Darkness hit him like a bolt from the sky. Wings of terror beat about his head. Cold fingers seized his throat. Shouting, he struck out blindly. Morchamion fell from his grasp. As he pulled wildly at the reins, Brelach reared with the shock of his master's weight coming down on the bit, throwing Aragorn out of the saddle. As he hit the ground, panic wrapped his body like a black cloak, blinding his sight and tangling his arms and legs. He heard Brelach screaming. He managed to roll over, but he could not rise. The Orc loomed over him, a gleaming dagger in one hand, a spiked club in the other. Aragorn tried to reach for the knife in his boot, but it was as if his body was in chains. He could not even lift his arm to shield his head.
What happened? Why did I fall?
He whispered a last few words into Brelach's soft ears. My friend, never will I forget your companionship and your courage. You died to save my life.
His own cries of grief, and the pain of thrashing against the blankets, woke him. Panting, he lay in the soft bed, staring at the beamed ceiling of his room in Thurnost. It is long over, except in my dreams.
The door flew open, and Fíriel hurried within, her thin face screwed up with worry. Crouching at his side, she laid a cool cloth on his forehead. "I will fetch the healer."
"No, it was just a bad dream."
"You are hot. She must know."
He did not have the strength to argue. He closed his eyes, sank into the coolness of the compress, and drifted into a semi-slumber. The touch of Idhril's gentle hands brought him back. "I must get up," he murmured.
She laughed softly. "Just try. Even if you have the strength, I will call my father's guard to put you back in bed. Why are healers always the worst patients? Drink this."
He recognized the inexorable glint in her eyes—so like Elrond's determined gaze when he had administered a draught to the obstinate young Estel. All healers are indeed alike. Meekly, he drank the brew. All the honey in Idhril's cupboard could not have masked that bitterness.
Brelach, screaming, lashing with his hooves to shield his fallen master…the face of a dying man, cruelly burned, asking for his dead wife….
…The bloody sun sank behind the mountains in the western sky. King Isildur's heart was high: Soon the Dúnedain would reach Rivendell, where dwelt his wife and youngest son. And he could at last hand over to Elrond the Thing that cast a shadow on his heart.
Harsh cries roused his alarm. Orcs! Urgent commands dispatched the soldiers into a defensive formation. At last they drove the creatures away.
But as they marched into the valley below he heard, rather than saw, more Orcs coming. Fear seized him. He put the shards of Narsil in the hands of his esquire and bade him save the sword of Elendil at any cost.
The Orcs closed in. Four, five, six of the monsters could take down a man. And the Dúnedain of Arnor died. At last Isildur could no longer delay: bearing his burden he, too, must depart, abandoning his son and heir, Elendur, the fairest, the best of all the sons of Númenor, to a terrible death.
The nightmares came and went with the fever, seizing Aragorn with such power that once he had to be shaken into consciousness, despite the tenderness of the bruised ribs. Sometimes Fíriel would be there, sometimes Idhril or Ivorwen. Each time they would bathe his face and body and give him yet another draught. Once Ivorwen took hold of his hands and laid her fingers on the pulse on each wrist, her soft eyes warm with worry. "These are no ordinary dreams. I can feel it. Rest now. I will sit here and watch."
As the light of day dwindled, the hillmen streamed over the hill, their fierce language like a storm of hail lashing at the Dúnedain defenders. Waving his sword in defiance, the Prince of Cardolan rallied his men: "Men of the West! Fight now for Arnor!" The archers let fly, and many of the enemy fell. But behind the swarming hillmen came a rank of Orcs, their eyes a ghastly yellow in the growing dark, and Trolls, roaring and swinging their huge clubs. Then even they fell silent as the black horse climbed over the lip of the hill and the crowned ghostly shape of the King of Angmar struck fear into even his own troops.
The tower of Elendil burned that day, and the last prince of Cardolan fell at its final defense.
One morning he woke to find a golden stream of sunshine pouring through the window, and Halbarad sprawled in a chair at his bedside, intent upon the fletching of an arrow.
"Ah, you're awake. How are you feeling?"
"Better. How long have I been here?"
"Here? Three days. But it took us six days to get you to the Keep, and all that time you were half-conscious. Idhril's been at her wit's end. She feared some of those scratches must have been poisoned."
"Poisoned? But no weapon touched me."
Halbarad raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be, in the circumstances."
"As you say. In any case, she hardly knew how else to explain the fever."
"It's been one long nightmare." Aragorn moved his arms and legs, and found them whole. He sat up, wincing at the pain in his left side. "But the worst seems to have passed."
"Last night you started to sleep normally—that's what Idhril said—and so I was allowed to sit with you this morning. She'll be happy to hear you are awake." He unfolded his long body and stood up.
"Wait, before you go, tell me what happened."
"Tell you?" said Halbarad, his eyes wary. "You tell me."
"I don't know. It was almost as if I had a spell on me."
"I wouldn't say that to the others, if I were you."
"Then what should I say?"
"To me, it looked like you were hit. Perhaps you thought so, too, at the time. Who knows?"
"I know. Something hit me, but not a weapon."
Halbarad quirked a chagrined smile. "Then something hit the horse."
"I saw no wound on him but for the club. Did you?"
Halbarad turned his eyes away. "No."
"Did you search the bodies of the Orcs?"
"As we always do, and with special care since they were Uruks. Hawk said their kind had not been seen in Eriador since the Battle of the Five Armies. No coincidence, that, with Sauron's rise in Mordor."
"Did any carry the insignia of the Eye?"
Halbarad shook his head. "Some bore an R rune in a triangle. None of us knew it. Beleg could remember little from his encounter, when Talthar and Dúrphor were killed. My father thought we should have taken an Orc alive for questioning."
"That never works with those creatures." Aragorn searched his memory, but could recall no such insignia in life or tale. "No strange weapons? No strange marks on the bodies of our comrades?"
"Crude swords, spiked clubs, maces, poisoned arrows—nothing beyond the usual. As for the bodies, what was left of them, nothing we thought more than cruel savagery." Halbarad took at step toward the door. "I'd better go and let Idhril know you're awake. There's others who want to see you, too. Saelind asks after you almost hourly, and Beleg will knock down the door pretty soon if we don't let him in."
"He's recovered well, then."
"All mended, except for the arm. Idhril said you tended it very well, and she had only to change the dressing. She thinks quite highly of you."
Perhaps my people will prefer me as a healer, not a warrior, Aragorn thought bitterly. How can I explain what happened to me when I don't know myself?
At the door Halbarad hesitated. "Look, I believe that's how it seemed to you. But what I think doesn't matter much. You fell, but you had no wound and you say it was not the horse."
Aragorn gritted his teeth. "It was not the horse. Leave it."
Halbarad shrugged and passed through the door.
Later that afternoon, as he was beginning to feel restless, Hallor came to visit him. "To have you return, only to lose you to injury or illness—that would have been a severe blow."
Moving carefully to spare his tender ribs, Aragorn sat up against his pillow. "If it were not for Halbarad and Hawk, I would be dead. I told them so."
Hallor tamped his weed down into his pipe with one broad finger. "We have all saved each other's lives many times. It's the ones we don't save that I can't forget."
"Brelach would not have died, but for me. He protected me and died for it."
"What happened?" Hallor asked. His tone sounded carefully neutral. "I did not see, but I would like to know."
"I can only repeat what I told Halbarad," Aragorn said. "I don't know what happened. It was as if I had been seized by some wraith. It has never happened before."
Hallor stared at the floor, pulling at his beard. Finally he said, "There is talk."
"I saw it in their eyes. They think I am a coward," Aragorn said bitterly.
Hallor pursed his lips. "No one has used that word, and I must ask you to refrain from using it as well."
"They're thinking it," Aragorn said, narrowing his eyes.
"Perhaps so. But we can address only spoken words."
"What do they say, then?"
"I think you already know, but I will tell you again. At first they thought you must have been hit by an arrow or a dart, from the shout and the fall. But without any wound, it appears that you panicked. Your nerve failed. That is no great matter. Even the most seasoned warrior can have such moments, and men see also that you probably saved Beleg's life with your care of his injuries, and that all else you did was truly worthy. It's just very unfortunate that this happened now, when you are subject to so much scrutiny. For you are, you know."
"I'm aware of that," Aragorn snapped.
Hallor sighed. "Aragorn, I will try to give you some advice, given that I am, as Saelind has so rightly instructed me, standing in for your father and grandfather. What's more important than the incident itself is how you handle men's judgment of you. For, as I just said, and I will say it again, even the most seasoned warrior can have a moment of fear. That is a reaction in a moment of high tension, and it takes experience to master it. But here, you are not in the heat of battle. And how you deal with these criticisms will tell the people much about the kind of man you are."
Aragorn wanted to cry out that he would rip out the throat of any man who so much as hinted that he was a coward. He turned his head away in shame that such a ferocious impulse would seize him. He opened his mouth, then shut it, then opened it again. "I know that, but I cannot endure being branded as a coward."
"I'm sure you'll prove time and again that you are not," Hallor said. "Meanwhile, you'll have to put up with some doubts. Do so with dignity."
Alone once again, Aragorn looked up at the sword of Elendil displayed on his wall. It is all a mistake. No heir of Isildur am I. I am Estel of Rivendell, not Aragorn of Thurnost. And then his fury turned against himself. Coward in battle, coward in the Keep. Drowsy with Idhril's draught, he drifted back to sleep. This time, he dreamed of climbing a rocky mountain slope, and every time he reached the top, his feet would slip, and down he would slide to the uttermost bottom.
The long and slow recovery was hard to bear. He chafed at Idhril's restrictions, and longed for the feel of Morchamion in his hand and the momentum and power of a strong sweep of the blade. He had lost weight and strength from the fever, but between Ivorwen's hearty soups and breads, and moving as much as Idhril would allow, he gained them back rapidly. Soon he was walking as much as the soreness and pain in his side would allow.
He spent many hours with Beleg, hearing tales of his father. Still recuperating himself, he had taken to visiting Aragorn each day. "We were as brothers, Arathorn and I, the closest of brothers," he said the first time. "We grew up together and traveled together. Only the death of my dear wife grieves me more than the loss of Arathorn. How much like him you are!"
"So many have said. Indeed, you thought I was he when first you saw me."
"I don't remember that. I must have been ill indeed to think so, for though you are like, you are no twin."
Beleg's height and Elven grace spoke of high Númenorean blood. "My mother's ancestors were the last Dúnedain nobles to flee from Rhudaur, when Angmar's servant usurped power there."
"And did they too shave their beards?" Aragorn asked, curious about Beleg's smooth cheeks. He had seen no other Ranger with this custom.
Beleg laughed, his elegant arched brows rising in merriment. "It's a challenge to keep my face smooth in the wild, I grant. But it's a habit I developed from youth, living with the Elves. You know I went to Rivendell with Arathorn, don't you?"
"I had heard something about it," Aragorn said. "I have been told that I must talk to you to hear about my father."
"He did not adopt my custom of shaving, mainly due to practicality. But I always felt so at one with the Elves. I think I was born the reincarnation of an Elven fëa."
"You are joking, of course."
"Only in part. I know Arathorn thought I was skirting outright blasphemy to say so, as do you, I guess, from your expression. Perhaps it's better to say I was born an Elven fëa in a mortal body. A houseless Elf found a new home at last, that's me!" He thumped himself on the chest.
"I don't think it's better."
"Then it is the Elven blood in the Dúnedain."
"Our Elven blood does not change our mortal fëa," Aragorn said firmly. "Our fates are different."
"So the Wise say. Who knows? But I am descended from the line of the Chieftains, through Aravir's second son—the brother of Aragorn the first, may I remind you. It is one of the reasons Arathorn named you as he did."
"Indeed?" Aragorn found this, too, rather disturbing.
"Yes, and I was to be a second father to you, and but for Elrond's actions, I would have. But now I am willing to forgive him everything. I would like to visit, but Hallor says Gilraen's family is going, and that I must wait. How I long to see the Valley again! To hear the music in the Hall of Fire, and stroll in Elrond's garden!"
He talked also of the long visit to Thranduil's kingdom that he and Arathorn had made together in the years just before Arador's death. "Our last journey as unmarried men," he laughed. "Battling Orcs and giant spiders, and between hunts, dancing merrily in the Elf-king's halls. But scouting south to Dol Guldur ended that." His face closed, drawn and pinched, and he would say no more.
Together they looked at old log books and annals of the Rangers' years in Thurnost. The annals of Arnor and of Arthedain lay in Elrond's library, but the books of the Chieftains were kept in the Chieftain's hall, called the map room by the Rangers: it stretched along the front of the Great Hall, a step or two from Aragorn's quarters. There stood a table long enough to seat two dozen men. Chairs and heavy chests lined the walls, where weapons and maps hung. Shelves held books and scrolls, and a crackling fire in the large hearth kept them warm as they poured over the history of the Chieftains. Beleg showed him entries written in his father's strong script—few, for Arathorn had been chieftain for only three years. Aragorn had, unknowing, held the title of Heir of Isildur for longer than his father or even his grandfather.
But the more ancient books held his interest longest, those with tales of the battles and struggles of the final fall of the Northern kingdom, when Angmar and Rhudaur destroyed at last the strength of Cardolan and Arthedain, and Arvedui Last-King fled.
The Witch-King of Angmar was Sauron's most fearsome servant, the Lord of the Ringwraiths himself, yet many others, albeit of lesser power, served him too. Little is known of some, for they fled when the power of Gondor, joined with the Men and Elves of the North, crushed Angmar at last.
After the last prince of the Dúnedain fled, the lord of Rhudaur in its later years was a king of the hill folk, but the wise know that the real command in that fell land was held by a sorcerer trained in Sauron's evil arts. He was no wraith, but his power was second only to that of the Witch-King. It may be that he bore one of the lesser rings, or had another source of power that is yet unknown. None knew his name, and perhaps he had forgotten it himself, but some tell that he was a Black Númenorean whose life had been prolonged by unnatural and evil means.
Dark-haired and grey-eyed, noble of bearing, he insinuated himself into the counsels of the first kings of Rhudaur and so corrupted them. Every year, some said, on the darkest day of the winter, he would drink the blood of a newborn babe to renew the life within him. In this fashion he lived many hundreds of years.
That night, Aragorn's dreams echoed with the screams of dying children.