Aragorn found Elrond in the healer's wing, preparing medicines. "Atarinya, I've come to say my farewell," he said, choosing the High Elven word to show his respect and love.
Elrond looked up from a pestle of fragrant dried herbs. "Senya. I had thought to see you off in the morning."
Aragorn shook his head. "I mean to leave before first light."
Rising from his work table, Elrond gazed at him in grave silence before speaking. "As you wish." He waved a hand at the crumbled leaves in the shallow stone dish. "I have one more gift for the Dúnedain. I will have Eludor bring it to you when it is prepared."
"You are generous, father. Already I bring many ointments and powders, fine blades and needles and a purse of gold coins."
"It is only what I would have sent all these years, but for the estrangement between Rivendell and the Angle. That will soon be mended."
"I hope so," Aragorn said.
Elrond set his hands firmly on his foster son's shoulders, and the deep wells of wisdom that were his eyes glistened with feeling. Falling into the formal language that he used to master his feelings at moments of great emotion, the master of Rivendell said, "Aragorn son of Arathorn of the Dúnedain are you, and my beloved son Estel, and in you rests all our hope for the Age of Men that is soon to come. Use well the Black Hand, the sword I have given you, and may Brelach bear you to victory in the battles to come."
How can I ever become this man you look to see? Aragorn wondered, as he fiercely embraced his foster father and fought back the tears that would come despite his best efforts. He could not speak.
"Ah, Estel," Elrond said, and a sudden smile warmed his face. "Do not forget that I must still complete your lessons in healing. Let your steps bring you back to the Valley as you feel the power grow."
"I will, father," he said, and turned to go.
Heading for his own quarters, he paced slowly through the airy hallways, which seemed to echo with the memories of his boyhood, before his heritage had been revealed to him. The power of Elven healing that is given to the line of kings—that had been yet another of those wonders. The power of my brother's line has waned much in these late days, Elrond had said. But already I see that when you come to your full stature, yours will be at least as great as your father's and your grandfather's. It takes time to grow, my son, and you must learn to use the skill as it comes to you. An untrained Elven healer can become lost in the pathways and never find his way back.
He entered his room to find his foster brothers stretched out on the two chairs before the cold fireplace. Elrohir held a quiver of arrows across his lap. Elladan appeared to be dozing.
"We've come to help you pack," Elrohir said. Elladan opened one eye and grunted.
Aragorn cast a look of mock scorn at the long figure slumped in the chair. "I'm almost done, and just as well, since you look hardly able to lift a belt knife."
"I'm saving my strength for the map," Elladan said, pointing with his chin at the table covered with a soft skin inked with rivers, fords and pathways.
"Ah." Casting himself into the wooden chair where he had passed many hours studying his lessons, Aragorn leaned eagerly over the map. Fluid lines in blue showed the course of the Loudwater and Hoarwell rivers, with the Misty Moutains looming in black to the right. The green emblem of Elrond's house marked the location of Rivendell.
Joining him at the table, Elladan laid his finger on the cross marking the ford over the river. "Keep on the Great Road past the Ford for five days at a normal pace. To the north you will see a hilltop crowned with the ruined walls of an old fortress of Rhudaur from the days of the sorcerer. When the sun passes behind the tower, the entrance to the secret path lies to the south in the shadow. It is marked with a bit of tumbledown guard post, and if you look behind it, you will see an old rune etched on the cornerstone—'A' for Arnor. The trail will look like no more than a deer track, but after a couple of miles it will widen. Look for the marks on a black boulder. A three days' journey from there will take you to the Meeting Stone."
Elladan moved his finger to the fork between the two rivers. "Thurnost is here, and the way is carefully guarded. Do you remember your history lessons, Estel? It dates from the days of Elendil, a fortress built with the arts of Númenor itself. But it was abandoned when the kingdom broke into three, and Rhudaur fell to Angmar. At the fall of Arthedain we went with Aranarth that day he searched for the way, to reclaim it as a hidden fortress for his people.
"Here's what I would advise: make the signal—thrust your naked blade into the ground before the Stone—and wait. They will probably already be aware of you, but they will be slow to make a challenge, is my guess. There are few travelers, and most venture on the trails only by chance and never realize there are men living nearby. They soon pass on. The Rangers may expect you to do the same. I don't know if any traveler has been to the Meeting Stone since last we went all those years ago. And that was not a friendly time."
Elrohir snorted. "No, indeed. Never have I seen Hallor so angry, and Beleg was something like Mount Doom in eruption. But it was a difficult errand our father sent us on, to forbid them to come to the Valley and to refuse answers to all questions about you and Gilraen."
"Surely they know we are here, all the same," Aragorn said.
Elladan shrugged. "We don't know what they know, or guess. Beleg was muttering about Noldor gone as wild as Avari, who hate Men. I do believe he forgot that our father is Tuor's grandson."
"And all the years we rode together, we two and Arathorn and Beleg, hunting Orcs," said Elrohir in an injured tone.
"Then surely you see the sense in my going there alone, and not in company with the two of you?"
"Oh, we know better than to argue with you when you have that look on your face. But you must be sharp," Elrohir said.
"And when do I not? Have I not had the best teachers?"
"The Rangers may prove to be better teachers than we, for your needs," Elladan said. "And you face other, graver dangers, as you know. Sauron moves in Mordor. He has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil. Keep your identity close. Do not use your real name."
"Elrond has already warned me about that, more than once," Aragorn said, turning to his bed, where his pack and bits of clothing and gear lay scattered.
"And there are wild men and thieves," Elrohir said. "Our father did not guard you here in secret for all these years to have you spitted by a bandit."
"I don't think, somehow, that will be my fate."
Pulling the arrows from his quiver, Elrohir moved to his side. "I've brought you my special arrows as a goodbye gift. Use them well, brother."
"Thank you, I will." Greatly pleased—Elrohir's arrows were justly famous—Aragorn added them to his own quiver.
Both of his foster brothers were standing close behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he could see them exchanging a furtive glance. He knew what was coming.
"Have you said farewell to Arwen yet?" asked Elladan.
Aragorn clenched his jaw and tried for a light tone. "This morning." Even to his own ear, his voice sounded sharp.
When she had approached him, his heart leaped suddenly in his chest. But she only bade him a chilly farewell, and met his eyes with a haughty glance. "May you have a safe journey, Lord Aragorn," she had said, in the dignified voice of the lady of Rivendell. Then with a brief bow of her head she was gone.
"And?" said Elladan.
Elrohir kicked him in the foot, so obviously that Aragorn knew he was meant to see it. In stubborn silence, Aragorn maintained a studied indifference.
"We'll be going to Thranduil's kingdom for the winter," Elrohir said finally. "But then we expect to see you. We must go Orc hunting together soon."
"I will be back to the Valley," Aragorn said. "Not often, but when I can." The three of them embraced warmly. "Goodbye, my brothers. You will see me again."
The next day, in the dark silence dark of the early morning, he rose from his childhood bed for the last time. He had chosen to leave almost everything behind. His things would be kept waiting for his return, whenever that would be, and he had no need for the silk shirts and embroidered tunics that he wore on feast days in Rivendell. He had packed warm and sturdy clothes, including a fur-lined cloak made from the skin of a bear he had killed that spring; a spare pair of well-oiled boots; a few choice books; and, most precious of all, his healer's kit.
He dressed in the green and brown of the wilderness, adding a long-sleeved shirt of light mail, topped with vambraces and a vest of thick, toughened leather, and tall, rugged boots. He concealed the Ring of Barahir and Elrond's purse of gold in a soft leather pouch against his skin, along with his mother's letter for her kin. With Morchamion and Narsil in their sheathes thrust in his belt, he slung his pack on his back and loaded his arms with his helm, shield and all his other weapons. After the swords, his prize was the rugged hunting bow with its carved leather quiver that his foster brothers had given him for his eighteenth birthday. Elrohir's arrows now joined the dozen he had made himself.
River mists drifted in the Valley as he crossed to the stable. Flicking his black mane, Brelach nickered with joy to see him, his golden eyes soft and warm. We go now, brother, he whispered in the horse's ears. You alone accompany me.
He let Brelach have his head, and the horse chose a soft canter up the pathway to the world above. It was a beautiful early autumn, and Aragorn welcomed the time alone as a chance to disentangle the threads of his life that had seemingly knotted into an impossible snarl. Within a few short weeks, Estel and his golden childhood had vanished into the past.
He thought of his mother's words. You will learn what it means to be a king. Elrond had raised him to have a keen sense of duty and responsibility to combat the Shadow, so, in that sense, the purpose of his life had not changed. Even when his foster father had spoken of Aragorn son of Arathorn reclaiming the kingship of the Dúnedain and carrying Narsil reforged, he had reacted at first with pride and confidence. Why should he not fulfill Elrond's dream of seeing his brother's line restored? The deep love and reverence he bore for his foster father seemed motivation enough. The prospect of a life full of hardship and peril had seemed only a wonderful challenge to be met and conquered.
But the glamour soon ebbed in the tide of questions and doubts. Looking back on the history of his people did not encourage much optimism. Númenor had sunk below the waves when the arrogance of its last king had led him to challenge the might of the Elder King in Valinor. For the Númenoreans in exile, the power of Angmar had long ago shattered the northern kingdom, of which his name proclaimed him lord. And the royal house in Gondor had died out at the same time, while the Stewards had denied the claim of the Heirs of Isildur to the crown.
Somehow he was supposed to do better than all those generations of Men before him.
If only the terrible ache in his heart would leave him in peace, he could face his future with some confidence of at least doing his best to meet Elrond's expectations. That's why you left, he chided himself. Isn't it so? Not to do your duty as Chieftain of the Dúnedain, but to get away from her. You're just running away. Or was he letting bitterness cloud even his own judgment of himself? Face it, neither-Estel-nor-Aragorn, he mocked. You don't know.
It was hardly much of a recommendation for a lord returning to his people.
He tried to sort out the tangled emotions in his heart. Leaving aside the question of Arwen's love—which, truth be told, he could not do for a minute—he was faced with a daunting task, to somehow right the wrong of his people's history. And on this, Elrond said, depended the future of the new Age of Men. Could the burden get any more immense?
I must take it one step at a time, he told himself. First I must return to my birthplace. "Here I am, my people. The Hope of the new Age of Men, so named by Lord Elrond of Rivendell." May it be that none of them have ever heard the name of Estel, the false Hope. Perhaps that is the only good thing about the whole mess.
He was not even sure, any more, of how much he wished to succeed, beyond the desire to please his foster father. The only desire he knew was for Arwen's love. And that was the one thing he could not have.
The day they met in the woods above Elrond's House, she was as fresh as a spring wildflower, singing and dangling her slender feet in the gurgling stream. He did not know she was Elrond's daughter until the next day, and by then it was too late. He gave his heart away with those first kisses.
Two weeks they had had together, but neither of them had spoken of it to any others. It was their own secret. For the first time in his life, the loneliness that dogged him went away. He told her things he had never said to anyone. Now he despised his own weakness. How could he trust so easily? She was as false as any woman who ever lived. She had rejected him heartlessly, and all because he insisted that she must be his.
But then his anger scattered like withered leaves before a wind of shame, as he remembered his jealous words. "You have trapped me with your Elvish enchantments," he had said. And he could hardly bear the blaze in her eyes as she answered, "Perhaps some day you will learn to untangle love from its enchantments, but it will not be with me."
He thought he would rather endure the yellow glare of an Orc behind an axe than see again the angry dislike in that lovely face. And still, every night, desire, longing, and heartache haunted his dreams.
He chanted softly some verses from a legendary poet of Númenor who had sought to capture the perilous beauty of the Elves:
O what can ail thee, Knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no birds sing.
I met a maiden in the woods
Full beautiful, an Elven child
Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild.
He straightened up and looked forward proudly. I will put this behind me. It will pass. If it is a battle, it is with myself. And he sank his thoughts down into his being, seeking the balance and composure that he had been taught to summon courage and fortitude in battle, to conquer his emotions and put resolve in command of fear and doubt.
Whatever happened, it was his duty to be with his people, and to strive to do his best, however inadequate that might be. He put the heartbroken poet from his mind and took up the lays in the High Elven Quenya that he had been taught to speak as well as his own native Sindarin. He sang the battle songs of Númenor that he had been taught in Rivendell. At least he now understood why he had been so carefully instructed in the history of the Dúnedain. Those kings whose names he had memorized were his own forefathers.
As he sang, Brelach splashed across the waters of the ford into the wild of Eriador.
Thurnost is Sindarin, "hidden fortress." It is my invention.
The poem is shamelessly adapted from Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."
For a photo of Brelach, see Naharion at http://www.theoriginalseries.com/mearas.htm