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A/N: Whew! So sorry for the wait, everybody! Real life pounced like a rabid warg (fantastic simile, right? :-P)—nothing bad, but so, so busy. And when I finally got a chance to write, it took longer than I had anticipated. I ended up cutting this last chapter in two, so there will be yet one more chapter before the epilogue.
Anyhoo … hope you enjoy! Thanks for hanging in there!
The other Elves rose as Elrond reached the base of Weathertop and hauled Baradhald—in his mind, Dorhaur refused any longer to consider the man his captain—through the camp. ‘Scrambled’ would have been too undignified a word, but certainly Glorfindel and the twins gained their feet quickly. Elladan and Elrohir lost a moment staring after their father with wide, startled eyes. Glorfindel fell smoothly into step beside the master of Imladris, the Elf lord’s face betraying no hint of surprise although he could not have known what had happened or what was to come. Elrond did not acknowledge him, or any of them. Instead, he continued through the circle of firelight to the outcropping at the opposite side, a low finger of rock which stretched out from the base of Weathertop and blocked their camp from the brunt of the wind. Baradhald, who had been struggling against the Elf’s iron grip without noticeable success, let out a pained, startled grunt as Elrond dragged him around and slammed him back against the rock.
“What in the—”
The command sliced easily through the protest, and Baradhald, coming around to face the stony countenance of not only Elrond but Glorfindel as well, stilled—though his scowl proclaimed his reluctance to obey. Silence settled like a pall, broken only by Dorhaur’s footsteps and the crackling of the fire. The sons of Elrond drifted forward, hands not quite touching their long knives. Dorhaur halted some feet away from the scene, hovering uncertainly in the shadows until he could understand what was happening and decide what his role here should be.
The stillness stretched, and Dorhaur shifted, wondering what Lord Elrond intended. The other Elves might have been carven from stone. Finally Baradhald snapped.
“Take your hands away from me!”
It was not how Dorhaur might have chosen to begin.
Elrond did not break contact—in fact, he stepped closer. Though none of Baradhald’s belligerence faded, Dorhaur did see him attempt to move back … only to meet the solid rock behind him. Elrond’s voice was soft, and Dorhaur shivered. He would not have believed such a tone from the companionable, laughing Elf with whom he had so recently traded tales of fatherhood.
“Now, perhaps you would like begin.”
Baradhald’s eyes narrowed. Even in the dim edge of the firelight, Dorhaur could see the Man’s rapidly shifting gaze, from Elrond to the other Elves to Dorhaur himself and then, fleetingly, toward the summit of Weathertop. Elrond tightened his grip.
“You will face me this time, not my son.”
“Your son,” Baradhald sneered, then fell abruptly silent.
Indeed, Dorhaur suspected that contempt had freed the words rather than any true intention of response. Once they were spoken, however, Baradhald almost visibly relaxed. He took a long breath, lifted his chin, and met Elrond’s eyes boldly. Elrond, for his part, did not behave as if he was surprised by the outburst, and Dorhaur wondered again what Estel had said after he had gone from the ancient ruins. The twins moved swiftly forward, hands dropping to their knives, but Elrond held up a quick hand. His sons halted, though neither went so far as to release his weapon.
He would give Baradhald marks for audacity, utterly imprudent as he may be.
Baradhald said no more, and finally Elrond spoke again. “You have nothing to say?” The question was mild, but swiftly took on a sharper edge. “Yet as I am told, that was not so with my son, nor with his mother.” Ah. The other Elves stiffened—even Glorfindel, who had to this point remained impassive as marble—and at last Dorhaur understood. Just how foolish was the man? “What could you have to say to them that might not be repeated to me, at need?”
The Ranger snorted. “They are not your family, Elf.”
This time, it was Glorfindel that Elrond motioned back.
“You are … misguided. Yet even were they not, still they are under my protection, both.”
Baradhald laughed, and there was in its sound that which warned Dorhaur that the son of Gerhale had abandoned all caution. Perhaps Lord Elrond had pushed the Man’s temper to breaking. Perhaps Baradhald expected no quarter given from the Elves, regardless of what he said. Perhaps he was overconfident as well as foolish.
Perhaps he had simply been waiting long to say the words.
Whatever the reason, Baradhald threw wisdom and discretion to the winds. “That fault is not my own! And say rather under your thumb, than your protection.” A strangled cough might have indicated a tightening of Elrond’s grip, but the words still came well enough. “The wife of Arathorn sentenced the Dúnedain to diminishment and servitude when she turned that boy over to you, and I’ll—”
“I would not complete that, were I you.” Glorfindel strode forward to loom over the recalcitrant Ranger, his fair face hard and stern. It was as well, for Elrond had released Baradhald and fallen back. In the flickering firelight his expression was frustrated and openly baffled.
“Of what can you possibly speak, son of Gerhale? Long have Imladris and the Dúnedain been allies, even to the days of Elendil’s flight from Númenor. Ever have I sought to—”
“To control the line of Isildur, and through it the Men of the West!”
Not foolish, but insane. Utterly insane. Surely.
Elrond blinked slowly. Elladan and Elrohir shifted and murmured, too softly for Dorhaur to hear. Elrond cast a frown over his shoulder and his sons subsided, yet did not seem appeased. In truth, Dorhaur could not blame them—to hear such aspersions cast upon his own father, who had been a good and kind man, would surely have outraged him …
“Very well, then.” Elrond’s face hardened. “Sauron searches for your Chieftain, and his spies grow ever more numerous as his power waxes. What, then, would be your own suggestion to ensure Aragorn’s safety among his people, scattered and diminished as the Dúnedain are? For the Lady Gilraen considered long and with much sorrow before she—”
“Chieftain in name only, once you’ve done with him.”
Protests burst from the other Elves, and Dorhaur barely heard his own voice added to the din.
It was not his place, yet he was the only other Dúnedain present and he would no longer allow this absurdity to continue. He was no ambassador or lord, but need demanded here a representative of the true Dúnedain—the greater body of their people, who were and ever would be loyal to both Chieftain and allies—and discomfiting as the thought might be, he would be equal to the task. Dorhaur stepped abruptly forward, even as Elrond bodily held Elladan in his place and stilled his other son with a curt string of Sindarin. All eyes turned to him as Dorhaur approached.
“Lord Elrond.” He drew himself up and sketched a brief, shallow bow. “I offer apology in the name of the Dúnedain people for … for this.” His eyes flickered toward his captain—his former captain—who scowled at him from around Glorfindel’s frame. “I am no important man, and I know nothing of leadership or political maneuvering, but I can assure you that our people as a whole do not share in this madness.”
Elrond cast a hard glance at his sons, then stepped away from them, nodding tersely. “I do know this. Nevertheless, I thank you. Your apology is unnecessary, but your assurance welcome.”
It was a relief, though not entirely a surprise. Dorhaur trusted that one of the Lord Elrond’s reputed wisdom would not be swayed so as to attribute the ravings of one Man to an entire people.
Although … it might not be only one. The memory of Baradhald’s words (Think you that I alone have seen this?) ached within him, but he could not simply ignore them. His responsibility was to his Chieftain, and to the loyal members of his people. Dorhaur took a long breath.
“I am glad to hear it. However …” He glanced toward Baradhald, wondering briefly what the other’s reaction would be to his next words, then pushed on. “However, there may be a larger issue than that which we now know.”
A scuffle broke out beyond the firelight, Baradhald’s breathless oaths cut off with a gasp as Glorfindel shoved him with no little force back against the rock. “Traitor!” Baradhald snarled, and Dorhaur rounded on the other Man.
“Traitor?” He was disbelieving, incredulous and incensed that such a man as Baradhald son of Gerhale would have the gall to so accuse him. A hand wrapped around his arm, but Dorhaur barely felt its pressure. “Nay, not I.” He started toward the other Ranger, but the hand tightened, holding him in place. He snapped around, face to face with Lord Elrond.
“Stay.” The Elf’s eyes bored into his own. “Of what do you speak?”
That peculiar intensity had returned to Elrond’s voice, and Dorhaur forced his temper into check. There was far more of importance at stake than his desire to knock the teeth from his former captain’s head for daring to so slander his loyalty.
He took another long breath, then began. Briefly, he related all that he had heard from Baradhald during their conversation on the side of Weathertop. Elrond listened without interruption, his face hardening to stony immobility as Dorhaur spoke of Baradhald’s stated hope that a council would be found to limit Estel’s—Aragorn’s—authority, and the possibility that others shared his views and aims. The other Elves stirred restlessly, and even the son of Gerhale remained still as his secrets were laid bare—though that might have had more to do with Glorfindel’s hand at his throat than any realization of the wisdom of silence in such a situation.
“I know not how much of what he has said may be true, or how much he exaggerates …” here Baradhald growled, but fell silent again as Glorfindel’s grip tightened, “… but these words concern me greatly, and I do not believe they should be dismissed out of hand simply because their source has proven himself a Man untrustworthy.”
“Indeed.” Elrond nodded slowly, tone and expression considering, and then spun and stalked back toward the disgraced Ranger. Glorfindel stepped away, but Baradhald had no time to attempt any manner of escape before Elrond was upon him. He did step back from the approaching Elf, but once again the sheer rock held him fast. The Man lifted his chin and met Elrond’s eyes, but even so could not entirely disguise his growing unease. “Indeed,” Lord Elrond repeated, “I fear that they must rather be given a greater weight.” He fixed implacable eyes on the captain, his tone growing once again mild and dangerous. “Care you to elaborate upon these … assertions, son of Gerhale?”
Baradhald managed a chuckle—though if the sound was intended to convey more of derision than of nerves, Dorhaur thought it unsuccessful. “I am no telltale, Elf.”
“Think you that would be your worst offense in this matter?” Elrohir finally broke, pushing forward, but Elladan caught his arm, hissing a word in their native tongue. Elrond cast a hard glance at his son, but raised a languid brow as he returned his attention to the Ranger.
“My son speaks out of turn, but wisely. It seems to me that your priorities are … somewhat skewed, if you indeed value your pride of reputation—and that among other traitors—over your loyalty to Chieftain and people.”
“I am loyal to my people!” Baradhald spat out, glaring into the fair face before him. “I am a loyal Dúnedan, who values the legacy and independence of my people, and it is through no fault of my own that you have ever sought to undermine and control us.” His chin thrust forward in a gesture of defiance. “It is through no fault of my own that the greater part of my people do not see our ‘alliance’ for what it is, nor our Chieftains for what they have become.”
Elrond stared for a long moment, then sighed heavily and stepped back. “Incredibly, I do believe that you believe your words.” He folded his arms and stared into the night, drawing another long breath. “And how many others?”
“No.” Elrond silenced Elladan with a hand, and turned his full attention back upon Baradhald, eyes narrowed and lips set in a grim line. “No. I regret that there are those among the Dúnedain who do not see, but it cannot have been other than it was. Your people would be destroyed, the line of Isildur but a memory were it not for our alliance.”
“Humble words,” Baradhald sneered, and Dorhaur was both amazed and aghast at the Man’s persistence.
“Neither humble nor prideful. Simple fact—and fact it is as well that Aragorn son of Arathorn has been turned over to my keeping until such a time as he is old enough to take up his name and inheritance, protect himself, and govern the Dúnedain. If there are those who contest this decision, those who have legitimate worries or grievance against it, make them known to me, son of Gerhale.” Elrond offered his arm to the Ranger captain, willing him to take it. “We will discuss. I will explain.” His tone hardened as this gesture remained unanswered. “But this choice is made. It will not change.”
Baradhald stared, expression hidden in the flickering firelight. “I am no telltale, Elf.”
Dorhaur swore beneath his breath and started forward, ready to add his own insistence—little though the insistence of one whom Baradhald saw as a subordinate might impress the Man. Lord Elrond, however, must have heard something in the captain’s tone, or seen it in his face.
“Are you truly so loyal, son of Gerhale, or simply frightened?”
The Elf moved suddenly into the Ranger’s space, locking Baradhald’s gaze with his own. For a long moment both were silent, then the dark head tilted. Elrond’s tone softened, and something within it sent shivers along Dorhaur’s spine—reminded him, humble Man that he was, that before them was one who had lived and fought and held the fealty of many throughout Ages. Elrond Half-Elven may be fair and kind by preference, but he would be implacable against any who opposed him or threatened those under his protection.
Baradhald son of Gerhale was indeed a fool.
“Ah. I see.” Elrond nodded once, then stepped back. “Consider your position during the night, I urge you. We will speak again on the morrow. Remember, however, that if you do not see fit to aid us, neither will we feel any obligation to protect the name of he whose unchecked words betrayed them when we discover the identities of your fellow dissidents.” Even in the darkness, Dorhaur saw Baradhald’s face blanch. Were he not so disgusted, he might have felt sorry for the Man. “And we will find them, have no fear of that. I have not battled Morgoth himself, watched my King and yours fall in the Alliance against Sauron, and protected the last of my brother’s line over the course of centuries to be defeated at the end by pettiness and willful misunderstanding.”
Another long, level gaze, then Elrond beckoned his sons. Elladan and Elrohir surged forward, dropping onto either side of the Ranger and each seizing an arm. Baradhald scowled, but seemed finally to comprehend that continued argument would only further harm his position—he made no real effort to resist. Elrond stepped forward one last time as the twins hauled Baradhald away, seizing the Man’s jaw and pulling him roughly around.
“Son of Gerhale.” Baradhald flinched from the contact, the slender fingers digging painfully into beard and skin, but the Elf’s grip held. “Never seek out or speak to my son or his mother again.” Their eyes locked, but only briefly before Baradhald looked away. Elrond released his hold and stepped back, allowing his sons to tug the Man away. “If you do so, you will regret it.”
Dorhaur watched uneasily as Baradhald was manhandled from the firelight, but Elrond shook his head as he approached, followed closely by Glorfindel. “He will be uncomfortable, but unharmed. We are not barbarians.”
He flushed. “No, of course not. I—”
“Apology is unnecessary. Such a concern even in the face of his behavior speaks well of your character.” Elrond exchanged a glance with Glorfindel before Dorhaur could respond, then sighed deeply and seemed almost to deflate before them. He rubbed one hand over his face, which seemed to have aged a decade even as it remained timeless. “It seems as well that we were forced to leave Imladris at this time, the reason for our journey aside. I have been complacent, and blind to many things.”
Glorfindel shook his head. “Your task is to protect the line of Isildur, my friend, not the Dúnedain people from themselves.”
“Indeed.” Elrond shook his head. “Yet, what is one without the other? How is Estel to take up his Chieftaincy without a people to govern?”
“You look too far ahead.” Glorfindel lifted an eyebrow and spoke bracingly to his lord. “You are wise, Elrond, and at times such far-sightedness is necessary, but we both know that this is a habit you have difficulty reining in.” Dorhaur looked quickly around, startled to hear the Lord of Imladris scolded almost as if he were Estel. To his surprise, Elrond chuckled, nodding. Glorfindel returned the gesture and continued. “This rhetoric is obviously still underground, as we have heard nothing of it from our allies within the Dúnedain leadership. We know not whether it is even anything more, or only the dissatisfied grumblings of a dozen Men in their cups. It would behoove us to learn more before consigning our allies to infamy and ruin just yet, think you not?”
Elrond laughed aloud, gripping the blond Elf’s shoulder. “As always, my friend, your counsel saves me from my own folly.” He stretched long then and rubbed at his face again, this time briskly. “Very well. I will send Elladan and Elrohir to the Dúnedain leadership to sound out what they may. It may do us little good, if indeed such resentment does exist against our people, but it will be a start. As for the son of Gerhale …” He gazed into the dark, where his sons had disappeared to secure their captive. “He obviously cannot remain free, not if we wish his fellows to remain ignorant of our knowledge. However … I admit that I am not entirely certain what to do with him.”
Glorfindel shrugged smoothly. “Perhaps we may discuss it later, after the twins have returned and Estel is asleep. If your sons are to attempt to track the depth and sources of these rumors, they may have need of easy access to him, for further questions and such.”
“You speak the truth.” Elrond nodded slowly. “Perhaps—”
The thought had been growing in Dorhaur’s mind as he listened to his companions, but he had not truly intended to speak yet. With the words out, however, and their attention turned to him, Dorhaur pushed stubbornly ahead.
“You speak rightly when you say that your sons may not discover the truth, if indeed a large pocket of resentment exists against your people. It seems to me that you require assistance from within my people—one who is not a known lord or leader, and who may therefore subtly search out such rumors without drawing attention or suspicion.”
Both Elves studied him for a long moment, and Dorhaur was beginning to wish that he had not spoken and could simply melt into the earth when Elrond nodded again.
“You speak the truth as well, my friend. Am I to assume that you are offering yourself for such an endeavor?”
He was a simple Man, and this was far from a simple issue. It was, in fact, fraught with the possibility of both personal and political pitfalls. He was a true Dúnedan, however, and could not allow such a challenge against his Chieftain to stand unanswered.
Perhaps he was a fool as well …
Forcing back his nerves, Dorhaur nodded. “I pledge my loyalty to Estel. He is a good boy, and will be a good Man, and he is our rightful Chieftain. I’ll not see that taken from him by Men such as Baradhald. If I can be of assistance in preventing it, I do offer myself in that role.”
Glorfindel was already nodding approval even as Dorhaur finished, and he was somewhat stupidly relieved to see that his proposal was not to be rejected out of hand. Elrond stepped forward, offering his arm. “Dorhaur son of Dedhalin.” Dorhaur gripped the proffered arm in a warrior’s clasp, and a grin flashed across the ancient Elf lord’s features. “A star shone on the hour of our meeting.”
What had he just gotten himself into?
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