My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Toward the Sunrise: 6. Valediction
Aragorn had slept but little since he had retired yester eve. Sleeplessness had given way to restless dreams, and then to numb watchfulness, until finally he had risen and set alight the lamps, interrupting the murky night with their own solemn hue. Endlessly Umbar had come to him, like a melody hovering furtively in the mind, ineluctable and unnerving. His thoughts ran with blood and fire, and he saw Umbar rise and fall a thousand times. At last memory and sight and fantasy blurred beyond his tolerance, and in the blaze of brazier’s fire and the lamps he cleared the floor and drew himself into a exacting gyre of muscle, letting the pure physical exertion draw his mind back to its accustomed paths.
Finally weary and whole he settled down at the oaken desk and opened the window-shutters. Even in the early hours of the morning Pelargir was not wholly silent, and he could hear the snorting breaths of oxen and their creaking cart wheels passing up the street, and the clipping heels of kitchen-maids on the cobblestones taking bread to the bakehouse, or swooshing brooms across the house-steps.
Some thoughtful maid had clipped a branch of dogwood and laid it in a shallow glass bowl on the desk. The sweet pink flowers rambled delicately from the branch. Running his finger along the stems teased his thoughts towards spring in Rivendell, and the ancient dogwood tree that reclined from the banks of the Bruinen. He had brushed a coral petal from her hair, sleek as a blackbird on the wing, and she had laughed; and they had danced barefoot among the violets, blue and white, that bloomed sweetly there, and rambled amongst the sea of bluebells into the wide meadow beyond.
Her brothers had been there, and they had passed the afternoon in laughter and cheer, though what they had said he could recall not; only her perfect, pale feet, reclined in the grass beside him, and the dark locks of hair that caressed her breasts and drifted languidly about her hips–O! how jealous he had been of those locks of hair!–and those deep, inscrutable eyes, that saw so much and said so little, and her sweet, unbearably tempting lips.
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It did not do to think too much on some things. But before she came he had thought Imladris perfect–like a dwarf who has lived his whole life under the dark vault of his mountain home, and who comes for the first time under the night sky, and discovers the stars twinkling far above–so it was, when she came, and his eyes were opened. He held that memory fast to him, a ward against all that afflicted men in this late hour: sourness and despair, frivolity and decadence. He had seen the Evenstar, and loved her.
Arwen had called forth from him a desire beyond his imaginings, and their parting had left an emptiness in his heart he could neither name nor deny–for indeed love seemed to pale a word for it. And something had happened to him, that day he walked the streets of Umbar, and left just such a space inside him. What it meant, and what he would do about it, he did not know.
He took out the letter he had received and unfolded it, setting it upon the desk before him. It was yellowed and smudged from much handling.
I hope this letter finds you safe and well. I write you from under the sheltering branches of the old pine-tree. Though about us the leaves are turning gold and red, it is as sturdy and timeless as always, and shelters your kin kindly.
The harvest this year has been bountiful, and the winter promises to be mild. The flocks, I fear, have done less well, for we have been plagued by wolves, and lost a number of sheep who wandered too far. The pack has been eliminated, but I fear our mutual cousin, Taralas, was badly injured in the hunt, and died a few days later. Perhaps you remember his son, Tarchil; he has grown into a fine man, and between us we manage things here well enough.
He had promised to go. He could not expect the dúnedain to soldier on without their chieftain forever. Their fate had lain in Taralas’ hands for most of forty-five years; but he was dead now. At the least Aragorn needed to confirm a new regent.
Yet–no; he must do it in person. But he needn’t go there immediately, nor stay there forever. Taralas was nearly seven months dead; if Halanon and Tarchil were struggling, he would have had news of it by now. Surely they could bide a few more months without him. For he had wished for many years to take the measure of Minas Morgul, and of Mordor itself, if he could; and now that the Steward, who ill-understood his superior competencies, could no longer keep him from it, he was resolved to it. He could make his way through Ithilien without notice, and then go north as he pleased; he had even an idea of visiting Lóthlorien, though he was uncertain what reception he should have there.
And there was Umbar. Though that would have to wait, for now.
He cleared the reports he had finished the day before to the side. The most urgent ones had already been sent up-river; these were just the finishing details, in which he had tied up his duties as best he could. But there was one last thing to do. He took out a clean sheet of fine paper and wrote in his clear, neat hand:
In love I have served you, and in love I must leave you. But Thorongil shall not forget Gondor; and it may be that, after much time and many perils, I shall return again.
That was no good. He tried crossing out just the first bit, but then zagged his quill across the whole thing. It wasn’t right. He got out a clean sheet and tried again.
I have done what I set out to do, lord, and other tasks now call me. Though I am far away, think not that I have forgotten Gondor; for after much time and many perils, if it be my fate, I shall return.
He crossed that out, crumpled it up, and tossed it away.
Other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.
Aragorn set his quill down. The first quivers of light were soaking onto the street, and outside the window he could see an early shower dusting the cobbles with dark speckles.
His chair slid noisily across the wooden floor as he stood. He turned and looked around the room. On his bed lay a plain, dark pack, with such food and tools as he might need, and full waterskins; his shortbow and quiver; and his favourite sword. His armour still stood upon its stand, gleaming in the faint light. It had been a gift from Ecthelion, and was beautifully engraved; he was very sorry to leave it behind, but it ill-suited a ranger’s ways.
He turned back to the desk and brusquely folded the letter and dabbed it with black wax. For one brief moment he was tempted to mark it for once, but he knew that was folly. He tossed the two discarded attempts into the brazier, watching them crumple and disintegrate, and then he arranged his gear carefully about him, checking that it was properly balanced, and that nothing would rub.
With the letter in his pocket he walked slowly down to the riverfront. The speckling had turned to a light mist, and he pulled up his hood, strolling anonymously down market street, buying a bit of bread and cheese for his breakfast. He sat on a barrel near the fishing quays to eat, watching the men as they offloaded their pre-dawn catch and hawked it to the first of the housewives and servants fetching prawns or catfish or crawdads for the table.
When he judged the hour was right he went down to the citadel’s quays where the Nimchathol and the other ships that had returned from Umbar were docked.
“I hope you have called us out in this chill for a good reason, Captain,” grumbled Valandur.
“Don’t be so gruff, Valandur,” said Ostoher. “You turned us out so early last night we’ve no morning regrets at all. Though I would like to know,” he added, taking in Aragorn’s discreet garb, “what the costume is for. Are you going hunting without us?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I suppose that I am.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Aragorn looked at them all, suddenly uncertain what to say. Grumpy, reliable Valandur; dear Ostoher, so quietly courageous; the handsome but melancholy Lómiol, and the weather-beaten but jocund Níomir; and the brash, debonair young prince, who still thought the world was his for the taking.
In these five men, and in Beringol and Turgirion, who stood nearby, he must now saw farewell to Gondor.
“I shall not be returning with you to Minas Tirith,” Aragorn announced.
“I don’t understand,” said Imrahil, his brow furrowed. “Has there been word from Golasgil? I thought the Bay was quiet.”
“It is. We have dealt the corsairs a mighty blow, and they will not trouble these shores for many years–at least by ship. It is not with them that I am concerned. I am leaving Gondor.”
“But you can’t!” Níomir interjected. “Gondor needs you! The Steward needs you,” he insisted.
“Gondor has fared without me before, my friend. And what the White City needs now is unity, and you may better have it without me.”
“Need the two be irreconcilable?”
“Where each knows their place,” Valandur said stoutly, “There is no discord.”
“Yet men fear what they do not know,” said Lómiol. “And Thorongil is inscrutable. The confrontation you attempt to repudiate will come, sooner or later.”
Valandur snorted. “But it is a poor excuse to abandon us on. By your will were we united and the ships and shipyards of our enemy laid to ruin. And now you will just walk away, unharmed and unencumbered, and leave us to deal with the consequences? Have you no regard for the position you shall put me in?”
“I have great regard for it,” Aragorn said. “But if I go now, Valandur, and disappear, then ‘twill be harder for Umbar to seek revenge. Let the Council blame the attack on my influence, and say that I am gone from the court.
“Gondor has many fine diplomats, yourself included. My presence among you would be a hindrance, not an advantage.”
“Enough of politics, my friend,” said Ostoher, “Why should they drive you from your home? If it is only Minas Tirith you wish to be spared of a few seasons, why not return to Tolfalas with me? I should greatly enjoy your company, and Umbar need not know you are there.”
“I thank you, friend. Such a furlough would be sweet indeed; and I would tarry awhile with you if I could. But I have other errands.”
“But where shall you go?” he asked. “Surely not back to Rohan.”
“No. There are other tasks that call me. Some that I have put off far too long, and must seek resolution of. And there are far horizons I have never touched.”
“You have duties here,” pleaded Níomir.
“Do not fear,” Aragorn said kindly. “I shall not forget them; and my road may lead me again to the White City, when need is great.”
“I hope it is so,” said Ostoher, “though I fear I shall not live to see it.”
Around them a thousand drops of rain came sliding from the sky, beating out their chorus against the quay and the river-water. Aragorn put a hand on Ostoher’s shoulder and led them out of the rain. From the shelter of the awning he called Turgirion closer. The young man had been standing in the background with Beringol, clearly feeling out of place.
“Yes, Captain Thorongil?”
Aragorn smiled at him and took his hand. “Your father was a brave man, and a good one. We are all grateful for the part he played, and sorry we did not bring him home again.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Though we part ways now,” Aragorn said, “I hope you shall continue on to Minas Tirith. I know the Steward will wish to speak with you.”
Turgirion nodded, his grey eyes a solemn echo of the clouded sky.
“Truly, Thorongil,” said Níomir, “there shall be great sorrow in the City when it is heard that you shall not return. What may we say to them, who do not understand ourselves why you forsake us?”
“And what am I to tell Ecthelion?” asked Valandur. “Do you give no thought for him?”
“He is the Steward of Gondor; he will understand that we each do as we need to. Please give him this,” said Aragorn, handing Valandur the letter he had written that morning. “I rely on you to see it well delivered.”
Valandur sighed. “I shall do so. Though it seems of late I am become your messenger, Thorongil, and I like it not.”
“Do this last thing, and you shall never again be so importuned.”
“If I am glad or not, I do not know; for though I do not like you, I fear for Gondor in your absence.”
“Will you not stay, Thorongil, just a while longer?” said Imrahil. “Return to Minas Tirith with us. If you are still resolved in this course, at least we may give you a proper farewell.”
Aragorn shook his head. “The skies are clearing,” he said softly, “and perhaps it will be a bright day after all. Come. I must delay this no longer.”
The patter of the rain had indeed relented, and the men walked down together to the water. Beringol had readied a small dory (which was now very damp) and he called over the men who were to row it. Aragorn bade farewell there to Lómiol and Turgirion, but the others all climbed into the gently rocking rowboat with him, and they set out for the other shore.
They landed east of the rough town that hugged the southern end of the bridge, all that remained of the once prosperous southern half of the town. In the paleness of the morning it reminded him strongly of Umbar, for it too had been slowly abandoned by the dúnedain over centuries of conflict and neglect, and her once-proud spires and domes were only an echo of what they once had been. A dusty track led east along the bank, and the men stood there in silence for some minutes. At last Aragorn said that the sun was climbing, and the time of their parting had come.
“Do you truly mean to go through with this?” Níomir said. “At the least, will you not choose some more civilized destination? The south and east are cruel places. I do not understand what you will do there, or what you expect to find.”
“It will be most dangerous,” Ostoher added. “The Haradrim must be furious, with you above all; and if they find you, you will surely die.”
“Then it is best,” Aragorn said, “that you tell them I am dead already. Though I do not intend to fall within their grasp, it may be easier for you. No doubt Imrahil may come up with a suitable story for them.”
“Well, “ said Valandur, “no doubt Denethor should enjoy it.” Aragorn saw then that Valandur, at least, had guessed what had passed between the two. But there would be enough rumour floating around with him adding to it, so he replied only, “It is for the best.’
“How can that be…” interjected the prince.
How young he was. “I could have made many choices, Imrahil, but only one of them would be for Gondor.”
He looked out over the river plain toward the distant Mountains of Shadow. His enemy; his destination. If he told them what he had in mind, they would think him crazy (if, indeed, they did not already.)
No one understood, except perhaps Elrond; their sight was too short, or too long. Into memory he would fade, and then legend; for age and strife would wear most of these men down into the ground, before he might come again.
He clasped arms with Valandur and Níomir, and then with Imrahil. Valandur was indecipherable, but the latter two looked as dispirited as he had ever seen him.
“Say farewell to your son for me,” he said, embracing Ostoher, “And take care of yourself. Drink that tea I recommended.”
“I will,” he replied. “Good luck.”
Lastly he clasped Beringol close. “Even when all hope seems lost, my friend, there is still estel,” he said. “Do not give up.” Beringol just nodded mutely.
It is a strange thing, that leave-taking makes suddenly precious what was previously over-looked. At the hour he threw it away, their kinship seemed most close. But as a snake sheds his skin, leaving behind the husk he has outgrown, so Aragorn knew he must shed Thorongil, and go forth cloaked in some new form.
“Farewell,” he said, and turned his back on the men of Gondor, and walked toward the sunrise.
from ROTK, Appendix A, The Stewards:
‘He sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion, saying: “Other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.” Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went. For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.’
I don’t usually listen to music as a write, but this particular chapter was background-ed by the wonderful LOTR-inspired piano melody “Celtic Legend”, by Spaeth. You can download the mp3 free from Amazon.
General Acknowledgements, &c.:
First of all, this is unabashedly based upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Thank-you for sharing Middle-earth with us. You may now have all your characters back, mostly unharmed.
Second, my thanks to all who reviewed. It took me several years to unravel the whole tale, and comments helped keep me going. I have had some very good advice, most recently from Dwimordene, and will be coming back to revise this story in a few months. If there were any parts you thought worked especially well, or especially poorly, or if you were confused about anything, I’d love to know about.
Third, a good deal of research is holding up the back end of this story. Lalaith’s “The Third Realm in Exile” (http://people.wiesbaden.netsurf.de/~lalaith/Tolkien/Umbar.html) & “The History of the Men of Darkness in Rhun in Harad” (http://people.wiesbaden.netsurf.de/~lalaith/Tolkien/Men_of_Darkness.html) and Chris Seeman’s Re-thinking Umbar (http://www.guildcompanion.com/scrolls/2003/feb/rethinkingumbar.html) all influenced Umbar’s design. Thank you!
In addition, the city bears a decided resemblance to medieval Genoa, and I relied heavily on three maps, ‘Genua’ by Hartmann Schedel (1493, imprint A. Koberger), ‘Genua’ by G.F. Camocio (~1560, pub. 1572 Braun and Hogenberg), and ‘A Plan of the City of Genoa’ (1800, pub. John Stockdale) in conceiving it.
Lastly, I drew information on fortifications, ship and harbour design and naval warfare primarily from George F. Bass’ A History of Seafaring, Susan Rose’s Medieval Naval Warfare, 1000-1500, J.S. Morrison & R.T. William’s Greek Oared Ships: 900-322 B.C., Lionel Cassel’s Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, and L. Sprague de Camp’s The Ancient Engineers.
Okay, I’m done now. But Aragorn is not! I have an assortment of (mostly Aragorn) fics in progress at the moment, and hopefully the first of them, “The Spider”, will be out within a week or so. It’s not exactly a sequel, but certainly touches on his time in Gondor. There is a real sequel, “Look Homeward, Ranger”, but I will probably do a final edit on this story before I seriously start on it, so it may be awhile.
Thank-you for reading, I hope you enjoyed!
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