14. The Dagger
Food and drink were set out for all when the council adjourned. Not hungry, Aragorn wished desperately to be alone. This is the first test of manhood—to endure the challenges of every day, both the petty and the real.
Halbarad brought him a mug of beer. "Good speech. If that's the result of Elrond's schooling, it was time well spent."
Aragorn laughed as he accepted the drink, discovering he had a thirst after all. "He isn't counted among the Wise for nothing."
Beleg appeared suddenly at Aragorn's side. "Spoken like a true son of your father! The blood of Númenor runs in your veins, son of Arathorn. Even Ingold is impressed."
His brilliant eyes made Aragorn uneasy. "Thank you."
Beleg turned to Hallor. "I'd like to come to Rivendell with you, if you can spare me from the road."
Hallor shook his head. "Not this time, Beleg. I need you at the Weather Hills. I'm taking Ingold with me to Rivendell, to settle at once this tiresome business of the past. It is all the more urgent now—we must work together with Elrond's scouts, and heal the breach with his sons."
Beleg's Elf-keen eyes darkened, but he shrugged lightly. "Another time, then," and he turned away to the table of food.
Aragorn stepped closer to Hallor to close the gap between them, in case Beleg thought to come back. He felt guilty that he could not warm up to his father's best friend. "Elrond recognizes this as much as you, if not more."
Hallor nodded curtly. "Now the hard work begins. I'd like the teams out by next week. We need a thorough search of all the lands beyond even our usual reach. I'm sending the largest team into the mountains, looking for more signs of those Orcs. The two of you"—he nodded at Halbarad and Aragorn—"will go south to Tharbad and then up the Greenway to the North, with Hawk and Malbeth. Dírhael and Ivorwen will be making a long stay with Gilraen in the spring, but you may join them later, Aragorn, if you will. I need you in the field till summer."
Somehow the prospect of facing wargs, wolves, Orcs and Trolls—and other, unknown agents of Mordor—seemed easier than life in the Keep. Aragorn suspected that Hallor knew how he felt. "The sooner the better. I will sharpen my sword."
"My quiver is full," said Halbarad.
Aragorn had spent too many sleepless hours staring into the dark, trying to banish the leering Orcs, screaming children and indeterminate terror that his dreams brought. Once he had even dreamed of the kinslaying at Aqualondë, and woke in a shuddering sweat. Whether it was relief that the council was at last over, or the potency of the excellent ale, that night he slept well. The nightmares that had plagued him since Brelach's death left him at peace.
The next morning he went to the healer's cottage to see Saelind. Thinner and frailer each day, she was half-asleep on her couch before the fire, but her face lit up like the sun when he entered the room. She held out her hand, and he took it in both of his and kissed it.
"I heard about the council meeting," she said. "You did well."
Aragorn smiled down at her sweet, wrinkled face. "I was expecting that you would not approve, and would have me claim lordship at once."
She shrugged. "You will be chieftain. And more. There is no hurry."
"I don't find it so easy to be patient."
She chuckled. "Impatience is a vice of youth."
"It's not that I am so sure of myself."
"I know. You are, if anything, even harder on yourself than the others are. You know that only makes their criticisms more difficult to bear."
He bowed his head. "You are right."
"Of course I'm right," she said, in her spirited way. "At my age I had better be right. There's no more time for learning." She gazed out of the window for a time. "Soon you will leave again for the Wild, Aragorn, my son's grandson. That will be our final parting. I won't live past this winter."
"Don't say that."
"It's all right," she said gently. "I don't mind coming to the end, not as old as I am. It's the unpleasant process of dying itself I mind. Arassuil was the last of us to choose the passage of Númenor. I see now that those who choose such a death are fortunate indeed. But I too am lucky in my own way. I am with my loved ones, not on some battlefield with Orc cries all around me."
He was silent. She turned her wise eyes to his face. "It's being robbed of the years that are your due—that's what will make you bitter. As Arador and Arathorn were robbed, of so many years of life, of knowing their grandson and son."
"Yes." Being in Thurnost had burned that loss in his heart.
"But you must live. Why are you so sad, Aragorn?"
He wondered how to answer. "I seem always to want things that I can't have," he said at last.
"And what are these things?"
"To have known my own father, as you have just said. To win honor and respect. To meet Elrond's hopes for me. How likely is that?"
"There's something more. Tell me."
He stared at the floor between his feet, and then said, "A woman I love, who does not love me." Yearning twisted in his heart. And when I return to Rivendell next summer, how will she greet me? Maybe it would be best not to go. My mother can visit with her family all the better without me. But he knew that he would go, that still he hoped Arwen would welcome him. A lovesick fool am I.
"Ah." She paused, but her eyes were on his face. "A woman of the Elves? You are not the first to be caught in that enchanted web."
"No, but that is not much comfort."
"Elves and Men may come together for a time, in friendship or in love, but our fates are apart."
"So it is said."
"When it comes time for you to marry, you will find a woman of our people, and you will forget this first love."
That will never happen. He knew this with the certainty of the rising of the sun. He said nothing. He felt Saelind's gentle eyes on his face, and she squeezed his hand with a light sigh, and, to his relief, changed the subject. "Our struggle seems hopeless, doesn't it? All these years, defending the wisdom and heritage of Númenor, and for what? Only to pass into the shadows and see defeat at last. No one sees much hope. The discontent in the Keep comes down to that."
"Then we need at least some small victory to keep our spirit alive."
"The victory is that we are still here at all. From that I take my hope. I used to wonder at it when I was a girl at my lessons: defeat after defeat, and men killed in the Wild, but still we went on. I asked my father once, and he said, 'Great things do not fall in everyone's lifetime. But we who fight now prepare the way for the great to come.' And he showed me this poem." She gestured toward a shelf on the far wall where a few books rested. "Fetch me the small volume in red leather."
He brought her a collection of poetry, copied without color or refinements, small and light for travel.
"Turn to the last page, and read it to me."
Aragorn found the poem she wished to hear. He recognized it as a sonnet of Malbeth the Seer, the last poet of the court of Arnor, who wrote the verses after the kingdom foundered and Arvedui and his men drowned in the icy bay of Forochel. Malbeth himself lived on under Aranarth, the first chieftain, but he was old, ill and blind, his gift of foresight of little use. Aragorn read aloud:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth He exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "He doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."*
Saelind stroked the page with her old, gnarled finger. "Malbeth the blind prophet understood that even those who must live through a period of defeat have a job to do, even through the shattering of the old kingdom and the end of the line of the kings." Her mouth quirked in a mischievous half-smile. "Due to Gondor's tom-fool stewards, may I say. I want you to have this book, Aragorn, and read it when you need comfort. Put it in your pack when you travel. And there is one other thing I wish you to have. That chest there, on the shelf. Open it, and bring me the sheathed knife at the bottom."
Dark with age, the chest was carved with the stars of the House of Elendil. He opened it, and beneath a small packet of letters tied with a yellowed piece of string, found a knife in a dark red leather sheath. Taking it up, he drew the dagger, long, leaf-shaped, damasked with serpent-forms in red and black: a blade of the old kingdom, runes fashioned with small winking red gems along the hilt. He sheathed it and laid it across her two outstretched palms.
"This knife came to my husband on a dark day—the day his father, Arathorn, the first of that name, met his death. In those years the people living in Srathen Brethil, far to the north, were beset by terrible monsters, raugs, and their village destroyed. Arathorn led a party of Rangers to rout out the raugs, and his son and grandson, my husband and my son, rode with him. Argonui found this knife in one of the hoards in the dens where the beasts live; it came to his hand as if he had called it, and with it he killed the beast that threatened his life. But his father died—his arms torn from his body." Her eyes grew remote with memory. "Ai, what we have suffered. In later years, when we heard the tidings from Gandalf the Grey that Sauron was indeed in Dol Guldur, and sought news of Isildur's Heir—well, it is only a wonder that more of the chieftains did not meet such deaths, his creatures always searching, searching."
She grasped the blade in her wrinkled fingers and pressed the hilt in Aragorn's hand. "Take this knife. It was forged many generations ago to destroy the evil out of Angmar. Enchantments for the bane of Mordor lie upon it. It saved Argonui's life more than that first time. My heart tells me that one day it will save your life as well."
"I will keep it with me always, and the book too. I will never forget you, brief as it has been. You have helped me more than you can know."
She nodded, as if she already did know. "I am glad."
He knelt for her blessing, and she kissed his forehead, her eyes warm with love. "Don't lose hope, Estel. Carry Narsil with you, too, from time to time, that you will not forget your purpose. May the Queen's falcons watch over you."
Ivorwen had made Aragorn winter clothes for the road: rough and dark, sturdy and warm; a thick woolen mask, scarf, vest, socks and leggings, and a heavy, dark green cloak with a deep hood. He added Saelind's book and dagger to his pack, but locked Narsil in the great chest in his quarters. The Ring of Barahir, as always, he wore strung on its chain around his neck.
After three days of consulting maps and packing equipment and supplies, in two boats the four Rangers left at dawn from Thurnost's small bay. Aragorn felt as if a weight lifted from his shoulders as the towering walls of the Keep disappeared behind them. Exulting in his newly returned health and strength, he matched Halbarad's paddling stroke for stroke.
Their days were long and hard, searching for the enemy, living off the land and the river. By boat they went to Tharbad and from there on foot headed north on the ragged track that was all that remained of the Great Royal Road. Daily Aragorn pushed himself to the limit of his strength, and felt his body hardening, toughening, growing. He slept the dreamless sleep of exhaustion each night, and for that he thanked the hard road.
One night, on watch, he saw a shooting star. The clear, cold and crisp, moonless night shone with stars as bright as Arwen's eyes in a sky as black as her hair, and a great heart seemed to fill the heavens. Saelind. The noble, beautiful face he saw in the stars was hers, as she had been in her youth. He stayed up the night to see her spirit to its rest.
Goodbye, Aragorn, my son's grandson.
In the morning, when Halbarad cuffed him for keeping the watch all night, he said, "Our great-grandmother died last night."
"You were dreaming, asleep on your feet."
"No," he answered, with a shake of his head. "She is gone. I felt her pass away, at peace."
Halbarad sighed. "She said goodbye to me before we left, but still I had hopes, foolish as it is. I believe you. I will miss her."
"So will I." Aragorn bowed his head, grief suddenly choking his heart. So little time we mortals have till death takes us out of the world. It is a poorer place without her.
*The sonnet is shamelessly adapted from the great John Milton, the poet of the English Civil War.
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