1. The Last Gift
The Last Gift
Elrond had given him many gifts over the course of his life. As Aragorn stared into the eyes of the one he had called 'father' for as long as he could remember, he recalled the first time he had laid eyes upon Elrond Halfelven, and the first gift he had received — a new home.
"Welcome to Imladris, Gilraen."
The deep voice roused Aragorn from a half sleep. He stirred in the fabric sling that he rested in as he rode in front of his Mama. Blinking sleepily out at the unfamiliar surroundings, his eyes came to rest on a tall form standing beside their horse. It was another elf! He had dark hair like Eldan and Elror but wore funny robes instead of a shirt and leggings and he had some shiny thing on his head. The elf's face looked stern — or was it sad?
Aragorn's arms tightened around his stuffed horsey. He didn't think he would like this place. It sounded funny, like a lot of water was falling. He wasn't allowed to play by the water yet, and it sounded like a lot of water!
Nearby Eldan and Elror dismounted and began to remove various leather satchels from the pack horses they had brought with them. Aragorn still didn't understand why his Mama had packed many of their belongings in such a hurry, or why they had come here, but he knew it was important and had something to do with his Papa.
Papa had not come with them.
Mama said Papa had to go away and that they couldn't see him anymore. She had cried a lot because she missed Papa, but when he had asked if they could go where Papa had gone, Mama had cried harder. Aragorn hadn't asked too much about Papa since then. He missed his Papa very much, but talking about him only made Mama sad, so he stopped asking. He missed his Papa too, and tears welled up in his eyes and almost spilled down his cheeks but his mother's voice distracted him.
"Thank you, Master Elrond," Mama said. She sounded tired and sad. She had not smiled since that night his Papa's elf friends, Eldan and Elror, had come in the middle of the night and made her cry. He thought it was because Eldan and Elror were the ones to tell Mama that Papa was not coming home, but he was not sure. Just in case, he had not let either Eldan or Elror hold him on their journey.
"Let me take him so you can dismount."
It was Master Elrond that spoke, and Aragorn's attention returned to the elf standing beside their horse. In that moment, their eyes met and Aragorn found he could not look away from those piercing grey eyes. Then Master Elrond smiled. It was a kind smile, one that made Aragorn trust that no harm would come to him. His lips quirked upwards as well and he ducked his face back into the fabric.
When the elf reached for him, Aragorn went willingly into his arms and rested his head against the funny robes. They smelled funny too, like sunshine and the herbs his Mama gathered from the meadow.
"Welcome to Imladris, little one," that deep voice said again.
Aragorn peeked up at the smiling face of the one holding him and managed to say, "Hello." Then he ducked his head back down on the warm shoulder. Master Elrond felt a lot like Papa, even if he didn't look like him or smell like him. Aragorn's eyes fluttered as he yawned, and he stuffed the foot of his horsey in his mouth. He didn't understand why, but he felt safe, Closing his eyes, Aragorn went back to sleep.
And when he had awakened, he was no longer Aragorn, but Estel — the second gift Elrond had given him: a new name.
That had only been the beginning.
In Imladris, he had found a safe haven, but for a little boy with no playmates his own age, at times life proved difficult and lonely. But then Elrond had given him another gift, though he had not learned of it until he had grown much older.
"I never understood why it was that you and Elrohir came back to Imladris with my mother and I and stopped riding with the Dúnedain," Aragorn told Elladan one night as they sat around a fire on one of the many trips between the camps.
It had been three years since Aragorn had returned to his people after learning of his lineage and responsibilities. He had not come alone. His brothers had been the ones to ride out with him, and they had remained with him as his companions and advisors as he found his place in the camps of his people, much as they had with Arathorn.
Elladan set down his mug and leaned back, getting that far away look in his eye that he got whenever he became the story teller. Halbarad, sitting beside Aragorn, leaned forward, having learned to recognize this sign as well. Elrohir smiled slightly and sipped from his mug, letting the elder tell the tale, while Aragorn waited patiently, knowing his brother would explain in his own time.
"Long ago," Elladan began the tale as he often did, his gaze on the twinkling stars spread overhead in the night sky. "The fairest lady in all the lands kissed her family farewell and set out to see her parents in a distant land. She traveled with a small escort, for the paths to Lothlórien had proven safe in times past. But this time," his voice cracked, and Aragorn winced, for such was not the norm when Elladan told stories. But his brother shook his head and continued. "This time, the way proved far more dangerous than any could anticipate."
His eyes drifted closed and he drew in a deep breath, pausing for effect and, Aragorn suspected, to maintain his composure. This subject was still a painful one, and he had long learned of the brittle nature of the topic. One did not broach it with the sons of Elrond, unless one of them brought it up themselves.
"Unbeknownst to her family, or to those who traveled with her, or to the Lady Celebrían herself," Elladan's voice took on a menacing quality as he continued. "Orcs laid in wait to attack any who dared to cross the Redhorn Pass. A battle was fought, and though the escort bravely defended their lady, they were massacred and the lady taken captive by the filth of Sauron!"
Elladan drew in a ragged breath, his eyes still upon the stars above. Beside him, Elrohir had tossed out the last of his drink, his fingers white where they gripped the handle. His gaze, however, was towards the Mountains, invisible to Aragorn's eyes, but not to his brothers' gaze.
"You don't have to tell this, Elladan," Aragorn inserted, concern overcoming his curiosity. The wounds were still hidden behind well devised masks, but Aragorn could see the pain in his brothers' eyes. He had no wish for them to relive this story.
"Let him continue," Elrohir spoke, his voice soft and distant. "It is a story you should know, but to understand you should hear it in full."
Elladan's gaze dropped from the stars to meet the eyes of his twin. He nodded and looked back to the sky as he continued the tale. "The orcs tormented the lady, but she was not without hope. Her husband and children heard her cries in their spirits, and with speed, her husband and sons raced to her aid with a mighty force. They found the vile creatures and slaughtered them, but the lady…" Elladan's voice broke once more, and Aragorn's heart ached for him.
"Elladan," he began again, no longer wishing to hear the tale.
"No!" his brother hissed. "Let me speak of it! For you should know how it came to be that Elrohir and I ceased our wanderings." Aragorn bit his lip but nodded, not that Elladan saw it, for his eyes were still upon the stars and their dance across the sky.
"The lady had taken a grievous, poisoned wound that challenged even the skill of her husband, the Master Healer of Imladris and the finest healer Middle-earth had ever seen. But he succeeded! His skill was up to the task and he managed to heal her in body, but alas that her spirit's wounds were too deep, and she could find no more joy in the lands of her people."
Elladan's voice had become flat, brittle. Aragorn knew this tale only hinted at the horrors Elrond and his sons had discovered when they rescued Celebrían from the orcs who had dared to attack her. He doubted anyone would ever truly know the extent of her injuries except those who had found her broken body in the orc's lair. A chill ran down his spine when Elladan turned and looked at him.
"She left Middle-earth, leaving her family and all she loved to seek peace in the West…if she could. Her sons, grieved by her departure set out from Imladris together on a mission: to seek out the orc filth that pervaded the Hithaglir and to destroy them. Nothing could turn them from that task, until..."
His voice faded into the night, and his eyes drifted to the fire before them. Silence settled upon them, not even the usual nighttime sounds could be heard except for an occasional pop from the fire. It was as if even the creatures of the night held their breath, waiting to hear the rest of the tale, but such it was when Elladan told a story.
"Until?" Halbarad finally asked, unable to wait any longer for the answer. Aragorn glanced at his kinsman, a fond smile touching his lips. Though older than he, the two of them had quickly formed a close bond when he had returned to his people. Halbarad loved a good story as much as the next person, but he had not the patience for elven storytelling.
Elladan's head jerked up from his contemplation at the interruption, and he stared hard at the man who had led the Dúnedain for the past decade in Aragorn's absence. Halbarad glanced away with a wince, but he said nothing.
Elladan sighed. "Until a day when things changed."
"For many Long Years, Elladan and I sought out the orc filth in the Hithaglir," Elrohir added softly, his grey eyes burning into Aragorn's own. "Often we rode with the Dúnedain, for their missions paralleled our own. In such travels, we befriended their Chieftains, becoming closer to one in particular, a fine man named Arathorn."
"Arathorn was full of life," Elladan picked the tale back up, "and great wisdom, but an evil fate befell him. While riding with us to drive the orc threat from their villages, Arathorn was slain, leaving behind a small son and a bereaved young widow. We took them to Imladris where they could be safe, for the Hope of the Dúnedain lay in that small boy."
"Once safely delivered to our father, Elladan and I had no intention of remaining in Imladris, but planned to ride back out in our quest." Elrohir smiled then, his eyes growing distant with memory.
"Our father waylaid us," Elladan added, cocking his head and looking Aragorn full in the face. "He refused to give us leave to depart, but insisted we were needed in Imladris for a time. We could not fathom what use we might be to a boy hardly old enough to pick up a toy sword!"
"But unlike the many other children our father has fostered, this child was different somehow. With ease he stole the hearts of all he encountered, and Elladan and I found ourselves with a little brother in desperate need of a playmate." Elrohir smiled. "That was our father's command. "'Play with him,' he said. And so we did."
Elladan inclined his head. "Hope had come to Imladris, and by including him in our family, we found some healing for old wounds."
"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, after all," Elrohir added, his smile becoming a grin. "Though you did not know that then."
But Aragorn knew it now. His brothers had been a great gift from Elrond: his foster father who had raised him as his own. As had the education he had received from the best warriors and some of the finest minds in Middle-earth. He had learned wisdom and had proved himself with weaponry beyond what even the sword masters of Imladris had thought him capable.
As he looked into those ancient grey eyes now, he remembered each and every gift he had received from loving hands: his first sword, the binding of every wound he had received in his training or from childish mishaps, and when the time came, his heritage. It had been from Elrond he had learned his true identity, and from Elrond he had received the shards of Narsil and the Ring of Barahir, as well as a gentle nudge out into the wilds to find himself and become the Man he was meant to be.
And yet it was also Elrond who had denied him the one gift he had desired more greatly than any other.
Today, he looked into the eyes of the one who had raised him as his own, and remembered every gift he had received and truly realized the price it had cost his father. "You have earned this," Elrond said, handing over the Sceptre of Annúminas.
Aragorn took it in one hand, his eyes not leaving those of the one he called father. But for the first time in his life, Elrond's gaze fell first. Aragorn glanced down to the same spot where Elrond's eyes now seemed frozen: the long, graceful fingers holding lightly to Elrond's arm.
He swallowed hard as he looked at her — so beautiful and dignified with the wisdom of the elves and a merry laugh that had captured his heart. She was the gift he had long desired, coveted, yearned for….
Then Elrond took her hand and placed it in his own. Arwen would be the last gift Aragorn would ever receive from Elrond's hand.
A chill ran down his spine, and Aragorn's eyes rose to meet that wise grey gaze once more. For a moment, he felt the weight of the world in those eyes, a pain so devastating he was tempted to protest, to refuse this gift. What could he ever give in return? All of Gondor and Arnor would not be enough!
Then Elrond smiled, and the heaviness lifted. "Live well, my children," he said and stepped back.
Aragorn sought Arwen's gaze, those eyes so like her father's and yet moved his soul like no other. And in them he saw understanding. She knew as well the price of this gift.
Nothing he could do or give could ever equal all he had been given, but one thing he could do — honor Elrond's last request.
With an incline of his head, he led his lady forth and took her as his wife. And for all his days, no matter the trial, Aragorn remembered those words.
And they did.