Title: Its Own Reward
Words: c. 2000
Rating: PG (some non-graphic references to past violence.)
Genre: Angst, mild h/c
Characters: Aragorn and Halbarad, with a brief appearance by two surprise guests.
Summary: Sometimes even a chieftain of the Dunedain can doubt his people's purpose; but hope and renewal can be found in the smallest, simplest of things.
Aragorn could not immediately remember how he came to be on his knees in the snow. Other memories were stronger: a slamming door; a stone chamber where dead voices called from the past; the sting of dark blood on his hands; cold days and nights still colder.
He heard the bird call that signalled Halbarad’s approach. It was the call of a curlew from Lake Evendim, a joke from a journey long past, when Aragorn was young, and Halbarad was younger. Aragorn supposed he should move, but did not.
"You are hard to find," said Halbarad behind him.
"Of course." Aragorn let out a slow breath. It misted in the air, and then was gone.
Halbarad stopped beside him. His gloved fingers ghosted across Aragorn’s shoulder, but touched no more than the fabric of his cloak. "But not as hard as usual, the last few days of the trail."
"No," Aragorn agreed.
He heard the sound of Halbarad removing his gloves. Ahead of them, where the bank tumbled down towards the road, a beech sapling grew, still bearing leaves even at the start of winter. A thin dusting of snow lay upon each leaf, and in the fading light of early evening, the whole tree seemed white.
"You went across the Barrow Downs," Halbarad said. "Almost I dared not follow."
Aragorn closed his eyes, and thought about cold dead kings, his forefathers of old, who had dared to stand against evil, and had fallen, fallen into the darkness along with all their men. Now their hopes and their treasures lay buried in dust, lost in stone chambers where evil things now dwelled. Always they called, but most loudly to him, because he was kin to them.
"It was necessary," he said. "The thing I hunted went across them, too."
A rook landed on the beech tree, too heavy for its slender branches. Snow fell to the ground like dying blossom, revealing leaves of shrivelled brown.
"I know." His gloves removed, Halbarad gripped Aragorn’s shoulder. His fingertips brushed against Aragorn’s neck. "You are cold."
The rook made its ragged, raucous cry. "I am always cold," said Aragorn.
There was a drop of blood on the snow in front of him. He remembered how the creature had screeched, far ahead of him in the darkness, long nights ago. He had come across its leavings the morning after, a great grey wolf reduced to bare bones and scattered fur. The smaller animals had fled, and fled again when Aragorn approached.
Halbarad knelt down beside him. "You can sheathe that now."
Sheathe what? He blinked. There was water on his face, snowflakes melting off his hood. He raised his left hand, and looked down at the long knife, and at the hand that gripped it. The knuckles were as white as the bones of lost kings. For how many hours had he carried it like this? He did not know.
"Need to clean it first," he said.
"Let me." Halbarad’s hand touched his. It felt as warm as a memory of home in the Land of Shadow.
Aragorn shivered. He loosened his grip, just a little. He remembered the feeling of resistance as his knife had struck the creature’s hide. Then, as the fingers of his trapped right hand had brushed the hilt of his sword, the knife had broken through, and there had been no resistance at all, as if the creature had been hollow inside, just a well of malice encased in a shell of stone. But it had bled. Its blood stained the blade still.
"No," he said. "Don’t touch it." He let the knife fall. "Let it lie." Let it be buried beneath the ground, like the hopes of long-dead kings. Let it…
Thoughts drifted into shadow.
Halbarad broke the long silence. "Aragorn?"
Aragorn looked up, up past Halbarad to the sky beyond. It was no longer snowing, but the sky was grey. With every minute that passed, light would be leeched from the sky, until only darkness remained, "but you can never name the exact moment when the day has died," he said, "and night has come at last."
He had not meant to speak aloud. "Aragorn," Halbarad said; "my lord," and it was seldom indeed that he called him that.
Aragorn blinked. He looked at Halbarad, at his grey cloak brushed with a powder of melting snow. His face was etched, older than it was in Aragorn’s memory, although it was not so many months since they had last met. "You are weary," Aragorn said. "You look as if you haven't slept in a week, my friend."
Halbarad gave a sad smile, just a hint of one. "Not that long."
But close to it, of course. And there were worse things, too, things that Halbarad would never speak of, because none of them ever did.
The leaves had not yet started to fall when Aragorn had first picked up the creature’s trail. Through the dying weeks of autumn he had hunted it. On the Barrow Downs, for a while, he had almost forgotten the taste of hot food and what it was like to have a bed that was not of stone.
He remembered the slamming of doors and the baying of hounds and the sound of bolts being drawn shut against him. A trader had hurried his children away from him. A farmer with a cudgel had threatened to set the dogs on him.
He had glimpsed fires through windows. He had caught the smell of bacon in the morning. Some nights, it had been too dangerous to set a fire of his own. Sometimes dawn came and found him still awake, not yet asleep from the night before.
And then he had caught his quarry, and he had killed it, although not without cost. He had burned the carcase, then turned his back on it and walked on, because that was what he did. Doors would still slam. Still would he be turned away from the comfort of home and hearth by people who were only alive because he bled for them.
"Can you stand?" Halbarad was offering his hand. Aragorn had forgotten he was there. Halbarad had a long white scar across the back of his hand, and more, far more, beneath his clothes, of course. Halbarad, too, had bled for them all.
"Why do we do this?" Aragorn’s voice was little more than a whisper.
Halbarad opened his mouth, then closed it again. There were deep carved lines between his brows. He looked like the statues in Fornost and the pictures in Rivendell and the memories of dead hopes that called out across the mounds of the Barrow Downs. Thousands of years, and nothing had changed. Aragorn’s people clung to their relics and their lore, and their young wore the faces of long-defeated kings.
Aragorn closed his eyes. "Why do we do this, Halbarad?"
Halbarad laid his hand upon Aragorn’s shoulder. He was silent for a very long time. A robin sang. Snow fell from high branches, rustling through trees. "For my part, I know why," Halbarad said, "but it is not…"
He faded. Aragorn heard it, too. Somebody was coming.
Aragorn snatched up the knife, wiping its blade swiftly upon his cloak. "Stay here," he commanded. "I will…"
But it was not a foe that approached along the road. The two travellers had walked for a while in silence, but now they began to talk. Aragorn crouched low, and pressed his hand against the root bole of a great tree that overhung the road. He heard only snatched words at first. They spoke of the wonder of the early snow, and they smiled to see the robin as it flitted silently from tree to tree. They were heading home from a long walk, long for their kind, and they saw beauty in the coming twilight, although their thoughts were turning most often to dinner and bed.
"Who is it?" Halbarad asked.
"Hobbits," Aragorn said. "Two of them."
He crawled forward, silent and unseen. Shrouded in his grey cloak, he watched them approach; hidden behind tangled thorns, he heard them sing. The older one knew the words, and the younger one was clearly learning them, because he joined in when he could, and listened when he could not. But both of them knew the final lines, and sang them together joyously, just as they neared the place where Aragorn lay hidden.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And to bed! And then to bed!
"Although we won’t be back in our own beds for a few days yet, my dear boy," the older hobbit said, "but we’ll be with your Brandybuck cousins before darkness falls, and that’s almost as good, is it not?"
"Yes, it is," the younger one agreed, but then he stopped and he looked up, pointing at the branches above Aragorn’s hiding place. "Look!" His smile was full of joy and utterly unshadowed by care. "The robin’s singing us home."
"Indeed it is," said the older one, full of contentment. "And, look, I do believe that the sun’s going to peep out from behind this clouds just in time for sunset."
Aragorn watched them go. Their voices faded, but their laughter lingered. Even long minutes later, he caught snatches of it, carried to him by the breeze and the trees and the ground beneath his spread fingers.
"And that is why," he said quietly.
"I do not understand," said Halbarad.
Aragorn stood up, sheathing his knife, and pulling his cloak around his body. "I asked why we do this." He pressed his hand to his chest, as if grasping a talisman, safeguarding the memory of that smile. "That is why."
A traveller would not sing so loudly unless he trusted beyond doubt that the roads were safe. Any evil that dared enter these parts was hunted or contained. Out on the roads in the winter twilight, a young hobbit could smile. Monsters were just stories. A warm meal and a soft bed were the only treasures they longed for, and if they had them, they were content.
"Can you walk?" Halbarad was saying. "We can make camp away from the road. Rest awhile. I do not have your skill at healing, but…"
"No." Aragorn shook his head. "There are still tasks to perform. I will track our merry hobbit travellers as far as the Bridge, to make sure no ill befalls them. Even if the sun comes out, it will be dark before they reach it."
Halbarad grasped his hand. "But…"
"Peace, Halbarad," Aragorn said gently. He still remembered the Barrow Downs, but woven through it, and brighter, was the memory of the hobbits’ song. He still bore wounds from his fight with the creature he had hunted for so long, but the memory of the hobbit’s smile was a salve for all but the worst of pains. "I admit that I am weary," he said, "but I can manage many miles before I will need to sleep."
"But not alone," Halbarad said. "At least this once, not alone."
Aragorn knew that he was grim of face, because men had told him so in Gondor, in Rohan, and in places far further and far more strange. He smiled now, a full smile, an echo of the one he had seen upon the road. "Indeed, my friend. Not alone."
The sun came out, as the hobbit had predicted. It made the shadows more dark, but it made the snow shine like the leaves of Lothlorien, mingled silver and gold. The wind turned, bringing them now and again the sound of singing.
"It was worth it," Aragorn found himself saying. He had not intended to speak aloud, but he had grown unused to company, and he had not slept in many days, and not even a smile could entirely drive away the shadows. "It is worth it, for a smile."
"Yes." Halbarad was looking at him. He looked years younger than he had looked just minutes before, and his grey eyes were shining. "Yes, it is."
Disclaimer: The quotes verses are, of course, the words of Tolkien, and thus are property of the Tolkien Estate, as are the characters. No profit is being made from their use.