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4
Four

4

When Aragorn again returned to Rivendell, it is recorded that he found Arwen somewhat changed, for since the evening in the garden she had spoken but little with her father and the days weighed heavily on her. She spent her time with the horses that she loved and rode often from the house into the woods and high up on the mountain passes, against the express wishes of Elrond, who feared for his daughter’s safety. She was dwimmer crafty and slipped past the folk of the household, for she knew all the paths thereabouts and did not fear the marauding bands of orc that had been sighted in the Misty Mountains. But Elrond thought ever of Celebrian and her capture and the poisoned wound that drove her across the sea, and he could not rest when he knew that Arwen was abroad by herself. And such was his love for her that he tried to dissuade her from riding out, and in a moment of anger, threatened to hold her against her will, but Arwen said;
‘Father if you do this then I shall never love you more and my body will wither and die in the prison that you make for me. For love you and my brothers as I do, I am free to choose whether I go or stay in Rivendell, for I am not in your thrall. And at the last Aragorn will release me and we will ride far away where you will never find us, and then there needs must be war between the Dúnedain and the Elves.’
Then Elrond wept and held his daughter close and she wept also for she knew in her heart that he would not carry out such a threat. And Aragorn came then and beheld Arwen in her father’s arms and knew what had gone between them. Later that day also, Halbarad came to Aragorn and told him of what he had heard in the garden and Aragorn was silent, for he took it hard that Elrond and Arwen had been torn apart because of his love. It is said that he left the house of Elrond forthwith and rode away and Halbarad took a horse and followed his tracks for many days until he came to the Barrow Downs west of Bree.
***
Halbarad hesitated on the edge of the downs, searching the horizon for a sign of his cousin. The hoof-prints continued straight ahead over the first ridge of hills and down into a deep hollow. But before he had ridden more than a few yards, there rose up before him a thick fog and after a few minutes he was unable to see the tracks clearly enough to be sure of holding their course on horseback. Cursing, he stopped and dismounted, and began to follow on foot. He knew the downs well; well enough to know which of the steep mounds to avoid, which ones contained the barrows. And he knew them well enough to know that he should not risk going further in the fog. But the turf was short and springy and moist enough to show the tracks clearly to his practised eyes, and he ventured down into the deep hollow with confidence. Afterwards he would wonder whether it was due to the hope that his captain was not far ahead, or blindness to the myriad warnings he had heard all his life. Either way, he ignored everything he had long known about the Downs and the Barrows that topped them, sentinel-like and menacing, shunned by all.
The fog grew thicker and almost before he knew it, night began to fall. That was odd enough, for he had thought it not much later than noon. He had crossed two ridges and still held Aragorn’s tracks, but as the light swiftly dimmed he pulled up suddenly, knowing that he would have no chance of going further without getting lost. At the same time he realised that the hoof-prints he was following had quite suddenly come to an end. He searched the ground in vain for footprints and in the falling darkness found no trace. There was nothing for it, but to spend the night were he was and hope that the fog would lift by morning. He lit the tiny lantern that he habitually carried in his pack, and saw suddenly ahead of him a horse, fully harnessed, but quite alone, grazing the turf.
‘Elenya!’ he called softly, but Aragorn’s mare did not know him and swiftly moved away as he reached out to her, and he had to hold on tight to his own horse before she too slipped away into the sea of fog. Fearing the worst, he blundered on into the darkness, until he had no idea where he was going, or even which way he had come.
Dread began to fill his every pore, until he could feel his hands shaking involuntarily and the muffled light from the lantern wobbled in the haze. He snuffed it out. It did nothing to help him see his way and was using up what little oil he had.
Minutes later he stubbed his toe on something in the dark and, putting out his hand, felt cold stone in front of him. Lighting the lamp again, he made out the shape of a low mound ahead and a ring of jagged stones about it. In the centre were two upright boulders, shaped into a lintel and finished with a slab on top. The doorway was utterly black. Later he tried to recall why he had entered the barrow, but he was quite unable to say, except that he felt drawn by a power beyond his will. Before he knew what he was doing, he had crossed the threshold and seconds later there was a loud crack of breaking stones and he felt something hurl him further inside and close the gap with a crash behind him.
A choking pall of dust filled the space where he now found himself trapped. The darkness was absolute. Stunned, his head spinning with pain and fear, Halbarad groped blindly about him for the lantern, but apart from the cracked and broken stone floor that he was lying on, he could feel nothing. He tried to pull himself together and started to edge his way to the left, searching for the wall that he hoped to be near, but a sharp pain sliced through his temples as he turned his head, and he cried out. Instinctively moving his hand to the source of the pain, his fingers touched warm sticky fluid, oozing from a gash above his eye. Light-headed, he sank into easeful oblivion and lay like a dead thing.
A sound amidst the pressing silence brought Halbarad to himself again. It was a low moan, barely audible though not far away, human, but unearthly in the darkness. Then it ceased. Just as he was about to give in to the blanketing sleep that promised release, he was accosted by a sluggish, but dreadful thought.
He opened his mouth and heard his own voice, cracked and stifled in the muffled chamber. ‘Aragorn!’ he whispered. ‘Is that you?’ No answer came, but from not far ahead of him he heard what he took to be the scrape of leather against the stony floor. Ignoring the numbing ache in his head, he began to move slowly, inching his way forward until his fingers touched the corner of a woollen cloak that covered a booted foot.
‘Aragorn!’
In the inky blackness he could see nothing. Gingerly Halbarad traced his fingers across the cloak until they reached an arm. The soft silken cloth of Rivendell confirmed both his fear and his hope. He grasped the hand gently. In a wordless response that alarmed him, he was aware of the other man drawing his knees up abruptly against his chest and wrapping his hands about them, head buried. It came to Halbarad then, through the physicality of his own pain, that the reaction was born not of bodily injury, to which he was no stranger, but of some deeper, inner torment.
‘Aragorn, it’s Halbarad.’ He moved to his side and, laying his hands gently on his friend’s shoulders, was stung to find that they were shaking. His own fear suddenly welled inside him, the familiar, visceral knot that rose to his chest and that over years of necessity he had learned to wrench to his will, turning it to his profit to do what he must. This time there seemed to be nothing to fight or flee, except the total darkness of their captivity, and the anguished silence.
Moments stretched into minutes. It felt strange to Halbarad, holding Aragorn in the darkness, as he might a child, but there was no resistance, indeed no further reaction, and he found himself now rejecting the seeming betrayal of pulling away. But then the gash on his brow began to throb, so that he started to feel dizzy. Just as he realised that he would soon have to move, or risk passing out, Aragorn stirred. His voice came soft and strange, but with a chilling certainty, as he said,
‘Can you hear it, Halbarad? The evil that lies beneath us? It calls my name.’
The relief at hearing his words was short-lived. If the Ranger had become accustomed to enduring his own terror, he was quite unprepared to witness it so palpably in his captain. But this was something more than fear. And even as Halbarad reeled at the impossibility that Aragorn might have lost his reason, his foot caught something metallic as he shifted his weight. Instinctively he put out his hand and found the lantern. This tiny piece of fortune focused his thought and he groped for his flint, relieved, not for the first time, that he always stowed it safe in a pocket of his breeches. A minute later the narrow chamber blazed with light, revealing the broken masonry and rubble that now blocked the doorway, trapping them inside the barrow. The Dúnadan sat hunched in the corner, seemingly unmarked save for his fingers, which were badly scuffed and torn. Beside him, something glittered in the lamplight. It was the drawn blade of his long hunting knife.
Slowly raising his head, Aragorn stared blankly at the lantern, at Halbarad, and at the fallen roof, but appeared not to see them. Instead he placed his hands over his ears, as though trying to shut out some deafening noise that assailed him.
‘I do not know of what you speak, my lord,’ Halbarad answered stiffly at last. He was deferential, even coolly incredulous, but his tone only barely masked the horror that swept through him.
‘It is the Music,’ Aragorn replied thickly, his face ashen, ‘but more terrible than I have ever known. It is under the ground and speaks to me of my death. Do you not hear it?’
Halbarad mastered himself and repeated more gently, ‘Nay, Aragorn, I do not. Of what music do you speak?’
The grey eyes turned on him, but they seemed remote and their customary light was gone. ‘So you do not know it? I once believed that you shared it too.’ Then his harrowed features softened into pale confusion and he shook his head. ‘But Gandalf said it would not be so.’ He broke off and did not explain his last remark. Halbarad was scarcely reassured by the wizard’s name, as Aragorn closed his eyes and again lapsed into silence.
The Ranger forced his attention to their situation. The shattered doorway was entirely filled with fallen rubble, but the main part of the roof above seemed to be intact. Through the top of the rubble he could make out chinks of deeper black, that suggested small gaps into the night air beyond. A slight draft blew across his face and he almost laughed with relief as he realised that they would not, at least, run out of air. He crawled across the chamber and began to pick at the broken stones. But the injury to his head had tired him and he could work only slowly, moving a piece at a time with his hands. After a few minutes he was forced to cease, and slumped back against the wall, exhausted and dizzy.
He glanced at Aragorn, whose drawn face was quieter now, though he made no sign. Presently he stirred and passed his hand across his face.
‘Does it still trouble you?’ asked Halbarad. ‘The music?’
With an effort Aragorn replied, ‘It is fading. But I wanted to follow it, Halbarad. Do you know what I am saying? If you had not been here to bring me back, I should have gone. It has never called for me before.’ He broke off, his voice taut and hands shaking, as he realised what he might have done. Halbarad stared, refusing to comprehend what his ears were telling him.
‘That cannot be, my lord!’
‘It is the truth. I had very little will left in the matter.’ He shuddered. ‘But there, it is over now. If it returns, I shall not be caught out again.’
‘What did you mean about hearing it before, Aragorn?’ Halbarad ventured. ‘You have never once spoken of this to me.’
‘Later, my friend,’ he replied, and then his face softened, so that he resembled one who has toiled for many sleepless nights, but is now at peace. ‘I cannot speak of it yet and I am very weary. From what accursed hole the evil came I do not know. We must try to leave this place as soon as we may, but I don’t think I could move now even if I wanted to. And you are hurt. You must bathe that scratch, if it is not to fester.’
Halbarad took water from his flask and washed clean the gash. It was shallow, but painful. However, he had suffered much worse and made little of it once the dizziness cleared.
‘You should drink a little,’ said Halbarad, and passed the water to Aragorn. He took it gratefully.
Halbarad watched his cousin, pondering the madness that seemed to have seized him, although, for the time being he was too relieved to see him recovered to worry overmuch. But there was still a haunted look on Aragorn’s face that was disconcerting.
They sat for an hour or more in the dark to preserve the oil, neither moving nor speaking while they recovered their strength.
Then Halbarad said gently, ‘Is that why you came in here, because of the music?’
Aragorn nodded and said, ‘If you hear it, you have to go. But I thought I had conquered it until today. It won’t catch me out again though.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Halbarad went on. ‘You speak as though you have heard it before.’
Aragorn took a deep breath and after a moment began slowly, ‘It started in Rivendell, when I was very young. From time to time I would hear the fairest music, like nothing that even the Elves could make, though where it came from I knew not, and sometimes it frightened me. It was as if everything in the world that is beautiful had come together in harmony. Once, I spoke of it to Elladan, and he told me that it is given to some few of our line to hear traces of the Great Music, the Ainulindalë, that made the world and lies within it still, for those to hear that can, though Elladan himself does not. But he bade me never to repeat that I had heard it, not even to Elrond. As I grew, it faded and I thought it gone, but it returns at times, and it is not always beautiful, but often terrible beyond endurance, with a malice that would freeze my heart.’
‘And you carried this burden alone? Why then could you not speak to Elrond?’
‘Because it should not have passed to me. The elves do not share its power with men, and they do not hear the evil in it, only its beauty. It is to us that the evil speaks and to us alone. And Halbarad, the evil on the Downs is older and greater than any I have ever felt. But Gandalf taught me how to bend the power of the Music to my own purpose, and now it makes me strong, when it would else have overwhelmed me. This time, though, I could barely resist. It has taken all the strength of will that I possess.’
Halbarad sank back against the wall, at once astonished and relieved. ‘I was frightened for you, Aragorn. I knew not what to think. There was a fey look about you and I feared you were lost.’
‘Not yet my friend.’ Aragorn sighed softly. ‘I cannot be rid of it and so I shall use it to my profit when the time comes. To master it is to wield the strength of the land, and the land hates the Shadow, Halbarad, like a canker, and so the music comes where the evil awaits. There are fell powers in these barrows, and they have us trapped for now. We must try to escape when we are able. Even now it waits for us to weaken with fear. But if we are not afraid then we shall get out.’
He began to pick at the fallen stones, and quickly revealed the source of the loud crack that Halbarad had felt behind him. The great capstone that had topped the doorway was broken in two and lay across the threshold blocking the only way out. Halbarad, who was the heavier of the two, set his shoulder against the shards and with an effort managed to shift them out and away from the doorway. As he did so a sound like a sigh seemed to come from the very earth itself. Relieved, they stumbled outside and only pulled up when they were well away from the barrow. At the same time, Dawn was pushing rosy fingers through the last vestiges of fog and they saw the horses not far off, grazing unconcernedly. Once they were mounted and safely on their way, Halbarad said,
‘Aragorn, will you return with me to Rivendell?’
‘Was that not your purpose in following me, kinsman?’ replied Aragorn. ‘I long to say yes, but how can I return, when to do so will tear my heart in two?’
‘Because Arwen would have you there,’ he answered, staring his cousin straight in the eye. ‘Because she fears what the grief of her father will bring, and not least because it is your home and you belong there. I have seen that now.’
Aragorn wheeled his horse around and halted abruptly. ‘It is many years since Rivendell has been my home, and Arwen knows the burden I carry.’
Halbarad stood his ground. ‘She knows your duty to your people and she knows the task that lies before you. But, forgive me, does she in truth know your love?’
‘What do you mean, Halbarad? How could she doubt it? We were betrothed not four months since.’
‘You know your heart, Aragorn. None better. But for all those years in the south you were forced to dissemble, to hide your true self and feign a part. And how long have you and Arwen spent together since you met? A sum of three or four months in Rivendell? The same at Lórien? Arwen fears what you may do to avoid breaking your bond with her father. She fears the waiting and above all she fears the day that must eventually come, the day when she will lose you.’
There was a silence as Aragorn stared at Halbarad, disbelief on his face.
But he took courage and continued. ‘And what did you do when you saw how it lay between Elrond and his daughter? You fled, my lord. Is that not what you are doing now? It seems to me that your chief peril lies not on the Barrows Downs, but at Rivendell.’
Again Aragorn said nothing, his face harried and weary. Halbarad ceased, but he knew his words had driven home. Aragorn broke into a canter and rode on ahead, but Halbarad still followed, noting that he had turned north and east. Soon the downs were left far behind them. They skirted south of Breeland, neither feeling like company, and as another evening drew on, they were back on the East road.

They rode hard and met no one until Amon Sûl, where they overtook a party of dwarves going east. A wetting autumn rain began to fall and at the Ford of Bruinen the waters were rising. As they approached the river, soon after dawn on the fifth day, they saw, some way off, a lone rider on a black horse, coming down out of the hills to meet them. The dark figure was robed and hooded and in the grey morning chill resembled a creature of mist and inconstant hue, horse and rider as one, without harness or other accoutrement. Presently he stopped and waited by the ford for Aragorn and Halbarad to cross, and, as they stepped out of the water, threw back his cowl and spoke.
‘Estel, I have found you. I thought you were lost.’ The voice was no elf warrior’s. It was Arwen, her hair streaming in the wind, her face glistening like a jewel in the rain. As Halbarad watched his cousin hurl himself from his horse and catch her in his arms, pulling her tight, he felt something like envy grip him, and, shocked, he pushed it away again. He did not wait to hear their tales, for he was intruding. He turned away from them and slowly continued along the road, fighting the desire to look back.
They will return to Rivendell, Halbarad thought, for however brief a spell, before duty calls for Aragorn to ride abroad once more, and the waiting begins again. And Arwen will ride with him when she can slip away, and when Aragorn can bear to see her risk the wilderness. He longs for her to remain where she is safe, but he knows in his heart that she could no more live in a gilded cage than could he.
And so it was. Even as Arwen loved Aragorn and her father, she forbore to remain close to the valley, east of the ford and did not risk the mountain passes or the open road. The evening was her time, when it is told that she would seek the stars and walk or ride in the light of the moon, unseen by any foe, and singing softly like the nightingale. And at times Aragorn would come to her and they would walk together in the trees and by the falls, as they had done nearly thirty years before, when first he found her.

***
The sun was also setting as the archivist read their tale and his window was bathed in a golden fire. He had never met an elf and found them hard to imagine, but Arwen seemed to him like a creature from a dream-time that was close, but elusive to the memory, so that he could only guess at her quality from what little was revealed to him. And Firiel, her daughter; he recalled the spring day when a small boy had watched the King’s favourite child, by then a great age herself, as she rode in a carriage through the bluebell woods of the Pelennor. A wisp of wind had stolen her neckerchief and whisked it away on to the road, and the child had picked it up and shyly held it out to her as she passed. She had ordered the driver to stop so that she might thank him. Old she looked, beyond his wildest imaginings, but her eyes shone very bright and her hair was still long and fine, and her smile would never leave him.
‘Take it, child,’ she had said and gave the neckerchief back to him. ‘Keep it with my thanks until you find someone to give it to yourself. For such a gift, bestowed with love, is more priceless than a thousand jewels.’
The man smiled as he continued to read, making up his mind to seek the Professor’s opinion on the manuscript. His fingers had lost the arthritic pain that had troubled them and in his reverie he quite forgot his other aches and pains. He determined to speak to the Professor over an invitation to dinner, provided, of course, he could summon the courage to ask her.

***
It is written elsewhere how the King came again to walk in the south and the nature of his business in Rohan, during the start of the War of the Ring, so that after all the years of toil, the Dúnedain came to the south, to ride upon the marches of war for their lord. Thirty only were there that could be gathered in haste, and Halbarad led them swiftly to Rohan in search of his kinsman. And with them rode the brethren, Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond.

And when they were met at last and they had spoken of tidings in the North and in the South, Elrohir said to Aragorn:
‘I bring you word from my father: The days grow short. If thou art in haste remember the Paths of the Dead.’
‘Already my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire,’ answered Aragorn. ‘But great indeed will be my haste ere I take that road.’
‘That will soon be seen,’ said Elrohir. ‘But let us speak no more of these things upon the open road!’
And Aragorn said to Halbarad: ‘What is that you bear, kinsman?’ for he saw that instead of a spear he bore a tall staff, as it were a standard, but it was close-furled in a black cloth bound about with many thongs.
‘It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell,’ answered Halbarad. ‘She wrought it in secret, and long was the making. But she also sends word to you: The days are now short. Either our hope cometh, or all hope’s end. Therefore I send thee what I have made for thee. Fare well, Elfstone!’
And Aragorn said: ‘Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!’ And he turned and looked away to the north and spoke no more while the night’s journey lasted.

***

As the night began to fade, the company came at last to the Hornburg. Aragorn motioned to Halbarad to follow him away from the other folk, to a high chamber in the Burg, and when they were at last alone they embraced, and Aragorn said,
‘I have a hard task before me this day, Halbarad. But first tell me how you fare. It is many months since we were at Rivendell and much has befallen us both. You look older my friend!’
‘You do not, my lord,’ replied the Ranger and smiled a wry smile. ‘What the staff conceals, you know well,’ he went on. ‘And I have little need to tell you of the lady’s words to you, for she needs no messenger to reach your heart.’
Aragorn stepped back a pace and they regarded one another in the grey dawn. It was true, Halbarad had to confess, they both looked older and tired too. Days without count the grey company had ridden and something told him that that they had still far to go. And as he returned Aragorn’s gaze, Halbarad thought his captain looked even more world weary that morning, as though he had seen the day of his own passing. He recalled Elrond’s words, and Aragorn’s answer, and shuddered at the name. And then, as he looked long into the grey eyes he realised, with a final certainty, that Aragorn knew his cousin’s heart, and had known it all along. Halbarad hesitated and looked away. I have betrayed the trust of my lord and captain. I can never hope for his forgiveness, and nor should I. But when he turned back there was nothing in Aragorn’s gaze that spoke of blame or anger, only understanding and sadness at his own pain. Then Aragorn broke the silence.
‘I am truly sorry, Halbarad,’ he said slowly. ‘I know what these years have cost you.’
Halbarad did not answer. His mouth was dry and he could find no words.
Then Aragorn said, ‘After all, how ever could I blame you for loving her as I do?’ He paused. ‘It is I who have wronged you, by asking you to serve me thus.’
‘My lord,’ said Halbarad, ‘Always I have put you first, in war and at play and, yes, in love also. I do not begrudge it. I could no more hope for a love unrequited than I could wish for the crown of Eärnur. And was it not I who chose to be alone?’
‘I know, too,’ said Aragorn, ‘why you did not seek the hand of another. But if things had been different we might neither of us be here now, facing the grim road ahead. It may yet turn out that yours was the wiser path.’
They fell silent and Halbarad looked out of the small window at the ordered company waiting patiently below. Then he turned again to Aragorn.
‘Not for me the heights, cousin,’ he said. ‘I was born to serve and I would not have it otherwise. I would rather follow you and die well, than rule a kingdom by my own hand and rule it badly.’
‘Then I hope that I may be worthy of you,’ said Aragorn. ‘But for now I must look to a task more fell than many days of battle.’

***

It is told that Aragorn then looked into the Palantir of Orthanc, and strove with the enemy as none other had hitherto dared to do, and that at the last he prevailed and turned the stone to his own will and purpose. It was then that he saw the peril that awaited the city of Minas Tirith and it seemed that none could go to her aid in time. And at the end his face was haggard with the toil and peril he had endured, and he stumbled as he descended the stair from the chamber and Halbarad supported his captain as they came down. For it seemed to him that many years of hardship had fallen on Aragorn in that single night and the choices before them were grim as they pondered the road to come.

***

On the last page it was apparent that Firiel had copied the final entry from Halbarad’s diary:

11th March, 3019

It is three days since we rode from Dunharrow and I have had no time to write. On the 8th day of March, Aragorn led us by the Paths of the Dead, so named in the words of Malbeth the Seer, and we came at midnight to Erech. Never have I seen my lord more stern and fierce hearted. And the Oathbreakers followed us and, few as we are, we routed the Enemy even as we rode forward. At nightfall, we crossed the Gilrain and now rest on the borders of Lebennin, but we must ride again ere dawn to Pelargir. There is little food, and my horse is nearly lame, but he will see me through. There we must take what ships we can and make all speed to the city, if she is not to fall.
The king, for thus I name him, though he has not yet made any claim, exacts loyalty from all who look upon him, not by fear, but by the strength of his will. We go to war on the very borders of Mordor, and the king must win through. For myself, I will be glad merely to look on Minas Tirith before I die. For none can hope for his own survival in this war and each must try only to do his part. But this country is very fair, and I should dearly love to see it again. For now I must try to sleep a little before we ride on.

Finis

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