1. In the Woods
They had camped on the edge of a frost-locked forest for weeks, brought there by rumours of bands of ravaging orcs. Rumours that seemed more groundless by the day.
In the beginning the weather was cold, but clear. They had delighted in crystal-vaulted nights and northern lights flickering like green-tinged ghost-candles on the horizon. Then the temperature increased, a little; too warm for northern lights, but still cold. Black frost remained; its iron claws firmly set in the ground. Some mornings there was a dusting of snow on the furs they were sleeping under, but it quickly dispersed, like rags on the wind.
Food was running low and Halbarad couldn't remember last time they had a wash. There was nothing new in going for a long time without a wash, but the joke that an extra layer of grime meant an extra layer of warmth didn't seem as funny as it usually did. Something was different. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but somehow this place, this grey, snowless winter slowly wore them down, like fine sand brushing stone.
For the last two nights Aragorn had said nothing.
Halbarad watched him from the opposite side of the fire. He didn't think he had ever seen him this thin, ragged and filthy, knowing he would have presented a similar picture to Aragorn - had he bothered looking up. He had a wall of silence around him that did not invite breaching.
Worry gnawed inside Halbarad. Something was approaching, headed for Aragorn, and he wasn't at all sure it was from the forest around them.
Aragorn wakes in the first grey light– it falls through the branches with unease it its wake. A breath drawn in, but not let out; something hovering at the corner of his eyes. He shivers, gets up and moves close to the fire. He rakes the embers, puts one more wood; wants to draw a boundary between himself, and the encroaching...something. Then it seems to him that the flames contract rather than rise higher, as if they are starved of air –and it is becoming hard to breathe. He puts his shaking hands close to the fire to warm them. Too close.
There is a sharp pain when the flames burn into his palms.
And then he runs...
When Halbarad woke and found no Aragorn beside him his mouth went dry. He scrambled to his feet and looked around for any sign as to where he had gone; not easy in this frozen land. But at last he saw a trail of broken branches and crushed ice, leading into the forest. He followed it, ran past still trees and black frozen pools that stared up at him; like eyes with white, spidery veins shooting down into the depths.
The trail went downwards, towards the river.
The river was narrow and covered with uneven ice-sheets. Only here and there did water bubble up through cracks in the ice. Large boulders lay scattered, and Halbarad found Aragorn by the riverbank, leaned against one of them.
Halbarad approached him uncertainly; saying the other's name. Aragorn didn't stir. In the end Halbarad knelt beside him, took his face in his hands and turned his head gently.
Eyes, like pools of trapped moonlight, stared straight past him out of a face he recognised as Aragorn's, but from which the Aragorn he knew had gone.
As panic rose, Halbarad's first impulses was to slap him hard across the face, shake him, wrestle him to the ground...but something deep down told him he could only wait this out. So at last he just grabbed Aragorn's wrist hard with a shaking hand - and waited.
On a background of silence that seemed to reverberate in tune with his hammering heart, time and water trickled and flowed. Halbarad had no idea how long they sat there. Finally Aragorn moved a little and Halbarad turned his head slowly. It took all his courage to look Aragorn in the face. The eyes that looked back at him were tired and weary, but the eyes he knew. He held the gaze as tension slowly drained out of him, leaving him exhausted and close to tears.
They walked slowly back without saying anything, but as they reached the campsite Aragorn turned towards him.
"Thank you," he said.
"For being here."
Halbarad bandaged Aragorn's burned hands. Then he walked purposefully to his pack and took out a bottle of liquor. Inebriation was something they rarely could allow themselves, but at least this dreary, godforsaken forest had proved to be safe - regarding outer foes. He held up the bottle and Aragorn nodded.
After a while he asked the question uppermost in his mind.
"What happened, Aragorn?"
Aragorn didn't answer at first. He put his chin on his knees and pushed his boot soles closer to the fire.
"I got lost in the woods," he said finally.
Halbarad didn't find the enigmatic answer particularly satisfying, but let it be. He knew Aragorn well enough not to ask any further. But as he sat there and relaxed into pleasant intoxication he thought he maybe understood some of it: about the precarious equilibrium in which Aragorn was held, between possible greatness and possible disaster. He was Isildur's heir, and he might still go the same way. He was Estel, but he might still crush everyone's hopes. He had other's love, but he might still lose it in the end.
It was a heavy burden to bear, for any man.
Maybe he was allowed to get lost in the woods occasionally. Maybe madness sometimes was the only sane place to be.
Halbarad took another swig from the bottle and passed it to Aragorn.
Tomorrow they would leave, he decided. They would pack up and walk to a cluster of dwellings a day's walk away. There they would knock on the door on a small cabin set a little apart from the others. The woman who lived there would open and look at them with neither enthusiasm nor hostility; the cold had worn away most her facial expressions long ago. In the end she would invite them in and offer them a place near her small fire and a bowl of her thin soup. They would spend the night in her sooty hovel, curled up...
The sound of Aragorn's voice pulled him back to the present.
He was half talking, half singing into the fire; his voice gently lilting and a little slurred:
There was a wood, a witches' wood,
All the trees therein were pale;
They bore no branches green and good...
He paused, threw some old leaves into the flames and continued:
And in the midst a pool there lay
Of water white, as thou' a scare
Had frightened off the eye of day
And kept the Moon reflected there.
Halbarad shuddered, thinking of Aragorn's frozen, faraway stare down by the river...kept the moon reflected there...
He pushed the memory away. At the moment he wouldn't think about the past or the future. He wouldn't think beyond the circumference of the flames and the comforting thought that they were really only two filthy rangers; friends sharing a drink and a fire.
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.