2. No Choice in Family
Aragorn felt the eyes upon him even before he opened his. Keen grey eyes, seemingly a family trait, stared back at him from under a shock of walnut brown hair. A youth some five or so years from maturity was perched on the back of a chair pulled up to the bed. His feet were on the mattress and he was swaying back and forth precipitously on the chair's back legs. A lantern on a bedside table lit the room, and somehow the light shone directly in Aragorn's eyes. The morning birds were cooing but it was not yet dawn.
"You're awake. Good!" The boy leapt off his perch and lit a brace of candles on a chest. "I'm Deesch since you probably have forgotten from yesterday. I thought you were to sleep all morning. Is that grey stallion yours? He has a fine temper. Aunt Wyorven wishes me to go gather some early morn mushrooms and I thought you'd like to come along; it's so boring here in the house." Aragorn was having difficulty keeping up with the boy's rambling so he fixed upon the first fact uttered.
"Your name is Deesch?" he asked politely, while trying to tug up the blankets to cover his eyes.
"Truly it's not! Deesch is but a pet name. My mother named me after some ancient elf-lord. My real name is Dioreluchíl---"
"The son of Beren and Lúthien." Aragorn could not imagine a more inappropriate name for the pest.
"Not many know that!" Deesch smiled in admiration of a fellow scholar. "My sister said I was a terror as a babe and she and Aunt grew so tired of yelling my name, they shortened it to Deesch."
"That I can imagine!" Aragorn muttered.
"Shall you come mushrooming?" he waited expectantly. Aragorn quickly decided that a refusal would not drive away the pest and allow him to sleep so he tossed the blankets back, drew on his clothes and followed the still-talking boy, now wildly swinging the lantern, out into the crisp pre-dawn air.
As they walked to the woods, Aragorn noticed Deesch moved with a decided limp, though he tried to mask it. Aragorn slowed his stride to match the boy so he would not have to hurry. They reached the tree line, their trouser legs wet with dew, and padded on bare feet on the dark forest soil. The woods were full of early morning birdsong and the air was warm, damp with the aroma of new life. Aragorn stood transfixed as the dawn brightened, sending shafts of pink through the woods and touching the treetops with gold. He stood silently watching until it was full light and the sky above was a bowl of blue, and he thanked Deesch, saying the morning walk was worth a king's treasure. The boy blushed at the praise.
"Not many others see it that way, with a poet's eye," Deesch observed. Suddenly shyness overcame him as he felt he might have been too familiar with this barely-known, important cousin.
Embarrassed, Deesch dropped his nose to the ground looking for mushrooms. He proved an excellent hunter and they soon had a basket full of creamy globes. Walking home, they crossed the pasture, their shadows long on the silvered grass. Wyorven waited for them on the stone porch and began berating Deesch for disturbing his cousin even before they had reached the steps.
"Truly, Aunt, I was awake and convinced Deesch to take me with him." Aragorn smiled at her engagingly, taking her attention away from the hapless youth.
"Don't protect the scamp!" she scolded him but a smile lit her eyes at his gallant response. She held the door open. "Come in, the two of you must be starved. I've fresh baked strawberry bread and milk."
Later, in the day Deesch sat hunched over his work, writing at the desk. Aragorn came downstairs in boots, carrying gloves and his sword. He asked Deesch if he would like to ride out with some of the older cousins to explore the land south to where the Bruinen and Mitheithel ran together. The boy looked up shyly and said no, he didn't think he would.
"Come!" Aragorn prodded. "You dragged me out of bed now come ride with me!" His cousin blushed hotly, staring at him silently. "Come along!"
"Quit bothering me and go away!" shouted Deesch. His cajoling stemmed so abruptly, Aragorn was a bit hurt and confused at the change in his young cousin's demeanor. His Elvish pride surfaced, and his surprised grey eyes turned steely. He drew himself up tall and crossed his arms.
"I am terribly sorry I bothered you, cousin. I shall mind not to do it again." He did not see the pain in the boy's eyes as he turned away.
Wyorven was standing on the porch as he stalked out the door, truly put out by the cold response he had gotten from one he would like to call friend.
"Sit with me a moment, nephew, and humor an old woman. I'll not keep you long." Aragorn, distant but polite, did as she asked, sitting on the stone steps next to her.
"Deesch did not mean to anger you by what he said," his aunt began. "I do not really know what sort you are yet. What I am about to say you may use for your amusement if I am wrong about you, but I think I'm not. Deesch is prickly because he has been badly hurt by the others.
"First let me explain that Deesch, being my nephew's son and so your true cousin, is privy, as a few of the others are, to your real identity. He has looked forward to your visit ever since Gilraen's message arrived in the early spring. He's talked of you incessantly and had a picture of what you would be like cemented in his mind. For some unknown reason, he believes that you will be his friend. He has not many, none really, since his sister went north to ride with the Rangers.
"Life has not been kind to Deesch. His father met his death riding with the Rangers and his mother took the news badly. She gave birth to him before her time. It was a difficult birth that left the child maimed and the mother weak. It's a hard life in the North even for those who are strong. She died four years later and he and Amarië came to live here in the House. Deesch did not walk until he was eight.
"You've noticed Deesch's limp?" she queried and Aragorn nodded. "In a people where strength is so valued, this is seen as an insurmountable flaw, perhaps even a sign of mental feebleness as well. As soon as he was old enough to perceive this, Deesch put up a wall built of his prickly temper and sharp tongue. To add to his isolation, Deesch has always dreamed beyond his ability; as a child, he was forever claiming he would become a Ranger and fight the orcs that killed his father. I sadly admit, he was teased unmercifully for it, but the children grew older and learned to accept Deesch until Radarth came to the Angle five years ago from Evendim. He is also an orphan and he became Deesch's tormentor. Whenever the adults are absent, Radarth berates Deesch for his infirmity and belittles him for his dreams. The younger cousins take a cue from him because he is older and a bit exotic, having already seen places they dream of. They have taken to tormenting Deesch also. Amarië used to thrash them whenever she caught them at it, but since she has been gone, Deesch has avoided his young cousins.
"Deesch wanted desperately in his heart to come with you but he has never learned to ride; he could not get out of the way of the horses' quick movements and was knocked down many times. He loves them but he also fears them. He could not tell you that: he is proud. He fears Radarth might ridicule him in front of you and he fears most that you might join in the torment." She rose. "I've talked enough. Go ride now with your cousins."
Aragorn walked slowly to the stable, thinking on what his aunt had said. Swallow's head was out of his stall, ears pricked forward. He snuffled Aragorn's pockets looking for the dried apple or another treat he knew was there. The young man swung onto his stallion bareback and cantered out to the pasture where several cousins waited with their mounts. One was Radarth, a tall young man with long dark hair one side fashioned in what he believed to be an Elven braid. His eyes were dark, almost black. As Aragorn rode up, he was dressing down a younger boy who was standing before him. His skittish horse had tossed the boy to the grass and he was enduring Radarth's ridicule red-faced. Radarth turned to greet his cousin and the offender scuttled away.
It was a pleasantly warm afternoon. They began with a headlong gallop across the open field, which Aragorn diplomatically allowed Radarth to win. He quickly found that was a mistake. The victory went to the youth's head and he loudly boasted of the better breeding of his mount than the Elvish cur Aragorn rode. Several of the older cousins, use to Radarth's bragging and seeing where it was headed, scoffingly acknowledged Radarth's superiority over all that crawled upon land, and settled their mounts to a walk through the sun-lit forest. The conversation hit upon the coming days. Aragorn found all the males and a few of the females were bound soon for Fornost to train to be Rangers.
"I am surprised you are not there already!" exclaimed Radarth. "Most of us go when we are still two years from our maturity. Have they rejected you for some reason?"
"I have been receiving other training," Aragorn demurred.
"None so good as Ranger training, I'll be bound. Although you'll be behind, perhaps you'll adequately learn to handle a sword in time," the braggart said deprecatingly. "I'm sure there are always spots for supply clerks and messengers if you are not selected as warrior. Do you think you'll have the stomach for orc slaughter? I can not wait to sink my blade into one of the evil creatures and plan to kill a hundred my first year as a cadet!" he bragged.
"'Tis not enough just to kill them," Aragorn said softly, one brow cocked at this obnoxious cousin. "The skill is in keeping yourself from being killed. Orc are not easy adversaries."
"Perhaps not for you, cousin," Radarth smirked, "but, you should not speak of things you don't know, else you'll earn the name of Deesch for yourself." Several of the younger cousins sniggered at the insult. Aragorn turned a withering look on them and they, embarrassed, fell to silence.
"Neither should you, cousin. I've been hunting orc with the Perendhil in the Hithaeglir since I was sixteen; I know of what I speak. And, coz," He reined Swallow across the other horse's path, blocking Radarth and separating them from the rest. "do not speak so disparagingly of one less fortunate than you; I vow it is not a trait that is valued by the Dúnadan." Aragorn spoke low so only his cousin could hear but Radarth's face still flushed red at this affront.
"What do you know of what is valued by the Dúnadan?" he shouted. "You, who are some fatherless brat living in the Wild with a mother who finally shows her face here as if embarrassed by her deeds?" The implication was baldly there, if unstated, and the rest had overheard Radarth's loud taunt. The few who were privy to familial knowledge were ashen; others ignorant of Aragorn and his mother waited in anticipation to see if the bully would thrash this quiet new cousin or if the cousin would anger at being so insulted.
Aragorn recognized Radarth for what he was and saw no reason to waste further time or words. He touched his heels to Swallow and moved aside, but his disinterest only made Radarth angrier. In his ire, he did not understand that what he faced was not weakness. His spurred his horse at Aragorn, meaning with a blow to send the grey staggering and hopefully, toppling his cowardly cousin into the mud.
Aragorn was nearly taken by surprise by Radarth's charge, but Swallow, well-trained for battle, anticipated the other's rush and danced back on his hocks, front legs flailing and ears pinned as if confronting an attacking orc. The youth's mount shied away from the stallion's snapping teeth; his sudden sidestep unseated his rider.
Aragorn guided Swallow, ready to do battle with his deadly iron-shod hooves, away and dismounted, speaking low to calm the stallion. He turned just in time to avoid Radarth's swinging fist. In that second, Aragorn's anger blazed and he decided this mannerless youth needed subdued. In a few quick moves, the last his fist connecting with Radarth's mouth, causing blood to run freely, the bully was effectively quelled. Aragorn stood over the boy lying in the dirt and spoke low through gritted teeth, working to control his anger.
"Radarth, the Dúnadan values using strength to defend the weak and brands underhanded tactics as cowardice. When we meet in another time and place, I hope you will remember this lesson on what I value."
Avoiding Aragorn's outstretched hand, Radarth clambered to his feet, mounted, and rode away at a gallop, back toward Eagles' Rest. Aragorn and the rest followed leisurely. At first, his cousins treated him with caution, many wanting to congratulate him on handling the bully but were concerned they dealt with another of Radarth's ilk. But, Aragorn drew them into conversation about the surrounding woodlands and they warmed to him again. Soon they were asking about orc hunting, and by the time they clattered into the stable yard, the group was laughing merrily.
Aragorn walked slowly back to the House alone, wondering how much trouble he would be in for pummeling his cousin and publicly acknowledging his identity. As he mounted the steps, he heard Harwilthel's voice raised in exasperation.
"For the last time, Radarth, he is the Dúnadan! If you listened more than talked, you would already know that! I would find a way to make amends if I were you. Now get out and quit plaguing me!" Radarth slammed through the doorway before Aragorn could slip around the corner of the house. On seeing him, the angry young man stopped abruptly, colored bright red, and mumbled 'my lord.' Aragorn looked at him a moment, realized the left eye would blacken, and nodded slightly. Radarth ducked around him and hurried down the path. He sighed deeply and walked through the door. Inside Wyorven, his mother, and his uncle awaited him by the fireplace, all three looking stern and cross.
"Aragorn, can you not control your temper! I understand you've been brawling with your cousin!" Gilraen exploded without preamble. "And bragging about who you are!"
"Nay, Mother." He was wounded by her accusation of his lack of integrity. "I have simply been explaining what is valued as politeness to one who badly needed a lesson." Wyorven looked at him curiously, a smile playing around her lips. He took his cue from his aunt. "He insulted you, Mother, and Swallow."
"I'm glad I am as worthy of defending as your horse. But, my son, fists are not always the answer. A broadsword as response to a slight may be more costly than its worth."
"He is a bully and needed a set down. He was not hurt, merely dumped in the dirt. He is overly proud. He preys on those weaker than he and sets a bad example for the younger ones who idolize him," Aragorn said defensively, his anger at his mother's injustice growing.
"I find arrogance is not a scarce trait," she observed. He blushed hotly at her insinuation. "And you decided you were the person to do that?" He nodded, gamely sticking to his reasoning.
"Well, Mother, you want me to assume my role as leader. It seemed a place to begin," he said sincerely. Harwilthel and Wyorven laughed outright, and Gilraen threw up her hands, acknowledging her son, taught by the best logician of the Age, had out-flanked her. Wyorven rescued him from a further tongue-lashing by pushing him toward the kitchens.
"I have young potatoes that need cleaning." She handed him a small knife. "Get to work, feel that you are adequately punished, and think upon your sins."
"Aye, Aunt." He tried to look properly contrite.
Sitting on a table stool, Deesch was already peeling, paying off his earlier rudeness. He did not acknowledge Aragorn and his cousin decided silence would work for him also. The mound of potatoes was nearly done when Deesch said without looking up.
"You blackened his eye."
"And bloodied his mouth," Aragorn added solemnly. Deesch giggled.
"I have longed to do just that."
"As Mother said, physical violence is a last resort, but there are some who deserve a thrashing."
"At least it is an option for you," Deesch said longingly. "I simply must put up with his taunts and any violence he would choose to do to me."
"I can teach you to handle a sword to defend yourself," offered Aragorn.
"Would you take the time?" Deesch couldn't hide his amazement.
"Of course, you are my cousin."
"But you are the Dúnadan. You are too important to treat with a ---er----me."
"No, Deesch, I am only the son of the last Dúnadan." Aragorn sighed, "I'm not sure I want to be the Dúnadan or King or any of those other titles." Aragorn went back to peeling the last of the potatoes.
"Why would you think it wouldn't be great to be a king?" Deesch asked, his knife skimming the red skin until each potato globe gleamed white. "Everyone would obey you…even the adults!"
"I fear no one will obey me," the young man whispered, looking away. "Why would anyone listen to a boy like me who knows nothing of the world?"
"Because you're the KING!" Deesch exclaimed, as if it was the most obvious thing. Aragorn smiled at him.
"I think we get ahead of ourselves. No one has accepted yet me as leader of the Dúnedain. I don't know that anyone will. I have not earned the title." Deesch watched his cousin finish paring the potatoes and silently decided that at least in his estimation, Aragorn had earned the title today.
"Raise your arm!" Aragorn commanded. "Like this!" Aragorn, stripped to the waist, demonstrated the move for Deesch's fencing lesson. They sparred in a glade inside the tree line, hidden from view but not far from the House. Deesch frowned as he looked from his cousin's well-muscled arms to his scrawny ones but he concentrated on the sword swings.
The evening of the potato peeling, Aragorn nonchalantly asked Harwilthel for a pair of light swords as if it were the most natural thing in life to ask a gentleman farmer for arms. In Aragorn's view of the world, everyone had extra weapons in a storehouse somewhere; and unsurprised by the request, his uncle produced two fine light blades. Aragorn assured they were quite dull by running a rough sandstone over the edges and Deesch's lessons began. Now, after several practices, Deesch was developing confidence in his abilities and proving he could move quite easily if compelled to exercise his leg and use his balance. His horsemanship showed promise also. Deesch had graduated from balancing precariously in the saddle, his hands spasmodically gripping the saddle pommel as Aragorn slowly led Swallow to laughing in joy while cantering the gentle stallion in a circle around Aragorn.
"You are quite competent when you remember to keep up your guard and quit giggling," Aragorn commented dryly. The boy truly was laughing himself silly in joy at parrying Aragorn's swings.
"Truly, Aragorn?" he stopped, leaning on his sword, gasping.
Aragorn raised his sword to begin again. "Remember, all must learn to defend themselves. The blades of the enemy do not stop for the weak or the young, old or infirm." Aragorn thought that bit of Glorfindel's battle wisdom was well applied here. He advanced on Deesch, brandishing his sword.
"Back…back…back," he murmured as the boy blocked each of his easy swings, giving ground but defending himself well. Just then, Deesch's foot tripped upon a root and Aragorn looked on in dismay as he fell full backwards, landing in the dirt. He leapt forward to help an uninjured Deesch up but an angry shout startled him and made him whirl to see who had sneaked up so silently on them. A grim Ranger stood just inside the tree line. Her dagger was drawn; she held it menacingly and the sunlight glinted off the curved blade.
"Do you get pleasure in besting my brother?" She stood tall with Deesch's warm brown hair and eyes like sapphires that glittered with contempt. Her dark bay horse, travel marked, bags and a sword buckled to the saddle, ambled into the glade and snorted. With one word, she commanded him to stand. The knife was still expertly balanced in her hand and she looked ready to attack.
"Amarië!" Deesch shouted. "I was not ---" She raised her hand to silence him, her eyes narrowed with contempt for Aragorn.
"Another worthless cousin, a cocky young braggart who believes only the strong have worth?" she stormed, circling into the glade. Aragorn, loathe doing it and hearing Elrohir's stern admonishment never to lay down his arms before a menacing opponent, dropped his sword to the ground and raised his hands in surrender. Her laughter at his actions mocked him.
"Nay, you have it wrong." He picked up his sword and walked quickly to where they had laid their shirts and scabbards.
"Yet he does not possess the manhood to engage someone with skill," she taunted. You are only willing to fence with a crippled boy. Care to fight someone who fights back, coward?" She balanced gracefully, the knife still at the ready.
"You've no reason to fight me," he said patiently.
"My reason is the humiliation of my brother," she said in deadly earnest.
"I cannot fight you!" Aragorn was quickly losing his temper with this unreasonable young woman.
"A coward," she scoffed, "not brave enough to be a Ranger though beyond the age of training. You will learn not to harass the weak!" She sprang, glancing by him, opening a shallow bleeding cut in his upper arm. Deesch howled in dismay and Aragorn stared at her as if she were mad. He recognized her misunderstanding and understood her concern for her brother, but obviously, she was unwilling to be calmed without a scuffle.
Amarië crouched staring at him, breathing hard, her blade still balanced in her right hand. He shrugged, unsheathed the Elvish dagger that lay on his shirt, and turned back to her. She looked at the leaf-engraved blade with its deadly edges, up into his calm eyes, and suddenly she questioned her conclusion, but her pride prevented her from stopping
"Alright, Amarië." To Deesch's howl of "No!" he promised it would be fine.
"No!" the youth screamed again. "She is a trained Dunedain Ranger! She will kill you!" He turned to beseech his sister, "Amarië, stop! Do not hurt him!" Aragorn smiled at Deesch and shook his head.
"I have had some training." Elrohir's lessons on disarming a knife wielder without injury had been enforced with cuts, scrapes, and bruises. He did not doubt that he could be easily holding his knife to her throat in minutes. He did not wish to embarrass her, but the girl was eager to let blood and she believed she had a cause for it. With anger in her eyes, she charged into the fight. Aragorn whirled away at the last moment, brushing away her thrust and leaving a long rent in the left sleeve of her shirt. He hoped that warning would help her recognize his skill before either was hurt badly. She swore at him and charged again. Again, he eluded her blade, but barely, and slashed the other sleeve, accidentally leaving a red line on her forearm.
"I apologize for that." He lowered his knife as if allowing her a touch. She charged wildly, maddened by his sympathy. He sidestepped but not quickly enough. Her blade skipped down his side, leaving a burning groove. In a fey move, Aragorn curled his arm behind her knee, and upended her. She landed heavily on her back, the wind knocked out of her lungs, the fight ended, and Deesch ran up and kicked away her knife. He stood over his sister as she fought to regain her breath. Aragorn examined the shallow slash he had received across his ribs and silently cursed his clumsiness.
"Ranger training has not included sharpening your wits!" Deesch shouted at his sister.
"Leave her alone." Aragorn stepped to her and helped her to her feet. "I am Aragorn, by the way, Gilraen's son," he said, knowing she would recognize what that meant.
"The Dúnadan!" she gasped in horror. He turned away to put on his shirt and gather up his sword, giving her time to control her embarrassment. Deesch had no sympathy.
"I said you were mistaken! He was giving me lessons! He blackened Radarth's eye!" Deesch explained in his usual disorganized line of thought. "I am glad to see you, Amarië, but my sister is a fool!" he snorted in exasperation.
"Leave her alone," Aragorn told him again, dressed now, buckling on his sword.
Aragorn whistled for Swallow who stood dozing and swishing flies nearby. The stallion trotted forward, neck arched and ears pricked for the benefit of the other horse standing in the trees. He boosted Deesch up on the grey's back. Deesch touched his heels to the horse's sides and they loped off across the meadow. Amarië watched her brother in amazement, as she fell in step beside Aragorn, her horse trailing behind. She was contrite and silent, seeking the right words.
"My lord, I beg pardon. I meant no insult. I did not know. Deesch…" she trailed off helplessly. Deesch had ridden back to them and heard her sputtering.
"You are never at a loss for words. He's just a cousin." grinned Deesch. "You don't have to grovel, Amarië, just because he beat you," he taunted.
"Deesch, you take too much pleasure in this," Aragorn admonished him. He looked at Amarië and smiled disarmingly. "You were right. I am simply another worthless cousin." His modesty increased the young woman's discomfort and he lapsed into silence.
When they reached the House, Amarië went off to fill a hot bath and Aragorn went in search of Wyorven. He found her in the garden and bent to help her weed some early vegetables.
"Aunt, what is Deesch's sister like?" Wyorven stopped and looked at him keenly.
"Well-meaning, but her pride is her downfall. She's gone off to be a Ranger. I don't think she really feels a calling for it, but she felt she must since Deesch cannot. Obligation is a fault of this family. Her temper and impetuousness will make it difficult to take orders." She sighed, "Amarië is in need of a strong mate but has no use for men. I fear she'll truss up a man, field dress him, and cart him home to be her husband. Aye, that is more Amarië's method." She was quiet for a bit, working down her row.
"Amarië is home," he announced. Wyorven stood, hands on her waist, and looked askance at him.
"And you've met?" Then Wyorven noticed the blood seeping through his shirt. "Aye, I see you have."
"Aunt, I owe Amarië a shirt."
"She is your cousin and too close in blood for amorous nonsense!" He knew her comment for teasing.
"Nay, Aunt, jealousy does not become you," he teased back. "It was ruined in a knife-fight." He tried to pull away as she, without formality, tugged his shirt up to examine his ribs.
"I hope she faired better than you. I can help you with the shirt and with bandaging those ribs. And I need to see to getting her settled." Wyorven linked her arm in his and led him to the house.
By midafternoon, after a long soak and a longer think about this new, fey-eyed royal cousin, Amariê climbed from her bath. She found a fine, cream lawn shirt, stars embroidered in the same shade on the collar and cuffs, on her bed. On it lay a brief note of apology in a fine Sindarin script and a small vial of athelas oil for her wound.