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Author's note: Written for Teitho August contest – Journeys. Big thanks to Irena for translating and to Cairistiona for beta-reading. *hugs*
And if I owned any of the Dúnedain *sigh* (or anything of Middle-earth), I probably wouldn't write this story. :)
Spring had not yet arrived in Minas Tirith, but the winter inexorably gave way to the new season. It was obvious by the ever-longer days, by the rays of the sun bathing the White City ever more often, by the warmth caressing the earth, slowly waking it from its long winter's sleep.
But now, in the cool of the evening, King Elessar stepped away from the window from which he was watching the moonlit city. The room was quiet and dark, illuminated by a single candle. But the darkness suited him at the moment, as did the solitude; he was not in the mood for spacious, well-lit halls or large companies. He walked over to one of the cupboards and opened it. Among many things which were stored inside, a small black chest stood out, resting on a slim pillow. He watched it for a long time, unaware of anything else; the world around him faded away.
"Go back to the north and lead our men in the battle against the Orcs. Gondor is not the only land that will be stricken by war." Aragorn couldn't say what made the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stand on end, nor why he felt a deep chill when he thought that Halbarad would follow him along the Paths of the Dead and join him in war in Gondor. A sudden urge to send his cousin back to Arnor overpowered everything else.
The memory wounded his heart, as it did every time. He knew he would carry this pain inside him forever. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not convince Halbarad to leave.
"My path takes me forward, not backward. My path is with you. It always has been, and it always will be." His voice was unwavering. Final.
A flag of Gondor was in his hands, ready to be unfurled to light the flame of hope. The Grey Company gravely observed their leader – their king – waiting for him to lead them.
"Let's go," Halbarad said mildly, but resolutely. "We haven't got a moment to lose."
The events of the fate had been set in motion a long time ago. There was no going back now.
Aragorn laid his hand on the small chest, the last physical bond with his cousin. But not for much longer, he thought. Soon this will change too. And he knew his journey would be a rather difficult one. With each step carrying him inch by inch towards the north, the memories would become clearer and the pain would grow sharper and deeper.
He could wait no more. He would set out for the journey this week. It was only the beginning of February, still quite cold, but he could no longer postpone the journey. It would take him a few weeks to get to Arnor. By the time he reached his destination, spring will have arrived. But the sun will not warm his heart, nor will the flowers and nature elicit his smile. One day, the sadness will diminish. With each new day, the pain will fade a little. Time heals all wounds. Someday, only the nice memories will remain, and the scars will hurt less. But not this spring; everything was still too fresh.
"Look at them. Aren't they wonderful? Isn't all this..." Halbarad spread his arms as if he wanted to embrace the whole village in front of him, "...worth dying for?" They were sitting on the edge of a meadow, in the shade of a large tree. The children were running around carefree, playing. People were working in their fields and gardens. Joyous voices and laughter resounded among the village houses. On a day like this, one could forget about the threat of the Dark forces and imagine he lives in a happy world, free of war... almost.
The answer was quite obvious.
"I would gladly give my life for them," Halbarad went on with a smile on his face and without a trace of hesitation. "If that would make the world a better place in which children would no longer grow in fear, I wouldn't hesitate a second."
You have contributed to it, my brother, Aragorn said to him in silent thought. We live in a better world. The scars are still numerous, but they will slowly heal. We are all doing our best.
One of Halbarad's wishes came true: a new, happier age of the world had begun. Now was the time to fulfill his final wish as well. Aragorn lifted his head resolutely. He wasn't able to set out for the journey earlier – and it weighed heavily on his soul. But he could not be in two places at once, and the people of Gondor needed him. He had been crowned as their king; he could not fail them. The land was bleeding, wounded heavily by the war. Many wounds required tending to, all at the same time. Many families who had lost the roofs over their heads and were left with nothing needed to be looked after. So many children were left orphaned. The crops and the harvest needed to be made ready in order to prepare for the upcoming winter. He knew the summer would fly by, fraught with things to be done. Even that short trip to Rohan – when he went for Theoden's funeral – seemed too long; he felt he had lost too much precious time. Gondor needed him desperately.
Had he gone to Arnor right afterwards, he knew Faramir would unreservedly assume all his duties. But that would certainly be unfair. He never delegated his responsibilities to others, and that time had been no exception. As much as he felt a weight in his heart, as much as he wanted to start the journey right away, he knew he couldn't. He never even thought about putting his own wishes and needs before the needs of his people.
He smiled. Halbarad was just like him in that respect. And Aragorn knew his cousin would understand his actions.
"Arnor is the most beautiful land," Halbarad said with absolute certainty in his voice. "Its forests, small rivers, meadows, villages... they are beyond comparison."
"You haven't seen Lothlorien yet", Aragorn teased him.
"Nor do I have to," Halbarad responded. "I am certain it is beautiful. But for me, Arnor is something special."
Aragorn smiled. He has never met a man who loved their country as much as his cousin did. Regardless of the time of the year – be it fragrant summer or ice-bound winter, whether the sun relentlessly scorched every flower or the rain drenched the soil so that one's feet would sink deep into the mud, Halbarad found beauty in all of it, and in every corner of their land.
"I would like to ask you a favour," Halbarad said. When Aragorn turned towards him, he saw his cousin's face was serious. "I do not know where and when I will die. If it is here somewhere, have me lowered into the ground together with our ancestors and fellow-soldiers. But if it is somewhere far away, then I have a wish."
Aragorn wished he could tell him they would live to see old age together. But they lived in dangerous times, constantly on the verge of war, and often fought against the Orcs and other servants of the Enemy, not knowing what the next day had in store for them. Death was their constant companion, following them unrelentingly, her icy breath always lurking in the surrounding shadows. Which is why he simply nodded his head without a word.
"If it is somewhere far away," he repeated, "and should the circumstances allow it, prepare the funeral pyre. And then, when the occasion arises, bring my ashes to our beloved land and scatter them here, not far away from our village. I would like to be a part of it even at the very end, forever."
Aragorn felt his throat tighten. But when he spoke, his voice was steady.
"I hope you will live to see old age with your loved ones, in your home." Hope was all he could offer; there were no guarantees. Still, he could offer someting more. A promise. "But if you happen to die somewhere far away, I will fulfill your wish. I promise."
Has he seen the future? Did he know he would depart before me, as he may have sensed it on the way to Gondor? There were no answers to Aragorn's questions and he knew they would torment him forever.
Once again he looked at the small chest containing the ashes of his cousin, and then slowly closed the cupboard doors. The decision was made. Now the situation was significantly different than it was eight months ago. The land was recovering. Faramir will have no difficulty governing Gondor for a few weeks; Aragorn was free to travel with an easy mind. After all, he was the King not only of Gondor, but of the entire Reunited Kingdom; he had to look after Arnor as well, and the best way to do that was to spend some time in that land.
The time for Halbarad's last journey had finally arrived.
Arnor in the early spring was just as he remembered it. Chilly evenings. Cold mornings coated with frost. The dormant nature slowly waking up. Aragorn smiled. Those were the images and the scents of his childhood. For a moment it felt as if he had never even left. Here, under the tall treetops, listening to the gurgle of the familiar rivulets, it was easy to forget about the royal committments and be an ordinary man again, a ranger.
Next to him, with grass rustling under her feet, Arwen smiled too. They spent the last ten months in Gondor, most of which in Minas Tirith. Ithilien, which they occasionally visited, was pretty, and its forests were green and fragrant. Yet these northern forests had a special place in their hearts; these were their forests. As he watched her walk across the clearing in the wood, soundlessly and lightly as if her feet did not even touch the ground, Aragorn felt as if he had sailed through time, back in the days of their first encounter. He thought he had wandered into a dream, afraid that the vision might evaporate if he as much as blinked. But the elleth did not disappear, and the dream had turned into reality. And he was the luckiest man in the world.
But then his thoughts followed the course of time and took him down a different, more painful memory lane. Soon after the first encounter with Arwen, he left Rivendell and joined his people – the Dúnedain. And then he met Halbarad. The flood of memories spontaneously gushed forth: the first days, when he was almost afraid of the tall, apparently stern ranger; the slow, lengthy period of getting to know each other; all the hours of painstaking exercises they spent together... Halbarad became as close as a brother to him. He was someone he could rely on even in the worst of hardships, whom he could confide in even in the darkest moments; he was his family. He remembered all the time they spent together, all the battles they fought together, all the joys and pains, and, finally, the last battle, the one of the Pelennor Fields.
Tomorrow he will arrive in their village. The journey will end tomorrow, and the long-made promise will be fulfilled. But he would give anything if he didn't have to fulfill the last wish now... if they could walk together through Arnor released from Evil.
The reception was joyful. Everyone gathered around when the royal suite arrived – a carriage followed by guards in shining livery. Aragorn found himself in the arms of many friends and former fellow-soldiers, answering dozens of questions all asked at the same time. As he was standing among them, all the road-weariness vanished without a trace. The joy of reuniting with friends mixed with sorrow for all those who were no longer there. He smiled while his eyes at the same time filled with tears. He knew that an evening by the fire, in a large company, filled with long tales was about to ensue; he also knew that not all of them had a happy ending. Just like in Gondor, here it was also rather obvious that there were less men than women. But soon that too will change, he thought hopefully.
And then he saw them. Elleniel and Borongil were standing in front of a small house which had been the home of Halbarad's small family for a long time. With a gesture of his hand he stemmed the tide of new questions from the gathered crowd, promising they would continue the conversation and the stories later on, and headed towards them. Stopping in front of them, he exchanged a long glance with Elleniel, full of emotions and memories. He greeted her with a short bow and a soft smile at first, and then he held her in a tight embrace.
"Aragorn," she whispered, her eyes full of tears, "I'm so glad to see you."
"And I am so glad to see both of you," he replied, just as touched as she was. All the way to Arnor he rejoiced over this meeting, but at the same time he was afraid of it – afraid of pain in her eyes he knew he wouldn't be able to chase away. He moved away from her a little, but he still kept his eyes on her shoulder. Elleniel looked just like when he last saw her; the wrinkles did not make her face look older, and her black hair was not yet touched by silver. Yet, there was a shadow in her eyes that was not there earlier.
But in the young man who stood next to her he could barely recognize the skinny, clumsy boy he remembered. Borongil turned sixteen that winter. He was almost as tall as Aragorn; his shoulders had broadened and grown stronger, muscles filled his once spindly child's body, and the first stubble had appeared on his face. Aragorn stared in amazement. He left behind a boy, and now there was a young man in front of him. Has it really been only two years since he last saw him?
"Borongil," he said in a low voice and hugged the young man. "You've matured and grown so much. You look like all other rangers... like your father."
Borongil blushed and shyly lowered his gaze, muttering a few words of greeting. Elleniel looked at her son, her teary eyes glimmering with pride.
"My dear friend," Aragorn said quietly and drew her attention again, "as I said, I am really happy to be with you. But I am not here just because of company and talking to people, no matter how much I rejoice in that too. I have to fullfil a promise I made long ago. Would you and your son walk with me to the forest?"
He stood and watched how the look in her eyes changed in a slow understanding, while the shadow darkened her gaze again. She nodded without a word. He turned and walked over to the carriage, taking out the small chest he had been guarding carefully all along the way. Then Arwen apeared by his side.
"Are you coming with us?" he asked quietly.
"No," she responded after a moment's thought. "I also knew and loved him, but I was not as close to him as you were. And this will be something quite private, for the closest family only. I would feel like I am intruding."
And so he walked into the forest with Elleniel and Borongil. They did not have to say out loud where they were going. Their legs carried them on their own, walking along the well-known path which they had traversed a myriad times before. Soon they reached a small grassy glade dominated by a high rock, at whose foot a small stream sprang. They sat on the ground, right next to the spring. The crystal-clear water bounced over the pebbles, and the gurgling mingled with the birds' chirping. Golden rays of the afternoon sun bathed the glade and the forest surrounding it.
"This was his favourite spot," Elleniel said with a wistful smile, gazing into the distance. "We used to come here often".
"I know," Aragorn responded, overcome with memories. "I joined him here many times as well."
"He preferred coming here exactly at this time of year, in spring", she said. "He liked to watch nature waking up from its sleep."
"He first brought me here soon after I joined the Dúnedain, maybe a few weeks after my arrival. I had messed up some of the basic scouting lessons and he called me to talk about it in private. I braced myself for a nasty lecture. And certainly, I got one. I thought I would never become a ranger." Aragorn laughed remembering the incident. "But then he steered the conversation towards other topics, so that I could relax a bit as well. I enjoyed listening about the Dúnedain traditions."
"He used to say that this place calms him." She nodded. "He used to come here when things got difficult, especially when we lost someone. When he returned later, he was still harbouring the sadness, but I always felt an even greater determination in him, an even greater commitment to our fight."
"When I was little, father often brought me here and told me stories," Borongil said. The boy's face, framed with dark hair which reached to his shoulders, lit up for a moment, remembering the happy childhood moments.
"I remember," Aragorn smiled. "Your favourite was the one about Túrin, wasn't it?"
"Yes. Although it has a sad ending." He shrugged his shoulders.
"I remember how, after those stories, you often played dragon hunting and wrecking of Thangorodrim."
Borongil nodded, but he said nothing. Hunting imaginary dragons and wrecking fortresses of boards and stones was so simple... once upon a time. Aragorn observed the young man. He saw Halbarad in each one of his features: in the way he spoke, the way he frowned or knitted his eyebrows. He almost believed his cousin had come back to life and was sitting next to him. When he smiled, he looked like a little boy. But sometimes the dark clouds would drape over his gaze. His eyes were no longer the eyes of a carefree, innocent child; without having to ask, Aragorn knew that Borongil too bore the scars of this war. Boys matured too soon, under burden of weapons and blood, staring death in the face, seeing the bodies of innocent children hurt in burnt, devastated villages. And to top it all, Borongil suffered another deep wound – he had lost his father. Aragorn swore to himself that no child would ever experience the horrors of war for as long as he was king. Childhood was the time for joy and freedom from care.
"I wish I could have come earlier," Aragorn said watching Elleniel in the eyes. It pained him that he wasn't able to tell her the news himself, as painful as that would have been for him too. His heart always bled when he had to knock on a door, bearing the news which everyone dreaded. But at the same time, he never delegated this sad duty to someone else; he was the leader of his people and this was his task.
"You are here now," she responded.
"I really wanted to come earlier," he repeated, "but in Gondor..."
"As I said, you are here now and that is all that matters," she interrupted him. "I completely understand the situation you were in. And Halbarad would understand it as well."
Her eyes were warm and full of understanding. And although Aragorn knew he had done the only right thing, and as much as he had hoped that both Halbarad and Elleniel would understand him, he was relieved when it was finally said out loud. In her gaze, as well as in Borongil's, there was not a trace of resentment. He nodded his thanks to her.
"Were you with him... during the last moments?" the young man asked. His voice trembled for a moment, revealing his pain.
"Unfortunately, no." Aragorn shook his head, deeply regretting the fact. "We split during the battle. I would give anything if I could have been by his side."
If I had been, I might have been able to save him, he added wordlessly. But now he will never know.
"I hope I will come to Pelennor some day," Borongil said pensively. "And lay down a flower for him on the grave-mounds."
Aragorn did not reply immediately, but looked at Elleniel instead. "I believe you are familiar with his last wish?"
"What last wish?" Borongil suddenly asked, while his mother nodded her head at the very same moment.
"Your father is not buried at Pelennor. Instead, we prepared him a funeral pyre, just like he wanted," Aragorn told him softly. "As you know, he loved this country very much. And he wanted his ashes to be scattered here in case he met his death somewhere far away."
"Oh." Borongil was silent for a while, musing about what he had just heard. "So..." he stopped, and his gaze rested on the small chest which was lying on the grass next to them.
"Yes. His ashes are stored inside," Aragorn confirmed, answering the unspoken question.
Borongil kept quiet, and then smiled mildly. "Well... it is a nice wish. I am glad. I mean..." he paused, trying to find the right words. "I will feel like he is close to me. Yes, that's true."
"When you smile like that, you look so much like him," Aragorn said, moved. "As if I am looking at a younger version of him."
"Exactly," Elleniel agreed, her voice trembling and her gaze infused with love. They were silent for a few moments. Then Aragorn took a deep breath, feeling his heart beat harder. It is time.
"Shall we?" he asked gravely, and they nodded. He stood up and opened the chest which he had been guarding carefully for a year already, and then he did the same with a box which was inside it.
"My cousin. My brother..." he whispered, his throat tight. And then together, with their hands entwined on the chest and joined by the bond of love, they scattered the ashes of the man they loved more than life and let the gentle breeze carry it across the glade and the brook. His hand trembled for a moment, and their entire life flashed before his eyes – all the decades of joy and sorrow they experienced together – compressed in a single heartbeat. Welcome home, brother... tears rolled down his cheeks, but he did not even attempt to wipe them. Next to him, Elleniel sobbed. Borongil, himself teary-eyed, put his arm around her shoulder, and Aragorn around the other. They stood in a silent embrace long after the last particles merged with the ground, trees and flowers, overwhelmed by thoughts and memories, not noticing the sun descending towards the horizon nor the rustling of leaves and the gurgling of the brook.
"I am sure he would not want us to cry," Elleniel whispered, wiping her wet cheeks. "He would want us to rejoice to our new life."
"Yes, that was him..." Aragorn said softly, and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. "My brave friend," he added gently.
"This is exactly where he gave me my first wooden sword," Borongil said quietly, attempting to smile. "And then we practiced and played for hours... a perfect day."
"Here is where I started to feel like one of the Dúnedain, as if I really belonged here. Thanks to him," Aragorn added, navigating his own memories.
"Here is where he first kissed me," Elleniel said with a wistful but warm smile, and the shadow in her teary eyes, although it couldn't disappear entirely, finally faded away for a few moments. "Here is where he asked me to marry him..."
And so they continued to revisit happy memories, talking about all the nice things they associated with Halbarad. The golden orb set behind the horizon, the afternoon transformed into a crimson evening, and the three people continued to sit in the glade, holding hands and talking. Occasionaly they would let out a melancholy sigh; occasionally they would smile. And the fourth man, whose ashes had been committed to the land he loved so much, was with them, in their hearts. Forever.
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