Okay, just so you all know, I have a confession to make! But I'm not going to put it at the beginning of the chapter.:) I'm actually getting this out on time for once! Woohoo! Hope you all enjoy the chapter and thank you all for your wonderful reviews!
But when they came back to Pelargir, to men's grief and wonder, he would not return to Minas Tirith, where great honour awaited him…Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went…when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.
Return of the King-Appendix A, The Stewards
The dark haired man choked as fluid rushed into his lungs. Kicking mightily, he gained the surface only to sink before he had a chance to gasp in more than a brief moments worth of air. What was wrong with him? Why could he not break free of the water's grip? He was going to die…he could not breathe…
His floundering hands brushed something rough that wrapped itself around his arms. A rope. A rope! Hoping desperately that it was attached to something solid (other than the flaming corsair ship) Aragorn caught hold of it securely and pulled. In response, something on the other end of the line pulled as well. The Gondorian captain rose from the water with a gasp, clinging to his lifeline like a very wet monkey. A monkey wearing steel greaves. Stupid armour… Aragorn thought bitterly. No wonder it had been so hard to swim!
He could sense that whoever was on the other end of the rope was taking pains to ensure that he was not roughly dragged up the side of the ship, thus, he had ample time to take in the scene before him. The rope was not connected to the pirate ship, therefore he was currently being hauled aboard a vessel crewed by Gondorians. And he had an excellent view of the current state of the corsair's ship.
Aragorn's jaw gaped open. The vessel was completely in flames. The mast had come crashing down moments after he had leapt into the water's cold embrace. Blazing sails canvassed the entire deck, and the sails quickly set fire to everything they touched. Everything…
The small part of him that was still Estel turned away in horror from the sight that etched itself permanently into his brain. Years later, he would waken from dark dreams, not knowing exactly what it was that had terrified him within slumber's grasp, but having a fading recollection of flames and screams. The larger part of him, the identity he had worn for years watched in a mixture of horrified fascination and grim satisfaction. Thorongil had seen what these pirates were capable of. He had arrived at villages too late, coming only in time to bury the corpses left by the corsairs. Corpses of men, and of women. And children. The children were what he remembered most vividly.
"Captain!" Strong hands reached down to pull Thorongil aboard. Anguion ran disbelieving eyes over his superior commander. "Sir, we feared you dead." The young soldier wiped away sweat that was not entirely due to the heat. "Then I heard you call from the corsair's ship. For a few moments, I thought we might have found you only to see you die."
A brief smile flickered over Aragorn's bearded features. "Was it you who shot that arrow?"
Anguion flushed. "Aye. I was afraid to aim for the corsair himself."
The captain laid a hand on his soldier's shoulder. "You did well." Silver eyes roamed over the ship and the rest of his company. "You did very well."
"Thank you, sir." Anguion drew close to his captain, lowering his tone. "Sir, the corsair captain…we saw you fighting him, but with the collapse of the mast and the light…sir, is he dead?"
Aragorn thought of the blow he had given Halith. Not fatal, in and of itself. But the mast had collapsed, and Halith was certainly no longer young. The entire corsair ship was in flames. Surely anything left on it could not survive. Would Halith be able to swim to shore with his injury? Unlikely. "Yes," he said quietly. "He's dead." Thorongil cast a cold glance back at the burning ship. "And I do not think that the corsairs will be a problem for a very long time." Turning his silver gaze back on Anguion, he thrust the flaming ship and all its occupants behind him. Thorongil smiled; a weary smile, but a smile nonetheless. "Set sail for Pelargir."
Music drifted through the air. Aragorn sat on the edge of his cot and sighed softly. Without a sound, he rose and strode to his cabin door. Upon reaching Pelargir, the men had gone ashore. The citizens of Pelargir were more than happy to greet them and receive the news they bore. As a result, the dock, the town, and the surrounding land had been turned into a feasting ground. Already the celebration had run through a full day and on into the night. This was the second night since he had escaped from the corsairs' flaming ship.
Aragorn had opted to remain aboard his ship in the relative comfort and solitude of the cabin, but his presence was called for. For a short period of time he had donned the hated armour once again and joined his soldiers. He soon found that he needed quiet. Leaving the festivities, he returned to his cabin. Aragorn could hear his men merry-making. They were rejoicing in their victory. And why shouldn't they? They had achieved a great accomplishment, and with a relatively small loss of their own comrades. Let them rejoice. They had earned it.
How much did he wish he could join them!
How much did he yearn to return home…
How much did he realize that it was not to be.
Halith's words had worried him too much to let the matter rest. He had to investigate the new power growing in the black land. Aragorn turned from the door and leaned his back against it, letting his head sink forward and cradling it with his hands. He was tired. So tired. The former ranger rubbed a hand over his bearded features, feeling the lines that experience had etched there. He wanted to go home.
Silver eyes appraised his hands. They were rough with labour, calloused from the hours spent in training with a blade and many other weapons. A linen strip was wrapped around the one that had been burned. Similar bandages had been placed around the raw patches of skin he had scraped away in his hurry to escape. The treatment was adequate, but undeniably rough. Field medicine. On returning to Gondor, a healer would look at his wounds, no doubt marvel at the speed his wounds seemed to be healing and send him off. Usually, when this happened, Thorongil smiled secretly to himself and continued on his way.
The small part of him that was still Estel yearned for home. He longed for the touch of Lord Elrond's healing hands. He wanted to see his father and brothers. He wanted to hear their voices and laugh with them on a clear night when Earendil twinkled in the heavens.
Estel called for home.
Thorongil deemed it wise to return to Gondor.
The strength of the Dark Lord of Mordor haunted Strider's mind.
Who was he? What path would he take? Would he be the commander of his men, joining in their revelry and returning with them to Gondor? Would he be the ranger, a man destined to be king, and investigate the danger to his kingdom?
He wanted to be Estel. He wanted more than anything to be Lord Elrond's son and return to Imladris.
Maybe…maybe someday he would be Estel. Not today. Aragorn pushed himself away from the door with a sigh. With a groan of weariness, he propped his foot on his cot and fumbled with the straps that held the greaves to his legs. Nor would he be Thorongil any longer, and he knew, as he dropped the armour to the floor, that this was a name that he would not return to. A part of him was sad. He had long lived under this name, and had served two masters to the best of his ability. But the time had come, as he had known it must, that he would leave it behind.
As the last piece a metal fell away, he straightened, feeling a lightening of the heart. True, he was not returning home…but he felt curiously free. Responsibilities were falling from his shoulders as easily as the armour from his body. If he could not be Estel, Strider was surely the next best. He had one last duty to attend to before he set aside the mantel of Thorongil, however. Seating himself at a rough hewn table, the Captain drew forth pen and paper and quickly penned a letter of farewell for the Lord Ecthelion. Thorongil had enjoyed serving under the steward of the white city. Indeed, Ecthelion had often listened to his captain's counsel. The letter was not long, but heartfelt. In it he expressed his gratitude for the many privileges and responsibilities that he been given him, remembering the noble steward that had accepted him on the basis of his skill and leadership rather than any claim of nobility.
Other tasks now call me, lord, he concluded. and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate. Thorongil blew gently on the paper to dry the ink, then folded it and left it resting on the table. It would be found there. His men would make sure that it made it's way to the Lord Ecthelion's hands.
He knew he should wait until he was rested, but there would not be a better time to leave than now. The men were distracted, and they were not expecting him to go anywhere. Aragorn stretched for a moment, feeling the tension that had slowly built within him over years start to ease. It would be a long while before it was completely dissolved. With a smile starting to curl the corners of his mouth, the dark haired man crossed the room and knelt in front of a special trunk. There were things in this trunk that did not appear very often, but that he cherished deeply. First to appear was a sword. The workmanship was excellent, of obvious elven make. Though this was usually the weapon he wore, he had chosen not to before the night's battle. A wise choice, as it happened. For if the sword had accompanied him on the evening's adventures, no doubt it would have followed some corsair to the bottom of the Anduin.
His brothers had given him this sword. When he was sixteen. With great care, he buckled it tightly about his waist.
Next to appear was a bow, and a quiver of arrows. Also of elven make. Also a gift of his brothers.
The last item he drew form the trunk was very old, and looked as though it would not last another moment. This did not come from Elladan and Elrohir, and the two elf lords would have been horrified to have been associated with the object.
It was a leather coat, extremely travel stained. The wear and tear only made it more comfortable, or at least that's what Aragorn claimed whenever his siblings reproached him for his attachment to such a decrepit garment. The dark haired man quickly drew on the coat, then strapped on his bow and arrows. Over all this he threw a cloak, and drew the hood low over his face. As the shadows claimed his features, he felt a smile start to tug at the corners of his bearded mouth.
He was not Thorongil anymore.
With a skill that was paralleled by none, Strider slipped from his cabin, departed the ship, the proceeded to disappear into the night as though he had never been. He paused once, and looked back on the fires of his men. It would be an easy thing to return. They wouldn't even know he had left. He reached up and slid his hood back onto his shoulders. Starlight reflected in his silver eyes. The moon's wan light danced over the dark hair the fell freely to his shoulders. For a moment, though he did not know it, he looked almost otherworldly. Like an elf and not the man that had led these soldiers for years. His shoulders were straight and proud, his head thrown back with chin high. He looked like a lord, and not a soldier.
A gentle wind stirred behind him, blowing a strand of hair across his cheek. Aragorn turned from the encampment to the open country. A soft smile tugged once more at his mouth. With a deft movement, his hood once again swallowed his features in shadow. Thorongil disappeared into the history of Gondor like willow-the-wisp, and Strider allowed his long legs to carry him away towards the East. Perhaps someday Estel would return to Imladris, but for now, Strider would look into the darkness that was spreading from Mordor.
Only one man saw him leave. The young soldier, Anguion, watched as his captain disappeared into the night. He had suspected that something like this would happen. Thorongil had been quietly preparing several men for months, readying them to take his place. Most people would have assumed that this was natural for a soldier to train men underneath him, but Anguion saw the difference. Yes, Thorongil had been training them, but to replace him, not help him. The comment his captain had made of home only served to strengthen Anguion's suspicions. As a rule, Thorongil did not speak of home. No one serving with, or under him had ever heard him mention it before and there was not a man who knew anything of the captain other than his service with Rohan before he came to Gondor.
Therefore, Anguion was not surprised to see his leader depart. However, what did surprise the young soldier was Thorongil's countenance. It was not the expression of a man returning to a home he had longed for. No, his had been the set features of one who knew he had yet another task to complete before he reached his goal.
The truth hit the dark-haired man like a blow. Thorongil traveled into the East. His steps led him to the Black Land. Anguion felt his head bow with the weight of the realization.
All around him his companions made merry, but the young man did not hear them. As fervently as he had ever prayed, Anguion asked the Valar to watch the steps of the man he held in highest esteem. He asked that Thorongil survive to return to the home the captain longed for.
Two nights earlier
Quite frankly, he was astounded that he was alive. Hurt, yes. One gnarled hand clasped his shoulder tightly against the crimson tide that fought to push past his fingers. He was winning however. The flood had already slowed, and he knew from experience that soon it would stop altogether.
He knew that he shouldn't be alive. Although the wound itself was not fatal, the mast should have finished him off. He had seen it coming, jumping at the last moment into the Anduin. There had been a lot of debris raining down. Flaming bits of canvas, pieces of wood…the entire ship had chosen that moment to break apart. Considering his wound, and his age, he was really shocked to be alive. Oh, but he was hurt. He had not escaped unscathed. For one, there was his shoulder. Then there were the numerous burns and bruises he had accumulated from the hellish maze of flaming material he had been forced to swim through.
With a harsh breath, Halith swiped at the strands of white hair that clung to his forehead, dripping into his dark eye. He was alive, however. Alive, and probably presumed dead by Strider. That in itself could have advantages.
The old man leaned back against the river bank, checking his wound. Good. The bleeding had nearly stopped. Images whirled through the former corsair captain's mind. Pieces of a puzzle. The cruel intelligence lurking in his eye put them together quickly.
The Eye was looking for the heir of Isildur.
Dark haired and grey eyed men that spoke the tongues of elves and were leaders by the blood that flowed through their veins. Men gifted with extended lives due to that same blood, mixed with elves by all accounts. The Dunedein were the last survivors of this line of kings. Rangers, to the common folk.
The image of Strider strode through the mist of Halith's mind, light glinting from a blade. A man gifted to be a natural leader. He lived amongst the elves. Why? Why of all humans did this one live amongst the fair folk of Rivendell? By his own admission he was one of the Dunedein. A ranger.
Halith rose to his feet shakily and strode away into the night. A reward had been promised him for this man. He planned to collect on it. He had at least two advantages to aid him. One, he was thought dead. No one looked for an attack from a corpse. Two, he knew where his enemy lived.
"It's not over yet, Strider," his whispered softly. Without another word, the human stumbled away into the night, his steps pointing him west.
Not the End…
So here we have the confession. This was the last chapter in this story. (hides as readers arise in angry protest) Let me explain! When I wrote To Be a Man, I wanted to have a story where he came back to be the villain again. After all, good villains are so hard to find. Anyway, I had a good storyline, the problem was dropping Halith back into our characters' lives believably. But then, my wonderful sister beta hit on a good idea. Have a filler story that's built on canon, that leads to the next storyline. This is that filler story. I considered having it a part of the next story, but they really are two almost completely different plot lines so it became confusing.
Okay, so that wasn't a real nice way to finish this up. I admit it! However, I already the the next story under construction and it will hold all that everyone holds dear. In other words, the twins, Legolas, torment, angst, blood and all that good stuff.:) I hope you have all enjoyed the filler story, and would love to have you join me for the next installment! I should start posting in no later than two weeks, probably before that.