9. The Trial
The argument was heated, two strong-willed women fighting over a man. It had caused Celeborn to flee to deep into the Golden Wood away from the clashing powers. The blond and dark heads faced each other, Arwen, hands clenched, staring down her slighter grandmother. Power thrummed through the wood. Elves and animals could feel it and were warned away.
"This is evil and beneath you, Grandmother! It is torture!"
"He must be tested. He has changed much since last he was here. He now has the power to hide himself from me." Galadriel firmly began her explanation again, as if Arwen were a child who had not heard the first time. The dark haired woman threw up her hands in exasperation.
"He is not Nazgul! Nor has he been tainted by them! We have established that already."
"His worth to be king and defy Sauron must be tested!" Galadriel repeated adamantly.
"You and Father and Mithrandir have plotted this for fifty years! He has proved his worthiness many times over," Arwen said vehemently. "He just walked through Mordor! And allowed his friend to die rather than betray our cause!"
"I do not question his worthiness to face the Dark Lord in battle, none doubt his abilities as a warrior. I still do not trust his degree of incorruptibleness. I fear he could be as weak as Isildur if offered the right prize for capitulation! Your father and Mithrandir believe in Aragorn passed all reason. But now I am not convinced. He doubts himself! Perhaps this reckless incident proves a flaw of his character."
"He went to save a friend."
"And risked all: his life, your love, the freedom of all Middle Earth!"
Arwen was silent for a moment. "And if he fails?" she asked quietly.
"If he fails, so do all of our hopes, and," Galadriel remembering her promise to Aragorn, announced, "Granddaughter, you will go into the West." She ignored Arwen's cry of protest. "You will obey me in this," Galadriel, the queen, said sternly. "If he fails, he will go North as the chieftain of the Dúnedain, and will sire a son to carry on his line," Galadriel spoke emphatically, "with a Numenorean woman."
"Aragorn will die before he will let me go."
"He will not know he is being tested and will not remember later. So, if it is to be, Granddaughter, you will let him go. You will order him away from you."
"Grandmother, this is unfair! It will break his heart. And mine," she added softly. She stared at the unflinching Galadriel and sighed. "When will he be tested?"
"It has already begun."
* * *
The sulfurous stench let him know he was in Mordor, although Aragorn knew it was not with Fallon he traveled. Head down, he trudged across the dusty plains of Gorgoroth again, sharp metal shackles cutting into his wrists. He felt he was not alone but could not remember who was stung out, chained and staggering, behind him in the row of prisoners led by the orc patrol. They halted at the tall black tower of Barad-dûr. The orc guard swung open the huge, iron-studded door and they entered a dark hall flickering with red torch light. In battle armor, much like the mural at Rivendell, Sauron sat on a high ebony throne. Aragorn was led before him and the shackles removed from his bloody wrists.
"Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, I have long sought you. Welcome to my lands." The voice boomed behind the helm. The three who were with him were led in. From the bloodstains and bruises and halting movements, it was obvious they had been badly misused. He was staggered by the wave of pain he felt from them. Elrohir, Legolas, and Arwen watched him with hooded eyes. He knew that he was responsible for their current state, but could not remember how they had come to be there. "I offer that you can free your companions and yourself. You can be the king of men, not just of Arnor and Gondor but of all Middle Earth. You can defeat the Elves who have manipulated you with false love, kept from you that which you desire, and prevent you from assuming your rightful place of power. You can sit at my right hand." Aragorn knew to beg for those he loved would cause them more hurt.
"How can I gain them their freedom?" Aragorn sifted through all the Dark Lord's words to the only offering of worth to him.
"You must only answer three questions." Sauron gestured as if nothing could be simpler. "Refuse to answer and their lives are forfeit."
"Why play this game?" Aragorn asked, angrily. Sauron's deep laugh echoed in the dark corners.
"It entertains me. And if you refuse, I will kill them outright."
Aragorn met the Dark Lord's eye defiantly. "Ask!" Sauron, behind his helmet, took the measure of this one, the last of the line of Numenor, and judged him cunning and bold: a worthy adversary.
"Who holds the three Elven rings of power?" It was a question that had long baffled Elvish scholars as well as the Dark Lord. Aragorn was about to respond he didn't know, but, somehow he did. In his mind, he saw the fiery red stone blinking from a ring set on a mithril chain hanging around Mithrandir's neck, the light glinting off adamant as Galadriel raised her hand, and the deepest sapphire, most powerful of the three, concealed beneath Ada's robes in the council chamber of Imladris. Giving Sauron this knowledge would mean death, death to ones he loved and respected most dearly. Moreover, it would mean the power of light would be swept from Middle Earth. He would gladly lay down his own life for any of these three, and he knew the three standing before him would also forfeit theirs.
"I cannot answer," Aragorn replied. Sauron stared at him a moment and waved dismissively. The witch king appeared from the shadows and stepped up behind Elrohir, long sword drawn. His brother, a warrior always, knew what was about to happen and squared his shoulders. With one blurred motion of the wicked blade, Elrohir's head rolled on the stone floor at his feet, sightless eyes staring up at Aragorn. The death of any of the immortal Eldar left the witness hollow and shaken, but the death of his brother was nearly unbearable. Aragorn shuddered as the pain of the loss filled him.
"An unwise choice!" chuckled Sauron. "You are heartless, boy. You allow those dear to you to perish quite easily. Perhaps Elrond did not choose his princeling so wisely." Horror and guilt coursed through Aragorn. He could have saved Elrohir. Aragorn raised his eyes to Arwen. Her brother's corpse lay at her feet; she stared at him in fear.
"Where is the One Ring?" Sauron wasted no time mourning for the dead. Aragorn shook his head but saw a round green door. Inside Bilbo Baggins sat writing, fingering the ring in his pocket. Before Aragorn's eyes, the golden band was spinning in the air above the waterfall at Imladris and he realized he had seen the Ring of Power, had even held it, long ago. The urge to tell was tempting. What was the life of an insignificant hobbit compared to an Elven prince, his boon companion, Legolas, who had saved his life and sanity innumerable times? But, Sauron's recovery of the ring meant the end of the free peoples.
"I could not even guess," Aragorn's whisper sounded hollow and distant, labeled for the lie it was.
"As with another elf who befriended a man, so passes this one." Sauron waved his hand and light flared in the hall as the prince of Mirkwood burst into flame. His scream and Arwen's echoed in the passageways; his death the same as Gil-galad's at Dagorlad. Aragorn stared at the wall, the flickering light of the flames finally dying. He realized his cheeks were wet with tears.
"You are a stubborn creature," Sauron acknowledged, "or a stupid one. One last chance to redeem yourself. One chance to save the lovely lady." Arwen's stifled sobs were the only noise in the hall. Her pleading eyes filled with love for him and promise of the future. Aragorn's heart broke; he knew whatever Sauron asked, he could not do, and his love would be horribly killed. His only hope was that Sauron, done with him then, would kill him outright and spare him the stumbling on through a grey and meaningless life, guilt his only companion.
"No question this time, Elessar, an offer: renounce this Elvish plan for my overthrow and sit at my side as Dark Captain of the Forces of Mordor. I am not what they make me out to be." Suddenly, the black armor disappeared and before Aragorn sat a being of gold and light, a Valar of great beauty.
Sauron pointed at Arwen. "Will you do this to save her? You have wanted her long and she has been kept from you. I give her to you now." Aragorn looked into the eyes of his lady, thought of her silken hair, her scent of rain-damp roses, the peace she brought his soul. He shut his eyes and saw himself in black mail, a red banner with a blasphemous black tree above his head, leading a demon army. He saw Gandalf's anguished face. He saw Minas Tirith burning, and he tasted the bitterness his betrayal would bring. Aragorn opened his fey eyes and looked straight at Sauron defiantly.
"No!" At the exclamation, a boiling mass of orcs surrounded and overwhelmed Arwen where she stood. The last thing Aragorn saw as her screams rang in his ears was one lofted blood- streaked orc arm clutching a still-beating heart. The horror drew all breath from his body. He collapsed to his knees and knew no more.
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