Uncovered Night by The Lady of Light|
Author’s Notes: For the Teitho Challenge “Dark Places.” This tale was written on a literally dark and stormy night. A perfect one for poking about in the hidden, shadowy recesses of a tormented ranger’s soul.
Disclaimer: I’m just squatting in the house that J.R.R. Tolkien built. I have taken elements from the book and Aragorn’s self-doubt from the movie.
Summary: Supposedly safe within the boundaries of Lothlórien, Aragorn stands vigil over the sleeping Fellowship and struggles with the unacknowledged darkness in his soul.
Genre: Drama / Angst
The less-than stealthy snapping-off of dead branches and the violent rending of undergrowth proved a welcome distraction. Aragorn crouched on a silver platform high above Lothlórien’s gold-leaved floor, listening. The orcs were passing close, and their cursing voices were slow to vanish. With his boot tips nearly overhanging the plank edges, he strained to hear. However, after long moments of silence passed hearing nothing but convulsing leaves, he slumped back against the trunk, oddly disappointed. His sword hand had been locked so tightly around the pommel, the steel ring dividing the hilt had left a deep imprint across his palm. He almost wished the orcs had picked up their trail.
His back and shoulder blades rested heavily against the firm, sturdy bark. The mallorn was still thicker than a man’s width here as it passed through the guard platform on which the elves kept watch and half of the Fellowship slept. He stayed far away from the gaping hole on the other side where the rope ladder had been rolled up.
It was a long way to fall.
In spite of their odd bed-loft, the others had found sleep with little trouble.
If only to be free of their grief.
For a time.
Less than two paces from where Aragorn sat, Gimli snuffled and snored, every so often mumbling in the Dwarf tongue; beside him, Legolas lay open-eyed with hands clasped over his breast, the only one completely at ease in a tree-bed; farther still, Boromir had curled up under his fur cloak, a hand furled over the hilt of his sword even here.
Gondor’s captain slept uneasily, his lined brow more deeply furrowed as if against some internal anguish that did not cease its gnawing even in sleep. Even as the ranger watched, the man rolled over without waking, perilously close to the talan edge. With the noise of a moon shadow, Aragorn rose and bent over his fellow, a hand outstretched, ready to coax him back when, as if sharply called, the Dúnadan raised his head towards the tree across the way.
It was larger than theirs and cradled higher in forked boughs. A grey shadow, scarce to be seen against the tree stem, glided across it and halted, vanishing as soon as movement ceased. Aragorn thought he could see the dark, lumpy bundles of four, exhausted hobbits lying as close to the center as they dared.
But with the night as thick as it was, and the order of the marchwarden to extinguish all lamps, he knew he could scarcely see his own hand in front of his face, much less his companions. Even the others sleeping at his feet were dim shapes stretched upon the floorboards, motionless as the dead.
Aragorn’s hands knotted in his cloak and drew it tighter around his body as if wracked by a sudden chill. It was not the night-chill or even the chill of Gandalf’s loss that set his teeth on edge this night though. That made him pace the flet like a caged wolf. That made sleep impossible. That made dreams dangerous. He could almost hear its seductive hum from where he sat.
The darkness pressed around him like a second cloak, feigning warmth and comfort and security. You could be accepted by all, a voice that was only partly his own counsel whispered. The fulfillment of your heart is at hand. No more must you suffer scornful names from foolish, lumber-headed innkeepers or be called “rascal” by a drunken no-account. Your own brothers-in-arms will love you and muster to your battle cry. He glanced at Boromir who lay still.
Arwen will have someone worthy of her love, that sly, far-too-intimate voice whispered. He hissed softly under his breath, some part of his chest flaking under the cruel scouring.
He did not hear so much as feel the presence at his shoulder. Battle-honed instinct had him twisting away from the trunk an instant before the intruder spoke,
“How goes the night?”
Still caught in his half-dream, Aragorn cursed the long moment it took him to discern the speaker from the camouflaging foliage directly behind. Once he did, he had to willfully uncurl his fingers from his sword hilt before admonishing his old friend. “You and your men need to wear bells. Or to at least announce your presence in a less startling manner.”
“But then where would we find our fun?” Haldir returned with a teasing quirk of his lips that just as swiftly sobered. His head cocked, the silver gaze raking his face. “You are not sleeping.”
“Neither are you.” Aragorn flexed his shoulders in an attempt to ease the tension from them. It didn’t work. Casting about for a swift change of subject, he gestured to the ground below. “How goes the orc-play in the woods?”
“We have set a merry dance before them,” the marchwarden said, stepping up beside him and gazing out at the now-still night. “They will be dead by morning. How goes your night in the trees? If memory serves—”
“And I’m sure it does,” Aragorn muttered with an exasperated eye-roll. Haldir had that smug tone in his voice that made the ranger rue their not being just a little closer to the edge of the flet.
“If memory serves,” Haldir continued, folding his arms with perfect serenity, ignoring the dangerous glare Aragorn was leveling at him, “the last time necessity urged you to climb to the flets, you had to be all but dragged up by the scruff of your neck howling—”
“I did not howl,” Aragorn protested, softening his voice only when Boromir grunted and stirred. He drew his friend to one side as far away from the others as was possible on the platform. “And if I…whimpered a little, it was for good cause. It is a long way to fall.”
Once again, his gaze strayed across the boughs. Accepted by all.
Haldir grunted, following his gaze. “Only for those who fear falling.”
“Well, as I tend to fall elsewhere than on my feet, I do.”
Aragorn closed his eyes and rubbed two fingers across his brow. His head throbbed mercilessly. It had started during the desperate race away from Moria and had only worsened as the realization of their peril settled in with the nightfall. Boromir’s stubborn resolve against trespassing in the Wood had not helped until Aragorn finally snapped at the man to either go forward or dare the mines again, alone. He had lost his temper and regretted it every step since.
The son of Gondor would never have questioned your word had you but convinced him of the strength of your will, the voice whispered beguilingly.
Aragorn’s eyes flashed open.
“What winding paths do your weighty thoughts tread tonight?” the marchwarden’s voice, taut as supple leather, jerked like a halter around his thoughts.
“What makes you think I am pondering anything of weight?” Aragorn hedged, avoiding the elf’s eyes. His tunic clung to his back with sudden sweat.
“Well, there are only so many trees to see in a forest. And you, especially, cannot be enthralled for this long.” The elf captain propped an elbow on a low-hanging branch, the relaxed posture belaying the calculating angle of his head and the unblinking stare.
“I heard Frodo cry out after the orcs passed,” Aragorn said. It wasn’t a lie. He had thought of Frodo, had seen it hanging like a weight around the soft throat. In the escape from Moria, he had pitied the hobbit’s pain and blessed Bilbo’s mithril coat that turned aside spear, arrow and the possibility of a traitor’s knife. The tinkling, flashing rings of the princely coat had rippled like sunlight over vast water when his shaking fingers lifted it from the hobbit’s bruised shoulders. If only there were water enough to quench the fire that raged in his soul.
A fire he was sure could consume him.
He had the right to relieve the young hobbit of his burden.
He could claim it.
He should claim it.
Not to wield it as an enslaver as its first master had done. Nor even to treasure it as a weregild and source of pride as his ancestor had done. But to take it with the hope of one day destroying it. When the lands were clean and wholesome again. When Sauron was vanquished by his own evil weapon.
He had but to stretch out his hand…and bury it in the ashes of his own undoing…
The ranger blinked, realizing only then that Haldir had asked him something and, judging by the impatience in the elf’s angular face and the use of the ranger’s rightful name, he was getting irritated at not being answered.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“I said there was a gangrel creature lurking around the other tree. It looked like orc-kind. Narrow legs and brittle-seeming fingers, but sharp eyes. It fled when I drew near and flitted down the Nimrodel.”
“It was no orc,” Aragorn said, staring at his hands. They looked oddly bare and unadorned. Translucent in moonlight. He had not told his companions about their little footpad though he guessed that Frodo too had heard the soft patter of bare feet in the lightless caverns of Khazad-dûm.
“It is Gollum. He is not unlike the halfings sleeping over yonder. Or at least, he was once—so much I learned from his incessant mutterings from the Marshes. He was…twisted by Sauron. Now, he is a small, mean thing. Wicked. But pitiful as well. Pity for what he once was. What he might have been.”
By that sound alone, Aragorn knew Haldir guessed more than he let on. The ranger lowered his hands self-consciously and buried them under his arms as if he were cold. Which was not far from the truth—the fire inside him only devoured; it gave nothing. He could still feel Haldir’s eyes gnawing at him. That unblinking, probing stare unnerved him more than anything else that night. Even Legolas had not picked up on Aragorn’s unease and conflicted mind, but Haldir had known him longer than the elven prince. That very knowingness put Aragorn on the defensive.
Why does he look at you so? As if he guesses…no, as if he knows. But how would he? He knows nothing but the insular security of his own walls. The walls he hides behind. His land knows no stain, unlike yours which crumbles more every day as Mordor advances. He would have turned you aside. He would have delivered the Ring straight into Sauron’s hands.
The hot, glowing embers of his temper, so close to the surface theses days, began to flare.
“Why are you looking at me so strangely?” Aragorn’s fists clenched. He did not realize the snappishness in his own voice until the words left his mouth.
“What look am I giving you?” the elf countered. A beat. “You do not look as if you’ve slept for days.”
Like resin, the remark splashed over the embers, releasing an inferno. “Must I account to you for the hours of my bedding down or not? I left behind my minders and nursemaids years ago, Haldir. I have no mind for another. And I especially have no mind to take correction, however unspoken, from a warden who hides behind golden walls, gives only grudging heed to the sufferings of others and dares to call such cowardice, duty to the law.”
Flickers of moonlight dabbled ghostly fingers across the floorboards. The wind whispered in the branches overhead as if cowed by such vile and abusive invective, vented like acid over a festering wound. As if a bucketful of the icy Silverlode had been poured down the back of his neck, Aragorn realized his error. The abruptly-quenched flames in his chest hissed out as suddenly as they had reared. Sweat froze between his shoulder blades. He had almost delivered himself into Sauron’s hands this night.
Haldir watched him impassively, his eyes like chips of iron, unmoving.
Mortified, the ranger wrenched his eyes downwards, staring fixedly at his boots and fighting to suppress a shiver. “Haldir, I-I am so sorry. I…do not what-what came over me. Please, my friend, I did not mean what I said,” he stammered, his hands half-raised helplessly. He wasn’t sure if it was to placate his friend or cage something inside himself that had broken so horrifically free moments ago.
The marchwarden’s eyebrows knotted slightly.
An icy hole opened up in Aragorn’s chest.
“You and I have been friends for long years, Estel,” Haldir said slowly, but his voice was low, stern, a current of anger slicing through it like black ice. “For the sake of that friendship and that only, I will not extract the satisfaction of my honor from your hide. I will forgive you those words though I will not forget them. For they were meant, however unfairly spoken. It merely mars thought; it cannot make it from nothing.”
Aragorn shook his head vigorously, but Haldir ignored him.
“I do not need you to teach me my duty, stripling—for so your brash words make you. I know that you have come through fear. Through darkness. Through unspeakable peril. And yet have farther still to go with ever lessening hope. I know that that Burden in the next flet can shatter all that you have worked for to pieces in moments. One slip. One error in judgement. Do I touch near the mark of your thoughts?” he asked in a velveteen gnarl that reminded Aragorn of what it meant to provoke the marchwarden’s ire.
Feeling the deep bite of those words, he was suddenly aware of how close to the talan edge he stood. Instead of taking a step back as he longed to do, Aragorn swallowed hard around the sudden obstruction choking his throat shut.
He managed to whisper in what almost sounded like a sigh of pain. “Pricking near.”
“I can come nearer yet. Let us see if I can strike the heart.”
“Please, Haldir, no more. You have made your point.”
“Have I? I think not. Not yet.” With the swiftness of a trap springing, the marchwarden’s fingers clamped around the muscle of Aragorn’s upper arm. The ranger flinched, but Haldir did not withdraw his grasp. His smoky breath buffeted the man’s cheeks and forehead as he leaned close.
“Try to tell any child he cannot climb a tree and without any awareness of heights or of the damage a fall can bring, he will dash up the slenderest branches that will still hold his weight. And he will succeed. With impunity. Until he realizes he cannot climb down again. And then he locks arms and legs around the trunk for fear and dares not move. Yet,” a little, emphatic shake, the wolf scolding the nipping pup, “he did climb up to such a height and, in fact, he will realize that he can climb back down. It takes more effort, more will, less fear. But, he can do it and touch safe ground again.”
“And if foot or hand should falter? If the fear cannot be borne?” Aragorn breathed. He no longer felt the bruising pressure on his arm, and instead raised his head to stare directly into his friend’s blazing eyes. The fire had died down to a smolder, but it could be stoked again.
The viselike grip jerked him a half pace from the end of the wooden beams.
“As long as you do not fall.”
For a moment, adamantine elven eyes held mortal ones, and Aragorn understood that for all Haldir’s talk of childish stubbornness, he had not meant children’s mischief.
The moment broke as Haldir abruptly released him and turned away, calling back over his shoulder. “Watch your step. It’s too early to scrape your broken body off the leaf loam.”
Aragorn shook his head, letting out a long sigh that was part relief and part utter exhaustion. He rubbed his hands briskly over his damp and stubble-roughened jaw and raked them through the silver-tinged hair at his temples. At last, he rolled himself in his cloak, letting his eyes drift shut, back firmly pressed against the mallorn trunk.
For once, he did not dream.