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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

It was as Aragorn feared. Rest utterly eluded him.

He could not bring himself to go upstairs to his room. He only went inside as far as the kitchens, eating a meal standing by the door, as though he were some frightened stray dog ready to bolt at the slightest crosswise look. He barely tasted the food and a moment after swallowing the last bite could not remember what it was he ate. And he grimaced but swallowed a cup of willowbark tea, hating the taste but knowing it would help both his headache and his growing fever. As he finished, he had to politely shake off an offer of a bath, and then refuse another of a chair, and a third of a change of clothing. By the time he disentangled himself from the last cloying offer of assistance from the well-meaning staff, he felt ready to explode.

He hurried outside where he prowled through the gardens around the Last Homely House, trying to find solace in the flowers and trees that flourished there even this late in the autumn. He sat down on a bench, but restlessly moved on after just a few minutes. He sat on a rock beside a small stream, but its incessant gurgling only jangled his already taut nerves. His mind seemed to buzz with the intensity of his worries. Thought circled thought and fear swirled around fear and peace was something that he may have known in the distant past but was far out of reach this day. He paced and shoved his hands through his hair and tore off leaves from the bushes and shredded them in his nervous fingers. He scowled at the heat of the sun and shivered at the shade and as the minutes ticked into hours and the morning waxed and then waned into afternoon with no news, his anxiety over Halbarad grew to unbearable proportions. Finally, when the sun’s shadow told him it was well past mid-afternoon, he could endure it no longer. He turned on his heel and headed for the House of Healing.

He entered the quiet sanctuary nearly on tiptoe, afraid of what he might find. A familiar Elf carrying a bowl of water turned toward him as he hovered uncertainly in the doorway. "Estel! I wondered how long it would be before you came to haunt the doorstep. You lasted longer than I would have thought. I trust you found some rest," Erestor said with a smile, and Aragorn said nothing to disabuse him of the notion. Erestor lowered the bowl to a counter and embraced Aragorn. "How very good it is to see my favorite pupil again!" He released him and picked the bowl back up and dumped the water down a drain. He worked the pump handle to refill it. "You will have to forgive my tardiness in coming to greet you. I have been a bit preoccupied."

Aragorn bowed respectfully. "Please, do not apologize. I hope you are well?"

"As ever. But I would assume inquiring after my health is not the reason you are here."

"No," Aragorn admitted, "although I am glad to see you. But please, can you tell me... what of Halbarad? It seems to be taking so very long."

"Again, please accept my apologies, for I should have come to you sooner with news or at the very least sent someone to you. We become so involved in the matter at hand, we sometimes forget that loved ones are waiting and worrying. So," he said, clasping his hands and falling into the old role of teacher. "You know, of course, that it appeared the arrow was very close to Halbarad’s spine."

"Yes. I dared not try to remove it myself."

"At first look, we feared it was nearly beyond Lord Elrond’s skills as well, but last I checked, he was making good progress. It was not as near to his spine as we feared. But the arrow’s point broke off and splintered as it hit his shoulder blade, and while the shaft was easily removed, removing the arrowhead itself and all the small shards has proven both difficult and painstaking. Some were perilously close to his lung."

"How much longer do you think–"

"I cannot say," Erestor said, not without sympathy. He took a moment to thank a young Elf who came for the bowl of fresh water, then continued, "But Lord Elrond is not concerned. He is merely being very, very cautious, moving slowly and carefully so as to do no further damage and to make sure he gets every last bit of arrowhead, lest infection set in later, or the shards work their way into spine or lung. But the arrow was not poisoned, thank the Valar, and Halbarad is hardy; his Númenórean blood is serving him well, as yours so often has you. His heart is maintaining its sure and steady rhythm and his breathing is strong despite the medicine that keeps him asleep." He paused and looked thoughtful. Aragorn stifled a groan; Erestor the Endless Elocutionist, as he used to silently grumble under his breath as a bored child, was about to regale him with far too many facts about surgical procedures and the risks thereof. The Elf could lecture for hours on end when such a mood fell on him, and sure enough, Erestor leaned a hip against the counter, pressed a finger thoughtfully against his chin, and continued on as though he had all the time in the world. "Sometimes the medicine will put a patient too far into sleep, as you may know, if one does not get the dosage just right. Weight, muscle, all these things must be taken into account. Halbarad has not an ounce of fat on him, and that makes it easier, for it is the heavy men, the ones too fond of sitting before a tankard of ale and a plate piled high, that give Elrond the most trouble. Those patients tend to move so deeply and quickly into the realm of slumber that they actually quit breathing, and then of course all sorts of terrible complications ensue from the lack of air. The brain starts to die, you see. And if air is not restored, if breath does not return, the damage can be so severe that there is no recovering. I knew of one unfortunate man who–"

Aragorn wondered if his eyes looked as wild as he felt. He lifted his hand, ready to take Erestor by the collar and shake him and only just managed to thrust his hand through his own hair instead.

Erestor saw the movement and actually blushed. "Ah, I apologize again. The urge to teach, you know," he smiled, but as Aragorn’s frown deepened, he hurried on, "Lord Elrond will be some hours yet before he can come to you himself, perhaps not even until late evening, for even after he finally removes the arrow, he will stay with Halbarad until he awakens, to keep him still and to ensure that he still has use of his arms and legs."

Aragorn felt the blood drain from his face. "What do you mean, he still has use? Did the arrow indeed hit his spine? Is there still great risk? Has he lost the feeling in his legs?"

"Steady!" Erestor cried and put a bracing hand on Aragorn’s arm. "I said no such thing. I said ‘to ensure that he still has use’, as in, ‘retaining his normal abilities’." He raised an austere eyebrow and it was Aragorn’s turn to blush. He looked down at the floor and resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders and squirm like the school boy he had been those many years ago.

"I am sorry. I just thought... I was afraid that..."

"Calm yourself, my child. All will be well." Erestor tugged him toward the door. "Come. Lord Elrond can do without me for a few moments, and you need to wait where it is quiet and you can find rest and distraction, for you are quite beside yourself. Fortunately, I know just the place."

Aragorn let Erestor lead him away from the House of Healing. "Will you come and tell me any news?"

"Of course. But I must be able to find you and I do not fancy having to trek over all Imladris to do so. So I will take you to a spot where a certain small child of Men used to play and fight imaginary armies and, as he grew older, while away the hours with his nose stuck in a book."

And indeed, he led him to one of Aragorn’s favorite childhood haunts: a giant willow tree growing near the Bruinen. Under the embrace of its vast weeping branches, Aragorn had fought armies of orcs from a hidden fortress and battled Smaug alongside an imaginary Bilbo and company of dwarves. He had watched baby birds hatch in their nests in its branches, and once he found a small lizard that let him feed it by hand. And in the secret bower beneath its fronds, he found escape from the sometimes merciless aggravations of twin brothers who never seemed to tire of tormenting and teasing their younger brother when they were not out on patrol. After a particularly trying day that had left him in tears, Elrond had come to his rescue, declaring the willow as Estel’s own, and forbidding Elrohir and Elladan entrance into Estel’s leafy domain upon pain of, if not death, then severe application of kitchen duties.

Lost in memory, Aragorn stepped into the verdant space, thick moss springy beneath his feet. Someone had added a cushioned chaise and a table, whereas Aragorn had only ever had a stump for a seat and a rock for a table. Not that he had needed more. As a boy, he had never been overly interested in reclining sedately when there were dragons to slay. He ran his hand over the table. "I remember this place well, although this is new."

"I added a few creature comforts after you left. A rock might have done for a small child but my bones prefer a little cushioning. I come here often," he added.

Aragorn took a deep breath. The air was cool, but comfortable, redolent with the sweet aroma that was found only in Rivendell. He never could decide what created the fragrance. It smelled of heather and honeysuckle, athelas and fresh rain... and something exotically spicy that he could never place. He always thought of it as the scent of all that was good on Arda. It was the scent of home. "It is a good place to wait. Thank you."

"Do not think I did not notice how you failed to go into the house save for a meal," Erestor said quietly. "Perhaps the Ranger, like the child he once was, still seems most comfortable out of doors?"

Aragorn shrugged ruefully but said nothing. He was not sure himself why he felt unable to go inside his old home. Perhaps the comforts therein were too sumptuous, too luxurious to indulge in when Halbarad lay suffering and perhaps dying.

Or perhaps he did not want to feel caged.

Erestor gave him a small, sad smile. "It is hard, I know. Even the most blind Elf can see that you are troubled and careworn and exhausted. Speak and unburden yourself if you wish, but if not, find what solace you can here." He smiled a bit wistfully, looking up into the willow fronds. "‘...they came at length to Nan-tathren, the Land of Willows, and there they rested a while, and were healed of their hurts and weariness...’"(1)

"‘But their sorrow could not be healed,’" Aragorn murmured, finishing the quote about the remnant of Gondolin. He shrugged. "Forgive me. My mood is dark this day."

Erestor patted his shoulder in a paternal gesture. "I will send someone with food and drink. You look as though you need it." He lifted an eyebrow and then added delicately, "And a bowl of water, towel and comb, I should think."

"Thank you, Erestor. Again, I am sorry I am such poor company."

"There is nothing to forgive, my child. Rest, and recoup your strength. I would like to see the light of Elendil shine once more in your eyes."

So even Erestor sees that there is no light within me. Little wonder, really. It seemed for weeks now that his spirit was as a lamp that was fast running out of oil, and now, after Windydale and the hard ride, there seemed only the most feeble flicker to ward off the encroaching darkness. But that was not something of which he could comfortably speak to his old teacher. He looked toward the Last Homely House, barely visible through a gap between branches. "Tell me, Erestor," he said, searching for some other subject, something to divert his mind from dark paths if only for a little while longer, "did Bilfen Broadbow arrive?"

"Oh yes. He and his dour companion both. Kenevir, that was his name. Master Bilfen has been through much sadness, has he not? I think of Rivendell destroyed as Bracken’s Ferry was and my fëa grows cold within me. But he seems to possess remarkable resiliency, as all Men seem to. It is something I greatly envy about the Race of Men," Erestor said almost wistfully.

Aragorn was taken a bit aback at the thought of an Elf as wise and seemingly content with his life as Erestor feeling any dissatisfaction with his lot. He said nothing, though, and Erestor continued, "Right now he is in the eastern reaches of Rivendell, hunting mushrooms or some such thing. He said he would be back in two days, maybe three, so he is not here to greet you. But he has been busy in the kitchens, watching the cooks and learning new recipes to prepare in, as he puts it, ‘the Hunter’s Horn Reforged’. It seems he was quite taken with the murals of Elendil and Isildur battling Sauron and said he wanted to honor the Shards of Narsil, and Isildur for his bravery, and for producing such a fine descendent in, as he put it, ‘that crazy Ranger, Strider.’ While I was a bit surprised he knew your true identity, though I suppose many in the North do know who you are, I must say, it touched me deeply for him to do such a thing for your house, and for you."

Aragorn felt his cheeks color at the secondhand news of such praise. "Bilfen has a good heart."

"Just so, just so." Erestor looked at the sun and clasped his hands. "Well, I must be returning to the House of Healing. You are sure you will be well here?"

"Yes, it will do perfectly. Rivendell’s own Nan-tathren," he smiled. He paused, then put a hand on Erestor’s shoulder, "Thank you, Erestor. It has been good to speak with you."

"Then I take it Erestor the Endless Elocutionist did not bore you over much?"

Aragorn felt his face flame. "How did you know–"

Erestor merely smiled without answering, then bowed and left.

Aragorn rubbed his face, trying to wipe away his embarrassment. How does Erestor know everything that happens in this realm, from whether or not I entered the house to knowing the thoughts that I try to keep hidden?

Hidden thoughts ... he wondered if the extent of the emptiness within him escaped Erestor’s notice. Probably not. In the silence that fell with the Elf’s departure, Aragorn felt the shadow swell again. He shivered, then wrapped his arms around his chest. He looked up at the leafy canopy and the limbs where he had sprawled as an ungainly teenager, his nose indeed buried in a book most of the time. He had been so young, and life so full of promise. He touched the furrowed bark of the tree, and for a dizzying moment, Rivendell vanished and he was bracing himself against the rough bole of another tree, one shrouded in golden splendor in a field to the west, the body of a young Dúnadan at his feet, his eyes accusing him as he lay broken and dead among the corpses of dozens of orcs. Aragorn groaned and shut his eyes, and when he opened them again the grisly scene had faded. Strength left his legs and he dropped to his knees. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and took several deep breaths, trying to slow the heavy pounding of his heart.

Where had that vision come from? He shook his head, trying to clear it but the movement merely made it feel as though his brain were rocking from one side of his skull to the other. He held himself perfectly still and the pounding finally eased. Elrond was right... he was indeed ill. Something beyond fatigue was causing this fever. Maybe he had picked up a chill riding through the cool night air. Or maybe his arm was so infected it was poisoning him. Not that it really mattered. He kneaded his temples, wondering at his lack of concern over either possibility.

He found that the truth was that he simply did not care.

Finally, out of nothing more than a vague sense of duty as a healer, he roused himself to lift his left arm. There was a sharp sting as the muscle flexed. He peeled back his shirt. The bandage was stained with dried blood but there was evidence of fresh bleeding and some yellowish pus. He laid his hand over it and felt heat even through the layers of bandage. He sighed and pulled his shirt back up. So it was infected, probably much worse than before. "You said you would keep an eye on it, Halbarad," he whispered, and his throat ached.

He shook himself. Maudlin thoughts never accomplished anything. He lowered himself completely to the ground and drew his knees up to his chin. Wrapping his arms around them, he watched the river. With nothing left to distract him, he could sense the shadow hovering at the edges of his mind, there and gone in glimpses, like seeing a snake sliding through tall grass. Would he ever be rid of its haunting presence? Freedom from its constant bedevilment seemed as beyond reach as the throne of Gondor. As impossible as gaining Arwen’s hand in marriage. And hope.... He picked up a rock and threw it forcefully into the water.

Hope was nothing more than a word bereft of any promise.

He stared, unblinking, unmoving, and the river flowed ever onward. Its swirling eddies seemed to beckon to him, to call to him to dive into its embrace. How easy it would be! He could just walk slowly in... the water first coming to his ankles... then swirling around his knees... then his hips and then his chest and then lifting him as the current carried him away from this hopeless darkness... down to the sea and to the unknown lands beyond where he would find rest at last...

No! I cannot. I will not.

The depth of his despair shook him. But how could he not despair? The road before him was so clouded that he could not see beyond today. Nay, not even beyond the next hour. He could not tell if a cliff awaited his next step, or a snare to entrap him, or if the way would suddenly open to a broad and sunny lane. He grimaced. Small chance of that.

He threw another rock in the river. Tried to deafen his ears to its seductive call, to fight back that cursed shadow with strength that was waning moment by moment.

You are Estel. Hope. You must not give in.

The words rang false, like a chord struck on a harp that had never been tuned. He took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Sent another rock to pierce the treacherous waters. Why do they so tempt me? Long have I known my destiny, and long have I known the road would be long and difficult, but ever have I felt the joy of it. Middle-earth looked to him for their hope. He saw it every day in the eyes of Halbarad, of Denlad and Eledh and all his men, and in the faces of the villagers and farmers and traders and all those scattered remnants of Númenor that he led. He had seen it in Gondor, where he had served under their Steward as Captain Thorongil and listened as men wondered with wistful voices how it might be if a king ever did reclaim the throne. He had seen it in Rohan, when a young soldier had sighed and told him that if Gondor only had a king, Rohan would be immeasurably safer from Sauron. And in the eyes of the men of Gondor and the man of Rohan, he saw the same expression: hope daring to war with disbelief, faith in what was likely a myth nonetheless lighting their eyes, if only for a moment.

No, he could no more take that hope from them than he could snatch food from the mouth of a starving child.

So why this doubt? This despair? This... this weakness. Did he not have the pure blood of Númenor flowing in his veins? How often had he been told by Elrond that he was the best of all that had gone before. Why then did he now falter, suddenly seeking escape when none other of his ancestors had suffered such failings. Would he be the lesser son of greater ancestors? Why could he not follow the example of his own mother, who kept no hope of her own, but gave of it freely through her son? The memory of her self-sacrifice flayed him, derided him for being so impotent that he seemed unable to find his way out of this dark tunnel in which he found himself. Gilraen never would find herself in such straits, nor would Arathorn had he lived. They had found their hope, and given it away without fear or hesitation. They had lived up to the legacy of Elendil their ancestor, who had given all in the battle against Sauron. Now so must he.

So must he.

He squeezed his eyes shut. "But how?" he whispered. "How do I find the hope that I once had, that I might give it to others?"

Willow fronds swayed in the breeze but gave no answer. There was no answer in the waters, nor in the sky nor the mountains nor the sea. In all of Arda, there was none who could give him what he needed most, and he feared he no longer had the strength to find it for himself. It was as though the pure blood of Númenor had faltered in him, somehow. Diluted perhaps by time itself into something unrecognizable and something without strength or purity. He shuddered. Has it come to be that the last descendent of forgotten kings is the weakest? My own lack, my own inabilities... have they doomed the Men of the West to extinction, and Middle-earth to ruin?

He longed for someone to tell him no, that it was not so, that his blood had not failed, but he knew not who could so reassure him. He dropped his head to his knees and choked back silent tears of despair.


(1) Excerpted from the following quote:

"Thus led by Tuor son of Huor the remnant of Gondolin passed over the mountains, and came down into the Vale of Sirion; and fleeing southward by weary and dangerous marches they came at length to Nan-tathren, the Land of Willows, for the power of Ulmo yet ran in the great river, and it was about them. There they rested a while, and were healed of their hurts and weariness; but their sorrow could not be healed." Pages 243-244, The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1977.

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