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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

It was the same, in many ways.

Utter loneliness. Utter despair. Drowning in frigid waters.

He sank under dark, churning waters that had never been touched by life, that had never known the song of Ulmo or danced with the air of ManwŽ. He sank, and then he fought to the surface, then sank again, and wondered why he should bother. He knew what awaited him. Knew that as soon as he crawled ashore, Halbarad would be there, chains in hand. He knew that everyone he knew and loved would condemn him for his failure and chain him and leave him in the merciless hands of Sauron.

Far better to simply let himself drown. Had that not after all been what he wanted as he sat along the Bruinen?

He went limp, feeling the weight of the water push him ever downward. There could be no hope of rescue this time. He was too deep in the realm of shadow, too far into that nether region where evil sundered the gift of death from mortal life and trapped its victims for all eternity.

But in the end he discovered it simply was not in him to give up. It was wrong. It went against every pulse that still coursed through his veins. It might be hopeless, but he had to keep on. He would never surrender his will to the enemy. Never.

And so he kicked, feebly, then with more strength and his head broke the surface and he gasped and choked but he could breathe.

And if he could breathe, he could fight.

He looked around him and almost wished he had not. Gone was the endless black sea of the last time he was lost. Instead, he found himself in a river twisting through a corruption of all that he knew of Arda. Trees, misshapen and horrid, crowded the banks of the river. Their branches stretched down into the water, reaching for him as he floated past, as he fruitlessly looked for a break along the bank where he could crawl out. He dove under and felt their branches snag on his clothing and he twisted and fought them off and kicked harder as he pulled with his arms, and somehow stayed just ahead of their grasping clutches.

Finally the river turned a bend and the forest fell behind him. He was tossed about against rocks and pulled under in eddies and whirlpools and the battering seemed to go on endlessly but eventually he was able to lunge for a low bank and pull himself out of the water. He knelt, dripping and exhausted, and looked around him. It seemed he was in a valley, a sere place filled with rock and dead grasses and pockmarked with vents in the ground that spewed out sulphurous fumes. Black stone walls rose sheer and forbidding all around the valleyís perimeter, save for this one spot where the river cut through them. He pulled himself to his feet and stood swaying, wondering if he should continue into the valley or simply collapse here by the river and accept whatever fate awaited.

He looked to the far horizon. Blackness there ate at what little light the sky held, and a red glow suffused the land below, reflecting dully on the roiling underbelly of clouds that seethed as though they were furious with the sky and the ground and all things between. It was there, he knew, that Sauron dwelt, and it was there that he would be dragged, chained and helpless.

Panic started to rise in him but he fought it back. He looked around the valley again, trying to find a hiding place, but there was none. There were only a few scattered trees, stunted and bare. Even if he had the strength, there was nowhere to go. He staggered toward one of the shriveled trees and slumped to his knees beneath it, wondering if, like its cousins in that foul wood behind him, it would snatch him up and crush him in its branches. He eyed it warily, but it remained motionless.

There was little sound here. No birds twittering. No insects buzzing. He glanced upward and saw a break in the clouds, and a star dimly shining, but the clouds moved over it and even its small comfort was lost to him. He searched the sky all around and caught a glimpse of a bird, high and far off. An eagle, but it did not see him. Its attention seemed focused on the jagged peaks far away, and not on this dead valley. And that was truly what it was: a dead place. Here he would die and here Sauron would seal the doom of Middle-earth.

I am sorry, Adar. Please forgive me.

For a moment, an instant only, a feeling came over him... or was it merely a dream within this dark dream? The drear valley around him faded and he was aware, somehow, of being in another place entirely: a calm place, a place filled with peace where gentle hands touched him, held him. He heard his own voice crying out that Sauron knew who he was... and then another voice, a musical voice that had filled his childhood with words of encouragement and love...

"No, Estel. You have not failed me, my son. You have not failed."

But then the vision faded and he saw only the scorched, empty valley and he was alone.

He knelt in the silence, too weak to go on, and waited.

~~~

He heard a step beside him. With an effort, he raised his head. Halbarad stared at him, his hands filled with chains.

"No," Aragorn growled, staggering to his feet. "I will not let you take me."

Halbarad said nothing, but reached out and grabbed Aragornís left arm. Aragorn yanked his arm back and for a moment freed himself but then Halbarad swung the chains at him and they slammed into his upper arm. Pain exploded in a thousand blinding flares of light and he crumpled to the ground. But even in the midst of the pain, he sensed a movement behind Halbarad, a flash of purest light emerging from a cleft in the rock wall. He saw it and for an instant hope bloomed in his chest, but then Halbarad again swung the chains. Pain dimmed his vision and the sight of... whatever that had been... was lost to him. Aragorn felt the cold touch of a manacle around his right wrist and then his left and he knew he had lost.

~~~

Aragornís eyes were shut. He knew what was happening; he had no need to see it. It was his nightmare come to life or death or whatever passed for existence in this plane. He felt a tug at his waist; Halbarad was taking Narsil from him. He heard the broken blade†clatter to the ground and cursed the weakness that doomed him to be the failure, the one to bring to an end the line of Isildur, the line of Kings. He had thought perhaps... maybe... he might have had the strength after all... but no.

What passed for his own strength was utterly spent. The fight was over, and he had lost, and thus sealed the doom of all.

Halbarad took him by the arm and started to lift him, then unaccountably let him fall back. Aragornís head hit the ground with a blow sharp enough to send lights shooting through his closed eyes. He groaned and rolled over on his side, away from Halbarad, away from the valley. He knew not what was happening but he did not care. He huddled against the base of the tree and tasted the bitterness of his failure.

He heard Halbaradís feet shuffle. Heard a sudden intake of breath. Then, incredibly, he heard another voice, a voice strong and confident. "Be gone, servant of darkness! Leave him be!"

But Aragorn did not stir himself to look. It sounded almost like Elrond, but Elrond surely could not have delved so far into this evil place. No, it was only his mind playing cruel tricks on him. Better to stay where he was, his eyes shut tight against the terrible sight of his friend turning on him.

He heard footsteps coming toward him.

"Estel!"

Elrondís voice again. How could that be? He wanted to ignore it, to shoo it away as just another trick of his mind, but something compelled him to look. He started to roll over, but the chains were too heavy, and somewhere along the line Halbarad had managed to manacle his ankles as well. He lifted his arms, then listlessly let them fall. It is not Ada... it is nothing more than a dream... a failing hope...

"Tolo enni, Estel," Elrond cried.

Come to you? But how... how can I trust you? Still, the imploring tone cut straight through to his soul and could not be denied. He turned his head and opened his eyes.

For the longest moment, what he saw simply did not register in his mind. It was Elrond. Shimmering with light and more radiant and powerful than Aragorn had ever seen him, but unmistakably his Adar. But it made no sense for Elrond to be here.

"Estel!"

He blinked. As unlikely as it seemed, Elrond knelt on the ground a scant armís length away, looking at him with a mixture of love and fear and joy and fatigue such as he had never seen on his fatherís face. Of Halbarad there was no sign. "Adar?" he whispered.

"Yes, Estel. It is your adar. Iím here. I have come to take you home." He held out his arms, reaching for Aragorn.

"Home? " Aragorn whispered. Home! How he longed to take his fatherís hands, to let him draw him into his arms and take him away from this vile place, but how could he know this was really Elrond? How could he know that this was not another apparition designed to make him reveal his true name? He shut his eyes and re-opened them, trying to sort out the confused muddle of his thoughts. He finally stiffened his resolve and shook his head. "No... it is a trick. I will not... not tell you... who I am. You cannot make me..."

"Estel," Elrond implored. "Listen to my voice! It truly is me. You must trust me!"

He shut his eyes. "No!" he moaned. "It is a trick... I will not listen!" He curled into a ball, burying his head in his arms. Perhaps if he refused to look, refused to even speak, the vision would go away.

There was silence for a time, then, quietly, "Estel, a few moments ago you woke from this, briefly. You looked at me and told me that Sauron knew who you were."

Aragorn shuddered, but did not look up.

"There is more, Estel, things that I would know but Sauron and his minions would not. If you search your mind you will know to them to be true and know that I am true. Halbarad was injured. You brought him to Rivendell. You waited all day beneath the old willow tree, worrying over him, as I worked to remove the shards of the arrow from near his spine and lung. And you were so concerned for his well-being that you ignored your own wound, the splinter wound on your left arm. It has become inflamed, and is giving you fever."

Aragorn opened his eyes. But he did not look at Elrond. He stared instead at the ground in front of him, weighing Elrondís words and wondering; if this were not Elrond, how then could he know these things? He did not feel Elrondís presence in his mind, so it could not be that Elrond knew these things that way. And neither did he feel any other darker presence, and that gave him the tiniest bit of hope.

"I followed the eagle, and then the star. You saw them both, from a distance. They are your tokens, my son, and they drew me to you."

Hope flickered brighter, but Aragorn still could not bring himself to look up.

"Just now I saw Halbarad," Elrond continued, "or the being that was pretending to be Halbarad, swing the chains and hit you. But the chains did not wound you; you were already wounded when you came to Rivendell."

"At Brackenís Ferry," Aragorn whispered. He finally looked at Elrond. "How do you know? I have not told you anything..."

"No, but I can see the wound on your arm, and no chain did such damage. Splintered wood, still embedded and festering. Erestor has cleaned it, though, and that was the pain you thought came from those chains," Elrond said with a gentle smile. "Come, my son, let me take you home and then you can tell me everything."

He stared at Elrond, then looked around at the deadness surrounding him. If this was a trick, could it be any worse than staying here in this wretched place? He looked again at Elrond, then dared to stretch out a trembling hand. "Ada, is it really you?"

Elrond reached forward and as soon as he touched Aragornís fingers, Aragorn knew. "Ada!" he cried and threw himself into his fatherís arms. Elrond folded him into his embrace, and as he did so, the chains fell and a sweet wind laden with the aroma of athelas swept away the toxic fumes. The valley seemed to melt around him. He shut his eyes and buried his face against Elrondís neck....

...and when he next opened his eyes, he saw the familiar walls of his room, and Erestorís drawn face, and Gandalfís smile of relief. And he saw Elrond. Saw him and heard him and felt his arms holding him, keeping him safe. "Ada," he croaked.

"Give him water!" Elrond cried, and Erestor hurried forward with a cup. He handed it to Elrond and then helped support Aragornís head. Elrondís hand was shaking as he guided the cup to Aragornís mouth. Some of the water slopped onto his chest, but he greedily drank down the rest until Elrond pulled the cup away.

"Slow down, Estel," he laughed.

Erestor lowered Aragornís head back to the pillow and Elrond released him, and for a long moment, Aragorn simply looked at Elrond, savoring the sight of him and the sight of his room and wondering how in the world he was suddenly back here, safe and in his home.

"Welcome back," Elrond finally said softly, and laid a tender kiss on Aragornís forehead, just as he had done so many times to him when he was a small child.

He found his voice if not coherent words. "What... how did..."

"Shhh. Save your questions, my son," Elrond said. "You were in a far country, and an evil one, but now you are back home and you will recover."

Still confused, Aragorn shifted uneasily on the bed, wincing as the movement jostled his arm.

"Your arm is deeply infected," Elrond said. "It will trouble you for some time, I fear, but it will heal."

Aragorn nodded and closed his eyes. He was so tired, and still in so much pain. But there was a spaciousness, a weightlessness, within him that had not been there in a long, long time. Gone was any trace of a dark shadow, and as he dared turn his thoughts toward the NazgŻl, he felt only memory, like so many of his other memories of horrific events and bitter tragedies and hard-won and hard-lost battles. Wrenching and sorrow-filled and still so fresh that it almost brought physical pain, but still... it was merely a memory. Nothing more. He sighed softly and looked again at Elrond. His father was watching him with a curious expression Ė a wistfulness, but with a depth of sorrow that only immortal elves could know.

"Adar?" he said softly, asking with his eyes questions he had no strength to speak.

Elrond blinked, then a ghost of a smile lit his face. He laid a hand against Aragornís cheek and the sorrow fled from his eyes. "Worry not," he said. "I am not troubled. Not any more."

Aragorn frowned, not accepting the words. He knew what had put the sorrow in Elrondís eyes Ė his betrothal to Arwen, his failure as a leader... so many, many things, but mostly his love for Arwen. But he dared not speak of it, so he simply whispered, brokenly, "I am sorry, Adar."

Elrondís eyes filled with concern. "Shh. You have nothing to be sorry for, my son. Cease your worries, Estel, for there is truly no need." He pulled the blanket up closer to Aragornís chin and smoothed it over his arms. "Now get some sleep. There will be time for talk later."

Aragorn nodded. His eyes drifted closed, but before slumber took him into its gentle embrace, he murmured, "Thank you, Ada."

He felt another gentle kiss on his forehead, and then he slipped at last into the healing warmth of true sleep.





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