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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

Aragorn lifted his fist to knock, then hesitated. He took a steadying breath, then stepped back a pace, tightening his grip both on the linen-wrapped sword he carried and on his shaky courage. As ever, he failed to understand why doing the right thing must always be so taxing on the nerves. Despite the fact that he had eaten it hours earlier, Galadh’s burnt wild duck still sat like a rock in his stomach. How can a man manage to so overcook a duck so that it chews like old wood, yet at the same time leave it so greasy that.... He couldn’t suppress a shudder. "Do not think about it," he whispered to himself. "It will only bring back the nausea."

He knocked firmly on the door.

It opened, and a dark eye peered through the small crack. The eye widened, then the door swung open enough to reveal a shorter version of Mallor, the same young face that had loomed so startling over Aragorn as he awoke that morning. "Lord Aragorn!"

Aragorn inclined his head, bowing slightly at the waist. "And you must be Randir?"

The boy nodded mutely, but did not immediately offer to let Aragorn inside, much to his dismay. The short walk across the courtyard to this smaller house had not been more than ten steps, but still, it may well have been the longest journey of ten steps Aragorn had ever made. He stood in the doorway with a throbbing ankle and legs trembling with irksome weakness, and he really could not be sure his knees would not at any moment betray him and send him falling flat on his face. But he hoped he hid his discomfort as he continued, "We are well met, Randir. I came to thank you and your mother for giving us such excellent care and hospitality."

Randir still stood uncertainly, staring at Aragorn as though moonstruck, until quick footsteps came up behind him and a small, work-roughened hand pulled him away from the doorway. "My apologies, Lord Aragorn!" Mallor’s mother cried. "I am Neala, and of course, you now know Randir. Please, come in." Blue eyes in a care-worn but still pretty face snapped with impatience as she shooed her son out of the way. She was younger than he expected, a bit older than Denlad, perhaps thirty-five or -six. "Randir, step aside and let him in before he falls down!"

Aragorn smiled. "Is my weakness so obvious?"

She gave him a frank, assessing look. "You look in danger of falling victim to the next light breeze." He followed her inside, and gratefully sank into the chair she offered. "You should not be up and taxing your strength so!"

"You must be in league with Halbarad. Right now, he is pacing back and forth, worried that I will come to my end because I dared rise from my bed."

"You have a wise friend."

"And none with a more caring heart. But I did not come here to speak with you about Halbarad. I came to offer you my deepest thanks, and my humblest apologies for the way we burst into your home. I fear that my men may have been overzealous in their care for me and put you out of your home without reason."

"Without reason? No, my lord, they had grave reason to do exactly as they did. I have never seen a man as near death as you were that night. And it was beyond my abilities to help you, so I thought it best to move Randir and myself out of the way." She made a gesture that took in the room, one that was very similar to the larger room at the other house, down to the cat on the hearth, although this particular specimen was orange and white. "We winter in this house, because it is smaller and easier to keep warm. We merely moved a week or two earlier than we would have otherwise. It was no burden."

"If you say so, then I thank you." He dropped his eyes to the sword laying across his knees. "I also wanted to bring this to you." He carefully unwrapped the linen and revealed the well-oiled leather scabbard. His throat suddenly caught, as he looked at the hilt that had hung so proudly first at Malthen’s waist, and then from Mallor’s. He held the sword out to Neala, not trying to hide the emotion pooling in his eyes. "Mallor was a brave and valiant man. He is sorely missed."

At the sight of the familiar scabbard and sword, Neala let out a soft cry. She took it lovingly in her hands. "Mallor was so proud when he finally was able to strap on his father’s sword." She stroked the leather, lost in memory, then finally lifted the hilt to her lips and kissed it. Randir reached out with a tentative finger to touch it, then ran from the room. Aragorn winced as the door slammed loudly shut.

Neala sighed quietly. "His brother was everything to Randir. After their father died, Mallor, young though he was, took on the role of father to Randir. They were inseparable until the day Mallor left to take his place among your men. Randir was so proud of Mallor, as I was. As I still am," she said with a trembling smile. "I grieve, but I have no regrets. Mallor died doing what he was called to do from birth. But... I would ask one thing of you, though I feel perhaps I shouldn’t, for I see in your eyes that the death of my son causes you great pain."

"Anything, my lady."

"Then please, I must know... did he die quickly?"

For a moment, Aragorn was unable to speak. "Yes," he finally managed. "He did not suffer, nor was his death in vain. He died saving Denlad from an orc’s pike."

She nodded, her eyes burning with a fierce light despite her tears. "Then that is all the mother of a warrior can ask. He is now with his father, and Randir and I will remember him, as we do his father, with pride."

"Your strength does you great honor, Neala." At her embarrassed shrug, he continued. "I held Malthen, whom I fought alongside for many years before he fell, in the highest esteem. Few were braver than he. And now, having met you, I see that you are no less a true Dúnadan warrior than he."

"I am no warrior, my lord."

He reached out and caught her hand, looking into her eyes. "But you are, my lady. You and every wife and mother who sends husband or son to fight for me, for our people... it takes a rare bravery to do such a thing. I want you to know that it does not go unnoticed, or unappreciated."

She said nothing, but he could tell his words had touched her deeply. He smiled, releasing her hand and letting the weight of the moment pass. "Randir is in good hands."

"As he will eventually be in yours, my lord. He has the same warrior spirit singing in his veins as his brother and father. I won’t be able to keep him tied to hearth and home for very many more years."

"Then I pray that whatever doom is before us is settled long before I need to call on his services. Even such a valiant mother as yourself needs to have one strong son beside her, especially living as you do, in such an isolated place." He glanced toward the door. "Do you think I should go to him?"

"No, he finds his solace among the horses these days, and that is likely where he has gone. When we are through here, if he’s still with them, you might find a word to say to him." She smiled fondly. "He is eaten up by curiosity about you. Since you and your men arrived, he can speak of nothing but Lord Aragorn this and Lord Aragorn that and will he ever speak to me and do you think he might show me his sword? On and on."

With a pang, Aragorn suddenly remembered that his sword lay broken in shards on a rocky hillside along the river. But that was no concern of Neala’s, so he merely smiled. "I remember being his age... although I don’t remember being particularly awe-struck by the leader in Rivendell."

"I imagine being the foster son to Lord Elrond might have taken some of the sheen off his image in your eyes. Ah, we parents might present ourselves as high and mighty to the world around us, but our children always know us for who we are."

"Indeed," Aragorn laughed, but his mirth faded as his thoughts turned to a son of his own. I need a wife to have a son. And I need to be a king before I can wed the one I love. And that seems so far from my reach...

"Lord Aragorn? Does something trouble you?"

Aragorn felt himself blush slightly. He had not meant to wear his heart so plainly for her to see. "I just worry, Neala, about you and Randir, out here by yourselves," he said. It wasn’t a complete lie. He did actually worry about them. There were many farms scattered in the outlying areas, far from the fortified settlements not by choice but by necessity. Horses, cattle, sheep... all the livestock necessary to keep the people of Arnor fed... needed good pasture and water, neither of which could be found in sufficient quantity within the fortified walls of a settlement. But their locations made them vulnerable to attack by roving bands of orcs. It was another of the worries that plagued his nighttime hours and robbed him of sleep.

"We will be fine, don’t worry. Randir is a good boy, growing in strength and stature day by day. And you said yourself, I am a true Dúnadan." Her eyes sparkled with mirth and pride. "I said I was no warrior, but that does not mean I am helpless. I’ve no small talent with a bow. There are several orcs and bandits whose bones are moldering in the plains, thanks to a well-placed arrow."

He laughed as he bowed his head to her. "I may have to recruit you instead of Randir! But still... do not hesitate to ask if you have any need. The Dúnedain are scattered and few, but it has always been my heart’s desire to strengthen the bonds between all of us, any way I can."

"And you have done that, and done it well," she assured him. Then she gave him what could only be a motherly look. "But right now, the only need I have is to feed this starving man who sits before me. You must take some tea, and some stew, and perhaps some bread and cake. While I’ve never laid eyes on you until two nights ago, I have a feeling that tunic you wear is not supposed to hang so loosely on your shoulders."

Aragorn ruefully pulled at his shirt. "Ranger patrols are not known for their fine cuisine."

She rewarded his small joke with a laugh so merry and a face so light that he felt he was surely glimpsing the pretty girl she must have once been, before life’s cares had whittled her countenance into sorrowful planes. Sorrowful but strong, he amended, and wasn’t sure if the woman before him was more beautiful than any untested young girl could be. As he watched her busying herself with bowls and cups and plates of steaming dishes, his thoughts strayed to another strong woman, a fair Elf maiden far away in Lothlórien. He rubbed his bare index finger, where the Ring of Barahir would have been had he not given it to Arwen as a betrothal gift. How he missed her right now as he sat amidst the comforts of a home that was not his own.

Someday....

A clatter of crockery and the rich aroma of venison pulled him from his reverie. He looked at the table and was dismayed to see more food spread before him than he and all his Rangers could eat in an entire day. "This is too much!" he protested.

"Nonsense. Besides, it is not all for you, but for your men as well."

"But even so–"

"Hush, my lord. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve had the honor of cooking for more than Randir, Mallor and myself? Years! And I will not let it be said that the Chieftain of the Dúnedain and his men found my generosity lacking in any way. Now, eat!"

"I recognize a direct order when I hear it," he laughed, then after briefly looking to the West and with an inward apology to the Valar for not standing, he obediently tucked a fork full of stew into his mouth. His eyes widened at the explosion of flavor. The meat melted on his tongue, and the spices... he’d not tasted such since leaving Rivendell many years ago.

"There, I see in your eyes that I haven’t lost my touch!"

"You truly have a gift!" He would have said more, but decided the best compliment he could pay her was to keep his mouth as full as possible. And he discovered that despite the Nazgûl, and despite the burnt offering Galadh had called breakfast, his appetite had very happily returned.





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