Note: Title from "The Mewlips", The Adventures of Tom Bombadil; J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter I: Wasted Years
The afternoon sun was not especially warm, but it was kind, bathing the dappled glade in a gentle golden glow. Huddled in a patch of sunlight, Aragorn son of Arathorn sat swathed in Gandalf's cloak. His own garments were scattered about, draped over stones and hanging from branches in the hope that they would dry sufficiently by morning that the mud could be beaten out of them. The wizard himself was gathering kindling, having declared, quite rightly, that the cloak and tunic had no chance of drying unassisted. He had added that the temperature would surely drop precipitously after sundown, and he did not fancy hauling a frozen corpse hundreds of miles to Rivendell.
Aragorn was tired of watching his friend work, and so he stared at his bare feet where they poked out from under the tent of grey wool. He wiggled the toes of his left, disturbing the dry dusting of fallen leaves. The cool air felt soothing around appendages ordinarily entombed in layer upon layer of cloth and leather. He stared with empty eyes at the blackened nail of his right great toe, wondering absently how and when he had managed to injure it thus. There was a thick, venerable callous at the base of the toe: he had had that for as long as he could recall. His eyes followed a long, curling scar that wrapped around the top of his foot. It was a memento of his last foray into the shadows of the East. Now, as their search wore on, it was growing increasingly probable that he would once more be walking into darkness and peril. At least this time he would not go alone.
'You ought to do something about your hair,' Gandalf remarked, depositing an armload of fuel on the ground and easing himself onto a nearby stone. 'You look like a drowned cat.'
'Thank you. You're very kind.' Aragorn rounded his shoulders as a tickling gust of wind sent a chill through his trunk. 'Perhaps next time you would prefer to search the wetlands whilst I take the high ground.'
'Next time...' Gandalf muttered dourly, busying himself with scraping out a hollow to vent the fire. 'Did you find anything at all?'
Aragorn shook his head, and the straggling tangles of grimy hair tugged at his neck. 'There was an island of shale in the midst of the mire, which struck me as a perfect hiding-place, but if ever he was there he abandoned it long ago. There were pits in the loam as if something had once rooted there for grubs, but they might just as easily have been the work of an animal: the rains of at least two seasons have worn them smooth. I saw nothing else: no sign of shelter, no bones or offal or any hint of habitation.'
'And for that you went crawling through miles of swamp muck?' said Gandalf. He picked up one of Aragorn's cast-off boots and studied the shower of grimy water that fell from it. The sight seemed to fill him with anger. He dropped the boot and set about wrathfully laying the framework of his fire.
'Were your efforts at all fruitful?' Aragorn asked warily, cautious of his friend's formidable temper, but needing a reply despite the knowledge that it would not be comforting.
'No!' Gandalf slammed his fist against his knee and his head bolted forward. His shoulders heaved in a sharp exhalation of fury. 'No,' he grunted, kneading his temple with the knuckles of his left hand. 'Nothing. I searched every cave and cranny that I could find: there are no signs of the hateful creature.'
Aragorn tugged the cloak more snugly about his shoulders. 'It was a thin hope,' he reasoned. 'We had only a rumour, a disjointed tale of some shadow in these hills. After all the false trails we have followed it was perhaps ridiculous to anticipate any other result.'
Gandalf snorted and set to work with his flint and steel. He worked with such vigour that the sparks flew in every direction.
'You will never catch a light like that,' said Aragorn, somewhat shocked at his own bravado. Ordinarily it was most unwise to press Gandalf when he was this enraged, but the frustration was only natural – and indeed Aragorn could not help but share it. It would be better for them both if the wizard released some of it now, and though Aragorn would have preferred to do the baiting when fully clad and well-armed, he reminded himself that he was not afraid of his friend. Not terribly afraid, anyhow.
'Very well: you do it!' Gandalf snapped, flinging the flint. Aragorn closed his eyes, flinching reflexively as it glanced sharply off of his shin. He favoured his friend with a long, level look. Gandalf ground his teeth and hoisted himself onto his feet, stomping over to collect his tool. 'Never mind. Sit there and try to dry out. And keep your arms covered. The last thing we need is for you to take sick from the chill.'
'I am not so cold as all that,' Aragron assured him. 'Now that I'm out of those wet things I feel like a new man.'
Gandalf scowled blackly at him. 'Are you truly so unaffected, or are you trying to anger me?' he demanded.
'Why should I be affected?' Aragorn asked, moving further into danger. 'It is only a little mud.'
'Only a little mud, bah!' the wizard grunted. 'Elrond himself would not have recognized you.'
Aragorn shrugged his shoulders and the borrowed cloak tugged at his knees. 'I have wallowed in worse,' he said simply.
Gandalf cast him another withering glare and turned his attention back to the fire, feeding his sparks first with dry grass, then with leaves, and at last with small sticks of kindling. When the first branch began to catch he sat back with a disgruntled huff. 'There,' he said grimly. 'If it brings goblin-hordes down upon us, then so be it.'
It seemed that the fit of choler had passed, and so Aragorn attempted to ease the last of the tension. 'Had I known you would insist upon a fire, I should have taken the time to snare us something fresh for supper,' he said by way of conversation. 'Our stores are running low.'
Gandalf reached for his pack and rummaged inside. 'Our stores are all but depleted,' he corrected heavily. 'Unless you are carrying some secret cache about which I know nothing.'
Aragorn shook his head. 'It seems, then, that I ought to hunt after all,' he said, shifting to get his legs under him. He was about to rise when Gandalf fixed him with a most imperious glower. The Ranger affected an expression of injured innocence. 'Unless you wish to starve,' he offered.
'If there is any hunting to be done, I will do it,' Gandalf told him.
'It would take you twice as long as it will take me,' Aragorn argued, trying for levity but falling short of the mark; 'and like as not you would return with inferior game.'
'So instead you will go charging off into the underbrush of Harondor – wearing what, precisely? Sodden body linen and an impudent grin? Sit still, keep near the fire—'
'And guard my clothes,' Aragorn said with a cynical curl of his lip. Any attempt to lighten the mood was forgotten, and he bit back irately in response to Gandalf's obdurate refusal to shake off his gloominess. His patience, too, was worn thin, and he could not endure this unwonted condescension. 'Shall I say meekly "yes, master", and do as I am told? I am not your pupil any longer, Gandalf the Grey, and it behoves you not to treat me as such.'
'And it behoves you to show some measure of common sense!' the wizard snapped. 'Swimming through a mire to explore a deserted isle in its midst, when in all probability the creature was never there—'
'We do not know that!' Aragorn exclaimed, his own anger mounting. 'All of our intelligence indicates that he dwelt long in these lands, and I have searched hundreds of such places these last years! We agreed to part company to look for him, and look I did. If you think me so inept then I suggest you find some other unfortunate to accompany you on your endless quest!'
'Do not forget that it was you, O mighty huntsman, who proposed this search in the first place!' barked Gandalf. 'Fifteen years we have laboured, and for naught! Where was the doughty captain of the Rangers when I had need of him? Where were his skills in tracking and in the chase where this quest is concerned? How came you to fail me in my hour of need? I am well-equipped to accomplish nothing, without any assistance from you!'
Aragorn's eyes widened and his jaw grew slack. One foot slipped against the leaves and his knee fell to earth as the ankle curled behind its mate. He stared at his friend, utterly unable to speak.
When the expected rebuttal did not come, Gandalf seemed to return to his senses. A look of profound weariness swelled forward to quench the fire in his eyes. 'I am sorry,' he murmured. 'Those words were undeserved.'
'Not entirely,' Aragorn said softly. 'I have felt keenly that failure. I admit that I had hoped that these last whispers might bear fruit. Now that it is plain they will not, it seems we are swiftly running out of places to look.'
'We will never find the creature,' Gandalf snarled bleakly. 'It has been too long; he has roamed too far. Mayhap he is deep in the South. Mayhap he is dead. Mayhap he was never here at all.'
'He was here,' Aragorn argued. His shoulders slumped wearily. 'Long ago.'
Gandalf bowed over his lap and buried his head in his hands. Silence enveloped the glade. Aragorn waited, but he could feel the despair oozing like a poison from his friend. The sunlight seemed to dim, and the air grew cold – too cold for these distant southern lands. He hitched the cloak around his arms and hugged the garment to his body as he rose. On bare feet he padded towards his friend and knelt, careful to keep the cloth secured around him. He pressed his shoulder bracingly against Gandalf's.
'We will find him,' he whispered. 'We must.'
A desolate sound issued from Gandalf's throat and he shook his head, rolling it from side to side against his palms. 'No. We will not. And we will never learn the truth.'
Aragorn closed his eyes. He did not wish to say it, but they were swiftly running out of options. 'We need to head into the mountains,' he ventured, glancing up. Though the trees obscured them from view, he could almost feel the dark oppression of the Ephel Dûath where they loomed behind the hills. 'He dwelt long beneath the Hithaeglir. We have already sought him in the wet places where food is plentiful. If he took shelter anywhere else, it would be in the mountains.'
Gandalf raised his head, leaning to his right as he turned to stare at Aragorn. His eyes were inscrutable. Slowly he shook his head from side to side. Then he launched himself to his feet and strode over to the tree from which the Ranger's cloak was hanging. He plucked it up between finger and thumb and moved to the next tree to collect his friend's cote. Aragorn watched as his friend spread the garments before the fire.
'I am going to find us something to eat,' Gandalf rumbled, glaring through slitted eyes. He wrested Aragorn's knife from its mud-caked sheath and cast it on the ground beside the Ranger. 'Stay by the fire and watch your back.'
Aragorn nodded wordlessly, watching as his friend disappeared amid the twisted trees. Left alone and freed at least for a little while of the burden of being the one who had not yet lost hope, he let his arms fall limply into his lap. The cloak slipped from his shoulders, but he did not care.
Gandalf was right. The trail was too cold. They had failed. He had failed. They would never learn how Gollum had come by Bilbo's ring, nor how long he had possessed it. They had no hope of discovering whether the trinket that the hobbit had brought home from his adventure was the Ring that Sauron sought, or whether it was merely some trifle; some simple ring of invisibility, perhaps, wrought by Celebrimbor's folk as a prelude to their greater works. For fifteen years, the Dúnedain had kept a double watch upon the borders of the Shire at the expense of the rest of Eriador. Now it would be impossible to say whether that watch was necessary or no – until it was too late.
Aragorn was weary of the hunt. All his talent seemed to avail him nothing against the wiles of this creature he sought, and the bitterness of failure galled him. Yet to admit defeat after fifteen years of intermittent labour, after suffering countless privations and indignities in the name of this search, was something he could not endure. When Gandalf returned, he would make his friend see reason. They could not abandon the trail now, having come so far. It was not pride that drove him: his pride had slowly been leeched away by stagnant waters and bogs choked with filth and lonely journeys over vast empty lands. He was driven now only by desperation. There was too much at stake. They had to know what the creature knew. They had to find him. They had to have answers. Answers, at last, after a lifetime of riddles.
His arms were rough with gooseflesh, and the muscles of his bare back were contracting in the cool air of the gathering evening. With a heavy sigh that had little to do with his state of undress, Aragorn tugged Gandalf's cloak back up onto his shoulders and crept a little nearer to the fire, feeding it carefully with a fresh branch. Grimly he warmed himself, waiting for his comrade to return.
When Gandalf came back at last, an hour after dark, he had only half a dozen parsnips and a fistful of discoloured dandelion greens to show for his lengthy absence. Aragorn did not ask whether he had failed to catch anything, or if he had simply declined to try. He meekly heated stones to boil water, and after scraping the parsnips cooked the roots until they were soft enough to afford a little comfort to their stomachs despite their marked lack of flavour. It was growing rather late in the year for dandelions, and there was little he could do to make the sharp-tasting leaves and stalks more palatable, but they ate them nonetheless. Gandalf said little as he finished his meal and went to turn Aragorn's clothing so that it might better dry. Then he busied himself sorting through his pack, and finally sat down once more with his pipe sheltered in one wizened fist.
They had expended their store of pipeweed many weeks before, but Gandalf set to work cleaning the bowl with a scrap of cloth. He seemed intently focused upon the exercise, and Aragorn was reluctant to interrupt him. He knew that his words would not be welcome, and he sat in silence for a long while, trying to work up the courage to speak.
'We cannot turn back,' he said when he had finally determined that he could delay no longer. 'We must know if...' Even under the open skies of Eriador they had never spoken of Bilbo's little ring aloud. In this dark and debatable land, it would be the pinnacle of folly to do so. He prevaricated with care. '... if our friend's bauble is of any value. We must learn what the creature knows: we must find him.'
Gandalf did not look up from his pipe. 'I tell you, I cannot go on. My patience is spent. We have no hope of success – and there may be another way.'
'Another way?' Aragorn's brow furrowed. If there was another way, why had they wasted fifteen years scouring the Wilderland in search of a being that did not want to be found?
The wizard exhaled heavily. 'You likely do not remember, for you were only a young man at the time, but the Council met for a final time in the year that Turgon of Gondor perished.'
'I remember,' Aragorn said. 'I rode as far as the last spur of the Misty Mountains in the escort of Elrond. I should have ridden to Isengard with him, but he felt it would be wiser for me to keep well away.' He glanced over his shoulder, listening for noises in the night. Lowering his voice he added, 'We have spoken also of that which was discussed at that meeting, but you told me that little of use was said.'
'Little indeed,' Gandalf snorted; 'and so viciously did we squabble that in the end it was agreed that unless direst need forced us we would not gather again, for it seemed that we could do no more than argue. Yet I said little, not nothing, and as I walked tonight words half-forgotten returned to me. Saruman, well-versed in the lore of such trinkets, made mention of the humble appearance of the thing: simple, unadorned. "But its maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe, could still see and read," he said.'
'What manner of marks?' asked the Ranger, keen eyes fixed upon his friend.
'That he did not say. Yet his words came to me tonight as I was walking. If he had such knowledge, it must have a source. Long had the thing been lost by the time we came to these shores: he must have gained the information indirectly. The maker of course would know, but one other hand held the article; a hand that might have left written record of his observations.'
'Isildur.' It was less than a whisper, scarcely more than an unmistakable movement of the lips. Still, Gandalf heard him and nodded.
'And if such is the case, perhaps that account still exists in the vaults of lore in Minas Tirith, where he passed much of the last two years of his life,' he said. 'Saruman had easy access to those libraries in the years before a viper poisoned the Lord Ecthelion against him.'
'As I understand it, the Captain Thorongil did not so much counsel against Saruman as he advocated for you,' Aragorn said, covering with a wry smile the old ache that ignited in his breast at the mention of his liege-lord's name. Nearly forty years had passed since he had removed himself from the service of the Steward, and still he looked back with longing upon days as happy as any of his adult life, save only a few. 'And in his time in the Citadel Thorongil never came across any scrolls so ancient as that.'
'Ah, but Thorongil's leisure was limited, or so he gave me to understand,' Gandalf said, and his eyes glinted with something that was almost like amusement. 'And his access was curtailed by one perhaps jealous of his grasp of ancient tongues, and certainly suspicious of his interest in ancient history.'
'So it was,' murmured Aragorn, remembering. 'Then do you mean to abandon the hunt and travel to the White City to seek out this hypothetical account?'
'I have better hope of finding that than we have of finding Gollum in the mountains,' said Gandalf. 'Denethor will not deny me so easily as he denied Thorongil. And as a last resort I might yet travel to Orthanc and question Saruman, though with the danger to the Shire I am loath to trust anyone but you.'
'I am touched,' Aragorn said. 'Yet as Thorongil counselled Ecthelion, so I must counsel you: be wary of friendship with the White Wizard. He has less care for his allies than he has for himself, or he would never have taken Isengard for his own. He betrayed a dead friend: shall he consider living ones more sacred?'
Gandalf chuckled. 'That is an old song, my friend. Can it be that you resent the seneschals carving up the estate before the master's return?'
'The master is far afield, grubbing in the dirt for his night's sustenance and wading through mud nigh up to his neck,' Aragorn said sourly. 'He has forfeited the right to complain how his proxies discharge duties he has so long neglected.' He faltered a moment and then said softly, 'When you are in Minas Tirith, raise your head from the books occasionally to observe how her folk fare. I would be glad of tidings.'
'Come with me and see for yourself,' Gandalf said.
'You know that is impossible,' muttered Aragorn, casting his eyes away. He had not meant to give voice to his secret yearning. 'If I were recognized...'
'You have changed more than you think from the fair young captain who inspired love in the hearts of all who beheld him, and swayed the affections of the daughters of the lords of Gondor,' Gandalf said, smiling sadly to take the sting out of the cruel words. 'No one would know you now.'
'Denethor would know,' Aragorn said bleakly.
'I did not say "come with me to the Citadel",' Gandalf told him. 'I shall have enough difficulty with Denethor without antagonizing him openly. But there is no reason you could not find lodgings in the lower city and rest for a time while I laboured. There you might gather all the tidings you wished.'
The temptation was terrible. To walk in Gondor once more, to mingle with the people he loved little less than his folk in the North, to see the sunrise staining the White Tower in brilliant hues of carmine and orange... 'It is impossible,' Aragorn said with resolve that went no further than the surface. 'It is not my fate to take that road yet.'
'Then I free you from your promise,' Gandalf said gravely. 'Return to the North, my friend, where your kinsmen are waiting. Go to Rivendell, and walk beneath the beeches with your beloved. Bring tidings to Elrond of my failure, and tell him that I shall come when I may.'
Aragorn shook his head. He could not afford to think upon that enticement. His longing for the land of his lineage was nothing to the ache in his breast brought on by the merest mention of the land of his heart. How many countless months since he had turned upon the threshold of the Last Homely House to bid a chaste farewell to she in whom his spirit found its only rest? How many more before he might be free to return again?
'No,' he said. The denial was meant for himself, and not for Gandalf. 'No,' he repeated as he consciously laid by that desire. It was an unworthy thought. He had given his word to find the creature, and find him he would – or else while he had strength of will and breath in his body he would continue the search. He was not ready to admit his defeat. He was not yet so craven that he would cast away his oath, released or no. 'I shall continue the hunt for a time,' he said, trying to sound nonchalant and confident though he felt anything but. 'I want to go into the mountains. Perhaps I can find the trail again.'
Gandalf looked on him in wonder. 'Have you still hope?' he asked. 'After all this time, when my heart is filled with despair, can it be that you still believe success possible?'
Aragorn forced a wry smile to his lips. 'I can do nothing but hope,' he said. 'It is the name with which I was afflicted when still a toddling babe. It seems I cannot lightly lay it aside. It is more a curse than a blessing, I assure you. Besides, the days grow ever shorter. I do not relish the thought of walking North into winter lands wearing only my light summer garb. I will hunt for another season, at least. Who can say? Perhaps I shall find some success at last.'
'Perhaps,' Gandalf muttered bleakly. His voice held only bitterness.