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Chapter Two - 'Tis The Way of the World And EVery Young Twit
"I am... exploring the world, I guess you might say," Aragorn said softly. And trying to sort out my thoughts before taking on my new life as Chieftain of the Dúnedain, he did not say. That would open up a line of conversation he did not feel up to pursuing at the moment. He winced as he adjusted the cold, wet cloth he held on the back of his head. He wondered if he'd cracked his skull. After three tries getting to his feet, he had finally wobbled and staggered up the bank and down a track through the trees, supported on one side by Tom and the other by Goldberry, until finally they reached a small cottage. Aragorn had never been so relieved to sink into a chair in his life.
"How old are you, Aragorn son of Arathorn, intrepid explorer of Arda?" Tom asked. He nodded his thanks to Goldberry as she handed him a steaming cup of tea.
"I passed my twentieth year some seven months ago."
"You speak with the accent of Rivendell. Which makes sense, as I imagine you lived there as a child. Most of the chieftains do."
Aragorn's jaw dropped, and then he snapped it shut. Tom merely chuckled. "Your wits must be addled if you're so surprised that I know the significance of your name. If you knew me, you would not be so taken aback:
"For old is Old Tom, more ancient than thee,
The Firstborn and Hobbits and Ents has he known,
And again, the merry light in Tom's eyes dimmed, replaced by something deeper and more knowing. "Wandering, wandering, bereft of their crown, yet faithful and humble they're yet to be found," he sang softly, then his voice faded away and in the silence it seemed that all of the sad and august history of the Númenórean line of Kings looked down upon them in the quiet room. Aragorn shivered. Never, aside from the moment he first spied Arwen, had he felt so small and insignificant and unworthy of the mantle so recently laid upon him. Logically, he understood who he was and what his destiny might be, but tell that to his heart, which still struggled at whiles to accept the idea that he was anything other than an ordinary Dúnadan. Tom looked long into his eyes, then his own crinkled at the corners and sparkled again with crystalline laughter. "Ah, now, don't let old Tom scare you. You'll do, young man. You'll do very nicely, I deem."
Aragorn wasn't so certain. The unknown loomed vast and wide before him. He really had no idea what the Dúnedain, that remnant of the faithful of Númenor, would think of him, a stranger walking into their midst to claim the chieftaincy. How would they react? Would they accept his claims? Would they believe he was really Arathorn's son? That he was a Dúnedain? What if they heard his voice and, like Tom Bombadil, felt his accent and his speech too strange? His stomach dropped. What if they spoke a dialect he did not know? What if they couldn't understand each other at all?
No, that was foolish, he chided himself. Of course they would not speak some strange language he didn't know; was his own mother not born and raised among them, and had she not ensured Aragorn spoke even the idioms of his people? Still, unease besieged him and made his palms sweat and his stomach hollow out. He bowed his head and stared at his clenched fist, wishing not for the first time that he had the poise and confidence of Elrond and Glorfindel. Neither of them, he was sure, suffered their imaginations to run riot with the distressing notions to which his own was so prone.
"Here now, chin up, young man, surely it's not as bad as all that!" Tom cried, and his laughing command cut through the icy worry so easily that Aragorn had to look up. Tom clapped his hands and beamed at him. "So... Elrond obviously has told you your name and all that goes with it, and he must also have deemed it safe to boot you from the nest to journey forth on the road to your rightful place as chieftain, or I wouldn't have found you here in the forest, sighing at the lilies and dreaming of whatever fair maiden has captured your heart."
Aragorn blushed furiously, his anxiety swamped by excruciating embarrassment. He wasn't sure but what he'd prefer to be overcome with worry. He swallowed. "Yes, sir. He told me who I am just a few months ago." Although a fine job I'm doing of living up to my heritage, falling down the river bank like a drunken fool. "I... a chieftain should not lose himself in daydreams like that. I was clumsy and not paying attention, and I dare not make those kinds of mistakes."
"Ah, do not be so hard on yourself. Merry-derry-doo, a chieftain are you; ring-a-ding dee, someday king you might be... but today, ah yes! Today you are simply a very young man, and young men regularly fall into daydreams and down river banks." He slurped his tea noisily, then let out a laugh.
"A folly, a dolly, a bob and a bit,
Aragorn stared at him for a moment, not sure what to think about being called a twit, but then he smiled, and a laugh started in his belly that he couldn't hold back. "I was acting the lovesick fool," he admitted.
"A man honest with himself and not so overfull of pride he can't laugh at his own folly, now there's a good chieftain for the Dúnedain!" Tom grinned at him all the wider. "So tell me, young master, what is it that brought you to the banks of the Withywindle and the threshold of old Tom's lands? Not many venture this far toward the unknown."
"I am traveling to my people, as you surmised. I will be meeting the sons of Elrond, who are as brothers to me and who often join my people in hunting orcs, in Archet in a little over a fortnight. They will escort me to the Dúnedain village where my grandparents and an uncle live."
"And so in the meantime you figured to dawdle away your time risking life and limb trying to dabble your toes in the Withywindle."
"I... it looked intriguing." A painfully lame reply, but it was also the truth. He had come up from the south, taking the west turning from The Greenway to Sarn Ford, thinking he might follow that road into the South Farthing of the Shire, but he found himself growing tired of such tame travel, and he knew he would hardly be welcomed by the good Hobbits of the Shire. Wanting no part of any possible encounter with their bounders, whom Elrond had advised him to respect as he would the border guards of any lands of Big Folk, he struck into the wild at Sarn Ford and followed the Brandywine, intending to hit the Great East Road on the far side of Buckland. From there he planned to go east again to the Greenway at Bree, where he might spend a night at an inn before heading on to Archet. But when he reached the meeting of the Withywindle and the Brandywine, the smaller river that disappeared into deep woods looked so fascinating he simply had to explore.
"And after such a tumble, do you wish you'd stuck to the Greenway?"
Aragorn smiled faintly and again readjusted the wet cloth he still held against his scalp. "No, sir. I regret only the knock on the head."
Tom laughed aloud, then leapt to his feet. "Hey dol, merry dol, it's time for something to eat, I think, for we've tales to tell each other, and such long telling and careful listening are hungry work." He seemed to sort of dance and hop as he moved around the room, fairly crackling with energy and vigor, and Aragorn found himself completely enchanted. It was as though he sat in the presence of something elemental, something that was a part of life and a part of Arda in a way that Aragorn or any Man could never be. He found himself envious of Tom, somehow.
And Goldberry! What a vision of grace she was! He watched her put out platters of bread and bowls of berries and pitchers of cream and good fresh water, and it seemed she countered Tom's every hop and skip and zig and zag with elegance and dignity and the sort of ease that the wind takes blowing through willow fronds. Aragorn blinked and shook his head. Though Arwen sent his thoughts into wild flights of fancy, he was not as a rule one for poetic musings such as that. Maybe it was the blow to the head, but he definitely felt he was under a spell here in Tom Bombadil's house. But as he took a bite of hot buttered bread, offered to him on a plate filled with strawberries drizzled with cream, he realized it was a good spell, indeed.
And so he relaxed and lost himself in a contented daze that may have come from the bang on the head but he suspected more likely from the enchantment of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry the River-daughter. He ate strawberries and cream and the bread and butter and shivered at tales of mewlips and barrow wights and shadow brides and badgers, and he laughed at tales of boating and swore he would never brand a swan's bill no matter how haughty the bird swam, and some time long past sun's setting he found himself nodding and blinking heavy eyelids. He felt more than saw Goldberry take the half-drunk tankard of mead from his hand and he heard as through a muffling blanket her gentle voice urging him to walk to a cot. He cast himself upon it and heard Tom chuckle and then he lost himself in dreams of joining the Dúnedain at last, only to discover he could not speak their language. And when he finally awakened, his headache was gone, but so was Tom Bombadil, and Goldberry said not where he had gone nor when he would return. So after breakfast, he bid Goldberry a thankful farewell and went on his own way, wondering just who it was that he had met, and if dreams carried warnings in their half-remembered wanderings.
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