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3
Chapter 3

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the recognizable characters; I am only borrowing them for fun for a little while. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha


~~~

Halbarad led Aragorn to Dolomar’s training field – the large open area in the center of the village, which was only a few steps from where they were standing. “This is where we spar, Aragorn,” he held out his arms to indicate the whole area.

Estel glanced around, taking in the closeness of the houses and other buildings, the nearby well, and thought about the fact that children had been using this area for play the previous day. He wondered why they used the village center when they should practice in a more isolated spot. The boys went out daily to tend to the herds and flocks, to gather wood, and to work in the fields and he could not understand the reason to have the training field here. He gave Halbarad a questioning look. “Why do you practice in the middle of the village? Is there not a better place outside the walls?”

“It’s because of the training weapons the boys use for practice. We don’t leave anything like that outside the gates in case the village is attacked. The enemy doesn’t need more weapons, even blunt ones can easily be sharpened,” Halbarad replied with a scowl. “It’s easier to store them in that small building there and practice here,” he shrugged. “At least for swordplay and Ladreníl uses it for the smallest boys to begin to teach them archery. How to stand, how to grip the bow, and nock the arrow, and then he takes them to an area behind the stable and the youngest ones can start learning how to release the arrow.” Halbarad shrugged again, “It seems to work.”

“Has the village been attacked often?” Estel asked as he removed his cloak, folding it neatly and setting it under the tree. He began stretching his arms and legs as he listened to Halbarad’s response to his question.

Halbarad stood still, staring at the ground, lost in his memories as he slowly answered Aragorn. “We were attacked three years ago and then,” his brow furrowed as he thought. “I remember at least two other times when I was much younger, around the time you left or soon after, I think. Though mostly what I remember is the noise and the screams and the...” his voice trailed off and he shook his head. “There was a long time when it was rather peaceful,” he said with a grim smile. “But of course we can never let our guard down, Aragorn.” Halbarad finally looked up at his Chieftain who had stilled and was looking at his cousin with an expression that Halbarad could only describe as a mixture of horror and deep compassion. He stepped hesitantly towards Halbarad and then stopped.

“Did many die? Did orcs get over the walls? Were there any men here to help?” Estel’s questions came tumbling out.

Holding up his hand to stop the flow of questions, Halbarad began answering in a low voice. “I don’t know about the earlier battles because I was too young and it’s all just sort of a blur to me.” He finally removed his brown cloak and tossed it beside Aragorn’s and began swinging his arms to stretch the muscles as he continued speaking, needing the movement as the memories resurfaced. Halbarad noticed absently that Aragorn followed his lead, though his mind was clearly on what he was saying and not on warming up. “Three years ago we lost five of our people; one young girl, two women and two boys. I say boys, but they were actually young men of eighteen and nineteen…”

“About your age at that time,” Estel interrupted.

“Yes,” Halbarad acknowledged. He paused and stared at the ground, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“I am sorry,” Estel said softly, stepping forward and grasping Halbarad’s shoulder tightly for a moment.

Halbarad nodded and continued with an almost impassive expression on his face. Only his eyes showed the full extent of his grief. “We had some warning that the orcs were coming as one of the perimeter guards had gotten back to us in time. But there were no patrols here, just the few men that are always here, those either injured or too old to patrol, the sword master was here then too. But it was mostly us young men and some of the older boys who fought and the women, of course. They are all good with either a bow or a sword, even Naneth,” Halbarad said with a sad smile. “Ladreníl was in charge and he’s good, Aragorn,” he looked up and met his cousin’s eyes briefly, “but it’s a big village and there are not very many of us and a group of orcs got in over the walls behind the smithy. We had all of the children gathered in the Hall and a few of the women were there to keep watch over them.” Halbarad took a deep breath and resumed stretching, pulling his sword this time and sighting along the blade for a moment. “The two young men that were killed were in that area,” he finally continued tonelessly. “They fought well and were able to raise the alarm and help came, but we were too late to save them. One died immediately and the other died of his wounds later. They killed quite a few orcs, but not enough to save… “ Halbarad cleared his throat and looked at Aragorn and then away.

“You need not continue,” Estel said softly. “I do not need to know what else happened; you have said enough for me to understand something of the horrors of that night.” He was again appalled at the lives the people lead and he realized how sheltered he had been in Imladris. When he went out with his brothers to hunt for orcs, he always was able to return to a safe and well-protected home. The Dúnedain left their loved ones behind in danger to go and seek out orcs and to protect the peoples of Eriador from evil. Estel had known this of course, but seeing the reality of it was quite different.

“All I will say is that a few orcs got into the Hall and two women and one girl died. One of the women was the healer and that’s why Naneth is now the healer for the village. Are you ready to spar now?” Halbarad asked.

Blinking at the abrupt change in subjects, Estel nodded even as he wondered if this would be a good time to spar with Halbarad. If his emotional state would make it too difficult for him to concentrate on what he was doing, especially as they were not using practice blades. Deciding that if Halbarad seemed to be having problems he would stop, Estel pulled his sword and inspected it briefly before walking to the middle of the cleared area and turning to face his cousin. “Are you ready?” he asked and at Halbarad’s nod, Estel brought his sword into a defensive position and began circling his cousin, eyeing him warily as he moved around to the right. He noted each movement that Halbarad made as his cousin moved in step with him. The loud clanging sounds of steel striking steel and then screeching as the swords slid apart filled the air. They exchanged a series of thrusts and parries, but neither found an opening. Seeing what he thought might be an opening, Estel tried to slip his sword in and touch his cousin’s side, but Halbarad deftly blocked it. The pace was slow for a moment or two as each tried to get a sense of the other and then Estel slowly sped things up as he sensed that Halbarad could handle a faster pace. As the speed increased though, Estel began taking over the match and Halbarad was unable to mount any type of offensive moves against him. Halbarad started backpedaling as Estel drove him back relentlessly and in a few minutes his sword snaked past Halbarad’s defenses. After flipping his cousin’s sword from his hand, Estel then tapped his upper leg with the flat of his blade and the match was over. They backed apart, taking deep breaths and stared at each other for a long moment until Halbarad finally broke the silence.

“You’re as good as an elf.”

Estel cocked his head and gave him a half smile, “I assure you, I am not. Of course, I was trained by them and have sparred with them for years.”

“Will you teach me? Help me to become better at least.”

Surprised by the request, yet strangely pleased, Estel gave a brisk nod. “We should go; your adar is waiting for us.” He checked his sword and returned it to its sheath.

“Naneth probably has lunch ready,” Halbarad commented as he retrieved his sword and checked it closely before re-sheathing it.

“I know not, but your adar is waiting for us under the tree.” He continued at Halbarad’s questioning look, “He arrived as you and I were sparring.”

“You saw him arrive?” Halbarad was surprised that Aragorn had noticed since he had appeared so focused on him while they sparred.

“Well, yes,” Estel answered uncertainly, he had been taught to be both focused on who or what he was fighting as well as to be aware of his surroundings.

“You have the eyes of an elf too,” Halbarad muttered as they walked towards Halhigal, but there was no response from his Chieftain.

“Perhaps you should teach our boys and young men how to use a sword,” Halhigal said as they drew near.

“I think I would enjoy that. However, I do seem to have a few other responsibilities,” Estel commented dryly.

Halhigal gave a small snort of amusement, and Halbarad grinned. “Nimrie has lunch ready,” Halhigal said and turned towards his house. Picking up their cloaks and slinging them over their shoulders, the two younger men followed him.

“Where are the rest of the men?” Estel asked after a moment. He had looked for them earlier and had not seen them in the fields with the others.

“Hunting,” his uncle replied. “We are trying to get in as much meat as possible before winter and anytime the men are here they go out hunting.”

“I should have gone with them,” Estel said quietly.

Halhigal stopped, laying a hand on his nephew’s arm and bringing him to a halt as well. He gave him a long appraising look before he spoke. “Aragorn there will be times for you to do those kinds of things. To work in the fields alongside the others, to hunt and help fill the storage sheds for the winter months, and to do other things around this village that simply need to be done. Yet there are also times when you need to let others do for you. You are the Chieftain of the Dúnedain and your people expect you to act as that Chieftain and to let them serve you.” Halhigal paused briefly. “Does Lord Elrond go out and hunt for the food that appears on his table?” he asked. Estel shook his head, his eyes never leaving his uncle’s, his brow furrowed. “I thought not. Right now you are learning the ways of your people and it was more important for you to be here doing that. I chose to have Halbarad stay here today knowing that you might feel more comfortable asking him questions than asking either me or Ladreníl. When you are riding with the men it will be different, and you will be doing all that the other men do, but not here,” he finished in a quiet voice. He gave Aragorn a searching look to see if he understood.

“I understand the necessity of that right now while I am learning,” Estel finally responded. “And I will heed your counsel about letting the people serve me at times, but I will also do for myself,” he said firmly. “My people do not need additional burdens.”

“They do not consider it a burden,” Halhigal said softly, “it is an honor to be allowed to serve you.” He paused and carefully considered his words. “Aragorn, you are my Chieftain and I consider it an honor to help you learn about your people and how things are done amongst the Dúnedain.” He gave a small shrug and looked at Halbarad who was watching Aragorn rather intently.

“Aragorn, you are my cousin before anything else,” Halbarad said, smiling and ignoring the slight frown of his father and focusing instead on the surprised, but pleased expression of Aragorn. “Yet, I never forget that you are also my Chieftain and I will always honor and respect that and do whatever I can to serve you. Adar is right,” he finished in a low voice, his bluish grey eyes studying Aragorn.

Estel bowed his head briefly and then slowly nodded. In his heart he did not agree with all that they were saying, yet he was willing to trust in their knowledge of his people and to abide by what they said. At least until he learned more about his people and their ways.

“I’m sure our food is getting cold,” Halhigal said, turning to continue on their way to the house and the other two fell into step beside him.

“My adar would go out and hunt for food if his people were in need,” Estel said, giving his uncle a sidelong glance. Halhigal bit back a smile at the stubbornness of his nephew, though he knew that same stubbornness would serve him well in the long, hard years ahead.

0-0-0

Estel stepped out of the house and into the late afternoon sun after his long talk with Halhigal about the organization of the Dúnedain and how he would be kept apprised of what occurred in the other villages and with the Rangers that patrolled across the vast stretches of Eriador. Blinking in the sunlight, he gazed down and across the lane at the house where his grandmother lived. He had been surprised that she had not joined them for any of the meals and had thought it might be due to his presence, but Halhigal had explained that she seldom ate with them. That since the death of her husband she preferred to keep to herself, though she did have several women friends in the village that she saw frequently when they gathered together to sew. Estel heard the note of grief in his uncle’s voice as he spoke and he could understand that. Estel too had had to watch his naneth grieve for a missing husband and had been unable to help her and he well understood his uncle’s frustration. Looking down at the small package in his hand, he took a deep breath and started towards his grandmother’s house. It was not that he did not want to see her or try and get to know her, but Estel did not want to bring his grandmother pain or discomfort. Yet his naneth had asked him to give her this small gift and he did not want to put it off. After knocking lightly on the door, he took a small step back and waited patiently to see if she would even come to the door as Halbarad had told him that sometimes she did not respond. But after a few long moments the door creaked open and his grandmother stood peering up at him with not a hint of welcome in her eyes. Estel bowed, “Good afternoon, Grandmother,” he said with a gentle, if somewhat nervous smile.

“Oh. It’s you, is it? Well, what do you want? I have things to do,” Ivorwen asked curtly as she pulled her shawl tightly about her shoulders against the cool autumn air as she stared at this grandson of hers. He reminded her far too much of the son-in-law who had died and had been the cause of her daughter leaving her all those years ago.

So much for honoring and respecting her Chieftain Estel thought with something like amusement even as he answered her. “My naneth asked me to give you this,” he replied, holding out the carefully wrapped package.

“Gilraen sent me this?” Ivorwen whispered, reaching for it with trembling hands.

“Yes, and there is a letter in there as well as a gift,” Estel said as he released the package into her hands. As he watched her caress the package he wondered if this was the first thing she had received from his naneth in eighteen years. If so, he wondered why. Elladan and Elrohir often rode with the Rangers and could have easily brought something from his naneth to her. “Grandmother,” his voice was carefully respectful, “is this the first package or letter you have received from my naneth since we left?”

Ivorwen paused in her examination of the package and scowled up at him, “Yes,” she answered shortly and turned to go back in.

“Why?”

“Ask your uncle,” she replied without looking back. The door clicked shut and Estel stood staring at the door for a moment before turning away. “That went well,” he muttered under his breath as he walked back towards his uncle’s house.

The squeal of children’s laughter caught his attention and he paused and looked to see the young children again playing at the village center while two women sat nearby watching them and talking with one another, small smiles crossing their faces even in the brief moment he watched them. Perhaps there were more times of peace and joy here than he thought was possible, Estel considered thoughtfully. Changing his mind about returning to the house, Estel walked down towards the village gates. He could hear the sounds of wood being chopped and both boys and girls were carrying armloads of it into the houses to feed the fires that were cooking the food being prepared for the feast. A small line had formed at the well now and girls were giggling and laughing quietly as they waited for their turn, Estel smiled at them as he passed and ignored the whispers that he heard. The sheds used for storing the food for the village had their doors propped open and a few women were taking what they needed. Estel quietly greeted those he passed, but most people were hurrying about their work and he did not stop to speak with them, instead his keen grey eyes observed and took in many of the small details that made up the life of the village.

As Estel approached the gate, one of the groups of hunters, the one led by Faelon, returned. They brought with them four deer and numerous rabbits and water fowl. Their feet were wet from tramping around in the marshes that were a couple of miles west of the village and Estel’s eyes narrowed in concern as his healer’s instincts took over and he worried about the possibility of them becoming sick. He relaxed slightly as he heard Faelon quietly direct the men to take the meat to the sheds to be dried and then to go home and dry themselves as well, reminding them that they were leaving early in the morning. The men inclined their heads and greeted Estel as they passed him, and he waited as Faelon approached with an inquiring look on his face.

“Good afternoon, Lord Aragorn,” Faelon said with a slight bow, wondering what his Chieftain would require of him when he simply desired to go and spend a few more hours with his wife before he had to leave again for months.

“Faelon,” Estel greeted him in return. “Your hunt went well today,” he observed as they turned away from the gate and back toward the houses.

Faelon grimaced and shook his head, “But it’s not enough, my lord. Though, I think we have more meat stored up than we did last year, and the crops were good this year. They will get by,” he gazed up at the rapidly darkening sky for a moment before glancing back at Aragorn, “they always do.”

Estel nodded, frowning; there was little he could say to that. From what he had observed it appeared that the women and children did indeed struggle through and get by with what they had. Instead he said, “Halhigal told me that your patrol will take you west.”

“Yes, around the Weather Hills mostly. With winter coming on, there will be wolves, and possibly orcs coming down from the north.” Faelon’s feet slowed as they neared his house. “A few of the patrols from some of the other villages will also be in the general area around Bree and we’ll do what we can to keep the evil creatures away,” he said. He stopped in front of his house, wondering if Aragorn had more questions for him.

However, Estel was once again thinking of how the men were leaving to protect other families from danger and leaving their own behind to struggle through a hard winter. Suddenly realizing that they had stopped, he looked at the house and back at Faelon. “Forgive me, Faelon, I am keeping you from your family and that was not my intent.”

“I know it wasn’t, my lord, but unless you have questions for me, I would like to spend time with my wife before the feast and before I have to leave in the morning.”

“No, no, I have no questions for you,” Estel started to walk away and then turned back, “Enjoy your time with your family, Faelon, I can already sense how precious they are to you,” he said before he continued back to his uncle’s house, leaving a puzzled Faelon looking after him.

0-0-0

Estel had, of course had special celebrations in his honor before - for his birthdays. However, it was not quite the same as having a welcoming feast and feeling the eyes of all present watching your every move. Halhigal had spoken briefly of the peoples’ joy on his return and then the food had been served. It was simple fare – roasted meat, potatoes, fresh corn, and bread - but it was delicious tasting nonetheless. Eating at the table with Estel and his kin, including his grandmother, were Ladreníl and his family, and Faelon and his family. The other patrol leader, Dorlas, sat at a table nearby, but Caladel and his patrol had not yet returned. Earlier in the day, Estel had wondered at the presence of all the patrols in the village and his uncle had just given him a look before dryly explaining that, for some reason, the men wanted to be in Dolomar to greet their Chieftain on his return. Estel had nodded and changed the subject, though part of him wondered at the wisdom of leaving areas un-patrolled simply so that the Rangers could greet him.

Since the tables in the Hall were long and narrow with benches on each side of them, there was no specific place of honor and so Estel sat on a bench towards the middle of the table in the front of the Hall with Halhigal and Nimrie to his left and Halbarad and Ivorwen to his right. His grandmother spoke few words the entire evening and none to him, but at least she had shown up and Estel knew that pleased his uncle. Across from him sat Faelon and to his right his wife, Arthiell, and then Braniell and Balrant. To the left of Faelon sat Ladreníl and to his left was his wife, Alpheth and his daughter, Gaerwen. Sitting next to Gaerwen was Ladreníl’s father, Sírdhim, the oldest man in the village. Ladreníl’s son, Gilost, was part of the patrol that had not yet arrived as was Faelon’s older son, Baisael.

“Lord Aragorn?”

Estel looked up from his dinner at the quiet questioning voice to discover that Gaerwen, who had not said a word the entire meal, had addressed him. “Yes, lady?” he responded, wondering if her quietness was due to him or if she was shy by nature.

“What is Rivendell like? Did you like living there?” Gaerwen bit her lip as she watched him, hoping it wasn’t an improper question, but Aragorn smiled and she released the breath she had been holding.

“Yes, I did like living there, it was my home,” Estel replied simply. “It is hard to describe, lady. It is beautiful, of course. It is set in a deep valley and the homes and buildings are surrounded by rivers and there are waterfalls that cascade down from the sides of the steep valley walls. There are many gardens all around the grounds of Imladris and different flowers bloom at different times of the year. The… “ Estel stopped as he noticed that all at the table were giving him strange looks and he decided that perhaps he had been sounding a little too enthusiastic about his home, but it was beautiful and he had been asked to describe it he thought with an inward sigh.

“Sounds just like Dolomar,” Sírdhim commented sarcastically, his eyes narrowed as he stared at the young Chieftain.

Ignoring the indrawn breath of his uncle and the sarcastic tone of Sírdhim, Estel chose to respond to the comment itself. “No, it is not anything like Dolomar, Sírdhim. But it is where I lived for eighteen years. However, my home is here now… with my people.” His eyes did not leave the older man’s.

“Humph,” Sírdhim grunted, “Yes, but your adar is there,” he continued coldly. He had not forgotten Aragorn’s words of the day before and had not been pleased at the implication that Elrond had taken the place of Arathorn in the heart of his Chieftain.

Struggling to control the sudden surge of anger that flowed through him, Estel looked down at his clenched fists in his lap for a moment. Finally raising his head, he gazed at those across from him to find that the faces of the men and women were shuttered and unreadable while the two younger ladies were looking down. Only Balrant looked confused, though when he noticed Estel looking at him he grinned. He looked at Halbarad from the corner of his eye when his cousin gently kicked his foot and he relaxed slightly knowing he had at least one friend at this table, two if he counted the seven year old Balrant. Estel did his best to keep his voice level and under control. “I wish that I could have known my father, Arathorn, yet I did not. I know that you did, as did most of the people in this village. But, Sírdhim, just because I hold Lord Elrond to be my adar does not mean that I do not respect and honor the memory of Arathorn.” He paused, considering and choosing his words carefully. “As you well know, I have only just learned of him and, perhaps, you and others here will be able to tell me more of him and of my grandfather as well. Both of my grandfathers,” he added after a brief pause. “I truly would like to know more of all of my kin. However,” his piercing grey eyes swept over the others briefly before settling back on Sírdhim, “I will always consider Lord Elrond to be my adar simply because he was the one who was there as I grew up. The one who taught me the things a father teaches a son and who loved me as one of his own.”

Deciding that there was nothing more that he could say, Estel turned deliberately back to his food even though he would rather have left the Hall and found a place where he could be alone with his thoughts. He could not understand why the people, at least some of them, felt this way. Did they wish that he had not had any sort of fatherly affection in his life? Was it because Elrond was an elf? He did not believe that to be true, it truly must be their admiration for Arathorn and concern that he would not, perhaps, honor the customs of the Dúnedain. Estel knew that all of his ancestors back to Valandil, son of Isildur, had spent some time in Imladris during their youth, though he also knew that they were fully aware of their heritage and most had fathers waiting for them at home. He knew that because he had not known either of those things, and because he had been so young when he had gone to Imladris, his relationship with Elrond, Elladan, and Elrohir was far different than any of his ancestors.

“I watched you spar with Halbarad,” Ladreníl spoke up, wanting to change the subject. “You’re quite good for someone so young, my lord.”

Sighing inwardly at the reference to his age, Estel looked up and met Ladreníl’s eye and was surprised to see a hint of embarrassment there and he wondered if it was from the words his father had spoken and how he had said them. “Thank you,” he replied simply. His gaze shifted to the others and he was relieved to see that they also had begun eating again, though Sírdhim was idly rubbing his thumb along the edge of his fork and looking away from anyone at the table.

“I know I’ve never sparred with anyone so good,” Halbarad said. “Aragorn’s very quick on his feet and with his hands,” he shook his head, “I could hardly follow the movement of his sword.”

“That’s not unusual,” Faelon said with a small smile. “You’ve always had trouble following the movements of a sword, Halbarad.” He glanced quickly at Halhigal to see that the angry glare he had been directing at Sírdhim had softened and the former leader was now listening to their conversation, much to Faelon’s relief.

Halbarad shrugged, knowing exactly why Faelon was jesting with him, “Maybe, but he’s going to help me become better. Perhaps he can help you as well,” he said with a smile of his own.

“Oh, I thought Halbarad held his own for a couple of minutes,” Halhigal said with a brief glance at his son. “But I think Aragorn was just toying with him,” he allowed a note of teasing to enter his voice, perfectly willing to use his son to further break the tension that had already eased considerably from the earlier words between Sírdhim and Aragorn.

Estel gave a sidelong look at Halbarad to see that he was smiling at his father’s comment and he relaxed. “I do not think that Halbarad would allow me to just toy with him, Uncle,” he said. “I enjoyed sparring with someone different, someone I have not sparred with many times already.” He stopped short of mentioning it was interesting to spar with a man instead on an elf, and that Halbarad was much slower than anyone he had ever sparred with before.

“Will you teach me how to use a sword, Aragorn?” Balrant piped up from the end of the table.

“It’s Lord Aragorn,” Arthiell corrected him immediately.

“Lord Aragorn,” he agreed still looking eagerly at Aragorn.

Smiling at the young boy, Estel thought carefully before he answered him. He knew it would be several years before Balrant actually started to learn to wield a sword and Estel did not know where he might be at that time. He did not want to make a promise he could not keep. “Balrant, I cannot be here to teach you all that you need to know about how to wield a sword. Just like your father and your brother, I must go out with the patrols to protect the people of Eriador, just as you will do someday. However, when you are older I will show you some of the things that I have learned about how to wield a sword; things that will help make you a better swordsman. How would that be?” Estel asked kindly, seeing the disappointment in the boy’s eyes.

“That’s all right, my lord,” Balrant said with a deep sigh. “I was just hoping you might be staying here and not going off like everyone else has to.” His sister, Braniell, laid her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it gently.

“He’s the Chieftain, Balrant, it’s his duty to go out and lead the Rangers,” Arthiell reminded him softly.

“I know, Nana,” he replied, his shoulders slumping, his fork pushing food around on his plate.

Estel did not know how, or even if he should respond and he looked at Faelon who just shook his head slightly.

A loud banging sound as the door to the Hall flew open brought everyone quickly to their feet, the men with hands to the hilts of their swords. Rosruin, one of the young men on guard duty at the gate, rushed up to Halhigal. “Caladel’s patrol has returned,” he said, panting and out of breath. “But some men are wounded and they are taking them directly to the healing room.”

~~~

Reviewers: Thanks to everyone who reads the story and especially to those who review, I appreciate the encouragement. I will answer everyone by email if I have an address.


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