1. To Labour and to Wait
"Let us then, be up and doing. With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labour and to wait."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82)
The night grew ever colder. Aragorn and Gimli slept fitfully, and whenever they awoke they saw Legolas standing beside them, or walking to and fro, singing softly to himself in his own tongue, and as he sang the white stars opened in the black vault above. So the night passed.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book III J.R.R.Tolkien
Legolas knew the man would wake in pain. His muscles, protesting cruel overuse, would spasm in the night, jerking Aragorn awake, denying him the rest he needed. But for now he lay quietly on the hard ground in the first deep sleep of exhaustion, fingers gently curled and limp against the sparse winter grass.
Engaged on his nightly tasks, the Elf glanced often at the sleeping form, watching for the telltale tremors that would signal his awakening. He did not fully understand Aragorn, but he knew the man resented the cramps that woke him, and resented even more when Legolas offered his help. He would try to be elsewhere when Aragorn awoke.
Turning his senses outward into the night, Legolas sensed no evil presences nearby, confirming that they were in no present danger. His hands were delicately tying feathers in a helical pattern around the end of an arrow shaft. It was the last arrow he could make until he found more suitable wood. He had taken a little time to salvage what points and nocks he could after the fight at Amon Hen, yet less than a sheaf of arrows remained in his quiver to use against the band of orcs they chased across the plains of Rohan. He shook his head, regretting not taking the time to glean more arrows. Every shot would count, but his fight would come down to quick reflexes and the sharpness of his knife. With wistful thoughts of a fire, a pot of hot glue, and a stack of straight ash shafts he returned to his task. The stars wheeled slowly above.
Legolas finished the fletching and looked at his sleeping companions. Gimli slept heavily now, greatly resembling the rock from which his race was made, but Aragorn twitched restlessly. The night was passing; he should tend to several more tasks before dawn. Pippin's gift was not yet finished, he could use a few straight shafts for arrows, and their water-bags were flat. He sensed water nearby. Legolas quietly gathered his weapons and the water-bags. He walked down the hill towards a dip in the ground a short distance away.
The underbrush there was surprisingly dense. Little vegetation had defied the wind on the plains to poke branches above ground level, but stunted trees and twisted brush filled the shallow declivity. Legolas made his way carefully to the bottom, singing softly of soaring flight and free winds as his hands passed over the plants. There was no answer. It seemed to him that the branches twisted away from the promise of his song and hunkered down, clinging tighter to the ground. He surveyed the tangle of twisted limbs, and knew no wood suitable for arrows grew here.
The spring at the bottom was sweet and clear. He drank, filled the water-bags, then washed carefully, using a handful of sand to scour dirt off his face and hands.
Every muscle in Aragorn's legs cramped, but his waking hiss of indrawn breath was no louder than the soft susurrus of a mouse running through the grass, and did not disturb the Dwarf sleeping nearby. Eyes closed, Aragorn lay still and willed his muscles to go limp. Slowly, his legs relaxed. He resisted the niggling urge to flex his toes knowing this would set off another round of cramp. If he could lie still for a few minutes, thinking of other things, he could master the weakness.
His wandering mind brought forth a bright image of Arwen from the first season of their love. They had taken horses and raced them north from Lorien to the foot of the mountain. Laughing, they left the horses to graze and climbed to a high place. They sat, wrapped in one cloak against the spring winds, to watch the sunset. The setting sun made highlights in her raven hair where it cascaded down and her skin was flushed from the wind and the golden glow. She was soft and pliable in his arms, as he kissed her cheek and her neck. She turned to him....
He wrenched his mind back to the present and the necessity of keeping his legs limp until the cramps passed. He willed them still as a tremor shook them again.
"She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Arnor and Gondor." Elrond's words echoed through his mind.
King, he thought scornfully. Gandalf had led the Fellowship until he fell in Moria. Aragorn had failed Frodo and Boromir, and lost Merry and Pippin. His royal retinue consisted of one stubborn Elf and one even more stubborn Dwarf. Oh, Arwen. Even for you, I may not be able to be king.
Aragorn poked moodily at the small fire, unnecessarily rearranging the burning wood and sending wafts of smoke over his companion. Gandalf waved the drifts away, but shot him increasingly irritated looks as the ranger continued to prod the fire. They were a day out of Tharbad and would be separating on the morrow after months of traveling together, spying on the Enemy's messengers to Mordor and back. Duty would send Aragorn west, crossing the Baranduin to spend time once again with his people who lived in the Tower Hills. His people! They were the scattered Dúnedain of the North, whom he could not even try to lead openly without bringing down the wrath of the Enemy upon them. Gandalf was going north, to Rivendell. Rivendell called to Aragorn. It was home. He had been raised there, a hidden prince among High Elves, and trained to be Chief of the Rangers. He was Aragorn, Son of Arathorn of the Line of Elendil, Isildur's heir of Gondor. Brought up to be honorable, wise, gracious, hardy, and kind in the manner of the great kings of old. Much good that ever did him. He gave the fire a vicious jab.
Smoke and ash billowed out over the wizard. Aragorn looked up sheepishly as, coughing, Gandalf came around the fire.
Gandalf chuckled as he sat down and laid a comforting hand on Aragorn's arm. "Come to Rivendell. They are your family. Elrond will welcome you."
Yes, he would be welcome, for the short time he would stay. But could he bear it? Would Arwen welcome him? She was a lady higher by far than any, and he loved her. He would make her Queen of the West… and she thought him no more than an infatuated boy. Had he not proved his courage with the sons of Elrond before he was twenty? Followed far paths into the wild, where no Men of the West had gone in this age? Fought for the past six years with Orcs and the servants of the Enemy wherever he found them? It seemed that not was enough to prove him a man worthy of her hand in marriage.
He stubbornly shook his head. "Not until Arnor is a kingdom again, and I am a king."
He lay still, his bones remembering the ground. He had often patrolled these heights when he rode with the Rohirrim. There were fires then, for the men to warm themselves at during the nights, and the stamp of horses in the picket lines. The elf and dwarf were dearer to him, but he had a long remembered fondness for those rough warriors of the plains. Aragorn winced, remembering his first days in the Riddermark and the casual embarrassments and cruelties of the barracks.
The éored commanders looked him over suspiciously. He was only an unknown man who claimed no lord among the Rohirrim. But, impressed with his swordsmanship, Aelric took Aragorn into his éored on probation.
"Unraed" the men of the éored called him, for his fumbling tries at their speech and his unfamiliarity with their ways, and their cold eyes didn't include him in the jest. Among the Dúnedain, he was Arathorn's son and took his leadership position for granted. In the barracks at Edoras, he was a stranger, last and least, fair game for every trick and prank. He ignored the insults when he could, and cleaned up after the ones he couldn't. He did every task he was given with as quiet a confidence as he could muster. He would not run back to Rivendell at the first check. He would not.
Aelric's shrewd blue eyes followed him through the days and weeks, occasionally offering him quiet words of advice, and even more rarely, praise. As the soccage levies rotated in and out of the éored, Aelric showed Aragorn how to be a man among Men -- everything from how to value a pint of beer after a hard day's patrol to how to settle a fight among the troops over a whore's favor.
In his second spring at Edoras, no one was surprised when Aelric brought Thorongil to the commanders' table and introduced him as his new second in command. The surge of pride in his accomplishment and the warmth of the camaraderie from the other commanders astonished Aragorn. He had earned this.
As Aelric's second, Aragorn was absorbed more and more into the workings of the kingdom. Elrond's lessons in policy and politics, thousands of years of wisdom distilled for the eager boy who sat at his side in the halls at Rivendell, gave Aragorn insights that he offered with diffidence when asked for an opinion. Aelric recognized their good sense and brought him to King Thengel's attention.
Five years from the time Thorongil had shown up at Edoras begging a place among the Rohirrim, he rode with Thengel and the household guard to a sheltered valley in the west of Rohan. The grass was long and bright green in the late summer sun, the tassels on the corn turning golden. Aragorn saw several herds of horses grazing in the distance, and a rambling manor house with smoke streaming a cheerful welcome from the chimneys. Barns and outbuildings looked clean and were neatly arranged around the house. A boy hanging onto a fence in a byre saw their approach and ran gleefully towards the house, crying the news that the King was come. Thengel waved back his guard and rode ahead with Aragorn to a good vantage point above the estate.
"This is Grassingmeade." Thengel gestured broadly towards the fertile valley below. "I was saving it for a second son, but there'll be none. I could settle it on one of my daughters to increase their dowry, but choosing one over another would only make a different kind of trouble. You've been advising me to make sure of the western valleys." Thengel kneed his horse around to face Aragorn directly. "Will you swear fealty to me and hold this one?"
Aragorn sat, stunned. As an honor to Thorongil, homeless adventurer, it was favor undreamed of; for the heir of Arnor and Gondor, it was impossible. He turned to Thengel and stammered, "My lord..." He stopped, unable to say bluntly that he could not take the honor in the face of Thengel's goodwill.
Dancing his horse around Aragorn, Thengel slapped him on the shoulder, then turned and called back to the waiting guard. "Hah, Holdwine, I win that wager. He's speechless!" He cantered easily down into the valley, leaving Aragorn to follow.
Aragorn rolled over and sat up, hands loosely clasping his knees. No cramps troubled him, but a pervading weariness throbbed along his limbs and behind his eyes. He scanned the stars to find the time. Dawn was coming, but night was nearly at its blackest. Luinil was high and bright, and by the light of the stars Aragorn saw Legolas's arrow and tools, and the sleeping form of Gimli lying nearby. He pulled a piece of lembas out of his pack, cracked off a judicious corner, and ate it crumb by crumb. From his long travels, he knew that the slower it was eaten, the more it filled the stomach. As he ate, the weariness abated somewhat from his limbs, and he sent up another heartfelt thanks to the Galadhrim who had provided it.
He picked up Legolas's arrow, turning it in the faint starlight to try to make out details, carefully feeling along the tight spiral of the threads binding the fletching feathers. He envied the Elf's unconscious skill. His own arrows were serviceable and usually hit his targets, but he rarely attempted helical fletching, even when he had the advantages of glue and daylight.
Legolas glided silently into camp and handed Aragorn his water-bag.
"Drink deep. The water is near and abundant," he said softly. Aragorn gave Legolas the arrow and unstoppered the water. Legolas added, "I am only sorry that none of the wood there wanted to be arrows."
It was such an elvish attitude. Aragorn chased down the pathways of memory while he drank the cool, fresh water.
He was no older than five or six, sitting in a forest clearing near a stream, surrounded by broken pieces of wood and sticks, and strips of cloth. Three of his friends, elves all, had made their boats and moved out along the stream long ago to play. When Elrohir found him, he was still doggedly chipping out his boat. Every one he had started had cracked in his hands before he could even make them look like anything more than rough pieces of wood. He looked defiantly up at Elrohir and felt his eyes dampen and his mouth twist and tremble as yet another of his efforts cracked under his hands. He knew what a boat should be, but it was never what his hands made. He threw the pieces down and scrabbled in the litter of sticks and twigs for another piece to start again. One of Elrohir's large hands stilled his small ones. "The wood must want to be a boat, Estel."
That day's lessons in woodcraft were still fresh in his memory. He had treasured that boat all through his boyhood. He had never wanted their immortality, but he envied the Elves their ability to create what their minds could envision.
"You should rest. I can keep watch," Aragorn said.
Legolas shrugged and looked up from his task, "This will be finished tonight, at last." He twisted a fine file along the side of the piece in his hand, smoothing a last ragged spot. The wood lay warm in his hand, feeling right and nearly finished. He remembered holding it as a large, rough chip when they were only days out of Imladris.
They stopped for a meal and a rest near a deadfall, Boromir and Gimli vying to see who could chop the neatest pieces of firewood. A silly game, but Aragorn encouraged it. Even with the ample supply of wood, they kept their fire small. Carefully feeding the chunks of dry hardwood into the fire, Legolas felt a difference in one piece. He turned the wood over in his hands several times, seeing the fine pattern of the grain and a graceful natural form hidden under the rough, chipped exterior.
Pippin saw him examining the chip, and nudged the Merry and Sam to silence. They stopped the meal preparations and watched Legolas suspiciously. Legolas never knew quite what to say to the Hobbits. They were very far outside his experience, and they seemed to treat him with extreme caution in return. Their wide eyes followed his movements with an expression he could not quite identify.
Several long seconds passed as they stared at him. "Is something badly wrong with that?" Pippin finally screwed up his courage to ask. He looked ready to stamp out the fire and start over far away from whatever evil Legolas had found.
"This just wants to be something more than firewood," Legolas said, laughing at the expressions on the Hobbits' faces.
To Legolas's surprise, Pippin came close and peered at the wood in his hand, his short, slim finger tracing the line of the design Legolas could see hidden in the grain.
"Yes, indeed, " Pippin said. "There's good wood here, but I never thought I'd want my carving tools on a quest."
While Sam and Merry went back to cooking, Legolas pulled a roll from his quiver and showed Pippin the steel rings he used to size his arrow shafts, and a small set of tools for shaping points and nocks. They could be used to carve other things. Surveying his scruffy companions, he knew exactly what he would make.
It was finished now, except for a final polish. Legolas put away the file. He wet a small piece of cloth with water and took out a pinch of rottenstone from a tiny pouch tucked into his roll of tools. Working gently and wishing for oil instead of water, he rubbed in circles along the graceful curves of the design.
While he worked, Legolas paced sentry around the camp. Aragorn leaned against a rock, staring at the eastern sky as if he could hurry dawn by willing it. Gimli still slept, grunting and mumbling in his sleep. Legolas paused. My friends. A Man and a Dwarf. And two Hobbits, captured, but trusting that their companions would be following if they could. He missed Pippin's irrepressible chatter. He could only work on the carving occasionally-- there were arrows to make, guard to keep and miles to walk-- but when he pulled it out Pippin had always been nearby, watching him intently as the hidden curves became graceful wings. He'd overheard a whispered conversation one night.
"He must know you'd like it. You've mooned over it enough. What's it going to be, anyway?" Merry asked.
"I don't know and I don't care. It's going to be beautiful, Merry. Sometimes beauty in a thing is enough reason for it to be. It could be--" He stopped and then continued defiantly. "--an heirloom of my house."
The pause was long enough to be obvious that Merry was discarding his first responses. "Maybe he'll have a birthday soon."
"Do you think so?" Pippin's voice brightened. Legolas wondered why he was cheered by the thought.
"Even elves have to have birthdays."
Pippin settled back, then sat bolt upright. "No, they don't," he hissed. "What if he was born before the sun was made? It wouldn't be a day, then, would it?"
Merry levered himself up on one elbow and shook his head. "Go to sleep, Pippin."
Legolas was both touched and confused. In the weeks they had been on the journey, the mismatched group had fallen into easy companionship. He did not consider himself either so high or so unapproachable, nor a craftsman of a caliber to make heirlooms, even for Hobbits. He was a warrior with some useful woodworking skills. The piece that Pippin admired so much was utilitarian. He had only enhanced what the wood already contained. Of course Pippin could have it when it was finished. He hoped that Pippin would use it, daily. A mischievous smile played along his face. He was not sure what the Hobbits meant by asking about his birthday, but he looked forward to finding out. He could at least assure them that it was a day, although he was not at all sure exactly when it was.
He turned the carving over and smoothed the grain with his fingers, brushing off clinging particles of the polishing pumice, searching for rough spots. He had done the most intricate parts of the carving in Lorien, using proper tools. It was good. Perhaps it would be a worthy heirloom for Pippin's house. He walked lightly around the camp, singing of glow and smoothness to the wood as he continued to polish.
Aragorn stared into the Northwest, hoping in vain for a glimpse of Orc trail in the starlight. He heard Legolas singing a song that he knew from the halls of Thranduil. He joined in softly with the melody line, and Legolas finished the last verse in harmony.
"The halls of my home are far, and there are no trees on this plain. I did not realize how little I knew of Middle Earth before I came on this quest," Legolas said when the last notes had died to silence.
You have still seen only a small part. It is wider, even, than most of the Wise know."
Gimli grunted and rolled in his blanket. "If you want to stay up all night, you can at least do it quietly and let a Dwarf sleep." He turned his back to his companions.
Legolas smiled and continued polishing, but Aragorn stood and moved to the edge of the hill, caught again in memory.
The war sickened Aragorn, not least because he had urged it so insistently.
"Umbar. Umbar is the threat to Gondor. We cannot allow them to threaten our shipping or our southern fiefs. Umbar bows to Sauron. If the Enemy grows in power, they will be even more of a threat. We need to secure the sea. The land must be secured from the Corsairs. They are evil men. Umbar must be stopped." He, Thorongil, hammered the point at an endless round of councils, bringing up age-old grievances. He met with the merchants and the lords, the ministers and the guard. He plotted and planned. Umbar, Umbar was the threat that must be contained, and soon. Ecthelion, the Steward, gave him a small fleet and volunteers flocked to man it. His plans worked perfectly, taking the great fleet in the Havens of Umbar by surprise. Resistance was strong in places and Aragorn led a detachment onto the docks. He fought hand to hand with the chief of the Corsairs, seeing the abiding evil in his eyes, and vanquished him. Victory was his and it was sweet.
Surrounded by his guards, Thorongil walked into the town. He removed his helmet and surveyed the burning, sinking ships and the damaged docks. His troops still ravaged along the quay, dragging out and killing hiding seamen, unfortunate tradesmen, craftsmen, passers-by; firing the sheds where ships were built and supplies were stored. The naval strength of Umbar was crushed for a generation. Women screamed in the distance and children wailed. He walked along the ruined street, seeing it in his mind's eye as it had been earlier in the day, part of a prosperous town. This was not an orc den, but had been a fair home of men. Evil, he repeated to himself, Evil men.
He came to a mound of bodies, carelessly heaped in the street. As he watched, soldiers hauled up a cart filled with more bodies and tossed a young boy's corpse onto the pile. Too quickly for the guards to react, a man ran screaming towards him from the shadows, and slashed a knife into a gap in his armor. Aragorn turned and caught his hands, twisted, and the knife clattered to the ground. He stared into his attacker's face. There was anger and despair in the eyes, but no evil.
The nearest soldier ran his sword into the attacker and pulled him away from Aragorn.
"Sorry, my lord. Thought he was dead and left him for the next load," the trooper said. "Good size pile of the enemy, eh, sir?"
Aragorn looked out into the town where the fires were spreading, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and tree to tree. Chaos reigned in the streets, save where his men went in disciplined groups, slaying and destroying as they passed.
"Call them back," he ordered. "It is enough." Trumpets sounding recall, he made his way to his flagship, leaving the Havens behind him in flames.
Almost fifty years later, he still remembered the despair in those nameless eyes. In his long life, many eyes had looked at him with despair in their depths, but they had turned to him for succor and redress, as a savior from evil, not as the enemy.
His flagship rocked gently in the harbor at Pelargir. The City rejoiced. Aragorn sat in his cabin and studied the maps on the table. The Northern wastes and the remnants of his kingdom of Arnor were well known to him. He had been to the lands around Mordor many times. He spread out a rolled corner to find Umbar and the East. Beyond Umbar was Harad, beyond Harad was Khand, Rhûn was the east, and beyond that, no one knew. Can fear of my mighty wrath keep all the peoples of Middle Earth in submission? He smiled wryly. He was not Ar-Pharazon, King of the World through his might alone. He would turn his face from the West and be content with the gifts to Men. He would not be Hyarmendacil, ruling a great Gondor but surrounded by fear and enemies who would nibble and tear at his kingdom. Evil was in the world, and would be fought when needful, but to counter the Enemy's lies, he had to hear them and to understand the men who listened to them.
There was a knock at the door. "Lord Thorongil, sir. It's time to dress for the banquet."
Aragorn rolled the smaller maps and stuffed them into a waiting pack. He picked up a travel-stained cloak, strapped it to the pack, and hefted the bundle onto his shoulder. His sword, bow and quiver were ready. He would miss the banquet.
The chill of the night air cut more deeply as moisture rose to greet the coming dawn. Aragorn heard Legolas mutter imprecations at the damp raising the wood grain as he got out another pinch of pumice. Dew gathered and glittered in the light of distant Borgil, Helluin and Ellemmirë, starlight investing the hilltop with an Elvish glow. Eärendil rose higher. Aragorn pulled his blanket closer around his shoulders and watched as water drops grew, pooled, and slid off the blades of grass, leaving silver trails. His breath plumed. He felt the comforting slosh of his water-bag as he shifted position.
Water. He was desperate for water. He'd sucked the dew off his scabbard and pack that morning. The thirsty ground drank up what little moisture appeared in the dawn. In the rocky desert, leagues and leagues on the far side of Khand, all his Elven-taught skill at woodcraft and hunting was inadequate to find enough water. Yet, this was not a dead land, as were the plains around Mordor. The animals that lived here were wholesome, if not always tasty.
Heading east had seemed like a good idea. In Harad, and even in Khand, Aragorn was too quickly recognized as a Man of Gondor. He had the wrong color eyes to easily blend in and no way to feign that he was not from the hated West. The servants of Sauron were a constant and deadly presence in every town and province. He had resolved to go still farther east for a while, learn the language or accents and customs of the farthest lands, then circle back.
Aragorn had traveled mostly by night to escape the burning heat of the sun, but two nights before he had lost the track he'd been following in a storm of blowing sand and dirt. When the weather cleared, he struck out eastward, guessing from the contours of the land where the track might have run. That was yesterday. He walked until the heat of the day, then sweltered in a patch of shade until the air began to cool. He was almost unbearably thirsty, hungry, tired, and unexpectedly lonely. He had been in many wild places, but had never before felt so isolated, without even the comfort of trees or grass.
As evening closed in on the second day, Aragorn sank down, parched and panting, in the lee of a low hill. He sat very still, hoping to hear the normal night noises of the small desert animals. He had learned ways to catch them. The wind blew in erratic puffs, bounced by the heat of the land into shifting patterns. One puff brought the sound of voices.
Aragorn scrambled up the rocky hill, stopping just under the crest. Poking his head over the top, he cautiously surveyed the surrounding area. There. About a quarter mile to the south, fire flickered, bright against the gathering dark.
As dusk settled on the land, he cautiously approached the fire. It illuminated a tiny oasis. There was already a small camp settling in around the basin of water. One man directed the work from horseback, while others unloaded the rudiments of camp equipment from three camels. A dozen or more sullen, ragged men were roped together and guarded on the far side of the camp.
"Greetings. Will you share the water?" he asked slowly in the speech of Harad as he came into the firelight. He held his hands conspicuously empty in front of him.
The camp fell silent. The most flamboyantly dressed guard pushed forward, blocking Aragorn's path to the water. He spoke in a cascade of liquid syllables, and waited for an answer. Aragorn understood not a word. He tried again to ask for water in the accents of Umbar and Westron. He tried Quenya, Sindarin, and the language of Rohan. In desperation, he tried the little he knew of orc speech of Mordor, though he felt fouled speaking it, not knowing whether to hope that it was understood or that the Enemy's influence had never reached this far East. Silence and growing suspicion greeted each of his attempts. Several of the guards called derisive-sounding comments to their fellows.
Slowly he untied his water-bag and removed its stopper. He turned the bag over to show it was empty, and, stepping around the guard who blocked his path, he walked to the spring. The guards opened up to let him through, but closed in behind him. Kneeling at the rough brick basin that confined the water, he filled his water-bag and tied it in place before he reached down his cupped hand to drink. A hand held out a horn cup. Gratefully, he filled it and drank. As he scooped up a second cupful, he felt more than saw a loop of rope descending on him from behind. Twisting, he dropped the cup and drew his knife in one unbroken motion. Elven steel severed the rope as it caught at his shoulders. He hacked indiscriminately at the hands clutching at him. Men cried out and backed away. Diving low across the basin, away from his attackers, Aragorn rolled and drew his sword as he stood.
Blood and death and confusion. Clash of steel and screams of pain. These were the hallmarks of his life. He longed for peace; for green settled lands and bountiful harvests untroubled by reavers and the servants of the Enemy; for the right to spend long nights and joyful days with Arwen, whom he loved with a passion undimmed in the long years since he left Rivendell. That night brought despair. He had slain the leader, stolen the horse, and loosed the bound men upon the world. Whether he freed men unjustly enslaved or had unleashed a further plague of evil on an unblessed land, he had no way to know. Men screamed and died or writhed in bleeding pain on unforgiving ground, and he galloped away heedless, until he could sit the horse no more. He slid to the ground and was lost again in the darkness with his thirst.
The next morning, he found the horse grazing not far away. Aragorn stared at the meager plants the horse was crunching off greedily at the roots. This was more growth than he had seen in weeks. The bay gelding allowed himself to be captured with no more than a protesting shake of his head. The packs behind the saddle yielded a few days' supply of dried fruits and meat and hard bread, a half filled water-bag, a spare robe, and a hidden pouch of coins. Aragorn poured the coins out into his hand: four of irregularly shaped, heavy copper, ten slim silver disks, and a much clipped coin that was probably gold.
He scanned the horizon. No matter which way he looked, the land marched away league upon league into empty, fathomless distances. He could accomplish nothing here. He would turn for home, but northwards, not back across the cruel desert to the west.
It was not the first town he came to, nor the second, but it was certainly the most appealing. The buildings, of mud brick or stone, looked odd to his eyes, but the town was surrounded by neatly terraced and irrigated fields and was obviously prosperous. An old wall encircled parts of it, but a new section of houses and shops grew outwards along the roads. Trade roads merged here. There was a camping place outside the walls for caravans of goods. Several groups were already settled in, and he could see more making their way down the roads to the town, or leaving laden with goods. The soldiers and guards that he could see from his hidden vantage point were laughing and talking with the merchants while making thorough, careful inspections of their carts. There should be a market in this town where he could find trail provisions. He could live off the land, but it took time, and he was still far away from his home at Rivendell. He shrugged the stolen robe over his shoulders, swung up onto the horse and rode into the town.
The guards must have been used to silent, oddly dressed strangers because they accepted the coin he offered for the entrance tax with a smile and a wave. It was mid-morning. He planned to find the street where provisions were sold, bargain as best he could for what he needed, and leave town again that day. Aware that the guards were still watching him carefully, he rode slowly into the town, looking for shops with bins of provisions. As he passed an open gateway a few blocks from the main gate, a ragged boy of about ten ran out in front of his horse, waving and gesticulating while calling out happily to him in a babble of unknown language. Aragorn stopped the horse. The boy grabbed onto the reins and started to lead the horse through the open gateway. Aragorn pulled up sharply on the reins and the horse danced and snorted between the two pressures. The boy released his hold, but continued to plead and cajole, his hands describing large somethings and beckoning him inward. The horse took a few steps forward, and an aroma struck Aragorn: Food. Cooked and seasoned with unfamiliar spices, but it smelled wonderful. Looking in through the gate, Aragorn saw a swept yard, a couple of tethered horses, a long, filled watering trough, and a darker doorway beyond. He could see several occupied tables in the room beyond the door. There were surely enough coins in the purse for a meal as well as trail provisions. His stomach growled. He would risk it.
Replete for the first time in months, Aragorn wiped a piece of the oddly flat bread in the dregs of the gravy in his bowl. He popped it in his mouth, his tongue tingling with the unfamiliar spices. He leaned back against the wall and reached for the mug of dark, bitter brew on the table in front of him. A girl just on the cusp of womanhood smiled at him as she topped off his mug again and turned to serve the other patrons. Aragorn surveyed the room. As he had come to expect in inns from Bree to Belfalas, after a first flurry of inspection, the other customers had ignored him. The farthest corner held a table of merchants, quietly thrashing out some agreement. One old man was drunk and hunched on the floor, sleeping in the sun at the doorway. Aragorn sipped his drink and savored the comforting feel of the inn. The day was only half over and he was in no hurry to leave. Most shops shut down for a few hours in the heat of the day, and it was foolish for him to try and buy provisions now. There were always a few men coming in, staying for a quick drink or two, and then leaving with waved farewells. The girl came by again and slipped a bowl of olives on the table before she refilled his drink. Apparently the two copper pieces he had offered the landlady for his meal was a very generous payment.
At the table opposite him, a pair of young men, wearing the same insignia as the gate guards, were being fleeced of their pay at some game of chance. Watching the players carefully and from his vantage point, Aragorn could see the subtle flicks and twists, and the bunching of muscles that betokened sleight of hand. The young guards were often not playing with the same game pieces as the other, older man. Aragorn had learned to spot such trickery the hard way. He remembered losing his own pay several times to such tricks.
The landlady, a thin, nervous woman, was obviously worried about the course of the game. She hovered around the table, scolding the boys, until they ordered her back into the kitchen, swaggering and laughing with the older player.
Still drinking, Aragorn watched the game unfold. By the angle of the sun streaming in the open doorway, it was not late enough for the shops to be re-opened. There was plenty of time to find provisions and move on. Reluctant to push by the table of gamers to get out, Aragorn sipped his drink. The girl walked by and refilled his mug.
The young guards reached the desperate stage, realizing that their money was gone and sitting in a pile in front of the older man. He was encouraging them, speaking confidentially and fingering their equipment. Those boys. Aragorn shook his head, and was surprised to feel momentarily dizzy. Do they have someone to help them, like Aelric helped me?
He put down his empty mug and stood up. His sword slid quietly from its scabbard. The tip of the blade flicked out and slit the sleeve of the older man just above the wrist. The hidden pair of game pieces clattered onto the table, falling into the winning pattern. The players paused for a long moment. The guards started to pound the table and shout. Roaring, the cheater stood up, drew his knife, and spun around defiantly, only to face Aragorn's sword held unwavering at his face. The room went silent. Aragorn gestured to the doorway with his sword. The man hesitated, and reached back to claim his game pieces. Aragorn slapped his hand with the sword, drawing a bead of blood, and gestured towards the door again. The man growled, but shoved past the stools and bolted out the door.
The room stayed unnaturally silent, all eyes fixed on Aragorn. The landlady clutched the serving counter, one hand pressed to her mouth to hold back a scream.
Aragorn stared at the people, vaguely annoyed that they were sliding in and out of focus. It's definitely best to leave town now. Feeling a fleeting regret for the unbought trail provisions, he carefully sheathed his sword and leaned on the table for support while he divided the winnings into three roughly equal piles. He gathered up one of the piles of coin. Every eye followed him as he approached the landlady and laid the coins on the counter in front of her. He bowed gravely, pleased that he straightened up again without wavering and walked towards the door. The landlady cried out to him, ran around the counter, clutched at his sleeve and, dragged him back to a table. The mood in the room turned jubilant. Reluctant to use force to free himself, Aragorn allowed himself to be pushed into a chair. A new cup of drink was pressed into his hands. A full bowl of food slid onto the table in front of him. The guards grasped his shoulders and bellowed in his face. The babble of voices continued around him. Aragorn looked uncomprehendingly from face to face, and gradually the noise died away.
The landlady stood in front of him and declaimed a few words that were probably of thanks. She ended her speech with the rising inflection of a question. The other people in the room murmured assent and watched him expectantly.
Aragorn looked from face to face, sensing only good will. "I have no idea what you said, but I think I will leave now," he enunciated carefully in the Westron speech and stood up.
Panic crossed the landlady's face. She waived her arms and pounded her chest. "Zhula. Zhula." She followed this pronouncement with a string of babble that again ended in a question and looked at Aragorn expectantly. He made tentative movements toward the door. Another long burst of incomprehensible speech, accompanied by hand waving and broad gestures around the room. The men in the room nodded vigorously in agreement and smiled at him. Aragorn made an openhanded gesture of incomprehension. She grabbed the young serving girl and thrust her at him. "Feydir." She pounded her chest again with a stiffened forefinger. "Zhula." She pointed at him.
Understanding dawned. It was a start. Aragorn pointed to himself. "Estel."
Within a year, the inn had an unmatched reputation for honesty and discretion. Aragorn, to his amusement, had acquired a reputation as a storyteller. The everyday things of his childhood were fantasies to these people. His stories would have been dismissed as total fabrications except for the undoubted presence of his supernatural weapons. A sword that did not rust or bend with use and held a razor sharp edge was magic in this place. They had never seen an orc nor heard of the Enemy. Neither did they know of the Valar, and their land had never been blessed by the presence of elves. The townsfolk flocked to the inn. Zhula tried to come to him at night. She never understood why he put her aside when she woke him, her raven hair, so like Arwen's, brushing his face.
In the second year, Zhula bought the property on either side of the inn and welcomed in the leaders of the great caravans that converged on the town. Aragorn talked to the caravan leaders, to the inn's patrons, and to the stable boys in the yard. He learned the languages and customs of Khand, Rhûn and Far Harad, and of places still farther east.
In the third year, the great caravans from the east staggered ruined into town, broken by raiders from the mountains. When the brigands came claiming tribute, Aragorn fought alongside the city guard and led the expedition into the mountains in search of the raiders' stronghold. His magic blade sliced through the sword of the leader and took off his head in the same stroke. He threw down the fortress, and came back with treasure to share. Victorious, popular, unassuming, Aragorn was offered a place in the city oligarchy. It was time to leave.
Zhula did not understand why he wanted to go. He had wealth, honor, respect, and friends. He had taught her eldest son and a good many of the city guard his style of swordsmanship. It was a good place, but it was not home, and Arwen was not there. He had nothing to stay for. He packed for the trail, saddled a horse and rode west. He no longer feared the desert.
The eastern sky over Rohan hazed with false dawn, until suddenly the night was dark again and the Silmaril blazed out, heralding the true coming of the sun. Aragorn paced the hilltop, working the stiffness out of his legs. He rubbed at an old scar on his thigh.
They walked through the woods of Rivendell, hand in hand. Their love crackled and flashed between them as Arwen's hair tangled in their kisses. Last year's leaves on the path crunched underfoot, a brown and gold carpet, and snow gleamed in between the trees. The bare white branches of the birches swayed above their heads in the wind while the sun in the pale blue sky sought to warm the vale. They walked slowly, talking of simple things, and Aragorn made a conscious effort not to limp as the exercise pulled at muscles newly healed. He sat down gratefully on a bench, leaning against the high back. Arwen snuggled along his shoulder. He wrapped the front of his cloak around them against the thin chill wind to make an island of warmth in the forest.
"When we sit here in spring, the pollen from the catkins will shake down on us and we will be covered in gold," Arwen said at last.
Aragorn tightened his hold on her shoulders. "I will not be here. I must leave soon."
Arwen pulled away from him and sat upright. Her fingers gently touched his face and traced the fatigue lines around his eyes from his recent illness. "You are barely well again."
Aragorn smiled. "You and your father have both pronounced me healed. I will regain strength faster traveling than lazing around in the wood with you."
Arwen did not respond to his teasing. "It's winter."
"So it is."
"Stay another month until the weather is warmer."
Aragorn sighed. "In another month, the snows will melt. The rivers will be in flood and the lowlands boggy. I would be wet most of the time and much colder than if I left now. You know this, Arwen."
"Stay two months, then," Arwen cried.
Aragorn stood and paced the clearing, limping heavily. He caught himself, and walked carefully back to the bench, his walk almost his normal long stride. Sitting down next to Arwen, he captured her chilled hands and brought them to his breast.
"I cannot have you without a kingdom. And I cannot make a kingdom if I am always here with you. Being here is a sweet torment, but it is not enough."
Arwen opened her hands and spread them along his chest. She looked up into his eyes and said what he knew was the unbearable thing. "The orc blade was poisoned. You nearly died."
Aragorn released her hands, and turned his face away. He shuttered his face against the pain in his heart. "I will die. You are free to renounce your choice."
Arwen's fingers smoothed his lips and cupped the line of his jaw, pulling his face gently around to face her. . "Never. I never thought to love, but having found you, I will not let you go. You must ignore my overprotective foolishness."
Aragorn's face relaxed and he kissed her fingers. She urged his shoulders down and he laid his head in her lap. She played with a strand of his hair, twirling and sliding it through her fingers.
"You will rebuild Arnor for me."
"I will, lady."
"And what then?" Her fingers shushed his reply. Laughing, she continued, "You will gather the lords and the men of Arnor and come for me. My father will bring you the scepter of Arnor, and a great host from Imladris will join your company. We will ride south to Gondor through the Gap of Rohan and the thunder of our passing will shake the mountains. The banner of the King will stream behind you in the wind, the jewels on the stars flashing adamant in the sun. Wearing white and silver – you look very good in white and silver -- you will stand before the gates of Minas Tirith and declare your lineage. Denethor will look on you and bow to your majesty."
"He knows my face well and has never liked it," Aragorn muttered. Arwen tweaked his hair. "Ow!"
"Hush. You don't know your own strength and I will be with you. Denethor, I say, will open the gates to the city. You will don the crown. The people will cheer us. The banner of the King enthroned will float above the White Tower once more. My father will lay my hand in yours, and we will live happily ever after to the end of our days." She stopped and looked down at him, a smile playing around her mouth and her eyes shone with love and confidence.
Aragorn closed his eyes and basked in the glow of her dream and the warmth of her lap for a long quiet time. Until his thigh began to ache in the chill wind that played around the glade, and the reality of his toils settled in. Annúminas was still in ruins. The Rangers had only four new homesteads to protect this spring, and no guarantee that they would last the year. Even when the land was ravaged, he tried to save the people. A rebuilt Arnor was still at least a generation of labour away. He slid off the bench and knelt at Arwen's feet. His hands gripped hers painfully and a drop of moisture fell onto her fingers from his bowed head.
"You will be a queen, Arwen. I swear it."
"Yes, my dear, I know." Bending down, she kissed his hair.
Aragorn stood in darkness without counsel. The eastern sky lightened as grey pushed back the night. Gandalf. The loss pierced him anew. Gandalf had been counselor, advisor, mentor... friend.
I trusted you, Gandalf. Aragorn turned helplessly to the west, looking out over the sundering skies to Elvenhome. Oh, Arwen.
"The scepter of Annúminas I withhold, for you have yet to earn it." Elrond's voice stabbed in Aragorn's memory, the thrust more wounding now than when he first heard it. Elrond held the scepter still, more than three score years since he had deemed Aragorn a man and told him of his lineage and birthrights.
Had Aragorn followed his heart, he would have reorganized Arnor years ago, made it a bastion in the north against the Shadow. He could no longer remember how many nights he had spent alone in the wild, staring at the stars, working out the details of his government and his alliances. Thousands of details and contingencies worked through. The plans were long laid; all he needed to do was reach out and tug the threads he had laid into his hands. If only....
"The time is not right, Aragorn," Gandalf always counseled. "The Dúnedain are stretched thin in the wild. Every evil in the north would assault you if you declared yourself openly as Isildur's heir and tried to rebuild Annúminas. There is little enough now. There would be nothing left. Wait. Your time will come."
If I laid Arnor alone at your feet, Arwen, would you defy your father and lay your hand in mine? He closed his eyes in anguish. King to Arnor and Gondor were the conditions set for him and he had never thought to circumvent them.
Aragorn knew a wild impulse to ride to Arwen, sweep her into his arms and ride off with her. Laughing and disheveled, she would raise her face to his and kiss him, sweetly chiding him for taking so long to claim her. They would race eastward, forsaking all they knew, and carve out a mighty kingdom for themselves in places far beyond the reach of the Enemy. Even if the Ringbearer failed, and the White Tower was struck down, the fair fields of Lebennin devastated and bare, Lothlorien's golden wood forsaken and crushed, Rivendell ruined and defiled... Aragorn's imagination faltered. Flight held neither peace nor safety.
He could see no path that led to peace and safety, to Arwen. Ahead lay the orc band and the Enemy. Aragorn sank down onto the grass, head bowed over his knees. In the dark behind his closed eyes, kaleidoscopic images of Arwen whirled, an enduring brightness and beacon of happiness through all the empty times of his life.
The thunder of our passing will shake the mountains. If he were lucky, both his companions would survive the coming encounter with the orcs. If he were very lucky, Pippin and Merry would have survived too. How much thunder will two sets of Hobbit feet contribute?
He opened his eyes. Day was pushing back the night, but the world was dim and formless, without color. The Silmaril drew his gaze, blazing in the sky above the dawn, a beacon of hope to Middle Earth from a time darker than this. Not one man's lifetime, but two long ages of the world had passed since it was bound upon the brow of Eärendil and he was sent voyaging alone through the night.
Grandsire, how do you bear it? Aragorn sent the thought up towards the distant star. By the grace of Manwë, are you content to do what you must, or do you curse in the long dark between the stars the sundering from Elwing and all that you held dear?
The sky pearled from gray to light and the wisps of cloud on the eastern horizon blushed purple and pink. Aragorn breathed deeply of the freshening morning breeze that played around his face. The Silmaril faded as gold dawn rimmed the edge of the world, splaying thin streaks of red and gold across the sky. A quiet peace descended on Aragorn. Etched clear, he held in his heart the memory of a perfect season in Lorien when their love was new and all things seemed possible, the gentleness of Arwen's touch and her love for him shining in her upturned face. The love was already there, and it was enough to sustain him.
Sixty-seven years -- from grandiose, youthful daydreams through many careful plans -- were come to this place and this reality. It was not how he had planned to return to Gondor, but he would come, now openly as Isildur's heir, wielding Anduril, Narsil reforged at last, to go to war with Sauron. He would be there when his people needed him, even though he was ragged and footsore and bringing only evil news: Gandalf's fall, Boromir's death, and the fate of the One Ring. He was Aragorn, and he did not need to be acknowledged king before he would do what he must do.
Aragorn could hear Legolas and Gimli moving behind him on the hill. The orc trail was clear before him in the strengthening light and it was nearly time to resume the chase. Merry and Pippin could still be alive.
Legolas finished the final polishing just as the sky lightened with dawn. It had taken him longer than he expected, but he wanted it to be as perfect as possible for Pippin.
Legolas touched the sleeping Dwarf's shoulder. "Gimli, it's nearly time to leave."
Gimli sat up and worked a kink out of his shoulder. "Where's Aragorn?"
"Over the brow of the hill. He has been troubled this night."
"We've enough to be troubled by. Another long run today and too many orcs at the end of it." Gimli grumbled off to his morning ablutions.
Legolas ran his hands over his hair, feeling roughness along his braids. He still had one task to do before he was ready to face the day's run. He reached into his pouch, but thought better of it. He would try the new one.
A few minutes later he was ready to go. Legolas started to put Pippin's gift safely away, and stopped. He looked at Aragorn and studied him critically. It could not hurt to try. He picked up Aragorn's pack and brought it to him where he stood. Aragorn shrugged it over his cloak, but stood staring into the brightening day.
"I have finished Pippin's gift."
Aragorn looked to where it lay in Legolas's hand. It was a little small for an elf or a man, but would fit snugly into a Hobbit hand. The handle was a perfect songbird, just landing or perhaps just launching from a pine bough. The curve and dip of the wings and the bird's head would fit easily into the hand, giving leverage where it was needed. The pine needles were individually carved and smoothed, hanging below in an even row. It was lifelike, graceful and yet sturdy.
Legolas proffered it to Aragorn. "Pippin wants this to be an heirloom for his house, but I made it to be used."
Aragorn turned his face to the North, ignoring Legolas's outstretched hand.
This was harder than Legolas had expected. "If a king used it…."
Aragorn's gaze pierced the horizon along the orc trail. "I am not yet a king."
"You are Isildur's heir," Legolas said, surprised.
Aragorn turned to face him. His eyes were untroubled, the same clear grey as the sky to the West behind him.
"I hold neither the scepter nor the crown. There is more to being king than who your father was." He turned back to the north. The first golden rays of the sun threw the devastation of the orc trail into sharp relief against the grass. Aragorn drew a deep breath. "It's dawn." He plunged down the hill, already running.
Gimli started after him, building up momentum on the downward slope. "Hai! Aragorn! Give some warning. My legs are not as long as yours."
Legolas stood on the hilltop. He stroked the wood in his hand, feeling along the curve of the wings on the handle. He shook his head. He would never understand Men. He stowed Pippin's comb securely next to his own, and ran after his friends.
Unraed – is usually badly translated as 'unready' - as in Ethelred Unraed, king of England 978-1016 - but its actual meaning is closer to 'clueless'; literally, 'no counsel/wisdom'
Soccage – part of the duty of a subordinate in a feudal system. A person swearing fealty would be liable for a specified number of days a year of personal service to his lord. For example, a person swearing fealty to a king for a large estate might swear to provide every year the services of 3 knights and 50 mounted archers for 40 days and 20 shillings cash in exchange for the land granted him. Soccage is the service part of the contract.
A short sequel: A Gift for Pippin
Dedicated to Ostadan, Anwyn and Quickbeam at The One Ring and Cassie Claire at The Secret Diaries who in strange and twisted ways provided the inspiration for this story.
Many and very heartfelt thanks go to my long-suffering beta-readers, Vicky, Sandie, Ellen, Patti, and Liz without whom this story would have remained only a poor fragment sitting on my hard drive and haunting me with might-have-beens. And a special thanks also goes to Susan for saying "yes" when I offered her this. This story was originally published in Nenya in May of 2005. There are many other excellent stories in that zine that are not available on-line. It's Holy Mother Grammatica's zine... trust me, it's good!
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.