2. Part 1 - Chapter 1
The journey was more fearful than dangerous. In his letter, Arathorn cautioned Gilraen to travel with discretion and haste to Elrond's house, and his warning was not forgotten even if the road seemed safe.
During her short life, Gilraen had not made a habit of leaving the Angle, for any reason; to leave it for the first time and for an indefinite duration seemed strangely fitting. This relocation would not be as a change of the weather, just as she had not come and gone with the passing seasons through these parts. If I return eventually, will Rivendell seem as an eclipse that has passed, or will the shadow lie ahead?
They reached the Ford of Bruinen after two days without incident. Here Gilbarad and Artanal planned to turn back, leaving Elrond's sons alone to escort Gilraen onward to Rivendell. But first they agreed to camp together. Having a young child along had caused many unavoidable delays, and they rode hard whenever possible to make up for lost time. In the end, such erratic pacing proved more tiring for everyone.
It was evening when the party dismounted. As the horses drank from the river, Gilbarad spoke a thought that had been brewing in his mind, "If all are willing, I suggest we cross the Ford and ride on for a little while, until nightfall."
Artanal wondered if Gilraen could hear them from the nearby thicket, where she had taken Aragorn to tend to his needs – and if so, what she would think of Gilbarad's proposal.
Elladan replied, "Our crossing will not go unnoticed, and if we cross now only to camp in an hour, we would be expected sooner than we would arrive. I prefer not to make anyone wonder at our belatedness, fearing us delayed by ill chance. Besides, here we will be just as safe, tonight."
When Gilraen returned, the camp was already being ordered. She noticed the twins had paused to speak together; it appeared that they were disagreeing on some matter, though civilly. Discreet in turn, she steered Aragorn along the water's edge.
"We have made good time, all considered," said one of Elrond's sons, his tone mildly defensive. Gilraen had not heard what was said before, and aught that followed was spoken even lower. Kneeling at the riverbank she bathed her hands, and bid Aragorn -repeatedly- to do the same.
Behind her came Artanal, and he sat beside Aragorn, who greeted him enthusiastically, hoping to engage in the tussling games Artanal would usually play. But the man remained somber, and she saw Aragorn's confusion – since riding and camping brought him such joy, how could he understand why everyone was so stern?
"Are you certain, cousin?" Artanal asked. "The brethren are exceptional riders, and they surely know the way better than any. But," here he chuckled, shaking his head, "well, they are strange; perhaps more so to those who do not know them well. Gilbarad and I are willing to continue, even unto Elrond's house."
"My mind is unchanged. Valcirion will come as emissary on behalf of the Angle whether you accompany me further or not. Better that you return now and wait for him, tell him all you know when he arrives. Thereafter he may follow in his own time; I am the only one in need of haste." Political affairs had seldom concerned her previously, and presently all her thoughts were bent towards her son. Valcirion is best suited to handle the Rangers' relations with Rivendell. All I should see to is my son – that was all Arathorn bade me to do.
Artanal looked silently upon her, grim of face as a lady so fair should never be, and as Arathorn's young wife had never been before. He sighed, thinking on the former Chieftain's requests, and that his last wishes had caused his widow such distress. But he came back to himself as Aragorn ploughed into his lap, giggling and tickling. "Easy, boy, easy!" he laughed. "Go and see Gilbarad a while – I hear he needs help finding firewood. Best you run!"
Aragorn was happy to comply, his energy limitless after sitting still for so many hours. Gilraen watched him go to see that he indeed met Gilbarad by the camp and did not wander instead.
"He is a good lad," Artanal remarked, seeing how Gilraen's gaze lingered. "He will grow to be a good man – like his father." Gilraen did not respond, and Artanal sighed again. He could track an orc through a body of shallow water, but he could not comfort this woman whom he had known for all of her life. "Expect Valcirion by next month, I reckon. Once the tidings reach him at Sarn Ford he will likely depart at once, and I doubt he will linger at home ere setting out for Rivendell." He stood, pulling his hood up against the chill breeze. "I will plan to accompany him then, since I am not to accompany you now. And I will bring more of your belongings, or arrange to have them taken if duty bars me from traveling myself."
"I thank you," Gilraen said, though she did not deeply care for her things anymore.
Artanal breathed in the cool air, and memories of Gilraen's destination almost made him envious. The soft beds, warm halls, and nourishing fare of the Last Homely House was a luxury he had had the pleasure of knowing on but one occasion in his life. "It is a place like no other." Gilraen looked up at him. "A place like you deserve." He began to walk towards camp, but paused of a sudden. "I would take your answer to Gilbarad as well, if you like – doubtless he will question you again if I do not." Peering over his shoulder, he grinned. "In the name of Gilbarad, are you certain?"
She smiled without sharing in his mirth. "I am."
He nodded, his look resigned; she knew he would not ask again. Gesturing behind himself, he said, "I know they have been reserved, but it is not always so; and if you can grow used to the sons of Elrond their sire will seem far less daunting. The Elves, however, are a puzzle I have yet to solve. I wish you well in that trial," his light tone faded to sincerity, "and in all else."
As he left, Gilraen's eyes were drawn to the campsite he approached. Aragorn raced from Gilbarad to meet Artanal, making another attempt to initiate a wrestling game. Behind them, Elladan toiled over a cooking fire, quickly bringing it to a robust flame with expert manipulation, then just as promptly he began to fix a meal. Elrohir tended each of the horses in turn; though his motions were brisk and methodical, his fondness was plain to see, and he treated no horse above another.
Not for the first time, Gilraen noted that though their bearing was aristocratic, the sons of Elrond did not shun menial duties, and this she respected. But they had seemed aloof throughout the journey, conversing little save in necessity, always tense as if listening. Even now they appear somehow separate from the others, like they do not belong.
She looked again at the Rangers, both of whom she had known since her childhood, and then at her son, comfortable with the men he knew and trusted. Aragorn was a gregarious boy by nature, but he preferred the care and attention of those most familiar to him. On this she pondered, as she glanced at the sky. Once Artanal and Gilbarad are gone, I will not be the only one thrust into the company of strangers.
Clouds were coming swiftly from the south, carried on a high wind. Darkness would fall soon; already the sun had descended below the trees nearby, leaving the camp in murky shadow. She rose from the damp and stony ground, uncertain.