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His brooding inspection of the room left him decidedly unimpressed. Chill, despite the fire that turned the air into a blue smoky haze. Gaps in the wooden walls were stuffed with straw and mud in an attempt to keep the winter outside – attempts that were apparently only partially successful, for draughts froze any part of him that was not wrapped in layers of heavy wool. Dimly lit by the fire and a few smelly lamps fuelled by animal fat of some kind, it felt almost cave-like. The only thing that was in the least bit appealing was the fragrance coming from the pot over the fire – and recent experience of his own cooking had led him to believe that even that could be deceptive.
And the people… He tried not to let his disillusion show. These were not the glorious heirs of Númenor of whom his lessons had spoken. Hard-worn, tired, hungry, they worked all the hours of daylight just to survive. So few men and those elderly – or war-damaged. The women – he looked at them out of the corner of his eye … it was hard to credit that his mother was one of them. They looked strong, certainly – they would need to be to claw life out of this unco-operative land and raise children to send off to a never-ending war. But many seemed so old! The hair was streaked with grey, their bodies stiff and their hands swollen and raw-looking. Gilraen’s hair gleamed dark and lustrous – almost elven, but with a vigour that elven hair lacked – and her tall figure was slender and adorned in fine linens, embroidered by her own hands. Her skin was pale and unlined – and she drifted through the endless days in Imladris like a queen.
He suddenly felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. He wanted to go home – home where life was familiar and comfortable – home to the twins’ teasing and Elrond’s cool amusement, to Glorfindel’s endless experience – home to the kitchens and stables and orchards. He ruthlessly suppressed a vision of her – of his Lúthien, for whom he would chance Angband – she was no part of what he yearned for now.
‘It’s not much, but it’s home.’ Halbarad came and sat next to the gloomy young man.
He sounded content, Estel marvelled. How could anyone who had seen Imladris be happy to ride forth from the sheltered valley to return to this?
He grunted. There were no words he could think of that would not offend one who had shown willingness to befriend him.
‘It’s not the best time of year to visit for the first time,’ Halbarad said. ‘And it’s been a bad winter – long and bitter – but the spring rains will soon have the meadows greening up, and the gardens will be sprouting.’ He looked at the blanket-wrapped bundle with some concern. ‘How are you?’ he asked.
‘I am fine.’ Estel had no wish to discuss with Halbarad the incident that had ended up with him on his backside in a stream swollen by snow-melt. Bad enough to feel a total fool once, but since then half the female population of the Angle had been coming to offer him hot drinks and sympathy. There was not a single one he would look at twice – gawky, ungainly, harsh-voiced, plain girls, the lot of them. And every one of them looking at him with interest – Gilraen’s son, Arathorn’s heir, brought up by the elves, different and appealing. Their lost chieftain. This person called Aragorn. He closed his eyes. Perhaps, if he worked hard enough, he could shut out the world and think himself home.
‘You’ll be feeling better soon,’ Halbarad said optimistically. ‘It’s only a cold.’
The light dimmed as a girl crossed between him and the fire, two wooden bowls in her hands. She presented him with one and turned to smile at Halbarad as she offered him the second. ‘Here, see if you can get him to eat,’ she said. ‘He turns his nose up at anything we offer him.’
Halbarad grinned at her. ‘I don’t know what you think I can do,’ he said. His free hand caught at hers as she turned away. ‘What’s my reward if I succeed?’
She laughed. ‘We’ll talk about that later,’ she suggested. ‘I’ll be in the barn come milking time – we might have a chance to exchange a few words in private.’
Halbarad watched her as she walked away, his mouth half-open, before turning to his friend. ‘Eat,’ he said briskly. ‘You heard her – that’s the most she’s ever agreed to, and I’m not giving her the chance to change her mind.’
‘I am not hungry.’ Estel stared at the stodgy contents of the bowl. A few root vegetables and pulses enhanced by a small amount of smoked pork. Unappealing at the best of times and at the moment he felt as if it would choke him.
‘Do you want me to feed it to you?’ Halbarad sounded cheerfully threatening. ‘It’ll hardly increase your standing – but I’ll do it if I have to.’
He would, too, Estel thought resentfully. No dignity. He liked it in him – most of the time – but he was the one born to be chieftain here and he could change his mind. He thought of ordering Halbarad to leave him alone, but – he glanced at the broad-shouldered young man – he was fairly certain that he would not be obeyed. Estel dug a spoonful of the thick stew from the bowl and took a mouthful. It was surprisingly savoury, and the second spoonful went down rather more easily.
‘You could do with a mug of ale to moisten your throat,’ Halbarad suggested.
‘I do not like ale.’
Halbarad shook his head. ‘That won’t do,’ he said. ‘We can’t have you supping tea like a girl – or wine like an elf. Ale is a proper man’s drink.’
‘Then perhaps I am not a proper man.’
Halbarad seemed to hear something more in his reply than he had meant to reveal.
‘You’re man enough,’ he said gruffly, as if this was not what he considered an appropriate topic of conversation between warriors. ‘You’ve just yet to learn that about yourself.’ He glanced at the young man. ‘You’ve grown up thinking of elves of family and Rivendell as home – it’s hardly surprising that you’re less than sure of yourself. Isolating you there seems to me to have been a pretty stupid idea, but then no-one has ever accused me of being clever. Now this…’ He waved airily to the room that managed to be both stuffy and cold at the same time. ‘This is where you should have been raised. Among your own kind.’
Estel found himself scraping the last traces of food from the edges of the bowl. He focused his attention on the task, refusing to think of the softly-lit halls of the elven haven, the silver tableware, the linen cloths, the tall, tranquil, melodious-voiced, all-knowingpeople. ‘I do not know,’ he said. ‘I understand why it was done as it was.’ He continued to chase the last lentil. ‘But I no longer know if I will ever feel at home anywhere.’ He looked up at Halbarad, his eyes dark and brooding. ‘I think in Sindarin,’ he said. ‘I only have to open my mouth and everyone knows I am an outsider. I had, until I came here, never met a woman of the Dúnedain other than my mother. I had never seen a child of my people. Now – everyone watches me and gossips about me and waits for me to fail! How can I possibly consider myself my father’s heir? How can I possibly be who I am supposed to be?’
‘Well – that’s easy.’ Halbarad finished the last of his stew. ‘You don’t get a choice. You are who you are. And it is our duty – and our pride, too – to support you all the way. It’s not difficult, being a man. Because it’s what you are – you’d make a mighty poor elf, Aragorn, however much you’ve learned from Elrond’s sons.’ He looked meditatively at the rather bedraggled young man. ‘I daresay you’ve learnt a lot of things there that won’t be much use to you now, but you know … you know the history without the substance. What we have…’ Again he indicated the room, but Estel understood that this time the gesture encompassed rather more. ‘It might not be much – it might not seem as glorious as the halls of Rivendell – but it’s ours. We work for it, we fight for it, we’ll die for it if we have to – and we’ll pass that determination and duty on to our children for as long as we can. We might not know as much as the elves, but we are the heirs of Númenor – and we won’t let anyone – not elf, nor orc, nor lesser men – take that from us.’
A slight smile cracked the façade of gloom that had been hovering over Isildur’s heir. ‘You are not so different from the elves, you know. They might have longer – but their aims are much the same.’
‘I don’t know about that.’ Halbarad shrugged. Elves were all very well, but he really didn’t want to have too much to do with them. Anything that lived for ever was bound to look at things rather differently. He hesitated. ‘You need to stop longing to go back,’ he said finally. ‘You can’t. No-one can. Rivendell is your childhood, it’s true, but your future is what draws you now. You can’t get where you have to go if you’re not whole-hearted about it.’
Estel’s smile widened a little. ‘And you say you’re not clever?’ he commented.
Halbarad shrugged. ‘Ask anyone. They’ll tell you I have a very simple way of looking at things.’ He took the young chieftain’s bowl and stood up. ‘And now, if you’ll excuse me,’ he said, ‘I have an appointment in the barn.’ He grinned. ‘And it’s with someone who doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
The blankets felt warm about him and Estel loosened them a bit. The drifts of wood smoke that scented the air reminded him of hunting expeditions, when the only thing he had had to worry about was whether his arrows would fly straight, the days before he had been old enough to worry about being a man among elves, before the burden of his ancestry had been dropped on his head to weigh him down. A little girl, slight and dark, looked up at him from where she was playing with a baby and smiled. It was rather pleasant to be somewhere where children offered a promise for the future, he thought. He had missed that in growing up as the only youngster in a household of elves, but he thought he could see why his brothers had enjoyed having him around.
Halbarad was right, he thought. If he looked at this place without comparing it to Imladris, it was not so bad. It was home to his kin – people who cared for each other and strove to maintain the faith – and that faith was bound up in him. It would be churlish of him to discount that because he hankered for something he could never have. Imladris was … was a dream of timeless perfection. But it should not be his dream. His destiny lay at the far end of a very different path. His head drooped and he snatched himself back to wakefulness. And, if he was not much mistaken, he would find himself looking back to these times with the same wistfulness he currently experienced in thinking of contented evenings in the Hall of Fire. For something told him that the path ahead of him would be long and lonely – and not even Halbarad would be able to tread it at his side. His head dropped again and bobbed uncertainly as a rather fruity snore suggested that he had, for now, abandoned his attempts to come to terms with fate in favour of taking a nap.
‘Is he all right?’ The girl’s voice penetrated his doze, but was not enough to make him raise his head.
‘All right?’ He could hear Halbarad’s smile. ‘He’ll do,’ he said.
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