Lord Fompran’s guards saw the light blinking from the signal mirror. Having been indulging in a little too much themselves, it took a minute for their appointed watchman to realize the signal was there. “Oy, men, camp’s sending a message!”
“Huh?” “What?” “Where?” “Why?” “How?” “What’s it say?”
“Shaddap, shaddap, I’m trying to note it! Uh, short blink, long blink, long blink, uh--wait. There, there! Here it is…short-long-long, short…they say… ‘Kill Rangers, Capture Elf!’”
The men cheered lustily as though they’d already won a great victory. “Finally, something to do!”
“Grrr, hand me that wineskin!”
“Oy, Sulitron, we’re on duty now!”
“Bugger duty; we need our strength! Everyone have a snort!”
“Right you are, Sulitron, pass that skin around.”
“Ahhh, now I’m ready. Ready, men?”
“Right then, let’s get to work, gentlemen. We’ve got an elf to catch and two Rangers to kill. Time to make some plans!”
“An elf!” “Look, Kartzel, he really is an elf!” “I’ve never seen an elf before!”
*I could never have guessed,* thought Legolas, suppressing the urge to sigh. Sarovin and Strider were busy locking up all the storerooms of wine (no small task), and now the rebelling peasants of Haloel were assembling in the central courtyard--where they had immediately begun gawking at Legolas.
The prince of Mirkwood had tried leaving his hood up, but that only led the farmers to lean and crane their necks still more for a peek at his elvish features. (It also drew the Rangers’ attention, and Legolas had begun to translate the faint quirk of Strider’s mouth as suppressed laughter.)
Strider and Sarovin reappeared from another door--chasing several rebels out before them--and Sarovin locked it, tossing the massive key ring to Strider. “That’s all the store rooms. They’ll need a battering ram of their own to get those doors open.”
Several of the nearer men forgot their fascination with Legolas and turned to protest loudly. Strider raised his hands over the shouts, “Please, friends, there’s no need to mourn your lost pastime. You’ll soon be too busy for wine!”
The farmers exchanged puzzled glances, and then Sarovin jumped in. “I’ve warned you all that there is much to be done if you are to have any hope of winning this fight. And the first of those things is to leave off the wine!”
There came a renewed chorus of shouts, and then Strider startled everyone (Legolas included) with an impressive bellow. “You have NO CHANCE of holding the castle if you spend your days drinking instead of fighting. This is not a game, men of Haloel. Look beyond the wall! Look well! The soldiers without are making more weapons and building a battering ram to break down your gates. You all know Lord Fompran better than I! When his men take this castle, and you, AND your families, what mercy will he show you?”
Silence now hung over the crowd of farmers, and Legolas saw fear and grim determination replacing resistance on many faces. *It is well that Strider has reminded them of the stakes. There are only two possible outcomes of a siege.*
One of the peasants grimly stepped forward, “I will never submit myself and my family to Fompran’s rule again!”
“Nor I!” “Nor I!” “Enough!” “We SHALL win this fight!” “We’ve no choice but to win!”
Another, who Legolas recognized as Dersten from earlier on the battlements, addressed the Rangers. “What must we do? If Fompran takes the castle, we’ll be lucky if all he does is take our possessions and land and exile us. What must we do to prepare and fortify our defenses?”
Without thinking, Legolas spoke up. “Fompran’s soldiers have the advantage of you in skill at arms. You must learn to bear weapons properly against your foes.”
An awestruck murmur rippled through the men. *Confound it, what am I thinking? This is not my fight! I am only here because I owe my life to Strider. I should not be meddling in the affairs of mortals!*
But Sarovin and Strider were nodding in agreement. “And you must organize,” Strider went on, apparently sensing Legolas’s discomfort. “Each man has a role to play, and a task to perform if you are to mount a proper defense. And it must begin now. How many among you are at all skilled with arms?” Without waiting for hands to raise, he pointed to one side of the courtyard. “Over there.” They moved without hesitation at his command. “Now, how many are builders, carpenters, or craftsmen? Over there. And how many are healers? Good, that corner…”
And so it went. After splitting the farmers into groups, Strider approached Legolas. The elf suppressed a sigh, for he thought he could guess what the Ranger wanted. But what caught him completely by surprise was the man’s understanding of his dilemma. “I had not the chance before to ask you to forgive me, Alagion of Mirkwood. Though these are not your people, I fear I have drawn you into this conflict. And I cannot think of any way to see you safely away now that you are here.”
Startled into frankness, Legolas replied, “You need not apologize, for I am still in your debt. And,” he smiled wryly as he admitted, “Even if I could depart, I should find it difficult to leave these people behind when I might be of help.” Strider also smiled, and again the elf thought, *Even for a friend of Lord Elrond, you understand the minds of elves far too well for just an ordinary Ranger. Who are you?*
But the Ranger was speaking again, “I am afraid your little archery demonstration this afternoon left you with quite a reputation. Not that the way of elves with weapons is not already legendary. And then there’s the little matter of the utterly miserable lack of skill among the rebels in that same area.” He and Legolas both chuckled, knowing it to be the truth. “Your assistance training the men of Haloel to defend their castle walls with the bow would be of great help.”
Legolas nodded (actually, it seemed closer to a bow of respect). “I shall see what I can teach them.” Strider could not seem to suppress a grin any longer, and Legolas found himself returning it--they both knew teaching these green farmers to defend the castle against a siege would be quite an arduous task. As they walked to where the newly-designated free soldiers of Haloel were waiting to be trained, the elf and Ranger shared a wry laugh. “What by the Valar have we got ourselves into?”
ORIGINAL CHARACTER GUIDE:
Sarovin: a Ranger, older than Aragorn, who is guiding the peasants of Haloel in their fight for freedom
Dersten: one of the rebelling farmers
Kartzel: another farmer
Fompran: deposed Lord of Haloel
Vrall: the captain of Lord Fompran’s guard
Tegas: Lord Fompran’s messenger
Nasemar: Vrall’s lieutenant
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.