Tales of the North
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Becoming: 1. Hope
Caras Dirnen – end of September 2951
Another hour at most. The sentry glanced at the sun's position and nodded, satisfied. The day had been quiet; yet he had not been bored. There had more than enough to think about between the sense of foreboding he had woken up with and the mood among the Rangers in the Keep. The Rangers' tension seemed to be anticipation rather than apprehension, so whatever it was that occupied them was unlikely to be a threat. Even so, he knew something would happen soon, and it would be more momentous than the Council meeting Dírhael had called.
He hoped he read the Rangers' mood correctly; it would be a blessing to not have bad news for once. He was hardly privy to the captains' discussions, but from what little his father had said the last time he was home, he knew they were worried. The Rangers had been hard-pressed since before Arador and Arathorn had fallen, though there had been a few years of grace after the decimation of the Misty Mountain Orc clans in the Battle of the Five Armies ten years ago. Now Orcs attacks were up again. He sighed; he was not a Ranger yet, and he had no idea how long it would be before he was. There was naught he could do about it.
Wait, what is that? A rider… It was not anyone he recognised, nor was the rider dressed like a Ranger. The horse's tack was of a style he had seen only a few times before, on the horses ridden by messengers from Rivendell. Could it be an Elf?
News from Rivendell was rare, and he wondered what tidings a messenger might bring. Orcs come down from the Misty Mountains and heading west along the Road? Or a troll? Such news would explain why the Chieftain had ordered an extra guard to be set on the road to Caras Dirnen. Though why he then placed a recruit on home leave on duty there? Whatever it was, Dírhael did naught without reason, even if that reason might just be that no one else could be spared.
Meanwhile, the stranger was almost upon him, and he held his breath when the rider let his glance pass over his hiding place. He smiled, pleased that his cover was good enough to fool a messenger from Rivendell.
Suddenly, the other sharply pulled up his horse and stopped, almost directly opposite his post, the horse tossing its head and prancing in place. Now the stranger looked directly at his hide-out.
That is not an Elf, he realised as he was about to stand up to address the stranger.
"Hail the sentry! Show yourself!" a clear voice called, and after a short hesitation he stepped into the road, chagrined at having his position betrayed by a horse. And did its rider have to look so amused?
"Do not take it too badly... what is your name?"
"Halbarad," he replied reluctantly, immediately suspicious of the stranger who seemed to read his thoughts, and annoyed at himself for sounding so sullen.
"Halbarad, Elvish horses are trained to warn their rider of danger and their senses are much sharper than ours. I had not spotted you myself," the stranger said.
His hackles rising even further at the other's tone, he looked the stranger over closer before he replied. What he saw confirmed his first conclusion. Despite the Elvish horse, the Elvish clothing, and the Elvish accent to his speech this was no Elf, Halbarad thought as he met the intense, grey-eyed gaze that studied him in turn. The stranger sat his horse well, and looked well-familiar with the sword and bow he carried. He was also young, his own age or only slightly older, and by his looks he could be no other than of the Dúnedain. Maybe he came from one of the outside villages? Though that did not explain the Rivendell horse, or the Elvish clothes.
"I am looking for Caras Dirnen. Is it nearby?" the stranger asked as he dismounted.
"Your name and purpose, traveller?" Halbarad challenged him in reply. The other had to have been let through by the Rangers on guard near the borders of the Angle, but even so it was for the stranger to declare himself first.
A moment of not quite hesitation, but there was definitely a pause. Odd.
"Your name and your purpose," Halbarad repeated, insistently now. He let his hand stray nearer his sword when the other remained silent. The stranger barely glanced down before meeting his gaze again, but it was enough to betray that he had seen the movement.
Yet he waited still, even if little more than a heartbeat, before answering. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn."
Halbarad inhaled sharply. "That is a bold claim to make." Bold the claim might be, yet even as he challenged it, there was something in him that recognised it was true.
"I do have proofs," the stranger – Aragorn – stated, holding his gaze.
Should he ask to see these proofs? Halbarad hesitated. He wanted to see them, but it was not his place to judge their truth, and he shouldn't ask merely to satisfy his curiosity.
Before he gathered his wits enough to reply, Aragorn went on, sounding slightly testy now. "I was counselled by my... by Master Elrond that I should go to Caras Dirnen and first present myself to Lord Dírhael. So, to repeat my question, am I yet close to Caras Dirnen?"
Master Elrond. So that was where, how... Halbarad wondered who had known. Dírhael of course, Ivorwen, the members of the Council, his parents; who else had been in on the secret? And what a secret! Isildur's Heir, not lost, but hidden! Halbarad had to stop himself from staring. Undoubtedly, after his dumbstruck gawping at the initial revelation, Aragorn already thought him dim-witted at best.
An impatient cough drew Halbarad from his thoughts. "Oh, I'm sorry. Yes, you only need to follow the road to get there. I'd come with you, but I shouldn't leave my post until my relief gets here."
"Of course not; I would not want you in trouble with your captain on my behalf, but how..." the other's voice trailed off.
"Anyone in town can direct you to Dírhael's house," Halbarad said, immediately wincing inwardly as Aragorn looked taken aback; he had intended to be helpful, but had to admit he had sounded dismissive instead. Before he could say anything else, Aragorn remounted, and rode off.
As he watched Aragorn ride towards the town, Halbarad groaned inwardly as he recalled how near he had been to drawing his sword on his lord when said lord had been slow to declare himself. Now that would have been a good mark if ever the time came for him to receive his Ranger star. But no, not challenging a stranger would have been worse.
At least he no longer had to wonder why his foresight had woken him up this morning, Halbarad thought, still looking down the road, but now impatiently waiting for his relief to appear so he could go back to town. Come to think of it, Dírhael must have known that Isildur's Heir was returning, and had merely wanted someone here to meet him; though then why hadn't he chosen someone who wasn't going to make such a fool of himself?
Aragorn did not quite have to rush to keep up with Dírhael, but his grandfather did set a stiff pace. He had already noticed the day before that Dírhael was always in a hurry, impatient in word and action both. They were coming up behind someone, and Dírhael sped up slightly to catch up; at first Aragorn could not make out who it was in the dim morning light. Then the other looked around and raised a hand in greeting, Aragorn saw it was the Ranger sentry he had met the day before.
"Halbarad," Dírhael called out as soon as he was within speaking distance. "I was hoping to find you. Since you and Aragorn already know each other, would you mind showing our kinsman around before he meets with the Council?"
"Of course not, sir," Halbarad answered. Aragorn thought he didn't look terribly enthusiastic at the prospect, and his own mood sank correspondingly. There had been no opportunity to talk longer with Halbarad, and their meeting had been awkward on both their accounts. Even if he was glad to see a slightly familiar face, did he really want to be dragged around town by an unwilling guide?
"I was not speaking as your lord, but asking as a favour for our kinsman," Dírhael responded, smiling.
"As you wish, uncle," Halbarad now said, "And I'll be glad to do so." Even as Aragorn doubted the truth of that statement, he also noted Dírhael's address of Halbarad.
"Very well, then I will leave you to your own devices for the morning," Dírhael said, now speaking to him as well as to Halbarad, adding as he turned to leave, "I will see you both back at the Keep two hours after noon, and I will tell the captain of the garrison that I have set Halbarad his duty for the day."
Once Dírhael had left, Halbarad turned back to face Aragorn. Before he could say anything, Aragorn spoke. "We are kin?"
"Yes," Halbarad answered curtly.
Undeterred, Aragorn smiled, but when he drew no response, his expression grew serious again as he asked his next question, "This may be a dumb question, but how are we related?" He still knew so little about his people, even about his own family. Even after his identity had been revealed to him, Mother had remained reluctant to talk about her home.
"My mother's father was your grandmother Ivorwen's brother Elatan, and Fíriel, my grandmother on my mother's side, is the daughter of lord Argonui," Halbarad said.
"Then your mother must be lady Bereth. I met her last night, and your grandmother as well," Aragorn replied. Halbarad looked down briefly. "There is more?" Aragorn added, as Halbarad met his gaze again.
Halbarad took a deep breath before answering. "We are kin, but my mother's parents had a Ranger's wedding and Elatan was slain by an Orc before they could wed officially, so..."
"A Ranger's wedding?" Aragorn asked, wondering what the term meant.
"When a child is conceived within a betrothal," Halbarad replied quickly, looking as if he would have preferred not to bring up the topic.
"But that would have made it marriage; I thought the Dúnedain follow Elvish custom?" Aragorn asked. He realised he had inadvertently put his newly-found kinsman on the spot by what should have been a simple question about how they were related; this was rapidly turning even more awkward than their meeting the day before.
"Well, yes," Halbarad replied. "It is even called an Elvish wedding also, but it still…"
"Anyway, if your grandfather is my grandmother's brother, and your grandmother is my grandfather's sister, that makes us cousins, yes?" Aragorn interrupted him, taking the opportunity to shift the subject.
"Close enough," Halbarad replied, looking relieved. "Even if it makes me go cross-eyed when I try to work it out."
"I hope I did not," Aragorn replied.
Halbarad grinned widely. "Maybe just a bit."
Aragorn responded in kind, pleased both that his kinsman's mood was lightened, and that he at last seemed to have broken the ice between them. Now though, it was his turn to hesitate. "It is still strange to suddenly have so much kin."
"Until this year I knew no better than that I might as well be fatherless, and I thought I was without kin but for my mother. I did not even know that the name I went by was not my real name," Aragorn said. Though the notion of bastardy did not exist among the Elves, he had found out about it in Imladris' library, and for a long time he had even suspected that he might be a bastard.
Halbarad looked at him with sudden understanding. "You really did not know who you were?"
"No, I did not," Aragorn replied, shaking his head. "I called Master Elrond Father. I always knew he was not, though he treated me as his own, but that was all I knew. My father's name was never spoken within my hearing."
Halbarad nodded, and asked, "So, what name did you go by?"
"Estel," Aragorn replied with a slight shrug. "Shall we go somewhere, and not just stand here in the road? Grandfather did ask you to show me around after all."
"Of course," Halbarad said. "What do you want to see? I can show you the town, but that will not even take half the morning. And what should I call you, Estel or Aragorn? "
"I am still more used to Estel, but Aragorn is my true name," Aragorn answered. "And I would rather not go into town. I already had my fill last night of people telling me how much I have grown or how much I look like my father."
"How much you have grown?" Halbarad repeated. "You were away for eighteen years. Surely no one expected you'd still be a toddler?"
Aragorn rolled his eyes and grimaced, adding a glare when all Halbarad could do was laugh at him. Aragorn laughed as well, then asked, "But Grandfather was so quick to set you as my guide, do you not have other duty?"
"No." Halbarad shook his head. "I'm just a recruit, and I am on leave from the training camp. Yesterday I was only standing guard because all the Rangers were busy."
"What were you going to do otherwise today?" Aragorn asked.
"I don't know; hunting, perhaps."
"What were you going to hunt?" Even if they returned empty-handed, hunting would be a good way to spend the morning.
"Rabbits or quail," Halbarad replied, "But we only have the morning, and the best places are a few hours from here on foot. We wouldn't be back in time for the Council."
"Then we must leave that for another time," Aragorn said reluctantly.
Halbarad concurred. "That leaves the town after all then. How much did you see yesterday?"
"Just the Keep, and Grandfather's house," Aragorn said.
"Then I'll show you around a bit more," Halbarad said. "You should at least have some idea where everything is. Do you remember aught of living here before?"
"Not much," Aragorn said. "Small things, and I probably do not recall those aright. I was only two. I barely even remember my father." He wondered; Halbarad was close to his own age. Perhaps…
"I wasn't born until a year after he fell," Halbarad said in response to Aragorn's questioning look. Aragorn lowered his head, disappointed. "But I can show you your parents' house," Halbarad added.
"I would like that," Aragorn replied. "You will have to lead; I do not yet know my way around."
The house was not far outside the town walls. It sat slightly back from the road, and as Halbarad stepped on to the path that led to the front door, he glanced at Aragorn. His newfound kinsman was looking around eagerly, as if he was trying to recall as much as he could.
Halbarad followed Aragorn as he walked around the house, until they were back where they had started. Finally, Aragorn shook his head in puzzlement. "It looks so small, yet it does feel familiar, as if I should know the place. I think I remember following Mother around as she went about her daily tasks, but I did that in Imladris also, so I do not know if that is a memory of this house. She looked happy though, and that is something I have rarely seen, so perhaps…"
"Will your mother come back to Caras Dirnen as well?" Halbarad asked.
"I do not know," Aragorn said, "I think not." He did not elaborate, instead walking over to try the front door. "Locked," he concluded.
"Or stuck, if the wood is warped." Halbarad said. "But if it's locked, your grandfather will have the key."
A loud rumble from Halbarad's stomach disturbed the silence just as Aragorn was about to reply. Whatever it was that Aragorn had wanted to say was lost in a snort of amusement, only for both of them to burst out laughing when Aragorn's stomach also rumbled.
"Well, whatever else we do, perhaps we should eat," Aragorn said. "Did you bring anything?"
"No, I did not," Halbarad replied. "I was going to eat breakfast at the Keep and take something from there for midday as well when I ran into Dírhael and you. We can go to the Keep now, or I can make us something at home."
"I'd like to see your home," Aragorn said. "But is Grandfather such a harsh taskmaster that you would rather go without food than naysay him?"
"He can be stern, but hardly that stern," Halbarad answered. "But to be honest, I just forgot about bringing something to eat."
"You forgot about eating?" Aragorn stared at him and shook his head.
"Yes," Halbarad responded, then grinned as Aragorn's stomach rumbled again. "Anyway, you're as hungry as I am, even if I doubt Ivorwen let you out of the house without a good breakfast."
"True," Aragorn admitted, looking a bit sheepish.
"We could go back now," Halbarad said. "It's not that far."
"I'd rather not yet," Aragorn replied as he sat down against the wall. "We only have to be back in time for the council, and it is still well before noon."
"As you wish," Halbarad agreed, sitting down as well. Aragorn was right; there was no need to hurry yet. And as Aragorn was turning out to be much more pleasant company than Halbarad had feared, his task for this morning was turning out to be anything but the chore he had expected it would be.
"Is your father a Ranger too?" Aragorn asked.
"Yes," Halbarad said. "He is out on patrol, but I hope he will come home before I have to return to the training camp." It had been a year since he had last seen Halladan and it might well be another year before the next chance came up.
"Do you have siblings?" Aragorn asked next.
"A sister," Halbarad replied. "Haleth. She is married and lives in Athrad. Grandmother normally lives with her."
"Athrad. That is in the south, is it not?"
"Yes," Halbarad confirmed. "About eighty miles from here."
Aragorn nodded. "I had to study maps of the Angle back h... in Imladris."
Halbarad gave Aragorn a sharp look. Back home. He had been quick to correct himself, but that had been what he was going to say. But was it surprising that Aragorn considered Rivendell home, when he lived there for so long? Halbarad wondered what Rivendell was like, and how different it was from the Angle. All he knew was that there were many waterfalls in its valley, and that it was said to be a most fair abode. Yet it was also known as the Last Homely Home, and he found it hard to reconcile that name with the marble halls and high pillars he imagined, like the drawing of ancient Gondolin in a book his mother had.
He would ask later, Halbarad decided when he saw that Aragorn was still deep in thought. After a few minutes of silence, Aragorn started to say something, but he halted and shook his head. Eventually he looked up, meeting Halbarad's gaze.
"I have heard some about how I was kept hidden, but I wonder... apart from the people here who were in the know – my grandparents, your parents, lady Fíriel and the members of the Council, what did others think about it when Mother and I disappeared?"
"I can only speak for myself," Halbarad replied, "But then I was born afterwards, so it all seemed normal. As far as I can see, both those who knew and those who suspected something just didn't talk about you or your mother and discouraged the topic in others, leading everybody to believe that you and Gilraen were dead, even if no one could have said how you supposedly died."
Aragorn nodded, and Halbarad went on. "Some things I thought odd even at the time. For instance, no one would explain why Dírhael was only ever acting Chieftain, or why we had barely any contact with Rivendell anymore."
"But there were some people coming to Imlad… Rivendell," Aragorn interrupted. "I was never allowed to meet them, but there were sometimes visitors from the Angle; and two years or so ago, when I was on patrol with my… with Elladan and Elrohir, we rode with a group of Rangers. And looking back now, there were odd things about that too." He looked pensive. "No explanation was given for my presence among the Elves, but as far as I could see, no one asked either. So, as they were all older men, I now think that they were among those who knew, and that the purpose of the patrol was so they could see me."
"Likely so," Halbarad agreed, "But you have already been on patrol?" If that had been two years ago, Aragorn had been not much older than he himself was now.
"Yes," Aragorn replied, "Many times since I turned sixteen."
"Oh," Halbarad said. He was surprised that, amidst all effort to keep him safe from the Enemy, such risk would have been taken with the life of Isildur's last Heir, but he had to admit as well that he was plain envious of the patrolling experience Aragorn must already have. It was also a reminder that he did sit here talking with his lord, and he wondered how soon Aragorn would receive his Ranger star, and take over rule of the Dúnedain from Dírhael. Likely their paths would cross only rarely after this morning, he thought glumly.
He could say none of that though, so instead he asked, "Why does Dírhael want me at the Keep, do you know?"
"Not for certain," Aragorn replied, "But he is gathering witnesses for when I officially present myself and the heirlooms before the Council, and I think he wants you there for that."
"Oh," Halbarad said again. He noticed that Aragorn was toying with a ring he wore. "Is that…?" he asked, nodding at Aragorn's hand.
"…the Ring of Barahir? Yes." Aragorn held out his hand so Halbarad could take a closer look. "Is it not wondrous that something like this still survives after three Ages of the world?" he went on, sounding half awed, half proud. "The Sceptre of Annúminas is in Imladris, but do you want to see Narsil?" Aragorn asked unexpectedly, reaching for the pack he had carried with him all morning.
"Yes," Halbarad said. "Of course," he added as he sat up so he could see better.
Aragorn took a cloth-wrapped bundle from his pack, his movements reverent. He quickly undid the ties that bound it, slowing down as he folded away the cloth to reveal a length of sword that was about a foot long, along with several smaller shards of metal. Shining brightly in the day's light, the sword's remains looked as if they still held a good edge. The Ring of Barahir might evoke awe for its venerable age and history and its beauty, but this sword had once been used to bring down the Enemy. Halbarad took a closer look, careful not to touch the ancient blade.
"Perhaps, one day, it will be reforged," Aragorn said softly as Halbarad looked up again. His expression as he spoke was resolute, and Halbarad felt a sudden fierce hope stir him that the return of this Heir of Isildur would bring with it a change in the fortunes of the Dúnedain.
"One day," he echoed Aragorn's words.
Aragorn rewrapped the shards, and put them back in his pack.
They sat for some time in silence. Halbarad's thoughts had returned to the Ring of Barahir, contemplating how something that small had made it here through so many years, when he looked up and suddenly realised how much time had passed.
"We must hurry," he said, jumping up. As Aragorn, who had been lost in thought as well, looked at him, he added, "You can't be late to your own swearing in."
On the way back, Halbarad set a quick pace, though short of running. If they arrived at a run and out of breath, it would be obvious that they'd lost track of time, and he wasn't willing to look as if he had failed Dírhael's trust in him. There wouldn't be time to eat, but that could wait. As they reached the road to the Keep, Halbarad suddenly slowed down and breathed a sigh of relief. Just ahead were his mother and grandmother, calmly walking to the Keep. They were not too late, then!
"Oh, there you are," Bereth said as the two women came up to them. Fíriel started to say something as well, but stopped and turned her head to look at Aragorn from different angles.
"Now that I see you in daylight, you look even more like..." she started again.
Halbarad caught Aragorn's glance, recalling his complaint that all he had heard the day before was how much he resembled his father. Fíriel looked annoyed as both young men suddenly burst out laughing, but she and Bereth joined in when Aragorn explained that nearly everybody he had met the previous day had told him the same thing.
"In my defence, I wasn't about to compare you to Arathorn, but to my brother," Fíriel said. "I doubt you have heard that so much."
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