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Aragorn swung his legs over the side of the bed and positioned his arm carefully in the sling Elrond had insisted he use until his arm fully healed. Halbarad and I make a matched set, he thought ruefully. He shoved the blanket away from him and, eyeing a small book on the shelf by the fireplace that he wanted to read, slowly eased himself to his feet. He felt shaky, and for a brief moment his eyesight dimmed but only in the way that it does when one has been squatting at length and then stands too quickly. A few blinks and his sight returned. He smiled grimly. He was ready. His goal: the book, then the chair by the fireplace. He was tired of reading in bed. He was tired of eating in bed, of sleeping in bed. He was tired of being in bed. It was time for a change of scenery.
He took a deep breath and then a step, and then in short order several more. Not a twinge from his ankle; it had finally healed, as well it should, with all this bedrest. He was feeling ridiculously pleased with his progress when the room suddenly took a slanting dive to the left and then a swoop back to the right. He thrust his good hand out and grabbed at the back of the chair and braced himself as he waited for things to settle back in place. Little lights popped at the edge of his sight. Valar, do not let me faint! After a long, scary moment where he felt hot, then cold, then hot again, and icy sweat broke out on his brow, things did indeed settle down. Moving more slowly this time, he eased himself around the chair until he could grasp the fireplace mantel. That accomplished, he crept sideways, feeling far too much like a toddling infant pulling himself along a cot, until he was within arm’s length of the shelf. He snatched the book from the shelf, and promptly dropped it and with his clumsy grab for it succeeded only in knocking to the floor the eagle feather, the rock and everything else on the shelf.
Uttering a wordless growl, he slowly bent down and retrieved the book, then, without bothering to straighten back up or pick up the rest, he fumbled for the chair and pulled himself into it, gasping and trembling and cursing his weakness.
He was still sitting, eyes shut, head spinning, the book closed on his lap, when a knock came. He took one last deep breath and mopped his sweaty forehead against his sleeve. He fumbled to get the book open one-handed. “Come,” he said.
Elrond entered. “Estel! What are you doing out of bed?”
“I thought I might read for a bit.” He turned a page, acting as nonchalant as he could considering he could not seem to focus his eyes on the words. He prayed Elrond did not see how his hands trembled.
Elrond’s eyes trailed across the room to the now empty shelf, taking in the items on the floor and then to the book in Aragorn’s lap. “The book is upside down.”
Aragorn hurriedly tried to right the book but it slid from his grasp. Elrond bent and retrieved it, placing it on the night stand. “Your impatience has gotten the better of you. You have only been fully awake for two days, and you are not yet ready for any sort of rambling, even if only across the room. Let me help you back to bed, young one.”
“I am tired of staying in bed,” Aragorn grumbled, immediately cringing as he realized how petulant that sounded. “Forgive me, Adar. I did not mean to complain. I am just frustrated at how slowly my strength is coming back. A long convalescence is simply not something to which I am well accustomed.”
“Rare indeed is it for you to be in such shape, and for that I am very thankful,” Elrond said as he helped Aragorn stand. “But this has been no ordinary wound, and no ordinary illness. It will take time.”
Aragorn lowered himself to the bed and suffered to let Elrond lift his legs and swing them to the bed. “How long?”
“As I’ve told you, as long as it takes.” At Aragorn’s glare, he added, as he pulled the blankets over him, “You keep asking but I honestly cannot tell you, Estel. It will depend on so many things, not least of which is that you do not push yourself too soon. It has only been two days.”
“If you rest and eat well, I would say you might expect to be on your feet in another day or so.”
“That does not sound too bad.”
Elrond smiled. “On your feet. But not on your horse heading for the Wilds, nor probably even into the hallway. Your stamina, as legendary as it is, has been utterly drained, Estel. It will take many weeks to regain what you have lost.”
Aragorn shut his eyes. “Weeks. You are as gloomy about my prospects as Halbarad. Ada, I do not have weeks. My people will need me well before then. They need me now.”
“The best thing you can do for your people is rest,” Elrond said rather archly. “Do not fret. They have at whiles in the past gotten along just fine without you; they will again now.”
“So now you tell me I am not needed,” Aragorn grumbled, refusing to be comforted.
“I think you know better than that.”
“Yes,” Aragorn sighed. “I hate being helpless.”
“It is never an easy thing, no. Here, let me see your arm.” He watched in silence as Elrond changed the bandage and put on a smaller one. “There. I think that will be more comfortable. Can you move your arm?”
Aragorn eased it out of the sling and slowly lifted the arm as high as he could before pain and tightness stopped it.
“It is improving. You will be lifting a bow again before too very long,” Elrond said, well satisfied. He helped Aragorn slip his arm back into the protective sling, then reached forward and brushed the back of his hand along Aragorn’s forehead and cheek. “You seem a bit feverish this morning, though. How do you feel?”
Aragorn shrugged. “I suppose I feel as good as can be expected. I feel–” He stopped, unable to sort out just how he felt. Tired, yes. Weaker than he ever remembered being in his life. Still a bit achy. Impatient to be better. But something else seemed wrong, beyond what he would say was the normal outcome of such illness. It was as though there still lingered a sort of malaise from the Black Breath, not quite a shadow but a dimming of his spirit that he could not really explain. Still, he had to try. “I feel... I feel like a lamp that is out of oil except for that which is still in the wick. I feel like any moment the spark within me will fade away. I feel... tired.” He only hoped that Elrond understood what he meant, because he was not sure himself.
Elrond frowned, then laid his hand on Aragorn’s forehead and closed his eyes. He took several deep breaths and after a moment Aragorn’s own eyes drooped and in the quiet darkness, he sensed Elrond’s comforting presence within his fëa. After a long interval, Elrond pulled his hand away and Aragorn opened his eyes and sighed. “What did you see?”
“Nothing of the Black Breath, thankfully,” Elrond assured him. He seemed to be weighing his words. “But I did sense something. I confess that though I do not know exactly what it is, I have my suspicions. So I want you to sort it out for me, and for yourself. Gandalf told me a bit of the conversation you and he had, the night you collapsed. He sensed in you a great weariness, one beyond illness or injury.”
Aragorn picked at the covers. “He sensed aright,” he said quietly.
Elrond covered his hand with his own. “I would that you would tell me about it.”
Aragorn glanced sharply at him. He did not know if he could bring himself to talk to his father. Anything he said would surely lead around to that which Elrond had commanded they never speak. He frowned and looked away, toward the window. But still, maybe he should at least try. He owed Elrond that much. “I do not know where to start.”
“I have always considered the beginning to be the best place to start a tale.”
“The beginning... I do not know when that was,” Aragorn said faintly. “I do not know when my hope left me.”
“Estel,” Elrond breathed. “Has it come to that?”
“I do not know. I sometimes think it has; other times, I find my way again.” He rubbed his face with an impatient gesture. “I only know that when I look around me, at my people, at their suffering... I see the children dying...” He shook his head hard, trying to drive back tears that refused to be gainsaid. “Ada, my soul seems to die within me,” he choked. “I see my people dwindle year by year, and they look to me... they look to me as though I will save them and I do not know if I can.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “I do not know.”
Elrond gazed at him with eyes full of compassion. “Such has been the despair of every chieftain, Estel. I listened once as your father poured out his heartbreak to me in just such a fashion. You are so like him, Estel. Your heart is great and filled with compassion for your people, and that is both your strength and your weakness, just as it was Arathorn’s. Just as it was Arador’s and all those chieftains who have watched the descendants of Númenor fade to numbers seeming too few to survive. But they have survived, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, grandson of Arador. They have survived and will survive... and with you, they will at last regain all that has been lost.”
“How I want that, Ada. I only wish I could be so certain.”
“Be certain of that, and of the strength of your people. They have endured. They will endure.”
“So many decisions I have made have gone ill,” Aragorn whispered. “How can my people survive when I do not seem able to find a course that does not lead always to disaster?”
“I heard the report from Bilfen Broadbow on what happened at Bracken’s Ferry, and Gandalf told me what happened after that and also at Windydale. Disaster was laid at your feet through no fault of your own, Estel. You did not take a course that led to the tragedies there.”
“But I failed to find a course that would have led my people through safely, and that is unforgivable.”
“Failing to find what does not exist is nothing for which you need seek forgiveness. Neither I, nor Gandalf, nor the wisest of the wise could have done anything different had we been in your shoes.” He paused. “This despair is not like you, Estel, and indeed it is not you.”
Aragorn frowned, longing to understand.
“I speak again of the Black Breath. It has many ill effects, one of which is a feeling of utter despair. It seems to last longer in those who may have already been walking through dark times, and in those who have had a prolonged exposure to a wraith, and from the sound of it, you suffered both circumstances. You had become careworn, and then you were forced to contend with the wraith far longer than any lesser man would have and survived.”
“But you said that I no longer suffer...”
“True. I said that, but I meant it in this way: the Black Breath is no longer upon you. It can do no further harm. You were not pierced by a Morgul blade; you are not destined to become a wraith. All those things are good and for them we thank Ilúvatar Himself for delivering you. But you were nearly lost to the shadow – you fought it admirably but the second exposure to it, combined with the weakness from your arm wound, proved to be your undoing. The harm that was done...” He stopped and looked away, staring as though into some distant land, or at memories that brought no joy. “The Nazgûl are skilled at violating one’s thoughts. You may think you have your mind utterly closed to them, but the smallest weakness, the smallest chink, and they pry into your mind, wrenching it open to pour their unspeakable poison into your soul. It is a terrible thing to endure, and a trauma from which one does not quickly nor easily recover. Most never do.” He paused, and tears pooled in his eyes. “It is very much the same as when a woman is violated.”
“Ada,” Aragorn whispered. He knew now where Elrond’s gaze traveled, and the reason for his tears, and perhaps even for the earlier sadness in his eyes: Celèbrian, his wife, attacked by orcs and who finally sailed to the Undying Lands, unable to bear up to the sorrow over what had been done to her. He sat up and put his right hand on Elrond’s shoulder and looked earnestly into his eyes. “No, Ada. Be at peace, for it is not as bad as that. I assure you.”
Elrond nodded and grasped Aragorn’s arm. He bent his head and was very still, and several minutes passed before he finally raised his head again. “I am glad, Estel. I would not want that–”
“Shhh. Speak no more of it.”
“Now who is comforting whom?” Elrond said with a shaky smile. “I love you, my son. I always have. I hope you know that.”
Aragorn nodded. “I allowed myself to forget it, and for that I ask your forgiveness.”
“You need not.” He studied Aragorn for a long time, then said, “This one thing I know, Aragorn, son of Arathorn: though you have had a hard and cruel road to travel, you have stood up to your trials as no one else could have. Whatever you might whisper to yourself in the secret watches of the night, know that you are no failure. The blood of Elendil remains strong and pure within you, fear not.”
Aragorn took a sharp, shuddering breath as Elrond’s words seem to rip through to his very soul, cutting through to the very heart of his fear. He hung his head, fighting against the grief rising within him, but his emotions betrayed him. A ragged cry ripped itself from his throat, a deep, groaning noise that shamed him and frightened him with its intensity. He tried to turn away from Elrond, to wrest control over himself before all was lost, but Elrond stopped him. He put a hand against Aragorn’s cheek and whispered, “Nai tyeldar sí nyérelyar. Coluvan nyérelyar. Sorrow no more, my son. Sorrow no more. Let me hold your tears and your sorrows, if only for a little while. Coluvan nyérelyar.”
Elrond’s gentle words, the same soothing words from Aragorn’s childhood, were his undoing. The grief that he had kept bottled up for so many long weeks now seemed to pour out of him uncontrollably, and it shamed him to be so weak but he could no more stop the flood of tears than he could have stopped the flow of the Bruinen. Terrible sobs tore through him with such strength that he felt he would fly apart if Elrond’s strong arms did not hold him. As Elrond crushed him to his chest, he reached his own arms around him and clung to him and wept for Mallor, for the people of Bracken’s Ferry and Windydale... each man, each woman...
He gave his grief free rein and it flew through him like the violent storms that assail the coasts of Gondor and somewhere in the wildness of it, in the tumult of pain and grief, something tight and cold and hard loosened and warmed and softened, and the tears finally slowed until the storm blew itself out and left only exhausted, empty silence. He started to pull away, but Elrond tightened his hold. “Not yet,” he murmured, and so Aragorn stayed where he was, and somewhere in the barren place that was his soul, peace stole its way back. He sighed and when Elrond felt him relax, only then did he ease him back onto his pillow and release him.
Aragorn rolled over onto his back and wiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I am sorry. I did not mean to lose control like that.”
“Sorrow cannot stay forever locked away. Weeping must come when the heart is broken.” He took Aragorn’s hand and touched the wetness there. “Men or Elves, it matters not. Tears must be shed, or all that is good in a man will wither like a flower in drought.”
Aragorn thought on that, and after a moment, he said, “My heart truly has been broken, more times than I can count, in these last years. I know I am no Elf, but sometimes the pain of what I have seen seems so great that I wish I might sail away to the Undying Lands and be healed, somehow. But I know I cannot, that I must live through each and every moment, no matter how they tear at my soul.” He stared blindly at the ceiling. “And sometimes that brings the worst despair of all.”
Elrond gave no reply for a moment, but ran a light hand across Aragorn’s hair. A wistful smile played about his lips. “I remember when you were about three, or perhaps four. You fell out of a tree... one of the many times you fell out of a tree because you thought at that time you were actually a Silvan Elf we were holding captive.”
“It was shortly after you saw a contingent from Mirkwood for the first time. They so impressed you that you swore you were a prince of the Woodland realm, and we were holding you for ransom. If I remember, the ransom amounted to forty-eleven peppermint sticks.” He let out a soft laugh, remembering. “You could not count very well at that age. I imagine forty-eleven seemed an outrageously high number.”
Aragorn could not help but smile. He truly loved candy as a child. He still did, though he rarely had a chance to so indulge himself. He rolled over onto his side and propped his head up on his hand, much in the way he did as a child when Ada told him bedtime stories. To his wry amusement, he was finding he still enjoyed a bedside story. “And did anyone pay said ransom?”
“You still owe King Thranduil’s seneschal for the two sticks of peppermint you forced him to pay after we negotiated a more reasonable amount, since none of us were quite sure how much ‘forty-eleven’ amounted to. Erestor, being Erestor, argued it was fifty-one, but Glorfindel and the twins insisted it had to be four-thousand and eleven. Needless to say, you sided with Glorfindel and your brothers.”
“I don’t remember that at all.”
“Oh, that was just one of many wild scenarios your imagination conjured. It went on for about three months, you insisting you were King Thranduil’s long-lost son and I the evil warlord of some realm whose name you made up and I could never pronounce. Too many z’s and x’s and some sort of odd spitting sound in the middle of all of them.”
Aragorn chuckled, wishing he could remember that.
“In fact, it went on for so long that I was truly afraid that you might have some sort of serious problem in the mind. You see, you were the youngest of all the heirs I fostered over the ages, and I was unfamiliar with the ways of very young edain, for although I have had many children of Men underfoot, they always had both their parents to care for them. I was never quite as involved in their lives as I was... and still am... with yours. But your mother assured me it was common for children to go through, as she called it, seasons. She assured me that as your imagination latched onto some new thing, it would pass as winter gives way to spring, and that indeed happened. You decided one day at breakfast that you were not a Wood Elf after all, but a Hobbit. You even strapped rabbit fur to the tops your feet and, though it was the dead of winter, refused to wear shoes. You called yourself Trotter, if I remember correctly. And you tried to convince me to let you drink ale instead of milk.”
“I did not.”
“Ask your brothers.”
Aragorn would definitely not ask his brothers anything of the sort. If they remembered, best not to remind them of the follies of his childhood.
“But to get back to the days when you were the captive lost Princeling of Mirkwood... you fell from a tree and came crying to me with a skinned knee. I washed it, and kissed it – for at that age, you still suffered me to treat you in such an unmanly way.” He paused, his wistful smile turning sad. “The small hurts of that little boy were easily healed, but these wounds you now carry on your soul... they will take more than a father’s kiss to heal them, and more even than such Elven medicine as I can provide. Time and your strength alone will bring your healing to you. And your healing will come, Estel. Have no fear otherwise.”
Aragorn picked at the coverlet, running a bit of fringe over and over through his fingers. After several minutes, he spoke. “I... I was afraid I would not be welcome here.”
Elrond shifted, and his words, when they came, were quiet. “Do you remember when last you left here, three months ago? Regrettably, our parting was not warm.”
Aragorn nodded. He had asked after Arwen, as he often did, wanting only to know how she fared. Usually such inquiries were returned with warm assurances of her well-being. Though they had carefully avoided speaking of his betrothal for all these years, they could speak still of Arwen herself, and thus Aragorn stayed always carefully within the bounds of what he knew Elrond would allow in asking after her. But for reasons he still could not fathom, his cautious inquiry that day had angered Elrond. Though no words passed between them, Elrond’s terse reply that she was well, in Lothlórien, held such tension that Aragorn could only assume that he had somehow roused his father’s fury. He thanked Elrond as humbly and as quickly as he knew how, then hurried out of the study, shaken and hurt. And as he made his leave of the house itself, he had paused at the door, thinking himself out of earshot. He remembered standing in the double doors, looking toward the sky, thinking how Elrond could never understand how much his spirit was torn asunder at the two conflicting loves in his heart. Love for Arwen, love for Elrond... and whatever choice he made would leave all their hearts broken. He had not been able to keep the pain inside, and he had spoken the words to the listening sky, in a nearly soundless whisper. “I have chosen Arwen, but it feels almost as though, because of love, I have had to choose to tear off my left arm instead of my right.” But Elrond could not have heard him. Aragorn had left Rivendell without a backward glance, knowing in his heart that unless circumstances were dire, he would not return, not if it caused Elrond such pain. And if return he must, he knew it would not be to any sort of welcome embrace.
“I would not wish for you to tear off either of your arms, Estel.”
Aragorn jerked his head up. Elrond knew, and it explained so much. It explained why Elrond had welcomed him with open arms and not with coldness. But still... how had he heard? Elven hearing was sharper than men’s, but he had barely made a sound. “You did not... you could not have heard that ...”
“I can hear the softest whisper of your heart, my son. You should know that by now.”
Aragorn shut his eyes. Elrond had heard, and understood, and in his selfish ignorance, he had deemed his father uncaring. It was unconscionable. I seem able only to cause suffering to those I love... Father... Halbarad... even the people over whom I am Chieftain.
He collapsed back onto the pillows and laid his forearm across his eyes, wishing suddenly for the oblivion... the escape... of sleep. He was just so very weary of himself, and he was growing ever more certain that everyone else was tiring of his constant blundering as well. “I am sorry, Adar. I foolishly misjudged you.”
“No, you did not misjudge me. I heard your words but did nothing, when what I should have done was rush to your side and give you reassurance. I had been in a foul mood that day, worrying over some no doubt foolish trifle that now I cannot even recall, and I took it out on you. And when you finally returned, and collapsed as you did... my fear was that you would die before I had a chance to make things right between us. Ilúvatar has granted me mercy in this, however, and so now I must ask you to forgive me.”
“We seem to be doing nothing but exchanging pleas for forgiveness,” Aragorn said with a rueful smile.
“Because we seem to have done much to hurt one another. Or at least I have done much to cause you sorrow.”
“No, Ada. I think, were anyone keeping score, perhaps we would fall just about even.”
“Then shall we simply move forward from here?”
Aragorn smiled, and a weight seemed to lift from his soul. “I think that is an excellent idea.” It was not a perfect solution, by any means. His betrothal to Arwen still stood between them, and this dancing around the issue was far from a satisfying resolution, but for now, knowing that he had not lost his father’s love entirely because of that was more than enough to reassure him that somehow, someday, things might work out. And knowing that things were as right as they could be between Elrond and himself gave him that much more strength... and hope... to carry on.
It was enough.
Elrond’s smile was like the sun coming out. “Ah, that is good to see.”
“What is good to see?”
“The light in your eyes. It is back, and it makes my heart glad to see it again.”
Aragorn hitched himself up against his pillows. “There may be a light in my eyes, but there is precious little in my stomach. Are meals provided with the convalescence, or is starvation part of the treatment?”
Elrond laughed and rumpled Aragorn’s hair and laughed again as he stood. “I will arrange to have breakfast brought to you.”
“Thank you,” Aragorn said as he smoothed his hair back down, or tried to. From the feel of it, he was sure it looked as unkempt as a packrat’s nest. Elrond reached the door, and Aragorn suddenly cried out, “Ada, wait!”
Elrond’s spun around in alarm at Aragorn’s frantic tone. “What is it, Estel?”
“Can you please hand me that book?”
Elrond scooped the book off the night stand and tossed it onto Aragorn’s stomach. “Helpless Dúnadan!” he snorted in very un-lordly fashion, then left.
Aragorn smiled as Elrond’s chuckles faded down the hallway, then opened the book to the first page.
“The leaves were long, the grass was green...” (1)
“The leaves were long, the grass was green...”- page 187, The Fellowship of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, New Line cover paperback edition, 2003.
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