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For the birthdays of Armariel, Ansostuff, Ellyn, Xhebepiv, and Maniac 1, and to honor that of Aragorn son of Arathorn.
Three Days’ Work
It was good to be rid of the Dunlendings, all agreed. The patrol that accepted them reported that at least six farms had been raided by this group, and Lord Halbaleg was eager to see them dealt with appropriately. These had broken away from a larger raiding party that had been captured not far south of Amon Sûl, and were apparently seeking to rejoin their fellows when taken by Malvegern’s patrol. Each of the young Men under Malvegern’s governance was praised by the more experienced Rangers, but all noted that Peredhrion’s presence excited surprise and quiet—and private—talk and speculation among the older Men before the two patrols parted company.
Four days later they found themselves outside a newer settlement that a few Dúnedain families were struggling to see grow successfully. A double handful of small timber-framed houses were clustered around a larger, rough-hewn hall within a wall constructed of tree trunks with sharpened tops, each dwelling surrounded by herb and vegetable gardens, with tilled fields outside the walls and a small herd of kine inside a railed fence. Land had been cleared for at least a furlong or two in each direction so that newcomers could be seen approaching and appropriate welcomes could be prepared before they could pose a threat.
Rain had pounded the new settlement, turning the rough road leading to it into a quagmire of black mud. The sky was now clear, but none of their mounts liked the surface underfoot as they neared the gates to the tiny village. Even Peredhrion had to speak to his horse, although none could tell what he said, for it was spoken in Quenya directly into the ear of the creature. Carniaxo flicked his ear back as if listening, then shook his head, his ears flapping audibly for a moment, but he steadied, and his rider patted his neck.
Halbarad, who followed Peredhrion closely on his left flank, tapped the taller youth on the arm and indicated Berevrion, who was closer to the beginning of the column. Berevrion’s horse was picking up each hoof in an exaggerated manner, fastidiously shaking off as much mud as it could before stepping forward, its neck arched, snorting with obvious disgust with each step. Nardir, who rode slightly ahead and to the right of Peredhrion, looked back, his freckled face smiling. “Looks as if the horse is trying to dance,” he said, amusement clear in his voice.
“Looks as if it’s been taking lessons from my older sister Arien,” commented one of the other youths, and those near enough to hear all laughed good naturedly.
Men could be seen gathering up on the walkway near the top of the palisade. One of them gestured toward those on the ground, and the gate began to creak open. Obviously they were expected, and welcome to enter the village. Even Berevrion’s horse began to move forward more rapidly.
The Man who’d gestured to see the gates opened disappeared from view, and was waiting for them just inside the gates as the troop of young Men reached it. He looked out at them, and fastened his attention on Malvegern. “Well, you have come in good time, Malvegern, Baerdion. Enter and be welcome. The women have been preparing a small feast ever since you were sighted by our outriders three hours since. Ah, Túrin—it is good to see you! Come, you and your recruits. I suspect we will have good use for what aid you can give us on the morrow.”
They were brought to the larger structure that served as both a meeting hall and as a sleeping place for visitors to the village. Straw mattresses were stacked in a corner, and there were a number of wooden horses generally used to support trestle tables on either side of the doors, and rough benches against the walls. A small fire blazed in the fire-pit that ran down the center of the room, and they were advised that this would be open to them all during their stay. Several older boys offered to see to the horses, and although a few of the trainees followed Orominion’s lead in surrendering their animals to the boys’ care, the rest followed Peredhrion, Halbarad, and Berevrion out to settle their own steeds.
One of the village boys was looking Peredhrion up and down surreptitiously as each brushed his charge. At last he said, “My papa says that you are dressed Elf-fashion. Why?”
Peredhrion shrugged and gave a half smile. “I was raised amongst the Elves, and this is how I saw people dress all my life. I find Men’s dress to be odd, although I admit I’m now becoming more accustomed to it.”
“Why were you raised amongst the Elves?”
The young Man’s expression became more thoughtful. “My father was killed when I was very small, and when they came to tell my mother of his death they found that both she and I were very ill. So, the sons of Elrond took us to their father’s house so that we might be healed. Afterward we simply did not return. I only learned my father’s name in the early spring, and it was decided that I should return to our people to live. My mother intends to return, also, but wished for me to find my own place amongst our own before she follows me.”
Berevrion, apparently unnoted by Peredhrion, straightened, his eyes immediately looking toward Halbarad as if asking an unspoken question. Halbarad did his best to remain impassive. It was the first his lord cousin had mentioned about the possible return of his mother to their people.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
A gentle, endearing smile. “You may call me Peredhrion, as do these others. But as a child amongst the Elves I was called Estel.”
The boy’s brows rose. “Estel? They named you for the stars?”
Peredhrion laughed. “For the stars? No! In Sindarin and Quenya estel means hope, the hope known not through reason but through the offices of your fëa, or spirit.”
Nardir asked, “But why did they name you Hope?”
The older youth shrugged once more. “Perhaps because I lived in spite of that illness, while my father died. The Elves of Imladris appear to have held a good deal of respect for him. But perhaps it was mostly to impress upon my mother that she should not allow herself to fade to follow him betimes. I doubt that she has ever given over mourning his loss to her company. She loved him most dearly—that is plain to all who know her, for all she can barely bring herself to speak of him.”
Halbarad let his eyes slide sideways toward Berevrion, who had returned his attention to his horse’s mane, but who was still giving little looks at Peredhrion from time to time over his steed’s neck. He’s realizing who this truly is, Halbarad thought, and returned his own attention to the mud he was picking out of the frog of his horse’s near hoof.
All came to the hall for the evening meal, and it did appear to be a feast indeed. While they ate news was shared. The wagonload of Dunlendings they’d captured had been seen by the Men of the village, but had ridden away when they became aware they were being watched and had given no trouble. The harvest last year had been barely adequate for their needs, but they’d been able to trade skins from animals killed and trapped for what stores they’d not been able to produce for themselves. So far things looked better for this year, but only if there wasn’t another driving rain such as had been known in the past few days. Another family had joined the village this year, and one child had been born in the past seven months. Traders had brought them three new books, so there was more for the children to study in their lessons.
Peredhrion was listening with interest, and both Malvegern and Baerdion were watching the young Man with smiles of approval, Halbarad noted. He realized that his lord cousin was doing just what they felt their Chieftain should do in his circumstances—listen and learn as well as he could.
Most of the villagers gave the young Men little heed, save, perhaps, to size them up in order to judge just how much help each might prove in the coming days. For the next three days the young Rangers in training were to assist the villagers here in completing projects that would be needed ere the summer waned, for once harvesting began there would be but little time for finishing walls or making certain that the roads would remain passable once the autumn rains came. “And considering how bad the road is now,” Finwë confided to his fellows, “just imagine how bad it would be when the weather changes in earnest.”
The rest nodded their agreement.
But Peredhrion’s dress and stance managed to attract attention once the meal was over and all began to mingle and talk. One of the seventeen-year-olds was a kinsman to the headman of this village, and several who knew him gathered about him to share their greetings—and more than one question posed to him involved a glance or gesture Peredhrion’s way. It quickly became obvious to Halbarad that the youth’s answers were judged inadequate, and three of that group drew away from the others to carry on a quiet yet spirited discussion of their own. They then descended upon Baerdion, who pointedly refused to answer their questions, finally giving them a low-voiced dismissal that sent them scurrying across the hall. There they were joined by an older lady that Halbarad felt he might have known when he was younger, and after speaking with them for quite some time, she approached the young recruit known to the villagers and spoke a while with him before nodding and bidding him a quiet and restful night.
“Are they ever going to leave us to our rest?” muttered Peredhrion into Halbarad’s ear. “I had quite a long watch last night and feel as if I could sleep for a week.”
“Are you perhaps feeling as if there were too many people here within the hall?” Halbarad asked.
His cousin gave the slightest of nods of agreement. “I find myself trying to watch each of them, but cannot yet predict where they might move next. There is so much confusion.”
“And this is but a small village. Wait until you must deal with a feast in the hall of my father’s Keep!”
He noted that Peredhrion gave a barely contained shudder. “I do not know if I am ready for such an event,” he said softly.
It was at that moment that the older woman Halbarad had been watching brushed against Peredhrion oh, so gently, then turned in artless apology. “Oh, but please forgive me! I fear I was not looking where my feet were taking me.” She stopped as if she were only now aware of whom it was she’d bumped up against. “Oh, but you are the one I am told is called Peredhrion, and that you were raised amongst the Elves of Imladris. Is that true? Oh, but how interesting!”
Does he realize that this is all but a great show? Halbarad wondered.
The woman continued to gush. “I visited Lord Elrond’s home many years since, when I was but a girl. I had a growth upon my arm that he removed that it not become the crab sickness. He is indeed a great healer, the greatest of all within Middle Earth, or so it is said.”
Peredhrion bent his head politely, responding, “Yes, so I have been told, also.”
“And it is told me that he trained you in healing as well?”
On the young Man’s nod of assent she continued, “Then I fear I must entreat you to come with me to see my father. He did not come tonight—he says that he cannot bear being around too many people at a time, that it causes his joints to ache the more.”
She knows how to engage his attention, Halbarad thought, watching his Lord Cousin’s gaze focus.
“Are his joints swollen and distorted?” asked Peredhrion.
“They are beginning to do that,” the woman answered. “But mostly in the past few years cold and damp cause them to ache to the point he cannot easily rise to his feet or reach above the height of his shoulders. If you could come, perhaps you could bathe them with an infusion of the King’s herb….”
But Peredhrion merely looked blank at that suggestion, obviously not recognizing the herb she’d mentioned.
“No matter,” she said. “But if you will please come to him, I would be ever so grateful. Please?”
Peredhrion gave Halbarad a confused look as the woman took possession of his arm and drew him out of the hall. Giving a sigh, Halbarad followed after, making certain his dagger was in place at his belt. If she should prove an enemy, or her purported father….
They walked down the lane to a house on the left that seemed somehow better constructed than the others, and she pushed open the carefully crafted door. “Papa!” she called. “If you can come out, we have a visitor!”
They could hear movement in a room off to the left, and a querulous voice demanding, “Ercassë, why are you bringing guests here at this time of night?” There was a series of uneven thumps, and at last the curtain that closed off the inner room was shoved aside by a wasted hand, and an aged Man emerged, leaning on a stick on both sides.
“Oh, sweet Yavanna,” Halbarad muttered under his breath. “It is Lord Iorgil.” To his cousin’s confused look he added in a low whisper, “He was an advisor to Lord Arador, and he and my daeradar tend to argue—constantly!”
The woman—Ercassë—was already speaking to her father. “He lived amongst the Elves, and has been trained as a healer by Lord Elrond himself, Papa. If he can soothe your joints----”
Lord Iorgil was already shifting his attention from his daughter to the two young Men who’d accompanied her to his home. His eyes grew wide, his mouth dropped open, and he paled. “Arador!” he said. It almost sounded like a cry, but with no volume to it. He fumbled sideways to a straight chair that sat there, obviously placed there deliberately to give him a seat when he emerged from what was most likely his private chamber, and dropped heavily into it. “Arador! Brother of my heart!”
Halbarad’s cousin’s eyes rolled upwards briefly, then looked upon the Man with compassion. “No, Lord Iorgil, I am not your friend. But if I can aid you----”
The old Man’s eyes focused, and his color began to return as his mouth snapped shut. “I see,” he said, eyeing the taller youth closely. “But it is obvious that word of your death so long ago was—perhaps premature?” He shifted his attention to Halbarad, and sighed. “Welcome, Halbalegion,” he said. “Why was I not told of this before? Or,” he added thoughtfully as he returned his gaze to Peredhrion, “was this the subject of that meeting called at Amon Sûl at Midsummer? It would appear I should have made more effort to get there.”
“There is no way you could have gone so far, Papa!” objected Ercassë. “What with your joints so inflamed, you could not have made it. It would have most likely killed you to make such a journey?”
“As if I’d not made similar journeys daily for years,” he growled at her.
Peredhrion stifled a small laugh. “I am certain you did indeed, my lord,” he said. “But that was before your joints began to swell and twist, I am certain.” He moved to lean forward over the older Man and pressed the back of his hand to Iorgil’s brow while examining the Man’s face and eyes. “How long since the swelling of the joints began?”
“Definitely healer trained,” grunted Iorgil. “Five years and some months ago.”
Peredhrion nodded absently as he now examined Iorgil’s right hand. “What herbs have they given you for it?”
He asked for the store of herbs in the house to be brought him, and these he examined as closely as he had Iorgil. He opened a packet of parchment and smiled. “Athelas!” he said. “This will help.”
“I thought you did not know the King’s herb,” the woman said, but when he asked, she went off to the lean-to kitchen at the back of the house to bring a kettle of steaming water and a basin and some cloths.
He poured the water into the basin, breathed upon the leaves and rolled them between his hands, softly singing an invocation for healing as he cast them into the water.
Soon he had Iorgil divested of much of his clothing and with blankets pulled about him to ward off any errant breezes. Carefully he bathed each joint, feeling deeply as he checked to see how much it could move without causing the old Man pain or discomfort, then having him lean forward so as to better check the spine and the neck.
While Peredhrion worked, Halbaleg had a good chance to inspect the house in which father and adult daughter lived. It was a sound place and solidly constructed, but the wooden walls were roughly finished so far. The front door had obviously been brought from elsewhere, and when barred would undoubtedly hold up against anyone seeking to force an entrance. He was rather surprised that the cooking hearth was in a separate room, but perhaps that was simply Lord Iorgil’s idea of how a house should be arranged. Iorgil had once commanded a keep of his own, but a flood some years ago had left sufficient destruction to the village the keep defended that he had given it over to his son and grandsons, declaring he would not live more comfortably than those of his people who had lost their homes.
And now he was here with some of the villagers who had once depended upon him, seeking with them to start a new community where once a different village had stood. Halbarad wished them luck in their endeavor!
Halbarad was startled to hear his name called, and looked up to meet his cousin’s eyes. “Then you haven’t gone to sleep on me with your eyes open,” commented Peredhrion. “Please go back to the hall and fetch me my red healer’s bag from inside my personal bag.”
“Yes,” Halbarad responded, feeling as if he had indeed just awakened. “I will be right back.”
He returned within moments to find both his cousin and Lady Ercassë leaning over Iorgil’s back, with the young Man supervising her as she performed a massage on her father’s shoulders. “This,” Peredhrion explained as Halbarad closed the door after himself, “should allow his shoulders to relax and to feel better after he has been walking with his sticks. It is best done while rubbing a soothing oil or balm into the skin. Ah, Halbarad—thank you so!” He turned to take the bag, and with a casual tug undid the complex knot that held the bag closed. He rummaged through it until he came out with a jar of carved translucent stone stoppered with a wide piece of soft wood. He opened the jar and dipped his fingers into it, then came forward to take over the massage, rubbing the fragrant balm from the jar into the muscles of the old Man’s shoulders. Both Halbarad and the lady could see Iorgil’s muscles relax, his eyes close and his head tip back with a small smile of pleasure on his face.
“That,” he murmured, “is the best my shoulders have felt in months! Do not stop, young Man!”
But in the end Peredhrion did stop and stepped back, turning to now cleanse his hands in the basin in which he had steeped the athelas. Iorgil drew the blanket back around his shoulders as if it were a shawl, now eyeing the younger Man dressed Elf-style thoughtfully. At last the old Man said, “So, Arador’s grandson still lives. He and Arathorn would both be proud of you, I think. And where is your mother, Aragorn, Arathorn’s son?”
Aragorn shook his hands free of clinging drops. “She remains in the house of Elrond for now. She wished for me to find my own way back into our people’s regard.”
“I was a friend and counselor to your grandfather, and an advisor to your father as well. Why was I not advised you had not died after all?”
Aragorn turned to look him in the eye. “I am told that only seven who were likely to survive to see me return were advised of that, to stand witness when I was deemed old enough to take up my rightful role as the Dúnadan. I was not even allowed to know my true name or heritage until last spring, when at last my foster father told me my father’s name and what is expected of me as Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain, as well as why he gave me the child’s name of Estel. I assure you that you are not alone in having been allowed to think that I had died when still but a child.”
Iorgil laughed, and his eyes were alight as he realized, “And your own grandfather did not know it, either? How droll!”
“He appeared most unhappy to realize he had not known that I recovered from the coma into which I’d sunk.”
“So, why has it not been told abroad that you have returned to us?”
Peredhrion—Aragorn—shrugged. “I asked those who attended the meet at Amon Sûl not to speak of my return abroad until I had finished training as a Ranger amongst those who were to be trained this summer. I wish to earn my place as an adult as is true of these, my fellow future protectors of our people. To simply return as Chieftain of our folk without proving my ability to serve or protect I believe would be an insult to all. And I need to know that I would even wish to serve as Chieftain to those I am intended to lead.”
Iorgil examined him again from head to foot, and gave a twisted smile. “Well enough, Arathorn’s son. I would not have expected such wisdom from one so young, but if indeed Elrond saw to your raising I can see his wisdom in so advising you.”
But the younger Man was shaking his head. “This was my decision, as my—my Lord Elrond would not advise me one way or another, telling me that it was my duty and privilege to determine how I should introduce myself to the northern Dúnedain.”
“And your mother did not tell you how you should rejoin our people, either?”
“She answered my questions as to how our young Men proved themselves in the eyes of our people, but gave me little counsel beyond that. And she told me she would give me time to prove myself to the Dúnedain and myself before she returned as well.”
The old Man gave a thoughtful nod to his head. “I see that she, too, garnered wisdom in Elrond’s house. Well enough. Then, Ercassë and I will also guard your secret until you choose to reveal yourself. You understand that you are bound now, daughter, to keep secret his true identity?”
Her eyes bright with excitement, Ercassë declared, “I so promise, Papa, my Lord Aragorn!”
But the younger Man was shaking his head. “Peredhrion—I am known now as Peredhrion, not yet by the name given me by my parents.”
“I will keep my own counsel, Peredhrion,” she agreed, speaking the name slowly and carefully.
The others were abed when they returned to the hall, and so Peredhrion and Halbaleg found themselves taking the two beds furthest from the doorway and fresh air. Neither cared overmuch, and the taller youth stowed his healer’s bag in his personal satchel and fell onto the straw mattress left for him and was swiftly asleep. A few were yet awake and asked low questions as to what Halbarad and his fellow had been doing, but Halbarad merely shook his head. “Healer’s business,” he answered shortly, and the questions stopped. Soon the hall was filled with the soft breathing and snores of the assembled youths, all glad they would not be called upon to serve on the night’s watch, and Halbarad found himself looking up at the dimly visible rafters, thinking on what his cousin had told first the boy in the stable and then the aged lord in his roughly built house. What must it have been like to learn as Peredhrion—Aragorn—had who he was and what was expected of him? To not know his own father’s name, much less his own true name, until he was declared a Man grown? How confused his cousin must have felt!
It was past the middle of the night before he went to sleep himself.
For three days the young Men labored alongside the Men of the village to finish a byre for the village’s cattle and a large barn intended for the storage of hay and grain, and on the afternoon of the third day they spread gravel over the road and trod upon it and dragged heavy flattened stones along its length to hopefully deter it returning to mud once it rained again. A few had labored upon the log walls where until now there had been gaps.
“Good work!” declared the headman for the village when all was done. “We thank you all for your aid, or I doubt not we would still be laboring once the time for harvest comes.”
Many of the young recruits came to Peredhrion to have splinters removed, and Finwë had a scrape cleaned where he’d tumbled forward onto the gravel when it was his turn to drag the great grading stone. They slept one last night in the long wooden hall, and Peredhrion went briefly, Halbarad knew, to see Iorgil once more before they quitted the village.
Berevrion now rode near Peredhrion again, and he showed more deference to the tall, beardless youth than he’d shown before. As for the young Man who was known to those of this village, he kept looking over his shoulder to where Peredhrion’s horse carried its master near the end of the column, unsure as to why so many who’d questioned him within the village had seemed quietly excited by the sight of the one who’d been raised amongst the Elves.
Halbarad merely watched the others and smiled to himself. He wondered how long it would be before Aragorn son of Arathorn revealed himself to the rest, but was content for now to allow his cousin to keep his secret as he could.
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