My Aragon Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 26. Steadfast
To Halbarad's critical eye, Aragorn's pallor and weary dark eyes gave away how much the healing of Rodnor had cost him. Even after sleeping most of the day while the others hunted for food and otherwise prepared to depart, Aragorn looked as if he had just come from a fierce battle. And so he has, Halbarad thought, with a foe all the stronger for being unseen.
He took Daeron aside. "From here, how far to Rivendell?"
Daeron pointed south to a spur of rock thrusting westward from the southward-marching line of the Misty Mountains. "There's a Ranger pass around those peaks. It's a hard road but the best of poor choices. If we turn west, to the lower ground, we will enter Troll country, and risk coming closer to the forces of the sorcerer, whatever and wherever they might be."
"And this pass? What do you know of it?"
"We will have to climb through rough country to reach it. I last took that road coming from the south, after crossing the mountains over the High Pass, returning from the vales of Anduin. Once you are over the ridge, it is as easy a way as you will find anywhere in these parts, till you come to the steep ravines around Rivendell. With luck, we can make it in ten days."
"Then we will take the climb," Halbarad said. "We must get to Rivendell with all speed. Even if Elrond hasn't yet returned, our only hope lies there. The healing has cost Aragorn more than he will say, I know it."
Daeron nodded. "You and I, we are the most fit, I guess. The boy, though brave, is still shaken from his ordeal, and the death of his grandfather. But the way that I know has shelters in the ruins of old crofters' huts where we may rest if we must. There are no Orcs, or weren't last I went that way."
"Who knows now?" Halbarad clasped Daeron's shoulder. "You will take the lead, and I'll watch the rear."
That night, they camped at a half-ruined, grass-covered hut, a remnant of the hillfolk who had once dwelt in this land, built into a hill near a fresh spring. The doorway had collapsed, but deeper within was a dry space sheltered from the wind that had begun to blow from the east.
Halbarad crouched beside Aragorn where he sat with his head bowed to his knees. "I know you are in trouble. Don't deny it."
Aragorn's feeble smile would have fooled no one. "I will not deny it. But I had hoped to hide it better."
"You have stumbled and would have fallen several times today, if I had not been there, and the ground was not rough. I don't trust you to keep your feet. You must take more rest. We can stay here a while."
Aragorn shook his head. "I can't spare the time, Halbarad," he said softly.
"What do you mean?"
Aragorn closed his haunted eyes. "Grey mist—it gets deeper. It will swallow me if I do not get to Elrond."
"You don't make any sense," Halbarad said sharply. "Explain yourself, and tell me how I can help you."
"You must begin to understand, Halbarad," Aragorn muttered. "This is no weariness that sleep will cure. What it is I can only guess, and which guess is right, I do not know. It could be that I exceeded the limits of my power when I healed Rodnor, and now I pay the price. Elrond did warn me. Or it could be that the sorcerer's knife scratch to my face had some effect after all. But what I fear most is that his power entered me through Rodnor."
"And what gives you reason to think that?"
"I see another time, another world. His time, his world. Rhudaur and the fall of the Dúnedain. And even"—his voice sunk to a whisper—"the Elder Days."
Fear squeezed Halbarad's heart. "But we left his fëa far behind, across the river, many miles from here."
"Haven't I explained it to you already?" Aragorn snapped. "He was hundreds of miles from Beleg when he used him to kill my father and grandfather. His power travels in the blood. At least I know what is threatening me, which Beleg did not."
Halbarad took his hands, which were cold despite the warm air inside their shelter. "What must we do?"
"Let me rest now. We will see in the morning."
But Aragorn cried out and tossed in his sleep, and in the morning looked no better. "It's no use, Halbarad," he said. "I need all my strength to keep the power at bay. The others must go on and try to fetch help. Even if Elrond has not returned from his journey, only in Rivendell will I get healing."
Halbarad nodded and said nothing. He could see for himself the truth of Aragorn's words. He beckoned to Daeron and Rodnor. "Aragorn cannot travel any further. You must leave us here and get to Rivendell as fast as you can, the two of you."
Daeron's tired face twitched as he objected, "They will call me traitor. What good is my word?"
Aragorn drew from his neck the Ring of Barahir and held it dangling from its chain. The green gems in the serpent's eyes glittered as the Rangers gazed at its ancient design, symbol of the friendship of Men and Elves.
"Take this, Daeron. They will know you come with my good will."
"Rather that I have killed the Heir of Isildur and taken it! Give it to the boy."
"No!" Rodnor cried, astonishing them all. "Not Elves—not after what he did. I can't go there, and I can't carry that."
Aragorn lifted the Ring in his cupped hand. "Rodnor, this is no thing of the Enemy's, and Rivendell is our only hope. Why are you afraid?"
"I don't know," Rodnor whispered. "I only know that he had the same bright eyes."
Halbarad met Aragorn's eyes and read there his own dismay. "So don't enter Rivendell," he said to Rodnor. "But you must go as far as you can with Daeron. You owe it to Aragorn, and to the Dúnedain. Maybe you will find you can do it after all. It is your duty."
Rodnor swallowed hard, and nodded. "I understand."
So Daeron carried the Ring, tucked inside his weatherworn tunic. He and Rodnor took with them a small remnant of dried meat and oatcakes that still remained, and left a cache of fresh meat and a set of snares for the two who remained behind. Halbarad watched as the two faded into the distance, headed toward the steep climb of the pass. He and Aragorn were alone in the Wild with nothing but the wind and the stony mountains.
After two days rest Aragorn seemed to be better. Perhaps with the strain of traveling removed he would regain his strength, Halbarad speculated, at least enough to fight his inward battle. Hope gave him renewed energy that day as he hunted and gathered firewood, seeking to make their little shelter as warm and secure as possible.
That day, the sun shining bright in an autumn sky, Halbarad built Aragorn a seat of tree branches smoothed of their bark and covered with Halbarad's fur cloak. He gave him long straight sticks to polish into arrows, work to keep him focused without draining his strength, and noted with approval that Aragorn sang softly—Elven hymns in the High Tongue—as he worked.
Satisfied, he took their waterskins to the spring. But when he returned, Aragorn was slumped over, eyes shut, face wan and still.
"Aragorn" Halbarad grabbed his unconscious cousin's shoulders and willed him to wake.
Aragorn's ashen face remained still and set in dreaminess for too long—long enough to frighten Halbarad to his core.
"Aragorn, we need you. Do not leave." He hardly knew from where his words came.
Eyelids trembled and opened, but the grey eyes underneath gazed unknowing, unseeing. At last they focused, and seemed to recognize him.
"I saw Doriath," Aragorn whispered, "as it was in the Elder Days. No dream, Halbarad—I saw it."
"A sorcerer's trick," said Halbarad sharply.
"No trick. His memories live inside me now. So beautiful it was, more than any poet could say. But then there was blood, and murder."
Aragorn closed his eyes. Halbarad shook him sharply. "Don't go back to sleep! Stay awake! Fight it!"
The eyes flew open, and Aragorn lifted his hand to clasp Halbarad's arm. "Help me. Talk to me."
"You might do better with these arrows," he snapped, picking up a warped stick.
Aragorn smiled and looked almost like himself again. Heartened, Halbarad thrust the stick in his hand and began ordering him in his work. "You know how I learned to make arrows? As a punishment for leaving a toad in Idhril's bed. It happened like this…."
Boyhood memories rushed to his tongue, and he told tales about his father and his sisters, about digging clams in the river bed, climbing trees and chasing across the fields near Thurnost after the queen's falcons, crying as they flew through the great blue sky. "I used to imagine that one of them knew me by name, and I'd ask him to bring me luck with my sling. Sometimes it worked."
He kept a sharp eye on Aragorn for the rest of the day, until at last he could no longer postpone leaving him alone to check the snares for the day's catch. He hurried back and found Aragorn still alert, now occupied in repairing the bindings on his pack.
For the next few days Aragorn seemed to be improving again. Even his sleep at night seemed normal, and no more troubled than Halbarad's own. Perhaps the magic was exhausted in that one spell, Halbarad wondered. Maybe he will even regain the strength to travel. Looking up at the cold blue sky, he hoped that would be soon—for the winds of autumn were gaining, and the snowpack on the mountain tops crept down the slopes.
After a week, with alarm he realized that Aragorn was losing strength and weight. True enough, the food was hardly anything to put flesh on a man's bones. All the same, Halbarad himself ate every scrap, his nervous frame starved with watchfulness and care. But Aragorn was eating less each day.
"You must eat," Halbarad commanded him. "It may not be a feast in Elrond's halls, but it's the best I can do."
Dutifully Aragorn consumed an extra bowl of crumbled waybread and stringy rabbit, moistened with the fresh water from the spring and cooked to a mush.
Then, one morning, he did not wake. Calling his name, Halbarad shook him as he lay limp and unresponsive. With desperation, he threw water on Aragorn's pale face, and the eyes opened at last. He stared again with that unseeing gaze, and didn't seem to realize his face and hair were wet.
"They cut him to pieces as he lay," Aragorn cried. "My father."
"More nightmares, evil visions, put them from your mind."
"No! It's the truth, it's what happened," Aragorn said, focusing his eyes on Halbarad for the first time. "They butchered him, just as Elladan and Elrohir said."
"You are imagining it, from what they said. I wish you had never asked."
"Halbarad, I saw him. My father's face! Beleg's memories will bring him back to me."
Aragorn's face trembled between terror and yearning, making him look rather crazed. "I'll fix you a draught, like you've showed me," Halbarad said.
The warm drink seemed to help; at least the sick man lay quiet, but alert.
Day by day, Halbarad watched his cousin closely as he slowly slipped away. When Aragorn woke he spoke of terrible dreams of torment. But sometimes a look of peace came over his face, and calm soothed his eyes.
"What are you thinking of?" Halbarad asked him then.
Aragorn started and quickly composed his face. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you look, well, I wouldn't say happy, but more at peace. Not so tormented. Is there a way you can keep the dark thoughts out of your mind?"
For a long time Aragorn was silent, and Halbarad gave up expecting an answer. But then it came: "I think of her," Aragorn said. "As she was when we were together."
"Elrond's daughter, you mean."
"Yes—Arwen. I see her as she was the day we met, like a laughing girl. I didn't know who she was."
"Tell me about it. I know you like to keep things to yourself, but maybe if you talk about it, it will keep the bad dreams away."
"I'd just learned my real name, you know—just found out the day before that my name was not Estel. You don't need me to tell you how that made me feel—full of pride and joy, but also, well, overwhelmed. And wondering and bitter about having lost my real father—not just his death, but all my memories, hearing my mother talk of him as I grew. She never did, except to say that he was an honorable man who died well."
"I can't imagine it—how could you deal with such a mystery?"
Aragorn shrugged. "It was all I ever knew. Of course I wondered, but I learned very young to stop asking. Silence was the only answer I ever got. Besides, it wasn't as if there were other mortal children that I could compare myself to. How could I know it was unusual, living where I did, in an Elvish world?"
Halbarad shook his head. "It's astonishing that you are not even stranger than you are."
Aragorn chuckled. "I suppose so. Anyway, there I was, my head full of dreams and wonders, walking in the woods above the House, and I heard a voice singing, and there before me was a beautiful girl, laughing and splashing her feet in the spring, her dark hair streaming down her back. We spoke, and told each other our names, but she didn't say she was Elrond's daughter. Later I became very angry about that."
"You didn't know Elrond's daughter's name?"
"I hadn't even heard of her existence. Nobody's ever explained that to me, either. She said once there was a reason, but that she couldn't tell me."
"Elves," muttered Halbarad. "Everything has to be a riddle. Then what happened?"
"It was a sort of madness. I took her hand and helped her up, and she smiled at me, and I just lost my heart. I kissed her."
"And got slapped, I suppose."
"Oh, no. She responded quite passionately. But she laughed and said she had to get back to the House, and she would see me later. That's when I found out she was Elrond's daughter—that night, at the feast welcoming her home."
"From Lórien—she has lived most of her life there with her mother's kin."
"May I ask how old she is?"
A slow smile hovered on Aragorn's face. "You don't ask Elves questions like that. Or even peredhil. But I know she was born not long after the beginning of this Age—toward the end of the reign of Valandil, though she never met him."
"So she is three thousand years old. I wouldn't go near such a woman. I'd be afraid of being shown up a fool."
Aragorn's face was dreamy and far away. "She seemed as young as I when we met. That night she invited me to come to her room."
Halbarad whistled. "And you went, I suppose."
"Of course. Wouldn't you?"
"Not in Thurnost. I would risk my life."
Aragorn shook his head. "I don't understand the customs of my own kind. Among Elves, love is so much simpler. The young women in Thurnost are all but locked up, but in Rivendell the Elf-women are free to love just as men are."
Halbarad found this a shocking and disgusting idea, but he decided to hold back his opinion for fear of offending Aragorn. "Every man values the maidenhood of his daughter, as he should, for alliances and property are made through marriage."
"That's not the attitude among Elves. Marriage is for joy and companionship."
"What happened, then? Why did you quarrel?"
"I became jealous. I wanted to possess her."
"She had other lovers?"
Aragorn winced. "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. I thought so at the time, but I'm not so sure now. Even if she did, there was no one special. She did tell me that. No, I just thought she should belong to me. I still feel that, I guess. But that is more than she wants to give, so she ended it. How can I blame her? What can I give her? And now Elladan and Elrohir tell me she faces a choice to stay in Middle-earth and become mortal."
"Would she do that?"
"I would never want that. I would never ask for such a thing, nor even hope to marry her. She is far above me, Halbarad. How can I tell you? She is the young and sweet girl I met at the spring, and she is much more. Like a queen, full of dignity and wisdom. I love her all the more for that, I suppose."
"I am sorry, Aragorn. I've never been in love myself, but I've seen what it does to others who don't get their wish."
"Like Daeron, you mean?"
"Well, I wasn't thinking of him, but yes, like Daeron."
Aragorn fell silent for a time. "It's not that she was indifferent to me, you know. I thought that once, too—that she was cold, that she had only been playing with me. But I don't think so now. If I had not been such a fool, it might have gone otherwise."
Halbarad thought that only made it worse, but he kept that thought to himself. "I've got to fetch the catch. Keep on thinking of her and keep your mind off those dark dreams."
Day by day Halbarad stayed at his side as Aragorn struggled against the power that sought to take him. Talking of Arwen and Rivendell seemed to be the only healing he could offer. When a dark dream seized Aragorn, Halbarad would with great effort wake him, and cry out, "Remember her, remember Rivendell," and sing what snatches of High Elven song he could remember, until Aragorn's grey eyes grew clear again.
Then, at night, they heard the howling of wolves in the distance. Aragorn started with fear, but then grew cold and grey, his face set in grim resolution. "If they come, you must kill me first, Halbarad."
"They will not come. Help is on the way. Cling to that, and do not think otherwise."
But Halbarad himself began to despair. Already Daeron and Rodnor had been gone three weeks, and unless they had run into misfortune, should have reached Rivendell days ago. Halbarad feared that they, too, were now dead.
The old ones say you have forgotten us, mighty Valar, and I fear it is true. But if you have any love left for us, your exiled children of Númenor, help us now!
Fighting back tears of despair, Halbarad went about his duties of the day—fetching water, hunting and foraging, keeping the fire smokeless and hot. Every day he would mount the nearest hill and scan the horizon to the south and west, looking for signs of rescue: Elves from Rivendell, or Rangers from the Weather Hills. Surely Ingold's troops had come from Weathertop by now. Had they, too, been betrayed?
Then one day he saw three birds high up in the sky, circling in wide circles but moving steadily from the south. He crouched in the deep heather, his cloak and hood blending with the dark green of the down, watching the birds as they winged ever closer, fearful that these, too, were spies.
The dark fierce shadows against the sky grew bigger, and Halbarad's heart began thumping. He leaped up in joy just as the cry reached his ears.
Keee keee keee.
He lifted his arms and waved. Did they see him? Yes! Three queen's falcons dove through the air, crying and wheeling above him. Three times they circled, and they broke away, winging swiftly to the south whence they had come. And Halbarad saw, far off, the movement of a horse down from the mountain pass. Not far behind him others followed. He watched, scarcely able to breathe, as the figures crept down the hillside and vanished into the moor.
Halbarad traced their movement by the circling falcons, moving slowly back to the north as the horsemen progressed. The hours passed and he dared not move, watching, watching. If his hope proved wrong, he hardly knew how he would find the courage to go on.
The clip-clop of horse's hooves warned him that the lead rider approached. At last, bursting between the low trees came a magnificent horse bearing a dark-haired man of kingly appearance, his rich cloak streaming behind him. He made straight for Halbarad and leaped from the sweating horse. Any doubts Halbarad had as to who now approached were wiped away by the sound of his musical voice, and the words he spoke.
"Where is my son?" he demanded, his compelling eyes boring straight into Halbarad's astonished gaze.
Halbarad held out his trembling arms. "Master Elrond, follow me."
Halbarad led him to the shelter where Aragorn lay, half-conscious, and the Master of Rivendell knelt at his side, grasping Aragorn's face with his strong hands.
"Senya, wake up."
And the grey eyes opened. "Atarinya," Aragorn whispered.
Halbarad was still weeping with relief when the rest of the horsemen drew up to their small camp. There were Elladan and Elrohir and two other Elves that Halbarad did not know. And following them came his own father, Hallor, who wrapped his son in a fierce embrace.
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