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Not Without Hope: 1. Chapter One
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
“Open the gate.” The shout drifted up through Gilraen’s window.
She heard the commotion as a troop of riders clattered into the yard. Habit still took her feet six steps and half way across the room before she again remembered that visitors were no longer her concern. She stopped and leaned against a heavy post of the bed that jutted out into the center of the room. Figured velvet hangings brushed her face with a feather touch that reminded her of other soft touches in that great bed.
Never again, she mourned, hot tears stinging behind her eyes.
Five months of widowhood felt a hundred times longer than four years of marriage. Before, it would have been her responsibility. She would have run to the window, thrown back the shutters heedless of the weather and wind that rushed into the room and craned to see if, among the newcomers, one beloved dark head was turned laughing up to her window. Throwing on a shawl, she would have hurried to the door, snatching the welcome cup from the tray rushed up from the kitchens. Wrapping her dignity around shoulders considered too young to bear the duties of a great estate, she would offer the hospitality of the house, bidding them in to warmth and food and comfort after their time in the wild. Never again would she kiss the wine of welcome from the lips of her beloved, ignoring the grins of the stable boys as they led away the horses. Her responsibilities now were embodied in the small figure of her son; his face pale, dark hair tumbled over his ears as he slept restlessly in the grip of a childhood fever.
“Mae govannen!” The Sindarin greeting floated up into her room from the courtyard.
Gilraen tried to close her ears, resolutely refusing to hear the rest of the welcomes. She did not want to know who had come. It had nothing to do with her anymore. She could not, and would not, bow to the pressures being brought to bear. Her decision was the right one. She was certain of it. This fortress was her husband’s home, and here she would raise Aragorn to follow in his footsteps.
Almost against her will, she drifted closer to the window until she could see through the slats in the shutters into the courtyard below. The yard was a confusion of milling riders and horses. Gilraen was dismayed to see that they were all armoured. Not only did it make it harder to identify the riders, it spoke of a more present danger than was usual this deep in the Angle. She heard her Uncle Halbeleg’s voice and picked him out of the group as he pulled off his helm. He was riding next to a man whose armour was chased and decorated. It was not Elladan and Elrohir, then, come with more presents for Aragorn.
She stepped away from the window and turned uncertainly back into the room. Aragorn was sick and she had no intention of renewing the discussions with her Uncle. Gilraen hoped Halbeleg was only passing by and she could use the excuse of Aragorn’s fever to avoid him altogether during this visit.
With shutters closed, the room was dim, but the small fire burning in the hearth lent a warm glow to the hangings on the walls and was welcome for chasing away the chill of the cool autumn afternoon. She walked back to the hearth where a small pot sat on a trivet in the coals, gently simmering. Dipping a spoon into the liquid she tasted it. The rose hips and honey could not quite mask the slightly bitter, woody taste of the willow bark, but it would do. Shielding her hands with a towel, she picked up the pot and set it to cool on the stone top of the carved wooden sideboard that stood against the wall.
She went back to the alcove that contained her son’s bed and the truckle bed where Carlenna, the nursery maid, slept. Gilraen looped the curtain aside and settled down in a chair to watch over her sleeping child while the tisane steeped. The thin blanket that should have covered him was crumpled and pushed aside. The one pale cheek that she could see was beginning to flush red again along the bone. Holding her hand lightly over his out flung arm, she felt heat radiating off his skin. With a sudden start, Aragorn woke up and cried out for her. Stooping, Gilraen gathered his small body to her and settled back to rock him.
Gilraen held him cradled against her arm, his head lifted to help him breathe. Yesterday’s chill had developed into a stuffed and drippy nose. In the night he had been restless, waking frequently and demanding attention. Today he alternated between listless clinging and frantic whining as his fever waxed and waned. By mid-afternoon Gilraen had known he was overtired. She captured him and carried him to his sleeping nook off the bedroom of the suite, ignoring his indignant protests of ‘not tired’. Now, as she rocked him soothingly, his eyelids drooped again, lashes dark against his pale cheeks. His glassy, grey eyes flicked open and he twitched and snuffled. Gilraen crooned wordlessly to him and he sank back against her arm with a deep sigh, lids fluttering as he tried to hold them open against his need for sleep.
Gilraen continued to rock him and marveled at the way his two-and-half year old body sprawled over her lap. When did he get so tall?
She remembered Arathorn tiptoeing into the room three days late for Aragorn’s birth. He stood leaning against the bedpost with a fatuous smile on his face as he watched Aragorn nurse. He reached down to touch his son’s cheek with one calloused and gentle finger. Aragorn only sucked harder.
“A fine, strong son,” Arathorn commented after a while.
Gilraen smiled up at him. “I told you he would be.”
“So you did.” Arathorn sat down on the bed next to Gilraen, contrition writ large on his lean face. “I am sorry I was not here.”
“Babies come when they will. I am not sorry that you come to find us clean and fair,” she confessed. She looked at him, the love in her eyes masking the fear she knew whenever he arrived later than looked for. “As long as you are safely back, come when you will.”
Arathorn chuckled and leaned over to kiss her gently. Aragorn wailed loudly, protesting the invasion of his space. Arathorn jumped back. Gilraen put Aragorn against her shoulder, patting him gently on the back until his crying ceased. She held him out to her husband. Arathorn’s large hand nearly engulfed the baby’s head as he lay snug and secure against his father. Aragorn was not very much longer than his father’s forearm, Gilraen saw with surprise.
“My son,” Arathorn addressed him in mock severity, with a swift, sweet smile to Gilraen, “I plan to kiss your mother as often as I can. You will have to accustom yourself to it.”
Aragorn treated this statement with the contempt it deserved and closed his eyes.
“So, Aragorn,” his father continued softly, smiling down at his sleeping son, “even the Chieftain of the Dúnedain is beneath your notice. That is royal behavior indeed, my Areg.”
“All babies are so. Calling him ‘little king’ is no good strategy to remind him of his place,” Gilraen teased her husband.
“You think not? But Aragorn is such a long and formal name for such a small boy. Areg.” Arathorn tried out the name again, studying his son’s face. “Areg. Yes, it suits him.”
The Hall below was filled with revelers, but Gilraen and Aragorn waited upstairs to greet Arathorn who had ridden in late. The sounds of the party drifted through the open door to the suite of rooms reserved for the Chieftain. Arathorn came bursting in calling for his son. Nothing could disguise the hurt in his father’s eyes as Aragorn screamed and crawled rapidly away from his father to the shelter of his mother’s skirts.
“When did he learn to crawl?” Arathorn asked, obviously disappointed in his reception. He stood up reluctantly from his welcoming crouch to his son and pulled the door closed behind him.
“Near nine weeks ago,” Gilraen said, regretting the renewed hurt she saw in her husband’s eyes as she confirmed how long it had been. She picked up Aragorn and walked over to greet her husband. Aragorn clung to her and buried his face in her dress. Arathorn drew Gilraen close to kiss hello, and Aragorn pushed his father away and screamed. “I am sorry.” Gilraen stepped away from her husband and rocked their son in her arms. “He does not remember you. It will be easier as he grows older.”
That night, Gilraen had lain in bed on her side with the unaccustomed warmth and comfort of her husband along her back. His hand draped over her and cupped her breast.
“Gilraen?” The soft murmur would not have woken her from sleep.
“Yes, my love?”
“Do you still want more children?”
She rolled over and touched his face, sliding her fingers lovingly over his cheek and down the line of the old scar that ran into his beard. “A foolish question, asked far too late. Of course I want your children. There are too few Dúnedain,” she said. “Three more sons and four daughters at least,” she added in a serious tone.
“Would you miss being the great lady if you lived in a small house with no servants and no responsibility for the estates for a while?”
The soft glow of the night candle on the other side of the bed curtains gave barely enough light for Gilraen to make out the gleam in Arathorn’s eyes. Raising herself upon one elbow, she eyed her husband suspiciously.
“Who has complained of my management?”
“Termagant!” Arathorn drew her into his arms and settled her head against his shoulder. “None would dare.” He hugged her gently. “No, love, I hear only compliments to your skills.”
“And every one prefaced with ‘She is really too young for so much responsibility, but…’” Gilraen groused.
Arathorn laughed. “Not every one. You confound them and delight me. No, listen, I have something else in mind.” His voice grew serious again. “You know I do not allow families to share the winter camps. It is too disruptive and too dangerous. But, should a man’s family live within an easy distance, I grant him leave to visit often. An old friend, my first swordmaster, has a farm near this winter’s camp with a place for you and Areg. It is just a small house, but I believe it will be safe enough. If you could bear seeing me two days out of five…” he trailed off and ran his free hand slowly down her side.
Gilraen smiled and shivered. She rolled herself onto her husband. Ignoring his ‘oof’ as she landed unexpectedly on his chest, she planted kisses all around his face. “Such hardships you ask of me,” she said between kisses. “I will bear them as cheerfully as I may.”
Aragorn stirred restlessly in her arms. He snorted, choked and woke from his light doze, whimpering. Gilraen hushed him with soft ‘shhs’ and settled him higher on her arm. His eyes quickly closed again. Open mouthed, he breathed noisily as he slept. Her eyes traced the resemblances to his father in the shape of his ears and the angle of his cheekbones. He was so like Arathorn.
A gale howled around the farmhouse, drafts sneaking in through warped windows as snow formed a thin drift in front of the door. Gilraen leaned into the fireplace, raking fresh coals around the pots to keep them simmering. It would have been foolish for Arathorn to even set out in such weather and she no longer expected him. Her husband would taste her cooking another day. The family still needed dinner, however, and she was proud of her newly mastered skill. She could plan meals for fifty or three hundred, command adjustments to the seasonings, stock the keep for a year, provision an army. These were familiar tasks. Stir the pot herself? She had not since she was barely tall enough to reach the spoon and had haunted her mother’s kitchens bothering the cooks.
Aragorn had crawled over to the table and pulled himself to a stand, wobbling a little, with one hand clutching the chair and the other waving about for balance, looking speculatively at a chest by the wall that was just out of his reach.
The door banged open, admitting a sudden gust of wind that swirled around the room. A snow-shrouded figure entered and shoved the door shut against the blast. Shaking the thick coating from his mantle, the man threw back his hood.
“Da!” Aragorn launched himself across the room at a precarious run, leaning farther and farther forward as his momentum carried him closer to the door. Just before he overbalanced into a disastrous meeting with the floor, the man swooped him up and tossed him into the air. Aragorn giggled and screeched in delight as his father caught and held him overhead.
Gilraen stood transfixed, tongs forgotten in her hand, as she watched her husband greet their son.
Letting his mantle drop into a sodden puddle on the floor, Arathorn carried Aragorn over to Gilraen.
“Da.” Aragorn said, patting his father’s cheek. “Da.”
“When did Areg learn to walk?” Arathorn wondered.
“Just now. When he saw you.”
Arathorn’s smile lit his face.
A hundred shades of green blanketed the fields and forests on the ride back to Arathorn’s headquarters in the fortress in the Angle. Bouquets of lilacs sent their heady perfume into the air of the Chieftain’s suite, welcoming Gilraen and Arathorn home. After a tense minute, Aragorn remembered his nursery-maid and toddled off happily with Carlenna. She accompanied him, ‘oohhing’ and marveling at his growth and his new skills.
Arathorn came up behind Gilraen where she stood at the window overlooking the courtyard. He slipped his hands around her and rested them on her flat stomach, drawing her close.
“I am sorry there is no second child,” Gilraen said, leaning her head back against Arathorn. Her shoulders drooped. “I should have weaned Areg. I knew it, but I could not.”
Arathorn turned her around and held her. “There is plenty of time for more children.” He put his hand under her chin and tilted her face up to look at him. His eyes opened wide in mock-horror. “Unless you mean to tell me you have lost your taste for the begetting?” His voice was anxious but he lost the struggle to keep the knowing grin off his face.
Gilraen laughed, though tears gathered in the corner of her eyes. “Never.” Not while you live, my love, she added silently.
Arathorn gently wiped the tears from her eyes with the edge of his thumb. “What’s this? A soldier’s wife does not cry when he leaves.”
“You are not leaving until tomorrow. I promise you a smiling face then. Today…” She swallowed against the thickening in her throat, but broadened her smile to lessen his distress. “Today I grieve for the child that could have been and for my own lonely bed this summer. I will miss you all the more because the last months have been sweet.” She leaned into his comforting strength, trying to imprint the feel of his body into her memories so she could recall it at will.
Hard muscled arms and thighs, weapon-calloused hands, soft lips: rocking her feverish son, she could still feel them if she tried. She had only seen him five more times. The fighting was constant that year and the next winter’s camp farther away with no friendly farmhouse nearby. She remembered his last kiss, tasting of sausage and speaking of love, and the formal leave-taking in the courtyard in front of all where she kept the mien of the soldier’s wife. She smiled and waved as he rode away to fight, to keep her, his family and his people safe.
After, she would always hate the scent of lilac. Her arms had been filled with branches of the fragrant purple and white flowers, but they fell from her nerveless hands and lay scattered at her feet.
“Dead?” How could half of me be dead and I not know? “How long ago?” she whispered. She felt the blood draining from her face, fleeing down to seek some warm and secret place where Arathorn still lived to come home to her.
Eyes too old in the ageless face of one of Elrond’s sons offered sympathy in her grief. “Nine days,” Elrohir said as gently as he could.
Nine days when she had laughed and played with Aragorn. Nine days assuring him that his father was well as she sang him to sleep at night. Nine days wishing her love to the stars when she did not know that her life had already changed. There was a great lump under her breast. She clutched herself with folded arms and could neither breathe nor cry. The sun, as it must, because all the world was shattered, dimmed and she fell into darkness.
Later, she sat numbly in her accustomed place, as her world was re-ordered around her. Arathorn’s second-in-command, her own Uncle Halbeleg, would command the Dúnedain until Aragorn was of age to lead them himself. Halbeleg was based north and west of the Angle in the hills near Fornost, and much of the administrative machinery would move gradually over the summer as guards could be spared. The great demesne farms of Arathorn’s estates would still be worked, but Gilraen was to return to her parents and Elrohir would take Aragorn to Rivendell.
“No.” Gilraen started out of her daze, heart lurching, her voice firm and loud. “You cannot mean to separate us,” she added incredulously.
There was a startled pause as the faces around the table turned to her. Some exchanged uneasy glances. Some avoided her eyes as she sought for reassurance from those gathered to decide her fate – and her son’s.
“It is best, Gilraen, and safest for Aragorn. Elladan is already making the arrangements. I assure you I will take very good care of him on the way to Rivendell,” Elrohir said, breaking the silence. “It has already been decided.”
“No. I will not return to my parents. This is Aragorn’s home. This is my home.” She stood and faced Elrohir, a dawning outrage holding her straight and keeping her voice firm. “Thank you for the offer. In ten years or so, at the usual time, I will send Aragorn to your father for fostering. Until then, he will be raised here, with me. For the rest,” she paused and quietly swallowed down the lump she found too often in her throat these days, ready tears misting her vision, “I do not care. Order things as you will.” She started for the door of the chamber.
“Gilraen,” Elrohir stood and called after her. “Things are not what they were. Aragorn will be safer hidden in Rivendell and he cannot be hidden if you are with him.”
“No. He belongs with me.” She was adamant. She stared into the eyes turned to her from around the table and her expression dared anyone to contradict her. Satisfied, she moved towards the door.
“Gilraen.” Elrohir took three long strides and put his hand on her arm as she reached the door. “If you would listen…”
“No!” she interrupted him. “It is not a matter for discussion. He is my son. We will stay together, here.” She stared pointedly at his hand on her arm and he dropped it to his side. With a last defiant look at the stunned faces around the table, she left the room and pulled the door closed firmly behind her. She stumbled a short way down the corridor and leaned against the wall, wiping at the tears that rolled down her cheeks. They want to take my son away? She tried to think of any reason why Aragorn would be better off without her, but her mind shied from the idea. She went to be with her son.
Just over a fortnight later, she had faced Elladan and Elrohir in the reception room of her suite. Aragorn was firmly ensconced in his nook off the inner room, fiercely watched over by Carlenna and a guard from her household levy.
“I have not changed my mind. Aragorn stays here with me.” She stood just inside the door and blocked their way into the room.
Elrohir gave her a reassuring smile. “I did not expect that you would, and we have come with no new arguments.”
“Then why are you here?” she asked suspiciously.
Elladan stepped forward. “Arathorn was our friend since he was a boy. These last years, he often spoke to us of ‘his Areg’. At the proper time, he wanted us to show Areg the things at Rivendell that we had shown him. He loved his son very much.”
Gilraen turned her head away and blinked back tears. “I know.”
“A boy should remember his father,” Elrohir said. “But Areg is very young and may well forget.” He held out a carved wooden soldier to Gilraen. “We thought he should have this.”
She gingerly took the painted figure and turned it over in her hands. She gasped. It was Arathorn, down to the scar on his cheek and the crink in the badly set finger on his left hand. He was clothed in his fighting Ranger garb, with the Star of Arnor on his breast and a sword that slid out of a loop and fitted into his hand. The jointed arms and legs moved, as did the head. The eyes were sparkling and a half smile curved the lips. The dark hair, as usual, had escaped from the tie at the nape of the neck and a few strands waved wildly.
Gilraen groped backwards into the room and collapsed into a chair. “This is… this is…” Stunned by the craftsmanship and care the figure showed she could not complete the thought.
“A Ranger should have something to fight,” Elladan said as her bemused silence dragged on. Smiling, he came up besides the chair and diffidently handed her another carving. “I do not craft men as well as Elrohir.”
A snarling warg, in perfect detail and scaled to the man, joined the soldier in Gilraen’s lap.
Elrohir knelt and put his hand on hers. “We knew Arathorn well. Let Areg have these. If he breaks them, we will mend them for him, or make them anew.”
“If I bring Areg out for you to give these to him - they are truly wonderful gifts,” Gilraen looked imploringly from one identical face to the other, “will you swear that you will not try to wrest him from me?”
Elrohir looked up at her, eyes widening. “Take him? No. No one ever wished to take Areg away from you,” he said. “We thought you would choose, as we did, to hide him in safety in Rivendell.”
“Without me?” Gilraen asked unable to mask the bitterness that crept into her tone.
“If you were known to be there, how could he be hidden? You are well known and cannot just disappear,” Elladan argued.
Gilraen shook her head, staring at her hands and the figures in her lap. “We belong together, Areg and I. I will not change my mind.”
Her eyes flicked up in time to catch the unspoken agreement that flashed between the twins.
“We will not take your son. We swear it, Gilraen,” Elrohir said. He squeezed her hand and stood.
Aragorn stirred restlessly in Gilraen’s lap. His eyes cracked open and he gave a soft cry before falling asleep again almost instantly. The arm supporting his head was beginning to ache. She shifted a little to put his weight more solidly on her body. Her glance fell on the basket of carved figures that were Areg’s favourite toys. Elrond’s sons had been busy. A dozen carved and painted figures – soldiers, animals, orcs, and trolls – had been delivered two at a time all throughout the summer and fall. Aragorn increasingly looked forward to the twins’ quick visits. They rode in laughing and rode away again too soon, rarely spending even a night. They never mentioned taking Aragorn away and, she admitted to herself, she looked forward as much as her son to their unexpected appearances. Better Elrond’s sons than her own uncle. The news was never good these days, but surely – surely! – things were not yet desperate.
Gilraen left her horse with the groom and hurried to the small garden where Halbeleg waited for her, not bothering to change her riding breeches for more formal clothes. Halbeleg stood near the tiny fountain where the paths met in the center. No one would ever mistake him for anything other than a lord of the Dúnedain. He had the dark-haired and grey-eyed colouring and the height that distinguished the Men of Westernesse. He was bigger-boned than Arathorn and habitually gruff, but she knew that Arathorn trusted him implicitly, and the men were pleased that he had assumed command. As she made her way along the flower-bordered paths to the center, he came limping out to meet her and caught her hands in a tight grip. Holding them together in front of him, he inspected her and seemed pleased by what he saw.
“It is good that you ride out and do not brood,” he said.
Gilraen gave his hands a squeeze. “The crops need overseeing, and you will want supplies soon enough. I was out with the bailiff estimating the yield of the barley. There is a field that I think should have been left fallow an extra year or perhaps turned into pasture. The grain does not thrive.”
“Poor child,” he tucked her hand under his arm and led her to a bench in the shade. “You should not have to be worried with such things.”
“That is fond Uncle Hal talking, not Chieftain Halbeleg.” Gilraen patted his arm as she was formally bowed onto the bench. “I would rather have things to occupy me, and the estates do need care. It took me long enough to convince everyone that I knew my job. I do not intend to relinquish my authority.” She settled herself as discreetly as she could in breeches and noted with approval that a pitcher and glasses, along with a plate of sandwiches, were in easy reach at the end of the bench.
“Arathorn would hear no word against you even when he put far too much burden on you.” Halbeleg sat down next to her, his right leg straight and stiff in front of him.
“He put no burdens on me that I was unwilling to bear, Uncle, and the house and the estate run smoothly. Your supplies will still come when they are needed.” Uncomfortable with the thought that her uncle assumed her care of the estates a job she wanted to be free of and not the solace she found it, she tried to change the subject. “I see you are wounded. Is there aught I can do to ease it?”
“No. I thought it was just a scratch, but it did not close. The orcs are poisoning their blades. However, Elladan sang some songs over it and packed it with herbs and it is healing well now.” He took the cup of ale she had poured for him and leaned back against the bench. “You were never raised to deal with ugly wounds, Gilraen. It will do well enough till your healer can see to a new bandage.”
Gilraen laughed, her trill ringing out over the garden. “Uncle,” she got out at last. “Surely you know your sister better than that? You cannot think my mother would be so lax in my education. I am daughter and wife of the Dúnedain and have changed bandages since I was old enough to hold the basin. I am not so fragile a flower.”
“You ought to be,” Halbeleg grumbled. “You are still very young and very beautiful.”
“Gilraen the Fair,” she agreed cordially, eyes dancing with remembered mischief. “I have been called that since the mettarë I was sixteen and the young men scuffled and fought to be my partner. My father ended up insisting I dance every dance with a different partner. I remember how upset you were when I used the name brazenly to bring myself to Arathorn’s attention. But I am a mother and a,” she looked away to hide the distress that still came too easily at the thought of Arathorn’s death. “A widow. My place is here, running things until Areg is old enough to bring home a bride.”
“That is far in the future. You deserve more of a life than that.” He hesitated and then blurted out, “Arathorn said you wanted many children.”
“So we did,” she turned back to him with a small smile for his discomfort at this personal information. “He envied you your family. He was hoping for more sons, though. Not that I do not love my cousins, but your son is younger than mine and he has three sisters.”
“You should still have those sons, Gilraen, and not bury yourself here. You are just the age to begin thinking about marriage and many men would be happy to take you to wife. You need to meet them again, visit more. You should go home to your parents.”
Gilraen stared at her hands clutched in her lap, nearly blind with sudden anger. She did not answer. The silence dragged on for long seconds.
Halbeleg’s hand tentatively touched her fingers. “You are not the only one raw with grief,” he said quietly. “Arathorn was as close as a brother to me and I curse every time I give an order that he should be giving. But I do what I must do, and so must you, Gilraen.”
“I care for my son’s estates and I will raise him to his place in the Dúnedain,” she said tightly, still not looking at her uncle. “What more would you have me do? I have no wish to marry again.”
She heard his exasperated sigh. “You feel that way now, Gilraen, but that will not last. Your grief will fade. You should be ready to take up your place again.”
“And Aragorn will be hidden in Rivendell?” She met his eyes at last, but hers were still cold.
“Exactly. You need not be burdened with his education. Master Elrond is best fitted for that. You will have a new family to raise soon.” Halbeleg sounded relieved that she understood at last.
Gilraen stood and paced a few steps away and back again. She stopped and faced her uncle squarely. Her voice was low and controlled. “Neither Aragorn nor the estates are a burden to me and I do not understand why you think he will be safer at Rivendell. I will send him to Master Elrond in ten years, when he is of an age to be fostered and educated as our chieftains have always been. I suppose that in ten years it is possible that my grief will fade and I will wish to remarry. Does that satisfy you?”
With a groan Halbeleg levered himself upright to confront her, looking down sternly into her eyes. “No, it does not. The line of kings has to continue and Aragorn is the only heir we have. I’ll take no chances. I want Aragorn hidden and Rivendell is the safest place I know.”
“Then let me go with him,” Gilraen pleaded, breaking her stiff stance and holding out her hands in supplication.
Halbeleg shook his head. “It will be hard enough to keep his location a secret. You can’t both just disappear. If you go on with your life, no one will think to look for him and you can turn away all queries lightly. They will know he is safe somewhere if you are not seen to be concerned. Here, with my family, Rivendell, near Lune: he could be anywhere. If it becomes known that you are in Rivendell – and how could we keep that knowledge from spreading? – it will be obvious that Aragorn is there.” His voice softened. “I am sorry, Gilraen. Can you not do what is best for Aragorn?”
“Is it best?” Gilraen’s voice shook with anger. “I think it is best that Aragorn stay with me, here. I do not believe that Arathorn would think it best that his son grow up knowing neither of his parents.”
“Things are bad, Gilraen. He also might have sent Aragorn away to safety,” Halbeleg countered.
“Then let me go with him,” she pleaded again. “If it is so bad that fleeing to safety is what must be done, surely Arathorn would have sent me with Areg. I could go disguised as his nurse if I may not go as his mother. I do not find the estates a burden to throw off at the first chance, but I am not so enamoured of their care that I will never relinquish them. I will teach Areg to call me by a different name. Please, Uncle, we need to be together.”
Halbeleg paused and his lips twitched upwards. “A nursemaid? You? Gilraen the Fair!” His smile broadened and he chuckled and sat down again on the bench. “That is the best joke I have heard in months. How could you think to pass as a nursemaid when all Eriador looks to you and follows your fashions? And what do you suggest I tell people when they ask where you are? That you wandered away into the wild and no one could be spared to look for you?” His chuckles turned into guffaws and his eyes lit with amusement as he looked up at Gilraen. “The requests for leave from my troops would leave me short staffed indeed as they all vied to track you down first, hoping for favor.” His laughter gradually died away. He indicated that Gilraen should sit next to him. “Though you may not claim the title, you are royal, Gilraen, and cannot always please yourself. Come. There is no need for you to make such jokes. Sit down. Have some ale and we will discuss this calmly.”
“I did not mean it in jest.” Gilraen sat down warily, her body sideways on the bench to face her uncle. Keeping her voice soft but determined, she said, “Areg and I should be together.”
“Yes, of course, and in normal times you would be,” Halbeleg agreed. “I do not want to take him away from you. I want you to send him to Rivendell where he can be safely hidden away from all dangers until he is of age.”
Gilraen turned her face to the sky as if she would find counsel written in the clouds, but they remained stubbornly plain, blank slates that nearly covered the endless blue. It seemed such a simple thing, that she and her son belonged together until he was of normal age to be fostered. She sighed and brought her gaze back to Halbeleg. She shook her head firmly. “No. I will not send Areg to Rivendell without me. You will have to rip him from my arms and I will follow you if you do.”
Halbeleg started at that, eyes narrowed, and voice hard. “Do not try my patience too far, Gilraen. I am not Arathorn that you can twist me round your finger with your tears or your pleas. You think only of yourself and how much you will miss your son. I will do what I know is best for all the Dúnedain.” He reached over, gave her shoulder a quick pat and his voice took on a more normal tone. “I know you loved Arathorn. You are worn out with grief and work and cannot think straight, so I will tell you the good news.” She started to speak but he forestalled her with an upraised hand. “I brought Thorlach and his family with me. He has agreed to be my seneschal and oversee the lands and the people here. There, that is one worry lifted from you.”
Gilraen sagged back against the bench in disbelief. The administration of the estates was the least of her worries. She straightened again and her voice was icy as she asked, “And if I do not want your seneschal meddling on the estates?”
“Do not be foolish. The estate must have continuity and the supplies from here are vital. I dare not risk any disruption.”
“Have you heard nothing that I have said?” Gilraen cried, starting to her feet. “I am not leaving. Aragorn is not leaving. I will manage the estates. I have done so for the last three years and there have been no interruptions of your supplies.”
“Yes, you’ve done well. Very well,” Halbeleg said implacably but with a fond smile. “When you remarry you will have estates of your own to manage again.”
“Uncle! I swear…”
“No,” he again forestalled her protests, “do not swear to things you will regret. You are a beautiful young – very young – woman. Do not swear to me that you will never again marry. I would not have you feel you are breaking an oath when your grief lessens and you wish to start a new family. Sit down,” he said more firmly this time.
Ignoring his command, Gilraen strode to the edge of the garden and paced an agitated circuit of the paths while she tried to marshal her thoughts. She saw Halbeleg help himself to a sandwich from the platter. He watched her movements around him in apparent unconcern for her agitation. She even thought he smiled occasionally. But her mind was blank and she found no additional arguments to offer. It seemed such a simple and obvious thing. Aragorn needed her. The thought of her son growing up without her chilled her with a deep unreasoning dread.
She came to a stop at the edge of the garden and leaned against the sturdy grey trunk of a pear tree. It was majestic but had been allowed to grow far too tall to conveniently harvest its fruit. It gave the sweetest pears in the orchard, however, and she had forbidden the bailiff to do more than gently prune it as had Arathorn’s mother before her. She looked up along the trunk and a puff of stronger breeze ruffled the branches, showering her with tiny, hard missiles of immature fruit. She shivered and looked out over the familiar land. The cloud cover that had almost obscured the sun all morning was breaking up and wide patches of blue were visible to the west. The breeze was warm and mild, pungently scented with the many herbs that bordered the paths.
In the distance she could see two members of the patrols that ceaselessly circled the estates, keeping off any stray intruders and watching for trouble. Her own household guard was not as well trained and not as well equipped as the Ranger garrison that protected the land. Gilraen carefully counted up the members whom she thought would be loyal to her even in the face of opposition by Halbeleg, and she came to the reluctant conclusion that they would be far too few to be effective. Effective. She grimaced and leaned her cheek against the tree trunk, obscurely soothed by the rough feel of the bark on her skin. She would not, could not, order her guard to their deaths against Halbeleg’s men to prevent them from taking Aragorn against her will. She could conjure all too real images of screams, confusion and blood as men she considered friends were cut down in the halls outside her chambers. She closed her eyes. Tears welled out, flowing unheeded down her cheeks.
“Gilraen?” Her uncle’s voice was soft and questioning, very near.
Her eyes flew open and she saw him looming in front of her through the blur of tears. She tensed and dashed her hands across her face.
“Do not run. I am too lame to chase you through the gardens,” Halbeleg’s plea was quiet. “I am sorry, but it must be settled.”
Gilraen fought to keep her voice steady but did not succeed. “Aragorn needs me, Uncle Hal. Please, let us be together. Here. Rivendell. I care not. Do not take him away. I must fight you if you try. Ten or perhaps fifteen of my guard would stand for me if I asked them and they would all be dead and the halls awash with their blood and still you would, you would….” She drew in a tremulous breath and her arms ached as she felt her screaming son being torn from her grasp by men with swords darkened and dripping with the blood of friends. There was no relief for her aching lungs. A hard lump seemed to have settled like a stone in her chest. “And Areg… alone. Please....” She felt the renewed sting of hot salt tears on her cheeks and her head swam as she struggled to find the words that would make her uncle understand how wrong his course was. Defeated, she sagged against the tree behind her, mute and helpless.
Halbeleg stood dumbstruck. “You would set your guard against my men?” he got out at last.
“I do not want to, but…” was her strangled reply.
Halbeleg gave a growl of frustration. “It is not safe, even here. Our borders are being pressed hard this spring. This area was Cardolan, Gilraen, not the far west of Arthedain. All this land was overrun once before and could be again. Aragorn will be safe and protected in Rivendell. Loved. He’ll have a different name. One that’s not royal. And you,” Halbeleg’s voice softened, “will have a new family; more children. It will not be so bad.”
“Do not take my son,” Gilraen’s moan was barely audible. The only thing solid in the universe was the tree under her hands. Gilraen clutched it, eyes closed, bark crumbling off in her fingers as she shook her head over and over in desperate denial. The silence stretched out unbearably.
Halbeleg again gave a wordless snarl and reached up and shook the tree. Hard fruit peppered them, stinging as they hit unprotected skin. “If, and I say again, if I do not take Aragorn at this time, there would be conditions.”
She cautiously opened her eyes, her breath coming in shuddering pants. That Halbeleg was even willing to discuss conditions meant there was hope he would not summarily take Aragorn away. “What conditions?”
“If the situation deteriorates, becomes truly desperate, you will give him up willingly.”
“And who is to decide if it is desperate?” she asked.
“I will, if I live.”
“If you…” she whispered.
“I have fought for a long time and I have never seen attacks so numerous and so determined. We are hard pressed on many fronts this summer. I wish I knew why. Unless they have heard that Arathorn is dead and think we are leaderless.” He shook his head slightly to dismiss the puzzle and continued, “And you will cooperate with my seneschal, giving him his full authority and diminishing your own.”
Gilraen bit her lower lip in indecision, but knew she had no real choice. “Very well. I agree to your conditions.” Scrubbing at her face with her hands to remove the tracks of tears she breathed a long sigh of relief and essayed a tentative smile. “I believe it will get better. The raids will slow.”
Halbeleg held her eyes, his lips compressed into a thin line, until she dropped her gaze and turned away.
“I brought thirty-four men with me. I will leave twenty of them to bolster the garrison here. We will step up the patrols, and hope.”
He turned and limped towards the house. He did not look back.
The memory of the scents of the summer garden was replaced with a waft of herbs just starting to scorch. Gilraen came back to the present with a start and checked that Aragorn was deeply asleep in her arms. She carefully slid him into his bed and covered him again with the light blanket. She quickly added water to the pot on the brazier and sniffed at the surface to be sure no burnt smell lingered. Adding another handful of herbs from the basket on the floor, she gave the mixture a quick stir. As she dropped the curtain across the alcove and stepped back into the bedroom, she remembered the willow-bark steeping. If she didn’t rescue it soon, it would be too bitter. Smiling ruefully, she put her memories behind her and continued with the few tasks that remained hers.
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