My Aragon Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 17. The Scarred Man
Ivorwen darted one penetrating look at the young man's face and met Gilraen's eyes with a silent meaning.
Aragorn was quiet throughout the evening meal. But as he stood up from his place, he said, "I've decided to leave tomorrow at dawn."
"So soon, Estel?" cried Gilraen.
"I've been here for nearly two weeks. It's past time to return to the Angle, and there are things to be done. Hallor is even now gathering reports from the Rangers."
Dírhael regarded his grandson in silence, a small smile quirking one corner of his lips. Gilraen and Ivorwen exchanged looks.
"You speak with a strange vehemence," Gilraen said. "You make me afraid you'll do something rash and risk your life."
"If risking life is rash, then we are all rash," Aragorn said. "I'm sure my grandparents would acknowledge that, if you have forgotten."
His words hit her like a shock of icy water. "I haven't forgotten. How could I?"
He seemed to realize then what he had said, and reached for her hand and kissed it. "Forgive me, mother. I spoke thoughtlessly. Give me time to see to my affairs. May I speak with you later?"
She nodded, knowing an argument would be futile and unwise. Aragorn strode from the chamber.
Her father sat back in his chair. "He is young, and the young are always in a hurry. I mean to stay another two weeks, and let Hallor wait. But we should let the young one do his own learning."
"It happens that way whether you let them or not," said Ivorwen crisply, "as even I remember."
Dírhael chuckled. "Ah, wife, you were born wise."
Gilraen let their gentle mockery wash over her like a warm bath, and put her fears to rest while she enjoyed their company.
Her son came back soon enough, as she knew he would. His gentle heart would not allow a hurt to fester. When he appeared again in her sitting room, he held out his arm and invited her for an evening walk in the gardens. Gladly she took his arm, thinking what a fine husband he would make some fortunate woman, in some future time when these difficulties lay behind him. "I'm sorry you leave so soon, my son."
"I have a job to do."
She smiled at his earnestness. "I know."
He led her to the rose garden, where the late-blooming flowers perfumed the air. He took her hands. "Please forgive my cruel words earlier. There have been—strains on me. My tongue seems always to say the wrong things."
"Let it go. It will pass, Estel."
He shook his head, and said almost in a whisper, "It doesn't matter now. But I don't wish to speak about it."
And any number of questions or mother's badgering will not change that. How well I know! "But surely, also, there have been some good things? You know your people now, you know more about your father?"
"I've heard many stories about him from the others. But I still have no memories. They are gone forever, I suppose."
"Don't give up yet. You loved him, your father. I remember the last time you were together, he was teaching you to say your name properly. Such a long name for a small boy. You would laugh at how like your names were."
"The name I learned to forget."
"The name we made you forget. It's too late for regrets now, and it had to be so in any case." Why does it still hurt so much? She sighed. "Foolish to pine after impossible wishes."
"So it is." The bitterness in his voice filled her with dismay.
She chose her next words carefully. "Hallor, and my brother and father—all of them praise you; even Ingold, for all his doubts. I'm sure that the problems over that incident with the Orcs"—she shuddered, remembering the tale of Estel's fall and the death of the beloved Brelach—"will pass soon. I heard about Daeron, too. I'm amazed that he is still so bitter and even more that he vents it on you."
"It doesn't surprise me that he regrets his loss," he answered. "Why would I marvel that a man admires my beautiful lady mother?"
She smiled. "You are a most gallant son. I wonder…." she hesitated, and pressed his strong fingers that held her hands. "Daeron sees in you the son he never had."
He started in surprise. "I never thought of that. It seems rather that he hates me because I am Arathorn's son."
"I don't know, I just wonder. I don't know what you think about this tale, Estel, and perhaps it's best if you don't tell me. But I didn't love him, you know. I thought I did, and from my birth it was my father's wish, but then when Arathorn came I found out love was different."
"And my grandfather changed his mind."
"How could he not? To marry into the Chieftain's family—and Arathorn was the best man in Thurnost."
"The Chieftain's family," he murmured, and his eyes were unreadable.
Leave it to my son to choose a woman above the House of Elendil. And suddenly she was weeping, leaning her forehead into her son's chest. "We used to call you 'little king'—Areg, it was. You used to correct me when I slipped, when we first came. 'No, mama, Estel,' you would say. Now I see in your eyes you wish me to call you Aragorn."
He smiled then. "No, 'Estel' is best from those who love me."
"My son, my Estel, take care. Be safe. May the Queen's falcons protect you. Do not stay away too long."
Leaving Rivendell, Aragorn retraced the path on foot he had followed nearly a year before on Brelach's strong back. He carried a heavy leather pack on his back, his green and brown Ranger garb freshly mended and patched by his mother and grandmother, his boots newly resoled and oiled by Rivendell's best shoemaker. He had sharpened and cleaned his weapons and stocked his healer's kit with herbs from Elrond's garden. No Elven garb this time. No heirlooms to carry but the Ring of Barahir on its chain around my neck. Narsil is safe in the locked chest at Thurnost. He liked the steady swing of his own long legs, but the memory of Brelach's joyful canter saddened his way.
Now he knew the way to the Keep well, and turned south after crossing the river to follow the secret path on the western bank. For a man on foot, it was the quickest way. After three days he turned sharply west to the Point, where he expected to find Rangers on patrol. He made the bird call signal as he approached, as he had learned.
Soon he sighted two figures approaching through the trees: Malbeth and one of the boys, by the look of that lanky, red-haired figure.
"Greetings, Aragorn!" called Malbeth. "Welcome back!" The boy, who had sprung up in height in the seven months since Aragorn had seen him, followed behind, his eyes bright, a hardy bow and quiver slung on his back. The dogs trotted beside Malbeth, until, at a sign from their master releasing them from his side, they raced ahead to jump up on Aragorn and lick his face.
"Well met, Malbeth!" he called, laughing as the wet tongues washed his beard. He rumpled the dogs' ears and reached out to clasp his comrades' arms in welcome. "A better greeting than the first, I think."
Malbeth grinned. "At least Damrod will not be threatening to shoot you. He's gone south."
Aragorn turned his eyes to the boy. "You've sprouted like a young tree—and I have to admit I am not at all sure which one you are."
"Rodnor," said Rodnor, grinning foolishly. The wisp of beard on his lip had darkened, and sprouts had appeared on his chin. Aragorn smiled to himself, remembering his distress when his own dark brown beard had begun to grow—in the beardless Elven haven of Rivendell.
Soon they were moving together toward the Point, where Goenor was manning the lookout. He descended the hill to greet the newcomer.
"Where is Hawk?" asked Aragorn, expecting to see the captain in command as usual.
"He's at the Keep," Goenor answered, leaning on his heavy oak staff. "Hallor went to Weathertop, and called on Beleg to look after things in his absence. But Beleg suffered a fit just three days ago." He shook his head. "He is recovered now, and it was nothing more than what he has suffered before, since that wound in Mirkwood all those years ago. But Hawk thought it best to join him at the Keep."
Aragorn nodded. "Otherwise, all is well?"
"It has been hard, Aragorn. You heard the news of Saelind's death?"
"Yes. Not unexpected, but it grieved me all the same."
"Her time had come. She was the oldest of us all. We lost Rotheniel and Dorlas too—the winter is hard on the old. But just two weeks ago two children died of the coughing fever."
"Who?" he cried.
Goenor thrust his bearlike arms out in a gesture of sorrow. "Ingold's great-grandchildren. He does not yet even know of it. Fortunately, no others fell ill."
Aragorn sighed. Could I have saved them if I had been here, with a skilled power? "It's a sore blow—for us all, and he most of all."
"Yes, and the rumors from the wild increase as well. You must know more than I do about the news from Thranduil."
"I have heard as much as Rivendell knows. Elladan and Elrohir are going to Mirkwood to assist. Soon we should know more. They mean to come here on their return."
"Well, isn't that friendly?" said Goenor. "I gather Hallor had a good talk with Elrond, and now we are on a better footing with Rivendell."
"Perhaps it would be truer to put it the other way around," Aragorn said.
Goenor barked out one of his great shouts of laughter. "Fair enough. For me, I am willing to forgive Elrond for the past, but I will not forget it. You, now—you've shed some of the Elf, I see."
"I will understand that as praise, coming from you," Aragorn said with a smile.
Aragorn did not tarry, but soon bid them farewell and continued on his way. He had not gone far when the kee kee kee of the Queen's falcons pierced the air. Their effortless, swift flight in the clear sky brought a joy to his heart beyond the appreciation of their beauty. The guardians of Númenor in exile brought hope. As hard as the blows fall, how much worse off would we be without their watchful eyes seeking out the spies of the Enemy.
But as he approached the Keep, anxiety surged within him. What is this foolish fancy? he chastised himself. As tense as the Keep can be, it does not warrant a girlish fright. I must learn to control these moods and the brooding that distract me from my duty.
As if to second this reassurance, the people of the Keep greeted him with joy. Ríannon, enveloped as usual in a vast apron, showered him with hugs, seated him in the kitchen and served him a hearty meal of freshly baked bread and thick stew, made from the summer's lambs. She plumbed him for news as he ate. Fíriel lingered, smiling happily, looking for any opportunity to serve him. Lalaith, her ginger hair in long braids, wanted to sit in his lap. Dírgon was crawling around on the floor, digging into everything his chubby fingers could grasp. Exasperated, Ríannon placed sacks of apples in a circle against the wall, and set her son within the space with wooden spoons for toys.
The children's stormy energy astonished him. "Do they always grow this fast?"
A merry laugh escaped their mother. "Oh, yes. And they are always this much work. You were always into mischief." Her eyes sparkled.
"You are not that much older than I, to remember that."
She shrugged. "I am a good ten years older than you. I looked after the children as a girl, as the older girls do now, when the women are busy. You were so active and inquisitive that we had one minder just for you. How I wish I had one now for this one! But the girls are all busy with the harvest."
Hawk found him just finishing his meal in the kitchen, and called him to a meeting in the map room. "Urgent matters to discuss, Aragorn. I am glad you are here."
Aragorn followed his upright, strong figure through the halls of the Commons to the Rangers' meeting room. Forbidding and silent, Daeron stood at the door, waiting. They exchanged cool greetings, and Beleg came hurriedly into the room, stumbling across the threshold.
Daeron held out his hands to steady him, and Aragorn caught a glance of concern on his face. The man is not as cold as he likes to appear, to care for Beleg, the old comrade of my father, his rival.
But Beleg turned to Aragorn with a warm embrace. "All Thurnost rejoices when the Heir has returned.
"Many thanks," Aragorn murmured, feeling awkward under the gaze of the man's bright eyes.
Hawk spread out a map of the Weather Hills. "The news from Hallor is not good. His men have seen wolves north of the Weather Hills, and more signs of trolls. No actual sightings, but the debris of their bloody killing. Truly, Mordor is on the move. We must take heed that Angmar does not again become a threat. The Ringwraiths are now in Mirkwood; may not one also return to the North?"
"So Elrond wonders as well," Aragorn said.
"Before winter sets in, the Rangers at Weathertop will venture east toward the Ettenmoors to hunt Trolls. But it is deadly and exhausting work, and we will send a relief patrol in spring."
"I will go," Aragorn said. "I wish at the least to avenge my grandfather."
A feral gleam lit Hawk's eyes. "You have much company in that desire. We will have no trouble manning our patrol. Goenor will go, and he is our best man on Trolls."
"And remembers all too well Arador's death," Beleg said. "I was there as well, but have no memories."
"Well, this time we will make them pay, and set back Sauron's forces, at least a little," said Hawk.
Daeron curtly nodded. "We are an island in a sea of evil," he said morosely. He avoided Aragorn's eye.
"But not alone," Aragorn said.
Daeron snorted, his eyes unfriendly. "You count on aid from Rivendell? A fool's hope, as befits your name."
Hawk frowned at him. "Keep a civil tongue, man," he said curtly.
Gritting his teeth, Aragorn himself said nothing. His thoughts turned to his mother's words and the light of warmth in Daeron's eyes as Beleg faltered. Truly, my very existence must be for him like salt in a wound. He must learn to pity Daeron, and Daeron to see him as other than Arathorn's son.
He knew one sure way to prove his manhood before another, and defend his honor as well as Elrond's. As swordsmen he and Daeron could meet man to man and leave the past behind. And if he refused the challenge—well, that too would set Aragorn higher in the esteem of men.
And so, later, as the men went their separate ways, Aragorn called out to Daeron. "I'm weary of sparring with words. Shall we try each other's skill at arms?"
To his surprise, the man met his eyes and smiled. "Name the time and place."
Perhaps he just needs some help to get out of his rut. "Tomorrow at dawn on the ramparts."
"Done," said Daeron. "Till then." He walked briskly away, joining Beleg on the path toward their dwellings.
That night the dream came again. Brelach's scream, the wings of terror beating at his head, the swing of the Orc's bloody club, the horse's dull, agonized eyes before Goenor put him down. Aragorn woke sweating and threw off the blankets that seemed to bind him like ropes. He strode to the window and looked out to see that the sun's glimmer already streaked the sky beyond the walls of the Keep.
He had not told anyone about the sparring match. He did not want an audience; this matter was between him and Daeron alone. He washed and dressed quickly, girding on his sword belt with Morchamion slung in its scabbard. He liked to warm up with his own sword, switching to practice arms only for the bout itself. He pulled on leather gloves and vambraces, and went down the outside steps of the Commons leading to the winding tower stairs up to the ramparts. The cool air promised a fair autumn, and now that he had shaken off the bad dream, he rejoiced in the day and his own strength. Here among the Dúnedain lay his duty, here lay his life's work. He would find a way to tame this man's anger and earn his respect.
On the ramparts at the top of the tower a wide archway opened to a deep alcove with three huge, locked, iron-bound doors in the far wall, each leading to a store of arms and training gear. Each room was carved into the cold, black rock of the mountain of rock that formed the ramparts walls. Aragorn unlocked and flung open the middle door to the supply room where the training gear was stored. Practice arms made of thick wood weighted with iron lined the room—spears, axes, sword-like sticks, staves, knives. Some were of blunt-edged metal. Wooden chests held tough, padded tunics and leggings to be worn for protection. The Keep had a strict rule: no arms practice without the greatest precaution against injury. The Dúnedain could not afford to lose a man to that kind of needless risk.
Daeron was a fine swordsman. Aragorn's greater height gave him a longer reach, but Daeron's nimble footwork and skilled turns of the wrist would compensate for that. Aragorn meant to give him his best in the bout.
He picked out a selection of well-crafted wooden swords, as well as ones of blunted steel, and a couple of padded tunics, and set them against the outside wall before starting his warm-up. He began by standing in a tall stance, feet braced apart, arms spread at his side with palms facing forward, eyes closed, breathing slowed. This Elven technique to improve the mind's command of the body was the best way he knew to bring any distressing emotion under control. Balance. Breathe. Command. Then, when he had found his center, he drew Morchamion and began a series of swings and lunges with the bright Elven blade.
As he was nearing the end, Daeron's footsteps echoed in the stone tunnel.
Aragorn lowered his sword and greeted his opponent with a bow. "Shall we spar with wood or blunt steel?"
"I've been thinking on that." Daeron slowly drew his own Dwarven-forged steel blade from its well-oiled scabbard. He held it up and considered the edge in the morning light. "What's your preference?"
Aragorn shrugged. "Either. We may draw for the choice if you like."
Daeron turned to face him. He held his blade out, the wicked point gleaming. "I like best the feel of my own blade in my hand."
"As any man would." Aragorn turned away and moved to sheathe Morchamion. He froze as he felt Daeron's sword tip press against his back.
"Rule one," said Daeron softly. "Never turn your back on an armed opponent."
Alarm chilled Aragorn's heart. "I yield you first point. And you choose our weapons."
"Oh, I have," Daeron said. "I would not put that fine sword away if I were you."
Aragorn did not stir. "Rule two. Never risk your blade or your life in a practice fight."
The point of Daeron's sword scratched at his tunic as the man moved it slowly against his back. "This is no practice. Face me or I will spit you like a pig."
Aragorn slowly and deliberately swiveled and moved back, lifting Morchamion in a guarding stance, the flat turned toward Daeron. "This is too serious for a dare, Daeron."
"This is no dare." The man's face contorted, his bad eye gleaming. He attacked.
Aragorn countered him. Still he could not believe the man meant to fight with sharp steel. Beyond his vambraces and gloves Aragorn had not yet donned any mail or protective clothing against the keen and lethal swords. Daeron, however, wore an iron-studded leather jerkin.
Aragorn moved back again. The odd intensity gleaming in the man's eyes unsettled him. "Enough. You have made your point. I do not wish to hurt you."
"I'm going to kill you," Daeron said.
Aragorn parried two more attacks, aiming to disarm but not wound, to end the matter without injury.
Daeron pulled back from the assault and they circled. "Why don't you kill me?" Daeron sneered. "You need to, don't you. You want to. You've never killed a Man, have you, son of Arathorn? They die as easily as Orcs."
Keeping a focused silence, Aragorn watched Daeron's moves. The man was mad.
"You can't rule Men if you can't kill one," Daeron said. "Kill me. Arathorn tried to, once. See this eye? He did it."
Aragorn heard the words, but shut out any reaction to them. Daeron's sword slashed out and he felt a searing fire down his side as the blade point parted his flesh. Ignoring the pain, he lunged in a downward swing, laying open Daeron's right arm near the shoulder. The man's sword flew out of his grasp and Aragorn swung his back leg forward to aim a swift kick at his belly. Convulsing, Daeron collapsed onto the hard rocky floor and lay still.
Kill him. Kill him. Kill him, an inner voice whispered in command. Aragorn leaped to Daeron's side and raised his sword to plunge the tip through the man's heart. And he froze. With a cry he threw the sword down and fell to his knees, holding his arm to his wounded side. As blood drenched his tunic, he felt faint with horror and pain.
Shouts and the sound of pounding feet had already broken out below, and Hawk burst onto the floor, shouting, "What's going on here?" Beleg followed, his face set in a fierce grimace.
Hawk came at once to Aragorn's side. "Keep still. It may bleed less that way." His eyes hard and angry, he grabbed a padded tunic and pressed it over the wound. "What happened?"
Aragorn gritted his teeth against the pain. "We planned to spar, and he attacked me with his naked blade."
Hawk's fierce eyes could have stood down an army of Orcs. "This is not your doing?"
"I am no murderer, Hawk," said Aragorn. "He is mad."
"Or a traitor," said Beleg harshly, as he stood over Daeron's unconscious body.
The pain of the wound increased with every breath. The last thing Aragorn remembered was Hawk calling Beleg to his side.
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