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Chapter 3 - You Will Bring Them Hope
Two weeks later...
"You should have seen him!"
Elladan glanced in amusement at Elrohir as they both sat on the ground, leaning back against a fallen log beside the small campfire. Their younger brother was fully a man now, and seldom did he resemble the young boy he had once been, a bright-eyed lad who chattered non-stop any time he came upon some enthralling new discovery. But sometimes, like now, the man gave way to the lad and Estel seemed ten years old again.
"He reminded me of a little wren," Estel said, his hand flapping as if it were a small bird. "You know how they are, flitting and hopping and busy and then stopping in the middle of it to sing a merry song... he was just like that. There were times he nearly made me laugh out loud, though I dared not for fear of offending him, and besides, there was something else... a sort of agelessness in his eyes that told me that here was someone at whom I should never laugh, ever. Are you certain you've never met him?" He looked from one twin to the other, eyes shining as he leaned forward, his entire body seeming to quiver with earnest hopefulness.
The little boy all over again, Elladan thought, and buried the welling pain of nostalgia in a large bite of half-burnt coney. It tasted horrid, but hunger is never particular, and he was grateful that Estel had more than enough to share when he and Elrohir stepped from the growing shadows into his camp outside Archet. "No, Estel," he said, "I am afraid I have only heard of him, from Glorfindel and Erestor. What of you, Elrohir?"
He shook his head, not even bothering to grunt as he attacked his own meat. Elladan smiled faintly; they really had been hungry. It was fortunate that Estel had nabbed three coneys in his snares, though perhaps it might have been better had they arrived before Estel had actually tried to cook them. Elladan did wonder, sometimes, how they had failed so completely to teach Estel how to cook.
"Maybe I can take you–"
Elladan laughed. "Sit, Estel. No one with any prudence goes rushing toward the Old Forest at twilight. Besides, it's a day's journey away, at least, and we're still eating."
"And you," Elrohir said pointedly, "have business north of here."
Very important business indeed: two days hence, Aragorn would be taking his rightful place among the Dúnedain in their hidden village beyond Deadman's Dike in the North Downs. And seeing how poor hunting had been as Elladan and Elrohir traveled toward their rendevous in Archet, Elladan was sure neither of them wanted to exchange the comforts of their foster brother's fire for a fruitless chase after the will o' the wisp that was Tom Bombadil.
Estel blushed and sat back down. "You're right. I just... I would love for you to meet him. Maybe you could tell me then just who he is."
"From the sounds of it," Elrohir said, finally looking up from his single-minded devotion to the coney's hind leg, "I'd say he's a cheerful little purveyor of nonsensical rhyme."
"But he's more, don't you see? He knows things. He knew about me."
"Because he is friend to Gandalf. He no doubt mentioned to him that you were heading to your people at last," Elladan shrugged.
"But I have never met Gandalf. I doubt he knows I exist!"
"He knows," Elrohir said. "Gandalf knows most things."
"But why would Gandalf tell Tom Bombadil about me if my existence is supposed to be a closely-held secret? If he told, then it must be because Tom is special in some way, and if so, then how? Who is he, really?"
"Gandalf has his confidantes, all of whom are trustworthy but many of whom are as ordinary as an oak tree," Elrohir said, clearly bored with the entire topic. "It is not for us to question a Maia. Besides, for all we know, Gandalf might have told every innkeeper from Rivendell to the Grey Havens about you. Maybe you're no more special than an acorn from that tree behind you."
Aragorn mouth opened and closed a few times but nothing came out. His eyes flashed as he started to rise.
"Peace, Estel. My brother is tweaking at your tail, that's all." Elladan stretched out his legs with a languid motion and crossed them at the ankles. "I'm sure Gandalf hasn't revealed you to anyone who cannot be trusted. Of course, one might wonder about the judgment of a Maia who trusts Elrohir, since Elbereth knows there's nothing of note about him."
Elrohir hurled an empty bone, which Elladan ducked easily.
Estel let out a disgusted huff of a breath and threw his hands in the air. "Very well, I can see I cannot convince either of you."
Elladan squeezed Aragorn's shoulder. "Estel, you have always had a burning desire to know everything under Arda to its very last detail. And that's a good trait; I am not disparaging you for it. But you must accept that sometimes there will be things that are beyond your understanding."
"Like Tom Bombadil?"
"Exactly. And you are right; despite our jesting, Tom Bombadil is special. He... well, suffice to simply say that he is. He is his own master, according to Gandalf, and is from before anyone, and likely he will outlive all. He lives now within his own borders and by his own council and by the whims of the wind, from what I understand of him. Be grateful that he found you and befriended you, and worry not about the rest."
Estel looked far from mollified, but he nodded and wrestled a bite of meat off the bone. He chewed, his gaze darkening as it lost itself in the view to the north. Elladan eyed him carefully, for he seemed suddenly to shrink, his shoulders falling and his knees gathering to his chest, and Elladan had the thought that perhaps it wasn't an eagerness to see Tom Bombadil that had Estel so keen to turn around and hurry in the opposite direction from their destination. But he said nothing, and soon Estel's voice came, small and uncertain.
"What, Littlest?" Elladan asked gently, for such was the change in his entire demeanor that Elladan was reminded again of the younger Estel, the boy who would come creeping into his bedroom late in the night, frightened from a nightmare or a strange noise outside his window. It was during those times that Elladan would cuddle him close and call him the littlest but the bravest warrior and let him fall asleep beside him. ‘Littlest' had stuck as an endearment, but only used in times of Estel's deepest emotional turmoil. It was never, under threat of Elladan's iron fist, to be held in jest. Even Elrohir had better sense than to do that. In fact, Elrohir at the sound of the name sat up a little straighter and looked on with concern.
"I... I am ready, I think, and of course eager to take my place as Chieftain, you know that. You both do," he added with a glance to include Elrohir.
"Of course," Elladan murmured. Elrohir nodded.
"But what of them?" Aragorn blurted as he waved his arm to encompass the entire northern horizon, and then his words poured forth like troubled water through a broken dike. "Do you really think the Dúnedain will accept me? As their chieftain? Eventually, I mean, because of course I do not want to charge in and immediately take over. I know I must prove myself first, and learn their ways and customs. That is, I know the customs of the Dúnedain, in my head, but living by those rules... it puts them in your heart, and I have to do that first, do you see what I mean? I need to learn their ways as one who has always lived among them before I act on my rightful office of chieftain. Does that make sense?"
Elladan barely had time to nod in agreement before Estel rushed on.
"But that's what worries me... I haven't lived among them. Living nearly all my life only in Rivendell... there are bound to be little things that I do that will be hopelessly wrong. I'm sure to insult someone, without realizing. Or forget to say something or do something and cause offense. I worry that I will be too different. Tom Bombadil even commented on my Rivendell accent. What if they find me too foreign? Too odd? What if they can't even understand how I talk?"
Elladan's eyebrows rose. "Why on earth would you think that?"
Estel looked down at his hands. He shrugged but didn't immediately say anything.
"I... I had a dream that night at Tom Bombadil's, and several nights since, of that very thing. That when we arrived at the village, they spoke but it sounded of gibberish to my ear, and when I spoke it must have been incomprehensible to them, for they shrugged and turned away and abandoned me."
Elladan was tempted to laugh but for the very real anxiety underlying the words. Estel, on the cusp of a new life and eager to prove himself, was having a wholly understandable if completely unfounded crisis of confidence here at the last. Elladan dared not tease, for what young man wouldn't be suffering the pangs of doubt at such a time? He moved closer and draped his arm across his shoulders and gave him a brief, tight hug. "Yes, Estel, they will accept you. You know the customs of your people better than you realize, thanks to your mother's tutelage. And you are not wholly unknown to the Dúnedain, though we have let news of your life lapse to the point where many now believe the rumors that say the line of kings is truly ended. Right or wrong, we let those rumors persist because they kept you that much safer from the enemy, though I hate that it came at the cost of your people's hope.
"But even so, some know all about you: Halthir, Gilraen's brother, and his son Halbarad, your cousin. Visits you have had from both, and neither had the least problem understanding your speech. And you know that your grandparents Dirhael and Ivorwen have been keeping up with your progress, through stories Elrohir and I have relayed. Both love you in their hearts though they have yet to behold your face or hold you in their arms." He hesitated, his thoughts taken by Ivorwen. "Ivorwen loves you so, Estel. She once told me that her arms ached to hold her grandson."
He had to stop, then, as the memory of her tears unleashed too much sorrow in his heart. These last twenty years had been difficult, as hard as any he could remember. Too long had he helplessly watched these people struggle to hold to hope, hard-pressed on every side, dwindling and yet bravely hanging on to their culture with every fibre of their being. How many times had Elladan longed to leap to the nearest roof and shout, Behold, find joy, for your hope yet lives, protected by secrecy all these long years! But he couldn't, nor could Elrohir, and it had worn on their own hearts until they too wearied from despair. That he and his brother found relief in the knowledge that there waited in Rivendell the one who would return hope to his people was little comfort when they could not speak of it to those who most needed to hear it.
But the day following tomorrow... that day at last Elladan would have his moment to shout from the rooftops! He felt ready to burst with pride and joy, for he knew Aragorn's heart and knew, Valar willing, Aragorn would be the mighty king for whom they had waited so many long years. But how to tell all of that to this young man who had not the slightest inkling of the joy his simple appearance – unskilled, untested, odd accent and all – was about to unleash?
"Elladan?" Estel's voice was if anything even more anxious.
Elladan regarded him. Strong, keen-eyed, firm of jaw and mind... even consumed with worry, Estel had the look of Elendur and Elendil, moreso even than Arathorn had possessed. "Your people will need only look at your face," Elladan finally said, "and they will weep with joy that their hope has returned. But lest your worries keep you from sleep tonight, I say this: look to Halbarad as your compass. He refuses to talk to Elrohir and I about anything but you. ‘What of Aragorn?' he will whisper when no one is near. ‘How tall is he now? When will he join us? Is he good with a bow? Can he hunt a wild stag? Will he be a good warrior? Does he know farming and husbandry and how to keep a village fed and warm through a hard winter? Will he be a canny trader? And tell him to be sure he doesn't slice off his foot with his own sword...and here, take these letters to him and have you any for me from him...' You'd think the two of you were betrothed."
Elrohir choked on a laugh. "I wonder if father would be more accepting of that union than the one Estel has in mind!"
Estel's face flamed bright red. "Hold your tongue! You forget I am big enough now to beat you until you are indistinguishable from the dust in which you now sit."
Elrohir smirked at him and took another bite of meat.
"Getting back to your question," Elladan continued, his voice softening, "Let me say one last time to end all doubt: Yes, Estel, Aragorn, Arathorn's son. They will accept you. I say again, you will bring them hope."
"I only pray their hope is not misplaced."
Elladan reached over and tapped Estel under his chin, lifting it as he did. "Here now. Enough of this. You will be a great leader if nothing else because of your humility. But do not let humility sink into doubt. And do not mistake tonight's spate of nerves for inability or unworthiness. You suffer only from the normal jangling nerves afflicting any worthy man on the cusp of taking on a great task at which he dare not fail."
Estel said nothing. But after a long moment, he nodded and set his jaw and squared his shoulders and Elladan smiled, for he had seen that look before, that shaking off of uncertainty and worry. He knew Estel was giving himself a stern talking to, banishing that inner voice of doubt. After one last deep breath, it was not Estel but Aragorn that stood. He tossed the bones of his meal into the fire and shook his blankets out, spreading them more smoothly for the night. When he glanced back at Elladan, his gaze was firm, the little boy once again lost to the past and the man... the Chieftain... firmly in place. "Since you're both here, you two can split the watches. I haven't had a full night's sleep in the fortnight since I left the house of Tom Bombadil." He stretched himself out on his back, yawned mightily, then immediately fell into a deep sleep.
"Already issuing orders," Elrohir chuckled. "And already sleeping like a warrior."
"‘When and where you can, and don't waste time getting there.' I can still hear Glorfindel telling us that over and over. It seems Aragorn took that lessen to heart."
"As he did all his lessons. He will be an excellent chieftain, despite whatever his doubts whisper to him in the night watches."
"And a greater king than Arda has known since Elendil."
"You foresee that?"
"No. That is simply my own assessment, no doubt tainted by my love for him as a brother. Still, I have dreamt of him sitting on a white throne, wearing the winged crown. I do not know if it will come to pass, of course, but I think..." His words trailed.
"I think he has brought hope to us all," Elrohir said.
Elladan nodded. "Get you to sleep like Aragorn, brother. I will stand the first watch. I am not overly tired as yet, and I want to think on things."
"You need not tell me twice. But do not stay up the entire night pondering the mysteries of the world. I have no wish to travel with a cranky companion tomorrow."
"As if I am ever cranky!"
Elrohir showed his opinion of that statement with a snort loud enough to make Aragorn stir. "What?" he asked sleepily.
"Nothing," Elladan said. "Just my brother's flatulence. You know how he gets."
Aragorn gave Elrohir a look of disgust, then rolled away from them and went back to sleep.
Elladan grinned up at the stars, suddenly more lighthearted and full of joy than he had been in many long years.
Tonight they would sleep and pass the watches with silly jests and brotherly encouragements. Tomorrow they would travel with much the same. But then the day after...
The world changes.
He glanced at Aragorn, sleeping with his arm flung over his tousled head, and grinned even wider.
He only hoped Arda was ready.
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