Disclaimer: Not, of course, mine. I am visiting Middle-earth for a while but promise I will return Tolkien's characters to him, without making any profit.
Notes: This is the first part of a multi-chapter fic (in progress, but well underway) set during the Fourth Age - about FA 40. As such it is pretty speculative, although where possible I have tried to use canonical information regarding genealogy and so on. As a WIP, comments are welcome.
I had not, until then, left the North. All my childhood had been spent there, and the few years of my manhood. I knew the roads and hills of Arnor well; the borders of the little land of the Shire better than well. And I was content with the life we led, for it was a simple one.
The South - Gondor - was for most of us young men a place still legendary. Word came regularly from the King, but he less often visited Arnor in person. He had come when I was a boy of nine or ten summers, and I remembered vaguely a tall man with sword-callused hands and the dark hair and grey eyes of our race. His queen had been fairer than any woman in the North, and a whole crowd of courtiers and guard followed him. Us lads had been awed and impressed, and also rather ignored.
Yet Elessar, like myself, had been brought up in the North, back when the Dúnedain were still a people in hiding. And he remembered that. It became a tradition that those of us who were willing would travel South when we had reached twenty-five or so, and spend some time in Gondor. Elessar did not want the two kingdoms to be sundered again, and he knew that the woodcraft of the North would benefit from the knowledge of open war in the South.
And so, when I had spent several years alongside my kin patrolling the wilds of the North, it was decided that I should journey to Minas Tirith. Word was sent ahead to Elessar, and I followed it in late Spring. I had one of our hardiest horses, and carried Ranger gear of a sword and bow. I was to halt in Bree, and in Imladris, and again in Rohan, but for most of the journey I was to be alone.
In truth I found the prospect of the long journey both exciting and daunting. It was not the great distance, nor the solitude which scared me - rather the strangeness of what I would encounter on the way, and the White City at the end of the road. Though my elders told me of Elessar's wisdom and kindness and nobility, he too scared me. For thousands of years the Chieftains of the North had passed down the heritage of Isildur, but only this man had succeeded in gaining the throne of Gondor and reuniting the two kingdoms. And t'was said that he was a formidable swordsman also, nigh unbeatable, and songs were sung of his deeds in the War that ended the Third Age of Middle-earth.
I left my mother with promises to send messages when I could, and bade farewell to my comrades who were envious of my chance. I rode South, and paused on the borders of the Shire to collect missives from that country's dignitaries.
Somewhat to my surprise, they were waiting for me in person. Usually the messengers were met by the Shire's Shirriffs, but by their fine clothes and chains of office I knew the three hobbits standing on the bridge to be the Thain, Mayor and Master of Buckland themselves. I dismounted from my horse and bowed to them.
"You're the lad going to Gondor?" the tallest, and apparently youngest, of the three asked. He wore a sable surcoat embroidered with the White Tree under his grey cloak.
"Aye, Thain Peregrin," I said.
"Bright, too," the Thain returned. He passed me a thick package of letters wrapped in oilskin. "Keep these safe, and hand them to the King in person. And tell him it's about time he came North again."
"And tell the Queen," said the Mayor, adjusting the chain around his neck, "that Elanor sends her regards."
The third hobbit handed over another package. "These are for Éomer King in Rohan," he said. "I know it's not usual to send messages with the Dúnedain to Rohan, but you'll forgive me this once, I'm sure."
I bowed. "I will deliver them with pleasure, Master Brandybuck," I said.
"Excellent," said the Master. "Well, we won't keep you. You've a long journey."
"I rather wish I was going South too," the Thain put in, with a wistful look on his face. "It's been too long. Ah well, we have our realms to govern too, and hardly more time than old Strider does. Give him our best regards, and allegiance and all that, lad."
"I will be sure to do so," I told him, and bowed again.
The hobbits smiled, and mounted their ponies. "You'd best be off," said the Mayor, "else you won't make it to Bree 'fore nightfall."
I watched them ride off, back towards the green hills of the Shire, and remounted my own faithful Naharin. Indeed the Mayor was right; if I did not make haste, I would not make it to Bree before nightfall.
The road was good, and Naharin keen to be on it. He trotted along joyfully, and I too was joyful. I felt free of the bonds of duty, free from the orders of my elders, and it was a pleasure to be riding the road to Gondor at last.
I arrived in Bree as the sun was dropping below the hills, and dismounted in the stable yard of 'The Prancing Pony'. As ever, the inn appeared to be busy, but the lad who tended the horses appeared to take Naharin's bridle and lead him to a stall. I passed the boy a penny or two and told him to feed my steed well, for we had a long journey ahead; he nodded and hurried to obey.
Shouldering my pack, I made my way into the inn. The taproom was, indeed, busy, but old Merriman Butterbur broke off from pulling tankards of ale and came to greet me, wiping his hands on his apron.
"Welcome, sir!" he said. "A room, would it be? And maybe some food and drink?"
"All three," I agreed. "I am staying but a night, and will take what you have."
He had me ensconced in a corner with a plate of food and a brimming mug of ale in no time, and afterwards summoned a hobbit to escort me to a comfortable room. I lay down and fell asleep, but not before reflecting on the stories my father had told me of Bree in the days before the War. Back then, he said, we Dúnedain were treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Breelanders. But things had changed, and we were, now, more likely to be greeted with politeness at the least.
In the morning I broke my fast with bread and honey, and found that Naharin had also rested well. He was eager to be off, and soon we were riding east.
The road to Imladris proved quiet. Over the next days I made good progress, and on a cold, rainy afternoon saw the roofs and the valley before me. Imladris was the furthest east I had ever been, having journeyed there once on a patrol, three years previously. I had fond memories of that short visit, and my heart lifted as I rode into the courtyard and dismounted.
The place was quiet. I took Naharin to the stables myself, and gave him grain and hay and brushed him down. Then, shouldering my pack, I went into the house to seek out my hosts.
We were always waiting for the brothers to leave Imladris. Their grandsire, the Lord Celeborn, had taken ship West not twenty years before, and it was rumoured that the brethren Elladan and Elrohir would follow, sooner rather than later. Only love of the Queen Arwen their sister, and Elessar, kept them in Middle-earth.
I wondered, as I passed through the quiet halls of the house, whether they had indeed finally left. But the clash of blades in the garden told me this was not so. I came out on a broad terrace, and saw them below me - two lithe, dark-haired figures with swords flashing in the sunlight. I watched silent for a while, in awe at their skill and their grace, before one glanced up and saw me.
"Welcome, kinsman!" he called, lowering his weapon.
Making my way down into the garden, I bowed.
"You would be the one going to Gondor?" asked one.
"Gilhael, son of Taranuir," I introduced myself.
"Elrohir," added the other. "Come, you have ridden far and are doubtless hungry - and so are we, after our combat. We expected you, and there is a room prepared, with fresh clothes and linen. Hurry, change, and join us for food."
They showed me to an airy, light room, and I did as they had bid and changed into the loose Elven clothes laid ready for me. Afterwards, feeling much refreshed, I went to find the brothers.
Their company was lively, and they told me long tales of their journeys and battles, each interrupting the other in their eagerness to speak. They told me too of Elessar, and of his youth in Imladris - speaking of him fondly, as a man and not as a king. I had grown so used to hearing people talk of Elessar with nothing but awe and reverence that it was strange to listen to Elladan and Elrohir tell me of a brother.
I slept well that night, at peace in the valley of Imladris.
In the morning I had the chance to properly explore the house and the gardens in which it was set. The ceilings were high, built of some light wood carved into delicate shapes, and there were hanging and paintings on the walls, showing images of the history of my people and of the Elves. I lingered before each picture, having time now to examine each one - the visit three years before had been too brief.
I wandered through the silent libraries, taking books and parchments from the shelves and reading scraps of the history and knowledge within. But the gardens called, and I spent the rest of the day walking across green lawns, scrambling through the woodland thickets, and contemplating swift-flowing streams. I did not see Elladan and Elrohir all that day, and ate in the evening alone, leafing through a history of Umbar with one hand.
The next day they returned, full of apologies for having neglected me - but I did not mind. We sparred for a time, though in truth their skill far outweighed mine. One brother would fight whilst the other stood on the sidelines watching and calling encouragement. But they were gracious in victory, complimenting my swordsmanship before launching into another tale, this time of teaching a young Elessar to fight with a wooden blade.
We ate together again that evening, and afterwards Elrohir brought out a small harp and sang, his voice filling the empty halls with the strange, sweet music of the Elves. As I sat, listening, caught in the dream the melody wove, I wondered what Imladris would have been like when it was inhabited by many. Now, it was somewhat sad, faded, silent; with only the footsteps of the brothers and the few Elves who attended them remaining.
I took my leave in the morning. Naharin had rested well, and was prancing around his stable like a colt as I came to saddle him up. Elrohir came to bid me farewell as I led Naharin into the courtyard, and patted my steed on the nose.
"A strong beast."
"He's wilful," I said, as Naharin nudged Elrohir's shoulder with his nose.
"He'll carry you to Gondor," Elrohir returned. He brought out a slim package bound with twine. "I hate to burden you with more messages, Gilhael, but my brother and I would be grateful if you carried this to our sister, and told her we will be in Minas Tirith next Hísimë. She will say that we promised to visit three months ago, for which you must apologise and say we were unavoidably detained."
"And then she will sigh and say we never keep our promises," added Elladan, coming into the courtyard and passing me a leather satchel. "Provisions. Dried meat, fruit, and the like."
"Thank you," I said.
"Also give our greetings to Aragorn," Elrohir went on, "and to Eldarion and his sisters."
I said I would do so, and bowed to both of them.
They returned the bows, gravely serious. "Ride well, kinsman," said Elladan.
Taking Naharin's reins, I swung myself into the saddle, and with a single glance backwards rode out of Imladris.
For some days I made good progress, and the weather held fine and fair. The supplies I had been given in Imladris held out well, and with the odd small rabbit to supplement them I was well-fed. It was good, I found, to be out alone, with a purpose and a destination that excited me, and nobody to order me.
Once I had joined it at Tharbad, I found the South Road quiet, though I passed merchants heading both North and South with carts laden with goods. Messengers on quick horses in Gondorian livery overtook me twice, their heads low against the necks of their steeds as they hurtled South with whatever missives they carried.
I proceeded at a slightly slower pace. Naharin would not have much opportunity to rest until we reached the green plains of Rohan and rested there awhile, and I wanted him to carry me there and remain healthy. So we set up camp as dusk fell each night, and I tethered Naharin to a tree and let him browse for food whilst I munched on something from my pack, before we both settled for sleep.
We were nearing the Gap of Rohan, the mountains away to the East already diminishing in height, and I was aware that this would be the most dangerous part of the journey. The Dunlendings, whose land this was, were none too friendly towards us Dúnedain, and few acknowledged Elessar's lordship. A lone traveller, with a good horse, would be an attractive target if they found me. So I slept with a dagger at hand and the messages entrusted to me tucked safe in my belt-pouch.
Despite the season, the weather was cool, and my sleep was not deep. When Naharin whinnied, I woke, and lay still for a moment listening. The horse whinnied again, and I heard a voice speaking harsh Westron.
"Can't someone shut that beast up?"
"Don't want to hurt 'im," hissed another, "he'll fetch a nice price. Hush, 'afore the Ranger bastard wakes."
I slid my hand to the hilt of my dagger and waited, trying to breath as if I slept still.
"We should kill the Ranger bastard," the first voice said. "In league with the cursed Southerners, and the horse-men."
"Thieves, not bloody murderers - he'll die anyway without a horse to get him further on the Road," the second returned. "Untie the nag and let's get away."
Naharin whinnied once more, and there was a slap as one of them hit him. He neighed, loudly, and I took that as my cue. Springing up from where I lay, I let out a cry as I rushed the two men who were busy trying to untie Naharin's bridle from the tree where I had fastened it. As I attacked they quickly unsheathed knives, and turned to face me, and we exchanged a quick flurry of swipes and half-blows that resulted in a scratched cheek for the scrawnier of the two Dunlendings. He cursed, and took a step back - into Naharin's range. The horse reared, and struck the thief hard. He went down, and I was left with one man.
In the moment he hesitated I had time to bend and sweep my sword out of its sheath from where it lay by my bedroll. Faced with the menace of a longer blade, the Dunlending ran.
I disarmed his accomplice, who was still out cold, and soothed Naharin before checking he was still safely tethered to the tree. I was not sure what to do with the thief I had before me, but after some consideration found a spare rope I had added to my baggage and used that to tie the man securely to another tree.
Then, I slept again, but warily and waking often. At dawn I rose, ate, and told the Dunlending thief - who stared mulishly and silently back at me - that I would leave him tied to his tree for his friends to collect him when they would.
After his night of excitement, Naharin seemed keen to be moving again and we made good time that day and for several afterwards. Soon, we were passing between the twin flanks of the Hithaeglir to the North and the Ered Nimrais to the South, and I looked North and saw the great tower of Orthanc rise above the forest that surrounded Isengard. From the tales my elders had told me, I knew that amongst the trees would be some of the old Ents, the tree-herders, who lived also in Fangorn close by. But I saw none, and soon had left the ancient stronghold behind and, keeping the Ered Nimrais on my right, bore South-east into Rohan.
We were now in a landscape such as I had never seen before. Used as I was to the wilderness of the North, the vast empty plains of grass before my eyes and under Naharin's feet were strange, and disconcerting. I felt very small, and very alone.
But there were people. I passed through first one small settlement, and then another, where a few houses were grouped together. Horses grazed nearby, and there were, too, fields of grain and even a few sheep and cattle. The people - fair-headed, for the most part, with skin weathered from the sun - paused in their work and watched me as I rode by. I stopped in one such village one evening, and found an inn of sorts where I was served good ale and a good meal, and given a simple room to sleep in. In the morning, I found Naharin had been cared for well by the stable lad, who had groomed him, cleaned his harness, and filled a manger with a bale of new hay. The Rohirric reputation for loving their horses appeared well-founded.
At last I rounded a bend and saw, glimmering in the distance, the golden roof of the king's hall of Meduseld. The Road now was wide and flat, and I gave Naharin his head. Although the journey so far had been long, he leapt forwards joyfully; I bent low over his neck and we sped on our way.