They lingered at the camp only to water and rest the horses, and re-provision for the two-day journey to Thurnost. Readying his gear and mount for the ride, Aragorn had no more time for further talk with his grandmother. He exchanged a brief greeting and arm clasp with Halbarad, who said only, "At camp tonight."
Rodnor trotted after him as he packed. "Will you stay? Stay at the Keep, I mean?"
"No more than any other Ranger," he answered, smiling at the boy's eager young face.
As they traveled single file down the woody path, Halbarad struck up a Númenorean marching song. Aragorn did not know it, and it did not quite keep time with the horses' steps, but he soon picked up the tune and joined the song with the others.
He knew that he had traveled these roads as a small boy hidden in his mother's arms. He remembered only a dark and wordless terror, perhaps from those days, perhaps from some childhood nightmare. How strange memory is! I can remember the scent of the roses in Elrond's garden but not the face of my own father.
That moment of recognition still eluded him when Brelach cleared the top of the cleft in the stubby ridge of hills that divided the Angle into its northern and southern parts. The lands of the Dúnedain lay beyond—heathery hillocks and gentle valleys melting into the distance, with a sharp stark peak marking the farthest reach of the eye.
"Thurnost," Hallor said, halting his horse and turning back to Aragorn who rode behind him. "The Hidden Fortress. The tales say that Númenoreans built it before the Downfall, during the days of Lond Daer, carving into the cliffs a secret watch tower over the river's approach from the south. Elendil enlarged it, but few folk lived here besides the garrison. When the Northern Kingdom was divided, this land fell to Rhudaur, and the fortress was abandoned and forgotten. The chieftains reclaimed it."
As Aragorn drew Brelach to a halt and gazed into the far distance, he saw the falcons wheeling in wide turns above the green lands, hunting. "My brothers told me about coming here with Aranarth to find the way."
Hallor started in surprise. "Your brothers?"
"Elladan and Elrohir," Aragorn said. "Elrond raised me as his foster son."
Aragorn did not miss the wrinkle of tension in Hallor's brow, but they spoke no more.
A light rain began to fall as they made their way down the wooded slope to the lands beyond. Tumbled rocks marked the trail from time to time, and Halbarad sounded a whistling signal as they passed each one. Soon other paths began to branch off to the left and right, leading, Aragorn was told, to small farms and orchards where the people lived.
They rode for a way in the dark before halting for a night's rest, making a camp sheltered from the view of the road by a stand of trees. The rain had stopped, and the sky cleared to reveal a myriad of stars. They shared waybread and the roast venison, with a skin of Rivendell wine to wash it down.
Hallor steered the conversation to the doings of the men and women of the Angle, speaking of that year's harvest, the number of children born, illnesses and deaths. Aragorn listened in silence. He does not speak of the Rangers. Is this custom—or mistrust? The acting chieftain described rather the scattered settlements of Dúnedain across the Northern Downs, in the Tower Hills, and at Sarn Ford, where the people lived a harsh life. "In the last year, more of our folk have come to the Angle for protection. I fear it is only a matter of time before the Eye is turned to the North," Hallor muttered, his face grim.
Later, after the others had curled up in their bedrolls, Halbarad joined Aragorn at the fire. They sat together in silence for a while, watching the orange flames, until Halbarad said in a low voice, "What was your name?"
But Aragorn shook his head. "Never mind. I don't wish to use it here."
"I understand," Halbarad said, but Aragorn didn't see how he could. "There is much amiss among us, you know—fears, deaths, troubles of all kinds. Some say the Dúnedain have lost favor with the Valar. My father does his best to keep the differing parties together. Now, with this news of Sauron, the tensions will increase."
"And I walk into it out of nowhere."
'Perhaps not by chance."
Aragorn studied his cousin's face, lit by the dancing flames of the fire. "Tell me of the Rangers, whatever you can say."
And so Halbarad talked, now of himself and his family, now of the people living scattered on the land, "hidden in the valleys, and building into the hillsides to draw attention to this place." He spoke about the training of the Rangers, young men chosen to live in the Wild, guarding the people from its dangers, and having little home of their own. He talked about his first Ranging outside of the Angle, when he had seen an Elf for the first time. "I will not speak of our secrets and defenses, for my father would not wish it. He will choose the time for that."
"And how long will he wait?"
Halbarad shrugged. "If I know my father at all, it's no doubt about you that holds him back. It's rather how best to handle the others. I expect it will sort itself out in time."
"I expect it will depend on me."
Halbarad looked at him sharply. "Much will depend on you, it's true. But none of us can remake this world, and too many have lost hope. That is no fault of yours, nor can you do much to mend it."
Aragorn stirred at Halbarad's use of his childhood name, but he did not speak of it. "What about you? What about the rest of our family?" He chose deliberately to say "our."
"What would you like to know?"
"I know almost nothing, barely even their names."
"There are few enough. So many have died. Beleg still mourns Ariel."
"My father's sister is dead?"
"Eight years ago. My own mother died when I was a boy."
"I am sorry. I did not know your mother had died."
"Yes, but too long ago to be a near grief. My father has buried two wives. His first died giving birth to the youngest of my four half-sisters, and he married my mother not long after." Halbarad's eyes twinkled. "My sisters vie with each other to play mother to me. Fortunately, only Idhril still lives at Thurnost."
"You have no brother?"
Halbarad tossed a twig into the fire. "No brother, except you."
Smiling, Aragorn offered his hand. "Indeed, seeing you for the first time I felt I was looking in a mirror. We will be more than cousins."
Halbarad reached his hand for a firm clasp of Aragorn's forearm. "May we be sworn sword brothers, when the time comes!"
The sweet agony of dreaming about Arwen assailed Aragorn again that night.
"Tonight," she whispered as he took her hand after dinner in Elrond's hall. And when at last the lush dark embraced the Valley, he crept barefoot along the balcony skirting the length of the house to her rooms. The day's warmth lingered in the stone under his feet, and the moon hung like a gold face in the black sky.
She slipped her slender hands along his shoulders and kissed him. He drew her into his arms and pressed his lips to her hair, her eyes, her mouth. He felt the softness of her breasts against his chest, and her beating heart, her velvet skin, her quickening breath became his world.
She cried out when he entered her, and their bodies and hearts became one. Is this the bonding the poets speak of? he wondered as he lay, spent, beside her, caressed by night breezes and the fall of her hair against his face.
He woke trembling, heartsick with desire, and rolled onto his back to stare at the unreachable stars glimmering with light like her eyes. Beside him Halbarad murmured in his sleep, and the night fog crept over the land of the Dúnedain.
In the misty grey dawn they struck camp and headed south at a good pace, stopping only to rest the horses as needed. The land gave way to a grey-green heath where sheep and goats grazed; small farm plots nestled on the southern slope of the rolling hills. Aragorn saw stone doorways built into the hillsides, and low stone walls covered with thorny vines. From time to time a man or woman turned from the task at hand to watch them pass, but the people were few.
The land began to climb again and the grassy track widened and hardened into packed earth as they approached the looming walls of Thurnost. Halbarad called a greeting as they passed a farm cart laden with harvest. He pointed ahead to the black rock ahead. "Aragorn, Thurnost is surrounded on all sides by water—the two rivers coming together, and a deep inlet between them. Only a wall of stone joins it to the rest of the Angle, and that's where the hidden entrance lies. The only other way to get in is a low tunnel on the water. You can't even see it unless you are right upon it, but inside is a barred gate to our harbor." He turned to Aragorn with a grin. "Something less than the defenses of Gondolin, I fear."
"But it has stood these two Ages, has it not?"
"So they say." He pointed to the west. "Over there, you see the small hills some miles distant? The barrows of the Chieftains. Our great-grandfather is buried there."
Aragorn gazed at the quiet mounds. Our mortality is never out of mind. But my grandfather's body was never found, and my father sleeps in an unmarked grave in the mountains. Where will I rest?
The sun hung low in the sky when the road made a sharp turn to the left, skirting a knoll of black rock that curled like an arm across the narrow but deep inlet that separated Thurnost from the rest of the Angle. On its other side loomed a wide archway, barred with a heavy wooden door and a black crossbar. Two guards, each bearing spear and sword, stood under flaming torches to each side of the doorway. They wore the green and brown of Rangers, but with iron-studded leather jerkins and plain helms.
A third man quickly mounted a waiting horse and rode to greet them.
"Greetings, Daeron," called Hallor as they approached. "You had word of our coming, I see."
"The guards reported it some hours ago," the man called Daeron said. His grim mouth did not smile, and an ugly scar slashed down his brow and across an empty eye socket.
"Halbarad's news is true," Hallor said. "Here is Aragorn, returned to us at last."
Daeron cast one cold eye on Aragorn and did not smile. "Welcome to Thurnost, my lord."