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.
The Reins of Power I: The World of Men
The Reins of Power II: The Life of a Man
The Reins of Power III: Strangers on the Road
IV: The Land of Shadow
Aragorn had spent many years travelling, but even when he lives as a nameless stranger, he cannot escape his destiny. Now he is about to embark on the most dangerous journey he has yet undertaken, a journey that could change his life forever, or even end it.
Note: This chapter is set many years after the previous ones, at the end of Aragorn's time in Gondor. Aragorn's "great errantries" are fascinating, but, sadly, do not belong in this story, since the focus of this story is Aragorn's relationship with the Dúnedain of the north, and his journey towards accepting his destiny there.
He was close to the end now. Thorongil was down on one knee, his hands half numb from the savage blows that had hammered against his sword. His eyes were dazzled by flame. When he blinked, he saw strange shapes dancing against the darkness: the after-image of his enemy silhouetted against the blazing fires.
People were shouting behind him, but they were engaged in their own battles and were too far away to aid him. His enemy was reeling too, Thorongil knew, and wounded in a dozen places. It had to be now. His chest heaving, his lungs burning from smoke and exhaustion, Thorongil rose to his feet, and intercepted his enemy's sword before it could come down for a killing blow. Even so, it drove him back to the ground, but he held. Their swords locked. Their eyes met.
It was over not long after that. "May you burn," gasped the Captain of the Haven, as he fell. He did not relinquish his two-handed grip on his sword, not even to clutch his gaping death wound. He still gripped it even as his head came to rest on the cobbles.
Panting and near spent, Thorongil stepped away, out of the reach of that sword. He kept his grip on his own weapon, but he spared one hand to scrape away the worst of the sweat and soot from his face. The hand came back smeared with blood. He had no idea whose blood it was. He had no idea if he was hurt, or if so, how badly.
"Burn," whispered the Captain of the Haven, in a language that he could not know that Thorongil understood. Then, switching languages, he said, as if the words were being ripped out of him against his will: "Who are you?"
Thorongil did not wish to answer with a lie. The Captain's eyes were open and gazing at him, but Thorongil was too far away to read their expression. He edged forward, but there was nothing in those eyes but the reflection of a blazing fleet, hiding anything that lay inside.
"My curse upon you," said the Captain's lips, as he died alone and unanswered.
The man's strong hand grew slack around his sword hilt, but Thorongil still kept his distance. "Just a captain of Gondor," he said quietly, his words taken by the roaring of the flames around him.
Someone shouted urgently behind him: a question, he thought. Thorongil turned, and raised his sword in acknowledgement. Weariness could come later. Reflection could come later. The Corsair Captain had fallen, but the battle was far from over.
He closed his eyes just for a moment, then opened them again. Turning a full circle, he saw the blazing warehouses, the burning ships, the dark shapes that struggled in vain to get the fires under control.
It was time to withdraw. Thorongil had come here not for conquest, but to destroy the ability of Umbar to make war from the sea. They had slipped in at night, a small force, far too small for a daylight war. Some of the weapons they had been forced to use were not entirely honourable ones: a knife to the throat of a watchman who was about to call out a warning; fires set in the dark, while men lay sleeping up above. By the time the men of the ships and the quayside had awakened, it was already too late for half of their fleet. Thorongil's men had fought as he had trained them, holding off the first waves of resistance, and now it was too late for much of remaining fleet, too. Some would survive, perhaps, but very few.
"Captain?" he heard, and he turned to see Hithon, the nearest he had in Minas Tirith, or anywhere, to a right-hand man.
"It is time," Thorongil said. After many years spent as a captain in many wars and many places, he knew how to make his voice carry over the din of battle. He shouted out the pre-arranged code-word, the one that told his men to work their way subtly, discreetly, back to the boats that had allowed them to bring fire and death to Umbar in the night.
They obeyed. They were hand-picked men; of course they obeyed him.
It is time, Aragorn thought. It is time for me to leave them.
But he would remain Thorongil for just a little while longer, until he had brought as many men as possible out of the flames. Joining his men, he fought alongside them, helping to secure their retreat. Once he saved a man from a death that had seemed unavoidable, pushing the man to the ground, and striking with a blow that Elrohir had taught him so long ago, when Thorongil had borne a different name. The man, Duinor, looked at him with gratitude, but Thorongil shook his head, for there was work to be done.
With a mighty roar, a warehouse collapsed. A dozen ships still had their masts, the rigging and furled sails blazing like garish monuments in the night. Thorongil's men had lingered too long, or almost too long. The flames of the quayside had roused the men from the city inland. Thorongil saw lights blazing, and heard trumpets sounding. Most of the newcomers would be used to desperately fight the fires and stop them from spreading still further. Enough would be sent to wreak vengeance on the Gondorians, and repay death with death. Thorongil's men would not be allowed to depart easily.
"Now," he said, meeting Hithon's eyes across the fray. Hithon returned the look for longer than was necessary, but then he nodded.
It was a perilous thing, the plan Thorongil had come up with for their safe withdrawal. The men of Gondor fought fiercely, but it must have seemed to the Corsairs that they had miscalculated, for they allowed themselves to be driven into a place where the flames had been reduced to embers, and the smoke swelled thickly, making it hard to see. There was nothing beyond there but darkness, and the Corsairs were on home terrain.
A Corsair came too close. Thorongil killed him, then turned the move into a roll, using the opportunity to grab a lungful of the clearer air at ground level. "Withdraw!" he shouted; enough of the Corsairs would understand the language, he knew. "Back to the beach!"
He was wearing no badge of rank, but his fight against the Captain of the Quays had been seen, and when he shouted, the enemy knew him. He raised his sword like a crest marking him, then leapt swiftly away before the arrows came, slamming into the charred beam behind him.
Eyes that were accustomed to fire were all but blind in a place of ash and embers. Hiding in the darkness, Hithon's men stirred up smoke. When it thinned again, the Corsairs saw the captain who had killed their own captain, his sword still held aloft. They followed him as he ran into the darkness. There, lit faintly by the blaze of their devastated fleet, they saw the dark shape of a Gondorian ship anchored out in the bay.
It fell out much as Thorongil had predicted. The Corsairs fell into the trap. They now thought they knew where the Gondorian ships were anchored, and where they had landed in their small boats. They thought they knew the terrain better than the invaders, not knowing that Thorongil had scouted it out alone, not once but several times. As Thorongil led his decoy force in a clumsy, circuitous route, a group of Corsairs ran by a straighter route to lie in ambush on the shingle beach. As Hithon led the bulk of the force unseen along the shoreline, a group of their enemies returned to the quay to gather any boats that survived, and take them to destroy the Gondorian fleet.
But too many Corsairs remained in pursuit. Even as he coursed their carefully chosen, deliberately foolish route, Thorongil and his men had to keep on fighting for their lives. It was dark away from the fires, and the sight of the flames blinded, rather than gave light. The Corsairs had the fire behind them. Thorongil stopped one blow; twisted, and avoided another. Another blow came in, but was stopped by one of Thorongil's men. The second time that happened, Thorongil realised that his men were guarding him, agreeing without words to form a living shield.
"No," he commanded. "No." He thought they would understand. They drew back just a little. A cluster of trees hid their view of the bay. When they had cleared it, Thorongil saw a flaming arrow arc from the quay, to fall just short of the shadowed Gondorian ship that was anchored in the bay. Thorongil spared it barely a glance. The nearest enemy gave a bitter laugh.
The man on Thorongil's right gave a faint gasp, and fell to his knees. Thorongil helped him up. His self-appointed guard covered them as he looked once, keenly, into the wounded man's eyes. "Eradan?" He spoke his name just once. The wounded man blinked once, slowly, his eyes screwing up in pain, then gave a brisk nod. By the time they carried on, two of the Corsairs lay dead on the ground.
The pursuers were slow to realise that Thorongil was not, in fact, heading to the shingle beach. The Corsairs who lay there in ambush were quicker, or else too consumed with hatred and grief to commit themselves to patient waiting. They found the hidden Gondorian boats, and burned them. The flames were visible through the trees, and Thorongil was still close enough to hear the Corsairs' screams of furious hatred.
Eradan's steps started to slow. The pursuers surged forward. Thorongil took down one, then two. They gained another dozen steps, then another. Thorongil fought one-handed, holding Eradan up with the other. And then Hithon was there, with two dozen men behind him in the darkness, which was at once according to plan, but at the same time completely against it. Thorongil looked at Hithon, but that was all he had time for, for there was work to be done.
They made an end of it, there on the wooden shoreline, less than a mile from the blazing fleet. Thorongil killed, and he killed again. Step by defiant step, they retreated back the way they needed to go, and fewer and fewer pursued them. Thorongil was torn away from Eradan, caught up in the desperate dance of the battle. "Captain?" he heard, quite a long time later; Hithon almost touching his shoulder, but not quite. "We need…"
"I know, Hithon," Thorongil said. "I know."
Eradan was still on his feet, but only just. Many of his men moved with the stiffness of bleeding wounds. Two lay unmoving on the ground. A dozen Corsairs lay dead, and the rest had fled, or at least had feigned a flight. Less than a mile from a roaring conflagration, all was silent.
Thorongil began to move back the way they had come, heading for the fallen bodies of his two men. "Captain…" Hithon began, and another man – Duinor, he thought – came right out with it, saying "my lord…" before he, too, stopped.
He knew there might be arrows. He crouched down beside the first man, and knew that he was dead. "Thannor." Thorongil spoke his name as he closed the dead man's eyes. The second one was badly wounded, but still alive. Thorongil lifted him carefully. He did not have to speak to convey his will. Hithon spoke the necessary commands, and two men came forward to raise Thannor and carry him home.
Home, he thought, as he walked away from the fires, and into the darkness.
It was almost morning before there was time to talk.
Thorongil came up to Hithon was he was cleaning his sword. By silent agreement, they walked together to the prow of the ship, where the wind blew cold and sharp. Even so, it was not enough to drive out the lingering smell of death and smoke.
They were silent for a while, as the sky slowly lightened in the east. "It was not supposed to be you," Thorongil said at last.
"It was not supposed to be me, Captain," Hithon agreed. Hithon's task had been to lead the vast majority of the force away in secret to their true landing place, while Thorongil led the small party of decoys. After a mile, he was to send two dozen men to intercept Thorongil's pursuers, if such aid was needed. Instead, he had led those men himself, and left the main force in the command of Aelon, who was next in command below him.
"Can you explain?" Thorongil said it mildly, like a question, but of course it was more than that.
Hithon did not apologise; they had worked together too long for that. "Aelon is a competent man, Captain, and the danger was already past for us. The way ahead was clear. I judged that I had fulfilled my commands and seen the men to safety. I judged that my skills were better used coming back for you."
A seagull cried out above them, and the ripples of the sea were pink with the coming dawn. "You judged," Thorongil said quietly.
He heard rather than saw Hithon turn to face him. After a long moment, Thorongil turned towards him. His hair lashed across his face, and he raised an instinctive hand to push it back. As he did so, he noticed that his hands were still stained with soot and blood.
"Yes, Captain," Hithon said, his gaze steady. "I judged."
Not so many months ago, the two of them had crouched side by side in ditch, both of them wounded, knowing themselves surrounded. Dead men had surrounded them, not all of them foes. "Captain," Hithon had said, but Thorongil had shaken his head and asked Hithon to call him by name. After all, Thorongil had no formal rank within the hierarchy of Gondor, and Hithon had been a captain in his own right before Thorongil had seen his worth and asked him to join his campaign. Hithon had served with him ever since, but no formal oath bound them, one above the other.
But never once had Hithon called him anything but "captain."
Thorongil let out a breath. "Yes," he said, with the faintest of smiles. "I see."
On all his missions, Thorongil took only hand-picked men, taking them from different companies, and even from the levies of Gondor's lords. Sometimes they followed him for one mission alone, then returned to their regular postings. All were chosen for their intelligence as well as their skill at arms. He wanted men who knew how to obey, when they had to, but most of all, he wanted men who could think for themselves and survive alone.
"But I wish you had not," he said quietly. It was not quite a rebuke, but almost so.
"You can't die, Captain," Hithon said in a sudden rush. "You took the most dangerous task upon yourself, and I couldn't… I couldn't let…"
Thorongil stopped him with a shake of his head. Hithon was exhausted, he knew, and Thorongil could see by the way he was standing that he bore wounds under his armour. Pain and exhaustion was loosening his tongue.
But Thorongil, too, was exhausted, and he, too, bore wounds. Although he said nothing, his thoughts must have been too clear on his face. "You think I'm delirious, Captain," Hithon said, "but I'm not. You're the best hope we've had in Gondor for a generation. Better a dozen men die than we lose you."
And Thorongil, who was not after all called Thorongil, had to turn his face away, and gaze north, towards the far-distant mountains of Gondor.
It is time, he thought. I know this. I do.
It was raining when they reached Pelargir.
Thorongil had managed to sleep for three hours, that last night at sea. Then he had lain awake in his cabin for an hour longer, staring at the thin lines of light that came through the planking, and thinking of far too many things. At length he had forced himself to sleep for a little while longer, for he knew that this was the last time for many a moon that he would lie on even such a bed as this.
His men were too well trained to cheer him when he emerged on the deck, but their eyes blazed warmly even so. They watched him as he looked up at the grey sky; as he wrapped his cloak closer around his body; even as he turned his face away from them all.
It was a singular triumph, everyone agreed. They had lost one ship to the enemy's fire arrows, but only an empty one, left as deliberate sacrifice. They had allowed a dozen boats to be burnt, but they had brought twice as many boats as they needed. Nine men had died. Eight of them had died in the confusion on the quay, and their bodies would never return home. Thannor lay below. Thorongil would not be the one to bring the news to his widow.
Nine dead. Nine dead because Thorongil had hand-picked them for this mission. Thannor had been one of those who had given himself to task of guarding Thorongil during the retreat. Had he died because he had valued Thorongil's life above his own?
No, thought Thorongil, because he knew enough now about what it meant to be a captain, and he knew, too, the exigencies of the times they lived in. Thannor had died because they were at war. Thannor had died to save the thousands more who would have died had the fleets of Umbar been allowed to grow unchecked.
"Raise the flags," he commanded, as the lead ship drew close to the port. The first flag to go up was the flag of Gondor, but without the crown that had once adorned it. The second was that of the stewards, and the third was the flag of victory. They were limp in the rain, the white tree dull and faded. Thorongil looked upwards, and for a moment, his vision faded, and he thought he saw the banner of Gondor flying alone, surmounted with a crown, sparkling like sunlight after rain. Then he blinked, and the vision faded, and all was dark and drear again.
Already the quaysides were filling with people. Few had seen Thorongil's fleet depart in the night, and even fewer had known their destination or purpose, but the flag of victory told its own tale. It was seen so seldom in these days.
Hithon was moving stiffly, his wounds bandaged below his armour. "I imagine it will be quite a reception, Captain." He made no reference to their conversation in the prow of the ship. "But when we return to Minas Tirith, that will be a celebration such as the city has never seen."
Thorongil nodded. The rain was fine, seeping through a tear in his cloak that he had not known was there.
"The Lord Steward will heap you with honours." Hithon grinned; he could never know that his words were knives.
"And you, I hope," Thorongil said. "You still have a captain's rank. You had a company of your own once. You should have one again, the very best."
"I do not wish for one," Hithon said warmly, his heart in his eyes.
It was time. This was right.
Aragorn walked to the helmsman and gave his orders, then asked the signaller to convey them to the other ships. True to his commands, the leading ship slowed, and the other ships edged past her, heading into port ahead of them.
"Captain?" There was a faint line between Hithon's brows. But if Hithon was frowning, the other men were grinning. They thought their Captain sought to enter Pelargir last of all, entering like a king with the other ships as his harbingers. In all his years in Gondor, Captain Thorongil had never courted honours, although honour had come to him, even so. Perhaps they considered that this victory, this greatest of all victories, had finally led their captain to seek the adulation of the people.
After so many years, Aragorn had thought that he knew well the hearts of men. When he saw how his men were grinning, he realised that he had not known them fully, after all.
The first ship docked, and then the second, and the third, but the last… The last still lingered.
It was time. It was time.
The rain grew heavier, and the twilight thickened. "Not yet," Aragorn said, but whether it was to Hithon or to himself, he no longer knew. He went down to his cabin, and came up with his pack: the things he had brought with him to Gondor so long ago, and a very few small things that he had acquired there.
Hithon was still frowning. The frown deepened when he saw the pack, and deepened even more when the wind stirred Aragorn's cloak and showed that he no longer wore armour. "I will not be returning to Minas Tirith," Aragorn said. He said it gently, which probably made it even worse.
"My lord…" said Hithon: a title the son of Arathorn had every right to; a title Captain Thorongil had no right to.
Aragorn shook his head. "It is time for me to leave. I told the Lord Ecthelion when I arrived that it would not be forever. I have fulfilled the purpose I was working towards. It is time to seek other paths."
Hithon was shaking his head from side to side; Hithon, who was a captain in his own right. "Why, my lord?"
"Not lord." Aragorn touched him just once on the shoulder, and felt that Hithon was trembling. "As to why…" He could not give him the full answer, but perhaps he could give him one true thread of it. "Hithon," he said, "listen to the crowds. Look at their faces. Remember what you said about the manner of our homecoming." He saw Hithon close his eyes. Hithon was a clever man, and he understood. "This is not the time for Gondor to be divided."
When Hithon opened his eyes, they were shining with unshed tears. "But…"
"No." Aragorn shook his head. "You know how it will be," he said, "if I return to Minas Tirith after this."
Aragorn held up a hand, and stopped Hithon short. Intent upon his path, Aragorn had been slow to realise the damage that Captain Thorongil had been doing in Gondor, but now that his eyes were open, it was unmistakable. Perhaps it would be no bad thing, Hithon was thinking. Perhaps you, not Denethor, should rule in Minas Tirith after Ecthelion is gone.
Speak no treason, Aragorn almost said, but he did not, because sometimes a thought remained just a thought, barely noticed until somebody else put words to it. "This is how it has to be, Hithon," he said quietly. "I will take a boat and sail across the Anduin." And that will be the end of it, he thought.
"And the Lord Steward?" Hithon said. "What shall we tell him?"
"Tell him…" They were cheering on the quayside now, welcoming the first of his men. "Tell him these words: 'Other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.' Just that."
"Ere you come again?" echoed Hithon, who had made no oaths to any lord less than the Steward himself.
"If that be my fate," Aragorn said.
The other men had noticed that something was wrong. They stood in a loose circle in the rain, and they looked as bleak as the twilight. Many of them could hear. No words were said.
"Lord Ecthelion will be angry," Hithon said. "He will say we should have stopped you."
"Please," said a voice; Aragorn did not know who it was. "How can we stop you?"
"He might be angry at first," Aragorn conceded, "but he will know that you could not stop me. He is not a petty man, and he values men of worth. You will not suffer because of this; I know this."
Hithon's hands were clenched at his side, his knuckles white, and shining with rain. Aragorn had never bound him with a true command. Hithon had been a captain before Thorongil had arrived in Gondor, and would have risen higher still, had he not made the choices he had made. His loyalty was evident, but he had sworn no formal oaths.
"I command it, Hithon," Aragorn said, and although his voice was mild, his eyes were steel. "Let me go unhindered. Do not seek to follow. Accept the rank you deserve." He did not say forget me, because he knew that some things could not be done. "Do my will in this," he commanded, addressing it not just to Hithon, but to all the others that clustered around, uncomprehending. "Let me go."
Hithon bowed his head, and pressed both clenched fists against his breast as he heaved in a shuddering breath. Then he raised his head again, and his eyes were dry. "Yes," he said, accepting the lifeline Aragorn had thrown him. "Yes, Captain. It shall be as you command."
Three of them accompanied him across the river, in the end. Hithon came, of course. Eradan, although wounded, begged to come. Duinor, a natural boatman and a strong rower, took the oars. Aelon, almost as trusted as Hithon, had already reached Pelargir on a different ship. Aragorn had watched him standing on the quayside, thronged around with triumphant crowds, but seeing none of them; seeing only the boat that was taking his captain across the river for a reason that he did not yet understand.
"Say farewell to Aelon for me," Aragorn said, but he could not stop at that. He named them all, each and every one of them who had come with him on this desperate venture.
He wanted to apologise. He knew no apology could make things better.
The small boat reached the shallows off the eastern shore. Since nobody else was moving, Aragorn jumped into the water, and made as if to drag the boat onto the narrow beach, then stopped. It was almost fully dark now, although lights blazed in Pelargir across the Anduin.
Leaving Rohan had been far from easy, but bearable. Leaving the lands to the far south had been a relief. Leaving the north at the start of it…? It had been easier than he had expected, for the Dúnedain, as Gandalf had predicted, had understood the need for it. It would be a far easier thing, Berenor had explained, to give orders in the name of a distant Chieftain who still lived, than to do so in the place of a Chieftain who might be dead all along.
Leaving Gondor was always going to be hardest of all, because Gondor was an ancient city of the kings, the only one that still remained. In the north, the Dúnedain preserved the memories of the past, but did so amongst ruins in the wild. In the south, many memories were forgotten, but the city remained, and there was still honour and glory there, more than he had looked to find.
Leaving Gondor was always going to be painful, then, but what Aragorn had not fully realised was that the full weight of pain would fall upon others.
He could not apologise. He could not. It would make things worse for them, he knew.
All he said was farewell. Then he turned his back to the river, and headed off alone into the shadows.
He asked them not to follow him, and then, just before the end, his heart misgave him, and he turned it into a command.
They obeyed. They were hand-picked men; of course they obeyed him.
Later, much later, he thought that perhaps he should have just asked. But that was in the night time, on the edges of Mordor. Doubts always thronged most thickly in the night time, and the Land of Shadow was a place where he had never walked.
It was a long walk, many days, into the Mountains of Shadow. He knew he should take it slowly. Despite their days at sea, he was still weary from the battle, and although the healers had tended him, he still bore wounds beneath his clothing. In the Land of Shadow, more than anywhere, there was need for stealth. Yet even so, on the first few days he walked from before dawn until well after nightfall.
Those were the days that took him through Southern Ithilien, where birds still sang, and flowers grew. He tried to take pleasure in the beauties of nature, as once he had done, but he could not see it. He tried to find the peace that he had always found in walking alone, but it was gone. He could not forget the devastated faces of those he had left behind.
At night time on the third day, he crossed the Poros, but not at the ford, where the old road ran. The Rangers of Ithilien still watched the crossings, and he had no desire to be seen by them. On the southern bank, where he walked on the fourth day, scouts from Harad kept watch, and parties of orcs often came down from the mountains. Three years before, Thorongil and a dozen men had won a swift victory here against a nest of the enemy's agents. He avoided the battle site. He avoided the watching eyes.
The land around him began to rise, and soon there were no flowers. The Poros ran through barren rock, but some of the trees were still alive: evergreens with sharp dark needles and narrow cones. He kept on the southern side of the river, hoping that the mountains would be less well guarded there, where few from Gondor ever trod. Sometimes he heard creatures passing in the night, but he kept himself hidden, and was never found.
Half way up the mountain, the path ahead was blocked. Hidden by darkness, he scrambled down the cleft of the valley, and recrossed the Poros, just above a waterfall. The climb on the other side was ever more sheer. He made another half mile, perhaps not even that, and slumped down in the rift between two jagged boulders.
His head fell back against the rock. He drank from his water bottle, and found the water still piercingly cold. The battle on the quay had left him with a slash across the ribs, and it hurt with the sharp ache of a healing wound.
He tried to sleep. He could not.
But perhaps, in a way, he did sleep, although he thought he did not. Not long before morning, his thoughts ran strange. He saw Hithon and Aelon and Eradan. He saw Thannor, dead beneath his touch. He saw Ecthelion, bereft on his seat beneath the throne, his eyes shining with unshed tears. He saw Halbarad, who had come closest of all the Dúnedain to weeping at Aragorn's departure, although he had not wept.
He saw Gandalf as he had been when they had met in the Westfold, nearly ten years before. "A time of choice is coming for all the free peoples of Middle Earth," Gandalf said. "They will need to choose whose counsel to take. They will need to choose whether to stand against the enemy, or retreat behind their walls. There are many ways to direct the affairs of the great ones, without them being aware that they are being directed. See if you can find a way to do that, in Rohan first, I think, but in Gondor most of all. A choice is coming to them, and I would that they choose wisely, for the future of Middle Earth could depend on it."
"I will try," Aragorn said now, beneath the boulders of the Mountains of Shadow; or maybe it was, "I tried."
Something passed above him, a shadow against the coming dawn. Aragorn curled deeper into the shadows.
He saw Gandalf again, from another time, when Aragorn had just come out of Harad. He had played a dark part there, and he had spent the best part of a year uttering lies, and pretending to despise everything he believed in. When he had learned everything he thought he could safely learn, he had dragged himself free, and returned to Gandalf to tell him what he could. Gandalf had not smiled. "My dear boy," he had said then, as he said again now, in Aragorn's memory. "I think you should return to Rivendell for a season. You deserve the rest. You need it."
"No." Aragorn shook his head; there on the mountain, he shook his head. "I need…"
Need to erase the memory with fresh deeds. Need to remind myself that there is goodness and fellowship in Men. Need to keep travelling, to keep striving, to keep fighting.
The shadow returned, passed over, and went again. The day, when it came, was grey with cloud, and a fine rain started to fall, as had fallen at Pelargir.
He waited until twilight before he started to climb again, moving slowly now, because it would be death to do otherwise. At dawn, he reached the top of a lesser mountain, little more than a saddle between two enormous peaks, and started to descend. After another day, he turned north, scouting out the foothills of the dark enclosing walls of Mordor.
Not even Gandalf knew that Aragorn intended to enter Mordor. Until Pelargir, Aragorn had not truly known it himself. He had known when he had left for Umbar that if victorious, he would never return to Minas Tirith, but he had not yet chosen the path that he would take. But Mordor was the last remaining place that he had not been. For years, he had helped ready the free peoples of Middle Earth for war against Mordor. One day, perhaps, it would be his fate to lead armies against Sauron. He could not do so if he knew nothing of the land and its strengths. He could not do so if he feared even to look upon its shadow.
North he went, then, marking the distant encampments, counting their numbers, as well as he could, by the number of fires he saw on the plain.
The third day was one of watery sunshine, faint behind a thin grey mist. Aragorn settled himself beneath an overhanging outcrop, and prepared to last out the day. The wound on his side was throbbing sharply. He took out his herbs and tended it as well as he could. It was not healing properly, but would heal in the end.
If I rest, he thought, because he could not rest.
He thought of the moment they had landed near Umbar, hundreds of men staking their lives on his plan. He remembered the moment when the Captain of the Havens had rallied his men, earlier than Aragorn had hoped, before all the fires were fully set. He remembered those first deaths, far away in the north. He remembered the last: Thannor, dead beneath his touch.
He remembered his first sight of the forces of Umbar, two years before, when he had gone alone to scout them out. He had been afraid then, knowing what would happen one day in the future, if he could not persuade Ecthelion to let him go to war. He remembered the fear he had lived with in Harad. He felt the terror of the Barrow Wight, calling him to dust.
His hand scrabbled in the barren ground, seeking purchase. His heart was pounding in his ears. He wanted to curl up small. He wanted to close his eyes. He wanted to leap from this place and run away. He wanted to burrow so deep beneath the ground that he would never be found. He reached instead for his sword, and managed to draw it, but his hand was slick with cold sweat and his arm was quaking, and he could barely hold it.
Elbereth! thought the tiny part of his mind that still retained rational thought. Arwen! Arwen, walking in beauty beneath the birches. It was a Nazgûl. It had to be a Nazgûl. A Nazgûl had found him.
His terror was cold claws at his throat. I cannot move. It cannot find me. His lips moved silently, whispering the name of Elbereth, of Arwen, of his father in Rivendell, and his mother and his brothers, who could comfort a boy who was lost in the dark.
No. He scraped a shaking hand across his face. He still spoke the name of Elbereth, still clung to the memory of Arwen, but he dragged to mind the memory of Ecthelion, of Thengel, of Berenor… of Gandalf, who trusted him to walk the path that he had chosen.
Nazgûl, he told himself, repeating it again and again, that name of evil alternating with the name of Elbereth and light. The fear was not natural. The fear was not real.
Not real? something screamed inside him, bowed down with fear. Not real? If the Nazgûl takes me… If Sauron finds me… Lost. All would be lost.
He still held his sword. He wrenched his gaze down to the blade, and gripped the hilt tighter. "Elbereth," his lips whispered soundlessly. "Arwen. Gandalf."
The rock shaded him, but when he moved his head to the side, turning it away in denial, he could see a small expanse of the slopes below him. The Nazgûl was there. Here, so far away from human habitation, it wore no robes. It was a faint shape, a shimmering, a patch of wrongness in the mist. It passed close to him, almost close enough to touch. A breath that was not the wind stirred a fold of Aragorn's cloak.
Aragorn pressed his head back against the rock, pushing hard enough to hurt. His knuckles were white on his sword. He bit his lip, and drew blood; it welled inside his mouth, for he did not dare let it flow free. He managed to keep his breathing in check; to keep it from rasping with the rhythm of his dread.
The Nazgûl passed by. Aragorn waited. He counted to a hundred, then a hundred more. He named all the stars whose names he knew, and brought to mind the pattern of those whose names he knew not. The sharp edge of the terror left him. The terror of the Nazgûl was worse when they were not shrouded in robes: he had read that somewhere. He stirred, as much as he dared, and looked out. The Nazgûl moved like the memory of smoke across the mountain. It was half a mile away, and moving fast.
Aragorn knew he should wait still longer, but he found himself leaving before he had finished numbering the stars. Scrambling out from his hiding place, he began to climb. He had to get away. He had to leave Mordor. The very dust of it clung to his hands like poison. He scraped them down his clothes. His clothes, too, were tainted with it.
He climbed, scrambled, scraped his hands to raw skin and blood, and kept on climbing. Night found him cresting the ridge of the mountains. Far away to the north-west lay Minas Tirith, but it was too far away to see.
He clambered downwards, seeking footholds in the dark. Several times he almost fell. The fourth time, he failed to catch himself, and slid down a dozen feet of loose scree, before he stopped himself against a rock. Stones slithered downwards when he tried to rise.
Stay, he thought. Stop. Wait.
He could not sleep. He did not think to try. Instead he thought of his dead, and all those people whose lives had changed because he had come to Minas Tirith. They had followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to. He remembered himself, so young and foolish, talking to Gandalf near the Barrow Downs. Then he had thought what a terrible thing it was that men would follow him to their deaths, just because of who his father had been. He had wanted to learn how to be worthy of that loyalty. He had wanted to learn how to lead not through his name, but because of what lay within him.
And I got that wish. He laughed bitterly to himself. He scraped his hand across his brow, and it came away damp. His men at Umbar had followed him not because he was their lord, not even because he was their commander in any formal hierarchy of Gondor's military, but because…
Thunder rumbled far away to the south. It started to rain, light at first, but growing heavier. The rain turned the dust on his hands to dark mud. He tried to rub it away, but it still remained.
He thought of Halbarad, of Hithon, of the men who had followed him in so many places, when he had gone by so many names.
He could not escape it. There was no escaping it. He had come south because…
"Because I was running away." He said it out loud, and there was no denying it after that. From the moment he had first joined the Dúnedain, he had felt the pressure of being the embodiment of all their hopes, when they were so much older than he was. But five years later, Berenor had been on the point of ceding command. Aragorn knew this. He had always known it. Aragorn had been on the cusp of becoming Chieftain in reality as well as just in name…
And he had left. "Run away," he whispered. Left.
For the first year, he had wandered mostly alone. Then he had gone to far places, a humble warrior of no great renown. He had sought to watch from the fringes, and to learn. But wherever he went, and whatever name he took, within months he had men turning to him, expecting him to lead. And whenever he led, people died.
He saw them all, as he shivered in the rain on the slopes of Mordor. He saw the dead men of Rohan, and the slaves he could not save in Harad. He saw the men who had died on the quays of Umbar. He saw the men in Harad whom he had betrayed: men who served an evil cause, but still could laugh and love, and had offered friendship to a stranger who lied in every word.
You bring death, they told him. That is your birthright. Death is the legacy of your blood.
He left in the hour of victory. That was what they sang in Rohan; that was what they might one day sing in Minas Tirith. But it was never victory. He left when the toll of death became too high. He left, and took another name, and started again in a place where he could be anonymous, with no lives resting in the palm his hand. And there it had started again. It always started again.
Better to turn your face towards Mordor, he thought, and walk into the very heart of Shadow itself.
He scarcely recognised the voice when he heard it, but it was his own. It was hoarse with exhaustion, but it was his own. He raised his head. He pressed his hands against his eyes, wiping away mud with pure rain. Then he exhaled; breathed in a lungful of air, and let it out again.
The Black Breath, he thought. He remembered the way his cloak had stirred at the Nazgûl's passing. He had not been struck by the Nazgûl, or even been the object of its regard, but it had passed close enough to wound him. The Black Breath was a pall of misery that shrouded a man's heart, making him lose even the last memory of light. This was just a glancing touch, but it had almost been too much.
Aragorn fumbled at his pack. He had found kingsfoil some months before, growing forgotten in a deserted cottage garden, and had harvested what he could. It was dry now, of course, but enough of its virtue remained. He crumbled it and rubbed it between rain-soaked palms. Then he breathed into his cupped hands, and inhaled.
It helped. The athelas gave clarity of another sort, too. His mind had been clouded ever since he entered Mordor, he realised. He had pushed himself too far. The wound on his side was worse than ever, adding a touch of fever that the athelas could not heal. He bathed it, bound it, and there on the edges of Mordor, he even managed to sleep for a few hours.
He resumed the following day, moving slowly, steadily, carefully. The dark imaginings of the Black Breath were… true in a way, he decided, but only partially so. Yes, men had died because they had followed his commands, but many more had been saved. Dark times were coming for Middle Earth, and in dark times, people died. In every war, there had to be a leader. Men died because of the decisions that leader made, but if he shied away from making those decisions, even more would die. It was the leader's responsibility to make sure that the deaths were as few as possible, and always in a good cause.
This was just how it was. Aragorn had been born to lead. His travels had taught him how to lead. In the north, he led because of who his father had been. In the south, he came with no name at all, but led because of whatever strength lay within him. Perhaps, one day, the two threads would come together, and he would be Isildur's Heir indeed.
But not today. Today he headed north and west, in the direction of Minas Tirith, although he would not return there, and perhaps he never would.
Why did men such as Hithon follow him? The first flower bloomed beside his path, and away to the west, he could see the Anduin sparkling in the sun. It was not because of sworn duty. It was not obligation. Perhaps it was love: he had come to realise that, just before the end. But he hoped that it was because they trusted him not to waste their lives. They were willing to die, yes, but they trusted him enough to believe that their deaths would not be in vain.
They trusted him to mourn them, but to carry on.
Good had come from his decision to enter Mordor. The Black Breath had brought him close to despair, but it had also brought out into the light the fears and doubts that still sometimes haunted him. It had taken those doubts and twisted them into grotesque parodies of the truth, and by doing so, it had allowed him to see them for what they were.
Every man had doubts, but he, Aragorn, still had hope. He would waver at times, but he would walk his course.
It was time to go home, he thought. Nearly thirty years ago, he had walked in the woods of Rivendell, flushed with the glory of his new-found lineage, and determined to prove himself worthy of his name. That early pride had not survived his meeting with Arwen, but the dream remained. He would prove himself worthy of her, not just because of his lineage, but because of himself. It had been a child's dream, in a way, but now, perhaps, he had at last shaken off the last of his childhood. He was who he was meant to be.
It was time to go home.
V: Epilogue: Homecoming
After many dangers, Aragorn is returning to the north. It is not an ending, but perhaps, perhaps, it will be the start of the life that is still to come.
There were wood anemones beside the path, and red campion amongst the trees. A blackbird was singing from a high place, and a wren darted into a hawthorn bush, thick with white blossom.
Aragorn dismounted at the crossroads, and crouched to touch the flowers, but gently, his fingertips barely brushing the petals.
These were the flowers of Eriador. He had never seen wood anemones in the south, and there was no red campion in Gondor. The smell of hawthorn made him twenty-one again, out with the Dúnedain during the first spring he had spent with them. It was strange how scent could bring back memories so.
Mounting again, he headed west. It was nearly twenty-five years since he had left Eriador. Many things had changed. The flowers still grew, but he could not expect the people to be unchanged.
It was the people he thought about most, as he neared the end of his journey. It was strange, that. During his six years with the Dúnedain, he had spent much of his time walking alone, away from them.
But many things had changed. He smiled up at the sunshine. Oh so many things had changed!
He had reached Lothlórien two months after leaving Mordor. Despite the realisations he had come to on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, the journey had been difficult, and he had been weary both in body and mind. He had not thought to enter those woods, but Galadriel herself had sent elves to bring him in. She knew much about his wanderings, more than he would have thought. She seemed to know that he had almost passed into the shadow, but had found his way out again.
"You have gone by many names," she said, "and played many parts, from the moment of your birth, until this very day. I am glad to be the first to see you as you truly are."
He did not know what to say, for she was beautiful and mighty, and she knew his mind. He bowed his head, and begged her leave to stay a single night, before travelling on to Rivendell.
"Nay," she said, smiling, "not for a single night. Stay as long as you will." And she called for clothes to be brought for him, and Aragorn saw that they were silver and white, as an elf-lord might wear. Afterwards, she came to him once more, and she smiled again, although there was a sadness in her eyes that he did not then understand. "You are free to wander where you will, for I cannot stop what is meant to be."
And so it was, beneath the trees of gold, that he saw Arwen once more, and Arwen saw him. In that moment, in that night, in that season, he thought he knew what it was to come home.
But no homecoming could last forever. His path was clear; he had realised that much on the slopes of Mordor. They parted, as they had to part. And the heir of Isildur could have no single home. Home was Rivendell, and home was wherever Arwen was. Home was with his people in the north, and it was Gondor, too. He belonged to all the free places of Middle Earth. He could find a refuge in many places, but he would always move on.
Rivendell, home of his childhood, had been a different sort of homecoming, and one tainted with sadness, because a shadow now lay between him and Elrond. Now Aragorn's own hopes were bound up with his duty. It made surprisingly little difference, really. He had already known what he had to do.
In the wilds of Eriador lay a homecoming of yet another kind. Until he had seen the flowers, Aragorn had not realised how much he had missed this place. He had spent six years with the Dúnedain. Until now, he had not realised how many memories those years had left him with.
Even the Prancing Pony was fiercely familiar, despite the passage of time. Relishing a long mouthful of beer, Aragorn settled back against the old familiar bench. Butterbur was no longer in charge, but his son ran affairs with the same cheerful attentiveness. Aragorn inhaled the sweet smell of smoke, and returned to the bar to buy a pipe and a pouch of pipeweed. Returning to the bench, he propped his feet up on a stool, and let himself get wreathed in aromatic smoke.
"Haven't seen you around here before," said the younger Butterbur, when the crowds thinned enough for him to indulge in his evident love of gossip.
"I used to drink here long ago." Aragorn used his Breelander accent. It was nearly twenty-five years since he had even heard it, but he settled into it as if he had never been away. "I've been on a long journey," he explained. "A very long journey."
Butterbur's eyes flickered towards Aragorn's travel-worn boots resting on the stool, then back to his face. "Are you one of them Rangers? You have something of the look of one, but not quite."
"That I am," Aragorn admitted. "Have any of them been here lately?"
Butterbur frowned. "Not as I can remember. The last one was… ooh, two months ago? A tall fellow, but not as tall as you. No point asking him his name, of course. He went striding off again, the way those Rangers do – begging your pardon, sir, since you're one of them."
Aragorn smiled, and bought more beer to show that no offence had been taken. He gathered what tidings he could, but Butterbur had little to tell him. Most of the battles that took place in Eriador did so out in the wilds, and the common folk knew nothing about them.
The following morning, he headed north. On the third morning, he reached a steep sided valley, where a narrow stream raced across grey stones. Two sharp rocks reached out across the water like a pair of pointing fingers. Aragorn scratched his mark in the taller of them, where the shorter rock would hide it from anyone who did not know to look. The next day, he did the same on an old standing stone, left by the earliest Men. At noon he marked a boulder by a ford. At nightfall, he left his sign on the fork of a tree, where two tracks parted.
He wondered who would come. He settled down for the night in an old, familiar resting place, and wondered if it would happen tomorrow.
Only one came in the end. Aragorn did not know him at first, but then the other man smiled, an anxious, tremulous smile, like that of a man who could not quite believe that the source of his joy was truly real.
"My lord," Halbarad said. His hand rose almost to his mouth, then fell back again. "My lord Aragorn. Is it really you?"
"It is, Halbarad," Aragorn said.
"I saw the marks." Halbarad gestured faintly in the direction he had come. "I could scarcely believe…" For a moment, he looked seventeen again, overcome with emotion. Then he passed his hands across his face, and became the experienced Dúnedain that he had long since become. "I hoped it was you. I could not believe it."
Aragorn gave a fleeting smile. "But it is true."
They were still at arm's length, with twenty-five years standing in the space between them.
"Why leave the signs, then?" Halbarad asked. "You know where our settlements are. Why not approach openly?"
Why not indeed? "I have no desire to sweep down upon you and throw everyone into consternation," Aragorn said. "You should be free to choose the manner of our meeting. I owe you that much."
Halbarad shook his head. "You owe us nothing, my lord." And still there was that gaping space between them.
"I do," said Aragorn.
A robin sang from the branches of a birch tree. Leaves stirred in the breeze. Behind him, in the shade, Aragorn's horse snorted and rattled its harness.
"Will you stay? Will you stay this time?" There was an echo of that lost seventeen year old in Halbarad's voice.
"For a while," Aragorn said. "I cannot stay for ever. War is coming. You know this, Halbarad. The war involves all the free peoples of the world. You know who I am. You know whose heir I am. I cannot fight it merely in the north."
"I… see," said Halbarad. For a moment it had looked as if he had been about to say something else.
"But for a while," Aragorn said with a smile. "A few years, perhaps. And after that, I will come back often."
"And when you are away?"
Halbarad knew nothing about the man he had become, Aragorn realised. The last time they had seen each other, Aragorn had been a young man of twenty-six, still struggling with the burdens of command. In the years that followed, Aragorn had learned the ways of leadership, but Halbarad did not know that. Yet, despite that, Halbarad seemed to take it for granted that Aragorn was the best person to lead them in the years to come.
"You are strong," Aragorn said. "All of you, you are strong. You survived so many years without me."
Perhaps it was the wrong thing to say. It was harder, somehow, to deal with someone he had known so long ago, when he had been unsure of himself, than it was to deal with someone new. "Yes, we survived," said Halbarad. There was almost bitterness in his tone.
Gandalf had brought scant news of the Dúnedain, but just enough for Aragorn to know that all was well, as much as it ever was with such a scattered, dispossessed people. Elrond had told him a little more. Before Aragorn had gone away, he had decreed who would lead in his name. Berenor would keep command for as long as he wished it, and Halbarath would take it after that. Nobody asked him to name a formal heir in case he never returned. If he died, then the line of Isildur had ended. If he died, in many ways the Dúnedain would cease to exist. They would continue to protect the lands of the north, but it would not be the same. They would need captains, but not a Chieftain chosen by blood.
To fulfil the hopes of his people, Aragorn had to live. But the only way he could truly fulfil their hopes – the only way he could achieve his own desire – was to go out and fight. And if he did not… If he did not, then he did not deserve the honours that went with his name. In Umbar, he had chosen to lead the most dangerous part of the mission, against Hithon's wishes. Hithon knew that a captain needed to stay alive. Captain Thorongil had known this, too, but he had also known that if he was to be worth following at all, a captain needed to know when to risk his own life when the cause was right.
"Your father leads them now," Aragorn said. "Gandalf told me."
"Yes." Halbarad nodded. "Ten years, now. Berenor hung up his sword, but still lives. It will give him great joy to see you again." He swallowed; moistened his lips. Aragorn was his weakness, Aragorn realised, with a sudden flash of insight. With anyone else, in any other situation, Halbarad would be as stern as granite, and as strong. "The sons of Elrond brought us news," he said, "but not much, and not often. We knew that you lived. We knew you were winning great renown in the south. We wondered…"
He said nothing more. Aragorn did not need to hear it. We wondered if you would ever come back.
"It was for a purpose," Aragorn said. "I had always planned on returning when the time was right."
"And now it is, my lord?" Halbarad asked.
"It is." Aragorn nodded. "I will become your Chieftain in fact, as well as in name."
"For a little while," Halbarad said. "My lord."
Aragorn did not plan what happened next. He closed the gap between them, and grasped Halbarad by the forearm. "Halbarad," he said. "Listen to yourself. You are a man grown: not just any man, but one of the Dúnedain. You have committed feats that most of the men of Gondor would only dream of. You are no longer a child."
"You saved my life." A spark of anger blazed in Halbarad's eyes. "You are the only lord I have ever known."
"I saved your life," Aragorn said, "and you were seventeen, and I was five years older, a grown man in your eyes. But now we are so much older. Does five years make such a difference? I saved your life, yes. I expect you have saved many lives yourself. You may well save mine one day."
"But you are my Chieftain." Halbarad's eyes were still blazing. He was pulling against Aragorn's grip. "You are my liege lord."
Aragorn was relentless. "And on your last day of childhood, I saved your life. You shaped your early manhood around the pattern of your gratitude." He could have said 'worship,' but did not; he spared Halbarad that.
"You are my Chieftain," Halbarad said again. "Even the men of Gondor gave you great renown."
"I did not wish for renown." He was almost shouting it, he realised.
"What did you wish for?" Halbarad hurled back him. "What did you leave us for, then?"
I wished to learn, Aragorn thought. I wished to learn the hearts of Men. I wished to become worthy of my birth. I wished to help prepare Middle Earth for a war.
All of these were true. Instead he said the one thing that had never been part of it. "What would I wish for? I would wish for a friend," he said, suddenly quiet.
His brothers had loved him as family, old ones to a child. Berenor had respected his name, out of loyalty to Arathorn, his brother at arms. Halbarad, long ago, had revered him, but with the heart of a child. Hithon had been fiercely loyal, but had never called him by name, only by his rank. The Dúnedain had been bound to follow him by duty. Hithon had chosen to follow him because of his perceived worth. Aragorn was who he was, and he would have to accept both kinds of loyalty if he was to become anything more, but that was not all there was.
"I am Chieftain of the Dúnedain," he said, "and war is coming. None of us can escape that. But can you see a way to be a friend to me? I do not doubt your loyalty, but…"
And then suddenly, amazingly Halbarad laughed. "…you want me to be a little less loyal? Oh, my lord." But perhaps the laughter was closer to tears, really.
Aragorn made himself smile, but it would not last. "I would never doubt your loyalty," he said again, "but sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I doubt my course. I have spent the last few years surrounded by men who would never accept that I do either. You are of the Dúnedain. I do not wish that from you – from any of you, and you least of all."
Halbarad almost spoke, but did not.
"I need someone I can talk to," Aragorn said. "Someone who knows who I am. Someone I can debate with. Someone who will question me. Someone who knows that my path will take me away. Someone strong enough not to need me to stay. A friend," Aragorn said firmly. "That is what I wish for, in you."
Halbarad was silent for a very long time. Sunlight dappled through the shivering birches, casting ever-changing shadows on his face.
"I think…" he said. "I hope… I do not know…" He smiled suddenly, turning his face into the unshadowed sun. "I will try."
And it was a start. On this day of homecoming, it was enough.
Note: There is quite a story behind this one. Officially, I only started writing Lord of the Rings fanfic last autumn, although I have loved the book for decades. However, this is not entirely true. A dozen years ago, the movies reignited my old obsession, and I found myself writing a series of four short stories about Aragorn's backstory. Although I had already spent several years writing fanfic in other fandoms, I never intended to post these stories, and I never read any other LotR fanfic.
A few months ago, I revisited those old stories, and realised that there was quite a lot in there that I liked. Over the next few months, in between working on other stories, I set about rewriting them. And it was very much a rewrite. In some stories, not a single word remained of the original version. A fifth story appeared. All the others doubled in size. For example, the original version of the fourth story started with Aragorn entering Mordor; all the Umbar stuff is new. Strangely, about the only part of the story that survived more or less unchanged was virtually every word that Gandalf says. Gandalf, it seems, remains unchanged, even when the world changes around him.
While working on my rewrite, I deliberately didn't read other authors' versions of this period in Aragorn's life, but it's a fascinating subject, so now I've finished this, I definitely plan to see what other people have made of it.
By the way, chapter 4 (the Umbar/Mordor one) takes place in the same universe as my outsider viewpoint Thorongil story, A Captain and a Cause. It initially included a reference to Aragorn's encounter with the viewpoint character of that story, which happened just before he left for Umbar, but I decided that it would only confuse. However, Eradan, who appears in passing in this story, when "Thorongil" saves his life, appears in a few scenes in A Captain and a Cause, where he reveals just what his captain meant to him.
Sorry for such rambling notes, and thank you very much for reading. I do hope you liked it!