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Place: Northern Eriador then Imladris
Chapter 1 – A Gift Received
The Chieftain’s son overlooked the tribal settlement on the forested shores of Lake Evendim from the high grassy bluff that stood off to one side some distance from the encampment. His father had been right. Dirhael’s tribe was nestled in for the winter, the men having returned to this place after their travels over the spring and summer to gather what they could to provide for the winter’s onslaught. Arathorn sat tall and proud in his saddle. His keen gray eyes surveyed the tidy enclave with approval. His father would be pleased at how well Dirhael and his people were getting on after the tragedy that saw a third of the northern tribal leader’s people killed in an Orc ambush six months earlier. Dirhael had not completely forgiven Arador for, as he saw it, allowing the ambush to happen. It had not been his father’s fault; the orc attacks had come thick and fast that spring and Arador’s forces had been stretched. His father had told Dirhael many times that, if Dirhael could only keep his tribe closer to Fornost, then Arador could offer more protection when need demanded it. Dirhael, unfortunately, would hear nothing of it. He said that his people always traveled that territory and would remain on their traditional lands. Arathorn ruefully shook his head and thought of the stubborn old man. Perhaps the gift of winter grains that his company bore would help bridge the gap between Chieftain and thane. It was Arador’s hope that it would, because he’d always had a great deal of respect for this northern thane, even given his stubborn temperament. He always said it was men of stubbornness and conviction such as Dirhael that allowed the Dunedain of the north to survive the destruction of their kingdom for over 1000 years and keep their identity and their ways living for as long as they have.
Erkenthal, a bearded, burly man with flaming red hair and a scar running across the breadth of his left cheek, rode up and said, “Beg pardon, my lord, but hadn’t we better be riding along before their guards approach.”
Just then horses came thundering up the bluff and blocked the most desired path of escape. A young, perhaps too young, guardsman, had his sword half-drawn sword and was perched upon a dappled gray stallion straining to be let loose. He demanded, “Who are you and what business do you have in these lands?”
Arathorn turned his horse to the young rider, brooch that proclaimed his heritage gleamed on his cloak as he said, “I come from the Chieftain, bearing gifts of winter grain and ale for Dirhael’s people, in token of kinship and love”
At seeing the flash of the brooch, the young rider motioned to those in his command to lower their weapons and stand easy. “Many pardons, Arathorn, son of Arador. These days it does not pay to be careless, as we found out to our great cost.” A look of pain across the young man's blue eyes, eyes that had seen too much to their short span of years. He said, “I am Erithain, Captain of the First Watch. I am at your service, my lord.” The solemn youth bent his dark head and touched his brow and heart in the way of the Northern tribes.
Arathorn returned the greeting in kind and replied, “Your fealty honors my father and I.” He intoned the formal response, and wondered who the boy was. In Dunedain tradition the thane’s oldest son was the watch commander, but this boy was too young to be either of Dirhael’s of-age sons. To cover his confusion he asked, “Now, tell me Erithain, how fares your people?”
“As well as can be expected, my lord,” came the somewhat guarded response. “Come let us return to the village. The Thane will wish to have words with you and thank you for this gift.”
Arathorn smiled inwardly. He noted the young captain’s choice of words and inferred from this short exchange that Dirhael had not yet forgotten his grievances with Arador and was not likely to do so quickly.
The winter village of Dirhael’s people consisted of neat rectangular houses, either made of wattle and daub or wood. Their dwellings had sloping thatched roofs out of which hearth smoke escaped and most appeared to be sunk into the ground. Many were attached to pens in which were kept a few goats and chickens. Off to one side of the village were kept the few communal sheep that were left to the tribe.
Erithain lead them to the largest house in the center of the winter village and bade them to tether their horses at the railing to the side of the small hall’s door. Arathorn motioned for his company of four to dismount and follow the dark youth.
Once inside, Erithain motioned for them to wait. The smell of fresh rushes and hearth smoke reminded Arathorn of his father’s hall. He looked around the relatively spacious room and saw that it was sparsely furnished. The hearth was ensconced in the center of the room and gave off some light and a copious amount of smoke, most which found its way to the upper reaches of the roof. He heard the familiar shuttling of a loom and looked in the direction of the sound. A young woman sat working deftly. He could not see her face but he noticed the graceful way she casually flicked the heavy single braid of honey brown hair back over her shoulder. He was mesmerized watching the rhythmic movements of the woman’s hands over the loom when a voice broke his concentration. He blinked and turned to the voice. Erithain was looking at him with a suspicious eye and looked in the direction of the loom. Arathorn thought he caught a glimmer of a frown on the young captain’s face but in a second or two it was replaced with a schooled control. Arathorn noted that with interest.
“My father will see you now,” said Erithain. Arathorn looked with surprise at the solemn young captain. He did not realize it was the thane’s son he had been dealing with. He had only known of Dirhael’s two oldest sons and, in a flash, remembered that both the northern thane’s oldest sons perished in the ambush. The youth, who looked all of seventeen, was now by right and tragic necessity the watch commander.
Arathorn noticed Erithain staring at him, muted anger and defiance shining in eyes that seemed to say, “Now you realize the extent of our loss, what have you to say?” Out loud the young captain said, “This way, if you please.” He motioned toward the opening in the partition. Arathorn and Erkenthal stepped forward to follow the solemn youth. Behind the partitioning wall sat Dirhael, an older but hale man of with piercing gray eyes and a stubborn and strong set in his square chin. Rare streaks of white were shot through his black beard and shoulder length hair. He sat at the end of a long table with benches on either side. He alone sat in a plain chair, clearly a mark of distinction, and was in discussion with counsel when Arathorn entered the partition. Two candlesticks the height of a tall man stood on either side of the plain chair. Erithain announced, “The Chieftain’s son, father.” Dirhael looked up and Arathorn noticed with compassion that the older man’s eyes born the pained testament to the tragedy his people had endured.
The thane broke off his conversation and rose to his feet. He said, “You honour us with your presence, my lord.” He touched his hand to his brow and his heart in the same fashion as his son. Dirhael spoke the traditional words of greeting but it was clear from his cool tone and manner that he still held Arador responsible for what had happened to his people.
“Your fealty honours my father and I, Dirhael-thane. I come bearing gifts from the Chieftain.” Dirhael surveyed him with keen gray eyes and as something inside seemed to relent he motioned for Arathorn and Erkenthal to sit. The thane called out, “Gilraen!” Arathorn heard the shuttle of the loom cease its constant motion and light footsteps cross the threshold of the partition to stop behind him.
She asked, “Yes, Father?” The voice was strong and sure of itself, if touched with solemnity. Arathorn looked up to see the owner of such a voice. His gray eyes met warm hazel ones that were not usually so somber. The deep laugh lines at each corner were proof of that. They stared at each other for a moment; Gilraen was the first to look away and he saw a faint blush come to her cheeks. He was absurdly pleased by that and barely heard Dirhael request that ale be brought for his honored guests. When he looked at his host to thank him for the courtesy he noticed a look of trepidation on the thane’s face that mirrored Erithain’s expression earlier.
With some reservation in his voice, Dirhael said, “May I introduce my daughter, Gilraen, my lord?" The thane looked his daughter, “Gilraen, this is Arathorn, son of the Chieftain.”
Arathorn stood and again looked into the hazel eyes and said, “It is an honour to meet you, my lady,” holding her gaze as she dropped a small curtsy, watching her colour again under his mild scrutiny.
Gilraen gazed into stern gray eyes and was held by what she saw there. Arathorn's eyes had resolve and command, to be sure, but they also had a gentleness that she did not expect to find within so stern a warrior. “The honour is all mine, I’m sure,” she managed to say, albeit a little shakier than she might have wanted.
“Yes, well. Be off with you and bring back the ale and a light repast.” said Dirhael, gently yet purposefully breaking the moment. Gilraen curtsied again and quickly left to fulfill her errand. Arathorn blinked and surveyed with interest the various expressions on the faces that surrounded him. Erkenthal smiled a knowing smile that made Arathorn want to forget who he was and punch his second-in-command. Erithain glowered at the table with a harsh frown on his face. He would have wiped it away immediately if he had known it was there. The counsel to the thane’s left was busily studying the carving on his wine cup. Dirhael, who stared at Arathorn in accusation and challenge before he schooled it away, was the most intense of all. He said, “To return to matters at hand, you say you have brought a gift.”
Bending his proud brow, Dirhael said with dignity, “They are gratefully received and I send many thanks to the Chieftain. Hospitality and good cheer have been sadly lacking at our table these past months and I’m sure this will help restore it.”
Arathorn heard the unmistakable quotation marks around “this” and his thoughts went again to honey brown hair and hazel eyes.
Gilraen was glad to depart the hall. She leaned against the wall of the smokehouse that was next to the ale stores and tried to calm the beating of her heart. That man, the Chieftain’s son unnerved her with his intense gray gaze and, as her father always proudly said, that was far from an easy thing to do. She felt as if he could see straight into her very thoughts but the more she thought about him the more she felt drawn towards him, even though he had unnerved her. She thought of the gentleness along with the expected strength that she had seen in his eyes. She wondered if she had really seen it or if it had been a trick of candlelight. She felt she had find out and, being rather a direct person, she vowed to find out right away. She gathered the ale skins, bread, sausage and cheese and returned to the hall.
Arathorn had kept up a good pretense of listening to what Dirhael and his counsel Ecthiel had had to say but he was really hoping that the thane’s daughter would return so that he could judge again her beauty, her presence, and how it easily captured his mind. He felt unbalanced by the whole experience and could not understand his reaction to her. He had seen beautiful women before but they had never affected him upon so short an acquaintance. He did have to wait overly long. After about fifteen minutes she re-appeared and briskly and efficiently set the table with wooden trenchers and set the light repast of bread, cheese and sausages in the middle of the table. She did this while avoiding his eyes. When it came time to serve up the ale, she served him last. She took his mug, filled it, and handed it back. She looked straight into his eyes, challenging him to continue staring. He was captivated and he saw her eyes fill with wonder in looking upon him. He could not imagine what she saw but it clearly pleased her. With laughter in her voice she said, “Is the ale not to your liking, my lord? It is for drinking and not for holding.” Arathorn realized that he had been staring, broke his gaze suddenly, and swallowed the slightly sweet ale, barely tasting it. He said, “It is truly fine ale.”
Dirhael, with every intention of breaking the mood, stated firmly, “Too bad then, that the master brewer died in the ambush, then isn’t it?” Arathorn was brought up short, turned, and looked at the northern thane before looking back at Gilraen. Her smile and the light in her eyes fled and were replaced by tears. He saw her shoot a hurt look in her father’s direction and flee the hall.
He turned back to the thane, angry with him for causing his daughter pain with his deliberate remark. In a clipped tone he said, “Yes, Yes, it is. If you will, please excuse me.” Arathorn got up, bowed, and left the hall. He looked for Gilraen, driven by his need to ease the pain he saw in her eyes. He knew that Erkenthal would tease him unmercifully for his behavior and he did not want to think of the insult he may have given Dirhael with his hasty departure but he could not bring himself to care about either man right now.
The soft sound of weeping reached his ears and he turned in the direction of the sound. It was coming from behind the smokehouse. He rounded the corner silently and saw her sitting against the wooden wall sobbing. His heart went out to her and he knelt at her side. He was unsure what to do, then he pulled off one of his leather gloves and stroked her honey-brown hair. In a gentle voice he said, “I’m sorry.”
Gilraen turned her tear-stained face toward him and, in half-accusing tones, said, “Sorry for what? For the death of my brothers? For the fact that my father is now so embittered that he has forgotten the sound of laughter? For the fact that we now need charity?”
Bristling, Arathorn almost spoke before he thought, an action most unlike him. He curbed his tongue and sat back on his heels. With a soft voice he said, “I am very sorry for your loss but please believe that there was nothing my father could have done. Your loss has filled his heart with sadness as it has mine.
Gilraen looked at Arathorn and was ready to accuse him further, but she saw the truth of his statement shining through his eyes. The kindness and strength she had seen earlier had not been a trick of candlelight. It glowed with its own fire in this stern man’s being and love for him took seed in Gilraen's heart.
After Arathorn had chased after Gilraen, Dirhael sat his chair glowering at his wine cup. Nobody had moved since the Chieftain’s son departed; all waited upon the Thane’s reaction. They were shocked when after several minutes of silence Dirhael jumped his feet and left the hall just as abruptly as Arathorn had.
Dirhael had to leave the stuffiness of the hall and feel the cool wind on his face. Thoughts warred for supremacy within his mind. Feelings of anger, helplessness and the ever-present concern for his people crowded in to make their presence known. Something inside of him recoiled at the thought of taking charity, but the realistic part of his mind knew that it was necessary if his people were to survive the winter. He was ashamed that he had been unable to protect his people; this weighed on him heavily. After all what was a leader if he could not protect his own?
He was still angry with Arador for his perceived indifference, but that perception was negated by this gift of ale and grain, presented by his son no less. It was a sign if there ever was one, of the Chieftain’s regard. By all accounts Arathorn was a stern man who expected much from those that served him, but garnered loyalty and even love from those he commanded. He could be severe when needed, but generally known to be a good man. Dirhael knew he should be happy that Arathorn had such a marked interest in his daughter. But something inside him denied the logic and the expedience of such a match. If he was a more political man then he would have encourage the man’s interest, even lobbied for it. Yet he had done the exact opposite and hurt his daughter in the process, he thought with shame. What caused such reservations?
Jealousy. The harsh truth stared him in the face. He loved his daughter; she was the bright spark in his life, full of passion and fire. Of late though, she had been a shadow of herself, weighed down with the cares and sorrows of the last several months. When she came alive in those few moments with Arathorn, a jealousy so strong that it overrode sense stole through Dirhael. He lashed out heedless of the pain he inflicted and the trouble he might incur. The thought of the son of the man who allowed the slaughter of his people even looking at his daughter, let alone making her laugh caused an illogical twisting in the Thane’s stomach.
Fear. Fear was also a factor in his irrational response towards Arathorn. What kind of a life could his beloved daughter have as the wife of a future chieftain? It held privileges, but it also held dangers. Rumours had abound; whispers that Orc numbers were multiplying and that information was being sought about any heirs of Isildur. Dirhael had accounted these rumours as just that, rumours, until the day he lost his two oldest sons. Now painful experience gave credence to these tales. Dirhael feared marriage to Arathorn would only bring sorrow to his beloved daughter.
Erkenthal watched the dark-haired young captain while he sat at table. He saw the dull red colour of anger stain the unscarred cheeks of the youth and observed the tense set of his jaw as the boy glared at his wine cup. He raised an eyebrow and waiting for the explosion of youthful wrath that he knew was only a matter of time. He was not disappointed. Within minutes of his father’s departure, Erithain stood up, drained his wine cup and set it down with an echoing thud and left the hall. Erkenthal thought Arathorn, be gentle with him for he is so young as a small smile widened his face. Erkenthal then drained his own cup, stood and inclined his head to Ecthiel and left to rejoin his companions outside.
Driven by an anger that he did not fully understand Erithain searched for his sister. He knew that he, the Chieftain’s son, had gone to seek her also and Erithain could not allow that slight against his sister's honour go unchallenged. The way Arathorn had looked at Gilraen made his blood boil. How dare he?
He found them behind the smokehouse, talking quietly. “Arathorn, son of Arador! Step away from my sister or you will have me to answer to!” he called out in what he hoped was a commanding voice.
Arathorn stilled for a second and then rose from his kneeling position next to Gilraen. He turned slowly towards the young captain and saw anger and earnest intent imprinted upon the tall boy’s body. He knew instantly that the boy was serious and would be insulted if Arathorn did meet his challenge with the dignity Erithain felt it deserved, especially now as the young captain had begun attracting the attention of his people. Holding the boy’s gaze Arathorn somberly inquired, “Why do you challenge me? What is your grievance with me?”
Erithain looked a little non-plussed. He had not expected to answer questions he had only prepared to fight for his sister. But he drew himself a little taller and stated, “You have sought out my sister, without the permission of my father or of me. That is unacceptable to our ways and I cannot allow it to go unpunished!”
Gilraen broke in at this moment, heedless of the need to preserve her younger brother’s dignity, “Erithain, stop this now! This is ridiculous! The Chieftain’s son merely sought me out to comfort me. Nothing improper has taken place!”
“Comfort! Is that all?”
In his rush to protect his sister the young captain was in fact impugning her honour himself with his rash words. Arathorn drew a deep breath and said, “Erithain, you have my word that nothing improper has taken place between me and your sister.”
Erithain’s voice was now shaking with suppressed rage and anguish, his hand on his sword ready to draw. “And what is that worth, the word of a son whose father allowed us to be slaughtered! Who allowed my two brothers to die?!”
Amid an audible intake of breath from the gathered few, a bellow reverberated, throughout the settlement, “ERITHAIN!” The distraught young captain turned to the sound of his father’s voice.
Disbelief and anger coloured the Thane’s face as he strode down the path toward his son. He grabbed him forcefully by both arms and cried, “What are you saying? Apologise to his lordship immediately!”
Erithain’s face crumbled as he exclaimed, “It’s true!! You’ve said it yourself, Father!” Tears of anger and despair fell down the boy’s face. Dirhael drew back a little and looked at his son. He realised that he had been so wrapped up in his own sorrows and recriminations he had failed to notice the changes in his youngest, and now only son. He realised then just how much the boy had changed over the past months as more and more responsibility had been heaped upon his shoulders.
“You are right, Erithain. I have said it and I was wrong. I realise that now, as I can see what such unguarded opinion has done to you, my son. I cannot stand to see you filled with anger and hatred. It is my fault. Can you ever forgive me?”
Erithain looked at his father as if he had never seen him before. The Dirhael that he had always known never apologised for anything and asked forgiveness of no man. Yet he was asking his son’s pardon. Erithain searched his father’s eyes trying to understand what he was asking of him. Since the death of his two older brothers in the attack, Erithain had felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities and sorrows that had fallen upon him. He had longed to speak with his father, but it never seemed the right time to intrude upon his grief. So he had muddled through on his own. Months of worry and torment broke upon him as he now looked at his father. One word escaped before he fell to his knees collapsing under the weight of his emotions. “Yes.” he said weakly, afterwards starting to sob, “I’m sorry, father. I am no leader. I try but I just do not know how. I have shamed you with my rash actions. I do not deserve your forgiveness or to be called your son.”
Arathorn was moved by such despair. He left Gilraen’s side and knelt by the boy. “No, Erithain. You have not shamed your father. You sought only to protect to your sister and uphold the honour of your family. There is no shame in that.” He pulled Erithain to his feet, “You were brave to issue the challenge. You were mistaken but you also had the courage to admit your mistake. I have much respect for a man who stands up for what he believes to be right and can also see when he has erred in judgment. I would be proud to have you serve with me.” He stated looking the youth straight in the eye.
The young captain looked at Arathorn at first warily, but soon he returned Arathorn’s gaze with the eyes of a man. “I am honoured that you would find me worthy, Arathorn, son of Arador.”
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