Aragorn Walks the Pathways
I walk in blissful memory among the birches of Rivendell, Arwen's hand in mine. Late summer flowers, white and yellow and pink, strew the green-gold forest floor. The warm breeze lifts petals from the trees and grass and brushes our faces with their softness. She laughs as fluttering blossoms catch in her hair, pale blue against the dark blue-black gloss of her long tresses falling loose over her shoulders. I feel the warm silkiness of her slender fingers in my hand, her fragrance surrounds me, her whispered words caress my ear. For this, I would endure any torment.
But in the distance thunder crackles and a wolf howls.
The sky darkens. Rain falls—not the warm rains of summer in Rivendell, but the harsh icy rain of the northern wild. My empty hand now holds only sorrow. The birches and the flowers are gone, and I see only gloomy leafless trees and brush amid a stony ground. "Arwen!" I call. My head bent against the wind and rain, I see a faint trail through the tangled branches. I follow it. I hear the hooting of owls on the hunt. The trail disappears, and I am stumbling on sharp rocks, falling to my hands and knees, leaving a trail of blood from my cut palms. "Arwen!"
I can hear Halbarad's voice. "Dream of her!" he is telling me. "Think of her! Fight the Enemy!"
I'm trying, I say to him. But I can't hear him any more. The wind is roaring in my ears, the thorns tearing my clothing, and I feel the menace of the black wings of my fever dreams swooping upon me. The dark wings will grab me and I will no longer be Aragorn but his creature. All around me now, loping through the dusky underbrush, are grey shapes, and the howl of the wolf tears the very air.
"No!" I cry. Blinded by rain and wind, I falter onwards until suddenly, with a cry of terror, I fall. I try to catch myself, but no—I plunge into icy water. I peer before me and see only water, more water. I kick off my boots and thrust my body into the deep, chill currents and begin to swim. If I must, I will drown before I let him take me.
I swim until my body trembles with fatigue. No strength left, I let go, sink, sink, sink. All is black and fear grabs me again. Here is no release after all. He will take me dying.
A light appears, hovering above me, rich and sweet. It grows to a round sparkling window; through the trembling water I can see a wood of silver-bark trees heavy with golden flowers.
It is her voice. Her beautiful face appears in the window, searching for me.
"Estel!" she calls again.
I reach for her with my last strength. My lungs bursting for air, I come to the surface again. Golden light shimmers about me, green ferns murmur songs of peace. The water now is soft and warm, like a pond on a summer's day. I half-swim, half-float to the bank, and fall back exhausted. "Rest," says her voice. "I will hold him back for a little."
I gasp for breath. "Rest," she says again. "When you can go on, follow the path."
"There is no path," I cry, and I can hear the despair in my own voice.
"You will find it," she says.
I close my eyes. Do I sleep? Perhaps. I feel strength returning to my body and mind. When at last I open my eyes and rise to my feet, the wood is dark again. I see no golden window, no starry eyes. I plunge ahead, looking for the path. I find only a narrow trail littered with dry brown leaves, fit only for beasts. When I pass, sharp twigs catch at my body from both sides; I must duck under lowering branches.
And again the wolf howls.
I stop, my heart pounding with fear. "Arwen! Where are you?"
I hear her voice from far away. "I can come no longer. Follow the path. Farewell, Estel."
"No!" I thrust out my hands blindly, but my hand touches only dry leaves and thorny brush. I crouch there, my tears dripping into the dry forest floor. "Follow the path," she says again, so faintly that I wonder if the voice comes from my own heart. I turn to look back at the pool where first I saw her. But instead of the dark water I see in the shadows of the hoary trees a grey wolf. His yellow eyes stare into mine: It is the Sorcerer. I know him by the Elven light in his wolf eyes.
I turn in panic and stumble through the dark, crashing down the path of dry brown leaves.
"Fly then, little Dúnadan," he cries after me. "You may hide for a time, but I am within you and I will never leave. Even now I learn your secrets."
Screaming defiance, I move through the dark trees. The grey shape shadows me as I flee. It is only a matter of time before he catches me.
I do not dare to stop for rest. Panting, my lungs aching, my feet sore, I run and run. At last it seems that dawn is near, if there is a dawn in this place: the sky above seems to pale. Ahead I hear a strange crash and roar as of a thunderstorm, or maybe a massive waterfall in the mountains. Suddenly the path opens up and I step out into the open. Before me stretches a sight that I have never seen with my waking eyes, but I know it from the tales and the paintings of Rivendell: the sea. Marveling I stare at the endless water, grey-blue waves surging and crashing, white foam at their crests, rushing up the sandy beach and slipping back into the turmoil of the sea.
But the wolf is catching up with me. I begin to run along the beach, my bare feet sinking into the wet sand. My enemy follows, waiting for me to give out, when the kill will be easy and swift.
Suddenly I see a figure moving swiftly down the beach toward me. He calls to me: "Senya!"
I know that voice. I stumble toward him. The wolf, snarling, stops in his tracks. Elrond enfolds me in his embrace. I know those warm, strong arms and the touch of the fingers gripping my shoulders: Their power soothed my childhood fevers. I lean my weary head against his shoulder. "Atarinya, I cannot fight any more."
"We will fight the enemy together. Look."
I raise my face and look toward the enemy on the beach.
But it is no wolf who draws near. A mighty Elven form appears before us, his eyes aglow, triumph lighting his face. He carries no weapon. He needs none.
"Greetings, Elrond Half-Elven. My last revenge will be sweet and long."
"Ahando," my foster father says. Never have I seen such fierceness in his eyes, he who is ever kind and strong. "Moredhel, the cruel servant of Celegorm who murdered my mother's brothers."
"So you Exiles call me," the Sorcerer answers. "And it was for this deed that you named me the Black Elf. Yes, I took Dior's two sons, bound them and left them to starve in the forest."
"And for that you lost your Elven body to the blade of Maedhros son of Fëanor, my foster father. He himself tried to rescue the princes, but when he could not find them, he hunted you down and cut out your heart."
"Maedhros was a weakling," sneers Moredhel. "In the end he could not do what was needed and fell to the Valar's curse. He should have killed you and your mongrel brother and finished off your pathetic race. Half-Elven!" He spits at Elrond's feet.
My foster father says slowly, "You speak with much disdain for the race of Men and the Half-Elves. And yet you steal their bodies for your own need."
Moredhel smiles. "Yes, and I will do it again. As soon as a Man or an Elf comes within my reach, I will return to the seen world. Then my master's power will rise even stronger in the North, and Angmar will be reborn. This time we will not fail."
"Do not raise the victory cup to your lips before the battle is fought," Elrond says. "For this war has gone on since the beginning of the world, and only the world's end will tell the victor."
"Spare me your foresight," Moredhel says. "Against the power of Barad-dur there is no victory."
"No victory by force of arms, perhaps," Elrond says. "But we have other weapons that you cannot understand. Love, hope, courage."
"Phantoms," Moredhel says. "I hate you and your witless dreams. For the Valar safe behind the mountains of Pelori will pay you no heed."
"Your hate comes from fear," Elrond says, his voice ringing with authority. "Huor, my grandfather's father, spoke true words to Turgon, my grandmother's father: 'though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise.' That hope is the doom of you and your foul master."
Moredhel shifts his piercing gaze to me. His eyes glitter with malice. "This is your Hope? This Man? He would be wholly in my power but for your interference, peredhel. Already he has done murder at my bidding."
I cannot keep the cry from my lips. "No! You murdered Beleg, you destroyed him. His spirit was gone from his body."
"So ready to believe everything I say. Ah, you will serve well." Moredhel's voice is soft and wheedling. "Beleg wanders houseless as a ghost and cannot leave the bounds of Middle-earth. He will never be at peace. His death with haunt you all the days of your wretched, little life."
"Senya, do not heed these lies," Elrond says. He gazes steadily at the Enemy. "The Age of Men will soon be upon us, Ahando, and you and your master will not taint it with your evil. The last deed of the Noldor before we go into the West will be to drive you out of Middle-earth."
Moredhel grins, mocking. "Are you so certain you will be admitted, Half-Elven? You and your half-caste children?"
Elrond ignores these taunting words. He lifts his arm and from the ring on his hand a silver-blue light begins to glow. "You will leave this place now. Begone! Your spirit has no power here in the pathways of our hope."
The Sorcerer's answer is a snarl as he again becomes the wolf. But he has final words for us. "I will find the Heir of Isildur again, and I will kill him when he is far from your help."
Then it is as if the world has melted in a blazing forge. A roar fills my ears, and the sky turns. We fall to the damp sand, my foster father and I, and I do not know sky, earth, feet, head. A long dark time comes.
"Wake up, senya."
I open my eyes. Above me, a limpid blue sky, and bending over me is the loving face of my foster father, the only father I have ever known. But we are no longer at the shore of the pounding sea.
"What is this place?" I say.
In answer he reaches out his strong hands, and helps me to my feet. I gasp with the effort of standing, and sway, clutching his arm. I hold tight until the sky stops spinning above me. Around me is a field of wild grass and heather. In the far distance I see the towers and walls of a great city.
"Estel, the pathways are now open to you. See!"
I look to the north where his hand points. And wending its way through the fields there is a trail, little more than a faint trace where the grass does not grow so well. "What is this place?" I say again.
"The pathway of your power," he says. "You must learn to walk it."
"Where will I go?"
"The Powers have given us this gift; what they may show you I do not know. Every man treads the pathways alone."
"And you, atarinya?"
"We will meet again when the time comes. Go!"
As he commands I follow the faint trail in the grass for a while, then turn to wave good-bye. But he is no longer there. I am utterly alone. Taking a deep breath I continue on my way. Passing down into a shallow valley, the trail grows wider and more worn; I see the footprints of a man in a patch of mud. But no living creature is there.
Soon the trail becomes a common dirt lane, just wide enough for a farmer's wagon, here and there a patch of grass with a few daisies, or maybe a stone marker with carving so eroded with time that I cannot read it. If this is the pathway of my power, it is a dubious power. But as I walk I realize that the air is brisk and fresh, my body again now strong and fit. My torn and shaggy clothing gone, I am dressed in good strong Ranger gear, but I carry no weapon. I set into a steady rhythm of long strides.
I see sheep grazing in the wild fields, which are giving way to patches of farmland. Across one field I see a plowman with his horse; soon I pass a roughhewn house with a barn in the back. A woman is feeding her chickens. She nods. "Good day to you," she says in the Common Tongue. I return her greeting.
I continue on my way and pass more farms, more people, all simple folk. It seems to be a goodly land of wheat, oats and fruit trees. Sheep graze in the open fields. Ahead of me the walls of the city are growing as I come nearer.
It is a city of Men, prosperous and bustling, with three vast towers looming over all. Before the walls is a busy market of fruit, grain, bread, cheeses, handiwork well-made and sturdy. Now the path divides. Which way do I follow? I go where my feet take me, without hesitation or seeming choice. I pass quays at the edge of a vast lake where ships laden with goods lie docked.
My feet take me to the middle tower, where I see the banner of the Númenoreans whipping in the wind from the lake, but I do not enter through the beautiful carven archway. I walk around the outskirts of the tower, where outbuildings, workshops, stables, and kitchens lie. At last I come to a low door in a small house, and within I find a woman at her spinning wheel—a woman of the people, with a vast apron over her homespun dress. The room is otherwise entirely empty.
"Good day, goodwife," I say in the common tongue.
She does not cease her work. "Have you come to see my wares?" she asks.
"If you will show me," I answer.
"There are many to choose from," she says. "Go within and see."
I see that in the corner of the room lies another low door. I pass through to see a long hall hewn of stone, the walls lined with tapestries. It is very quiet; the bustle of the city does not penetrate the stone. I begin to pace the hall, and soon find that other hallways branch off to left and right—many of them, vanishing into an unknown end. I am in a vast maze. I wonder if I keep walking if I will ever find the way out.
I stop and look at the hangings around me. Many show people and places that I have never seen, but know from the ancient tales: the Dwarf kingdoms, the beauty of Menegroth, the Meneltarma in Númenor that is no longer. Some are scenes of the everyday life of Men—a blacksmith, a weaver, a shepherd with his flock, a washerwoman.
"Which way am I to choose?" I murmur. "What have these to do with me?"
I keep walking. There is no order or pattern in the tapestries that I can tell. I see warfare, burning towns, Orcs armed with black bows and arrows. I see great cities from the far South and East—these I know from the books of history in Rivendell. I see a harbor of ships in flames. I see Isildur at the defeat of Sauron; he holds the broken shard of Narsil in his gloved hand and he is weeping. I see a fleet of black ships sailing up a vast river.
I see my own mother and the walls of Thurnost. I see Rivendell, timeless and never changing. Then I cry out in horror at the next tapestry: Rivendell is besieged by an army of Orcs, the roof of Elrond's House in flames and the bodies of Elves dead in a hopeless battle.
I walk on, awe and wonder and anguish growing in my heart.
The very last tapestry I see shows a young Elf-woman much like Arwen, or maybe she is Lúthien. She is sitting on a rich green lawn, her feet bare, her hair in braids down her back. She is laughing and holding out her arms to a small boy standing in the grass. He is black-haired, an Elf-child from his great beauty. Is this a scene of the past—Lúthien with Dior, her son? Or is this Arwen at some time to come? Dare I hope the child is also mine?
Tears in my eyes from hope or despair, I do not know, to my surprise I see again the door back to the woman's workshop.
I step through the low doorway to the simple, bare room. She is still there, spinning.
"Have you found what you seek, Aragorn son of Arathorn?" she asks, looking into my eyes.
"I do not know," I say. "I saw many beautiful things and many terrible things, but I did not see myself."
"Not yet," she says. "The thread is not yet woven for your tale. Many long years of hardship and toil lie before you."
"What must I do?" I cry.
"Follow the path."
"Which path do I choose?"
"I cannot tell you. Look in your own heart."
And she stood up and seemed to grow in size, her humble garments falling from her. She is now robed in white, her face suffused with power.
"Will you walk the Paths of the Dead, Elessar?"
And with that she shrank back to the spinster she had been, and turning her face away from me, again took up her spinning.
Awe and fear shiver up my back and I shield my eyes from the sight of her. The Paths of the Dead! Has she cursed me? Questions seethe in my mind, but I dare not speak to her again.
Pulling my hood over my face to hide my dread, I leave her and continue on my journey. Days go by, it seems. Always I walk, seeing many people and things all around me. At last I am again on the shore of the great sea, and there is my foster father, as he had said.
I greet him silently, embracing. We gaze at each other. He does not need to tell me that I must not speak of what I have seen.
"We are now in the pathways of my memory," he says at last. His grey eyes, full of light, look out upon the horizon. "Here on the strand of Lindon, two ages ago, I bade farewell to my brother. He loved the sea, as our father did. I loved the mountains."
Together we stand gazing upon the far, far meeting of sea and sky. I seem to see a gleam as of white sails on the edge of the world.
"I never saw him again," Elrond says.
"But surely—" I stumble on my words. "You could have gone to Númenor? It was no short time that Elros ruled there."
"No short time in the counting of Men," Elrond says. "For me, it was too long and too short all at once. I could not bear to say good-bye yet again, or to see him failing in his Mortal flesh. Then, at last, he made the choice given to the Númenoreans and laid down his life."
My heart rises in my throat, and I feel as if I will faint with horror. Or so says the Elven part of me, the part that had not seen age and the failure of the body—not until I had come to Thurnost.
Elrond turns his eyes full of light—so like his daughter's—to my face. I feel naked to his gaze. "Estel I named you," he says. "Have you never wondered why it's you, and not a child of my body, who is so named?"
I shake my head. Words cannot capture the tangle of love, hope, and reverence that is my feeling for my foster father.
"It is a salutation," Elrond says. "If we have hope for the future of Men, it rests with you."
"Of Men," I murmur.
Elrond turns on me then, suddenly fierce. "There is no other. The days of sunshine for the Eldar lie in the past. Only you, the Followers, have a future in this world. We, the Elves, will dwell only beyond the reach of Middle-earth."
"I don't understand."
"Estel," he says, his voice at once pleading and commanding. "In Men lies the future. Elros knew this. I did not. Not then. Only through you will the Children of Lúthien live to bless the Age of Men. For an Age I have guarded and taught the heirs of my brother, hoping for a future for this world."
"The Dúnedain owe you a debt that can never be paid," I say.
"You still do not understand," he says. "Elros knew that we must part. He to ensure the future of Men, I to foster his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons through the long years of defeat so that his sacrifice would not be in vain."
"Sacrifice," I say. "Yes, it is a diminishing to choose the Followers. But I have no choice in the matter, Master Elrond. A Man I was born, and a Man I shall die."
"True," he says. "Yet that is your strength. You find hope in the uncertainty of the future. You believe that despite the defeats of the present, in the future you will triumph. Your children and your grandchildren will live past you."
Hope, despair—I know not what—speaks to me then. I look into his eyes. "Master Elrond, you tell me to have hope, but you do not speak to me of the dearest hope of my heart."
He turns away from me and says softly, "Need I tell you that my daughter is too far above you?"
I flinch at the truth of his words. "Yet she came to me in the pathways and spoke to me through a mirror of light."
For an eternity he is silent. Then he turns his bright eyes back to me. "Would you ask her to make the choice that my brother made—that diminishing?"
I shudder with the horror of it. "Never." Yet I remember the tapestry of the young woman with her little son.
"Indeed, she will face no choice to stay in Middle-earth unless you come between us and bring one of us, me or you, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world. My son, you do not yet know what you ask of me."
Then his voice changes from sorrow and regret to command. "And you do have a choice, Aragorn son of Arathorn: what to do with the years that are given to you, short though they may be. If you would be worthy of my daughter, many years of trial lie before you. We will speak no more of this, now or for a long time to come."
I am alone again on the shore of the sea.
Somehow I know that my body is in Rivendell now, resting in a soft bed. I see my mother and feel the press of her lips on my brow. But my spirit moves still in the far-off land. I do not see the wolf. I do not hear his howls. Instead I hear the voices of my kin: the voice of Saelind giving me her blessing; my grandmother Ivorwen's wise words; Halbarad's hearty laugh.
Then another comes to me, his fair face youthful and strong. I know him. "Beleg! Forgive me."
"Aragorn, take my hand," he says. "The Sorcerer no longer haunts me. Let me show you before I leave the world forever."
I grip his strong warrior's hand and his memory floods my burdened heart.
Beleg's voice murmurs: "Early spring in Thurnost was ever the best time, and that spring promised to be the loveliest yet. No doubt my own happiness in my lovely wife, Ariel, Arathorn's sister, embellished what Yavanna had made, despite the sadness that still gripped us at her miscarriage of our child. But I will always remember that one day when Arathorn and I returned from the Wild to be greeted by our wives and his small son, dark hair flying as he scampered on his sturdy legs to grab his father's coat. 'My little prince!' shouted Arathorn as he swung his son up into the air. And the boy laughed with delight, and I felt a pang of envy and hope that soon I, too, would have a son.
"We'd missed the boy's second birthday, being on the road as we were. I don't know what moved him—some premonition of what was to follow?—but he chose that day to show Aragorn the insignia of the Heir of Isildur. 'Don't touch, my little one, for you are too small for so great a weapon,' he said. He held the boy on his lap as he lay the shards of Narsil on the table. The red gem on the hilt glowed like deep fire. 'The sword of Elendil, the greatest heirloom of our kingship. Some day it will be reforged and the one who bears it then will be a great king.'
"Arathorn's deep voice recited the verses. Maybe it was the first time the boy had heard them, at least to understand:
Who shall reforge me?
Who shall he be?
Who shall be the king restored?
Who shall lead the host of Men?
Who shall wield the flame of the West,
The Sword of the Sun and the Moon?
" 'It may be you, my little prince,' Arathorn said. 'You may be that great king, my son.' "