Ashes and The Flame
A bit of explanation is probably called for for this fic. Many years ago, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I was struck with one powerful, all consuming sorrow in particular; that neither of the best hobbits in the Shire, Frodo or Bilbo Baggins, left behind a blood heir. No one to carry the torch, so to speak, except those who were not blood related. I am sure Tolkien did this for a reason, and I am even pretty sure I know what that reason was, but suffice to say, I mourned this lack very keenly. For many years I harbored a secret desire to see that Frodo did get an heir and wrote many tales in my mind to make that so. One of these I wrote into a story called 'Promises', (ff.n will not allow URLs in the text so please see my website to read this story) which was my first fanfic.
I always intended to write this fic also, though it has taken me to this day to have enough impetus and time to do so. You do not need to have read 'Promises' to understand this fic, (though I won't stop you from doing so!) but it helps knowing that, in that story, Frodo has a child when he is in his late tweens and that he does not know of the child's existence at the time of the quest. My hearty thanks to Nilmandra for betaing, and for waiting so sweetly (and so long!) for a fic about Aragorn thinking back on his last meeting with Frodo.
Aragorn woke in the quiet of deepest night. The fading image of a dream left him saddened and feeling a profound sense of loss. He rubbed his face into the pillow to dry unbidden tears and groped across the bed. Arwen was there, sleeping soundly, curled on her side. She always slept more deeply when she was with child.
He paused and, almost timidly, touched the soft swell of her womb. The baby was still, sleeping like her mother, yet she was real, warm and alive beneath the rounded flesh; a living spark their love had created. He spread his broad hand wonderingly across Arwen's belly and turned towards her peaceful, sleeping face. Moonlight picked gossamer highlights from her profile and glistened like whispered secrets in the folds of her dark hair. Undomiel, he thought, and drank in the sight of her. She was his life and his treasure, but the richness of his bounty only made the feeling of remorse more bitter.
Did you ever feel this joy, my friend?
Sorrow he had thought long past returned to wash over him. He rolled onto his back, blinking away more tears. In the land of dreams, bereft of his wife's wisdom and faith, he had found the guilt he knew he should not feel, but harbored anyway. He passed a hand over his eyes. This could not continue. He needed resolution; a talk by the campfire under a mantle of stars, or in a sunny garden surrounded by well-tilled fields, but how could such be found in this life?
Sleep would not return and restlessness would wake Arwen, so he rose and donned a worn robe. He looked down at her fruitful shape and felt a surge of love as keen and sharp as a blade slice through him.
I hope you did, Frodo. I hope you did, at least for a time.
His journal was private, even from Arwen, though he doubted she would care to look at it. Anxieties that troubled his comparatively youthful mind were but a memory of ancient strife to hers, but she knew the writing of it helped him and so respected his will. He sat at his desk in a private alcove off his bedchamber, lit a candle and pulled the leather volume toward him. Many pages had been filled since he began his reign, but never before had he written something he had so dearly wished other eyes could see.
'It is deep night as I write this,' his pen scratched across the parchment. 'But my heart will not rest. A dream that left me in tears woke me from my slumbers and though the details of it fade with waking, the hollow ache for all that has been lost remains. I realize you will never read this, but I have need to say these words. Perhaps in some lost realm of Mandos, you and I will meet again, and you will hear what Aragorn, son of Arathorn would tell you.'
Though melancholy colored them, the words flowed, and the act of putting thought to paper helped to ease his heart. 'These feelings pass,' he wrote, 'Like the taste of elvendom that has drifted from the world since the Eldar departed. Since you departed. If I do not record them now, I will only remember that I was sad this night. I will not know this strange mix of ache and hope again.'
'Arwen is heavy with our fourth child,' he continued. 'She sleeps more soundly than is her wont and I am glad. I would not have her see my regrets. The Evenstar shines in her adopted Gondor, yet she is never more radiant than when surrounded by our children. The love they and I bear her is a buffer to the pain of being separated from her people. She is our life and my light. I could not live without her.'
He paused and looked up. The window before him looked out onto a city dark but touched with silver. The stars above shone almost as brightly as the moon. On such a night as this, he could believe in the power of love and that it would be enough to reach across the Sundering Seas.
'I remember our journey from the Morannon to Ithilien, to the banks of the Anduin. We had placed you, Samwise and Pippin in the carts but the road grew rough and even springs of hardened steel could not keep you from being jostled. Healers were called to hold you precious hobbits in their arms while we traveled and as chief of these, I chose to carry you.'
'I had seen that Sam would live, though nearly as starved and beaten as you were, he had a great heart and a constitution of iron. Pippin had youth and resiliency and though his wounds pained him so that the jarring progress made him gasp even as he slept, I knew he would live also. Each lay in the circle of a healer's arms, sheltered and buffered by those who knew what dear burdens they carried.'
'As did I.'
'You lay almost lifeless in my arms, your eyes sunken and your pale skin, transparent. Though life glowed faintly beneath, it seemed so fragilely placed that I dared not relax my vigilance. I could not lose you, my friend. Not after all you had done and after all I had given to save you. I held you like you were a child, but I felt the younger. You were changed in some way that I could sense. Grown past the weary lives of men, you were only with us by the power of love. As I looked down at you, I knew that this, too, was what it meant to be king; to know loss, to give one's life, and to accept, for the good your people, such gifts as were fit to break the heart. You had given yourself to your folk as surely as I would to mine, though I knew in my heart you would never reap what you had so dearly sown.'
Aragorn paused and sighed, recalling the long fought battle for Frodo's life. It had been dearly won, or so they had hoped at the time. His hand trembled as he dipped the pen, but with a conscious effort, he steadied it.
'The last time I saw you was near the Gap of Rohan. You looked well, though the transparency lingered and you seemed one illuminated from within by a sad and gentle light. You stood against the sunset, looking north towards your home, your grey cloak drifting gently in the breeze and your dark hair, touched now with grey, lifting in the tired breeze. You did not want to look at me as I spoke my words to your kin. We both knew this would be our last meeting on this earth.'
'What could I say to you? Words seemed lame and pointless. We had both given everything to this quest, but I still had a future. I stood back, my heart breaking. I had great tasks and responsibilities ahead of me; a job to see through, as your Sam so eloquently put it, but where did your path lead? What reward was great enough to thank you for all you had done?'
'The jewel my lady bestowed upon you seemed small consolation to my mortal eyes, but she set great store upon its worth. I am a man, a king perhaps, but still a man and my most fundamental duty is to set sons upon the throne of Gondor. A simple calling, perhaps, but I would have some of the light of this age pass into the next. Arwen understands this, and bore me my beloved Eldarion, but I think she sees a broader world as well. She wept for you, my friend, but she knew something that comforted her, something I could find little solace in.'
'I feared what awaited you in your homeland. Not the enemy you faced, though I cheered at your victory, but the peace you returned to seek. I feared you merely wished to find the end of your days in the comfort of those hills and I could not bear the thought of your light fading from the living world. Arwen had told me what was offered you, and somehow knew you would accept it, but to me, the gift of Elvenhome seemed inadequate recompense for what you had done. She smiled at me when I told her so, and said that I did not understand the gift and so could not judge its worth, but I was still not comforted. Perhaps you are happy now, where the leaves fall not, but you are mortal too. Did the quest so change you that you do not feel the passing of the years?'
'That evening in Rohan, you turned to say farewell and the wisdom in your face smote my heart. I think you could see my pain, though if you understood all the reasons for it, you made no sign. You held out your arms and I fell to my knees to hug you. I was a liege then, great and lordly, but I fell to my knees before you. All my powers and all my doom could not save your future. You, who most deserved one. And so I wept.'
'"Do not weep for me," you said. "For I am contented. Take up your part in this great tale, Elfstone. I trust it to your keeping. It could have no truer protector."'
'I dried my tears then, as you bade, but they stayed ever in my heart. I did not understand why until the day my son was born. There, holding Eldarion in my arms, amid the jubilation and promise of his sweet life, I was struck by a piercing grief for you. Tears of sorrow mixed with those of joy. Arwen, my sage and gentle Evenstar, took my hand and comforted me. She said that I grieved because I loved and would, in my own time, come to understand what she already knew. My lady has lived many times my span, and so I accepted her wisdom. I could do nothing else. I keep your memory alive and revere that which your sacrifice allowed, but it was not until I held my son that I realized the price you, and all those who loved you, had paid.'
'We rode north to Evendim in the summer of Eldarion's fourteenth year. My children played with Sam's, did you know? His little ones are a delight - all tousled curls and bright eyes. The eldest remained my wife's handmaiden. Elanor is fair and more elvish than I would have expected from old Sam, but he has a light within him now too; less keen than yours, but it burns within his eyes like a fire of life. He is happy, my friend. I knew you would want to know.'
'We will never enter the Shire, but camped outside the Gates. Our pavilions spread far around the road and into the hills I once knew well. It was a merry meeting for all, and I delighted to have Merry, Pippin, Sam and I, together again.'
'Word reached Bree and a contingent of hobbits from the town made their way to Buckland. I believe it was curiosity that drew them, for no Breelander, hobbit or man, would travel purposefully to pledge fealty, but they stared at us with wondering eyes, astonished to see their oldest legends come true. The king had indeed returned.'
'I greeted them fairly and assured them that they were free folk as were their kin. They bowed, seemingly satisfied.'
'As they turned to take their leave, the crowd parted, and there, in the midst of your folk, I saw a sight that took my breath. A lone hobbit at the back of the crowd gazed up at me in wonder. His eyes were the green of new leaves, but the face they looked out of was yours.'
'I commanded the Breefolk to halt and they hesitated, frightened at my tone. I called the hobbit forward and he came with hesitant steps. A lady hobbit followed him closely, a child on her hip, and they both bowed before me, all politeness and respect. I bade the green-eyed one to look up and he complied. Fear was in his face, but when he saw the looks of joy and longing that must have crossed mine, he gave a sad, understanding smile that only I could see. That was when I knew.'
'I thought I knew you, Frodo, but you never told me this. In all our long travels, I never knew you had a son.'
'He bowed to me again, and told me his name. Elan Burrows. I frowned at the surname but he offered no more. Though not named Baggins, I could see the light in him. It was like to yours only softer. Perhaps the passage of time or the dilution of the blood had faded it, but it was unmistakable. He introduced his young wife and in the babe she held, I saw the stamp of your features. I thanked him, warmly, and would have asked him to stay, but it was clear his lady was uncomfortable and his fellows wished to be off. I regretfully dismissed them and he bowed and was gone.'
'I never saw him again, but the vision of his face that I keep with me stirs both ache and joy. Seeing it, I, at last, understand fully the sorrow I felt for you. In my son I see my own light, the line of Elendil unfading into the future. I see the hope of my people stretching out before me and know that, in a way, I will be with them in some small part forever. Perhaps it is a vanity, to want one's own blood to continue after one is gone, but you and I are mortal after all, and children are our living path to what lays ahead'.
'It was not for you that I grieved, but for what that Middle earth has lost. I grieved that it would be bereft of even the smallest living part of you. Your deeds will live on, forever, if I have my say, but in a mortal's vanity, there lies some grain of truth. After the fire fades, though the ash remains to tell its story, it is not the same as heat and flame. Immortal elves might have given the world their grace, but your people and mine gave it fire. Your brilliant flame was the price of Middle earth's salvation, but it has lost something irreplaceable in the paying.'
'Arwen was amused, for she knew such earthly concerns would not trouble you in Elvenhome, but perhaps it is she who sees too far and wide? You and I are mortal after all. Does not the short span of our years make each of them more precious? Does not the knowledge that we have but a little time make our fires burn more intensely while they do? I do not know the answer to these questions, and while it might not comfort you to know that your blood lives on in Middle earth, it eases my heart to know that you have not passed beyond this world completely.'
'More than you will ever know.'
Aragorn laid down his quill and stretched cramped fingers. Deep night was passing but the dawn was not yet rumored in the east. He sat for a moment reading what he had written and smiling. It did settle his mind to have the words laid out before him, even if they would go no further than the page. He looked towards the bed and could see the dark mass of his lady's hair spilled over white sheets. The moon had risen past the window but the dim light of his candle bathed her sleeping form. Her arm was outstretched across the place where he had lain and her body was angled as if she had watched him write for a time before drifting back to sleep. The piercing tenderness returned and sang sweet agonies in the very fibre of his soul. He loved this woman beyond all telling.
Did you love her like this, Frodo? Did you even know your son?
Somehow, the sorrow was not so bitter anymore. Writing had released his impotent guilt. It would no longer torment him. Frodo had given his life, not for lords and kingships, but for the very things Aragorn now held dear: wife and child, hearth and home, country and kin. Frodo knew such things for the treasures they were. As did Aragorn. The tired king stood and snuffed out his candle. Bed was calling and he was cold. He slipped off his robe and slid beneath the counterpane, pulling Arwen against him.
He might never know for certain if Frodo had loved as sweetly as this or if he had ever known his son, but in that moment of contentment, he resolved to believe his friend had. At least for a time. Aragorn smiled again, breathing in the silky warmth of Arwen's hair. Frodo had fathered a child and the child had grown strong; Aragorn had seen the proof of that with his own eyes. Yes. He would believe Frodo had loved, and that had he had known love as well. He would believe it because he wanted to, because doing so consoled his grief, and because he knew that his own peace of mind was the greatest gift he could have ever given his friend.