Hunting Alone by MP brennan

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Story Notes:

This was written for the August Teitho Challenge "Mountains," where it placed third.  Huge thanks to Cairistiona for all her help as beta.


The morning was half gone already. The last of the dawn’s mist had long since burned away, and Anor climbed steadily towards her zenith, heedless of the concerns of men. He had tarried too long.

Aragorn settled his pack more firmly across his shoulders. It was a good hour for setting out. The longest day of the year had passed not so long ago; many hours of daylight lay ahead. He was provisioned well—as well as a lone traveler on foot could be. His clothes were light and airy; his boots so new the leather still creaked. His pack held an oilskin cloak and several layers of heavier clothes. In the last days of June, he was unlikely to meet foul weather even in the highest passes, but there was no harm in being prepared. Food he had in plenty, though it was so light he found himself pausing to open the pack and assure himself it was still there.

Soil and sparse grasses crunched underfoot. With each step, there was less earth and more gravel. His guide had left him at the forest’s edge, assured that given the maps he’d been provided with, he could easily find his way to the safest passes.

Aragorn did not look back. If he let himself turn and see the forest receding behind him, with its carpet of gold and columns of silver arching up to a green roof, with its age-old claim on all that he held dear . . .

If he let himself look, he would never be able to leave.

He set his eyes forward. The Misty Mountains would grow no shorter.

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He had said his goodbyes by the earliest light of dawn, and the memory of them dogged him all throughout that first day. First, of course, he’d taken his leave of the Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood. He had thanked them for sheltering him in his hour of need, for their patience in allowing him to recoup his strength and their generosity in provisioning him for the journey ahead. They had called him “Elf-friend,” though in his mind, he had done naught to earn such a title.

Little that passed in her own realm escaped the notice of Lady Galadriel. She spoke no word to him aside from the formalized wishes for safe travels, but from the look in her eyes, he could see that she knew what had been said on Cerin Amroth on the longest day of the year. Celeborn knew as well—she would not have kept such a thing from him. They did not speak of it, but he could see sadness in their faces, mingled with a strange sort of pride. Why pride? It seemed a strange response to their granddaughter’s choice. It was a puzzle to mull over as the grasslands gave way to craggy stone and hills turned to steeper slopes.

Yet, there was little room left in him for thought of the Elves’ strange behavior; his heart was too full from his last farewell. In a sheltered glade, while his guide waited a discreet distance away, he had taken his leave of his beloved—his betrothed. He turned that word over in his mind. Betrothed. He was betrothed. He was her betrothed. He remembered her hands—warm and smooth as satin, clasped in both of his, bearing a silver ring too large for the slender finger it encircled. He remembered a voice like the whisper of a summer breeze, murmuring that she would always be his and he hers, eliciting a single promise from him. He remembered lips, so soft as they brushed against his . . .

He stepped in a gopher hole as he was dreaming about her soft lips. His ankle gave. He yelped, glad that there was no one there to hear, and hopped wildly on one leg for a few precarious moments. Minutes later, he sat on a nearby boulder, pulling off his boot and scowling as he probed his tender ankle. The bones seemed intact. Already, the sting was fading; perhaps he had not even sprained it. Either way, there was nothing to be done, and he could hardly fix it by sitting there and feeling sorry for himself. He stuffed his foot back in the boot and lurched to his feet in a rush of misdirected bravado.

A moment later, he was sitting again and silently thanking all the Valar that no one was here to see this display.

He rolled his ankle in a slow circle. No, it was definitely sprained, but it would carry him across the mountains all the same. He rose—more cautiously than the first time—and picked his way back to the trail, stepping gingerly.

He had a promise to keep.

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He made his camp that night sheltered in a hollow on the knees of the mountain. There were enough scrubby trees that he found wood for a fire, and he’d shot a hare late in the afternoon, so he ate well and did not have to rely on Galadriel’s gift of lembas. His map laid out a simple route that should see him safely across Celebdil, the Silvertine. Many of the springs that fed the river Celebrant had their source amid these peaks. It was supposed to be an easier crossing than Caradhras, though it lay further to the south and would thus add several days to his journey.

As the night deepened, he laid out his bedroll with stone at his back and only the dying embers of a cook fire to guard his sleep. The air was still but for the soft buzzing of insects. Far off, a stately chorus of wolf song rolled and echoed off the rock faces. The sound did not trouble Aragorn overmuch; the pack was miles away, and at the height of summer, the lowlands were rich with game. They would not bother with such dangerous prey as a Man.

He slept soundly and dreamt of an enchanting smile, of sparkling eyes, of dark hair flowing through his fingers like silk . . .

He woke to a heart that was singing such as it hadn’t since he was little more than a boy. Perhaps he was no longer young, but he was the son of kings with a great destiny yet to fulfill, and he had the love of the fairest and noblest maiden to grace the earth since Lúthien still walked it. He had but one promise to keep: he’d sworn that he would seek her father’s blessing, if it could be had, before pursuing their union. She had told him—at a whisper, with only the moon and stars to bear witness—that she would cleave to him, even if Elrond remained steadfast in opposition. Yet, he could tell from the tremulous quality in her voice and the slight sheen over her eyes that he could not ask that of her. To sacrifice her relationship with her father would break her heart, and Aragorn would sooner cut out his own.

He would simply have to convince Lord Elrond. Once, he had said that she was too high for the likes of Aragorn, but that was long ago when he was truly no more than a love-struck boy. Then, he had obeyed her father—his father. He had gone out into wild places and dwelt on her no more than he had to. He had not pursued her, but she, to his unending awe, had chosen him anyway.

It was different, now that he had her love. Elrond would see that.

Surely.

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A rain shower arrived around noon to dampen his spirits. But, only a little.

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On the third morning, he woke with a cramp in his back. He was surprised, then laughed ruefully at his surprise. Clearly, he had spent too many nights in soft featherbeds atop warmly-lit flets if a backache could come as a surprise after two nights of sleeping on stone. He splashed a bit of water on his face from the stream that ran by his campsite. It was startlingly cold—evidence of snowmelt higher in the mountains, but felt good all the same.

As he rose, a bit of disturbed dirt caught his eye. He frowned as he went to investigate. It was as he feared; while he’d slept, some animal had crept into camp and dug up the remains of the quail he’d eaten the night before. The ground was hard enough that he could discern little of the tracks, besides the obvious scattered stones. It was troubling that he’d not woken. Perhaps the babbling of the stream had hidden the sounds.

For the first time, he wondered if he’d erred in undertaking this journey alone. He shook off the feeling. There would be dangers in these passes whether he traveled alone or with two or with twenty. Aragorn had duties to attend to which had already been put off for too long. He could not have simply idled in Lórien and waited for Gandalf or any other of the world’s few wanderers to happen by.

The sooner he left, the sooner he could return to her. A few weeks of loneliness were a small price to pay; soon, he need never be alone again.

He brushed tangled hair out of his face as he bent to collect his bedroll. Already, he bore little resemblance to the polished lord who had walked beneath the boughs of Caras Galadhon, and that was not entirely a bad thing. It was comforting, after all that had transpired in the past few weeks, to feel like a Ranger once more—to feel the wilderness sinking through his skin as the grime of days of travel dusted his clothes.

But, then he paused to wonder what his beloved would say if she could see him now. If she could—dear Valar—smell him like this, would she still find his humanity such a prize?

He tried to force the thought away. They had spoken long about his travels and his troubles. She had expressed only understanding and admiration for what he had endured. But, she had only seen him scrubbed clean and arrayed like an Elf-lord in peace time, at home amid the hidden refuges of her people. Would she still love him if she saw him as a Man among Men?

He stepped out onto the trail and received a welcome distraction in the form of a twinge from his foot. It wasn’t his ankle, of course—he could scarcely still tell that he’d turned it—but a sharper pain from near his heel. He sat and peeled off his shoe and sock. When he saw what was the matter, he glared at his fine new boot as if it had personally wounded him, which, of course, it had; he was forming an impressive blister. Grumbling to himself, he pulled off the other boot as well and swapped his socks for a thicker pair. If a mere two-day hike was enough to give him blisters, then clearly, he’d spent too much time walking barefoot over the green grasses of Lórien.

That thought brought to mind many long hours spent strolling beside a sun-dappled brook with flowers between his toes and slender fingers entwined with his own.

Aragorn pulled his boots back on and set out, a soft smile lighting his face.

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The next morning, Aragorn woke slowly, as if dragging himself out of an enchantment. He groaned and pulled a blanket over his head. No, that was far too poetic a way to describe it. Rather, he woke as if he’d spent many ill-advised hours in a tavern, accumulated multiple head wounds, and spent the night passed out on the cobblestones outside. Blindly, with the blanket still covering his face, he felt about for his waterskin. When he finally gathered enough wits to pick up the skin, he found it suspiciously light. That discovery was alarming enough to coax him out of his blanket-cave at last. He emerged, rubbing his head and squinting in the morning light, as memory slowly returned. Of course. His parched throat and pounding head were due not to some adventure in a mythical Misty Mountains drinking house, but to the previous afternoon’s rock slide. Fortunately, he’d gained no more than a few bruises and a single knock to the head from the incident. Unfortunately, he’d lost two waterskins when one acquired a three inch gash and the other was buried under ten feet of sliding gravel. He’d rationed what remained, and that accounted for the dryness in his throat as well as some of the pounding in his head.

With that mystery solved to his understanding, if not to his satisfaction, he dragged himself out of his bedroll. The night before, he’d laid out the oilskin to catch the morning dew. He carefully collected every last drop and then allowed himself a single mouthful to drink. His stomach rumbled, but he ignored it; eating even lembas would cost him water.

The upside to his self-imposed fast was that he’d left no animal bones to draw nighttime scavengers. All the same, he spotted a set of tracks just beyond his camp that hadn’t been there at nightfall. This time, the signs were clear; a wolf had paced just outside of the firelight. That was troubling, but after a moment, he shrugged it off. There was only one set of tracks, and wolves were rarely dangerous unless they hunted in packs. If he was careful with disposing of game from now on, the animal would soon lose interest. He turned away.

Over the past several days, the forests and plains had slowly receded behind and below him, becoming no more than a memory. Amid this sea of gray stone, Lothlórien felt like a dream, and he was unhappy to be waking. With a sigh, he folded his bedroll and forced his mind to practical matters. The loss of the water skins was unfortunate, but not a disaster. If his maps read true, he should reach another stream soon. Of course, if the maps read true, he’d have expected to reach it sometime last evening.

Walking solved more problems than worrying. He shouldered his pack and set out.

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The next morning, he woke beside a crystal-clear mountain lake. The rippling surface of the water reflected the pinks and oranges of the dawn along with the blowing grasses and tiny wildflowers that lined the slopes. There were no trees; he was above the tree line now.

Aragorn grimaced and scratched his neck. No trees meant no fire, and no fire meant no smoke to keep the hungry mosquitoes at bay. The pests all but swarmed—drawn to the water much as Aragorn had been, and happy to get a free meal in the bargain. He rose, shaking out cramps and aches that multiplied with every day he spent in the wilds.

This lake was not on his maps. It had likely formed when some rock slide or other natural event had altered the terrain and dammed the stream he’d spent the previous day searching for. There was no way to know whether this had occurred last spring or half a century ago; the Galadhrim rarely used these passes, and when they did, they expected to find the natural features in a constant state of flux. He’d been lucky to find this place.

He refilled his waterskins from the lake. The torn one, he’d repaired the night before by sacrificing a square of oilskin.

In the midst of breaking camp, he looked up. And paused. Tiny waves lapped gently at the pebbled shore. Moss and grass enveloped the omnipresent stone and softened its stern lines. The last traces of gold were fading from the sky, leaving behind a cloudless blue. Somehow, the sight only made him feel his aches and bruises, blisters and bug bites all the more keenly. In the face of such unearthly splendor, he was uncomfortably aware of his own frailty.

He looked down and caught a distorted glimpse of his own reflection in the lake’s surface. He winced. Perhaps his feelings of inadequacy had little to do with the natural beauty of the landscape.

What madness would lead her to choose him?

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The days began to run together. There was a familiar silence that hung about the mountains; a stillness that came from being the only living person for leagues around. Not so long ago, when his ears were too full from the bustle of foreign cities, he might have called it “peace.” But, as the journey dragged by, he slowly remembered why he had once dreaded traveling alone. It had nothing to do with danger, nor even loneliness, in truth. Rather, he found that with no one to talk to—without the pressure to be a Ranger or a Captain or a Chieftain—his own thoughts grew louder and more clamorous. And, too often, his thoughts spoke with the voices of those he loved.

“She is of lineage greater than yours . . .”

“My son, your aim is high, even for the descendant of many kings . . .”

“A great doom awaits you . . .”

“Dark is the Shadow . . .”

“It is not fit that a mortal should wed with the Elf-kin . . .”

“You do not know yet what you desire of me . . .”

“There lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin . . .”

“There will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn’s son, come between us . . .”


But, always, when his doubts grew too many, a whispered voice could silence them.

“I will cleave to you.”

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The wolf did not lose interest. Its tracks continued to appear, always just beyond his campsite. Aragorn was more careful with his food. Eventually, he abandoned hunting altogether and thanked Yavana for the miracle of Elven waybread. It made no difference; there were always more tracks, and he began to glimpse the beast in the daylight hours. By the time he reached the western edge of the range, it was clear that the wolf was stalking him.

Its persistence was unnerving. The creature was a scrawny thing, little larger than a hunting dog. Ribs stood out starkly beneath a coat the color of old iron. Its fur was matted here and there with dirt and old blood, and there was a desperate gleam in its eyes. Without a pack to support it, this creature should have posed little risk to anything more dangerous than a fox. Still, though the wolf slunk away from him, it had the look of a predator trusting to stealth. This was no beggar. Its continued presence made no sense; this high in the mountains, there was little game, so wolves were rare.

Then again, Men were even rarer.

Perhaps he had been alone too long, but it seemed to Aragorn that there was something admirable in the wolf’s tenacity. It knew it was outmatched, yet it hunted him all the same. With its gleaming eyes and quiet snarl, it told him that it would not be cowed by this strange, two-footed animal. It would not beg. It would not retreat and waste away to nothing in this barren land.

Having spent far too much time in the Dark Lord’s land, Aragorn could appreciate the value of defiance.

The day arrived when the wolf no longer turned tail at the sight of him, but settled into its haunches, watching. Moving slowly and fluidly, Aragorn strung his bow and put an arrow to the string. The creature did not seem to recognize the weapon for what it was, but in Aragorn’s experience, animals learned fast. He would only get one shot.

He waited until the wolf paced to within a few yards of him, then deliberately turned away.

The scrabble of stones was sudden, but expected. Aragorn spun and loosed an arrow, almost without thinking. The wolf fell with a yelp, an arrow embedded in its shoulder. But, instead of slinking away to die, the creature gathered itself for one last spring.

Aragorn’s second arrow caught it in the throat. The wolf fell and did not move again.

Staring down at the body, Aragorn shook his head. It had been decades since he’d allowed himself to become sentimental over an animal, but this one was something of a kindred spirit—a fellow loner, a fellow fighter. Wolves weren’t meant to walk alone, any more than Men were. If there had been even one more of the creatures, he might have been the one to see his journey cut short. The thought was sobering.

The thought was strangely hopeful.

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Once he left the splendor of the mountains behind him, he did not feel quite so small. His long legs served him well in the trek north through Hollin. This was familiar country. It offered easy passage, and plenty of time to marshal his thoughts like half-trained soldiers. He thought of all the glory that the line of Elendil had brought to Arda and all that it might yet bring, but that was nothing but petty vanity beside her grace. He thought of everything that Elrond himself had taught him about how the Doom of Men was, in fact, a Gift and not to be feared, but he knew he was not cruel enough to turn those lessons against the teacher. By the time he stood once more at the foothills of the mountains, less than an hour’s journey from the secret valley, he was left with no argument but the one he felt in his bones: that he could accomplish anything and pay any price if he could but be with her all of his days.

It was not enough.

Evening was falling, but enough daylight remained. He knew this country like he knew his own heart. He could easily find the Last Homely House, even in the fading light.

Instead, he made camp just over a league away and waited for the dawn.

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Morning brought no answers, at least no easy ones. High mountains now lay between him and his beloved. Her absence left an ache in his chest. It served as a reminder that the choice had already been made.

The morning was not even half gone when he reached Imladris. Erestor met him at the gates with a smile and a warm clasp of his hands. “Welcome home, Estel. It has been a long time.”

He smiled at Elrond’s chief counselor. “Only as Men account it.”

“Lord Elrond is expecting you.”

Aragorn swallowed. “Expecting me?”

“Indeed, we expected you last night.” There was a mild reproof in Erestor’s voice.

Aragorn looked away. Had he been tracked by an Elven patrol? Or had the Lord of Imladris simply foreseen his return? “The journey was long.” It was not really an answer, but it gave him something to say.

“No doubt. It is good that you have safely reached the end of it.” Aragorn fell in step beside the Elf, and together they crossed over the splashing river and passed through graceful archways into the familiar confines of the house. “He awaits you in his study.” Aragorn tamped down on the panic those words caused him. He’d hoped to make his appeal in his own time on his own terms. Instead, it appeared he would not even have a chance to wash away the dust of the road. Not that it would have mattered; Elrond could always see who he was, regardless of his raiment. Erestor paused to pull something long and slim out of a cabinet near the entryway. “He bade you wear this.”

The Man pulled away a loose cloth and immediately recognized the scabbard that held the Shards of Narsil. He grasped the hilt and drew a foot of steel from the sheath. He glanced up at Erestor. “I left this here for safekeeping.”

“And it is being returned to you.”

He bit his lip, pondering what it might mean that Elrond wished to see him arrayed with this symbol of his heritage. Pushing his qualms away, he sheathed the shard and buckled the scabbard to his belt. “My thanks.” He offered Erestor a brief bow. “I’d best not keep him waiting any longer.”

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Elrond’s study had changed little over the decades, but Aragorn had never before seen it like this. Though the sun was high in the sky, heavy curtains were drawn over all the windows. The only light came from the crackling fire in the hearth.

Elrond was a shadow silhouetted against those flames. He stared into them silently, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. He turned at Aragorn’s approach, but slowly—like an old Man.

Aragorn bowed. “Master Elrond,” he said formally, “You do me honor by receiving me.”

Elrond’s face was set in lines of care, but he was not scowling. He had the look of one who feels his heart rent in two, but has resolved to stand silent in the face of that pain. “Aragorn.” His eyes glinted in the low light. In that moment, Aragorn realized that he had foreseen this meeting. Perhaps he had been expecting it for years. “You have something you wish to ask of me.”

Aragorn swallowed. He looked at the ground. “Yes, my lord.” His chest ached. He had made a promise. He forced himself to look up, to meet Elrond’s gaze and let him see the love that was written there. “I wanted to speak to you . . . about Arwen.”

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“A shadow lies between us. Maybe it was appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life’s grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor.”


Fin




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