My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Water and Stone: 20. Cold Duty
‘Are you hungry?’ came Aiglin’s voice from the other side of the talan. ‘You’re very thin, you need to eat.’
Celinn sighed. ‘You remind me of naneth,’ he said gently. ‘I’ve already eaten; you know that; you prepared the meal yourself.’
‘I know,’ said Aiglin, coming across to him. ‘I just want you to be well again.’
‘I am well, Aiglin. Soon I will ask Haldir to give me some duties.’
‘But it’s too soon! It’s only three days since…’ He stopped abruptly, seeing Celinn beginning to withdraw into himself. Carefully, as if a sudden movement would cause his brother to spring away from him into the forest like a wild animal, he sat down beside him on the wooden boards. Celinn’s shoulders remained hunched and his head down, but the sense of imminent flight was gone.
‘I am sorry, brother,’ said Aiglin. ‘It is just that I have missed you so much, I can’t help fretting over you now that you are home with me again.’
Celinn said nothing, but he reached out and laid his hand on Aiglin’s head. After a moment his fingers travelled down to the ends of his brother’s cropped hair.
‘It is cold without it, is it not?’ he said quietly.
‘It is, but I am glad I can share this with you,’ said Aiglin. ‘In any case, Haldir told me he had to reprimand one of the younger elves who was talking about cropping his own hair to be like you.’
Celinn shifted slightly in his chair. ‘Someone wanted to have their hair like this? Without duress?’ he said, incredulous.
‘I think it is the story of your courage that has made it desirable,’ said Aiglin, smiling.
Celinn said nothing. Aiglin glanced round at him cautiously and saw the deep frown between his brows. ‘We will not speak of it now,’ he said, ‘if you do not wish it.’ But Celinn seemed lost in his own thoughts and did not reply.
There was a faint musical tinkling sound and Aiglin leapt to his feet and looked down from the edge of the talan. Gwirith and Luinil were waiting at the bottom.
‘What do you want?’ said Aiglin, irritably.
‘Surely Celinn’s not still sleeping, Aiglin? You have already turned us away the last two days. We want to see him!’ Luinil called up to him.
Aiglin scowled but relented. ‘Just a few minutes then. Is he coming up too?’
‘Yes, Gwirith would like to see him as well, if you have no objections.’
Aiglin turned with a sigh and disappeared into the talan as Luinil and Gwirith climbed the ladder and stepped on to the platform. Celinn did not turn as they approached him, and Aiglin had to lean down and speak to him before he noticed their presence.
Gwirith took a deep breath and went to sit on the floor beside him, with Luinil on Celinn’s other side. Celinn was dressed all in white in long tunic and breeches, with an old pale blue woollen cloak around his shoulders. The scars on his wrists had faded already to lines of silver. His face was still and calm, but there were dark shadows under his eyes and a strange light in them, as if he had brought back to Arda with him some echo of Mandos within his own body.
‘I wanted to see you before, but I have been sleeping so much…’ said Celinn. His gaze grew distant and for several minutes he was silent, seemingly unaware of their presence. Gwirith watched him, forgetful of everything but the beauty of his face, lost in reverie. Then Celinn came back to himself. He looked at Luinil, then turned and met Gwirith’s eyes. Gwirith’s heart shook within him, but he returned his gaze levelly until Celinn smiled at him, and then he had to look away.
‘I don’t know what to say to you, Gwirith,’ said Celinn softly.
Gwirith turned back to him quickly. ‘Then say nothing,’ he said. Celinn regarded at him calmly.
Gwirith strove again to make his gaze neutral and composed, but Celinn read the question in it nevertheless. For a long moment he surveyed Gwirith’s face, and the intensity of his regard pierced Gwirith painfully. But then he lowered his eyes and looked down at his hands which lay palms upturned in his lap.
Not a word had passed between them, but in those few seconds Gwirith knew his heart had been seen and refused. Something must have revealed itself in his face because Luinil said,
‘Brother, are you well?’ and made to come over to him, but then Aiglin pulled him by the arm, and they both got up and left Celinn and Gwirith alone.
There was a long silence. Gwirith breathed slowly against the pain in his heart, listening to the soft rustle of the wind in the frozen branches outside the talan.
‘It is not that I would not, but that I cannot,’ murmured Celinn at last, without looking up. ‘Do you understand, Gwirith?’
Gwirith shook his head mutely. Celinn reached out and touched his cheek but Gwirith started and flinched away from him. Celinn looked at him sadly.
‘If I could love anyone, I would love you,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘I have given much thought to this in the last days, since Mandos refused to take me. Do you know why he sent me back?’
Gwirith shook his head again, still unable to speak.
‘He told me he had weighed my heart, and that more of it was given over to love than to the desire for death. Only a little more, but it was enough for him to refuse me. But that is not enough to give to another. It would be a pitiful, broken thing to offer.’
‘It would be enough for me,’ whispered Gwirith.
‘I would not let you waste your heart on me.’ He turned in his chair and looked full in Gwirith’s eyes. ‘At first you would be happy, but you would always hope that I could return your love, and at last you would hate me when I could not. It is a dream, Gwirith, it cannot be. I am myself and my mind is clear again; I know my words are true.’
‘But you can be healed,’ said Gwirith, a slight tremor sounding in his voice. ‘I was just as you are now; my heart was a stone in my breast. Now it lives again and knows love because you gave me the courage to open myself. And now I am open to you, Celinn. Why will you not learn the lesson yourself?’
Celinn seemed suddenly to shrink before him. ‘Because of what he did to me,’ he whispered. ‘I have tried, Gwirith, but I cannot do it. I don’t think I will ever be able to do it.’
‘Maybe it is too soon…’
‘No. How could my body ever forget, even after a thousand years?’ His voice sank to a mere breath. ‘Gwirith, I could never touch you as a lover, or let you touch me. No healing can wipe out that day, and what happened. The past cannot be altered by any wish or ritual.’
‘But the present can, and the future,’ said Gwirith, a note of desperation in his voice. ‘Alcarion will never return to me, but my grief no longer breaks my heart.’
‘Gwirith,’ said Celinn. ‘My heart is mending. I know what you are to me. Your love has held me from the day I felt your touch on my fea while…while Adanwath tormented and abused me, and through all the days between, to when I woke and looked up into your face three days ago; and it does so still. Now I know this, now that I am myself again. In time my heart will be whole, and I will love you like a brother, like a comrade. But I will never be able to love you with the love of my body. I will love no-one in that way, while my life continues. I can fulfil my oath before the Valar; I can be an honourable captain and comrade; I can fight the Dark. This must be enough for me: I cannot look for any more than this.’ His face was very pale again, the long scar standing out livid on his cheek.
‘Celinn,’ said Gwirith, urgently. ‘This is madness. You choose to turn away from love, and to condemn yourself to uncounted years of loneliness, because of the pain and fear that prevents you from healing!’
Celinn turned away from him sharply, but Gwirith went on.
‘I know the terror you cannot face: the terror that you must reopen wounds that are barely closed, whose pain you fear would drive you mad, and shatter the fragile balance of your fea; that the healing will be worse than the wounding. Please, Celinn.’ Gwirith reached up then and, with one hand on his scarred cheek, very gently turned Celinn back to face him. ‘Do not take this path. I would not that you should become as I was, so deep in loneliness that it was like a friend to me; my heart so cold that I do not know how I stayed in life.’
Celinn did not look away, but his eyes were the darkest turquoise blue that Gwirith had ever seen them, and he seemed to have withdrawn so far that he could not be reached. Gwirith was seized with desperation.
‘My dearest Celinn,’ he said in a shaking voice, ‘If you will consent to seek your healing, I will give my own love for you to pay the price. If you swear to me now that you will not close yourself, I will leave you now and you may forbid me from ever returning to your side if that is what you wish. I cannot bear to watch you take the same path that I took, a path that leads to nothing but a withering cold darkness. I say this to show you that it is not for myself that I ask this, but for you.’
He fell silent, but the words he had spoken rang in the air between them. Celinn’s hands were trembling in his lap and for a moment it seemed as if he was so disturbed that he would take immediate flight, but for a few seconds he clenched his hands so tightly that the knuckles stood out white under the skin, and with that gesture seemed to master himself. At last he gave a deep sigh.
‘Gwirith, you ask of me two things which I cannot do: to open myself, and to send you away. If I were able, I would do the first and refuse the second. But for now you must take me as I am. That is all I have to give you.’ His voice shook a little and his hand fumbled blindly for Gwirith’s and found it.
‘Forgive me, Celinn,’ said Gwirith in a low voice. ‘I should not have asked this of you. I will not speak of it again. You know that I love you, and if ever you should want me, I will come to you.’ He held Celinn’s cold hand in both of his and felt the erratic vibration of his wounded fea. Later he could weep: for now he would attend to Celinn.
‘So you will ask Haldir to give you back your command,’ he said to him, when he was able to speak calmly.
‘I will, when I am stronger. He may wish me to undertake the lutir, but I hope it will not be for too long. Now, unless I meet my end in battle or a new grief overcomes me, I know that the door of Mandos is closed to me, and I feel my spirit turning back to Arda. The desire to die has left me, and my wounds are almost healed. So I will live, and eat, and sleep, and do my duty. That will be my life, almost as it was before.’ Celinn’s voice was steady, but his face was bleak as he looked with his mind’s eye on the future he was describing. Gwirith saw this, but resolved not to press him.
‘Soon the thaw will come,’ he said, looking out at the snow. ‘The winter has been long.’
‘Yes,’ said Celinn. Gwirith felt Celinn’s energy beginning to attain a quieter vibration, and unconsciously he began to stroke Celinn’s hand soothingly.
‘I have missed the greenness of the forest,’ said Gwirith. ‘Soon I will go out to look for some new wood for my craft.’
‘Thank you for the bow,’ said Celinn suddenly. ‘I don’t know when I will be able to use it, but it will be good to try it out. And…for the bowstring.’ Sensing difficult ground, Gwirith simply nodded without speaking. ‘Haldir brought back the stones,’ he went on, indicating them on the small table near him. ‘You can take yours back now if you want, your oath is fulfilled.’
‘Do you wish me to?’ said Gwirith.
‘Yes,’ said Celinn. ‘I am ready to take up my oath again, and you can lay it down.’
‘Very well,’ said Gwirith, and he reached over and picked up the dun and gold stone and weighed it in his hand.
‘I am glad I could carry this for you, Celinn,’ he said. Celinn smiled at him, and all at once Gwirith felt his courage about to break. But he opened his heart as Galadriel had taught him and refused to flee from what he felt, and all was well.
Celinn watched him in that moment, and he saw Gwirith straighten his shoulders as though to take up a burden, and suddenly before his eyes was the image of Gwirith on the day he came to Caras Galadhon, his proud closed face sharply clear against the deep green of the forest, the whole energy of his body working to keep him in balance while he carried the burden of his grief. And in that moment Gwirith’s love became a reality to Celinn, and he saw how he carried it, lightly but deeply by virtue of his open heart.
‘Brother, I hope he has not tired you out with talking,’ said Aiglin’s voice behind them. Celinn looked up at his brother’s white face and Aiglin stumbled suddenly to his knees and buried his face in Celinn’s lap, wrapping his arms round him. Celinn’s whole body tensed and it was clear he wished with his whole energy to resist Aiglin’s embrace, but he fought against the impulse and remained still. Unaware of Celinn’s discomfort, Luinil moved nearer to Aiglin, stroking his back gently.
At last Aiglin sighed and sat up. ‘I am sorry, I did not mean to be so irritable with you,’ he said, looking at Gwirith. ‘I have been telling Luinil…it is just that I have missed him so much, and you were the only one…’
‘Hush, Aiglin. It is finished now,’ said Celinn. ‘We are back home, and we are together. I have told you so.’
‘Yes,’ said Aiglin. ‘You have. Well, let us forget that time and talk about today. You two must help me to persuade my foolish brother not to run to Haldir at once to ask to be returned to duty.’
‘What?’ cried Luinil. ‘Of course it is too soon! Celinn, what are you thinking of? Gwirith, you speak to him. He will listen to you.’
But Gwirith looked at Celinn steadily, and said, ‘Celinn must do as he chooses.’ Aiglin threw up his arms in horror and began to express his views on Gwirith’s irresponsible laxness, but Celinn looked at him as if his words stirred a memory in him that he could not quite grasp.
‘Oh, enough, Aiglin,’ cried Luinil. ‘You know Celinn has always followed his own way, and he will not change now. Be reconciled to it!’
‘Well, I will be, if you will go and leave him in peace. Yes, now! I said you could see him for a few minutes, and the sun is already past its height. He must rest, so begone!’
And indeed, they could see that Celinn was gazing at them through half closed eyes under which the dark shadows had deepened. Aiglin began to bustle them towards the ladder, and all Gwirith could do was to say a hasty farewell and watch Celinn’s sea green eyes until, just before he stepped off the platform, he saw his eyelids close and extinguish their vivid colour.
‘And don’t be coming back tonight to disturb him again,’ said Aiglin’s voice from up above them. ‘Leave him in peace for a while.’
Gwirith stepped down on to the snow and waited for Luinil to leap the last few feet.
‘Who would guess that he is happier than he has been for months?’ said Luinil. ‘He is as caustic as Haldir when he is sharpening his tongue on the new recruits.’
They laughed at that together, and the ache in Gwirith’s heart diminished a little as they walked away into the forest.
Celinn walked towards the guardroom in the soft light of dawn, finding the road he had walked so many times both familiar and strange. He could see his company gathered outside, waiting for him. Gwirith and Aiglin were bareheaded, and their cropped heads still shocked him. He always kept his own head covered, even when he was alone. The rest of the company were hooded and cloaked, ready for the journey to Cerin Amroth where they would be on watch duty.
Celinn stopped by the door of the guardroom. The members of his company looked at him seriously, and there was something in their look which he did not understand. Maybe that was just part of the strangeness of returning to duty.
‘Greetings to all of you. Is everyone prepared?’ he said, glancing round at them.
‘Captain,’ said Caranfir. ‘We wanted to say how very glad we are to see you on duty with us again.’
‘We have been scattered around Rumil’s and Orophin’s companies,’ said Sirion, ‘and it is good to be back with each other, and with you.’
‘Thank you,’ said Celinn, a little surprised. ‘I am also very happy to be back with you all. Shall we go?’
‘Wait, just a moment,’ said Caranfir. ‘We have…something to show you. May we…?’
‘Certainly,’ said Celinn, ‘but make haste, we must be on our way.’
Caranfir glanced round at the others, and then all except Gwirith and Aiglin removed their hoods. Celinn gasped and his hand came up to cover his mouth. Every single member of the company had cropped his hair like Celinn’s, with the same slender braid falling on to their right shoulder.
Celinn stared at them, unable to speak, his face at first blank and emotionless. But gradually a deep sadness began to bloom in his eyes, and he walked slowly towards Caranfir and reached out to touch the cropped auburn hair and the single long braid that had been spared.
‘Caranfir, your hair was so beautiful,’ he whispered. ‘You didn’t need to do this to yourself, just to…to keep me company.’
Caranfir swallowed audibly. ‘I wanted to do it, cousin. We all did. We are one company, and we belong together, in this as in our duty to one another and to Lorien itself.’
Celinn turned away from him and went to each member of the company in turn, laying his hand gently on each cropped head. He came last to Gwirith.
‘You began this,’ he said, and there was a shadow of accusation in his voice. Gwirith nodded.
‘But I did not urge it on anyone else,’ said Gwirith. ‘They chose it, because they love you.’
Celinn was silent for so long that Aiglin came to his side.
‘It is done now, Celinn. Now we are alike, every one of us.’
Some nameless feeling passed across Celinn’s face, like wind rippling over water.
‘Thank you,’ he said, in a tight, choked voice, looking at each of them in turn. His eyes met Gwirith’s and he looked away quickly. ‘I did not expect this. I…no longer have the…skill of words that I once had, to tell you…what is in my heart. But…I know it could not have been easy…for any of you to do this.’
‘It was not easy,’ said Caranfir, ‘but at least Gwirith will be able to make plenty of bowstrings.’
Celinn gave a pale smile, his hand straying to the braid on his own shoulder.
‘Shall we go, then?’ he said quietly, turning away, and the company fell in behind him.
A month later, on Midwinter night, Aragorn sat huddled in the corner of a half-empty hay barn, reading some letters in the light of the small fire Degil and his three companions had made inside an old cauldron he had found. They had had a small celebration of the festival, and his head was still spinning a little from the potent rough Dunlendish wine he had drunk. Aragorn had wished to find his companions some better shelter on such a cold night, but an unexpected meeting with some Dunlendish farmers had degenerated into a bitter little skirmish, and this was all they had been able to find before night fell.
The first letter was from his brothers, written some weeks before, saying they wished he could go home with them for the festival. Bad weather never deterred them from hunting, but since the snow had come early this year they had permitted themselves the luxury of returning to Imladris for Midwinter and were on their way there when they met the messenger who carried this letter.
Aragorn read through their letter quickly, then folded it up roughly and stuffed it into the pocket of his tunic. He could not allow himself to think too much about Imladris tonight, or he might not be able to bear how much he longed to be there again with his brothers and his foster-father…and of course with Arwen.
He broke the seal on the next parchment and saw that it came from Gwirith, and was dated from less than a month before. Leaning closer to the fire, he began to read.
‘Greetings to the chief of the Dunedain from Gwirith of Lorien.
My Lord, I write in the name of one we both know, who could not himself reply to your letter.’
Aragorn’s heart jolted, and he read on quickly.
‘Do not fear, for he lives still. When your letter reached him, the darkness in his heart was great, and increased in the following days. Certain events brought him to the end of his endurance, and he wished to walk the path to Mandos, and took himself away from us to do so. But by chance and persistence we came to him, and though he came to the end, he has returned to us in a way that cannot easily be explained, and continues in life. If you chance to see him again, he may speak of it to you.
So he is healed, but he is not the same as he was, and seeks a life of honour with his comrades about him, but looks for nothing more for himself.
For my part I am glad he no longer desires to die, but would wish more for him than cold duty.
His brother has read your letter to him and he sends you his greetings and wishes success on your enterprise, and of course I do the same. If you are near, come back to us for Midwinter and feast with us. All of us here, from the highest to the lowest, look to the day when you return to us so that we may look again on your face.
Blessings go with you,
Aragorn folded the letter up carefully and put it away with the first one. Maybe if he ever became King he would forbid the sending of letters to those far from home at festival times. When the messenger had put the letters in his hands, he had been full of joy, and had waited all day to be able to read them; but now he had, his heart was heavy, full of longing for his kin and sorrowful at the thought of Celinn’s ‘cold duty’, as Gwirith described it.
And of course duty could be very cold, especially on Midwinter night in the snow, without any near to whom he could turn for comfort, either of the heart or of the body. Aragorn sighed deeply, and as he came to learn the cost of bearing his true name, a little more grimness etched itself into his face as he fought against the tears his heart would weep, but could not, now that he was Chieftain, and sat among his men.
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