Into a Grey Morning
A heavy gloaming heralding the beginning of autumn broadened over the browning fields until little more than a pale strand of road could be seen. Sweet, crumpled leaves scuffled across the path into the dense woodlands on the other side. The wind paused briefly in its chiding as if listening to some faraway sound and then, in the sudden hush, the soft drum of horses' hooves came up the lane, accompanying a snatch of melody, an old homecoming song as a company, some riding, many walking, marched up the path, singing in fair and rough voices alike.
Unroll the dusky road before me
Carry me ever onward.
Like a tributary meeting the River
I walk through dark shadow and leaf shade
I see the twinkling vigil-lamp, amber star for me.
Keep it bright, keep it burning, home no longer far from me.
At the garden gate, I hear the step
Light upon the paving stones
Like the ghost of mem'ry, a wisp of warm eyes
Walking through dark shadow and leaf shade
We will light the vigil-lamp, amber star of mine
Keep step light, keep it steady, home not long ahead of thee.
One of the dark-haired elves at the head of the column twisted in his saddle to glance behind him. His mirror image who rode beside him recognized this posture all too well and rolled his eyes.
"You cannot actually see him from up here you know, Elrohir."
"Face front before you fall out of the saddle. We're not far now."
The path began to sink, gradually at first then more sharply until Elrohir was forced to heed his brother's advice and concentrate on negotiating his horse over the steep descent before him. The forest rose higher and higher on his right, uplifted by glimmering limestone shelves that plunged upward, forming the first cuttings of the valley's western face.
Elrohir breathed in the deep pine smell. He had missed these trees that even now cried out for him to climb in their boughs as he had done as a young elf and later on as a huntsman but only one thought drove his mind as he gazed down into the heart of the valley and saw a bright pinprick twinkling below.
"Adar left the light on for us."
Their pace hastened as they reached level ground and passed through the main gate, a tall, ivy-woven arch flanked by marble elf maidens. Even those footsore from keeping up with the horses quickened their wearied steps when the beautiful house of Elrond emerged from the shadows, amber light spilling out across the courtyard cobbles from the wide flung, welcoming doors.
Silhouetted in the doorway, a tall figure stood with traditionally braided raven hair in the very likeness of the two who rode in front of the company. Elladan and Elrohir dismounted swiftly and hurried up the steps to greet their father who embraced his sons tightly before greeting Glorfindel and his patrol, Halbarad and the rangers as well as those he did not recognize.
Veil stepped nervously forward and ducked an awkward bow, his forelock falling in front of his eyes.
"Adar, this is Veil. Veil, Lord Elrond, the master of this house," Elrohir said with an amused smile as his father who hated formality clasped the former slave's thin hand warmly in welcome.
Rancir threw his reins around the hitching post and strode up to the elf-lord, limping only slightly for the arrow wound had healed well. Ivriel stood as ever close at his shoulder.
Elrond acknowledged the warriors' salutes with a smile dimmed by sadness as he noticed the absence of Lalaithien. "It is good to see you home again. Imladris has missed your vigilance."
"I'm afraid we brought fewer back with us, my lord," Rancir explained.
"Yet in home there is often healing and time to honor the fallen," the elf-lord said, gesturing them towards the house. "I've had Sadron prepare supper."
"You knew we were coming, my lord?" Halbarad inquired.
"News in Imladris travels swifter than snowmelt-swollen rivers as they say," Elrond's eyes twinkled knowingly. "However, I knew you at least, Halbarad, would not set foot in the house unless there was a meal to be had. Where is Estel?"
"I am here, Adar."
At the first syllable, Elrond shifted instinctively towards the voice, his keen eyes searching out the familiar, tall-framed figure of his youngest who stood almost outside the reach of the home's illumination.
Aragorn let the reins of his mount dangle from his fingers. He closed his eyes as his father's warm, familiar hand cupped his cheek. The ancient elf concernedly touched the sling that still bound his mortal son's left arm against his chest and the ranger, glancing at it, grimaced and managed to smile somewhat ruefully.
"Well, at least I'm walking this time."
Elrond examined Aragorn minutely. The pale, newly lined eyes bespoke a care that he had never expected to see so soon upon his youngest son's face. He was struck suddenly with a rush of bittersweet pride: Aragorn clearly had suffered but by the proud, unbent breadth of his shoulders and the glitter in his eyes, he was still very much Estel.
"I would hear the tale behind this, Estel," Elrond said, adjusting the sling gently. "However, it can wait for after supper and sleep. You have been on the road long—I've been waiting for word of you for some weeks."
"It's a tale I also look forward to hearing, my lord," Halbarad said with a glance at his chieftain that was only half-playful. "Aragorn, true to his close nature, has said very little of his heroic exploits. Much to the disappointment of his men."
"It has been a hard road and one I would not speak of in the dark," Aragorn replied for his father's ears only, ignoring Halbarad. The grey shadows under his eyes bore silent testimony of more than one sleepless night though the smallest fraction of a smile remained on the corner of his lips. "I'm sorry we were so long delayed. I'll tell you it in full later, Adar, I promise. There's truly much I need to speak to you about."
"Home for the first time in more than a month, Estel, and you would chatter out here all night?" a dry-humored though not un-irritated voice demanded. One of the riders who had, until this point, lingered in the shadows swung gingerly down from his horse.
Lord Elrond's lips twitched but the burgeoning smile faltered as the owner of the voice stepped into the light. The healer did not need eyes well-practiced in their profession to read the terrible gauntness of the captain of Lothlórien's face with disquiet. The sparking silver eyes sank back into deeply hollowed sockets that seemed etched from stone. Though his tone had been light, his mouth and jaw remained steeled as if against some lingering pain; and a red tunic (Aragorn's the father in Elrond noted) gaped at the fully laced collar, clearly concealing a frame wasted from more than long travel and frugal meals.
Haldir felt the healer's penetrating eyes on him, but he kept his gaze focused on the ground. Only briefly did it flicker up to catch the elf-lord's in a polite acknowledgement before looking towards the house.
Elrond forced a smile and wrapped an arm around the shoulders that seemed to have thickened and broadened in so short a time. "He is right, my son. Let no one linger out in the dark tonight when there is warmth and light waiting inside."
Aragorn needed no second bidding.
The Dúnedain, Fornost's former slaves, and elves alike parted as he walked with bright eyes and firm steps through their ranks and led the procession up into the house.
As he set foot over the threshold, Aragorn took a deep breath of the fresh, clean scent of the open chamber and cast his eyes up at the high hammer-beamed ceilings, drinking in the familiar sight and letting it soothe away the cares that had lain on his shoulders for so many weeks.
The others filed past him as Elrond ushered them into the Hall of Fire and rang for the household servants to lay out an overdue supper.
"It is good to be home," the ranger murmured almost to himself. He turned his head quickly as Haldir came up beside him. The elf's expression didn't alter.
"What? Aren't you glad to be back?" Aragorn felt his grin slip. It was harder than ever to gauge the marchwarden's moods these days; and it had been a tight rope to walk on the journey back. He thought now that they were finally safe, finally free…
"It's not my home."
"There are beds though." Aragorn quipped. "Feather mattresses. Real pillows and clean sheets. Better food than I can cook."
The marchwarden closed his eyes longingly and when he opened them again there was a glimmer in them that might have been the rekindling light of his old, sardonic self. "Not that that's much of a feat though—you can hardly boil water."
"Hey!" Aragorn protested with less indignation than he normally would have.
"Are you two coming?" Halbarad called from the entrance into the Hall. "I'm not holding this door ajar all night."
Though the hall was rapidly filling, other guests of Rivendell had already reached it ahead of them. A group of elves sat near the wall-to-wall fireplace. They all wore similar battledress of silver and black draped in cloaks clasped with a silver-threaded mallorn leaf. Their hair, braided after the fashion of Silvan warriors, was fairer than wheat fields under a summer sun. The firelight fell on their handsome and intrigued faces as they watched the newest arrivals enter.
When Aragorn and Haldir stepped into the hall, two of them rose immediately with cries of welcome.
Aragorn thought he heard Haldir utter a soft groan but the two elves were already upon them.
"Haldir! What kept you?"
The Lothlórien captain dodged his brothers' exuberant embraces with a nimbleness of limb Aragorn hadn't seen in some time and banked towards the low table which was scattered with the evidence of a leisurely night. The Galadhrim company rose and saluted their returning officer. Haldir ignored the courtesy and instead swept aside drinks and a pair of dice so he could avail himself of a seat on the table. Legs dangling inches from the floor, he spied a decanter in the middle of the table, borrowed a glass from the elf nearest him and poured himself a generous measure.
"Welcome back, Captain," one of the elves ventured after a minute of silence.
Haldir raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement as he drained the glass. Refilling it, he shot a look over his neighbor's head at his brothers. "What are you doing here?"
"You can take a moment, you know, to say, 'Well met, brothers.'" Orophin said with a grin. "We know you don't like writing dispatches, Haldir, but what kind of brother doesn't send a letter or two to his own kin every couple of months or so?"
"Apparently a forgetful one," Haldir supplied dryly, shooting a meaningful glance at Aragorn. His gaze drifted as the buzz of chatter rose around them. The rangers were helping to erect a long table and spread it with a white cloth so the food could be brought in. The men and women of Fornost stared around the hall in awe, their faces alight and burnished by the fire glow. "You still haven't answered my question."
Rúmil in turn ignored his eldest brother. "What I find curious," His eyes narrowed shrewdly as they scrutinized the gaunt face. "is not so much why we are here, but why you were not here when we arrived. It's been more than a sennight. What have you been doing?"
"I am the superior officer; I get my questions answered first," Haldir retorted, turning abruptly to his young neighbor since his brothers proved so unhelpful. "Why are you here, Gilas? And why did your sergeant so foolishly see fit to bring the entire patrol with you?"
The named elf, a soldier with arms and shoulders just beginning to gain the muscle and sinew of maturity, colored at being directly addressed by his captain.
"Orders, sir," Gilas started with an uncertain glance at his sergeant. "From the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn…they had news of trouble in the north…"
Haldir had been watching him with unusually rapt attention. Uncomfortable and unaccustomed to such penetrating scrutiny, Gilas trailed away into awkward silence.
His captain smiled indulgently. "The Lord and Lady have their own ways of gathering news and from sources more reliable and swift than a patrol can relay in several months' time—longer when they travel so close to wintertide and the mountain passes' yearly closing. That's not even a little bit true, is it?" He speculatively fingered a lock of the young elf's hair, the unbraided length of which proclaimed him a novice yet untried in battle.
A closed look deepened the hollows around the marchwarden's eyes as if he recalled some yet fresh grief. Older and more battle-proven warriors than this one before him had died from a simple errand that had taken a more perilous twist than any had foreseen. All their experience and skill had not spared them from orcs' cruel swords. The deaths of Galen and young Lalaithien had hit the Lothlórien captain hardest of all once Aragorn had broken the news to him. To see another green, untried life risked in a needless trek over the mountains scorched his blood with anger.
"Not even blooded yet." He threw a remonstrating look at Rúmil that was too hot in its intensity and sharpened his tone. "Has Lothlórien's defense grown so desperate in my very short absence that we are taking children now to fill gaps in the ranks?"
The youthful soldier once released from his captain's grasp flushed even deeper, a slight furrow appearing between his brows, and feigned intense interest in the table grain while Rúmil rested his hands akimbo in exasperation. Haldir returned the look with a cocked eyebrow.
"Gilas is more than of age, Captain, as you well know, and though he has not yet snared his first orc, he has proved his skill and value more than once on the journey here."
"I'm sure he's proved most valuable rolling up bedding and fetching ration supplies," Haldir returned, taking a blithe and much more appreciative taste of the pale gold liquor.
"They are all perfectly trained," Rúmil ground out, an undercurrent of umbrage suffusing his tone.
"Oh, did I hurt the tough old drill sergeant's feelings?"
"Why can you not tell us where you were? Or rather, why do you not want to tell us where you were?" Orophin—who had realized sooner than his younger brother that Haldir was trying to manipulate the conversation to suit him—silenced Rúmil's indignation. His gaze raked down the red sleeve to where his eldest brother's hand rested on the tabletop. Two of the fingers were taped up which Haldir surreptitiously shifted to his lap and concealed under his good hand.
"What are you hiding?"
"I haven't bathed in weeks."
One of the elves behind him snorted with laughter, stifling it hastily.
Rúmil was less amused. "You're evading the—"
"Veil! You're just the distract—the company I need! I want you to meet the most highly trained bed-rollers and ration-fetchers on either side of the mountains."
Puzzled but obliging, the scrawny man came over to shake hands with the Galadhrim.
Henna bounded up behind him, flashing her small, white teeth. "We get our own beds and everything! With sheets and real soft pillows filled with feathers!"
Veil stretched out a hand to the elf captain last. "I've been meaning to thank you. Henna told me what you did for them. The orcs would have…I can't tell you the nightmares I had thinking I'd be too late. So, thank you from the very deepest well of my heart. That thanks goes to you too, Strider."
Aragorn relinquished his weight from the pillar he had been leaning against and clasped the man's hand in both of his. "You are your own master now."
Veil nodded as if he still couldn't quite believe it. "You know I was talking to that lordly elf—calls himself Glorfindel. He said we could stay the winter and then come spring, he and his guards'll help us find a place to settle up north of the Loudwater. Grand folk, all around, grand folk." He smiled as Henna bumped up against him. "What do you say to these gentlemen, my girl?"
"Thank you." She glanced shyly at Aragorn but walked right up to Haldir and pulled on his shoulder until he leaned down to her height so she could peck him on the cheek.
"Is she allowed to do that?" Gilas' soft whisper made Aragorn grin.
Haldir blinked as he straightened. The brush of her dry lips had felt oddly cool and no answering warmth filled his heart as he thought it would.
Henna hauled on her father's arm. "Come on, Papa. They're putting out sweet things on the table. Apple tarts! That greedy Egle said she was going to eat them all if we don't get over there to try them right now!"
"You've got a talker now, Veil," Aragorn teased, his tired eyes twinkling.
"Bless her heart, I can't shut her up," Veil grinned over his shoulder as his daughter snagged his sleeve and tugged him off towards the food-laden table.
Orophin took his eyes slowly from the human girl and her father to frown at his brother. Neither he nor Rúmil knew much of the common language. "He…thanked you?"
"You ran into orcs," It was almost an accusation flying from Rúmil who recognized the Common word for yrch all too easily after his years on the fences.
Haldir set his second glass down with a quiet clink. Nothing short of an act of Ilúvatar would force him to divulge what he had pushed to the back of his mind to his brothers especially not in full earshot of his patrol and Elrond's household staff. Thankfully none save Gûrion, the sons of Elrond, and Aragorn knew in full what had happened to him among the orcs. And they would all keep silence.
Almost unconsciously, his eyes sought out Aragorn, who had remained strangely quiet, for which Haldir was grateful and a touch disconcerted. Normally the ranger would have spoken up some time ago in his own unobtrusive way. Either he didn't want to interfere in a family matter—though that had never stopped him before—or…Haldir looked more closely at the ranger who was staring blankly across the hall. He actually hadn't really looked at the ranger in what felt like a long time. Had those care lines always been there? Those shadows under his eyes certainly hadn't. Aragorn looked tired, drained. The marchwarden had never asked what healing him had cost. He was glad he hadn't.
He blinked, sensing Rúmil was glaring at him now, more out of worry than real anger he knew from long experience. Being still underage at the time of the Last Alliance when two elder brothers and a father, who would not return, went off to fight made his youngest brother all the more fretful for the members of his family he still had left. Orophin was a little more tactful and managed to hide his concern better.
However, that did not stop their insistence from rankling their eldest brother. "Who is the officer in charge here? I forget."
"Right. Then, am I accountable to you? No. Do I need to detail every aspect of my movements for your close examination or approval? Absolutely not. I do not think—"
"We are your kin, Haldir, not only your subordinates—that I have to remind you of that fact is—"
"There was a message…"
Rúmil, Orophin, and Haldir all turned and looked at Aragorn who had spoken, the latter's eyes widened but the man continued anyway. "…from a Galadhrim scout. He brought tidings we decided to investigate. It took longer than we thought."
"And you couldn't say that?" Rúmil folded his arms without losing a fraction of his earlier suspicion.
Haldir shrugged one shoulder, the picture of careful nonchalance.
"Perhaps if you are willing to say less than Estel, Haldir, we can put a few things together ourselves. Lord Elrond told us you had discovered something about the northern-road messenger Caladir who Estel mentioned. Now perhaps you discovered what his message contained, perhaps it held news of import, and you, doing your obligatory duty, relentlessly searched for the truth of his message. Then…you ran into trouble—and injuries. Knowing you, some of those injuries were doubtlessly severe which you always feel you have to conceal from us." Rúmil was trying to speak objectively, as he might have questioned his captain had the officer not been his brother—he was failing miserably.
Haldir's eyes had narrowed steadily through this little speech: a sign that his patience was rapidly wearing down. Rúmil was hitting too close to the mark and at any given instant he might strike the heart. To allow himself time to think, the marchwarden quaffed a third glass and prompted Gilas for another. He waited until the obliging recruit had sufficiently topped his glass up before replying. "Brilliant, Rúmil. As always, it's the fault of my vaunted pride."
Orophin rested a mediating hand on Rúmil's shoulder and fastened his elder brother with a pleading gaze. "That's not what he is trying to say, Haldir. You are so thin, muindor. I will readily swear you have lost at least a stone since we last saw you. Is it any wonder we want to know what happened?"
"Try living on Estel's cooking for a few months and see how you look. You both can interrogate me until—"
"We're not interrogating you."
"We only want to know—"
"You can interrogate me until blood starts spurting out of my nose. My answers will not change. As it stands, I can think of many interrogators far more frightening than either of you." There was a touch too much desperation in that last as the memory of a fell, haunting shadow stirred insidiously at the back of his mind. He hastily checked himself but he could not be sure Rúmil or Orophin had not heard it.
Aragorn had. His eyes, instantly cleared of all weariness, flashed towards his friend's face, the same, alert expression Haldir had seen far too many times over the long ride home tensing the new lines around the ranger's eyes. He hated that look but right now it was almost welcome. At least Aragorn understood that he didn't care to discuss what he had been through since, for the first time in months, he was in a place where he didn't see reminders of his suffering everywhere.
"Please," the ranger's soft voice broke the tension between the three brothers. "Rúmil, Orophin, I know what it's like to be worried for a brother and I know it's hard to wait but we really have just returned tonight." He darted a look at Haldir as he moved to stand between them. "A few hours of rest will help us—" A spasm of pain contorted his face, and he suddenly gripped his bound shoulder.
Haldir looked at him sharply. The man's face was tinged white. The elf hastily set his glass down but didn't know whether he should lend his friend a hand or say something. Aragorn was deathly pale, jaw clenched, teeth bared. Haldir felt a pounding at his temple as the noise of merrymaking around him muted, the golden light dimmed and the walls seemed to narrow suffocatingly close.
Aragorn, his face a blaze of whiteness and wrenching pain stared panic-eyed up at him "Please…Haldir…You and I are friends, don't do this."
A saber blade scythed.
Gilas, who was sitting nearest, leapt up with a shocked and dismayed cry.
Haldir's hands had flexed jerkily as if to check the deadly saber and instead of catching steel had inadvertently upset his goblet which spilled its contents over Gilas' lap. Gilas' surprised yelp and the sound of shattering glass jolted him out of the daze. He stared, disoriented, at the young elf, who hurriedly bent to mop up the spilled liquor and gingerly collect the large, jagged slivers of the cup.
The room had fallen briefly silent as the revelers glanced curiously towards the disturbance. Aragorn's brow furrowed; he was still clutching his shoulder.
"Haldir?" Orophin's concerned voice barely registered, but the touch on his arm seared like a brand. The captain jerked away, covering the harsh flinch by sliding off his seat. Low murmurs and confused questions rumbled under the ringing in his ears and, glancing around, he saw distorted faces turned towards his, seemingly hideous, mocking faces. Only gradually did they sharpen into non-threatening focus. Though the hall was large, he felt trammeled, instinctively sought an escape. A near door beckoned freedom.
"Captain? What is it?"
He strode so as to not seem to retreat towards the door leading out into the blessed quiet of the entry hall, head still pounding. He reached the staircase before complete solitude brought him to a full stop. Resting one forearm steadyingly against the cool, firm wood of the banister, he inhaled lung-deep breaths that expanded his chest to its limit. He pictured the heights of ashes, oaks, aspens, and mellyrn in his mind until his heart settled to a calmer rhythm, and his mind stopped whirling with those confusing, nausea-inducing images he hadn't been able to shake. Sweat soaked his temples. The back of his tunic cooled and clung to his skin with too-familiar discomfort as the minutes dragged by.
The addressed closed his eyes. Without turning, he knew who had come after him. He who had always come after him.
Hard-soled boots tapped warily on the stone floor, steady at first then slowing as if the one who approached wasn't quite sure of his welcome.
Haldir gave his friend a wan smile over his shoulder. "You know how fond of social events I am." Every vestige of feigned nonchalance dropped when Aragorn continued to regard him only with concern. "Should I be looking for Orophin and Rúmil to come dashing indignantly out of the Hall now?"
"No. I told them I would explain later."
"I forbid you to speak to them of this."
"They should know, Haldir."
"I took you into my confidence, Estel. I told you what happened. If I had known you would want to gossip to all and sundry, I might have reconsidered."
"If by 'confidence' you mean dismissing your injuries and refusing to talk about what happened then—"
"You're the one who seems so eager to talk about it, not I."
When Haldir refused to look at him, Aragorn circled round the banister and sat on the bottom step so he could look up into his friend's face. "What did you see?"
"The glass slipped out of my hand, that's all!" That hand was currently white-knuckling the railing. Aragorn waited patiently without speaking. Haldir knew that silence was meant to pry a truthful answer out of him. The awful, weighted quiet pierced his nerve before he admitted,
"It's just a soldier's heart acting up. I've been plagued with it for years."
"It's gotten worse." It wasn't a question. Aragorn was a healer; he knew the signs. With an uneasy glance over his shoulder, he lowered his voice as if to emphasize his solicitous sincerity. "Your brothers are only worried about you."
It was not only his brothers who were worried, Haldir reflected. With a willful effort, he loosened his death grip on the abused banister. "They always worry. That's why they're here—do not let them tell you otherwise. They were looking for me. They always do," he inhaled forcefully and let it out with a touch less aggravation, speaking as he would to an errant recruit who had questioned his orders.
"Worry is incessant—especially if you're a soldier and even more so if you're a soldier with kin in the same regiment. If indulged, that worry turns to fear, which turns to overprotection, which turns to restriction—none of which I need from my younger brothers. Or from you for that matter," Aragorn pressed his lips together uncertainly but Haldir didn't give him the chance to interrupt. "Do you remember when you and I first met, one of my…brasher warriors made that indiscreet remark about my little jaunt as a prisoner of men some years ago?"
'Some years' actually numbered more closely to two millennia. Some days more than others those memories felt much closer.
"Vividly," Aragorn replied. Haldir's mistreatment at the hands of a band of rogue soldiers and the fear and hatred he had suffered afterwards had almost stood in the way of their friendship. The bitterness had tempered with Aragorn's unremitting patience and resolve. The memory of his torture had not.
"When Rúmil and Orophin learned what had happened—when I made the grievous error of actually telling them—they…they were horrified. Rúmil could not look at me he was so stricken. Orophin stared. Every conversation for months after that contained an unspoken interrogation. About that which I wanted very much to forget. Tell them whatever excuse you can think of. In the end, we returned as soon as we could. What I choose to tell them—if I choose to tell them—is just that. My choice. I expect you to respect that."
It was the most he'd said since he'd woken.
"I don't think I could conceal such a thing from my own brothers."
"You are not me. You are also not the eldest, there's no reason—or way—you would be able to conceal anything from them. And you're a terrible dissembler."
"I think Rúmil and Orophin have already started to guess," Aragorn, ignoring the jab, gestured at the elf's face and bandaged hand. "How can you hide this from them?"
But Haldir wasn't going to let him pursue the subject further. His gaze flickered down to where the ranger cradled the wrist of his injured arm. "You didn't tell me it still hurt."
"It…twinges sometimes. I overstrained it riding so much today," Aragorn dismissed distractedly.
"Actually," the elf continued on his own train of thought. "you didn't tell me how you acquired such a fine war decoration at all." His eyes darted up to the man's face.
The ranger shook his head instead of shrugging which would have hurt. His eyes slid to a distant point over the elf's right shoulder as they always did when Haldir confronted him with a question he didn't want to answer. It had happened enough during the homeward journey for Haldir to recognize the pattern. First the point over the shoulder…then he'll start worrying his belt…
"I was…struck by an enemy blade during the battle," Aragorn muttered, picking at the notches in his leather belt. "Gûrion said rest will mend it."
Haldir shook his head, but would not press his friend for the truth. He didn't want to hear from Aragorn's lips what he had already heard and seen in his nightmares and in the brief, frightening flashes that occasionally set upon him at the most innocuous times—like tonight. They were in Rivendell. They were as close to safe as they could ever get. The Witch-king was gone from the North even though Haldir knew with cold certainty that he was not defeated. Mere fire would not kill what that creature was.
Although the peril of road and wraith had been left behind them, a continuing sense of danger plagued him nonetheless. Not from without: enemies could not enter the valley, but from within. This wasn't the first time he had confronted darkness in himself. Whether it was a splinter broken off from the greater Shadow that had marred all of Arda and its inhabitants, or a flaw within himself, he didn't know—perhaps it was both. Every time he had unearthed the rotten seedling, he had hurt those closest to him: his command, his brothers, and now Estel.
The elf blinked and dropped his eyes so he wouldn't have to meet Aragorn's consternated gaze. It was better for both of them in the end for him to quietly withdraw from the ranger's life, to be content as a fond memory if nothing else. He had said once before (granted the ranger had been unconscious at the time) that it would be better if they parted, but Aragorn's untarnished trust in him and willingness to see beyond even the most grievous transgressions had always dissuaded him. This time though, the ranger's optimism wouldn't tip the scales. Not if the marchwarden's own nature conspired to his undoing. Better it beleaguer him across the Sea than make him responsible for the death of his young friend.
That young friend playfully smacked his leg to get his attention, not being able to read the elf's mind and know the grim decisions being made behind those familiar, inscrutable eyes. "If you're dozing off on your feet, you're better off doing so on a feather mattress. It's been a long day."
Aragorn seemed to sense his friend's thinly veiled unhappiness. "It will be all right. We're home now. It just takes time to..."
"Not time," Haldir corrected, staring over Aragorn's head, for looking too closely at the man's earnest face would buckle his shaky resolve. Despite himself, he had grown rather fond of the ranger after his own fashion and the thought of parting from him set a dull, empty ache gnawing in his chest. The strength of it surprised him. "The passing of time never changes things. Only actions change things, change them. Were it time alone we had to contend with, we would find our lot easier and Men would need only fear death by disease and old age instead of by the sword…I'm going to bed."
Aragorn's eyes bored a worry-hole in the back of his neck until he escaped onto the dark landing.
Aragorn looked up slowly as his father knocked and let himself into his youngest son's bedchamber.
"One of Haldir's brothers told me something was amiss and I did not see you come back into the dining hall."
"Haldir and I were both tired so we just came upstairs. I am sorry we worried you unnecessarily."
Elrond cocked an eyebrow which Aragorn knew meant the elf-lord only partially believed him. "Fortunately, those goblets were but glass and fairly new or I think Sadron might have hounded the poor marchwarden out of the house entirely. You look strained," his father's keen eyes seldom missed anything. "What of that shoulder?"
"Gûrion tended it, Adar. He said—"
"Yes, well, sometimes these wounds can be mischievous and rest does not always mend them. Let me see."
Aragorn submitted silently to his father; he had never been able to do anything else. The elf-lord with gentle, practiced care removed the sling and the shirt beneath it, revealing the pristine dressing that gave no hint to the damage concealed beneath its whiteness.
Aragorn closed his eyes as his father's cool fingertips searched the stitches, gently prodding, testing for suppurating or broken threads.
"This was deep, Estel. It looks like a tendon was severed. Have you tried to move your arm?"
"A little but Gûrion always got angry with me."
"He would if the wound threatened to bleed again but I think it is healed enough now. I can remove the stitches. Let me fetch a few things first."
"As it happens, I am glad for this time with you, Adar, I wanted to...speak with you." The ranger flinched at the strange sensation when his father after cleansing the wound of encrusted blood and scar tissue and slicing the knot, gave the comfortably ensconced stitches a little, coaxing tug with a pair of delicate pincers.
"And I with you. What made this?" Elrond deftly plucked out the last of the threads and swabbed the wound with an astringent-smelling paste before taping a light bandage over his expert work.
Hesitating only a moment, Aragorn pulled a long, tightly furled bundle from the pack on his bed and handed it to his father. It clinked softly as Elrond set it on the table and drew back the wrappings to reveal a battered leather hilt and steel fragments. Elrond cradled the heavy and now-unbalanced hilt that retained barely a fingerbreadth of blade and examined it closely.
The hilt, a half more than a hand span in length, bore no crossguard and the grip though well-worn from the touch of calloused hands and exposed to the elements and time had been meticulously mended. A subtle filigree of golden leaves and vines unfurled along the edge of the blade until the abrupt break. Elegant and serviceable, it was clearly no orc weapon. The shards of its curving blade lay in myriad pieces, all razor-edged from the violence of their sundering. The elf-lord selected a tapering edge that might once have been the tip.
Aragorn found himself trying to mitigate the tense silence. "I…could not just throw it away. It is as dear to Haldir as his soul. I thought, perhaps, our smiths might be able to reforge it."
"It is badly shattered. You may need a new blade entire." A brownish crust stained the piece he held and both the healer and former warrior in the elf-lord recognized blood. "I think you had better tell me the full tale of this, Estel."
Aragorn did. Unlike the revised versions he had told Halbarad and his brothers, he could never tell even a half-truth to the elf who had succored him since he was a small child. It was hard to relive it though. He spoke of discovering the Imladris patrol slaughtered on the road, and meeting the only three survivors in Amon-en-Achas. He spoke of the squalor of the orc camp and finding Haldir and later of Angrad's terrible betrayal and the death of Galen.
Elrond did not interrupt him and sat very still with his hands folded under his chin in a posture of deep attention. It wasn't until Aragorn confessed the desperate decision to invade Fornost and his capture and interrogation by the Witch-king that Elrond gave any sign of distress. His eyes widened and the look of alarm that flared across his face made Aragorn pause.
"What did he ask you?" Elrond demanded, a calm mask once more falling over his features though Aragorn still detected a glimmer of something he would have said was panic had it been on any other face than that of the Lord of Imladris.
"He asked me who I was. I gave him no answer. Then he demanded the answer of Haldir…" Aragorn had not withheld just how far under the shadow of the Nazgûl Haldir had fallen. The memory of his friend's ghostly eyes and blank expression, how close he had come to losing the elf, still haunted him and his mind shied away from dredging up the memory.
"And?" Elrond prompted gently though with a tinge of sharpness when his son did not continue.
"He said that I was a ranger of the North, a chieftain of the Dúnedain…nothing more. The wraith had tortured him for weeks and that was all he would say even under threat of death. The Nazgûl fled when Glorfindel came." Aragorn realized his eyes were stinging as if he'd gotten candle smoke in them and scrubbed them roughly with the heel of his hand. It came away wet.
Elrond gave his son a brief respite and brushed his arm consolingly though his eyes still bore their look of haunted alarm. "I did not seriously consider that the Enemy would return to the North after all this time. A tragic oversight I intend to rectify with all haste. Glorfindel informed me that he has left hidden sentinels to warn us beforehand should orcs ever try to muster again and he will send a regiment there to dismantle the ruins. It is long past time that dreadful bastion was pulled down. I was deeply grieved to hear of the fall of so many valiant warriors. However, I was also told that those who were injured made a full and miraculous recovery—including the marchwarden."
"I wish you had been there, Adar," Aragorn said in a slightly muffled voice. "They told me he was going to die. I did not know what to do. The athelas was a last effort—an effort that I did not think would succeed. When I touched him, I felt something dark, something…like the wraith trying to seize him again. It was a fight I wasn't sure I could win. But it was a fight I had to win. I think he…Haldir knew I was there. I do not know how to explain it…Gûrion said it was the greatest feat of healing he had ever seen."
Elrond's face glowed with pride though his heart was heavy. "You found yourself tested, Estel, in the worst way possible—the realization that you might lose someone you care deeply for—and not only did you attempt what many healers both older and more experienced than you would have quailed at but you succeeded. All too often skilled healers Gûrion and myself included have been sorely tried by such wounds and have lost those we wished we could have kept with us," his noble face softened with old sorrow and love. Aragorn thought he might be remembering his wife. A loving smile cleared the grief. "It is not a small feat, Estel, to do what you have done. Haldir, I'm sure, is very grateful."
Aragorn glanced out the window. The twilight had quietly progressed into true evening by now and a drape of darkness lay on the valley with the nearest stream disturbed only by the odd breath of wind. "He is…troubled still."
"The broken glass?"
Aragorn nodded. "He will tell his brothers nothing if he can get away with it."
"And he has doubtlessly ensured your silence as well?" Elrond guessed with a slightly disapproving lift of his eyebrows.
"He asked me not to speak of it."
"That is not well done."
"He has suffered," Aragorn argued, defensive on his friend's behalf. "If he does not wish to be interrogated about that which he would rather forget then I will not—" An upraised hand cut him short.
"Haldir may make his excuses but I would rather not hear them from your mouth."
Aragorn subsided and though Elrond shook his head, he did not criticize the elf captain further. Instead, he leaned forward and tilted up the sullen chin so he could look into his son's pallid face.
"What else troubles you, Estel? You do not look as if you've slept well."
Aragorn fiddled with his belt, trying to avoid his father's eyes. It was true enough. He had not spoken to Haldir or Halbarad, or even his brothers about the nightmares that had started plaguing him shortly after they left Fornost.
A burning, blank, white face, all the more terrible for its familiarity, bent over him, a naked saber blade pressed against his chest. He could do nothing but gaze up helplessly as the saber pushed down, sinking a full half-length into his stomach. It ripped a wide swathe down until wetness leaked over his tunic and his world spun into gushing crimson and black. He woke in a sweat, running shaking hands over his chest as if expecting to brush bared ribs or loosened entrails.
And after the night stilled and some amount of normalcy returned, guilt took the place of the panic fluttering in his breast. He knew Haldir would never have hurt him had he not been under the shadow's influence. Unfortunately, that did not mean he was not affected by what the elf had done.
The young man's eyes strayed towards the saber blade. He touched the piece his father had picked up earlier. "I cannot blame him for what happened. But…sometimes…I cannot help…He comes up behind me and I flinch or he looks at me strangely and something crawls up the back of my neck that makes me feel sick. And I do not know why I do that. He is my friend and I need to help him not—"
"—fear him," Elrond finished quietly. "You do not blame him, Estel, nor should you but you also cannot ignore that his actions, willing or not, hurt you. Some part of you will never forget that, but the best thing you can do is let those memories fade. Make new ones that help you realize that your fear was unfounded and that Haldir is still your friend regardless of what has happened between you. Now that you are home, it is the perfect time to do just that."
"I have to take action to change things," Aragorn agreed, his chest suddenly lightening as if the heaviest of his burdens had been lifted from it and his parting smile didn't feel forced when he squeezed his father's hand.
The contentment remained on Aragorn's softened countenance long after the door closed behind his father.
Clear sunlight spilling through a gap in the curtains warmed Aragorn's tousled, dark hair and roused him from deep slumber. He blinked his eyes open slowly, a lazy smile curling his mouth as he stretched luxuriously warm limbs, reveling in the familiar comfort of his own bed. It had been what felt like a long time since he had slept so soundly. He was by carefully cultivated habit, an early riser; within only a week something as simple as a mattress and a down-stuffed quilt had torn apart that long-standing custom as easily as burnt parchment.
Judging by the angle of the sunlight sneaking into his room, he had already slept the mid-morning away. He rolled reluctantly over and stretched his shoulder, pleased to feel only a slight stiffness in the mending limb. It would take some strenuous sword work to gain back the muscle and ease of movement he had had before the battle; and he might never be a great shot with a bow but soon only the addition of a new, shiny scar would remain to remind him of the injury—at least physically.
The morning's ablutions took him only minutes. Finishing off the fastenings on a clean tunic, he peered into Haldir's room which stood open. The bed was neatly made up with no sign of its occupant. The marchwarden was already up and about this morning. If he had even slept.
Though thus far, the ranger had kept his promise not to say anything to Rúmil and Orophin, it was growing harder by the day. Haldir's appearance at the breakfast table, when he did show, was tense, drawn, and sallow-skinned, with darkening circles under his eyes attesting to one more restless night. Aragorn suspected at more apprehensive times that drink had shown a hand in tainting his friend's complexion and manner with these telltale signs. He didn't ask what was troubling the elf for the terrible memories of Fornost still disturbed his spirit as well.
He was heeding his thoughts so attentively he did not attend to where he was wandering until he nearly trod on a tall elf taking air out on a graceful bridge that spanned one of Imladris' many glittering streams—not the elf of his thoughts but a familiar face nonetheless. The ranger leaned on the ornate railing, shifting more of his weight to his right arm to keep his left shoulder unstrained.
Rancir glanced at him, managing to convey in that one look both a good morning and the subtle displeasure of a militaristic disciplinarian who, on mere principle, was irritated by those who wasted half the day abed. The only thing he said though was, "I see you are free of your baneful restriction at last."
"At last," Aragorn echoed, flexing his left shoulder and wincing slightly. "I heard you recovered well."
"I had a very dutiful nurse." A shadow of a smile flitted across Rancir's lean face as he glanced towards the further end of the bridge.
"You are released back to active duty then? Are you going back to the Bruinen outpost?"
Rancir idly fingered the little, raised tracings of wrought iron vines that wound around the railing. "I have resigned my commission. Lord Elrond has released me from service with an honorable discharge and his blessings. You seem surprised."
Aragorn shut his mouth more firmly and watched the ivy trailing up the house's north-facing wall. "No. Not at all."
"I cannot follow at battle's heels any longer. She has taken her toll of me, and it was a high wergild paid, but one I would pay over again if necessary. It was an honor to, for however small a time, be part of ridding the north of darkness."
"It was an honor to fight at your side."
Rancir looked at him keenly and nodded shortly to return the sentiment before directing his gaze to the stream burbling away below them. "It almost laughs, doesn't it? There are tiny, glittering green stones on the bottom, run smooth, but they do seem to sing every now and again pending how the water runs."
"Rancir, you're a poet!"
The former commander laughed. Aragorn was surprised for the second time that morning. Such a rich, warm, genuine sound, it was and the raven-haired elf's eyes glowed, not with vermillion battle light or vengeful fervor but with honest good humor.
"No, never. Lalaithien always turned a pretty phrase better than could I—or any other for that matter."
Aragorn had no words for the expression that softened his counterpart's face at that moment: a blend of eternal fondness and deep grief that was taking its time in healing.
"And the marchwarden of Lothlórien?" Rancir asked after they had spent some minutes in pensive silence. "How does he fare? I have not seen much of him at meals though with a house this large, perhaps that is not so surprising…"
When Aragorn grimaced in reply, the older soldier grunted softly as if it did not surprise him.
The man leaned his forearms fully on the carven rail. "I think I have seen as much of him as you have. He is becoming a ghost."
Rancir read more in the ranger's eyes than Aragorn felt comfortable discussing aloud. "He prefers his own company over that of others—to worrying excess. He does not sleep or looks tired in the mornings as if he has not slept. Do you know if he's a drinker?"
Aragorn looked up at him with sudden intentness. He could ask Rancir. Rancir, above all people, would understand what Haldir was going through. And what might be done to help him. "What can I do?"
The dark-haired elf sighed and gazed absently out over the stream and the pine woodlands climbing up the further bank. "Against the counsel of any battle strategist with half a grain of sense, you risked not only your own life but the lives of those you hold dear for the sake of one soldier. Either you are an idiot and an incompetent future commanding officer or you bear within you a sense of faith and hope so deep it defies reason and may make you the greatest leader this world has ever seen."
Aragorn wasn't given time to answer that nor could he think of a way he might.
"Remembrance can be a shackle very much of our own forging. Fond remembrances are easy to bear though; if they are restraints in any way, they are ones we accept gladly. Ill ones though are cold-forged lead and drag at every pace. They punish more than any actual suffering and mercilessly flay the raw heart until it rots away. If the chains are not relieved of their burden, they grow heavier and heavier until we cannot help but sink beneath their weight." The elven warrior turned to look back towards the further end of the bridge again.
"How did you throw off your bonds?"
"I never did," the elf met his eyes squarely. "You cannot 'throw them off.' They are part of you and will always be so. But I am fortunate my burden is now a lighter one…"
He moved away from the ranger and, following the elf's progress, Aragorn caught sight of Ivriel walking towards them. A radiant smile illuminated the elf woman's face as Rancir lifted one of her sword-calloused hands in his and brushed her knuckles with a feather-soft kiss. Something glittered between them; and Aragorn noticed for the first time the silver betrothal band on the former commander's forefinger. Its mate encircled Ivriel's slender ring finger.
Though Aragorn smiled his heartfelt congratulations, he still craved one answer. "How can I help him?"
"Share the weight."
Bundles of dried herbs and field gear were piled negligently on the pine wood tabletop: a small vial of poppy extract, gentian roots, dried lavender in a small linen bag, a precious box of salt, hemlock. Beside them rested a thin, neatly braided loop of cord, rolls of fresh bandages, and a trimming knife, all spread near a much-battered leather satchel.
A green-necked decanter half-full, an empty vial serving as a glass rested on the counter. Haldir uncorked the former and surveyed the disorganized mess with a jaundiced eye as he filled the latter. Three times he had packed away his fresh supplies and each time he felt unsatisfied with their placement and emptied the satchel again. More than a week had already been wasted, he chided himself furiously, and each passing day only eroded his resolve the more.
Lord Elrond, after an uncomfortable examination in the infirmary, had tactfully suggested a longer stay but Haldir was adamant. He would leave before the mountain passes closed. Yes, his men were prepared for the winter weather. Yes, he knew the risks of traveling so soon in his still-battered condition. Yes, he was determined to go regardless. He had an uneasy feeling the elf-lord knew more than he freely revealed for Lord Elrond had gravely thanked him for saving his son's life and told him that Aragorn had spoken very highly of his actions at Fornost.
A bitter laugh threatened but with an effort he managed to soften it to a grimacing smile. He hadn't told Estel yet that he was leaving which was what had delayed him for so long. He couldn't seem to find the proper time. Or perhaps, a snide voice suggested, he didn't want to find the proper time.
He drained his glass and swept both it and the bottle into a small cabinet. Scooping up the other accoutrements, he hastily bundled them into his satchel and threw it under the table as he sensed someone standing in the corridor. He listened in tense silence for a moment then abruptly relaxed.
"I thought rangers were supposed to be well-practiced in stealth—or is breathing like a winded dwarf what passes for stealth among your ranks these days?" Haldir shot a scornful glance at the infirmary's open door as he retrieved his flask and satchel.
"It's a wonder Aragorn's withstood your blistering tongue for so long without bursting into flames!" Halbarad retorted, lingering just inside the doorway. "I would ask you to hold a moment," he requested when the captain sought to bypass him.
"Well, if you're only asking."
Halbarad side-stepped again.
Haldir let out a little hiss of frustration. "In case your eyes are as useless as your attempts at silence, I am not in the mood to dance right now."
"I am not asking you to dance. I need to discuss something with you."
"'Need to?' Are you going to die if words do not pass your lips into my ears? Talk to Estel. He will lend you a much readier ear than I will. And he doesn't find you insufferable." Haldir shouldered past him and the ranger turned over his shoulder.
"I wasn't wrong."
The elf stopped. Casting his eyes to the ceiling, he closed them and murmured. "I am going to regret this," Louder, he asked. "About what?"
Halbarad licked his lips uncertainly, his words slightly halting. "Did Aragorn tell you I urged him to abandon his pursuit? To leave Fornost even though…?"
"I thought that that would have been for the best. Our losses would have been less grievous if we had not challenged the Witch-king with so few. I wasn't wrong to urge him to withdraw but…" the man blocked the marchwarden's path when Haldir started to walk away. "I was wrong to think Aragorn might be mistaken in you and to think he might give in if I asked it of him."
"Instead, you gave in, and allowed him to court his own death."
"I am not the one who stabbed him."
Haldir flinched as if the ranger had stabbed him in return.
Halbarad's eyes narrowed shrewdly at the other warrior's unconsciously visible reaction. "It was you, wasn't it? He wouldn't even tell me that. I had to have it from the healer that the wound in his shoulder had been made by a blade that belonged to no orc. Aragorn told me you saved him. That he would have died under the Nazgûl's blade were it not for you."
Halbarad lowered himself slowly onto the bottom step of the staircase just outside the infirmary and rested his elbows on his knees. "I have never seen him so wild as the night after the battle. Aragorn would not believe it when Gûrion said you were going to die."
Haldir closed his eyes.
"He even snapped at me and I can count on three fingers the number of times that has ever happened…I want to be frank with you, Captain—"
"You were being subtle before now?"
A rueful grin twitched the man's lips. "—but I'm afraid of getting my tongue bitten off. You and I will never be boon companions. I think you are arrogant, reckless with lives other than your own, overbearing, and your stubbornness is only overmatched by your complete lack of sense for self-preservation."
"But for all that, Aragorn was willing to risk his life to save yours," Halbarad's weather worn fingers cradled the smoking bowl. "He's a frustratingly self-sacrificing man but even he doesn't do that at the hiss of every arrow. Or Nazgûl's blade as the case may be."
The glowing leaves illuminated his thoughtful face and sparked in his eyes as he lifted them to the elf's. "You do not strike me as the sort who makes or keeps friends easily but I've watched you and him on the journey back. You're close. I trust Aragorn's judgment more than my own in those matters though. If Aragorn can trust you so much, that must mean there is something of you worth saving even if I myself do not see it."
Haldir's gaze had slowly dropped to the floor, only looking up sharply when the ranger removed the pipe from his mouth, stood up and came towards him.
"You told me after our rather inauspicious meeting, that trust and respect are two things that are earned. I would be less than I am if I didn't tell you, you have earned mine."
Haldir stared at the proffered hand without taking it. Through the soft haze of pipe fumes, he said, "I am leaving. Soon. And I do not intend for Estel to come with me nor do I expect to see him after this. Our ways part here."
Halbarad withdrew his hand slowly. "Did you tell him?"
A small, shallow chip in the joints between the stonework offered a much-needed focal point for Haldir's gaze as he tried to avoid the ranger's. Something in Halbarad's quiet, unassuming manner reminded him of Aragorn which is what perhaps led him to admit, "I told him once before and he followed me nearly to his ruin. Rather would I…regret the manner of our parting now than mourn his death at my hands later." The brand of the eye on his right forearm pulsed angrily as if to remind him of the proof of his guilt.
Eyes still averted, he rent the smoky veil and strode up the stairs.
When his quiet knock remained unanswered, Aragorn let himself into Haldir's room. It was dark inside and no lamp had been lit. At first he wasn't even sure his friend was there until his eyes adjusted to the soft, grey light filtering through the windows from a cloudy night sky.
The marchwarden sat at a small table near the terrace doors, very still as if in deep contemplation. His tunic sleeves were rolled back, exposing forearms still overly lean and upturned on the wooden surface. In the faint light, with his marble complexion and the stillness of his form, he might have been a figure graven in the likeness of the ones that stood sentinel in the gardens.
Concern whispered a frosty breath against the back of Aragorn's neck as he set a long parcel on the dresser. "Haldir?"
Silver eyes, eerily ghostly in the trickling moonlight, shifted up to his face. Familiar pangs of horror were beginning to claw at Aragorn's chest, remembrances of pale, lifeless eyes and hissing voices. He tore away from the apparition's gaze and groped in the corner until his wrist contacted with a lamp, nearly knocking it over. The wick snapped up brightly and the silver eyes snapped shut, swiftly shaded by an upraised hand.
"Ah, Estel! A little warning would not go amiss!"
Aragorn was too relieved to hear that biting voice and no dead monotone that he took little heed of his friend's snappishness. "What are you doing sitting in the dark?"
"Well, it is not dark now."
"You missed the evening meal."
Aragorn's attuned ears did not miss the slight duskiness in his friend's usually smooth voice or the illuminated grey eyes, bloodshot under heavy lids which had given them their ghostly look. The lamplight glinted on a crystal tumbler and its much-depleted decanter.
Haldir followed the ranger's stare and with an almost self-conscious gesture slid the decanter out of the light. As he did so, Aragorn caught sight of something that made his stomach contract. The elf's forearm was clumsily bandaged, a widening stain of crimson tainting the clean white.
"Haldir, what happened?" Alarmed, the ranger lifted the pale limb between his hands to examine the wound.
The marchwarden regarded it curiously as if the ranger had merely asked an interesting question. "Apparently, deftness of the left hand in sword work does not extend to wrapping bandages."
"That's not what I meant. Let me look." Other worrisome things were scattered on the tabletop: stiffening scarlet gauze, and a trimming knife, formerly belonging to one of Elrond's higher drawers in the infirmary. A cold sinking where his heart had been, he unwound the gauze inch by delicate inch, dapping at the wound with a clean square when the bandage peeled away the glossy coagulation.
The white skin beneath was blemished by a deep, ugly gouge. Aragorn fingered the torn edges of the wound, scarcely recognizing the blistered remnants of what had been an eye-shaped burn. It looked like Haldir had tried to use the knife as a scraper and so carve the brand out of his arm. Thus the fortifying presence of the liquor.
"You'll need stitches but this needs to be cleaned better first." He retrieved water and a cloth from the washroom and set about laving the crusted blood away gently. He could only ask a healer's questions since the part of him that was Haldir's friend was whirling with nausea. "Do you have a thread and needle at least after raiding my father's drawers?" The elf reluctantly indicated his pack with an ungracious gesture.
Aragorn retrieved the needed instruments and set the lamp in the middle of the table so he would have enough light to see by. He slapped his friend's hand roughly away as he knelt next to the chair. "Stop picking at it. You are going to scar as it is."
Aragorn shook his head and upturned the elf's forearm on its owner's thigh, his lips pressed into a tight, thin line, an unconscious habit when anxiety gripped him by the throat. The words spilled out before he could stop himself. "I would think you had enough injuries to not want more." He flinched at the way that had sounded and felt Haldir's burning stare boring into the top of his head but he did not know what to apologize for since he had only spoken the truth. "Why, mellon nin?"
Haldir propped his free elbow on the table, shading his face with one hand from under which he watched as the ranger started stitching.
"I do not like seeing you hurt," Aragorn volunteered quietly when his friend remained obstinately silent.
"Well, you will not have to for much longer."
Aragorn loosened his newest suture to make sure it was not too tight and distractedly nodded his agreement. "You are healing well at least. Even the scars will fade in time."
"That's not what I meant, but that is also true."
Aragorn glanced up, but the elf captain shifted slightly in his seat and removed his eyes to the darkened window where little could be seen save the reflection of the lamplight in the glass. "You are…a very admirable man, Estel."
Haldir was not one for compliments and coming from him right now slightly startled the ranger. He paused in his work to regard his friend's pallid profile though the elf did not meet his eyes. The man frowned. "How much have you been drinking?"
The elf watched the candle flicker in the window and seemed not to have heard. "I assume you are not a horrible man as so many people seem to foolishly risk their lives on your behalf. You inspired us to what many would have believed an impossible victory. And you continually put up with me which, in my brothers' eyes, makes you worthy of a medal of commemoration. Therefore you are either a very admirable man. Or a very convincing liar—which we both know to be an untruth in itself. Are you finished yet? My arm's cramping."
Aragorn tied off the knot and reached for a length of gauze which was irreverently snatched out of his hands.
"I will do it."
The ranger folded his arms and waited, schooling his face into complete blankness as Haldir attempted to wrap up his arm with his left hand and, as he had the futile first time, only succeeded in hopelessly twisting the bandage. Aragorn let him simmer in frustration for a moment longer before he plucked it out of the elf's hands, wordlessly bound up the arm and taped it so it wouldn't come undone. He smoothed the gauze evenly only to lift his eyes from his neat work to find the elf watching him.
Haldir wore a strange look on his face, unapproachable and closed-off as usual, but Aragorn, who was growing rather skilled at reading his friend's moods, could see there was something more than discomfort in it. As if someone had passed a sword through his stomach and lacerated his insides.
"That's not too tight is it?" Aragorn asked, concerned.
The marchwarden pushed himself brusquely to his feet. Too soon. Aragorn watched his face drain of more color and made a grab for him. "Easy."
Haldir wrenched his arm out of the man's grip with a sudden, violent jerk. "Leave off! Why can you not leave me alone?"
The vehement shrillness at once suggestive of drink-riled temper and unknown frustration drove Aragorn back a startled pace. "I was just trying to help."
"No, you weren't. You startled when you came into the room. What reason have you for such fear, mellon nin?" The silver eyes were mocking and filled with a raging, desperate fire as they blazed at him from the dark corner.
Unconsciously, Aragorn retreated as if scorched by their glowing intensity, his lower back jarring hard against the table and toppling the lantern.
A humorless laugh that sounded more like a dry sob issued from across the room. "Are you really that afraid of me, Estel?"
Aragorn righted the light and, almost as an afterthought, picked it up and set it on the long trunk at the foot of the bed where it illuminated the entire room. Haldir was leaning against the dresser. There was no mockery in his face now. He stood shoulders bent as if under a severe weight like a wounded soldier in a battle that he has found beyond his strength to win. The flame in those silver eyes had sunk to an anguished smolder.
In two, bold strides, Aragorn crossed the room and gripped either side of the elf's shoulders, squeezing hard as if enough pressure from his fingers could force his friend to believe him. "I would never fear you, Haldir. Fear for you. But not of you. Remember, I have already witnessed what you think is darkness in you and I know better. I know better. Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see a brilliant soldier who has had more than his rightful share of ill-fortune; I see a staunch champion of what he believes is right, and I see a dear friend who I would gladly have given my life for."
They stared at each other for a long moment, and even when his eyes began to swim with the strain of holding his gaze, Aragorn did not blink or look away for an instant.
Slowly, the weight seemed to lift slightly from the marchwarden's shoulders which relaxed in the ranger's grip; but the heavy despair only seemed to deepen as the elf gently grasped Aragorn's wrists and detached them with a dolorous sigh. "Yet you cannot." He held the ranger's weatherworn fingers for a moment longer, watching them as if memorizing their calluses, before letting them slide from his grasp. "What is this?"
His eyes had fallen on the long package Aragorn had set on his dresser and completely forgotten. He presented it to the marchwarden with an attempt at a smile. The atmosphere still hung tense and uncertain around them as Haldir unwrapped the dark green oil-cloth.
"I had to steal the blade from one of your brothers to model it after," Aragorn said. "We had almost all the pieces though I thought the smiths were going to sob when I asked them if they could piece it together instead of merely replace it."
The curved length of a beautifully restored saber blade glittered in the folds of the green cloth. Haldir gripped the familiar hilt and drew the blade out slowly. Reverence seemed to flow through his fingers as he ran them from the elegantly tapered ricasso tracing up the fine inlay of golden leaves to the tip as keenly honed and deadly as winter's ice. He squinted down the length of well-oiled steel as if it were an extension of his arm and motioned Aragorn back a pace or two so he could test its perfect balance with a few easy swings.
Watching him, the ranger smiled contentedly. His friend was whole again. "I thought once you were feeling up to it, we could spar together."
Haldir sheathed the blade abruptly and laid the leathern scabbard softly on the trunk. "Thank you," but it was distracted, remote. The elf's form was there but his mind was far beyond the walls of this room.
A deep exhale made Aragorn's shoulders sink. He had vainly hoped for a little more enthusiasm. "You are straying on without me."
Haldir turned as if about to say something, seemed to change his mind, and shook his head uselessly. Turning the lantern down to a faint flutter, he stretched out on the counterpane, the bandaged forearm resting at his side as he stared up at the ceiling. "Leave the door open when you go."
Aragorn lifted his eyes from the discarded weapon and nodded slowly. He paused in the doorframe. "Sleep well, Haldir."
If the ranger noticed a peculiar roughness or finality in his friend's nightly benediction, he gave no sign of it and left the door open just enough to let the vigil lamp's light trickle in.
A soft roseate tint flushed the misty hollows of Imladris' pine woods and softened the starkness of the dark cobblestones in the courtyard. Dawn sprang fresh, clear and cold into the air and hung there like the mists, the early twilight still lingering under half-clad trees. Beneath the vine and mist-entwined arch sat a horseman, so still and statuesque he might have mirrored the garlanded elf maidens on either side of him save for the occasional restless twitch of his mount's ears and the light wind that teased a few flaxen strands over his broad shoulders.
Beyond him, nearer the house, other grey shadows moved soundlessly in the faint light, taking a last stock of gear, weapons, and supplies. They were under strict orders to keep silence, and one or two whispering to a comrade darted nervous glances across the courtyard. If they noted anything amiss with the manner of their leavetaking, they kept it amongst themselves.
Lord Elrond stood on the porch watching the preparations. After a few minutes, he descended the wide steps, shaking hands and patting the backs of the Galadhrim, accepting their thanks and appreciation for his hospitality with a gentle smile. That smile wavered slightly as he approached the horseman last who dismounted and inclined his head respectfully.
"I wish you a swift and safe journey, Captain, though I also wish you would consider delaying a little longer. The mountain passes will not remain open for many more weeks. There is already snow low on Caradhras."
"We are prepared for it, and duty will not wait," came the stoic reply. "My thanks for your generous hospitality, my lord. Our journey will be much more comfortable for your gifts, and I will pass on your good wishes to the Lord and Lady." It was a formal farewell.
Elrond would have none of it. "My friend, this is not the way to part. Not with a friend. Estel, I think, has earned better from you than a cold absence as his only farewell."
Haldir stiffened slightly and regarded the path ahead stonily. "I do not need you to remind me of what your son has done for me, but I am not skilled with farewells, my lord. I would have his memories of me remain, if not fond, then at least untainted with bitterness from poorly chosen words that are too difficult to retake once spoken."
One of the Galadhrim broke off from the main group before Elrond could argue and approached them both, bowing to the elf-lord and saluting his captain with a hand at his breast.
"Everyone able, Déorian?"
"Good. Go on then and form them up. Tell them not to mount until they reach here. It would be discourteous to rouse the household."
Haldir inclined his head once more to the master of the house and swung his leg nimbly over the horse's croup. The straight carriage of his shoulders never faltered nor did he look back as he rode through the main gate.
"A fine morning for stealing out of the house before dawn. Again."
Hurriedly clad in last night's clothes, Aragorn pulled up short at the head of the stairs and briefly closed his eyes in chagrin. "Why are you never up this early when my brothers volunteer me to muck out the stables?"
"Because then instead of spending an autumn morning warm and snug in bed, I find myself snug up to my armpits in horse dung," Halbarad, still tousle-haired and barefoot, emerged from his doorway with a cloak draped loosely around his shoulders. "I'd pay good coin to see the look on the elf's face when you show up. He thought he had everything fairly well-managed. I would advise you though, if you are going to eavesdrop in an infirmary corridor, at least do it before your evening pipe. I could smell you from the bottom of the stairs. Fortunately, I had mine."
Aragorn grinned sheepishly. "I will keep that in mind if I need to eavesdrop any further."
The older man clasped his chieftain's hand firmly in front of the double doors. "Good luck," he jerked his head towards the courtyard. "The old snark's got a manner on him that would blunt a straight razor, and I still can't say I like him much, but you do what you must. Take this; you'll need it. It looked cold this morning."
Soft, dove shadows cast by spindly branches dappled the leaf-strewn path. The company of Galadhrim made little sound except for the jingle of harness and their horses' thumping footfalls. Several yards in front rode their captain, who kept his back resolutely straight, his eyes focused ahead, but even Gilas whose youth placed him towards the rear could see the commanding officer's attention was not on the road. His profile was blank and distantly staring. Even when a sparrow darted low overhead and startled his horse, he scarcely stirred save to idly stroke her neck a few times to settle her, and soon returned to his previous unresponsive state.
The horses, accustomed to the command if not the voice that spoke it, obeyed. Haldir's neck cracked audibly as he whipped towards his left from which the order had come.
A lane too narrow for more than one horse to pass abreast branched off from the main road, and just under the draping leaves of a stately maple that crowned the small off-shoot stood Aragorn, without his sword or coat, only a verdant cloak thrown carelessly over his shoulders, and a tense readiness in his jaw that contradicted the uncertainty in his eyes.
When he had gained the company's attention, he wrapped his steed's reins around a low-hanging branch and walked boldly onto the road, looking up at the rider closest to him.
Haldir remained unmoved as any embattled solder facing the oncoming hordes. He had made no sign that he had even seen the man save for the movement of his head and perhaps a slight tightening of his grip on the reins.
Aragorn did not look discouraged by the lack of warmth or welcome in the marchwarden's implacable figure but drew still nearer, speaking in a clear voice that carried. "I am sorry I missed you at the house. Had I known you would be departing so soon I would have forthwith wished you well and spared myself an effort and you any detainment." Dropping his voice, he whispered in a soft voice both hurt and entreating, "I thought I merited a farewell at least, Haldir."
The captain's eyelids flickered once. Without taking his eyes from the ranger, he attracted Rúmil's attention. "Sergeant, a moment if you please."
Rúmil wordlessly gave the signal for the company to withdraw a little ways and granted the ranger a small, encouraging smile.
When they were alone enough to speak freely, Haldir dismounted.
"Why didn't you tell me you were leaving?" Aragorn demanded before the elf had even set foot on the ground.
Haldir sighed and tried a vacant smile that only enhanced the lifelessness in his eyes. "I was not going to summon you from your feather bed so early when there was no need."
"You are not a very convincing dissembler either, my friend," Aragorn told him, more pitying than angry though more than a thread of hurt remained.
Haldir stared at a clump of ageing foxglove near the roadside until the ranger's calloused fingertips brushed his shoulder.
"What?" the man leaned forward to look directly up into the taller warrior's eyes. "Did you hope to leave quietly? Slide out of my life like a shadow from sunlight as if you had never been? Despite your attempted furtiveness, Haldir, I am not so blind as you would like me. You have been saying farewell, yet I never heard the word."
Haldir stayed silent for more than a minute as if gathering his thoughts. He glanced at the hand still resting lightly on his shoulder and slowly stepped out from under it though the action jarred, stiff and painful. "It is better for us to part. That is twice now, I have brought you close to death and you have said no word of blame. Either you seek a premature end or I—why in the name of Mordor are you smiling?"
The cursed name of the black land and the sharply flaring anger with which the imprecation had been flung made Aragorn hastily compose his features though he only partially succeeded in his tone. "That is what you think? That you are a deathly influence on me; and we should quit each other for fear the curse that is you will fall on me before my rightful end?"
"Do not mock me, adan, I have not the patience for it this morn."
Aragorn held up his hands in a brief token of surrender. "Why did you not tell me this? You had ample time. Last night would have—"
"I was not going to burden you with more—"
"No," Aragorn cut him off, suddenly stern. "Not telling me how you felt burdens me. Watching you silently drown in guilt and pain…That burdens me. You are not a burden, Haldir, no matter how you like to wrap that shroud around yourself. If anything, you ought to heed your own well-being more than mine. Both of those times, if you recall, it was not I who took grievous hurt and stood near death."
"If a deathly shadow does lie on you it has poor aim," Aragorn quipped though his eyes had not lost their severe glitter. "I am not dead yet, and I would still have your friendship even if you will not have mine."
Haldir was still staring narrowly at him, but Aragorn sensed a slight give, if such could be said of the captain's forbidding expression, and decided to press forward. "I have been hunted all my life. Your presence will not change the minds of the hunters though it might change how long I live. Or whether I live."
A twitching smile threatened the corner of Aragorn's lips as he firmly clasped his arms around the broad shoulders. With his lips close to the elf's ear, he murmured, "If entreaty or offer of friendship does not move you, then what of debts? As you said, I taunted death on your behalf. Now, you owe me your life, and it would be churlish of me if I did not allow you the opportunity to repay that in kind someday." He dared tighten his embrace a little. "Safe travel, my friend."
The marchwarden pulled slowly back with a scowl more fond than seriously annoyed, but he still chucked the ranger under the chin hard enough to coax from it a satisfying crack of meeting teeth. "Then I will see my debt repaid. Now, I would like to reach the passes before spring if I may." He summoned his patrol forward.
"I knew Estel would win your capricious favor once more, Captain," Rúmil said as he rode up with the rest of the company. When his eldest brother fired a scorching look in his direction, he smoothed his braids over his shoulder unrepentantly. "It is well that he can, muindor! You have been utterly wretched this sennight past and very poor company. I would not have it so all the way back home."
Still rubbing his jaw gingerly, Aragorn managed a brilliant grin as he retrieved his horse's reins. "I will wait for the passes to reopen then and hope the time passes swiftly."
Haldir nodded once and led his company forward at a brisk trot up the sloping path. Soon, the boundaries of the Last Homely House dropped behind and the wilderness of Hollin stretched to the hazy foothills of the snow-gilded mountains. Every now and again, Gilas' attention wandered from the stark scenery to his captain's face. A hand resting easily on the saber strapped to his side, he was staring resolutely forward, but something else in his eyes and on his lips made the young warrior's eyes linger.
It might have been the shadow of a smile.
Ilúvatar—Eru, the One. Tolkien's version of God
Mellon nin—my friend
Final Author's Notes: A great, very heartfelt "Thank you" extended to all of you.
For those of you wondering, what is next for Haldir and Aragorn, I have several works in the making and a plethora of ideas though regretfully no confirmed title or preview.
Until the marchwarden and Dúnadan meet again...