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Epilogue – The Year That Followed – Part II
Excerpts from the Journals of Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain
10 October, T.A. 3001
A year has fled since those dark days last autumn, and I did finally journey back to my people. But here I am again in Rivendell, in my old room, writing in this old journal. This time there will be no collapsing in the hallway; I am all but whole, although it has been a struggle. I would never have dreamt that I could have traveled so far down the road of weariness and pain that even a year later, I still feel some of its effects. My arm aches when it rains, and thoughts of the Nazgûl... I fear I will never be able to think of those unholy beings without feeling my grip tighten and a sweat break on my brow.
As summer gave way to autumn and the leaves turned, my thoughts grew heavy and dark and again I felt that old feeling of being chained, of being trapped with no way out and no way forward. When Halbarad suggested I visit Adar, this time I did not argue (much to Halbarad's delight).
And yet as hard and long as the year has been, it was not without its rewards.
I rejoined my people shortly after my birthday, in mid-March. Adar insisted I spend the entire winter with him in Rivendell, and seeing how even Rivendell’s mild winter chill seemed to cause the very marrow of my bones to ache, I did not argue, although I very much wanted to leave with Halbarad and the others shortly after the New Year. But I knew it was a matter of me needing them more than reverse. Had not Halbarad led the Dúnedain for years while I journeyed the world to the south and east? He needs no help leading our people, at least not from me.
And I sent Denlad home a married man, which still astounds me. He asked me to perform their bonding ceremony on the day the Dúnedain mark the New Year. What a joyous day that was–I think we all ate and sang until we felt that all this joy and good cheer might be our end. Halbarad was three days recovering from all the wine he washed down his gullet.
So the winter was not without its days of joy and merriment, but oh, how good it felt to mount Bronadui at last and ride into the wild places, turning my face toward the fresh western winds! My heart was light that day, lighter than it had been in many long months. But darkness fell upon it too soon, for my first stop was Windydale, and fell memories beset me with every step Bronadui took as I traveled northward from the Last Bridge.
The winter fortunately had been kind to that beleaguered village, and the people had been busy. The walls rose stout and strong again, and the gate was open. I quietly rode in, without escort or fanfare, and the few people along the street did not recognize me under my hood. I stopped at the house of the mother whose cries had so raked at my soul, but it was empty and abandoned. I stood for a long moment in the small yard, awash in sad memory, until finally a young boy came around from the house alongside it and told me she had moved to Bree, to be closer to her family. I thanked him, and he nodded and went away. If he knew me as his Chieftain, he made no sign.
I looked at that town from where I stood, and I realized that they, like myself, had healed, to some extent. The scars still showed–many houses were empty and crumbling, and to my sadness, the ferry that served the village was no longer operating. I saw the remains of the barge on the far side of the river, half sunk and apparently broken beyond repair. I wondered at that, wondered if the ferry master had died in the attack and no one was left with the skills to rebuild the ferry, or wondered if perhaps the Nazgûl had used the ferry to come across and the villagers decided it too great a risk to re-open. I thought I might ask, but there seemed little point. Windydale was a village that I knew would diminish. Without the ferry, travelers, like myself, would need to ride down to the East-West Road to cross the Hoarwell, and there would be little reason to stop at a small village twenty miles to the north. Eventually everyone would move on, like the grieving woman and her surviving child.
But that was a sadness for tomorrow. On this day, I saw smiles. I heard a woman’s voice in the distance, singing. And I heard the sound of a hammer on iron as the blacksmith toiled. There were smells, also... good smells of cooking and flowers and fresh-tilled earth. On this day, life continued, and that was a comforting thought.
I mounted Bronadui and rode out of there, keeping to myself, for the sun was high and no enemies lurked. They had no need of their Chieftain. My presence would only bring back to mind all the horrible things they had endured. They had moved forward with their lives, in the way that the Dúnedain have ever done, and forcing them to look back would serve no purpose. I had no right to mar this perfect day in seeking forgiveness to assuage my own guilt. So I rode away from there, my hood still concealing my identity, and I still remember the gatekeeper’s cheerful wave.
My next stop was to see my mother. She knew a little of what had happened to me, for Elrond had written to her of some of it, and it grieved me to see the worry in her tear-filled eyes. It also grieved me to see how time and care had bent her back and lined her face. But her embrace was as comforting as always, and her smile as radiant and loving. Long hours we spent talking, and some we spent in silence, our souls in quiet communion. I would have spared her, but one day as I sat at her feet, my head in her lap and her hand stroking lovingly over my hair as in days of old, she asked what still troubled my heart. So I told her of all the things dark and terrible that I had endured in this past year and my tears stained her skirts (never have I wept as much as I have in this past year). She spoke words of wisdom and love that I still cannot bear to set onto paper, for they are too dear to me. But they are etched forever on my heart, for they healed a part of me that Adar could not reach, and that neither time nor my own strength could ever have touched. Such is the balm of a mother’s love.
I made my reluctant leave of her at last and rejoined my men. Such a time we had that first day back! Laughing and telling tales and singing songs. Halbarad was beside himself with joy and I felt we would need no fire, so warm were the smiles on all their faces. This too healed a part of me that I had not realized was still wounded, for I had approached the camp at Chetwood with a tension in my back that only relaxed when I felt their acceptance. It made no sense to be so worried, and never before had I been so filled with trepidation over rejoining my men, not even on that long ago day when my brothers deposited me, a green, barely tested youth, on Halbarad’s doorstep. It was then that I realized just how deeply the enemy had gone into my fëa ... how much had been destroyed of my hope and my joy and my confidence. There are still hidden pockets of darkness within me, and doubts still linger, and that is why I am here in the house of my father again. But it is better. Far, far better.
Summer brought with it the usual mix of blessing and sorrow. The crops were good this year, but several children died of summer fever, and we lost nearly a dozen good men in skirmishes with orcs. But Halbarad’s wife bore him a healthy new daughter, and as I left finally for Imladris, Denlad quietly told me that by the time I returned, he hoped that Randir would have a baby brother or sister before summer next. It was hard to leave the men, as it ever is, but it was good to have such good news to warm my thoughts on the lonely journey to the Last Homely House.
And so here I sit, having had a hearty supper to fill my belly and good wine to warm my veins and a night of singing and tales in the Hall of Fire to fill my soul. Ada seems happy to see me, and of course Glorfindel and Erestor are as well.
It is good to be home. I may not have much in the way of goods and riches, but I am wealthy beyond measure in having two homes, one here in Imladris, and one out in the lands of the Dúnedain. Few men are so blessed.
October 16, T.A. 3001
Gandalf arrived today, and excitement and anticipation so fills me that I can scarcely settle myself to write of the news he brought, but write I shall, for I feel another page in my life and in Arda’s future is turning at last, and I want to mark its every detail.
He was returning from one of his mysterious journeys. It is always good to see him, but the ways of the Maia are ever beyond my understanding, and Gandalf’s further still at times. He seems at whiles almost as a beloved uncle to me; then he will suddenly shift and a veil of secrecy falls across his countenance and I can only stand in fear before him. I am by turns comforted and vexed and sometimes even frightened by him, and this day was no different.
He came to me, as I cleaned out the stalls in the stables. Adar insists again that I spend some weeks here at Rivendell–I think he wants to keep an eye on me, and I cannot deny him that, for there is still some worry in my heart that I might lapse back into that dreadful darkness, and knowing he is near is a comfort I cannot deny myself right now. But sitting idly chafes, and I am so filled with restless energy that I have been driving all around me to the brink of murder as I pester them to give me something... anything... to do. Adar wants me to rest, to abstain from any patrols, but one can only spar with practice swords for so long, and shoot at targets for so long, and run the paths for so long. So I have taken to riding the horses out to exercise, then swamping out their stalls and feeding them their grain and brushing their coats until they shine. The stable master has thoroughly enjoyed my labors, for it has given him a much needed bit of rest. Or so he tells me as he sprawls on the hay in leisure as he watches me sweat and grunt and endure horses stepping on my feet and playfully butting me with their heads hard enough to send me sprawling. I love every moment of it, even when I have to climb back to my feet rubbing my bruised backside. It feels good to work, to feel the strength coursing through my limbs, for the memory is still too fresh of those days when I knew only weakness.
It was while I was braiding Bronadui’s mane that Gandalf walked into the stables, his staff thumping lightly on the hay-strewn floor.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries and Gandalf assured me his journeys were productive, but he did not elaborate, as is his wont. I have learned not to ask, but I have yet to master the feeling of frustration that comes over me when Gandalf turns incomprehensible.
He looked long at me, taking me in from head to toe, as is also his wont. I stood still for it, even smiling a bit and turning all the way around with my arms out for full effect. He nodded, satisfied, then bade me come into the Hall of Fire where he might thaw the ice from his limbs, for it was a cold day for October. I followed, after washing up a bit, and he sat down in a chair by the fire and I poured him a cup of warm mulled cider, then stood by the fireplace with one of my own and waited. Soon enough, he came to his point.
“I have need of your Rangers, Aragorn.”
“We are ever at your service, you know that.”
“They still heavily guard the Shire.”
It was a statement more than a question, but I nodded.
“I need it guarded still more vigilantly,” he said, then stopped and looked at me with troubled eyes. “I need you to double the guard, in fact.”
I took a deep breath. That was no easy task he was asking of me, or my men. “May I ask why?”
“You may ask, yes.”
I waited, and when he still did not speak, spoke rather sharply myself. “Well, then. Why?”
“I am not at liberty to say.”
I shut my eyes in exasperation. A simple no would have sufficed, but why be straightforward when you are a Maia and can vex all those lower than yourself? I slowly relaxed my clenched jaw and looked at him. To my consternation, he simply smiled back at me as though he were enjoying this cat and mouse game he called conversation. Which no doubt he was. I finally laughed. “Gandalf, you speak in riddles.”
“Perhaps to you, but a wizard’s words are always precisely what he means them to be.”
I opened my mouth to argue otherwise, but decided it would be wiser to get back to the matter at hand. “I assume you want the guard doubled immediately?”
“I have already spoken to Halbarad, before I came here. He told you not to worry; it will be taken care of.”
I nodded, and waited to see if there were more, for he had the look of a man weighing his words, and when a Maia gets that look, unease stirs in my belly.
“Perhaps I am wrong in keeping the reasons from you, Aragorn.”
Much as I longed to shout that yes, you are indeed wrong, fill me in, you confounded old wizard, I held my tongue.
“Yes, I think I will tell you, for who better to trust than the King of Men.” My heart started to warm but before I could puff up with too much pride, he smote me with a stern glare. “But it must remain between us. I am afraid you cannot tell even Halbarad.” And he then proceeded to tell me what he feared he had discovered in the Shire, and it chilled me.
“The One Ring,” I whispered, as if saying it too loudly would bring Sauron down on us, or worse, onto the Shire. I confess that panic tinged my next words, for my brush with the Wraith was too recent, and I knew their evil power was nothing compared to that which Sauron, with the Ring on his hand, would bring to bear on the peoples of Middle-earth. “Sauron cannot find it.”
“He has not.”
I dared breathe again.
And with that small word I again stopped breathing. I forced myself to calm down. I carefully put my goblet of cider on the mantel. “Is there any reason,” I said slowly, “to think that he might somehow discover it?”
“There could be. Yes, there most certainly could be.”
“Then cease your maddening hints and riddles and tell me all!”
Gandalf immediately looked contrite, or as contrite as he ever looks. “I am sorry, Aragorn. It is just that my mind is not fully made up on this, and I must measure each word. I do not know for certain that this ring is indeed the One Ring, although my heart warns me that it is. Yes, my heart warns me....” His voice trailed off and for a moment, he stared as if into some distant, evil realm. The room seemed to dim, and I felt evil's cold touch trail down my spine. My hand reached for a sword that was not hanging at my side, but just as suddenly, Gandalf shook himself and blinked and but for the goosebumps I could still see on my arms, I would have wondered if I had not imagined the entire thing. “There is one other,” he continued, “besides you and I, who knows of this ring’s existence, and he knows in whose hands it has now come to reside. The creature Gollum. You have heard of him, no doubt, from the stories of Bilbo?”
“Bilbo stole his ring... won it really, through a game of riddles. But Gandalf, surely this creature cannot know the import of the ring. To him it must simply have been a magic ring, nothing more.”
“Gollum may not know it's importance, but the story of his ring is surely not unknown to Sauron. I fear that Sauron, driven to exhaust all possible leads, might eventually turn his attention to Gollum, on the chance that Gollum's magic ring is that which he seeks.”
Fear trembled my gut and my mouth suddenly seemed dry. For a moment it seemed no time at all had passed since my own encounter with the Wraith, and terror threatened to undo me. I told myself firmly to get hold of myself, then cleared my throat. “Bilbo still has the ring?”
“And Gollum of course knows it was Bilbo who took it from him, so therefore Sauron would then hear of Bilbo.... it is very plain to see where this will lead.”
“If Sauron, through Gollum, hears of its possible existence in the Shire, as I fear it truly is, he will do all within his power to invade the Shire and seize the ring, by whatever means necessary.”
Visions of the Shire in flames did not help stem the rising tide of panic. I rubbed my face, running my hands across my cheeks and then holding them clasped before my mouth, as if in prayer. I closed my eyes before I asked the next question, trying to brace myself for an answer I was sure I did not want to hear. “So tell me what you truly think: does Sauron know of this creature’s existence?”
“I do not know, and that is what worries me. I think it likely he does. But I cannot say for certain, nor can I say if he knows where to find Gollum, and therein may lie our hope, if such is to be found.”
It was not the answer I wanted–indeed, it was barely an answer at all. Still... as Gandalf said, it seemed there might still be hope. And with that thought, something stilled within me. I felt calm again, almost relaxed. It is the same feeling that comes over me in those last seconds before the battle is joined, when all questioning and planning and speculating are done and it remains only to raise sword and fight. I almost smiled. I opened my eyes and looked steadily at Gandalf. “Then our task is simple. We must find Gollum before Sauron does.”
Gandalf’s eyebrows shot upward. “You have a way about you, Aragorn, of making the hardest challenge sound easy.”
“Oh, it will not be easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. But find him we must, and find him we will.” I laughed then, for a reckless joy surged within me, despite the fear that had settled in my heart like a cold stone. The Ring may have been found, yes, and terrible it was to contemplate its import. But at the same time, it was as if that fell discovery had opened a locked door which now swung wide, and though I knew not what may come of it, one thing was clear: the path I had lost now lay broad and inviting at my feet. I clapped Gandalf on the shoulder. “Come then, old friend. Let us go together and hunt this creature named Gollum.”
We will leave in the morning.
~~~ Fini. Until the road goes on... ~~~
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