From The Annals of the Kings; IV. I. IX; T.A. 2980
There follows an account of the days after the King’s betrothal to Arwen Undómiel. To the Annals entries around this period I have added, where appropriate, portions of my final draft of the biography of Halbarad, the King’s Steward and kinsman. This I have compiled from many conversations with my father, and by closely following Halbarad’s diary, which was found with his gear after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is now kept in the city archives. It is thus the only extant attestation of Halbarad’s field journal, which has since deteriorated so as to be almost illegible.
It is said that Galadriel sent word to Rivendell of the choice of Aragorn and Arwen as soon as it was known, for she would not have news reach Elrond by chance or rumour, guessing as she did that it would go ill with him. While Arwen still remained at Caras Galadhon, Haldir took the message, for he was both a friend to Elrond, and a swift rider at need. He met with Glorfindel on the Gladden Fields and Glorfindel returned with him thence to Rivendell. Aragorn had left Lothlórien on the same day as Haldir, but he journeyed at leisure on foot over the Pass of Caradhras and so did not come to Rivendell for some twenty days.
When Haldir came before Elrond, those that looked on reported that he did not greet his guest as was customary, but summoned him immediately into his private chambers, for his foresight told him something of what had befallen. Long afterwards, Haldir related that Elrond heard the news in silence and then wept openly, the first time that he had ever done so. At length he said simply, ‘Would the boy have me lose my daughter also?’ and then bade Haldir leave him alone. Whereupon Haldir sought Elladan and Elrohir, who had but lately returned from Thranduil’s house, and, giving them the news, he left forthwith, not even spending the night at Elrond’s house before returning to the south.
It happened that as he was journeying north, Aragorn came at length to the country named Hollin, that was Eregion, west of the Misty Mountains, some fifteen days walk from Rivendell.
Rounding the edge of a belt of trees, he met with Halbarad, his cousin, who had come south to seek him out. For a long, searching moment they stood in silence, appraising one other with slow recognition. Then, moving forward, the Ranger spoke; his voice formal and a little guarded, but its tone betraying the strength of feeling in his words.
‘Halbarad I am,’ he said, ‘and I have come out of the north, to seek my kinsman, the lord Aragorn, son of Arathorn. And can it truly be that I have found him?’ He studied the face of the man before him. The eyes were the same, without question; he would know them anywhere, for once seen they were never forgotten. But the years had wrought a change in his features beyond the mere passage of time. He looked older certainly, though not as old as Halbarad had been expecting. And yet here was not the callow youth that had ridden out of Rivendell on the wings of rumour to seek the kinsfolk he had never known. This was a man full-grown in stature, high and stern of face, and keen of mind. The heir of Isildur, indeed.
Aragorn surveyed his cousin in turn; wonder replaced by a wide, slow smile that spread across his face, as he looked him up and down.
‘Halbarad!’ he exclaimed at last. ‘Little did I think that I should see you so far south!’ They embraced warmly. ‘Fifteen years it is since we last rode together. I can scarcely believe it. But how did you know that I was returning now?’
‘I was in Bree not two months ago,’ replied Halbarad, ‘when Gandalf found me at the Pony and told me that he had met you on the southern borders of Lothlórien, and that against all our fears, you were bound for the north and home. For once, I had no other business more pressing, and so pleased was I to hear this news that I went straight to Rivendell and waited there above four weeks. But you did not come and so I set out on foot to find you. A rash hope, perhaps, but Gandalf told me that you planned to take the road west of the Misty Mountains, and that was ever your favoured route, as I recall. Though I had thought to meet you without so long a walk,’ he added with a laugh. ‘But you have tarried long in Lórien!’
‘Long indeed,’ answered Aragorn softly, and his glance strayed again to the south. ‘But loath am I still to leave the city of the Galadhrim. Yet I am glad to see you, for now we may walk together and my journey will be the lighter for it.’
‘So reluctant to see your home again?’ Halbarad stifled a note of real surprise. But he smiled broadly and continued, diffusing the gentle rebuke with playful irony. ‘They say that the Lady of the Golden Wood has the power to enchant us mortal men. I deem she has wrought a subtle stroke upon you, my friend. She has dressed you as one of her own and even now she draws you back, I see. Could it be that our stalwart captain has fallen under her spell?’
‘Nay, it was not Galadriel who kept me at Caras Galadhon!’ said Aragorn. But he would not be drawn further, and merely countered mildly, ‘Though I doubt not she would capture you, if I remember aught of your defences against the wayward dictates of your heart.’
Halbarad laughed, for, if truth be told, he could not refute that remark.
‘Come,’ he replied. ‘Let us find a place to camp, and then I would hear your tale, or at least the sum of it, for Gandalf would say little on the subject of your travels.’
‘But that story would be a year in the telling, and when did Gandalf ever stay in one place for more than a month? As for tonight, I know of nowhere better than this belt of trees where we stand.’
The two men returned up the slope the way Halbarad had come, until they reached a dry hollow amongst the trees, which afforded excellent shelter from the wind.
A good supply of dead wood was at hand and Halbarad quickly got a fire going, using the dry litter that carpeted the ground under the trees. It crackled noisily with the resinous sap of the firs. Then, to his delight, Aragorn produced fresh bread and cheese, and sweet scented apples.
‘It is four days since I left the Galadhrim, but these loaves are still fresh. And when they are gone I have other provision that will see us home. And we are in deer country, unless Hollin has changed since I last walked this way.’
The Ranger glanced towards the high peak of Caradhras and the Redhorn Gate that led into Dimrill Dale, north of Lothlórien. ‘I must confess that though I hoped to find you sooner, now that I am here I almost wish that I might have come to Lórien for myself. I count you more than fortunate to have seen that land. Is it as fair as they tell in Rivendell?’
‘It is thrice as fair,’ said Aragorn. ‘The trees of Lothlórien are like no other trees, and the waters of the Silverlode shine like starlight. But I fear you would not be permitted to enter without me to vouchsafe your passage, and my path lies now to the north.’
‘Then tell me of it as we eat,’ said Halbarad, settling himself on a dry bank of earth.
‘I should sooner hear of Rivendell,’ replied Aragorn. ‘What of Elrond and the brethren? And did Gandalf come there before you left?’
‘Nay, he had business in the Shire. Elladan and Elrohir were abroad, with Thranduil in Mirkwood, but they may return ahead of us. Lord Elrond looks to your coming; indeed, he seemed to know something of it ere I spoke to him. It is not for me to know the mind of the master of Rivendell, but I found him to be troubled at heart. It was, in part, for that reason that I resolved to seek you myself.’
Aragorn looked sharply at Halbarad. ‘Did he say aught to you of what ailed him?’
‘He was courteous as ever, but his mood was strangely altered when we spoke of your journey north,’ replied Halbarad. The sea-grey eyes bore into him, so deeply that he almost shuddered at their intensity and he wished fervently then that he had been less candid. It was not his part to guess the thoughts of Elrond, Half-elven. Doubt wavered on his face, and he ended lamely, ‘I took it for the long-expected hope of your return.’
‘My absence is a fleeting moment to Elrond,’ murmured Aragorn, ‘even though he has been as a father to me.’ He fell silent, his face showing no outward sign of his thought, and Halbarad did not care to press him further; but there was an emptiness to those words that struck him with a sudden, cold note of warning.
They ate by the fire and then Halbarad reached into his pack and held out a small leathern bag to his cousin. ‘I came not empty handed from Bree. This used to be your favourite, as I recall.’
Aragorn took it and casually sniffed the contents. ‘Longbottom Leaf! You have a good memory. But I fear I have no means to smoke it.’
‘Ah, I have thought even of that.’ The Ranger reached again into his gear and produced two long-stemmed pipes. ‘You have grown careless, Aragorn. I did not seriously believe you would have lost your own, even after so long a time in the south.’
‘It was but the least of many treasures lost to me these past years,’ replied Aragorn, smiling grimly, but not rising to the bait. Halbarad glanced at him, curiously. Their friendship had been founded on the laconic humour that they both shared, and this had seen them through much hardship, at times when there was little or nothing to laugh about. But, as Halbarad watched his cousin, he sensed a strange detachment. He seemed distracted by some thought or memory that haunted him, though fair or ill, the other could not tell; and his face was hard and stern, like that of one who has laboured long for no return. But at the same time there was an air about him that transcended the years of toil, and offered the promise of mirth, if it could once be unlocked.
He misreads me, thought Halbarad, trying to recall their last days together, long before. Wilfully or no, I cannot tell, but I feel a distance that I do not understand. It was never thus in all the years that we rode together in Eriador. It is close to what I felt when we first met, when I wondered if he would ever, or could ever, be as one with us, his own people. Or is it I who cannot see his mind? He spent these past years in Rohan and then in Gondor, but he is grown more like to the Elves again, even as he was when he first came among us. And I would be a fool to presume I know him still, but I wonder if, in truth, I could ever really say so.
‘I am sorry, Halbarad.’ Aragorn’s words interrupted his thoughts, and it seemed plain that he had guessed their content. ‘Much has happened these past months and I am not myself, it seems. Forgive me, but I cannot speak of it.’
Halbarad paused for a moment, trying to read the other’s mood. It was not sorrow that he saw, nor pain, but a look that spoke of distance, as though his mind walked still in another place. He opened his mouth to say so, but felt suddenly awkward, and settled for affirmation instead of challenge. ‘I will not trouble you with questions, Aragorn, for I know something of the years you have spent in other guise than you would have chosen for yourself. It is no easy matter to dissemble and conceal for so many years, and long habits die hard, they say.’
‘If I can ever find the words I shall tell you all,’ answered Aragorn abruptly. For a brief moment Halbarad thought he was going to go on, but he appeared to change his mind. Taking the pipe with a nod of thanks, he filled and lit it, cradling the bowl in his long fingers and staring absently across the dale.
They sat long into the night and kept the fire well tended, for it was cold and even low down as they were, their camp was not far from the mountain snows. Although they felt no need to set a watch, neither man slept long that night, for both had much on their minds. Aragorn lay flat on his back, motionless, with eyes wide open as he stared into the empty sky. Halbarad watched him for some time, and recalled the young stranger who had ridden into camp at Fornost nearly thirty years before, in the middle of a hailstorm. In that beleaguered outpost, far from Rivendell, he had been met with cold indifference and even suspicion, until he had been brought before Dirhael, who had seen in him his mother’s likeness and knew him by the ring he bore. The ring. A kernel of doubt made Halbarad glance at his cousin’s hands. The long fingers lay quiet on his chest without adornment of any kind. He has it hidden for safekeeping, thought the Ranger and put it from his mind as he drifted into fitful sleep.
The next day they made good progress in a line almost due north and unhindered by the terrain. However by evening the weather had changed and cold rain was falling. They camped under an overhanging ledge and built a fire as best they could. ‘The wood is damp,’ said Aragorn, ‘but this is the driest that I could find.’ With some effort, Halbarad got it to burn.
‘You have not lost your touch, I see,’ said Aragorn. ‘I never knew a woodsman like you for kindling a wet fire.’
‘In the Angle, you learn that at your mother’s knee, or else not at all,’ replied Halbarad as he warmed his chilled hands at the flames. He smiled at the memory of teaching that same skill to his liege lord, who had at first appeared untutored in some of the ways of the Dúnedain, even those that were not mere accoutrements, but essential tools of survival. Some of the more hardened and less learned Rangers had at first scorned Aragorn’s looks and gear, and the Elven tones of his speech. Such words as cosseted had been heard amongst the men in camp. However, their young captain’s swordsmanship, already deadly, had soon earned him much respect. Other tasks he had quickly learned and his swift assumption of the rank that was his birthright had proved the folly of their suspicions. Some there, too, still remembered Arathorn with reverence, and saw him again in his son. But the remnant of doubt was hardly surprising. Aragorn’s past had lent him the singular air of one who seemed to many not entirely a man, nor yet was he an elf; and Halbarad, who counted his upbringing so inherent to his sense of self, had often wondered how it might feel to belong to both peoples and yet not wholly to either.
Before Aragorn had come to them, Halbarad, had earned himself a reputation as a man of relatively few words, much given to reflection for one so young, and little interested by the more earthy pursuits of his peers. For one thing, his own rank set him apart, for Dirhael’s line it was that led the Dúnedain, when the Heirs of Isildur were elsewhere or could not take command through youth or sickness. Unerringly, since the last days of the kings and beyond, since their people had begun to dwindle and scatter, the line of the kings of Arnor had been vouchsafed by generations of men such as Halbarad and Dirhael, putting loyalty above any personal ambition. Through all their hardships, this duty had never been questioned. The men of the West had learned that lesson once too often, to their great cost. The line of the kings must not be broken.
And Halbarad grudged it not. He was the same age as Aragorn and had immediately taken to him, for he had quickly seen that they were two of a kind. No thought of rivalry or envy ever once entered his mind. For five years they had shared much, their labours for their people, their humour, and the pleasures of the table and of tales and song. Many perils they had also suffered together, in the wild and against the forces of the enemy, learning the skills of leadership and survival. About one thing only had Aragorn been reticent. He had never once in all that time spoken of any woman of the Dúnedain with more than respect or affection; and in this he differed from his cousin, who fell in love as often as the seasons changed, or more, though even now he had not been wed. And in this alone had Halbarad displeased Dirhael, but though he had pondered it often, he was always swayed by the dread of a day when, instead of his return, a loved one might hear of his untimely death, or worse, no return and no news. This fear he had long kept to himself, for it was common to all and it shamed him that he felt it so deeply. But when at last he had spoken of it in faltering words to Aragorn, there had at once been acceptance and no need for explanation.
But then, in the sixth year, the wizard had come amongst them, as he did at times, though always unlooked for. He had stayed for several weeks and had long talk with Aragorn, and with Dirhael. Then Aragorn had come to Halbarad and bade him a painful farewell, and that same day he had ridden south with Gandalf. That had been twenty four years ago, and since then they had met to exchange news on three occasions only, and for the last fifteen years there had be nothing except occasional messages. Dirhael was long since dead and Halbarad had taken up his grandfather’s charge, once again in the absence of his lord.
So now they sat round the fire in that vast and inhospitable country. Halbarad sat hunched over, huddled in his cloak, for despite the season it was cold and windy. Aragorn leaned against the rock, smoking; calm, impassive and wrapped in thought.
Halbarad regarded him with growing curiosity. His own reticence was lifting, so that he felt already more at ease with his captain as he now pondered the opportunity to question him more fully.
‘Tell me how you fared in Minas Tirith these last years,’ he began.
‘What would you know, cousin?’ returned the other.
Halbarad groaned inwardly. This is not going to be easy, he thought. ‘Since you ask, everything, of course!’ he opened casually. ‘All we heard from Gandalf was that you were well and in the service of the Steward, but that Gondor is beset from the east and south, and just barely holds her own.’
Aragorn relented. ‘That has been so for many years, and will likely continue long. The Enemy has not strength enough to threaten the city, not yet at any rate, for Gondor is still very strong, but his forces harry us at all times and there is no respite. Ithilien has long been abandoned save by patrols, and the river is now our border. But they cannot cross to the Pelennor, at least not while the Rammas holds strong. We have taken back Osgiliath and hold it still, although for how long I do not know. And now the threat from Umbar has diminished, for the present.’
As he listened, two unnerving thoughts slid into Halbarad’s consciousness and caught him off his guard. Ithilien. Osgiliath. The Pelennor Fields. The resonance of those names shook him. He knew them from a child, but they were as places from ancient tales, and now here was one who not only knew, but had fought for them. The other, deeper, and more conflicting notion left him caught between envy and a needle-like shaft of resentment. He speaks of ‘our’ and ‘us’, as though he were a man of Gondor! He caught Aragorn’s gaze then and looked quickly away, but he knew of old that he could not deceive him.
They talked on, of Minas Tirith and the Great River and then of Edoras and King Thengel and the Riders of Rohan, until Halbarad’s head was full of the sights and sounds of the south.
‘I would that I might ride to Gondor and see the lands of Isildur and Anarion for myself,’ he remarked. ‘I count you fortunate to have been there, Aragorn.’
‘Gondor is very fair, I cannot deny it, but I long for the north, for that is still my home, such as I have.’ He turned a penetrating, but good-humoured gaze on the other’s face. ‘You need have no fears on that score, Halbarad.’
The Ranger permitted himself a wry smile. ‘Nevertheless,’ he went on, ‘I would give much to live as you have done. Few can have travelled so far afield, and learned what you know of the world. And to see the White City of Anarion!’
A barely perceptible sigh escaped Aragorn’s lips and he said, ‘Be careful what you wish for, my friend, lest it should come true. Had I the choosing, I might not have taken that path.’
Halbarad said nothing, but found himself pondering Aragorn’s words about Minas Tirith and the Stewards.
‘You spoke of Ecthelion,’ he ventured cautiously. ‘Gandalf said you were close in counsel with him.’
‘I served him as best I could. For his part he counted me his friend, I think. The Steward is a man both stout hearted and wise, but he grows frail with the years and with old hurts that do not heal. It will not be long, I fear, before his son, Denethor, succeeds him, but he is ripe for the office and will perform it well.’
Halbarad bit his lip, as he groped for the words to ask his next question. Finally he said simply, ‘Do they then know aught of who you are?’
The answer came back quietly, but without hesitation. ‘Nay. They do not! If they did, do you think I should be returning north as I do now? I should either be holding court in the White Tower, or else I should be dead. That would be the more likely, I deem, had I remained in Minas Tirith much longer.’ No trace of rancour was in the man’s voice, but his face was set hard.
So, it is this Denethor, then, who would stand in his way, thought Halbarad, but he forebore to say the words.
Then Aragorn looked straight at his kinsman and pain was etched in the grey eyes as he said slowly. ‘Nay, Halbarad, I have made no claim. The Steward keeps Gondor in the name of the King. The Tower, the City, the land, her people; all wait as they have done these thousand years, but none now look for his return. They know little of the north and search no further than Rohan for alliance in these days. And, after all, why should they? You, yourself, must have known something of their reasoning these past years, for, in truth, can you look at me and say that you have never once shared it?’
There was a silence. Halbarad was startled, for he had not expected that anyone, least of all his captain, might question his loyalty.
‘Forgive me,’ continued Aragorn softly. ‘I do not expect you to answer; indeed, I do not even have the right to ask.’
‘No, my Lord, you have the right,’ replied Halbarad at last. ‘Yours is a road that none has trodden before, therefore none but you can know its price. It is not for me to question your choices this way and that. But in you the north has its king, and even though it be not in name, all look to you and honour the line of Elendil. But to Gondor that hope is no more than a wisp of cloud on the breeze, while all her lands are beset by foes that none here living save Elrond have known.’ He paused and then added, ‘For myself, I would follow you even to the paths of the dead, if you asked it of me.’
A rare smile lit Aragorn’s face. ‘Say rather that I would not have you follow me but ride at my side. Thank-you, cousin. May it not come to that! I should sooner walk unarmed into Gorgoroth than take that road. But I must wait until Minas Tirith has need of her king. I will not risk turning Gondor’s attention away from the Enemy, for, were I to do so, she would be laid bare.’ He got up then and stood with his back to Halbarad, so that his words were barely audible, and he seemed to be talking to himself. ‘And if I could follow my desire, I would have none of it, whatever Gandalf might say.’
There was a long pause and then abruptly he sat down and changed the subject. ‘Tell me about the north and our kindred.’
‘Things are much as they have always been,’ said Halbarad. ‘But the Angle has been quiet of late, too quiet, some would say. The hunting has not been good the last few years and we have had hard winters, though none have yet gone hungry. Gandalf has been away in the south a good deal, but I need not tell you that. And my sister was wed four years ago to Anardil. They have had a daughter and, last year, a son.’
‘Anardil?’ The mention of the name brought a half-smile to Aragorn’s lips. ‘Well now, that I should not have guessed in a thousand years. I thought that Haleth would have none of it?’
‘She is much changed, but she has lost none of her mettle. And Anardil has grown into a mighty man.’
‘That is an even greater surprise. He was the sickliest child I ever met. But I am glad for them both. Did you see my mother when you were at Rivendell?’
Halbarad’s face grew grave again. ‘Yes I did, briefly. I fear that Dirhael’s death still grieves Gilraen greatly, though she does not speak of it. But she looks ever for your coming, Aragorn.’
‘I shall see her soon. Indeed I have much to tell her. But her father died six years since.’
‘Were she not alone she would bear it well. She is dearly loved in Rivendell. But she misses her own people, and except for the hope of seeing you, I deem she would have returned to her family long ago.’
There was a silence. ‘That is hard,’ said Aragorn. ‘I would not have my mother remain for my sake, for what is a handful of meetings in a dozen years compared to her happiness? I shall speak with her about it.’ Then he looked closely at Halbarad and said, ‘And you? What of your happiness, my friend?’
‘Mine? It is not for my lord’s steward to attend to his own pleasure.’
Aragorn laughed, and the sound rang out like the ringing of a bell. ‘You know of what I speak. Is there yet no one who awaits your return?’
‘There is one, I confess. Though I know not whether she ‘awaits my return’ as you put it, for I have said nothing to her yet.’
‘But you will.’
‘Perhaps. And now it is my turn to ask. What of you, cousin? Is there a fair lady of Minas Tirith who grieves at your parting?’
‘None that I should miss greatly. My heart lies elsewhere, for it is in the keeping of the North.’
‘Aragorn?’ said Halbarad sternly. ‘Always you talk in riddles. Will you not now speak plain, or must I guess?’
‘I do not know how I should begin.’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘Very well, I will tell you, but you must speak of it to no one. You were right. I was delayed in Lórien for a season and by one whom I scarcely hoped to meet there. I have loved her long, but until now I did not know her mind beyond the fevered dreams of my years in the south. She is known to you. For she is Arwen Undómiel, the daughter of Elrond.’
‘You are loved by Arwen Evenstar?’ gasped Halbarad. ‘Then you are the most fortunate man alive! That is a prize beyond the wealth of the world. But how came this pass?’
Aragorn smiled. ‘On the eve of Midsummer we walked amid the mallorns on the hill of Cerin Amroth. She was arrayed in simple white and in her raven hair she wore pale niphrodel. The moonlight caught her face so that it shone like the fairest flower of Valinor. She has long known my desire and there was need of few words between us. Indeed, I would almost believe that I had dreamed it, Halbarad, were it not for the token of our love that she accepted from me.’ Then the trace of a shadow crossed his face. ‘Bittersweet is our hope, for I should sooner have her pass over the sea without me, than part her from her people. But she has pledged to cleave to me and renounce her line.’
At last Halbarad understood the change that he had seen in Aragorn since their last meeting. He glanced at Aragorn’s bare hands and guessed then, too, who was the new keeper of the ring of Barahir.
‘I wish you great joy, son of Arathorn.’ he said. ‘Your news explains much that I have thought strange about you these last two days.’ Then he added cautiously, ‘Does her father know aught of her choice?’
‘Elrond has long known my heart, and in truth Arwen’s too, I think, though she has not spoken of it openly. And news travels swiftest to close kin, does it not? But he will not bear it well, I fear.’
They built up the fire and made themselves as comfortable as they could. For a time there was silence, but just as he was growing sleepy, Halbarad heard his cousin murmuring in a low voice.
The light upon the leaves of trees,
the voice of water, more than these
her beauty was and blissfulness,
her glory and her loveliness.
So, thought Halbarad, Arwen Undómiel has made the choice of Lúthien. It seems hardly possible. She is like a legend come walking out of the past. But then why not? When Aragorn comes into his own then he too shall be remembered in tales. The lines stirred another couplet in his own head; ‘And Fate them forged a binding chain of living love and mortal pain.’ He caught his breath. No, let it not be pain.