Brave the Darkness
Previously titled “Blunt Force Ghost Trauma” but since no ghosts actually get served onscreen I changed it. Also because like Halros and the Very Bad Time it isn’t uhhh.... funny enough for that kind of title!
(warnings for Candaith Going Thru It but there’s no like blood or anything)
Somehow, the cold was coming from inside his bones. The chill was ice in his marrow. Radanir visibly shook next to him, as did some of the others. He was hard-pressed not to tremble. Halbarad, his companions, they would all have to stand strong together. They had been warned off once by the Oath-breakers in this cursed place. Candaith supposed these were not the sort of spirits to give a second warning.
The frostbite within only sharpened as he continued further onto the Forsaken Road. With a glance over his shoulder, he wondered if Thurvi- his shadow in this lightless place- had ever felt such a chill in the Mountains of his homeland. The Guardian seldom spoke of the land of his birth, of the Dwarven city of Kechel, nor of Dwimorberg whose fell name lay like a shadow over their quest. Perhaps he hoped not to discourage his companions. Perhaps the dwarves did not venture near enough to these places to know them so well.
Candaith had become accustomed to the mask his friend had acquired in Lhanuch. The Grey Company’s enemies were Thurvi’s enemies as well-- and they knew his face. Though there were likely few Dwarves in Enedwaith, he sought to protect them with his anonymity. It was the same logic behind their ‘uniform’. Though a dwarf traveling with a bunch of Dunedain was going to stand out like a hobbit in Othrikar, Candaith appreciated every precaution.
After all, his friend had kept the company from danger more than once. Though quiet, he was quick to action and sturdier than the rest of them. The last Candaith had seen of Thurvi before his summons, the dwarf had been preparing to head to Angmar with nothing but a large club and a scavenged shield. But the Grey Company’s odd companion out had returned from parts unknown with a dwarf-make axe of strange metal, and a shield with the unmistakable stylings of Khazad-dûm.
It was only too bad there was no time to stop for a fire. If the Guardian could coax a spark from the bed of the Anduin, he would not be much surprised. Still, the Grey Company needed more than warmth to kindle their hopes. This was a desperate gamble, but one Candaith believed in. If they could gather this host of the dead on behalf of their Chieftain, if they could muster an army unhindered by death nor pain nor hunger-
Maybe it was not such a vain hope or a far-fetched plan! Surely the Oath-breakers tired of existing like this? Did they not long for peace? Candaith did. His kin yearned for it, as did the Eglain, the people he had spent so much time near. The heir of Isildur could bring it. He believed that. Surely the Dead- if not motivated by honor- could only see the release from their curse as gain! A swift, deathless army to bring peace to the world. An invincible host at Aragorn’s command…
“This seems to me a good sign, Thurvi!” he whispered, turning back to his companion. It was dimmer still here, but they could both carry on. “If the Oath-breakers will fulfill their oath to Isildur, we will command an army the like of which has never been seen in Middle-earth. Surely victory will not be far behind!” His comment was met with only a tight smile. This place weighed heavily on them all.
But soon they would be free of it. Of this, he was certain.
Another shade flickered into view before them. The Dead all appeared able to hide themselves from sight if they wished, and it was an effective intimidation tactic. Based on the temperature, this could be none other than Britou before them. Idly, he wondered if Dwarves were hardier to this fell atmosphere than Men. Candaith stopped and his Guardian friend came to stand beside him.
If it was a show of force the Dead wanted, so be it. They acquitted themselves well, though Candaith found the glacial air sapped his strength and stiffened his limbs. He looked to Thurvi but could see no sign he was in any way affected. Britou was probing for weakness, but he would find none. There was strength in the Dunedain. Candaith would not fail his brothers.
Back to back they fought on. Ghostly blades rang against their steel, but these Dead did not move with the same fell determination as others had. Doubt began to chip through the frost around Candaith’s heart. Was Britou toying with them? This test was little more than a farce for his amusement. What then? Did he desire proof? More learned foes than he had doubted the line of Kings remained unbroken. What would the Dead on the Forsaken Road know of the way Aragorn’s ancestors had endured?
They cared little for the living, that much was clear. They threw around insults, hurled belittling words without thought. The Dead had nothing but contempt for them. Indeed, with the bones of travelers and the plague of shades above ground, what evidence did they have that any of the Oath-breakers’ intentions were honest?
Hah. He was a fool for giving them the benefit of the doubt. But no longer! If they would not be swayed by words or arms, let them be swayed with power.
“Hold!” He thrust his blade through yet another shade with a shout and commanded the attention of the leader of the Dead. Candaith was breathing hard. The doubt had wormed its way in deep, but he could not let it end like this. Greed was a powerful enough motivator for any Man, even those among the Dead.
“I have the authority to command you and all your kind, Britou!” He straightened up, emboldened by a confidence he could not feel but must not let waver. "For I...I am the Heir of Isildur!"
He could feel Thurvi’s eyes upon him, as well as the attention of the Dead. The cold was like a rock in Candaith’s chest. As long as they were in peril, he could not falter, but every breath became heavier. It seemed the very air was hardening to stone and ice within him.
Britou fell silent. For a long moment he stared, sizing Candaith up. Now was not the time for fear. More than ever, he was grateful for the mask. It was as much a shield as the one his Guardian wielded. Perhaps his and Thurvi’s uses for them were more alike than he had thought.
"What evidence do you have that this be so?"
Britou’s voice reverberated off the frozen walls. Now more than ever the cold pained him. Candaith tried not to wince as he drew the breath to answer. Taking a finger of his glove in his teeth, he slid it off without lowering his sword. "Only this: the Ring of Barahir, heirloom of Isildur's line!"
After all, they had been made for one purpose: to deceive the enemy. Why not use it now, as it had been intended, for their advantage?
It was a long while still before Britou spoke again. “I see.” The cavern was still. “We will fulfill our oath at last, that the Heir may lift the curse. Tell your Men."
Candaith could not breathe a sigh of relief. The cold had taken him, and it was all he could do to nod, to turn around, to look for the relief that must be plain on Thurvi’s face.
It was not there to greet him. Candaith saw only fear.
"But that is not the Ring of Barahir, and you are not the Heir of Isildur."
He did not have time to think. There was ice on his skin now, on his fingers. Cold pierced him. Thurvi was moving faster than Candaith had ever seen him go. There was a horrible rending of metal, and the ice splintered under his skin. Dust and rock rose up to meet him.
There was a black and frozen pause. Trapped within a pincushion of ice, Candaith did not notice at first that he was being moved. He could clear little space in his lungs to cry out, and he could not coax his algid limbs to motion. Too many frosted shards had gathered themselves within him. They cut like glass, tore at his mind, and ate at his heart. He knew naught of what was transpiring, only that he had failed his kin. He had led them to this place of ruin, and now he was to join the miserable Dead.
His whole body was jolted up and sideways. A single pauldron came into view. Thurvi! Candaith’s tears were surely frozen, but he felt the warmth of relief thaw them a little. It mingled with the heat of shame long enough to warm sensation back into him. There was new pain too. His back was taut and tearing as Thurvi hurried him away. With a final cry, his awareness too failed on the cursed road.
Something was trying to crush him. A pressure bound him, constricted his thoughts. He could not will himself to move or to breathe. So Candaith struggled. The now-familiar cold had abated some, but it had not released its stranglehold on him. He had failed, but for now desperation overrode his shame. The others-- his brothers were nearby! If nothing else they needed a warning, they needed to know that no Dead would ride by their side save to run them down.
Candatih fought to turn over. He had fallen flat before Britou in that frozen chamber, and now he must get up! He must get up or let his brothers be slaughtered for his reckless gambit--
“Fool! Be still, Candaith!”
A hand, warm and living, reached him from the darkness. It held his shoulder with a gentle firmness that made him pause. There was no time for this! So far underground, they needed every moment to escape.
The crack of a log fire hoisted him up from the dark then flung him down into awareness. His waking senses hit him with force and the air was driven once more from his lungs. Suddenly Candaith discovered he could feel, only to wish desperately that he could not. What had once been solid ice had thawed, and his whole body burned in the spaces where it had been. He turned to push his face into whatever had been beneath his ear. Candaith was on the ground, and pain trampled him flat.
The hand was joined by another on his other shoulder. He tried to smother a rising scream as the fire was stoked again by his squirming.
“Candaith, listen to me.” The voice was familiar, but it was as full of uncertainty as he was. “We are out of there now, but you are lucky to be with us! Lie still if you can. If you are too stubborn to listen, it will be hard to bring you back to Lhanuch alive! We will give you…” Here the voice paused, and with more clarity came a growing certainty that Candaith had never heard Radanir more distressed. “We will give you something for the pain.”
“Radanir!” Halbarad’s voice cut through the fire and the relief was like a balm. More crushing a blow than the catastrophe he knew would have been the loss of their leader. Halbarad was the cord that held them together in Aragorn’s absence. They would follow him with the same loyalty and should he be lost grieve for him with the same sorrow.
But Halbarad lived. It brought Candaith less comfort than he had hoped.
“Hold him up. We must do something for the wound before we try moving again.” It was not at all what his leaden limbs wanted to hear. This time Candaith could not stifle a groan as Radanir hefted him like a sack of potatoes.
“You could not… be more careful?” The words sounded strained to his own ears, but as his head was being rested over one of Radanir’s shoulders like a sickly infant’s, he would not get to see a reaction.
That did not stop Radanir from having one. “And you could not stop from telling falsehoods to the undying shades of traitors!"
It brought down a deathly quiet. A popping ember rang as loud into the night as a thunderclap. Radanir had gone as stiff as a statue, and only after a long pause could Halbarad get things moving again.
“It is a grave wound, but it might have been much worse.” Candaith could feel the sleeves of his tunic, but the back had been torn asunder. Now exposed to the night air, he wished for the blanket or cover that had seemed so smothering a moment ago. Halbarad was moving the fabric. Every pull jostled the nettles that had taken up residence in his limbs. He tried to push away, but Radanir held him up under his arms.
“If we have to set you back down, there will be less firelight to work by.” The words were terse, but there was an undercurrent of concern nonetheless. Radanir was right, Candaith was a fool. It was becoming more and more obvious just how close he’d been to being a dead one.
To his surprise, Thurvi stepped into his narrow field of vision. The dwarf offered out his hand. Weakly, Candaith took it.
“Distract him if you can, Thurvi.” Halbarad instructed. “We are lucky he is awake but we might have been luckier were he not- at least, not for this.”
Candaith was reluctant to meet the Guardian’s eye. It had been a rather poor performance on the Forsaken Road. He had shamed himself and shamed the entire Company. Only by a miracle was he out under the stars instead of rotting among the Dead. To his surprise, Thurvi did not attempt to make conversation just yet but began sliding up the metal mask that had long covered his face.
Despite everything- or perhaps because of it- Candaith could not bite back a delirious laugh. “You have a line! Clear… right across your face from cheek to cheek, over the bridge of your nose-”
Halbarad chose that moment to strike. Something cold and stinging coursed down his open wounds. He gritted his teeth and tried to crush Thurvi’s hand and Radanir’s arm. The work had begun in earnest. Now, Halbarad would not stop until everything was dressed to his satisfaction.
Thruvi pulled his hand down. Attention diverted, Candaith managed to look up. “Your cloak did not make it, I’m afraid.” The Guardian said in a solemn tone. “Alas, it was the first casualty. And my shield gave its life for yours. Cursed be the blades wielded against the craftsmanship of Khazad-dûm!”
Candaith could not laugh. Thurvi’s heart was not in the attempt at wounded pride. It was hardly the shield of his homeland, and besides that it called to attention a more glaring absence.
Ignoring the agony behind him, he ground out a question. “The others…?” His mind flew to Linnor, his and Saeradan’s friend, to Calithil who he had last seen by Radanir’s side. Old Hodhon and Himeldir had been there as well, they who had been fraught with worry over Dagoras’ capture and thick as thieves again upon his return.
Thurvi’s face was more exposed now than it had been underground. The mask was pushed into his hood on top of his head. Candaith did not know if his friend was old for a Dwarf, but he looked older than he had the last time his face was on display.
“Scattered.” he said at last, “We lost all the torches as the Dead gave chase. You and I were tempting enough targets to allow the others space to run. If they were pursued to the road or to the bluffs, I do not know. We ran into Halbarad and then Radanir in the dark.”
Candaith tried to focus on the words instead of the pain. Whatever salve Halbarad had conjured burned as fiercely as his shame. Loath might he be to admit it under other circumstances, Radanir was right. Who was he to command the Oath-breakers? What right did he have to try!
There was little left of his strength. Candaith used it to first return Thurvi’s grip on his hand, and then to better support himself on Radanir’s arm. Neither he nor Halbarad had spoken again, and it was time for Candaith to acknowledge the disaster on all their minds.
“I should never have-- I would give my life a thousand times... to be even the smallest help to Aragorn… That was all… all I-” Halbarad took his shoulders and started to tip him back. The movement clouded his vision so completely he could hardly be sure he was still awake. Numbness started to overpower him and Candaith did not have the strength to be alarmed by the empty wave.
The void held him captive for a moment. But, vigilant Pain was quick to revive him as bandages met the raw edges of his wounds. He was slumped in a sitting position as Thurvi held him up and Halbarad finished wrapping the tender flesh. Candaith was given something bitter from a water flask, and then worked up the courage to try and speak again.
“I am… sorry-” he croaked from the ice-carved hollow in his chest.
“If you are sorry, Candaith, I am doubly so.” Halbarad’s voice was thick with worry, and regret. “For had I not sought to make copies of the Ring of Barahir, had I been more focused on keeping us from danger, this never would have occurred.”
Halbarad finished tying off the bandages, and Candaith was surprised to find Radanir waiting there at his shoulder. He was without a cloak, as were the others, and did not waste time in guiding his dead-limbed companion to where the collected fabric was balled up into a makeshift bedroll. Far though they were from a suitable camp, he was going to see that Candaith had some small comfort. Not Thurvi, not Halbarad, but Radanir who was rightfully furious with him.
Of all their companions, he was one of the least likely to shy away from saying what he meant. There was no quip too untimely, no sentiment best left unsaid. No doubt it was why he had taken on this task. Halbarad was too noble to scold a man on death’s porch if not it’s doorstep. And something about Thurvi’s tight-lipped expression had told him that the Guardian had seen the events transpire in an entirely different light.
Of one thing Candaith was sure: whatever reproach Radanir had ready for him would be well-deserved. Only, Candaith did not know if he could bear it. He had almost just gotten eight of their number killed in an ill-advised attempt to sway the Dead- the Dead who were known chiefly for their treachery! He feared the long night as he had been frightened of the long road underground. What if the others had not made it out? Their blood would be on his hands, and he would have to meet the rest of the Company alone with his shame.
No doubt his chief critic would be Radanir. Radanir who had been forced to flee with the others, who had stumbled across Thurvi in the dark, who must have been told the tale from the eyes of an observer- and the only one of them who could never have done the same in his place!
Still he could not help but to look. Candaith turned his head to the side and found Radanir’s stare fixed on him. Guilt swept over him again before it was replaced by great confusion and worry. The firelight illuminated anger, yes, but also vivid fear that took a moment for Radanir to conceal.
“I suppose I prefer you a living fool rather than a dead one.” The irritation in his tone was as empty as Candaith felt. “Still,” here an edge of something crept back in, “do not ever attempt such a thing again.”
As much as he wanted to assure Radanir that he would not dream of it- that he was shaken to find a lesson learned had nearly cost his and his kinsmen’s lives- Halbarad had designs of his own. Whatever herbs had been in the water were beginning to take effect. The pain of his wound was no distraction anymore. Already sensation was floating away. It felt as if he would dissolve if it began to rain, like dust on stonework. Candaith could no more keep his eyes open than he could leap up and begin the search for the rest of their group or to share the burden his decision placed on them.
He could no longer see the light of the fire when Radanir’s hand came to rest carefully on his shoulder. Their companions were discussing something too quietly for him to hear. It would not be long now before Halbarad’s bitter potion forced him to rest.
“That was a fear so cold I thought I would never be warm again.” Radanir’s voice was nearly lost to the cushioning effect of the medicine on his ears. “But I would prefer to never be rid of it than to lose even one of my brothers.”
The candor in Radanir’s words did not absolve him, but it was a balm to a hurt no healer could treat. Comforted beyond measure, Candaith could at last bear to face the night and any troubled dreams it could conjure.
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I have additional thoughts on Lheu Brenin, specifically on his betrayal. (Fair warning: I’ve played through this questline once and it was almost a year ago, so I may have forgotten some details. But this was very much my impression a year ago.)
So Lheu Brenin tells you, directly, that he made the decision when he learned how strong Saruman’s influence is in Dunland and he fears he won’t be able to stand against him in open battle. Théodred agrees, although, as with most Rohirrim, his opinion on any Dunlending ought to be taken with several grains of salt.
The thing is... I rather think Lheu Brenin already had the possibility in his back pocket when you showed up. If he made the decision in response to the news you bring about your travels in Dunland, then everything was already prepared when you returned to Tûr Morva. When you walk into the city most of the Dúnedain are conveniently in the lower caves and the prisoner has already been moved to a lower level, to lure you deeper in and make it easier to ambush you. This is all far too convenient to really be a spur-of-the-moment decision. It’s a simple plan, but still one that requires preparation.
Based on the reactions of the members of the clan who don’t turn on you, I very much doubt he had discussed it with any of his people (except possibly Mair) before you initially arrived. I think when Saruman first began to overtly extend his influence in Dunland, Lheu Brenin really thought he was going to remain independent. I think he was proud, and he didn’t realize how invested Saruman was, and how much offense he would take at any sort of resistance. And because the Falcon Clan is settled into such a defensible location, Saruman almost certainly had them on the backburner. If he did end up having to take them by force, it would be a concerted effort almost on the same level as Helm’s Deep, so for a long time they were left alone, and they became secure in that.
But the rest of Dunland began to topple, clan by clan, town by town, and maybe a little doubt started to creep into his heart, and he began wondering about ways to backtrack, because maybe, just maybe, publicly labeling yourself an enemy of Saruman is not wise, when you live right next door to him. And when a group of Rangers from the north wander in his front door it just might be the opportunity to get back in the wizard’s good graces. Perhaps. He does want to be quite certain before he makes his move, and an outsider’s perspective is always useful, so he sends you to gather information, and in the meantime he’ll have his use out of them regardless, so he puts them to work.
Mainly I think this because he was pretty eager to curry favor with the Rangers when they showed up. His generous offer of immediate grisly murder over a measly thrown rock is... telling, on multiple levels. Aside from the obvious, I think it indicates that he wanted the Rangers to like him. And the second the Rangers indicate that maybe that would not exactly impress his goodwill upon them exactly the way he wants it to, he backs off, which is more telling, since the way he deals with his own people after the betrayal indicate that that’s just... how he handles insubordination on the regular.
So he sets himself up in a position where if the news you bring back is bad, he can sell you out and gain favor with Saruman, and if it’s good, then he can presumably not do that and carry on and pretend like he never even considered it. And, as Théodred and he himself put forward, the final decision is made when you return to Tûr Morva with the news.
As for his final appearance -- I think that Lothrandir and the PC were a more valuable offering than he ever properly realized. No matter what personal headcanons and slight AUs I make for my characters, the PC does canonically know at the very least that the Ring is in the possession of one of the four hobbits. And while I don’t think Saruman ever believed Lothrandir was Aragorn, he clearly did know that Aragorn was beginning to make his move, and Lothrandir was at the very least a valuable link with possible information. At first, I really do think Lheu Brenin mostly wanted to be left alone. But after he unwittingly delivered such valuable prisoners to Saruman, accidentally currying quite a lot of favor, he got a little power drunk with it. Combined with the loss of his home, which he seemed to expect to keep control of, and his daughter, who I assume he had some sort of affection for, the bitterness seems to have consumed him and left him interested in exactly two things: money and revenge.
This went on longer than I expected but those are my thoughts. I think he’s in general the kind of guy whose backup plans have backup plans. Unfortunately those backup plans do absolutely nothing against an unexpected child with a knife.
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