Aragorn stared harshly at the man who sat before him, watching him tremble as his gaze shot around those gathered in the room. Faramir stood by his side, one hand firm upon the hilt of his sword. The trembling man, Ramir, was one of the slave traders Faramir’s men had captured. The other three were still locked away. Aragorn had wished to speak to each one individually, and now it was Ramir’s turn.
Ramir shook his head, his eyes not quite leaving the sword that Faramir held in his hands.
“I do not know names,” Ramir said shakily. “I. . .I was just there to take care of the horses, my King.”
“If you did not know who you were selling those people to, would you have risked your lives crossing the mountains?” Aragorn asked coldly. “I will ask you only once more. Who are you working for?”
Ramir bit his lip, his face paling. He did not meet Aragorn’s eyes.
“His name is Gandin,” Ramir finally said, softly. “He owns the largest plantation in the southwest. He sent us to get the slaves from his connections beyond the mountains. He promised to pay us twice as much as we would to purchase the lot.”
Aragorn glanced at Faramir, and saw that he looked a bit surprised. Faramir had informed him that Ramir was the one most unlikely to surrender information.
“And what of Gandin himself?” Aragorn asked. “How many times has he sent traders to collect slaves?”
Ramir shook his head. This time, Aragorn knew the man was not lying. He was genuinely unsure.
“Have your men bring the other trader,” Aragorn finally said to Faramir. “The one you said was willing to talk.”
Faramir nodded and beckoned to a few nearby soldiers. They approached and led Ramir away, returning a few minutes later with a new man in tow, the only one Aragorn had not yet seen. They set the man on the chair Ramir had just vacated and returned to their posts. This new man seemed less nervous, though there was no confidence either.
“What is your name?” Aragorn demanded.
“Torrin, my King,” the man replied, bowing his head.
“What do you know of Gandin?”
“Gandin has financed the trade for as long as I’ve been involved,” Torrin replied. “Must have been about fifteen crossings.”
Aragorn only just prevented a look of shock from forming on his face. He exchanged another glance with Faramir, who frowned grimly. For a moment, there was silence, then Torrin looked up.
“I remember the last crossing,” he said. “We were delayed by rain, and one of the horses injured its leg trying to pass over a flooded bridge.”
“What happened to the slaves?” Faramir asked.
Torrin gazed at the ground again, as if deciding whether or not to tell the story. Finally, he sighed.
“Well. . .” he began.
“Keep the horses moving!!”
Torrin jumped down off the cart, rushing to the horse on the right of the harness and grasping the animal’s reins, which it had pulled loose from his hands. The great beast was throwing its head nervously, staring ahead at the low bridge that lay before them. Water rushed over the wooden planks. Torrin understood the horse’s nervousness. He didn’t feel much like crossing the bridge, either.
“Come on, Torrin!” Ramir shouted over the roar of the river, sounding very worried.
Torrin hesitated a moment, then grasped a whip from the front of the cart and cracked it over the horse’s hind legs. The horse jumped and started forward, pulling the other along with it. Torrin glanced back once at Ramir, who was standing to one side of the cart, forcing the small group of people within to remain sitting. One, a woman, seemed to be emitting a constant low growl that chilled Torrin’s nerves.
The woman seemed much different from the others. She wore a black cloak draped over her shoulders. When he had purchased her, she had been wearing what looked like a bridle bolted to her jaw, but that had been removed before she was loaded into the cart. To Torrin’s surprise, the wounds on her jaw and mouth were already healed. He glanced at the cart, spotting the woman staring blankly out at the scenery. Even through the noise of the shouts of the other men, and the splashes of horse hooves in water, he could still hear the growls.
Suddenly, one of the horses gave a wild shriek and fell to its knees. Torrin saw immediately that its hoof had fallen through a gap in the wooden planks.
“What’s going on?” Ramir shouted.
“One of the horses fell!” Torrin shouted back, struggling through the water to reach the animal. “Get up, beast!”
The horse shrieked again, and Torrin threw himself against its shoulder. After a minute, it stood, but it became very clear that the leg was injured.
“The horse is lame!” Torrin shouted, forcing the animal away from the edge of the bridge. The cart was already beginning to weave in the fierce current. “I have to untie it!”
“If you untie that horse, the current will wash away the cart!” someone, Torrin couldn’t tell who, shouted out.
Torrin tried to get the horse to move, but he knew it was a futile effort. It could barely put weight on its injured leg, let alone pull the cart across the bridge. The other neighed loudly, throwing its head about.
“It’s no use,” Torrin called back to the others. “We’re not going anywhere, now.”
“Get one of the slaves to pull it,” Ramir suggested.
“Are you mad?!” Torrin shouted back. “If we exhaust those slaves now, Gandin won’t take them.”
“Not all of them!” Ramir replied quickly. “That one.”
Ramir was pointing to the growling woman. Torrin stared at the woman for a moment, then turned back.
“What?” he asked.
“I personally saw that woman smash a foot-thick log to splinters,” Ramir replied, sounding excited. “She’ll get the cart out.”
Torrin stared at Ramir for a moment longer, then sighed and turned to the woman. He cracked the whip he was still holding.
“Get down here, slave!” he shouted.
The woman’s growl deepened as she climbed down from the cart and approached, limping heavily on a partially mangled leg. Torrin’s doubt deepened when he noticed that she was also missing both thumbs, and seemed almost skeletally thin.
“Get up there,” he growled gruffly, grabbing her and pushing her forward. “Pull that cart over the bridge.”
The woman stared menacingly at him, but approached the injured horse obediently. Despite the lack of thumbs, she soon had the horse unhitched from the harness. The beast seemed absolutely petrified of her, and once it was free it started hobbling across the bridge. The woman slipped in next to the healthy horse, the eyes of which went so wide that Torrin could see white all around. Slowly, the cart began to move again. Although amazed by the woman’s strength, he kept his eye on the other horse. He was sure that the fact that it was in a harness was the only reason why it kept moving. It was acting the way he’d expect a sheep to do if it was forced to live in a pen with a hungry wolf.
The water level slowly deepened as the halfway point was reached. The other men were at the back of the cart, forcing it to stay straight on the bridge. Inside, the slaves moaned in fear. One seemed to be chanting some sort of prayer. The water now above her knees, the woman let out a terrible growl that made the horse next to her wail in fright. The injured horse, which had managed to make it across the bridge, screeched.
For a while, Torrin feared they would not make it, but somehow the woman managed to keep the cart moving. Sooner than he could have ever hoped, the cart was rolling onto firm ground. He heard more than one of the others curse in relief.
“You were right,” Torrin said to Ramir when the man approached. “She’s stronger than all of us combined.”
“What are we going to do with her?” Ramir asked, gazing at the woman, who stared back harshly.
Torrin studied the woman for a long moment, then smiled.
“We charge twice as much at the auction,” he replied.
“This may be hard to believe, my King,” Torrin said softly. “But even now rumors say her strength remains with her. I think Gandin has her plowing a whole field on her own.”
Aragorn continued to stare at Torrin. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that a woman possessing more strength than four men actually existed.
“Madness,” he heard Faramir murmur.
Aragorn shook his head. What Torrin had said did sound like madness, but he could not be sure until he saw Gandin’s plantation for himself.
“You seem to know the law,” he said, addressing Torrin. “Are you fully aware of the punishment?”
“Yes,” Torrin replied softly. “But it’s what I’ve been doing all my life. Our techniques for secrecy have not failed before now.” His eyes suddenly lit up, appearing as if to have found new hope. “Spare me the noose, my King, and I will willingly tell you all I know. Gandin keeps records of all slave auctions, and I know how to get them. They’ll tell you over fifty years worth of trading.”
At first, Aragorn was tempted to refuse, but he kept his silence. Throughout the interrogation, he had been forming mental plans on how to deal with the situation presented to him. Clearly, he was going to have to journey to southwest Gondor to see for himself just how many people were enslaved, and having to ask around for information risked spreading news of his coming to the slave owners, possibly giving them time enough to hide the evidence. On the other hand, negotiating with a criminal was much frowned upon in court. Aragorn glanced at Faramir.
“Counsel,” he murmured. Faramir nodded.
“Your offer will be considered,” he said to Torrin. “Take him away.”
“And let the others come,” Aragorn added.
Torrin was quietly led away by the soldiers, and a few minutes later Legolas, Gimli, and Eowyn entered. Aragorn explained Torrin’s offer, and the new dilemma.
“Swiftness is needed to deal with this,” Eowyn commented. “Those men are expected back, and slave owners will begin to grow concerned when they realize the delivery is not forthcoming.” She paused, frowning. “Though I am disgusted with him, I would accept Torrin’s offer.”
Aragorn quickly became grim. Although the rescued captives were now being cared for, a very young blind girl had succumbed to her illness and died the night before his arrival. Eowyn had been in a state of deep fury since then, and had berated Torrin and his men more than once, finally reducing one to tears. Hearing her support Torrin struck Aragorn far more greatly than it would have from any of the others.
“And the other men?” he asked, studying Eowyn closely.
“If this is the course of action we are choosing,” Legolas interceded, “it would be unjust not to offer the others a chance to save themselves.”
“I will go and speak with them,” Eowyn offered, turning and quickly departing.
Aragorn gazed at his companions. Gimli seemed very pleased at the prospect of another journey, though his expression was stern enough to reassure that the Dwarf was fully aware of the seriousness of the situation. Faramir seemed grim as he stared at the doorway where Eowyn had just disappeared. Legolas, to his surprise, appeared deep in thought. Aragorn cast him a questioning glance.
“The woman Torrin spoke of,” he finally said. “Did he say anything more about her? Perhaps the identity of her original masters?
“No,” Aragorn replied, confused.
Legolas kept his expression a few moments more, then shook his head.
“Never mind,” he said quietly. “It is impossible, anyway. Faye has been dead for years.”
So distracted was he in his own thoughts, Aragorn did not bother to ask who Faye was.
* * * * * *
As Eowyn finished delivering Aragorn’s message to the traders, the same thought was echoing inside her mind. Unlike Legolas, however, she voiced her questions aloud.
“The woman you mentioned,” she began, staring directly at Torrin. “Who was she?”
“Just another slave,” Torrin replied, ignoring his fellows, who were glaring at him. They had all grudgingly agreed to assist the pending investigations. “She was a field worker then. She’s probably still a field worker now.”
Eowyn was about to voice another question when, suddenly, Eldarion and Eomala entered. She quickly turned to them.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded crossly. “How did you get past the guards?”
“We want to come with you, Mama,” Eomala said firmly, somehow appearing much older than she actually was at that moment. “We overheard you talking.”
Eowyn speechlessly stared at her four-year-old daughter. Never before had the child been so bold.
“We are going to investigate severe criminal activity,” Eowyn finally said. “I am not going to allow either of you to put yourself in such danger.”
“Beg your pardon, Milady,” Torrin suddenly spoke. “The children may have a point.”
Now Eowyn turned to stare at Torrin, poison in her gaze. However, before she could speak, another trader, one who had not yet revealed his name, cleared his throat.
“Torrin is right,” he said. “Gandin may be the richest man in the southwest, but he is by no means the bravest. This trade hasn’t been detected until now. He’s begun to believe he’ll never get caught.”
“And how do you know this?” Eowyn demanded.
For a moment, the man was silent. Torrin, Ramir, and the fourth trader gazed at him expectantly. Eowyn suddenly noticed that the man she was speaking to appeared to be the youngest.
“My name is Gandrir,” the man finally said. “Gandin is my grandfather.”
Eowyn stared at him, amazed that Gandin would risk his own grandson for the profit of a slave trade. Gandrir continued gazing calmly at her.
“The children will help us on our journey,” he continued. “Gandin has spies watching the roads. They will be much less suspicious of a small party of men with accompanying women and children then a group of armed men alone.”
For once, Eowyn couldn’t think of an argument. She glanced from the children to the traders and back again. Finally, she sighed.
“I see your reason,” she admitted, gritting her teeth. “But what can you possibly say to convince me to trust you with my daughter and the prince of Gondor?” She took a deep breath, fighting to control a fresh surge of anger. “You have already shown your regard towards children.”
Eldarion and Eomala stepped nervously closer, and Eomala grasped her wrist. Eowyn took her tiny, shaking hand, reassuring her silently. The traders seemed unable to answer. Finally, Gandrir looked up.
“The girl’s fate is regrettable,” he said slowly. “But her death was not our intention. We do not attempt to hurt the slaves.”
“It is our job to make sure they arrive at the auction block in the best possible condition,” Ramir added quickly. “We wouldn’t bother with the cart and horses otherwise.”
Once again, a new arrival prevented Eowyn from asking another question. Faramir had appeared, seemingly surprised to find the children standing with her, and giving them severe looks as he approached.
“Out,” he said tersely, and the children quickly left, looking abashed. Faramir turned to her. “What were they doing here?”
“They want to come with us,” Eowyn replied firmly.
“Absolutely not,” he said sharply. “Eowyn, you cannot possibly be considering it.”
Eowyn crossed her arms, gazing unflinchingly at her husband. After a moment, he appeared to calm, and she explained what the traders had said. The traders themselves remained quiet, and by the time she was finished, Eowyn knew she had her husband convinced. Faramir nodded to her slightly, then turned to the traders.
“My family and myself, King Elessar and his son, Lord Gimli, Lord Legolas, a few of my scouts as a guard, and you four, all under disguise as travelers. Will Gandin’s spies be suspicious of that?”
“I do not think so,” Gandin replied.
“Very well.” Faramir paced for a little while, then stopped and turned directly to Torrin. “Succeed in helping us shut down the illegal trades, and you will spare your necks the noose.”
Faramir guided Eowyn out into the corridor, and as they walked along, Eowyn’s thoughts shifted back to what Gandrir had said about not being caught before.
Right then, she vowed to ask the perimeter scouts, when she saw them again, just how they had managed to catch the traders red-handed.