Outside Lothlórien, frosty grass crunched underfoot. That was how you knew you had crossed the boundary: when the ground grew icy and your footsteps audible. Winter lay more heavily on the world beyond the Golden Wood, as if Lórien hid within it some secret source of light and warmth, a second sun exclusive to itself. The loss of its protection was tangible.
Aragorn did not shiver, though he was cold. It was just past the height of winter, that time in the season when the snows are still bitter but the days are already lengthening, a reminder that the end is in sight and life will soon stir in the frozen earth. The time that brings the first hint of change. He had wandered far—even for him it was far—as far as he had ever been, to the Brown Lands and Dorwinion and beyond the Sea of Rhûn, into the lands of the Easterlings and their red mountains, before returning here, to Lórien. Now he departed again for another long journey, carrying with him, like the season, a promise of change. Arwen had pledged herself to him. The thought brought a chill to his heart no less than a warm thrill of love; a sensation, he thought, not unlike stepping beyond the borders of Lórien. She herself had shown no sign of trepidation at the idea of leaving behind her home, discarding her immortality, weathering the long road still ahead. But he knew she must have felt the same deep chill that gripped him now.
Snowflakes began to drift from the sky and he shrugged away his oppressive thoughts. The best way to keep warm was to keep moving. He betook himself on his way.
Spring in Rohan came quickly and furiously, exploding in green open plains studded with yellow and white blossoms, soft earth freshly saturated with rain, restless breezes tossing the new grass. He could feel all the life in this country humming through the soles of his feet, and when he rode, the warm, scented wind whipped his hair like a sailor's on the sea. The ground held tracks well, though he hardly needed them, so certain was he of where the creature Gollum was fleeing. East, east, past the lands of Aragorn's heart and on into the shadow of Mordor.
If Gandalf was right, Gollum could hold the key to undoing the evil that had plagued Middle Earth for all the annals of its history. That the undoing might be almost as terrible as the evil itself did not escape Aragorn's well-developed, if usually tactfully suppressed, sense of irony. Gollum's knowledge could be as dangerous as it was helpful; and that, of course, was why he had to find the creature at all costs.
Day after day he rode towards the sunrise, through a land that grew more bright and beautiful with each dawn. But he spared little thought for the scenery. He kept his eyes fixed on the horizon or the ground, looking not for light and loveliness but for shadows, smoke, tracks, flecks of darkness in the golden spring.
III. The Shire
The grain fields had grown tall all around the Shire, taller than the little people who dwelt there. The grain was not high enough to hide a Man, nor would it ever be; but this did not prevent Aragorn from passing, unnoticed by the locals, in and out of the boundaries of fields, towns, copses, and the Shire itself. On the balmy midsummer nights he watched, not the hobbits, but all the various peoples who passed through and around their country. He and his Rangers together, an invisible ring of guardians for this small, flourishing, defenseless land and its cheerfully ignorant inhabitants.
He slipped on foot among the thinning ranks of an apple orchard on the northern outskirts. The fruit were ripe and he plucked one, glimmering a shiny red in the dim starlight. It was quite sweet already. Through the trees he could see the distant yellow glow of a lantern, far down by the farmhouse, and hear the faintest whisper of happy voices. Everything was hale and healthy, comfortable, tranquil, and yet he paced restless as a wolf. Gandalf was a long time coming and from what Aragorn could tell from his messages, the scene before him was more fragile than anyone would have guessed. The Shire's peace might already be as good as broken, the time to act overripe. Yet he could do nothing more, not yet, not on his own, and it gnawed at him.
Distractedly, he ate too many apples. A twinge of guilt pricked him at the modest mischief done to the farmer's crop. He resolved to find some method of compensation—that, at least, was something he could do. Clinging to this tiny bit of purpose, he set his long legs to walking the familiar miles of his patrol. The summer night seemed to be holding its breath, breezeless and warm, and he held his own along with it.
IV. The Grey Havens
An autumn storm was coming up over the sea. So they told him at the Grey Havens, and he saw it in the bruised color of waves and sky, the harsh rasp of water on sand and gravel. Dark clouds piled like boulders, heavy with rain. The sea would be impassable; no one could say for how long. For him, it would be impassable forever, he knew, and yet his eyes could not help but seek that invisible way along which the last ships had already departed. Departed, and left behind some who had the right to passage.
But no. She had made her choice long ago, and they had both made their peace with it. He turned his back to the storm, determined to let it rage as it willed, and walked sure-footed up the stony beach toward a grove where fallen leaves littered the ground. The bare branches offered no barrier to sight; his eyes could see far, and his mind's eye farther. Before him now lay all of Middle Earth, a vast country he had criss-crossed with his steps, wandered, explored, guarded, almost lost, and finally won. It was time to rule it, for as many seasons as might be granted to him.
V. The Undying Lands
He did not feel cold or hot, restless or peaceful, weak or powerful, determined or uncertain—only tired. He was lying somewhere, on a bed perhaps, and someone was speaking to him. He turned his head, barely listening, all his strength focused on holding onto the hand in his. It was Arwen who was speaking, and shaking her head, gripping his hand with far more strength than he could still muster.
"It is not time," she said, "it is not time. Not yet."
We have had many years, he said, or hoped he managed to say aloud.
He felt her tears on his skin, the softness of her hair as she shook her head again, stubbornly.
"But they have all been so short..." He felt her lack of comprehension. It had been only a brief time since she had pledged herself to him and vowed to share his mortal life. She could not believe that life had already spent itself. How remorseless time was; he felt every season of it in his bones. And yet he was not sad. He had come as far as it was in him to go, and was content.
Still, he held fast to her hand, warm with life and cold with tears, like stepping over a boundary, as long as he could.