The Heir of Elendil
His eyes blissfully closed, Halbarad basked in an huge copper tub full of steaming hot water. The air was moist and fragrant with lavendar; a plump pile of soft towels awaited him on a bench. Indulging in the pleasures of the moment, he put aside the dark memories that hung at the edge of his consciousness.
"How do you like Rivendell?" said a voice he knew well.
"Aragorn!" He bolted upright, sloshing the steamy water onto the floor.
"Stay where you are," said his friend, laughing as he moved aside the towels and sat down on the bench. "You look much too happy to move."
With a sigh Halbarad lay back. "Too true. Ah Aragorn, you look well!"
"And you don't," he laughed, "but it's nothing your bath, a hair cut and a good sleep won't cure, I guess."
"And a very large meal," Halbarad said, grinning.
"I've already ordered a meal to be brought to us, in the wing where my mother and I live. You'll stay there with us while you're here. Everything is ready, and I've brought you some of my clothes. We are much of the same height and weight, so they should fit you well."
Halbarad eyed the shirt of delicate white linen and over-tunic of light blue wool, worked with silver at hem and throat, that Aragorn wore. They were finer than anything Halbarad had ever owned. "Am I also to look like an Elven princeling?"
Surprise darkened Aragorn's face, then he laughed. "I suppose I do look like I have reverted to my former self."
"Hand me a towel," Halbarad said as he rose from the water. As he dried himself, he cast an eye now and then at Aragorn, who had turned away. "Where are these clothes of yours?"
"I've left them right here. I'll wait for you outside, all right?"
Halbarad wondered if he had offended his friend, and made up his mind to apologize. He quickly dressed in silky dark green: a tunic and trousers with a pattern of leaves wrought the length of the sleeves and legs. Not too ornate, he thought with some relief as he pulled on soft leather shoes. Before he fastened his belt, he slid over it the loop of his small pouch. Inside was a treasure that must be returned to its owner.
Aragorn was standing at the window, his arm crossed behind his back, but he turned as Halbarad emerged from the steamy bathroom. "It suits you well, my friend."
"And you also, despite my jest," Halbarad said. "I did not mean to offend you."
"No offense taken, Halbarad," Aragorn said with that smile of rare incandescence that so transformed his usually stern face. "I had just not thought of it that way, and it brought to mind that I still am a stranger to my own people."
"No, you are wrong about that. Don't you know how you have risen in the esteem of the Rangers? There is no man who wouldn't swear you allegiance now. My father means to step down as acting chieftain."
But Aragorn shook his head. "I think he will remain so for many years. No, Halbarad," and he raised his hand in a gesture of denial, "it's not that I judge myself unworthy, although I know I am very raw indeed—it's that something tells me, foresight perhaps, I don't know, that I will not remain in Eriador for much longer. Far places, and ships, many ships, haunt my mind. Many strange things happened to me while I was—what shall I say?—away."
Away is a good word for it, Halbarad thought, remembering those days of terror while Aragorn had seemed to slip further from the world with every hour. "Well, then, if it's your command that he remain acting chieftain, he will serve as you wish. But I hope you will not in fact leave us just when we have started to get used to you. I, for one, always knew you would succeed. Do you remember when you first came to Thurnost and our great-grandmother had me swear as king's man?"
"Of course I remember," Aragorn murmured. "It was yet another thing that showed how far I was from everyone's expectations and hopes of me. But come, my friend, let's go to our meal where we can talk in greater comfort."
He led the way through a maze of hallways and stairs and Halbarad followed, marveling at the beauty and elegance of Elrond's House. Yet it was an easy splendor, he noted—windows looked out upon gardens, the air was fresh and fragrant, everywhere there were cushioned nooks where a guest could rest at will. At last they came to a far wing looking out over the river that tumbled and foamed as it rushed from the Misty Mountains to the east. Aragorn showed Halbarad into the same large, comfortable room that he remembered from his earlier, very brief visit to Rivendell, when he and his father had spoken to Gilraen.
"Is your mother here?" he asked, reluctant to sit at the heavily laden table before the mistress of the house was present.
But Aragorn shook his head. "Sit and eat! She is with Rodnor. Elrond and I released him from what remained of the sorcerer's taint, but Elrond thought it best for one of us to sit with him till he wakes."
"By 'one of us,' you mean us mere mortals," Halbarad said as he took his seat.
"If you insist."
Halbarad could hardly tear his eyes from the roast chicken, golden wine, crusty bread, green salads, and berry tarts that lay before him, but he forced himself to speak again and refrain from grabbing. "I know it doesn't seem so to you, having grown up among them, but I can understand why Rodnor was frightened of the Elves. They can be awe-inspiring in a rather overwhelming way. I still shiver when I remember seeing Elrond for the first time, riding up the hill after the falcons. If I had not been so desperate about you, I might well have been more cautious about him."
"Why?" Aragorn asked with surprise.
"It is not often that we mere mortals see legends springing from the earth." Halbarad shrugged. "I don't expect you to understand."
"Halbarad, eat. Your eyes are popping out of your head," Aragorn laughed. "I suppose you aren't awed by Rivendell food."
"By no means." Halbarad helped himself and ate in silence as he took the edge off his hunger. After devouring a large cut of succulent chicken and mopping up the rich juices with a fistful of bread, he sat back and sighed deeply. "Now tell me, how is it with Rodnor? Will he be all right now?"
Aragorn was eating too, but with less eagerness and some amusement. "Elrond thinks so. It was more the after-effect of the horror he endured, rather than any dark arts remaining within him. He believed that Elrond was Dior."
"Yes, the son of Beren and Lúthien. We discovered that the sorcerer was among the Elves who killed him in Menegroth, and that he also killed the princes Elured and Elurin, Elrond's uncles."
Halbarad gasped and felt a shiver of shock run up his spine. "Legends out of the past, what did I say?
"Yes, you are right. But so are we legends out of the past, Halbarad, we Dúnedain. We are their kin, do not forget."
"I never will now, certainly," Halbarad said. "And look, I have something of yours. I took good care of it."
He drew out of his pouch the treasure that he had hidden there: the golden Ring of Barahir dangling from its chain, its green gems winking in the afternoon light.
"Ah!" Aragorn took it from him and fastened it around his neck. "Thank you. It is a precious thing in beauty and legend. How did it come to be with you?"
"Daeron insisted I take it as soon as I found them, him and Rodnor, not two weeks ago now. He still feels the disgrace of his exile."
"He should not," Aragorn said. "That will be made very clear to all."
"So says my father too. He is hoping that you will come with us when we return to Thurnost, Daeron, Rodnor and I, and all will be made right."
"I don't know if I can. Elrond has yet to release me from my apprenticeship. But I freely admit that I am eager to be gone."
"From this heavenly place? Why?"
Aragorn's face became serious. "It's not my home any more. I know that now." Halbarad saw thoughtfulness and a certain sad acceptance in his eyes. "I left here nearly three years ago, uncertain of myself and my path, bitter and wishing that I could remain to be near her that I loved. But I know now that whether I will succeed or fail, I have to go out to meet my destiny."
"Have you determined, then, to put the Lady Arwen out of your mind?" Halbarad felt a curious mix of hope and disappointment that Aragorn would abandon his love for the daughter of Elrond.
"By no means," Aragorn said. "But I have other tasks to do first. Some day I will meet her again."
"I don't know. It depends on her, doesn't it?"
"So it does," Halbarad said. "Listen, Aragorn, I feel I must tell you something. I wasn't going to mention it, because my father bade me be silent, but I owe it to the confidence you have in me."
Aragorn's keen eyes were fixed on his face. "Don't keep me waiting."
"My father wants you to marry—soon."
Astonishment suffused Aragorn's face before anger darkened it. "He presumes much," he said in a curt and tense voice.
"That's not how he sees it. He says that the Dúnedain must know that the Heirs of Isildur will continue, and he has a point. It's our hope—you are our Estel too, you know. He's going to bring the matter before the captains' council and urge an early marriage."
"I will refuse," Aragorn said. His face had closed into a hard mask of sheer determination—a will as hard as dragon scales, Halbarad knew. "No one can dictate this choice to me."
"I will support you in that," Halbarad said. "My loose tongue will at least give you the opportunity to prepare yourself for this. It might be best if you find a way to be more diplomatic about your refusal. There will be hopeful fathers with even more hopeful daughters. Try to have your way while keeping as much good will as possible among the Rangers."
Aragorn stared at him for a silent moment, then nodded. "It's sound advice. I will try to follow it. Now, can we talk about something else?"
"Elrond's calling a war council, so to speak, tomorrow at mid-day. Elladan and Elrohir have just returned from the wild as well."
"Ah," said Halbarad. "I'm glad it's tomorrow."
"Yes, you may loll to your heart's content for today. And I with you, if I may. I must say Rodnor's healing drained me."
Looking again carefully at Aragorn, Halbarad saw that indeed a certain pallor lurked in his face. "It will be my pleasure."
The next day, when the mid-day bell ring, Halbarad and Aragorn went to a chamber near the Hall of Fire where Elrond's war council was to be held. Chairs were drawn up to a round table where a large map of Eriador lay. Elrond and his sons, Elladan and Elrohir, were already there with Daeron and Rodnor, and Erestor also was present. Halbarad's eyes went at once to Rodnor, who stood quietly and unobstrusively behind his elders. His calm was remarkable, considering how troubled he had been on entering the valley. Halbarad embraced him. "You are well?"
The boy nodded. "Yes, very. Lady Gilraen had me rest and fed me until I am about to pop."
Halbarad chuckled and slapped him on the back. "Good!"
"And I have apologized to Master Elrond," Rodnor said in a shame-faced voice.
"And I, for my part," Elrond interjected, "told him there was no need for that. The enemy that we face has deep arts indeed, as we will discuss here, and no blame is attached to any who suffer from it. Let's consider our position, shall we?"
Aragorn had sat at the table opposite to Elrond and was examining the map before them; Halbarad stood behind him. Elladan and Elrohir had placed markers in various spots in the Ettenmoors, clustered most thickly to the east of Wolf's Head at the pass to the old kingdom of Angmar.
"Here is where the enemy was last seen," Elladan said, pointing with his long finger. "But that was last January, over two months now, before the heavy snows set in. Still, we know they must be there, and all the more securely for their secrecy. And here"—he indicated a marker south of the others—"is where Halbarad and Aragorn found Rodnor and Daeron, and where Beleg and Hawk died."
"Yes, that's the place, as near as I can tell," Aragorn said. "We were just north of the Hoarwell. Did you find the place in your scouting? We had to leave our comrades without burial, and I would greatly like to make that right."
"The snow has yet made that impossible," said Elrohir. "But we will find it. We must, not only for the sake of their memory, but to continue the hunt for Ahando's wolves. That was the last place they were seen."
Daeron nodded. "Yes, I killed the wolf that had slain Hawk. But the carcass disappeared. It was no ordinary beast."
"There, for all we know, Ahando's spirit may still linger," said Elrond. "It is a perilous place, and must be approached with great caution. He will be looking for another body to steal, if he has not found one already."
"We must begin again soon, now that spring has come," Elladan said.
"My father is certain that Wolf's Head can no longer be trusted," Halbarad said. "We have to assume the secret has been betrayed through Beleg."
"So we think too," said Elladan. "We need to find another stronghold, perhaps at the Ranger station in the Weather Hills. It will be a long hunt."
"I am now fit and can join you, with Elrond's leave," said Aragorn.
"No," Elrond shook his head. "You must stay entirely away from there. It's you he wants above all. My greatest fear is that he will escape and get news of you to his foul master. While he remains bodiless, at least we do not have that to fear. He is trapped where he is."
"Then am I to stay safely in Rivendell while my friends are in danger?"
"For the present," said Elrond firmly. "There are others who can fight this battle. In fact," and his face lit with a sudden, almost mischievous smile, "I have an idea to consult with Gandalf the Grey on the matter. Unfortunately, it may take some time to find him. When I left Rivendell last fall, it was in part to take council with him. Now he has wandered off again, as is his wont."
"Gandalf! An excellent idea," Halbarad said. "What help do you think he can give us?"
"He himself has great power against the Unseen. But I am thinking also of his companions. It seems to me that the best warriors to send against this thief of the bodies of Elves and Men are—Dwarves."
Erestor gave a little shout of laughter. "An inspired idea, Master Elrond. No Elf would choose the body of a Dwarf!"
"Would the Dwarves help us?" Aragorn asked.
"I think so," said Elrond. "They have as much reason as we to hate and fear the presence of the enemy in the mountains. And this move to refound a stronghold in the North, I believe, is Sauron's answer to the loss of Smaug at the Lonely Mountain when Thorin took back the Dwarf kingdom. I will send messengers to look for Gandalf. He will have the greatest means of persuasion."
"If that can be done, the Rangers will surely welcome the help," said Halbarad.
"Meanwhile, we must guard the area, and not expect to conquer it, unless the Orcs make themselves known," said Elrond. "But they may not do so while Ahando remains bodiless. That is our great chance. Perhaps by the autumn we will have a troop of Dwarves to send on the hunt."
When the council broke up, Aragorn beckoned at Halbarad to remain. "For this concerns you too," he said as he turned to his foster father. "Elrond, how long do you expect me to remain here?"
Elrond looked troubled. "I do not know. For the time being, there is still work to be done on your training. When that is finished, I will decide what to do next."
"Let's hope it's by the autumn," Halbarad said. "My father is calling a meeting of the captains and Aragorn should be there if he can."
"Perhaps," Elrond said. "But he may have other tasks."
"Yes," said Aragorn slowly. "Master Elrond, if you feel the need of sequestering me in a safe place far from Ahando's reach, I ask that you send me to Círdan to learn to sail a ship."
"Sail a ship!" cried Halbarad, thoroughly astonished. "What use is that to the Rangers of the North?"
But Elrond was smiling. "Many things may happen that you do not expect, Halbarad. And perhaps you, too, should go to Círdan with Aragorn." He bowed to them and took his leave.
"Is this the blood of the mariners of Númenor calling to you, my friend?" Halbarad said.
"It may be," Aragorn answered. "It is something I saw in my dreams, and it keeps coming to me: black ships on a wide river." His grey eyes seemed to be seeing something that was not there. "And I believe that Elrond is right that you should come with me."
"I am the king's man," Halbarad said.
Hallor, it turned out, was not to be deterred lightly from his wish that the Chieftain come soon to the Angle. Aragorn had to acknowledge the acting chieftain's canny knowledge of his people when, at the height of summer, long after Daeron, Rodnor and Halbarad had left the Valley, Dírhael and Ivorwen came again to visit their daughter and grandson. Who better to deliver the message of the wished-for early marriage than Dírhael, his own grandfather?
He kept silent on the matter, waiting for his grandfather to choose the moment to speak. But he was surprised when, one evening, when the dinner table was cleared of everything but the ewers of fragrant wine and a bowl of walnuts, his mother cleared her throat.
"I have something to tell all of you," she said.
Her face was grave and yet happy at the same time. Aragorn waited.
"I have decided to return to Thurnost," she said.
"Wonderful news, daughter!" Dírhael cried.
"Why have you come to this decision?" Aragorn asked. She had said nothing of it.
"Because my people are there. Because I am the wife of Arathorn and the mother of Aragorn. In truth, for many reasons. I know it will be a harder life, but it's time to leave Rivendell. My job here is done. And I will ask Rodnor to become my foster son."
Pleased, Aragorn smiled. "That is a very good idea. Does he know?"
"Not yet," Gilraen said. "I wanted to consider the idea of returning to Thurnost for a while. I cannot foster him if I am not there. But my mind is now made up."
Aragorn knew that his mother's will was as strong as his own when she had determined her course. "Well then, I am glad. I will escort you to Thurnost myself, when Elrond gives me leave."
"There will be much rejoicing!" cried Dírhael. "We will have games, bonfires and a proper welcoming."
"And none will be happier than we," Ivorwen said. "I never wanted to influence your choice, Gilraen, but I have missed you. Iorlas will be greatly pleased that his children have an aunt."
"Well!" said Dírhael. "I too have news of concern to our family. I have a message from Hallor and the captains, such of them as were lately gathered in Thurnost."
Aragorn turned his full attention to his grandfather. "Yes?"
"Yes, indeed. It's simple enough. They wish an early marriage for you."
Aragorn assumed a mild surprise, his hand lightly grasping the rim of the elegant goblet before him. "And why is that?"
"Need I spell it out?" Dírhael said. "The male descent stops with you. The only others in the House of Isildur are Hallor himself and Halbarad, and they only through Argonui's daughter. We need more sons in the Chieftain's line. Therefore, you will marry."
"No, I will not," Aragorn said quietly.
"Not immediately," Dírhael agreed. "But a betrothal must be made, and you can marry at a time proper to the bride's age."
Aragorn could hear the rustle of silken skirts as his mother stirred in her seat. Ivorwen did not stir or speak; she had doubtless already known of this message. He waited for his grandfather to continue.
"There are several suitable young women," Dírhael said. "You will meet them and make your choice, but the captains want a betrothal by next spring."
Aragorn remained silent as he raised his goblet of wine to his lips and drank.
"One you know already," Dírhael persevered. "Lalaith, my son's daughter and your cousin, is still a child, so the wedding would be postponed some years. But it would be a sound choice. There is also Túrin's daughter, who is eighteen now and lives in Sarn Ford. She is most charming and skilled in all that's necessary for a woman. The betrothal would then be shorter, which has its own merit."
At the mention of Lalaith Aragorn made a sharp movement in his chair and directed a surprised look at his grandfather. Gilraen lowered her head and groaned.
Dírhael looked at her sharply. "Did you speak, daughter?"
"No, father," she said meekly.
"Good." He looked back at Aragorn. "You cannot question the wisdom of this decision, grandson. You know as well as any man among us our great need and your duty."
"Yes indeed," said Aragorn softly.
"Of course," Dírhael continued, "if you have a preference for another, any woman of Dúnedain blood that you choose would be agreeable to the captains. The captains will expect you to act on this as soon as you can return to Thurnost. That will give you time to adjust your thoughts and think about your wishes in a wife." He stood up. "Perhaps the womenfolk will aid you in that," he said with a quirk of his mouth as he left the room.
Utter silence descended on the chamber, where candlelight cast shadows of gold along the walls.
"This will not happen," Aragorn said simply. "You have no need to trouble yourselves."
"Oh, Estel," Gilraen said, in a tone that he knew as one of great distress. "Although you may not like it, the captains have good reasons for this. Please think about it."
Ivorwen, who had remained silent throughout Dírhael's speech, stirred in her chair at last. "They are wrong," she said firmly. "There is only one woman that Aragorn may marry, and if he does not wed her, the Heirs of Isildur will come to an end. But she is not a woman of the Dúnedain."
"So you know then," Aragorn said. "I thought you probably did, with your Sight."
"It needs no Sight to know," Ivorwen said. "You carry your love in your eyes. Dírhael knows too, but he is has always been one to put duty before feelings. Isn't that so often true of our people? But you are fortunate."
"Oh, mother," Gilraen groaned.
Aragorn stared at his grandmother. "That's the last word I would use."
"Gilraen, leave us for the moment," Ivorwen said. "I wish to speak to my grandson alone."
"Mother, please do not—"
But Ivorwen cut her off. "I will follow my own judgment in this matter, my child."
Gilraen left the room in a brisk flourish of discontent.
"Come with me, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Lord of the Dúnedain," Ivorwen said. "Let's go out and see the stars."
For a while they stood in silence, gazing out at the wide, black sky bejeweled with stars of molten silver. Aragorn felt a strange peacefulness, as if he had finally reached a decision that had long eluded him. He knew, somehow, that his grandmother understood this.
"Do you remember the day we first met?" she said at last.
"Vividly," he said. "That day is engraved on my memory forever."
"I told you then about the dream I had at your birth about a green stone of great beauty and clarity. Since then I have Seen it again, and I Saw it in the hands of Arwen Undómiel."
Aragorn's heart leaped within him. "How so?"
But she shook her head. "That I do not know. I don't know what the stone is, or where it comes from. Nor do I know the feelings of the lady or why she should have this stone. But it and she and you are bound together, perhaps in a way that will surprise all of us. It may not be what you hope for."
She fell silent again, as if she were listening to a faraway voice. Then she turned to him and took his face between her workworn hands. "You are fortunate, grandson, because your duty and your love are the same. You will marry Arwen Undómiel or no one."
For an intense moment she gazed into his face and Aragorn saw the truth of her Sight in her large mild eyes. She at last released him and lowered her hands to her side.
"That I know," he said quietly. "But it is likely to be no one, I believe. Indeed, the Heirs of Isildur may end with me. It would be a terrible thing, but I cannot do otherwise."
He looked at the brilliant stars above and thought of Arwen: her laughter, her wisdom, her loveliness. In those first, brief days when he had believed himself loved, he knew now that he had thought only of himself and his own happiness. He had not understood the willfulness of the demands he was making of her.
"I cannot stop thinking of her," he said. "But though I dream of marriage, I can never ask it. All I want to be near her some times, if she would only let me. Last I saw her, she told me to never come near her again. But sometimes," he whispered, "I wonder if some day she may change her mind. And that seems almost worse to me, because of the choice she would have to make."
Ivorwen's soft eyes were fixed on his face. "What will you do?"
Gratefully Aragorn smiled at her. "My duty. I will follow the path that is before me and go to Círdan. I will put Narsil again in Elrond's hands, and come back to reclaim it when I have earned it. And some day I will see Arwen again and fate will bring what it may. I have at last learned to wait."
And hanging low over the horizon he saw the bright light of Gil-Estel, the Star of Hope, blazing out like a beacon.
For nearly thirty years Aragorn laboured in the cause against Sauron; and he became a friend of Gandalf the Wise, from whom he gained much wisdom. With him he made many perilous journeys, but as the years wore on he went more often alone. His ways were hard and long, and he became somewhat grim to look upon, unless he chanced to smile; and yet he seemed to Men worthy of honour, as a king that is in exile, when he did not hide his true shape. For he went in many guises, and won renown under many names. He rode in the host of the Rohirrim, and fought for the Lord of Gondor by land and by sea; and then in the hour of victory he passed out of the knowledge of Men of the West, and went alone far into the East and deep into the South, exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron.
Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.