Chapter Fifteen

For Gondor

Part 1

An sober air hung over Minas Tirith as she was made ready for the trial – the trial that not only captivated the whole of Gondor as well as any outlying city, town, or village within shouting distance, riding distance, or signal-fire, but drew in the multitudes from idle curious to tongue- wagers. After all, it was not everyday that a charge of this enormity was brought to bear by no less by the full weight of the Councillor's of Gondor. But more than that, this time the accused wasn't a man, but a dwarf. Overnight, it seemed, Minas Tirith had changed from the city of kings to a spectacle, with a dwarf as the main attraction.

Two mornings later, the people of Gondor assembled for the trial. The two sentries stood on either side of the sacred tree to protect it from the crushing throng.

With the Throne room virtually empty of furniture save for the throne and the councillor's chairs to make more room; the guards were lined up with their usual precision at the front of the room scrutinizing the crowd in an attempt to protect both the dwarf and elf, as per Aragorn's orders; and the huge Throne room was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with spectators who spilled out into the entranceway, the courtyard, the main grounds, and far past the tree itself.

Alflocksom had resumed his place at the front of the room and now watched as the others went about in last minute observations of their own.

"Caspian, is there a reason why you look like a walking wreck?" said Vedt sternly, stopping in front of the dishevelled young guard looking him up and down.

Aic and Seigen were walking behind the line of guards. Now both behind Caspian, Aic looked at Seigen with his brows raised. He pointed to the young guard and then looked at Seigen again. Seigen easily saw something in Caspian's hair. He plucked it, a move so nimble that Caspian himself didn't feel it. With an idiot grin Seigen held up what he had plucked...a piece of straw, the colour of gold.

Vedt's face darkened.

Alflocksom struggled to conceal a knowing grin. He straightened before anyone noticed.

"Sorry, sir. Late, sir," whispered the young guard, pulling at his clothes to straighten them.

"Go shake yourself off, Caspian," Vedt growled, "and don't come back improperly dressed again. This is a formal affair, or have you forgotten yourself and who you represent?"

The young guard dipped his head and glanced a guilty look at his captain as he darted into an empty hallway, and he read nothing but corroboration on Alflocksom's face. Undeniably, this time Alflocksom's view on the matter of protocol were identical with Vedt's: this was no ordinary trial but an extraordinary one, and because so, it was expected that the guards dress with particular attention – properly turned out with full and precise uniform.

After about two minutes of beating both dust and straw off himself, Caspian returned to the line, looking a bit shaken but much neater.

On signal, the four captains – Alflocksom, Vedt, Seigen, and Aic took their usual stations, two on either side of the throne in front of the first step leading to it, each in rigid posture with their hands resting on the hilts of their swords. This was more than pomp and symbolism of their stations. Each was strategically positioned not only according to their status, but also, if needs be, as a last line of defence of both the king and the throne.

Their move signalled the councillors to enter, and the crowd instantly fell to silence as they did. It was a grave occasion, and in spite of the beautiful day, each councillor (ten in total and led to their seats by two flag bearers) walked single file up the room's carpeted runner as somberly as any funeral procession.

As they entered, Alflocksom chanced a glance over at Seigen. It was no secret that there was no love lost between him and Jomy – the head of the councillors. Alflocksom was all but positive that Seigen's foolishness would pop out – the idiot would simply not be able to help himself, although he must realize that Jomy was no man to make sport of, especially now.

As though on cue and just as Alflocksom predicted, Seigen muttered: "Damn weasel," without a trace of the usual laughter in his voice. Glancing over again, Alflocksom noted that Seigen's eyes were focused on the narrow-faced man walking toward him, his hand tightening on the hilt of his sword. On the positive side, he was managing to hold his ground, though just barely. Seigen hated that man – they all did – but Seigen, not one to hold his tongue at the best of times, looked as mad as a wet hen about to explode. Aic and Vedt were doing better, but Alflocksom knew that for whatever reason, Seigen's hate went much deeper than any of theirs. If there was to be any leading done here, he would have to do it. Now. And without being obvious.

Clearing his throat softly to get Seigen's attention he shot him a sharp glare to shut him up before facing front again. Seigen snapped his eyes forward and for once managed to keep his mouth shut. Alflocksom was both amazed and relieved by this unexpected and immediate surrender.

Gimli and Legolas were already standing at the front of the room, of course, with Legolas serving as the dwarf's sole but resolutely determined support. His eyes glittered with daggered warnings to the dwarf's accusers as they entered and were seated. One quick glance at Legolas in all his beautiful fury and the councillors went to great lengths to keep their eyes averted, their voices down, and their movements slow – when they dared move at all.

With the councillors now seated, all in attendance turned expectantly toward the back of the room, then all dipped knee and head (all but Gimli and Legolas) as Aragorn walked unescorted – for she could not bear to witness this - to his throne at the front of the room. Gimli did nod his head, although slightly. Legolas, on the other hand, held Aragorn's gaze with unconcealed irritation. The look was not lost on the king; he gave a slight nod meant only for the elf while all other eyes were diverted, then glanced a concerned look at the dwarf before returning to the elf's eyes as he took his seat. The look of concern was not lost on Legolas; he nodded back almost imperceptibly; almost – because the silent exchange – indeed, all the exchanges – were not lost on Alflocksom. Though his head and knee were dipped in reverence, his eyes were not. Once Aragorn was seated, the crowd, et al, rose, and hushed murmurs of both speculation and anticipation began rippling throughout the room once more.

Aragorn's gaze rested briefly on each councillor before settling on Gimli. He noted that the dwarf seemed to be taking it all in stride. Legolas, however, was not; that much was painfully evident. He continued to glare openly at each councillor. Clearly they were affected by the elf prince's rage: most looked positively stricken, three refused to look up past their own folded hands, and the last one – a thin, rat-faced man – refused to look at anything but the floor as he voiced the charge aloud.

/I can't believe this,/ Aragorn thought grimly. /They're really going to go through with this insanity. If at the end of this they rule that Gimli is anything other than innocent, Legolas is going to defend him...and violently, if necessary./

It was the grave faces of the councillors who had all of Aragorn's attention. That's why he didn't immediately notice when Alflocksom shifted his stance, reached inside his tunic, and pulled out the letter. Turning now and ignoring not only the councillors but the accused, the crowds, and his own guards as well, the captain advanced the stairs toward Aragorn. At the top and directly in front of the throne he lowered his head, dipped down to one knee, and held out the letter.

"Alflocksom?" the king said, taking it.

A look passed between Aic, Seigen, and Vedt – a wide-eyed look that silently asked, "What is he doing?" which was answered just as silently with: "I have no idea."

The captain's head raised to look in Aragorn's eyes. "Sire, I can not stand by and see injustice done here." A long pause – a long, long pause. Then, "Sire, you already know what's in this."

Aragorn nodded slowly, fastening him with his eyes, but they were soft eyes on a soft face. "Yes, Alflocksom, I do. And I have only one question for you: was –" He purposely cut his words off; no need to finish the sentence.

The captain nodded solemnly. "Yes, sire. He was in – "

"By my command, captain, not another word," Aragorn warned quickly, placing a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it firmly to silence him.

Shoving the letter inside his own tunic Aragorn rose from the throne and motioned Alflocksom to follow suit, then he addressed Gimli's accusers in a stern voice.

"Councillors, is there one among you who would dare question Captain Alflocksom's honour?" he asked.

There was no reply, just nervous silence.

Aic shot Seigen a worried look and mouthed, "What's going on?" The other shrugged back in a 'how-would-I-know?' shrug. Seigen leaned forward and shot the same look to Vedt, along with a 'have-you-been-keeping-something- from-us-that-we-should-have-known?' accusing glare. Vedt mouthed, "No" while shaking his head vigorously.

Aragorn continued. "And would any among you dare call into question the captain's loyalty to Gondor?"

Again, as Aragorn expected, there was no reply, unless you counted the quick snort of laughter from Seigen as a reply, which he promptly tried to cover by clearing his throat into a curled hand.

"Then," Aragorn said, "the council can rest assured that no crime was committed here, but instead, swift justice, in protection of Gondor and her king. I am satisfied. And this trial is over. By my order, the council will stand down." Aragorn's voice rose to speak in the dead silence, and speaking in a clear voice that was a mixture of both formality and cheerfulness, he said, "Gimli, with my deepest apology and the apology of the Council of Gondor, all charges against you are dismissed. This court stands down."

The councillor's faces fell, and Seigen couldn't help but smile smugly at Jomy's bulgy-eyed, stunned look. It was a step under what he really wanted to do which was to point at him and laugh out loud, but this would suffice. And besides, he knew that Vedt would be proud of him for holding back.

Confused and still waiting for a trial that never happened, the crowd gave a collective and very audible gasp.

"But sire – " Alflocksom began, turning to him.

"Give your men the order to clear the palace and grounds," Aragorn said, lowering his voice. "I'd like a word with you in my chambers in ten minutes." The captain didn't move; just continued to stare at him. "Those are my orders, captain," he added low but level.

"Yes, sire." Alflocksom's brow knit, studying him for a moment longer before turning to his men and giving orders in a low voice of his own.

"Councillors," Aragorn said, "Legolas, Gimli, Aic, Vedt, and Seigen as well; a word in my chambers on the hour, gentlemen, if you please. I have some business to attend to first."

Ten minutes later, Alflocksom – sweating and more than a touch confused, a million things racing through his mind all at once along with a million Lords-awful punishments for each – rapped a knuckle on the heavy door of Aragorn's private chambers.

"Come," the king's voice called from within.

The captain turned the handle easily, surprised that the door was unlocked. He returned abruptly to this world, ran a quick hand through his hair and walked into the king's chambers, lowering his head respectfully as he came in. He came to a halt in the middle of the room, hitched his sword backward and dipped down on a knee. Aragorn, seated in a chair, motioned to one of two empty chairs positioned across from him, and there Alflocksom sat, waiting for the explosion to come.

None did. Instead, Aragorn regarded him for a moment then pulled the still- sealed letter from his tunic and held it up. "You know, you could have come to me, Alflocksom," he said quietly.

"No, sire, I could not," the captain said, lowering his eyes. "The councillors – "

"– forbad you to speak to me," Aragorn finished; nodding; already guessing. Alflocksom nodded, confirming his suspicious. "I see." Aragorn's face hardened at the thought. He held up the still-sealed letter and tore it in half, then again and again and again, until it was nothing but small puzzle pieces of inch-long scrap. He opened a drawer in the table beside him, dropped the pieces inside, and then slid it closed.

"Do you know how many letters I've received?" Aragorn asked.

"Uhh... no, sire," Alflocksom said, honestly confused by the question.

"One hundred and seventy-three as of yesterday," Aragorn said, a small spark of amusement glinting in his eyes. "And all claimed to have killed Ridley. That roof must have been very crowded." He paused, and in that pause all amusement fell away. "And that's not including the one I received just before the trial. That one I found most interesting. It told of similar things Legolas had experienced when he was in Ridley' – things like soft words and glittering things that caught the eye and hazed the mind."

Alflocksom shoulders slumped. He knew who the letter was from. Caspian. But he didn't think the lad would... Dammit, he did want him to get involved in this. One destroyed reputation is enough.

Aragorn continued. "It told of bravery and honour, and of an accomplice, but the accomplice was not named. So, let's say for the sake of argument that the accomplice was you, shall we?"

"Yes, sire," he said, then quickly lied: "No, sire. There was no accomplice. It was all my doing." His mouth suddenly felt very dry and his eyes would not lift no matter how hard he tried to lift them. Lying had never been his strong suit.

Presently there was another soft wrap at the door. Aragorn didn't look away from Alflocksom as he called, "Come."

At the sound of the door opening and closing, Alflocksom did not turn to see who had entered. He didn't need to. He already knew who it was.

After a moment, Aragorn said, "Join us, Caspian," and waved to the empty chair beside Alflocksom. "I believe it's time we cleared the air. Rest assured that what is said in this room will stay in this room. But I want the whole story, gentlemen, and no one is leaving here until I get it."

After Caspian sat, there was a long, long, uncomfortable silence, and in it, the captain seemed to be studying his hands.

/This is what the sparrow had wanted, isn't it?/ Alflocksom thought. /To do the telling and finish this properly. To do it honourably. Not in a letter, but with words. A letter wouldn't absolve the sins of the soul; only words would, wouldn't they?/

Yes. He knew that.

/What are you willing to sacrifice?/

Who's voice was that? Orome's? No, not this time. The Lords? No. Nor was it the voice of his father, who had raised him to be an honourable man and expected much. That was the hardest voice, the one he often heard in his troubled times, the one he wanted so much to please and so seldom did. No, not that voice, not this time.

This time what he heard was his own voice, his own conscience, urging him to let it all go and damn the consequences. He held so much information...and hadn't told all the tale. Like Caspian's desperate want of comfort and absolution, he found himself wanting to be rid of his own guilt. But the question wasn't, he saw, whether he could say it; the question was whether or not he could move past this without saying it. No, he knew. He'd never be able to leave it behind. If he were to speak it now, there could be nothing left hidden; he would have to tell the king of his part and everyone else's as well. At the labyrinth's entrance, it had been. He would tell everything.

And as Alflocksom began, a fog grew in Aragorn's mind. It gripped him and set him down into what had been...

Part 2

Aragorn stands in an empty and very familiar corridor. He sees Alflocksom in front of the labyrinth's entrance, his hands clenching and unclenching as if nervously waiting for something to happen.

"Alflocksom?" Aragorn calls from where he stands by the stairs.

The captain ignores him and continues to pace back and forth. For Alflocksom, Aragorn is not here; this is not in the present, but the past.

/This is another premonition,/ Aragorn thinks, but knows it isn't. No, this it far clearer than any of the other premonitions. The smell of stale air coming from the labyrinth, the nervous sweat trickling down from Alflocksom's temples, the crackle of nervous energy in the air. No, this is no premonition. This is clear and real. This has already happened.

/My lords, this is the day I died and Orome brought me back,/ Aragorn thinks. /And I saw this before. When?/ He searches his mind and finds it. /When I was... I was floating, and then I was here. I was right here. Or half here. Yes, that's right – I was half-here. This was before...right after I was first stabbed. When I was beginning to fade. How could I be in two places at once? And why didn't I remember this until now?/

/The dead have honoured you before,/ Orome's voice whispers in his mind, but it is only a whisper from the past. (Isn't it?) /Now they honour you again. It is a special gift. Do you understand? Do you remember?/

Yes. He remembers.

/Watch and learn, but do not interfere,/ Orome's voice whispers in his mind, but it is only a memory from before, he knows, not now. Still, he heeds it.

At the sound of Gimli's cry, Alflocksom wheels and then waits tensely, an ear cocked for anything. He can hear mumbles and murmurs echoing back through the tunnel but can't make out actual words. Frustrated, Alflocksom begins to pace back and forth in front of the entrance again, briefly stopping only to listen before resuming.

After a time and as clear as a bell the elf's cry echoes from the labyrinth: "Go, Gimli! Take Ridley down!" then the dwarf answers: "Aye, I will! Stay with Aragorn!"

Something is going to happen, Aragorn realizes. Something has happened. The look on Alflocksom's darkening face told that he knew it as well. And now, as though the thought had beckoned them, he hears the echoing click of approaching footfalls in the labyrinth.

/It's Ridley,/ Aragorn thinks. /Somehow he got past both Legolas and Gimli./

And sure enough, after another moment, who should run almost into Alflocksom's arms but the man himself. But Alflocksom is more than ready for him, planting his feet and throwing a shoulder into Ridley's chest as he runs past. The block is enough to knock Ridley right off his feet and send him sprawling across the polished floor. The knife skitters away from him as he falls and it strikes the far wall a good fifteen paces from him. Ridley is down and dazed, and Alflocksom wastes no time in taking advantage of that. He straddles Ridley then pulls the set of manacles from his belt and slaps them on his wrists before he can recover. A minute later, Gimli emerges from the labyrinth and seeing them there stalks forward, his eyes wild with fury and his axe firmly in hand.

Alflocksom glances up. "The king?" he asks.

Gimli stops in mid-stride, his face falling as though he has just remembered something horrible. "The healers? Where?" he asks breathlessly.

Then Alflocksom's face falls as well, knowing there is only one reason for the dwarf to ask such a question. He points down a hallway. "Two rights and a left, then follow it straight to it's end," he says quickly.

Gimli races past Aragorn less than a hand's width away without seeing him, and Aragorn already knows that he will not see Gimli again until...afterward.

Alflocksom grabs Ridley by his elbow and yanks him to his feet. "What did you do?" he snarls into the fake king's face. And that's when Ridley does something totally unexpected. He laughs. He laughs as though it is a game, as though he is the only one privy to the punch line of a hilarious joke, as though he has just witnessed the funniest prank in the world. And in that laugh, Aragorn and Alflocksom both realize what has happened and what Ridley thinks of it.

Alflocksom starts down the corridor toward Aragorn, still holding the chain between Ridley's he looks almost like he is dragging him.

"Let's see how funny you think this is," Alflocksom snarls as he and Ridley start up the stairs that lead to the rooftop.

Heart heavy with dread, his stomach clenched in a knot, Aragorn follows, and as he walks unseen behind them, he wonders: Why the rooftop? Probably because when Alflocksom had glanced past Ridley's shoulder he had seen the stairway leading to them. Maybe he only wants to scare him. Maybe he only wants to make him stop laughing. Maybe both are true, but those are not the only reasons. The real reason, Aragorn realizes, is that as soon as Alflocksom had seen the stairway he'd decided what he was going to do. So up they go. And when they reach the top Alflocksom removes the handcuffs, and as he does, it's obvious that he's searching Ridley's face for some tell-tale sign of regret or remorse or...something. But all he sees is more humour, and all he hears is more laughter, and his face hardens in determination and anger.

He demands Aragorn's possessions back and Ridley complies, right up to the ring. That, he takes off slowly, and places it in the palm of his own flat hand. He tilts it first one way and then the other while the sunlight twinkles off it's gold. Then he begins to talk – a droning chatter that seems to go on and on until that's all that Alflocksom seems to hear. Soon the captain's face grows slack, hands grow numb, mind grows hazy; and all the while he stares at the twinkling ring as the droning voice going on and on and on...

Perhaps Alflocksom understands what is happening to him at the last second – that Ridley is using Aragorn's ring to catch his eyes and his mind, and that the words were not just talk but a way the capture his soul.

Maybe...but it's already too late. His mind slides away from him and his body is no longer his to control – it now belongs to Ridley.

Part of Aragorn wants to go to Ridley and slap the ring from his hand, but he knows this isn't the way it's supposed to go. Even if he tried, he doubted it would do any good; his hand would likely pass right through, like the hand of a ghost.

A ghost. Yes. That's exactly what he is here. That's why he couldn't remember this until now. He is a ghost here; was a ghost here. At least a good part of his soul had been here to witness this. He can do nothing but watch.

So, unaware that he has been entranced – Alflocksom can't grasp the fact that he is entranced, never having been before – he stands like a statue: unmoving and unthinking and unaware of anything around him...or beside him. But there is someone else on the roof, and Aragorn sees him move silently up beside Alflocksom.

Now the ring is twirling through the air, sparkling in the sunlight. The captain's eyes follow it's movement as it arcs and makes it's decent to the floor. When it hits the stone, it bounces once, twice, three times, and then comes to rest in the shadows by the edge of the wall.

The captain stands where he is, his eyes on the ring but no longer bound to it; his slack face drawing back up, just beginning to understand what has just happened: Ridley has used the ring and his words to put him under some sort of a spell.

Now the captain is aware that Caspian is beside him, sword drawn, it's tip pointed at the bewitcher. Alflocksom does not turn to the young guard; he is frozen by the man in the king's clothes who is raising his bleeding hand and looking at it with agonized, unbelieving eyes. Actually, Ridley had been lucky, Aragorn realizes. Caspian's blade had come from below the palm to strike upwards with it's flat side, not slicing, and so only smashed the tip of the second finger and tore off the nail instead of removing finger and all.

Now Alflocksom sees Ridley for what he really is, for the monster that he is, then without taking his eyes off Ridley he says to his young saviour: "He won't stop. He'll never stop until he has the crown, until he has killed Aragorn and takes what he wants. He'll never see a trial. And if he does, with the death penalty all but abolished, he'll never get the justice he so richly deserves. He'll live... and he'll be back. The battle may be over but the war has just begun."

The young guard's eyes narrow. "Unless it ends here, sir."

"That's just what I was thinking. Perhaps you should go."

Caspian shakes his head slowly. "My place it beside my captain, and my job is to protect the king...sir."

Alflocksom takes a step toward Ridley with a closed fist, likely meaning to smash him across the face...and he can do that, he realizes, for he can move now. But before Alflocksom can lay a hand on him, Ridley holds out his wrists as though waiting for the manacles...then starts laughing again. Both Alflocksom and Caspian grab him, one on each side, and then he is


falling over the edge of the wall, twirling in the air like the ring a minute before...and he isn't laughing anymore. He is screaming.

There are no words exchanged between the captain and the young guard, only a knowing look. Then they make their way down the steps and meet Gimli rushing up.

Part 3

Aragorn came back to himself and was silent for a time. Then: "This whole put Gimli on trial over a man like that – a man who did his damnedest to kill me... This should never have gone as far as it did." He shook his head in disgust. Then, as though speaking to himself, quietly asked, "Tell me captain, what is the first thing one does when arresting someone?"

"Disarm them, sire," Alflocksom answered, his eyes still lowered.

"Yes, that's right," said Aragorn distantly, nodding slowly as though weighing this. Then: "But for a man whose words were as a weapon, nothing short of gagging him or removing his tongue could have disarmed him, so...he was never really disarmed. Isn't that true?"

Alflocksom opened his mouth as if to speak...then he closed it again. He honestly hadn't thought of it that way. But the more he did think about it, the more confused he got.

"That is true, captain," Aragorn was saying, his voice still distant, and Alflocksom looked up now and listened as he continued. "Never underestimate the power of words, Alflocksom, for I knew of a man – a pale, horrible, wretch of a man, a "witless worm" and "snake" Gandalf had called him – who possessed the same bewitching power of the forked tongue as Ridley. His name was Grima, son of Galmod, though was known simply and more appropriately as Wormtongue. He gave council to King Theoden but was at the same time in league with Saruman. He used his wit of words to counsel The Lord of the Mark, and as he did, he captured his mind. Wormtongue almost succeeded in bringing down Rohan, and if Rohan had fallen, all would have been lost. From everything Legolas has told me, as well as what I know myself, I believe Ridley possessed the same leechcraft power as Wormtongue did, and maybe more so; the only difference between the two was Ridley didn't have the position to use it as Wormtongue had. You can believe me or not, but I know with certainty that given enough time Ridley would have destroyed Gondor."

"But sire, Ridley was in custody - in manacles... I took them off and – " Alflocksom tried to explain, but Aragorn stilled his words with a shake of his head and a small, sad smile.

"You can't place into custody one that can not be disarmed," he said. "If a trainee under your tutelage manacled a killer with an armed crossbow still in his hands, would you consider that killer to be disarmed and in custody?"

Alflocksom lowered his eyes. "Of course not, sire. But – "

"Yet Ridley's words were as deadly as any crossbow, manacled or not," Aragorn said. "Place the blame where it should be and let it haunt him in the afterlife, not you here and now, for he will have that and more to explain to the Lords. But as far as your instincts and actions are concerned, they were correct, captain. Ridley had full intentions of killing me and taking Gondor, and he would have kept trying until he got her.

"We all made mistakes, Alflocksom, myself more than anyone for wishing the crown had never been fated to me in the first place. And worse still, I made no provision in the laws for one the likes of Ridley when obviously I should have." He shook his head. "Of course, who would have thought there would be need of a law for someone who not only looked exactly like me but could influence one's mind? Still, the mistake was mine, not yours. You were forced to correct it, nothing more, and for that you have my gratitude." He paused. Grinned. "And as for you, Caspian, you have proved to be a true man of honour and worthy of a promotion, but I'll leave that up to the good captain." He paused. "Now, we shall speak no more of this. You are the captain of my guards, Alflocksom, and I will question neither your loyalty nor your honour, sir, for you are the most honourable of men. Understood?"

"But – "

"Understood, Alflocksom?" Aragorn repeated mildly, leaving the captain with no doubt that Aragorn now considered the matter closed.

"Yes, sire," was all Alflocksom said, or could say. "But now what, sire?" he asked a little hesitantly, for he was not sure of Aragorn's mind and the king made no move to dismiss them.

"Now we wait for the others," Aragorn said, after a moment's thought. "And when they come, answer only the questions put before you by me." He paused again, then added: "Keep a keen eye out, both of you. There is more than one snake in this palace."

Part 4

On the hour, as requested, all ten councillors, along with Legolas, Gimli, Aic, Vedt, and Seigen, met in the king's chamber. More than a few brows raised when they found Alflocksom and Caspian already there, with the captain standing to the side of the king's chair; his hand, as usual, resting on the hilt of his sword. The king's face was utterly unreadable as he watched each enter.

"Aragorn?" Legolas asked, ignoring the others and moving toward his friend with Gimli in tow.

Smiling, Aragorn rose, clasped Legolas' hand, and pulled him forward. The elf, struck by this move, let himself be pulled.

Aragorn put his mouth close by the elf's ear. "Be ready to help me in...oh...about two minutes."

Legolas frowned but nodded.

"I have need of your eyes, my friend," Aragorn said, lowering his voice even more. "Both of you," he added, glancing at the dwarf. "We hunt snakes." He clapped Legolas, who still looked confused, on the shoulder and then turned to the councillors. "Gentlemen," he said. "I want one of you to explain to me how Ridley came to possess the crown."

"He was an exact copy of you, sire," one blurted out, then lowered his eyes and stepped back as though instantly regretting his boldness.

"You are supposed to be the Councillors of Gondor. You should have known the difference between the real and the fake."

"How could we?" asked another. "No one could tell that."

"Oh really?" Aragorn asked. "Legolas could. So could Gimli." Aragorn's eyes cut to Alflocksom. "Captain, did you know the difference on sight?"

The captain nodded. "Yes, sire, I did," he said honestly.


"His eyes, sire. They were..." Alflocksom hesitated for a moment, rethinking the word


that first came to his mind. He glanced down as he searched for the right word, and when he found it, his eyes lifted back to the king's face. "...strange, sire."

Aragorn raised a brow. "How so?"

Alflocksom's brow furrowed and he heaved a deep breath as he thought. After a long, long pause, he finally said, "Well, his eyes laughed, sire, when there was nothing amusing. They also had a hardness in them that you do not have." He shook his head. "I can't explain it, except to say that his eyes were not yours."

"Aye," the dwarf added, more to himself than anyone else. "He found amusement in cruelty. Amusement...or comfort." He shrugged. "Strange eyes, he had. Very strange. Not the eyes of a friend at all."

Memories began to creep into Legolas' mind. The droning voice of the dwarf went on, and it's tone was so low over the clear memory of his own screams and pleadings that he heard none of it, any more than he could see the dwarf's face through the sudden misting of his eyes. His ears began ringing, his cheeks felt strangely numb, and the air in the room was suddenly too thin.

/Faint,/ Legolas thought with astonishment as his breath picked up. /Lords, I think I'm going to faint./

"...yet as soon as I found myself face to face with him, I knew on sight," said the dwarf, and Legolas caught none of it. The dwarf glanced up at him to prod him to confirm his words, then he tipped his head. "Legolas?"

Though the elf had been staring at the dwarf, his mind had been filled with flashes of memory – memories of the mine. At the sound of his name he blinked twice and began to come back to himself.

"Legolas?" Aragorn was now looking at him with concern. "Are you alright?"

The elf nodded. But he wasn't. He felt cold, and his heart was beating too fast. "Can you " – he licked his lips – "open a window? It's a bit tight..."

Legolas never finished that particular sentence. His cheeks paled as if he had seen a ghost. Or heard one.

Tight. There was that word again. And suddenly the word prompted another memory – one that crashed over him as fresh as if a moment ago. He could see it – see it all and feel it all – and although it was so quick – no more than a flash, really, for a moment he was there again, laying on the floor in that room. Ridley let him go, stepped back, and grinned maliciously. "Feeling a little tight, are you?" he asked, and Legolas remembered thinking: /Tight?/ No, definitely not tight. He felt like his lungs were being yanked out of his chest.

Then the memory let go.

How long he might have stayed there in the memory Legolas didn't know – perhaps just long enough to frighten Aragorn half-to-death. Then Aragorn, who was now beside him (though he hadn't been aware that anyone moved), spoke his name in a tone of that mirrored his fear.


Then he felt a pressure on his arm. Glancing down he was surprised to find a hand on his elbow steadying him. His gaze lifted to meet Aragorn's worried eyes. /Those are Aragorn's eyes,/ he thought. /No doubt about it./ He smiled and gently shrugged him off.

"I'm fine, Aragorn," he said, and for the first time in ages he truly felt fine. "And Gimli is right. You could never have Ridley's eyes." He turned to the dwarf. "Not strange, master dwarf. Haunted. I believe that was the word you were searching for. There was a shadow in Ridley's eyes that never left them, even when he was amused. Something happened in his past that left a deep scar inside," he said, tapping his temple.

Legolas was right, of course, and Aragorn wondered if the elf now felt the same way: scarred inside. Then he wondered if that's how Legolas figured out the look. Takes one to know one, he thought. Still, he could see no signs of haunting in Legolas' eyes, and counted that, at least, as fortunate. He decided that was a conversation best saved for later. Right now he had to concentrate on finishing what he had started here.

"You're sure you're alright?" Aragorn asked Legolas again, his eyes searching the elf's face for an answer.

Legolas smiled, nodding.

"Then be ready for anything, because this will not go over well."

Aragorn turned again to the councillors. "Twice you have overstepped your boundaries. Twice you chose to wield a power you had no right to wield. Twice you accused this dwarf, my friend, of murder, and sought his head. It's possible that at first you truly believed Ridley was me – yes – but sometime later you figured it all out, didn't you?" He didn't wait for a reply, just carried on. He could see there would be none; the councillors jaws were dropping. "And yet you did nothing to stop him. Stop him? No – rather, you encouraged him, and fed off the power like starving dogs over a scrap of meat. And worse, you would have committed murder to conceal your corruption. Your actions speak louder than any words. They speak of dishonour; they speak of greed; they speak of a lust for a power you can never have. Councillors, you are hereby dismissed. I will not be counselled by dishonourable men."

Whatever mouths not yet agape, unhinged, and not just the councillors mouths, but Aic's, Caspian's, and Seigen's as well. Somehow Alflocksom and Vedt remained totally composed.

Legolas studied each councillor's face carefully. Their look mirrored one another's... except one. That one. The man in the back wearing the large cloak, though the day was warm. His face didn't pale nor did his jaw unhinge like the rest. Instead, his lips pressed into a tight line and hate flashed golden in his hazel eyes. Legolas didn't know his name but he knew him all the same – the head of the councillors. The way he took the news came as no surprise to the elf. This man, after all, had the most to lose and was likely the greediest of them all, being the one closest to the power.

While all eyes remained fastened on the king, the elf was on the move along the wall, taking the longest possible way around and keeping his movements slow and utterly silent.

"But sire," one in the front began to protest once he found his tongue. "Who –"

"Alflocksom, Aic, Seigen, and Vedt are in need of promotion and are honourable men. Their counsels would be wise and welcomed to my ears. Yours are not. The simple truth is that I can no longer trust any of you. The hottest corners in the void are reserved for those who, in times of crisis, choose allegiance based on personal gain."

With those words, the man in the back tensed. His hand hitched to something large hanging at his side and well hidden under his cloak. A second later something hard and cold and very pointed pressed against the back of his cloak, dead centre between his shoulder blades. He knew what it was and who held it at once, understood the game was lost, but couldn't understand how the elf had gotten the drop on him.

"You can be made worse things than a fool," the voice behind the tip of metal said. It was empty, somehow – not just mild, but emotionless. "Move, and this goes into your heart." A beat of a pause, then, "Aragorn, I believe I've found your viper."

All heads had turned to the sound of the elf's low voice. Now each shook theirs and muttered their displeasure. Alflocksom paid no attention to the mutterings. At first move of the elf his eyes had begun scanning too. Then fixing on Jomy, he'd begun stepping steadily closer and closer to Aragorn, ready to leap in front of him, if needs be, and give his life for his king. Now his eyes were fixed on the lump that had to be a hidden crossbow slung over the traitorous councillor's shoulder. Placing himself before Aragorn, he walked though the loose group straight toward Jomy and Legolas. Aic and Seigen took the cue and did likewise. Vedt positioned himself in front of the still healing king. Alflocksom stopped in front of Jomy, holding out his hand for it and looking at Jomy sharply.

"Give it to me!"

Jomy glared daggers at him, making no move to comply. Rather, his finger tightened on the trigger.

"Give it to me, damn your treacherous face!"

Jomy felt the elf's knife press deeper into his cloak in an obvious threat. He sneered darkly...then lifted his hands skyward in compliance.

Alflocksom tore the crossbow away before Jomy could do more than begin to shrug it off his shoulder. The captain eased the tension off and removed the bolt. For a moment he considered shooting Jomy with it, since the act was obviously pre-meditated... but no, he wouldn't go down that road again. One murder on his hands was more than enough to live with.

Seigen almost sneered. "You should have shot the weasel with it," he muttered, echoing Alflocksom's thoughts. "I would have. I may yet."

Seigen looked at the traitor with a font of unconcealed disgust, looked at him as one might look at a vicious animal that was now caged...but could break free again, and attack when it does.

He stepped forward, meaning to grab Jomy...or perhaps push him backward into the elf's knife.

"Don't," Aic said in a low voice. He was standing on the opposite side of Alflocksom but looking at Seigen. His eyes were bright and knowing, as though he could read his mind. He didn't know why Seigen hated Jomy the way he did, but he had seen his friend's face, and that had been enough. "Don't, Seigen, after all you have done, don't throw it all away on the likes of him. He's not worth it, my friend."

Seigen looked at him uncertainly for a moment, thinking he should destroy the cursed man, anyway – misery suffered did not justify misery to come, and as long as the man remained alive, misery was all he would bring anyone. Jomy was a bringer of misery, nothing more. None knew Jomy the way he did, and thank the Lords they didn't, but adding what he had done many, many years ago, to the treachery against the king was more than enough to earn Jomy a place in the void. Jealous, Jomy used his influence to destroy Seigen's father's good reputation as well as the reputations of countless others, and he would destroy more, if left alive. Most have forgotten that. Seigen did not, nor would he ever.

But then he thought of Aragorn and drew back. Later he would bitterly regret doing that, but that regret would call at another time, another day.

"Perhaps you should have shot him, Alflocksom," Aic said with a dark sneer of his own. "He has lost his honour – "

"– and so has lost his way," Vedt finished, doubling Aic's sneer. "Of course, that's just an observation, not an offer. A decent bolt would be a waste on the likes of him."

"True, though it would have been my pleasure to waste it," the captain said. He grabbed Jomy and spun him on his heels, then shoved him toward the door. "You sure are determined to have a trail, aren't you, Jomy? Well, let's see if we can't accommodate you this time."

"Well?" Aragorn called to the departing captain.

"Sire?" Alflocksom asked, yanking Jomy to a halt in the doorway and glancing over his shoulder to Aragorn.

"The promotion to councillors. None of you have answered."

Answer him, Alflocksom, Orome's voice whispered in Alflocksom's mind as clearly as if he was whispering in his ear.

/I think I understand your riddles now, Orome,/ Alflocksom thought. /This is what you wanted from me all along, isn't it? On the way to the mine, you said: "There is more than one way to save him and Gondor both, and more than one reason for it." This is what you meant, isn't it? It wasn't about Ridley destroying Gondor. It was about saving the king and stopping the councillors. You knew the councillors were corrupt, didn't you?/

Yes, came a whisper as though on the wind.

/They would have destroyed Gondor, not Ridley. Ridley was the means, not the end, am I right? He was the means for the councillors to gain power./

Yes, Alflocksom. Now you know. But what will you do with that knowledge?

/If I agree, will this test finally be over? Is it enough?/

There was only silence.

/Orome, I need to know – if I agree, will this be enough to save Gondor?/

Yes. More than enough. All that you have sacrificed – indeed all that all of you have suffered and sacrificed – has lead you all to this moment. Gondor's future was in jeopardy and had to be protected at all costs, and only by testing could be found the most rare of beasts: men of honour, to safeguard her. This is your time, Alflocksom, and theirs, as it should be. As it had to be. Your heart is good, your honour intact. Now let your conscience be clear and make your choice.

The captain fell silent for a moment. He glanced at Vedt, Aic, and Seigen (who were busy glancing at each other), then said, "We serve at the pleasure of the king. If that is your wish, sire."

Aragorn smiled. "It is."

"Then..." – he glanced at his three friends who were vigorously nodding their heads – "...we humbly accept."

Seigen gave a loud whoop and the other two joined him.

Smiling himself, Alflocksom added: "For Gondor!"

The End.

Note: I admit that I borrowed Dante's quote and re-worded it. The exact quote (though exact is only to the best of my recollection) is: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of crisis, preserve their neutrality."


Well, there you have it. I can't believe it's over.

I tried to kill Alflocksom. Honestly. But I couldn't. Not after falling in love with the big guy. Ah well...

The same goes for Seigen, Vedt, Aic, and Caspian.

So, for now, everyone's Ridley. :o)

I'm so grateful for TLATD, not only because it worked, at least to a degree; the story is here, after all (and that alone seems like a miracle in itself), but more importantly, I've met a lot of wonderful people because of it.

Thank you dear readers for getting on my little train and allowing me to take you on a journey. It's been an honour. And thank you so much for the wonderful FB! It's greatly appreciated. :o)

Cassia: It's because of you that this story came to be. ( I guess that makes this all your fault. LOL) Your encouragement is, and always will be, invaluable. :o)

A huge hug and thank you goes to my brilliant friend Vi, who helped me in this story as best she could and supported me in ways she doesn't even know. My dear, when I said, "You are my spine" I hope you realize that if not for your help I would not have had the courage to post it.