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Matter of Honor, A: 9. The Secrets of the Dúnedain
Hearing a jangle of metal at the doorway, he turned. It was Brandol, dripping rain, standing just outside with two mug handles clutched in his hand and a harness slung over his shoulder. "Get the mugs," he grunted through the pipe clenched between his teeth. As soon as Halbarad leapt up and grabbed them from him, he dropped the harness in a heap just inside the door.
Halbarad set one of the mugs on a shelf and helped himself to a drink from the other while Brandol scraped his boots clean. Savoring the heady, bittersweet tang, he swallowed deeply and wiped his moustache with slow satisfaction. "Butterbur's finest, eh? Not bad for curdled barley."
"Curdled what?" Inside the doorway now, Brandol dug a handful of rusted metal pieces out of his pocket as he made his way to the desk. He threw them down on top of it and sat down in the chair beside it. "More broken harness fittings. We need all new tack iron. Harness and bridle fittings, rein rings, linch pins. And most of the scythes and spade shoes are in a bad way, too. The next time we trade with the Dwarves --"
"We'll be buying weapons from them, as usual." Halbarad held up a broken terret to get a better look. It looked as if it had simply corroded until it snapped from age and strain. "Can't any of it be fixed?"
"No," Brandol spat out through his pipe, his single eye flaring black fire. "None of it can be fixed. It has been fixed too many times. There is no more fixing it. I can no more fix this lot than you can fix that…that…what is that, anyway?" He pulled his pipe out of his mouth and poked it at the scattering of wooden objects Halbarad had laid on the desk.
Halbarad held up the largest piece for him to see. It was most of a carved wooden horse, missing its legs and part of its back end. "Elanor's Rohan horse," he announced. "She left it outside and someone rolled a cart over it." Unlike the unfortunate harness fittings, however, it would have to be fixed somehow. That was what grandas were for.
"Rohan horse?" Brandol put his pipe back in his mouth and reached for his mug. "How can you tell it's a Rohan horse?"
Halbarad watched in fascination, as he always did, as Brandol took a drink from his mug without bothering to remove the pipe from between his teeth. "It was a gift from Aragorn to Falathren when she was barely three," he explained. "He told her that all the little children in Rohan learn to ride a horse before they can walk. Naturally, she then insisted on being put up on a horse, immediately." He smiled at the memory of his wife's reaction. "I thought Eirien was going to kill him."
Brandol laughed, showing broken teeth. "I wish I had seen that. That must have happened while I was in Sarn Ford." The lines of his face sobered suddenly, and his eye darkened with memory. Halbarad could guess the reason - while in Sarn Ford, Brandol's young wife had died in childbirth, forcing his frantic return to the Angle to find a wet nurse for his newborn son, Tologarth. Several years later, Tologarth had been standing at the door of this very house when Halbarad had carried Brandol's body across the threshold, bleeding and broken. Falathren's arms had been around her little friend's shoulders, and both children's eyes had been wide with horror. Though they saw more than children should see, they never heard the full story – that Brandol had been left for dead by the orcs, lying bleeding and helpless beside the rotting bodies of his comrades for three days before he was found.
Halbarad blinked to dismiss the memory and put the toy down. "All right. As soon as the patrols come back, you can go trade with the Dwarves for harness fittings."
"You're not coming with me? You always enjoy the company of the Dwarves. Not to mention their ale."
"I'm heading west as soon as the weather breaks," he said. "I need to check on the situation in Bree, and I might as well drop in on Dírhael while I'm in the neighborhood."
Brandol smiled. "I can't make up my mind if you're leaving to get away from your mother or to meddle in your daughter's diplomacy."
"Why not kill two birds with one stone?" Halbarad quipped, but Brandol merely took another drink, eyeing him expectantly. Halbarad sighed. "Go on; speak your mind. You think I'm being an ass about Falathren's trip." For good reason: he'd blown up like Orodruin when he'd first been told exactly what his daughter was doing in Evendim.
"Here's what I think," Brandol ventured. "You don't think moving the women and children to Evendim is a bad idea. You're just upset it wasn't yours."
Halbarad crossed his arms. Brandol was working on getting under his skin, and succeeding. "Not only was it not my idea, I wasn't even consulted. Nor was Aragorn. Doesn't rank count for anything around here?"
Brandol shrugged. "You were missing. You and Aragorn could have both been dead. No decision has been made. So far it's just talk."
"Talk opens a door quicker than a key," Halbarad retorted. "I will not abandon this settlement."
"We wouldn't be abandoning it. Even if we move the women and children west to safety, this compound will have to be kept fortified as an eastern outpost."
"A garrison is not a home," Halbarad said.
Brandol conceded the point with a nod. "No. But the Dúnedain have abandoned homes before, at need. What do you think Dírhael will say?"
"He's a smug bastard, but he won't turn away his own kin," Halbarad said. "In fact, it will give him a certain satisfaction to offer shelter to the refugees from the Chieftain's stronghold. He will agree to it readily enough. It just sticks in my craw to be beholden to him."
"You sound as if it is your decision to make," Brandol said, raising an eyebrow in challenge.
Halbarad narrowed his eyes and screwed on an ironic smile. "I would never be so foolish as to suppose that! After, all, I haven't even got your mother's opinion of the matter yet."
Brandol chuckled. "My mother happens to be in favor of the plan. Yours, however, is not."
While briefly amazed to find himself on the same side of a disagreement as his mother for once, Halbarad supposed it would last only until his mother caught wind of that odd occurrence, at which point she was bound to reverse her position just to confound him. "And my daughter organized the entire delegation. Splendid."
Brandol rubbed his beard, hiding a smirk. "Yes, and what's more, your mother is convinced that she did it only to seduce my son."
Halbarad sat up straight. "Oh, really?" Making a note to spend a lot more time at home in the future, he crossed his arms. "And is she right?"
"You know my son has always been fond of Falathren."
"Your son is as big a scoundrel as you are," Halbarad said. It was a false accusation; if anything, the boy was conscientious to the point of annoyance. "I should transfer him to the far side of Forochel for his impudence."
"He is thoroughly smitten," Brandol said with a shrug and another chuckle. "She has him writing bad poetry."
Halbarad snorted. "Then maybe he should take lessons from my son. His poetry is quite good." Halbarad took a drink of beer and pondered the implications of the match. Falathren's husband had been a flighty charmer, easily luring her away from her dour, taciturn childhood playmate. But after an abrupt and devastating lesson in life's impermanence, maybe she yearned now for Tologarth's constancy and solid strength. If she really had him writing poetry….Leaning forward, Halbarad clasped his hands between his knees. "I could ask for no better son-in-law, Brandol. I just think it is too soon for her."
Brandol fingered the bowl of his pipe thoughtfully before speaking. "She's old enough to know her own mind," he said finally. "Why should a woman as young as she go on nursing her grief when there is a chance at happiness? And the child should have a father."
Halbarad could not argue with that. He had returned the swords of far too many dead Rangers to grief-shocked widows and children over the years. He himself had been one of the lucky few whose father lived long enough to hold his first grandson in his arms. While most were not as unlucky as Brandol, youngest of three sons, who had never known the father killed by orcs near Nenuial before he was born, many children endured the early loss of a father. Brandol had, Eirien, Elanor, even Aragorn. A child could survive such a loss. And a wife could withstand losing a husband -- once. There were many, many widows among the Dúnedain, and Falathren was strong. But Halbarad knew as sure as the sun rose that he could not bear to bring another ownerless sword home to his daughter. "I could not stand to see her hurt again," he said, half to himself, knowing even as he spoke the words that someday, somehow, she would be hurt, and there would be no stopping it. Maybe you are right," he conceded finally. "It will be their decision anyway. And then you and I, old friend, can fight over whether our grandson will fish in the Bruinen or in Lake Nenuial." He reached above him and pulled a rolled-up map from a clutter of scrolls on the shelf above the desk. He anchored it flat with pieces of pottery and traced the outline of Lake Nenuial, scripted in faded ink a finger's width north of the Shire border. "Fair Annuminas," he whispered softly.
Brandol stood at Halbarad's shoulder, puffing smoke that drifted into his eyes. "You see," he said, jabbing at the map with a scarred finger, "the lake and the Brandywine form natural barriers to the west, east and north, and Shire is a buffer to the south."
"I give you that it is more defensible than the Angle, and with Evendim a major garrison for the Shire guard, our people would be better protected. But your allegiance to this plan wouldn't have anything to do with the size of the lake trout in Nenuial, would it?"
Brandol's face broke into a crooked grin, pulled askance by his scar. "I once caught one longer than your arm, and fatter than Butterbur's cook."
Halbarad snorted. "And all the witnesses are dead, of course." He stared at the map. "I cannot fault the merits of this plan, but it galls me to retreat."
"We were lucky that this attack left only two dead," Brandol said. "There will be more orcs next time."
"Who is to say? We pursued the band and wiped them out before they could report the location of the settlement."
"At the cost of even more lives," Brandol pointed out. "They found us once. They can find us again. Whose skull would you have cleaved by an orc blade the next time? Your wife's, or maybe your granddaughter's?"
"I hear you." It had been Halbarad himself, after all, who'd half-seriously challenged Aragorn to move all the women and children - not to Evendim, but to the soft safety of the Shire itself. But he couldn't tell Brandol that. "I do not know what Aragorn will say about this plan. And the old folk are strong and stubborn. They will not stomach fleeing from danger any more than you and I do. This is their home and they would die to protect it."
"The Dúnedain have abandoned settlements before; even cities, to save lives and preserve what we are. It is not cowardice to live to fight another day." Brandol stood up, by habit bracing his limp right arm against his side with his left hand. "Besides, you can tell your mother that the alternative plan is for the women and children to take refuge at Rivendell."
Halbarad groaned. "Oh, you are devious, my friend! Instead, let me stand behind you while you tell her."
"I'll not hear another word of it," Halbarad's mother declared. "I, for one, am not going to be packed off to live in Evendim at my age. I'll go back to Sarn Ford, if I must leave at all." With this, she tightened her mouth into a rigid line and folded her arms across her chest.
From across the table, Halbarad's wife shot him a warning glare not to take the challenge. He countered with a tight, meek smile, and Brandol paused in the act of spearing a piece of meat to glance sideways at his mother.
Meneliel could always be counted on to take the bait. "That's all well and good for you," she replied evenly, "with your own grandson Captain at the ford. He already has his wife and son there. But that post is too small and poorly-outfitted to support a large influx of families and children. Only Dírhael's lands could possibly absorb the bulk of our settlement."
Nelaer's mouth tightened. "I say we strengthen our fortifications and hold out here instead of packing up and leaving. We have survived this long without running at the first sign of trouble."
Meneliel helped herself to a second serving of boiled turnips and venison. "With the bulk of our forces concentrated around the Shire borders, there are too few men left here to protect this settlement, by the time they patrol to the north and south."
"Well, that's the problem. The men need to be brought back here, to where they're needed."
Halbarad's fingers, unbidden, found the bridge of his nose and began kneading.
"Aragorn feels they're needed to guard the Shire, isn't that right, Halbarad?" Meneliel replied, as Halbarad reached for the jug of Erestor's wine.
Brandol held out his cup. "You had better give me some of that, too."
"What does Aragorn say about the Shire guard, Halbarad?" his mother asked. "Surely he realizes by now it's a waste of men."
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Halbarad answered.
She smiled insincerely. "Alas, but he never seems to be here, does he?"
The most infuriating thing about his mother, Halbarad decided, was that she was very often correct in her facts. "He will be here within a few weeks," he said with forced patience. "We should wait until then to make a decision."
"So Aragorn is to decide what is best for us? Do you have a mind in this, or are you merely Aragorn's mouthpiece?"
"I am no man's puppet," he replied, exchanging a glance with his wife, who alone knew the arguments he had had with Aragorn on this very issue. "But Aragorn is my liege lord and he is right in this, even if I do not fully understand his reasons."
"It is a fool who follows blindly," Nelaer said. "I thought your father taught you better than that."
"Nelaer, please have a care for the child," Eirien said quietly. Taking a very deep breath, she pushed her chair back from the table and beckoned to Elanor. "Come, sweetling; help me clear the table."
"And I had best check the pastures to make sure all the stock is in," Brandol said, not about to miss the opportunity to excuse himself.
Halbarad held his tongue until Eirien and Elanor had disappeared beyond the kitchen doorway. "You are entitled to your opinion, Mother; but I will not have you speaking of Aragorn like that in front of Elanor."
"She might as well know the truth," his mother said. "Where is Aragorn now? Lounging about in Rivendell, enjoying the music of harps and drinking Miruvor from a silver cup? Is this the one who is to decide our fate, who will not even share our lives?"
Halbarad felt his neck burning. He looked to Meneliel, but she had evidently decided to sit this battle out. "Aragorn has toiled long and suffered much that you know nothing of."
"Suffered on whose account? For his people, or for the glory of fallen Númenor? If he wants to be King, then let him be getting on with it. But I, for one, have seen little in him to bring forth comparisons to Elendil."
"Contempt does not become you, Mother."
"Nor hero-worship you."
Without another word, Halbarad pushed back his chair and strode from the house.
The rain had finally stopped. He climbed the fence at the far edge of the settlement and sat on the top rail, watching the mist rise from the wet fields. Dusk was falling, and early stars could be seen through gaps in the drifting clouds. Somewhere to the north, a wolf howled, and behind him, soft footsteps approached.
"Come down from there, boy." The voice was Meneliel's.
"Why?" he asked without turning.
"Because I have some things to tell you, and I have no intention of standing out here in the damp to do it."
He climbed down then, and followed her to the small cottage she shared with Brandol, taking a seat at her table when bidden. "Hatred does not spring full-formed from the heart, you know," Meneliel said, bending to pull the kettle from the hearth.
As she poured tea for both of them, and lit the lamp, he leaned his elbows on the table and nursed the small cup between his warrior's hands. "Where does it come from, then?"
Meneliel settled herself into her chair heavily. "From desire, most of all. Some would even say love. Men's lives are short and brutal. But to be forced to look up on that which we can never have is the most brutal test of all. Take Rivendell. It is beautiful, is it not? But beneath its beauty is a deadly trap." Meneliel scanned his expression carefully. "I see by your face that you know what I mean. Has your mother spoken to you of this after all?"
He had no idea what she was talking about. His mother was the last person on Arda he would expect to speak to him of Rivendell, unless it were to tell him it was a load of Elvish rubbish. "As far as I know, my mother has never been to Rivendell. But I have seen its power myself." He had sensed Dudo's vulnerability to its seductive beauty, had instinctively sought to harden him to it. "It is too high above us," he said. "Like moths in the candle's flame, we will be consumed if we love it too much."
Meneliel refilled Halbarad's cup, and when he drank from it this time he found that it was not tea. "Then you will understand what I am about to tell you," she said, "even if it surprises you to hear it. When your mother was fifteen, she fell ill with fever. When she was near death, her father in his desperation took her to Rivendell. Elrond saved her life, though it was four months before she was well enough to return home. In those four months, she fell in love with the beauty and magic of Imladris; the grace and wisdom and elegance of the Elves, the ease of life, the absence of fear and decrepitude and decay and toil. She painted, wrote poetry, sang, danced. She walked in fragrant gardens wearing lovely gowns. And when she came back to us, she was lost."
"My mother?" Halbarad could scarcely believe his ears. "Wearing gowns in Rivendell? Painting?"
Meneliel smiled. "Ah, yes. When she first returned, she chattered about Rivendell so incessantly that the rest of us girls took to avoiding her. But soon, she stopped talking about it. She stopped talking about anything, really, as if she found nothing else worthy of the effort of speech. She would eat only what was placed in front of her. Work did not interest her, though at last her mother set her to weaving to keep her from idleness. So she dutifully wove, alone, for hours, for days, for years, until she became a master weaver; and yet no matter how beautiful her work, she held it in contempt. Nothing she saw with her eyes or created with her own hands would ever again rival the beauty of her memories. Eventually she came to be of marriageable age and was considered beautiful to look upon, but she rejected all her suitors. Only for Arathorn did she briefly have eyes, for he had spent some little time in Rivendell himself, as a young man. But he had a warrior's heart, and little patience for pining and poetry."
"I can't believe my mother spent four months in Rivendell," Halbarad heard himself say again. He would not have been more shocked if Meneliel had told him his mother was the daughter of Gil-galad himself. "If she would have no man, however did she come to marry my father? He was as far from an Elf as any man who ever lived."
"Yes, you are right. An interesting man, your father. In my mind he was her cure. She sought out the hardest, most independent, stubborn, unsentimental cynic she could find as the antidote to her pain. How he came to be so is a story for another time, but it worked. It was a perfect marriage. They bolstered one another against the disappointments of life. His hardness passed into her, and for a time it must have seemed to her that she managed to bury her memories and weak longings and put them away forever. But it was then that the worst happened. Her greatest dream came true – for someone else."
"What dream was that?"
"Why, to walk the paths of Imladris under the patronage of Elrond, of course."
Halbarad's breath caught. "Oh, no. Gilraen and Aragorn."
"Yes. Arathorn was dead, and Gilraen and the baby were whisked away to Rivendell – to the life your mother had longed to have. To the life she desired more than anything to give a child of her own. It would be Gilraen's child who sat at Elrond's knee learning the ancient lore; Gilraen's child who painted and sang and read books and walked with the Eldar in gardens of splendor and grace. Nelaer nearly died from jealousy."
"Elrond would have been quite disappointed with my singing," Halbarad commented lamely. "Not to mention my painting. Why was I never told of this?"
"Let it never be said that the Dúnedain cannot keep a secret," Meneliel said with a soft chuckle. "It was none of your business, child. Your mother took care that her pain and yearning did not pass to you. Tell me –have you found yourself tempted by the charms of Rivendell?"
"No. It was like a beautiful dream that one wakes from to face the day; nothing more."
"You have your mother to thank for that."
It cast his mother in a light he had never considered, a light that would require much thought. But another thought occurred to him. "Is this why she avoided Gilraen?"
"She never said so. But there was no doubt that Gilraen's years in Rivendell left an imprint of grace and elegance on her. We all saw it, when she returned. I think your mother realized that Gilraen was blameless, and so, unable to control her jealousy, she chose to depart rather than cause strife. Be sparing in your judgment of her, Halbarad. The world is harsh and not all hearts are built to withstand it."
Halbarad remained sitting while Meneliel collected the cups. "Why are you telling me this now?"
Meneliel propped sturdy hands on her hips and studied him intently. "I'll just have to let you think about that."
The door swung open with a creak, and Brandol stepped inside, not bothering to wipe his boots. "Mother, Halbarad." He stared at them a moment, perplexed at finding them at the table nursing cups, but then he shook his head and jerked it in the direction of the main house. "I think you should both come."
Halbarad strode beside Brandol along the muddy lane. "Is he alone?"
"No, one of Elrond's sons came with him. He went to take care of the horses while Eirien took Aragorn into the house."
Meneliel was making for the house, so Halbarad went to the barn. There he found Elladan, draped in a damp cloak and struggling to unfasten his stallion's soaked girth strap. "Go into the house," Halbarad said, batting his icy hands aside. "Eirien will find you some dry clothes and something hot to eat." Elladan stepped back a few feet but went no further. Halbarad relieved Elladan's stallion of its tack while Brandol did the same for Daisy. Then he draped a dry blanket over the horse and turned to Elladan. "I didn't expect to see Aragorn for another few weeks. Is something wrong?"
The set of Elladan's jaw said that he had fully intended for Halbarad to not see Aragorn for another few weeks, either. "It was his decision to leave," he said simply.
Brandol thrust a forkful of hay in front of the stallion and wiped a trail of horse slobber onto his trousers. He looked uncertainly from the stone-faced Elladan to Halbarad. "Unless you need anything else…"
"Thank you, Brandol," Halbarad said without taking his eyes off Elladan. Brandol returned the curt nod and left. Halbarad crossed his arms. "What's going on?"
"I do not know." Elladan shrugged out of his cloak and draped it over a post. "He suddenly became insistent on visiting his mother's grave. We were quite unable to reason with him about it. Father thinks it had something to do with finding his father's trunk."
Elladan bent over to work the day's ride out of his legs. "Estel took Dudo up to the attic a few days ago, looking for some old books, and he happened upon a trunk of Arathorn's that was put up there after he died. There was nothing in it but some old clothes, but somehow the discovery seems to have troubled him deeply. He refused to talk about it to anyone, but insisted on leaving immediately to come here and see his mother's grave. Gandalf and Dudo were leaving the next day, anyway."
"This decision seems abrupt for him," Halbarad said. "He did not speak to me at all about Gilraen's grave when I was in Rivendell."
Elladan nodded. "Nor to me, until the day before yesterday. I realize that with the timing of his arrival and the unfortunate events that followed, he has not yet been able to visit the grave, but something seems wrong to me. Maybe he will talk to you now, Halbarad. So far, he has repelled all of our efforts to question him by emphatically reminding us that none of us has ever buried a mother." Elladan patted the stallion's neck absently as it grazed on the hay. "Father feels that finding his father's trunk might have been too much for Aragorn at this time – the old loss, re-awakened by his fresh grief. In any case, there is nothing more we can do. We are the ones, after all, who stole his grief from him so long ago, took from him his identity as Arathorn's son. Maybe it will help him to be with his own people for a while."
As he said this, Elladan's head sank toward his chest, the last words seeming to drain his strength. Halbarad laid a hesitant hand on his shoulder. He had never before seen Elladan in need of comfort. "You are his people, too," he said. "You always will be. He just needs time to rest."
"Maybe you are right," Elladan said. "But as things stand, the sooner I leave, the better."
Halbarad stooped to pick up Aragorn's pack. "You'll stay the night, at least?"
Elladan looked more uncomfortable than Halbarad had ever seen him. "No, I'm afraid not. I can stay only long enough to rest the horse. I promised to meet Elrohir and Gandalf at the Last Bridge."
"Come inside for a while, at least," Halbarad said. "Eat something, and dry your clothes."
"Very well," Elladan said.
Aragorn was sitting close to the fire, pale from the chill of the rain, wrapped in a thick blanket and looking to have been divested of a fair portion of his wet clothing by what means Halbarad chose not to explore. Dry socks were on his feet, a mug was cradled in his hands, and a towel that had obviously been used to dry his tousled head lay draped over his shoulders. His face was pinched and his nod to Halbarad was guarded; he looked ready to bolt. Odd, Halbarad thought, since according to Elladan he had fairly broken his neck to get here. Eirien was kneeling at the hearth, warming up a pot of leftover stew while surreptitiously watching Aragorn. Her brows were knit, and Halbarad guessed she found something she didn't like in the tautness of his cheekbones and the hollows beneath his eyes.
"Boots off!" Halbarad's mother barked from the pantry door.
Halting so fast that Elladan ran into him, Halbarad backed up and sat down on the bench by the door to remove his mud-caked boots. Elladan did the same without complaint, and Halbarad wondered if Elrond made his houseguests remove their dirty footwear at the door. His memory of his arrival the Last Homely House was too hazy to provide a clear recollection. Now obediently stocking-footed, Halbarad stood up and stepped into the room. His mother was still standing in the kitchen doorway, holding a plate of cheese and meat and looking as if she had just seen Elendil's ghost.
"Mae govannen, Elladan," his mother said.
"Mae govannen, Nelaer," Elladan said. "I trust you have been well."
"Halbarad," Eirien called, interrupting his startled gape, "would you please fill a flagon of wine from the cask in the pantry and get out some cups? Now?" To Elladan she directed a kinder look. "Would you like something dry to wear, Elladan? I'm sure we can find some clothes to fit you while yours dry by the fire."
"Thank you, my lady," he said with a slight smile, "but do not trouble yourself. I am comfortable enough for now, and I must be back on the road in a little while."
"Then at least let me hang up your cloak to dry." As Elladan nodded in acceptance and handed over his cloak, Halbarad went to find dry clothes to change into. As he passed his mother, he saw with shock that his mother was blushing.
"I think Aragorn is asleep already," Eirien said. "He looked like he needed it. Do you want the shutters open or closed?"
"Open," Halbarad answered. "I don't think it will rain any more tonight." Halbarad unstrapped his sword belt and sat down on the bed, throwing his trousers and shirt over the back of a chair.
"I wish we could have talked Elladan into staying the night."
"He can take care of himself." Probably better in the wild than in a houseful of crazy Dúnedain, Halbarad reckoned, considering this evening's revelations.
Eirien pulled her tunic over her head and picked at a loose thread. "It's just as well Falathren is gone since the roof's not finished on Gilraen's cottage anyway. I put fresh sheets on her bed for Aragorn."
"He'd have been fine on the floor in the great room," Halbarad said. "He didn't want you making a fuss over him."
"We can't let him sleep on the floor, Halbarad. He's not well yet, you can see it by looking at him. And Elladan says we're to make sure he doesn't try to carry anything heavier than a mug of beer in that hand for at least a month. Besides, he's the Chieftain of the Dúnedain; what would it look like if we had him sleeping on the floor?"
"He sleeps on the ground most of the time anyway."
"Not in my house, he doesn't. Elanor has been sleeping with your mother since Falathren left anyway, so it's not like he's putting anyone out of a bed." He watched her as she stood by the wardrobe and changed into a linen nightgown that hugged her chest. "I hope he can get some rest while he's here. He looks exhausted. And he's too thin."
"You always say that," Halbarad said. "He's just tired from the ride. He looks a far sight better than he did."
"He was quiet tonight. He looked troubled."
"Elladan says it's Gilraen's death."
"That's understandable. There's been no time for him to grieve her."
"Elladan thinks Arathorn's death is bothering him, too."
"How can that be? Arathorn's been dead for 75 years."
"I don't know. Don't worry; whatever it is, I'll get it out of him tomorrow."
"How did he hurt his hand?" Eirien asked, sitting down on the edge of the bed and unwinding her braid. "Did he go into the river, too?"
"No, he did not go into the river," he answered, reaching over and rubbing her back through her nightgown. "He ran into a little trouble in Bree. Did you know Brandol's son is courting our daughter?"
"Of course," she answered, pulling her feet up into bed.
"Don't you think it's too soon?"
"I think she deserves a chance at happiness."
"That's what Brandol said."
"Brandol is a wise man."
"I don't want to see her hurt again."
"You can't stop it."
He let his head fall back onto the pillow. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"How do you think I feel, every time you walk out that door?" She leaned over and kissed him. "It makes me feel better that you want to keep her from getting hurt."
He pulled her closer, letting her head settle in the hollow of his shoulder. He lay there, stroking her hair. "That went better than I expected tonight."
"My mother. I was afraid she'd say something insulting to Elladan or Aragorn, but she managed not to misbehave too badly, for once."
Eirien laughed and pulled his arm around her waist. "She's an opinionated old bird, but her bark is worse than her bite."
"Meneliel told me about her being in Rivendell as a girl," he said.
"Ah, I wondered why you were gone so long after you stormed out."
He cocked his head to look down at her. "How long have you known?"
"Since about six months after we got married. You were off in Fornost and your mother was being impossible. Meneliel found me by the riverbank, crying my eyes out."
"Why didn't you ever tell me?"
She brushed a finger along the stubble on his chin. "Because you never asked, darling."
"Women!" He nipped at the finger with his teeth. "I still can't imagine my mother, in Rivendell, wearing gowns and writing poetry. I'll bet that's where Húrin gets it, and all these years I've been blaming your side of the family." Something else was niggling at him, though, something he should have noticed but didn't. Something his mother had said… "She knew him!" he said finally, shooting upright. "She knew him!"
"Whom did she know?"
Eirien reached up and twirled a lock of his hair playfully. "Of course she knew him, Halbarad; everyone knows him."
"No," he corrected, twisting to look at her. "Everyone knows them." Smiling in triumph, he caught her playful fingers and squeezed. "Everyone knows the brothers Elrondion, but few can tell them apart even when they are standing side by side. Fewer still can put a name to one without the other present, in a dimly lit room. She did."
"Your mother is a more perceptive woman than you give her credit for, Halbarad."
Halbarad knew female evasiveness when he heard it. With effort, he ignored the hand that was now smoothing the hair back from his temples. "She was blushing, too," he said. "I think she fancies him. Oh, sweet Valar." He plopped backwards onto the pillow. "My mother fancies Elladan."
Eirien laughed lightly and turned away. "Good night, Halbarad."
He grabbed her from behind and pulled her back before she could blow out the candle on the bedside table. He rolled on top of her, feeling the warm softness of her chest. "She does, doesn't she?"
"Fancies Elladan. Don't be evasive."
Eirien was trying not to smile, but the tiny crinkles at the corners of her eyes gave her away. "Are you interrogating me now, Ranger?" she asked mischievously.
"Yes," he said. "And I'll use any means necessary."
"Mmm," she contemplated, "that sounds intriguing." He waited patiently, with her wrists clasped loosely in his hands and his chest pressing against hers, trying not to smile. "All right," she whispered. "I'll tell you a secret."
He loosened his grip ever so slightly. "Start talking."
"Come closer." He did, and she whispered in his ear.
"What!" he yelped.
"You heard me," she said.
"What do you mean, everyone?"
She looked unrepentant. "You asked."
"I'm shocked at all you women."
"As if every man who ever laid eyes on Arwen Undomiel hasn't fancied her."
"That's not fair. She's the very likeness of Lúthien. And I would only fancy her if you weren't in the room."
"Right." She cocked an eyebrow at him and licked her lips. "Of course, the right man could make me forget I ever laid eyes on a certain Peredhel."
He shifted, allowing her to feel the weight of his body pressing on hers from their chests all the way down to their intertwined feet. "I'm your man."
She smiled the smile that she saved just for him. "You always have been."
Halbarad woke up happy. It was late. The sun was already up, slanting through the open window and onto his eyelids. Without opening them, he reached across the bed, frowning when he found it empty. Of course, Eirien would be up, seeing to the fire, to breakfast, to the animals. He should be, too. He lay there half-dozing, putting it together eventually that the sun shining meant he could get the roof on Gilraen's cottage finally. Well, that was good, he reckoned, since Aragorn was evidently going to be spending some time here. He stretched, enjoying the softness of the bed and the absence of an urgent reason to get out of it.
Eirien. "Mmmm," he answered sleepily, reaching toward her with his eyes closed, brushing his hand first against her hip – clad in sensible woolen day-wear—and then her wrist. He pulled it towards him. If Elanor wasn't up yet, they might have time for another --
"Halbarad, wake up."
He poked an eyelid open and let loose the captured wrist. "What?"
She was standing over him stark-eyed and stiff-lipped, impatient at his lingering drowsiness. "He's gone. Get up."
He levered himself up on his elbows. "Who's gone?"
Groaning, he swung his feet to the floor and strode to Falathren's room. The bed had been slept in, but Aragorn's pack was gone.
"I checked the barn. The horse is gone, too."
"Go see if anyone saw him leave." Halbarad went back to the bedroom and got dressed. Gilraen's grave was a half-mile away. He wouldn't have needed a horse for that. Or his pack. He got his own from the back room and started stuffing food into it, cursing himself. The haunted look on Aragorn's face last night spelled trouble; he should have seen it.
Eirien was back, shaking her head. "No one saw him. He must have left well before dawn."
And not by the trail, either, or the sentries would have seen him. "That's all right," Halbarad said, strapping on his swordbelt. "I can track him."
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