Author Note: I'm posting this chapter (and story's end) on the 10th anniversary of my first LOTR fanfic posting. My thanks go out to all the readers who encouraged me, the authors who inspired me, and of course, now and always… the Professor!
IN THE MIND'S EYE
Chapter 12: The Road Ahead
And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them). 'Prologue', The Fellowship of the Ring
The hobbits shouted with joy as Aragorn walked into the dining hall the next morning, accompanied - or "kept from falling flat on his face", as Pippin whispered to Merry - by Gandalf. As one, they rushed over and swarmed about him, asking about his health and insisting that they sit with them and make up for lost meals. More shaky on his feet than he let on, Aragorn willingly allowed himself to be led to their table, and sat down with a relieved sigh.
Amid a clattering of plates and cutlery, the hobbits took a good look at their friend. He had slept well, and bathed, but looked rather paler than usual.
"Well, Strider," Merry announced, "you don't look too bad."
"Considering what happened," Sam agreed, uncovering a steaming platter of eggs scrambled with sweet peppers.
"On the subject of 'what happened'," Aragorn said, glancing at Gandalf, "Arwen and Elrond told me quite a bit last night." He shook his head. "I could scarcely believe my ears. They said you would fill in the rest at breakfast, and here we are."
"Here we are!" Pippin crowed, sliding dishes of butter and toasted bread down the table.
"How are you feeling, Gandalf?" Frodo asked the wizard.
Gandalf smiled fondly at Frodo. "It is kind of you to ask. I have rested as well."
"Should I start, Gandalf?" Sam asked, and the wizard nodded. "Well, Strider," he began, "just as the River started to flood that Black Rider pointed at you, and he said some words that chilled my very bones. You fell to the ground. It was just awful."
"My memory of that is unclear," Aragorn frowned. "I do remember plucking Pippin from the River before we crossed."
"I just wanted to get to Frodo," Pippin insisted, and Frodo reached across the table to squeeze his cousin's hand.
Frodo then took up the tale, describing what he had observed at the Council. Gandalf continued the story, with the hobbits filling in details they thought were important. The longer Aragorn listened, the more astounded he became.
"When I couldn't breathe, and felt that pain... the reason I fell ill..."
"It was in control," Gandalf said, and Aragorn shuddered.
"Did I... harm anyone?"
"Absolutely not. The only one for whom we feared any harm was you."
"And Mr. Frodo, of course," Sam added before Frodo could stop him.
Aragorn felt a pang of shame. "I feel... rather violated," he murmured.
"It's dreadful, isn't it?" Frodo said quietly. "I know how frightening it is to be invaded by the Enemy."
"For one thing," Pippin said lightly, "it makes you eat more."
Aragorn was startled to discover that his hand was halfway to the cake platter. He grinned, and to Pippin's delight, everyone started laughing. The tension was broken.
"It's all right, Strider," Sam said encouragingly. "Both you and Mr. Frodo could do with some fattening up, if you don't mind me saying."
"If the only residual effect of my misadventure is being hungry as a hobbit for a time," Aragorn said, "I suppose I can endure it. Gandalf, every last bit of that... that thing... is gone? You are certain?"
"We are certain," Gandalf nodded. "Elrond, Glorfindel and I, working together, shattered the spell and the entity along with it."
"Do you suppose the sorcerer was aware of it?" Merry asked.
"Perhaps," Gandalf said, "but I can guarantee all of you that everything the entity saw and heard dissipated along with it."
"The Nazgûl are more powerful than ever," Aragorn said grimly. "It does not bear thinking what the Dark Lord may have learned, had Frodo and Glorfindel not suspected the entity's presence. It was a clever plan that may well have succeeded."
"But it didn't," Merry said firmly. "Now all you have to worry about is getting better."
"And four or five good meals a day," Sam said. "At least."
"I am in your capable hands, gentlemen," Aragorn said. He winked at Sam and looked around the table. "Is there by chance any of that apple cake left?"
Frodo looked up guiltily, his mouth full.
"Not a crumb," Merry said calmly. "Due to the greediness of a certain cousin, you'll have to settle for these cinnamon cakes which *I* was thoughtful enough to save for you." He whisked a cover off a small dish.
"Thank you, Merry." Aragorn took a few bites of one of the delicious pastries, then pushed back his plate at last. "I must prepare my horse and weapons; I should have left on patrol long before this." He started to stand up, but sat down again abruptly as his legs refused to hold him. He looked stunned.
"Strider, how do you feel... really?" Pippin asked.
Aragorn sighed. "As weak as a kitten," he admitted.
"Then you're absolutely not going anywhere today," Sam declared, then looked astonished at his boldness.
"Sam's right, as usual," Merry said, causing Frodo and Pippin to nod in agreement. "You'll spend the day quietly, Strider. You can read in the library, or nap, or see what's going on in that grand Hall."
"There's no arguing with Merry once he's set his mind to something," Pippin declared. "We're off to do some berry picking for the cooks, then we'll be around to check on you. If you see Glorfindel, would you let him know where we are?"
"He's to rest today, Gandalf," Frodo insisted as the hobbits got to their feet and grabbed a few leftovers for "afters".
"I concur," the wizard said. After the hobbits left, Aragorn smiled suddenly.
"It is long since I felt fussed over and coddled. Perhaps I should enjoy it while it lasts."
"Indeed," Gandalf said with a chuckle. "That would be very wise." He looked up as Glorfindel approached their table. "How are you today, my friend?"
The Elf-lord greeted Gandalf with a slight bow, then asked if he could join them.
"I am just leaving," Gandalf said. "Would you watch over our friend for a bit? The hobbits have left orders that he take it easy today."
"Of course," Glorfindel said. "Who am I to argue with the small folk?" Gandalf strode off, and Glorfindel looked about the depleted table. He discovered a small loaf of herb bread, and pulled over the butter dish.
"So, Aragorn. I had thought that any disturbances this week would come from so many hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves in one place. I never dreamed it would be you we needed to keep an eye on."
"Nor did I," Aragorn admitted.
Glorfindel put down the knife, and all traces of a smile left his face.
"I wish to apologize," he said formally. "It is I who urged you to retain the knife hilt, and it is I who did not recognize that your unusual encounter with the Black Rider needed to be investigated at once."
"Glorfindel, even you are not infallible," Aragorn said, piling what was left of the scrambled eggs onto his plate. "The haste needed to get Frodo to the Valley superseded all other concerns. Who could have predicted such an occurrence? And everything turned out for the best; we will be doubly on our guard now that we know even more about what the Nazgûl are capable."
"I appreciate that," Glorfindel said. He looked over his friend with a keen eye, taking note of Aragorn's pallor. "We will ride out together in two days, if Elrond gives you leave. Until then, perhaps you might enjoy a bit of sun while I join the hobbits? I promised to assist them today."
"Berries do not pick themselves," Glorfindel said solemnly. "And the way you are eating, we will be fortunate if our many guests do not starve during their time with us. What of the reputation of this House should something so unthinkable occur?"
They both laughed. Glorfindel got to his feet and offered his arm, but Aragorn looked around warily.
"I would not wish the Steward's son to see me helped about like an invalid."
"He shall not," Glorfindel assured him. "I last saw Boromir in the stables, conversing with Erestor."
Aragorn nodded, and allowed Glorfindel to help him up and support him as they left the room. Once outside, he lowered himself gratefully into one of the long, comfortably padded chairs on the porch. Glorfindel took his leave, and Aragorn watched him go, shaken more than he had let on by the knowledge that one's mind could be shared without knowing about it. It had been so very close… Listening to the far-off sounds of hobbit voices greeting Glorfindel with great enthusiasm, he took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and felt himself relax. Soothed by sun and bird song, he drifted into a deep sleep.
After a time, Arwen emerged from the House and sat next to him, grateful for the peace and strength she once again sensed emanating from Aragorn's fëa. In a few days he would be gone once more, returning to Imladris again only briefly before accompanying Frodo on a long and dangerous journey whose end not even her father could foresee.
Touching lightly upon her beloved's dreams, she marveled at how easily she could now do so. Their bond had been strengthened indeed, and she would be with him to the end of their road – through light or darkness – wherever it led, and beyond.
** END **