Words: c. 5200
Genre: Drama, gen, angst, character study
Characters: Original character and Aragorn
Summary: In a city of old ruins, an assassin lies in wait for the man he has been paid a fortune to kill.
What was the price of a man's life?
Raenor was kneeling in the shadowed corner, holding his longbow in one hand. With the other hand, he gripped the rich jewel that hung around his neck, his thumb running up and down its ornate chain. There were other jewels in the pouch at his belt, and a casket of gold lay safely hidden, far away. More treasures, far more, would be his by the end of the day if his arrow flew true.
He could smell flowers and green leaves, their scent incongruous in this place of dead stone. People had hung the old ruins with garlands and decorated the fallen statues with lilies and river rushes. Raenor glanced out, his cheek pressing against the coarse window frame. People were lining the streets, patiently waiting in the sunshine, but although the smell of flowers was strong, the smell of dust was stronger. His fingers smelled of oil and metal and blood, the smell of death.
His hand returned to the chain around his neck. He thought of gold. He filled his mind with the image of it, with the gleam of it, with the feel of it. He remembered how his brother's widow had smiled when he had given her the first of the dark man's coins. He imagined his mother, safe and secure for the first time since the Pelennor. He longed for his payment. He hungered for it.
All he had to do was kill one man.
In war, they wanted you to kill people. They praised you for it. They rewarded you for it. They called you a hero if you killed many. They called you a coward if you turned your back and refused to fight. If your lord, on a whim, decreed that a man was your enemy, you were expected to kill him. If you killed a man on your own account, cutting his throat in the back streets of Minas Tirith, then your life was forfeit and you were reviled.
Just one arrow. Just one life. Raenor had sent his arrows through half a hundred hearts when he had served as a Ranger in Ithilien. He had killed. He had been praised for it, admired for it, until...
He shook his head briskly, driving that memory away. His hand gripped the jewel, its smooth facets warm and moist against his palm. Outside, the crowds were gathering, and snatches of their conversation rose up to his vantage point far above. Brightness sparkled on their hair. The sun was behind him, and he could see so many details: their smiles; their simple jewellery, proudly worn; the pale lilies in their hands.
It was almost time. He strung his bow, and waited.
What was the price of a man's life?
What was the price of a king's?
It had started with a deer.
After another night with too little sleep and too many dark and fractured dreams, Raenor had been out at dawn, his longbow in his hand. Wood pigeons had been calling to each other from the trees, and the grass had been heavy with dew. A fine mist had drifted up from the river overnight, and the whole world, with its fields and orchards and distant mountains, had looked like layers of faded smoke.
The deer had been nearly invisible, grazing with its head down, just a dark grey smudge against the pale line of mist-shrouded trees. Raenor had watched it, strung his bow, and taken aim. Releasing an arrow was the smallest, simplest of things: just a quick uncurling of the fingers, with no other movement, not even a breath. The arrow flew true, but the deer startled at the last moment, darting away into the fog.
And then the stranger was there, rising from the mist like a ghost. Raenor watched him approach, while something inside him screamed danger. Without consciously deciding to do so, he nocked another arrow to the string, and stood ready. It took a very long time for the man to close the gap between them. He stopped a sword's length away from Raenor, but even that close, there was little colour about him, with his dark cloak and dark boots and hanks of dark hair escaping from his hood.
"That was a good shot," the dark-clad stranger said. He had a slight accent, something Raenor could not place.
Raenor's bow was pointed half downwards, the arrow tip aimed just next to the man's feet. "I would have hit the deer," Raenor said, "if you hadn't startled it."
"I know." The man nodded in acknowledgement. He held Raenor's arrow out to him, its shaft bright with dew. "A good shot, did I say? Nay, it was a masterful shot, at such a distance, and in such poor light."
Raenor relaxed the bow string, easing it inwards. Not so many years ago, he had heard comments like this on a daily basis. His comrades had clapped him on the back. His captain had praised him. With the longbow, he had been the acknowledged master, and his friends had proudly declared that nobody in Gondor was his equal.
"I have seldom seen your like," the dark man said.
And that was the beginning, the start of it all.
Time was passing. Raenor shifted uncomfortably in the dust, and watched the slow movement of shadows. He needed the sun behind him. When he took aim, his target would be singled out by sunlight, but anyone looking up at his hiding place would be dazzled by the sun and unable to see him against its brightness.
Was that the sound of distant trumpets? Raenor strung his bow. His hands were shaking. Why were his hands shaking? It was a bad thing, really bad. He scraped one palm and then the other across the front of his jerkin, wiping away the sweat, trying to gouge away the nervousness.
This was nothing, he told himself. It was just one life. It was the life of a king, yes, but what was a king but a man? Just an ordinary man, no better than anyone else. A man not from Gondor, but from the north. A man who had spent most of his life dressed in rags and sleeping in ditches, or so the stories said. A man whose claim to the throne came from an accident of birth and a distant ancestor, long since dead.
He gripped the jewel, and tried to fill his mind with visions of riches. Far below, on the ruined streets of Osgiliath, a child turned to look up at his window. Raenor's heart was racing. He drew back into the shadows. His lips tasted dust.
Not long now, he told himself. Not long now.
The offer had not come immediately, of course.
The dark man had walked home with him, and stayed for hours, offering friendship and good conversation. In return, Raenor had told the man about his past: about his two years with the Rangers, and even, a little, about the way it had all ended, in betrayal and shame. His brother's widow had watched it all anxiously, chewing her cracked lips and tugging at a loose lock of her hair. That was when the dark man had made his first gift, slipping coins into Raenor's pocket, and patting them conspiratorially. Raenor should give her the coins the next day, he suggested, and tell her he'd earned them honestly.
"Earned them how?" Raenor had asked.
"Selling rabbits?" the dark man suggested. His shrug was casual, but within the shadows of his hood, his eyes were glinting. "Many rewards are available for a master bowman in times such as these."
Raenor was not a stupid man. He realised in that moment that he was being courted for some task, but it pleased him to allow it to happen, in case the prize was worth it. Any doubts were dispelled by his sister-in-law's delight at the coins. She had not smiled since the king's armies had returned from the Black Gate, and her husband had not returned with them.
Even so, it was weeks before the offer was spoken out loud. Raenor let himself be plied with drinks. He spoke openly and honestly about the bitter struggle that was his life. He needed money. He had been bitterly wronged by his country, and owed them nothing. He had killed: orcs, Haradrim, Easterlings, it was true, but they were all the same when you killed them: creatures that lived and breathed, until you brought all that to an end.
The offer, when it came, was quiet, on a bitter night without a moon. Raenor had half expected it, or so he had told himself. Even so, when it came, he stood in silence for a very long time, while an owl screeched somewhere out in the black.
The king, he thought, but he did not say it out loud. To kill the king. He had never been so aware of the beating of his own heart.
The dark man was just a shape in the darkness, and a pale smear of skin beneath his hood. His head was tilted in mild challenge. Raenor had no doubt that his hand lay on the hilt of his sword, beneath that dark cloak that he always wore. "You have questions?" His voice was soft.
Raenor swallowed hard. His questions, when he asked them, were not about the why of it, but about the how. He did not ask why the king had to die, or why he had been chosen to do the killing. He did not ask about the rights and wrongs of it. He asked just two questions: what would he be paid, and how he would live to enjoy his reward, after the deed was done.
The rope was in place behind him, offering a swift exit and a happy ending. Raenor had chosen his vantage point well. It was a tall tower beside the river, the tallest that still remained in Osgiliath. Half of this upper floor was gone, and much of the stairway had crumbled, but Raenor had always been fearless. He had scrambled to the top, then attached a rope to the rear window. Once the deed was done, he would slide down the rope, and take to the sheltering ruins of the old quays. He had planted a boat half a mile downstream. He would reach it quickly and be away while the guards were still closing their useless trap around the empty tower.
Nothing could go wrong, he told himself. The treasure was safely hidden, in a place that only he knew, although he hidden a letter that would tell his brother's widow where to find it if the unthinkable happened, and he failed to return. When the deed was done, a far greater treasure would be given into his hands.
It would change everything. It would erase all those years of bitterness, of betrayal, of unrelenting, grinding struggle to survive.
He would change his world.
"Soon," he whispered, dry lips moving in the still air. "So very soon."
He drew an arrow from his quiver, and set it to the bowstring.
Long ago, long before any of this, Raenor's skill with a bow had been spotted and nurtured. His grandfather had taken him hunting, out in the meadows of Lossarnach. In Minas Tirith, later, he had joined the militia, and then had been chosen as a Ranger. He had killed, and he had killed often: orcs and enemies, and food for the pot. People told him that he served his country well, although that was not why he did it. They told him he served his captain, and that was closer to the truth. He liked the praise. Shooting was the only thing he truly excelled at, and he dreamed of honours and reward.
But precious few honours were to be won in Gondor in those latter years.
And then… And then…
And then it had all come crashing down, and the door had slammed firmly shut on honour and praise, never to open again, not even the tiniest chink. Since then, he had lived on the fringes, scraping a living from the ravaged land.
Betrayal made a man desperate. There was nothing left but the lure of gold. Nothing, nothing mattered but that.
Trumpets sounded, but still the king did not come. Raenor's arm, normally so tireless, was aching from holding the bow. His palms were damp again, and he wiped them, but that only seemed to make them worse. On his right hand, he wore his archer's glove, supple leather covering his first two fingers. His left palm was grooved with the shape of the jewel and its golden chain.
He was looking for an arrogant stranger with a crown. He was looking for the man who had led his brother to his death at the Black Gate. He was looking for…
A man. A target. Nobody, really, just a shell of flesh and blood, that was his pathway to riches and a life without care.
And still he did not come.
Normally, before shooting, his mind was clear, all his thoughts focused on his target. Today, as he waited in his crumbling tower, his thoughts were as crowded as the streets below, and as fractured as the ruins of the city itself. He tried to cling to thoughts of the treasure. Instead he remembered how dangerous the dark man had seemed as he had walked out of the mist. He saw the smiling faces of the crowd, and flowers hanging from ruins that had once been bedecked with the blood-stained banners of the orcs.
He was slow to notice that he was no longer alone.
His first thought was that this was the dark man, come to keep watch over him; come, perhaps, even to kill him, once the deed was done. "Are you…?" he began, and he swung his bow around, the arrow aiming at the man's feet, as he had done that first morning. Then he saw that this man was even taller than the dark man was. His hood cast the same shadow over his face, but his cloak was a lighter shade of grey. "You aren't…"
"No." The stranger shook his head.
Raenor had spent too long staring out at the sunlit city. It was hard to see much within the relative darkness of the tower, but he thought that the stranger had the same pale skin and dark hair that he had glimpsed beneath the dark man's hood. "But you're… you're one of the same? You know him?"
The stranger tilted his head in a way that could have been a yes.
The dark man had never given his name, and Raenor had never asked it. Raenor had never asked him where he came from, or why he wanted the king dead. The question was just too big, so he told himself that it did not matter. When it came circling in the night like a crow on a battlefield, he drove it away with stubborn dreams of treasure.
"I haven't done it yet." Raenor's mouth was dry. He moistened his lips; moistened them again. "He's late. I will. I will."
His hands were trembling. The nock of the arrow slipped from the bowstring. Raenor caught it with his two smallest fingers. "Why?" asked the stranger.
"Didn't he tell you?" The wind turned, bringing with it the sudden, intense odour of lilies.
"I do know," said the stranger. "I know that you were a Ranger once, serving under Prince Faramir, until he dismissed you in disgrace."
"Disgrace!" The arrow clattered to the floor. "I lost everything. I was supposed to kill; that's what we were there for. But then he said… he said I'd acted dishonourably. But what honour is there in war? What honour is there in anything any of them did – the whole sorry lot of them? All I did, all I did was kill an enemy after he'd surrendered, after the precious Captain Faramir had given his word that he would not be harmed. The captain said I enjoyed killing too much, that I could not be trusted to hold back. I hate him. I hate him."
"And yet, if you kill the king," said the stranger quietly, "Faramir will rule in his place as Steward of Gondor."
"Then maybe I'll kill him, too." Raenor scraped a hand across his face, his spread fingers raking through his damp hair. "But I… But I…" He had endured too many nights without sleep, desperately wiping out all thought by clinging to the vision of gold. I won't, something cried inside him. Of course I won't. When the king was dead, Faramir would rule. He deserved no less. The king was a stranger, but Faramir was a great man, and had bled for Gondor for many years.
The stranger just stood there, watching him, his keen eyes just visible beneath the hood. Raenor wanted to sink to his knees, suddenly sure that the stranger knew everything he was thinking. Why do you want to heap this honour on Faramir, said that watchful stance, when he wronged you so badly?
Because… Raenor thought. Because…
"It changed everything," Raenor spat out. "Nobody would look twice at a Ranger who'd been dismissed in dishonour. I could have lived with that, but it hurt my family, too." His mother had been so ashamed. His father had been broken, long before his well-tended little field on the Pelennor had been shattered by war and his livelihood gone. "When the women were evacuated from Minas Tirith, my mother was left behind. She saw such horrors in the siege. She's never been the same since. Because she was left behind. Because she was nobody. She was nothing. What do the people in power care for the likes of us? We're only the people who bleed for them. Who die for them."
Outside, the crowds were cheering. Raenor pressed his hand against the wall, and ran it down the stonework, using pain to calm his thoughts. He drew another arrow, and set it to the string.
"Perhaps she chose to stay behind," the stranger said.
"Chose…" His hands were shaking. His eyes were stinging from the dust. His mother had always been stubborn, ridiculously so. She would have stood her ground, refusing to move for anyone. And with the added shame of a son who had disgraced his country, she would have been too proud to ask for help, in case help was refused.
"But it matters not," said the stranger, maddeningly calm, "because you do it all for money."
"For money!" Raenor whirled round, suddenly furious. "Of course I don't! I do it because it doesn't matter. It won't make a difference. We've never had a king before, so why do we need one now? Faramir will do a better job, and… and my brother, I loved him, but he went with the levies to Minas Tirith, and he saw the king, and I don't know what he was thinking, but he volunteered to go with the armies to the Black Gate, although he didn't have to, because the Lord of Lossarnach was dead and my brother was only sworn to him, and not to Gondor, and he didn't come back, he didn't come back."
"Every death was a bitter loss to Gondor," the stranger said.
"Yes." Raenor was almost weeping now. "Yes, it was. And I wasn't there. I stayed away, because I'd tried to serve Gondor, and Gondor had rejected me and cast me aside, so I didn't care, I don't care what happens to it, because I don't owe it anything, I don't owe it anything at all."
Outside, the crowds were singing. There was no longer a shadow looming in the east. Deer grazed in the early morning mist, where just a year before, parties of orcs had raided across the river. The eastern half of Osgiliath had been firmly held by the enemy, and now it was strewn with flowers. It was still ruined, but the rebuilding was beginning. Today the king was coming to open the first completed building, which was not a mighty palace or a private tower, but a garden and a place of healing. Soon crops would grow on the Pelennor again, and even his mother was mending.
The stranger was motionless. Raenor was teetering on the brink, he knew, and regardless of what they were, the stranger's next words would push him over. But the stranger said nothing. It was the best thing he could have done.
It was the worst.
"I… do," Raenor whispered. "I do care." Faramir had been right to dismiss him; deep down, Raenor had always known that, even as he had spent four years trying to hide from the truth. "I thought it might be something else, but, really, it was all about the money."
"Was?" said the stranger.
Raenor unstrung his bow, and knelt down, placing it on the ground in front of him. His head slumped forward. Tears pricked his eyes, and he could have wept for the vanishing dreams of gold and a life of ease. "But there would have been no ease about it, not really," he murmured, because he would have been a traitor, and a traitor deserved no ease.
His hand rose to his throat, clutching the jewel. He remembered his sister-in-law's smile. He remembered his dreams of his mother living in luxury, finally proud of her youngest son. It called to him. Oh, but he was forever damned, for it still called to him.
Pulling out his knife, he cut the bowstring, severing it in two. There! he thought. There! And then he really did weep.
At length, a soft movement reminded him that the stranger was still there. "Are you going to kill me now?" Raenor asked.
"Should I?" said the stranger.
"Probably," Raenor said. "If you're with the dark man, you should kill me because I'm not going to do the job, and if you're not with him, you should kill me because I was tempted – oh how I was tempted!"
"The dark man was from Umbar," the stranger said, "a corsair lord, of Dark Númenorean descent. He escaped when the ships were taken at Pelargir. This was his revenge."
"You knew everything, then." Raenor felt deeply weary. He no longer cared what was happening outside the window. Perhaps the king had come, and perhaps he had not, but all was over for him.
"Not everything," said the stranger. "Not what choice you would make, when the time for choosing came."
Raenor looked at his broken bowstring. Too late now. The choice was out of his hands. If temptation still lay on the other side of the door, the door was firmly locked. "Who are you?" he asked.
In answer, the stranger pushed back his hood. In the half-light, his face reminded Raenor of Denethor, perhaps even of Faramir. The look of the dark man had been similar, as far as Raenor had been able to tell. Perhaps, he thought now, it was why he had agreed so quickly to the dark man's offer. He had always respected Faramir, and deep down had continued to respect him, even when he believed that he hated him.
But it was no answer at all. The face was still the face of a stranger. "I don't understand," Raenor said.
The stranger's hands went lower, to the fastening of his cloak. He pushed it aside, and there, beneath it, Raenor saw that he wore the rich robes of a nobleman, with a great green jewel gleaming on his breast. "You set out to kill a man," said the king, "without looking first upon his face, without knowing him?"
Raenor knew that he was about to die. All tears left him, and he was cold, calm, and strangely at peace. "I couldn't," he said, "because if I looked at the face of the person I was going to kill, I was afraid I might change my mind."
Just a man, he had told himself. Just an ordinary man. Just one more death in a war that had already killed thousands. Just a name on a piece of paper. Nothing that mattered. Nothing real. The jewel around his neck was real, and the treasure, and his sister-in-law's smile.
"And now?" said the king, who stood unveiled, with his hood back, and was quite obviously not an ordinary man at all, and only a fool would consider him so.
"I changed my mind before I knew who you were." He almost added "sire," he did not. It would seem like hypocrisy of the first order, as if he was doing it only to beg for his life.
"I know that." The king's face was stern and his eyes were keen, but his voice was not ungentle. "But I know why you cut your bowstring. The choice was not irrevocable, and you wished to make it so, for you feared that you would change your mind."
Raenor still had his knife. He sent it skittering across the floor, to crash against the far wall. "Are you going to kill me?" He could see the king's great sword now, and he had heard tales of his prowess in battle.
"Should I?" The king's gaze skewered him like a butterfly on a board.
Raenor swallowed. "I think you should, sire." He added the honorific now, for he had given up all hope of pleading.
"A king should be merciful," the king said, "but justice must be served. I do not wish to be forever looking over my shoulder, watching for the arrow at my back."
I know I was wrong, Raenor wanted to say, but deep down, he had always known that he was wrong, but he had still agreed to do the deed. His only questions had been about money and his chance of escape. Perhaps, he thought, this was because he had known all along that these were the only questions that could have proper answers. If he had asked the other questions, he would have ended up saying no.
"We will go down now," said the king. It was as soft as a request, but was unmistakeably a command.
The king made Raenor go first, and followed closely. It was a difficult climb, with great expanses of the staircase missing, as well as one whole floor. As he clung to a sheer expanse of broken wall, Raenor was tempted to let go and hope that the fall killed him. It was not fear that stopped him, he thought, but pride. For four years, stubborn pride had kept him from admitting that he had been in the wrong, and that he had deserved to be dismissed from the Rangers. Now, at the end, he would embrace a better kind of pride. At long last, he would face the consequences of his own weakness.
The bottom of the tower was ringed with guards; of course it was. Their eyes were cold, hard stones of hatred. By habit, Raenor's hand rose to the jewel at his throat, but instead of gripping it, he grabbed it and lifted the chain over his head, and cast it away. Nobody watched where it fell. All eyes were on him and the king.
They walked a dozen steps, and a dozen more. The crowds were still waiting, oblivious to what was unfolding behind them, near the river's edge. Another dozen steps, and then Raenor saw it: a dark hood, a strand of dark hair, a gleaming dagger, poised to be thrown.
Raenor acted without a thought. He threw himself in front of the king, expecting to die, but knowing only that this was right, that this was right. The king shouted something, a snap of command. Raenor hit the ground hard. There was very little pain. He rolled onto his belly. His left hand was on the ground next to his face, and the imprint of the jewel was still visible on his palm.
"We knew," he heard the king say quietly. Raenor struggled to his knees. He was not wounded after all, he thought, merely jarred by the impact with the ground. The king's glorious sword was unsheathed, held in both hands. Where Raenor had glimpsed the dark man, Faramir was now standing, with a crumpled body at his feet. He looked over at the king, and he gave a brief nod, almost a bow. He did not look at Raenor.
"There could be no mercy for one such as him," the king said. "But you acted without thinking, and your act was to try to save my life. It will not be forgotten."
He would not plead. He would not beg. He stayed on his knees. In a different world, the crowds were waiting for their king, in a ruined city that was alive with hope and flowers. Within years, it would flourish at the heart of a new and glorious world. For the first time in weeks, Raenor's thoughts were suffused not with the lure of gold, but with visions of beautiful buildings in a kingdom that was at peace. He wanted to be part of it. He wanted a second chance, but what second chance could there be for one who had fallen as far as he had fallen?
The king raised him up. At the top of the tower, Raenor had felt himself skewered by this man's gaze, but now he felt himself laid entirely bare. The king saw everything. The king knew all his secrets, and Raenor wanted to fall to his knees and beg to be allowed to serve him.
At length the king released him. "You cannot stay in Gondor," he said. "My mercy cannot stretch that far. A king must be merciful, but he cannot be a fool." Raenor blinked, but kept his expression still, accepting it. "But there are many wild places still to be tamed," the king went on. "There are lands, once rich, that are now desolate and need to be brought to the plough. There are places that groan with injustice, and still need the rule of law. There is a place for people like you."
"People like me, sire?" Raenor could not help but say it. "An assassin. A failure. Someone who would have ruined the future of his country because of the hope of gold."
The king smiled. "Someone who made a mistake, and let it rule his life for a while, but then grew past it. Someone who knows his own weaknesses, and knows how to overcome them."
The tears were back, almost blinding him. "But I don't…"
"You do," said the king. "I have hope, Raenor. I have hope in you."
And Raenor bowed down low, and bent to head to his king, because in that moment, he had hope, too.