A hooded figure, an inn, crisp winter. Can one stand the loneliness, the hurt and devastation he has encountered during his life? Can Aragorn survive when he has changed so much that not even his f...
Warnings: Dark thoughts
Chapter 1: Numb
It has been days since I have slept properly. Ah, what am I thinking. It has been weeks. Every night when I lay down, on the hard ground in the woods, on a blanket, leaves, whatever I have, I feel the weariness of my body, the aches in my back and bones, my eyes are burning, night and day. But sleep evades me. I cannot sleep. At least not for more than an hour. Sometimes two. Then I would wake.
It is not the slow, drowsy reaching that the mind does when one wakes out of a comfortable sleep, filled with pleasant dreams. No, it is a rude wakening, caused by the horrid things I see when I close my eyes. Or I wake from the screams, loud and cruel, sometimes there is harsh laughing, then they plead with me, calling my name, whispering it. I wake from one nightmare into the next.
It has been long since I have sleep long and well, a whole night of sleep is something that I dream of now, during the days and during my nights, when I sit near a fire that should warm me, but that I do not feel, or eat a meal that should strengthen me, but that I cannot taste. My body has long since lost the battle. But the war? No, the war is still raging. Inside.
Stale air drifts to my nose, I smell the putrid smell of ale and sweat. Smoke waves through the room which is filled with drinking and laughing men. I can nearly touch them, so close do they come to me, but I will not do something like that. The thought alone makes me sick. I silently sit in my corner, a cup of warm ale before me, untouched.
A few minutes ago I have filled my pipe, but I will not smoke today, the grisly stench from this room shall not enter my body more than it has already done. No, I don't want to stay here any minute longer than necessary. And still, I do not rise, I sit still and watch. What am I waiting for?
Waiting, it seems I am waiting my whole life for something. Or someone. No, not someone. I will never wait for someone to enter my life again. Too often have a waited, put hopes into my kin, have spent my time waiting for them to do something, to arrive somewhere, to ...no, I will not waste my time with them any longer. I am long past this point.
Perhaps I am waiting for someone to look at me, to acknowledge my presence? I nearly laugh at the thought. Oh, they see me. They all know that I am here, that is why they are not looking in this direction, why they turn their backs to this table and that is why there is no raucous laughter at the table that sits next to mine. They know that I am here. And they are afraid.
Oh, they should not be afraid of me. More barking than biting, although, I admit it, when I bite, I will clamp my fangs down hard. No, they have never seen that side from me, have never seen me draw my sharp sword or shoot an arrow from a distance that would make an elf proud. They are afraid of me because the do not know me. Most of them only know my name, and even that is not my true identity.
Strider. Why do I call myself Strider? It is a stupid name, really. Am I striding through this room? Or over the wide plains of Rohan? Am I striding over hills and rivers? I have done all that, and more, a long time ago. I have seen Rohan, and Gondor, the White City, the Golden Hall. But, not anymore. How long has it been that I have used my long strides for good? Or that they have been long?
Another gust of sweat and ale reaches me and I hold my breath until it passes. Oh, I wish I would have the energy to just walk from this room, stride from it, but no. I will not leave yet, my task is not yet completed. So I lean back again, the gust now gone, and draw my dark hood deeper, so that no one sees my weather worn face. Shall they fear me, then they will leave me alone. For now.
Where was I? Yes, striding. I don't know how long it has been since I have last felt my strides the way they used to be. Strong and long, proud and confident. I always seemed to know where I was going, my steps light, my way clear. If I wanted to be I could be as stealthy as any elf, my steps silent as a cat in the night. But now, even a child could hear me coming now. I do not care any longer if someone hears me. What for? To stay alive? For what purpose?
A loud scream reaches my ears, but it is drowned out immediately as the man who had yelled drops back on his chair and lands on his back, his mug of ale still in hand. His friends laugh hard and help him back up, his chest and arms dripping from the liquid. Closing my burning eyes briefly I look away, but I cannot drown out the yells and the laughter of the drunken men. They reach my ears and I shudder. They are disgusting.
Why do all men behave like that when they are drunk? And why do they get drunk in the first place? Does it make them feel better? Does it help against the cold or the hunger that they might feel? Does it make them stronger or faster? I have tried it a few times, I thought it might help me, help me with my problem, the same problem that has brought me here tonight, but it has not helped me. Could not help me. All it did was making me feel worse than before. No, drinking solves no problems, it only creates them.
But that is not why I am not touching my own cup of stale ale, I am just not thirsty and even if I was, ale is not the drink that I would prefer right now. A good wine, old and ripe, blood red and full of flavours, in this cold winter season warmed and with a bit of cinnamon, perhaps some aniseed in it. Yes, I would like that, although, it has been years since I have last drank something like that. Many years.
Why? Because it is something only the elves can make perfectly. A few years ago I have ordered one in an inn south of Gondor, in a small village, but the wine was more like vinegar and it just tasted distasteful, but at least it had been warm. It had been the only comfort the drink had been able to give me. Or the inn, the village, the night...for that matter.
I remember it as if it had been only yesterday that I had been sitting in that inn, it was not very different from this one, although is was smaller and darker, but not as cramped with people as this one is. But it had been as smelling as the one I am currently sitting in, as all inns smell. Do they never open the windows here? Let the clear winter air enter and chase the smell away that seems to have taken residence inside this walls?
A maiden rushes past my table, her eyes never darting in my direction. She knows that I will not order anything more than the ale that I already have. I have been sitting here for quite some times. Always at this table, far back from the door, my hood drawn deep into my face, sometimes smoking, sometimes not. It is almost a ritual.
She has delivered the ale she has been ordered to serve and walks past my corner again, but now her dress shows deep crimson spots. She tries to wipe them away with her hands, muttering. I know she will not succeed, the wine will not be wiped away so easily. It seeps into the fabric, claws at it, makes it cling to the skin. It will begin to dry and leave brighter spots on the clothing. After a few days, if it is not washed, it will start to smell, then stink. Just the same way as blood does. I know what I am talking about. Of all the men in this room, I should know.
I have washed my hands time and again. I have washed them so long and so hard that I have torn my skin, until they were red again. This time, from my own blood. And although they are clean now, or as clean as can be expected under these circumstances, they are still soiled. Every time I look at them I can see the red blood on them. Not black blood, foul blood of orcs or wargs. No, red blood. Human blood. But not mine. Not always.
How many I have killed? I do not know. Many. I have killed them with my sword. Have severed hands from arms, heads from necks. The wounds that I have caused have been deathly. But again, not always. The men that I have killed on the spot are haunting me. The men that I have left alone to die, are tormenting me. Every waking hour, when I am not able to sleep, I see their faces, I hear their screams of pain and the pleas that they uttered before they finally died.
Oh, of course I have not been there when they breathed their last. Mostly I was long gone then, my bloody sword in hand, red warm liquid dripping onto my hands, colouring them. I have not cared then. I have been fighting, there was a war to win. Or a battle? A skirmish? A tavern brawl? Oh, I have killed so many times. Sometimes to save myself, sometimes to safe others. Sometimes, just because I had my sword in hand and my opponent had one too. Did you know that you can see ones fear in his eyes? They are the door to the soul, they say. That is a part of my problem too.
I have not only killed with my sword, I have slaughtered. Rage has driven me, hate has been my ally, fear my companion, duty my commander, willpower my strength. That is another part of my problem, why I am here today, in this starless night in the deepest winter.
Winter. I remember my last winter before I returned to the north. How many I have killed in that winter? Ten, twenty, thirty? More like hundred, but I do not know. My sword had done its work, warmed by the blood it tasted, sustained by it, wanting more and more and more, never satisfied with what it got. But that is not why I remember that winter now. I remember it because of what I have just been thinking about. The fear in ones eyes.
You see, when you fight man to man, or man to orc, or whatever opponent your are facing, it does not matter, you can seen the moment that anger and hate, battle thirst and bloodlust turn into uncertainty, and then fear when you hurt them, when your bloody sword calls for more tribute, and when you answer and feed it. The fear then turns to pain and with the pain comes the panic. You can see it, when the eyes turn wider, when the face gets paler in seconds, when they open their mouths to scream or plead or cry. But if you are good, you won't let them. I have long ago turned into a good fighter. One of the best.
I remember that winter so well because I had broken my right wrist in a fight and had not been able to use my sword in the battles that I fought that winter. I used my bow. And that was even worse.
You see, I am good at archery, trained by the best and talented as well. I can shoot a thin branch from a tree on a windy day from a distance from that other men cannot even distinguish it from the other branches. I am good, and I am not saluting my self by saying that, I am pitying me.
If fighting with a sword in hand, close to your enemy is bad, than killing with your bow is worse. They do not even have the slightest chance. They feel the heat of the arrow, the pain when it hits them, and on my good days that have felt nothing after that. My wrist had been broken, but the bow had nevertheless lain steady in my hand. I am good at suppressing pain, too.
I used to find a small hill, or a high tree. They cannot stop you from where they are, they do not reach you in time to stop the bite of the arrow, if they even see you at all. And you, you stand there alone, bow in hand, arrow on your back or sticking in the earth before you, ready to be used. You pick one of the feathered arrows, notch it, lift the bow, close your eye, take aim and then, then you are bringing out the death. It is you who decides who shall die next, who shall feel the pain that comes so soundlessly, so fast and merciless.
They have no chance to fight it, they do not even know that they will dye the next moment, but I knew. I knew it before they did, before the fear entered their eyes, then the pain, the panic. I know it before they do, because it is I who kills them. I am the death.
I have never shot someone in the back. Never. Sometimes they turned and got hit in the back, but that was never my fault. I have aimed for their heart. Every single arrow that left my bow was meant to kill immediately. How could I know that they would turn? I could not know. I could not.
When you kill with bow and arrow, you do not see your opponent's face, you do not see their eyes, how they widen in pain, how their faces contort in panic, how the light in their eyes ceases to be. They die, yes, by your hand. My hand. Do you want to know why I never shot someone in the back? Because I am a coward.
All this winter I tried to convince myself. I had to do it, I had to kill the enemy, it was my duty, my obligation that I had entered into as I had joined the army of Gondor, my position as Captain deserved nothing less from me. The killing in itself was not the thing a tried to convince me of.
Killing someone from the front, how naÃ¯ve I had been. Have I really believed what I had been saying to myself all the time? That I gave them a chance? Yes, of course, shoot them from the front and they have the chance to see the arrow that has their name written on it. Surely they will see it and jump to the side. How naÃ¯ve. I have lied to myself to be able to get going in that winter, but that has not been the only lie that I have told myself. Over and over again. I am good at lying, have I told you that?
The silent conversation at the table besides me becomes louder and parts of the talk reach my ears. They are talking about me, I had know that before. Many people talk about me. These make no difference. From what I can hear they are discussing if I am a thief or a murderer. No, one tells them that I am a ranger from the north. So, I am a thief and murderer and even more for them, all right. Let them think what they want, I do not care. Not anymore.
Who I am? If I just knew. I am a ranger of the north, I am a King in exile. I am a foster brother, a foster son, a friend to someone who I have not seen for years. It has been long since I have worn any of these titles. Who I am at the moment? A difficult question. Maybe I know the answer later. When my task here is solved.
A brother, a son, a friend. Yes, it has been long since I have been home. My home, rather the place where I have lived during my childhood. It was my home then, but I doubt I can call it that any longer. I was someone else then. I have changed.
The name they gave me, Estel, it means hope. Hope for the elves, hope for men, for humanity, for the free people of Middle- Earth, for Middle-Earth itself. But no hope for me. For me, there is only pain. Pain and sorrow and...well, my little problem, you see.
My foster father, he called me Estel, for he saw hope shine in me. All those years I have thought that he saw in my eyes the beginning of a change in the tidings, that I would free the peoples from shadow and darkness. That I would go out into the world, do good and bring hope to all. Maybe he even believed that himself. But now, I know better.
Maybe he wanted to believe it himself, that I would help mankind. I think, in truth, deep down, he wished that I would clean his brother's name, wash it free from the stain it has and eradicate the shame that lingers upon his family. He has loved his brother, I think he still does. I hate myself because I cannot help him in that matter. I am truly sorry.
If anything, I have caused him even more pain. He has never told me, but I have seen it in his eyes. At the beginning, when I turned home from my trips with the rangers, short ones in the beginning, then longer ones, taking weeks, then months, at last years, he stood at the balcony, having sensed my presence the moment I entered his realm.
The last time I visited, he did not wait for me, he had not sensed me. I was too far gone. Gone from the person I had been. I had intended to stay for one or two months. I left my former home after only a week. I had broken his heart, I saw it. I was happy that my foster brothers had not been at home then.
It has not been the wound that I had sustained during my last fight before I came home, it was rather the scars on my body that had frightened him. Or, the indifference, with which I regarded them. By Elbereth, when he asked me how I had sustained the scar on my upper arm, I could not even tell him. There have been so many injuries, I had forgotten. I lied to him, but I know he sensed it. He did not ask any more questions.
I think, he already knew that I would have changed, the life in the woods and in the service of the rangers does that, but I think he had just not realized how much one can change over time. I think, at this last visit, so many years ago, he could almost read my thoughts. Understand the true meaning of why he had not sensed me, why we felt so awkward in each other's presence.
Estel is dead.
He died a long time ago.
How long has it been since I last saw my brothers? Longer even then it has been with my foster father. I shudder at the thought what they might think about me now, sitting here, in this dirty hole that one calls pub, with men that stink like pigs and straw on the ground that seems to glue to ones boots. I do not even want to know why it does that. The thought turns my stomach and I abandon it quickly. Sometimes it is better not to know.
Estel had a future, but I have not. Where shall I turn? Where shall I turn? What shall I do? I have failed my foster father, disappointed him, broken his heart, his hopes. But what makes me wonder is, does he grief because of me, or because of the lost chance to wash his brother's name? I do not know and that adds to my problem.
I think my brothers would not like what they would see, what I have become, what I am now. I can wash my hands as often as I wish, they will stay stained. The blood will cling to them, no matter what I do. No, they would not like what I have become, they would not like me anymore.
The maid walks past my table again, her dress still red from the wine. See, you cannot clean it so easily from the stain that it spots. I know that. But I wish I would not know. My tired eyes follow her form to a table not far from mine and I see how she takes the empty bottles and glasses. A drunken man grabs her and pulls her down to him, wrapping his arms around her slender form, trying to kiss her. She laughs at him and rises easily. I am sure she is used to this. The man calls after her as she leaves, but she does not look back. When she passes my corner her head lifts and our eyes meet. She has known that I have been watching her.
How long has it been since someone has touched me? Really touched me, not dapped at my wounds with rough hands, stitched the cuts in my body or bound the injuries I sustained? It really takes a moment until I realize that I do not remember. I do not remember...
Has it really been this long? And even more, when have I stopped missing it?
I can remember that my brothers used to carry me around in the house when I was younger, they have tucked me in bed, embraced me when I cried, soothed me when I woke from my nightmares. Now, I wake from them without someone by my side. But that is all right, I am used to it by now.
I may remember that my family hugged me to comfort me, or to show me that they cared, that they loved me. But although I still know that, I cannot feel it anymore. The feeling of their care is gone, it has been long since I felt loved. I am not used to being touched anymore, my body has forgotten how that feels. That is part of my problem, too.
It has become late, the men in the inn become more drunk, the voices louder, the stench stronger. It makes me feel dirty just to sit here. Why do they have to be so loud? So...human? Maybe it is because I have grown up with the elves, but I cannot stand all the dirt that fills this room, and I do not only refer to the dust or grime.
Humans, they are my kin. I am a human, a man. But still, they all seem to be so different from me. They are dirty and loud, I like clean and clear things, soft voices, the stillness of the forest early in the morning. They are brute and like animals. I am not that way, I am different. But then I take a look at my hands, my clothing. No, maybe I am not that different from them at all.
At least not at the moment. Oh, I should not lie to myself. I am more like they are than I wish to admit. I look like them, my clothes are dirty as theirs are, my hair is unkempt, my hands dirty, my boots travel worn and muddy. And I probably even smell like them. No, we are not that different at all.
And still, I am different in at least one respect. I am not just another man. I was born to become the King of Gondor. The thought makes me feel even more miserably than I already feel, if that is even possible. Gondor. I have seen Gondor.
The stories tell tales of a white city, built at the side of the mountains. The walls thick and strong, the stones smooth and shining in the sun's light. It is said that Gondor is a strong city, a proud city, the last beacon in the fight against the armies of Mordor, the shield that will hold out the storm that will come.
I have seen Gondor, and it is not like it is told to be.
One day, I shall lead an army against the forces of the dark lord. I am destined to free Middle-Earth. I shall save them all. A heavy burden is it I carry, but I have long since accepted that, the weight has become bearable. Well, at least until the last winter. You remember, the winter I have told about. Since then, things have changed. Again.
Since then, I have started to ask myself if Middle-Earth deserves to be saved. Why should I? What for?
The elves? No, they will leave arda as soon as Sauron throws his shadow over the lands, maybe even earlier. They will flee to the shores of Valinor, leaving us behind, alone and defenceless to face our doom alone. No, they do not need my help.
The dwarves? I have not met many in my life, but those that I have encountered seemed to be able to fight for themselves. They are strong and independent of the other races. Sauron will kill them all, yes, but why should I care?
Humans? All the time I try to find an answer to this question and as I now look around in this inn, I once more come to the conclusion that we do not deserve it to be saved. We are dirty, smelly, greedy, evil. We are thieves, slavers, murderers. We lie, we hurt, we destroy. No, why should we be saved? Give me just one reason. It does not even have to bee a good reason, a just reason, but one reason nevertheless. See, you cannot do that. You see, that is another thing that adds to my current situation.
When even I know no reason why Middle-Earth should be saved, then why am I still here? Why do I sit in this pub, smell the thick air, the ale, the sweat that makes me sick? I want to run from here, to leave this place, this town, this realm...maybe even this arda, I do not know.
But where should I turn once I leave this pub? Back to the rangers that I have left some weeks ago? Shall I go to Gondor or Rohan and again serve my sword and bow? No, I cannot do that, not yet. I know that there will be a time when I will ride to war again, but not yet.
It seems I have lived for tomorrow all my life, but I cannot see tomorrow come right now. And maybe I don't even want to see it. Nothing awaits me in the future save more pain. Why should I want to live another day? Why can I not just lay down, rest my head on the ground, close my eyes and let my mind drift away? I cannot say that I have not tried...
But you see, something keeps me here. I do not yet know what it is, but I hope that I will learn it soon, as I am weary and tired. I need to know the reason, a reason, why I should not just give in and sleep for the rest of my time, why I should save Middle-Earth, if I even can do that. Someday.
It has become even darker outside, it is the middle of the night and the first men start to leave the inn. One of them pushes open the door and steps out into the cold night. Before the wooden door closes again a gust of cold night air rushes in and wipes at my face. I nearly close my eyes, so fresh and clean it feels in comparison to the hot air that fills the room.
Then it is gone, and I feel as if I must choke. Where the air had been old and stale a moment before, it was now as thick as mud, filling my lungs, squeezing them, making me hold my breath for a moment to escape the sickening stench. Then I take a breath, then another and after another moment I cannot taste the smell on my tongue anymore. I have become one with it once more.
I feel like choking often, there are days that I feel as if someone is strangling me, squeezing my strength, my life out of me. Those days are frightening, but every time is keep on breathing, that is all I can do on those days. Breathe. But it becomes harder to do so and I fear the next day that I will feel that way again, because I am not sure if I still have the strength to go on. To keep breathing. Perhaps I will just give in then, I don't know.
Can't they see that they are smothering me? They stand so close sometimes that I feel crushed. They hover over me, holding me so tight as if they are afraid to lose me. Perhaps their fears are true, but it is that which has driven me away from them. Of whom I am talking? All who I know. They were crushing me, muddling with my mind until I had become who they wanted me to be, and loosing myself in the process.
Who I am? That is the problem. That is why I am here tonight, or the many other nights that I have spent in inns such as this. Or under the stars in the forest, alone with the world. Small and insignificant in comparison with IluvatarÂ´s great creation.
I have become numb.
I have lost myself, if I have ever known who I really am.
Am I Estel? No, he is dead, died a long time ago.
Am I Strider? Perhaps, but sometimes I hate him. Hate him so much that it hurts me.
Am I Aragorn? No, he is just a legend, he does not really exist and I don't know if he will ever be.
Who am I? You see, that is my problem. I have become numb. And I want to feel again.
That is why I sit here, in this inn, with drunken men, with ale that I do not drink, with maiden who I do not care about, with a fire that does not warm me.
I am disappointed with me. I have not felt tonight, not the way I want to feel again. No, I am not like the men who surround me here. In all that they are I can see a part of me, but I am not like them, they are not the company that my heart desires. I have known that, of course, but if I stop trying, I fear that I will be lost, never to be found again.
I sigh silently. It is late, I should go. There is nothing here to hold me any longer. I rise and feel my bones ache with the movement, they do that often lately. Sometimes I think that my body has already surrendered, has done what a small part of my mind does not yet accept.
It is cold outside, so I tighten my dark cloak around my shoulders, shielding my weapons from view. Placing a few coins on my table, I pick up my pack and head for the door. With every step I take I can feel their eyes in my back. I pass the counter and nod curtly to the barman. He is glad that I leave, I can see it in his eyes.
The door handle lies warm in my hand, the next second I stand in the bitter cold night, the wind wiping at my face. I do not need to hear the collective sigh that had floated through the inn as I have left. I know that it was there.
And now, as I feel the clear night air on my face, filling my lungs, I almost instantly wish to be back in the pub, taste the stale air, hear the drunken men laugh. Because although I am not like them and never will be, being alone is not better either.
I draw my hood down into my face and set out into the night.
I will not come back to this place.