DISCLAIMER: I own Ráhlin, Hartha, Caselia and Rilluin, also maybe several of the members of Minas Tirith – citizens, soldiers or Healers - to whom I gave voices, but they were probably already there in Tolkien's imagination. So maybe not. Tolkien, and anyone related to Tolkien does not own Lauren, my speechless saviour of Princes. I don't own the plot, my muse does, and I adore her for it.
Thank you to everyone who has read, faved, alerted and reviewed this story. I'm glad you all enjoyed it.
Aragorn slid out of the silky bedcovers. Next to him lay the Prince of Mirkwood, and the movement of the sheets woke him from his light, elven sleep. They were in the elf's chambers, and Aragorn's clothes, littered around the floor, were not in a state fit to be presented to the world.
"Hello my love," said Legolas, waking with a sleepy smile. "Is the dawn hour upon us already?" He rolled over onto his side, so that he could hug his arm around his lover's waist.
"Hush" cautioned the Ranger, slipping out of the hold with regret. "I should not be here. The sun has just risen; I must leave. There is no trace of Gollum and I must protect the Shire. Only the power in the East knows when the Nazgûl will search, but I will be there when they do"
Sighing, Legolas forced himself out of the bed, with the warning, "Be careful. I want you to come back to me whole."
"When am I not careful meleth? Now, help me get back to my chambers. I have ride with clothes on."
"But last night I did," smirked Legolas, "Several times," but he pulled on a tunic to help his lover.
That was in early August, the seventh of the month, but August soon turned to September. During that month, a battle occurred between the Dúnedain and the Black Riders. The Rangers had not been able to keep the Nazgûl from going past, and they had need been able to flee eastwards any faster, but they managed to keep fatalities to nil.
In silence, Aragorn sat between the injured, mud-stained, weary men who were waiting for orders, but Aragorn was deep in thought debating this very matter. He felt nausea creeping in at the edges of his senses. For the last two weeks he had been feeling unwell and had twice thrown up. He had the worst feeling that his body was going to betray him again.
Eventually, Aragorn stood up.
"We can do no more, except to spread out and stay on our guard, as we have always done. Elladan, Elrohir, I wish for you to keep watch for our friend as we discussed, the rest of you; these people are ignorant but happy in their ignorance." With every moment that past, he felt worse. He knew he had to move away, and finished, "Let us keep it that way."
Aragorn felt a cold sweat break out on his skin and turned his back on the crowd of hooded men. Just as he started to walk away, feeling an acidic taste at the back of his throat, he was called back.
"Yes?" He turned to the speaker, determined to keep his composure though his voice was strained with keeping the sickness away.
"My Lord, where will you be going?"
Inside, he cursed, but aloud said, "I will watch for the hobbits at Bree. Now go."
With this abrupt dismissal, he hurried into the trees and bushes that surround the improvised camp. Blissfully away from the Rangers, he was overwhelmed by the vile liquid gushing up from out of his mouth. Choking, he threw himself onto his knees, and the contents of his stomach emptied onto the grass. Suddenly, he found a hand rubbing at his shoulder. Gasping in air, Aragorn tuned to find Elrohir looking at him with concerned eyes.
"Why…" Aragorn started.
"You did not say goodbye." With that, Elrohir helped his brother to his feet, and dissolved silently back into the forest.
Having covered up all traces of his illness, Aragorn started walking the distance westwards, back to Bree. He trudged along, taking weary step after weary step towards his destination. Barely a mile into his journey, he stopped beneath a crab apple tree. Innately, he knew that he could travel no further that night. He lowered himself to the flower, the dead leaves beneath him crunching when he sat on them. Sighing, he rested his suddenly heaved head on his knees. He had no energy to do anything more than close his eyes and swiftly fall into slumber.
The sun was beating down with early autumn's noon fierceness when he awoke, feeling little better than before. Internally, he groaned at his human susceptibility to illness. All he wanted to do was curl up with Legolas' arms around him and to get getter there. Instead he had to walk, for mile after mile.
Aragorn avoided Greenway when he approached Bree where the Riders were on constant alert, and got to Bree by dusk on the twenty-ninth of the month, seven weeks since Mirkwood, to see the four small hobbits trekking slowly towards him. Aragorn slipped through the gate and, running on adrenaline, rather than energy, rushed to the Prancing Pony.
Butterbur glared at him as entered the inn, but Aragorn ignored this; he was used to the hostile treatment.
He sat down in his usual corner by the fire, which had been immediately vacated when he moved into the light. He smiled at the superstitions of the people of Bree, completely innocent in the way that they did not know about the dangers that surrounded them.
As he sucked at his pipe, chewing the grainy wood, Aragorn watched the comings and goings of the small hobbits that had just entered. As a whole they stuck together at one table, and tried to keep themselves to themselves.
"My time with them could be interesting" he predicted, smirking, as one of the hobbits went to copy his friend by purchasing a pint of ale. Aragorn let his mind wander into his memories of all he knew of hobbits. Honest, joyful, open hearted, free with words… He protected them constantly, but they did not often communicate.
"Baggins?" the word jolted Aragorn back to reality, "Yes I know a Baggins" Aragorn started forwards, but did not dare to intrude, therefore drawing unwanted attention to him.
Frodo, instead of Aragorn, went to the nattering hobbit's aid. It was easy to identify Frodo, as he was well known to the elves, and consequently Aragorn, because of his cousin Bilbo. But this argument was not going well. As Frodo pulled Pippin aside, he tripped and fell crashing to the floor, the Ring of Power slipping from his hand.
Aragorn jolted once more, as the circle fell onto Frodo's outstretched finger, and Frodo disappeared, leaving only the dusty floor of the Inn to be seen where the solid body had been.
Beneath his hood, Aragorn cringed as he felt the presence of the Nazgûl turn to the small village and hone in on Frodo, the Ring beckoning them. Aragorn approached, stealthily, to where he thought the hobbit would be, and waited, cursing under his breath.
After a few moments of confused chaos, the hobbit appeared, wrenching the Ring off his finger. As he, panting, turned around, Aragorn grabbed him by his shoulder and pulled him out of the room, into a private drinking lounge. When he had flung the hobbit inside, he slammed the door closed. Discreetly he placed a hand onto his stomach, where a rumble of nausea had once again started up as they talked. As they spoke of caution, Nazgûl and fear, Aragorn could feel the spike of sickness begin to creep up from his gut to his throat, making him feel weak.
Eventually, he heard footsteps outside the door and drew his sword, whilst still unsure whether he would have the energy to fight. The three hobbits that had been with Frodo earlier burst through the door
The largest hobbit threatened him with his fists, the others, a candlestick.
Aragorn yielded, a smile playing on his lips, and put his sword back in its hold
Though he commended their bravery, he warned the hobbits that they could not remain in Bree, that Gandalf could not be waited for, but he could say no more. As if leaving them to think, he left the room, forcibly slow. Once out of the room, leaving the bemused hobbits to their thoughts, he ran to the bathroom. The sickness had not left him, he thought to himself
After a very uneasy sleep, they started the trek the very next day, marching down the shadowed valleys and up bright hills, into the Wilderness. They journeyed high above sea level on the hilly land, taking the fastest yet most challenging route.
The journey was a toll on both man and Halflings. Devoid of energy, Aragorn found his pace slow, not because of accommodation for the small beings, but because he had no choice. The disease was ravaging his strength. The step took the liveliness of the hobbits, as they were not used to such a fast gait.
But that did not stop them from walking for mile after mile, as the drive to succeed and the very purpose drove them on, step by step. But each would be exhausted and starving by the evening, and the hobbits would mutter mutinously behind Aragorn's back. Only Frodo defended the Ranger, with only a vague feeling that he should trust the man, but he decided to listen to his instincts and continued to fend off the other Halflings.
But Aragorn was too caught up in concentrating, that it prevented him from registering much about the mundane issues of relationships.
He found that the upper part of his body was aching like a constant bruise. It was completely tender, and would cringe away from the slightest touch. He started wearing his clothes looser to stop any pressure that would cause him pain and reveal his secret.
It made sleeping impossible, and on the third day of the month of October, Aragorn could not get comfortable, as every position on the brackish ground set his nerves on fire. He sat up, waiting for unconscious exhaustion to take him, when his gaze was caught by lights flashing in the sky miles away.
He watched as lightening flashed across the sky and shoots of fire shot up. Previously lying in front, Frodo awoke and watched the phenomenon with him.
"What is the light?" Frodo asked, with the voice of a child
Aragorn felt ignorant when he could not provide the hobbit with a straight answer, and his mood swung from bemusement to strange, anger causing tears in his eyes. He could not work out where the lights had come from or why they were there, but he himself felt the child now, and was deeply ashamed of it.
He stayed standing, a figure of protectiveness over the young hobbits, waiting for Frodo to fall asleep. Then he sat, on the top of the ridge, and rocked himself as the angry tears made streaks in the dirt on his face. His arms encircled his drawn up knees, as he tried to find some comfort. Desperately he wanted Legolas to be at his side: sleep and peace always came in Legolas' arms. He had no good reason for this strange feeling, but it felt like a release from the hard, powerful figure that he had to appear as for the hobbits.
Aragorn was very aware that they looked up to him, and he had to keep up the appearance so that the Halflings kept up their stamina and spirits and could complete the long weary walk to Rivendell.
The next day, the "old" Strider was back, his mask in place. For no apparent reason, he was in a good mood, and there was no sickness purging him that morning. When he finally slept, he dreamt calming dreams of his lover. He was slightly stiff from the painful position he had slept in, but this did not chase away his small smile.
They were laughing together as they struggled to cleanse their faces in the small spring that they had camped near. Jostling for the front position, the hobbits swarmed around the man to reach the water first. Pippin came up from behind Merry and barged in front of him to bathe himself, and at the same time Sam was replaced by Frodo and, in a mock play fight, Sam barged towards Frodo, but veered off at the last second, cannoning into Aragorn accidently.
He teetered on the edge for a dangerous moment, as all the hobbits froze. Then, with an almighty splash, he fell into the freezing water. The hobbits were only spattered with drops as they all dodged and ran back, squealing, from the wave.
They had not realised that they should worry for the seemingly indomitable ranger. From the frigid stream, Aragorn arose, dripping wet. His fury sparked up from nowhere and he said in a voice that held fatal warning, "Never, ever, do that again. I could have hit my head and drowned, not been able to swim, so many things. Or it could have been one of you in there. How would you get to Rivendell alone? You need to grow up, or you will never succeed."
All of the hobbits felt unquenchable guilt, as Aragorn struggled inside himself to retain his rage. He knew that he was scaring them, and showing them a side of himself that he disliked. All he knew was that being injured… somehow would be unbearable.
Steeling himself, he said, "Let us move on. Now."
They continued their journey onwards with the hobbits now marching in front, so they could not see Aragorn shivering in his one set of drenched clothes. He shook uncontrollably, and silent tears poured down his face once again.
Aragorn could not believe that he was feeling self pity, and hated the sensation. He had been brought up with the elves, a race which had the most self control of any creature to walk on the shores of Middle Earth. They never showed emotion in public. What was wrong with him? Aragorn asked himself. Nothing had ever affected him in this way. What was going on?
On the sixth of the month they made it to Weather Top, and, thankfully, the hobbits had either forgotten the incident at the spring or put it out of their minds for the present. They had incredibly short attention spans.
As Aragorn surveyed the land around Weather Top, he saw two horsemen on white, not black, steeds, torches in hand. Their clothing betrayed them as Rangers.
The hobbits were settling upon the ground as Aragorn put the four short swords into their hands. He instructed them to keep the swords near, and told them that he was going to scout
With all possible haste, Aragorn hurried down the hillside to meet the horsemen. They stood at the base, heads bowed under elvish hoods.
"My Lord," the riders inclined their heads simultaneously.
"My brothers," Aragorn smiled widely at this welcome, unexpected visit.
Elladan and Elrohir jumper down from their steeds to Aragorn's sides, and clasped Aragorn's hands in greeting.
"What news?" Aragorn asked, "Have you found that creeping wretch Gollum?"
"The track is long stale Aragorn," Elladan informed, "and he has gone beyond our father's sight."
"I feared it would be so" Aragorn confessed, though he knew he had sent the twins on a fool's mission. He had known that Gollum was gone, but he was not supposed to. "How are you, and the other Dúnedain? How do they fare? I know that my departure was abrupt, I was not thinking straight at the time. How are the injured?"
"We understand Estel, and as for the rest of us, they are fine. We know that at the time your duty was to the Halflings. Everyone knows this," Elrohir responded, smiling.
"So what do I owe this visit?"
Elladan answered, "Believe it or not brother, we come to enquire about your health. Aragorn rolled his eyes by habit, but groaned inwardly at the over protectiveness of his foster brothers. Elrohir blushed slightly in the darkness, lowering his eyes from Aragorn's face, as Elladan spoke up again. "My twin informs me that you are ill. We are concerned," Elladan's eyes searched Aragorn's own pupils, "You are still ill my friend, and your race do not succumb easily, not without reason. You should not be unwell."
"The hobbits will be relying on your good health to get through the rest of the journey," Elladan added.
"I cannot explain this disease, other than foul chance... I feel nauseated, tired all of the time, and though my body rejects half of what I eat, my appetite is ferocious. Apart from that there is nothing, apart from perhaps that I no longer seem to be in control of my feelings. I bust into tears like a babe for no reason, barely avoiding the Halflings."
Frowning, Elladan said, "I have known many of your kin and fore-fathers, and only once have I had information of this sort, from a male. So many times from a female though."
Elrohir turned to his twin, "You do not think..?"
He was interrupted by the other son of Elrond, "Fire."
"What?" asked Aragorn, following Elladan's gaze, "Rhaich, fire."
Upon the top of Weather Top, a flame was flickering in the hollow where the hobbits had been left in the gathering dark.
"Rhaich" he swore again, as the screams of the Nazgûl filled the air. "My brothers, please leave. Do what you must to prevent any others approaching this site" he grabbed Elladan's flaming brand, "Forgive me, but this will be useful."
He bowed swiftly and started to run up the hill.
"Another time," said Elrohir and then, forced by loyalty to their foster brother, the pair galloped away.
As Aragorn charged up the hill, adrenaline took over. He did not bow down to the exhaustion that plagued him; he resisted the hunger and the sickness. He just darted up the slope, intent on the hobbits, feeling their fear from what seemed like miles away.
As he thrust, whirled around, stabbed, pierced ghostly flesh; Aragorn's mind was fixed on protecting the hobbits, in an almost motherly way. He realised that he felt responsible for the hobbits, particularly Frodo.
So when the cry of Bilbo's prodigy tore the air, Aragorn's heart felt like it was being rendered at the same time.
The battle ended swiftly, the flames that he had taken from Elladan saving the lives of the young hobbits.
As he fought for breath after the battle, he almost felt angry at the faithful gardener when Sam summoned him to his master's side. He brought his feelings under control and turned to the moaning hobbit. He knew that Frodo was dying as he examined the blade and wound, and he knew that he not only didn't have the knowledge, but he didn't have the strength to save him in time.
For Aragorn, the race to Rivendell with Frodo upon his back passed in a blur of him trying to keep his exhausted muscles moving, lungs expanding and heart beating impossibly fast. Part of his mind focused on fighting away the fatigue that threatened to bring him and the injured hobbit to the floor. The Ranger inside him automatically kept an unconscious eye out to avoid tree roots and other obstacles. The man felt the other hobbits falling behind too far and was forced to stop to wait for them to catch up, delaying the journey.
"Please Mr Strider," Samwise begged, "We can't go on like this; you might as well leave us. Save my master"
The part of Aragorn influenced by the grey wizard told him that this was unquestionable.
"I can't do that Sam, but I know what I can do"
He started to sweep over the plants in front of him. This was hopeless, he thought, he was never going to find the herbs this way, especially with the hobbits chattering inanely, disturbing his train of thought.
He answered their questions hurriedly, mind not focused on the talk. He kept looking, but then inspiration struck him. He turned to the gardener, explaining the athelas plant to him.
Persuading him to search for the plant took not a moment. He agreed quickly and started to scan the grass.
It did not take the Ranger long to find the white plant, shining in the moonlight, when suddenly he was aware of the enchantress behind him and a blade at his exposed throat.