WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE
Aragorn missed his footing and stumbled forward, barely catching himself before he fell. He sighed and glanced back. He could just see Denethor a half dozen paces behind him, still upright. They were in the midst of descending the south slope of the hills. Though not possessing the sheer cliffs of the north side, the descent had proved treacherous. Exhausted and unable to see well in the gloom, they stumbled often.
Aragorn’s wandering thoughts did not help. The moment of peace that they had shared had vanished. Though the tension between them had not grown, neither had it abated. The Ranger found himself once again remembering of that brief camaraderie. He tried to think of same way to recall it in more than just memory. Turning the problem over and over in his head, he could not find a solution. There existed no words that could gain Denethor’s trust. Rather, Aragorn knew such words, but they formed a pledge that he would not make, that he could not make.
As he sat watch that morning, Aragorn ran what he might say through his mind. `I swear this to you as the last living heir of Elendil and on the honour of that once great House. I will renounce any right that I might have to the Throne in the White City. Nor will any of my own sons to be King. I will keep them in ignorance of their heritage until they are of an age to swear this same oath. I will bind them to their word as Fëanor of old bound his sons. You and your blood will have the rule of Gondor and her tributaries for as long as your line continues.’
Right, he thought, rubbing his eyes tiredly. And I will forget all that Elrond and my mother told me about the coming Doom. I will ignore the prophecy that tells me I must take part in that Doom. Instead, I will be content to live out my days as a nameless wanderer. Arwen, I am sure, will be delighted to wander with me. We might even have a happy life together. Unless her Lord Father puts her on the next Westbound ship. Or that the Dark Lord conquers and enslaves Middle-earth.
Abruptly, Aragorn rolled to his knees, trying to clear his mind. He winced as his tired limbs creaked in protest; he had been awake too long. But it did not take long to crawl to the edge of the ledge they hid under, and he needed to move. Looking out, he could see naught but grey. Acre upon acre of barren stone marched off into the low-hanging overcast. He wondered how even orcs could survive in this waste.
The Ranger crawled back and fumbled for his pack. Reaching inside, he felt for a small lump in the lining. Had he not sewn it there himself, he would not have found the small pocket. He had hidden it in the seam where the straps attached. Now he tore the cloth away and removed its contents. His fingers traced the double snake and crown as he slipped the ring on his finger.
He found his former position by feeling out the warmed stone. He made sure to sit on it exactly. The weather had turned cold again. The ranger reflected that it was fortunate that they travelled by night. It kept them warm. He smiled briefly. He had just had a vision: the look on Denethor’s face at the notion of sleeping close to share heat. Imagining how that conversation might go kept him entertained until the end of his watch.
They did not say more than a few words to each other when Denethor woke, nor when they started out again. But even though silence hung between them for most of the night, Aragorn’s heart felt lighter. Food and sleep, it seemed had lifted his spirits. The metal on his hand reminded him of his purpose. He began considering his companion, other ways to talk to him, other words to use.
He had thought of not saying anything at all. He could stay silent; let the enmity between them remain as it was. But he knew that it would not simply linger, but fester and grow. Someday it could very well cost lives, or even cause another kinslaying.
At least the terrene provided no obstacles that night. They skirted the feet of the mountains, staying on more or less level ground. Rock outcroppings and a few snarled groves of thorn trees blocked their way at times, but they were easily avoided. Aragorn walked without attention, thinking hard.
As the first light of dawn crept into the sky, he drew a deep breath and said, “Denethor.”
The other man, walking beside and a little behind him, stopped completely. He seemed to have noted something strange in Aragorn’s tone. “Yes?” he asked.
The ranger also halted, turning to face his companion. “We need to talk,” he said after a moment’s hesitation.
Denethor also hesitated for a moment. But “This is neither the time nor the place,” was all he said before he started walking again.
“Very well,” said Aragorn. He paused before continuing, glancing up at the stars for reassurance. But the clouds still kept even a glimpse of them from him. Sighing, he started out to overtake Denethor.
Aragorn knew that their pace increased every day. Despite short rations and long nights, Denethor grew stronger. Now he could easily match the Ranger stride for stride. At dawn, they had passed the crevice he had planned on sheltering in by a good league. Instead, the companions hid in a small cave worn in the cliff side.
As soon as they arrived, Denethor sat, legs crossed, and looked expectantly at Aragorn. He had the look of a man who anticipated something mildly entertaining, if improbable. The ranger had seen a similar expression on his mother’s face while he made excuses for staying out too late. That had been when he was a boy of eight. He had found that attitude annoying then; forty years later, from this man, it was outright infuriating.
Still, Aragorn spoke, trying to remember the words he had planned. “Your son, Pelen…” he stopped then corrected himself, “Boromir, what will you teach him?”
Denethor paused. Aragorn could see a dozen possible answers occurring to him. “Everything that I know,” he said at last; “And what the scholars and master of arms can teach. He will grow to be a great Lord.”
Aragorn smiled slightly. “A great Lord or a great King?” he demanded.
Other than slightly narrowed eyes, Denethor’s expression did not falter at the challenge. “A great Lord,” he said firmly, “There are no longer Kings in Gondor.”
Aragorn also kept his face still. He could ill afford to lose this game. “And were a King to return?” he asked. “Will you teach your son all the obligations of a Steward?”
“I will,” the Steward’s son said, steel in his voice. “Boromir will learn the traditions of his ancestors, even those that have lived beyond their usefulness.”
The words hung in the air. Aragorn could think of no way around them, other than an outright statement of his intention. His appeal to Denethor’s sense of duty and honour had only dug the ranger deeper. He knew that anything he said now would only make his position worse, so he remained silent. He hated leaving the last word to his rival.
While he was thinking, he unconsciously traced the snakes encircling his finger. The ring had been in his family for some eight thousand years. He had sorely missed wearing it in all his years of wandering. He had not wanted to risk anyone recognising the heirloom. Now he was going home.
“A band of metal does not a king make,” Denethor commented dryly.
Aragorn’s hand froze, he had not noticed his own actions. Recovering quickly, he asked, “Not even a crown?”
The man of Gondor inclined his head. “A crown does,” he conceded. “But a ring does not, no matter who gave it to whose ancestor.”
“And a sceptre?” Aragorn pressed.
Denethor’s lips quirked into a sort of smile. “Certainly,” he said, “If one wished to be a King of Arnor.” He paused before adding unkindly, “Though I do not imagine that anyone would.”
The Northerner felt a surge of anger. Failing to rein it in, he snapped, “There are good men in the Old Kingdom. They have guarded Gondor’s back for near three thousand years.”
The other man’s smile widened. “I am thankful for it,” he said, “And I wish you the joy of them.”
Aragorn felt like screaming. He remembered now how hard his days in the City had been. The son of Ecthelion had always been thus, proud, swift and terribly sharp-tongued. The ranger paused for a moment, to gather his wits. “When the Shadow comes,” he said, trying to sound reasonable, “The Race of Man will need to unite.”
Denethor laughed bitterly. “Have you not noticed, Thorongil? The Shadow has already come. The Men of Gondor have fought him for a thousand years.” He glanced at Aragorn’s ring, a hostile gleam slipping through his mask. “If your people wish to aid us, they will be made most welcome in my City.”
Right, thought the Ranger, I remember your “welcome.” He had had just about enough of this. “The Men of the North will not unite behind a Steward,” he snapped.
“And the Men of the South will not follow a houseless wanderer,” Denethor shot back. “The strife that he would bring would destroy us.”
“Not if the Steward supported him,” Aragorn said.
Denethor did not answer, but rolled over and pretended to sleep.
The last living heir of Elendil ground his teeth viciously.