MOON LETTERS : CREATIVE WRITING
The Betrothal - By Windfola
'I am mortal, and if you will cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce.'
And she stood then as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: 'I will cleave to you Dúnadan, and turn from the Twilight.'
The picture on the great east wall of the College Library had a way of catching the evening sunlight that caused it suddenly to look more lifelike than any other portrait the archivist had ever seen, or so he believed whenever he passed it on his way to lock the heavy oak doors that guarded the hall. Not usually given to such fancies, the phenomenon had struck him the first time he had seen it and he had caught himself looking into the sea-grey eyes with wonder. They bore a striking intensity and colour that was rare enough, but there was something more in their gaze that he could not identify and which stayed with him even now, twenty years later, so that he would have given anything to have known the portrait's subject. But not only had she been dead many years, he sometimes felt relief that he would never have to answer to that stare, for it spoke of a singular beauty and a fierce intellect that he knew to be far above him. So instead he was content to look and dream, and to study the literary legacy left by the last, and, some said, the favourite, daughter of King Elessar, the Renewer. He habitually bade her good evening when he thought no one was looking, before returning to his garret, and had been known to take volumes of her poetry with him, to pore over by candlelight late at night.
That he was a romantic at heart was an ailment that he confessed only to himself, and then only occasionally, for it was his custom to shroud any such failings in academic fervour. In his line of work this was, of course, not difficult. His mother, who had been blessed with more common sense than her son, could have told him that such occupations were often the first refuge of his fellow sufferers, and that the city archives and libraries were full of men and women, all trying to conceal similar incurable complaints.
Nevertheless, the archivist would ensure that he personally supervised any occasion when the picture had to be taken down, for example for cleaning, or when the citadel had to be evacuated at the time of the Fire. He preferred not to dwell on the fact that, when evacuating the building, it was Firiel's portrait that he had seized first, and not one of the priceless manuscripts or maps.
'No more than loyalty to Her Royal Highness's heritage,' he had quickly justified afterwards.
That particular evening the setting sun was especially fine, like the flare of dreams, he thought, as he passed the hall and did his customary homage to the princess. Her gaze that day was serene as ever, but seemed to hide a hint of amusement.
'Well may you mock, your majesty,' he muttered, 'but I doubt you would want the task I have to prepare for.' He gave her a slightly rueful smile and hurried to the south wing, where he needed to spend some time before going home that evening. For the next day would see the start of the ten yearly bookbinding, a task of the utmost gravity, and the first that he had personally supervised as chief archivist to the Crown.
It was to consist of overseeing the rebinding and repairing of a quantity of the City Annals, ordered in strict rotation due to the considerable costs involved, and undertaken by only the most skilled and experienced bookbinders, as befitted the most important public documents in Gondor.
The South Reading Room was his favourite part of New College, the illustrious institution founded from a bequest by the Great King and completed in Eldarion's reign, for it afforded fine views of the Pelennor and the plains beyond the Great River. Even though the carved oak shelves stood from floor to ceiling, it had a light airy feel with those views and furthermore it contained the texts which most commanded his academic attention; the Annals of the later Third Age and the gathered literature of that period. All thirty five fat volumes of the Annals from the year 2475 to 3019 sat majestically in their ornately tooled slipcases, some almost perfect still, principally those of the less eventful periods, of which there appeared to be few, or those less interesting to the historians, of which there were rather more. Others, by contrast, bore covers that would not bear the test of time for much longer, for they related the events leading up to, and including the Ring War, in which Mordor was at last defeated and the Kingship restored, with the accession of Elessar Envinyatar.
There was no need to choose which books required the most work, for all of the selected period were to receive new matching covers and cases of the finest hide available, in a design selected by committee from the chosen bidders, and finally sanctioned by Her Royal Highness in person. But the Archivist needed to note any volumes whose pages were especially loose, or even missing, and to authorise copies of texts that threatened to deteriorate beyond repair.
Gently he began to take from the shelves the most dilapidated tomes, checking for rotten stitching and noting down loose or torn pages in a ledger he had brought for the purpose. As he expected, it was the latest volumes that had received the most wear, in particular the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth.
The old man was about to close the last edition when he noticed a sheet of paper fall out of the fabric of the intricately tooled case. It appeared to be a letter of some antiquity, hand written on parchment in a fine, flowing script, in Quenya, which surprised him since it was rare to find examples of personal correspondence in that ancient tongue. He held it up, wishing as usual that his sight was not deteriorating, and studied it with care. It was undated and as he read the Elvish letters, his hand began to shake involuntarily, though not this time through the muscle weakness that was beginning to trouble him.
To Tarondor, City Archives
Forgive me if I write nothing plainer, but you will understand when you read the enclosed, regarding my father and mother, and their lives before the War of the Ring. I send these pages to the archive to be a record for those who may one day wish to know more about how the union between my parents came about, perhaps when all my mother's kin are long since departed from these lands. The record as it stands speaks of the rarity of that union and of the grief, as well as the joy, that was caused on both sides. I wish only to hand down before my own passing what I myself have learned, both from my parents and from one other source, the diary of Halbarad, which as you know is now scarcely legible. That I was permitted access to the diary was known only to my father, and that was on oath of confidence. I charge you with the same oath, that none are made privy to the enclosed who may be hurt by its contents, or who may use them to harm others.
The archivist had little difficulty in reading the script, aged as it was, and his first thought was that he was eavesdropping on a communication not meant for his eyes, until he reminded himself with a start that he after all was the city archivist, albeit not the same man to whom the letter was addressed. He took his eyeglass and studied the letter carefully for a second time. The handwriting was familiar and he had realised at once whose it was. It belonged to Firiel, the daughter of the Library's great benefactor and the subject of his beloved portrait. He had read her letters and manuscripts on many occasions and knew her to be the most learned and insightful of the children of Elessar. That knowledge made him both confident that the letter was genuine and nervous at the thought of what a member of Gondor's royal family might wish to remain confidential.
It occurred to him that the letter must have lain, presumably unnoticed, tacked inside the slipcase for at least fifty years. This was in itself not all that remarkable, but the whereabouts of the document with which it appeared to belong was another matter. Every record and every volume in the city archive was meticulously catalogued and ordered chronologically, and none knew its contents better than the chief archivist. That said, nobody, least of all himself, had expected to find this letter, now only come to light because the heavy ornate binding of these most valuable of records was in need of repair for the first time since its manufacture. Then he realised, heart thumping, that if one of his predecessors had intended the letter to remain hidden for, say, a few decades, and then accidentally come to the surface, what better ruse than to conceal it inside the binding itself, which, after the usual reverent thumbings of a few generations of academics, would come apart and reveal its secret voluntarily?
The archivist began to turn over the slipcase in his fingers, examining it carefully. There was no apparent incongruity. Then he instinctively picked up the preceding volume, which happened to cover the very period in question, from T. A. 2970 to 3000. The case was in slightly better condition than its companion, which covered the vital war-years up to the start of the Fourth Age. Gently he fingered the fine vellum and was surprised and not a little excited to discover that one side was thicker than the other. He took his pocket-knife and in his haste to test his hypothesis made a short slit along the edge of the case.
Twisting the blade just enough to open the layers of stiffened vellum, he almost cried out in triumph as he saw a number of paper leaves between the layers. An almost childlike delight swept through him as he slit the remainder of the binding and pulled out at least a dozen sheets of the finest paper, each headed with the royal insignia and covered on both sides in Elvish script, betraying Firiel's small, tidy hand. Some of the lines he recognised immediately, for they came from the Annals themselves, but between them were whole pages in a more informal narrative. Hands trembling he laid the papers on the table and began to read.
From The Annals of the Kings; IV. I. IX; T.A. 2980
There follows an account of the days after the King's betrothal to Arwen Undómiel. To the Annals entries around this period I have added, where appropriate, portions of my final draft of the biography of Halbarad, the King's Steward and kinsman. This I have compiled from many conversations with my father, and by closely following Halbarad's diary, which was found with his gear after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is now kept in the city archives. It is thus the only extant attestation of Halbarad's field journal, which has since deteriorated so as to be almost illegible.
It is said that Galadriel sent word to Rivendell of the choice of Aragorn and Arwen as soon as it was known, for she would not have news reach Elrond by chance or rumour, guessing as she did that it would go ill with him. While Arwen still remained at Caras Galadhon, Haldir took the message, for he was both a friend to Elrond, and a swift rider at need. He met with Glorfindel on the Gladden Fields and Glorfindel returned with him thence to Rivendell. Aragorn had left Lothlórien on the same day as Haldir, but he journeyed at leisure on foot over the Pass of Caradhras and so did not come to Rivendell for some twenty days.
When Haldir came before Elrond, those that looked on reported that he did not greet his guest as was customary, but summoned him immediately into his private chambers, for his foresight told him something of what had befallen. Long afterwards, Haldir related that Elrond heard the news in silence and then wept openly, the first time that he had ever done so. At length he said simply, 'Would the boy have me lose my daughter also?' and then bade Haldir leave him alone. Whereupon Haldir sought Elladan and Elrohir, who had but lately returned from Thranduil's house, and, giving them the news, he left forthwith, not even spending the night at Elrond's house before returning to the south.
It happened that as he was journeying north, Aragorn came at length to the country named Hollin, that was Eregion, west of the Misty Mountains, some fifteen days walk from Rivendell.
Rounding the edge of a belt of trees, he met with Halbarad, his cousin, who had come south to seek him out. For a long, searching moment they stood in silence, appraising one other with slow recognition. Then, moving forward, the Ranger spoke; his voice formal and a little guarded, but its tone betraying the strength of feeling in his words.
'Halbarad I am,' he said, 'and I have come out of the north, to seek my kinsman, the lord Aragorn, son of Arathorn. And can it truly be that I have found him?' He studied the face of the man before him. The eyes were the same, without question; he would know them anywhere, for once seen they were never forgotten. But the years had wrought a change in his features beyond the mere passage of time. He looked older certainly, though not as old as Halbarad had been expecting. And yet here was not the callow youth that had ridden out of Rivendell on the wings of rumour to seek the kinsfolk he had never known. This was a man full-grown in stature, high and stern of face, and keen of mind. The heir of Isildur, indeed.
Aragorn surveyed his cousin in turn; wonder replaced by a wide, slow smile that spread across his face, as he looked him up and down.
'Halbarad!' he exclaimed at last. 'Little did I think that I should see you so far south!' They embraced warmly. 'Fifteen years it is since we last rode together. I can scarcely believe it. But how did you know that I was returning now?'
'I was in Bree not two months ago,' replied Halbarad, 'when Gandalf found me at the Pony and told me that he had met you on the southern borders of Lothlórien, and that against all our fears, you were bound for the north and home. For once, I had no other business more pressing, and so pleased was I to hear this news that I went straight to Rivendell and waited there above four weeks. But you did not come and so I set out on foot to find you. A rash hope, perhaps, but Gandalf told me that you planned to take the road west of the Misty Mountains, and that was ever your favoured route, as I recall. Though I had thought to meet you without so long a walk,' he added with a laugh. 'But you have tarried long in Lórien!'
'Long indeed,' answered Aragorn softly, and his glance strayed again to the south. 'But loath am I still to leave the city of the Galadhrim. Yet I am glad to see you, for now we may walk together and my journey will be the lighter for it.'
'So reluctant to see your home again?' Halbarad stifled a note of real surprise. But he smiled broadly and continued, diffusing the gentle rebuke with playful irony. 'They say that the Lady of the Golden Wood has the power to enchant us mortal men. I deem she has wrought a subtle stroke upon you, my friend. She has dressed you as one of her own and even now she draws you back, I see. Could it be that our stalwart captain has fallen under her spell?'
'Nay, it was not Galadriel who kept me at Caras Galadhon!' said Aragorn. But he would not be drawn further, and merely countered mildly, 'Though I doubt not she would capture you, if I remember aught of your defences against the wayward dictates of your heart.'
Halbarad laughed, for, if truth be told, he could not refute that remark.
'Come,' he replied. 'Let us find a place to camp, and then I would hear your tale, or at least the sum of it, for Gandalf would say little on the subject of your travels.'
'But that story would be a year in the telling, and when did Gandalf ever stay in one place for more than a month? As for tonight, I know of nowhere better than this belt of trees where we stand.'
The two men returned up the slope the way Halbarad had come, until they reached a dry hollow amongst the trees, which afforded excellent shelter from the wind.
A good supply of dead wood was at hand and Halbarad quickly got a fire going, using the dry litter that carpeted the ground under the trees. It crackled noisily with the resinous sap of the firs. Then, to his delight, Aragorn produced fresh bread and cheese, and sweet scented apples.
'It is four days since I left the Galadhrim, but these loaves are still fresh. And when they are gone I have other provision that will see us home. And we are in deer country, unless Hollin has changed since I last walked this way.'
The Ranger glanced towards the high peak of Caradhras and the Redhorn Gate that led into Dimrill Dale, north of Lothlórien. 'I must confess that though I hoped to find you sooner, now that I am here I almost wish that I might have come to Lórien for myself. I count you more than fortunate to have seen that land. Is it as fair as they tell in Rivendell?'
'It is thrice as fair,' said Aragorn. 'The trees of Lothlórien are like no other trees, and the waters of the Silverlode shine like starlight. But I fear you would not be permitted to enter without me to vouchsafe your passage, and my path lies now to the north.'
'Then tell me of it as we eat,' said Halbarad, settling himself on a dry bank of earth.
'I should sooner hear of Rivendell,' replied Aragorn. 'What of Elrond and the brethren? And did Gandalf come there before you left?'
'Nay, he had business in the Shire. Elladan and Elrohir were abroad, with Thranduil in Mirkwood, but they may return ahead of us. Lord Elrond looks to your coming; indeed, he seemed to know something of it ere I spoke to him. It is not for me to know the mind of the master of Rivendell, but I found him to be troubled at heart. It was, in part, for that reason that I resolved to seek you myself.'
Aragorn looked sharply at Halbarad. 'Did he say aught to you of what ailed him?'
'He was courteous as ever, but his mood was strangely altered when we spoke of your journey north,' replied Halbarad. The sea-grey eyes bore into him, so deeply that he almost shuddered at their intensity and he wished fervently then that he had been less candid. It was not his part to guess the thoughts of Elrond, Half-elven. Doubt wavered on his face, and he ended lamely, 'I took it for the long-expected hope of your return.'
'My absence is a fleeting moment to Elrond,' murmured Aragorn, 'even though he has been as a father to me.' He fell silent, his face showing no outward sign of his thought, and Halbarad did not care to press him further; but there was an emptiness to those words that struck him with a sudden, cold note of warning.
They ate by the fire and then Halbarad reached into his pack and held out a small leathern bag to his cousin. 'I came not empty handed from Bree. This used to be your favourite, as I recall.'
Aragorn took it and casually sniffed the contents. 'Longbottom Leaf! You have a good memory. But I fear I have no means to smoke it.'
'Ah, I have thought even of that.' The Ranger reached again into his gear and produced two long-stemmed pipes. 'You have grown careless, Aragorn. I did not seriously believe you would have lost your own, even after so long a time in the south.'
'It was but the least of many treasures lost to me these past years,' replied Aragorn, smiling grimly, but not rising to the bait. Halbarad glanced at him, curiously. Their friendship had been founded on the laconic humour that they both shared, and this had seen them through much hardship, at times when there was little or nothing to laugh about. But, as Halbarad watched his cousin, he sensed a strange detachment. He seemed distracted by some thought or memory that haunted him, though fair or ill, the other could not tell; and his face was hard and stern, like that of one who has laboured long for no return. But at the same time there was an air about him that transcended the years of toil, and offered the promise of mirth, if it could once be unlocked.
He misreads me, thought Halbarad, trying to recall their last days together, long before. Wilfully or no, I cannot tell, but I feel a distance that I do not understand. It was never thus in all the years that we rode together in Eriador. It is close to what I felt when we first met, when I wondered if he would ever, or could ever, be as one with us, his own people. Or is it I who cannot see his mind? He spent these past years in Rohan and then in Gondor, but he is grown more like to the Elves again, even as he was when he first came among us. And I would be a fool to presume I know him still, but I wonder if, in truth, I could ever really say so.
'I am sorry, Halbarad.' Aragorn's words interrupted his thoughts, and it seemed plain that he had guessed their content. 'Much has happened these past months and I am not myself, it seems. Forgive me, but I cannot speak of it.'
Halbarad paused for a moment, trying to read the other's mood. It was not sorrow that he saw, nor pain, but a look that spoke of distance, as though his mind walked still in another place. He opened his mouth to say so, but felt suddenly awkward, and settled for affirmation instead of challenge. 'I will not trouble you with questions, Aragorn, for I know something of the years you have spent in other guise than you would have chosen for yourself. It is no easy matter to dissemble and conceal for so many years, and long habits die hard, they say.'
'If I can ever find the words I shall tell you all,' answered Aragorn abruptly. For a brief moment Halbarad thought he was going to go on, but he appeared to change his mind. Taking the pipe with a nod of thanks, he filled and lit it, cradling the bowl in his long fingers and staring absently across the dale.
They sat long into the night and kept the fire well tended, for it was cold and even low down as they were, their camp was not far from the mountain snows. Although they felt no need to set a watch, neither man slept long that night, for both had much on their minds. Aragorn lay flat on his back, motionless, with eyes wide open as he stared into the empty sky. Halbarad watched him for some time, and recalled the young stranger who had ridden into camp at Fornost nearly thirty years before, in the middle of a hailstorm. In that beleaguered outpost, far from Rivendell, he had been met with cold indifference and even suspicion, until he had been brought before Dirhael, who had seen in him his mother's likeness and knew him by the ring he bore. The ring. A kernel of doubt made Halbarad glance at his cousin's hands. The long fingers lay quiet on his chest without adornment of any kind. He has it hidden for safekeeping, thought the Ranger and put it from his mind as he drifted into fitful sleep.
The next day they made good progress in a line almost due north and unhindered by the terrain. However by evening the weather had changed and cold rain was falling. They camped under an overhanging ledge and built a fire as best they could. 'The wood is damp,' said Aragorn, 'but this is the driest that I could find.' With some effort, Halbarad got it to burn.
'You have not lost your touch, I see,' said Aragorn. 'I never knew a woodsman like you for kindling a wet fire.'
'In the Angle, you learn that at your mother's knee, or else not at all,' replied Halbarad as he warmed his chilled hands at the flames. He smiled at the memory of teaching that same skill to his liege lord, who had at first appeared untutored in some of the ways of the Dúnedain, even those that were not mere accoutrements, but essential tools of survival. Some of the more hardened and less learned Rangers had at first scorned Aragorn's looks and gear, and the Elven tones of his speech. Such words as cosseted had been heard amongst the men in camp. However, their young captain's swordsmanship, already deadly, had soon earned him much respect. Other tasks he had quickly learned and his swift assumption of the rank that was his birthright had proved the folly of their suspicions. Some there, too, still remembered Arathorn with reverence, and saw him again in his son. But the remnant of doubt was hardly surprising. Aragorn's past had lent him the singular air of one who seemed to many not entirely a man, nor yet was he an elf; and Halbarad, who counted his upbringing so inherent to his sense of self, had often wondered how it might feel to belong to both peoples and yet not wholly to either.
Before Aragorn had come to them, Halbarad, had earned himself a reputation as a man of relatively few words, much given to reflection for one so young, and little interested by the more earthy pursuits of his peers. For one thing, his own rank set him apart, for Dirhael's line it was that led the Dúnedain, when the Heirs of Isildur were elsewhere or could not take command through youth or sickness. Unerringly, since the last days of the kings and beyond, since their people had begun to dwindle and scatter, the line of the kings of Arnor had been vouchsafed by generations of men such as Halbarad and Dirhael, putting loyalty above any personal ambition. Through all their hardships, this duty had never been questioned. The men of the West had learned that lesson once too often, to their great cost. The line of the kings must not be broken.
And Halbarad grudged it not. He was the same age as Aragorn and had immediately taken to him, for he had quickly seen that they were two of a kind. No thought of rivalry or envy ever once entered his mind. For five years they had shared much, their labours for their people, their humour, and the pleasures of the table and of tales and song. Many perils they had also suffered together, in the wild and against the forces of the enemy, learning the skills of leadership and survival. About one thing only had Aragorn been reticent. He had never once in all that time spoken of any woman of the Dúnedain with more than respect or affection; and in this he differed from his cousin, who fell in love as often as the seasons changed, or more, though even now he had not been wed. And in this alone had Halbarad displeased Dirhael, but though he had pondered it often, he was always swayed by the dread of a day when, instead of his return, a loved one might hear of his untimely death, or worse, no return and no news. This fear he had long kept to himself, for it was common to all and it shamed him that he felt it so deeply. But when at last he had spoken of it in faltering words to Aragorn, there had at once been acceptance and no need for explanation.
But then, in the sixth year, the wizard had come amongst them, as he did at times, though always unlooked for. He had stayed for several weeks and had long talk with Aragorn, and with Dirhael. Then Aragorn had come to Halbarad and bade him a painful farewell, and that same day he had ridden south with Gandalf. That had been twenty four years ago, and since then they had met to exchange news on three occasions only, and for the last fifteen years there had be nothing except occasional messages. Dirhael was long since dead and Halbarad had taken up his grandfather's charge, once again in the absence of his lord.
So now they sat round the fire in that vast and inhospitable country. Halbarad sat hunched over, huddled in his cloak, for despite the season it was cold and windy. Aragorn leaned against the rock, smoking; calm, impassive and wrapped in thought.
Halbarad regarded him with growing curiosity. His own reticence was lifting, so that he felt already more at ease with his captain as he now pondered the opportunity to question him more fully.
'Tell me how you fared in Minas Tirith these last years,' he began.
'What would you know, cousin?' returned the other.
Halbarad groaned inwardly. This is not going to be easy, he thought. 'Since you ask, everything, of course!' he opened casually. 'All we heard from Gandalf was that you were well and in the service of the Steward, but that Gondor is beset from the east and south, and just barely holds her own.'
Aragorn relented. 'That has been so for many years, and will likely continue long. The Enemy has not strength enough to threaten the city, not yet at any rate, for Gondor is still very strong, but his forces harry us at all times and there is no respite. Ithilien has long been abandoned save by patrols, and the river is now our border. But they cannot cross to the Pelennor, at least not while the Rammas holds strong. We have taken back Osgiliath and hold it still, although for how long I do not know. And now the threat from Umbar has diminished, for the present.'
As he listened, two unnerving thoughts slid into Halbarad's consciousness and caught him off his guard. Ithilien. Osgiliath. The Pelennor Fields. The resonance of those names shook him. He knew them from a child, but they were as places from ancient tales, and now here was one who not only knew, but had fought for them. The other, deeper, and more conflicting notion left him caught between envy and a needle-like shaft of resentment. He speaks of 'our' and 'us', as though he were a man of Gondor! He caught Aragorn's gaze then and looked quickly away, but he knew of old that he could not deceive him.
They talked on, of Minas Tirith and the Great River and then of Edoras and King Thengel and the Riders of Rohan, until Halbarad's head was full of the sights and sounds of the south.
'I would that I might ride to Gondor and see the lands of Isildur and Anarion for myself,' he remarked. 'I count you fortunate to have been there, Aragorn.'
'Gondor is very fair, I cannot deny it, but I long for the north, for that is still my home, such as I have.' He turned a penetrating, but good-humoured gaze on the other's face. 'You need have no fears on that score, Halbarad.'
The Ranger permitted himself a wry smile. 'Nevertheless,' he went on, 'I would give much to live as you have done. Few can have travelled so far afield, and learned what you know of the world. And to see the White City of Anarion!'
A barely perceptible sigh escaped Aragorn's lips and he said, 'Be careful what you wish for, my friend, lest it should come true. Had I the choosing, I might not have taken that path.'
Halbarad said nothing, but found himself pondering Aragorn's words about Minas Tirith and the Stewards.
'You spoke of Ecthelion,' he ventured cautiously. 'Gandalf said you were close in counsel with him.'
'I served him as best I could. For his part he counted me his friend, I think. The Steward is a man both stout hearted and wise, but he grows frail with the years and with old hurts that do not heal. It will not be long, I fear, before his son, Denethor, succeeds him, but he is ripe for the office and will perform it well.'
Halbarad bit his lip, as he groped for the words to ask his next question. Finally he said simply, 'Do they then know aught of who you are?'
The answer came back quietly, but without hesitation. 'Nay. They do not! If they did, do you think I should be returning north as I do now? I should either be holding court in the White Tower, or else I should be dead. That would be the more likely, I deem, had I remained in Minas Tirith much longer.' No trace of rancour was in the man's voice, but his face was set hard.
So, it is this Denethor, then, who would stand in his way, thought Halbarad, but he forebore to say the words.
Then Aragorn looked straight at his kinsman and pain was etched in the grey eyes as he said slowly. 'Nay, Halbarad, I have made no claim. The Steward keeps Gondor in the name of the King. The Tower, the City, the land, her people; all wait as they have done these thousand years, but none now look for his return. They know little of the north and search no further than Rohan for alliance in these days. And, after all, why should they? You, yourself, must have known something of their reasoning these past years, for, in truth, can you look at me and say that you have never once shared it?'
There was a silence. Halbarad was startled, for he had not expected that anyone, least of all his captain, might question his loyalty.
'Forgive me,' continued Aragorn softly. 'I do not expect you to answer; indeed, I do not even have the right to ask.'
'No, my Lord, you have the right,' replied Halbarad at last. 'Yours is a road that none has trodden before, therefore none but you can know its price. It is not for me to question your choices this way and that. But in you the north has its king, and even though it be not in name, all look to you and honour the line of Elendil. But to Gondor that hope is no more than a wisp of cloud on the breeze, while all her lands are beset by foes that none here living save Elrond have known.' He paused and then added, 'For myself, I would follow you even to the paths of the dead, if you asked it of me.'
A rare smile lit Aragorn's face. 'Say rather that I would not have you follow me but ride at my side. Thank-you, cousin. May it not come to that! I should sooner walk unarmed into Gorgoroth than take that road. But I must wait until Minas Tirith has need of her king. I will not risk turning Gondor's attention away from the Enemy, for, were I to do so, she would be laid bare.' He got up then and stood with his back to Halbarad, so that his words were barely audible, and he seemed to be talking to himself. 'And if I could follow my desire, I would have none of it, whatever Gandalf might say.'
There was a long pause and then abruptly he sat down and changed the subject. 'Tell me about the north and our kindred.'
'Things are much as they have always been,' said Halbarad. 'But the Angle has been quiet of late, too quiet, some would say. The hunting has not been good the last few years and we have had hard winters, though none have yet gone hungry. Gandalf has been away in the south a good deal, but I need not tell you that. And my sister was wed four years ago to Anardil. They have had a daughter and, last year, a son.'
'Anardil?' The mention of the name brought a half-smile to Aragorn's lips. 'Well now, that I should not have guessed in a thousand years. I thought that Haleth would have none of it?'
'She is much changed, but she has lost none of her mettle. And Anardil has grown into a mighty man.'
'That is an even greater surprise. He was the sickliest child I ever met. But I am glad for them both. Did you see my mother when you were at Rivendell?'
Halbarad's face grew grave again. 'Yes I did, briefly. I fear that Dirhael's death still grieves Gilraen greatly, though she does not speak of it. But she looks ever for your coming, Aragorn.'
'I shall see her soon. Indeed I have much to tell her. But her father died six years since.'
'Were she not alone she would bear it well. She is dearly loved in Rivendell. But she misses her own people, and except for the hope of seeing you, I deem she would have returned to her family long ago.'
There was a silence. 'That is hard,' said Aragorn. 'I would not have my mother remain for my sake, for what is a handful of meetings in a dozen years compared to her happiness? I shall speak with her about it.' Then he looked closely at Halbarad and said, 'And you? What of your happiness, my friend?'
'Mine? It is not for my lord's steward to attend to his own pleasure.'
Aragorn laughed, and the sound rang out like the ringing of a bell. 'You know of what I speak. Is there yet no one who awaits your return?'
'There is one, I confess. Though I know not whether she 'awaits my return' as you put it, for I have said nothing to her yet.'
'But you will.'
'Perhaps. And now it is my turn to ask. What of you, cousin? Is there a fair lady of Minas Tirith who grieves at your parting?'
'None that I should miss greatly. My heart lies elsewhere, for it is in the keeping of the North.'
'Aragorn?' said Halbarad sternly. 'Always you talk in riddles. Will you not now speak plain, or must I guess?'
'I do not know how I should begin.' He hesitated for a moment. 'Very well, I will tell you, but you must speak of it to no one. You were right. I was delayed in Lórien for a season and by one whom I scarcely hoped to meet there. I have loved her long, but until now I did not know her mind beyond the fevered dreams of my years in the south. She is known to you. For she is Arwen Undómiel, the daughter of Elrond.'
'You are loved by Arwen Evenstar?' gasped Halbarad. 'Then you are the most fortunate man alive! That is a prize beyond the wealth of the world. But how came this pass?'
Aragorn smiled. 'On the eve of Midsummer we walked amid the mallorns on the hill of Cerin Amroth. She was arrayed in simple white and in her raven hair she wore pale niphrodel. The moonlight caught her face so that it shone like the fairest flower of Valinor. She has long known my desire and there was need of few words between us. Indeed, I would almost believe that I had dreamed it, Halbarad, were it not for the token of our love that she accepted from me.' Then the trace of a shadow crossed his face. 'Bittersweet is our hope, for I should sooner have her pass over the sea without me, than part her from her people. But she has pledged to cleave to me and renounce her line.'
At last Halbarad understood the change that he had seen in Aragorn since their last meeting. He glanced at Aragorn's bare hands and guessed then, too, who was the new keeper of the ring of Barahir.
'I wish you great joy, son of Arathorn.' he said. 'Your news explains much that I have thought strange about you these last two days.' Then he added cautiously, 'Does her father know aught of her choice?'
'Elrond has long known my heart, and in truth Arwen's too, I think, though she has not spoken of it openly. And news travels swiftest to close kin, does it not? But he will not bear it well, I fear.'
They built up the fire and made themselves as comfortable as they could. For a time there was silence, but just as he was growing sleepy, Halbarad heard his cousin murmuring in a low voice.
The light upon the leaves of trees,
the voice of water, more than these
her beauty was and blissfulness,
her glory and her loveliness1.
So, thought Halbarad, Arwen Undómiel has made the choice of Lúthien. It seems hardly possible. She is like a legend come walking out of the past. But then why not? When Aragorn comes into his own then he too shall be remembered in tales. The lines stirred another couplet in his own head; 'And Fate them forged a binding chain of living love and mortal pain.'2 He caught his breath. No, let it not be pain.
The archivist paused and looked about him. The natural light was fading fast and the candle was burning low. He took the papers and rolled them gently into one of the spare cloth covers that were kept in every room, and concealed them in his clothing before slipping away. He could not help gazing at Firiel's picture before he left. She has her father's skill with tales, he thought as he returned the half smile that was another family trait. But Halbarad, now that was a surprise. He recalled what little was known about the king's cousin. A dour man of scant conversation, whose actions spoke louder than his words, and whose loyalty was unquestionable. Little was recorded of his life before the war. And where, he wondered was the rest of Firiel's biography? Had she died before she finished it? Or had she withdrawn the rest for some other reason? The archivist drew breath and hastened back to the small rented rooms on the fifth level that he called home. When he got there he hurried upstairs to find that he had no more candles or oil for the lamp, for such domestic necessities were rarely uppermost in his mind and in his excitement he had forgotten to buy them that day. He swore under his breath as he realised that he had no chance of reading more that evening, and the morrow would be much too busy to risk another attempt amidst the bustle of the bookbinding. He would have to buy oil at the first opportunity and wait to read more until he returned home.
Under the bed was a large wooden coffer where he kept such treasures as he possessed; a volume of poetry, an embroidered neckerchief that had been given to him long ago and his father's hunting knife, which he had never used, but admired as a thing of mystery, quite beyond his skill to wield. He laid the sheaf of rolled pages in the coffer and paused for a moment to run his fingers over the neckerchief. A faded memory of bluebell woods and a running brook caused him to smile. Then he closed the lid and went to bed.
The next morning he had slept worse than usual and was irritable and sharp with everyone he met. In a meeting at the college, he fumbled his way through the agreed lists of artisans and felt embarrassed before the dean at his unaccustomed ineptitude, but if truth be told his mind was not on the task in hand. He longed to tell someone what he had found, his assistant, or preferably the professor. He felt sure that she could be relied upon to be discrete for the time being. But something kept holding him back, both the desire to keep the knowledge to himself for a while, and a strangely protective feeling towards Firiel, and to the King her father, at least until he knew the contents of the pages. Somehow he got through the rest of the day and raced home early, stopping only to buy a meagre quart of oil on the way. As he entered the house and climbed the steep stairs he was already thinking about Rivendell and trying to picture the leafy valley with the fine Elvish halls built into the clefts amongst the falls.
It is told that when Aragorn came to Rivendell he went not straightaway to Elrond's chambers, but first sought his mother to tell her the news of his betrothal, and that she wept, for she was glad that at last their troth was plighted. She hoped that they might marry with due speed and seal the bond. But Aragorn said, 'We may not yet be united, for there is much still to do and we must consult with Elrond before anything more is decided.'
On the day of their arrival, Halbarad was invited to the Hall of Fire, the first time that he had spent an evening in that most evocative and beautiful room in Rivendell. He was never to forget it. The music was the thing he would remember the most, for it both saddened him and, at the same time, filled him with a deep joy and sense of peace, so that as long as it continued it was the only music in the world, and nothing else mattered except that Halbarad was there in that room, listening to it. Around him, in the dim light from the fire, he could make out elves playing on flutes and harps, and singing, but what he heard seemed not to come from them but from the earth itself, so rich and so pure did it sound. It filled his whole body with the deepest calm, the strongest thrill, the essence of every tree and stone of the mountain vale. Afterwards he would struggle to remember the notes and rhythms, but always he kept the core of it close to his heart so that it would return unbidden to embrace him in the lonely places, where the other joys of his life were forgotten.
And he glimpsed Aragorn across the room, but this was not the Aragorn of the windswept hills and the wilderness, nor yet his comrade in arms. He was clad in grey as one of the elves and his dark hair was arrayed about his shoulders and, as Halbarad watched, he thought he discerned the light of a star on his brow. This, he realised, was Aragorn at home, as the elves knew him, one of the children of Lúthien, speaking and singing in Elvish as if it were his mother tongue, a lord of both his peoples, and suddenly Halbarad felt humbled and could scarcely look upon him.
Soon the music gave way to verse and tales, some that Halbarad knew and many more that he did not. He found that he was drifting on a stream of words that had their own music, for they sang to him of the wisdom and follies of ages past and of love and valour without end. And, as weariness took him and he wandered in and out of sleep, the words entered his dreams and he was filled with their resonance.
When at last it ended, he stirred himself with an effort, and there was Aragorn, alone again now, and he came over to Halbarad. They left the hall together, passing out into the court of the fountain to watch the full moon as she rose and cast her reflection in the water. The light fractured into a thousand shards under the shimmering curtain of the fountain.
There was little need for the friends to speak, for Halbarad knew now in his heart what his head had already told him before that evening. Aragorn stood by the pool searching its depths for a moment and then he turned to his cousin.
'You see now what I must do, if all this is not to be lost?' he said softly. He spoke as though half addressing himself in some internal debate. Halbarad nodded. Now at last he knew Aragorn, man and elf. Always the heirs of Elendil had been forced to choose between duty and desire, between love and destiny. He grasped his cousin's hand in the gesture of friendship they had always shared. He would do whatever was needed to secure Aragorn's future, and at whatever cost to himself.
The next morning Elrond summoned Aragorn to him and said, 'My son, years come when hope will fade and beyond them little is clear to me. And now a shadow lies between us. Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the Kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow and parting - but to you hope of joy for a while. Alas my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending.'3
As he spoke there was deep sadness in his gaze and Aragorn was greatly moved and fell to his knees before Elrond.
'My father,' he answered and his eyes shone with tears, 'I know what this choice has cost you and, love her as I do, I would release Arwen from her vow and have her take the ship to Valinor and be with her people, rather than see her meet her end untimely. But this choice she has made of her own will and now that she has chosen she will not be dissuaded, however hard the end may be. And the task that you have laid before me has already long been in my heart, though the road to its fulfilment is still hidden from me.'
So it stood afterwards between Elrond and Aragorn, and they spoke no more of this matter, but Aragorn went forth again to danger and toil.3 When he departed he rode with Halbarad and they spent many months as they had of old, riding the breadth of Eriador together while Aragorn revisited his kin and the lands which he was born to protect. And Aragorn spoke to Halbarad of the words of Elrond and bade him keep silent on the matters of the Kingship and the betrothal.
'For this you have long known, Halbarad,' he said, 'that no word must ever come to Mordor of my lineage or of the task before me, lest the Enemy put forward all his strength to find and destroy me and all my kindred. And I would ask another favour of you. Arwen returns soon to Rivendell, for even Lothlórien is not now safe from the shadow, and Elrond shall have need of her in the dark days to come, for in his heart he longs for Celebrian and the West. I would have you speak with Arwen and my mother and watch them for me when I cannot, and bring to me whatever messages they may have. I know that you understand me Halbarad, and I need not speak more clearly. Will you do this for me?'
And Halbarad agreed, and so thereafter he was Aragorn's ally at Rivendell, taking messages to and from there when Aragorn could not come himself. He became the confidant of Arwen and a comfort to her in the dark times when her father railed at her choice. Times came when, though Elrond could speak of his pain to no one, his suffering was plain to all, and in these days especially Arwen drew close to Halbarad. Thus between them there was kindled a friendship, so that in the long waiting to come Halbarad learnt all the counsels between Aragorn and Arwen and was party to the secret working of the Standard, the cloth of sable that was to bear the devices of the house of Elendil. That Aragorn trusted Halbarad implicitly was evident from the depth of his involvement in the King's affairs.
So it was that when Arwen arrived in due course at the house of her father, Elrond had already known her desire for many days. It is recorded that contact between them was strained and that they did not speak of the choice until she had been at Rivendell for several months, and Halbarad also had returned thither.
The tall, slender figure of the elf started as Halbarad entered the Hall, still dressed in his mud-stained travelling gear, and then she turned and he saw her features close by for the first time.4 Her striking beauty astounded him - the long dark hair flowed like a river down her back and her face, pale despite the bright glow of the fire in the hearth, was both strong and finely drawn. She seemed most like to her father, especially in the depths of her eyes, and so he knew her at once.
For a moment she stared at him, searching his gaze, and then turned and made as if to leave the room. Halbarad hesitated and then spoke.
'Forgive me, Lady Arwen,' he said. 'I have come but lately from the wild and have not had time to change.'
'It is I who should beg forgiveness, sir, for my ill manners,' she replied. 'When first I saw you I thought you were someone else, but in my disappointment I appeared rude.' Her voice caressed his ears like silk, so that he longed to hear it again.
'I am Halbarad, son of Haldan,' he continued, 'kinsman and steward to lord Aragorn, my lady. I was lately in his company and he bade me send you his greetings.'
Arwen smiled then and Halbarad felt at once as though the Hall was bathed in a golden light, like the fairest sunset.
'Your name is well known to me, son of Haldan.' She paused. 'And now I look upon your face I can see that you are indeed close kin to Aragorn. Tell me, where was he when you parted?'
'He was at Amon Sûl and about to ride south,' said Halbarad.' He asked me to tell you to look for his coming with the new moon.'
'Less than a month before he comes again? So soon and yet never soon enough. What more can I do? He has already the swiftest horse in Rivendell, at my own bidding. But he comes and goes at his own behest.'
'If I may be permitted, my lady,' said Halbarad, 'I should say that he goes not of his own choosing, but because he must. For I know that if he were to follow his heart's desire, then he would be here in this hall.'
'He has indeed sent a chivalrous messenger. Will you stay to await his coming, or must you also fly away on the wind?' The smile was discernible in her voice now and not only on her lips.
'Now that my lord has returned from the South,' replied Halbarad, 'I may take some rest for a little while, until he has need of me again.'
About her neck, he glimpsed a narrow silver chain that bore the ring he knew so well; twin serpents entwined about a crown of golden flowers. Arwen caught his gaze and turned the ring in her fingers.
'Yes it is the same,' she said. 'I see in your eyes that Aragorn has told you of our bond.'
Halbarad nodded. 'He has, my lady, and I wish you joy of it. Rarely can there have been such a match.'
'And yet it may be long,' said Arwen, 'ere its fulfilment, even by the reckoning of the Men of Westernesse. But I am already accustomed to awaiting my heart's desire, and the years are but a passing season to me.'
'My lord Aragorn is a patient man and will wait as long as he must, I am certain.' Halbarad hesitated a moment and then asked, 'Lady Arwen, may I kiss your hand?' Immediately he felt abashed and wished he might withdraw such a rash request, but Arwen smiled again and raising her left hand, offered it to him.
'I must ask your forgiveness a second time,' he said shyly as he took it and kissed the ivory skin. 'I forget myself.'
As he turned to leave she said, 'Sir, there is naught to forgive. The days grow short for such proprieties.'
Halbarad took his leave then and withdrew to his chamber, but it was some time before he dared to seek Arwen's company again.
The Archivist reeled. So this was the mother of Firiel! That she was a beauty he already knew; the whole world talked of Arwen Undomiel, once it was known that not only had the King returned, he was to take an Elven Queen. In his student years the Archivist had taken political history, and had cynically drawn the conclusion that the marriage had been, in truth a political match, sealed to cement the Kingship and give credence to Elessar's claim. The Queen had been a private individual and great care had been taken to ensure that her life remained her own insofar as it was possible. Nothing of her private affairs had been permitted to enter the public domain and she had retained an air of mystery, unsurprisingly perhaps for someone of her race. He made a mental note to speak to the Professor as soon as he could meet her alone. Or should he go straight to the citadel and ask for the Lord Chamberlain? The responsibility of what he had found began to lie heavily on him and he began to wish he had delivered the pages to the citadel unread.
One evening soon after, it happened that Halbarad went strolling in the gardens of Elrond's house, for it was only a little past midsummer and still warm in the sheltered glen of Rivendell. As he walked under the canopy of the trees, he was suddenly aware of voices talking in the grove that sloped below him. The tones of the master of the house and his daughter were unmistakable, and in spite of himself he stopped to listen, slipping out of sight with accustomed ease.
The lady Arwen was seated in an arbour made from living withies of woven willow. Lord Elrond was standing close by, but Halbarad could feel the distance between them like a wall. Arwen was speaking urgently in a low voice.
'Father, what would you have me do? I will never marry another if I may not marry Aragorn, and if I must journey west, I shall leave my heart and all my longing behind me. Would you wish for such a pass? To give him up would be the end of all our hopes, and I fear he would waver from the burden that he must carry, on which both our peoples depend. He loves these lands and all the folk therein, it is true. But I fear he has not the resolve to finish the task, if he may not see me there at its fulfilment. I love this valley, and more than that I love Aragorn. I am not my mother. You must see that.'
'I would you had not spent these last years with Galadriel,' replied Elrond in a cold tone, 'that you choose now as you do. You are not your mother that is clear, for she would not have gainsaid me thus, knowing my heart on this matter.'
'But she chose to leave and you did not follow, Father. I wonder if, after all, you loved her as I do Aragorn.'
'How dare you question me so, child?' His tone was low so that he almost whispered, but Halbarad saw Arwen flinch before his words.
However she began again, her gentle eyes hardening. 'You stayed here when you could have gone with my mother, but you chose not to.'
There was a silence, as Elrond looked away, and Halbarad could see the knuckles on his clenched hands whiten.
Presently Arwen broke the silence. 'I am sorry father. But you chose to stay in spite of your love, while I stay because of it!' She gazed at Elrond, imploring him to answer, but his face was stone hard with rage, and so she turned on her heel and walked away, almost bumping into Halbarad in her haste, but not seeing him, for her eyes were bright with tears. Halbarad stayed long enough to see Elrond put his head in his hands, before probity overcame his awed curiosity and he retreated to the house.
Later he saw Arwen again, staring out of an upper window at the night; in the starlight her face was calm, but a deep sadness was revealed as she gazed across the vale towards the falls. The moon was waning and its light cast a mantle of deep indigo about her hair.
'My lady,' said Halbarad and bowed.
'Sir,' she replied, without turning towards him. 'Do you not love the Evening? It is the time when the world can breathe again.' A slight breeze floated her robe so that it gently outlined her profile against the mullion and in that instant Halbarad was reminded of a bird, a swallow or a falcon, about to take off into the darkness.
Then she broke the spell. 'May I ask you about the lord Aragorn? You have known him long, I think.'
'I used to know him well, my lady,' replied Halbarad. 'Less so these last few years. We have been parted long.'
'But you call him friend,' said Arwen, 'not only your kinsman and lord.'
'He is the truest friend I ever had. All who know him love him.'
'It is a mighty gift to be loved by all, but a burden also. And my father loves him dearly, as he loves his own sons. You do understand that, Halbarad.'
'I know that Aragorn loves Elrond like a father.'
'I fear that in his love Aragorn will release me from my vow, lest he and my father become estranged. I could not blame him for such a course. A father's love is a costly debt.'
'My lady,' said Halbarad slowly, measuring his words, 'do not be troubled by such fears. Aragorn loves you more than he loves life itself. In all the years I have known him he has always been true to his own heart. And he would sooner have you than all the realms of Arnor and Gondor. He would die for you. Never doubt it.'
Arwen gazed at Halbarad, wondering. 'Then he has told you of my father's words? You speak with such certainty of his heart,' she went on. 'It is a lofty task and he has laboured already nine and twenty years.'
'Aragorn has long prepared himself for that burden. It is his with or without you, lady Arwen. But for you he would wait another nine and twenty years. And he is yet young by the reckoning of our race.'
'He will likely have to wait longer. But I fear for him. Your short lives are so precious that every year wasted must seem a heavy loss. Without Aragorn all my days would be an endless burden and I should long to follow him. My father cannot see that and thinks only of himself.'
'He does no more than try to hold on to that which is dear to him.'
'And I, too, fear his going, Halbarad. Is that wrong? I can only hope that he will be whole again when he is reunited with my mother.'
'How can it be wrong to dread the loss of one who is so dear to you? I lost my father when I was but a child and I mourn him still. But a man must live his life in the way that was allotted to him. Is it not the same for the Elves?'
'That may be so,' said Arwen. 'But it is also said that Elves and men alike choose the place and manner of their lives, and it is for us to determine our paths, for good or ill. Aragorn knows that better than most.'
'Then, if that is so, I deem that Aragorn has long since laid his path, my lady, though it may still be hidden from him and perhaps from you. Do not be afraid!'
She looked straight into Halbarad's face until he thought her gaze would pierce his heart, and then said 'Say not that I am afraid, but that I fear to lose the one by embracing the other. But this I must do, if I am to be true to myself.'
Then Halbarad said, 'Lady, you will never lose your father's heart, no matter what you do. His love for you runs too deep.'
Arwen walked away from the window and along the passage towards him. When she brushed against Halbarad in the narrow place by the stairs, her movement caused a shiver to run up his spine.
'Thank-you Halbarad,' she said at last. 'You have the patience of the Elves, I think. But tell me, are all your people so courteous?'
'In the presence of one such as you I would hope so, yes,' said Halbarad. 'They are dwindled to a rustic, wandering folk, but they never forget their roots.'
'And I deem,' said Arwen, 'that they shall never forget, with men such as you to lead them.'
When Aragorn again returned to Rivendell, it is recorded that he found Arwen somewhat changed, for since the evening in the garden she had spoken but little with her father and the days weighed heavily on her. She spent her time with the horses that she loved and rode often from the house into the woods and high up on the mountain passes, against the express wishes of Elrond, who feared for his daughter's safety. She was dwimmer crafty and slipped past the folk of the household, for she knew all the paths thereabouts and did not fear the marauding bands of orc that had been sighted in the Misty Mountains. But Elrond thought ever of Celebrian and her capture and the poisoned wound that drove her across the sea, and he could not rest when he knew that Arwen was abroad by herself. And such was his love for her that he tried to dissuade her from riding out, and in a moment of anger, threatened to hold her against her will, but Arwen said:
'Father if you do this then I shall never love you more and my body will wither and die in the prison that you make for me. For love you and my brothers as I do, I am free to choose whether I go or stay in Rivendell, for I am not in your thrall. And at the last Aragorn will release me and we will ride far away where you will never find us, and then there needs must be war between the Dúnedain and the Elves.'
Then Elrond wept and held his daughter close and she wept also for she knew in her heart that he would not carry out such a threat. And Aragorn came then and beheld Arwen in her father's arms and knew what had gone between them. Later that day also, Halbarad came to Aragorn and told him of what he had heard in the garden and Aragorn was silent, for he took it hard that Elrond and Arwen had been torn apart because of his love. It is said that he left the house of Elrond forthwith and rode away and Halbarad took a horse and followed his tracks for many days until he came to the Barrow Downs west of Bree.
Halbarad hesitated on the edge of the downs, searching the horizon for a sign of his cousin. The hoof-prints continued straight ahead over the first ridge of hills and down into a deep hollow. But before he had ridden more than a few yards, there rose up before him a thick fog and after a few minutes he was unable to see the tracks clearly enough to be sure of holding their course on horseback. Cursing, he stopped and dismounted, and began to follow on foot. He knew the downs well; well enough to know which of the steep mounds to avoid, which ones contained the barrows. And he knew them well enough to know that he should not risk going further in the fog. But the turf was short and springy and moist enough to show the tracks clearly to his practised eyes, and he ventured down into the deep hollow with confidence. Afterwards he would wonder whether it was due to the hope that his captain was not far ahead, or blindness to the myriad warnings he had heard all his life. Either way, he ignored everything he had long known about the Downs and the Barrows that topped them, sentinel-like and menacing, shunned by all.
The fog grew thicker and almost before he knew it, night began to fall. That was odd enough, for he had thought it not much later than noon. He had crossed two ridges and still held Aragorn's tracks, but as the light swiftly dimmed he pulled up suddenly, knowing that he would have no chance of going further without getting lost. At the same time he realised that the hoof-prints he was following had quite suddenly come to an end. He searched the ground in vain for footprints and in the falling darkness found no trace. There was nothing for it, but to spend the night were he was and hope that the fog would lift by morning. He lit the tiny lantern that he habitually carried in his pack, and saw suddenly ahead of him a horse, fully harnessed, but quite alone, grazing the turf.
'Elenya!' he called softly, but Aragorn's mare did not know him and swiftly moved away as he reached out to her, and he had to hold on tight to his own horse before she too slipped away into the sea of fog. Fearing the worst, he blundered on into the darkness, until he had no idea where he was going, or even which way he had come.
Dread began to fill his every pore, until he could feel his hands shaking involuntarily and the muffled light from the lantern wobbled in the haze. He snuffed it out. It did nothing to help him see his way and was using up what little oil he had.
Minutes later he stubbed his toe on something in the dark and, putting out his hand, felt cold stone in front of him. Lighting the lamp again, he made out the shape of a low mound ahead and a ring of jagged stones about it. In the centre were two upright boulders, shaped into a lintel and finished with a slab on top. The doorway was utterly black. Later he tried to recall why he had entered the barrow, but he was quite unable to say, except that he felt drawn by a power beyond his will. Before he knew what he was doing, he had crossed the threshold and seconds later there was a loud crack of breaking stones and he felt something hurl him further inside and close the gap with a crash behind him.
A choking pall of dust filled the space where he now found himself trapped. The darkness was absolute. Stunned, his head spinning with pain and fear, Halbarad groped blindly about him for the lantern, but apart from the cracked and broken stone floor that he was lying on, he could feel nothing. He tried to pull himself together and started to edge his way to the left, searching for the wall that he hoped to be near, but a sharp pain sliced through his temples as he turned his head, and he cried out. Instinctively moving his hand to the source of the pain, his fingers touched warm sticky fluid, oozing from a gash above his eye. Light-headed, he sank into easeful oblivion and lay like a dead thing.
A sound amidst the pressing silence brought Halbarad to himself again. It was a low moan, barely audible though not far away, human, but unearthly in the darkness. Then it ceased. Just as he was about to give in to the blanketing sleep that promised release, he was accosted by a sluggish, but dreadful thought.
He opened his mouth and heard his own voice, cracked and stifled in the muffled chamber. 'Aragorn!' he whispered. 'Is that you?' No answer came, but from not far ahead of him he heard what he took to be the scrape of leather against the stony floor. Ignoring the numbing ache in his head, he began to move slowly, inching his way forward until his fingers touched the corner of a woollen cloak that covered a booted foot.
In the inky blackness he could see nothing. Gingerly Halbarad traced his fingers across the cloak until they reached an arm. The soft silken cloth of Rivendell confirmed both his fear and his hope. He grasped the hand gently. In a wordless response that alarmed him, he was aware of the other man drawing his knees up abruptly against his chest and wrapping his hands about them, head buried. It came to Halbarad then, through the physicality of his own pain, that the reaction was born not of bodily injury, to which he was no stranger, but of some deeper, inner torment.
'Aragorn, it's Halbarad.' He moved to his side and, laying his hands gently on his friend's shoulders, was stung to find that they were shaking. His own fear suddenly welled inside him, the familiar, visceral knot that rose to his chest and that over years of necessity he had learned to wrench to his will, turning it to his profit to do what he must. This time there seemed to be nothing to fight or flee, except the total darkness of their captivity, and the anguished silence.
Moments stretched into minutes. It felt strange to Halbarad, holding Aragorn in the darkness, as he might a child, but there was no resistance, indeed no further reaction, and he found himself now rejecting the seeming betrayal of pulling away. But then the gash on his brow began to throb, so that he started to feel dizzy. Just as he realised that he would soon have to move, or risk passing out, Aragorn stirred. His voice came soft and strange, but with a chilling certainty, as he said,
'Can you hear it, Halbarad? The evil that lies beneath us? It calls my name.'
The relief at hearing his words was short-lived. If the Ranger had become accustomed to enduring his own terror, he was quite unprepared to witness it so palpably in his captain. But this was something more than fear. And even as Halbarad reeled at the impossibility that Aragorn might have lost his reason, his foot caught something metallic as he shifted his weight. Instinctively he put out his hand and found the lantern. This tiny piece of fortune focused his thought and he groped for his flint, relieved, not for the first time, that he always stowed it safe in a pocket of his breeches. A minute later the narrow chamber blazed with light, revealing the broken masonry and rubble that now blocked the doorway, trapping them inside the barrow. The Dúnadan sat hunched in the corner, seemingly unmarked save for his fingers, which were badly scuffed and torn. Beside him, something glittered in the lamplight. It was the drawn blade of his long hunting knife.
Slowly raising his head, Aragorn stared blankly at the lantern, at Halbarad, and at the fallen roof, but appeared not to see them. Instead he placed his hands over his ears, as though trying to shut out some deafening noise that assailed him.
'I do not know of what you speak, my lord,' Halbarad answered stiffly at last. He was deferential, even coolly incredulous, but his tone only barely masked the horror that swept through him.
'It is the Music,' Aragorn replied thickly, his face ashen, 'but more terrible than I have ever known. It is under the ground and speaks to me of my death. Do you not hear it?'
Halbarad mastered himself and repeated more gently, 'Nay, Aragorn, I do not. Of what music do you speak?'
The grey eyes turned on him, but they seemed remote and their customary light was gone. 'So you do not know it? I once believed that you shared it too.' Then his harrowed features softened into pale confusion and he shook his head. 'But Gandalf said it would not be so.' He broke off and did not explain his last remark. Halbarad was scarcely reassured by the wizard's name, as Aragorn closed his eyes and again lapsed into silence.
The Ranger forced his attention to their situation. The shattered doorway was entirely filled with fallen rubble, but the main part of the roof above seemed to be intact. Through the top of the rubble he could make out chinks of deeper black, that suggested small gaps into the night air beyond. A slight draft blew across his face and he almost laughed with relief as he realised that they would not, at least, run out of air. He crawled across the chamber and began to pick at the broken stones. But the injury to his head had tired him and he could work only slowly, moving a piece at a time with his hands. After a few minutes he was forced to cease, and slumped back against the wall, exhausted and dizzy.
He glanced at Aragorn, whose drawn face was quieter now, though he made no sign. Presently he stirred and passed his hand across his face.
'Does it still trouble you?' asked Halbarad. 'The music?'
With an effort Aragorn replied, 'It is fading. But I wanted to follow it, Halbarad. Do you know what I am saying? If you had not been here to bring me back, I should have gone. It has never called for me before.' He broke off, his voice taut and hands shaking, as he realised what he might have done. Halbarad stared, refusing to comprehend what his ears were telling him.
'That cannot be, my lord!'
'It is the truth. I had very little will left in the matter.' He shuddered. 'But there, it is over now. If it returns, I shall not be caught out again.'
'What did you mean about hearing it before, Aragorn?' Halbarad ventured. 'You have never once spoken of this to me.'
'Later, my friend,' he replied, and then his face softened, so that he resembled one who has toiled for many sleepless nights, but is now at peace. 'I cannot speak of it yet and I am very weary. From what accursed hole the evil came I do not know. We must try to leave this place as soon as we may, but I don't think I could move now even if I wanted to. And you are hurt. You must bathe that scratch, if it is not to fester.'
Halbarad took water from his flask and washed clean the gash. It was shallow, but painful. However, he had suffered much worse and made little of it once the dizziness cleared.
'You should drink a little,' said Halbarad, and passed the water to Aragorn. He took it gratefully.
Halbarad watched his cousin, pondering the madness that seemed to have seized him, although, for the time being he was too relieved to see him recovered to worry overmuch. But there was still a haunted look on Aragorn's face that was disconcerting.
They sat for an hour or more in the dark to preserve the oil, neither moving nor speaking while they recovered their strength.
Then Halbarad said gently, 'Is that why you came in here, because of the music?'
Aragorn nodded and said, 'If you hear it, you have to go. But I thought I had conquered it until today. It won't catch me out again though.'
'I don't understand,' Halbarad went on. 'You speak as though you have heard it before.'
Aragorn took a deep breath and after a moment began slowly, 'It started in Rivendell, when I was very young. From time to time I would hear the fairest music, like nothing that even the Elves could make, though where it came from I knew not, and sometimes it frightened me. It was as if everything in the world that is beautiful had come together in harmony. Once, I spoke of it to Elladan, and he told me that it is given to some few of our line to hear traces of the Great Music, the Ainulindalė, that made the world and lies within it still, for those to hear that can, though Elladan himself does not. But he bade me never to repeat that I had heard it, not even to Elrond. As I grew, it faded and I thought it gone, but it returns at times, and it is not always beautiful, but often terrible beyond endurance, with a malice that would freeze my heart.'
'And you carried this burden alone? Why then could you not speak to Elrond?'
'Because it should not have passed to me. The elves do not share its power with men, and they do not hear the evil in it, only its beauty. It is to us that the evil speaks and to us alone. And Halbarad, the evil on the Downs is older and greater than any I have ever felt. But Gandalf taught me how to bend the power of the Music to my own purpose, and now it makes me strong, when it would else have overwhelmed me. This time, though, I could barely resist. It has taken all the strength of will that I possess.'
Halbarad sank back against the wall, at once astonished and relieved. 'I was frightened for you, Aragorn. I knew not what to think. There was a fey look about you and I feared you were lost.'
'Not yet my friend.' Aragorn sighed softly. 'I cannot be rid of it and so I shall use it to my profit when the time comes. To master it is to wield the strength of the land, and the land hates the Shadow, Halbarad, like a canker, and so the music comes where the evil awaits. There are fell powers in these barrows, and they have us trapped for now. We must try to escape when we are able. Even now it waits for us to weaken with fear. But if we are not afraid then we shall get out.'
He began to pick at the fallen stones, and quickly revealed the source of the loud crack that Halbarad had felt behind him. The great capstone that had topped the doorway was broken in two and lay across the threshold blocking the only way out. Halbarad, who was the heavier of the two, set his shoulder against the shards and with an effort managed to shift them out and away from the doorway. As he did so a sound like a sigh seemed to come from the very earth itself. Relieved, they stumbled outside and only pulled up when they were well away from the barrow. At the same time, Dawn was pushing rosy fingers through the last vestiges of fog and they saw the horses not far off, grazing unconcernedly. Once they were mounted and safely on their way, Halbarad said,
'Aragorn, will you return with me to Rivendell?'
'Was that not your purpose in following me, kinsman?' replied Aragorn. 'I long to say yes, but how can I return, when to do so will tear my heart in two?'
'Because Arwen would have you there,' he answered, staring his cousin straight in the eye. 'Because she fears what the grief of her father will bring, and not least because it is your home and you belong there. I have seen that now.'
Aragorn wheeled his horse around and halted abruptly. 'It is many years since Rivendell has been my home, and Arwen knows the burden I carry.'
Halbarad stood his ground. 'She knows your duty to your people and she knows the task that lies before you. But, forgive me, does she in truth know your love?'
'What do you mean, Halbarad? How could she doubt it? We were betrothed not four months since.'
'You know your heart, Aragorn. None better. But for all those years in the south you were forced to dissemble, to hide your true self and feign a part. And how long have you and Arwen spent together since you met? A sum of three or four months in Rivendell? The same at Lórien? Arwen fears what you may do to avoid breaking your bond with her father. She fears the waiting and above all she fears the day that must eventually come, the day when she will lose you.'
There was a silence as Aragorn stared at Halbarad, disbelief on his face.
But he took courage and continued. 'And what did you do when you saw how it lay between Elrond and his daughter? You fled, my lord. Is that not what you are doing now? It seems to me that your chief peril lies not on the Barrows Downs, but at Rivendell.'
Again Aragorn said nothing, his face harried and weary. Halbarad ceased, but he knew his words had driven home. Aragorn broke into a canter and rode on ahead, but Halbarad still followed, noting that he had turned north and east. Soon the downs were left far behind them. They skirted south of Breeland, neither feeling like company, and as another evening drew on, they were back on the East road.
They rode hard and met no one until Amon Sûl, where they overtook a party of dwarves going east. A wetting autumn rain began to fall and at the Ford of Bruinen the waters were rising. As they approached the river, soon after dawn on the fifth day, they saw, some way off, a lone rider on a black horse, coming down out of the hills to meet them. The dark figure was robed and hooded and in the grey morning chill resembled a creature of mist and inconstant hue, horse and rider as one, without harness or other accoutrement. Presently he stopped and waited by the ford for Aragorn and Halbarad to cross, and, as they stepped out of the water, threw back his cowl and spoke.
'Estel, I have found you. I thought you were lost.' The voice was no elf warrior's. It was Arwen, her hair streaming in the wind, her face glistening like a jewel in the rain. As Halbarad watched his cousin hurl himself from his horse and catch her in his arms, pulling her tight, he felt something like envy grip him, and, shocked, he pushed it away again. He did not wait to hear their tales, for he was intruding. He turned away from them and slowly continued along the road, fighting the desire to look back.
They will return to Rivendell, Halbarad thought, for however brief a spell, before duty calls for Aragorn to ride abroad once more, and the waiting begins again. And Arwen will ride with him when she can slip away, and when Aragorn can bear to see her risk the wilderness. He longs for her to remain where she is safe, but he knows in his heart that she could no more live in a gilded cage than could he.
And so it was. Even as Arwen loved Aragorn and her father, she forbore to remain close to the valley, east of the ford and did not risk the mountain passes or the open road. The evening was her time, when it is told that she would seek the stars and walk or ride in the light of the moon, unseen by any foe, and singing softly like the nightingale. And at times Aragorn would come to her and they would walk together in the trees and by the falls, as they had done nearly thirty years before, when first he found her.
The sun was also setting as the archivist read their tale and his window was bathed in a golden fire. He had never met an elf and found them hard to imagine, but Arwen seemed to him like a creature from a dream-time that was close, but elusive to the memory, so that he could only guess at her quality from what little was revealed to him. And Firiel, her daughter; he recalled the spring day when a small boy had watched the King's favourite child, by then a great age herself, as she rode in a carriage through the bluebell woods of the Pelennor. A wisp of wind had stolen her neckerchief and whisked it away on to the road, and the child had picked it up and shyly held it out to her as she passed. She had ordered the driver to stop so that she might thank him. Old she looked, beyond his wildest imaginings, but her eyes shone very bright and her hair was still long and fine, and her smile would never leave him.
'Take it, child,' she had said and gave the neckerchief back to him. 'Keep it with my thanks until you find someone to give it to yourself. For such a gift, bestowed with love, is more priceless than a thousand jewels.'
The man smiled as he continued to read, making up his mind to seek the Professor's opinion on the manuscript. His fingers had lost the arthritic pain that had troubled them and in his reverie he quite forgot his other aches and pains. He determined to speak to the Professor over an invitation to dinner, provided, of course, he could summon the courage to ask her.
It is written elsewhere how the King came again to walk in the south and the nature of his business in Rohan, during the start of the War of the Ring, so that after all the years of toil, the Dúnedain came to the south, to ride upon the marches of war for their lord. Thirty only were there that could be gathered in haste, and Halbarad led them swiftly to Rohan in search of his kinsman. And with them rode the brethren, Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond.
And when they were met at last and they had spoken of tidings in the North and in the South, Elrohir said to Aragorn:
'I bring you word from my father: The days grow short. If thou art in haste remember the Paths of the Dead.'
'Already my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire,' answered Aragorn. 'But great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road.'
'That will soon be seen,' said Elrohir. 'But let us speak no more of these things upon the open road!'
And Aragorn said to Halbarad: 'What is that you bear, kinsman?' for he saw that instead of a spear he bore a tall staff, as it were a standard, but it was close-furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs.
'It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell,' answered Halbarad. 'She wrought it in secret, and long was the making. But she also sends word to you: The days are now short. Either our hope cometh, or all hope's end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!'
And Aragorn said: 'Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!' And he turned and looked away to the north and spoke no more while the night's journey lasted.5
As the night began to fade, the company came at last to the Hornburg. Aragorn motioned to Halbarad to follow him away from the other folk, to a high chamber in the Burg, and when they were at last alone they embraced, and Aragorn said,
'I have a hard task before me this day, Halbarad. But first tell me how you fare. It is many months since we were at Rivendell and much has befallen us both. You look older my friend!'
'You do not, my lord,' replied the Ranger and smiled a wry smile. 'What the staff conceals, you know well,' he went on. 'And I have little need to tell you of the lady's words to you, for she needs no messenger to reach your heart.'
Aragorn stepped back a pace and they regarded one another in the grey dawn. It was true, Halbarad had to confess, they both looked older and tired too. Days without count the grey company had ridden and something told him that that they had still far to go. And as he returned Aragorn's gaze, Halbarad thought his captain looked even more world weary that morning, as though he had seen the day of his own passing. He recalled Elrond's words, and Aragorn's answer, and shuddered at the name. And then, as he looked long into the grey eyes he realised, with a final certainty, that Aragorn knew his cousin's heart, and had known it all along. Halbarad hesitated and looked away. I have betrayed the trust of my lord and captain. I can never hope for his forgiveness, and nor should I. But when he turned back there was nothing in Aragorn's gaze that spoke of blame or anger, only understanding and sadness at his own pain. Then Aragorn broke the silence.
'I am truly sorry, Halbarad,' he said slowly. 'I know what these years have cost you.'
Halbarad did not answer. His mouth was dry and he could find no words.
Then Aragorn said, 'After all, how ever could I blame you for loving her as I do?' He paused. 'It is I who have wronged you, by asking you to serve me thus.'
'My lord,' said Halbarad, 'Always I have put you first, in war and at play and, yes, in love also. I do not begrudge it. I could no more hope for a love unrequited than I could wish for the crown of Eärnur. And was it not I who chose to be alone?'
'I know, too,' said Aragorn, 'why you did not seek the hand of another. But if things had been different we might neither of us be here now, facing the grim road ahead. It may yet turn out that yours was the wiser path.'
They fell silent and Halbarad looked out of the small window at the ordered company waiting patiently below. Then he turned again at Aragorn.
'Not for me the heights, cousin,' he said. 'I was born to serve and I would not have it otherwise. I would rather follow you and die well, than rule a kingdom by my own hand and rule it badly.'
'Then I hope that I may be worthy of you,' said Aragorn. 'But for now I must look to a task more fell than many days of battle.'
It is told that Aragorn then looked into the Palantir of Orthanc, and strove with the enemy as none other had hitherto dared to do, and that at the last he prevailed and turned the stone to his own will and purpose. It was then that he saw the peril that awaited the city of Minas Tirith and it seemed that none could go to her aid in time. And at the end his face was haggard with the toil and peril he had endured, and he stumbled as he descended the stair from the chamber and Halbarad supported his captain as they came down. For it seemed to him that many years of hardship had fallen on Aragorn in that single night and the choices before them were grim as they pondered the road to come.
On the last page it was apparent that Firiel had copied the final entry from Halbarad's diary:
11th March, 3019
It is three days since we rode from Dunharrow and I have had no time to write. On the 8th day of March, Aragorn led us by the Paths of the Dead, so named in the words of Malbeth the Seer, and we came at midnight to Erech. Never have I seen my lord more stern and fierce hearted. And the Oathbreakers followed us and, few as we are, we routed the Enemy even as we rode forward. At nightfall, we crossed the Gilrain and now rest on the borders of Lebennin, but we must ride again ere dawn to Pelargir. There is little food, and my horse is nearly lame, but he will see me through. There we must take what ships we can and make all speed to the city, if she is not to fall.
The king, for thus I name him, though he has not yet made any claim, exacts loyalty from all who look upon him, not by fear, but by the strength of his will. We go to war on the very borders of Mordor, and the king must win through. For myself, I will be glad merely to look on Minas Tirith before I die. For none can hope for his own survival in this war and each must try only to do his part. But this country is very fair, and I should dearly love to see it again. For now I must try to sleep a little before we ride on.
1 The Lay of Leithian, canto 1 (HOME vol. 3 p. 155)
2 The Lay of Leithian, canto 4 (HOME vol. 3 p. 184)
3 ROTK Appendix A.
4 Halbarad was a frequent visitor to Rivendell especially in the years leading up to the War of the Ring. Elsewhere Firiel records that her mother rarely joined the company at Rivendell or attended festivals at the Hall of Fire, for she herself confirmed that she preferred to spend her time in the woods or with the horses that she loved. The size and complexity of the house of Elrond, too, meant that Halbarad could easily have spent many months there without their ever meeting.
5ROTK; The Passing of the Grey Company