Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nor any of the various dramatic incarnations thereof. No profit is being made from this work.

Foreword

Welcome. As before, a few words about the story you are about to read. For those who enjoyed "Degrees Of Separation," I must tell you now that this is a very different story, in theme and in tone. It is slightly darker and more introspective — a drama rather than a comedy. With that in mind, I do hope that you enjoy it as much as you enjoyed "Degrees."

This story owes a great deal thematically to a modern folk song called "Fast Freight." It was written by Terry Gilkyson and recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1958 on their album The Kingston Trio. Do listen to this if you have the chance — Dave Guard's solo is warm and plaintive, and the harmony on the chorus will send a chill down your spine and haunt you for quite a while afterward. If you like to listen to music as you read, try this album.

The story is set in Minas Tirith, from one evening in summer to the next, several years after the War of the Ring. That's all for now. I will most likely return at the end of the story. Good reading!

Lie Awake And Wait

Moonlight streamed in the window. It fluttered through small, diamond-shaped windowpanes of thick bubbled glass. It gently caressed the curtains — draped elegantly to the floor, sewn of some impossibly soft, sheer material that could catch light and, in a sudden instant, iridesce to delight the eye. It crept across the smooth, cold flagstones of the floor and the thick braided rag rug. It climbed the heavy four-posted bed of dark wood intricately carved and heavy brocaded curtains drawn back to allow the warmth of the summer night to enter. It swept across the light coverlet and the two bodies curled underneath it. One, an Elf lady, was fast asleep, her dark hair spread over the pillow. The other, a mortal Man, lay awake. The moonlight caught his eye and made it glitter.

It was a beautiful night, calm and still. The only sound was the soft breathing of the Queen. Aragorn should have been able to sleep. He had slept in far worse circumstances, rolled in a thin cloak on the hard ground beneath a tree as the wind blew chill about him. He had slept the dreamless sleep of the just in the endless dark of Moria, where the floor was stone and his pillow a rock, where the air was dry and still and fine particles of rock dust hung suspended as they had for years on end. But here, in his large soft bed, beneath a summer coverlet of the finest linen, behind barred gates, armed guards and locked doors, with the woman he loved lying not an arm's length away — here he could not sleep.

He sighed. He had tried counting backwards from one hundred, and had reached one, still as alert as ever. He had been sorely tempted to go beyond that; a long time ago in Harad, he had been told of the mysterious numbers beyond one which the Haradrim used to perform wizardly feats of calculation, the numbers that began with nothing and got smaller than that. It had been a long time ago, however, and he would have to think about those numbers, and that thinking would certainly not help him sleep. No, counting would not help.

Briefly, Aragorn considered a trip to the kitchens for a mug of warm milk, which he remembered his mother giving him on nights when the sheer living vibration of Imladris had kept her young son from his rest. But that would entail the long trek down to the kitchens and either a lonely time spent fetching and heating the milk if the cooks were asleep or embarrassing questions if someone else was awake. Either way, it would end with another long trek back over stone floors that were always cold, even at the height of summer. The warm milk might have helped, but it didn't seem worthwhile to get up and find out.

Perhaps he was too warm. Aragorn had spent most of his adult life being too cold, and it sometimes took him a while to realize when the warmth of southern Gondor was getting to be too much for him. He poked his feet experimentally from underneath the bedding. The sensation was pleasant. Perhaps he would feel better if there were a breath of fresh air in the room. Cautiously, so as not to wake Arwen, Aragorn climbed out of the high bed and padded over to the window. He grasped the iron latch and carefully lifted it. The bar slid from its slot with only the faintest click, and the well-oiled window swung open into the night.

There was indeed a light breeze blowing, and Aragorn closed his eyes and let it ruffle his hair, bringing with it all of the night smells of Minas Tirith. There was stone and hay, dog, horse and pigeon. Somewhere, a cookfire had been covered and left to smolder, and the sharp smell of smoke tickled his nose. A honeysuckle vine below the window sweetened the aroma of several middens in the area. The wind was blowing off the Pelennor fields, and it carried faint notes of dark, fertile earth and slowly ripening crops. From still farther away came the barest hint of the sharp, clean scent of the Wild.

Aragorn sat down on the cushioned window seat and breathed his kingdom in. From the dark forested wastes of northern Arnor to the bustling seaside towns along the mouth of the Anduin, he had seen it all, walked it all, and loved it all. He had fought a war for this prize, this jewel of a kingdom. He had undertaken a hopeless, insane Quest, climbed Caradhras and descended into Moria, run across the plains of Rohan and walked the Paths of the Dead for the right to sit here, in this room in the Citadel, on this window seat, with these curtains draped about him.

He smiled to himself as he held up the hem of one drape and examined it closely. The curtains made him think of Arwen, for it was she who had wanted them, who had designed them and supervised their making. He supposed they were pretty enough, but he couldn't see the use of such thin curtains. Arwen had attempted to explain about how windows needed dressing, but Aragorn privately maintained that curtains, if they existed at all, ought to be heavy and dark to keep winter's chill out of the room. These were city curtains, decorative privacy screens only. But they were Arwen's curtains, and he would have them for love of her.

Sitting by the window did make Aragorn feel somewhat calmer. He could look out at the stars and think. Something was bothering him, something small and insistent, nagging at the back of his mind. It was enough to put him off sleep, but not enough to worry him consciously. As he had been taught from earliest childhood, he turned his face to the stars to search for his answers. The stars twinkled gently in the warm night. With the city spread below, they looked small and far away. It always amazed him that the stars, which as far as he knew were the same all over Middle Earth, could look so different from different lands. From the plains of Rohan, the stars seemed to come down in a great shower all around the horizon, almost close enough to touch. In the frozen North, they glittered like ice, and in the deserts of Harad they shone clear and bright as diamonds.

It seemed to Aragorn that the stars over Minas Tirith knew that he was troubled, and it also seemed that they held the answer to his problem. If he gazed up long enough, surely great Elbereth Gilthoniel, the Star-Kindler herself, would deign to whisper at least a hint in his ear. He took a deep breath and began methodically to clear his mind of chattering thought, the better to receive whatever wisdom might come from the stars. As he exhaled all of the events and memories of the past weeks, an image took shape and grew in his mind.

He saw the desolate ruins of Weathertop in late autumn, as the wind was just beginning to howl. In his mind's eye, he and Halbarad had just met unexpectedly on the hilltop. They had greeted each other warmly and had chosen to celebrate the occasion with a small, cautious fire. There was not much for dinner, but Aragorn had some dried apples, a wedge of cheese that was still mostly good, and a flask of watered wine. Halbarad had produced chewy, spicy morsels of dried venison and some nuts, a welcome treat. Sitting beside the fire, warmed by the food and company, both Rangers had thought themselves Kings of all Creation for one magical evening. It was his favorite memory of Halbarad, and even now it still made Aragorn smile.

What would Halbarad have thought of him now, Aragorn wondered. He had achieved exactly what they had talked about for so many years. He was King of Gondor and Arnor, he had reunited the two ancient realms, and under his leadership, the land had blossomed, growing ever more fertile and productive. This year's wheat and rye crops looked to be so abundant that Aragorn had ordered the construction of several storage houses within the city walls, so that surplus grain could be kept against siege or famine. The new public pleasure garden of Minas Tirith, a wedding present from Legolas, was becoming famous. People from the surrounding farm villages had started to travel to the city on holidays solely to walk along its pathways and see the strange, exotic flowers that bloomed there. The Reunited Kingdom seemed to be entering a phase of peace and prosperity to rival the ancient days of the old Kings. And yet, something was not right.

Finally, Aragorn relaxed and let down the defenses in his mind. He was ready to accept what his heart had been telling him. He was getting fed up with his role as King and was beginning to want his old life as a Ranger back. And there was something else, buried even deeper. He was terrified of being found out for a fraud. Having spent so many years roaming the Wild had prepared him to win his kingdom, but he had never thought to learn how to run it once it was his. Minas Tirith prospered, but Aragorn had no idea how it was doing that, and he lived in constant, low-grade fear of the day when life would not be so good, and the people would turn to him, their King, for answers, and he would have none to give.

He would sit in Council meetings and listen to his advisors drone on about trade agreements, treaty negotiations and public policy, and he tried his hardest not to show how bored he was or how incomprehensible their natterings seemed to him. Sometimes he wondered if Boromir wouldn't have made a far better King. Boromir, for all that he was not of directly royal lineage, had been trained to rule, where Aragorn, Heir of Isildur, had not. One day, the people would realize this, and Aragorn could not bear the thought that he would let them down. Far better to tramp alone through the forests, drinking beer alone in a dark corner of the common room of The Prancing Pony and being responsible only for a loosely connected band of mostly self-sufficient men.

He sighed. Those golden days were gone now, and the night was wearing on. In a few short hours, it would be day, and he would have to face the world as King again and pretend that he knew what he was doing. It was hard, and it would be even harder if he didn't at least try to sleep. He left the window open and padded back to the bed. Arwen had taken advantage of his absence to sprawl diagonally across the bed, taking up his side as well as hers, and Aragorn tried to shove her out of the way without waking her.

This proved beyond him. Arwen blinked sleepily at him. "Estel?" she asked. "Were you up? Is something wrong?"

"I was hot," Aragorn said miserably. "I got up to open a window." Which was true. Arwen gazed at him, her eyes clear and penetrating. They seemed to be waiting for the rest of his answer. Despite the warmth of the night, he snuggled close to her, wanting to feel the presence of the lady for whose sake he had endured so much.

"Arwen," he began tentatively, "are you content?"

She furrowed her brow, puzzled. "Content? With what?"

"With your life. Your mortality. Being Queen of a people not your own. With me."

Arwen smiled. "Of course I am content, dearest. I could have had any husband I desired long before I ever met you. But I have chosen, and I have chosen well."

"Do you ever regret your choice?"

"Why should I do that?"

Aragorn held her closer. "I am not exactly the man you loved in Imladris," he said. "Not any more. I am no longer a Ranger; I am a King. I think differently now. I sleep indoors, in a bed, each night, and I spend far more time at council tables than guarding the land and the people."

"Do you worry that you have grown soft?" As always, Arwen knew exactly how to pierce to the center of Aragorn's thoughts.

"No. Not quite," he said slowly. "Say rather that I fear the new role I must play in life. I feel myself helplessly adrift, not knowing how to steer the course of this land of mine. Gondor prospers, but I fear that it prospers without me. And I fear the time when at last I am needed, and I will not know how to aid my people." There. He had said it out loud. He had admitted his secret fear, and he could not unsay it.

Arwen was silent for a moment. Then she looked at him solemnly. "Do you remember learning to use a sword?" she asked.

"Yes. What of it?"

"It was hard at first. You jabbed and swung randomly, not knowing how or why you would hit. As you got better, you began to learn the consequences of your actions, and you learned to control those actions to achieve the results you desired. In time, you became so skilled that it seemed that you had always known the thrusts and parries which it took you so long to learn. Then, you were truly a swordsman, and you could never not be one again."

Aragorn regarded his wife in the moonlight. "Are you saying that I must learn to rule as I learned to wield a sword?" he asked.

"Yes."

"But what if there is a crisis before I have learned?" he asked.

She smiled. "Then you will do what children have done from the dawn of time when faced with forces beyond their control. You will grow up quickly." She turned, as if to go back to sleep, but he caught her shoulder.

"Arwen."

"Yes, Estel?"

"Do you ever miss the Ranger you wedded?"

"Never. I never lost him to begin with." And then she cuddled herself into the hollow of his shoulder and was asleep again. Aragorn shifted her to a more comfortable position in his arms and closed his eyes. Talking with Arwen hadn't entirely cleared the nagging doubts in his head, but it had muted them enough to let him sleep.