None For Herself
The sun was dipping toward the horizon when the clatter of hooves caught Halbarad's attention.
The Ranger froze as he crouched beside his packs, listening closely to the new sounds. They were difficult to hear as they competed against the crashing of the River Baranduin. Away south in the Shire—where this river was known as the Brandywine—it was sluggish and quiet, the only sounds coming from the gentle lapping of water against the banks. But here in the north where it issued out from the source waters of Lake Evendim, the Baranduin was swift and treacherous, raising an angry roar that sounded throughout the land. Even this close to winter, the river was loud enough to drown out almost all other noise. Also making it difficult to hear the hooves were the jumbled hills that surrounded Halbarad. Noise echoed ceaselessly about the rocky hilltops, and using sound to ascertain either position or distance was next to impossible.
But things other than location could be learned, and it was upon these things that Halbarad now focused. He could tell that the coming horse was being driven hard. The rhythm was that of an impossibly fast gallop, which was dangerous. There were no real paths in this land. Not anymore, at least. Rocks, stones, and canyons riddled what few trails did exist, and even those who knew the land well were careful to never overestimate their knowledge. It was a formidable area for travelers, especially those on horseback, and only great fools or those in great need—or both—traveled with such speed.
Rising to his feet, Halbarad began walking north toward the rushing river, for if someone were to successfully ride so quickly over this ground, they would have to follow the course of the waters. Parts of an ancient road that once ran beside the river were still intact, making travel a bit easier in places. Beyond that, the river marked the fastest route to Lake Evendim and the ruins that lay beside it, which Halbarad assumed was the rider's goal. He could think of no other destination in this forsaken land.
The crisp ring of hooves on the stony ground now became clearer, and Halbarad could hear breaks in the rhythm that indicated a stumble or a lost stride. As he continued to listen, he realized that the horse was not tripping over obstacles but was instead faltering from exhaustion. The horse had maintained this grueling pace for some time now, if Halbarad was any judge. Frowning as he clambered up a small, rocky incline, the Ranger came into view of the river and turned his eyes downstream. He could not yet see the rider, but the waters swept around a bend a mile or so away, and he assumed that the traveler was hidden by the hills. But the sounds of the gallop were growing louder by the minute, and it would probably not be long ere horse and rider were in sight.
Putting two fingers to his lips, Halbarad let out a sharp whistle, summoning the other Rangers in the area. He had spoken with several of his kinsmen earlier in the day and knew that a few others were also close. It was well that so many of them lingered here, because Halbarad had a fairly good guess as to the identity of the rider, and if his suspicions were correct, then others would have to care for the horse's needs. The rider would be unable to see to the horse himself, and Halbarad would also have other responsibilities.
Through means he could not fully explain, Halbarad somehow managed to prevent himself from jumping in surprise. He had not expected anyone to respond to his call so quickly, though he suspected that most had now heard the frantic gallop and were aware of what was happening. Turning, he found himself facing Belegost, a short and somewhat scrawny Ranger who possessed such an uncanny talent for stealth that at times he seemed to appear and disappear at will.
"I believe so," Halbarad answered, deciding that now was not the time to remind Belegost that he should not be so quiet when slipping up on his superiors. "Anyone else would not be so foolish or so desperate as to hazard this speed." He turned away and began descending the steep slopes that bordered the river.
"I had not expected him so soon," Belegost murmured. He began following Halbarad, and a few rocks clattered down as they were knocked loose by the Rangers' feet. "Even under the best of conditions, it should have taken our messengers nearly a month to find him."
"We sent the tidings almost eight weeks ago," Halbarad said, doing a few mental calculations. "If one of the messengers found him quickly, it is possible for him to be here now. I have seen him ride when need presses, and in haste, he can cover great distances."
"It sounds as though Roheryn is paying the price for his haste."
"I suspect that Roheryn is a willing participant. He is a young horse, but he is also wise and can sense his master's moods."
The two said no more after that, concentrating on the final steps of the slope and eventually stopping their journey beside the river's edge. The crack of hooves against rock was now impossible to hear above the roar of the waters, but while still upon the hills, the approaching horse had sounded very close. Halbarad judged that it would not be long now, and after a few more moments, his reckoning proved correct.
Stumbling around the river's bend, a staggering horse lurched into view. Immediately recognizing both horse and steed, Halbarad stepped away from Belegost and raised his hand, signaling to the newcomer. The stallion's speed was checked slightly as the horse turned toward the two Rangers, and then the gallop resumed as the rider urged his mount over the last few miles. The exhausted horse stopped a few feet away from the waiting Rangers, and the rider slumped off with a heavy thud. Immediately Belegost stepped forward and took Roheryn's reins, coaxing the heaving horse away and leaving Halbarad alone to deal with what came next.
"Aragorn," Halbarad greeted quietly with a slight nod.
"Halbarad," Aragorn answered, his voice equally soft.
Silence fell between them, if it could indeed be called silence. The continuous drone of the river ensured that these lands were never truly quiet, but even so, the raging waters seemed to hush a bit as the sun edged below the horizon. For several long minutes, no words were spoken, and Halbarad used this time to study his leader. He did not like what he saw. Aragorn's haggard form swayed as he tried to adjust to a standing position. The stoop of his shoulders suggested terrible fatigue while the shadows beneath his eyes testified that he had not slept in days. He had probably neglected food as well, judging from the hollows of his cheeks. Yet as distressing as this was for Halbarad, such concerns seemed almost petty at the moment. Trivial, even. There were far more important matters to consider.
A simple sigh eventually broke the stillness, somehow making itself heard above the Baranduin, and Halbarad reluctantly shook himself from his thoughts, raising his eyes to meet Aragorn's.
"Show me," the other whispered.
Halbarad hesitated, wishing there was something he could say to ease the grief that rolled through his leader's weary eyes in cresting waves. But words were trite and meaningless, offering naught but empty condolences and shallow comfort. So Halbarad turned and began walking, falling upon duty like a lame man falling upon a crutch. "This way," he murmured.
Aragorn followed silently.
On the southern shores of Lake Evendim stood the broken remains of a once great city. Annúminas it had been called. The Sunset Tower. Set at the feet of the Emyn Uial and founded by Elendil himself, it had rivaled even the splendor and beauty of Osgiliath during the days of its glory. Annúminas had been the seat of power for the kings of Arnor during their greatest years, and though naught now remained save for cold, forsaken ruins, the land still seemed to speak of hidden strength.
Eight hundred years into the Third Age when the North Kingdom broke apart, Annúminas could not be maintained and had been abandoned in favor of Fornost, a military fortress that ultimately fell to the armies of Angmar. But though the new capital was defiled by the foul craft of the Witch-king, a stroke of fortune ensured that Annúminas remained untouched. For the next thousand years, it withstood the evil that buffeted Eriador, kept safe by the efforts of the Dúnedain. The Rangers upheld that tradition still, and Annúminas had become a sanctuary for them when they needed an escape from the growing darkness.
But escape was not what had brought Aragorn to the outskirts of this ancient city. If anything, he had made this journey with grave misgivings. He took no comfort from the cracked stone that had once been a broad road or the fallen towers that had once housed such treasures as palantíri and the silver rod of the Lords of Andúnië. The barren hills were empty this day, and the light of Westernesse that graced this land seemed to have dimmed until it was all but gone. Always this area had felt ancient to Aragorn, but now the tale of years became a burden of age rather than a testament of heritage. Indeed, the Dúnedain Chieftain had never felt his own age quite so heavily. Seventy-six years of life clutched and clawed at him, slowing his steps and dragging his feet as he wearily followed Halbarad.
And that was strange. In the span of three weeks, Aragorn had made a trip that normally required a month's amount of time. Sparing neither himself nor his horse, he had torn through the rugged lands between the Angle and Lake Evendim. The road that led to the ruins of Annúminas was a dangerous one, but Aragorn had thrown caution aside and ruthlessly pressed forward, riding as one possessed. But now that he had arrived, he could not seem to take the final steps of his journey. His previous speed and haste had vanished, leaving behind only an aching sense of dread.
A part of him attributed this sudden reluctance to weariness. It was a good excuse, and in other circumstances, it might have worked. But a detached, analytical part of Aragorn's mind knew that his feet would have dragged regardless of his physical condition. In a moment, he would see, and when he saw, he would be forced to accept the finality of it all. There would be no more wishful thinking. No more vain hopes that this was all a nightmare sent by agents of the Enemy. He would come face to face with the harsh truth that she was dead. No more.
The part of Aragorn's mind that was not quite so detached or analytical ruthlessly shoved such thoughts away.
Halbarad's quiet voice drifted through the silence, drawing him from his mind. Blinking, Aragorn looked about and discovered that they had stopped walking. They stood on the southwestern side of Annúminas where the Hills of Evendim rose tall in the air. Directly before the two Rangers loomed one such hill, its sides sheer but its top capped and level. Several feet up from the base of its slope was a collection of rocks that swiftly drew Aragorn's attention. To the untrained eye, the rocks were no different from the thousands of other stones that littered the ground, but Aragorn immediately recognized them for the marking that they were.
"Here?" he asked, his voice strained.
Halbarad nodded silently.
"You laid her next to my father," Aragorn murmured, glancing at another configuration of stones several feet to his right. "Thank you." Stepping forward, he stretched out a hand as though to touch the hillside, but he paused, and his eyes were drawn down to one stone in particular upon which letters had been carved. Reaching down and brushing away a thin layer of dust from its surface, Aragorn found himself staring at a name.
"I could not leave her with naught but a clumsy circle of rocks," Halbarad whispered. "She deserved more than that. At the very least, I could give her a name. You may remove that stone if you wish for her grave to be completely unmarked. It is probably safer that way. But while waiting for your arrival, I did not think it would do any harm."
Aragorn slowly shook his head. "Nay. Nay, let it lie here with her. I would not have her vanish into this land as others have. Let her be remembered."
"So long as you live, Aragorn, she will never be forgotten."
Aragorn felt his throat grow tight, and he closed his eyes, fighting desperately for control of his emotions. "Halbarad, would you—"
"Of course," the other Ranger said, quietly interrupting his friend. "And I will let the other Rangers know you are near. You will not be disturbed."
Aragorn's throat seemed to close up completely. "Thank you," he managed.
A hand fell briefly upon his shoulder, its grip conveying support, and then it disappeared. The sound of retreating footsteps came to his ears, but then the sounds stopped. "Winter approaches quickly, and it will be cold tonight," Halbarad said, his voice somewhat hesitant. "My camp lies to the east in a cleft between some of the smaller hills. If you wish to share my fire this night, you are more than welcome. I can have a bed made up for you and see that Roheryn is hobbled nearby."
Aragorn nodded. "That would be appreciated."
"I will watch for you," Halbarad murmured. The sounds of footsteps resumed, then, and Aragorn stood motionless as they faded into the darkening night, eventually disappearing altogether. Once all was silent and still, he moved forward and knelt upon the ground, ignoring the rocks and stones that ground into his knees. He ran a hand through his tangled mess of hair and felt the vastness of the land consume him.
She was gone.
Aragorn was no stranger to death. He had killed. He had ordered others to kill. He had seen others killed. He had sent others into situations where they had been killed. Several times he had come close to dying himself. And while he was certainly not casual about it, Aragorn had learned to accept death as an unwanted but necessary part of his life.
Yet somehow, this was different. It felt as though a piece of him had been torn away and buried beneath the earth. And he supposed that this was not far from the truth. His existence, his life, his traits, his character, his knowledge…most of this he owed to his mother. He did not deny that many others had greatly affected him. Glorfindel, Erestor, Elladan, and Elrohir, in particular, came to mind. And of course there was Elrond, who had become a surrogate father to Aragorn after his own father died when he was but two years of age. Yet even the elven lord's influence paled in comparison to the influence of Aragorn's mother. Elrond may have taught him, but it was Gilraen who shaped him.
And now she was gone.
Like a lost traveler doomed to wander an endless circle, Aragorn's mind kept coming back to that point. Gilraen was gone. Gone. Her body lay buried in the hillside before him, yet Aragorn could not quite convince himself to believe it. It did not feel real. How could she be gone? He had seen her only six months ago just south of Fornost. She had been weary and sick, but she had been alive.
This is our last parting, Estel, my son. I am aged by care, even as one of the lesser Men; and now that it draws near I cannot face the darkness of our time that gathers upon Middle-earth. I shall leave it soon.
Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness; and if so, I would have you see it and be glad.
Their last words together came unbidden to Aragorn, and he shuddered as he remembered the emptiness of her eyes. She had known. She had known she was dying and she had tried to tell him, but he would not listen. He should have. He had always listened to her. Why should then have been any different?
But he had not wanted to believe. His memories of her, with her bright smile and sparkling eyes, had prevented him from seeing the truth. She was no longer the woman who had followed him over every rock and hill in Imladris as he led her to his latest discovery. She was no longer the woman who had spent every night of his first eight years with him in the Hall of Fire, spinning fantastic tales of Númenor and the Elder Days. She was no longer the woman who had taught him the art of verbal warfare and then demonstrated her own sharp wit in a battle against Glorfindel, a contest that was still spoken of with laughter and awe when the golden-haired elf lord was not around to protest. She was no longer any of these things. By her end, Gilraen had become a tired shell of the woman she used to be.
Ónen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim.
The last words Gilraen ever said to him echoed through Aragorn's mind, and he bowed his head in grief and sorrow. She had poured all her spirit and strength into his training. She had honed her skill with weapons so that she might be a part of Aragorn's military training. She had spent endless hours in Elrond's library reading handwritten accounts of Dúnedain Chieftains so that she might give Aragorn a man's view of history in addition to what the elves were teaching him. She had listened to his stream of endless questions with infinite patience, and if he asked a question to which she did not know the answer, she would not rest until an answer could be found that would satisfy his child's curiosity. She had bent her foresight to the future unceasingly, sometimes foregoing both sleep and food in the hopes that she could learn something that might aid her son. And in the end, it had all taken its toll.
She was gone.
I should never have left, Aragorn thought miserably. I should have seen the signs and I should have stayed with her. I should have been at her side when she passed.But even as he considered this, he could not think of anything that might have been done differently. Eriador was becoming dark. He was needed in so many places now. Shadows crept about the Shire. Creatures of twilight stalked the roads. The stirring of evil far away in the East had roused things better left sleeping. And then there was the matter of the Ring…
Six years ago, Gandalf had stunned Aragorn with the announcement that the One Ring might be in the Shire. It was an inconceivable notion, and at first, Aragorn had been tempted to view the matter as an elaborate jest undertaken by a wizard with entirely too much time on his hands. But Gandalf had been in earnest, and in the ensuing years, Aragorn had pursued Gandalf's hunches. He had chased every rumor and followed every lead concerning the Ring no matter how far-fetched. He had carefully tracked the Enemy's movements and doubled the guard of Rangers on all the roads that came from the East. At one point he had left Eriador altogether and hunted for a creature named Gollum in the darkness of Mirkwood with Thranduil's sons.
And as he did all this, his mother slowly faded from life.
Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness; and if so, I would have you see it and be glad.
He had wanted to tell her of the Ring. He had wanted to tell her that the end, for better or worse, was in sight. He had wanted explain what kept taking him from her side for such long stretches of time. Valar knew she needed him, though she never asked for his presence. Never complained of his absence. After all, he was doing what she had raised him to do. But even so, Aragorn felt she had deserved an explanation. But Gandalf had sworn him to silence, and the Ranger could not break the wizard's trust.
That was something else he'd learned from his mother, for Gilraen had never broken his trust.
Before his promise to Gandalf, Aragorn had never dreamed of hiding anything from his mother. Keeping secrets from her was quite impossible, in any case, as she was gifted with an unusual—and sometimes altogether disturbing—amount of foresight. So in light of her innate ability to know anything about him, Aragorn had given in and established a habit of telling her everything. When he was very young, he had told her of the secret hiding places throughout Imladris that held his most treasured possessions. When he was older, he had submitted to her mother's questions and spoken of his meeting with the lord of Rivendell's only daughter, confessing his growing feelings of love for Arwen. She had expressed her concern, knowing what Elrond's reaction would be, but Gilraen had told no one of her son's desires, trusting him to find his own way. And so it had been throughout much of Aragorn's life. The secrets he kept closest to his heart were secrets that he shared with his mother, and in return, she had counseled with him tirelessly, preparing and supporting him as he braved the darkness that struck at him simply for who and what he was.
And now she was gone.
The weight of his sorrow proved too much, and Aragorn bowed himself forward, his brow coming to a rest upon the ground. After his heritage had been revealed to him, Gilraen had brought him here to show him Arathorn's grave. She had asked him then that she be laid to rest next to his father when the time came, and Aragorn had readily agreed. Her death was years into the future, after all. There was no need to think on such things. His young mind could not yet comprehend how swiftly time passed. How fleeting each moment was. How much his mother sacrificed for his sake…
A shudder welled up from deep inside his heart, and Aragorn suddenly threw back his head, giving voice to a wordless wail. His keening cry echoed off the hills and through the ruins of Annúminas behind him. It sailed out over the lake and into the night, and the stars above seemed to shrink before its power. Then silence fell again, broken only by the sigh of the night wind as it began to weave around the hills. All of Arda pressed down upon him, and Aragorn dropped his head back to the earth, reaching out with his right hand to clutch at the rock upon which Halbarad had carved his mother's name.
One by one, the tears began to fall.
Looking up at the stars with something akin to a scowl, Halbarad decided that it should have been raining.
The night was too clear and the sky too beautiful. It did not seem appropriate that the stars should be visible. Rather, they should have been veiled by clouds out of respect for Aragorn's grief. Valar, even Halbarad's own grief seemed enough to shroud Varda's twinkling lights. Halbarad had come to know and love Gilraen as a second mother, and the pain he felt at her passing had yet to fade. She had always seemed able to spare a moment to speak with him whenever he visited Rivendell, and he had discovered in her a quick wit and an easy laugh that fit well with his own mind. It was not right that Arda should ignore the passing of so great a woman. It had not rained on the day of her death. It had not rained on the day of her burial. Surely it could have rained on the day that her son journeyed to her grave. Yet even this was denied them.
Halbarad shook his head and glanced westward. Against the starlit sky, he could see the rounded tops of the hills about the lake. If one did not look too closely, they could almost pass for large barrows, and that was essentially how the Rangers used them. With very few permanent settlements of their own and danger always a step away, the Rangers had been forced to adapt in many unexpected ways, including traditions regarding the dead.
The kings and nobility of Arnor had entombed their dead in great mounds, burying favored possessions and weapons along with the body in honor of deeds accomplished during life. But the Rangers did not have the time for elaborate construction of burial chambers, neither did they have the means to defend their resting places against those who would despoil them. They did not even have the means to reclaim those tombs that had fallen into shadow, with the Wights of the Barrow Downs bearing stark witness to that. So in lieu of mounds, the Rangers had decided to use the Hills of Evendim around Annúminas as tombs for their departed leaders. Unlike other strongholds such as Fornost and Amon Sûl, Annúminas had never been overrun by the evil that issued from Angmar years ago, making it an ideal place to hide their dead. Moreover, the hills themselves were more fitting than any mound that might have constructed. The Rangers lived a lonely life set in the barren places of the world as they sought to defend the innocent, and these windswept bluffs situated about Annúminas seemed to embody all that such a life entailed.
Each hill, no matter how large or how small, stands alone, Halbarad reflected somberly. He called to mind the dismally sunny day on which he'd laid Gilraen next to Arathorn. Other Rangers had accompanied him, but he might as well have stood alone. At the time, their presence had meant nothing to Halbarad. Just as my presence currently means nothing to Aragorn, he thought bitterly.
A quiet nicker beyond the light of the fire drew Halbarad's attention, and the corners of his mouth lifted slightly. At least somebody appreciated his efforts this night. Aragorn's horse had been fed and watered several hours ago, but it seemed that the young stallion was hungry yet again. And given the brutal conditions of the journey he'd just taken, Halbarad could understand. Moving to a bag of corn that he'd procured from one of the other Rangers, Halbarad slung it over his shoulder and walked toward the horse.
The corn was not as fresh as it could have been, but Roheryn seemed to have no qualms about the poor fare as he plunged his long nose into the bag that was held out for him. Laughing, Halbarad rubbed at Roheryn's tangled mane and stroked his neck. "Slowly, young one," he cautioned, wrestling Roheryn's head out of the bag after a moment. "Slowly. You do not wish to incur stomach pains because of your haste. Believe me when I tell you that the discomfort is not worth the reward."
Roheryn seemed to disagree, though, voicing his displeasure with a snort and a stomp, but Halbarad merely shook his head and held out a cupped hand filled with corn.
"I think that is enough for you this night," he said as Roheryn snatched up the offered food. "It is time for you to sleep. You have more than earned it."
Still searching for food, Roheryn butted his head against Halbarad's chest and snuffled at the Ranger's coat, ultimately stretching his neck toward the bag of corn. With a laugh that did not ring completely true, Halbarad pushed the questing head aside and gave the horse a farewell scratch between the ears before moving back to the fire. An indignant neigh followed after him, but Halbarad ignored it. Roheryn would be fine, and with his duty to the horse fulfilled, the warmth of the fire called to the Ranger. The night was growing bitterly cold, and Halbarad felt himself chilled by the short venture away from the flames. He wondered if Aragorn would seek the fire on his own or if he would need to be fetched.
Halbarad's sharp eyes then caught sight of a shadow standing beside his fire, and he wondered no longer.
Aragorn made no answer, his eyes staring into the flames as though they might consume whatever grief his heart contained.
Halbarad frowned. His usual perception was mysteriously absent, and for once in his life, he did not have even an inkling as to what he should do. Several minutes of heavy silence passed, and this silence soon became unbearable. "Aragorn…sit, please," Halbarad finally said when he could think of nothing else to say. He gestured to the blankets and cloaks that he'd set out several hours ago in preparation for Aragorn's use. "Rest."
Aragorn blinked and stirred, looking first at Halbarad, then at the crude bed, and then at the rest of the camp. "Where will you sleep?" he asked, his voice devoid of emotion. "You have kept nothing for yourself save your own cloak."
"I will stand watch this night," Halbarad answered, relieved to have received a response of some kind. "You have a greater need for sleep than I."
Aragorn looked as though he might protest, but after a moment, he simply nodded and moved toward the blankets. Halbarad's relief disappeared at this compliance, yet at the same time, he was grateful that he would not have to fight Aragorn. The other Ranger was reluctant to let others care for him. Gilraen had been the only one to whom Aragorn would completely relinquish control, and Halbarad had been afraid that his friend would insist upon taking at least some of the watch.
"Are you hungry?" Halbarad asked after Aragorn had taken a seat and wrapped one of the blankets about himself.
For a moment there was no answer, and then came a quiet, mirthless laugh that sent shivers down Halbarad's spine. "I do not know," Aragorn murmured. "I am numb. I can feel nothing."
An earlier search of Roheryn's saddlebags had revealed a small supply of elven waybread. Thankful that he had pocketed it for just such a situation, Halbarad retrieved his find and handed it to Aragorn, who took it out of reflex but did not seem to know what to do with it.
"Eat, Aragorn," Halbarad encouraged gently. "You have traveled a long road."
But Aragorn continued to stare at the food as though he did not understand its purpose. After a time, Halbarad broke off a small piece of the waybread, and at that point, Aragorn seemed to return to himself. He took the smaller portion from Halbarad, nodded to convey his understanding, and brought the waybread to his mouth. "You are a good friend," he whispered, closing his eyes as began to eat. "Thank you."
Suddenly uncomfortable, Halbarad shrugged and turned away, moving to his own packs and pulling out an apple he'd managed to scrounge off one of the younger Rangers. Silence returned as both ate, but it was not an uncomfortable silence and Halbarad decided to let it stand. Perhaps it would lull Aragorn into slumber.
"Do you fear it?"
The quiet words shattered the night's stillness, and Halbarad flinched violently. So much for slumbering Dúnedain Chieftains, he thought regretfully as he turned his eyes back to Aragorn. But he found that he did not have an answer as he did not quite understand the question.
"Death," Aragorn clarified after a moment. "Do you fear death?
Halbarad pursed his lips and studied his friend through narrowed eyes. "From time to time," he said at length, still trying to decipher the meaning behind the question. "What of yourself? Do you fear death?"
Aragorn directed his gaze into the fire and his brow furrowed. "Perhaps. But I think that I fear life more than I fear death."
Halbarad thought about that for a moment. "Do you mean that you fear the pain that life can bring? Do you fear it to be more than the pain that death can bring?"
"I know it to be more than the pain that death can bring," Aragorn said, his voice now filled with quiet fervor. "Think on it, Halbarad. How often have we heard elves lament the passing of the years, praising the Gift of Man and the release from grief that it affords us? How often have we seen them ride so recklessly into battle that they might as well fall upon their own swords and be done with it? How often have they chosen death over life?"
"Very rarely, Aragorn. Yes, we have either seen or heard of these things happening, but they are not a common occurrence," Halbarad pointed out carefully. "Moreover, we are not elves. Their pain is not our pain"
"Nay," Aragorn said, shaking his head. "Nay, I suppose it is not."
Silence fell between them, and as before, Halbarad found himself wondering at the other's mood. This was not the first time that Aragorn had faced death, but it was Gilraen. It was his mother. She had been a part of his life for seventy-six years, and such a parting did not come easily.
"I should not have left her," Aragorn murmured, breaking the silence once again.
"Your place was elsewhere. She knew that."
"Even so, I would that her foresight might not have proven so accurate."
Halbarad frowned. "What mean you by that?"
"Ónen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim
. I gave Hope to the Dúnedain. I kept no hope for myself," Aragorn translated quietly. "Those were the last words she ever said to me. And they described her well, even foretelling my absence during the last moments of her life."
"She knew there was a greater purpose laid out for you," Halbarad said. "And she embraced that purpose. You were absent for good reasons. You were constrained to leave, and so you did as you have always done. You followed your duty. You know that Gilraen would not have wished it otherwise."
"Perhaps," Aragorn sighed. "But I find myself wishing that she had been more selfish. I cannot recall anything that she ever did solely for herself. If she had only stopped for a moment or two during the years in order to rest from her labors, mayhap she would not have aged so quickly"
"It was not in her to take thought for her own needs, Aragorn. It was one of the many things that made her great. It is one of the many things that makes you great."
Something that might have been a chuckle came from Aragorn's direction. "I suppose now you will tell me of how I honor her memory with my life, and that if I follow her teachings, a part of her will never die."
Halbarad shook his head as the hints of a smile brushed his lips. "Nay. You say it often enough to other Rangers, so it is my hope that you understand it yourself. But it is true," he continued, sobering a bit. "It was why she lived. She gave everything to you so that you might give everything to others."
"And she kept nothing," Aragorn sighed, a hand coming up to rub at his face.
"Nay, she kept her view of tomorrow," Halbarad countered. "She kept her eye upon the future and did what was necessary to meet her fate. As must you. As must we all."
"But she might have changed her fate if she only—"
"It is done, Aragorn," Halbarad said, making his tone gentle but firm. "We can change nothing now. But we can learn from these things. However, in order for you to do that, I believe that you should sleep. You have had a long journey and your mind is wearied. You cannot see clearly now. If you wish, we can speak again in the morning."
"I will have to leave in the morning," Aragorn murmured. "I am needed near the Misty Mountains."
"Roheryn will not be able to bear you so far without rest," Halbarad argued. "At the very least, Aragorn, tarry a day. You and your horse both need the rest."
Aragorn's eyes turned to Halbarad, and he saw the protest building within them, But then it faded away, and a true smile ghosted across Aragorn's face. "When did you become so sensible?" he asked.
"I have always been sensible," Halbarad returned. "You have simply been too insensible to notice. Now sleep. Sleep and I will keep watch."
Aragorn nodded, and at that moment, all the exhaustion he had been fighting seemed to descend upon him. Wrapping himself snugly in cloaks and blankets, he stretched out upon the ground and closed his eyes, almost instantly relaxing. Careful not to disturb him, Halbarad rose quietly, shook the stiffness from his legs, and moved to stand at the edge of the firelight where the night's chill would keep his sense sharp.
"Thank you for seeing to her, Halbarad," a muffled voice said after a moment.
"Sleep," Halbarad commanded.
A muted grumble was the response, and after a time, he caught the sounds of deep, even breathing. Grateful for the reprieve, Halbarad turned his eyes to the stars, and then he looked toward a capped hilltop that loomed in the west. The wind swept past Halbarad, carrying with it the fresh scent of the lake, while the hills closed in about the two Rangers, sheltering them from anything that might wish them harm. And though Halbarad still believed it should be raining, the thought came to him that a bright, cloudless night might be an even better tribute to a mother's selfless devotion.
"Thank you, Gilraen," he whispered. "Thank you for giving Hope to the Dúnedain. You may think you kept nothing for yourself, but I predict that all of Arda will someday thank you for your gift, even as I thank you now. And then shall you have everything. For of a surety, you deserve everything."
High above, the stars seemed to brighten for a moment, and then Halbarad fancied he caught the lilting sound of laughter buried deep within the wind. Then it was gone, and the night descended into a peaceful silence that wrapped itself around the two Rangers like a mother's embrace. And for the first time in weeks, Halbarad found himself smiling at nothing in particular.
Ónen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim—I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself.
Author's Notes: In the year 3007 when she reached the age of one hundred, Gilraen died an early death. At least, it was early for one of the Dúnedain. Gilraen's own reasoning was that she had been aged by care and that she'd given Hope to the Dúnedain while keeping none for herself. Based on this, I decided that her devotion to her son and his destiny were probably a large compoment of this "care" that had so aged her. I didn't know quite how to express this, and if my writing seems inadequate, please attribute it to dumbfounded awe for my own mother, who has sacrificed much of her health in order to care for her children.
It might not look like it, but a wealth of research when into this fic, so bear with me while I credit sources and clarify a few points. For references, I pulled a lot of material out of the Alkallabêth in the Silmarillion and Appendix A of Lord of the Rings. The bits of dialogue that Aragorn remembers come from Return of the King, page 426 of the Ballantine 50th edition paperback version. Also, quite a bit of information regarding customs of the Dúnedain and possible areas of settlements were garnered from two excellent articles by Michael Martinez: "Of Thegns and Kings and Rangers and Things" found at /tolkien/64660 and "Ranger for Hire: Have Horse, Will Travel" which can be found at /tolkien/30354. Using Annúminas and the Hills of Evendim as a burial ground for Chieftains and other leaders was my idea, though, so if it's in error, I'm the one to blame. But I thought it was appropriate.
Speaking of Annúminas, there is a bit of confusion as to when it was abandoned. I've gone with the interpretation that it was deserted in the year 861 when Arnor separated into the three kingdoms of Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur. It makes sense to me that Arthedain would turn Fornost into a forward capital for military purposes. (Sorry, that's the political scientist in me coming out.)
Another obscure reference that might need explaining is the reference to the rod of the Lords of Adúnië. Adúnië was a city on the northwest coast of Númenor. Elendil's father Amandil was Lord of Adúnië before he fell out of favor with Ar-Pharazôn and withdrew to Rómenna, where many of the Faithful were gathering. He passed the rod of his power to Elendil before he sailed for the West, and it was later kept at Annúminas, where it became known as the Scepter of Annúminas. After the fall of Arnor, though, it was kept in Rivendell along with the shards of Narsil.
Additionally, I've introduced Roheryn in this fic, which is the horse that Halbarad brings Aragorn during Return of the King.That particular event takes place eleven years after Gilraen's death, but I've made Roheryn young and I will argue that Ranger horses probably live longer than average horses and retain their strength.
Finally, I must sincerely thank Nerdanel, French Pony, and Agent Mel for their thoughts and suggestions regarding burial traditions among the Dúnedain. Another round of thanks goes out to Berzerker_prime and boz4PM for help regarding the cities of Arthedain and Arnor. Your assistance was invaluable. And finally, I extend my eternal gratitude to all the mothers out there whose tireless efforts produce both heartache and miracles. Your work is appreciated. Thank you very much!