Across Twelve Yestari|
Disclaimer: Tolkien’s creations aren’t mine.
Summary: For the Dúnedain of the North, Yestarë is more than a time of simple celebration. It is a time of defying the Darkness when the Darkness is strongest; it is a time when the days start to lengthen and the Sun is renewed. This tale follows the story of a Dúnadan youth across twelve Yestari, as he experiences hope and doubt, joy and grief, disappointment and fulfillment. The tale starts when he was 14 …
My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.
― Frodo and Gandalf on Rangers, Many Meetings
Crack. A log collapsed inside the bonfire, sending little sparks high into the air, which drifted down lazily, like droplets of water in the sun, but glowing red. I’ve never seen a real fountain, but this must be what it looks like. Great-aunt Gilraen spun tales of the grandeur of Gondolin with elven grace, of lofty fountains lighting up its marble paved squares; Great-grandfather Dírhael told stories of Annúminas of old as if he had seen it, of fair fountains glittering in the twilight; and Aragorn, Aragorn weaved shifting images, made tangible by his own memory, of a white fountain before a white tower, but instead of a barren tree with white branches, he told of a white tree blossoming like snow …
With my stomach full from the feast, and my face warm from the roaring bonfire, I fell asleep dreaming of a tall tree, shining white, sending flowers high, high into the air. The stars had journeyed halfway through the inky sky when Halbarad and Grandmother Idhren half carried me to bed.
Soon I became aware that spies of many sorts, even beasts and birds, were gathered round the Shire, and my fear grew… I opened my heart to Aragorn, the heir of Isildur.
― Gandalf, The Council of Elrond
Gandalf had been in the village for a week, and I never saw anything to suggest he was aught more than a frail old man. His quarry came striding into the village at noon, and had since then been speaking with Gandalf behind closed doors. Boring. I set down the bucket of water so hard that half of it splashed onto the ground. Not only was Gandalf boring, he turned our Chieftain boring too.
But despite my earlier disappointment, the evening would be forever fixed in my memory. The bonfire had already been lit, and the feast started, when Aragorn strode out of the door, his face grave, followed by Gandalf. I forsook my dignity and joined the children, who rose as one to greet him, to wish him a happy yestarë, to tug him towards the fire. Seeing our glowing faces, he smiled as well. But I thought I saw a hint of worry and sadness as he surveyed the people gathered around the bonfire. None of the children noticed anything, and the adults were too far away. Then he turned towards Gandalf, and softly said something that was drowned in by the excited chatter around me. Gandalf nodded, and smiled as well.
Half an hour later, we were gathered around Gandalf, drinking in every word as he spun a story of a hobbit’s eleventy first birthday party. We were gaping and cheering as he caused colored smoke rings to race around our heads. We were ooh-ing and ahh-ing appreciatively as he sent shimmering rockets into the sky. Rockets that looked like galloping horses; rockets that sang like birds; rockets that sailed through the sky like Eärendil’s Vingilot, silent and graceful. Few noticed as Aragorn stole away from the celebration. Nor that a minute later, his window glowed dimly as a candle was lit, and a silhouette could be seen, bending over the table, writing.
I called for the help of the Dúnedain, and their watch was doubled.
― Gandalf, The Council of Elrond
The village appeared greyer than usual. Perhaps it was the overcast sky and the standing snow, which had long since mixed with dirt and turned a drab brown color. Or perhaps it was the lack of the customary Yestarë bustle. The usual feast and bonfire were being prepared, if somewhat smaller than last year’s. The usual decoration of woven pine needles and winterberries were put up, if somewhat fewer than last year’s. The usual laughter and humming reverberated through the village, if somewhat quieter and more subdued than last year’s. The conspicuous lack of fathers and brothers and sons weighed on everybody’s hearts and minds like a stifling blanket.
We had hardly heard from Aragorn all year. He had left with Gandalf the day after last Yestarë, after handing Halbarad a new patrol schedule. Halbarad had looked at the paper, then looked at Aragorn in disbelief. They spoke quietly for a few moments, of what, nobody knew, then Halbarad had nodded and walked away. Within a week, Rangers were being relocated to the Shire from all over Eriador, while their comrades struggled to perform their duties with less people. Rangers no longer lingered after coming home for planting and harvesting, but rode off as soon as the work was done.
But all these touched me not. For I was just a boy living with my grandmother, largely unconcerned by doings beyond my reach. And if I had fleeting regrets that Halbarad looked grayer and wearier when he came home, that I had not seen Aragorn all year, that the yestarë celebration was not the joyous affair that it used to be, these did not stop me from enjoying my second helping of the feast next to the dying bonfire, nor from asking for my third.
Few now remember them, yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.
― Tom Bombadil, Fog on the Barrow-Downs
The midwinter sun was trying valiantly to warm the frozen world, but all it succeeded in doing was casting long shadows. The inside of my shirt was damp with sweat as I tore through the gates, having sprinted from where old Trenaron and I were on watch. I was only a few minutes behind Aragorn’s tired dappled gray mare, but the village was abuzz.
“… Two dozen orcs … heading to Bree … trailing them, waiting for reinforcement … fresh horse … not enough men … if we ambush them …”
Ten minutes later he was gone, bring with him the six Rangers who were on leave, and I set out along the road I had raced down earlier. This was the first time I had ever stood watch alone.
Fare free! for that is your wish. To say well would be vain, if you go in this way.
― Mablung to Túrin, The Children of Húrin
It was yestarë again, and Aragorn was in the village. He had been visiting the village regularly, stopping by just long enough to satisfy himself that everything was alright before setting out again. To our questions, he said only that his errand with Gandalf had not met much success, and they deemed it better to instead stay close to the Shire, just in case. Everything else he answered with a simple shake of his head.
But Aragorn’s mysterious comings and goings were not on my mind when I approached him today. No, I trusted his judgment, and there was something else I wanted – I wanted to join the Rangers.
“You are a bit young, Arthirn. Why do you wish to join?”
Because … Why do I wish to join? “You need more Rangers, don’t you?”
Aragorn was silent for a minute.
“We do, but we are not yet so desperate that we need to take our youngsters with us. I hope we never will be.” He ended quietly, but there was a determined glint in his eyes that told me my request was quite hopeless. He opened his mouth, to say something more, to comfort me, perhaps, but I did not want to be comforted. I turned away, trying not to run.
The sun set, the bonfire was lit, the feast started and ended, and still I sat on my bed, fervently clutching my father’s sword, feeling mutinous. I must have dozed off, because I woke to find someone singing mournfully to a lone harp. It was a lay about Nírnaeth Arnoediad.
And Húrin gathered men from his household
All who could be summoned, strong and bold.
“Húrin took all his men.” I muttered bitterly.
“That’s what the tale says.” I twirled around, and there stood Aragorn, watching me intently. “But Húrin did not take all of his men, not even for Nírnaeth Arnoediad. He left enough warriors to protect those who could not fight. And wise he was to do that, too.”
And suddenly I understood. I was not lame Sador, or blind Ragnir. I was Túrin, cherished in the halls of Menegroth, and Aragorn was trying to keep me from committing Túrin’s mistake.
He must have saw the understanding in my face, for he smiled and said, “Aye, Arthirn. Stay safe, work hard. Your time will come soon enough.”
There is food in the wild, berry, root, and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need.
― Strider, A Knife in the Dark
The smell of acrid smoke drifted through the village, stinging our eyes, leaving black smudges where tear was hastily wiped off of our sooty faces. The still smouldering pile where our granary stood looked like a grotesque corruption of our yesterë bonfire. It clouded the rays of the feeble sun with its smoke, and shrouded our hearts with worries; worries for the wounded, worries that the enemy now knows our location, worries about surviving the winter without food.
It was past noon when Heledir and I returned to the village, dragging the carcase of a deer towards the worryingly small pile of salvaged grains. The pile of orc bodies, I saw, had been dumped into the River Hoarwell: nobody had the heart to burn them.
Dinner was a meager affair. We cooked together, and fed the wounded and the children. Then, aching from the day’s desperate work, we doled out our remaining food and ate in silence.
The wind rose, harsh and cold. But in my heart, I welcomed it, for it blew away the lingering stench of burnt things and orc filth. It blew away the despair in my heart as well. As I watched Gil-Estel twinkled high above, I thought of the deer we brought down, of the fish and rabbits caught. We will make it to spring yet. We must.
Ónen i-estel edain, ú-chebin estel anim.
― Gilraen to Aragorn, Tale of Aragorn and Arwen
Yestarë seemed particularly exuberant this year. Perhaps it was because the Chieftain was home, making his way around the merry bonfire, speaking with young and old alike. Or perhaps it was simply because I was happy myself, for Aragorn had deemed me worthy to join the Rangers. I was to leave with Gelirarth come spring.
“Arthirn, my lad,” Grandmother Idhren said to me after the Yesterë feast, “will you give this pot back to your Great-aunt for me? And tell her thank you.”
I threw on a cloak and made my way to Gilraen’s house, walking slowly, taking pleasure in how my feet barely crunched in the snow. The moonlit snow glistened all around me; the wind paused its mournful song. Through a crack in the front door, I could see the golden light of a lamp spilling onto the silvery ground, and voices speaking inside. As one entranced, I stood at the doorway and listened.
“Drink this, mother.” There was a pause. “I must be gone before dawn tomorrow. Gandalf is expecting to meet me in Bree on the sixth of Narwain. I was supposed to go there straight from Tharbad, but I wanted to see the village, to see you. Take care of yourself, and don’t wake to see me off. Keep drinking the infusion of yellowcress and sand ginger ―”
There was the creak of a chair, then Gilraen’s voice rung out, low and steady. “This is our last parting, Estel, my son. I am aged by care, even as one of lesser Men; and now that it draws near I cannot face the darkness of our time that gathers upon Middle-earth. I shall leave it soon.”
Aragorn’s voice was accompanied by the creak of the wooden floor. “Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness; and if so, I would have you see it and be glad.”
Then there was silence, as if Gilraen was composing her answers. I held my breath. When she spoke, it was so quiet that I had to strain to hear it.
“I gave hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept none for myself.”
An owl hooted in the forest, slow and forlorn. The spell was broken, and suddenly I realized I was eavesdropping. Hastily, I backed up a few steps, then shuffled back to the house, banging the pot on the door post for good measure, and knocked. Gilraen’s voice drifted out, “Come in.”
She was sitting at the table, a cup of tea in her hands. Aragorn stood next to her, his expression inscrutable. The lamplight threw his face into sharp relief, making it look drawn and weary. But he saw me and feigned a smile.
I dropped the pot on the table and fled back to my room.
That night, I dreamed. I was looking for Gilraen, and Grandmother Idhren, and Aragorn and Halbarad. But all I found was Halbarad’s children, who looked old and bent, and they turned into Gandalf, who said, “Come, quickly. We have business across the Mountains.”
There you'll find an old inn that is called The Prancing Pony. Barliman Butterbur is the worthy keeper. There you can stay the night, and afterwards the morning will speed you upon your way.
― Tom Bombadil, Fog on the Barrow-Downs
“Butterbur! A room and dinners please!”
I had been hoping to visit Bree since summer, but now that I was here, I felt only a powerful pang of homesickness. Across the room, Butterbur muttered something about “what decent folk would be abroad on Yule” under his breath and threw furtive glances our way.
I stared at the fire in the grate, but instead saw a bonfire under the stars, and a feast laid out on long tables. I wondered what Grandmother Idhren was doing, and whether she was thinking of me even now.
“Come, lad, cheer up.” Gelirarth clapped me on the shoulder, “It’s Yesterë! And what better way to celebrate it than a warm meal and a bed!” He stretched languidly, looked around. “Hoy! Butterbur! Where’s our food!” But his words did nothing to cheer me. This time last year, I was enjoying my feast, and looking forward to a night in my own bed.
A creak of the door, a cold draft, and I looked up to see what other indecent folk was travelling tonight. It might be a Dwarf: they don’t celebrate Yule, I seemed to recall. But it was Aragorn, whose face lit up when he saw us.
“Fair evening, Butterbur. Dinner please. And well met, you two. What news? I haven’t had words from anyone since last winter.”
Gelirarth’s expression was usually solemn as he beckoned Aragorn outside. The image of Gilraen, looking peaceful in death, came unbidden into my mind.
When Gelirarth came back alone and said, “Come, lad. Let us seek our rest.” I followed without complaint. But I found that I could not sleep. I kept thinking of home, of Grandmother Idhren. How is she doing? Is she well? I gazed, wide eyed, at the roof, while the moon moved into and out of the window frame, and suddenly Aragorn was walking towards me, concern mingled with the grief on his face.
“It’s late, Arthirn.” He whispered, careful not to wake Gelirarth. “Are you well? Are you missing your home?”
I wanted to spill out my homesickness, my uncertainties, but I found that I could not burden them upon him, now now.
So all I said was, “Hullo Aragorn. I was just hoping that there’d be a Dwarf around here. Think I’ll see one tomorrow?”
The Enemy has set traps for me before now.
― Strider, Strider
Aragorn was sitting in a chair in front of our house, swathed in blankets, his eyes closed. The wintry sunlight made his face pale and wan. Three weeks ago he had arrived in the village, slumped against Gandalf’s horse, desperately ill, but since then, he had been on the mend.
Hooves thundered at the Gate. I looked up and saw Gandalf arrive on his tall white horse, and hurried over to take care of it. By the time the horse was settled, its owner was speaking with Aragorn. I approached them to inform Gandalf of the horse, just in time to hear Aragorn saying,
“I will seek you out in Bree as soon as I can. Late it may be, but if he is to be found, we will find him.”
I felt a surge of bitterness towards Gandalf. Aragorn almost died in his company! And now he asks Aragorn to leave with him as soon as he is well again. Does he not care about Aragorn’s safety and happiness? But when I spoke with Aragorn, he only answered with his eyes closed,
“Do not speak ill of Gandalf! He is dedicated to serving the free people of Middle Earth. As are we.”
But that did nothing to quiet my doubt.
It's a big house this, and very peculiar. Always a bit more to discover, and no knowing what you'll find round a corner. And Elves, sir! Elves here, and Elves there! Some like kings, terrible and splendid; and some as merry as children.
― Samwise Gamgee on Rivendell, Many Meetings
It was worth being in Rivendell on Yesterë even if the elves did not celebrate it, for it was every bit as interesting as Gelirarth described it to be. In every alcove there was a sculpture or painting, depicting some scene from some ancient tale; out of every window there was a garden or pool, lush with plant life of a breathtaking variety; down every corridor there walked an elf, a hero of old materializing out of legends.
Down one such corridor I walked into Elrond himself. Suddenly I was speechless, only able to gaze upon the elven lord in wonderment. But he smiled, a reassuring smile much like Aragorn’s, and the spell was broken. We spoke long, of my duties as a Ranger, of my childhood in the Village, and of my family. Then Elrond laughed and told me that I reminded him much of Aragorn when he was young. I blushed and remembered with a jolt that Aragorn was raised in Rivendell, long ago, and regarded Elrond as a father.
Suddenly I remembered too, that we’ve had scant tidings of Aragorn since spring, but the worry had been driven out of my mind in peaceful Rivendell, and I wondered if Elrond had fresher words. His news were comforting: after spending the summer in the Misty Mountains, he and Gandalf had arrived in Mirkwood and planned to spend the winter there.
I was surprised, “surely they didn’t spend the whole summer crossing the Misty Mountains, when Gandalf was so eager to leave in the spring?”
But Elrond only replied, “I can not tell you the details of what they are doing, only that Gandalf deemed it necessary to find something, and Aragorn decided to look there. I trust them both.”
Looking at Elrond’s wise, ancient face, I had no choice but to be consoled.
I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange.
― Aragorn, The Council of Elrond
It was windy and bitterly cold. We were huddled against a tiny, flickering fire, leeward of a man-high boulder that offered the only shelter on this barren, windswept plain. Even Gelirarth’s spirit seemed low, as he offered feebly, “Cheer up, at least our rations are not spoilt, merely frozen solid.”
Suddenly, in a brief lull of the wind, we heard the sound of merry singing, and then the twin sons of Elrond stepped over the boulder. They seemed not the least bit surprised to see us.
“Hail, Dúnedain. This is a miserable spot to spend yesterë night. Would you care to join us in a more sheltered spot?”
Ten minutes later, we found ourselves in a little ravine. It was calm and warm, filled with firelight, the wonderful aroma of stew and spices, and a distinctively elvish air. The sons of Elrond produced flasks of wine seemingly out of nowhere, and soon Gelirarth, sated with food, drink, and music, fell asleep. Elladan and Elrohir sat, silently gazing into the embers. But I felt wide awake; the songs from earlier winded through my mind. Without realizing it, I started humming a lay of Túrin Turambar aloud.
Finally, one of the twins turned his head towards me and smiled. “Estel could never keep straight all those names Túrin had.”
The other brother laughed, “But then he used to think Túrin was Húrin’s brother, and Huor his son.”
I blinked stupidly. The idea of a young Aragorn was quite foreign to me, he seemed to have sprung into being as he was now, the leader of our people, warrior and traveller, wise and learned.
Suddenly I realized one of them was speaking, “ ― lonely, and it’s been so long since we’ve had words from him.”
There was a sudden hollow feeling in my stomach. What if something had happened to Aragorn? “What do you mean? Last we heard of him was from another Dúnadan, who had it off some Dwarves travelling from the Iron Hills. They said Gandalf arrived with a man, on the last new moon before the vernal equinox.”
“You have fresher news than us then, he sent a missive through Thranduil’s folk; they were leaving Lake Town. That must have been early spring.”
“That’s it? Where were they going? Did he say when he’s coming back? Why didn’t he send something through Dáin’s folk? What if something’s hap―”
“I don’t know where they were going. Neither do they, I think. In any case, Estel doesn’t usually put his plans into letters. Too risky.”
“And if they headed east from the Iron Hills there wouldn’t be anyone to send word with.”
Their melodic voices was strangely calm, devoid of the fear bubbling in my heart. “We don’t even know what’s in Rhûn! What if ― ? Why ―”
But they only replied, “Aragorn is one of the greatest traveller and warrior of this age. And Gandalf is with him. Have faith, lad.”
Their even, confident voice calmed me more than anything else could have.
In all the long wars with the Dark Tower treason has ever been our greatest foe.
― Gandalf, The Council of Elrond
Two horsemen rode side by side down the road. One was old and bent, and clad in gray, but I had eyes only for his companion. Aragorn seemed travel stained and weary, but otherwise hale and sound. The bottle of fear in my heart, that had been my constant companion over the past three years, now overflowing, now half-empty, bubbled away, leaving me only with relief and many, many questions.
So when Aragorn sat down next to me during the feast, I blurted out, “Where’ve you been? We’ve had no word of you for so long.”
“East. Far, far to the East. The people there do not often have contact with us, and there was no one to send messages with. And once we turned west, well, we thought we’d outstrip any messengers.”
“What were you doing there, if they don’t even have contact with us?” I asked, breathless with curiosity.
“We seek a creature lost some seventy years ago. Gandalf thinks it may have information that will be crucial in the war against Sauron. Don’t ask me more, Arthirn. I can’t tell you.”
“Did he tell you why you are seeking the creature? He did?” That made me feel easier. It also armed me for my next attack. “But you won’t tell us why we guard the Shire.”
“I would, but I can not. The less people knows about it, the better. If Gandalf’s suspicions are right, and they usually are, and the information falls into the Enemy’s ear, then all hope are lost.”
“Is the end so near, then? The final war with Sauron is approaching?”
Aragorn sat silent, with his head bowed. I was starting to think he would not answer, when he finally said, “Aye, almost certainly within our lifetime. But which way it will go, I do not know. We stand balanced at a knife’s edge. One wrong move, one stray wind …” He trailed off.
But I had heard enough. This is not the time to falter and doubt. This is the time to sharpen our swords and ready our bows, to prepare for the moments that so many generations of Dúnedain have worked for.
Seven years later
When Halbarad came riding out of the gloom, yelling that Aragorn summons us to Rohan, I said goodbye to Grandmother Idhren and followed. When Aragorn lead us through the Paths of the Dead, I squared my shoulders and followed. When we set out for the Morannon with scant hope for ourselves, I thought of beautiful Eriador and followed. And now the War was won, Sauron vanquished, and the Host of the West was riding back to Minas Tirith, I smiled at Aragorn, and followed, into a different age.