This story was written for the February Teitho Challenge "History Repeats Itself" where it placed first. It was nominated for the 2013 Tree and Flower Awards where it placed first in the category "Favorite Characterization of Aragorn."
It was betaed by the lovely and talented Cairistiona.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Huge, huge thanks to Cairistiona for her wonderful work as beta and to StarLight and the TaFA volunteers for the beautiful banners!
A/N: Rated PG for references to violence and slight medical gore.
The campsite was designed to escape notice. The handful of tents were dyed in varying shades of brown and half-covered in fallen leaves and branches. No obvious tracks or trails led to the site, though it was situated deep within a thick copse of forest. The small cooking fire was carefully banked and hidden in a hollow of stone that concealed it from most angles. Even when the sun was high and the woods were a riot of red and gold, a man could come within fifty paces of this encampment and never know it was there. Wrapped, as it was now, in the shadows of evening, it escaped notice from all but the owls and foxes.
Even if a traveler were sharp enough to realize the camp was there, it would likely take him far longer to realize it was occupied. The handful of figures gathered around the fire sat quite still, moving only infrequently to lift long-stemmed pipes to their lips. No one laughed or sang, though they conversed, in voices carefully pitched to be almost lost under the hum of insects and rustle of leaves. Though the harsh autumn wind tugged at their nondescript brown cloaks, they did not huddle against it, nor rub their arms to keep warm. When a particularly sharp gust pulled one cloak open, revealing a torn tunic and bandaged ribs beneath, the cloak’s owner—a youth of about twenty—simply pulled it shut with an irritable huff.
Of the half-dozen shadowy forms, the most silent of all was also the only one in motion. Were it not for a pair of pale hands and muddied shoes visible beneath the gray cloak, he could have been no more than a wisp of shifting shadow. When he reached a particular tent, he had to bend himself nearly in half to lift the tent flap. Golden light, much brighter than the dying embers of the cooking fire, spilled out to cast sharp shadows on the leaf littered ground. After a moment’s hesitation, he sank into a low crouch and entered the tent.
The cramped space within was comparatively bright, lit by an oil lantern in one corner. An empty bedroll covered nearly half of the dirt floor. In the other half, a young Man sat on a second, still folded bedroll, wielding a small mirror with one hand and a bloodied needle with the other. He greeted the newcomer with a slight nod, the bulk of his attention still fixated on his task. The other sat back on his haunches and watched as the Man gingerly lifted the needle back to an ugly gash on his own shoulder. He winced just a little as he tugged the needle and thread through his skin. The past six years had clearly taught him much about concealing pain. The newcomer felt his heart clench, but kept his face carefully neutral. He knew the Man would not appreciate expressions of sympathy right now.
It wasn’t until the wound began to bleed anew and the Man had to drop his mirror and lift a rag to his shoulder that the newcomer risked speech. He kept his voice carefully light. “Quite the mess you’re making, Estel. Perhaps I should take over?” He advanced, holding out a slender hand.
Aragorn gripped the needle more tightly, his expression equal parts bemused and wary. “I’ve endured what you call stitching before, Elladan. I can manage on my own.”
Elladan sighed. His foster brother's caution, he knew, was not entirely unfounded. He forced himself not to stare at the slowly reddening wad of cloth Aragorn held against his shoulder. The cut, he knew, was short but deep, running above his collarbone and up along the sloping muscle of his shoulder. It was entirely too close to the great vessels in Aragorn's neck for Elladan's comfort. "At least allow me to hold the mirror. You can leave the tests of one-handed dexterity for when you're not losing blood."
Aragorn relented and held out the mirror for his brother. It was a simple thing; just a disk of polished brass, much scratched and pitted from years on the road. Elladan moved to take it, still in a crouch--uncharacteristically awkward in this confined space. Settling himself on the ground, he held the mirror close to Aragorn's shoulder. The Man adjusted it slightly so that he could examine his wound more carefully. After a moment, he dropped the rag and took up the needle once more, his movements less tentative now that he had the use of both hands.
They sat in companionable silence while Aragorn worked. This was clearly not the first time he'd been forced to stitch his own wounds. After Aragorn tied off the third stitch with no appreciable difficulty, Elladan decided to chance breaking his concentration with conversation.
"I am surprised that you could not recruit one of your Men to help you with this."
Aragorn started to shrug, then winced as the movement pulled on his half-finished stitches. "They know I prefer to tend my wounds in private."
Elladan gave him a look full of exasperation.
Aragorn averted his eyes. "You needn't scowl at me so."
Elladan arched one eyebrow, an expression understood to convey What aren't you telling me?
Aragorn relented with a stifled sigh. "These are good Men," he said, a touch too defensively in Elladan's opinion, "But, I cannot always take my ease among them. It has not been so long since I took command, and there are still those who say I am too young and undertrained for it. It's simply best not to put my weaknesses on display among them."
Elladan frowned. "Which weaknesses are those? Your inability to grow a third arm with which to stitch your own wounds? Just an hour ago, you were treating their wounds. An hour before that, you led them safely out of an ambush that could have killed less wary Men."
Aragorn didn't answer, his attention on the thread.
Elladan sighed. "You do these people a disservice. They are loyal to you, Estel. I can see it in their eyes."
The Man's eyes stayed fixed on that little disc of brass, avoiding his brother's gaze. "They are not the problem. But it is not 'Estel' they are loyal to. Estel is a stranger to them." A trace of wistfulness entered his face. Elladan wondered if he was remembering simpler times or simpler hopes. "It is Aragorn who commands their loyalty." He smiled, his face a mask of wry self-deprecation. "And sometimes I feel like 'Aragorn' is a stranger to me."
Elladan flipped the mirror down, forcing the young Man to meet his gaze. "I have seen many Chieftains come and go," he reminded Aragorn gently, "You are growing into your role well. Never doubt that you are a worthy successor to their line."
After a brief pause, Aragorn looked away. "But, will that be enough?" The words were soft enough that Elladan wondered if he'd meant to say them out loud. He opened his mouth to respond, but Aragorn preempted him by grabbing the mirror and lifting it back into position. "Stay," he ordered with mock sternness.
Aragorn returned to his painful work. After a moment, he asked with a slight smile, "Do you suppose Elrohir has yet forgiven me for daring to be wounded?"
Elladan smiled to hide another sigh. Their brother had been in a black mood ever since they'd escaped the ambush—a mood he didn't mind sharing with anyone in his vicinity. As soon as they had struck camp, he had stalked off into the woods—to scout, he claimed. Elladan knew it was more likely his twin would spend the night pacing under the trees berating himself before returning at dawn's light, hopefully with a more peaceable attitude. "He'll calm down. You frightened him, is all."
Frightened us. He choked back the words with difficulty. Elladan might pretend to be more measured and rational than his hot-headed twin, but he had been just as shaken.
"How is Halbarad?" Aragorn asked after a moment, "Do his ribs still trouble him?"
Elladan pushed away the memory of unwelcome fear. "He seems well. He talks and smokes with the other Men."
Aragorn grunted. "His father will have my head."
"His father will be grateful to have his son back mostly unscathed. He knows that wounds are a part of life out here."
"Perhaps he can explain that to Elrohir."
Elladan winced. "Surely you would not inflict that conversation on either of them." Elrohir's relations with Aragorn's kinsmen were not warm by any stretch of the imagination.
Aragorn smiled crookedly. "I suppose not."
Elladan returned the smile. "Do not worry about Elrohir. He understands this well. He simply . . . well, you know how he is."
Elladan wished he could explain away his brother's overreaction, but he understood it too well. It had been so hauntingly familiar—the sudden twang of a bow on a road they'd thought safe, a black fletched arrow flitting out at the Chieftain, the sudden grunt and flow of blood . . . only a stray gust of wind and the grace of the Valar had saved Aragorn from a fate Elladan remembered in horrific detail.
"It was the manner of the injury, wasn't it?" Aragorn's voice pulled Elladan out of his reverie. His eyes were on the Elf, simultaneously sympathetic and keen. "An ambush. An arrow. That's why it troubles you."
Elladan's hand quavered slightly and Aragorn reached out to steady the mirror. His face must have given away more than he'd thought. Of course, Estel had always been good at reading him. "Yes," he admitted reluctantly, "It was foolish of us. Superstitious almost. But, we thought of Arathorn and were afraid for you."
Aragorn responded with an infinitesimal nod, his eyes back on his own reflection. "What was he like?" he asked after a moment, "Arathorn?" Elladan noticed that he did not say "my father." The word adar was still a slightly touchy subject for Estel.
Elladan hesitated. "He was a good Man," he said at last, "Strong and brave. Committed to his people and to his family—to you." He knew even as the words came out of his mouth that they were wholly inadequate to describe the person Arathorn had been. And besides, Aragorn had heard all this before. He took a moment to collect his thoughts. "He could seem so stern at times—moreso even than your other kinsmen—but he had this slow sense of humor that would bubble out of him at the most unexpected moments." Elladan stared off into space, not noticing when Aragorn tied off his last stitch and put the needle down. "Before one of our last patrols together, you gave him some sort of drawing. Just smudges of charcoal on a scrap of parchment. He put it in his pack, but a flash flood washed all our supplies away a week later. I believe he was more upset over your lost scribblings than our entire supply of food."
Elladan closed his eyes, willing away the mist that had started to collect in them. It did no good, he knew, to mourn forever over those who had received the Gift of Men. In his years, he had seen so many pass beyond.
And yet . . .
He swallowed and tried to cover his emotion. "He was much beloved by his Men—even when he dared to bleed in front of them," he added mildly. He forced his clear eyes to meet his brother's gaze. "He would be so proud of you, Aragorn."
The Chieftain looked away. He seemed, if anything, more troubled. "Arathorn," he said at last, "Before him, Arador. And Argonui before that. All brave, all committed to their people. All died out here, one by one."
Elladan remained silent. He suspected that they were at last reaching the crux of the issue—the real reason Estel sealed himself away in his tent to lick his wounds.
"Scarcely a Man knows their names. Just a handful of years ago, even I did not know their names." He lifted a wet cloth and carefully sponged over the finished stitches. "I cannot let the Men know of this, but at times it seems so . . . futile. One generation after another, and they died for a war we are yet losing." He unrolled a long strip of cloth and began to wrap his wound. Elladan put down the mirror and half-rose.
"Here, let me." This time, Estel did not argue as Elladan took the wrappings from his hand and began to bandage the wound. The Elf had never had his father's skill at healing, but bandaging was not so difficult. A simple wrapping: over the shoulder, under the opposite arm, about the chest and back. Over and over. As easy as breathing for one who'd seen as many wounds as Elladan had.
"Losing?" He said at length, "Perhaps it seems so for now. But even a losing war is a war not yet lost. You have been taught the hidden history of the Dúnedain, but I remember another history—one of glory and of peace. When the days seem dark, remember you are heir to that history also." He tied off the bandage and leaned back.
Aragorn's hands came up to trace the clean linen, automatically checking Elladan's work. His eyes, though, seemed far away. "Do you think it can ever be reclaimed?"
Elladan blinked. He had been asked that question by other Chieftains, though not for several generations. This time, though, was different. Where the others had asked in voices tinged with regret or wistfulness, Aragorn's tone was different altogether.
It was eager.
"Your father never asked me that," he finally said. "He was concerned with protecting his people, continuing his line, preserving what has been salvaged since the time of Arvedui . . . but he was in many ways a simple Man."
Aragorn watched him, his gaze guarded as if he didn't know whether to be hurt or offended at the statement. Elladan leaned forward and clasped his uninjured shoulder warmly. "You are a different sort of Man altogether, and that is a good thing, Estel. I do not think you will share his fate."
And as he spoke the words, Elladan could tell that Aragorn did not fully believe him. That was alright. For now, Elladan had belief enough for them both.
A/N: Rated PG for references to violence and slight medical gore.