I do plan to finish this story! Thank you for your patience.
Chapter 20: A New Exile
A block of darkness had starved his vision. When he opened his eyes for the first time in months, even brown-gray stone was as harsh as a flash of sunlight. He blinked. His eyelids were slow to respond.
His skin felt like clothing – detached, folded, unresponsive. Underneath, pain sat in his chest and muscles like an anchor.
"I feel…loose…" muttered Aragorn.
A hand massaged his chest. The fingers were covered in something cold and wet, something that smelled of smoke and roses.
"I am here with you, Estel."
The voice, soothing as a lullaby, reached out from memory and dream.
"You have been here all along," Aragorn whispered.
The fingers stopped. A refreshing numbness sank in through his skin, like cold water pouring over muscle and bone.
Aragorn groped blindly, trying to find that hand again and pull it close. Immediately, he felt chilled skin slide into his palm, felt a tender squeeze.
"And I will remain here."
After three days of blurring, blinded eyesight, after three days of soft, pliable food being eased into his mouth, after three days of herbs and voices and stone ceilings, Aragorn could finally remember and react. He remembered enough for nightmares to surface. When he slept, he saw fire and chains and bloodstained tree bark. The dreams distorted Caleil's voice into that of a monster, the hoarse rattle of chains at midnight.
"Will you try to walk again?"
Aragorn tilted his head as far as his neck allowed, and saw Elrond sitting at the foot of the bed. Then, pain shot through his spinal chord and radiated in the base of his skull. He dropped back down with a groan.
"We can help you, Estel. Just like we did when you first learned to walk. When was that? A year ago?"
When did Elrohir get here?
The jest tapered into silence. Since waking, Aragorn had seen many tears—tears of relief, of joy, of frustration—but had not heard enough laughter, that happy spasm as refreshing as clean rain.
For Aragorn, laughing was painful. It pulled blood up through his lungs.
"Leave it be, Ada. Let him rest. He is not yet ready."
With that, two sets of footsteps shuffled out of the room.
One person remained beside him.
"Do you never leave?" muttered Aragorn.
Legolas stood and a shadow swept downward. "Not until you come with me."
Aragorn stared up at a length of silver-blue silk. Legolas seemed healthy; his skin had lost regained its color and his eyes were alert. Aragorn tried to remember what it felt like to not be in pain.
"You look well," said Aragorn. "When I awoke, you were a walking ghost, your state no better than mine."
"Well, I could walk. You have yet to master that."
"You are healing."
Legolas smiled. "Yes. Now that I know you will recover and live, I can eat and sleep and breathe. You will not die. So I will not die."
"You think that two fates can be bound in such a way?"
"We were tied forever, Estel. By burning wood and flame. Do you think my heart can abandon that night because it has passed?"
Aragorn sighed. His eyes shifted to doorway. He still felt Elrond on the edge of the bed, felt Elrohir standing by the post, both of them with their hard gazes and frustrations and loneliness. Yes, loneliness. Loneliness like a column crumbling in a ruined castle, far from any ears that care to hear, loneliness like the dry rocks on the riverbank waiting for summer waters to rise. Forgotten. Unnecessary. Waiting.
"You know why I cannot let them help me," said Aragorn. "You know why I can only bear to see you."
"Of course. Because they are not in your nightmares."
Aragorn shut his eyes against the truth. He opened them swiftly when the images started to race past.
"What do you mean?"
Now, Legolas heaved a breath and looked outward, away from Aragorn, his gaze bearing against stone.
"I mean that every person here is like some figment of a bright past, the light far behind you in a tunnel. You have come out of the shadow, but the world is still dim, like muted music or a thin blanket across your skin, like a veil stitched to your eyes. Everything they bring to you is harsh. They are warm, as sunlight is, but you cannot look at them without being blinded by some purity that you no longer possess. Your vision will adjust with time. Until then, you will have to dance around each other, light baiting shadow, a new exile that your nightmares have created.
"The only thing you can see, the only thing your eyes can focus on, is the silhouette as dim as you. You see, Estel…we can speak to each other because we both sense when to be silent. We know when to avoid the shadows that spring up and when to confront them. We are stalked by the same beasts, and only together can we hunt them.
"I was there that night. I was burned through layers of skin. I lay in a delirium for what seemed like millennia, and all I could hear were scattered voices like the notes of a broken instrument. All I could see were nameless faces, frustratingly familiar.
"And now? Now I fear sleep because my dreams are as vivid as my physical senses. I do not want to hear any comfort, any speculation, any questions. I only want to be with the one person who understands what it feels like; someone who can match me for every small, insignificant emotion."
The pause of a heartbeat.
"Me," whispered Aragorn.
"Yes. You. Someday, they will all understand."
Aragorn nodded. Oddly, the motion hardly hurt.
"Will you help me stand now, Legolas?"
They reached out and touched. When Aragorn felt his brother's hands close on his arms, warm and strong as any fortress, he knew that he could find the strength to stand.
Five Days Later
From that moment, they had been inseparable, shadow matched to shadow, voices timed to match every silence, every laugh, every word spoken.
They knew when to speak about Caleil, about their journey, and when to leave it in memory. The others watched like outsiders peering through the aperture of a barred door.
Elrond watched from behind a gentle curve of stone. Aragorn and Legolas sat at the far end of the dining hall, bandaged and pale and smiling. Their bodies remained dipped in death, but slowly, they were healing—an inner process radiating out.
"Do you think he will ever let us in again?"
At first, Elrond did not respond to Elrohir's voice. He preferred to listen as a whisper of laughter filled the radius of negative space surrounding Aragorn. It died off into quiet—quiet that might have lasted forever.
"After all, why should he?" continued Elrohir. "We would have let him slip away. We were not the ones at his bedside day and night. We never fought for his life because we were busy grieving, as though he were already dead. I could not blame him—"
"Son. We also were not chained beside him. We never slept beside him in the bloodied dirt."
Father and son stopped speaking and let snatches of the hidden conversation drift their way.
"I shot a bow and arrow yesterday."
"Oh really? Could you hit a thing, with those skeletal arms?"
"I hit every target, thank you. And I note that you have yet to pick up your sword. I do not blame you. If my muscles were still that useless, I might drop it and slice off a foot."
"You could not have lifted my sword at your full strength."
"I could have lifted your sword and fired it from a bowstring."
Elrond pulled away, redirecting his senses. He leaned his head into a crevice of cool stone. He finally glanced at Elrohir, who stood beneath the gentle undulations of torchlight, a dance that had become unsettling following the fire. Half of Mirkwood had served as a torch. That light—blood-dripping light with its spirals of smoke—had twisted its way up to the clouds, scorching and hiding the moon.
"Give him time," said Elrond simply. "We weren't willing to give him time when he lay in that bed. Instead, we were willing to give up."
Elrohir sighed. He stared forward into the dining hall. "He has the blood of our kin," he said. "But he might as well be one of the Eldar. No other mortal could have survived this. I doubt that another man of Númenor could have survived this."
"He is a king among Men," said Elrond. The words slipped out as easily as breath, water. "And among kings, he is the most valiant, the most promising, the one who could change the course of things to come. A shadow approaches. He could be the crux on which everything turns."
Yet even as he spoke these praises, these truths, Elrond saw only one thing: the image of a face, white as winter dawn and flawless as polished marble. Dark hair highlighted by the reflection of jewels. Eyes that stared out of the Luthien legends, but more importantly, the eyes that had stared up at him millennia before as his daughter slid a fragile hand into his fingers. Lips that kissed a father's cheek, lips that whispered stories in brothers' ears.
Elrond saw Arwen. He saw her as clearly as he saw the half-ghosts before him. Aragorn would heal, but wounds that had faded into the backdrop for a while were beginning to throb again. The most difficult decisions lay ahead.
They silently agreed to venture into the starlight.
They did not go far beyond the walls of Thranduil's stronghold. The trees of Mirkwood still masked horrors, horrors that breathed—or worse, horrors that made no sound at all.
Stale fumes rose off the twisted trees and tainted the air. All the same, Aragorn and Legolas welcomed any air at all. They had been breathing in the mint and rosewater scent of their own ointments for weeks, and so now they stood just outside, facing the forest with their backs against stone.
"I long to ride away from here," said Aragorn as the two looked up at a pocket of star-specked sky. "But I do not know where I would ride to. Staying here much longer is sure to drive me mad, Legolas."
Legolas nodded. "I agree. My own home becomes a barricade. All the same, I feel I will be here for some time. My father deserves to have me beside him as he grieves for Caleil. Again."
"It is a strange thought," said Aragorn. "One person should not be able to die twice."
Legolas said nothing. He had no answer. His gaze purposely drifted away. Shifting sounds came from the forest, the scratching of animals, low gusts of wind.
Once again, Aragorn filled the quiet.
"I am beginning to piece together the gaps, Legolas," he said.
"The gaps in the story. The motivations. Everything we missed as we made our way through the mountains and everything we could not have known. See, the story has played out now. We came together exactly as Caleil had planned, but how did he plant the initial seeds?"
"He planned it out so well," said Legolas quietly. "So meticulously. Malevolently. I still cannot believe it."
"He meant for you to find me as you found me, my friend. Standing over a corpse. He meant for us to experience betrayal from others in our lives, so that our friendship would become all the more important and the torture more potent."
"I do not follow."
"Táridil. Finhîr. He tortured them. They were strong men, honest men. We trusted one another. And yet I slew them. How could I have thought they would turn for a simple bribe? What foolishness, what conceit drove me to think I could act in the name of justice? I have killed innocent men. Men of a dwindling, noble race who should have lived! My own dwindling race…"
"Aragorn. You could not have known at the time. In the mountains, you acted in self-defense."
"In the mountains, yes. But not the first time. The first time, I unleashed the most severe consequence without full knowledge. I failed in my judgment and a good man is dead."
He paused. Legolas reached out and put a hand on Aragorn's shoulder, but Aragorn felt nothing. His eyes were glassy, out of focus.
"…what have I done, Legolas? What monster am I?"
The night stretched on around them. They were there for hours, maybe, in the ethereal soundscape and the isolated patch of starlight, filling in the holes of their story.
Sometime around dawn, Aragorn said: "I cannot go home."
Aragorn looked over at his friend in the thin paltry dawn light that edged its way through the trees. Legolas had his back against stone, his face tilted towards the sky, his eyes wide and unblinking.
"Have you been asleep?"
"I do not sleep. Not in the mortal way, with disgusting noises and incoherent rambling."
"But you have been resting."
"What does it matter? You have not been talking. The advantage of not sleeping is that the minute you did speak, I was able to respond."
"How long have you been asleep? Or your equivalent?"
"Stop deflecting. We are both weary. Why do you feel you cannot return to Rivendell?"
In that moment, Aragorn tried to imagine her waist in his hands. If he could place her there mentally, maybe his palms would feel less dry and empty. He felt a tug on his chest as he longed for her head on his shoulder, her hair in his fingers. After the entire ordeal, her words and touch seemed like divine comfort as unobtainable as his dreams.
"I owe it to Lord Elrond," he said.
"What? He wants to see you safe and healed. Why would he want you to stay away after all he has done?"
"All he has done. Exactly. What kind of repayment would it be for me to return, and to throw him back into the horrible choice between his son and his daughter?"
"You think it would be cruel to him if you returned to Arwen."
"But your heart is breaking."
Silence. Far off, beneath the sunrise, the world was stirring.
Finally, Legolas said: "He loves you, Aragorn."
Aragorn nodded and fought against the weight of his eyelids as they tried to drift shut. He needed sleep.
"Yes," he whispered. "He does love me. But given the choice, he would choose her."
"Her immortality is on the line. She will pay a bigger price for your love. Of course he would choose her, but not because he loves her the most."
"He has always loved her the most. Her brothers love her the most, as do I. How can we help it?"
The man stood straight and turned. Abruptly, without a glance back at the forest or at his friend, he began to walk back inside.
"I sound like a child," he muttered. "And I need to sleep. I must leave in the morning."
"It is the morning."
"The morning beyond this morning."
"You mean daytime?"
"No. Well, yes, that is what I mean. I just need to leave. After I sleep and wake up again. That is when I will leave."
Just as he reached the entryway, Aragorn felt a hand on his shoulder. The touch had become so familiar—a brother's touch.
"Aragorn, you know that you always have a home here," said Legolas. "This can be your home. Where I am—that can be your home."
Aragorn paused. He smiled, but the expression was dull.
"Some men are born to have homes, Legolas. Some men are born for families and friendships and love. But some men are exiles and born to be alone."
Aragorn walked inside without another word. Legolas stayed where he was, alone in the humid dawn, stunned by the statement, stunned by the fact that it was true.
Inevitably, Aragorn dreamt of Rivendell that night.
He did not dream of the bridge in the glade where he loved to hold Arwen most, there under the softest shades of either night or day, a twilight moment. His dream did not contain the senses he associated with her: the smell of hair, the touch of skin and veil-like garments, the taste of her lips or cheek.
Instead, he dreamt of standing out on a veranda with a world of water and trees unfolding before him as though in motion. Rivendell was quiet. Aragorn had not been blessed with the keen hearing of the Eldar, but somehow, in this vast space, he heard a single thing: hooves on cobblestones, landing like dull hammer blows.
He looked down to where the cobbled circle formed a path before the gate. The horse stood there, far from him, its coat a shade of grey just beyond white. A figure walked alongside it, hand on its neck, leaving the horse free of bit or bridle. She wore a green gown. Aragorn had rarely seen her in green; she looked like a piece of the earth, detached and moving freely.
The sound of hooves died into emptiness as horse and rider stopped moving. Aragorn felt his breath stop, his heart lurch with heaviness, as though armed ranks were running towards him—but there was no threat here, she was only turning her head.
Their eyes caught. Her smile captured all the light in the world, placing her in a field of shadow.
Aragorn awoke almost immediately to find himself surrounded by stone, an extension of that same shadow. He sat up and let the linens fall away from where they stuck to the dampness on his skin. His eyes focused on the floor, the wall, the bedsheets, on nothing. He was aware of everything that was not her.
For the first time in weeks, his dream had not been a nightmare. Aragorn smiled. The wilderness waited for him, but she did as well, on a cobbled road. He only wondered if she would wait a lifetime.