AN: This is in response to a challenge on the Henneth Annun Story Archive for stories that show characters in a different light than normal. One of the options was a Cowardly!Aragorn. This is my response to that challenge.
Disclaimer: Tolkien has the story. I do not wish to take away from him.
I can feel my eyes go wide as I shake my head and shove Gandalf's bundle back at him. "No," I tell him, panic coloring the edge of my voice. "I cannot; I won't."
"You condemn the Halfling if you don't," the wizard hisses.
"I condemn myself if I do," I respond. In my mind the darkness is closing around me, the sprites of madness gibbering their Black Speech in my ears. One who has been caught is wary of the collar the second time around.
A slap to my face brings me out of the fugue. "Return, Elessar!" Gandalf commands, using my king-name.
"None call me that," I whisper, unable to say more or move through the mire that the world has become.
"They will," Gandalf reminds me, "when this and all its brothers once again answer to the call of Elendil's line."
I look down at the cloth-covered menace resting in the hands of the Ancient One. So harmless, so deadly. The terror is paralyzing. The Chief of the Dúnedain is shaking where he stands at the threat of a rock. Yet it is not just the rock that threatens me. I felt it when the Eye turned to the stone to question the hobbit. I felt the shadow stretching its hand out to control the other, to torment and tease until even death was a mercy I could not hope for. Desperately, I search for a way out of this particular burden.
"You have been in his dungeons, Gandalf," I plead, looking for sympathy, for confirmation that I am not the only one with nightmares that are all too real. "How can you ask me to send my mind back to them? I am the last of my line; if I am caught, the Kings of Númenor are dead." It is a coward's trick, hiding behind my lineage, but I cling to any hope that I can.
With a low growl, the wizard shoves unyielding stone into my stomach. I cough but refuse to touch the tainted instrument. "I do not ask you to look, Estel." For some reason, Gandalf's voice is quiet and sympathetic, at odds with his violent actions and my still strong panic. He uses my milk-name, and it is a merciful reminder of happiness and light, a comfort I cannot allow myself for many months yet. "Keep it in earnest for the kingdom it will one day overlook. Keep it, not to use, but to remember."
"Remember what?" I ask. As if that stone could hold any memories worth keeping.
"That not all of Númenor is drowned." Clear blue eyes beg my favor in this, the hardest mission of my life. "For Pippin, Aragorn," he reminds me.
I look at the ground off to the side so that I can see neither the wizard, nor the heavy burden he offers, shame at my own cowardice replacing fear in my heart. I am still terrified, but there is something stronger, now, than terror. Responsibility. I am in charge of the young hobbits, and I will not burden another with the stone while it remains a danger. With shaking hands, I finally take the seeing stone from Gandalf.
"For Pippin," I whisper, feeling in the Palantír's weight the burdens which the past forever places on the future. This curse is mine; to take up the forgotten reigns and become a King, the last and first of my line. Some King if I can't even touch the lost treasures of my heritage.
"You are a King," Mithrandir assures me, and I know he has read my mind, "and you accept this burden as benefits a King."
My head snaps up at that. "How? With cowardice?" I scoff.
"With the courage that overcomes terror, and the strength that calls fear cowardice," Gandalf corrects me. Stilling, he smiles at me, as if he sees something that I cannot. Again he answers my thoughts. "I see before me the very image of Elendil, and a fine King." Stepping back a bit, he gives me a full courtly bow, one that, even were I King, would show more deference than necessary. Straightening, he informed me of his plans. "Pippin will not know where the stone is bestowed. The others need only know of your courage."
I watch the white-robed figure walk calmly away before I sink to the ground. With the Palantír in my lap I bring my knees to my chest and lay my forehead on them, curling myself around the unwanted heirloom. The tremors return and this time I do not, I cannot, fight them. Shameful tears fall from my eyes as despair overwhelms me. They all look to me, even Gandalf, and I do not have the courage needed to tell them the truth. I can only wait and dread the day that Middle Earth finds out just how much of a coward her King truly is.
AN: Different, I know. you must let me know what you think.