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Two hours had passed to the steady rhythm of hooves and musical bells. Aragorn tightened his hands on the reins. No, it had been more like three hours. Time had slurred into a meaningless passage of night-shadowed steps down an endless road of misery. Aragornís back ached with a ferocity he had never before experienced as Halbaradís weight leaned against him. And the rope! Halbaradís every move, no matter how small, made it saw into Aragornís chest with breath-stealing agony. Not for the first time he cursed his stupidity in failing to see that the rope had not cut across the bruise on his chest when Glorfindel tied it in place. But there was nothing he could do about it now but grit his teeth and endure.
But at least Halbarad still lived. He lived, and that was no small comfort.
Halbarad shifted behind him, awake again, or at least partially. Aragorn shifted his death grip on the reins to place his left hand over Halbaradís where it gripped his belt. Halbarad had not let go of him since they left, not even when he drifted into unconsciousness. It was as if some primal instinct kept his hand locked in place. Aragorn glanced over his shoulder. Halbarad stilled, and, if the deep breathing Aragorn felt against his back was any indication, almost seemed to be peacefully sleeping, his cheek pressed against Aragornís shoulder. Aragorn knew better than to believe it was mere sleep, but the pulse in his wrist was strong and at least Halbarad seemed not to be in any sort of agony. And from the way he moved his hands and occasionally shifted his legs, Aragorn knew the arrow must not have slipped any closer to his spine. The bindings were working, and Asfalothís gait was as smooth as Glorfindel promised: despite his steady gallop, Aragorn could almost imagine that they were barely moving, so little did Asfaloth jar them. The horse somehow was able to evade rough patches and avoid holes and all the while keep up a mile-eating gait that was neither too fast nor too slow. Asfaloth seemed to possess such miraculous wizardry that Aragorn found himself sending endless thoughts of thanks to Ilķvatar, Glorfindel, Elbereth and every other person, Maia, Vala and Elven horse trainer he could think of who might have had a hand in creating this wonderful creature.
After this, it would be hard to return the horse to Glorfindel, he thought wryly.
With slow careful movements, he reached up and tried to ease the rope to a new position. Halbarad sighed and murmured, and he immediately stopped. What, really, did it matter if he was uncomfortable? If a little discomfort on his part ensured Halbaradís survival, Aragorn would endure far worse.
Valar, help him live!
Time crept forward. Aragorn stared dully at the dark hills around them, trying to ignore the myriad aches in his body, in his legs and back and arms. The wind in his face carried the scent of heather and moss and fallen leaves and he wondered how much farther they had to go. He had hunted these lands, once or twice as a youth tagging along with Elladan and Elrohir. And he had dwelt here for a time, after learning his true name; long, joyless days trying to bury the pain of losing what had felt all chance at marrying Arwen. He had roamed lost through these rugged hills and thickets for months, seeking for peace to come and settle the storm in his soul. But peace ever eluded him, and at last he turned westward, to join the people of his blood and take his rightful place among them. In all the years since, he had managed to avoid like plague this cheerless land and the dark memories it held.
And now here he was again, lost not in a fog of heartache but lost all the same.
He tried to see a landmark that might clue him in as to their whereabouts, but the darkness and his fatigue conspired to leave him utterly lost. It was not a feeling to which he was accustomed, but he found he was too exhausted to be alarmed. He shifted slightly, trying to ease a cramp in his lower back, but that set off the pain in his chest, and in the last hour or so he had noticed the throbbing around the wound in his left arm had deepened. He reached up and gently massaged the area around it, to no noticeable relief.
More unmeasured time passed and his arm continued to throb with each heartbeat. He tucked it against his body and supported it as best as he could with his right, thankful that Asfaloth seemed not to really need him to keep an active hand on the reins. He really should have somehow contrived to grab some medicines from his pack before they left, but it had been impossible. He felt shivery, as if bugs were crawling all over his skin. Fever setting in, he supposed.
He shut his eyes. How he longed for the moment when he could succumb to sleep, to rest without fear of nightmares and the dark shadows that even now pressed against the edges of his mind. Oh to lose himself in sleepís warm oblivion, to dream sweet dreams of Arwen! How long had it been since he had enjoyed pure rest? Too long... far too long...
He felt himself sag and jerked his head back up, heart pounding at the near calamity. He must not fall asleep! He dared not risk tumbling from the saddle and pulling Halbarad with him. To fall at such speed would be the death of them both. And although Glorfindel had tried to assure him that Asfaloth would not let them fall, Aragorn could not take the chance that even so great a horse as Asfaloth might not be quick enough to counter Aragornís own clumsiness. He rubbed his face with his hand and shook his head to clear away the fog. He felt Halbaradís wrist. A pulse, steady but growing more faint. His own heart lurched. Time was chipping away at Halbaradís strength.
"Hang on, Halbarad," Aragorn rasped, the wind catching at his words and whipping them away into the night. "Please, you must hang on."
He looked at the sky, at the stars. Looked for Ešrendil but could not find him. He frowned. Gil-Estel, the star of his ancestor, should be there, guiding him with the light of the Silmaril and giving him hope. But it was not. He looked everywhere but did not see it and suddenly tears of despair and pain blurred even the thin light of the stars he could see. He dropped his head. "Elbereth, help me," he whispered. His thoughts strayed to his beloved. "Arwen, how I need you right now."
He raised his eyes again, but it was hopeless. This torment would never end. He would go riding for eternity, never reaching Rivendell, forever chased by shadows of evil, lost in the half light before dawn...
He blinked. The half light before dawn. He stared at the horizon, trying to see past the silhouettes of the trees...
The silhouettes of the trees! Of course he could not find Ešrendil! He had finished his nightly voyage, hours ago, and now it was it was dawn.
"Halbarad!" he cried. "It is dawn! We must surely be close!"
Halbarad was silent but his arm tightened ever so slightly against Aragornís waist. He had heard.
New life surged in Aragorn, driving away the despair like so much mist before a strong wind. Even the pain suddenly seemed tolerable. He paid close attention to the trail, trying to determine where they actually were in relationship to Rivendell. As they passed a white rock, and then after a ways another, joy rose in his heart. The trail markers! He now knew exactly where they were, and they were close. Very close. The secret valley of Imladris lay just ahead, and the first sentry should spot them any momentĖ
"Halt! Who approaches the realm of Imladris?" called a grim voice.
Asfaloth stopped at a gentle pull on the reins. He shook his head and pranced as though he had not just raced nearly a hundred miles through the night. Aragorn longed to lay his head alongside the horseís proud neck, in exhausted thanks, but he could not pull Halbarad into so painful a position, so he settled for patting Asfalothís neck. "You have done it, my valiant friend!" he whispered, fighting to keep a giddy smile off his face, to keep from laughing aloud like a lunatic. But despite his best efforts to sound calm, joy filled his voice as he called out, "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dķnedain, here to see my father!"
A movement in the shadows caught his eye and then a tall, dark-haired Elf stepped up to Aragorn. Aragorn recognized the Elf but did not know him well. DŻrion was his name, if he recalled. "Welcome, Lord Aragorn! Such singing shall there be in the Hall of Fire at your return!" DŻrion cried with a merry laugh, all sternness gone. "Forgive me for not recognizing you. I did not know what to make of two dark-haired men astride Lord Glorfindelís horse, and caution seemed necessary over welcome, given recent events. I trust Lord Glorfindel is well?"
"Thank you, DŻrion, and yes, Glorfindel is indeed well, or was when I saw him last evening. I am indebted to him beyond what I can repay for the loan of Asfaloth. But I must hurry, for my companion is wounded and in dire need of Lord Elrondís care."
DŻrion stepped closer and let out a small gasp when he saw the arrow. "My pardon, Lord Aragorn. I did not realize! Go, and ride swiftly! I will sound the news so that they will be ready for you."
"Thank you, my friend," he said softly, then touched his heels to Asfalothís sides. Even as they moved out, silver trumpets sounded through the trees and beyond the hills. As the liquid notes echoed through the air, Aragornís heart lightened and tears formed again, but this time they were tears of relief.
Asfaloth took them surely and steadily down the treacherous path that hugged the tall stone-sided cliffs, and then across the bridge over the Bruinen. Aragorn could not stop a quick intake of breath at the sight of the Last Homely House.
Home. He was home. Whatever awaited upon his meeting with the father, nothing ever took away the warmth that bloomed in his heart whenever he rounded the last bend and the great house of Elrond spread before him, standing watch over the valley even as Aragorn felt it stood watch over his own life. Sanctuary, shelter, peace... such were the offerings of Imladris, and his soul always seemed to settle within him when he arrived.
The sun that brightened the sky beyond the hills would not reach this deep valley for another hour yet, but lights shone warmly in several windows and through the wide open doors. A tall figure paced there, his shadow moving back and forth in agitated crossings. "Lord Elrond," Aragorn murmured, though they were still too far away to call out. His heart thumped oddly at the sight of his father. The houseís welcome he already felt, but what manner welcome would he receive from his father?
Halbarad stirred. "Rivendell?" he rasped.
"We are almost there."
"He ... he will be glad to see you," Halbarad whispered.
"Is my fear so obvious?"
Halbaradís words were barely audible, but even so, there was no mistaking the mocking humor in his voice. "Unless you always ride... with a back stiff as a...a board."
Pulling a face that Halbarad could not see, Aragorn tried to relax, without much success.
They clattered up into the courtyard at last and two Elves ran forward with a litter held between them. "Lord Aragorn! Let us see to Halbarad." Eager hands reached up to catch Halbarad as Aragorn loosened the knots in the ropes that held him. There were no words to describe the sense of relief that washed over him as Halbarad slipped into their strong arms.
Then Elrond was standing at his knee. He looked down at his fatherís face. "Father," he said, his voice hoarse with fatigue and emotion.
"It is good to see you, my son," Elrond said warmly. He reached up and clasped Aragornís hand. "I have missed you."
Aragorn tried to smile, but he was so exhausted and his feelings in such a muddle he felt almost numb. "It has been too long," he managed, then slid stiffly down from Asfaloth, trying his best to hide the fact that his feet hitting the ground sent a spike of pain through the top of his head. There was time for only the briefest embrace, a matter of clasping both hands, before he turned to Halbarad, who had been placed on his side on the litter. Aragorn knelt down and grasped Halbaradís hand. "How do you fare, my friend?"
"I have had ... better nights," he sighed, then closed his eyes. He pulled his hand away and fumbled in his cloak, then pressed something into Aragornís hands. Aragorn looked down and saw it was the mithril necklace Halbarad had bought from a traveling peddler when they were in Bree. Valar, how long ago did that seem! "Give it to Miriel for me, if..."
"Give it to her yourself," Aragorn said, and tried to tuck it back into Halbaradís pocket, but Halbarad pushed his hand away.
"Then hang onto it for me. Donít want to... to lose it."
"That I can do." Aragorn brushed a hand against Halbaradís hair. "Rest, my friend," he murmured, then nodded to the Elves that had positioned themselves at either end of the litter. They lifted him, and Aragorn rose stiffly and stepped back.
But Halbarad opened his eyes again and called out. "Wait."
The Elves halted and Aragorn hurried over and bent close. "What is it?"
Halbarad smiled faintly and moved his head toward Lord Elrond. "I told you so," he whispered, and winked.
Aragorn stared at him for a moment, then let out a disbelieving laugh. He stood and nodded to the Elves and they again moved out. Aragornís smile faded as Halbarad winced. "Valar be with you," Aragorn whispered. He watched as they hurried off to the House of Healing, wondering if perhaps they had just exchanged their last words.
No. Halbarad is strong. He will live.
He has to.
As the door slammed behind them, Aragorn flinched at the finality of the sound. Like the closing of a tomb....
He cut short the morbid thought, looking instead at the chain in his hand. He remembered how long it had taken Halbarad to finally decide to buy it, for the price had been steep, even for such a slender strand, and Halbarad had been sure the peddler was a thief for demanding such a high price. They had left the peddlerís cart and then gone back, and when Halbarad tried again to leave without making the purchase, Aragorn could stand it no more and told him crossly to buy the thing and be done with it; he was getting hungry. And with a relieved grin, Halbarad had pulled out the money and paid for it, and they went to the Prancing Pony to sup. That grin did not leave his face the rest of the night, and he kept pulling the necklace out to show everyone and talk of how lovely it would look around Mirielís neck, how it needed no gem because she was the jewel, and finally Aragorn could stand no more of the lovesick prattle. He had moved to a booth by himself, where his thoughts strayed toward Arwen and the seeming hopelessness of ever gaining her, and he gave himself over completely to abject self pity. Halbarad seemed not to notice and that only soured Aragornís mood still more.
He rubbed the necklace absently with one finger. What he would give to be back in that inn right now. He started at a touch on his shoulder.
"It is a lovely thing," Elrond said, but then he closed Aragornís hand around it. "Keep it for him, but find rest for yourself now." He slowly took in Aragorn from head to toe. "It takes no healer to see that you have suffered a long and hard journey. I will tend Halbarad. Go to your room and sleep."
"Father, I ..." But he couldnít finish. There were so many things to say, so much to tell. The words eluded him.
Elrond pulled him into a fierce embrace. "Say nothing, child," he whispered against Aragornís hair. "You need say nothing. Just be, Estel. Here you are safe and can lay down your burdens, if only for a little while."
Aragorn put his arms around his father, hesitantly at first, but then something within him seemed to break and he clung to him. He buried his head against Elrondís shoulder, breathing in the comforting familiarity of him. Tears threatened but he blinked them away and then pulled back. "Thank you," he whispered.
Elrond smiled sadly, cupping Aragornís face in his hands. He looked so deeply into his eyes that Aragorn felt as though his father could see into his very soul. Then he ruefully admitted to himself that Elrond most likely could see that far. Concern wreathed Elrondís brow as he said, "It is as I felt it. There is a shadow on your fŽa."
For a moment, Aragorn was sorely tempted to blurt out everything, to let go and allow Elrond to care for him like he did when he was a small boy in need of patching up after a hard fall. But those days were long over, and Halbarad needed Elrond far more. He shook his head and, though he did not feel like it, smiled. "I am fine. Just tired. It has been a long journey and a hard one. Worry not, for Halbarad needs you, and you must not be distracted by needless concerns over me."
Elrond searched his eyes for a moment more. "Needless my concerns are not, but we will talk long of this, as soon as I am able. In the meantime, find sustenance and rest, for I feel fever upon youĖI will have some willowbark tea sent to you."
"Adar, let me helpĖ"
"No, my son. You are too full of care and grief, and I fear ill besides. What you need is rest. I will have Erestor with me. Do not worry."
As if he could stop worrying. But he nodded and, tucking the necklace safely away in a pocket, patted Asfalothís neck. "I will care for Asfaloth, then," he said. He knew that Asfaloth normally suffered no one to touch him but Glorfindel, but he hoped the horse would tolerate his hand on the brush. "I will await word."
Elrond touched Aragornís arm one more time, then turned to go.
Aragorn felt a moment of unaccountable panic as he watched Elrond walk away. "Adar!"
Elrond stopped. "Yes?"
"I.... Nothing. Never mind," Aragorn said. He could not explain even to himself why, after all these years of dreading to see him, he now could hardly bear for his father to leave his sight. He finished lamely, "May the Valar guide your hands."
Elrond smiled, then hurried away. Aragornís shoulders sagged as he pressed his forehead against Asfalothís. "Thank you, Asfaloth. You have earned your rest, but I fear I will not rest for a long, long time."
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