10. Dangerous Games
Looking down upon the sprawling city, the tall towers of the citadel rose majestically against the backdrop of the mountains; their proud tips untouched by the fog that lay thick at their base. As the sun inched higher up the sky, its first rays were caught and reflected by the tall towers and they shone magnificently, a star somehow transported to earth. Deep within the citadel, a bell began to toll, signaling the rising of the sun and bidding the people of Minas Tirith to rise and begin the new day.
Aragorn stood tall upon the high wall surrounding the citadel, listening to the bell's cheerful ring and breathing deeply of the morning freshness, allowing the cool breeze to catch his cloak and flap it about him. He had been up for several hours, his troubled thoughts driving him from his bed and out onto the silent wall. He had always found it easier to collect his thoughts out in the open air. Most likely a trait stemming from his time as a ranger, when most nights were spent beneath the stars, and the warmth and comfort of a bed were rare things indeed. There was something about early morning, before the sun rose, that had always attracted him - from the time he was a small child dreaming of adventure, to when he was a grown man living out those adventures. The dawn held a sort of peaceful promise for Aragorn, a sign that the darkness of night would not last forever - in Middle Earth, and in his own life. No matter what trials he had faced, Aragorn had always been able to find new hope at the coming of dawn, just as he now found hope against the troubles that Gondor faced.
Sighing contentedly, Aragorn looked down into the freshly stirring city. Five days had passed since the company had rode through the gates into Minas Tirith, and those days had been spent resting and recovering, as well as preparing for the battle they knew would come eventually. True to his word, Faramir had already managed to gather a great many of Gondor's soldiers, as well as organize them and prepare them to march as soon as Aragorn gave the order. Aragorn had long been aware of the abilities of his Steward, and yet even he had been somewhat surprised by Faramir's quick efficiency. Aragorn had offered to help Faramir in gathering in the disbanded soldiers, and Faramir had accepted. However, Aragorn had quickly come to realize that his help was not needed, and Faramir had only accepted the offer in the first place as a matter of courtesy. The soldiers responded immediately and without question to every request Faramir made, a sign of the complete trust and love they held for the man who had led them on many a campaign. Aragorn had wondered if the men would have responded as well to him. Faramir insisted they would, but Aragorn was not sure. In any case, Aragorn was allowed to leave the raising of the army in Faramir's more than capable hands, while he dealt with other issues needed seeing to.
Aragorn turned on the wall and faced west, away from the slowly rising sun. A great shadow still hung heavy over this part of the land, and it would be several hours before the sun rose high enough to drive it away completely. Aragorn scanned the dark horizons, feeling once more the sense of tense expectancy that had drove him from his bed earlier. It was the feeling he usually associated before a big storm hit, and yet the early morning sky was clear of any cloud, and already the air was beginning to warm. No, it was not an approaching storm that caused these feelings of anticipation; instead the feeling seemed to stem from the very air itself. Though there had been plenty to keep him busy the last few days, Aragorn had begun to grow restless from the constant waiting. Now, it seemed as if something was about to happen, and he unconsciously straightened, his hand resting on Anduril's hilt, as a wave of anticipation passed through him. As a ranger, he had been forced to learn patience at an early age, and waiting was no stranger to him. Yet he still preferred action and couldn't help but hope that his intuition was right, and that the waiting was drawing to an end.
Gandalf had insisted that Malek would make his location known all too soon. He kept reminding the fellowship that Malek wanted to be found, that he wanted them to come after him, and that they must be prepared when that time came. "Well, I am as prepared now as I am likely to ever be." Aragorn said quietly, out loud. He was still facing west, and it seemed as if the tingle in the air was coming from that direction, from the deep shadows and recesses of the Ered Nimrais. 'Is that where you hide, evil creature?' Aragorn thought. 'Are you waiting for us deep within those mountains? If so, we shall not keep you waiting much longer, and you shall regret the day you ever crawled from your dark hole!'
Sensing someone approaching, Aragorn turned, a smile softening his features as he watched Arwen mount the steps up to the wall and begin walking towards him. The elf princess looked radiant in a light green gown bound at the waist with a loose silver belt, its links crafted skillfully in the shape of leaves. A dark green cloak of soft velvet hung from her shoulders, clasped by another silver leaf, the very same that Aragorn had received from Galadrial in Lothlorien. Her long dark hair fell unbound around her shoulders and down to her waist, waving slightly in the early morning breeze.
Aragorn found his breath catching as he watched her graceful movement, and a love so strong it threatened to choke him swept through him. The morning suddenly seemed much brighter, the bird songs clearer, and Aragorn thought he would surely die if he had to tear his eyes from her. Suddenly, his earlier anticipation fled, replaced with the knowledge that he would soon be forced to part with her once more. Stepping forward to meet her, he reached out and pulled her almost desperately into his arms. "Arwen, my love...," he whispered, then found himself unable to go on. Perhaps Gimli had been right about love making a man weak, yet at that moment Aragorn cared about nothing except holding Arwen.
As if sensing the sudden change in Aragorn's mood, Arwen said nothing, allowing Aragorn to merely hold her in his arms. She laid her head against his chest, closing her eyes and listening to the steady beat of his heart and the rhythmic sound of his breathing. His hand gently stroked her hair, and the two stood like this for several long minutes, content to merely be held close to each other. At last, Arwen pulled back slightly, looking up into Aragorn's face. "Something troubles you, Elven Star, and I would know what it is, that I may help ease your mind. The guards tell me that you have been standing on this wall, staring west for several hours."
Aragorn smiled down at her gently, and then shook his head. "Nothing can trouble me as long as I have you at my side, Arwen, daughter of Elrond."
Arwen returned the smile, and laughed lightly, the sound causing Aragorn's heart to beat more swiftly. "Is this an attempt at poetry, my love?" she asked mischievously.
"I have been here since very early," Aragorn replied seriously. "I have seen the sun's first rays captured like a thousand sparkling jewels atop the towers of this city. I have seen the morning flowers open to welcome the day, and the birds awaken and take song. Yet all of this is dim and misty in the wake of your great beauty, my lady."
Arwen laughed once more. "I see that I am right. Yet my heart has never responded to another's words as it does yours now. You may speak poetry to me all day, and I would be happy."
"Yes," Aragorn answered, "but if I were to speak poetry all day, I would not be able to do this.." He bent down and kissed her gently.
When Aragorn at last drew away, both their hearts were beating fast, and a slight flush colored Arwen's smooth cheeks. "You seek to distract me, my lord," she said breathlessly. "I came here to ask if you would care to walk with me that we may enjoy the morning together."
"Of course," Aragorn answered immediately. Still clasping Arwen close to his side, he turned and descended from the wall, not noticing the smiles and winks that passed between the guards upon the wall.
The entire city had been shocked and dismayed at the announcement that Aragorn’s wedding was postponed, but Aragorn had made it sound as if the reason was due to the delayed arrival of Elrond and the party of elves from Rivendell. Most people were ready enough to accept this explanation; however, when the army had been called once more, rumors had spread like wildfire through the people. Aragorn had addressed them again, explaining that orcs had been sighted in Gondor, and that the army was being rebanded in order to deal with this new development. He was quick to assure them that Minas Tirith was under no danger of attack, and that the army would be riding out to destroy the orcs as soon as everything could be arranged. Once more, the people had been more than willing to accept this simple explanation. Aragorn had also sent several messengers North, towards Lothlorien, in the hopes that they would come upon Elrond's party. He was sure that the elves would not arrive until well after he himself had departed, but he wanted Elrond to be forewarned of what he would find at Minas Tirith.
Thoughts of his departure fell heavy upon Aragorn once more, and he gripped Arwen’s hand tightly in his own as the two walked. "I will miss you sorely when I leave," he whispered softly.
"Perhaps,” was Arwen's only answer. Aragorn looked at her sharply, but she was looking away from him, her attention caught by something before them.
Aragorn followed her gaze to the practice archery field. Legolas stood at one end of the field, facing the row of targets at the other end. The elf seemed to be totally relaxed, his back turned to them and his bow resting lightly against the ground, one arm fallen limply at his side. Aragorn sighed as he took in his friend, his troubles returning to pile up on him once more. Aragorn was worried about Legolas. During the past five days, it appeared as if Legolas was recovering nicely from his injuries, even as Aragorn was recovering from his own, and yet Aragorn believed that the elf had not been sleeping properly. He had paid little attention to this at first, knowing that elves needed much less rest than other races. However, his concern had been growing. It was obvious that Legolas was hiding something from the rest of them, and twice Aragorn had caught Gandalf and Legolas secreted away, the looks on their faces revealing that their conversation was not pleasant. Yet every time Aragorn drew near, the two would immediately clam up or change the subject. Aragorn knew that something was going on, and yet he had been prepared to wait until Legolas chose to tell him what it was himself. However, Aragorn was beginning to wonder if he shouldn't bring it up and try to get the elf to confide in him.
Arwen pulled at his arm, and Aragorn followed her toward where Legolas stood. As they drew near, Legolas suddenly moved with lightning speed. In a blur that was almost too fast to follow, Legolas raised his bow, drew an arrow from his quiver, setting it to the bow, and then releasing it, all in the same fluid motion. The arrow whistled through the air before striking dead center in the target placed before the elf.
"Nice shot, Legolas," Aragorn said from directly behind the elf. Legolas turned and smiled at them, having sensed their approach long before, and knowing who it was before Aragorn spoke.
Aragorn moved to the side of his friend, eyeing the slightly quivering arrow protruding from its mark at the other end of the field. "It seems your arm is nearly back to a hundred percent," he commented lightly. "Does it still pain you any?"
Legolas shrugged lightly. "There is a slight strain when I draw back," he admitted, "but I expect it to fade quickly the more I exercise it."
"You must be careful not to overdo it, Legolas," Arwen warned gently. "Even elves must give their wounds plenty of time to heal. If you strain it too much, you will find the healing takes that much longer."
"I am aware of this, my lady," Legolas said seriously. "Yet I feel a change in the wind, and I guess that our waiting will soon be over. I wish to be able to have full use of my arm before it is needed in battle."
Aragorn looked sharply at Legolas. It seemed that he was not the only one to sense the change in the air. He was about to question the elf on this, when a loud oath, followed by several harsh words in another language assailed his ears.
Gimli stalked onto the practice field, his entire frame resonating righteous indignation. The dwarf was carrying a large bundle wrapped in cloth in his arms. He stopped a few paces away and glared at Legolas, completely ignoring Aragorn and Arwen, still muttering curses beneath his breath.
Aragorn glanced toward Legolas and found the elf eyeing Gimli curiously, the picture of innocence.
"You, you......," the dwarf seemed completely unable to form a coherent sentence.
"Did something at breakfast disagree with you, Master dwarf?" Legolas asked, still the picture of innocence. Aragorn looked at Legolas once more, and had to force down a loud groan.
At the elf's words, Gimli's face seemed to grow so red that Aragorn was afraid the dwarf was going to burst something. Quickly stepping between the two, he faced Gimli, still eyeing the bundle in the dwarf's hands. "What has happened, Gimli," he asked the irate dwarf.
Gimli finally seemed to be released from his inarticulate state. "What has happened?!!" the dwarf roared. "I'll show you what has happened." With these words, Gimli threw down the bundle in his arms and quickly swept the cloth off. Aragorn groaned at what he saw. "Look what he has done to my armor!" Gimli bellowed.
"It appears to be...," Aragorn hesitated, throwing a glance at Arwen, who seemed to be trying desperately to hold back laughter. "Well, it appears.."
"GREEN! That's what it appears. Green! And it is all the elf’s doing." Gimli glared past Aragorn toward where Legolas stood, still eyeing the scene with an innocence only born by one who is guilty beyond all doubt.
Aragorn sighed and turned to Legolas. "Did you turn his armor green?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
Legolas shrugged, then grinned. "I was merely trying to prepare the dwarf for his visit to Mirkwood. Already, the elves complain that the dwarves are too easy to spot and make too much noise. I cannot help Gimli with his loudness, yet I merely sought to help him blend in better with his surroundings. If you ask me, green is a very nice color, and he should be thanking me for showing him some style."
"Thanking you!" Gimli shouted. "I will be thanking you to turn it back, and if you don't I will show you MY favorite color; Red."
Aragorn grimaced. This was quickly becoming nasty. He had no fear of Gimli actually hurting Legolas, but there was the chance that the entire company would have to suffer through their arguments the rest of the day and perhaps into the next. He was little surprised that this had happened, and deep down felt that the dwarf somewhat deserved what had happened. At dinner the previous evening, Aragorn had overhead Gimli giving Legolas some less than complimentary comments on the elf’s habit of constantly wearing green. Legolas had merely replied that Gimli might grow to like the color, at which the dwarf had laughed and stated ‘that the day he wore green, would be the day they started making armor in that color.’ It seemed that Legolas had taken the dwarf a little too seriously.
Quickly turning once more to Gimli, Aragorn sought to calm the dwarf. “I will send for someone to fetch your armor right away, and by nightfall it will be back to normal.”
Gimli still glared at Legolas, not even looking at Aragorn, but he bowed slightly and grunted his thanks. Aragorn sighed and guessed that was about all he could expect. He was about to suggest that they all go and find something for breakfast, if for no other reason than to change the subject, but Legolas spoke first.
“It seems as if I was right, and our waiting has indeed come to an end.” The elf was staring past Aragorn and Gimli, and his voice was quiet and light.
Aragorn followed his gaze and spotted Faramir hurrying toward them. The expression on the Steward’s face caused Aragorn to agree with Legolas; the waiting had come to an end. Gimli also turned from glaring at the elf and watched the Steward’s approach curiously. Aragorn moved over to Arwen and clasped her hand tightly once more, waiting for Faramir’s arrival.
The Steward came to a halt before them, bowing towards Aragorn and Arwen, and giving Legolas and Gimli a sidelong look. “My lord,” he said haltingly to Aragorn, trying to catch his breath. “Messengers have arrived from Ginzee and Murwell, and they wish to speak to you on a very urgent matter. They are waiting within the council hall. I have sent messengers to Gandalf and the hobbits, summoning them to join us there,” Faramir finished, studying Aragorn to see his reaction to the news.
Aragorn kept his face completely blank. “Thank you, Faramir. You have done well, and I wish for you to join us at the hall, but first…,” Aragorn hesitated, loathe to bring up the subject of Gimli's armor now that the dwarf seemed to have temporarily put the debate aside. Finally, he plunged on. “But first I would like you to see that master Gimli’s armor gets taken to the armory to be put back into its normal…..state.” He indicated the pile still sitting in front of the dwarf.
Faramir glanced down at the armor, and then his eyes immediately flew to Legolas, who was doing nothing to hide the amusement on his face. Faramir had been sitting beside the dwarf and elf during the conversation the previous evening, and the steward had wondered at the time why Legolas had allowed the dwarf to get the better of the debate. Now he knew why. Bowing once more to Aragorn, Faramir turned and scooped up the armor, starting with it towards the city and trying to keep the smile off his face.
Gimli merely snorted and turned away. “Shall we go?” he asked Aragorn and Arwen, completely ignoring Legolas.
Aragorn smiled and bowed, sweeping out his arm, “After you, Master Gimli.”
Gimli snorted once more, and began setting off at a fast pace back towards the citadel. Aragorn and
Arwen turned to Legolas. “Are you coming my friend,” Aragorn asked.
Legolas seemed lost deep in thought, and his eyes were distant when he turned to Aragorn. “I will be along shortly,” he assured Aragorn absentmindedly. “I must go and fetch my arrow first.”
Aragorn frowned slightly, thinking once more that he needed to find a time to talk to the elf in private. For a while, Legolas had seemed his normal, cheerful and a bit mischievous, self. Now, however, the elf was slipping back into the distracted melancholy that had caused Aragorn great concern the last couple of days. “We will meet you there,” Aragorn agreed, still eyeing the elf sharply. Legolas seemed completely unaware of the scrutiny as he turned and began loping easily toward the row of targets.
Aragorn watched him for a second longer, then turned with Arwen and began walking towards the citadel. He was lost deep in thought, and Arwen also seemed to be occupied by contemplation. At last, Aragorn turned to her. “Has Legolas disclosed to you what might be bothering him?” he asked quietly.
Arwen looked up at him and shook her head. “He has not told me anything, although I feel, like you, that something is troubling him greatly. Perhaps Gimli can tell you what it is.”
Aragorn shook his head. “I don’t think he has even shared with Gimli what it is that lies so heavy upon him. I have seen the dwarf looking at Legolas with the same concerned confusion that I feel.”
“Have you talked to him yourself?” Arwen asked gently.
“I wait for a time when I may do so,” Aragorn responded. “Yet I had hoped that he would choose to confide in me of his own free will."
Arwen sighed, her eyes distant. "I have known Legolas for a very long time," she said quietly. "He is very proud. Anything he views as a weakness or anything that might cause others to view him with pity or concern, he will keep to himself, rather than cause worry to others." She smiled to herself then, perhaps reliving in her mind some distant memory. "In this way, he is much like his father. In truth, much like all the elves of Mirkwood and no few of Rivendell as well."
Aragorn nodded, knowing all too well the truth of Arwen's words. Whatever was troubling Legolas, the elf prince would keep it to himself unless Aragorn managed to find a way to pry it from him. Yet, Aragorn was unsure whether he should try to pressure his friend into sharing his feelings, or whether he should leave the elf in peace and allow matters to play themselves out. Even as he pondered this, they moved to the front entrance of the citadel. Aragorn firmly pushed thoughts of Legolas and what might be troubling the elf to the back of his mind. It was time to take care of the task at hand.
Legolas's pace was neither swift nor slow as he proceeded across the archery field. Reaching the target that held his arrow, he pulled the shaft free and began examining it closely, a habit he had formed when still considered 'young' even by elven standards. He had learned that even a slight knick or bending of the soft wood could cause the arrow to go astray, something he was not willing to risk when this arrow’s next target could very easily decide between life and death for himself or those that fought near him. This was no ordinary arrow, however. It, along with its brothers in his quiver, were made by the finest craft lords in Mirkwood, and the wood was strong and the point true. Even the other elves of Middle Earth admitted that the arrows crafted in Mirkwood were the finest arrows in the land.
Satisfied that the arrow was still true, Legolas slipped it back into his quiver and turned towards the city. He knew that Aragorn would wish to begin the meeting as soon as possible, and Legolas was also anxious to bring the waiting to an end. He began a slow and easy jog back up the archery field and toward the high tower of the citadel, thrusting up from the city like one of the jagged pieces of rock he had witnessed while touring the caves with Gimli.
Gandalf met him at the entrance to the gate, and it appeared to Legolas as if the wizard had been waiting there for him. The two fell in side by side as they walked toward the council hall, and Gandalf was the first to break the silence between them.
"Did you have another dream last night?" The wizard asked simply.
Legolas grimaced slightly at Gandalf's direct words, and unconsciously glanced around to see if anyone might be near enough to overhear their conversation. The nearest people were two grooms, ushering a group of horses across the courtyard. Legolas shook his head, then realized the wizard was not looking at him and answered out loud. "No." His voice was soft, and he found himself wishing he could change the subject.
Gandalf glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and grunted. "I guess I should ask you if you slept at all?"
Legolas shrugged, not meeting the wizard's eyes. "A little," he said vaguely, watching as two boys raced about, whacking at each other with wooden swords.
Gandalf let out a very expressive sigh, as he too watched the two boys. A small smile crossed his face, not going at all with the grimness in his eyes. "You must sleep sometime you know, for even elves grow weary eventually without rest, and your senses will need to be alert when we face this new threat."
"I am aware of this," Legolas answered, somewhat tersely. "Yet I do not think even you would wish to rest if your dreams were constantly plagued by visions of your death!"
Gandalf shook his head, slowing the pace and glancing sharply at the elf. "I thought we had agreed that your dream did not necessarily signify your death," he said in a gentle, but firm voice.
"I know not what else it could be," Legolas answered, finally meeting the wizard's gaze and allowing his great weariness to enter his voice. "A blackness such as I have never felt before, and the cold..." the elf trailed off, yet another shudder racking his slight frame. "And this was but a dream. I cannot even contemplate what it would feel like for real. If it is not death, then I think I would almost prefer death to this dark chill."
"Do not dwell on these dark things," Gandalf admonished gently, looking at the elf with something akin to pity. Being the only other member of the company to have experienced one of the dreams, Gandalf could associate with what Legolas must feel. He remembered very clearly his own dream, and how detailed and realistic it had all seemed. Facing the nature of Legolas's dreams, Gandalf could not really blame the elf for not wishing to sleep. Already, Legolas had faced this nightmare three times, and though he would never admit it, Gandalf was getting worried.
Legolas saw the wizard's face and looked away quickly. "I do not desire your sympathy or worry on my behalf, Mithrandir," he said softly. "If I could have it my way, even you would not know of this."
"I would have found out sooner or later in any case," Gandalf said dismissively. "It is not easy to hide things from me when I truly wish the answers."
"What does it matter," Legolas said, a spark of rebellion entering his voice. "What will be, will be, and all this worrying and talking about it will not change anything."
"That is simply not the case," Gandalf answered firmly, allowing a hint of annoyance to enter his voice. "Remember your first dream. It is lucky for Aragorn that you did not take this attitude then. You changed the outcome of that dream, and there is nothing to say that you cannot do the same for this one."
Legolas shrugged and looked away, picking up the pace once more in the hope that they would reach the council hall swiftly and end this discussion.
Gandalf sighed and muttered something about stubborn elves, as he picked up his own pace to match Legolas's. He decided to shift the topic slightly. "Have you told any of the others yet?" he asked pointedly, and when it seemed as if Legolas was not intending to answer him, he pressed on. "Aragorn and Gimli already suspect something, and I believe you will not be able to hide this from them much longer."
Still Legolas pressed on and said nothing, yet Gandalf was not about to let him get off so easily. "Gimli has come to me three times already, asking my council on what ails you. He is truly worried, though he hides it well."
At last, Legolas showed a reaction. He slowed his pace once more and turned toward Gandalf, his face intense.
Before Legolas could ask the question, Gandalf answered for him. "No, I did not tell him anything, as I promised I wouldn't, but it is only a matter of time before both he and Aragorn will learn the truth, and I do not think they will be happy with you for holding back for so long."
Legolas sighed and shook his head. "I merely do not wish for them to worry. If they knew about the dream, they would watch me like a hawk!"
"They already worry," Gandalf answered earnestly. "And as for watching you like a hawk, is that such a bad thing if it might prevent the dream from happening?"
"If they spend all their time watching me, and bring themselves and those they travel with into danger, then yes, it is a bad thing," Legolas stated glumly.
"So do you intend to keep avoiding them and brushing off their concerns? I assure you that this will not work, and eventually, one of them will confront you. What do you intend to do then?"
"I will deal with that if and when it happens," Legolas said firmly. In truth, he was unsure of what he would tell them. He had never lied to his friends before, and he had no intention of starting now.
Gandalf read a desperate plea in the elf's eyes to let the conversation die. They had almost reached the council room when Gandalf pulled Legolas to a stop. Facing the elf, Gandalf placed his hand firmly on the slim shoulder and spoke with a deep earnestness. "You will have to face this sooner or later my friend, and I think you would find that the burden becomes lighter to bear if you allow your friends to bear it with you."
With these final words, Gandalf swept forward into the council room. Legolas shut his eyes briefly and tried desperately to control his frayed emotions. Taking a deep breath, he turned and followed the wizard into the room.
"They wouldn't even allow us to finish our breakfast," Pippin said glumly, staring at his hands as if in hope of finding some stray crumb he had missed.
Standing a few feet away, Gimli glanced toward the hobbits and shook his head. "I bet the messenger sent by Faramir didn't have to look long for you four. And if he had allowed you to finish your breakfast, we would all still be sitting here waiting when the midmorning bell rang."
"What's got you in such a foul mood this morning?" Pippin mumbled indignantly.
Gimli grunted and did not answer, his mind was too busy formulating plans for sweet revenge on a certain elf.
Across the room, Faramir, Aragorn, and Arwen were talking quietly with two tall men in travel stained riding clothes, their faces lined with fatigue. Gimli glanced toward the door just as Gandalf strode into the room. The wizard glanced around briefly before walking over to join Aragorn and the others.
Gimli frowned and turned to the door once more, wondering what could be keeping Legolas. The thought had barely formed in his mind, when the elf entered. Gimli got a good look at Legolas's face and felt himself stiffen. Legolas turned toward them, quickly schooling his face neutral Gimli found all thoughts of revenge driven from his mind as a sudden deep concern for his friend overwhelmed him. Legolas looked positively too pale and Gimli was even more certain than before that something was seriously troubling the elf.
A sudden suspicion hit the dwarf like a hammer blow. The last several days he had been prying at Legolas, hoping his friend would drop some clue as to what was ailing him, and he suddenly found himself wondering if the entire incident with his armor had been nothing more than the elf attempting to distract him. He definitely would not put it past Legolas to try such a low down, uncalled for prank simply to stop him from meddling.
Even as these thoughts were passing through Gimli's head, his friend walked toward where he and the hobbits stood. Legolas eyed Gimli somewhat warily from the corner of his eye as he bid the hobbits a cheerful good morning.
Gimli frowned, even more suspicious. Legolas was definitely trying to distract him, and the dwarf had had enough. He was going to get the truth from Legolas even if he had to sit on his friend until he would talk. Gimli opened his mouth to threaten just this, when Aragorn called to them from across the room.
Legolas had seen the different expressions floating across Gimli's face, and already suspected what the dwarf was going to say, so he quickly used the distraction to slip away and hurry across the room to Aragorn's side. With a not too complimentary oath directed at elves in general, Gimli followed with the hobbits.
A table had been carried into the room, and it was around this that the company now gathered. Gimli arrived just as Aragorn was dismissing the two travel worn men, bidding them to rest and refresh themselves. Gimli frowned, trying to pull his mind to the task at hand while still keeping an eye on Legolas, who was undeniably avoiding his gaze. "Don't we need to question them still?" Gimli asked as a young servant girl led the two men past him.
Aragorn glanced at him, his lips quirking into a small smile that never touched his eyes. "I have already finished questioning them, Master Gimli. Their tale was not long, and if I have any further questions I will seek them out later. But now they are extremely weary, for they had a hard ride and came immediately here to speak with us."
"Did they bring news of Malek?" Legolas asked softly.
The hobbits shivered and exchanged looks among themselves. Gimli guessed that the restlessness that had imprisoned the rest of them, had not bothered the small hobbits.
Aragorn nodded, and a note of disgust entered his voice as he answered the elf. "They are messengers from the towns of Ginzee and Murwel located at the base of the Ered Nimrais along the banks of the river Ciril. Malek and his orcs attacked both their towns. Both barely escaped with their own lives, if they were not allowed to escape, and nearly rode their mounts to death to get here so swiftly." Aragorn paused and glanced toward Gandalf. "You said that Malek would make his location known and I should have expected this, yet I still intend to see that evil creature pay for every drop of blood he spilt."
Gandalf did not respond, intent upon studying the pile of maps which lay upon the table.
"The Ered Nimrais," Gimli mused, also studying the maps laid out before him. "That would make sense, for those mountains contain many large caverns and tunnels in which he can hide himself and his army during the day."
"Yes," Legolas said thoughtfully. "But Ered Nimrais is a large mountain range, and there are literally thousands of these caves you speak of. How are we supposed to know where to find him? That is, if he even still remains there after we arrive."
"We already know his basic location," Aragorn answered. "Both of the attacked towns were located along the Ciril river, so I am led to believe that it is somewhere in the mountains around this river that he hides. As for him leaving ere we arrive, I do not think we have to worry. I must agree with Gandalf that he wants us to come to him."
"Yet how do we find him?" Gimli pressed. "The area around the Ciril is still vast and contains many large caverns he could hide in. What are we supposed to do, send men to each cave entrance to knock and ask if Malek is in."
"Hardly, master dwarf," Aragorn answered dryly. "Instead of searching the mountains for Malek, we merely allow him to find us. Look closely at the map and tell me what you see."
Gimli shrugged and the entire company gathered close, studying the maps. All the dwarf could see were vast mountains with endless tunnels and caverns. He was unsure what Aragorn was hinting at.
It was Frodo who finally broke the silence with a single word. "Calembel."
Aragorn looked at the hobbit approvingly and nodded his head. "You have sharp eyes, my small friend."
Gimli squinted at the small map, trying to find what the two were talking about. He finally discovered the small dot marking the city of Calembel. The city was located on the east bank of the Ciril River, and lay almost at the base of the Ered Nimrais. He looked up and met Aragorn's eyes, shrugging to admit his confusion.
"Both of the messengers rode by Calembel, and they claimed that the city looked intact and completely unbothered. Do you not find it a bit odd that the closest city to the mountains, the one most likely to be attacked, has been left unmolested?"
Gimli finally nodded, understanding dawning at last.
"Maybe Malek doesn't have a large enough army yet to attack a city," Sam suggested quietly.
"Perhaps," Aragorn answered. "Yet I learned from the two guards that Calembel is virtually defenseless unless you count their private merchant guards. The city has no central garrison of men, and its walls are in almost complete disrepair. It would be an easy enough thing for a small force to attack the city and cause much damage, and yet Malek has not even attempted this. Why?"
"Because he is waiting for us to arrive," Legolas answered after several long seconds of silence.
Aragorn nodded, catching the elf's eyes. "That is what I believe," he stated simply.
"Then what are we going to do," Merry asked, somewhat tremulously.
"We ride to Calembel, of course," Aragorn answered the hobbit with a smile.
"Even knowing what we do, that Malek is waiting for us?" Pippin asked incredulously.
"Even knowing this," Aragorn stated quietly. "But I think that Malek will find more than he bargained for when he seeks to attack us there."
Gandalf spoke up for the first time, startling all of them. "I believe we should leave as soon as possible and travel as swiftly as we are able."
Aragorn nodded. "I intend to leave at dawn tomorrow, before the tolling of the bell. There will be plenty of opportunities on the journey to discuss our plans."
"In that case," Gandalf said solemnly, "I suggest that we end this meeting and each of us go and see to our preparations. The next few days promise to be very long, so I also suggest that you all try to get what rest you can." The wizard's eyes flickered briefly to Legolas before he turned and led the way from the council hall. Soon Aragorn, Faramir, and Arwen were the only ones remaining in the room.
Faramir turned to Aragorn and bowed low. "With your permission, my lord, I will go and prepare the men for tomorrow's march."
Aragorn nodded. "I want you to split the army. Take the mounted men and put them in the first party that will ride with us at dawn. The rest of the army must follow after as fast as they can. I will not tarry more than is absolutely necessary in reaching Calembel."
Faramir nodded and bowed once more, turning to leave the room. He hesitated upon reaching the door, then slowly turned once more and faced Aragorn. "My lord," he said, then paused and glanced toward Arwen. The elf princess seemed totally oblivious to their conversation, instead looking out at the garden on the other end of the council hall.
Faramir cleared his throat and continued. "My lord, I wish to know if you intend for me to remain behind or whether I may ride with you on the morrow?"
Aragorn regarded his steward closely. "What would you have," he asked softly, although he already knew the answer.
"I will abide by any order you choose to give me," Faramir replied honestly. Aragorn merely arched an eyebrow at him, so Faramir continued. "Yet I must confess that it is my desire to ride with you, my lord, as I once was unable to do."
Aragorn continued to stare at him, and Faramir had to force himself not to shift restlessly beneath the king's intense gaze. Finally, Aragorn's eyes softened, and he motioned Faramir back into the room.
"I had intended upon talking of this to you later," Aragorn said lightly, "but now seems as good a time as any." Aragorn paused, and then smiled at Faramir's tense expression. "You will ride beside me tomorrow morning, and I will be glad of your company, yet I feel that I should forewarn you that my decision was made for a far more important reason than my desire to have you at my side.”
"How so, my lord," Faramir asked.
It was Aragorn's turn to glance at Arwen, yet the elf still seemed completely uninterested in their conversation. Aragorn sighed and turned back to Faramir. "When we ride out, we will be riding to two different battles."
Faramir looked confused, so Aragorn hurried to explain.
"We will be riding to the same place; however, just like the war with Sauron, we will be riding to defeat two different enemies. You, leading the men of Gondor, will be charged with defeating the orc army this creature has managed to raise, and I and the others will concentrate on defeating Malek himself. If something should happen to me, you will be in charge of making sure that no evil creature is left to hurt Gondor. This is the charge that I give to you now, and I expect it to be followed no matter what happens."
Faramir met Aragorn's intense gaze, and something seemed to pass between the two men. Faramir bowed low. "It will be as you say, my lord," he said in a near whisper.
Aragorn nodded. "Go and see to the men now," he ordered gently, and Faramir straightened and left the room.
Aragorn stared after him for several long minutes until he felt a gentle touch on his arm. Looking down at Arwen, Aragorn sighed heavily before pulling her gently into his arms. "Tomorrow's dawn will come all too soon, and I will be forced to leave you once again," Aragorn murmured sorrowfully against her smooth hair.
"Nay, my love," Arwen whispered softly, "for I would also seek to be allowed to accompany you on your journey."
Aragorn stepped back in surprise and looked down at Arwen's upturned face, wondering if he had heard wrong. She met his gaze evenly, and with no sign of backing down.
"Arwen.." Aragorn began, but she cut him off before he could say anymore.
"I have thought on this for a very long time, my lord, and I have decided that we have been separated once too often. I will not allow it to happen once more if I can stop it!"
Aragorn finally realized that she was serious, more from her use of his official title than for any words she had said. "You are needed here, Arwen," he said gently, trying to dissuade her.
Arwen shook her head. "I am not yet your queen, so I have no authority to rule the people of Gondor in your absence."
"The people would still listen to you," Aragorn argued.
"Yes," Arwen admitted. "Just as well as they would listen to one of your advisor's in my stead."
"We ride into battle, Arwen," Aragorn stressed with a gentle squeeze of her shoulders.
"And I learned the use of the sword and fought in my first battle before you were ever born, Elven Star, so that argument will not work with me."
Aragorn searched his mind desperately for anything else he might use to persuade Arwen against this action. "What of your father and brothers? They are expected to arrive here within the week."
"You have already sent messengers to warn them of what has happened. My father will expect me to be gone with you."
Aragorn opened his mouth and then realized that he didn't have any more arguments to give her. Closing it, he slowly began shaking his head.
"If you do not give me permission, then I will follow you once you have gone," Arwen stated boldly. Aragorn saw the determination and defiance in her eyes. The two stood inches apart, staring unflinchingly at each other.
Long minutes seemed to pass, and then Aragorn let out a loud sigh. "I have no doubt that you would," he said in defeat, then suddenly began to chuckle. "Your bold determination is perhaps one of the things I love so greatly about you."
Arwen's eyes shone. "Then it is decided. I shall go and prepare my things." With these words, she swept out of the room leaving Aragorn standing there trying to figure out what had just happened.
At last he sighed and shook his head. "I fear you were right, Gimli my friend," he mumbled aloud. "Women do make a warrior weak. I would have it no other way, yet if anything happens to her, I shall never forgive myself." With these grave words, Aragorn also strode from the room to begin his own preparations for the journey.
The city of Calembel was considered an old city by the standards of most men. Its giant walls and buildings were made mostly from stone, crafted and hewn by the dwarves, marking a time when that race roamed around Middle Earth and mingled freely with the other races. The dwarves had long since returned to the mountains and now seemed completely content to remain there, digging out their treasures.
As for Calembel, it had survived many a hardship, and the city was beginning to look a little worse for the wear. The city had begun as a rough mining town, back when men joined with the dwarves in digging out precious minerals and rocks from the mountains of Ered Nimrais. Finally, believing the mountain to be bare of any more useful materials, the men had abandoned their tunnels, many moving away to find a new trade. For several years, Calembel had stood mostly empty, with little hope for a future.
Then a sharp young merchant had developed a craft to carry goods upstream, through the mountains to the many cities on the other side. This simple discovery had marked the rebirth of the city, and soon it was a center of much trading, and considered a merchant's haven.
The great, great, great grandson of this merchant now ruled in Calembel as its mayor and chief merchant. Mayor Merton Fallow Candywell the III, commonly known by the citizens of the city as Merty, was an overly fat, pompous man who had too much money and not enough sense. He remained the chief merchant of the city only by remaining completely uninvolved with his trade, leaving it up to a team of advisors. Though Merton remained separated from his merchant dealings, he did not remain separated from the great wealth it afforded him. He lived in something akin to a castle, directly in the center of the city, and enjoyed nothing more than watching the poorer members of the city beg him to lend them money to keep their trade from failing.
Altogether, he was not the most favored person in the city, but he was the most feared. For with wealth and position came power. And if there was anything that Merton enjoyed more than power, the people of the city did not know what it was.
Presently, Merton Fallow Candywell the III was sitting comfortably in a large chair on his veranda, sipping an expensive wine, and trying desperately to ignore the messenger standing at attention five feet away.
At last, the messenger finished delivering his speech, and with an airy toss of his hand Merton waved the fellow away. A grimace of distaste covered his face, and the wine suddenly tasted sour in his mouth. He sat silent for several more minutes, then bellowed out the name of the Keeper of House. A second later, the woman appeared, curtsying low while trying to mop sweat from her forehead. From the stains on the woman's apron, Merton guessed she had been busy in the kitchen when he had yelled for her.
Grimacing once again and looking away, Merton motioned the woman to him. "I have just learned," he said disgustedly, "that the king is on his way to Calembel this very moment, and we are to expect him by noon tomorrow.
The woman gave a start. "The king," she repeated. "You mean the king of Gondor?"
Merton gave her a withering look. "No, the king of the dwarves," he said sarcastically. "Of course the king of Gondor!"
The woman blushed and looked away before asking her next question. "And what business brings the king to Calembel?"
Merton tried to remember what he had heard the messenger announce. He hadn't really been paying attention after the first line announcing the king’s arrival. "Something about orcs and wishing to use the city as his base of operation," he said vaguely, waving away this information as not important. "But the king comes soon, and he brings over a thousand men with him, and I am expected to find a place to put them all."
The woman nodded, knowing that what Merton really meant was that she would be required to find a place to put the soldiers. "I have heard some troubling rumors about orcs roaming about and I shall be glad of the extra soldiers," she said cheerfully.
Merton glared at her, quickly quenching her excitement. "Whatever orcs may be roaming about, the merchant guards of the city are more than capable of protecting us! We do not need some king to come poking his nose into the affairs of Calembel." Merton knew that the words he was speaking were close to treasonous, yet he also knew that the woman would not dare repeat them to others. With an impatient wave, he motioned her to leave him. "Make sure that you prepare rooms for our guests," he called out bitterly to her retreating form.
Merton stood staring out into the city. He had heard a lot about this new king, for among other things, Merton was an incurable gossip. He had heard that the king was nothing more than a simple ranger who had ties of royal blood. How he had ever been allowed to take the throne, Merton was uncertain, and until now he had not cared. Calembel lay far to the west of Minas Tirith, and their isolation near the Ered Nimrais had caused them to separate even further from the kingdom. The city very rarely received any messengers or ambassadors from Minas Tirith, and when they did, Merton would throw a quick banquet in their honor, and then they would leave.
Merton got a sudden idea. Perhaps the king would only stay a couple of days, and then leave the city in peace once more. Turning and hurrying into the large house, Merton went in search of the Keeper of House once more. He would tell her to prepare a great feast in honor of the king's arrival!
Deep within the dark caves of Ered Nimrais, Malek sat hunched, listening to the report from one of his captains. An evil grin covered his face, and unconsciously his tongue flicked out to lick his lips.
The captain reported that the king's army would reach the city of Calembel by noon the following day. Malek hissed out an excited laugh, rubbing his rough hands together in anticipation. The game was just beginning to get interesting.