Castle (Part 1) By Timmy2020

Disclaimer: The characters of Aragorn, Éomer, Arwen, and Faramir belong to the heirs of Tolkien. I do not own them or make any profit of them. The rest of the characters belong to me.

Important note: This story was first published under my pen name Timmy2020, but for unknown reasons the account is invalid now. So I had to change pen name and e-mail address to post it again. So, please, don't accuse me for plagiarism. The story is still the same and mine.

Storyline: Angered by the death of Denethor Lady Saborian, a wealthy Lady from Gondor, takes action to change the course of history. The King of Gondor shall lose his reign.- It is a story with Aragorn in the leading action, the rest of the known characters assist.

"Castle" hereby is taken from the game of chess when the King changes places with the Castle to keep the King safe.

Recommended rating: PG 13

Note: This is my first story in the universe of Middle Earth, and so I come from Germany my English will never be adequate. Finally and thanks to Raquel the story is fully beta-read.

Many heartfelt thanks to my friends Katja (katzilla) and Mouse for their help and enthusiasm that got me started and brought logic to the project.

Comments, thoughtful insight etc, please, mail to Timmy2020@gmx.de

Castle

Day 1, Deromonor

At dawn they brought him forward to the Lady.

The soldiers were weary with fatigue and longed for food and a fresh beer, but for they knew she would never have tolerated a failure, they were quite relieved to present the prisoner alive and - as they would call it - in good condition. Dressed in a dark blue floor-long dress with silvery patterns she waited for her men to come to a halt. She pursed her lips as she always did when she was satisfied with the grim work of her able followers, a fact that would raise their salary and their mood. The soldiers and all other personnel working within the walls of Deromonor called her the 'Lady of Ice' behind her back, but she knew. As she knew all the things happening in her castle at the western border of Gondor, near the mountains. And her spies in the White City had told her three weeks ago that the man, who was her prisoner now, would go for a hunt in the long forsaken forests of the kingdom with only a few trusted men at his side. The plan had already been set before, and its execution had been easier than expected. Briefly she had thought it might be a trap to throw her off her castle's highest tower. But nothing had happened.

Nothing unexpected at least.

She eyed her prisoner closer, not allowing herself to show any kind of satisfaction or glee. These feelings would be reserved for the time when she was alone. At the moment she wore a mask of indifference. The tall man in front of her wore his dark brown hair long, but kept his beard short. And though he was the most important person of the kingdom his dark green, long-sleeved tunic under a used looking leather coat, tight trousers, and brown, long-worn leather boots did not give him the look of a person of higher standing. The Lady thought that even this look would change before long. His grey eyes were throwing cold flames at her for he could not speak. The guards escorting him up to her room had gagged him with a rolled piece of leather, and though she had not ordered this measure she agreed with it. Her whole plan was based on secrecy. So he could only clench his chained hands into hard fists. They alone told more than words would have. His wrists were full of bloody scratches, proof that he had tried to break the handcuffs, probably used every chance to attempt to escape. For a moment she glanced admiringly at the two guards holding the man's upper arms. It must have been a fierce fight to catch him - and let him alive. The prisoner was still restless, tugging at the guards' arms trying to break into a run, but they held fast, not allowing him more than a few inches to move.

The Lady would not have wanted to be alone in the room with her prisoner. Even now he was a threat. His body was tense, searching for a second of inattention, willing to use it. Keen eyes wandered to the doors, quickly checking out how much time he would need to reach them. It was clear to her that capturing the man did not mean to hold him for long. His achievements were legendary. She had heard the songs sung by the people of Minas Tirith praising his courage on the Pelennor Fields and elsewhere. She did not bother to recollect all the places where he had proved himself a successful leader and a master with the sword. She did not want to hear about them. It would just have raised more anger and frustration. For six months she had concentrated on plans to destroy his power. And now he was standing in front of her – beaten by her men, gagged, in chains. He had lost the very fight for his freedom. It would take time to break his will and make him give into his destiny, but she was willing to spend this time. It was yet too early to even think about the moment when he would willingly fulfil the task she had thought of for him. But time was on her side. No longer on his.

She took one step closer. The prisoner's clothes were torn at the shoulders and forearm, and a long, bloody chap could be seen. Her admiration for her own men grew, and she wished she could have been there that night when they finally attacked the King and his friends. The exciting thought alone caused her goose-flesh. Sometimes she despised not being born a man. The guard put the King's belongings - a silver chain, a ring, dagger, and sword among other things - on the table. She glanced at the sword. 'Andúril,' she remembered. Proof that the King was the last in the line of Numenor and heir to the throne as they all had cheered. She shivered with disgust and quickly turned back to the scene before her.

The soldiers had told her a few minutes ago that they had made the prisoner walk the last twenty miles to exhaust him. But to the Lady he did not look exhausted or depressed. More likely he was challenging the guards - and her. Telling her by his intensive stare that he would not give in. Not now and not in ten weeks. 'We'll see to that,' she thought. 'Other men thought the same – and cried for release within days.' Upon her look a third guard stepped closer to the captive and took away the gag. The prisoner loosened his jaw.

"Why did you bring me here? What do you want?" he spat angrily, but just raised a small, complacent smile from the Lady. Now she was in her element. It was a moment she had hungered for months – literally since the inauguration of the new King.

"It is not a prisoner's privilege to ask questions," she replied coolly and walked a few steps away from him. She felt her heart beat faster and had to calm herself down. Had there been any day so satisfying and positive? She put these thoughts aside and continued, "But to satisfy your curiosity... You are here to stay here. To be a servant to this castle."

The prisoner must have been surprised – outraged even - but he kept himself upright and perfectly under control.

"You cannot keep the King of Gondor prisoner for long!"

The Lady spoke slowly and convincingly.

"I can and I will. Your position here will be defined by your behaviour. If you deny obedience we will have to treat you like a prisoner." The Lady smiled another icy smile. In her imagination he would be a prisoner with very limited freedom for all the time coming.

"Obedience? You commit treason! So you will either release me or face the army of Gondor."

She admired his trust into an army that was in a state of rebuilding. The long and hard fight against Mordor had cut the size of his army by half. And though the free folks eagerly joined the forces the army needed years to regain its old strength. It was clear that the men still in service were unable to attack this castle. They had neither the number nor the skill to fight the walls of Deromonor while it was fully armed and its men on alert. Without its charismatic leader the army of Gondor had no one to follow. Faramir was far away. And even if he would leave his beloved wife Eowyn behind, he would need weeks to take the place of the leader of an exhausted handful of men. If he would make it this far.

"We both know that there is no such threat," she said calmly, and though he did not want her to see it, he agreed with her argument. He clenched his fists again so that the chains were rattling. For a moment it was the only sound in the room.

"So the question remains," he went on, putting all threat he could muster into his words, "What do you want? Why did you kill my men and force me into your castle, Lady Saborian?"

She lifted her eyebrows astonished that he knew who she was. They had met only once – on the day he had ascended the throne and received the crown. She hatefully remembered how the audience had cheered and had thrown their hats in the air while she and a few others had remained silent in their grim. Now she could not restrain herself any longer. The hatred that had burnt in her for so long now burst out of her.

"Why did you come back to claim the throne of Gondor? It was no longer yours."

"How can you dare say that?"

She hated his surprise, his denial when confronted with the truth. How could he be so bold!

"Denethor would never have committed suicide if it wasn't for you!" the Lady broke out. "If you had not left your exile, the Steward would still be alive and my son would have been his successor."

"Faramir would have been the next Steward, and you know that."

"Faramir?" she repeated sarcastically. "Not even his own father wanted him to become Steward! He will be mourned for. As well as you."

"Even if you kill Faramir," the King replied, "You cannot win."

She calmed herself down, flattening her gown with her hands.

"We will see to that soon enough. But you... you were nothing but a fairy tale among the elders. You did not even exist! What made you leave your hideout and crawl back into the light?"

"I said that I never wanted that power," the King replied in a somewhat flat voice. The Lady just huffed. "When the fight came to me I could not back down. And you will not rewrite history by making me your prisoner."

"History will judge if you were a good king - though your time was short." She eyed him, waiting for a rebellious reply, but he remained calm.

"Even if the son of Denethor will not take his rightful place - Lady Arwen is respected among our people. She will lead them on if I do not return."

"Your lovely lady is taken care of." Now she had his full attention. His fury was flaming again, and he raised his fists as far as the chains let him. "She will not sit on that throne - nor will anyone you would choose."

He made a step forward.

"If you hurt her...," he started, but at the same moment the fist of the third guard connected heavily with his stomach. Aragorn clenched his teeth, remained upright, not willing to show his captor a sign of weakness.

The Lady's eyes narrowed, and her voice was filled with hatred when she added:

"What I do with your wife, your people or the land is now completely my decision. And it will depend on you how I will treat them."

"You won't ..." he started again, and this time he saw the attack coming and kicked the guard hard enough to make him stumble back, instinctively dodging the fist of the guard to his right holding him. He broke away suddenly, and using his elbow as a ram hit the first guard square in his face. He turned around, repelling the third man's hit, but the second soldier kicked him hard in the hollow of his knee, instantly bringing him down. Aragorn hit the ground with his bound hands, and the guard ended the attack by placing his boot between his shoulder blades.

"At your command, Lady Saborian," the man said breathlessly.

"Very well done, Lt. Medros." The Lady kept her chin high though for a moment she had been frightened. Aragorn shot a look up to her that made clear if he would have won she would not have lived to see mid-day. She regained her breath quickly. Her soldiers were well trained and should not have problems with a chained man. "Take him to his quarter. You know what to do."

"Yes, Lady." The soldier nodded briefly to his two comrades, and they pulled Aragorn on his feet. At the door, after a last fierce look at the Lady of Ice the King of Gondor was gagged and hooded and escorted from the hall.

* * *

Still day 1, the castle

Lt. Medros was a square-faced man in his late thirties, solidly built, and respected by the soldiers serving under his command. They knew as well as his friends that he had served Lady Saborian with undying devotion for years. So she did not only give him the order to bring her Lord Aragorn alive, but she also expected him to take care of the prisoner once he was arrested. Lt. Medros was willing to fulfil this task. Some said he could mentally mingle with the Lady of Ice and that she was a kind of witch who robbed him of his own will. The truth was that all Medros had ever wanted was to serve that noble lady. And she had always rewarded him generously.

It was still early morning and only a few servants were on duty when Medros and his men led the struggling King down the stairways. Ignoring that he might hurt himself Aragorn fought the soldiers forcefully. It was clear he could not win, but Medros guessed that giving up was no option, and he bet with himself that it would take weeks to make him an easy prisoner. The men and women in the lower quarters only glanced at the foursome and considered the existence of this prisoner as unimportant. Lady Saborian was known as firm but just, and burglars thought twice before committing a crime on her land or within the walls of the castle. Not only few ended up as slaves for the strenuous work in the mines or on the fields belonging to the Lady. Medros thought, the servants were simply happy it did not concern them.

At the end of the hallway a boy crossed the guards' way, and Medros pushed him aside like an unwelcome cat. They reached the lowest level of the eastern tower where the mouldy stench of dampness and human excretion made it hard to breathe. The guards moaned with disgust as they entered the tunnel, which was only lit by a few torches on their right side. To their left cells were built in the thick walls, each of them to lock with a heavy wooden door with bars in their upper third. They stopped in front of the first one. Voices rose from another row of cells on the other side of the tower, but here it was quiet. This row had been long deserted. Medros did not bother to look. His attention was fixed upon his new prisoner. He took off the hood and gag. The King's face was bathed in sweat.

Aragorn locked eyes with him, and Medros stood firm. He let the King know that he would not give him any chance to escape or play a prank on him. And though he expected hatred, the King remained silent. No pleading, no accusation, no threat. The first guard opened the squealing door, and Medros entered the square little room first. Besides the additional shackles embedded in the wall he only found a sack of straw and a thin blanket on the bench, suspended with chains from the wall, an empty bucket, and a wooden mug with water on the stony floor. The bars at the little window, that was too small to even let a child slip through, did not move when he tested them. Satisfied with his inspection he let the other two guards escort the prisoner into his new home. Aragorn took in the details of the cell quickly, and behind the others Medros made for the door.

"What about food?" the King asked in his back. His voice was low but bore a superiority that Medros hated at once. "And the handcuffs? Or are you so insecure that locking up that door will not be enough to keep your treason secret?" Another eye contact that lasted longer than necessary.

Medros rammed the lock into its place, a deafening sound echoing within the thick walls. It was a clear show of force, and the soldier waited for a reaction. He got none. Aragorn just waited, unimpressed.

"Step closer," Medros ordered in a harsh tone. The King stretched out his hands to the bars. The Lieutenant squinted and instead of opening the cuffs he tore off the silver and green brooch the King wore on his tunic. "I do not think you need this in here." Only then he pulled out a key on a silver chain under his cuirass to unlock the cuffs. The prisoner let the metal shackles fall, but the belt around his waist, on which they were fastened, stayed in place. "You will not leave the cell without them." Medros stuffed the key-chain back under his clothing, and though he knew the prisoner could not escape he felt as if he had lost a fight. With a last look he turned on his heels and left the dungeon, heading back to the life of the castle and, finally, beer, food, and his wife.

Lady Saborian sat in her favourite chair near the big fireplace in her private study. She had sent messengers to her followers, who were already on the way to meet her or stayed in the castle, but told them nothing about the successful mission. She wanted to enjoy this victory to the full. Behind closed eyelids she recalled the moment the King had been presented to her, and, again, she was lifted with joy and satisfaction, and now she allowed herself a complacent smile. With her right hand she played lazily with a long curl of her brown hair while she held a goblet of wine with her left. Right now she seemed to fly around the room – a feeling of so pure delight she wanted it to last the whole night.

More than two years ago she had changed her house in Minas Tirith for the castle of her ancestors. She had not lived a simple life since then. Her son, Sadur, had been a young boy when she had told him that once he would be the Steward of Gondor. When Sadur turned twenty, Denethor had apologised, but made clear that Sadur would never be regarded a legal successor to the throne. She had loved Denethor and his rejection was a greater humiliation than she could bear. No argument was a success; she could not change the Steward's decision. They could not marry since the Lady's husband was missing for long years, and Sadur was assumed to be his child. Denethor, sincerely devoted to Gondor, could not let a bastard take the throne, even though he himself would not want Faramir to be his successor. Filled with disappointment turning into anger the more she thought about it, she left the White City with her son to avoid contact with Denethor. During these years living in her self induced exile she had taught her son that he should never take anything for granted. She had encouraged him as a very young man to become a soldier, and she was proud to witness his skills in tournaments and to hear about his bravery in the battle against the army of Mordor.

Her lightness turned to stunned horror when she learned that the heir to the throne had returned. Aragorn led the army into the battle on the Pelennor Fields, and, after the destruction of Sauron, was proclaimed King. With other noble men from Gondor she had attended the coronation. Among all the cheers she was filled with an overwhelming sense of outrage. She could not believe that the Ranger Aragorn, who had been far away for more than twenty years, had suddenly returned to become the ruler of Gondor. For so long Denethor and his men had been left alone to fight the dark lord. She himself had seen the efforts Denethor had undertaken to keep the eastern border safe. And now the noble and hard working Steward was dead, and a man she had not known before took the place her son should have taken.

Her hatred grew, but alone, she knew, she would not succeed, but spend the rest of her life in prison or, worse, be killed by the King's companions. Her feelings of emptiness and forced standstill agreement changed when she met Noratis and L'Adarac, who thought the same way she did, even if for other reasons. Three other noble men of the old days joined their conspiracy. They all had lost because of the death of Denethor and the new laws of the King, and were eager for a course of action instead of tolerating the ruler. In their private meetings Lady Saborian had never uttered a word how she would handle the 'removal' of the King or that she would send Sadur to Minas Tirith as soon as possible.

Lady Saborian smiled in the near darkness. She had accomplished what the King's foes had only talked about behind closed doors. Tomorrow she would show them how a woman solved problems while they only exchanged grim words to no avail.

* * *

Still Day 1, Minas Tirith

Lady Arwen had a feeling of uneasiness. Strangeness. A sense of growing doom. Something she had not felt for months – not since the war against Sauron was over and her beloved husband had been called King. Since then they had lived the happy life they had always dreamt of – full of loving words and embraces. Nearness. With every breath she had inhaled the sweetness of Aragorn's presence. And though he had to leave her frequently to take care of the Kingdom he had always returned within two or three days, and within the hours of his absence she had felt him wherever he was. She simply knew that he was well.

Now this feeling was gone, but she could not tell precisely what had happened. She reached out for him, tried to restore the mental bonding that made her relationship so special, but failed.

Restless she stood up, walked across the patio and into the garden. Cold wind caught her hair and she squinted against the almost white sun. It would be winter soon. But the cold came from within. She told herself that it might have other reasons, but none seemed plausible. She feared that her husband was hurt. But even then, she thought, she had been able to reach out for his mind, bring him back to the light, give him strength when he himself had had none left.

She bowed her head and shivered. Never before since her father and all of her kin had left Middle Earth had she felt so lonely. Now she knew what he had meant. She would live long enough to see the earth change, see people die and their children, too. She would live to grieve all the time and never be happy again. For a moment the emptiness filled her completely. Tears ran over her cheeks, fell on the grass to her feet, but then – for just a brief moment, no more than a bird's flapping of wings, she felt him, a distant, sorrowful feeling. Then it was gone.

Arwen raised her head and with closed eyes tried to find Aragorn again. He was alive – and for all she knew he was in pain. And her loneliness seemed to echo in his mind. He was somewhere in a dark place, but she could not determine where. Arwen shivered.

She turned, lifted the hem of her dress and hurried back into the house.

* * *

Day 1 - Ithilien

The road had been long and distressful at the beginning, but now when the quarrels were settled, he felt rewarded and at ease. He had sent his men on ahead to enjoy once more the peaceful quietness of the land where, not so long ago, only war had ruled. Not all of the land had been restored yet, and he knew that work lay ahead of him, but for the moment he rode in silence, not bothered by bitter thoughts of the past or sorrow of the presence. He listened to the singing of the birds, the rustling of the last leaves of autumn, and the river's melody down below the cliffs. Remembering the dangerous years that lay behind him and had left scars on his mind and body he cherished the more that the destruction of Sauron had brought freedom and happiness to Middle Earth.

Faramir leant back in the saddle, breathing the crisp fresh air. It was already cold, winter had sent his forerunner. In the morning the leaves on the ground had already been covered with ice crystals, and still he did not feel warm. But in spite of the cold night he had endured he felt light- hearted. He would return to Eowyn, his beautiful wife. His expression softened when he thought about her. Eowyn had become more precious to him than any wealth a man or King could have given to him. His love for her was so deep and honest that it almost hurt. He regretted that King Théoden had not lived to see his niece happy again, but Éomer, now King of Rohan, had finally put his sister's hand into that of the Prince of Ithilien. Faramir could close his eyes and see that moment again. Silently he smiled.

He was about to spur his horse when he heard the noise of breaking twigs, accompanied by rustling of leaves. Just once, but he was instantly alarmed and halted. A part of him said there would be no danger, could not be, for all enemies had been defeated, and peace had returned to the land. But the other part, that of a soldier, told him to be cautious. During the war every carelessness had been dangerous, and he was unable to quiet his instincts. His pulse sped up. Watchful and tense he dismounted and bound the horse to a nearby branch. He hid behind the tree for a moment, waiting, watching. No more movement. No more sounds but the waters of the Anduin below. Using the cover of bushes and trees to get closer, he circled the area silently. He had to hurry. If there were somebody hidden he would become nervous if the Prince did not return to his mare.

Faramir squatted behind a bush still green with thorny leaves. Four feet in front of him he could see parts of dark brown cloth and a darker hood. A quiver hung over the left shoulder. The person had positioned himself where he could overlook the way Faramir had been riding. And in his hand he could see the end of a bow. With his sword drawn he slowly approached the figure, careful to avoid the twigs on the soft soil. He made the last step, almost in the position to grab the man's cloak and pull him when the man spun around. He had waited for him! Grabbed the sword arm, hammered it to the ground. Faramir lost the grip, dropped it. Suddenly a knife shone in the man's left hand while he shoved away the sword with his foot. Faramir jumped back, drew his own knife, ready to fight. The man's face was hidden deep in the hood; Faramir could not see his eyes.

"Listen, I don't want to fight you!" Grunting the enemy attacked, the knife shot forward. Faramir evaded, got closer to the cliff behind him. He heard the river fifteen feet below. "Who are you?" Another step forward, quick, determined. The man was tall and fast, his skills and movement flawless. Faramir dodged another hit, tried to hurt the man's left arm, disable him, but failed. The attacker but used his forward movement to stab his right upper arm, jumped back quickly, out of reach. Faramir groaned, renewed the grip on his knife. No time to hesitate. He spun around, blocking the attacker's knife with his left arm. Simultaneously the man punched him in the face, making him dizzy. Another blow. Faramir stumbled backward. His right arm was numb and cold. He changed the knife to his left hand, threw himself forward, away from the slippery stones behind him. The opponent toppled over, Faramir upon him, breathing heavily. Still the knife in the man's hand, threatening. Faramir tried to withhold it from his head with his right hand, but was too weak. Another scratch on his forearm. The enemy threw him off his body, kicked him hard in the stomach. Faramir slid over the rocks, coughing, trying to regain his breath. He shook his head to get a clear vision. Looked up. The enemy's knife was above his breast! He rolled to the side. Blade met stone. The attacker cursed under his breath. Faramir got on his feet. The same moment the man swung his legs around, robbed him of balance. He fell backwards on his right shoulder and arm, reached the rim of the cliff, slid over. Pain rushed through his body. Instinctively he tried to grab a hold, tried to stop his fall. His hands only found sharp stones. He cut his palms, could not hold any longer. For a second he saw the dark face of the enemy above him.

Then he fell.

* * *

Day 2, the castle

Lady Saborian's maid of honour was an eager and swift woman in her forties, round-faced and round at her mid-section. She came from a well- known and reliable family, but the Lady esteemed her high because of her discretion. Never had any story left the private rooms, and so the Lady trusted her with secrets. And even if it would have been otherwise Nila must have noticed the joyful expression on Lady Saborian's face in the morning. For the last two weeks the Lady had been restless and nervous. Now the strain was replaced by a smile and friendly words. Quick as always Nila took fresh clothing out of the big cupboard, displayed it on the bed and waited if her choice was accepted.

"It will be a special morning, Nila," the Lady said and breathed deeply, returning from the window. Her face was almost shining when she smiled. "The red one will be much more... fitting."

"Of course, my Lady." Nila changed the dresses, helped the Lady with the underwear and waited silently for the news.

"Did you hear anything about a new prisoner in the castle?"

Nila lifted her head to face the Lady, binding the last bow of the garment.

"Yes, my Lady. A servant said that a man was brought down to the dungeon. Yesterday morning. Some had seen the soldiers and Lt. Medros arrive. They had the prisoner – a rather tall man - bound to a horse with rope." She turned to reach for the dress. "And he was hooded, they say. But they did not say why."

"Nothing else?" Nila shook her head and hold the dark red velvet dress so the Lady could pull it upon her shoulders. "And what was that servant's speculation who he was?"

"A poacher."

Lady Saborian laughed and stifled it immediately. Nila closed the hooks and eyes and stepped back. Her face was blank.

"That's right. He was caught with a deer he had just shot. - Did you see him?"

"No, my Lady." Nila bowed down again to close the fine leather shoes the Lady had chosen.

"Tell me if you hear anything new."

"Of course, my Lady."

When the maid finished her work the Lady walked over to the mirror. Although almost forty-nine she did not look her age. Men had always swarmed round her after her husband had been declared missing, but only Denethor had been of any interest for her. She had loved him honestly, and though he had disappointed her she missed him. She had had a good life with him. She did not believe that his mind had been clouded when he committed suicide and she repulsed the mere thought that he had almost burnt Faramir alive. Those were jealous lies to impair his immaculate reputation. He had devoted his life to fight the armies of the enemy, and by the lives of many men the borders of the other kingdoms had been kept safe. It was only his merit that Sauron's Uruk-hai had not swarmed the lands earlier. The Lady shivered by the thought of the ugly creatures the soldiers had told her about.

Finally she was satisfied with her appearance and turned away from the mirror. When Nila opened the door for her she could hear L'Adarac's loud and melodic voice through the cold corridor. 'He should have become a singer,' she mused, and looked out of the window into the bright light of this morning in fall. A weight was lifted from her chest. For the first time in six months she felt relieved. She felt great. The long wait had been for good. Everything she had planned was fulfilled to her satisfaction. She now only waited for one man to return, and he was not due for a week.

When she entered the great hall over the broad flight of stairs she dropped the thought of her guest to be a singer. L'Adarac was tall but stout, his fingers seemed to be blown up, and his face had not changed for the better since he let his dark brown beard grow full and long. His hair was thick and of the same colour, and though he was a noble man his manners were not.

"Ah, my Lady!" he greeted her loudly with outstretched arms as if to embrace her. Lady Saborian halted her steps to welcome him with a smile, but did not fall into his arms. It would have been improper to even touch the man, and with a huff he let the arms fall to his sides, pointing to the table. "Very nice you are coming. I already helped myself with the wine. No servants around here today, hum? Do you want some?" She shook her head. L'Adarac was not annoyed by her restrictive behaviour. She was a woman, and women were known to have affectations. The lord was only interested in what she might have accomplished. When the messenger had arrived yesterday afternoon he had nothing more to tell than that the Lady awaited him. He had been excited all day and night. "Do we expect the others, too?" he continued while she stepped down and took a look around as if the hall had changed since she had last seen it. She did not answer L'Adarac's question. Her mind was travelling back to the early morning when she had instructed Medros in her room. She was also informed that the King had been quiet during the night. Because of his concerned look she had asked if he expected difficulties with the prisoner.

"He will always be difficult," Medros had uttered slowly, cautiously. "We can handle that. But- Are you sure you want to show him to the others?"

"Yes. Are you afraid they could betray me?" Medros had not answered but avoided her stare, which was enough. "They are bound to me in many ways, Lt. Medros, and no one will be so bold as to help the King to escape."

Medros had bowed and left.

Now Noratis entered from the south side and greeted her submissively. Opposite to L'Adarac he knew what was expected from him and was willing to oblige. He had been in the Lady's dept for a long time. She did not mention it, but let him feel it every time they met. And if submission led him back to Minas Tirith, back to the White City and the life he had had there long ago, he would be grateful and do what was necessary to support a success. At least, whatever left his head on his shoulders.

"Now, Noratis," Lady Saborian smiled at him, "I thought you might want to be present this morning."

"Has anything important happened?"

"Do not look worried. You will see soon. Sit down and drink some wine."

"Very well, my Lady." He sat, and poured himself some water. His mouth was dry, and he emptied the first cup greedily. He had sat here before with the other men – those who had been loyal to Denethor. They called themselves the 'Congregation of the Old Days' and laughed and drank wine together. Noratis wondered if they knew that it was high treason what they had spoken about on those evenings. Noisily and exaggerating they all had complained about their losses and what would change to the better for them if the King were gone. They had never mentioned a way to do that. Never developed a plan. Noratis judged by the look of Lady Saborian that she had done more than talking. But who could imprison him for talking idle talk while he was too drunk to spell his name correctly? Nevertheless, he feared that he would come to know things he would have preferred to avoid. He told himself that he could only win when the King was gone, but what happened if anyone found out? The King had had a wizard, elves and a dwarf as companions with him on the day of his inauguration. Who could stand against them?

Blotting the sweat on his forehead he glanced at Lady Saborian who welcomed two other men whom he knew by their faces, Tebenor and Radures. Both men were into their forties, tall and strong though the time of peace had made them soft around the middle. The Lady was pleased about their coming and asked them, too, to sit down before she sent a guard out of the hall. Noratis knew that they usually showed off with their battle experience, but he had seen none of them fighting. Noratis smiled wearily. He had lived a good life in Minas Tirith – as well as the others now present. They had not been all too noble to cheat and use every advantage - even if it was illegal - to gain wealth, but the coronation of Aragorn had been followed swiftly by new laws and their rigorous realisation. Noratis bitterly remembered the morning when he had to leave the city to avoid arrest. Lady Saborian had helped him to escape, and he had tried to convince himself that she was doing it out of friendship. But the Lady had made it very clear that she expected a reward – not now and maybe not in a month, but at a time she would define.

The men drank wine and ate a second breakfast while they were exchanging news from their lands and complained about the damage the war had caused. Noratis' hands clutched the goblet. His heart beat faster, and he could hardly answer the friendly welcome one of the men gave him. He thought about Faramir. The Lady had once uttered that she wanted to see Sadur as Steward, but as far as Noratis knew Denethor had never officially claimed Sadur his son. How would she convince the people that Sadur had the right to rule Gondor? Would she go as far as to kill Faramir to reach this goal? Or did she count on Faramir to stand aside for Sadur's benefit?

Noratis felt sick. Years ago he had made a big mistake in his life – more than mere cheating -, and, as it seemed, he would pay a high price for it.

The Lady waited. She was almost as excited as the day before. Then she had not known what the guards would bring from their long journey. Now she would just be surprised by what Medros had made out of her instructions. The men were talking with each other, drinking wine or water like they had done many times before. She could not join the conversation. It seemed unimportant in the face of the coming event. Minutes rolled by, stretched to an hour. She took a look around to make sure that no servant was present and that all doors were firmly shut.

"Now, my Lady, what is so overwhelming that I had to leave my cosy bed last night?" L'Adarac asked so loud it could be heard two rooms down the corridor.

"Be patient," she simply said.

He snorted, "It was a woman, too, I had to leave!" and the others laughed, but she did not listen. Her eyes and mind were fixed on the flight of stairs leading down to the main hall. She recognised Lt. Medros against the sunlight pouring through the window behind him. He had chosen two guards to accompany the valuable prisoner, but it would not have been necessary.

The King did not only wear the same gag and handcuffs but shackles around his bare ankles and a collar with a chain that ended in Medros' hands. She held her breath. Her followers stopped talking, stood up, and stared at the person who slowly walked down the steps. The guard on his right drew up his nose and looked miserable while the man following the King grimaced in pain. But Aragorn had paid for his resistance. His lower lip and his nose were bleeding, and on his cheekbone a dark purple bruise showed. With the narrow chain between his ankles rattling they reached the last step. Aragorn kept his chin high and locked eyes with each of the men gaping at him. Lady Saborian would have been disappointed if he had not kept his dignity even under these circumstances.

"I do not believe this!" L'Adarac exclaimed shaking his head. "My Lady, you are... marvellous!" He suddenly applauded, the others joined, laughing as if they had been granted a pound of mithril.

"A great day, Lady Saborian," Tebenor agreed, and his eyes gleamed with satisfaction. Radures nodded, still too overwhelmed to form words.

"You did the right thing," L'Adarac continued and seemed willing to slap the Lady's shoulder. She side-stepped him and concentrated on Noratis, who had left his chair, but stood like someone struck by icy water. She frowned. Noratis had been the first one affected by the changes in law, and she had expected him to cheer as loud as the others. "What will you do with him?"

L'Adarac's question broke the eye contact the Lady had held with Noratis. She inhaled and looked from her follower to the King.

"He will stay here."

Aragorn bit on the leather, infuriated and hard to hold. He made a step forward, and Medros reacted instantly and pulled the chain, forced him to step back between the guards.

"You really got him under control," Tebenor laughed, and the fat man assisted,

"Yes, he seems to be more like a cave troll I was told about! You were right to collar him! He will need a lot of education to behave properly." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Well, if you want to have him in your service." He was so amused by his joke that his whole body was shaking with laughter. The Lady smiled, her eyes fixed on the King. Blood ran into his beard, and his eyes lay deep in their sockets. His leather coat and boots had been taken away, and the rest of his clothing did not warm him. But at the moment he was too angry to feel the cold.

"Yes, maybe some teaching will be necessary. I will see to that."

"You are a remarkable woman, Lady Saborian," Tebenor praised loudly. "Come on, my friends, let us have a goblet of wine!" He turned and filled the goblets, handed one to each of them. Noratis looked down at the light brown liquor, raised it then to the toast, "On our Lady Saborian, the most determined woman in Gondor!" and gulped the wine. It tasted sour, even more so as he thought of what the Lady had done – high treason. The word ran amok in his head. He was an accomplice! When the Lady glanced at him again he tried to look pleased and at ease. He was in her debt. He had no choice. And maybe ... with the King gone he might be able to return to the White City. It was a thought worth to hold on to.

The cheers went on, loud talking followed about what the men could do and had to prepare for their return to Minas Tirith. Neither one of them mentioned Faramir or Sadur, who was merely a name and a face to them. Lady Saborian let the King wait the whole time, made him listen what his opponents planned. He tried to stand his ground, get himself under control, but she could see that his anger did not subside. Let loose he would rip her guests apart. 'Much like a cave troll,' she thought and took another sip of wine, smiling.

Medros was worried, and that not only because of the presence of the Congregation members. He did not trust them to keep the secret, and if it had been his decision he had never brought the King to the castle. But his reserved proposal to kill the King to avoid any connection with the crime was dismissed at once. Now his sweaty hands still held fast to the chain and he allowed himself only brief moments to let his look wander around the room. He should not be nervous. The prisoner was secured and would not dare another false step if he did not want to strangle himself. But still through every move of the chain he could feel the unnerving restlessness of this man. He wanted to jump into action, free himself, kill the Lady and the guests – after he had finished with the guards. He was an enemy Medros had not crossed before. The Lieutenant knew the famous stories of the King's fight against the Nazgul and the Uruk-hai at Helms Deep. He knew that the King had seen more battles in his life than a hundred other soldiers combined. Looking back he knew that only the simple fact of carelessness had made it possible for his men to overwhelm the party at night and put shackles on the King. The fights against the army of the Dark Lord were over – evil had seemed so far away.

Medros looked down upon the chain. It seemed to vibrate in his hands, just as if the energy of his prisoner was slowly building up. He tried to figure out what the King had planned. Would he tear at the chain to break free? Just to demonstrate that he was not defeated? The King watched the men proclaiming their victory, but Medros was afraid they were celebrating too early. He had tried to convince the Lady that he could handle the prisoner, but he knew better.

The King had clearly shown his strength when Medros and the guards had entered the cell. He had fought with desperate force willing to use the slightest chance to escape. And it had been a good one, Medros had to admit. The first guard had caught a fist straight in the face the moment he got close enough. Both the second guard and Medros had to combine their efforts with a third guard to bring the King down. Medros had knocked him out, and within these seconds, when he was lying unconscious on the floor, they had shackled and collared him. The guards and Medros had been sweating all over, and they did not wish to count the bruises and scratches they had. 'This will not work a second time,' his friend, Bayonor, had said. Medros agreed silently. The King was no easy broken prisoner who sat in his cell with bowed head waiting for the next command to come. As long as he could he would fight them viciously.

Medros' hands held the chain tighter. An hour had passed, and still the Lady had not given him a sign that the prisoner could be brought back to his cell. Medros felt sweat tickling down his forehead. The guards' faces showed the same uneasiness, stepping from one foot to the other, still remembering the incident in the cell. Medros calmed them with a confident look. He hoped it would soon be over.

Against the wish of Medros Lady Saborian still enjoyed playing with her victory. She looked at Aragorn from time to time, ate little, drank little. She could not tell what she expected – she herself had condemned Aragorn to keep quiet. At last, before she could order Medros to take the prisoner back to the dungeon L'Adarac stood up, his face reddened by too much wine and excitement.

"Why not make him look like a prisoner?" he slurred, drawing his dagger.

"What are you up to?" the Lady asked cautiously.

L'Adarac grinned and brandished with the weapon, stepping close to the King.

"Is he not dressed too fine for the dunge... dungeon?"

"What happens with him is my decision, L'Adarac," the Lady snarled, and the noble man fixed his glassy eyes upon her, still holding the dagger in his right hand. "Step away from him."

L'Adarac frowned.

"The L... Lady wants him for herself?" A sarcastic giggle escaped him. "And we," he continued, suddenly dead earnest, "just pay the price for treason when we get caught? - No, you cannot expect that." He turned and raised the dagger.

In the blink of an eye Aragorn snatched the weapon from L'Adarac's hand, turned, hit Medros' arm with one swift movement. The chain rattled to the floor. Medros cried out. L'Adarac stumbled back, fell over his feet and sat hard on the floor. The guards moved in. The tight restraints did not allow a lot of movement, but when the two men attacked, Aragorn hit the first with the long blade in his side. The second evaded while Medros bent down to pick up the chain. Blood dripped from his arm. The first guard hit the stairs groaning. The men at the table watched in shock, unable to help. The King attacked the second guard, swung around as he felt the chain pull tight again. He brought his right ellbow over the chain and tore it from Medros' blood-slippery hands. The Lieutenant stumbled forward, yelped in pain, connected with the shiny blade and narrowly escaped a second slash. Only his cloth was cut. The King spun around, and Medros put his foot on the chain on the stones, not willing to let go. The second guard hit Aragorn with his fist at the temple, and when the King was stunned for a second, hit him again. Medros threw himself forward, toppling Aragorn over. Grunting they both hit the ground. The noble men retreated behind the table while Lady Saborian was unable to move. Aragorn drew up his legs to kick Medros in his groin, could not hit him hard enough. He tried to turn the dagger to Medros' face, but the second guard used both hands to wrest it from his fist.

"Knock him out!" Medros pressed under his breath.

That moment the guard held the dagger in his hand, grimacing. Breathless he moved backward, and sat on the lowest step for a moment. His hands showed minor cuts, and it was clear that the fight should not have lasted any longer. Medros nodded in approval and with still slippery hands grabbed the chain. Slowly he got to his feet. L'Adarac had hidden under the table, came out and, getting up, smoothed his clothes again. Medros looked down upon his opponent, out of breath and shaken by the close defeat. He wished he could lock him up and never let out again. His right arm throbbed with pain, made him dizzy. At his feet was a puddle of blood. He pulled on the chain with more force than necessary.

"Get up!" he rasped and pulled again. The King coughed. His breast heaved with every breath, and he glared at his captor. He even tried to kick him, letting his opponent know that the defeat was only short-lived. Medros had never been so angry. This had been close to a disaster. Bayonor on the steps still held tight to his side. Blood had oozed out through his fingers; it must be a bad wound. Medros' anger grew when he looked at the drunken noble man. L'Adarac blotted his forehead with a handkerchief and nodded in Medros' direction.

"Very well done, young man, very well." He sounded like he would praise the Lieutenant for a complicated trick.

Medros exchanged a look with the Lady. She was pale, almost as white as the lace of her dress, and for her he could not keep quiet. With another brutal tug at the chain the King slowly got to his feet.

"Next time, Lord L'Adarac, leave your weapons at home where they can do no harm."

The second guard gave the dagger back though it seemed he would prefer to use it. L'Adarac put it back into its sheath and turned to Lady Saborian, fuming:

"He does not have the right to speak to me like this! You have to..."

The Lady raised a hand to silence him.

"He saved your life," she said flatly. "And he is right. - Very well done, Lt. Medros." She locked eyes with Aragorn whose breath had not yet calmed. "It seems wise to keep the prisoner under closer control... Make sure that his hands are bound behind his back the next time," she added for Medros, and there was no accusation in her voice. The Lieutenant nodded briefly. "Now take him back."

"Yes, my Lady." Medros was relieved. He put the hood over Aragorn's head and led him out of the hall while the second guard helped his friend to get up. They both left and the party returned to the table, exchanged words of relieve and astonishment. They all looked startled by the force Aragorn had just shown. In the following silence Lady Saborian shook her head slightly.

"Now you see that he is a threat." Noratis avoided her stare. "But we will take care of him. He will not get this kind of chance again." Her gaze wandered to L'Adarac who had poured himself another goblet of wine. He grumbled to himself and looked down at the oak table. "The King will be safe and well guarded within these walls. I will see to this."

"What about Faramir?" Tebenor asked meeting her gaze directly. "When the King does not return, he will surely take the place of the Steward."

"He will truly do that," she stated flatly.

"In my humble opinion the situation for us..." He made a gesture meaning all men sitting at the table. "...will not improve with Faramir on the throne."

"This has yet to be shown."

"He will not reverse the laws," Radures went on, frowning. "So how should this be better for us? We are all... outlaws. In one way or the other."

The Lady smiled a confident smile.

"Let time tell us what happens."

L'Adarac emptied his goblet and slammed it on the table.

"Why did you not kill the King?" he asked, and it was the question they all had in mind. "You were right – he is a threat. As long as he lives. We just saw that." All eyes were fixed on Lady Saborian. She kept her chin high.

"What I do with him is my decision. He does no longer rule Gondor – which was all that you wanted. And I guarantee that he will neither leave this castle nor that anyone will know about his existence."

"But he is a threat!"

"As I said: He will no longer be in your way. That is all you need to know."

"But Faramir..."

"Don't you listen, Lord L'Adarac? Wait." She glanced from one to the other and halted her stare on Noratis who forced himself to nod. "Right now it is imperative that no word leaves this castle that Aragorn is a prisoner here. Our return to the White City depends on our discretion. It is in the interest of us all that the King is held here for the winter. We will meet here occasionally and exchange news from the city. In spring we will decide when to act."

She did not wait for any more questions. With a last friendly look at her conspirators she left the hall.

* * *

Still Day 2, the castle

Medros' arm hurt like hell, but he had no time yet to check the wound. It would have to wait until the prisoner was behind bars again. He tore at the chain and made the man go faster though he stumbled frequently. He almost fell down the last stairs to the dungeon. Only his service to the Lady made Medros stop the fall. Some more bruises would not be bad, a broken neck would.

He shoved him through the last corridor and into the cell. For a moment he saw a small figure alongside the wall. Within a second it was gone, and Medros did not bother to check.

"You will not get another chance so easily," he muttered, his voice heavy with frustration. He had seen it coming. Somehow he had known that it would be a mistake to let the King remain in the hall for so long, to let him watch his opponents draw plans to their advantage. But sometimes the Lady was a gambler, and he was not in the position to contradict. He shook his head, and, after a pause and a reluctant look upon the hood he took the cloth off. Aragorn took a deep breath and shook his hair out of his sweaty face. Medros met the fierce look with determination. "As long as I command the guard this will have been your last try." He knew he could not impress the King, but he felt the urge to threaten him. "Even within this cell I will not take off the foot chains, and if it was not for my orders I would leave the rest of the chains as well." Medros opened the gag, and Aragorn spat it out.

"These people in the hall – these noble men as they call themselves, they commit treason, Medros, and you know it! How can you serve them?"

"Keep your tongue in check, prisoner, or the gag stays as well," Medros replied with constrained calmness, took the piece of leather and went outside to lock the door.

The King looked at him through the bars.

"What are your orders, Lt. Medros?" Medros hated the smooth and absolutely controlled voice of the King. It seemed as if the fight had taken place with another man. He pulled the key and told the King to step close to the bars. "What does Lady Saborian want?" Aragorn asked while the collar was removed. Medros did not answer. "It would be easier in many ways to kill me than to keep me prisoner. So, tell me, what is she up to?"

Medros was tempted to say that he agreed with that and would have proposed it himself, but he merely squeezed his lips tight, opened the handcuffs and turned away from the cell.

* * *

Still day 2, the castle

Medros headed for the first floor to get help for his wound and have a look after Bayonor. He found him lying on a bed. A woman helped the man to dress and left the room to fetch another bandage for Medros.

"This L'Adarac is a fool!" the guard spat with suppressed anger. "How could he get so close to the-"

"Don't say it," Medros warned with a look to the still open door. "As she said – no more people than necessary shall know who he is."

"There are not so many who would recognize him, Medros. Who of these folks here have ever met the... that man? – But tell me, why does she want him alive?"

"I do not know, Bayonor, and we should not ask. We are well paid for what we do. How do you feel?"

"Like gored, what a question! That dagger is not made of thin air!" He continued to curse L'Adarac for his stupidity until the woman returned and bandaged Medros' arm. The gash was long but not too deep. The bleeding had stopped and warmth returned to it. The woman looked from Medros to Bayonor, but as no one started an explanation, she left them alone. "Again, my friend, tell me what's on her mind," the young guard insisted. "We should capture him, yes, but I thought that she just wanted to see him killed while she was present – or for any other reason that would lead to his death, but not that we should watch over him the whole time! This is dangerous! And not only because we will all hang for treason! This man is a cave troll. Did you remove the handcuffs?" Medros nodded. "You should not. Even without a knife his hands are deadly weapons. He will not give up, Medros, don't you see? We killed his companions and caged him up! He can almost pierce us with his stare!" Bayonor shivered severely.

"Go to your quarter and take a rest," Medros advised.

"He will always fight us. And you know that."

Medros slapped him slightly on the shoulder.

"It will not happen again."

"Only when she gives the order to kill him – which would be wise."

* * *