My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Matter of Honor, A: 7. Family Matters
As Halbarad descended from Rivendell, the lush pines and ferns of the protected valley gave way to scrubby oaks, bent and twisted by the wind that constantly scraped the flanks of the hills. He resisted glancing behind him again. He already knew what he would see: no trace of his passage. The path that seemed so obvious ahead would be swallowed up in the brushy undergrowth behind him. Imladris had hidden itself once again from mortal eyes, even friendly ones. He could not have retraced his steps now, even if he wished to. But he had no desire to return to fragrant, blossoming Rivendell just yet. His mind was set on the bony, windswept lands below, where the silver ribbon of the Bruinen glinted in the midday sun. A shadow flickered over the ground, and he looked up to see a lone hawk soaring lazily in the warming updrafts. It was a good day to go home.
The silence, at first, seemed strange; broken only by the rhythmic creak of saddle leather beneath him, the muffled thump of hooves on dirt, and an occasional snort from one of the horses. Gradually his unease faded as he realized he had simply grown too accustomed to the background sounds of rushing water and twittering birdsong that continuously bathed Rivendell. He stretched, easing a cramp in his back. He'd been lying about for too long. It was good to get into the saddle again, to feel the weight of his sword on his hip. Following the custom of Imladris, he had gone about unarmed during his stay, but felt naked doing it. A Dúnadan didn't step out his door to use the outhouse without strapping a blade to his belt.
The Bruinen had receded, though the extent of the flooding could still be seen in the thick mud and flattened grasses along the banks. The horses splashed willingly into the knee-deep water, but Halbarad found himself much less eager to go into the seemingly placid stream. At first, it had been easy enough to convince himself that he had imagined what he thought he'd seen, weary and hurt as he had been that night. He found it comforting to believe so; and then Gandalf had appeared at his room a few days after their arrival, alone and moving in that furtive way he moved when he was trying look inconspicuous. He sat himself down at the bedside and made small talk about the weather and Dudo's misadventures in the kitchen and Aragorn's condition. Finally, he got around to asking what Halbarad remembered of night crossing of the Bruinen. Gandalf listened patiently as Halbarad related seeing the floodwaters, so rapid and wide they would leave the ford impassible for weeks, miraculously recede to a trickle in a matter of moments. Then, instead of reassuring him that he'd imagined the whole thing, he leaned very close and warned him to never speak of it to anyone.
Halbarad tore his eyes from the river and nudged the horses up the far bank, putting aside the thought of what fearsome power Gandalf could command if he turned his mind to evil.
The trail followed the river south. At sunset, he camped, fished for dinner, and built a fire. With the coals toasting both his bare feet and the fish he had speared, to varying degrees of doneness, he leaned back against a pack and relaxed, watching the night sky come to life in the fading light. When the fish was done, he picked the firm white flesh of the bones with his dagger and ate it plain. Then he rolled up in his cloak, he curled up on the rocky ground and slept under the stars. With good weather, he would be home tomorrow before dinner.
Given his recent familiarity with feather beds, he should not have been surprised at the cramp that seized his back when he tried to rise in the morning. Propping a hand against his ribcage, he staggered to the riverbank and knelt to splash water on his face. The river was steely grey in the bare light, and felt as cold as it looked. Quickly loading the horses, he resumed the trail as the first shafts of sunlight struck the treetops. As he traveled south, the hills grew higher and the woods thicker. It was nearing mid-afternoon when he came to the mouth of a small tributary spilling into the Bruinen. He guided the horses down the bank and into the water as if to ford the stream, but instead of crossing it, he turned the horses into the current and followed it into a narrow hollow with hills looming close on either side, thickly shaded by tall trees.
After a distance, the walls of the draw receded enough to allow passage along the stream bank, and he led the horses up out of the water. A little way further, he came to a steep rock face topped by a stand of ancient oaks. Here, there would be a guard posted, ready to fill an intruder with arrows before he knew what hit him. Even recognizing a friend, the guard would not show himself until he saw an all's well sign. Halbarad gave the signal with a wave of his arm, drawing a grey-cloaked figure out from the cover of the trees. With surprise, he saw that it was not one of the young boys usually assigned to the guard, but Brandol, a scarred and grizzled lieutenant.
Brandol looked just as surprised to see him. "By the Valar, Halbarad, I was beginning to think you'd succumbed to Rivendell's spell and decided to stay!"
Halbarad guided the horses up a winding, rocky path to the lookout point. "If I were wise, I would have," he admitted. He dismounted and bent to stretch his legs.
"Our luck that no one has ever accused you of wisdom, then." Brandol's single dark eye looked him up and down appraisingly, and an eyebrow lifted. "What happened to your clothes?"
Halbarad glanced down at himself. As Saddlebags predicted, his ruined clothes had been burned, or otherwise disposed of in accordance with Elvish practices. The heavy leather jerkin he now wore still creaked with newness, and the boots on his feet were tanned to an impossibly smooth, buttery luster. Next to Brandol's scarred boots and threadbare cloak, they looked positively kingly. He shrugged. "Maybe I should take a roll in the mud before anyone else sees me like this."
Brandol's deep guffaw was as musical to Halbarad's ears as the bell-like laughter of the Elves. "Don't let Eirien hear I let you consider anything of the sort!" He slapped Halbarad's back with enough force to rock him forward and reached to for the pack horse's lead rope, his one good hand nimbly slipping apart the knot that held it to the saddle. "I thought Aragorn might be with you. Is he well?"
"Still recuperating," Halbarad replied. "And what are you doing out here, you old dog?"
"There's a shortage of strong backs around here, in case you hadn't noticed," Brandol replied, looking hopefully at the cask strapped to the pack harness. "Is this wine or beer? Wine, I suppose. The fence repairs were just finished last week; I took the watch because everyone with two good hands was needed to dig post holes. Now Hagorn's patrol is out, and I had to send a few men south, to look into this Dunlending trouble."
There was always Dunlending trouble. "What now?"
Brandol set off down the path with the pack horse, leaving Halbarad to follow behind. "Two or three of the clan chiefs are warring. People are on the move. I want to make sure they're not moving this way. Last thing we need is a whole tribe of Dunlendings on our doorstep."
Halbarad was busy doing mental arithmetic. "Whom did you send?"
The grizzled head ducked but did not turn. "Hurin and Haerost."
Halbarad groaned. "Brandol, he's seventeen."
Brandol shrugged. "How old were you the first time we fought orcs on the high pass?"
"Sixteen. That was different."
"Why? Because he's your son?"
"You know me better than that. Alagos was fighting orcs when he was fifteen." That was the difference. Alagos would have been ready to fight orcs at six, had he been able to lift a sword. Hurin was a dreamer, a poet. Eru knew where he got it from.
Brandol had little enough patience with dreamers, either, but he knew enough not to say so. "Well, it's done. They left last week. And if you ask me, the responsibility will be good for him. Did you speak to Aragorn about the Shire watch?"
Halbarad sucked in a breath. The fact that he now agreed with Aragorn's decision to keep the bulk of their men guarding the Shire borders did not make it any easier to live with. Or explain. "I did."
This earned him a hopeful glance. "And?"
"We'll talk about it later."
The battle-scarred face hardened and turned away. "So nothing is to change."
"We'll talk about it later." Hopefully, before then, he'd come up with something to say. "What other news?"
Brandol shrugged; out of sorts now. Halbarad could not blame him. They walked in silence, and gradually the air became tinged with the smell of wood smoke and the sound of hammering. As the settlement came into view, Halbarad saw with satisfaction that the light, unweathered posts of the new fence were taller than the old ones had been. There were signs of recent thatching on many of the roofs, and a half-finished barn stood where the other had burnt to the ground. As they approached, three dogs that had been lying in the sun-warmed dirt inside the gate leapt to their feet, yelping and wagging their tails. The dogs fell in as an escort, and a handful of greetings were called out from porches and dooryards as they passed, but the settlement felt empty, and up close Halbarad could see how much damage remained from the orc attack. The workshops and cottages nearest the north perimeter, where the orcs had breached the fence, were still gutted and roofless. Brandol took the reins from him at the stable door. "I'll see to the horses. Don't keep keep everyone waiting!"
There was a dangerous gleam to his eye, and Halbarad knew him well enough to know something was up. He considered digging it out of him, but a tantalizing smell was drifting from the house. Whatever it was, he would find out soon enough. He nodded and clapped Brandol on the shoulder. "Stay out of that wine!" With a last backward glance at the now openly-smirking Ranger, he headed for the main house. Halfway across the courtyard, a white-haired figure atop a cottage roof waved a greeting, his wrinkled face breaking into a gap-toothed grin. "Halbarad! By the Valar, we thought you'd bought the Pony and decided to be an innkeeper."
The old man started to climb down, and Halbarad rushed forward to steady the ladder. "Butterbur wouldn't sell to a disreputable character like me. I can barely get him to serve me a drink. Careful coming down!"
The wiry old Ranger dropped to the ground and brushed off his hand. "I may not be much good with a sword anymore, but I can still climb a ladder. We heard what happened to Aragorn – is he well?"
"Well enough." Word traveled fast. Halbarad wondered exactly how much of the story had filtered down from Rivendell, but before he could ask, a small girl shot out of the doorway of the main house and ran straight toward him. "Granda!" she shouted, plunging her face into his stomach.
He grunted at the impact and pried her gently loose. Holding her at eye level, he planted a kiss on her forehead. "This cannot be my granddaughter!" he announced sternly. "Someone has stolen away my little hobbit-lass and left a rangy Dúnadan woman in her place!"
The pert nose wrinkled with distaste. "They did not!"
He settled her on his hip. "Surely they have. Where have they taken my little Pearblossom?"
This earned him a giggle and a yank on his beard. "Your what?"
"Ouch," he protested, lowering her to the ground. "Pearblossom. A lovely name, don't you think? Someone gave it to me, but I think it suits you better. Do you like it?"
The child was diplomatic, at least. "I'll think about it," she promised.
"Very good. Now, where is your granna? Has she run off to trade horses in Rohan?"
"Which granna? Granna Eirien or Granna Nelaer?"
He tousled her unruly hair into a bigger mess. "Granna Nelaer is at Sarn Ford, sweetling, with your ada." His hand stopped moving as a kernel of worry began to crystallize. "Isn't she?"
To his utter dismay, Elanor shook her head.
Halbarad knelt and took her little shoulders in his hands, remembering to be gentle. "Where is Granna Nelaer, sweetling?" He was certain he already knew.
Elanor pointed to the open door of the house. "Inside, with the other old grannas. Granna Eirien said you'd be madder than a hobbit in a hailstorm."
Having recently been witness to a hobbit in a hailstorm, Halbarad knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was much, much madder. "Is Granna Eirien inside, too?"
"No. She's out in the pasture with Snowbell. Snowbell is having a foal and I get to name it! I was going to name it Rose Petal, but now I think I might name it Pearblossom instead."
Halbarad found himself briefly distracted by the promising implications of his granddaughter bestowing another ridiculous name on a horse that Aragorn might someday borrow. Pearblossom. It would serve him right.
"Halbarad, is that you?"
The voice pushed itself through the open doorway of the house like a troll through a field of daisies. It never stopped amazing him how much disapproval it could convey with one word. "So much for a welcome," he muttered.
With a semblance of a smile frozen on his face, he took Elanor's little hand. "Let's not keep Granna waiting."
Like most adults, he had to bend to clear the doorframe. The room he entered was large but sparsely furnished, being pressed into service at need as a military headquarters, an infirmary, a winter dormitory, and, on rare happy occasions, a banquet hall. At present, he could see three occupants in the dim, smoky light, seated in a semi-circle of folded blankets before the hearth. They had shawls wrapped about their shoulders and their day's work had been put aside: spindles of wool and bundles of freshly-spun thread, an idle loom containing a piece of grey wool, and some half-finished leather gloves. A kettle steamed over the fire, the source of the meaty aroma that led him here. The tallest of the three women, a lean but broad-shouldered matron with a thick grey braid hanging down her back, was seated within reach of a kettle, but her attention was fixed not on it but on her fist, which she held poised over an open-topped wooden box on the floor. Whispering something that sounded suspiciously like a Sindarin prayer, she opened her eyes and flung two dice against the corner of the box.
"Three," the smallest woman announced triumphantly, adjusting her shawl and tilting her narrow chin at the dice-thrower. "Where is your famous luck today, Nelaer?"
Halbard's mother threw her companion an indignant scowl before turning her scrutiny toward her son as if he were a yearling foal she was thinking of purchasing. "Where in Arda have you been, Halbarad? Eirien claims you've been gone for a month, and the whole camp in ruins. Fimenel's poor Thargil is up on a ladder trying to thatch a roof, for Eru's sake."
"He's fine, Nelaer," remarked the smaller woman. "He's been thatching roofs since before Halbarad was born."
"That was my point," Nelaer remarked drily. She turned back to Halbarad. "So you've been off rescuing Aragorn from Dunlendings. And it looks as if you've been to Rivendell, from your clothes."
Halbarad crossed his arms. "Since you seem to know the whole story already, I suppose I needn't waste time telling you."
His mother reached over and stirred the pot. "And I understand Aragorn popped his head in here a while back. What a shame he left before I could see him - I'll probably be dead and buried before he wanders back this way again, just like his mother."
"Nelaer!" Fimenel exclaimed. "Show some respect!"
That Gilraen was gone, Halbarad guessed darkly, might have had something to do with his mother's sudden decision to visit the Angle. "Aragorn left," Halbarad explained as slowly and meticulously as he could manage, "to track the orcs that attacked the settlement. He led the raid on their lair and took a wound that nearly killed him." With a glare that Glorfindel would envy, he dared her to open her mouth.
"Stop baiting your son, Nelaer," chided Meneliel, a broad-bosomed woman whose missing front teeth were a souvenir of a horse-kick intended for a wolf. Shooting Halbarad a left-eyed wink that his mother couldn't see, she took a swallow from a flask that Halbarad suspected did not contain tea, and rolled the dice. "Twelve. Pay up, you two."
Fimenel obediently scooped up a handful of walnuts – they were playing for walnuts, Halbarad realized – and put them in Meneliel's pile. With a glance at Nelaer – probably gauging the likelihood of provoking another tirade – she reached up and took Halbarad's hand. "Halbarad, please tell us -- how is Aragorn?"
"Better," Halbarad answered. He leaned to kiss her forehead, grateful for the moral support. "He plans to come as soon as he's fully recovered."
"Ah, it will do my heart glad to see him again," Fimenel said, her gleaming and distant. "A kingly man, that one is. Like to Elendil himself."
"Like to his father," Halbarad's mother retorted. "Forever wandering with elves and wizards instead of looking to the welfare of his own lands."
Fimenel spoke quietly, but with defiance. "Dunedain lands once reached far beyond Eriador, Nelaer. Maybe they will do so again."
Nelaer muttered something Halbarad pretended he didn't hear and threw the dice against the side of the box with such force that one skipped over the top to land at Meneliel's feet. "For a thousand years we've been scattered across the wild, hunted by orcs, shunned by decent folk, clinging to tattered legends, and so it will be a thousand years after all of us are gone. Our days of glory are over. If you think Arathorn's son is going to change that, you're a fool."
Meneliel picked up the errant die and handed it to Fimenel. "Three," she noted automatically. When she looked up, her eyes were gleaming with anger. Halbarad fought not to flinch; Meneliel in full wrath could have held her own with Elrond. "Listen to me, Nelaer. I've buried a husband and two sons – and the one I have has lost an eye and the use of an arm to an orc blade. No one has more reason to be bitter about our plight than I do. But the day we give up hope we might as well march into Mordor and lie down before the Dark Tower. Now that boy has just lost his mother. I'll not stand by and watch you torment him, is that clear?"
Visions of the Kin-strife were playing through Halbarad's mind. "Aragorn won't be here for another couple of weeks. I don't expect she plans to stay that long, do you, Mother?"
"As a matter of fact, I've decided to stay the summer," she declared. "Falathren has gone to Evendim and someone needs to look after Elanor."
"Well, you're doing a fine job so far," he retorted, "teaching her our people are doomed! And what in the name of Eru is Falathren doing in Evendim?"
"Lower your voice." His mother was looking down at him, an impressive achievement as she was sitting on the floor. "I cannot continue this conversation with you speaking in that tone. You're upsetting the child."
He frothed. "I'm upsetting --!" He glanced at Elanor; in his consternation he'd nearly forgotten she was present. She seemed unscathed by the exchange; strong personalities ran in the family. "I understand Eirien is midwifing a horse. I'll see if she needs any help."
"Take the child with you," his mother said. "Get her out in the fresh air."
"Let her stay," Meneliel said. The dice bounced against the box again. "Nine. It's going to rain. Besides, you should let Elanor take your turn with the dice. You need the luck. Here, love, take them, shake them up good for your Granna."
Halbarad's mother sat Elanor on her lap and wrapped her small fists around the dice, demonstrating the proper technique. "Don't tarry, Halbarad. Dinner is almost ready."
"I'll tell the horse," he replied, and went to find his wife. Meneliel was right about the rain; he could smell it as he crossed the pasture, heading for a grey mound of pregnant mare sprouting from the grass like a misplaced boulder. Eirien was stretched out beside her, elbow-deep in mud and mare. Her eyes were screwed shut and her forehead was wrinkled in concentration – turning the foal, he surmised. He didn't speak; he wanted a few moments without words, to simply stand over her and watch. She would never be mistaken for an Elf. Though tall, slender, and grey-eyed like they were, her face showed faint lines from a lifetime of sun and wind and worry and laughter, and her hair was streaked with grey. Her capable hands would overpower fine Mithril jewelry, and he could not even imagine her in a flimsy silk gown. She could bring down a bird in flight, dress a deer in a half hour, and soothe a terrified child with a few whispered words. No rapturous leys would ever be sung about her flawless skin or melodious voice, except in the private dreams of Halbarad Dúnadan. It was good to be home.
She opened an eye and squinted through the first raindrops. "What are you smiling at, Ranger?"
She rolled her eyes. "Make yourself useful. I'm going to try to turn the foal." Halbarad knelt and held the mare's head while Eirien pushed against the flank, fighting for leverage. Some move Halbarad could not see brought a snort of protest from the mare, and she kicked, rocking to escape the intrusion. "Keep her down!" Eirien barked. He knelt there with his face pressed against the mare's, murmuring into her ear, and after a few moments he looked up to see Eirien smiling at him quizzically from the other end. "Nice boots. What happened to yours?"
He would tell her about the mishap in the river later, maybe. Or maybe not. "I lost them. What is my mother doing here?"
She could spare him no reply; intent again on the inner workings of the animal. Halbarad stroked the mare's muzzle, hoping the foal could be turned. He did not relish the thought of putting the mare down, though he knew Eirien would make short work of it if need be; the dagger hanging from her belt had been put to such use before. It was raining harder now; her wool dress was soaked. Finally she gave a grunt of satisfaction and the tension in her shoulders relaxed. "Word of the attack made it to Sarn Ford. Your mother was worried and asked Alagos to bring her."
"Splendid. He can take her right back with him."
"He's left already."
"Then I'll take her myself."
Eirien looked weary. "Halbarad, she's your mother."
"She's teaching our granddaughter to play dice."
She laughed at his indignation. "Really! I'm shocked. Everyone knows your mother is the worst dice player in Eriador. She should let Meneliel teach her."
"She can't stay here. Aragorn is coming and she'll make a fool of herself, as usual."
Eirien pulled her arm out of the horse and sat up, wiping mud and blood onto a relatively clean patch of skirt. "The foal will find its own way out now. You can let go the halter."
Halbarad released the mare and stood up. He was soaking wet and fairly muddy now, but Eirien looked worse. She was caked in mud from one end to the other. He pulled her to her feet and she pushed back a dripping strand of hair, managing to smear a fresh streak of mud across her forehead. She gave up trying to wipe her hands clean and smiled at him ruefully. "A splendid homecoming this is for you, after the luxuries of Rivendell."
"It's a wonderful homecoming," he said quietly, and pulled her away from the restless mare. Her body felt good against his; warm in the damp of the rainy day. He looked around the immediate vicinity. "Is this a good spot, do you think, or would it be drier under the willow trees?"
"A good spot for what?" She looked perplexed, and then corner of her mouth twitched as she correctly read the look in his eyes. "Halbarad! Not here!"
"Maybe you're right. It's too open out here. The willow it is, then."
She sighed; it meant she was trying to be the responsible one. "We should get back. We'll be late for dinner."
The protest was weak; he knew he had her. "I'm not interested in dinner." He got an arm under her and swept her into his arms.
Well-bred Dúnadan that she was, she shrieked with laughter. "You're insane. I'm filthy!"
"I know," he agreed, and kissed her.
Author's note: Yes, Halbarad has reached a mistaken conclusion about who really controls the Bruinen.
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