Veiling of the Sun: 7. A Path Again Found

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7. A Path Again Found

Frodo awoke to a gray morning, and the air was chilly and damp. The cold invaded the layers of fur blankets he found covering him, and he slunk deeper into their warmth, closing his eyes against the outside world. For a moment peace returned to him, and he could shun his curiosity and concerns. But the groggy doze was fleeting, and a booming voice suddenly filled his ears. “Frodo,” came a familiar tone. Then there was a grim laugh. “Wake now. You’ve slept too long, and it won’t do you much good to miss another meal.”

He broke free from sleep permanently this time, and leaned up. His body was stiff and leaden, and his mind felt as though it was stuffed with wool. Though his thoughts were dull, memory slowly mingled with sensation, and he began to wonder. The small room around him was composed of dark stone. A fire burned happily in a hearth on the opposite wall, warding away the chill and shadows. He was in an old, creaky bed, which was flanked by three others. A few other dusty, aged furnishings adorned the area, one of which, a chair, was occupied by a smoking Merry. “Where are we?” Frodo croaked, surprised to find his voice a dry rasp.

Merry offered him a reassuring grin as he stood and handed him a mug of water from the bed stand beside him. “Rohan, I think. The kingdom of the Mark it’s called.” Merry puffed appreciatively on his pipe while he watched Frodo drink. The water tasted glorious, sweet and cool.

Frodo did not recognize the name. “How long?” he asked, confusion widening his blue eyes.

“You’ve been sleeping for about a week. Not much has really happened. We’ve been kept inside since we arrived. These men don’t appear to trust Strider much,” Merry declared almost apologetically.

“Do they know about us?” Frodo asked, unable to hide the frightened tone in his voice.

“I don’t think they do,” Merry responded, “and they’ve been nice enough, only they won’t let us go. They’re a strange folk. They don’t much know about Hobbits. Can you imagine?” The small creature gave a bit of a laugh, though the sound seemed forced and contrived. Frodo grinned feebly. “Then again, they don’t recognize Strider either.”

“I thought he was their king,” Frodo said, his fingers tracing the outline of a bandage wrapped about his brow. Beneath the white cloth, the wound upon his temple was still sore, and he grimaced.

Merry shrugged. “I’m afraid I don’t know, Frodo. Strider hasn’t told them anything. I don’t know what he hopes to gain by his secrecy. We’re too close to Isengard, he says, to trust anybody.”

Isengard. Shameful guilt returned to Frodo then, and he bowed his head. The last week or so before he had collapsed had not been some grotesque nightmare then, no matter how he had wished it to be so. Instinctively his hand came to his neck, where for months the Ring had hung, hidden by the cover of his clothes and the strength of his heart. Where once its wretched weight had rested there was now nothing but a stark silence and the feel of his own flesh and bone. Sighing softly, he closed his eyes. The violence in Boromir’s eyes, the painful power of his grip, again assaulted his senses, and tears burned. How could he have failed? When they had beached the boats upon Amon Hen, the wind had turned cold, and he had felt a gross premonition crawl over his skin, tickling his senses. Boromir’s lustful gaze had burned into him. Still, even with this foreboding and Galadriel’s warnings, he had not been able to stop the son of Gondor from seizing the Ring. It had been his sole responsibility. The penance for such a crime was beyond any of his worst fears. “The Ring has reached Isengard surely by now,” he finally moaned, averting his eyes from Merry.

It was silent aside from the crack and pop of the fire. Then Merry reached forward and grasped his shoulder. “You did the best you could. We all did.”

The words were little consolation, but Frodo nodded his thanks, and reached up to take Merry’s small hand in his own. He was glad then that he and Sam had accidentally come upon Merry and Pippin so many months ago in Farmer Maggot’s fields. Their simplistic faith and unwavering loyalty heartened him.

Merry squeezed his fingers. “Come now, and take some food. The others have been worried about you.”

Frodo did not know if he had the strength to face them. Before his sickness and delirium had dulled the pain of their companionship. Now an endless road of suffering and depression loomed before him, and for the first time he doubted he had the will left to travel it. He banished these thoughts, though, for despair would do him no good now.

Shoving the warm blankets aside, he swung his legs gingerly from the bed. The stone was hard, cold, and strong to the touch, and he wriggled his toes. Then he stood, willing his stiff body to obey him. For a moment the run spun sickly and he thought he might fall back into the bed. But Merry gripped his arm to steady him, and he would not face this pain alone. Together they walked from the room.

Outside they descended a dark and dank staircase, torches fastened to the spiraling walls shedding only light enough for them to see each step. Men passed them and cast suspicious glances, which riled Frodo’s raw nerves. Merry was steadfast, though, probably accustomed to their distrust and confusion, and led Frodo by the hand deep into the belly of the building. The manor was not overly opulent, but comfortable enough. Rugs warded away the chill of the stone beneath their feet. The cold gray of the morning light did not reach the depths, and fires filled each room they passed with warmth. Finally they reached what seemed to be a guest dining hall. It was a small, sparsely furnished room. A chipped table marked with use and time took up much of the space, stretching from the heavy, double, oaken doors through which they entered to the blackened brick hearth. A hot fire spread orange light.

“Frodo!” Pippin shouted jovially, rising quickly from his chair. The Hobbit smiled gaily and jumped to embrace his friend. Frodo winced as his aching body was wrung in Pippin’s tight grasp, but smiled and patted the other warmly. “So good to see you well!”

Merry pulled his cousin from Frodo. “Pippin’s missed you, you see!” he said, laughing.

“And I as well, Master Baggins!” Frodo turned at the unmistakable deep, rumbling tone. Gimli rose gracefully from his own seat, grinning widely. “Come, have a scrap of luncheon! These men have a strange palate indeed, but the stew is not bad with a bit of ale!”

Frodo felt color burn into his pale cheeks. “You have already eaten,” he said simply, noting the dirty plates and utensils strewn about the table. His stomach still felt a little queasy, though the meal smelled delicious. “So I shouldn’t inconvenience you.”

Gimli gave a genial laugh. “You have a great heart that inconveniences you more than it does us. Sit and eat. There is little else to do in this dungeon!”

Tenderly Frodo sat beside the Dwarf. Pippin resumed a station across from them with Merry, the latter of which went about ladling the thick, meaty stew into an earthen bowl. This he offered to Frodo with a slice of white bread. Gimli took an empty mug and poured frothy brew into it before setting it before the Hobbit.

Then they sat in silence. Frodo ate slowly, careful to not upset his painfully churning stomach. The stew tasted wonderful, although Gimli’s statement about the spices within it was true enough. The ale did compliment its flavor in a unique way, combining the sweetness of the sauce with the sour tang of the drink. Merry nibbled upon a piece of bread, his eyes distant and introspective. Pippin leaned back in his chair, balancing precariously upon its hind legs, as he looked to the fire. Gimli’s face had shed its previous delight, now assuming a dark expression of impatient and frustrated anger. He puffed on his pipe, the mass of rusty hair and beard framing his firm face. Frodo shamefully lowered his head for the Dwarf’s sorrowful anger, idly stirring the stew around with his fork. His appetite suddenly fled him.

Merry finally spoke. “Where has Strider gone?”

Gimli grunted, sending a plume of sweet pipe smoke to the darkened ceiling. “To speak to that arrogant rider again, I suppose. ‘I hold the king’s ear.’ Bah! We have been kept prisoner by these men for days and have yet to meet this supposed king.” His eyes glowed in the fire. “I fear we are being deceived. The spies of Saruman are cunning and widespread!”

No one responded to Gimli’s assertions, for the Dwarf had voiced a concern common to them all. The Riders of Rohan were little more than a blurry memory to Frodo, but anxiety bubbled through him. Aragorn had followed the Orc army to Isengard with such a panicked fury that floundering now seemed out of character. Why would he allow them to be detained? Had their cause proved fruitless? He swallowed the lump in his throat and battled against fresh tears in his eyes.

The doors behind them suddenly opened, and Aragorn stepped through. His face and hands, once covered in grime and dirt, were clean and strong. At seeing Frodo, the man smiled. “My friend, you are well once more!” he declared, stepping forward. Frodo felt his control over his emotions waver as he stumbled from his chair and threw himself into Aragorn’s arms. The son of Arathorn smelled of pipe smoke, horses, and the woods. Aragorn embraced him tightly and chuckled. “Your strength has returned!”

Frodo pulled away and grinned weakly. “Only thanks to you,” he said quietly.

Aragorn ruffled the curly mop of his hair affectionately before standing. He turned to the rest of the group. In that moment, he seemed tired, his eyes outlined in darkness, his form almost bent in aggravated weariness. “Still we must wait,” he declared forlornly, all eyes of the room upon him.

Gimli growled, slamming his raised mug upon the table with a loud bang that resounded off the walls and caused the Hobbits to wince. “Aragorn, this is a vile mistreatment! Simply tell them of your blood, and they’ll surely release us to our own business!”

Frodo returned to his former position as Aragorn sat elegantly at the head of the table. The ranger leaned forward, bracing his elbows upon the surface and clasping his hands before his bearded chin. “I wish it was so simple, son of Glóin, but the state of Rohan does not lend itself to trust, and divulging such information might create a volatile situation that we cannot easily escape.”

“Do you think they’re allied with Isengard?” Pippin asked incredulously.

Shaking his head, Aragorn explained further. “I doubt that. A tension permeates this manor and its soldiers. Although I cannot be sure, I gather a great deal of Théoden’s army has ridden west, possibly in pursuit of the Orcs. A great choice faces Rohan’s liege, one he cannot make likely. To openly oppose Isengard could be disastrous for the people of this nation. Saruman abuses the lands of Rohan, yet if it rises against him, he will surely punish it. Rather than make this choice, Théoden is content to dawdle.” The heir of Isildur sighed. “Until this situation reveals its course, I will not have at Rohan’s disposal such potentially damaging information.”

Merry sank deep into his chair as he regarded his leader. “What are we to do then?” he inquired.

After a moment, Aragorn sighed. “Bide our time, I suppose. We are safe enough here.” Gimli sighed in anger and frustration. The ranger glanced at his companion sympathetically. “Believe that I favor this action no more than you, Master Dwarf, but there is naught else we can do.”

They were silent then, each staring darkly into their own thoughts. Food was forgotten, wine and pipe ignored, and a black depression threatened once more. Frodo closed his eyes and felt the exhaustion return. No amount of sleep, he feared, would ever cure him of it. So much was unknown. How could they be expected to choose the right course of action in this confusing maze of uncertainty? His yearning for Gandalf’s guidance then became a keening wail. He had felt lost after his old friend had disappeared into the shadows of Moria, but at least then their goals had still been painfully clear. Now, without the Ring and splintered, where should they turn? Was there even any more to be done? If the Ring had reached Isengard, surely the black future revealed to him in Galadriel’s mirror would be inevitable. He felt plagued by indecision, and he wished beyond all hope that this plight would simply end his suffering rather than continue to needlessly plague him.

He thought of Sam. Sam never pitied himself or wavered when the situation grew unfathomably dark. For his friend, matters remained ever clear and simple. Gray did not appear between right and wrong, or between good and evil. Defeat or resignation Sam did not consider. Frodo felt ashamed of his own doubt.

There came a rapping at the door. Before any of them could rise, the heavy oak slabs were pushed open. In the portal appeared a soldier, clad in dirty mail. “Strider, Prince Éomer summons you immediately.”

Aragorn stood and narrowed his eyes doubtfully. “In what regard?”

“I know not,” spoke the man sharply, “only that a few minutes past a strange blonde Elf came into our Lord’s courtyard asking if you were among the men of Rohan.”

A strange blonde Elf! Frodo’s heart leapt into his throat in excitement, and he stood suddenly. The unspoken hope mirrored in the others, and Merry and Pippin gasped as they too rose. Gimli was away from the table before his companions could think to move themselves. The soldier’s face was angry, and he barred their exit. The Dwarf growled. “This invite was extended to no other, save Strider!”

“Step aside, you fiend! This concerns more than this man alone!” Gimli shouted back, his eyes burning with anger and profound hope. He would clearly not be deterred by any force these men might wield against him.

Aragorn smiled regretfully at the messenger, stepping past Frodo to clasp the roused Dwarf on the shoulder. His grip was a bit restraining. “Forgive my colleague here, sir. You must understand. One of our lost companions was a blonde Elf with bright eyes, garbed as an archer. Might this visitor match that description?” The ranger was unable to completely hide the wistful dream in his voice.

Frodo turned his wide eyes to the soldier, his gaze boring into the stocky man. For his own part, their messenger seemed a bit unnerved by the group’s yearning stares. “This I know not as well, for I did not see this Elf.” He seemed to be considering, glancing about the group suspiciously and making quite a show of his hesitation. Gimli grumbled lowly. Finally, the man spoke again. “If that is the case, I see no error in permitting the others. Keep your Dwarves in check, and they may accompany you. Make haste now, for the prince is called to duty elsewhere.”

So taken with anxious wishes, even Gimli failed to bristle at the man’s ignorance of the differences between Hobbit and Dwarf, and they bounced after him. The walls, festooned with tapestries, were a blur to Frodo as he followed the group, lingering beside Aragorn. Passing men were ignored as he looked upon the ranger. The man’s dark eyes were alive with an energy that had longed seemed lost in grief. Frodo dared to hope. His heart pulsed and he shared a grin with Merry and Pippin, who were silently cheerful, their steps buoyant.

“The prince will join you shortly,” said the soldier. When they entered the chamber to which he had led them, however, their hopes crashed with a dreadful bang of the closing door behind them. There indeed stood a blonde Elf, but his stature was taller than that of Legolas. His posture was a tad proud, his hair light upon his shoulders and his brow high. He was clad in mellow greens. Frodo recognized him immediately.

“Haldir,” Aragorn announced in disbelief, his brow furrowed in confusion. He shook his head, obviously stupefied at the appearance of the archer of Lórien.

The Elf’s keen eyes pierced them as they scanned the group. His long face was stern and serious. “It is true, I see,” he stated after a moment, his tone despondent. “You have failed and broken.” The scrutinizing gaze fell to Frodo. Under his harsh inspection, the Hobbit winced inwardly and bowed his head in sudden shame. Merry and Pippin came closer to him protectively, their own stares leveled at the strange Elf.

Gimli raged, stepping forward and glaring at the other, obviously both vexed by Haldir’s words and disappointed that the visitor was not their missing friend. “Hold your tongue, Elf!” he snarled. “You may be kin to Legolas, but you hold none of his grace or eloquence! Feign nobility if you wish, but you are not welcomed here!”

“Think well on your words, Dwarf, for I bring a warning from the Golden Wood, from the wisdom of Lady Galadriel herself,” Haldir announced smartly, his glare severe.

“Her words are well received,” Gimli countered, “for she is a creature of great valor and beauty. You are hardly worthy of bearing her message.”

Haldir’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but before the tense situation could escalate further, Aragorn stepped between the conflicting parties. “Please. Stay your anger, friend Gimli, and let us hear what Haldir wishes to say.” The ranger then turned to the tall Elf, his face tight with distrust and urgency. “Quickly now, before the men of Rohan return.”

Haldir released a slow breath and turned his gaze from the fuming Dwarf. Frodo watched him intently. “The Lady Galadriel has received a premonition. She has sent me to both instruct you in your actions and aid you as you need.”

“What has she seen?” Aragorn asked, clearly exasperated.

“Men turning upon Elves. She has witnessed the deceit of the son of Denethor. This we cannot remedy, but the course of events from henceforth shall be of our making. Where is the One Ring?” he asked quickly.

Frodo was overwhelmed by the words, and his thoughts were a blur. Numbly he watched Aragorn’s eyes grow tight. The ranger stepped closer to the Elf, and the conversation grew hushed. “I know not,” he declared after a moment, his eyes darting. The shame in his tone ached in Frodo’s ears. “We can be sure that Boromir stole it from Frodo during the skirmish, but nothing else is evident. We were tracking the Orc army when the Riders of Rohan intercepted us.” Desperation lined his next words. “Perhaps the Lady Galadriel saw its location in her visions as well?”

Haldir shook his head, sending the hopes of the others plummeting. “Of this she spoke naught to me,” declared the Elf lowly. It discouraged Frodo to see him nervous and worried. It seemed so utterly impossible yet somehow sensible, as if this was only another chapter added to a growing, weird nightmare. Galadriel had known of their plight. She had warned him, after all, and he had still allowed this to happen! Tears escaped his eyes, rolling down his pale cheeks, and he looked away. Was this foul outlook that had come to her his fault? Even more, could she now direct them in somehow preventing it?

Then the Elf spoke once more, and his words brought a weak ray of hope into the dark places of his mourning heart. “Still I must believe the Ring has not yet fallen into evil. If it had, surely she would have told me!”

“She would know such a thing?” inquired Pippin skeptically.

Haldir turned hard eyes to him. “She knows all things, for she too has borne a Ring of Power, and through that she is forever connected to the fiery Eye.”

Aragorn grew quiet. Frodo observed him as he stood, tense with this information that had come to him. In his own heart a great storm of anxiety and worry swirled. Before he realized it, he voiced his relentless concerns. “What of Sam? Did she learn of him?”

The Elf archer seemed torn. Reluctantly he answered. “That as well she did not say.”

Frodo felt his heart grow cold and his young face fell in dejection. In hindsight he did not know why he had bothered to hope. It was surely folly to harbor such futile feelings! Yet in this he was not alone. “And of Legolas?” asked Aragorn.

Haldir hesitated. This more than any other sign indicated that there indeed was information to reveal. Frodo watched the Elf expectantly, his foolish heart once again pumping silly hopes throughout his small and beaten form. “His fate cannot concern you,” Haldir finally declared, his narrow face stanch and dark.

Gimli reared and snapped, “You wicked creature! If there is news to be had then come, let us have it! In this you must be honest, for my heart wracks in toil for our lost friend!”

Turning his gaze back to Haldir, Frodo held his breath. “The Lady of the Wood spoke little of this matter, saying only that he had been taken by the enemy. I know nothing else,” Haldir said. “If they have not killed him, they keep him for sport. There is little we can do for him now.” The dark veil of despair again descended upon the group. Pippin and Merry glanced sadly at one another before looking to Frodo. A great pit of guilt and shame bubbled inside the young Hobbit. Their weak condoling eyes did little to assuage his pain. “Have some faith,” Haldir spoke at last, “for the wise Galadriel sent my brother, Rúmil, riding north to Mirkwood. King Thranduil will surely quickly send aid for his son.”

Aragorn did not look terribly relieved by Haldir’s words, his eyes dark with sorrow and malice. “The Orc army has already reached Isengard. Whatever forces he might dispatch will be insufficient to contend with Saruman’s forces!” he declared hotly. “We must go to him!”

“As I said, son of Arathorn, this cannot concern you!”

The ranger’s eyes burned. “You cannot expect me to turn my back on Legolas!”

Haldir’s own gaze was piercing. “I expect you to show some logic here. Your friendship with him does grieve me, but the fate of Middle Earth rests upon you now. The One Ring is beyond our grasp! Whether it has come to evil or good, I cannot say, yet dwelling upon mistakes of the past will do nothing to remedy the present predicament!” Aragorn clenched his jaw and stepped closer to the Elf. Frodo had rarely seen him so angered. Haldir dropped his tone to a harsh whisper. “You are the king of men, the heir of Isildur. From this you cannot shy. The very fate of us all depends upon you.” The sharp bite of his condescending tone softened. “Legolas surely would not fault you.”

For a moment, it was still. Time hung upon them, heavy with the profundity of the choice laid before them. The air was tight and suffocating. Frodo felt he could hardly breathe, what he had heard and seen suddenly surreal and unbelievable. How one strange twist of events had changed the course of things to come! The burden of the survival of the people of Middle Earth was no longer his to bear. This revelation felt strange. So often since leaving the Shire many months back he had wished to be rid of the Ring. Now that this desire had finally been granted, he felt exhausted. No longer was he a Ringbearer. Where his guilt had before disturbed him, the relief now offered him a sweet taste of freedom.

Aragorn sighed slowly and lowered his eyes. “What must I do?” he asked quietly.

Haldir’s response was strong and confident. “It is time for you to take upon yourself the kingship of men. You must travel to Minas Tirith and secure the allegiance of your people. The Lady Galadriel spoke not of what forces may oppose us, but I do not doubt that the corrupted Boromir will contend with you for their loyalty. You must triumph. There is no other option.”

All were silent. Aragorn stood still, tall and proud, yet hesitant. Frodo regarded him with compassionate eyes. He knew of the duty Aragorn’s blood placed upon him. Before it had never really occurred to him that this responsibility would one day catch up with the swift feet of the ranger. Frodo understood little of the politics of men, but it was clear that the race was divided and leaderless. Uniting them under one rule would be a difficult task to say the least, and to expect this of Aragorn in such dire times made the impossible job that much more incredible. Yet the ranger did not waver. An elegant regality that not often dignified the man now proudly sang in his form. “If this is the only choice, then I will see it done. I trust the Lady Galadriel’s wisdom. She would not lead us astray.” A choice had been made.

Haldir nodded firmly. “And I will aid you. In Legolas’ stead, I will protect you.”

There was a low grumble. Gimli’s ruddy face was taut in anger and sorrow. “You will not replace him,” declared the Dwarf, “but I will bear my axe beside you as I did him.”

Then came the creak of the door, and Éomer stepped inside the room. The blonde man looked a bit winded and certainly troubled. Frodo watched as he forced a smile to a pale, distraught face. “Ah! I see you have found the visitor, Strider. Is this your lost comrade?” he asked.

“Nay,” Aragorn responded, coming to stand before the Hobbits, “but a welcomed ally nonetheless.”

“Good to hear, but I am distressed, for still you must remain here. Our forces have splintered, and rumors that the black threat from Isengard marches toward our manor are well-founded indeed. Our scouts and Riders have lost contact with Lord Erkenbrand’s troops.” The man sighed, waves of weariness emanating from his form. “We must prepare for war, and though this greatly inconveniences you, I cannot bother my king with your request at this time.”

Aragorn narrowed his eyes. “Bear this new message to your liege at once, Éomer, son of Éomund: Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur and the Elessar, demands an audience.”

The man visibly blanched, his face growing as pale as his abundant hair. His eyes grew wide and unbelieving. “This you cannot be!” he stuttered in disbelief.

“This I am, and I bid you to make haste,” Aragorn ordered. His voice was tight and unforgiving.

“Sir, why did you not announce yourself when we met? Never would I have detained you!” Éomer stammered, clearly both embarrassed and unnerved. His face burned brightly.

“Then secrecy benefited me. Now the truth is necessary. If what you say is so, then this nation must have the leadership of your king. His indecision will be his downfall, and I will not stand idly by and allow that to occur.”

Éomer was silent with surprise, left wordless and confused. After a short while he nodded, as if suddenly breaking from his paralyzed state. “Come, then. The King Théoden, though wise and strong, is not a trusting man. You others must stay behind.”

Gimli opened his mouth to object, but a quick, hard look from Aragorn silenced him. “Let us go.” Aragorn turned to his companions. Frodo met his gaze. “I will not be long.” The ranger offered him a gentle grin, and in that instance the cold commander faded, leaving the Aragorn of old who was a tender protector and a strong advisor.

Merry and Pippin watched dumbfounded as the man turned and followed Éomer from the chamber. When the door had thudded safely shut, Pippin scratched his head. “What just happened?” he asked, his voice perplexed.

“Use your head, Pippin! There’s a war coming!” Merry declared, whapping his cousin upside the head.

“A war?” asked Pippin, now rubbing where he had been struck. “Well, is that good?”

Frodo managed a weak smile. “I doubt it, you fool,” Merry retorted.

Haldir cast them a harsh glare, which effectively terminated their banter. Gimli’s stout form was taut in anticipation, his eyes afire, his limbs tense. Even Merry and Pippin, now silent, were determined, jaws set in acceptance of this new course, eyes vehement.

As Frodo looked upon their group, he felt his heart go out to each. For now, at least, he felt reassured, even given the harsh days ahead of them. Aragorn had again found his path. He would protect them with renewed valor. Haldir would lead them in this new journey, guided by his keen senses and the wisdom of Galadriel. And Gimli’s axe would soon taste the revenge he so sorely desired. Yet, even in this affection and confidence Frodo felt for them all, he could not stifle the sadness in his heart.

For in a short time he would be leaving them for a quest of his own.

Night came upon Rohan, but the kingdom did not sleep. Not long after supper, Théoden had emerged from his chamber, this being the first occasion in many weeks that he descended to speak to his people. He had announced the intention of war and bade his subjects to prepare. The women and children were to make for the safety of the hills, while the men readied themselves for battle. This proclamation the King of the Mark made after much discussion and debate, and Aragorn had come to understand the power of bad advice, for the king’s chief counselor, Gríma, known to most as Wormtongue, was a slick one indeed, weaseling his objections into the conversation with false votes of loyalty and oily convictions. Wormtongue’s clever stasis over the king of Rohan had not held in the face of Aragorn’s arguments, though, and the king had conceded to action. Moreover, he had left the care of the nation to his sister’s daughter, Éowyn, so he himself could ride into battle with his men.

It was as if new energy had been borne into the people. The indecision and hesitation had faded without trace, leaving an air of urgency that permeated every citizen of Rohan. Aragorn watched the people scurry, rushing about tasks with fearful fervor. Horses, great mares and stallions of powerful stature and gait, were led from the stables by squires. Weapons were brought from storage and cleaned, and men bustled about the courtyard. There was smoking and drinking, loud, boisterous voices claiming an early victory over their unknown foes. Tomorrow morning, at first light, the army would march west to Helm’s Deep, the last known location of the missing battalions.

Aragorn watched the hustle from balcony of the manor. He was tired, but racing thought did not allow him sleep. This evening his mind was full, concerned with a great many worries and fears. His eyes blankly stared upon the men of Rohan as they armed themselves, but he was distant, longing for things past and dreading things that had yet to come.

A critical battle would occur tomorrow, and they must succeed. Aragorn did not know the extent of Saruman’s forces, but surmised that they were indeed significant. If the army of Rohan should flounder, disaster would come to them all. Though he was tenacious in mind, his heart was doubtful. He had convinced Théoden of this action, after all. Defeat in the battle tomorrow would mean forfeiting the tenuous trust they had formed. Assuming Galadriel’s visions were true, he could not afford to lose Rohan’s loyalty. Many years ago, this very moment in which he would have to rise to assume his birthright had seemed a distant concern that troubled him little. In those days he had been content to live peacefully among the Elves, shunning his duty and turning from his rightful path. That selfish ignorance needled him now with shame. He knew little of politics and the ways of court; though Elrond had been a good teacher of such, he had all too easily cast the lessons aside. He would have to learn now to be a leader. Haldir had made it painfully clear that if he did not, ruin would strike Middle Earth. He was not about to let such a foul fate befall them!

He thought of Arwen. His hand came up absently, calloused fingers caressing the shining Evenstar necklace she had given to him the evening prior to the council in Rivendell. What would she say of this predicament? He imagined her bright blue eyes, deeper than the sky at twilight, staring into his own with such intensity that it drew away his breath. She was wise beyond her years and strong beyond her heart. Their meeting so long ago seemed to him a dream, a flight of fancy and wonder that comforted him whenever its memory blessed his troubled soul. Although concerns for the battle on the morrow should have preempted thoughts of her, he could not help but embellish his desires. In his mind’s eye, he basked in her beauty. Idly he wondered what made him worthy of her and worthy of the awesome gift she had given him. Arwen had forfeited her immortal life for his sake, and her choice still alarmed and amazed him. More than once he had tried to convince her rethink what she had done, for living in joy for all time hardly seemed the equal of spending a mere mortal’s life in his company. But she had been adamant, trading an infinite existence for finite love, and he had graciously accepted what she offered. It hung lightly around his neck always, resting above his heart, and he would never forget what it meant to him.

She would support him, as she always did. Never would she blame him for the horrid weakness of his blood. This was his destiny, and evil held no claim to him. Her silent strength was his pulsing power. He missed her then, and he looked up to the stars. The night was crisp and clear, the clouds that had covered the day blowing to the east. Though much had happened since his last night in Rivendell, they were still the same. He would see her again. He hoped fairer times would embrace their next meeting.

Then his mind turned, ripped from the peace of Arwen’s presence, and he worried deeply for Legolas. Haldir’s words had brought unimaginable anguish to his heart. He not often concerned himself for his Elvish friend, as many times since they had met had Legolas proven himself an exceptional warrior who was perfectly capable of looking out for himself. It was silly, but Aragorn had often times likened himself to an older brother in their friendship, finding himself mindful for the Elf prince’s safety and constantly protective. Legolas had once or twice lightly chided Aragorn for his state of mind, laughingly reminding the ranger that he was well over two thousand years old. Not wishing to damage his friend’s pride, only in the privacy of his thoughts did Aragorn chuckle at the irony of the Elf’s words. While he was greatly Aragorn’s superior in age, Legolas still acted with a child’s naiveté at times. He wore his slow maturity upon his face, the exuberant youth plainly betraying his inexperience. Though this brash attitude was frowned upon by elder Elves, it was what, in Aragorn’s opinion, made Legolas so endearing.

His heart ached in guilt. Legolas had only recently come of age. His innocence was a precious gift. Much like Arwen, he loved Middle Earth with a fervor that not often showed in contemporary Elvish society. They were a dying breed, the last generation that still clung to this land. Would Legolas still thrive in the forests if he survived what now faced him? Would his innocence be forever destroyed? Aragorn felt fury, and clenched his fists hard upon the stone railing of the balcony. If the Elf did live, his lost purity could never be returned to him. The ranger cursed Boromir for his weakness. The damage that man had done to them all was immeasurable and irreversible! Worse still, he damned himself. The wretched twists of fate! To leave his closest friend in the fires of Saruman’s wrath for the sake of this world! He could not in good conscience go after Legolas, not when the fate of so many more rested upon his shoulders. Thus his heart would be left to tear itself to bloody pieces in rage and grief.

A shadow passed behind him. So caught in his dark contemplation, he nearly missed it. Breaking from his reverie, he turned quickly and stepped forward. Aragorn glanced down the poorly lit hall. The stairs at the far end descended into the courtyard. There the small, hooded figure descended on nimble feet. The ranger opened his mouth to shout to creature, but he was not fast enough, for the suspicious shadow was already gone from his sight. Spurring into action, the ranger followed.

At the door he caught his game, reaching forward and grasping the fleeing creature’s arm. In the weak torchlight he noticed the Elvish cloak, and the familiar features. “Frodo?” he questioned tentatively, his brow furrowed in confusion. He released his tight grip, and the small being turned. Indeed it was his friend Hobbit. “What are you doing?”

Frodo’s eyes glinted with determination. “Don’t stop me, Aragorn. Please,” he implored softly.

The ranger’s quick eyes scanned the small creature. Upon his back were a few bags stuffed with food and provisions. The Hobbit had dressed warmly, clad in a thick wool tunic and dark cotton breaches. The concealing cloak that blended so well with shadow was wrapped tightly about him. Sting, resting idly in her sheath, hung from his side. Quickly a conclusion came to Aragorn’s mind. “You mean to leave,” he stated simply, almost numbly. This he had not expected.

Wide blue eyes, so innocent and pure, met his own. “I’m no use to you anymore, though I wish I was. I’m not handy enough with a blade to be any good in battle. I don’t know anything about the court of men.” The Hobbit gave a regretful smile. “So you see, I might as well be out of your hair.”

Astounded, Aragorn dropped to one knee before Frodo. “Frodo…” The words simply would not come.

“I have to find Sam,” declared Frodo resolutely. Aragorn said nothing, amazed at the newfound purpose glowing in the Hobbit’s eyes. “Without the Ring, I’m nothing remarkable. But I’m still his friend.”

A slow understanding came to Aragorn. Though he disliked the thought of this lone but brave creature traveling in the dangerous wilds about them, he could not find it within himself to object. They were quiet, sharing a silent appreciation and sympathy. Bonds woven tight by toil would always remain. Then the ranger took the Hobbit’s small hands, resigning himself to the other’s decision. “Be safe, Frodo. I know you will find him.”

Frodo returned his affectionate squeeze and then embraced him warmly. “I will. Please look after Merry and Pippin. They will not understand,” he said, his voice muffled by Aragorn’s shoulder. “Thank you for everything.”

Then they split, and Frodo walked rapidly away, as if lingering would heighten the pain of separation. Aragorn watched him, his eyes tracing the Hobbit’s small outline as he faded into the throng of working men unnoticed. The darkness covered Frodo, and then he was gone.

The ranger released a slow breath. “Until we meet again, Frodo Baggins.” Then he turned and headed for his room, exhaustion bidding him to bed. Paths split, roads appeared. He wondered where his own might lead him.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: maggie

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 11/12/02

Original Post: 07/14/02

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