1. Necessity and Desire
The last of the golden leaves drifted through the slanting sun gilding the branches and sifted gently into piles at the feet of the trees. The summer birds had fled and first frost had already driven the insects into their winter shelter. The bird-song was subdued and distant. Elrohir frowned, cautiously testing the feeling of the trees surrounding them. He felt an unusual sense of unrightness. There should have been cheery greetings along the river path or acknowledgements from the patrols as he neared home, but these silent, deserted woods mocked his expectations. Elladan's quick sideways look reflected his own uneasiness.
They had been sent out southward more than a fortnight before to find a party of Hobbits, fleeing ahead of the Nazgûl, and probably lost. Now, as far as Elrohir knew, that young relative of Bilbo's was still lost in the wild, but the Nazgûl - at least some of the Nazgûl, he amended to himself, still unsure in the confused impressions he had felt - were in no state to be chasing Hobbits. He had felt the Bruinen unleashed, and had been close enough to witness the remnants of the flood surging down, four days ago. Later, they had felt the Nazgûl's strong auras of fear fleeing southward. That news alone was enough to return home to report. They had retraced their route north, reaching the Fords last night. Grateful for the light of the nearly full moon, they had picked their way across the detritus left by the scouring waters and camped across the river. Though it was still a day's journey to home, they had felt safer after they had crossed.
The path they strode now was climbing through a grassy patch and had risen above the river. The thick line of trees bordering the clearing was shadowed and too quiet. Elrohir's hand drifted nearer to his sword hilt. Suddenly, a bird-whistle, in a cadence no bird would sing, sounded shrilly. An elf stepped into view from behind a tree and gestured "caution" to them from across the clearing. Elrohir recognized him as the leader of one of the patrols kept in the woods near Rivendell and exchanged a concerned look with his brother. They quickly covered the short distance to where the elf stood waiting. He slid before them into the concealing shadows under the trees, and they followed silently.
"Faroth." Elrohir acknowledged the elf with an inclination of his head as the three came together..
"What is wrong?" Elladan asked quietly.
Faroth shrugged as if to deny his concern, but his low voice showed the same uneasiness that Elrohir sensed. "Perhaps nothing. There is a strange man in the woods. Though I reported his presence yesterday, we have received no word since then. It is my hope you could judge if he should be guided in or led away."
"Has he lost the path?" To Elrohir's eyes the scattered patches of white stones that led from the ford to Rivendell were obvious, but he knew men often found them difficult to locate.
"I do not think he knows there is a path to find." Faroth gave another small shrug. "After he crossed Bruinen, he climbed a tree and peered around looking for I know not what. Coming down he stepped on and scattered a path marker, but moved off in a different direction. He is not like the others who have come. He neither knows the path nor calls for guidance. The man wanders and is silent. Yet he is respectful and does no wanton destruction."
Elladan waved one hand in a dismissive gesture towards the east. "If he does not ask for Rivendell, why have you not already turned him away, or lured him towards the road to the mountains?"
"His looks are of the Dúnedain," Faroth said, "who are often here, though he does not display the tokens. I was told that many strangers would come. It is not for me to deny him."
Elrohir remembered a time when such a man would have been welcomed without question. He put his hand on his brother's arm before Elladan could pursue the matter further. "Peace. Take us to him, and we will decide."
Peering through the concealing foliage, Elrohir understood Faroth's dilemma. Though the stranger was lean and dirty as men get when traveling rough, he seemed wholesome and even familiar. His clothes were worn and stained; yet they were of a quality seldom seen on a Ranger. The cloak, casually draped over the bundle that was the man's only baggage, was fur lined, and, as a ray of sun slipped around a cloud, a jewel flashed fire from a collar at his throat. Elrohir watched while the tall, dark-haired man efficiently built a fire. When the stranger knelt to strike a spark, an elaborate horn hanging from a baldric swung into view. Elrohir raised his brows in surprise and turned to his brother. Gondor? The thought hung silently between them.
Though Faroth and his patrol had watched the stranger from hiding since he had crossed Bruinen yesterday morning, the man had said nothing. There was no point in waiting longer to see if he would announce his intentions. Elrohir slid his sword out of its scabbard and stepped into the clearing, coming to a stop a few feet behind and to the left of the man. Resting the tip of his sword on the ground in a non-threatening manner, he looked intently at the man's back.
More than a minute passed as the man set the spark from his striker on a ball of tinder and thrust it into the center of the pile of wood. He bent lower to blow on the flame. As it caught and fire began to lick upward over the tented logs, he stilled and then looked up quickly. He rapidly scanned the tops of the trees in front of him before twisting his head to look behind. As the man caught sight of him, Elrohir assumed his most lofty expression and waited to allow the other to make his assessment.
Slowly, the stranger stood up, hands open and in front of him. Elrohir made no move while the stranger's eyes took in all the details of his appearance. The man smiled, showing even, white teeth in a proud face.
"So. All the elves have not gone West. I began to doubt if any were left."
"These are elvish woods, where Men may not walk without leave. Who are you? What do you want here?" Elrohir narrowed his eyes.
"I am Boromir of Gondor." The man met his eyes squarely. "I seek Imladris and a sword that was broken at the beginning of this Age. It has value to Gondor and I would see it returned. Do you know it?"
Elrohir's thoughts raced. Why was Gondor looking for Narsil? Did this Boromir even know that the sword he sought came with an owner? "I know both Imladris and Narsil. But Gondor has had no thought nor care for what happens in the North for many years. Why seek these things now?"
Boromir gave Elrohir another long stare. Finally, he relaxed and gestured to the fire, now merrily crackling. "It is a long story, elf. Will you not share a meal with me while I tell it?"
Elrohir also relaxed. "I am Elrohir, son of Elrond Halfelven." He turned back towards the wood and gave an 'all clear' whistle. His brother and the six members of the elven patrol, two of them with arrows still knocked to their bows, stepped from concealment into the clearing. Boromir turned to look at them, his smile changing to wonder as Elladan came to stand next to his brother. Elrohir slid his sword back into its scabbard and gestured to a grassy place a little way away from the fire. "Faroth will see to dinner. Tell us your story."
Though the sun still showed a sliver of gold against the streaky, reddened clouds, many candles lit the banqueting hall at Rivendell. In search of Arwen, Aragorn slipped into the room through the kitchen entrance. Tonight there were no demands on him and he would sit openly by his lady's side, but she was concerned with the preparations for the feast. It was nearly time for dinner to be served, but the great doors to the foyer remained closed, holding the waiting throngs at bay until the final feast preparations were complete. Elves scurried around the hall, lighting candles, placing baskets of bread on tables, and erecting an additional trestle at the far side of the room. Erestor and Arwen, their backs to Aragorn, faced a messenger who was obviously bringing unwelcome news. Though the lofty hall swallowed their speech, Aragorn could see the tenseness in Erestor's shoulders and the sharp, choppy motions of his hands as he gestured at the head table on his left.
Though Arwen looked more ethereal than usual, the silver-grey of her sleeveless gown shimmering in folds at her feet and her braids topped with her favorite net of silver and gems, events were apparently not proceeding to her satisfaction. Her head was cocked at the angle that signified attention to a thorny problem. Aragorn allowed a grin and leaned against a pillar to watch the drama play out. Though Erestor was Elrond's councilor, she was Lady of Rivendell. Aragorn thought even Erestor would do well to remember it if things were not running as smoothly as she wished. Arwen touched Erestor's arm, stopping his gestures, and dismissed the messenger. She spoke to Erestor for another minute. He handed her a scrap of parchment, bowed stiffly and strode the length of the room, exiting through a door at the other end. Arwen studied the paper in her hand. Aragorn, love lending keenness to his eyes, discerned a slight slump in her posture. He stepped quickly to her side.
She turned to him and her eyes lit with pleasure, though her mouth did not return his smile. "Domestic issues. I wish he had left the arrangements to me from the start. Look." With an inward pang, for Aragorn knew he had monopolized her afternoon, he followed her gesture to where an elf was trying to find room to put another place setting on the snow-white cloth of the head table. The table, nearly as long as the dais it sat on was wide, could not be expanded and was already overcrowded with plates. "Legolas, at the latest possible moment, sends word he will not attend tonight. And I find that Erestor has left no room for the dwarves at the table, yet both Glóin and his son should be honoured."
"Legolas has been avoiding me since he arrived. The news he carries must be bad indeed. Perhaps the Gollum creature is dead."
"As long as I need not feed him tonight, I care not," she replied testily, turning her attention back to give the paper in her hand another scrutiny. "Everyone is far too touchy about precedence. Should Galdor from the Havens be given more distinction than Thranduil's representatives if Legolas does not attend? And who will talk kindly to the dwarves?"
Aragorn acknowledged that the problem of Gollum and Legolas could wait and craned closer to look at the seating plan she held. "Where have you placed the Hobbits?"
"Frodo is between Gandalf and father. Sam has been told he must sit tonight with the other Hobbits at one of the lower tables and not serve his master."
"But…" Aragorn stopped himself. The head table was already overcrowded. He tried to sound reassuring. "Hobbits set little store by such distinctions. It will not matter."
Dismay spread over Arwen's features. "I know only Bilbo. If I have erred, tell me. It is not too late."
"Hobbits have no king, but they have a Thain, and Pippin is heir." Aragorn broke the news gently. "There are two great families, the Tooks and the Brandybucks."
"And Pippin is heir to the one." She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "And Merry…"
"…to the other," Aragorn confirmed. "And they would cause no problems with the dwarves, but I can see there is indeed no room."
Arwen dropped the paper she carried into his hand and stared at the dais, eyes narrowed and lips compressed into a line. Aragorn suppressed a grin as her head cocked endearingly to one side. Suddenly, she gave a "ha' of satisfaction and stepped up onto the dais.
"Remove all but seven settings," she ordered the elf who was still trying vainly to squeeze the plates closer together.
"Seven, lady?" he asked, holding a plate suspended in mid-air.
Arwen moved along the front of the table from left to right, stabbing her finger towards places at the table as she went along. "An allegory for those with the wit to read it. Gandalf, Elrond, Glorfindel. Wizard, Elf-King, and Eldar. On the other side, Edain, Dwarf and Hobbit. I will be the bridge between them. You will personify the kingly valour of Men," she pointed at Aragorn and laughed lightly at the coincidence of his name. "And I will be the queen of light and all things that are good in Middle-earth. The end of strife. Harmony in the new age to come. The rest will be scattered around the hall and offense will be taken by no one. I will let it be known that I arranged the conceit, and none will have the temerity to gainsay me." She studied the table for another moment then turned a mischievous smile on Aragorn. "No, six plates! Valour and Peace will share the one in the center."
Many elves stepped up and began whisking the extra settings off the table and rearranging the chairs. As Arwen stepped down from the dais, Aragorn offered her his hand. "Am I to pop sweetmeats into your mouth?" he asked quietly as she stopped close to him.
Her eyes brimmed mischief, and in a voice so low that only he could hear her, said, "And I will suck the honey from your fingertips."
Aragorn thought half the hall would be scandalized and the other half would cheer them on should they actually commit such a breach of propriety during a formal banquet. He held her hand longer than necessary and gave her fingers a squeeze. "Shall I hold you to that, lady?"
Giggling, she dropped her gaze downward. She gasped. "You must change. And there is so little time before the feast begins. Go! Change!"
"Change? Into what? I cannot be dressed finer." Aragorn looked down at his surcote. It was dark blue brocade, over-embroidered by Arwen's own hand in silver and matched very well with the outfit she wore.
She impatiently waved her free hand at his cote. "You cannot personify valour in silk. You need to be in armour. And wearing Narsil. Now, go." She started towards the kitchen door without letting go of his hand and perforce he followed her.
"Armoured at dinner in this Hall! Arwen, I will be…" He looked into her hopeful eyes, still brimming with mischief, and sighed. "Very well. If you are determined on this, I will be as quick as I can. You should delay the start or I will be unable to escort you."
"It matters not and suits quite well. Make a grand entrance. Men coming late to take their place in the center of power." He started to protest again, but she let go his hand and shooed him out the door. "Your mail is too plain. Borrow Glorfindel's. Go! Go!"
Shaking his head, he made his way adroitly through the pre-feast chaos in the kitchens and out into the courtyard. Glorfindel probably would lend his mail, if he could be found to ask privately this close to the feast. It would only waste time. Aragorn knew he was unlikely to be able to wear it. They were much of a height but his shoulders were several inches wider than the elf's. Powerful though Glorfindel was, Aragorn knew he had sturdier, mannish bones. Elladan had a set of mail, fancy enough to please Arwen, that Aragorn had worn a few times when he was younger. Perhaps if he left off the padded arming tunic and wore only a shirt under it… Aragorn quickened his steps.
The sun had slipped below the horizon as the twins crossed over the bridge into Rivendell. They found the forecourt of the great house strangely deserted when they arrived. Elrohir stripped off his gloves and impatiently slapped them into his hand. They had left the man from Gondor resting in the woods with the specious excuse that they needed to obtain their father's permission to bring him to the Last Homely House. In the shifting politics of the age, a timely warning to Aragorn of Gondor's intentions was far more important in their opinion than the comfort of the messenger.
"Where is everyone?" Elladan asked the young elf lighting the torches around the courtyard.
The elf stared up at him, the lit taper in his hand already showing brightly against the gathering dusk. "At the feast to honour the Ringbearer. It has already begun."
Controlling his dismay, Elrohir sent the boy back to his task and turned to his brother. "Do we try to speak to Aragorn now and disrupt dinner?"
Elladan shrugged, then caught his brother's arm and pointed with his chin. "There."
Elrohir turned and saw a form in a short light-coloured cloak hurrying across the courtyard towards the main doorway into the House. He recognized Aragorn, but Elladan was already moving swiftly across the yard to intercept him.
"Estel!" Elladan called Aragorn's childhood name.
The man stopped mid-step at the sound and spun around to face the courtyard, his grin showing white against the shadows in the doorway. "Brothers!" he called as the twins hurried toward him. "Well met!"
Aragorn drew them each into a brief embrace, and Elrohir felt rings of hard steel under his hands. He could imagine no circumstance where Aragorn would suspect treachery at Elrond's table, but he pushed the thought away.
"You are late, I see, but that is good," Elladan said. "We have news you need to hear."
"After dinner, I will hear it, and gladly. Come within. I am sure places will be found for you," Aragorn laughed and began to move towards the door, "as long as you are content with the back of the Hall. Arwen has been fit to tear her hair over the seating, and if you demand precedence… "
Elladan held him back. "Do you not care what news we bring?"
"Of course, but it must wait." Aragorn again moved to draw the twins into the door. "The Ringbearer is safe and is honoured tonight. Arwen bids me sit by her side, and though it is her fault that I am not yet there…"
Elladan cut into the babbling. "Gondor searches for a king."
The man went silent. Elrohir grit his teeth. He would not have introduced the subject so misleadingly. After a moment, grief spread across the man's features. "Denethor is dead, then, and the House of Húrin failed," Aragorn said quietly.
"No," Elladan assured him. "But a man from Gondor searches the north for a king even so."
Aragorn's lips twisted into a frown. "Denethor still lives?" When Elladan nodded, Aragorn made an impatient gesture and his tone sharpened. "Then surely some faction seeks not for a king, but for a puppet to do their will." He gave an exasperated sigh. "I will have no part of civil war in Gondor. Send the man away. I am going in to dinner."
Elrohir sent his twin a black look and put a restraining hand on Aragorn's arm. "This is no speech for doorways. Boromir, the Steward's son, is here with his father's blessing. In a dream he was told to seek four things: the Sword that was broken, Isildur's Bane, a halfling, and counsel in Imladris. He waits an hour's walk away in the woods because we were foolish enough to believe you would appreciate our care for your future. If he is to be sent away unheard, what advice do you give him in our father's stead?"
"Boromir. Grown and here." Aragorn hesitated and turned his gaze from one twin to the other. He rubbed his hand over his face and cast a swift, longing look at the door into the house. "Arwen will not be best pleased. There is a fire in my room, and wine. Tell me of this dream." Wrapping his cloak around himself, he led the way back across the courtyard.
The room Aragorn had adopted as his own after his mother left Rivendell was a comfortable mixture of elvish and mannish designs. The carvings on the bedposts and headboard were a elvish motif, but Gilraen had woven and embroidered the hangings and coverlet for her son in patterns of the Dúnedain. The toy soldier Elrohir had carved for young Aragorn in the likeness of Arathorn, his father, sat on the mantle over the fireplace next to a small full-rigged model of a wooden boat.
Aragorn tossed his cloak onto the bed and thrust a spill into the fire. He went around the room lighting the candles set ready and muttering phrases from the dream under his breath. The light revealed a room left in haste; an open clothes press, a writing desk under the window strewn with papers and, standing guard in the corner, an armour stand clothed in a plain suit of mail and carelessly draped in a brocaded cote.
Elrohir 'tsked' and retrieved the cote, shutting it carefully in the clothes press. He gratefully sat down on one of the padded benches that stood before the fire and stretched out his legs. Elladan had made a beeline for a decanter of wine standing on the sideboard. He inspected the bottle and lined up the glasses before he poured the first glassful and handed it to Aragorn. The man threw the remains of the spill into the fire and took the glass. Aragorn leaned on the mantle and raised his eyes in a plea to the heavens.
"'Seek for the Sword that was broken: In Imladris it dwells'," Aragorn repeated. He recast the words into Sindarin. "'Find the Sword that was broken; being kept in Imladris.' No improvement. It's still doggerel."
"Does the accuracy of the revelation depend on the quality of the poetry?" Elrohir said as he accepted a glass of wine from his brother. "It has served its purpose well enough. Boromir is here."
"Narsil is in your keeping." Elladan reached over and flicked the hilt of the sword strapped at Aragorn's hip. "And Gondor has remembered it at last. It is a lucky chance that has brought Boromir to Rivendell at a time when you need not be sought."
Aragorn stared down into his glass. "There is something at work here more than chance. Isildur's Bane and the halfling are also here. All the conditions of the dream are fulfilled."
"Save advice, if you send him away unheard," Elrohir said.
Aragorn shook his head. "You must bring him the rest of the way, and quickly. Many have come. Father has called a council tomorrow morning, where much will be made clear."
"Then listen to your brothers. Say at the meeting that you will take the sword to Gondor. There will be no better time. They are already well disposed to accept you." Elladan assured him.
Aragorn put his untasted wine on the mantle and took a few restless steps around the room. He turned back and gave a slight grimace. "Foresight has failed me. I cannot go to Gondor for I am sworn to the Ringbearer."
"What?" Elrohir asked.
"Why?" added Elladan.
Aragorn sat down on the bench next to Elrohir. "In Bree, Frodo seemed very small and he carries a burden he does not yet understand. Though Nazgûl were close on his trail, he feared me more. I swore to protect him."
Elrohir heard an old ache in the Ranger's voice. Aragorn had had encounters with the Nazgûl before; though he rarely talked about the toll those meetings had taken on him. Elrohir realized he did not know how close Aragorn had been to the Nazgûl that had been seeking the Hobbit, nor how perilous the journey here had been. No matter. The Ringbearer obviously survived and Aragorn seemed uninjured. He shook off his concerns and tried to reassure the man before him. "The Ringbearer is safe and you are free to take up other duties. Do you doubt Father's ability to safeguard the halfling here?"
Aragorn still looked unconvinced. "Your oath is fulfilled," Elladan seconded, pouring wine into a glass for himself. He sat down in a chair opposite his brothers. "The Ringbearer feasts here. The Nazgûl are scattered and fled."
A tolerant smile spread on Aragorn's face. "No. Frodo will not stay here. This is no safe place for that which he carries."
"Rivendell not safe?" Elrohir said. "I can think of no safer."
"You have not heard the call of the Ring," Aragorn said, his eyes becoming remote, "as I have in the long watches of the night. Too many here have the strength to wield it. When Rivendell is besieged, all our arrows spent and our swords nicked and running with blood; when the Dark Lord stands in the forefront of another endless tide of foul orcs, and nothing holds them back but our father's will… anyone might be called by its promise of power." He trailed off, and brought his gaze back onto Elrohir. "Rivendell is no safe place," he repeated softly.
Uncomfortable silence lingered for a few moments. Elrohir did not think the Ring would tempt him even in such extremity, but he hoped never to be put to the test. Endless tides and doom. Such pessimism was very unlike Aragorn. He stood and rested his hand on the man's shoulder for a moment. "It will not come to that." Taking the glass of wine off the mantle he pressed it into Aragorn's hands.
"It must." Elladan gave a bark of laughter and downed half his glass of wine at a gulp. "And it matters not whether you or Frodo or the Ring stay or go. Best sharpen your swords, brothers." Elladan met Elrohir's quizzical look with a scowl. "There will be war. The Nazgûl know the Ring is here. Will they believe it has been sent away before Rivendell is razed and they cannot find it in the ashes?"
"No, they will not," Aragorn confirmed. "But there is time."
Aragorn stood again and moved restlessly around the room, the mail he wore clinking faintly as the rings clashed. The jewels set into the steel winked as the candlelight caught their facets. Elrohir could hear his muttered undertone, calculating marching speeds, distances, and other details of an army on the move. Leaning against the mantle Elrohir watched Aragorn working out the timing on the attacks they might have to guard against.
It was a familiar exercise. The sweet wood burning in the fire behind him brought back memories of campfires and a boy in his first summer in the Wild. His mind pictured Estel sprawled in a gawky tangle of limbs and tireless in working out "take that village" with endless variations on the terrain and the numbers of his troops. He had caught on quickly, but Elrohir could still remember the first time, after he had patiently led Estel through the steps of planning a good attack with limited forces, that Elladan had lazily opened his eyes and said, "You have four men at arms and thirty farmers. Now defend your village against that attack." As the realization that an enemy could be as cunning and intelligent as he was had sunk home, Estel's eyes had widened and the colour had leeched out under his tan. Though he had been unable to work out a winning strategy that first time, the boy had gulped and rose to the challenge. Elrohir had eventually confided to Elladan that he thought some of Estel's solutions were clever. Elladan, laughing and proud of his pupil, called them devious.
It had been a long time since such calculations were a game, and Aragorn was no longer a boy. Perhaps it was the mail, but tonight Elrohir could believe he looked on one of the Kings of Men. The twins shared an awed look, and Elrohir knew his brother thought as he did: that in the bright mail Aragorn bore a frightening resemblance to their uncle's likeness captured in art when Beleriand and Númenor yet rose above the surf.
"Given an overwhelming army," Elladan said, holding out a hand to stop Aragorn as his pacing brought him close, "how would you go about reducing Rivendell and plucking out your Ring?"
Aragorn halted mid-stride. "How would I?" A grin lightened his features. "I would overwhelm it."
Elladan reached out and cuffed him lightly on the arm. "The question, and well you knew it, is how would you get your overwhelming army here from where it gathered in Mordor?"
Aragorn went over to the desk and rummaged through the papers. He drew out a map and spread it out on the top. Elrohir and Elladan stood and leaned over the desk from either side.
"There are two decisions to be made: where to cross the river and where to cross the mountains." Aragorn's finger ran up the line of Anduin. "Here." His finger stopped just above the Gladden River. "I would send a force from Dol Guldur to bridge the river here. It need be no more than a causeway on boats, north of the marshes where the river slows and is shallow. The main army from Mordor would be east of the river and no concern of Lórien's, then west of the River and no concern of Thranduil."
Elladan gave a start and opened his mouth, ready to defend his kinsmen in Lórien. Elrohir silently warned him to silence. It was best to hear the whole plan before they began arguing the details.
"Into the mountains here." Aragorn's attention was still concentrated on the map. His finger tapped the High Pass directly east of Rivendell. "It will be March by then or perhaps early April and the pass should be open. They would sweep down from the mountain and need not cross Bruinen with its enchantments." Once again he tapped the map, this time north of Rivendell, where the mountains curved west and ended. "All the orcs in Gundabad, I would have already sent to ravish the Havens and prevent the Ring from escaping West."
"An 'overwhelming' army could never carry enough food for that march and the land is unpeopled. It would not support so great a force." Elrohir objected at last. "They would arrive starving and weak."
Aragorn's grey eyes looked puzzled, "How so? They are orcs. They will eat their weakest as they march and arrive all the stronger for it."
Elrohir ignored his twin who was now clenching his fists and leaned over the map looking for flaws in Aragorn's argument. It felt all too plausible. "You paint a bleak picture."
"It would still be a great gamble. Even an army large enough to be called overwhelming could be defeated with treachery. If the Ring were being wielded against them by someone with strength enough, they could turn against their leaders or each other. Even Sauron cannot know." Aragorn turned to Elladan with a placating gesture. "You need not seethe. I do not missay your kinsmen. We have all – men, elves, dwarves – huddled for a thousand years within our borders giving little heed to the greater world. If they marched on the far side of the river and offered no immediate threat to Lórien, do you truly believe Celeborn would call out his armies and oppose the Dark Lord's 'overwhelming' forces alone?"
Elladan glowered at Aragorn for a moment longer, then let out his pent up breath and relaxed his fists. "Lórien would send messengers to Thranduil and Galadriel would warn Rivendell."
"I did not say they would not," Aragorn reminded gently. "But even if they allied after Sauron's army marched north, it would still be too late for Rivendell."
Elrohir leaned his hands on the desk and studied the familiar map. It would be a dangerous gamble for Sauron to march on Rivendell to wrest the Ring from his enemy, leaving the armies of Gondor, Lorien, and Mirkwood unfought behind him. Would the Dark Lord, could the Dark Lord, take such a risk? Seizing a Hobbit carrying the Ring and taking him back to Mordor seemed like a much easier task compared to subduing an elf-lord already powerful in his own right and wielding the Ring. Even for the simple task of capturing a Hobbit, Sauron had sent all nine Ringwraiths. No. The Dark Lord hoarded power and did not engage in combat lightly. He had submitted to Ar-Pharazon without a battle and it had taken seven years before he had been lured out at the siege of Barad-dur. Aragorn was mistaken.
Elrohir gave a wry grin and looked up intending to speak his conclusion. Elladan was insisting that Eriador was a more likely path for the invaders. Aragorn still argued for his original route and there was an expression in his eyes that Elrohir recognized. It took very little effort to remember seeing that look before in this room.
The fireplace had been cold then, but the room was warm with the late summer sun. Elrohir had come to hear Aragorn's stories about his time in Gondor and had been taken aback to see Arwen cozily curled into the chair. That they had plighted their troth, he knew, though they were carefully formal in public. He had expected them to be embarrassed - defiant and embarrassed or shamefaced and embarrassed – but they were clearly at ease and comfortable with each other and the fact of their love. Aragorn sat on the bench pushed back against the wall, leaning forward a little as he recounted his experiences in Gondor. Arwen had obviously heard the stories before, as she tilted her head up and smiled just before he told amusing parts.
After a while, Elrohir found himself distracted from Aragorn's tales by the flashes of green fire from the emeralds set into the snakes' eyes on the ring that Arwen now wore so confidently. That Aragorn had pledged himself with that ring still amazed him; Barahir's ring gone back onto an elvish hand. He brought his attention back as Aragorn said, "They thought they had more than half a year to prepare." Elrohir took a sip from the glass in his hand. As Aragorn continued it sprayed out again involuntarily. "So during the next strong storm we sailed in and sank them all where they sheltered."
"In winter? In the teeth of an ocean gale?" Elrohir finally spluttered out as Arwen tossed him a napkin.
Aragorn gave a deep laugh. "You haven't been paying attention. The wind was behind us. It was help more than hindrance."
"It was a hindrance going the other way," he said, blotting at the damp red wine speckles on his tunic.
That familiar gleam came into Aragorn's eyes, but he patiently explained, "My ships had both sails and oars and there was nothing left to chase us. We left the port behind in chaos and flames."
"Arwen, little sister," Elrohir pleaded half-seriously, "are you certain you wish to marry this reckless daredevil? It is not too late to change your mind."
Arwen gave Aragorn a considering look. "Are you reckless?" The question could have been flippant, but Elrohir recognized that it was a sincere request for information.
"Reckless." Aragorn gave the description some thought. A smile played lightly along his lips, though his eyes were serious. "I would say that 'patient' and 'discreet' suit me better, lady. Would you have me timid?"
"I would not have you other than as you are." She answered him readily.
The look that had passed between them then was so intensely intimate and loving that Elrohir had turned his gaze away.
Yes, Aragorn was accustomed to the risks of long odds and the look in his eyes now was the same gleam he had whenever he undertook a carefully considered gamble.
"You need to be more specific in phrasing your questions, Elladan," Elrohir broke into the discussion, which was becoming heated. "Aragorn would risk that route and probably prevail with such a strategy. Sauron, I think, both hates and fears Gondor too much. He does not know that Elendil's line persists in the north and could be a rallying point still. He will try to destroy Gondor first. The Ring would be easier to pluck if Gondor fell and the rest of Middle-earth despaired."
"Oh, I agree." Aragorn turned to Elrohir and smiled grimly as Elladan gave a 'tcha' at Aragorn's ready abandonment of the argument. "The Dark Lord cannot have expected his Ring to be found, and has focused his hatred on Gondor for many years. We have only watched and waited as he built up his forces and laid long plans for war in the south. What is the North but a backwater, easily swept away when the rest of Middle-earth lies under his dominion?" He walked to the window and stared out into the darkness towards the east. "It would not take an army from Mordor to overwhelm my people. If the orcs from the mountains came against us in force, where would the Dúnedain find the armies to defeat them? We are on the wrong side of the mountains to summon allies."
Elrohir shot Aragorn a surprised look. "What ails you tonight? There is strength in Rivendell still, and the Dúnedain need not stand alone against attack. I, who have scouted there more often than you, know the orcs raid east more than west. Their hatred is greater for Dale and Erebor and the King of Mirkwood than for the Dúnedain. There is no Bolg nor Great Goblin with a grudge to lead them down upon us now."
"Nazgûl." Elladan spat the word.
"They fled south." Elrohir assured him. He felt a surge of annoyance at his twin. Their purpose tonight, he thought they had agreed, was to talk Aragorn into asserting himself as King of Gondor to Boromir, not to add obstacles.
Elladan walked over to where the wine sat and poured himself another glass. He faced his brother. "Could you swear all nine wraiths fled south? It may have been seven? As few as five?"
Elrohir started to protest then held up his hands helplessly. "We were on the west side of Bruinen still searching for lost Hobbits. Nazgûl passed on both sides of the river, but you no more than I were close enough to swear to a count."
Aragorn turned and snorted his disdain for their carelessness. "The orcs of the Misty Mountains would take orders from a Nazgûl, would they not? They followed the Witch King before when Angmar overran Arnor. It is time to look to our own defenses."
"Yes, it is," Elrohir said, "and long past time if we were indeed defenseless."
There was a pause and Elrohir studied the faces of his brothers as they thought through the implications of a Nazgûl already mustering an army of mountain orcs against them.
Aragorn broke the silence first. "No. I do not believe Sauron would have given the Nazgûl so much freedom to choose. Surely, even if he allowed the possibility that Frodo would elude them, their orders must have been 'Return to Mordor'?"
"There are too many questions without answers. I had hoped for a rest," Elladan said. "I expect we will spend the next months in the wild again."
Aragorn went back to the desk and stood looking down at the map that still lay there. "We must be prepared for all possibilities. I dare not assume that the attack will come from the East, and not the North or South." He rested his head on his outspread hand and gave a sigh. His shoulders slumped as he turned back to face the twins. "And some the Dúnedain protect are indeed defenseless. Our arrogance comes back to haunt us. Look here." He waited while Elladan and Elrohir crowded with him over the map again. Aragorn's finger traced the portions of the map as he spoke. "It is, in my opinion, unlikely that a new army of orcs will come up through Eriador. Black horses or no, I do not believe all of Rohan is lost. Sauron's armies would not march unmolested over the plains and Saruman still stands at the Gap. Any attack is likely to come over the High Pass or around the end of the mountains here." He indicated Gundabad at the end of the arc of mountains north of Rivendell towards the Ettenmoors and drew a line with his finger down to the settled areas. He tapped the Shire and Bree. Straightening, he stepped back to face the twins. "We came over the sea and swore to protect the men we had left behind an age before, and we have done so beyond all reason. In Bree and the Shire we are now their only defenses. The Dúnedain have kept the 'king's peace' until they have forgotten they are protected. And yet…"
Aragorn paused and walked over to the window. Night had fallen and the flickering golden flames of the torchlight in the courtyard competed with the silver of the still nearly full moon that cast grey shadows across the stones. Aragorn pulled the drape closed and turned back into the room. New resolution filled his features.
"The Dúnedain have no army, but such forces as we have, I will now gather and place in the north. If, nay, when the attack comes, I would that it be met in the wild places and not ravage over settled lands, except at the last extremity. Bree and the Shire will have to fend for themselves, for a while, and they may discover strengths unknown to them now." Aragorn's fingers lingered over the map again, softly passing Rivendell and touching the Angle south of it. "The women and children of my own people are for the most part here. Our fastnesses remain hidden still and our women and youngsters will be fierce in their defense, if it comes down to that. The Rangers are scattered all through the old kingdom. It will take time to spread the word, make our way north and change the supply lines, but by spring we will be together as we have not been for many lives of men. And perhaps we are still a force to be reckoned with."
"Who will lead this gathering of the strength of the Dúnedain?" Elrohir asked, already factoring this new force into his own plans for Rivendell's defense.
"I should, should I not?" Aragorn looked apologetic. Here was another reasonable excuse to stay in the North. Elrohir was beginning to suspect that the man was afraid of going to Gondor. So many of his hopes and fears came together there. If he tried now to be king and failed, there would be no other chances.
Elrohir would not let him give up so easily. "No. Go to Gondor. Your people in the North know the line of kings exists and will draw strength from that. Halbarad will lead them, or another."
"As has been done before when I went wandering for ten years and longer." Aragorn's face was set in grim lines. His hand slammed down on the desktop, scattering papers. The sinews on his neck stood out rigid. "I have hidden in the shadows all my life so that the Eye would be turned elsewhere. And now your counsel is that I should step forth? Even though I have always been told that will bring ruin? Even though I am needed here? Even though I swore to protect Frodo?" He took a deep breath and his voice moderated. "I have been so far to the east and south the stars were strange. I have trod places that have not heard even the rumour of Sauron. If I am asked to lead the Ringbearer thither for the safety for all, shall I deny it to follow… what? Gondor seeks only a broken sword." His speech ended with a note of bitterness.
Elladan slid papers clear to make a place to sit on the edge of the desk so he could face Aragorn. "They come seeking counsel as well. Boromir seems no less proud than you, but I think he would take Hope back to his people if you offered yourself."
Aragorn made a derisive noise.
"You say they will not stay here, but do you know what is planned for Frodo and the Ring?" Elladan asked.
Aragorn shook his head and Elrohir perceived a deep weariness that the man had hidden before. "Frodo was…" He met the brothers' eyes in turn with a bleakness Elrohir had rarely seen in them, then turned his eyes away and started over. "Frodo was stabbed by a Morgul blade on Weathertop. I could not prevent it. If Glorfindel had not found us near the Ford, it would have gone ill indeed." He spread his hands helplessly. "I helped with Frodo's healing what little I could. Then I slept a long time and when I woke, Arwen fed me a great deal of stew. Today, we were together until it was time for the feast. If father or Gandalf have decided what is best to be done, I will hear at the council tomorrow. I feel that the Ring should be taken far away from anywhere that is dear to me. But where lies safety and how to get it there, I know not."
Nazgûl again! Elrohir thought he understood now why Aragorn so strongly resisted their news. Going to Gondor would be pitting himself against the Eye's most feared servants.
"War is upon us, and Gondor will take the brunt of it. Your presence could make the difference there. If Gondor stands, all the Dark Lord's plans will be thwarted," Elrohir said.
"For a time." Aragorn took a few uncertain steps towards the fire and stopped.
"There are others who can lead the Dúnedain and guide Frodo," Elrohir insisted. "Only you are Isildur's heir. At the least, announce that you wish to accompany Boromir back to Gondor. You are needed. Do you wish, still, to be king?"
Aragorn went over the mantle. He picked up the glass that he had left there and Elrohir saw the wine in it tremble as his hand shook. Elrohir took the steps to stand in front of the man and grasped his shoulders.
"Are you afraid?" He asked the question bluntly.
"Afraid?" Aragorn's eyebrows rose and his tone was incredulous. "I am Aragorn, Arathorn's son, Isildur's heir, Lord of the Dúnedain, but I am not a fool. As men reckon years, I am old, and canny. I have spent my life opposing the Shadow, but always in other guises, never as Aragorn, never myself. It is a fearsome task that has been set for me, and I must wonder if I will be found wanting at the last, but I am not afraid. Nay, I am too eager to begin, and must doubt all the harder the voice that cries out from my heart. Yet you say that, for once, necessity accords with my desires."
He put the wine down again untasted, and drew out the hilt of Narsil. It had only a foot-long piece of blade attached. He held it up in the light for a moment, then crossed to the desk and laid it down. Upending the scabbard, he shook out the rest and laid it next to the hilt. He stood for a moment in silent contemplation of the shards.
"It is a powerful symbol, is it not?" he said, breaking the silence. "Here is the blade that in the hand of a Man was the downfall of a great evil. But it is broken and the Ring was not destroyed. I fear I will have to disappoint Boromir."
He paused a moment. Elladan sputtered a protest. Elrohir, who suspected he knew what was coming, silently applauded Aragorn's sense of theater, and felt a smile start to tug at his lips.
Aragorn looked up and a smile also lit his face. "It is time for the sword to be reforged. If I am to go to Gondor and confront the forces of Mordor, I prefer to wield a weapon, not a symbol."
Elrohir laughed. "Reforged, the sword may be both."
Elladan gave a whoop and pounded Aragorn on the back, wincing as his hand encountered steel.
"Ai. Gently. There was no room for a gambeson under this mail." Aragorn rotated his shoulder where the mail had met only a plain green cloth shirt under Elladan's enthusiasm.
Elladan rubbed his hand theatrically. "Why are you wearing mail to dinner? And my mail at that?"
"The feast!" Aragorn hurried around the room, snuffing candles as he passed. "Hurry. Arwen must have despaired of me by now." He picked up the short cape on the bed, and held it a moment. Then dropped it back, and grabbed a long dark green cloak from a hook near the door and fastened it around his throat.
"Trying to sneak in unobserved?" Elrohir asked.
"If I can," Aragorn shot back.
Though there were still questions unanswered, Elrohir allowed Aragorn to shepherd him out the door behind Elladan. The courtyard was peopled with an ordinary amount of early evening traffic, and the doors to the Great Hall stood open. The light within clearly showed the empty tables and the broken meats of the feast being removed.
"Arwen wished me to make a late entrance, but this is …" Aragorn swallowed hard.
"Rude? Unforgivable?" Elrohir suggested.
"Let us go, then, and join them in the Hall of Fire," Aragorn said turning to them with a lift of his brows. "Your presence must forgive my rudeness and provide my excuse."
Elladan shook his head. "With near two leagues to go yet tonight and then back again with Boromir? We have no time to dally."
Elrohir added his agreement. "It would not be seemly to leave Boromir in the woods too long. We rely on you to warn father of his coming, and assure him that Boromir will be here tomorrow in time for the council."
Aragorn gave him a skeptical look. "So you abandon me? Arwen, I hope, will overlook my rudeness, but will Father?" Not waiting for a reply, he gave his brothers a sketchy wave, and started across the courtyard. His long strides carried him rapidly towards the Hall.
Elrohir watched him. A Ranger could be nearly invisible and blend into the dimness of the yard. Tonight, Aragorn was a commanding figure and heads turned to follow his progress.
Elladan nudged his brother. "Men have always followed him. Gondor must hold, or it will go ill indeed. Will he be enough?"
Elrohir had a moment of foresight - Fighting. An endless tide of orcs shown in a flash of light. A long sword cleaving down. Grey eyes with the lust of battle glowing in their depths. Sunlight. - that slid away almost before he was aware it had come.
"He will have to be." Though he wished the Ring had not been found, Elrohir would not despair. He had known many kings of men, from Valandil to Arvedui, and Aragorn shone brighter than them all.
They set off across the bridge out of Rivendell, the light of the moon making the journey easy. They were more than half way back to the place where Faroth was camped with Boromir, when Elladan stopped abruptly and in a plaintive voice demanded, "I still want to know why he was wearing my mail."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.