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The Sealed Letter


Letters

An isolated farmer finds a badly wounded man in a ruined farm. Six hundred years later, a historian researching King Elessar comes across a sealed letter. What links these two events is a story long forgotten.

Rating: PG (non-graphic references to injury)





Fourth Age 631

To Hador, Master Archivist in the Royal Archives of Annuminas, Turgon, Archivist and Historian, sends greetings.

Pickings have been slim since last I wrote. I have hunted for many months, but to no avail.

"So why is he writing to me?" you are doubtless asking. Well, firstly, my friend, because you spend too much time in dusty archives with the words of people six hundred years dead, and it does you good to be reminded of friends still alive. And, secondly, because although the pickings have been slim, the harvest has not been entirely without fruit. If one old label is correct, I am sending you something more precious even than gold: a letter written by King Elessar before he became king.

If one old label is correct...

I have spent half a year travelling through Cardolan, rooting around in small provincial archives and scouring family records. They are all so proud of the little they can offer me! They lead me into tiny dusty rooms, and boast that two or three records, or maybe even half a dozen - half a dozen! - date back to the reign of King Elessar himself. If only they could see the great royal archive of Annuminas! But I say nothing of this, merely thank them and smile, and allow them to believe that they have shown me a treasure beyond price.

To date, thirty-seven people have revealed that their forefathers were so highly favoured by that great king that he wrote them a letter in his own fair hand, and look, here it is! Needless to say, I have been shown thirty-seven identical copies of the king's edict forbidding Men to enter the Shire, all written by some poor scribe who will remain forever nameless. I never have the heart to break it to them.

As well as visiting the local archives and the provincial great and good, I have also made general appeals to the populace, because it is not without precedent for treasures to be found in the most humble of places. So there I was yesterday, standing in yet another square on yet another market day, struggling to be heard over a cacophony of fruit sellers, jugglers and furiously bleating sheep. I announced that I was collecting material for a new edition of the correspondence of King Elessar, and asked if anyone had any royal orders ferreted away in their family treasures.

In truth, most of them misunderstood. They came to me not with documents but with tales and family legends. That dip on yonder ridge? That's Elessar's Seat, where he sat and waited for his Queen to come to him across the sea! That curious rock formation? That's Elessar's Cauldron, where he produced food by magic and fed an army of the dead! He named our town, don't you know? My great-great-granny many times over saw him once beneath an oak tree, and look, the oak is still there so the story must be true!

He is part of their folklore, their family history, their sense of place. Their stories mean more to them than the documented past. If they had any letters from him, they would cherish them, but they would not understand why people like us would want to publish them and argue fiercely over the meaning of every word.

Sometimes I am not sure that I understand it myself.

Yesterday evening, a young fellow sought me out. He was a stranger to these parts, he said, but had recently inherited a local manor house from a distant relative, one Appledore, who had died without issue. He was in the process of selling the manor and all its contents, but wondered if I would be interested in one small item - a letter, no less.

As you will see when you open the accompanying package, the letter itself is very unprepossessing. It is folded tightly, and the seal is made of common candle wax, and stamped with no emblem. The paper is poor quality. There is no name or address on the outside, just a small star drawn in one corner.

Why, then, did this fellow think I would be interested? Because at some point a label has been carefully attached to the letter. "Written by King Elessar," the label reads, "before he became king." The letter was housed in a casket and had clearly been cherished for hundreds of years. The style of the casket is in keeping with the supposed date of the letter.

The young fellow had no knowledge of his family history, and even less interest in it. But I asked around, and learned that local folklore has it that the manor house had once been a ramshackle farm, miles away from any other habitation. Cardolan was repopulated in the early years of the Fourth Age, of course, and by then this ramshackle farm had become a fine manor house, and a thriving market town soon grew up around it – this very town, in fact.

Have you succumbed to temptation and opened the package yet? I expect you have; patience has never been your strong point. You will already have seen it, then: the strangest thing of all.

The seal is unbroken. The letter has never been read.

******

Third Age 3012

A fine rain was falling from the leaden sky. Rooks were roosting in the bare trees, shouting at the approaching twilight. The wind was chill, whistling up from the south and bringing strange noises with it. Ned Appledore shivered, and trudged on homewards.

Lass was restless, trotting away from him and barking sadly. "You don't like the rain, do you, Lass?" he murmured. She shook herself briskly, although the rain was still falling. Then she hurried away, and turned back as if to ask if he was coming.

He still had several miles to go. His hands were full of splinters, but the last of the fences were repaired, and his fields had a fighting chance of surviving the winter. Unless wild things came up the Greenway. Unless evil came down from the Barrows in the north. Unless he gave up at last, and let his farm be taken by rack and ruin like the rest of them.

Lass whined. A barn owl crossed their path, pale as a ghost in the evening. The light was fading fast. "Well, Lass," Ned said, "we'd best get home as fast as possible. We'll go through the Mugwort place."

Cardolan was a region of ruins, and the Mugwort farm was one of the most recent ones, abandoned less than twenty years before. The gate sagged from its hinges. The roof had fallen in, and trees grew from the windows. A storm had brought the stable down, and a family of foxes had made their home in the buttery. Bats roosted in what was left of the barn, and grass grew over the yard where Ned had seen Celandine Mugwort dancing one spring morning, and had resolved to marry her there and then.

He pulled out his tinderbox and lit his lantern. Around him in the shadows, the old farm mocked him with memories. It felt far more ruined than the old towers of long-dead kings, now little more than grassy mounds.

Lass lowered her nose to the ground, catching a scent. She followed it into a patch of willow-herb, and disappeared into the farm house. She barked once, a sharp, interested sound, and then was silent.

Ned walked on. Bats were emerging from the barn. Something stirred the undergrowth behind him, and he whirled round, but the sound was not repeated. He remembered harvest feasts, and little Odo playing with his Mugwort cousins, while Celandine and her sisters sat spinning in the sunshine.

All gone now, of course. All of them gone.

He called to Lass, and she barked, but did not reappear. Sighing, Ned retraced his steps, and pushed through the thicket of tall willow-herb. A beam had come down, and he had to stoop to enter the house, his lantern thrust out in front of him. He clambered over the rubble of the fallen upper floor. On the far side of it, part of the roof was still standing, and it was almost as dark as full night. Lass greeted him gratefully, then nuzzled against the leg of the man who lay slumped in that one dry corner.

Ned thought he was dead at first. The lantern swung in his hand, its light flickering across the man's face. Then he saw that the man's eyes were open and watching him. They gleamed brightly in the light of the quivering lantern.

"Leave him now, Lass," Ned said gruffly. "It's time to go."

Ned took a step back. The lantern swung around, showing him the man's legs, with Lass ensconced so firmly at his side. Then further still, showing him the stone above the hearth where he and Celandine had carved their initials, in a springtime long ago.

"Even a ruin like this still belongs to somebody," Ned said. "You have no business to be here. Be off with you."

Lass whined. Ned stepped forward again, thrusting the lantern at the man's face. He was very pale, he saw, and his brow was damp with the unmistakable signs of fever. A pouch of herbs was laid out beside him, and he had clearly been crushing leaves between two flat stones, before losing the strength for it. His right hand was curled loosely on the ground beside him, stained with both old and fresh blood.

"Come on, Lass," Ned said. "We can't be staying here."

The man was looking in his direction, but Ned suddenly doubted that the man was really seeing him. But when Ned unthinkingly lowered his hand to the cudgel at his side, the man's eyes seemed keen enough. His right hand moved towards the long knife that lay beside him, and was no longer slack.

"You have to understand how things work round here," Ned told him. It occurred to him suddenly that this was the first person he had seen for weeks. His voice turned harsher. "Few decent folk travel the Greenway any more, and we're half a mile even from there. You're no lord or elf or warrior, that's for sure. You're a bandit or a wild man, and I want nothing to do with you. Come on, Lass."

Lass remained where she was. Ned turned to leave, scrambling round the edge of the pile of rubble. The willow-herb had gone to seed, its tall stems covered with hairy wisps of white. Outside, the rain was heavier and the clouds were black in the south. "And even if you were just a simple traveller," he muttered, "you're nothing to do with me."

He stopped in the middle of the farm yard, and turned his face up to the rain. He remembered his first kiss with Celandine in this very place. Then a memory from years later: Odo running home with a tale of an injured fox. They had nursed it better for days, he and Odo and Celandine, then released it back into the wild.

Ned let out a harsh breath. And still that accursed dog refused to appear! He pushed back through the willow-herb, dislodging sodden wisps of seeds. Lass raised her head happily. "How bad is it?" Ned demanded. "What's wrong with you, anyway?"

"I took an orc arrow two days out of Tharbad," the man said. The words were clear enough, but there was a fuzziness to their edges that spoke of exhaustion or fever, or worse.

"A long way south of here, that is," Ned said. "You walked all the way alone?"

The man nodded. A slight tightening of the muscles around his eyes showed that the movement hurt him, but he gave no other sign. Ned only saw it because that was where the lantern light was resting. "There was some evil on the arrow," the man said. His mouth quirked almost as if he was trying to smile.

"Well," said Ned, his voice gruff, "you'll be worse by morning if you stay here, but I can't carry you."

"I understand." The man's lips were dry and beginning to crack. Lass was pressed up against his side, as if offering him some of her warmth.

Ned turned once more to go. "But I've got a bed for you, if you can walk that far by yourself. It's two miles, almost three. It's dark and raining, and I won't take it slowly. Keep up or not; it's your choice."

This time, Ned stood in the yard for a long while, just breathing. Raindrops on the lantern glass cast strange shadows on the ground. Lass emerged first, and the man came after, his steps as silent as the dog's. He was very tall, even hunched over as he was, his left arm pressed across his body. His pack looked smaller than one would have expected for a man who had walked so far alone, but still heavy enough.

Ned set off walking, stepping over the tumbled wall that had once enclosed a paddock of shaggy ponies. Away from the buildings, there was more light in the sky. Ned shielded the lantern with his cloak, and let his eyes adapt to the twilight. There was one stranger at his heels, and he had no desire to attract others.

The man kept up with him, walking a dozen steps behind. Ned slowed his pace, and several times almost stopped completely to allow the man to catch up. Each time he caught himself, he sighed harshly, and walked a little faster for a while. He tried not to look round, but kept on doing so. The man's steps grew noisier as they went on, as if he was losing the ability to walk without dragging his feet. Sometimes he stumbled, and once he fell completely, dropping to his knees, but he was up again before Ned had decided whether to go to his aid or not.

Darkness fell. Rain trickled down the back of Ned's neck, and mud was clinging to his boots. The rooks were silent. Wind stirred the old branches of dead trees, making them rattle.

"Almost there, Lass," Ned murmured.

The rain was coming down in sheets by the time they entered Ned's own farmyard. Ned waited for the man to catch up. Perhaps it would have been better had the man fallen by the wayside, but he had not, and now Ned had to deal with him. "I won't have you in the house," he said. "There's an outbuilding where the hired hands stay when they're here. You can stay there. I'll keep the key."

"No," said the man, stating it like a simple fact. "Lock your house against me if you wish, but I will not be locked in."

Ned found himself agreeing before he could stop himself. "No key, then." In truth, there was nothing in the outbuilding that anyone would want to steal, just bare bedsteads and empty chests. There had only been two hired hands this summer, and Ned had been forced to travel all the way to Bree to hire them. At the end of the summer, they had helped him take his harvest into the settled lands to sell, and he had come back alone. He doubted he would hire anyone again.

"Wait there," Ned commanded, and he went into the house, opening the door just far enough to slip through, and closing it hard behind him. He placed his lantern down, then leaned upon the table with both hands, letting out a slow breath as his head sagged. A moment later, he was up again, and reaching for the key to the outbuilding.

He thought the man had gone, at first. His first reaction was relief, followed immediately by fear. But then he saw Lass beside the door of the outbuilding, and beside her saw the man, almost lost in the shadows of the eaves, as if some instinct had led him to hide there, with a wall at his back.

"Come on, then." Ned unlocked the door. Inside was cold and damp and cheerless, but it was better than outside, so the man had no right to complain. The man hesitated on the doorstep. Ned shone the light in his face, and was struck with the sudden suspicion that this disreputable rogue was actually trying to decide whether to trust him, the decent householder. "Take it or leave it," Ned said. "It's all the same to me."

The stranger swayed to one side, catching himself on the door frame. His knees sagged. His hand was pressed against the wood, his fingers splayed, and Ned suspected that it was only that hand and sheer will power that was keeping him upright.

"I'll get you blankets," Ned said, "and some wood for a fire. Maybe some bread and some water. I'll… check on you, if you're still here by morning."

He left the lantern, planning on crossing the yard in the dark. As he passed the man, the fading light showed Ned just how ill he looked, his eyes glassy and his heartbeat fluttering at his throat. The heat of his fever was almost tangible, and the water that dripped from his clothing was pink with blood.

Ned paused just for a moment, then went out into the rain.

******

The kettle was coming to the boil again. Ned had candles in the kitchen, and a fire going in his bedroom, but the rest of the house was dark. The bread was old, but yesterday's pottage was heating up nicely, and the kitchen smelled a little like it used to smell, before Ned lived alone. Lass was dozing by the fire, her chin on her paws.

Ned wondered what the man was doing, out there on the other side of the yard. Was he…?

"No, don’t you go worrying yourself about a stranger, Ned Appledore," he berated himself.

He made himself a mug of tea, and sat there with his hands wrapped around it. He tried to settle back and enjoy a moment of rest, but he kept finding himself leaning forward. Rain lashed at the windows, and wind whistled in the chimney, making the firelight dance.

Odo would have wanted to help him, his treacherous thoughts reminded him. Celandine would have invited him in without a thought. But Celandine was long dead, and Odo was gone. Gone and left him. Gone against his express command.

"Curse you!" Ned shouted, smashing his fist against the arm of the chair. Tea splashed over the edge of the mug, almost burning him. "Curse you," he whispered, lowering his head and covering his eyes with his throbbing hand.

Lass thumped her tail just once against the rug. Ned could almost have cried.

******

The man had spurned the hard mattresses, but had made a nest for himself out of blankets on the floor. The air still smelled of dust and damp, but the smell of herbs was stronger. The man had boiled water and steeped leaves in it, and had tended his own wound until his strength had given way. The bowl was on its side now, the herb-infused water seeping into the blankets. The man lay half on his side and half on his back, his skin drenched with fever.

"Can you hear me?" Ned crouched down beside him, and touched his brow with the back of his hand.

The man blinked. His head lolled to one side, but he made no sound.

"I've made up a bed for you in the house," Ned told him, "if you want to come."

Nothing. Lass came up beside him, and nudged the man's hand with her nose.

"I can't carry you," Ned said, "but I can help you up and give you a shoulder to lean on, if that will help." Still nothing. Ned clenched his hand into an angry fist, then forced himself to uncurl it again. "Or not," he said. "It's all the same to me."

The man opened his eyes. He blinked, and a faint line of concentration appeared between his brows. Despite his fever, his gaze was intense. Ned felt a sudden conviction that he was being judged. He tried to meet the gaze defiantly, but found himself looking away.

"Yes," the man said, his parched lips cracking. "It will help. Thank you."

******

The stranger was lost in fever, scarcely aware of where he was. "It was my son's room," Ned found himself explaining. "He left me ten years ago. Since then, I've never…"

The man's head tossed from side to side. Then, like someone half awakening from a nightmare, he seemed to take control of himself, and lay quite still. After that single "thank you," he had not said a word.

Ned let out a breath. "Try to sleep. It's warmer here. I've put a bowl of warm pottage by the bedside. Don't expect me to feed you like a baby. Take it or leave it. It's up to you."

He walked away, shutting the door behind him. Sighing, he leaned back against it. There was still no sound from the room beyond.

He had never let any of the hired hands set foot in Odo's room. He had never moved a single one of Odo's things. Often he had resolved to burn the whole lot of it, but he had never destroyed a single one.

He could have said more. He sank down to the ground, and sat outside his son's closed door. "We argued," he whispered. "He said the world was getting darker and more dangerous. He wanted to fight it. He was always one for helping people, was Odo. Took after his mother that way. I said we were fighting it by staying here and refusing to leave, when all the lords and great ones had given up the land up for lost. He said…"

Was that movement; a creaking of the bed? He listened, not breathing. No, it was nothing.

Ned went back to the kitchen, and sat down stiffly in Celandine's old rocking chair. "He said it wasn't enough. He said I was just hiding, really. He wanted to find someone who would teach him to fight and put his sword to good purpose. The Rangers, perhaps, because he had a silly idea that they were more than they seemed, or all the way down to Gondor, to hire himself out to the great lords."

Rain hammered against the window. In the fire, a log split with a crack.

"I told him that if he walked out, he could never come back, and he never has. He never has."

******

The rain eased at last, and the night was very quiet. Ned crept into Odo's room, and sat gently on the edge of the bed. Closing his eyes for a moment, he remembered a boy who had been afraid of monsters under the bed.

The man was not asleep, but he was far from being properly awake. The heat of his brow was terrible. He had pushed himself half upright at some point in the night, and lay propped up on pillows, as if he expected at any moment to be on his way. From the way his eyes flickered from side to side, Ned knew that he was seeing things that were not there, but amazingly, he still made no sound.

Odo had raved ceaselessly when the marsh fever had almost taken him at fifteen years old. Celandine had babbled nonsense before she died.

"I need to tend your wound," Ned said. "I should have done it at the start. Why didn't you remind me?"

He tried to ease the blankets down, but the man caught hold of his wrist. "No," he said, although his eyes looked elsewhere, at something invisible over Ned's shoulder.

Ned remembered the pouch of herbs. He laid it out beside the bed, and unfolded it. Inside there were a dozen small leather compartments containing different herbs. Each one was marked with an elven letter, but Ned could not read them.

"Do it yourself, then," he said. "I'll bring you water and fresh bandages, and whatever else you need."

******

Ned did not sleep that night. Outside, the clouds parted enough to reveal the moon, shining brightly just before dawn. Ned found the folded letter that had sat for so long on the mantelpiece. Lit by nothing more than moonlight, he sat down in Celandine's chair and turned the letter round and round in his hands.

Then, with a sigh, he put it back again, unopened.

******

By morning, Ned was certain that the man would die. At some point in the night, he had used the bandages and bound his own wound, but now he lay pale and burning, his eyes staring at nothing at all.

"I don't know your name," Ned told him. "Do you have kin out there waiting for you? Nobody else lives within twenty miles – they used to, but they left. Even if I went for help, it would come far too late for you. But even if I can't save you, I need to be able to pass on news of…"

Of how you died, he thought, but he did not say it.

He touched the man's brow, and the man was far enough gone to let him. How many years was it, Ned wondered, since he had touched another person?

"Do you have kin?" Ned wondered aloud. "Father or mother? Brothers? A wife?"

He thought of his own letter, still unopened on the mantelpiece.

"I have… ancestors," said the man.

They were the first words Ned had heard from him the whole night long. "Ancestors are no use," Ned said. "I can't tell your ancestors."

"No," the man agreed.

Ned walked to the window. The cats were out in the yard, and starlings were in the orchard. The first light of morning made all the raindrops shine like crystals.

His fingers knew the feel of the letter, and the shine of its seal, and the creases that ran across its surface. The messenger had refused to apologise for its condition, but had ranted about the hazards of the Greenway, and berated Ned for daring to live where he did.

"Is there someone I can write to?" Ned asked.

The man closed his eyes. The blankets had slipped down, showing a bandage across his left shoulder, stained with blood near the hollow of his arm. "We… don't write much." His voice was slurred, but still coherent. "Can't… risk. Signs and symbols. Spoken messages. Nothing, nothing that remains. Nothing after we're gone but memories."

Ned shivered with sudden cold. Nothing, he thought. But the man was clearly delirious, and everything looked bleak when you were lost in sickness and caught in a dark dream.

"Where are you travelling to?" Ned asked. "You must have a home somewhere."

"No home." The man shook his head, then kept on shaking it. "I hoped to reach my people at…"

But then he stopped, and Ned could get nothing more from him. He offered him water, but the man was too far gone to drink more than a few drops. Ned marvelled anew at how coherent he was, despite the extremity of his fever. He remembered, too, how he had held himself upright with sheer willpower the night before. Who are you? he wondered.

"Your people," Ned said with forced brightness. "Send word to them, then. Leave a message with me so…" He hesitated just for a moment; he had never been one to sugar-coat the truth. "So if you die, they'll know what happened to you. If not, they'll forever wonder."

The man said nothing. Downstairs, Lass started barking, and Ned went down to let her out. He busied himself around the kitchen for a while; almost touched the letter on the mantelpiece, but did not.

When he returned, the man was sitting up, his right hand gripping a handful of blanket, his knuckles white with the force of his grip.

"Do you have…?" The man's head sagged, but he dragged himself up again. "Paper," he said, "and a pen."

******

Ned left him alone to write. He wondered if the letter would be legible, and suspected not. But then he remembered those glimpses of an iron will and a core of self-control, and thought that perhaps it would be legible, after all.

His own letter he took from the mantelpiece, and laid carefully on the table. He brought out a penknife to slice the seal, but did not use it, not yet.

He went outside, and looked up at the watery sunlight. "I'm losing a day's work because of you," he said, when he returned once more to Odo's bedroom.

The man looked worse than ever, exhausted by the effort of writing a few lines. But the letter was done, neatly folded and sealed with a drop of candlewax. No name or direction was written on the outside, but in one corner was drawn a tiny star.

"Where shall I send it?" Ned asked, frowning. "You must understand that I won't be leaving here until winter is over. Few people travel the Greenway nowadays, and even fewer in winter. I might go to Bree for the hiring fair in spring time, but might not. I can't get it there quickly, but…"

"Soon enough," said the man. His eyes were closed and his hair was damp. He looked much older than he had the night before. "My people… accustomed to… waiting. If I die…"

Some other person might have said you won't. Ned said nothing.

"Deliver it if I die," murmured the man. His voice was faint now, and it seemed as if he had to fight for each word, to stop it drifting away and becoming nonsense. "Keep what I have. Keep it for… one who will come. But after that, no more. No more."

Ned's eyes were stinging. He blinked, but everything remained blurred. "Where shall I take it?"

"To Bree. Ask Butterbur… give it to one of the Rangers. Or Sarn Ford. That's nearer. Put it… There's a cleft rock twenty paces to the west. Wrap it in leather. Will be found."

"I will," Ned promised. "I will."

The man stopped breathing. Ned bowed his head, but his breathing started again, rattling in his chest. Ned could not bear to sit beside him any more. If he was dying far away from his people, it made no difference if he died alone.

******

He could not settle. Of course he could not settle. He wept. He imagined Celandine reproaching him. He remembered again and again that final argument with Odo.

How long was it since he had wept? How long was it since he had remembered that argument not with anger, but with grief?

Before the hour was over, he had slipped back into the stranger's room. He sat beside him for the rest of the day, and gave him water, and held the blankets down when he tried to throw them off, and talked to him sometimes, murmuring words far more nonsensical than any the fevered stranger had ever uttered.

After a day and a night of it, he thought the stranger was on the mend.

After another day, he was sure of it.

He wept then, too.

******

Their parting was brief. Ned wondered if the man remembered anything that had happened during the worst of his fever. He gave no sign of it, and he said nothing about the letter.

Ned meant to give it back, but he kept on forgetting.

"I thank you for your care," the man said, all well-spoken politeness.

Ned flapped his hand. "It was nothing."

"No," said the man, "it was not nothing. I thank you. One day, perhaps, I will thank you more fittingly, but for today, know that you have my gratitude."

He was still far from well, but the fever was down, and he insisted on leaving. Sometimes Ned wondered if he should urge him to stay a few more days, but he kept forgetting to do that, too. Too much had changed. Perhaps it was good, or perhaps it was not. He had become accustomed to living the way he lived, and being the person he was. When the man was gone, he could settle into the winter and let his normal life resume again.

"Well, goodbye, then," Ned said. He had not said goodbye to Odo.

"Farewell, Mr Appledore," the man said.

Ned could not remember telling the stranger his name. As the man walked away, he remembered that he had never found out the stranger's name, either.

It was probably better that way.

******

But that night, long after midnight, Ned picked up his own letter from the table, and opened the seal.

It was not, after all, from a faceless stranger telling him that his son had died amongst strangers in some far-off land.

Dad, he read, in his own son's hand, I'm sorry. Can I come home?

There was more, of course. He barely saw it at first, his dazed eyes skimming over the words without seeing them. There was a return address. Odo was waiting for Ned to reply to say that he was welcome. Nine months since the letter had come. Nine months. Odo had been waiting for an answer for nine months.

"Thank you," Ned whispered, when he could think again, when he could speak. He pulled the stranger's letter out of his pocket, and pressed it against his breast. It would never be delivered now, for there was no need. But he would keep it, he decided, because had it not been for the stranger, he might never have found the courage to open his own son's letter. He would keep it to remind him what a fool he had been.

Dad, he read again, I'm sorry. Can I come home?

"Yes," he said. "Of course you can, my son. I'm sorry. Come home."

******

Fourth Age 631

To Turgon, an Archivist astray somewhere in Cardolan, Hador, Archivist of Annuminas, sends greetings.

I am writing this in those dusty Archives of mine. It takes more than a letter to drag me out, even a letter from a dear friend. It would do me good to leave, you say? Then I say to you that it would be good for you to come back. You have spent too long with your country bumpkins, chasing something you will never find. Bury yourself in the Archives for a month, and remember who you are.

Thank you for the package. I opened it, of course, before I finished reading your letter. How well you know me, my friend! The contents placed me in a quandary. What is the first lesson I taught you? Never tamper with relics from the past. If this were a genuine letter from King Elessar, still sealed, then it should be preserved as it was found, unopened. To break the seal is to destroy its integrity.

If this were a genuine letter from King Elessar, how could we leave it unread?

So little written evidence remains from the time before he was king. Elrond of Rivendell was a repository of lore and memory relating to the heirs of Isildur, but he is long gone. They wrote little down, these Rangers of the North, because writing could fall into the wrong hands and be used against them. Only two letters remain that are verifiably written by Elessar before he was crowned.

But here I am, telling you what you already know. I seek to justify it, you see, because I destroyed that seal. I opened it. I read it. How could I not? I will copy it out here for you. Read it first, come to your own conclusions, and then read mine.

Halbarad,

How will we be remembered?

If you are reading this, I am dead, in a small farm by the Greenway, several days down from Sarn Ford. All is ruins here. Do not blame the farmer. He did what he could. Thank him for me.

Just ruins.

No words.

It is over now. It was all for nothing. It ends here.

No need to stay hidden now, but the rest of it remains. Guard. Protect. No happy ending to hope for, not now. My fault. My fault.

No more names. Have I ever written to you before? Just signs in the wood and symbols and messages on the wind. Just memory.

Tell her where I died and say my farewells. You know who she is. Perhaps for her it is better this way. Without me. Without the choice.

At least this way there is an ending. At least you know.

I must stop now. Farewell. Remember me when darkness falls. Farewell.

I have considered the letter carefully. As you can see, it was written by a man who expected to die. He is very ill, the sentences disjointed and the words wavering across the page. The transcription here does not convey the full pity of the letter, with its ill-formed letters and the smears of ink, and the places where the words are so faint as to be barely legible, as if the writer was unaware that the ink had run out.

Is it genuine? Elessar did indeed have a kinsman called Halbarad who died at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, but Halbarad was a far from uncommon name in the early days of the Reunified Kingdom, when the old Dunedain names became all the rage. The circumstances alluded to in the letter certainly fit the broad situation that Elessar and the Dunedain were in during this period. "She" would be Queen Arwen, of course. If this were Elessar, he would be telling his men to continue to protect the small folk of the north, even though they had lost their true purpose: to protect and continue the line of kings.

But the man who wrote this letter was clearly travelling alone. I know that folklore has it that Elessar made great solitary journeys, but that is just fanciful romance. He was the last heir of ancient kings. He would never have been permitted to risk himself by travelling entirely alone without at least a few discreet guards whose names are not remembered in stories. Stories focus on heroes, and say nothing of the soldiers and guards and servants who travelled in their retinue.

Moreover, the style does not ring true. For forty years, I have immersed myself in the writings of King Elessar, and I know his style as well as I know my own. His words are always well chosen. Even in personal letters, he is never effusive. This is the man who led an army of the dead, a man whose strength of will has become proverbial. Did he feel despair? Did he feel doubt? Could he feel the emotions expressed in this letter? He was the last of the Numenoreans, and they were not cut from common cloth like you or me.

Part of me would like this to be genuine, and part of me would be glad if it were proved to be categorically untrue. But in this venture of ours, we have to be sure beyond all doubt, or we expose ourselves to mockery. And there is too much doubt. Unless fresh evidence comes to light, I cannot publish this as the genuine words of King Elessar. We are scholars, not storytellers, and we publish fact, not supposition.

But I will keep the letter, and cherish it in the archives. Whoever this man was, he was a man in need, and for six centuries, nobody has heard his cry. Maybe it truly was the king, or maybe it was not.

But whoever he was, men will read it, and remember him.

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