1. The Darkest Night
2980 - Yule 1, somewhere near Bree
This is no way to spend mettarë. Aragorn pulled his sodden cloak tighter around him. He should have been sensible and stayed at Fornost until the new year, and give his horse time to recover from the lameness that had struck her after she slipped in the mud on the Greenway - and he really should remember to call the days Yule again, rather than mettarë and yestarë. He spared a moment of annoyance at Halbarad for being out in the Weatherhills and not at Fornost to meet him as they had agreed, even if it was scarcely his kinsman's fault that a band of Orcs had decided to move into the hills for the winter.
The journey had been wretched, rain and wind conspiring to slow him down. Perhaps he should head back to Bree and grant himself the luxury of a night at the Prancing Pony for mett... Yule. The Rangers would still be there in the morning. No, best put that out of mind; he did not have the coin.
A year ago he had been in Minas Tirith, attending the Steward's mettarë ball - he'd been warm, dry and well fed, not to mention busy planning the assault on Umbar. But to think of Minas Tirith was even worse than thinking of the Prancing Pony. Old Butterbur would at least let him in if he had the coin to pay for his meal and lodgings. Were he ever to return to Gondor... Perhaps Ecthelion understood why he had not come back to Minas Tirith after the attack on Umbar's ships, but Ecthelion was old and his son would soon rule Gondor. Denethor would not look kindly on 'Thorongil's' reappearance, and even if he were somehow able to claim the throne, there would be a crushing assault from Mordor as soon as he declared himself.
He truly had made a mess of everything. No matter what slim hope there might have been before that he would be the one to re-unite the kingdoms of the Dúnedain, when he looked at it now, it was more unlikely than ever that he might succeed at that task, even if he could imagine where to start.
The only good thing he had achieved was that Gondor would stand to fight a while longer against the Dark in the East, but he had also ensured that no claim of his would be accepted once Denethor ruled. And Denethor was of high Númenorean lineage and his own age... Alas, barring some unforeseen and unlikely chance, he would not ever rule in Gondor, and so he had already lost the chance of gaining Arwen's hand even before he had gained her heart.
Aragorn shook his head dejectedly, when suddenly, though there was more mockery than mirth in it, he could not help but laugh at how he must look as he sat there. Even if all his life had gone awry, this self-pity was worse than useless. And after all that, what had possessed him to choose winter for a tour of the Ranger companies, and what had possessed him to continue on foot for Bree, Tharbad and the Shire patrols?
Stop complaining, he told himself. It's not as if you can get any wetter than you already are.
A gust of wind shook the branches of the tree under which he sat, and sent a splash of icy water down on him. As the water found its way down his neck, he quickly got up and glared at the tree as if the assault had been intentional. He might find it hard to get wetter than he was, but colder would be all too easy to achieve. Better get going, and find the Rangers. It was just as well that he had been told at Fornost where their camp should be. The way his luck had gone lately, if he had to look for them he would end up straying into the Midgewater Marshes to drown, or meet his fate in some other damp, dreary and embarrassing way.
Shaking his head again, as if to rid himself of any remaining shred of self-pity, he set off. If he hurried, he might still make it to the camp before nightfall.
Several wet hours later, he stood near the lightning-damaged oak tree that he knew to look for. He leant against the tree's trunk for a brief rest, then gave the whistle that would warn his fellows that there was a Ranger nearby, looking for them. He was about to continue walking - they should be able to find him even if he did not wait at the tree - when a soft rustle of fallen leaves betrayed a movement.
"Who goes there?" a voice called out, and then, as Aragorn turned his head, "Captain!"
"Daeron, well met," Aragorn greeted the first Ranger who stepped out of hiding, followed soon by a second man.
"This is Bregor," Daeron introduced the other Ranger to Aragorn, then asked, "Have you any news from Fornost?"
"Yes," Aragorn confirmed. "There are Orcs in the northern Weatherhills."
"That will not please our captain," Daeron said grimly. "Where are they heading?"
"I don't know, but Halbarad's gone after them," Aragorn replied.
"Then I doubt we'll see them here," said Daeron, "But you'd best come back to camp, even if our captain is out on patrol for another week or so. Beleg commands the camp in the mean-time; he'll be pleased to see you as well, as will the others."
It was another half hour's walking at least to the camp, and when they got there Aragorn was relieved to be able to sit down next to the campfire and give his legs some rest. After a few minutes he moved even closer to the small fire.
"Careful, sir, or you'll set yourself ablaze," a Ranger called out.
"As soaked as the Captain is? We're in more danger of the fire being put out from the water in his cloak," Daeron replied, catching his eye with a grin.
"Thank you for your concern," Aragorn said tartly, though he did move back slightly. He must have sounded testier than he had intended, for the attempt at banter came to an abrupt halt, and the men returned to what they had been doing before he arrived, leaving him to his own company. With a sigh Aragorn turned slightly so that his other side was closer to the fire. He still felt cold, but at least he was starting to dry out a bit.
"Merry Yule, sir."
Startled, he opened his eyes; he must have nodded off. It was now fully dark, and the fire was burning high; it had also, finally, stopped raining. About ten men, all those who were not out on patrol or on sentry duty, were sitting nearby, as closely around the campfire as they could.
"Merry Yule, sir," Beleg repeated, handing him a bowl of rabbit stew, then sitting down to eat his own meal. "Not as good as at home," Beleg went on as soon as he had finished eating, "But not bad at all."
"Beware the cook praising his own food," Daeron said, smiling broadly at Beleg's answering scowl.
"It could be worse," Bregor added, "But I'd rather be at the Prancing Pony. I could do with a pint, and a warm, dry bed."
"So could we all," Beleg replied. "This is what we have, so it'll have to do. Eat your stew before it gets cold."
"Yes, mother," Bregor muttered, making a show of scraping the bottom of his bowl.
"Captain," Imlach, one of the older men, asked once Aragorn had finished eating, "What is Yuletide like in the South, or do they even celebrate it there?"
"Yes, they do," Aragorn replied. "Rohan would be to your taste; they seem set to eat and drink their way through both days." Imlach had already been a Ranger when Aragorn left the North close to thirty years before, and his perpetual hunger had been legendary even then.
Imlach grinned, then asked, "And Gondor? Minas Tirith? Do they feast for the new year?"
"Yes, though in the Steward's court in Minas Tirith at least it is a rather formal and staid affair. There is merriment enow in the lower Circles of the City, and in the soldiers' barracks," Aragorn replied.
Imlach nodded, but before he could ask more, his brother Malach spoke. "Since we lack both beer and a barracks, and we cannot make too merry out here anyway lest we are joined by a troll or two, shall we not have a tale instead?"
Several of the men turned expectant gazes upon Aragorn, but he shook his head. "No, let another do the telling. I am content to listen. Perhaps tomorrow."
"Then I'll take tonight's turn," Daeron said, and turning to Aragorn to explain, he went on, "We started a telling of the Quenta Silmarillion a few weeks ago, and were just getting to the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, so unless you want to hear something else, that is what I shall speak of."
Aragorn shrugged. Any tale would do for him, even if some of the others looked less than enthusiastic at the suggestion. None voiced an objection though, so Daeron started the telling.
Familiar the story might be, Daeron told it well, and he soon had his audience entranced with a lively description of the gathering of the forces of the Eldar and the Edain. They cheered softly at Fingon crying out at the coming of the armies of Gondolin, "Utúlie'n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie'n aurë! The day has come! Behold, people of the Eldar and Fathers of Men, the day has come!" and at the answering "Auta i lómë" from those who heard him.
Even so, Aragorn found it hard to keep his full attention on the tale. He was still weary, and cold, and though he had shaken off his dark mood earlier in the day, the evening's questions set him brooding again. He did not begrudge the good folk of Bree and the Shire the chance to welcome the new year free from danger, but he wished his men could enjoy a Yuletide as carefree as even that of Gondor's soldiers. Except for those in Ithilien or on the border to the south, most had a week's leave around mettarë and yestarë. Alas, such was the price of duty for his people, and he could see no end to it.
"Last of all Húrin stood alone," Daeron said loudly, standing up.
Aragorn looked up, his line of thought disturbed.
"Last of all Húrin stood alone," Daeron repeated, lowering his voice again as he continued. "Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: 'Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!' Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, until at last he fell buried beneath them. Then Gothmog bound him and dragged him to Angband with mockery. Thus ended Nirnaeth Arnoediad, as the sun went down beyond the sea. Night fell in Hithlum, and there came a great storm of wind out of the West."
Daeron sighed as he sat down again. "Thus ends the tale for tonight," he said softly.
The Rangers were silent, until Beleg cried, "Aurë entuluva!"
"Aurë entuluva!" all repeated, Aragorn joining in as well as he felt hope rekindle. "Aurë entuluva!" Even after this darkest night of the year, day would come again. Dark as Húrin's fate had been, Morgoth had not able to break him, and in the end the Enemy had been defeated, and Húrin's suffering and that of his kin avenged. Sauron, too, would be brought down.
A/N: The italicised paragraphs at the end are quoted from The Silmarillion, Ch.20, Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad.