Many Guises and Many Names
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Rangers of the North: 23. The Lord Aragorn's Answer
Aragorn came to a full stop in the doorway surveying his young nephews with both amusement and disbelief.
"Don't say it." Ereinion begged.
Aragorn's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Our uncle's idea I take it?"
"Who else?" asked Ellenion with overtones of resignation.
Ecthelion looked interested. "Ah yes, perhaps now at last I may learn the name of this famous uncle of yours, my Lord Aragorn?"
He turned to the Steward, smiling slightly. "Elrond Half-Elven, twin brother of Elros Tar-Minyatur and sometime Herald to the Last High King of the Noldor." Ecthelion blinked and Aragorn's smile deepened, enjoying the reaction. "Elrond has been fostering and educating Isildur's Heirs since Valandil's time. Me he had almost from infancy as my father died when I was very young."
"Slain by Orcs." Ecthelion said heavily, remembering.
Aragorn nodded. "As I told you." looked quizzically round. All four Men just stood there, looking back at him. Clearly no one, including Ecthelion, was going to move or sit until he did so. Choosing a window seat for himself Aragorn gestured, inviting the others to help themselves to the benches and straight backed chairs lining the walls, then turned to the Councillor. "How did you come to find my people, Cemendur? They would certainly have avoided you if they could."
The Man smiled wryly. "They did indeed. We first heard of the Rangers from an innkeeper in Bree. You know Bree, my Lord?"
"Very well. So it was old Butterbur who put you on to us?"
Cemendur nodded. "He tried to point out three Rangers at the inn but they left, quite precipitously, before we could lay eyes on them."
"Not that it did us any good." Ellenion told his uncle ruefully.
"Indeed not." Cemendur agreed. "Master Butterbur's description, and the sudden disappearance of your kinsmen, my Lord, wetted my interest. I decided to continue north to Fornost in the hope of encountering some of these 'Rangers'."
"Which you did." said Aragorn.
The Councillor nodded. "Your grace's cousin, the Lord Belecthor, decided to show himself to try to convince us our quest was in vain."
Aragorn visualized Belecthor, with his kingly height and Numenorean features, denying the continued existence of Dunedain in the North and grimaced. "I take it he failed."
"They were heading straight for Gwathlad," Ellenion told him, a little defensively, "uncle felt seeing a holding would be more dangerous to our secret than seeing him."
Cemendur shrugged: "But of course the moment we laid eyes on The Lord Belecthor we knew our quest had succeeded." to Ecthelion. "His grace's kinsman bears a striking resemblance to statues of the Old Kings. It was impossible for him to be anything but a Dunedain, and of noble blood though we did not guess at first how noble."
Aragorn suddenly registered the Councillor's use of the kingly style when refering to himself and frowned a little in surprise.
"The Lord Belecthor would have sent us right back to Gondor," Cemendur continued, "but happily Prince Armegil chanced to be at Gwathlad and he agreed to hear my embassage." smiled at Aragorn. "And once we had seen him, my Lord, there could be no doubt at all that we had found not only your people but your kin."
Aragorn smiled ruefully in return, explained to Ecthelion. "Armegil is my father's brother, there is a very strong resemblance." raised his eyebrows questioningly. "And what exactly was the substance of this embassage?"
There was a moment's silence. As it became plain Ecthelion didn't intend to answer the question Cemendur stepped in. "Our instructions were to seek out, and if possible establish an alliance with our surviving kin. Your grace's sword has been of inestimable value to Gondor, the Steward hoped to gain more such aid and in return to make amends for many centuries of neglect."
"I see." Aragorn said softly, eyes on Ecthelion who would not meet them. "And what did my Uncle Armegil say to this proposal?"
"A gracious but firm refusal." Cemendur admitted, continued to Ecthelion. "The Prince explained the Dunedain of the North had gone into hiding at the end of the Witch Wars that the enemy might think them destroyed and spare the simple folk under their protection further harm. In secrecy and disguise they have continued to defend their own, including Gondor."
"Arminas." the Steward said flatly.
"And others we have known naught of." Cemendur agreed. "Prince Armegil believes an open alliance with Gondor would call down the Enemy's wrath on both realms to their ruin." looked again at Aragorn. "We accepted his judgment and agreed to keep silent. But the Lord Elrond at Rivendell took a very different view -"
"I am well acquainted with my uncle's opinions in the matter." Aragorn assured him drily.
"Forgive me, my Lord, but the Lord Steward is not," Cemendur told him respectfully, continued to Ecthelion. "Elrond of Rivendell made it clear the only way to establish the alliance you desire, my Lord, was for Gondor to amend her errors of old and accept her rightful king. Unlike Prince Armegil he believes that with the race of Men united behind the King of the West and allied to the remaining Eldar Sauron may be finally defeated."
Aragorn shook his head. "My uncle is over optimistic."
"That was also the opinion of the Lord of Lorien," Cemendur admitted. "Like Prince Armegil he forsaw great danger in any such union."
"The Lord of Lorien!" the Steward echoed in astonishment and some alarm.
"We passed through the Golden Wood on our return journey." Cemendur explained. "Its lord is Celeborn of Doriath, our ally of old and distant kin to the Lord Aragorn. Lorien is not a land for Men, but its evil repute is quite undeserved. We met with naught but courtesy and kindness there."
"My Uncle Celeborn has fought the Shadow through three ages of the World," Aragorn said quietly, "his judgement is not to be lightly discarded."
"We found also at Rivendell, your grace's Steward and Regent for the North the Lady Ellemir." Cemendur told him. "She, upon hearing both our embassage and the Lord Elrond's advice, declared herself unable to make a decision that belonged to your grace alone, and urged us to return to Gondor to make presentation to you."
"As you have done." said Aragorn. "But where is Hurin? Safe I hope."
"Quite safe, my Lord." Cemendur assured him quickly. "Hurin chose to take service with the Lady your grandmother in requital for the service your grace has given Gondor."
"I see." Aragorn said thoughtfully, eyeing his nephews. "I thank you, my Lord Cemendur, both for your pains and your silence. But now I must discuss these matters privately with the Lord Steward."
"Yes," Ecthelion agreed, "leave us, Cemendur, and see that the Lords Ereinion and Ellenion are suitably housed if you would."
Rising the Councillor bowed to the air between Steward and King, before ushering the two younger Men out.
There was a long silence, finally broken by Aragorn "Why, Ecthelion, after twenty years this sudden interest in my origins?"
"Because, my Lord, I have not much longer to live and feared what might happen between you and my son after I am gone."
Aragorn shook his head. "Denethor is not my friend but he would never do me actual harm without cause, which I will not give him."
Ecthelion smiled crookedly. "The harm I feared would be entirely to himself. My son has not the gift for making himself loved which you, my Lord, have in abundance. No, he would not harm you but he would slight and insult you as he always has and though you might bear such patiently your friends and followers would not."
Aragorn thought of Hirluin, his lieutenant, and any number of others and sighed. "Yes, I see, even without my will there would be trouble. But you need not fear, Ecthelion, I must leave Gondor soon. Already I have lingered far longer than is wise."
Ecthelion blinked. "Leave?" he echoed, a little blankly, cautiously: "Then you do not intend to lay your claim before the Council?"
"Certainly not." Aragorn answered quietly. "Gondor cannot afford a second Kinstrife, not with Sauron on her borders. And you and I both know there are many who would never accept Isildur's Heir as King."
The Steward looked at him levelly. "Fewer than you might think, my Lord."
"But enough." Neither Man said Denethor's name aloud but it lay unspoken between them. "We cannot risk civil war in Gondor. Not when she is all that stands between Sauron and the West."
"No." Ecthelion agreed. Was it relief that clouded his face or disappointment, or some strange combination of both? "And of course you are eager to return to your own people."
"The Gondorim too are my people," Aragorn replied softly, "and I promise you I will never forget it."
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