As they waited for Halbarad’s return, Hawk ordered the men to resume patrols. Either he, Goenor, Damrod or Malbeth remained in camp with Aragorn and one of the boys, who took turns joining the scouts. Aragorn said, “I would be honored to join the patrol,” but Hawk shook his head. “You are yet our guest.”
Yet untrusted, you mean. Aragorn knew better than to take it amiss. Such cautions had a purpose.
Each morning he swam in a nearby small pond, glorying in the silky water and the feel of his naked body slicing through the cool depths. He learned the men’s whistling signals of their approach, and listened to their tales of watching the road. Each day he explored the area close by the camp, set traps for small game, gathered brush and chopped wood for fire. Rodnor or Rodnion—depending on who was at the camp—followed him, peppering him with questions. “What are Elves like?” “How old are they, really?” “Can we go to Rivendell?”
They made him smile, these boys like half-grown saplings, elbows and feet all awkward. So I was myself not long ago, but I knew no other boy to compare.
He got to know something of each man. Malbeth was a skilled singer, worthy to be heard in Elrond’s hall. Damrod, still suspicious, was a strong archer and an excellent woodsman. Goenor carried a thick oak quarterstaff, as deadly as any sword; his bawdy humor made the time run. Hawk was patient as a spider, all-seeing and sharp.
He learned that Malbeth was the twins’ older brother, and Hawk was their grandfather.
“It’s unusual for so many sons in a family to become Rangers.” Malbeth carefully wiped his lute with a soft scrap of wool as he spoke. “Our father was killed by Orcs, and our mother wished us to take his place in the ranks of the Rangers, all three. ‘To keep another woman’s husband safe,’ she said, ‘and avenge your father.’ She was a brave woman.”
“You say ‘was,’ I note,” Aragorn said, watching Malbeth’s earnest, matter-of-fact face as he worked lovingly on his instrument.
“She died some eight years ago. The twins were still very small. Hawk has raised us since then.”
“I am sorry.”
Malbeth shrugged. “The life of the Dúnedain is hard. You are fortunate to have lived with the Elves.”
“Yes.” But Aragorn felt a curious sense of loss. He belonged neither here nor there.
Malbeth began picking out a gentle tune on his lute, whispering snatches of verses. “Grey wings gliding, gliding,” he sang softly. “Sharp eyes guarding, guarding, falcons ever watching o’er the children of the West.”
“A new song?” asked Aragorn.
“Yes, for the queen’s falcons. Do you know about them?”
“My mother mentioned them to me, and since coming I have heard the scream of a hunting bird I did not know.”
“Their call—keee kee keeeee, I hear, and I wonder what they say to us. So I will write a song to find out. Perhaps they welcome you home.”
Home? Nothing tells me I’ve been here before. “Tell me.”
“They are peregrines. My mother told me stories about them often when I was a boy. Queen Isilmë, Elendil’s wife, brought a mated pair from Númenor. During the glory days of Arnor they lived near our fortresses and great cities, and flourished at Annúminas. They nest in the towers of the Keep, and guard us from the spying of evil birds. They’re so fierce and strong that they kill birds of their own size. The elders say that but for them our secret fortress would have long ago been found out by the Enemy.”
Just then, the falcon’s scream sounded from the east. Malbeth smiled. “They know I’m talking about them.”
When Rodnion and Rodnor were in camp together, Aragorn taught them the sword. Fashioning two heavy wooden sticks into smooth, short staves, he bound them with leather. “Build up your strokes by ten each day, to build your strength.” He made a longer, thicker one for himself.
“Can’t we fight each other?” Rodnor cried, waving his stave at his brother.
“Not so unprotected,” Aragorn said. “Wait till we have padded tunics.”
“At the Keep,” Hawk said. “How many times have we argued about this?” He shot Rodnor a disapproving look. “We save live blows for the enemy.”
Lifting his long stick, Aragorn struck Rodnor’s stave aside, sending it flying. “Meanwhile, practice your moves.”
Toward noon on the fourth day of waiting, as he brushed down Brelach, Aragorn heard the low whistle that a man approaching the camp made to warn of his coming.
Goenor soon strode into the clearing. “Hallor’s on his way. Hawk spotted four horsemen on the road beyond the ridge. By mid afternoon they’ll be here.”
“Can’t say who they are for sure, but I’d expect Halbarad to be with him. Maybe Ingold and Daeron as well—they are the captains in the Keep right now.”
Aragorn nodded and turned back to Brelach’s mane.
Goenor grinned. “Maybe you ought to comb your own hair, too.”
Aragorn smiled—Goenor’s teasing reminded him of his foster brothers. “Don’t I fit in better this way?”
Goenor’s grin broadened to a laugh. “It’ll be a while before the Elf wears off, I think.”
But when glimpses of the horsemen appeared through the trees, Goenor said, “I see three men and a woman. Ivorwen, I would guess.” He turned to Aragorn with a warm smile. “Gilraen’s mother.”
As they approached Aragorn rose and stood motionless in the middle of the open ground, willing himself to calmness and quiet.
The travelers dismounted and led their horses into the clearing: a grave-faced, grey-haired man with the wide brow of the House of Isildur and an air of command; a gaunt, powerfully built man with shrewd eyes; and a woman with a worn, kindly face and large, expressive grey eyes. Halbarad, following up the rear, grinned in welcome.
The grey-haired man paced slowly to Aragorn and bowed his head gravely. “I am Hallor son of Halveleg. On behalf of the Dúnedain of the North, I bid you welcome.”
Aragorn returned the formal bow. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, returned from Rivendell to my people. Elen sila lúmenn’ omentielvo.”
A small smile lifted Hallor’s firm mouth. “Elen sila lúmenn’ omentielvo.” He turned to his companions. “Can there be any doubt, my friends?”
The woman, her eyes alight with yearning, ran forward and grasped Aragorn’s hands in her own work-worn ones. “It is he! Aragorn, my grandson!”
Aragorn looked into her face, but no memory stirred. Out of duty and warmth sparked by her manifest love, he embraced her. “Grandmother, it is my honor to greet you.”
She kissed his face, then turned to gesture to the other travelers. “I will not be selfish. There are others to welcome you. But you know Halbarad.”
Halbarad surged forward and clapped Aragorn on the shoulder. “Well met yet again, cousin!”
The gaunt man strode forward, his eyes yet distant. “I am Ingold. Truly, you do appear to be Arathorn’s son. You will forgive us if we are reluctant to give all our trust, since we have had no word all these years.”
Hallor said, “Perhaps Aragorn will tell us something of that time.”
Aragorn looked from face to face, where hope warred with doubt. “I have come from Rivendell, as you guess, where my mother and I have been under Master Elrond’s protection.”
Ingold let out a huff of disapproval. “If you call abducting a woman of the Dúnedain and her son ‘protection.’”
Hallor turned to him with a stern look. “As I have already reminded you, that was not Aragorn’s doing.”
“And Elrond sends us no word of apology or explanation?”
“He sent word with me,” Aragorn said. “He bade me tell you this, that he can give no satisfaction to the Dúnedain in their discontents. You will judge the worth of his actions in the worth of the Heir of Isildur.”
“Spoken with true Elven arrogance,” Ingold said. “Lofty and above the everyday concerns of Men.”
Hallor’s sternness hardened into a frown. “Our quarrel with Elrond is for his ears alone.”
“We may have a quarrel with Aragorn as well,” Ingold said with blunt hardness. “What do you say about Elrond’s actions?”
Willing his rising temper to cool, Aragorn met Ingold’s challenging eyes. “A man who questions the worth of Elrond’s actions is a fool. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that.”
“Come now, Aragorn,” Hallor said, his voice thick with tension. “These words will not mend matters. And you, Ingold, hold your tongue. I speak for the Dúnedain here. Aragorn, this is a hard matter. And so I ask you: Why have you yourself sent no word to your kin? Why didn’t the Heir of Isildur seek out news of his people? Did you petition Elrond to open the Valley once again to the Dúnedain?”
“My answer, Hallor, is simple: I did not know my father’s name until a month ago.”
Hallor stared at him. Ivorwen murmured with chagrin. Ingold gaped in amazement. Behind them, Halbarad looked straight into Aragorn’s eyes with a small, sympathetic shake of his head.
“You did not know,” Hallor said slowly. “Your own identity was hidden from you?”
“From all,” Aragorn said. “At Elrond’s command.” My father, what a hard place you have made for me now. He hoped desperately that no bitterness or question sounded in his voice.
Hallor swore under his breath. “And you learned the truth a month ago, you say?”
“Yes. Elrond told me my true name, and gave into my keeping the shards of Narsil and the Ring of Barahir. Not long after, I left the Valley to seek the Dúnedain.”
“Against Elrond’s will?”
“He did not try to dissuade me.”
“And what of Gilraen?” Hallor asked. “What part did she play in this mischief?”
Aragorn stirred from his quiet stance. “Why must you call it mischief? What cause have you to question Elrond’s actions? My mother fully supported them. She remains now in the Valley as Elrond’s honored guest.”
His grey brows joined in a frown, Hallor fell silent. Then he shrugged briefly, and held out his hand to Aragorn. “These matters are best pursued at a later time, I judge. For now, I bid you welcome. The sooner we return to the Keep, the better.”
Aragorn clasped Hallor’s strong, rough hand and nodded. Just as well—I will soon lose my temper if this continues. Shall my first memorable act among my people be a fit of anger?
Hallor turned to his son. “Halbarad, you will come with us to the Keep. Ingold, I wish you to take charge of this patrol, and increase the watch on the road for the next two weeks. Then report, and we will make further dispositions then.”
“Yes, father,” said Halbarad. Ingold gave a curt nod, and turned to the matters at hand.
In the ensuing bustle of activity, Ivorwen approached Aragorn. “Come, let’s get to know each other a little, to make up for these lost years.”
Aragorn liked her soft face, warm with a wisdom that reminded him of Elven age. Perhaps I can find some piece of the lost years—perhaps she can help me remember the father I do not know. “I would like that. But I must first give you the letter I have brought from my mother.” He reached inside his jerkin to pull out Gilraen’s small package, an embroidered cloth wrapped and bound with a silk cord. Inside, he knew, were a letter and a lock of her hair. “With this she bade me send you her dearest love.”
She cried out and took the letter eagerly. “Do you mind if I read it now?”
“Of course not.” He smiled and took her hand. “I fear it is short—she dared not write too much too openly, in case it would go astray.”
Indeed, the letter was closely written on a scrap of parchment, but Ivorwen pressed it and the lock of hair to her lips and read the words avidly. She looked up at Aragorn. “Estel, she writes here. Is that you?”
“That is what she calls me, yes.”
“And the name you have known all your life, till now?”
“Yes. I don’t remember being called anything else, till now.”
Her eyes warmed with kindness. “It is a good name. All these years I have followed your growth in my heart, seeing a boy growing taller and becoming a man. And now I see my heart was not wrong. How we all have longed to see you! Dírhael and Iorlas are at Sarn Ford, I fear, and will not return till winter is near. Beleg, too, is gone from the Keep, and he above all others will want to see Arathorn’s son. But Saelind must be first.”
“Beleg, I know, was my father’s closest comrade,” Aragorn said. “But I’m afraid I don’t know Saelind.”
“Your great-grandmother and Arathorn’s grandmother,” she answered, looking surprised. “Hallor’s grandmother, too for that matter. She is now one hundred and seventy-six years old, and frail.”
“Forgive me,” Aragorn said. “But I am still learning the names of my own kin.”
“Yes, it must be very strange to meet us at last after all these years! She speaks of you often. I believe she waits, hoping that she might see you before she dies. I’m sorry to tell you such sad news, but for her, it will be a great blessing that you have come now. Maybe, indeed, it is no accident, but meant to be this way. I have been having dreams of the green stone, the same dream that I had when you were born. Do you know what I mean?”
Yet more tales untold, things unsaid? “No, I have not heard this story.”
She looked into his eyes. “I have a gift. No wonder that my daughter didn’t speak of it, since it frightens her. In the last days before you were born and for a time after, I dreamed of a brooch with a shining green gem, an elfstone with the color and light of spring itself. It was fashioned like the body of an eagle with great wings outstretched as if it reached for the sun. There was an awe about it, and I knew it had some great meaning, but in the dream I saw nothing else. The same dream has come to me several times in the last weeks. Then I knew it meant that you would come. It is strange, but you must know of such things, having lived among the Elves as you have.”
“Perhaps you have mistaken the meaning of this dream. The stone you describe sounds like that worn by Eärendil on his great journey. I’ve seen drawings of it in Rivendell. It is not likely to be about me.”
Ivorwen shook her head. “It is about you. I don’t know how or why. Who knows when it will be revealed to you? But it is your fate, that I have seen. Why or how, I can’t say, except that it was a thing of great beauty.”
“I will remember it.” Aragorn wondered if his own dreams came from his grandmother’s blood. So much is expected of me—and what do I expect of myself?
“My gift has its limits,” Ivorwen said. “I do not See warnings of evil. But the Dúnedain have learned to heed my dreams, as will you, and my recognition of you will count for much with the people of the Keep.”
“I owe you more than a grandson’s respect and love, I see,” said Aragorn.
“There can be no doubt, not truly. You are your father’s son, all can see for themselves. These other troubles will be sorted out in time.”
He nodded, but made no other answer. What about the trouble in my heart?
“It will take time,” she repeated, as if in answer to his question.
A raised voice behind him drew Aragorn’s attention, and he turned his head to see Ingold and Hallor face to face across the clearing, Ingold’s right fist pounding into his left hand as he argued. Aragorn quickly turned his head back to his grandmother, but she, too, was watching the two men.
“We are a prideful people, weighed down by history,” Ivorwen said.
And the queen’s falcon cried its assent: keeeee kee kee.