Aragorn paused at the crest of the hill, holding up a hand to stop those behind him. At their backs, the sun was just beginning to set behind the Tower Hills. The Shire lay somewhere before them, though the trees hid it from view; this part of the Westmarch was heavily wooded. Still, he could glean some knowledge of their progress by his ears alone. He closed his eyes and listened.
All the usual forest sounds were there. Crickets were just beginning to chirp. Song birds tittered in the trees. Someone behind him shifted, causing the dry leaves to rustle. Aragorn pursed his lips and whistled—one low tone followed by two higher short ones. To an outsider, it sounded like nothing more than birdsong, but any Dúnadan under his command would immediately recognize it as the signal for “quiet.” The rustling stilled.
He again turned his attention to the forest beyond. Squirrels chattered their autumn gossip. Some distance away, a large animal picked its way through the underbrush—probably a doe in search of a buck. The wind brought a whiff of chimney smoke to his nose.
From behind him, came a sudden chorus of whispers and a poorly-stifled giggle. He repeated the signal for quiet, and when the others did not fall silent at once, he cast an annoyed look over his shoulder. A brief glance was all it took.
When quiet reigned once more, he listened more carefully. There. The distant lowing of cattle impatient for milking time. Dogs barking and sheep bleating. Those were the unmistakable sounds of a pastoral civilization—one less than a league distant. In fact, if he listened very carefully, he could almost hear . . . a sudden crunching of underbrush and stamping of feet from just yards behind him. A cry of protest followed by an indignant rebuke followed by a yelp of pain and more indignation. Aragorn whipped his head around, his face hardening, only to discover that the squabble had already been dealt with; Halbarad had the two combatants by the scruff of their necks. Breaking up their noisy disagreement had not been difficult for him.
The combatants, after all, were only twelve years old.
The rest of Aragorn’s undersized “patrol”—two more boys and two girls, all of a similar age—looked at the two with expressions that ranged from sympathy to exasperation. Aragorn knew how they felt.
He was really beginning to regret deciding that the Chieftain ought to take a greater role in training the young people.
“Are you quite finished?” he asked the boys sternly. They nodded, their heads hung low, their faces suitably contrite. One scuffed the forest floor with the toe of his boot, letting out another rustle and earning himself a terrier-like shake from Halbarad. Aragorn glared for a moment more before looking away. “We will make camp at the base of the ridge. And I think the two of you will benefit from digging latrines. Again.”
The children trotted past him to go about their pre-assigned duties. Now that the day’s exercises were over, they were free to converse amongst themselves, which they did with great enthusiasm. Their voices were low but animated as they talked while digging firepits and laying out bedrolls. Halbarad released the young brawlers, handed a shovel to each of them, and came up beside Aragorn. “I did warn you,” he muttered.
“So you have reminded me,” Aragorn replied at a growl.
It had all started out so easily—even charmingly. The youth were just beginning their formal training in woodcraft and survival—training some of them would one day put to use as Rangers. In keeping with tradition, Aragorn and Halbarad had taken them on a weeks-long “expedition” to test their skills. The young ones had been on their best behavior at first; they were all a little awed that the Chieftain had chosen to oversee their progress personally. They had made their way south and west from Evendim to the White Towers. It was an easy journey through lands kept safe by the Rangers and made lovely by Círdan’s Elves. He’d led them to Elostirion, where the children could see the last surviving palantír of the Northern Kingdom and receive many solemn lectures on the fall of Númenor and of Arnor. They’d rested and replenished their supplies.
But now on the return journey, the children seemed to be fresh out of reverence. They chattered at every opportunity. They told jokes and played pranks and scared away game with their antics. Squabbles broke out with alarming regularity, especially between Horon and Maerven, the two youngest boys.
Tonight’s latrine-diggers were hardly the only source of such bickering, though; Aragorn scarcely had time to set his pack down before he was called to mediate a dispute between the girls over whose turn it was to clean the fish they’d caught. He’d been cautioned against undertaking this journey with a mixed group, but he’d found that the minor flirtations that broke out between boys and girls were far easier to handle than the rivalries that developed between members of the same sex.
Aragorn settled the girls’ argument, brokered a temporary peace agreement between the Horon and Maerven, and coached a thirteen-year-old for fifteen minutes before the boy managed to light the tinder. Once the fire was finally burning, Halbarad took mercy on his Chieftain and distracted the children by grilling them on trail signs and edible plants while they cooked and ate their evening meal.
While the youths learned twenty different ways to not eat poison hemlock, Aragorn watched the sky. When it had darkened to the color of lead, he set his plate aside and kicked dirt over the fire. That got the young people’s attention; in these secure lands, they usually left a campfire burning until well into the night.
“Come,” he said, rising and gesturing for them to follow, “No, you will not need your packs. Bring only your belt knives and a coil of rope apiece.”
Sensing adventure, the children hurried to fall in line behind him, like a den of fox kits following their mother. Halbarad arched an eyebrow, but asked no questions as he brought up the rear. Aragorn led them back around the ridge and up a wooded trail until he reached a point where the land jutted out to a steep bluff with trees reaching almost to its edge. He stopped at the precipice and nodded in satisfaction. He’d chosen well. They had almost reached the edge of the wood; just a few trees clung to the rocky soil past the bluff. The rolling fields of the Westfarthing stretched out beyond them, and away to the south he could just barely see the chalk hills that gave the White Downs its name.
He turned back and gestured for the others to come close; on this height, the wind could easily catch a careless voice. “The land beyond,” he told the youths quietly, “Is mostly cropland and pastures. There are many farms, but few large settlements. It would be an ideal place of encampment for a hostile army.”
“Of very small soldiers,” a girl named Glessil piped up. She had long since proven herself the least reverent of the group.
Aragorn gave her a smile that was only a little tight-lipped. “You know your geography. That is something. Yes, we stand at the borders of the Shire, just a few leagues north of the Halfling capital of Michel Delving. But, not all lands will hold such benign inhabitants, nor can we know that this one will be secure forever. It behooves you to learn how to map an area from a distance, even if only to help you avoid running into your foes.”
The children exchanged glances. Aragorn could almost see them silently casting lots to decide who would have to alert the Chieftain to the obvious. He waited.
“It’s a little dark for mapping,” Horon said at last.
Aragorn made a show of looking around, as if he’d only just noticed the deepening shadows. “It is, isn’t it?” The children tittered a little. “No matter. If you do find yourself looking out over an army, you can estimate its size by counting campfires. We’ll teach you lads how to do it sometime next year. Tonight, you need only practice finding a suitable vantage point.” He gestured at the trees that stood all around them. “Each of you is to choose a different tree and climb until you have a good view of the Westfarthing. Then use your rope to tie yourself in as if you had to spend the night in the tree. You will quietly observe for an hour’s time and be ready to report on what you see.” He waved a hand. “Get to it.”
There were a few squabbles over who had first claim to the best tree, but before long, the youths were climbing steadily. Naturally, they made a game out of seeing who could reach the upper branches the fastest. Aragorn watched for a moment—just long enough to assure himself that none of them were in danger of tumbling to their deaths—then selected a convenient pine of his own and climbed halfway up its trunk. He caught Halbarad’s eye and jerked his head, inviting his kinsman to join him.
The other Ranger was puffing a little by the time he reached Aragorn. “Alright,” Halbarad grumbled, rubbing sap onto his trousers, “I understand why the young ones are climbing—more or less. But what are we doing up a tree? Besides proving that you are a very sprightly seventy?”
Aragorn smiled as he leaned back against the trunk and hooked one arm over a higher branch. “Just watch awhile,” he said softly. From nearby, he could hear the children experimenting, trying to make their whispers reach their fellows’ trees while magically avoiding their guardians’. Aragorn whistled for quiet, and after a moment, he heard nothing but the evening breeze and Halbarad muttering something about obfuscating Chieftains.
His smile did not waver.
His timing was almost eerily perfect; less than five minutes had passed when every eye was suddenly drawn east by a flash of light that resolved into a shower of silver sparks. They were so far away that a spectacle that might have filled the sky appeared no larger than the head of a dandelion. The children oohed and aahed all the same; none of them had ever seen fireworks before.
Four more bursts of light followed in quick succession. This time, the sparks were red and blue and where they touched they turned gold somehow. The sound of explosions did not stretch across the long leagues to reach them, but the children’s excited murmuring swelled and ebbed in time with the display. Aragorn did not shush them, this time. They had been disciplined and responsible for long enough.
“Gandalf,” Halbarad murmured as more sparks traced a pattern like fiery feathers across the clear sky.
“Yes,” Aragorn replied, “Though these are but his toys, of course.”
An animated creature of green fire, no larger than a dragonfly, spread its wings to arc into the air and circle back down.
“Some toys,” Halbarad said.
As blue and green orbs wove around each other like dancers, Aragorn had to agree. He’d never asked Gandalf how he constructed these little diversions. How much was technology and how much the uncanny power of an Istar? Did Gandalf spend hours squinting and muttering as he mixed powders and coated fuses? Did he fold a bit of himself into those ephemeral sparks? Was he diminished when they faded away?
“So this is why we’re here,” Halbarad did not sound happy, “Why you insisted on skirting so close to the Shire. You knew the wizard would be here.”
“When last we spoke, Gandalf told me that he was planning a show for this particular night,” Aragorn answered evenly, “I believe it’s a birthday party for one of his hobbit friends. I hoped we might catch a glimpse of it, even from some distance.”
Halbarad sighed. “Certainly, but you did not come all this way just so the children could see a few fireworks.”
Aragorn did not respond. Purple flowers bloomed against the horizon.
“You’re meeting him, aren’t you?” Halbarad prodded, “You’ve set up a rendezvous and timed this whole exercise around it. That’s why we couldn’t stay an extra night at Elostirion.”
Aragorn’s silence was evidently confirmation enough.
For a moment, Halbarad was silent. “I hope whatever the old man has to say is worth all this trouble,” he said at last. He paused a moment, then said “No, actually, strike those words from your mind. I hope it is an utter waste of time. I hope you and Gandalf have nothing to exchange but weather reports and knitting patterns. Because what the two of you consider ‘worth the trouble’ should strike fear into lesser hearts.”
Aragorn glanced at his kinsman with a raised eyebrow. “I seem to have forgotten my knitting patterns, but this is a routine meeting. We cannot leave all tidings in letters, but I have not heard of any particular trouble from him.”
Halbarad did not seem comforted. “Just promise me you won’t let him convince you to go gallivanting off into the sunset for a decade or three.”
“I’m much too old and dignified to gallivant,” Aragorn sniffed.
Halbarad, for once, was not ready to share in the joke. The moonlight barely illuminated his scowl, but when he spoke next, his voice was resigned. “When?”
“And when were you planning on telling me?”
“Even a wizard can’t cross all those leagues before morning.”
“No, we’re meeting somewhere in between. I should be back by midmorning tomorrow.”
“You mean to go alone, then,” Halbarad huffed, “I don’t like it.”
“It’s the Shire,” Aragorn pointed out, “I could scarcely be safer if I was in my own bedchamber.”
“Then why not bring the children along? We could all meet the wizard.”
“For one thing, the children couldn’t keep up,” Aragorn said patiently, “Also, it may have slipped your attention, but they are not so accomplished in stealth just yet. The hobbits might take it for an invasion, and I am not ready to teach the young ones how to flee from a frightened mob. Though it’s arguably a useful skill.”
Halbarad’s scowl did not fade.
Aragorn sighed. “What is the matter, Halbarad? This is a routine meeting. The last time I met with Gandalf, I gave you no more warning than this, and your greatest concern was that he hadn’t bought you enough drinks while we talked.”
“This feels different. I cannot explain it but something is afoot here. No good will come out of this meeting, at least not for the likes of us.”
Aragorn turned his eyes back to the fireworks, trying to dismiss Halbarad’s disquiet. He was wrong, of course. This was the Shire—the most sheltered, contented realm in Arda. Gandalf might carry ill tidings from far-off lands, but there was certainly no danger here.
With a pang of wistfulness, he thought of the hundreds of well-fed hobbits lounging atop their holes, gazing up at the wizard’s display with the same childlike wonder his young companions were showing. He glanced at Horon in the next tree over. The boy’s face was alight with amazement, but Aragorn’s own expression sobered. In the pleasant confines of the land before them, hobbits could act like children until they were one hundred and eleven. It didn’t seem fair that the young people around him were already living through childhood’s last gasps.
For a moment, he toyed with the idea of asking Gandalf to arrange a show for some of the Dúnedain settlements. They never had enough children, it seemed, but there were a few who would enjoy such things. Their elders, meantimes, could stand to get to know Gandalf a bit better—to see him as more than the eccentric wanderer who occasionally borrowed their Chieftain for “a decade or three.” Truly, a visit might benefit them all.
He dismissed the thought with a snort of derision. The secret Dúnedain villages would be made somewhat less secret by the appearance of sparking, enchanted beacons marking their precise locations for all the world to see. The village elders were not likely to be charmed by the display—not when so many of them still blamed Gandalf for Aragorn’s long absence during his travels in the south.
Still, he wanted better for their children—better than this hardscrabble existence keeping other homes safe. He wanted to bring them some measure of the Shire’s peace, even if they could not have its simplicity.
Another winged beast rose into the air. Even from this distance, the sparkling creature was unmistakably a dragon. The children aahed in appreciation, but Aragorn thought of Ancalagon the Black, whose fire lit the sky during the War of Wrath. He shook off his melancholy mood. It would be a dangerous world indeed if every race dedicated itself to hobbit-like pursuit of oblivious hedonism. Eriador needed Rangers, he reminded himself as the last sparks faded and he climbed down. There would be work for these children soon. There was work for him now.
But, he would provide better for them. Someday.
A/N: A version of this story was published for the Teitho Fanfiction Challenge, where it tied for third. Since I’m now less sleep-deprived than I was at the time of the contest deadline, I’ve edited it slightly. It is unbetaed.