10. Chapter 10
He was being rocked in a hammock, gently, it seemed. There were murmurs of voices around him, and the smell of something strongly herbal. He stretched in the hammock, and turned towards the source of the nearest voice.
"He's waking up!" the voice said, and Aragorn opened his eyes. There was a cluster of men around him, and a basin of water by his bed. There was no hammock, and instead of the leafy rooftops of Rivendell and the comforting sight of Elrond by his side, he saw the wooden walls of his cabin.
"Captain?" someone else said, and now it all came back - the fight, and had he fainted? A wet cloth was pressed to his forehead, but he lifted his hand and pushed it away.
"I'm awake," he said. "Are we at sea?"
"Safe away, aye," the comforting voice of Minastir cut in. "We'd only been waiting for you to finish off that last pirate, the big one with the braids. Then we hoisted you on board and cast off."
Aragorn sat up, slowly, feeling a dull ache in his arm and his stomach, and something wrapped around his head. "Ai." He pushed away the wet cloth again. "Was it a success?"
Minastir laughed a deep roaring laugh. "You might say that, yes! We destroyed all their ships - such a bonfire you've never seen - and most of the pirates on the quays were slain. And that duel you had with the leader - a great fight, captain."
"Thank you," said Aragorn. He paused. "Tell me true, Minastir, how great were our losses?"
"Not grave," one of the soldiers in the cabin put in. "We lost four from our company, and there are five who lie abed suffering with their injuries. From the other two ships, we lost three men, and two are burnt badly. We were waiting to see if you would rise before we laid our dead to rest."
"Go and prepare them," Aragorn said, turning down the sheet he was lying under. "We shall send them to Ulmo in a short while. Will you take me to those who are injured?"
"Captain, you shouldn't be out of bed!" the third man in the room said, shocked. Aragorn recognised him as being Minastir's ship's healer. "You suffered a head injury, and I was forced to bandage your stomach also."
"And I thank you for it," Aragorn said, "but I must go and see to my men, who are no doubt in worse state than I. I have slept off the worst of my hurts. Will you take me to them?"
The healer sighed, but after receiving a glare from Minastir's eyebrows, he nodded. Aragorn stood up gingerly, and was relieved to find that his head did not spin. He found his pack and dug out the leather pouch in which he kept some small invaluable items of healing, slipped on a long shirt over the trousers which he found he was wearing, and followed the healer down the wooden corridor to the soldier's sleeping place. Most of the blankets were folded away, but in corner five men lay next to each other, watched over by a sailor.
Aragorn bent down next to the first one, grimacing at the pain from his stomach. "How goes it?" he asked, gently.
Daeron turned his head and managed a smile. "It hurts, captain."
"Where?" Aragorn asked, and Daeron uncovered his arm, gashed from elbow to wrist. Gently, Aragorn probed it with his fingers, and Daeron flinched. "I need light, and hot water," Aragorn said, looking up at the healer. He felt in his pouch, and pulled out a leaf of athelas and a bunch of dried sage. The healer was still hesitating. "Now!" Aragorn repeated.
Muttering to himself, the healer hurried away, and Aragorn turned back to Daeron. "This may hurt, my friend. Have you something to bite - a leather strap, perhaps?"
"In my pack," Daeron said. "There's a belt."
Aragorn felt inside the soldier's pack next to the bed and found the stout leather belt. Daeron took it with his good arm.
They waited a short while before the healer returned with a basin of steaming water and a sailor bearing a lantern. Aragorn told them to stand close by, and he dropped the athelas and the sage into the water, letting them steep for a moment. The scent rose in the air and mixed with the salty tang of the ship. Daeron met his captain's eye, and bit down on the belt.
Aragorn took the herbs out of the water and drained them on a piece of linen before crushing them in the material, and then he worked some of the resulting paste into the wound. Daeron flinched at first, and then relaxed, and as Aragorn bound the linen around the cut, he took the belt out of his mouth. "Thank you, captain."
"Rest awhile, and do not try to move it," Aragorn said. "There will be a scar, but at least you will be able to tell others where you got it."
Daeron smiled more broadly now, and Aragorn moved to the next man.
He spent an hour tending to their wounds, and finally ended by taking the healer aside and giving explicit instructions as to the continuation of their care. The healer had gone from being grumpy and irritated at having his position taken away from him, and his own care disregarded, but he cheered up as Aragorn gave him his instructions.
The movement of the ship indicated that they were now well into open sea, and beating along at a good pace. Aragorn ascended the ladder on to the deck slowly, his head beginning to ache with the hour in the gloom of the hold.
He was met with silence. The soldiers were grouped on deck in a solemn circle, standing around the bodies of their companions, which had been wound in sheets. As they saw Aragorn the company moved aside, making way for him to join Minastir next to the rail.
"We are ready now, captain," someone said softly, and Aragorn nodded, holding on to the rail next to him. He paused, to gather his thoughts, and spoke.
"These our companions in arms are gone now to rest in peace beyond the edges of the world," he said, raising his voice so that all could hear. "They fought bravely and died in the knowledge that what they did was right, and that Gondor would be safer for their sacrifice. We mourn their passing, but know that one day we shall meet again in the hereafter that will come. We ask that the Lords and Lady of the Sea will take them into their arms, and bear them safe to the keeping of Eru, and we shall remember them always."
"We shall remember them always," came the reply.
Aragorn gestured to the men closest to him, and two of them stood forwards and lifted the first body, casting it into the waves. It sank, slowly but surely, and three followed it.
"Let us turn to the West and bid our companions farewell," said Aragorn, turning to grip the rail with both his hands and staring out into the blue that was the Sea. There was utter silence on the ship. Across the horizon a white seabird flew, heading West, and Aragorn watched it go, and then turned away.
He went back to bed, and fell into a dreamless sleep, waking early the next day. The injured men were faring a little better, and Aragorn went up on deck to get some fresh air. Sitting down on a coil of thick rope, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.
Minastir came and sat down next to him, and Aragorn opened his eyes.
"A little, thank you."
"You did well, Thorongil. It was as sweet an operation as I've ever seen. There'll be some big promotion for you when you get back to the City, I'll be bound." The captain grinned heartily. "And you've earned it."
"I'm not going back," Aragorn said.
Minastir paused with his mouth open. "I beg your pardon?"
"I am not returning to Minas Tirith," Aragorn repeated. "I would be grateful if you could put me ashore at Pelargir."
"But . but why?" Minastir asked, evidently genuinely bewildered. "What will the lord Ecthelion say? How about your men?"
"They are well trained and I leave behind a good captain," Aragorn said, resting his elbows on his knees. "The Steward has given his permission. I have other places to be, my friend. You must know the feeling of being trapped, of needing to move?"
"Every time I'm ashore, aye," Minastir agreed.
"I feel it too," Aragorn said, gazing into the distance. "I love the White City, more than I can say - she is a part of me. But I have been there too long. Other tasks call me away. My loyalties will never change."
"Nobody would doubt that, for sure," said Minastir, nodding. "I'll put you ashore, Thorongil. Quietly, if you prefer it that way."
"It will not be possible to do it quietly," Aragorn returned. "They will want to know what happened, and I will have to write a missive to the Steward and send it post-haste on horseback. And I cannot leave until these injuries are at least a little healed."
"Then we'll dock with pomp and triumph at Pelargir," Minastir said, grinning, "and let the men have a day or two of glory before returning to Harlond. What say you?"
"I say yes," Aragorn said. The two men exchanged smiles, and fell again to watching the sea roll by below them.
They arrived at Pelargir three days later, on a brilliant morning, all three ships sailing into the docks together. On the quayside, workers hurried to moor the boats fast, and called up wanting to know where they had been and why. Minastir, proud on his vessel, called back the news of the successful operation.
The word spread like wildfire. Aragorn, sitting writing to Ecthelion in his cabin, heard the noise of the people on shore and the laughter of the soldiers and sailors on board. At noon Minastir let the men off the ship, satisfied that the vessel was tidy and clean, and soon it sounded as if a festival had begun by the docks, with music and singing and more laughter.
Aragorn finally finished his letter, and sealed it, and throwing a dark cloak on went out to pass it to the Guards at the garrison. But he did not succeed in getting there quickly, for once off the ship his men caught sight of him, and made him drink amid more cheers. Eventually he managed to slip away, and made his way to the garrison through side streets.
The commander welcomed him, remembering the earlier visit which Aragorn had made in Denethor's company, and sent for a fast horse and a rider to bear the letter to Minas Tirith without questioning why Aragorn would not wait until the ships returned themselves to the Harlond. Soon, the letter was on its way, and Aragorn thanked the commander and went back to the ships.
The buoyant good mood of the men, and the welcome in the town, lasted three days. On the third day the injured men who had been slowly recuperating seemed well enough to go and join their fellows, and Aragorn watched as they were feted and cheered along with everyone else. For his part, he spent time seeing to his weapons; cleaning and polishing his sword and tidying up the hilt and grip, checking the string of his bow and the fletching of his arrows. He bought simple food - dried meat and fruit, hard biscuits that would last many days - and stowed them in his newly mended pack. Everything was prepared. His own injuries had healed quickly, though Aragorn thought it might be a few more days before his arm was completely better.
On the fourth day the rider returned from Minas Tirith on a fresh horse, bearing a message from Ecthelion. He brought it to Aragorn on board ship, where he was talking to Minastir.
"The lord Steward thanks you for your services, captain," the messenger said.
Aragorn glanced at Minastir and then broke the seal of the parchment and read it, frowning.
"What is it, Thorongil?" Minastir asked.
Aragorn passed him the parchment and crossed to the opposite side of the ship, where he could see the Sea. Minastir read the document, slowly.
"He wants you to go back."
"He knows I do not wish to," Aragorn said. "Yet ."
"A part of you does wish to," Minastir nodded.
Aragorn sighed, and then passed a coin to the messenger. "I thank you. I will send a reply by ship. Go and ask my men for a drink." The messenger bowed and hurried away. Aragorn read Ecthelion's letter through again. "Can you take the lord Steward my message, Minastir?"
The captain's face showed compassion, and he smiled. "Of course I can, and will, gladly. What is it you wish to say?"
Aragorn thought for a moment. "Tell him this: that other tasks now call me, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.*"
His friend repeated the words, fixing them in his memory. "I will tell him. So are you now ready to leave?"
"Then stay for the noon meal, Thorongil. Then, if you need it, I can take you across the Anduin to the opposite shore - or along this one to a quieter spot. As you wish."
"I think I will go by the far shore," Aragorn said, grateful for the friendship of the mariner.
"So be it," said Minastir. "So be it."
Two hours later, following a quiet meal in the captain's cabin, Minastir shipped the oars of the small dinghy and let it run on to the sandy bank of the south side of the Great River. Aragorn lifted his pack and made sure it was comfortable across his back, that he could reach his weapons and his waterskin, and then turned to face the other man. "Thank you."
"No need to thank me, Thorongil," Minastir said. "But come to the Harlond, should you ever pass by again. I will be glad to see you."
Their eyes met, and Aragorn reached out and clasped Minastir's arm before turning from the boat and making his way up on to the windblown grassy shore. He heard the splash of the oars as the dinghy began its way back across to Pelargir, but kept his face turned eastwards. After a short time, the splash faded, and he was left alone.
It felt strange to be alone and unfettered by orders from others, and for the rest of that first day, Aragorn walked steadily, getting used to the solitude again. He broke the march fairly early on, gathered some wood and built a small fire, and settled for the night.
During the second day he quickened his pace, settling into the old rhythm of walking, and considered his route in his mind. During his last visit to Minas Tirith, Mithrandir had expressed concern and interest about what lay East of Mordor, around the inland Sea of Núrnen, and now Aragorn resolved to journey in that direction and find out. It would mean crossing the Ephel Duath, and the terrain would be treacherous and dry.
After an hour's walking, he joined the Harad Road which led to the crossings of the River Poros, a tributary of Anduin. The road was deserted and he made good progress, and had crossed the smaller river by the time the sun was high in the sky. Ahead, the Ephel Duath loomed, menacing and dark. That evening he camped under a lonely tree on the lower slopes of the mountains, and baked some fish from the river on his fire. He knew that this would be his last fresh meal before Mordor.
Of his journey through that desolate land, Aragorn later said little. He spoke to Mithrandir on the subject and once, briefly, to his foster father and brothers, but never to any other. The desert was dry and parched, the Sea of Núrnen greatly reduced from the size that legend had it as. In these southern parts of Mordor there was little life and only a few marauding parties of Orcs, which he avoided, hiding in crevasses and behind rocks. Past the eastern tip of the Sea he turned northwards, looking ever west in fear at the flames of Orodruin, the Mountain of Fire, far in the distance, which showed on dark nights. In Rhûn, the land bordering Mordor, there were animals again, and a few birds, and Aragorn was able to eat better once more. In the desert he had carefully rationed his food, and knew that had it not been for the comfortable days in the White City he would have been even leaner than he was.
He skirted the Ered Lithui on the northern borders of Mordor three months after leaving Pelargir, and turned westwards, gladly leaving the desolation behind. However the Brown Lands that now greeted him were little better. Still there were no other Men - even the Orcs had left these lands, and the animals were feral and wild. Aragorn began to think with longing of the places he had learnt to call home - of Imladris, fair and sheltered, of Edoras, warm and friendly, of Minas Tirith, ancient and grand. He thought of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir; of his mother, lonely in the North; and he thought most of all of Arwen. Her ethereal face and bright eyes seemed to shine like stars in the darkness. At nights he dreamed of her, reliving again and again the moment he had first seen her dancing in the woods of the North.
Two months after leaving Mordor, Aragorn came to the Anduin, flowing steadily south towards the Sea. He camped on the bank for two days, gathering his strength and searching for a log large enough to bear his weight. On the third morning, he strapped his pack to the trunk he had found lying on the bank, and carefully sat astride it, pushing off from the bank with a long, straight branch. The current was sluggish at this point in the River, but it still took all Aragorn's skill to manoever himself across. Arriving at the western shore, he rolled off the log and waded ashore, collapsing on the ground and falling asleep.
He awoke, his clothes dry and stiff, before evening, and picked up his pack to start walking again. It had become almost automatic, an endless trek, and even though he knew now he was coming closer to lands he knew, Aragorn felt he could not see an end to the journey.
Two days after leaving the river, he saw woodland ahead - deep woodland, the trees green and golden and the floor carpeted in late blooms. Under the branches, it was quiet, and Aragorn felt a sensation of peace fall upon him. He walked as if in a dream, listening to the birdsong around him, and aware of nothing else.
The arrow brought him up short, thudding into a tree just ahead of him. Instantly he was on alert, stringing his own bow and fitting an arrow to the string as quickly as he could. There was nothing to be seen as he turned in a circle, searching for the source of the attack. He took another step forwards, and another arrow neatly slit the first one. From the trees, a voice said, "Halt and drop your weapon!"
Aragorn hesitated, and a third arrow cut the air next to his ear. He dropped his bow and waited.
From the trees around him, five tall Elves in green dropped to the ground and surrounded him. Each carried a long, elegant bow in pale wood, the arrows aimed at Aragorn. The one who seemed to be the leader, blond-haired and proud of glance, came close to Aragorn and examined him from head to toe before speaking again.
"No mortal is permitted to wander in these woods, stranger. Who are you and what is your business?" He spoke in Sindarin, or a dialect of Sindarin, and it took Aragorn a moment to process the words.
"My name is Th -" he began, and paused. His voice sounded strange to him, and he swallowed and started again, meeting the Elf's eyes and speaking with more confidence. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Arnor," he said. "Which woods are these, and by whom are they ruled?"
The Elves exchanged glances, and the leader spoke again. "It says something for you that you speak our tongue, mortal. These are the woods of Lothlórien, and our lord is Celeborn of the Galadhrim."
"Then I am safe," Aragorn said, the name awakening in him memories of Elladan and Elrohir speaking of the Golden Wood and their grandparents Celeborn and Galadriel. "I beg you, take me to the Lord and Lady."
"That indeed is what we are commanded to do with all strangers who wander here," the Elf said. "You must be blindfolded, son of Arathorn, and we will lead you to their dwelling."
Aragorn nodded, and stowed his bow away in his pack before allowing his eyes to be bound about with a silken cloth.
They led him on smooth, unbroken paths, and across a river or a stream. Now and again one Elf said something, but mostly they were silent. After many hours' walk, the blindfold was taken off, and Aragorn stood blinking at the base of a great tree. All about him there were lights, and music, and the noise of gentle voices speaking and singing. His guide smiled at his amazement, and gestured upwards. "We are arrived. Here you will meet your judgement, mortal, and here I bid you farewell."
Aragorn thanked him, and turned to the tree. About it there was a strong ladder, and another Elf now beckoned for him to climb it. He did so, slowly and cautiously, passing through many wooden platforms, and watched curiously by many Elves occupied in various tasks. At the top of the ladder, but still only halfway up the tree, and supported by the great wide branches, there was a dwelling. Aragorn climbed into an airy chamber with the trunk of the tree growing through the centre. At this hour it was lit by lanterns giving a soft, diffuse glow. For a moment he gazed at the room, but his attention was quickly caught by the two Elves seated in chairs next to the tree trunk. The light shone on their hair and their robes and in their bright, wise eyes. Aragorn sank to his knees in front of them, but kept gazing.
For a moment he felt nothing, and then suddenly it was as if someone else was with him inside his head, scanning his thoughts and his memories. He tried to fight the invasion, but a voice - or a feeling? - murmured to him, soothing words that afterwards he could never quite remember. He relaxed, and in another moment the other presence was gone.
"A mortal?" the Lord said, standing with a rustle of robes. Aragorn looked up at him, at the halo behind his head caused by the lantern light on his silver hair.
"No mere mortal," the Lady said, and Aragorn knew then it was she who had been examining his mind. "Nay, my lord, we are honoured to welcome him to Lothlórien." She smiled at Aragorn. "Long it is since we spoke with one of your line, Heir of Isildur, too long."
"My lady," Aragorn said, the words still coming slow, "you do me too much honour."
"It has been a long journey," the Lady said, with compassion in her voice. "I will order a chamber to be prepared for you, Aragorn, and water, clean clothes, and refreshment. There you may rest. In the Golden Wood, under the protection of Celeborn and Galadriel, you have naught to fear."
She nodded at an Elf standing nearby, who disappeared silently.
"I am deeply grateful, my lady," Aragorn said, bowing his head. Galadriel rose from her chair, her golden locks moving as she did, and took his hand.
"Rise now, son of Arathorn, and take some rest."
Aragorn bowed again, and was led out of the chamber by a silent Elf. In a new room close by, with windows left open, there was a deep bed and a bath filled with steaming, fragrant water. On a table next to the bed a platter had been laid, covered with a cloth. The Elf turned and left.
That night, Aragorn slept deeply in the clean, sweet-smelling sheets, and woke as the sun rose and the birds outside the windows began to sing. He found that more food had been placed by his bed by some silent attendant, and he ate and drank heartily. As he was finishing, an Elf entered bearing clothes - a tunic and trousers of delicate white material trimmed with silver, and a long grey cloak that hung in smooth folds. On top of the pile there was a silver circlet with a single white gem.
"The Lady Galadriel bids you wear this raiment, my lord," the Elf said, "and she adds that you might wish to walk towards Cerin Amroth, from which there are good views of the city. Bear due North."
"I thank you," Aragorn said, and the Elf bowed and went away. Slowly, Aragorn dressed in the new clothes, and dragged a comb through his hair until it was smooth, and then placed the circlet on his head, adjusting it until the gem hung central on his forehead. There was no mirror in the room, but had he known it, he looked more Elvish than mortal.
He went outside, climbing down the ladder, and wandered through the city of Lothlórien, and out of the northern gates. The sun was high in the sky above the trees, filtering down to create intricate patterns in golden light on the forest floor. Deciding to follow Galadriel's instructions, Aragorn took the path northwards, walking slowly and at peace.
At length the path began to climb, and eventually it came out in a clearing. Ahead of Aragorn lay a green hill crowned with trees, and on the grass grew golden and white flowers. He paused, breathing in their scent, and then began to climb the hill.
As he came to the summit of the mound, he saw a figure in white before him. She was seated on the ground underneath a tree, the golden blossoms falling in her dark hair, and singing softly to herself. Aragorn caught his breath, and paused; and she looked up and met his eyes. Time stood still, and then Arwen Undómiel stood up and smiled at Aragorn, and held out her hand. He crossed the lawn to her, and took it, and they sat down together underneath the mallorn trees, and his journeying was at last over.
* JRR Tolkien, 'The Lord of the Rings', Appendix A, 'The Stewards'.
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