My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 19. Trolls
Halbarad crept on stealthy Ranger's feet into the healer's cottage and wrapped his arms around his sister, whose eyes were fixed on a glistening mass in a small bowl. With a squeak she dropped her spoon, twisted around and threw her arms about his neck. "Halbarad! Where have you been?"
He kissed her. "As if that were a secret. The Weather Hills, of course."
"I expected you a month ago."
"Foolish you! Can a Ranger keep to a schedule? But I came first thing to see you."
"Not first thing—by the scent of soap, you've been in the baths first."
"How else can I surprise you?" He grinned. "You'd know me by my rank smell."
"And not allow you in, tracking your dirt," she laughed. "Oh, but I am glad to see you! Come, sit down, and talk to me while I mix this salve."
He ladled out a hot mug of broth from the hearth pot and sat on an old wooden bench against the wall. Closing his eyes, he breathed in the steam from the mug, warm between his chapped hands. "Your broth is as good as a week's sleep, Idhril."
She cast a quick eye of concern at him. "You will rest before returning to the Wild?"
He nodded. "Yes. The plan is for a Troll hunt in the spring east of the Weather Hills. I'll go, of course, and we'll bring animals and supplies from here. We won't leave till February or March."
"A Troll hunt." She shuddered. "Father warned me as much, but still it dismays me."
"Grim business, yes." Halbarad drank deeply from his mug. "I was told I could find Aragorn here in the cottage."
"He is gathering athelas—he found a new patch in the woods. He says we cannot have too much."
"How is he?"
"Tired. He strained himself too much, helping Daeron." She shook her head. "That was a bad business, Halbarad."
"I would have strangled Daeron with my own hands."
"It's well, then, that the man is long gone, or we would be trying you for murder." Her lopsided, regretful smile showed her anger and sorrow. "Truly, I do not know what to think of it all. Aragorn is convinced his memory loss is real. And our father is right that putting Daeron to death would bring far more darkness to the Dúnedain, never mind our need for more men."
"Aragorn is too good. I could kick myself for letting him out of my sight. He needs me to watch his back."
Idhril's eyes twinkled. "He seems to have managed all right without you, brother dear. From what I hear, Daeron was on the ground within minutes."
"That's not what I mean." Unsure himself, he shrugged, thinking back on the last time he had seen Aragorn: at his departure from the Weather Hills to Rivendell. His subdued, determined mood had filled Halbarad with an indefinable apprehension. I am the king's man. "He just needs me."
Idhril shook her head. "It is a shock and a shame that even two men would vote to acquit Daeron. You heard about that, I suppose?"
Halbarad set his teeth. "Yes."
"They still mutter about evil spells and Elves and sorcery, but no one will say it up front. I do not like it. What are we, Dúnedain or savages?"
"Dark times." Halbarad stared into his nearly empty cup. "Dark times."
Footsteps sounded on the flagstones outside, and the door opened. Aragorn carried a small pouch slung from his shoulder. His face broke into the rare smile of incandescence that Halbarad had come to know, but saw too seldom.
Laughing, they embraced before Halbarad stood back, holding Aragorn at arm's length. "You look well enough. I was afraid I would find you in several pieces."
"I am fine. I loll in sloth, while you wander the Wild."
But Halbarad saw the weariness in his eyes. "I think you need lessons in proper sloth. It's a skill I've mastered."
Aragorn gripped his arm, and turned toward Idhril, who stood watching them with a satisfied smile. "I found a good dozen strong leaves, near the old king's crossing. There will be more come spring."
She held out her hands. "Give them to me, I will dry them. The two of you, go. Do some lolling."
Halbarad winked at her. "It's the first step in preparing our task. Goenor, our master Troll hunter, says so."
"Oh, really?" Smiling, Aragorn passed his pouch to Idhril. "Thank you, mistress healer. Now then, Halbarad, instruct me in this important skill."
Halbarad took him to a secluded corner of the Keep where wild roses grew over an abandoned shed. The last of the summer blooms clung to the vines, and inside into the shelter of the old walls, sunlight flickered through the brambles. "One of my favorite hideouts as a boy," Halbarad said, stretching out on the dry grass. "Now we can talk. How was your visit in Rivendell?"
Aragorn lay down beside him. "Good. My mother is well, and happy to have her family together."
"It is as always. Rivendell does not change. I don't think I will be going back soon. This is my place."
Halbarad snorted. "You would think there would be more appreciation of that in the Keep."
Halbarad stuck a twig between his teeth. "I do mind."
"Let me prove myself, for my own sake."
His tone was too grim for Halbarad's liking, but he decided not to remark on it. "We will soon have ample opportunity for that."
"Yes, to my great satisfaction." He turned his head and met Halbarad's eyes. "How I have missed you! I did not realize how lonely it would be here without you and Saelind. I still cannot believe she is gone."
As he always did at such times, Halbarad thought of his dead mother. Her soft eyes smiled as she crooned, sleep, little one, sleep. He shook off his mood. "Men of action we are, you and I. For our great-grandmother's memory, let's go kill Trolls to avenge her son's death."
They shook hands on it.
"Killing Trolls is grim work," said Goenor. "Their size alone makes them dangerous, for all they are as dumb as a post. It's usually best to outwit them. They can see in the dark, and their sense of smell is keen. None of you has ever seen one, am I right?"
They were seated around the campfire on the first night of their journey to the Weather Hills: Halbarad, Aragorn, Rodnor and Rodnion, and Malbeth. With them were two pack ponies loaded with gear and the two hounds, now sleeping, their great heads on their paws.
Halbarad looked up from the arrow he was fletching. "I saw one from a distance, while I was scouting last fall. We did not chase it."
Goenor nodded, his thick grey beard moving with his chin. "We'll need to debrief the men with the latest sightings to determine our path. They usually don't venture so far west. They hoard treasure, and if they have any inkling that some is to be found, that will start them moving. But if there is treasure in the Weather Hills, we don't know it."
Aragorn said. "I have never seen one, only heard the pounding of their hammers in the mountains. In our sorties from Rivendell we skirted the Trollshaws. As long as they stay within those borders, the Elves leave them alone."
"We'll find the trail, and set up our plan." His face grew eager and bright. "Swords aren't much use—you can't usually get close enough to them to gut them, although I have seen it done. Once. The best weapon is bow and arrow—shoot them in the eye, or the mouth. Horses don't help much, either. Even the largest war stallion looks like a toy next to a Troll, and a horse at a gallop is only just faster than a Troll on the march. What's more, the only meat tastier to a Troll than manflesh—is horseflesh."
Goenor turned twinkling eyes on the boy. "Well, well, my child, it's not all bad news. The country folk say that if a man kissed a Troll hag, she would turn into a beautiful Elf maiden. For all I know, that's true."
The twins guffawed.
"Don't go telling that tale in Rivendell," Aragorn laughed. "They'll have your head."
"I would never dare." Goenor winked. "I prefer to hunt with dogs: Carcharoth and Huan are trained to Trolls. They know to keep silent, they can find the lairs faster than we can, and they can go to ground to hide. We will follow the Troll's trail to the lair and watch its movements for several days, or a week. That means all-night vigils. A tall tree is a good post, so I like to bring a couple of boys."
He nodded at Rodnion and Rodnor, who grinned with pride. It was their first mission outside the Angle.
"A Troll's habits are simple and easy to predict once you've watched it a bit," continued Goenor. "Depending on the lay of the land and the particular Troll, we'll aim to wound it and cripple it till the sun comes up and turns it to stone. Spears are the best weapon. Once we set boulders over the door to the lair and let them fly when the Troll came out. That worked well."
Goenor stroked his big grey beard. "I don't know if you know this, Aragorn, but I was there when Arador died."
Aragorn had been staring moodily into the fire, trying not to think about Arwen. He straightened up and gave Goenor his full attention. "I've never heard the full tale. Tell me."
Goenor sighed. "Well, then. It was a terrible thing. We were on horse, traveling south on the outskirts of the Trollshaws—Arador, Arathorn, Beleg, Voronion and I—on our way from Fornost back to the Angle. We stopped for a time in the Weather Hills; there used to be more of our folk there, and it was partly due to the events around Arador's death that so few live there now.
"We had word then also of troubles among the hillmen to the east. For many years we have had little to do with the lands of old Rhudaur beyond the Angle itself; we leave the hillmen alone, and they stay in their own lands. They do not trouble us, but live much as they always have, going back, from what men say, before the Númenoreans came.
"But they spoke of Orcs coming from hills, and that we could not ignore, despite their suspicion and hate. They feared us almost as much as the Orcs and the raiders. 'The Tall Ones,' they call us.
"We set in quick pursuit through the hills and into the downs toward the Ettenmoors. I had my axe and staff, Arathorn his sword and spear, Voronion and Beleg their bows, our horses were swift and strong. We were well-armed to pursue Orcs—but Trolls is what we found. We were not prepared. Beleg tried to stop Arador, I remember. 'Let's fall back—we are too close to Troll land. This is foolish.'
" 'They will get away if we turn our backs,' the Chieftain answered. He didn't know it would be his last ride. He had always been a bold campaigner, overcoming odds by sheer will and daring.
"It was getting dark by then, but Arador kept going, albeit slower for the horses' sake. We didn't stop until we saw a campfire ahead on the hill—our quarry had halted for the night. Arador bade us set up camp, and he, Voronion and Beleg went ahead on foot to scout. Arathorn and I stayed at our camp with the horses. It was cold and we could not risk a fire. We stood at arms the whole time, waiting and ready.
"I don't know how the Trolls came upon them. We never saw Arador again, and Beleg does not remember. We heard shouts, then screaming. We ran into the woods toward the noise, in time to see the loathsome shapes stomping away. Voronion and Beleg lay on the ground. We hauled them into some bushes for the time being and set off after the Trolls. What else could we do? The chieftain was taken.
"We never found Arador. We looked, but it was hopeless. Even in the daytime when we looked for their lair, we could find none. For several days we scouted and watched. When it came time to leave—to give up at last, for Beleg and Voronion were failing and had to be brought to warmth and care—Arathorn cried like a lost child.
"He went back, of course. Many times. No sign of his father was ever found. The Orcs seemed to have vanished; we never heard more of them. Finally, a year later, Arathorn was finally willing to admit what we others had always known—that Arador was dead. You, Aragorn, were just born.
"Beleg was ill a long time. His wound would not heal. The head injury caused spells of unconsciousness. He never recovered any memory of what had happened. Voronion lived—barely. He was never the same. He could no longer speak, and his wife had to care for him like a baby for last year of his life. A terrible end to a great-hearted man.
"I've often wondered if it was a trap—that the Orcs meant to lead us to the Trolls. Others have doubted me; we've never known Trolls to act with others like that, they say. But I say, who knows? Is it not true that the Enemy can mold his creatures to his will? I don't suppose we will ever know what really happened to Arador son of Argonui."
Aragorn met Halbarad's eyes across the fire. "But we will have revenge at last."
The Weather Hills Rangers had a primitive post to the north, and Aragorn and his companions planned to use it as their base camp. Once they were in place at the border of Troll territory, several weeks of meticulous tracking and scouting followed. Aragorn found the first traces; he and Halbarad had broken off from the others to scour the lands to the north.
They spent the night in a treetop, hoping to see the creature itself, sitting back to back on a sturdy branch, seeking warmth from each other's bodies, and speaking spoke only with hand signals. In the deep of night they heard the Troll coming from a good distance: a sound almost of fire racing through the wood as the huge form crashed through bushes and trees. The moonlight illuminated all her hideousness—for it was a Troll hag—as she pounded through the wood.
She carried a huge club in one monstrous hand. Her bare feet flattened all in her path. Lank hair sprouted from her ugly head; thick, bulbous lips stretched across a wide maw filled with teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Her tongue flicked out and licked spittle from the edges of her mouth. Her piggish eyes roamed to and fro across the ground before her; the club swayed in her grasp.
The Troll was hungry. Aragorn wondered how she could possibly catch anything, with the noise of her pounding feet, her grunting throat, her great beefy hands ripping out the small trees. Surely all the creatures would have run.
The Troll swept down into the bracken, and a young doe tried to leap away. With a roar of triumph the Troll swung her club down onto the creature's back. Tossing the club to the ground, she seized the doe with two hands and tore its legs off. One after another pieces of the deer disappeared into the huge maw, while blood ran down her chin and onto her wrinkled dugs and the filthy leather wrapped around her hairy waist. She grunted with pleasure as her teeth crunched through the animal's bones and flesh.
Fighting against his heaving belly, Aragorn forced himself to watch. He had to learn about these loathsome creatures. They had to be driven back, for the sake of all, and not least for vengeance. For what was happening to the doe was what had happened to his grandfather.
At last she finished, picked up her club, and headed off in the direction of the stream—to wash down her hideous meal, he guessed.
Aragorn and Halbarad were silent till all sound of the Troll's passing was gone. Even if it had been safe to do so, Aragorn did not think he could have spoken. He shivered with horror and disgust, and gripped Halbarad's arms for strength. Halbarad grabbed his shoulders, and Aragorn could feel his companion's trembling. After a while their hearts began to still.
"Well," Halbarad spoke low, his voice blending with the murmuring of the fir tree. "Do you think if we kissed her she would turn into a beauty?"
Aragorn pressed his lips together to suppress his snort. "Why don't you try it?"
They laughed soundlessly and mirthlessly, glad for each other's companionship.
The Rangers moved camp near to the place where Halbarad and Aragorn had seen the Troll. Nearby was a narrow trail leading to a deep gulch, which Goenor judged ideal for a nighttime ambush: they would lure the Troll into a trap.
Under the light of the full moon, they lined each side of the low cliffs above the rocky trail, and waited for the noise of the Troll's nightly rampage: hours they waited, till a bare hour before dawn. Aragorn stood, spear in hand, at the edge opposite Goenor and Malbeth with the two dogs. Halbarad and Rodnor stood on Aragorn's side; Rodnion on Goenor's; all three with bows at the ready. Carcharoth and Huan quivered with the anticipation of the chase; their eager noses first caught the stench of the Troll's approach and they pricked their ears with excitement. With a quick snap of his fingers Goenor released them to the chase. Baying, they disappeared into the night; soon the roars of the Troll sounded in the dark. Almost as if following orders, the Troll stomped after the dogs into the ambush, leading to the gulch covered with branches and leaves—strong enough to bear a dog's weight, but not a Troll's.
Aragorn crouched, waiting for the moment to hurl his spear as the archers shot at the Troll. The dogs' broad backs gleamed in the moonshine as they howled in their flight toward the trap. Aragorn could hear and smell the Troll before he saw her, her gruesome head just below his hiding place on the cliff.
A scream rang out, the crumbling sound of a body and rocks rolling down a hill: arms flailing, his bow broken, Rodnion tumbled down the cliff's face, and Aragorn heard the sickening crunch of a broken bone. "Rodnion!" he called as he leaped down the slope, heedless of anything but the boy's danger.
From above Halbarad was already firing arrows at the Troll. Some hit her, but she reacted not at all, her malicious eyes focused only on the boy before her.
"Aim at her head!" Goenor shouted to Halbarad as he and Malbeth rolled down the slope.
The Troll grabbed Rodnion around the waist. The boy was screaming with terror as she lifted him to her hideous mouth, jaws gaping.
Aragorn focused on her scaly back and plunged the spear between her ribs, shouting, "Die, you monster, die!" She roared, and made as if to turn, but Goenor ducked under her huge arm and thrust his spear into her belly.
His spear stuck in the creature's stinking body, Aragorn swept Morchamion out of its scabbard and began swiping at the Troll's legs. Roaring like a bear, Goenor repeatedly stabbed at the Troll's belly until she swatted him aside with one huge hand. Lifting Rodnion overhead, she began to lower him head first into her mouth.
Aragorn tried to shut out the boy's sickening screams as he made one last mighty thrust of his sword into the Troll's side. As her jaws met around Rodnion's neck, she swayed and toppled, knocking Aragorn over in her fall. Goenor leaped up and with one bound thrust his spear into her eye. She shuddered and lay still.
Aragorn hauled himself to his feet and climbed over the trunk-like leg.
What remained of Rodnion's head in the Troll's mouth was a mass of bone, blood and brain.
His courage melted into grief, and his voice joined the anguished cries of his companions. Malbeth was sobbing Rodnion's name, his hands, covered in his brother's blood, clutching the boy's still intact shoulders, drawing him to his breast.
Aragorn scarcely felt the pain of his bruised side, although a voice spoke at the back of his mind, Watch out, your leg, do not injure it further, think of Elrond's warnings! He ignored it. He stared at the agonizing scene before him, but no tears would come to his eyes.
He swept his eyes up to the cliff where Rodnion's twin was supposed to be. He had not moved. Halbarad was at his side, attempting to remove the drawn bow and nocked arrow from the boy's frozen hands.
Aragorn could not hear what Halbarad was saying as he took the boy's weapons and laid them at his side, then took his hands. Halbarad's dark head bent over Rodnor. Tears started in Aragorn's eyes as he turned his attention again to the scene before him.
Goenor had spread his cloak over the boy's body, and was trying to draw Malbeth away. "We must leave here. This is no place to give way to grief. We are not safe."
"See to the dogs," Aragorn said as he limped around the Troll's hulk to the boy's body.
Malbeth lifted his tear-stained face and whistled sharply. The dogs slunk back, ears and tails drooping, down the bloody path, whining. Malbeth dropped to the ground and held the beasts to him. Sniffing the air and howling by turn, they huddled close to their master.
Aragorn helped Goenor wrap the boy's body in the cloak. All around the dead Troll his life blood pooled. Except for his crushed head and the leg broken in his fall, he had no injuries.
"Can you help bear his weight back to the camp?" Goenor asked. "Are you fit?"
"I am well enough," Aragorn answered. "It's bruising only; how severe I will not know until I tend it."
"For a minute I thought the Troll had crushed you."
"The sun is coming up," Geonor said. "Watch."
The light glimmered in the far eastern sky, spreading rapidly across the treeless hills. When the first beam fell upon the dead Troll, her lumpy greenish flesh hardened into dull grey stone; her lanky hair became brown weeds; her black blood thickened into foul muck.
"We killed one," Aragorn said quietly. "At a terrible cost."
Goenor did not reply. In silence they bore the body back to the camp hidden in the wood.
Halbarad helped Malbeth arrange his brother's body, nestled among the leaves and covered with the green branches of fir trees. "Tomorrow we will bury him, here near to where he fell, as befits a hero of the Rangers."
White-faced, eyes as blank as a muddy puddle, Rodnor stared at him.
Goenor began to prepare some food—a thick porridge. "We need something hot today," he muttered. He looked up wearily and scanned the horizon through the trees.
Aragorn knew he worried that other Trolls might be summoned by the bellowing of their dying sister. We must remain hidden for the day, in quiet. He stripped his breeches from his bruised leg and probed the flesh, seeking out any deeper hurt. But it seemed that he had escaped with a buffeting that would leave his side black and blue, but no worse.
Suddenly Rodnor bolted up. "I must see him," he said wildly. "You said he's dead, but I don't believe it. I feel him calling." He turned as if to run to the bower where his twin's body lay.
Ignoring his body's protests, Aragorn leaped up and seized the boy's hands. "Shh, shh," he said gently. "Yes, he is dead, a hero. You are in shock. Sit here with me," and he drew the boy down and threw a thick woolen cloak over the two of them, and held the trembling boy against the warmth of his chest.
So Elladan and Elrohir had done in the early years of Estel's rides, when the horror of blood and death seemed too much to be borne.
How would my brothers feel if one were killed? The living would hear the voice of the dead calling. I know this happens with Elves, whose spirits live after their bodies are gone. But Men? How little I know of my own kind.
Later that day clouds moved over the sun and a light rain began to fall. It seemed to Aragorn that all the sky and the land wept for the dead boy, cut down so young, and in an accident that never should have happened. With soft whines, the dogs crept to him, leaning against Rodnor's side and back, quiet and mournful. Rodnor stroked their thick coats and rubbed their ears. But he did not cry.
Malbeth brought out his small lute and began to sing. He sang of heroism and sacrifice, of the bitterness of death.
As anguished as his feelings already were, Aragorn's heart burst in two when Malbeth's rich voice began to sing Lúthien's lament for Beren.
The song that melted the heart of Mandos himself. Never would I want to bring such grief to my love, but there is no fear of that. I have not earned such passion. Love and grief. Did my mother grieve so for Arathorn? And my grandfather, he who was eaten by a Troll as Rodnion barely escaped—who mourned for him?
He wished the tears would come. Behind him stretched years, generations, of dead chieftains and kings, and still he did not feel as one of them. Still the name of Arathorn drew only emptiness in his mind's eye—an abyss to nothingness. Loss and grief seized him like the wave of Númenor drowning all the land, leaving only the grey sea and the lonely call of the gull. But the grief had a stranger's name.
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