As the Kings of Old|
Summary: A painful loss causes Halwen to lash out at her chieftain, telling him he is disappointing and nothing like the kings of old. However, when that same loss inspires Halwen to become a ranger, will she see in Aragorn a man she would gladly call king?
Quotes in Italics are from the Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
The sun beamed down on red berries peeking out of the leafy green thicket. A little girl moved among them, singing softly to herself as she navigated the thorns and filled her basket with the plump, juicy treasures. Spotting something in the grass, she knelt down to study it.
“Halwen, look!” she called to the older girl who picked nearby.
The child rose and pointed to the fuzzy caterpillar wriggling up her arm. “It tickles!” she giggled.
Halwen smiled. “I don’t think we can eat that for supper, Anniel.”
“Can I take him home?” Anniel asked.
“No, this is his home. If we took him with us, he could not feast on lovely berries and rest in the shade created by the leaves- “Halwen broke off abruptly, head cocked.
“Hush. Listen.” A dull thud that hinted at armored feet came from the distance, slowly growing clearer. It may have been imagination, but Halwen thought she saw the clouds roll ominously to block out the cheerful gleams of sunlight. The birds’ cheerful song abruptly died, replaced by the sound of low grunts. Halwen’s heart stopped in her throat when she saw a flash of metal approaching in the trees.
“Anniel, we must go home!” Halwen grabbed her little sister’s wrist and tugged her forward, the sudden motion tipping their baskets and sending a spray of berries into the grass.
“But Halwen, the berries- “
“Never mind them. We need to go!”
Halwen broke into a run, pulling a confused Anniel behind her.
“Hal-wen, wh-at’s wr-ong?” Anniel panted, the breathless words matching the pounding rhythm of her footsteps.
“Orcs… We have… to… warn…the others!”
The two girls reached the border of the forest and raced towards the small cluster of houses that formed their settlement. The heavy tramp of the orcs’ feet steadily grew louder.
Anniel looked back and stumbled. “Halwen!” she cried in alarm. “They can see us!”
As if in response, a rough, guttural voice commanded, “Get them, you maggots!”
Fear prompted a burst of speed that neither girl would have thought possible, but it wasn’t enough to outrun their pursuers. Halwen was suddenly jerked backward as Anniel’s hand was wrenched out of hers, and two thick arms surrounded her waist. The strong, crushing grip sent all of Halwen’s breath out of her body in a painful gasp and continued to press down until she felt her bones were ready to break. Her head swam from lack of air in her lungs, and dimly she heard Anniel behind her screaming for help. Just as she was about to faint, Halwen heard a thud, and the orc’s hold loosened. A pebble dropped to the ground and rolled past the orc’s iron clad foot.
“That little human maggot threw a stinkin’ rock at me!” the orc bellowed. Halwen heard a heavy thud behind her and a weak yelp from Anniel, but didn’t dare to waste the precious second it took to look back. She flung her body out of the orc’s arms, hit the ground, and scrambled to her feet.
“Leave that one!” snarled one of the orcs. “They’ll ‘ave seen us ‘bout now anyway.”
Halwen half stumbled, half run towards the Dunedain village, shrieking for help with whatever breath she could summon.
Several men ran out to meet her. They had apparently heard the two girls’ shouts and spotted the dark advancing figures of the orcs, for they all carried weapons. The first to reach her was tall, and had grey eyes and dark brown locks of hair shorn at his shoulders. Halwen recognized him as the Chieftain.
“Th-hey hh-av-e Anni-el, my ssist-er,” Halwen managed, staggering over to them and trying to suck in deep breaths of air. The other Dunedain men were racing out of the village, swarming around the Chieftain with swords in hand. He and the older one that Halwen recognized as Dirhael rapidly began to organize the men, then as one they turned and ran towards the dark cluster of orcs. One of the men hesitated and came to Halwen’s side, but she waved him away. “I’m f-fine,” she panted. “The oth-ers need you.”
Halwen bent over, hands on her knees, and drew in a deep breath. There was no time to be idle. She did not have a weapon, but she could check at the houses of the settlement to make sure they would be prepared for the attack. She straightened and trotted toward the nearest house, trying to ignore the sound that continued to ring in her head, taunting her even through her fear: Anniel’s cry of pain.
Aragorn’s sword slid into the orc’s chest, and he yanked it out, getting splattered by drops of dark blood. He looked up and saw another orc darting away, carrying a limp figure in his arms, and he sprang toward it with a shout.
The orc turned to face him, casting aside the little girl’s body so he could draw his knife. She landed on the ground with a thump, limps sprawled like a rag doll tossed aside by a careless child. The orc charged toward Aragorn with a wordless bellow. For a few moments everything was sweat, purely instinctive motion, and the clang of steel against steel, then the orc was lying at Aragorn’s feet.
He looked around and saw that the Dunedain were already driving the orcs back into the forest. Aragorn waved to Dirhael, indicating that he should lead the men to pursue the orcs, and received a nod of acknowledgement in response. Wiping his blade against the grass, he knelt and held it in front of the child’s mouth. A faint vapor appeared on the blade, but Aragorn did not allow himself to breathe a sigh of relief. The chances that she wouldn’t live were still too great. Orc nails had left deep scratches on her cheeks and her forehead was dotted with purple bruises, just starting to swell. The hair near her scalp was sticky with blood, and Aragorn suspected she must have received a lot of abuse from orc fists once the cruel creatures saw that she might be their only victim. Her chest rose slowly, barely managing a shallow, raspy breath.
Gently gathering her up in his arms, Aragorn started back towards the settlement. He suspected she had sustained internal injuries as well, and he wished, for what was not the first nor the last time, that his foster father was there. For the task that was before him, Aragorn suspected his healing skills would be woefully inadequate.
Aragorn sat by Anniel’s bedside in her family’s home, examining the child’s wounds. Her leg sprawled on the bed at an awkward angle, broken as a result of the orc tossing her to the ground, and the bones in her wrist appeared to have been snapped. The blows to her head also had been serious and had kept her unconscious through his ministrations. The most dangerous wound, though, was on her chest: an oozing cut that Aragorn recognized it as the mark of a poisoned orc knife. How could a child hope to fight off the poison that had been slathered on a dirty weapon in amounts large enough to kill a grown man? All hope left him. The only way he could save her life would be to call her back, to summon her battered spirit back to life.
“Anniel!” he called, making his voice commanding yet kind, firm yet gentle. “Return to me. Your family awaits.” Bending low over Anniel, he shut his eyes and groped for the fading tendrils of her sub conscious mind. He saw as if from afar a small figure, wandering lost in the darkness. Aragorn glanced down at his feet and saw that he himself stood bathed in a gentle glow of light and life. Again he called Anniel’s name, in turn inviting, then pleading for her to join him. She heard his cries, for she lifted her gaze and began to walk toward him, each step laborious and slow. “I’m coming!” he heard her faint cry. Determinedly Anniel continued on until she reached the area where the reach of the overwhelming dark weakened and faded to mere shadows. Suddenly, before she could reach the light, unseen wraiths of pain and fear grabbed her ankles, yanking her to her knees.
“I cannot come!” Anniel sobbed, stretching out her hand pleadingly. “H-help me!”
Aragorn sprinted toward her. “Hold on, Anniel! I am coming!” His feet crossed the border of light and dark almost effortlessly, and soon he was kneeling at the child’s side. In vain Aragorn tried to lift her, but the darkness refused to yield its victim. Her body was limp, and Aragorn felt the light of her spirit begin to fade. With a pang of sorrow, his healer’s heart realized there was only one thing he could do. Keeping her spirit from fleeing the bruised, battered body was beyond his skill and would cause only cause Anniel immeasurable distress and pain before she succumbed to the inevitable. All he could do now was to ease her fear. Gently Aragorn smoothed back her hair and spoke comfortingly to Anniel. “Rest. You have done well, brave child of the North.”
Aragorn straightened and opened his eyes, blinking against the light gleaming in one corner of the cabin. Anniel stirred and moaned, still lingering in the twilight of consciousness to which Aragorn had coaxed her. “M-my mother,” she murmured.
Turning, Aragorn gestured toward Anniel’s family. “Come,” he said, then added softly, “for time is short.”
Her mother came swiftly, not allowing sorrow or shock to keep her away from her child in the time of Anniel’s last and greatest need. She wrapped her arms around the small figure comfortingly, and Anniel’s father stroked the pale cheek as he breathed a loving epithet. Halwen came more slowly, shock numbing her mind and limbs. A floorboard creaked irreverently beneath her feet, unaware that a child dangled between life and death, and the sound seemed to release her from her stupor. She knelt at her sister’s side, taking the small hand in her own and kissing it. For a few moments, it was just gentle whispers and caresses, quiet tears, and a loving family gathered around a bedside.
Then came the soft, agonized moan. “S-she is gone.” One by one, they kissed the child’s forehead and murmured the appropriate words, that the Valar would guard and guide her soul on her final journey. Stricken, they sat then, cuddling Anniel’s body, as if by the act they could delay the sorrow, the pain that would come when they realized Anniel would never breathe, smile, run, or laugh again. Halwen was the first to reluctantly stand. When she turned, Aragorn was startled to see her eyes were flashing. The aura of strength and calm Halwen had exuded for his sister’s sake snapped.
“And your name among the elves was Estel,” Halwen said accusingly, her voice strong even though her eyes glimmered with tears. “The elves’ wisdom must truly be fading, for the name is ill given. A little girl died, and the precious hope of Middle Earth was not able to save her. Since I was a babe I have dreamed of a renewer, like unto the kings of old, to right the wrongs done to our people. I see it now for what it was: naught but a foolish, childish dream. You are nothing like them!”
“Halwen! You should not speak thus to any man, much less your chieftain and king. You owe him your respect!”
“Respect must be earned before it is owed. And if this is the best he can do to gain it,” Halwen gestured toward her sister’s bed, voice trembling, “then I will never give it!”
“Halwen!” both of her parents cried, but she gathered her skirts and ran from the room.
“Please accept my apologies for my daughter, Chieftain,” her father said, eyes mutely pleading for understanding.
“You do not need to apologize,” Aragorn replied, unable to keep the knawing guilt in his thoughts from bleeding into his voice. “Her anger is justified.”
“She spoke out of sorrow, not truth, my lord. Please, do not blame yourself.”
Aragorn managed to nod, but his thoughts continued to trouble him. The hope of Middle Earth could not save a single child from death. One who had professed to dream about my coming hates me. I failed, both as a warrior and a healer. I am not worthy to be either a Chieftain or a king.
Halwen ran to the small clump of trees she had always hidden in when childish hurts had driven her to seek a place of solitude. The largest pine rose up in the midst of the small clearing, a familiar friend and strong sentinel to guard Halwen’s sanctuary. Her body shook with breathless sobs as she dropped to her knees and rested her forehead against the tree’s solid trunk. The soft breeze teasing tendrils of her hair out of its braid, the fresh scent of pine needles, and the rough yet comforting caress of the bark against her cheek had always been able to soothe away worries and calm her troubled spirit. Today she didn’t notice any of it, wondering lost in a strange new realm of tears and bitter sorrow that no amount of trivial childish worries could have prepared her for. Suddenly all her cherished memories of Anniel had become painful, stinging her heart as salt in a wound. Death was a part of the Dunedain life, but Halwen had always thought it a danger for grown men, for warriors. Never for a six-year-old girl with a sunny smile that could cheer the darkest of days, never for a little girl who had a kind word to say about everyone, never for a little girl beloved by friends and family…
“Why!” she shouted. “Why Anniel? So many lives have been stolen: fathers, uncles, older brothers. Are they not enough?” She pounded her fist against the tree trunk in desperation and helplessness. “Why Anniel, too? Curse Sauron, curse every orc that ever spawned, curse the people our men have gone away to guard when their strength is needed here!”
Her fist slammed into the tree with more force than she had intended. Halwen glared first at her red knuckles, then at the oak. “Curse you, too!”
Never again would Anniel scramble up a tree’s branches with the nimbleness of a squirrel and laugh at Halwen’s attempts to follow. Never again would she come in from play with yet another wounded animal limping behind her, and then, with a mute wide eyed plea, convince her father to help her nurse it back to health. Never again would she secretly pick vegetables from the garden to feed the horses, or climb into bed with Halwen after claiming to have a nightmare. The last had always annoyed Halwen, because Anniel’s feet were always cold… And now they will never be warm again, Halwen thought, remembering the death chill she had felt as she touched her little sister’s hand for the last time. A wave of fresh tears flowed down her cheeks before the sobs slowed to hiccups and Halwen succumbed gratefully to sleep.
With an effort, Aragorn raised his hand and knocked three times against his grandfather’s door. When no answer came, he turned the knob and let himself in. Wearily he plopped down in a chair, absently noticing a spattering of blood on his sleeve. Not the dark blood of orcs, but human blood, now turning a shade of carmine as it dried. Blood that had once richly flowed through the veins of a healthy, lively child… A child whose body was now still and broken, marred with the cruel rends of orc claws. A body in which the last tendrils of warmth were now wilting, fading more reluctantly than life itself…
“Aragorn!” Ivorwen’s voice interrupted his thoughts. She stared in concern at her grandson, slumped over with weariness and defeat. The posture had become all too common among their settlement in these hard times, Ivorwen reflected grimly. “Did you lose some of your men during the attack?” she asked gently.
“A child. I had heard of the cruelty of orcs, even towards the young, but I had never seen it in Rivendell. I tried to heal her, but my best efforts were of no avail.” The words spilled from his mouth, and soon he was telling Ivorwen about Halwen’s bitter accusations. “I have failed in my duty as a healer,” he mumbled.
“There are some hurts that even the most skilled healers cannot cure,” Ivorwen replied, lovingly brushing sweaty locks of hair off her grandson’s face so she could look him in the eye. “I’m sure there have been times the Lord Elrond was not able to heal every patient. Some ills go too deep.”
Celebrian. Her spirit pained by long years of orcish torture, Celebrian had left Middle Earth to seek her soul’s healing in Valinor. Even the love and care proved devotedly by Elrond had been unable to repair the hurts inflicted on Celebrian’s heart. The pain of her departure still stung Elrond’s heart, but the greatest healer left on Middle Earth had loved enough to acknowledge his limitations and let her go…
“ I pray that Anniel’s soul, too, will find peace beyond the circles of the world and that Halwen will be able to let her go,” Aragorn said aloud.
Ivorwen was clearly puzzled by the missing pieces of his narrative, but she merely reached over to fondle a long tendril of Aragorn’s hair. “Your words are wise. Now go and wash up, and I will prepare you something to eat. The battle with the orcs and the healing have sorely taxed your strength.”
“Please, do not trouble yourself, lest I grow soft. I have endured greater weariness patrolling with the Sons of Elrond, and I do not doubt I shall have to face such again in my travels.”
“That time will come soon enough,” Ivorwen remarked. “When your mother took to you to Rivendell, you were naught more than a babe. I have missed nurturing you in the days of your childhood, and in the future you shall often be occupied with long journeys that will carry you far from aid. Let me care for you while I may.”
Aragorn saw the stirrings of worry in his grandmother’s loving eyes and remembered the measure of foresight she possessed. What could she have seen of his future journeys? Loneliness, pain, and hunger, no doubt, as was the lot of the Dunedain as they struggled to guard their borders and those of the Shire. But in what measure would Aragorn have to face these challenges, that they should trouble this valiant, stalwart woman of the North?
Deciding that pressing her would prove painful for them both, Aragorn instead endeavored to ease her worry. He took Ivorwen’s hand and said as playfully as he could, “Well then, my lady, as difficult as it is for me to partake of your good cooking, I shall endure it.”
His efforts were not unwasted. The small upward tug of her lips revealed that Ivorwen knew the reason behind his teasing, and she brushed an appreciative kiss against his forehead. “I love you, Aragorn son of Arathorn.”
Two days passed, and Aragorn found himself seeking Halwen. Although he no longer felt so strongly the guilt that had plagued him at Anniel’s bedside, Aragorn sympathized with Halwen’s pain and desired to ease it if he could. Her parents directed him to a small copse of pine trees behind their house. It was there he found Halwen seated learning against a tree trunk, her arms keeping the dark mourning cloak wrapped tightly around her frame. Her gaze seemed to be concentrated on the bed of pine needles under her feet, and her eyes did not move as he approached. Either he truly had learned something about walking unheard from Elladan and Elrohir, or Halwen was ignoring him. Aragorn suspected it was the later, although he wasn’t sure if it stemmed from animosity or shame over her outburst. He hesitated. It felt inconsiderate just to sit down in Halwen’s sacred hideout, especially since she had clearly come to be alone with her memories. Fortunately, Halwen looked up.
“Chieftain,” she said, her voice sad but civil. “Will you sit down?”
“I would be glad to do so, thank you,” he said, lowering his long limbs to the ground. He winced, but even the awkwardness of his movements was more endurable than the silence that fell between them. Halwen’s hideaway was soothing to his soul, but he refrained from mentioning that aloud. Halwen had lost a loved one, and small talk wouldn’t be appreciated. If only Aragorn knew the right words to comfort her…
“From the depths of my heart, I am sorry,” he finally murmured.
“I am sorry, Chieftain. I should not have placed blame on you, nor spoken with such disrespect.”
“Were those truly your thoughts, about me being unworthy to hold the place once occupied by the kings of old? You apologized for the tone of your words, but not for the words themselves.” Halwen looked at him in alarm, and Aragorn quickly held up a hand. “Nay, I am not upset with you, nor do I wish for you to be upset with me. I merely want to know what you think.”
“I have dreamed of the return of our king since I was young. I loved the tales of the kings of old and their great deeds. I set my standards too high for any mortal to reach, I fear,” Halwen said, the ghost of a sad smile touching her lips. “It is not your fault you could not achieve them.”
She bit her lip and stared at the ground. “I should have been able to do something to protect her. Anniel threw a rock at an orc to keep him from crushing me, and she paid dearly for her courage. Meanwhile I was helpless, unable to do a single thing.”
Aragorn opened his mouth, but before he could speak a word of comfort, Halwen added, “I wish to be helpless no longer. I have decided to join the Rangers.”
“What?” came the startled cries when Halwen announced her resolution at the dinner table.
“I want to join the Rangers,” Halwen repeated. “During the attack I did not even have a weapon, much less know how to use one. If I had, maybe this- “Halwen gestured helplessly toward the empty place at the table, finding the matter of the little girl’s death still too close for words. “This might not have happened.”
“You do not need to join the rangers,” Halwen’s mother said, gently clasping Halwen’s hand. “Many of the Dunedain women possess weapons and use them at need. It is our duty to care for families, which includes protecting them if need be. You can learn those skills and use them here in the settlement, Halwen.”
“No,” Halwen said. She laid down her fork and leaned forward, gazing earnestly into her parents’ eyes. “At first I was angry with the simple peoples our men left to guard, leaving us and our homes open to attack. But now I understand. What if somewhere there is a simple people, going about their lives with no thought of danger? What if somewhere there is a little child picking berries, and monsters which she knows only from scary tales leap out of the bushes? When she cries for help, who will come? Surely not her own people, who will be slaughtered because they know nothing of the danger, nor how to handle it. That is the task of the rangers, and I want to help them. So no other sister, no other father, no other mother- “Halwen paused, glancing briefly at the empty place beside her. She reached up to brush away the tears that misted over her eyes. “So no other family has to face that.”
Her father and mother looked at each other in silence. Then together they said, “All right.”
“There have not been any other female rangers, Halwen,” her mother warned. “It will not be easy.”
“No,” said her father. “Especially since Dirhael shall be the one to decide if you are fit for such a role. He is the grandfather of Aragorn- our chieftain- “He paused and looked at Halwen sternly. “Whom you called disappointing and nothing like the great kings of old,” he finished.
“As for the speech you gave our chieftain about earning respect, I think we should have a talk about respect for our leaders,” Halwen’s mother added.
Halwen nodded meekly, but in her heart she was prancing like a foal in spring. I shall be a ranger!
I shall never be a ranger, Halwen thought. For the past year she had been training with one of the older Dunedain men- riding, fighting, tracking, building up strength and endurance. Now, Dirhael had asked to spar, and Halwen had entertained the hope that after seeing her demonstrate the skills she had practiced so diligently, he would deem her ready to ride with the rangers. So far, she had not made a great showing.
For a man who was old enough to be- and was, in fact- their chieftain’s grandfather, Dirhael had a surprising supply of endurance. Stifling a weary sigh, Halwen had to admit that his supply was probably at least ten times larger than her own. Dirhael was fast and strong, and his sword shot in and out like a striking snake. Time and time again, Halwen’s defenses were broken down by Dirhael’s attack, and her limbs were getting weary.
“Again!” Dirhael called. For a few minutes they fought, the clang of steel ringing in the air. The next moment, Dirhael flicked his wrist, and Halwen’s sword was flying out of her hand.
The two drew apart, Halwen panting as she went to retrieve her sword. Wisps of hair draped around her face, and Halwen shook them over her shoulder impatiently. She reached up to wipe the sweat off her forehead, turning to face Dirhael as she raised her sword. “Again?”
He shook his head. “No.”
Her heart fluttered with excitement and anticipation. “No? We are finished?”
Dirhael looked at her in silence, and Halwen’s heart sank. She knew what the next words to come out of his mouth would be even before he uttered them. “You are not ready to be a ranger.”
I will not argue with him. He is a wise man even if he is stern. If he says I am not ready, then I am not. But I will not despair. No, I will work even harder. She blinked away the beginnings of a tear and said determinedly, “Please, show me what I am doing wrong so I may change it.”
Dirhael analyzed her face for a moment, then apparently liking what he had seen, nodded. “Very well. Your motions are not yet instinctive. In a fight, your body must respond before your mind does. That will come with practice. You are also slight of build, which for you means that you are light on your feet and fairly swift. It leaves you, however, at a disadvantage when you are fighting a swordsman with a larger weight and height. You must learn to turn his advantage of build and strength to a disadvantage.”
Halwen listened carefully, tucking away the precious nuggets of information. When I have to face Dirhael again, I will be ready.
“Again!” Dirhael called, raising his sword.
Halwen raised hers in response, remembering the failed contest a year before. Her heart beat as rapidly as it had the last time she had sparred with Dirhael, but this time she was confident that her skills had improved. She was uncertain that she could beat the talented older man, but she could show him that her skills had grown. Any other thoughts were driven from her head by Dirhael’s attack.
His sword darted forward and back, looking like a swift silver tongue as its bearer rained down heavy blows on Halwen’s defenses. Halwen managed to parry each strike, and the clangs of steel against steel resounded in the still, muggy air. She side-stepped and danced to avoid his next succession of blows. Slyly, Halwen let her defense slip, leaving her head open for a blow. She ducked, dropping almost to the ground, and Dirhael’s sword slid through empty air over her head. As quickly as a snake, she lashed out at his leg with her sword. She checked the blow before the razor sharp edge could touch Dirhael and stopped with a light tap. Dirhael, obliged to act as he would after receiving such a wound in battle, fell on one knee. Halwen rolled to the side to avoid being pinned under his body and leapt to her feet, snatching Dirhael’s shoulder to pull herself up. With a broad sweep, the sword was at Dirhael’s neck. The next moment, she stood panting, holding the weapon loosely against his neck while she waited for him to acknowledge the defeat.
She sheathed her sword, a grin of triumph crossing her face. Dirhael rose, piercing eyes studying Halwen’s features, and she smothered her smile. “You did well,” he said, making Halwen’s spirits soar. “I think you are ready now to go on patrol with the Rangers.”
At times, patrol was somewhat different than what Halwen had expected.
Especially when she was watching Halbarad sneak up behind a man and casually slip a hand into his pocket.
She saw the glitter of sun off jewels as he drew out the handful of jewelry the two Rangers had seen the man filch from a nearby shop. The matter seemed inconsequential, but for a merchant in Bree, the loss of the rare items would be tremendous.
As Halbarad turned to make his way back to the shop, a man shouted, “You, there! Stop! Stop, Thief!” A sheriff rushed out of the robbed building and grabbed the ranger by the arm.
“You’d better come long nice and easy now,” warned the official. “We don’t take kindly to thieves round here.”
“I am not a thief!” protested Halbarad. “I saw a man run away from the shop with a handful of jewels, and I slipped them out of his pocket when he wasn’t looking. I was just returning them.”
“Likely story,” said the official. He looked at him suspiciously, noting the grey cloak and weathered clothes. “You’re one of them rangers,” he noted.” ‘should have expected it would be one of your kind.”
For the first time, Halwen was grateful that she had exchanged a dress for her usual ranger garb as they entered Bree. Her only way to rescue Halbarad would be to remain inconspicuous and pay his bail. To launch an attack against the lawmen would be rather counterproductive to the rangers’ mission.
The problem was, she and Halbarad carried few coins. Halwen strolled through the streets, thinking. An idea popped into her head when she saw a small sign hanging from the side of a building, decorated with a picture of a horse and naming the establishment as the Prancing Pony. She pushed open the door and walked inside. A heavyset man with a good natured face immediately greeted her. “Hello, young mistress. I am Barliman Butterbur, at your service. How may I help you?”
Halwen smiled. “Good sir, do you have need of some hired help in the kitchens? Or someone to wait on the tables? I have need of a few coins.”
The next day, Halbarad woke to find Halwen outside his cell, talking to the jailor in the Bree dialect.
“Oh, please, good sir, I haven’t got much. This is all I can pay, and I worked right hard for it, I did.”
“I’m sure that you did, but why do you care about this ruffian so much?” the man asked doubtfully.
“My husband may be rough lookin’, but I love him, sir, I do, even if he comes from the North. My Hal’s a hard worker, and with the harvest comin’ and all, I don’t know how I’d manage without him. Please, sir, these coins are all I’ve got!” Halwen pleaded, looking close to tears.
The man, moved by her pleas, finally relented and accepted the coins. He removed the keyring from his belt and unlocked the cell door. Halwen rushed in, flinging her arms around Halbarad while she alternately scolded and lavished endearments. “How could you ‘ave done this? You know money’s close enough, without me having to pay your bail. Never mind that now, Hal love, long as you’re all right. Just promise not to do it again.”
The guard nodded. “If it weren’t for the little lady here, you’d still be in that cell. Try that anything like that again, and we’ll ‘ave you back in here in a snap.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t want to go through this again,” Halbarad replied wholeheartedly. He glanced down at Halwen, who was still cuddled up against his side. Hal love, indeed!
A day’s travel from Bree, the ranger’s lifestyle became more like Halwen had imagined. Long, vicious howls travelled on the wind, followed by warg riders crashing out of the underbrush toward the two cloaked figures.
Halwen spun around to meet them. A snarling warg raced toward her, but she side stepped at the last moment. As it passed, Halwen leapt up, thrusting all her weight against the orc’s body. It toppled off the beast, and human and orc rolled into the grass. Halwen landed on top of the orc and was thrust off by a powerful kick from the orc’s thick legs. She landed hard on her back, and before the lights darting in front of her eyes had cleared, the orc was standing over her. He thrust his blade down towards her heart, but Halwen rolled away at the last second. Another thrust, and Halwen tossed herself away from the blade. Before the orc could react again, she threw herself between his legs, yanking him to the ground. Halwen slipped her feet out from under the orc, leapt on top of the beast, and finished it off with a sweep of her sword across its neck.
She looked up and saw Halbarad yanking his sword out of an orc’s body, when a riderless warg raced toward him. He whirled around to fight it, retreating back a step. He stumbled over an orc carcass, and the snarling warg leapt forward, heavy paws shoving Halbarad to the ground. His sword flew from his hand and landed on the grass, several inches away from his grasping fingers. Halwen tucked her sword under her arm, yanked her hunting knife out of its sheath, and sent it flying toward the warg. It embedded itself in the beast’s shaggy shoulder, and Halbarad seized his advantage. He launched himself backward, grabbed his sword, and drove it into the animal’s chest.
The twilight gloom was darkening into night when they finally managed to kill or drive off the last of the orcs that had assailed them. They lit a fire to keep any other foul creatures from attacking, then sat down to examine and nurse their injuries.
“Thank you. Without your assistance, that warg would have had me,” Halbarad said simply. Halwen nodded and smiled. No further words were necessary, for it was a ranger’s job and privilege to protect the life of a comrade, often on a daily basis. And now, having experienced that comradery and trust while travelling and fighting alongside one of the Dunedain, Halwen knew she was now a ranger indeed.
As she walked through the grass, her footsteps were a mere whisper, lighter than those of a woodland creature. The training she had experienced during her time on patrol with the Rangers had brought about that talent, which now softened her footsteps even when she wasn’t making a conscious effort to do so.
Halwen sat down and stared at a small stone protruding from the earth, its surface gleaming in the last rays of pale pink sunshine that lingered in the twilight. The grass around it rippled in the wind as a single wave, and she simply sat and watched its liquid sway. It was good to be home, even if only for a few days.
Halwen leaned forward to read the numbers etched into the stone, although she already knew them by the heart. One of the dates was the day a warm bundle had been placed in her arms, and she had found a soft, tiny face that captured her heart when she peeled back the blankets. Then drawing in a deep breath, the baby had uttered squeals loud enough to compete with her mother’s piglets. The other date was when that child had given Halwen a sweet smile that shattered her heart and then breathed her last. Five years ago today.
Halwen heard footsteps behind her and turned, expecting her mother and father. Instead, it was Dirhael, his sturdy frame silhouetted against the darkening sky. His hand grasped hers, and gently but firmly turned it palm up. Halwen felt something hard and cold press against her hand, and Dirhael said softly, “Halbarad tells me you have earned this. Anniel had a sister she would have been proud of.”
He turned and left, with only the whisper of his footsteps on the grass to betray his leave taking. Halwen raised the object and squinted at it. Once she realized what it was, she was filled with joy that was at that moment and place too great and solemn for laughter or dance.
It was a brooch in the form of a raised star, the symbol of the Dunedain.
Years later. March 6, T.A. 3019
Halwen’s fingers swiftly separated the shoulder length strands of brown hair and twisted them together into a stubby braid. Idly, she noted the subtle streaks of grey that had begun to appear among her locks. Silently Halwen blessed the blood of Numenor that kept her able to ride and fight alongside the other rangers at the age of 71.
The bustle around the camp fire increased, and Halwen hastily tossed her braid over her shoulder. She grabbed a piece of bread and began to eat, unwilling to waste time on further reflection. The other rangers were in a hurry, as evidenced by the speed with which they bolted down their breakfast. Halwen swallowed and leaned over to the one sitting closest to her. “Any new tidings? The message that bid us travel to Rohan to help the chieftain has been in my thoughts all this morning. Is there trouble afoot?”
“Nay, I have heard no word,” the man said, then climbed to his feet as their leader walked by. “Halbarad! Will you not let one of us carry your burden today?”
Halbarad, holding a long pole wrapped in black cloth, shook his head. “Thank you, but I must keep the standard close. The lady Arwen would behead me if some harm should come to it before we reach Aragorn.”
“Aye, she would,” said the dark haired elf lord that had heard Halbarad’s words. Halwen wasn’t sure if it was Elladan or Elrohir who had spoken, but today she denied herself the luxury of pondering the wonder of elven twins. Instead she readjusted her grey cloak around her shoulders, rose, and went to saddle her horse Daeroch.
The Rangers rode as swiftly as they could without causing hurt to their horses, and by nightfall they had spotted a group of horses ahead of them. Daeroch’s swift stride was eating up the leagues between them when suddenly Halwen saw the horses turn and face them as one.
“Halt! Halt! Who rides in Rohan?” a strong voice called out of the dark.
Obediently, Halwen and the other Rangers reined in their horses. Halbarad slide off his horse and stepped forward.
“Rohan? Rohan did you say? That is a glad word. We seek that land in haste from long afar,” Halbarad replied.
“You have found it. When you crossed the fords yonder you entered it,” came the voice. “But it is the realm of Theoden the King. None ride here save by his leave. Who are you? And what is your haste?”
“Halbarad Dunadan, Ranger of the North I am. We seek one Aragorn Son of Arathorn, and we heard that he was in Rohan.”
“And you have found him also!” came a joyful cry, and a tall man that looked a shadow in the darkness stepped forward to embrace Halbarad.
Aragorn rode with the Rangers for the next few hours. Even in the darkness, Halwen could see that the chieftain’s grey eyes were sorrowful and aged. More so, even, than they had been when he had patrolled with the rangers in the north before his journey to Bree. He had seen much. This was the man who had hunted a malicious creature across Middle Earth, wandered under the strange stars and cruel sun of Harad, and travelled along the very borders of Mordor. Yet, there were dangers on the quest he had seen on the quest that worried him like few things had before. The thought was not comforting.
Even more alarming tidings came after they broke camp. Aragorn spent his time in counsel with Halbarad or the king of the Roherym, and soon murmurs of the Paths of the Dead trickled down through the Rider’s camp. The rangers sat silently, resting and watching. Halwen noticed with interest an elf and a dwarf among the men of Rohan, and from their talk the unlikely pair seemed to be good friends. From the rumors, she gathered that the two had travelled far with her chieftain. Halwen also happened to hear them discussing the Dunedain, and it amused her to realize that neither had noticed she was a woman. She had cut her hair at her shoulders for the sake of ease, and in her travel stained ranger clothing, from a distance Halwen was nearly indistinguishable from the men.
Soon Aragorn emerged from his counsel with Theoden King and joined the rangers, looking solemn.
“My friends, my only hope now is to take the Paths of the Dead, to claim the allegiance of those who did not answer Isildur’s summons. No other hope for victory in the coming battle is open to me. Will you come?”
The Dunedain looked at each other, then Halbarad rose and answered for all of them. “You are our Chieftain, and our final contest draws near. We will follow you where ever you decide.”
Halwen could hardly refuse to follow her Chieftain, but doubts from long ago persisted. She had heard tales of Aragorn pursuing a creature named Gollum even after all hope was lost and then returning successful, but she had not seen the deed with her own eyes. Indeed, she had hardly seen anything of the chieftain in her years serving with the rangers. He had spent years away, fighting in Gondor and Rohan under the name of Thorongil, then leaving with the wizard Gandalf to track Gollum. She had only seen him briefly on his return to the North, before he returned to patrolling a different sector of Eriador than Halwen had been assigned to.
Thus, the memory of her Chieftain that stood out most clearly was one of him sitting by Anniel’s bedside. He was of the line of Luthien and had trained under the skilled Master Elrond: Halwen had been sure he could heal her little sister, as had happened so often in the old tales. The hands of a king were the hands of a healer… but this man’s healing hands had failed. Would he fail as Chieftain, as a leader, as exiled king? In her mind’s eye, Halwen still saw Aragorn step away from Anniel’s bedside, yielding up Anniel’s life because there was nothing else he could do.
Now, he was again taking a path because he had no other choice. Halwen could only hope it wouldn’t hold the same consequence for them that it had held for Anniel.
For a moment, Halwen stood gaping with the other Dunedain at the dark entrance.
“We must go in, and therefore the horses must go. For if ever we come through this darkness, many leagues lay beyond, and every hour that is lost there will bring the triumph of Sauron nearer.”
With those words, Aragorn turned, whispered a reassurance to his horse, and walked through the dark opening. Halwen watched his back, tall and straight, disappearing in the darkness. The gentle glow from his torch softened the shadows around him. “And I said he was nothing like the great kings of old,” Halwen murmured. “Such bravery would find good company among the old tales.”
Her horse Daeroch lifted his head, ears swiveling nervously toward the gaping opening. She ran her hand reassuringly over Daeroch’s velvety nose. “He has the most to lose by travelling this path, yet he dares it. Surely we can, too. Come, my friend.”
She ran her hand over Daeroch’s neck, and the horse, calmed by her touch, stepped forward. As they moved through the shadows, Halwen looked back and saw the horse from Rohan balking at the entrance. The golden haired elf covered the horse’s eyes, sang something softly, then led it inside. A short, stocky figure that could only be the dwarf stood silhouetted against the light. Halwen thought that the dwarf looked as if he too would dig in his heels and refuse to enter the cavern. Briefly she had the absurd thought that maybe the elf would sing to him, too.
They went on further into the dark until the opening could no longer be seen, and the only way Halwen could see the walls of the cavern or the faces of her companions was by the dim glow of the torches. Ahead of her, Aragorn’s torch bobbed off to one side, and in its light she saw a suit of armor. Halwen, seeing a glow of white, took a curious step forward. Her breath caught in her throat, and she stumbled an involuntary step backward when she realized that the ghostly white objects were bones. Halwen had a sudden vision of a man desperately throwing himself against the wall, armor clinking against the stone. His fingers groped desperately against the door, trying to wrench it open. When it would not yield, he gave a rasping cry of despair and slumped against the wall. Then a cold breeze swirled through the passage, and with it came a sense of a silent hunter approaching. In a last desperate heave, the man lifted himself, grasping at the door, then let out a wailing cry as cold, unseen fingers claimed him.
A shiver travelled through Halwen’s limbs, and she could almost feel the invisible fingers groping down her back. Unpleasant whispers tickled in her ear, murmuring that the way was shut, and that none would live who tried to pass. Another whispered that it was once a man but was now doomed to darkness, haunted by broken promises. It grudged Halwen her freedom. It grudged her life, light, and the comradery that came of her kept oaths to the rangers.
Aragorn rose and spoke aloud, his voice strong and commanding. “Keep your hoards and your secrets hidden in the Accursed Years!” His voice cut through the whispers like a knife, and the murmurings grew silent. Halwen clung to the sound of a living, breathing human being speaking: it was like a solid anchor in the dark, swirling depths of the sea.
“Speed only we ask. Let us pass, and then come! I summon you to the Stone of Erech!” There was an ominous puff of wind, and the torches spluttered. The next moment, there was absolute darkness. The group again travelled forward, with the rustle of invisible feet behind them. Halwen shuddered, and ran her hand over Daeroch’s neck, the warmth against her hand steadying her. That, and the remembrance of a man who boldly called ghosts to serve him. A man who could inspire three elves, a dwarf, and thirty rangers to follow him along the Paths of the Dead, simply by having already proved himself worthy of their trust and love. A man who would take a path, however dark, because that was what had to be done. A man whom she now knew would never have given up on her sister until death truly was inevitable. This was a man she could follow and trust with her own life. A man whom she would gladly call king.
Her hunger for a precious gleam of light grew, and the dark seemed endless. Just as Halwen was wondering if her longing was causing her to imagine the faint twinkle ahead, they came upon an opening. The footsteps of the Company grew swifter, making a soft rap against the ground as they passed out of the cavern. Halwen paused to look up at the stars beginning to come out, drinking in the pure glimmering lights.
They mounted and rode on through the Morthond Vale, then Aragorn rallied the tired Rangers with a cry. ‘Friends, forget your weariness! Ride now, ride! We must come to the Stone of Erech ere this day passes, and long still is the way.’
It felt as if they had been riding forever when they finally reached the Stone, as if the pounding of horses’ hooves and the slight murmur of ghostly feet had always been there and always would be.
The Grey Company reined in their horses. One of the elven twins, Halwen still wasn’t sure which, handed Aragorn a horn. Aragorn blew a single blast, then sprang off his horse to stand by the stone.
“Oath breakers, why have you come?”
To Halwen’s surprise, she heard a hint of longing in the voice that answered. “To fulfill our oath and have peace.”
“The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold the oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart for ever. For I am Elessar, Isildur’s heir of Gondor.”
“Halbarad,” the Chieftain added in a lower tone, gesturing with his hand. Halbarad nodded understanding and unfurled the dark flag the Lady Arwen had sent.
“We can go no further tonight,” said Aragorn. “Sleep, if you can.”
The rangers quietly began to care for their horses and bed down on the ground. The slightest jingle of a bridle or the rustle of a ranger unfolding a blanket sounded loud in the still air. Once they all lay still, the silence quickly grew oppressive.
Despite her exhaustion, Halwen found that sleep eluded her. She cuddled further down into her cloak, feeling as she had when she was a little girl frightened of ghosts in the dark. This time, Halwen thought grimly, the ghosts were real. And in a strange twist that felt almost like a jest, those same ghosts were their only hope.
Looking back, the next day seemed like a dream. The Grey Company rode on and on until they were weary enough to fall from their saddles like bags of rocks. They had only been able to continue on through sheer determination and love for the heir of Isildur. Then they had attacked the hosts that manned the ships at Pelargir, and the rest had been done for them. Halwen’s chief memory was of watching the army of the Dead sweep around them to send the Corsairs of Umbar fleeing in terror and despair.
Now Halwen swayed on her feet as she made her way over to the Chieftain. It was not weariness alone, despite the hard ride from the hill of Erech, but the rocking motion of the ship that made her legs unsteady.
Aragorn stood alone, as straight and steady as one of the masts. Just as Halwen was wishing she had his sea legs, a swell made the ship swoop up over a wave. To her embarrassment, she flew forward and would have landed face down on the wooden deck had Aragorn’s strong arms not caught her. He steadied her and peered into her eyes.
“Yes, my lord. Thank you. I fear I am unused to the rocking of ships.”
Aragorn shaded his eyes, looking over the land ahead of them. Minas Tirith rose in the distance, the small white city looking like a tiny mound of sparkling sugar. Halwen knew that his thoughts lay there, with those who waged a battle before the city’s gates.
“Is there something you wish of me, Halwen?” Aragorn asked, turning to her.
“If I may speak my mind, my lord?”
“An impertinent child once told you that respect must be earned before it is owed,” Halwen said. She bowed as far as she could with the rocking of the ship, inclining her head respectfully. “It is owed, my lord.”