1st Place Jan 2010 Teitho Contest - The Price of Freedom
Freedom Is Never Free
by Nieriel Raina
Freedom is not free. How many times had I heard that while growing up in Imladris? Too many times to count, and from many sources. Erestor had pounded it into my head while studying history just as Glorfindel had pummeled it into me during bouts of sword training. But reality made it more than a quipped phrase used in debate the first time I had to bury a comrade in arms.
I remember it as if it were yesterday, though so many years have passed since I was a young man allowed to patrol the fences of Imladris.
I turned and looked up at Glorfindel with a stunned gaze. I still could not believe this had happened. Oh I knew that sometimes a warrior did not return from patrol, but it was such a rare occurrence, and not one that had happened in my lifetime. I had never truly understood. Raised among elves, death was not a part of life as it would have been had I been raised among my Dúnedain kin.
I stood there looking up at my mentor, the one who had taught me so much about battle, and realized that though I had been equipped to face the orc band that encroached too close to Imladris' borders, I had not been ready for this. I blinked and looked back down at the bloody body of Menellun. Nothing could have prepared me for that moment, seeing those once bright eyes glazed in death; the once smiling face frozen in a mask of pain.
Freedom is not free. Freedom has a price, a cost in blood, sweat and tears.
Death seemed to be a far too regular occurrence once I joined my people in the north and took up my place as their Chieftain. To this day I feel the pain of loss so keenly. Perhaps it is still my elvish upbringing that makes the loss of each life before their time so difficult to accept. I still could not tell you which was harder to face: seeing a warrior who had lived for more than an age be cut down in battle, or the young Dúnedain ranger barely old enough to be allowed to join the patrols felled by an orc arrow.
I turned and looked at Halbarad, his eyes concerned and full of the same sense of loss I felt. This should never have happened. Gornant had been so excited to join his first patrol. It was supposed to have been a simple exercise. I swallowed and stooped, running my hand over the horrified face of the young man killed before his time, closing the sightless eyes.
"We must take him back to his mother," I said, rising and blinking the sudden moisture from my eyes. Oh how I did not wish to be Chieftain in that moment! To have lost a fellow comrade was hard enough, but to have to be the one to bring the lifeless body of an only son back to a mother who still grieved the loss of her husband would surely be more than I could bear.
Yet that is what I did. And I stood there, unable to do anything but offer empty words of how bravely Gornant had fought. To listen to the screams of denial, to have fists beat against my chest and watch tears fall down a face that reminded me too much of my own mother.
No, freedom is never free. There is always a price to pay, always a family that is left in tears to mourn. And yet, those who pay the ultimate cost would have it no other way. They would choose to die if that is what it costs to give freedom to their loved ones.
"This is an evil door, and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless..."*
I can still hear those words, though at the time I did not know that he spoke with the foresight of our kin. If I had, I might have sent him back. Not that he would have listened.
The shout brought my head around, alerting me in time to parry the blade of a charging orc. With a mighty swing, I brought Anduril around and dispatched my foe, then my eyes sought out the one who had called to me of the danger, and my heart stopped as I realized that in warning me, he had let his own guard down. And there was nothing I could do but watch as Halbarad fell.
I did my best to get to him, but too many enemies stood between us. As I fought to get to his side, I watched him hand over the standard to Forland, another Ranger who had accompanied the Grey Company south. By the time I reached him, most of his life had seeped into the ground. He raised pain filled eyes to mine as several of our men formed a protective barrier around us.
"I wish I could have lived to see you become king," he murmured. Those words still cut me deep, for I had wished for him greatly on that day the winged crown was placed on my head. But he had not begrudged that his life was lost on that field. He had willingly given it for mine.
A soft sob halted Aragorn's words, and he glanced up to see his memories had accomplished what he had hoped. Instead of silent, self-directed anger and guilt, tears raced down Eldarion's cheeks. Aragorn's heart ached for his son. Dorlas had been one of Eldarion's closest friends from childhood, killed by taking a blow meant for his prince when their patrol had encountered a band of brigands.
"How did you endure it, Adar?" Eldarion finally asked in a broken voice. "How could you go on knowing it was your fault Halbarad died?"
"I endured it because I had to, and that is what he would have wished. It was his duty to protect me, son, and he did it with his life. Just as Dorlas did for you." Aragorn reached out and placed a comforting hand on his son's arm. "It is not your fault your friend is dead. The blame lies with the one who struck the blow. Dorlas would not wish you to blame yourself. He gladly gave his life to spare yours."
"It hurts." Eldarion's eyes clenched closed. "I never knew anything could hurt this badly!"
"I know. And you will need to grieve for your loss. There is no shame in your tears. No one will disparage you for missing your friend. But your anger and guilt are misplaced, son."
Eldarion took several deep breaths and then finally opened his grief filled eyes. How many times had Aragorn seen such pain and confusion in a young warrior's eyes? But this time it was different. This time it was his son who was hurting, and there was little he could do to ease the pain, except to share his own experiences and know that in time, the pain would lessen.
"I don't understand." Eldarion shook his head, his breaths coming raggedly. "Sauron was defeated. Gondor is free. Dorlas did not die to restore freedom!"
And now the most painful lesson of all, Aragorn thought. "Sauron was defeated, that is true. The fight to restore freedom is over, but we will still have to fight to keep that freedom. The battle is not over; it is never over. Freedom is not free, son. Freedom is never free."
Eldarion nodded and closed his eyes again, his frame shuddering with another soft sob. Aragorn shifted closer and drew his son against him as he had when Eldarion had been much younger and let him cry. Freedom might not be free, but love given freely was beyond price.
*"This is an evil door, and my death lies beyond it. I will dare to pass it nonetheless..." — Halbarad at the entrance to the Paths of the Dead, JRR Tolkien, Return of the King
Menellun – (OMC) an ancient elf of Imladris, killed in a skirmish with orcs near the outer defenses of Imladris' fences
Gornant – (OMC) a young ranger killed on his first patrol.
Forland – (OMC) a ranger of the Grey Company who accompanied Halbarad south to Gondor and who took up the standard when Halbarad fell.
Dorlas – (OMC) a close friend of Eldarion from childhood who gave his life protecting his prince on a patrol.
Author's Note: Eldarion is an young adult in this story, old enough to ride out with a company of warriors but still young in the ways of the world. With peace reining in Gondor, he has seen little of battle, though he is battle trained. I imagine him to be between 20-22 here
Thank you for reading! Please review?