Invictus: 6. Chapter Five: Karmë

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6. Chapter Five: Karmë

Author Notes: Dreamingfifi gets all the credit in the world for braving the muck of Sindarin grammar to translate the song in this chapter. Some of its lines are lifted from Chrétien de Troyes. I pray he forgives my (only slight) mutilation of his work.

Special thanks to ziggy, kestrels, and Sadie Sil for reviewing. Reviews are like getting miniature Christmas gifts in your stocking even when it's not Christmas. So those of you who are in keeping with the spirit of the season all year long, you are very much appreciated.

Chapter Five: Karmë

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size….

I wonder if when years have piled-
Some thousands-on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;

-Emily Dickinson

Steam unfurled from the surface of the basin as Elrohir stood barefoot in the cold kitchen. He laved his face and arms and the back of his neck liberally, gasping at the heat, how quickly it dispersed despite the rekindled fire. Rolling down his sleeves, he fetched the two tea mugs covered by their saucers and carried them into the back bedroom.

Gilraen was curled uncomfortably in a chair, a blanket about her shoulders. The grey light from the window fell upon a curl of her hair along her neck and lit on her sleeping face as if on a graven image in a garden. Beautiful and remote. As if she felt his eyes upon her, she stirred, meeting his gaze fleetingly before looking to the Man lying on the pallet between them.

"He sleeps yet," Elrohir assured her, setting one of the mugs on the small table beside her.

She swung her legs to the floor stiffly and reached for it. "What time is it?"

"A little after dawn. I'm afraid I could not find the sugar."

"I prefer it bitter these days," she replied, turning the mug between her hands.

Elrohir moved to the window. Outside, the fog lay thick in the lowlands and close to the river. The distance between the Angle and the Ridge was some twenty-odd leagues as the wolf ran. If Tathariel did not reach Elladan in time to warn him of the danger posed by the Dunlendings… But it did no good to look too far ahead or to worry needlessly when he could do nothing. Still…

"The Angle is changed since last you were here," Gilraen said. She was watching him over the rim of her mug, her feet tucked up under her.

"Has it?"

"There are less and less of us with every passing year. Those who were once young and fair wither and perish, and those who are young hope to grow old before they follow."

"You are still young and fair," he said, quietly.

She laughed, but it was the sound of a woman too wise to believe such lies even if she could still be flattered by them. "At first when I returned here, I could not bear the quiet without the least sound of falling water. That is why I had this house built close to the stream."

In Imladris she had always taken great delight in traversing the paths that wended beside the many falls. Sometimes, when time allowed, he had walked with her.

"Yes."

"Your father? He is well?"

She had said very little on those long walks. He had learned to read much in the cant of her head, the twitch of a shoulder, the myriad expressions that crossed her face. But rarely, a smile, laughter, a brightness of eye.

Tension sat on her shoulders now, an undercurrent in her speech that bespoke more than a long night in a chair.

"He is as he has ever been."

"And you?"

"I am well."

The chair creaked, her bare feet whispering across the floor as she came to stand beside him. He could feel her looking up into his face, but he did not turn, feigning absorption in the dim hint of light on the hills.

"You lie poorly, friend."

She was close enough that he could feel the warmth of her. He sipped his tea, its harsh, unsweetened tang filling his mouth. "You never did tell me why you left."

"I could not stay," she said, drawing the blanket tighter around her as if against some sudden chill. "Aragorn was a man grown. My task was done. The Elves had been obliged to keep me long enough."

He turned at that. "It was not obligation alone that bid us act as we did."

"Perhaps not," she conceded. "But I would not live forever bound to a man's charity."

"'Charity?'" The word stung though he could not exactly have said why, and he sat the mug down a little harder than intended. "Yes, well, I imagine Sarndil takes his wages out in trade."

"I owe you no explanation, my lord," she said, lifting her chin with the old, proud gleam of Dírhael's daughter in her eye. "I am not only Arathorn's widow. I am a woman. Sixty years is a long time to be alone."

Sixty years? So few? "I do not recall asking for an explanation, my lady."

"No. Far be it from you to ask for anything. Even when it would be given freely."

"You have lived among us too long if you insist on speaking in riddles."

"Nay, my speech is plain, but you do not wish for the understanding. So I must speak plainer." She sat her mug gently beside his. "I had not meant to hurt you—"

"You did not hurt me."

"—with my silence. I grieved for him for a long time. I did love him. I still do. And despite myself I was grateful for what you did for me and mine that night."

She laid her hand on his arm, her slender fingers pale, the crescent shape of her nails sharply defined against the dark weave of his surcoat.

"Sometimes I think that our hearts can be turned is a mercy given us by the One to grant us a little light amidst a great darkness," she said in a lowered voice. "In Imladris, my heart was turned, against my will. And I fought with silence and coldness one with whom I longed to share speech and warmth. I lost that fight. But it seemed I had fought it needlessly. He, who had consoled and comforted me often with his mere presence alone, now fled from mine. As if the cold had reached him at last and blighted him even as it withdrew from me."

Behind them, Malvorn groaned and stirred.

Elrohir glanced down at him, but the Man merely turned his head the other way, his breathing deepening.

Yet his presence recalled the room they stood in, a room, a house, a presence Elrohir had not dared confront in sixty years. The last time they had stood thus together had been above Arathorn's shroud.

In Imladris, after the heavy cloud of grief had lifted somewhat, he managed to convince himself that he only pitied her sorrow and sought to assuage her anguish and loneliness. Elladan, of course, had exposed his pale justifications for what they were, forced him to unearth the root of his true desires.

But what right did he have to love this woman whose husband he had led to death? But for him, she might have been happy with a Man who could love her honestly and daughters with quieter fates to follow after her. He had been a curse to her. She had every right to be cold to him. He had refused to importune her further, whatever his own feelings. And now…

"It blighted me in truth," he said. "But the frost was…no fault of yours."

She squeezed his arm, her face very close to his own. "Does it plague you still? Even after all this time?"

The approach of a familiar step startled Elrohir back a pace, loosening her grip even as Aragorn appeared in the doorway, his cloak draped over his arm and boots in hand.

"Elrohir. Might I have a word?"

"Of course."

He followed Aragorn outside, but the feel of Gilraen's fingers remained, burned on his arm like a brand.

Aragorn seated himself beside the hearth and slipped on his boots. "How does Malvorn fare?"

"It is yet difficult to say," Elrohir said, taking a seat across from him. "He has grown no worse, which is encouraging."

"I shall understand if you wish to remain here. If he still needs care, there is no better to look after him." He did not look up from his boot laces as he added, "Gilraen would welcome you."

Such generosity in those words. Elrohir rubbed his arm, feeling an old, odd ache in his chest. "Even if I could do more for your man, I would not risk doing him graver harm. I have said I will go with you. I do not give my word lightly. Besides, Elladan awaits me."

Aragorn glanced up at him as if weighing his words, truth and rationalization both. "As you wish."

Elrohir retrieved his own boots and the Morgyl from beneath the workbench near the door. The black buckskin boots were still there. He fingered the pattern of tiny, silver leaves tooled into the leather, part of which had begun to pull away from the sole of the left one. They were finely made, if worn, though more suited for the softer confines of the woodlands than the mountainside.

"He was here, was he not?" Elrohir asked.

Aragorn's quick, darting look was all the answer he needed.

"How long ago?"

"Two days before Samhain. The 29th."

"Was he with Malvorn and his Men when they were attacked?" It would be like him to be in the thick of things.

"I do not know."

"He did not return with them."

"No."

"Was he seen after the battle?"

Aragorn leaned forward a little as if listening for movement from the back bedroom before reaching in his belt pouch for tobacco and taking his pipe from a leather wallet about his neck. "One of the sentries claims he was startled awake—foolish boy, sleeping on duty—by a tall, pale figure and the flat of a saber blade. But that is all he recalls."

"Surely, Haldir knew to seek for you here."

"I cannot say what was in his mind, Elrohir. I am not given that privileged glimpse anymore," Aragorn said, plucking a glowing chip from the hearth and cursing under his breath when he singed his fingers.

Aragorn did not grow sharp for annoyance or even anger. No, he only grew sharp when he was afraid.

"What has happened between you?"

"That is a tale too long to tell even to Elves," Aragorn said with a slightly wry smile. "Too many things. Too many of them dark and dangerous. In the South, I forsook all hope in our venture. Yet he would not let me give in to despair. He saved me. Now, when he needs the same of me, I cannot draw him from the thing that gnaws him. He will not let me."

"Some things even a king cannot heal," Elrohir said. "Some things…it is not his duty to heal."

"That is small comfort."

The scent of sweet galenas eased into the air. Aragorn's gaze turned inward, and Elrohir did not interrupt him.

At last, Aragorn exhaled a long stream of smoke then said in the soft voice of confession, "He has not been himself since Fornost."

Despite the proximity of the fire, a chill rippled down Elrohir's spine at the name.

Few were aware of their near-escape from Angmar, who against all prophecy and hope, had returned to this side of the Mountains some twenty years before. Only the swift and combined efforts of Imladris, Lórien, and the Dúnedain had kept him from gaining a foothold again in the South and driven him back into the Wild. At a cost. *

Some of Elrohir's own soldiers in the caravan had either fought on that field or known those who had not returned from it. Aragorn had nearly lost his own life to save Haldir's when the latter had been imprisoned in the ruins of Fornost. Elrohir himself had taken a wound there that had left a pale brown scar beneath his hairline and a distinct fuzziness around the edges of events.

In nursing his own wound and the grief of lost comrades, he had allowed Elladan and Aragorn to see to the captain's care after they returned to Imladris. It was one thing to know in an abstract sort of way that Haldir had suffered at Angmar's hands. It was quite another to hear it from Aragorn's lips now, to see the pain and darkness reflected in his eyes.

"I had hoped in Rivendell he might find some assuagement…" Aragorn stopped short on words of blame, but if anything, his silence voiced them louder. "If I had had my way, I would have gone with him instead of letting him venture into unknown peril alone."

"He has been doing that for centuries without you, youngling," Elrohir said with a strained smile. "In his sojourns, he has traveled farther even than Elladan and I. He will look after himself."

Aragorn nodded, but his face was grim. "We had best see to the horses. The hour grows late."

The eastern rim of the hills was reddening far in the distance, but the light in the yard was still thin as Elrohir, Aragorn and the eight who had answered his summons assembled in the yard. To Elrohir's surprise, Sarndil too had decided to join their company.

Gilraen bid them farewell from the porch, wrapped in her cloak. "I will not tell you to be safe for it does not help. But I will think of you and hope that the Bright Lady guides your steps."

"She always has," Aragorn said, bussing her cheek. "I will return to you, Mother."

Gilraen turned to Elrohir and held out her hand.

He took it, cold and small, between his own and carried it to his lips.

A faint curve touched hers. "Am I forgiven then?"

"There was never aught to forgive," he said, squeezing her fingers lightly. "I will look after him with my life. You have my word." It was all he could offer her in good conscience.

"Yes. I understand." She released herself from his grasp gently, but she did not withdraw. Instead, she lifted her hand towards his face, her fingertips grazing his cheek. There was a look in her eyes he did not dare interpret.

"Silo in elenath Elbereth o men lín, Elrohir." The old blessing fell sweet on his ears.

Her hand lowered, allowing him to step back. He bowed and walked to his horse.

As the company set out along the lane, he looked back once, but she had already vanished inside the house.


With only an hour's brief rest, they reached the Ridge just after nightfall and bivouacked out of sight in a stand of birch trees. Tathariel found them there, looking worn. She had ridden hard to reach the Ridge before them but had found no signs whatsoever of Elladan or the caravan. Just the Enemy's tracks mounting the southern slope. Two days old at least. She had not ventured to the top.

The horses were nervous all night, stretching their necks and twisting their ears towards the wind coming off the hill. Even Faron, who had ridden into the thick of battle and broken Orc-heads with his hooves, stood and snorted uneasily.

Before first light, Elrohir set off to investigate the southern slope with a young ranger named Brannon while Aragorn and Sarndil circled round to the south. If the Enemy awaited them on the hilltop, better to be few and unseen than many and ambushed.

The southern slope held little cover, save for clumps of gorse in early flower. Their yellow warning revealed the truth of Tathariel's words. The Dunlendings had mounted the slope two nights past, in pairs and single file. They had been careful, taking advantage of the dark and gorse until they reached the crown of holly trees near the top. There was no sign that they had come down the same way.

Elrohir drew his grey cloak closer about his shoulders and eyed the concave curve of the hill. If the Enemy had posted sentries who had their eyes and ears open, even Elves and Dúnedain would not reach the top unchallenged. Brannon stayed close at his shoulder as they stole up alongside the Dunlending tracks. The boy's breath heaved in and out of him like a bellows; his boots cracked every twig, disturbed every stone until the very earth seemed to echo. When they reached the shadows of the holly trees, Elrohir loosened his long knife in its sheath. Brannon promptly drew his.

Elrohir reached back and laid a calming hand on the boy's thin wrist, motioning him to remain behind the gorse. The threat of wounding at the hands of a nervous ally lifted, Elrohir turned to the holly trees.

The belt was about twelve meters deep in some places and ran nearly the entire length of the Ridge. The trees were old and had stood long, their branches arching and twining together to form a tenebrous, pillared wind-break that protected the more exposed clearing beyond from unfriendly eyes.

Yet their presence had not protected the Dúnedain.

Something else had though.

The Man lay a yard within the trees. Facedown and unmoving, already bloated; his dark skin and darker hair were matted with blood as were the roots and leaves about and beneath him. A particularly garish spray marked a trunk almost as high as Elrohir's shoulder.

Elrohir did not touch the body but cast wider about it. He found the spot where the Dunlending had crouched for a time, probably watching the sleeping Dúnedain, counting their numbers. He had drawn his knife, just in case, the steel unpolished to prevent a gleam. He had turned, headed back downhill to bring his fellows.

The attack had come sudden, from behind. No time to raise his blade or loose a cry. No time for anything.

His throat had been opened by a knife, if the arc on the tree and the wound that was not the fault of scavengers were any judge. Though it was hard to tell, the killing blow had likely been something curved, leaf-bladed, not dissimilar to the one Elrohir carried. The Dunlending had left distinctive prints in the wet soil and earth. There were no others.

A clatter of angry wings and the scorn of crows greeted him when he stepped into the clearing. The Ridge was empty save for the farther end where lay a half-score of Dunlendings. They had been stripped after the fashion of Dunlending burial, their gear piled at their feet. The birds and wolves had been busy these last few days. It was only in circling round the stones upon which the dead lay that he found another track.

It had an ugly, dragging look as if its maker were lame in the right leg, bow-legged too, shorter and heavier than Dunlendings as a general rule. Disquieted, Elrohir followed it to where it joined with the main track and disappeared amongst the confusion down the southern slope. For awhile, he stayed crouched beside the marks, staring into them as if he could conjure up the truth of them out of thin air. Men too were lame. Men too could be short and squat and heavy. There was no reason at all to think Orcs had been involved in the attack on the Ridge.

And yet…

Uneasy, he straightened and whistled up Brannon.

They made their way over towards the southern slope and found Aragorn and Sarndil coming up to meet them. Aragorn was holding a small, smooth stone in one hand.

"Three of our dead are accounted for which leaves four still missing," Aragorn said, passing him the small stone. "Someone had taken care to cover them. I found this sitting on a ledge above. Elladan was here. Or someone who knew to leave a message for us."

"Indeed. And the Dunlendings?" Elrohir said, turning the stone over in his hands. It had been handled recently. Carved fresh into the stone with the point of a dagger were cirth runes, used by huntsmen in the wild.

"They came down the south side sometime the day before yesterday and went off towards the mountains, but if our missing or…others were with them, they are well-guarded and thrust in the center of the group. The tracks are all blurred."

Elrohir nodded. He said nothing of what he had found. There was no reason to alarm Aragorn unnecessarily when he himself was not certain.

"What sort of markings are those?" Sarndil asked, glancing at the stone over Elrohir's shoulder. "Those are not the marks the Dúnedain use."

"They are older than the Angerthas Daeron the Dúnedain for those were altered by the Noldor of Eregion. Not all favor that method," Elrohir said with a wry smile. "They are common enough on the other side of the mountains and less easy for the Enemy to decipher. They mean that Elladan and the others were here yesterday and headed southeast."

"I do not blame them for not staying," Brannon said. The crows had begun to settle again, careless of their presence.

East, the Ridge rose into higher and higher foothills, Caradhras crouching above them, his sides steep and crimson. Elladan had kept on their road, following on the heels of the Dunlendings but not close enough to attract attention. He would look for shelter, likely, a place where they could hide from sight for awhile and rest as they had proposed. And there was only one place where a company of their size could disappear. One place where Elladan knew Elrohir would find him.

"We had better catch them up," he said, tossing the stone aside and striding off down the hill.


"I see nothing but rock."

"Because you are seeing, not looking," Elrohir said.

They stood high up on the shoulder of one of the foothills, the knees of the mountains tumbled above them, the boundaries of Eregion below. Before them stood what seemed a smooth rock face, worn by wind and weather.

"What is the difference? It is still bloody cold, and we are no nearer to the caves you promised," Brannon grumbled, tugging his fur-lined cloak tighter about his shoulders. It had not been an easy climb, and the dark had come early with long and heavy clouds. The air smelled hard and metallic. Snow was coming.

Aragorn took pity on the boy and stepped past Elrohir to lay a hand on the stone wall. "Go not to the Elves for answers, Brannon, for they will leave you with more questions."

His fingers grasped seeming stone and pulled. The grey cloth fluttered, revealing the opening in the hillside.

"Magic?" Brannon said, drawing back.

Elrohir smiled at him. "Not quite. The flax comes of Lórien. The Silvan folk there are marvelously skilled in weaving and have garments that can hide, even in plain sight. Useful when you are looking for a safe place in wild country."

The cave system was one of a few graven in the face of the foothills rising towards the Caradhras Gate, natural caves shaped and expanded of old by refugees of Eregion when Gorthaur sent his servants far and wide to hunt them down. Gildor's folk maintained and restocked them from time to time when they wandered through their old lands.

"The fit is narrow," Elrohir explained, unshouldering his pack. "I will go first. It would not do to surprise them."

The fit was tighter than he remembered, the walls so crushingly close on either side, he had to duck his head and slither sideways for nearly six meters before it began to widen out. The feel of damp dark on his face warned him as he stepped out of the tunnel's end. He listened but could hear nothing. This was but the entryway that opened into a larger cavern beyond and other little passages in the sides. It was likely Elladan had retired there with the others, to be sure of safety and privacy. It seemed careless though not to have posted a sentry, whatever the—

There was no sound of step or breath. But the air behind him shifted imperceptibly. Even as he turned, even as he drew his knife, a blue light flared, chasing the shadows up the walls in a firework glare and dazzling his vision.

The ringing impact of steel on steel shivered all up the way up his arm. Blinking furiously to disperse the veil of silver and black flares consuming his vision, Elrohir sidestepped, anticipating another blow. The only thing he could see of his attacker was the dusky brown of his boots swimming slowly into focus. They were Arathorn's boots.

Elrohir swore and lowered his knife. "That was not wise. If I had struck back, I might have killed you."

"Fortunately your sense is sounder than your reflexes," Haldir replied. "Leading with defense. Lazy Noldorin habit, that."

"As opposed to the decidedly Silvan tactic of attacking from behind?" Elrohir inquired archly. Though both of them had lowered their weapons somewhat, neither made a move to sheathe them.

"At least my blow killed my enemy."

"Where is Elladan?"

"Safe, for the moment. As are the rest of your charges."

Before Elrohir could press for a more direct answer, Haldir turned his head sharply and sidestepped behind the lantern still glittering with blue flame. Elrohir caught the sound of movement in the passage he had come from.

"It is I," Aragorn's voice echoed his appearance as he sidled into the small cave.

Haldir nodded an acknowledgement and sheathed his knife. "Estel. Good to see you." But his tone held a pale echo of the warmth usually accompanying such words.

"And you," Aragorn said, much more genuinely. "Now, if you don't mind, there are half a score of Dúnedain on my tail who are distinctly displeased with being forced to wait in the cold. With your permission?"

Haldir nodded. "Keep them in here though. The others are beyond, and it is crowded enough."

"I did not know you knew of these caverns," Elrohir said in the silence Aragorn left in his wake. "What are you doing here anyway?"

"I have been following nightingales," Haldir said, setting off along the side of the cavern towards another corridor hewn into the southern side. "Which, I daresay, is more than you have been doing."

The mention of nightingales brought Elrohir up short. To most, it would have sounded like a fair bit of nonsense to put off an unwanted question, but Elrohir had long suspected that Haldir was one of those unofficially known as i Filig but in more respectful circles as i Dúlinn.

There was a reason Elves were famed for knowing what was going on in the lands "as quick as water flows, or quicker."

"And what have your 'little birds' told you?" he asked.

"Something that you, Estel and Elladan all should hear. Go fetch your brother. We must talk."

Elrohir did not argue. He too was eager to see Elladan and ascertain for himself that all was well. The lilt of voices reached him long before the lantern lights strung about the cave.

The internal cavern was wider and higher-ceilinged than the entranceway, and water-carved rock formed smooth ledges up the walls. Arranged on several of these in the eastern corner, the members of the bridal party had spread furs and rugs alongside their packs. One of the musicians had even taken out his harp, encouraging one of the bride's sisters to sing with him. There was no trace of fear or unease amongst them.

Elrohir spotted Elladan sitting on one of the ledges, engaged in close conversation with Aear. The lieutenant spied him first, but Elladan leapt up and hurried over to him, profound relief etched in his face.

"At last! There you are. We were near to sending scouts out after you. What kept you?"

"I thought our arrival timely, all things considered," Elrohir said. "Is all well here?"

"As well as can be," Elladan said, motioning him aside and lowering his voice. "We came too late to help, but we buried the Dúnedain. We could not risk staying longer, and I am sorry my message was no plainer. What did you find at the Angle?"

Elrohir filled him in briefly about the attack on the Ridge, the captive Dúnedain and the strange, limping track he had found at the edge of the slope.

"But what on earth would an Orc be doing with a pack of Dunlendings? They don't traffic with the hillmen. Unless an occasional burned settlement counts as trade negotiations."

"I don't know. And I do not like to guess," Elrohir said. Aear was looking in their direction, and he sighed, feeling suddenly very weary. "Say nothing to the others until we are certain."

"Of course. They are anxious to press on though. They are concerned the snow will bar our passage."

"If that is all that worries them, so much the better," Elrohir replied. "As it is, we will stay here tomorrow. And perhaps the next day. Neither we nor our horses are as fresh as we ought to be for climbing mountains. Particularly if the Dunlendings are before us with…allies. It may be Haldir has better news for us."

Elladan frowned at him in confusion. "Haldir is here?"

"You did not know?"

Elladan shook his head. "Elrohir, I have not seen him since that night at the lodge. But he is here. That is good."

"I must set the watch first," Elrohir said.

Aragorn and Elladan were already seated and speaking together softly when he arrived. They had commanded a ledge, far back enough from the company so they could talk freely. Elrohir spread his cloak beside theirs and glanced around for the last member of their party.

"Well? Where is he?"

"He'll be along shortly," Elladan said. "You know how he is. He won't be satisfied until he's thoroughly searched out every possible entranceway and scolded me for leaving a mousehole open."

Elrohir made a small noise of agreement in his throat. A little way below them, the musician had beguiled the maid at last, and a clear voice rang along the stone:

Meleth ben-thoss, bedh-rûth, ben-achas

naur bem-brass, ben-lach, ben-logas

Arad ben-Anor, Menel ben-Ithil

Rhîw ben-heleg, Laer bem-meril

Nîdh ben-glî, Lîr ben-linnas

Parf ben-dîw, mîr ben-annas

Meleth ro-vuin ir mistas

It was a strange song for a maid about to be married to sing. Though it was little sung in the halls of his father, he knew well its tragic unraveling of the life of Amloth the Valiant, who fell in love with Tuilinniel, a beautiful maiden (as they all were in such tales) of an unknown court. But though she loved him in return, she spurned all his advances for he had a wife living. Not until the eve before he left for battle, a battle from which he would not return, did she surrender to him. When her lover's wife sent her news of his death, Tuilinniel went seeking him in the wild forest and was never seen again.

She was called Tuilinniel the Dark, but somehow he always imagined her with bright hair.

"Well? Do accommodations pass inspection?" Elladan's voice jangled through the music.

Elrohir looked up as Haldir stepped over his legs, budging Aragorn aside to avail himself of the corner seat.

"For now. It is snowing heavily and looks to last 'til morning. Is the watch set?"

"I know my duty, Captain, you need not remind me," Elrohir said.

"It is," Elladan answered, elbowing Elrohir sharply in the ribs and giving him an even sharper look. "Now will you tell us what you've found?"

Haldir settled his back against the wall and stretched his legs out. The lamplight cast hollowed shadows across his face like moonlight on tumbled stones. "I hear you also rode to the Angle," he said, ignoring Elladan's question. "How does Gilraen fare? I left in something of a hurry. I meant to thank her."

"She is well," Elrohir said, turning back to the young singer, but the song did not reach him now. "What have you found?"

"More than most, less than some."

"Haldir," Aragorn interjected, a bite of impatience breaking into his tone.

Haldir glanced at him. "Your old friend, the Chief of the southern Dunlands, has taken to slaving. It pays a better wage, it seems, than pillaging his rivals' clans alone. He takes those that he can find: the unwary, the traveling, the weak, and he sells them in the mountains. Probably for mining. Orcs never did like to do more work than they could help."

"So that is the strange track you found," Elladan said, turning to Elrohir. "An Orc was with them."

"You said nothing of that," Aragorn said, his tone quiet with accusation.

Elrohir fought a wince. "I did not wish to say anything until I was certain. I wish I weren't."

"You have seen them?" Aragorn demanded of Haldir.

"I followed them," Haldir said, fingering his belt pouch absently. "After they left the Ridge."

"And the captives?" Aragorn asked, a little gentler.

"Some half dozen or so. Most were from rival clans. There were four of yours."

"'Were?'"

"Were, are. I did not linger. Things were growing heated between the Orc-guide and the Dunlending. Haggling over the price, I imagine. Slavers always want more. Of course, the fool Dunlending doesn't realize his danger. He's in their realm now, and only so long as he is useful, does he stay alive. Once that is used up…" Haldir made a languid gesture that imitated a blade thrust forward at gut level and drawn downward.

"Were the captives harmed?" Elladan ventured, looking at Aragorn as he spoke. Orcs were not best known for their dutiful care of those left in their hands.

Haldir was quiet, but not as if he were thinking on the question. His eyes were oddly glazed, his face sallow in the lantern light. Traveling on foot from the Angle to the heights of the steep mountain pass, almost fifty leagues, in the space of four days was no easy feat even for the Elves who were near tireless. That did not mean they did not tire. Elrohir himself was bone weary after climbing the winding paths to the caves, and he had had Faron's aid most of the way.

"They are not as harmed as they might be," Haldir said.

"There is hope, then, for their rescue. If we make a surprise sortie—"

Elrohir had not the heart to tell Aragorn that Orcs who knew they were pursued were like to kill their captives rather than lose them, and the Dunlendings, who had no more sense than to follow such ilk, were like to do the same.

Haldir had no such qualms. "With what, Estel?" he challenged, cutting over Aragorn's words. "You have less than half a score with you against at least twice that of Dunlendings alone. Elrohir cannot lend you his own folk and still see to his charges. As is, they will have trouble enough getting through with the weather closing in. And who knows how many more of the Enemy linger by? This Pass is full of holes. You would go to your death."

"You speak to me as if I were a stripling still, Haldir. I am Aragorn now. A Man and Chieftain in my own right," Aragorn retorted. "With Men who will follow me if I ask it of them."

Haldir was not put off by the warning in Aragorn's tone. "Then, Aragorn, do what is best for them, and do not risk your life or theirs pursuing folly."

Aragorn looked long at his friend from underneath his brows then he said, slowly. "Other ventures have been tested against even more formidable odds and greater peril and proved worthy of the undertaking."

"Yet some would say the cost of those ventures proved too high for their worth in the end."

"I am not one of them."

But Haldir put his head back against the wall and shut his eyes. Having argued his part, he would say no more.

With nothing further to discuss, Aragorn left them to take up watch with his Men in the outer hall.

Elrohir could not help a tinge of admiration for him. Aragorn's tenacity served him well. But they could not go chasing the foe as if they were young hotbloods anymore. Not when they were responsible for others' lives as well as their own.

And yet…he owed other responsibilities too. Some would argue that those were greater than mere duty alone.

He followed Aragorn into the tunnel beyond, calling after him.

Aragorn stopped but did not quite turn. "Of all, I had not thought to hear from the lips of my own kin that the lives of Men mean nothing. I suppose since they are destined to die anyway—"

"That is not what we said and well you know it," Elrohir said, trying to catch his eye in the dim light. "We do not have the luxury of thinking only of ourselves. There are folk with us who have never seen battle as we have. They could never lift a sword in their defense any more than you could lay yours down. Would you risk them at the hands of Orcs?"

"No."

"Haldir certainly lacks for grace. But he is not wrong. Not about this."

"I know their names, Elrohir," Aragorn said softly, his voice gutted. "I know their wives and children. I fought beside their fathers."

"Then," Elrohir said, laying a hand on his shoulder, "when we have delivered our charges safely, at least as far as the Stair, my men and I will return with you to hunt for them."

"I fear by then, it will be too late."

"Then we shall avenge them."

Aragorn looked at him with eyes so like Gilraen's. Bright and grieved. "That does not bring them back."


Translations: (The Sindarin grammatical structures are based on Ardalambion's layout and reasonable conjecture.)

karmë- the ultimate art-form of the Elves, who had the power to make events from stories or songs literally come to life, so that they became visible to an artist's audience. A vision created this way was known as an olos, a word that could also mean 'dream' or 'phantasm'.

Silo in elenath Elbereth o men lín – "Shine the stars of Elbereth on your road."

i filig- the little birds

i dúlinn– the dusk-singers, also the nickname for a small circle of soldiers under the leadership of Galadriel who, essentially, are spies and go out into the lands gathering news of the Enemy and his efforts

Meleth ben-thoss, bedh-rûth, ben-achas- these are the opening stanzas to a very long lais from the Second Age entitled I Duilinniel ar I Amloth or The Swallow and the Iris. Alternating between the viewpoints of the two illicit lovers, it tells the story of Amloth, a Noldorin knight in an unnamed, perhaps fictional court, who mourns the love he bears for Tuilinniel (the only name ever given her), a woman in the same court, who loves him well but cannot return it because of his wife (you can see why this song is not one of Elrohir's favorites). There are many other verses, but those presented here run as follows…

Love without risk, without fear, without blame

Is fire without heat, without warmth, without flame

Day without sun, sky without moon

Comb without honey, music without tune

Summer without flowers, winter without frost

A book without letters, a treasure without cost

Love is more precious when it is love that is lost.

End Notes:

* A reference to Dwimmerlaik which can be found on my profile.

On the cirth and Angerthas Daeron- a system of writing, the most familiar of which is that used by Gandalf on Weathertop in the Fellowship of the Ring

On nightingales- The legend of how Lúthien and Beren infiltrated the Great Enemy's stronghold and stole a Silmaril from his crown, defying death and tremendous odds is well-known to most Elves and many Elf-friends. Lúthien, the daughter of Thingol, a King of the Elves in the Elder Days, was called "Nightingale" by her lover. It became a symbol among the Elves and Edain of Defiance and Rebellion—since nightingales sing all night long, despite the darkness.

"as fast as water flows, or faster"- lifted directly from the Hobbit, which does count as canon in my book, inconsistencies notwithstanding

Author's Notes: And now that I've bored you all to tears with copious footnotes and pretentious references to Old French poetry, please review!

Best,

Marchwriter


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.

Story Information

Author: Marchwriter

Status: General

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Action

Rating: General

Last Updated: 05/19/12

Original Post: 05/16/10

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