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 under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night's journey lasted.
- Return of the King, "The Passing of the Grey Company"
"Tell me a story, Halbarad."
It was as much an order as a request, in the manner that an order from Aragorn often sounded all too much like a petition, giving a man the illusion of choice so that he might always choose correctly. It was an important skill for a leader and came naturally to him, Halbarad thought; it would serve him well.
An unnatural chill hung low and draped them like a wet cloak, though it was late in the season for it; it suited the mood of people and place: the beleaguered Hornburg struggling for its dignity to the last stone; the black stench of the Orc carcasses piled for burning; the funeral mounds of men and horses turning the flats of the greensward into a series of desolate hillocks.
They had descended some time ago from the high chamber within the keep, Aragorn brooding under a new onus and wanting fresh air, Halbarad sick at heart and wondering how great a burden one man alone might bear before he broke under its weight. Aragorn did not move to rejoin his companions in Théoden's hall, where the restored king endeavored to raise the spirits of the motley band of survivors with what meager hospitality he could muster. Nor had he dismissed Halbarad, and so Halbarad stayed, a dark standing shadow, knowing that it was perhaps only a little better for a man to be alone with a kinsman under such circumstances than alone entirely.
"Tell me a story," Aragorn repeated, "for I am weary, and I would have my thoughts dwell on something merrier than this." He gestured at the scenes of the bleak and sunless morning: toward the clusters of men, too few of them by any reckoning, huddled near their small fires; the brackish gloom surrounding the battered fortress; and the foreboding uprising of the earth behind them.
"A story?" Halbarad grinned with half a mouth and followed him some way beyond the sorry plot where the others had staked down their tents and settled in for an uneasy rest. An abandoned cook-fire gave off anemic heat, but red embers still showed beneath the grey skin of ash. The remnant of a wall sheltered it from the wind. "I have put my blade to your breast and prayed that I be spared from slaying you, and now this is what you ask of me: to spin you a yarn?"
Aragorn did not respond, but a noise issued from his direction that might have been a grim chuckle. He had not met Halbarad's eye since they had left the tower, nor had he spoken of what he had seen in the Palantír, or asked Halbarad what malefic visions it had put in his own mind as he stood Aragorn's second, blade in hand to deal the mercy stroke if the strength of Isildur's heir failed.
Halbarad conceded with a nod, the gesture going unseen. He cleared his throat, and after a couple of false starts began.
"There once was a lad--"
"Shall I surmise this lad was of great and noble birth, but knew it not, and was given a great task to achieve, and so on and so forth? Some youthful descendant of a storied king, perhaps?"
Halbarad snorted, a sharp and ungentle sound. "Fine. Have it your way, then. There once was a callow, snot-nosed stripling fostered by Elves. He had been taught to wield a sword by the mighty sons of a great Elf-lord, and thus thought himself better than his earthy kin in the North, with whom he was forced to stay during the summer of his nineteenth year. His legs were too long for his body, and his beard... well, I've seen more fulsome growth on the chin of a Dunlending's wife." Aragorn's deep bark of laughter was an anodyne to the bleak dawn light, incongruous with his care-worn face. "Does it suit, my lord?"
"Oh, indeed it does, friend," he wheezed. "Pray, continue. Please."
It was a good sound, Aragorn's laughter, still youthful, despite all hardship. A far cry from the rolling doom that had ushered forth from his throat in the night, hemmed in by the cold stones of the keep, with the Palantír in one hand and Anduril in the other. Halbarad could still feel the stiffness of bone and sinew beneath his left hand, the taut bow of the shoulder he gripped tight in order to steady himself as much as to keep Aragorn close at hand. He could still smell the tang of Aragorn's clothing-- brimstone, sweat, and oiled leather-- where he had pressed his face between the man's shoulder blades to keep the open, prying eye that pulsed within the seeing stone from looking through him. Aragorn's harried breaths had risen and fallen beneath his arm, each inhalation pressing the tip of his dagger to yielding flesh. A short, sharp jerk upward and the blade would have passed between his ribs and pierced his heart.
"This lad," Halbarad went on, thankful that his voice did not crack, "'Longshanks' he was dubbed for his coltish spindles, and he did not much like it, for he thought the one who had bestowed it had meant some disrespect."
"And so he did." Aragorn interjected, pulling his pipe by its lengthy stem from somewhere within the hidden folds of his cloak.
"Perhaps a little," Halbarad conceded. "The elders of their clan looked upon him with strange hope in their eyes, and the youngest of their number...he envied the upstart, perhaps. Such a bright thing was simply begging to be tarnished! So he named the boy 'Longshanks' because he knew it bothered him, and the boy's umbrage only served to make the moniker stick. All the same, Longshanks was keen to prove himself, to demonstrate the mastery learned at the knee of Elf-man and Elf-knight. So he challenged his nemesis to a mock duel."
"Describe this 'nemesis.'" Aragorn looked at Halbarad askance. "I am not certain my imagination will do him justice."
"Oh, but he was a handsome fellow. Dashing, I dare say, and a brute at arms: 'dour-handed,' they called him."
"'Dour-handed'? One might merely have called him 'dour.'"
"This is my story, meddler." He stopped then, a slow smile unfolding across his lips. "Wait. I've thought of a better one."
"You would make a terrible bard, you know."
Halbarad's shoulders rose and fell without concern. "Had you truly ears for a tale well told, you would have sought out one of the Halflings, or even the Elf, Legolas. What is it they say of us? That the Men of the North are silent and grim?"
Dawn's pale promise limned the angle of Aragorn's cheek, and the expression of fondness that momentarily restored youth and ease to his face struck Halbarad to the quick, but prudence stayed him from reaching out to cup that well-loved face in his hand.
Prudence, and habit. Why saddle him with another burden? The man's heart had been well and truly given long ago by one who would forsake her own kind to stand at his side; he had nothing to offer that would compare.
"So," he began anew, forcing the word through his throat if only to fortify his resolve, "with nineteen summers beneath his well-tooled, Elven-wrought belt, Longshanks decided that he had been too long saddled with Elvish chastity, and thought to divest himself of his worldly innocence forthwith. And he enlisted a wise and experienced friend to aid and abet him in this task."
At this, Aragorn groaned. "You do realize that I was hoping for words of wisdom, for some parable or apologue to gird my spirit? You are right: I should have sought Legolas. Say on, then. Let me hear it."
"Well, this lad, Longshanks, bid his erstwhile rival at arms turned boon companion to accompany him to a particular tavern in Archet where the ale was known to be cheap and the women not chary with their favors. They left off their swords and cloaks and all else that marked them as Rangers, and took their scanty purses and rode along the Greenway until they found their destination. One could practically smell the tavern from half a league away; the wood of its boards had been soaked through with ale for at least three generations. It was precisely as dubious and disreputable establishment as a rowdy young man could hope for. They bought themselves full tankards, and as unfamiliar faces paid twice as much for the privilege as the local men, though they had been told they were being given the master's special brew."
"Smelled like horse piss," Aragorn mused with a snicker, tamping down the pipeweed in the bowl. "likely tasted just as bad. But for all that, it was certainly potent."
Halbarad made no sign of concurring. "Our young hero set his eye on a likely maid, but had no idea how to approach her, let alone proposition her, and so he downed his tankard while he considered his plan. But then he saw her slap a man's face for being too familiar, and knew she would be cold to his advances. And so he quaffed another tankard while he considered who might serve in her stead."
Even now, nigh seventy years on, Aragorn wore an abashed expression as he gestured for Halbarad to join him on a low stone wall. "You fail to mention that every time the-- how did you phrase it? --'callow,snot-nosed stripling'-- went to drink from his cup, he found that the level never went down. Almost as if it had been magically endowed to never run dry. Strangely enough, his companion was never seen drinking from his own cup."
"Yes, a grave mystery, that. But as you have said it yourself, I have no need to repeat it. When he at last settled on a buxom and broad-bottomed maiden-- and I use the word rather loosely-- across the room, his friend assured him that he should act fast, lest sobriety rob her of the better part of her charms--"
"--I believe the phrase he employed was 'ridden hard and put away wet.'" He pulled a bit of kindling from the dying fire and set the end of it to his pipe. The bowl glowed brightly when he drew in the smoke.
Halbarad chuckled. "In any case, as Longshanks made ready his approach, he decided he wished to finish his tankard first. Seeking a bit of barley-courage, perhaps. Lo, it had miraculously been filled again! He realized then that he was feeling the effects of the ale, and thought it best to perhaps put his head down and rest his eyes-- only for a moment, mind-- but when he opened his eyes again, he found himself upstairs in the inn, in a bed alone, his companion asleep-- and terribly uncomfortable-- on a hard wooden chair--"
"--And his damnable innocence still damnably intact."
Halbarad cocked an eyebrow.
"I thought I'd save you the effort of gloating a second time," Aragorn finished.
The silence that settled between them when the laughter had trailed away was an old and easy thing, worn in all the necessary places like a good, well-traveled saddle. Within its grasp, Aragorn smoked his pipe and his face took on the distracted cast, all furrowed brow and stern-set jaw, of a man contemplating some great sorrow. Halbarad looked away. To the East lay Edoras, and the White Mountains. It would be some hours yet until Théoden would call for their departure.
"I knew you would regret it, come morning." The threads of the conversation hung untidily between them like an unfinished tapestry despite the comfortable familiarity of silence. "You were a better man than that, to use some hungry, hard-done woman for sport. I thought to spare you that. Spare you the shame of a choice ill-made."
Aragorn's hand settled warm on his shoulder, and Halbarad watched it without expression until he spoke. "So you did. And I was spared for something better."
Turning his face away to let a squint against the pallid sun disguise his bitterness, Halbarad focused on the exhalation of the breath he had drawn, slow and even. "No doubt your lady was honored."
Aragorn looked away this time, his clear eyes no doubt seeking the light of a distant star, the one that shone for him unfailingly at every hour. "She was. But it is not of her I speak; she was not the first."
That hand, strong and callused, closed around his shoulder and held there, as if it alone might keep the world from spinning apart. Halbarad said nothing; he did not trust his voice to speak. He could sense Aragorn's restlessness, despite the stillness of his body, the stalwart clamp of his fingers, and knew his thoughts must have turned to the tower, and to the visions brought to him by the Palantír. Here was a man who had revealed himself to the eye of fire, to Evil made manifest in its glowing red reptilian slit, and though his breath had quickened, though he had felt the edge of his kinsman's blade prepared to run him through, he had not quaked nor quailed.
"Tell me," Halbarad asked quietly, "what did you see?"
Aragorn did not answer.
"What vision sets so great a weight upon you?" He pressed harder now, shrugging Aragorn's hand away to face him straight on. "You did not bring me here for stories alone."
Aragorn's jaw tensed, and his breath made a sound of stunted despair. "My road will be darker than even I had imagined. And yet, I see that this must be my way. I will ride for Dunharrow. I must seek the Paths of the Dead."
A dark-bright flash, a breath drawn sharply against his will, and Halbarad was taken back to the high chamber, to the dense and swirling air that choked the life and breath from the room, to the icy needle of revelation that had forced its way into his skull like a thief picking a lock. He saw the shapes of men and horses, and a banner unfurling like the tide of night. He saw a dark door, the fey brilliance of daylight framed in rock, and the dull glint of a dirty blade moving inexorably toward him.
He was surprised and disappointed to discover that he feared death.
When he returned to himself, he found Aragorn watching him intently, his expression carefully blank.
"It is my road, Halbarad. It need not be yours."
Ah, Halbarad thought. So he, too, has seen it.
"Go with the Rohirrim. Better yet, go North; perhaps Celeborn will muster the archers of the Galadhrim--"
"The Golden Wood has troubles of its own," he growled, anger humming low in his belly, like the embers of the fire beneath their cloaks of ash. "Dol Guldur has awoken with a vengeance. The Lord of Lorien will have no men to spare, even if the Elves were of a mind to intervene in our affairs."
"Then offer yourself to their service and fight alongside the Galadhrim. Seek the march-warden, Haldir; he is no stranger to you...
"This is my road," he repeated, his voice so low it was nearly a whisper. "There is another road open to you, Halbarad. Take it."
Halbarad drew his hand over his face. He was too weary for rage, yet he could not help but feel insulted by Aragorn's suggestion, regardless of the spirit in which it had been offered. "You were of a mind for stories? Here, let me give you another: of late I had been keeping long days of vigil after the Black Riders had quit the Shire. I slept a fitful and dreamless sleep until one night when I was given a dream. A summons. I saw your face, Aragorn, and your father's, and the face of Isildur himself, in full flesh as if he stood before me, though thousands of years have gone since his passing. In your hand, you carried Narsil, its blade not yet renewed, and when your father and Isildur set their hands upon you, the sword became a scepter. An ancient, ageless voice filled my mind, and said 'Aragorn has need of his kindred...' The scepter vanished then. You looked at your empty hand in dismay, and then you looked to me. To me, Aragorn. 'Let the Dúnedain ride to him in Rohan!' the voice said. I woke then, as sharply as if doused in water, and when I opened my eyes, I found that I was already standing, my body turned to the South, though my bedroll had been facing the East to greet the sun."
He looked down at his hands, cracked like old leather with dirt and blood worked forever into the skin. "This is my road. I have been set upon it, and I will not now turn from it."
Aragorn stared at him for a long moment, searching. Whatever it was that he sought he seemed to find, for he nodded once, a slow incline of his head, like an ox calmly accepting his yoke. He tapped his pipe against the stones, punctuating the stillness of the morning with little hollow noises, and reached once more for his pouch of pipeweed. Halbarad watched the smoke, colorless as the early light, filtering out from between his lips like a ghost.
"Perhaps what we have seen was a vision sent to fill us with fear and weaken our resolve."
It was Halbarad's turn to nod. "Perhaps."
Each man kept his eyes from the other; the word had been as necessary to say and to be heard as it had been disingenuous.
"Your first tale," Aragorn began after a time, rapping his knuckle against Halbarad's thigh, as if he might knock stubborn words from his lips and watch them fall like the spent weed from his pipe, "the one with the duel. Remind me how it ends."
Halbarad straightened, tugging free his cloak, which had pulled tight under him when he sat and threatened now to choke. "How it ends? Succinctly. Despite the speed and determination with which he made his opening gambit, Longshanks promptly had his pride served up to him on the pointy end of a sword. And he liked it not at all!"
Aragorn smiled. "No, I did not like to be beaten. Particularly not by one of my same years. I had been defeated hundreds times by Elladan or Elrohir or Glorfindel... but I had never lost to a man I thought my equal. It was a painful first, though at least it was merely my pride that pained me.
"There were other firsts you granted me as well," he added, not quite hesitantly.
Halbarad could not reply, assailed by memory, struck dumb by the recollection of cold ground beneath his back and dew condensing on the grass, the damp wool smell of their cloaks. He ached with the remembrance of it, and his own unspoken longing, undimmed year upon year.
But Aragorn's fingers passing over his cheek and weaving through his hair were no memory; they were in motion now, and Halbarad felt as though he had just been tossed headlong on some ineluctable path. He captured Aragorn's hand between his own and stopped it in its course.
"No, Estel," he whispered.
Aragorn's answering smile was very small and drawn in sorrow. "It has been many years since anyone has called me by that name."
"Yet you remain our greatest hope. Always, Estel, you have been my hope."
The air between them felt charged, and Halbarad swore he could almost taste the ozone of an impending storm on his tongue. His lungs labored for breath, as if the effort needed to keep from drawing Aragorn to him and drawing them both to the ground had wrangled him to the point of exhaustion.
"Tell me a story, Halbarad." Aragorn's voice broke against his name.
"There once was a son of an ancient house long exiled to the northern lands," he began, "and in the summer of his twenty-first year, he met a lad of great and noble birth, the youthful descendant of a storied king, and he came to know two things about this lad in very short order: the first was that he would follow and serve him till the end of his days..."
The story spilled softly from his throat, and silent and grim as he might have been, he did not stint on the telling, for he knew that there would never be another time for it, and that the words he uttered now would not pass his lips again. He spoke of cold ground and wet cloaks and warm hands in the wild learning the lay of unfamiliar land; he sang the song of comforts sought and offered in the small hours that unfurled around them like a banner, a refrain of discovery and joy. He told of a heart given in silence, and tended in secret over many years and many miles.
"'Now I know what you bear,' you said to me last night as we traveled, though in truth you knew only what I carried in my hands and not what I carry-- what I have always carried..."
At the last, his words failed him.
Aragorn closed his eyes and exhaled, his breath feather-light across Halbarad's cheek, and Halbarad drew it in as if by sharing air with him he might take some little bit of Aragorn's spirit within himself. Aragorn drew back and then pressed his kiss to the crown of Halbarad's head, the heat of it filtering down through his hair and warming him to his core.
"Ah, Halbarad ... bear it still for me a while," he whispered, as he had the night before. This time, it was no order, only the simple request of one man to another.
I will, Halbarad nodded, his eyes seeking light in the East, and the long road that would lead them to Dunharrow, to the shadow-world beneath the mountains, to the dark and final door, and beyond: wherever else his road-- Aragorn's road-- might lead him.
I will, he thought. I must.
~ )0( ~
A/N: The title comes from the fourth verse of Frodo's walking song, which he gives at the Havens before he departs with the Ringbearers:
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.