Growling with frustration, Halbarad tossed the broken stick over his shoulder: yet another ruin instead of an arrow. His fingers were clumsy today. He cast his eye across the small clearing to the auburn-haired boy crouched over a fire of smokeless hot embers, watching a lean venison haunch as it cooked. The boy took a deep breath and leaned his nose over the rich smell. His twin brother sat nearby, picking burrs out of the coat of a large, thick-furred dog.
"That may well be our last meal until I can make more arrows," Halbarad grumbled.
Rodnor shrugged. "We can trap rabbits."
Rodnion said, "Huan will catch deer for us." He rumpled the dog's pointed ears. "Won't you, Huan?"
Halbarad sympathized with the quizzical look in Huan's brown eyes. Grunting, he turned his attention to the next smooth stick. But a loud shout and the sound of a swift, firm stride brought him to his feet as Malbeth burst through the trees, panting, and called, "A man—an Elf—at the Meeting Stone."
Halbarad frowned. "Slow down. You make no sense."
Malbeth took several deep breaths before he continued. "Damrod and I saw him—an armed man at the Meeting Stone. At first we thought it must be an odd chance. No one has ever come in all the days I have patrolled here. He dismounted and made camp. We thought, it's nothing—a traveler—he will soon return to the Road. But then he thrust his naked blade in the ground before the Stone, making the signal, if I do not mistake it. Still we watched, and he stayed. It is no chance—he makes the signal."
Halbarad let out a short huff of surprise. In the past Elves from Rivendell had come to the Meeting Stone, seeking the Rangers. But never in his ten years of patrols—ten years since the age of thirteen, the age the twins were now—had anyone made the signal at the Stone. As far as he knew, in fact, it had happened only once since the sudden and tragic disappearance of the boy Heir of Isildur and his mother eighteen years ago—when Gandalf the Grey had come to tell the Dúnedain about the fall of the great dragon Smaug. They had not seen him since.
Halbarad pulled at his beard. "What kind of man is he?"
"Well-armed—a splendid warhorse—dressed in woodland colors but richly adorned. I thought perhaps he is an Elf, but we have seen very few, and never here. The sword is Elven, no mistake. A fine and beautiful blade, one that I would never wish to see in the hands of my enemy. He has a noble bearing, as if he is used to a lord's hall. A fugitive from Gondor's justice, perhaps? But why would such a one make the signal?"
"Why, indeed?" Halbarad asked. He frowned in thought. "Well, we must go see. Rodnor, go at once to Captain Hawk and tell him of this. We will observe this man and see what he is made of. We'll take Huan, but Rodnion—you must stay here and guard the camp. Don't let the foxes near the meat!"
"Yes, Halbarad," chimed their twin voices. Rodnor jumped up, brushed off his hands and, thrusting his knife into its sheath, dashed away.
Halbarad girded on his sword belt. "How many arrows do you have, Malbeth?"
"Half a quiver, as you bade me put aside. Damrod has more—he fletched some as we waited. Fear made his fingers nimble."
"Is this man so threatening? Didn't you say he waits?"
"Waits, and makes a soup. When I left he was reading a book."
"Truly, a dangerous enemy," Halbarad said with a quirk of his mouth.
"How can we know, Halbarad? These rumors of Mordor…I can't put them aside, remembering the tales the Dwarves told us at the Ford, that Sauron may be returned. Surely he would not send an Orc to trap us."
"You have a point." Halbarad whistled for the dog, and they set off down the trail. "Tell me more of this man. What does he look like?"
"Tall, dark-haired—indeed, he looks like one of Dúnedain blood. That's why we thought of Gondor. He is not one of ours."
"Does he carry a shield?"
"Yes, but there is no device."
"Well, I will see for myself."
They moved briskly through the wood. The Meeting Stone stood in a dell among the trees a good half day's walk away. A looming slab of squared rock, it towered twice the height of a man and bore markings so worn with age that no one knew what language they were. The elders among the Dúnedain said the Men living in these lands before the coming of the kings had built it, and that its mates, now fallen and half buried in the earth and grass, had once formed a circle around it. Halbarad did not know if that was true, but he thought by far the greater marvel was the overlook in the sharp cliff of rock curling around the edge of the dell. Climbing to the height through winding tunnels and stairs, a man could look down on the Stone and the path beyond. Dwarves had built the passages, his father had told him, before the days of Moria, and the Númenoreans had widened the way so that their soldiers could use them.
Thrusting east as a spur from the long ridge of hills forming the right bank of the river, the rocky cliff rose from a gentle hollow in the land. An overhang hid the entrance to a cave. Stooping low, Halbarad crawled through the short passage into the wider cavern, big enough to hold a defense guard of twenty men. Slits carved in the rock high above cast a dim light. He strode through the wide space to the stairs beyond and followed the winding, climbing way to the watch post above.
When he and Malbeth emerged from the stairway, Damrod stood in the round tower, a nocked arrow in his longbow, pointing down to the Stone in the grassy dell below.
"What are you doing?" Halbarad said sharply.
"Getting the measure of my aim, of course," Damrod said.
"Stop, now! We will not harm this man."
"Halbarad, how can we trust this one? How many years since any man has come here? Only Rivendell is to know about this Stone, and he is no Elf." But he lowered his bow.
"Perhaps he is," Malbeth said. "He looks fine enough."
Damrod threw him a scathing look. "An Elf with a beard? He is as mortal as you are."
Malbeth exclaimed, "Ah, I am a fool."
Halbarad stepped to the watching post and looked down. The man sat against one of the fallen stones, his long legs stretched out in the grass. He was bareheaded, and his rough dark hair fell around his face, partly hiding it. In his lap he held a flint and a sharpening stone.
Even from this distance Halbarad could see the fineness of his cloak, folded beside him on the grass. A plain, burnished war helm and a small black shield lay on top. As Malbeth had said, it bore no device to tell who the man might be. His rich leather pack had silver fastenings, and was as elegantly formed as the saddle beside it. A powerful black stallion grazed around one of the fallen stones, its dark coat glowing bronze in the sunlight. A small pot steamed on a modest cook fire beyond the man's booted feet.
A two-handed greatsword with a black pommel stood in the ground before the Meeting Stone, its broad blade glistening. Leaning against the Stone itself was a highly burnished leather scabbard, girt with silver like the pack and saddle.
And the man had a second sword, propped at his side against the stone serving as his back rest. The scabbard was much less fine, to be sure—rather battered even from this distance—but Halbarad could see a good-sized red gem at the pommel's end.
Clearly this was a man of some consequence.
As he watched, the man rose smoothly from the ground and walked over to the horse, stroking its nose and, evidently, speaking to it. Then he turned and directed a prolonged stare up at the tower where the guard post lay hidden. Startled, Halbarad felt as if the man looked straight into his eyes.
"That's the second time he has done that," Damrod said. "It's as if he looks for us. How can that be?"
"My father always says that the simplest explanation is usually the right one," Halbarad answered. "He's here to meet the Rangers, and he knows at least this much of our defense. Likely he is a friend of the Elves or of Gandalf. Tell me, Damrod, was he already at the Stone when you first saw him, or did you track him?"
"He was here," Damrod said. "There's no way to know how long he has been there, beyond that two days ago, when last we passed, he was not."
"Only our own people, Gandalf and Rivendell know of this Stone," Halbarad said, "unless there has been treachery. He is not one of ours, that we know. I have never heard of Gandalf sending a Man with a message, but that may be, I suppose. I guess that he's from Rivendell—and if that's so, I wager there is a good possibility that"—Halbarad took a deep breath—"he is Aragorn."
"Aragorn! You are dreaming. Aragorn is dead, or taken. Besides, he is a child."
"Do you know how to count, Damrod?" asked Halbarad impatiently. "Aragorn is twenty this year. I would not be likely to forget, given that my father announces each March first how old the Heir of Isildur, if he lives, would be, and insists that we do not give up hope that he will return. Granted, this man looks older than twenty, but perhaps, at a closer look..."
"A closer look, yes," Damrod said. "But even if he is Aragorn, is that a good thing? Who knows who sent him, where he has been, or why he is here?"
"There's no point arguing about it now," Halbarad said. "Let's go get a closer look. Rodnor is on the way to give the news to Hawk, and he will be here soon enough, himself. Let's go."
"And do what? Do you mean to watch, or speak to him?"
"I don't know yet," Halbarad said. "But do not draw weapons until I command it. And that includes your bow."
"I will leave it strung, anyway," Damrod insisted. "Truly, Halbarad, I well understand your point. Yes, we must show courtesy to strangers at the Stone. But we must also defend the Angle, and now the danger of Mordor is increased. I do not forget the tales of old, of the spies Angmar sent among the Dúnedain. Treachery, or force to make a man speak, is to be feared."
"Nor do I forget," Halbarad said grimly. "Trust, mistrust—both have their dangers."
They returned quickly to the cave entrance. Emerging into the light, they crept through the woods to the north side of the dell. Crouched at his small cookfire, the man was tending his soup. He took a pinch of salt from a small box and cast it in the pot.
Halbarad could see his face now: pale, strong-boned, with an intensity and nobility about his keen eyes and mouth. Definitely a man of Dúnedain blood, Halbarad thought, whatever else he may be.
The man looked up, straight at the bank of trees hiding them—or so they thought—from his view. He rose to his feet. "Please join me," he said in the Common Tongue, with a gesture of welcome. "There's enough to share." His voice was deep and striking, with a fluid tone.
He knows his woodcraft, anyway, Halbarad thought with admiring surprise. I thought myself a better scout than to be seen so quickly. He stepped forward into the clearing, Malbeth and Damrod just behind. Huan crouched and growled until Malbeth silenced him with a curt command.
Halbarad halted some distance from the man, aware that while the stranger's swords were out of his reach, he wore a long knife in his belt. "We bid you welcome to our lands, traveler. Who are you, and why have you come?"
"I seek my kin, and I have heard that they dwell in this land."
"Here at the Meeting Stone we greet all strangers with courtesy," Halbarad said, "yet I must again ask, Who are you, and whose son?"
The man hesitated before answering, and Damrod shifted restlessly, his hands twitching. Halbarad shot him a warning glance.
"First tell me," the man said finally, "are you Rangers? I guess that you are, and that I have found the kin I seek."
If he is Aragorn, Halbarad thought, he has reason to hold back his name. But that could as well be true of a spy, seeking a way to win us. Or would a spy simply claim the name, and expect to be welcomed? How do I read this riddle? Where is Hawk? Would that I had his wisdom!
Halbarad looked searchingly into the stranger's face, and saw a straightforward questioning in those piercing eyes. "I am Halbarad Hallor's son, Ranger of Eriador," he said.
The stranger's eyes lit, but he did not smile. He said slowly, switching from the Common Speech to the Elven Tongue, "Then we are kin. I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and I seek to take my place among the Dúnedain."
Halbarad approached him, and halted within arm's reach. To his surprise, he found himself looking up—he had never before met a man taller than himself. Holding out his hand for a warrior's greeting, he too spoke in the Elven Tongue: "You are most welcome. Yes, we are kin. My grandmother was Ninniach, the only daughter of Argonui son of Arathorn the First."
Aragorn clasped his hand firmly, and smiled for the first time—a transforming smile that suffused warmth across the stark planes of his face. "Halbarad, I am most pleased to meet you at last."
Halbarad remembered a small boy dogging his steps with single-minded intensity—most annoying to a five-year-old with things to do—but decided against bringing it up. He turned to his companions. "This is Damrod Tirgon's son, and Malbeth son of Suinhir."
Despite the cautious, closed set to his face, Damrod greeted Aragorn with polite words. "Welcome, Aragorn," he said, with a bow of his head.
But Malbeth broke into a big grin. "Aragorn! Has good fortune returned to the Dúnedain at last?"
Damrod stirred uneasily. Halbarad clenched his teeth. He believed that this man before them was indeed Aragorn, but he knew it was not his place to formally acknowledge him—no, that job belonged to his father, Hallor, the acting chieftain, and the captains' council. He said carefully, "The Heir of Isildur is our hope and our future, and for many years we thought he was lost."
Aragorn said, "Not lost. I have been in Rivendell under the care of Master Elrond."
"So many believed," Halbarad said, "but no one knew for sure."
Damrod said, "And why have you now returned?"
"I chose to leave," Aragorn said. "As a man grown I belong with my people. I have brought word from Master Elrond and from my mother, who remains in Rivendell."
"These matters are for the acting chieftain to decide," Halbarad said. "I mean no discourtesy, but I must be honest that I myself have no authority to rule in these matters."
Aragorn inclined his head. "I understand, and I know that in these dark days, I cannot take a welcome for granted. But I have proof that I am Aragorn."
Halbarad said firmly, "I would ask that you reserve these proofs for Captain Hawk, who should be here soon. He has been alerted to the presence of a stranger at the Stone, and is a member of the captains' council and my father's lieutenant."
"Of course," said Aragorn. "Will you share my soup while we wait?"
They passed around the one small wooden bowl, each taking one draft of the meaty, savory soup before relinquishing it to the next man. Malbeth exclaimed, "You are a fine cook, Aragorn. This is delicious."
Aragorn's disarming smile again lit his face. "I deserve no credit. This is made with meat from the kitchens of Rivendell, and herbs picked from the gardens."
"Elvish food," said Damrod slowly.
"Yes, but I fear, a very poor example of Master Elrond's table, and what was enough for one is only a taste for the four of us."
As Aragorn refilled the small bowl, Halbarad puzzled over what action to take. My father would have a hundred questions for him: Rivendell, you say? Have you always been there? Why do you return now? What did you think of Elrond's actions? Did he tell you what he had done? Why, once you became a man able to speak for himself, did you not protest the ban of the Dúnedain from the Valley?
Yes, the acting chieftain would ask these things of Aragorn, but he would not do it before all to hear. Therefore Halbarad, too, would keep his tongue still and not encourage Damrod's suspicions. And the best way to keep tongues still, Halbarad knew, was to get bodies moving.
Therefore they would go to the campfire where Rodnion waited and enjoy the roasted venison. He hoped Hawk would come before the talking went too far.
"We have a haunch of venison roasting at our camp not far from here," Halbarad said. "I propose we go there—we may well meet Hawk on the way. We can get there by sundown if we move fast."
"Is that wise?" Damrod asked. "Are we not ordered to wait here?"
"I believe I may make a judgment in this matter," Halbarad said. He knew that Damrod thought he was extending too much trust too quickly to the man claiming to be Aragorn. But whatever the truth of the matter, nothing was going to be resolved at the Meeting Stone.
Damrod doused the small fire and scattered the coals, while Aragorn saddled his horse, tying his pack, shield and helm to the tack. He slid his greatsword out of the ground before the Stone and carefully wiped it clean before thrusting it into its sheath, now at his sword belt.
"It is a fine blade," Halbarad said. "Elven, isn't it?"
"Yes," Aragorn answered. "I call it Morchamion, the Black Hand. It was a gift from my foster father upon my leaving, as is this fine horse, Brelach."
"Your foster father?" Damrod asked, frowning.
"Master Elrond," Aragorn said. "I call him father."
A small silence took over the group, as Damrod again shifted uneasily.
"And the second sword?" Halbarad said, as much to break the silence as to satisfy his curiosity.
Aragorn bent to pick up the worn scabbard holding the sword with its incongruous red gem. He drew the blade, and to his surprise Halbarad saw that it was broken two feet from the pommel. But Aragorn held it almost reverently, lifting it into the light. "This is Narsil, the sword of Elendil."
The sun glinted on the keen edges of the sharp steel blade. Halbarad felt the absence of the sword point as almost painful--something amiss in the fabric of the world. But then, as Aragorn held it aloft, he saw Narsil whole--its deadly steel gleaming gold and silver with the light of the sun and the moon.
In awe he stepped back. "It will be reforged," he said. "Some day, and you will carry it."
Aragorn looked at him in surprise, and for a brief moment uncertainty darkened his eyes. But he said, "Elrond says Narsil will be reforged, yes. But the right time has never come."
"Not yet," Halbarad said.
Damrod exclaimed, "Narsil is not the province of Elrond, in any case. He has interfered too much in our affairs. This is a matter for the Dúnedain."
In a look Halbarad would soon come to know well, Aragorn's eyes gleamed with challenge. "Yes, for the Dúnedain. But we would cease to be Dúnedain were we to turn against Elrond."
Halbarad held up his hand. "These are weighty matters for a camp in the Wild. Let's move on."
Damrod seemed inclined to continue the argument, but he relented at a stern look from Halbarad. Aragorn turned easily away and made his final preparations.
As they set off on the trail back to the camp where Rodnion waited. Halbarad called out, "Malbeth and Damrod, take the dog and move ahead as fast as you can. I will stay with Aragorn." Then, as the others moved off, he turned to Aragorn with a smile. "The horse will slow us down--there is no good path here. Further on, near the Ridge, the pathways open up to a trail across the top. I hope to soon meet Captain Hawk, and get leave to go to the Keep. There will be a much better chance to talk. I know my father will have many questions."
"As he should," Aragorn said. "And I am pleased to answer them, at the right time. I appreciate your judgment."
"I know my father wouldn't have wished me to encourage Damrod's proddings. But now that we are alone, I can speak for myself. I guessed who you might be when first I saw you. Perhaps blood speaks to blood, I don't know. We are cousins, and I have grown up with your name in my ear. My father has always believed you would return some day. But now, let us move on."
They moved in silence through the woods, until, approaching the camp, Halbarad halted and whistled low and clear, repeated three times. Upon hearing the answering whistle, he turned to Aragorn and said, "Hawk is here."
As they strode into the camp, Damrod was speaking intently to Hawk, a deep frown on his face. Goenor, pulling at his enormous beard, frowned as he listened. Two sweating horses drank from the nearby stream.
Putting a hand on Damrod's arm, Hawk lifted his grizzled head; his eyes moved beyond Halbarad to the tall shape of Aragorn just behind him. Halbarad nodded in answer to the question and the flash of recognition in his captain's eyes. The two boys gawked at Aragorn like stunned chickens.
"Captain Hawk," Halbarad said in his most formal voice, "Aragorn son of Arathorn has come to us at last."
His keen eyes and hooked nose had given Hawk his name, and now, with his searching stare, he looked more than ever like a bird of prey.
Aragorn bowed his head and said, "Captain, I am honored to meet you."
Hawk strode forward and, bowing his head, offered his hand. "You could be no other than your father's son. My name is Herion, but men call me Hawk."
Damrod said, "You know him, then, captain?"
Favoring his leg, lame from an old wound, Goenor stepped forward, a wide grin splitting his huge black and grey beard, and set his hands on his hips. "He's Arathorn's son, sure enough," he said. "And fresh from Rivendell, by the look of him." His keen eyes appraised Aragorn from the gilt clasp of his cloak to his dusty but well-fashioned boots.
"And no reason to forego your courtesy," Hawk said, turning up his lip. "Is it thus we greet the Heir of Isildur? Aragorn, let me introduce Goenor, whose advanced age must excuse his blunt tongue."
Aragorn offered his hand in greeting. "It is an honor to meet you," he said.
"Blunt tongue, Hawk? More tongues than mine will go wagging, as you well know!" He laughed, "And mine will wag with joy." He winked at Damrod. "Stop fretting, young one. He is Aragorn, or I am King of the Valar. And that is Narsil," he added, nodding at the second sword in Aragorn's belt. "I have seen it in the hands of four Heirs of Isildur before him."
Hawk held up both hands. "This is chieftain's business. Halbarad, as soon as the horses have rested and you have taken some food, you must go to Hallor at the Keep. We let fly a signal arrow from the Point, so he will know a stranger has come to the Meeting Stone. But no time should be wasted apprising him of this important matter."
He turned to Aragorn and again bowed his head. "Welcome home, my lord."