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A Bird Flies Out  by Suzelle

A/N: My everlasting thanks to Salvage, for once again beta'ing for a fandom she's not even in.

***

T.A. 2943

There was almost half a foot of snow on the ground already, and Nethril nearly slipped and fell twice on her barreling run down to the training grounds, where she knew her grandfather to be. Finally she skidded to a stop just before the fence of the practice ring, where Dírhael stood and watched two boys face off with wooden swords.

“Ada Dírhael!” she called out, clutching one of the fence posts to steady herself. He turned to look at her in surprise, and the boys he had been supervising dropped their swords to the ground. “Elves…there are elves riding towards the gate!”

Dírhael frowned in confusion. “Not the peredhil, surely?”

Nethril shook her head. Though she’d never spoken to them herself, the sons of Elrond had come by the Angle enough times that she trusted herself to recognize them, even from a distance. “One of them was blonde, and the other two were women…”

Other men in the training grounds had stopped to listen to her tale, and she caught Halbarad out of the corner of her eye, weaving his way through the scattered group to stand next to Dírhael.

“Women of the Firstborn?” Another Ranger’s eyes had widened in disbelief. “At this time of year?”

Nethril shrugged. “One of them was wounded, I think. She wasn’t riding her own horse, they had the third one on a lead behind them…”

Dírhael was wearing a strange expression, one that almost frightened Nethril in its intensity. “Nethril…are you sure the women were both Elves? Quite sure?”

“Who else could they be? All three of them had clothes finer than anything I’ve ever seen, and their horses were too. Though, I guess the second horse looked like it could have been one of ours…”

She did not get a chance to finish her musings, for Dírhael had taken off at a dead run towards the gates. She watched him go, her confusion only deepening, and turned back towards Halbarad, who frowned as he watched their grandfather run. “Halbarad, what is it?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, and started up the path. “But I doubt anything good.”

She sighed and trailed back after him, struggling to keep up with his long strides after her mad dash from the wall. She massaged a stitch in her side, and her older brother turned to wait for her. His mouth quirked upward into a crooked smile, the one he adopted when he was trying to pretend nothing was wrong.   

“Up on the ramparts again, eh? Which sentries were you ogling after this time?”

“None, Halbarad,” Nethril rolled her eyes. “And if we were, it’d be none of your business.”

“Was Mellaer there?” Halbarad attempted to keep his tone light, but he couldn’t fool his sister. Nethril fought the urge to smack him on the arm and settled for elbowing him gently towards the edge of the path.

“Hal, if you want her, you have to tell her yourself! Not go dancing with other girls at festivals and acting like a jealous cur every time she so much as looks at Hador.”

“I’m not—“ Halbarad cut himself short at the sight of the small crowd that had gathered near the front gates, eyes wide. Two men stood in front of Nethril, blocking her view, and weaved her way in between them to try and get closer to the front. Standing on tiptoe, she could see the three riders had all dismounted from their horses, and one of the women leaned heavily against the tall, blonde Elf, her face pale and drawn. A sentry called for someone to fetch Ivorwen, and Nethril saw Mellaer dash toward the healer’s cottage. The blonde Elf followed, supporting his limping companion down the path. 

Another sentry began to shoo the crowd away, calling for the people to disperse, but Nethril remained, hoping to get a better glimpse of the third rider, who now stood facing Dírhael. The hood of her traveling cloak was pulled up, but Nethril could still make out wavy brown hair and grey eyes that were far too human to belong to an Elf. There was something familiar about the way she carried herself, and Nethril knew she had seen her face before. Her heart pounded in her chest as she tried to remember when she had seen the strange woman before—but no, that would mean…

Nethril couldn’t hear what it was Dírhael asked of the woman, nor what she answered, but she could hear the heavy emotion carried in both their voices. Suddenly, Dírhael’s eyes filled with tears, and he let out a choked sob before the two laughed and embraced. Nethril’s throat tightened at the sight—she had never seen her grandfather cry before.

“Aunt Gilraen.” Halbarad’s astonished voice echoed in her ear. “That’s Aunt Gilraen.”

***

Dírhael led his daughter quickly down the path towards the Chieftain’s house, doing his best, Nethril was sure, to ignore the startled murmurs and muted gasps from those who remained at the front gates. So she tried not take it personally when he failed to catch her eye, or when Halbarad placed a hand on her shoulder to keep her from following them down the path.

“Let them be, Nethril,” he murmured. “It’s Chieftain’s business, not ours.”

“I know that.” It came out sounding more childish than she’d meant, and she drew in a deep breath. “I just thought…Halbarad, I thought she was…”

Halbarad stared down the path. “We all did. But if…”

One of the Rangers who had followed them up the path called out to Halbarad and beckoned him over. He sighed, and turned to take Nethril gently by the shoulders once more.

“Listen, don’t go running home to tell Mama about this, all right? Best she hears it from one of them, once everything’s been sorted out.”

Nethril stared back up at him in disbelief. There was always an unspoken pact between the two of them to take care of their mother, guard her against the worst of their mischief, but this seemed to be taking things too far. “What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Sit in front of a loom and pretend nothing has happened? 

“You can pick up those nails you keep promising me from the blacksmith!” His look of concern finally faded into a grin, and he winked at her before he turned to follow the other Rangers back to the training grounds. “Not that you need an excuse to visit Isilmë…”

She kicked a bit of snow after him, but she smiled in spite of herself as she watched him go. She was glad for the few occasions her brother’s old sense of humor still shone through. Ever since he’d been made a full Ranger, three months after his nineteenth birthday, he’d been full of an uncharacteristic earnestness and need to prove himself that baffled his younger sister. He teased her far less, but she’d almost welcome that if it meant a return of the old, boisterous Halbarad. Life in the Angle was grim enough.

Gossip traveled fast in the Angle, and Nethril knew by the time she reached the blacksmith’s shop, her best friend Isilmë would already have heard the news. Indeed, when she opened the door to the shop, the wind blowing her hair and bits of snow in, Mellaer and Beleth were already there, rubbing their hands together to warm up and standing as close as they could to the forge. Isilmë stood before an anvil, her hair pushed back and a thick apron around her waist, but her hammer lay forgotten on the anvil, and she stared intently at Mellaer as she spoke.

“…I’ve never seen Mistress Ivorwen so overcome, when he told her he came with the Lady Gilraen. I thought they might need to get Rían to come do the healing instead, but she collected herself in time.”

“Is she going to be all right?” Nethril asked. “The lady Elf?”

Mellaer nodded. “I think so. She took an arrow to the side, but it looked like it missed any vital parts. And they didn’t need me, which is always good.”

Nethril nodded, swallowing hard against the queasiness that still came to her whenever she thought of the houses of healing. She and Mellaer had started their apprenticeships to Ivorwen together, but Nethril had given up after only a year and a half, after seeing a Ranger gored open by a warg and bleed out on the healers’ floor. She always felt a bit small next to her friend, who had continued in spite of the death and hardship, but she admired Mellaer all the more fiercely for it. 

“The Chieftain’s widow, ambushed on her return to us.” Beleth looked faintly ill. “Bleak tidings for Mettarë.”

“Not necessarily,” Mellaer countered. “It’s not uncommon, orcs on the road this time of year…”

Nethril listened to her friends speculate, but her thoughts were half in the past, other old faces resurfacing in her mind’s eye—her Uncle Arathorn, her baby cousin Aragorn, and her own father, Dirlaeg, slain by trolls when she was only three. She had a better memory of Arathorn’s death three years later, could still remember clutching her mother’s hand and looking up at the solemn, stricken faces of the people at his burial. Aunt Gilraen had vanished with Aragorn soon after, and Nethril quickly learned not to ask about it.

“Nethril?” Isilmë’s voice broke through her reverie, and she looked up to see that her friend’s eyes were narrowed in concern. “Did she say anything about the Heir? Is he alive?”

Nethril bit her lip and shrugged. “She didn’t say anything. Not to me, at least. She and Ada Dírhael went straight to see Lady Adanel at the Chieftain’s house.”

“He’s dead,” Beleth said. “He must be, right? She’d have no reason to return here without him.”

“You can find out soon enough, can’t you, Nethril?” Mellaer looked at her in earnest. “They’re your family, after all.”

“Yes, but I’m not—“

A blast of cold air whipped through the shop, and Nethril turned to see a tall, blonde head poking in through the door. The male Elf from the gates closed the door quickly behind him, and glanced around the shop with a curious expression that sat oddly on his stern, noble face.

“Excuse me. Is this Huor the smith’s forge?”

Nethril looked back at her friends, who all seemed stunned into silence. They all stared up at him with wide eyes, identical blushes appearing on both Mellaer and Beleth’s cheeks, and Nethril looked quickly down at her boots. None of them had ever been addressed by an Elf before.

It was Isilmë who finally cleared her throat and said “Huor is out on business with the captains, my lord. I’m his apprentice, Isilmë.”

“Ah.” The Elf smiled and gave a short bow. “Delighted to meet you, Isilmë. I’m afraid my companions and I ran into a bit of trouble on the road, as I’m sure your friend has told you.” He gave a brief nod in the direction of Mellaer, whose face turned an even deeper shade of red. “My knife was broken in the skirmish—do you think you or Master Huor could repair it?”

He held out the two pieces of the knife, and Isilmë collected it with wide eyes. Nethril didn’t know much about the blacksmith’s craft, but she recognized the fine detailing of the blade, and knew it to be of Elven make. The blade was broken clean at the hilt.

“Yes—yes of course,” Isilmë stammered. “It won’t be a problem, Lord…”

“Glorfindel.”

“Glorfindel,” Nethril echoed. She’d heard tales upon tales of a famous Elf with that name, one who slew a Balrog and escaped from the Halls of Mandos themselves. And, if she was remembering her family history right, one who had no small part to play in her own existence. “You saved my grandfather’s life.”

He turned to her now, keen eyes searching her face, and she forced herself to stare straight back to meet his gaze. “Dírhael son of Naurdir is your grandfather?”

She nodded. “Aye. He always said if not for you and Nana Ivorwen, he’d be long dead.”

At this, Glorfindel chuckled. “Dírhael does not give himself enough credit. It takes great strength of will to come back from a warg attack as he did. Survivors all, your whole family line.”

Nethril’s brow furrowed, but before she could ask what he meant, Glorfindel was already back at the door.

“I appreciate your help, young Isilmë—do not rush to it, if you have more important tasks ahead of you. Good day to you all,” he said, and closed the door back behind him, another dusting of snow furling out from under it. The four girls stared at the closed door, dumbstruck, until Isilmë finally picked up the pieces of the knife and set them gently on a work table near where Nethril stood. She grinned and nudged Beleth as she passed, who looked as though someone had clubbed her over the head.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you speechless, Beleth.”

“I have no words,” Beleth said, her voice faint. She still stared at the door. “Didn’t you see him?”

“We all saw him,” Nethril said. “Flesh and blood…”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Well, what on earth did you—“

“She means he’s the most handsome creature who’s ever passed through the Angle,” Mellaer said, breathless.

“Elbereth, Mellaer, you could have warned us!” Beleth exclaimed. “You saw him in the healer’s cottage!”

“I was going to tell you, I just didn’t think he’d come here, so soon…”

Nethril looked back and forth between her two friends in confusion. She didn’t see what was so special about Glorfindel, beyond the legends fixed to his name. But Beleth and Mellaer prattled on, extolling the virtues of his eyes and blonde hair, and whether it was a common feature among other Elves of Rivendell. She glanced back at Isilmë, wondering if she felt the same way, but her friend only rolled her eyes in exasperation. 

“He’s worth ten men of the Angle, and about twenty of that cursed oaf Halbarad—sorry, Nethril…”

“No, it’s all right.” Nethril shook her head, bemused. “They keep him in the Wild so much he hasn’t had time to learn about women.”

“I’m sure Lord Glorfindel has had plenty of time.” Beleth’s eyes glinted with mischief. “Why, I’d imagine—“

“All right, out, all of you!” Isilmë laughed and gestured towards the door. “I’ve got work to do, and if all you’re going to do is gossip about men you can do it outside!”

Beleth and Mellaer groaned, but they smiled and waved farewell to Isilmë before they put their cloaks back on and headed outside. Nethril followed them, but paused at the doorway and glanced backward, hoping for a brief moment alone with Isilmë, if only to try and parse through the strange emotions that had coursed through her ever since Gilraen had ridden through the gates. But Isilmë was already hammering away at her anvil, and Nethril closed the door quickly behind her.

***

Nethril woke at dawn the next day, pale sunlight streaming in through the cracks in the shutters to illuminate the tiny room she shared with her mother. She glanced at the bed across the room to see that her mother had already risen for the day, and she scrambled quickly to her feet, hugging herself against the cold.  

She could hear voices in the next room as she dressed—her mother’s and another woman’s, one she didn’t recognize. The door was open a crack, and Nethril peered through the opening to see her mother talking with Aunt Gilraen, dressed now in sensible Dúnedain clothes rather than the fine Elvish cloak she’d worn yesterday. Nethril knew she was far too old to be eavesdropping, but something cautioned her to hang back, taking her time to brush her hair out and redo the braid she’d slept in the night before.  

“…after last night, I might stay with you or my parents,” Gilraen said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”

 Nethril’s mother arched an eyebrow in curiosity, but she smiled with a fondness Nethril recognized well. “Too drafty in the Chieftain’s house?”

Gilraen’s mouth twitched. “One might say that. The lady Adanel has been less than welcoming.”    

The smile was wiped off of Finnael’s face, and her eyes narrowed in a disapproving scowl. “Whatever for? You’re her son’s wife, the mother of her grandchild.”

Gilraen bit down on her lower lip and looked down at her hands. “It’s…complicated.”

Finnael’s mouth thinned. “She ought to be happy you’ve come home to us. Valar’s sake, you’re the only family she has left, anymore…”

“She has her quarrels, Finnael,” Gilraen sighed. “I’d just as soon stay out of her way.”  

“The Chieftain’s house belongs to you as much as it does her,” Finnael said. “But if it would ease your mind, we’d be happy to have you. Halbarad can sleep in here for a few nights.” At this, she glanced towards the doorway where Nethril stood awkwardly, and beckoned her into the main room. “Nethril, come in here! There’s someone who’d like very much to see you.”

Nethril hesitated for just a moment before she made her way haltingly into the room and stood before Gilraen. They were almost the same height, she noted, with Gilraen standing just a hair’s breadth taller than her. Her hair was pulled up in a braided knot at the top of her head, accenting her high cheekbones and full mouth. Nethril had heard some call her Gilraen the Fair, when they spoke of the last Chieftain and his wife, and looking at her now it was easy to see why. Her smile was warm when she looked towards Nethril, and her grey eyes were bright.

“Do you remember me, Nethril?” 

The day of Arathorn’s funeral bloomed again in Nethril’s mind, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to try and pick her aunt’s face out from the haze of memory. When was the last time they’d been together before that? “Of course I do, Aunt Gilraen.”

She embraced her aunt, breathing in the long-forgotten scent of cedar and burnished metal—the smell of the Chieftain’s house. Gilraen held her tight for a moment, and pulled back to take Nethril’s face in both her hands. Her palms and fingers were soft, with none of the roughness Nethril knew from her mother’s hands, careworn from years of weaving at her loom.

“Let me look at you. You're a woman grown, now.”

At this, Nethril blushed and ducked her head down. “I’ve got a few years left before I come of age.”

“Not many now.” Her smile turned sad, and she glanced behind her towards Finnael. “There’s so much we’ve missed, these past years. I hope to gain a bit of it back.”

Finnael reached out briefly to touch Gilraen’s cheek before she turned to take a tea kettle off its hook above the hearth. “How long will you stay, then? Through the winter?”

“Until Emeldir’s child is born, at least.” Gilraen reached for a third teacup off the shelves where they kept their dishes, setting places at the table as if she’d never left the Angle. “The sons of Elrond brought the news just before the harvest, and I thought I should be here to welcome our new niece or nephew.”

Well, that answered at least one of Nethril’s questions. Dírhael and Ivorwen’s youngest child, her uncle Tarcil, had married Emeldir the previous spring, and their firstborn was due a few weeks after Mettarë. Nethril was looking forward to no longer being the youngest cousin, though by now the age gap was so great it made little difference.

If Aragorn were here, he would be the youngest, she thought, and suppressed a rueful sigh. He’d be twelve now, if he was still alive…what happened, all those years ago?

She opened her mouth to speak, but the words died on her lips she glanced from her aunt back to her mother, who would still turn pale and quiet with grief if the name of Nethril’s father was mentioned at a bad time. If Gilraen wanted to speak of Aragorn’s fate, Nethril supposed, she would when she was ready.

A knock sounded at the front door, and Nethril turned with a start. Finnael frowned in confusion and headed to open the door. Her mother was taller than most women of the Angle, and Nethril couldn’t see who stood on the other side of the threshold.

“Is the lady Gilraen here?” A lilting voice spoke in Sindarin, and Nethril craned her neck to try and see around her mother.

“Yes, please, come in.” Finnael stepped back into the house, revealing the second Elf who had ridden through the gates with Gilraen. She’d been so weak and drawn with pain that Nethril hadn’t gotten a good look at her the day before, but she stood fully upright now, dressed in a simple green gown made elegant by the blue silk trim on the sleeves and hem. Her dark hair cascaded down her shoulders, pulled back from her face by a pair of thin braids. Her brown eyes sparkled with mirth, accentuating a sharp, slightly upturned nose. A pair of small blue gems hung from her ears, matching a necklace that hung from a thin chain on her neck, and the neckline of her dress scooped down far lower than was customary among the Dúnedain.   

She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman Nethril had ever seen.

“Merineth!” Gilraen cried in delight, and rushed to take the Elven woman’s hands in her own. “You’re all right!”

“I’m standing, at least.” Merineth smiled ruefully and placed a hand to her side. “I haven’t the strength for much else. Your mother says that if I don’t overtax myself, I should be fully healed within the week." 

“The power of the Elves,” Gilraen shook her head. “That arrow would have killed a man.”

She ushered Merineth into the house, and gestured back towards Finnael and Nethril. “This is Merineth of Rivendell, who now knows the price of escorting friends to the Angle. Merineth, this is my late brother’s wife, Finnael, and my niece Nethril.” 

Nethril stared, at a loss for words. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her mother give a brief curtsy, and she strictly commanded herself to do the same, though her legs moved with a woodenness that left her feeling clumsy and overgrown.  

Merineth’s smile widened. “It is an honor to meet you both. Gilraen has told me so much about you.”

“Good things, I hope.” Finnael smiled in return. She glanced every so slightly at Nethril, who swallowed heavily, gathering it meant she ought to say something.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” she said in Westron, and her face immediately reddened at the instinctive use of her native tongue. “Oh, I’m sorry—“ She spoke Sindarin fluently, but it suddenly sounded awkward and unwieldy to her ears. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s quite all right,” Merineth switched to the Common Tongue, her speech slowing just a bit. “I could use the practice, anyway.”  

“You speak it very well,” Nethril stammered. “Do you get many travelers in Rivendell?”

She was blathering, now, and wished she could disappear on the spot. But Merineth’s smile remained, and she shook her head. “Now and then. I am an archivist by trade, and it requires an affinity for many languages. But I’m afraid I’m mostly limited to reading, not speech.”  

“Well, you’ll get no end of speech from the Dúnedain,” Gilraen joked, and took her arm. “Come. I’d like you to meet my brother Tarcil, if you’re well enough.”

“Of course.” Merineth nodded back to Nethril and Finnael. “I look forward to seeing you both again.”  

There was a strange fluttering in Nethril’s chest, and she wished she could come up with some excuse to follow the pair to her Uncle Tarcil’s. “I look forward to it too, my lady.”  

“I’ll be back soon,” Gilraen said, and kissed Finnael in farewell. Finnael left the door open after the two left, watching them walk slowly down the path to the main road, before she finally shut the door behind her. Nethril let out a wistful sigh.

“Elbereth,” a breathless voice sounded the moment the door closed, and Nethril turned to see Halbarad’s head sticking down from the loft where he slept, watching the closed door. “Do all women of the Firstborn look like that?”

“Halbarad!” Finnael smacked him lightly on the arm as he came down the ladder. “Valar’s sake, did I teach you no manners?”

Halbarad had the decency to look a bit sheepish, but it couldn’t overtake the foolish, lovesick grin on his face that Nethril recognized from the times he’d looked at Mellaer on festival days. His tunic was still untucked from his breeches, and he only had on one boot, carrying the other in his hand. “You all appeared to be having a moment. I didn’t think I should interrupt.”

Finnael rolled her eyes and landed another swat on Halbarad’s backside with a dishtowel. 

“Go outside and greet your aunt properly, like a Ranger should. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into you…”

A sinking feeling had begun to replace the strange fluttering in her chest, and Nethril gulped down a large sip of tea in hopes her family wouldn’t notice the blush that had spread across her cheeks, the strong, slightly bitter flavor overwhelming her senses. She was sure she knew exactly what had gotten into Halbarad, and she was equally sure it was a feeling she shouldn’t be sharing.

***

The next few days passed strangely for Nethril. Mellaer and Beleth wouldn’t stop badgering her for information about Gilraen and Aragorn, unwilling to hear that she knew as little as they did.  To make matters worse, her friends would not stop pining over Glorfindel, trying to time their chores so that they would be where he was and dogging the training grounds in hopes that he’d come to spar with the Rangers who were home for the winter. Nethril began to avoid them out of sheer irritation, although she knew now she could hardly fault them for their infatuation with the fabled Elf. To her own mixture of surprise and confusion, she found she felt much the same way about her aunt’s friend, Merineth.

It was easier than she’d expected, at least, to follow after Merineth, for the Elf rarely left Gilraen’s side, and Nethril’s mother was willing to let Nethril shirk her housework and spend time with her aunt, to “make up for lost time.”

Mettarë was only a few days away, and Nethril spent two afternoons in a row with Gilraen and Merineth in her grandmother’s home, helping Ivorwen make the holly garlands and wreaths that would adorn the Chieftain’s house during the great celebration held on the darkest night of the year. The smell of baking cinnamon wafted through the air, and Nethril was content to sit back and listen while Gilraen and Ivorwen laughed and swapped tales of winters past, Merineth sometimes jumping in with stories of her own from Rivendell. For the first time since her aunt’s arrival, a faint sense of peace finally settled over Nethril.

“Your grandmother must appreciate your help, Nethril.” Merineth reached across the table for another bough and smiled kindly at her. 

“I’m happy to do it,” she said, and busied herself with weaving together bits of pine to form her current wreath.

“Do you help her in the houses of healing, as well?”

Nethril felt her cheeks warm, and she looked down at her hands, unable to meet Merineth’s eye. “No, not since I was a child. I’m not very useful, really.”

“Stop that, Nethril,” Ivorwen gave her a reproachful glance, and Nethril blushed even deeper. Her grandmother assured her constantly that she was not disappointed in her for ending her apprenticeship, but it was difficult some days to believe it. “You have plenty of talents beyond the realm of healing. Why, no one your age has a stronger grasp of Quenya, or your talent for numbers.”  

“Thank you, Nana,” she murmured. “But compared to healing, or smithing…”

“They seem plenty useful to me,” Merineth said. “You need a strong hand for both, working in the archives.”

Nethril’s insides warmed at the praise, and a small smile tugged at her lips, but she caught herself and gave her head a little shake when she set her completed wreath aside. She did not know what was the matter with her. So much as a smile from the elegant Elf would leave Nethril’s stomach turning somersaults, and she felt as though she finally understood the lovelorn romances her friends had begun to entangle themselves in the past couple of years. But what did it mean, that she felt this way about a woman, and never had about a man?

Though it was never spoken of, she knew there was at least one pair of men among the Rangers who lived together and loved one another as her parents had, but they defended the Angle so fiercely that no one had the right to question their personal lives. And in some ways, it was easier that they did not marry and have children—fewer left behind to mourn them, should they fall in the Wild. Nethril was no Ranger, and after abandoning her healer’s apprenticeship, had never envisioned her purpose among her people to be anything beyond growing up, getting married, and bearing children of her own. But what if these were things she did not want?

She missed Isilmë, and longed for a chance to confide in her, but Huor had kept his granddaughter so busy at the forge the past few days that Nethril had barely seen her.

“Are you a musician like your father, Nethril?” Gilraen’s voice broke through her thoughts, and she turned to look at her aunt. “He always loved this time of year.”

Another feeling of inadequacy shot through Nethril, this time with a faint tint of regret. Her father’s talent for music was well remembered throughout the Angle, but she only seemed to have inherited a fraction of it—she did not have a natural skill with instruments, nor any ear for composing her own songs. But she had a strong, clear voice, and she often sang to pass the time when she helped her mother with the weaving. Her mother still kept Dirlaeg’s lute tucked away in a corner, and she brought it out from time to time, trying to teach herself from the few chords she knew. 

“Not really,” she said. “But I enjoy listening.”

Ivorwen reached out to gently tug on Nethril’s braid, but her smile made Nethril sure she understood. “I’ve heard you sing, nethben. You have a fine voice, one to make your father proud.” 

Gilraen’s eyes had taken on a faraway cast. “Dirlaeg was so much older than Tarcil and I, he’d sing to us sometimes, when Ada couldn’t get us to settle down.” 

“Sometimes,” Ivorwen rolled her eyes. “Other times all three of you at once would band together in your mischief, and there’d be no hope for your father and me.”  

Gilraen laughed. “What stories he’d invent! And he carried them to his lute. There was a song for Mettarë he wrote, the year you were born…oh, how did it go…” she began to hum a tune. “When nights are long, and snow shines white…

“The fire burns throughout the night,” Nethril finished, suddenly eager to share the lost memory with her aunt. “Mama used to sing it to us, when we were children. But I don’t remember all the words.”

“It is one I have not heard in a long time. Not since…” Gilraen drifted off, her eyes darkening for a moment, but she gave herself a little shake and smiled back at Nethril. “Maybe we can piece it back together, you and I.”

Gilraen hummed a bit more, the tune now familiar to Nethril, and Nethril slowly began to sing, the words returning to her when her aunt joined in:

When nights are long and snow shines bright
And fire burns throughout the night

We stand, we sing of loss and fate
The old year’s past, the new awaits

To greet us now with toil and strife
But ne’er forgetting light and life,

We stand as Dúnedain of old,
profess our faith, but ever bold

We ask for blessings and for love
While hope sails in the sky above. 

The song finished, Gilraen’s voice catching on the final line. Nethril frowned, afraid something had upset her aunt, but Gilraen reached out to take her hand, squeezing it with a way Nethril recognized well, when she hoped to convey things she could not say aloud. Beside them, Ivorwen’s eyes were bright. For a moment, Nethril feared her grandmother might weep, but she only smiled and passed another bough of pine down the table to her daughter.

***

Gilraen had elected to stay with her parents for the duration of her time in the Angle, but on the eve of Mettarë, the Lady Adanel invited Dírhael, Ivorwen, and all their extended family to dine with her at the Chieftain’s house. It was an unprecedented occasion, and Nethril spent a good hour before it was time to leave brushing out her hair and smoothing out the wrinkles in her dress. She attempted to fix her hair in the style of Merineth’s, leaving it down save for two small plaits on each side, but it did not have quite the same effect with her wavy, unruly hair. She stared at the small, burnished looking glass they had in the main room and sighed in frustration. It was a comical imitation, and everyone in the Chieftain’s house would know it.  

“It looks good on you, little sister,” Halbarad said, seeing her look of despondency. “You’re a beauty to rival any Elf in Rivendell.”

Nethril didn’t believe a word of it, and couldn’t stop herself from letting out a rueful sigh. Still, she knew he meant well. “Thank you. You don’t look so bad yourself.” Indeed, there was no denying her brother was more man than boy now, his long hair tied back behind him and his beard neatly trimmed. The star of the Rangers was pinned to his breast, and he reached out to take Nethril’s face between his hands, kissing her gently on the forehead. 

“I'm glad we have each other, you and I. May it always be so.” 

There he was again—the solemn, earnest Halbarad who she was still not quite used to. Nethril wrapped her arms around him in a brief hug. “I am too, Hal. But what's brought this on?”

Halbarad sighed. “I take it you didn’t hear about Aunt Gilraen and Uncle Tarcil’s argument.”

Nethril frowned and shook her head. Her uncle was known throughout the Angle for his temper, often eliciting comparisons to Fëanor himself for his warrior’s skill and his stubborn, fiery nature. But she couldn’t imagine the soft-spoken Gilraen matching Tarcil in such a way. 

“Halrovan overheard them behind the stables yesterday—both shouting at each other until they were red in the face. He tried not to listen, but they made it rather difficult.” 

Nethril’s eyes widened in disbelief. “They haven’t seen each other in ten years! What on earth could they have to fight about?”

Halbarad shrugged. “I didn’t ask. Now Nana Ivorwen is furious with them both. Supposedly they're both coming to dinner tonight, but…”

Nethril gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Tarcil’s probably already forgotten why he was so angry in the first place.”

“And if he hasn’t, we’ll not speak of it.” Finnael stood scowling at the doorway to her bedroom, her cloak gathered in one arm and her other arm propped on her hip. Halbarad and Nethril turned to face her, and she fixed each of her children with a stern, unrelenting stare. 

“It is a great honor that the acting Chieftain invites us into her home. Do not speak unless you deem it prudent, and behave.”  

Nethril nodded even as she bit back an irritated, sarcastic retort. It has been years since her mother had spoken to them in such a way—something else must be bothering her, for her to treat them as though they were still unruly children who couldn’t be trusted to mind their manners.

Halbarad adopted a mischievous grin and took his mother by the hand, kissing it gently. “Mother, you worry so. When have I ever been anything but well-behaved?” 

Finnael’s mouth quirked upward, and though she quickly masked it with a frown, her eyes sparkled in amusement. “Best you hold to that, my son. Or else you’ll have the lady Adanel to contend with, not just me.”

That shut Halbarad right up. Nethril would have smirked, if the idea of displeasing the acting Chieftain didn’t terrify her in equal measure.

It had snowed again earlier in the day, but the howling winds had stilled, and a peaceful quiet had settled in the air on their short walk to the Chieftain’s house. A strange sense of foreboding filled Nethril as they trudged through the snow, and she glanced up briefly at the moon, shining clear through the night sky. Sometimes at family meals, when the mood was right, her grandfather Dírhael would tell tales borrowed from Breelanders of the man in the Moon, carousing with the creatures of a local inn, but she had a suspicion there would be no such frivolity tonight.

Lady Adanel stood in the doorway of the Chieftain’s house, the light from within giving her figure a soft glow. It rather belied the lady’s true nature, Nethril thought, for the commanding old woman had led the Dúnedain as acting Chieftain for more than ten years, ever since her son Arathorn had fallen and Aragorn had gone missing. Her grey hair was pinned up in an elaborate knot, though without the thin, mithril-threaded circlet Nethril was used to seeing her wear at council meetings. Her face was stern as ever, but she smiled now at Finnael and her children, beckoning them inside.

“Welcome. Please come inside, out of the cold.”

Nethril followed her mother inside, shivering a bit when she took off her cloak. Though she’d been inside many times to observe council meetings and feast days, the great hall of the house always instilled a certain awe in Nethril. A roaring fire burned in the large hearth, and the wooden columns that lined the sides of the hall were bedecked with the garlands and wreaths Nethril had spent the week making. Tomorrow, the tables used for the Captain’s Council would be laden with dishes for the Mettarë feast, but for now they stood in their usual rectangular formation, extra benches lined off to the side.

Adanel led them into a smaller dining room meant for the Chieftain’s family and Nethril’s eyes widened; she had never been in any other rooms of the house before. A small part of Nethril hoped that Merineth and Glorfindel would be guests at the dinner as well, but when she entered the room she did not see them, only her grandparents, Gilraen, and her Uncle Tarcil and Aunt Emeldir, whose hand rested on the swell of her stomach. Gilraen and Emeldir were talking quietly, but Tarcil turned and approached Nethril, wrapping her in a brief one-armed hug.

“Running the Angle yet, nethben?” It was what he always said to greet her, but Nethril stiffened now, wishing he’d picked a better choice of words. She smiled anyway, and hugged him back.

“Not yet, Uncle. I think Lady Adanel might have something to say about it, if I did.”

“Quite,” Adanel remarked dryly, but the corners of her mouth twitched, and Nethril relaxed a bit. Perhaps the lady was not so intimidating, when she wasn’t conducting Chieftain’s business.

Nethril watched her uncle carefully, thinking back to Halbarad’s words, but Tarcil appeared jovial enough, if only a little stiff when he returned to talk with his sister and wife. Adanel and Ivorwen soon brought out platters of food, and Nethril took her seat at the long table between Halbarad and Finnael. She suspected Ivorwen had a hand in the cooking, and her mouth watered at the roast chicken and golden-crusted bread that was passed out in baskets. Golden wine was poured into goblets inlaid with amber gems—she would have to ask Isilmë if she knew who had crafted them.

Taking her cue from her mother, she remained silent through most of the meal, content to listen to Dírhael and Tarcil discuss Ranger matters or Ivorwen pass on childbearing advice to Emeldir. Gilraen asked after men she’d known in her youth who currently were out on patrol, and Nethril’s ears pricked up at the names she recognized. 

“We’ve been fortunate, this year,” Dírhael said, with just the briefest look of gratitude towards Adanel. “No men have been lost to Orcs or wolves, and we have a harvest to last through the winter. It’s far more than we’re able to say, most years.”

“So I have heard.” Gilraen said. “The sons of Elrond brought tidings of the desertions, and the deaths in the field three years ago. So many lost…”

So many, indeed, Nethril thought with a pang. She tried not to remember the terrible, haunting months of her thirteenth summer, when Mellaer’s uncle and Isilmë’s father had been killed within mere weeks of each other. They’d only been two of the nearly dozen Rangers who’d lost their lives fighting off Orcs and worse that year, and the sorrow in the Angle had been so great that many began to fear that this was the doom of the Dúnedain, now that the last Heir of Elendil was gone.

Nethril glanced at Gilraen, her lovely face shadowed in grief, and felt a sudden rush of anger towards her aunt. How could she have spent the last decade cosseted in Rivendell, guarded away while Rangers fought and died in her family’s name? No matter Gilraen’s grief for Aragorn, her flight to the Elves seemed so unlike the woman Nethril had spent time with this past week that she suddenly wondered if she really had gotten to know her aunt at all.

She knew her heated thoughts weren’t fair, borne by renewed sorrow for her friends, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself when she opened her mouth and muttered, “If you’d been here, you could have mourned them then.”

The room fell deathly silent, and Nethril struggled not to shrink under the eight pairs of eyes that were now directed at her. She could see her grandfather’s thunderous gaze out of the corner of her eye, and her heart thumped loudly in her chest. Dírhael was as even-tempered as his son was hotheaded, but his anger was all the more terrifying to her for its rarity.

“Do you have something to say, granddaughter?”

Nethril was suddenly light-headed, anxiety coursing through her limbs, but she set her mouth in a firm line and looked up at Gilraen. Surprise and hurt flickered in her aunt’s eyes. “How can you have spent so long away? When we all needed you here?”

“Oh, Nethril.” Gilraen reached out as if to take her hand across the table. “Trust that I would have been here, if I could.”

“The girl asks a fair question, Gilraen.” Tarcil set his goblet down on the table with a thunk. “And you have not answered it. What has kept you in Rivendell, these ten years? Why haven’t you spoken a word of Aragorn since you arrived? Surely the fair beauty of the Elves cannot have driven him from your mind…”

Gilraen had gone pale. “Not again, Tarcil, please.”

“I am tired of being lied to, sister,” Tarcil said, and turned an accusatory glance back towards his parents. “Tired of being lied to by my own family. When Gilraen and Aragorn disappeared in the dead of night, with not a word to anyone, I asked no questions. I’ve watched our people lose hope year after year, thinking the line of Isildur ended. But now, for you to show up alone, as though nothing has happened—“

“Enough,” Dírhael snapped. “We’ll discuss this no further.”  

“No,” said a soft voice to Nethril’s right, and she turned in shock to see that her mother had spoken, her hands folded tightly in her lap. “Tarcil is right. You have not been honest with us, Gilraen. I’ve accepted the reasons, but—we deserve to know the truth. Us at this table, your family.” 

There was a long, painful silence, and Nethril had never wished more for the power to take back her words, or better yet, disappear on the spot. At last, Gilraen began to speak, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

“The day after Arathorn’s funeral, the sons of Elrond came to me. We decided—“ here, she gestured toward her parents and Adanel, whose face had turned stony, “we decided it was too dangerous to raise Aragorn here at the Angle. Elladan and Elrohir took us to Rivendell, where we have lived ever since. Lord Elrond deemed it best to conceal Aragorn’s heritage from him and the rest of the household. He does not know his true name.”

Whatever Nethril had been expecting, this had not been it. Halbarad exclaimed wordlessly beside her, and her mouth fell open in astonishment. An unexpected, powerful relief coursed through her at the knowledge that her cousin still lived, that the line of Isildur had not ended after all. She would see him again one day, perhaps, when he was old enough to—  

There was the clatter of silverware at the end of the table, and Nethril turned to see that Adanel had thrown her hands in the air. “So that’s it, then. Ten years of secrecy, in the name of the boy’s protection, all undone because Lady Gilraen cannot bear the cost of her bargain.”

A lone tear fell from Gilraen’s eye, and Ivorwen’s face darkened in anger. “That is my daughter you speak to, Adanel.”  

“And if she were not your daughter, you would know I’m right. Did we not send him away for a reason? You know better than I the price we would pay, should the Enemy discover Aragorn.”

Finnael stirred in displeasure. “The people already believe that price has been paid. What sort of sacrifice is that, that you’ve chosen for us?”

“And you’ve nothing to fear from anyone in this room betraying your secret,” Tarcil said icily. His face was bright red, and Nethril imagined it was costing him a great deal of effort not to keep his temper in check. “The Valar only know why you couldn’t see that at the time.”  

Dírhael slammed his hand on the table, and the room suddenly seemed to erupt in shouts. Nethril looked from one furious face to another, barely able to understand anyone, the outpouring of emotion overwhelming her. She tried to catch Halbarad’s eye for support, but even he had entered into the argument, clamoring to make his voice heard as a Ranger. Seeing that no one would miss her absence, she rose quietly from her place at the table and slipped out through the doorway.

The harsh voices faded once she made her way back into the great hall, but her chest still felt tight, and she tried to take a deep breath to steady herself. Little of the anger in there had been directed at her, she knew, but her eyes blurred with tears all the same. She tried to hold them back, but a sob rose in the back of her throat, one she quickly stifled with her hand lest it echo through the hall.  

She quickly climbed the stairs that led to the second floor, made up of a handful of rooms whose doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the main hall. She fled to a room all the way in the back and sank down on to the bed tucked into the corner, burying her face in her hands and letting the tears fall. She could not even say who she cried for—her aunt, her cousin, herself— but it was all too much, seeing the burdens her family carried.

Her tears finally spent, she drew a deep, shuddering sigh and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She didn’t wish to go back downstairs just yet, so she glanced around the room she’d taken refuge in. It appeared unused, with little in it beyond the bed she sat on and a little table and washbasin. She rose and crossed to the window, opening the shutters and gazing out into the night. The Chieftain’s house stood on a small hill at the end of the Angle, and her view extended far enough out that could see out the barrows that arose near the crags, where the Hoarwell and Loudwater joined into the great, wide river that extended south beyond. Chunks of ice floated on the water, and the moon shone pale in the clear sky, giving an eerie sort of light to the snow-covered banks.

“Quite a view, isn’t it?” She jumped and turned to see Gilraen standing in the doorway. Her eyes were red, but she didn’t appear to be upset with Nethril. “When Aragorn was born, I imagined that this might be his bedroom, when he was old enough.” 

“I’m sorry,” Nethril said miserably, willing her eyes not to fill with tears once more. “I should have held my tongue, I didn’t—“

“Do not be sorry. It would have all come out whether you’d said something or not. That much is clear, now.” Gilraen sat down on the bed and patted the space beside her. Nethril hesitated before sitting down next to her aunt, but she couldn’t meet her eyes. She stared down at her hands instead.

“So many secrets we’ve kept, these years. Even Glorfindel and Merineth did not know, before we journeyed here.”  

Nethril looked at her in surprise. “They didn’t?”

“Elrond’s fear for Estel’s safety is greater even than mine. So far as anyone in Rivendell knows, we are two quite ordinary Dúnedain. And as far as the Angle, better for the people to believe he is dead than for the Enemy’s forces to descend in droves, cutting us down one by one in search of the Heir.” 

Nethril nodded, attempting to sort out this new information, but one piece did not quite fit. “Estel?” 

“What we call Aragorn,” Gilraen said. “It is the only name he has ever known.”

Estel. Nethril turned the name over in her mind. Hope. She thought it suited.  

Gilraen stared off into the distance now, her gaze melancholy. “For ten years, no one knew save the peredhil, my parents, and Adanel. Now the circle has widened, and it never would have if not for my coming. Adanel was right, truly. I should have stayed in Rivendell.” 

“No,” Nethril immediately protested. “No, I’m glad you came. I wouldn’t have known you, and I wouldn’t…” she trailed off, not wanting to voice all else she’d gained during her aunt’s visit.  Her mother spoke of her father so rarely anymore, but it did not seem to pain Gilraen to speak of him. In some ways, she felt she’d gotten a part of him back, too. 

Gilraen seemed to sense what she’d left unsaid. “I see so much of your father in you, Nethril. It’s been a blessing to know you, one I cherish every day.”

Nethril swallowed against the lump in her throat. Gilraen’s gaze had turned wistful, and she spoke once more, almost to herself rather than to Nethril. 

“Dirlaeg was always the one to settle our quarrels, when Tarcil and I fought. He understood how we differed, and how to bring us back together.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Aunt,” Nethril said dryly, and Gilraen laughed.

“You have his humor, too! Do not fear. My brother is an idiot, but I have my faults too. And I love him in spite of it all. We have been through too much for it to be any other way.”

Nethril nodded. She felt the same way about Halbarad. She and Gilraen lapsed into silence, a more comfortable one now, and Nethril’s thoughts strayed back to Aragorn, alive in Rivendell but with no siblings of his own. Another thought occurred to her, for if he and Gilraen were the only two Men in the Elven valley…

“Are there any other children in Rivendell?”

Gilraen shook her head, her eyes sad. “He is the only one. Sometimes I worry, what a lonely life it must be…but it is all he has known. He does not remember the Angle.”

Nethril blinked slowly, thinking of Beleth, Isilmë, Mellaer, and even the few youths her age she rather disliked. It was difficult to imagine what her life might be without them.

“How I longed to give Aragorn a brother or a sister, so that he could share what we three had. It is an old hurt, but one I think of more often now, the closer he gets to manhood.”

“That’s still a long way off,” Nethril said.

Gilraen shrugged. “Time has a funny way about it. It will be here sooner than we think.”  

Nethril did not quite know what to do with that. She would be long past her majority by the time Aragorn reached his own. The notion frightened her somewhat, for it was becoming all the more difficult to imagine carrying out her duty. Married, perhaps, but not out of any desire or love for a man. That was one certainty she had begun to hold.

“He will return, then? When the time comes?”

“When the time comes,” Gilraen echoed. “He’ll have his work cut out for him, I do believe.”

Nethril snorted. She’d seen Glorfindel at sparring practice enough by now to see how the refined Elvish warrior stood in contrast to the rough camaraderie the Rangers shared. Their men were steadfast and loyal, but they had their own ways and codes. How they would handle a lordling fresh from Rivendell would be a sight to behold.

“We’ll be there for him,” Nethril said, with a conviction so fierce she wondered if some of her grandmother’s foresight had come to her. “Me and Halbarad. He’ll have us at his side, no matter what.” 

“I should hope so,” a voice sounded from the doorway, and Nethril looked up to see her mother standing there. “What else is family for?”

Nethril scrambled to her feet, prepared for a more severe admonition from her mother, but Finnael’s eyes were fixed on Gilraen, seeking forgiveness, perhaps, for her earlier words. Beside her, Gilraen rose, and Nethril sensed some unspoken resolution pass between the two of them.

“How are things downstairs?”

“Well enough. Everyone seems to have worked the shouting out of their systems.” Finnael shook her head and reached out to take Nethril’s hands. “You certainly have a gift, my daughter.”

Nethril’s face felt hot, and she looked down at her hands. “Is that what it is?”

Gilraen reached out and hugged Nethril. “Without a doubt. Aragorn will need your frankness and your courage, in the years to come. Never forget that.”

***

Mettarë dawned bright and cold, and Nethril spent the day in the kitchens of the Chieftain’s house with her grandmother, aunt, and mother to prepare for the great bonfire and feast that would be held in the field before the house. Whatever tension that had been present at dinner the night before seemed to have passed, and Nethril marveled at how such harsh arguments could give way to such peace. Merineth stopped by to help for an hour, and Nethril nearly dropped a mixing bowl while staring at the lady’s graceful movements across the kitchen. Her face flaming, she followed Ivorwen’s pointed suggestion and retreated outside to help the men build the bonfire. 

At last, darkness descended and the people gathered, and Nethril stood close to her brother, his broad arms wrapped around her shoulders while they watched Adanel light the bonfire. Torchlight flickered off the lady’s face, giving her an almost ethereal glow, and she favored Nethril with a small smile before she raised her voice to speak to the crowd.

“Tonight, we stand as the remnants of Númenor, facing a future ever unknown. Let us light the way for the new year, and trust once more in our hope.”

Estel, Nethril thought, and glanced northeast, far off to where Rivendell lay, and pictured a twelve-year-old boy staring up at the stars. Perhaps it was best he did not yet know his true identity, and all the weight that came with it. 

Adanel lowered her torch to light the fire, and Nethril’s breath caught in her throat as it always did. She was far too old to be enchanted by such simple things as Mettarë blessings, but it still seemed as though the Valar themselves descended upon the great fire, sparks flying out into the night sky. Musicians struck up a lively tune, and Nethril hugged herself against the cold. It was another song her father had composed. 

“So, how was last night?” Nethril turned to see Beleth, Mellaer, and Isilmë, their faces all eager for news. “Did Lady Gilraen say anything about Aragorn?”

Nethril suppressed a groan. “No, she didn’t. It was quite dull, really. Lady Adanel and my grandfather mostly talked of trade and the winter patrols.” 

Beleth let out a great sigh, and Nethril fidgeted slightly beneath her cloak. She had never had to keep so great a secret from her friends before, let alone lie outright, and she understood better now how Gilraen must have felt.

“I suppose we will never know. The Dúnedain must be left to make our own way now.”

“Such gloomy words for such a joyful night!” Nethril teased, doing her best to change the subject. “Come now. The night is young, and there is plenty of time for Lord Glorfindel to have a dance with you.” 

“Nethril!” Beleth’s face turned red and she shoved her friend playfully. “Do not joke about such things!”

“Who said I was joking? Or go find Hador, if you’ve no longer set your sights on the Elf-Lord…" 

She glanced over at Mellaer at the mention of Hador, but her friend’s eyes were distant, and Nethril followed her gaze to where Halbarad stood talking with another pair of Rangers his age. Her brother seemed barely engaged in the conversation, and his eyes kept sliding back towards where Nethril and her friends stood.   

“Or Halbarad,” Nethril gestured in resignation, and watched while Beleth and Mellaer dashed over to the group of men. She supposed she should be happy if Mellaer and Halbarad made up, for it furthered her selfish dream that she and her friend might be sisters someday, but it only made her wistful now. Such romance was something she would never truly share with her friends.

A light hand touched her shoulder, and she looked to see that Isilmë was still standing at her side. “Are you all right, Nethril?”

Nethril turned to face Isilmë. Her friend, normally dressed in soot-covered breeches and tunic, looked positively lovely in a blue wool dress visible beneath her cloak. Her face glowed in the firelight, her dark curls falling down past her shoulders, and Nethril enveloped her in an embrace, gripping her tight. 

“I’ve missed you this week. Things have been…strange, at home.”

“I’ve missed you too. Grandfather’s worked me so hard I’ve barely had time to sleep.” Isilmë stepped back and reached into a pouch at her belt to draw out a silver brooch that rested neatly in her palm. On closer look, it appeared to be in the shape of a falcon, with tiny amber gems for eyes. “Will you come with me to present this to Lady Adanel? Grandfather says it should be me, since I was the one who made it.” 

Nethril let out a low whistle at the sight. Isilmë’s skill as a craftswoman never failed to impress her, and it only seemed to grow every year. “It’s lovely. Of course I’ll come.”

The doors of the Chieftain’s house were thrown open for those who wished to take refuge from the cold weather, and Nethril and Isilmë threaded their way through the crowd of people to approach the high table. Adanel sat in the center with Gilraen beside her; Nethril could not tell if they had also patched up their quarrels or if they were merely putting on a good face for the people. To Gilraen’s left, Merineth and Glorfindel sat in quiet conversation; they both turned now and looked at the two girls who approached them. Isilmë hesitated for a moment, and Nethril reached out to squeeze her hand in encouragement. 

“Blessings be upon you in the new year, my lady.” Isilmë bobbed in a shy curtsey and held out the brooch to Adanel. “A gift from Huor son of Baranor, that we may stand as fiercely as the falcons in the coming year.”

“Thank you,” Adanel said gravely, and pinned the brooch carefully to her dress. “I could not ask for anything finer—a reflection of the dignity and beauty we Dúnedain still carry.”   

Isilmë blushed furiously, and Nethril beamed at the acting Chieftain’s praise for her friend. “There’s an inscription on the back—a verse on the wise-women of Bëor. Nethril helped me translate the passage last year.”

Nethril glanced at Isilmë in surprise. She’d almost forgotten they’d worked at that, when Dírhael had gifted her with a very old, valuable book of Quenya poems for her fifteenth birthday. There were still some she was saving to read, for a special occasion.

“A talented pair.” Merineth spoke with a smile, and her musical voice filled Nethril with warmth. “Perhaps, when times are better, you might both come to Rivendell and learn from us there.”

To Rivendell! Nethril and Isilmë looked at each other in delight. The tradition of fostering Dúnedain in the valley went back thousands of years, but had nearly always been limited to young men, scholars or warriors of the Chieftain’s line. And of course, none had been since Aragorn’s disappearance. 

Adanel’s mouth had thinned in disapproval. “I think we can teach them enough right here.”

“A debate for another time,” Gilraen broke in firmly, and winked at Nethril. “Go on, off with you both. This is a night to be young.”

Still holding Isilmë’s hand, Nethril led her off behind the dais to one of the feast tables, where a pitcher of golden wine lay on the corner. She poured a cup for herself and for Isilmë, and climbed the stairs up to the second floor balcony. No one seemed to notice them from up above, and they had a good view of the revelry below.

“I like your aunt,” Isilmë said, “she seems very kind. Sad, too, but…I suppose that’s to be expected.”

“Yes,” Nethril murmured, staring down at the high table. Gilraen and Adanel were now talking animatedly, though there did not seem to be further discord between them. She watched while they continued to banter, and to her amazement, Adanel laughed, taking Gilraen by the hand and kissing her gently on the cheek. She had never seen the acting Chieftain display such affection.

They must united in some way, by the losses they’ve shared together, she thought. And the decisions they’ve made, for all our futures.

“Lady Merineth is quite beautiful, isn’t she?”

Nethril looked at Isilmë in surprise, and saw that her eyes were trained on the Elven woman, who now had risen and followed Glorfindel across the great hall and out the door, presumably to where the dancers were still whirling around the fire. Nethril thought she recognized some of the longing in Isilmë’s gaze, and her heart leapt into her throat at the possibility. 

“Yes. Yes, she is.”

She reached out to take Isilmë’s hand once more, running her thumb over the callouses that had formed on her friend’s palm, and Isilmë’s fingers closed tightly around her. Their eyes locked, and Nethril noticed for the first time the flecks of brown in her friend’s hazel eyes, and the way her face dimpled when she smiled. She turned and leaned her head against Isilmë’s shoulder, staring out at her family and friends in Chieftain’s hall. Whatever the next years brought, it would do well to remember she wouldn’t be alone.





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