Every Night I Listen
Dinner that evening was an unusually solemn affair. Normally, Aragorn relished this time with his wife, enjoying the delicacies provided by the royal kitchens and the sparkling conversation with the love of his life. The meal was, as usual, excellent, featuring the first flush of summer vegetables, new bread, and fish caught in the Anduin that morning. Aragorn had a mug of Barliman's Finest, direct from Bree, while Arwen preferred a small glass of Dorwinion wine. They ate in silence for some time. Finally, Arwen laid down her knife and fork and turned her brilliant eyes on her husband.
"Ioreth was pleased with today's batch," she said, a little too brightly. "I do believe we have hit upon the right path to take with our crosses. Why, the scent of this one lasted hours after the leaves were bruised."
"Indeed," Aragorn said shortly. "The scent clings to you even now."
"So you have decided to grace this table with your conversation after all," Arwen said, her voice softening.
"I apologize," Aragorn said. "Perhaps I have been neglectful this evening."
"Say rather. . . preoccupied," Arwen said. "Will you not share your troubles?"
Aragorn buried his face in his hands. Could he share his strange and overpowering mix of emotions with Arwen? Could the sheltered daughter of Elrond possibly understand what had happened this morning? Of course, now that he thought about it, Arwen had also known Gofannon. At the very least, she should have the news of his death.
"I had an unsettling experience today," he began. "As I was leaving the Citadel for my Inspection of the granaries, I came upon what I believed to be the corpse of a beggar. He had died in the night, of the summer madness, just outside the gate."
"Just outside?" Arwen asked. "Was he given no aid or comfort?"
"The guard offered him food and a place to sleep. He refused," Aragorn explained. "But there is still more to this tale. I knew the dead man. He was Gofannon of the Dunedain."
"Gofannon?" The color faded from Arwen's cheeks. "How came it that Gofannon of the Dunedain should end his days as a beggar in Minas Tirith?"
"I do not know precisely how it came about," Aragorn said. "When last I had word from Gofannon, he had returned to the North. Something must have drawn him back to Minas Tirith, though what that was, I cannot say. He did not send word that he would be returning, and truly I did not know he was here until I saw him dead in the street."
"Something must have gone amiss in his life for it to end thus," Arwen mused. "Perhaps it was my father's departure from Imladris. Gofannon always held a special place for Imladris in his heart, and it may well be that the sight of Imladris without its lord was too much for him to bear."
"You may be right," Aragorn replied. "Lord Peredur said something distressing to me as well. He said that many of the beggars in the city are simply old warriors who pine away for the world of their youth. They cannot bear to live in the present, and so they waste away in their dreams of the past."
"Do you think that is what happened to Gofannon?"
"I do." Aragorn released a long, shuddery breath. He had come this far in his tale, and now was the time to reveal the secret worry that had nagged at him all day as he smiled at the masons at the granaries and nodded to the lords in council. "Arwen. . . " he began.
"The same thoughts have touched my mind as well. I, too, have pined for the days of my youth, which I will never see again. I, too, have been assailed by doubts concerning my present stature in the world. Day by day I feel myself less able to rule, and day by day the call of the Wild grows stronger in my mind. What is to prevent me from following Gofannon's dark path?"
Arwen regarded him calmly for a moment. "You have an advantage that Gofannon did not," she said at last. "You have a wife who has learned a little wisdom during her years. Will you hear my counsel?"
Arwen took Aragorn's arm and led him out of the dining hall. In silence she led him through the corridors of the Citadel until they came to a particular oak door. Behind the door was a long, winding stair. They climbed this stair together, ascending the endless spiral of stone steps worn hollow in the middle from all the feet that had trodden this path throughout the ages. Aragorn abandoned his weary mind to the repetition of each step, until it seemed that he had always been climbing this tower and would continue to climb forever, with the embroidered hem of Arwen's gown flowing forever just before his eyes.
Aragorn counted over two hundred steps before losing track. Shortly after that, the winding stair finally came to an end. He followed Arwen out onto a small terrace. They were at the top of the highest tower of the Citadel. From that terrace, they looked down and saw the White City spread out below them, flags waving gently in the evening breeze. The sun was setting in the west, and the last rays of sunlight bathed the city in a rich golden glow that was already fading to deep rose and lilac in the east. Farther out, the Pelennor stretched calm and serene. From his vantage point, Aragorn thought he could just make out the raw new mound where Gofannon had been buried with full honors that afternoon, on the field where he had fought his greatest battle. Still farther out, Anduin rolled toward the Sea. Aragorn strained his eyes in the fading light, and imagined he could almost see as far as Osgiliath.
"This is a beautiful sight," he said. "I should come here more often."
Arwen smiled and leaned over the terrace rail a little. "See," she said. "Down there is my garden."
Aragorn looked. Sure enough, a small sliver of Arwen's personal garden was visible from the terrace. "I see," he said softly.
"The athelas grows strong this year," Arwen told him. "I think it has finally found its root in this soil. Its leaves are long and shining, and its scent by day rivals the jasmine of Ithilien by night."
"I did not know you were breeding it for scent," Aragorn said, puzzled.
"Such was not my intent," Arwen replied. "But Ioreth and I have found that the scent varies as the different strains are crossed. We have learned much about this herb from its scent. Some varieties have a rich, heavy odor that Ioreth wishes to distill into a perfume. They were the first to take root and grow in my garden. But the healing power of those varieties is lessened. They cheer the senses but do not awaken the body as they should.
"There were other varieties, though, which did not fare so well in the garden. Their leaves were small, and their scent, while still wholesome, was thin and sharp. Their potency varied; some leaves were strong, while others less so."
Aragorn finally cracked a small smile. He was familiar with his wife's conversational habits, and he was beginning to see where her tale of botanical adventure was leading. "I sense a metaphor in the making," he said gently.
Arwen returned his smile. "Aye," she said. "So there is. Have you had enough counsel, then, oh wise and noble King? Or shall I spin my tale in full?"
"Tell on," Aragorn said. "Tell me what happened when you crossed these two strains of athelas. For that was what you did, was it not?"
"Indeed." Arwen gazed out over the terrace. "I crossed the rich, heavy garden athelas with a strain more akin to the weed which grows wild in the North. The result of that cross is the best plant I have yet grown. It is strong and healthy, and while the leaves are perhaps not as glossy as the garden plant, yet they were larger and stronger than the wilder one. The scent is neither rich nor heavy; it is light and bracing, yet faintly sweet in a way that no other kind of athelas can equal. Its healing virtues, however, are its crowning glory. This last strain of athelas far outstrips either of its parent strains in power. Much more can be done with this herb, I would imagine. It will become a most powerful servant."
"Much good will be done," Aragorn agreed, "and yet I fear that much evil could come of this as well. A powerful servant will in time overcome the master."
"Leadership is a learned art," Arwen said. "The study is endless, and each new day brings with it a new challenge and a new lesson. The mastery of one lesson points the way to mastery of the next. You learned to wield one sword in battle; then you learned to wield a company of swords. You commanded an army; now you are learning to command a kingdom. Each stage is but a way station on the Road."
"It seems that each way station is harder to reach than the one before."
"Perhaps. But you have strength within you, son of Arathorn. In you, the power of the White City and the tenacity and cunning of the Wild are combined. Do not deny either side of your heritage. Rather, blend them together into a greater whole. Be a King, and be a Ranger as well, and Minas Tirith and the Kingdom will prosper for it."
Aragorn stared out over the terrace rail for a moment, then turned back to Arwen. "It is good counsel," he said. "But, truth to tell, I fear it. The wild forests of the North call to me some nights with a power I would not have thought possible. They sing songs of freedom and simplicity. It is a seductive music that calls to me, and I fear I must resist its pull utterly, or else I shall never again find peace on my chosen path."
"Do not fight the call," Arwen said. At Aragorn's puzzled look, she smiled. "Turn to it, and welcome it into your heart. Acknowledge your love of the wandering life, for it is part of you and will not be denied. Accept the longings of your heart, and then build your dreams upon them."
"As Gofannon could not?" Aragorn murmured. And then there were no more words that he could speak. He sank to his knees on the cool flagstones. Arwen knelt beside him and took her husband in her arms. Whether or not the King of Gondor and Arnor wept for his old comrade there, as the golden breeze of evening caressed the highest tower of the Citadel overlooking the White City, only the Queen ever knew.
After a time had passed, Aragorn and Arwen knelt together on the terrace. Aragorn rested his head against Arwen's warm shoulder and breathed in her own sweet scent, overlaid this evening with the clean, wholesome aroma of athelas. He listened to the wind singing around the tower and the trees whispering to each other far below. Tilting his head back, he gazed up at the sky all around them, fading to a dim purple. The first stars of the evening had begun to twinkle. Aragorn wondered if Gofannon was spending this night among them, finally getting his chance to explore the stars that he had loved so much in life before continuing his journey beyond the circles of the world.
"Farewell, my old friend," he whispered, then turned his head to breathe Arwen's athelas-tinged scent once more. It still grew in the Wild, and he was comforted by that, knowing that the world still offered this aid to travelers wounded upon the road. Yet it was also here in Minas Tirith, strengthened and refined to soothe the greater woes of a kingdom. For the first time in many nights, as he rested in the arms of his Queen in their eyrie atop the White City of Minas Tirith, high above the city and the farmland and the wilderness, the King was truly at peace.
Many thanks to all who enjoyed this story. It seems to be a slightly different crowd than last time, which I find rather interesting. I enjoy very much reading people's reactions, as you often see things in the story that I do not, and it's neat to see something that I've lived in and gotten comfortable with through new eyes.
Blue Iris was correct -- Gofannon did in fact die of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that attacks mainly rye, although other grains have been affected from time to time. Bread made with infected rye flour causes hallucinations and heart problems similar to LSD. Ergot was common in Europe in the Middle Ages, and is thought to be at the root of many outbreaks of mass hysteria, including lycanthropy in Central Europe and the Salem witch craze in America.
That's about it on this end. Thank you once again for reading, and I do hope you enjoyed it.