A Warm Fire.

Halbarad's cloak had become a wet and heavy burden and he felt now that he could get no wetter if he fell into a lake. His boots, being a winter or two past their capacity were letting in cold water from every puddle and his unruly hair clung to his face like a frightened squirrel gripping a branch. Ahead were the gates of Bree. He quickened his pace and banged on the gate.

A man peered out. "Not a night for a journey, friend."

"A fine night for a mug of ale by a warm fire." said Halbarad, "You know me, so open the gate quickly."

The man nodded anxiously. "There is another of your kind here. Strider came an hour ago. He's in the Pony." He opened the gate and let Halbarad through, locking it again after him.

Halbarad put a coin in his hand. "That news is more welcome than you know. I had thought him nearer the mountains."

"I don't know why he'd go near the mountains. This is as near the mountains as I ever want to be, though I'm no ranger and wouldn't claim to know their thoughts."

Halbarad smiled and went into the Prancing Pony. Butterbur did not look pleased to see him, but greeted him politely enough all the same, gave him a mug of good ale and promised a warm room. Then he sent Nob to take Halbarad's cloak to the kitchen to dry.

Halbarad made straight for the fire, hoping there to dry the rest of his clothes quickly and assuming that Aragorn would have had the same idea. There he was, sitting near the fire and wryly watching Halbarad squelch over. "What news, Halbarad? And do not mention the weather, for I see that well enough." He spoke quietly, as the rangers always did where other ears might hear.

Halbarad replied in a similar tone. "Skirmishes and setbacks, but no real news. Little has happened in these parts of late. Which makes me wonder what brought you here. I did not expect you for at least a month."

"Mithrandir has asked me to watch the Shire well. There is something there that may need protection."

"That thing ..."

"I would not name it here, even if Mithrandir were certain. You have some idea of what it is. Let that be enough."

"We could watch the Shire. You have other concerns."

"None more pressing and many which make a distraction very welcome. Halbarad, there are many paths ahead of me. A misstep ends all."

"There is one path ahead of you, the path you will take. All others are illusions."

"And if the path I take is wrong?"

"Your journey will be longer, but it is not wrong. You have only ever trod the right path. Of all of us, you are the most sure-footed."

"Or the most afraid to stray, having most to lose."

Halbarad felt a trickle of water run down his back and grimaced. He sat at the table with Aragorn. "Can what you have be lost? What you are cannot be changed, though others may not see it for some time. What you have it in you to do cannot be taken from you, nor can any other lay claim to it." He lowered his voice still more, "That which is your chief joy and your chief sorrow is of no perishable nature." His voice now fell to a murmur. "One day, your standard will be lifted high and great lords shall come to your throne."

"I have no standard." said Aragorn, a weariness showing that had nothing to do with long journeys and battles. "I have no throne. I have a broken sword and a host of wild hopes that seem further from fulfilment than ever."

Halbarad sighed. "As your friend and kinsman, I wish this weight were on another's shoulders, but as your subject, I cannot wish for that. Your father, may his name be remembered, was a great man, but not your equal. If you have an equal in all the race of man, it must be Elendil or Beren."

A light came into Aragorn's eyes at that name, but he shook his head.

Halbarad went on, "Yes, Beren, son of Barahir. Did he think he could claim a Silmaril? Was not his quest as hopeless as yours? Some men are born to fulfil impossible quests. Is there a second LĂșthien in the world without a Beren to match her? Such a thing would trouble harpers and make old gossips of Gondor shake their heads."

A faint smile moved Aragorn's lips. His cool grey eyes met Halbarad's. "How is it, Halbarad, that you can give me hope in all times of doubt?"

"You are our hope, I only make you see yourself more clearly. You cannot fail, because our hope has never entirely failed. The time is coming and you will be ready. I will make another prediction. Gondor shall be lit by the Evenstar."

"You cannot know that." said Aragorn quickly.

"There is no great sacrifice without great reward. You have given your whole life to your people. What reward is good enough? I know of only one."

"Another sacrifice is entangled in that and it is one I do not desire."

"It is not your choice. Yours is but the choice of Beren, which is no choice at all. I have loved too. In love, even a king must surrender."

"All the joys of our line bring sorrows with them."

"Yet those joys are greater than the joys of less troubled men. Remember, always remember, "And long ago they passed away in the forest singing sorrowless." That is not so terrible an ending. And there is nothing so very terrible about a long-awaited king returning to his people. They will shout your name, instead of whispering it in darkness as a charm against a night whose end they cannot see. They will chant it and cheer it, and your queen shall be recompensed for her sacrifice with the devotion of a people whose hearts are as steadfast in their love as in their hatred. Reforge your will, and do not fear the sharp edges."

"I fear that faith in me is faith misplaced."

"A fool gives his trust to an unworthy man. Do you call me a fool?" asked Halbarad, his eyes twinkling. He was warmer and drier now and glad that he had come when Aragorn had need of his certainty.

"May my tongue be cut from my mouth before I say such a thing!"

"Then let us have more ale, in which to drink to the king and his people. The road ahead lies in fog, but we know our destination. Often in my dreams, the crown has been placed on your head, so often that, even when awake, my eyes see it there. Will you drink ale with me now, and trust me that a costlier draught awaits us?"

"Halbarad is known to speak only truth. I will drink with you and I will trust your vision, though my own is clouded by doubt. Let the battalions of darkness come against us, it is better to fall from reaching too far, than to let go all hope and refuse to try."

They called for more ale, and sat back to let the warmth of the fire and a long friendship ease the aches of the road and the way ahead.

The End.