My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Matter of Honor, A: 8. Ghosts in the Attic
Aragorn had spent his childhood running up and down these attic stairs, but somehow he did not recall them being quite so steep. In fact, he reflected, leaning against the rough plaster of the third landing to ease his weight off his aching knee, he had never before noticed the absence of a handrail, either. Adding to his indignity was Dudo's effortless ascent; the hobbit was scampering behind Erestor like an excited squirrel after a prize nut. Even as Aragorn wiped an uncharacteristic film of sweat from his brow, the two of them reached the top of the stairs, and with the creak of a little-used hinge Erestor swung open the door, releasing a draft of musty air and a flood of memories.
Vast and gloomy, adorned not with exquisite furnishings but stacks of dusty trunks and fabric-draped hulks of uncertain provenance, the attic was one of the few places in Imladris that could be described as scary -- which made it an irresistible destination for a child, of course. Only in the attic did whispers skip hollowly across bare floorboards and echo from the roof beams instead of sinking silently into the plushness of tapestries, drapes, and carpets. A chill always seemed to cling to the musty air, even in summer, and strange shadows rose like black wraiths behind the shrouded cargo. Many dragons had he slain in the attic; together with countless trolls, orcs and wargs. In his imagination, the attic had become the dungeons of Tol-in-Gaurhoth, Elendil's ship, and the fortress of Umbar. And when he was too old to play orcs and Rangers, but still too young to fully appreciate the orderly, elegant tranquility of the Last Homely House; when occasionally even the fragrant woods failed to soothe his adolescent torments, he would sometimes climb these stairs, seeking the dark silence of forgotten things.
"Come on, Aragorn!" Dudo was at standing in the open doorway, bouncing up and down on his heels. "Hurry up!"
"Go on ahead," he called. "I'll be right behind you."
Erestor had turned to stare. "Estel, are you sure you --?"
"I am fine," he announced. Removing his supporting hand from the wall long enough to wave off Erestor's owlish scrutiny, he straightened, striking his most commanding Captain of Gondor pose. "Go."
With a shrug that pointedly conveyed his opinion of prickly convalescents, Erestor disappeared through the doorway. Dudo hesitated a moment longer, seeming to weigh the questionable wisdom of following strange Elves into dark places against the greater foolishness of relying on such a lame, wheezing, specimen as Aragorn for protection. With a last, apologetic glance downward, he too vanished into the gloom.
Having successfully lurched up the last thirty steps with all the grace of a hamstrung warg, Aragorn leaned against the doorjamb to catch his breath. Halfway down the cleared path that served as a main corridor through the cavernous expanse of the attic, he could make out Dudo, standing alone. Erestor he could not see, but the metallic scraping of a latch, the clang of a shutter being thrown open, and a sudden profusion of sunlight streaming across the floor revealed his location and purpose. A moment later Erestor reappeared, moving around the stacks to open a second window.
Now caught in a shaft of light, Dudo jumped up and down, raising clouds of dust as he struggled to see over the tops of boxes stacked taller than his head. "What is all this stuff?"
Erestor re-emerged, dusting off his robe. Aragorn reckoned him to be the only person in Imladris, probably, who could have answered Dudo's question. As far as Aragorn knew, no formal records were kept of the heirlooms, castoffs, and forgotten junk occupying the attic. Should Erestor ever sail, the location of Arvedui's royal dinnerware might be lost forever.
Instead of launching into a proud inventory, as Aragorn had expected, Erestor seemed at an uncharacteristic loss for words, as if his intimate familiarity with every last tarnished butter knife, faded heirloom, and shrouded, bulging artifact in Imladris had suddenly failed him. Finally, with a bemused glance at Aragorn, he shrugged. "I suppose these are all things no one needs anymore."
Dudo stared at him with blank incomprehension. As Aragorn well knew, there was no such thing in Bree as a thing that no one needed. Belongings of every type were endlessly repaired, stripped for parts or lumber, melted down, sold or stolen or traded for something more useful, and finally, at the abject end of their usefulness, they were burned for fuel. Dudo looked as if he was trying hard to be polite to a very high-ranking madman. "Well. It all looks very old, doesn't it?"
Aragorn lifted Dudo and set him atop one of the more stable-looking stacks of crates. "Indeed; all of it is far older than you can imagine. Especially Erestor."
"Aragorn, on the other hand, is scarcely more than a child," Erestor said. "In fact, it seems to me that just a short while ago he was playing hide-and-seek up here."
Dudo gaped at Aragorn as if his ears had just turned green. "You played hide-and-seek? You?"
"I wasn't born a crotchety old Ranger, you know," Aragorn said, chuckling at the hobbit's bald astonishment. "At one time I was smaller than you, if you can believe it, and quite good at hiding." He pointed to a set of high shelves that must have once taken up an entire wall of a room somewhere in the house. "Once, when I was playing hide-and-seek with Elladan and Elrohir, I climbed to the top of those shelves and hid behind some boxes. As they searched for me fruitlessly for over an hour, I lay perfectly still, trying not to move a muscle. Finally, Elladan came over to the bookshelf and stood right beneath me, so close I could count the hairs on his head. He was standing very still so as to hear any sound I might make." He smiled at the memory of holding his breath until spots appeared before his eyes. "I knew he was listening for my breathing, so I held my breath. And even then, I was sure the pounding of my heart could be heard clear across the attic. But he did not hear me."
"What did you do then?" Dudo asked.
"When I could hold my breath no longer, I reached down and rapped him right on the top of his skull."
Dudo's eyes widened. "You rapped Elladan on his noddle?"
"I most certainly did. Ask Elrohir."
"I thought you said it was Elladan."
"It was. But Elladan claims to this day that he knew I was there the whole time."
Dudo grinned. "It must have been fun, playing with them."
"I was good at hiding from Elladan and Elrohir. The only person I could never hide from was my mother."
"Mothers can always find you," Dudo agreed wistfully.
Aragorn smiled. "Yes, they can. My mother knew this was one of my favorite places."
Dudo peered skeptically at the shadowy depths. "This is too spooky to be one of my favorite places. I'll bet there are ghosts up here."
"Do not be foolish," Erestor said, squinting to peer at a yellowing tag on a trunk handle. "There is no such thing as a ghost. Here is your trunk, Estel. I'll move it closer to the window."
"Thank you." The breeze from the window was fresh and warm, the day to be seen outside bright and cheery, with green leaves rustling in the spring breeze. Aragorn smiled, imagining what Halbarad would have to say about a Ranger, a hobbit, and an Elf rummaging around in a dusty old attic on such a fine day.
Erestor set the trunk down beside the window and discreetly pushed another over beside it, clearly intending its use as a seat but mindful of raising Aragorn's hackles by saying so. "I'll leave you now, unless you need anything else. I suggest that you two leave yourselves plenty of time to clean up before dinner."
"I'll keep that in mind," Aragorn replied.
"These are your things from when you were a boy?" Dudo asked, drawn away from the window by the prospect of hidden treasures.
"Yes," Aragorn answered. To be honest, he was not sure what to expect. He had had no hand in packing the trunk, having demonstrated a boy's typical disinterest in the maintenance of treasures and heirlooms. He brushed a layer of dust off the lid and swung it open, revealing stacks of folded clothing. He set aside the precisely aligned piles, trying not to disturb their smooth creases. Beneath the clothing were toys. He recognized them with fondness, and not a little guilt. He had never stopped to wonder what happened to them once they were outgrown. They had simply disappeared, to be replaced by ever bigger, sharper, more dangerous toys. But here they were, lovingly preserved by a mother quietly resigned to her son's slow but sure transformation from sweet child to hardened warrior: carved horses, dogs, boars, and deer; painted soldiers, toy swords and knives, little wagons with wheels that really turned. Dudo, nearly grown by the reckoning of his people and already proven deadly with a real blade, would have no use for them. They would all go back in the trunk to await another child; a child that Aragorn dared not yet dream about.
Beneath the toys, neatly stacked on the bottom of the trunk, he found what he was after: books. Not the wordy tomes that lined Elrond's study, but children's books, some written in Elrond's own hand; gorgeously illustrated with gold leaf and colorful inks. Fondly he remembered childhood bedtimes curled up with his mother, or sometimes Elrond or the twins, or even, on rare occasions, Glorfindel, listening to these tales and looking at pictures of strange and wondrous things. He pulled them out and stacked them on the floor beside the trunk. Recognizing one with a bright red binding and elegant gold lettering, he handed it to Dudo. "Here you are, Dudo. This one is about a fire-breathing dragon, like the one Bilbo told you about."
Dudo's eyes widened. "Is that a dragon? It's beautiful! Can I really have it?"
He smiled. "Yes, you may have all of them, if you like." As Dudo dropped down to sit cross-legged by his side, absorbed by the book, Aragorn found himself absently turning the wheels on a toy wagon.
"Is this one yours, too?" Aragorn glanced up, expecting to see Dudo holding a book out to him, but instead the hobbit was pointing to the trunk he was sitting on. "The tag has your name on it, too, I think."
Aragorn reached down and caught the yellowed tag in his hands, angling it to catch the light. His breath caught as he read the faded script. It was an understandable mistake; especially for a boy just learning Sindarin. The lettering was old, nearly illegible, and only one letter was different. "Dudo," he heard himself say, in a level tone almost drowned out by the rushing in his ears, "why don't you take all the books downstairs and change your clothes? You are covered with cobwebs."
"So are you," the hobbit pointed out.
"I am a convalescing invalid," Aragorn informed him, "and besides, Elrond is accustomed to seeing me dirty." He frowned at the ponderous stack of books. It was half as tall as Dudo. "At least take as many as you can carry. I will bring the rest."
"But Lord Elrond says you're not supposed to carry --"
"Master Tillfield," he said stiffly, "I am a Ranger chieftain and quite capable of dealing with Lord Elrond. Now go."
He waited until Dudo, pouting and quite displeased with him now, had disappeared down the stairs before unlatching his father's trunk. He wondered how, in all the years he'd spent hiding amongst the trunks and boxes, he had failed to notice its existence. He had simply not been looking, he realized. Nor would he have recognized the name even had he seen it, he supposed. The name "Arathorn" had meant nothing to him then.
He swung the heavy lid open, releasing stale air and a whiff of a scent that stirred a remnant of a memory – a black-bearded face, smiling; large hands lifting him, spinning him around until he shrieked with glee; a flash of a broad white smile, a deep laugh. There was a brown leather coat laid across the top of the trunk, folded simply in half as if its wearer had taken it off upon arriving home for dinner. Fashioned in a common Dúnedain pattern, it was cut for a man slightly broader across the shoulders than himself. The leather was creased and sweat-stained, nicked and repaired in many places, but no fatal blow had pierced the worn garment. Aragorn knew better than to look for one; the arrow that had killed his father had gone into his eye: quick, clean, and painless. At least that is what he had always been encouraged to believe.
Beneath the coat, he found a grey cloak. By the way it had been carelessly rolled up instead of meticulously folded like his boyhood clothes, he did not think his mother had been the one to put it here. A widow, a young mother in her hour of inconsolable grief, would have been spared such duties, if possible. Her husband's weapons, his brooch and his ring would have been delivered to her polished and cleaned. The rest of his possessions must have been packed in the trunk, delivered to Imladris, and carried up here to be forgotten.
As expected, the trunk contained no weapons -- he had them already --but there was a cleaning pouch with sharpening stones, a vial of oil, and some rags bent stiff with hardened oil and dirt. There was a worn pair of boots also, one of them sporting a new heel – left behind at home for a repair job its owner would not need. Aragorn could not resist the temptation to hold the boot alongside his own. It would have been a trifle too small, just as the coat had been too big. Other small items were scattered about in the interior as if thrown in haphazardly -- a razor and a comb, some leather thongs, a sliver of soap, several flints, a small towel, a water skin and an empty bronze flask that still smelled of spirits. The angled shaft of light from the window did not reach the bottom of the trunk; he would have missed the item lying in the very bottom if his fingers had not brushed against the knotted string wrapped around it. He scooped it up, recognizing it as a flat leather wallet such as the Rangers used for carrying dispatches and letters. He worked the ancient knot loose and flipped open the flap. There were several aged parchments inside.
"It was summer."
Aragorn started violently, came down too hard on his left knee, overbalanced and forgot not to catch himself with his right hand. The wallet went flying as he grabbed the edge of the trunk to right himself. Glaring up at Elladan and gritting his teeth only long enough to formulate a suitable tirade, he realized that Elladan was staring, transfixed, at the coat that still lay across his lap. Staring as if he had just seen a ghost. He knew the coat, Aragorn realized -- had seen it before; and from the haunted look on his face, it had been on his father's body at the time. Aragorn was not sure if he wanted to know whether his father had been alive or dead at the time. He shook his head. "What was summer?"
Elladan drew close enough to reach out and touch the coat. "It was summer when we rode with him, that last time. There was no need for coats."
Of course. If his father had been wearing the coat, it would have been buried along with him, in the same lonely ground where they left him because it was high summer and too far to carry a body.
Elladan sank down to sit beside him. "He felt no pain. He was riding beside me, on his great black horse, his sword raised high as we charged toward the orcs, and in the next moment, he fell. He was dead before he hit the ground." He hung his head. "I am sorry."
With his elbows propped on his knees, hands clasped loosely, dark hair falling over his face, Elladan looked suddenly very young. "A warrior would be grateful for such a death," Aragorn said. "And an arrow can come from nowhere. You have nothing to be sorry for."
"Your mother said something very like that, you know," Elladan said. "She was a strong woman, Estel. Even in her own grief, she would not allow us to wallow in guilt. She told us it was laughter you needed to hear, and so we tried to give it to you. You returned it manyfold, and there lies the source of my guilt, you see. All the years of laughter and joy that you brought us - they should have been his." He took a deep, shuddering breath and straightened, his gaze flickering to the high bank of bookcases against the wall. "I knew you were hiding there the whole time."
Blinking to clear his vision, Aragorn forced a snort. "You did not."
"Aragorn, you were eight. Do you really think you were a match for the senses of the Firstborn?"
"I was nine," he said. "And yes, with one hand tied behind my back."
Elladan slapped his shoulder companionably. "Then there could be no more perfect opportunity for a rematch than now, Estel! Unfortunately, it will have to wait, though. Father expects us both for dinner, and you could certainly use some cleaning up first."
Aragorn nodded at the pile of books Dudo had left behind. "If you carry the rest of Dudo's books downstairs, I'll re-pack the trunk and the close the shutters."
"Very well." Elladan bent, scooped up a double armful of books, and headed for the stairs. "Do they not have books in the Shire? If Dudo collects any more gifts, we shall have to lend Mithrandir a wagon."
Alone again, Aragorn sat with the coat across his knees. He did not think he could bear wearing it, and yet he found it hard to seal it back into the trunk. He traced the creases where his father's elbows had bent, the stains at the neck from dirt and oil, trying in vain to squeeze some last drop of memory from the faint scents of leather, oil, dirt, and sweat. Finally, he set the coat down gently inside the trunk and closed the lid. As he stood up, his foot grazed something soft. It was the leather wallet of parchments, still lying where he had dropped it when Elladan startled him. He bent and picked it up, intending to drop it into the trunk – most likely it contained eighty-year-old scouting reports and requests for supplies. But instead, he found himself sitting down again, and opening the flap to remove the thin sheaf of yellowed parchments.
He frowned. It was immediately evident that these were no scouting reports or supply requisitions. They were personal letters; letters to his father. The handwriting was decidedly unpracticed, the signature unfamiliar, and the Westron unlearned…he squinted to decipher the tortured, faded penmanship, to sort through the confusing messages. His blood rose in his ears as the content became horrifyingly clear, and his breathing grew harsh. He forced himself to re-read the letters two times, three times, giving himself every opportunity to be wrong. It could not be…
"Aragorn?" The wizard was a shadow cloaked in grey, visible only as an indistinct shape standing in the doorway. "Are you here? Is everything all right?"
It was becoming plain to him that nothing at all was all right, but he needed time to investigate, verify, confirm or disprove, or at the very least, calm down and clear his head before he admitted as much. He shuddered at the thought of Elrond, Gandalf, the twins, and half of Rivendell calmly sifting through the scattered remnants of his father's life, analytically discussing how he could have come to such a scandal. He wondered if any of them could possibly have known. The twins had been close friends of Arathorn, yes, but they were still the sons of Elrond, from whom Arathorn would undoubtedly have withheld any hint of impropriety.
Elrond -- At the thought, Aragorn felt the blood drain from his face just as a soft glow illuminated the attic. Gandalf, apparently unwilling to risk breaking an ankle tripping over a discarded statue of Gil-galad, had ignited his staff. As he made his way across the attic, Aragorn forced his breathing to slow. "I'm all right," he managed to get out.
Gandalf arrived at his side and regarded him with a skeptical frown. "Are you sure? You look a bit pale."
It was no accident that Gandalf was here, Aragorn concluded. He had been selected by a committee headed by Elrond, after some discussion about the finding of Arathorn's trunk and Aragorn's resultant state of mind. "I was just going through some of my father's things," he said, with a glimmer of hope that if Gandalf had any idea what the trunk contained, he would choose this opportunity to speak up about it.
"I know," Gandalf said. "You could have had all his things years ago, you know. It simply did not occur to Elrond you would want them. Everything of value had already been given to you." Gandalf's tone was gentle; his concern fatherly; conveying no alarm, no worry. His moods were sometimes inscrutable but Aragorn had learned to read them well enough. He did not know about the letters. "Come," he said after a moment. "Dinner is waiting. Or shall I tell Elrond you are not hungry?"
Though there had never been a time in his life that Aragorn had more desperately wanted to be alone, to admit the same would attract Elrond's scrutiny, and Elrond's scrutiny was beyond bearing at the moment. "No," he forced himself to say. "I am coming." With a nod of acquiescence, he rose and followed Gandalf to the great hall.
Dinner was underway; Elrond having evidently decided it would not be proper to hold it up any longer, or perhaps had thought it would embarrass Aragorn to do so. It was a small, family gathering, with Elrond at the head of the table in a formal robe. To his left sat Bilbo, Elladan and Elrohir, with Glorfindel opposite Elrond. Aragorn spotted a vacant place on the side opposite the twins, beside Dudo, and bowed to Elrond before seating himself. "I apologize for my tardiness, Lord Elrond," he said formally.
"There is no need for apology," Elrond answered with studied mildness. "Soup has already been served, but some can be brought from the kitchen, if you like." A glance passed between him and Gandalf, and his mithril-clad brow tensed slightly, but Aragorn read it as simple concern. Of course he did not know, Aragorn realized. He could not possibly have known, and make the promises he had made. So then, no one in Rivendell knew. Aragorn wondered about the Dúnedain. Having lived among warriors his entire life, he was familiar enough with the kinds of indiscretions men indulge in when far from home. He was also familiar with the secrecy that usually surrounded such indiscretions. A man might brag about a one-night tryst with a tavern wench, but something like this…
"Aragorn?" He realized belatedly that Elrond was still waiting to know if he wanted some soup, and that the entire table had gone silent to stare at him.
"No, please do not go to any trouble," he replied hastily, reaching for the nearest serving dish to spoon a dollop of berry sauce onto a plate of roasted pheasant someone had placed in front of him. "I am sure that such a sumptuous feast will far surpass my appetite as it is." Especially since he had no appetite whatsoever.
"Guess what I did today?" Dudo piped up. As if with a collective sigh, the adults at the table turned their attention to the youngest guest.
"What did you do today, Dudo?" Gandalf asked obligingly.
"Bilbo and I went walking in the woods and I saw a baby fawn, and then Aragorn and Erestor took me up to the attic and Aragorn gave me some books from when he was a boy. He said I can take them with me to the Shire tomorrow. And Aragorn used to play hide and seek up in the attic when he was a boy, and he fooled Elladan."
"He did not," Elladan said, with a warning glare at Elrohir, who chuckled and threw up his hands.
"Yes, of course, Brother," he said, "and you did a spendid impression of astonishment when he rapped you on the head."
Gandalf chuckled. "Dudo, if you continue collecting farewell gifts, we shall have to ask Lord Elrond for a wagon."
"That is exactly what I told him," Elladan said.
Dudo was not to be deflated. "Bilbo says when I get to the Shire I will live in a proper hobbit hole with my own room."
"The Shire is one of my very favorite places," Gandalf said. "I should think you will be very happy there."
Dudo looked wistfully at Bilbo. "Bilbo has told me so many wonderful things about the Shire. I only wish he could go with us."
"I am much too old for traipsing all over the countryside," Bilbo said, "though I should very much like to see Frodo again. Pity Gandalf will not let you live with him."
From Gandalf's strained smile, Aragorn guessed this line of discussion was well-trod ground already. For both Frodo's safety and Dudo's, such an arrangement would be out of the question. "We discussed this already, Bilbo," Gandalf said patiently. "It would not be fair to ask Frodo to take on a ward. He is too accustomed to the freedom of a bachelor's life and would likely not adjust well to a rambunctious tweenager about the house."
"I had no trouble at all adjusting, when Frodo came to live with me," grumbled Bilbo.
"Frodo never ran a spy ring," remarked Elrohir.
"No, he most certainly did not," Gandalf agreed. "But that is in the past. I am quite sure that with Bilbo's recommendation and a generous stipend, the Bolgers will be more than happy to take in our small wayfarer. And perhaps Frodo will be kind enough to look in on him from time to time, as will I."
"I hope that we don't have to hurry as fast going back to Bree as we did getting here," Dudo said. He looked at Aragorn with sudden concern. "Won't you be lonely with all of us gone?"
"I am leaving tomorrow as well," Aragorn said, instantly regretting the ill-considered statement as Elrohir's head jerked up and Elladan let out a low hiss. Dead silence followed, broken only by the clank of Dudo's knife against his plate. Beside him, Gandalf exhaled slowly and leaned back in his chair.
Elrond's reply, when it came, was fearsomely level. "You most certainly are not," he said simply. Aragorn kept his eyes on his plate, but the gaze he felt directed at his forehead could have drilled through solid rock.
"I don't suppose anyone would care for some more wine?" prompted Elrohir.
"I would indeed," answered Elladan, handing over his glass. "A most agreeable vintage, brother. But please don't tell me this is the barrel we were saving for Arwen's homecoming."
"Aye, I thought we could spare a bottle or two. I do believe the vines on the higher slopes have done better these past few years. Perhaps it is the level of iron in the soil."
"There is more afternoon sun," agreed Elladan, studiously ignoring the level of iron in his father's unbending stare. "The lower slopes do not receive enough sunlight to sweeten the grapes."
Glorfindel harrumphed. "Enough! If everyone is finished eating, I suggest we take our delectable wine and retire to the Hall of Fire."
With a murmur of relieved assent, the dinner party began to abandon the table. Aragorn pushed his chair back with relief, only to be halted by a quiet command he had half anticipated. "Not you, Estel." He closed his eyes and exhaled, sinking back into his chair. When he looked up, Elrond was standing over him. "Would you like to tell me what is wrong?" he asked softly.
He would not. In fact, in all of Arda he could think of nothing he would like to do less; unless it would be to tell Arwen. But Elrond's fatherly instincts and healer's sensibilities were both fully engaged now, and escape would be difficult. It would have been better to wait, he chastised himself, to leave quietly in a day or two, with no fuss. He had not been thinking clearly. "I have tarried here long enough," he said. "I need to confer with Halbarad before he leaves to tour the outposts."
"You had nearly two weeks in which to confer with Halbarad before he left," Elrond said, keeping his voice neutral. "What has changed in a week? Something troubles you, my son. Please tell me what it is."
"I am not accustomed to being idle for so long."
"Your hand is not fully healed -"
"It can heal at the village." Aragorn flexed his fingers carefully. The hand was still stiff and tender, his grip a trifle weak, but it would serve.
" – and neither is your leg. You are not ready to go back out into the wild."
"I am not going to the wild," Aragorn said firmly. "I am going to Halbarad's house."
Elrond poured two glasses of wine from a jug Elladan had left behind and placed one in front of him. "Ah, I see. Halbarad's camp. The one that was attacked by orcs last month, if I'm not mistaken? A wonderfully safe place."
"There is no safer place for the Dúnedain," Aragorn snapped.
"Exactly my point." Elrond raised an eyebrow at his glare and took a sip of wine. "You are not battle-ready and yet you must be, the moment you pass beyond the shelter of Rivendell." Elrond reached out and took his hand. "Grip my hand." Aragorn did so, but Elrond was not finished with him. "Harder now." He did, though the effort cost him: sweat popped out on his forehead and a grunt escaped him as a jolt of pain shot through the newly-healed bones and tissues. Only when his point had been made did Elrond relent. "Enough. Relax your hand."
"I have met battle in worse condition than this," Aragorn said, trying unsuccessfully to free his hand, "and on fields much farther from Rivendell than the Angle."
"Such indeed has been your fate, and likely will be again. Until then, you need time to rest and heal." Elrond's fingers worked over the healing flesh, but his touch relaxed more than just the strained muscles of Aragorn's hand; he could feel tension draining from his neck and shoulders as well. "Elladan tells me you visited the attic this afternoon."
"I had forgotten about your father's trunk. I am sorry; I did not mean to keep it from you."
Aragorn's throat suddenly seemed full of dust. He reached for the goblet in front of him with his left hand and downed a swallow of wine. "Did you know what was in it?" he asked evenly.
Elrond's expression did not change. "I did not. It was brought here after your father's death. Your mother did not wish to take it with her when she left. I assumed it contained personal effects that she meant to leave for you."
As if the knowledge he already carried was not enough, Aragorn's jaw clenched with a fresh horror -- what if his mother had known? Had she kept her silence, securing her son's future by keeping her husband's secret, believing that it followed her to the grave? He pushed his chair back and yanked his hand free. "I am sorry. I have to go."
"Aragorn!" Elrond caught the sleeve of his tunic as he tried to rise. "Why must you leave? Tell me, please."
Aragorn looked down at Elrond's hand on his arm. He had known himself to be the son of two fathers since he was twenty. He had never before felt so torn between the two. Anger rose in him at the father he had never known, for forcing him to lie to the one he did. And lie he must, or at the very least, misdirect, until he was certain of his course. Misdirecting Elrond, though, apart from its inherent distastefulness, would be no child's play. It would require an offering in kind; something just as personal, something just as raw. Only one thing came to mind. "Being in the attic today reminded me of my mother's sacrifices," Aragorn said woodenly. "I was not there for her when she died, but now I ought to at least pay her my respect by visiting her grave."
"You were fulfilling your duty when she died," answered Elrond. "That was what she wanted."
"To what end?" he whispered harshly, regret surfacing in earnest now. "I left her alone in her darkest hour, and returned empty-handed. I left her for nothing. I was not with her when she needed me."
Elrond sighed. "She was not alone at the end, Estel. And she was with you, every day, even when you were far from her sight. She was at peace."
"But I am not." It was no lie; there had been no time to even attempt to make peace with it. "I need to visit her grave."
"Of course, you must. But surely…" Elrond paused, uncharacteristically hesitant, and Aragorn saw him struggling to put a blunt thing delicately. "Surely there is no urgency now. Could it not wait a few more weeks, until you are fully healed?"
It was the wrong thing to say, and Aragorn seized upon it even as Elrond's face fell in dismay as he realized it himself. He hated what he was about to say, but at this point he had no choice. It was the only way out of this room. "What would you know about urgency?" Aragorn shot back coldly. "You have all the time in the world." He got up from the table, and this time Elrond stood aside.
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