15. None for Myself
"Open up!" Halbarad heaved his shoulder into the door. "Open the door!" He paused to listen, taking the moment to steady himself against the doorframe. He was panting from the exertion; sweating even in the cool shade of the clearing. The crashing sounds from within the denigha's cabin had subsided, leaving silence. "Aragorn!" he shouted, forgetting to use another name. "Open the door!"
Halbarad looked around for something he could use to bash it in, cursing himself for agreeing to yet another hare-brained scheme. If simply allowing Aragorn to go into the denigha's shack alone, exhausted, injured, and driven to distraction by the specter of his long-lost brother hadn't been a bad enough idea, allowing the old woman to drive the bolt home surely was. Yet he had waited outside, increasingly impatient but submitting to Aragorn's judgment and desperately hoping the denigha could give him the answers he sought. That failed strategy had ended with disturbing sounds of crashing and shouting from within. Seeing a smallish axe stuck in the woodpile he unthinkingly reached for it, yanking back his hands with a gasp as helpless agony flared in them, crushing pain as if grinding his hands between blocks of stone. When it subsided enough to permit movement he went back to the door and heaved himself against it again. This time the hasp broke free, sending the door flying open and Halbarad lunging headlong through a cloud of pungent smoke into the dim interior of the shanty.
Stumbling through the haze, he tripped over a body on the floor. He felt familiar long limbs, sprawled atop shards of what felt like broken crockery. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he saw that it was broken crockery, scattered on the floor beside an overturned rack, with powders and indistinguishable crushed herbs spilling from the broken containers. Coughing in the smoke, he rolled Aragorn onto his back and jammed his deadened hands beneath the limp shoulders, dragging him toward the shaft of light slanting from the doorway.
He dragged him as far from the cabin as he could then laid him down as gently as he could and collapsed on the ground beside him, gasping and clutching his side to ease the fierce burning of his ribs. After a moment, Aragorn began to shift restlessly, moaning slightly as if waking from a dream. "Aragorn!" Halbarad whispered, gently brushing strands of sweat-soaked hair from the clammy forehead. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the denigha poised in the doorway of the cabin, framed by wafts of smoke drifting out around her.
"Dark is the Shadow," he heard Aragorn mumble.
"The spirits took him on the paths of memory," the denigha said, dropping down beside him. "They are slow to leave him."
"What did you do to him?" Halbarad snarled.
A flailing hand touched his arm. "It is all right, Halbarad," Aragorn said weakly. Halbarad helped him sit up, as the denigha scooped water from a bucket Halbarad had not noticed before. When he had drunk a dipper of water, Aragorn shrugged off Halbarad's supporting arm and wiped blood from a cut above his eyebrow with his shirt sleeve. "I am all right. I think I just needed some air. I do not think she meant to harm me; though her curiosity may have gotten the better of me."
Halbarad glared at the denigha anew. "Her curiosity about what?"
"The Dúnedain," Aragorn said in wonderment and a little sadness. "They have fascinated you since you first met them, haven't they?"
"I had never seen anyone like them," she said, her coal-chip eyes distant with memory. "We Dunlendings walk in the darkness like the blind; not knowing why we live or die, why we fight or raid or suffer or starve, only that it has always been so. Our hatred of the Forgoil consumes us, yet the Forgoil are not the cause of our misery. It is our own despair, our own hopelessness that rules our lives. It was hope that I sensed in the Dúnedain. These men were tall and noble and fair, filled with wisdom and kindness and generosity -- generosity even toward strangers, and that is something unheard-of among my people. They carried within them some light of truth hidden from my kind. I craved that truth. I have spent my whole life seeking it."
Aragorn looked thoughtful. "Did you find truth then, today? You shared my visions, didn't you?"
"I saw the light beyond the darkness," she answered. "Though I do not think I will live to see it, it gives me hope."
"Let us hope we may all see the light beyond the darkness," Aragorn said.
"And did you find the truth you came here seeking, Dúnadan?"
"What you have told me is more than I knew, but less than I sought to know."
She pushed herself upright and leaned on her walking stick. "If there is more truth for you to find, it is not here."
Aragorn nodded. "I know that now. There is just one more thing I would do before I go home."
Where Bega's cabin once stood, now only a low mound studded with rotting planks marred the expanse of grass and spring wildflowers spread across the clearing beside the gurgling stream. Drawn to the water, Aragorn stood on the bank for a while, smiling at the tiny, silver-scaled fish darting beneath the ripples and wondering if this was the place where Arathorn taught a little boy to fish so long ago. Pulling himself away reluctantly, he found Halbarad on the opposite side of the clearing, standing over a barely detectable depression in the grass some distance from the remains of the house. "The grave, I think," Halbarad said.
Though any wooden marker was long since decayed, the dimensions of the depression were suggestive of a grave. "Did the woman bury the boy, did the boy bury the woman, or did someone else come along and bury both of them?" Aragorn wondered aloud.
"There's one way to find out," Halbarad said.
Aragorn doubted either of them could hold a shovel, even if they had one. Nor was either of them in any condition to dig up an 80-year-old grave by hand; though he suspected Halbarad would do it with his teeth if he but gave him the word.
Aragorn stood staring at the forlorn spot of earth that might finally hold the answers he had been so desperately driven to find. Had he found this place a week ago, he might have made a different choice, but now he shook his head. "No. I will not disturb the rest of whoever lies here. Let them remain in peace."
"And what about your inheritance? What about the kingship?"
"The boy is gone," Aragorn said, echoing the denigha. "That will have to be answer enough."
"Will it be enough for you once you leave here?" Halbarad pressed. "Will it be enough to make you forget about the letters? Forget about all this?"
Aragorn looked at him sharply. "Forget this? No. I cannot forget it. But I have made peace with it. And I have other tasks to attend to, that I have neglected for too long already."
Halbarad stepped in front of him squarely, gripping him as firmly as he could with those swollen, painfully mottled hands. "Then leave them here, Aragorn, I beg you. Leave Bega and her son buried here and never mention them again. The boy has been gone for close to eighty years. No one but us need know he ever lived."
"I know he lived," Aragorn said. "And the Dúnedain deserve to know the truth."
"The Dúnedain have all the truth they need."
"You mean you have all the truth you need, Halbarad. Do you presume to speak for all the Dúnedain?"
"If need be."
"I appreciate your loyalty but I cannot allow it."
"Damn your honor, Aragorn." Halbarad dropped his hands to his sides. "Why can you not leave this matter to rest, even now? Where else can you search? You stand over a grave. Do you intend to dedicate your life to finding a ghost?"
"Then what will you do, if you cannot find him and you cannot forget?"
"I will go on. Just as you do, and just as every other Ranger does who wakes up in the morning and pulls on his boots and straps on his sword to go out into the world and do what he must. When the Shadow deepens and finally falls, will you not fight the Enemy with all your strength, with no promise of reward except the knowledge that you have done your part?"
Halbarad nodded. "You know I will."
"Then how can I ask less of myself?" He turned and walked back to the steam, seating himself on a rounded boulder on the bank. Below, sun glinted off the gently riffling current. After a moment, Halbarad came and sat by his side. "Do you know what my mother told me, the last time I saw her?" Aragorn said. "She said she had given all her hope to the Dúnedain, and kept none for herself. How can I do less than go on with no hope for myself, Halbarad? Middle Earth was not created for me, whether I am the heir of Isildur or not. I am a servant of the light, not the light itself. When I am finished with my duty I will die, just as every other man. It is not for me to demand any reward for it."
"Can you forget about Arwen so easily?"
"I did not say I would forget." Closing his eyes, Aragorn could see her, just as he had in the denigha's herb-drenched dream, laughing as she ran beneath the clear blue sky of Cerin Amroth, black hair and blue gown streaming behind her as he chased her through fields of tiny white flowers. His heart seemed to clench in a spasm of longing. "I was a fool to ever hope for the hand of Elrond's daughter, so maybe a fool's hope will be enough to sustain me now. But I must tell her, at least, and let her decide for herself." And then there was Elrond, he reminded himself. Elrond must be told as well. He lifted his tired eyes to the perfect sky, then glanced over his shoulder to where meadow grass waved gently over the jutting boards of the collapsed cabin. Weary in the depths of his body and soul, he found something in this restful spot that threatened to undo his last threads of resolve. He felt that if he did not get up in the next minute he might never find the strength to do it. "Come, Halbarad," he said, bracing a hand on his bad knee and forcing himself to his feet, pulling Halbarad up with him, though he supposed it would not be strictly clear to the boys watching from a distance who was helping whom. "It's time to go home."
Eirien ran out into the rain, wrapping a supportive arm around Halbarad's midsection as he dropped unsteadily to the ground,. "Help Aragorn," he protested, allowing himself one brief squeeze back before trying to break free. "I'm fine."
"You look fine," she replied dryly, tightening her grasp as he swayed slightly.
"He's barely on his feet," said Húrin, pulling the opposite arm over his shoulder. "The Captain's in bad shape, too. They both refused to set an easy pace on the way back, too."
"Whose side are you on?" Halbarad complained. "I think we need to have another talk about the Ranger code of loyalty."
Brandol, his good arm fastened tightly around an unsteady Aragorn, grunted at Haerost through his pipe. "Take the horses to the barn." Then to Húrin, scowling, "What has your father gone and done now, run afoul of trolls?"
"Worse," Halbarad threw over his shoulder. "Dunlendings."
"Later," Eirien said firmly, dragging him toward the house. "Let's just get you all inside and out of the rain."
Succumbing to being force-marched into the house, Halbarad ducked into the doorway to find his mother, Meneliel, and Fimenel spinning at the fireside, their dice box occupying the floor between them. "Ah, Halbarad," his mother said, looking up from seizing a sizeable portion of Fimenel's chestnut pile. "You're back. I cannot wait to hear what grave perils have taken you away from honest work about the house this time."
"It's lovely to see you too, Mother," Halbarad said, sinking down onto a bench near the fire and batting at the towel ruffling his dripping hair. "I'm fine, Eirien. Stop."
"And Aragorn is here, too," Nelaer spouted. "What a surprise. We can only hope he decides to stay for breakfast this time."
"Hold your beak, Nelaer," Meneliel said, kneeling to place a fresh log on the fire. "Can't you see they're wet and cold?" Turning from the hearth, she scrutinized each of them in turn. "And there are injuries. I'll get some water boiling so we can clean them up and get a better look."
"Granda!" Elanor scooted into the room ahead of Fimenel's husband, and threw herself at Halbarad. "Granda, you're back! Hello, Húrin! Do you want to see the new bed Thargil made me? I don't have to sleep with Mama anymore!"
Halbarad managed to get his hands out of the way, but grunted as Elanor's hard little skull impacted his sore ribs. "Hello, sweetling," he wheezed.
"Elanor," Eirien said, "Granda is all dirty. You can show your bed to him later, all right?"
Elanor happily redirected her attention to her uncle, taking him by the hand and leading him toward her bedroom. Fimenel produced an armload of blankets, draping one over Aragorn's shoulders and handing another to Eirien. As Halbarad reached to take it from her, she gasped and took hold of his hands. "Dear Eru, what happened?" she whispered, running her fingers across the bandages on his wrists, gingerly touching the swollen and mottled flesh of his hands.
"We ran into a little trouble in Tharbad," Halbarad quipped weakly. Extracting one hand from Eirien's grasp, he pulled her toward him until they touched at the forehead. "I'm fine, love," he said in a voice for her ears alone and reaching around her to pull her close until he heard her long release of breath. "I'm fine now."
Her shoulders relaxed, and she kissed him on the forehead. "Thank you for coming back in one piece," she whispered, "and for bringing our son home safe."
"Actually, it was more the other way around," he admitted, chuckling at her surprise. "Húrin would have made you proud. They both would."
"Alagos was there, too? I cannot wait to hear the story – later. Now you need to get these wet clothes off." She unfastened his brooch, pulled free his cloak and knelt to work loose the grime-encrusted ties of the shirt he had not had off since before Tharbad. When she had him bare to the waist, she wrapped the blanket around his shoulders loosely again, then pulled off his wet boots and wrapped another blanket around his feet. "It seems you might need some help dressing for a while," she murmured for his ears alone.
He leaned close. "I'm looking forward to that."
She squeezed his knee and scooped up the wet clothes, leaving him to look across the hearth at Aragorn enduring similar, if somewhat less tenderly administered, treatment from Brandol. Though warmly wrapped in blankets now and holding a hot mug of tea in his hands, he still seemed to shiver slightly. More than cold, Halbarad realized, he looked uneasy; eyes darting restlessly around the room as if making up his mind to do something. With alarm, Halbarad realized exactly what that something was. No, he mouthed silently, just as Fimenel crossed between them, carrying a basin of water and some cloths that she set down next to Aragorn.
"Here, now, wash your hands and face at least, while the bath water heats – it will take quite a while, you know; that much water. We'll have the stew warmed up in a little while and you can eat while you wait to bathe; you all look as if you could use something hot in your stomachs."
"I'll fetch some more potatoes and carrots from the larder to throw in," Nelaer said. "We weren't expecting to feed this many tonight."
Aragorn spoke up as she turned to leave. "Wait." Taking a drink from the mug, he rose to his feet. "I have something to say to all of you." It was the tone of a command, and with it all talking abruptly ceased. Fimenel stopped stirring the soup pot, Meneliel paused in pouring tea, and even Nelaer's hand came to rest against the side of the dice box.
"Tell them later," Halbarad pleaded. "Later; after you've rested." Later, when you've had time to reconsider the idea entirely.
"I need to say this now," Aragorn said quietly, "while I still resolve to say it at all."
Brandol, with his infallible ear for trouble, already had a hand around Húrin's arm, turning him toward the door. "Come, lad," he grunted through his pipe, "Let us see to those horses."
"Let him stay," Aragorn said. "This concerns him. It concerns you all."
"Aragorn," Halbarad said helplessly.
Trusting in Halbarad's look of desperation, even if not knowing the reason for it, Eirien turned toward Aragorn with a sympathetic smile. "Aragorn, you must be exhausted. Whatever you need to tell us, surely it can wait until you've had a hot meal and a good night's sleep."
The smile Aragorn gave her in return was tentative and fleeting. "The truth has waited for too long already," he said wearily. Barefooted and cloaked in a green blanket, he stepped into the center of the room and looked around at each of them in turn. "When I returned here, as a boy not much older than Húrin, announcing myself as your Chieftain and heir of line of Elendil, I did so in an honest belief that it was so. But I have come to learn that while I was indeed Arathorn's son, I was not his first. What bearing that discovery may have on my eventual claim to the kingship of Gondor I dare not yet consider. It is for all of you, and ultimately for our kin elsewhere in Eriador as well, to decide what bearing it has on my claim to the Chieftainship. Whatever your decision, I promise to continue to serve the Dúnedain with all honor and faith."
Meneliel was the first to break the silence. "Are you certain of this, Aragorn?"
"I knew Arathorn since childhood," Nelaer said, less gently. "He had no other son but you."
"Where could you have heard such a thing, Aragorn?" Eirien asked. "Was it Elrond who told you this?"
"No," Aragorn was quick to reply. "I do not even think he knows."
"This is nonsense," said Nelaer, her attention already turned back to her dice box. "Halbarad, has he been struck in the head?"
Scurrying forward, Fimenel waved a hand in front of Aragorn's eyes. "Aragorn, how many fingers am I holding up?"
"Three," Aragorn answered patiently. "I have not been struck in the head."
"Humph," Nelaer grunted. "Maybe he's feverish."
Fimenel peered up into Aragorn's eyes and brushed a hand against his forehead. "No fever, but he certainly looks peaked."
Halbarad rose and gently pulled Fimenel away from Aragorn, while Eirien snatched the dice away from her mother-in-law's raised hand. "Everyone, please sit down." Pressing Halbarad back down onto the bench, she sat beside him and took his hand carefully in hers. "Now, Aragorn, please explain what is this about."
Aragorn lowered his gaze. "My father took a mistress during his posting at Tharbad, before he married my mother," he said quietly. "A Dunlending woman. He fathered a son on her."
Meneliel exchanged a sharp glance with Eirien, and Halbarad's mother crossed her arms. "Rubbish," she pronounced.
Old Thargil had his hand out to Elanor. "Come, sweetling; help Uncle Thargil feed the chickens."
"Yes, that would be a very good idea," Eirien said tightly. "Go on, Elanor." When the child had left, she turned to Aragorn. "I think you're mistaken."
Shaking his head wearily, Aragorn sat down at the table and rested his elbows on the rough plank surface. Cradling the mug between his hands, he closed his eyes briefly as if summoning the strength to impart the distasteful tale. "When I was at Rivendell, I found some letters to my father from a woman named Bega. Halbarad and I journeyed to Tharbad and learned he met her while he was posted there after the Fell Winter. Later, after Arathorn moved to Evendim, Brueglir himself carried letters from Bega to Arathorn for several years. We found an old Dunlending woman who confirmed this."
"The old woman showed us a grave," Halbarad interjected hopefully. "Both the woman and her son are likely dead."
With a weary sigh, Aragorn straightened his shoulders. "But if by chance Bega's son is still alive, he could make a claim as the heir of Isildur's line. As could his sons."
"Orc spit." Halbarad's mother snapped. "You are the rightful heir of Isildur, Aragorn. There has never been another," She held her hand expectantly in the air. "Fimenel, if you're finished hovering over Aragorn, it's your turn. Eirien, give me back my dice."
"I think we should tell him, Nelaer," Fimenel said meekly.
Halbarad frowned. "Tell him what?" Some kind of unspoken communication was flowing between the between the women in the room, like a hidden current under the smooth surface of a lake. He could sense it but could not make sense of it.
"I told Gilraen to burn those letters," Nelaer grumbled.
"And I told her not to," Meneliel said sharply.
"Oh, Valar, Meneliel – this mess has been dead and buried for eighty years now. Must we dredge it all back up again?"
Fimenel was looking at Aragorn with affection and pity. "Arathorn was a good, honorable man. We simply cannot allow Aragorn to go on doubting him."
"No, we cannot," Meneliel said softly.
Nelaer set her cup down on the mantle hard enough to splash Meneliel with ale. "Very well, then. If you insist. You, Aragorn, son of Arathorn," she proclaimed, standing before him and punctuating her words with one pointed finger, "are the rightful heir of Isildur, Elendil's son of Númenor. Your father had no mistress in Tharbad, and no son."
Aragorn shook his head. "The letters --"
"Are not what you think they are," Nelaer said sharply. "Some truths are best kept hidden, lest they wound the innocent. You do not know what wounds you have just reopened."
"Enough, Nelaer." Meneliel made her way to the table and lowered her angular form onto the bench across the table from Aragorn. "It is me she is trying to protect."
Aragorn frowned in amazement. "You?"
Meneliel smiled at him. "Your life has been so hard, child, and it will be so much harder yet. If I had known you would stumble onto this secret, that it would cause you such torment, I would have told you long ago. I would never have spared myself pain at your expense. But now the time for secrets is over, and I will tell you the truth of what happened with the Dunlending woman Bega. She did indeed bear a son whose father was a Dúnadan. But it was not Gilraen's husband who sired him. It was mine."
"Yours?" Aragorn gaped at her. "But the letters…"
"Ah, the letters." Meneliel took a mug that Brandol handed her and patted his scarred hand. "This is a sad story, but also a happy one. Life is like that. But I suppose I should begin in the beginning." She took a drink from the mug. "When the Rangers at Tharbad met Bega, she was hungry, cold, and grieving - her husband and baby had already perished from famine or fever. Taking pity on her, the Rangers brought her into their camp and allowed her to do their cooking and cleaning in exchange for food and protection. At that time in Tharbad Arathorn was Captain; and then there was his best friend Lathron, my husband, and Nelaer's husband, Brueglir. One day, Lathron was thrown from his horse and badly injured. The others nursed him until he was out of danger; then they left him in Bega's care while they resumed their patrols. When Arathorn returned to Tharbad many weeks later, he noticed a change in the way Lathron looked at Bega, and the way she looked at him. He confronted Lathron with his suspicions, and Lathron confessed their transgression. Enraged, because Lathron was a married man and a father, Arathorn ordered him to Fornost to remove him from further temptation. Since no one could be spared to accompany him, he left for Fornost the next morning, alone." She paused and took another drink. "He never made it. Two weeks later, his horse was found with an orc arrow in its flank." She lowered her head as long-hidden pain etched her strong features. Brandol's hand gripped her shoulder, and she clasped it with her own. After a moment, she looked up, blinking unshed tears. "It was only after Lathron was killed that Arathorn learned Bega was carrying his child and swore, in his grief and his guilt, to care for her and his friend's son. Yet out of shame for Lathron's indiscretion, he swore Brueglir to secrecy."
Aragorn seemed to digest this with difficulty. "If everyone was sworn to secrecy, then how do you know all this?"
"You were not the first to find those letters," Nelaer said flatly. "Gilraen found them first." She nodded at Aragorn's expression of dismay. "Yes, she was devastated, as you can well imagine. She and Arathorn had been living in Evendim since their marriage, but when Arathorn became Chieftain he brought her back to the Angle. It was then, while she was carrying you, Aragorn, that she found the letters in his trunk. She came to me in tears, heartbroken, believing the worst, just as you did. I felt so sorry for her that I rode off to find Arathorn myself. I confronted him with the letters and he told me the truth."
"By then, he had lost contact with Bega," Meneliel said. "Though Brueglir agreed to ferry Bega's letters after Arathorn went to Fornost, he never approved of the arrangement. He informed Bega of Arathorn's betrothal to Gilraen and convinced her to cease writing the letters. Then he convinced Arathorn that he had enough trouble with his father-in-law without explaining why he was corresponding with a Dunlending woman. Not long after that, Arador was killed, and Arathorn summoned Brueglir and all the other Rangers to the north, to fight trolls. By the time Gilraen found the letters, nearly two years had passed with no word from Bega. And yet I knew I had to find her if I could – her, and my husband's son."
Halbarad stared blankly at her. He had always known Meneliel was strong, yet he felt puny and weak in comparison to the strength was now witnessing. "You had lost your husband," he said disbelievingly, "and then discovered that before his death he had betrayed you, yet still your only thought was for the care of the child of that ill-founded union?"
"Not my only thought," she said with a sad smile. "But the child was innocent, and the mother…well, who can say what was in her heart? I could not leave them out in the wild to starve."
"Meneliel insisted we go find them," said Nelaer. "She spoke to Arathorn, and explained to him she could not allow an innocent child to suffer for her husband's sins. So the three of us, together, went in search of Bega and the boy."
"Well," Halbarad said, "Did you find them?"
"The woman was in the house, dead," Meneliel said. "She had been dead for a while. The little boy must not have been big enough to bury her. At first we could not find him, and we nearly gave up, thinking he had run away or been taken. But Arathorn kept calling his name, and finally he came out of the woods, half-starved and feverish."
"So you found him after all!" On the edge of his seat with anticipation, Halbarad nonetheless noted that the women in the room exhibited a uniform lack of curiosity about the whole affair, and now even Aragorn was wearing a strange half-smile as he looked at Meneliel. When no further information appeared forthcoming from any of them, Halbarad looked around the room in frustration. "Well, what happened to him?" The more he heard, the less of it made sense. He frowned at Brandol. "I don't understand how Lathron could have had another son. You were Lathron's youngest son. You were born…" his voice trailed off in disbelief. "You were born after he died."
In confusion he looked to Aragorn, who was smiling at Brandol like a long-lost brother, which Halbarad realized with dawning, dumbfounded astonishment was ironically close to the truth. "Brandol?" he said in amazement.
"He's you, isn't he?" Aragorn said to Brandol. "You're Bega's son."
"Aye." Brandol's shaggy head ducked in embarrassment. "I was once, a long time ago."
Meneliel pressed a reassuring hand to his arm. "He's been my son for 80 years, and no mother could have ever hoped for a better one."
Halbarad could barely collect himself enough to speak. "I've known you my entire life," he said, amazement warring with confusion. "How is it I never knew of this?"
"There was no need for you to know," Nelaer snapped. "Brandol came here before you were born, he became Meneliel's son, and the past no longer mattered. We had no wish to set him apart or bring painful events back to light. No one imagined Bega's letters would ever be found."
Chuckling softly, Eirien leaned into Halbarad's shoulder. "Never let it be said that the Dúnedain cannot keep a secret," she teased softly.
Halbarad twisted in his seat to gape at his wife. "Even you? You knew?"
"Do you think you men are the only ones with secrets? Yes, dear," she said soothingly. "I knew. And you could have known as well, if only you had ever asked."
"I feel very foolish," Aragorn said.
"You should," Halbarad's mother said. "Now, you listen to me, Aragorn son of Arathorn. The Chieftainship is yours. The Kingship, Eru willing, will be yours someday, and your mother believed with all her heart that it would be. Don't you dare disappoint her."
Aragorn bowed his head. "I won't." Moving to Brandol, he opened his arms and stood before him in amazement for a moment before embracing him. "I was right in believing it was a brother I searched for. My only mistake was in thinking I had to travel a hundred leagues to find him. He was right in front of me the whole time!"
Brandol's single eye glistened as he returned a one-armed embrace. "It was plain by the way your father treated me," he said, "that he longed to have a son of his own someday. It broke my heart to see him taken from that son so soon."
Still overcome with wonderment, Aragorn stepped back and shook his head. "My mother told me that you were very special to my father," he said, "but I never knew why. I would like very much to hear about your time with him. I understand he taught you to fish."
"Aye," Brandol chuckled. "That he did. Though as I recall he was no better at it than you are." He clapped Aragorn on the arm a last time and turned to Halbarad, more hesitantly. "And what of you, Halbarad? Will you suffer your daughter to marry the son of a Dunlending?"
Still stunned, Halbarad realized the entire room was staring at him, waiting for his answer, and yet he could not find words, could not stop simply staring at Brandol. The moment lengthened uncomfortably, and he saw Brandol swallow nervously. With sick horror, he realized his dumfounded paralysis had been misinterpreted and Brandol did not know – no one in the room knew, what he would say. With dismay at his own thoughtlessness, he stepped forward, now so eager to administer a reassuringly hearty slap on Brandol's back that he forgot his injuries. Yanking his hand back with a gasp of agony, he cradled it to his chest as he endured Brandol's laughter with a grimace. "Of course your son can marry my daughter, you old dog" he managed to choke out, laughing in spite of his pain, "just make sure you keep your hands off my knife."
Still clutching his blanket, Aragorn limped over to his pack and knelt to fumble with the packstraps. Seeing him struggle, Brandol imparted a last slap to Halbarad's aching shoulder and moved quickly to nudge him out of the way. "Let me do it," he said through his pipe. "I'm used to doing things one-handed."
"And I could never hope to match your skill," Aragorn said with a smile as leaned back to allow Brandol to nimbly unfasten the buckles. Then, reaching deep inside the open pack, he withdrew the ancient leather wallet Halbarad knew only too well. He rose stiffly and went to Meneliel. "I think these belong to you," he said, holding out the wallet.
Meneliel smiled affectionately at Aragorn, but instead of accepting the letters herself, nodded at Brandol. "They belong to my son. After we brought him here, I asked Arathorn what he planned to do with the letters. He proposed to keep them, so that one day, when Brandol was old enough to understand the truth of his parentage, he would learn also that the Dúnedain did not scorn him for it, and he would know that he was loved - not only by us, but by the mother who gave him life. I agreed, though at that time I wanted no part of the letters - the grief and betrayal were too fresh in my mind. And so Arathorn and Gilraen put them away. For them the letters carried no shame, you see; only a testament to love and honor. But too soon after, Arathorn was killed, and Gilrean and you were spirited away. I never knew what happened to the letters. When she came back to us, I refrained from asking about them. I did not want to remind her of that difficult time."
"I found them in a trunk in Elrond's attic," Aragorn said, "along with some of other of my father's belongings. It did not look as if it had been disturbed since it was placed there when we arrived in Rivendell."
Brandol stepped forward and took the wallet from Aragorn. He brushed calloused fingers across the smooth leather, then flipped open the flap and withdrew the yellowed pages. A smile broke across his battered face as he caught sight of a scrawling script that must have seemed familiar to him and yet long-forgotten. An uncharacteristic gleam brightened the corner of his eye as he read. "I remember her bent close over the table, with a candle beside her," he said softly. "She worked so hard at writing, so intent on forming each letter just as he taught her." He looked up at Aragorn. "I thank you for this gift, Aragorn. I feel close to her as I have not felt in nearly a lifetime, and I remember Arathorn's wide smile and his strong arms as if I saw him yesterday. I only wish you could have known him as I did."
Aragorn smiled. "It is enough that through you, I feel as if I did." To Halbarad it seemed as if his eyes glistened as he turned and went to warm his hands by the fire.
"I will never forget how you believed in me," Aragorn said, barely hearing his own voice over the whisper of the breeze in the tall meadow grass, "expecting nothing for yourself. I feel your hope in me every day. Yet sometimes it feels that the weight of all this hope will crush me. I wish you could have lived to see the day all these hopes are realized. You deserved far more joy than you saw." He looked out across the flower-filled field, so different now than when he had come over the mountains just a few months before, barren and marred with fresh graves. "I must go now, to face Elrond. I owe him a rather large apology. Did you know you raised such a foolish son? Then I must travel east again with Gandalf. It will be good to have some company this time. You were right to say I spend too much time alone. I do not know how long I will be gone; but I suppose you are not surprised to hear that, either."
With a sigh and a last brush of his hand against the stone, he pushed himself up from his knees; surprised when he turned around to see Halbarad standing beside Daisy, absently stroking her neck. "I didn't want to disturb you," Halbarad said, nodding at a package he held in his hand. "You forgot this."
Aragorn took the package with a smile. "Your mother's biscuits."
"She was horrified that you tried to leave them behind."
"You'll tell her it was an oversight?"
"Of course." Halbarad smiled. "She really is very fond of you, you know."
"Oh, yes." Aragorn laughed as he tried to find a place to secure the package to his already overloaded saddlebags. "As a warg is fond of a yearling calf."
"Well, yes," Halbarad said agreeably. "Good luck with Elrond."
Aragorn winced. "Whatever he has planned for me is nothing more than I deserve."
"True," Halbarad agreed. "You are quite infuriatingly muleheaded at times."
He bowed his head slightly. "I am indeed." Then, clasping Halbarad's arm, "I don't know how long I'll be gone."
"I know." Halbarad rested a hand on his sword hilt. "We'll be ready, when you need us."
Riding away, alone, he felt a familiar sense of rootlessness overtake him; torn between many homes, he yet belonged to none. Even now, Halbarad would be walking back to the house through the tall hayfields, helping himself to the leftovers of Aragorn's going-away feast. Later he would wander to the barn to putter with Brandol at repairing harnesses, pore over patrol reports and schedules, play with his granddaughter: utterly at home in this place where Aragorn, Chieftain or not, would always be a visitor. There was no one and nothing to blame. Life here was simply normal without him. In Imladris, too, no matter how warm his welcome or how meticulously Erestor maintained his rooms, his presence disrupted the normal state of affairs, which only resumed normalcy upon his departure. He wondered if there would ever be a place he did not have to leave; a place that would not seem more normal with him than without him.
Both the weather and his well-rested state favored his journey, and he pressed on into the night of the second day, arriving at the Last Homely House well after dark. He dismounted in the deserted courtyard, waved off a helpful stable hand, and looked up at the warm-lit house, gripped by a flutter of trepidation. He did not know how much lasting damage his misbehavior at his departure had done, coming so quick on the heels of his reconciliation with Elrond. He dared not hope Elrond had allowed Elladan and Elrohir to make the trip to Lórien for Arwen after the way he behaved. With a sigh, he led Daisy to the stable and began working loose the girth strap. He was tired from the journey and not up to a confrontation tonight. He pulled off the saddle, half-considering simply sleeping in the stable tonight and facing Elrond in the morning.
The mild voice froze him in mid-stride. Setting the saddle down, he turned and bowed slightly, averting his eyes from the intense gaze being directed at him. "Lord Elrond. I beg your pardon. My behavior was inexcusable and -"
"Estel." Elrond moved toward him slowly, as if approaching a skittish horse. "Do you know how worried I was about you?" He reached out with a hand, gently tipping up Aragorn's chin.
"I am sorry." Seeing not judgment but worry in Elrond's eyes, Aragorn shook his head in dismay at his own thoughtlessness. "I didn't mean any of the things I said. Please forgive me."
"You are forgiven," Elrond said, "but that is not what matters. What matters is that you are here, and you are well. Aragorn," he said, taking Aragorn's shoulders and eyeing him with concern, "are you all right?"
Aragorn nodded. "I am now."
"Good," Elrond said, "because there is someone here who will be very happy to see you, and I would not want to disappoint her."
Aragorn's breath caught. Reluctant to speak her name lest Elrond explain he'd meant the cook, he swallowed and looked toward the house. "Do you mean - ?"
Elrond smiled. "Yes, Arwen is here. She only just returned three days ago. She was very disappointed to find you gone; and worried, when she learned of the manner of your departure."
"Oh, no," Aragorn murmured. "I'm sorry. The last thing on Arda I would ever do is cause her worry."
"Why don't you tell her yourself?" Elrond said, gently turning him toward the stable door. There she stood, framed by the light of the courtyard lanterns, hair flowing loosely over a long blue gown.
"Estel?" She stepped into the stable, joy radiating from her face. "It really is you. I was so worried when Father told me you'd left in such a rush, and not at all well."
She was as beautiful as the day he first met her. "I'm sorry," he said, taking her perfect hands in his rough ones, wondering how worn he must look to her now, even as she herself had not aged a day since Lórien. "There was something I needed to do, but it's finished now."
Arwen pulled him closer. "It is so good to see you. Please say you can stay a while," she whispered. "Just a little while, before you have to leave again."
He kissed her lightly and wrapped her in an embrace, inhaling the clean fragrance of her hair, feeling the soft fabric of her gown against his cheek. Opening his eyes, he mouthed a silent 'thank you' to Elrond before cupping Arwen's face in his hands and nodding. "I can stay," he said, mirroring her smile. "I can stay a while."
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.