Aragorn dismounted at the appointed meeting place and allowed his horse to graze while he strolled about the grassy knoll, waiting for his friend. It had been three years now since Gandalf had last visited Gondor. As usual, he had left then with messages for the North from the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, including, this time, a discreet message to the acting Chieftain to watch out for possible agents from Gondor. Aragorn knew Denethor well enough to take his stated intent seriously; that he would inevitably turn his eyes North was only a matter of time. But the stealth and security of the Northern Rangers were unmatched in Middle-earth, and Aragorn did not expect that Denethor would find his answers very quickly. But he would also not abandon the search.
He saw his friend approaching at an easy gallop from the city and lifted his arm to wave.
They embraced warmly and regarded each other, clasping hands to shoulders. “You look well, son of Arathorn,” the wizard said, his eyes twinkling. “I had heard you were wounded.”
“That is now past. And you, old friend, are as wise and as wizened as ever,” Aragorn laughed. “It is very good to see you indeed. And my family? Is all well in Rivendell?”
“Does it ever change, under Elrond’s guardianship?”
“It will not be much longer before I return to see for myself.”
“You are planning your departure?”
“Not quite yet. I mean to accomplish a sound defeat for the Corsairs at Umbar first. This may well entail another year or two of convincing and planning. Then the time will be right.”
He then gave Gandalf a full accounting of the military disposition of Gondor, and the work he had done to reinforce the defenses in the East.
“I heard much of this report from the Steward,” Gandalf said. “But yours is more complete. These are sound accomplishments, and I am glad to see Gondor’s defenses improve. This country remains our first and most important bulwark against the Enemy.”
“Well do I know it,” Aragorn said. “And I regret every blade of grass that suffers Mordor’s blight and every drop of Gondor’s blood spilled.”
“It is unfortunate that you cannot stay here.”
“We have discussed this before, as you know. But regardless of the other problems, I have a duty to the Dúnedain in the North, which is also urgent.”
“Indeed, I don’t bring good news on that score. I am afraid that Hallor is ill.”
“That is sad news indeed. Has Halbarad assumed command, then?”
“Yes. And he is doing it quite well.”
“Of course. I would expect nothing less. But all the more reason for my return. Hallor is a great loss to the Rangers.”
“But Aragorn, there is another matter I must tell you about. I’m afraid it makes an ugly story.”
Aragorn turned worried eyes to his friend’s face.
“I believe that Denethor’s spies have finally made a breakthrough. And they did it by kidnapping a young Ranger and beating him for information.”
Aragorn exclaimed in horror and out of sheer anger struck his fist into his hand. He said through clenched teeth, “Tell me.”
“They must have been watching Ranger operations in and out of Bree for some time in order to do this, as I know you must guess. They have never been able to penetrate the defenses of the Angle—or even to identify the location of Dúnedain lands, Halbarad believes. It is not easy to kidnap even an inexperienced Ranger. But they lured him with a false message into the wood outside the town and held him prisoner. A very young man, only 18 years old.”
The wizard sighed. “Your cousin, your mother’s brother’s son. Dírgon. He will be all right, but he was fairly badly beaten. They may have also used a truth drug, we do not know for sure. But he was asked about you.”
Aragorn was trembling with rage. He leaped up and began pacing. “How dare he,” he muttered grimly. “Whether Denethor ordered this explicitly or not, he is responsible. How I wish I could take revenge! But you say the boy is well?”
“Yes. He will recover completely, but he is very ashamed. He does not remember all he said. I spoke with him myself.”
“This is not his fault. When you return, I wish you to see that a personal message from me gets to him on that. When did this happen?”
“Just before I left. It is one reason that I am here. It may be that the news has not reached Denethor yet.”
“It won’t matter, one way or the other. He already suspects enough. Which only makes this outrage worse.”
Gandalf waited while Aragorn expended his rage in pacing. He was glad he had chosen this spot far out of the city walls to break this news, for the Chieftain was so angry that Gandalf suspected he might have forgotten himself and drawn swords in the citadel. Finally, with a deep sigh, Aragorn sat down again.
“My friend,” Gandalf said, “the real danger is to you.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. He will not touch me. He cannot break my influence in the council or with Ecthelion, and he knows perfectly well that any ruffians or assassins he might send against me would meet a swift end. I am not an easy mark, and I often now have a personal guard as well. He would find it very difficult to find anyone at all who would be willing to try.”
“How much does he suspect, do you think?”
“He knows where I am from. He knows there are Dúnedain in the North, living in the shadows. He lets me know that he has discovered these things by making pointed remarks about the history of Arnor, things like ‘ragged remnants of Númenor’ and such like. He suspects that at least some lines of noble descent remain, maybe even fairly intact. That I am directly descended from Elendil, I do not think has occurred to him yet.”
“He will probably soon know it as a fact.”
“So be it.” He was silent for a while, then he laughed bitterly. “We are quite a pair, Denethor and I.”
“Hmm,” the wizard said. He agreed with this remark.
“In a better time, we could have been friends, sworn brothers, perhaps. He is an extremely intelligent and capable man, such as I would have wanted for a friend. Instead, we end up enemies—at least, he thinks of me that way, although I do not feel the same—each envying the other for having what he cannot get for himself.”
This surprised Gandalf. “Well, I know what it is you have that he wants, but not the contrary. Can you enlighten me?”
Aragorn looked at the wizard, an eyebrow raised. “I think that you sometimes forget that I am but a man like any other. I mean a loving wife and a small son.”
“Ah,” Gandalf said. “You will have these things, Aragorn. Some day.”
Aragorn made no answer, but only stared at the ground between his feet. Gandalf pulled out his leaf pouch and two pipes, offering one to his companion, whose face brightened. “Thank you, my dear old friend. How wise of you to remind me of the one great virtue of the life of a Northern Ranger over that of a captain of Gondor.” He lit up the pipe and for a while smoked in silence. “Gandalf, this land is where I belong; it is more my home than even Rivendell was in my childhood. I love this country with all my heart. And by now I have been Thorongil more years than ever I was Aragorn. It will be hard to leave, knowing that I may never return.”
“Nevertheless, Aragorn is who you are. And you know what Elrond would say on the matter of your return. He has always seen this in your future.”
“I am not likely to forget, am I? But surely even Elrond would now admit that the hatred the next Steward bears for the Heir of Isildur is not going to make claiming the crown any easier. Not that I have ever seen any way that it would come about, in any case.”
“That event remains before us. And meanwhile, whatever you may say about your own belief, you are preparing to be an able ruler. Is this not so?”
“I have done my best. Certainly I do not want failure to be laid at my own feet. But there is little that I, or any other one man, can do to influence such large events.”
“Who knows what the years will bring?” said Gandalf. “Many pieces are in play. And ever we wait and watch for the next threat from the Dark Lord.”
It was not long after Gandalf’s departure that Denethor let Aragorn know he had received the message from his spies. Again, it was an indirect statement that was clearly meant to be understood by Thorongil alone. Aragorn was quite sure that Denethor would never again speak to him directly about his identity. He now knew that Thorongil had spoken the truth when he warned Denethor that he, too, would want secrecy.
It was after a meeting of the council, where, in fact, he and Denethor had supported each other in arguments to the Steward on a particular point of defense. This was often the case, as it had always been. Then, as the lords and captains stood around the council chamber, continuing discussion and debate on certain points, Aragorn heard Denethor slightly raise his voice in a comment to another.
“It is known that the kings of Arthedain continued at least for a while as ‘chieftains.’ I believe they kept up the appearance of royalty by giving their sons names beginning with ‘Ar’ or ‘Ara,’ coming from aran, of course. Perhaps an attempt to seek solace after the loss of any true lordship. No doubt, if any still exist, the line is quite bastardized and they can provide no proof of legitimate descent.”
Aragorn deliberately did not look toward Denethor, so as to avoid any eye contact with him, and smoothly maintained his conversation with the captain of ships from Pelargir. But he saw Ecthelion turn his eyes toward his son, with a thoughtful expression mixed with some alarm. This was evidence of what he had long suspected, that Ecthelion had guessed something of the truth. The only question remaining was whether Denethor now knew his full name, or only the first three letters.
It proved even harder in the event than he had anticipated, to turn his back on Gondor and walk away. But it had to be done. His future lay before him. He would extend his knowledge of the borderlands of Mordor. He would return to the Northern Rangers and once again be their Chieftain. And he would seek out Arwen Undomiel and try again.