Add Story to Favourites The Riddle of Strider by cairistiona
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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.


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