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Not Without Hope: 2. Chapter Two
A few minutes later, Gilraen was straining the cooled mixture when she heard a tentative knock on the door of the servants' corridor that ran along the inside wall of the suite.
"My lady? My lady?" Gilraen recognized Carlenna's whisper.
Hurrying to the door, Gilraen opened it a crack. "Shhh. Areg is still sleeping."
"Oh, my lady, your uncle is here and he brought Master Elrond. Here! Imagine that. Master Elrond himself is in the hall. We're all ever so excited. He's so much better looking than I imagined. That hussy, Lissiel, is removing his armour and lingering over every buckle and begging to draw his bath. She'll be in his bed tonight, no doubt. She tries for Elladan every time he's here, but he's learned to lock the door." She drew a breath at last. "You must come down." Carlenna's brown eyes peered into the room around the edge of the door.
"No. Areg is still feverish." Gilraen tried to pull the door closed.
Carlenna clutched the edge of the door to hold it open. "I will stay with him, my lady. They bid me tell you to come down now."
Gilraen shook her head. "Areg needs me. Tell them I cannot come."
Carlenna's hands flew to her cheeks. "Me! Tell Lord Halbeleg and Master Elrond? I can't tell them that, my lady. I can't," she wailed.
"Shhh. Don't wake Areg." Taking advantage of the maid's consternation, she pulled the door quietly shut, and threw the latch.
Standing where the late afternoon sun filtered dimly through the closed shutters, she leaned her head wearily against the window frame. She tilted the slats a trifle to give a wider view of the courtyard. The bustle caused by the arrival of the visitors had died down and the yard was ordered, familiar and peaceful in the early autumn sun. The peace was deceptive. She thought she had settled the matter with Elrohir last spring when he had brought her the news of Arathorn's death and again when Uncle Halbeleg had come in the summer. There could only be one reason for Master Elrond's presence. He wanted to take her son away from her. Gilraen knew she had only postponed the inevitable confrontation.
A soft knock sounded again. Go away, she thought. She made no move to go to the door. After a long pause, there was another soft knock. Taking pity on her hapless maid, Gilraen crossed the room, opened the door a crack and peered around the edge.
"Just tell them... Uncle!" Gilraen faced not her timid maid, but her Uncle Halbeleg, his grey eyes apologetic but determined. He still wore the plain, quilted gambeson that provided padding under armour. Gilraen hoped the stains on it were rust and not dried blood. Halbeleg grabbed the door in a firm grip before she could pull it closed, his bulk blocking her view of the narrow servants' corridor beyond. He easily pulled the door out of her restraining hand.
"Master Elrond heard that young Aragorn is sick. He would like to see him." Halbeleg gestured to the hallway behind him with the hand not holding the door open.
"It is nothing. A little chill. In three days he will not even remember that he was sick." Gilraen spoke with frosty dignity, barring the entrance to the room with her arm. "He is sleeping and should not be disturbed."
"We will not disturb him." Elrond stepped into view around Halbeleg. Elrond's gambeson had not the utilitarian lines of quilting that held the padding in place on her uncle's but elaborate scrollwork in several colors. "Permit me to see if it is as trivial as you say. I have some skill in healing." He put his hand on Gilraen's where it lay on the doorframe. His expression was open and friendly. "Let me help."
Even warned that Elrond was handsome, Gilraen was surprised at how young he seemed. He looked little older than his sons. Next to her uncle, a man in his prime, Elrond seemed almost boyish, until you looked into his eyes. Those ancient eyes met hers and Gilraen's arm dropped. She stood aside so they could enter.
She led them to the alcove and drew back the curtain. Air redolent of aromatic herbs wafted damply out of the niche. A small smokeless brazier held a pot of bubbling water near the bed. Elrond bent over and sniffed the steam that rose from the pot. He nodded appreciatively.
"He has trouble breathing?" he asked quietly.
"A stuffy nose. The herbs help to clear it."
Elrond looked down at the small form that lay sleeping on the bed. Aragorn's mouth hung open and he was snoring softly. Elrond passed his hands carefully over the boy, feeling the heat of his skin. He stepped out into the bedroom and dropped the curtain back across the alcove.
"Willow bark would help to bring down the fever."
Gilraen, her face impassive despite seething resentment, pointed out the medicine waiting on the sideboard. "I know how to care for my son."
"No one says you do not, Gilraen," Halbeleg said quietly moving closer to her. "But he would be safer in Rivendell, you cannot deny that."
"I do deny it," Gilraen hissed hotly. "This is the heart of Ranger territory. No one, nothing, can reach him here."
Halbeleg reached out an arm to hug Gilraen, concern foremost in his eyes. She shrugged off his proffered embrace and stood defiantly with her back against the bed.
"We need to discuss this," Halbeleg said, stepping back. "Master Elrond has come a long way. At least hear him out."
"His time is his to waste as he pleases," Gilraen spat. She caught herself with a small gasp, and relaxed her features into a semblance of reasonability. Giving herself a moment to compose herself, she went over to the shutter and opened it a crack allowing a thin stream of sunlight to illuminate the room. She walked over to a small table at the far side of the hearth, drew out a chair and sat down, folding her hands on the top. "I will not have it said that I am a foolish young woman who will not even listen to the counsel of the Wise. Sit, please. I was, perhaps, too overcome in my grief to properly understand when it was first proposed to take Areg to Rivendell without me. I will hear your arguments, though I do not promise to heed them."
Halbeleg walked heavily across the room, betraying a slight limp as he moved, and drew out a chair opposite Gilraen. He groaned a little as his knee bent. He rubbed it under the heavy table drape.
"Does your wound from the spring still pain you, Uncle? I made up lots of willow-bark."
"No, child. It is the three I've taken since then that give me problems. There's been an uncommon lot of fighting this summer."
Elrond stood behind Halbeleg and put a hand on his shoulder. "And that is the heart of the problem, Gilraen. There have been many raids into places we thought safe."
"They're afraid," Halbeleg added, eyes stark at the memory of treachery. "People on our borders who have been friends for years betray us, and they sob to me their sorrow and grief at their weakness. Had they known where you were, even now an army would be before your gates. I think no land of Men is safe right now. Not here. Not anywhere."
"Two chieftains killed in just three years, and the next heir still so young. Children of Men die so easily." Elrond shook his head. "I would protect Aragorn, if you will let me."
Halbeleg took Gilraen's hand. "Good men are dying to protect you and young Areg, Gilraen. Men I can ill afford to lose." Gilraen tried to pull her hand out from Halbeleg's but he tightened his grip, holding it firmly. "Twenty-three dead this summer and three times that many wounded, some who will never fight again. We can't sustain losses at that rate." He abruptly released her hand and gestured to his gambeson. "We do not ride abroad in armour for comfort or vanity but for protection from ambush even here in, as you say, 'the heart of Ranger territory.'"
Elrond leaned forward and put his hands on the table. "Rivendell is withdrawn from the world, but I know what passes in the lands around us. All the scouts I send out and all the information that comes to me says that the Enemy is looking for Isildur's heirs. He gathers strength and wishes to wipe out the line of Elendil at last. Aragorn will be better protected in Rivendell than here," Elrond said.
Gilraen's eyes went anxiously from one face to the other seeking an assurance that was not to be found. "Tell me again, then, exactly what it is you propose."
Elrond drew a third chair out from the table. He sat easily and his eyes held Gilraen's. He spoke slowly and carefully, as if she had trouble understanding simple arguments. "We will take Aragorn to Rivendell and conceal his identity. He will have a new name and I will raise him as my own son. That is not so terrible a thing. I have had many boys under my care. He would be fostered with me in any case in a few years, would he not?"
"Areg is too young for fostering. He needs me now," Gilraen whispered.
"My son is younger still, and I'd send him to safety if the Enemy was looking for him." Halbeleg gave Gilraen a reassuring smile. "When Aragorn is a man we will tell him who he is and with my blessing he will step into his place in the Dúnedain. He will lose nothing."
"And is there no place for me at Rivendell?" Gilraen asked, hopes rising as she addressed Elrond.
"For yourself, you would be welcome, and a time there might heal your grief," Elrond said. "But it would be dangerous for your son. His safety lies in secrecy."
"I swear that I will bring you news regularly, " Halbeleg told her. "You will know how he fares. Yet we cannot hope to keep his identity secret if you are living there with him."
Gilraen rested her forehead on her hands, feeling badgered and isolated between the two powerful men. Areg, alone, without me. It was wrong. Tears pricked behind her eyes, but she blinked them back. Fearing they would take her silence for consent, she looked up at Elrond and asked, "Who will he be?"
"We already told you we'd give him another name. You can choose it if you like," Halbeleg said and gestured magnanimously. She knew his smile was meant to reassure her.
"Yes, yes, I understand that. He'll be called a name without the royal 'ar' to betray his lineage. Who will he be?" Gilraen asked again.
Elrond was genuinely puzzled by the question. "What do you mean? Who can he be but himself?"
Gilraen pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed in exasperation. "He will not be 'Aragorn, son of Arathorn and Gilraen'. When you are asked, 'Where does he come from? Who are his parents?' what will you say?"
"Nothing," Elrond said smiling. "No one will ask. Many boys have fostered with me at Rivendell and no one has ever asked those questions."
"No one ever had to." Gilraen gave a mirthless snort. "Master Elrond, you have fostered fifteen generations of Chieftain's heirs. I memorized the lists of kings and chieftains and the histories of our people like every other child of the Dúnedain and I will teach my son in his turn. I never heard that you fostered any children of Men who were not of the line of Elros."
Elrond paused, clearly thinking. "That is true," he admitted, "but not important. I will see to it that no one asks awkward questions."
"Not to your face, perhaps," she said with a small shrug. "But you will not be able to prevent them from gossiping and speculating once they leave your presence. We saw no need to keep Aragorn's birth a secret. The news was spread far and wide, as we knew it would hearten the Rangers to know that the line of kings continued. Surely someone will make the connection between the strange boy in Elrond's household and the heir of Isildur who would be the same age and has vanished. It will not be a secret long. And if it can not be kept anyway, why should I not be with him?"
Elrond shifted in his seat. "Aragorn, whatever name he is called by in Rivendell, will be kept hidden. Few except members of my household will ever see him. He will be safe and hidden," Elrond repeated.
"Hidden? And will you be hiding with him, Master Elrond?" Gilraen inquired with a sarcastic edge in her voice.
Halbeleg had looked increasing irritated during this exchange. Sudden anger darkened his face and he pounded the table. "Troll's balls, Gilraen," he shouted, "that's enough! Master Elrond has had the education of our chieftains for a thousand years. You'll not insult him that way while I stand by!"
"It's not an insult. It's a fair question." Gilraen leaned over the table and matched her uncle's volume. "Arathorn sat at Elrond's side in the halls of Rivendell and lived openly in Elrond's household. He knew he would be the chieftain! Arathorn wasn't a baby. He wasn't hidden away in some elf cottage in the wilderness wondering why he was different!"
They glared at each other. Elrond moved to intervene, but a small, quavery, voice interrupted them.
"Momma?" Aragorn stood clutching the curtain to his alcove in one hand and trailing his blanket behind him in the other. His dark hair flopped untidily over his glassy, feverish eyes, and a trail of moisture dripped from his nose. He swiped the sleeve of his linen nightshirt across his face and sniffed wetly. Looking uncertainly at the strangers, he repeated his plaintive question, "Momma?"
Gilraen hurried around the table towards him. "Momma's here, sweeting."
Aragorn closed the distance between them with a rush. His bare feet sticking out from under the too short nightshirt, he buried his face in Gilraen's skirts, and then raised his arms up to her.
"Up, momma, up!" he demanded.
Gilraen swooped him into her arms and his skinny limbs wrapped around her, clinging tightly. With one of Gilraen's hands supporting his bottom and the other cradling his head, Aragorn snuggled into his mother's shoulder and whimpered. "Feel sick."
"Of course you do, sweeting, you're still all hot. Momma has something to make it better."
Gilraen shifted his weight onto her hip and started towards the sideboard. Elrond quickly stood and gestured her back into the closest chair.
"No. Please sit here. I will get it for you." Elrond said.
At the sideboard, Elrond dipped a finger into the bowl and tasted the liquid to estimate its strength. He poured a small amount into a waiting glass and started to bring it over to the table.
"He likes a drink of water afterwards," Gilraen called to him. Her arms were still around her son. Aragorn was leaning limply against her breast, but his eyes were fixed warily on the half-elf pouring the liquids.
Elrond poured out a glass of water from a pitcher also on the sideboard. He came back to the table and handed the small glass to Aragorn, putting the larger glass of water on the table in front of him.
"No want it," Aragorn said with a grimace.
"Momma put a lot of honey in it this time. Drink it up all at once and you'll hardly taste the bitter," Gilraen told him.
Aragorn held the small glass firmly in his grip, but made no move to drink. He fixed Elrond with a hard stare.
"Not El'dan," he announced.
"That's right, Areg, he's not Elladan," Gilraen said.
"Yes," she agreed. "He's not Elrohir either. This is Master Elrond. He's Elladan's and Elrohir's father. And this," she continued cutting off further questions, "is your Uncle Halbeleg. You met him before, earlier this summer. Now drink up," Gilraen finished sternly.
Snuffling loudly, Aragorn took a small gulp of the medicine in the glass and moved to drop it onto the table. Deftly intercepting the glass before it could spill, Gilraen held it, closing her fingers around Aragorn's hand still holding the glass.
"Drink all of it," she ordered.
"More honey in it?" Aragorn asked hopefully.
"It has lots of honey. And you only get to lick the honey spoon when you drink it up right away without arguing. Drink."
Heaving a huge sad sigh, Aragorn drained the medicine. Gilraen switched the glasses and he took a thirsty drink of the plain water. He slumped back against Gilraen and laid his cheek against her, his feverish eyes still fixed on the strangers. Gilraen eased the blanket from his hand and wrapped it around his bare legs and feet. She smoothed his unruly hair away from his face.
There was an awkward pause. It seemed impossible to continue the argument.
"How is it that he knows my sons?" Elrond asked at last.
"They have come by often this summer, if only for a short time each visit. They are carving him an army. Each time they come they bring him another horse or fighter or orc or troll. They are all very life-like. The first one," Gilraen's voice caught, but she cleared her throat and went on, "looks exactly like his father."
Halbeleg said gruffly, "I've seen them working on the carvings but I didn't know they were for Areg. It was well done of them." His mouth twitched. "They stopped by here? No wonder they were so often late when they were looked for."
"Would you like to show your army to Master Elrond and Uncle Halbeleg?" Gilraen asked her son.
Aragorn shook his head and buried it deeper into his mother's dress. He clutched a fold of fabric and drew up his legs slightly, but his eyes never stopped searching the faces of the strangers.
Halbeleg moved his chair back impatiently. "Very touching, Gilraen, but the decision is made. He is going to Rivendell, will you, nill you. Pack his things. You say he'll be well again in three days. We will leave then."
Gilraen fought to keep her voice steady and not betray her distress. She tightened her hold on Aragorn. "My poor little son! You would take him from the only home he has ever known. Separate him from his mother with not one familiar face around him. Will there even be any other children for him to play with?"
Elrond steepled his hands on the table and looked at her, compassion foremost in his eyes. "Gilraen, we are not monsters. Aragorn will be raised as my own sons were. He will be taught to be a man and a leader of Men. He must be kept safe until he is grown, and he must be hidden away now. I understand your concerns, but babies would not be in evidence when I received visitors in any case. By the time he is old enough to sit at my side and learn statecraft, it will be accepted that he is just there. No one will expect that boy to be the heir of the Dúnedain. It would only be your presence that might remind them of the connection. 'Aragorn' will be rumoured dead and forgotten years ago."
Gilraen whispered, "Forgotten. Alone." She tightened her hold again and stared unseeing across the room, trails of hot, bitter tears rolling down her cheeks. "I will not forget."
Squirming in Gilraen's too tight embrace, Aragorn twisted around and put one hand on his mother's cheek. "Momma? Why you crying?" His lower lip trembled in sympathy with her distress and tears pooled in his eyes.
Gilraen brought her attention back to her son with a start. She looked down into his troubled, grey eyes and the room blackened and faded around them.
Aragorn's eyes open a tunnel into a suddenly knowable future, but the images flicker and twist sickeningly, meld and merge and run together, and nothing stays real long enough to grasp.
a hedge at night and the man under it is drunk and dirty, no, dead and wolves rend flesh, no, fire lights his smile and he touches a jewel at his throat, no, he lies drunk, dead, smiling…. The face writhes and changes and Gilraen's mind reels grasping for reality, but the images slide away.
the midst of battle, ground black with the corpses of orcs and men, sky dark and dim above, orcs surge behind him to follow his charge, attack before him, behind, before, his sword swings and cleaves, heads roll, waver and blur, the shape under the blade changing from orc to man and back before the stroke can fall.… Gilraen tries to blink but her eyes are frozen on a future that twists and moves.
he waits and fear flowing out from the evil tower repels him and the fields burn at his command, no, draws him and black shapes ride to meet him, cowering, the fire and the dark merge and waver and he stays, stern eyed and grim, poised at the cusp, no, the light sweeps up and blinds her and Gilraen cannot tell which way he turns.
alone he wakes in the dark and it is still the familiar strangeness around him, his silent tears wet the pillow until dawn, no, he whimpers and familiar, loving arms cradle him to sleep, no,
alone… alone… alone… beats to the rhythm of her heart.
Elrond's voice sounds distant, lost in the vast darkness that surrounds her.
Her face is sheened with sweat, her body chilled and clammy, stinking of fear. Her arms clutch her sobbing son, but cannot feel him. She tries to draw breath, but her throat is closed and dry and she gasps ragged croaks that bring no relief to her air starved lungs. The room undulates.
Elrond's urgency penetrates the haze, but she can find no anchor to reality as it surges and changes around her.
Hard hands close around her shoulders and she looks into unearthly elven eyes.
Elrond shared, and then stripped the visions from her mind. She could breathe again as the room settled into solidity around her.
Aragorn was crying wildly against Gilraen. She looked down at him and he was only Areg again, solidly in the here and now.
Gilraen gentled her sobbing son, rocking him back and forth in her arms. "Shh, sweeting, momma's sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Shhh. Everything's going to be all right, Areg. Shhhh. Hush now."
Slowly Aragorn's sobbing ceased and he huddled in Gilraen's arms, shuddering but quiet.
"He'll be so alone." Gilraen looked imploringly from Elrond, still standing in front of her, to her uncle. "He needs me. Not forever, but now, while he's little. He needs me. So many terrible things could be." She looked down at her son and repeated. "He needs me." She wiped Aragorn's tears and drippy nose with the edge of the blanket.
Halbeleg threw up his hands. "What just happened?"
"I am not sure," Elrond said slowly, resuming his seat. "It felt like a true foreseeing, but so many, too many, futures. And contradictory. They could not all be real." His tone became brisker, "Gilraen, have you seen things like this before?"
"No," Gilraen replied uncertainly. "Nothing like that." She swallowed against sudden nausea, and her face paled.
"Do you foresee things? Ever?" Elrond pressed her.
"Foresee? My mother does so, but I have never understood how to know if I have foreseen or only wished something to be. There have been only a few times I have been certain of things beyond wishing. I knew Arathorn would love me, that this baby would be a son." She shifted Aragorn into a more secure position in her arms. "I am certain he needs me to be with him now. I don't..." she ran out of words and trailed off. She tried again to sort out her confused impressions. "I do not think that is… It is different from…" Gilraen looked from face to face, eyes desolate. "I saw many terrible things. If that is foreseeing, I do not want the gift." She lowered her eyes. Her stomach lurched and her mouth filled with saliva. She swallowed again.
"It is not something that can be refused." Elrond's voice was gentle.
"Master Elrond, are you saying that, against all common sense, she foresees that we'll take her to Rivendell?" Halbeleg said angrily.
"No," Elrond said and his face looked troubled. "She foresees different futures, some very terrible, and I do not understand why."
Gilraen looked down at her son, swallowing over and over the water that rose in the throat, her eyes hopeless. "He needs me." She squinted against the dim light piercing her dilated eyes and looked from her uncle to the elf lord starkly black and white against the glare. "I cannot bear it."
Aragorn sighed against Gilraen's breast. His hot, little body pressed to hers and formed a warm spot against the dank clamminess of her sweaty chemise. He reached over and tugged her arm. "Sing 'Stars', Momma?" he asked in a plaintive voice.
Gilraen fought down her nausea and started the melody she used to sing her son to sleep every night of his life. Unable at first to form the words of the lullaby, she wordlessly repeated soothing syllables. The familiar song calmed her, too. Yavanna save me. If it is not the separation, but that I do not let him go willingly? Gilraen found her voice.*
"…the stars and the dewfall have covered your hilltop with light. The wind in the lilies that blossom around you …" she sang quietly.
Gilraen heard the men arguing softly, but what they decided was out of her hands. Her uncle had made it clear that her wishes were secondary to the needs of the Rangers. She concentrated on the feel of her son's trusting body held safe within the circle of her arms, fearful that it would slip again into the whirling darkness that hovered at the edge of her vision. That he lived and would grow to be a good man like his father were all the things that mattered to her.
"A ship out of shadow bears homeward by starlight." The familiar words continued to roll out of Gilraen's mouth without conscious thought. Aragorn's heart beat slower now against her and his hands relaxed their grip. Gilraen breathed more easily. If only you were just my son and not the heir of the Dúnedain.
"My song shall ride home on the surf of the starlight and leap to the shores of the sky, Take wing on the wind and the odor of lilies…."
Squirreling from one half-formed plan to another, she frantically thought for some way to conceal them both in plain sight. Aragorn looked up at her trustingly and wiggled into a more comfortable position in her arms.
"Sleep well once again if you wake in the darkness, sleep knowing you are my delight. As long as the stars wheel the years round the heavens, as long as the lilies bloom white…" The song was ending and Gilraen saw a glimmer of an idea that might work. "…my darling, I kiss you good night."
She suited her actions to the words of the song and kissed Aragorn on the forehead. It felt cooler under her lips.
"You've won, Gilraen," Halbeleg's harsh voice cut across her moment of contentment. "We will not separate you."
She looked up quickly and her eyes shone with joy. "I never thought it a contest, Uncle, but I thank you both." Gilraen sighed in relief and momentarily closed her eyes. Aragorn was solid and comforting in her arms. The room was steady in the shaft of sun from the window and the future was unknown and decently hidden.
"It is agreed. We will leave for Rivendell in three days," Elrond said.
Halbeleg shrugged. "While there was hope of concealing Aragorn, there was sense in hiding him away, but now we will take the risks ourselves rather than endanger Rivendell. They can stay here and we will provide for their safety as we always have."
"They will still be safer under my protection in Rivendell," Elrond said sharply. "I see no need to discard all our plans."
Gilraen inspected her son. His face was sweaty and he was cooling rapidly in her arms. "Master Elrond," she interrupted the new argument, "his fever's down. Is it broken, do you think, or is it the willow bark?"
Elrond reached over. Aragorn allowed Elrond to lay his hand gently on his forehead. "Broken," Elrond said after a minute.
Gilraen was conscious of her sweaty and smelly clothes, and Aragorn's nightshirt growing damp under her hands as the fever left his body. "Then, for myself, I care not where we live, as long as we are together," Gilraen said. She stood up with Aragorn in her arms. "I am a poor hostess to offer you nothing after your long ride. Please call for whatever you will. I am sure that half the household is waiting outside the door to serve you." She gestured with her free hand to the end of the room where a door closed off the bedroom from the more public areas of the suite. "Areg needs a dry shirt. Perhaps when we come back you will be able to tell me where we will be living."
In the small dressing room off the bedchamber, Gilraen stripped the damp nightshirt off her son and sponged him clean with a warm wet cloth. Though his cheeks were still pale, his eyes were clear and had lost their feverish shine. She wrapped him in a thick linen drying sheet and sat him on a padded bench along the wall while she searched out a clean set of clothes from a basket. Aragorn had found two of his carved men tucked under the bench and was happily chattering and making up a game with them. Gilraen dressed him warmly and set him back on the bench with his toys.
Amazed as always at the resilience of children, and conscious of her own still shaky condition, Gilraen quickly unfastened her dress with trembling hands and slid out of her chemise. After washing, she pulled on clean underclothing. She sat down next to Aragorn wondering if her wild idea could possibly work. She carefully counted the months on her fingers, twice. Yes, she thought, it was just possible. She wondered if she could convince Halbeleg and Master Elrond. She stood and peered uncertainly into her clothes chest. There had to be a way to keep the Dúnedain safe, her son safe, and still be with him. If he were not Aragorn there would be no problem. To be convincing she had to look exactly right. She needed an outfit that was subtly flattering, but not inappropriate to her station. Her rummaging hands found a fold of soft, deep red wool and she pulled it from under the other garments.
Arathorn had loved this gown. He would sit in his chair by the hearth and watch her as she moved around the room doing the ordinary tasks of the evening. His eyes caressed her, sliding over her curves as the soft wool that draped her body clung and moved. She would pretend not to see the smile and the invitation in his eyes, but she would wander closer until, reaching out a swift hand, he would capture her and draw her down onto his lap. Laughing, he would pull the pins from her hair and it would cascade over his hands touching the fabric at her breast. Never again. She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. Oh, my love, forgive me. Areg is all I have left of you. I will do what I must to keep him safe.
Dressed, she inspected herself in the mirror. The gown was still flattering, though looser than she remembered, but she looked pale, tired… old. Her hand hovered over the cosmetics on the table, unused for many months, but she rejected them as too obvious. Taking up her brush, she redid her thick, black hair from its severe braids into a more flattering style and carefully pulled a tendril to wave around her face. Gilraen the Fair. Could she still earn that name? She looked at her reflection and saw great, haunted eyes, and drained, white cheeks. Practicing an artful smile, she tried to summon up the ghost of the eager girl Arathorn had married. She rubbed her cheeks and bit colour into her lips.
Taking her son's hand she led him, clutching his toys, back into the bedroom. The men still sat at the table, but the argument seemed to be resolved. As Gilraen walked over to the men Elrond looked up at her and smiled.
"We leave for Rivendell in three days. I hope that you and Aragorn will be happy there," he said.
"Yes. I am sure that we will be," Gilraen responded. Relief washed over her. Now she had a place to begin her plan.
Aragorn tugged at her skirts. "Momma?" He waved the carved figures he was holding. "My men need a en'my. C'n I get some?"
"Yes. Bring the whole basket. You may play with them out here on the rug." Aragorn scampered off into his sleeping alcove and she called after him. "And don't touch the brazier."
Gilraen seated herself at the table and watched as Aragorn lugged a basket of out of his niche and onto the rug. He upended the basket and a dozen carved figures poured out. Seeing him safely occupied, she turned her attention to her uncle.
"With Areg and me in Rivendell, do you think the attacks will continue?" she asked.
Halbeleg grimaced. "They will. Our enemy hates the whole of the Dúnedain. While Aragorn lives…" He stopped and made a gesture of frustration. "Aragorn must live to take his place as Chieftain of the Dúnedain."
"Was not the plan to make it seem that Aragorn was dead?" Gilraen asked. "If the enemy hates all the Dúnedain, even if I had agreed to let Areg go to Rivendell without me, would not the attacks have continued? There are many who have some little bit of royal blood. My father is a descendant of Aranarth, even though no one would say he is in the line of succession. How would this plan have protected the Dúnedain?"
Elrond leaned forward and put his hands on the table. "There are two reasons Halbeleg leads the Rangers now," Elrond said. "He was Arathorn's second in command and is well able to lead them. But second, there is no connection to Isildur in his lineage and we are making sure that is known. From what information I can gather, the enemy feels that he has nothing to fear from the 'rag-tag remnants' of Arnor," he bowed to Halbeleg in apology, "without the hope of an heir of Isildur to rally them. Aragorn is the last who could be considered Isildur's heir. There will never be peace, but I believe that the worst of the attacks would have ceased if the Enemy believed Isildur's Line was ended."
"If you must be with him, we will not try to conceal him. We will fight as we always have," Halbeleg said and his voice carried resignation as well as conviction. "It is nothing new."
"As any mother must, I wish my children to grow up in safety." Gilraen looked fondly over at Aragorn busily engaged in make-believe mayhem on the rug. Wishing for the luxury of a deep breath before the plunge, she assumed a bright smile and turned it on the Peredhil. "Would my younger son also have a welcome in Rivendell, Master Elrond?"
Elrond's eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
"What?" Halbeleg demanded, outraged.
"I found Arathorn too old and stern," Gilraen said archly, schooling her face into a bright and airy smile. "He was ugly and scarred. Someone… younger was more attractive. Once there was an heir, I could indulge myself, could I not?"
"Gilraen!" Halbeleg was shocked. "What are you saying? When? How? Arathorn trusted..." he spluttered to silence.
"Last year, I spent several months away from here," Gilraen started.
"You were with Arathorn,' Halbeleg interrupted. "I thought it foolish at the time to have you so near to the winter camp, but he wanted you close."
"So he wanted you to think. You never came to see me, Uncle, or you would know the truth. I have two sons." Gilraen ran her hand down the side of her gown, outlining her curves. "Is it so hard to believe that another man would find me desirable or that - " Gilraen made a moue of distaste - "I would prefer another man to Arathorn when he was so dour and rarely here?"
"Who?" Halbeleg roared, standing up so abruptly that his chair crashed over.
Gilraen took a quick glance at her son who had stopped playing and was warily watching the group at the table. "It's all right, Areg." She signaled him to go back to his game, turned back to her uncle and continued quietly. "I will not say who his father is. He is dead. So many Rangers die. What can it matter now?" She appealed to Elrond. "Is my younger son welcome at Rivendell?"
Elrond studied her for a few long seconds, his face inscrutable. "Yes," he said at last. "He will be welcome."
Halbeleg stood, ominously leaning on the table.
"Good. Thank you." Gilraen ignored her uncle's wrath and gave a small, quirky half smile. "Then when Aragorn dies of his fever on the way to Rivendell, it will not seem odd that you will give succor and shelter to the twice grieving widow and her bastard son. It is good to know that I and my younger son would be welcome in any case."
Halbeleg righted his chair and sat down wearily. "Gilraen, speak sense. Aragorn will not die of fever. Not here. Not on the way to Rivendell. He is better. See?" He pointed to where the boy was playing.
"Yes. He is better now, but he is hunted you tell me. The Dark Lord himself is searching to kill the last Heir of Isildur. Yet no one will care what happens to Gilraen's bastard son."
Elrond gave a small burst of laughter. "It is certainly not a solution I would have thought of, Gilraen. Are you certain you wish to do this?"
"Yes." There was no hesitation before she spoke the simple affirmative.
"If I understand what you are saying - you wish pass off Aragorn as his bastard younger brother," Halbeleg said. When Gilraen nodded, he went on flatly, "It will never work. There are too many discrepancies,"
"I have thought it over carefully. I believe the story will stand up even to scrutiny. I did spend several months when Areg was only a year old near Arathorn's camp." Her face softened at the reminiscence. "It was like playing house. It was only Areg and I and a couple of old friends of Arathorn's, who are loyal and will not speak against it, living in that small house in the wild. Arathorn and I wanted to be together as often as possible." Regret twisted her features. "Mother was right. She said it was too soon, and there was no second child. But the time I was there was long enough that I could have had a child in secret. If the child was not Arathorn's, and he did not wish to acknowledge it, I could have left him safely there. It's not so very hard to believe, is it? You believed it quickly enough, and you know – knew – us both. And if Aragorn must seem to die to keep him safe, then I can still have my son with me."
"A woman's body is different when she has given birth. Your maids here would give the tale the lie."
Gilraen shook her head. "Carlenna is… persuadable. And I did have more milk when I returned. I had fewer duties at the farm that took me away from Areg, and nursing is a joy. She could be easily convinced to tell that I had given birth. I have given birth."
"He is too old. No one will believe him a year or more younger than he is," Halbeleg said, pointing to Aragorn playing with his army on the rug. "My own son is six months younger and there is a great difference."
"Now, yes, but few will see him now. Not for years. Master Elrond said that visitors or strangers would not expect to see babies in Rivendell. If we are together, I will not mind being secluded with him for a while. And in five years who is to say if he is seven or six? Boys do not all grow at the same rate. There are enough who would know the truth..." She broke off and looked at the two sets of grey eyes staring at her in amazement.
"Many will revile you for your unfaithfulness," Halbeleg said bluntly.
Gilraen shrugged and dismissed the problem. "I will not be there to hear the gossip. I will trust you to defend me."
"You hold your honour very lightly, Gilraen," Halbeleg said, frowning at her.
"Lightly? What price do you put on my son's life? Or the lives of your men who you tell me are dying to protect him? If losing my honour saves them, surely it is value well spent," Gilraen turned determined eyes on her uncle. "And it is not truly diminished. I love Arathorn. That he is not here does not diminish my love. I know the truth, and so do you both, and so will my son someday."
"Some will not believe he is Aragorn when he is a man," Halbeleg still argued.
Elrond spoke. "Even if we followed our first plan, some would have been hard to convince when we produced an adult Heir after concealing him for so long. We both knew this. Having her at Rivendell now will raise questions, but it will settle problems later." He bowed to Gilraen. "You are not what I expected from Arathorn's too young wife. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance."
Aragorn appeared at the table at Elrond's side. "Wouldja like ta see my army?" Aragorn asked, wide grey eyes open in appeal.
"Very much. I understand my sons made them for you." Elrond said.
"El'dan and El'hir made 'em for me," Aragorn contradicted him firmly.
Aragorn tugged Elrond out of his chair and pulled him down next to him on the rug. He picked up an exquisitely detailed man and offered it to Elrond.
"This my daddy. See? His arms 'n' legs move. An' he strong and brave. Like me."
Aragorn picked up each carving and described its characteristics to Elrond as Gilraen and Halbeleg watched.
"I've learned how your mind works, Gilraen. What will you tell him when he asks about his father?" Halbeleg asked her.
Elrond turned to hear her answer, carved orc forgotten in his hand.
"The truth," Gilraen said simply. "His father was a Ranger, a good man, and he's dead. That he was strong and brave and loved his son very much."
Aragorn having heard this paean to his father many times rubbed his sleeve across his nose to dry a drip and tugged Elrond's arm to get his attention back. "'N that orc don't like sunshine."
Halbeleg and Gilraen watched from the edge of the rug while Aragorn and Elrond set up a simple battle. Elrond moved the orcs and was soundly beaten by the Rangers.
Halbeleg laughed, "It seems you have given the Dúnedain hope for another generation, Gilraen. He has the makings of a mighty war leader, if he can already defeat Master Elrond."
"Hope. Yes." She studied her son fondly. He was crowing in delight as his men scattered orcs and trolls around the rug. "He is filled with hope and promise."
"Then we will call him Estel," Elrond decided. "Has he started learning Sindarin yet?"
"No, "Gilraen said. "Our children do not usually begin to learn it until they are three or four."
Elrond nodded at her, and turned his smile to the boy. "Is that a good name for you? Estel?"
"I'm Areg," Aragorn shook his head emphatically.
"Ah, that's here. You are coming to live with me at Rivendell. It is mostly elves there and they have different names for things. These," he gestured to the pile of orcs on the rug, "are not orcs, they are yrch when you are with the elves. The men are not Rangers. They are Dúnedain. The room does not have doors, it has ennyn. I will teach you how to speak like the elves and they will call you Estel."
Aragorn looked suspiciously at Elrond. "Momma coming, too?"
"Yes, of course I am coming." Gilraen shot a grateful look at Elrond and knelt down next to Aragorn on the rug. She gave her son a quick hug. "And you will call me naneth not momma. It will be fun to learn the new names of things. You are very clever and will learn them quickly. I know how to speak like the elves, too, and will help you to learn lots of new names on the ride there. "
Aragorn smiled sunnily at Elrond. "Good. I like go places like my daddy. I be Estel with elves. Ev'vyone get diff'rent names. What name elves call you?"
Gilraen smothered a laugh at the look of surprise on Elrond's face.
Elrond recovered his gravity. "In Rivendell you may call me adar, Estel."
"Adar, " Aragorn repeated. "Adar, Naneth. Estel. Yrch." He stood up the toy Rangers on the floor in front of him. "Wanna have 'nother battle, adar? "
Areg: from royal -ar(a) and the diminutive ending -eg
mettarë the mid-winter holiday
Halbeleg: OC. He is Ivorwen's, Gilraen's mother, brother and, while of all Númenorean descent, has no connection with Isildur's line.
Gilraen's father Dirhael is descended, in unknown genealogies, from the Chieftain Aranarth
* The song is blatantly plagiarized… ah, openly borrowed, from Poul Andersen's novel "World Without Stars". The melody I sang my daughters to sleep with is by Anne Passovoy. The story is of an immortal starfarer shipwrecked on a world so far out of the galaxy that no stars are present in the night sky. He sings the song to the woman he loves left back on earth. The actual name of the song is "Mary O'Meara", but Anne's melody is not available on the web anywhere I can find. If you search on it you get a strange folksy rendition that I don't really like. It's not really an awful melody, just different from the awesome soaring that is Anne's version. Click Here if you want to hear it.
Special thanks and my top prizes go to Tanaqui, Marta and Lady Aranel without whose assistance, firm pokes with sharps sticks, help and encouragement this would never have been finished. They also have very nice shoulders that I cried on when things got rough along about draft three. Honorable mention goes to Chathol-linn who gave me encouragement and suggestions way back when this was a very nasty rough draft. Thanks are also due to Blade and Patti who provided fresh eyes at the end to make sure I overlooked nothing obvious. All errors are mine. Rotten vegetables and/or fresh flowers, suitable for throwing, can be purchased at the concession stands behind the stage.
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