The pair rode north. Cold rain started falling from the slate sky in the early afternoon. The old overgrown road ran through deep pine forests then across open downs where the north wind whipped the rain under hoods and cloaks. It was misty twilight when they entered the ruins of the once mighty Numenorean city of Fornost and halted at a half-tumbled down cluster of buildings. The rain slicked the stones a deep gray. Moss and ivy thatched the columns and roofs. As the mists thickened, Aragorn thought the ruins seemed a forlorn and dismal monument to the past.
"Welcome to Deadman's Dike! Beware the ghosts about! " exclaimed Halbarad with a grin, wearily dismounting. As if in answer to his words, a stable boy seemed to pop magically out of the ground to take the horses, bowing quickly to Aragorn with eyes wide so he could tell them in the kitchens of the new chieftain's appearance and manner. Inside the crumbling facade, there were suddenly real walls and dryness. The ruins cunningly hid a warren of buildings and stables, snug and secure from prying eyes and unwanted guests. They walked down a corridor lit with hanging cressets that opened into a main hall. Torches blazed in sconces on the walls, candles and lanterns lit the tables.
Forty or so Rangers, dressed in hunting green and gray, were standing in small groups or eating at the tables. They were mostly men but several women also wore cloaks and swords. There were another twenty or thirty elders and young women with a scattering of children. The quiet talking stopped when Aragorn entered the room. The eyes upon him took in the elf-braids, and the thought: 'By the Valar, Halbarad's brought us back an elf-prince' circled silently around the room. Aragorn courteously bowed his head to each he passed until Halbarad's voice whispered harshly.
"Don't bow to them. You are lord here." After a raft of greetings, no names of which he remembered, Halbarad guided him to a seat at the head table, and collapsed beside him. They were served up a wholesome meal of stew, fine bread, baked apples, and beer. At the table, the Rangers' talk resumed. The men spoke of orcs. Reports had come in saying orcs were roaming in the east in the Weather Hills and south to Amon Sûl. Aragorn perked up and was soon embroiled in the discussion about sending out a hunting party to end the problem before it spread. The veterans nudged each other pleased he seemed well versed in hunting and judging from his comments, he knew his business.
The next morning Halbarad came down to find his young chieftain dressed as one of them with a dark leather vest over a rusty green shirt. The lad had obviously been up for some time, sitting at the table with a mug of tea and some of his wife Salanda's best nut bread. She was bustling around Aragorn, flapping her eyes as if she was a girl of five and twenty and looking for a match, and the young chieftain was treating her gallantly, complimenting her baking shamelessly as she cut him another slab of the bread. Halbarad snorted.
When Aragorn was finished, he sent him out with the young cadet leader Theodel to ride the downs with the pretext of looking over the ruins. The young Ranger's instructions were to keep him gone at least until noon. Mounting Swallow, Aragorn pulled up his hood against the sharp wind and the two cantered away. Halbarad drained his cup and went across the courtyard to the hall where nearly all the Dúnedain were gathered. When the assembly had finally quieted, Maracus, easy-going and only ten years Aragorn's elder, began directly.
"You bring us a pensive elf-lordling as our chieftain. Are you sure Elrond did not switch the babe for one of his kin?"
"We're all his kin," Halbarad reminded him dryly. "I bring Arathorn's son back to us. You cannot deny he has his father's look."
"The Dúnadan must be a war leader. Can he fight?" asked Flemin, a grizzled, one-eyed veteran.
"He is young as you once were," said Halbarad. This drew smiles from several in the hall. "Have you forgotten where he was raised? By Elrohir and Elladan? They have ridden with us for years and we all know their skill with sword and bow. They sent promises from Imladris they would return soon. They want the boy to find his way first, to meet his people without their influence."
"I met this boy once, several years ago; he was a brave and honest lad then and there was some greatness about him even as a child. I see no reason to doubt he still carries these qualities." Camalac, Halbarad's lieutenant, added quietly.
"The boy should be trained as all cadets are. Then we will see his worth. Send him to the autumn training," Flemin advised. Each group of cadets rotated through special training in the northern strongholds of the Dúnedain. This year's group, soon to be assembled, would begin with weapons instruction at Sarn Ford, and then come to Fornost in the early spring for survival training.
"His training is well beyond the cadets," Camalac pointed out. "He is the Dúnadan, not a callow stripling, and deserves to be treated as such."
Halbarad let the silence settle on the room. "Our chieftain, young though he may be, must have the fealty of his people, so will you swear?" He stared around at the gathering, at the Rangers most of whom had long been his companions as they fought against their foes. He thought of the young widows who had sobbed on his shoulder as he had brought them news of a husband who would never return, and of the graybeards that had lost sight or limb in service to this boy, so long absent from their hall. All had so anticipated his return, but they held such high expectations for the boy, his grim people sworn to the cause of light. Many minds had held the expectation that at this boy's arrival, Arathorn would come striding in the door. Halbarad feared the inexperienced young man could not live up to the legend or his people's dreaming.
"Aye, Halbarad. You have served us well all these long years since Arathorn fell," said Camalac, breaking the silence. "Of course we will swear fealty to Isildur's heir. We are the last of Westernesse and he is our chieftain, and in the days to come, he will hopefully be High King just as Ivorwen predicted." His lieutenant's words brought nods and murmured agreement from the group. Halbarad began to feel easier than he had since he had settled onto the bench at The Prancing Pony to await his young lord.
The sun was high when Halbarad met the two returning men in the courtyard. Aragorn already had one loyal convert. Theodel was won over by his new chieftain and devotion shone in his eyes. The captain led Aragorn, enthusiastically describing what he had seen on the ride, into the hall to a tall, carved chair placed at one end of the room, and requested that he sit. The Dúnedain filling the hall were silent and the mood was somber.
Aragorn looked at the solemn faces ringing the room and suddenly was sure he had somehow committed a grave crime. It seemed a trial of some sort was taking place and he, the hapless criminal, was on the verge of being rejected and sent back to Elrond in disgrace. He looked up questioningly to Halbarad. His stoic captain bowed his head, dropped to his knee, and gripping both of the young man's hands, swore to protect him, support him, and follow him as chieftain and king, giving his life if need be. The captain looked up and Aragorn, shaken, saw tears standing in his eyes.
Halbarad's second, a strong, proud man in the prime of life, next came forward. He looked into his eyes, smiled, and Aragorn knew him.
"You are Camalac? You once saved me from my own folly." The man nodded, remembering the muddy hole the young boy had fallen into in the woods above Imladris. Aragorn looked closely at him. "You knew who I was then, didn't you? You called me 'my lord'." The soldier nodded again. "Thank you for that." Camalac, won over by the boy a decade before, fervently pledged his loyalty and devotion.
Then each of the Dúnedain, young and old, male and female, bowed before him and swore to uphold the heir of kings and to die if required in the quest to banish evil and return him to the throne. Such power was heady sustenance for one so young, and Aragorn sat uncomfortably during it, feeling unworthy as each of the proud Rangers came to him, bowed before him, and placing their hands on his father's sword, made their oath. Mostly, he felt undeserving of the title "Aranya*" they spoke. The ceremony of fealty ended, but no one left the hall; they watched him expectantly.
"Dúnedain!" He stood and spoke what he thought would be a short phrasing of his unworthiness. "My people, you seek to honor me in a way I have not earned. You who have fought for years defending the North without acknowledgement or gratitude, I tell you now, your faith will not be squandered and your trust in me will be upheld. I will do what I must to see the evil one defeated and the kingdom and honor of men restored. Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!**"
Silence filled the hall a moment and even Aragorn was startled by his speech, especially the words of Elendil that had come into his mind unbidden. Suddenly Halbarad's cheer rang out, immediately joined by every other voice.
"A Aragorn! Aranya i Dúnedain!" The thunderous approbation of the hall was deafening and Aragorn smiled broadly, overwhelmed that these strong, brave people would accept him without question.
"Do you drink, my lord?" the older man asked. He thumped both mugs down and sat, not waiting for an answer. "That was a fine speech."
"I had not planned on giving it; it simply came out," Aragorn said ruefully. He turned serious. "You plot as well as Elrond for my future, Halbarad. And I believe you both conspired to set these goals for me. Why have I not seen you sooner at Imladris?" It was Halbarad's turn to grin.
"But I saw you. Many times I stood on the balcony of the Lord Elrond's study with him and G---er, watching you at play or training. Aye, boy, I've kept my eye on you as I promised your father I would at your birth. You've grown up well; now comes your seasoning."
Aragorn laughed. "I'm sure you've plans for that which are painful but will teach me lessons I deserve to learn." He tapped his mug to Halbarad's.
"Go drink with the men," his captain advised. "They want a bit of time to get to know their leader." The Rangers were toasting each other and long dead friends, and had drunk enough already to warmly welcome the Dúnadan as they would a long-separated comrade. They shifted over, making room on the benches, and vied to keep his mug brimming. The room grew hazy with pipe smoke and Aragorn grew hazy from the never-empty mug in his hand. Except at winemaking time, he had never drunk enough to feel the intoxicating effect of spirits and now his head spun. Even so, all seemed quite right with the world.
When the inevitable stories began, Aragorn listened intently. The tales soon came to the story of Arathorn's death. Silence fell as Aldurund, grayed with over one hundred summers, began the telling. With shining eyes, he told of orc raids and a leader set on stopping them, of the swift gallop through the pine forest south of the Great Road to reach Rivendell; the outnumbered Rangers riding into an ambushing pack of brutal orcs, fighting desperately and finally overwhelming them with sheer daring and skill.
Aldurund stopped a moment and drank from his mug. In a near whisper, he told of the black arrow that flew as Elladan's bow answered it. The arrows passed in mid air, Elladan's spitting the orc's throat, but alas, the crebain-feathered arrow pierced Arathorn's right eye and their brave chieftain fell dead into Elrohir's arms. The hall was silent, and then he told of the stark grief of the sons of Elrond, and Lady Gilraen, brave and strong, who spirited her son away to the protection of their Eldar kin.
"So died Lord Arathorn, the Dúnadan." Aldurund ended. The Rangers raised a solemn toast to Arathorn, and then Aldurund's voice rang in the hall, "and to his son, Lord Aragorn! Aranya!" Every voice shouted hail and every cup raised in salute.
Aragorn stood unsteadily. "Thank you for that story. I had not heard it told so. I hope I may be half as brave as he was!" He raised his cup to his father amid cheers. Each Ranger vied to toast Aragorn and have him drain his cup. Late into the evening, Halbarad caught his unsteady young lord before he could topple into a fumy faint and led him off to bed.
In Aragorn's existence, sunlight had never shrieked before. However, morning had given light voice and its song was definitely that of Morgoth, alarming and cacophonous. He sat on the side of his bed, not remembering how he had gotten there, although someone had unbelted his tunic since it lay over the chair, and pulled off his boots. His head hung nearly touching his knees.
The door banged open and Halbarad came in bearing a tray with a tankard and eggs. Eggs! Not since his first orc hunt did Aragorn fight so hard for control. He swallowed and swallowed and found his throat was raw, nearly as painful as his head.
"Drink this." Halbarad pushed the tankard at him. The herby smell was athelas mixed with something else. "All of it." As he tipped back the contents of the tankard, Aragorn's head immediately felt better and he could open his eyes more than a squint. "You don't hold your liquor very well, my lord." His captain pointed out unnecessarily.
"I've never had to hold so much of it before." Aragorn rasped. Halbarad dumped the contents of the pitcher into a basin on the table and Aragorn rinsed his face and the back of his neck with icy water.
"You sang to me last night as I brought you here." Halbarad confided with a grin. Aragorn groaned. "It was an elf-song about a maiden named Lúthien. I couldn't catch all the words, but you confessed you are quite in love with her." The young lord flushed hotly and Halbarad became serious. "You handled yourself well yesterday. I had my doubts at first but you finally seem to understand who you really are." Aragorn looked confused.
"Because I drank with the men?"
"Because you didn't blush like a girl when they called you Aranya." Aragorn did blush now.
"That was because I was so drunk. I am no king…"
"Don't take me wrong." Halbarad was not accepting excuses. "I like Elrond well enough. I like his sons even better, but it is time you stopped pretending. I've been watching you for years, lad. You are Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a man, a leader of Men. That elf-lord is not your father. You should have learned that long ago. The men thought you were too much the haughty elf-prince when you rode in. Your actions yesterday began to change that, but you must continue to act your part."
"I will brook no insult to Lord Elrond!" Aragorn bristled, his voice taking on a haughty elf-lord tone. His anger made his head throb again. "I am what I am. How would you have me act?" he asked quietly.
"Not quite so polite and deferring." Halbarad laughed. "I'd like you to behave as you are now. Show a little backbone, boy. I know you have one; I've seen you fight." He turned to go. "By the way, we go to hunt orc on the morrow and you will lead us." He turned back from the door, issuing one parting command. "Cut your hair."
*Aranya (Quenya) king. **"Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world."---The words Elendil sang when his feet first touched the lands of Middle-earth
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.