No Greater Comfort by cairistiona|
Disclaimers: Aragorn is, of course, Professor Tolkien’s; the others are mine.
Summary: Pre-LOTR, roughly TA 2995. All Aragorn sought was shelter from a storm; instead, he found something infinitely more valuable.
Aragorn pulled the hood of his cloak closer to try to shield his face from the frigid wind and wondered what flaw in his intelligence, what sheer stupidity, what utter lack of any kind of common sense, had led him to try to travel to Rivendell in such weather. Had he not noticed the way the high, wispy clouds had lowered as yesterday went by? Had he not seen the gray clouds thickening on the northwest horizon? Aragorn, you are six times a fool, he thought, for ignoring the sky’s portents. No, make that seven times a fool. Or perhaps eight.
He growled under his breath and tried to keep his face lowered so the driving sleet might not flense all the skin from his cheeks.
He had hoped, in a fit of optimism that defied all reason, logic and sense, that the worst of it might slide past to the north. But no, the wind had howled in with a body-shaking blast that had driven all warmth from the day. Within a matter of hours, he found himself riding through rain mixed with sleet and snow. A vile combination, worse in his opinion than a blizzard, for the damp wind seemed to drive the chill straight through his clothing and into his bones as if he had nothing on at all. And he was still far from Rivendell. Too far, in this kind of weather.
He shivered and wished he had the thick, shaggy fur his northern-bred horse enjoyed. Bronadui, as if sensing his jealousy, lifted his head and shook it, letting out a whinny and actually prancing a step or two, as if to rub Aragorn’s very chilled and dripping nose in his superior tolerance of the nasty conditions.
He swiped his gloved hand across said dripping organ and blinked as the wind slashed across his eyes and brought them to tears. The only good thing to say about this day was that he was alone. No Elvish twin brothers, whose noses never dripped in cold weather, were around to laugh at his misery. Equally absent was a certain Mirkwood prince, who would no doubt have plagued Aragorn with a superior smile as he rode bareheaded and laughing as if the vicious wind were a mere summer breeze.
“This weather is not fit for men nor beasts, except perhaps arrogant and annoying elves,” Aragorn muttered. Bronadui shook again and picked up his pace. He let him have his head. “There! Run if you want. I’m so numb now it couldn’t feel any worse.”
But he was wrong. The wind sliced raw and biting across his cheeks and blew his hood back, and it was a losing proposition to try to pull it back up. Within seconds the tips of his ears ached from cold. He reined in his horse, yanked his hood back up and proceeded at a more human-friendly pace. Bronadui snorted his disgust. “Quiet, horse,” Aragorn growled. “Your name may mean Enduring, but I for one cannot endure that pace. So enough with your impatience."
Aragorn was heading to the Last Homely House, the home where he had been raised in the house of Elrond, among the Elves of Imladris, for all but two years of his life. Now that it was winter and most of the orcs had fled southward to warmer climes, he felt it safe enough to leave the Dúnedain in Halbarad’s capable hands and sneak away for a brief respite. Although how much of a respite it would be remained to be seen. Of recent years, he tended to avoid such visits, but he felt compelled by duty to visit his foster father at least once or twice a year. It wasn’t for lack of love or respect that he avoided Lord Elrond, but because the matter of his betrothal to Elrond’s daughter Arwen stood between them like a wall that neither of them dared scale.
It wasn’t as though he or Arwen set out to defy Elrond’s desire that they not pledge their troth until Aragorn became king. They simply knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that their path should be one, and that it would lead straight and true exactly where destiny ordained. But as days and then months and then finally years went by, Sauron seemed to flex his might unchecked, and now, nearly twenty years after that starry Midsummer night in Lothlorien, it seemed more likely that the sun would suddenly burst forth from the clouds and warm the air fifty degrees than Aragorn would ever gain the throne, or his lady’s hand.
He shifted uncomfortably, trying and failing to find a way to avoid some of the sleet. His thoughts turned down ever more morose paths, all the way back nearly forty-five years to the day Elrond revealed to Aragorn his true name, lineage and rightful destiny–that his adopted son Estel was actually Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, and future King of Gondor and Arnor. At that time, it seemed his future stretched bright and clear before him like the glorious dawn of a new day. He had assumed, with the hasty optimism of youth, that within the next year or two, he would be sitting in Minas Tirith, ruler of all he surveyed. How wrong he was. “Forty-five years,” he sighed, “And here I ride, wet, cold, miserable, and chieftain of nothing more than a scattered remnant of a once mighty people who have grown too few to overthrow the evil besetting us.” His future looked as murky and bleak as the stormy sky above him.
He sniffed and swiped at his nose again. No, it would not be an entirely pleasurable visit to the home of his childhood. It never was. On the surface, they would exchange pleasantries and talk of their health, and of news of distant family and friends, and of strategies against Sauron, but ever underlying their words would thrum a tension that only the defeat of Sauron could ever truly erase.
Surely no other man on Arda had to face such challenges to marry his beloved, he thought sourly.
Aragorn might have sunk still lower into outright despair had the lights of the tiny settlement of Bracken’s Ford not twinkled in the gloom and interrupted his cheerless reverie. He held a hand up to shield his eyes. There was something very comforting in the yellow glow that shone into the night, tangible reminders that not all lights had been swallowed by the darkness. “Not all who wander are lost,” he whispered, smiling slightly. “Maybe I am simply . . . delayed. And too prone to lose myself in the mire of self pity.” He patted Bronadui’s neck. “I nearly rode you straight into the Hoarwell River.”
He started to rein Bronadui south, away from the small town to continue to the Last Bridge and the East-West Road that led to Rivendell, but then he remembered there was a small inn at Bracken’s Ford. He had never stayed there, but with the choice of an unknown but surely warm hearth waiting but minutes away, or a much longer ride in sleet and ever-worsening weather to a cold camp near the bridge, Aragorn didn’t waste even a breath making his decision. He straightened in the saddle, kicked his heels into Bronadui’s sides, and hurried toward the lights.
~~~ <<<>>> ~~~
The stable, redolent with the scent of hay, leather, horses and wood, seemed to open welcoming arms toward them as he stiffly dismounted and led Bronadui into its inky interior. The horse, stout heart though he had when it came to foul weather, shook himself and let out a relieved nicker as they at last found shelter from the downpour. Aragon tried to stamp feeling into his nearly frozen feet, but only close proximity to a very warm fire would accomplish that. He pulled his gloves off and fumbled with numb fingers until he found a lamp that, after three tries, he clumsily managed to light. He led Bronadui into an empty stall, hanging the lamp back on its hook. As he pulled Bronadui’s bridle off, he noticed the only other occupant of the stable, a swayback grey dapple dozing in the next stall.
He found a barrel of oats and dumped a scoop into Bronadui’s manger. “There you go, my friend, eat up.”
As Bronadui thankfully lowered his head to eat, Aragorn stripped off the wet saddle, pack and blankets, then rubbed him down thoroughly with a piece of sacking he found draped over the stall divider. He dug a brush out of his pack to finish the job. Bronadui raised his head once to glance at Aragorn.
“I promise,” Aragorn said as he brushed Bronadui’s back with long sweeping strokes, “you will not have to leave your warm stall until the weather breaks.”
Bronadui twitched his ears back and forth, stared out the stable doors for a moment, then let out a disbelieving huff. Aragorn stopped brushing him long enough to scratch him around his ears.
“Come on, you can trust me.”
Bronadui huffed again and plunged his nose back into his oats.
“I guess I deserved that,” Aragorn sighed. He found a pitchfork and started pitching hay all around the stall. “I’ve ridden you through too many bad patches, haven’t I? But I’m in no hurry this time. No hurry at all,” he finished with emphasis. Lord Elrond could wait for a while.
Finishing with the pitchfork, Aragorn picked the brush back up and worked on Bronadui’s tangled mane and tail. Then he ran his hand down all four legs, picking up each hoof and carefully cleaning it. Finally satisfied, he patted Bronadui’s neck and murmured a good night to him. He laughed as Bronadui nuzzled his neck and nibbled at his hair. “Stop that,” he scolded. Bronadui responded with a playful nudge that nearly sent him sprawling to the floor. Aragorn laughed again and then picked up his pack and his sword and scabbard, locked the stall door, and hurried as fast as his tired legs would take him through the sleet to the inn proper.
The wind nearly yanked the door out of his hand as he stumbled in. A cheerful voice immediately shouted at him to close the door. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he slammed the door shut behind him. He stood blinking for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the room’s light. He took a deep breath of air laden with the smell of roast lamb, the finest South Farthing pipeweed and good, yeasty ale. He shoved his dripping hood back and found a table near the fireplace, which was roaring merrily and putting out a gratifying amount of heat.
Dumping his pack onto the stone floor and placing the sword on top, he stood with his hands out before the crackling fire. His fingers tingled painfully, but he was relieved, for it was a minor discomfort and not the terrible pain of life returning to truly frozen fingers. He had suffered frostbite once, when he had gotten stranded in a blizzard with no friendly warm inns anywhere in sight, and he had no desire to repeat that excruciating experience. As he flexed his stiff fingers, a short, round man waddled up to him with a smile that seemed very likely to split his entire head in two if it got any wider. Bright blue eyes twinkled above a bulbous nose, and a fringe of frizzy grey hair encircled the gleaming, bald dome of his very round head. In fact, it seemed everything about this man was round. “Welcome, welcome! You’ll find no better shelter tonight than at the Hunter’s Horn. Bilfen Broadbow, at your service.”
The man’s manner and build reminded Aragorn so strongly of halflings that he couldn’t help glancing down at the man’s feet. They were shod in boots, and small, so this man was no Hobbit. He nodded a greeting, then pulled out his small sack of coins. Sorting out the amount he normally had to pay at The Prancing Pony in Bree, he offered them to the innkeeper. “My name is Strider, and some of that roast mutton I smell would be most welcome.”
Bilfen took the coins, but handed half of them back. “Your generosity does you credit, kind sir, but I’m not in the habit of robbing my guests. Drape your coat by the fire to dry, and I’ll have your dinner served in two shakes of a lamb’s tail!” The man laughed so merrily as he hurried off to the kitchen that Aragorn felt a tired smile of his own creep across his stiff cheeks.
He shrugged out of his cloak, laying it beside his pack. Then he reached out with his foot and hooked a chair nearer to the fire and settled down with a weary sigh. He glanced around him with interest. The room was small, the low ceiling beams stained from too many smoky fires and hung with lanterns and an array of smoked meats and bundles of dried herbs. The walls were dark like the ceiling, and the floors a dark gray slate. Such rooms sometimes gave Aragorn a screaming case of claustrophobia, but on a night like this, where the fierce wind clawed at the eaves and howled in frustration at its inability to penetrate the snug building, the closeness definitely seemed more cozy than confining.
There was one other small table like his, with two chairs, in the center of the room, and two tables against the windows, each flanked by high-backed benches. Typical inn furnishings, if fewer in number than most of the inns Aragorn had frequented in his travels. A movement near the window startled him and he realized that there was another occupant in the room. Sitting in the shadows on one of the benches sat a scowling old man, scarred of face and broad of shoulder, who frowned over a tankard of ale and looked as though he chewed on nails for enjoyment. His eyes met Aragorn’s and Aragorn gave him a cautiously friendly nod, but the old man merely glared and looked away.
So much for scintillating conversation with the locals, he thought wryly.
He scooted his chair forward a bit more so that he could rest his booted feet on the hearth. He still couldn’t feel his toes, and his socks were soaked, but he could hardly take them off in this public room. Nonetheless, he briefly smiled at the idea of letting the stench of his wet feet float over to vex the unfriendly old crosspatch by the window. He immediately felt ashamed of himself and put aside the petty thought. The weather’s turning me into just as much a curmudgeon as that old man, he thought.
Bilfen returned from the kitchen. “Nothing like a good warm fire on a wicked cold night, eh, Strider?” Bilfen handed him a tin plate piled high with steaming potatoes, carrots and mutton. The entire lot was drenched heavily in gravy. Aragorn moved to put the plate on the table and move his chair back, but Bilfen would have none of it. “No, no. Let me pull the table up closer to the fire so you can thaw out. Any fool can see you’re nigh frozen. You need warmth, inside and out, and then a nice soft bed with a big down quilt, which I have upstairs if you want.”
“I do want, thank you,” Aragorn said. Small this inn may be, and small Bilfen might be, but his hospitality had no shortcomings. He pulled his money back out. “I didn’t give you enough for the room as well as a meal.”
Bilfen waved him off. “Put your money away; you’ve given me more than enough. Eat!”
Shaking his head and making a silent promise to leave a good amount of coin in some unobtrusive spot before he left, he tucked his money back inside his shirt and picked up his fork. He took a cautious first bite, smiled, and then plowed through the food more quickly than its delicious flavor merited, but as he thawed out he realized his stomach apparently thought someone had slashed his throat. Bilfen loaded his plate a second time, and brought out a loaf of warm bread slathered with butter. After Aragorn decimated those, Bilfen set before him a large piece of some sort of fruit pie. Aragorn finally slowed down, took a deep breath, and applied his fork to the flaky crust. Amber juices flowed out and as the first bite melted on his tongue, his eyebrows shot up. “This is peach!” he said with delight. “But peach season ended months ago. How . . .?”
Bilfen immediately laughed. “Dried peach, merely, but yes, peach nonetheless. I have an orchard and I dry at least half the harvest for using in pies during the winter. Never fails to surprise my guests.”
“You certainly surprised me. I never thought I’d get a piece of peach pie in the midst of winter.”
“Almost makes you forget all about that cold wind, doesn’t it?”
Aragorn snorted. The pie was good, but his feet were still numb and the wind was still shrieking. “No, but it’s good, nonetheless.” With another of his infectious chuckles, Bilfen left him to his dessert. He scraped every last bit off the plate until, with a guilty glance around to make sure the old man didn’t see and with silent apologies to Elrond’s efforts to teach him good manners, he ran his finger around the plate to get the last of the deliciously sweet juice. He had just finished licking his finger when Bilfen came back out to gather the plates. Aragorn hastily dropped his hand to his lap.
“I saw that,” Bilfen winked.
Aragorn laughed. “Caught red-handed. Or at least sticky-fingered. It was too good to let any go to waste.”
“Want another piece?”
Aragorn patted his full stomach. “No, I have absolutely no room left.” His pants were feeling uncomfortably tight as it was. Another piece and Bilfen might find his public room strewn with the bits and pieces of an heir of Gondor who had burst from sheer gluttony. “But when you come back, I’d be happy for you to join me in some conversation.”
“Have you a pipe?”
Aragorn smiled. “In my pack.”
“Then I’ll bring you some of the finest pipeweed this side of the Hoarwell,” Bilfen promised as he scurried off with the dishes.
Several clatters and bangs later, he came back in and settled himself into the chair opposite Aragorn. Neither man said anything until after they had their pipes lit and drawing well. Then Bilfen studied Aragorn. “Strider, eh?” He leaned forward and lowered his voice, although the old man by the windows didn’t seem to be paying them any attention. “I have my doubts that’s your real name. Am I right . . . Aragorn?”
Aragorn went still, his comfortable feeling vanishing in an instant. No one in these parts, aside from the Dúnedain, knew his true identity. Or so he thought. He studied Bilfen with wary eyes, wishing his sword was at his side and not laying across the top of his pack, where he would have to lunge to reach it.
“Now, now, unclench that jaw,” Bilfen reassured him. “I’ll not give you away, nor bring any harm to you. That would be more than my life is worth.”
Not knowing what to say, Aragorn kept his silence.
Bilfen took a deep draw on his pipe and blew out a smoke ring before he dug in a pocket and pulled out a yellowed and much folded scrap of parchment. He shoved it across the table toward Aragorn. “Read that.”
Aragorn unfolded it, his eyes widening as he saw Gandalf’s distinctive mark. He read its contents, then allowed himself to breathe again. The writing was genuine; it was from the old wizard himself. “It seems I can indeed count you as a friend.”
“Yes. I’ve been waiting a long time for you to come by,” Bilfen said. He tapped the letter. “Gandalf gave me that many years ago. Told me to watch for a tall man, a Ranger, probably looking like someone left him out in the rain too long, but with uncommonly keen grey eyes, going by the name of Strider.” He smiled. “Name aside, you definitely fit the description, especially on a night like this. Drenched like a rat or not, as I look past all that scraggly wet hair and those rough clothes . . . you’ve a handsome enough look about you that I might want to lock away my daughters, if I had any!”
Aragorn smiled a touch sadly. “The daughters of Bracken Ford are all safe, have no fear.”
“I take it then that you have a love of your own somewhere?”
“Yes,” he said softly. He concentrated on the letter, effectively cutting off any further questions. He didn’t see a need to tell him about Arwen, nor the difficulties surrounding their betrothal. Never would he bare his anxieties over the whole tangled mess of love and destiny and his fate to a stranger he had only just met. He barely mentioned them to his closest friends.
The note did not say much, other than to instruct Bilfen to render any aid Aragorn might need, and to be sure that while Aragorn was under the roof of the Hunter’s Horn, no harm befell him, lest he return to roast Bilfen alive. Aragorn hid a smile at that. The threat had Gandalf’s stamp all over it and even more than the signature mark assured Aragorn of the letter’s authenticity. He folded the note and slid it back across the table, wondering as he did so just how much protection Bilfen could provide, aside from staving off starvation or death by freezing. Still, on a night such as this, such was exactly the aid Aragorn most needed. “It seems I am in your debt.”
Another merry laugh rose like bubbles into the air. “And I can see in your eyes that you have your doubts as to what good one small innkeeper can do toward keeping you safe.”
Aragorn tilted his head with a rueful smile. Bilfen was apparently a mind reader as well as a guardian. Or, more likely, Aragorn was simply too tired to keep his thoughts hidden.
“You think you are the one watching out for all of us, but there are more of us watching out for youthan you know, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Not the least is sitting over by yon window.”
Aragorn glanced with disbelief toward the old man, who was still steadfastly ignoring them.
“Kenevir may not look like much, and he’s about as much joy to be around as mourners at a funeral, but don’t be deceived. See the knife at his belt? He killed a bandit with it just three days ago.”
For the first time, Aragorn noticed a wicked-looking blade hanging from the man’s belt. His stomach lurched uncomfortably at how carelessly he had assumed the man were nothing more than a feeble old codger. Had Kenevir been a servant of Sauron, he might easily have plunged that blade between Aragorn’s shoulder blades as he sat unheeding by the fire.
Bilfen blew out another smoke ring. “Aye, you’ve a right to look a little pale, Strider. Wrong assumptions can get a man killed.”
Kenevir suddenly turned his head and fixed cold black eyes on Aragorn. The hair on the back of Aragorn’s neck stirred. He felt skewered by the man’s intense stare, and he had no trouble believing the man was capable of killing him in any number of ways were he not an apparent ally. “Thank you,” he said to him, a bit uncertainly, but Kenevir merely slid his gaze back to the window.
“Kenevir can’t talk. Orcs sliced out his tongue. So you can see, he’s got reason to protect you. He hates Sauron more than he can say!” Bilfen exploded in laughter and Aragorn cringed as he fully expected Kenevir to come over and plunge his knife into Bilfen for his ill-conceived joke. But Kenevir remained where he was, and Aragorn was astounded to see one corner of Kenevir’s mouth actually lift in amusement. Bilfen reached over and slapped Aragorn’s shoulder. “It’s an old joke, Strider. Relax!”
Aragorn laughed weakly and shook his head. “This has definitely been an evening of revelations.”
“Indeed.” Bilfen again studied him intently for a long moment, then nodded almost as if some long unanswered question was finally resolved. “Aye, indeed,” he repeated, then murmured as if to himself, “and many more revelations will come.”
“Are you . . . a seer?” Aragorn asked, for the man suddenly seemed to have a touch of the Maia about him.
“No, no,” Bilfen said, laughing at the very idea. “Oh my. No, my son. I leave that kind of thing to elves and wizards. No, I’ve no gift of foresight; I’m just a simple innkeeper. But I do admit to having a certain skill in reading what men hide behind their stoic faces. And what I see before me is a man with destiny on his brow, but who doesn’t seem overly inclined to believe it. Or, perhaps, to believe in himself?”
Aragorn took a sudden, intense interest in the woodgrain of the tabletop. It really was made of fine wood, that table . . .
Bilfen immediately apologized. “Dear me, I’ve stuck my foot in it, haven’t I? Forget I said anything. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“You only speak the truth,” Aragorn sighed. He couldn’t bring himself to meet Bilfen’s eyes, so he watched the flames instead. “It has been a long road, and it stretches longer still before me. It is a road I often tremble to travel, but I will travel it.” He paused, then repeated softly, “I will travel it.”
Bilfen’s reply was equally quiet, “And you will achieve your dreams. Of that I have no doubt.”
Bilfen sounded so utterly sure, so unarguably certain, that Aragorn couldn’t help but feel his spirits lift as the battered hope that so often slipped from him strengthened. It made no sense that a stranger, and a lowly innkeeper at that, could have such an effect on him, but Bilfen seemed to be somehow touched by the Valar. “Your confidence cheers me more than you know.”
“For that I am glad, for I feel the winds of change are nearly upon us. It won’t be long before the road you travel brings your destiny within your grasp.”
The building shuddered again under a gust of wind, almost as if the storm outside protested Bilfen’s prediction. Maybe it did, Aragorn thought. Who knows what evil rides the winds these days.
He puffed his forgotten pipe a few times, bringing it back to life. Sleet peppered the windows and some managed to find its way into the chimney, where the tiny pellets of ice fell into the fire to meet a hissing, popping death. The storm raged, but here was sanctuary, and Aragorn felt tension drain away. He took another long draw from his pipe as he lost himself in the flames. Seldom of late did he have opportunity to simply watch a fire dance across the logs, to revel in the upward flight of sparks as the wood cracked and fell into the glowing bed of coals below the grate. Most nights found him camped in some remote wilderness, patrolling with his fellow Rangers for orcs, bandits, and who knew what other manner of foul beasts both natural and unnatural, and staring into a fire made for eyes that were blinded to whatever enemies the night hid. But here, in the unlikely company of a cheerful innkeeper and a surly old man, enemies felt far away. Friends were watching over him, and the fire beckoned to him to let his customary vigilance melt into sleepy relaxation. He felt his head nod and brought it back up with a jerk.
“There is no greater comfort than a good fire, is there?” Bilfen murmured.
Aragorn studied the fire a bit longer, then gave Bilfen a smile. “None, unless it be the discovery of unexpected friends.”