'The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world.'
FOTR: The Council of Elrond
FOTR: The Council of Elrond
It is said the Dúnadan, our lord Aragorn, Arathorn's son, lies as close to death as one could and yet still breathe. They brought him home to the Angle, a long column of weary men, along with their dead.
What befell them, they would not say. Even now they speak little. Their tall frames cloaked in the grays of the Rangers of the North, they stride without word beside their sisters, mothers, and wives as we make that slow journey back to our homes. Behind us, the winds bend the heads of the grasses to the ground above our dead. We left them there to the weeping grasses and return to walk paths a little more silent and sit at hearths just a little colder. But, we do not press the Rangers to speak. Oft our folk wander and oft they fail of their return. Any word of their fall seems but a poor exchange.
Twilight falls upon the Third Age, though we knew it not. We knew only this; ever has The Deceiver borne us a long, patient contempt. Once Arnor fell, broken upon the great wave from the north, we ever slide slowly to the depths of our decline. We are a dwindled people, skulking in the hills, wandering in the wastes, and awaiting the day our Enemy shall deign to extend his reach from Mordor and sweep us aside.
He will not forget us, the Dúnedain of the North, but neither will the end come swiftly. He will hoard his hate and wear away at all dignity until we break apart as a frail ship upon the waves. Once, we put our trust in the thick walls and tall towers of our cities, but, despite the promise of their grandeur, they failed us. Now we cling to Isildur's heirs as would a sailor to a beacon when long upon stormy waters and far from home. They are the walls of our harbor. Tired stone upon stone are the lives of our heirs of kings, but never have they failed us. Had we not the hope of the house of Elendil to strengthen us, we would have long sunk to the dark and bitter depths beneath the flood.
Thistles catch upon the hem of my skirt and I stop to pull the thorns from between its threads. The sun beats down upon my head until I am dull with warmth and lack of sleep. I have wound about my hair and neck a cowl of thin black wool. It is a comfort to me, for its dark folds confound the bitter touch of the wind and the mourning eyes of the folk of the North as they pass, brushing past me silently, lost each in his own memory of grief and burdens to bear. Soon the line of men and women will disappear beneath the eaves of the pines and I will have no more thorns to brush from my skirts. The cool, dark air of the forest breathes upon me as I stand there and, for reasons I know not, I shiver at its touch. Loathe am I to enter, yet I have naught to hold me here.
I turn for one last look upon the bald head of the summit. The mounds of raw earth stark against the hillside are hidden from my sight. Instead, the morning light paints the grasses silver along their edges as the wind sends ripples through last summer's growth. Though I squint against wind and sun, there is naught to see of what I left behind.
At a prickle along my neck, I know I am being watched. The last of my lord's Rangers looks upon me. He is tall, as are all those that descend from Westernesse, but with a height near unmatched here in the North. It is Halbarad, friend to my father and kinsman to our lord, and he holds aside the thin whip of a branch so I might follow him. The wind blows against my back, pressing my skirts onto my legs and lifting tendrils of his dark hair from his face. But he remains unmoved under its force and watches me steadily. I am being summoned.
It is dark beneath the boughs of the forest where the needles lay in a thick carpet along the path. As our people make their way, the sharp bite of resin and melting snow rises from beneath their feet. The sound of their passage soaks into the soft bed beneath the pines and I can no longer hear their footfalls for the soughing of the wind through the trees. I see no end to the shadowed tunnel, a journey forever in the dark without cease, a mere plodding of one step in front of the other with no purpose. It seems my feet would rather grow roots here on the edge of the wood.
I turn away so I cannot see the Ranger if he should raise his arm and usher me on should I fail to move. Ai! What is it I wish? Shall I lie myself down beside that wound at the crest of the hill? Bury myself in the broken turf and refuse to move? Wait until my fingers curl their way into the ground and the wind has scoured my body clean of life as it has the grasses?
Halbarad awaits, silent, a tall pillar guarding the path, his eyes bright upon me.
For a brief moment as I draw nigh, it seems Halbarad gazes at me intently and words crowd behind his eyes. But when I stoop to walk below his upraised arm, his look softens and he nods. Perhaps he has seen the questions in my own eyes.
‘What of your kin, Halbarad, Ranger of the North? What fate has befallen the Lord of the Dúnedain, the last of his line?’
He will not say, but, instead, lets fall the branch behind us. We plunge into darkness and his firm footfalls follow upon the path I now tread.
"Nienelen?" a voice warbles from the door.
I wrench my head up from my knees to find my mother's elder aunt with a careful pile of cloth folded between her claw-like fingers. I make to rise from sitting upon the bed to rush to her, but she shakes her head. She is frail and has been ill of late. I fear what she carries will strain joints she will need strong to bear the burden of a journey across the Wild, but she shuffles across the floor with a spryness to her step that ever surprises me. Our hands touch as I lift the pile from her arms and I marvel anew at their softness, thin silk over hollow bones.
“That is the last of it, I would think,” says she, “unless you know of aught else.”
"My thanks to you, Aunt." I put the clothes aside, my fingers lingering upon the fibers on top. I know the sheep that gave of their wool for that cloak and the pattern of their weaving that came from the journals bearing the hand of my mother and her mother's before her. Lined with a soft grey fur, it is my father's winter cloak.
“It will last another's wearing, will it not?” she asks and sinks to the bed beside me, leaning hard on my shoulder to ease herself down.
“Tutt!” she says when I turn, for she has caught sight of my face. I doubt not my eyes and nose are swollen and my face and neck blotched with red. Her nails drag at the soft nap of the cloth I wear as she rubs at my back. “Do not fret. I shan’t wonder if your dear atar isn’t happiest in the arms of your long gone mother. A sweet woman, she was, and they had so few years together.”
I sigh and lay my head upon her shoulder, gently there so I can feel the feeble beating of her heart. She pats at my cheek. Her touch lights upon me as a bird’s wing.
“How do you bear it?”
I turn to her, for I know my aunt's years have seen the loss of many she loved. My mother's kin were long bereft of home after the Great Floods destroyed the city of Tharbad. Many years they wandered the Wild unprotected until my lord discovered their plight and took pity upon them. He then sent his Rangers to settle them in lands that knew more of peace, and so they found the hill-country of the Blue Mountains, all but one. She it was, my mother, who followed one of my lord's men to the Angle, forsaking the family she ne'er saw again.
“Joys life will give thee, if thee let it, my pet, but not for long and not forever,” my aunt croons to me in the language of the elves. “Naught is given that might not next be taken. But even the Shadow will not last, and, one day, those we love will surround us once again. When thou art called home, my pet, may those thee love surround thee, if not upon Arda's soil, then beyond the Circles of the World.”
With this, I must smile. My aunt reserves the high tongue for those words she wishes to have most effect. Oft were its liquid tones used to scold me as a child. I know best its language of rebuke. Even now, when I am well beyond childhood, she would chide me with it. She pats my head as it lies on her shoulder, where once she took all of my young body in her arms and soothed away nursery frights.
“I cannot bear to think what he suffered," I say, my voice thick.
“Now, pet," says she, and pushes me gently from her shoulder, "think of it not. Your father died doing what he believed best. To him the price was well worth what it bought. Do not doubt him.”
“And you and I are left to make our way as we see best,” she goes on and lays a hand on my shoulder. With a huff of breath at the effort, she pushes herself to standing.
“Ai, me!” she sighs as she straightens. “There now, that’s a good chick." She pats me upon the shoulder, for I have turned a wan smile upon her, knowing this is what she would wish.
She peers down at me with crow–like eyes that twinkle with their dark light. “All will be well, my pet. But I would see you settled with family about you first, before I quit this world to follow your dear mother.”
She strokes a stiff finger upon my cheek and I shake my head and laugh for what seems the first time in an age. I know what next shall come from her mouth.
With a fond huff, she demands, “And why shall you not marry yourself some young man who will take you away from your family and settle the King knows where? Is not that what my dear sister’s daughter did?”
With that I rise from the bed. Aye, there is much to be done and now is the time for the doing.
"Young man!” say I. “I am afraid their eyesight must first be dimmed with either your years or your affections." I plant a kiss atop my aunt’s crown of silver.
"Tutt!" she scolds and swats at me. “All men are young, whether with the bloom of youth or the foolishness of old age.”
I bend aside and fuss with my father’s gear, piling knife and belt atop the cloak, more to hide the smile that spreads across my face than to gather it up.
“Does this include the Elder Maurus?” I ask in a mild voice and a snort comes from across the room in answer.
"Impertinent girl!" she mutters and, either to forebear from further reproof or to avoid further teasing, shuffles out the door.