My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Sword of Elendil: 27. Shadow of the Elder Days
As she waited for news Gilraen took refuge in her loom, weaving each day till her shoulders ached and then pushing herself to weave yet more. Her soft, fine hands became as rough as once they had been so many years ago when she was a young wife in the Angle, working beside her mother in the Commons.
The ease and beauty of life in Rivendell was driving her mad. Once she had gratefully taken refuge in the drowsy Elven twilight of the Hidden Valley as she mourned her dead husband and tended to her small son. She had turned away with relief from life among the Dúnedain, so hard, so short! But now she could think only of the Rangers in the wild and her kin in the Angle. Chafing at her distance and her weak woman's body, she bent to her loom and worked for the good of her people.
Memories of the past filled her heart and mind. In the Angle at this time of year, when the days were short and dark, snow drifted in the cold stone alleys of the Keep and she had to break the ice in the well to draw water. Here in Rivendell she had servants to do the heavy chores, but in Thurnost everyone, even the chieftain's family, had to work. When as a girl she had listened to the ancient tales in the evening, the wealth and ease of Numenor seemed as magical as the Elven Realms themselves.
It was on such a cold day that first she saw Arathorn when he returned from his years away in the wild. Clutching her shawl around her head and neck, she hurried up the steps into the huge hall of the Commons and, as she swept the woolen cloth from her head, she looked up to see the chieftain, Arador, in happy council with a small group of other men, two of whom were unknown to her. The tallest of them had turned his eyes toward her—eyes that suddenly widened beyond courtesy to a keen appreciation. She remembered how the blood had rushed to her face as recognition came to her and she hurried past the group of men. Arathorn—the chieftain's son.
That night her father had formally presented her, and her girlhood gave way to a place of bright, confusing emotions and conflicting hearts.
But being the wife of the Chieftain's son had not eased the burden of her work—rather, it had shifted it toward yet more responsibility, of which the most important was bearing children. Of all her duties, that had been both the hardest and the most joyful. Enduring the pain of childbirth, she had comforted herself with the thought that soon she would hear the voice of her son amid the happy voices of the children of the Keep.
Here in Rivendell there were no burials, no tombs, no cancers, no deadly plagues.
Nor were there cries of women in childbirth, babbling babies, and noisy children playing.
There were no children at all, not since Estel had grown up.
One evening Erestor interrupted her journey into the past. "There's no need to continue your weaving, Gilraen," he said gently. "Our scouts are equipped and on the hunt. Please join us in the Hall of Fire."
But she shook her head. "I cannot sit at ease while my people suffer and die and my son is in danger." She lifted the edge of the strong, dark cloth coming off her loom. "I will send this to Thurnost. No one here will want such coarse stuff."
She read amusement in Erestor's eyes. "As you wish." And he bowed and went away.
A slow anger drove her to work even later that night. She knew Erestor meant no malice—he was the kindest of souls and thought only of her comfort—but she could not so easily divorce her own labor from the fate of the Dunedain. And she knew that there were others in Rivendell who did not miss her in the Hall of Fire. She thought of Lindir's beautiful face and cold eyes—he who had said to Elrond of her and her son: "Mortals are not our business."
The words were burned in her heart, swelling now with indignation and love for her people. "Why teach him, Elrond," Lindir had said. "Another Heir of Isildur! In just a little while he will die and there will be another, and maybe another after him, and on and on it goes in this cycle of misery. I've watched you suffer with this through all the years—all for nothing."
Elrond had gotten angry then and Gilraen, flushing hot and cold with shame and indignation, had crept away before they realized she was listening. She had never spoken of what she had heard. The words had not been meant for her ears, she knew, and she had put them out of her mind when she realized that few in Rivendell shared Lindir's views. But she remembered them now as she sent the shuttle back and forth and the length of cloth grew.
As the days passed, it seemed as if the soft music and leafy fragrance of the Valley faded from her senses, giving way to the harsh sounds of the blacksmith's hammer, the cries of the washerwomen, the smell of leather and sweat in the Keep. Little interrupted her concentration, until one day at the sound of long footsteps in the hallway she stiffened and stopped the shuttle short.
No Elf would tread so heavily. Estel! Joy leaping in her heart, she ran to the door and flung it open.
But it was Hallor who stood there, dusty from the road. Behind him loomed a tall young man that for a brief moment of hope she thought was her son after all. But he was not as tall, and his face was unfamiliar.
"Hallor!" she cried wildly. "What's happened? Where's Estel?"
Hallor's face was grave and calm. "He's one day's journey away, Gilraen. May we come in? This is my son, Halbarad. We've come to bring you word, riding ahead of the party accompanying Aragorn. He is safe now."
Relief flooded her heart. "Forgive me! I have lost all courtesy in my fear. Please, come in."
She settled them before the fire and brewed some tea, chafing against her anxiety for the news. "Please, tell me everything."
But as she listened to the story that flowed from Hallor's lips, she gasped with shock and horror and could only cry out, "Beleg! Arathorn! No, no, no," as she wrapped her arms around herself and wept. Daeron no traitor after all, Beleg dead at her son's hand, the spirit of a malevolent Elf—how was this to be understood? But as she struggled to make sense of the enormity of it all, one thing only rose to prominence. "Estel? You say he's safe now?"
"He's getting better under Elrond's care," Hallor said gently. "But he is still very ill. My son was with him for the whole."
Halbarad spoke then for the first time. "He mends, lady. But you will have to ask Elrond to explain to you what's happened. Though I tended him for days alone in the wild, I don't understand it. It's no ordinary illness that he suffers."
Through her panic Gilraen saw the dark exhaustion in Halbarad's grey eyes. "I will go at once to meet them on the road."
Hallor raised his hand. "No, that would be unwise—rather, prepare a sickroom to receive him. He will need all Elrond's care and yours too. They should be here by tomorrow morning. Halbarad and I will leave shortly to search for Daeron and Rodnor, who are still missing in the wild. Meanwhile, Gilraen—prepare yourself."
"I understand," she said. "As always, I obey the chieftain's orders."
Hallor smiled then. "Ah, Gilraen, I am not the chieftain." He stood up and kissed her hand in the manner of the old courtiers, then held it between his own two rough hands like a kinsman and a friend. "I am the chieftain's man and you are his lady mother. When he is himself again, I will serve him as he wishes." He looked down at her thoughtfully. "I always knew that Aragorn would prove a most worthy son of his father, but as men so often will, for good or ill, some doubted it. There will be no more doubts. He is the chieftain by name and by the honor he has won among us. He will take his place at the head of the Rangers. I myself will sit at his right hand if he so wishes."
Halbarad said firmly, "And I at his left."
"Yes," Hallor nodded. "You, too, have earned your Ranger star, my son. And Daeron will be reinstated to full rank."
Gilraen rose and courtseyed to them both. "On behalf of the chieftain, I thank you."
And she rejoiced that Estel had earned the respect and love of the bravest and hardest men in Middle-Earth, the Rangers of the North.
No words could have prepared Gilraen for the gaunt, hollow-eyed stranger who bore her son's name when he arrived toward noon the next day. Unconscious, he lay in a covered litter borne by four Elves of Elrond's household.
"Don't touch him," Elrond cautioned, holding his arm before her. He was booted and cloaked, muddy from the journey.
"Why ever not?"
"I had to put him in a sleep for the journey. Wait, please." Elrond turned away from her and in a low voice gave orders to the bearers. She stood trembling, her hand at her throat, her anger and fear rising, as the litter was carried through the doors. When Elrond turned back to face her, he pressed her arm with his warm, firm grip. "Don't be afraid. He will recover."
"How can I believe that after all I have seen and heard?"
He took her tense hands and held them. "Outside the protection of Imladris, there was too much danger for the care that Estel needs. We had to flee here with all speed and the creatures of the Enemy were on our trail. Here in the Valley, he can begin at last the real work of full healing."
"Healing from what? Tell me!"
"I fear that some power of the Sorcerer remains in Estel's blood. Here I can provide the safety that will enable Estel to drive him out. It will be very hard, Gilraen, but we will succeed. I swear it."
"How do you know? This creature hunts the Heirs of Isildur," she cried, "he lusts for the blood of the royal line. If what I have been told is true, he murdered my husband. He murdered my husband's father. He brought the power of Sauron into the Keep itself."
"That is true," Elrond said. "At last I know the truth of the threat I felt to the child Aragorn all those years ago. Indeed, if you had stayed in the Angle, he would not have survived childhood."
"I don't find that comforting," Gilraen said bitterly. "Yes, you were so right to bring us here and to ban the Dúnedain from the Valley. But why didn't you drive out the threat then? Why did so many others have to die?"
Elrond's serenity did not waver in the face of her anger. "I kept everyone outside of Imladris from Estel because I did not know from where the danger came. I hid him even from Gandalf the Grey, who will not forgive me when he learns of it. If only I had known—have I not reproached myself? If only Beleg had come to me for help! Was it chance that he never came again to Rivendell, or did the creature keep him away, I wonder? Even I cannot see all things, Gilraen."
She hung her head in regret and dismay. He was right, she knew.
"This being," Elrond continued, "I have been trying to find out who he is. I know only that he remembers the Elder Days. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"He is the spirit of a houseless Elf, I have been told," she answered, "and he still lives to hunt my son."
"Yes," Elrond said. "That's why the full healing could not take place till now. I had to put all of my power into guarding Aragorn as we fled to safety. I believe that the Sorcerer's true name will tell us much and that I intend to find out with Estel's help. Do you understand now why we must be so careful? This creature is probably now in the body of a wolf, if I understand aright all I have learned. I need your help, Gilraen. You and I have Estel's greatest trust and will bear the greatest burden."
She nodded. "I cannot say that I understand, but I know that the answer lies with you."
Elrond bent his grave eyes on her. "No, Gilraen. The answer lies with Aragorn. If he had not had the strength that he does, the Sorcerer would have won already. Come to me in Estel's chamber when I call for you."
Still unconscious, warm blankets wrapped around his long body, Aragorn lay in the bed he had slept in as a youth. His hair and beard, cropped short for his illness, stuck out like thorny brush from his head and face. Gilraen could have wept at the dark circles around his eyes and his hollow cheekbones. He lay in an unnaturally still sleep as if on the verge of death, breathing shallow, raspy breaths.
"He has lost so much strength," she cried.
"He will regain it and more," Elrond reassured her. "In time. I will wake him from the heavy sleep now."
Dressed in flowing robes, Elrond lay one hand on the sick man's brow and the other on his chest, just over the heart. His face closed in concentration as he lowered his eyes and murmured words she could not understand. For too long it seemed as if nothing had occurred and she feared that Elrond would fail after all. But at last some color began to appear in Aragorn's face and his breathing deepened. Almost he seemed to smile in his unconsciousness.
Elrond turned to Gilraen. "Watch him. He will sleep naturally now and begin to come back to us. It may be difficult at times—he will see the bad dreams and fears which were suppressed in the heavy sleep. Your presence at his side is the best aid we can give. Call me if there is any fever."
And so Gilraen sat at her son's sickbed all the rest of that day and into the night. Now indeed his sleep became restless: he moaned and tossed as if in the grip of hideous nightmares. She stroked his rough hair and tried to calm his disquiet, but he did not seem to know she was there.
As the dawn approached he was seized by fever and chills. Alarmed, she sent the serving maid to fetch Elrond. Again Elrond pressed his elegant healer's hands on Aragorn's brow and heart and the sick man's torment seemed to ease.
"He struggles toward the light," Elrond told her. "It is well. I feel his strength in the pathways."
"The pathways!" she said. "I see bodily suffering. How can he endure this?"
Elrond regarded her gravely. "His body revenges itself on the torment of the mind. The sorcerer is no longer here. He cannot pass the borders of the Valley which are under my command. What Aragorn fights now is the trace of his memory and power. Gilraen, talk to him. I think he will hear your words even in his dreams. Your voice may help to bring him back to us."
"I have only sorrow and dread to speak of," she cried. "How can that help?"
"You think, too, of the baby you lost in that dark time," Elrond said.
Gilraen had known Elrond long enough not to be surprised that he could read her heart. "Yes," she whispered. For she knew that the Sorcerer had also killed the child growing in her womb those twenty-one years ago when Arathorn died. That last night, before she and the two-year-old Estel fled from Thurnost with the sons of Elrond, she had sat with the wounded Beleg and touched him and the taint had entered her blood too.
The memory of pain seized her belly as if the child died yet again. She saw a baby's face, then the lovely eyes and smile of a young woman—her daughter as she would have been. Estel's sister. She wept anew. "My baby," she cried to Elrond. "He killed her. And he killed Ariel, my husband's sister, and her baby son, too."
"I fear so," Elrond said. "But he will not kill Estel. Talk to him. He will hear your voice."
Aragorn stirred, his eyes, still unseeing, opening briefly. "Mother," he muttered. "Mother."
Resuming her vigil, Gilraen talked of the lost years. When Estel was growing up, she had sealed the past in her heart, since she knew no word of his true identity could reach his ears. Now memory burst from her in a torrent. She spoke about Arathorn and his joy at the birth of his son, a ruddy, long-limbed babe with a robust cry and a cap of thick dark hair. "Even then I knew you would bear my unruly locks, my son," she said, smiling in her tears. "I bade the midwife place you first in your father's arms and he named you Aragorn son of Arathorn, and he wept. Only twice did I ever see tears in my husband's eyes—that day, and the day nearly one year before when he returned to Thurnost, bearing the news that Trolls had seized his father. We made you that day, my lord husband and I, conceiving a son to ease our grief."
Was it her own foresight or merely a wish that believed the small bud of life within her had been a girlchild? No matter. She spoke to her son of his lost sister and wondered if he could truly hear her words. And the tears came yet again when, settled in the chair by the bedside, lost in dreams and regrets of the past, Gilraen heard him murmur in his sleep, "Little sister."
He did not wake, but he would whisper snatches of words, sometimes of no meaning to Gilraen. But when he called out, "Father!" she wondered which one he meant, and when he murmured, "Arwen," her heart broke and she was glad Elrond was not there to hear.
It seemed as if the torment would go on forever. After three days Elrond began to look troubled, which alarmed her even more. After again laying his hands on Aragorn's brow and heart, he turned gravely to Gilraen and said, "It's time for me to join him in the struggle."
This time he sat on a bench at the bedside and picked up both of Aragorn's wrists, holding them tightly. Gilraen watched as Elrond sunk into a deep meditation the like of which she had never seen. Its intensity, however, was short-lived, for suddenly Elrond leaped up, his fair Elven face transformed by feral hate.
"Moredhel!" he cried.
Gilraen could only stare as the Master of Rivendell rocked on his feet, gasping. "Ai!" he cried. "The Enemy's arts are deep."
"What is it?"
"I know who the creature is. His power was—is—immense. For he is the one we called Moredhel, the Black Elf. For three Ages he has hunted the Children of Lúthien."
Through her tears Gilraen could see the years of sorrow in Elrond's ageless face. "What do you mean?" she whispered.
"He killed my mother's brothers," Elrond said. "He was the cruel servant of Celegorm who left Eluréd and Elurín in the forest to starve. Ahando, he named himself, the herald of Fëanor, who followed his sons in the wars and urged ever more bloodshed in the fulfillment of the Oath. His sword was among the first to draw blood in Alqualondë; he it was who threw the torch on the white ships and burned Fëanor's youngest son in the hold. He imprisoned Lúthien in Celegorm's caverns. And finally he met with the death he deserved—at the hands of my foster father, Maedhros son of Fëanor."
Elrond's eyes were lost in memory. Gilraen stared at him, seeing almost with fear the flinty resolve in the sorrow of his face. "Maedhros killed him for the murder of my uncles, the twin sons of Dior who would have been lords of Menegroth, had they lived. That deed Maedhros long rued as the worst coming from that cursed Oath.
"But that did not end his evil, as we now know," Elrond said sadly, "he we called the Sorcerer of Rhudaur was Ahando in a Man's body. It is one of the Enemy's worst deeds: that a houseless Elf would force a Man's spirit from his body and take it over. Who knows how many bodies he has inhabited over these long years?"
He stood silent, staring down at Aragorn in his sickbed. "Gilraen, do not fear," he said. "All my strength will be bent to the defeat of this creature." He smiled and she saw again the Master of Rivendell, kind as summer.
"I will join Estel in the pathways."
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