See "Horse Thief" in "Many Guises and Many Names" and Gwynnyd's "Lighting Fires" for more tales of Estel's childhood.
Elladan stopped when he reached the crest of the rocky hill. "There it is: Dol Draug. Beyond lies the pass into Angmar, where the sorcerer had his fortress in the old days. Before Arathorn's death we made forays there every few years, seeking out any new Orc lairs."
Aragorn took the last few steps to Elladan's side at a long stride. Before him, the land fell to grassy downs crisscrossed with meandering rocky pathways and gulches before it began to climb again to hills receding into the blue distance. Towering beyond the downs rose Dol Draug, Wolf's Head Mountain, a sharp, black point like a wolf's ear thrust into the sky, while to the east a sloping shoulder of rock dropped suddenly in a cliff, looking indeed like the snout of a wolf against the misty blue ridges to the north.
"My father says it once was a fire mountain, and that is why it looms over all the other peaks. But long ago it ceased to burn."
Aragorn gazed out over the rough, dry country. "It will be a slow journey through this slag."
"For some distance, we know paths around the rougher places. But closer to the mountain, we know the land less well and our way will be more difficult."
They waited for Elrohir and Halbarad to catch up before beginning the winding way to the downs below. That day, and the next, and the day after that, they picked their way across the plain, following dry stream beds and paths of stone through the maze of rocky hills tufted with dry grass. Beyond the plain, they began to climb rough slopes into a bleak and weary land. Even in the early autumn, little grew but grey lichen and a few straggling weeds. The land leveled out into a wide and desolate plateau; an ancient river bed divided it from the mountains proper. Elladan led them to a promontory overlooking the valley below, where a stream, all that now remained of the river, coursed through sullen brown rocks covered in thorny brush.
Elladan strode to the edge of the sheer drop, gesturing for Aragorn to follow him. "It was there," he said, pointing to the harsh ledges below. "I came up here to scout the way ahead, looking for any threats before we rode our horses into the valley. We had not been here for some years, but Orcs had seldom been seen here before. That's why we tracked them, because we feared they were expanding their range. We were headed to the higher country, where we were more likely to find them—we feared they were setting up camps from Gundabad in the far north. The risks had increased, indeed, rather suddenly since the death of Arador only three years before."
Sighing, he turned to his foster brother. "You know the problem, Estel—we must be cautious and not risk ourselves needlessly, nevertheless risks must be taken. I bitterly regret that I judged wrong in this case."
Elrohir said, "We saw no sign of them, my brother. You are not to blame. As we have learned before to great cost, they have many secret passages and hidden doors."
Aragorn knew he meant the Orcs' seizure and torture of Celebrían, their mother. Arwen's mother. Once she had spoken to him of her, a slow tear coursing down her cheek into the soft down of her hair. He had caressed it away as she wept over her mother's torment. For her, too, I will seek the deaths of these Orcs and all servants of the Enemy.
Elrohir continued, "It was particularly dangerous in those years, before the Battle of the Five Armies reduced the plague of mountain Orcs and ended the terror of the dragon."
Aragorn nodded. "Tell me more of how it happened."
"After my survey, we followed the lesser slope there to the east, into the river valley. Beleg and Arathorn rode ahead and disappeared around that black stone below." Elladan pointed to a pillar of dark rock accusing the sky like a malevolent finger. The river bed swung sharply around it to the north and disappeared from view. "We did not see the attack, which began with a sudden, silent ambush. But we heard a scream—Beleg calling out for help. We quickened our pace and as we came up we saw the Orcs dragging Arathorn away and attempting to seize Beleg as well. Arathorn was already dead. He could not have survived that arrow through his eye—he must have died instantly, the only mercy of the day."
He stopped to draw a ragged breath, sorrow on his fair face. "We prevented them from seizing Beleg, but not before he was badly injured himself. We had to leave him to pursue the Orcs, and we killed all of them and recovered Arathorn's body. It was a terrible moment when we saw he was dead and how he had died—and they had hacked his body after death."
Silent, Aragorn listened to the tale of his father's death. A wave of weakness in the pit of his stomach threatened to bring him to his knees as sudden horror flared in his mind's eye.
Elladan gripped his arm in solace. "The Orcs paid for what they did. Then we had to tend to Beleg, of course. We heard wolves howling and feared the Orcs would return. We retreated to the southeast, to a secluded valley that we will show you tomorrow. There we cared for Beleg till he could ride, and we buried Arathorn, away from the Orcs' foul dens." He gazed far and wide with his keen eyes. "I see no threats now. But so we thought then. It is a dangerous place. Tomorrow we will bring you to the spot where he died, but we must not linger there. Even without horses we risk being seen, if there are enemies about."
"Nevertheless we must find out what we can while we are here," Aragorn said. "Halbarad and I mean to continue east into the mountains to join the Rangers later in the autumn. They will be scouting through the mountains and we hope to add our findings to the plan to move against the Orcs."
They stayed that night in the shelter of a grove of stumpy trees a mile from the edge of the promontory. The stars bloomed in the cloudless sky, with no moon to blunt their glory. Low in the west hung Gil-Estel, the star of Eärendil, a bluish glow to its flame.
Elladan raised his carved wooden cup. "Our forefather watches still. Let us greet him, and drink to our lost ones."
Aragorn joined the others in a salute. Only the sizzle of the fire broke the silence—too silent, Aragorn thought, for a night in the wilderness. At last Halbarad spoke in a low voice. "You must take some comfort in knowing your mother, at least, is now healed in the Blessed Land."
Elrohir shrugged, a gesture of sadness and resignation. "We hope so, certainly. But we don't know, unless you count faith, or trust, as knowing. It is like death that way. No one returns."
A spark of challenge lit Halbarad's eyes. "Surely not. You know you will see her again."
"Will we?" asked Elladan. "Not all are called to the West, and for us, as peredhel, it is even more unsure. Do not forget that we carry the blood of the Secondborn."
Aragorn recognized the lines of fierce sorrow about Elrohir's mouth as he said, "Not all are called. Many will not go—so our mother's father says of himself. The ban still lies on our mother's mother, and all of our family has suffered from the doom of Mandos. If it were not for the courage of Eärendil, we all would long ago have found the grave. Dior, slain by the sons of Fëanor. His sons, left to starve in the woods by Celegorm's cruel servants. It is only by our grandfather's fate that we have the life of the Eldar. But will that include the call to the West? I do not know."
Stirring in surprise, Aragorn watched his brothers' faces closely. He had rarely heard them speak so. But Halbarad said, "I don't understand. Surely you have the grace of the Elves."
"We are peredhel," said Elrohir, speaking the word with slow emphasis. "By the laws of the One, we would have been born mortal but for the choice given to our father through his own father. As it is, we too have that choice. Although I don't know if 'choice' is the right word. Rather it is what calls to our hearts. I do not know if, when it comes to it, I would leave Middle-earth. I question whether our people should ever have gone across the sea." He lowered his head, the shadows hiding his bright eyes.
"Then you will join your grandmother in exile forever?" asked Halbarad.
"Rather, I believe, we will die as Men do," Elladan said. "We and our sister."
Aragorn swung his gaze to his brother's face, lit golden by the fire. Elrohir remained hidden in the shadows. "You never told me that."
A faint smile softened Elladan's face. "We don't talk of it, Estel. But it's time that you knew."
They tell me for Arwen's sake. They tell me why she has turned from me. Could she truly think I would want her death?
But Halbarad exclaimed, "Your sister! I didn't know you had a sister. Idhril did not mention her, nor Aragorn, either."
A smile tugged again at the edge of Elladan's mouth. "Arwen Undómiel she is called. She's rarely in Rivendell, and few Men even know of her. But if you saw her, you would never forget her. She has the face of Lúthien, or so they say, those who knew the daughter of Melian in the Elder Days."
The face of Lúthien. The fate of Lúthien? Is that why she fled from me? Aragorn tried to stop his mouth, but he had to speak. "She did not tell me."
Elladan watched him, but said nothing.
"Did she ask you to tell me this?"
"No, Estel. She is as silent about you as you have been about her."
In the shadows Elrohir stirred, and knowing the two of them as he did, Aragorn gathered there had been a disagreement. Dismay, sorrow, love, anger—all moiled in his heart. Arwen! Never would I ask such a thing. Forgive me, I did not understand. He wanted to cry out with anguish, but the sight of Halbarad's eyes fixed on his face pressed him to silence.
Halbarad nodded briefly and then turned to Elladan. "I hope to meet the Lady Arwen some day, and see for myself if she is truly as beautiful as you say."
Relieved by Halbarad's interruption, Aragorn stared into the fire, seeking he knew not what in the glowing embers. Unable to keep still, he rose suddenly and stalked out into the night. He did not go far—even this distress could not negate the caution that ceaseless training had drilled into him. He leaned against the trunk of a tree and looked up into the sky, his whole being filled with memories of her—her impossibly beautiful wrists, the silky skin of the inside of her thighs, the intoxicating scent of her hair, the taste of her sweet mouth.
That beauty to grow old and die as Men do? Never.
A musical voice called, "Estel!" and a gentle hand touched his arm.
Her brother's face caught the starlight as hers did. He smiled softly. "You did not hear me come. Sharpen your ears, little brother."
Aragorn laughed shortly. It was an old joke between them, from the days of training the young Estel. For a while they stood together in the still of the night. "Elladan, what am I to do?" he cried in misery.
"I cannot advise you, except—" He fell silent.
"What do you mean?"
"Just that. Wait. Time changes many things."
Aragorn shook his head. "My feelings will not change."
"Maybe not, but that is not what I meant."
"I don't understand you."
"That, too, may change."
And he refused to say any more.
"Here is where Arathorn met his death." Elrohir stood on an expanse of grey rock; he cocked his head. "The earth remembers. I hear its voice, mourning the blood and the loss. For all that the sorcerer took this land, its heart belongs to the Dúnedain."
Aragorn stood still and silent on the spot where his father had died, hoping that memories would come at last. In his hands he held the broken remnant of Narsil, the heirloom of the House of Isildur. "Tell me how it happened."
"The Orcs came from there, a crevice around the bend. About a dozen. Some died at Beleg's hand before we reached Arathorn. Did he tell you about it?"
Aragorn shook his head. "He doesn't remember, and when I asked him, he became so distressed that I did not ask again, even about the journey."
"Yes, Hallor said that too," Elrohir cupped his chin and frowned, "now that you mention it. It's odd that Beleg hasn't yet visited us in Rivendell. Talking with us might help him, and my father's skill could certainly ease his distress."
"The acting chieftain has given him leave, and he keeps saying he will go," Halbarad said. "But we are pressed, as usual. Some day, I'm sure he will come."
"That would be excellent, for we loved him, too, as a dear friend. He and Arathorn together were deadly in battle. I'll never forget their deeds on that fateful sortie in Mirkwood, when Beleg took on the lieutenant from Dol Guldur. They still talk about it in Thranduil's halls. This lieutenant had been the bane of southern Mirkwood for more years than even an Elf can count, and Beleg managed to wound him. Not to kill him, for I don't even know if that can be done to such a being."
"What is he? A Ringwraith?"
"We don't know," Elladan said. "But surely no Ringwraith. He appears to be a Man, but he must know the dark arts, like the sorcerer that dwelt here in Rhudaur during the time of Angmar. Maybe he is the same one—who can say? The Elves in Mirkwood believe he can change his form. Sauron has a number of such evil-doers in his service, and they use the dark arts to prolong life. Now they are gathered in Mordor itself, and, perversely, there is a strange quiet in Mirkwood. For a little while. Thranduil knows it will not last, and keeps ever sharper watch." He looked up at the sky. "The sun is sinking, and we must move on. It's perilous to linger here."
For half a day they returned the way that they had come, and then turned sharply east into a narrow cleft where a trickle of water darkened the rocky floor. As they followed its course it grew in width and depth, and soon became a proper stream and then a small river. The cleft widened into a deep valley filled with small trees, brush and vines, protected from the harsh eastern winds blowing from the Misty Mountains.
They trudged deeper into the valley, following the stream. Elladan said, "We are nearing the outlying areas of the Ettenmoors here. If you follow this way for two days, you will meet the Hoardale. We battled the forces of Angmar there many years ago, when the Witch-king launched his attack on Rivendell. If you truly mean to go that way, take extra caution. Wights still dwell in ruins from the old days, and the hill folk do not like strangers."
Halbarad nodded. "We know. But my father is sending more Rangers into the mountains as well, we hope to join up with them at the Refuge. Those Uruks had to come from somewhere."
Elladan's face darkened; Aragorn recognized the feral grimace of the hunt. "We have to leave you in a few days to meet our father, but when we're free, we'll return and join you for the kill."
Coming upon a grove of slender white birches, Elrohir turned among the trees to a small dell, grown over with coarse brush and wildflowers. Without hesitation the twin brothers stopped at a patch of nodding daisies. A break in the leaf cover let in the sunlight, glinting on their yellow faces. "Here, but the stone is covered now," said Elladan.
They dug with sticks to find the marker, buried in a shallow fall of leaves and dark earth, where the daisies smiled. The warm scent of the earth and the early autumn flowers hovered in the air. The others stood back when its edge came into view, and Aragorn knelt down in the rich earth and swept the stone clean with his hands. Two glyphs had been scratched into the rock: AA. He was silent for a long time. Then he rose and said to his companions, "I asked my mother once if she wished for me to return his bones. I would do it if she wished, but she said no. A warrior belongs near the field of battle where he fell, however remote or lonely it may be."
The others nodded in silence. Aragorn embraced his foster brothers. "You chose a good place. Thank you."
"We could not leave him near the Orcs," Elrohir said. "This valley is a place fit for a man to dwell, at least for a little while. You will find small game here, and there is the stream for water. About a half mile further it widens into a pool where you can fish. We stayed here for a while, then, until Beleg was stronger."
"Tell me what the Orcs did to his body."
Elrohir shook his head. "No, Estel, you don't want to know that."
"I do. If I had been here, it would have been my place as his son to bury him. You have done it in my stead, but I want to see it with your eyes. And as you well know, I have no illusions about Orcs."
So they told him in as few words as possible, and he listened white-faced and shaken, for all the preparation he had made in his mind. Halbarad cried out and hid his face in his hands.
A short distance from the grave, on the shores of the stream, they set up a simple camp, making a small shelter and stockpiling provisions and firewood. They placed traps and snares around the narrow valley to catch what meat they could, and foraged for early autumn fruits and roots. That evening Elrohir roasted trout, a welcome change from waybread and dried meat.
"Good fish, this." Halbarad licked the juices from his fingers. "And in celebration, I declare that no sad stories shall be told tonight."
His eyes alight, Elladan laughed. "I suspect I know what you want to hear instead."
Dismayed, Aragorn suspected he knew, too. "No."
"Oh, yes. It's time." Halbarad rubbed his hands together. "Tell me everything."
Elladan and Elrohir grinned at each other. Aragorn groaned; he knew that glee only too well.
Elladan began, "Let's just say that in the last two years, since a certain person left, a deep quiet has settled on the House of Elrond."
"Dull as a Dwarf dirge," muttered Elrohir.
"Young Estel, now—truth be told, he turned the whole valley upside down," Elladan said. "I was astonished at how much trouble a small child could make, but that was nothing to the exploits of a growing boy. There was the climbing stage."
"Up on the roof every day," Elrohir said. "Gilraen would rant and wail and beg him to come down. Very disobedient child."
Elladan said, "Then he fell. Broke an arm. That slowed him down a bit."
"Not much," Elrohir said. "Erestor might have some rose bushes left if that were so."
"Rose bushes?" Halbarad asked, raising his eyebrows at Aragorn.
Aragorn shrugged. "You will hear nothing from me."
"Yes, rose bushes," Elladan said. "He attacked the garden with his wooden sword, and whacked the roses to pieces. Our father said, 'Estel, why?'—a question many asked, many times, over these turbulent years, may I say—'why the roses, Erestor's pride and joy?'"
Halbarad chuckled. "I can't begin to guess."
"The lilies and irises were too flimsy, and the trees too big, he told us solemnly," Elrohir said, rolling his eyes. "A good workout means sparring with an opponent of equal skill."
"At least the training proved some good. He is tolerable with a blade." Elrohir's eyes danced. "We didn't have so much luck training him to the bow. Then he stole Glorfindel's horse."
"And lived to tell the tale," Elladan said. "Although I nearly didn't."
"There was the pretend training, of course, where Estel killed our brother."
"Fortunately, I was revived," Elrohir said. "Good thing, too, because I would have missed the next few years, and they were not to be missed."
"But the best part—"
Aragorn cleared his throat. "You can stop now."
"—the best part was when his whiskers began to grow," said Elladan, sliding across the ground away from Aragorn, who assumed a not-entirely pretended glower.
Halbarad grinned. "The only beard in the valley?"
"Just so," said Elrohir. "So enticing to the maidens! Our Estel did not remain a virgin very long."
"Be quiet," Aragorn hissed.
"You never breathed a word of this," said Halbarad accusingly.
"Discretion is the Elvish way," said Aragorn, "although you would never know it by the example these two set."
"Just a bit of brotherly teasing, Estel."
Aragorn began to laugh. "The three of you! I should have known better than to travel to the middle of nowhere with such a group."
Elladan threw a twig at him. "You deserve it." Elrohir jumped on him and pushed him to the ground as they began one of the brotherly wrestling matches that once were daily events in Rivendell. "Halbarad!" Aragorn said, still laughing "Take the other one!"
After a bout of rough-housing the four of them caught their breath, and Halbarad said, "How do you tell them apart, anyway?"
"Oh, it's easy when you know them. This one tormented me endlessly as a boy, and he took over when I got older."
Elladan and Elrohir left three days later. "We promised to escort our father," Elladan said, but he would not say where. Aragorn knew better than to press him.
As he had expected, Halbarad wasted little time to bring up the subject of Arwen. As they prepared their midday meal, he said, "All right, out with it."
Aragorn did not pretend to misunderstand him. What shall I tell him? About the rosy tips of her fingers that I could kiss all night? Her warm laugh? "What do you want to know?"
"How long has this been going on?"
"Nothing is going on—now. She has spurned me. But to answer your question, we met just before I left Rivendell two years ago."
"I suppose it was not unrelated."
"No, in truth, it was not."
"You must marry some day, you know."
"I cannot marry her."
"Of course not."
Halbarad's ready agreement wounded his heart and pride. He lowered his eyes and winced. "Don't make it harder."
"Harder! As if you needed any help! Elrond's daughter!" Halbarad snorted. "Do you ever choose the easy way?"
Aragorn huffed a short laugh. "No, I suppose not." He looked into his friend's face. "So now you know. But truly, my friend, I do not wish to speak of it."
"Why doesn't that surprise me," grumbled Halbarad. But he held his tongue.
As the days passed, they spoke little, but at night around the fire Aragorn softly sang or chanted the ancient lays in the tongue of the High Elves. Once he returned briefly to the place of his father's death, and Halbarad followed behind in silence.
The night before they left, Aragorn brought Narsil in its worn scabbard to the grave and drew the broken, bare blade over the stone marking his father's resting place. "The Sword of Elendil, the only link I have with this man who made me what I am. I came to a grave looking for answers to unanswerable questions, I suppose."
Halbarad laid his hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "I suspect that Arathorn went looking for those answers, too, once upon a time."
"But he knew his own father, knew always who he was, knew from childhood that he would carry this sword and have this destiny. I, however—" He laughed in bitterness. "Am I Aragorn, or Estel?"
"Both," said Halbarad. He squeezed Aragorn's shoulder. "And Anborn, don't forget. And maybe a few other names as well." He grinned. "Besides being a damned nuisance."
The laughter felt good.
Aragorn knelt at the grave with Narsil gripped in his right hand. Slashing the sharp edge across his palm, Aragorn let his blood fall onto the two glyphs carved into the rock.
"Elrohir said the earth remembers his blood," he said to Halbarad. "Now may it remember the father and the son together."
That night, the dreams came back.
The horse's fierce strength flows beneath him. He shouts a challenge to the Orcs in his path; the monster leers as he swings his studded club. Wolves howl. Then, blackness, terror, a crushing, strangling grip. He throws his arms wide and cries out, "Beleg!"
Strong arms shook him. "Aragorn! Aragorn, wake up!"
Gasping for breath, he opened his eyes. In the dull glow of the dying embers, a dark shape loomed. He struck out.
"Aragorn, it's me, Halbarad. Wake up!"
He clutched his sweating brow and tried to quiet his racing heart. "Ai! Forgive me. More of these horrible dreams." He sat up and leaned against Halbarad's broad shoulders. He struggled to clear his mind.
"I had trouble waking you," said Halbarad. "You were screaming as if you had met death itself."
"Perhaps I did," he murmured. "Perhaps I did."
He stayed awake for the remainder of the night, staring into the night. In the morning he said, "Halbarad, it's time to go. I have found what I can find here. The rest of the tale lies elsewhere."
Note: See "Horse Thief" in "Many Guises and Many Names" and Gwynnyd's "Lighting Fires" for more tales of Estel's childhood.