9. Returning Strength
It would be many years until the King was seen in Gondor again.
Elessar and Prince Imrahil were taken across the river, and further, even to the Tower of Barad-dûr itself. Bitter is that road, and the dust of that land dries the mouth. But the end of that road is more bitter still, and those that must endure it, pray that the end will not come. The very earth would cry out in fear, had it not long been silenced by the evil of that land; the evil that spread like rings in the water from the Dark Tower where the Dark Lord sat.
The hall of the Dark Lord rivalled the great caves of the Dwarrowdelf, Moria the dark, and no building of Man could equal it. The vaults were hidden in shadow, and shadows clung to the wall. So immense was the structure that even a great number of people seemed no more than a handful, skulking in the shades.
Sauron alone towered in that hall, a darkness deeper than shadows, dwarfing all others. It is told that when the King Elessar was brought before his throne, the King stood pale and unbended, withstanding the first onslaught of his will. The King's eyes burned, but he did not look at the throne.
And the Shadow, it is said, struck the King to the ground and burned him, for no other way could he make Elessar bend. And it is further said that the King defied the Shadow, swearing that he would never willingly serve Mordor.
In answer to his defiance, Sauron in turn swore that the Lord Elessar one day would bend and willingly give his allegiance.
East of Barad-dûr, several days of travel across the Gorgoroth, a branch of the Ash Mountains breaks off from the chain that marks the northern border of Mordor. It travels south and west to hem in the table-plain. At the root of one of the peaks, iron was to be found, and a mine lay there where the slaves of Mordor toiled.
In this mine worked many of the men captured in the Battle of the Black Gate, brought there to toil in the darkness until their strength broke, or old age made them feeble. There the slaves of Mordor became one, for the low tunnels bent the back of the tallest Man and the dirt of the work covered their hair and their skin. Born slaves or captives: they all became one, lost in the darkness that melts all differences, until the final equaliser, Death, released them. Few could remember themselves in that darkness, and those that did either died quickly or lingered long, according to their strength.
Haldor was on the brink of sleep, but the shout woke him. Straightaway he was on his feet, but a hand pushed him back. He looked up, and the man put more pressure on him to keep him still.
"We need you whole, and you know it, Haldor."
Haldor knew. The wall was cold against his back, but smooth and even. It was too dark to see faces; they had put out the lights for the night in their corner of the cave.
"You are unhurt; take Badhor and Durion with you and see why the guards come. They might bring something useful."
It was too soon for the guard to fetch them for work; too soon for them to bring … anything good. They both knew, but sometimes, sometimes it was worth the risk.
Taddal nodded. "As long as you stay here, Captain. At least until we know."
Taddal nodded again, then he was away, the other two following. Haldor watched them, but their corner was too far from the door to see clearly. Safer, but a disadvantage should the guards bring food or other supplies.
Haldor could see his men — for they were his now — reach the door before it opened. Faron had sent many; the weaker pushed in front of the stronger.
They waited, in part hoping that the guards would pass their cell by.
They did not.
The door unlocked. Only the two Rangers, standing closest to the door, held their ground. The rest scrambled back.
A Man, flung in by the guards, crashed into Taddal, the closest of the two, taking him down with him.
"Be sure to treat him royally!"
The guards did not enter, they just laughed, closed the door, and locked it. Faron's men moved in on the new man, still on the ground.
Haldor snapped the command. Quickly the Rangers moved, Haldor leading them. He could not see Taddal, who was taller than any of Faron's men: he was still down, vulnerable. He could only see Badhor and Durion, trying to break through the ring of men. Haldor swore. They knew better; alone they could not hope to do more than be hurt with Taddal. And too many of the Rangers knew hurt.
"Haldor!" he called. "Quick! It's the Chieftain."
From the records of the mine we know that the King must have been kept for about three months in the Dark Tower, a time he seldom spoke of. On the entry for the 30th of September, the record says:
"The blessed servant of the Great Lord – may His fire ever light our paths – honoured me greatly: Into my keeping he gave the hostage of our Lord – may His fire always guide me – the king of the sea-devils: Elessar of Gondor. And His servant blessed me with a taste of His most holy presence; I was shaking with fear and awe long after the servant left me.
"The Lord's – His name be blessed – servant also charged me to follow His instructions of the treatment of the hostage. And I will not disappoint the Great Lord – may His fire reach to the ends of the world."
It is clear from the record that Commander Apam, a captain from beyond the Sea of Rhûn, wrote this shortly after the Nazgûl left. The next entry, directly below, is from later on the same day:
"The Lord – blessed is His guidance – in His wisdom had marked His hostage with His sign. I therefore anticipated no problems with the guards. My mistake — for which I will take full responsibility — was that I did not consider the stupidity of the orcs.
"I reprimanded Captain Gorgol, and let him deal with his men as he saw fit. He did so with the efficiency – and brutality – of his kind. I considered their punishment a little too severe, since I interrupted them before they had had time to harm the hostage gravely. Still, it will discourage further incidence, and orcs are easily replaced.
I also ordered the hostage's clothes to be cut, so that the mark can be clearly seen at all times, that no further misunderstandings may occur.
"In accordance to the Great Lord's instruction, the hostage was brought to the sixth cave. As we have yet to receive a replacement for our lost healer, the foresight of our Lord — wise beyond measure is He — is most fortunate: among the Northern workers there is less illness, and they recover quicker, and more often, from discipline than the rest. At least one of them must know something of healing."
The Rangers did not stop. They pressed forward, breaking through the rank of Faron's men, driving them back. Their faces were grim, and they would not be denied. They cleared the space around the two men, and let Haldor through, but held all others back. One, Haldor did not notice whom, had brought light.
Taddal covered a body with his own, but at Haldor's word he rolled quickly off, and knelt beside it on the floor.
Beside him, their Chieftain had curled up. He wore chains on his hands as well as his feet, and he was blindfolded, but Haldor knew him. All the Rangers did.
He, it seemed, did not know them.
Taddal tried to reach him, but he twisted away from him and Taddal seemed frightened by his reactions. It was not until Haldor ordered him to hold their Chieftain still, that Taddal finally managed, and Haldor was able to slip the blindfold off.
"Aragorn," he said. "Chieftain."
And it was at the speaking of his name that Aragorn calmed. He blinked against the light and reached for Haldor.
"It is I, Haldor," Haldor said. "And Taddal is here, and Badhor, and others of your men beside."
Aragorn swallowed, but did not speak at first. His mouth was bloody and there was a swelling underneath one eye that told Haldor it would blacken soon. The front of his shirt was torn, or cut, and on his breast-bone…
On Aragorn's breast, just under the collarbone, the Eye was burnt into the skin. Red and ugly, no more than seven days old. Haldor froze to see the mark. His hands hovered above the blistered skin, but he dared not touch it lest he cause more pain.
Aragorn squinted against the light, but when he saw where Haldor looked, he flinched, and his grip on Haldor's arm tightened.
The Chieftain spoke like one who has been silent long. He blinked again.
Around them the Rangers stood, shoulder by shoulder. They kept the other prisoners at bay, and Haldor heard at the edge of his mind one of them say:
"You will not touch him."
Haldor did not hear an answer. The cave was quiet, but he paid it no attention. Let the other Rangers handle it.
"Chieftain, can you walk?"
"Yes, I was but stunned from the fall. Just help me stand."
He reached with both hands, the chains not quite long enough for him to move with ease. He swayed a little when they helped him to his feet, and he was lighter than Haldor expected. His hair, Haldor noted, had been cut, but was now regrown. He was thin, as if recovering from some illness, and above his blackening eye, there was a new scar. He bled from the corner of his mouth.
"Chieftain, are you…?"
"Well? No, but I am mostly unharmed."
But he did not protest when Haldor took his arm and helped him to their corner. The other Rangers surrounded them, and cleared the way. The other prisoners were quiet, hovering outside the circle of Rangers. Even Faron's men parted before them; wary of provoking the grim men who had shown themselves ruthless in the protection of their own. But their eyes followed them.
"Are all new prisoners greeted so?" the Chieftain asked.
"Largely," Haldor answered. "Not the silence, though."
"Or the restraint."
Taddal spoke under his breath, but Haldor heard him. The Chieftain made a sound, but Haldor could not make it out. Shadows and torchlight flickered across his face. Haldor studied him, leaving all worry about the cave to the men. The Chieftain walked as if he could not trust to his eyes, and though he held himself straight, he seemed to Haldor stiff, as if he forced himself to hold so. He had not stopped to wipe the blood from his mouth.
"Not now, Haldor."
"We are here."
The Rangers parted. Before them lay what looked like a smaller cave within the larger. The entrance too wide to be called a door, but the walls had narrowed to make a room of sort. A room with more protection than even Faron's corner had. Aragorn halted for a moment.
"I hope there is a bed waiting for me in there."
"A place to sleep," Taddal answered. "I would not honour it with the name of bed."
"Is it flat, with no gravel or sharp stones stuck to it?"
Something flickered across his face; Haldor could not make out the Chieftain's expression.
"There is straw," he answered.
"Such overwhelming hospitality." — did the Chieftain smile? — "It will turn me soft in my old age."
Haldor did not know what to answer. "Come," he said, and led the way to the back of their cave. "Sit, Chieftain, and let me see your wounds."
Aragorn sat, but he shook his head at Haldor's words. "When did you become a healer?" he asked. "I know I have men more skilled than you, Haldor."
"Not here. Not since Rhíhul died," Haldor replied. "The tunnel caved in about a week ago and he was caught under the stone. I am the closest we have, now, and it is more than others have." He paused. "I promise to treat your hurts after your orders, Chieftain, but you cannot heal yourself."
"My hurts are slight," Aragorn said. "Or such that you cannot treat. Not here, not without … anything. Mostly I need rest." He had closed his eyes, but Haldor did not think it was in pain.
"That … burn is not slight," Haldor said.
"And what have you to treat it with?"
Haldor had nothing, and Aragorn knew it.
"Even so," Haldor said, "let me see. When last any of us saw you … We did not dare hope to set eyes on you again. We need to know: what has been done to you?"
"No," Aragorn said. His voice was stern. "You cannot change what is in the past, and do but little to hinder anything Sauron" – he stumbled on the name, but spoke it – "might do in the future. Knowing will not help."
"Forgive me, lord." Haldor would gladly have withdrawn, but there were no others. Not here. Not now. "I sought but to ease our fear, which make the terror greater than knowledge will show. You look more hale than fear dared hope, and yet…" Haldor hesitated. "And yet we know, and therefore fear, what the guards might do. When we heard them coming, we feared they had come for one of us. We know what they do to those they take, and what state they are in, those that come back after the guards have entertained themselves. And what they do to new men. We…"
"They hardly touched me," Aragorn interrupted. "Their commander stopped them. I may have a bruised rib or two, but no other hidden injury." He laughed, but there was no humour in it. "The Enemy, it seems, has marked me. I am not to be touched." He gestured to the mark, and then paused.
"But I have walked for many days with little rest," he continued. "In the company of orcs and a Nazgûl. I may be unhurt in body, but I am weary. Too weary for tales."
"Let me at least wipe the blood from your face, before it dries. And though we have little with which to treat the burn, we have clean water, and some cloth with which to bind up wounds."
The Chieftain nodded his consent. "I had forgotten it," he said. His words slurred a little and he had closed his eyes. "Now that you mention it, it does itch." But he did not raise his hands to scratch, or check the wound on his lip. The skin around his eye was darkening already, and was almost swollen shut.
Durion approached them. He walked with a limp from the tangle with Faron's men, but he carried what little Rhíhul had gathered to help ease their hurts, before they lost him.
"I have his food-token as well," he said. He was speaking in a low voice, as if he feared to intrude. "One of Faron's men had gotten hold of it, but he dropped it when you came."
Haldor nodded. "Guard it for now," he said.
Aragorn had closed his eyes again, and Haldor could not tell if he heard them. He took the bag from Durion with a whispered "stay!" The Chieftain did not move or open an eye, but he asked:
"What do you have?"
"Not much, Chieftain," Haldor answered. "Scraps of cloth, mostly. Some of that salve the orcs use; Rhíhul did not like to use it, but he said it was better than nothing. One needle — I think Rhíhul managed to steal it from the healer they used to have here. A small piece of soap…"
The Chieftain held out his hand, but he still had not opened his eyes. Haldor gave him the bag.
"We have some food and water."
Aragorn had opened his eyes and rummaged through the bag. He only grunted in reply to Haldor's words.
"Not much, we only took for nine, but if you are hungry…?"
"It would do me little good right now," Aragorn answered, "but if the water is clean…"
"Clean enough, though we boil it before we drink. Rhíhul always insisted."
Aragorn handed back the bag. He had kept a flat, smooth stone which Haldor never understood why was there. The Chieftain held it to his swollen eye.
"There is nothing that would help against such hurts I have," he said.
"I have had enough of orcs and their salves."
The Chieftain's voice was sharp, and brooked no disagreement. Haldor did not argue. But he helped him drink when water came, and the Chieftain let him wash away the blood. Haldor felt him flinch under his hands, and he followed Haldor's movements with his good eye. His breath was even and measured, breathing in and out. He said nothing while Haldor worked, and it was not until Haldor put the water and cloth away, that the Chieftain let his eyes slide shut again.
"I need rest, Haldor." Aragorn let his hand fall. For a moment Haldor thought he had fallen asleep sitting, but he opened his eye and handed Haldor the stone to put back in the bag. "For the first time since our capture, I can sleep safely." His eyes slid shut again, and Haldor nodded even though his Chieftain could not see it "The tales can wait till morning."
With the help of Durion, Haldor eased the Chieftain down until he lay on the straw. He gestured Durion to lie down as well. The Chieftain stirred to feel the body close to his.
"Sleep safely, Chieftain. 'tis but Durion: we sleep back to back for warmth. And safety, though none will come upon you unawares: we will keep watch. If you… ?"
"No," Aragorn answered. "I… I am not used to company, and was but startled. The last ti–" he stopped himself. "I might dream."
"We all do." Haldor saw that the Chieftain was still tense. "You are back with us, Chieftain, and we will give our lives for you."
But the Chieftain did not relax, though his words were slow and full of sleep. He moved a little, and Durion lay still, as if frightened to move.
"How many survived?" Aragorn asked.
"Twelve survived the battle, that I know of," Haldor answered. "Only nine are left."
Aragorn nodded, but did not speak again. Haldor watched his body unclench, and his breath evened and grew deep and slow. And still Durion lay unmoving beside him.
"Sleep, Durion," Haldor said. "You, too, need the rest."
"What about Taddal?"
"I will see to him, but he, unlike you, does not limp." Haldor rose. "I leave the food and water: if he wakes…"
Durion nodded. "How much?"
Haldor hesitated. One more mouth. They had never taken more than they needed, and apart from the morning meal, no more food would come for days.
"As much as he needs. We will make do."
He left them and joined Taddal at the opening of the cave.
"How is he?"
The cave outside was quiet, but not with sleep. In Faron's corner, at the other side of the cave, light burned. It was the only light except for the Rangers'.
"Is that wise?" Taddal asked. "I saw the bruise on his face."
"I think so," Haldor answered. "He would have said otherwise."
In the silence, they could hear murmur from Faron's corner, but no words carried over to them. The Rangers were quiet, but only Durion and the Chieftain slept. Both Haldor and Taddal spoke in low voices.
"Did he say anything?"
"No, we will have to wait for the tale."
"It will not be good."
"No." They both knew it could not, even if the Chieftain was mostly unhurt in body. "I ordered Durion to sleep by him. He limped but I do not think he has other hurts. How fare you, Taddal? You must have taken the brunt."
"Not I: Durion did. I am well enough; most of my bruises are from the Chieftain, not Faron's men. They wanted his token, and his boots, no more, I guess. Though they might take a keener interest now." Taddal lowered his voice further. "We are watched."
Haldor glanced up at Faron's corner. There were movement among the light, but he would have men closer by. And there were others.
"I want two men at guard throughout the night," he ordered. "Let Durion sleep, but the rest of us shall take at least one turn. Let the men get as much sleep as they can between watches." Haldor knew the others heard him, yet none of them lay down. A few sat when Haldor glared at them.
"It is already done. Belith will join me soon."
Haldor nodded. "Which watch have you set me?"
"You will be busy elsewhere."
Taddal nodded towards a shadow halfway across the cave. Something stirred there, and a man stepped out and approached the Rangers. In the darkness of the cave he was a mere shadow himself. His gait was even, and his shoulders straight. He did not try to hide his path. They all saw him, and those that sat, rose, and all the Rangers joined Haldor and Taddal at the mouth of the cave.
A wall of Rangers met the man, and he stopped two steps away from it, inside the light from one of the torches. The torch burned steady, and though parts of his face were in shadow, Haldor knew him.
"What do you want, Thalion? Or are you running Faron's errands now?"
"You have taken in an outsider, Haldor," Thalion answered. "And shown your strength."
"We have before." Haldor's voice was short and clipped.
"Not like this, and not since Belith. Questions are asked."
"The Dúnedain might be few in the North, but we are more than a few handfuls."
They both stared at each other in silence. It was Haldor who broke it.
"You did not answer my question, Thalion. Are you running Faron's errands?"
"Faron knows you are less likely to answer one of his men, but you know I follow no man here."
"Not entirely by choice."
"Faron would welcome me."
It was true, yet Haldor did not trust him.
"Who is he?"
"Dúnadan. Both you and Faron know what lengths we will go to protect our own."
"I heard the guards. 'Royal' they said." Thalion held out his hands. "I mean no harm, as you should know."
Haldor nodded, but neither he nor the Rangers relaxed their stance. "Trust is too great a risk."
"At times it is," Thalion agreed. "Yet risk the tale, if nothing else."
Haldor did not answer. Behind him, the wall of Rangers closed further.
Thalion nodded as if a guess had been proved. "Trust begets trust," he said. "Too long have we lived apart, each man for himself, except for you. And because of you, this cave has less deaths and less illness. If my guess is right, he might change the way we all live: no longer apart, but all as you. You can ease that path, or block it at the beginning."
Haldor still did not answer. He could feel the cave breathing, awake and listening for his answer.
"What do you fear?" Thalion asked, but Haldor had no words.
"I fought at the Gate. I saw the promised King there, at a distance, clad in battle-gear. I was taken defending my fallen lord, or I would have joined the King's desperate charge. Do not keep to yourself a hope that may carry us all, Ranger."
Still Haldor said nothing, and the Rangers at his back were a silent promise. Thalion looked at them. They were grim, and their resolve was set. He turned back and let Haldor catch his eyes again. Long they stared at each other.
It was Thalion who broke the stare. He bowed. "You will sleep in safety tonight."
"What power have you to promise this?"
Thalion laughed. "Less than I wish," he admitted, "but more than you think. There are those who would follow my lead."
Haldor did not answer him, but he nodded. "Taddal," he said, holding Thalion's eyes.
"One-man watches throughout the night."
"You and I will sleep here, to be woken should any approach."
Haldor did not turn away from Thalion to see Taddal nod, but Thalion saw. He bowed again, and turned to leave, but stopped and twisted back to once more look at Haldor. "We are honoured."
He said no more. He walked back, and Haldor saw men step out from the shadow Thalion had come from. They spread at Thalion's word, but one — Haldor thought he recognised one of Faron's men — nodded his head towards the far corner where there still was light.
"Stay with Belith on the first watch," Haldor told Taddal. "And wake me if any draws near. If he keeps his word, reduce the watch: we all need to be rested come morning."
"Yes, and Faron will question him. But Thalion has no love for Faron; he was a knight of Dol Amroth."
"I do not trust him, and neither do you."
"You know why better than most. But we are Dúnedain, and our strength has returned."
Notes on names:
The Rangers' names are made with the help of the Sindarin name frame on elffetish dot com.
Gorgol is an Orcish name taken from The Lay of Leithian (The Lays of Beleriand, HoME 3)
Apam is from Old Turkish.
A/N: Again my thanks go to the people on The Garden of Ithilien and my beta JAUL. Any remaining faults are entirely my own. And to Naith who gave me a list of mistakes which somehow had slipped past, they have now been fixed. (I know it seems like I am inconsistent when it comes to capitalization of, for instance, Orc/orc, but I treat it much the same way as Man/man.)
Also thanks to The Lauderdale for help with naming the Orc-captain: I am not very versed in things Orcish, so it was a great help to have a sounding-board.
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.