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The Ranger and the Eagles  by Cairistiona

Part I

Gandalf

Chapter One - "Elbereth... hear me... help me..."

Autumn, T.A. 3002

Gandalf sat beside a hatful of fire.

He smiled at the image such a phrase brought to mind. He had not, of course, built a fire inside his tall, peaked hatĖthe grey hat with its wide brim was battered, yes, but hardly ready to be consigned to the flamesĖbut the tiny blaze crackling on the stony cave floor before him could easily have fit inside it. He inched a bit closer. He had just beat the raging storm, ducking into this cave as temperatures plummeted and billows of snow roiled down from high above the mountains. His nearly frozen bones cried out for a much bigger blaze, a great towering inferno that would not only melt the frost from his joints but melt the snows from the trees around him and bring summer back again. But though such a conflagration might be within his considerable powers, it was hardly prudent to so announce his presence to every sentient being within a hundred miles. Far too many of those sentient beings were orcs, despite the Eaglesí steadfast guard over these mist-filled mountains east of Rivendell.

So he sat hidden and slightly frozen in a cave beside a tiny fire, listening to the windís constant roar beyond the cave entrance. He held his hands out to the fire, admiring as always the beauty of the flames, but cherishing more the small comfort brought by knuckles that no longer ached from cold. He looked at the Red Ring of Fire, Narya, gracing his finger, one of the Three Rings that had not been touched by evil. He turned it this way and that, admiring the flame within the red stone. Few had seen the stone; Gandalf kept the ring well concealed always, and few knew he was its bearer, but sometimes, when he was alone, he drew it forth and let its power refresh him. But tonight, it seemed to hold no sway. He let his hands drop back into his lap with a sigh and the ring again disappeared from sight. Weariness the ring may chase, and valourís fire of old it may rekindle, but Gandalf still had need of physical warmth and never more so than this eve.

He sniffed and idly watched the shadows dancing on the rock walls around him as he drew his cloak tighter around him. He supposed he should be content enough with this rare moment of peace and relative comfort; the cave was small but deep enough to block the wind and possessed some sort of unseen opening at the very top that cleverly drew out the smoke from his scanty fire but did not allow moisture to drip directly†upon him. Finding such shelter had been a boon, but sadly, it seemed to be his only such stroke of good fortune in many long months. "Where is that creature?" he whispered to the flames and the walls around him. They did not answer, and Gandalfís beard bristled. Would it have been too much to ask for this small cave to have held some sign of his quarry within its granitic embrace?

Apparently so.

He smoothed his offended whiskers. Gollum continued to elude both him and his companion in this hunt, Aragorn son of Arathorn. Of course, he had not seen Aragorn in seven weeks, and the mighty hunter may have caught him in the interim, though Gandalf doubted it. He reached into his pack for his pipe. He did not light it, having run out of pipeweed weeks ago, but he stroked its bowl thoughtfully. Seven long weeks since he had parted ways with Aragorn, when they had separated at the roots of the Misty Mountains some three leagues north of the Eagleís Eyrie. During their long sessions around the fire in Elrondís study last winter planning their expedition, Aragorn had decided they would spend their first summer combing the caves all around the area where Bilbo Baggins had initially encountered Gollum, including of course, Gollumís cave with its subterranean lake and small island. "We might find important clues, if nothing else. Besides, it would be foolish," he had said, his keen grey eyes gleaming, "to overlook him in the North in a blind rush to find him in the South."

Gandalf had bowed to Aragornís wisdom, and so it passed that he took the easier trails along the mountainsí roots, while Aragorn plumbed their depths and climbed their heights, following as always the riskier paths. And risks those pathways held in plenty: orcs, of course, but also cave-ins below and rock slides above, blinding fogs, sudden early blizzards, and yawning crevasses hidden by crusts of snow too thin to bear a manís weight. And even if the fallen snow did not hide pitfalls enough, it could suddenly crumble down the mountain in a vast avalanche. Gandalf had seen one just yesterday, a rumbling cloud of destruction obscuring the mountain face not even a league away. He had felt the tremor in his feet. He wondered if Aragorn had seen it as well. He wondered...

He suddenly rose and hurried to the cave entrance. He looked upward, trying to see the peak and the scar the avalanche had left, but the darkness and the swirling, wind-driven snow hid it from sight.

"Aragorn, I hope you were not caught out in that," he muttered. There was little reason to think that of all the places Aragorn might have been, he had been on that particular mountain at that particular moment. "So why does my heart feel such sudden unease?"

The night kept its brooding silence, and, hardly reassured, Gandalf gave the darkness one last worried glance before he returned to his fire. He fed another tiny twig into it. He would let it burn another hour or so, he decided, and then he would douse the flames, brush aside the embers and ash and make his bed on the heated stone. It would warm him until morning, as long as he did not thrash about in his sleep. And Gandalf had dwelt long enough in this mortal body on this dangerous sod to have learned not to do that.

His mortal body also reminded him, with a loud rumble, that his stomach had not felt the comfort of food in many long hours. He pulled out a bit of lembas, given him by Elrond from his small store provided in turn by the Elves of Lothlůrien, and took a small bite. The flavor, like all things crafted by Galadrielís folk, immediately stirred in his soul a longing for that fair land far to the West from which he came and to which he longed ever to someday return. But not yet, not yet. There was a small matter of defeating the Enemy standing between him and his return to the Blessed Realm.

He snorted. Defeating the Enemy indeed; sadly, he did not seem to be doing very well in that mission.

He longed to turn his thoughts again to the past, to seek comfort, like any old man, in the memories of his youth, in the days when he called himself OlorŪn and moved freely without the constraints of this old manís body. He remembered those times, but only vaguely, as one remembers a particularly pleasant dream, or a view of a beautiful city seen from afar. And tonight, like all such times when he tried to cast his mind backward, the present intruded, taking the form of a very persistent yet undefined worry gnawing at his heart. Again he looked toward the cave entrance, toward the hidden peaks where Aragorn toiled. Gandalf rose to his feet, restlessly pacing the opening to his cave. Dread, manifested in a prickling of his skin so sharp it almost itched, would not release him. But he saw and heard nothing.

"Fool of a wizard," he mumbled, "calling yourself Wise, and yet here you are, fretting over a man long used to taking good care of himself without any assistance from you."

He stumped back to his fire, put it out and kicked the embers to the cave wall, where he banked them until morning. He stretched out his bent frame and sighed, resolutely shutting his mind to any and all worries.

Sleep came quickly.

~~~

He was awakened suddenly, but by what, he was uncertain. Some small sound? A gust of wind? He blinked at the darkness; the howling snowstorm had moved on, but without a fire, the cave was lit only by what few stars shone through the cave entrance, and since he had been embodied as a Man and not an sharp-eyed Elf, starlight alone made for a poor lamp. He groped at his side for his staff. He started to quicken its glow, but something urged him to stop, to listen before revealing himself.

For a long moment, he heard only the low keen of the restless wind, but then came another noise, softer, more distant. From outside. A crack of a broken twig. The crunch of the crust breaking on hard-packed snow.

A bear, perhaps?

And then a low grunt and a sharp intake of breath.

A man.

Gandalf supposed it might be bothĖBeornís house was not too many leagues to the east. But somehow he doubted it was the skinchanger. The years were starting to weigh on Beorn, and rare it was these days that he slipped into the shape of a bear to prowl the wilds, and rarer still for him to do so on such a cold night. Gandalf gathered his legs beneath him and rose silently with an ease that belied his aged appearance. An old man he may appear as these days, but it was an Istari that empowered the bones and sinews, and though he was forbidden to use his full power, he could nonetheless move with unwonted agility when the situation called for such things as clambering up pine trees to fight off wolves, or sneaking through a cave to see what manner of enemy might be approaching.

He eased to the mouth of the cave, careful to stay in its shadow but close enough to the opening to gaze out upon the field of unbroken white...

No, not unbroken. There was a line of churned and jumbled snow that marked the progress of whatever man or beast moved in the night. He traced the path, wondering if the creature was approaching or moving away. The trammeled snow seemed to start near rocks some distance away, and then the trail disappeared into a small clump of stunted pine trees growing just below the cave entrance. Indeed, he heard a scraping sound from within their huddled mass, and then a low moan that could not have been the wind. Gandalf gripped his staff and held it at the ready. A shadow moved into the clearing, a shadow that moved awkwardly and breathed heavily and unevenly. The shadowĖdefinitely a man, for Gandalf could finally see the hooded shape clearlyĖpaused for a moment. He swayed unsteadily, then fell to his knees. Gandalfís sharp ears barely heard his desperate, whispered plea. "Elbereth... hear me... help me..."

And then the man collapsed prone in the snow, face down, utterly motionless.

Pity and dread smiting twin blows to his heart, Gandalf hurried from the cave entrance. The snow was deep, but he floundered on, arms outstretched for balance. His foot slipped and he dug in with his staff and steadied himself. It felt like a nightmare, pushing and pushing but never getting any nearer, but at last he dropped to his knees beside the fallen man. "Easy, my friend," he gasped, his heart pounding more from fear than exertion. "Your prayer was heard, and help is at hand."

He shakily rolled the man onto his side, praying the foreboding he felt would prove false. The manís pack prevented Gandalf from rolling him completely over, and the star shine was insufficient to let him see much detail about the manís clothing, other than he wore a dark, hooded cloak, its true color muted by nightís shadow. A scarf was wrapped round and round his face, covering all of it save for the half-closed eyes. Gandalf peeled away the scarf, which crackled with ice, and then with great tenderness and sorrow looked upon the pale and pinched face. "Elbereth, help us indeed," he murmured.

It was Aragorn.

Chapter Two - Better at Blazes Than Bandages

"You are far too heavy for me to be hauling about like this," Gandalf gasped as he tugged Aragorn towards the back of the cave. He had removed Aragornís heavy pack straightaway, to retrieve after getting him to shelter, but the simple fact of the matter was that Aragorn was a very large man, tall and thickly muscled for all that he seemed lean compared to shorter men. Gandalf had occasionally carried him for very short distances, usually under such duress that he found him no great burden, but the addition of multiple layers of wet clothing driven through with snow made him nearly too heavy to move. By the time he dragged him up the short slope, into the cave and settled him beside the fire, Gandalf was huffing and puffing as though he had run three leagues without stopping. But there was no time for rest; lurking enemies notwithstanding, Aragorn desperately needed the warmth of the blazing fire Gandalf had denied himself. A mere hatful would not do, Gandalf thought; the man was nearly frozen.

"Snow... have to... run...." Aragorn mumbled. His legs moved restlessly.

Gandalf did not stop constructing his fire, but as he touched flame to tinder with a sudden blue flash, he called softly, "Shhh, shhh. There is no need to run, Aragorn. You are quite safe now." He continued a soothing stream of such prattle as he piled wood atop the burning tinder, and Aragornís fretful movements quieted. Indeed, by the time the fire was eating away at the new wood, his eyes had opened a bit, although his gaze seemed unfocused and wandering beneath fluttering lids.

Gandalf bent over him. He laid a hand on Aragornís arm and gently squeezed it. "Aragorn? Can you hear me?"

The grey eyes fixed on his, and his lips moved as if to speak Gandalfís name, but his awareness seemed as fleeting as the snow melting before the fire. His eyes drifted shut as his head sagged to the side. Gandalf felt his forehead; it was far warmer than it should be, given the waves of frigidity that rolled from his clothing. "What have you done to get yourself in such a state," he murmured, then brushed the dark hair back, noting a small swelling above his left ear and a matting of dried blood stiffening the hair on that side. Rusted stains of dried blood marred his neck and darkened his cloak and tunic collars. "You would do better to have Elrond with you instead of Gandalf, who is far better at blazes than bandages. But I will do what I can. And to begin with, we must get you undressed so the fireís warmth can reach you. Your clothes are so packed with snow youíll never thaw otherwise."

Aragorn did not seem to hear his chatter, but Gandalf felt that perhaps on some level it might be a comfort to hear a friendly voice, so he kept at it, forcing a cheer and a nonchalance he certainly did not feel. "That bump on your head looks nasty enough, but I think it relatively minor. The bone seems intact, at any rate. You might be concussed, though; we will have to keep an eye on that, wonít we. Now to get you out of these clothes." He released the star-shaped pin holding shut Aragornís cloak, then pushed it back off his shoulders, leaving it beneath him for the moment. He then unbuckled his sword belt and tugged it out from under his body. He put it aside and then unhooked the fastenings of Aragornís fur-lined coat, noticing with a start a tear that stretched across the left side, near his ribs. Gandalf fingered the slit, but the stains on it were old; the clothes beneath were intact, and he found no obvious wound. "Thatís good, then. Though I wonder what clawed you there, animal or orc. You do walk a hard road, donít you. I donít know that Iíve ever seen you without some scrape or cut or bump and bruise."

He tugged off the fur-lined gloves; his hands seemed in good shape. No broken or dislocated fingers, no frostbite. Gandalf rubbed them briskly between his own hands and before many moments passed, Aragorn stirred. His eyes opened a slit and he pulled his hands away to bat vaguely at his side. "Sword... where..."

"I have your sword, Aragorn. Itís in your pack, where you were carrying it. Iíve put them safely by the wall for when youíve recovered."

But he would not be calmed. "Where... I have to... my sword... need my...."

With a weary sigh, Gandalf retrieved it and laid it by Aragornís side. As soon as his fingers brushed the hilt, he quieted.

"A king always finds his strength in his sword, it seems," Gandalf murmured. "May your dreams be more peaceful now. And if I hurt you, pray do not draw it and run me through!"

He continued his work. A few tugs and the coat was off, and Aragorn lay shivering atop both cloak and coat in naught but his vest, tunic, leggings and boots. Gandalf clucked his tongue. "You need a bit closer to the fire, I think." He tugged on the cloak, pulling the entire affair and Aragorn with it, until he was laying well within the circle of warmth put out by the flames. "Thatís better."

Then he set to work removing Aragornís boots. And work it was; they fit tightly, and Gandalf nearly dragged him across the cave before he got them off. "Good heavens, how do you ever get these off when youíre by yourself?" he muttered. He saw then the reason for the tight fit: Aragorn had on at least three pairs of woollen hose. He smiled with fond pride at a man so dedicated to the hunt that he would go forth in weather that required three such layers. Most men would stay inside, huddled at the hearth of home or inn as they waited for the weather to break the next spring. "You do have a great heart, Aragorn," he said, "even if it is temporarily frozen. Now to get these socks off you and check your feet."

He tried to pull off the first layer, but the hose seemed to cover the entire length of his legs, under his heavy woollen trousers, and was evidently tied at the very top of Aragornís thighs. So he untied the trousersí drawstring, tugged them off, and then finally untied and peeled away the hose, of which there were indeed three pair. Livid bruises marched down the entire length of Aragornís left leg, all the way down the ankle. "Now that looks most painful. Whatever have you done to yourself?"

Still, the legs seemed sound enough when he ran his hands along both. Both knees bent and straightened as they should, and there were no deformities, save for a very slight swelling around the left ankle. "You were getting along without any walking stick that I could see, so I imagine thatís just a bit of a bad bruise. Youíve certainly got enough of them everywhere." Aragorn remained silent and Gandalf patted his leg. "I do wish youíd wake up and assure me youíre all right. Iím not the best at all this checking for injuries and what not, though I have in my time repaired the odd wound on man and beast...." His voice trailed off as he examined Aragornís feet. They felt like ice but there were none of the telltale white patches that signaled frostbite. Three socks had apparently been sufficient.

Gandalf tossed the hose and trousers aside. They, and indeed all of Aragornís clothes, were soaked, either from without by snow or from within from sweat. He clucked a bit under his tongue. Dire indeed must have been his straits, else Aragorn surely would never have pushed himself so that he would break into a sweat. Perspiring in such freezing conditions could kill a man.

"You found my little cave just in time, I deem. Legs, head, feet and hands are well enough, though perhaps not head. Now to check the rest of you and assure that nothing else ails you besides bruises and a desperate need to thaw out."

Off came the damp vest; like the cloak and coat, Gandalf threaded Aragornís arms out of the arm holes and left the garment beneath him for the moment. He then pushed up the sleeves of his tunic and carefully checked each arm. Fresh bruises mottled the flesh of both, but neither seemed otherwise injured. He then pulled up the shirttail and ran a hand across Aragornís stomach and chest. He felt no lacerations, but as he pushed the front of the shirt all the way up, he found more bruises, dark and sullen, along the ribs and stomach. Like the ones on his legs, these were a bit worse on the left side than the right. He gently pressed here and there, frowning at the heat radiating from Aragornís skin, but he could not tell if any ribs were broken.

He continued on, hurrying, for Aragornís shivering tremors were growing ever more violent. "You look as though youíve been tossed about by stone giants. But as bad as these bruises are, they should not be causing such fever." Gandalf was missing something, he felt sure of it. "Perhaps your back will tell the tale." He carefully guided his arms from the tunic sleeves, then lifted him so he could tug the shirt over his head. But it seemed to catch on something, and Aragorn, who had been silent since grasping his sword, suddenly groaned.

Filled with trepidation, Gandalf lowered him back down. He then rolled him onto his right side, pushing gently against his hip and shoulder, and it was there, on his lower back, that he found the source of fever. It seemed an arrow, broken off at the skin, was embedded in the muscle just above his left hip. The outer clothing had tugged loose from it, but the shirt itself was still pinned to Aragorn like a bit of paper through a spindle. "What foul luck, to have run into orcs in such weather," Gandalf said softly. "Most are in their caves by now. I suppose your passing disturbed them somehow."

Gandalf carefully tugged at the fabric, and when it failed to come free, pulled out his knife and cut through the cloth in a circle all the way around the arrow. He pulled the shirt away. As gentle as he tried to be, Aragorn still flinched and groaned from the jostling. "Shh, dear boy, I know it hurts and Iím terribly sorry," Gandalf said. "But there, Iím finished now." He pulled the shirt off, then examined the wound. The skin around it was red and angry, and little wonder. The arrow would have been very difficult for Aragorn to have removed himself, short of contorting himself like the acrobats that entertained the kingly courts in the far East.

But something seemed odd about that arrow... Gandalf leaned even closer, wishing the light were better. He scooted to the side, to move his shadow out of the way. He felt the stub of the shaft, which was rough under his fingertips. He gently spread the skin back a bit from it, eliciting another long groan from Aragorn, but he had to see what...

He suddenly straightened up, then bent down again for another look. It was not an arrow at all, but a small tree branch, the bark still intact, driven in like a horrendously oversized splinter. Horrified, Gandalf tried to see how deeply it had penetrated. He grasped it as best he could, digging in with his nails, and then he gently pulled on it. Aragorn immediately cried out and his entire body stiffened.

Gandalf stopped. He reached up and stroked Aragornís hair, over and over. "Easy, easy. I will not do that again. Shhh."

Aragorn never truly woke, but the cries faded and he slowly relaxed. Indeed, he became so limp and lifeless that Gandalf immediately thrust his hand under his nose. He felt faint but steady puffs of warm breath and sighed deeply. "Dear boy, do not frighten an old man so," he murmured, sitting back and rubbing Aragornís arm as he contemplated what must be done. He found himself reluctant to even look at the wound. Arrow wounds he had seen aplenty, but there was something sickeningly unnatural about having a tree branch driven into oneís body like that. "Dear, dear boy..."

Still, this was no time for squeamishness. Girding himself a bit, Gandalf set about tugging all the wet things from beneath Aragorn. It took some doing, and elicited more pitiful cries from the ranger. "There now, I know, I know. But I must move you to warm and dry bedding or youíll catch an even worse chill than you already have." Logical it might be, but Aragorn seemed little impressed, for the soft moans continued until Gandalf finally had him lying on his belly atop the blanket on which Gandalf had been sleeping earlier.

Gandalf shook out another blanket, this from Aragornís pack, and carefully covered him with it. "There you are, that must surely feel warmer." He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, then set about gathering what he needed for the hard task before him. First, he must have clean water. He pulled out the small pot he carried in his pack always when on long journeys and hurried outside and scooped it full of snow, then placed it in the fire to melt and then boil until it was pure.

Next, he held his knife in the flames until the blade was thoroughly cleansed by the fire. He propped it carefully against a rock, hilt down, the blade elevated so it did not come in contact with anything that might dirty it as it cooled. He then pulled from his pack a small flask of spirits and an even smaller bottle of miruvor, both given to him by Elrond. "The miruvor, because even a Maia might enjoy something to warm his belly and restore his spirit on a cold night. But do not drink it if youíve bumped your head," Elrond had said, and then his eyes had twinkled as he pressed a second flask into his hand. "And some strong spirits. Not for drinking, but should you suffer a paper cut." They had chuckled together. A paper cut indeed; well they both knew that this would be no hunt through libraries. "I pray you will not need it, but you can pour it on a wound. It will keep infection at bay, but do not use too much, for it can damage the healthy flesh as well as the diseased."

Gandalf took a tiny sip of miruvor and as its warmth spread throughout him, spared a moment to speed a thankful thought Rivendellís way, not only for the libation but also for Elrondís allowing him through the years to watch occasionally as the great healer stitched together far too many victims wounded in every way imaginable. Gandalf had learned in his observations that not every ill could be cured by song or spell or sheer strength of fŽa; sometimes healing was a more prosaic matter of cleaning and stitching and bandaging and warmth. Indeed, he remembered, as vividly as if it had happened yesterday, one poor Dķnedain Ranger who had been impaled when a rotted branch fell at the very moment he walked under a tree. The branch had pierced the unfortunate manís chest, but Elrond had successfully removed it. But then Gandalf remembered with no little dismay that the man had subsequently died of infection, despite Elrondís every effort to save him.

He cleared his throat. Perhaps it was best not to dwell too much on the past.

He uncovered Aragorn, then pulled out the cork stopper of the flask of spirits. He hesitated, remembering Elrondís additional wry admonishment. "The liquid stings like the bite of a thousand vipers, so be prepared for the patient to jump, at the least, and perhaps even attack you." That he had been referring obliquely to Aragorn went without saying; they both knew that if Gandalf perforce had to care for anyone on this quest, it would be the Ranger. He had wondered, at the time, just how often Aragorn had attacked his own father in just such a way. The droll tilt of Elrondís smile certainly hinted at painful experience.

Gandalf moved Aragornís sword out of reach; Aragorn fortunately didnít seem to have need of it at the moment. "You will not like this, Aragorn, but try not to flinch." He then poured the liquid carefully around the wound and the branch, thoroughly soaking the entire area. Thankfully, Aragorn was too far into his swoon to lunge for his sword, or for Gandalfís throat, but he did let out a weak groan.

"Rest easy, rest easy," Gandalf murmured, and again rubbed Aragornís upper back. He sang lightly until Aragornís soft cries ceased.

Gandalf then shook out his own spare blanket, still clean and unused. He carefully laid it across the ground near the fire where it would warm. Then he pulled out several pairs of his own clean hose and laid them carefully atop the blanket. He wished he had more, but one hardly carried oneís entire wardrobe on a hunt; that he had decided at the last moment to toss in several extra pairs of hose and an extra blanket was looking in hindsight like blessed†prescience. He supposed he might find some more hose†in Aragornís pack, but he could not be certain any he found there would be clean. He did, however, dig through the pack to see what healing herbs the man might have. "Athelas would be helpful. Or poppy." But he found neither. He did find a small pot of some sort of salve, however. Gandalf opened it and took a sniff and the odor nearly blew the top of his skull off. He let out a disgusted cry that was halfway to a cough and hurriedly replaced the stopper. "I never knew you for carrying orc repellent!" he groused and shoved Aragornís pack, and the offensive jar, out of the way.

As he swiped his sleeve across his watering eyes, he was alarmed afresh as Aragorn let out another pain-filled cry. Gandalf hurriedly laid his hand across Aragornís forehead. He did not have Elrond nor Aragornís gift of healing via such methods, but he could enter a Manís mind, if allowed, to ascertain what he could. Aragorn had always kept his mind open to Gandalf, and so Gandalf concentrated, hoping that even unconscious, Aragorn would still welcome the touch of his old friend. And indeed, soon Gandalf felt pain, confusion and fear churning through Aragornís fŽa. But even as he felt the weakness wrought by wound and fever, he came up against a core of resolve as of hardened steel. He could almost see Aragornís eyes blazing with outrage as his body battled its injuries. Gandalf smiled, then withdrew. Strong indeed was the Heir of Elendil. Far stronger, Gandalf was now certain, than any avalanche or piddling small splinter in his back.

But what exactly to do with said splinter. He had been avoiding mulling over the problem as he gathered his supplies, but now it must be faced that he was unsure how to proceed. It must be removed, of course, the splinter; what to do with the hole it left behind was the question. It would need stitching, surely, but there was bound to be dirt, shreds of fabric, bark and who knew what other nasty bits embedded within, and no matter how careful Gandalf cleaned it, some debris would be left behind. Stitching it would trap what was left and allow it to fester. Indeed, from the looks of the inflamed skin, infection had already set in.

So the wound must be left open, somehow, to allow for continual cleaning and the draining away of any dirty bits Gandalf missed. He knew he could pack it with what clean bandages he could contrive from materials at hand, but he could hear Elrondís voice in his head reminding him that dressings on an open wound would need to be changed twice a day, for at least a week if not longer, depending on the depth and breadth of the wound and how quickly new tissue formed. Gandalf did not have enough spare hose for a weekís worth of twice daily bandage changes, even if they did have food and fuel enough to subsist for that long in this barren cave.

It appeared that no matter which course of action Gandalf took, stitching it up or leaving it open, infection and even death were far too likely. For a moment, the hopelessness of their situation enraged him, and he felt very much like beating his clenched fists against the stone floor of the cave.

Then he took a deep breath and collected himself. "Surely there must be a way," he murmured. He stepped around Aragorn so he could look into his face, as if in the unconscious manís quiet countenance he could read the answer, somehow. "Tell me what to do, Aragorn," Gandalf whispered. "Tell me what I should do."

Aragorn remained silent and still, but for shallow, pained breaths. Gandalf laid a hand against Aragornís cheek for a moment, then straightened. He sat for a long moment, staring at the flames, counting up his supplies, thinking about bandages. He finally nodded, his decision made. "I shall do both, Aragorn, and hope it not an ill choice. I will stitch it up but leave a bit open, just enough to allow it to drain, and yet small enough to be covered with only the smallest bit of fabric. And you, Aragorn, will have to ply that Nķmenůrean strength of yours and heal more quickly than any man ever has from such a wound, because we cannot stay in this cave for long."

He then looked at the supplies he had laid out. "But what to stitch you with?" Though Gandalf carried thread and needle in a small repair kit in his pack, that thread was thick and rough, meant for stitching up rent garments, not for patching up punctured companions. And he had carried it in the bottom of his pack for decades. It was not clean enough for this job. But his hose was another matter. They were Elven-make, never worn, and more importantly, woven of fine silken thread which should be eminently suitable for such a task. So, grasping a clean sock, he worked at the hem until he had loosened a thread, which he then grasped and unraveled until he deemed the length sufficient to stitch the wound shut. Then he fished his needle out. A pass through the flames, a loop of the clean thread through its eye, and it joined the knife, sitting on the cloak at the ready.

He checked the snow-water; the snow had long melted and was boiling merrily. There was room in the pot for more, so another quick trip outside for more snow, which hit the boiling water with a small explosion of steam. He moved the pot back into the hottest part of the fire so the water would come back to boiling. Oh how he wished then for some athelas to cast in the water, for he could use a burst of that refreshing fragrance. And it went without saying that Aragorn would benefit greatly. But athelas they had none, so soldier on without it they would.

Finally, Gandalf selected a small but sturdy stick from his meager stack of firewood, broke off a short length and pried Aragornís teeth apart and wedged it in. "Plucking that bit of splinter from your side will pain you greatly, Aragorn. I hope you are lost enough to the world that you will not feel it, but if you do, may this keep you from breaking your teeth or biting off your tongue."

One last chore of moving the water away from the fire to cool, and then he took a steadying breath. He splashed his hands liberally with the spirits, shook them dry, and then picked up the knife. He touched the bladeís edge to the skin of Aragornís back. Aragorn did not react, so, leaning on Aragorn with his left forearm, to hopefully stop him bucking from the pain, Gandalf swiftly plied the blade against the skin. Aragorn let out another deep groan, muffled by the stick he ground down upon, but he was too weak to otherwise struggle, and thankfully it took only a relatively small slice to free the branch. Though it had been long enough to wreak considerable damage to the back muscles, it had not penetrated any further, and Aragornís inner organs were untouched. "Thank the Valar for such mercies as we can find," Gandalf breathed.

Much relieved and working quickly, Gandalf tossed aside the branch and flushed the wound clean as best as he could, first with water, and then with the spirits, picking out the larger bits of debris with the tip of his knife and sponging away smaller bits with a bit of folded hose. He let it bleed freely a bit, for good measure, before finally holding a pad of folded hose against the wound to soak up the welling blood. He then reached for the needle and deftly stitched the wound closed, moving from the inside of the wound out, stopping and dabbing away blood as he went until he finally reached the outer skin. He made those stitches very tiny indeed, to keep scarring to a minimum. He left it open at the very bottom of the wound, to allow, he hoped, for the drainage of any foul vapors. Surely he had enough bandages to contrive the twice daily changes on such a small opening.

With the bleeding stopped and another folded bit of hose covering the wound, Gandalf sat back on his haunches and wiped his brow. Throughout the ordeal, Aragorn had groaned steadily but had not moved, until finally at the end he had fallen into exhausted silence.

Gandalf cast again into his pack and pulled out his very last pair of hose. With much grunting and gasping, he rolled Aragorn over and lifted him carefully to a seated position, leaning him against his chest, and wrapped the hose around Aragornís waist to hold the dressing in place. Aragornís slim build held him in good stead; there was just enough to go around completely and tie securely, but no extra.

With that done, Gandalf laid him gently back down on his belly. He then turned his attention to the wound above Aragornís ear. He tore a strip from the tail of one of Aragornís shirts and dipped it into the water. He dabbed gently at the crusted blood on Aragornís neck and in his hair. It took many rinses but he finally managed to clean it all up. The wound itself had scabbed over nicely, so Gandalf elected to leave it be. Aragorn had lost enough blood as it was, and there seemed to be no infection. Gandalf finally covered him with the blanket warmed by the fire. "Rest now, Aragorn," he murmured, and then, satisfied that his patient was breathing deeply and evenly, he busied himself with laying out all of the wet clothes to dry.

Finished at last, he eased himself sighing to the floor beside Aragorn and leaned back against the wall. He might have traded his staff for a cushion should someone have offered him one at that moment, but the wall at least gave his aching muscles a bit of support. "Elbereth, have mercy on us both," he breathed, and, resting a comforting hand on Aragornís shoulder, settled in to keep watch over his charge.

Chapter†Three - Wishing For a Penny Beyond Reach

Watching Aragorn waken from his injuries was nearly as painful as being injured oneself, Gandalf decided. Aragorn had slept quietly through the night, exhaustion and blood loss no doubt acting as a better painkiller than any herbal remedy, but now with dawnís first hazy light, the poor man grimaced and groaned and shifted his legs and moved his arms as though trying to roll himself over. When he flapped his arm toward his wounded back, Gandalf had to intervene. "Easy, Aragorn. No need for that."

Grey eyes opened to stare fuzzily at him. A chalky voice garbled one questioning syllable. "Whuí?"

"What happened, or where are you? I believe both questions are valid," Gandalf smiled down at the befuddled man.

Aragorn shut his eyes and frowned. He looked decidedly cross as he again tried to reach behind his back. Gandalf stopped him by grasping his wrist and then had to quickly reconsider his evaluation of Aragornís mood. The eyes glaring at him now were not merely cross; they were furious, and Aragorn enraged was a sight to make any man blanch and step back.

Of course, Gandalf was hardly any man. "Aragorn," he said, and then, when he continued to struggle, more sternly, "Aragorn! Do not fight me! You are injured, and you must not reach back there or youíll pull loose all the stitches I painstakingly applied in order to stop you bleeding your life out on this cave floor."

The fury drained away as Aragorn seemed finally to come a bit more to himself. In fact, so piteous was his bewildered contrition that Gandalf almost wished for a return of the anger; he did not like seeing his normally composed and hardy friend laid so low.

Gandalf released his wrist and patted his shoulder. "There now, I know itís disconcerting and painful, but time will set you aright."

Speech seemed beyond Aragorn, but the questions that filled his eyes did the asking for him.

"I do not know what happened, exactly. I think you may have been caught up in that avalanche." He framed it almost as a question and nodded at the acknowledging flicker of returning memory on Aragornís face. "Ah, so it was. Do not worry about the details... you may tell me the entire sad tale when youíre feeling stronger and what memory you have of it returns. Suffice to say that somehow you made it from wherever you were to this cave, where I had set up camp for the night. I patched that which needed patching and warmed that which needed thawing, and you will no doubt be fully yourself, save for a stiff back, in a day or two."

"My... back.... What...?"

"One might say that I pulled a rather large splinter from it."

"Wasnít," he paused to swallow, "wasnít... arrow?"

"Ah, so you knew something was sticking you. I should say you would, at that. But no, it was not an arrow. From the looks of it, Iíd guess you impaled yourself on a bush or a tree, or perhaps a stray broken branch was driven into you during the avalanche. However it happened, there was a segment of one sticking right into your lower back. Not too far in, thankfully. Had it not been for your heavy coat and cloak, it might have gone straight through and killed you outright. Still, itís sure to be painful even so."

Aragorn nodded. He pushed at the ground, weakly lifting his head a bit.

"Do you want to lay on your side? Too soon yet for laying on your back."

Another nod, and with great care Gandalf helped roll him onto his right side. Aragorn let out a few scratchy groans, but seemed to tolerate the move fairly well. After a quick check to ensure the bandages were still in place, Gandalf wadded up Aragornís nearly empty pack and slid it beneath his head. "Better?"

Aragorn didnít reply, but reached up and felt the bump over his ear. "Head hurts."

"Youíve a nasty bump there, and a cut. I imagine youíll feel the effects of that bang for some days."

Aragorn let his hand drop, then winced and lifted it again. He rubbed his elbow and then his forearm.

"You have bumps and bruises all over. It must have been quite a tumble you took. Thankfully nothing seems broken, but I imagine youíll be stiff and sore for a few days. Pity we have no athelas, for Iíd bathe you with it to ease the stiffness and the aches." He reached for his waterskin. "I do have some miruvor, but your father advised me not to drink it if Iíd taken a bump to the head, and I imagine the same applies to you, so I think we best start with water. Drink now, there you go."

He held Aragornís head a bit more upright as he dribbled a few slow drops into Aragornís mouth. When those went down easily, he allowed him to sip a bit more. "Not too much," he said as he pulled the waterskin back. "I do not want you to sicken yourself. That bump on your head might put your belly in a bit of a tip. I wouldnít be surprised if that doesnít give you more misery in the near run than the wound in your back."

Aragorn looked around the small cave, seeming to take in every detail despite there being a certain bleariness in his gaze that troubled Gandalf greatly. Aragornís right eyelid drooped a bit more than his left, though both eyes seemed to move in concert with one another. He had seen men hit so hard their eyes crossed. At least Aragorn didnít seem to have that problem, but still, that drooping lid was troubling as there didnít seem to be any other cause for it beyond the bump on the head; Aragornís face had been spared the battering the rest of his body took. "Where is this place?"

"Oh," Gandalf started, realizing he had completely lost himself in his worries. "Yes, right. Itís a cave, and not a very big one, but dry and serviceable and blessedly free from any evidence of cracks that could open up without warning to let in orcs or swallow up wounded Rangers. Due west of The Carrock, not too far from the Eagleís Eyrie. I believe, in fact, that it was on that mount that your avalanche nearly buried you."

"It was. I was looking in some caves there."

"And did you find anything? Any sign whatsoever?"

"None," Aragorn murmured. "Eagles. No Gollum."

"Well, itís early days yet. I did not expect we would find Gollum in our first weeks or even months, to be perfectly honest. I think it would be quite a miracle to find any signs of him in this area after all this time, let alone find the creature himself. But do not fear that our summer has been wasted. As you said, it would have been foolish not to check...."

Gandalf stopped talking, for Aragorn had drifted back to sleep. Gandalf brushed a lock of Aragornís hair away from his cheek. "Forgive an old wizard for rambling on so. Sleep is all you need right now, and not endless prattle. Talk of the hunt can wait." He adjusted the blanket and again made sure moving Aragorn had not dislodged the bandages. All seemed as well as it could be, so Gandalf turned his mind to their situation.

There was no gainsaying it: their plight was precarious in the extreme. Aragorn was in no shape to travel, not for days yet, and this cave, though snug enough, was hardly secure shelter. A blizzard could howl down from the heights at any time, barring Gandalf from finding fuel and food, and even if the weather proved merciful, there were still orcs and other dangerous beasts about.

What they needed was a horse. If he had a horse, one of those sturdy mounts of the Dķnedain, perhaps, who were bred for the Northís chill winters and were surefooted enough to traverse mountains, he could bundle Aragorn on his back and theyíd be down the mountain and in Beornís warm hall in no time. But horses were in short supply here on the peaks, not being prone to wander up so high on their own. "Which shows they have far more common sense then wizards and Rangers," Gandalf said aloud. "No offense meant, if you can hear me, Aragorn."

He sighed as he looked idly at the sky beyond the cave entrance, watching dawn turn the horizon a rosy pink. A bird circled there, small with distance. He watched it drift, its wings nearly motionless as it rose and fell gently with the air currents, looking below for prey, no doubt. He studied its shape and realized that it was an Eagle. "It must be farther away than I thought, to look so small," he said. He glanced at Aragorn, who remained asleep, breathing easily enough, although there was a tiny wrinkle of a frown between his brows. Pain, no doubt, felt even in sleep. Gandalf reached over and gently stroked Aragornís cheek with the back of his hand. He still felt too warm, even given that he was on his side, facing the fire. "You need proper shelter and medicines, but how to get you to them."

He shook his head, frustrated, then pulled out his pipe. Rubbing it helped him think, helped him focus his thoughts. He ran a thumb over a bowl polished to a sheen from many such worried caresses.

"If only Iíd been given a mortal frame as mighty as yours," he said, "then Iíd simply sling you across my shoulders and off weíd go. But I was given a shape for blending in, for appearing harmless, for instilling confidence and love, not for leading Men and Elves in majestic power. You are built for war, for battle, for leading vast armies." He smiled wistfully. "And for standing before your people, tall and noble and beloved, kingly in every way. And yet here we sit, you with all your power nonetheless laid low, and me, hale enough in my own way, yet unable to do much beyond stitching and bandaging and hand-holding."

The eagle was closer now, circling, circling...

"You are built like that Eagle, Aragorn. Meant to soar, and soar you shall, if the Wise can find some way to confound Sauron. You know, I still think it might be that the weakest among us will lead the way in prevailing against him. No slight to you, of course, because you are as key to all of it as anyone. But you will need help, and I feel that help will come from a quarter unlooked for. How and who, Iíve no idea. But the idea will not leave me; it invades my dreams and pesters the edges of every grand plan I try to devise. Maybe it is because the power of the Elves and the purity of Men, save those of the Westernesse, has diminished. Maybe I think of the small because ere too long that is all we will have left to us; that is all we will have become, while the might of Sauron grows and grows, unchecked..."

His voice trailed away. He had no business speaking his dark thoughts aloud. Asleep the ranger might be, but his ears would hear, and the words would sink into his spirit, and Gandalf would fain chop off his right hand and break his staff than do or say anything that might dampen the hope that Aragorn carried always within him. Master of fire Gandalf might be, but many times he looked into the keen eyes of his friend and felt there burned within Aragorn a fire hotter than any that kindled in his own heart.

"Forgive me, old friend. Iím letting the cares of a long life turn me into a gloomy old so-and-so. Of course we will defeat Sauron. Iíve a feeling in my heart that it is simply a matter of solving riddles about rings, and toward that end, finding gangling creatures in the gloom. And find Gollum we will, donít you doubt that for a moment, my dear friend. But first, to find a horse... if you have any ideas on that subject, feel free to awaken and share them with me."

Aragorn slept on, and Gandalf laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. He kept it there, hoping it might give him comfort to feel the presence of another, but if he were honest with himself, and he always tried to be, he drew just as much comfort from the contact himself.

But oh, how to get a horse...

The eagle was very close now; he could see the yellow of its beak. He watched it fondly, remembering back to a night of fire and orcs and wolves, when the Eagles, curious as always to what was afoot in their mountain home, had come....

"Fool of a wizard!" he snapped, suddenly sitting straight up. "Lost in thought, wishing for a penny beyond reach when a dragon hoard of mithril is at hand!"

He grabbed his staff and hurried to the cave entrance.

Chapter Four - A Bit Feeble in the Feathers

Gandalf stood in the cave opening, his staff glowing and all his thought bent on the Eagle flying overhead. He could only hope that it would see him and be intrigued enough to come investigate this odd new glow on its doorstep. It was all well and good to know that Eagles were around, but convincing one to come to oneís aid was often a tricky matter. They held themselves aloof from the affairs of Men and Elves and all those creatures that were tied to the earth, including wizards. But these majestic Northern birds, much like the Men of Westernesse themselves, had kept their ties to ManwŽ, and as Gandalf also had a strong connection with that great Vala, he could only hope that such affinity might hold him in good stead when it came to convincing an eagle to come calling.

He frowned, adding ManwŽ to his thoughts, and the tip of his staff burned brighter.

After quite a number of minutes, Gandalf felt a change in the air. It was subtle, but he had felt it before, while perched in burning trees with goblins and wolves howling for his blood and the blood of his fourteen diminutive companions. He looked to the sky and smiled. The Eagle now circled directly above, looming larger and larger as it slowly descended toward him. Before very long, Gandalf could see the great shining eyes and the variegated shades of brown and cream on the mighty birdís feathers, and the glint of gold around its neck. Gandalf chuckled quietly; it seemed the Eagles were still enjoying their share of the Dwarvesí gold.

It was not the Lord of Eagles, but this one was very nearly as large. If Gandalf were not mistaken, it seemed he was about to be visited by a female eagle, for females were often larger than their male counterparts. As she passed overhead, the rush of wind from her vast wings buffeted Gandalf and blew his hat completely off his head. She landed as he bent to retrieve it. He picked it up, brushed the snow from its brim and held it in his hands as he turned and bowed to her. She lifted most of her feathers and let them settle again as she looked him up and down with golden eyes that shone with fierce intelligence but also benign good will. "Gandalf the Grey," she said, bowing her noble head. "It has been many years since you last met with my kind."

"Too long an interval, my lady."

She preened a bit, then nodded. "I am Menelris, one of the Chieftains of the Eagles."

"A queen of the sky, indeed. Great are your wings, and lovely are your feathers."

She accepted the compliment as her due, then looked beyond Gandalfís shoulder to the cave within, where Aragorn was just visible, still sleeping by the fire, the blanket clutched in both hands and pulled to his chin. "The man found you, then?"

"Ah, so you know of him."

"I saw him fall, but then billowing snow from the avalanche hid him from my eyes and I lost track of him. I am glad he found succor. Surprised, but glad. Few who suffer his fate live to tell the tale."

"It is uncertain yet that he will live, which is why I am so grateful you deigned to land."

"Whether my landing benefits you or your friend remains to be seen, wizard," she said with some asperity. "What was he doing on our mountain?"

"He and I are hunting."

"A bit late in the year and high on the crags to be looking for game. Indeed, my mate and I will be starting our southward journey within days. It is warmer there, and in those lands the Anduin will not be so stingy with her fish during the winter months."

"The game we seek is not for eating, but for questioning. We hunt a creature, a pale, gangling thing named Gollum, who skulks in caves and shadowed places and who may tell us important information regarding a bit of treasure he once possessed."

"Treasure again! Always treasure with you and whatever companions with which you array yourself. I like my necklace, but I will not put myself in jeopardy for a trinket. Nor to help you find a trinket of your own."

"We already know of the treasureís location, but we now seek knowledge of its significance. I fear it may be a force of unspeakable evil."

She tilted her head. "Evil, you say. Yes, there is much evil growing in the south, and its stench grows thicker each day. I fear it will spread North ere long. Indeed, we watched nearly two years ago as evil stalked the lands to the west, in the guise of a darkly-clad wretch the likes of whom we have not seen for generations.* Tell me: was it seeking this same creature?"

"No, I do not believe so. I believe it may have been seeking my wounded companion, for reasons I cannot share at this time."

"Does your companion have a name?"

"He calls himself Strider."

A knowing glint appeared in Menelrisí eye. "ĎCalls himselfí. Interesting choice of words. I take it he has some other given name that he would prefer remain unknown."

Gandalf smiled. "You are as canny as you are beautiful. It could go ill for him, were his identity to become widely known."

"It takes no great intelligence to read the meaning behind your words, wizard. But I thank you for the compliment nonetheless." She lowered her head and again looked toward the cave. "Far be it for an Eagle to involve herself too closely in the affairs of wizards and men, although I admit I am very intrigued by this Strider of yours. I have seen him before, wandering the lands. And when he was young, he dwelt in Imladris, am I correct?"

"Nothing seems to miss your sharp eyes."

"I know of him, and can make a fair guess as to his true identity, but his business and whatever name he now goes by may remain his own, so long as the evil one was not searching him out as an ally."

"I can assure you, Strider is no ally of evil, in whatever guise it takes."

"So you vouch for him?"

"Most definitely."

"That, then, is sufficient for me, for you have ever been a friend to the Eagles, and to all living things. You said this Strider Ė such a landbound name! It is harsh on my tongue. Better was another name by which he traveled. But you say he is injured? How may I assist?"

It took Gandalf a moment to recover, so great was his surprise that she seemed to know all about Aragorn and his many guises, especially Thorongil. But he supposed Eagles likely knew far more than they told, for they saw things far and wide from their great circling flights above the earth. But did she know of the import of his true name, he wondered, and then decided even if she did, the secret would be safe with her. He relaxed. "He is injured, yes. A wound to the back that threatens to suppurate, and a blow to the head that has left him dazed. I have cleaned the back wound and stitched it, but he will need rest and warmth and good food, all of which are in short supply in this small cave."

"I can carry him to Rivendell."

"I was thinking of Beornís Hall, actually."

She shifted, her feathers ruffling slightly. "The Beornings will shoot me." A glimmering amusement lit her eyes. If anything, Gandalf would have to say she looked mischievous. "Allies they have become since the great battle, but they still think we enjoy too much of their mutton."

"I see things have not changed in the years since I last spoke with the Eagles."

She let out a chirruping laugh, a high whistling note of mirth. "Ever will Beornings raise sheep, and ever will Eagles view their flocks as banquets set upon the hillside in our honor."

"I understand your hesitancy to brave the bowshots of the Beornings, but I fear it too far to Rivendell, and the height too great. The chill air may do him greater harm than staying here."

"I can take you as far as The Carrock, then."

"And how then will I get Strider, weakened as he is, across all those dales?"

She walked to the cave entrance and peered in, then clicked her yellow beak in sympathy. "Men always seem pale to me, but he does seem pale beyond what is healthy. If he were an Eagle, I would say he looks more than a bit feeble in the feathers. Definitely in no shape for hiking, is he. Perhaps if I brought you food, and wood for your fire, you could stay here until he is stronger, and then I can carry you both to The Carrock."

Gandalf stroked his beard, frowning as he stared into the middle distance, weighing the risks of staying. A blizzard could strike, trapping them here for who knew how long and preventing Menelris from bringing food or wood. And there was still the matter of orcs. As close as they were to the Eyrie, they were likely safe enough, but if a stray band were to come upon them here, defense of such a small cave was hardly tenable. And truly, he did not fancy calling upon Menelris to wait on them hand and foot for so long; it was too much to ask even of her evidently very generous nature. Perhaps Rivendell were the best option. But he needed to know the answer to one last question before he could decide. "How fares the weather in the High Pass?"

"Foul. Winter has struck early, and there are storms nearly every day, though it falls as rain still in the lower reaches. The High Pass is already closed to those who travel afoot. Flying through there, though possible, is difficult. We have to soar over the tops of storms more often than not."

"A man, injured or no, cannot live in such heights above the clouds, even for a short while," Gandalf said. It was decided, then. The Carrock it must be, and he would make do with whatever shelter he found there. "If you could return in the heat of the day, when the chill of flying will be lessened for my friend, I will gratefully accept your offer to take us to The Carrock, and hope from there to find help among the Beornings. I could, if need be, leave him for a time as I seek assistance."

Menelris bowed her head, and then she stretched her wings. Gandalf expected her to fly away, but she suddenly folded them back. She looked toward the cave, her eyes troubled, then stepped into the opening. She was far too large to enter, but she stretched her neck so she could take a closer look at Aragorn. Gandalf moved closer, stooping low to look through her legs, ready to intervene should Aragorn become alarmed. But Aragorn lay insensate, completely unaware that he was under the close scrutiny of a very large eagle. She gently brushed her beak against his cheek, a surprisingly motherly gesture from one so fierce. She cooed softly, but when Aragorn failed to stir, she backed out of the cave, stepping lightly back onto the snow. "Even one as ignorant of the ways of Men as I can see he is weak and in no small jeopardy of losing his life. He breathes too lightly." She clacked her beak several times, obviously agitated. "No. I do not like the idea of your leaving him once you get to The Carrock; it could mean his death. So I will make this promise: if there are no hunters about Ė if the way seems clear Ė I will take you to Beornís Hall itself, or as close to it as I safely can. Archers shooting at me could as easily hit you or your companion, after all. But looking at him.... yes, I feel we must risk the danger."

Her tender concern touched Gandalf deeply. "That is more than a fair promise, and I thank you."

"Of course, what you do from there is your own affair. I have heard that Beorn does not suffer unexpected guests with good grace."

"I have had dealings with him before; I am certain I can convince him to let us stay."

"If he has a heart at all, he will take one look at your friend and pity will consume him," she said, again with a tender note in her voice. "Until this afternoon, then. We will fare each other well properly after I deliver you however far to the East as I may," she said, and then with a mighty flap of her great wings, she was airborne and riding the updrafts back to the heights of the mountains.

Gandalf watched her until she disappeared, then ducked back into the cave.

Aragorn was awake, and looking at him. "Am I mad with fever, or did an eagle just touch me?" he asked, his voice far too weak for Gandalfís ease of mind.

Gandalf pressed the back of his hand against Aragornís cheek; his skin felt almost painfully hot, and a sheen of perspiration matted his hair against his forehead. But the droop was gone from his right eye, and some of the bleariness. "You have fever, yes, but you are not mad. Menelris is her name. Queen of the Sky, one of their Chieftains. She has agreed to take us to the east, hopefully as far as Beornís Hall."

Aragornís eyes grew troubled. "How..." He stopped, then said in a very quiet voice, "I have never ridden an eagle."

"You will be fine. Itís quite like riding a horse, in many ways."

Aragorn said nothing, but Gandalf could tell he was beset with great unease, and he wondered what worried Aragorn more: the idea of flying itself, or the idea of flying while weak and injured. He thought about asking, but Aragorn tensed suddenly, gritting his teeth against a wave of pain. The spasm, when it passed, left him pale and trembling. "Iím sorry," he gasped.

"My dear fellow, do not apologize. Let me see what is going on back there," Gandalf said, and stepped around to kneel behind him. He gently peeled the bandages back and was surprised to find that last nightís redness had faded. There was a small amount of swelling but the wound looked far better than Gandalf would have expected. But there was little doubt Aragorn had a fever; even now he shivered as he fell back into uneasy sleep.

What could be causing this fever, Gandalf wondered. The wound seemed better, so perhaps it was simply due to too-long exposure to the cold. Even the hardiest of Nķmenůreans in the days since that isle was drowned sometimes fell to divers fevers and plagues. Broken indeed were the gifts of Nķmenor, even in one whose blood was as pure as Aragornís; for as great as Elendil himself was, his span was not as long as the Lords of AnduniŽ, and theirs not as long as the days given Elros before them. Waning, waning... to ever wane seemed always the fate of Men. Gandalf sighed. Not since those early days had the Dķnedain lived the intended span of their lives. Still, Gandalf had felt that strong pillar of strength in Aragorn, and he somehow knew this would not defeat him. "Long indeed will be your days, Aragorn. They shall not end in shivering and suffering in a cave on an unnamed and misbegotten mountain."

He stepped over Aragorn and settled down again beside him to keep watch. Try as he might, he could not keep his thoughts marshaled toward hope, and that was a rare and unsettling thing. He looked down at Aragorn, at the suffering etched in his face, and seldom had he felt such impotent anger. This was the king lying here, injured, ill, forgotten by all save a remnant few of his own people, and a scattering of Elves and apparently at least one Eagle. Gondor herself had no inkling, no prescience that her king cometh. No, for all her seers and men wise in lore, even to the Steward Denethor himself, none knew that their king lived and breathed, crownless as he moved from peril to peril, seeking a way, often alone, to defeat the Shadow, at whatever considerable cost to his own life.

It was enough to embitter even the most hopeful.

Aragorn muttered something. Gandalf bent close, but Aragorn did not repeat himself.

"Crownless you may be, but a king you are, Aragorn, and a king you shall ever be, even if you never see your throne," Gandalf whispered. He brushed Aragornís hair from his face, and did not try to blink away the tears pricking his eyes.

_____

*You may read of the events of a NazgŻl terrorizing the eastern edges of Eriador in my story, At Hopeís Edge.

In canon, all the Eagles were male, but as Tolkien had an occasional queen in Nķmenor, I do not think it beyond reason to have a female among the Lord of the Eaglesí chieftains.

A note about Eagles: In the real world, female eagles are generally larger than their male counterparts. Extrapolating that to Tolkienís Eagles, Menelris therefore is quite large, though she would not be larger, in my estimation, than the Lord of Eagles.

Another extrapolation may be less defensible, but nonetheless, I think it possible that the Eagles would know, at least in general terms, that Aragorn was the Chieftain of the Dķnedain and even make the connection that he is therefore the Heir of Elendil. Eagles keep themselves apart from Men, but they watch everything from the heights and are often privy to secrets as they function as messengers. Additionally, Eagles were once honored residents of Nķmenůr, and Witnesses of ManwŽ, sent by him to keep watch over all the land (UT page 166 in my copy), so it does not seem too unlikely a stretch to believe that they would pass down stories of those great Nķmenůrean Eagles as part of their lore. Likewise, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to imagine they would have continued keeping watch, either at ManwŽís order or simply from custom, over the lives of the dwindling Dķnedain and especially of the heirs of Elendil.

Chapter 5 - Tuck Your Head Under

Menelris returned, as promised, but not alone, and not empty taloned. A smaller male was with her, and they both carried bundles, which they placed beside the cave entrance.

Menelris gave her bundle a nudge so it was not blocking the cave opening. "I return, although I do not bring glad tidings. You no doubt feel for yourself that the heat of this afternoon is no warmer than the cold of this morning. And that may be blamed on a storm looming just on the western side of these mountains. It is moving fast, and I do not trust the winds to carry us to Beornís Hall before it hits. I am afraid you and Strider must remain here for the duration."

Gandalf was filled with dismay. He looked up toward the tops of the mountains, and indeed, heavy dark clouds were gathered about the peaks. It looked like it could snow at any moment. "What else can possibly go wrong," he muttered, then put aside his consternation. It could be worse, he supposed. They could both be out in the open instead of in a cozy cave, however small it might be, and they might not have the caring attentions of two noble Eagles. He turned to them and bowed. "I thank you for your wisdom in this. You know far better than I how to read the weather signs. But for your wise counsel, I in my ignorance might have insisted on travel that likely would have proven deadly."

"I know you must be sorely disappointed, but it is for the best to wait. And to that end, we have brought some things that will give you a bit of ease and comfort. But I am remiss... let me first introduce to you Durvain, my mate."

"We are well met, Gandalf the Grey," Durvain said.††Durvain's voice was surprisingly gentle, pitched higher than Menelrisí, and his eyes glowed with a warmer, more gentle light than Menelrisí own. But for all that he seemed more friendly than fierce, he was still a formidable presence, towering above Gandalf.

"Well met, indeed,"†Gandalf said.† "And an apt name, for dark and beautiful indeed are your feathers."†

Durvain ducked his head and plucked in almost†embarrassed fashion†at said dark feathers on his breast, and Menelris nodded her approval of the greetings.††She then pulled at her bundle. "As I said, we bring you things to ease your stay. Behold, blankets, but more important: warm down, from beneath our own feathers. Durvain will take it into the cave and make pallets for you and your companion, to raise you off the cold cave floor."

Durvain stepped forward with his offerings, which included a small stag. "Wood for your fire, taken from several abandoned nests. Eagles are far larger than wizards, and what to us seem merely twigs might be too heavy for you to lift, so I took the liberty of cracking†them into what I hope are more manageable pieces. And I also bring meat for your bellies. It should be enough to outlast the storm."

"And I am leaving you Durvain himself," Menelris added. "He is smaller than I, as you can see, and can fit through the entrance of the cave. The warmth of his body will add to your warmth, and he will block the wind rushing in."

"But he will be too cold, surely," Gandalf protested.

"Though it is rarely pleasant, we Eagles can survive blizzards out in the open," Durvain said. He suddenly fluffed his feathers until he was nearly twice his size, an alarming sight that,†even knowing Eagles as allies who would never bring him†harm, nonetheless caused Gandalf to take an involuntary step backwards. "See? We trap a layer of air in our feathers and stay quite warm. And truly, only a very small part of my back will be exposed to the wind, so I will actually be more comfortable in your cave than Menelris will be in our nest."

The things one learns, even at my great age, Gandalf thought. He stepped forward again. "If youíre certain, then. I thank you."

Menelris said, "Once the storm passes here, he can, if needs must, carry the two of you individually to The Carrock, should foul weather on the heights prevent my timely return. Durvain is small, but he has strength that belies his stature. And he has an exceeding gentle nature, as you can probably see from the light in his eyes. He is unique among Eagles in his compassion for all things. That is why I chose him as a mate," she added, rubbing his head affectionately with her beak. He cooed back at her, and such were the tender glances they exchanged that Gandalf almost wondered if he should step into the cave to give them a moment of privacy. After a final caress, she straightened. "His warm heart balances my fierce tendencies. But that is likely of little interest to you. I must go now, but as our journey together is not ended, I will simply bid you the very strength of ManwŽ, until we meet again."

Gandalf bowed deeply. "Menelris, I thank you for your many kindnesses, and eagerly await your return. May the wind bear you to safety in the meantime."

"I will come at the earliest opportunity." She spread her wings. "Until the weather breaks, then." Without another word, she lifted her wings and launched herself effortlessly into the air.

"Keep your feathers fluffed!" Durvain called to her, then he watched her until she disappeared. He breathed out a slightly mournful coo. "I will miss her, but this is good for her," he said softly.

"Good for her? How so?"

He let out a soft, plaintive cry that was quite possibly the saddest sound Gandalf had ever heard a creature utter. "We lost our fledgling, just last week."

"Oh, I am so very sorry. You have my condolences."

"Thank you. He was born late in the season, you see, and was smaller than most," he replied, and then he continued, and it seemed that the bird had so much on his heart that he simply had to speak it forth, even to a stranger. "His egg was so tiny! And he was such a wee eaglet, but fierce! Oh how stubborn and strong-willed he was; a real fighter, like his mother, so we named him Belechen, Mighty Child. We knew he had little chance at surviving, but how our hearts warmed to him and how we hoped he would prevail despite all evidence that spoke of a certain much sadder fate. And bound up in that hope, at least for me, was much guilt, for as you can see, I am small Ė some say too small Ė for an eagle, and there were those that thought Menelris had lost her wits, choosing me as her mate."

"Surely not," Gandalf couldnít help interjecting. His heart was already taken by this wonderful creatureís kind eyes and unassuming sincerity; he could not harbor the thought of anyone speaking ill of him.

"No, I think sometimes they must be right. Likely it was foolish of her, for though we have had many healthy and strong eaglets, I knew eventually I might pass my own small stature on... and I did, in poor Belechen." He paused, looking toward the empty sky where she had disappeared from sight. Then he shook himself, and blinked several times, as if returning from a journey to some land of sorrows unseen. "I had difficulty learning to fly, you see, and had to work twice as hard as the other eagles to hone my hunting skills. So I knew the hard life our tiny eaglet faced, but I knew I could help him, and Menelris assured me over and over that he would grow into as fine a bird as... well, that he would be counted among the best."

Again he paused, looking at the ground. Gandalf found he was holding his breath, spellbound by Durvainís softly spoken tale. "Menelris encourages me always, holding me in higher esteem than I could ever hold myself," he said quietly, then again the shake of the head and the return of his gaze to the present. "Belechen was so bright and intelligent, determined to do everything an Eagle should, including of course learning to fly. We all believed he would prevail."

Gandalf could hardly bear to hear the taleís sad end. He remained silent, but he wanted to cry out for Durvain to stop, to not tell such a sorrowful thing to a Maia already too burdened with the heartaches of this world.

But Durvain continued, his voice steady but filled with such suffering that Gandalf felt the birdís†grief as if it were a physical blow. "We did not stop him from his first attempt. He flew from the nest, with an eager light in his eyes and our hearts on his wings, but the wind took an ill turn, and he was simply not strong enough to return against it. He plunged to his death."

Gandalf had to swallow hard several times before he found his voice. "How terrible for all of you. Iím so sorry."

"It happens too often. Even among healthy fledglings, only a bit more than half survive their first flight."

"I had no idea."

"It is to be expected, time to time, though it is no less painful when it does." He raised his feathers and let them settle, as if literally shaking off the spell of sorrow his tale had wrought. "We grieve, of course, but take comfort knowing we will have another little one next year, hopefully a full-sized eaglet, strong in every way. But for now, the death has left her with nothing to care for, and her maternal instincts are still running high. She needed something to mother, you see, even if it is a Man." His gaze brightened. "She has been buzzing with plans ever since she found you both this morning. In fact, when she decided you needed down for warmth, she all but sat atop me and tried to strip me of every last one of my underfeathers!" He let out a whistling snort that Gandalf could only interpret as laughter. "But I managed to convince her that, rather than expose me to death by freezing, perhaps it would be wiser to supplement it with the down from our nest."

"This came from your nest?"

"The majority of it, yes. But fear not, we still have plenty to keep Menelris warm, and this down is very clean. Though other Eagles let their nests get in a right tip, Menelris insists always on keeping ours tidy. No egg shells laying about, none of that." A sudden skirl of snowflakes stung their faces as a gust of wind lifted his feathers. "Here it comes, then; storms do not wait on storytellers to finally cease their long-winded tales, do they. I thank you for your forbearance in listening; a sorrow shared somehow feels less a burden, doesnít it. But enough chatter! I believe we best get everything, and ourselves, inside the cave before the real fury of the storm hits." He picked up the bundle and without further adieu squeezed into the cave. It was a tight fit, but he wiggled and squirmed and shook his tail feathers and made it inside with the loss of only two feathers that the wind picked up and blew out into the storm.

Gandalf hurried after him, carrying as much wood as he was able, then watched as Durvain quickly went back and forth bringing in the remaining wood and the meat as well. The bird nearly filled the front of the cave, but there was just room enough at the back to move around comfortably. Aragorn, Gandalf was happy to see, was still sound asleep. He could only imagine how high the Ranger might have leapt, wounded or no, to find another giant Eagle bearing down on him at such close quarters. But he would have to waken, regardless, so they might move him to his new bed. Gandalf knelt beside him and gently touched his shoulder. "Strider."

Aragorn took a shuddering breath and slowly opened his eyes. He squinted at Gandalf, then gazed beyond his shoulder, and his eyes flew open wide. "What Ė who Ė"

"Shh, easy, easy. This is Durvain. Heís here to help us."

Aragorn eyed the large eagle warily but said nothing, and so fearful did he seem that Gandalf felt it likely that Aragorn still did not have his wits completely about him. He looked more frightened than Bilbo had, if that were possible.

"Fear not," Durvain said quietly. "I am not here to harm but to help. A storm comes, and I am going to stay with both of you until it passes."

Aragorn looked at Gandalf, a thousand questions in his eyes. Gandalf smiled reassuringly. "He looks fierce, but his heart is pure and his touch gentle."

To Gandalfís relief, Aragorn finally relaxed and the confusion cleared from his eyes. He nodded toward Durvain. "Of course. Iím sorry. I just Ė it was unexpected, seeing you Ė"

"I understand. It is not every day that one wakens from a sound sleep to see a creature as large and fierce as I looming over him. I would have been more concerned had you shown no fear at all, for that would have proven you were delirious indeed." He let out another of the chuckling coos.

Aragorn bowed his head, as much as he was able while lying down. "I am honored to meet you."

"And I you."

"Strider," Gandalf said, "I know you will not like this, for it will be painful Iím sure, but we will need to move you. Durvain has brought bedding for us."

"Bedding?"

"Eagle down," Durvain said, plucking a bit and dropping it beside Aragornís chest. "Soft and warm and far better than a stony floor."

Aragorn took the grey fluff and felt it, then rubbed it against his cheek. For the first time since stumbling into Gandalfís care, he smiled. "Eagle down," he whispered wonderingly as his eyes drifted shut. "So soft..." But his hand fell weakly away, and his breathing deepened as he fell back into a light sleep.

"Dear boy, I hate that the wound has weakened you so," Gandalf murmured, covering Aragornís hand with his own. He watched Aragornís breathing for a moment, then turned his attention to Durvain as he busied himself with spreading the down by talonfuls into two neat piles, each just long enough to accommodate a man or a wizard. He then took the blanket in which it had been wrapped and tore it down the center, laying each half neatly atop each pile. He patted them smooth with the knuckles of his inwardly curled talons.

"Finished," he announced. "That should do nicely. I always have enjoyed making a nest."

"How is it, if I might ask, that an eagle owns blankets?" Gandalf asked.

"You may certainly ask. As a point of fact, I found this one along the mountain pass, discarded. It seemed serviceable, and did not smell of orc, so I plucked it up and took it home. Menelris accuses me of being more magpie than eagle, because Iím always picking up scraps and trinkets and bringing them home. And maybe sheís right, because I do seem attracted to anything shiny or interesting. Or useful, like this old blanket. Now, shall we try to move your friend?"

Gandalf squeezed Aragornís hand. "Strider."

It took several calls before Aragorn started and blinked his eyes open. He looked around the cave, then looked blankly at the eagle down still resting by his hand. "What... oh. I fell asleep. Is it time to go?"

"No," Gandalf chuckled. "Not in this storm. But it is time to move you to your soft new bed."

"Oh. Of course." He started to push himself up. "I can Ė" But he winced and fell back. To Gandalfís surprise, he did not reach for his back but for his head. "Dizzy..."

Gandalf brushed his hair away from the laceration. It was still swollen, and beneath Aragornís dark hair he could see the skin was terribly bruised. "My dear fellow," Gandalf murmured. He put his hand across Aragornís eyes, placing fingertips and thumb on either temple. He shut his eyes and immediately felt a disorienting whirl. He sang an ancient hymn of healing, and the dizziness abated. He felt Aragorn relax, and he released him. "Better, I think?"

"Mmm."

"I have not really healed it, that not being in my power, but I was able this time to block the dizziness for you. But I fear any movement will likely cause it to flare up."

"I... I will be all right. It is not as if..." He paused and shut his eyes for a moment, evidently bracing himself against another wave of dizziness, or perhaps of pain. "Itís not as if I have not had to deal with this before."

Gandalf patted his shoulder. "I will help you sit up, this time, and maybe if we move slowly it will not go so ill."

But Durvain made a fluttering movement of denial, a rustling of feathers raised and lowered quickly and short, agitated bobs of his head. "Gandalf, with all due respect, I believe it best if you allow me."

Aragorn looked worriedly at the sharp talons, obviously not eager to put himself in their clutches, but Gandalf could immediately see it was the only sensible course of action. "Iím sorry, Strider, but I think Durvain is correct."

Aragorn lowered his voice to a mere whisper, "I mean no disrespect to him, Gandalf, for you know my regard for eagles, but..."

Gandalf raised a hand and cut him off. "My dear boy, I understand completely. It is one thing to admire them from afar, but quite another to put yourself at oneís mercy, am I right?"

Aragorn nodded.

"And Iím sure Durvain understands and is not offended. But keeping you warm is paramount, and truly, after these few hard moments, you will be far more comfortable."

So Aragorn set his chin, bracing for the inevitable.

Durvain stepped forward. "Where exactly is his wound?"

"On his lower back, toward the left side."

"I will not touch it, Strider," Durvain said. "This is what I will do: I am strong enough to lift you with one foot, pivoting on the other to place you in the new bed, thus." He demonstrated by lifting one foot as though carrying Aragorn as he swivelled smoothly on the other. "See? There will be as little jostling as I can manage, but still, it will likely hurt, no matter how careful I am, so yes, you must brace yourself. I will curl my talons behind your neck, around your upper back and your legs and as much as possible your hips, to support you as I swing you over to your new bed. But fear not; I will not touch your wound, nor pierce you with my talons. I have moved our eggs, which are quite fragile, and our little hatchlings themselves many times and never cracked a shell nor drew blood even once. So know that I will be gentle, and set aside your fears."

Gandalf hid a smile; despite Durvainís assurances, it was plain to see that Aragorn was not altogether confident that the eagleís great talons wouldnít pierce him through. But Aragorn lay still, if trembling a bit, until finally, at his nod, Durvain grasped him with great care and in a twinkling had him lifted, carried and settled on his side atop the new bedding.

"Thank you," Aragorn whispered, but his face was grey beneath a sheen of perspiration, and his hands shook as he tried clumsily to pull the blanket under his chin.

"Did I hurt you?"

Aragorn shook his head, but Durvain looked at Gandalf. "I think I hurt him," he said, his words quick and worried.

Gandalf hurried over and took Aragornís hand. "Strider?"

"A moment," he gritted. He squeezed Gandalfís hand hard enough to make the bones creak, then his grip slowly eased and his hitched breathing grew even. Indeed, it seemed he had again lost consciousness.

Gandalf hurriedly checked the bandages. Thankfully, there was no evidence of new bleeding.

"How is he?" Durvain demanded. "Did I hurt him?"

"It seems all is well. It was just pain from moving, I think, and the dizziness that seems to be plaguing him. The head wound is worrisome, but he wakes easily enough to lead me to believe his swoon is less from the concussion than due to his strength being utterly depleted because of his ordeal. He simply cannot stay awake because of extreme fatigue. And I wonder, perhaps, if that part of him that is a healer, even without his conscious effort, is†trying to put him in a healing sleep, but cannot because I keep waking him. Itís impossible to say, really, because I have no experience at that sort of thing, but I think as long as his eyes seem clear and his fever grows no worse, he will mend."

Durvain let out a whistling breath. "I was so afraid Iíd hurt him. Menelris would have plucked me!"

Gandalf smiled faintly, but despite his confident words, he was a bit shaky in the knees himself. He turned from Durvain and patted Aragornís shoulder and tried to hide how frightened he truly felt. Seeing Aragorn weak and wounded never failed to open a great hollow in his belly. Sentimental twaddle it may be, but he must admit to himself that Aragornís death would utterly shatter him, for if any Maia ever held thoughts of fatherhood, then surely Aragorn had locked up that most tender office of son in Gandalfís heart of hearts. And of course, there remained, beyond filial affection, the inescapable and often distressing fact that he was the last possible heir to the throne of Gondor... the last of Elrosí great line...

Durvain eased a bit closer again, interrupting Gandalfís worried reverie as he reached around Gandalf to pull a second blanket across Aragorn. Where it had come from, Gandalf could only guess; he had only noticed one blanket in the bundles the Eagles had brought with them, but he had been a bit distracted, admittedly. Durvainís movements were gentle, and it was a wonder how the massive bird kept his talons safely balled up, using his knuckles only. Durvain truly had a gentle nature, just as Menelris had said. As he watched, Gandalf unexpectedly found himself overcome with emotion. Gratitude in extremis for Durvainís assistance warred with stress and worry over Aragornís condition to the point where he felt quite unsure of his ability to maintain his composure. Toward that end, he cleared his throat, but the blasted lump would not go away.

"It must hurt terribly, that wound," Durvain said, and made a small clucking noise. He used his beak to finish tugging the blanket up to Aragornís chin. When Aragornís eyes opened, he clucked again. "I suggest you tuck your head under as much as possible now."

"Tuck my headĖ?"

"Ah, my apologies. That is what we Eagles say when we mean Ďsleepí." He demonstrated by tucking his head under his wing and softly snoring.

Aragorn smiled, a sketchy thing that was a mere shadow of the mirth that lit his face from time to time, but enough to reassure Gandalf that there was spark remaining in his friend. He patted his shoulder yet again, knowing that Aragorn must think him mad for carrying on so with such a useless gesture, but at the moment it was the best he could manage at offering comfort; he was still far too stricken for words.

"So," Durvain said, straightening back up. "Yes, sleep; itís what you need most. Your friend Gandalf and I will cook the stag, although not my part, Gandalf. I prefer mine raw."

Gandalf finally found his voice. "Of course, of course. Any way you wish." Indeed, he was so grateful for everything the Eagle had done for them thus far that had Durvain insisted Gandalf eat his own portion raw as well, he would have fallen on it tooth and nail and demanded seconds.

"Itís settled, then," Durvain nodded. He touched Aragornís face lightly with a feathered wing tip. "Sleep, young man."

Aragornís eyes drifted shut so readily and peacefully that Gandalf wondered if the Eagle had some magic in his touch. Then again, likely not; he still surmised that Aragorn was so weak that it must require no effort at all to fall asleep. After watching his steady, deep breathing for several moments, Gandalf blew out a long sigh and felt some of the tension leave his shoulders.

Perhaps hoping for the best need not be such a stretch of the imagination after all.

Part II

Aragorn

Chapter 6 - Grab Him and Eat Him and Spit Out His Bones...

Aragorn hurt in so many ways and in so many places that it was a wonder, really, that he was still alive. His head, his back... and in less excruciating fashion his arms... both elbows... his legs... even his ankles ached. Was there no part of him that was not set on giving him misery, he wondered rather sourly. His right earlobe, perhaps. It offered no complaint.

He grimaced and slowly opened his eyes, carefully controlling his breathing so as not to alarm Gandalf. The wizard was a marvelous caretaker, and Aragorn was overcome with gratitude for all he had done for him. But he was also starting to worry about him, for he had a way, at Aragornís least movement or murmur, of instantly appearing at his side to hover in ill-concealed alarm while patting his shoulder in a somewhat hysterical staccato. The venerable wizard seemed so consumed with worry, in fact, that Aragorn feared for his well-being. Keeping absolutely still as much as possible seemed the only way to alleviate the Maiaís panic, Aragorn had decided.

But, though he was loathe to admit it, Gandalf was not the real reason he was staying as still as a mouse.

He turned his head just enough to see the Eagle. He groped through his muddied mind for the name... Durvain. Yes, that was it. Durvain. He was sitting with his feathers fluffed against the chill wind as he dozed in front of the cave entrance. Aragorn had long admired the Eagles Ė they were, after all, a very important part of the Valarís watch over Middle-earth, from the ancient days of Thorondor all the way to the present. Witnesses of ManwŽ in the days of Nķmenor; messengers still in this age. Admirable, honorable, noble. Wonderful creatures, without doubt. So why, upon seeing one so close, did he feel such continuing unease? It defied every bit of logic and whatever reason he might possess. Of course, reason of late was severely compromised by a raging headache and a world that swirled nauseatingly at the slightest twitch, so perhaps that might be part of the problem. But there was something else, something deeper....

He lay quietly, watching Durvain, trying in vain to quell the feeling that if he moved in the slightest bit, the Eagle would pounce on him and tear his limbs from his body.

...grab him and eat him and spit out his bones....

He blinked, fighting off the shiver that the sudden stray phrase sent crawling down his spine. Where in the world had it come from? Some childhood memory, a song, perhaps, or some childish rhyme? He thought on it but no answer came to him.

Forgetting it, he looked again at the Eagle. Perhaps it was simply that he was just so very big. Durvain could step on him and squash him flat without even trying, and maybe without even realizing.

But Aragorn had experienced firsthand Durvainís gentle touch, when he moved him to this bed some hours ago. So he knew that death from accidental squashing was hardly a risk, nor was there any chance at all that Durvain would have him for breakfast. Or elevenses. Or tea or whatever mealtime it might be. He had no idea what time it was. He knew he had slept for some hours, after the ordeal of being moved, but how many was anyoneís guess. The storm howling beyond the cave entrance kept the light in the cave an uninformative shade of dim, brightened only by the fire crackling cheerfully in the center of the floor. It could be midnight or midday and it looked the same to Aragorn.

Durvain let out a soft snore, real this time and not a demonstration of... how had he put it? Tucking under? The noise startled Aragorn and made his heart jump uncomfortably, which caused his skull to pound in wretched rhythm with each pulse beat. He shut his eyes, hoping to calm himself, but instead had a sudden and disturbing vision of a room, and a painting... a painting of an Eagle, as large as storm clouds and as dark as shadow, and he felt the cold grip of terror on his heart as he beheld it.

... grab him and eat him...

And suddenly he remembered all of it.

He had been five years old, he supposed. Mayhap only four, a little boy without any other playmates but already fond of adventuring on his own through the hallways of the Last Homely House. That day, he had sneaked out from under the eye of the elleth who was supposed to be watching him while his mother rested. She had wanted him to sit quietly reading books, but it was late afternoon and the shadows were stealing away the light and Estel was fairly jumping out of his skin because another day was slipping away and he hadnít done anything near what he wanted to. There were still orcs to slay and elf maidens to rescue (although not the kind that made you sit and read books... the dragons could keep those as far as Estel was concerned, and the world would be a better place). So he had waited until her back was turned and then he had slipped out the door.

He ran, as quickly and as quietly as any four-year-old boy ever could, which of course was quick enough but not quiet at all, until he found himself in a hallway he had never been in before. It was spooky and filled with shadows that reached across the floors and hid the high ceilings. It was like being in a cave, and so he pretended it was a cave, a cave filled with orcs and bats and dragons and maybe even an evil oliphaunt or two, never mind that oliphaunts didnít live in caves... and then something went scritch-scritch, way down the hallway behind him, and his heart jumped into his throat because he was certain, absolutely certain, that it was an orc!

And then he was running wildly, his heart pounding and his lungs burning, and he didnít know the way and every door he tried was locked and he knew the orc would grab him and eat him and spit out his bones, until finally he found an unlocked door and ducked in and slammed it quick so the orcs couldnít grab him and eat him and spit out his bones. Then he had turned and in the dying light of day he had seen it: an eagle flying across the sunset sky. It was so big it took up the entire horizon and Estel, in his terror, had dropped to the floor and curled up in a ball and screamed, certain that the Eagle was swooping down on him to grab him and eat him and spit out his bones because he had been naughty. It wasnít until after Glorfindel found him and cuddled him and lit lamps all over the room that Estel realized that it had been Glorfindelís soft step in the corridor behind him, not an orcís, and that he had stumbled into Glorfindelís quarters and most important of all, that the Eagle was only a painting. A huge painting that took up the whole of an entire wall, but just one of many paintings, some not scary at all, that decorated the walls of Glorfindelís apartments.

Glorfindel had carried him close to it and told him the story of ManwŽís Eagles flying over the Meneltarma, and of the Eagles helping the remnants of Gondolin, including Ešrendil himself who had been not much older than little Estel was now, so could he see that Eagles were nothing to be frightened of? Estel could see, but what he really wanted to know then was what a remnant was. But Glorfindel wouldnít tell him what remnant meant, and he wouldnít tell him how the Eagles helped. He just said it was a story for when he was older, and Estel hated it when Nana or Ada†or Erestor told him that. But Estel had at least learned then that Eagles were Good, not Scary....

Aragorn sighed quietly. How long ago that had been! But it was still one of his most vivid early childhood memories. Despite Glorfindelís wise teaching, he had suffered occasional nightmares of Eagles swooping down at him for years after, nightmares that made a mockery of his love for their soaring grace and his knowledge of their noble deeds for Men and Elves through the Ages. Hadnít he named himself after an Eagle, when he went on his travels far beyond these lands? But childhood terrors are not easily put aside, he supposed, and he had to admit, as much as he admired the Eagles and loved them for their staunch friendship, he was surprised to find he preferred to watch them from a safe distance.

And twenty feet away was not what he considered a safe distance.

He couldnít help shivering as he looked away from the Eagle sitting so close, but he beat back childhood fears as best as anyone can beat back childhood fears, and forced himself to quit shutting away the sight like a frightened four year old and for Valarís sake, look.

Seeing the bird at such close quarters, Aragorn was struck by his sheer beauty, by the lay of the glossy feathers and the colors that seemed to flicker and shimmer across them with an almost iridescent golden glow. From a distance, Eagles looked... well, they looked like a vague sort of brown with perhaps a bit of gold if the sun hit them just so. Beautiful in their own way, but sheer size and flying grace aside, not very eye catching or flashy, certainly nothing like the brilliant blue and purple peacocks Aragorn had seen in his travels to the south and east. But up close, Aragorn saw that he had given the birdsí beauty short shrift, for indeed, there was every shade of brown imaginable, plus black and streaks of cream and even a bit of red, and laid over all that a sort of golden shimmer that defied definition. Stunningly beautiful, this bird.

And stunningly huge. Aragorn felt like a tiny mouse in comparison, and that thought left the door wide open to all those long-buried fears. His breathing quickened, quite without his permission, and even though he sternly told himself to stop being such a ninny, he nonetheless pulled the blanket closer to his chin, as if by doing so he could hide himself should the sleeping birdís sharp eyes open and look his way. Ridiculous, really, because the northern Eagles had long been known for their willingness to lend succor when needed, which Durvain more than exemplified in his gentle handling of him; it had hurt, yes, but that was no fault of the birdís. But when those giant talons came at him, it had been all he could do not to shrink back in fear that was both contemptible and wholly unjustified.

But so very real nonetheless...

He gave up and shut his eyes, blocking out the sight as he snuggled deeper in the soft down of his bed. That was a revelation as well, and one far easier on which to quite literally dwell. Never had he felt so... so cosseted. Not even in his own bed in Rivendell had he experienced the sheer warmth and softness of this pile of eagle down. It felt how he imagined sleeping on a cloud on a warm summer day might feel, and it almost made him forget his injuries and how he had come by them.

Almost.

He couldnít remember much of the avalanche itself. He remembered stepping out of a cave, frustrated yet again at finding absolutely no sign of Gollum and wondering if he should abandon the heights for the lower reaches. Surely Gollum would not have climbed upward... he was from all indications a creature of the dark places, seeking sanctuary ever deeper and lower, in places like the subterranean lake and island Aragorn had explored earlier in the summer. No, Gollum would not risk the open heights, so close to the sun where he could be found and chased or even eaten by Eagles.

...who would grab him and eat him and spit out his bones....

"Stop it," Aragorn murmured to himself, and sternly marshaled his thoughts back to the calamity that had brought him to this wretched pass.

Aragorn had been a bit lost in such thoughts of Gollum, he admitted, and that had been his very literal downfall. He had placed a foot wrong, missing the rocky floor of the ledge on which he was walking and falling hard as his entire right leg sank into a snowdrift which crumbled beneath him and made him slide further still. He had floundered with heart-pounding fear, grabbing for the ledge, but the snow beneath him continued to fall away and before he could quite grasp what had happened, it seemed as though the entire mountainside had broken off in a great falling slab, taking him with it as it rocketed toward the valley far below. There had been roaring and shaking and clouds of blinding, choking snow and he had hit rocks and trees and been battered and pummeled and punctured... and by the time the earth finally grew still he was no longer sure what was up and what was down nor what had happened. He remembered staring at the sky and feeling a vague thankfulness that he had not been buried when the snow finally quit its terrifying rush down the mountain, but then for a long time he did not have any thoughts at all.

He had drifted. Unconsciousness ruled him for a time, then consciousness returned but was chased quickly away by oblivion the moment he raised his head. He was unsure how long he had lain in the snow, slowly freezing to death, before enough of his scattered wits returned to urge him to move. And so he had, painfully, feeling the bite of something in his back but too dazed and injured to know what it was. All he knew was that his head hurt dreadfully, and his back... something seemed to be stabbing him there. He finally decided an orc had shot him, for what else could feel so like an arrowís stabbing burn?

But it had been no arrow. Gandalf had shown him the branch, and told him how he had pulled it from him and cleaned the wound and stitched it partly closed. It had been good work, he was sure, but now Aragorn felt the sickness in him. Infection. He shivered, despite the warm fire and warm bed, and he knew that no matter how careful Gandalf had been, he could not possibly have cleaned the wound completely, under the circumstances. A puncture wound such as that... no, even Elrond himself, with the best equipment at hand, would be hard pressed to clean it enough to evade infectionís evil hand. He frowned as a wave of nausea swept him, followed by his skin prickling as if a thousand spiders crawled along his limbs.

There was a noise beside him, and a hand touched his brow. "Strider?"

He did his best to keep his face composed, to hide his misery. "Gandalf. I have not thanked you... for what youíve done."

Gandalf favored him with a peeved look, though his eyes twinkled. "Thank me! Good gracious, there is no need for thanks. What would have had me do, leave you to lie out in the snow until spring?"

Aragorn smiled, more a matter of his eyes than anything else, for he was desperately tired. Moving his lips to speak seemed hard enough. Smiling with all the muscles of his face? Impossible.

"Your fever does not seem any worse, but it stubbornly refuses to abate," Gandalf said. "Let me check the wound." He leaned across Aragorn, and Aragorn felt the wizardís grey robes brush his face. Gandalf smelled of wood smoke and Old Toby and something indefinably wizardly that brought to mind ancient lands and infinite kindness.

That benign impression vanished in an instant, however, as Gandalf pulled back the blanket and tugged at the bandages. No matter that he was gentle; it still felt as though heíd stabbed Aragorn with a sword still glowing crimson from the forge. He grunted, a rather loud and shamefully ill-tempered explosion of pained outrage that made the Eagle stir in his sleep.

"Sorry, sorry... but I must change this bandage. The wound is draining, which I think is good, actually, but it has soaked through the bandage completely."

Aragorn wished he might have a mirror to see how bad the wound was, but he settled for asking, between more grunts and hisses and one exceedingly piteous moan that he would give his last draw of Old Toby to have held back, "How red is it?"

"A bit more than it was yesterday, Iím afraid. But still only around the very edges."

"No streaks?"

"No, nothing like that. Looks a bit inflamed, one might say. Oozing a bit, though I will say no more lest I put us all off our feed."

Aragorn shut his eyes. That was reassuring, at least. As bad as he felt, the infection did not seem to be spreading into his blood. That would be dire, for once in his blood, it would spread through his entire body and start shutting down vital things like kidneys and liver and eventually his heart. Had he not stumbled upon Gandalf, such might have been his fate and he might even now be sailing the Dark Seas. But found him he had, and he would get better, with time. Lots of time, from the feel of things. He grew weary just thinking about all those weeks of recuperation ahead.

How had the eagle put it? Keep his head tucked under? Now that Gandalf was done with his infernal poking about, it sounded like excellent advice to follow...

"Strider."

He opened his eyes, reluctantly, and saw Gandalf had a cup in his hand. "Iím sorry, I know you desire nothing more than to sleep until you are fully healed, but you must drink."

Aragorn dutifully sipped until the cup was drained, then he endured another cup, this time of broth. Gandalf then brought forth a packet of leaves. He unfolded them to reveal a thin cake. "Athelas have we none, and I dare not give you miruvor, but I do have this," he said. He broke off a tiny corner. "Lembas, or Elven waybread, made by the women of Lůrien. Iím sure youíve at least heard of it, if not tasted its sustaining sweetness yourself on your journeys hither and yon. Iím going to give you a tiny bit, and if you can keep it down, I think it will lend you strength." He placed it in Aragornís mouth, and he chewed slowly. It tasted sweet and wholesome, and he washed it down with a bit more water.

"Does it rest easily on your stomach?"

It didnít, unfortunately, but he doubted he would be ill. He was too exhausted to bother with vomiting. "Easily enough. Thank you," he whispered, then wished with all his might that Gandalf would leave him be.

But such was not to be the case. Gandalf pressed a hand against Aragornís forehead and soon Aragorn felt the cautious approach of Gandalfís thoughts into his. He frowned, thinking for a moment, quite crossly, of closing his mind and denying him access, but he realized that would be rude. Gandalf was doing his best, after all, to care for Aragorn and doing the job of healer was not something to which the wizard was accustomed. Aragorn resigned himself to Gandalfís gentle check, and then the wizard took both his thoughts and his hand away from Aragornís head. Aragorn forced his eyes all the way open and even managed a smile. "Have I any wits left at all, then?" he quipped.

"Oh, a few, scattered here and there. Quite untidily, I might add."

"Hmm. Iíll try to get them in order, as soon as my skull quits pounding."

"Does it hurt very much?"

"As long as I donít suddenly lunge to my feet, itís tolerable." A lie, that, as even blinking caused ripples of white-hot pain to shudder through his head, but no matter....

There was a stirring across the cave and Durvain let out a whistle. "Ooh, thatís cold on my tail feathers!" he cried, then he shifted a bit and fluffed himself up further, then tucked his head back under his wing. His breathing deepened.

To Aragornís surprise, he found Durvain amusing this time, rather than fearsome. Maybe there was hope yet that he might overcome his silly fears. He chuckled. "I donít believe he ever actually woke up."

"I donít think he did. The Eagles are blessings from Ilķvatar himself, to be sure. Their assistance has been invaluable to me over the years, and now as much as ever."

"I want from here forward to sleep only on eagle down," Aragorn mumbled, snuggling deeper into his bedding.

"Perhaps when you are King, you can arrange to do just that," Gandalf said quietly.

Aragorn opened his eyes again, for rare it was that Gandalf ever sounded so wistful. "Are you all right?"

"Of course," Gandalf snapped, suddenly cross. "Why ever wouldnít I be? After all, thereís only the small matter of my traveling companion having been gravely wounded and struck with fever, not to mention a blizzard trapping us in a cave far from proper care. But no matter! I should imagine I will break into song and dance a jig any moment now."

"Thereís no need for sarcasm."

"Thereís every need for sarcasm, and had you lived as long as I have, you would see that immediately instead of chiding me like I was your infant son speaking out of turn."

Aragorn chuckled. "If you were my son, I would send you to bed without any supper for using that tone of voice with me."

"There you have it, then; itís well and good I am not your son. At any rate, I would expect my father to have better sense than to go tumbling down mountains."

"I must be getting better."

"I beg your pardon?"

"For you to grouse so. I must not be on deathís doorstep."

Gandalf snorted, then clamped his unlit pipe between his teeth. "No, you are not on deathís doorstep. The footpath leading to it perhaps."

Aragorn fell quiet. He wasnít really up to chivvying Gandalf out of his dark mood; bantering with him was always great fun, but today it simply worsened the throbbing in his head. He watched the fire instead, indulging himself in staring at the dancing flames, watching them flicker and waver and admiring their beauty as he never could when he was alone on patrol and had to preserve his night vision. Eventually even they seemed to stab him with spiky shards of pain, so he closed his eyes, determined to lose himself in sleep.

"Iím sorry," Gandalf sighed.

Aragorn opened his eyes again. He regarded Gandalf for a moment. "You have every right to be angry with me. I should have taken more care."

"No, no. Do not turn my apology into one of your own, though you are by far the worldís expert at that," Gandalf grumbled. "But I will have my turn and you will hear me out: these mountains hold hazards that cannot always be avoided. Had it not been an avalanche, it might have been a wolf, or a bear, or an Orc. I am just very thankful you are still alive, and even more determined to see that you stay that way, for I fear your survival is hardly certain by any means. And that worries me, which makes me cross, which makes me snap at you. And for that, I apologize. One as old as I am should have better control over his temper."

"I will be well enough, in a day or two, to walk."

Gandalf snorted. "Think you so! Well enough to stroll down the mountain? No, that is not the plan, young Strider."

Aragorn felt anything but young, but he let it pass. "What exactly is the plan, then?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know.

"Durvain will carry you to Beornís Hall."

Aragorn swallowed. "Flying?"

"Of course flying. He would hardly walk, now, would he."

Aragorn said nothing.

"It is the only way. Donít worry; Iíve done it before. Youíll be perfectly safe."

But what of you, Aragorn wondered, arenít you coming... but his head was pounding so hard that he couldnít be bothered to ask. He clutched the blankets and resisted the urge to curl into a ball as he had on that long-ago day in Glorfindelís room, and he looked at the Eagle sleeping across the cave, and then at his talons, and then he simply closed his eyes and hoped to wake up in the morning to discover it had all been nothing but a bad dream.

Chapter†Seven - The Dwarf Didnít Like It Either

Unfortunately, none of it had been a bad dream, though his fevered night had been filled with any number of other nightmares, all of which were completely unrelated to flying clutched in an Eagleís talons like an unfortunate coney. He had dreamt of orcs stabbing him, of Wraiths surrounding him, of Morgul blades cutting him and dragons roasting him and at some point he had wakened everyone, including himself, with a blood-curdling scream. But as wretched as they were, they had, as nightmares should, crumbled into fragments nearly impossible to remember once he awakened. The details of waking reality, however, remained dismally clear cut:

The storm had ceased, and he would have to fly.

The very words felt wrong to him. Birds fly. Occasionally wizards, dwarves and hobbits flew. Bright Ešrendil flew, and still did, every night across the sky in Vingilot. He recalled a bit of long forgotten lore, some wild tale about Nķmenůreans trying to build a ship to fly to Valinor. If that rumor were true, was it any wonder that isle sank, he thought sourly, though of course he knew the real reason behind the isleís fate. He wondered briefly if such insanity was brought on by their unfaithfulness, or if it had been some sort of offshoot of whatever it was that drove so many of them to sail the seas in the first place. Which came first, the sailing or the unfaithfulness, or was it all inseparably bound together? It would make for some fine fireside discussion with Elrond, he supposed. Whatever the faulty reasoning of those long-dead Nķmenůreans, he knew that this Nķmenůrean certainly had not inherited any yen to fly, whether it be to Beornís Hall or to the forbidden realm of Valinor. No, his Dķnedain blood called him not to the skies but firmly to the ground. And safely solid ground that didnít abruptly gallop out from beneath oneís feet in avalanches, at that.

The clang of a dropped cook pot brought him out of his reverie with a skull-pounding jerk. He grabbed his head and glared at Gandalf, who was puttering around the cave, stowing spare clothing and gathering up oddments and kicking out the fire. He had bullied Aragorn into letting him help him dress, even though he felt more than capable of doing it himself. But Gandalf had insisted and so Aragorn had endured his shoving his limbs into every last stitch of clothing he owned, including all three pairs of hose, and now he lay aching and exhausted, wondering how in the world he would be able to hold on while flying astride an eagle when merely getting dressed left him weak as water and dizzy to the point where his hold on his temper was tenuous at best.

His scowl deepened. He simply must be allowed atop Durvain, because otherwise it meant dangling beneath the Eagleís belly, fathoms above the earth where the least little bobble could cause Durvain to drop him. He had seen eagles lose their prey in just such a manner, often enough.

He shivered. Such a thing simply could not be borne. Far better to risk tumbling off Durvainís back due to his own failing than to trust to talons...

.... grab him and eat him....

He growled under his breath. Would those infernal words never stop sliding through his mind! His current reluctance to fly had nothing whatsoever to do with silly childish fears and everything to do with the fact that those talons could too easily crush him or let him slip free.

At least thatís what he told himself.

He flexed his hands, testing their strength. He simply must find the wherewithal to hold on, that was all there was to it.

Gandalf hurried over, holding a blanket. "All right, Strider," he said. While Aragorn was grateful that Gandalf had been careful not to reveal his true name to Durvain, he was not sure it made up for his failure to arrange travel that did not include hurtling through the air with reckless abandon. "Let us wrap you up good and snug."

Aragorn tried to sit up but, frustratingly, he only managed to gain propping himself upon an elbow, and then even that failed him. As he fell back, trying to hide the fact that he was fairly riddled through with pain, his goal of riding atop inched that much more beyond reach. Still, nothing was ever gained without trying, so he put on a brave face and hoped his eyes werenít actually twirling in their sockets the way they felt. "Wrap me up? I can barely move as it is, youíve got me in so many layers of clothes."

"Your attempt to fool me is both pitiful to behold and entirely unsuccessful. I can plainly see that your inability to move is in no way related to how many layers youíre wearing."

Aragorn pulled a face but said nothing.

"And even if it were so, you would wear them regardless. We cannot risk your catching a chill."

Aragornís temper got the better of him. He was on the cusp of dying from a thousand-fathom fall, yet Gandalf was worried about his catching a sniffle! He pushed away Gandalfís blanket-filled hands and said in a hissing whisper, "Then pray do not make me go flying through the air dangling like bait from that eagleís hooks!"

"If I may be so bold, theyíre talons. Not hooks," Durvain interjected mildly from where he sat in the cave entrance, watching the skies as he patiently endured Gandalfís piling goods upon his back as if he were no more than a pack pony.

Aragorn blushed. "My apologies," he called, then glared at Gandalf and whispered almost silently, "Surely there is some other way!"

"I assure you, you will be quite safe."

"Then pray let us tarry one more day. I am sure I will be strongerĖ"

"No, Aragorn. Waiting in this cave will only weaken you further. You need the warmth, good food and care of Beornís Hall. It will be difficult, and no doubt painful, flying in the state youíre in, but the sooner we get you there, the better off you will be."

"Then... if it must be today, let me ride atop him."

"Aragorn, that is not sensible. You cannot possibly be strong enough to hold on."

"I think I can. At least let me try. I-I simply do not want him carrying me in his claws."

Durvain looked over, his expression still mild. "My good friend, theyíre not claws, nor hooks. Talons."

"Talons, yes, Iím sorry, forgive me," he said, cringing inwardly at his impatience, but keeping his eyes on Gandalf. "Please." In desperation, he actually dared to offer a piteous look. It had worked when he was seven...

But Gandalf was unmoved; indeed, he favored Aragornís ploy with the withering stare it no doubt deserved. "Of course you will let Durvain carry you in his talons. Itís quite the only way. Youíre far too weak to ride atop his back; youíd fall off before he left the ground. I could tie you there, but thereís really no room for a rider, not with all your things packed there. Besides, youíre far larger and heavier than your pack and mine put together, and to ride him, you would have to be able to shift your weight with his and actually help him along now and then. You could not simply sit like a lumpy sack of potatoes and expect him to fly straight."

"A lumpy sackĖ" Aragorn spluttered, but Gandalf went on without the least acknowledgment of Aragornís outrage.

"And it goes without saying that he cannot be made to carry both of us on his back, which is what he would have to do if you were atop him, for I would have to hold you in place. He is small, as Eagles go. Strong nonetheless, but nothing as strong as all that."

Aragorn scowled, but then he stared at Gandalf, beset with growing alarm as the question he had not asked yesterday again loomed large. "Wait... you said there is no room on his back. So you wonít be atop him, and Iíll be in his talons...." He paused and swallowed before carefully going on, "So that of course means that he will hold both of us in his talons?"

"Both of us? Why ever would he need to?"

"But... if youíre not carried by his other foot, and not on his back... does that mean you arenít coming with me?" Even as he said it, he cringed inwardly. By the Valar, Aragorn, he chided himself, from whence comes this craven terror? Are you not Chieftain? The future King of Gondor who has already fought in Rohan and led soldiers of Gondor into battle? Must you still need your hand held to cross a lane? Yet he could not deny that the thought of going alone to Beornís... and flying there, at that...filled him with, if not panic, then a pronounced dismay not easily subdued. He tried to sound reasonable. "Gandalf, I do not know Beorn, nor is he acquainted with me, and it is well known that he holds little love for Eagles.† I really do think it would go far easier if you would accompany..."†

"Good heavens, will you stop all this whinging and complaining; itís beneath you," Gandalf snapped, his patience gone. "Of course I am coming with you. I will be riding Menelris, who should be along any time, now that the storm is well past."

Aragorn felt like a man who, having been thrown by his horse, could only watch helplessly as it thundered off into the distance, beyond any hope of recovery or mastery. Or, he thought wryly, like a man who kicks up an avalanche and can only ride it helplessly to the bottom. However one cared to look at it, he had lost control both of the conversation and the situation. Still, he had to try to regain the upper hand, despite wishing he could simply roll over and go back to sleep and reawaken only when his head ceased pounding, Gollum was found, Sauron defeated and the world set to rights at last. He rubbed his face tiredly, trying to remember who Menelris was and utterly failing. "Who is Menelris?"

"My mate," Durvain chirped happily.

Gandalf frowned. "Do you not remember her, or my telling you of her?"

"I..." Aragorn started, then stopped. He chewed his lip, thinking. "Did she touch me, with her beak? I thought that was Durvain."

"That was Menelris. And after she left, I told you about her."

Aragorn said faintly, "I have no memory of that."

Compassion lightened the frown on Gandalfís face. "I suppose something of an apology is in order," he admitted. "You seemed aware enough at the time but I suppose the blow to your head has affected your thinking. Menelris is, as Durvain said, his mate, and she it was who first found us. She had seen you fall, actually, and she was quite concerned when she did not locate you once the snows had settled. She was very pleased to find out that youíd made it to my cave."

"I wish I could remember."

Gandalf knelt down beside him and lightly brushed back Aragorn's hair from his forehead.†"Fret not. As a healer, you know how blows to the head play with oneís memories and cloud oneís thoughts. Getting upset only makes it worse." Gandalf then shook out the blanket and draped it across Aragorn. "Weíll tuck that more firmly around you before Durvain lifts you." He gave Aragornís shoulder another of his reassuring pats, then returned to his packing.

Gandalf was right, of course. Trying to remember details of the last two days was like trying to get a glimpse of the moon on a cloudy, windy night. Memories emerged clearly one moment, only to vanish behind scudding shadows the next. Twice this very morning, in fact, he had found himself unable to recall Gandalfís name; it simply would not come to his tongue. Such unpredictable fits of memory loss were disconcerting, to say the very least, but Gandalf was also correct in warning him that getting upset would only waste strength best marshalled for healing.

And for flying.

Flying....† Aragornís mouth felt suddenly clogged with sand. He coughed. "Gandalf, have you already packed the water?"

"No, here it is." He plucked up the water skin and handed it to him.

He drank thirstily, then replaced the bung, pounding it in with his fist. He tucked it by his side, suddenly reluctant to return it, for he knew that it would be at that moment that he would have to submit to... flying. He cleared his throat again. "I will just keep it here, until youíre ready to pack it."

"Very well. I should be done in a few moments, and then Durvain will be ready to lift you up and off weíll go, away from this wretched cave at last."

Aragorn remained silent. He watched Gandalf come and go, stowing things on Durvainís back. Soon there would be no room for Aragorn even if he could manage to hang on. He quietly handed Gandalf the waterskin when he came for it, and then made his decision. He waited until Gandalfís back was turned, then he pushed himself to a seated position. His head immediately started throbbing, and his back... He grimly shut his mind to the unpleasantries commencing there.

Gandalf might think him quietly acquiescing, but he was going to ride atop, and there would be no gainsaying him. He had been injured worse and nonetheless ridden miles on horses; this would be no different. He took a deep breath and in one movement gathered his legs beneath him and lunged to his feet before the pain could stop him.

"Strider!" Gandalf immediately cried, turning just in time to see Aragorn sway dizzily as he flailed blindly for the cave wall, which suddenly seemed impossibly far away.... "What do you think youíre... oh, by ManwŽís own Eagles, why must you be so stubborn!"

This last Aragorn barely heard. Though his legs had seemed willing, his knees were not. They buckled and he crumpled back to the ground. He hovered shakily on hands and knees as the world spun and danced around, and then he lost a very brief battle with his stomach. He narrowly missed Gandalfís boots with the water he had only just drunk and with what little else he had eaten in the last day.

"Oh dear!" Durvain cried. "What is wrong with him?"

"Nothing," he mumbled. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the spots dancing before his eyes.

Then he heard Gandalfís irritated reply. "Yes, of course nothingís wrong! It is tradition, after all, for Men to stand up only to immediately collapse and then vomit onto their companionís shoes."

"What a strange custom," Durvain said, then added in all seriousness, "You missed his shoes, Master Strider. Perhaps you should try again."

Aragorn laughed weakly, then groaned as he sagged to the floor. The spots before his eyes coalesced into bigger and bigger shadows. Consciousness dribbled away...

... and when it returned he felt something soft brushing his cheek. He opened an eye and saw it was Durvain, brushing him with the tip of his wing, over and over.

"Heís back!" Durvain cried. "How are you, Master Strider? Better now?"

Only if better meant a roiling stomach, buzzing ears, and a mouth that tasted like something had crawled in it and died, he thought. His back was afire and his head... someone apparently had given it to Celebrimbor to use as an anvil. He garbled some noises that were meant to be reassuring words, and Durvain clucked and continued to brush his cheek. Aragorn had never felt anything more soothing. He quit trying to regain his wits and drifted, half aware.

Voices floated somewhere above him, in snatches....

"...not bleeding, but heís too weak... really must get him ... Beornís.... cannot delay."

"... leave with him now? ....what of you? .... Menelris is coming but what if..."

"...can come back to check on me...."

Then gentle hands were on him, turning him over and wrapping him snugly in a blanket. There were murmuring encouragements and more soft touches of feathers, then warm but rough bands circled his body.††Durvainís talons, he realized... and then he was lifted and pressed against soft warmth and there was motion, like a boat bobbing on gentle seas, and a sudden cold breeze against his face but he was warm and floating... floating... floating away and for a moment he thought he had lost his hold on consciousness again but then another thought wormed in and his eyes flew open and he saw...

Clouds. And below them... below them?... far, far below them, the ground.

He was flying.

And he was terrified. He couldnít think, couldnít move, couldnít cry out. He could only watch as the ground moved slowly away from him, dropping, dropping, dropping...

He finally found his voice and though he meant it to be a shouted order for Durvain to put him down, immediately! it came out a strangled squeak of unintelligible panic. And that filled him with disgust; he had heard braver cries from baby rabbits.

"Oh, good, youíre waking up!" Durvain cried happily. Aragorn seemed to feel Durvainís voice vibrating through the feathered body pressing against him as much as he actually heard it. If he hadnít been so distracted by utter terror he might have found the phenomenon extraordinary. "I would hate for you to have missed this view. Isnít it splendid?"

No, it wasnít splendid. It wasnít splendid at all. It was nauseating, and terrifying, and unnatural. He shut his eyes and opened them again and ordered, with every shred of stern authority he could muster, that the wild beating of his heart and the frantic bellows of his lungs calm themselves. You are the Chieftain! Son of chieftains and kings, destined to be a king yourself! For shame! Whither then has all your bravery gone?

Left on the ground far below, a snivelling voice in his head replied.

Very well, let my heart hammer and my bowels shrivel, he thought. It would not change the situation one bit and he would simply have to accept that he was... Elbereth help him... flying, and there was nothing he could do about it. He shut his mind to the ground falling away underneath him and craned his neck around to look instead at Durvain. It seemed Durvain was holding him face down, with his back securely against the warmth of the bird's belly. Apparently, as before, Durvain needed only his left foot to hold him, talons wrapped snugly round him while the other hung relaxed and empty. Aragorn struggled to move his arms, but they were trapped inside the blanket. He continued to struggle and finally pulled them free and flung both around the massive talon across his chest.

"Easy there. Donít wiggle so!" Durvain cried, and Aragorn froze. But he kept his grip on the talon. "You donít need to squeeze so tightly. I wonít drop you."

Aragorn eased his grip a fraction and tried to ignore the queer sensations in his belly and the odd pressure on his ears that muffled his hearing. He opened his mouth wide and swallowed and with a crackling, popping noise, the pressure eased. But his stomach still felt uneasy.

Durvain chuckled. "If it makes you feel more secure, of course you may hold on, but donít dig in with your fingernails like that; it tickles. And fear not, I have yet to ever drop anyone."

Aragorn finally found his voice, though it was pitched higher than he would have liked. "Have you..." He cleared his throat and continued in something better approaching his normal deep pitch. "Have you carried a lot of people?"

"No. Once I carried a dwarf, but that was many years ago. I didnít drop him, although he wiggled and squirmed like a fish. Youíre doing much better, or at least you are now that youíve stopped all that wriggling around."

That was something, he supposed. He wondered briefly which dwarf it had been, then he was distracted by a shadow on the ground far below them. Glad to have something to focus on besides the increasingly alarming sensations in his stomach, he asked, "Is that our shadow?"

Durvain looked down. "No, that is Menelris; she is some ways ahead of us, but the morning sun casts her shadow quite far behind her."

"I thought we left before her."

"We did. She arrived just as we were leaving, in fact, but sheís since caught us and passed us; she can fly faster than I, because Gandalf is atop her and not below. Mind you, I mean nothing by that, because of course you could not possibly have ridden atop, but it does slow me down considerably to have you in my talon. Throws my balance off a bit, you see."

"Iím sorry."

"No, no. Donít apologize. I do this all the time, with prey. And once with that dwarf, although I admit Iíve never had to cart along anyoneís belongings on my back like this. It makes for some interesting challenges. Nothing I canít handle, mind you, but it has taken me a bit to find the air, if take my meaning. Iím fine now, though, fear not. Everything going smoothly. Hey, Iíve a capital idea! Let me show you our shadow... you might find it amusing to see your own shadow flying across the ground so fast!" Before Aragorn could protest that he had no need to see such a sight, Durvain dipped a wing and Aragorn could only frantically tighten his grip as they turned and swooped in a quick circle. His stomach no longer felt queer; it was clawing its way into his throat. "See? There we are!" Durvain cried. He waggled his wings so that they... and their shadow... rocked back and forth.

Aragorn dared not try to answer, for fear of his stomach unloading what little was left in it.

"And look, there you are!" Durvain moved his talon and pulled Aragorn away from his body.

Aragorn let out a very embarrassing scream. "NO!"

"Oh, very sorry!" Durvain said and tucked Aragorn quickly back up underneath him. "The dwarf didnít like it when I did that, either, now that I think on it."

Aragorn spared a sympathetic thought toward the dwarf, but the rest of his concentration was taken up with regaining what little dignity he had left. "That is... quite all right," he croaked. "It was fascinating." He winced at the outright lie, but it pleased Durvain, who gave a mighty flap of his wings that sent them soaring ever higher, and again, Aragorn had to swallow and work his jaw against the cotton-wool feeling in his ears. Then they seemed to drop suddenly, a quick downward jerk and then just as quick back up again. Aragorn couldnít hold back a squawk of alarm as he tightened his grip.

"Oooh, itís a bit rough today," Durvain said, unconcerned. His wings moved slightly and once again they were sailing smoothly through the air. "Did you know that there are bumps in the air just as there are ruts in your roads?"

"No, I canít say that I ever really thought about it."

"Itís true. The sun heats up the air in some places and not in others and when I fly from a cool spot to a warm spot, the air can swirl in funny ways. And of course, thereís the winds coming off the mountains meeting the winds that blow along the river. Makes for all sorts of swirls and eddies. Thatís what you just felt. Oh, there we go again!"

Aragorn clenched his teeth. The bumps, as Durvain called them, were doing terrible things to his stomach. Then his eye caught something, and he again momentarily forgot the state of his innards. "Whose shadow is that?" He risked releasing his grip to point, then realized it was a useless gesture as Durvain couldnít see him,†hidden under his belly as Aragorn was. "See that shadow? Coming from the south? Did Menelris turn around?"

"No, I donít think she Ė oh for the love of ManwŽ!" Durvain muttered as he immediately pulled Aragorn tighter to him and dove toward the ground. "Hang on!"

Aragorn was so frightened he didnít have the breath to answer, but he certainly needed no admonishment to hang on. He shut his eyes tightly against the sight of land rushing headlong to slam into them, but that made his stomach feel horrid, so he had to open them, just in time to see the ground race toward him and then flash by at a speed that had his head spinning. Then the ground swooped away and the horizon danced and spun crazily and for a moment dark spots broke out in Aragornís vision, but they cleared away as Durvain levelled out. But then something hit Durvain with a great banging thud. Durvain grunted and floundered a bit in the air, and Aragorn feared he would forget he was holding him and down he would drop, but Durvainís grip tightened and he pressed Aragorn even closer to his body. So close, in fact, that he had a spot of trouble breathing.

"Durvain," he gasped, "Too tight!"

Durvain said nothing but his grip eased a bit and Aragorn could breath again. Durvainís great wings beat at the air Ė Aragorn could feel Durvainís stomach muscles flexing and moving as his wings strained Ė and he gained more altitude.

Aragorn craned his neck, trying to see what was attacking them, but the bulk of Durvainís body and wings blocked his view of all but what was directly beneath him. There was another spinning, looping dive and again Aragornís vision tunnelled and darkened but he coughed and ground his teeth and somehow through sheer will kept his wits. But there came another great thud, and Durvain let out a loud screeching cry that nearly shattered Aragornís eardrums. They again started to lose height, and Durvainís steady wingbeats grew erratic, and Aragorn saw with alarm a great slash cut into his left wing. Several feathers were missing, and a line of bright red blood started to well out of a cut that was nearly as long as Aragorn was tall.

Durvain was hurt, but he was still flying.

Aragorn looked at the blood and felt the battle fury rise within him. He longed for his sword, for a bow... but both were far beyond reach, atop Durvain. Where I should be, where I could help, where I could fight...

But such thoughts were useless. Aragorn could only hang on, impotent and no doubt a hindrance, and Durvainís next words keenly drove that bitter fact home.

"Strider, I must put you down. Brace yourself!" he cried and sped toward the ground at such high speed that Aragorn was sure they would both be killed, smashed against the unforgiving earth and shattered to pieces, but at the last possible moment, Durvain flared his wings and stopped just short of landing. The talons released Aragorn and he fell the final few feet. It hurt, and the hard ground pushed all the air from his lungs, but he was alive, if a bit stunned.

"Crawl beneath the bushes!" Durvain cried, and then he was flying upward again, the injured wing apparently no hindrance.

Aragorn then saw their adversary. It was another eagle, larger than Durvain and darker, nearly black with no golden aura about him like the Northern Eagles. For a moment, Aragorn watched, transfixed, as Durvain flew up to meet the bigger bird. Durvain twisted his body in mid-air to slash at the black eagle with his talons. The other bird screeched with pain. Durvain had struck a good blow.

Then the black eagle wheeled and his cold eye fixed on Aragorn, and Aragorn realized that he had been the cause for the attack. The black eagle saw him as Durvainís prey, and wanted to take him for himself and indeed was now diving straight for him. Fear clawing at his throat, Aragorn scrambled toward the bushes, his wounded back and aching head forgotten in his panic. He felt thorns catch on his clothes and skin, and the blanket ripped utterly away. There was a buffeting push of air and a great shadow covered him, but then it passed and a frustrated cry hammered the air. The eagle could not reach him, tucked safely away as he was within the prickly embrace of an obliging thornbush.

He wiggled until he found a clearer view of the sky. Durvain went streaking after the black eagle, who had lost interest now that the prize was out of reach. But Durvain apparently wanted to be sure, for he chased him and harassed him until both had disappeared from sight. Quiet reigned then, not unlike the hush that falls after the last cry of battle fades into the distance. Aragorn wondered where Menelris and Gandalf were. He cautiously eased out from under the bush, wincing as he lost more bits of skin.

He froze as a shadow approached, then relaxed. It was Menelris, with Gandalf riding atop her. She landed with barely a thump, and Gandalf immediately slid down and ran over. "Aragorn! Are you all right?"

"I think so," he said, rather weakly. He had, to his dismay, started to shake uncontrollably.

"I must find Durvain," Menelris said, and was in the air speeding south even as the words came from her beak.

Gandalf fell to his knees beside Aragorn and immediately embraced him. "There now, old friend. Itís over, and weíve all survived. We would have come to your aid sooner but we had no idea until we heard Durvainís cry that anything was amiss. But it appears youíve survived and likely so has Durvain. So there you go... breathe deeply and calm yourself. There, there."

Aragorn could not speak. He simply clutched Gandalfís robe and held tightly to it until the spasms passed. Then he slumped, exhausted, in Gandalfís arms, and in silence they watched the southern sky. After many tense minutes, two small dark specks appeared. They grew larger with each passing moment and finally Menelris and Durvain circled overhead and then came to soft landings beside them.

"Are you all right, Durvain?" Aragorn called.

"A little bit tattered as to the feathers on my left wing, but nothing serious, despite the blood. I can still fly. But what of you? I did not drop you too hard, did I?"

"No, Iím perfectly well."

Gandalf let out a derisive huffing noise, but Aragorn ignored him. "Who was that eagle?"

Menelris let out her own derisive snort. "He was from the south. They sometimes venture this way, when food becomes scarce. They are cowards, cruel and lazy besides, preferring to steal our prey instead of hunting their own. This is not the first time one has thought, mistakenly, that Durvain would be easy pickings. My mate is small, but he is the most nimble of all the Eagles in the air. None surpass him for diving and spinning. And he is great of heart Ė he would have died before letting that Eagle snatch you from him." She again nudged him, this time with the top of her head against his good wing. He responded with a low whistle.

"Great indeed," Aragorn said as fervently as he had ever spoken any words in his life. "You saved my life nearly at the cost of your own, and I thank you, Durvain. If thereís ever a way I can repay you by some service or reward, rest assured, I will."

Durvain ducked his head and plucked at some loose feathers on his chest, pleased but obviously embarrassed. Menelris rubbed his head affectionately with her beak, then looked at Aragorn. "Are you ready to continue on?"

Aragorn glanced at Gandalf, then nodded. Gandalf checked his bandages. "Youíre bleeding a bit, but weíre so close to Beornís, I think it best to wait until we arrive there to do anything about it. It is not very much blood, after all. And you realize, I hope," he added in a whisper, "that had Durvain not been carrying you in his talons, that black eagle would have plucked you easily from his back and that would have been the end of you. That is why Menelris could not come to your aid; she could not swoop and dive with me on her back."

Aragorn nodded, speechless before Gandalfís gentle rebuke.

"There now, donít take it so to heart. I myself prefer being atop, after all," he said with a wink. He then wrapped the blanket around him again, leaving his arms free this time. Then Durvain in turn wrapped his talons carefully around Aragorn just as before and spread his wings, and this time Aragorn kept his eyes wide open, and watched the ground fall away and then looked toward the sun and the clouds and saw the horizonís great curve and the mountains looking like nothing more than a rumpled pile of kicked-up carpet. And even though his stomach shivered and his back burned and his head throbbed, his heart soared, for he was alive, and he was flying.

He wrapped his arms around Durvainís talon and let out a great whoop of sheer joy.

_________

A/N: The rumours of flying Numenoreans is actually based on canon, or at least early drafts of canon. In HoME, vol. 5, The Lost Road, you can find the original outline for the drafts of the Fall of Nķmenor:

"The old line of the lands remained as a plain of air upon which only the Gods could walk, and the Eldar who faded as Men usurped the sun. But many of the NķmenůriŽ could see it or faintly see it: and tried to devise ships to sail on it. But they achieved only ships that could sail in Wilwa or lower air. Whereas the Plain of the Gods cut through and transversed Ilmen [in] which even birds cannot fly, save the eagles and hawks of ManwŽ."

Because it is, of course, only a draft of Tolkienís, I couched it in terms of a wild rumour, the sort of story that might be told to small children as an entertaining tale but given no credence.

Thanks to my beta Inzilbeth for finding this!

Chapter†Eight - To Beornís With All Due Speed

The euphoria, unfortunately, lasted only a few minutes. The gentle rise and fall of each wing beat eventually passed from the illusion of a relaxing float on gentle seas to the upheaval of a ship in the roughest waters imaginable. With each plunge, his stomach rose into his throat, and with each gentle climb, it dropped to his bowels. He could only grind his jaws together and endure, his eyes screwed shut. But he could not stop a short, keening moan coming with each breath.

"Strider? Is something wrong?"

He didnít dare open his lips. "Mmm-mmm."

"Am I squeezing too tightly?"

The talons loosened, and Aragorn frantically grasped Durvainís leg. "No!" he cried, and with that, his battle with his stomach was lost.

"Oh dear," Durvain said. "I suppose I should be honored that you managed to hit my foot with that. But I must say, itís a most unpleasant custom you Men hold to. It reminds me too much of the way vultures urinate on their own legs. Such disgusting birds, vultures, though I suppose they have their uses. Surely you donít do that as well?"

"No," Aragorn said with a slight laugh. His stomach felt better, a temporary condition, he was sure, for he remembered the horrendous bout of seasickness that had beset him and all his fellow sailors as they fought on a storm-tossed sea in Steward Echthelionís service in Gondor. Nausea had built and built and built until death looked a welcome escape; then relief finally came after a spate of retching over the side. Life then was tolerable until the cycle started all over again. This sickness from flying felt much the same. Knowing this quiescent period could not last, he nonetheless dredged up a smile. "Gandalf was making a joke. Men donít do that. This is not a sign of... of anything except illness from too much unsettling movement."

"Ah, I understand. But I am sorry you are ill. Is there anything I can do?"

"Just get to Beornís with all due speed," Aragorn said miserably. His stomach was already quivering again.

Durvain fell silent and they sped through the clouds. Aragorn saw the Anduin slip by far below, and then shortly after that Durvain tilted his wings and they started to descend, slowly at first and then in increasingly tighter circles. And if Aragornís stomach had been unhappy before, it became enraged at this new torment. He swallowed and swallowed but again, events overtook him. Fortunately for Durvainís feet, there was nothing left for him to bring up.

"Dear me, you really are ill, my friend."

"Itís like seasickness," Aragorn groaned. He coughed a few more times and wondered quite seriously if he could give up his life even if he were not yet king, and then quickly recanted, just in case Mandos heard and held him to his decision. He did not, after all, really want to die. Much.

"Seasickness? But we are nowhere near the sea. We are in the air, above Beornís Hall. No sea for many hundreds of leagues. So can you tell me how you can get sick from the sea when it is so far away?"

Aragorn tried to sort out an answer, but such cogitations were utterly beyond him. "Ask Gandalf," he finally mumbled.

"I believe I will, as soon as we land. And it looks as though we have a clear passage into Beornís very courtyard, although I think out of courtesy Iíll land on the grass. I do not see any archers below, nor even any sheep. His horses do not look any too pleased to see me, though."

Aragorn pried his eyes open and saw very far below fields that looked to have been filled with crops Ė flowers, he guessed, for Beornís honey bees were renowned Ė that had now gone dormant with winterís approach. Beyond them was a patch of woods, and within that patch, tucked within a hedgerow, were several long buildings. He saw thatched roofs and a great house with two wings or outbuildings that put the entire affair in the shape of a C. There was a courtyard within the embracing walls, and in that courtyard, two shining horses raced back and forth, obviously watching their approach. It was all fascinating and had Aragorn not felt so awful, he would have been eagerly looking forward to exploring it all, should Beorn allow. But instead, he watched with only the barest of dull interest as everything grew larger and closer...closer... the trees above their heads now... the walls of the buildings looming... and finally Durvain was flaring his wings and landing easily on one leg. He gently lowered Aragorn to the ground at the edge of the courtyard and released him. "There. An easier landing this time for you."

Aragorn mumbled his thanks, but he was too relieved to be on steady, solid ground to do much more than lay quietly grasping handfuls of grass while he waited for the sweating and shaking to pass. When it failed to do so, he prayed for blessed oblivion to release him from his woes. Surely it would not take long, as weak as his grip on consciousness felt...

Durvain brushed him with his wingtip feathers and cooed softly and soothingly. "Did you get too cold? Youíre shaking terribly."

He tried to answer, but his chattering teeth got in the way.

Durvain stopped his stroking and settled himself, belly down, in the grass. He then rested his wing across Aragorn like a great feathery blanket. It felt extraordinary, to be tucked so under the warmth of an eagleís wing. He sighed quietly, feeling the worst of his shivering ease, though he was still racked with sudden shudders and felt alarmingly, desperately ill. He knew what the problem was; he was in shock. His wound, the exertions from the fight, the sickness from flying... it was all too much, and he feared his body was shutting down. He knew he should try to put himself in a healing sleep, but his mind was too cluttered with pain and fever and concussion to let him think on anything other the dull litany of Gandalf, hurry... please hurry... please...

He drifted, lost to all but his misery, until suddenly the wing lifted and cold air struck him and harsh voices rang around them.

"Whatís this, an eagle on my path! Get you gone and donít think about stealing any of my sheep! Shoo! Wait... here now, whoís that youíre hiding?† Did you kill him?"

A second voice interrupted. "Alas, thereís another coming! With someone atop him!"

Aragorn tried to open his eyes, but they would not answer. He felt the light vibration and thump of Menelrisí feet hitting the ground, and then Gandalfís voice, "Stay your weapons! These Eagles have no interest in your animals, nor did they harm this man! He is gravely injured, yes, and ill, but not at their hands. He needs your compassion and the Eagles your gratitude, Master Beorn!"

"Gandalf! I told you my door is always open, but to come with Eagles this time! I know theyíre on the side of good, but they still eat my sheep."

"These two are not here for hunting, Beorn."

There was a pause, then a reluctant, "Very well, I will trust your word." Then in a lighter vein, "So, did you bring dwarves and a hobbit to overrun my hall again?"

"No, there is only my friend hereĖ"

"So you say, but last time Ďa friend or twoí turned into fourteen! Who else have you got hid in the bushes or under your cloak, my good friend?"

"No one, and you can trust that word as well," Gandalf replied testily. "Now if youíve any sense of compassion at all, which I know you do, now that youíre older and wiser, youíll stop with your infernal questions and see to my friend there while I get down..."

More crunching footsteps, then a hand touched Aragornís forehead, then lightly upon his back. "Heís bleeding, all right; see his back? Even through all those clothes. Burning up with fever as well, poor man. Get his feet, Grimbeorn. Heís no dwarf, thatís for certain, and Iím too old to haul men the size of him by myself these days."

And then hands turned him over and lifted him and suddenly his head lolled against a barrel of a chest. He heard a great strong heartbeat and felt scratchy wool against his cheek and the manís whiskers tickled his forehead. The tunic smelled of horse and dogs and the gamey, musky scent of bear. Aragorn finally got his eyes open and squinted upward, where he beheld a face, stern but kindly, with bushy black eyebrows beetling over intelligent and inquisitive eyes. Around it all floated a cloud of silver and black hair and a beard hoary with age. It was by far the largest head and the broadest shoulders he had ever seen. "Beorn?" he mumbled.

"Aye, Ďtis Beorn, and Ďtis my hall Iím dragging you into, where I suppose youíll bleed all over my clean floors and bed linens," he said gruffly. "But better that than leave you to bleed on my grass. Upsets the horses, men bleeding where they can smell it."

Aragorn had nothing to say to that. An apology seemed pointless, even if he could form the words, and besides, as Beorn and Grimbeorn carried him in through a dark doorway, his attention was caught by such an odd sight that he immediately dismissed it as nothing but fever-driven hallucination.

Dogs did not, after all, go around lighting lamps.

~~~

Aragorn had no memory of the next two days, other than dim recollections of pain, sickness and confusion and, far more troublesome, visions of dogs walking about on their hind legs, sheep serving him drinks and more dogs tending the fire. He even imagined a little white pony who brought him blankets.

He was certain he was losing his mind.

When he finally awakened on the third day, fully himself again Ė or so he hoped Ė it was to see a dog sitting beside his bed, with his chin resting on Aragornís arm and deep brown eyes looking at him soulfully. He looked at it uncertainly for a long moment, but it seemed real enough. "Good boy," he whispered, and patted the dogís noble head.

The dog immediately sat straight up, his mouth opening in what could only be said to be a delighted grin. He yipped once, then ran off. On all fours, Aragorn was relieved to see. He watched him trot, tail high and wagging like a flag, through a vast hall, and then disappear through a door at its opposite end. Aragorn looked at the blackened rafters, the great wooden beams, the vastness of the place and felt very small, tucked up as he was against one wall. And as small as he felt, he could just imagine how poor little Bilbo must have felt. And like Bilbo, he was lying on some sort of raised platform. As far as he could tell, he was near the middle of the building, no doubt in the warmest part thanks to a fire burning merrily beside him. He could feel the warmth against his face. There was a table just beyond the fire, lined with sawn tree trunks for seats. No one seemed to be in the room with him. That surprised him a bit; he would have expected to see Gandalf hovering somewhere nearby, ready to start patting his shoulder.

He tentatively raised his head, and when the room stayed steady, he tried to push himself to a seated position. Surprisingly, he had the strength to sit up, but the movement pulled painfully against the stitches in his back, so he gently laid back. Sitting could wait, he supposed; there was little sense in pushing himself too soon and suffering a setback for his troubles. The pillows under his head and shoulders were soft, as was the crackling, straw-filled mattress beneath him. Comfortable enough, though nowhere near as soft as eagle down.

Thinking about the down led his thoughts to Menelris and Durvain. Were they still nearby? Or had they flown back to their eyrie? There were no windows in the room through which to look for them. He felt a pang at the thought that he might never see them again. He wished he had been able to thank them. He wished he could have spent more time with them. He wished...

As improbable as it seemed, he wished he might go flying again, when he was fit and whole and able to enjoy the experience. He supposed the chances of that were slim.

A door squeaked across the room as it opened part way and then stopped. Beyond it, Aragorn heard a rumble of a voice speaking in a strange tongue that sounded almost like a dog barking. Aragorn would hardly have considered himself conversant in such odd speech, but he found he was able to make out some of the words, "Good... is awake. ....along... fetch Gandalf."

And then Beorn himself came through the door. He seemed to fill the entire hall, so strong was his presence. Aragorn tried to hitch himself higher on his pillows.

Beorn waved hands that seemed as big as loaves of bread. "No, no... settle down. Youíve been sick, and I donít need fussed over. And whatever you do, donít offer me your services; if I need them, Iíll ask. Which I donít think I will, because youíve been beating at deathís door these last two days and if you had the strength to lift a spoon to feed yourself, Iíd be surprised." He stopped beside Aragornís bed and smiled down at him from what seemed an impossibly great height. "Aye, youíve got them, all right, just as Gandalf says."

"Got them? Got what?" He looked at his hands and touched his cheeks, wondering if heíd broken out in spots.

"A kingís eyes, bright and keen. Good to see them clear again, Aragorn."

"You know whoĖ"

"Yes, yes, I know who you are. But put away your fear; who would I tell? The bears? My dogs? They care more of cabbages than kings. And my people can be trusted, to a man, woman and child. Weíve been fighting on your side, after all, for as long as Iíve been here, despite rumors that Iím a contrary old crosspatch who cares only about himself and trusts no one. Here, though, let me get a chair if weíre to have a proper visit. Ninety years is a lot to ask out of a pair of knees, and they tend to creak very loudly if I stand on them long."

He pulled a great black chair from the end of the table. It scraped against the floor and groaned a bit as he settled into it. He crossed his hands on his belly, stretched his legs out long before him and regarded Aragorn with eyes that were at once kind but also somewhat guarded, as though he were willing to put up with guests but never altogether trusted that they wouldnít make off with the spoons. "How are you?"

"Weary. But better, I think. I feel a bit stronger than I have of late."

"Good to hear. Head still hurt?"

"No," Aragorn said, with vast relief.

"Belly hurt?"

"No."

"Howís your back?"

"Stiff and very sore."

"Youíll need to stay abed another day at least, I think. Let it get a good start on healing before you go bouncing around doing whatever it is you do. Hunting for that Gollum creature, Gandalf tells me."

"I think that task must be put aside for now. Even if I hadnít gotten hurt, we were close to heading home for the winter."

"And home is where?"

Thereís a question, Aragorn thought. These days, where did he truly call home? Chetwood, where he stayed while guarding the Shire? If home is where one is surrounded by caring and friendly neighbors, that hardly counted. Rivendell? Home of his heart, where he was loved by its people, yes, but he had not actually dwelt there in decades. The little hidden village beyond Fornost, where many of his Rangersí wives and children lived? He had no such family of his own....

Thinking on it all was too dreary. "Arnor," he finally said. True enough, he supposed...

"Bit of a large estate, Arnor."

Aragorn smiled, but it faded quickly.

"Here now, I didnít mean to pry. Gandalf told me you walk a hard road and I can see your journey has written more than a bit of sadness on your soul. So, weíll put aside talking about such things in favor of discussing food. You must be thirsty. Are you hungry? I can bring in some cream and honey cakes, or perhaps just a slice or two of toast. Mild foods that wonít be too hard on your stomach. I donít want you getting sick again."

"Again?"

"You donít remember, do you?"

"I remember being sick when we were flying, and I remember lying on the ground, and you and Grimbeorn carrying me. But after that..." He shook his head, choosing not to tell about his wild hallucinations of fire-tending dogs and ponies acting as valets.

"Just as well. I have seen men in miserable straits before but you surpassed them all for groaning and shivering and tossing back everything we tried to get down your throat. That wound really turned on you, and in a hurry, according to Gandalf. He said you had been improving, but all that flew out the window, along with the contents of your stomach, for a day or so."

Aragorn felt his cheeks burn. He was sure he was as red as the candles on the table. "Iím sorry to have caused you so much trouble."

Beorn waved a hand in dismissal. "Itís not like you could help yourself. You were so taken with fever that you were out of your head completely. Besides, you didnít bother me; my son Grimbeorn and Gandalf were the ones that looked after you, so if youíre going to fuss about with apologizing, save it for them." Beorn reached over and felt Aragornís forehead. "There, thatís better. No fever that I can tell, though Iím more used to checking horses and sheep than men." He chuckled, and as he did his merry eyes nearly disappeared in a maze of fine wrinkles.

Aragorn smiled in return, and this time it did not fade into melancholy, although it did fade to uncertainty. While he found himself warming to this huge fellow sitting beside him, he also felt unaccountably shy. His head buzzed with a thousand questions to ask this legendary figure who had loomed so large in his childhood tales, but he found himself unable to put any to words. One does not, after all, at his age beg to see Beorn to change into a bear, no matter how dearly the child in him wanted to.

"Do you always sit and stare at people like a frightened deer, or have I got something in my hair?" Beorn reached up and brushed at his mop of wavy hair.

Aragorn hadnít thought it possible for his face to burn any more than it had been but now he feared he might burst into flames, so hot was his embarrassment. "No, Master Beorn. Iím sorry... meeting you is such an honor, I fear my tongue is tied completely in knots."

"Well untie it, because kings should never be tongue tied, and I donít bite. At least, not anymore. Fifty-some years ago, I might have sent you and your eagle and your wizard packing with arrows whizzing past your ears, but as Gandalf said, Iíve gained a little more wisdom in my old age. Those dwarves and that little hobbit, Bilbo, melted the thorns around my heart, if you donít mind me mixing my metaphors."

"No, no... of course not." He winced inwardly, wishing he could say something that held at least a modicum of intelligence, but his power of speech seemed to have dwindled to mute idiocy†before the†intensity of Beornís presence. What must he have been like in the prime of his years, Aragorn wondered, then to his horror he realized Beorn was still speaking and he had no idea what he had just said.

"... was a hard one, I wonít deny it. Losing all of my kind to goblins, then living at Mirkwoodís edge and fighting those same goblins and sometimes evil Men... I killed them all off, as they came, but it hardened me. I feared the entire world had turned to evil and treated all who came to my door with suspicion, if I even let them come near my door at all. But Gandalf and his bizarre company of heroes battered down all those defenses, Iím not ashamed to say, so much so that I even went to war at their side! It was a revelation to discover that there were still good folk left in the world, beyond that handful of Elves hiding away in Mirkwood under Thranduilís reign. So now I welcome visitors, after a fashion, as long as theyíre on the side of good. Even visitors who are as much trouble as you."

"I do thank you, for everything."

"Youíre welcome. Now, enough thanking and apologizing and such. Iím getting bored with it, and despite my warm hospitality, I do not suffer boring guests gladly, and I suspect that despite your apparently shy nature Ė funny, Gandalf never said anything about you being so bashful Ė at any rate, I imagine youíre an interesting fellow, being a king in exile as you are. You are the last of your line even as I am, and I want to hear your thoughts on that, if you have any behind that wide-eyed look of wonder you keep giving me. So I have plenty of questions for you, but the first is, are you ready for some honey cakes and cream?"

Aragorn blinked a bit, thrown completely off guard by the sudden rather prosaic question. "Oh, yes... yes, please. Thank you." Would he ever manage to say anything†beyond the†simple response any well-mannered boy of five could blather? But he supposed that was better than rudeness. If he were to make himself out to be a brainless imbecile, best to be a polite brainless imbecile.

As Beorn clapped his hands and signaled to someone beyond the shadowy doorway, Aragorn tried again to spot a window. Finding none, he asked, relieved to finally say something beyond a school boyís please and thank you, "Can you tell me what time it is?"

"Morning, an hour past dawn. In the summer Iíd be out with the hives, getting my honey. But the nights have turned cold and the days cool and my bees are sleeping now, waiting for spring. I expect Iíll be here one more spring, though I must tell you, Aragorn, that I feel my time draws nigh. Iíve a feeling somehow that this winter will be my last."

It seemed such a disquieting thing to say, and yet Beorn spoke as though he were merely discussing the weather. Aragorn searched vainly for a response.

"Does my saying that startle you, boy?"

Aragorn shook his head, then nodded... and then he studied Beornís eyes for a long moment. He saw in their depths a wisdom and peace that stirred something deep within him, and broke, at last, the crippling intimidation he had been suffering. He took a breath and said, "I am hardly a boy, but no, your words do not startle me, exactly. At least, not in the sense that they would have startled a man less familiar with trust. If I seem at a loss, itís because I am perhaps a bit envious. You seem so accepting of the nearness of death, speaking of it almost as a man speaks of... of changing his socks. Faith I might have that more lies beyond this life than memory, but I do not know that I would be so calm in considering the actual ending of my life."

"Even though you are Nķmenůrean, and if what Gandalf tells me is correct and that your own words seem to attest, still hold faith in Erķ and the Valar and life beyond this one?"

Aragorn thought for a long moment. "Yes, but..." he started, then paused again, carefully choosing his words. "Perhaps it is not that I fear death, for as you say, I hold to the same trust the Men of Westernesse kept." He smiled slightly. "Elrond named me Estel, as a child, and a more fitting name I cannot imagine, for estel Ė hope with trust Ė I have in plenty. So I do not fear death itself. But... I suppose I live too near danger to really think on it, death, much. To even consider the boon of a death late in life, at the end of my days..." He shook his head, unable to find the words.

But Beorn sat quietly waiting, with expectant compassion, so Aragorn struggled on.

"I know I should not think long on those in my line who perished too early... my father, my grandfather. Even my namesake, the first Aragorn, who was taken by wolves. Thinking on them is folly, to be sure, but so too is looking too far to my own future, for I have no idea what it may hold, for good or ill. But I do look. I cannot help it. And when I do...." He stopped and rubbed his suddenly sweating hand along his leg, chiding himself for his utter lack of eloquence. He tried again, "When I look too long in either direction, the past tries to ensnare me with fears of a similar fate, of an early death before I accomplish my lifeís goals, and the future shrouds all hope in uncertainty. Taken together, they too easily drain me of all my courage," he finished in a rush, as if by saying it quickly it made the words any less shameful.

But Beorn showed no censure. He merely nodded, slowly. "Courage is not something that any man has in infinite supply, is it, and sitting in safety, looking ahead at possible dangers, thereís no way any man can know his courage will stand him in good stead. And that makes him doubt himself, although from what I hear you rarely have such troubles. Still, even the best of us can have a moment where we wonder, especially when the pastís example is far from encouraging. As for the future, and any hope for happiness and peace... that too can wither in the face of insurmountable odds. It seems to me a man must apportion hope Ė and courage Ė out to himself, day by day, for it to last the duration."

Aragorn took a deep breath. He had hoped... nay, he realized, it was stronger than that: he had depended upon Beornís understanding, and the relief he felt at Beornís wise compassion nearly brought him to tears. "Yes. That is it, exactly. I have learned that I cannot look too far behind or ahead. And yet..." He stopped.

"Yet? Donít tell me thereís more obfuscation coming! Well, if you must, speak and get it out so I can untangle the meaning before the day has completely got away from us."

Again, Aragornís cheeks flared. "Iím sorry. I... maybe it is the blow to the head. I cannot seem to express myself very well."

"Youíre doing fine, lad. Iíve heard worse nonsense from my own son, who to my knowledge has never banged himself in the head in his life. Go on, now. Go on."

"All right," Aragorn said. He took one more moment to think, then plunged straight in. "I say that I should not look ahead, and yet I find I must, sometimes, for though I doubt not what lies beyond this life, I also have a hope for this life, one that I cling to when all seems too dark to survive. It is a priceless thing, and I long for it, but it cannot be mine unless I reach those goals that seem beyond reach." He winced. Hope and courage and fear and love... he was never comfortable speaking these things aloud, and it showed. Despite his best effort, he was rambling like one whose wits are lost, and making a proper hash of all of it.

Beornís eyebrows went up. "If I were to hazard a guess at the true meaning behind your rather enigmatic words, Iíd say you speak of love."

Aragorn nodded but said no more.

"Well. You are far from the only man who finds hope in the love of a good woman. Whoever she is, I am glad she has that boon to give to you. A man needs a helpmeet, and the promise of a happy future to hold him in good stead when the going gets rough."

"She does that. In every way," Aragorn said softly.

Beorn smiled. "My wife brought me more joy than I would have ever imagined. And she gave me a fine son in Grimbeorn. He will be a good leader for my people, when I am gone."

Aragorn shifted a bit, trying in vain to chase away the sudden ache in his heart. Would he ever have a family? A wife? A son to carry on after he was gone?

Beorn gave him a kind look. "I have saddened you again, it seems. Perhaps the philosophies of an old skinchanger are not what you need right now."

"No, no," Aragorn protested, holding a hand out to stay Beorn from rising. "Truly, I am not normally so cheerless. Perhaps it is the wound. Or simply fatigue. Gandalf will attest that I tend to become overly morose and too absorbed by doubt and self pity when weariness is upon me."

"You and I are alike in that way; Grimbeorn growls at me and threatens to take away my honey. As if he could!"

Aragorn smiled. "I would think that a difficult task, if not impossible."

"You think right! I may be old, but the day has yet to come that my upstart son can best me." He turned toward the doorway and shouted, "Do you hear that, Grimbeorn?"

A muffled voice shouted something back, the words indistinct but the tone clear: Grimbeorn failed to agree with his fatherís assessment. Aragorn thought he heard a snort, in fact.

"Ach, donít listen to him," Beorn winked. "Heís just cross because I told him to move all the rams into the north paddock, along the hedge and out of the way of the ewes. Three of the ewes have come into their season, and I donít want any lambs out of that lot but try telling that to the rams. Theyíre rioting. So short of†dousing them†with buckets of cold well water to cool their ardour, the rams must be moved. And have you ever tried moving lovesick rams away from the objects of their affection?"

"No, I canít say that I have."

"Itís no easy task. And thus Grimbeorn has become simply Grim, but youíve cheered up considerably, so I consider my work for the day to be done."

"And so early, at that," Aragorn laughed. "Maybe you can spare a moment, then, to tell me if the Eagles are still here?"

"Theyíve left, right after dropping you and the wizard at my doorstep. But here now, donít look so crestfallen. The little one, Druvish, DervishĖ"

"Durvain."

"Durvain! He said heíd be back in a few days, when his wing was better. They wanted to be nearer the river and food, I think. At any rate, that was the day before yesterday, so he ought to be arriving any time now. Iíve warned the horses and told the sheep, so they wonít be upset."

"Do you speak the languages of all the animals?"

"Oh yes. All the time. Especially the dogs, and of course the bears." His voice grew wistful. "It has been far too long since Iíve seen my friends."

If there were ever a chance to ask Beorn about his skin-changing skills, this was it, but there came a clatter at the far end of the hall, and Gandalf hurried in, his robes flapping about him and dogs bounding ahead of him. He carried in his hands a small bottle and a cup. "Aragorn!" he cried happily, setting both on the table and hurrying to his bedside. He took both of Aragornís hands in his. "Oh, itís good to see you awake and yourself again. You had me very worried."

"Hello, Gandalf," Aragorn smiled.

"Hello, indeed. These past few days have seemed endless but here you are, bright-eyed and with color in your cheeks again. Are you hungry? Do you need anything? Here, Iíve brought some miruvor. I do think itís safe for you to have a bit, now." He hurried back to the table and poured a bit into the cup and held it for Aragorn to drink. "Just a sip, as you know."

Aragorn swallowed a mouthful of the fragrant, clear liquid and sighed as he felt it work. A brightness that had long been missing from his thoughts came upon him, and he felt a return of some of the strength in his limbs.

Gandalf smiled. "Thereís the ticket. Now youíre looking more yourself. Do you want some food?"

"Beorn has arranged for something to be brought, thank you."

And even as he said it, a very amazing thing happened: a dog trotted in, and Beorn started chattering away at it, in that same odd language Aragorn heard before. Beorn sounded a bit cross, and Aragorn made out the words "only cakes and cream" and "taking so long" and then the dog nodded... nodded... and trotted over to a door, disappeared through it.

Aragorn stared at Beorn, who let out an impatient huff. "I apologize, Aragorn. I asked why it was taking them so long, as itís simply cream and cakes and some water. Heís gone off to check."

Before Aragorn could form a reply to that, the door re-opened and a different dog appeared, this time walking on his hind legs and balancing a tray with a pitcher and cup on it across his front legs. Aragorn felt his eyebrows rise and his eyes widen, and he was sure his jaw had dropped somewhere to his chest. "What... I mean, thatís a.... So it wasnít the fever..." Gandalf started to chuckle, so he spluttered to a stop.

"Good heavens, Aragorn, surely youíve heard of the wonders of Beornís Hall?"

"Well, yes... that is to say, Iíve heard the stories since I was a child, but... I thought... I assumed a lot of it was made up just to entertain me as a small child. I mean no offense, Master Beorn," he added quickly.

Beorn threw his head back and it seemed his laughter shook the very rafters. He lost himself in mirth for quite some minutes and then finally wiped tears from his eyes. "So I entertain small children, do I? Oh, thatís rich. I like that, I do." He barked some more of the gibberish at the dog sitting beside him, and the dog in turn wagged his tail and seemed to laugh as he looked at Aragorn, who was feeling more and more foolish and out of his element with each passing moment.

"Well, enough laughter at your expense, young man," Beorn said. "Time to get some food into you. Gandalf, if you will assist, weíll help Aragorn sit up." He stood and lifted a lid that was cleverly built into one of the platforms. He retrieved more pillows from the space beneath and handed them to Gandalf. Then he slid a great arm beneath Aragornís shoulders. "No, donít try to do this yourself; youíll tear the stitches. Let me do the lifting."

Aragorn relaxed and Beorn seemed to lift him without a bit of strain. Gandalf swiftly piled the pillows behind him and Beorn eased him back against them. There was a bit of dull discomfort where the pillows pressed against his wound, but it was tolerable. "Howís that? Comfortable?" he asked.

"Itís wonderful. Thank you."

Beorn reached under the tray held by the dog and pulled down four legs that had been folded beneath it. He then settled the tray across Aragornís lap. "Fit for a king," he said with a flourish, then sat back down in his chair. "Now eat."

Aragorn smiled, and immediately took a long draught of water flavored with honey. It tasted wonderful and his stomach seemed accepting... nay, demanding, so he took a bite of a thick slice of cake drizzled with honey. It tasted heavenly. "Good," he mumbled as he took a bigger bite, and then another.

"Youíll find no finer honey cakes anywhere in Middle-earth."

Aragorn believed it. He finished off the first cake and started on a second one, this time chewing slowly, eyes shut to better concentrate on the marvelous flavors and texture. The cake tasted sweet, but not cloying, and brought to mind summer breezes and the soft scent of clover. He could almost hear the drowsy hum of bees and the distant song of birds and cries of Eagles. He opened his eyes with a start. "Was thatĖ"

"It sounded like Menelris," Gandalf exclaimed, "and she sounds distressed!" He and Beorn both hurried from the hall, leaving Aragorn sitting with the last of the honey cakes halfway to his mouth.

He shoveled it in, then handed the tray to the dog who was still standing beside his bed. That he would ever hand a tray over to a dog... he shook his head at the wonder of the world and threw back the blankets. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself with difficulty to his feet. The dog gave out a worried yip and moved close enough for Aragorn to steady himself with a hand on its head. "Thank you," he gasped, then wondered how in the world he would manage to walk all that way when he could barely straighten. He needed a cane. "Please, I donít know if you can understand me, but I need a cane. Or a walking stick. Something to lean on besides your head."

The dog wagged his tail, barked once, and then trotted away, leaving Aragorn to stand swaying beside the fire. He put a hand on his back, to brace it, and set his feet a bit wider as he slowly straightened completely. It was astounding, really, how one discovered upon receiving a back injury that every single muscle in oneís body was directly connected to the back. He could barely wiggle his toes without it sending a spasm across his lower back; the very idea of walking anywhere seemed a cruel joke. But as he was starting to feel a bit lightheaded, he grabbed his back with both hands and shuffled closer to the table. Rheumy old men had nothing on him, he thought ruefully. He reached the table, caught himself up against it, and was considering the risks against the benefits of lowering himself to one of the stools when the dog came trotting back in, proudly carrying Gandalfís staff in his mouth.

Appalled, Aragorn shook his head. "No, no... that belongs to Gandalf. Itís very special and I dare not use it."

But the dog merely stood beside him, wagging his tail, the long staff rather ludicrously sticking out by a yard on either side of his mouth. Aragorn watched in horrid fascination as a string of drool stretched from the dogís jaw down the staff and onto the floor. He shut his eyes, wincing at such a desecration. But there came another muffled cry from outside. Aragorn sighed, opened his eyes and took the staff from the dogís mouth. He wiped the drool against his sleeve and, leaning heavily upon its support, started slowly for the door, cringing at the indignities he was inflicting on Gandalfís rod of office.

Gandalf would surely roast him.

Chapter 9 - Two Days Spent With Aragorn and Heís Become Just as Obstinate

Gandalf hurried toward him, and fortunately seemed in no way inclined to roast him, lest it be for daring rise from his sickbed. "Aragorn! What do you call this foolishness! You are in no shape to be up and walkingĖ"

"Do not worry about me," Aragorn grunted, but his eyes were taken with the sight before him. Aragorn realized he had never properly seen Menelris. He had been unconscious or very close to it each time she was nearby, save those moments after the fight with the black eagle. His attention then had been more taken with ensuring Durvain had not been severely injured, and to be honest, his memories of the entire time†were hazy at best. So seeing her now, with his mind finally completely clear, was astonishing. Her sheer size momentarily stopped him in his tracks, but again it was Durvain that demanded his attention. He†lay huddled on the ground,†his head stretched disconsolately before him and his left wing twisted away from his body in an awkward sprawl. Menelris bobbed her head in extreme agitation, letting out keening whistles of alarm as she nudged him gently. He neither stirred nor opened his eyes. "What has happened?" Aragorn asked quietly.

"He and Menelris just arrived. He could barely fly; she was very nearly carrying him as she supported him from below. It seems his wound, like yours,†has suddenly turned for the worst."

"If you would help me to himĖ"

"Of course, of course. Here, let me have that staff and you can lean on my shoulder instead."

"Iím sorry to abuse your staff so Ė the dog... he brought it and there was no time to find another, and I did not want to insultĖ"

"No, no. It is quite all right. It is special in my hands, but in yours it becomes just another walking stick. You cannot diminish its power by using it as a crutch in such a dire circumstance as this."

"The dog drooled on it."

Gandalf only chuckled. "Nor is it unduly affected†by dog slobber. Iím sure the dog meant well and could find nothing else suitable at hand, so put your mind at ease."

Relieved, Aragorn draped his arm across Gandalfís shoulders and together they walked to Durvain. "By his wing first, I think, on the side nearest his head," Aragorn murmured. He then lowered himself carefully to his knees. "Durvain, it is Strider. Can you hear me?"

Durvainís eyes opened and he lifted his head. "Hello, Strider," he said, his voice a bit weak but his eyes as bright with friendliness as ever. "I am so glad to see you again, and to see you looking a bit more yourself. Or at least as I imagine you to be. Iíve never actually seen you upright!"

"I am glad to see you, Durvain."

"Do you want to go flying again? I will gladly take you."

"I would like that, thank you, but alas, you hardly look ready for flights of fancy. What is this that besets you, my dear friend?"

"My wing seems to be giving me some bother. Itís nothing, though. I will be well enough, in a few days."

"Two days spent with Aragorn," Gandalf muttered, "and heís become just as obstinate; it must be a catching disease." Aragorn glared at him but he merely jutted his beard out defiantly.

"I just need to rest for a while here, if Master Beorn doesnít mind too much," Durvain continued. "Please tell him we promise not to eat his sheep while we are here."

Menelris, who all this time had been nearly hopping from foot to foot at Durvainís right side, let out a derisive squawk. "Do not pay him a bit of attention, Strider. The wound has worsened beyond any repair that mere rest can provide."

Aragorn nodded, then put a hand on Durvainís wing. "Can you lift it, my friend?"

Durvain strained, and the wing rose shakily, but not high enough to give Aragorn a proper look. "Gandalf, Beorn, if you could assist?"

The two hurried to grasp the wing.

"Slowly! We do not want to injure him further," Aragorn admonished.

They nodded and as one raised the wing high enough for Aragorn to see the problem. The wound was indeed infected, all along its considerable length. He laid a hand flat against the reddened skin, where the feathers had torn away, then placed another hand alongside the opposite side of the wound. He took a deep breath and shut his eyes, then started to quietly sing a song of healing.

"Whatís he doing?" Beorn asked.

"Shhh," Gandalf hissed. "Do not disturb him. He is a healer."

"A healer! You donít say! Like the Elves, I suppose. But see here, if heís a healer, why couldnít he have healed himself?"

"Do be quiet, Master Beorn! Aragorn needs to concentrate...."

Aragorn smiled a bit at their fiercely whispered conversation. He ended the song and looked up at them. "The wound is greatly infected. It needs thorough cleaning. If you could bring me plenty of buckets of hot water, and clean cloths, andĖ"

"We will do no such thing!" Gandalf interrupted. "Or, that is to say, we will not bring those things to you. You are in no condition to take care of this wing; it is huge, and a mess besides and it will take several men to set it to rights. And doing so will take no more than ordinary skill at that, so though youíre to be commended for offering, you are simply not needed in this capacity. Beorn can fetch Grimbeorn, and he†and I will see to organizing it all, while you sit at Durvainís head and provide comfort and the gift of healing and hope for which you are so famous."

"Famous in obscure places, perhaps," Aragorn murmured, but he bowed his head in surrender. He wasnít up to much more than holding anyoneís hand, and well he knew it. He crawled awkwardly to Durvainís head, moving to the side opposite the injured wing so as not to be in the way. He nodded to Menelris, then lowered himself to a seat. He would have pulled Durvainís head into his lap, but he feared the weight of it would crush his legs to powder. "Durvain," he called softly, and the birdís eyes opened. Aragorn stroked the side of Durvainís face. "I am sorry you are so ill, but Gandalf and Grimbeorn and some other very nice men are going to help you."

"I liked that song you sang," Durvain said. "It was so peaceful. It made me sleepy."

"Tuck your head under, then," Aragorn smiled. "This next bit will be messy and likely painful, so if you can sleep through it, all the better."

"Will you sing to me again?"

"Of course." And he started singing, a lullaby this time. He made up the verses as he went along, singing of a motherís love and softly-lined nests and floating clouds and rivers full of nice fat fish. Anything he thought might bring comfort to an Eagle. He also ran his hand over and over the sleek feathers on the side of Durvainís head and neck. His healerís touch had worked in the past on animals such as horses and other domestic beasts, and he had even set a wild songbirdís broken wing to rights. There had been nothing mystical in splinting the fractured bone, but he knew his touch had kept the bird calm when otherwise it might have panicked to the point of death. But despite his varied successes, he did not know how effective that touch might be on an Eagle. It was always a bit of a guess in some ways, trying to heal, although he generally felt immediately whether things were going well. He paused in his singing to lean his forehead down to the crest above Durvainís eye and poured forth every healing thought he could. His breathing grew slower and deeper, and he felt Durvainís slow to match his.

Thank Elbereth, this seemed to be a time where the healing was flowing as it should.

There was movement beside him, and Aragorn lifted his head to look at Menelris. She was settling down beside her mate as close as she could without jostling Aragorn. She draped her wing over Durvainís shoulder, and such was the size of her wing that it covered Aragorn as well, like a canopy. "Keep singing, Strider. It brings comfort to us both."

And so Aragorn did. He sat and sang his own songs until he could no longer think of words, and then he moved to the lullabies his mother had sung to him as a child, and then every song of healing and every hymn to Elbereth he could think of and a few of his own making. He sang as Grimbeorn brought the buckets of steaming water. He sang as Grimbeorn and Gandalf and three men Aragorn did not know gently labored beneath the outstretched wing, pulling away broken feathers and cleaning and murmuring soothing encouragements and then finally rubbing in pot after pot of medicinal salve. He sang as they wrapped a vast swath of bandages around the wound, and he sang as they finally with great care laid the wing down on the ground. And then finally he stopped and leaned exhausted against Durvainís neck.

"What a brave Eagle you are," he murmured. Indeed, through it all, Durvain had not so much as flinched, though his eyes had widened a few times and his beak clacked now and again.

Gandalf knelt beside him. "Your singing and your healing touch quite made the difference, I think. I doubt Durvain would have been so calm otherwise."

"Compared to all he has done for me, it was an exceeding small thing to do. He was injured, after all, while taking care of me."

Gandalf squeezed his shoulder but said nothing, for which Aragorn was grateful. Now that the deed was done, he felt every ache and twinge in his lower back. Acutely. He wondered vaguely how he would regain the hall, and decided that to sleep here, in the open, curled against Durvainís warmth under the shelter of Menelrisí wing, would be more than any king could want. He leaned his head against Durvainís neck and closed his eyes, again sending healing thoughts toward Durvain. Sleep, my friend... sleep and fly through healing dreams... we will fly them together.....

Just before sleep claimed him, he felt the soft weight of a blanket fall across his body.

~~~

Stars speckled the cold blackness of the sky when Aragorn next opened his eyes. He took a deep, slow breath. For a moment, he had no idea where he was, but as he felt the warm bulk of the Eagle beneath his cheek, and heard the muffled stentorian rush of Durvainís steady breathing, he relaxed and pulled the blanket, which had fallen from his shoulders, back up under his chin. Menelris had withdrawn her wing and was sleeping beside them, head tucked in proper Eagle fashion. Aragorn was surprised that he had apparently slept away the entire day; Durvain he had expected to sleep, but it seemed he had finally been able to enter a healing sleep along with the Eagle.

There was a very faint hint of light left in the evening sky but nighttime was well upon them. It was chilly, but he was comfortable, snugged up against Durvain as he was. He patted the birdís neck and smoothed down a feather that the breeze had lifted. Durvainís breathing hesitated, then quickened as he started to wake.

"Strider?" he asked, his voice thick with sleep.

"I am right here, my friend. As is your mate, right here beside you."

"Menelris," he murmured, content. His breathing deepened again.

Aragorn heard a step and looked up to see Beorn outlined against the starlight. "How is he?" he whispered.

"I think he is doing well. He is quiet, anyway."

He watched as Beorn ran his hands along Durvainís neck and down the wing to the bandages. He nodded, satisfied. "I do not know how to tell, exactly, if an Eagle has fever, but he seems to be resting well enough, as you say. What of you? Surely after spending all day out here, youíre not going to spend the night out in the open as well?"

Aragorn pushed himself upright, relieved by the ease with which he could move. It seemed the dayís sleep had done well for him. "I think I might, actually. If he awakens in the night, I can calm him."

"Canít his mate there do that?"

Aragorn nodded, but he was reluctant to explain himself, overtaken again with that odd shyness before Beornís keen gaze.

It ended up he neednít have worried. "But you feel responsible, am I right?"

"You read a manís heart too easily, Master Beorn."

"Only when the man wears it upon his sleeve as you do. You will need to perfect the art of dissembling if youíre going to be any good as a king."

"No doubt you are right, but I need no artifice before a good friend."

"Ah, now, enough with flattery."

"They are no empty words I speak; I count you as a friend, one of my dearest though we have known each other but a day. I too can read hearts, you know."

"Then I best hide the mithril before you suss out my hidden stash," Beorn chuckled. "But I do wonder how it was that you managed to sleep away the entire day, and the Eagle as well. I donít think either of you so much as moved. We came out several times just to be sure you were both still breathing."

Aragorn smiled. "It was no ordinary sleep. I put Durvain into what is called a healing sleep, and such was my own need that I found I was unable to keep from falling into one myself. That happens occasionally, though it is rare."

"A healing sleep. What is that, some sort of trance?"

"No, nothing like that. Itís a sort of... state of rest, I suppose you could call it. Deeper than regular sleep but nothing he could not awaken from at extreme need, say if an enemy approached. And itís not something that I use often... in fact, Master Elrond is far better at such healing methods as I am, although I am learning, for healing is a gift of my line, going all the way back to its very beginnings."

"Beginnings? And that would be...?"

"I am of the line of Melian, and Lķthien. Such healing power as Melian passed to Lķthien passed also to those of her line; it is a part of my birthright."

"Melian, you say. So†you are part Maia! A wizard like Gandalf!"

"I am no wizard. It is only the very smallest part of me, Melianís blood. But that is what gives me my healing power. I am trained in the healing arts, of course, the setting of bones, cleaning of wounds, caring for fever, things like that. But the special touch... I can make no claim to that other than having been blessed by Ilķvatar. But whether my own power is as great as Lķthienís, I do not know, as I have not yet been tested to that degree."

"So answer this, then. You evidently can heal a creature as great as this Eagle, yet you could not keep yourself from falling into such fever and illness that you nearly died. How do you explain that? Lķthien probably would have been able to have accomplished it, I imagine."

"Lķthien was Firstborn; I may have some Elvish ways, and in me both lines of the Children of Ilķvatar dwell, but nonetheless, I am a Man, and one in a line that has diminished since its greatest days, although..." Here he paused. "Beorn, hear me in this, before I go on. I do not say any of this about myself out of a sense of pride or arrogance, but simply out of fact: much of what was great about the Nķmenůreans still exists within me, or so I have been told by those whose wisdom I trust. I cannot claim that through any doing of my own; it simply is, by the hand of Ilķvatar."

Beorn nodded. "It is no different than my saying I am a skinchanger. You are who you are, who you were created to be."

"Yes, that is it precisely. I am the last of the line of great Kings, the heir of Elendil and Isildur. I came by that simply through being born to my mother and father, not by any great feat of arms or show of bravery or words of great wisdom. And far from feeling it entitles me to any special treatment, who I am and what I can become hangs instead ever before me as a stern admonition to live my life in such a way that I never diminish what remains of the nobility and purity of that line. I must prove myself worthy to be called the Heir of Elendil by such acts of charity, strength, honesty, wisdom and bravery as I can muster, if that makes sense. I must rise to the heights of all who went before me, or fail utterly. And that is a humbling task."

"I believe I like you, Aragorn. You appear to have been raised right."

Aragorn chuckled. "Thank you, Beorn. I will pass that along to Master Elrond and my mother."

"But youíve strayed from the path as far as my questionĖmaybe that too is emblematic of your bloodline, to wander in conversation much as you wander around the wilds of the North."

Aragorn could not help it; he burst into laughter.

"So back to it: why couldnít you heal yourself?"

"Healing such as that takes much power, and if I am already diminished through injury, or deprivation or illness or whatever the case may be, then I have no stamina to heal myself. I may be hardy, but I am not invincible," he said ruefully.

"Invincible or no, I can see where youíd be a handy person to have around. Care to move here and help me tend my animals?"

"I would love nothing better, but alas, my journey takes me down a different road. But I can stay for a season." Again, the rueful smile. "In fact, I fear you may be stuck with me longer than you wish, for I am not exactly ready for the long journey back home."

"I have the feeling that whenever you leave, it will be too soon. But when you do, know that you are always welcome to return, and know that my people will always come to your aid. This is my solemn promise, Aragorn, son of Arathorn." Beorn held out his hand and Aragorn shook it.

"And I give you that same oath, Master Beorn. Ever will my people see the Beornings as allies."

Beorn nodded in satisfaction, then slapped both his hands on his thighs. "Well then, now that thatís done, what say I bring you some food? Healing sleep or no, a man needs sustenance and youíve only had a plateful of honey cakes and a sip of whatever that was that Gandalf gave you. Elvish wine or some such. At any rate, its effects, no matter how refreshing, are sure to be long past, so something bracing to drink... a mug of hot mead, I think, with cinnamon, and more bread and honey and perhaps some chutney with walnuts, and some cheese as well. That should hold you."

"Indeed it will, and be most welcome. Thank you."

"Iíll have it in a thrice. And some more blankets to keep you off the damp ground tonight."

Aragorn thanked him again and then settled himself a bit more comfortably against Durvain and looked up to the stars. Bright Ešrendil was hours yet from appearing; this autumn he seemed to prefer racing Anor into the sky at dawn. But Menelvagor was readying his sword in the southeast. Like those Elves of old, Aragorn could not help but start to sing softly as he traced the bright belt and admired Borgilís red glow. He started to sing an ancient song of Tķrin Turambar, but his voice trailed away. That seemed too tragic a tale for such a beautiful night, and his thoughts were still very much on Lķthien. On Berenís Tinķviel and from her to another...

He looked to the great milky swath of stars bisecting the sky, and sang a song of his own Tinķviel, a song of the Evenstar.

Chapter Ten - Only a Farewell For a Season

It took only a week for Durvain to regain his feet. Or his wings, Aragorn supposed, as he watched him circle high above Beornís compound, working the wing and gaining strength seemingly hour by hour. He would soon fly off to the south, to warmer climes.

Aragorn would miss him.

He carefully shifted the sleeping puppy in his lap and wished he could fly off to his own home and people. His back was improving, thanks in no small part to the healing sleep he had finally attained, but it was still very stiff and sore, and there was a weakness there that only time and measured exercise would restore. In the meantime, he moved as an old man, leaning hard on a walking stick and too quickly sinking into the nearest available chair with a deep groaning sigh of relief. He had finally gotten a look at the wound, twisting painfully... and briefly... around to see it in a mirror. Gandalf had done a masterful job at stitching it up. There was only the thinnest line of sutures marching in a short row across the top of his hip bone, leaving a welt that promised to disappear into only the faintest of scars someday. Although the considerable damage to the muscle was still healing below the surface, there was little swelling and no longer any redness at all around the incision itself.

He had much for which to be thankful.

He eased himself a bit in the chair Beorn had set out for him in the courtyard and propped his left leg more securely on the small footstool. Keeping his leg slightly raised was the only thing that kept his back from pulling into sharp spasms when he was sitting. Even so, it tended to throb and cramp if he stayed in one position for long, so he fidgeted and wiggled constantly, it seemed, and felt fatigue all the more keenly because of it. Since he eschewed taking anything for the pain, disliking in the extreme the groggy feeling that came with the relief, the only time he was truly comfortable was when he lay on his right side and thus relieved all strain from his back. Of course, spending all day long laying on his side was hardly entertaining, and so he forced himself to move around, and suffered because of it.

Still, things were getting better, day by day. He must be patient...

And then he flinched at a spasm, one that seemed to shoot sparks all the way down his leg to his ankle, where they subsided from their fury into a sullen ache. Why his ankle would ache because of a back wound he would never understand. He leaned to the side to try to ease it, twirling his foot round and round until the clamor died down. His restlessness disturbed the sleeping puppy as well, who opened his tiny mouth in a silent cry. Aragorn stroked one finger along its tiny head. "Shhh, little one. All is well. I wonít wiggle again, at least for a little bit. Sleep, sweet one."

The puppy settled back into slumber. Although from his limp posture it looked like he would sleep until the start of the Fifth Age, he would need feeding again in an hour, and Aragorn would be happy to hold the cloth and steer the milk into the tiny mouth, drip by drip. The puppy was the runt of a litter, unable to latch on and nearly left for dead as it lay buried under his bigger, healthier littermates. Beorn had spied it, though, and handed its care off to Aragorn, since, as he put it to Gandalf with a wink, that sad excuse of a king-to-be had nothing better to do with himself and might as well earn his keep. And Aragorn had been happy to serve as nursemaid. It was soothing to sit and care for such a tiny creature, to be concerned with nothing more complicated than keeping it warm and fed.

He tucked it into his shirt, where it snuggled against his skin. Though it was sunny here in the courtyard, where most of the wind was blocked by the walls of the buildings, such a mite of a puppy could still suffer a chill. Feeling its claws curling in with tiny, tickling digs, Aragorn smiled. He lifted his face to the sun, closed his eyes and let its warmth caress his cheeks and eyelids. A shadow cooled his face momentarily, then the sun returned. He squinted upward and watched Durvainís easy circles. He remembered the few moments during his own harrowing journey through the air when exhilaration had replaced fear and suddenly had a desperate longing to be up there flying with him.

What a change a fortnight can make in oneís outlook! He had gone from being a man imprisoned by childhood fears of Eagles to one who eagerly looked forward to riding atop one. Glorfindel would be astounded. And what a thing that would be, to come flying into Rivendell on the back of an Eagle. He chuckled as he again closed eyes.

"I see youíre entertaining yourself nicely," Gandalf said.

Aragorn did not bother to open his eyes. "I am just thinking of the looks on Elrondís and Glorfindelís faces, should I ever chance to arrive in Rivendell on the back of an Eagle."

"Iím sure your father would barely bat an eye. He would merely be relieved you were in one piece, although the rarity of such an unscathed arrival might alone be enough to put him in a swoon. How often have you come home without dragging along a bleeding limb or cradling a cracked skull?"

"More than youíd think, actually."

"Hmm. Well, when your current set of woes have subsided, whither then shall we go? Southward or to Rivendell?"

"It will depend largely upon the weather, I think. Rivendell and parts west may not be an option until spring." He sighed. "I hope the winter is not overly harsh for my people. Having been gone with you all summer, I do not know the state of the harvest."

"Elrond will see to it they are not wanting."

"I shall need to go to them, for a time, come spring."

"And you shall. This chase of ours is an endurance race, not a sprint. Much as I want to find Gollum as soon as possible, it remains that he is one very small creature in a very vast country and will be very difficult to find, and impossible to find quickly. You cannot neglect your other duties. I, however, can continue on my own at whiles, though I must say I prefer the pleasure of your company, injured or otherwise."

Aragorn nodded but said nothing. He put his hand over the small lump of puppy under his shirt and stroked it idly.

"You seem troubled."

Aragorn glanced at him but still kept his peace. Nothing was troubling him beyond the usual worries: were his people warm, were they safe, what was Sauron planning, where was Gollum, how did they stand a chance at finding him....

And what, oh what, did the future hold for them all? Did they even have a future, or was it all a forlorn hope? Surely it cannot all be in vain....

He shut his eyes again, giving the sun every opportunity to melt away his worries. It was not particularly effective.

"Beorn certainly has enjoyed your company," Gandalf finally said.

"And I his. He is beyond anything I could have imagined from hearing the tales about him. I shall miss him, when we leave."

"And I believe he will dearly miss you."

A small smile, there and gone like mist.

"Aragorn, I must insist: what is it that troubles you?"

"I donít know," he replied honestly. "I am... frustrated, perhaps. Or maybe I am tired. This interlude has been restful, but..."

Gandalf said nothing. And into his quietly demanding silence, Aragorn struggled on. "I cannot help but fear it is only the briefest break in a dark tide that is soon to overwhelm us." He sat for a long time, stroking the puppy, deep in thought. Then quietly, after a long silence, "Did you see the wave that drowned Nķmenor, Gandalf? No, of course you didnít; itís a foolish question. But it has been on my mind of late."

Another quiet pause. Aragorn wished Gandalf would say something. Anything. But the wizard only regarded him with quiet compassion. He would have to flounder on and hope the words that came out made some sort of sense.

"I saw a wave once, a rogue thing that crashed into the coast of Belfalas. It was monstrous, that wave. Well over fifteen feet tall, it drove inland and washed away entire villages. But before it hit, the sea retreated. The waters nearly vanished from the inlet, and children ran along picking up treasures that the waters had left behind. It was only the warning from some canny old mariners that saved the children from being drowned when the waters came roaring back." He looked at Gandalf. "I fear this time is like that false peace before the killing wave crashes. That this interlude is only the hand of doom setting us up to be drowned, but no one knows to warn the children."

Gandalf was a moment in answering. "You may well be right. The final dark wave may indeed be looming just beyond sight. But in this I believe you are wrong: you and I and Master Elrond and the wisest of the Wise are sounding the warning even now. We have some time to get the children out of harmís way."

"How can you be sure?"

"I have hope."

Aragorn pulled in a breath, then slowly nodded. He shut his eyes again and leaned his head back. "I am named for hope, and have it in full, or so I believe. And yet...." A pause. "I do not know why I allow myself to lose sight of it so easily."

"Of the highest lineage you may be, but you are as vulnerable as any of us to weariness and despair. Do not be so hard on yourself."

"I will try," Aragorn promised. "Thank you, Gandalf."

"Simply doing what a friend should."

"And great is my gratitude for that. And great also is my gratitude for Beorn. In my short time here, he has spoken wisdom to my heart that I might have lived an entire lifetime without learning on my own. Where is he this morning?"

"Out with his sheep, I believe."

"I wishĖ"

"Yes?"

"Youíll think me childish."

"I often do, so nothing you tell me now will change that."

Aragorn pulled a face. He glanced around to assure himself the courtyard was empty, then he leaned toward Gandalf and lowered his voice. "I would have liked to have seen Beorn change into a bear."

Gandalf chuckled. "It is a sight to behold."

"Youíve seen it?"

"At the Battle of Five Armies, yes. I saw him arrive and saw him change into a bear, right before he went charging into the field."

Aragorn shook his head in wonder. "What a marvel that must have been!"

"Skinchangers are... or were, I suppose I should say, for Beorn is the last among Men... one of Eruís more inventive creations. It saddens me greatly to see them passing from Middle-earth."

"Will they still change shapes... after?"

"Beyond the Dark Sea?"

Aragorn nodded.

"I do not know. Youíll find out someday, I would think."

"I am in no hurry."

"It relieves me to hear you say that."

They fell silent, content to simply enjoy the quiet of each otherís presence. Aragorn was about to nod off when a sound, the scraping of a shoe upon the paving stones, stirred him. He opened one eye and saw it was Beorn. Aragorn started to straighten in his chair, then froze, his eyes wide.

Beorn stood tall and straight, but there was a glimmering play of light and shadow about him, not a glow so much as a sort of breaking of the lines of his body. Aragorn blinked hard several times, but the effect remained. The world around was crystal clear, but Beorn was... shifting... the lines of his body lengthening, the girth of his stomach and legs and arms growing. His hair, always wild, now grew and thickened until it covered his entire body. He fell forward onto arms that were no longer arms but sturdy bowed legs, and he braced himself on hands that had become great paws with massive claws.

And he was huge. Far larger than any bear Aragorn had ever seen, and far larger than the man Aragorn had come to know and count as friend. This Beorn... this bear... was wild and elemental and... terrifying.

Even though Aragorn knew Beorn would not attack, he still felt a frisson of fear ice his belly and spine. He could only imagine how great the terror of Beornís enemies must have been.

Beorn let out a growl that seemed to shake the very walls of the buildings around them. Aragorn felt the puppy start and then tremble. He put his hand in his shirt and tucked it protectively around the small shivering body. "Shhh, ítis only your Beorn," he whispered.

Beorn stepped into the courtyard, right up to Aragorn, and thrust his muzzle into Aragornís face. He opened wide his mouth, and Aragorn was treated to a very intimate view of razor sharp teeth. The jaws snapped shut and Aragorn couldnít stop himself from flinching violently backward. His chair tipped and he nearly upended himself. As he floundered for his balance, Beorn stepped back and quicker than it takes to say, changed back into the form of a man. Had Aragorn blinked, he would have missed the transformation entirely. As it was, he only saw a vague shimmering blur that faded and left Beorn standing before him, laughing so hard tears ran down his cheeks.

"Ooh hoo," he hooted, then wiped his eyes and hooted some more. "That was worth every long year of my life, to see the look on your face as I snapped my jaws at you. Oh, to think Iíve terrified the man who will someday be the Great King of Gondor! I can enter Mandosí Halls a happy man now!"

Aragorn started to chuckle and soon he was laughing as hard as Beorn. It was several minutes before either of them regained control. "I thank you, Beorn. I was hoping to see you transform into a bear, although I must say I did not anticipate such a close view."

"You didnít soil yourself, I hope."

Aragorn laughed and shook his head. "No, fear not. My dignity is intact in that regard."

"Good. Because I wouldnít have wanted that on my conscience." He suddenly rubbed his bare arms. "A bit chilly out here when you have no clothes on, and no fur to cover you."

Indeed, Beorn was as naked as the day he was born. His woolen tunic lay in shreds on the grass at the edge of the courtyard. Unconcerned, Beorn walked over and gathered them up, then nodded to Gandalf and Aragorn and disappeared into his hall, presumably to find clothes.

Aragorn sagged back in his chair with a breathless laugh. "Well. It appears my wish was granted."

"And then some," Gandalf chuckled. "You really should have seen the look on your face. I donít think even the Eagles frightened you as much as Beorn just did."

"I may have a nightmare or two about those teeth." He pulled the puppy out from under his shirt. "And although I did not soil myself, poor little puppy here did." He plucked at the wet stain on his shirt. He handed the puppy to Gandalf and levered himself out of his chair. "I think I best do as Beorn and find a new shirt. Watch him for me, the puppy."

Gandalf raised the puppy in an acquiescing salute, then settled the small creature on his lap.

Aragorn started for the door, then paused. He looked around the courtyard, at the sunlit meadows, brown now with winter but restful for that nonetheless. He traced the land as it descended to the great hedge, then lifted his eyes to the mountains far to the west, where he had very nearly lost his life but in the process gained so much.

He heard a cry far above him and shaded his eyes. Durvain circled and dived and climbed again, and Menelris flew beside him. Aragorn waved, and as one, the Eagles turned and descended until they landed lightly upon the lawn. Aragorn hobbled to the edge of the courtyard. "How fares the wing, Durvain?"

"It is whole now." He stretched it out in full and moved it about freely.

"I am very glad."

Menelris bobbed her head and let out a pleased chirp. "We cannot thank you enough for all you did to help Durvain. But the weather is changing, and we will be leaving you now, I think. It is past time to be heading south."

Aragorn was surprised at the crashing dismay he felt. That they would eventually leave he knew, but for their departure to have come so precipitously shook him. But he hid it carefully, or so he hoped. "Then I suppose," he started, then had to clear his throat, "I suppose this is farewell."

"Only for a time," Durvain said. He walked forward and spread his wings. Aragorn felt an echo of the old fear, but it quickly vanished as he found himself enveloped in the Eagleís vast wings. He reached around Durvainís neck and buried his face in his feathers, wondering if it was for the last time. He blinked at the stinging in his eyes.

"I will miss you, my friend," he said, his voice breaking despite his every attempt to control his emotions.

"And I, you, but this is not good-bye. Only a farewell for a season. We will meet again, you will see. And I will take you aloft, when you are well. Next spring, I think, we will fly together on the gentle breezes."

The wings withdrew and Aragorn stepped back. "I do want that," he said. He somehow found a smile. "Anticipation of it will warm my thoughts this winter."

Durvain glanced at Menelris, who bowed low toward Aragorn, and Durvain followed suit. "To the Great King," Menelris said solemnly. "Though you have yet to gain your throne, you have our allegiance and such protection as we can provide. You need only call, and we will answer."

Moved, Aragorn bowed his head. His heart was full, but he could find no words. "Thank you," he finally said. "Thank you." He hoped it was enough.

The two Eagles straightened, and Menelris said, "Farewell, then, wherever you fare, until your eyries receive you at the journeyís end!"

"May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks," Aragorn replied.

Durvain chirped once, and then with a great flutter of wings and a buffeting of air, they were aloft and flying fast to the south. Aragorn watched them for as long as he could, until they vanished into the distant haze. The sun chose that moment to vanish behind lowering clouds gathering from the North, and the day seemed strangely empty and hollow.

He sighed and turned to Gandalf. "I wish life did not hold quite so many farewells."

"You will see them again, come spring."

Aragorn nodded, but he could not shake the lonely feeling the Eaglesí departure had given him.

"And in the meantime, you have a puppy to care for, and what will most likely be an entire winter of hearing Beornís tales by his fire."

A glimmer of warmth bloomed in his heart. "Will we stay, then?"

"I see no reason to try to beat westward against winterís might, merely to exchange this warm fire for another that we might never reach."

Before Aragorn could reply, Beorn reappeared in the doorway, clad again in a brown woolen tunic. "Come inside, the two of you. Iíve bread and honey and good warm mead set for you! Thereís a storm heading this way, if my eyes do not deceive me, so we will weather it by the fire and tell tales and eat until we burst or fall asleep, whichever comes first!"

Gandalf leaned toward Aragorn, "But please, take a moment to change your shirt first." He winked.

Aragorn laughed, threw his arm around Gandalfís shoulders, and together they walked into Beornís hall, just as the first flakes of snow swirled into the courtyard.

________

The Eaglesí farewell taken from The Hobbit:

"Farewell!" they cried, "wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journeyís end!" That is the polite thing to say among eagles.

"May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks," answered Gandalf, who knew the correct reply.

And so they parted.

Epilogue - Soaring Wings

It had been a tiring day. Tiring, but rewarding as no day in his life ever had been.

It was not every day, after all, that one is crowned a king.

He looked at the crown sitting on its stand in the niche in the wall of his bedchamber. It was a bit crooked, so he straightened it until its graceful wings stood level with each other. His hands shook slightly, and he balled his fists and put them at his sides. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath and opened them again, almost afraid it had all been a dream....

The crown was still there. And he was still standing in a vast bedchamber, where there were candles lit all around and a bed laid for him and a tray of food sitting on the table, left where heíd directed his maidservant to leave it.

His maidservant.

His very own. Not Elrondís. Not Theodenís. Not Denethorís, nor Echthelionís, all of whose household staffs had served him but at the behest of his hosts. Now, though, he had his own. And his own valet. And chamberlain and Steward and a vast army and... a crown.

He buried his face in his hands, then rubbed his face as though washing it and stood for a long silent moment with his hands covering his mouth, staring at the ancient yet still gleaming crown.

It was done. All the long years of struggle, of fighting and hardship and hiding and doubt, were over. Peace stretched before him and around him and within him, and within the hearts of good folk everywhere.

The Shadow was finally defeated.

And soon...

No. He would not allow his thoughts to travel that road. Not yet. She was far away, and so many things would need to be done before he could look toward his own pleasure. Tending the wounded, seeing to returning refugees, housing those whose homes had been destroyed, rebuilding the city gates and repairing its walls, clearing away the battle detritus still clogging the Pelennor, readying it for next yearís crops...

But his mind would not let it... her... go. She was coming... and they would wed at long last.

He smiled at the crown, seeing in its soaring wings his own soaring heart. "Thank you," he whispered, both to it and to Eru, and Elbereth, and the Valar and the Maiar and every Man, Elf, Hobbit and Dwarf who had given so much to defeat the Darkness. He would never forget that it was their sacrifices that allowed him to stand in this place, his future bright and secure and stretching out before him like the vast table of the past eveningís first royal banquet.

He let out a laugh, then... a laugh that was halfway to a sob, a sound of disbelief mingled with a feeling he could not define. Sorrow, perhaps. Elbereth knew the weight of sorrow in his heart, but that did not define all of what he felt.

Humility? Certainly when he first felt the crown touch his head, it had been all he could do not to fall upon his face, prostrate before all who felt him worthy of such an honor, but he had taken a deep breath and reminded himself sternly of all that was expected of a king, none of which included huddling on the ground weeping.

Humbling it had been, yes, but now, in the quiet of his room, he had to admit, with the start of a smile, that it was not sorrow nor grief nor a wild tumult of humility that had him on the verge of losing all control.

No, it was all of that and none of that. It was happiness and sorrow, pride and humility, peace and turmoil... but such a turmoil! Would that his spirit had always been so tempestuously stirred, for he recognized at last what it was that beset him:

Joy.

Deeper than happiness, strong enough to overcome sorrow, joy such as he had never known and feared he would never experience again cascaded through every channel of his spirit. Every emotion he had ever felt he now knew had been nothing more than tainted water, polluted by the Shadow, murky and stagnant. But now the darkness was defeated, and hour by hour, all day, he had felt the tumult building, just as surely as a great spring seeks a way through stone. But he had kept it contained, out of respect for the valiant dead and respect for the solemnity of the coronation and the gravitas of the moment when a throne left empty too long enjoyed a new occupant at last. He had dared to release a measured amount during the long coronation banquet, though as the wine flowed and his fatigue grew, keeping his emotions in check had become increasingly difficult.

But now, here in the privacy of his bedchamber, the full expression of his joy could no longer be gainsaid. He threw his head back with another laughing cry, then spun and raised both hands high in the air.... reaching for what he was not sure. Eru Himself, perhaps. He could not say. He only knew that suddenly he wanted to leap, to run, to fly....

And then he dropped his hands and his head and stopped, blushing, even though no one was there to see him.

But he did not stop smiling.

Feeling too constrained by the four walls of his room, he pushed through the double doors onto the balcony and looked to the skies. The sun had long set in the West, drawing down a day that had been filled with celebration and ceremony and smiles. So many smiles, each face lit as with a bright and shining beacon. On all levels of the city, revelers had been making merry throughout the night, and the thought warmed him that the people of Gondor had so thoroughly and unequivocally welcomed him as their new king. He heard the echo of Faramirís cry... Behold the King! And he heard the echoes of the trumpets and smelled again the flowers that blanketed the streets, flowers that released their sweet perfume under his feet as he walked upward through the city.

Through his city.

His eyes stung and he blinked several times, swallowing hard against the knot lodged in his throat. Yes, it had been a day like none other, but he realized now how very tired he was. Fatigue had crept over him as the coronation feast went deep into the night, and as its grip tightened, his own grip over his emotions had started to slip. Gandalf had seen it, had seen him surreptitiously blinking away tears of joy as he looked out at the throng of happy guests at the table. And Elladan and Elrohir had seen it a moment later when those tears of joy turned to sorrow as thoughts of Halbarad suddenly flooded his mind, and he had buried his nose in his goblet of wine and nearly choked when the wine could not pass the lump in his throat. Together, in unspoken agreement, they had shooed him away from the eveningís banquet to seek the solitude and rest he sorely needed.

And now he placed his hands on the balcony rail, tentatively at first, as if he were not quite sure he were allowed, but then he cast aside such foolishness and gripped the stone balustrade as so many Stewards and Kings had before him. It felt cool against his palms, and smooth. He rubbed his hands up and down its length and then looked again at the bright moon sinking in the southwestern sky. He imagined, fancifully, that he might see beyond it to Elvenhome. "To Nķmenor that was, and Elvenhome that is." Then he repeated, in a whisper, "To Nķmenor that was." The moonlit clouds seemed then to change before his very eyes, and it was the Meneltarma he spied, and Elros walking up its steep flanks, leading a silent procession of the Faithful to give thanks to Eru.

Then with a gasp and a blink, the vision faded.

He rubbed his face again, wondering at the portent of what he had just seen. Had it been a chimera cast by an overwrought imagination, or had it been a true vision? He listened to the awful thudding of his heart and sensed in his spirit a fear unlike anything he had ever felt. It was the fear of someone about to approach something... holy.

He took another shaking breath.

Could it be... dare he try to renew that custom, here in Minas Tirith, even as Gondorís kings of old climbed Mount Mindolluinís steep flanks to offer their prayers? He looked at the bulk of the mountains to his right, at Mount Mindolluin that loomed over the Citadel and blocked part of his view of the western horizon. Where on that mountain was that ancient, long-forgotten hallow? Perhaps Faramir might know. Or Gandalf. Or perhaps he might go up there himself to seek it out. However he accomplished it, he knew somehow that in the finding of it, he would receive the sign that this vision was true, and that his heartís desire was not some cock-a-hoop homage to his own greatness but an act that would be pleasing to Eru.

The moon again broke through the clouds and pulled his gaze back, and his imagination wandered again to Nķmenor and the Pillar of Heaven, where the witnessing Eagles circled...

He squinted. As unlikely as it seemed in this pre-dawn hour,†a pair of Eagles were indeed flying through the distant sky. He could see the moonlight glinting on their wings, and see their shapes as they passed before the moon. He watched them disappear against the dark cloth of heaven between the stars and then he saw them reappear in the moonlight, growing ever closer in leisurely swinging arcs, as if they were looking down on the Pelennor, wondering at the dots of lights spangling its edges, lights that for this one day signified celebration instead of mourning, bonfires of joy instead of the mournful pyres that had burned nearly without cease since the siege and the final battle before the Black Gate.

"Long have you been faithful servants of ManwŽ," he whispered, "And as you were welcome in Nķmenor, so you are welcome here." But unless they came closer, he had no idea how he might tell the Eagles such a thing. He thought back those many years to the only Eagles he had ever spoken to directly: Menelris, and her mate, Durvain, he of the valiant and compassionate heart who had promised to return in the spring to take him on a flying ride across the Misty Mountains. But Aragorn perforce had to travel to his own people before Durvain returned, and in all these years since, though he looked often toward the Eagleís Eyrie, he had never seen the bird again. He finally had to assume that some disaster had befallen Durvain, and his heart still grieved at the loss.

He lost sight finally of the Eagles as they continued eastward past the great prow of the city, so he walked back into his bedchamber, knowing he must find sleep before the night was entirely wasted. But he was so beset with restlessness that the bed held no welcome. He walked to the door and opened it, and the guard immediately snapped to attention. "As you were," Aragorn murmured. Then he stood for a moment, wondering which way to go. He glanced at the young man standing so stiffly by his door, worried for a disquieting moment that the man had heard his earlier wild laughter. Then he glanced at the thick stone walls and the sturdy wooden door and decided it was unlikely. "Can you tell me," he started, then had to scramble for the young manís name, "Sigilthir, which is the quickest way out of this building and into the fresh air of the court of the Fountain?" He had followed the chamberlain through so many twisting corridors and up so many winding staircases that he could have been back in Rivendell for the length of time they had walked.

The manís eyes widened a bit, and he stammered out directions, offering to accompany the King.

"No, thank you. I prefer to walk alone for a bit, to clear my mind before I retire."

"Yes, my lord." He bowed his head, clicked his heels and jerked his shoulders even straighter.

Aragorn stifled a sigh, wishing suddenly, desperately, for Halbarad and his easy way of ever standing guard over him, whether it was outside his tent or beside him as they lay each in their own bedrolls under the stars, or, as on that last day of his life, doing his best despite wretched seasickness to make sure Aragorn did not somehow fall over the railing of the ship to, as he had growled, give the sea monsters a royal banquet. Irreverent, irrepressible, irreplaceable. Gone now to his fathers beyond the halls of Mandos. Hot tears burned his nose and throat. Would the pain never ease?

Burying memory of his late kinsman deep in his heart, where its sting could be hid for a time from daily thought, he walked down the corridor, following Sigilthirís directions until he found himself outside. He followed an ancient stone pathway around the base of the White Tower. He stopped for a moment and craned his neck back, looking upward. It seemed as though the tower scraped the stars themselves.

He moved on, past Merethrond, the Hall of Feasts, on his left. The vast white building had been filled with light and laughter deep into the night, but now was quiet and dark as he walked past. The revelers had gone, and the replete silence left in their wake reached even into the Place of the Fountain. The courtyard was empty save for the four guards standing watch over the lifeless White Tree. Aragorn looked at its bare branches and felt an incredible sadness. He had hoped, a bit fancifully, that the old tree might have magically sprung back to life at the moment the crown was placed on his head. Childish thinking, that. "But wouldnít it have been something?" he murmured. He walked down the steps and to the tree, nodding at the guard standing on its north side. He walked under the spreading, lifeless limbs and laid his hand on the trunk. "Would that you have bloomed one last time," he sighed. He sat down on a bench in front of it, again facing West.

The moon had now set, but the stars still blazed with unbridled vigor in the black vault above his head. He looked at them, spotting the familiar constellations and suddenly saw a movement there, a dark shadow flitting across them, momentarily blotting them out with its passage. With too many recent memories of fell beasts driving fear into his heart, he scrambled to his feet, and the guards around the tree jerked their gazes upward and drew their swords.

But Aragorn raised a hand . "Stay your weapons. It is an Eagle," he said. He walked out from under the tree and halted when he saw it was not one Eagle but two, surely the same two he had seen from his balcony. Then his eyes widened. "How can this be?"

The Eagles came down gently, and as the light from the flickering lamps set round about the courtyard revealed them fully, he ran to them, tossing propriety to the winds, so great was his joy and amazement. "Menelris! Durvain! My old friends! I thought you had perished!"

Menelris bowed her head. "Great King, it is good to meet again."

Durvain also bowed and Aragorn remembered belatedly to return their greeting, but then he lost no time in throwing his arms around Durvainís neck. "My old friend," he cried, and cared not that hot tears dampened his cheeks as Durvainís wings enfolded him. "I thought you lost."

"It is good to see you again, Strider," Durvain chuckled. "I mean, your Majesty."

"No, no. None of that among friends. Strider I was, and Strider I shall always be. It is the name of my house, after all. I am known now as Elessar Telcontar."

"Elessar," Menelris said, with the air of one trying out an unusual meal that is not altogether appetizing. "It is a noble enough name, I suppose, if you must name yourself for a rock. But though Telcontar is higher than Strider, in any language it still seems harsh and landbound to me. I would rather you were King Thorongil." She clacked her beak and settled a few displaced feathers on her chest.

"Menelris, hush. He can use whatever name he chooses. He is the King now, after all."

"You may call me King Thorongil if it pleases you, my lady," Aragorn smiled. Nothing could dim the pleasure of this moment. "You may call me whatever you wish, in fact."

"Fear not, I shall call you by your rightful name, lest Durvain peck me to pieces for my breach of etiquette."

Durvain let out a whistling snort. "And that you may count on, even if you are my Chieftain."

Aragorn laughed at their antics, and finally shook his head. "It has been a day of wonders for me, but your arrival, when I thought you long consigned to the grave, may be the greatest wonder of all. Tell me where you have been these many years!"

"I never did give you that ride, did I?" Durvain said. "I apologize for that. We returned late to Beornís Hall that spring. Hunting had been particularly good in the south, so we stayed longer than usual. By the time we arrived, you and Gandalf had already gone. And then of course, having stayed overlate in the south, we had to rush to get to our nest, so that we might ready it for our egg, and then Ė"

"We had two eggs that spring," Menelris interrupted proudly. "Two boys. We named one Thorongil, after you."

"I am honored."

"He was, and still is, a stout one. And the other was swift, the first to break free of his egg and the first to spread his wings, so we named him Meneldor."

"But I know of him!" Aragorn cried. "He was at the final battle and flew into the Black Land to help fetch the Halflings."

"Thorongil was there as well, fighting in the company at the Black Gate. He saw you, he said," Menelris said. "He it was who set himself high above you toward the last, defending you from the air."

Aragorn swallowed hard. He had seen many Eagles, and rejoiced at their arrival. And he had noticed that one in particular seemed to be staying overhead as he ordered the final fighting against the remnants of Mordorís armies, after Sauron fell and after Gandalf left to retrieve Frodo and Sam, but he had given no thought to the idea he or any of them might have been kin to Menelris and Durvain. That the one that stayed over him the entire time was their son... named in his honor.... He was left utterly without words. "Tell him thank you," he finally choked.

"You may tell him yourself, for I will make sure he calls upon you," Durvain said, then a twinkle of humor gleamed in his eye, "that is, if you welcome Eagles in your new eyrie."

"Welcome them! I should say so! You and all your kind are not only welcome but expected, nay commanded to visit as often as you can, if a humble king of Men can place so bold a commission on the great Eagles."

"I think in your case, such a command is quite permissible," Menelris said. She let out a small whistling chuckle.

"In fact, I have much to discuss about that," Aragorn continued. "About Eru and giving thanks as in the days of Nķmenor, and re-establishing your witness..." He stopped and held up a hand. "But wait. I am overwhelmed and my words are making little sense, so save all that for a later time when joy has not made such a muddle of my wits. Tell me instead of simple things, more about your children and your nests and whether Durvain has found more trinkets by the road. And how it is that Eagles are flying at night! I want to know what has occupied you these many years."

"Much the same as has occupied you, I would think," Menelris said. "Raising our young. Fighting orcs."

"And finding trinkets!" Durvain chirped. "I found an entire set of silver spoons last fall."

"Still my little magpie," Menelris said, affectionately rubbing her head on his shoulder.

"Of course, we also found far too many orcs," Durvain sighed. "We lost an eaglet to a band of them two years ago."

"Oh, how terrible. I am so sorry," Aragorn said.

"But of all little ones who lived to adulthood, every one lives yet," Menelris said. "And what a privilege it was to fly alongside our children in the great lines that arrived at the Gates of Mordor just as the fell beasts retreated back to their barbarous lands. We were witnesses to the ending of the Shadow, and glad we were to watch the Tower fall."

"That darkness was so heavy that the darkness of night now seems as day to me. Perhaps that will suffice as an answer to why we fly at night now and then, in these days of peace." Durvain shook himself, fluffing his feathers as if in discomfort, and as they slowly fell back in place, he continued in a brighter†tone,†"But enough talk of battle and darkness. We brought you a gift."

"No, please... the assistance you have given me, to all of the free folk, is gift enough."

"No, no... this is a personal gift, from both of us to you. It is a gift for your coronation, a token of our joy that you have at last achieved your dream, and also a remembrance of our time together those harrowing days so long ago." He stepped aside and it was then that Aragorn saw that there was a bundle sitting in the grass, a very large one. He must have missed seeing it in his excitement.

"Open it," Menelris urged.

Aragorn grinned, feeling a bit like a child at Yule, and tugged on the ropes. They fell away, and he unfolded the fabric wrappings and he suddenly was a child at Yule. "Eagle down!" he cried. "You brought me eagle down! And so much!"

Durvain let out a happy whistle as he bobbed his head. "You thought I was sleeping, but I overheard you tell Gandalf that you only ever wanted to sleep on eagle down. We could think of no more fitting gift for your coronation day, Strider-Elessar Telcontar, King of Gondor and Arnor."

"Thorongil," Menelris added quietly, with a gleam in her eye.

"I will have a cover made for it straightaway and sleep on it tomorrow night and every night thereafter," Aragorn said. He pulled a handful out and rubbed it against his cheek. It seemed softer even than he remembered. Arwen will be so pleased.... "Thank you."

"And I have one more gift for you, if you would be willing," Durvain said. "Although it is less a gift than a belated fulfilment of a promise."

Aragorn turned and stared. "You mean - "

"If it would be permissible, I would gladly fly you over your new city."

Aragorn gasped. He had not considered such a thing... his heart leapt at the thought, but would it be proper... would it be too great a risk? "I accept!" he said immediately. "But it must be a very short ride, and high enough that no one sees me. And," he added with a sly smile, "I must be atop."

"What, you donít prefer to dangle from my claws?"

"Talons," Aragorn corrected. "And no, I do not prefer that."

Durvain chuckled and lowered himself to the ground. It was then that Aragorn saw he had a harness of sturdy rope tied around his neck and his body. "You came prepared."

"I felt fairly certain you would accept the invitation."

Aragorn sternly admonished the guards around the White Tree that no one was to know their new King was about to fly over the city. As one, the four men bowed their heads, and he saw a flicker of a smile light the stern visage of the one nearest him. But then, heart pounding, he scrambled up and onto Durvainís back. "What should I do?"

"Hang on, mostly."

"I donít need to shift and such? Gandalf warned me I should not sit like a lumpy sack of potatoes."

"I remember. And Iím sure you will do no such thing. I have seen you ride horses; riding with me will differ little from that. Oh, and do you see the loops on either side? Slide your legs through them. They will hold you in case you slip. We mustnít lose Gondorís king on the very first day she has him, after all."

Aragorn slid his legs into the loops and tugged them tight.

"Ready?" Durvain asked.

"Yes!"

Durvain spread his wings and pushed off with his legs and with one easy flap they were airborne. Aragornís breath utterly left him and his hands tightened reflexively on the rope. High above the Citadel they flew, in great circles, and though his stomach shivered a bit, he was far too excited to feel anything but delight as he looked down upon his city. In the soft shadows of pre-dawn, much of the damage from the siege and battle was mercifully hidden, and he saw walls gleaming like so many luminous pearls, and he saw lamps shining golden in windows and the glint of bonfires on the Pelennor, and beyond the city he saw the mountains, their snowy peaks already gleaming shell pink in the dayís first light. And above it all, in the East, Gil-Estel sailed, the Silmarilís light of the past giving hope to the present. Aragorn raised a hand to Ešrendil, who seemed near enough to reach down and clasp the hand of his grandson so many generations removed. Aragornís throat tightened, and he took a great shuddering breath. "Thank you, Giver of Hope," he whispered.

He looked again at the city below.

His city. His people. He thought of Boromir, then, and their final words to one another: ĎGo to Minas Tirith and save my people!í he had pleaded.† And Aragorn had given his promise: ĎMinas Tirith shall not fall!í† And, though sometimes†still he†could barely trust it not to be a dream, the promise had been fulfilled; the city had not fallen. Then his thoughts went to Halbarad, and from his fallen kinsmen to the countless others who had given all so that this day might arrive. "I look down upon this city for you both, and for all those who did not live to see this day!" he cried.

Then he fell silent, overwhelmed. He leaned down to rest his cheek against Durvainís broad neck. "Thank you, my friend. This is a gift beyond price."

"You are most welcome, Elessar Telcontar, Great King of Gondor. Behold your city, and rejoice."

And so Aragorn looked and beheld its beauty, and he wept for sheer joy.

___________

Boromirís last words and Aragornís reply taken from "The Departure of Boromir", The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien.

A note about Aragornís living quarters after the coronation: it says in "The Steward and the King" in The Return of the King, "In those days the companions of the Ring dwelt together in a fair house with Gandalf, and they went to and fro as they wished." It could be presumed that Aragorn also lived with them there, but†it seems more plausible to me that a King would dwell apart from everyone, in the royal apartments... although I imagine he spent as much time as he could spare at Gandalf's fair house!

Finally, a note regarding the custom of Gondorís kings climbing to the Hallow on Mount Mindolluin to offer prayers to Eru: According to that same chapter, the custom was long forgotten by the men of Gondor, but I am assuming that Aragorn, being Elven-wise and educated in the lore of Middle-earth, would have had at least a passing knowledge of that ancient practice in Gondor, although no practical knowledge of where the hallow was. And of course, being†equally well†educated in the history of his own lineage, he would have been very familiar with the Three Prayers offered by the kings of Nķmenor. In my universe, he has a desire within him to renew the practice when and if he becomes king, although up to this moment on the balcony, it was always more of a wistful daydream than the strong calling it becomes here.

A missing scene for Chapter†8 closes out the tale.† Aragorn may have had no memory of those two days spent in delirium, but that's no reason we can't†have a peek at†what transpired.† Written at Lilybaggins' request, for her birthday. :)

~~~

Appendix - "Please Try Not to Bite Me Like Last Time."

He could not warm himself.

Cold seemed to have seeped into his very marrow and no matter how many blankets were laid atop him and how many warm stones were placed along his body, he shuddered and shook and felt the avalancheís cold fist hit him again and again.

Soft voices spoke to him, but he could not understand the words. Someone might have said his name, but the cold snatched all meaning away. Maybe... maybe he did not have a name... maybe all that made up his essence, his fŽa, had been snatched away, flung into the chill void. Maybe this aching, freezing shell was all that was left of him, was all that he had ever been...

But he remembered... had vague memories... of a past... a future...

He shuddered again. The memories darkened... the avalanche...

Was that it, then? Was he alone, buried in snow?

He must be... he was so cold... so cold.... He could feel Deathís frozen hand reaching for him... grasping... holding not a gift but only despair...

It touched his face. He cried out, weakly, tried to turn aside, but the hand was relentless, grabbing his jaw, pulling his mouth open. He tried to bite the fingers, but he was too slow, and then something hard pressed against his lips. He clamped them shut and jerked his head away but the hands brought it back and then they covered his nose and he couldnít breathe and he gasped and foul liquid splashed into his mouth and against his throat and it burned him and he gagged and retched and through red agony he heard a dismayed cry from somewhere beyond this frozen hell.

"Good gracious, what are you doing! Youíve all the gentleness of a Breeland butcher!"

And then Death reached for him again, but no....

He scarcely trusted his senses, but arms held him, folded him into a tender embrace... surely Death would not be so gentle... and finally the confusion lifted. He opened his eyes but saw only vague shadows. More hands pulled away the soiled blankets.... it shamed him, for he knew the mess was his... and someone gently held a warm cloth against his forehead.

A soothing voice murmured in his ear. He knew that voice. And he realized he knew the arms and the robes and the scent. He spoke the name in a frail whisper. "Gandalf..."

"Shh, shhhh," It was Gandalf, and Aragorn reached up and wrapped strengthless fingers around a sleeve.

"Sorry... sorry..." He was babbling, he knew, but he could not form any other word. It had been Gandalf,†and he had thought†him Death... it was unforgiveable. "Sorry."

"There now, no need for apologies, my dear, dear boy. Shhh."

"Whatís... wrong... with me?"

"Your wound has turned for the worst, I fear, and fever has a fierce hold on you. You must fight it, Aragorn." Gandalf had never sounded so stricken. So terrified. "Call on your strength, on your healing skills. You must, or all will be lost."

"So cold. Tired."

"I know, but you must keep fighting." He pulled him closer to his breast and stroked his hair. "You must keep fighting."

Aragorn nodded. He hurt, oh how he hurt, but he sighed and whispered, "I will ...fight..."

His eyes drifted shut and he slid into the blackness of sleep.

~~~

Gandalf shut his eyes tightly as Aragorn sagged against him. If he had thought that arriving at Beornís would set all things aright, he had been grievously mistaken. Aragorn held to life with a grip more feeble than the one he had on Gandalfís sleeve, and now, going into dawn after a night of restless pain and mounting fever, death seemed to lurk under the very lintel, watching for its chance to swoop in and steal Aragorn from their arms. "Oh, Elbereth, lend him your strength. Lend him my strength, for he needs it more than I in this hour."

He laid Aragorn carefully back against the pillows.

"How is he?" Grimbeorn asked quietly as he shook out clean blankets warmed by the fire and spread them over Aragorn.

"Weak. Very, very weak. I have seen him under the pall of the Black Breath and thought him near death then, but this..." His voice trailed away.

Grimbeorn eased himself down beside Aragornís leg, a look of shame on his face. "Iím sorry about the medicine. I didnít expect him to wake up and fight me. And I fear I am more used to medicating animals. That was ham-fisted of me."

Gandalf almost glared at him, but he realized that Grimbeorn was indeed trying his best, and he imagined, from the purple smudges beneath the manís eyes, that Grimbeorn was nearly at the limit of his endurance. "No harm done. We will try the medicine again later. For now, weíll let him rest, and see about some rest for ourselves. Or at least for you."

"Worry not about me; I have plenty of strength left. But Aragorn... he seems not to shiver so much now. That and his speaking just now are surely good signs, don't you think?"

Gandalf said nothing. It was all too uncertain. He dipped his cloth into the warm water and again wiped down Aragornís cheeks and forehead. Aragorn murmured something, but Gandalf could not make it out. "His chills are fading, but his fever rises. I wish we could find a way to get the medicine to stay down."

"Usually mixing it with honey works."

But it had failed, both times they tried it. The only thing Aragorn seemed able to tolerate was small mouthfuls of water, and with such a high fever, he needed far more than mere dribs and drabs. But if that was all he could handle, then Gandalf would keep dribbling water in one drop at a time until the end of the Age, if that was what it required. But such tiny amounts... how could Aragorn hope to survive on such scant mouthfuls? But he shook himself. Surely a little was better than none, and none would be all Aragorn got if Gandalf kept losing himself in worried reverie. He reached for the cup and a clean cloth. He soaked the cloth and touched it to Aragornís cracked lips. "Come now, open just a little."

The lips parted and he squeezed water in until he saw Aragorn swallow, then he dribbled some more. Aragorn again swallowed. Gandalf waited a few minutes and when Aragorn showed no sign of rejecting the offering, he repeated the process until the cup of water was finally gone. He sat back with a sigh, glancing at Grimbeorn, who instead of going off to find rest had stayed to watch. Grimbeorn nodded encouragingly but said nothing.

There really wasnít anything to say, after all.

~~~

Gnawing pain in his back woke him, but this time his wits seemed in better shape, and he felt hot instead of cold. He also felt as though Morgoth had been at him with Grond, but he didnít think he was about to go the way of Fingolfin just yet.

Close, though.

He licked his lips. They were so dry they felt rough under his tongue. He sensed movement beside him and opened his eyes. The lids would barely respond, but he managed to peer through the slits.

What he saw made him change his mind about his wits. There was a sheep standing by his bed, holding a stack of blankets on its back. Aragorn frowned and tried to blink but once his eyes shut, they refused to reopen. He felt a hand touch his shoulder, and then a finger upon his lips, rubbing a soothing balm across them. Then the press of a cup. He opened his mouth and tasted cool water. He swallowed, hoping for me, and after a moment, more indeed came.

"Can you hear me, Aragorn?" a gentle voice asked. It was not Gandalf. Grimbeorn. It was Grimbeorn. Again, he tried to open his eyes to see, but they refused. "Aragorn?"

He nodded. Twitched, more like it, but he hoped Grimbeorn would understand that he was hardly up for lengthy speeches.

"I am going to give you some medicine. Itís mixed with honey, but I fear it will still taste fairly rancid. Do you think you can manage to swallow it?"

Aragorn licked his lips... the balm tasted sweet... and mustered the energy to give another twitch of a nod.

"All right, then," Grimbeorn said, and then with a touch of humor, "Please try not to bite me like last time."

So it had been Grimbeornís hands forcing his mouth open, earlier.

"Are you ready, then? Here we go," he said, and without waiting for a response, slid his hand beneath Aragornís head and quite abruptly lifted it, and at that moment Aragorn knew he would not be swallowing anything. He gasped as the world spun madly about, and before he could brace himself, the water he had swallowed came back up and over the blankets.

"Oh dear." Grimbeorn lowered his head back to the pillow, and, while Aragorn coughed painfully and tried desperately to force the bed to stop spinning,†he pulled away the blanket and flipped another... from the sheepís back? Oh Elbereth, I have utterly and completely lost my mind... over him. "That was clumsy of me. I am terribly sorry, Aragorn. Iím not proving to be much of a dab hand at nursing."

Aragorn meant to say, "No need for apologies; I understand completely. Not everyone has a gentle touch... nothing to be ashamed of." All that actually came out was, "Nnnnuh..."

Then Grimbeorn spoke to someone else. "He seems unable to tolerate lifting his head."

"We must try to get the medicine in without doing that, then." That was Gandalf. Aragorn would always know that testy grumble, even when†all his wits†had spun†to shreds.

"Can you steady him? Your touch is far gentler than mine."

"Morgoth has a softer touch than you!" Gandalf snapped. "Grimbeorn, many things you may do well, and I do not question the sympathetic intents of your heart, but pray never take up leechcraft."

Aragorn felt warm hands on either side of his face. "Aragorn," Gandalf called softly, all traces of ire completely gone.

"Gan...off..." Had he no control at all over his tongue? "Gannn..."

"Shhhh, do not try to speak. Save your strength. Now, listen to me closely, my friend. I know it is very hard, and youíre so very tired, but we must get some of this medicine into you. But fear not, we will not lift your head again. But you must be extra careful not to choke when you swallow, no matter how badly it tastes. Can you do that, do you think?"

"Y-yes," he whispered. And, feeling flush from his success at finally articulating a word, he felt sure he could do it, but just how horrific would the stuff taste? After a few moments, he found out. It was truly rancid, as Grimbeorn had warned. Aragorn knew many medicines but he could not imagine what was in this vile concoction. Still, he carefully swallowed. His stomach clenched and rolled in stern protest, but he forced himself to hold it down, and after a few moments, he relaxed.

"There you go, thatís the way," Gandalf said a shade too brightly. Had he the energy, Aragorn might have retorted that he was not, after all, a toddler finally trying turnips and so would he please refrain from speaking in such a ridiculous sing-song. But consciousness was slipping from him again, quite rapidly.

He wondered what ... had they put... in...

~~~

Grimbeorn let out a huge sigh. "Thank goodness. Now maybe heíll get some true rest and be able to fight off that fever."

Gandalf nodded. "Sleeping can only help. But I wonder if we should put a hot compress against the wound."

"Draw the poisons out?"

"Do you think it would do him harm?"

"I wouldnít think so, no. Iíve treated infected wounds on horses with that very method."

"Just you remember this is no horse weíre tending."

"Yes, sir," Grimbeorn sighed. "I truly am sorry."

"Yes, yes, I know, and I should not snap at you so." Gandalf took a deep breath and stifled all evidence of his irritation with Grimbeorn. He actually found he was able to give the poor man a smile. "You mean well, and perhaps it is better to be nursed with clumsy compassion than with able hands but a cold heart. Now go prepare the compresses, if you please."

And so they gathered what they needed, and for the remainder of the day, they applied warm, wet compresses against the wound, occasionally stopping to clean away the discharge. Aragorn woke at times, but his mind seemed to be wandering far afield, for he mumbled nonsensical things and spoke of riding to Bree and at one point seemed to hold an entire conversation with Halbarad about the proper technique for assisting ewes in difficult births. Despite the dire situation, Grimbeorn was beside himself with mirth, listening. Then even Gandalf had to chuckle when, after Aragorn announced that he would now put his arm into the birth canal, the ewe that had been patiently bringing them hot cloths let out a terrified bleat and ran from the room.

"Is Aragorn a shepherd, then?" Grimbeorn asked, once he regained control of himself.

"Only of the Dķnedain, to my knowledge. But I suppose he must put his hand to many tasks, as chieftain." Only after the words were out of his mouth did he realize what a terrible pun he had uttered, quite unintentionally, but Grimbeorn seemed not to notice.

"Well, I fear heís chased Daisy off for good, and I canít blame her. Iíll see about bringing some more cloths. Maybe I can convince one of the dogs to help." He left, and Gandalf examined the wound. It did seem to be less red, and he was unable to see much in the way of pus draining from it.

He reached around and felt Aragornís forehead. It felt much cooler, and Aragornís mumbled ravings had stopped. It seemed that the ewe had delivered her lamb and all was well in the pastures of his fevered imagination. He allowed himself a smile as he brushed Aragornís hair back away from his brow and laid the back of his hand against Aragornís cheek. "You manage to look after your people and their livelihoods even in your delirium. My dear, dear boy."

He gave Aragornís shoulder a squeeze and then worked at gently affixing a loose bandage over the wound. It had been a long and hard battle, these past thirty-six hours, but as he listened to Aragornís easy, deep breathing, he felt they had turned death away from the threshold, and he dared hope that the morn would find Aragorn on the way to recovery at last.





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