“Aragorn, do you not want to come inside?”
The compassionate voice of his wife made Aragorn turn away from the view of the White City at night. Clouds had gathered over the plains, and the stars would only glance here and there between them. Aside from some torches in the first ring the city beneath him was dark, quiet, and peaceful. Aragorn exhaled. Arwen had reached him and gently took his hand in hers. He flinched, and she turned his hand to examine the palm.
“I could not sleep.” His voice was no more than a whisper as if not to disturb the silence of the night.
“The dreams still haunt you.” Gently her fingers touched the scratches the splinters had caused. “Do not do this to yourself, Aragorn. Not anymore. Let me help you to find rest. I know I can give you ease, my love.”
He pulled his hand back and lowered his head.
“What ease can I be granted if the evil is never eradicated?”
She looked up to him.
“This is a task not even my father could fulfil. You are demanding too much of yourself.”
“I could not even hold back my own captain from killing a young woman. He shot her for the attempt of stealing a horse. I came too late to prevent it.”
Arwen fell silent for a while. Aragorn embraced her, and they were both rejoicing in each other company. She could feel her husband's tension and caressed his temples and bearded cheeks to calm him before she spoke.
“The loss of a life is always regrettable, but do not judge the captain too hard. He served another kind of man before and we both know that Denethor was not merciful.“
Aragorn's mouth twitched with disgust.
“Not merciful. He tried to kill his own son.”
Arwen rested her hand on his chest, and held Aragorn's look.
“You are different, Aragorn. Many of your people know about your mercy, and some still do not understand it. But you were right to trust your heart, as you had done before. It was right to not take the lives of two people though some said they deserved nothing but death.” Aragorn exhaled, and she read his bitter expression. “I can still recall the dreadful feeling I had when your were captured,” she continued in Sindarin. “But you held on. You did not give up hope.” He shuddered and pulled her tighter, softly kissed her on her hair. He kept the painful truth to himself: That he had had given up at last, after the news had reached him that Éomer had left Deromonor without finding him. “You will defeat these memories, my love,” Arwen continued. “On all your quests you had to prove that you were stronger than the evil you encountered. You will be strong enough to win over your fears.” Aragorn remained silent, and she searched in his face for the reason. “Your heart was light when you left this time. I was very happy to share that feeling.”
“But I should not have done it. I left you again. And my duties here.”
She kissed him, and smiled warmly when she leant back in his embrace.
“Do not worry for me, Aragorn, for I am always with you. And to feel your spirits rise the moment you rode under the open sky again was more than I had hoped for during the last months.”
With his fingers he tenderly stroked a strand of hair from her temple. Arwen held his hand at her cheek.
“You know me well, Arwen Undomíel. But I could see that you were worried.”
Arwen nodded slightly without losing the eye contact.
“I cannot deny that I was. You were riding with only five men into a danger yet unknown. All the rumours could have turned out true. But I have always trusted you, and I still do.”
“Then why am I not able to get rid of those memories? I returned more than a year ago. Will the haunting never end?”
“It will end,” she stressed, but could only find disbelief in his eyes. He lowered his hand and exhaled, frustrated.
“It is not only my own incarceration. I dreamt of the boy,” he admitted quietly. “I dreamt that he was not able to escape. He got captured by Medros' men. And then they brought him back to the mine.”
“He was courageous, Aragorn, to leave the castle, and he survived. He did a great deed, and you rewarded him for it. You can be proud of him. Do not tarry with your thoughts on bitter grounds when you know the truth is much lighter.” With a small but nonetheless encouraging smile she caressed his cheek. “Think about the good times whenever those dreams come to you. Think about the moment he returned to the mine to bring you the news of Éomer's and Faramir's arrival. You have given Vlohiri hope for a better time to come. You have given your people hope. Think about what you accomplished and how merry your people are now. Not even two years have passed since your reign has begun. The cheers today were honest, my love.”
Slowly they strode over the paved court along the fountain and the White Tree, which stood in full bloom. It had grown light green leaves and silvery-white blossoms since the seedling had been planted, and the king enjoyed the look upon it every time he walked out on the Citadel. The Tree was a signal that the dark times had passed and would not return. The threat of Mordor was defeated, and what other danger was upon the kingdom he could not yet determine. He felt the dread ease. Arwen looked up to him, knowingly, and understood what it meant for her husband to dwell on these grounds. But she also knew that his pain had not yet come to an end. She could see his reluctance upon entering the royal chambers.
For weeks after his return from Deromonor Aragorn had preferred to sleep outdoors, and it had not been in her power to ease his bitter feelings. She had accompanied him until he had been able to move his bed for the night into the hall. During those weeks Arwen had talked with the boy, and though Vlohiri had still seemed to be in awe by her presence he had described to her the months the king had suffered in the dungeon. It was then when she had realised that not only her husband had been treated badly, but that the young lad, too, had lived through rough times. Aragorn had gladly taken up the task to teach the boy to ride as well as to read, and both had cherished these hours, connected by a band of familiarity. But the royal life included duties the king could not neglect, and by then Prince Faramir had continued Vlohiri’s education, founded upon trust and friendship.
Arwen had watched Vlohiri’s development and found that no other boy from the kingdom could be called as eager and quick in learning as he. It was to her utmost joy that Vlohiri had not only lifted her husband's spirits, but had also overcome his doubts toward Prince Faramir since the prince had spoken with so much admiration about the boy's courage.
Aragorn had laid down and closed his eyes. She knew he was still awake and slipped under the covers.
“Sleep, my love,” she whispered caressing his face, “I will watch over you.”
Hilberon had insisted on tending the horses alone. On their way out the stable-boys had joked behind his back when Hilberon had, at first, taken off his cuirass and the rest of the armour to breathe again freely. He was sweating and still had the taste of dust in his mouth. Leaving the heap of metal and leather with the White Tree on it behind, he first took care of Dumarin's horse, which already fidgeted. Brego and the dark grey horse that had been given to him, Harolyan, waited more patiently to be unsaddled and drank water out of the big buckets Hilberon provided. He talked quietly to both of them while he worked, thinking he was alone, when he heard steps in the back of the big stable. He looked up from the water bucket in which he rinsed the bits of the bridles to find the eyes of a young, fair-haired boy of perhaps eleven years resting upon him.
“What are you doing here?” the boy asked with open interest, and his gaze travelled to the horses on the way between the loose boxes. "Are you a new stable-hand?“
Hilberon was about to spurn that assumption and state that he was a member of the Royal Guard, but then he realised that his appearance would not prove it.
„No, I came with...“
“You brought Brego in!” the boy interrupted with a smile and bridged the few steps to caress the horse's mane. He pressed his face into the soft neck’s fur. “You are back,” he whispered. “That is well.”
“It’s the king's horse,” Hilberon declared, rising. He could not help frowning upon the strange behaviour of that little lad. The bridle clanged in his hands while water dripped on his trousers and the sandy ground. “And I do not see why you should be allowed to be here. You do not look like you work here, either.”
The boy continued the caressing, and when he halted his hand on one spot Brego nudged him gently at the shoulder. It was still a strong enough move to make the slender boy take two steps backwards.
“It's all right, Brego, I did not mean to stop!” he laughed. Then he turned to Hilberon, and with the same glad smile he answered, “I am here to look over Rohyren. He was not feeling well.”
“Who is Rohyren?” Hilberon asked and hung the bridle over a hook at the wall, close to the horse's box.
“The king's second horse,” the boy explained, when suddenly Brego blew air into his face. He giggled. “Yes, I know, you are the first!”
Hilberon frowned and put Brego's saddle – as old and long in use as the king's clothes, he thought – on the wooden bar along the boxes.
“How come you know the lord's horses?” he then asked and eyed the simple and no longer tidy clothes of the boy. Grass and mud had darkened the trousers and tunic that before had been of a light green. The cloth seemed to be finer and more carefully sewn than the garments the stable-hands wore. And the haircut indicated that someone skilled had done it. Still the lad's appearance was a mystery to Hilberon. “And who are you, anyway?”
“I’m Vlohiri.” The boy continued stroking Brego's mane, and the steed seemed to truly enjoy it. “And have you a name, too?”
The young soldier grew to his full height, towering over the boy.
“I'm Hilberon son of Hiregon, soldier of the Royal Guard.”
“You are the son of Hiregon the smith?” And on Hilberon's curt nod he added, “Then I know your father.” He frowned for a moment – a gesture Hilberon imitated –, cocking his head as if to judge the young soldier, but the resemblance to Hiregon was obvious. “Well, he sometimes let me help him… while he works here. I’ve already learnt quite some things.”
“A new apprentice, hum?” Hilberon blew air over his forehead and smiled. He could hardly imagine the slender hands to use a hammer on an anvil to forge a horseshoe. But he kept himself from shaking his head. After all the boy was at least six years younger than he. Six years ago even Hilberon had not been able to do such hard work.
“Aye.” Vlohiri watched Hilberon taking up the last saddle to put it on its place. “Can I give you a hand?”
“Take Brego to his box and fill the hackle with hay. I take Harolyan.”
“That's a great horse,” Vlohiri nodded with admiration and patted Harolyan's hindquarter. Dust rose and made him cough. “The riding-master told me he once belonged to Óranon, but he was killed on their way back from Osgiliath when those... flying things attacked.”
“Fell beasts,” Hilberon corrected him, leading Harolyan to his box to give him hay. “Yes, I know. It was a very bad day. The defences did no longer hold.” He watched the boy's small back. “Who is you father? Does he work in the city?” Vlohiri led Brego into the loose box and gave him hay and oats. He did not reply, but passed the soldier on his way out. Hilberon followed to the doors, frowning. “He, lad, I asked you something!“
“No, he doesn’t.“ Vlohiri looked troubled and avoided the older man's stare.
Hilberon crouched to pick up the heap of armour. Puzzled by the insecure tone of the boy’s answer he waited to, again, meet eyes with him.
“Well, it's just… I haven’t seen you round here.“ Hilberon rose, but the helmet clanked on the ground again. The soldier cursed silently. Vlohiri picked up the piece of armour and grimaced at his reflection on the polished metal. “Are you new in the city?“
“Yes.“ Vlohiri started throwing up the helmet while they left the stable behind.
“Well...“ They marched down the road, stepping aside every time a group of men and women approached. Hilberon had never seen the city so busy and crowded, and he felt quite stupid to walk the road with the armour in his arms. The boy seemed to be sliding past those people as if he had trained not to be in the way. “Has my father invited you?“
“I… I just wanted to bring this home for you.“ He kept throwing the helmet and catching it time and time again.
“Stop that!“ Hilberon ordered on half of the way. Vlohiri caught the shining helmet at once and turned, a glimpse of anxiety in his eyes. “It might fall and get ruined. And I would get blamed for it. It’s a helmet of the Royal Guard, lad.“ Hilberon had not meant to be rude and was puzzled even more when Vlohiri tugged the helmet under his right arm - stern-faced, biting his lower lip - and held it there until they reached the smithy. He opened the door for the soldier and let him go in first. The smith already waited.
“Welcome, welcome!” Hiregon could hardly wait until his son had put down the armour to embrace him and slap him heartily on the back that dust whirled up from the jerkin. “Oh, it’s good that you’re back, my son!” Then he saw Vlohiri standing behind the soldier. He had silently closed the door and put down the helmet on the floor for there was no place on a table or cupboard. “How, now, have you come in so quickly? Did you do what you wanted? How is Rohyren now?”
“I did. He is all right.” Vlohiri managed a feeble smile, but the smithy with all its furniture, only lit by a few candles, was a strange place to be in, and his thoughts were suddenly back at Deromonor, which seemed the darkest place in Middle Earth. In his opinion no bad stories of Mordor, the Black Gate, and a hundred Mûmakil could compare to it.
“Very well!” Hiregon let his mighty hand fall down on his son's back one last time before turning to the rear part of the small home father and son lived in, adjacent to the smithy. “Let's eat then! You two must be hungry!” He moved his impressive body to the even smaller kitchen and brought back a pot with steaming potatoes and fresh cheese. Big bowls and a loaf of bread were already waiting. “Come, Vlohiri, sit down with us! You must be starving.”
They sat down and for a while they fell silent. Vlohiri ate, but with every bite he took memories of bad times flooded him. Within the palace high up at the Citadel the customs, the meals, the clothes, and all the scents were different in a way he could only describe as 'royal'. In the king's residence at the back of the palace and also in Prince Faramir's house the memories had not haunted him so hard and bitter as they did now. In Hiregon's crowded little place the odour of old leather, the smell of vegetable and bread, and even of straw reminded him so much of his old 'home' at the castle that he had woken in tears in many nights since he had first entered Hiregon's smithy. Vlohiri had not said a word to the smith and he had not told Prince Faramir about it for he was sure that they both would call him stupid and childish. And he agreed. It was childish to be frightened by memories. Every time he woke up from those nightmares he walked through his room and into the garden in front of the prince's home to look at the wonder that had happened to him: He lived in the White City! He was allowed to roam here! He was no longer a boy in the castle’s kitchen who lived on morsels. He was about to be educated to fulfil different tasks than running around dark and hollow corridors for errands. And he would never again set foot in a dungeon to hide from other boys.
When the dream had been too bad to return to sleep he sometimes sat on the grass in the garden and thought about the most beautiful queen the land would ever have. ‘Arwen,’ he then whispered in the darkness and tried to let it sound like when the Elves - and the king - spoke it. Vlohiri remembered the love the king could lay in just one word, and, thinking of those few weeks he had stayed at the lord’s residence, he felt regret deep in his heart. But he was grateful that Prince Faramir had taken the time to teach him Sindarin, and when he was alone Vlohiri often repeated the verses of the poems he had learned.
Hilberon ate with the appetite of a man short of starvation. And during the important task of filling his stomach he watched the lad with the sticking-out ears and the trimmed but nonetheless untidy mass of fair hair on the other side of the table. His father told him in brief that Vlohiri often stayed at the stables and that he had started to learn something about horseshoes, daggers and swords and how they were forged. Hiregon had gladly taken up the task of teaching since Hilberon had been assigned to become a soldier almost two years ago.
“You have to return to the soldiers' quarters after supper?” Hiregon asked, and his son could only nod. His mouth was still full. “Well, then, tell us about your journey. I am eager to hear everything!”
Hilberon had imagined sitting alone in the small room with his father, but now he felt being watched and… judged by the young boy. Vlohiri’s eyes did not really fit to the boy’s appearance. They were… older, more experienced, and somewhat sad. Hilberon still wondered about him. Vlohiri knew the king's horses. What else was hidden behind the young and innocent face?
“You know the king then?” Vlohiri asked when he had eaten up, but it was not the voice of someone in awe.
Hilberon hesitated. For a moment he felt like boasting about what he had done; that he had ridden with the king and that they all had been in danger on several nights. After all, he was the youngest member of the Royal Guard ever chosen… since the king had been crowned. And the lad was just a kind of apprentice or stable-hand his father taught from time to time. But… that apprentice was - as it appeared to him - a stranger around here. He had not even answered who his father was and why he visited the royal horses. It still seemed odd to Hilberon who the boy was.
Hilberon found two pairs of eyes resting on him. He had been caught daydreaming… again.
“I know the king,” he stated flat-voiced. “He took me into his service just before the ride. We rode to Northern Ithilien.”
“Did you find anything?” Vlohiri asked with an eagerness that set Hilberon aback. The boy was able to change his mood quicker than those young maids he met from time to time.
“We… the king found some tracks,” he admitted and carefully thought about what he revealed of the journey's findings. He was not sure that the king would want every commoner to know, let alone a young boy who might blur out every detail the next day. “And we rode east along the Morannon.”
“A dreadful place.” Hiregon shook his head.
“Yes, the smoke there or mist or…” Hilberon shrugged. The boy still eyed him with undivided attention. “It was not pleasant, after all. We had followed some horse-thieves…”
“But you still got yours, right?” Hiregon interrupted at once and looked as if his son would be blamed if his horse had been stolen.
“Harolyan is in the Royal Stable,” his son soothed him. “But Captain Fáred's horse was stolen.”
“Oh, that is bad news.” Hiregon shook his head with regret.
“And Dumarin was hurt by one of them. Those thieves were… sly.” Hilberon took the last potato and relished on it. Vlohiri emptied his mug and waited for the soldier to continue, biting his lips. “Well, one horse was stolen, and the captain… he shot the thief.”
“Very well!” Hiregon nodded.
“It was a woman,” Hilberon added in a lower voice and thought that he should better not have mentioned that in front of the boy for he looked truly shocked. But the words could not be taken back.
“A woman?“ the smith echoed. „What had a woman to do there?“
“She belonged to the thieves. That's what it looked like after all.“ Hilberon washed his mouth with the rest of water from his mug. His father and Vlohiri frowned deeply. „Then we rode on to...“
“What did Lord Aragorn say?“ Vlohiri demanded to know, and Hilberon sat down his mug, smacking his lips. The boy’s voice was high and impatient when he added, "What did he do then? He can’t have stood there and watched!“
“No, he did not.“ Hilberon searched for the right words to describe the pictures in his head. The incident and the behaviour of the king during the whole excursion still troubled him, but he would not reveal his thoughts in front of the boy. If he knew the king’s horses it was possible he knew the king, too, though Hilberon was unable to find a reason for it. And he could not imagine the consequences of any criticism he might utter. He would be careful with his answers. "He was not pleased by what the captain had done. Then we rode...“
“What happened then?“ the boy interrupted him again. "You say Aragorn was not pleased. What did he do?“
Hilberon’s mouth twitched. Had the boy really said ‘Aragorn’ and not ‘Lord Aragorn’? Hiregon, too, had noticed this lack of respect to the king’s name and furrowed his brows without reprimanding the boy.
“He ordered the woman to be buried. The next day we rode on to some of the settlements in the east.“
Hiregon poured more water into Hilberon’s mug.
“And? What did the settlers say?“
Hilberon thanked his father and went on, but his gaze lingered on the boy’s face. Had there not been some rumours about a boy, who had travelled with the king from some far-off castle in the southwest?
“They lost some pigs to a... well, no one knows what beast this is. Captain Fáred said it is a bigger wolf, but the king did not share his opinion... or he did not mention it.“
"He will know what it is,“ Vlohiri said with a distinctive nod and broke off a piece of bread.
"Oh, yea? How do you know, lad?“ Hiregon asked with a friendly smile. Vlohiri blushed deeply and closed his mouth. "I wonder how it can be that you seem to know quite some things about our ruler.“ The boy chewed and swallowed, but did not lift his eyes to meet the friendly stare of the older man. "And his horses, too. How come you know this? And where did you learn to ride?“
Vlohiri crumbled away the rest of the bread between his restless fingers. He would not tell the smith and his son that the king had taught him how to sit on a saddle or adjust the stirrups, and how much he had enjoyed learning to ride under Aragorn’s guidance. He could still recall the first day when the king had allowed him to sit on Brego alone for he thought that his steed had the most friendly step. And how Aragorn had laughed about Vlohiri’s worried expression when he had held the reins in his hands to finally ride alone. After so many weeks of bitter toil this laughter had been like a wave of warm air after a long winter.
"Vlohiri?“ Hiregon raised his brows. "It is a simple thing to be polite and answer my question.“
"I’m sorry,“ the boy said at once.
"I’m really sorry, Hiregon. I was... lost in thought for a moment. Forgive me.“ He quickly rose to collect the bowls and brought them and the pot to the bucket of water to wash them. When he had finished he bade father and son farewell and ran up the streets to return to Faramir's home.
Hilberon turned to his father, who searched for his pipe.
“Who is he? Does he work in the stable?”
Hiregon found his pipe under a pile of worn clothing and returned to his son to fill it. They both went outdoors to sit on a bench in front of the smithy.
“I do not know. The stable-hands sometimes talk with him, and the riding-master is teaching him things he knows about horses, too, but… no, he does not really work there. Nobody’s giving him work as far as I know. Some days he does not show, and he always leaves in the evening.” He shrugged and lit the pipe. “He walks down into the next ring, I suppose.”
“But his looks…”
“Yes, I noticed that, too. He’s got some fine clothes.” Hiregon smiled. “Well, I don’t mind having him around. He’s clever and quick with his hands. He takes in everything I tell him.”
“Why does he know the lord's horses?” Hilberon fetched himself a cup of water and sat down again. “Brego seemed to like him.”
“Ah, Brego!” Hiregon laughed that his belly shook. “Vlohiri could even calm him down when I had to work on that steed! He said something to him, but don’t ask me what it was! I did not understand a word!” His son frowned, and the smith cocked his round head. “Do not look like this! He might belong to someone we don’t know. Many people from all over the land have moved to Minas Tirith. Even some noble people as I heard.”
“Why did the king come to you before he left?”
Hiregon coughed; he had inhaled too much smoke.
“Lord Aragorn… well,” he teased his son, “let me think about it. No, it was no invitation to the palace rewarding me for my good work – though he mentioned that, too – and he did not come to fetch his horse – which might seem fitting.” Hilberon grimaced, so Hiregon laughed again. “Nay, truly not. I worked there, and he came into the stable and asked me what kind of horse I’d see fitting for you.”
“For me?” Hilberon's lips twitched. “Why should he ask you?”
“He wanted to give you Harolyan, but was not sure if your skills were enough for that steed. He’s a mighty horse to handle.” Hilberon was soothed. In Hiregon's features the wrinkles deepened with his smile. “I told him that you learned to ride before you could walk since I'm befriended with the riding-master. He was satisfied with that.”
“That was all?”
“Ha! Don’t expect miracles to happen! He's the king after all!”
“A strange king,” Hilberon muttered, avoiding his father's friendly eyes and insecure if he should mention the subject on his mind. But Hiregon knew his son.
“Tell me what troubles you, my boy.”
Hilberon looked up to find his father's eyes rest on him with open interest. He exhaled and nodded.
“When that woman was killed by Captain Fáred, the king… he seemed to be sad about this incident. I mean that she was dead then. He said some really harsh words to the captain.”
Hiregon let some moments pass, smoked and lifted his eyebrows before answering,
“The Lord Aragorn is quite a ruler, that’s what they all say. Some say he is… odd. But, you know, my son, he can do what he pleases. He can judge by himself what he thinks is right or wrong. I heard some folks say that they do not understand why he judges so differently from the late Steward Denethor. To them it seems as if… ah, I have not the right words for that. Denethor was always very strict and quick with his punishment. Some miss him, I suppose, and say that Lord Aragorn is not hard enough a ruler. And from some I heard say that they feel it’s more peace in the city and the land since he sits judgement upon the felons.” He eyed his son, who seemed more troubled than before. “But…” He exhaled and frowned deeply. “I think… or, no, I know that not everyone likes him. You heard about it, didn’t you? He sentenced a man and a woman for high treason.” Hilberon nodded though his memory did not tell him much, at least the details behind the judgement. “Well, he overruled the Council of Minas Tirith. It was something unheard of before! He should have sentenced them to death, they said, and he said he will only sentence them to live in the dungeon. – This was quite a strange decision, I suppose. Did not make him many friends in the Council…” He nodded to himself, blowing out another wave of smoke. His son was neither informed nor soothed by these bits of information. “It should not trouble you, my son. See it like that: lately mercy was seldom heard of under the ruling steward. - Times are changing indeed.” Another pause followed in which they both watched the sky. Finally Hiregon knocked out his pipe. “Don't worry, Hilberon, you rode with him for the first time. You will get to know him better in times to come.”
“Well, that might be. But still, there is one more thing I keep thinking about… When we came up to the first settlement, he did not want to be announced. We shall not even mention his name! It appeared to me as if he did not even want to be recognised. That he was… well, that he would not mind one of his soldiers to be called the king. - Should they not show him respect?”
“I don't know, either. But Lord Aragorn will have his reasons. You should not doubt him. You follow him, my son, to whatever happens.” He put his hand on Hilberon's shoulder. “You're a soldier of the Royal Guard now. Prove worthy of that honour.”
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.