The Ragged Edge of Legend by MP brennan

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A/N: This was written for the April, 2013 Teitho Challenge “Smells,” where it placed first. It was nominated for a 2013 Tree and Flower Award where it placed third in the category "Favorite Gapfiller."  It is unbetaed.  The Teitho banner was made by the extraordinarily talented StarLight.

TaFA


Smoke still rose from the twisted remains of the Black Gates, curling lazily into the ash-choked sky. A field stretched before it, colorless and desolate—empty save for the corpses, lifeless save for the crows. In the exhilarating, uncertain hour that followed their great victory, the Host of the West had withdrawn, seeking cleaner air farther from the lingering taint of their vanquished foe.

A lone figure sat ahorse before the ruins. His mail was sticky with gore and scratched from battle, but he wore no helm. His dark hair ruffled and blew in the wind at his back. Gray eyes were fixed steadily on the land beyond. Before him towered the fury of Orodruin, a billowing black cloud taller than any Dark Lord. Even as he watched, another gout of orange flame rose from the distant peak.

Aragorn drew a deep breath, trying to cleanse his lungs. It did little good; even the growing wind from the west was not enough to drive back the creeping foulness that spread from Mount Doom. The air was acrid. It smelled of smoke and ash, undercut with sulfur and the suggestion of rotting things.

It was a smell he would always associate, however unfairly and incongruously, with hobbit holes.

As a wandering Ranger, he had spent a good portion of his life defending the simple dwellings that dotted the hillsides of the Shire and Bree-land. Still, due to the shy nature of the Little Folk and the Rangers’ poor repute, he had never seen the interior of such a home while it was still snug and well-tended. His few opportunities to enter had come when the hobbit holes lay burnt and plundered, after some great calamity had befallen the homeowner.

He closed his eyes, trying to banish evil thoughts, but that noxious odor would not be so easily dispelled. Rotten eggs. Yes, that was what the foul stench brought to mind. That was the scent that dragged his thoughts back to days of failure and death in Eriador. He opened his eyes once more and fixed them on the ruins—an immense, smoking symbol of Sauron’s downfall and the triumph of the West. It did no good. He stood on the edge of history, victor of the greatest battles of the Third Age . . . and all he could see was a round, yellow door blackened by fire.

He could still see it so clearly, despite the passing of years: a little homestead a day’s walk from Staddle with a neat, tidy exterior and a front garden overflowing with orange marigolds. He’d been tracking a gang of bandits from Dunland who had attempted a raid on the Shire. A patrol camped near the Brandywine had turned them aside and given chase through the Old Forest, but had given up the hunt as the brigands neared the Barrow Downs. They’d expected to hear no more of the Dunlendings.

Then, the first report had come in of a house looted and sacked just outside Bree. Aragorn had tracked them east towards Staddle, but he’d known, even as he picked up the trail, that he was more than a week behind them and not likely to make up much ground.

Then, he’d reached the little farm, seen the fire-blackened door, and known he was too late. Again.

The farm’s destruction was barely a footnote in a year plagued with troubles—one of a dozen times the Dúnedain had failed to protect their charges in that autumn alone. He might not even remember it now were it not for that smell.

Soot. Ash. Rotten eggs. Nearly the exact same stench that had struck him in the face when he’d bent his head and pushed open the yellow door. The kitchen beyond had been cheerful once, but Aragorn only saw it looted and scored by fire. The pots and pans had been scattered across the floor amid smashed plates and cutlery like leaf litter. The flames that had blackened the walls had long since guttered out.

And there, sitting untouched on the counter, was a bowl holding the congealed, rotting remains of a dozen half-scrambled eggs.

The hobbits had been in the middle of preparing breakfast when the raiders fell upon them.

It wasn’t the scent he’d expected—not the nauseating odor of corpses. For a moment, he’d held out hope that the hobbits might have escaped. He’d bent nearly in half to enter the kitchen and crossed to the hallway as quickly as he could manage.

But, that hope had died a brutal death when he pushed open the hallway door and saw what lay beyond.

The clop of approaching hooves drew him, mercifully, back to the present.

“Lord Aragorn!”

He turned, feeling Roheryn shift beneath him. A fine steed approached, bearing a young man still in full armor and helm. Both man and beast seemed almost to shine in the weak sunlight, despite the grime that covered them. Aragorn nodded a greeting. “Éomer, King. Is there trouble at the encampment?”

The young ruler of Rohan shook his head. “None worth noting. The Easterlings who surrendered have all departed. We stripped them of their weapons and released them as you wished.” He approached slowly, his horse stepping and sidestepping—seeming almost to dance as it bore him across the treacherous ground. “You should come away awhile, Aragorn. This is an evil place.”

Aragorn shook his head. “The Shadow is gone. Whatever residual malice remains, I can bear it.”

“Perhaps, but your horse cannot.”

Glancing down, Aragorn was startled to discover that Éomer was right. Roheryn, the steady mount who had borne him from the Paths of the Dead to the very jaws of Sauron’s army, was now shifting and sidestepping—tossing his head and flaring his nostrils as he eyed the distant pillars of flame.

Rather than turn away, Aragorn dismounted and ran a soothing hand down Roheryn’s neck. The horse quieted a little as Éomer rode up on his left side. Aragorn kept his gaze fixed on the blackened Eastern sky. “Gandalf has not returned,” he said, “He left with Gwaihir and two of his kin to see what’s become of the Cracks of Doom.”

“You fear for the Halflings?”

Aragorn nodded wordlessly, thinking of yellow doors and old failures.

“Well, you cannot change their fate by fretting. You should return with me, Wingfoot. You’re worrying the men. They wonder if now that we’ve won our great victory, you might vanish on the wind like the mythic spirit you seem to them.”

Aragorn cracked a smile at that, but it lacked strength and was soon chased away by anxiety. “We stand on the edge of legend,” he said, his voice quiet. “Men will speak of this day—of the fall of Sauron—forever.”

“Or at least as long as our kingdoms endure,” Éomer put in neutrally.

Aragorn did not look at him, keeping his gaze firmly on those frightful clouds. “It will be the stuff of history. Of songs. The Fellowship, the Ringbearer, the White Wizard.” At last, he glanced at Éomer with a half-smile. “Perhaps they’ll even spare a word or two for two crownless kings who rode against the Black Gate.”

“Don’t sell us short, Aragorn. Between us, we might warrant as many as three words.”

His smile grew for a moment, then faded as a puff of wind brought more sulfur to his nose. “But, we were never more than a glorious feint. A shining distraction to clear the field for the true battle.”

Éomer did not respond. Frodo and Sam were still no more than a strange rumor to him. Neither of them had ever cooked Éomer’s breakfast or asked for his help or offered him a plug of Old Tobey.

“Stories will be told of them.” Aragorn spoke now, almost to himself. “But, I do not yet know what those tales will tell of. Victory? Surely, but at what price? Sacrifice? Death? Those seem overrepresented in the old tales, but perhaps it is folly to hope for better.”

“Yet, Gandalf hopes,” Éomer pointed out, “Else, he would not have flown so fast.”

“Yes.” Aragorn sighed. “But, perhaps it will matter only to the minstrels. A tale of triumph to sing in the streets, a tale of sacrifice to weep over in the halls . . . but, it’s all the same in the end. If the Dark Lord is fallen, who will truly care about the cost?”

“You do.” Éomer’s voice was solemn. “I do not know these Halflings, but I love them for your sake. And the people will, too.”

But, the air stank, and while this might be the dawn of legends, it felt like nothing so much as another yellow door, with the terrible possibility of death behind it.

Éomer drew close and lowered his voice. “They must be mighty to have come so far and accomplished so much. I do not think it would be their fate to fall when just inches from a hero’s rewards.”

So, Aragorn watched the towering clouds and tried to keep his mind on legends and heroes’ rewards and not on the simple grief of small bodies and forgotten people. He could only wait, after all, and see what fate would bring.

From far off on the ashen horizon came the distant silhouette of beating wings.

A/N: Reviews are treasured and all forms of feedback (positive and negative) are appreciated.




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