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39
Warning Given

Warning Given

“How many are in the party?” Mertirio of Angmar asked.

“At least twenty-five, my Lord Captain,” the border guard told him.

“You are not certain?”

“Not all are seen, sir. Those who attempted to creep behind them to count their full numbers were all driven back to our side of the border with arrows and thrown stones.”

“They have thrown stones at your Men?”

“Yes, Captain. They apparently do not wish to cause permanent harm, and so throw just beside us or hit us in the shoulder. It is the same with the arrows--they are aimed just beside us, and are clearly not intended to harm--merely to warn.”

“And they demand to see me?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“How did they know I was here?”

The border guard shrugged. “All that I know, Lord Captain, is that their spokesman has demanded you come to the parley at midmorning tomorrow.

“Describe him.”

“He is typical of the Dúnedain Rangers--tall, slender, well muscled, dark hair slightly shorter than shoulder length, short beard, eyes grey, determined and confident expression. All wear either grey or green cloaks, usually well-worn--this one’s is green. Carries a long sword and hunting bow and a dagger in his belt. He came forward with his bow at the ready.

“What else of his garb can be seen?”

“Worn green riding leathers, archer’s glove on his hand, excellently made boots, black trousers.”

Trust the Man to notice the quality of the boots, Mertirio thought. “Did he come riding or afoot?”

“Afoot was how I saw him.”

Early the next morning Mertirio and several of those closest to him rode to the border. What he saw when he arrived surprised him. Sitting in a comfortable folding chair reading a book was a small figure in black and silver, the surcoat he wore over his shining mail embroidered in silver thread with a flowering tree below and seven stars in a circle above, with a winged crown between. He wore a belt of linked leaves, from which hung a black sheath wrought with silver. His feet were bare. He was quite the strangest sight Mertirio had ever seen. Opposite him sat another, also dressed in mail beneath a leather hauberk died in rich browns and greens. He wore an identical belt, from which also depended a sword. He had a book also in his lap, and a mug in his hand, from which he was drinking. A small table between their chairs held a plate with rolls and another mug. If Mertirio had been imagining all night what this parley would be like, he’d never in his wildest thoughts have thought of this.

The two figures continued reading, and apparently were intent on finishing pages, or possibly chapters. The one in black and silver finally gave a sigh and set the book on the table, reached out and took the mug and drank from it, then looked up at him, his gaze curious but alarmingly competent. “They appear to have arrived, Meriadoc,” he said to his companion.

The one in brown and green looked up, mild curiosity in his gaze. “Have they really? About time.”

“Shall we listen, or just slay them for their insolence?” asked Mertirio’s lieutenant Septrion.

“Oh, if I were you, I would not seek to slay either of us,” said the one in black and silver. “You would be dead before your stroke fell, you know. You are quite surrounded now.” He rose languidly and stretched, then straightened dangerously. “I am Captain Peregrin Took of the Guard of the Citadel for Arnor, Gondor, and the Shire. With me is Sir Meriadoc Brandybuck of the Shire and Rohan, Esquire to the King of Rohan and Holdwine of the Mark and also a captain of the forces of the Shire. About us are a number of archers under my command--at the moment; ones you are not likely to see clearly unless they wish you to see them. Oh, and one axebearer--I suppose you ought to be warned of that as well.”

The other, who’d also risen, looked at Mertirio and those surrounding him coldly. “My Lord has granted me the authority to speak in his name, as his Lord has done likewise. You sent forth a troop of twenty to assault the Steward Halladan of Arnor or the King of Arnor and Gondor--or both, if it could be managed. I will warn you my Lord King Éomer does not take threats offered his friend the Lord Aragorn Elessar or his Lord Stewards lightly.”

“Nor does my Lord King Aragorn Elessar take threats to himself or his Lord Stewards or the peoples under his protections lightly. He was mightily angered. Six died in the Old Forest and the Barrowdowns, two by their own hand. The trees and wights have dealt with their bodies. One was executed for violence offered. You have had his body, I am told, for some days. The remaining thirteen have been taken, and eight should be returned to you in about a month’s time if they will not foreswear their vows to you and your land. The King has ordered they be shorn of their sword hands for their temerity in entering his lands in secret and threatening himself and his Steward and the company in which they rode, which contained many who are unarmed and untrained in war and defense, including women and children and folk of several races. The Elves and Dwarves who dwell in the lands which lie within and along the bounds of Arnor are highly displeased that your people would threaten their friend and ally, the Lord Aragorn Elessar of Arnor and Gondor, and his peoples and lands, and have offered their assistance in dealing with you, should it be necessary and desired.”

He lifted from the table a scroll, and walked forward to hold it out to Mertirio. “Here is the record of the inquiry and judgments our Lord King has made of the fourteen whom he questioned. And he sends by me this warning--if you do not pull your forces back from the borders of his lands by the end of the coming winter, he will come against you in the coming spring, and accompanying him will be supporting forces from the Wood, the Mountains, the Mark, and the Shire. Any from your lands who seek to enter Arnor will be taken, and if they will not foreswear their allegiance to Angmar they, too, will be either relieved of their sword hands or slain if they offer violence. In the meantime, it will be made clear to those who dwell along the borders of your land that any who carry and wield no weapons will be welcomed to become citizens of Arnor, should that be their desire.”

“How do we know you are guarded as you have said?” asked Mertirio’s lieutenant.

Suddenly his horse bucked and shied as a stone struck it on its withers, then other horses were also struck with stones thrown from several angles as well. The one who had identified himself as Captain Peregrin Took smiled. “As I said, unless they wish to be seen, you will not see them. These are but the forces of my land, and they are not intent on hurting you--not as yet.”

One of those attending Mertirio who carried a bow raised it and started to reach for an arrow from his quiver, only to find himself dropping his bow, an arrow now high in his shoulder. The manling in the black and silver looked at him with casual interest. “We did warn you that there are archers there as well, did we not? They are very accurate.”

“Yes,” said the other, “had he wished to kill you, you would now be dead, that arrow either in your heart or in your throat.”

Mertirio looked down at them with amazement. “And why ought we to believe you are skilled in war?”

The one in the hauberk smiled grimly. “I fought before the walls of Minas Tirith itself alongside my sword sister, and slew many of Sauron’s orcs and some of the Men who fought for him as well. And together she and I slew the Witchking of Angmar. It was no child who stood against him, you see.”

The other looked up at Mertirio coolly. “And I was one of those who stood in the assault on the Black Gate itself. My sword I have named Troll’s Bane, for with it did I slay one of the the creatures. We have also fought against trolls, orcs, and Uruk-hai in Moria, on Amon Hen, and at Isengard, and faced the Nazgul on Amon Sul and at the Fords of the Bruinen. And two others of our kind braved the desert land of Mordor and together did what was necessary to bring down Barad-dur itself.

“We are the forces of the Periannath. Rarely have we left our own lands, but we will no longer remain safe when others are threatened. And you will find that when we speak of war, we do not boast idly.”

He turned and gestured behind him. Green and grey clad figures, Men and more Periannath, appeared from the trees, and came forward to remove trays and mugs, books, table and chairs. In moments they had disappeared again into the trees, and a tall figure in a stained green cloak, armed with long sword, hunting bow and quiver, and dagger, came forward leading two ponies saddled with rich tack, one white and one dun. The two Periannath gave shallow bows and swung easily into their saddles. It was obvious these ponies were blooded animals, neither of them particularly placid as was true with most of their kind. The Man gave a whistle, and a fine horse of a deep brown came to him, and he vaulted easily onto its bare back, turned, and looked down on the folk of Angmar with calculated disdain. The one in black and silver leading, the three of them rode off, disappearing uncannily among the trees.

Mertirio looked at the thick scroll in his hand, untied the black ribbon shot with silver threads that bound it, and examined it, not that he could read it, for all it was written in Westron. He’d never learned to read any tongue. He saw that at its top were a tree on the left side, a circle of seven stars on the right, a winged crown lower center with a depiction of a sceptre above it. The writing was clear and even and, he felt, relentless.

“I will need to services of a scribe to understand this,” he said, finally. They were aware of vague movements among the trees about the glade in which their group sat their horses, then the movement disappeared to the South. They realized they were free to go. Suddenly terrified, Meritirio signaled his folk, and they rode swiftly back to the North.

*******

The eight prisoners rode South to Gondor amongst a troop of Rangers from Eriador, twenty Men, mostly young, yet all obviously competent. Their captain appeared to be in his mid-thirties, and carried sword, bow, and dagger. Every morning before they rode on there would be sparring involving fourteen of the group, three of the others on guard and the other three preparing the dawn meal and cleaning up after; and it was clear all were well trained, not only in standard swordsmanship but each in alternative methods as well.

All the prisoners were treated with respect, although before they made Tharbad all had become highly tired of the Hobbit and his complaints. Finally one of the Angmarians looked on him, saying, “Leave off, manling, for no one can abide your constant yammering. No wonder your own folk have cast you out, for it appears you are incapable of looking beyond your own self.” After that none of those from Angmar would have ought to do with Bedro, and even the Rangers were hard pressed to put up with him at times.

Bedro was most uncomfortable for the first week, for he’d never ridden before. They had for him a rather lean horse and a saddle and short stirrups adjusted for his stature, but his horse was led the entire way. But as he was totally unprepared to live on his own and had realized that these Rangers were uncannily capable trackers, he did not try to get away, even on foot.

One of the youngest of those with whom they rode stayed by him along the road, and often sang as they traveled league after league. Tired of the enforced isolation, Bedro finally began to question him about the road they traveled, and the young Man answered courteously enough. Bedro didn’t understand all he was told, but he learned enough to realize that all this land had once been under the rule of Elendil the Tall, the Lord of Arnor and High King over Arnor and Gondor combined. It was his followers who had built the first road through here, whose people had brought peace between the settlements of this land, who had brought law and who had united the land under one benevolent rule. Now it was Elendil’s heir Aragorn son of Arathorn, the Lord King Elessar Telcontar, who renewed the Kingship and united North and South Kingdoms once again.

Bedro had seen the love between the Travelers and the King, the growing respect of Thain and Master for him as well. He’d realized the King had dealt with the invading soldiers well, and had been shocked and highly impressed with how quickly King, guard, and Pippin Took had managed to interpose their own swords to protect the Southern Steward. That the King was willing to take the guise of a Ranger himself Bedro didn’t understand until at last the young guard, whose name was Hildigor son of Halladan, explained that the King had himself been a Ranger in both Arnor and in Gondor, that he was Captain of the Rangers of Arnor before he went South to assist in the defeat of Sauron. “He himself was chief of those who protected the borders of the Shire and the Breelands, and none know that region better than he, I suspect.”

“You certainly seem to know a good deal about him,” Bedro commented.

Hildigor simply laughed while others in the troop shook their heads at the Hobbit’s denseness. Many of those of Angmar, who’d paid more heed to the name of the father to the young Ranger, were most respectful to him, although among his own he was treated no differently than his fellows. It was not until they reached Rohan that it finally penetrated Bedro’s consciousness that the young Man who was most courteous toward him was the Lord Steward of Arnor’s own son. Somehow this left him feeling most unsettled, as he tried to comprehend the world into which he had been ejected.

They remained in Edoras overnight, and the next day were on their way once more, their line escorted by an eored of Riders, the Rohirrim solemn and courteous, and, Bedro realized, potentially deadly. He looked on their spears, their keen swords, their battle axes, their short bows, their keen eyes, and realized that these were consumate warriors who would have no compunctions against killing him if they thought he posed a danger toward their land and people.

Five days later after hard riding and much eating in the saddle, they finally came in sight of Mount Mindoluin and the Northern reaches of the Rammas Echor; not long after they were approaching the city walls and the great gate of the city. They were welcomed and greeted, their orders accepted, read, and acknowledged, their horses stabled in the lowest level of the city, and they began the long walk up through the ways of the city of Minas Anor.

The prisoners were met in the Fifth Circle by a group of Guardsmen from the Citadel itself; these walked about them through the last two Circles and up the ramp to the level of the Citadel. Here they were marched toward the Citadel itself, although all found their attention captured by the monument that stood there, white Elven lilies, golden elanor, pale niphredil, and the soft blossoms of kingsfoil blooming about the feet of four Periannath. Bedro stopped in shock as he looked at it. He looked up at the Guardsman next to him. “But that’s the Travelers!” he exclaimed.

“Travelers?” asked the Man.

“Pippin Took, Merry Brandybuck, and the Hobbiton gardener,” he explained. “Those are Hobbits, and I know them!”

“You know Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc and Lord Samwise?” asked the Man. “Yet you do not know the Lord Frodo as well?”

Beasty examined the one in the front, then flushed. “He hit me once, years ago,” he said.

“The Lord Frodo struck you? And what were you doing to upset him? He was most gentle in his nature.”

“What’s that in his hand?”

“The Ring.” The other prisoners looked on the memorial with curiosity, while the Rangers from Eriador bowed toward it with respect. They went by the White Tree, and again the Rangers bowed with respect. The doors to the Citadel itself were opened, and they entered.

In the Hall of Kings, at the foot of the Throne of Gondor, sat a tall Man in blue and silver on a tall black chair, and about him some of the captains of the army and Guards. The Guard escorted them forward until they stood near him. He rose in respect to welcome the Rangers. “I greet you to Minas Anor. I am Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth and uncle to our Lord Steward Faramir, Prince of Ithilien, whom I believe you met ere you left Arnor.” At their Captain’s agreement, he smiled, and introduced the officers who stood near him. “These will be speaking with each of you, and in a few days’ time they will make determinations as to which commands each of you will be assigned, although if your training is as we have seen in those who have come from Arnor before, you will undoubtedly do well no matter where you are placed. For now Lord Belerion will show you to your quarters and introduce you to those alongside whom you will serve for the next six months. Now, if you will tell me your names?”

“I am Beldarmir son of Orimirion, my Lord,” said the captain of their troop, then named the rest of the Northern Rangers while handing the Prince the dispatches he’d carried. “With us are prisoners who are to be housed in the prison behind the Citadel until the King’s return.” He indicated one packet wrapped with silk.

The Prince gave a quick look at the eight, and took a second look at the one Hobbit present. He opened the packet and scanned the contents of the first page, looked back at the seven Men with interest, then gave a brief bow. “The King himself commends you to my guardianship, gentlemen. I grieve that we must hold you prisoner at all, but will give orders you are to be treated with respect and all courtesy.” The Ranger Hildigor translated for the benefit of those who did not speak the Common Tongue.

He then read the second page, then reread it. Refolding it, he examined the Hobbit closely. “Master Bedro son of Bigelow? You, also, will remain in our prison until our Lord King’s return. It appears, however, that you have not earned the respect of our Lord Elessar that these have done. That is a surprise to me, for you are the first Pherian I have met who has been less than honorable. The Lord does ask that you be given four meals daily, although they will be adequate for the needs of a Pherian.” Turning to one of the Guards who had accompanied the company from the Fifth Circle, he ordered, “Choose five of your Men to accompany you and the prisoners to the prison, and take this with you. The rest of you may return to your regular duties.”

With a salute and bow, the Man indicated five to remain with him and gave a gesture of dismissal to the rest. These bowed and saluted Prince Imrahil, then turned and marched to the center of the Hall of Kings, at which point they separated, some heading for the back regions of the Citadel while others went out to take up their duties in other areas about the sixth and seventh levels of the city.

Within minutes the seven Men and one Halfling had been taken out a side door and led around the building, then in through the doors of the prison area. The Warden of the prison read his orders carefully, and listened to the oral report of the one charged with bringing the prisoners to the cells, and nodded his understanding. He then called one of the guards within the prison to him. “Livron, you speak the tongue of Angmar, do you not?” When Livron indicated he did, he was instructed, “Please to interpret for me, then.

“All will be warned to treat you with all respect and care, gentlemen,” he said directly to the prisoners. “I ask each to indicate whether you wish to be housed alone or with one of your fellows, for the King has indicated this will be acceptable. You will, I fear, find your stay here somewhat boring, although if you desire we can provide books for your distraction and instruction while you are with us.”

Two pairs of the Angmarians indicated they preferred to be imprisoned together, and the Warden indicated two of his Men should each take one pair to their cells. He then indicated another should take the other three to their cells. He then turned to the Hobbit himself. “Bedro son of Bigelow, I will lead you to your cell. Please follow me.”

The room was larger than that in which Beasty had been housed in Bree, and definitely was cleaner. A cot had a reasonably comfortable mattress, linens, and pillow; there was a stool and small table, and adequate vessels made of metal for hygiene. A barred window looked out onto a small interior court. “You will be allowed to take exercise there for two periods a day until the King’s return,” Beasty was told. “If you are courteous, you will find your guards will be more likely to be respectful in return. In the mean time we will be seeing to the arrangements needed for your period of enforced service.”

Bedro Bracegirdle nodded his understanding, and the Warden bowed, and saw to the closing and locking of the door. Bedro sighed as he lifted himself onto his cot. Well, he was now in the capitol of the newly combined realm. Now that he was here, he wondered if he would ever leave it again.

*******

Four weeks after their arrival in Minas Anor the seven Angmarians were released from their cells and brought together to the exercise area in the center of the prison complex. There they found waiting for them the King. “I have altered the judgment given to the seven of you somewhat,” he said in their own language, looking at each closely. “How I have done this will be made plain to you at the proper time. However, for now, I will say this. Tomorrow each of you will be taken to the Houses of Healing where you will each be given a sleeping draught to aid in what must be done, for I would have you feel no pain in what is to come. When you awaken you will find your sword hand thickly bound with bandages. Under no circumstances are you to remove these bandages until after you have returned to your own people and your own homes. Then and only then are you to remove them, and preferably in the privacy of your own homes with but your family present. Do you understand?”

“But what about cleaning the wound and watching for infection?” asked the one called Mustel.

“The manner in which the amputation will be done will leave no danger of such problems,” the King assured them. “You will not feel particular pain afterwards, you will find. But until you have been returned to your own people it will best to leave the bandages on. This will be very important if you are not to die as a result of what has happened to you.

“I will tell you this--I have been greatly impressed with the honor each of you has shown both to me and to those who have been about you since you were taken. The day after tomorrow you will begin your return to your own people. You will need little care, although a healer will accompany you on the return journey, and he will be giving you regular draughts to reduce the probability of pain. I myself will attend on you while you are in the Houses of Healing, and I swear I will do all I can to make what you experience as painless as possible.”

Mustel of Angmar waited his turn to go to the Houses of Healing with anxiety. Soon, he realized, he would be relieved of his hand. How would he feel afterwards? he wondered. Would there be a great deal of pain? Would he still feel the ends of the fingers that were no longer there as Delru insisted was true for him since he lost his hand and much of his arm as well when he fell on the track through their village, and the iron-bound wheel of a freight wagon rolled over his wrist, crushing it and almost completely cutting it from his arm? He said it was most uncomfortable, how the hand that was not there would curl up with nonexistent fingernails dug into nonexistent palm, and he could not relax them any more. All of them were fearful of the day to come to one degree or another, that Mustel knew.

The door finally opened and a solemn guard stood there alongside the Warden of the prison holding a cup. The Warden bowed deeply as he presented the cup to Mustel. “It has been an honor to have you here, and for you to have waited in such patience, sir,” the Warden said as the prisoner drank the wine which the cup contained. “You will find what is to come far less of an ordeal than you might think; but if you are to live to the aid of your own people, who will need you, give yourself well into the hands of the King, who will do what he must to return you to their needs.”

“Thank you and your people that you have treated us well, sir Warden,” Mustel said. “But how I am to be of use to my own people with my sword hand gone, I do not know.”

The Warden smiled. “You may find yourself surprised once you realize the full depth of the King’s mercy, my friend. He has done what he must both to provide justice and to provide for the common folk of your people, now he has realized the full reasoning behind why most of you were chosen for this mission.”

Once he saw that Mustel had drunk all within the cup, he received it back, then accompanied him outside and saw him given into the care of the three Guards of the Citadel who waited there, and they accompanied him around the building, past Tree and memorial and down the ramp. There they turned right, and they brought him to an arched gate, through the gardens area, and into the Houses of Healing where a tall Healer waited him. He, too, held a cup, but a smaller one than he’d already been given.

“You have already been given one draught,” the Healer said quietly as one of the Guards translated to Mustel’s own language. “This second will shortly make you feel very sleepy. The King will aid you to fall deeply asleep for the next part of what is to come. Trust him, for he will see you able to serve the needs of your people when that time comes.” Mustel nodded, accepted the cup and drank from it. He had some difficulty getting it all down, for it was somewhat bitter, but drink it he did. He was led into a room and aided to remove his outer clothing.

The King entered, dressed in simple grey, helped him onto a high table, spoke with him, had him move his fingers, asked simple questions. When the dizziness hit Mustel felt suddenly terrified, but the King was able to reassure him, smiled at him. “I will be by you. No real harm will come to you, you will find. But if you are to survive to the needs of your own people and village, this must be. Now, focus on the tip of my finger.”

The King’s voice became soft and seductive, and Mustel found himself relaxing, his eyes finally closing, and he slept deeply.

Once Mustel had indeed lost consciousness, the King nodded. “Bring me the plaster,” he said. He closed the fist around a roll of bandaging, then wrapped it tightly round with more bandaging until half the lower arm was swathed. Finally they handed to him lengths of bandaging that had been soaked in plaster, and he began to wrap the hand and wrist with it, swathing a good way up the arm, but not the full length of the bandaging that was there already. Finally it was all done, and he looked on it with a feeling of satisfaction. He then wrapped that with a layer of fleece, and put a soft wrapping over all, then a layer of tightly woven canvas to protect the rest.

“Why are they not to realize you have not taken their hands after all?” asked Evamir once Mustel was moved to another room to sleep off the remains of the two draughts he’d been given.

“They were sent out to assassinate Halladan or myself so that hopefully we would kill them and they would not pose any threat to the current leadership of their own people once it becomes obvious they seek only to dictate all that is allowed for those who remain in their lands. That I ordered the loss of their hands is known to them, and a copy of the judgment made has been given into the hands of Mertirio, the current war leader who would be dictator for all their people. If he knew they were not maimed after all, once they return to their own people he would have them killed that they not pose a threat. If he believes them maimed, he will allow them to live, for who will listen to the advice of a Man maimed by the enemy? Once it becomes plain to their own folk, however, that they were not maimed after all, and that they see clearly what Mertirio and his folk plan, they are most likely to listen and stand up to the would-be rulers of all.

“If they realize they have not lost their hands after all before they face Mertirio, it is unlikely they will be allowed to return home--probably they would be imprisoned and secretly killed before such could happen.”

“I do not like the use of the drink on the way home.”

“Nor do I, particularly; but if the ruse is to work on them as well as those in Angmar, such would be expected. But orders have been given to reduce the amount of the drug daily until at the last they have nothing more than wine with some innocuous herbs in it by the time they return to the borders of their own land.”

By that time the next soldier had been brought, and the King saw to the sleeping and the wrapping, until at last all seven and Sestor had their hands disguised.

*******

Mertirio and his captains carefully watched the riders approach. All eight of the Men from Angmar had one hand identically bandaged, and they were accompanied by a group evenly made up by those in the black and silver of the Southern Kingdom and those in the grey and green cloaks of Rangers of Arnor. One among them was one of the small folk who’d taken part in the parley almost two months earlier.

He’d listened to the reading and translation of the King’s judgment with interest. That the King of Arnor and Gondor would return those who came against him still alive but only after having lost their sword hands impressed him. Here was one who would appear both merciful and just, but who realized what must be done to stop specific individuals from threatening him and his again, and who wanted the enemy properly impressed with his intent. Mertirio found himself admiring the astuteness of this foe, and glad these were returned alive after all. Let all see that the ruler of Arnor and Gondor was, for all his show of mercy, yet ruthless and thought nothing of maiming their forces, and the rest of his folk would more likely seek to defeat his army when it at last came to open battle.

The group stopped a good ways short of the border, and one of those who rode with them addressed the bandaged Men. “I will now provide you with a special knife you will need to remove the heavy bandage you now wear. Remove the outer wrappings, then use this knife to cut through the plastered bandage underneath. The tip itself and outer side are dull, and it is specially curved to allow you to work it inside the cuff of the thing. Cut all the way down past where your hand would be, and do this from both sides. Remember, however, not to do this until you are home with your own families, and only those you trust about you. Otherwise all will be for naught.” He handed a special tool to each of them and saw them put into packs or belt purses.

“Good then,” he said quietly. “Do not tell them how courteously you were treated, as it will be lost on them.” He went to his own place at the back and indicated to the Guards and Rangers they could go ahead, and watched after with prayers that the King’s elaborate ruse would be successful. The eight being returned appeared tired, but not a great deal worse for the wear. But the thick bandages on sword hands pleased Mertirio, for he knew that these would not raise sword against him, and being seen as maimed would not be treated as quite believable by their folk. He made a show of welcoming them back into their homeland, and saw the fourteen of their armed escort turn back to join the three who’d stayed back.

That night they stayed in the camp established for those who’d come to take part in the receipt of the prisoners. Mertirio had them brought to his tent and questioned as to what they had experienced.

Mustel ended up as their spokeman. “We were taken first to the gaol in Bree, and each locked into a separate cell. Near sunset we were taken to a hall which was being used as a judgment hall, and were attended by the armed Rangers who’d captured us. Eleven had been sent north of the road, including the archer--they were not with us. Avrigien, once he’d given us our orders, withdrew further into the forest. After our arrival in the hall he was brought in by two other Rangers, and we realized he, too had been captured.”

“How was the judgment carried out?”

Mustel described the two tables and how representatives of the Northern Kingdom sat at one and those from the South at the other, and the inclusion of the short manlings called Periannath as well in the party. He described the relentless questioning, and finally how the King himself had been revealed as one of the two Rangers flanking Avrigien.

“Describe him.”

“Taller than the rest, but like them in appearance. Almost all have dark hair and beards and grey eyes, and wear grey or green cloaks with a star on the left shoulder. Only he wears no star on his cloak. He wore blue-grey riding leathers beneath, which once the cloak was removed we realized were richly decorated, embossed and inlaid with silver. His eyes are keen, but so it is with the rest. He appears to be in middle years, but is slender and athletic in build, and well muscled. He wore but sword and dagger when we saw him, but we were told as we traveled South he is also an excellent bowman in his own right, as is true even moreso of his primary lieutenant. The quickness of his draw of his sword when Avrigien threatened his Southern Steward was amazing, I must say. He, the one who had remained at Avrigien’s side, and the Perian guard all had their swords interposed before Avrigien could complete his attempt to kill the Man. And his eyes when he pronounced the fate of Avrigien were--relentless.”

“Who did he have behead Avrigien?”

“He said he would do this himself.”

“Do you believe he did this?”

“Yes. I do not think the King of Arnor and Gondor chooses to speak idly.”

“When were your hands removed?”

“Just ere we were sent back north through Arnor again, back here to our homes.”

“How was it done?”

“None of us knows how it was done, for we were each given sleeping draughts that we not be aware of the pain of it. And we were constantly given draughts which were reduced day by day that any pain be relieved throughout our return journey. We awoke in their Houses of Healing and found our arms like this. We were told that the plaster bandages were intended to keep anything from bumping the stumps and causing pain ere they were completely healed, and the outer bandages to keep the plaster from causing bruises to the rest of our bodies.”

“Have any of you known infection?”

“No, Lord. We were told special herbs would be used to guard against such. Their healers appear to be well trained, and the King himself is a healer as well.”

“You are certain of this?” asked one of Mertirio’s lieutenants.

“Positive,” Sestor said quietly. “There were at least three healers in the King’s party when I was taken, and he was the one who did the most to remove the arrow which impaled my arm.”

“When was your hand removed?”

“He told me what judgment he’d given the rest while we remained in Rivendell where I was questioned. He had me ride South with him, and I went through the Houses of Healing with the rest, woke to find my arm thus.” All others agreed this was how each had experienced it.

“A King who is a healer and a warrior both--an unusual Man,” Mertirio commented.

“And one gifted in languages as well,” Mustel added.

“What of the others, whose swords were broken?”

“We know not,” Mustel said.

“They accompanied us South, were told they would not be allowed to return to Arnor,” Sestor added.

Sestor was asked to explain how he was taken, and both he and Mustel repeated the descriptions they’d been given of the Old Forest and Barrow Downs, although Sestor did not tell how he’d been advised that the haunting of the Barrows had been caused by the Lord of the Nazgul rather than the Dúnedain.

“And you say that the King was accompanied by several of the manlings known as Periannath?”

“We were told they were known both as Hobbits and Periannath or Pheriannath, depending on the one speaking the word. But, yes, there were several, at least two of whom are trained superbly in the use of the sword, and many of whom are skilled with bows, and all of whom appear to be skilled with thrown stones.”

“All?”

“Men, women, and children all three. And one is renowned for the killing of the Witchking, and another for the killing of a great troll, although I have been told all who went South with the King before have slain orcs of several kinds.”

“What other business did you see the King do?”

“There was a conference for all who live within the bounds of Arnor, both East and West of the Misty Mountains. Not only did Men come from the various parts of Arnor, but Elves, Dwarves, and the Periannath as well. They spoke on the manner in which each people will maintain its borders, and how they will approach the borders of the lands of others. They spoke of coinage and how the coinage of each land will compare to that of the King as well. They spoke on the education of their children and the goods each has to trade with others. They spoke on the enemies of each people and the allies of each as well. They discussed how they will deal with lawbreaking and when one will be sent to stand before King or Stewards rather than to be dealt with locally. And they spoke as to how they will deal with the threat we pose, although from these talks I was excluded.

“I also saw the King marry two couples, one from among the Periannath and one from among his own kinsmen from Eriador. He and two among the Periannath saw to the wedding of the Hobbits.

“And I saw the practice of several weapons by all parties, including the King, Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Hobbits. All are well trained and experienced, and I would not wish to draw sword against the Hobbit who is among the King’s own guard.

“The King himself did the stitching of my wound, and it was seen to by healers from among the Elves, Men, and Hobbits as well.”

“The Periannath have healers?”

“Yes, my Lord. The one who kept an eye on my wound appeared very skillful.”

Mertirio and his lieutenants all looked at one another. Finally one of his followers commented, “You each carry your own sword?”

Perdenon nodded. “Yes, my Lord. They were returned to us this day, and we were told that as we proved honorable opponents we would be allowed to pass our swords on to our sons, as is done among their people.”

Several of the captains laughed at that.

Afterwards the eight of them were shown to a tent. One of them, one named Gershim, started to pull out the tool given them by the Rangers. Sestor caught his hand and shook his head. “No, you don’t want to do that here,” he said quietly. “If you do this where you might be seen, it will mean the death of all of us. You must not take it off until you are in your own home and where no one but your own families can see.”

“But why?”

“I cannot say why. I only know that the King changed our final judgment, and how he did it is only to be revealed when we have returned home. Mertirio and his fellows must not see how his judgment was changed.”

They all looked at one another, and finally Gershim returned the tool to his belt purse once more.

Within three days each of the former prisoners had been allowed to return to his own home, and finally, once they were assured no one other than their own family members were with them, each found himself pulling out the tool given them at the last and beginning the cutting of the plaster bandages.

The one called Perdenon gladly removed the outer bandages, then inserted the curved cutting blade and began to cut. It took time, a good long time. Finally the youngest of his three brothers, looking into the loft room where Perdenon was working on freeing his arm at last, offered to help, and soon he’d managed to get one side of the thing cut. Getting the other side cut went faster, and finally it was peeled away--and then came the unwrapping of the inner bandages.

When at last the last bandage was removed and he found his hand was still there, clutched around a roll of cloth, he looked at it amazed. He’d not moved it for so long he could barely get the muscles to flex--but finally he was able to straighten his fingers, move them a bit. He sat heavily on the cot where he slept at night, and remained looking between his hand and his brother for some time.

“I’ve been told the King had changed the judgment given me,” he said quietly, “but not that he’d decided against removing my sword hand after all.” He looked up into his brother’s eyes. “Why would he go to such elaborate lengths to convince even me that he’d followed through on the threat?” He was suddenly glad this was his youngest brother, and not one of the elder two or his father, for he knew that Pelos would keep his own counsel where the others would report this immediately to Mertirio and the other captains.

Pelos stood shaking his head. “I do not know, but I suspect this was done for the benefit of others more than for your own.”

“I think,” Perdenon said, “that I had best speak to Sestor. He may have some knowledge of the King to share regarding this. What I have been told repeatedly, however, was that I was not to remove the bandages until I was with those I trusted completely, that otherwise I was likely to die.” He searched his brother’s eyes. “Would Mertirio truly have killed me had I returned still with my hand intact, do you think?”

Pelos’s face grew hard. “He has never favored you, nor the others sent with you on the mission to kill the Steward or King.”

“So,” Perdenon said slowly, “he might not cause other harm to me if he believed I could no longer wield a sword....” Together the two of them contemplated his hand, which had lost muscle but was not destroyed or lost, and thought of the nature of their own leadership.

Gershim’s oldest son helped in the removal of the bandage, and looked at the hand clutched about the roll of bandages at the center. “But, my father, I thought you told me that this hand had been removed.”

“I was told it was to be removed....”

“But why the bandages, the plaster?”

“I have no idea....” Gershim looked at it, totally perplexed, willed the fingers to move, finally got some response out of them. “But I was told not to remove these in the camp, that it would lead to the deaths of all....”

“Mertirio and his fellows do not love you.”

“And he was cheerful enough to see me with that on my arm....” A gladness went through him. “I have not lost it after all, can still, in time, wield a blade once again! And Mertirio does not know this. He wished Mertirio to think I was powerless to ever speak against him in a manner to which others will listen.” His eyes grew steely at the thought. “To find I have more respect for the king of our enemies than I do for our own war leaders----”

His son considered. “If this is true, then what does this say about our war leaders, my father?”

Sestor managed to cut the bandages from his arm himself, and was not
surprised to see he still had his hand beneath. It would take time to return it to its former strength, but he would be able to bend his bow again--not that he ever intended to bend it against the forces of the King of Arnor and Gondor. However, the discussions regarding the nature of Mertirio had had their effect on him, had clarified in his own mind why he had always distrusted the Man and his followers.

Now none of the war leaders saw him as a threat any longer, and would most like pay him no attention. Well, that pleased him no end.

Mustel’s cousin helped remove the plastered layer of bandages and to unwrap the final layers underneath. As the two of them looked at the hand hidden in the midst of all, wonder and gladness filled them both. Mustel had a time of it, getting the fingers, so long immobile, to move, but they finally began to answer to his will. He shook his head.

“So,” he said at the last, “this is what the Lord King Elessar did not wish for the war leaders to see, what he wished revealed only to those I can trust.” He looked up to catch his cousin’s eye. “I think, once the strength returns to my hand, I will be somewhat a shock to Mertirio.”

“Well, he deserves a shock, for his plan is to control all, to tell us even when and what we are to eat and drink.”

“He sent us to test the defenses of the leaders of Arnor, and if we died he’d have been full glad. Well, we were not killed, not unmanned, or even relieved of our hands. We have seen the King of Arnor and Gondor--he’s a far better Man or leader than Mertirio, Irthorol. I have a mind to speak to the others who came back from Gondor with me. We can perhaps prepare a surprise for Mertirio and his folk.”

And throughout Angmar it was much the same in each of the houses in which those who’d been to Gondor removed their bandages. One was angry at the King of Arnor and Gondor until his wife pointed out he was alive and home, and not likely to be sent on another suicide mission. The idea that he’d been sent on the last mission in the hopes he’d die caused him to think more deeply about whether or not he would support Mertirio and the other war chieftains in the future, and his wife indicated she would speak with her brothers.

Aragorn, on seeing in the Palantir that the former prisoners from Angmar were back in their homeland, smiled. It would be interesting to see what the coming year brought in the relations between Arnor and Angmar, much less within Angmar itself.

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