3. Part 1 - Chapter 2
With the morning came partings and well-wishes. Again Artanal assured his cousin that he would endeavor to accompany Valcirion upon his visit to Elrond's house. Gilraen believed they would meet again, but the leave-taking was scarcely easier for it. Gilbarad vowed to visit if and when he could, remembering the friendship he shared with Arathorn – but Gilraen doubted the opportunity would present itself. He had a young daughter, and his wife was heavy with their second child. Once the ranks officially shifted in the wake of Arathorn's death, his experience and seniority would make him a likely candidate for promotion. No, Gilbarad is not a man destined to have time for leisurely affairs.
The Rangers departed under first light, after partaking of a simple meal. Aragorn waved as they rode off, amazed when they disappeared from view so quickly, blending amid the shadows not to emerge in sight again. He clapped with delight that faded when they did not return, laughing and happy to teach him their trick. "Why?" he asked his mother, but she just shook her head, unable to answer. His mind was not the only one which turned to another beloved man who had not returned.
The brethren wasted no time in their own preparation. Elladan was quick to organize their supplies as his brother equipped the horses once more, speaking to them soothingly. There was little left for Gilraen to do -just as it had been for the duration of the journey- and she waited aside with Aragorn.
Soon Elrohir approached the child where he had been overturning stones to see what crawled beneath. "Hullo, Aragorn; what have you found there?" Gilraen came to Elrohir's side, even as Elladan approached his brother from behind – the bandage on his thigh assured her she did not have the twins confused.
"Ai, that is a treasure!" Elrohir laughed, seeing what Aragorn held with such pride.
Aragorn came to his mother, eager to show her his discovery: a creature of more legs than aught else, and none too still. "Mine," the boy said, eyes wide and admiring as he gazed at the wiggling insect. Wincing, Gilraen sought for some way to part her son from the thing peacefully, lest she be forced to ride with it.
Elrohir kneeled. "But you would not keep him from his family, would you?" He pointed at the rocks, then to the Bruinen; Aragorn's eyes followed the line his finger drew. "This side of the river is his home, and while we may cross the water safely, he cannot swim! If we carry him over, he shall never return." Very fond of his pet, the boy was reluctant to sympathize, until Elrohir added, "I fear he would miss his mother dearly."
Aragorn squatted, letting the bug crawl from his hand. He waved to it and stood, shifting subtly to be closer to Elrohir, then looking up raised his arms in a silent request. With a smile Elrohir obeyed, picking the child up. Glancing sidelong, Gilraen saw that Elladan watched his brother intently, but then his eyes meet hers. "Smart lad, to know the importance of such things," he said, and nodded to the horses. "Come, the morning presses on, and so should we."
"Then the Ford is safe to cross?" she asked, thinking the question foolish, but one that had been troubling her. Strange tales were told of the Bruinen and its unpredictable ferocity.
From behind came Elrohir's lighthearted reply, "The river of this valley is under the power of Elrond Halfelven, lady. Seldom does it spirit aught away on accident – or without ceremony!"
Elladan's answer was more reassuring as he turned to her by Malfrey's side. "Have no fear, for we are expected, and regardless the crossing is safe."
Gilraen accepted his hand and mounted; as she settled, Elrohir came to lift Aragorn into the saddle. "Hup! Hup!" The child bounced, trying to command the horse, but his mother's attention fell elsewhere. She watched, perplexed, as Elladan gripped his brother's arm, demanding eye contact. Some wordless exchange was had, all in the span of a second, and they parted swiftly. Elrohir ducked away and walked to his horse, mounting at once, while Elladan seemed oblivious that the encounter had been observed, and casually summoned his steed to him.
"Hup! Hup!" Aragorn had grown frustrated by Malfrey's perceived noncompliance, and by tightening the reins Gilraen gave an order the horse could understand. Malfrey followed behind Elladan's steed, while Elrohir led Palaber in the rear. Elladan paused briefly before treading into the water, his chin tipped as if smelling the air, then he pressed onward, his horse unperturbed by the current. Over Aragorn's squeals of delight and the splashing of water rang Elrohir's laughter, light as falling snow.
The going was pleasant as the hours passed, and under the cloudless sky even the early winter seemed less cold, its chill wind sun-kissed until it tingled upon the face, welcome and refreshing. Though no song was sung amid the escort, and little conversation passed between them, the further they walked the lighter Gilraen's heart felt, and the more assured she was of her path.
At a time in the late morning Elladan halted his steed and peered around, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword – either in alarm or habit, Gilraen could not tell. After a moment his manner relaxed. "All is well," he said, and dismounted.
"I cannot tell... is it Glorfindel?" questioned Elrohir, sliding down from his horse.
"Nay." Elladan seemed to deliberate. "Ronduir, most likely." Coming beside Gilraen, he gestured to the surrounding woods. "You could say Rivendell has Rangers of its own, lady." After lowering Aragorn to the ground he helped Gilraen dismount. "I go now to speak with a warden of the valley. You may rest here a while."
In an instant he was lost to sight among the trees. Gilraen moved quickly to keep Aragorn from racing along after him. The boy fussed, annoyed by his mother's meddling, but was contented when Elrohir offered him an apple – which, according to the accompanying tale, was enchanted. He skipped about as he ate his supposedly magic fruit, stopping to watch the occasional squirrel scamper by.
Gilraen joined Elrohir by the side of the path when he paused suddenly, his gaze reaching far into the forest. "Is there aught amiss?"
"Nay." Looking to her he smiled, and she could not help but feel comforted. "Here we are safe, have no fear – this valley is well guarded."
It seemed to Gilraen that he would have said more, but something swayed him; she wondered at that, and on other things. Elrohir stood tall as an Elf, built sturdy as a man, and though his bearing was stern, his smile was honest, and surfaced more often than his brother's. But their faces were exactly matched, comely as princes, wise as kings. She decided to pursue a conversation with this Elf-man, remembering Artanal's words.
"What can you tell me of Rivendell, lord? I have only known a casual way of living, as yet; life at court is a thing of history books among my folk."
Elrohir waved a hand dismissively. "The Lord of Rivendell does not necessitate formalities, and neither do I. Call me Elrohir, please." His tone was light, "Or call me Elladan, and you will be nearly correct."
Having made that mistake before, Gilraen blushed a bit. "I admit that I might not have known to whom I speak, for your look and garb is identical to me, save that your brother wears a bandage above his knee, and you do not." He seemed amused at that, but not surprised – doubtless others had used similar signs to differentiate the twins. "Does it vex you to be mistaken for another?"
"Nay, and you are clever to have marked his binding. But we may not be similarly clothed in Rivendell, and his wound will soon be healed. Look then for this instead." He held out his left hand. A bronze band shone around his thumb, engraved like a rolling wave that chases in a circle.
"That is beautiful," said Gilraen. Her thoughts turned to the ring Arathorn had given her. Do those of Elf-kind exchange rings as a symbol of marriage or betrothal? "Is it… has it some meaning?"
Again Elrohir seemed to waver. "Not as such. But it is dear to me; it was a gift." His gaze lingered over the ornament, but when his hand fell away he blinked and all concern left his features.
Aragorn came over then to show his mother a large beetle he had caught. Gilraen endeavored to conceal her grimace of distaste, while Elrohir knelt down, interested. "Ah, here is a very busy fellow this time of year!" He went on to explain the characteristics of that particular species. Aragorn listened, fascinated – but once the tale was told he ran to replace the creature upon its path, searching immediately for something else.
Gilraen said smiling, "I can tell that my son is fond of you. Consider it a compliment in that he does not introduce his bugs to just anyone."
Elrohir nodded. "Then I am honoured."
She ventured further, "It seems that you have the familiarity of one used to children, lord. May I ask: do you have any of your own?"
"Elrohir. And… no." Meeting her gaze, it seemed like he would have continued, but his brother returned in that moment, distracting him.
Elladan was of a lighter mood now, obvious at first glance. "Well met!" he said, picking Aragorn up as he neared the horses. "All is well, according to Ronduir. Let us ride on! We can water our horses from the Silverstream." He sat Aragorn upon Malfrey, standing beside the horse until Gilraen came.
"The Silverstream is just that," Elrohir was explaining, "a brook that flows over white stones; it shimmers as steel under the light of stars or sun. We will find it crossing a small glade, an hour from here."
"An hour!" Elladan scoffed, unbelieving. He helped Gilraen to mount, then leapt upon his steed. "An hour for you, perhaps, during spring. Not under these conditions: horses unfamiliar with the way, some tired from our hard riding to and from the north, winter frost upon the shaded patches of our trail, and..."
Elrohir was no longer listening as his brother spoke on, telling Gilraen about the virtues of their course, and other things lost upon Elrohir as he fell lightly asleep.
"So there is another way than this?"
"There are many ways. As I said, they are swifter, but more difficult to tread. We have already passed three crossroads, though perhaps your eyes cannot see them." He seemed to check himself. "That is, you do not know what to look for."
This was not the first time Gilraen had heard talk regarding the speed of their progress. "I fear my inexperience has slowed us." Since Aragorn was born, and for months before, she had rarely gone riding.
"We have made good time, all considered."
By the sound of his voice, Gilraen recognized Elladan had been the one to speak those same words the night before. And he did not sound fond of repeating himself. I may not need Elrohir's ring to tell these two apart, if their moods remain so dissimilar.
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