Summary: A web, woven of hatred and deceit, grows larger and larger until the prey is ready to fall into it. And when the predator is a dangerous and a clever man, bound on revenge, and the prey is the King of Gondor, Aragorn will have to remember a strange skill that he has learned long ago to save himself and those whom he loves. But even that might not be enough.
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to the Tolkien Estate. Everything and everyone is returned in one piece.
Rating: T (for blood and violence)
Note: This story was originally written for the July 2010 Teitho Contest, "Five Ingredients – Your Recipe". However, it went past the page limit, and was not entered as a part of the contest. It was finished a long time ago but I decided to post it today to celebrate 4 years since I started writing fanfiction :) The challenge was to write a story containing the following elements: missing toy, lame horse, person with disability, knocked-over candle, broken musical instrument.
The story is complete. It will be posted in seven chapters and will be updated weekly.
Chapter 1: Disturbing Tidings
Chapter 2: Heart of Ice
Chapter 3: Dark Memories
Chapter 4: More Than Duty
Chapter 5: Revenge
Chapter 6: "Friendship is Never Enough"
Chapter 7: "Friendship is Always Enough"
Characters: Aragorn, Eldarion, Legolas, Faramir, Arwen, Éowyn, Elboron, OCs (listed loosely in order of importance although the first four are about equally major)
Genres: angst, adventure, mystery, hurt/comfort, friendship, family
Dedicated to Firefly-Maj (and Tiny of course!)
Chapter 1: Disturbing Tidings
Knock. Knock-knock. Knock-knock-knock.
Arwen sighed in defeat and looked up. She had agreed to help Aragorn with some paperwork, but at this rate she would not get anything done today. Since early morning, she had been looking through reports from courthouses in towns and villages throughout the land. They gave accounts of trials that had not been resolved and needed to be taken to the King. Arwen looked through the complains, the claims and the evidence, and tried to sort them out, deciding which of those indeed had to be brought to the King's attention, and which were too absurd and petty and could be ignored.
She had started with perfectly good intentions, and was initially planning to get through the large pile by sunset, but it seemed the Valar had other schemes. The Queen had barely managed to read only a couple of reports as every ten minutes her eight-year-old son stormed into the room with questions or stories to tell.
"Come in!" she called tiredly, and Eldarion rushed inside. An exasperated girl followed closely.
"I apologize, my lady, but I could not stop him," the nanny said, and Arwen smiled sympathetically.
"I know, Moriel, it is well." She turned to her son. "What is it now, Eldarion?"
The boy looked more agitated than usual and his eyes were shining with moisture. "Nana, Floppy is missing!" he cried.
"Floppy?" Arwen looked at the nanny for help.
"His stuffed rabbit," Moriel supplied. "The Prince wanted to play with it, but could not find it anywhere."
Arwen sighed and stood up. Again. So many times throughout the years Eldarion had gone to her, close to tears, and saying that this or that was missing and that he had looked everywhere. And every single time she would go to his room, look for it, and find it almost right away. A fond smile appeared on the Queen's face. The child was absent-minded, and his mind was wandering to faraway dreams and places and rarely focusing on the present, but she would have him no other way. There would be time to grow up, but not yet.
"I will help you find him," she said and threw the pile of paper one last glance. It seemed not much work would be done on this day, but she could not lie to herself – she welcomed the excuse for a break.
"You will not find him!" Eldarion sniffed. "I looked everywhere! He is gone! Maybe he was angry with me because I didn't give him carrots last week! But I didn't want to spoil him!"
Arwen chuckled. "I am sure Floppy knows that you love him, darling, and that you try to do only what is best for him. He is not angry with you."
"He warned me," the child murmured sadly, not listening to his mother. "He said that if I would not give him carrots, he would take one of the horses and leave for Rohan! I should have known he meant it!"
"I did not know Floppy could ride," Arwen said seriously, trying to stifle her laughter. "If I cannot find him, I will check if any of the horses are missing."
"No use," the boy said with a sigh. "Floppy would not take a horse from the royal stables. He is smart and will make sure he hides all tracks. He would probably buy a horse from one of the citizens."
"Then we shall question everyone, and ask them if anyone has recently sold a horse to a stuffed rabbit," said the Queen, now completely unable to hide her broad smile. By that time they had reached the boy's room, and the trio stepped inside. Arwen looked to the left and immediately spotted a stuffed rabbit on the bookshelf.
"Is this one of Floppy's friends?" she asked. "Perhaps we could question him?"
"Floppy!" The boy cried suddenly and grabbed the rabbit. "No, nana, this is Floppy himself! He is back!"
"Or rather, he was never gone," said Arwen with a wink.
Eldarion frowned. "I am telling you, nana, I looked for him and he was not here! Why don't you believe me?" He sighed angrily, but the frown disappeared from his youthful face as quickly as it had come, and was replaced by a bright smile. "Well, it matters not now! I am glad you are back, Floppy! I will give you all the carrots you want! But first, I am going out riding with Baranir and Gornon."
"Riding?" Moriel asked in disbelief. "I thought you wanted to play with your rabbit and that was what the fuss was all about!"
Arwen laughed. "But, my dear, he wanted to play with his rabbit ten minutes ago. This was ages ago, and of course now he would want to do something else!"
The two women exchanged a grin and watched affectionately as the boy rummaged through a small wooden chest to find treats for his horse.
"I have never been so far away from the city!" Gornon cried excitedly.
"I often come riding here," Eldarion said proudly. "But my parents never let me come here without Baranir."
The older boy grinned. The royal family knew that Eldarion needed his freedom and wished to have some time without an adult watching his every step, and they often left him in the care of the fourteen-year-old Baranir. "I hope my company does not trouble you, your highness," he said lightly.
"Of course not," said Eldarion. "What annoys me is that my parents never trust me! I turned eight last week! I am a man already. Besides," he added unhappily, "these woods are very safe."
"And it is a pity," Baranir replied. "I was hoping we would meet some orcs, so that I could try out my new sword."
"You sword!" The two younger boys cried at the same time. "Your parents let you have a sword!"
"Father gave it to me as a present on my last birthday." Baranir took off his pack. "I am only allowed to use it in the presence of an adult, and he has no idea that I have it now."
"You are so brave!" Eldarion shouted and his eyes widened as Baranir took out his blade, wrapped in cloth. "May I try it?"
"It is heavy for you, and I will be in trouble if anyone finds out I gave you a blade. This sword is only for grown-ups," Baranir said solemnly.
Eldarion pouted. "First, I am old enough! Second, no one will find out if you let me use the sword. And third, if you do not give it to me, your parents might learn that you took the blade here."
The older boy glared at him. "You wouldn't!"
The prince smiled innocently. "I am only a little boy. I cannot control what I say, can I?"
"I thought you were a man," Baranir murmured darkly. "Alright, here it is."
But before he could hand the weapon to Eldarion, the three horses stopped in their tracks, neighing nervously. The boys froze.
Music. A strange melody suddenly filled the sunlit glade. Beautiful it was, but at the same time sounded filled with rage and hatred, and something deeper that Eldarion could not place. It was from a woodwind instrument, but where it was coming from, they could not see.
Suddenly another sound interrupted the melody. A harsher, coarser sound, and yet it fitted perfectly the wrathful mood. A dog's growl.
Six huge black dogs stepped around the boys, surrounding them. Their teeth were bared, and their faces twisted in fierce expressions. Eldarion immediately knew that something was wrong. He had played with many dogs in the City, but those animals felt somehow different. Their eyes were wide and glazed over, as if under a spell.
"Do not fear us, boy," he called to the dog nearest to him. "We will not hurt you."
The beast snarled at him, clearly showing that he was anything but afraid. The horses whined and retreated backwards, towards the center of the circle they had formed. And then, all dogs charged. They jumped forward and their sharp teeth sank into horse flesh, but all six of them had attacked only one of the mounts. Meril, Eldarion's mare.
The horse neighed frightened and tried to kick at the beasts, but they were quicker and always evaded her hooves. Eldarion let go of the reins and clutched at the pommel with both hands, desperately trying to stay on the saddle. From the corner of his eye he could see Baranir slash at one of the dogs with his sword. A red stripe split the black coat, but the wound did not diminish the dog's strength and fierceness.
The melody continued, bold and strong and beautiful, fierce and angry. It reminded the boy of those plays that he had sometimes seen in the royal theatre, in which musicians played during the most dramatic moments to increase the tension.
Eldarion cried as a bolder dog jumped up and was able to scratch his leg. The dogs were attacking only him, but he could see that his friends could not defend him. "Go!" he shouted, unable to keep the panic and tears out of his voice. "Find help!"
The boys seemed to hesitate, but then the young prince turned and his gaze met with Baranir's. Eldarion's eyes were wide and frightened, but his determination was unshaken. "Go," he repeated softly. "I need help."
Baranir nodded, his gaze full of horror, and turned back, galloping towards the city. Gornon followed closely. Eldarion felt his heartbeat accelerate. He was alone.
Suddenly, the music stopped.
Aragorn leaned back in his armchair, interlacing his fingers in thought. "The price is reasonable, Lord Ghasaan," he said. "But there is something I cannot understand. How are you going to transport the goods here?"
The Haradrim grinned widely and his bright white teeth contrasted sharply with his heavily tanned face. "We have thought of everything, my Lord Elessar. The baskets would be brought by camels through the desert, then moved to horse carts as we reach the plains, and thus taken to where The Poros River flows into the Anduin. Then they would be laden on a ship and taken to your City."
The King seemed uncertain. "This would have made sense if you were transporting wine or dried meat. But these are fruits. The road is long, and the heat is great. They would be rotten by the time they arrive."
Lord Ghasaan laughed. "When I tell you that we have thought of everything, my lord, I mean it. We pick the fruits while they are still green, and then they ripen on the way. I have brought a few samples to show you."
Aragorn was about to reply, when a sharp knock at the door interrupted his train of thoughts. The King frowned. Everyone in the City knew that he had a meeting that should not be interrupted. But as he failed to reply, the knock was repeated urgently. A sudden apprehension found its way into the man's heart, but his appearance spoke none of it. He threw his companion an apologetic smile and called an invitation to whoever was knocking.
He had expected a messenger to enter and bring him news, but what he saw instead made his throat tighten in fear. Arwen was standing at the door, and her eyes were wide and shining. She looked ready to throw herself into his arms, but when she saw the guest, she managed to compose herself and maintain formality.
"I am sorry to interrupt your meeting, my Lord," she said, her voice betraying nothing, "but something has happened, and your presence is needed."
Aragorn nodded, trying to fight his rising panic. "I beg your pardon, Lord Ghasaan. I shall see to this matter and will be back with you as soon as I can."
"Have no worries, Your Majesty," the Haradrim said. "Your lady seems distressed. Take as much time as you need; I am in no hurry."
The King managed a brief nod of gratitude before rushing out of the door.
"What is it?" He asked, even before the door was closed behind them.
Arwen could hold her tears no longer. With a soft sob, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. "Eldarion-" she started, but her voice broke.
Now Aragorn could hold his panic no longer. Gently, he pushed her back and brushed her tears with the back of his fingers. "Please, dearest, calm down. I am here. Tell me. Tell me everything."
The Queen took a deep breath and seemed to regain control over herself. Her son needed her, and she had to be strong. "Something strange and disturbing happened, but it would be best if you hear the story from Baranir." She took hold of his arm and led him forward, down the corridor. While they were walking, she tried to fill him in with the basics. "Eldarion was out, riding with his friends, when they were attacked by large dogs. The dogs seemed to attack only Eldarion's horse, and Baranir and Gornon were able to run away and search for help. We have sent ten guards already, and Gornon will lead them to the place where it happened. We- we still do not know if they succeeded in reaching Eldarion in time. Baranir remained here to report to you everything that happened."
Aragorn's pace had accelerated as she talked. His first urge was to ride out and help his son, but he had to resist it. If there was anything that could be done by brute force, the guards would manage it. But there was something strangely sinister about this story, and he needed to learn everything first, so that he would know what he was facing.
The King stormed inside the spacious hall, and his gaze immediately fell on the boy. Baranir seemed distressed, and Moriel stood by him, trying to comfort him.
"What kind of dogs were they?" Aragorn started with the questions, wasting no time in idle talk.
Baranir looked up, surprised. "They – they were big," he sobbed. "I had never seen such a breed before, but they were very large and purely black. Perhaps some kind of hunting hounds."
The King frowned. None of this made any sense. Had someone gone hunting and his dogs gone astray? No, hounds were better trained than that; they would never harm a horse or a human. And even if one misbehaved, it would not be a whole group of them."
"How many were they?" He asked.
"Six, Your Majesty." The boy was fighting hard to keep his voice even.
"And did they look as if they were living in the wilds? Did they seem well-cared for? Well-fed?" Aragorn was shooting a question after a question, and the poor boy fidgeted.
"I could not take a good look at them, my Lord, but they seemed well cared for. I – I believe they must have an owner."
Aragorn was silent for a moment, going over the implications in his mind. This meant that this was not simply an attack by savage beasts. If the dogs' owner was behind all this, it could turn out to be a carefully planned assault against the prince. And whoever was responsible for that, he seemed to have trained those dogs especially for the purpose. The man shuddered. He regretted questioning the boy, who certainly looked in need of rest, but there was something else that troubled him.
"Did the dogs attack only Eldarion?"
Baranir nodded, and his eyes filled with tears. "I tried to protect him, my Lord, I swear! I even cut into one of the beasts with my sword, but it kept its focus on Eldarion! I could not divert them!"
"What sword?" Aragorn asked sharply. "I was not aware your father allowed you to carry your sword around." The boy's eyes widened and he blushed, and the man sighed. This would have to wait. There were more pressing matters.
And then a sudden realization made him stagger. Arwen reached out to steady him, but he slipped out of her hold, collapsed on a chair, and buried his face in his hands. "Every single animal is enraged when wounded," he said. "Fight or flee is the most primal survival instinct. If you hurt an animal, it would perceive that it is in danger and do one of two things – either run away, or attack its assailant. You hurt that dog, Baranir, and yet, it did neither. Instead, it ignored the one who presented the immediate threat, and focused its attention on Eldarion. These dogs have been specifically trained to attack my son. And this is not all – they were trained so well that they were ready to ignore their most basic instinct, to give up their own survival, only to follow this order."
Everyone held their breath as the implications sunk it. There was no doubt left that whatever had happened, had been directed against Eldarion.
"This tells us that we are dealing with an unusually skilled dog trainer," Arwen said.
Aragorn stood up and started pacing. "It matters not how skilful he is," he said. "No one, no matter how talented, can train the dogs to attack Eldarion specifically, unless they have met him, or at least know his scent."
Arwen walked to him and placed a hand on his arm. "What if they had something that belongs to Eldarion?" she suggested. "A piece of clothing perhaps, or a shoe? That would have taught the dogs his scent."
He nodded thoughtfully. "That would have been enough. And I see no other possibility even though I am unwilling to believe it. Do you know what this means?"
Arwen paled and leaned in closer towards him. When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "There is someone in the palace involved."
Aragorn put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Then he turned towards the nanny. "Moriel, can you tell me who has access to my son's possessions?"
"I am afraid that too many people do, my lord," the girl said. "All the maids that come to clean the room, the carpenter who came last week to fix Eldarion's bed, the servants responsible for the laundry-"
"I see," the King said. "I would ask you two, ladies, to go through Eldarion's possessions and see if anything is missing. You two would know them better than anyone. Then make a list of everything missing, try to find out when it disappeared and who might have taken it. In the meantime, I will go with Baranir to the place where Eldarion was attacked, and see what the guards have found. Even if they have arrived swiftly and my son is safe, we still need to get to the bottom of this to prevent further assaults."
"You can count on us, your Majesty," Moriel said.
"I will come with you now," Arwen whispered tiredly and slowly leaned closer to her husband. "I need to learn of my son's fate as soon as possible. I shall help Moriel when I return."
Aragorn smiled gently. "I had expected nothing else. Come, let us go now for I am anxious for our child. I will prepare some supplies first. If what I fear has come to pass, I might have to spend some days away from the City. Moriel, could you send someone to entertain Lord Ghasaan for the time being? I will give additional orders concerning him as soon as I learn of Eldarion's fate."
"My Lord! Wait!" Baranir suddenly cried. "There is something I forgot to tell you!"
The King and Queen whirled around and started at him. "What is it, my boy?" Aragorn asked.
"There was music in the forest, a strange melody, as if played on a pipe. We heard it right before the dogs attacked, and it continued until after we left."
Arwen looked confused, but Aragorn nodded as if some things had become clearer all of a sudden. "I am grateful that you remembered that in time, Baranir. It might play a role more significant than you expect."
With those words he turned around and walked towards his champers, but paused only to take his pack and then quickly left. When he returned, his pack was empty no longer. Then the King took off the intricate attire meant for formal meetings and put on his travel clothes.
In a minute, Arwen entered, carrying bread and a full waterskin. She took a glimpse of what was inside her husband's pack, and frowned in confusion. "Estel?"
He looked at her and his heart seemed to break. She looked so frightened and lost, so desperate and disconcerted, and he tried to show all of his confidence and determination in his gaze. "I know what I am doing, dearest. Do you not trust me?"
She looked from the strange object in the pack, the meaning of which she could not comprehend, to those grey eyes, which were always filled with love and care when they were turned towards her. But there was something more in that silver gaze this time. There was a steely resolve that she had seen only on rare occasions, and yet she knew that every time her beloved wore that look, everything would end well because he would never give up until it did.
"I trust you."
Thanks for reading! You already have enough information to start guessing what happened, so guesses are welcome! If you have no guesses, reviews of any kind are even more welcome.
Next chapter, "Heart of Ice", is coming next week.