Dedication/Explanation: Originally, this was slated to appear as a flashback sequence in "'Til Death Do Us Part" but it just didn't fit. I kept it, though, and I thought I'd publish it as sort of a companion piece to the other story, to satisfy any who might be curious about "[Halbarad and Aragorn's] first journey, and nearly their first misadventure." So, to all those who find Ranger tales irresistible, enjoy!
Fire crackled loudly in the night, and over the low flames Halbarad cast a surreptitious look at his companion. Five years we have known each other, he thought miserably, and yet it feels as though we met only tonight, perhaps only a few minutes ago, though we have walked together for ten days now. For always before he had called his friend Estel. 'Aragorn' was still a new name, attached to a familiar face, and as the two of them crouched by their small fire in the shadows of the Barrow Downs, there was a more than a touch of awkwardness in their silencean awkwardness exacerbated by the uncomfortable surroundings. The wind blew chill all about them, clearing out the skies so that the stars shone knife-sharp against the velvet darkness, though the mist refused to dispel. The grass was damp beneath them as they sat huddled in their cloaks, listening to the night noises, and their hearing was the more acute for the knowledge that they were utterly alone for the first time. And yet they spoke not, feeling that recent revelations lay still between them somehow, though neither could quite understand why.
"I never meant to deceive you," Aragorn said of a sudden, and though his voice was pitched low, it seemed excruciatingly loud to a startled Halbarad.
"I never thought that you did," he replied quicklytoo quickly! uncertain of how to respond. He hesitated, groping for more to say, to reassure his friend who was now also his lord, however young. But the words would not come, and so he sighed softly and simply stared across the fire at Aragorn. The other's face showed no sign of his thoughts, but Halbarad thought he saw a flicker of disappointment in those silver eyes, a betrayal quickly veiled by dark lashes as Aragorn lowered his gaze. "Truly, I did not think any such thing, EstAragorn!" Halbarad closed his eyes in pain, cursing that slip, wishing he had his father's gift for words. But there the legacy of Númenór had passed him by, much to his regret. It needed time for him to find just the right wordsor indeed, any wordsand in moments like this one, he despaired of his clumsy speech and seemingly damning silences. Actions came to him far more readily, but as of yet, there had been no chance for him to prove his friendship anew to Aragorn. And because of that, he could not show beyond doubt that there was no need for the other to ask forgiveness.
Would Estel have read the truth in my words? He found himself wondering, and instantly tried to reject the thought. Estel is Aragorn, and Aragorn is Estel and my lord and it does neither of us good if I insist on separating them! But there he touched upon the crux of the matter, for he still suffered a certain confusion, an inability to reconcile Estel, whom he loved, with Aragorn, who was Isildur's Heir and a stranger yet. Doubtless that undercurrent of conflicted confusion had infected all of his words, and Aragorn, perceiving it but ignorant of its source, naturally would feel repulsed by the seeming lie. Halbarad slouched, feeling dejected and disgusted with himself as he gazed wearily out at the darkness. The down rose high before him, and he watched the stars wheel slowly about the hill's lofty head. The Heron, Elwing, had risen, chasing ever after the Mariner, reminder of the immortal love that had birthed Númenór in the deep past. Strange to think that I sit now with one of Eärendil's descendents! Did his friend ever look with misgiving upon those stars, wondering what his place was in that line of heroes? Halbarad darted a furtive look at Aragorn, sitting silently and watching the shadows at Halbarad's back, and decided that he was not above such doubt.
He opened his mouth, intending to try to draw the other out upon that subject, when something registered at the edge of his vision, and he paused, squinting into the night. "What is it?" Aragorn asked, seeing him lean forward.
"I do not know," Halbarad replied softly. "I thought I saw something move." Aragorn rose to one knee and turned to face the hill, hand going to the long knife at his belt. "To your left, there, where the shade is deepest," Halbarad directed. Minutes trickled by, and nothing showed itself, but he felt his hackles rise nonetheless. "There is something watching us."
"Be hush and listen!" Aragorn whispered, and Halbarad strained his ears but in the end he heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing rasping in the night. Aragorn rose slowly to his feet, and the rustle of his clothes and the sound of leather creaking were too loud, seeming to puncture the silence sharply, disjointedly. Yet his friend's movements were dream-liketoo smooth and slow even for Aragorn's grace of carriage, and Halbarad found that he had difficulty moving himself. Am I trapped in a nightmare? It was as if the air had grown suddenly too thick to breathe, and he staggered to his feet, feeling an edge of panic work its way into his breast. What is happening? Why do I feel light-headed? Blinking against the haze that encroached upon his vision, he glanced at Aragorn again, and saw that the other had taken a few steps onto the slope, and was now disappearing into the darkness above. But though he longed to call out, his mouth was dry, and his tongue seemed cloven to the roof of his mouth.
A low hiss, as of a sighing breath, gusted in the deadly stillness, and a cold sweat sprang up upon his brow and along the back of his neck, though he knew not why. He had enough wits to grab one of the brands from their fire before he stumbled after Aragorn, intent upon dragging the other back, away from whatever it wasthe barrow-wight?into the relative safety of their camp. But the light seemed dimmed as he clambered up the hill, and Halbarad found it increasingly difficult to stay upon his feet. He soon lost sight of Aragorn completely, and when he paused to listen, he heard nothing moving in the darkness. But now those hissing breaths sounded loud all about, and he realized after a time that they were laughter. Suddenly he felt utterly bereft, and he turned about, seeing nothing at all in the darkness, nor even a hint of their camp fire.
Where am I? Halbarad paused then, trying to quell his panic, and he shut his eyes tightly in spite of the danger. Fighting the cloying, stupefying mists, he thought of clean sun upon the glades of the Angle, and of his sister, Dírlas, and of the elven princes Elladan and Elrohir who had first introduced him to his friend. "This is our brother," Elladan had said, and Halbarad had first looked upon the elven-bright eyes of Estel of Imladris, and fallen instantly under their spell
Estel! Aragorn! "Shine for me now, oh my friend," he whispered, and swallowed hard as slowly, haltingly, he spoke, though he knew not what wellspring of his soul inspired the words. He knew only that as he held the memory of that first meeting in his mind, the lines came: "Shine forth and guide me in this night/ for now mine eyes are blind!/ Leave me not beneath this shade/ but blazon forth now, be my light!" It was perhaps a poor verse, painfully composed, but about him a dead silence fell, and he felt something withdraw from him. He opened his eyes again and gasped, seeing the pale, slinking forms all about him. With a cry, he thrust the brand into the face of the nearest wight, and it shrieked. Tendrils of foul smoke went up from its translucent hide, growing thicker, and then the creature seemed to shrivel, crumbling into ashes as the others scattered, leaving Halbarad to choke on the fumes.
"Halbarad!" He whirled at the sound of Aragorn's voice, and suddenly, the heir of Isildur leapt to his side from the slope above. His knife was drawn, and there was a whitish slime upon its keen blade. The wights fell back still further, then slunk away, leaving the defenders standing back to back upon the hill. The wind blew softly over the Downs and teased at their hair and clothes, and to Halbarad it seemed that the night itself sighed, grateful that it had been released from the terror that nested within it. He felt the tension drain out of him all at once, and he sat down heavily upon the hillside. Aragorn remained standing a moment longer before he eased down on his haunches, facing him. He reached out and laid a hand upon Halbarad's shoulder and said in a low voice, "I thought I had lost you."
"I did lose you," Halbarad replied, chagrined, "I could not see where you had gone!"
"Nay, you misunderstand," said the other, shaking his head, "Had I not heard your voice, I would have strayed to who knows what fate under the hill," and he pointed upward, using the knife tip to indicate the stone-framed door built into the side of the slope. Halbarad blinked, wondering how he could have missed it, even under the spell of the wights.
"I thought of you," Halbarad confessed, feeling his cheeks flush hotly. "I suppose I called to you A poor rhymeit ill suits youbut it was all that came to me."
He raised his eyes to Aragorn's, and saw in that hawk-eyed regard a great tenderness, though a bemused expression played about the other's face. For a moment, neither spoke. Then: "I thought it was beautiful," Estel said simply, and then reached out to give him a hand up. With a sense of wonderment, and no little joy that the barrier between them had crumbled, Halbarad grasped it, and was pulled to his feet. That brief contacthis hand caught within his friend's firm, comforting gripincited in him a strange reassurance that mingled with dread, and yet was the sweeter for that touch of bitter. I will never lose him again! The knowledge came with such certainty and power that he could not deny it, and though he saw his death nestled within that premonition he felt himself vaulted to the heavens upon the tide of relief.
And so he followed Aragorn back down the slippery descent to their camp, and though they watched the darkness in turns in case the wights should return, Halbarad felt no fear. The night passed without further incident, and as the sun rose, so too did they. Aragorn greeted him with a wordless smile that outshone the dawn, one that recalled all the others they had shared when he was still Estel. Thus bound anew to each other, they began afresh and together faced the darkness with good hearts.
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.