No One Remembers
'Not now, Eldarion.'
The voice was flat, devoid of affect. An older person would have been surprised, and perhaps even concerned, by the lifeless syllables. They came from lips usually animated with mirth or infused with emphatic gravity or, on occasion, ignited with a scathingly wry humour. At the venerable age of three years, however, the child was not cognizant of the change, much less its significance. He heard only the words, and they did not deter him, for he had heard them often enough before.
Dwelling in the pomp and bustle of the busy court, Eldarion was accustomed to encountering adults who could not drop whatever they were doing just to entertain one small boy. He was used to being asked or told to seek amusement elsewhere: he merely toddled on toward the next friendly face and tried again. Often courtiers and servants had other duties to attend to, though his mother's ladies did always seem to have time. As for his parents, even they were sometimes obliged to deny him, for they had more responsibilities than any of the staff. Eldarion knew better than to interrupt his mother or his father when they were working.
But his father wasn't working. True, he was sitting at the broad desk where he often toiled for hours, attended by his captains or members of his Council or his chamberlain. Yet today he had sent his advisors away; Eldarion had watched from the end of the corridor as they filed out looking puzzled and irate. The little boy had known then that he was permitted to go inside the study to play quietly while his father laboured, but to his surprise he had discovered that no work was being done. His father had been motionless for a long while, staring down at his hands without stirring or speaking. If he wasn't working, Eldarion felt that he was fair game.
'Please?' he asked undaunted, his lisping baby voice raised in hopeful delight as his imagination spun an image of a glorious afternoon with his sire. 'We could play in the sunshine. Nana says that there is nothing so pretty as sunshine in the aut-ummm!'
Again the leaden voice repeated; 'Not now, Eldarion.'
'Will you read to me?' the boy tried, planting both hands on the richly woven rug. It was a new addition to the room: a gift from a dark-faced prince who wore strange clothes sewn with jewels as large as cherries, and rode upon a tall mûmak. Eldarion used the leverage of his arms to push himself up onto plump little legs. He trotted over to his father's chair. 'Will you read to me, Ada?' he said hopefully.
No one read so beautifully or so dramatically as his father. Even Nana could not equal him in that respect.
'Ada, will you read to me?' Eldarion repeated when no answer was forthcoming. Still his father said nothing.
'Ada?' the boy said again. He reached up with one small hand and tugged at the broad tablet-woven border of his father's sleeve. 'Ada, will you read to me?'
For a moment it seemed that his father would continue to ignore him, but one more insistent tug on his arm elicited a response at last. With a swordsman's reflexes the adult whirled in his seat, grey eyes thunderous.
'Eldarion!' he snapped, not loudly but very sternly. 'I said not now!'
The child's eyes grew wide and he took two stumbling steps backward. He had never seen such an expression upon his father's face, nor heard such a tone in his voice. Ada was always patient and kind and merry. Even when he was busy or tired he had a cheerful word for his son, or a gentle kiss, or a moment to tickle Eldarion with his long, nimble fingers. The boy had heard others say that his father was terrible in his wrath, or fearful to look upon when his will was bent upon some end, but until this moment he had had no comprehension of what such words meant.
Frightened by this sudden change, the little boy turned tail and ran, almost tumbling to the ground as he stepped from the rug onto the slippery stone floor. He shot through the door, which stood wedged ajar to admit fresh air into the close room, and ran down the corridor as fast as his small legs would carry him.
He did not witness the dawning horror upon his father's face, nor the devastation that followed close upon its heels.
Aragorn was no longer in his study. Knowing her husband as she did, Arwen was hardly surprised. Had he felt himself equal to the task, he would have come seeking his son, to make amends for the incident that had sent Eldarion running for her, tears on his round little cheeks and a monstrous hurt in his baby's heart. If he had not felt able to face Eldarion, then he was equally unable to face her, and he would have retreated somewhere he could not easily be found, to collect himself and school his features and make ready to mend the trouble he had caused.
After so many years, however, there were few places in the Citadel where the King could hide without the knowledge of the Queen.
She discovered him in the family's private garden, far from the ever-vigilant eyes of the Guard. He was seated on an ornate stone bench, bent with his head in his hands, so low that his knuckles were nearly upon his knees. Every muscle in his long body was taut with torment, and misery radiated through his costly garments like fire through the walls of an oven.
'Estel?' she said softly, gliding forward across the carefully-tended grass. He made no reply, and she place a hand upon one bowed shoulder. He was trembling. 'Beloved, what is amiss?'
He raised his head and looked at her, guilt and wretchedness in his stormy eyes. Arwen sat swiftly beside him, clutching his hands in hers. 'What is it, my love?' she asked.
'I spoke sharply to him.' The confession came quickly, hushed with horror and hastened by self-loathing. She looked for some plea for forgiveness in his eyes, but there was none: only a bleak, bitter dismay. 'Eldarion. My son, who wanted nothing but a moment's attention from his father. I upbraided him and he fled from me.'
'I know,' Arwen told him. 'He has taken no hurt, and by the day-meal he will have forgotten that it happened. What I wish to know is why you spoke thus to him.'
'What does it matter? I am his father, and it is my sacred charge to protect him, not to burden him with my pains. I have failed in my duty.' Aragorn pulled away from her, freeing his hands from her grasp and casting his eyes away.
Arwen closed her eyes. It had been many years since she had last seen her puissant husband brought low by self-doubt. It was a terrible thing to witness. Hoping that he was able to hear her words through the railings of his own heart – so merciful towards others and so pitiless towards himself – she spoke. 'You have not failed: you have made a mistake. As for "what does it matter", it matters a great deal to me. All day you have been ill at ease. You dismissed your Council, and sent your captains from your study. You were absent from breakfast, and the servants tell me that you have taken no food today. Something weighs heavily upon your heart.'
There was a soft sound of torment. 'Arwen...' he breathed, her name heavy and burdened upon his troubled lips. 'Do you know what today is?'
Arwen laughed, surprised at the foolishness of the question. 'But of course!' she said. 'It is—'
'In the reckoning of the Shire,' Aragorn said flatly, interrupting her; 'it is the twenty-second of September.'
'Oh.' There was little more that Arwen could say. She searched the recesses of her mind, casting about for some significance to the date. 'Bilbo's birthday,' she said at last.
A soft sound halfway between a laugh and a sob emerged from Aragorn's throat. 'It is the birthday of the Ringbearers,' he said. 'Far away in Tuckborough the Tooks and Brandybucks will congregate in celebration. There will be song and dancing, and too much wholesome food. Mayor Gamgee will make a speech. It is a day of rejoicing.' There was bitterness in his voice now, such as Arwen had never heard in any remote connection with the valiant Halflings whom he loved more dearly than brothers. 'That is all that anyone remembers.'
'Is there more to remember?' she asked.
He looked over his shoulder, and the suffering in his eyes was almost more than her heart could endure. 'Is there more?' he echoed softly. 'Perhaps not. Perhaps not.'
'Aragorn,' she pleaded, her voice breaking. 'Do not do this. Do not fetter me here, far from your pain where I cannot help you. What is amiss? What demons plague your noble heart?'
Aragorn curled once more over his knees, hiding his face from sight. Arwen laid her hands upon his back, striving to lend him strength and consolation in his torment. At last, slowly, tremulously, he began to speak.
'It was in the year of the forging of the Fellowship,' he said softly. 'I had set myself to guard the Road, awaiting the coming of the hobbits. I did not feel that there was any need for me to enter the Shire, for my sort was unwelcome there, and though the Nine were abroad I held it to be well-guarded. For I was watching the Bridge over Brandywine, and in the south at the only other place the Ularí might cross the river my men stood watch on Sarn Ford.'
There was a long moment of hesitation. 'I was guarding the Road.' A shudder coursed through Aragorn's body and Arwen pressed her fingers more firmly against his ribs, tracing a consoling pattern upon the fine fabric of his mantle. 'My men, eighteen strong, were to hold the Ford. I bade them stand firm, whatever the cost. I bade them defy any who attempted to cross.'
His voice was hollow now, haunted. 'They came on the night of the twenty-second of September. My men stood their ground against the Nazgûl. They fought valiantly, but they were overcome. Four escaped at the last, hoping to bring word to me. The rest were slaughtered.'
He fell silent. At last, when she realized he was not going to continue, Arwen said; 'It was war. You do not torment yourself over the loss of life at the Battle of the Hornburg, nor the slain upon the Pelennor, nor those who fell before the Black Gate on the say that Sauron was overthrown. Those who perished defending the Shire are no different. They knew their danger as much as any of the others, and they faced it out of duty and desperation and their love for you.'
'They did not know their danger!' Aragorn snarled harshly, the sound rasping out over gritted teeth. 'They could not know! To face the Ularí in darkness, in a barren place far from any help – none can imagine that peril until they have experienced it! You cannot conceive of such a death: it is a terrible death, Arwen, bereft of succour, bereft of dignity, bereft even of the last shreds of hope. They died in terror and despair; they died by my command. Out of love for me, do you say? That at least is true, and dearly did that love cost my folk! They were my people, and I left them alone to die in the ditches of the Greenway. They were my people, and I let them face the Morgul-horror unprepared and unaided. They were my people: I should have been with them. I should have helped them.'
'And if you had been with them? And if you had died with them?' Arwen demanded, sorrow and shock driving the gentleness from her voice. 'Frodo would have been slain at the inn in Bree, and the Ring would have been carried back to Mordor, and all that is good and fair would have been utterly destroyed. My father—our father...'
She faltered, unable to voice that last hypothetical horror. She bowed low, draping her body over his and resting her cheek between his shoulder-blades. She could hear the sharp staccato of his anguished heart. White arms in slender silken sleeves twined around his bent body as each drew some small comfort from the nearness of the other. Overcome now, she whispered; 'The Quest would have ended ere ever it could truly begin. There would be none left living among your people in the North. Imladris would have been laid waste, the Shire made a land of despair and its folk reduced to broken slaves. This city would be a hollow ruin populated with orcs and ruled by wraiths. We should never have been wed, our son should never have been born. The sacrifice of your men was not in vain. All that we have is built upon their selflessness, and the selflessness of the countless others who fought and died in defiance of the Shadow.'
'All that is true,' Aragorn said flatly; 'and yet who remembers them? Songs are sung from Belfalas to Fornost of those who fell in the South. Who recalls the road-weary vagabonds who died in desperation, waylaying the enemy but one paltry night? What songs are fashioned to honour them? They are forgotten, outcasts in death as they were in life. Worthless to the world they helped to save. No one remembers Sarn Ford, or their sacrifice. No one remembers.'
Arwen sat up, and with her hands she raised her husband, turning him and forcing him to meet her eyes. 'Then we will remember them,' she said. 'Songs will be written. The people will be told of those who gave their lives at Sarn Ford. You are not a nameless wanderer any longer: you are the King. Speak, and your subjects will listen.'
The pain was not so raw now, but an unspeakable sadness tainted his eyes, colouring them with darkness. 'I know not how to begin,' he whispered.
'You have a son,' Arwen said. 'Begin with him.'
Aragorn shook his head. 'He is too young to hear of such things—'
'Do not tell him of their deaths,' Arwen said; 'tell him of their lives. They were your folk, your kinsmen, your friends. Remember them that way, not merely as soldiers felled by a superior foe. Remember them with love, with joy and with pride, as the heroes of the Pelennor are remembered.'
And there was peace in the fathomless grey eyes.
Eldarion was sitting in his nursery, playing quietly with his wooden horses – a gift from the white-haired Lady of Ithilien. The door opened and his nurse-maid rose and dropped a deep curtsy. The little boy looked up and a broad smile illuminated his fair young face.
'Ada!' he exclaimed. The afternoon's incident was already forgotten, and he sprung to his feet and toddled forward, arms outstretched to his father. Long hands seized him about his chest and raised him high into the air. A moment later he found himself hugged tightly to Ada's breast, momentarily smothered in the long, dark hair. He giggled delightedly, pushing the rebellious tresses aside, and he twined his arms about his father's neck as the adult moved to the rocking chair next to his little bed.
'Will you read to me?' Eldarion asked eagerly.
His father shook his head sombrely, and the boy felt a pang of disappointment. 'The story I am going to tell you has not been written down,' said Ada, and hope was born anew in Eldarion's heart. 'Not yet. It will be one day, but you are the very first to hear it.'
Eldarion's eyes widened. 'I am?' he asked.
'You are,' said his father. 'Listen well, and remember.' He drew in a deep breath, his eyes closing briefly as he gathered his words to himself. 'There was a man named Meneldur,' he began. There was sadness in his voice, but love also – love for Eldarion, and for the one he was remembering. The boy wriggled a little, settling into the welcoming lap, and he listened intently as his father continued. 'He was a valiant man, hardy in a chase and courageous in a desperate spot. He was a gifted swimmer, and could hold his breath beneath the water for more minutes than any mortal I have ever known. He carried always a little hatchet bound about the handle with hobbit-made grosgrain, and he was very fond of blackberries. One day as I walked with Meneldur in the wild lands of the North, we chanced upon a curious cairn of stone...'