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Aragorn hesitated before the doorway to his room, looking at Erestor. The Elf had found him half asleep, still sitting on the ground beneath the willow, and Aragorn was sure that he had seen the tear tracks on his face. It bothered him, being caught in a moment of weakness.
Moment ... as if my weakness only lasted a moment! How much time, how many hours, passed as I sat wallowing in self pity?
He had drifted in and out of a light sleep, the only kind he was able to get in these days of nightmares, for he knew not how long, but when Erestor finally sought him out, the sun had already sunk below the western walls of the valley, and full dark had fallen on their short walk into the house. Aragorn knew Erestor’s keen sight could not have missed seeing his reddened eyes, but Erestor had said nothing. He had merely smiled broadly and told Aragorn the good news.
Halbarad would live, and there was no damage to his spine or lung.
In that joyful moment, it did not matter that Aragorn had lost all hope and that his head throbbed and his body ached. It all fell away in a wave of giddy relief. His friend would recover and live to walk and run and fight and love, and that was enough.
And now, standing before his door, a bed and fire waiting within, Aragorn felt that real sleep might actually, after all, be obtainable. He put his hand on the door handle. "Thank you," he said softly. He felt he should say more, but he was so tired he could barely string together those two words.
Erestor pulled him into an embrace. "Thank your father. I am merely the messenger." He stepped back but continued to hold Aragorn at arm’s length. "Maybe now you will allow yourself some rest?"
"I will. I promise."
"Good. May your slumber be peaceful. I will see you at breakfast." Then, with a final smile and a receding swish of robes, he was gone, and Aragorn was alone.
He stood for a long moment, staring at the closed door before him, awash in so many emotions that he felt paralyzed. He ran a hand over the smooth wood, looking at it as if for the very first time, and maybe he was. He ran a finger along the straight, tight grain of the wood, down to the vine-shaped iron latch, then touched the doorframe and the stone wall beside it. For reasons he could not fathom, he was still reluctant to go in.
He did not understand why he felt so out of place.
He took a deep breath and opened the door. The room in which he had spent all but two years of his youth had changed little. Some of his childhood treasures – an eagle feather, a rock with a hole in it, an old journal, several books – still sat on a shelf above the fireplace. And the wooden sword he had fenced with as a young boy eager to learn the ways of fighting still leaned in a corner. He walked over and picked it up, smiling ruefully. It used to feel so large.
He put it back, and then dropped heavily into a chair. He had to admit that part of the reason he felt out of step with the rest of the world was that he simply felt terrible. Shivery and hot at the same time, with a head that seemed to slosh every time he turned it. His eyes grated in their sockets. All things a good night’s sleep would cure, he thought sourly, if he could but gain one.
He struggled out of his boots and let them fall to the floor, cringing as a scattering of dried mud fractured itself from the sole to litter the spotless flagstones. He eyed the ornate bed that sat against the far wall, with its elaborate carvings and fine bedding and soft pillows. There was even a silk nightshirt and breeches laid neatly on top of the linen counterpane. How long had it been since he had returned home to stay any longer than a brief visit to report to Lord Elrond? Fifteen years? No, more like twenty, he realized. Nearly twenty years ago, after he had returned from Lórien. After he and Arwen had broken Elrond’s decree that they not plight their troth. Twenty years now its shadow had quietly fallen on his relationship with Elrond. And in all those years, not once had he slept in his room, wearing silk nightclothes and stretching out between cool sheets or under warm blankets. Instead, he only allowed himself to snatch a few hours of sleep on a couch in the Hall of Fire before leaving as quickly as possible to ride or walk back into the wilds and back to his people. But now he was here, and the room seemed exactly the same as those long-ago days when life was far less complicated. The room was utterly unchanged.
He was the one that had changed.
Time and struggle had chipped at him so much that he felt he was all rough edges and – he could not help rubbing his aching arm – splintered fragments that needed smoothing. Where he used to find solace in sleeping under such fine ceilings, on something designed for both beauty and comfort, now he found himself feeling suddenly uncouth and uncultured. Somehow, though he still longed to call Rivendell home and could think of no other place on Arda he would wish to live, the manners and customs that used to be second nature in his youth now felt almost foreign.
Maybe I have assumed the mantle of the Ranger a little too comfortably.
He straightened the boots, storing them beside the hearth, and tried to pick up the chunks of dried river mud. Despite his care, some of them crumbled and left dust behind that would need to be swept up. He sighed and tossed what he could into the fireplace. He stared at the flames for a moment, wondering still why he no longer felt comfortable in his own home.
I am probably just tired. Tired and too full of care. Too full of sorrow.
Too full of... fear.
Something within him went very still as the truth sunk in. He was afraid. The horrors of the last three weeks haunted him, robbed him of hope and courage even in what should be the safe confines of Rivendell. He shut his eyes and a dark litany of images stormed across his mind: Mallor’s death, Bracken’s Ferry, Annelia, the dying children in Windydale, Halbarad...
He had not been able to save a single one of them from death or severe harm. One wraith, and a small band of orcs, and still he could not prevent utter ruin from falling on his people. What then could he hope to accomplish against the time when Sauron marched forth from his lands and brought full war upon all of Middle-earth?
The despair of the afternoon again wormed its cold fingers around his mind. He frowned and tried to turn his thoughts toward more practical matters. Erestor had always chided him for ever trying to eat an oliphaunt before taking the first bite. So perhaps instead of trying to save the entire world, he should simply try to solve this one thing. If he could reason out why the Nazgűl was stalking his lands, he might find some way to grapple with the fear, subdue it and put it behind him as he took this one step forward against his enemy.
He took a deep breath, feeling calmer already.
He steepled his fingers together, staring at them as he focused his thoughts. What had the Nazgűl really wanted? Was this some sort of first movement of an invasion from Mordor? If so, why had they heard nothing of such plans? Were their own lookouts and spies so ineffective? He would have to speak to Halbarad about that, when his health improved. They would see what could be done to strengthen their watch along the borders. How they would accomplish that, he did not know. They were already stretched too thin in what areas they had to cover most. He dared not pull anyone away from The Shire – aside from Gandalf all but ordering a heavy presence there, Aragorn knew the Shirelings were no warriors, despite their faith in their own Shirriffs and Bounders. A peaceful folk, the Hobbits, keeping to themselves and suspicious of outsiders, especially Rangers, who Aragorn knew firsthand they regarded as little better than brigands. It was hard, sometimes, being accounted a rascal when you were the one protecting the name-caller from dangers they could not begin to imagine. But he felt no rancor. The Hobbits were... well, he was not quite sure what they were. Or what they would be in the end. He was sure, however, that Gandalf was onto something in his admiration of the small folk.
So the Shire’s guard could not be touched. And with this ever-increasing influx of orcs from the Misty Mountains, he dared not pull men from the eastern reaches. And there were so few Rangers patrolling the far north that pulling them south would barely make a difference.
He sighed. This was getting him nowhere.
He turned his thoughts toward Gondor and Rohan, picturing their placement in his mind. Why would Sauron jump across the southern realms of Man sitting just to his west to suddenly attack the empty wastes of Arnor, and with so small a force? Was this some sort of exploratory foray, the embryonic stages of an eventual flanking maneuver against the southern realms? Move stealthily, bit by bit, to the northern, uninhabited lands and somehow amass an army to take Rohan from the north and then follow it down to Gondor’s northern border and in a pincer action take Gondor from the east and the north?
He immediately discarded the idea. Arnor was simply too far north to be of any strategic importance. Using Arnor or even Eriador for a northern base of operations simply made no sense. Rohan lay so far south an army would take weeks to march there; there could be no hope of moving an entire army that far to catch Rohan by surprise. These were empty lands, certainly, but not uninhabited. There were still plenty of eyes about to see any change in the number of orcs or the way in which they attacked. Right now, the Nazgűl situation excepted, the orcs attacked in relative handfuls, not in full-size invasive forces. Any increase in their number and news of an army gathering in the lonely wilds of the Ettenmoors or the grasslands between Carn Dűm and the North Downs would quickly reach Rivendell, and from there travel to Mirkwood and Lórien and Isengard and all points south. All advantage would be lost. It would make more sense to try that ploy south of the Greyflood, say in Dunland, for the Dunlendings certainly had no love for Rohan and would, if not ally themselves with Sauron, certainly cooperate with him and let him cross their lands, despite Isengard standing watch on Rohan’s northern border.
There had to be some other reason, then, for the wraith’s presence. He rested his forehead in his hands. "Think," he whispered. "If I were a Nazgűl, what would I be looking for? What errand would I be on for Sauron?"
The One Ring... but it was lost, washed down to the Sea, according to reports he had heard. The Wraiths may have once lived to find the One Ring but with it gone, their purpose was... what?
It was no good. Answers eluded him and all that came to mind were images of dead children and rotting corpses. And such would be the landscape across all of Arda if he should continue this inept leadership. His hands shook as he imagined vast armies pouring forth from Mordor. Burning, killing... imprisoning the free folk of Middle-earth and bringing all that is beautiful and good and right to a horrifying end. He saw flames and darkened skies and smelt the stench of death and no valley, no mountain, no cave would be deep enough or high enough to escape it.
Unless the Dúnedain prevailed. Unless somehow, he prevailed.
But, oh Valar, he could not see it. He could not see it. The path had ended; he had either lost it or it was no more. All of Arda looks to me as though I have the power of the Valar at my disposal to make all things right... yet I cannot see the path beyond this moment. And what I see at this moment is... defeat.
"No, not defeat," he whispered. He rubbed his scratchy eyes with the heels of his hands. "I am not defeated. Just... exhausted." Exhausted in body and spirit. Exhausted of hope. His mind shied from the thought that exhaustion was merely a kinder word for defeat.
He shook himself. Nothing needed to be decided this night, he supposed. Not when he was so weary he could no longer think straight. He pulled off his shirt and draped it as neatly as he could manage on the back of the chair, then slipped the nightshirt on over his head, gentling his wounded arm through the sleeve. The smooth linen snagged on his rough fingers.
He looked at his hands. Browned by the sun, scarred and rough and chapped from days of cold and rain and winds, they were the hands of a warrior. Certainly at times their touch had worked healing in the sick and the wounded, but they were the hands of one who wielded a sword more than herbs. They were the hands of a man whose existence seemed defined by harsh conditions and untold dangers and an endless battle against hopeless odds.
Would fate allow them ever to become the hands of a king? And will I be up to the task when that day finally comes?
Aragorn wished he knew a sure answer.
He looked again at the bed, with its soft feather mattress and white sheets. He fingered the fine cloth, ran a hand down the elegantly carved post. Then he abruptly grabbed a pillow and threw it on the floor. Drawing his stained leather coat over him, he settled down on the hard flagstones to try to find sleep that was not riddled with nightmares.
The nightmare returned. Twice Aragorn gasped himself awake, crying and trembling with the sure knowledge that all who loved him had turned against him and all hope was beyond his grasp. He sat up, rubbing his face, shivering as cool night air wafted in through the open window.
I thought perhaps here in Rivendell, under Vilya’s gentle power, the nightmares’ hold would ease.
It would appear he was mistaken. If anything, they seemed worse... far more terrifying, and far harder to shake off. He rested his aching forehead on his knees for a moment, taking several measured breaths. His heart finally calmed its frantic beating.
He crawled forward on his knees to stir the fire. He dropped another log onto the coals and in a few minutes flames once more flickered cheerfully and drove the dank cold back into the far corners of the room. Then he struggled to his feet and staggered to the window, unsteady still from sleep and a headache that seemed worse now than when he had first laid himself down. The night was quiet, as it always seemed to be in Rivendell. No night-prowling predators shrieking; no furtive rustlings in the darkness to send a chill down his back. A whippoorwill chanted its song into the night, and an owl sent his query through gently rustling treetops, and above both the gentle breeze sighed among the pine trees. Those small sounds, far from disrupting the peace, only seemed to enhance it. Far below the house, the Bruinen chuckled and sang as it danced across its stony bed, the roar of the mighty waterfalls along the cliff faces muted by the bulk of the house. Aragorn could see moonlight glinting on the water, and the call of escape he heard from it this afternoon seemed to echo again through his spirit.
He pulled the window shut.
Aragorn lay back down, pulling the coat he’d kicked off back across his body. Rubbing his aching left arm, he watched the flames until his eyelids drooped, and prayed that this time, his dreams would be peaceful.
The third time the nightmare jolted him from sleep, he kicked off his coat and stood, giving up, once again, on any kind of restful slumber. He ran a hand through his hair and stretched his neck and back until they popped, then dropped back down to his knees and picked up the fireplace tongs. He gave the fire a desultory poke, then winced and dropped the poker with a noisy clang as pain suddenly bit deep into his arm. He peeled back his collar and looked down. He saw more evidence of fresh bleeding, but there was not much of it, and he did not bother to check it further. He cared about it no more than he cared if the room was cold or warm. Truth be told, at this moment he no longer cared about much of anything.
He just wanted sleep.
A soft knock on his door startled him. Father. He must have heard me. He snatched up his coat and tossed it on the chair and returned the pillow to the bed. "Come." He turned back to the fire, stirring it with more purpose this time. "I’m sorry if I woke you," he said over his shoulder.
"A wizard’s sleep is not so easily disturbed," a familiar voice chuckled. "I was awake."
Aragorn stood up and spun around so fast his head whirled. But he hid the dizziness and smiled with pure pleasure. "Gandalf! I heard you were coming but did not know you had arrived!"
Gandalf shook Aragorn’s offered hand. "Only just. I arrived a mere hour ago. I am glad to find you here." He stood back and looked Aragorn up and down. Aragorn could only imagine what must be going through the Grey Wizard’s mind. He was sure he looked like something dragged in by an orc.
And indeed, Gandalf’s blue eyes filled with concern. "I see my friend before me, but he is not the same hale and hearty man I saw only a few months ago. You look ill, if you don’t mind my saying." He tried to lay a hand against Aragorn’s forehead but Aragorn irritably pushed it away.
"It is nothing that rest will not fix."
"I think it is more than mere fatigue. I see fever in your eyes."
He met Gandalf’s gaze for a moment, then he had to break away. He walked to the fireplace and held his hands out to its warmth, but it barely touched the chill in his bones. His words, when they came, were jerky, as though he could only pull them from himself at great cost, although in truth, he suddenly wanted very badly to pour out his woes in a great torrent. "Perhaps. Mostly what you see is anger. And sorrow. It has been a hard few months. My people have suffered great losses. You no doubt know of the Nazgűl attacks?"
"Yes, word reached me over a fortnight past that evil was stirring anew in parts north. That is partly why I came."
Aragorn nodded. "The same rumor reached us in Bree." His left arm started to ache fiercely. He grasped his left elbow and tried to support it as unobtrusively as possible. "We rode hard for Bracken’s Ferry but were waylaid by the orcs a day’s ride from there. They killed my youngest man." His throat tightened but he went on. "That was the first in what has felt like an unbroken string of foul luck. We rode on to Bracken’s Ferry, but we were too late. We could not manage to save even one small child, the last survivor, trapped in the rubble. At every turn, we have been harassed and stymied and unable to save anything or anyone." He had to stop. Remembering and retelling brought back the anguish in almost nauseating waves.
"Take your time, Aragorn," Gandalf said.
Aragorn felt his breath hitch and he shuddered. Forgetting his aching left arm, he braced both arms on the mantel and stared into the flames, seeing burning towns and dying children and weeping. So much weeping.
And his feeble hands empty of any help or comfort.
He pushed himself away and continued, his voice sounding dead even to his own ears. "We made to ride on to Windydale, but again we were attacked. We prevailed, just. Windydale lay hard on my mind, but my men... they were reaching the end of their strength and that attack had been hard, very hard. I felt I had to let them rest, recuperate." He paced across the floor to again stare into the fire. "It is a hard thing, Gandalf, to have to weigh the lives of your men against the lives of your people. I prayed I was making the right decision. Prayed that our fight had bought Windydale time."
A heavy silence fell, broken only by the crackling of the fire. The flames found a hidden pocket of moisture and it fizzed and hissed before the wood fell apart in a shower of sparks. Aragorn kicked an ember back toward the fireplace, barely noticing the way the heat burned against his bare foot.
"Foul weather moved in," he finally continued. He cleared his throat and tried to work moisture into his mouth, which felt as though he had not drunk in days. He moved to the nightstand and drained the cup of water sitting there. He poured another and swallowed it before finally continuing, "We could not ride in such a blizzard and had to wait another day. When the weather cleared, my brothers and Lord Glorfindel arrived with the news of Windydale. We were too late."
Gandalf studied him in silence for a moment, then said, "And what of you, Aragorn? I hear much about your men’s sorrows and fatigue, but any telling of your own suffering seems conspicuously absent. And I can see with my eyes that you have indeed suffered."
Aragorn shook his head, unsure what to say. He could tell more of his clash with the Nazgűl, but what good would that do? It was something that was over and done with, and he was recovering. Rehashing the event would serve only to stir up the shadows until all was dark and clouded.
But dare he speak of his hopelessness? His despair?
His first instinct always was to keep such things to himself. To not weigh down anyone else with troubles that were solely his own to work out. But still... to finally unburden himself... to drop, even for a moment, the exhausting encumbrance of his own pride....
But no. The burden was his to bear. There was no wisdom that would help him. The only answer was to merely keep putting one foot before the other, even if his spirit had lost all its vigor and his heart all its joy. He would not give in to his weakness and abandon the quest to become king, even if it cost him every last shred of hope and pulled from his grasp everything he held dear. As his mother had done before him, so he would hold no hope for himself but give all to his people, and to all the free peoples of Arda.
He looked at Gandalf. "I am fine."
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