Halbarad knew that Aragorn was no liar, but the other options were grim. Either he had indeed been attacked by a sorcerer's spell, a terrifying idea, or he had imagined it, which placed his sanity, or at least his common sense, in question.
"What can I say, father? He insists the horse was not at fault."
Hallor inhaled a deep waft of smoke and exhaled slowly. "Say as little as possible. Only time will solve this problem."
"And if it was sorcery?"
"If it was, we can do less than nothing." His eyes screwed up with worry. "We must fortify the patrols. After the captains' council, we must send men to the mountains and to Tharbad for a thorough search."
Even more than the sour gossip, the sorrow in the Keep darkened Halbarad's mood. Everywhere he turned, he saw closed faces or tears for the two dead men. At least they had not been husbands and fathers; as with so many who endured the perils of a Ranger's life, they had chosen to remain unmarried. The bitterest loss was to the Rangers themselves, for Talthir and Dúrphor had put in the years of scouting throughout Eriador to qualify them for independent leadership in the Wild. They had been among the best warriors—and the Orcs had butchered them for meat.
Amid the tears, the whispering about Aragorn did not stop. More than once, when Halbarad entered the Commons or the stables or some other place where the people worked, the fervent conversations would suddenly cease. Perhaps, he thought bitterly, they were seeking a way to blame the deaths on Aragorn and, by extension, Elrond.
Even Saelind seemed depressed. "I believe him," she snapped when Halbarad asked her. "There is little comfort in it. Perhaps he should go back to Rivendell where he will be safe."
"That's the last thing he'll do. He would see it as running away."
Saelind nodded her old head in distress. Once he was well enough to leave his bed, she insisted on visits from Aragorn every day. Halbarad often joined them, keeping a sharp eye on his cousin's manifestly restless discontent.
Each day Aragorn paced about the room. "I crave some action. I can't abide doing nothing."
"You are healing," Saelind said. "Do not risk your life in foolish bravado."
Aragorn snorted, but his eyes gleamed with a hint of amusement. To Halbarad's relief, Saelind's grandmotherly commands seemed to ease his silent brooding and shortness of temper. The Rangers, a taciturn group, were not soft in their speech, but Aragorn's combative mood added to the already stiff tension pervading the Keep. The bolder men continued to press him, asking questions and probing for his strengths and weaknesses. Almost always he kept hold of his courtesy—a son of Elrond indeed, thought Halbarad, remembering the tales of the legendary welcome of Rivendell. Welcome we had not for eighteen years, and seemingly those eighteen wipe out the centuries before them. How short are men's memories!
Ingold asked Aragorn for a detailed history of his battle experiences and journeys in the Wild. The tale was impressive for one of his youth, and Ingold said so. Then he added, "The fact remains that you have fought only in comradeship with Elves. I wonder if that was part of the difficulty in the sortie."
Aragorn's eyes flashed, and for a moment Halbarad feared he would lose his temper. But he only said in a tight voice, "The Dúnedain warriors have much to teach me," and strode away. He held his head high, but the stiffness in his shoulders belied his distress.
Ingold shook his head. "A little less touchy pride would become him."
Halbarad threw wide his arms in exasperation. "What do you expect? He knows what you're thinking."
"It's our right and duty to question him, if he's to be our chieftain."
"He is the chieftain, Ingold. He was born so."
"As chieftain he will have to earn our allegiance just like any other man. We are Rangers, not courtiers in the hall of the old Kings. You appear to have given your trust much too easily, to my mind."
A vivid memory of Aragorn by the Meeting Stone, his keen eyes shining and Narsil in his hand, filled Halbarad's mind. "I am the king's man."
Ingold raised his eyebrows. "A king's man is no king's man without a king."
Ingold had a point, Halbarad admitted, but only to himself. Aragorn had some work to do before his bearing was in consonance with his heritage. Surely there was little surprise in that—after all, he had just learned of it. What can it be like to find out that your name is not your name, that now you are to be called by something else? Why will he not talk more about it?
Others in the Keep were downright provocative. One evening, Halbarad and Aragorn sat together before the fire in the Commons, as they often did. Halbarad was fletching arrows and Aragorn, who had begun working in the stables at light tasks while his injury continued to heal, was mending tack. With an oath he cast a piece of bridle on the floor. "Only a wizard could fix this."
Daeron, the master at arms, overheard him and said, "No doubt you're used to magical solutions to problems, but here we're only mortals. Or perhaps the tack is ensorcelled? No doubt that explains your clumsiness."
Halbarad could see the muscles in his cousin's jaw working hard, even under his trimmed beard. But Aragorn said nothing. Daeron smirked and walked away.
Halbarad scowled after him, then turned back to Aragorn, still visibly seething. "Pay him no mind. You know where that comes from."
Aragorn just shook his head, a glowering frown darkening his face.
Halbarad blew through his mouth in exasperation. "Perhaps I ought to hit you. It might help."
Aragorn raised his eyebrows. "And how is that?"
"You need a fight. Maybe then you would relax a bit."
Aragorn gave a short laugh. "I'd rather fight Orcs than you. I will apply to Hallor to go to the Point. My injury is healed enough for that. This inaction is driving me mad."
Or the foul mood in the Keep rather. But Halbarad did not speak his thought aloud.
They were both at the Ranger post at the Point when Gilraen's father and brother returned to the Angle for the December convening of the captains' council. Halbarad and Aragorn were giving Rodnion and Rodnor one of their daily lessons in swordplay, demonstrating lunges and blocks, when a shadow fell on the ground between them. Halbarad looked up to see Dírhael and his son Iorlas. With a jolt of recognition Halbarad realized that Arathorn was not the only member of his family that Aragorn resembled: he had his grandfather's unruly dark hair and glinting eyes. The years had made Dírhael rather stern and forbidding in appearance, and grey flecked his shaggy hair, but Halbarad thought Aragorn might match him in gloom if he kept up his surly mood. All the same, Halbarad liked Dírhael for his serious, straightforward intensity. A man always knew where he stood with him.
"Welcome, Dírhael, Iorlas!" Halbarad turned to Aragorn, whose face lit up in one of his striking smiles. "Your grandfather and uncle, my friend."
Dírhael stared at his grandson with steady eyes. "I heard you had returned. They said so at the river crossing."
Iorlas strode past his father and embraced his sister's son. "Well met! We were told also that Gilraen remains in Rivendell, and that she is well."
Aragorn smiled and returned the embrace. "You resemble her so much. I would have known you anywhere." He looked over his uncle's shoulder at his grandfather, and moved forward to offer his hand. "I am very pleased to meet you at last, sir."
Dírhael closed his arms around Aragorn in a fierce hug. "At last! Tell me about my daughter."
They traveled together to the Keep for the captains' council, keeping to a swift pace. Dírhael's restlessness matched his grandson's, and Halbarad assumed he had heard the rumors and suspicions. But he said nothing until, only a few hours after reaching the Keep, Dírhael let himself into their house.
He can hardly have seen his son's new child, Halbarad thought. Yet here he is, as ever pressing forward.
"Hallor, Halbarad," he acknowledged them with a sharp nod. "What is this talk?"
Aragorn, his face closed and watchful, stood silent behind him.
"Have a seat." Hallor stretched out his legs, lit his pipe and sent a stream of smoke between his lips. "I'm glad you've come, you spared me sending a message, or coming to you."
"I prefer to stand."
"As you wish."
They made an impressive pair, grandfather and grandson, both quiet and impassive, both commanding in their very presence, one seasoned with years and experience, the other young and full of promise. Halbarad watched Dírhael closely, as he knew his father would wish.
"This can't be allowed, Hallor," Dírhael said. "Talk is talk, and people will be themselves, but Ingold and Daeron are leading this, and they must be commanded to stop."
"Would that it were so simple, my friend. Would you wish that I stop the captains' council? How else are we to govern the Rangers?"
Dírhael crossed his arms over his chest. "Gossip is not the captains' council. It will rather interfere with the decisions that must be made."
"It is not gossip," Aragorn said quietly. "It happened. People have opinions. It's up to me to prove them wrong."
Hallor spoke around the stem of his pipe. "Quite right."
"You know it's far more than that," Dírhael said. "There's talk of not acknowledging Aragorn as chieftain. Don't tell me you will support this."
Halbarad snapped, "How can you even think that?"
Hallor held up his hand. "Let us at least stay calm; leave the short tempers to the others. To answer you, Dírhael: no, I do not support this. My proposal to the council will be that I continue as acting chieftain for the time being, and that I will teach Aragorn till he is of age—a bare four years from now, may I remind you."
"It has never happened that way before," Dírhael said.
"Not since Valandil." Hallor cracked a smile. "Indeed, the continuity of the line is remarkable. Gondor would be full of envy, if she knew."
Dírhael paced across the room. Halbarad noticed that Aragorn was watching him closely. "I have no quarrel with the law, but I fear more than this is intended by Ingold at least."
"You are right," Hallor answered. "Old grievances against Elrond still rankle. There is talk that Aragorn is too Elvish."
"So my wife told me," Dírhael growled.
Aragorn stirred from his silence. "I'm very aware of my deficiencies, but I don't consider being too Elvish to be among them."
Dírhael turned on him with a sardonic smile. "No indeed. We are faced with the ignorance of idiots here."
Hallor sighed. "If that is how you intend to speak at the council, Dírhael, you will help nothing."
"I will curb my tongue, Hallor, do not fear. I will be your staunchest supporter. Unlike some others, I will leave my family quarrels out of this."
Hallor raised his eyebrows. "Good! For you know that Daeron will not."
"He is a fool," Dírhael said harshly. "Let him dig his own grave, for no one will listen to the raving of a bitter man. It's Ingold that worries me."
"Amloth arrived from Fornost this morning, with word from Taelos in the far north; you and Beleg will speak for Sarn Ford. We lack only the men from Bree and the Shire. As soon as they come, I will convene the meeting. As for Ingold, leave him to me."
"Already he fills Amloth's ears with discontented grumblings. Beleg, at least, argues with him on Aragorn's behalf."
Aragorn looked up, his eyes glinting with anger. "I do not fear their judgment. And I want no honors or respect that I haven't earned."
Hallor smiled wryly. "May I say that there is no danger of that? They will test you. It will be hard, but in the end you will benefit, and so will we. But never doubt that I stand behind you."
"And I," said Halbarad.
His face solemn, Aragorn bowed his head. "I will not let you down."
The council convened in the Commons, where tables had been placed in a great square. Fires blazed in the hearths against the winter chill; torches lit the vast hall. When Halbarad entered, the men and women of the Keep were already seated on benches along the walls to witness the proceedings. Not yet a captain, he chose a seat behind Dírhael, Beleg, Hawk, Ivorwen, and Iorlas, at the far end of the bench and at an angle so as to see as many faces as possible. A swathe of empty places separated him from Ingold and Daeron, their heads bent in whispering. Amloth and the men from the Bree-lands had joined Ingold—a deliberate indication of support, Halbarad knew.
At the head table sat Hallor with Aragorn at his right, looking pale but calm. The thick, dark table was bare except for the carved box in which the captains would place their tokens—a grey or white stone—in case a vote needed to be taken.
With a nod of his head, Halbarad met Aragorn's eyes, smiled briefly, and got a nod in return. He had never before understood why arms were banned at the captains' council. But now, even the clatter of a sheathed blade as a man rose from his place would set hearts racing in this tense hall. He restrained his feet, itching to tap with impatience, until Hallor rose to convene the council. For the first part of the meeting, faces looked unfocused and murmurs continued from the corners of the room as routine matters of trade and supply were settled. The Dwarves had not allowed the threats in the Wild to slow their caravans—yet.
Although he already knew much of the news from the outposts, Halbarad found his disquiet growing as he listened to the captains' reports. Nothing worse than the Uruk raid near the Angle had as yet happened, but every man had tales of frightened folk and strangers on the move. These few meant more would come, Halbarad knew. How are we to face these coming years? Where did the Uruks come from? Will Angmar rise again?
Silence fell as Hallor rose again to address the final business of the meeting.
"Captains, amid all the grim news, there is one good thing, and it is not a small one. Aragorn son of Arathorn, by birth the rightful chieftain of the Dúnedain and the Heir of Isildur, has returned to us. This is a great day for the Dúnedain, and a joy close to my heart. Already, although he is not yet twenty-one years old, Aragorn shows all the promise of his father, my cousin. But it is our law that he may not act as chieftain in his own right until he comes fully of age at twenty-five. And our ways are as yet unknown to him. Therefore some interim solution must be found. It is my proposal that I continue as acting chieftain, as I have since the death of Arathorn, with Aragorn at my side to learn all that he needs to know. I believe that he is a man of great ability and will be chieftain in fact as well as name sooner than men may expect."
Halbarad held his breath as his father paused and cast a long look around the room. "If any among you oppose or question this, now is the time to speak and to settle our differences."
"I would speak." Ingold's strong voice echoed across the room. With a dignity befitting his standing among the Rangers, he rose to his feet and moved to the front of the room. "Captains, it is time for the Dúnedain to reconsider how leadership is decided among us. For many years the Heirs of Isildur, from father to son, have ruled us as the descendants through Elendil of the kings of Númenor. We have been fortunate until now that every chieftain has been a man of full age and proven leadership, as he must be. Our lives depend upon it, the lives of our wives and children depend upon it. But fortune will not always serve, as it does not now. We must establish, by law, that the chieftain will be chosen by the council and not by happenstance of birth."
He turned to Hallor directly. "Aragorn has no knowledge of our ways, you say. But it's more than that: He is barely out of boyhood. He has dwelt only with the Elves. He is the son of Elrond rather than of Arathorn. He speaks Westron in the manner of Rivendell. He doesn't know his own people. What has he seen of hardship? He is a skilled swordsman, but can he fight with an empty belly? Has he ever shivered through a winter on scarce rations?"
"What would you propose, Ingold?" asked Hallor.
"You must remain as chieftain. You are proven and also of the line of Isildur. Why must the chieftainship go always from father to son? It may be that Aragorn will be the next chieftain. But our need should stand above our tradition."
His voice sharp, Hallor met Ingold's eye. "You pose a conflict where there is none, captain. By need and tradition, the inheritance of Isildur passes from father to eldest son of the body. Our people are greatly diminished, but still the line of Isildur is unbroken. There is some great purpose here. Why else have our people survived the ruin of the kingdom? We guard the line of Elros and the way of Númenor."
Ingold held up his hand. "I don't propose to turn aside from the line of Elendil or the heritage of Númenor. Aragorn is by birth the Heir of Isildur and no one can challenge that. He carries the sword of Elendil. But why must the chieftain and the Heir be the same man? The Heir of Isildur is nothing without his people. How best can we guard our people as well as fulfill our duty?"
Another, angrier voice spoke up—Daeron. "This is not Elrond's House, nor Númenor, nor the Kingdom of Arnor, but the Wild of Eriador. Sure, Aragorn speaks perfect Quenya and knows the ancient lore. Of what use is this? This Elven princeling will flee back to Rivendell at the first hard winter."
Frowns appeared on some faces, and Beleg leaped up from his chair and matched Daeron's anger with his own. "These words are unfit for this chamber! I will not tolerate your grudges—"
But Hawk seized his arm. "Watch your tongue! This is no place for any man's temper."
Hallor spoke out sharply, "Keep order, captains." He waited for the clamor to die down. "Ingold, do you have more to say?"
"Not at this time." Ingold returned to his seat.
IHalbarad tried to catch Aragorn's eye. Show them! Do something! But Aragorn just stared down at his hands.
Dírhael rose next. "We must not allow our anger at the actions of Elrond to cloud our judgment. I myself remain greatly dissatisfied with the Lord of Rivendell. He dared to remove my own daughter from her home without any word to her father. But this question must be handled separately. I propose that Hallor go to Rivendell and make known our displeasure."
Amloth said darkly, "He may go, but will he enter? Or will he disappear for eighteen years?"
Dírhael's dark glare withered like a dragon's eye. "You know little of Elrond, to say so. We may disagree with his action, but he sought to protect the Heir of Isildur. Captains, have we not just heard how great the dangers are?"
Amloth shouted, "Then you too think we cannot protect our own children?"
"Silence," said Hallor sternly. "Dírhael has the floor."
Dírhael continued, "I see that Elrond has done his duty by Aragorn son of Arathorn and raised a man to lead us. We all of us were young once, although some may not remember it." He looked directly at Ingold.
A silence fell across the room. Aragorn lifted his head then. Rising slowly from his seat, he swept his gaze across the room, pale but with a confidence that Halbarad knew he did not wholly feel.
"My lords! Hear me, I beg you. The Shadow and its menace are growing strong indeed. The strength of the Dúnedain must be preserved for the war ahead—for it will be a war. This is the business of my life, as Elrond taught me. That I am untested, I know better than any. That I am young will change inevitably with time. That I am the chieftain of the Dúnedain and the Heir of Isildur is by birthright and law. But in the end, none of these is the real question. I ask to be judged not by my title, nor by my youth or fosterage, but as a man. I must earn my Ranger star as any man would. I will not renounce my birthright, but I will stand in the ranks of the Rangers and earn your trust and good will to prove myself fit to be your chieftain in fact. You will decide when that time is come."
Murmurs broke out across the room. Halbarad saw that Hawk and a number of other men were nodding in approval.
Hallor raised his arm for silence. "I will withdraw my proposal in favor of Aragorn's. Ingold, will you reconsider?"
"My proposal stands," Ingold called out.
"Does any man wish to speak further?" Hallor scanned the room, but no one spoke. "Then we will vote. A grey stone for Aragorn's proposal, a black stone for Ingold."
Halbarad could hardly breathe while votes were taken and counted. In the end, Aragorn won with eight votes to Ingold's four.
"Well done, cousin," he murmured as in Aragorn's ear as he embraced him. Aragorn smiled, but the tension still played in his face.