My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 29. They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait
"Estel, my son!"
Mama is calling me, but her voice is faint and far away. And papa's lap is so warm, his arms so strong, that I do not want to leave. I reach out one finger toward the beautiful sword on the table. Papa's large hand closes on my small one. "When you are bigger, little one," the sonorous voice says, "I will teach you to wield it."
"Estel!" mama's voice insists, nearer now, clearer….
…As the dark room in Thurnost gives way to the winter light of Rivendell.
Aragorn opened his eyes. Above him stretched the wooden beams of his bedroom in Elrond's House, carved with birds and beasts and stars and ships, and at the edge of his vision, his mother's anxious face. He tried to smile, but his mouth was dry, his lips chapped. "Water," he whispered. He struggled to lift himself up in the bed.
"Shh," she said, and, lifting a mug, made as if to hold it to his lips, but he had eased his shoulders onto a fat pillow against the bedstead and reached for the mug with one hand, so thin he could not recognize it as his own. He drank cool, earthy water—Rivendell water, the best he had ever had.
As Gilraen hovered about him, slowly he hoisted himself up on his elbows and drew his legs from under the covers. He clutched the edge of the bed with lean, trembling hands, his bare feet planted on the sheepskin at the bedside. "I am as weak as a kitten," he said with disgust. He looked up into her face and smiled. "Thank you."
She laughed happily. "You will mend. You have been ill a long time."
The black mist shrouded his sight again and he shuddered. "Yes. It was a hard struggle. But I gained some things as well." He thought of the beautiful face of his beloved in the golden mirror. She came to me. But he would not speak of that. "I saw my father."
She caught her breath. "Ah, Estel." A hesitation. "Are you sure?"
"I was two years old again. He held me on his lap and showed me Narsil." He would not tell her that in his dark nightmares under the spell of the Sorcerer, he had also seen his father's death at the hands of the Orcs. "Where is it?"
She gestured at the large, brass-bound trunk against the far wall. "Safe. It has suffered no harm."
"Let me see it."
She brought it to him in its worn scabbard, the old leather hiding the Dúnedain's chief treasure. He did not draw the blade, but caressed the golden hilt with its red gem, remembering it in the hands of the Sorcerer as it hovered near his throat. May I live to see the day it is reforged, he prayed, and to wield it against our enemies, whether I be king or not. He then nodded at his mother to take it away.
He rose to his feet, shaking slightly, and slipped into soft woolen slippers and a furred robe. Sitting in a chair before the fire, he took a deep breath and began to take stock of his body. Weak, yes, but whole, each part moving as it should, the muscles beginning to wake. The knife cut on his chin had healed to a small raised scar that he could feel with his fingertips under his rough beard. "The dagger?" he asked.
"The silver blade I took from—him," he said.
"Elrond had it melted. He said that he had seen it, or one just like it, during the wars with Angmar, but only now do we know what it did to its victims."
Aragorn shivered at what had almost happened to Rodnor and to him. "Rodnor and Daeron? Are they here?"
Her cheeks reddened slightly as she shook her head. "No. Rangers are looking for them. So far there is no word."
"Then how did you find us—" But then he knew. "The Queen's falcons. I heard them calling in my dreams."
"Yes. They led Elrond to you, though he said he already knew you were in danger. How, he did not explain."
But Aragorn, remembering the flash of blue light on the shore of the far sea, now knew that Elrond had powers far beyond what he had ever guessed. "He is the Master of Rivendell and would be High King of the Noldor but for his own refusal to take the title. Where is he?"
"He left you in my care," she said. "You slept for several hours after he joined you in the ordeal, whatever it was. He says that you should come to him when you are ready, and he will instruct you in the use of the power. I don't understand these deep matters." She took a deep breath. "Elrond has told me many strange and wonderful things. He says that you drove the evil taint from Daeron and from Rodnor, and you defeated it within yourself."
"For me it is a memory of horror. Do not speak of it."
"When you are ready, Elrond says," she said gently. "Until then, rest, eat, recover your strength."
After a thoughtful moment, Aragorn looked up to his mother and smiled. "I think I will take a bath."
It was like Elrond, Aragorn knew, to leave his foster son to choose the time of his own healing. At first he wondered if he would be able to bear the wait, the tedium of recovery—but found, to his own surprise, that he seemed to have acquired something of the virtue of patience. For the first few days, when he was not resting in his chamber, he wandered the hallways of the House, visiting old friends from his childhood—the cooks in the vast kitchens, from whom he had often begged treats, or the workshops of the carpenters and joiners, or the stables and kennels filled with horses, hounds, and hawks—as he again got used to the movement of his own body. Then, wrapped in furs and warm boots, he began to walk outside in the gardens and woods. Even in the winter chill Rivendell was beautiful; the bitterest snows of the mountains did not penetrate into the Valley.
At night he sometimes had bad dreams of his ordeal, but soon found that he had also gained from the struggle. His sense of hearing and awareness of other creatures had grown more acute, almost as if he could feel with his feet that a fox dwelt in a den in the ground below. When he touched the bark of a tree, he felt its life surging under his warm hand. Far above he heard the hunting cries of an eagle and knew what prey the bird was stalking. In wonder he explored further and further as his strength returned.
He never saw Elrond, but from time to time he heard from Erestor that news had come of the campaign against the Sorcerer and his wolves and Orcs. The Rangers and the Elves were having little luck in hunting them down; the enemy seemed to have vanished into the earth itself. But the scouts kept up their vigilant guard around the entire Trollfells, expecting that when the warmer weather came, the enemy would again be busy. And still there was no news of Daeron and Rodnor, and fear grew that they were lost—and with them, the Ring of Barahir.
Each day, as the evening quenched the light of the sun, he studied history, poetry and the lore of healing out of the books in Elrond's vast library. Here he had spent many days in his youth, taking his lessons in mathematics, natural philosophy, history and the tongues of Elves and Men. But the library was so vast and so old that as a growing boy he had touched only a small part of the wisdom that slept there.
He read voraciously of the history of the First Age, seeking always for the story of Ahando and his deeds, but little was said beyond what he already knew. Guilty of many evil deeds he may have been as the servant of Celegorm, but what had brought him into the service of Sauron the Abhorred? That question was not answered, and Aragorn wondered if anyone would ever know.
He sought out the annals of the Northern Kingdom and found the words that he remembered from the archives in Thurnost:
The Witch-King of Angmar was Sauron's most fearsome servant, the Lord of the Ringwraiths himself, yet many others, albeit of lesser power, served him too. Little is known of some, for they fled when the power of Gondor, joined with the Men and Elves of the North, crushed Angmar at last.
After the last prince of the Dúnedain fled, the lord of Rhudaur in its later years was a king of the hill folk, but the wise know that the real command in that fell land was held by a sorcerer trained in Sauron's evil arts. He was no wraith, but his power was second only to that of the Witch-King. It may be that he bore one of the lesser rings or had another source of power that is yet unknown. None knew his name, and perhaps he had forgotten it himself, but some tell that he was a Black Númenorean whose life had been prolonged by unnatural and evil means.
Dark-haired and grey-eyed, noble of bearing, he insinuated himself into the counsels of the first kings of Rhudaur and so corrupted them. Every year, some said, on the darkest day of the winter, he would drink the blood of a newborn babe to renew the life within him. In this fashion he lived many hundreds of years.
But now they knew it was no blood of a newborn babe, indeed, but something just as horrible: the theft of a living Man's body by a Houseless Elf. Slowly Aragorn gained the ability to delve into all his memories of his dealings with the Sorcerer, and wondered if he would indeed face him again. He had threatened to again search out the Heir of Isildur. It was no idle threat. His grandfather, his father, his father's sister and child—all died at Ahando's will. He knew now in his gut that Elrond's warnings that he hide his identity from all strangers were wise and necessary. With some amusement amidst the grimness, he thought he would need yet another name. This time it would be one he chose for himself.
He read about Númenor in the days of its glory and remembered the glint of white sails on the edge of the far horizon of the sea that he had seen in the Pathways. He hungered to see the sea where once his forefathers were great mariners and travelers, and wondered if Númenoreans carried shipcraft in their blood. He read legends of Harad and other faraway lands in the East where the knowledge of the Valar had never come.
Always the memory of the Hall of Tapestries remained strong within him, and he searched the books of lore for any tie of what he had seen to the past, present or future.
At the end of every night, when only the stars and the candles lit the library, Aragorn pulled down the same old volume from the shelves: The Lay of Leithian.
As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinúviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.
As he chanted the verses softly to himself, always he saw the face of Arwen Undómiel in his mind's eye, and wondered if she had indeed spoken to him through the golden mirror, or if her voice had been only a phantom of his own desire.
A good month passed before he felt himself truly ready to return to the Pathways, and then at last he sought out Elrond in the healer's wing. He knocked on the door and waited till Elrond's voice bade him, "Come in."
Elrond was sitting at his vast worktable, writing in a book. His eyes grave, he rose from his chair. "You have recovered well, Aragorn."
Aragorn knew from one look at his foster father's face, and from the use of his given name, that they were not to speak of the hard words between them at the shore of the great sea. It is as well, for what more could be said? "I am ready for my training now, Master Elrond."
From that day on he spent his mornings at Elrond's side, and in the afternoons went to the practice field to regain his warrior's strength and skill. But they did not again enter that strange land where men walked in their own dreams. Instead he helped Elrond gather herbs and prepare medicines, much as he had as a boy, and treat the small injuries that happened each day to the dwellers in the Valley, for even Elves sprain their ankles, cut their fingers and suffer burns in a fire. At first he wondered when the real work would begin, but then he began to see that the sharpening of his awareness carried over into the skill of healing. When he touched a knee bruised in a fall, he sensed the hurt in the flesh and the distress of the Elf-woman who had slipped on the stairs. Closing his eyes, he grasped her injured knee in both hands and held firmly while concentrating on the feel of the flesh. After a time the Elf-woman sighed and seemed to relax.
"Sleep now," Aragorn said. But already her eyes had closed.
He stood up and looked at Elrond. "Was that—" he hardly knew what to call it.
"Yes," Elrond nodded. "Your touch has hastened the healing of her hurt. Now time will do the rest."
They walked together in the garden. "With time and practice," Elrond said, "you will learn how to harness and wield the power to its greatest extent."
"But when I healed Rodnor, I entered great shock and horror—a black thing—"
Elrond held up his hand. "Say no more. When you treat such wounds of the Enemy, where the dark arts are strong, you must enter into the Pathways with your very heart. You did so, but you did not yet know how to walk the way of your own power. He tried to overwhelm you and nearly succeeded—but in the end, you won."
Aragorn shuddered at the dark memory. "Barely."
"You will grow stronger. With the healing of small wounds and hurts you will learn to focus your power and grow in its use. You will learn how to fully unlock the power of athelas."
Silent, Aragorn pondered his words. Will I also learn how to walk the Paths of the Dead? Elrond had often spoken of destiny and hope, but Aragorn wondered if his great destiny was to find a glorious death in the war against the Enemy. So be it! Many men have achieved much less.
"If I live long enough," he said, but Elrond did not answer.
Gilraen watched over her son's convalescence with vigilance. Day by day his appetite grew and he began to put flesh back on his bones. She cherished being able to care for him again, even for so terrible a reason. She realized yet again how lonely she had been in Rivendell since he had left.
"Almost I am truly Estel again," he said, laughing, as he dined with her one evening. But still the dark look came into his face from time to time, and he still cried out in his dreams, and Gilraen knew he brooded on the fate of the warriors, his friends, on the hunt, and Rodnor and Daeron still lost who knew where. She, too, brooded, and thought often of Daeron and Rodnor, who had risked, and maybe lost, their lives to save her son. Aragorn's twenty-third birthday passed on March 1, but they had no spirits for more than a toast over their food. "I cannot celebrate while my friends are in danger, or maybe worse," Aragorn said. "And the Elves have little interest in the yearly celebrations of Men." But she kissed him warmly, and remembered the joy of having a baby at her breast. She thought often of the other baby, the girl-child who had died in her womb, but she did not speak of it. The memory of the Sorcerer's darkness was still too near for her son.
On a bright day that spoke of the coming spring, she was sitting by the hearth, mending, while Aragorn lounged on a bench at the window, reading a small book that he had fetched from his pack. "My great-grandmother Saelind gave me this book," he said. "There are many wonderful poems here. One she pointed out to me especially; it ends 'They also serve who only stand and wait.' I think I am beginning to have a glimmer of what that means."
Putting aside her cloth and needle, she looked up at him. "I remember Saelind speaking of that poem when I knew her in Thurnost. She said the poet spoke of the long years of the Dúnedain living in the shadows, unsung and unacknowledged. But when I hear it, I think of the labor of women—those who wait for their men to return, and sometimes they do not. But we too have a task."
" 'They also serve,' " Aragorn murmured. "It is well said."
A howling scream broke the peace of Elrond's House.
Frighted like a startled cat, Gilraen leaped up, her hand clutched to her breast. Aragorn sat up with a jolt and rose to his feet. "What devilry is this? My sword—"
The light patter of hurrying Elven feet sounded in the hallway, and a maid burst through the door without knocking. "The Master calls for you. Come quick! No, Lord Dúnadan, you do not need your weapon."
They followed her through the House to the wing where Elrond treated those who came to him for healing, but the Master himself met them in the corridor outside the rooms. Distress clouded his face.
"Rodnor and Daeron have been found at last," he said. "Halbarad brought them here. I need your help, both of you."
"Are they wounded?" Aragorn cried. "Why were we not told before?"
"No, no, not wounded," Elrond answered. "I was just going to send you a message to come to them when Rodnor made it unnecessary. Orcs drove them over the pass and they spent the winter east of the mountains, sheltering with the woodmen. Daeron is quite fit, not harmed at all beyond weariness. But Rodnor is in a bad way. He is terrified—" Elrond stopped, seemingly at a loss for words, his face turned toward the room within, as if listening.
"My healing was not complete," Aragorn said. "The Sorcerer haunts him still."
"That I do not know. I cannot even tell—because it is me he fears."
"You, Master Elrond!" Gilraen exclaimed, astonished. "Why?"
Elrond held out his hands to both of them. "He seems to be afraid of all Elves, but me especially. Halbarad could hardly get him to enter the Valley, only on command did he come. You must help me to reach him, both of you."
"Of course," Gilraen said. "What must we do?"
"Go in together. Daeron is there, alone with him for now. Talk to him. Find out what he fears."
"Where is Halbarad?" Aragorn asked.
"Eating and resting, as I commanded," Elrond said.
"Then I will see him later. Come, mother," Aragorn said, and took her arm.
Inside the room Rodnor crouched in a corner, both arms wrapped around his head. He moaned softly, rocking back and forth on his heels. Daeron stood over him, seemingly helpless. So distressed was she over Rodnor's sorry state, Gilraen gave scarce a thought to the scarred man who once was her betrothed. She knelt down before the boy and coaxed his hands into hers. "My dear," she said, "you are quite safe here. Have no fear."
"The king," moaned Rodnor. "The dead king."
"Rodnor, look at me!" Aragorn spoke in a voice of authority that Gilraen had never heard from him before. He even looked somehow bigger.
Blue-grey eyes peered out from Rodnor's tangle of ginger hair. "Aragorn," he whispered. "Help me."
"Stand up, Rodnor, and give me your hand." Aragorn held out his hand and raised the boy to his feet. "Now tell me, who is this king you speak of?"
"I saw him in the sparkling cave, all covered with blood. Then he walked before me here, into the room. The bright eyes! An Elvish ghost…." He shuddered.
Aragorn took hold of his wrists, closing his eyes, and his face grew remote with effort, until, at last, Rodnor cried out sharply. "The king! Do you see him?"
Aragorn released the boy's hands. His face was pale and drawn. "I see what has happened. Mother, stay here with Rodnor while I speak to Elrond."
"Come, Rodnor, sit here by the hearth." She raised her face to Daeron's, conscious of the blush she could feel suffusing her cheeks. "Help me."
"Listen to the lady," Daeron said in his gruff voice. "Come now, boy."
Gilraen sat beside Rodnor on the bench by the hearth, and stroked his face with a gentle hand. "There now, my dear, there now."
Daeron retreated across the room. Gilraen tried not to think of him standing there, watching her, and gave all her attention to the boy who shivered before her. It seemed an eternity before Aragorn came back. He sat on Rodnor's other side, took the boy's two hands in his and gazed into his eyes. "Rodnor, you are safe here, I swear it. The one you fear is no dead king, but my beloved foster father. Trust me, and let us help you. Close your eyes now, and breathe deep. I will protect you, and my father will help me."
The boy's eyes closed, and Aragorn whispered words over their grasped hands. Gilraen watched his intent face, amazed at what she saw. She did not hear Elrond's footsteps as he approached but saw only his two hands close over Aragorn's, wrapped around Rodnor's. Utter silence filled the room, but for their slow, deep breathing. Rodnor's face relaxed into peace, and he slumped forward in a profound sleep. Elrond released his hands, and Aragorn and Daeron together lifted Rodnor to the waiting bed.
"He will sleep well now," Elrond said. "The attendant will watch over him."
"But one of us should be here when he wakes," Gilraen said.
"I can stay," Daeron said.
Elrond shook his head. "No, you need rest yourself to recover from your months away."
"I will stay with Rodnor," Gilraen said. "You are all three weary now." She saw with motherly alarm the pallor of her son's face.
"True," Elrond smiled. "It was a trial unusual even for me."
"What happened?" asked Daeron in his harsh voice.
Aragorn sighed. "Apparently Elrond bears a great resemblance to his grandfather, Dior, Thingol's Heir and Lúthien's son, who died at the hands of Celegorm in Doriath three Ages ago. Rodnor recognized him from the dreams of terror the Sorcerer had inflicted on him."
"Yes," Elrond said, "And only through Aragorn was I able to reach him. Your son has a remarkable power, Gilraen."
"He does," Daeron said. "It is what saved me."
Gilraen turned to face him. "And you saved him, and all of us, Daeron son of Galion. We, and I especially, owe you more than I can say. Thank you."
"It was only my duty," Daeron said. Emotion flickered across his reddened face, and he quickly turned his one good eye away. "As a Ranger owes to his lord."
Aragorn put out his hand and grasped Daeron's forearm in a soldier's greeting. "Come with me now, we'll find you some food and rest."
As the men left Gilraen heard Rodnor stirring. Kneeling at his bedside, she smiled down on the motherless boy. His blue eyes opened. "Lady Gilraen," he said weakly.
"I am here," she said. And she knew then what she wanted to do.
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