Alone in his room, Aragorn struggled to pull off his boot, finally wrenching it from his foot with the help of the bootjack. The muddy boot fell to the floor with a dull, wet slap. He kicked the wooden bootjack a bit to the left so he could work the other off. He braced his heel against the notch in the wood, but before resuming the struggle he slumped, elbows on knees as he hung his head in weariness. It had been such a hard journey...
"Strider?" a timid voice called.
Aragorn shook his hair back away from his eyes and straightened. Peregrin Took stood uncertainly in the doorway. He looked to have already bathed and changed, something that Aragorn eagerly anticipated for himself, as soon as he wrestled his recalcitrant boot off. He did not want Arwen to see him in so bedraggled a condition, after all. "Come, Pippin," he called, forcing his cheeks into something he hoped resembled a smile.
The young hobbit all but tiptoed into the room. That the Shireling was a bit overawed by Rivendell’s splendor was obvious even to Aragorn’s exhausted eyes. "It is merely a room, Master Took. It will not swallow you whole."
"After all we’ve been through, I wouldn’t really be surprised if it did." But the strain left his face and he managed a small grin.
"Master Elrond would hardly tolerate his house attacking its guests, so put your fears aside."
Pippin watched as Aragorn contended with his remaining boot, and finally hurried over. "Let me help, Strider." Before Aragorn could protest, Pippin had the boot in his hand and, with a yank that had Aragorn grabbing wildly for the chair’s arms to keep from sliding to the floor, had the boot off and lying in a heap next to the other.
Pippin waved away the thanks. Instead, he helped Aragorn shrug out of his coat. "I suppose you’ve been too busy reporting to Master Elrond to get freshened up."
"Reporting to Erestor, actually. I will speak with Elrond later, after he has seen to Frodo."
"Oh, I see. I haven’t met Erestor yet, although I did meet a whole host of Elves whose names flew in one ear and out the other. I don’t think I heard the name Erestor, though."
"You would remember him, even if the name escapes you. It is hard to forget meeting one as dignified and kindhearted as he." And long winded, Aragorn thought with amusement, but he dared not say that bit aloud. "He is Elrond’s counsellor and helps in the day-to-day running of Rivendell."
"They all seem so dignified and kind, I may have met him and just don’t remember." He looked hard at Aragorn. "I hope he sent you to your room for rest and didn’t shillyshally around about it. You look..."
"Like something a warg dragged in?"
"I was going to say tired."
Aragorn sighed. "I am weary," he admitted. He felt beyond weary, actually. The weight of the grueling flight to the ford, the battle–if one could call it that–with the Riders, and then the race to the shelter of the Last Homely House pressed on him even now with a lingering sense of dread that he could not seem to shake. Terror that should have long faded still threatened to empty his gut. But he smiled reassuringly at Pippin. "Weary, but grateful to be home."
"This... this is your home?"
"I was raised here, for most of my childhood."
Pippin’s mouth formed a small ‘o’. "I thought..."
"That I was born under a rock and raised by wolves?"
Pippin rewarded his attempt at humor with a laugh. "No, nothing like that. I never really thought about where you might have grown up. I can’t really imagine you being anything but you, if that makes sense. As you are now, I mean. I can’t picture you as a small boy at all."
"I was, once. And Rivendell still bears the scars."
Another merry laugh as Pippin moved behind his chair to help him pull off his vest. "When you say things like that, I can imagine it a lot more easily. But most of the time you’re too grim and dour."
"Back to that ‘look fairer and feel fouler’ bit, are we?"
"No. I know better, now. And I... I want to thank you."
"For getting us here in one piece."
Aragorn grimaced. "If only I had."
"You did the best you could." Pippin folded the vest and draped it on the back of the room’s other chair.
Aragorn looked down at his feet, saying nothing as he took off his socks. What did it matter, really, that Pippin thought his failure forgivable? While kind of him, it did not change the facts: Frodo had been grievously injured, and Aragorn had been unable to stop it. Such losses were often unavoidable in any battle, he realized, but it did not make the sting of failure, especially this failure, bite any less.
Pippin said nothing more, merely watched quietly with his hands thrust into his pockets as Aragorn folded his socks and set them on the floor by his boots, but he suddenly let out a cry as he saw a bruise across Aragorn’s left instep, and a blister that had gone bloody on his right heel. "You’re hurt!"
Aragorn blinked, then wiggled his feet. He hadn’t really noticed the state of them until now. He knew his feet had been banged about, but getting to safety had driven all thought toward checking them out of his head until now. He was too tired to remember where the bruise came from, although he vaguely remembered feeling the blister burst as they made the last mad dash from the Bruinen to the house. Likely he had picked up a stone in his boot somewhere beside the river, but he couldn’t be sure. Maybe it had been while fending off the Nazgûl before the river took them. He suddenly shivered, the terror of those moments trying to make itself felt once more.
"Strider? Are you cold? Shall I stir the fire?"
"No, it is quite warm. I just...." He left the thought unfinished as he lifted his foot. "Well, it looks far worse than it feels. It’s merely a blister, nothing more."
"Still, it needs cared for!" Pippin hurried over to the pitcher and bowl in the corner. Stretching on tiptoe to reach, he used both hands to carefully pour some water into the bowl. He dipped the cloth he found lying beside it into the water and came back to Aragorn. "Hold out your right foot."
"Pippin, you don’t need–"
"Yes, I do," Pippin insisted. "You got this blister hurrying us to safety, so it’s the least I can do to help you deal with it."
Aragorn stared at the small halfling, unaccountably touched. "Thank you, then," he said softly.
Pippin glanced up and smiled, an uncomplicated gesture of friendliness. "No, Strider. Any thanks go to you. Now be still; this might sting."
And it did. Pippin was gentle but Aragorn couldn’t keep from hissing as the water touched the broken skin. But he set his jaw and remained silent thereafter until Pippin was finished. "Your foot is like ice. Better get yourself some warm socks, but first, have you any salve?"
Bemused, Aragorn nodded toward the washstand. "In the cabinet below."
Pippin opened the door and stared at the contents. He picked up one pot, then another, opening them and sniffing their contents as he worked his way deeper into the cabinet. "My, you’ve great lot of pots in here," he said. Then, to Aragorn astonishment, he crawled completely into the cabinet. Soon all Aragorn could see was the hobbit’s backside and feet sticking out beyond the door.
"Master Elrond claims I so often arrive battered and bashed about that he dare not empty the...." Aragorn leaned forward, wondering if Pippin would need help getting back out. He would never have dreamed the cabinet big enough for a hobbit to get lost in, but watching Pippin disappear into its depths was a bit unnerving. "Are you all right in there, Pippin?"
"Never better!" Pippin cried as he wiggled out from the very back of the cabinet. He raised high a small jar, as if it were spoils of war. "Here’s the one! At least, I think it is. It smells like the stuff my mother used to smear on me any time I came in with a cut or bruise."
Aragorn checked it... it smelled of lemon balm, bergamot and honey. "Yes, that will do."
Pippin scooped out a small amount and dabbed it against the broken blister. "Do you have anything to wrap it? Although I suppose if you’re about to take a bath, you won’t need it yet."
"I’ll keep my foot out of the water. There’s bandages in my pack." Aragorn pointed to the bundle beside his bed.
Instead of digging through it himself, Pippin dragged the pack to Aragorn. "Whew! That’s heavy!"
Aragorn smiled as he dug out a strip of clean linen and bound up his heel. "Not to me."
"Is your other foot sore?"
Aragorn flexed it back and forth and up and down. "No. I think I must have gotten that bruise on Weathertop. I remember it being sore for a day or so after."
"So it’s not broken?"
"No, nothing like that. Just a bruise that will fade in time." He sat back and stretched his long legs out in front of him. It felt good to simply sit and not move. His thoughts strayed again to Arwen, whom he had yet to see, and he knew he could not linger indolently for long. A bath, then a short nap, and he would see her. But first to make sure of something. He eyed the hobbit up and down. "What of you, Pippin? Any hurts that need tending?"
"Not a one." He rocked back and forth on his heels. "We Tooks don’t injure easily."
Aragorn smiled, remembering another Took he had met, once, out in the wilds. "No, I don’t suppose you do," he said, then pushed himself groaning to his feet. "My apologies, Pippin, but you will have to excuse me for asking you to leave me for a time. I believe I am overdue a much needed nap."
"Of course! I’m sorry... I don’t mean to keep you from your rest." Pippin glanced at the bed and then hurried over to it. "Let me help you pull the covers back."
Again, Aragorn merely watched in bemused silence as the hobbit dragged back the coverlet and the blankets beneath and then jumped into the bed and crawled about on his hands and knees, fluffing the pillows and smoothing the sheets, readying it for Aragorn.
"There you go! Fit for a king!"
Aragorn nearly choked as he stifled a laugh. He wondered just what Pippin would do if Aragorn told him he had indeed just prepared a bed for a king. His eyes danced merrily, but he merely smiled. "Thank you, Pippin. I don’t think it has ever looked more welcoming."
Pippin beamed at him, then slid down from the bed. He started for the door, then suddenly turned and wrapped his arms around Aragorn’s legs in a brief, hard hug. "Thank you again," he said.
Aragorn reached down and laid a gentle hand on Pippin’s back. "You’re welcome, Pippin."
Pippin craned his neck to look at Aragorn’s great height. He wrinkled his nose. "But be sure to take that bath before you get into bed," he whispered, then ran out of the room.
Aragorn chuckled as he shut the door behind Pippin. A bath and a nap would go long toward improving the lot of his tired body and clouded mind, but he found that his spirit was already much restored.
"No, it is I who thank you, Peregrin Took," he whispered, and finished undressing for his bath.
Aragorn pushed himself deeper under the blankets, the waking world and his dreams pushing and pulling at him as if he were no more than flotsam tossed to and fro by the tides. Part of him knew he should be getting out of bed, that his nap had stretched far longer than he intended, but stronger was the lassitude born of dread of leaving the bed’s cosseting embrace. He drifted between waking and dreaming, aware of the tactile warmth of the bed, but troubled by unease. Apprehension touched him, as tenuous as the half-remembered nightmares that still tugged at his mind, nightmares hinting at dark things that lingered and stalked the outer reaches of his consciousness. He squeezed his eyes shut and clutched the pillows, reflexively curling himself around them, seeking a refuge he somehow knew lay far beyond reach. He groaned, overwhelmed with the urge to find safety. He moved his legs, trying to run... to hide....
They were coming...
A loud knock shattered the silence, and he flinched violently. He gasped, grappling with the blankets for a sword that was not there, searching the shadowed corners for enemies he could not name.
The knock came again, then the door opened slightly and Aragorn glimpsed a blue eye, a shock of brown curly hair and, lower, a single bare, hairy foot. "Strider?" a soft voice called.
Aragorn shut his eyes for a moment, gathering himself as he ran a trembling hand through his hair. He pushed back the blankets and swung his legs out of bed. "Come in, Merry." He wondered if the hobbit noticed the tremor in his voice.
"I’m sorry I woke you–"
Aragorn waved a dismissive hand as he tried to adjust from nightmare to the most harmless reality imaginable, that of a hobbit standing uncertainly before him, heavy laden with a large tray covered by a silver dome so high that Aragorn wondered how Merry managed to see over it. "What have you there?"
"It’s a bit of food for you, Strider. Pip told me to bring you this snack, in case you woke up from your nap feeling a bit peckish." Merry thudded the tray upon the bedside table. He pulled the cover off with a flourish. "It’s not much. A few sweet buns, some baked apples and a slice of roast beef with gravy. Bread with butter–the Elves do make marvelous bread. Oh, and some greens and mushrooms, sauteed with pine nuts and a dash of vinegar. I made that myself," he finished with pride.
"Thank you," Aragorn said faintly. He rubbed his face and blinked a few times, regarding the food with dismay. The ‘slice’ of roast beef was a pile three inches high, buried in gravy, and a ‘few’ sweet buns amounted to at least a half dozen. The greens looked more like a forested mountain, and somewhere in Rivendell a vast orchard had been denuded of all its apples in order to provide him his baked fruit. He and Halbarad combined would be hard pressed to eat so much in an entire day, and yet Pippin considered this a mere snack?
"Is it not enough? I can get more!" Merry turned and started for the door.
"No!" Aragorn said, a bit more panic in his voice than he would have liked. "No... come back. This is enough. More than enough, actually. You and Pippin are very kind." Aragorn stared at the food, feeling his stomach slowly turn over. His nap, far from refreshing him, had left him off kilter, almost ill. The very idea of eating....
But he would have to. He dared not give offense when Pippin and Merry had been so kind. But how to eat as little as possible? Then he caught Merry’s somewhat wistful glance at the bounty and felt saved. "Will you share it with me?"
Merry grabbed a chair and pulled it over to the table. "Nothing I would like more!"
"What of Pippin? Can he come as well?"
"No, he’s down in the kitchens, showing the cooks how to make a proper Tookish birthday cake. Not that it’s his nor anyone else’s birthday, but he was feeling a bit homesick and wanted some."
"I am very sorry he’s homesick." Aragorn certainly knew all about homesickness. His travels kept him away from home and loved ones more than he ever wished. He thought then of Arwen. As Aragorn had taken his bath, a page had discreetly knocked and left a note from her on his nightstand, a note that assured him again that she would come to him as soon as he was rested. He reached out and picked up the note, smelling its fragrance, and felt a warm glow settled over his heart. It would not be much longer now before he could finally hold her in his arms...
"He’s young," Merry said, bringing Aragorn’s attention back to the here and now and away from long overdue reunions. He put the note back on the table and looked at Merry closely; the bit of a shadow in his eyes told Aragorn that Pippin was not the only homesick hobbit in Rivendell.
He said nothing, however, for fear of embarrassing Merry. It was not as though the homesickness would last, for surely the hobbits would be escorted home in grand fashion by the Elves of Rivendell, as soon as Frodo....
Frodo! It had been so many hours since their arrival; anything might have happened. "What news have you of Frodo?" he asked.
Merry shook his head. "He is still asleep. Master Elrond did something... I don’t know exactly what... and he’s been sleeping ever since. He said not to worry, that he’s likely to sleep days, but how can I not worry?"
"But he will recover?"
"So Master Elrond said."
"Then we need not fear. Master Elrond would not say such if it were not true."
"I can’t help but worry, though."
"I know. I also have a hard time keeping fear at bay. But we must trust to Elrond, Merry. He has great skill as a healer, the greatest in all of Middle-earth. Frodo could be in no better hands." He picked up a slice of bread and took a small bite, chewing slowly. He swallowed, but it seemed to stick in his throat. He coughed, then managed to choke it down.
"You need water," Merry said, jumping down and heading for the same washstand Pippin had explored on hands and knees. He snatched up a cup and poured and hurried back.
"Thank you," Aragorn said. He took a sip, grimaced, then forced himself to swallow more.
"You look tired."
"Pippin had the same opinion. And you are both right."
"It’s nothing more, though, is it? I mean, you’re not ill?"
"I think it is merely fatigue," he said, but even he could hear the doubt in his voice. There was something else... a shadow...
Merry was saying something to him in reply, but his words were lost in the dismay that swamped Aragorn, for he knew now what plagued him. He thought back to the river, to the moments when he and Glorfindel brandished the torches to drive away the Riders. He had felt the touch of the Black Breath then, but he thought it had been merely that: a touch, gone as soon as the wraiths were washed away. The run to the Last Homely House had been punishing, and at times he had very nearly lost hope of ever making it to safety, but he had thought such despair was merely the result of extreme fatigue. Now he knew otherwise, and acknowledging it seemed to make the Black Breath’s effects swell all the more.
Still, he assumed a calm he did not feel, lest he cause Merry undue alarm. He forced himself to concentrate on Merry’s words.
" –you didn’t sleep much these past weeks, for having to guard us all."
"It is nothing I have not done before," Aragorn said. He put the bread down and shut his eyes for a moment, feeling again a sweeping wave of dread, dread so strong it almost bordered on terror. Aragorn almost smiled. More the fool he, for trying to deny the truth: he was terrified. Despite being safe, in the very heart of Rivendell, surrounded only by those who loved him and held no ill will against him, he was consumed with heart-pounding, bowel-loosening terror, and there was no gainsaying it.
"Strider? I say, you don’t look very well at all."
Aragorn fought off the blackness. He knew it was illusory but it was surprisingly hard to drive it back. Just like before... but unlike before, I will not ignore it in the hopes it will go away. "Merry, I think I best find Master Elrond."
"You are ill!" Merry cried, and immediately clambered up on the bed. He knelt beside Aragorn and laid the back of his hand against Aragorn’s cheek, then clasped both of Aragorn’s hands in his own. "You don’t feel feverish. In fact, your hands feel as cold as ice!"
"No, it is not fever. It..." He stopped, again worried he might frighten Merry, but he remembered that Merry had suffered his own encounter with the Black Breath, outside The Prancing Pony. Of all the hobbits, Merry could handle the truth, surely. "I fear it is the lingering effects of the Nazgûl."
"The Black Breath! Oh, yes, that can leave you feeling really odd and frightened, if what happened to me is any indication. I felt like... well, you remember what I told you. I felt like falling to pieces. It’s no wonder you’re suffering from it, really, seeing as how you had to fight the Riders at the river as you did. I shouldn’t wonder that you haven’t had a touch of it since Weathertop, really, though I suppose you must not have or else surely we would have noticed. At any rate, you need attention now, right enough. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. But you’re in no shape to go wandering through Rivendell. I will bring Master Elrond to you. There’s no reason you should do anything but lie here quietly where you’re safe while I go get him."
Aragorn nodded, relieved that Merry was such a sensible hobbit. "I would appreciate that very much. Simply tell him it is the Black Breath, but make sure you tell him it is not like last time."
"Like last time? You mean to say you’ve had this before?"
"Once, a very long time ago, when I had to battle a Nazgûl at much closer quarters, and for quite a bit longer."
"You fought one off singlehandedly?"
"No, I had help, but still, I had to keep him away from my men. I fought him until I finally fell, thoroughly poisoned by the Black Breath. This is nothing compared to that. So be sure to tell Elrond that."
Merry’s eyes were round with awe. "You might have died!"
Aragorn sighed, wishing he had not said anything. "It was a close run thing, yes, but obviously, I lived. I can tell you the entire tale someday, but right now I simply want you to make sure my father is not unduly alarmed."
"Your fa– Master Elrond is your father? Such secrets you’ve been hiding! Here I thought you were a Man and it turns out you’re an Elf! Next you’ll be telling me you’re really a king in disguise!"
Despite his misery, Aragorn could not hold back a smile. First Pippin unwittingly blurted the truth, and now Merry had stumbled upon it. What wonder would those hobbit eyes hold when they finally did learn of Aragorn’s lineage! But he sobered, for though he felt it drew nigh, the time had not yet come for such revelations. "I apologize. I am no Elf, Merry," he said, leaving the remaining truth safely concealed. "Elrond is my foster father, but no less a father of my heart than my true father was. But please, let us leave that long tale for another time as well. I really do need Elrond."
"Of course," Merry said, suddenly contrite. "Of course. I’m letting my curiousity run away with me. You lay back and relax. As Sam might say, I’ll be back with him quicker than you can say, ‘Gaffer’s grammy’s gone goosey.’"
Aragorn stared at Merry as he scurried off, then let out a quiet chuckle as he laid back against the pillows. "Gaffer’s grammy’s gone goosey," he murmured, but Elrond did not materialize. Not that Aragorn expected him to, much as he desired it. The sudden emptiness of the room pressed on him. He shut his eyes tightly, then opened them just as quickly, for the darkness seemed too near with eyes shut.
"It is not that bad," he said, then repeated it several more times, and he almost convinced himself that it wasn’t as bad as his first go-round with the stuff. That time he had been plagued with nightmares that Halbarad had betrayed him. This time, the nightmares were less vivid and certainly did not feature his loyal kinsman as chief malefactor. "Thank the Valar for even small favors," he murmured. He never again wanted to dream of Halbarad binding him in chains and tossing him to Sauron.
But the same waves of darkness lapped at the edges of his thoughts, like some unholy surf. He was reminded again of Merry’s experience. "I thought I had fallen into water..."
"It is a dark sea, indeed, Merry," he said, and wished unreasonably that the hobbit was still with him, but he immediately chided himself. "He can hardly go looking for Elrond and stay here to hold my hand."
Aragorn took a deep, slow breath and then another, trying to calm the frantic pace of his heart. He looked around the quiet room, trying to focus on anything besides the unreasoning, soul-wilting terror that clawed at his mind, on the despair that threatened to drive him weeping to his knees. He took yet another deep breath and pulled a pillow onto his lap and hugged it to himself, drawing his knees up to his chin as he fiercely concentrated on not being frightened out of his wits.
He was not resoundingly successful.
Suddenly craving the sun’s warmth, he tossed aside the pillow and stalked to the windows, throwing back the curtains that he had pulled shut before taking his nap. Late afternoon sunlight poured in, gilding the room with light. He lifted his face toward the sun, and for a moment, the blackness within his mind retreated, but it wasn’t long before it started inching back. He turned from the window and hurried to the cabinet, but a quick search showed it was barren of athelas. It did not surprise him, for athelas grew year round here in Rivendell and there was little need to keep a stash of dried athelas when fresh was so ready to hand. Still, he did not wish to go wandering around the gardens on a search for it, not with Elrond sure to arrive at any moment.
All the same, he felt the overwhelming need to move. To flee, really, but as fleeing would hardly be wise with help on the way, he instead started to pace, from the fireplace to the door, from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window and then back to the fireplace, round and round, trying to keep one step ahead of falling to pieces. He smiled grimly. Merry had very aptly described it.
He was on his third circuit of the room when the door opened again and Merry ran in, followed at a more sedate pace by Master Elrond. Elrond set down the athelas he was carrying and embraced Aragorn. "I am sorry I could not get to you sooner, my son."
Aragorn sagged into his Elrond’s arms, content to simply hold onto his father and let him bear this burden. Willing, now that Elrond was here, to let himself fall to pieces.
"My son, my son," Elrond murmured, laying a hand on the back of Aragorn’s head. "How I wish I had been free to tend you sooner."
"I did not know then how much help I needed, and even if I had, Frodo was in far worse condition," Aragorn said. Elrond led him to his bed, and he dropped onto it as though his very bones had melted away. He could not positively assert that they hadn’t done just that.
"As last time Halbarad needed me. I wish that it were not so, that others’ needs must always precede your own."
"You know that is the path I walk. I do not begrudge it."
"No, you never have," Elrond said quietly as he eased himself down to sit beside Aragorn. He grasped Aragorn’s forearm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I am so proud of you, my son. No one else could have seen the Ringbearer safely to Rivendell, under the circumstances you faced."
Aragorn smiled faintly, but before he could say anything, another wave of dread washed over him. He shuddered, a small cry escaping despite his best efforts to remain stoic.
"Easy, my son. This shall soon be over." Elrond brushed Aragorn’s hair from his brow, then rested a hand on his forehead for a moment. "Indeed, it is nothing like last time, for which we can be very, very thankful. There is a shadow, but it is shallow, touching but not consuming."
Aragorn said nothing. Merely touching it may be, but he could do with never feeling that particular touch ever again.
"Is he going to be all right?" Merry asked shyly from where he stood beside the chair.
"He will be fine, Master Brandybuck. And you may help me, if you would. I need a bowl of hot water, which you can find in that reservoir set within the hearth. Simply use the washstand bowl."
Merry hurried to the fireplace after grabbing the bowl. He pulled aside a lid that was set flush with the stones. "Would you look at that! I’ll have to remember to see about installing one of these in my hearth back home. It beats all hollow filling the tea kettle constantly and having to wait on it to boil."
Aragorn watched him but the darkness lapped at him again, like an ever-rising tide. He refused to cry out but he could not stop himself from squeezing his eyes shut. He heard a thump by the night stand, and a small splash.
"Oops, clumsy of me," Merry muttered, then louder, with a bit of alarm. "I say, is he worse?" To Aragorn’s surprise, he felt a small hand take his. "Don’t be afraid, Strider. We’re here."
Aragorn nodded. "Thank you, Merry," he whispered, and tried not to grip Merry’s small hand too tightly.
"Estel, open your eyes," Elrond said. He held up three leaves of athelas, a twinkle in his eye that did almost as much to calm Aragorn as the athelas. Nothing can be as horrible as all that if Elrond could still tease. "Since the Black Breath has not taken you completely and you are yet awake and aware, you may as well do the honors."
Aragorn took the leaves and breathed on them, then cast them into the water and breathed deeply of the freshness that seemed to fill the entire room. The troubling darkness in his mind lightened, and his fear vanished. He let out a shaky sigh, then breathed in again and again, until his senses were almost dizzy from relief. Elrond then leaned down and placed his hand on Aragorn’s brow and soon Aragorn felt the comforting presence of his father’s fëa touching his own spirit with a light so bright that all lingering traces of the darkness fled. Unbidden tears burned his eyes, so welcome was the solace.
"Thank you, Father," he breathed.
"Sleep, my son. You will awaken refreshed."
And so Aragorn shut his eyes in rest this time, and for time uncountable he floated in utter serenity, buoyed by such a feeling of contentment that he felt he need never awaken again....
"...Aragorn," a voice called.
Aragorn frowned. He was loathe to leave this restful place; indeed, he would not. But a hand grasped his shoulder and shook him gently, insistently. "My son, time to awaken; you’ve had a good night’s rest and there is someone here who is eager to see you."
"Tell Merry come back later," Aragorn mumbled and rolled over on his side, facing the wall.
He heard a chuckle, then a hand started to take his. He swatted it away. "Go ‘way, Merry," he said, then yanked the cover over his head and dove once again toward sleep’s blissful realm.
But more laughter dragged him back... laughter that was far more musical than the giggles and snickers he was used to hearing from Merry and the other hobbits. Elves. It was Elves, not hobbits. He sighed, then rolled over and pulled the blanket from his face, blinking as he tried to clear the sleepy fog from his mind. He finally managed to open one eye, but he saw only the ceiling, lost in gloom, and an overall hazy impression of murky light in the windows as the day pushed back night. He struggled to sit up. Elrond grasped him by the hand and pulled him upright. "How long have I slept?"
"Many hours. It is past dawn."
Aragorn could not get his eyes to focus. He rubbed them and then pinched the bridge of his nose. He squinted at Elrond, still only able to hold one eye open. "You put me to sleep?"
Elrond laughed. "I had no need of it. You were so exhausted you slept very well on your own. I suspect, given the fact that now you seem hardly able to awaken, that you put yourself in a light healing sleep."
"I was tired."
"How do you feel now?"
Aragorn started to answer but he yawned instead, then fell back against the pillows. Waking was simply too difficult...
"If you will but open both your eyes, you may find reason to fully awaken," Elrond said.
Aragorn let out an ill-tempered groan, not caring that he was acting a child. He simply did not want to wake up, for anything or anyone. He had seen the hobbits to Rivendell, they were safe, he was safe... as far as he knew the greater expanse of the world beyond these borders was still spinning on its axis and would continue to do so without his assistance for at least one more day. He needed rest. There was no reason Elrond should be waking him up so early, for there was no one who had need of him, surely...
Except for her.
His eyes flew open, and Elrond chuckled, but Aragorn had eyes only for one person in the room. "Arwen!"
With a gleeful cry, she came into his arms and kissed him. Aragorn hugged her to him, his beloved, reveling in the softness of her hair and the warmth of her body and the velvet of her lips... and then he heard Elrond clear his throat and stiffened. Arwen pulled back, but not before giving him another quick kiss and scooting a bit closer to him on the bed.
"My apologies, Ada," Aragorn started, a bit embarrassed that he had nearly lost control of himself, and right in front of Elrond, but Elrond waved him to silence.
"I would be a cruel father to frown on the joy of my daughter," Elrond said. Then he raised an eyebrow at her, "But a lax father not to chide her lest she let her joy overcome her sense of propriety."
Arwen giggled, and Aragorn had to smile. "The blame must fall upon me, Ada. It will not happen again."
Elrond gave him a look of mild disbelief, but he merely said, "I am sure you must be eager to break your fast. If you feel up to it, please join Arwen and me downstairs. Otherwise, I will have someone bring you a tray."
"I’ll bring one!" Merry volunteered eagerly.
Aragorn’s noticed for the first time Merry sitting in his chair. "Merry! Surely you have not been here all night?"
Merry blushed a little as he shrugged. He kept shooting awestruck glances toward Arwen, but he managed to find his voice. "You watched over us all that way, it seemed only fair that I return the favor."
Aragorn was deeply touched, but before he could say anything, Arwen spoke. "Father, is there any reason we should not all eat with Aragorn here in his room?"
"Other than a distinct lack of seating?" Elrond said, looking pointedly at the only chair, which at that moment was occupied by a hobbit.
Merry scrambled out of the chair. "I can sit at the hearth!"
"And I will sit here by Estel on his bed."
Elrond’s eyebrow rose, but then he smiled. "There is no need for you to perch on his bed eating off your lap." He leaned down and kissed her brow, then reached down and took Aragorn’s hand. "I will leave you two to your own devices, trusting you both to keep your honor as you have all these years. But lest the temptation be too much," he said, his voice becoming far more stern as he looked at Merry, "Master Meriadoc, I expect you to act as chaperone over these two. Do not fail me in your duty."
Arwen immediately protested. "Ada, we do not need a chaperone!"
But Merry threw his shoulders back. "Master Elrond, you may certainly count on me!"
Elrond’s eyes glimmered with undisguised good humor as he nodded at them all and walked out of the doorway.
Aragorn reached for Arwen, but suddenly a small hand slapped his. "That will be enough of that, Strider!"
Aragorn gaped at Merry for a moment, finding it hard to believe the hobbit had actually slapped him. Then he narrowed his eyes and said very quietly, "Think you so, Master Hobbit?"
"I-I have my orders," Merry said, but the bravado had drained from his voice like water from a overturned pitcher.
Aragorn smiled at Arwen, then stood up, jerking his head very slightly toward Merry. Arwen immediately stood as well, with a very mischievous smile of her own.
"Hey, I say... you can’t... I’ll tell Elrond!" Merry squeaked as Aragorn grasped him by one arm and Arwen by the other, and together they hustled him toward the door.
"I will take full responsibility, Merry," Aragorn said as they firmly thrust the protesting hobbit into the hallway.
"But, Strider!" Merry wailed. "Master Elrond will have me flogged!"
Aragorn leaned down and put a hand on Merry’s shoulder. "He will do no such thing. However, I have been separated from my beloved for far too many months, and thus I offer no guarantee of your safety from me should you not leave us to our privacy."
Miserable understanding dawned in Merry’s face, and Aragorn would have felt sorry for the hobbit if not for the fact that Arwen was standing so closely beside him he could feel the warmth of her pressing against his arm. He used his sternest voice. "Do we have an understanding, Merry?"
"Yes, Strider. I’ll just... go find Pip in the kitchens."
"There’s a good hobbit. We will be down to join you in a few minutes." Then he leaned in to whisper into Merry’s ear, "So you see, we will have no time for anything... dishonorable."
Merry blushed to his hairline. "Now, Strider!" he spluttered.
Aragorn laughed. "Go on, now, and no hard feelings. Go fix us a grand breakfast, if you would, as that far better fits your expertise than chaperoning."
"Yes, sir!" Merry grinned, then scurried down the hall.
Aragorn smiled fondly. Merry really was a fine hobbit; they all were. But as he shut the door and took Arwen into his arms, hobbits were the last thing on his mind. He buried his nose in her hair and breathed deeply, then took her face in both hands. "Now... where were we?" he whispered, as his lips found hers.
"Naw, you’re having me on now, the two of you, and I won’t be hearing it. I’ve no time for tales of nonsense, not with Mr. Frodo so ill. I’m only here to get myself a scrap of food and then I’m back to his side. So don’t you two be distracting me with such folderol."
"Sam, I’m telling you, it’s true!" Merry insisted.
"Every word!" Pippin added.
Sam wiped his hands on a towel and glared hard at Merry. "You mean to say that Mr. Strider is Master Elrond’s son?"
"Foster son," Merry corrected.
"And he and Miss Arwen have some sort of ... of ..."
"They’re betrothed," Merry said. He took a large bite of pie. "You should see them together. You’d not recognize our grim old Strider."
"Tell Sam what you told me about his eyes," Pippin said.
"What about his eyes?" Sam asked.
"Soft as a puppy’s when she’s in the room. And all those grim frown lines fade clean away. You really have to see it to believe it. If Strider had looked anything like that the first day we met him, we wouldn’t have had one bit of doubt about him. He looks right handsome."
"Huh," Sam grunted. He piled some scrambled eggs on his plate and added two sausages on top. "Well, I’ve no doubt now that he is on the side of good, of course, but I still can’t help but think you’re exaggerating."
Merry put down his mug with a decided thump. "It’s no exaggeration, none of it. Just wait until you see him. He’s all cleaned up now and wearing finery just like the Elves, just his pyjamas mind you, but fancier than my finest suit of clothes. And I’m sure he’ll have on something even grander once he gets dressed and comes down in just a bit. Mark my words: he looks... well, like some Elven king of old."
"Or more like a king of Men," Pippin said. "He doesn’t look all that Elven you see him standing next to Lord Glorfindel."
"No, but when he’s cleaned up and with Lady Arwen he certainly does. His eyes shine just like an Elf’s."
This was too much for Sam. "Here now, I’m the one that likes the old tales about Elves, and you can’t tell me he looks much like an Elf."
"I wonder if he is part Elf, like Master Elrond?" Pip speculated. "What’s the word for it... par-something... pear... parcel... parsnip..."
"Peredhil," Sam snapped. "Not parsnip. Per-e-dhil. It means half-Elf."
"One of those, then. Maybe Strider’s one of those."
Merry looked doubtful. "I don’t know... I’ve seen Master Elrond and Lady Arwen, who are perth- ... parth–"
"Peredhel," Sam sighed.
"... and he doesn’t look anything like them as far as his ears or his hair, and he’s not as willowy. But his eyes, they put you in mind of Master Elrond’s. You’d almost think they were actually related."
"We are," a deep voice rumbled from the doorway.
The three hobbits jumped, and Sam gasped and paled as if he had seen a ghost. "Mr. Strider?"
Aragorn entered the kitchen, with Arwen at his arm. At the sight of her, all three hobbits scrambled to their feet. Aragorn stopped before them. "Merry, I know you have met Lady Arwen," Aragorn said, "but Sam and Pippin, have either of you had the pleasure?"
Two mute shakes of the head answered his question, so Aragorn presented her. "May you be pleased to meet Arwen Undómiel, the daughter of Master Elrond, the Evenstar of her people. Arwen, I present to you Samwise Gamgee and Peregrin Took. And you already know Meriadoc Brandybuck."
Arwen curtsied, and the hobbits bowed deeply. "May a star shine on our meeting," Sam said in halting Sindarin, then he ducked his head. "I don’t know if I said that right."
"You said it perfectly," Arwen assured him. "I am so pleased to meet you both, Samwise and Pippin. And Merry, I hope you are not upset at the way we so precipitously ushered you from the room."
"N-no, ma’am. Not at all," Merry said, and actually knuckled his forehead. Aragorn had the impression that Merry would not mind being so manhandled by Arwen every day of the week. He gave Merry a sideways look that caused him to blush even more furiously, then pulled a chair out for Arwen. She sat down, and then he pulled up his own and sat beside her. The three hobbits seated themselves, but far from relaxing, they simply gazed at her, all thoughts of eating apparently banished by a sudden and wholly consuming infatuation with the Evenstar. Aragorn had to admit being very relieved that she distracted them from any further discussion of his appearance, which he had overheard with excruciating embarrassment. He knew he looked very different, cleaned and pressed, having changed into a dark blue silk surcoat and trousers of soft grey wool, but when people fussed about it, he wanted to flee back into the wilds. That Arwen had been hanging on his arm stifling giggles the entire time they stood listening beyond the kitchen door did not help ease his discomfiture one bit.
Sam leaned over and though he spoke in a whisper, Aragorn’s keen ears caught his words. "By my gaffer’s favorite spade, you were right. He does look different!"
Aragorn cleared his throat noisily. "You are looking well, Samwise."
"Thank you, Mr. Strider. I just wish Mr. Frodo was in as fine a fettle as the rest of us."
"Do not fret, Sam," Aragorn said. "He will recover, in time."
Sam nodded, still looking miserably worried, but Merry finally dragged his eyes from Arwen and gave Aragorn a narrow stare. "Getting back to what you said as you came in: now you say you are related to Master Elrond? You told me before that you weren’t."
"I told you he was not my father, which is the truth. My line descends from Elrond’s twin brother, Elros, though many, many generations have passed."
Merry thought this revelation over for a moment, then frowned. "But wouldn’t that make Arwen your cousin?"
Sam’s brow furrowed in disapproval, and even Pippin looked from Arwen to Aragorn with ill-disguised dismay.
"We are not cousins," Arwen said quietly, and at the sound of her voice the frown on Sam’s face melted away, replaced by an expression that put to Aragorn’s mind something of puppies greeting their long-lost master. "So many years have passed that Aragorn is in no way a close relative. It is not unhealthy for us to marry, any more so than if you fell in love with a woman who was kin to an uncle seventy generations back."
Pippin visibly relaxed, but Aragorn winced. As he feared, the three hobbits enthusiastically started discussing just who that would be, that seventieth generation ancestor of Meriadoc Brandybuck. He leaned close to Arwen’s ear. "Never, ever, bring up ancestry when conversing with hobbits."
She laughed, and the spell was cast again across the three hobbits, who at the sound immediately dropped their heated debate over whether the various descendants of Sadoc married more Bolgers than Burrows, or if indeed they had married any of those lines at all, and instead stared at Arwen adoringly. Yes, thought Aragorn, definitely lovesick whelps.
"My sweet hobbits," she said, and so lovely and gentle was her voice that Aragorn did not doubt his own expression looked just as lovesick as the hobbits, "let us set aside such debate for another time. I wish to know how each of you fare this morning."
Sam blushed to the roots of his hair, and Merry produced much stammering but little in the way of intelligible words, but Pippin smiled. "We’re doing wonderfully. This is a glorious place, Rivendell, and the food can’t be matched. But your cooks really could do with a lesson or two about proper Shire baking. They can’t seem to get the right turn on cake."
"I am sure the bakers will benefit from any advice you can give them."
Aragorn was certain that Pippin positively glowed, so proud he looked. He took Arwen’s hand, and squeezed it gently, thrilling as he always did when she returned the squeeze.
Merry chuckled, regaining mastery over his voice once more. He pointed toward their clasped hands. "I promise you I won’t slap you this time, Strider."
Aragorn smiled, but he kept silent, content to merely sit beside Arwen here in this warm kitchen, hearing the clink and clatter of cooks with their pots, smelling the herbs that hung from the ceiling beams and the bread baking in the ovens. Rivendell’s kitchens always smelled of baking bread in the mornings.
"You’re quiet, Strider, even for you," Pippin said.
"I am fully content just listening. I have no need to fill the air with words just now," Aragorn said.
"You’re doing enough of that, Pip," Sam said, giving Pippin’s arm a nudge with his elbow. "Mr. Strider’s probably still tired, if what you told me about him getting that Black Breath is true."
"How are you, Strider?" Pippin asked.
"I am well, although Sam is right... I am a bit tired, both from the Black Breath and from our long journey. It has been a hard road for all of us."
Pippin looked thoughtful. "I wonder..."
"What, Pippin?" Aragorn urged.
"I wonder what will come next. When we will get to go home. And what of the Ring? Will the Riders come after it again?"
Aragorn read in the three faces turned toward him doubt and worry and a strong yearning for him to provide them, if not answers, then at least reassurance. "I do not know the answers to all your questions, and I fear the answer I do have is not what you want to hear. But nonetheless, I will say this much: our enemies will not stop in their quest for the Ring. We have won a battle, gentlemen, but I fear a great war lay ahead, and the possibility that a great darkness will fall on Middle-earth is strong enough to put fear in my soul. Indeed, my heart would shrink at facing such prospects except for this one thing: as long as there is bravery, and friendship, and stout hearts that hold true, there will always be hope."
Sam looked at Aragorn, then looked at Arwen and finally to Merry and Pip. He raised his mug. "To hope, then," he said.
"And bravery and hearts stout and true, wherever the road may lead," Merry added.
They touched their mugs together, and for a moment, silence fell. Then Sam scratched his chin. "I still think Sadoc’s oldest daughter married a Bolger, so that puts it at three Bolgers and two Burrows–"
"No, no, no," Merry countered. "She married a Hornblower–"
Aragorn leaned close to Arwen’s ear again. "They will be at this the rest of the day. Let us away where we can find some peace."
She rose, taking his hand, and as they left the kitchen for the gardens, the sounds of the three hobbits arguing faded away beneath the birdsong and the distant roar of the waterfalls. Under the trailing fronds of a willow, Aragorn drew Arwen to him and kissed her, and marveled that in a world about to be torn asunder by war, he could know such peace. But such peace seemed a vapor, lasting no longer than the mists that rose from the base of the falls all around them. He rested his cheek against her head, and looked beyond her shoulder to the mountains ringing this sacred valley and pondered darkly at the page that had turned, at a world that would not, could not, go on as it was.
Time for peace was ended; war loomed beyond those mountains, and a throne called to him.
And he would answer.