Story summary: At twenty, Aragorn discovers that he is the hereditary captain of a people he has never met, but it will take many years and he will endure many hardships before he becomes a true leader of men.
Chapter summary: Five years after leaving Rivendell, Aragorn is on the cusp of assuming full command of the Dúnedain. Then an encounter in Bree leads him into deadly danger, and life will never be the same again.
The Reins of Power I: The World of Men
The Reins of Power II: The Life of a Man
The first opponent came in low, swinging with a clumsy, blood-stained sword. Aragorn parried it easily. He feinted right, then stepped in the other direction, avoiding the enemy's dirty knife. The second assailant came in from behind, but Aragorn already knew he was there, and knew where he was going to strike. Aragorn ducked, pivoted, and came up again, disarming the second attacker with a quick twist of his sword.
The first one was more difficult, still armed with sword and knife. Aragorn engaged him again, then managed to fight his way around until their positions were reversed, and he could keep an eye on both of his assailants, the one still armed, the other scrabbling to regain his sword.
They were Men. That was the worst of it. Aragorn was supposed to protect the world of Men, and one day, perhaps, to lead it.
"Yield!" he urged them. If they did not, he would be forced to kill them. "Yield!" he commanded, investing it with whatever authority he had learned in his short years of life.
The disarmed opponent reacted as if he had been slapped, and crouched in the grass, his hand not quite touching the hilt of his sword. Aragorn saw this in snatches, his attention by necessity focused on the man who still fought him.
"Yield!" he tried again, and the man stepped back, and stood there panting, his sword still up in a guard position. Aragorn had already wounded him, but only shallowly.
"I… yield," he gasped, and fell to his knees, his head sagging. He dropped his sword, and let his hand fall slack at his side. His muscles were still tense, though: shoulder, neck, and left arm, its fist clutching something in the long grass, something he wanted Aragorn to forget about.
Aragorn took a step forward. He heard Halbarad shout his name, sharp and urgent, but he already knew that the attack was coming. The man struck with the knife, but Aragorn was ready for it. Even so, the knife came faster than he had expected, and not where he had thought. He avoided it, though, and the next one, too. Then the man tried to grab his sword again, and Aragorn had to kill him in the end.
A Man, he thought, but he looked down at the blood-stained sword, and felt little regret. The blood on the sword was not fresh. Aragorn and the others had come too late to save the inhabitants of the small farm, arriving only in time to bury them and now to avenge them.
Berenor and Halbarad had won their own battles, and two more dead enemies lay on the ground. The man who had yielded had tried to crawl away, and Berenor had stopped him with a sword at the back of his neck.
"Is anyone wounded?" Aragorn asked.
"I am unscathed," Berenor said.
"As am I," said Halbarad. "Are you…?"
"I am well."
Did the blood come from the old man or the old woman? Aragorn rolled his dead man over, wary in case he was only shamming. He was not quite dead after all, but died as Aragorn touched him; Aragorn could almost fancy that he felt the moment that the man's spirit left him. "He is not one of the local folk," he said, but he had known that already, because you saw a man's face with vivid clarity when you were fighting him.
"Mine was darker and shorter than the Breelanders," Berenor said. "He might even have had orc blood in him, somewhere far back. But you, my lad…" He pressed his sword point against the back of his prisoner's neck, drawing a trickle of blood. "Perhaps you can answer our questions."
Berenor nodded a command to Halbarad, and the two of them wrestled their prisoner onto his back. He was very young, Aragorn saw, perhaps little more than sixteen. Unlike his dead companions, he had the look of a local boy. "Don't!" the boy begged, as Berenor loomed over him with his blood-drenched sword. "Please…!"
They were still dancing their precarious dance, Aragorn and Berenor. It was now five years since Aragorn had left Rivendell, and he had still not assumed the full mantle of Chieftancy. Berenor still issued commands, but more and more often, Aragorn issued commands, too. Sometimes, he saw the men he commanded glance briefly at Berenor, as if they wanted to ensure that Berenor, too, approved. But after a while, he came to realise that the same thing happened in reverse, when Berenor gave a command and Aragorn was near.
"No," Aragorn told Berenor now. "I think we should be… lenient."
He sheathed his sword, and unarmed, approached the prisoner. Berenor watched impassively. Halbarad looked unhappy. Yes, Aragorn thought, I know you worry about my safety, but I trust the two of you to guard my back. He tried to convey this with a glance, and Halbarad nodded, but still gripped his sword more tightly.
"Where do you come from?" Aragorn asked the prisoner. It took little questioning to get a full confession. He was a local boy, bored of pulling his sister's hair and stealing his father's beer and tormenting the dogs. He had run away in search of adventure, and had taken up with a passing band of strangers who had offered it to him. He swore that he had not killed, but neither had he forsaken them when the killing started. He swore that he had not robbed, but Aragorn knew that he was lying. But it was true that he was no fighter. He had barely known how to hold the sword that he had attacked Aragorn with, and it was plain that he was afraid.
"I am of a mind to let him go," Aragorn confessed to Berenor afterwards, as Halbarad stood guard over the boy. "To send him home and trust that he has learned his lesson."
"He did try to kill you," Berenor said, as if that was somehow a worse crime than the cold-blooded murder of several farmers.
Aragorn nodded his agreement. "And he is far from blameless, for all that he presented himself as an innocent bystander."
"He was quite convincing," Berenor said.
Aragorn shook his head. "The lie was plain in his eyes."
Berenor looked at him sharply, as if he was about to say something, but remained silent. Halbarad was guarding the prisoner closely, but kept looking at Aragorn, as if he was afraid that one of the dead men would rise up and kill him where he stood.
"But even so, I am inclined to give him a second chance," Aragorn said. "We are committed to protect these people, not to kill them. He is only a boy. Perhaps he will learn from this."
"Boys do learn," Berenor agreed, "and can grow quite quickly into good and capable men." He looked back at their prisoner, curled up on the ground. "But I am of a mind not to trust him too far. I would deliver him in person back to his home, and make sure he knows that we know where he lives."
"You should do that," Aragorn said. Halbarad was looking at him again. "Take Halbarad, too. I will… I think I should go to Bree, and drop a few words in the right ears to let it be known that the bandits will no longer be troubling them."
"Yes," said Berenor, with a quick nod, possibly accepting a command, and possibly giving one. "That would be well done."
Halbarad was not happy with the plan, of course. As they stripped the bandits of their stolen goods and disposed of the bodies, his feelings were vivid on his face. He wanted to go with Aragorn. He wanted to follow him and guard him and go wherever he went. But he was young, and desperately devoted, and he did not argue out loud. His eyes burned with misery as he nodded his acceptance of the command. Aragorn looked back just once after riding away alone. Halbarad was still looking at him, watching him go. Then Berenor said something, and Halbarad turned away.
And so, once again, Aragorn was journeying alone. Even after five years, he still felt it as the slow lifting of a weight from his shoulders. He saw the world more keenly. When he was out with others, he watched his surroundings avidly, looking for traps and dangers that might threaten his people. When alone, he saw those things that his brothers had shown him, on those rare journeys that had been purely for pleasure. He saw the changing colours of the leaves, just beginning to turn at the end of summer. He saw glossy blackbirds, and brown speckled butterflies, dancing on pink ragged flowers.
When night fell, he stopped, and slept beneath a bushy hazel tree, well hidden from the path. He did not dream, or if he did, he did not remember the dreams. He woke up before dawn, and resumed his journey as soon as there was enough light for his horse to walk safely. Had he been on foot, he thought, he might have travelled through the night.
He reached Bree just before dark on the second day. After seeing his horse safely stabled, he made his way to the common room. "Back again, then," said the landlord, not particularly friendly, but not hostile, either.
"A year since I last came," Aragorn said. "I'm surprised you remember me." He used his Breeland accent, pitched to sound local enough not to stand out, but not so local as to cause people to ask who his father was.
"I'm good at faces," Butterbur said, drawing him a pint of beer without waiting to be asked. "You have to be in this job. When they come in all smiles, like butter wouldn't melt in their mouth, you have to remember that they're the same ne'er-do-well you barred for life five years ago." He picked up a cloth, and began cleaning splashes from the dark wooden bar, moving the cloth in slow circles. "About five years ago you first came in, wasn't it? A green lad, overpaid for his beer?"
"Indeed," Aragorn agreed. "Maybe you owe me this one for free, then."
"Maybe I do," said Butterbur, but he held his hand out for money, and Aragorn paid him, although less than the full price. Butterbur looked as if he was about to argue, then subsided with a wry shrug. "Of course," said Butterbur, "I hadn't pegged you for one of them Rangers back then, or I wouldn't have tried it on the way I did."
"Why do you think I'm a Ranger now?" Aragorn asked, unable to stop himself.
Butterbur's cloth paused in the middle of a circle. He frowned at Aragorn, his head tilted thoughtfully to one side. "Well, it's obvious, isn't it." It was not said as a question.
Aragorn took his beer and headed to a quiet corner. After weeks spent drinking lukewarm water from an old leather flask, the beer was a welcome change. When the singing started up, his toe tapped along with its rhythm. But he chose a seat near an open window, where the smoky air was leavened by a pure scent of outdoors. As a Ranger, Aragorn spent even more time outdoors than he had spent as a child in Rivendell. Men were more familiar than they had been five years ago, but crowded rooms were not.
As he drank, he listened to the chatter around him. There was some nervous talk about the bandits who had attacked some outlying farms in the north, but as the drink started flowing, the concerns eased. Most of the faces were ones he recognised from earlier visits. The young men who five years ago had been teasing each other about girls, now spoke of wives at home, or even children. He watched two friends exchange insults, and saw how every insult was just another way of saying how comfortable they were with each other: men who, if their lives were different, would willingly die for each other on the front line of a war. It made him think of Hador and Garavion, and all those other Dúnedain who had close friendships, one with another.
Outside, the wind was rising, and the clouds of smoke in the common room swirled in the breeze. Aragorn pulled his cloak tighter around him, but his hood was pushed back, and he did not try to make himself unseen.
Butterbur scurried constantly, talking, laughing, scolding, lord of his domain. I'm good at faces, he had said. Aragorn watched him carefully. What an enemy he would make! No, he thought, perhaps not an enemy, but an enemy agent. Butterbur was astute, and he knew everything that was happening in his part of the world. He would make a good agent for the Dúnedain, too, although even as he thought this, Aragorn knew it would never become anything other than a thought. There was too much risk in it, risk for both sides.
Aragorn turned away. As he did so, he noticed another man who sat alone, nursing a drink that he seldom touched. He sat on the high-backed bench with studied casualness, and at times he joined in sparsely with the conversation on his right, and at other times dabbled in the shallows of the conversation to his left. But he was watching, Aragorn realised, knowing it with absolute certainly. No, not just watching. Waiting. Searching.
For what? Aragorn thought. For me? He thought not, because Aragorn had entered openly, and made little attempt to hide. The man was armed, a long knife poorly concealed at his side, and his hands were scarred but strong. Nobody around him paid him any attention, or seemed to see anything suspicious about him. Five years ago, Aragorn realised, he doubted he would have noticed it himself. A watcher from the shadows came to recognise one of his own kind.
Butterbur came bustling up to his table, cradling a brimming jug in both arms. Aragorn put his hand over his tankard. "You don't catch me out that way a second time."
Butterbur shook his head in mock regret. "I know not to ask for your name. You Rangers never do tell us your names, just deflect questions as slippery as a fish. Ah, you think we don't notice, but we do. We'll have to come up with a nickname for you if you're going to be a regular visitor."
Aragorn smiled, but did not respond. "People were talking about bandit attacks earlier," he said instead. "I came in from the north, myself. Yesterday, I…" He paused; raised his tankard to his mouth, but put it down after only pretending to drink. "I came across some dead men by the side of the road. They weren't local, and they were armed to the teeth. No innocent travellers, they. I think… I'm wondering if they were your bandits, and they'd… squabbled over the loot and killed each other?"
"Could be." Butterbur nodded gravely. "Not local, you say? That'll be southerners, then. Everyone knows what southerners are like."
"What are they like?" Aragorn could not resist asking.
"Well… Um…" Butterbur frowned. "It's just a saying, you know? Nobody much lives down south, but it's wild lands, and that means people tell stories. But there are big cities way down south, too far away to be of any interest to us." Somebody called his name. He dismissed them with a wave. "Still, if the bandits are all dealt with, that's good to hear. I'll let people know, but the proof of the pudding's in the eating, as they say, and we'll have to wait and see." His eyes narrowed. "Quarrelled over loot, you say?"
Until Butterbur asked, Aragorn had not decided what to do about the slim pickings they had recovered from the bandits' packs. It was just a few hard-earned coins and old jewellery, poor quality, but cherished. Most of the owners were dead, but perhaps some owners could still be found. He had considered returning it in person, but that would have raised questions about how he had tracked the owners down. But Butterbur was… astute, Aragorn thought, and sometimes a rascal, but a good man at heart, and honest where it counts.
"I have it here," he said, and brought out his pack. "I have no idea who it belongs to, but perhaps…"
"I can ask around," Butterbur said, "and find out who's lost things. I'll do it subtle-like, of course – don't want to encourage this rabble to claim things they have no right to."
"Thank you." Aragorn nodded his gratitude.
Butterbur took the pack almost solemnly. Aragorn had no doubt that he would carry out the task honestly, and to the best of his ability. It was only afterwards that he realised that Butterbur, too, had shown no signs of doubting him. He had accepted without question that Aragorn was handing over everything he had found.
Aragorn wondered whether to ask Butterbur about the other watcher, but decided not to. Aragorn left before the common room closed, but the stranger did not appear to watch him go. Despite the breeze, it was a fine night, and Aragorn had decided to sleep outside, not far from the town. He covered his tracks, and laid a false trail, but nobody followed him, and there were no ambushes in the night.
When morning came, he laughed a little at himself. Not everything is about you, Estel, he imagined Elladan saying, clapping him on the back.
He returned to Bree to collect his horse. As he did so, he saw the stranger again. His face was clearer in the grey light of morning. He did not look quite like the locals, but not so different as to arouse attention. It was possible that he had something of the look of the bandit Aragorn had killed, but perhaps that was just Aragorn's imagination. In truth, he knew little about Men outside the north. He had read about Rohan and Gondor and Esgaroth, but had never met anyone from there, and could not tell them by sight.
The stranger was still watching. He was hiding it well, but Aragorn knew the signs; one outsider who clung to the shadows could recognise another, it seemed. Aragorn sat down on a mounting block outside the stable, and pretended to tend to his horse's tack. The stranger gave no sign of noticing him.
At length the stranger stiffened, his eyes narrowing. Aragorn counted quietly to ten, then glanced casually in the direction of the stranger's gaze. An old man had emerged from the inn, and had paused in the yard to look up at the bleak sky, as he wrapped his threadbare grey robes closer around his body. His face was worn with age, and he walked slowly, leaning on a staff.
Aragorn bent to his pretended task, busy with the leather straps. The old man walked past him; with his peripheral vision, Aragorn saw how dirty the hem of his robes was, and how well-worn were his boots. The old man saddled his own horse, dismissing the help of the ostler's boy, but tossing him a copper coin even so.
The stranger was watching the stable now, but far less openly than before. He was afraid that the old man would notice him, Aragorn realised, but until the old man had appeared, the stranger had felt no fear. It had not apparently crossed his mind that anyone else would be interested in him.
What was happening here? Instinct was to paint the old man as the innocent. The stranger was a robber who was lying in wait for his prey, and who doubtless planned to follow him and attack him when he was alone in the wilds. But Aragorn knew that things were not always as they seemed. An old man's robes could be a disguise for villainy. Sometimes people who watched from the shadows did so with the best of intentions. Nobody knew that better than a Ranger of the North.
The old man mounted his horse, climbing more easily into the saddle than his age would suggest. He did not glance at Aragorn as he rode past him, and neither did Aragorn glance at him, although he watched him even so. The old man left Bree, heading west. The stranger ducked out of sight as the old man left the stable, but reappeared as soon as the man was past him. He watched him go, then hurried away. Not long later, Aragorn saw a dark bird rise up from behind the bulk of the inn's main building, wheel round once, and head south.
Aragorn watched, and waited, and thought. He waited for the stranger to reappear, but he never did. Fallen leaves swirled in the yard. The air was cold, and the horizon in the west could not be seen.
Not everything was as it seemed, Aragorn knew, but there was something here that he liked not at all. Perhaps the old man was in danger, or perhaps the old man was an enemy masquerading as an innocent. Either way, if Aragorn's bloodline was to mean anything at all, he could not sit idly by and let events unfold. He would follow the old man, he decided, and then… and then he would see what he would see.
He had expected the old man to stick to the road, but his trail left the road as soon as Bree was out of sight, and headed slightly south, up into the hills. Aragorn began to follow it, then returned to the road, struck by a sudden suspicion. Barely half a mile later, a second trail came in fast from the north, paused for a moment, then headed into those same hills. Aragorn dismounted, and touched the trails with his fingers, judging the size of the hoof prints and the size of the horses. The first trail was the old man’s, Aragorn decided. The second was the stranger’s, who had left Bree by the east gate, then doubled back in a wide loop to join the westward road. Perhaps he had then seen the old man away in the distance, and had set off after him, following him cross-country.
Aragorn decided to follow the old man's trail. It was easy at first, for the old man had made no attempt to cover his tracks. There were places where he had let his horse ride through a patch of mud, when shifting just a yard to the side would have taken him through dry ground, and left no trail. Aragorn chose the dry ground with barely a thought, as he always did. Either the old man was an innocent who had never had to pass unseen, or he wants to be followed, Aragorn thought, or at least cares not if he is.
He proceeded more cautiously after that. The land rose, and the clouds came down to meet it, wrapping the world in mist. No birds sang. He focused on the trail. Wisps of thought rose up in his mind – thoughts of Halbarad's devotion, of the situation with Berenor, of the fate that he was bound to – but always they drifted away again. He saw a blade of grass bent just so. He saw a hoof print in mud. He saw movement away to the right, but it was just the wind stirring the mist. Then the mist grew thicker, thick enough to be called fog. Bending low over his horse's neck, he concentrated on the trail: mud, grass, a scuffed stone.
He caught no trace of the stranger's trail. Then, between one step and the next, he lost the old man's, too.
Aragorn dismounted. It was… He frowned, suddenly realising the truth. It had to be mid-afternoon by now, although there was no sun to tell him to time. He had followed the trail for hours, so intent on it that he had lost all awareness of anything else.
His hand went to his sword hilt, and he shivered with sudden cold. Strange mounds rose up all around him.
I am on the Barrow Downs, he realised. They were terrified of the Barrow Downs in Bree, and told tales of travellers lost forever. Elrond's tales were worse. And yet the old man had come here. Did he know? No, thought Aragorn, I have to…
Had to what? Warn him? Save him?
Something tugged at his cloak. Just the wind, he told himself. He drew his sword fully. The blade was dull in the fog, even more dull than it should have been, as if something was leeching all light from the world.
"Are you there?" he tried to shout, but the fog took his voice, and turned it into a frail and fragile thing, nothing against the vastness that was the world. He tried again. "Are you there?" he shouted.
He reached for the warm solidity of his horse, but his horse was gone, gone away completely, although he had not heard it leave. Something whispered in the grey fog. He saw a swirl of something, perhaps a grey robe, a thin pale hand, a lined old face.
A third time, then. He called out once more. "Are you there?"
And answer came. "I am here," was the reply, and he knew it was not the old man, and not the stranger, and nothing human, nothing alive. It was as intimate as a caress. It spoke though blood and bone. It was a long, clawed finger reaching into his head. It was a fist that closed around his heart, and left nothing but dust and ashes. It was as small as a pin prick. It was as large as the world.
"I am here."
Who are you? he tried to ask, but his tongue clove to his mouth, and all was dry. He tried to moisten his lips, but they felt as cold as old bones. Other words tried to shape themselves. And I come, he wanted to say. I come to you.
He gripped his sword. His arm was trembling, as if his sword was as heavy as the rock at the heart of a mountain. Then something impossibly cold gripped his shoulder, and his whole arm turned to ice. He thought he dropped his sword; he could not feel it leaving his frozen hand, but dimly he heard it fall into the grass.
"No," he tried to whisper, but he could make no sound. He was driven down, forced down by whatever it was that held him trapped, until he lay on his back on the grass, his sword useless beneath him. The last memory of light fled from the mist, turning it into night. Something immensely tall loomed above him, with two specks of cold light that could have been eyes, or could have been merciless, distant stars.
Memories rose with its touch. He saw men standing back to back, fighting overwhelming evil, and losing because they had no true lord. He saw men slaughtered by orcs, and thought that he knew their faces. Their eyes were open and staring, staring at him, full of reproach. A spear lanced through him. He saw a man like himself, but with a helm and a rich cloak, dragged into the ground, screaming. He saw the deaths of men with faces that he knew, but as soon as he tried to put names to them, he realised that he did not know them at all.
I do not know them, he thought, small and sorrowing in the darkness. He had no true friends. He had spent his childhood away from his own people. All unprepared, he had returned to them, but he was Chieftain only because his father had been, and not because of his worth.
"Yes, yes," urged the voice in the mist. "Not because of your worth."
He closed his eyes, and the memories only grew stronger. We died, they wailed. He saw them lost in cold tombs below the earth, fading away to dust, abandoned by their lord. We are your kin, they told him, and your place is with us. If you cannot save us, then you must follow us down into the darkness.
He nodded. His sword was cold against his back. His hand grasped, and closed on earth.
The same earth covered the Dúnedain, the men he could not save. We died because you did not come, and when you came, you were not worthy. It was Heredil and Ranor, bereft and forlorn. It was Halbarad…
No, not Halbarad. It was a struggle to shape even such a thought. Not Halbarad, because Halbarad lived. Not Heredil and Ranor, because there had never been anything he could do for them.
"No," he whispered. It was just a breath, just air forced past dry lips. He closed his hand into a fist, forcing earth between his fingers, driving his fingertips into his palms. "No." This time he managed sound. "Elbereth," he whispered, and he thought of light, and stars, and the music of Rivendell. He thought of flowers and bird song, and his mother and Elrond, and Arwen, and Arwen, and Arwen.
"You will not have me," he vowed. The thing holding his shoulder loosened its grip, and the darkness lessened. He tried again, raising his head from the ground. "You will not have me."
Something shrieked, and the sound was an agony that ripped through his skull and made him screw his eyes shut, but even so, he could see a sheeting whiteness through his eyelids. When he opened his eyes again, he was lying on his back on the grass, and a tall figure was looking down on him. He blinked, and saw it was the old man, grey against the paling sky.
"Well," the old man said, "I thought I had come here not a moment too soon. But it seems as if I underestimated you. Perhaps I should have just stood back and watched."
"You came." His tongue felt heavy, and his words clumsy. "Has it gone?"
"The Barrow Wight? Yes. And will not come back for a while, I think. Still, it would be well for us not to linger."
"Barrow Wight," Aragorn echoed. Of course. Of course that was what it was. He should have known. Elrond had warned him. "It... wanted me." He was speaking almost to himself. It helped him, he thought, the act of shaping words, of hearing normal sound. "I saw things. Memories, they seemed like, but there were not true, I think. Or they were true, but…" He frowned. "They were true a long time ago," he said slowly, realising it.
"Many men have been ensnared over the centuries," said the old man. "The Barrow Wights are evil spirits that have taken up residence in the burial mounds of these ancient kings, and live in their relics and their bones. But many men lie there now who did not lie there when the mounds were first sealed. The memories of all those who have been taken still live, it is said, in the touch of the ones that slew them."
Aragorn pushed himself to his feet, and found he could stand without difficulty, although his arm was still a little numb. The things he had seen and heard still tugged faintly at him mind, but the old man's steady voice was like a light, keeping him from heeding them too much.
"Mount your horse," the old man said. "We must ride from here as soon as we can. We will not be fully safe until we are down from the hills."
"My horse…" Aragorn echoed. "It ran…" But then he saw it through the mist, a dark shape and a nervous one. Still feeling half asleep, he stumbled towards it, and soothed it with soft words and a firm touch. It helped a little, but not much. He longed suddenly for sunlight, but the day had been misty from the start, and night, true night, was not too many hours away.
The old man was already mounted. Aragorn looked at his own hands on his horse’s dark flank. He was alive. He was free. He pressed his brow to the horse’s neck, and felt its warmth and the rhythm of its breathing. His own breathing was rapid, fluttering in his chest as if he was shivering at his very core. His hand tightened on the saddle bow. He thought of open meadows and whipping trees and a fierce fresh wind that brought with it the scent of flowers.
The old man was watching him, his eyebrows arched in mild question, although beneath them his eyes were keen. I should go with him, Aragorn thought. Until he thought it, he had not realised how strongly he had been tempted to mount his horse and gallop away alone. I cannot leave a frail old man alone in a place like this, Aragorn told himself. He knew it as a fiction, but it was enough to give him the strength to mount calmly, and to follow.
They rode in silence. The mist began to thin, but the old man waited until it was completely faded before calling a halt. "Now," he said, and his voice was different suddenly, as if layers of artifice had been peeled away to reveal the true steel that lay beneath it. "Who are you, and why were you following me?"
Aragorn knew enough not to reveal his true name. Instead of lying, he avoided the question altogether. "I saw you ahead of me and thought you might need help. It can be dangerous for an old man to travel alone in these hills."
"Not good enough," said the old man. "You were in Bree. It was not by chance that your path was the same was mine."
Nothing could be gained by lying. Aragorn kept his head high, and managed to meet the man's gaze, and not falter. "It was not. Someone was watching you in Bree, and sent a messenger bird as soon as you had left. I thought you might need protection."
"And who are you, you takes it upon himself to protect passing strangers?" The voice sounded amused, but Aragorn thought he heard a serious note beneath it, as if the old man had suddenly stumbled upon something that intrigued him.
"An arrogant young fool," Aragorn said, "who ended up needing rescuing himself."
"Ah, but you were fighting well yourself," the old man said, "and I have seldom seen a call so strong as the one you faced, not seen a call so strongly resisted. I wonder why that was."
Aragorn said nothing. He could still feel it, if he let himself. His shoulder was cold, and the echo of the call was still there in his bones. He would have to think about it soon, but not yet, not so soon and so near.
"Come," the old man said. "Enough of this fencing in the dark. We both have secrets, so let us trust one another. You were called because you are kin to some of those who lie in the chambers below the earth. The call reaches through blood and bone."
"How do you know all this?" Aragorn asked, but he had known part of the truth ever since the Barrow Downs. "You are no old man," he said. "You are not what you seem."
"And neither are you," the old man replied. "You are Númenorean; that much is plain. You hid it well in Bree, but not well enough. The strength of your mind equals the potency of your blood, or you would have been overcome ere I came to you. The same could be said of any of the Dúnedain, but I think you are more than that. I think you are one I have heard of oft in Rivendell, more since you left it than when you were there, for Elrond keeps his secrets well, even from one such as me."
"Mithrandir!" Aragorn gasped, and wondered suddenly how he could ever have thought it was anyone else. He had been ten years old when a fantastical party of twelve dwarves and one halfling had come to Imladris, in the company of Mithrandir. He had longed to be able to attend the feast that welcomed them, but had been kept away. At the time, he had thought he had been kept away because he was not trusted to behave in company, but he now realised that he was kept away from strangers in order to protect him from the outside world.
"In these lands, I am Gandalf," Mithrandir said, with a smile. "And you are Estel, though I will not say your true name in a place such as this. Who knows what tales are whispered by the Barrow Wights, and what ears hear them? Come, let us away."
The sun came out as they travelled, although it was weak, filtered through the thin mist that still clung to the lower half of the sky. Aragorn twisted in the saddle to look back at the Barrow Downs, and saw a tall shape rising up from the highest hill, perhaps a mighty standing stone, or perhaps something else.
"My forefathers were not buried there," he found himself saying. It took little effort to remember the visions he had seen. Forgetting them would be far harder, he knew.
"But their cousins were," Gandalf said, "and their nephews and their kin. The blood of Númenor is strong, and breeds true. You were called strongly because of who you are. Because of who you are, you had the strength to prevail."
Aragorn had not meant to say anything, but the sun was shining, and he was alive, and Gandalf owed no allegiance to him, and had no expectations. "Because of my blood," he said bitterly. "Is that all there is?"
"Is it?" Gandalf said, no answer at all, not even a question that made sense.
The birds were singing again; Aragorn noticed that with some quiet, distant part of his mind. "Estel, they called me," he said. "I am expected to carry the hope of an entire people. I was their Chieftain before I knew what that word meant. I could have grown up an idiot, or indolent, or cruel, and still they would look to me to lead. So I say again: is blood all there is?"
Gandalf was silent for a very long time. Aragorn looked at those mounds which held the bones of long-dead kings who had fought, and failed, and died. "Yes," Gandalf said.
Aragorn's head snapped round. He had expected… what? Platitudes? Comfort? Instead he was given… truth? No, he thought. Not truth. No.
"Yes," Gandalf said quietly, "but only if you make it so. The Barrow Wight called so strongly to you because of your blood. It was not blood that caused you to resist the call, and resist it well. Because of who you are, I said. It has more than one meaning."
Aragorn opened his mouth to say more, then closed his mouth again. They rode on in silence for a while, then spoke about inconsequential things: Gandalf's travels, the food in Rivendell, stories told by the halflings in the Shire. By the time the sun was setting, Aragorn could no longer see the Barrow Downs, dark against the fading gold.
Gandalf started a fire, and they sat beside it, and shared the food from their packs. When their meal was over, Gandalf pulled out a long pipe, and started to smoke. "Ah," he chuckled, when he saw Aragorn watching. "I can see you disapprove."
"The Breelanders smoke," Aragorn said, avoiding the need to answer.
Gandalf exhaled slowly, blowing out a perfect ring of aromatic smoke. "And you consider it a filthy habit." He grinned, looking more like a mischievous boy than the ageless power that he truly was. "This is Longbottom Leaf, and as any hobbit will tell you, it is a leaf fit for a king." He rummaged through his pack and pulled out a second pipe. "Try it. You might be pleasantly surprised."
Aragorn doubted it, but he took the pipe when it was offered. He inhaled cautiously, and managed to keep himself from coughing, but only just. It was far from pleasant, but he did not know Gandalf well enough to say so. "Who was watching you, do you think?" he asked instead.
Gandalf produced another ring of smoke. "I have… enemies," he said, at last. "There are times when I travel on secret roads and do not wish to be seen, but this is not one of them. I am travelling openly, visiting an old friend. They will find little to reward the effort of watching me, I think."
Which was no answer at all, of course, but Aragorn realised that he did not mind. He tried the pipe a second time. It was no better. "What happened to the man who was following you?" A cold breath of wind touched the back of his neck, and he tugged his cloak around his body. "I do not like to think of him lost on the Barrow Downs."
"He lost my trail," Gandalf said. "I expect he has returned to Bree, saddle sore and frustrated, leaving me free to ride on tomorrow, unmolested."
And leaving Aragorn free to return back to his people, back to this life that he was living. He let out a slow breath, and watched the shapes and shadows that danced in the flames. It served nothing to lie to himself. He had chosen to ride alone to Bree because even now, he was not fully comfortable with his own people. Perhaps, in part, he had chosen to follow Gandalf because it had offered him another day on the road, away from them.
But while it was necessary to be truthful with yourself, there was a limit to how much truth you could take. "Where are you going?" he asked Gandalf instead, as he drew in another lungful of aromatic smoke.
"The Shire," said Gandalf, with a smile, "where hobbits dwell. I have travelled in many lands, and have seen great towers and rivers and mountains, but the Shire remains very dear to me. Have you been to the Shire, Aragorn? You must come with me one day. It needs to be seen, I think. It is easy for those born to greatness to dismiss the worth of little people, and the value of the life they live. Everyone who claims to defend Middle Earth from evil should see the Shire, to see what it is that they are truly protecting."
"I would like that," Aragorn said. "I, too, would like to travel far."
He left it at that, but he could have said so much more. He was bound to his people, held to a place where people looked to him to make decisions and where men would die for him. He had been with the Dúnedain for five years now, and the time was very close now when Berenor would step down, and Aragorn would be chieftain in fact as well as in name. Halbarad already worshipped him, and was sweeping some of the other young men along with him. In some ways, such worship was worse than the contempt he had feared to see when he had first arrived.
"The Enemy is growing in strength," Gandalf said. "The day long expected is drawing close. The fate of Middle Earth will rest on a knife edge. In that time, the Heir of Isildur will need to be more than the lord of a hidden people in the north. Men will have to come together, to forget all thought of race and kin. They will need a leader, one who has knowledge of the ways of all Men, who knows more than just the hidden pathways of Eriador."
Aragorn watched the flames, as if the future could be seen amongst its flickering shapes. "You are telling me to leave." Perhaps it was a question, and perhaps not.
Gandalf shook his head.
Aragorn looked at him. "Did my father leave the north? Did his father, or his father, or his father before him?"
"I believe they did not." Gandalf's eyes gleamed in the firelight. A branch cracked in the flames, and smoke swirled in the breeze.
Aragorn shook his head slowly from side to side. Elrond had told him, of course. According to Elrond, Aragorn would either rise higher than any of his forefathers since the time of Elendil, or live to see the end come for his people. If he failed at the test, his people would fall.
"Are you telling me to leave?" This time it was a question, and fervently meant.
Gandalf puffed at his pipe, and shook his head. "I am merely saying that good might come from it. It is up to you to find it."
There were so many stories. There were tales of the white towers of Gondor, where the white tree bloomed in the courtyard of kings. There was Pelargir by the Anduin, and great Osgiliath straddling its shores. There were mountains and plains and the open sea. There were great deserts far away, where no man had travelled and come back alive. There were men who did not know him, and expected even less. There were elves who had never heard of him. There was information to be obtained, and reports to be brought back to those who knew what to do with them.
Is blood all these is? he has asked Gandalf, and Gandalf had said yes, yes, if Aragorn chose to make it that way. If war was to come in his lifetime, then he had to be ready for it. He had to know his quality. The Dúnedain had no choice but to follow him, because their entire way of life was based around loyalty to his blood line, and without it, they had nothing at all. Elrond had said that Aragorn would be tested, but it was no true test to assume the leadership of a people who had no choice but to follow him. He had to test himself in places that did not know his name or his lineage.
He had to understand those Men. Through them, perhaps, he would come to understand himself.
Aragorn closed his eyes. The flames were still dancing when he opened them, but this time he saw no distant pictures. He could have said so many other things, but, "The Dúnedain may not take it well," was all he said.
"They will if you tell it well," Gandalf said. "They have known from the start that your fate is different from that of your fathers. They will wait for you."
Aragorn put the pipe to his mouth, drew in another lungful, then let it out with a slow sigh. He felt very young all of a sudden: not the leader of armies in some distant war that might never come, but a young man just five years away from his mother's care. "Will they think I'm running away, Gandalf?"
"What matters is what you think," Gandalf replied.
"No," Aragorn protested. "They matter."
"Yes," said Gandalf. "Yes, they do. But what can any of us do, whether king or wizard, or hobbit or stable lad, but what feels right to us at the time?
But I don't know what feels right, Aragorn thought, but perhaps even that was untrue. Travelling south felt right for so many reasons. He was almost certain that those reasons were not selfish ones.
"Now, my lad," Gandalf said, with a sigh. "I'm an old man, and need my sleep. Shall we stop, do you think?"
Aragorn stretched himself out on his back, and covered himself with his cloak. The memory of the Barrow Downs was still there, but he realised that his heart felt lighter than it had felt for five years. Perhaps he would travel south, and perhaps he would not. Perhaps he would leave within weeks, or perhaps not for many years. But whatever happened, the future held possibilities. It held free choice. For the first time in his life, he would live without the burden of a name.
"But you are no old man," he said, with a chuckle. "I am not fooled by the act."
"And neither am I by yours, my friend," came the voice from the darkness, betraying nothing.
On to the next part