A lone rider, mounted on one of the Mearas, approached the Gap of Rohan. He’d seen three Ents as he passed the southern borders of Fangorn Forest and the wooded area that now surrounded Orthanc and its lake. He was now traveling swiftly once more as he prepared to turn northward past the renewed garrison fortress that guarded the pass just south of Dunland. After the frustration of having to lead Roheryn across much of Rohan on foot after the great stallion had pulled a muscle in his leg, to find himself able once more to travel at speed seemed a long-denied luxury. The question, however, was whether or not he’d reach his destination in time. He found himself doubting it, but pressed on anyway.
“Estel, he has chosen at last,” Arwen had told him, her expression of great grief revealing that the offered gift had been declined. “Go to him, beloved. I fear he will need your Light to illuminate the Way.”
And although he’d issued a temporary ban on Men entering the Shire, nevertheless he had sent one of the pages of the Citadel to the lower stables to have Roheryn made ready, and had sought out Faramir, leaving the rule of Gondor in the capable hands of his Queen and his Steward for such time as he must be gone. He was grateful all was at peace and no enemy appeared willing--for the moment, at least--to threaten the borders of either Gondor or Arnor, and that none disturbed the tranquility of Rohan, either. Had there not been the injury to Roheryn, he would have been far to the north by now. But after several days of walking westward they’d been found by Éomer King and this one, and the great silver-grey horse had indicated he would accept Aragorn.
He’d called the great horse Olórin, and now he reveled in the smooth, steady gait. Perhaps there was a chance....
They stopped but a short time to rest and eat, and Olórin appeared to enjoy the quick grooming done with a twist of dried grasses. The Ranger snatched some sleep, but was awakened by the horse mouthing at him and snorting in his face. “Sa, brother,” Aragorn told him in Rohirric, rubbing at his eyes, “I am awake. You are so eager to be on your way, are you?”
His answer was another snort. He laughed as he rose, relieved himself and splashed his face with water from the small stream by which they’d rested; and having refilled his water bottle he remounted the horse, who immediately approached the tree where Aragorn had hung his goods before he rested. Once all was again hung about the Man’s person, Olórin left the protected glade where they’d taken their ease, and soon was striding northward again--an easy canter for this one, the Dúnedan realized.
Several days they rode like this. They’d passed Tharbad a day past when he saw another horseman far ahead, also heading north. The pace of the steed was familiar, and the shape it bore remarkably bulky and also familiar. For a moment at the sight Olórin had slowed, but at the glad cry of his rider the stallion quickened his pace, breaking into a gallop as smooth as his canter.
Indeed, there were two riding together on the white horse they were overtaking, and the russet-haired passenger who rode behind was twisted to watch their approach. Arod slowed as the grey came nearer, then stopped, looking behind him with an eagerness to his stance, recognition given for the horse who approached.
Only as they came even with Elf and Dwarf did Olórin slow, then stop. Legolas looked up at the Dúnedan riding Elf-fashion as was he and laughed at the wonder of it. “A second of the Mearas have the Rohirrim let leave their keeping?” he asked.
“So it has proven,” the King answered him. “At least this one came to me with their lord King’s blessing. What do you on this road? I thought you went north along the eastern bank of the Anduin.”
“Haldir of Lorien met us near the crossings of Cair Andros where we’d looked to ford the river, and told us the Lady had abandoned her land and was intent on passing West, and that she and her lord had gone north first to Imladris. He told us also that the wind had brought sad news--that the Ring-bearer had chosen to remain in his own land, and that already death stalks him. This is true, Aragorn Elessar? Is Frodo indeed fading so soon?”
Aragorn nodded solemnly. “Yes, or so the word came to us as well.”
A movement from the Elf, and Arod reluctantly resumed his progress northward, Olórin immediately doing likewise, limiting his pace to keep back with the smaller horse for the moment. Gimli’s brow was furrowed. “Can you do nothing for him, Aragorn?”
The Man shook his head. “The scars were far too deep for me to do much more than ease the pain for him before and allow temporary respite from the weakening--now they are worse. Only the aid of the Valar could properly heal him, but they are bound from aiding too strongly those who reside within the Mortal lands. However, what would serve to his best advantage there is the distance from the distress with which he has been surrounded since the Ring first awoke and began seeking to overpower him. Before that time he knew mostly peace and balance, making it easier to deal with what pressure the Ring exerted on him.”
“But the Ring is gone now,” Gimli objected.
“And look at what he’s dealt with since he returned to his land--the home of his heart all but destroyed, the cousin he’d hoped to reprove and bring back to sensibility murdered, the malice of Saruman loosed on the land he loved, the beauty of the Shire trodden upon and defaced, the laws of the land debased and twisted, its people confused and rising toward resentment and vengeance. For one who’d expected to return to peace and contentment and oneness with the rhythms of the seasons and the bounty of the land he loved it was almost more than he could bear.”
“If Saruman were still alive,” the Dwarf muttered, “I’d tear out his beard hair by hair, then set him to work scouring the roads of the Shire with only a trowel and a small brush to work with.”
Aragorn laughed. “That last would be a fitting punishment, I think.”
“It would give him time to contemplate his misdeeds, but at the same time would require sufficient attention to detail to keep him from plotting more mischief, I’d think,” Legolas noted.
“Where are you headed now?” Gimli asked.
“To the Havens--there may yet be time to bid the others goodbye.”
Gimli gave his head a disbelieving shake. “You don’t go to the Shire?”
“I’ve placed a temporary ban forbidding Men to enter the Shire while the land recovers from the ills wreaked upon it. I would be an ill king to break the ban I’ve set.”
Gimli’s response was loud and long. Legolas looked over his shoulder at his companion and cautioned, “I agree with you, my friend; but he does speak rightly.”
“Not if Frodo suffers for him not coming,” Gimli grumbled. He muttered to himself in Khuzdul for a few minutes, and then went quiet briefly before asking, “When are they to sail--the Lady and Lord Elrond and all?”
“I’m not certain. I would expect they planned to meet Frodo on his and Bilbo’s birthday, September the twenty-second. That’s four days past.”
“They could already have reached the Havens of Mithlond if they rode swiftly,” Legolas said, his expression thoughtful. “We are likely to miss them no matter what speed we take; but there’s no chance we’ll make it in a timely manner if we don’t go more quickly.”
Gimli groaned. “Then it’s to be the journey to the Pelargir all over again, I take it?”
Legolas glanced over his shoulder. “Do you wish me to leave you here and you can follow at your leisure?”
“What? And miss the chance to see either Lady Galadriel or Frodo? Go on--I’ll manage, you know.”
Legolas laughed, and looked to Aragorn. “Shall we ride then, mellon nín?”
Aragorn nodded. “We ride then, gentlemen.” And with a word to Olórin he led the way, Arod changing to a gallop in his effort to keep pace with the great silver horse.
Four days later they met with three Dúnedain Rangers heading south toward Gondor, and Aragorn accepted the letters they carried. They were letters of farewell from Elrond, who had fostered him in Imladris after the death of his father, from the Lady Galadriel, from Gandalf, and two from Frodo Baggins.
The first letter from Frodo avoided all mention of his personal condition, speaking of the continuing investigation of how Lotho Sackville-Baggins had managed to gain such control of the Shire, the delight he, Rosie, and Sam took in little Elanor’s rapid growth and development, and the beauty of the gardens of Bag End. The second letter tore at Aragorn’s heart, for in it the Hobbit admitted he knew his heart was failing, that he expected not to survive the next bout of the memories, and that he wished for Sam to be protected from seeing him die, for he believed that he would do so while caught in the midst of reliving the horrors of three years past.
The King found himself crushing the second letter in his hand in his own anguish. “Oh, Frodo, my own beloved small brother of the heart,” he groaned. “How I wish I could properly relieve you!”
“Will you go onward, Lord Cousin?” asked Berevrion, who headed the small mission being sent south by Halladan, Aragorn’s Steward here in Arnor.
“I will. Although I have bound myself from entering the Shire, there is yet the chance I might still bid farewell to those who are sailing to Tol Eressëa,” Aragorn said. “And I may be able to intercept my brothers and send them with Legolas and Gimli here to Frodo’s comfort.
“And you, Berevrion--since we have met on the road, will you return to Annúminas and your duties here in Arnor?”
“No, for Halladan had other matters he wished for me to discuss with you and those who form your Council there in Minas Tirith.”
Aragorn indicated his understanding. “Go on, then, and I, at least, will follow as I can. I suspect that when I return it will be in company with Elladan and Elrohir, for they will most likely desire the comfort of their sister at this time, much as she will appreciate their presence for the same purpose.”
“We will go, then,” Berevrion told him, “and make ready for your return. And I rejoice you have these by you for company and additional guard as you travel.”
Legolas gave a gracious bow of acknowledgment. “We, too, know pain at the thought of our beloved friend being so close to death, and are glad we have been able to accompany Elessar on at least part of this journey.”
In moments the party from the north set off once more on their journey southward, while Aragorn, followed still by Elf and Dwarf together on Arod resumed the ride north, walking sedately for a time while the Man described the contents of the letters he’d received to the others.
“I don’t like this tale of memories haunting him, Aragorn,” Gimli grunted.
“Is this common amongst mortals?” Legolas asked.
“I’ve seen it from time to time among Men, particularly in those who have lived protected and peaceful lives before they were faced with the horrors of war or other disasters beyond their imaginings and experience. And how many Elves have you known, Legolas, who were not the same after their first experience with assaults by the Enemy; and how many of those have you seen fade?”
The Elf thought for some time before admitting, “Not many, but any is too many, I think.”
“I agree,” Aragorn sighed.
They rode on at a fairly steady canter, and at last stopped to camp for the night when Gimli pointed out if they didn’t do so soon he was likely to pitch from Arod’s back and break his neck upon impact with the ground. As Gimli saw a fire lit and Aragorn prepared a hasty meal, Legolas smoothed Frodo’s last letter and read it aloud by what light was admitted by the fleeting clouds overhead. When done, he looked at his friend among Men. “He wishes to see you at least once more before he goes, mellon nín,” he said, quietly. “Cannot you break your own ban for his sake, Aragorn?”
“How can I hold others to such a ban if I break it myself, Legolas?” There was anguish in the voice of the King, and both Elf and Dwarf could see it reflected also in the restless way he sat on the edge of the camp, smoking steadily on his pipe, his eyes stirring ever north and westward toward the Shire.
It rained in the region where they rode for the next two days, finally clearing only as they arrived in those lands within two days’ ride of Bree. A half-day’s journey from the Sarn Ford they saw two more riders, definitely Elven warriors, and both Legolas and Gimli noted the relief in their companion’s eyes as he recognized the sons of Elrond approaching.
“Estel!” one called out once they were close enough to speak comfortably. “So, Adar was correct, and you did come north after all! It was his hope you would reach the Ring-bearer before the end and grant him the comfort of your presence before he must accept the Gift.”
“But Elladan, as a Man I may not enter the Shire, by the strength of my own temporary edict,” Aragorn answered him.
The other gave a deep sigh, examining the face of the King. “I told you we would know difficulties getting him come to the side of Frodo Baggins,” Elrohir said.
“I am certain I could not say which is the more stubborn,” agreed his brother. Both brothers examined the face of their mortal kinsman. At last Elladan continued, “You are the King indeed, are you not, and have inherited all the duties of those of your forebears back to the days of our adar’s brother, Elros Tar-Minyatur himself?”
“Yes,” answered Aragorn, not certain where this line of reasoning would lead.
“What has ever been the duty of the King toward the Valar and the Creator?”
“It is the King’s duty to stand before the Valar and the Creator for his people, and to stand before his people to represent the will and desires of the Valar and the Creator,” Aragorn answered automatically.
“And who was the one individual allowed to speak in the great Hallows upon the height of the Mountain at the heart of Atalantë?”
“The King himself, when he offered up the first fruits of the harvest, and when he uttered the thanksgiving of his people, and when he presented their petitions to the Valar in the days of greatest trial and tribulation.”
“To whom did the great Eagles speak when they bore word from the Valar?”
“To the King, and it was the King who was expected to answer them,” Aragorn added, anticipating the next logical question in the chain.
“And when one of his people of highest esteem in the eyes of all the peoples of the lands as well as the eyes of the Valar and Iluvatar Himself has given utterance to the desire to have the representative of the Valar and the Creator come to him as he faces his final moments in Middle Earth?” prompted Elrohir, breaking into the catechism.
Aragorn paused, looking from the eyes of the one Peredhel to those of the other then back again, and finally turning toward his companions. Gimli’s face was both appreciative and respectful as he looked at the twin sons of Elrond Eärendilion, and became satisfied as he turned his attention on his friend among Men. “I do think,” the Dwarf said slowly, “that they’ve stated the matter well.”
Legolas gave a single nod of agreement. “If the Valar and Eru Himself honor Frodo as they have, who is the King to do less?”
A great cry could be heard from overhead, and they saw approaching them from the West one of the Great Eagles. The huge bird did not light near them, but circled overhead three times, then flew northwest, toward the heart of the Shire. His face pale and with acceptance and humility to be seen there, Aragorn at last spoke, his voice thick with emotion, “It appears that the King himself is summoned to the Hill at the heart of the Shire.”
Watching after the Eagle, Elladan and Elrohir were giving identical nods to their own heads. “Yes,” Elladan said softly and with reverence. “So it appears.” Once the Eagle could no longer be seen he said, “If you had hoped to bid farewell to our Adar and daernaneth and Gandalf I fear you are already too late, for their ship sailed from the quays of Mithlond an hour before sunset on the twenty-ninth, or so we were told by those who accompanied Gildor Inglorion there but no further as of this time.”
Aragorn gave another nod, then looked down at himself, clad in the green riding leathers he’d worn throughout most of the Quest as he traveled by Frodo’s side, and the cloak from Lothlorien. “Yet, if we are met by Shiriffs or Bounders as we enter and travel through the Shire, how are we to convince them I am the King and thus have authority to overturn my own ban? I look the veriest vagabond at this point.”
Elrohir laughed. “Merely pull the cloak our daernaneth gave you about you and cover your head with the hood as we approach the borders of the Shire, and none will question further.”
“We will have to ride sedately once we enter the Shire,” Elladan noted, “for the roads in the region are narrow for the purposes of horsemen, and wind between their villages and about the borders of their fields. No welcome will we find if we offer any damage to the last of their crops or their fields, or if we frighten any of their folk.”
Aragorn nodded thoughtfully. “Indeed. I remember being reproved for reckless riding once, many years past, by a young Hobbit there near the market at the Brandywine Bridge....” He stopped, his face going still with memory, then gave a bark of a laugh. “I wonder.... It would suit the humor of the Creator if it were true.”
“If what were true?” asked Gimli.
“Who is it we know that has ties to both Buckland and the center of the Shire itself?” the Man asked.
“Frodo? You think it might have been Frodo then?”
“He would have been nearing adulthood in the eyes of the people of the Shire, and all tell us that in those years he and Bilbo traveled regularly between Hobbiton and Buckland.”
“Well, if we are to reach Hobbiton before the sixth, we’d best ride. It is at least three and a half days’ journey if we must go slowly once we pass their borders,” Elladan pointed out.
All agreed and turned their way toward the Sarn Ford, making the most of this last time when they might ride at speed.
The Bounder at the Ford looked at this strange riding with a good deal of awe. He knew Dwarves when he saw them, of course; and recognized that the three whose faces he saw clearly were indeed Elves, though he’d seen none of their people before. Also he recognized the cloaks worn by the Dwarf and the Elf he rode behind, as well as wrapped about the one astride the great silver horse in the midst of the company, for all had seen such cloaks worn by the Travelers since their return from foreign parts. The one who rode with the hood obscuring his face must be a great one amongst the Elves, he thought.
“And where is it you ride?” asked Beligard Took.
“We bear messages from Minas Tirith to Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee of Bag End in Hobbiton,” the golden haired Elf told him. “The King desires comfort to be brought to them at this time.”
“Somethin’ ill happening as might disturb them?” the Hobbit asked.
“We understand Frodo himself is ill,” was the reply.
“What? Cousin Frodo ill? How do you know that?”
“He’s sent letters southward. He’s done his best to hide his illness from those here, but has been more frank with the folk of Rivendell and with the King.”
“And who are you, to be sent so?”
“Gimli and I accompanied Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin southward, as did our companion there; and these three are the sons of Lord Elrond of Rivendell.”
That name earned them all a good deal of respect. “Then, as you’re Elves and a Dwarf and represent the King and Lord Elrond, go on with you, then. But remember to ride with care. Our folk have little enough experience with horsemen, and our children may be careless upon the roads and lanes.”
He heard laughs from Dwarf and the tall one who rode the great silver, and saw smiles on the faces of the others. “We will indeed ride with care,” the golden-haired Elf assured him.
It was only after the odd party passed out of sight heading north that the Bounder remembered that it had always been said Elrond had but two sons--twins, if he remembered. Well, two of those who’d just entered the Shire were indeed so alike they must be twins; but who was the third? Concerned, he looked after them, then with a swift decision he went back to the small hole dug for the comfort of those Bounders who watched this entrance to the Shire and spoke to his fellow who was cooking their evening meal there. “I’d just passed a party of Elves and a Dwarf into the Shire,” he told the other Hobbit, “and I think as I’d best follow after them and perhaps get ahead of them to speak to the Thain.”
“He was in Buckland last as I heard tell of him and Mistress Eglantine,” the other Hobbit noted.
“No, all of them went on to Bag End about a week back, just afore I come this way,” Beli told him. “Seems as Frodo threw his birthday party late or somethin’ like.”
“And they’re still there, you think?”
“Well, if they aren’t, I’ll find out best wheres they’ve gone if I ask at Bag End, most like.”
“All right--I’ll hold the Fords alone. It’s few enough as come this road, after all.”
Reassured, Beligard Took went out to fetch his pony out of the lean-to that served as a stable, and saw it saddled.