Emerging into the light of day, Aragorn looked up at the clear blue of a fine autumn sky. Halbarad cuffed him on the shoulder. "You have yet to climb the ramparts, I think. Come on, I'll show you the tower and the falcons' nests."
They followed the path along the western wall of the fortress, passing behind the smithy and the carpenter's workshop and around the stables. Before them loomed the round tower of the central ramparts, built into the river cliffs.
Aragorn stared up at the black walls. The rock gleamed as if it were wet, and the faces of the stone had sharp edges as though they had been newly chiseled. "How did they build it? I have seen great beauty in Rivendell, but no strong walls like this."
Halbarad shrugged. "The Númenoreans of old had many arts that are now lost to us. Come, the stairs wind up the tower to the highest lookout."
So hard was the rock of the circling stair that thousands of years and uncountable feet had not worn the steps. The stair wound around the core, passing by narrow windows. A fortified chamber stood on each floor. "The armory," Halbarad said.
They passed six floors until at last a broad courtyard opened up, with three guardhouses built into the very top of the cliffs. Aragorn scanned the horizon to the north, where the ridge marking the northern end of the Angle rose misty blue against the far sky. To the east he could see the soft green mounds of the Chieftains' barrows.
Calling out a greeting to the lookout, Halbarad led Aragorn through the center guardhouse to a smaller courtyard. Graceful arches enclosed the whole, designs of the broad wings of seabirds edged the top of the walls, covered with carvings of lords and ladies, armed men and horses, swords and shields. At the centermost place the insignia of the House of Elendil in the North stood out in gleaming white, embedded in stone polished to a high gloss: the Seven Stars in an arc around the White Tree of Númenor and, above the topmost star, rayed like the Star of Arnor worn by the king, the Sceptre, Arnor's main symbol of royalty.
Halbarad spread out his arms, as if to embrace the whole. "I like to come here when I need to do a spell of thinking, especially grappling with our heritage. Sometimes it seems like more than a man can bear."
Aragorn knew what he meant. "It's a long way from Númenor."
"And a long time. We hold naming day celebrations at this spot, you know. Both you and I got our names here. One day it will be our sons."
That will not happen with my son, Aragorn thought. He knew this was true, but he did not know why. Was it a good sign—or a sign of doom? Perhaps he would have no son. He said nothing.
Halbarad beckoned Aragorn to the outermost wall, looming like craggy teeth over the fortress. Deep, narrow slits allowed for a view of the silvery river below, coursing south to the Sea.
Halbarad craned his neck to peer into the sky beyond. "Look over here, you can see one of the falcons' old nests. In the spring they'll build new ones and we'll see chicks. When I was a boy, when I was shirking chores and lessons, I would come here to watch the parents teach their babies to fly and hunt, when I wasn't swimming in the river against my sister's orders."
Through the narrow window Aragorn could see a pile of sticks and twigs hanging from the lip of the rock above. He scanned the sky for a sight of the birds and saw a pair across the river, coasting on a current of air.
"I dream of them sometimes," Halbarad said. "There's one dream that comes to me often, about a fierce battle between the falcons and black carrion crows. I don't know yet who wins."
They fell silent. Halbarad traced the engravings with his tough fingers for some moments before he spoke again. "Sometimes I don't know who has the right of it. I mean, not about you, not about Elrond, but our future. Some of the men argue we should stop Ranging and settle down to farm and take care of our families. They say that soon nothing will be left of us, if we go on as we are. That no one remembers the Dúnedain anyway—we are just legends. You'll see how it is when you go to Bree and the surrounding towns. We're practically outlaws in their eyes, and no one thinks of us as the people of the old kings. We can do little or nothing against Sauron as it is. Perhaps we should just save ourselves, and let the rest of the world take care of itself."
Aragorn shook his head. "I was raised to believe we have a duty to fight for a future for all the Men of Middle-earth. What chance has anyone got if the Dúnedain turn away from the struggle?"
Halbarad nodded. "That's how I see it, too. I don't want my sons to be farmers and shepherds, but lords again. Maybe we can't achieve that, but we certainly won't get there planting wheat." He leaned his arms against the wall and looked down at the river beyond. "Down the river lies Tharbad, or what's left of it. Gondor finally abandoned it some years ago, the year of the big flood. It used to be a great port, now it's a ruin. I wonder if it will ever again be more." He turned to Aragorn. "What was it like, growing up in Rivendell?"
"Have you ever been there?"
"No, how could I? I'm only three years older than you. As my father said, we haven't gone there for eighteen years."
"How can I describe it? You'll have to see it for yourself. I don't know the rest of the world well enough to compare. The world of Men, that is."
"That you even put it that way says a lot," Halbarad said.
"I suppose it does," he admitted. "It's not that I haven't seen death—all too much of that, I'm afraid. Cruel death at the hands of Orcs."
"You mentioned scouting with the Elves," Halbarad said. "I would guess you've fought Orcs more often than I."
"That may well be," Aragorn shrugged.
"As Estel, you said."
"Now you know."
"I have to admit I agreed with my father's bewilderment—why send you to fight Orcs when there was such worry for your life?"
Aragorn narrowed his eyes. Atarinya, you have all my son's love, but I cannot win this battle for you. "You'll just have to accept it."
Halbarad gave him a sharp look. "For now, anyway. So tell me about it. Did you fight in the mountains?"
"The mountains, and the valley of the Anduin beyond. In the last couple of years Orcs have been raiding the shepherds' flocks on the eastern slopes, and even into the land of the hillfolk north of Rivendell. They were the first Men I ever saw, aside from myself and my mother."
"I'm listening," Halbarad said.
Aragorn leaned against the smooth stone wall. "I first went scouting with my brothers in the spring I turned sixteen. Every year, unless they are abroad, Elladan and Elrohir do at least two sweeps through the High Pass over the mountains from Rivendell, seeking to keep the passage safe. That year I was finally allowed to go with them. Before that, I had scouted the lands near Rivendell, where Orcs seldom came since their defeat in the Battle of the Five Armies some years earlier."
He looked back to that spring, and remembered….
They found evidence that a raid was in progress against the shepherds on the eastern slopes of the mountains. After a day of hard riding they caught up with the Orcs and destroyed them, but not before the vicious creatures had plundered several crofts, driving off the animals and killing the people. Their rage was vented particularly at one crofter and his wife who fought back to save their two sons from being carried off. The Elves rescued the boys, at the cost of a serious wound to one of Rivendell's warriors, but the man and his wife died. The Orcs had brutally tortured them and left them to die horribly of a slow burning in the smoldering ruins of their cottage.
The woman was already dead when the Elves found them. The man was dying. As an apprentice healer Estel helped Elladan ease the man's agony, and then watched over his last hours. Once the farmer woke up enough to realize what was happening to him. Bleary eyes, reddened with pain and smoke, peered at the young Man crouched by his side. "Molly," he croaked.
"I am sorry," Estel said softly. "She died. We could not save her. But your sons are safe. We will find a home for them."
The man's eyes held a glimmer of some relief. He struggled to speak again but could only move his lips. Estel thought he was trying to say "thank you." He brought a small cup of water up to the man's mouth and helped him drink.
He did not speak again and died soon after. Estel covered his body with a cloth. Then he went into the bushes and was sick. He was weeping, ashamed of his weakness, when he felt a strong arm close around his shoulders and Elrohir was there. He wept on his foster brother's shoulder, crying out, "They roasted him like a haunch of meat."
Elrohir held him till the tears stopped. "How do you bear it?" the youth asked. "How do you keep doing this, time after time?"
"Because of this very thing," Elrohir said. "How much worse would it be if we weren't here?"
Estel nodded and held on to his brother as if afraid to lose him. "I will find the strength," he said finally.
Aragorn raised his head and looked at Halbarad's drawn and horrified face. "After that my swordsmanship took a dramatic leap, and I studied Elrond's books of healing with intensified devotion."
He paced restlessly along the rampart of the wall of the fortress. "It was only four and a half years ago. Since then my Orc kill count has grown large, and, although I don't find such brutal deaths any easier to bear, I no longer break down at the sight."
Halbarad nodded. "I know the dilemma. You don't want to become hardened to such evil."
"But a mortal death," Aragorn said, "the death of aging—this I do not know. Except in beasts. I think some Elves do look down on us for sharing that with animals."
Halbarad shook his head. "I do not like that. Not at all. Death is sad, but not shameful."
"I said 'some,'" Aragorn replied. "You would never hear that from Elrond. He knows too much about it."
They fell into silence then. Longing for his boyhood home, far from the sorrows of Men, swept Aragorn then: the sparkling streams, the Hall of Fire, the song and poetry. His family. And Arwen: her vivid face filled his sight, the memory of her scent heated his blood. He turned away to hide his face for a slow moment before turning back to face his friend. "You must come to Rivendell with me some day. But I don't wish to speak about it now."
Halbarad's eyes studied him, but he said nothing.