My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Reaches of the North: 9. The Hobbit and the Gulls
A hawk spotted two travelers trotting south down the old North Road from Fornost and swooped closer to have a look at such an uncommon sight. On closer inspection on this bright autumn day, the raptor tipped his pinions and soared away; he had seen the travelers were good folks; Rangers from the north, friends to creatures that both walked and flew.
The younger of the two Rangers, tall and keen-eyed, quizzed his companion on the land they rode towards. The other, ten years his senior, claimed the country to be the most pleasant and peaceful in all of Arda, and its residents the most ordinary.
Aragorn had been with the Dúnedain nearly three years but this was his first trip into the Shire. Halbarad decided it was time the chieftain saw the land they sheltered from the happenings of the wide world. He warned Aragorn to make no contact: hobbits were fearful of strangers and unaware of the role the Rangers played in assuring peace reigned from the High Hay to the Tower Hills. They would be alarmed to find big men riding freely about their land no matter what the reason. To this end, the captain instructed Maracus and Aragorn to travel secretly. Once across the Baranduin, they must travel by night and listen carefully for any whispers of unrest.
As twilight fell, the pair rode south on the great North Road past Archet into Bree. There they would spend the night at The Prancing Pony. The inn looked unchanged since last Aragorn had been there, its weathered timbers nearly black, its signboard, a weathered silver equine pawing the air. Actually, it had looked the same for the hundreds of years it had sat in the market town, providing drink and rest to an amazing assortment of beings.
Oatsworth Butterbur's serving maid bobbed Aragorn a curtsy as he and Maracus entered the taproom, and, looking into his face, she spontaneously clutched his hand.
"Oh, thank you, sir. I didn't get to say it proper before for Cob and me." Aragorn recognized her as the girl who been manhandled by the ruffians the day he had first met Halbarad there. "If there's anything I can do---anything you need---I am indebted to you." She smiled and swayed away to take tankards to another table.
"Do they all fall at your feet?" Maracus asked and laughed at the young man's discomfiture. He collapsed on a cushioned settle at a corner table, calling for a pint from Oatsworth. It was a quiet evening at The Pony; only a few locals drank Butterbur's brew. As the evening wore on, Maracus kept the tapster busy and flirted shamelessly with Meg, the serving maid. Aragorn amicably spoke with Butterbur about the news on the road.
"It's been quiet, good sir," Oatsworth said, wiping up the table. "The only travelers I've seen have been the usual dwarves traveling between Esgaroth and the Ered Luin."
Aragorn left Maracus to his pints and went upstairs to collapse into one of The Pony's famous featherbeds. He spent a dreamless night and arose rested and refreshed. Maracus was in the stable yard, looking a bit bloodshot, but functional. He shook his head at Aragorn's suggestion of a hearty bowl of Butterbur's porridge. They left the inn at dawn and trotted along the road. To the south stretching far were green downs with the barrow mounds upon them. As the early sunlight burned off the mists that hung there, Maracus told Aragorn of the barrows and the wights that haunted them.
"Another curse from Angmar." Maracus said. "I don't know if the wights are real or not, but unless I have to, I shan't go find out. Most nights, there is a clammy fog that rolls here, shrouding landmarks and inviting travelers to wander until hopelessly lost." The brave Ranger almost shivered. "I'm glad we're passing at mid-morning." Aragorn smiled to himself: Maracus' fear was witness to the fact that Halbarad's bandied tale of evil wights worked well.
By midday, they reached the High Hay, the thorn fence separating Buckland from the Old Forest. The golden Brandywine, swift moving, stretched across the road before them. The Brandywine Bridge spanned it, arched gray stone supports clothed in mossy green. At its base, anglers cast, filling creels with fine, large fish. The Rangers crossed with little notice amid a clatter of farm carts and one red-painted pony gig piloted by a pair of reckless, adolescent hobbits.
In the crisp autumn afternoon, the pair passed green and yellow patchworks of rolling farmland. Turning south, they soon found themselves in the trees of what Hobbits called the Woody End, part of the Green Hills country. The scarlet maple leaves swirled around them borne on the wind, cloaks of shining fire as fine as any Elven lord's of old. As evening approached, they found a spot just under the trees on some high ground that overlooked a wide green vale, dotted with trees, spreading out from Thistle Brook.
Purple twilight settled, a low ground mist blurred the vale, and the stars appeared. Aragorn felt the peace of this land embrace him. He built a small, smokeless fire and they enjoyed a warm meal, Maracus allowing the hot tea was not bad, although he'd loved to have another pint of the Pony's best. The older Ranger lit his pipe and settled back. Crescent Ithil was just peering through the trees when Aragorn caught the sound of horses very quietly coming through the vale. Swallow's ears were sharp-pricked and he whuffled softly, his black nostrils quivering in greeting. Aragorn motioned Maracus to be silent and slipped among the trees until he was near the path leading from the woods. Maracus had heard nothing and thought his young chieftain was daft, but drew his sword and sat silently, alert.
Presently, three elf-lords rode from the wood. Their grey mounts made barely a sound on the soft verge. In the mist and moonlight, they seemed apparitions. They were garbed for travel, silver and golden threads woven through the fabric made their robes glimmer in the moonlight, and the starlight sparkled on the circlets in their silver-gold hair.
"Mae Govannen, my lords." Aragorn stepped from the trees and placing hand on chest, bowed appropriately in greeting. The leader reined in and surveyed him coolly.
"A Ranger with manners, walking in the hobbits' land." Aragorn did not recognize this tall, fair elf, as cool and distant as Ithil himself.
"But one who blends like smoke into the wood," his companion said, right hand near his sword hilt. "What is the world coming to when a mere Man can steal up on the Eldar?" The third edged his horse between the pair and the man standing before them.
"This is no mere Man," he said, swinging down from his mount, "but more a princeling of our people. What news from Fornost, my lord Aragorn?"
"What news from fair Imladris, Gildor?" For the elf was Gildor Inglorion, a lord of Elrond's household who spent much of his time traveling, especially to the towers beyond the Shire, and on to the sea, to Cirdan's shipyards. Gildor had told the boy Estel many stories of the Western lands and sketched the White Towers for him, a drawing that still hung in his room in Rivendell.
Encouraged by Gildor's familiarity, the other elves were soon gathered at the fire, to Maracus' amazement. He watched as his young chieftain traded courtesies and quips, quite at ease with these three magical beings. The elves had recently left Elrond's hospitality and added their own anecdotes to Gildor's news from home. Aragorn took great comfort in their company which was like a tonic to him, and spent the entire night talking with them. As the blackness before dawn deepened and the traveling party prepared to leave, Aragorn walked with Gildor to his mount.
"Gildor, when you return home, take Arwen and Ada my love." The chieftain sounded very young and the elf-lord smiled. He felt Aragorn's homesickness in his heart.
"It shall be done. I've enjoyed the evening with you, my friend. One day, you must ride with me to the Towers and look over the sea to Eldamar, though I'm afraid there might grow an unfulfillable longing in that Elven heart of your to go into the West." Gildor mounted his horse and leaned down to Aragorn. "I regret the disappointment of Lady Arwen when she hears of our meeting; she has letters to exchange with you, but I'm sure she will be pleased I find you hale and hearty," he said and turned his mount west into the receding night. The elves vanished like mist into the dark woods.
Maracus and Aragorn slept through much of the day. At sunset, they mounted and continued west. They rode along quietly for a while. Maracus was still dazzled by the Elves and Aragorn was struggling to ease his mind of the homesickness that threatened to overcome him. Finally, Maracus broke the silence.
"Elves are truly wondrous." he began. "I haven't had much dealing with them, except for your brothers, and they are different…more like men. These were golden…wondrous…almost not of this world. You are so easy with them. I fear I was bedazzled and speechless."
"Remember, I grew up among the Eldar and believed I was part-Elven for much of my childhood." Aragorn turned and looked full at him with those haunting eyes. "I believed I was named Elf-prince when I first came to Fornost, and the epithet still comes up upon occasion." Maracus was chagrined; it had been he who dubbed the new chieftain 'Elf-prince' and it was obvious Aragorn knew this. He searched for something to change the discussion.
"The Lady Arwen who Gildor spoke of…it is she who is the Evenstar, Lord Elrond's daughter? " He'd heard Gildor mention the name and had heard it in passing at Fornost before, but he had never been fortunate enough to be in Imladris whenever the lady was in residence. "I hear she is passing fair."
Aragorn rode along silently for a bit, and then decided shyness did not suit the topic. "Aye, most fair, and my beloved. I'm surprised Halbarad hasn't shared that news with the entire encampment." Maracus shook his head over another wondrous fact from this young man who more and more each day amazed him, and, with his unassuming air and his forthrightness, bound all of the Rangers to him.
"I did not know you had a lady. Perhaps one day you'll bring her to Fornost as wife."
"Nay, that is not to be." His young lord looked at the stars with longing. "One day she may be Queen of the Reunited Kingdom, but she'll not be wed to a mere Ranger." Maracus heard the note of sadness in his voice.
"My lord, you are no mere Ranger." He said it to be gallant, but as each day passed, Maracus grew to believe the words were more truth that courtesy.
"Maracus, there's someone on the path ahead." Aragorn whispered to his companion. They were traveling through the wooded areas outside the central part of the Shire near Hobbiton. For days, Aragorn had been careful to stay hidden during the light and travel only late in the evening once the public houses had closed, which was late indeed for hobbits love their ale and gossip. As Maracus had promised, this was a prosperous, bucolic land and Aragorn wished the rest of Eregion could enjoy such bounties.
That evening they had come up the Stock Road and skirted Bywater to the west. It was late and the moon had already set. All hobbits should be tucked into their beds, dreaming of good beer and fine cheeses, so anyone about was indeed suspicious. Aragorn motioned Maracus to ride on ahead. He slid quietly from Swallow's back and sent his horse following after. He felt no ill will from the person, but just ahead, someone was off the path, standing as quietly as he was, someone who did not wish to be seen. Aragorn slipped silently up behind him. It was a hobbit, standing just inside the trees, watching Maracus and the horses pass. Aragorn relaxed and stepped up behind him.
"Master Hobbit, you've no need to fear us." The hobbit, quick as a cornered hare, turned and Aragorn, the training of Elrohir serving him well, sprang backward. The perian held a fine, leap-shaped Elven knife in his hand, wielding it like he knew what he was about. Aragorn's startled eyes traveled from the blade up to the intense brown gaze. He knew this hobbit!
"Bilbo Baggins!" His cry held genuine pleasure. The hobbit wrinkled his brow in question and did not put up his sword.
"Ranger, do I know---Estel!" Bilbo saw the boy in the young man standing before him. "My, you've grown, my lad!" The blade disappeared and he grasped Aragorn's hand in greeting. The hobbit looked as hale as he had the last time Aragorn saw him at Rivendell over ten years before.
"Why are you out, Bilbo, hiding in the woods so late at night?"
"I often go walking in the hills. I miss my old adventuring and occasionally," Bilbo chuckled, "I find wondrous things about at night, like Rangers who don't wish to be seen." Maracus had reined in and come back along the trail.
"Maracus, this is my friend, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, dragon master and treasure hunter." Once again, his young lord's host of acquaintances amazed the Ranger.
"Come on then, to Bag End," Bilbo encouraged. "You must spend the night tucked in cozy; there'll be a heavy dew by dawn."
The round green door had closed behind them and on entering Maracus had judiciously sensed to duck the ceiling beams and chandeliers in Bag End. Bilbo's home was filled to the overflow with wondrous things: stacks of books lined the walls, old maps were rolled in corners and one was pinned above a desk with what looked to be an orc dagger. A large rock flecked with silver and gold sat on a hall table next to a fine china tea service.
Bilbo soon poked the hearth embers into a blaze and put a kettle on. He bustled about, talking constantly and not waiting for answers, hauling out bread and jam and a wheel of good yellow cheese. Mr. Baggins fed them well and felt a need to join his company in a late snack. When Maracus, sated, pulled out his pipe, he became an instant brother to the hobbit. They discussed various strains of pipeweed and Maracus declared the Old Toby Bilbo offered the finest leaf he'd had. Bilbo looked speculatively at Aragorn and offered him the tin. The chieftain shook his head.
"Why, lad, pipe smoking fascinated you so when you were a boy! I expected you to be able to created great pipe smoke ships in the air by now."
"Though I admit the smell of pipe smoke takes me back to that rooftop in Imladris, I haven't yet taken up the habit. I haven't yet quite learned the trick of smoking a pipe." Bilbo went off to his desk and dug around, finally producing a beautifully carved pipe.
"A gift from a dwarf-friend," he announced and filled the bowl for Aragorn. The young Ranger finally managed the trick of drawing on the stem to keep the pipe lit, but decided the smoke smelled better than it made his burning throat and queasy stomach feel. Maracus and Bilbo had a laugh on him and pointed out that smoke should neither be inhaled nor swallowed.
It was very late when Bilbo lit them to the guest rooms, apologizing for the short bed in Maracus' room. Aragorn was given the guest room that Bilbo had set aside for a "tall" visitor he sometimes had so while the Dúnadan slept in comfort, Marcus stretched the bedding and pillows on the carpet, deciding Bilbo's floor was better accommodations than the roots and rocks that had lately been his bed.
Aragorn awakened in the crisp morning air to the sound of grass shears outside his window. He stuck his head out and found a rather rustic hobbit tending Bilbo's fine garden. The gardener started up and looked at him, bug-eyed.
"Lor', a Ranger!" he gasped.
"Enough, Hamfast!" ordered Bilbo, coming around the side of the hill with a market basket full of provisions. "Keep this to yourself, it you can."
After a hearty breakfast that seemed to spill into lunch, Aragorn wiled away the day, talking with Bilbo about his adventures and looking at maps.
"Actually," the hobbit said quite modestly, "I've began writing down the tale of the Dragon." He presented a large, red leather covered book to Aragorn. "I haven't gotten farther than our stay in Rivendell. Would you like to read it?" Aragorn happily settled down to read Bilbo's adventures. When he was finished, he pronounced the story quite entertaining, but stayed silent that he was slightly disappointed Bilbo had left out their meeting on the roof of Elrond's house.
"Have you ever been to the sea?" Bilbo asked after a bountiful luncheon served in the flowering gardens. Aragorn was so full he could barely shake his head, while Maracus had already drifted off sprawled under one of Bilbo's fruit trees. Bilbo bustled over with a map of the western lands and became quite animated, pointing out the points of interest west of the Shire in Lindon. "Oh, you must go to the sea and meet Círdan the shipwright. He is most wise and a great teller of old stories." Bilbo thought a moment and his face suddenly brightened. "Come, we will go tonight! It has been long since I visited the Tower Hills and my Elven friend." Bilbo began scurrying around, preparing for the journey, talking incessantly to Aragorn. "It is a fine ride. I'll fetch my pony."
By sunset all necessaries for the journey were in place. Bilbo's pony, a plump intelligent chestnut with a forehead star, stood next to Swallow and Maracus' mount at the gate. Bilbo tying on his hood came out and stroked the beast's nose. He looked up at Aragorn who had finished giving Maracus instructions.
"His name, may the Elves forgive me, is Gil-galad." Aragorn smiled at the hobbit's presumption and turned again to Maracus.
"So you are sure you'd rather ride to Sarn Ford?" The Ranger nodded.
"I've been to the sea and see nothing in making another journey there. I've no desire to set sail on flimsy ships for a legendary port, so I do not see the attraction to the waters that some do. I shall ride to Sarn Ford to see what news the garrison has there and meet you in Bree in a fortnight's time." The Ranger swung into the saddle and turned south, cutting through the fields and disappearing into the woods.
It was a fine ride under the stars west, buffeted by the balmy breeze. Bilbo had many roads songs and he was willing to share his entire repertoire with Aragorn. Before the sun rose, they were abed and asleep in a fine inn Bilbo knew of in Waymet that served beings of all sorts. In the next day's predawn darkness, they trotted through Michel Delving and camped that night on the Fox Downs west of the town. They made their way through the West March, climbing gradually into the hills of Emyn Beraid. Each morning the white towers, picked out by the rising sun, grew in size until they stood at the feet of Elostirion. They set up camp with their backs to the towers and climbed high to see the great expanse of the sea.
Aragorn deeply breathed the salt air and heard the gulls' cries, and he longed to see what was beyond the blue horizon, shimmering far away in the West. He knew then what Gildor had spoken of when he suggested that Aragorn might have more of an Elven heart than he even knew. He thought what grand adventure it would be to follow Elrond's father, Earendil, to see what the world held. Bilbo finally called him away to the eastern view and he looked out over the green lands of Eriador, his kingdom, and suddenly he heard a strange voice, almost as if it was the land itself, calling the elven word elessar.
The next morning, they trotted down the sloping streets into the Gray Havens. The ship works occupied a large, open building that covered the entire right side of the docks. On the left of the main thoroughfare, Elven houses, build from stone, perched on the hillside. At street level, shops and public houses run by both men and elves bustled with travelers.
The pair left their mounts at one of these inns, the owner greeting Bilbo as an old friend, and walked along the quay. Bilbo went directly to the shipwright's shop as if he were a regular customer. Just inside the door, Aragorn stopped and let his eyes adjust from the bright sunlight. He inhaled the faint forest smell of sawdust and pungent aroma of tar. The soft murmur of song and laughter was punctuated by the pound of hammers and scraping of adzes. Several ships seemed in various states of construction from the planing of new wood into planks to the fine carving of the swan prows. Over seeing it all was the master builder himself, bent over an apprentice, his large hands guiding the younger builder in his drawing.
Círdan, the ageless master builder of elven ships, was tall and thin. His long white hair was caught back in an elaborate, artistic gull clip and he seemed old. This surprised Aragorn whose experience was that elves never seemed old, no matter how long they had lived in Arda. Aragorn was awed by this elf-lord; he was a naval leader and war captain when the world was young.
Círdan turned fathomless eyes the color of a stormy sea on his visitors. Aragorn dropped to a knee and bowed his head in respect. The master builder laughed in delight when he saw Bilbo and greeted his hobbit friend with joy. Bilbo introduced his young friend.
"This, my lord, is Aragorn of the Dúnedain and of Imladris." Bilbo eloquently named him. Círdan gripped Aragorn's arm and bade him rise. He nodded sagely, knowing well who stood before him.
"I stood beside your foster father as we faced Sauron." He smiled at the young man. "And have long helped your kin against Angmar and the forces of evil. "Tis time we met, Elessar." Círdan's touch brought Aragorn a sense of peace but also a longing for the far horizon. The master builder gave the Dúnadan a tour of his workshop. Bilbo begged off and went off to find his favorite tavern keeper for a bit of sustenance and a drop.
As they walked through the ship works, Aragorn and Círdan talked of sailing, and Círdan showed him a completed swan ship destined for Elvenhome. Aragorn was overwhelmed by the feel of the great age of the place and great melancholy left behind by those leaving these shores. Círdan watched him carefully and when it seemed the feeling would overwhelm Aragorn, he led him out into the sunlight and sea air.
"You can feel what they leave behind." He observed as they leaned against the sea wall, watching the gulls fight.
"I wish they did not feel it necessary to leave."
"This world will be yours soon." Aragorn looked at Círdan in surprise. "Yes, yours---it will belong to Men. The Elves are passing from it The old races are disappearing. You must keep it safe for the future, Elessar."
"You have called me that twice now, my lord. It is not my name." Aragorn humbly correct this sage elf. Círdan eyed him thoughtfully.
"It will be."
As evening came on, Aragorn walked along the quay with the shipwright. Cirdan had spent the afternoon with the young Dúnadan, showing him maps of the far lands, telling him of Elvenhome and the lost land of Numenor. Now they stopped again along the sea wall and looked out across the bay to the open ocean. The sun sent fire across the watery western horizon. The rolling waves and gulls cries mesmerized Aragorn. A strong wind came out of the west laden with a strange scent of spice. Aragorn inhaled deeply, his senses overwhelmed by the call of the sea.
Slowly, the light seemed to shift and Aragorn realized he was seeing another time. He stood in the same place, looking down the steps toward the dock. A fine silver ship lay there, tied up and its sails furled, but the busy crew was preparing it to sail. Arwen stood at the foot of the steps looking up at him. The wind caught her hair and she pushed it back under her hood and turned to take Ada's hand. A queenly woman, golden hair falling to her waist, and a tall, white-bearded man stood beside Lord Elrond. They smiled up at him with love and approval. He felt drawn to them; he wanted to go down to them and go with them in the Elven ship, but he could not move. He raised his hand, reaching out in longing as they turned to board the ship.
"Nay, do not go!" Aragorn called out, suddenly grief stricken. "Do not leave me here alone!" He realized then he had spoken aloud, it was again the present, and only Círdan stood beside him, an empty dock before him as the twilight deepened. The shipwright was watching him closely and knew what he had seen.
"Many that you love will soon go into the West, young Aragorn." Círdan spoke. "The world will change much in your lifetime." The young man's eyes were still black from the vision and his face was pale; he could not find his tongue to answer the ancient elf."Rest easy, my boy." The shipwright laid a comforting arm across Aragorn's shoulders. "You will have them with you for a long while yet. And some will decide to not make the journey at all."
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