1. An Unusual Friend
"I too once passed the Dimrill Gate," said Aragorn quietly; "but though I also came out again, the memory is very evil. I do not wish to enter Moria a second time."
(J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 390)
The Year 3019 of the Third Age
Borders of Lothlórien
Legolas and Aragorn still talked with Haldir, the march warden that the Fellowship had come across upon entering the woods of Lothlórien. Everyone waited anxiously to see what the outcome of this conversation would be, hardly understanding what was spoken between the three; but all of them hoping it would turn out for the best - they had been through enough hardships already.
And yet, one started growing more and more impatient as time passed and by now he had even stopped bothering to hide it. Even though Gimli had been assured that Orcs wouldn't dare enter the well-guarded realm, he couldn't help thinking that too much precious time was wasted in, what it seemed to him, idle talk. Not to mention the fact that the Elven tongue which he heard constantly being spoken was starting to irritate him to no end. Thus, the Dwarf decided he could not put up with it any longer.
"Enough with the fabled courtesy of the Elves!" he snapped at Haldir. "And speak a language we can all understand!"
Haldir cast a glance full of disdain towards the short creature. It was clear that the Elf wasn't all that pleased to see a Dwarf among the members of the Fellowship.
"We have not had dealings with the Dwarves since the Dark Days," he finally said coolly, trying to act as civil as possible.
But, unfortunately, that answer wasn't enough to appease Gimli.
"And you know what the Dwarf says to that? Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul!"*
The march warden's eyes widened at such words, feeling so shocked that he remained glaring at the short creature. He didn't understand what Gimli meant exactly, but he was quite certain that it wasn't any Dwarven pleasantry.
However, somebody understood what Gimli uttered. Rolling his eyes in dismay, Aragorn placed a hand on his companion's shoulder and forced him to look up at him.
"That was not so courteous!" he scolded. The Elves of Lothlórien were already reluctant to accept the Fellowship within their realm, and Gimli was far from making things easier for the tired travellers.
Taken aback by Aragorn's just anger, the Dwarf finally fell silent and waited patiently once again for the Man to convince the Elves to accept them to Caras Galadhon, where the Fellowship would meet Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel.
Aragorn leaned his weary body against the trunk of the great tree that would shelter the Walkers for as long as they would stay within the borders of Lothlórien. He watched the sleeping Hobbits in silence, looking at their intelligent round faces relaxed into heavy sleep, and he was glad to see that at least the little ones were able to get some rest. These four needed as much sleep as they could get, for of all the members of the Fellowship, they were the least accustomed to long hardships and dangerous journeys. And there was also Gandalf's death to be considered: the loss of their guide and leader seemed to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to the Fellowship and it had left them all emotionally drained, including Aragorn himself. The only thing that the Ranger wanted to do now was to have a few moments of peace and escape, even mentally, the burden of the responsibility that had passed to him by Gandalf's fall.
He shut his eyes, soon to open them again at the sound of heavy footsteps closing in on him. He turned; and was surprised to see Gimli by his side, smoking his pipe.
"You have trouble sleeping?" he asked the Dwarf.
"Aye," replied Aulë's creation with a sigh, the smoke he had inhaled escaping now his lips. "I thought that maybe some pipe-weed would help."
Aragorn nodded silently and said nothing more. He was lost once more to his own thoughts, when Gimli spoke again.
"Did you know or did you just figure it?"
The Man looked up, puzzled at the strange question. "What do you mean?"
"I am talking about when I spoke angrily to that Elf. Did you understand what I said or did you guess it?"
A slight grin formed on the Ranger's face as he answered: "You said 'I spit on your grave.'"
Gimli regarded Aragorn agape for many long moments, hardly believing his ears.
"The Dwarven-tongue is not to be taught to outsiders," he remarked in the end.
"And I was not taught, Master Dwarf, I assure you. Someone I knew once told me what it meant a very long time ago," replied the Man calmly. "I hope you are not angry because of that," he added with slight apprehension.
"Angry?" said the Dwarf in surprise, only to let a smile brighten his features. "No. On the contrary, I am glad to know something more about you."
The Ranger's perplexed look actually made Gimli crack a smile underneath his beard.
"I mean that if a Dwarf thought you could be trusted to learn even that small sample of our Tongue, then you are a worthy man indeed," he explained, "and now I know that the fate of the Fellowship could not be placed in better hands."
It was then that he yawned wide.
"Then you will not mind if I suggest that you should go have some rest?" noted Aragorn kindly. "Have no fear, we are in one of the safest realms in Middle-earth."
"I will go. And I have to admit that you are right. It is a fine place… for one filled with Elves, that is. Have a good night."
"Goodnight, Master Dwarf," said Arathorn's son with a chuckle, soon to be left alone with his thoughts. Too late did it occur to him that he could ask Gimli for any tidings of his friend of old: if anyone would be able to tell him, it would be him.
Then again, I do not think he would know, he said within his mind. A voice of the past rang in his ears saying: "My father could prove overprotective at times because of what I am. He was always afraid that no other creature besides the Nogrod Dwarves would accept me with an open mind and so I have not made a lot of friendships on my rare outings outside the city."
Aragorn sighed a bit and then got his own pipe out of his pack. Laughing ever so slightly as another fond memory of his old acquaintance invaded his mind, he lighted the pipe slowly and enjoyed the leaf.
"I am glad to be one of the fortunate ones to have met you, Ceranos," he mused as he still smoked, his eyes closing dreamily. "It will be good to see you again at the first chance."
Almost seventy years ago
A bright sun shone from an autumn sky, warming and lightening everything with its rays. There wasn't much wildlife in this particular area of Wilderland, near the river of Sîr Ninglor, even though there were trees and bushes abundant around. The only moving thing that one could see was a flock of swallows flying above, getting ready for their great journey to the south. On the other hand, the graceful birds hardly noticed below them the lone figure that was travelling north on foot.
The young man moved with ease and with the air of someone who had trodden this wild area many times before in the past. His clothes were covered with mud and dust after many leagues of walking, while his gear didn't consist of much: a blanket, which he had made into a roll and now carried on his back; his small provisions of basic food and water; as well as a sword and a bow. Still they were enough to prove to anyone that the twenty-year-old lad was one of the Rangers of the North, a wandering people who offered protection and assistance wherever it was required. But no one would be able to imagine that that young rogue of a Ranger, who some knew and called by the name of Strider, was actually Aragorn, son of Arathorn, descendant of Isildur and rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, the most powerful realm of the race of Men in Middle-earth.
Aragorn had been travelling for almost three full days now and his whole body ached in protest, demanding a rest; nevertheless he didn't want to stop, at least not yet. The news he had heard from Rivendell was very disturbing and he wanted to return to his home as quickly as possible, even though Elrond had assured him in his letter that Elladan was out of danger. Aragorn didn't feel he could remain in Lothlórien any longer, knowing that his foster brother was injured. After all, how could he stay at Caras Galadhon, when someone had to reprimand Elladan for his foolishness?
'I need to see him, my Lady. He might be well otherwise, but a broken leg is still a broken leg. What came over him to go after deer on dangerous hunting grounds I will never know,' he heard himself saying, as his mind involuntarily replayed the conversation he had with the fair and wise Lady of Lothlórien. Lady Galadriel too tried to talk Aragorn out of travelling back to Rivendell at least for the next few days, but the Man wouldn't have it, in spite of the tone of worry he had registered in her voice. In the end, the powerful Elf-lady had to yield to the Ranger's iron will; but she also advised him, in her ever so enigmatic manner, that he should avoid the dark places of the world. Such a thought had never crossed his mind, so he had every intention of following her advice, no matter what it meant.
Aragorn's musings were cut short when his legs faltered and he stumbled. Swearing under his breath, he arose again and tried to will himself to continue on, only to realise to his dismay that his limbs wouldn't comply. Aragorn had to admit that he was growing too weary to keep up with such a relentless pace for long. Sighing in defeat, he sat on a rock by the edge of the river, placing his weary legs into the cool water to relax the pained muscles.
As the moments passed, he came to welcome the stop, for he felt his strength renewed. He didn't like the idea that he still had to go such a long distance before reaching his home, but he also realised that there was nothing that he could possibly do to change that. The only other route he could take was south to the Gap of Rohan, and that one was even longer. He had heard that there used to be another path in the old days and, as a matter of fact, he knew he had passed by it: the long-deserted city of Khazad-dûm. That name, however, bore ill among the Elves and whoever spoke of it couldn't help but also shudder at the implied terrors that lingered there. It was widely known that Orcs had come to live there now, though the Dwarves had tried time and time again to reclaim what was rightfully theirs; so it was only prudent that he should continue on the course he was taking now. It would take Aragorn more time, true; but the road was much safer and, if he could keep a good pace, he would get to Imladris in about two weeks or so.
It was then that it occurred to him: Arwen would probably be there too.
"Arwen," he whispered, letting out a small sigh as her graceful form and unmatched beauty reflected in his mind. As much as he wanted to see Elladan, he couldn't help feeling that his visit to Rivendell could prove uncomfortable. The fact that he had fallen in love with Elrond's daughter wasn't a notion all that well-received, because, though his foster family understood that Aragorn's feelings were pure, there was also no denying that Arwen and their foster kin belonged to two different races entirely. That was what the Lord of Imladris had told him the night before Aragorn had decided to take up the hard life of a Ranger, and the Man had to admit that the noble Elf was right. On the other hand, his heart told him otherwise. It was strange, but he yearned to see Arwen again as soon as possible and even the mere thought of her made his heart pound happily.
"Begging your pardon, fellow traveller. Is the water clear enough for one to drink?"
Aragorn turned, startled at the unknown voice he heard so close behind him, and he saw a most curious sight: a tall and powerful form, which was adorned in thick armour, a large double-headed axe in the gloved hands. Under other circumstances, this strange figure would have made the Ranger jump instantly to fight; but the friendly jade eyes that regarded him through a helmet made all thoughts of worry fade away.
"Well?" asked the same strong voice again, a small smile tugging discernibly on the stranger's lips.
It was then that the young Man remembered himself: he hadn't answered the question!
"It is! Pray, go ahead," he said quickly, smiling in friendliness also. "The river is here for all weary travellers."
"Thank you," replied the armoured figure, inclining his head a little in a courteous manner. He unfastened his gourd from the side of his leather belt with a swift movement and knelt down by the riverbank.
"Where are you heading?" he asked Aragorn politely as he was filling the gourd with the clear liquid. While he was occupied with this task, he used his free hand to take off his helmet, the heat of the sun finally proving too uncomfortable for him.
"Toward the High Pass and from then on to Rivendell," answered the Man, marvelling at the long, raven-black hair that was neatly fixed into one thick braid. But when the stranger removed his helmet, he also revealed his leaf-shaped ears.
An Elf? thought the Ranger in disbelief, his gaze drifting again on the large axe that now lay beside its owner. That of course explained the stranger's strikingly handsome and youthful features. After all, Elves were considered the fairest of all creatures living in Middle-earth. However, Aragorn had grown up among Elves and this was the first time that he saw one carrying such a weapon. It was well known that Elves preferred swords or bows and arrows, whereas the axe was most favoured among the Dwarves. Come to think of it, this Elf's armour was wrought to resemble the ones that the Dwarven kindred wore. Considering the animosity between the Firstborn and Aulë's creations, it seemed a strange thing to the Man that an Elf would choose to be clad and armed thus.
"You cannot pass through there."
"What?" asked Aragorn in surprise, since he was too lost in thought at that moment.
"The path leading to the High Pass has been blocked by rocks due to some avalanche or other," said the Elf. "I was heading toward that direction myself when I was forced to come this way."
"When was that?"
"Less than a week ago."
"These are unfortunate tidings indeed," said Aragorn, dismayed. "I am in a hurry and now this had to happen!"
"I am sorry," replied the stranger, truly saddened by the Man's predicament. "Perhaps the path has been cleared by now," he added hopefully.
Aragorn looked at the Elf, smiling at such kind words. Yet, besides feeling comforted, he also felt intrigued. It could only have been the Ranger's impression, but the stranger's manner of speaking sounded more halting and more pronounced at the 'r' than the Elves in Rivendell, something that made this Firstborn a moving mystery.
He remembered himself again when he noticed the Elf still looking at him, waiting for an answer.
"I do not think the path can be cleared completely in such a short time. And I would not want to risk further delay by going on because of some uncertain hope."
"That is reasonable. Then my best advice to you would be to turn back and travel again at a more favourable time."
"What about you?" asked Aragorn. "You wanted to go through the Pass too."
"I will test my luck under the mountains," murmured the Elf cryptically.
The Man's eyes widened in disbelief when he heard this, because he understood perfectly well what the Firstborn meant.
"Through the Mines of Moria?" he exclaimed.
"Aye," affirmed the stranger. "It is the swiftest way to my destination."
"And the most dangerous."
"Not to one who knows its secrets. Have no fear; I will be all right. Good fortune to you, fellow traveller." And with a slight nod of farewell the Elf replaced the helmet on his head, shielding almost all his face but his sea-green eyes and his mouth. Then he started walking away, the axe resting on his unusually (for an Elf) broad shoulder.
Aragorn had also bowed his head, regretting the fact that he had travelled so far only to turn back now. Again he caught sight of the figure of the Elf as he was marching away and, at that moment, an idea formed in his mind.
"Wait!" he cried out, hurrying towards the armoured being.
The Elf faced Aragorn, his surprise and curiosity quite visible in his eyes.
"May I come with you?"
The Elf actually raised an eyebrow at this.
"Do you really wish that? You were correct when you said that Moria is a dangerous place. I would have avoided going there myself if I could help it."
"You claim that you know its secrets, something that I believe, since you would not even have considered that option otherwise. And they do say that safety comes in numbers."
"Two hardly makes numbers against the terrors of the mines," remarked the Elf.
"I am a better fighter than you think," replied the Ranger, grinning. He suspected that the stranger looked down on him, thinking that a Man couldn't possibly have millennia of fighting practice as an Elf did. Nevertheless, Aragorn was indeed considered a very skilled warrior despite his age. After all, Elladan and Elrohir had trained him well, teaching him Elven techniques of fighting; so he wasn't merely bragging when he made such a claim.
Surprisingly enough, the helmed creature didn't snort in disbelief or jeer, as Aragorn had half-expected. The only thing that could be discerned in the Elven features was sincerity as he locked his jade gaze on the stormy grey one. In the end, he smiled good-naturedly.
"Your eyes tell me that you speak the truth. Not to mention that I see a strong fire burning within them, as I have not seen in most people I have come across - and, trust me when I say this, I have seen quite a lot during my life. But still," he added with a slight smirk, "I should warn you that it is not very wise to travel with someone who you do not even know by name."
"That can be arranged," was the Man's reply, smiling even more broadly. Remembering the Elven way of cordial greeting, he inclined his head, his hand touching his chest and then extending it toward his acquaintance.
"Im Telcontar, adan ned Forod. Man eneth lín?"**
Again the Elf surprised Aragorn by bowing low and taking off his helmet, greeting in a very Dwarven-like manner.
"Ceranos Orcbane at your service; and, though I understand and speak the fair language of the Elves, I would rather we keep talking in the Common Tongue."
"As you wish… Ceranos," said the Ranger, letting the name sink in.
"I do, Strider," replied the noble creature, translating Aragorn's Elvish nickname in the Common Tongue. "Now let us be on our way. There are still some leagues ahead of us till the city of Khazad-dûm."
And with that, they both headed westward. As they were walking, Aragorn couldn't help thinking that, if Ceranos was able to surprise him so many times in such a short time after their meeting, he would indeed prove a most interesting companion.
Certainly enough, Aragorn never regretted travelling with Ceranos, while the Elf seemed to enjoy Aragorn's presence as well. During their march, they both discovered that the other was excellent company for conversation, as they exchanged serious talk and humorous remarks with the greatest of ease. Thus it wasn't long before they came to like each other.
Several hours passed and the first stars started appearing in the sky when Ceranos decided that they should set camp and rest near a small thicket of trees. Aragorn searched for something edible, whereas the Elf used one of the two hatchets that were also attached to his belt to cut several fallen branches for firewood. Soon enough, they had both settled by the warm flames of a blazing fire, enjoying the rabbit that the Ranger had cooked.
"We are not far from the Dimrill Gate, by my reckoning," remarked Ceranos, pleased. "We should be able to see it tomorrow morning."
"That is good news," replied the Man, eating another morsel off the tasty game. "It will be interesting to see this part of the world."
"Note that we will have to walk through swiftly, not only because of the foul things that live now there, but because we are both in a hurry to reach to our destinations," reminded him the Elf. After a small pause Ceranos spoke again, facing the Ranger troubled.
"Strider, might I ask you something that I have been wondering?"
"Of course," the Man assured him, smiling encouragingly.
"Are you in some kind of trouble that you wish to speak with Master Elrond so urgently? Do not be surprised, my fellow traveller! Elrond Half-elven is well-known to give advice to those who seek it of him, no matter of race."
Aragorn chuckled lightly.
"No, be at ease. I have only received news that my brother has been injured and I want to see him."
"What was your brother doing in an Elven residence?" asked Ceranos again, his puzzlement only growing.
The Ranger actually hesitated to answer this question. There weren't all that many people that knew of his history among the Elves nor did the Man wish for a lot of people to know either. Not because he felt awkward about it, far from that. It simply felt as something too personal to be shared by just any person he came across. Yet, the very appearance of Ceranos and the suspicion that had already formed in his mind about the Elf's background, made him realise that in this case he could make an exception.
"The brother I speak of is Elladan, son of Elrond of Imladris."
The Elf let this sink in his mind, and then nodded his head in understanding.
"You have been adopted," he noted.
"I have," Aragorn admitted. "Both my parents died when I was young and Master Elrond took me into his home, raising me as one of his own sons. I have been honoured to look upon him as my father and his children my kin for almost twenty years now, though I always knew I was different from them."
Ceranos listened to those words coming out of the Ranger's mouth, a ghost of a smile appearing on his own lips.
"I think I know what you mean," he said in the end. "Our lives are very similar, Strider. I have lost a family once too, only to find another one. I think I do not need to tell you among what kindred I have been raised."
"Dwarves," replied Aragorn. "However, it still seems a wonder to me how this came to be."
Ceranos threw another branch into the fire to rejuvenate the flames and then he faced the Ranger again.
"I was too young to remember and my foster kin are not all that certain either – they could only figure what might have passed. It would seem that Wargs attacked my parents as they were travelling through the forest by the Blue Mountains, near the Dwarven city of Nogrod. Aye, your memory serves you right, there was another such fair city with the same name. The one I speak of, however, was only named thus in honour to the one that sank beneath the sea. Anyway, my father was found among the bodies of several foul beasts, obviously slain in his attempt to defend my mother and me. My mother's body was found quite a distance away, lying by a riverbank and still soaking wet – she must have plunged to the river to escape the Wargs. As for me, I was in her arms, alive and without any visible wounds, but in shock because of the severe cold of the water. Feeling pity for me, Thrir, the Dwarf that led the scouting party and the patriarch of his clan, decided to take me within the city to help me, despite the fact that there were several protests to be heard from the rest of the party. After all, I was an Elf and probably a dying one as well: why should they meddle in such affairs that did not concern them in the first place? But Dwarves are very stubborn and Thrir was not an exception, I can tell you that. On the condition that as soon as I got better I would be handed to my kind, he took me to his home, where, to everyone's surprise, I was soon healed thanks to his care. When the time came that I should be given away though, Thrir realised that he had grown too attached to me to allow such a thing; so he let me stay with his family against everyone's advice. And I could not wish for a better guardian than him, for he has raised me with all the love that a child could wish for."
"It was he that he named you then?"
"Aye. He said it was an Elven name for red-top, because my hair was stained by my mother's blood."
"Red-top?" wondered Aragorn, puzzled. "This does not sound quite right." Indeed, the knowledge of the Elven tongue had become a second nature to the Man after all these years under Elrond's protection.
"Who said Thrir knew excellent Elvish?" replied Ceranos with a smirk.
The Ranger actually chuckled at this very good point.
"And you have been with Dwarves for how long?" he asked.
"All my life. Almost eight hundred years now."
"Oh… that means…"
"Aye, Thrir is dead. The disadvantage of being an Elf among mortal kindred, I am sorry to say. I am living with my foster brother and nephew now."
"But have you been accepted by the other Dwarves?" asked the Ranger in wonder.
"I have. Most of them know now that I will do my best to offer my assistance wherever it is needed – even in fighting. For I will never let any harm come to them, I and my axe will make sure of that," said Ceranos with such passion in his voice that it surprised the Man momentarily. However, he understood his companion's feelings only too well, because that was what he felt about his own foster family as well.
It was then that his eye caught the Elf's axe. Its glimmering edges made him look at it in admiration.
"May I see your axe, Ceranos?"
The fair creature was certainly surprised by that kind of request; nevertheless he indulged Aragorn and handed it to him. The Ranger weighed it in his hands, feeling the weapon's balance. It was excellently wrought, the blades in perfect symmetry and making a beautiful and gentle swishing as he swung it. The handle itself was clothed with straps of leather for better and steadier grip, and in the part close to the cutting edges he could also discern some strange runes, obviously some Dwarven writing. What they could possibly mean, he didn't know, but he admired the graceful carving nonetheless.
"They say: made by my wielder to slay his foes and mine," explained the black-haired creature.
"You made this?" exclaimed Aragorn, his eyes opening wide in amazement.
"Why the surprise?" laughed the Firstborn. "Living among Dwarves has made me like many things that the Elves consider unlovely, and the mining and forging of metal is one of them. This axe is my best work yet, if I may be so bold to brag!"
Aragorn looked at the weapon agape, his wonder so great that it was some time before he finally handed it back to Ceranos, receiving a brief "Thanks" from the Elf.
"Are you going to Nogrod now?" asked the Man again, wishing to learn now everything about this strange creature.
"Aye," affirmed the Elf, "I have been wandering for almost six months now in Middle-earth. I do not usually wander away from home for so long, but someone had to look for these." His hand reached for his pack, and he dug out from there several colourful stones.
"What are they?" asked Aragorn, watching the gems lightening as their surface was reflected by the flames of the fire.
"Stones that we use to ornament our weapons during rituals. Unfortunately, these ca not be found in the mines of the Blue Mountains, so I had to venture to look for them in other rocky areas. There are enough in the pack for the weapons of the chief clan in Nogrod in order to perform the ritual proceeding the festivities in honour of Mahal."
"Mahal? You mean Aulë?"
"None other," grinned Ceranos. "That is why I am in a rush. It will be Durin's Day when the last moon of Autumn rises, and I wish to arrive in Nogrod on time to avoid my dear brother Náin's nagging!"
"I, on the other hand, will hear my dear brother Elladan nag when he sees me! He hates people getting concerned about him!" said Aragorn, causing both of them to laugh.
As soon as their mirth quieted down, Ceranos rose and stretched himself.
"I think it is high time for some rest. We will have to wake up early tomorrow."
"Yes, I know," said the Ranger, stifling a yawn as he also arose and unrolled his blanket. Lying down, he let out a sigh of content, for he hadn't realised just how tired he was till now. It was then that the sound of two flints being struck made him turn to look at his companion.
Ceranos quickly darted his eyes to Aragorn, trying to figure out what it was that the Man had found so funny that he had to start laughing so hard. After quickly checking himself, it finally dawned on him and, huffing slightly, he faced the Ranger with a half-teasing, half-serious look.
"Let me think… This is the first time you have seen an Elf smoke?" he asked, the lit pipe still in his mouth.
"I am sorry," Aragorn managed to say amid his laughing fits. "This was really… unexpected."
"Then get used to it, Strider," said Ceranos, feigning indignation, "for I cannot sleep if I do not have at least a puff of Longbottom leaf. I tend to be grumpy in the morning otherwise."
This of course, only caused more laughter from the Man's side, the fact that these words were spoken by an Elf proving too much for him. Ceranos huffed once more and turned his back on the Ranger in mock annoyance, letting him still pour out his apologies, while the stars above twinkled as though laughing as well. Even when Aragorn had finally rolled onto his side in an attempt to get some sleep, the sight proved too ticklish and he still stifled his laughter once in a while.
"Oh, just be quiet and go to sleep!" he heard Ceranos say, a very discernible tinge of mock irritation in his voice.
"My apologies," chuckled the Ranger.
With that they both fell silent, and it wasn't long before sleep claimed them, their mirthful smiles still tugging on their lips.
*Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul!: I spit on your grave! (Khuzdul)
**Im Telcontar, adan ned Forod. Man eneth lín?: I'm Strider, a man of the North. What is your name? (Sindarin)
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