5. The White Hand
Pain raged in Aragorn, a pain such as he had never known before. It came not from lash or blade or fire, but from deep within him, as if the very fabric of his body were being torn asunder by the light, caressing touch of the wizard's hand. He could not withstand it, could not rise above it, could barely breathe with the terrible, inexorable progress of it through every nerve and sinew.
He told himself not to cry out, not to expose his weakness before Saruman, and for a time he managed to swallow the sound of his agony. His limbs thrashed uselessly in their chains. His back arched, his neck strained, and his head pressed hard into the rough stone wall, until blood ran down his scalp. Still, he stifled his cries, and still, the pain grew.
Saruman's voice came from close beside him, a low, venomous murmur in his ear. "Do not think to deny me so easily. Do not mistake me for that Grey Fool you followed so blindly into death and defeat."
Aragorn wanted to answer him, but he dared not. If he loosened the clamp upon his throat to speak, his words would be lost in a scream of agony that might never end, and still Saruman would taunt him. He opened his eyes and turned his head toward the voice, to find Saruman's face less than a hand's breadth from his, the great, liquid eyes aflame with rage and madness.
Saruman smiled, a terrible, soulless grimace. "You think, because you trailed like a dog behind Gandalf, eating his scraps and licking his hand, that you know wizards. But I tell you, Aragorn, I have power the likes of which Gandalf never dreamed. You enjoy the merest taste of it now, but were I to will it, you would die in agony, pleading for an end. Such is the power of the White Hand."
As he spoke, Saruman lifted his hand from Aragorn's side and held it up before his eyes. Instantly, the pain in the Ranger's body ebbed, and he sagged in his chains, shaking with relief. His eyes, blurred with exhaustion, gazed at the wizard's pale hand. It seemed to flicker and gleam as it moved, and Aragorn slowly realized that he was seeing the ring's gem catch the torchlight and break it into dancing shards.
"Defy me, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Deny me. Spout your promises of honor and fidelity. In the end, it will avail you naught. I will have what I want from you. Never doubt it."
"Do what you will," Aragorn whispered, his voice ragged with pain. "I have given you my answer."
Agony flared afresh in Aragorn, without warning, and tore a long, dreadful cry from him that pierced the thick air of the chamber. Saruman bared his teeth and pressed his palm more tightly to Aragorn's breast, letting his power flow into the man's shuddering body. Aragorn flung himself against the chains, fighting to escape the cruel touch, while his cries tore at his straining throat. He was trapped and helpless, once more in the grip of the terrible agony that Saruman wielded. He could not breathe without screaming, and he could not scream loudly enough to drown the sound of Saruman's laughter.
As suddenly as it had begun, the pain stopped. Saruman stepped away from Aragorn, his face contorted with disgust, and he sneered when the Ranger sagged in his chains.
"I have your answer," the wizard hissed, "but you have only begun to taste the power of the White Hand. Before I am done, you will be grateful that I do not accept that answer."
Whirling around, Saruman stalked from the chamber, leaving Aragorn to wait in gathering dread. The Ranger had no idea what Saruman planned for him next - he would not allow his imagination to dwell upon the possibilities too long - but somewhere deep inside him, in the place where fear was born, he knew that his torment had only begun. Saruman had tried the insidious power of his voice and failed. He had tried pain and failed. Only one weapon remained to him, the only weapon Aragorn truly feared, and with time running short, the wizard would not hesitate to use it.
By the time he heard the stamp of orc boots in the passageway, Aragorn had passed from dread to sweating panic. His imagination, in defiance of his will, wreaked havoc on his peace of mind by playing scene after scene of mayhem, madness and torture before him, until he twisted against his chains and ground his teeth in helpless fury. In another part of this labyrinthine hell, along another dark passage, in another foul cell, Saruman was breaking the body and will of a man already pushed to the brink of despair. Aragorn could do nothing to stop it, and all his affection, all his earnest desire to see his friend and Steward returned to health and hope, meant nothing in the face of Saruman's evil cunning.
Then the door swung open, and Saruman strode regally into the chamber. Behind him came two orcs with torches and two more, escorting a prisoner between them. Aragorn knew that he should be doubly afraid, but in that moment of recognition, he felt only an overwhelming relief, for Boromir was with him again, and neither of them would have to face the coming horror alone.
"Boromir!" he called, gladness and welcome plain in his voice.
Boromir's head came up sharply, his face brightening, and a lopsided smile touched his lips.
"How fare you?" Aragorn asked.
The smile widened. "Well enough. And you?"
"Ill enough." The Ranger almost laughed aloud, so great was his relief. He knew, from this brief exchange, that Boromir was as yet unharmed, undaunted by their plight, and in full possession of his wits. He was clad much as Aragorn was himself, with the bandage still bound across his eyes and his hands tied behind him. Aragorn could see no sign of fresh injury upon him and no hint of fear in his bearing. Aragorn felt a surge of gratitude for the stubborn courage of this soldier of Gondor.
"You see, I can be generous," Saruman commented, with deceptive mildness. Both men turned toward him, their faces going cold and haughty. The wizard chuckled. "The King and his loyal servant, reunited, as a gesture of my good will. Aragorn speaks highly of you, son of Denethor. He claims that you are ready to bend your knee before him and swear fealty. This is something I would see. The proud Captain-General upon his knees before a ragged wanderer? It defies belief."
Boromir lifted his chin arrogantly and retorted, "'Tis none of your concern, wizard."
"And yet, I would see it." Saruman's voice was silky, dangerous, laden with formless threat. "Kneel before your king."
Boromir turned his head away.
"Kneel!" the wizard commanded, and he snapped his fingers at one of the guards.
Before the orc could move, Aragorn called, sharply, "Boromir!"
The Man turned his bandaged gaze on his liege lord for a brief moment, startled by his vehemence, then nodded once and dropped to his knees on the stone floor.
Saruman chuckled softly. "The ties of friendship are strong, to bring such a man to his knees at a word."
Boromir said nothing. His face, blank and calm beneath the savage bruises, betrayed no emotion. Saruman paced slowly up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"You have proven your good faith," the wizard said, "and now it is time for your liege lord to prove his. He swore that he would not betray his friend. Do you believe him?"
"Let us hope that your trust is well placed, Boromir of Gondor." Lifting his eyes to Aragorn's face, he went on in his measured tone, "I ask you again, Aragorn, will you ally yourself with me to save all Middle-earth?"
"You know I will not."
"And what of your loyal servant?"
"His life is forfeit to your ambition, as is mine."
"Perhaps you need a further demonstration... of my good faith." Saruman turned back to Boromir, and his hands came up to clasp the Man's head gently.
"Nay!" Aragorn blurted out before he could stop himself, remembering the exquisite pain of that touch. "Do not!"
"Watch and be silent." Saruman's long fingers cradled Boromir's head, looking even more white and ghostly against the black bruises on his face. His palms pressed lightly against slashed and shattered cheekbones, his thumbs rested on bandaged eyes. Boromir knelt quietly between his guards, passive under the wizard's hands, showing no sign of distress.
Nothing moved in the cell. Nothing changed. It seemed to Aragorn as though the guards had turned to stone themselves, becoming part of the floor. He dared not stir in his chains and break the utter stillness, so intent was he upon the tableau in the middle of the floor.
As he watched, Saruman's form seemed to waver and blur. Power slid, like a living thing, over his shimmering robe and gleaming hair. It danced along his fingers, where they clasped Boromir's head, setting his ring alight and playing over the man's savaged features. The wizard's breath came faster, and his hands began to tremble. Caught between those hands, Boromir did not even appear to breathe.
And then the wizard gave a deep sigh. The power faded, the tension eased, and Saruman dropped his hands to rest on Boromir's shoulders again. With that gesture, the chamber came to life - the orcs shuffling their feet, the torches snapping - and Boromir sank slowly back on his heels.
"Boromir?" Aragorn called.
Boromir turned to face him, and Aragorn felt his mouth fall open in shock - a shock mirrored in Boromir's own expression. For against all hope and reason, Boromir's face was whole again. The bones, crushed so brutally by Lurtz's blade, were sound and clean, the whip cut that had laid his cheek open was nothing but a fading scar, and beneath the yellowing bruises was the proud, fair, familiar face of Gondor's Captain as Aragorn remembered it.
"The pain is gone," Boromir murmured in wonder.
Aragorn swallowed to ease the sudden tightness in his throat. "Your eyes?"
Boromir hesitated for a moment, then shook his head.
"Not yet, Aragorn," Saruman said. "Not until you pay the price."
Aragorn felt his stomach clench with the sheer, inescapable horror of it, and the question he did not want to ask fell from his numb lips. "What price?"
Neither man spoke. Both had expected exactly this answer, but certainty did not soften the blow. Aragorn could find no words to fill the aching silence, in which he saw Boromir's shoulders bow ever so slightly and his head drop forward. Saruman caught Boromir's chin and lifted it again, allowing the torchlight to shine full in his face.
"The choice is yours, Aragorn. The choice is simple." Saruman's hand lingered on Boromir's cheek as he spoke, a silent reminder of the power he wielded. "Give me what I ask. Give me the Ring and your solemn vow to stand beside me in the coming war, as my General, and I will give you all you desire. Your throne, your crown, the freedom of your people... and the life of your friend."
Boromir made a visible effort to straighten himself, his shoulders squaring proudly. "I am ready to die for my king."
Saruman laughed, coldly, turning Boromir's words of brave defiance into bluster and foolishness. "You will not die. Not by my hand. But I will crush you, until you weep and plead for death, then I will surrender you to Sauron in your master's place. What he does with you is not my concern. That is your choice, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Gain all or lose all."
Aragorn stared down at his friend, where he knelt on the floor with Saruman's pale hand against his face. The sight of that dark blood, staining the bandage like gory tears, would haunt Aragorn for the rest of his days. He knew this, but he also knew that his choice was clear. Whatever Saruman did to Boromir, he did to Aragorn as well, but such was the burden of a king. He made choices that sent men into agony and death for him, and a little of him died with each fallen soldier. He was ready to accept this burden, though it tore his heart, and he knew that he had the strength in himself to face the consequences. His only fear was that Boromir would not understand.
He spoke clearly, evenly, with no tremor in his voice to betray his pain. "I will not join you. I will not lead you to the Ring. I will not accept my crown at your hands, stained as they are with innocent blood. And Boromir," his words dropped to an agonized murmur, "I am sorry."
Saruman's face contorted with rage, and his eyes flashed. Power seemed to leap out of him, blazing in the thick air of the cell, and at the same instant, Boromir gave a dreadful, tearing cry. His back arched, his body stiffened, and he flung himself away from the wizard's touch upon his face, but the orcs held him. He could not escape. He fought them - fought for breath, for freedom, for a surcease from pain - but still they held him on his knees before the wizard, trapped under the caress of that merciless hand. Saruman's fingers curved around his skull, burying themselves in his long hair, in a gesture that might have been mistaken for one of tenderness, were it not for the look of savage pleasure on the wizard's face or the agonized cries that echoed through the chamber.
With a final burst of strength, Boromir managed to tear himself free of the orcs' clutches, and he fell heavily to the floor, breaking Saruman's contact with him.
"Hold him," the wizard snapped. An orc planted one knee in Boromir's side to pin him down, while the other knelt at his head and clasped it hard between huge, clawed hands.
The Ranger flinched at the raw pain in Boromir's voice, and in a moment of cowardice, he shut his eyes. Then Boromir began to scream, the sound tearing at his throat and at Aragorn's ears. Aragorn's eyes snapped open again. He saw Saruman stooping over his prisoner, one hand gripping his staff, the milky globe that crowned it glowing with an eerie light, and the other hand resting over Boromir's heart. The fierce joy in Saruman's face, the sheer delight in inflicting pain, was almost as terrible to see as the suffering of the man he tortured, and Aragorn felt the sickness of horror rise in him.
Saruman laughed, and Aragorn gave a small, involuntary moan.
"Your king is listening," Saruman taunted. "Beg for his favor. Perhaps he will be merciful."
Boromir drew breath to speak, but his words broke into a ragged cry of pain. His body shuddered and writhed against the stone floor, but not now with any conscious desire to escape his captors. He did not have enough will, enough awareness of anything beyond the pain, to resist them. He could only suffer, and in the intensity of that suffering, thrash and scream and call out to the one human being who could hear him.
Suddenly, Saruman lifted his hand and rose to his feet. The room seemed to plunge suddenly into shadow again, as the wizard's power waned, and the body at his feet went limp. Saruman gave Boromir a swift nudge with the staff and said, "Have you nothing to say to your liege lord?"
Very slowly, Boromir stirred, turning his face toward Aragorn. The Ranger saw agony in the set of his features and fresh blood on his lips. Before Boromir could speak, Aragorn called, urgently, "Forgive me! There is no other choice left to me, Boromir! I would stop this, if I could!"
Boromir's answer was slurred with pain and blood, but it carried clearly enough to his friend. "There is no choice. I am ready... to die for my king."
"It will not be that easy, I promise you!" Saruman hissed, as he dropped to one knee and spread his hand flat on Boromir's midriff.
The breath rushed out of Boromir's lungs in a long, wordless moan. He doubled up in agony, seeming to close his body protectively around the source of his pain. The orcs made no attempt to hold him, shying away from the wizard, the prisoner, and the white-hot power that enclosed them. Saruman leaned down to murmur something that Aragorn could not hear above the ghastly, unendurable sound of Boromir's suffering, but Boromir heard him.
The man's head snapped up and he cried, furiously, in a voice torn raw by his own screams, "There is no choice! There is n... Aragorn!"
"Stop!" Aragorn howled, in futile protest, throwing himself against his chains until blood started at his wrists. "Enough!"
Abruptly, Saruman snatched his hand away, and Boromir collapsed in a nerveless heap. The blaze of power faded. Saruman stared at the still, huddled form of the man with eyes empty of all emotion, and he rested a hand on Boromir's head. For the moment, there was no agony in the touch, and Boromir did not stir.
After a long stretch of silence, the wizard demanded, harshly, "Is it enough? Are you prepared to give me what I ask?
"Is he dead?" Aragorn whispered, ignoring the wizard's question.
Saruman's gaze shifted to Aragorn's face, and he rose slowly, majestically to his feet. "No."
He stalked over to the chained man, his eyes burning madly in his pale face. "Take heed, Aragorn, son of Arathorn! I will not be thwarted. I will not be cheated of victory by an exiled vagabond and the bloodied wreck of a soldier. You will give me what I want, and I will not give him the comfort of death until you do! Do you understand me, King of Gondor?" He spat out the title with such venom that Aragorn recoiled in his bonds.
But it was Boromir who answered him, muttering softly, "There is no choice..."
"Silence!" Saruman lashed out with his staff, striking Boromir in the back of the head and lighting the room with the sudden discharge of power. Boromir stiffened once in reaction, then collapsed.
Saruman whirled on the two orcs, snarling, "Take that back to its cell. One of you, stand guard. If the carrion moves or speaks, send me word."
The orcs obediently lifted Boromir between them and carried his lifeless body out of the chamber. Saruman motioned for the other guards to leave the room, and he closed the door behind them, so that he and Aragorn were alone in the flickering torchlight. As he paced over to the wall where Aragorn stood, the Ranger noted that the madness seemed to have drained from his face in an instant, and his great, dark eyes were full of genuine sorrow.
"Such is the horror of these times, that Man must turn against Man, friend against friend."
"No friend has turned against friend, for all your efforts, Saruman."
The wizard smiled gently. "So you may tell yourself, if it gives you comfort, but remember this, Heir of Isildur. But for you, your friend could have walked from this chamber, whole and strong, to taste the sweet air of Gondor and see again the white walls of Minas Tirith shining upon the slopes of Mindolluin. But for you." Saruman turned to leave but halted with his hand upon the door to say, thoughtfully, "You were right about the son of Denethor, and I was wrong, I admit. He proved himself your friend. He did not break faith with you." Saruman pushed the door wide. A wistful smile touched his lips. "'Tis a pity you cannot say the same."
With a swish of iridescent fabric, the wizard was gone, and Aragorn was alone.
*** *** ***
Boromir lay huddled on the floor of his cell, shivering in spite of the sweat that streaked his skin. He shivered from pain, from shock, and from fear. But most of all, he shivered beneath the sheer, overwhelming weight of grief that lay upon him. He had withstood the wizard's torture - he had not begged Aragorn for mercy nor Saruman for death - but it had cost him the last of his strength and will to do it. Now he lay here, alone, the victor for a time, shaken by pain and a desperate sorrow.
Gondor... Gondor... His mind wept the name, though he dared not speak it aloud. He dared not admit the depths of his longing to walk the rich fields of his home again and ride beneath the leaves of fair Anórien. To climb the slopes of Mount Mindolluin at sunrise, and to see his beloved city glimmering like a jewel in the new light. To stand upon the walls of the citadel, his brother at his side, the banners of the Tower of Guard snapping above their heads as they gazed together over the land they protected, fought for, bled for, would gladly die for...
To die for Gondor. He had said it often enough, even wanted it at times. Now he faced the cruel reality of it, and he knew in his heart that he did not wish to die. Not even for Gondor. But die he must, or scream out his life in a hell worse than any death, because honor and duty demanded it. For Gondor, for Aragorn, for his friend who was also his king, for Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin and any hope they had left of destroying the Ring. For all of them and all that he held dear in his life, he must die.
He knew this. He accepted it. He would face it with all the courage he could muster, but still he wept for the lying promises of the traitor Saruman and that brief, terrible moment of joy when he thought he saw the walls of Minas Tirith shining, white and beautiful, before his eyes again.
Lost as he was in despair and pain, Boromir did not hear the crunch of orc boots on the floor of his cell. He knew nothing of his visitors, until a cold hand rested on his hair and a familiar voice slid over him like the brush of velvet.
"You see now what the faith of a king is worth. You see to what he has reduced you."
Boromir stirred and tried to lift his head. He did not have the strength to bear its weight, but Saruman's hand slid beneath it, cradling it with a palm against his cheek. Boromir flinched at the touch, though it was oddly gentle.
"Your allegiance is repaid with suffering," the wizard continued, softly, "and your life is forfeit to his stubborn pride. You, who have served Gondor with honor all your days, must now be sacrificed so the vagabond heir can claim his throne."
"Served with honor..." Boromir mumbled through the blood in his mouth. "Die with honor... like a soldier."
"There is no honor in such a death - for a man who would sell you into torment."
"He would not."
"He has. You heard him, Boromir, as clearly as I. He will let you go to Sauron in his stead, rather than join with me against the Enemy."
Boromir took a ragged breath and whispered, "You are the enemy."
Saruman's free hand touched his cheek in a gesture of compassion. "Foolish Man." The taunt was soft, almost affectionate. "Do you think you have felt pain at my hands? Wait until you feel the touch of the Lidless Eye. Then you will know true pain, and you will long for the comfort of the White Hand."
Boromir shuddered. He could not help himself, though he despised the weakness in him that betrayed his fear to Saruman. The light caress of voice and hand soothed him, while the wizard's words filled him with dread. He wanted to growl his defiance, but all that came to his lips was a quiet sob and a muttered,
"Do not look to him for mercy, Boromir. He has made his choice and left you to your fate."
The stubborn phrase came to him again, like a beacon in the darkness. "There is no choice."
"For him, perhaps not. But for you? For you, there is another way." Saruman's hands clasped his head firmly now, and his voice came from so close that his breath was hot on Boromir's face. "I can spare you the horrors of Barad-dûr. I can send you home."
"Yes, home to Gondor, home to the father who looks for you in vain and the brother who mourns your loss, uncertain of your fate. You can end their suffering with your own."
"How?" He did not want to ask, did not want to admit the longing that filled him afresh at Saruman's words, but the voice seemed to wring the truth from him whether he willed it or no.
"It is simple. To save Gondor, I need the Ring."
"I do not have it." He felt no surprise at the demand, only the aching sadness that always came with thoughts of the Ring. The Enemy's Ring, not his. Never his. He must remember this and remember the look of horror on Frodo's face at the moment that he tried to claim it as his own. Frodo, who had looked to him for protection and been betrayed. Frodo, who was once his friend and now lost to him... as was the Ring. "I do not have it," he muttered again.
"You know who carries it. You know where it has gone." An edge crept into Saruman's velvet voice, and the clasp on Boromir's head tightened. "Where is the Ring?"
"The Ring... the Ring has passed..." He broke off with a gasp, as the first whispers of pain touched him.
Saruman sent yet more power coursing through his hands, into the mind and body of his captive. "Speak! Speak the name! To whom has it passed?"
"...passed from peril into peril..." Boromir whispered, then he moaned softly and tried to twist away from the wizard's grasp.
Saruman tightened his hold yet again, letting more pain seep through his cruel hands, and demanded, "What does that mean? Where has it gone?!"
"It is beyond our reach."
"Save yourself, Boromir. Save Gondor! Tell me where to find the Ring, and I will save all that you love!"
"And betray... betray my King..." He took a ragged breath and cried out, despairingly, "Aragorn is Gondor!"
"Then I will give you Aragorn, if that is what you want! Give me the Ring, I will give you your king!"
Boromir uttered another wrenching cry, and his voice rose with the crescendo of pain inside him. "I was wrong! I was wrong! It is not for me!"
"It is for me, you fool! Give me what is mine! Give it to me, and I will end the torment!"
"I am sorry! I am sorry!" he sobbed, not hearing Saruman's hissing promises through the blaze of agony and remorse that filled his mind. "I was wrong! The Ring... cannot save us! I have failed... Gondor will fall..."
"Who carries it?!" Saruman snarled, his grip on the man tightening until his knuckles showed white and his arms trembled with the strain. "Where has it gone?! Tell me and live! Tell me and die!"
"We are lost!" Agony shuddered through Boromir's body, tore from his throat, and screamed a single name in the thick, foul air. "Aragorn!"
With a muttered curse, the wizard pulled his hands away. The man crumpled into an insensible heap, awareness fleeing from him with the pain. As Saruman rose to his feet, he wiped his hands against his robe, his face rigid with disdain.
"Die with honor?" he mocked, his voice soft and venomous. "You will die like an animal, all reason gone, all humanity. And when you scream, none but beasts will hear you. Where then is your honor, my brave Captain?"
Casting a final, withering glance at his uncaring captive, Saruman turned and stalked from the room, the orcs shuffling out on his heels.