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Chapter 18 – A Story to Tell…
Aragorn rode onwards. He passed the Trollshaws, his thoughts dark now with revealed memory. His father had died on this land. He shuddered with almost a remembered pain as he slowed Gilgilath to a walk. Ever conscious of his surroundings, as he had been trained by Elladan and Elrohir, he surveyed the landscape. He saw an outcropping of rocks, readily defensible and a flash of recognition ripped through him. This was the place, the exact place where his father died. It met the description Elladan had shared with him, albeit reluctantly. Or perhaps no, maybe it was just a flight of fancy; he wanted so much to believe and to belong to some memory beyond his life in Rivendell. He did not belong in there any longer. His Adar had made that clear. He said it was time he learn what Elrond could not teach. He thought of his Adar and closed his eyes against the pain. Imladris was home. It was all he had ever known. Its lush woods nestled safely within the sheltering ravine filled him with a sense of contentment; of belonging, now denied by destiny. Traveling with the Rangers of the North had opened his eyes to the wider world around him, but Imladris held that special place in his heart, that no other could enter. Part of him wanted nothing more than to return to Imladris and feel the whispering wind through the trees welcoming him home once again, but he knew deep inside that he would never live in Imladris again. The realization nearly broke his heart but with squared shoulders and determination in his eyes he rode forward through the Trollshaws. He rode to a home he could not remember and a future filled with uncertainty. His destiny, as revealed by his Adar, weighed heavily upon him.
One thought cheered him and propelled him forward. He was to be among the Rangers of the North whom he admired greatly. One, above all, he was most anxious to behold in full knowledge of the bond that held them. Erithain, friend and uncle, awaited him in Fornost. There had always been a special bond between the boy and the quiet man who lead his people, but it was not until now did Aragorn understand why the bond was so strong. He greatly admired the Man of strong character and quiet manner. Seeing his friend again and calling him “uncle” was the thought that held together the pieces of his fracted and homesick heart. His destiny began its uncertain journey in Fornost and there waiting was a friend.
Erithain leaned his back against an unadorned pillar as he sat on the steps of the Hall in Fornost and looked out over the settlement and past towards the hills that bordered Fornost to the east. Every night for the past week had seen him on these steps, pondering.
“Thinking again, my lord?” a voice said at his side, “You know no good will come of it.” Erithain broke his reverie, looked up, seeing Erkenthal, his friend and long-time councilor. He smiled as he took the proffered wooden mug of warm honeyed mead and took a sip, savouring the warm sweet liquid as it slid down his throat. “That is a good mead, my friend. Rhianon’s?” he asked, referring to Erkenthal’s wife of many years.
“None other. That woman has many talents. And this is one of them.” Erkenthal spoke with gruff affection.
Erithain smiled again and resumed is his perusal of the distant hills. His earnest grey eyes darkened with concern. “Scouting parties say that the Orc activity is growing toward the east.”
“I have heard the same, my lord.”
Erithain thought of his friend’s words. “My lord” A title he never wanted. Even after eighteen years of being regent it still did not sound right to his ear. He had learned to bear it over the years, but he yearned for the days when Erkenthal would tease him and call him “Kid” and “little brother.” Those days however were long past; ended abruptly by events nearly twenty years ago that Erithain silently commemorated in his heart this day and all week. Events that saw Erithain’s life ripped to shreds and placed him as regent to his people. Erithain closed his eyes in remembrance of Arathorn, his Chieftain and his friend.
Erkenthal seated himself next to his lord on the step and proceeded to examine the younger man’s face. Strain and worry had added lines to the youthful face he first encountered in the far-away settlement on the shores of Lake Evendim and grey now streaked the dark hair that fell a little past the shoulders of his friend. Shoulders that he now noticed slumped a bit in weariness. Concern for his lord and friend crossed Erkenthal’s weather-beaten face as he realized the time of year it was.
“Eighteen years this day, my lord, is it not?” the older Ranger broached softly, looking at his friend.
Erithain opened his eyes and looked towards Erkenthal, sadness evident, “That it is, ‘Thal. That it is.” He replied ruefully, “It has been so long, too long.”
Erkenthal knew that Erithain did not only speak of Arathorn’s death, which grieved all the Dunedain, but also of the needful separation of his sister and young son, safely sequestered in Rivendell. But this thought remained unspoken yet understood between the two Men, for it was Dunedain tradition that the Heir to the chieftain was never spoken of out of doors where a careless word might be overheard. “Soon, I hope.”
As he traveled through the Trollshaws on his way further into Dunedain territory Aragorn realized how much he missed Elladan and Elrohir. They had been ever-present in his life and now they were gone, taking of a part of his soul with them. Their ever-present teasing of one another. It was natural to him as breathing. And now it was gone. He could hear their laughter in his mind and it made the silence now surrounding him that much more deafening. He had traveled far beyond the boundaries of Imladris when riding with the Rangers and his brothers, but he had always been in their company. He thought back to his leave-taking and a pang of sorrow reverberated within his heart.
A week earlier…
Aragorn sat upon his bed in his suite of rooms and looked around. He had grown up in this room; it had been the center of his world nestled as it was between his Adar on the left and his naneth on his right. His saddlebags were packed and ready to go. There was nothing keeping him here except thought and memory. He walked over to the small balcony and stood there breathing in the fresh air. He closed his eyes and listened to the waterfall off in the distance. A small breeze blew across his face and he opened his eyes again to behold the beauty of the scene in front of him. Lush green foliage spilled out onto the river as it made its gentle way out of the ravine in which Imladris was nestled. Soon he would be following that same path. The thought filled him with sadness. He felt a hand upon his squeezing gently in a reassuring way. He looked to his side at the proud figure of his Naneth. She smiled gently, “It is hard to leave, I know, ion nin. But you do not truly leave. Imladris will always be a part of your soul.”
Aragorn looked at his mother. Such a change had come over her since it was revealed to Aragorn his destiny and parentage. She looked alive, more alive than he had ever known her to look. Gone was the haunted look that had always hid within her visage, replaced now by a spark of life that was in truth a joy to see. This was coupled with a fervency that almost took Aragorn aback, so strange it was to behold in his normally reticent and subdued mother. Aragorn chewed his lip before staring into his mother’s eyes, “I wish it so.” He broke his gaze to stare at a long forgotten pinecone unearthed due the recent bout of packing. Memories of simpler times flooded in to his mind unbidden. He looked back his mother, “Naneth,” He whispered, “Tell me true. Am I ready for this challenge? I do not know that I am.”
Gilraen looked into young grey eyes so full of doubt and promise and a knife pierced her heart when she thought of the many things her beloved son would have to endure before he would achieve his destiny, but achieve it he would, of this she was sure. She reached out to pull both her son’s hands into her own so she could face his and directly at stared into his eyes before she said, “I will not lie ion nin. The path you must follow will be hard, and there will times when you will despair, but I know your heart and you will prevail,” Gilraen reached up and caressed the side of Aragorn’s face, “Come, it is time to go.”
Elrond and the twins were waiting for Aragorn at the entrance to the stables. Elladan and Elrohir came forward and the younger of the two looked solemnly into his foster brother’s eyes. “Mellmuindoreg nin! The time has come and you must leave us,” began the dark-haired elf, a deep sorrow shadowing his star-filled eyes, “My heart has no joy of this parting, yet it must be. The Valar protect you, muindoreg,” he whispered as he kissed Aragorn’s forehead.
Elladan cleared his throat and spoke with a full voice, “Where ever you go, we will never be far away. Just think of us and we will be there. Until such time keep this,” Elladan dropped a small, carved wood amulet into his little brother’s hand. Aragorn’s eyes misted over. He thought back to the time when his brothers taught him to carve in wood. This amulet was the result. He rolled the roughly carved amulet around in his hand noting the child’s handiwork that created the curves and hollows of the piece. He smiled, as he looked up with teary eyes at Elladan and Elrohir, his brothers, ever present in his life. Aragorn, at that moment wanted nothing more than to stay, never to be parted from those he loved. “Your amulet, I cannot take this,”
“Take it, it is yours now and let it be a symbol of remembered love and a bond unbroken by distance.” Elladan said, grey eyes intent upon his little brother, brimming with unshed tears.
Aragorn hugged his brother and blindly sought the arm of the younger of the twins to bring him into the fold. Briefly they remained locked in the embrace, until Aragorn broke away. He looked at his Naneth and Adar and he strode toward Gilgilath and as he opened the gate to his stall, saw that the black stallion had already been saddled and merely awaited his master. For a few moments busied himself with the mundane tasks of checking the riding tack in an effort to pull his emotions together, and lead the black stallion out of his stall and into the crisp air and gentle light of the fall day. With a practiced air, Aragorn gained the saddle and sat astride. He looked at his Naneth and Adar, “Namarie,” he said softly, “I must go now. Or I fear I never will.”
With a heavy heart Aragorn sat Gilgilath and trotted alongside the riverbank, the sound of hoof beats pulled him from his musings, He looked up and in the distance amid a voluminous forest green traveling cloak he glimpse flowing raven black hair and knew within a flash who approached.
Arwen slowed her horse to a walk as she approached Aragorn. Noting the full saddlebags, she said, “You are leaving?” Aragorn thought he heard trace of regret in her voice, but he dismissed it as wishful thinking.
Aragorn lost himself the starry blue depths of her eyes then willed himself to remember his voice, “Yes, My lady. Adar says it is time. So I must go.” Regret richly coloured every word. Regret that he was leaving Imladris. Regret that he was leaving her.
“Why was I not told that you were leaving today?” Disappointed sounded gently within Arwen’s question and allowed Aragorn the small hope that she would miss him, at least somewhat.
“ I know not, lady. But go I must.”
They locked eyes and Aragorn felt a connection between them. Looking away he wondered if Arwen had felt the bond as strongly as he did. Venturing to glance back he saw that Arwen looked calm, but he thought saw longing and the seeds of love hidden within the depths of her eyes. With this hope nestled within the recesses of his heart Aragorn turned and followed the river out of Imladris’ sheltering ravine.
Aragorn shook himself from this pondering chiding himself for not paying attention to the world around in possibly unfriendly territory. “Elladan and Elrohir would have my hide if they knew I allowed myself to become distracted in such a way.” He muttered under his breath. He shuddered at the rebuke he would have received from his brothers, “You would keep me safe, though. Wouldn’t you, boy!” he said softly to Gilgilath. The horse whinnied his affirmative reply. Aragorn laughed softly as he patted the horse’s neck. “Come, let us leave this place of unhappiness.”
Later as the day neared dusk and Aragorn was starting to make camp for the night he looked up at the sound of hoof beats, although he could not tell the direction from which they came. He knew it could not be Orcs but he thought it best to be wary and quickly drew the blade that had been presented to him by Elrond at his coming of age.
The next sound he heard fell unexpectantly upon his ear, merry laughter. “I see that Elrond has taught you well. Away with your sword, there is no need.” Aragorn looked back up the trail and quickly realized the truth of the statement. “Gandalf!!” he sheathed his sword and ran toward his old friend. He clasped the old man’s hands and found himself in a sturdy embrace instead. Walking back towards the spot where his camping equipment lay untended, he said to Gandalf. “It has been an age! So glad I am to see you!”
“And I you, my boy!” Gandalf said, eyes twinkling with delight.
“Come! You must share my camp tonight!”
“It would be my pleasure, young master!”
Sitting down to a hot bowl of vegetable stew, Gandalf examined his young friend. He noticed the slight slump of the shoulders and the downward gaze. He sat the bowl down and puffed on his pipe, allowing the smoke rings to waft through the air in their ever-thinning circles as he looked on and waited. He waited for his young friend to speak; he knew it was only a matter of time.
“Did my Adar send you out here to keep me company, Gandalf?”, Aragorn inquired.
“Would it bother you if he did?” The Maia inquired watching the younger man’s face.
“No,” came the quiet answer, “It would comfort me to know that he cares.”
Gandalf smiled as he said, “Well in that case, yes, he did send me. Although he told me not to tell you, lest you should think he was interfering.”
Aragorn laugh softly and then fell silent again, looking across the horizon. Several more minutes passed before Gandalf heard a subdued voice at his side asking, “Am I ready for this, Gandalf? Do not lie. My Naneth says that I am. But in truth I do not know.”
Gandalf puffed once more before answering, “My friend, you show great wisdom, greater than you realize, by even posing the question. I have great hope for you. I could answer the question for you with any number of reassurances or cautions. And none of these answers would have any relevance. What I think does not matter. What your Naneth thinks does not matter. What matters is what you believe. It is your heart will be tested, your resilience to be examined. You must look inside your heart and find the truth within. There you will feel pain, the pain of separation, the pain of uncertainty, the pain of loss. If you are succeed you must find a way through that pain which will lead you toward your destiny. It will not be an easy route, but find it you must.” Gandalf’s voice stern up until now softened with his next words, “And find it you will, of that I am certain.”
Aragorn looked into the eyes of his old friend and found the unadorned truth of Gandalf’s words. The wizard was not merely mouthing platitudes to comfort his friend. Gandalf truly had a belief that Aragorn would succeed. Aragorn was comforted much by his friend’s faith in him. Somehow Gandalf’s faith eased slightly the burden that fallen upon Aragorn’s shoulders. Aragorn had known Gandalf since he was a small boy and he trusted him implicitly and if the old man thought he was equal to the task then perhaps he would be. He smiled gently and saw the smile reflected in the old man’s eyes. “Thank you, my friend.” His smile broadened as he asked, “So tell me how does my Adar?”
Erithain sat by the hearth fire reading missives from the tribal thanes. They all spoke of a growing darkness. Orc numbers were indeed growing. He reached for his cup of warm mead and drank. The heather-scented liquid warmed him as he pondered the future these missives were sketching for him. Something was in the offing and not even the momentary warmth from the mead could completely chase off the chill that was beginning to settle in his bones when he thought of the future. The Dunedain had survived generation upon generation always looking towards the day that would see the Heir of Isildur unite the kingdoms and avenge his people upon those who would see them perish. His thoughts traveled unbidden towards Imladris where his beloved nephew had grown up within the lush green of the secure Elven enclave, surrounded by love. A pang of longing resounded within his heart. He understood the need, but the pain of his loss had never truly lessened. Aragorn had grown strong and proud, though; he could not fault his upbringing. He smiled as he stared at a tongue of flame devouring an unsuspecting piece of wood, thinking of the handful that he knew Aragorn had been growing up. After all he had seen at least a portion of it himself. Gandalf and Elrond had gifted him with the opportunity to get know his nephew as long as he did not reveal who he was to the boy. Erithain cherished these moments; laced though they were with the bittersweet knowledge that Aragorn or Estel as he was named then did not know who Erithain truly was. It warmed his heart that Aragorn truly seem to hold him in affection and it was this warmth that had carried him the last few years. Glancing down at the missives he mused about the future and what it would bring.
“My Lord?” Erkenthal’s voice interrupted Erithain’s musings. Erithain’s head looked up, curiosity aroused by the strange tenor in his second in command’s voice.
“Yes, Erkenthal? What is it?”
“I think you had best come and see for yourself.”
A pit formed at the bottom of Erithain’s stomach, one of expectation or dread he could not tell as he set aside the missives and reached for his cloak off the side of his chair. He flung it over himself and was securing the circled clasp as he strode through the door. He looked up and froze; the half secured clasp forgotten. Standing at the gate was Aragorn, looking a little travel-worn, wearing the most indescribable look on his face. “Uncle.”
The word hit Erithain and set forth a storm of emotion raging through him. That one word changed his future forever. He smiled as he ran forth bouncing the gate back with such force that it rebounded back into place and he enveloped his nephew in a giant bear hug. “Aragorn! I’ve so waited and so longed for this day!”
A clearing of a throat distracted Erithain and for the first time he noticed that Aragorn had not arrived alone, “Gandalf! When did you get here?”
A smile crinkled the old wizard’s eyes, “I arrived with Aragorn, standing right next to him.”
Erithain’s earnest grey eyes grew wide, “Forgive me, Gandalf! I only had eyes for my nephew!”
“And that is perfectly permissible, my dear boy! But it is also why we should take this conversation inside.” Gandalf finished pointedly.
The import of Gandalf’s words dawned upon Erithain as he gestured towards the door, “Yes, of course.”
After allowing Aragorn and Erithain to enter, Gandalf touched Erkenthal’s arm to stay him. “Let us give them a small time alone. Matters can keep long enough for that.”
Erkenthal smiled and nodded his agreement.
Once inside Erithain looked at his nephew who was now smiling, “I have so looked forward to this day. How is your mother? I wanted to visit but it was forbidden.”
Aragorn smiled at his uncle, newly restored to that title, “Naneth is well. In fact more than well I think she is the happiest I have ever seen her. It is strange, it is almost as if she is a different person now. Before she was always quiet and subdued and now it is as if a fire has been lit from within.”
Aragorn’s words stopped Erithain short. He had in passing heard to Aragorn refer to Gilraen as “Naneth” and not “mother”, but it had never entered his mind until this moment how Elven his nephew had become. He looked at him. At 20 he was tall and sinewy and his plaited dark hair fell far past his shoulders in the Elven style. He held himself with a self-confidence and assurance and with a trace of arrogance that if not for the rounded ears would mark him as an Elf. He was also puzzled by his nephew’s statement about his mother. Gilraen had always had a fire about her. It was her fire that she was most known and feared for. He could only assume that the years had changed her. The thought saddened him. “I cannot speak to the former, but I am glad that she is well. And how are you?”
Aragorn looked at him, eyes bright with hope and intelligence, curiosity sitting right behind, and Erithain realized in that moment that although he could be at a glance mistaken for an Elf anybody who truly looked into Aragorn’s grey eyes would see that he was indeed Arathorn’s son.
“I am well. And so happy to see you, Uncle.”
“Uncle” again. The word warmed his heart. “Can you forgive me for not telling you who I was when we first met? I wanted to. I desperately wanted to, but Elladan and Elrohir asked me not to.” Erithain looked into his nephew’s eyes hoping to see absolution. What he saw was love.
“There is nothing to forgive. You only did what you needed to do.” Aragorn looked at Erithain, his uncle and the Man he had come to greatly respect over the years. Aragorn paused, “Many things are still unclear to me and I still have a great many questions, but one thing is clear, in journeying from Imladris, I knew you would be here, waiting. It was the thought I held onto through all my doubts and questions about this new destiny of mine. It was the thought that held me and guided me here.” He smiled at his uncle.
And Erithain smiled back, and the pain of loss that had bound his heart for eighteen years, ever since he had held his weeping two-year nephew on the path just outside this very door and said goodbye, finally loosed itself allowing the bond between uncle and nephew to become whole again.
“Tell me about my father. Elladan and Elrohir told me some, but they also said to ask you. That you knew him best.”
Erithain smiled thoughtfully when he heard that. While Aragorn had called his mother “Naneth” he had not called Arathorn “Adar.” For reasons inexplicable, this cheered Erithain greatly. “Your father was a great man and a good man. Those distinctions are important. Many are destined for greatness, but this does not mean they are always good. Your father was a great warrior, but he also had a good heart. Good enough to take an angry young boy who tried to kill him under his wing and show him how to be a man.”
Aragorn looked at his uncle quizzically, Erithain paused at the puzzled expression on his beloved nephew’s face and smiled, “Pull up a chair, Aragorn. I have a story to tell.”
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