...and all these he had and loved them less
than a maiden once in Elfinesse...
--The Lay of Leithian
Bronwe's hands stilled in their work, halted by some nameless foreboding that reason could not deny. All seemed quiet and peaceful around her, though. A gentle breeze, full of the sweet scent of new grass, drifted in through the open window of her cottage. Sunlight glimmered on the gently swaying leaves outside. In the distance she could hear the sounds of children playing.
The bell in the village square began to toll. Once. Twice. Three times. The signal to welcome Rangers returning home.
Even after the last reverberation had dwindled and faded to silence she waited, caught between hope and dread. The anticipation lasted only a few heartbeats before a boy's voice rang out, shrill and breathless. "Mistress Bronwe!" he cried, his footsteps pounding ever closer. "Mistress Bronwe!"
Her eyes closed briefly as she wondered what griefs were being brought to her door this time.
Without even pausing to knock, the boy--one she recognized as having only this winter begun his Ranger training--burst into the house. "Mistress!" he gasped, panting from his mad dash across the square. "They sent me to say you should make ready!"
"How many wounded?" she asked.
"Good lad," she said gently. "Now run and fetch Doron for me. He'll be fishing by the mill."
The boy nodded and banged out of the house.
Bronwe moved swiftly and with deft, practiced movements: building up the fire, putting a large pot of water on to boil, and lighting additional lamps around the room. Only when all her preparations were complete did she pause long enough to send a silent entreaty to the Great Ones for wisdom, and for the courage to do whatever would be needed.
She heard the creak of the gate and then the cottage door was thrust open again. Three grim-faced Rangers entered, bearing a fourth on a crude litter. Their clothes were a testament to the long days they had been in the Wild, and the many hardships they had obviously encountered there. The Chieftain of the Dúnedain himself supported the head of the litter, with a Ranger named Eradan at its foot. Bronwe's cousin Halbarad followed in their wake, clasping one arm tightly against his torso. Bronwe noted this, as well as the pale cast of his skin, but made no comment.
She touched her brow in deference to the Chieftain and indicated that they should lay their burden on the cot by the window.
Putting her concern for her kinsman out of her mind, she focused on the prone figure, a Ranger by the name of Tarandor. He lay senseless, though he moaned weakly when they transferred him from the litter.
She knelt and pressed her hand against his brow, felt the fever that raged there, and drew open his eyelids to examine the tale told in the orbs. The Rangers had covered Tarandor with several thick woolen blankets, and these she drew off to survey the extent of his wounds. His right leg was wrapped in a thick bandage just above the knee; the cloth was stained a dark crimson with old blood.
Bronwe took up a knife and carefully cut the bandages from his leg. The wound had been well-cleaned, she saw, and competently stitched together, but the muscle had been deeply savaged by two jagged gashes. Worse, the flesh around the wound was brownish red and alarmingly swollen.
"What caused this wound?" she asked.
"Wolves," said the Chieftain grimly. The beasts were a plague upon Eriador and a source of constant peril to those who dwelled there. Many of the Dúnedain had fallen prey to their snapping teeth and slavering jaws.
Bronwe pressed gently on the inflamed area around the wound on Tarandor's leg and discerned a faint but telltale crackling. Her heart sank at the sound, but she was careful to give no outward sign of it.
She looked up at the other Rangers, her sharp eye evaluating each of them for signs of injury. "What of Halbarad's arm?" she asked.
"Just a bump from an orc shield," said her kinsman gruffly. "Do not trouble yourself over it."
Bronwe ignored him, looking instead to his Captain for an answer.
"The arm is broken," said Aragorn. "But the bone did not pierce the flesh."
She nodded. "I will set it in a moment. Sit over there, Halbarad."
Her cousin looked as if he might voice a protest, but was silenced by a sharp look from his Captain. Obediently, Halbarad sank into the chair she had indicated.
She turned to address Eradan: "Fetch me two mugs of hot water from that pot on the fire."
He nodded curtly and moved to the hearth.
"Can you save him?" asked Aragorn, quietly, so the others would not hear.
"If the Valar will it," replied Bronwe. "But I will have to take the leg."
She heard Aragorn's sharp intake of breath and saw his eyes go momentarily wide. The taking of limb was done only as a last resort. Men often died from the shock of it, thus it was reserved only for those cases in which there was otherwise no hope. This was, unfortunately, such a case--Tarandor's leg was diseased, if she did not take it, he would surely be dead by nightfall.
Bronwe had performed the procedure half a dozen times before; only twice had the patient survived.
"What can I do?" asked Aragorn.
Bronwe handed him a sturdy leather strap. "Bind his leg well above the wound, as tightly as you can."
While Aragorn did that, Bronwe prepared a strong soporific for Tarandor, and a milder one for Halbarad. She would tend to her cousin while she waited for Doron, whose assistance would be needed for the amputation.
She had nearly finished binding Halbarad's arm in a splint when Doron returned. The young man's eyes quickly took in the extent of Tarandor's injury. He had been assisting Bronwe long enough to know what needed to be done and immediately began gathering implements for the procedure.
"They will be preparing a feast in the square tonight," said Bronwe said to the Rangers. "You should join your friends and family there while Doron and I see to Tarandor."
Eradan and Halbarad, who had been warily eying the large bone saw that Boron was now sharpening, were glad to take their leave. But the Chieftain lingered by Tarandor's bedside. "I would stay with him," he said.
Bronwe shook her head. "It will be best if you leave us for this."
Aragorn's hard grey eyes met hers, and for a moment she thought he would challenge her. Instead he lowered his gaze once more to Tarandor and placed a gentle hand on the man's forehead. "Cuio, gwador nîn," he said softly.
"I will send word," she said, "when there is any to send."
Aragorn nodded and moved away from Tarandor, though reluctantly. When he reached the door he paused to give Bronwe one last searching look, and then he was gone.
Hours later, Bronwe wearily bundled the last of the blood-soaked linens into a sack. Tarandor had survived the taking of his leg, but whether he would live through the night was now in greater hands than hers. She had sent Doron home to seek his own rest once the immediate danger had passed.
Darkness had long since fallen, but still the sounds of music and merriment floated in through the unshuttered window. The return of a company of Rangers was a joyous event in the village. Life here allowed few pleasures, and so they made the most of the rare occasions they had for celebration.
Methed-en-Gwath, "the End of the Shade", they had optimistically named this secret refuge of the Northern Dúnedain. It was here, in the Angle between the Bruinen and the Mitheithel, under the very eaves of the Trollshaws, that the last remnants of the Dúnedain in Eriador quietly struggled for survival, raising the hardiest of their sons to be Rangers and sending them out into the Wild.
There was a soft knock at the door and Bronwe turned to find the Chieftain framed in the doorway, silvery moonlight spilling into the room with him.
His eyes, dark with anxiety, sought out Tarandor. "He lives?"
Bronwe nodded. "As yet."
Aragorn moved to Tarandor's bedside, his gaze solemnly following the shallow rise and fall of the man's chest.
"If he makes it through the night he has a fair chance," she said, though in truth she had little hope.
Aragorn’s hard grey eyes found hers. In the grip of his gaze she felt utterly exposed, as though he could read all the doubt and despair that lay nestled in the crevices of her heart.
His expression softened somewhat. "You should rest," he said.
"Soon enough," she replied. Bronwe took hold of Aragorn's forearm and pulled up the sleeve to reveal a bandage concealed underneath. "But first I'll check that wound you've been hiding."
"It's nothing but a scratch."
"That I will judge for myself when I change the dressing. Sit."
He complied, albeit reluctantly. This was her domain--a healer's domain--and all did her bidding in this place, even the Chieftain.
"You have the keen eyes of an eagle," he said, his mouth twisting ruefully.
She slit the bandage tied around his forearm. "It would hardly take an eagle's eye to observe how you've been favoring your sword arm." She frowned as she examined the cut. "You stitched this yourself?"
"I had Eradan do it."
"It looks healthy enough, but will likely leave a wicked scar."
He shrugged, unconcerned. It would be just one more scar among many, she knew.
"You begin to resemble a rag doll, my friend. Stitched together clumsily from old bits and pieces of scrap."
Aragorn allowed a faint sideways smile to play across his features. "An apt description."
It was good to see some evidence of mirth in him for a change. Bronwe knew the burdens he carried wore heavily on him. All the Rangers were stern men--an inevitable result of the lives they led. But of all of them Aragorn was the grimmest, and there was a peculiar sadness in him that she had never quite understood. It was rare indeed when a smile lit up his dark features, but when it did it was a precious gift, like a burst of sunlight through storm clouds.
He had not always been so. Bronwe remembered when he had first come to Methed-en-Gwath. He had been a fearless and proud then, brimming with the hopeful light of youth. But the mantle of leadership weighed heavily on his shoulders, and Aragorn had quickly grown into a somber, reticent man.
He endured Bronwe's ministrations silently as she applied a healing salve to his wound, then bound it with fresh clean bandages.
"No wolf hunting for at least a week," she warned.
He smiled again, but this time it did not reach his eyes. His gaze wandered back to where Tarandor lay.
She took his hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "You should go to your rest."
"I wish to stay with him." His expression was plaintive rather than commanding, and Bronwe found she did not have the heart to send him away.
"Take my bed, then. I'll be sleeping on the cot beside Tarandor anyway."
She rose and went to the cupboard where she took down two mugs, then sprinkled a handful of dried flowers from one of the many jars on her workbench into each.
Aragorn watched her warily as she poured hot water from the kettle into the two mugs. "I want none of your sedatives," he said.
"It's only linden flower tea," she said, holding out one of the mugs.
He accepted the tea with a nod. "Broniam," he murmured, raising his mug.
"Broniam," she repeated. She cupped the warm mug in both hands and closed her eyes, letting the warm steam fill her sinuses with its calming fragrance.
"Does all go well with you, Bronwe?" asked Aragorn.
She opened her eyes and saw that he was once more watching her with that piercing gaze of his. "Well enough," she said mildly. "And you?"
"Well enough," he echoed.
He did not look well, though. If possible, he seemed even more careworn than last she had seen him. "You look older," she said.
He shook his head darkly. "Not old enough for some."
His age had been a point of contention among the Dúnedain. Aragorn was extraordinarily young to bear the mantle of leadership. He had been only twenty--hardly even considered an adult by the reckoning of the long-lived Dúnedain--when he had ridden into Methed-en-Gwath and claimed his rightful position as Chieftain and the Captaincy of the Rangers.
Though none of the Dúnedain would dispute Aragorn's birthright, many had been reluctant to submit themselves to the leadership of one so young and untried--and a stranger at that. As was tradition for the sons of the Chieftains, Aragorn had been fostered in the House of Elrond, and knew little of life among his own people. There had been more than a little distrust among the Elders of Methed-en-Gwath, and also some reservations on the part of the Rangers. But despite his youth, there was no denying Aragorn's skill, or the courage of his heart. Over the intervening years he had proven himself worthy a hundred times over.
"Everyone accepts you now," said Bronwe.
"Perhaps. Grudgingly. But they do not love me."
"They do. Can you not see that?"
To that he made no answer.
Bronwe drained the last of her tea, acutely aware, suddenly, of her own fatigue. After checking on Tarandor one last time and satisfying herself that there was nothing more she could do for him, she took her cloak from the hook and lay down upon the spare cot. Aragorn banked the fire and extinguished all the lamps save the one nearest the sickbed. The last thing Bronwe heard as she drifted into the arms of sleep was Aragorn's voice softly bidding her goodnight.
Bronwe's eyes flew open. It was still dark, but through the open window she could see a lightening in the east that meant dawn was not far off. For a moment she lay still, listening, though some sense already told her that the sound she was waiting for would not come. There was an empty space now in the room where previously there had been life.
Quietly, she rose and went to look upon Tarandor where he lay. Two points of pale light reflected off the whites of his eyes, which were open and glassy. She reached out to trail her fingers along the cold skin of his brow.
Across the room she heard Aragorn stir. "What is it?" he asked, his voice husky with sleep.
"Tarandor ifir." She closed the fallen Ranger's now sightless eyes.
Aragorn came to stand opposite her at Tarandor's bedside. Bronwe watched the Chieftain's momentarily unguarded face as he shouldered the burden of yet another death on his watch. One more in the long list of sorrows that was the price of his blood.
He bent and, with infinite tenderness, placed a kiss upon Tarandor's brow. "Nai tiruvantel i Valar tielyanna," he whispered.
"He has no living family," said Bronwe.
"The Rangers were his family," answered Aragorn. "I will stand guard over him."
Bronwe retrieved her cloak, drawing it about her against the morning chill. "I will carry the news of his passing," she said. "And have the women make ready to prepare him for the rites."
Aragorn nodded. His face was drawn with grief as he gazed upon his fallen comrade, and all traces of youth had fled. But to Bronwe's eyes, in that moment of naked anguish, he seemed as kingly and full of valor as Elendil himself must have been.
In Methed-en-Gwath the passing of a Ranger was a solemn occasion commemorated by a series of traditions handed down through long years. Though the Northern Dúnedain had fallen far from the majesty of ancient Númenor, still they strove to maintain the dignity of the old rites. And so Tarandor's body was placed upon a bier in the Meeting House, flanked by seven torches, and lay thus in state for seven days, guarded in turns by his brothers in the Rangers and by other prominent men of the village.
Those Rangers in the Wild who could be spared were called home, and the village bell tolled its three long notes almost daily. But there were no feasts or celebrations to welcome the returning Rangers home during this period of mourning. Friends and family, many long-parted, came together in small, quiet gatherings, and throughout the village all that week hearth fires burned brightly and long into the night.
Bronwe saw little of Aragorn during this time. When he was not among those stationed beside Tarandor's bier he was receiving reports from his Rangers, or closeted in meetings with the village Elders. It was not often that the Chieftain was in residence at Methed-en-Gwath, and when he was there were many demands on his attention.
On the eighth day after Tarandor's passing all the Dúnedain of village gathered for the ceremony of departure. The Chieftain himself led the ceremony, speaking eloquently and at length of Tarandor's brave service to his people, and of his great sacrifice in the fight against the Dark. Other Rangers followed suit, stepping forward to honor their fallen friend with tales, songs and verse, marking his journey as he passed beyond the Circles of the World.
At sunset the body was interred in a hillside beyond the borders of the village, one of several large barrows where the Dúnedain laid their dead to rest. Eradan had asked to stand the night vigil, alone under the mantle of Varda's stars, ensuring that Tarandor's body was not disturbed as it rested for the first time in his tomb. At dawn the next day the mourners gathered again for the sealing of the stone that would mark Tarandor's final repose.
Once the great stone had been set in the cold, dew-soaked earth, the time for sorrow was officially ended and a celebration in honor of the life of the Dúnadan who had partaken of Ilúvatar's Gift began.
Great tables laden with food were set out on the village green and casks of wine and ale flowed freely. All the rest of that day and night the air was filled with the sounds of music, dancing, laughter, and good cheer. Yet as the evening darkened into night, Bronwe found herself wandering restlessly among the revelers, unaffected by the joyous spirit that had taken the rest of the village.
A meaty arm draped itself unexpectedly around her shoulders. "I love you, Bronwe," slurred a voice in her ear. "Say you'll marry me."
"Be careful, Marach," she said, lightly shrugging out of the ale-sodden man's grasp. "Your wife will have you on a spit if she hears that kind of talk."
"You're breaking my heart, lass," he called after her.
Bronwe spotted Halbarad's sisters, Anarya and Alfirin, waving to her and turned her steps in their direction.
"Oi, Bronwe!" they hailed her merrily. They were sitting with their uncle Halmir, a veteran Ranger who had just come in from the Wild.
"What did old Marach want with you?" asked Anarya.
"A proposal of marriage," said Bronwe, smiling.
The girls erupted into a fit of high-pitched laughter. Bronwe wondered if she had ever been as young and carefree as they.
Halmir shook his head as he passed Bronwe a pint of ale. "He'll not live out the night if Duilwen hears of it."
"That's what I told him," said Bronwe. The dark brown ale the Dúnedain brewed was cool and pleasantly bitter in her throat.
"Look at Halbarad over there," said Alfirin. "A whole flock of girls fawning over him and hanging on his every word."
"That broken arm is the best thing to happen to him in ages," said Anarya. "Why, he's got a line of girls just waiting for the chance to wait upon him."
"It's entirely proper that a Dúnadan of his age should be taking an interest in the fairer sex," said Halmir. "Halbarad could use a wife to keep him in line."
Alfirin snorted. "It's not a wife he's looking for tonight, I'll wager."
Halmir crooked a grin. "Well, there's naught wrong with that, either."
"If only the Chieftain's eye was as easy to catch as our brother's," said Anarya wistfully.
"Aye," agreed Alfirin with a theatrical sigh. "Any unwed girl in the Angle is Aragorn's for the asking, and some of the wedded ones, at that. But he hasn't a second glance for any of us."
"Don't speak so disrespectfully of your Chieftain," snapped Halmir. "He's got far too much on his mind to waste his time with silly girls like you." His gaze wandered over to Bronwe and he cocked his eyebrows appraisingly. "Everything all right with you, girl?"
She realized she'd been staring vacantly into space and forced a smile. "Too much ale, I think," she said, pushing the mug back across the table.
She bade them goodbye and moved off, away from her cousins' youthful chatter and away from the festivities, to the nearby banks of the Loudwater. The moon was high, dimming the light of all but the brightest of Varda's stars. Gentle swells danced across the surface of the river, catching the moonlight and casting it back in fluid glimmers of silver and blue.
Bronwe clutched her arms across her chest and breathed deeply of the cool spring air, trying to push away the thoughts of blood and death that plagued her. The loss of a patient was hard on her--harder than it should be. She had not yet developed the thick skin and pragmatic attitude of a veteran healer. Every death still felt like a personal failing on her part.
Her reverie was interrupted by the polite clearing of a throat behind her. She spun around and spied Aragorn seated beneath a yew tree not far away. He inclined his head in silent invitation for her to join him.
She sank down on the grass beside him, gathering her skirts about her knees. As he gazed at the silvery surface of the river she couldn't help but notice that his expression was troubled and his face deeply lined with care. "Why do you seek out darkness and solitude in the midst of a celebration?" she asked.
He looked at her sharply. "Why do you?"
She plucked idly at a blade of grass. "I find I am ill-suited to celebrating tonight."
"As am I," he said.
"You should not torment yourself over Tarandor's death, Aragorn. You are a good leader."
"As you are a good healer."
She shook her head. "Not good enough, sometimes."
"It's never enough," he said bitterly. "Year after year we muster our meager resources to hold back the forces of Darkness and year after year our people die. The Shadow grows and evil reaches out across the land and I am helpless to stop it. How can I bring hope to the Dúnedain when I am myself consumed by dread and despair?"
Bronwe said nothing. She knew everything he said to be true. In the face of such fears what comfort had she to offer?
In the village behind them, a voice burst out drunkenly in song, then trailed off in a chorus of laughter. Aragorn fixed his gaze once more on the dancing waters of the Loudwater.
"I'm going away," he said at length. "Far away."
"You musn't!" she said in alarm. "Your people need you."
"There is nothing I can do for my people here that cannot as easily be done by Halmir or Hador or any of the village Elders. Barad-dûr is rebuilt and the fires of Orodruin burst forth once more. I feel as though I stand upon the brink of a terrible abyss and all before me lies in bitter darkness. I know not whether there is any hope left for Men, but it is surely not to be found cowering in the forests of Eriador."
She swallowed thickly. "Where will you go?"
"I know not. To the south, perhaps." He glanced over at her and then away again. "I do know that I am ill prepared for the evil times ahead. Dark are the days that lie before us, and my heart is heavy with doubt and foreboding. I fear that the end is upon us, and we shall soon see the Last Battle and the Day of Doom."
It pierced her heart to see him so lost to sorrow and unrest. His burden was great indeed. To be the Heir of Elendil was to be a king who would never be crowned, the leader of a dwindling people, clinging desperately to a land that was slowly dying.
A chill wind blew out of the east and Bronwe shivered. She reached out and twined her fingers with Aragorn's. "You will come back," she said.
He shook his head in uncertainty. "I do not know."
"I do," she said firmly. "You will journey far and wide and face many perils, but the day will come when you will return to take your rightful place among your people and lead us into a new age of great splendor and glory." She knew not from whence this certainty sprang, but she believed absolutely that what she said was true.
For a moment he gazed at her in silence and then, unexpectedly, his face lit up in a broad smile and his eyes seemed to sparkle with renewed brightness. "I can almost believe you are right," he said.
She was gladdened to see him smile, but her spirits quickly sank again in anticipation of loss. "You will be sorely missed, Aragorn."
As he continued to gaze at her it seemed that all around them grew hushed; the wind died, the churning of the river was muted, no leaves rustled overhead, nor voices reached them from the revelry in the village. The only sound that she could hear was the beating of her own heart. Then Aragorn took her in his arms and kissed her.
When he drew back she was surprised to see how vulnerable he looked, and she laid her hand against his cheek to reassure him. There was a growing hunger in his eyes, but it was more than desire that kindled in him. It was a deeper ache, a longing for something she knew she would never be able to give him. Still, she could offer him this one small thing, a night's comfort before the hard road that lay ahead.
As he kissed her again she felt hope spring forth and settle in her breast. It would be so easy to lose herself in this man, this great king of men, but she knew that she must not. This was not a man who could be possessed, at least not by her. Her hands twined in his dark, tangled hair, pulling him down to her. As they came together beneath the starry mantle of night she cast her gaze upward and saw a solitary owl glide across the face of the moon. It wheeled and flew away south, and the stars seemed to glow all the brighter in its wake.
For many years after she would come often to this same spot in the evenings when the Bruinen shone like silver. There she would stand beneath the yew tree, her thoughts turned ever to the south, whither all her hope had gone. And when she was taken to her last rest many years later, though still untimely for one of her people, she was laid within sight of the river she had loved. But if she had lived only a few more years, she would have seen the dawn of the Fourth Age, and the reuniting of the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor under the King Elessar Telcontar, who was once called Aragorn, sixteenth and last Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Eriador.