1. In the Bloody Cottage
And there are others- others that are tall, very tall, and wear fine robes, that shimmer in the firelight. Their hair is dark, and it glistens. Their voices are not the voices of men.
Tall Isilní is by her side, though, and touches her face. She whispers:
“I am glad to see you awake.”
“The elves are come, as you can see.”
“You know, Gilraen, I think you might well live. I am surprised, but I think you shall live.”
Gilraen closes her eyes and breaths deeply; the air smells of wood smoke and goat and blood. But she can breathe it, as she thought she would not again.
She had not been afraid, not of dying, no. And yet… and yet…
She opens her eyes.
“I am glad of that, mother,” she says.
“Good. That is always good.”
Though as she is to live, there is still pain, all the more pain now that she must live through it instead of sinking as fast as she can to where it cannot touch her.
She touches the sheet that lies over her.
“This bedding is not mine.”
“The elves brought it for you. They want you to live, too, as well as the child, if it can be done. They want you to get better.”
“Should I have my child lie with me now?”
“Not unless you feel you need to. He is sleeping. He will need his mother before long. Rest. You are weak. Save what strength you have for when it is needed.” Isilní has pressed her, gently, gently, into the pillows- not her pillows, but they are soft. “Are you hungry?”
“I could not hold a knife.”
“Could you eat, if you were fed?”
Gilraen runs her tongue over her top lip.
The broth that Isilní brings from the fire is very little, even for two- and there are- five, six, seven, maybe more, who knows?
“It is enough. This meal is yours, and only for you.” She puts a cloth around Gilraen’s neck, and she feeds her with a spoon. Winter potatoes, winter carrots, the last of the leeks, and it has meat in it, of some kind- not whole meat, slippery offal, but meat- something of pork, maybe, though Isilní has no pigs.
Ivorwen had had pigs, she had had two, though their sucklings never did very well. But Ivorwen was fond of them, so she kept them and, as soon as Gilraen was old enough, sent her daughter out with the sheep so that she herself might feed the pigs and hens and keep the vegetables.
That was where this day was made, of course- it was on that windy hill that Arathorn had seen her, and thought well of her; for, hard though the fact must be, a Dúnadan should have a wife, for though they make many widows and orphaned maids, that is the price of sons, and the Dúnedain must have sons if all their labours are not to be futile- Isildur’s line most of all, of course, of course they must have wives; and Arathorn was of Isildur’s line directly, his second heir, father to father for nearly three thousand years. And indeed so was Gilraen, but for a couple of inconvenient forebears happening to be mothers, not fathers. He had reminded her as such, when the summer had come and he was sitting in the long grass beside her, she played with it in her fingers; and he laughed at her, yes, he laughed at Gilraen the Shepherdess-
“Why not say Gilraen the Fair?”
“Because you babble, man! You teased me when I was a child on the cottage floor, and I liked you for it; but I have grown!”
“You have, you have, and you have grown a very fine maiden indeed- and I know you to be no less than a woman, now, that I swear upon this soft little hand-“
“Soft!” Gilraen snatched it back. “Now you do babble.” He did- there was nothing more soft on Gilraen than on any shepherdess- the daughters of the Dúnedain were the accidents of matches bred to make mighty men. Oh, their fathers loved them, they doted on them- out of remorse, out of pity that they should be Dúnadan women, that they were so soon to suffer absent fathers, dead fathers, husbands in desperate need of strong sons, absent husbands, dead husbands, dead sons. Their husbands tried to ease their pains by not over-burdening them with children. Not least because, while a Dúnadan needed a son, to ask more, an heir and a spare, made too great the risk of that dreaded mistake- a daughter. Hence the living men who had had widows for fifty years. Hence the fact that they were a people that had no such thing as an older brother. Only maids had younger siblings. And there was nothing soft about a Dúnadan maid.
Arathorn ran a finger down her cheek.
“You are really very sweet, you know.”
Her father had been resolute. She was young, very young, barely one-and-twenty (Arathorn was fifty-six). She was a child alongside him. It would be too much, far too much for her.
But she was not a child, not alongside anybody. Not the day that mother had clothed her in a crisp new gown, and unbound her hair from the scarf that covered it, letting it tumble onto her shoulders, down her back. And then Ivorwen tucked a flower behind her ear.
“You are fairer than you would think,” she had said.
And it had come to pass.
The walls of this cottage were of grey grit stone, maybe cemented, maybe merely collapsed in a shape, for the place was so heavily weathered it looked as if it had grown out of the very rock it stood upon. About the valley were scattered protruding rocks of the same hue, and about them forty or so fairly large piebald goats of various ages nibbled at the rather poor, pallid, waterlogged grass. They raised their heads as the newcomers passed, and regarded them with pale, slightly sunken eyes, which seemed to be a feature of this herd. When Gilraen dismounted, a big female wandered over and, with a deliberation that suggested something more sophisticated than stupid hunger, sniffed at her hand, and bleated at her, then departed.
The cottage itself was covered in muck and moss, and the black thatch appeared to be gradually sliding down the roof, until it had almost covered the tiny, high, unglazed windows. It did have a door, a heavy wooden one, and a groove had been worn so deep in the earth at the threshold that the bottom of the door was in the centre some inches from touching the ground.
Within it there was a fire that provided nearly all of the light; but it was not excessively cold, and not very clean, but not foul. And it was within it that there was Isilní, who was the wife of Arador. Tall she was, very tall, her hair jet but streaked through with slate, her skin cracked plaster, her eyes diamonds.
This was a house of time marked in blood, of the high and the low. Eighty-nine had been born there; four men, two women and eighty-one goats. Seventy-four had died there- mostly goats and hens. Some rangers. Some children. Some mothers.
But Gilraen was not to be one of those dead, though she evaded it by the breadth of a shadow, by the breadth of the shadows on the grass, the night that she had walked unshod on that hill, on a summer’s night, with her husband, when he had returned to his mother’s house.
“So now it is you,” she said, eyeing the ring, the hilt of the broken blade. “You are the last of that line.”
“So it seems. Why are honours so often only granted in grief? Is it meant to ease it? for surely for those with tender hearts it is weak medicine.”
“We suffer for many of our blessings.”
“Yes, ‘tis true, wise little wife. ‘Tis true. Ah, we who live long may do much, but we see much that we do not wish to see. Time can seem hard when all the world seems to turn on and on and leave you behind. No wonder the elves forsake it in their time.”
“You are not tired of the world, are you, husband?”
“Of course I am not. Not while Gilraen lives, I am not tired of it.”
“Is that why you married one less that half your age?”
“No. Why should I be so rash? I was forced to; because that was the age Gilraen was, and we were getting no closer together.”
“I do understand. Do not think that I have seen nothing in what time I have. In a thousand small things, I have in my heart cried out, stop, let the world wait til I am ready. Sometimes because it is hard, like the death of a friend or kindred; or sometimes because I have concerned myself in a matter more than I had to. I did wonder, once, why elves who wedded mortal men did not bury their husbands gracefully and then live in widowhood, as we must; but now I think I understand.”
“Now that you have your husband?”
“No. Yes. That is to say, I say this- the elves bear our deaths because they do not come to think of us so very much as one man from another. They know us in lines of kindred. Whenever they are imprudent enough to take a friend among us, they see us take that path where they can never follow; and they have not their own mortality to comfort them.”
“Find comfort in our own mortality, you say?”
“If it helps. So the seed goes to the shoot, to the blossom, to the fruit, to the rotten fruit in time; in time, you will not be left behind.”
His arm was about her shoulders.
“You dear, wise, solemn little fair,” he said. “How you comfort me, though I know not how.”
“Please do not say little,” Gilraen said. “I am not a child.”
“Of course not. A woman you are.” And a woman she was; it was indeed after that night, when Arathorn had gone away, that Gilraen’s clever little feet began to falter of a time; that she began to ache and to vomit, and fall asleep on the ground while her goats wandered away; she waned in the cheek, and waxed in the flank, and when winter came the laces in the shift that Isilní had woven her barely let out far enough.
“It must be a male child,” she said, sitting upon a stool by the fire, it being too hard to move her from her preferred seat at Isilní's feet.
“Why do you say that?”
“Just for his size; I am fair doubled.”
“There are large female children from time to time.”
Gilraen watched the little bulge of a foot appear, close to her ribs. She tried to tap it, but it vanished again.
“And is that good, that they should be?”
“Well, once it is born, a large child is more likely to live than a small one. But that is after the worst is passed.”
Gilraen had thought she had understood then, but not until a night when the thaw came did those words have such weight. The sun might have passed, or it might not; pain shattered all time, and all hours were darkness, there in the dark she lay, and Isilní did walk back and forth without her; 'twas not well, no, not well, not well. Pain passed and terror passed, and in time she closed her eyes, and she saw Arathorn come to her, he came to her and kissed her: "My love, my love," and his mother told him:
"She is sleeping,"
"And 'tis better that she should sleep, mother?"
"We have no choice but that she sleeps,"
A calloused, gentle touch upon her forehead.
"As bad as that?"
"You do not know. You never will."
Then pain returned, and she cried out, and the cry awoke her and he was gone, and she cried out for him:
"Hush, fair one," Isilní said. "He will come; ever as we speak, he draws near."
"He draws near. Indeed, he draws near! Mother, 'tis a son! 'Tis the hope my mother spoke of!"
"You know this in your heart?"
"Then I shall-."
But it was then it came, the horror, the horror, a scream in a voice that Gilraen did not recognise-
-the freezing of Isilní's carven face.
"Hold! hold!.... I cannot- I cannot... Gilraen..." the words could not be caught.
"Mother- save him. I understand. You know what you must do," Isilní did; and she was resolute; for Gilraen was.
She had sharpened the knife, sharp as it ever could be; and she had raised the blanket, and laid it over Gilraen's face.
“Namarië.” It was Gilraen who whispered it first. But it was returned.
Then- PAIN! And again, pain, but… but… not of a knife, no, not of a knife, pain, still, but somehow, somehow, the pain was right, pain and a shifting, and a wriggling; and it was the wall of her womb stretched thin as a wren’s bone that saved her, for Isilní had seen the movement; and the pain that followed was crippling and terrible but it was right.
Somewhere in the blackness, Isilní's voice said:
“You know… you might yet live; indeed, you might do. If you rest. All else is well but you. He’s fine.”
Gilraen opened her eyes, or maybe she closed them. She saw nothing.
“Aragorn,” she muttered.
“Yes. I know,”
“His people shall name him Elessar.”
“His mother named him Aragorn.”
“Indeed, but… woman, your goats are no respecters of persons!”
The movement woke the child, and he cried, caring not for his titles.
Isilní brought him to his mother- Gilraen could not have sat up without fainting, so Isilní rolled her over onto her side, and the child was good enough to suckle that way.
Gilraen had seen newborns before- not many, it was true; enough to know that Aragorn was a fine size for his age. (“Too fine,” Isilní muttered. “Anyone would be glad of a twelve pound child, who didn’t have to pull him from a seven stone girl.”) He had cobweb-fine, black hair, like a cap of soot; he was a sunburned colour; he lay curled up tight, and when he occasionally moved he flexed surprisingly long, heron-like limbs through the gaps in the shawl in which he was wrapped. His face was slightly swollen with bruises, and resembled no man alive or dead.
“The Elf-stone.” Gilraen raised her eyes; an elf stood over her, dark haired, old as mountains, yet unblemished by time, his grey eyes bearing joy, sorrow and mighty wisdom. “So he shall be. Your son shall earn you a place in memory beyond time, little Gilraen.”
She said ‘Yes my lord,’ but he did not reply, as his silver robe had suddenly been splattered with something yellowish and pale, like the goat’s milk.
“Not of a goat, no, Gilraen.” Isilní said. “But think not of it. Rest. Sleep, if you like. The child will be fine as he is.”
She did; though Aragorn woke her before the elves were departed. At least…
She whispered to Arathorn, who sat beside her:
“Where is the lady?”
“I saw a lady among the elves; dark, and silvery eyed, like the foremost of them, but in a fair female form. You must have seen her. She took the child from me, and she would not give him back to me. I called out to her, and she turned to me, and I saw she was weeping.”
“You have been dreaming, Gilraen. You were dreaming, you are frightened. Here; hold your son close to you.”
“I named him Aragorn, husband.”
“The elves kept speaking other names for him. I named him Aragorn…”
“I know. It’s your weariness talking, Gilraen. It was but a dream. Rest.”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.