12. Above All Shadows
The journey back to Minas Tirith was blessedly uneventful. The master of the trade depot donated a light cart so that Arwen and Ninniach could ride overland to the Anduin in relative comfort. The depot's healing staff provided a pot of salve to soothe the raw wounds on Arwen's ankles, and the kitchen staff parted with a stack of towels in lieu of baby napkins.
The royal ship waited for them at Pelargir, and by the time they arrived, Arwen's ankles had healed enough that she was able to walk aboard unaided, while Aragorn carried Ninniach. During the voyage, the soldiers, diplomats, and sailors fussed over Ninniach and made much of her. Ninniach accepted their attention with regal good grace, provided that either her mother or her father was nearby at all times. She had lost weight during her captivity, but now she nursed eagerly, and began to grow plump again. Sometimes, if the sailors were eating something that could be chopped fine enough, they would feed it to the baby and laugh uproariously at the faces she made with each new food.
Faramir, Gimli, and Éomer were at the dock to meet the ship as it arrived at Minas Tirith. Aragorn embraced all of them and thanked them for their readiness to ride to war, should it prove necessary. "We have been most fortunate," he said. "In the end, there was no need to call upon swords and spears. The forces working against us collapsed under their own weight."
"Rohan is ever ready to ride to Gondor's aid," Éomer said. "But I, too, am glad that things did not come to such a pass."
"As for the Dwarves," Gimli said, "we have found employment in the repair of those portions of the Citadel that were damaged by fire."
"I thank you for that aid," Aragorn said with a smile.
Gimli shrugged. "It is the least we can do. I was not fast enough to prevent the assault on the Citadel that led to the fire, but my folk can repair the damage."
"I do not blame you, Gimli," Aragorn said. "Many things that we thought to be true have proven false. That includes my conception of the Citadel as an impregnable keep, a last solid defense against assault. It may withstand the onslaught of an army, but we have seen that it is vulnerable to treachery."
"That reminds me," Faramir put in. "There is one last consequence of that assault that remains to be dealt with. When Beregond and Éothain returned from the strike against Nurn, they brought with them a lady called Wen. She appears to have been the wife or concubine of the Lord of that folk, and seems to be their leader now. I have given her a small guest chamber until such time as you are able to meet with her and determine the fate of that land."
"I will see her tomorrow," Aragorn said. He looked around the dock and frowned. "You said that Beregond and Éothain returned from Nurn. What has become of Legolas? Why is he not here as well?"
"I asked Beregond that very question," Faramir replied. "He said that the Elves turned aside in Ithilien to return to their own land. Legolas is as well as can be expected, though he had no desire to come to Minas Tirith."
"I cannot say that I blame him," Arwen said softly.
"Indeed," Gimli said. "These past weeks have been hard on him. I have heard that the Elves recovered the child who was taken, but Doronrîn will not return to them."
"I understand," Aragorn said. "I will not force the issue, though I would offer Legolas my thanks for his aid. After I have dealt with this lady Wen, I shall ride out to Ithilien and attempt to deliver such a message myself. But for now, I wish simply to return to my home and spend the rest of the day in the company of my family and friends."
The next day, Aragorn busied himself reviewing all that had occurred in Minas Tirith while he had been absent. He toured the burnt portions of the Citadel and praised the swift work of the Dwarves who were rebuilding it. His proxy lords reported the provisional decisions they had made and passed on questions they had received which only the King could answer. Slowly, Aragorn sifted through his paperwork, pausing at noon to take a meal with Arwen and Ninniach.
Instead of gruel, Ninniach ate a pulp of mashed fruit. She was slowly learning how to swallow solid food, so her meal was somewhat tidier than when she had first become acquainted with barley gruel. Aragorn concentrated on feeding his daughter and tried not to think about the fact that the walls of the royal suite had been freshly plastered to cover over the marks of the assault that had taken place there. Despite the best efforts of the cleaning staff, there was still a faint stain on the floor where Doronrîn had been killed.
Ninniach finished eating, and Aragorn removed her meal tabard while Arwen washed her face and hands. "The woman Wen will be brought before me soon," Aragorn said. "Do you wish to be present when I meet with her?"
Arwen nodded. "I will hear her speak. I wish to know about her land, that has caused ours so much grief." She went to the door and summoned one of her ladies-in-waiting to watch over Ninniach while she attended court. She and Aragorn changed into their most formal court robes, of black velvet with the insignia of the White Tree embroidered prominently upon it. They were robes intended to be worn when receiving an embassy from a far country or when passing judgement upon the highest of criminals. Briefly, Arwen wondered which capacity this meeting would draw forth.
Wen was waiting in the throne room when the King and Queen arrived, wearing her thin gray work dress and a scowl on her face. She refused to curtsey before the royal couple, even when prodded by a guard. "I am the Lady Wen, and my people are free," she informed him. "We bow to no one."
"Indeed you are free," the King said mildly. "I decreed it myself. I am sorry to see that your freedom has led us to such a pass."
"Pretty words," Wen spat. "I have had enough of men and their pretty words." She turned to glare at the Queen. "Thano and the visitors all promised to make me as fine as you, Elf Queen of Gondor. Now they are gone. You have your husband and your throne, and I have a land that withers to dust. Where is my man? Why has he left me?"
The Queen gazed steadily at Wen. In a soft voice, she said, "He is dead, Lady. I witnessed his death with my own eyes."
"Your husband killed him."
"He killed himself." The Queen's face showed distress at the memory and compassion for the woman left behind. "I do not think he was an evil man, and I grieved for his death. It was not necessary."
"Of course it was not necessary," Wen said, beginning to choke. "I cannot see that it is necessary for anyone to die. I did not want death. All I asked of Thano was that he keep our people alive and free. And now he is dead, and I have surrendered." A tear rolled down her face, followed by another, and then she let out a sob.
The Queen hurried down the steps of the dais, her arms reaching out to embrace Wen. At the last moment, she saw Wen's glare and thought better of that. Instead, she reached into her sleeve and pulled out a fine linen handkerchief, which she handed to Wen. Wen blinked at the lovely thing in her hand, then looked up at the Queen, standing an arm's length away from her.
"Thank you," she said. She mopped her face, then folded the handkerchief. Awkwardly, she thrust out her hand to offer it back to the Queen.
"Keep it," the Queen said. "I think you have more need of it than I."
At this small courtesy, Wen broke down completely and wept. When she had finished, she wiped her face again and gave the Queen a worried glance. The Queen offered a smile of encouragement, and Wen responded with a tiny smile of her own. She straightened her spine and faced the King.
"I am ready to hear your judgement upon my people," she said.
The King sat back on his throne and studied her for a long moment. Then he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
"I have given the matter of your people's situation much thought," he began. "It is true that your nation has attacked mine. Your soldiers abducted the Princess of Ithilien and women and children of that land. They participated in an assault upon the Citadel in Minas Tirith that resulted in the capture of the Queen and Princess of Gondor and the death of Lady Doronrîn, a guest in our land and much beloved among her own people. I cannot ignore these acts of aggression."
Wen's grip tightened on the handkerchief, but her gaze did not waver as she listened to the King recite the crimes in which Thano had taken part. The King returned her gaze, pleased at her honesty.
"However," he went on, "neither can I ignore those of my own actions that led your folk to act as they did."
Wen's head jerked back in astonishment at that statement. "You set us free," she said. "Are you saying that you regret that action?" Her expression grew slightly harder and more suspicious.
"I do not regret freeing the slaves of Mordor," the King replied. "I do regret that I then abandoned them to their own devices without considering whether or not they knew how to be free."
"What do you mean, King of Gondor?"
The King sighed. "I left you a worn-out piece of land that you did not have the skills to farm appropriately. I left you alone to govern yourselves, you who had bowed beneath the yoke of slavery for generations. You had no means to educate yourselves, and no model for your leadership save that of your former dark masters. I should hardly have expected any less than anger and resentment from the People of Nurn. In my defense, I offer only the fact that I was new to my position at the time and in the flush of victory, I did not consider the full consequences of what I saw as an act of mercy. I offer my sincerest apologies to your people, Lady Wen."
Wen's eyes narrowed as she considered this. She turned to the Queen, who nodded her agreement with the King's words. Reassured, Wen turned back to the King. "I accept your apology," she said stiffly. "But that does not alter the fact that I am the Lady of a defeated people. Will you leave me hanging much longer? Tell me what doom you will inflict upon us."
"You are as shrewd a ruler as any I have yet encountered," the King said, sitting back upon the throne. "Would that you had led your folk from the beginning, for we might then have been true allies. But what is done may not be undone. Here is the doom of the King of Gondor.
"Lady Wen, I cannot permit the unchecked rise of a hostile power on Gondor's borders. I will strengthen the garrison in the ancient watch city of Osgiliath and set a guard upon the border between Gondor and Nurn. You will not rise again before I am aware of it. In addition, since our army has defeated yours in battle, I will send soldiers to your land."
Wen closed her eyes briefly to hide her distress. "You mean to occupy Nurn. We will be slaves again."
"Not slaves," the King said. "It is true that soldiers of Gondor will occupy your land for a while. During that occupation, they will teach you what you do not know. They will teach you to farm and to care for the sick among you, and they will educate you in the history and thought of the free Men of the West. In this way, you will truly become equal to the people of Gondor. And perhaps one day, we will meet again in friendship."
It was several minutes before Wen found her voice. "That is a greater mercy than I had expected," she admitted. "I will submit to your doom, King of Gondor. One day, I will be like the Elf Queen, but it will be on my own terms."
"I believe you," the King said dryly. "Perhaps you should make better acquaintance with the Princess of Ithilien. You might find a kindred spirit there."
The Queen smiled warmly at Wen. "For my part, I look forward with joy to the day when I may truly greet you as a friend, Lady Wen," she said. Then, leaning a little closer so that her next words would be private, she added, "I will tell you something else about Thano. He intervened to save my infant daughter when Haytham would have thrown her into the Great River. Whatever his motives may have been, he did well, and my child lives today because of him. I will not forget that."
Finally, Wen's shoulders relaxed, and she smiled. "Thank you for that, Queen of Gondor," she said. "My doom will be easier to bear now that I know that Thano did not take complete leave of his senses in his last days."
Lady Wen inclined her head as graciously as if she had been born to the title and allowed herself to be led from the throne room.
A week after he had passed judgement upon the People of Nurn, Aragorn accompanied Faramir, Éowyn, Elboron, and Olwyn to Ithilien. When they reached the border of that land, Éowyn bade them farewell and turned her wagon southwards to take the children home. Aragorn and Faramir turned their horses north, for they had one last task to complete. They rode slowly into the territory of the Elves, waiting for the border guards to acknowledge their presence.
They did not have to wait long. They had not ridden more than half a league when three Elves emerged from the forest and barred the path. "King Elessar, Lord Faramir," their leader said, nodding a polite greeting.
Aragorn nodded back. "We seek audience with Lord Legolas," he said. "May we continue?"
Aragorn and Faramir looked at each other, surprised. Never before had they been denied access to the Elvish settlement.
"Please remain here," the guard said. "You may have use of the talan in the tree fifteen paces to your right. You will find food and blankets there. I will fetch someone to speak with you." With that, the guards melted away into the forest again.
"Legolas has been affected more deeply than I had feared," Faramir said. "He has never made me cool my heels at his border before."
"We will hear what he has to say when we see him," Aragorn said. "I maintain my faith in his loyalty, and I trust that he will accept the message we bear him. In the meantime, let us wait. The Elves have not yet failed to offer us at least a little hospitality, and that is a good sign, I think." He dismounted and picketed his horse, then began to climb the tree to the talan.
Aragorn and Faramir waited overnight. No one disturbed them, though they suspected that at least one guard was watching them just out of sight. As the sun rose in the morning, the branches of the tree rustled. Aragorn and Faramir sat up just in time to see a small party of Elves moving through the branches toward their talan. The guards they had met the previous evening escorted Neldorín and a lady they did not recognize, though there was something familiar about her face.
"Greetings," Neldorín said. "I understand that you have requested audience with Lord Legolas."
"We have," Aragorn replied. "I had intended to offer my deepest thanks for his assistance in our recent conflicts and to share sorrow at the death of Lady Doronrîn."
Neldorín nodded. "Lord Legolas is not here at the moment. He has left me to rule in his place. I thank you for your kind words."
"Where has Legolas gone?" Faramir asked.
"He has ridden north to Eryn Lasgalen, to deliver the news of Doronrîn's death to the King in person," Neldorín said.
"That will be no easy task," Faramir said. "I gather that the lady was a friend to King Thranduil."
"She was a friend to all of us," Neldorín said. "It is good that Legolas has gone to bear this message himself. He and his father will care for each other in their grief."
"And they will tell my brother the news," the strange woman added. "He should not hear it from anyone else."
"Your brother, mistress?" Aragorn asked.
"Forgive me," Neldorín said. "May I present Mistress Saelind, daughter of Doronrîn and Menellir."
"You honor us with your presence, Lady," Aragorn said. "I would offer you what comfort I may in your grief."
"As would I," Faramir said. "Your mother was a lady of skill and courage, and both our peoples are poorer for her loss."
"I thank you for your words," Saelind said quietly. "I have been thinking about the time my mother spent in this forest. I believe she was content here. This land is one of peace and plenty, and she welcomed many children into the world." She placed her hand on her belly. "But my mother will not be present to greet her grandson, and I mourn for that."
"You know it will be a boy?" Faramir asked.
Saelind nodded. "I have already chosen his name," she said. "I will call him Meneldoron in memory of my parents."
"That is a good name," Aragorn said. "Perhaps you will all meet again one day." He turned to Neldorín. "How does your son fare? He was the child abducted by the People of Nurn, was he not?"
Neldorín smiled. "Faron is well. He grows strong and healthy once again, though he does not wish to stray too far from his mother."
Faramir chuckled. "My children behave exactly the same way. They will overcome their anxieties in time, I think."
"I am certain of that," Neldorín replied. "But for now, I am glad to have my son safe and close to his mother. He will be ready to resume his adventures soon, and I hope that I will be ready to let him go then."
"I am glad to hear that he is well," Aragorn said. "But there is more that I would know from you, Neldorín. What of the rest of your folk? It seems that we are not permitted to visit with them today."
"That is true. We do not wish to have dealings with Men for a while," Neldorín told him. "We have had nothing but grief from this encounter, and we wish to be left alone for the present. But do not fear. The Elves of Ithilien will not end their friendship with Gondor. Before he left, Lord Legolas ordered that our borders be closed only until his return."
Aragorn let out a sigh of relief. "I am glad to hear that. I half feared that I had lost a dear friend. If it is not too much to ask, do you know when Legolas will return to Ithilien?"
Neldorín shrugged. "I do not know for certain. The summer will draw to a close when he arrives in Eryn Lasgalen, and I do not think that he will travel over the winter. We do not expect him back in this land before spring."
"Then I will await the coming of spring," Aragorn said. "I think we have all been wounded, but our wounds are not so deep that they cannot be healed."
"The snows of winter will provide a shroud for grief," Neldorín said. "We will resume our friendship with the greening of the year." He smiled and reached out to touch Aragorn's shoulder briefly. Then he motioned to Saelind and the guards. The Elves vanished into the forest. Aragorn and Faramir climbed down to the ground in silence and roused their horses. They said their farewells, then rode away to the families that awaited them.
Many thanks to those who have read and enjoyed this story. I enjoyed seeing your reactions to it immensely. This is the first story I've written that features an out-and-out villain, and I admit that I had a great deal of fun getting inside Nasir's head and plotting treason against both Gondor and Harad. I was also quite touched by the sympathy that so many people had for Thano, pathetic and morally stunted as he turned out to be.
While I was planning this story, I remembered a criticism that a friend of mine had made upon reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time a few years ago. He pointed out that, after Amon Hen, we never see the good guys losing an important battle again. He felt that this diminished some of the urgency of the story. I think that there is a certain amount of truth to that criticism, and so I set out to write a story where the good guys would lose some battles along the way.
One person asked if there would be a sequel to this story. I don't really know yet. It's entirely possible -- there are consequences to this one that would be fun to explore -- but it won't happen for a very long time, if it does happen.
That's all I have to say about that. Again, thank you all so much for reading and enjoying this story. I'll see you again later.