"A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship."
– Aragorn, "Strider", The Fellowship of the Ring: J.R.R. Tolkien.
The windows of Archet glowed enticingly on the horizon, glittering like little red stars. They offered the only light in a yawning maw of darkness, and so Aragorn watched them. They winked and danced before his weary eyes, and he tried not to think of the warmth and welcome of the little cottages – of hot porridge on the hob and drowsy children begging for a song before they tumbled into bed. Not for him were the comforts of home and hearth, and pining for them would drive him mad.
It was a frosty night on the very cusp of winter, and the heavy clouds that obscured the heavens promised snow before the dawn. Despite the chill in his bones he had decided against a fire. So near the village there was too much of a chance of attracting curious parties. The young men of Bree-land fancied themselves the protectors of rick and cot, and they would think nothing of driving off a vagabond with the audacity to camp on the skirts of the village green. Though he did appreciate the irony, Aragorn knew that he lacked the fortitude to endure such persecution tonight.
His thoughts were bitter tonight, for he was tired and sore and it seemed that even autumn's bounty was denied him. Without the luxury of a fire, he had taken his meagre meal cold: a strip of dried mutton and half a scrounged turnip. Now he sat with his back to the bole of an obliging elm, his aching legs stretched out before him. He had covered a vast distance today, and it was but a small part of his wanderings these last weeks. He had been cross-hatching a broad swath south of the Road, attempting to maintain a vigilant presence in lands normally patrolled by a team of three.
The Dúnedain were spread perilously thin at present, for it was harvest time. As many as could be spared had been sent home to their families. There were crops to bring in, and swine and cattle to butcher and preserve with salt or smoke, and vegetables to gather and lay by against winter's hunger. There were roofs in need of thatching and fences in need of mending: homes and farms to secure before the coming of the snows. So every year as autumn ripened those with wives and children had to be spared from their toils to ensure the survival of their families. It fell to the other men, the unwed, the aged, and those whose sons were old enough to see to the work but too young to serve with the Rangers, to make up the deficit.
The threshing furlough was almost the only respite afforded to the Rangers: a precious opportunity for men to spend three weeks with their wives. It was not a time of rest, for the farm work was backbreaking and ceaseless, but it was a time of renewal. More infants were born at summer's end than at any other time of the year: nine months after their fathers had been home to mend the roof and lay by the corn. For many young children, these weeks meant the difference between knowing their fathers as loving and nurturing men, and understanding them merely as a vague concept: half-starved vagrants who turned up on the doorstep for a hot meal and a single night's sleep before vanishing once more into the Wild. It was an important time, and as a responsible captain Aragorn felt bound to provide cover for his men so that they could go home.
In another week or so they would begin to return, less careworn than before, with tales of their children and their inept carpentry to share around the winter fires. Then, a few at a time, the other men would be able to return home to pay brief visits to mothers or married daughters or to court their maidens, but even this reprieve could not be enjoyed by the Chieftain. If he was fortunate, he would have a chance to retreat to Rivendell for a night, to pay his respects to Master Elrond and to gather his winter gear, but that was not possible every year. His home, such as he had, was so very far away, and he did not have the leisure to return simply because his heart ached with loneliness.
The lights were beginning to fade as candles were snuffed and fires banked for the night. Somehow the sight robbed Aragorn of his body's inadequate warmth, and he drew his knees to his chest, shivering. His head was heavy with fatigue, but he could not abide the thought of sleep. He was safe enough here, so near to the town. Ordinarily he would have hazarded a few dear hours of deep, restorative slumber such as he could seldom risk in the Wild, but tonight he could hear his dreams calling to him. To slip into gentle visions of fellowship and warmth and marital bliss, visited by images of children who might never be born, and then to awaken cold and alone in the freezing forest would be more than he could bear.
Yet sitting here in mawkish self-pity was no healthy way to pass the night, either. If only the clouds would lift a little, that he might be on his way! But the weather did not favour Strider tonight, and there was no trace of moon or star to be seen. Instead he forced himself to focus on his plans for the morning. He had to head eastward once more, eternally scoping the land for wild beasts or servants of the Enemy that might threaten the scattered settlements in Eriador. The countryside was overrun with wolves: it would be a hard winter for the Rangers. Aragorn sighed. The Dúnedain had sustained grievous losses in the Trollshaws this summer. They could ill-afford to have their numbers further reduced. It took so many years for a boy to grow to manhood and to be trained in the ways of the Wild, and only a moment for his life to drain away with the blood of a severed artery.
Morning, he reminded himself harshly. The burden of command was that he could not afford to focus only on the immediate problems of survival; he was obliged to look months and years into the future, to plan for every exigency, to do what he could to prepare his people for the next disaster. But it was easy to become mired in fear and in the imagined horrors of an uncertain tomorrow. Sometimes he had to stop, and tackle the soluble problems instead of dwelling on the impossible ones.
Food was a soluble problem. If he was heading east into the empty lands south of the road, he had to make some arrangement for provisions. Though game was plentiful this time of year, he had little time for hunting, and he could seldom risk a fire. He did not relish the thought of supping on uncooked meat, though he had done it before and most likely would do it again. Far better to carry sustenance with him, and Archet afforded his last opportunity to replenish his pack. He carried little coin, but what he had would buy some smoked hog meat and a good supply of freshly dried apples and perhaps a loaf of bread. If he was still in a sour, self-indulgent mood, there might even be a copper left for a half-pint of beer at The Ram and Thistle.
Aragorn frowned disconsolately at the thought of the unwanted attention he would garner in town. The merchants would trade grudgingly with him, attempting to charge twice what they would a resident of Bree-land. The womenfolk would point and whisper amongst themselves. Those same children he had been coveting minutes ago would caper behind him, calling out each of his derisive nicknames with glee. If he did dare to set foot in the tavern he would be subjected to still uglier slurs while his sharp ears picked out the mumbled rumours that always followed in his wake. Those who troubled to speak civilly would do so with thinly disguised disdain, eyes raking over his shabby, outlandish garments and his unruly hair and his grimy hands. They were good people, the folk of Archet, but he and others like him were their sport. They knew neither how dangerous were these men they mocked, nor how much the Rangers risked and sacrificed to safeguard their town and their children and their leisure to spread hateful tales.
It had ever been the policy of the remnant of Arnor to protect the complacent happiness of these simple folk, and at most times Aragorn was appeased by the knowledge that it was right and noble to do so. There were days, however, when it took all of his strength of will and all of his not inconsiderable patience to keep a rein on his tongue when faced with their slights. At such times it was better to be gone as swiftly as he could, before Strider inflicted permanent damage upon the pride of some arrogant little man with no concept of the suffering spent in the defence of his home. Then there were times, like tonight, when all he felt was a wretched envy for the peace and happiness won by the sweat of his brow and the blood of his people; the peace that he could never share.
He was perilously close to tears, and he upbraided himself sternly. If he had no peace himself that was because he had yet to earn it. What if he had fought for the protection of Eriador since before he knew his own name? What if he had ventured into dark places where even the Wise dared not tread? What if he had forsaken any hope of home or family to labour in the endless war against the Shadow? He had not cast Sauron down, nor righted the ancestral wrong that now imperiled the world once more. He had not restored to Gondor her King, nor reunited the fragmented North. He had not even been able to save one mortal woman from despair and death. He had done much, but he had accomplished nothing. Why, then, should he expect any reward for his toils?
His self-castigation was interrupted by the sudden realization that there was a rider approaching through the night, cantering towards Aragorn despite the darkness of the night. Turning towards the sound, the Ranger spied an unearthly light drawing ever nearer. Pulse quickening, he sprung to his feet and leapt lightly behind the elm, clutching its trunk and leaning carefully to his left until one eye could follow the light. As his breathing levelled out once more he recognized the glow, and as it drew nearer, the rider as well. Nevertheless he waited as the shadowy steed thundered onto the green and sped past his hiding place.
He sprung forward then, drawing his long hunting knife. 'Halt, trespasser!' he declaimed with bravado that he would have never unmasked to a foe. 'These lands are under my protection, and if you mean any harm to the good folk of this village you must first reckon with me!'
The horse was dragged to a halt with an indignant nicker, and there was a moment's silence. Then came a sound that brought Aragorn to the brink of tears for the second time in a single night: a half-forgotten sound of deep, merry laughter.
'I should have known better than to go hunting a Ranger in the dark,' the rider said, bringing his mount around and trotting up to where Aragorn stood. 'I suppose you shall take great pleasure in telling everyone of our mutual acquaintance how I went flying by you without even a pause.'
'Indeed I shall,' Aragorn said. He could not help adding, a little bitterly; 'If I have not forgotten it before I meet any of them again.'
Gandalf leaned down towards the Dúnadan, bringing the glow of his staff with him. Keen eyes studied the weather-beaten face from under bushy brows. 'You, forget?' he said in a jovial voice that belied his grave, piercing gaze. 'Not while the Sun still sets over the Sea. Now step back and let me dismount: I have been riding for hours and my old bones are stiff.'
Aragorn obediently took two steps back while the wizard swung down out of the saddle. He cast his reins upon the earth, and his horse began to graze contentedly amid the dying grass. Gandalf came forward, smiling up at the Man. 'My dear boy,' he said; 'how have you been?'
Before Aragorn could muster an answer that was not entirely dishonest, he found himself being pulled into an amicable embrace as Gandalf thumped him between the shoulder blades. Aragorn could scarcely remember when he had last been touched by another person, and he leaned instinctively forward, his lonely heart craving contact with his friend. He bowed his head briefly against the wizard's shoulder, and when good manners told him that it was time to pull back, it was one of the most difficult things he had done in many months.
Fortunately, Gandalf did not seem quite ready to relinquish his hold, either, and he clasped Aragorn's hand. 'I was hoping I would find you,' he said merrily; 'though it seems you have found me. What are you doing on a night like this, sitting in the dark without a fire? Are there orcs about?'
'Do not jest about such things,' Aragorn said grimly. 'Every year they grow more bold. It will not be long now before they may well venture this far.' He attempted to lighten his tone as he added; 'The want of fire is pure self-indulgence. I did not fancy being told I was not welcome here.'
'Hmm,' Gandalf acceded. 'Feeling seems to be riding rather high against the Rangers this year. When I was last in Bree I heard some very disparaging remarks about your cousin. It seems the local constabulary likes him for a horse-thief.'
'I know,' Aragorn said wearily. 'Halbarad was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We sorted it out: caught the rogue who was doing it. The captain of the Watch was only too glad to take credit for our efforts.' Sometimes it seemed that, far from waging a covert war against the incursions of Mordor, he was nothing more than a country sheriff, chasing down parochial villains without thanks or salary.
'I'm pleased to hear it. We can do without having you all banned from the villages.' Gandalf looked around appraisingly. 'You may be the hardiest of living men, but I need a fire on a cold night. Let's see what we can do about that, shall we? I should imagine the defenders of Archet have long since gone to their beds.'
For a number of minutes Aragorn was occupied with the business of gathering fuel and tinder while Gandalf removed his horse's tack, but soon they were sitting, regarding one another across a cheerful blaze. Aragorn hesitated only briefly before holding his chilled hands to the flames, more grateful for the warmth than he would have liked to admit.
'What are you doing in these parts?' he asked presently, as Gandalf doffed his hat and scratched the crown of his head.
'I told you,' the wizard said. 'Looking for you.'
'Well, you've found me. What do you want?'
'Must I only seek you out when I want something?' Gandalf asked indignantly. 'Can I not hunt you for the pleasure of your company?'
Aragorn flushed. 'I'm sorry,' he muttered; 'that was most impolite of me. Though to be fair, it has been a long time since anyone has taken any pleasure in my company. It's becoming something of a novel concept.'
'If you insist upon being so morose, that surprises me but little,' Gandalf said. Though he scowled as if in annoyance his eyes were kind. 'Though I'm sorry to admit that I do want something, I'm afraid.'
Aragorn snorted. 'Of course you do,' he said, torn between wry vindication and hollow bitterness. 'What is it?'
'It will keep for a few minutes,' Gandalf assured him. 'I haven't had a chance to sup yet: are you hungry? What a foolish question: of course you're hungry. Here: I daresay you haven't had fare like this in many a day.'
From his saddle-bag he produced several bundles wrapped in linen, and Aragorn watched in wonderment as he unwrapped them to reveal an assortment of provender that represented more food than the Ranger had seen in a fortnight. Staring at Gandalf's victuals he could not help the painful flooding of his mouth with spittle. Despite the poor meal he had forced down earlier, his stomach felt pinched and empty, and it snarled traitorously at the sight of decent food.
And such food! There were fresh peaches, and half a wheel of cheese, a selection of savouries, the heel of a loaf of bread, and most of a tempting-looking seed cake. Last of all, Gandalf unwrapped a couple of pasties; each as large as two fists. He handed one over the fire, and Aragorn took it.
'That will taste better if you warm it first,' the wizard advised, picking up a stick to rake out some of the ashes. Aragorn nodded and followed suit, settling his pasty near the embers. Gandalf picked up a peach and tossed it. The Ranger caught the soft orb and bit into it, slurping a little as the fragrant juice dribbled down his chin.
'Where did you get all of this?' he asked, dabbing at his face with the back of his hand.
'Parting gifts from Bilbo's nephew,' Gandalf said as he took out his knife and began to shave off slices of cheese. 'Trust a hobbit not to turn a guest away without proper provisions.'
'Proper...' Aragorn almost choked on another mouthful of the succulent fruit as a strangled noise that was not quite a chuckle escaped his throat. 'It's going to spoil before you can possibly eat it all,' he finished.
Gandalf grinned. 'How fortunate that I have a hungry Man to assist me,' he said. He held out the handkerchief filled with savouries. 'Eat up: you're too thin.'
'I haven't put on my autumn weight yet: that's all,' Aragorn deprecated, but he reached with his free hand to snag something that looked to be made of mushroom and egg on a small square of toasted bread. He evaded Gandalf's long look of scepticism. 'We do not all have friends to furnish us with such extravagant fare: eating is not so pleasant when you have to do your own foraging.'
'I have said before that you ought to pay more mind to hobbits; there's no reason you can't befriend a few of your own. You and Bilbo get along splendidly.'
Aragorn curled his lip. 'I can well imagine the stir that I would cause, strolling into Hobbiton with my fine clothes and cheerful demeanour,' he said wryly, unable to wholly mask the bitterness that crept into his tone. Now finished with the peach, he belayed the need for further remark by turning his pasty so that it would warm more evenly.
Gandalf sighed, keen eyes glittering in the firelight. He seemed about to say something, but he thought better of it. After a moment's silence, he shrugged his shoulders and laughed softly. 'I see your point,' he conceded. 'I am quite enough of an affront to the more stolid denizens of the Shire. Yes, you had best keep to the shadows where you belong.'
The words were meant in jest, and Aragorn knew it, but still they stung as they struck altogether too near to a raw wound. He cast his eyes away, hoping vainly that his friend did not see the shadow of pain therein. 'How is Bilbo's nephew?' he asked. 'Only I'm sure he will want news, and if I chance to have an opportunity to visit Rivendell...'
'You should make the chance,' Gandalf said. His voice was uncommonly soft. 'You have need of rest. I meant what I said earlier: you are gaunt and worn, and there is a shadow in your heart.'
'I am well enough,' muttered Aragorn dismissively, chafing his hand against his brow. 'And I am needed here.'
'For now, perhaps, but your men will be returning soon, and then they can spare you for a few weeks. Or perhaps longer?'
Aragorn shook his head. 'If I return it will only be for long enough to bring tidings to Elrond – and to Master Baggins, if you will ever answer my question about his nephew's well-being – and perhaps to enjoy a night or two in a clean bed. I have duties far too important to be laid aside for self-indulgence.'
'No one would think you self-indulgent for taking a fortnight's rest,' Gandalf said; 'but I was attempting to steer the conversation back to my reason for seeking you out. How long could you leave Halbarad and your captains to oversee the protection of Eriador?'
The Ranger closed his eyes, though the glow of the fire still filtered through his lids. 'You wish to resume the hunt,' he murmured bleakly.
'I do.' When he looked up again, Aragorn found the wizard's gaze fixed firmly upon him. 'Aragorn, I am sorry for what happened when last I took you away. I am sorry that you could not be present at your mother's burial. Perhaps that is something for which there can be no forgiveness, but—'
'There can be no forgiveness where there is no fault,' Aragorn interjected. 'It was I who left her in despair, not you. I could not keep her from death: what place had I in her funeral rites? I hold you blameless in that, and I will not shy from my promise. I ask only that we delay a little, until the others have returned and I can make some provision for the leadership of my people in my absence. Give me three weeks.'
'I can give you a little longer than that,' Gandalf promised. 'If you will meet me in Imladris at Yuletide, we can make our way across the mountains and take up the chase where we left it. And if you have any sense,' he said with an imperious arcing of his generous eyebrows; 'you will arrange to arrive a week or two early, so that you can renew your strength before we set out.'
'I have driven one mother to her death: I do not need another,' Aragorn said sourly, but the annoyance was half-hearted at best. His friend's continual remarks about his welfare put an ache in his chest. It had been so long since anyone had spared such thoughts for him. The unexpected smell of singeing flour assailed his nostrils and he hastened to snatch the burning pasty away from the fire. The unexpected heat stabbed at his fingertips and he let go with a sharp oath.
'My, my, but you aren't much of a cook,' Gandalf chuckled as Aragorn, somewhat chagrined, picked his dinner out of the dust and inspected the damage. 'You can have mine if you wish.'
'It's still edible,' Aragorn muttered, picking away the burnt edge. Gingerly he nibbled at one corner. There was meat in the centre, and cubes of carrot and potato. It was richly flavoured with herbs and spices – and salt. His mouth was watering again, and he risked a more substantial bite. It had been a long while since he had tasted salt. He shifted the pasty from hand to hand, wary of its heat.
Gandalf did him the courtesy of letting him eat in silence. When he was finished at last, the wizard gestured invitingly at the seed-cake, but Aragorn shook his head.
'I cannot eat any more tonight,' he said. 'I am quite glutted with food.'
'Good,' said Gandalf with a satisfied jerk of his head. 'From the hang of your garments, that is a state that you enjoy far too seldom. Now, what about sleep? I know how you hate to give yourself over to slumber where you can find no safe place to lie, but I would be happy to watch over you.'
Aragorn considered. With a full stomach, he would be less likely to dream, and even if he did, waking to the embers of a fire and to Gandalf's consoling presence was far less dreadful than waking alone. His body ached and his head was muddled with fatigue. He had a long trek ahead of him tomorrow, and many more after that. He was in sore need of rest. 'I would esteem it a great kindness,' he said at last. 'I am weary.'
'Not only in body,' Gandalf said softly. He rolled onto his knees and shuffled around the fire to sit next to his friend. Aragorn did not resist as the wizard caught hold of his wrist and placed the other hand upon his brow. Gandalf sighed again. 'Yours is a hard road, Dúnadan,' he said; 'and it is your fate to walk much of it alone, but for a while at least we can walk together. It would do you good to have a companion in your wanderings, I think.'
Aragorn did not trust himself to speak. As unpleasant as the thought of returning to their fruitless search was, he could not deny that it would seem less daunting than many a simpler task, if only he could share it with his friend. There were times when the loneliness seemed too much for his heart to bear. A brief respite from that would stave off madness a little longer. He managed to nod his head.
'Then it is settled,' Gandalf said cheerfully, withdrawing his hands and dusting them on his lap. 'We shall resume our hunt as the days begin to lengthen. But now to bed, my friend. You have well earned it.'
There was no more to be said, it seemed, and Aragorn could already feel the gentle fingers of sleep drawing him away from the cold autumn night. He drew his cloak about his body and stretched out on the uneven ground. 'Good-night,' he mumbled. 'Wake me when it is my turn to watch.'
Gandalf might have made some reply, but the firelight was already fading into blackness, and Aragorn could feel the welcome weightlessness of slumber as the hurts of his heart eased a little. Under the watchful eyes of the Grey Pilgrim, he slipped quietly into sleep.
Aragorn awoke with the dawn, for a moment irritated that he had fallen asleep in spite of himself. Then his nose detected the smell of a fire, and memories of the previous evening resurfaced. His annoyance shifted from himself to his friend.
'You were meant to wake me,' he said, sitting up and scowling at Gandalf, who was stirring the embers with a green branch.
The wizard shrugged. 'You looked so peaceful that I was loath to disturb you,' he teased. Then his eyes grew grave and he added, 'You were in sore need of rest.'
'I am not the only one who sleeps, Istar or no,' growled Aragorn.
'Ah, but I have enjoyed ten days in a comfortable bed in Bag End while you have been out in the wilds evading farmers' sons and hunting wild things among the hills. Accept the night as a gift, Aragorn; a present from a friend.'
'Friend, is it?' Aragorn needled. 'When you have coerced me into resuming our fools' errand? Your timing is impeccable: at a less lonesome hour I might have been slower to consent.'
'I know that well,' Gandalf said with a mischievous grin; 'but now that I have obtained your promise you will surely honour it, will you not?'
Aragorn nodded, and for the first time in many weeks a smile softened the grim lines of his face. The muscles about his mouth protested the unfamiliar movement. 'Truth be told, I can think of nothing I would rather do,' he said. 'It has been... a lonely year. I have need of companionship.'
'So have we all, from time to time,' said Gandalf simply. 'And need of breakfast, also. Come, and let us see how we may further deplete my supply of fine hobbit-foods.'
'Then I must be on my way,' Aragorn said, though the words cost him dearly. 'There are many leagues to patrol, and my men have not returned yet.'
'Ever the consummate captain,' Gandalf said fondly. 'Well, that is to your credit, anyhow. Though I wonder how your men would take it if they knew how sentimental you are.'
Recognizing the attempt to draw him out of himself, Aragorn fixed his friend with a murderous glare. 'You would not dare,' he hissed, playing his part with care.
Gandalf laughed, and the sound was infectious. Before he knew what he was doing, Aragorn too was chuckling. He shook his head. 'Thank you,' he said as the fit of mirth passed all too quickly.
'Ah, you shall not thank me quite so much when we are high in the passes in the dead of winter,' Gandalf warned, but he was smiling.
Together they broke their fast, and then Gandalf saddled his horse and mounted, and with brief words of farewell rode swiftly away. Aragorn watched his friend vanish amid the trees, then turned to obliterate the last traces of their fire. He spent several minutes carefully obscuring their tracks. Then he shouldered his pack and straightened his back, and turned his eyes towards the village. He still had need of provisions to sustain him on his patrol, and now he felt better able to bear with good grace the supercilious stares and discourteous jeers of the folk of Archet. A night of camaraderie had done much to ease his spirit, and there was the promise of a shared journey to treasure – a rare treat for the solitary wanderer that he had become. The cool autumn sun was climbing high in the sky, and the snow had not fallen after all. It promised to be a pleasant day.