Written for the LOTR-Community-GFic Yule Exchange, written for Levade, but with a special dedication also to Szepilona, who loves the Rangers. Beta as always by RiverOtter.
Halladan smiled as his older brother entered the recently restored Great Hall of the fortress of Fornost. “Well, it is good to see you here, Halbarad! How was the ride from the Breelands?”
“I am uncertain whether I am merely growing older or what, but I swear each time I must ride days at a time through rain, sleet, and snow it grows worse, and that much the colder! Do you have any mulled cider ready?”
“No, although I do have some warm, spiced wine, if that would be acceptable, of course.”
“Ordinarily I would say no, but in this case I would welcome it. My toes feel as if they are frozen--perhaps this will help thaw them.”
“I will send for some warm bricks and strips from old blankets to place about your feet to warm them. Come to my private parlor and sit by the fire.”
In moments they were in the private quarters for the lord of the keep where the fire on the hearth cheered the room. Halladan pulled a chair near to the fireplace and settled his brother in it, and knelt to pull the damp boots from Halbarad’s feet. One of their younger kinsmen came in, and he asked for the wine, and for warming bricks to be brought from the kitchen hearth. “And some blankets or toweling to wrap about Halbarad’s feet.”
“We have some ready for those who come in from the guard duty.”
The Dúnedain of Eriador had been quietly restoring the ancient fortress of the kings of Arnor for some years, but in the last five years a more concentrated effort had been begun with the assistance of some of the Dwarves from the Blue Mountains. Six years ago orcs and Men had crept south from the borders with Angmar and had assaulted one of the furthest Dwarf holds there northwest of the Shire; Dúnedain Rangers had borne warning to the Dwarves, and had assisted in the defense of the mines and forges that had been targeted by the northerners. The Dwarves had gladly repaid this help by sending some of their masons to the assistance of the descendants of the Númenoreans in reconstructing the most ancient fortress of their people. Halladan had been charged with overseeing the work, and he and his wife now resided here with some families that had lost husbands and fathers to the constant wars with the Enemy’s creatures and allies.
“To think that we will have an actual fortress worthy of Aragorn in a few years time!” Halladan commented. “Only a pittance of Arnor as it once was, but a promise that the realm of Elendil and Valandil will be restored.”
“May it indeed be so,” Halbarad said as he accepted the warmed bowl of drink brought him, holding it close to his chest as if to warm himself with it, breathing its heady scent. “No more merely wanderers in the empty lands shall we appear, but instead the stewards indeed of all the lands we once claimed as our own.” So saying, he took a draught of the spiced wine and sighed appreciatively as the youth returned with the warmed bricks and dry cloths. Between them youth and Halladan soon had Halbarad’s feet warming, and he relaxed deeper into his chair. “Ah,” he said, “but that is good!”
“A fine change from a tentless camp on the borders of the Shire?” Halladan asked.
“Actually, I have given most on the borders permission to stay at the Bridge Inn or in our waystations or at the Pony in Bree for the days surrounding Mettarë. There have been a series of heavy snows, and they will impede the approach of any through the second week of the new year at least, unless the weather becomes unseasonably warm without warning. It is as if the Enemy is sending his worst wishes toward the Shire in terms of foul weather for the Hobbits’ Yule. If so, it works to their protection as much as to their inconvenience, and I am grateful for it.”
“The snow does appear particularly heavy here, too, brother.”
“It is far worse there about the Shire and in the Breelands. It does not appear, however, to be anywhere nearly as bad in the region of the Angle and Imladris, and I sincerely hope it will not cause difficulties to those who are to leave there.”
“What more has been heard from there?”
Halbarad was shaking his head. “Little enough, save that so far all have reported the same as we have found--there have been no further signs of the presence of the Nazgûl anywhere within Arnor. Those charged with what must be done will not leave, however, until the last reports come from those in what remains of Lindon. Gildor Inglorion had promised to relay the reports of the coastal watchers there this week at the latest. And what have those from the Blue Mountains shared with you?”
“None of the Dwarves have found any sign of the Enemy’s folk anywhere within fifty miles of their lands.”
“Good--may it remain so! Certainly the word given our folk by those from Mithlond indicate Círdan’s region is currently free from any threat.”
“How many do you have stationed near the Sarn Ford?”
“Nine Men, all of them experienced in fighting wargs and orcs.”
“And what of the word of wagons driven by Men entering the Shire in the past months, since Iorhael came out of it?”
Halbarad shrugged, his brow furrowed as he drank some more. “How are we to stop those invited into the Shire by the very folk there? Although I must say I like it not.”
Halladan nodded thoughtfully as he poked at the logs on the hearth and added another.
“And we will not know when those charged with what must be done leave Rivendell?” he asked at last.
“Not until they are well upon their way. Do you not agree it is better so?”
“In my mind I agree. It is my heart that misgives me, knowing that once more our Chieftain, who should be openly our King, goes from us, and on such a quest! Can any who sets forth to those parts ever be expected to return to the living lands once more?” He searched his brother’s eyes. “He is the last pure heir to Elendil and Isildur, descended father to son over all the generations. If we lose him, what then? Are we to become like Gondor--a land led by a series of sister’s sons and distant cousins until at last we sink to being ruled by stewards alone?”
Halbarad shrugged. “There are some yet close enough to take up the Chieftain’s role, at least.”
“But could we expect any save Aragorn himself to become more than that?”
“If their errand fails,” Halbarad said solemnly, “then I doubt that any of us will be in a position to ever see Arnor renewed. Sauron’s revenge on the north where his greatest enemies have lain hidden so long and where his treasure was held away from him will be swift and heavy once he has spent his wrath on Gondor. On that you can depend. Why else do you think so many orcs, wargs, and trolls have flourished of late? Rivendell and the Grey Havens, the remnants of Lindon and our lands and the Shire--he will seek to obliterate all these places.”
“At which time our reconstruction of Fornost here will be meaningless,” Halladan sighed.
“A grim Mettarë shall we know, then.”
Halbarad set his bowl of wine in his lap. “Do not grant the Enemy the victory before we have the chance to ward off the stroke first, my brother. This will be our last Mettarë within Eriador as we know it no matter what happens with those charged with the full burden. If they fail, a year hence we will undoubtedly be hiding in the hills, seeking some semblance of safety. If they succeed--well, then, this keep will be the symbol of the rebirth of Arnor once more. And if this proves to be our last Yule as guardians of those lands that remain of our ancient realm, I personally intend to make it one to remember with joy. Now, tell your wife and our folk here to prepare the place as if Aragorn himself were to be here, with all the symbols of the Light Returned. Let us hope that even as the growing darkness of the days is overcome, so it will be with the darkness of the great Enemy as well. His fell Master was conquered two ages ago--now it is time for the Servant. And if it can be done by anyone, then I believe that Aragorn can lead all to that victory!”
Halladan took a deep breath. “May the Creator and the Belain assist in seeing that happen, then!”
Halbarad was finishing his bowl of wine when they heard a growing excitement from the outer hall. He kicked his feet free of the swaddling of blankets and towels and stood upright on the thick braided rug, setting the bowl down on the table by him, and Halladan came to stand by him as those charged with guarding the gates entered, obviously excited, leading another.
The young Ranger was one who’d been patrolling the area near the borders shared by the Dúnedain and Rivendell. His cloak was sodden, and there was snow upon his shoulders and boots as he pushed his hood and the knit scarf back from his face. “They have set forth!” he told them. “The word just came--they left Rivendell three days since, the Ringbearer and those with him. By Mettarë they will be well on their way.”
He was pulling at his gloves ineffectively with fingers stiffened by riding swiftly through the worst of winter weather.
Halbarad and his brother exchanged looks. “So it is begun, then,” the older brother said. He took a deep breath as he straightened. “Then,” he said at last, “let us rejoice that at last the matter will be settled, one way or another, and I prefer to think that it will be the Light that will win this time, even as Mettarë falls upon us.”
He raised his voice. “Let the keep be decorated fit for the King Returned himself! As we rejoice in the return of the Light, we shall look forward, particularly this year, to the return also of the King and the renewal of the lands founded by the refugees from Númenor!”
All cheered, heartened by Halbarad’s own confidence.
As the youth entered with a bowl of the spiced wine for the messenger, followed by Halladan’s wife with more warmed bricks and cloth to warm his feet, Halladan asked his brother quietly, “But can a mere Hobbit see it through--enter the Enemy’s own lands and see what must be done accomplished?”
Halbarad thought for a moment, and then he smiled--a smile that made it clear what he felt toward the Enemy. “Remember, brother, that the last time Sauron’s own fortress was breached it was by a woman among Elves, one who beguiled him sufficiently to effect the escape of her beloved. That he would underestimate a Hobbit even more than he might an elleth is perhaps to be expected.”
For a moment Halladan merely looked at his brother openmouthed, shocked at the thought of this, and then he began to grin. Soon both brothers were laughing openly.
“He has not a chance, does he?” Halladan chortled.
His face alight with mirth, Halbarad indicated his agreement. “No--Sauron does not yet appreciate he is already conquered before he realizes just how under siege he is! Know this, brother, this time the Light shall return!”
AN: Mettarë is the name given by the Dúnedain to the feast of the winter solstice, as Yule is that given it by the Hobbits of the Shire and probably the folk of the Breelands as well. The celebrations might be different, but the meaning would be the same.
Belain is the Sindarin word for the Valar.