Your Heart Will Be True
Two of the 'Write' Sisters:
Sarah (the bookish, plausibility-mad realist)
and Hannah (also known as Siri) (the crazy, starry-eyed visionary)
Rating: T for angst, character-torture, battle violence, tense situations, and character death (oh dear, now that's got you going, hasn't it…?)
Note: THIS IS UTTERLY NON-SLASH! ahem
Timeframe: Year 7 of the Fourth Age — 9 years after The Return of the King — Aragorn is 97.
Background: We also build a lot on our previous fics, in this case: Death or Despair, Thorongil, and Darkest Night. Particularly the last two. Also, even though our combined collection of stories couldn't possibly have ALL happened to Aragorn and Legolas, some of the background for our fics are based on Cassia and Siobhan's Mellon Chronicles. You can read their stories under Cassia's name here on or else on their site: wwwdotaragorn-legolasdot5udotcom
Background (Tolkien): If you want to know our take on the whole Elladan/Elrohir/Elrond/Aragorn thing and the whole Aragorn/Legolas thing, as it is portrayed (or not portrayed) in the books and movies, please see our other fics. This is alternately book and movie-verse based as the authors' whimsy took them.
Boring Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and places in this fic do not belong to us, but are rather the creation of one of the most incredible authors of all time: J.R.R. Tolkien. We have no permission to use Tolkien's characters and places, but are not being paid for our work either. Raniean, Trelan, and Rorin are the property of Cassia and Siobhan, used with permission. All other characters and places are ours. :)
Feedback: We welcome your opinions, one and all, and the more the better! A couple of notes though: please no swearing (for any reason) or slashy jokes, and no flaming. Also, literary critiquing is welcome (grammar, etc.) and we will be sure to take note of it for the future, but just so you know: it is unlikely we will be re-editing this story as we post. Thanks:)
Summary: When an evil monarch from the South comes for revenge on Rohan and Gondor, Aragorn and Legolas must depart on a journey the likes of which they have not attempted since Aragorn became king. The farther Aragorn goes, the worse things become for those he has left behind. What could draw Elessar from his throne? And will he return in time to save his people from ruin? A tale of men and elves, love and honor, old friends and old enemies, good and evil, and an unhappy dwarf running across Rohan.
In Honor Of: Lurkerelf, Cassia, Karina, Belothien, Lady Sandry, MarianaNimeneth, Anarril, Hiro-tyre, and Maranwe: you who reviewed Darkest Night most faithfully and so well! Our feet are still floating two feet above the ground. ;D This is first and foremost in honor of you.
ErynLasgalen26, wellduh…, silvanelf, lomeloke, TheRowan and everyone else who reviewed after we were done posting! You have no idea how much unexpected feedback motivates us while we're writing more. Ditto for those who saw the trailer and e-mailed us! Hugs for every one of you. :D
As ever and always, world without end, etc.: CHLOE! Because… well… because your verbal feedback is gratifying, because your fics are angsty, because your humor is insane, because you are you, and because dedicating our fics to you has become such a habit that we do not think we can stop:D
"Curse this weariness," Halda murmured in his native tongue, careful that no one should hear him. Not the words, certainly not the tone of defeat. He pressed back the dark hair that clung damply to his brow.
It was midday and with the exception of the sentries standing at the door, there was not another living thing in sight. The gold light of the sun bleached the color from the sandstone walkway and sapped life from the man's veins. And now, more than usual, he needed his wits about him. He had been chief advisor to Her High Magnificence, Queen Mavranor, for over five years — a record never before achieved — and he did not intend to cross her. Not yet, anyway.
The sentries lowered their scimitars as Halda approached and made sinuous half-bows. What skin showed under turban, layers of cloth, and body armor glistened with sweat and rippled with muscle. Halda's steely brown eyes were unperturbed. He was young and strong in his own right, possessing an intellect far beyond theirs and a position no underling would dare to cross.
He traversed the three flights of steps to the top of the central tower and stood respectfully in the doorway, his hands folded one atop the other.
"Halda?" a voice dripping with honey drifted out to meet the advisor. "Enter."
Halda bowed and obeyed, dropping briefly to one knee as he approached the queen's chair. "Your Highness," he murmured.
A low laugh answered him and for a moment Halda wondered what he had done wrong, but a second later he relaxed as he realized that Mavranor was not looking at him; she was looking at a letter in her hand. For a few more moments she perused the contents of the message, laughing all the while, her face a mask of twisted glee. She was old — any other ruler would have been ousted from power by now — and a hard life of conquest and shrewd dealing had withered most of her beauty. However her eyes were still alive and a sparkling jet black, like dark flames amidst the wrinkles of decay, and her hair still fell long, though it's blackness was striped with shocks of white.
Yes, Halda recognized, she was quite old, but she still proudly wore the brilliant red of the Southron war banners and any who thought her senile usually found themselves inexplicably dead before sunset without a mark upon them.
At last the letter was folded and laid aside and the queen's black gaze turned with an incongruously merry look upon her advisor. "I am pleased you have returned, Halda. My doings become so disorderly when you are away." She sighed. "Just when I found myself in need of your aid here Osto required extra fortifications and you disappeared for nearly six months! You do not have an inkling of how many things can be moved and shaped in that space of time, thou sluggard."
To anyone else the playful words would sound like those spoken to a missed friend, but Halda felt himself tensing under the scrutiny, wondering what hidden meaning there was in her speech. The queen was generally calm and calculating in her dealings, but she had bouts of strangeness that seldom boded well for people caught in the room with her. It was almost madness.
On the other hand, Halda was willing to wager the woman capable of feigning madness, simply to catch her servants off guard.
"I beg your indulgence, my lady." Halda bowed deeply, placing his palms on his chest in a gesture of absolute submission.
Mavranor smiled with satisfaction when her advisor did not make the mistake of offering an unsolicited explanation. Since she was the one who had sent him to Osto in the first place, she already knew why he had been there anyway. "You are forgiven. I have heard excellent reports of the city's defenses; you have completed your task adequately. Get up, there is work to be done." Her voice was now crisp and commanding, with none of the quaverings that old age generally lent to diction.
Halda rose promptly, feeling a little tension leave his shoulders. He recognized her mood now and felt more safe. Admit it or no, she did rely on his loyal service; he was the only person ever to have suggested caution on the rare occasions the queen had put forth an unwise course of action. At least: the only person still living.
"In a few minutes," Mavranor said, "King Sakkata will be coming to discuss recent intelligence I have received concerning the unhappy death of his eldest son. I wish you to be present without being present. After he has gone, I will have certain plans of which to apprise you."
Without another word Halda bowed and moved to a narrow, decorative alcove in the east wall. Sitting in the alcove on a stone pedestal was a slender dagger. Running horses were intricately carved about the knife's handle. It was a weapon that always drew Halda's attention whenever he passed it, both because of the distinctly Rohirric design and because of the dried blood still clinging to it. Though Mavranor never spoke of how it had come to be in her war room, Halda knew it was the weapon that had killed her brother Gwanur in the attacks on Rohan many years before. Thorongil. Even as his mind dwelt on the name, his glance flicked away, as if he were afraid Mavranor had overheard his thoughts.
Behind the pedestal at the back of the alcove there was a panel that slid open just far enough for an agile person — such as Halda — to slip through and hide, watching and hearing everything through carefully concealed holes. His black clothes blended totally with the darkness.
The royal visitor arrived only a few minutes after he had hidden.
Sakkata, ruler of one of the kingdoms abutting Mavranor's lands to the south, was tall even without the crimson turban on his head. His shoulders were broad and his bronze skin calloused from many wars.
Rising slowly Mavranor looked up with her most fragile expression. "You honor me to come so far yourself, King Sakkata. To what do I, a lowly, aged woman owe this very great condescension?"
"It is you who have dragged me here, old crone," Sakkata growled, his dark brows lowering over narrowed eyes. "What is this news you proffer of my son's accident?"
Halda winced at the insult to the queen, wondering what her reaction would be, but she only smiled indulgently, "Are you so sure that it was an accident? What if I were to tell you that King Yelma has boasted otherwise."
Sakkata's face turned rigid. "Impossible. Yelma is my cousin, brave in battle and above murder."
"One man's murder is another man's bravery in battle," Mavranor chided seriously. "But how could someone ancient of days expect her word to be taken without proof?" With a hand shaking slightly from imaginary feebleness, she handed Sakkata the letter she had been reading. "Judge for yourself."
The king snatched the parchment and read quickly, his brown eyes flicking from side to side. "Impossible," he breathed again when he had finished, though the word lacked conviction.
"He speaks of taking your lands now that your son is perished and he asks me to aid him, though of course I would not dare to make such a treacherous step," Mavranor said.
"Do not think me a complete simpleton," Sakkata barked, still angered at his cousin's betrayal. "I know your deeds well, Queen Mavranor. I would not trust a single mûmak of mine in your care. Were it not for the fact that this is indeed Yelma's script, I should not believe the message to have been penned by him. As it is," his fist crumpled the letter tightly, "he shall pay for my son's death."
"Indeed he shall," Mavranor agreed solemnly. "For his crimes he should be stripped of all he owns, for what wealth could possibly be equal to the life of your son? If you should request it, I would readily aid you in removing Yelma from his kingship."
Sakkata shook his head in a curt refusal. "This is a matter I shall tend to myself."
With a mutual inclination of their heads, Sakkata left and Mavranor sat once again. She waited until the sound of his footsteps had faded before she began to chuckle again.
"Come out, Halda! I trust you have enjoyed the spectacle of Sakkata devouring the bait?"
"Quite," Halda said, wondering just what Mavranor had been planning in his absence.
Mavranor was still musing to herself, toying with a stick of sealing wax. "And there were those who said I could stretch my hand no further south because Sakkata and Yelma would support each other through even death. I should say their cousinly alliance is not what it once was."
Halda nodded, fitting the pieces together. Undoubtedly it was Mavranor's mysterious 'Shadow' who had slain Sakkata's son and placed the Southron king in such a rage. He wondered what lies Mavranor had crafted to make Yelma threaten war as well, but it did not matter. What mattered was that it had worked. Yelma and Sakkata would not rest until they had slain each other, and Mavranor would quietly take those soldiers and lands which both kings left behind. The only question was: why her total elation? It was a deception she had woven dozens of times before. It was what had rebuilt her kingdom after her husband had perished in his fruitless attack on Rohan. What was altered this time?
Mavranor was gesturing to him. "Sit, Halda. Great power awaits the mighty queen of the Haradrim, and also those who serve her. Should you care to guess whence my eye has been turned these past months?"
Halda inclined his head, his posture upright in his chair, "I would not presume to know the intricacies of Queen Mavranor's mind."
"Well spoken, Halda, as always," Mavranor said dryly. "Fear not, I shall speak plainly." She drew out a map and spread it upon the desk, her hands shaking not at all as she rested a finger on it.
"Gondor," Mavranor nodded. "It has ever been a thorn in my side. With the defeat of the Dark Lord still only nine years distant, Gondor has not yet had time to fully recover her strength and rebuild her defenses. Soldiers she has in only small numbers, for many hundreds were slain before the gates of Minas Tirith and Barad Dur." She paused a moment, an indulgent half smile on her face. "You have a cautionary remark to make; I can see it in your face."
"I only wished to point out that since the fall of Mordor many others of the Southron kings and queens have attempted to take Gondor and none yet have succeeded," Halda explained cautiously.
"It is well recalled. Naturally, I have taken that into account. Though the most crucial of my plans have been arranged just recently while you have been at Osto, the lesser preparations were set into motion years ago. Weapons have been stockpiled, food set aside for the armies, mûmakil bred and trained — and Osto is now a mighty city that will protect my lands from counter-attacks. From Sakkata and Yelma I shall have five times the number of men that any previous would-be conqueror has sent against Gondor's defenses.
"I have offered refuge to those of the Corsairs of Umbar who survived the attack of the Dead — or whoever it was that truly slew them and took their ships — and I have recruited a great many of their folk. There are those of them who have fair skin and light hair, unlike my regular soldiers. I have sent small groups of them into all corners of Gondor and Rohan in disguise as soldiers, tradesmen, and so forth where they stand ready to carry out my orders. My emissaries, if you will; or should you prefer it, my saboteurs."
"What is your battle strategy, my queen?" Halda asked, his expression fascinated and openly flattering.
Mavranor seemed all too pleased to fulfill his request. "We must take them from all sides, including the center. Our main army shall attack all along their southern border and fell them by sheer weight of numbers. I have long been sending spies along that route and they tell me 'tis weak at present. From the east and west they are held in by the mountains of Ered Nimrais and Mordor, respectively, so we and they have naught to fear from those points. From the center I shall raise my Corsair spies to cut off food from the Gondorian army and agitate the population."
"What of Rohan to their north?"
Her smile hardened. "Ah yes. Rohan. Barbarians and murderers, and continually the friends and supporters of Gondor. Together they shall fall, as together they rose, but while I shall keep Gondor whole, for Rohan I have reserved complete destruction. What they once took from me they shall repay tenfold and a hundredfold again. Once Gondor is ours, southern Rohan shall be as an open wound awaiting infection. They are too dependant upon their powerful neighbor and have mounted but little defense there." The sparkle of madness that had flickered to life with her fury against the Rohirrim faded as she finished.
Halda hesitated, a chill running through him in spite of himself. "Do you think they will not come to Gondor's aid, then?"
"Of course they shall try," Mavranor acknowledged, her finger tracing along Rohan and Gondor's shared boundaries. "But that too has been seen to in your absence. At my command my emissaries have summoned a large following of orcs to my cause; remnants from the Misty Mountains, long hidden in Enedhwaith and leaderless. They will travel up through the gap of Rohan and take Gondor unawares from the north."
"Will they be able to keep themselves hidden from the Rohirrim?"
"Secrecy will not matter over much. I have already carefully woven my web, Halda, and King Eomer," she spat the name, "will be far too distracted to pay any significant heed to either the orcs or to the needs of Gondor. When I determined to have my revenge I saw that if discord could be sown between Sakkata and Yelma, it could certainly be sown amongst the Rohirrim Marshals."
"You have indeed considered every detail, my queen," Halda said, rising from his chair to give a deep bow. "I can see neither fault nor flaw in any portion of your plans — but perfection could only be expected from a mind such as yours."
"You should have turned to court flatterer, Halda," Mavranor said calmly, smiling anyway as she rolled the map again. "And it is well you display such warm endorsement, for this plan was launched several weeks ago and is thus beyond alteration. The army even now marches north to Gondor, to be supplemented by Sakkata and Yelma's troops soon — for they shall be swift in their vengeance upon each other. When you leave I wish you to take this message," she handed him a small roll of parchment, "and send it with the gray hawk. That will light the first fires within Gondor itself."
"Might a humble servant ask who has been put in command of your spies?" Halda asked, gazing down at the parchment.
"My Shadow, Halda. I should not have thought you would need to ask."
Halda walked quickly down the hall and across the inner courtyard to the aviary where the queen's messenger birds were kept, each raised to carry her commands to all corners of Harad. It seemed she had procured a new bird — a gray hawk — who would carry messages even within Gondor. Halda gazed into the shining black eyes of the creature, wondering how it had been trained to do such a thing. He also wondered over the identity of the queen's 'Shadow'. That he was an assassin seemed obvious — though his victims never seemed harmed except for their frozen expressions of fear — and Halda had suffered many moments of sheer terror in the night when he would awake to the feeling that someone was in the room with him. Of course, no one had ever been there.
Looking around carefully, making sure that he was absolutely alone, Halda took a wire from his pocket and held it to the heat of the small lantern that lit the dark interior of the aviary. When the wire began to glow hot, he expertly slid it under the queen's seal, slicing the wax disk neatly away and opening the scroll. His dark eyes flicked down the contents. The orders were disguised and layered in secrecy, but he could guess a good deal and he discovered — as he had suspected — that the queen had not actually divulged all her plans to him. Not at all.
For a moment he stood, wondering to what use he might put these disturbing hints, but realizing immediately how dangerous was the ground upon which he was walking. One way or another he did not intend for Mavranor to rule until she died of old age. He had thoughts and plans locked up within his own shadowy mind of which his queen was utterly unaware. But as incredibly urgent as this moment seemed, he knew he had not survived so long by moving hastily.
Rolling the scroll back up he took the wax seal and held it carefully before the flame until the back turned soft again, allowing him to reaffix it as though it had never been removed.
After he placed the scroll in an oilskin pouch and secured it to the bird's leg, he stood for a moment lost in thought. This proved, if any proof had been truly needed, just how latently ruthless Mavranor was.
He pushed his hair back again, feeling so very tired. It was becoming difficult to think, crafty as he was. The queen's presence seemed to cloud the air and madden the senses. He would not allow himself to wonder if this was too great an ambition, too complicated a plan; but his head ached as he considered his options.
Sudden action would not be wise, but complete inaction could mean disaster and a bloody end to more than just his secrets.
Minas Tirith, Gondor
Duurben was being followed.
He had sensed it from the moment he had left the dining hall and after sixty-five years as a soldier he had learned to trust his instincts. Reaching up he pushed his gray hair from his face, using the motion to cover his quick glance at the polished surface of a shield hanging on the wall. Sure enough, as clear as any mirror, it showed the flicker of a head being pulled back out of sight a few yards behind him.
The only question now was what he ought to do about it, and he hated to admit that he was uncertain. Likely it was best to accept the inevitable. There came a time when one had to admit one's age, and Duurben had found himself doing it a lot lately; especially in the last week. Not that he was decrepit yet by any means—
The thought was cut off midway as the Captain of the King's Guard paid dearly for his inattention. A warbled war-cry sounded just as the weight of his attacker crashed into the back of his knees, sending him lurching forward.
Old reflexes stood him in good stead, allowing him as he fell to simultaneously twist around and disentangle the arms grabbing at him. Before he had even recovered his breath, he had raised himself back to a crouch and pinioned his struggling foe against his chest, waiting for the boy's laughter and cries of protest to die down before he finally released him.
"Your highness, I would beg you to reconsider your choice of targets if I thought it would do any good," Duurben sighed, rising to a standing position without wasting time to mourn his loss of dignity.
Eldarion smiled broadly up at him, the boy's elvishly pointed ears lending his face an aura of mischief all its own. "It's not at all fair! I tackle Ada all the time, but it only works when he's letting me, which is no fun at all, and Uncle Legolas doesn't even let me. Naneth says no wrestling girls, Captain Erynbenn spends all his time at home now, Uncle Elladan and Uncle Elrohir haven't been here in ages, and Captain Eression's gone with Ada! That only leaves you and Mr. Pippin, and he says all the jumping gives him shivery joints, liver spots, baldness, bruises, and heart attacks. I've only caught you three times this week anyway."
Duurben bit back another sigh, wishing a plague upon the cheeky halfling; especially since Peregrin Took knew full well of the heir of Gondor's propensity for trying his budding combat skills on unsuspecting warriors. If the kind-hearted Eldarion decided to spare Pippin on the basis of these fabled medical complaints, that would only leave Duurben as a viable target. And the Gondorian captain would sooner declare himself the reincarnation of Sauron than complain out loud in the presence of anyone he served.
"As you wish, of course," he said with a short bow. "Before you attempt a fourth attack, however, you may wish to go down to the courtyard. Your father and mother have just arrived." He indicated the window with a short nod of his head and by the time his focus came back to Eldarion, the young prince was already long gone.