My Aragon Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 20. Beyond the Circles of the World
In the torchlight Halbarad saw a clutter of monstrous clubs in a pile to the right. Beyond, in the gloom, loomed vast shapes, silent, motionless. Bones and ragged bits of hide strewn on the floor showed that the Troll had not always eaten her catch whole. Just beyond the smaller opening—the Troll must have had to stoop to enter—the rough-hewn, dark rock soared up to a narrow roof where the dark shapes of sleeping bats hung.
They moved cautiously to the larger space where ancient chests stood against the walls, covered with skins. Giving his torch to Aragorn, Halbarad heaved open one massive lid to reveal a jumble of broken daggers, pieces of armor, bones—some human—with shreds of dried flesh attached. He dropped the lid in disgust. If the chest held coins or jewels, it would take work to find them.
On the other side was a crude wooden table as high as Halbarad was tall, beside it a vast carved stone tub, set to catch a trickle of water off the cave wall. On the table were several human skulls, upside down and without their jaws. Halbarad saw a glimmer of liquid through the eyeholes and muttered, "Some mother's son, now a drinking cup." Aragorn shuddered and moved deeper into the cave. He gestured Halbarad forward: a bend in the passage loomed ahead. Cautiously and noiselessly they rounded it, to find the Troll's hoard: weapons of all kinds littered the floor. In the flickering torchlight gleamed many swords and axes.
Halbarad drew one blade and fingered the edge. "This is a fine weapon that we should put to use against our enemies." He placed it against the wall and picked up a heavy leather scabbard: the knife within bore a black pommel carved with a hideous red face at its end. In revulsion he dropped it. "A weapon of the Enemy, no mistake."
Last were several pots of copper and silver coins. Beyond, a dark, low tunnel dug into the bowels of the earth.
The company loaded two sturdy pack horses, brought from the main Ranger camp, with as much of the valuables from the Troll's hoard as the beasts could carry. The coin and weapons all would be of great worth to the Dúnedain in use and trade. They hastily buried what human remains could be quickly removed from the loathsome den. Halbarad tried not to think about Rodnion rotting beneath the earth, soon to be bones like these, but the image of the dead boy would not leave his mind.
The journey home seemed endless. Even the blossoming spring did not lighten Halbarad's mood. When dark fell, Rodnor curled up to sleep between Malbeth and the two great hounds, but even so he had bad dreams nearly every night. His nightmare cries of fear and sorrow shook Halbarad's heart. Aragorn also seemed to be passing restless nights, but he growled at Halbarad's questions or expressions of concern. Halbarad stomped off in disgust. Manwë asking Fëanor for the Silmarils probably got a more friendly response.
Halbarad struggled to keep up his own spirits. He dreaded telling Hawk the news of his grandson's ghastly death. But Goenor shook his head. "No, Halbarad, it will be best from me. I am the leader of this troop and his lifelong friend."
Halbarad nodded, and glanced at Aragorn to catch his eye. But Aragorn sat alone, his shoulders slumped, wholly absorbed in his private sorrow. Irritated, Halbarad wondered if Aragorn thought death was any easier for the rest of them, just because they had known it all their lives.
The people of the Angle were busy with the spring sowing as the company journeyed to Thurnost, and there were few other travelers on the road. The Keep, too, was quiet. Except for the men needed to guard the perimeter of the Angle and the Keep itself, all Rangers were now in the Wild till winter set in. Hawk had gone to Tharbad, and Goenor and Malbeth soon left to bring him the tidings of Rodnion's death and to bolster the post. Ivorwen took Rodnor to stay for a time with her family in the Commons, to look after him in his grief. Hallor buried himself in his work, and often traveled the perimeter of the Angle.
Even Idhril was gone; she had at last gotten leave for a sojourn in Rivendell to learn healing from Master Elrond. Her heart's desire, but lonely for me. At least we could have mourned together. He thought often of his dead mother. When he spoke to Aragorn of his own anguish, the reply was a curt "So be it." His temper rising, Halbarad was about to tell Aragorn just what he thought of him when he noticed Fíriel creeping around like a frightened cat as she performed her duties. He left with an abrupt turn, and told his father he wished to spend more time at the Point, where he was needed.
Aragorn put his low mood down to a weariness such as he had never known. In Thurnost, at least, he would rest and regain his strength and spirits. With Daeron gone, and minds turned away from past troubles, surely the mood in the Keep would have improved. But everything seemed grey and faded. What ails me? Never have I felt such despair. He wanted more than anything to be left alone.
He threw himself into work to raise his spirits. And he had much to do: without Daeron, arms training fell upon the other Rangers. Every morning he taught the sword to Rodnor and a few other gangly, half-grown boys; the rest of the day he divided between caring for the horses and helping in the healer's cottage, shorthanded in Idhril's absence. When Halbarad, he felt only relief at finally being left alone. Now he would be pressed with questions he did not want to answer.
He thought often of his great-grandmother, as if his grief over her death had not faded, but rather grown. He went by horseback to pay his respects at the barrow where Saelind now lay next to her lord, Argonui son of Arathorn I, the last chieftain buried in the Angle. But he found no comfort there. Her wisdom, her good heart—all had come to this, a cold grave. Even the trilling of a thrush in the tall grass did not lift his heart.
At night, a dream troubled him in endless repetition.
A dreary rain fell, chill and sad, upon the stark slopes of the mountain top. Alone, he struggled on foot up a desolate path. He bore no arms, carried no pack. Suddenly, as if out of the very air, Orcs and fierce Men attacked. Disarmed as he was, he fought with fists and feet, but without hope. Death bit his flesh….mourners dressed in black, keening their sorrow, followed a woman weeping, her face covered in a dark veil. She stood before a bier. In dread, he, as one of the mourners, approached the bed of the newly dead. But no man lay there, only the Sword that was Broken, with blood on its edge.
Whenever this dream came, he did not sleep again that night. He would rise, light a lantern and read the small book Saelind had given him. But sometimes that proved a poor remedy, as when he happened upon a melancholy ode on the doom of mortals.
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
One afternoon Aragorn left the Keep for the woods just across the inlet to seek the early summer's young leaves of athelas. Even here, where the Dúnedain had lived for so many years, the plant was difficult to find, growing in shaded mossy gaps between stones near a spring or small stream. On the banks of a tiny waterfall gurgling over rocks and tree roots, he found a few dark leaves large enough to cull and tucked them into his pouch. His heart was heavy with the memory of a woman whose life the healers had barely saved that very morning. Her baby had died. At least the fresh athelas would bring the young wife, barely more than a girl, some soothing in her grief. The beauty of the summer seemed to insult her short life and cruel death.
Heading back, he followed the stream south toward the Keep. The rich woodsy water had cut a cleft in the earth on its way to the inlet. Here Aragorn sat down on the bank; moss and small pink and white flowers grew in the stony mouth where the clear water flowed into the murky blue of the deep, narrow bay washing up against the dark walls of the Keep. A frog burped in the shallows; flies droned in the warm air of the late afternoon sun. He had gone swimming here before and found the water cool and brisk, so inviting in the heat of the day. Carefully taking the silver chain with the Ring of Barahir from his neck, he stripped off his clothes, and waded into the shallows. A few feet in, the water dropped to unfathomable depths. He struck out with broad, strong strokes for the deep stream.
Hoping to expend his despair in action, he swam with his greatest speed and strength toward the mouth where the bay joined the Hoarwell, strong and cold with the melt water from the mountains far to the north. There the circling current had carved a great bowl into the black rock of the Keep. Closing his eyes, he lay upon his back, drifting with the power of the eddy.
The water embraced him like a mother's arms, whispering come to me, rest now, rest.…
How easy it would be! Just a few more strokes would carry him into the main channel of the Hoarwell. The power of the river would take him forever.
The current pushing his body grew stronger. He opened his eyes; the serenity of the sky caressed his sight. There against a silvery cloud spread the dark wings of a queen's falcon, blessing his choice. He turned over and lifted his head to find the shortest way to the Hoarwell, and as his ears broke into the air, the murmuring of the river ceased.
Kee kee kee.
Treading water, he looked up. The falcon circled, crying yet again.
Awareness jolted him like a scream in the night. What am I doing?
He turned back, swimming hard. Every time his head emerged from the water, he heard the cries of the falcon. But by the time he reached the shore where he had left his clothes and kit, the raptor had gone from the sky. Climbing out of the dark water, he lay back on the mossy bank and panted for breath. His eyes fell upon the Ring of Barahir glinting gold and green in the spill of silver chain.
To drown myself! What kind of man am I, to be so weak? No true son of Beren, certainly.
Shaken, he dressed quickly and set out with broad strides for the Keep. Night was falling by the time he reached the Commons, and the evening meal already past. Two young women were sweeping the floor as he walked through; they lifted their eyes and smiled shyly. Their obvious admiration only served to dishearten him still more. Every one but the one I want.
As he was filling a bowl from the soup pot simmering at the kitchen hearth, Ivorwen appeared at the pantry door. "Good evening, grandson. We missed you at supper."
He made an effort to smile. "I'll be content with soup and bread. Please do not trouble yourself."
She poured him a mug of ale and, taking up some mending from a basket, sat across from him at the rough wooden table spanning the wall covered with small pots of herbs, jam and honey. Her silent warmth comforted him, and he felt the strain in his shoulders begin to soothe. His bowl empty, he put his head in his hands and drew his fingers through his tangled hair.
Ivorwen reached out and patted his arm. "Estel."
He looked up. "You've never called me by that name before."
"I caught it from Gilraen in Rivendell, and found that it suits you."
He chuckled. "But you would not say it around Grandfather."
Her smile was mischievous. "Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, he is far away in Sarn Ford. Come, my child. You are grieving, and you don't even know it."
Wondering, he let her draw his hand into her two. "Grieving? And should I not? Rodnion's death was a cruel waste."
She stroked his roughened fingers. "So true. But perhaps your grief is more than that."
"My great-grandmother, too, of course, for all her time had come. It is still bitter, and I do not know how to mourn."
She tightened her hold on his hand. "I miss her sorely. So many loved ones have died, but it never gets easier."
"Perhaps my trouble is being so new to mortal life. There are no barrows in Rivendell."
She sighed. "No indeed. So lovely, so enchanting."
Only memory now. My home is here. But the memory of Arwen's smile as he held her in his arms was keen and sharp as a sword point. He looked up to see his grandmother's sweet and loving eyes upon him. She pressed his hand again. "You are not as new to mortal life as you think, grandson. You do not remember your first years, but I do. Death is a terrible shock to a small child, perhaps more because they do not understand and cannot speak of it. Your father was suddenly gone from your life. Perhaps his death marked you more than you know. Shall I tell you?"
Her words struck him like a flash of light. "Please."
"When I saw Elladan and Elrohir at the door of the Commons, I knew. Beleg was with them, of course, his head swathed in bandages. But Arathorn was not." She sighed, pain etched on her face. "I brought the news to Gilraen. She and Ariel were in the solar at their needlework. You were playing with your toys on the floor, absorbed by your game. And they, too, knew by the sight of me. I didn't even know till I touched my own face that I was already crying. 'Mother?' was all she said. 'Slain,' I said. We clutched each other, all three of us, crying, unable to speak. Then I felt a tugging at my skirts, and there you were, questions and fright all over your little face. I've cared for enough small children in my day to know that while they may not understand what has happened, they catch the mood. And so it was with you. Gilraen collapsed utterly for the rest of the day and all of the next, and the next after that, and I took you from her. She couldn't care for a child."
Ivorwen raised her hands in a gesture of sorrow and resignation, and her voice fell to a whisper. "My Sight was strong that day, and I saw darkness and fear, and all the more when I held you in my arms. I kept you with me for all those days, and you were either pale and silent, or crying with terror. I know you don't remember, but I do. Then Gilraen came to herself again. That evening she spoke long with Elladan and Elrohir, and I hoped that she was beginning to master her grief. I put you back in her arms, and I saw that you were her greatest solace. You mourned, child. But then you forgot. And your grief is still there, somewhere in your heart."
I grieved for my father. I do not remember his face, but I mourned him. It seemed right and true. He lifted his grandmother's hand and kissed it. "Thank you. I needed to hear that. And now I know what I should do. I have sometimes thought to find his grave in the Wild, and now I know I must." And I will take the Sword with me—the Sword that my father, too, carried in his time.
Her smile broke through her sadness. "That would be a very good thing to do."
As he expected, Hallor was more than willing to allow him leave, despite the desperate need for Rangers. "No man could deny you this, least of all me. Furthermore, a journey to the country where he met his death would be useful beyond its importance to you. I mistrust the reports of quiet we hear from east of the Weather Hills. Let's hope you find nothing but a grave, and no sign of the enemy. You cannot go alone, however. Who can go with you? Beleg was there at the time, but he lost all memory of what happened and would not know the way."
The thought of such a journey with Beleg and his changeable moods dismayed Aragorn. "Not Beleg. Elladan and Elrohir will go with me. They offered to do so two years ago, but I didn't see the need, and was eager to be here. Now I understand it better."
Hallor nodded. "Take Halbarad, too. He has just returned from duty on the perimeter."
But Aragorn shook his head. "This is a thing for me to do alone, with my brothers only. They promised to come to Thurnost this summer, when their duties allow, to bring greetings from Rivendell and its Master. I will ask them to bring me to the grave."
Hallor raised his eyebrows and seemed about to object, but then his face softened. "Well, it is your wish, of course. I will be truly glad to welcome the sons of Elrond to the Keep, and I do hope they bring my daughter with them. She is needed."
Aragorn thanked him, and took his leave. His decision brought him a measure of relief from his gloom. That evening, absorbed in his thoughts and staring distractedly at his feet, he strode out of his quarters toward the stairs down to the Great Hall—and ploughed right into Halbarad. Halbarad called out, bracing his hands against his friend. "Hold there, Aragorn!"
He looked up. "My pardon, I am stupidly distracted."
"Thanks for your kindness." He made as if to pass, feeling guilty for his coolness and distance from his friend.
"No, you don't."
Only then did Aragorn notice the frown and the heat of anger in Halbarad's eyes. "What's the matter?"
"The matter?" Halbarad raised his voice. "You've been avoiding me for weeks. And now you plan a journey to your father's grave, and I am not to come?"
"Hallor shouldn't have told you."
"And why not? I am your friend and your cousin. I'm going too."
"No, you're not."
"Besides, I knew it already."
"You did not."
"I did. I can read you, Aragorn, however secretive you get."
That was just what Aragorn did not want. "No, you can't," he said, raising his voice in turn. "It's none of your business. Now get out of my way." He hardly understood the hot surge of rage that shot like a bolt into his head, but all his pain and sadness fed it.
"If you leave me behind, I'll track you," Halbarad hissed. "You know I can."
"You dare not track me," Aragorn snarled. "I command you to stay. And my brothers are going with me, anyway."
By this point they were eye to eye and both red-faced.
"They are going, and not me? Your 'brothers'? Am I not your brother? You 'command' me? We'll see about that!" Halbarad threw a punch that landed on Aragorn's left eye.
Taken by surprise, Aragorn blocked the blow too late. Enraged, he balled up his fist and smacked Halbarad on the nose.
The hallway was too narrow for a good fight, and the force of their swings soon had both of them leaning up against the walls to either side, holding sorry hands to their bruises and groaning. Then they burst out laughing and fell into each other's arms. Halbarad's bloody nose smeared Aragorn's beard.
Running feet sounded along with their boisterous laughter. "What is this disgrace?" boomed a great voice. "Brawling like drunkards in the Commons?"
Aragorn looked over Halbarad's shoulder to see the acting chieftain standing there, his face warring between disapproval and laughter. "Nothing to worry about, Hallor. Merely two brothers solving a dispute in the manly fashion." He thumped Halbarad on the back.
"Ouch! You'll pay for that. I'm coming now, right?"
"I dare not deny you."
And they began laughing again.
A week later, Aragorn's black eye had faded, but Elladan and Elrohir had still not come, nor had Idhril returned from Rivendell. "Good thing, too," Halbarad said. "I would have a lot of explaining to do, punching out their little brother."
Aragorn laughed. "When you know them, you will not say that."
Halbarad could not imagine what he meant. As fair as Elf lords, they say. He had known very few Elves—Gildor Inglorion and his companions sometimes spoke with Rangers in the Wild, but others rarely traveled. Why should they leave their havens for this treacherous world? A good question. The sons of Elrond, however, were famous for their ceaseless Orc hunting in vengeance for their mother's torment. Surely they were far too serious and grim to be brawling in the hallways.
Halbarad was engaged in an archery lesson with a moody Rodnor when the gate warden's bell rang, announcing visitors to the Keep. "Hold, Rodnor," he said to the boy, who was about to nock another arrow. "Let's go greet the guests."
They hurried to the gate, but even so, Aragorn was already there, embracing two tall, dark-haired figures, their fair, smooth faces alight with joy. Ivorwen and Hallor stood respectfully by, and bowed in formal greeting. A silent crowd of gawking people gathered around them.
"Halbarad!" His sister flung herself into his arms. Bright-eyed, she wore a handsome cloak that Halbarad had never seen.
"You return looking like a queen, sister."
Idhril spread wide the sleeves of her furred mantel. "Isn't it lovely? Gilraen made it. She made me dresses, too. Ah! She is charming and so very beautiful."
Laughing, Halbarad hugged her hard. "I have missed you terribly."
Then he noticed that Rodnor stood frozen, his face white and drawn. "What is it?"
"Twins," Rodnor said. "They are twins. Twin Elves."
One of the twins—Halbarad certainly did not know who—turned to the boy with a laugh. "Twins, yes. Elves, almost."
Rodnor looked like he was going to be sick. Ivorwen grasped his hand and quickly led him away.
"You will have to excuse him," Halbarad said, his voice low. "His own twin brother died not long ago."
"Ah!" Two clear grey eyes appraised him. "That is a thing not to be borne. We will talk to him of it when he is ready." He held out a hand in formal greeting. "I am Elrohir."
"Halbarad Hallor's son am I, and most pleased to meet you and your brother."
A musical laugh joined a winning smile, and Halbarad wondered where the grim warrior was. "Estel has told us all about you, and now we will find out how much of the truth he has told."
"Yes, we will be companions on the road. Aragorn wishes to go to his father's grave."
A wave of sadness passed over the expressive eyes. "I knew he would wish to do so, eventually. I am glad you will come."
Halbarad shivered to think that this man, who looked no older than he, had known all of his ancestors as far back as Valandil, and had seen generations of the Heirs of Isildur grow to manhood, age and die. Beyond the circles of the world.
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