V: Epilogue: Homecoming
After many dangers, Aragorn is returning to the north. It is not an ending, but perhaps, perhaps, it will be the start of the life that is still to come.
There were wood anemones beside the path, and red campion amongst the trees. A blackbird was singing from a high place, and a wren darted into a hawthorn bush, thick with white blossom.
Aragorn dismounted at the crossroads, and crouched to touch the flowers, but gently, his fingertips barely brushing the petals.
These were the flowers of Eriador. He had never seen wood anemones in the south, and there was no red campion in Gondor. The smell of hawthorn made him twenty-one again, out with the Dúnedain during the first spring he had spent with them. It was strange how scent could bring back memories so.
Mounting again, he headed west. It was nearly twenty-five years since he had left Eriador. Many things had changed. The flowers still grew, but he could not expect the people to be unchanged.
It was the people he thought about most, as he neared the end of his journey. It was strange, that. During his six years with the Dúnedain, he had spent much of his time walking alone, away from them.
But many things had changed. He smiled up at the sunshine. Oh so many things had changed!
He had reached Lothlórien two months after leaving Mordor. Despite the realisations he had come to on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, the journey had been difficult, and he had been weary both in body and mind. He had not thought to enter those woods, but Galadriel herself had sent elves to bring him in. She knew much about his wanderings, more than he would have thought. She seemed to know that he had almost passed into the shadow, but had found his way out again.
"You have gone by many names," she said, "and played many parts, from the moment of your birth, until this very day. I am glad to be the first to see you as you truly are."
He did not know what to say, for she was beautiful and mighty, and she knew his mind. He bowed his head, and begged her leave to stay a single night, before travelling on to Rivendell.
"Nay," she said, smiling, "not for a single night. Stay as long as you will." And she called for clothes to be brought for him, and Aragorn saw that they were silver and white, as an elf-lord might wear. Afterwards, she came to him once more, and she smiled again, although there was a sadness in her eyes that he did not then understand. "You are free to wander where you will, for I cannot stop what is meant to be."
And so it was, beneath the trees of gold, that he saw Arwen once more, and Arwen saw him. In that moment, in that night, in that season, he thought he knew what it was to come home.
But no homecoming could last forever. His path was clear; he had realised that much on the slopes of Mordor. They parted, as they had to part. And the heir of Isildur could have no single home. Home was Rivendell, and home was wherever Arwen was. Home was with his people in the north, and it was Gondor, too. He belonged to all the free places of Middle Earth. He could find a refuge in many places, but he would always move on.
Rivendell, home of his childhood, had been a different sort of homecoming, and one tainted with sadness, because a shadow now lay between him and Elrond. Now Aragorn's own hopes were bound up with his duty. It made surprisingly little difference, really. He had already known what he had to do.
In the wilds of Eriador lay a homecoming of yet another kind. Until he had seen the flowers, Aragorn had not realised how much he had missed this place. He had spent six years with the Dúnedain. Until now, he had not realised how many memories those years had left him with.
Even the Prancing Pony was fiercely familiar, despite the passage of time. Relishing a long mouthful of beer, Aragorn settled back against the old familiar bench. Butterbur was no longer in charge, but his son ran affairs with the same cheerful attentiveness. Aragorn inhaled the sweet smell of smoke, and returned to the bar to buy a pipe and a pouch of pipeweed. Returning to the bench, he propped his feet up on a stool, and let himself get wreathed in aromatic smoke.
"Haven't seen you around here before," said the younger Butterbur, when the crowds thinned enough for him to indulge in his evident love of gossip.
"I used to drink here long ago." Aragorn used his Breelander accent. It was nearly twenty-five years since he had even heard it, but he settled into it as if he had never been away. "I've been on a long journey," he explained. "A very long journey."
Butterbur's eyes flickered towards Aragorn's travel-worn boots resting on the stool, then back to his face. "Are you one of them Rangers? You have something of the look of one, but not quite."
"That I am," Aragorn admitted. "Have any of them been here lately?"
Butterbur frowned. "Not as I can remember. The last one was… ooh, two months ago? A tall fellow, but not as tall as you. No point asking him his name, of course. He went striding off again, the way those Rangers do – begging your pardon, sir, since you're one of them."
Aragorn smiled, and bought more beer to show that no offence had been taken. He gathered what tidings he could, but Butterbur had little to tell him. Most of the battles that took place in Eriador did so out in the wilds, and the common folk knew nothing about them.
The following morning, he headed north. On the third morning, he reached a steep sided valley, where a narrow stream raced across grey stones. Two sharp rocks reached out across the water like a pair of pointing fingers. Aragorn scratched his mark in the taller of them, where the shorter rock would hide it from anyone who did not know to look. The next day, he did the same on an old standing stone, left by the earliest Men. At noon he marked a boulder by a ford. At nightfall, he left his sign on the fork of a tree, where two tracks parted.
He wondered who would come. He settled down for the night in an old, familiar resting place, and wondered if it would happen tomorrow.
Only one came in the end. Aragorn did not know him at first, but then the other man smiled, an anxious, tremulous smile, like that of a man who could not quite believe that the source of his joy was truly real.
"My lord," Halbarad said. His hand rose almost to his mouth, then fell back again. "My lord Aragorn. Is it really you?"
"It is, Halbarad," Aragorn said.
"I saw the marks." Halbarad gestured faintly in the direction he had come. "I could scarcely believe…" For a moment, he looked seventeen again, overcome with emotion. Then he passed his hands across his face, and became the experienced Dúnedain that he had long since become. "I hoped it was you. I could not believe it."
Aragorn gave a fleeting smile. "But it is true."
They were still at arm's length, with twenty-five years standing in the space between them.
"Why leave the signs, then?" Halbarad asked. "You know where our settlements are. Why not approach openly?"
Why not indeed? "I have no desire to sweep down upon you and throw everyone into consternation," Aragorn said. "You should be free to choose the manner of our meeting. I owe you that much."
Halbarad shook his head. "You owe us nothing, my lord." And still there was that gaping space between them.
"I do," said Aragorn.
A robin sang from the branches of a birch tree. Leaves stirred in the breeze. Behind him, in the shade, Aragorn's horse snorted and rattled its harness.
"Will you stay? Will you stay this time?" There was an echo of that lost seventeen year old in Halbarad's voice.
"For a while," Aragorn said. "I cannot stay for ever. War is coming. You know this, Halbarad. The war involves all the free peoples of the world. You know who I am. You know whose heir I am. I cannot fight it merely in the north."
"I… see," said Halbarad. For a moment it had looked as if he had been about to say something else.
"But for a while," Aragorn said with a smile. "A few years, perhaps. And after that, I will come back often."
"And when you are away?"
Halbarad knew nothing about the man he had become, Aragorn realised. The last time they had seen each other, Aragorn had been a young man of twenty-six, still struggling with the burdens of command. In the years that followed, Aragorn had learned the ways of leadership, but Halbarad did not know that. Yet, despite that, Halbarad seemed to take it for granted that Aragorn was the best person to lead them in the years to come.
"You are strong," Aragorn said. "All of you, you are strong. You survived so many years without me."
Perhaps it was the wrong thing to say. It was harder, somehow, to deal with someone he had known so long ago, when he had been unsure of himself, than it was to deal with someone new. "Yes, we survived," said Halbarad. There was almost bitterness in his tone.
Gandalf had brought scant news of the Dúnedain, but just enough for Aragorn to know that all was well, as much as it ever was with such a scattered, dispossessed people. Elrond had told him a little more. Before Aragorn had gone away, he had decreed who would lead in his name. Berenor would keep command for as long as he wished it, and Halbarath would take it after that. Nobody asked him to name a formal heir in case he never returned. If he died, then the line of Isildur had ended. If he died, in many ways the Dúnedain would cease to exist. They would continue to protect the lands of the north, but it would not be the same. They would need captains, but not a Chieftain chosen by blood.
To fulfil the hopes of his people, Aragorn had to live. But the only way he could truly fulfil their hopes – the only way he could achieve his own desire – was to go out and fight. And if he did not… If he did not, then he did not deserve the honours that went with his name. In Umbar, he had chosen to lead the most dangerous part of the mission, against Hithon's wishes. Hithon knew that a captain needed to stay alive. Captain Thorongil had known this, too, but he had also known that if he was to be worth following at all, a captain needed to know when to risk his own life when the cause was right.
"Your father leads them now," Aragorn said. "Gandalf told me."
"Yes." Halbarad nodded. "Ten years, now. Berenor hung up his sword, but still lives. It will give him great joy to see you again." He swallowed; moistened his lips. Aragorn was his weakness, Aragorn realised, with a sudden flash of insight. With anyone else, in any other situation, Halbarad would be as stern as granite, and as strong. "The sons of Elrond brought us news," he said, "but not much, and not often. We knew that you lived. We knew you were winning great renown in the south. We wondered…"
He said nothing more. Aragorn did not need to hear it. We wondered if you would ever come back.
"It was for a purpose," Aragorn said. "I had always planned on returning when the time was right."
"And now it is, my lord?" Halbarad asked.
"It is." Aragorn nodded. "I will become your Chieftain in fact, as well as in name."
"For a little while," Halbarad said. "My lord."
Aragorn did not plan what happened next. He closed the gap between them, and grasped Halbarad by the forearm. "Halbarad," he said. "Listen to yourself. You are a man grown: not just any man, but one of the Dúnedain. You have committed feats that most of the men of Gondor would only dream of. You are no longer a child."
"You saved my life." A spark of anger blazed in Halbarad's eyes. "You are the only lord I have ever known."
"I saved your life," Aragorn said, "and you were seventeen, and I was five years older, a grown man in your eyes. But now we are so much older. Does five years make such a difference? I saved your life, yes. I expect you have saved many lives yourself. You may well save mine one day."
"But you are my Chieftain." Halbarad's eyes were still blazing. He was pulling against Aragorn's grip. "You are my liege lord."
Aragorn was relentless. "And on your last day of childhood, I saved your life. You shaped your early manhood around the pattern of your gratitude." He could have said 'worship,' but did not; he spared Halbarad that.
"You are my Chieftain," Halbarad said again. "Even the men of Gondor gave you great renown."
"I did not wish for renown." He was almost shouting it, he realised.
"What did you wish for?" Halbarad hurled back him. "What did you leave us for, then?"
I wished to learn, Aragorn thought. I wished to learn the hearts of Men. I wished to become worthy of my birth. I wished to help prepare Middle Earth for a war.
All of these were true. Instead he said the one thing that had never been part of it. "What would I wish for? I would wish for a friend," he said, suddenly quiet.
His brothers had loved him as family, old ones to a child. Berenor had respected his name, out of loyalty to Arathorn, his brother at arms. Halbarad, long ago, had revered him, but with the heart of a child. Hithon had been fiercely loyal, but had never called him by name, only by his rank. The Dúnedain had been bound to follow him by duty. Hithon had chosen to follow him because of his perceived worth. Aragorn was who he was, and he would have to accept both kinds of loyalty if he was to become anything more, but that was not all there was.
"I am Chieftain of the Dúnedain," he said, "and war is coming. None of us can escape that. But can you see a way to be a friend to me? I do not doubt your loyalty, but…"
And then suddenly, amazingly Halbarad laughed. "…you want me to be a little less loyal? Oh, my lord." But perhaps the laughter was closer to tears, really.
Aragorn made himself smile, but it would not last. "I would never doubt your loyalty," he said again, "but sometimes I am wrong. Sometimes I doubt my course. I have spent the last few years surrounded by men who would never accept that I do either. You are of the Dúnedain. I do not wish that from you – from any of you, and you least of all."
Halbarad almost spoke, but did not.
"I need someone I can talk to," Aragorn said. "Someone who knows who I am. Someone I can debate with. Someone who will question me. Someone who knows that my path will take me away. Someone strong enough not to need me to stay. A friend," Aragorn said firmly. "That is what I wish for, in you."
Halbarad was silent for a very long time. Sunlight dappled through the shivering birches, casting ever-changing shadows on his face.
"I think…" he said. "I hope… I do not know…" He smiled suddenly, turning his face into the unshadowed sun. "I will try."
And it was a start. On this day of homecoming, it was enough.
Note: There is quite a story behind this one. Officially, I only started writing Lord of the Rings fanfic last autumn, although I have loved the book for decades. However, this is not entirely true. A dozen years ago, the movies reignited my old obsession, and I found myself writing a series of four short stories about Aragorn's backstory. Although I had already spent several years writing fanfic in other fandoms, I never intended to post these stories, and I never read any other LotR fanfic.
A few months ago, I revisited those old stories, and realised that there was quite a lot in there that I liked. Over the next few months, in between working on other stories, I set about rewriting them. And it was very much a rewrite. In some stories, not a single word remained of the original version. A fifth story appeared. All the others doubled in size. For example, the original version of the fourth story started with Aragorn entering Mordor; all the Umbar stuff is new. Strangely, about the only part of the story that survived more or less unchanged was virtually every word that Gandalf says. Gandalf, it seems, remains unchanged, even when the world changes around him.
While working on my rewrite, I deliberately didn't read other authors' versions of this period in Aragorn's life, but it's a fascinating subject, so now I've finished this, I definitely plan to see what other people have made of it.
By the way, chapter 4 (the Umbar/Mordor one) takes place in the same universe as my outsider viewpoint Thorongil story, A Captain and a Cause. It initially included a reference to Aragorn's encounter with the viewpoint character of that story, which happened just before he left for Umbar, but I decided that it would only confuse. However, Eradan, who appears in passing in this story, when "Thorongil" saves his life, appears in a few scenes in A Captain and a Cause, where he reveals just what his captain meant to him.
Sorry for such rambling notes, and thank you very much for reading. I do hope you liked it!