Title: Contagion

Author: Pentangle

Rating: K

Characters: Aragorn, others

Summary: A little sight-seeing.

A/N Aragorn, aprox. 20 years old, has traveled with the rangers and his brothers on a few trips, but has stayed to the north and west of Rivendell. He knows who he is and what his destiny is to be.





He burned.

Glorfindel sat late in the Hall of Fire, telling of the crossing of the Grinding Ice. The family listened, entranced, all shivering with empathic cold. All but one. He watched Glorfindel intently and he burned.

A week later in the Council Chamber, traders spoke of the long and arduous journeys they had endured to bring the desired healing herbs from far-way lands. They spoke to gain acceptance of their outrageous prices and most of their audience heard them with skepticism. All save one. That one listened with painful intensity, and ai! how he burned!

Erestor watched the young man tracing with his finger across the map. His fingertip was far from the border of Imladris—the place where Erestor had directed his attention. The advisor coughed slightly and the silver eyes jerked to meet his own. "Sorry," came a whisper and the finger returned to the proper place. But Erestor had seen. Had seen the fire that glittered feverishly and knew what burned within his former pupil. At day's end he gathered with the four elves most closely concerned with the man and told them Estel could no longer be held; that he would be gone before a month was out. There were cries of disbelief, discussions of strategies to forbid, and other expressions of concern. One of the elves, the lord of the hidden valley, listened dispassionately for over an hour and then said, voice bleaker than the summit of the Misty Mountains in winter, "All this is to no purpose. He will go."

For three weeks the man wrote letters. Long letters written with a careful script and much thought. He wrote them at night when he was certain he would be undisturbed. There were six of them, one each to Elrond, Elrohir, Elladan, Glorfindel, Erestor, and the Prince of Mirkwood. He poured into them the feelings that he simply could not speak in the light of Anor, or face to face. He wrote of gratitude and love, little knowing these letters would be kept and cherished, both here in Imladris and in a far away fabled place, lost in the mists of the West.

When the letters were finished they were laid upon his bed, which was uncharacteristically carefully made. Then he slipped from his balcony into the night and soon retrieved a heavy pack and weapons from the tree where they had been hidden. He continued on and disappeared from the world of elves for two years, and no trace of him could be found, even by those whose eyes were keen and well accustomed to tracking those who wished to pass unseen.


The man spent nearly a year in Rohan. His accent was a problem in the beginning, but since most folk had never traveled more than a few leagues from the place of their birth, he merely pointed vaguely in some random direction and they shrugged and accepted. He studied their speech carefully, and quickly acquired the ability to sound like a native wherever he went. At first he traveled alone, but he soon found that no one took much note of a youngster who had barely broken his wisdoms so he began to look about him for company. He traveled for some months with a horse coper. He had been camped alone when a storm had sent several horses running past him. The next day he caught them and found the distraught trader to whom they belonged. The grizzled, bow-legged Rohirrim was impressed with his ability to handle horseflesh and with the pleasantness of having a young, strong body to help with the endless labor of his profession. The situation was ideal for the young man, as he now had a native to vouch for him as well as a knowledgeable guide who seemed to like nothing so much as ceaseless journeys up and down the length of Rohan.

The man, whose name was Aragorn though he did not use it in his travels, loved Rohan with its wide open plains, restless winds, and starry nights that took the breath away. In Imladris it was never possible to see the entire sky at once, but in Rohan Aragorn gazed endlessly and felt both insignificantly small and free as never before. He loved the plains in summer when the wind moved across the tall grasses with soft, sighing susurrations. He loved them in spring when the first tinge of green lay like a haze on the horizon and wildflowers carpeted the land. He loved them in the fall when the frequent late afternoon thunderstorms appeared as if from nowhere, the clouds building from tiny white specks to billowing towers in an hour or two. The lightning flashed in jagged stripes, the field of vision so wide that many strikes could be seen at once. The rains fell hard and briefly, giving ease to the parched earth, and to the horses one last feast before the hardship of winter was upon them. He even loved Rohan in winter, though he grieved for the weak and sick of man and beast that succumbed to its hardships. He had never seen this in Rivendell, where a smaller population and greater resources ensured that all were cared for.

He loved Rohan and for many months the fire within him was banked to gently glowing embers as he drank in her sights, her sounds, and learned of her people. But by then he had been up and down, back and forth, and his gaze began to turn more and more to the southern sky. The coals of the fire within revived and he burned again. So he bid his trader friend farewell, and continued in a southerly direction. Rohan had been good to him; he had gained a friend, much knowledge, and a full purse. On the heights of the White Mountains he turned and looked northward. A longing sadness took him as the faces of those he most loved filled his mind. He hesitated, one foot just clear of the ground, and nearly turned in that direction. But as if in anger the fire licked higher, searing the longing from him and he turned south again.


In Gondor, Aragorn felt much more apprehensive. He listened to his instincts as he had been taught to do, and kept himself from the main roads and towns. He hired on here and there for a day or two as a laborer, but in the main he traveled faster and with greater stealth than he had in Rohan. In Rohan he had felt a wayfarer; in Gondor he was a scout.

One day in early spring, Aragorn sat on the crest of a hill, his knees pulled up with his arms tight around them to fend off the chill of the pre-dawn darkness. Earendil still sailed the heavens, though he was fast approaching his harbor. The hill he had chosen overlooked the walls of a great city. He had been told that his dawn vigil would be worth the hike and the loss of precious sleep. As the darkness began to lighten, and the faintest pink showed on the horizon, the walls of the city become more distinct. They turned from a soft grey to the same pink that showed in the east. As the sun approached the horizon, the pink darkened to salmon and coral, though the colors were soft and muted. Then the sun showed a yellow crescent and its rays struck full on the walls of Minas Tirith. The colors flared to brilliant coruscating gold, yellow, copper, and crimson. The man slowly rose to his feet, breath stolen away by the sight. He stood absolutely still until the city was white again.

Now that Minas Titith, while still beautiful, was again simply a human habitation rather than an aesthetic phenomenon, Aragorn looked upon the city with trepidation. This was his city, its people were his people, but he had no sense of it yet; he felt no connection with this brooding land that lay always in the shadow of darkness. He felt no affection here as he did for Rohan and her people. He knew a twinge of guilt that he should feel so, but then drew in a deep, shuddering breath and released it forcefully with relief. He need not tarry; it was not yet time to begin to learn what he must to rule this land, though he sensed he would return someday to do just that. He started back to his hidden camp, laughing at himself. His assumptions were astronomical in size, scope, and hubris—for indeed the stars themselves would need to form new patterns if the exiled heir of Isildur was ever to assume his throne.

Next Aragorn flirted along the border of Mordor for a month or so since he was, after all, a young man with a healthy love of adventure spiced with danger. Even so, he was no fool, so he flirted only, taking care to keep himself from the notice of forces he was well-aware he was unprepared to face. Standing on the southernmost ridge of the Mountains of Shadow, he hesitated again before choosing his path. The tug on his heart was much stronger now, and his gaze northward lasted for many minutes. Although he had already decided he must see a desert before he started for home, the first five days of his journey toward Haradwaith were torn with indecision and he nearly turned back time and again.


As the power of the sun beating upon him increased day by day, thoughts of a cool, green valley and its inhabitants faded. There had been many new things to see in Rohan, and even more in the more southerly Gondor, but now his senses were assailed by scents, sounds, and sights undreamt of even in fevered dreams. He gazed upon land without a blade of grass to be seen, covered instead with small brushy plants well provided with thorns. Even in early summer, they resembled the winter killed weeds along the roadsides of his home. His water skin, even when carefully rationed, became soft and flat and apprehension prickled along with sweat on Aragorn's skin. He had known that there would be little water here. He had known his camps and the distances he could travel daily would depend on finding the life-giving fluid. What he had not considered was that every water source would be a center of habitation. There was water to be had, at lengthy intervals, but each site was a village or trade route resting place. Aragorn had determined he would have little contact with the Haradrim, so he was forced to wait until the deep of night to creep to the village wells. There he filled his waterskin and the journey of exploration continued.

As Aragorn moved farther south, even the scrubby vegetation vanished until, as he climbed a lone hill to gain a better vantage point, a vast golden expanse spread before his eyes. The sunlight shimmered in silver waves upon the ground, looking for all the world like large, smooth sheets of water. The very air vibrated with heat and Aragorn began to search for a place to spend the hottest hours of the day. For some time now he had been traveling by night and early morning, both to avoid the heat of the day and to be safer from discovery. He saw a shadow off in the distance and hoped it would provide what he sought. As he approached closer and closer he became aware the shadow was plant-life of some sort and he began to have hopes of finding water as well as a place of concealment.

When he finally arrived he was alone in a small grove and it was well he was, for even a troop of Haradrim running upon him, scimitars raised, could not have pulled his attention from his surroundings. He slowly stalked a huge plant – tree? Giant flower? He gingerly touched the surface that stretched from the ground to high, high above him. It was very rough, with a regular pattern to the texture, somewhat like diamond shaped ridges. The surface was a light brown and the thing – whatever it was – was perfectly circular with a diameter of nearly three feet at the ground. The stem tapered gently as it climbed smooth and uninterrupted until at the top large flat somethings spread out, lower ones a dark brown while those above were a rich green. The flat things were shaped much like an elven shield, though they were torn and fringed on the edges in many places. He pulled a small pad from his pack that was nearly filled with tightly crammed drawings. He had only a page or two left, but he feverishly recorded the amazing plants that grew all around him. Even water was forgotten as his fingers moved the sliver of charcoal swiftly over the smudged vellum.

The strange plant, while the most dramatic, was hardly the only discovery he made in the little haven of life amidst sterility. The birds and other plants were nearly all new to him and he despaired of recording every one. In the center of this cool refuge was a stone well. He drank deep of slightly brackish water and then filled his waterskin. He walked to the edge of the sharply demarcated zone of life and stared out at the expanse around him. Were there more of these places? Were they planted and maintained by man, or were they natural or even magical in origin? His musings were interrupted by the sight of movement on a far distant ridge. Hurriedly he found cover away from the well in a lush cluster of bushes that were covered with lovely flowers that resembled the elf's-hood back home, save instead of a pale, watery blue, they were vibrant orange, coral, and crimson. He huddled within the bushes and stuffed his fist in his mouth as several men and strange beasts approached the well. Taller than Glorfindel's horse, the animals had a large hump in their backs covered with gorgeous tapestry trappings and packs. Their faces had split lips and supercilious expressions and they appeared to be bad-tempered. They came to rest upon the ground with sharp lurchings forward and back, accompanied by groaning and barking noises.

When Aragorn was sure he would make no sound he removed his hand from his mouth and ran his eyes desperately over every detail, hoping to store them well enough within memory to describe the animals to his family. He had read of mumakil in the few books in the library of Imladris that concerned Haradwaith, and it was a great desire of his to see one, but these beasts were not mentioned at all!

When the traveling party bedded down for the night, Aragorn sadly crept away into the desert – he dared not stay and chance being discovered. He wanted to have been able examine the wonders of the little haven in greater detail, but the presence of the men made that impossible. He had also been forced to an unwelcome realization. He had only traveled in this barren territory three days, but he now knew he would have to return to the lands northward, for he had not the knowledge he needed to cross the desert and live. He had wanted to go farther south, then angle across Harad when he started back to the north, so he could view the Corsairs and their sea-port. This was now out of the queston and not only because of the desolate lands he would have to travel. The pull from the north had become a fierce ache, as though the love of his family tore at the fibers of his heart. It was time to go home. The fire within had burned itself out, leaving Aragorn to wonder at its power now that it was no longer driving him.

It was when he was only a few days from Gondor's southernmost boundary that his luck—which had seemed to be benevolent beyond any reasonable expectation—ran out. Since entering Haradwaith he had slipped like a shadow through the land that was enemy to those of the West. His few encounters with locals had passed off well and he had been undiscovered. Until now. A small band of Haradrim returning from patrolling their borders had come upon him, and after a period of suspicious questioning had assumed he was a man of Gondor. Naturally, they supposed him a spy and he was forced to fight, run, and fight again. He escaped by the skin of his teeth, far from unscathed, and three days later was shivering in deep cover, seized by chills. He burned again, but this time with fever, and his last coherent thought was one of tearful apology to those he had left behind so rashly.


KahmyAr (kah'-mee-ar ) tore through yet another thorn bush, swearing and yanking on his clothing. His light pack was ripped in several places and bits of beautiful cloth, intended as gifts for his nieces, oozed out the gashes. /You're the biggest fool since your cousin married that little snip that anyone could see was only after his money. A man your age is supposed to have developed a little wisdom. And it only needs a very little to know better than to use a shortcut described to you by that donkey's behind who actually believes you like having him as a neighbor/

The Haradrim broke into a small clearing, froze for an instant, then in a lightning move a scimitar appeared in his hands, raised to shoulder height and slightly to his right side. The tiny open space—in a veritable forest of tall thorn bushes—held another human. It was a man, oddly sleeping in the middle of the day. Or perhaps not sleeping, for as KahmyAr watched, he convulsed and moaned softly. The Southron approached slowly, prepared at any moment for an attack, although the closer he came, the more unlikely an event that seemed. Finally, he grounded his weapon and strode to the man's side, leaning down and yanking away a tattered, thin blanket.

/Well, well, what have we here? You are far from home, and a fine prize who will bring me many silver rounds, perhaps even a few gold ones./ KahmyAr knelt down and tried to straighten the coiled body, at last managing to get a hand to the burning forehead. He began to speak aloud. "What have you done to yourself? I had better do what I can for you, or you will never live to provide me an income."

He quickly saw that he could not permanently uncurl the northerner, so he unceremoniously dragged him to within a few feet of two bushes. Using his swordbelt and the sash around his waist he tied the young man's arms and legs out nearly straight. "Now I can have a look at you. You're a filthy mess, do you know that? Of course, men of the north are generally uncivilized, so it's to be expected."

The Haradrim, with a gentleness at odds with his words, began to examine Aragorn for injuries and quickly found them. Several gashes, badly infected, along with much bruising, testified of a vicious struggle. He swept the hair completely back from the hot forehead and got a close look at the ferocious northerner who had come to rape and pillage. Or . . . perhaps not, since the face he now examined was not only very young, but also didn't look to be steeped in vice and murder.

"Whatever you are, I need to tend you or you will truly die, and very soon. Fool boy, you cannot treat wounds so carelessly in these lands." KahmyAr felt concerned against his will and looked about him. He had passed a village—well, two huts and a dung heap—some time back that had been newly abandoned. The well had still contained water, though it took a very long time and much effort to draw, which was no doubt why the few people had left. He sighed, untied the man and covered him again with his scrap of blanket. Then he grabbed his scimitar and searched until he found the stranger's empty water skin. Slinging it over his shoulder along with his own, he started off to backtrack his trail. He spun around just before entering the bushes, shouted "Do not die, northern man!" and then plunged back into the thorns, blistering the air with curses.


"Hold still! I can only sit on one part of you at a time!" For the better part of an hour KahmyAr had been trying to dress the wounds of the now delirious Aragorn. Once again he was flung off. He got to his hands and knees and reached for his pack. He pulled out a sky blue piece of silk, embroidered with silver and lavender, and ripped strips from it with which to bind the boy hand and foot. After securing his prisoner, he started to clean the wounds, ruthlessly abrading deeply to find sound tissue. He worked as quickly as he could, for the northerner was at the moment insensate, but he could not count on that continuing. He packed the gashes with herbs and used more of his lovely silks for dressings. He snorted as his gifts were used to heal an enemy spy; was ever a king so wondrously bandaged? Finally, he dosed the man with a liberal portion of poppy syrup and looked longingly on the vial—it had been a very long day! He settled back to watch out the night and ensure his patient remained in the land of the living.


"Here, boy, do not drink so quickly; you will spill water we can ill afford to waste!"

A hoarse croak answered the peevish growl. "I am sorry. I have never been so thirsty before."

"I imagine not. It is what happens when foolish children go where they have no business going, do what they have no business doing, and cause trouble and worry for everyone!"

"I think perhaps you are right," said Aragorn ruefully.

"What am I to do with you? Such a dangerous northerner?" KahmyAr teased.

Silver eyes, free of the glaze of fever, twinkled up at him. "Are you going to torture me now with your evil Haradrim ways?"

KahmyAr became serious at once. "If we are not careful, you will be caught and never see your home again."

"You will be in danger as well. I must leave as soon as I can so that you are not threatened by my presence." Aragorn reached with his hand to catch KahmyAr's. He tried again to thank the Southron for his life, but was brushed off as he had been every time. Aragorn watched the face above him as KahmyAr finished changing his bandages. The Haradrim was vigorous and well-muscled, but was an elderly man. He reminded Aragorn a little of Mithrandir, though he was clean shaven and had only half as many wrinkles in his olive skin. He was simply dressed in loose trousers and tunic, belted with a sash and with the trousers tucked into short, soft boots. The colors were shades of grey in contrast with the glowing silks that now adorned Aragorn's body. He was fluent in Westron and appeared to be of some importance in his home territory.

KahmyAr, once having saved the stranger, found himself unenthusiastic about turning him over to the local authorities. This lack of patriotic zeal troubled him, but he was convinced Aragorn was who he said he was. Of course, their terms differed in that Aragorn said he was a simple traveler who meant no harm, and KahmyAr said he was an unbelievably foolish youngster who should have his hide well-tanned and then be sent back to his loving family. Who were no doubt enjoying the first truly peaceful moments in their lives since they took Aragorn in.

As Aragorn continued to gain his strength, he and his savior spent long hours sitting by their small fire. When asked about his home, Aragorn would begin to answer like any chance-met traveler but his voice would soon soften and his eyes would lose their focus. KahmyAr watched, smiling, knowing his patient was far from him in both mind and heart. He let the boy speak, becoming interested in spite of himself. Aragorn never gave away any details that could possibly aid the Haradrim or their fearsome ally, but such things were not what were important to him about his home anyway. He became animated as he described the beauties of Imladris and her people.

"In the spring, when there are still patches of snow beneath the trees and in other sheltered places –"

"I have never seen snow, except far off at the top of mountains. What does it feel like when you touch it?"

How to describe snow to a desert dweller? "It is colder than the coldest spring; the coldest desert night. If you leave your bare hands in it your arm will begin to burn all the way up to your shoulder, just because it is so cold. It melts away like butter when you hold it in your fingers. Most times it is soft like the finest down, but it can be rough like sand."

"I would like to see that . . ." the Haradrim said wistfully.

"Perhaps one day, you shall," Aragorn acknowledged politely, before returning to his narrative. "The tiny flowers that appear while all is yet damp and chill are …" His voice continued on into the night.

On another occasion he described the Wood-elves. "They can speak to the trees and are answered! They run through the high branches as easily as I run down a forest path, and the leaves barely quiver at their passing. Their voices are so beautiful that even when they are just singing merry catches you want to weep for the glory of it."

"Do you have friends among these Wood-elves?"

The northerner said quietly, "Aye. My best friend in all this world is a Wood-elf. I should not have left him as I did – with naught but a letter he could not have received until I was well gone from his reach."

"If he is to you as you say, he will be waiting for you. Although with perhaps a few choice words!"

"Not a doubt of it! He is lettered and can blister my ears in five languages!"

"I take it he is older than you, and seeks to council a reckless youngling?"

"Older? Oh yes, by a few years or so . . ."

On the third evening Aragorn spoke of the trees of the northlands. "Winter is a time of sleep. Most trees have only a few brown, sere leaves, and the predominant colors are restful grays and white. Then there is the yellow-green of spring, when the grass and leaves are newly come, small and tender. That is followed by the full, lush green of the season of rampant growth, so refreshing to gaze upon, rich and vibrant. After that is the tired, dusty green of late summer. And that, my friend, is followed by the blazing splendor of fall, when the hills and mountains are sheeted in the yellow of the sun, the orange of the finest sorrel horse, the crimson of blood—oh, so many colors, all at once!"

Now Aragorn was not the only one with a dreaming, distracted expression. KahmyAr said fervently, "How I wish I could see these wonders!"


The fourth morning after Aragorn had returned to his senses, he shouldered his replenished pack. He had carried small gemstones on his journey to use for gifts and barter. He placed four stones—an emerald, a ruby, and two river pearls—in KahmyAr's hand as he clasped the arm of the Haradrim and said seriously, "There is no way I can repay you for what you have done. For an enemy no less, but please accept these to at least make up for the delay in your travels and the loss of your nieces' gifts."

"There is no need, but I will take them to remember you by, for whatever you may be—and I am not such a fool that I think you a mere wanderer—you are no enemy of mine."

Aragorn made a cautious gesture to the northeast, and although there was no one else to hear him he lowered his voice. "You speak truth, for I am no enemy of yours, though I will fight with every fiber of my being against that which violates all our lands. Please, KahmyAr, do not allow yourself to be swept along with your countrymen into darkness. If the time comes that you fear being forced to a choice you do not wish to make, come to my people and there will be a welcome for you. All will know of what you have done for me. Say you are the one who saved Estel in Haradwaith."

"Estel?" questioned KahmyAr with a slight smile.

"It is my true name; the one I am called by my father and brothers."

"I wondered if you would trust me with it. Now, begone before the sun gets any higher. And make sure you do squander the trouble I have taken for you, by traveling too far the first few days. You are not yet at full strength, child!"

"I will take care if you promise the same, old man." Aragorn hesitated and then pulled KahmyAr into a brief, fierce embrace before turning abruptly and starting on the long road to Imladris. Sighing a little at how much he was going to miss the boy, the Haradrim watched him out of sight before spinning on one heel and starting for his own home.


KahmyAr traveled for three days, each day a shorter distance. At night he chided himself for a fool as his thoughts dwelt on green hills and water that ran in such wasteful excess over the ground that it leaped and tumbled, filling a far away valley with silver mist. A spark glowed in his eyes as he thought on the wonders Aragorn had spoken of. It was folly to think on these things; he was an old, tired man who needed to return to the safe and familiar. But as he looked long into the flames that night, he felt warmer than the fire alone could make him.

The next day he shook himself and strode out firmly, done with lingering. He reached home two weeks later but his activities throughout the next month puzzled his friends and relations. He bought desert-bred horses—two stallions—choosing the finest available this far north. They would serve both as mounts to ease an old man's journey, and as gifts for a guest to give his lordly host—if he should ever have the occasion to bestow them. He purchased new clothing, clothing that was warm and made from the toughest materials. He spent hours speaking with every trader who came through his town, and at night he carefully copied the information he had gained onto parchment. He slept little, spending a few hours of each night staring into his hearth while the flames were reflected in his dark eyes. Each morning as the sun came up he stood in his doorway looking north.

And he burned.


End "Contagion"

KahmyAr (kah'-mee-ar; Persian name)