Deeds Left Unpraised|
Notes: Lots of random bits stolen from other places.
Halbarad trudged through the woods, weary from long weeks in the wilderness. As he returned to the Dúnedain camp, he knew he would have no fire, no warm food. But there were two back at home that made the hardship sweeter.
His four year old daughter, Eddis and wife, Attolia would have perhaps something to eat. They would prolong the sensation of eating in an attempt to stave off hunger, and sweet young Eddis would smile as usual. Halbarad smiled to think of them.
Yet as he neared the clearing that held all that was dear to him, a deep fear took him. Perhaps the air was too still, perhaps the birds too quiet. Perhaps.
The wind passed over as the Ranger parted a curtain of foliage. It sent a charred leaf skipping back into the forest, passing before the small blazes that were scattered through the now desolate home. Some tents had been left behind, their utilitarian fabric ripped by crude blades. No voices murmured, nobody was to be found.
So Halbarad shook off his panic to recall early studies in tracking and messages. The fleeing Dúnedain had left direction markers behind. Halbarad followed them easily, coming to a halt as a voice murmured out from the trees.
“Who passes at this hour?” Halbarad smiled as he recognized the voice.
“Only I, Harthad,” he replied quietly.
“Oh. I was sent to watch for you and if you did not come to assist with the watch.” They did not need to speak beyond that and so did not do so. Harthad led the way to the mouth of a deep cave. People huddled at its walls, some shivering and others crying silently.
As Halbarad travelled the length of the cave, he watched for his daughter and wife. They were not there. Harthad led his friend to the back of the cave where there was flickering candlelight and all the tents set up.
“The healer has been hard at work,” Harthad whispered as if frightened to break something with his voice.
“Orc raid. They took us by surprise; even managed to kill the ones on watch.” Halbarad shivered imagining those fell creatures coming upon his family.
“And my family?”
“Wounded, and I am afraid for them. Attolia was very brave.” The man did not hide nor soften the truth.
“Then I would go to them,” Halbarad replied impatiently. He was led through mostly silent rows, and came at last to two beds pulled side by side.
A small, golden haired girl slept beside a slim woman. They both looked slightly uneasy, even in sleep.
The healer came up to Halbarad. “The younger was poisoned, enough for a larger man. It will be only a matter of time with her. And the elder despairs, I think. She fights only to be there for her child.”
Halbarad brushed a strand of hair from his daughter’s face. Her eyes opened a little, and something like a breath passed through her lips. Then there was nothing left of her spirit, and her essence fled away.
He could barely cry out as his throat tightened, his lungs constricted. Gone was this small, fragile life, the greatest treasure of his life.
As if she knew of her daughter, Attolia stirred. “My tower,” she whispered. “You have returned at last.” She smiled painfully up at Halbarad. “Perhaps I can now rest.”
Halbarad swallowed hard. “Yes. Of course, my darling. Let the Allfather hold you.” He tried to return Attolia’s smile. Her eyes fell shut so that she could be only dreaming and Halbarad turned away.
Then he stumbled out, away, running. He struggled to take in air but ran swifter still. At last, in a stupor, the young Ranger stumbled into an inn, managing to pay for a room before collapsing in it.
That night, Halbarad Dúnadan left behind his identity and with it memories of love and loss, birth and death, joy and sorrow. When the people in the tavern asked his name, he chose one that did not hurt to say.
“My name is Costis.” After a couple of mugs of ale, the fact that Costis could play the lute slipped out. So he took the one offered and tuned the strings. Where the words came from, he did not know. “Everybody falls sometimes, have to find the strength to rise from the ashes and make a new beginning.
Anyone can feel the ache. You think it's more than you can take, but you're stronger, stronger than you know. Don't you give up now, the sun will soon be shining. You gotta face the clouds to find the silver lining.
I've seen dreams that move the mountains, hope that doesn't ever end even when the sky is falling. I've seen miracles just happen, silent prayers get answered, broken hearts become brand new. That's what faith can do.” His voice faltered at the last words. Faith. What was it? Only a fool had faith. Faith led to being let down, to heartbreak.
The others exchanged looks. They knew hard times, they understood well and sympathized with this strangely dressed young person.
Costis did not like the feeling that crept around his heart as he had sang that song. He launched into a raucous, nonsensical song. Costis was astonished to find coins filling his tankard.
He used them to buy more drinks.
To forget completely.
The next days passed in a haze, strange and distorted. But Costis saw in the shadows a dark shape, one his mind called Ranger, Dúnadan. He wore a star at his shoulder and a dark cloak.
Costis’ heart quailed at the sight of this man, though he knew not why. Hands shaking, he tipped back his head to drink from the ever present cup.
“Mellon-nîn,” a voice said, causing Costis to jump as he set down his drink. “I mean you no harm.”
“Then what do you wish?” Costis returned, the question coming out much too tremulous.
“Suffice it to say that I search for my friend, my comrade. I need a steady hand to guard my back or at least remain with my people. His name is Halbarad, of the Dúnedain of the North.”
Costis shivered at the name, achingly familiar yet completely foreign. The star in his pocket seemed to grow heavier, the one that looked like it had come off this man’s cloak. On impulse, Costis drew it out, holding it like a peace offering. “Do you know what this is?”
“Tis a symbol of my people, and I believe Halbarad’s as well.” The Ranger’s grey eyes bored into Costis, making him sweat.
Tall tower, in Sindarin, if he wasn't mistaken. How did he know that?
“My tower, you have returned at last.”
Attolia. Eddis. Harthad.
Aragorn smiled slightly. “There you are. Now, trouble is coming to this land and I need you to help me hold it back.”
“I would give my life for you if it were still worth anything. I am weak, Aragorn, like a broken vessel. Empty. Useless.”
“Ah, Halbarad. That is where you are mistaken. Broken, yes. Empty, perhaps. But you are stronger than you know, cousin.”
Aragorn walked the rows of tombstones, some with names and many without. They stretched on for miles, white and mostly untarnished. Between the graves only yellowing grass and bright red poppies dared grow.
Near the shadowed base of a tree was a humble stone. Halbarad Dúnadan, great in heart and mind, it read. Death March 15, 3019.
Gently, Aragorn swept the dried remains of flowers away and replaced them with a small, silver star. He bowed his head in remembrance of his friend and kinsman, folding long legs beneath him as he sat.
He closed his eyes, mind sweeping him back through the years. Halbarad and Estel, as he had still thought of himself then. Though Halbarad had been a couple years to the new man’s junior, he was able to teach him much of the skills of the Rangers. They had grown up together, traversed the forests together, fought together. Though his heart ached, pain beyond any physical ailment, the new king was no stranger to grief.
Time passed fluidly by, unnoticed by the still figure. At last, hours later, he tilted his head, hearing a sound. Aragorn wiped a hand over his eyes, surprised that he felt moisture there.
At last he stood, stretching cramped limbs, then became again motionless. The Ranger trusted his irregularly patterned cloak and the failing light to hide him from view.
“This is a cemetery! No one will attack me,” an irritated voice said. “I'm no invalid.” A young, pale, painfully thin man with defiance in his dark eyes limped into the cemetery with the help of a cane. He sat on a wooden bench near the trees, eyes distant.
Aragorn recognized the man as Bard II, King of Dale. “Greetings, your Highness,” he said, voice soft but still carrying across the open space. The guards stiffened as they saw Aragorn walk forwards and bow.
“Be not over eager,” Bard said sharply to his guards. They backed away to a respectful distance, still wary. His eyes met Aragorn’s and widened with recognition.
“You need not bow to me now, since I am sure the future will bring much stiff formality.” Bard’s mouth twisted in a wry smile, but he did not refuse. Silence came in, the two rulers used to their solitary ways.
“How come you to be here?” Bard ventured, sounding almost unsure.
“Something of the quiet in this place, of being real and remembering, for once. When I am among others, I must be strong, yet sometimes, alone, I can truly grieve.”
The stubborn stillness crept back in, the clouds themselves ceasing in their journey across the sky.
Bard broke the silence again. “I do not understand how I can rule now. I never thought I would have to for many years. Now, I just- How can I deal with corrupt advisors, with soldiers and families demanding payment? My father would have known what to do.” Bard put his head in his hands. “I ran away, you know. I heard my father call for help and I ran away. I became broken, useless anyways.” Aragorn stiffened at those words, memory of Halbarad still too near. Something about the guarded vulnerability and speech of the young king reminded Aragorn of his friend.
“Sometimes I wish the war had not happened so all these graves would not have been dug.” Aragorn sighed. “Fighting a war and gaining a throne feels shameful. But since my intention was to fight for the good in this world, I can oftentimes forgive myself.”
“Yet not always,” Bard said searchingly.
“Can war ever be fully forgiven?” Aragorn closed his eyes for a brief moment. “The Battle of Pelennor Fields, my closest friend carried my standard into battle. I let Halbarad Dúnadan become a target, I alone, and he fell that day. We have stood beside each other in the darkest of days, yet I remain after he has gone. Know that the Gift of Men is a mercy so that we may pass away from this world soon after our loved ones.” Aragorn looked worn in that moment, tired of the long years, lines creasing his weathered face.
“My people like to say that when you die, the dark fabric of this world parts, leading to a land of quiet glades, merry streams and a sun that remains long in the sky. It must be terribly lonely, or maybe terribly crowded. But maybe safety after a long struggle would be a comfort.”
“Eru only knows.” Aragorn smiled slightly. “If you will excuse me, I must return to home and kingdom, to responsibility. May guilt stay its hand in your heart.” He found Roheryn grazing in utter peace outside the cemetery and mounted up.
Bard raised a hand. “And yours as well.”