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Keep Him Secret, Keep Him Safe  by shirebound

Keep Him Secret, Keep Him Safe

Chapter Nine: Knights of the City

Arwen said, “Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices; for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valour will destroy it.”

But Aragorn answered, “Alas!  I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me.  Yet with your hope I will hope.  And the Shadow I utterly reject.”  ‘Appendix A’, The Return of the King

Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, and Pippin were still chatting under the trees when the sons of Elrond approached, supporting Aragorn between them.

“Be careful Strider,” Pippin warned.  “I offered to inspect this tub for you, but was voted down.”

“Inspect?” Merry teased.  “Your thorough investigation of this innocent tub would have included an hour-long bath, a dozen songs, and no water left at the end of it.”

“Pippin,” Aragorn said to his young knight, “I vow to hold you entirely blameless for any perils that lurk within the waters.”

“All right, then,” Pippin said.  “Did you hear that, Merry Brandybuck?  Some people take me seriously around here.”

Legolas lit several lamps that had been left suspended in the trees from when Frodo and Sam lay there.

“All that you will need is in readiness,” he said, motioning to a nearby chair -- the one Aragorn had occupied during his long vigil beneath these trees, battling for the hobbits’ lives.  Beside it, on the grass, lay a basin, several clean cloths, and one of the camp’s precious cakes of soap. 

“Come, my friends,” Gimli said.  He began to escort Merry and Pippin back to the tent, followed by a chuckling Gandalf.   “I will tell you a short tale before our feast.  You have heard of Smaug, of course, but my grandsires passed down a legend of ancient days and nearly forgotten valor when a fearsome dragon was seen over a mountain...”

 “Do not linger,” Legolas said to Aragorn.  “I do not know how long we can keep that Dwarf – or Pippin – away from the ale keg.”

“I heard that!” Pippin called from up ahead.

Legolas grinned, then followed the others.

“Can you manage, or shall we assist you?” Elrohir asked Aragorn.

“I most humbly request your help,” Aragorn replied with a smile.  “I wish to clean up before I bathe, as I promised the hobbits they could use the tub later.”

“That is wise,” Elladan said.

“What is wise?  Cleaning off out here, or offering a bath to the hobbits?” Aragorn asked.

“Both,” the twins said in unison.

Aragorn let his towel drop, and his brothers settled him onto the chair.  Filling the basin with water, and adding to it small chunks of the soap, the twins each took up a cloth and washed their young brother from head to toe.  Elladan lathered Aragorn’s muddy, matted hair.  Finally, they rinsed him off with clean water and helped him climb into the tub.

“Beware of monsters,” Elrohir said lightly.

“Mmm,” was all Aragorn could manage.  He closed his eyes, leaning back against the smooth wooden side with a sigh.  The air smelled of mint that grew wild beneath the trees, but as he sat quietly, letting the heat ease his mind and limbs, smells from Sam’s bubbling pots and kettles wafted through the air, making him realize anew how hungry he was.  He ducked his head beneath the water, and used his fingers to loosen any remaining soap from his long hair.  When it felt clean, he came to the surface.

“Where has Elladan gone?” he asked, looking about.

“We neglected to bring a water bottle,” Elrohir replied.  “You are still somewhat dehydrated, and this heat and steam, while refreshing, will intensify your thirst.”

Aragorn nodded, letting himself sink more deeply into the gently-steaming water.

As Elladan approached the tent, he was surprised to find Pippin walking away from it, wearing his sword.

“Have you tired of Gimli’s tale so soon?”

“Not at all,” Pippin said, looking at the Elf solemnly.  “I really want to hear it.  It’s just that...”

“Yes?” Elladan asked gently.  He knelt so Pippin did not have to peer up at him.

“I know Strider’s safe with you,” Pippin said earnestly, “but still… none of you are armed.  I was joking about the tub, but who knows what might still be lurking about?  I need to check around the area one more time.  I won’t bother Strider, I promise.  I’ll be back soon.  Don’t let them open that keg until I get back!”

Elladan watched Pippin hurry away.  The entire field of Cormallen was heavily patrolled, as was the perimeter of the beech grove – as Pippin well knew; and he and Elrohir were always armed, although their knives were hidden – which none of the hobbits knew.  Nonetheless, he realized that Pippin needed to check for himself that his king and friend was safe.  Elladan had learned many years before that good intentions and loyalty should not be checked or discouraged.  And he recognized anew the quality of Aragorn's friends and allies.

When he entered the tent and picked up an empty water bottle, the table was now piled high with bowls, cups, platters, and utensils. Éomer, Gandalf, and Legolas were seated on chairs, while Merry lay on his stomach on Aragorn’s bed.  All four were listening intently to Gimli, who was striding back and forth in front of the hearth, illustrating his story with hisses and snarls that Elladan assumed must be dragon sounds.  The tale must have been exciting, judging by Merry’s sparkling eyes and intent expression.  Frodo and Sam were obviously listening, but also bustling about, tasting morsels from the pots and kettles from which issued most delightful smells.  The tent was warm, but enough cool evening air flowed in through the entrance, which was propped open, to make it very comfortable.  Elladan looked around at the peaceful scene and smiled.  He could almost imagine himself, as an Elfling, back in the Hall of Fire with Erestor or Glorfindel weaving an exciting tale for two young boys.

“Don’t let Aragorn fall asleep in that bath,” Frodo said, breaking into his thoughts.  “Everything’s nearly ready.”

Elladan promised to bring Aragorn back as quickly as possible, then took the bottle to the clear stream to fill it before returning to the beech trees.

“Are you ready, brother?” Elrohir was asking Aragorn, still sitting in the water.  “Do you emerge unscathed?”

“I do,” Aragorn chuckled.  “However, I appreciate Pippin’s concern.”

“He takes his duties to you quite seriously,” Elladan said, coming to stand next to the tub.  “I doubt you will ever have a more diligent knight.”

Aragorn nodded in agreement, but with a tinge of sorrow.  “I am overjoyed that his bright spirit returned to us undimmed, but grieve that another, just as dear to me, was lost.  The Dúnedain who travelled south will be known as the King’s knights, alongside Peregrin son of Paladin.  But... I would that Halbarad was still here, to stand among them in honor.”

“Your kinsman will not be forgotten,” Elrohir said.  “His family will be told of his deeds, and they will be provided for.”

“I know,” Aragorn sighed.

“Now stand very slowly,” Elrohir said, and together he and Elladan helped Aragorn out of the tub.

“This confounded dizziness grows bothersome,” Aragorn muttered, suddenly feeling somewhat faint.  He sank heavily to the chair and closed his eyes, his head whirling.  When he felt the bottle held to his lips, he grasped it and took several long swallows of cold, fresh water.

“It is the heat, as I warned.  Rest for a moment,” Elladan said, taking up the towel.  He dried Aragorn’s hair, then his body, noting with his healer’s eye the scars of recent wounds.  When he finished, they helped him dress in the fresh clothing Elrohir had brought with them – trousers and a light tunic.

“Faramir sent word that he will send suitable raiment for you to wear when you enter the City,” Elladan said.  He took in Aragorn’s bare feet and simple garments.  “Before we break camp, you must remember to dress as a king about to be crowned.”

“Crowned,” Aragorn murmured.  “All my life I have wondered what events must unfold for such a thing to ever come to pass.”

“We have wondered, as well,” Elrohir said.  “But there is someone who never had any doubt.”

Aragorn looked into his eyes, and saw there the mingled joy and grief that the brothers of Arwen Undómiel would carry with them all their lives.

“We will bring her to your side,” Elrohir said, reading his thoughts.  “We have spoken with Éomer; when he returns to his land we will accompany him, and continue north.”

“Thank you,” Aragorn whispered, feeling his spirit soar.  His heart, so full of grief a moment before, sang now with love and anticipation.  Together, he and his beloved would build a united kingdom of which Halbarad, and all of their forebears, would be proud.

Aragorn started to get to his feet.  He waved off Elrohir, who tried to help, and stood unaided for a few moments before his knees began to buckle slightly.  As his brother grasped his arm and supported him, Aragorn felt a surge of satisfaction.  His strength was returning; perhaps by tomorrow he would be able to walk about, and prove to Frodo that he had come to no permanent harm.

“I need to have a long talk with Frodo,” Aragorn said firmly.  “He was burdened with the Enemy’s Ring for nearly 20 years, and over 1000 miles, and is hopefully free of it at last; he should not now be burdened with distress over the decisions others made of their free will.” He took a deep breath.  “I will find a way to ease his heart and mind.  I must.”

“We know you will, Estel,” Elladan said.  “And we will find athelas to aid you, if we need travel many leagues to do so.”

“Come,” Elrohir said softly.  “This night the hobbits wish to feast, and sing, and enjoy the company of friends.  We should not keep them waiting any longer.”

Elladan set the soap in the emptied basin, then banked the fire so the water would stay warm, but not too hot.  They left the lamps burning.

** TBC **

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