The Longest Night

A seasonal tale for my darling Silver Thorne and Alex Took

The king of Gondor, for all his regality, poise and valor, fled from his keep in the dark hours before dawn, like a vagrant urchin. Swiftly saddling Brego, Aragorn collected his bow, quiver, and the saddlebags that he had set out the evening before, then slipped out of one of the higher levels of Gondor through a nil watched gate. The narrow path that wove down the rocky mountainside was treacherous in the fairest of weather and warmth of sun, but now it was bathed in moonlight and snow. Were Brego a horse of Gondor, Aragorn would have worried for the sureness of his steed's step, but the stallion was of Rohan, and had more than proved his mettle in past battles and adventures.

"Mae carnen, mellon-nïn," the son of Arathorn whispered as he patted Brego's neck when the horse at last finished their dangerous descent. The fields of Pelennor stretched before them as the sky turned rosy pink, heralding the dawn. Pulling his dark cloak tighter around his shoulders, Aragorn exhaled deeply, his breath clouding before him. A vast expanse of snow lay between him and the distant forest, which was his destination.

Leaning forward, he silently prodded Brego onwards, not wanting to be spotted by his own sentinels in the dawnlight. As his horse began to cross the fields with ease, Aragorn couldn't help but smirk. Here he was, a grown man, a king at that, sneaking out of his own house so that he may spend some time in the woods alone before the solstice celebrations that eve. After so many years of solitude, the constant presence of his guards and retainers could grate on him like a headache. Whether it was the sound of their footfalls in the hall, echoing his, or the grumbling of their stomachs as they watched him eat, Aragorn longed to dismiss the men and continue as he always had: alone.

The pomp and ceremony of being king could exhaust him to no end and often his only retreat was his private quarters. His men would remain at their posts outside, and in his rooms he could air his stresses of the day with Arwen, play with their son Eldarion, and just... stare at the wall. No parchments to sign, no quarrels to resolve, no treaties to be examined. Just quietness and love and steady breathing. Not that he shirked his duties as king. In fact, he threw himself into them wholeheartedly, and truly loved his people, but there were moments when he needed a retreat.

This was one of those moments. He had left a note on the bedside table for Arwen, explaining that he would be back before midday, and to tell the guards that he was feeling ill and needed to lie in. She would understand. She always understood, for she often slipped out for her own quiet moments among the trees and birds, far from the din of Men. Elessar had been king of Gondor for over five years now and felt as if the crown had changed him. He had so little time to himself that stealing moments for reflection on who he was now were all he could afford.

Brego snorted loudly, shaking Aragorn out of his thoughts. They were now nearly halfway across the fields and the treeline was growing ever nearer. The sky brightened, but by the time the sun had crept close enough to shed light upon the Pelennor, the king and his steed had slipped into the forest unseen. Aragorn patted Brego's neck and felt the tension in his shoulders immediately begin to ease once he was under the cover of the trees. The scents of the pines lingered on the cold air and coupled with the boisterous morning songs of birds, Aragorn felt home.

He slowed his mount and allowed Brego to pick his own leisurely path, winding through the conifers and naked, sleeping deciduous trees. The lines etched in Elessar's brow smoothed as the birdsong filled him and he let his body melt into the gentle sway of Brego's withers. A lark called in the distance, followed by the chattering of chickadees and the chittering of a squirrel in a nearby tree. Aragorn cracked open a pale blue eye and turned his head minutely to catch a glimpse of the red squirrel just as it noticed him and froze, silent, before darting back up its tree. Aragorn smiled. He knew Brego's scent masked his own and that nearly all animals perceived him and his horse as one being: an unthreatening herbivore. Not a Man.

Aragorn lost his sense of time and allowed his mind to be fully absorbed in space, feeling as if his body were drifting into the landscape around him. Peace washed through him, bathing his senses in glorious light as his heart fell in synch with the pulse of the forest. It was not until the sun had already risen in the sky that Aragorn returned to himself, refreshed and renewed, and took an interest in his surroundings once more.

Steam wafted from the surrounding tree trunks as they warmed in the sunlight. A brush bunny nibbled on the bark of one in the distance, and as Brego slowed, lipping at some moss, Aragorn realized that he had a clear shot at the rabbit. But the small creature was so endearing and heartbreakingly unaware of its possible fate that Aragorn stayed his hand. There was too little meat on a rabbit to justify its death, and suddenly the idea of hunting on the solstice lost its appeal to the king. This was a day to celebrate the return of light to the world, the rebirth of Arda, and should not be observed with the death of one of its children.

When Aragorn saw that Brego was ripping off a fair amount of bark with the moss, he prodded his mount forwards again, knowing well the dangers of a horse ingesting too much sand and fiber. He knew he would one day be parted from Brego, but he would not let their parting be caused by colic.

At length, the pair came upon a stream and in the clearing that surrounded the banks, Aragorn realized that a light snow was falling. A doe and her nearly grown fawn drank from a chilly pool that had gathered in the shallows and the former Ranger observed them for a time. Ice was beginning to form on the slower-moving rims of the river, and sniffling, Aragorn noticed the dropping temperature. There would be a heavy snow that night.

Dismounting, Aragorn tethered Brego and built a small campfire to warm his hands while he rested, allowing his mind to continue to unwind in the pleasant company of the woods. Brego snorted and rubbed his face on his foreleg, attempting to rid himself of the itch of his bridle.

Aragorn allowed his eyes to focus on the dancing orange and yellow of the small flames before him, the waters of his mind stilling like a pond. He kept them glassy and undisturbed and looked at his reflection in their waters. Grizzled and lined, he was finally beginning to show his long age. Time was not easy to welcome into the heart of a mortal, yet in the still waters he embraced each gray hair, each fine line, knowing that they were hard earned reminders of all he had seen and done; all he had accomplished. 'Twas better to live to see ones face grow haggard than to die without having lived enough to earn a storyline on one's face.

A jay screeched from a branch not three feet from Elessar's head, shaking the king out of his waking dreams. His movement in turn startled the blue bird into flight, and Aragorn realized that his shoulders were covered with a mantle of snow. Dusting them off and shaking the white flakes from his head, he noted the dying embers of the fire and the darkening sky. The close of the day had snuck upon him while he had been fully absorbed in wandering the paths of his mind, reconnecting with his changed self and welcoming the man he had become with a smile and a warm grasp of the hand.

Blaming his scant Elven blood for allowing him such dreamy remissness, Aragorn rose, only to wince as his cold joints ached and protested so much that they nearly brought him down. Grimacing as he straightened, he felt his left knee complain that it had not been supple since the battle of Amon Hen, his right shoulder sigh and remind him of his injuries suffered in the Battle at the Black Gate, and ankles... well, his ankles had been complaining since he perpetually sprained them as a youth struggling to keep up with his Elven brothers, Elrohir and Elladan.

Rubbing his hands together, he was alarmed by how cold he had become without being aware. Night was falling fast, hastened by the dark layer of clouds shrouding the sun's pale light. Brego was resting, a dusting of snow covering his body, but the horse shifted his weight and perked his ears once Aragorn approached. Stiffly brushing off his mount, Aragorn took his time getting his left foot into the stirrup before swinging himself up onto the saddle.

The sun was too low and veiled to be used for navigation, so Aragorn instead relied upon his instincts and the moss on the trees for guidance. Urging Brego forward, he felt the horse begin to work out the stiffness of his own joints, and Aragorn silently promised that he would give him plenty of apple cider soaked oats once they at last returned to the stables.

Yet after a half an hour of riding through the trees, heading north, Aragorn felt the first flutter of panic within. He was not yet as familiar with these woods as he would like, and while he was confident that he would find his way home, he was anxious with the thought that Arwen would be worried about him. His wife and son, who was barely four, would be waiting for his return to begin their feast and to decorate their evergreen tree. He did not want his remiss actions to deprive his family of their solstice celebrations.

Darkness settled around him and the snow began to fall so heavily that its flakes made their way through the pine canopy. Here and there he could hear boughs bowing as trees shed the weight of snow from their limbs. The cold was seeping into his own bones, and Aragorn began to regret having come into the woods at all. His return home was taking far too long, and now that the moss on the trees was no longer visible, he was traveling by instinct alone and trusting Brego's memory of where his barn lay.

Caught up in growing worry over the image of Arwen and Eldarion peering out the frosty window, searching for him while holding worried guards at bay, Aragorn didn't heed the warning thump of falling snow. A loud crack rent the frigid air as a heavy bough broke, not ten feet from the king and his mount. Brego jumped at the sound, and when the branch was hewn from the pine with a tearing snap, the horse panicked reared. Aragorn's fingers were too stiff to grab the horse's mane to steady himself and once he felt his center of gravity shift, he realized that all he could do was try to land without getting hurt. Which was easier thought than achieved.

Aragorn landed with all of his weight on his left leg and his knee crumpled under the impact, sending him down into the snow. Brego bolted and as Aragorn's head swam for a moment, he could hear the creaking of the saddle and the jingle of the reins as his mount galloped off. Groaning, Aragorn took a deep breath, relieved that nothing in his torso was injured. His left knee, however, was already beginning to feel tight as it swelled and throbbed dully. The snow was melting into cold water against the warmth of his body, so he pushed himself up and gingerly felt his knee. There wasn't much noticeable change on the outside, but he could feel it inflating inside and had half a heart to pack it with snow then and there.

"Brego?" he called, but there were no returning hooves nor snorts. The horse was gone. Furrowing his brow, Aragorn grit his teeth and managed to haul himself to his feet, keeping his weight off of his left knee. "Brego!" he called again, and when the horse still did not respond, he realized that his friend was either without of earshot, or ignoring him because home was close enough to lure him back to the barn without a second thought of his rider. And if home was close enough for a horse like Brego to behave so rottenly, then Aragorn was sure he could reach it on foot.

Feeling about in the snow, he attempted to find a fallen branch to use as a walking stick, but none were to be had, so instead he hunted out a pine and snapped off a dying bough. After stripping the branch of its twigs, he leaned his weight onto the thick end and used it as a third appendage. His progress through the snow was slow and wobbly, but at least he was moving. At length he glimpsed a vast swath of white beyond the trees, glowing faintly in the distance. He made his way towards the dimness of what he was sure were the fields of the Pelennor, and was not disappointed when he broke the cover of the trees and found himself on the open plains.

Taking a moment to orient himself, he faced Gondor and began to limp towards the white city. The snow was falling heavily, obscuring much of his vision, but he was certain that he had glimpsed the towers of his home in the distance. He scanned the surface of the snow as he trudged through, hunting out Brego's tracks to follow, but if there were any to be had, they were already filled in with fresh snow.

His clothes were now soaked and clung to him like chilly beggars. A part of him began to burn with embarrassment over how ragged he must appear. He would return to the keep looking worse than he had as a Ranger in exile, and the tower guard would undoubtedly exchange looks, silently sharing that their king had grown old and weak and foolish. Mayhaps he could slip back in through the back gate he had exited, though the thought of scaling the side of the mountain in his condition made him emit a mirthless chuckle.

A wind gusted, chilling him through his wet clothes, before growing stronger and pelting his numb skin with stinging snow. Closing his eyes, Aragorn raised an arm in an attempt to shield his face from the onslaught, but the wind did not cease. A blizzard was brewing and he was caught out in the open. He would have done better to remain in the shelter of the trees. Grunting, he shoved through the knee-high snow and attempted to continue onwards with a hastened pace, only to feel his walking stick snap. Aragorn fell face first into the snow and screamed inside, for he was too cold to waste his breath on an actual cry, and his entire body had begun to quiver with involuntary shivers.

Was this how he was meant to die? Frozen on the fields of his own kingdom? A dark part of him whispered that if he passed in this place, it was just, for thousands more had died in the Battle of Pelennor Fields in an attempt to save his fair city. His soul would join theirs, only he would be mocked for his foolishness over having allowed himself to die in such a passive manner.

Bracing his palms against the frozen grass beneath the snow, Aragorn shoved himself upright. He would not fade here. This was but a warning, a reminder that he no longer possessed the vigor of youth, nothing more. It was a warning he would heed from now onwards, but not one he would allow to dictate his end. Pressing forward with his right leg, he shoved himself through the snow, half crawling and half hopping as he continued.

Yet the snow only piled higher and he could scarcely open his eyes, much less see past the pelting flakes. The wind whistled past his ears in a constant roar that was giving him a headache brought on by its nuisance noise as much as by its cold. His arms were beginning to shake and his leg was quaking, but still he pressed onwards until his right shoulder gave out and he once again found himself face down in the snow.

It was just as well, he thought. He would only rest for a moment to gather his strength, then he would continue. He was almost at the city gates, he could feel it. Home and a warm hearth were just feet away. All he had to do was try. But his body was becoming so terribly heavy and he could not stop shivering, nor could he feel his limbs. His palms and right knee were sliced and bloodied, he was sure, but he could not feel a single wound. Only the biting, throbbing cold that stole his life's warmth from his very veins.

"Brego..." he whispered, realizing that if nothing else, the arrival of his horse without its rider would alert the guard to send out a search party for their king. Mayhaps they would find him soon and he wouldn't have to shove himself blindly forward, like a seal on the ice. He wouldn't have to fight for each breath against the wind. He thought he could hear them now, calling his name. Lifting his head out of the snow, Aragorn squinted and realized that the snow wasn't falling as heavily for the moment. In fact, he could glimpse a silhouette in the distance, making its way towards him, and thought he could hear the pleasant laughter of bells.

It did not move like one of the tower guard, but rather like one not belonging to this world. Had he reached his breaking point? Was this a divine messenger sent to guide his spirit to the Halls of his Fathers? Aragorn licked his lips and swallowed as best he could, and the action reminded him that he was still alive enough. As the figure neared, Aragorn realized that it was emitting a soft light, like the glow of the moon, and was garbed in a deep blue cloak.

The soft sound of boots upon snow reached Aragorn's ears as the figure drew near, and his sluggish mind realized that the figure was not walking through the snow, but rather on the snow. An Elf, Aragorn thought, and as he looked up at the Elf who was now only a few yards from him, he realized that it was none other than the prince of Mirkwood.

The snow seemed to calm and swirl, dancing around the Elf as he broke into a grin upon sight of the man observing him, making him glow all the brighter. "Aragorn." He knelt and removed his hood, bowing his head with respect for the king before extending a hand. Aragorn stared in shock, a grin slowly etching its way across his numb features. He feebly reached out a shaking arm and rested his fingers in the Elf's warm palm, for he did not have the strength to curl them. Legolas furrowed his brow and closed his hand around the man's, surprised by the chill in the other's flesh. "You are freezing."

Aragorn felt something well up inside himself, and he feared it was a painful shiver, but instead a low chuckle spilled forth. Legolas took a step closer and wrapped an arm around Aragorn's torso and hauled him to his feet before taking off his blue cloak and fastening it around the king's shoulders. Aragorn leaned heavily against the slender Elf, though the prince did not react to his weight and without a word, all but carried him to his waiting white steed. "Arod," Aragorn whispered with a smile, attempting to extend a hand to greet the horse whose bridle jingled with silver bells, only to realize that he couldn't get his dead weight to move.

"There will be time for greetings later, Aragorn," Legolas said as he maneuvered the king's foot into a stirrup before swinging onto the saddle himself, taking Aragorn with him. Once Aragorn was securely in his saddle in front of him, the Elven prince made certain that the Man would not fall and spoke to Arod in Elvish, urging him back to the keep with haste.

Aragorn was aware that he was being enveloped in warmth as Legolas wrapped an arm around him, pressing his frigid form to his chest, and the warmth was all the more glorious and welcome after having glimpsed a terrible fate.

The king of Gondor would later have a vague recollection of being carried into the halls of his home, his bearer shoving past guards to reach the warmth of his hearth. His world came back into focus after he had been bade to drink warm water and his sodden clothes had been stripped from his body and replaced with blankets. The hiss and snap of the fire was near at hand and Aragorn could feel its warmth upon his cheek like the sun. Looking around him, he spotted Arwen seated on a nearby sofa, her head resting on Legolas' shoulder as Eldarion slept with his head in her lap as she absently stroked his wavy hair.

Clearing his throat in an attempt to speak, Aragorn caught the two Elves' attention and both broke into grins seen far too seldom on such regal faces. "Aragorn," Arwen whispered in a rush, gently slipping out from under Eldarion's weight and kneeling by her husband's side in one swift movement.

"You're sure you still claim me as your husband?" Aragorn managed to croak out, his eyes dancing with a smile.

Arwen rested a hand on his cheek and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. "Always."

Behind her, Eldarion had awoken from his mother's movements and sleepily crawled into Legolas' lap. The Elven prince picked up the human one and held the sleepy child as he approached Aragorn with a smile. "How are you feeling?"

Aragorn's smile grew when he saw his son, but Eldarion was too tired to pay much attention to what was going on and let his head thump onto Legolas' shoulder. The king chuckled. "That look suits you, Legolas."

The Elf cocked his head. He was adorned in a green jerkin embroidered with red holly berries for he had arrived for the solstice celebrations, though he hardly thought his clothing worth commenting from one who had just looked Death in the eye.

Aragorn raised his brows in amusement. "You should consider having children."

Legolas' features went slack in mild surprise at the comment and Arwen laughed before kissing Aragorn again. Legolas cast the sleeping child in his arms a wary glance before swallowing hard as he returned his gaze to his friend. His cobalt eyes suddenly shone playfully. "I could never, Aragorn. My hands are too full with looking after you."

Aragorn chuckled and Arwen helped him sit up then took a seat beside him, wrapping an arm around his torso. "Fair enough, mellon-nïn. Fair enough." He adjusted the blanket around his shoulders as Arwen handed him a steaming mug of cider to drink, for beneath the blanket he was clad only in his undergarments. His fingers were still stiff and bore several cuts and bruises but he managed to hold the mug well enough. "How did you know look for me?"

"I didn't," Legolas said as he sat down on a footstool beside the two, slightly shifting Eldarion in his lap, but the boy remained asleep with his head against the Elf's breast. "I had only just set foot onto the fields of the Pelennor when I sensed that something was amiss."

"I had been fretting about you since midday," Arwen added. "When you did not return when you promised... I saw the approaching storm and grew grave. I would have slipped out to hunt for you myself had it not meant leaving Eldarion in the care of a nurse on a sacred day."

"I am sorry to have caused you pain," Aragorn said with a sigh, setting aside his empty mug, feeling life flow back into his limbs from its warmth and sweetness.

"You can atone for it by promising to never leave like that alone again," Arwen said, giving him a light squeeze.

Aragorn nodded, knowing that she was being more than fair. "I would have been fine were it not for my knee."

Arwen smiled.

Aragorn cocked his head. "What?"

"Try it," she said, then rose, holding his hand.

Aragorn hesitantly complied and pulled against her arm as he hoisted himself up. Gingerly resting his left heel on the ground, he slowly put weight on his leg, surprised to discover that the swelling and stiffness were gone. "I am healed," he let out in an astonished whisper.

Legolas had a wistful smile on his face. "The healing hand of Elrond is still with us, it seems," he said with a warm look at Arwen.

"Thank you," Aragorn said, looking upon his wife with a grateful expression. "You never cease to amaze me, Arwen."

She kissed her husband again then let go of him. "I shall fetch you some clothes."

As Arwen slipped into the adjoining chamber, Aragorn paced by the fireplace, testing out his knee. Shaking his hair out of his eyes, he turned his gaze to Legolas, who was studying the sleeping child in his arms, smiling at the boy's reposed face. "He has grown so big so quickly."

Aragorn sighed. "I know. The day that he becomes a man will arrive far too swiftly." Aragorn paused, studying the youthful features of the Elf. "And I have you to thank for the fact that I will live to see him grow."

Legolas looked away from Eldarion and met Aragorn's gaze.

"I would have died tonight, Legolas, were it not for you."

"I know not if it was Arwen's fear or yours that I felt upon my approach, but I lingered in the Pelennor without fully understanding why."

Aragorn smiled. "Your wise spirit serves you well, Prince of Mirkwood." He rested a calloused hand upon the Elven prince's shoulder. "Hannon le."

Legolas smiled. "Your life is bound to mine, Aragorn, and mine to yours. I shall always come to your aid."

Aragorn squeezed his shoulder, inclining his head in thanks. "I trust Brego made it home safe and sound?"

"Last I checked," Legolas said, "he was sharing a stable with Arod, nipping at his mane and throwing his head."

Aragorn chucked, having observed the nipping game often enough to know it was a sign of affection between the two horses.

"What I do not understand, Aragorn, is why you were leaving Gondor behind you."

The king sighed and let his hand slip from his friend's shoulder. "Perhaps, Legolas, one day you will also feel the press of time and wish for a few moments of peace to accept and welcome the changes in your heart. Marriage is no small thing, and becoming a father brings with it life's greatest joys and most powerful fears. You view the world from an entirely new perspective. I have had much change of late."

Legolas nodded solemnly then raised his brows. "That is well, however I merely meant that when I found you, you had been heading north. Gondor is to the south."

Aragorn studied his friend in surprise for the span of several heartbeats, realizing that he truly had been freezing to death to have been so sure that he was headed in the right direction when in fact it was the opposite. He let out a quiet chuckle and Legolas likewise smiled, affection brimming in his eyes all the more for the Man's bumbling mistake.

Legolas looked from the naked fir tree in the corner of the room to Eldarion. "It is a shame he shall not decorate the tree this night. I know he was so looking forward to it."

"And he shall not miss it," Arwen said as she returned with a pair of brown breeches and a red tunic for Aragorn. Aragorn took the clothing from his wife and slipped into it as she nodded to Legolas. "Wake him."

A timid look flashed across the Elven prince's features at the thought of waking a sleeping child, but he turned his attention to the boy's face and brushed a hand across his cheek. "Wake, Eldarion. Your father has returned."

The boy opened his eyes, blinking at the light in the room, and Legolas rose, his movement further waking the boy. Eldarion looked around with sleep-tinged eyes then spotted Aragorn as the man pulled his tunic down over his hips. "Ada," he said with a grin. Aragorn grinned and held out his arms to the boy, who reached out for him. Taking his son in his arms, Aragorn hugged his child and kissed the top of his head. "You were lost, Ada."

"I'm home now," the king murmured against his son's hair. "Thank you for waiting for me."

Eldarion slipped his arms around his father's neck and looked to his mother. Arwen smiled. "The tree waits."

Eldarion grinned and struggled to get out of his father's arms, so Aragorn set him on his feet and chuckled as the boy scampered over to the tree, suddenly awake. Arwen laughed and followed her son, Aragorn on her heels.

Legolas remained at the hearth, watching the small family with a wistful smile on his face. Arwen handed Eldarion a ceramic bird to hang upon a bough, and as the child hunted out the perfect branch, Aragorn turned to Legolas with raised brows. "What are you doing over there, Legolas? You are family as well."

"Yeah!" Eldarion shouted as he hopped back over to his mother and held out his hand for another ornament. "You can help."

Legolas inclined his head at Aragorn then approached and Eldarion handed him a ceramic horse ornament. "Hannon le, Eldarion."

"Amin saesa, Legolas."

Arwen placed her hand on Legolas' shoulder then reached to hang an ornament herself, while Aragorn lifted Eldarion so that the boy could reach one of the highest branches. The hearth glowed warm and the lingering scent of cider and pine filled the air while the snow continued to fall outside. It was the longest night of the year, but the brightest in Aragorn's heart.

Wishing you all a solstice and holiday full of love, laughter, and light!

Elvish phrases:

Amin saesa: My pleasure.

Hannon le: Thank you.

Mae carnen: Well done

Mellon-nïn: My friend.