Content in the deep down of a large bed, Aragorn woke to the watery light of the early sun, peaking through the half-open shutter into the corners of the room. It was a dream. I am still in Rivendell.
Then with a start he remembered where he was: the chamber his parents had shared together, vacant for eighteen years, now his. He turned on to his back and stared up at the carved beams of the dark ceiling. The room where I was born. He rose from the bed, stretching and shivering a little from the cool air on his sleep-warmed skin. How lovely to sleep naked between soft sheets, newly bathed, after days in the wild.
While the large, shadowy room had none of the elegance of Rivendell, the bed was sturdy and comfortable. A stout wooden chair stood in front of the empty grate; a massive chest rested in one corner; and the pale morning light fell on a small table and clothes press against the far wall.
In a small, curtained alcove he found a washstand with basin and pitcher. He splashed some water on his face and threw on fresh clothes from his pack.
Determined to make a bold start to his first day in Thurnost, he flung open the chamber door and nearly fell over a slumbering form propped on a bench in the hallway. Wild eyes flew open, and with a gasp, the skinny girl jumped up. Bobbing a curtsey like a puppet on a string and clutching her apron, she stammered, "My lord—good morning—forgive me—my lord. Oh, the mistress will have my head!"
He put out his hand to help her steady herself. "Never mind," he said, smiling at her flushed face. "Please sit and calm yourself."
"Oh, no!" she shook her head. "I am here to serve you, or I should be, only I fell asleep."
"As you see, I need no service, and am looking only for my breakfast. Where do I go?"
"The Commons, my lord. This way."
"Wait—you have not told me your name."
"Fíriel, my lord." She bobbed again.
"Then, Firiel, I will follow you."
With an uncertain smile, she led the way through an airy solar before turning into a wide gallery skirting on three sides a vast, two-storied hall. Looking down into the wide space he saw two great hearths in the stone walls. Rough wooden tables lined the room, and dark carven beams stretched across the wood ceiling. He followed his guide down a broad flight of stairs.
"Here, my lord. You should sit at the great table."
On a low dais across the back of the hall, a heavier and more polished—but empty—table beckoned. He looked down at his guide. "There is no one here."
"Not yet, my lord, but they will come. The mistress is in the kitchen."
"And she is?"
The girl's eyes widened with wonder. "Why, Mistress Ivorwen, my lord. Your grandmother. She is the warden of the Commons."
"Show me to the kitchen."
Fíriel looked scandalized, but evidently thought better of objecting. She nodded and resumed her lead through a wide doorway. A scrawny, half-grown cat darted her path as she scolded, "Shoo, shoo."
Ivorwen, enveloped in a vast apron, her hair bound in a cloth, was kneading bread when Aragorn entered the warm kitchen. She smiled, "Good morning! I am covered in flour and will not embrace you. Fíriel, you did not fetch the hot water."
"Mistress," the girl stammered, but Aragorn interrupted. "I did not need it."
Ivorwen looked like she knew better, but she said nothing and resumed her kneading. A pretty, plump woman, slicing apples and also swathed in apron and headcloth, glanced up. A small child clutched her skirts, staring up at Aragorn with big eyes, her long, ginger-colored braids falling over a small hand. She shrieked and hid her face under her mother's apron.
"Tut, tut," said Ivorwen, smiling fondly. "Come, child, behave yourself."
"I am so sorry!" gasped the mother, trying to pry her daughter out of her skirts. "I am Ríannon, Iorlas's wife, and this creature here is Lalaith, your cousin, if you can bear the idea. Child, child," she said to her daughter. "Say 'hello' to your cousin Aragorn."
"No!" She began to cry.
Ríannon looked up at him ruefully. "She is shy. I am so sorry. I hope you like children. Do you?"
"I don't know," Aragorn said. "In Rivendell I was always the youngest. How old is she?"
Ivorwen dropped her dough and placed her floury hands on her cheeks. "Of course! Of course you have not known any children! How strange we must all seem to you!" She wiped her hands on her apron and took her granddaughter up into her arms. "Shh," she said to the crying child, soothing her back. She smiled at Aragorn. "She is five. They are just like puppies and kittens, full of curiosity and frights."
Aragorn smiled in return. The little girl, a charming imp, pressed her face against her grandmother's neck. In between wails, when she forgot to be afraid, she peeped out at the stranger, her eyes wide with wonder. Then she again buried her face.
Recovering from her surprise at his words, Ríannon said, "Let me introduce you to the baby." She pointed to a small cradle tucked in a nook by the warm hearth. Aragorn looked down to see a bundle of blankets wrapped around a tiny face with dark sleepy eyes.
"He is two weeks old," Ríannon said softly, "Dírgon, our first son. His father and grandfather have not seen him yet."
Aragorn gazed at the little creature in astonishment. Was I once this small? The child yawned like a cat and blinked his eyes. A little hand lay curled by his chin. Aragorn looked up at the two women, who were watching him with big smiles. He laughed. "He is delightful."
Ríannon rolled her eyes. "Yes, as long as you aren't the one getting up all night to feed him."
"Speaking of food," Ivorwen said with a smile, "Are you looking for breakfast, Aragorn? We have porridge and milk. Lalaith, will you show your cousin where to find the bowls?"
The child wriggled out of her arms onto the floor and began jumping up and down. "Find the bowls, find the bowls!" she chanted as she skipped to the pantry door.
Fíriel made as if to dart after her, but Aragorn shook his head with a smile and followed his small cousin. Seemingly, her shyness had now vanished, and she sat with him while he ate, prattling and solemnly offering him a wooden toy soldier, saying, "This is for you." Smiling as he accepted it from her gravely, he was suddenly full of regret for the childhood among his own people that he had missed. Ríannon and Ivorwen bustled about, stacking loaves of bread, butter and cheese, honey and jam on trays.
After eating, he stepped out the back door of the kitchen into the growing light of what promised to be a brisk, bright day of early autumn. Above him loomed the central tower of the Keep and its surrounding walls, etched with pathways and ramparts. A falcon soared against the blue of the sky, calling kee kee keeee. Built into the rock wall was a stable built for a good two dozen horses, where he found Brelach contentedly munching oats. The horse nickered as Aragorn stroked his nose and greeted him softly.
"Who are you?" said a voice awkward with the changing tones of the onset of manhood.
He turned to see yet another half-grown boy, uncertainty in his eyes and a frown worrying his brow, staring as intently as had Rodnor and Rodnion. "My name is Aragorn. Thank you for feeding my horse."
The boy snorted. "Aragorn! The Elves stole Aragorn when he was a baby and sent him across the Sea to be a servant of Manwë. It happened a long, long time ago."
"Who told you that nonsense?" Aragorn asked, more amused than angry.
The boy shrugged. "Everyone."
"Well, 'everyone' is wrong. The Elves do not steal children and no Man goes across the Sea. What is your name, since I have told you mine?"
The youth stared suspiciously for a brief moment, then shrugged and said proudly, "I am Caldhros, Ingold's son."
"Well met, Ingold's son. I am Arathorn's son. We will get to know one another better. There's porridge in the kitchen. Perhaps you'd like some."
The boy vanished, and Aragorn turned his attention to the horse, stroking his long muzzle. "How do you like this place, old friend?" he whispered. "We have left your birthplace and come to mine."
He was brushing Brelach's dark coat when Halbarad found him. "Good morning, cousin. I've been sent to fetch you. We're to visit our great-grandmother, and my sister Idhril has ordered me to make sure you are properly dressed, though since you look much grander than all the rest of us, I can't imagine what she means."
Aragorn looked down at his fine white shirt, dark green tunic and leggings—everyday dress in Rivendell. "I have little else."
Halbarad grinned. "Oh, that's fine for today. No doubt Idhril will find you some old things to make you look just like everyone else. She's good at running other people's lives. I am also supposed to tell you to bring Narsil. Our great-grandmother wants to see it."
Halbarad followed him back to his room, where he found the door open and Fíriel within, one hand holding a damp cloth and the other reaching for the worn scabbard holding the shards of the sword of Elendil, which Aragorn had laid reverently on top of the huge, ancient chest.
"Don't touch that!" snapped Aragorn, and immediately rued the sharpness of his tone.
She jerked around, blushing even more deeply. "Pardon me, my lord, but I thought—it is so shabby, you deserve a better—"
"It is beyond my worth," he said, trying to speak gently, "and it is my charge."
She backed away as if from a burning coal, and he picked up the scabbard and thrust it into his sword belt. "I'll bring the medicines from Elrond, too," he said, pulling out the carefully wrapped package from his bag. "We are going to the healer's cottage, yes?"
"Yes," Halbarad said. "She lives there now, under Idhril's care."
The healer's cottage, low and snugly built, stood in the sunniest part of the Keep, surrounded by trees and a garden. Aragorn recognized several of the herbs growing there, and wondered where he would find the nearest patch of athelas, which grew only wild and could not be cultivated. Idhril was plucking leaves from a lemon balm shrub. Placing her cullings and knife in a small basket, she rose to greet them. "Our father is already here. She is well today, and overjoyed to expect Aragorn."
Aragorn had met Idhril briefly the night before, and liked her clear, frank eyes and brisk manner. "I've brought the herbs and salves from Rivendell. Perhaps we can talk healer's business after I meet our great-grandmother."
She nodded, and led the way into the cottage. She stood aside at the door to a sunny room with windows looking over the garden, and gestured them to enter. Saelind, widow of the chieftain Argonui, who had died thirteen years before Aragorn was born, was reclining on a cushioned couch by a low fire. Hallor sat beside her.
"You will forgive me, my lords, if I do not rise to greet you," the old lady said, her voice rough with age. Her white braids were wound around her head, a black shawl embroidered in silver swathed her shoulders. Despite her wrinkles she was beautiful with a bone-deep fineness. She held out her hand to clasp Halbarad's as he murmured his greeting and kissed her cheek. Then she shifted her eyes to Aragorn. He moved forward, bowed his head in respect and kissed her dry, frail hand. Her eyes were deep and dark, her grasp of his fingers weak but warm.
"You have returned to us, Aragorn," she said.
Aragorn answered, "I am honored to meet you."
"Oh, you have met me before," she said with a smile. "But possibly you don't remember sitting on my lap and repeating nursery rhymes."
He laughed. "No, I regret to say, I don't."
"Just as well." A playful mockery shone in her eyes. "Men don't like having such stories told of them, and I'm impressed that you take it with such good grace. I promise not to mention it again."
Halbarad was grinning. "Better hold her to that, Aragorn."
She favored her other great-grandson with a mock stern look. "Don't be impertinent, sir." She turned her eyes again to Aragorn. "You have grown well, great-grandson. I knew that Elrond would not fail us. He remembers better the duty of the Dúnedain than we do ourelves. Sit down, all of you, but Aragorn must sit beside me. I must talk to the Heir of Isildur."
A sturdy chair stood just beside her couch. Aragorn sat down and placed Narsil in its scabbard across his knees. She said, "You have the sword of Elendil, I see. Let me see the blade."
He drew it with care and gently laid the hilt and shortened blade across her lap. With reverence she touched the engraving on the sword, tracing the shape of the letters and the sun and moon. The letters ended abruptly where the last twelve inches had shattered. "I remember the first time I saw this. When Arassuil, my husband's grandfather, decided to give up his life, he passed Narsil to his son, Arathorn, the first of that name. We gathered in the Commons to witness it. I was only ten years old, but it was so solemn a thing that I never forgot, although I understood little at the time. Arassuil was my grandmother's brother, and so the grief was for family as well as the chieftain." She stroked the hilt of the sword with her fingertips, then indicated that Aragorn should take it back. He resheathed it with care.
Saelind gestured to Hallor to give her water. As she drank he said, "Perhaps, grandmother, you should not try to say everything all at once."
"I'm not dead yet, Hallor," she said with a wry tone, but her eyes glowed with a warmth that showed her affection. Turning her gaze to Aragorn, she continued softly, "Things must now be made right. Much rests on you."
He bowed his head in acknowledgment.
She looked at Hallor then. "Are they still grumbling against Elrond, now that Aragorn has returned?"
"You know very well that something that has gone that deep will not disappear so quickly. I cannot command the people to change their minds."
"Humph," said the old lady, and her eyes sparkled with mischief. "I would, if I could only stand before the Commons."
Halbarad said, "And no one would dare disobey, great-grandmother. But we are not as awe-inspiring as you."
The old lady rapped his hand sharply. "You had better learn to be, young sir. You know what is at stake."
Aragorn said, "I would like to hear more about this. Already I have heard some of this grumbling, as you call it, but from what you say it's more than a vexing discontent."
Hallor spread his hands in a gesture of frustration. "I believe that the discontent springs from a much deeper source, the losses we have faced in the last years and the fears for our future. The winters are hard, and we are sorely pressed to feed and shelter our people, especially at Sarn Ford and Fornost. What seemed to be the withdrawal of Elrond's favor is seen as a cause of this—unjustly so, I believe."
Saelind said, "They complain of both too much and too little attention from Elrond, it seems to me. But even the Lord of Rivendell is not all powerful."
Hallor smiled. "As you say, grandmother." He looked back at Aragorn. "Let me tell it as it appeared to me: The day my cousin, whom I loved, died, I became the acting chieftain, a thing I had never expected. Only a few years before, Arador was chieftain, with a son of full experience, newly married and with every expectation of sons. Certainly the chieftainship seemed to be the least of our problems, compared to the dangers we face and our ever diminishing numbers."
Saelind said, "It's been our pride and wonder, that despite our loss of lordship, always the line of Elendil has remained strong. Gondor may have power, but we have royalty."
Hallor nodded. "But that too seemed to be threatened. We lost Arador—Saelind's son, your grandfather, my uncle—and then your father, leaving a two-year-old child as chieftain. You. And you and your mother disappeared, taken by the Elves. But we could get no answers. We did not know if you lived. I have never seen Dírhael more wrathful, so much so that I forbade him to come to Rivendell with me. Beleg and I went, seeking answers. But Elrond would not admit us. We wandered for several days seeking the path, but no man can enter the Valley against the will of Elrond. When Elladan and Elrohir met us at last at the Stone, it was to tell us nothing. No Ranger has been to Rivendell since. Did you know this?"
"Yes," Aragorn said. "Elrond told me himself."
Hallor looked at him thoughtfully. "Did he say why? Why he did this, as we now know for certain that he did?"
"To protect my life, he said. He had a presentiment of great danger. And he did what he thought was best. The secrecy was necessary, he said."
Hallor frowned. "I still think he should have told me, at least."
Aragorn shook his head. "You don't understand, I think. Elrond knows things that he could not possibly explain to us. I understand it no more than you, but I know to listen to him." Would that I did understand! Perhaps then my bitterness would ease.
Saelind nodded. "It may be that more will be revealed to us in the future, when Elrond sees the time is right."
"It may," Aragorn said. "But I think it more likely that Elrond himself did not know exactly what he feared. That's what I understood, anyway. I saw no one from outside the Valley, not even visitors to his House, until I grew old enough to scout with Elladan and Elrohir."
"Orc-hunting, you mean?" Hallor said.
Hallor frowned again. "Why would he send you into danger hunting Orcs if he feared so much?"
"It was the danger to the Heir of Isildur that he feared," Aragorn said. "But as I told you I was not known as the Heir at that time. I had another name. Elrond named me Estel. I've been called by that name as long as I remember."
"Estel." Saelind smiled suddenly, a beaming face of joy. "Hope. I like that. And so you were Estel to strangers, who never heard the name Aragorn."
He shook his head. "No, I myself never heard the name Aragorn until a short time ago. I was Estel, Elrond's foster son, and I did not know anything about my ancestry, except that my mother was a remote descendant of Arvedui. I did not know I was Arathorn's son."
Saelind's eyes spoke to him of the wisdom of many years, as unfathomable as the ancient eyes of the Elves. "I begin to understand something now," she said softly. "I see that Elrond was truly afraid. He sees a great future for you."
Aragorn bowed his head. "He says it's my duty to fight against the Shadow. That the new Age of Men depends upon my passing the many tests that face me. I hardly know how to speak of it, it seems like a wild dream. But I hold it as a duty bound. When Elrond says things like that, you listen."
"As you should," Saelind said. "Argonui revered Elrond. He spoke often of the years he spent in Rivendell mastering the sword and learning healing. And you have had many more years there than any other chieftain's son since the days of Valandil. Do you have the skill of the king?"
"In healing, you mean?" Aragorn asked. "Elrond says I have some of it, such as is given to our line in these late days. I am still too young to have the full power, but he said there was no reason to think that I would not equal my father and grandfather."
Saelind smiled with satisfaction. "That is much needed here, and a sign, I believe, that the Heirs of Isildur keep the grace of Númenor. And you have learned also the healing arts of Men?"
"Yes," Aragorn said. "I learned as much of Elrond's knowledge as I could, within the limits of my own ability and my youth."
She looked at him with her deep eyes. "I have known six chieftains, and more by word. As a girl I heard Arassuil tell tales of his father and grandfather, Arahad and Aravorn, going back three hundred years. You are the last of the line. My husband died long ago, my son died over twenty years ago, my grandson has been dead for eighteen years. Even my granddaughter is dead; we lost her in childbirth, along with her son. The line of Isildur is nearly destroyed. You are alone, with no father and no grandfather in the direct line to teach you. You have a heavy responsibility, and I expect no less from you than does Elrond." She spoke quietly and with authority. Looking to Hallor, she said, "You must stand in place of his father and grandfather."
"I fully intend to," Hallor said.
Then she looked at Halbarad. "And you, your place is at Aragorn's side. Do you understand what it means, king's man?"
Halbarad said, "A king's man is one who is sworn to the service of the king in all that is required, even to the death. I am the king's man."
As he spoke the call of the falcon came from the sky in a cry of triumph as if he had just bested his prey.
Saelind smiled. "The falcon shows the queen's favor." She turned to her grandson. "Hallor, is it true that the harvest is good this year?"
"Yes, it is true. There will be no empty bellies this winter."
"Then I ask you to hold a harvest festival and call the farm folk to the Keep, those who can come. In honor of Aragorn, of course. I will preside."
"It shall be done, grandmother." Hallor bowed his head.
She closed her eyes and fell silent. After a while she said, "I must ask you to leave now. Come back tomorrow, Aragorn."