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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

"‘Fine,’ he says!" Gandalf glared at him from under those massive grey eyebrows of his, which were drawing toward each other like two warships bent on destroying each other. "Aragorn, did Lord Elrond not teach you that it is exceedingly unwise to prevaricate to a wizard?"

"Gandalf, truly... there is nothing you can do for me."

"Do? That tells me that there must indeed be something you need, from me or from someone." His gaze softened. "Come. Tell me, old friend."

Aragorn’s shoulders slumped. Maybe....

Yes. He would tell him. Carrying the burden of hopelessness was too tiring, maintaining a facade that all was well too exhausting. Still, his words were faltering and slow. "Somehow... I feel I have lost the path. Or perhaps the path that I once saw so clearly in my youth is no longer open to me. I feel as though I stand at hope’s edge, and any step from here will only lead me farther away from all that I once thought possible." He looked far into an empty distance. "I-I feel like my destiny is so far out of reach that it is nothing more than the hopeless dream of a... of a fool."

"Is that what your heart tells you?" Gandalf asked gently.

Long minutes passed as he searched for an answer in the dancing flames. He finally turned to Gandalf. "My heart sees only shadow."

To his surprise, Gandalf smiled, gently and a touch sadly. "And you think that yours is the only heart blinded in these dark days?"

"But I am to be the king! I cannot afford to be so blind!" Aragorn said angrily, turning from Gandalf’s infuriating calm to pace the distance to the window. He stared out but saw nothing of moonlit beauty of Rivendell. His voice fell to a whisper. "What good is it to Middle-earth if the heir to the throne of Gondor is so easily defeated?"

"Defeated? I think you use too strong a word. The inability to see the path before one’s feet does not always amount to defeat, else we would all fail before we left our doors, whether we be merchants or farmers, wizards or, yes, even kings. We are all feeling our way through an impenetrable fog, Aragorn, moving forward only one uncertain step at a time. But moving forward nonetheless. " Aragorn heard robes rustle, then a hand gently squeezed his shoulder. "Tell me, Aragorn, my friend. It is not like you to have such despair in your eyes. What is it that so haunts your dreams that you cry out in the night?"

Aragorn folded his arms around his chest and tried to hide his shiver with a shrug. "I have no dreams of late. Only nightmares. "

"We all have nightmares, but I must say I have never known you to suffer unduly from them, no matter how bleak the night."

Aragorn gave no answer. That after all this time, the effects of the Black Breath would still be plaguing him only brought a wave of shame that he should be so weak. To speak it aloud... no, he could not bring himself to do it. To have admitted his despair had been hard enough.

Gandalf sat down on the bed and leaned his ever-present staff beside him. He folded his hands over his knee and studied Aragorn so intently that Aragorn felt as though he were being judged before Ilúvatar himself. "Gandalf," he protested, but fell silent at Gandalf’s raised hand.

"You mentioned fighting off orcs. But what of the Nazgûl? Did you encounter him directly?"

After a long moment, Aragorn gave Gandalf a terse nod.

Gandalf’s eyebrows shot upward. "Ah," he said, as if coming to full understanding. "And how long ago did you fight him?"

"Almost two weeks, then again, briefly, just yesterday."

"And in this first encounter... how close were you yourself to him, Aragorn?"

At Aragorn’s continued silence, Gandalf’s fierce scowl returned. "Aragorn, you must tell me everything. Do not leave out even one detail."

So Aragorn told the entire sad tale, trying to skim over his own defeat by merely saying, "I fought with him, and he fled after Halbarad threatened him with fire. We contended with him again at Windydale, only I did not get quite so near, nor for very long – a matter of minutes only. Glorfindel finally drove him out of the area, as far as we were able to ascertain. Then Halbarad was shot, and I brought him here, for it was only the skill of Lord Elrond that could save him."

"Aragorn," Gandalf said, a warning flashing in his eyes. "Do not try to fool a wizard! Is that truly all that happened? Are you trying to tell me that you did not feel the effects of being so near a Nazgûl not once but twice?"

"Yes... I mean, no. I did, but I am fine. I..." Aragorn started, but then the lie locked in his throat. The blackness that seemed more and more to take all his energy to keep at bay surged once more. He forced it back, bleak in the knowledge that the next time it would return stronger than before, like an ever rising tide, and the way he felt at the moment, it would be highly unlikely that he could fight it off again. "It... I feel it... him... I don’t know what it is, if it’s simply the memory that still plagues me, or something... something worse. A blackness... like a cold shadow that the sun cannot penetrate... still lingers in my mind. And there is a chill in my bones that no fire seems able to thaw."

Gandalf leaned his head back to squint at Aragorn down the considerable length of his nose. "It is unusual, I must say, after all this time. Most men would long have died by now," he mused, seeming to be talking to himself more than Aragorn. He blinked, then fixed Aragorn with a bright gaze. "But your Númenórean blood gives you greater strength than lesser men, and you do know a bit about healing, and there is the fact that your line has a special touch with the athelas. Although I’ve not heard of a healer healing himself of this, I suppose to a certain degree, you managed. Yes, I do believe that’s all this is. Well then." He stood up, shaking himself and arranging his long grey cloak.

"That’s all what is? Surely you are not leaving without explaining yourself?" Aragorn asked, his voice a bit sharper than he intended, but his head was starting to throb harder than ever, and he had little patience for the wizard’s enigmatic ways.

"Of course not, my dear boy," Gandalf said, a kind smile on his face as he put both hands on Aragorn’s shoulders. He studied Aragorn’s eyes and then shook his head sadly. "Ever do you think you can carry burdens too big for you."

Aragorn shook off Gandalf’s hands. He had to change the subject–this was getting them nowhere. He angrily stepped away and started pacing before the fireplace. "It is not so great a burden. I lived, and I will get better in time. You said it yourself; the healer can heal himself, and I have. Or am still doing so, however you want to say it." He made an impatient gesture and went on, "What really concerns me is what to do about the fact that a wraith lingers yet in my lands, terrorizing and murdering my people for reasons I am apparently too much the dullard to figure out, save that it is evil and, like its foul master, full of hate for all men."

"Trust me, Aragorn, you are neither a dullard nor a fool. None of us have figured out the wiles of the enemy or he would have been defeated ages ago. But, since you seem so eager to avoid the topic of your own well being, let us for a moment speculate together and maybe we will come up with something that assures us that neither of us are as thickheaded as we might fear," Gandalf said with a mischievous wink.

Any other time, the twinkle in Gandalf’s eye would have lightened his mood, but Aragorn merely scowled, not missing a step in his restless measuring of the distance across the room and back. His legs were feeling shaky but he used his anger to goad them to keep moving. A pulse started to beat deep within the wound on his arm, so he again surreptitiously grasped his left elbow. "I would be glad of your insight, for mine has been of precious little use."

"Right, then. Let us consider. He may be searching for the One Ring. That is, after all, their sole purpose in whatever it is that passes for their lives," Gandalf mused. "Saruman claims it washed down the Anduin to the sea, and may it be so. But if the servants of the Ring... of Sauron... are stirring, then I fear that Saruman may be wrong in his assertion that the Ring is no more. It may have awakened and is calling to its servants, and this one is searching for it." Gandalf paused and looked pointedly at him.

Aragorn slowed but did not stop his troubled prowling. "Go on. I am listening."

"Like talking to the pendulum on Bilbo’s clock," Gandalf huffed, but continued. "Sauron does not rest quietly in Mordor, nor has he for many long years. No, he is stretching out his power in all directions, and never doubt for a moment that Arnor will escape his sight. It was once a region fully in his control and he would desire it to be laid waste again. He may be testing the resolve of the people of the North."

"That was Glorfindel’s surmise. And I thought that it might be that Sauron is trying to put an army here, to invade the lands to the south, although that seems unlikely."

"There is that chance, I suppose, although this is rather far north for such a strategy."

Aragorn nodded. "That was my conclusion as well. And that leaves us back to having absolutely no idea."

"Not quite. I think there could be another reason the wraith is astir in your lands."

Aragorn stopped. "And that is?"

"Foremost always in Sauron’s thought is his desire for the One Ring. How he wants it, for it is part of him and he of it. They are bound to one another. But second to that desire is this: he seeks the Heir of Isildur. He seeks to utterly destroy both him and his line, because it is only through him – through you, Aragorn, son of Arathorn – that his defeat will be assured."

"But the secret... he surely does not know I am the one he seeks." He hunched his shoulders, rubbing his arm. It felt like someone was jabbing it with a hot poker.

"Sauron’s spies are everywhere, their methods devious and cunning. Who is to say that Sauron has not heard rumor that a son yet lives, a son that is hiding among the Dúnedain remnant? A son that has taken his rightful seat as Chieftain?"

Aragorn felt as though someone had punched him in the gut. "He is destroying the settlements in order to draw me out." That could explain why he doubled back to attack Windydale a second time... I was there... I drew him there...

"I am not sure, of course, but it is something we cannot dismiss."

Aragorn stared at Gandalf without seeing him. Instead he saw burning buildings and the tormented faces of the dead. "Ever have I sought to protect my people," he said, his voice sounding thin and somehow distant, even to his own ears. "But now it seems as though my very existence has hastened their destruction."

Gandalf shook his head. "No, Aragorn. Do not look at it so. Your service to your people has not been undermined. You have led them better than any other chieftain before you, and none in the long line of Isildur’s heirs have given themselves so selflessly to such a seemingly hopeless task as you have. You have not brought them destruction, but hope, and hope ever will be embodied in who you are and what you will become."

"Hope does little to serve the people when the enemy uses it against them," Aragorn said, bitterness riding hard on his heart. "If he knows who I am, then I give no succor to my people but am a threat to their very survival." He gathered his coat and his sword, then bent to pick up his boots. "I must leave. We will put forth the word that the Chieftain has died, the line truly ended, and maybe thereby give my people time while I go forth to Mordor."

"Aragorn, I am certain that Sauron does not know–"

"It is as the visions... the nightmares... showed, only it will not be by the hand of my friends that I find myself at Sauron’s feet, nor chained and helpless, but by the strength of my sword and Sauron will be the one–"

"Aragorn!" Gandalf’s voice sliced through the room like lightning.

Aragorn froze, a boot dropping from his hand. He barely kept himself from cowering in fear at the sight of one of the Istari in full-blown wrath. He started to open his mouth to speak, but shut it with a snap as Gandalf seemed to loom larger than the room itself.

"You will do no such thing! The time is not yet full, and you would only destroy yourself and with that, all of Middle-earth!" Then Gandalf’s rage passed as quickly as it erupted. He seemed to shrink, to become again a harmless-appearing old man with friendly eyes who spoke as a patient teacher to a stubborn pupil. "I have no idea what you mean with this prattle of visions and being thrown to the enemy, but trust me in this: the enemy does not know you exist, else this region would be swarming with every evil weapon and soldier Sauron has at his disposal. That there has been just the one Nazgûl with a small force of orcs, as terrible as that is, tells me that your identity is mere rumor, as it always has been. Nothing more. And, goodness, my boy, none of us will bind you over into Sauron’s hand."

Aragorn put his sword down, and suddenly weariness replaced panic and he felt very foolish. As if he could hope to take on Sauron! "I know," he sighed. "It is just a recurring theme in my nightmares, nothing more. As to the other, I spoke rashly. I know I cannot take on Sauron, not now and not alone, much as my anger would drive me to try." He laid the coat back across the chair and then stood for a moment, chewing his lip before he finally spoke again. "So you truly think he has not discovered who I am?"

"He cannot possibly have, else you would not be standing before me, even in so bedraggled a condition that you seem barely able to stand. Aragorn, you look like the brush of a butterfly’s wing would knock you down."

Aragorn pulled a face. "I am fine." He resumed pacing in front of the fireplace, albeit more slowly than before.

"Again, you try to fool a wizard at your peril. And I do wish you would sit down and stop pacing," Gandalf said sharply. He added under his breath, "Is it any wonder you call yourself Strider?"

"I don’t call myself that. Usually." Aragorn stopped his prowling but refused to sit down. "The question is, then, what can I do to stop the wraith returning?"


"Nothing?" Anger rose again. "How can you say–"

"You do not stop him. No, not by yourself nor with your Rangers, nor even with Glorfindel, although he has bought us time with his strength. No, you have a large role to play on the grand stage of Middle-earth’s doom, you and your Rangers, but before this is over and Sauron is defeated, you will have help from an entire array of folk, both expected and unexpected."

Aragorn frowned. "What ‘folk’?"

"All in time, my dear friend, all in time," Gandalf replied cryptically. "But we must first deal with the matter at hand, for you can only play your part if you are healthy and strong. This broken-down shell of a man standing before me is not capable of dispatching a mosquito, let alone a Nazgûl. You must heal, and then we will talk of strategy, and of the plans I have for you."

"What plans?" Aragorn asked warily. He was far too tired for the wizard’s riddles.

"Future plans, nothing imminent," Gandalf waved him off. "I am still searching and watching and traveling, trying to find answers that are slow in coming, but coming nonetheless. But they needn’t concern you yet. In the coming months, perhaps. But for now... you need the care of your father. You have not told him of the Nazgûl, have you?"

Aragorn glanced away. He rubbed his temples, which were pounding with an intensity that threatened to rob him of his sight. "Not yet. He has had his hands full with Halbarad. My own troubles can wait until morning. The dark of night is not the time I would have preferred to speak of it. To anyone," he added pointedly.

"Then you should learn to keep your mouth shut while you sleep. I’m surprised your howls were not heard in the Shire."

Aragorn felt his cheeks burn but he could not really say anything in his own defense. He had woken himself up, after all. And over the past week, Halbarad and the men certainly had let him know in no uncertain terms that their sleep had also suffered because of his nightmares. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I am sure I was not heard in the Shire," he muttered.

Gandalf again put his hands on Aragorn’s shoulders, his eyes compassionate. "I should not tease, for I know how distressing this is. You have suffered much but rest assured, Aragorn, this affliction is near its end. Elrond knows how to treat the Black Breath and rid your mind fully of this menace, fear not. Shall I find him now?"

"No. He worked long and hard today; there is no need to disturb him."

"If you are sure?"

Aragorn nodded, wincing a little as the motion sent a wave of pain rocking through his head. "I just need to sleep."

"I do not know whether to trust your judgment in this, but seeing as it appears you have gotten yourself this far, I will agree. And you are right in that Elrond worked long and hard on Halbarad and needs rest before dealing with you.  Very well. Get some rest of your own, in the meantime. And have you any athelas?"

"I can find some, yes."

"Good, good. Use the athelas... I think perhaps in the rush of fighting off wraiths and hauling wounded friends to Imladris that you have neglected yourself too much."

Aragorn ducked his head but did not argue. Gandalf was right, as always.

"Feel no shame, my dear boy. ‘tis one of your strengths, that you look to the welfare of others before you take care of your own. It will serve you well as King. But it can also be a great weakness when you neglect yourself to the point where you are near collapse." Gandalf patted his arm. "There. I will stop my lecturing and let you rest. Then I will see you in the morning and take you straightaway to your father."

"What, no breakfast?"

Gandalf stared for a moment, then laughed. "You must not be too near death, if you can still make a joke."

"Who was joking?" Aragorn smiled, then opened the door. He leaned his arm on it as Gandalf walked out. "Gandalf, wait."

Gandalf stopped in the hallway and turned.

"Thank you. For listening."

"All in a day’s work." He glanced toward the darkened window. "Or night’s, as it were. Good night, old friend."

"Good night, Gandalf." Aragorn shut the door and leaned back against it. He shut his eyes for a moment as again he kneaded his temples. Maybe before hunting down athelas, he should go down to the kitchen and get another cup of willowbark tea. Then he could stop by Elrond’s study... he always kept a supply of athelas and other medicines there. Aragorn opened his eyes and looked once more at his room, and at the bed.

Somehow now it all looked very inviting. It would be good to come back to it and finally sleep.

Smiling, he opened the door and stepped into the hallway, but stopped short as a knife of pain suddenly stabbed through his skull. He gasped as he grabbed his head with one hand and slapped a hand against the wall to steady himself with the other.

He stood that way for a long time, praying for the pain to ease but it did not, and shadows gathered in a filmy haze before his eyes. He took another step but his knee buckled and he slid down the wall, knocking into a potted fern on an iron stand. He tried to grab it but pain from his head and his arm made him clumsy, and he only succeeded in knocking it completely over. It crashed to the floor with the clamor of shattered pottery and clanging metal and he landed on top of it, its wrought iron edge digging excruciatingly into his wounded arm. Aragorn cried out and then felt more than saw a door open and footsteps rapidly approaching.

"My dear boy!" Gandalf’s alarmed voice in his ear. "My dear boy. Let me help you."

Strong arms slipped beneath Aragorn’s and he felt himself being pulled to his feet. "Gandalf..."

"Shh, do not try to speak."

Aragorn tried to walk but his legs seemed incapable of supporting him. He sagged dizzily against Gandalf and started to fall again. He felt an arm sweep behind his knees and he knew he was being carried and hated it.

"I am a fool of a wizard for believing you! It is as I feared. Worse even; you are burning up with fever. We cannot wait for morning. Elrond!" Gandalf bellowed and then hurried into Aragorn’s room. He laid Aragorn on his bed and Aragorn grabbed at the coverlet, hoping against hope that he might ride out the crazy spinning of a world gone wildly out of control. He felt a hand on his forehead. "Yes, you are indeed ill beyond the remnants of Black Breath, young man," Gandalf said testily. "And no doubt have been all evening and yet all you could tell me is ‘fine’. Stubbornness, your name is Estel Elrondion!"

His footsteps moved away and again Aragorn heard a bellow. "Elrond!"

Aragorn tried to sit up.

"No, no. Lay down. Be still."

But he had to get up. Had to keep moving. "No... have to move... the shadow..."

"Shhh. Easy, my child." Against the footsteps faded and again a bellowing shout into the hall. "Elrond, cease your slumber and come immediately!"

Aragorn looked toward the doorway, but the room seemed dim, full of shadow and flame. He groaned. It was getting hard to breathe. He dropped his head back to his pillow with a low cry. Fire-wreathed darkness enveloped him, and then it felt as though he fell into black waters. They closed over his head and he knew no more.

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