No matter how long he had dwelt in Gondor, the North was still home, Aragorn thought as he and his escort rode up the road to Annúminas. Much had changed here in eighty-five years; crumbled walls, broken pillars and shattered paving stones had become a fair and lively town again. Annúminas was still small compared to many of Gondor’s cities, but it lay like a white jewel on the shore of Lake Nenuial and to Aragorn it was as beautiful as Osgiliath restored. It would be no chore to reside here again for a while, even if Arwen would only join him in another few weeks, as she had gone to visit her brothers and Celeborn in Rivendell first.
One thing did not change, Aragorn thought as he poured his guest a glass of wine; he missed Halbarad most keenly whenever he came to the North. Ah, what would you have made of all that has changed in Eriador, and of the rebuilding of Annúminas? Not to mention your grandson, who isn’t quite sure of what to make of being served by the King. You’d have liked the lad, I’m sure; he’s very like you in looks and in manner, though unlike you he has at least some respect for his lord… He could almost see his old friend’s broad grin at the latter observation.
Aragorn waited as Hallan took his first sip of wine and sat back, finally relaxing. His young kinsman – although young? Hallan was sixty years of age; young in comparison only – would be sworn in as Steward in Arnor on the morrow. And that’s another change, even if the Council did not like it when I first introduced the idea. “Why do we need this southern office? Has not the Council always been sufficient to govern in your absence?” By now, though, not even the Council would argue against the benefits of having a Steward, and Aragorn could be assured that Arnor would be well-governed even when he resided in Gondor.
Hallan would be the third Steward. His eldest daughter might even one day become the fourth Steward, though the office was not hereditary – yet? Aragorn thought. And that would be another change – in Arnor as it was in Gondor, not to mention the uproar at having a woman as Steward. Halien was practical and had a head for numbers and organisation, as well as a flair for diplomacy. But that is a concern for a later time.
He wondered whether Halbarad had known that it had been his intention – nay, not intention, hope, for what value had intentions in those days when just surviving the next day was all too often uncertain? – to name his friend and kinsman as his Steward in Arnor. He must have known, yet he had never spoken of it, neither to say yes or no. Bregor, the first Steward, had been an able administrator, Aragorn thought, as had Vardamir, his successor, who was now about to retire. Yet Halbarad would have made a good Steward too, despite his oft-claimed dislike for paperwork and sitting at a desk like some clerk… Aragorn chuckled to himself as he thought of the show of protest Halbarad would have made at the appointment.
“My l... Aragorn,” Hallan asked. “What is it?”
“I was thinking of your grandfather, whether he knew that I would have made him my first Steward here had he lived. He would have been so proud of you.”
Later, after Hallan had left him to himself – to practice his speech for the next day, he had said with a quick grin –, Aragorn stood staring out his window in thought.
Yes, the North is home in a way that Gondor is not – and of course, equally, Gondor is home in her own way. And yet… He briefly turned away from the window to pour himself another glass of wine. And yet. There is something nagging at me and I cannot name it.
It is not being here for Hallan’s inauguration, or at least not entirely, for it is no wonder that my thoughts turn to Halbarad now. No, that is not it. What then?
As he gazed into the night, he saw in mind the people who had been waiting to welcome him to Annúminas, and it struck him what it was. Bar one or two, all those standing there had been the children and grandchildren of people he had known as children. It was the same in Gondor. Barely anyone who had lived through the War of the Ring a grown man still lived; Bergil, who had been a lad of ten or so in the siege of Minas Tirith, had died a few years before, a white-haired old man. On this side of the Sea, of the Fellowship only he, Legolas and Gimli remained, and even the sturdy Dwarf was growing old. Éomer was dead twenty years, Éowyn was long gone too; even Faramir, like himself of high Númenorean descent had died the previous year.
And I miss them, as I miss Halbarad, but that is not what bothers me either, for shall we not meet again beyond the Circles of the World? So at least have I been taught and have I always believed. But the journey seems to be much closer… Am I old? he thought, his breath catching as he felt a wave of loneliness crash over him. Have I lived past my day?
Only a few still even remember Strider the Ranger; and when they are dead, he will only exist in stories of the old days. Am I still him, if no one remembers who I was? Ah, but the Elves remember… But they will go West, and after I die, my beloved will journey with me beyond the Circles of the World; and eventually the last old man or woman sitting by the fire who still remembers King Elessar will die too. And then I will be no more than story, for all that I also live on in my children’s children, and in their children.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, Aragorn put his empty wineglass on the table. Such rambling thoughts, and yet, there is truth in them as well. Not yet though, not for a good many years; my day is not done yet, nor am I yet weary of the world.