Halbarad tore his slice of dark bread in half and mopped up the last bits of savory soup in his bowl.
"Is Aragorn ready for the festival?" asked his sister.
Halbarad swallowed, and licked some drops from his beard. "It's hard to tell with him. Surely you've noticed that for yourself."
She nodded. "Yesterday I showed him the herb stores at the cottage. I confess I was hoping he might open up a bit, but he would discuss only the medicines from Rivendell, and my poultices and salves. And so polite, too."
Hallor lifted his pipe from his mouth. "He's Elrond's foster son."
"Well, father, what is that to me? I've never met Elrond."
The bitterness in her voice startled Halbarad. "Should you have?"
She turned on him, her dark eyes bright. "Our best healers go to Rivendell for training. All, except for the last twenty years. Do you think we have not lost because of that? How many dead could I have saved with better skills?" She plunked down her knife with a thump.
Hallor sighed. "In January, after the captains' council, I will go to Rivendell and make peace with Elrond. In the spring Ivorwen is planning to make a long stay with her daughter, and, with Elrond's permission, you can go with her, or after she returns. Meanwhile, I would prefer to hear no more of this, at least at home. I have to listen to enough of it from the Rangers as it is."
Idhril blinked her eyes and Halbarad saw a glitter of tears. "I apologize, father. It's just that Ariel's death still weighs so heavily with me. It should not have happened, and I can't but feel some fault."
Halbarad knew that Idhril's grief came not only from the loss of her patient, but from her own deep love for Ariel, with whom she had grown up as a sister.
"You can spend your whole life saying 'if only,'" Hallor said. "I've never known it to help anything. I, too, mourn Ariel and her stillborn son. And Beleg will never get over it, I think. But do not lose yourself in regrets for the past when there are so many troubles in the present."
"When will Beleg return?"
"Not till next month, not soon enough. I need his help."
Indeed we do, thought Halbarad.
Just four days past a messenger had reached Thurnost with news of an Orc raid on the Ranger camp in the northern reach of the Weather Hills—the first such attack since the Battle of the Five Armies had wiped out most of the Orcs in the Misty Mountains ten years earlier. Or so we thought, Halbarad reminded himself. Were there colonies left in hiding, now emboldened by the rise of Mordor? No one knew, but fear fed the mood of discontent in the Keep. While no man had been killed, a Ranger had lost his bow arm to a poisoned blade and had now to face life as a cripple.
"But Beleg is more angry against Elrond than almost anyone," Idhril said.
"Maybe," Hallor answered. "But he won't take it out on Arathorn's son—his anger was that he wanted to foster Aragorn himself. And with his great love of the Elves, he will be happy to forgive and mend things with Rivendell. That's what I count on."
"And Daeron?" Idhril asked.
"Daeron had better mind his temper," Hallor said in a harsher voice than Halbarad usually heard from him.
"Does Aragorn know the story yet?"
"He does not appear to know it. Presumably, therefore, Gilraen did not tell him. I asked grandmother to tell him. It's best from her. Ivorwen wishes it too."
Halbarad exchanged a look with his sister, but they did not speak until their father had left the house. Idhril tapped her foot impatiently. "If you ask me, this is ill done. They should have told him already."
"Who knew Daeron would react this way? He was like a madman yesterday at the sword practice, especially after Aragorn beat him."
"But Aragorn doesn't suspect anything?"
"He thinks Daeron is a very unpleasant fellow, but beyond that, I don't know."
Idhril nodded. "There's a sweetness about him, almost like a child, for all that he could beat any one of you in a tourney."
Halbarad made a face at her. "We'll see about that."
For all its dark plainness, the Commons had its own kind of grandeur. The green branches of fir trees festooned the beams, and fire crackled in the massive hearths. As the evening cast dark shadows against the high ceiling, the women lit candles in sconces on the walls, and a golden glow softened the gloom. Musicians were softly tuning their instruments and warming their voices, and people began to drift into the hall.
Aragorn sat beside Saelind at the great table. An ancient banner, black, with the insignia of Arnor in mithril—so rare, so precious—draped the wall behind them.
Dressed in the royal colors, a silver net over her white hair, Saelind looked every inch the queen. "It compares poorly to Rivendell, but we have our dignity."
A girl approached the dais and held out a small posy of flowers. "My lady," she whispered with soft, shy eyes, "my lord. Happy festival."
Saelind took the flowers in her gnarled old hands. "Thank you, child."
Aragorn saw kindness and warmth in her eyes and sweet smile. She is as gracious as Elrond in the Hall of Fire. He refilled his goblet with the fragrant golden wine and drank.
The old lady pursed her lips. "You are very like your father, Aragorn, but not in all things."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"My grandson had singular views on many matters. He disliked the amount of ale consumed in the Angle, and especially disapproved of that strong Elvish brandy that will on occasion find its way to our table. He would have perhaps disapproved of his son drinking yet another glass of wine." She winked as she sipped at her own.
I will never know his disapproval any more than his love. He smiled, and drank again.
Saelind's laugh was a deep-throated chuckle. "He also disliked pipeweed, saying the Elves consider it an uncouth habit."
"I don't know about that. No one ever said so, at least to me."
Her dark eyes twinkled. "It was ever an issue with your father, anyway. He tried to stop the men smoking. He said it was unclean."
Aragorn glanced over to the thick fog of smoke in the far corner of the room, where Rangers and husbandmen stood gossiping, pipes in hand. "And no one listened, I see."
"It particularly irked Hallor. He likes his pipe. Our men have little enough comforts as it is, I think. Personally I don't care for the odor, but I am not one to look down on the vices of others. I have my own vices, after all."
"I find that hard to believe," Aragorn said.
"I don't intend to confess. Besides, I'm too old to practice them any longer. But my grandson was a most virtuous man. Steady, brave, right-thinking. Virtuous to a fault, in fact."
"How is that possible?"
"You are wise for your age, Aragorn, but every now and then you say something that betrays your youth. I have found that an excess of virtue often leads to sorrow."
Aragorn noticed that her eyes were fixed on Daeron's grim figure as he stood at the great hearth with Ingold, drinking a horn of ale. After spending time with her almost daily, he was beginning to know his great-grandmother's ways. "You have a tale to tell, and I am listening."
She leaned over in her chair and lowered her voice to a murmur. "If Arathorn had a fault, it was an insufficient understanding of human weakness. He had so little weakness himself. More than once I warned him that not everyone was capable of being so good, and that it would become him to show more mercy. He replied that it was his duty to set an example."
"Isn't that true?"
Before resuming her tale, Saelind paused to nod at a bevy of young girls who approached and curtseyed to her. "Certainly. And what an example he set! He rose above all temptations. I always worried it would be trouble, and so it was. My rather chilly grandson erupted into flames over a toothsome beauty."
Of all things, that was the last thing he had expected to hear about his father. Aragorn looked at his great-grandmother in some alarm, wondering if he was about to learn of an older half-brother.
"I mean your mother, child," Saelind said.
Aragorn choked on his wine and began coughing. She patted his back till the coughs subsided. "They are troubling, such powerful emotions. I think that one of the sources of all the trouble about your parents' marriage was that Arathorn was so surprised by his own love."
Aragorn frowned in dismay. "I didn't know there was trouble about their marriage."
"I guessed that Gilraen did not tell you."
A boy, the winner of the first race held earlier that day, approached the dais. Saelind broke off her tale to smile and extend her hand. "My lady, I have brought you a wooden carving of the falcons," the boy said. "I made it myself."
"It is lovely," she said, taking it from him gravely. "Thank you so much."
He beamed, bowed his head to Aragorn, and with a respectful, "my lord," was gone.
Saelind settled back into her deep chair. "Perhaps living in Rivendell for so long, away from us, makes the past remote to Gilraen. The truth is, there was an understanding from her childhood that she would marry another. It became formal when she reached the age of sixteen, and Dírhael pledged his daughter to the son of his sworn comrade. Four years later, he broke his promise when Arathorn asked for her."
Aragorn took refuge in a gulp of wine.
"Gilraen seemed content with the arrangement, or Dírhael would not have confirmed the promise, but the marriage was not to take place until she came of age at twenty-five, as is usual among our people. When she was twenty Arathorn returned to the Keep after a two-year absence, traveling as is the custom for the chieftain's heir. Well, when he came back, he was quite taken with Gilraen. She had grown into a woman in that time. She was very lovely."
"She still is," Aragorn said.
She glanced at him with a quirk of her mouth. "She is still quite young, you know."
"I do know. She and I and two Elves were the only inhabitants of Rivendell under one hundred years old."
She laughed again, and beckoned with a tap of her frail finger on the table, and he leaned over to catch her low voice. "Well, when Arathorn asked for her, Dírhael broke his promise to his sworn brother. He's dead now, but it caused bad feeling. There were some who thought Dírhael broke his word because he wanted his daughter to marry into the chieftain's family."
"Is this true?"
"I think you should ask him that question. But I know that Ivorwen would never have agreed to it if it hadn't been Gilraen's own wish. Few mothers can bear to see a daughter wed against her will. That is so hard for a woman. But of course the man was bitterly disappointed. He has never married."
"And are you going to tell me the name of this man?"
"Daeron, the master at arms." She pointed with her chin at his grey figure, still deep in conversation with Ingold.
"The man with the scarred eye?"
"The same. And that's how he got the scar. He fought with Arathorn over the matter, and was wounded. This fight should never have happened. Many blame them both, but I blame my grandson more. His rigid sense of honor drove him to it. He should have refused the fight, which he could easily have done, without any loss of honor, as the Chieftain's son. He had won Gilraen, and had nothing to gain by defeating Daeron, who foolishly challenged him. And so Daeron was injured in this terrible way. Arador went out of his way to make sure Daeron was cared for. He even tried to help him using Elven healing, but to no avail. Understandably, Daeron is bitter."
He sours the very air about him. "He is not a friendly man, from the little I have seen."
"He is bitter toward Dírhael and his family, and apparently that includes you, from the tales I have heard."
"Are you warning me, then?"
"Yes and no. I do not believe he means any harm. He is as loyal to our people as any man in Thurnost, hard-working, skilled, and highly trusted in council. But he has always been a surly fellow, and his bitterness will help nothing. You need to know this."
The musicians struck up a lively tune, and young women formed into a circle and began to dance. Aragorn watched their twisting forms and quick feet. Their laughing faces and flushed cheeks paled beside the image of Elven beauty burned into his memory. His eyes told him they were pretty, even beautiful, but neither his heart nor his loins stirred. Has my love made me a eunuch?
He turned back to Saelind. "It would have been better if my mother had told me."
"Yes," Saelind said with a mischievous smile, "but it is not a thing a woman can easily tell a son. The tale continues. After telling Daeron he had to wait until Gilraen was twenty-five, Dírhael decided to hurry up the marriage at Arathorn's request. So, as you know, she was only twenty-one when she was married and barely past her twenty-third birthday when you were born. There are some who thought that much too young for a woman of our race. It's unusual, I grant."
"It's hard for me to appreciate that."
"Hmm, yes," she said. "It would be. Daeron and Dírhael can barely speak to this day."
"I have heard," Aragorn said carefully, "that my grandfather Dírhael is not an even-tempered man."
"He is a foul-tempered beast, my dear, and no doubt you will butt heads when you meet him at last, since you are as strong-willed as he is, or worse."
"Or better?" Aragorn cocked his head at her. "It is perhaps not a bad thing."
"Or better," she agreed. "Beleg, too, bears ill will toward Daeron. He always took Arathorn's part, and I believe was in part responsible for the fight. He is too quick to take to arms to solve a matter, and will hear no ill spoken of his sword brother."
"I've heard a lot about the love between Beleg and my father. He stayed in Rivendell himself for some years, and they journeyed together to Mirkwood, I understand."
"Yes, that's where Arathorn had been before he fell in love with Gilraen. In fact, it was because of a wound Beleg suffered that they returned when they did."
The music stopped between dances, and Saelind waited till it began again to speak. "As for me, I do not begrudge Daeron his resentment, although I am sorry for his own sake. Perhaps if it weren't for the loss of his eye, it could have been forgotten. But he revealed his own ugly temper when he said that Arathorn's death by an Orc arrow through the eye had a certain justice. That was an unmanly thing to say."
Aragorn winced, and closed his eyes. "Indeed so." He was beginning to wonder if life in the Wild might not be more comfortable than life in the Keep.
"I only hope that my grandson's death was swift and relatively painless," Saelind said.
The dancing stopped, and a singer came forward, with a lutenist at his side. Bowing to the head table, they begged the sufferance of the lord and lady for their poor song. Saelind graciously waved her hand. "I have looked forward all day to your song. Please begin."
The young man's clear strong voice reached to the dark corners of the room as he sang of the dreams of bygone days.
The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.
A wave of longing swept Aragorn. "He sought her ever, wandering far," he murmured to himself. "Tinúviel, Tinúviel."
Erupting into flames at a toothsome beauty. That I understand.
That night he dreamed of her again.
She turned toward him, her hair falling over his naked chest, and entangled her soft hand in his hair. She caressed his bearded cheek and laughed. "Estel," she whispered and, smiling, bent down to kiss him.
He had wondered at the look of sadness in her eyes. But he never had a chance to ask her about it, because the next morning she was gone.
Once, climbing the rocky slopes above Rivendell, as a youth on the verge of manhood and beginning to dream of beautiful women, he had seen two eagles in their mating dance, their claws entwined as they tumbled through the air. I want a love like that.
He would settle for nothing less. If she would not have him, he would have no one. After all, Rivendell was not so very far away. No, it was not yet time to give up.