5. A Promise Kept
The Year 3019 of the Third Age
The sound of laughter awoke him. Aragorn opened his eyes in a slumbered surprise and quickly identified its source: a very joyful Merry, playing tug-of-war with Pippin and Boromir. It didn't take a great mind to see that the two youngest of the Hobbits had taken a great liking to the Gondorian. But Boromir seemed to have become quite attached to them too, and he was enjoying the game as much as the little ones did. Then Aragorn's eyes drifted to the other members of the Fellowship. He saw Sam and Frodo talking about the beauty of the elanor flowers that sprouted now as spring was settling while Legolas and Gimli were still eyeing each other warily, keeping their distance from each other and hardly exchanging a word.
When will these two start getting along? thought the Ranger with a shake of his head, amused. For indeed the Man's spirits seemed to have been lifted up ever since they arrived in Lothlórien and he was sure that that was the case with the rest of the Walkers as well. The peace and tranquillity that existed in the Golden Wood by the power of the Lady Galadriel had a soothing effect on them all, something for which Aragorn was grateful after the pain and sorrow they had been through, especially after Gandalf's death.
Ai, Gandalf, thought Aragorn, his mind taking him back to the moment the wizard fell from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. His heart saddened again when he thought how many misfortunes could have been avoided had things been done differently in the Mines of Moria. He looked at his pipe and again remembered Ceranos (for indeed that was the very same pipe that the strange Elf had given to him on their parting) and sighed. He regretted that he couldn't remember the path that he and his friend had taken long ago and there were times that he missed Ceranos's guidance through the endless tunnels of Moria. They could have used the stony slabs that Ceranos had shown him, or even the hidden corridors and halls that the Orcs couldn't possibly know about!
But Aragorn knew within his heart that that wasn't meant to be. Ceranos wasn't among the Nine Companions and he himself wouldn't be able to guide the Fellowship on his own through Moria. Gandalf was the only one able to do that, and he paid the price with his life. Now it was left to Aragorn to continue what Gandalf left undone: to lead the rest on to Mount Doom. Aragorn only hoped that he would be able to carry out that task successfully, for he still remembered the Lady's words: "The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail to the ruin of all." It was true that he preferred not to be welcomed by such grim words; nevertheless he was glad that they had this chance for a stop in Lothlórien. He knew both Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel, and he also knew that they and their people would help the Fellowship in the best way possible, not only to recover, but to give them the necessary means and provisions to help them carry on with their Quest.
Aragorn didn't err in his assumptions. Truly enough, after a month's rest that lifted the spirits of all the members of the Fellowship, they were ready to set off again. The Elves had bestowed the Walkers with gifts both beautiful and useful for their journey, like cloaks to keep them safe from both the cold and the enemy's eyes, and boats by which they would travel to the Falls of Rauros, the closest area to the borders of Mordor. The boats were already tied on the riverside and they were filled with lembas and fresh water. In one of them would be Boromir with Merry and Pippin; Aragorn would be in another one with Sam and Frodo; and in the third one would be Legolas and Gimli.
All the preparations were done swiftly, and soon almost all the companions had settled down in the boats, ready to row away. Almost all.
"I am not getting into any of these contraptions!" shouted Gimli once again, despite all the reassurances that he didn't have to fear anything.
"Master Dwarf, you are holding us up!" cried Boromir. "Please, get into the boat!"
"It is not safe. It… it might capsize!"
"With an oarsman like Legolas?" said Pippin, puzzled.
"And this is an Elven-boat, they don't just capsize!" seconded Merry. "We have boats in Buckland too. They never turn upside down, even though their craft is nothing compared to the Elves'! That is an encouraging thought, isn't it?"
"An Elven-boat and an Elf for an oarsman! And you expect me to be comforted now?!" cried the Dwarf, exasperated.
"What's wrong with Gimli?" Frodo asked Aragorn softly.
"He is afraid of the water. All the Dwarves are afraid of it, because of what they were created of. If you remember, Frodo, they were made of stone, and water corrodes stone. Gimli will not melt, of course, and he knows it; but the fear is there nonetheless and he prefers to avoid any contact with water if he can help it," answered the Ranger. "Is it not true, Master Gimli?" he added, turning to Aulë's creation.
But Gimli only turned crimson and refused to answer.
Legolas looked at the short creature, raising an eyebrow.
"If your kind is so afraid of water, how do you cross rivers or lakes?" he asked in genuine curiosity.
"We build bridges of course! Your kind could make use of those!" retorted Gimli angrily.
But Legolas only laughed, intending not to let his mood be spoiled by an irritating Dwarf.
"I fear we cannot afford enough time to wait for you to build a bridge all on your own, Master Dwarf!" he said with a smirk. "So, you will have to settle for the boat or travel on foot on the riverside. I hope you will be able to keep up!" he added, grinning broadly as soon as he saw Gimli's eyes opening wide.
Gimli remained still on the edge of the river, one eye looking with disgust at the water and the other throwing daggers at the always-smiling Legolas. Finally, with a light jump, he quickly landed on the boat.
"I hate the water, I hate getting wet… and I hate you," he said slowly with a growl at Legolas, and then sat down with a huff.
Legolas's gaze locked momentarily on Aragorn, who was looking at the scene; then rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath: "Dwarves…"
"Elves!" snapped Gimli, hearing Legolas quite clearly.
Aragorn actually chuckled at this, but he made sure the Dwarf didn't notice him by turning to the front again. It was then that the thought that perhaps he could take Gimli with him when he would visit Ceranos occurred to him. Yes, he was certain that Gimli would like that Elf.
"Is something the matter, Strider?" asked Sam, noticing the Man lost in thought, and yet smiling.
Aragorn raised his head quickly as though woken from a dream.
"No, my good Sam," he assured the Hobbit kindly, "just memories of old." And he quickly gave the signal to the rest to start rowing away.
The Year 3021 of the Third Age
Thundering hooves made all the birds and creatures jump out of the cantering horses' path. A team of knights rode on, always following their king, who wished to visit all the realms of Middle-earth and renew the alliances between them and Gondor. Even though the king had been told by his advisors that representatives of his could do that for him, the king himself wouldn't have it, wishing to deal with such matters personally. It was clear only to the ones closest to him, like his comrades-in-arms and Arwen, his wife, that this was a fine opportunity to wander Middle-earth the way he used to in his days as a simple Ranger, unburdened by the responsibilities of a kingdom on his shoulders. The same way that only these few knew that he meant also to keep a promise that he had given to a friend more than seventy years ago.
Gimli was also with him, wishing to meet the strange Elf that Aragorn had told him about. They both regretted that Legolas couldn't join them, but they understood their friend's wish to visit Mirkwood. The woodland realm had been also under attack during the War of the Ring and Legolas needed to see how the forest – and its king, his father – fared. But all three Hunters intended to meet on their way to Gondor once their visits were over.
Gimli leaned sideways to have a look at the path that Aragorn's back obscured as the Dwarf sat behind him.
"The Blue Mountains!" he exclaimed, recognising the rocky slopes that could be seen clearly in the distance.
"Yes, indeed, Gimli," said the Man, smiling. "We will camp as soon as nightfall settles in and, if our pace tomorrow is as good as it has been today, we should reach the gates of Nogrod tomorrow."
"Ach, I will welcome the rest gladly. My back is killing me after so many hours of riding."
"So is mine, and I am sure Brego will be more than happy to rid the saddle for a while," replied Aragorn, patting the horse's neck kindly, something that made the noble beast snort and shake his head in joyous response.
"I hope this Ceranos will remember you, otherwise we would have suffered all this riding for nothing," noted Gimli thoughtfully. "Seventy years is a long time."
"Not to an Elf, so it is not that that concerns me. I have changed during all this time and I am afraid he will not recognise me."
"Is that why you have the pipe with you?"
"Yes. Hopefully it will not have to come down to that, but if there is need, I will show it to him."
"Ach, you have not changed that much. Who knows, he will probably recognise you at once and greet you heartily. Now that will be a nice reunion."
"It will be indeed. I really cannot wait to see him," admitted Aragorn. Seventy-two years was probably a small time for an Elf, but it was a very long one for a Man like him. All sorts of thoughts crossed his mind: questions about what Ceranos had been up to all these years, what kind of answers there might be, and hopes that his questions would be answered soon.
The next day Aragorn and Gimli set out for the Dwarven city on their own, fearing that a large number of soldiers would alarm the Dwarves and even make them nervous. Riding both Man and Dwarf on Brego, they quickly reached the gates of Nogrod before it was even noon. They found them quite easily, since Gimli knew the city's whereabouts; and, moreover, the doors were wide open, guarded by two sentries, wielding spears. As soon as the guards saw the strangers they put their weapons forward.
"Stand and proclaim yourselves!" commanded one of them sternly.
Aragorn halted Brego obediently and let Gimli speak first.
"I am Gimli, son of Glóin from the Mountain Erebor, at your service. You know my father as one of Thorin Oakenshield's companions."
"I am Thran, son of Fali, at your service and your family's," replied the guard, answering Gimli's greeting courteously, "and aye, Thorin Oakenshield and Glóin's names are well known to us. All in this city have praised their victory over Smaug to reclaim the fair kingdom of the Lonely Mountain. Can you answer for the Man that accompanies you?"
"I can answer for myself, Master Thran," said Aragorn proudly and yet not meaning any discourtesy. "I am Lord Elessar of the House of Telcontar, King of the Realm of Gondor and Arnor," he added, using the name under which he was crowned.
Apparently Thran had heard of the name before, for he instantly bowed low, removing his helmet in respect.
"Forgive me, Lord Elessar. Had I known it was you, I wouldn't have shown such disrespect."
"I was not offended, I assure you," said the Man with a smile. "May we enter the city?"
"Aye, my lord. But you should state the nature of your business first."
"We have come to see one of the dwellers of Nogrod," answered Gimli. "The Elf who is known as Ceranos Orcbane."
Thran's eyes opened wide at the mention of the name.
"It is a wonder to me how you have come to know of him. His outings to the lands far beyond were few and only whenever there was great need."
"I know him," said Aragorn. "We met seventy years ago and I have considered him a friend from then onwards, although I must admit that I have not heard news of him since. Tell me, Thran, how does he fare?" he asked, eager to hear whatever tidings there might be.
A small pause clearly showed that Thran hesitated to answer that question.
"My lord," Thran finally said slowly, "Ceranos perished during the War of the Ring, almost a year ago."
These words made Aragorn's heart contract violently as soon as they were uttered and it was several moments before the Man managed to speak around the lump that had formed in his throat.
"How did he die?" he asked softly.
"Honourably. Fighting with his brothers-in-arms against the charging armies of Sauron."
Gimli bowed his head solemnly. He understood that Thran was talking about the Men of the East that attacked Erebor, the Dwarven Realm closest to Sauron's lands; and he was also aware that the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains had immediately sent reinforcements to help their fellow clans as soon as they heard news of the impending attack. He clasped his friend's shoulder, realising how hard the news was to the King even though he tried not to show it.
"Were you with him when…?" Aragorn tried to ask, but the sea of emotions that were raging within him prevented him.
"No, my lord," answered Thran, understanding what the Man meant to say. "But you might want to talk to Nôm, son of Nali. He's from Thrir's clan, so he was always close to Ceranos – and he was also the one to have last seen him alive."
"Where can we find him?" asked Gimli.
"At his home probably," said the sentry with a shrug. "If you ask around, somebody will surely take you to him."
"Thank you kindly, Master Thran. Good fortune to you."
"And to you, Master Gimli. I bid you farewell, Lord Elessar," replied the guard, bowing low.
"Farewell," whispered the Man absentmindedly, his mind still lingering on the news he had heard only a few moments ago. With his heart and shoulders heavy in grief, he let Gimli inquire about the whereabouts of the Dwarf they were searching for. And so he didn't realise when his companion had finally led him to Nôm.
The particular Dwarf seemed to have seen his own share of the War of the Ring, just like Gimli and Aragorn had. He was holding a sturdy staff that helped his faulty walking and his left eye was missing, replaced by a deep scar that started from his eyebrow and ended close to his beard. Nevertheless he was still a strong Dwarf, that much was obvious, and his wounds only made him seem older than he actually was. Nôm's good eye sparkled with vitality as the war-beaten Dwarf looked at the two warriors before him, especially Aragorn.
"I am told you wanted to see me about one of the members of my clan," he said after the customary courteous bows and greetings, beckoning them to sit on two chairs.
"Aye, about Ceranos Orcbane," answered Gimli, sitting down. Aragorn didn't speak a word, but only nodded.
"Ach… Rakhâs-Ûdrig," sighed Nôm, his face mellowing in memory. "That is a name I have not heard in some time and yet my heart still grieves for him. He was a brave and kind lad… or perhaps not so much a lad," he said, correcting himself, "for he had already been part of Thrir's clan for almost six hundred years when I was born." He chuckled a bit to himself, and then turned to his visitors, his eye darting to Aragorn's silent form. "You know what I speak of, my lord. You came across him as well."
"I did," admitted the Man.
"Might I ask when exactly and how?"
Trying to drown his sigh for being reminded of such memories when the Elf with which he had shared them was dead, Aragorn told of their adventure through the mines of Moria, keeping it as short as possible, but without omitting anything of importance. Nôm listened intently and so did Gimli, for this was the first time that he had heard the full tale told also. When the king had finished, Nôm shook his head sadly.
"Yes, I remember the particular festivities very well, for he told us of that tale upon his return also. It was the last journey to lead him far from home before war broke out."
Nôm lit his pipe, his brow furrowing at the memory of the War of the Ring. But he didn't let these dark memories linger for long. There was plenty of time to tell of that later.
"Ceranos always meant to return to the city of Khazad-dûm one day. He always told Náin, his foster brother, so, even though the latter would hear none of it, fearing for his kin's safety. And yet it was clear that, even if Ceranos hadn't vocally expressed his wish, he had loved that place from the first time he had set his eyes upon it, despite the dangers he faced on that particular journey."
"I still remember his face when he looked on Moria for the first time," said Aragorn with a small smile. "He seemed like a pilgrim visiting a holy land."
"Aye, that sounds like Ceranos," grinned the one-eyed Dwarf. "He was an Elf and yet his love for the darkness of the caves could only be compared to a Dwarf's!"
Another sigh escaped Nôm's lips, his face growing grave once more.
"Most of the Dwarves that live today had known of Rakhâs-Ûdrig ever since they could remember; some had even associated him with the Blue Mountains themselves, me no less. We believed that the world could come to its end, but the Mountains and he would still be around, the only truly immortal remnants of a time long gone. How little did we know…"
Aragorn bowed his head low at this and so did Nôm himself, neither of them speaking for a long time. It was finally Gimli who, feeling the silence weighing too heavily on him, decided to speak, even though he felt uncomfortable for actually doing this.
"The guard, Thran, told us that you were with him when he was slain."
"Nay, I was not with him when he died, more like I was the last to have seen him alive. But perhaps I should tell you my story from the beginning, so you will understand.
"Before the War of the Ring broke out, Sauron had sent his vile servants to the Dwarves of Erebor more than once, seeking an alliance with them and promising them Rings of Power and even the kingdom of Khazad-dûm. Two times did the Dark Lord's messengers go to King Dáin Ironfoot, offering him naught but two choices: to offer his services to the Enemy or die. And two times did King Dáin answer naught, wishing to gain some time while he sent word to us and our brothers at the Iron Hills to come to his aid as swiftly as possible; for the foul messenger had warned Dáin that, if upon his third visit received not a satisfactory answer, then it was war till the last Dwarf was slain. We had already heard of Men from the East becoming bolder and an army of them approaching dangerously close to the borders of Dale, the Men's neighbouring city; just as we knew that our fellow clans in the Iron Hills were aware of it as well. And so, before the year ended, about the time that we knew the dark messenger would seek an answer from King Dáin, a thousand Nogrod Dwarves marched toward Erebor by our king's order, each clan led by its own patriarch. Náin was in command of our clan, along with Rakhâs-Ûdrig."
The surprised looks on both Aragorn and Gimli's faces made Nôm nod in assurance.
"Yes, Ceranos was a patriarch. He had been ever since Thrir's death. Thrir himself placed his foster son in that rank as he was still lying on his death bed."
Gimli's eyes widened at this, something that made the Man even more puzzled.
"In the Dwarven realms, a king has to rule many different clans and that makes his work difficult. So the patriarchs, that is, the lords of the clans, aid him. The patriarch represents his clan in whatever gatherings might take place, sees to the well-being of the people under his protection, and even takes care of whatever small matters might arise between the members of his clan without the interference of the king. One could say that a patriarch is a king of his clan. The more rich and powerful a clan is, the greater influence and respect he has," explained Gimli. "What I did not know was that others besides Dwarves could assume such a title," he added, facing Nôm.
"They don't usually," replied the one-eyed Dwarf. "The patriarchical right goes either to the lord's firstborn son or, should there not be any, to a clan-member of the lord's own choice. Ceranos was adopted before Náin was born and, despite his race, he was still considered Thrir's firstborn child."
"But he did not take up this position, did he?" asked Aragorn at that point, even though he suspected what the answer would be. After all, only one answer could explain how come Ceranos had gone on an errand such as mining out stones when he had first met him.
"No, my lord, he did not," answered Nôm, verifying the Man's suspicion. "Not until much later. He realised that, at the time Thrir chose him as patriarch, a lot of dwarves from other clans, even the King himself, would frown upon such an arrangement and, if things became heated enough, the harsh words would be soon replaced by the spilling of blood. So, even though he knew he was going against his foster father's wish, he placed Náin in his stead until the time would come that all the Dwarves accepted him as part of Nogrod. Náin and all of us that belonged to the clan were somewhat disappointed by this, since we knew that Ceranos would make a good ruler; but we understood our comrade's hesitation, more or less. And by the look on your face, I think you understand too, my lord."
Aragorn nodded solemnly. Yes, he understood Ceranos's decision as well. Hadn't he himself chosen to become a Ranger and denied his kingship for similar reasons more than seventy years ago? Only to accept that kind of power during the War of the Ring, when it seemed that the world of Men was in a desperate need for a leader?
"Anyway, all this changed during the War," continued Nôm. "Náin's stout heart couldn't be matched by his aged body, while his son, Lóin, was too inexperienced to lead men, even though he was already an accomplished warrior. Because of this, Ceranos was the one who assumed the command and led our march to Erebor. Náin marched by our side despite his age, wishing to fight too, but also because we had decided not to reveal that Ceranos had taken up his rank yet, not wanting to cause any discomfort to the other Dwarves at such news. So everyone else believed that Náin was still the patriarch of our clan, but we knew better.
"Just as we had expected, Ceranos was a prudent commander, dividing our rations wisely and with care, setting the watches and every Dwarf to his appropriate task and position so everyone would offer the most efficient service possible. It was through Ceranos's careful planning that our march didn't prove tiring at all and, in fact, our pace was so good that we would arrive in Erebor much earlier than we reckoned at first. But it was much later that Ceranos proved just how good a leader and a diplomat he truly was: when we reached the borders of the Woodland Realm."
"How so?" asked Aragorn.
But it was Gimli who answered.
"Because of the Elves. They didn't suffer thirteen Dwarves to pass through Mirkwood, why should they allow a whole army?" Gimli remembered well the injustice that was done to his father, when Lord Thranduil ordered his men to place him, Thorin Oakenshield and the rest of their comrades in the dungeons of Mirkwood. Even though Gimli had become friends with the Elvenking's son, thinking about what happened to Glóin still annoyed him.
"You are right, Gimli, Glóin's son," said Nôm. "We had reached the woods when we were stopped by the Elven march wardens, forbidding us to go any further at the king's command. I suppose Lord Thranduil already had to face his own share of enemies from the East and he did not want to worry about Dwarves trampling in his realm as well. After all, there is not much love between the Firstborn and us, even though an Elf did grow among Dwarves, earning a place in our hearts.
"But I stray. For whatever reasons, we were not allowed to enter Mirkwood. It seemed that we would have to go around the forest, hoping that we would not be too late, when suddenly Ceranos stepped out and asked the march wardens to lead him to Lord Thranduil, for he wished to speak with him. I don't know at what the Elves wondered most, at the boldness of that request or that there was actually an Elf among the Dwarves and even acted as one of them; nevertheless their surprise was such that none denied his wish. Ceranos was taken to the city, while we all remained behind, hoping that Lord Thranduil would not be offended or angered, and that Rakhâs-Ûdrig would be able to convince him to let us through the forest.
"A whole day passed and then morning arose again, but Ceranos had not come back. Then night fell again, and we started getting nervous, fearing for our patriarch's fate. It was on the dawn of the third day, when the first whispers of worry that Thranduil imprisoned Ceranos had sounded throughout the camp, that our lord came back. His face looked tired, clearly showing everyone that he had not slept much, if at all; but there was a strange glint in his eyes and a remarkable vigour in his movements as he stepped on a rock and addressed us.
"'Dwarves of Nogrod!' he cried out. 'Lord Thranduil was patient enough to listen to what I had to say about the predicament our brothers are in and what will happen should Erebor fall because we were not able to go and aid them. We both agreed that at these dark times there is only one enemy, and it is neither the Elves nor the Dwarves. It is Sauron!' and at that moment his voice boomed with loathing at that foul name. 'He who cares nothing but for the domination and corruption of all the peoples of Middle-earth. The only one who takes pleasure in the hate between Ilúvatar and Aulë's creations, counting on it to succeed with his own planning and scheming. But he does not understand that no matter how much hate exists between the two races, it can be easily surpassed by the love they both share for their freedom! We shall make him understand that!'
"As soon as these words were uttered, a great number of armed Elves came out of the shadows and stood behind Ceranos.
"'These warriors,' continued our patriarch, 'were sent by Lord Thranduil to join forces with us and fight on our side, since the Elvenking is aware that our disadvantage lies in ranged combat. I would have some of us join the Elves in their own battle against Sauron and cover their own disadvantage, but Lord Thranduil said that none of the Dwarves is obliged to do so if they don't wish it. You know how I stand in this… What say you? What do the other patriarchs say?'
"There was silence for many long moments, and then one of us stepped forward.
"'I am Thrond, son of Bain,' he cried out for all to hear, 'and my clan is ready to offer its services to the Mirkwood Elves!'
"'I am Darin, son of Druin,' cried out another patriarch, 'and aye, my men and I are ready to help as well!'
"'And I am Omi, son of Nami, and my kinsmen's axes are on the Elves' side too!'
"Ceranos looked at all three patriarchs and bowed low to them, thanking them thus silently for their offer. Then he turned to the commander of the Elves.
"'You heard our answer. What will you say to that, Master Eregdos?'
"The Elf looked at all of us for a while, and then he faced Rakhâs-Ûdrig again.
"'On behalf of our king, we accept your help gladly,' he said, something that made all of us cheer, while it brought a broad smile to Ceranos's face.
"'So be it," he said softly and the two Elves clasped each other's arms, sealing the agreement. Then Ceranos turned to us once more.
"'Even though these two days have not been wasted, there is no point losing any more time. Thrond, Darin and Omi will stay with their men in Mirkwood, but we must press on to Erebor, where King Dáin still awaits our help. We must keep marching till we reach the Lonely Mountain without any more stops, so to ensure that we will arrive in time. I know that what I ask is difficult, but bear in mind what our forefathers used to say: a warrior knows true rest once he's dead! To Erebor!'
"'To Erebor!' we shouted all in one voice, our blood boiling with the urge to rush to our brothers' side. In less than a half hour we had set off, and Ceranos was marching by Náin and Lóin once more, his tall form standing out among the Dwarves, while the Elves marched close behind us as well, proud and erect, their bows at hand.
"'You have done well, my brother,' I heard Náin say to his foster kin, his eyes shining in admiration.
"'But there is something troubling you,' said Ceranos, obviously noticing some other feelings mingled in Náin's face. "You think I should not accept Lord Thranduil's help?'
"'No, no, far from that,' Náin assured him. 'I am merely not sure how Dáin will react to that.'
"'If the situation is as bleak as I fear it will be, neither the King under the Mountain nor indeed the King of the Iron Hills will object to the Elves' presence,' murmured Ceranos with a smirk.
"'What makes you say that?'
"'King Thranduil," replied the Elf, and he lowered his head to make sure that only those he trusted would hear him. 'Some of his scouts noticed armies of the Men of the East marching toward Dale and Erebor. They are many, Náin… Too many.'
"'Aye," sighed Ceranos, his face saddened.
Náin's eyes opened wide, frightened at the realisation.
"'Great Mahal… we're marching to our deaths,' he said softly.
"'All of us,' replied Ceranos, nodding. 'Elves and Dwarves. Thranduil is not sure he will be able to last against his own foes either.'
Náin remained silent for a few moments, clearly pondering on the situation.
"'Once we fall, nothing will stop Sauron from sweeping everything in his path, taking all Middle-earth as his own. But you know something, my friend and kin?' he said in the end. 'I will welcome death if it means that I died for my freedom.'
"'And I will welcome it on my family's side as well,' stated Rakhâs-Ûdrig proudly, his hand resting on the old Dwarf's shoulder.
"'I know you will, Ceranos… I know you will,' whispered Náin kindly, looking at the Elf's eyes."
Nôm quickly brushed away with the back of his hand the tear that flowed down from his eye, while Aragorn and Gimli felt the lump that had formed in their throats almost choking them now. And yet, they still waited patiently for the war-beaten Dwarf to carry on with his tale.
"So it happened. We reached Erebor in time, and the Eastern Men were many indeed, but we did not lose heart. For five days we fought desperately, killing foes till our axes and hands were soaked in blood, the Elves always by our side with their bows and arrows. However, all of us knew the horrible truth, even though none of us dared utter it: we were growing fewer in numbers, while the Easterlings only grew more.
"It was on the dawn of the sixth day that our enemies struck the hardest, forcing us to retreat slowly but surely toward the Mountain, though we tried to stand our ground. I chanced to be fighting just a little ways away from Ceranos, Náin and Lóin on that day, and I could clearly see them all taking out their foes one by one whenever I had the chance to look. Our patriarch was deadly as he proved swift, and Lóin's axe claimed the lives of many Easterlings also. But Náin had soon grown tired, his age finally catching up with him. It was then that it happened: while he was not careful enough, an enemy arrow struck him in his chest.
"Ceranos was the first to react. He shouted to all that were closest to him to come to his side and cover him while he tried to carry Náin away to safety. All of us responded to that call and fought fiercely to defend our fallen comrade. The Easterlings tried to grab the body and claim it for their prize, but Lóin and I drew them off quickly, giving time for Ceranos to reach Náin. Ceranos quickly cradled his foster brother's body close to him, trying to help him somehow. But it was to no avail: Thrir's son was already dead.
"All Dwarves, Elves and Easterlings froze momentarily to hear the cry that cut through the air like a knife, easily drowning the battle cries and the clash of armour; for it was the scream of anguish for a loved one now gone. Then Ceranos arose, wielding his axe with such fury as I hadn't seen before and threw himself against our enemies. His madness was so frightening that none dared to withstand it, and the Easterlings even tried to keep away from him, startled. We, however, took a new strength of heart and it seemed for a moment that the attackers had become the attacked.
"But that did not last long. For in that moment, a barrage of flaming orbs started falling among us, bringing us all to disarray. At that moment I felt it was only I that stood his ground and I turned around, trying to look for any of our own comrades, when my eyes fell on Lóin and Ceranos's forms. At that instant, one such orb hit the Elf, knocking the helmet off his head and stunning him enough to fall on the ground. Lóin immediately rushed to his side and I tried to fight my way to them as well to help them; but more Men came and pushed me even further away. And when the patriarchs shouted at us to retreat behind the walls of Erebor, there was no choice for me but to leave them behind.
"For three days we stayed in Erebor under siege, each day seeming blacker than the previous one, until, when it all seemed lost, the joyous news came that Sauron was destroyed, something that made the Easterlings retreat, frightened. We didn't know how that came to pass but we did not care; for what mattered to us was that Middle-earth had won its freedom.
"However, it was only a bitter victory that we had earned, for everybody in the clan still remembered those who died fighting, Dwarves and Elves alike. Even Dáin had died in battle, along with the King of the Iron Hills; so all we could do was smile bitterly and collect the dead that were still lying in the battlefield in order to give them a proper burial in the place they fell. That is where Náin is buried too."
"And Ceranos?" asked Aragorn hoarsely.
"I tried personally to look for him and Lóin, but neither of them was anywhere to be seen. I fear the Easterlings grabbed them and defiled them by stripping them off their armour and beheading them. Such were the Easterlings' foul ways, curse them!" said Nôm, flaring up at the memory. "Several of the Dwarves and Elves that died during the battle had a similar fate, so I was not able even to recognise them among the bodies. The only thing that I was able to find of Ceranos was this," he added, rising and going to a corner of the room. When he returned, he was holding in his hands a great double-headed axe, too big to be wielded by a Dwarf. This it was that Nôm handed now to the Man sitting before him.
"You recognise it," he said, noticing Aragorn's eyes shining.
"I do," said the king. "He had made it himself."
Nôm smiled a bit and then, after a small consideration, pushed it gently towards his guest.
"It is yours."
Aragorn looked at Nôm in shock.
"This should stay with the clan," he said, attempting to give the axe back; but Nôm stopped him.
"It should stay with a friend and I am sure he would like you to have it. Take it and think of him from time to time."
The Man sighed in defeat and clenched his hands around the weapon, placing it at his side.
"Thank you," he said simply as he finally arose.
"You are welcome. I only wish I had better news to tell you then of his death. Farewell, Lord Elessar. And farewell to you too, Master Gimli."
Both king and Dwarf inclined their heads in courtesy and then left. It was with a heavy heart that they walked out of the gates of Nogrod to find Brego, who was grazing nearby. Gimli stood by the horse, ready to set out, but Aragorn didn't wish to leave just yet. Having the axe still in his hands, he turned to face the rocky slopes of the Blue Mountains.
"I kept my promise, my friend. But it seems the Valar have decided otherwise," he murmured with a sigh. He turned away, and both Man and Dwarf settled on Brego and set off to find the king's escort, Gimli sitting behind Aragorn. Even though he couldn't see it, Gimli was aware that his friend was shedding tears as they were riding.
*Rakhâs-Ûdrig: Orcbane (Khuzdul)