2. Chapter One: The Two Travelers
A/N: After innumerable revisions, repeated hair-ripping, and endless cups of tea to spur me through those early morning yet precious writing hours, I have a new chapter! I pray it will not be Christmas before the next one. In the meantime, wish me luck, enjoy this, and don't be shy about letting me know what you think.
For those interested, there's also a new link at the bottom of my profile page to an Invictus-inspired painting by the extraordinarily talented Ebe Kastein. Please drop her a comment if you can. She deserves all accolades.
Chapter One: The Two Travelers
A fool may be known by six things: anger, without cause; speech, without profit; change, without progress; inquiry, without object; putting trust in a stranger, and mistaking foes for friends.
Imladris, 2993 T.A.
Stillness lay over the wood, turgid and listless with the approach of thunder. The leaves hung limp on their branches. Only here and there did a dim shaft of sunlight manage to pierce muted shades to glint treacherously off buckle and blade and filigreed bow.
The damp loam muffled Elrohir's movements and those of his scouts as they slithered into their chosen concealments along the embankment that rose from either side of the road. Waves of amber bracken undulated like the heaving of the sea then silenced; tranquility returned to the stretch of road as if nothing more than a strong wind had passed.
Elrohir, crouched behind a sycamore, adjusted his sword hilt so it did not grind so uncomfortably against his ribs and made sure he knelt in deep shadow. It would not do to be revealed too soon. His heart thumped against his tunic, so loud he wondered if his men might hear it and mistake it for fear.
From where he knelt, he had a clear view of the road, its pale length the only focal point in the early dusk. There was nothing on it yet. Around them, the sunlit shafts turned copper then dun then disappeared altogether as a wind out of the east stirred the canopy above them.
Restless shiftings accompanied the wind and a hiss that was not the voice of leaves caught his ear off to the right.
"Any darker and I'll not be able to see my hand in front of my face, much less get a shot off. What's taking so long?"
"Patience, young one." A lower voice answered.
"I'm starting to take root as is. Lalaith and Tathariel are sneaking moon-eyes at each other again—let the enemy ride right under them. Look at that, felt rain on the back of my neck just then."
"And the enemy will find you first, Aear, if you do not hold your tongue," Elrohir hissed in the direction of the voice.
Elrohir could not truly blame the young one for his excited babble, particularly after the long stretch of inactivity they had endured of late, one that had even the older warriors itching, but Elrohir would rather have his tongue cut out than risk their position.
Quiet fell again, and with its resumption, Elrohir heard the sound he'd been straining for: the call of a pair of linnet birds flying home to roost. Elrohir cleared his throat and piped a short few notes.
Moments later, he felt more than saw the two shadows drop from the tree beside him and crouch close enough that he could feel the eager heat from their bodies, smell the sweat on their skin. The fingers of one touched his forearm and spelled out what she had seen in the efficient and silent patois of scouts.
Two. Well-armed. Horse.
Lips brushed Elrohir's ear, and a warm, moist breath buffeted his neck. "Already past the border by the time we picked up their trail. They found the path." Her murmur supplied the note of indignation and alarm her fingers would not have.
Elrohir smiled grimly and reached for the scout's arm. When?
A squeeze on his forearm. Now.
A raindrop struck the corner of his eye and dripped icily into his collar, but Elrohir did not so much as twitch, all his senses leaning towards the curve in the road. The branches creaked almost in warning as the first sounds of hoof falls, the jingle of harness, the creak of worn leather reached his ears. A large, dark shape halved by tree trunks and then it turned.
Two men, as the scout had reported, and a horse. Though bleached from days of weather, long wear, and sweat, their strange-cut garments and foreign gear were easily recognizable as not Northern. The saddle sat very high on the horse's back and was a faded azure blue, nearly purple, richly edged with gold embroidery though the pad beneath was of humbler make and had been roughly stitched sometime recently. The reins had scarlet and gold tassels sewn onto them which swayed with the horse's gait. The animal itself was a beautiful, leggy coal-black gelding without so much as a white whisker. Where such rough-used men had acquired the coin for such a beast was anyone's guess, and Elrohir did not like the implications of its leathery mouth and foam-flecked coat though its flanks were blessedly free of spur scars.
Its handlers were no less unusual though little could be discerned of their kindred beneath headcloths and robes pulled close against the oncoming rain. One seemed to be injured or exhausted to illness for he rode the horse, stooping so low in the saddle his chin almost touched the gelding's neck. His companion had gathered the horse's rein up in one fist, the other resting on the hilt of a battered but capable-looking curved blade protruding from under his cloak.
Of the two, he was the more wicked-looking and the more alert. Lean and hungry as a rangy dog, he stood taller than Elrohir by an unsettling handspan. His robes and dirty leathers, though long and loose, failed to conceal sinewy hands and broad shoulders. As he strode before the horse, his head constantly turned, scanning the path ahead and the woods to either side. All Elrohir could make of his face was a sliver of filthy skin and pale eyes gazing narrowly over a wrap of earthy cloth.
In the held-breath space as the horse passed abreast of his and the scouts' position, Elrohir renewed his vow to never see evil enter his valley. Half-rising he eased his sword from its scabbard and let out the cajoling note of a dove.
At once, the call echoed up from a dozen places on all sides, and the horse-leader stopped dead, recognizing the sound of danger but not the direction whence it would come, until confirmation leapt out in the form of a grey and white-fletched arrow thudding point-first into the track a bare pace from his scarlet boots.
"You are surrounded," Elrohir barked out in the common tongue. "Take your hands from your weapons, and do not stir hand or foot."
Even as he spoke, his warriors stepped from the trees, bows creaking under the meaningful tension of arrows. Wisely, the horse's handler took his hand from his sword and dropped the reins of his mount. The man upon it did not move.
Elrohir picked his way downslope as Aear, the young warrior he had reprimanded, strode forward before his commander reached them and kicked the horse handler's legs out from under him.
"Down on the ground like the cur, you are, sirrah!"
The taller man remained on his knees, but his eyes had found Elrohir, who felt suddenly and strangely uncomfortable under their accusatory stare. But he shook it off and approached.
"You are trespassing upon elven lands," he said, indicating the curve in the lane. "Your road lies back the way you came, beyond the river. You can go no further."
There was no ready capitulation as many Men facing the ends of barbed arrows would have given. In fact, there were no signs of comprehension at all. What little could be seen of the man's face was expressionless though his unusual stare never left Elrohir's lips.
"Do you speak the common tongue?" Elrohir asked, uncertainly, after a moment of silence. "Do you understand?"
No recognition. Nothing. Or…was it a trick of the twilight, or were those peculiar eyes narrowed in amusement?
Aear snorted and nudged the kneeling man harder than etiquette strictly demanded. "He does understand, my lord, he is just too stubborn for his own good. Where did you steal this horseflesh, vagabond?" He ran an eye over the beast and up the leg of the other man atop it. "And you, villain, climb down at once lest you wish to be summarily filled with our shot."
When the man did not comply fast enough, Aear seized the rider's calf. The next instant, he was sprawled facedown in the dirt nearly between the horse's legs, the edge of a knife against his neck, the first man's knee planted squarely between his shoulder blades. None of them had even seen him move.
Bows moaned with tension, but the delicate pressure on their comrade's back and windpipe prevented the Imladrian warriors from executing swift recompense.
"Hold," Elrohir rapped out, hot ire making his hands itch to raise his sword. He'd been a fool to let Aear get so close.
The stranger's headcloth had slipped, unveiling a ratty tumble of hair that looked like wheat rained down in the fields and left to rot. Curious on a man dressed in Eastern garb. But curious or no, he had a knife to one of his ambushers' throats.
Elrohir inhaled sharply through his nose, fighting for calm above the pounding of blood in his veins. "Release him, or we will shoot you."
It was an empty threat. None of them had a shot that would kill the man fast enough to prevent him plunging his knife into Aear's exposed neck; and the man knew it too for his eyes—grey above the kohl lines—laughed at him, their darkness sparkling with unconcealed delight. And again, a strange, niggling sense swept across Elrohir's mind like rain-heavy clouds over a field.
"What do you want?"
And, to his utter surprise, he received an answer: "A more courteous welcome for my comrade and me, a bed of eiderdown, and a ewer of warm water apiece. We have not passed through leagues of wilderness only to earn the names of 'cur' and 'vagabond' from you and your whelps, who have more acorns between their ears than knowledge of woodcraft. If such is how Imladris trains their striplings to be soldiers, they leave much wanting."
His speech was tainted with guttural overtones of the East and South, and yet his diction and syntax revealed a far more Northern-cultured mind and sense of language than one might expect from such a highwayman.
"Proudly spoken for one who is neither," Elrohir returned coldly, stung by the comment about his warriors and those mocking eyes. "But courtesy and hospitality are extended only to those who come without bearing arms and ill-intent into this realm."
"Arms we bear for those without them on these roads are little better than lambs straying afield among the wolves and meet a similar fate. As for intent, ill or otherwise, that is for you to judge. And I pray that you possess your father's keen eye, Lord Elrohir, and see more clearly than your men lest you come to rue it."
Elrohir fought to keep the startle from his face. "You have the advantage of me, sir, for you seem to know a great deal of me and mine and yet I know nothing of you."
A long smile crept up one side of the man's face. His eyes crinkled with it.
Squirming uncomfortably, Aear coughed dust from his lips and spat. "Lord, he spouts dwimmer-speech to deceive you. Kill this man quickly ere he—" A twitch of the knifeblade silenced him.
Elrohir could feel the eyes of his men darting increasingly nervous glances between him and the pair on the ground. If he did not choose soonest, they would take matters into their own hands. It would take but a slip of a finger on a bowstring to end the matter now.
"What say you, silent one?" he asked, addressing the rider who had sat throughout this entire exchange. "Your life hangs upon the same string as your comrade, yet you say nothing."
The hood lifted as if with an effort to regard him, but for the shadows, Elrohir could only glimpse a sliver of wan cheekbone, heavily bristled, and two, gleaming points that might have been eyes.
"I have earned whatever fate you would deign to give me, Lord," said a soft baritone voice, "for I took my leave without leave and have seen and done much since last I trespassed in these fair woods. It is not to be wondered at if I am recognized only as a villain."
The first man added nothing to his comrade's admission, but the tightening around his eyes bespoke flickerings of exasperation and voiceless protest. Or impatience at this prolonged parlay.
"Lower your hood, so that I may see your face," Elrohir ordered, "and you, man, if you are of good will as you claim, release him and stand."
Aear scuttled hurriedly out from under the blade the instant it lifted, rubbing the bloody nick in his throat. But Elrohir had eyes only for the man on the horse whose hood falling down across his shoulders revealed a tangle of hair dark and thick as briar, faded with winter grey, a craggy face worn with exhaustion and etched with lines of sun, hard-living and the peculiar waning of men approaching their age. The sight of it made Elrohir's heart unfurl with longing and sudden recognition.
A long wind poured through the trees, the scent of thunder pungent and sharp. It cleared Elrohir's mind of the last vestiges of hesitation and doubt.
"Lower your bows, all of you," he commanded, forcing the words past a constriction unaccountably lodged in his throat. He quickly stooped for the horse's reins, hoping the roughness of his voice might be explained away by the ground muffling it. "A son of Imladris has returned home."
Sharp spats of rain hurled themselves raggedly against the tall study windows like the army of Angband before the gates of Gondolin.
Three glasses of plum brandy, distilled from the best of the summer fruit, sat on Elrond's dark secretary, all three untouched. Elrohir took up his and tipped a parsimonious mouthful down his throat for it eased the clammy chill the rain had left on his skin. Aragorn made no such attempt to accept the proffered drink and implied hospitality. Instead, he groped in his damp tunic for his pipe and tobacco pouch. Silence reigned while he filled the bowl and tamped the tobacco down with the broad edge of his thumb for a smooth draw. But he did not light it.
After a long moment, he spoke towards the bowl. "I do not know how many of the rebellion escaped the slaughter. I do not know how many found their way to the dungeons beneath the palace. I do not know what became of Jalal when they took him away. I do know a woman can be as cruel as any man. As any orc, for that matter. We were lucky to escape with our lives."
He ran a hand, seamed with grime, over his face and through his hair, every sinew and line of his body bespeaking a weariness of more than flesh. "The South is lost. What hope Gondor had in reclaiming its lands or negotiating an accord with its ruler has passed. Or, at least, will not come while the Dark Tower stands."
Elrond, who had sat silent with the tips of his long fingers together while Aragorn imparted in brief the news of his considerable journeys, looked over them gravely but did not seem to see the room before him. "Galadriel warned me your journey had been a hard one. I did not know how hard."
A crooked smile split Aragorn's face like the stroke of a sword. "I did not choose my life for its ease."
Elrond returned the smile wanly.
One of the shadows in the corner stirred and spoke for the first time. "A hard and a trying and a fruitless for the most part. Our horse is not the only one who has endured long miles and rough handling this day. If we are quite finished here—?"
"Not just yet, Captain. I thank you for a little more of your patience," Elrond said to the speaker, mildly but without looking away from the grey-faced man slumped across from him. "Elrohir, would you fetch the candles from my top drawer? I fear we shall find ourselves in darkness soon."
Haldir accepted his thanks with a stifled noise at the back of his throat that directed towards a lesser personage than Lord Elrond of Imladris might have emerged as a groan of complaint. "Elrohir, while you're up, get me another glass."
Elrohir stiffened at being thus addressed, but diplomacy forbade an expedient denial. Instead, he lit the candles first and then attended the captain's glass, which had already been filled more than once during this interview.
"Your drink, Captain," he said, thrusting it into his hand with the bare minimum of civility.
His former mentor accepted it with an incline of his head though the rakish curve of an eyebrow suggested he knew how much the elf-knight resented being ordered about like a green recruit. Carefully smoothing his expression, Elrohir straightened a candle in its holder and returned to his place by the windows, but he could not quite prevent the prickle that itched across his skin like lightning.
"What news of Gondor since you journeyed south?" Elrond asked Aragorn.
"It stands yet." Haldir answered, pushing away from the sideboard to loom over the back of Aragorn's chair.
Elrond's lips thinned at the curt reply, but Elrohir turned sharply towards him. "That is encouraging news. Though, I believe, my father would know the manner of its standing upon learning its enemies have joined the one Enemy."
Haldir, taking no note of his tone, shrugged and drained his glass in a long swallow. "What news we have will be of no use to you since it is more likely to have reached here before us and more besides. The last courier we met bore news of Ecthelion's firstborn succeeding his father's place."
"Denethor." Aragorn recalled, though he did not lift his eyes from where the candles reflected in the dark mirror of polished wood. "A valiant man. He will serve Gondor well."
"He is capable for his breed, I suppose," Haldir said, glancing down at the dark head. "If a little overproud in his bearing and unwilling to listen to the counsel of others, however sensible."
"Many share in that vice," Elrohir offered, a little pointedly.
Haldir's lip curled, and he dipped his head lightly as if to concede Elrohir's point.
"A man may be excused a little pride and stubbornness," Elrohir continued. "He mourns still his wife and has the care of their sons."
Aragorn's eyes left the candleflame for the first time in minutes and fixed him with a hawkish stare. "What do you mean he mourns her? Finduilas is dead?"
"Five years now," Elrohir said with equal disconcertion and not a little sadness. He had not known the young woman, taken before her time even by Men's measure, but all accounts spoke of her fairness, her generosity of spirit, her love for her two sons, and her quiet longing for the sea. "Surely, you knew that?"
Aragorn shook his head like a man sleepwalking. "It has been long since we passed through the lands of civilized men. No news of Gondor has reached me since I departed it."
Over his head, Haldir averted his eyes and said nothing.
Elrohir glanced at him. He had not expected this. Not for the first time, he wished for Elladan's peerless presence, but his brother was far abroad in the company of Gildor's men, and none knew when he would return. "He has two sons to him now—the first already being groomed for a high captaincy and the Stewardship."
"Boromir," Aragorn recalled, his eyes distant. "He would be a young man by now."
Elrohir did not add what else he had heard. Some twenty years after Estel's departure from Rivendell, a scribe upon errantry—or rather, a rumormonger with a pen—had brought news of the South: the ostentatious displays among lords, the political shifts, the quarrel between such-and-such a personage. The scribe piously added he preferred truth over the false gilding of rumor though his eyes carried an acquisitive gleam of their own when he related the current difficulty afflicting Gondor's heir. Was it not enough, he said, that a man must stand second to a stranger in his father's love? Was it not injury to insult that one must come second in the wife's as well? For the favored captain of Ecthelion, a mysterious man by all accounts, was often seen to walk and talk with the steward's new law-daughter, who was now evincing obvious signs of her delicate condition.
Of course, the scribe continued, swallowing the ale offered him as easily as his listeners swallowed his words, I do but speak the truth as it was told to me by others. And I have it from an unimpeachable source that Denethor is convinced the child is not his. And who would contradict so keen-eyed a man in matters of this sort? Elrohir, relieved that his low-drawn hood hid his face, had departed before any other poison could fill his ears.
But now, looking at Aragorn's stricken countenance, Elrohir could not help wondering what the dead young woman had been to his foster brother.
"How?" Aragorn whispered after a moment's silence.
"She had been ill for some time. When her strength permitted, she liked to stand at the base of Ecthelion's tower and look out towards the sea. The wind blows strongly there, and she took a chill," Elrohir explained.
Aragorn did not so much nod as drop his head onto his breast as if overcome. Elrohir wanted to touch his shoulder, to squeeze it hard if only to feel the shift of bone and muscle under his fingers, and not the intangible shadow of a ghost.
With an obvious effort, Aragorn picked up his pipe, and, though it took several tries, finally set it alight. "I will not intrude on your hospitality long, my lord," he said to Elrond, coughing around a breath of smoke too hastily drawn. "Two, three days. A sennight at the latest to obtain new gear and suitable provisions that will get me to the Angle. I have been long away from my kin."
"You are welcome to stay as long as you need, Aragorn," Elrond said with a note of cool reproof in his voice. "This house is always open to you and always has been."
Elrohir lowered his eyes to the scarlet carpet, unable to watch his foster brother and his father treat one another like lords of allied but distant realms. Arwen's presence hung between them as poignant as a weighted blade over their necks.
"Then, if there is nothing else, I would sleep. Haldir is right. It has been a long day." Without waiting for Elrond's nod, Aragorn got to his feet and left the room, trailing a wisp of grey over his shoulder.
None went after him or spoke a word either to excuse Aragorn's sudden departure or towards each other. After a moment, Haldir set down his empty glass and, making a brief obeisance in Lord Elrond's direction, trailed after Aragorn.
Elrohir caught him up in the corridor.
"You will stay in your usual quarters, I presume?" he asked without looking at him.
"No. The lodge hasn't burned to the ground, has it?" the captain asked with the air of one who expects an answer to the affirmative.
"Elladan has kept it for you."
"Good of him."
They walked a few steps in silence then Haldir plucked at his sleeve. "Can you recommend a good seamstress at this hour? I need a new tunic, and this filth burned."
Once he was sure they were out of earshot of his father, Elrohir stopped, and Haldir looked at him questioningly.
"You knew," Elrohir accused. "You knew of her death, and you did not tell him."
Haldir sighed. The rain-shadows made strange shapes across his face. "I…heard a rumor."
"And you said nothing. Since you seem to have had your ear to the ground, how well did he know her?" Elrohir asked, attempting to sound casual, but the shock of pain in Aragorn's eyes gave his voice a sharpened edge. What confidences might Aragorn have exchanged with a trusted friend throughout the dark night-hours? What secrets other than his destiny did he cleave to, perhaps dearer than he cleaved to Arwen? What would become of her if—?
Haldir's eyes, grey as winter, hid his thoughts like snowfall and regarded Elrohir as if the captain were weighing just what—if anything—to tell him. Even now, after all these years and the manner of their last parting, they still gave him the feeling that Haldir was probing his inner depths as they had since the very first days of his training under the marchwarden.
"Are you asking me, Elrohir," he said after an eternity, "if Estel remains constant despite being parted for more than twenty years from the woman he loves with nothing more to sustain him than a brief meeting and a briefer promise set so far in the future one dares not hope for it lest it prove false at the bitterest end?"
Elrohir rallied. "They plighted their troth at that meeting. That is no small promise."
"Granted. And yet, a Man may prove less willing to endure the march of years than we." Haldir leaned his shoulders against the wall and gazed down the corridor in the direction Aragorn had taken. "Winter encroaches on his age, and yet the high hopes of his youth have not blossomed as fulsomely as he desires. And with this fresh trouble with Harad, they wither on the bough. Do you think he will have Arwen to wife, the wife of an itinerant ranger, not a king? Will he drag her into the wilds with him if his hopes founder? Do you not think he would rather release her—release them both— from such a promise than see her shamed?"
"You never could answer a question if there was some means to evade it," Elrohir snarled.
"Nay, I but preface my own," Haldir said, unmoved by Elrohir's anger. "Do you truly believe he would waste all the years he has bent on this single purpose, spurn the love your family has ever given him, and break a worthy heart all for the sake of some tumble with a woman he has no right to claim?"
Elrohir's shoulders stiffened under the blow. He resented the implication that he somehow mistrusted or doubted Aragorn's motives which had always been clear and pure and focused where Arwen was concerned. He had no reason to think that Aragorn had acted in any way untoward while abroad and far from home.
And yet…and yet…
"Others, who I also once considered above reproach, have done so and to great harm," he retorted, relieved that his words did not tremble. "I would not see Aragorn—or my sister—drawn onto the same deadly path as my mother was."
For that, Haldir had no reply, a feat in and of itself. But Elrohir suddenly realized he had no desire to press his advantage. The taste of victory soured to ashes in his mouth. He wanted to leave, to disentangle himself from this situation that he'd never wanted to broach in the first place. He and Haldir had not been on speaking terms for the better part of four-hundred years, and their last venture towards this particular subject had ended with Elrohir putting a fist in the captain's jaw. The same wariness lurked in Haldir's eyes now as it had then, and Elrohir found he did not want to face them.
Without another word, he spun on his heel, leaving the captain rooted in the midst of the hall.
With every stride that pulsed up his legs, every step he placed between himself and the source of it, a little of the poisonous anger left him, and by the time he shut the door of his rooms behind him, he was thoroughly drained. Resting his forehead against the cool wood, he closed his eyes only to see grey ones boring into them behind the black of his eyelids.
With a furious burst of energy, he hurled himself across the room and flung open the trunk at the foot of his bed, the lid cracking satisfyingly against the bedposts. On his knees, he rifled through the contents, casting winter cloaks, unmended boots, strips of leather, linens, a book of Noldorin poetry he had always meant to read, a stack of letters and correspondence from a friend indiscriminately aside. At the bottom, amongst a pile of scattered arrow heads, he found the coffer.
With a flick of silver catches, the trinket tumbled into his palm.
The golden leaf had lost none of its luster despite its long confinement. Its blended copper and gold still gleamed. The words still cut as deeply into its body. Elrohir ran his fingers over the dent in its curling leaf, its only flaw. He had always intended, despite her injunction, to return it to its rightful possessor, but something had always held him back, some vague uneasiness. Who could he trust to deliver it? What if it were lost? Would he send a note, explaining…? What on earth could he say? What did he have to say? It was not he who owed explanation.
In the end, it sat in the coffer, and in the end, he managed to forget that he still had it or, rather, he laid it aside in a dark chamber of his mind where he needn't worry about it. Until today.
Even the mere sight of him was enough. The all-too-familiar taste of anger stung the back of his throat. That tang of metal and salt as bitter as bile. When he had refused to join Elladan on his hunt, for the first time in centuries without regret, he had thought—or perhaps just desperately hoped—he had left it behind for good. Instead, his anger had found him, no matter where he hid.
The gold had warmed to his hands a little, and so bright was the metal, he could nearly conjure the exact shade of her hair that neither he nor his siblings had inherited. Dimmer came her strong profile and steely mouth that could unexpectedly soften with girlish laughter…her capable hands that could stitch a wound as easily as a torn tunic, that could wipe away tears as briskly as grease from smudged glass… The only tangible thing left of her was this. This remnant of her worst transgressions.
A pain in his hand checked this tide of brooding thought. His fingers had closed about the golden leaf, crushing the piece of metal until it bit deep into his palm, leaving its imprint on his skin. It needed returning. What better opportunity would he have than this while the captain was in residence?
Uncurling his fingers stiffly, he dropped it into the coffer and set it on his bedside table, wishing with all his heart he could tuck away the past as easily.
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.