The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 32: Brothers in Death

As a chilly dawn brightened the land a flight of birds started from the cliffs above Helm’s Deep and spread out across the pale sky. They circled, once, twice and flew off towards the sun. Seolta stood in the entrance to the Caves watching them, his Rangers’ cloak drawn round him against the biting cold. Where had the birds come from and where had they taken refuge during the battle, when only carrion crows were to be seen? Life goes on, Seolta thought, whoever wins…..

The smoke from the dead cooking fires of the feast-hall blew across the Keep, but Seolta had not joined the banquet the previous night. He had kept a vigil by the side of Ruán, their wounded leader. Towards dawn Ruán’s fever lessened and he fell into a restless sleep. At Rosc’s command the Elves had brought their healing to him and the other injured Rangers. Seolta went back and looked at him where he lay unconscious and pale, and whispered;
‘What will I do now, Hawk of the North? Where will I lead your Rangers….?’
‘You should have got some sleep yourself’ a voice behind Seolta made him start. It was Téagar, the tall, powerfully built Ranger who was Seolta’s loyal companion.
‘…and you did not present yourself before King Théoden…..’
‘I hate ceremony…’ muttered Seolta. Téagar gave a grim little laugh; Seolta’s name meant Gracious, given to him in jest because he was so awkward and abrupt.
‘You must learn it now, Seolta' said Téagar 'You are the leader of the Black Company…’

The Black Company! Thought Seolta bitterly. How many were left, two score? Less? Was there any point in their continuing as a Company at all? Should they not disperse and join other ranks? And there was something else….since they left Arnor all their leaders had been slain or crippled; Feolchú, Fiach, Críonna and now Ruán. They had lost their Elf, Líofa, and had been forced to leave the boy Callanach behind in Lórien, deep in a deathlike sleep from which he might never awake….Seolta felt a chill run down his spine. Was he next?

As he pondered this Téagar suddenly turned and said in a low voice;
‘Decide quickly what you will do, Seolta, here comes the Lord Aragorn…..’

Seolta looked up quickly and there crossing the battle-ravaged ground of the lower cashel was the unmistakable figure of Aragorn. He was abroad early, but even from a distance the Rangers could see he had not drunk deep the night before, nor slept long or well. He had discarded the heavy mail shirt of the battle but still wore his worn and weather-stained leather jerkin and grey-green Lórien cloak. He was walking quickly with the long stride that had earned him the name Strider, looking about him at the wreckage of the battle. As always there was an air of thoughtfulness about him, even melancholy. Seolta breathed;
‘Oh no!’ and Téagar chuckled. Then they stepped forward to greet their leader…

When Aragorn saw them he stopped and smiled, and instinctively laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. It was not a gesture of threat, but something natural to him. Seolta took note of it, though…

‘I seek the leader of the Black Company’ said Aragorn in a quiet voice.
He asks when he could command, thought Seolta and he answered;
‘He is inside, badly wounded….’ Téagar gave him a dig in the ribs but Aragorn nodded and walked up the stone steps and went into the caves. Seolta showed him to where Ruán lay in restless sleep. To his surprise Aragorn knelt down and placed a lean weatherbeaten hand on the wounded man's forehead. At the touch Ruán stopped muttering and fidgeting and a peace seemed to settle on him. Seolta stared in astonishment and he heard Téagar say under his breath;
‘Only the true king can heal with a touch…..’

Aragorn straightened up and smiled reassuringly at them.
‘He will regain life and strength, but for now his war is over. Have the Black Company not appointed one to lead them in his place?’
‘They have’ said Téagar. ‘Our leader is Seolta here…..’

Aragorn smiled, as if he understood someone who was unwilling to assume leadership.
‘What are you afraid of, Seolta?’ he asked gently. The Ranger blurted out;
‘I am no leader, my lord…I have no courtesy, I am just a soldier….’
‘Courtesy?’ repeated Aragorn in surprise, then swept the battle-torn citadel of Helm’s Deep with a bruised hand.
‘Do you see a court?’
Seolta hung his head; he felt ashamed. But Aragorn said in the same quiet voice;
‘In the days that are coming there will be need of more than fine words, and you have been appointed leader by warriors. Now you must decide to what doom you will lead the Black Company….’
‘You are our leader, Dúnedain’ said Seolta ‘We will do whatever you command.’
Aragorn smiled sadly and replied
‘The path I now take I cannot command you or any man to follow, so desperate is our cause. But if you will, I would count myself honoured to lead the Black Company, even if it is to the last great battle of our time….’

These words sent a shudder of pride and fear through Seolta. He glanced at Téagar, who had a faraway look in his dark grey eyes. He turned back to Aragorn and drawing his Elven sword he knelt and holding out the hilt he said;
‘Then here I pledge again to you my loyalty and service, and that of the Black Company who follow me….’

Aragorn took Seolta's arm and raised him to his feet. He shook his head and said;
‘No, do not kneel to me, you are free men, of the ancient Numenorean blood and my kin. Fight with me as friends and we will be equals in victory….or brothers in death…’