Aragorn stood at a bay window in the suite of rooms in Elrond's House where he and his mother had lived for the past eighteen years, looking out at the beauty of the Hidden Valley for one last time. At dawn he would turn his back on his childhood home to seek the Rangers of Eriador. He wondered only that he felt so little regret at the prospect of parting from all whom he had loved and who had cared for and taught him as a child and youth. Certainly the bright eyes of Arwen Undómiel could have distracted him from his single-minded intention, but after their bitter quarrel they now met only on terms of icy civility.
The golden sunlight caught at the winking green stones of the serpent's eyes on the Ring of Barahir, now on his right hand. It was a token, Elrond had said, of his kinship with the royal House of Finarfin and of the friendship of Man and Elf. Reaching across the table before him, Aragorn ran two fingers down the worn scabbard containing the shards of Narsil, the sword of Elendil, the greatest of the sons of Númenor. He picked it up, drew the blade, and slid out the broken tip. The bronze hilt was a thing of beauty, the still-sharp blade traced with runes. A red gem glowed at the hilt's end.
He raised the hilt into the late afternoon sunshine to set the light gleaming along the two feet of blade still attached. Once Narsil had shone with the light of the sun and moon, invoking their power against the Shadow; now it was broken, its power extinguished. He turned the blade in the light, examining the glints along the etching, the keen edge, and he thought of the man who had last carried it. Arathorn son of Arador, my father. I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North, last of the line of Kings in Arnor.
In a way, the new name—or, he corrected himself, his real name—shocked him even more than the title. It had never occurred to him, beyond an idle musing such as any curious child would have, that Estel was not his birth name. Now it seemed like it should have been obvious.
I am Heir of Isildur Elendil's son of Númenor, the last direct descendant in Middle-earth of Elros, Elrond's own brother, who chose life with the Edain when the Elder King gifted the Island of Númenor to Men.
How many sleepless nights had he passed as a boy, watching the moon and stars in the night, wondering, imagining kin and a place in the world outside the Valley! He had always known his mother to be of Dúnedain blood and a remote descendant of the fading royal line, but she would tell him no names of her family. And his father? "He was an honorable man, Estel," they would all say, "and some day you will know his story." The questions that were neither asked nor answered had bred in him a habit of secrecy about his innermost feelings and thoughts.
Sometimes dreams would wake him, nightmares of death that he now knew were more than a child's night terrors. Often he dreamed of Isildur, leading the ships from Númenor, fighting, dying; sometimes he saw warriors falling to Orc arrows and spears. Were the visions some ancestral memory, or foreknowledge? He did not know.
Not even in his wildest fantasies had he thought that his father was hidden because the Dark Lord sought to kill all those of his blood. He hoped rather than believed that he would prove capable of the great challenge of this heritage. It did not help that roiling beneath these already uncalm waters was the longing, bitterness and anger of a disappointed love too painful to be borne. She had turned him away, left him to sink beneath turbulent waters, alone. She need not worry that I will vex her further. I will leave. She has made it clear that she is done with me.
He heard his mother enter the room behind him. Without turning, he asked, "Are you quite sure you will not come with me, my lady mother?"
The soft step of her light shoes and the brush of her skirts whispered as she came forward to stand at his side. She laid a hand on his arm. "Yes, my son, there is no doubt in my mind. I could just as well ask if you are quite sure you must leave in such haste. I know it is not Elrond's wish."
Aragorn narrowed his eyes, but kept his gaze on the sword. "Perhaps not, but it is mine." He turned the question back to her. "You are young still, you could marry again, have more children. I need no longer be your main concern."
She shook her head. "I have no desire to marry again, and you are child enough for me, my Estel."
He looked at her, the mother he thought he knew, who had kept so many secrets from him. "Do you still mourn him so much, then?"
"It is not that. We were married only four years, so many years ago, and much of the time he was away in the Wild. It seems like a small part of my life now."
"You could return to your parents' home, and I will be there too, when I am not away myself."
"My parents will come to see me here," she answered, "once they know it is possible, and they can make a long visit. It is a hard life in the Angle, not one that I miss, though I miss the people that I love. Sometimes when the light is right and the scent of late summer is in the air, I almost hear the calling of the falcons that nest in the walls of the Keep, and the buzzing of my mother's bees in the clover." She smiled at the memory. "But the happiest years of my life have been here, so I will stay. Elrond has offered me a place here till the end of my days, and you can visit me in the Valley when you can come. This is your home too, after all."
"I will certainly visit, as I may," he said. "But it seems to me that I have no home, or, rather, I have yet to find one."
Grasping the sword hilt firmly, he stepped into the middle of the room, well away from her as she stood, hands folded, at the window, watching him. He raised the blade along his sightline and swung it as he would any sword to test its temper, checking the pull on his hand, arm, and shoulders—far too light, of course, with the broken length. But once it had been a sword of perfect balance, he could feel it in the heft. He held up the hilt before his face, pointing the blade up, as if in a salute. "It is strange, to have this in my hand," he murmured.
Gilraen said, "Elrond says that one day it will be reforged. When the Ring is found again, he says."
"So he has told me," he answered. "And he has been saying it for three thousand years. The problem, as I see it, is that no man will be worthy of wielding it when the time comes." He lowered it to his side.
"It is a sudden burden on you, albeit a great honor."
He returned to her side and, with a sharp thrust, slid the blade to the scabbard before answering her. "The Dúnedain do not even know my face, and Elrond tells me that many believe the Elves have taken me for good, or that I am dead. That there is bitterness between Rivendell and the Angle."
"Then, perhaps, you can see the wisdom of waiting till word can be sent to Thurnost that you are coming?"
"No," he said, frowning. "It is time to take my own life in my own hands. Elrond has done enough for me."
"Well, then," she said, with a soft laugh. "I know better than to begin a battle with your iron will. I have no doubt but that they will know you in the Angle."
Not for the first time he felt a dismaying sense of unreality. "I resemble him that much, then."
"Oh, yes. Taller, and with eyes and character that are very much your own, but otherwise the acorn from the tree, as they say. You are more slender, but I suspect that is only because you are young and have not yet reached your full strength. Arathorn was already thirty-five before I was even born." She smiled up at him, and lifted a hand to brush a stray lock of tangled hair off his brow. "But he never had this untidy hair. His was straight and well-behaved."
Aragorn laughed, and tugged gently at one of her braids. "We've always known where I got that," he said.
She smiled again, but then her head drooped and she said sadly, "How I will miss you! It used to seem to me that the years wouldn't go fast enough till the day you would finally know your father's name. I looked forward so much to the time when we could speak openly at last."
And how do you think it was for me? he thought, before shame wiped it away his bitterness. Always she has known me, both the restlessness and the longing, and always she has known that I keep my secrets. And so has she, although against her will, I now know. He said, striving to banish the harshness from his voice, "Do you think knowing a name makes all the secrecy go away? I do not remember him at all. He is just that, a name. I am sorry, mother, but so it is."
Wincing, she covered her face in her hands and sighed. "I know. It is the only part of your coming here under Elrond's protection that I regret. You asked for him as a child when we first came, being too small to understand what had happened, but we could not encourage the memories. We had to make you forget him." Her voice caught in her throat, and for a moment he was afraid she would weep. "It broke my heart. But Elrond insisted we must keep you as secret as possible, to guard your life, even from our own people. He feared treachery, or carelessness. So much was at stake. I did not dare question him—we had lost much in those years. And Elrond said he knew as a certain fact that Sauron was searching for the Heirs of Isildur. He said it had to be."
"Yes," Aragorn said. "So he has told me."
"Such a price," she said. "A father lost to his son, and then there are our kin. My parents. My brother, Iorlas. And Arathorn's family—your blood kin, Estel. Ariel, Arathorn's sister, and Beleg—who is not only your uncle by marriage but was a sworn sword brother of your father's as well—must have children now. Hallor's son must be grown up. My own brother must be married too, and have a son of his own. In the early years we sometimes got news of them through the Elves, but they know nothing of us."
Silent for a time, Aragorn thought back on the last few weeks. Since the day he had first learned his name, his mother had spoken of these things several times, as if to make up for the silent years: It seemed to comfort her to talk of her lost kin and that decision made so long ago. But for him the past and the future loomed behind and ahead like an empty black void, full of questions. He said, "The past is the past. My concern is now. I must come to know my own kin and my own people."
"You will find a way," she said.
"Elrond says Hallor has served as chieftain, that he is Arathorn's cousin."
"Hallor is an excellent man," Gilraen said. "You will like him."
"Why should I take his authority?" he asked. "He has the knowledge and the trust of the people, and all I have is a father I do not remember and a name I have just learned. And a broken sword."
"You will learn what is needed," she said. "You have been carefully taught here, better than would have been possible in the Angle. I know this is true. You will learn what it means to be a king."
He smiled, shaking his head. That seemed so fantastic as to be foolish. "Sometimes I think I have dreams of Arathorn, but I am not sure. Maybe some of it will return to me when I am back where I was born."
Hope bloomed in her eyes. "That may well be. All I can say is, he loved you very much."
He did not know how to answer. He picked up her hand and kissed it. "I have to believe that, I suppose. But somehow I doubt it will ever be very real to me. I'm still getting used to being called by a new name."
She said, "It is your name. Arathorn had a time of foresight before you were born. I will never forget it. We hoped for a son, of course, but Arathorn was sure of it. 'The child will be Aragorn son of Arathorn,' he said. He said it meant 'lord of courage' and that you would need this even more than most. But to me, you will always be Estel."
"To you, yes. But I am Aragorn now," he said to her. But he thought, A man is much more than a name and a father. In that way I remain Estel, son of Nobody, foster son of Elrond. It is past time to find out who this Aragorn son of Arathorn really is.
He thrust Narsil in its scabbard through his sword belt. "I must finish packing now, and say my farewells. I'll return to you when I can." He kissed her cheek and strode from the room.
Striving to master the mother's worry that assailed her, Gilraen followed his tall, strong figure with her eyes as he disappeared through the doorway. I have always known this day must come.
She thought back to the day she had arrived in Rivendell, her small son sleeping in her arms. All the long way from the Angle, the sons of Elrond rode one before and one after her, guarding her, as if the legions of Sauron himself assailed them, or so it seemed to her. Never before had she thought of herself, a young woman safe within the walls of the Hidden Fortress of the Dúnedain, as a target of the Dark Lord's hate.
"You are the mother of the Heir of Isildur," Elladan had said, "and perhaps you bear Arathorn's child in your womb."
"How did you know?" she had blurted out.
But Elladan did not smile. "I did not know, but my father feared for you."
Oh, how sad those days had been! Willing strength into her aching body and heart, she had visited Beleg on his sickbed, begging for the tale of Arathorn's end. But Beleg could not remember. His eyes dark with pain, his graceful face twisted in anguish, he had only grasped her hand and moved his head in the smallest gesture of denial.
"You and your son must come to Rivendell with us," Elrohir had said. "Speak to no one. We will go tonight."
But she had already begun to bleed. She lost the baby. A son or a daughter? I will never know.
But the small son grew into a sensitive and imaginative boy and a bold and restless adolescent, to become a warrior, a master swordsman and a skilled woodsman, educated in the Elven languages and lore, and a fine singer. He looked older than his twenty years, and since the age of fifteen had been riding out with the sons of Elrond, hunting the servants of the Enemy in the lands beyond Rivendell. He had faced battle and death in the Wild, witnessed first-hand the ugly brutality of Orcs and other evils of the Shadow. And he knew also the bewitching loveliness of Rivendell and life with the Elves. But the province of Men—neither one nor the other, but that thorny mingling of both—this he did not know except from stories and the few men, women and children—none of them Dúnedain—that he had met while scouting in the Vales of the Anduin. Aside from such encounters at war he had never known any of his kind besides his own mother; he had never known chronic illness or old age in his friends and family.
As a boy he had had few other children to play with; the Valley's three Elven children, with their strange, extended childhood, lagged far behind Estel's stampede into manhood. Not but that he had had playmates: The carefree and joyous Elves matched even the audacious high spirits of Estel himself.
But just a few weeks before, he had returned from six months of hunting Orcs with a troop of Elvish warriors. Something had changed in that journey. He had fully proved his courage and skill at arms, and the boy was gone. To her mother's eyes, he shone with a manly confidence and a dawning authority that he had, as yet, had little opportunity to test. Tears suddenly blurred her sight as she thought of how proud her husband would have been to know their son.
Elrond had seen it too, and it did not surprise her that he had chosen that day to tell Estel of the responsibility and duty of his birthright and title. For a brief time her son had seemed to grow even more as he absorbed the truth of who he was, even as he struggled with the enormous responsibility that had fallen onto his young shoulders. Then came the sudden silence. And she discovered, after persistent questions, that her son had fallen into a hopeless love for Elrond's own daughter.
Gilraen did not know exactly what had happened between them—he would not tell her—but it had turned Estel's world upside down. That she knew from the few words he had reluctantly spoken to her about the matter. Gilraen wished she could simply dismiss it as a young man's infatuation, except that she knew her son too well. She feared his intensity, and she feared for his happiness—insofar as a Ranger could expect any happiness to speak of.
Aragorn, lord of courage. A fine name for Arathorn's son. And with a cold stab of fear she wondered if her husband had been more right than anyone knew.