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The Reaches of the North: 11. The Council at Rivendell
The Dúnedain created a spectacle riding to Imladris. The troop of Rangers rode openly on the road, banners flying, tricked out as fine as a wandering people could be. They made a glorious sight, if there had been anyone to witness it. Except for rabbits nibbling clover at the roadside, and a doe and her fawn that stared boldly and leaped away out of arrow shot, Eriador was barren.
They rode to Rivendell on business. A fortnight past, a herald had arrived in Fornost, a spectacle in itself in the northern lands. He was a young archer named Brithelion bearing Elrond's standard and an official scroll. He had strode haughtily into the hall, bowed grandly to Aragorn, and said his piece. A fine bit of playacting, Aragorn had considered it. A council of the northern lords was to be convened to decide what to do about the growing threat of the orcs massing at the mountain strongholds of Gundabad and Gram. Their raiding parties regularly threatened the High Pass and they recently were spotted east into Esgaroth. Rivendell's defenses were limited and the Dunedain had no spare rangers to defend the eastern road to Mirkwood. The trade between Thranduil's realm, Esgaroth, and the Blue Hills was threatened and the high passes were becoming too dangerous to travel without a large, well-armed company. Mirkwood's king was demanding action to keep the trade routes open.
Aragorn rode as the representative of the Dúnedain, his first official role as diplomat to the other Peoples and a dozen Rangers rode with him including Halbarad and Maracus. Also at his side were the twins and Gandalf, who had accompanied them from Fornost. A half-dozen boys, laughingly named squires, had been brought along to help with the baggage and horses.
As they set up camp on the second night on the banks of the Bruinen to await an elvish escort, Elrohir came to him, his horse still tacked.
"We leave you now. It would not do for the legitimacy of the council for you to ride in with Mithrandir and the sons of Elrond. Remember, Dúnadan, that Rivendell is as unfamiliar to you as to any of the council members." Elrohir cautioned, his lips curled in a conspiratorial smile. Aragorn watched his three friends ride into the night, wishing that he too might steal away in the darkness and canter the last few familiar leagues to home.
In early morning, a very formal Elven guard rode in to camp, acknowledged the Chieftain, and led the Dúnedain across the Bruinen into the valley. Aragorn's heart soared as he rode up the trail and crossed the first bridge; he was home! He inhaled the spicy smell of firs and falling water so long missed. The music of water playing over rocks was balm to his soul. He stared in wonder as did those of his men who had never been there; marveling that his home had not changed in the years he had been gone.
The horns of Rivendell announced their arrival and in the courtyard Erestor, Elrond's seneschal, formally greeted them. The sage elf gave no inkling of his long relationship with Aragorn, welcomed them to his Lord's House, and directed them to guest accommodations in one of the far pavilions. Aragorn turned that way reluctantly, saddened by this game of stranger he must play and secretly wishing to sleep in his old room.
Later, refreshed and in their finest, the Dúnedain gathered with the other council members at a reception in the main gallery. There, Aragorn's welcome by Lord Elrond and his sons was formal and distant. Elrond graciously nodded to the new leader of the Dúnedain and announced that he hoped their two peoples could continue the close and supportive relationship once held by all men and elves. Aragorn stoically joined in the charade, acknowledging the elf-lord and saying something flowery about bringing peace to the north, but his heart sank at the lack of emotion in Elrond's eyes. Perhaps, Aragorn thought, this formalness was not acting and this coolness was all that remained of his childhood here.
Before Aragorn could dwell on the dismal thought, Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien smiled and embraced him, ignoring the pretense they were strangers. The lord of Lothlorien in turn presented him to the Dwarf lord, Kewlu, blonde and garrulous, of the house of Dain, and his retinue; the men of Dale led by Blake, a prince of the ruling house; and the elvish agents of Mirkwood. Aragorn found himself staring eye to eye with their leader, the black-haired Túveren Aegililon.
Although he lived in the Greenwood and was a courtier at Thranduil's Court, Túveren was of high Noldorin descent, an heir of Fëanor. His mithril embroidered black velvet robes, encrusted with rubies and beryls, made even Celeborn's elegance look shabby. Aragorn felt cold as the elf's haughty gaze ran over him, and Túveren's greeting, though proper, held a note of what Aragorn could only decipher as dismissal. As he turned at the hail of a friendly voice, he felt the elf's green eyes, unusual for his race, narrow and follow him.
Mithrandir caught him by the arm and guided him into an alcove, handing over a flagon of cool Imladris water.
"My boy, you looked just about overwhelmed. I thought to give you a moment to collect your thoughts." He nodded to Túveren who was speaking with Elrohir. "One needs all their wits about them when they cross swords or bandy words with that one."
Aragorn nodded his thanks and sipped the water. He needed a break from the crowd and, just as Gandalf said, was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the delegates. The gathering, in surroundings he had longed to see, with his family acting so coolly to him, brought an aching melancholy to the young leader's heart. He was at home, the place he had desired to be since leaving it, yet those he loved could not acknowledge him, and he tasted the bitterness of being alone. So, he was thankful for Gandalf's friendliness. Before long, he left Halbarad to hobnob as the Dúnedain envoy and slid away down the path to his mother's cottage. There he received the welcome deserved by a son returning home and he spent the long afternoon in his mother's garden, drinking spiced tea and relaxing, lulled by her soft voice and merry laugh.
* * * * * * *
That evening, the high tables in the Hall of Feasts were set up in a large crescent, seating arranged by rank. Brimming platters and silver chargers gleamed on the blue-covered tables. Scented candles glowed in the sconces. Elrond, in robes the midnight blue of Imladris, sat flanked by Kewlu and Gandalf with Celeborn seated to the dwarf's left. Aragorn sat between Gandalf and Elrohir. He'd felt out of place and on edge earlier among the strangers, but now he relaxed between two he knew so well. He began to watch the guests and realized that there was an incredible display of wealth in the room. Never had he seen so many jeweled crowns or robes heavily embroidered with gold and silver threads. All seemed vying to show through their wealth, which was the most powerful. He looked down at his black velvet tunic laced with silver and decided the Dunadan looked quite shabby in comparison.
As the last guests were seated, Aragorn looked up and saw Arwen enter. She was beautiful in pale green and rose, their shading mimicking the elusive scent she always wore. Lord Túveren was at her side, his hand protectively on her elbow. He guided her to Celeborn's side and sat down next to her, almost as solicitous as a suitor.
A stray, niggling thought that the dark pair made a handsome couple entered Aragorn's mind. Arwen looked up and met his eyes, quickly dropping hers to the table, blush brightening her cheeks. Aragorn stared his fill, wishing her hair down instead of bound up in the beryl studded mithril net. She, by right as publicly unspoken for, should wear it down at such a gathering, Aragorn mused. That thought seared into his brain as he realized the implication and his world suddenly reeled. He flinched suddenly and the wine goblet near his hand toppled.
"Is aught amiss, my lord Aragorn?" Elrohir inquired formally, but his brotherly concern showed in his eyes. "Are you all right?" he whispered, leaning in to mop at the running wine. Aragorn gave no answer to Elrohir but continued to stare at the handsome elvish pair seated on the far side of Elrond, mesmerized by Túveren's attention to Arwen, a growing, bitter pain in his heart.
* * * * * * *
"Elves cannot be trusted!" Aragorn likened the sound that erupted in the room to a swarm of angry hornets. With it, the throbbing at his temples threatened to burst his skull. The first session of the council was not going well. The air still vibrated with Blake of Dale's pronouncement. "Except for our allies of Mirkwood, we have found you to be a deceptive lot." The dark-haired man sat down to congratulatory murmurs from his men and the dwarves.
"Men are also deceptive." claimed Urilion of Lothlorien, a march lord of the eastern forests. "Can we ever trust what men say? Our borders are threatened regularly by wicked men along the Anduin. And, men have forsaken promises before and broken alliances of old." He looked pointedly at Aragorn.
"Gentlemen, you argue issues that happened hundreds of years ago." Aragorn spoke from where he stood near the cold fireplace. "We have a common problem now with an obvious solution." Aragorn pointed out. "Orcs are endangering our free movement. Can we not address this one issue?"
"Perhaps you have not the courage or the will to keep the passes open, young Dunadan. Perhaps you lack the strength of your father." Urilion returned. Aragorn's eyes blazed: no one had ever questioned his bravery before. But, he held the angry retort behind his lips.
"We have ridden with the Dúnedain to clear the roads. The orcs grow in number. Their strongholds in the north and Dol Goldur breed them faster than we can kill them." Elrohir said, in defense of the men of the North.
"No one doubts the services you do, my lord." Túveren quickly deferred. "But, these orcish strongholds are in the north, in the lands claimed by the Dúnedain. Are they too weak to keep their own lands clear? If so, they should be petitioning with humility for us to protect them." He turned to Aragorn directly. "Men are weak." Túveren sneered with real hatred. "And the line of Isildur weakest of all."
There were snarls from both Halbarad and Elrohir, and Elrond raised his hand for silence. Although it was not yet noon, his elvish cousins were spoiling for a fight and would soon provoke the men of Dale or the dwarves, if they found Aragorn would not be baited. He broke the session for the rest of the day, hoping to cool tempers.
As the representatives moved to clear the room, Aragorn would speak with the dark elf lord to find out why he had discounted him on sight, but Elrohir, seeing what he was about, whispered "Leave it be." At the same moment, Erestor pressed a note into his hand. "Waterfall Path" was its message in the script he had long come to cherish.
Without another word to anyone, Aragorn left the council chamber. He changed quickly into tunic, leggings, and boots in the guesthouse, changing from a powerful northern leader to a young man who walk unseen among the noble-born as an apprentice to a warrior or a healer. He avoided the fuming Halbarad, who soundly cursed both elves and Dalemen in the adjoining room, and slipped away unnoticed across the orchards to the woodland paths. She stood there just inside the tree line, a basket in her hands, dressed as a boy. Her raven hair was tied in two long braids and her grey eyes reflected the blue of the sky when she turned her face up to him.
"I've been waiting for you, Estel," Arwen said mischievously and once again, he was that boy. He took the basket from her and the quickest of kisses she would allow. She took his hand and led him up the hilly path to their favorite shaded spot, overlooking the waterfalls and the valley.
Arwen had packed wild berries, a jug of summer wine, mild, pale cheese, and Lindë's delicious oatmeal cakes in her basket. She knew these were some of his favorite foods and pressed them on him until he pointed out he would soon burst. Then she sat with her back to the beech trunk and he lay with his head in her lap, telling her the triumphs and problems of his life. It was the warmest of summer afternoons and the breeze was soft. Lulled by the sweetness of the wine and her healing touch, Aragorn soon dozed, peaceful and content. However, their reverie was short-lived.
"What a fine sight! I think I have wandered into a mural of old: elf-maiden seducing a man." Arwen bristled at Túveren's appearance and his sarcastic tone. The dark elf stood a few yards below the couple, his hand resting with menace on the pommel of his sword.
"What do you do here, Túveren? You must have hunted long to find me." Arwen's tone was imperious.
"I heard you went walking in the hills. I assumed you desired some company. Then I found you'd been followed," Túveren's nodded toward Aragorn. "It was not hard to follow his trail so I came to see to your safety. The integrity of men cannot be trusted and this is an isolated spot."
"She was not stalked. She is quite safe," said Aragorn mildly, his eyes still closed. "Now, go away."
"I speak not to you, Isildur's heir." Aragorn had never heard his lineage used as a slur before. Túveren turned back to Arwen. "Why do you dally with this man?"
"The lady does not dally. Besides, she is free to keep what ever company she would." Aragorn sat up and looked directly at the dark elf.
"I think not. It is not proper for one so highborn." Túveren continued to ignore him, addressing Arwen. "Lord Elrond would not be pleased to know you are here, cavorting with one such as he. If you will not come away with me, I shall have to bring this news to him."
"Please present my greeting when you do," returned Aragorn with a smile. Túveren stormed away, disgusted. The sound of him thrashing through the brush was very unelf-like. Aragorn waited for silence to return.
"Tell me." He stared out across the valley, not wanting her to see his eyes.
"It isn't what you think---" she began. He turned and took both her hands.
"It's exactly what I think. Tell me," he encouraged gently.
"We met a year ago in Thranduil's Hall at Yule. He is quite arrogant." Arwen paused, considering Aragorn's feelings. She seemed to make a decision and continued. "Túveren has been looking for someone of proper bloodlines to take as mate before he sails to Eldamar. H-he has been pursuing me since. That is why he used his influence to convince Thranduil to send him as envoy instead of the prince as Ada had suggested then." She hesitated again. "You should know, with recommendation to Ada from Thranduil, he has presented his suit to take me as wife. Ada, of course, said the one I marry would be my choice. I have warned him away repeatedly, but I cannot tell him of us."
"Of us…" Aragorn nearly lost the rest of her words as that phrase sang through his head…"of us."
"I've sent signals I was already spoken for---I put up my hair for the feast last night---he took it wrongly." Arwen continued. "He thought it was for him."
"As I did," Aragorn said softly. She looked shocked.
"Oh, no, my love. I am truly sorry." She leaned against him and pressed her mouth to his, startling and delighting Aragorn. The soft kiss sent an unexpected frisson through her body. The kiss deepened and it was many moments before two pairs of grey eyes opened, revealing surprise and desire. Aragorn took an unsteady breath and rose, pulling Arwen to her feet.
"We need to go. It's getting late and perhaps Túveren was right; you are not safe with me here alone." Her fingertips brushed the pulse in his throat, causing him to tremble, and he caught her hand. Emotions roiling, unfamiliarly shy and silent, they started back though the deep woods. Soon, the two were talking amicably, and the unsettled feelings had left them by time they came out into the orchards. At the foot of the terrace stairs, Aragorn reluctantly released her hand and turned over the basket.Erestor, still in full ceremonial robes, awaited them there. "My lord Aragorn, Lord Elrond wishes a word." The seneschal stepped forward and led the young man inside, up the staircase, and grandly opened both doors to usher him into Elrond's study.
"Lord Aragorn of the Dúnedain!" Erestor announced formally at the entrance, but winked as he stepped aside to let Aragorn enter. Túveren was standing near Elrond, looking agitated. Though Aragorn could not imagine anyone so audacious, it seemed as if Túveren had been arguing with Elrond. He became even more perturbed at Aragorn's intrusion.
"My lord, thank you for answering my summons." Elrond smiled at Aragorn, and turning back to the elf-lord, said dismissively, "Lord Túveren, if you'd like to continue this discussion later…but for my part, I feel it is concluded." Túveren had the good grace to bow to his host. He stalked past Aragorn just a hair's breath from being too close in passing, green eyes filled with loathing. Elrond recognized the challenge for its intent but knew intimidation would not work with his son. Erestor closed the door and left Aragorn standing with his foster-father. The feeling of uneasiness that had haunted him since he arrived was oppressive now.
"Come here." He jumped forward at the commanding voice he had learned to follow without question. Elrond looked at him curiously.
"You look as you used to when I'd call you in for punishment. I do not still hold such power over you, Aragorn." his father smiled.
"You will always hold power over me, Ada." Aragorn answered honestly. Elrond took a quick step forward and embraced him. "I called you here because you need a proper greeting home, my son, one I sorely wanted to grant when you rode in." He gestured to two chairs pulled up to be hidden from view yet catch the breezes from the balcony. Elrond poured two goblets of cold spring water and handed one to his son.
"He was just here to complain about you." Elrond said, nodding toward the door. "'A danger to my daughter.' He claims you are untrustworthy and suggested she should have a guard or that…" Elrond looked bemused, and finally laughed, "I should keep her safe behind locks in her apartments."
"A locked door would not prevent us from being together. Ada, you should know I learned to climb the balconies of your house long ago." Aragorn lowered his eyes in mock confession.
"Aragorn, Túveren wishes to wed Arwen and take her beyond the trouble to Eldamar. He is a great lord of high lineage and power, of a family worthy of the Evenstar." Elrond looked at Aragorn for reaction, and saw none. "I admit as her father, it is a temptation to see her safely away from here." Aragorn rose and walked to the balcony. He needed to collect his thoughts and did not want Elrond to see the tremble in his hand. He stood there for a long moment in silence, gathering his courage.
"Safe for eternity, but unhappy." Aragorn turned and faced Arwen's father. "I would have her safe also, but not in an undesired marriage." He rested his hand on the solid column of the entry. "Whether she gives up her immortal life for me is her choice. Away from this haven, I have learned much of the treachery of our times, things I was never truly aware of it in the safety of Imladris. The future is uncertain. If things become more dangerous, if any thing should happen to me, I ask that you take her to the Grayhavens and se-send her West."
Elrond heard the break in Aragorn's voice. The Lord of Imladris stepped to his son and folded the young man into his arms again. He began to understand the depth of love this man felt for his daughter. He thought of how he had let Celebrian go, though to do it broke his heart each day anew. He led the young man to his chair and made him sit.
Elrond deftly changed the subject. "Tell me your thoughts about the Council. You've grown in wisdom since you've been gone and are the only member other that Celeborn whose perceptions I can trust." Aragorn thought a moment.
"Celeborn and I are with you, my lord. The threat of Mordor's evils grows with each passing year. That should seem obvious to all. But, the dwarves seem unwilling to exert effort to protect themselves. However, they will follow Mirkwood's lead, as will the men of Esgaroth." Aragorn seemed pensive. "They baffle me, these men who behave like sheep and these elves who do not behave as I have been taught to expect. All three groups distrust each other so they make uneasy allies, but all three trust us even less."
"The key is Mirkwood. How will Thranduil's envoy vote, do you think?" Elrond asked. Aragorn looked honestly at him.
"Is Thranduil's interest in ridding the mountains of the orcs duly represented here?" Elrond was silent for a moment, and then answered with a question.
"What do you think of Túveren?" The elf lord studied his son intently.
"What should I think? He seems uncooperative at best and hateful to most of the delegates. I don't believe he wants a coalition and I don't believe he represents Thranduil. I have never felt deception from Elf-kind before, but in this dark elf's soul, there is treachery and something worse."
"He has blatantly insulted you several times in the council chamber." Elrond pointed out. "A young man I once knew would have called him out for such. Is your hatred coloring what you perceive?"
"I don't believe so. There is much to be gained or lost here. Personal arguments between the representatives serve no purpose." Aragorn grinned. "I can take insults, Ada. My hide was toughened by my brothers and Captain Halbarad is brutally honest in his appraisal of my weaknesses." That brought a smile to Elrond. Aragorn's cool temper pleased him. As council leader, he valued the Dúnadan's tenacity but as father, he issued a warning.
"Be careful of him, Aragorn. I feel he has a ruthless side to his soul."
* * * * * * *
Before dinner, Gandalf and Elrond retired to the study to assess how their negotiations were progressing. Elrond paced, hands behind his back, as the wizard helped himself to his friend's fine míruvór.
"Aragorn is still impatient."
"He is learning patience." Gandalf stated, filling his goblet from the carafe on an ornate side table.
"You are certainly a good tutor for that." Elrond gestured out to the garden. Gandalf saw Aragorn, subtly paying tribute to Imladris dressed in blue and grey, sitting in the shade of a white flowering tree. His head was tilted back, his eyes closed, long booted legs stretched out before him. To most observers, the Dunadan was napping.
Gandalf knew the young Ranger was well aware of his surroundings and of the two above him. He probably also sensed he was the subject of their conversation. He saw Arwen dressed still from an earlier ride start across the courtyard. She tensed suddenly, like a deer scenting the breeze, and she turned to the reclining figure, half-hidden by the trees. Uninvited, a smile played on Elrond's lips.
Elrond could hear the murmur of Quenya from the motionless Aragorn, but even his sharp Elven ears couldn't quite make out the words. Elrond saw his daughter's eyes dart toward the study railing and then she defiantly strode past the fountain and sat down next to the Dunadan, stretching out her long legs to match his.
"You know," Gandalf nudged his old friend. "As much as we plot for the future, they too plot." He gestured to Aragorn and Arwen. "That may be as fated as anything we do."
"There was a reason, Mithrandir, I encouraged my daughter to dwell in Lothlorien and not abide here as Aragorn grew into manhood. He never saw her as sister; he's known her only as his beloved." Elrond sighed. "I do not like to dangle my daughter as prize for accepting a throne, nor do I care to see her embrace mortality. For no one else would I do this." He sighed and straightened his robes in preparation to go down to his guests.
* * * * * * *
For that evening's banquet, Arwen threatened Erestor with harm unless he rearranged the seating in the hall. Dinner found Aragorn seated between his lady and Lord Celeborn. As confidante to his granddaughter, the lord of Lothlorien was well aware of the awakening feelings between the two, and although he deferred to his wife and son-in-law in such affairs, he approved of the joy the Elfstone brought the Evenstar.
As the sweets were cleared, singing and story telling were announced for the Hall of Fire. Aragorn boldly took Arwen's hand as she rose and escorted her to her place there. The music began with ballads of old, and the visitors were dazzled by the fabled entertainment of Elrond's hall.
Finally, Lady Leannë, sister to Gildor, and a doting aunt to Aragorn as he grew up, came to him. He was standing, talking with Glorfindel and Haldir of Lothlorien, and enjoying the music he missed in his own holding. She took his hand. Aragorn smiled at the lady, realizing for the first time he was looking down at her silvery tresses caught back in a circlet of gold; he had grown taller than his willowy aunt.
"Sing for us; we've missed your voice in the Hall these long seasons, Estel." she requested quietly. Glorfindel added his encouragement.
"I hazard there is no other Edain warrior here who can sing as you can." Aragorn quirked a brow at his mentor's jest, but nodded to Leannë.
"I can never say nay to you, Lady." He bowed to her and walking to the dais, talked for some minutes with the hall musicians. He turned back to the expectant audience. "If you will allow a poor poet a song, I will sing to you a soldier's lament written on the eve of hopeless battle, knowing he will not see home and his lady fair again."
The song had come to him one night in Fornost as he had read a dispatch telling of another of the Dúnedain killed by orcs. The death had caused him to wonder if he would see Arwen again, or like his father, suffer a sudden death protecting the North from evil. The hall quieted, and the musicians began a slow ballad set to a timeless turn. Aragorn's voice, low and haunting, filled the room.
"O lady of the twilight
Do you see the stars above?
Their grace fills my sight
As the breeze sings of my love.
"O lady of the midnight
Do you think of me this eve?
My heart lies in the valley
Where sought I not to leave
"O lady of the watches
Can you hear my heart beat there?
I pine for sight of your grey eyes,
I miss your gentle care.
"O lady of the moon-dark dawn
When soldiers ride to war this day
The rising sun will warm my cheek
Where your tender hand once lay.
"O lady of the daylight
The trumpets call me to war
When I die for honor this day
Think of me no more."
Aragorn wound his way around the hall, singing to several of the ladies. With the last stanza, he stood in front of Arwen, and sang the first lines again before he ended the song. On one knee, he took her hand, and turning palm up, kissed it. He looked up at her mischievously amid the enthusiastic applause, and then rose and bowed to Elrond. No one close missed the conspiratorial look between the two.
The Rivendell folk were, of course, pleased with their young lord's performance and his courting of their lady, although they were careful not to acknowledge any connection, and the Galadhrim applauded the song for its merit. The dwarves and men of Dale agreed this man was as good a bard as any of the Elven minstrels. Even the Mirkwood elves grudgingly admitted it was a fine song, though Túveren had narrowed his green eyes early on, and now left the hall outraged.
Halbarad was pleased as a mother might be of her son and slapped Elladan on the back with a force that would have staggered most men. "That was a fine elf-song, don't you agree, my lord?" he said. Elladan smiled at the crowd's reaction and Halbarad's enthusiasm for his chieftain.
"That was no elf-song. That was his own." It was hard to startle the old captain but he had no idea his lord, in addition to battling orcs and holding his own among diplomats of the free peoples, could also compose love songs.
* * * * * * *
After another half-day of unproductive discussions, recriminations on all sides for wrongs half-forgotten by time, and Túveren's ever-growing overt scorn for Aragorn, Erestor announced there were games arranged for entertainment in the afternoon and the delegates huffed off to refresh themselves before the mid day meal. After an open-air luncheon served in the garden, the seneschal matched up opponents for archery and swordplay, hopefully as a release for some of the brewing tempers.
Aragorn watched the shooting seated with Elrohir and Elladan: he knew he had had little practice recently and was never a match for the Galadhrim or the archers of the Greenwood anyway. Glorfindel held his own for Imladris and his kin applauded his skill. The sword fighting began and Maracus acquitted himself well against one of the men of Dale. The words of congratulations from his chieftain meant more to the young ranger than actually winning the match. Elrohir put on a show with Glorfindel that was more demonstration than match, and had Aragorn laughing and catcalling, as he lounged with Elladan on the side. As another match began, Túveren strolled over to where Aragorn stood with the three lords of Rivendell, Elladan dusting off his brother from the match's last feint that sent the twin rolling in the dirt to trip and disarm Glorfindel.
"Do you fight, Dunadan? Or are your skill only those of a minstrel?" He spoke loud enough to bring snickers from the Woodland elves and the men of Dale. Elrohir looked at him narrowly, his patience with this guest's rudeness exhausted.
"I will spar if you'd like, Túveren." He saw the glitter in Elrohir's eye and waved away the offer.
"Little protection will the periannath receive on the East Road if the young chiefling cannot raise his sword." Túveren announced loudly. There were snarls from Maracus and the other Dunedain. Glorfindel and Elrohir took the insult with fire in their eyes.
"Certainly, I'll spar with you, my lord." Aragorn bowed formally. The Elf seemed surprised at the acceptance of his challenge.
"You know the risks, sir? I'd hate to see your beauty maimed."
Upstairs in the study, Elrond's voice drew Gandalf from his reading.
"Túveren has finally challenged Aragorn. I'll stop this now." The wizard came to stand by his friend on the balcony and put a restraining hand on his arm.
"No, allow him. It is a test. Have you no faith in our young friend?" Gandalf's merry gaze allayed his friend's anxiety.
Maracus had run for Aragorn's sword. The young chieftain stripped off his coat and listened to Elrohir's quiet warnings as he pulled on his tight, elbow-length leather gauntlets.
"I've fought with him and against him. He is fast and if the fight goes against him, so goes the rules. His weakness is when he parries right…and his temper. He doles out insults indiscriminately but is thin-skinned himself." They watched Túveren unsheathe a slim, beautiful Elven blade, finely worked with gold, a green gem glowing in the tang. He sent it humming through the air in great arcs. Although Erestor had carefully outlined the rules for the mock fighting earlier, Glorfindel reminded the combatants of them, emphasizing there was to be no blow dealt that would gravely injure the other. Aragorn, without show, walked to the center of the area, lifted his sword on vertical to his left, the first defensive position in Elven sword training, and stood ready.
"A man that fights as an Elf! How quaint! How pathetic." Túveren goaded. He circled warily, twirling his sword one-handed, first right then left, and suddenly rushed in. Metal clanged and scraped as he feinted by. Aragorn turned with the glancing blow and returned to his defensive posture, his eyes cool, watching. They had drawn a crowd: Gandalf and Elrond were in plain view on the balcony and Arwen had come down to stand beside Celeborn on the terrace, her grandfather's comforting arm around her shoulders.
"Come, come, my lord. I had hoped for more sport than this." Túveren taunted. "I had hoped the Dunadan, last of the great leaders of our Numenorean brethren, would be an accomplished swordsman. You bore our audience." He made a grand gesture as if to look around, hoping Aragorn would do the same, then instantly lunged. Blade rang against blade again. Aragorn parried the swing and answered with several ringing blows in his unique spinning, slashing style, driving Túveren backward, the dark elf resorting to a two-handed grip to ward off the attack. The blades ground against each other for a moment, and Aragorn released the hold, springing back and returning to his guarded stance. There was a murmur of appreciation for his power and speed.
"Well," Túveren's laugh barely covered his gasp for breath or his surprise. "Someone has taught you well, lordling. You acquit yourself commendably with your blade. I would not have thought it for one so young---and inexperienced." The elf charged again this time, seeming to cleanly aim for Aragorn's blade, but at the last minute sweeping low. Aragorn saw what he intended and leapt over the deadly scythe.
"Foul!" cried Glorfindel. "Remember yourself, Túveren! You spar, not seek to maim." The dark elf shrugged and whirled, looking again to catch Aragorn off guard. He slashed upward and to the right. Aragorn saw the sudden change in the direction but compensated for it one moment too late. His blade deflected the blow but not before a deep slash opened in his upper arm. The crowd collectively gasped.
"You may end this now, since you are hurt." Túveren pointed to the freely bleeding arm with his sword.
"Does the sight of a little blood make you weak, my lord? Aragorn backed once more into his defensive posture. "Do you always quit before things are finished? Not a good trait in battles…or" Aragorn smiled broadly, "with the ladies." His bandying brought chuckles from the crowd.
"No man will best me; few Elves ever have." Túveren circled, visibly irritated by Aragorn's words. "You are master, then, of your own fate, Isildur's heir."
"Perhaps your bragging is what the lady does not care for." Aragorn's voice was pitched low and the quirked brow above the laughing silver eyes was too much for the dark elf. Túveren charged in anger. To the watchers it looked as if Aragorn's leg suddenly buckled under him. Elrohir started forward with a cry, his sword half drawn from his scabbard; he knew what Túveren would do with this. Before his eyes, suddenly the Elf-lord was in the dirt, his legs kicked out from under him, and Aragorn stood over him, left boot resting lightly on the wrist of his sword arm, his sword held at the elf's throat. The young chieftain held him so for a moment, tapped him lightly on the chest, and turned away.
"My lords, I think we have a winner!" Kewlu bellowed, clapping his gnarled hands. "Well done!"
Aragorn smiled as he walked to Elrohir. "Amazing, little brother, where did you learn---"Something changed in Elrohir's eyes. "Watch out!" Aragorn spun and his sword sent the elven dagger thrown at his back spinning into the garden. Túveren was on his feet, malevolence blazing in his eyes, his tightly gripped sword raised in challenge.
"Enough!" thundered Elrond. Túveren stared balefully a moment up at the lord of Imladris, and then stormed through the ring of spectators. The Mirkwood elves stood woodenly, embarrassed by such a cowardly and graceless act, but the rest surrounded Aragorn, congratulating him with handshakes and pats. Maracus' voice rose above the noise.
"A Aragorn! I Dunadan!" The crowd took it up and shouted it three times. A fourth cheer rang out alone, clear in the falling twilight."A Aragorn! I Dunadan!" cried Arwen. He looked up to her standing at her grandfather's side, and bowed deeply in gratitude. Túveren rode out within the hour with a small guard, leaving Tentelan, a novice emissary, to continue in the role of Thranduil's representative. The elf's behavior had not only tarnished his own reputation, but also disgraced Thranduil. What the tempestuous elf-king's reaction would be could be hazarded. Túveren of the House of Fëanor might be enjoying the fabled hospitality of the Woodland Realm's dungeon for his actions.
Later, in his private apartments, Elrond sat stitching up Aragorn's arm. The water in the basin before him was red with blood. He could tell the boy was in pain. He was pale under the tan and there was blood on his lip from where he had bitten it rather than cry out.
"Wouldn't you like a little athelas? Or some willow bark tea?" Elrond again suggested two strong pain relievers. The repair was proving more painful than the wounding had been.
"No, thank you, sir." Aragorn ground his teeth as the needle pierced the tender edges of the wound again. The master healer's care of wounds left little scarring but sewing the myriad tiny stitches that made it so could bring strong men to tears.
"There is no need to suffer." Elrond shook his head at his stubborn son.
"I deserve the pain. What I did was foolish."
"Sometimes when we're young, we are allowed some foolishness," Elrond observed, "especially when we are young and in love."
"This foolishness did not come from my heart. I simply was tired of Túveren's slurs toward Men. And after I told you I was thick-skinned; I'm a disappointment." Aragorn looked seriously at his foster-father. "I never realized elves hated men so. It makes my heart ache. I always believed the old alliance made by our houses still held true. "
"I still trust in the bond between Edain and Edhellen. Nevertheless, many, both men and elves, feel as Túveren does. It has not always been so, but these times breed distrust and isolation. Look to Mirkwood and Laketown; they are uneasy comrades who were in recent times made allies by necessity." Elrond began wrapping his arm in white linen strips. "But, there are different elves as there are different men, though long life usually brings a more tolerant attitude. I find it startling when one of my race can be so closed-minded after two thousand years of life experiences. Throughout your life, you will encounter many races. People within each are as individual as the snowflakes. Their experiences and their upbringing influence them, as does their lack of exposure to other cultures. Look to each as individuals, friend or foe on their own merit." He finished bandaging Aragorn's arm and patted his shoulder gently. "You'll live to fight another day---many other days." He set aside his medical equipment and rinsed his hands in a fresh basin.
Elrond rose and poured two glasses of the fine amber liquor he limited to special occasions and important guests. "A little painkiller now?"
"Thank you." said Aragorn, accepting the goblet. "And, Ada, thank you for stitching me together and for your wisdom. I often find myself wishing for it at Fornost."
"Trust your own wisdom, my son. It is not wisdom, simply experience you lack."
* * * * * * *
"You are all fools!" Aragorn's temper had finally snapped. The representatives again had been arguing for hours on who had done what to whom hundreds of years ago. "Can you not see the House Imladris and the Dunedain have cleared the High Pass for you each year and daily keep the roads safe enough for trade and travel? Can you not extend us the courtesy of helping clean out the orcish strongholds so our job will be easier? Will you bicker over nothings as the evil ones slowly take your lands and kill your loved ones? You no longer even know why you distrust each other. Those involved have passed long ago; their halls crumble into dust!" When he finished, he was shocked at his words. The most callow of the representatives by his own standards, he had just named three-quarters of them fools. Silence hung thick in the room.
"I see no further need to waste my time here." Blake of Dale broke it, rising to his feet. The Mirkwood Elves rose also, and followed by their allies from Esgaroth and the Iron Hills, they haughtily marched from the hall. The other representatives quickly followed. The Lothlorien group eyed Celeborn uneasily and he waved them out with the rest, staying himself. Soon, only the Imladris folk, Gandalf, and the Dunedain were left in the council chambers.
Elrond and Gandalf both sat with their heads buried in their hands. Elladan looked curiously as if he was about to cry and Elrohir stood facing the cold fireplace, his hand resting on the mantel.
"Of all the hot-headed comments!" Halbarad upbraided Aragorn, "That, laddie, was indeed nicely done! Diplomacy will certainly not be an area your rule will be noted for." He gestured grandly around the room. "You've given the wise men in the realm headaches with your careless tongue!"
"No, he hasn't." Elladan could hold his laughter no longer and it echoed in the hall. Elrohir's shoulders shook and he turned, slapping the startled Aragorn's back. "Priceless!"
Elrond had tears of laughter on his cheeks. "The utter astonishment on Tentelan's face! I don't believe that haughty lord has ever been called a fool before."
"The dwarf was sputtering like a hot tea kettle!" Gandalf laughed. "He'll be cursing all the way to Thranduil's Hall."
Halbarad decided there was still a room full of fools. Aragorn looked ingenuously at them, a surprised smile tugged at his mouth.
"They are upset and probably are at this moment ordering their retinues to begin packing. Our reason for meeting has been accomplished," pronounced Gandalf, pulling out his pipe.
"But we have no help in attacking Gundabad," began Aragorn.
Elrond shook his head. "Although it is a task that needs execution, it was not our main purpose. Our true reason for the Council was to present the new high king to his future allies. Whether they would admit it now or not, they developed a strong awareness for your abilities during this meeting. They saw patience and intelligence, ability to assess problems, and strength in arms."
"They also saw someone that was self-deprecating, slow to anger, and willing to listen to peoples of other races. Eventually, they will decide your words were wise, and all will believe the fool part did not apply to them but to everyone else." Gandalf pointed out.
"When the time comes to unite under one leader, they will remember the Council at Rivendell where they met the young king and found him just." said Elrond, accepting a glass of wine from Elladan.
"This was never about orcs?" asked Aragorn, collapsing into a chair.
"A small part of it was. We would have counted it fortunate if they had agreed to attack Gundabad. The orcs will have to be dealt with eventually if we want to keep travel routes open." Gandalf conjured a light for his pipe. "Our real reason is one we can be often accused of: empire-building. These peoples have not sat across the table from each other in negotiations for hundreds of years: you saw that.""In the future, your most difficult task will be to get them to unite under one banner." explained Elrond. "We brought them here to sow the seeds of your reunited kingdom and I believe our future harvest will prove bountiful." Aragorn nodded to his mentors, and turned his gaze on the mural of Sauron and Isildur. Once again, he felt his life careening, not in his control, but nonetheless guided skillfully on a swift current by the machinations of these two.
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