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The Ranger and the Eagles  by Cairistiona

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.





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