"Aragorn, Is this truly safe?"
"You are sure?"
Faramir's admonition flutters down and I turn, edging further into the ruined catacomb, waiting for the faint scuff of boot on stone I know will come. The indivisible tether between us is stretched: he is unwilling to let too much space between and I must to go where I will.
He leaps, lands lightly, sets a small cloud of dust rippling in the torpid air before a wind-reddened face looks up; frowning skeptically at a half wall of grey-flecked granite. "I suppose it has stood for 2000 years."
I do not trouble to hide my smile. One would think it was I who had walked into a wall at Rivendell, not Gondor's Steward so utterly entranced with a lore that is new to him. Elladan assures me the slim volume of first age poetry is unharmed but doubtless his ego is a little bruised.
"The stones are strong."
I wish to add that the Crown is heavy but has yet to addle all my Ranging wits but I hold it back.
He will watch for my safety in all ways, and for that I am truly glad.
Faramir nods, peers around now more eagerly, curious like a child with a toy that is new to him, fingers splaying lightly across the smooth polished warmth of a toppled stair. He has been (just barely) enticed to leave my foster-father's library by the prospect of adventure. A week's riding in the open air, camping as of old beneath Wilwarin and Gil-Amdir burning bright has put us both in high good humour and I can hardly believe that we are here.
Dawn broke some hours before. In the first early half-light the horses gusted great clouds of mist through the lingering chill but now the air is fine and clear. The guards left behind at camp will doubtless welcome the weather's turn if not their enforced idleness. It is my choice. For no reason that I can name I wish this visit to be just the same.
They accepted my order grudgingly, packed us off with sandwiches and a flask of tea and watched us canter off. Not a half-candlemark burned by the time we halted at a slight rise in the plain, looked out across the mirror glass that gives Nenuial its name.
I have seen it in daylight and twilight both. When Anor's blaze showers it with sky and clouds; when the stars, like kindled fire, shine silver upon its sheet of opalescent blue. An irony that here was the source from which flows the golden brown and lazy Baraduin.
Evendim the hobbits call it, though none venture here, and all that remains of my forefather's city, her fair towers and gleaming polished halls, lies serene and silent, sleeping on the lake's foreshore. Below a blanket of green-grey lichen and brighter moss rest the great tumbled blocks carved from the pale bones of Emyn Uial lying watchfully at our backs. Beside avenues of grassy turf huddle ruined parapets like scattered giant knucklebones. Piles of weathered stone that once were walls run in still neat rows, and in the rare forlorn standing apse, now blind embrasures loom.
Row on row, street on street, Annúminas is filled with naught but loess and creeping green, and I am struck again by the thought that took me so many years before.
Time can lay waste to a city with more precision than a host.
"This is beautiful."
Faramir holds reverently in his hands a piece of finial carved in the shape of sea-bird's wing. I smile. There are many such small treasures to be found but my heart yearns for the spot I sought before, so I sweep farther on, deeper into the recesses of the ruined space, pleased to find that the layout I know from a cracked, flaking scroll and Elrond's clearer memory is still fresh in mind.
Blessedly the site is dry. Stripes of tan and light tea green soften its roughened lines. Sphagnum moss for bandages. Old Man's Beard for sharp agues I note idly, still by long habit cataloguing medicaments as I circle farther in. Here the walls are thicker, less touched by time, protected in the lee of a half-standing battlement, and I duck to stride through a graceful arch.
Faramir follows, scanning ahead intently for now we are not open to the sky and as he ducks to follow me-it comes.
That sound. The smack of leather glove on stone that sends a lance of memory headlong into my heart.
My companion brushes perfunctorily at dusty cobwebs and tendrils of grasping bort before the first grumble of disquiet comes.
"Not likely any caskets of dwarven gold hidden here. For that you need the Mines of Moria."
Indeed. I turn slowly, one eyebrow raised, gifting him my full attention for I expected this and so many words are a veritable soliloquy from the gruff young stranger in stained green cloak who bears my mother's eyes. Dirhael's eyes I now also know, and they blaze keen and grey below a shock of rough barbered raven hair.
"Tis long stripped of any wealth."
"Aye," I offer, but still Halbarad frowns, I believe more quizzically than annoyed, and so, for a moment, I worry at the silver ring that lies heavy on my finger, its green fire muted in the dim.
What in eternal Mandos's halls can I say that does not sound too arrogant?
I search the looming walls but their heavy silence brings no wisdom. The truth will have to do.
"Tis not gold I seek. All that there was was removed to Fornost and that too is long gone with the years."
He grunts, gestures for me turn and stride on below the second arch of a once graceful short arcade, following close but stopping to smack his own green gloved hand against the lintel stone.
He ducks only a little less than I.
Like most folk Halbarad knows Arthedain and Cardolan and Rhudaur. Memory is bequeathed to our people-not riches. The wealth of Arnor was long consumed by plague, and civil war, and outside strife. Chieftain of the Dunedain is a title and a duty, not a sinecure. It has claimed my sire and grand-sire, and my namesake before them. All before old age could bend backs that ever wore a target.
"None venture there in these days."
Was this a pointed comment? I wait for more, watch his eyes search the space, hand poised on swordhilt, alert for any ill, but there is no smell. No broad footsteps in the dust. No Orcs at all, even with Angband uncomfortably far too near. I believe he knows I know my skills. That my foster-father spoke for me reassures. My foster-brothers more so, but still there is the obvious. My accent is strange, owing much to Elrond's Sirion and Glorfindel's Gondolin. My knife is covered with Quenya runes. My imprecations are to Elentári not Fanuilos. An odd creature, this man who had lived his life with elves, but I trust, in time, I shall fit in.
I stroll on, following the passage to my goal and he follows. Halbarad's step is light, almost noiseless as my own but not yet that of the ghost who will silently have my back. I turn once, twice, down blind musty halls, until he halts below a rusted iron sconce.
"Kinsmen, would you do me the honour of sharing what it is you are looking for?"
How can I explain? I have dragged our little company across the downs and they have obliged, loyal to their new Chieftain even if they think him slightly mad. Not a moon before I had stood before my foster-father; watched him stare thoughtfully so long I wondered (briefly) what I had done. And then, the words: "You look like him." He meant Elendil, and my father Arathorn, and I, who assumed I looked like my mother's people, was shocked near silent. I had not then the wiry strength, the fierce sternness that would dismay Sam-that was to come; burned into my sinews by sixty years of toil and disappointments that would swarm like midges before vanishing with a strong west wind.
I am just come to manhood. Have put down one name to take another up: 'Aragorn'. 'Revered king.' The possibility seems so improbable that my yearning brings me here. To believe in it. To touch what the Kings of the North had wrought and know it can be so again.
The gaze that is at once implacable and mild holds me. Waiting. I clear my throat. I owe my cousin something more.
"I wished to see it for myself," I haltingly begin. "The Kingdom. Not just in the heirlooms of my house or plates in books watched over by Erestor. To have hope, I suppose, that Arnor can rise again, endure not just as memory."
"Hope?" Another man might laugh but Halbarad simply nods his head slowly, rubs at the white seam of scar that runs across his craggy nose. In the months to come I will find this means he is thinking hard; mulling with the deliberate care I will value as much as his strong right arm.
At last, he speaks. "Grandmother, Ivorwen that is, not your father's mother, always says without hope a man has naught but fear. And that is too poor a foundation on which to lead."
Oh but I loved him then. He knew. He knew, and later, after we explore the ruined galleries, imagine the soaring towers, set the city's shape in our minds' eyes as Erestor's lessons crowd close, I mount my horse, heart full of the gift he has given me.
I cannot forget that day.
The puzzled query in Sindarin carries the elegant roll of Minas Tirith, makes me painfully aware a different Ranger stands before me now.
I blink hard, striving to bring back the here. "I am sorry, mellon nîn, I was remembering." Faramir, all too familiar with slips of time and vision, waits patiently for the flush of memory to settle before he speaks.
"You have been here before? With Halbarad?"
This is deduction, not all perception. A month before I brought Halbarad's star and sword back to his son. Below the Angle's first swelling buds of wild crabapple I laid them in a trembling palm and watched Rennel, tears like dew upon her darkened lashes, set her hand upon a narrow shoulder. Proud. Shattered still. But both of us seeking comfort in the memories of one who would never come north again.
My throat chokes closed. At first all I can do is mutely nod but then I find I need to speak of it. "Sixty years ago. It is but little changed. Then, as now, I had a new name, a new responsibility and a new sword brother at my back. It was the veriest shock to learn I was yet another princeling fostered by Imladris." I grimace, remembering the heavy weight of implication and the rather awkward gasp that rose in my chest. "I was but two when my father died. Imladris and the safe circle of my mother's arms were all I knew and then, in the months after my twenty-first birthday I had a new life again: hereditary Chieftain to a folk I knew only by repute. They followed me as they thought right, but I had yet to prove my worth. It was, in truth, here that my long road first began. On that journey Halbarad accepted me unquestioning."
Faramir, who knows something of the need for closing circles, gravely inclines his head. "Then I am doubly honoured to be here."
We journey on. I wish to find the sconce, the door where Halbarad and I paused before, and as we make our way I note the many small changes that come with time. The halls are not so dim: here and there, jagged holes in the overfloor cast welcome sunlight down. The warm taupe of the foundation stones is mottled more with lacy green. At the second intersection I start to fork to the right but am forced to pause for my companion is again halted, entranced, by some fallen bit of carving.
Faramir smiles sheepishly as I fondly shake my head. "It was surely the glory of Middle-Earth,"
It is a pleasure to see his. "Elrond has said that Annúminas was the fairest city built by men after golden Armenelos. More graceful than Osgiliath. Less imposing than the White City's battlements." I turn east and point above, toward the grassy plain. "Fornost Erain, built in haste, ever under threat, could not rival her. Near to here Glorfindel spoke the fateful words to Eärnur that would be realized in your betrothed."
As I expect the reference makes him blush, eyes shining with pride for Eowyn's brave feat but also wonder that he, who once deemed Elves perilous, is now a friend to the fabled Balrog-Slayer. "He has told me so. And her."
I take his elbow to propel him on. "And we will soon have you back to hear more tales inside the Hall of Fire. But first I wish to retrace my steps."
It takes not long. At the end of the next gallery I find it. The rusted bracket and half open iron door through which flares the midday sun. The chamber inside is round and wide, open to the sky that soars above the remains of its smooth walls.
I step inside and turn full round, imagining again a soaring spire of glinting mist. "Above us stood the tower of the lesser stone of Annúminas that now lies in the bay of Forochel. It looked out over a land so restful and so beautiful that the lady Galadriel once lived here, before Men came. I would see it be so again."
Faramir, rapt, brushes lightly at a bloom of ochre on the purple-ebon of the door. "You will rebuild?" he asks, now peering upward to the blue.
"A house at first. Let Bree and Arnor's villages expand a while. I would not uproot folk in their first taste of peacefulness." I do not say 'peace' for we both know well there are battles still to fight, pockets of dark to uproot and cast down.
My Steward's eyebrow raises thoughtfully. "Even a house for a king can be an important symbol."
He is right of course. This is the role I am most awkward with. A figurehead. The shining King who bears healing in his hands and an elf-gem on his brow; s far from that young Chieftain that they seem to be two different men. My mouth quirks wryly. "And a lasting one, if I can convince Gimli's brethren to give us aid."
After minutes more we finish our examination and begin the traverse back to the hobbled horses. We do not exactly retrace our steps, there is time to here and there look down other halls. In one we find a brown leaf nest for an enterprising squirrel; in another the still carcass of a robin with breast yet glowing bright.
Before the hushed arcade we note, as we had not before, that underfoot the weathered cobbles give way to slabs of limestone, set mosaic-like. A niggling curiosity makes me follow. I turn, right and right again, and then the adventure ends in an odd small shaft, not much wider than a man. Open also to the upper story.
I step inside. A shaft of antiseptic sunlight streaks down for the rising wind has chased all the clouds away. At its end lies a tuft of fuzzy green.
'It grows now sparsely and only near places where they dwelt or camped of old.'
My words to four scared young hobbits, it seems, are true. A patch of athelas, a handspan wide, has found purchase in the stone. The sunlight gilds its tender leaves and lifts the barest hint of sweet pungence to the air.
"What herb is it?" asks Faramir, frowning gently at my shoulder.
"Athelas." I answer and stoop to pluck a leaf far bigger and bolder than any of its brethren that cling to Minas Tirith's walls. "I confess, I have never seen a plant so lush and full so early. It grows wherever the Faithful lived."
"Even here?" He glances wondering about the cloistered space.
I bruise the leaf lightly in my palm. Its scent bursts forth, chases the dusty heaviness from the air and sets it tingling, like the first brightness after Spring's welcome showers.
We both breathe deep. Faramir, I know, is remembering my grave but hopeful, battle-weary face of the year before. I am remembering Halbarad's. Set and pale with pain, yet grimly amused the first time I tended an Orc-wound.
"Yer not poulticing me with weeds?!"
A lightness steals into my grieving heart.
The Great Year of Plenty folk of the Shire already call it. Blessed by fruit so plump and early the canes will seem to groan. Fields rippling golden as the children's locks. Saplings leaping to catch the fair blue air.
We have seen this in many guises, many places on our progress, but none so dear, perhaps, as this.
Yavanna's work. The land rejoicing. Hope, growing, everywhere...
Not just in people's hearts.
Thank you so much to Annafan, Wheelrider, Carawyn and Haarajot for comments and critters on this piece!