A Star in Midwinter by cairistiona
Past Featured StorySummary: A young man's journey to belonging.  A Mettarë story of the Dunedain.
Categories: Third Age - Pre LOTR Characters: Aragorn, Elladan, Elrohir, Halbarad, Original Character
Genres: Action, Angst, Drama
Language: English
Warnings: None
Challenges:
Series: Days of the Ranger
Chapters: 10 Completed: Yes Word count: 30084 Read: 64670 Published: 12/17/09 Updated: 12/25/09

1. Chapter 1 - On the Outside Looking In by cairistiona

2. Chapter 2 - Mettarė Interrupted by cairistiona

3. Chapter 3 - Teach Me to be a Warrior by cairistiona

4. Chapter 4 - Howls in the Night by cairistiona

5. Chapter 5 - Of Fell Winters, Chickens and Small Boys by cairistiona

6. Chapter 6 - Winds of Winter by cairistiona

7. Chapter 7 - How Long Can a Blizzard Last? by cairistiona

8. Chapter 8 - I Would Never Look by cairistiona

9. Chapter 9 - The Light of Hope by cairistiona

10. Epilogue - Chieftain's Call by cairistiona

Chapter 1 - On the Outside Looking In by cairistiona
Author's Notes:
With grateful thanks to Inzilbeth and Estelcontar for their beta'ing.

Chapter 1 - On the Outside Looking In

Near Deadman’s Dike, T.A. 2990z88;

Denlad huddled alone in the doorway of the small cottage, watching as women and not a few children hurried back and forth, arms laden with wood that they dumped in a huge pile in the center of the small village. They were singing and laughing as they went, songs of a good harvest and a good spring to come, and bantering and teasing as one or another dropped a piece of wood or tripped over a skirt or ran into someone else in the chaotic glee of the day. The men took the wood from the little ones with indulgent smiles, and then placed it with great deliberation, arranging it with a care that surprised Denlad, but then he supposed that building up a bonfire that would burn brightly and evenly for many hours of Mettarë celebration was a thing that took much skill. But the men seemed to look as though they approached the task as something almost sacred.

He wondered if he should help the men as they arranged the logs. He didn’t know much about building bonfires. He and his mother had never had need of one, and there was a sort of aura about the men’s actions that seemed to point to something deeper than just piling up wood.  The women and children seemed to be moving in a dance to music that only they could hear. Skip along, run along, pick up the logs and hand them up. Turn and dash and do it again. Were he to step forward to join them would be to break the song, ruin the dance. So he simply watched from the shadows of his covered doorway, wishing... wondering what it must be like to be a part of things...

He tucked his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, hunching his shoulders against the cold wind that whistled around the corner and plucked at the fur edging around his collar. Despite the chill, Denlad was warm, warmer than he ever remembered being. It was a fine coat, this. Sheepskin with a hood lined with beaver fur and trimmed with the softest rabbit fur. Aragorn had given it to him, and a finer gift he had never received in his nineteen years of living, unless it be this little cottage at the edge of this village so filled with happy folk.

Denlad had lived here for nearly a week, and he barely knew any of their names.

He watched the men. He spotted one he recognized–the fierce warrior, Halbarad, who rode always at Aragorn’s side, now working on the very top of the pile of wood. He was broad in the shoulder and had a wild mane of black hair that the wind whipped back and forth, in and out of his face. Even from where Denlad stood, he could see the deep-set fiery eyes, the high brow. He was a leader of sorts, this man, and seemed to have no end of confidence. He did not have quite the lordly bearing of Aragorn, but somehow Denlad felt more at ease around the Chieftain than he did Halbarad. Halbarad’s intense demeanor made Denlad feel too small, too clumsy, too young. He feared that those intense eyes would measure him and always find him wanting.

He tore his eyes from Halbarad and all the unease the man stirred in him and looked instead for the other man he had met: Dirhael. A kind man, in his elder years though his back was still straight and strong and his eyes alight with merriment. He had an even kinder wife named Ivorwen, a generous soul who seemed bent on feeding him more food than he could ever eat in a lifetime. Denlad had felt immediately felt drawn to them both; it was impossible not to like them.

He looked about carefully, but Dirhael was nowhere in sight. Likely staying in his warm cottage and letting the younger folk do the hard work. Wise of him, Denlad thought. In fact, it seemed Dirhael’s hoary head was packed with more wisdom than anyone could ever know. Denlad guessed that he was a sort of elder of the village, a man to whom it seemed even Aragorn deferred, though Aragorn was the Chieftain over all of them. It confused Denlad, a little. It seemed to him that a Chieftain need submit to no man, but then he supposed he had little knowledge on which to base that. If the Dúnedain Chieftain showed respect to the elder men of the village, then Denlad would as well. It would be no chore, he thought, showing deference to such a Dúnadan as Dirhael.

"Dúnadan," he said carefully, still getting used to a term he had never heard as a lad growing up, although Aragorn told him that his mother had been of that line.

Why had she never told him?

He sighed as sorrow stabbed at him. His mother... he still could not really bring himself to believe she was dead. But she was, her troubled life ended from some wasting disease and long fever that took her from him by agonizing inches over the summer and fall. Now her bones lay beneath an ancient pine tree on a farm far to the east, beyond the Weather Hills, a place that had been Denlad’s world from the age of seven until a week ago, when at nineteen he had buried his mother. He had sat long by the pitiful earthen mound, immersed in a tempest of grief, and into that storm Aragorn and Halbarad had ridden and found him. Aragorn was no stranger: his yearly visits to their farm, to check on his mother Denlad always supposed, were one of the few high points of Denlad’s life. Each year, grey eyes smiled and a deep voice called out to him, "How is my mighty warrior?" And each year, Denlad had run bashfully away, too afraid to speak.

But this time Denlad did not run. He was too exhausted, and to ashamed at being caught in his weeping. Aragorn had knelt beside the grave, tears in his eyes, and bid Denlad come, if the mighty warrior was ready, and Denlad realized he was, that he had to be, for there was nothing left for him there.

And so he had packed his few belongings, including two chickens in a crate and a gaunt, doe-eyed cow that still gave good milk. The chickens they strapped onto Halbarad’s mount, and the cow they tied by the lead to Halbarad’s saddle. Denlad had stuffed the rest of his meager belongings–some clothes, a teapot, a few dishes and his one prized possession: a battered and torn book–into a sack they hung from Aragorn’s saddle. Denlad climbed behind Aragorn on a great brown horse already turning shaggy for winter, and they had ridden back to this settlement, a journey of two days.

And now this was his world.

He swallowed the lump in his throat, then retreated into his cottage and shut the door.

"Make it your own," Aragorn had said, his eyes kind as he ushered Denlad into the tiny house in this settlement near what had once been called Fornost. Dirhael had offered a cot in his home, but Denlad had insisted he need not live with Dirhael and Ivorwen. Their place was not much bigger than this, and Ivorwen had nearly every corner of it filled with loom and spinning wheel and yarns. Dirhael barely had room for a chair in a corner by the fireplace. There was little room for another.

And besides, Denlad was adamant that he would be a burden to no one. Indeed, he had given the cow into Ivorwen’s keeping against the gift of the cottage, although he kept his chickens for himself, since they were nearly pets. So Aragorn had again smiled, in understanding and approval, and together they had cleared out the dust and cobwebs of this cottage. It had all of one room. There was a fireplace, and a bed, which had, thanks to Ivorwen, a feather pillow and straw-filled mattress and soft warm blankets. There was a table and a chair, and shelves for his dishes and larder, which at the moment consisted of two plates, two mugs, his mother’s iron soup pot and teapot, a small box of tea and a bowl of apples. A pitcher and bowl stood on a stand, with a small cupboard below it to store his chamber pot during the day. There was a flagstone floor and stone walls, the crumbling mortar of which Denlad had already started to repair. In the back was a small covered porch and a coop where the chickens now resided. Down a short slope a little spring-fed stream gurgled over rocks on its way further south. Up at the top of the hill was the spring proper, with a springhouse built over it, but it was behind Dirhael’s house and Denlad did not figure on using it. He did plan to plant a garden in the back next year, close to that little stream so he could water the plants easily. Downstream a little ways beyond the stream, so it would not foul the water, was his privy.

So, cot, coop, stream and privy... this then was his home. And this village, with its strangers and their grey eyes and dark hair like his mother’s but so very different from his own blue eyes and blonde hair. They looked at him, measuring him, kind but reserved. Friendly but cautious. Accepting him because Aragorn accepted him.

But he felt their doubt, their unease in suddenly finding a fatherless stranger in their midst, and the pain of it was keen.

He walked to the fireplace and put another log on the grate, then filled his tea pot from the pitcher and hung it on the hook to boil. The fire crackled and popped and grew warm enough for him to shed his coat. He hung it carefully on a peg he had fashioned out of a cedar branch and pounded into the space between two stones. Beside it was another peg, for hanging whatever else he might see fit. A cloak, perhaps, like many of the men wore. A cloak with a pin shaped like a many-rayed star. Maybe someday he might have one of those, although he knew not how. They seemed to be something earned or conferred upon the men, probably by birthright. He touched the peg, then gripped it tightly and yanked it out.

He had no birthright. These people with their questioning eyes need not drive it home, for he already knew who he was: the bastard child of a woman with no honor. Not even Lord Aragorn’s kindness would ever change that.

His eyes stung. He bowed his head and shut his eyes tightly, but there was no escaping. He did not belong. He slumped to the floor and drew his knees to his chest and hugged them tightly, burying his face against them.

He did not belong, and never would.

~~~

A knock on the door jolted him out of his sorrow. He swiped at his cheeks and dug the heels of his hands against his eyes as he scrambled to his feet. He opened the door, and there stood Aragorn, his face grave but his grey eyes shining with that kindness that had drawn Denlad like a moth to a flame from the first time he had seen Aragorn when he was all of nine years old.

"My lord," he bowed, ducking his head as he stepped back. "Please, come in."

"Thank you," Aragorn said softly as he entered. "But please, Denlad. Do not be so formal. Call me Aragorn."

"Yes, my–I mean, Aragorn."

Aragorn’s arms were filled with a large basket in which rested an oddly-shaped bundle. He set the basket with a thump on the table. He did not open it but instead looked around the small room. "I see you’ve been hard at work at the mortar. I’m sorry about that. All the cottages here are crumbling around our ears. It is an ancient place, on the outskirts of a city that was once great but was destroyed by evil. Thus it is that no one comes near this place, which makes it all the better for keeping our settlement hidden from those we do not count as friends. But the other side of that opportune coin is that the buildings have largely fallen into ruin."

"I don’t mind. The roof is sound, and the windows tight."

Aragorn smiled. "You speak wisely. I’ve often thought that there is no greater blessing in the winter than a good fire under a tight roof."

Denlad nodded, and in the quiet moment that fell, tried frantically to think of something else to say.  He was saved by the sight of steam rising from the teapot. "Would you like some tea? I-I was just getting ready to make some."

"That would be most welcome on this cold day, thank you." Aragorn pulled the chair away from the table and sat down to watch as Denlad hurried to gather mugs and tea. He poured carefully. "I’m afraid I have no sugar or milk."

"I like it plain," Aragorn smiled. "But if you need milk, do not hesitate to speak with Ivorwen. Now that you’ve given her your cow, she has three milk cows and more milk than she can use."

"I will," Denlad promised, though he planned on doing nothing of the sort. He picked up his mug and perched on the edge of his cot, since Aragorn sat in the only chair. He would have to set about fashioning himself another... he could make it out of downed branches from the woods beyond the stream. He was good at that, making furniture from saplings and small branches. Maybe he might somehow earn his keep that way, if people needed such furnishings...

"How are the chickens?" Aragorn asked, interrupting his wandering thoughts.

"I think they like their coop. Now that they’ve settled in, I found two eggs out there this morning."

Aragorn smiled again. "I’m glad. What are their names?"

Denlad felt his cheeks color. "I just call the one Red and the other Copper."

"Apt names. You know, my mother loved chickens. When I still lived with her in Rivendell, she enjoyed keeping a few. So when I was a bit older than you, living on my own for the first time with my people, I had three chickens I kept in a coop much like yours. It gave me a connection to something comforting and familiar. You’d be surprised how well they kept my homesickness at bay. Many of the chickens you see around this settlement... the white ones, anyway... came from those original three, in fact. My grandmother thought I was daft, for no Chieftain she could recall ever kept his own chickens." His smile widened. "She kept trying to get me to let one of the women take care of them, but I refused. When I was here, which was little enough in those days, I took care of my birds. It was silly, probably, but I enjoyed taking care of them. They demanded so little."

"I like feeding mine. Watching them eat."

"It is relaxing," Aragorn agreed. "And when most days are spent fighting orcs or trolls or even settling tedious disputes between neighbors over who should repair the wall between them, it’s nice to step out your back door and think about nothing more dangerous than swinging your arm around spreading their feed. Halbarad thinks I’m insane."

Denlad didn’t know exactly what to say to that, for he certainly held no such thoughts of Aragorn. But he did not want to disagree with Halbarad or seem to think ill of him, so he merely smiled and took another sip of tea. They sat quietly, drinking the good strong tea, and Denlad grew more and more nervous, wondering why Aragorn ever took an interest in his mother and in him, wondering why Aragorn was here now, wondering if he really cared that much about chickens, wondering what was in the bundle, wondering... well, wondering if there would ever be a day when he did not go around wondering what to make of everything and worrying over making some mistake of protocol because he didn’t know any better.

"Have you slept well, Denlad?" Aragorn suddenly asked. "Are you staying warm enough at night? Nights have been so cold of late–it seems we might be in for a truly wretched cold snap, from the feel of the wind."

"Yes, very well. I’m sleeping very well. And warm, yes. I’m plenty warm," Denlad stammered then realized he was babbling, so he took a sip of tea that was too hot and nearly choked.

Aragorn seemed not to notice Denlad’s nervousness, or if he did was kind enough not to make issue of it. Instead, he quietly reached over and tugged the basket closer to him and untied the knot on the bundle within. "Ivorwen sent these over for you." The blanket fell away and revealed a ham, a loaf of bread, three snowy white leeks tied together with string, five potatoes, a small head of cabbage, a smaller bundle wrapped in white linen and two dark brown crockery jars stopped with wide circles of cork, one large and one small. "The small one has butter; the large, soup. There’s sticky buns in the white bundle. She thinks you too thin. She thinks everyone too thin," he added with a smile. "Do you know how to cook the leeks and potatoes?"

"Yes... I used to fix them for my mother and me," Denlad said as he set down his mug and hurried to the table, unable to believe such bounty was all for him. He had eaten meals at their home when he first arrived, but had always made sure not to eat too much lest they think him a glutton. That she would have sent over so much... he shook his head. "I will have to thank her. She has been so generous to me. This is too great a gift."

Aragorn cocked his head, his gaze a little quizzical. "It is not so great, really. We share what we have, so that none might want."

Denlad nodded without speaking. Such generosity was foreign to his experience. He was more used to being run out of villages, chased by bullies, shied at with stones and jeered at as the son of a whore, the blonde-haired bastard. He shook off the dark memories with effort. Those places, those people... they could not have been Dúnedain, he was certain, for he could not imagine these people being so cruel. He ran a finger along the rim of the smaller of the two crocks, then picked it up and carefully opened it. A ball of butter, its pale yellow seeming to glow, lay within. He carefully closed the crock and then opened the other and breathed in the aroma of vegetable soup, still warm from Ivorwen’s cooking fire. "It is early yet, but would you like some?"

"No, Denlad. I am still very full from breakfast. Save that for your dinner, for Ivorwen was right–you are too thin. I deem you did not eat very well this past summer, from the looks of your gums. Am I right?"

Denlad nodded. "I was too busy caring for my mother... I didn’t get the crops in, nor the garden. Usually we have tomatoes, carrots, all those things. I had some potatoes and turnips and an apple or two left from the fall before, and whatever I could hunt, but I gave most of it to my mother, hoping..." His voice trailed away. He did not want to think about her. Nor about the nights he had lain in bed, terrified that his mother would die and then he too would die a slow death of starvation for not having been able to properly prepare for winter. That such a fate nearly came to pass but for Aragorn’s kindness still woke him shuddering in the night.

"Fear not. We’ll get you back to full health. And in the meantime, come out and join us. We are readying for tonight’s Mettarë celebration and you won’t want to miss that."

"I... I don’t know what to do."

"Just watch. Listen. Enjoy. Soak it all in so that in the cold miseries of bleak winter your heart will be warmed by the memory of song and feasting around the fire." Aragorn rose, gave Denlad’s arm a squeeze, then walked to the door. Before letting himself out, he turned. "I know it feels lonely and awkward right now, but this shall pass. You belong with us, with your people." He gave Denlad a smile, then left.

TBC

Chapter 2 - Mettarė Interrupted by cairistiona

Chapter 2 - Mettarë Interrupted

"How is the lad doing?" Ivorwen asked as she handed her grandson a sticky bun.

"I cannot be sure," Aragorn said, licking honey from his fingers after he took a large bite. Full from breakfast he may still be, but he could always fill in the corners with one of Ivorwen’s sticky buns. "He is polite and respectful... to a fault. He seemed cheerful but his eyes were red and swollen from weeping. I dared not say anything for fear of embarrassing him, but I suspect he is hiding much sorrow behind a brave front."

"Of course he is! Wouldn’t you be, if you were all of nineteen years old and you had just buried your mother and then a mysterious chieftain swoops down on you and hauls you off to another kingdom?"

"I did not ‘swoop down’ on him," Aragorn protested. "And this is not another kingdom, nor I am a stranger. I have known him since he was nine years old."

"Known him, or simply known of him," Dirhael commented. He blew across his cup of tea. "There’s quite a difference between the two, you know. He has only seen you once a year, and briefly at that. I daresay he likely still wonders why you so regularly came by his home."

"I went to check on him, mostly. Knowing his mother was far from a paragon of motherly virtue, I feared for him."

"Dirhael’s right, dear one," Ivorwen said. "You may hold no end of compassion in your heart for the boy, but the fact remains that you’re all but a stranger to him. One visit a year to a shy little boy would not forge much in the way of familial bonds."

"He always has been shy," Aragorn admitted. He took another bite and chewed slowly. "Was I wrong in asking him to come home with us? I did not feel I could leave him there, alone. He is nineteen, and man enough to take care of himself, but that farm was in poor shape. He had nursed his mother so long that he had been unable to care for himself or the needs of the farm. I feared he had not enough provender to make it through the winter."

"He came of his own free will," Dirhael said with a shrug. "It was not as though you and Halbarad hogtied him and slung him across the withers of your horse and hauled him back a prisoner."

"No, he came along of his own volition."

"Well then," Ivorwen said as she sat down at the table and helped herself to a sticky bun. "Time will take its course. Denlad will come out of his shell, when he is ready. And a mighty warrior he will be, as you say."

"Have you foreseen it?" Aragorn asked.

She reached out and touched Aragorn’s cheek. "Not in the way I did you, dear one. I meant only that I like the steadfast cut of his chin, and the clear gaze in his eyes when he does dare look up from studying his boots."

"Boots!" Aragorn exclaimed. He dropped the sticky bun and stood up. "I forgot to pick up his boots from Maevor. I gave him an old pair of mine, to remake for Denlad and he said he would have them ready by Mettarë. I must go."

He hurried out into the cold, pulling his cloak over his shoulders as he went. He held the cloak’s edges together instead of pinning it, for he hadn’t far to go.

But before he made it three steps, a child’s cry of glee turned into an entire chorus. "Aragorn! Aragorn!! There’s Aragorn!!" Before he knew it, he was surrounded by children, hugging his legs, pulling on his elbows. One intrepid young man even climbed up his back to hang from his shoulders. He staggered, the cloak fell off and between the weight of the boy on his back and the children knocking into his legs, he fell gracelessly to the ground, buried in giggling children. He laughed and started tossing them away, only to have them bound back on top of him with shrieks of delight. He finally got to his hands and knees and three little girls immediately climbed on his back. He gave them a short horsey-back ride, then eased them off and straightened up. "Enough, little ones! There will be more time for this later, but for now, you must let me finish my errands." He mollified the groans and protestations with a generous distribution of the peppermints he tended to carry in his pockets when he was home. He ruefully admitted that it was very likely said habit was responsible for leaving him prey to such ambushes.

The children ran off, shrieking at the tops of their lungs, and Aragorn retrieved his cloak. Fortunately it was still in one piece, his pin still intact and attached. He slung it over his shoulders once more and jogged to Maevor’s house. After knocking, he let himself in.

"Aragorn! I was wondering when you would be coming by. Cut it a bit close, didn’t you?" Maevor said. He was a tall man, spare to the point of gauntness, but he always had a ready smile.

"Are they finished?"

"Of course," Maevor said, appearing insulted that Aragorn even asked. "I hope they fit the lad. I don’t like refitting boots for someone without them coming in themselves. You say his feet are the same size as yours, so I can only hope you are as good a judge of foot size as you are at killing orcs."

"I looked at his boots one night on our way here, while he slept. They were falling to pieces but even so, the one I tried on fit my foot like a glove, so we should be all right." He took the boots Maevor handed him. They now had new heels, new soles and had been cleaned and oiled until they felt as soft as butter. "Ah, they’re beautiful. I’m sure Denlad will be pleased."

"He better be, seeing as you’re paying for it. You are paying, are you not? Being Chieftain and all, you may take in all the strays you wish, but I have mouths of my own to feed."

Aragorn grinned. One of those mouths belonged to the little monkey who had climbed up his back moments ago. "Of course." He dug into his pocket for his coin bag, dropping a few peppermints as he did. They clattered to the floor before he could catch them.

"With coin, I hope?" Maevor added, eyeing his candy-strewn floor.

Aragorn gave him a wry look as he handed over enough coin to cover the cost of the boots and a generous tip, plus a handful of peppermints for Maevor’s children. Maevor smiled broadly. "A pleasure doing business with the Chieftain, always!"

Aragorn was tempted to tell him to keep the mints on the floor, but he bent down and scooped them up, tossing them to a dog outside the door as he left. He kept the boots under his cloak until he reached his own cottage, although he saw no sign of Denlad. Once safely inside, he pulled out the boots and placed them on the table, then dug through the trunk on the end of his bed until he found a blanket that Ivorwen had given him years ago, one that he had yet to actually use. It was dyed a beautiful blue and was soft as swans down, made from the finest wool, and he felt badly for never having used it but it was the fifth or perhaps sixth such blanket she had made for him. Aragorn, and indeed the entire village, would never suffer from chilblains in winter if Ivorwen had anything to do with it.

He unfolded the blanket, giving it a sniff. It smelled faintly of cedar but thankfully not of mildew. He spread it out on the table and set the boots on it. He started to pull the corners of the blanket around it, then stopped and hurried to his chest of drawers in the corner of the room. He opened the bottom drawer and pulled out a set of good woolen hose and a pair of wool socks, neither of which, like the blanket, he had ever chanced to use. He shook his head. With Ivorwen so diligent about making sure he had no shortage of clothing and blankets, he really needed to pack up all these extra things and dole them out to those in settlements that did not have an Ivorwen to keep the people well supplied.

He held the hose up, trying to decide if they’d be so long on Denlad as to be useless and decided they wouldn’t be. Denlad was taller than Halbarad, and although he was not quite as tall as Aragorn, he very nearly matched him in height. The hose might be a little long but they should fit him well enough. He folded them back up and tucked them between the two boots, and tucked the socks inside the shaft of one boot. Then he finally pulled the corners of the blanket up over the boots and tied them off with one of his sword belts, which, like the blanket, was one of about a dozen he had received as gifts. He hoped that whoever had given him this one wouldn’t recognize it hanging around Denlad’s waist. He looked at it again, trying to remember–yes, it was Elladan who had given it to him. Well, if his brother took exception to Aragorn giving it away, he would simply thump some sense into the hard half-Elven head.

Satisfied with that portion of the gift, he turned his attention to the sword he had been working on for the last week. It was one of Dirhael’s old ones, for, much as the Dúnedain had lavished gifts on Aragorn since he returned from his errantries to the south, no one could afford to give him an extra sword. But Dirhael had provided one, left from when he was a young warrior, and though it sported a few tiny blooms of rust where the shoulder met the guard, the blade was still straight and firm where the tang joined the hilt. There was no wobble, and the blade was balanced well. Aragorn had polished away the rust and honed its edge, and now it was as fine a sword as any young Dúnadan could desire. It was not a blade of great story, but Aragorn had no doubt that Denlad would provide it plenty of chances for valor. Aragorn gave it a few practice swings, then slid it into the scabbard that Halbarad had fashioned. Halbarad was far more skilled at leatherwork than Aragorn, and the scabbard was a fine one. Halbarad had even tooled the star of the Dúnedain into the leather.

Aragorn smiled, humming a little as he put the scabbard on the table with the boots. Between these gifts, and the tunics that Halbarad’s wife Miriel had fashioned, Denlad would be as well turned out as any Dúnadan. But two vital items still remained: a proper cloak, and a star of the Dúnedain. Turning again to his trunk, Aragorn pulled out the folded cloak that Ivorwen had made for Denlad. He placed it beside the sword, then again returned to the trunk and pulled out a small cedar box. He opened the hinged lid and there within, nestled on a bed of blue velvet, lay one of the stars of the Dúnedain. He fingered it, watching how the light caught at it, awash in memory of the man who had so proudly worn it. Aearon had been his name, and he had been lost at the age of nineteen to a wolf attack. Nineteen... so young... the same age as Denlad was now. Sorrow touched Aragorn suddenly, as he thought of the life Denlad was entering into, a life hard and fraught with perils known and unknown, a life of a people fighting for their very survival. Was it fair to Denlad to ask him to live this life? Was it truly Denlad’s destiny?

He wished he could be more certain.

That Dúnedain blood flowed through Denlad’s veins, Aragorn had no doubt, for he had known of the family of his mother, and Númenórean blood was strong in them. But what of his father? Who had he been? The only evidence they had of his father’s lineage was Denlad’s blonde hair and blue eyes. Those could have come from any number of bloodlines, from the House of Hador to the Rohirrim to who knew what house of Men. Aragorn’s instinctive guess was that Denlad came from the House of Hador, for some of the folk of Marach had settled in small numbers in Eriador, and in the pockets of the hills one could still find families with the height and joyful bearing of that house. Sometimes it seemed, despite the constant sorrow in Denlad’s eyes, that Aragorn caught a flash of that joy that might mark his heritage. But he supposed they would never really know. "Whatever your blood, Denlad, may you do it great honor," Aragorn whispered, then closed the box and added it to the growing pile on the table.

He stepped back, satisfied that all was finally ready. He would give these things to Denlad tonight, as part of the ceremonies. It was not the normal course of events for Mettarë, to honor anyone so with special treatment, but Aragorn felt strongly that the young man needed that formal assurance that here at last were the people with whom he belonged, with whom he could build the rest of his life. And he needed to reassure those in the settlement who may still hold doubts about Denlad’s character, who were troubled by the fact that Denlad had no father. If Denlad were to live a full life among them, there could be no shadow cast upon him because of the failings of those who came before him.

Aragorn couldn’t hold back a bitter sigh. No, as a people, they could hardly cast stones at anyone because of the shortcomings of an ancestor, not when the very line of their Kings had such failings of its own.

Aragorn had spoken to Dirhael on the matter of Mettarë, speaking long into the night about Denlad and his heritage and the mysteries surrounding him. Dirhael had given his blessing, as had Halbarad and the other leaders among the Dúnedain. But far weightier in his decision-making had been Ivorwen’s joyful tears when he told her of his plans. She may not admit to foresight being the reason she was drawn to Denlad, but her heart was obviously taken with the boy, and that was all the reassurance Aragorn needed that he was doing the right thing.

A clatter of hooves outside caught his attention. He glanced up in time to see the black flash of a horse’s hindquarters race past, then another, this one a chestnut, follow. Aragorn smiled. He’d know the leg of that second rider anywhere. He hurried to the door and called out, "Elladan! Elrohir! Welcome, my brothers!"

Elrohir, son of Elrond, slid down from his horse. He tied his horse to the railing on the lee side of Aragorn’s porch and embraced Aragorn, and moments later his twin brother, Elladan, did the same.

"How are you, Aragorn?" Elladan asked.

"Cold. This wind bites with teeth stronger than a warg’s. Let’s go inside." Aragorn kept his arms around both brothers’ waists and walked them to the front door. "Are you here for Mettarë? I hope you can stay–tonight will be special even for Mettarë and I need to tell you all about it."

Elladan entered without answering, but Elrohir looked curiously at him. "And what is it that is so special about this one? Halbarad’s wife have another baby?"

Aragorn laughed. That Halbarad and Miriel now had four children was a constant source of teasing, for most of the Dúnedain were not quite so fertile as they. Elladan often quipped that Halbarad and Miriel need only look at each other and nine months later, out came another baby. "No, she is not, or at least wasn’t the last I talked to Halbarad this morning." He told them about Denlad.

"You brought him here? And he knows who you are?" Elrohir asked, his eyebrows rising. "Do you think that wise?"

Before Aragorn could defend himself, Elladan interrupted. "Our little brother may have a soft heart but he does not have a soft head. If he deemed it wise to bring this lad here, then we cannot stand in judgment of him."

Elrohir looked unconvinced, but he finally shrugged. "So be it. What do your people think? Halbarad, Dirhael? The rest of the settlement?"

"Dirhael has given me his full blessing, as has Ivorwen. She claims it is not foresight, but she has said he will be a mighty warrior, and my own heart has always whispered the same, from the first moment I saw him."

"Which was when?" Elrohir asked.

"Ten years ago now."

"Oh, so he is not exactly a stray you plucked sight unseen from the gutter."

"No, he is not. I’ve seen him yearly for all this time."

"Enough of your interrogations, Elrohir," Elladan said. "Estel is, as measured by the lives of Men, older than we are now. I think we can trust him to know what he is doing."

"Thank you," Aragorn said. "You’ve always been my favorite brother, Elladan."

Elrohir snorted and threw himself down in Aragorn’s favorite chair. "Tell him the bad news, then, oh highly favored one. His opinion of you might well fall from the rarified air."

"Elrohir is right, Aragorn, for we bring tidings that I fear will interfere with your plans."

Aragorn’s heart fell as he looked at his brothers’ sober faces. "Orcs?"

"No," Elladan said. "Not this time. Wolves. Along the Great East Road near Chetwood and Staddle and Archet. They have been attacking any party smaller than a dozen for the past week. No one has died, yet, but there have been several people severely mauled. The folk of Breeland need our help."

"Very well. I will gather what men I can and we will ride forth within the hour. It is a long ride, but hopefully we can be there by morning, with a short camp during the night west of the Weather Hills." Aragorn looked over at the gifts on the table and could not hold back a grimace.

Mettarë would have to go on without them this year.

TBC

Chapter 3 - Teach Me to be a Warrior by cairistiona

Chapter 3 - Teach Me to be a Warrior

A pall seemed to fall upon the settlement as the hoof beats of the men assigned to hunt down the wolves faded and left instead the silence of a winter afternoon that had only an hour before shimmered with anticipation and the joy of Mettarë. Now it just felt flat and cold and empty. Denlad stared down the road by which the men had left and shivered.

"Here now, Denlad, do not fear. ‘Tis not a bad game, hunting wolves, and Aragorn has men a’plenty," Dirhael said. "They’ll be back in a few days laden with fine wolf pelts to line the children’s coats and to lay on our cold floors to warm our bare feet this winter."

"I would have liked to have gone with them."

Dirhael laid his hand on Denlad’s shoulder and turned him toward his cottage. He held the door open and ushered him inside. "That’s to be commended, lad, but it could not be asked of you, so soon after your own troubles, and so new as you are to our family."

Denlad looked sharply at Dirhael.

"Aye, Denlad. You heard right. I said ‘family,’ and I meant it. You are a Dúnadan now. Actually, you always have been one, but for reasons of her own, your mother chose not to tell you of it. Our people are few, and scattered, and when we find another of our own, no matter where he lives or how he lives, whether high born or low, he is family. You are family. Never forget that."

Denlad could not speak, so he nodded and hoped that somehow Dirhael did not take his silence for ingratitude.

"Now come. While Aragorn is gone, I wish for you to stay with us."

"But you have no room..."

He held up a hand to forestall Denlad’s protests. "I have made room.  Not much, but there is now a cot for you near the fire, where you will be warm." 

"Dirhael, I cannot -"

"No, now hear me out. You are nineteen, and you have come young to manhood because of your hard life. Aragorn may be right in letting you have your freedom and privacy, but he is off hunting and when he is gone, I am in charge. And to my eyes, which see into the heart, you are still very much a boy in need of care. Your eyes are too big with sorrow to be left alone."

Denlad looked down, swallowing hard as he struggled to hold back tears. He felt Dirhael’s hand on his shoulder, turning him, and before he knew it he was held in the old man’s tight embrace, his tears staining Dirhael’s tunic.

"There now, lad. Let it out."

And Denlad did, losing himself in harsh, wracking sobs that shook him so he could barely stand. Dirhael guided him to the cot and sat beside him, still holding him, and so they sat until the tears no longer came and Denlad felt limp and drained. He hiccuped and then let out a shaky laugh. "Excuse me."

"You needed that, didn’t you, lad? The tears, that is, not the hiccup!"

Denlad nodded. He hated crying but he had to admit he felt better. Dirhael handed him a handkerchief, and he blew his nose. He looked around the room.  Ivorwen's loom was pushed further back toward the wall, and Dirhael's chair was now surrounded by baskets of yarn, baskets that had been beside the wall where the cot now sat.  

Dirhael smiled.  "It is tight, I'll grant you.  But this is only temporary, until the storm passes." 

"I thank you, Dirhael," Denlad said, realizing that there would be no point in arguing further.  "Where is Ivorwen?"

"She’s over with some of the other ladies of the settlement, figuring out how to save all the food that was prepared for the feast."

"But Aragorn said not to delay the feast."

"And what did I say about being in charge when he is gone?"

Denlad couldn’t help but laugh. He was beginning to understand why Aragorn deferred to Dirhael. Aside from being wise, the old man apparently was as stubborn as the day was long.

"We will celebrate Mettarë when the men return. In this weather even the roast boar will keep well, and the women can always make more pies and stew more vegetables and such. In the meantime, I think we could spend some time, you and I, working on your sword skills. I have several wooden practice swords that you can use. Have you used bow or sword before?"

"I have hunted with a bow occasionally, when we needed a stag. Mostly, though, I used snares. And I have a dagger. But I have never owned a sword."

"A Dúnadan needs a sword. Don’t worry; we’ll take care of that later. For now, let us go outside and I shall put you through such paces that you’ll be able to defeat Halbarad himself when he returns."

~~~

And that is exactly what Dirhael did. He worked Denlad until Denlad was certain his arm would fall off. By the time they finished, his right arm felt as lifeless and dead as his wooden sword. He had no idea sword work was so taxing, but he thought of the thick muscle cording Aragorn’s arms, and Halbarad’s, and he realized he had much work ahead of him. Now, sitting at Dirhael’s table, he massaged his forearm and looked ruefully at Dirhael. "Unless they chase the wolves all the way to the ends of Arda, I do not think I will have time to even come close to defeating Halbarad."

Dirhael grinned, his teeth flashing white against the salt-and-pepper of his beard. "That may be true, but you’ll at least have a head start on your training, so Halbarad will have no excuse to use that sharp tongue of his against you."

"He has a sharp tongue?"

"All bark, fear not. He has never actually bitten anyone’s head off, although he came close with Aragorn a time or two."

"He trained Aragorn?"

"Aye. Aragorn came to live with us when he was only a year or so older than you. Green as a grass snake, he was. He had been trained well in Rivendell but his experience in the true Wild was less than extensive. You’ll have to ask Halbarad to tell you of their first year together. The friendship they share now was forged in the fires of Halbarad’s anger."

"They fought?"

"No, no... nothing like that. Aragorn is far too mannerly for such. Elrond did nothing if not teach him how to accept authority. No, he did not openly rebel. It’s just that Halbarad scared the living daylights out of my grandson. Aragorn was raised in Rivendell, you see, from the tender age of two. They did not coddle him, exactly, but they tend to be more refined there than we are here. Halbarad teases and yells and is not above using, shall we say, gentle humiliation as a training tool. Suffice to say it was a rough first year for Aragorn."

"But he was Chieftain."

"Yes, he was, and Halbarad showed respect even while he berated him for small blunders. Halbarad has a unique gift in that he can upbraid you for an hour on how you’ll never make a warrior while at the same time leaving you glowing with pride–and laughing at his antics. You just watch Aragorn, see how he handles Halbarad now, and you’ll see what I mean."

"I will," Denlad said faintly. If he had been intimidated by Halbarad before, now he feared he would likely turn and run when Halbarad returned.

Dirhael poured them both some water and as he handed a tankard to Denlad, asked, "Denlad, I have a question for you, and please don’t be offended."

"You may ask me anything, sir. I won’t be offended." How could he, after being treated so kindly?

"How much education have you had? Formal education, that is. Sitting beneath a teacher or tutor who teaches you history and figures and reading and writing."

Denlad couldn’t meet Dirhael’s eyes. These people all seemed well-read, well educated; of course he would sound like an uneducated rube to them. He had owned no real books, only an old tattered copy of some bygone book of tales, missing more than half of its pages. He had found it in an attic of an old house they had lived in for a time before moving on. They had always moved on, never staying in one spot for long, chased from community to community when the people found out the ways in which his mother earned their keep. He never had opportunity for formal schooling. So he carried that book with him, from place to place, and taught himself to read. He still had the book even now, tucked under his mattress in his cottage.

"Ah, so it was like that, eh? Fear not. We have books and scrolls, more than you can probably finish reading in your lifetime. Rivendell is the seat of all lore in the North but we have our own treasure of knowledge, if smaller than the library of Master Elrond. So, in addition to learning sword work, you will learn of your people. Now, again, do not be offended, but I need to know. Can you read?"

"Yes, sir. I taught myself, out of an old book."

"Westron, I’m guessing."

Denlad nodded.

"Have you heard of Sindarin? The Elven-tongue?"

"I’m not sure," Denlad said. "Maybe if you said something in it, I might."

"How about if I sing part of a song. ‘A Elbereth Gilthoniel, silivren penna míriel,’" Dirhael sang.

Denlad frowned. "I have never heard that, but I did hear another that sounded a little like that one, once." He started singing softly, until memory stuttered and failed. His voice trailed off. "That’s all I can remember."

"Where did you hear it?"

"About four or five years ago, when Aragorn had come. I heard him singing it under his breath as he was unloading his packhorse."

"And that was the only time you heard it?"

Denlad nodded.

Dirhael’s eyebrows shot up. "You sang it perfectly, right down to the pronunciation and inflection. It is the Lay of Luthien... Aragorn sings it quite often, for reasons he may tell you someday but I cannot. That you picked it up so quickly, and remember it so well... that is a very impressive feat, my boy."

Denlad shrugged, embarrassed at the praise. It was just a song, after all. Songs tended to stick in his mind easily, even when he had no idea of their meaning.

Dirhael studied him, tapping his fingers slowly against the side of his mug. "So," he said slowly, "back to this book of yours... what was it about?"

"It was the story of an island, called Núm– Nu–"

"Númenor."

"Númenor," Denlad repeated. "That’s it. I didn’t have the first half of the book, only the back part of it. So I know that it was drowned in a mighty wave but I don’t know why. I do know that some people escaped on ships, and they came here. But I don’t know if it’s a true story or just a children’s tale."

"Do you know anything about the Valar?"

Denlad shook his head.

"Ilúvatar?"

Another head shake.

"The Faithful?"

Denlad shrugged helplessly.

Dirhael rubbed his face with his hand. "I can see I have my work cut out for me. Very well then, let me set at least one thing straight: Númenor was a real isle. You, my son, are at least partly Númenórean. Aragorn tells me your mother’s mother was nearly pure Númenórean, and her father half-Numenorean, so that would make you at least half Númenórean if not more."

"Oh." Denlad was a bit afraid to ask what significance there was in that.

"Do you know what that means?"

"No, sir," Denlad admitted.

"It means that you may have a longer life than most men. It depends also on your father’s heritage. If he had Númenórean blood as well, then you may very well have enough Númenórean blood to have long life. You may even if he was not Númenórean. Only time will tell."

A long lifespan sounded good to Denlad. "But I don’t look like you. I don’t have dark hair, or grey eyes."

"Aye, you don’t. But that really matters little–not all Númenóreans have dark hair and grey eyes, especially these days, although few have your light coloring even now. Regardless, you are who you are, and you will live to the end of your days, however long or short they are. How you choose to live those days remains the important thing."

Talk of who he was and his heritage made Denlad’s stomach hollow out, so he changed the subject. "What happened to Númenor?"

"The simple story is that it was drowned, because of the people’s disobedience. There is far more to it than I can tell you in a single setting, but they were unfaithful to Ilúvatar and the Valar, kneeling instead at the altar of Sauron."

"Sauron!"

"You’ve heard of him?"

"He is the Dark Lord? The same one that’s down..." Denlad pointed, hoping it was to the south.

"The same."

Denlad sat back. "And the Dúnedain... your people..."

"And yours, don’t forget," Dirhael interjected.

"And mine. They are descendent from those people, the ones on the ships? Why did they not drown with everyone else?"

"They were the Faithful. They remained true in their hearts to the Valar and Ilúvatar, which for now simply think of as the forces of good against Sauron’s evil. There’s far more to it than that, for they are the ones responsible for the creation of Arda. But that tale takes long to tell and still longer to fully understand, so suffice to say they allowed the Faithful to escape aboard those ships, nine in all. Ordinary folk, most of them, but the captains of that fleet were Elendil and his sons, Isildur and Anarion. They became great kings here in Arnor and Gondor. You most likely, like many of us, are descended from the folk on Elendil’s ships, or of those who perhaps followed Isildur north, for though he settled Gondor along with his brother Anarion, he later returned to the North, to rejoin his father Elendil."

Denlad sighed. "I can see I have much to learn about the world." He thought for a moment. "What of Aragorn? Is he descended from those same people, or is he perhaps even descended from Elendil himself? Is that why he’s Chieftain?"

Dirhael did not speak for a long moment. Instead, his eyes turned grave as they studied Denlad’s, probing him, seeming to search into his very soul.

"I have known you but for a week," Dirhael said, measuring his words. "But in that week, you have shown that you are kind, considerate. Intelligent. I think... yes, I believe you are trustworthy as well, for I have yet to see guile in your eyes."

Denlad swallowed, afraid to speak.

"What I am about to tell you must become your most closely held secret. The people in this settlement know, and there are trusted people beyond these borders who know what I am about to tell you. But should the information reach the ears of Sauron or his allies.... It must not happen. It is not yet time."

Denlad felt his heart bang oddly against his chest. He had no idea why, but he suddenly seemed to feel as though a weight were pressing hard upon his shoulders. "Do not tell me, then. I do not want to know."

Dirhael shook his head. "I have told you that I read hearts, and I read that you are both honest and valiant. Aragorn has told me the nickname he calls you. ‘Mighty Warrior’. The foresight given my line tells me that you will be that very thing, one day, and you will serve my grandson. It is because of this foreboding that I will tell you these things, that you may hide them in your heart, so they will be both a guard and a guide to you for the remainder of your days."

Denlad hardly dared breathe. He felt a doom pressing upon his soul. He wanted to run from it while at the same time it compelled him to embrace it. He felt like he was being torn, ripped away from his moorings. "Do not tell me," he whispered, pleading.

"Is that truly what your heart wants?"

"Yes," Denlad said, then shook his head. "No," he choked. He could not say what he wanted.

"Denlad, when Aragorn came to see you each year, what did you think?"

"I am not sure what you mean."

"Did you like it? Did you look forward to his visits? Or did he frighten you. Make you dread his coming."

"I-I liked it. Every year, in the fall, when I knew he would be coming, I would work long into the night to make sure the farm looked as good as I could possibly make it. I-I did not want to disappoint him. I could not have born it." He clenched his fists. "I could not bear it even now."

Dirhael grasped Denlad’s hands in his. "You will be a great one, lad. You will," he breathed. He straightened back up and his eyes became fierce. "Here is your answer, then: Aragorn, son of Arathorn, is the hope of our people. He is the Heir of Isildur, the last of that line. He will someday be the King of the reunited realms of Arnor and Gondor."

"The Heir of Isildur," Denlad repeated, letting the words roll on his tongue and settle on his heart. The knowledge felt right to him, somehow. That Aragorn was a king seemed as fit and proper as the sun rising in the dawn and drawing day away in the West. But at the same time, questions fell into his mind like leaves from the fall trees. He sat, thinking about them all, and finally sorted out the one that most troubled him. "Why then is Aragorn not a king now? Why do you call him Chieftain instead of King?"

Dirhael sighed, and his eyes lost their fierce glow and instead turned bleak. "Our people dwindle. We have not the strength of arms to take on Sauron’s forces, and it is uncertain whether even with Gondor’s army, we could prevail. So we wait, and hope that someday, somehow, events will transpire to allow Aragorn to ascend to that throne. But the time is not yet come. To call him King now would be the height of foolishness. We dare not risk it."

"So that means for now, Aragorn is... he is a king in exile? Truly?"

"Aye. And that must remain secret. Many of our enemies–and indeed, many who would be our allies–believe the Heir no longer exists, and that is for Aragorn’s good, for the Dark Lord seeks him still. He has long held hatred for our people, from the days when we were faithful to the Elves in Beleriand, and for our stand against him on Númenor. And it was Isildur who cut the Ring from his hand. Yes, his hatred is great, and he seeks to destroy or enslave all those who stand with Elendil’s line."

"You said a ring. What ring is that?"

Dirhael smiled, then, and he looked weary. "Enough questions, curious one. That must be a lesson for another day. Suffice to say that Sauron always seeks the Heir, and so, because Aragorn is the last, he must remain hidden. If the last heir should fall, so too will fall the hopes of all."

"Aragorn has no wife, children?"

"Not yet."

Denlad felt a flutter of panic. "And you let him go off chasing wolves?"

Dirhael blinked, then laughed. "Of course! Last hope he may be, but he holds the office of Chieftain and the responsibilities therein. We cannot keep him locked in a room, after all."

Denlad thought that perhaps they should, and his face must have shown it because Dirhael laughed even harder. "Ah, you and Halbarad will get on fine, I think. He also thinks Aragorn should stay home knitting by the fire where it’s safe."

"I think perhaps Halbarad is wise. What if Aragorn is killed? What happens then? What do you mean by ‘so to will fall the hopes of all’?" He thought he knew, but his mind shied from thinking of such things.

"Gondor will continue to be ruled by its Stewards, until such time that her armies fail, and then one by one, the kingdoms of free folk, including the Dúnedain, will fall into shadow and out of all memory."

New he may be to the Dúnedain, but already Denlad’s heart was taken by the grace and dignity of these grave but joyful folk. He could not imagine them succumbing to such a doom. He set his jaw. "No. It cannot happen. Aragorn will not fall. Teach me to be a warrior, that I might defend him."

Dirhael’s eyes gleamed as he measured Denlad. "That, my son, is exactly what we will do."

TBC

Chapter 4 - Howls in the Night by cairistiona

Chapter 4 - Howls in the Nightz88;

Aragorn’s breath plumed out in front of him, as did his horse’s. The entire company sent out such a steamy cloud that it put in Aragorn’s mind images of firedrakes creeping along through the forest. It had been sleeting when they left, an icy mix that soon turned to snow. The snow had since stopped, but the pre-dawn air was now bone-chillingly cold, the kind to burn the inside of the nose and cause feet and hands to lose all feeling in a matter of minutes. He slowed his horse, got down and walked for a while, noting several others doing the same. He stamped his feet quietly and swung his arms vigorously, then when the tingle of warmth returned, got back on his horse. He glanced skyward. What few stars shimmered on the helm of night were gauzy and dim, the lowering moon peeking in and out from behind shredded banners of clouds that proclaimed more weather yet to come. He deemed from the signs that they needed to get this hunt over, and quickly.

They had found no wolves, but there was plenty of sign. This pack was a big one–he and Halbarad had sorted out by torchlight at least twelve sets of paw prints, and the beasts that had left them were large and heavy. They had heard distant howls in the night, to the south, and now that they neared the northern outskirts of Chetwood, Aragorn held a hand up for the company to slow.

"We are now very close, and encroaching on what they no doubt perceive as their own territory," he said softly as the men dismounted to gather around him. "We will stop here for the day, light a fire, warm ourselves, rest and keep watch. The wolves may find us but I guess that they likely have already finished their morning hunt and are holed up in their den, wherever it may be. But they will be out again come evening, and that is when we will strike, barring the wolves finding us first. So ere night falls we will move south on foot, for as many of you may already know, a little less than a half-league from here there is a clearing that has good visibility from the trees at the perimeter. When we get there, pair off and find places just within the trees on the north end of the clearing.  From the weather signs, the wind is likely to shift back from the south before the next storm, so we will be upwind of the wolves’ likely approach.  Find spots that allow for clear bowshots. Don’t go to the south side too soon or you’ll risk getting shot by one of your own men, but those of you at the edges, do your best to cut off the wolves’ retreat without risking getting caught in a crossfire. Halbarad, when evening falls, you know what to do."

"What of the horses?" a young Ranger named Borongyl asked.

"Over that rise is a natural hollow, surrounded on three sides with stone. We will leave them there, building a fence across the one open side, and trust to hope that they will remain unharmed. Should the wolves attack them, they are not without defense, for I have seen my mount kill a wolf with naught but a swift kick. It is a risk but one I deem worth taking, for all that it may leave us to make our way homeward afoot."

"Not like any of us have never had to do that," Halbarad muttered.

Aragorn gave him a grim smile, then nodded to the men. "See to setting up the camp. Borongyl, take Turgil and set up a watch to the south. Elladan, you and Elrohir take the east." He assigned the west and north to four others, and the eight men moved off as the rest of them set up camp and readied to build the fence. For the rest of the cold day, they rotated duties with huddling around the fire. Aragorn moved among the men, checking their bows and their supplies of arrows. He also helped with building the fence. Anything to keep himself moving and busy. He hated the waiting, the dawdling passage of time before unavoidable battle is joined. Eventually, however, Halbarad snagged his arm on one of his passes through the camp. "Will you settle yourself," he whispered. "I’m exhausted simply from watching you."

"I am not tired."

"No, I suppose you’re not," Halbarad admitted. "And the men appreciate your attention. But watch that you do not tire yourself needlessly. This promises to be a long night ahead of us."

"Not if you can still howl as good as you used to."

"I can still manage to call in wolves," Halbarad assured him. He glanced around at the hills and the trees. "They will come to defend their territory against our ‘pack’, fear not. I only wish it were warmer. This cold will make even the best archer slow, for we will need to be still until the wolves arrive."

"It can’t be helped, unfortunately."

"Trust to hope?"

Aragorn smiled. "Why don’t you go check on the watches. Take Turgil with you."

"And you rest, while you can. Close to the fire."

"Are you in charge, then?"

"Of keeping you in one piece? Always."

~~~

A howl shuddered through the night, sending the hairs on Aragorn’s neck standing at full attention even though he knew the howl came not from the wolves but from the man standing not an arm’s length from him. How Halbarad managed to so cannily imitate the cry of a wolf was a secret only he and the Valar knew. He had tried to teach Aragorn, but Aragorn’s howl sounded more like the mewling of a sick pup than the ferocious ululation of a full grown beast.

"If that doesn’t bring them running, they must be deaf," Aragorn muttered as the echoes caromed through the hills and finally faded into nightmare-inducing memory.

"What do you suppose is driving these wolves to attack men?  It is not their nature, usually."

Aragorn shrugged.  "It was a dry summer, and winter fell early.   Perhaps game became scarce.  Or they may simply have developed a taste for the flesh of Men.  It is hard to guess."

"Could something more evil be working?"

"We can of course never rule that out.  But these are not wargs."

"Thank the Valar," Halbarad said.  "What of brain fever?  That could drive them to attack even each other."

"I spoke at length with Elladan about that.  He assured me that none of the people that were attacked showed any signs of coming down with it themselves.  I think we are safe at least on that one point."

"Another reason to give thanks," Halbarad said.  He paused for a moment, listening.  "If they haven’t come in a few minutes, I will try again. And hope none of the more nervous among us shoots an arrow my way for my troubles."

They waited, and again Halbarad threw back his head and let loose a howl worthy of the most bloodthirsty wolf sire. And this time, as the echoes died, an answering howl rent through the night.

"They come," Aragorn whispered. He tightened his grip on his bow and readied an arrow. Halbarad made him jump as he let loose another howl, and this time the answer came not as a single howl, but as a snarling chorus fit for the pits of Utumno.

Aragorn glanced into the shadows beside him, knowing his brothers were but ten feet away but unable to see them in the darkness. The half-moon edging above the eastern treetops, still shrouding itself in the high thin clouds, sent a watery light into the clearing, but its glow was not strong enough to penetrate the dense canopy of leafless limbs over their heads. Wolves could see well at night, but it was Aragorn’s hope that as the wolves crossed the clearing, the dim light would be enough to blind their eyes to what lay in the shadows before them.

"One more," he whispered, and Halbarad complied, and suddenly the clearing was alive with dark shapes and the night filled with growls and snarls and yet more howls as the pack came to defend their territory against these invaders. Arrows immediately started whistling out of the darkness and as they hit their marks, sharp yelps of pain added to the cacophony. Aragorn pulled back his bow and let arrow after arrow fly, and still the wolves kept charging toward them.

One large brute, three arrows already protruding from his shoulders and neck, charged right between Aragorn and Halbarad. Halbarad’s sword flashed in the moonlight and Aragorn felt the hot splash of the creature’s blood as it died on the point of Halbarad’s sword. But he had no time to admire his kinsman’s handiwork, for two more wolves had made it all the way to the treeline. "Keep firing!" Aragorn screamed, but he dropped his own bow in favor of his sword, for it seemed his and Halbarad’s bad luck to be right in the path of the pack’s charge.

He swung to his left and his blade sank into snarling flesh, but before he could turn, a monstrously huge wolf rammed into him from the right side. He fell heavily and awkwardly beneath it, his left shoulder popping ominously as he crashed into the frozen ground. He retained his grip on his sword, though, and before the creature could seize him in his jaws, he rolled onto his back and shoved the blade upward. The beast roared but did not fall. Aragorn yanked hard to pull his sword free, but even as he did, the wolf’s jaws closed on his left arm. He cried out as his arm lit with fiery pain. He beat at the wolf’s nose with the pommel of his sword. The jaws fell away and he yanked the sword downward along the wolf’s neck and severed its head from its body. He shoved the body away from him.

"Aragorn?" Halbarad yelled.

"Keep fighting!" Aragorn snapped. He stood, his left arm limp and useless but his right still held the sword and good thing it was, for another wolf sprang at him. He sliced its neck and it fell shuddering in death throes at his feet.

He stepped over it, moving toward Halbarad, who was again shooting arrows into the bulk of the pack. The pack had turned, finally, the few left alive trying to flee. They fell to the Rangers’ arrows and the howls faded then finally fell away altogether as the last one died.

Aragorn sheathed his sword. "Rangers! Name yourselves!" he shouted, and only dared breathe when every last man gave his name. "Injuries?" Aragorn called. Besides my own, he thought wryly as he grasped his left wrist and held it tucked against his stomach.

"Turgil got nipped, but not bad," Borongyl called.

There was a short silence, no one else reporting any injuries, and then, "Elladan has a scratch on his arm," Elrohir reported. Aragorn could hear the stifled laughter in his voice. "He probably needs to go home to Ada and have it stitched up."

There was a muffled thud and Elrohir let out a yelp. Several of the men laughed, and Aragorn allowed himself a small smile. Elrohir had very effectively eased any lingering tension among the men. Including his own.

He took a deep, thankful breath. It seemed they had gotten off very lightly.

Aragorn stepped over and around the wolves into the open, trying not to be obvious in how he held his left arm. Halbarad and the rest of the men followed suit and for a long moment they stood quietly in the midst of the carnage, hardly daring to believe they had survived such a fearsome attack. Aragorn finally took a deep breath. "Well done, my kinsmen. You have fought well this night." He started to say more, but he suddenly swayed as he was hit by a bout of lightheadedness.

Halbarad immediately grabbed his arm. "You’re bleeding!" he cried, and helped Aragorn settle to the ground. He pulled at Aragorn’s coat.

Aragorn cried out and knocked his hand away. "I’m not, much. Most of that is from the wolf. It’s my shoulder... I think it’s dislocated."

"Of all the–" Halbarad muttered. "Elrohir, are you done with Elladan’s scratch yet? I need you here."

Aragorn saw the shadowy shape of his brother against the starlit sky. "What have you done to yourself now?" Elrohir asked. "Tried to go the way of the first Aragorn and get yourself eaten by a wolf?"

"Not intentionally," Aragorn said. He hissed as Halbarad tried again to loosen his coat. "Halbarad, just pop my arm back in place and then deal with the bite–most of that blood is from the wolves. The shoulder is far worse."

"If you’re certain," Halbarad said. "Very well. Lay down."

Aragorn did, and Elrohir knelt beside him, placing a hand firmly on Aragorn’s right shoulder. Halbarad then reached down and bent Aragorn’s arm upward at the elbow. "Good thing I’ve done this before, although doing it for you is a treat I could have gladly skipped. Stay relaxed," he said, and eased Aragorn’s left arm up and out from his body. Aragorn shut his eyes and tried not to cry out as Halbarad rotated the arm gently. There was a sudden pop and the sharp pain faded almost immediately into a more manageable throbbing ache. "Better?"

"Yes," Aragorn breathed and then sat up. "Help me get my coat off."

Elrohir slipped behind him and eased Aragorn’s coat off his shoulders. Even in the dim moonlight, it was easy to see the bitemarks along Aragorn’s forearm. Fortunately, the thick coat had kept the teeth from sinking in very far. It was indeed as he had thought: most of the blood coating his side was from the wolf. Someone handed Halbarad a water skin, and he sluiced water liberally over the wounds. "Those aren’t so bad. Not very deep. We’ll clean them well and bandage them. They’ll heal faster than that shoulder."

Within minutes, he had dried Aragorn’s arm and applied a neat bandage around the wounds. Aragorn struggled back into his coat. As he stood, Halbarad tried to get him to tuck his left arm in his coat, like a sling, but he slapped aside his hand. "Leave it be."

"Cease your stubbornness, brother," Elrohir said. He grabbed Aragorn’s forearm and stuck it between the clasps of his coat.

Aragorn knew his glare would be lost in the dim light, so he simply turned away. "We can save these pelts, bring them home with us. The horses will likely shy at the smell but the fur is too valuable to leave to predators."

"Shall we leave any for the Breelanders?"

Aragorn nodded. "Two of you pull out half the pelts to take into Archet. Let them distribute them to any that may have need. But for now, someone build a fire and let us chase the chill from our bones before we freeze where we stand." Gladly leaving the work to others, Aragorn sank down to a seat on a log. He tried raising his left arm, winced, then rested it across his lap to ease the grinding ache in his shoulder. He watched the men, saw their somewhat giddy smiles and listened to their laughter as they readied the camp, and he smiled.

Thank the Valar they had prevailed. Now they could head home, where hearth and home and a delayed Mettarë celebration awaited.

Above his head, the stars slid behind a cloud, and showed themselves no more.

Chapter 5 - Of Fell Winters, Chickens and Small Boys by cairistiona

Chapter 5 - Of Fell Winters, Chickens and Small Boys

"It’s getting colder outside," Denlad said as he dropped an armload of wood next to the hearth. Mettarë had come and gone without much in the way of merriment, for no one felt like making even small celebration, not with so many men from the settlement gone and facing such peril. He knelt down and grabbed the poker and stirred the coals, then placed three logs atop the ones already burning, carefully arranging them so they wouldn’t smother the flames. His mind still buzzed with the knowledge of all he had learned of Aragorn yesterday, so much so that he had decided today he needed to throw himself into mind-numbing hard work in order to clear his head and regain his footing in life. Chopping wood in frigid conditions worked well toward that end.

Dirhael looked at the growing pile of wood on the hearth with satisfaction. "I’m doubly glad I had you stay with us. Not only will we use less wood with three of us here than if you were to try to keep your place warm by yourself, I don’t have to work at keeping the firewood stocked." He grinned around his pipe and walked over to hold his hands out to the fire.

"You need to quit working the lad so hard," Ivorwen fussed from where she sat at her loom, weaving a blanket. How many blankets had she made on that, Denlad wondered. "Denlad, we greatly appreciate all you have done."

Denlad smiled and ducked his head, concentrating on building the fire.

"I have not asked Denlad to do one single thing. It has all been his own idea," Dirhael protested. He puffed his pipe a few times and blew a smoke ring. "I’ve not seen it this cold this early since the Fell Winter in 2911. I hope we’re not in for another one of those."

"That was far before your time, Denlad," Ivorwen said, "but it was horrid. So much snow to the north that the white wolves came down all the way to the Shire. Everyone had their hands full, fighting off those wolves. I remember taking a bow with me even to go to the woodpile beside the front door."

"Are the white wolves different than the ones Aragorn is hunting now?"

Dirhael nodded. "Aye. They’re bigger. Fiercer. But these, from what Elladan said, are ordinary wolves, if a bit more vicious than usual. Dangerous for all that, but less so than white wolves or the wargs of the East. I’d be worried if that was what Aragorn was chasing."

"I’m worried anyway," Denlad said softly.

Dirhael squeezed his shoulder. "The cold is the greater enemy, I think, and Aragorn knows how to handle himself. They’ll be well, you’ll see. Put your fears to rest. "

Denlad wished he could, but all night last night his dreams had been filled with wolf howls and visions of the men torn limb from limb by vicious beasts. He shook off the memories and stood. "I think I will go chop some more wood for you, and check on my... on my cottage." He really meant check on his chickens. When he lived on his farm, he would bring his chickens inside during cold weather, but he dared not ask Ivorwen for such a favor. She would think him mad for coddling them.

"Don’t you really mean check on your chickens, Denlad?" Ivorwen said, her eyes twinkling.

He blushed and nodded.

"They are probably fine, but your cottage is such a long walk from here. Why don’t you bring them back with you. We can put them in with our chickens. Dirhael built them a very snug coop and there’s room for two more."

"Won’t they fight?"

"They might. We’ll see if we can keep them separate somehow at the first."

"I can put a board across easily enough," Dirhael offered.

"Thank you," Denlad said. He bundled up and hurried out the door before she changed her mind.

It was snowing again, not fluffy flakes but icy stinging pellets that soured the spirit and made the ground, already frozen from yesterday’s sleet and snow, even more treacherous underfoot. He walked with care but by the time he reached his door, he had slipped and fallen twice and his nose was red and running from the cold air. He gladly ducked into his cottage out of the weather. With no fire on the hearth, there was little change in the temperature as he walked in. He glanced around. Everything was as he left it. He decided he might as well pack up his food to take back to Dirhael’s, since it seemed from the looks of the thick clouds to the north that he would be staying with them for quite some time. He pulled a blanket from the bed and piled his food on it and tied it in a bundle. Then he stepped out the back door to check on his chickens.

Red had all her feathers fluffed out as she sat on a pile of straw, and Copper was busy scratching at the ground, picking up the last bits of cracked corn Denlad had thrown out to them the night before. "How are my girls," he called softly as he let himself into the coop. He found the crate he had brought them in from the farm and opened it. "Come here, you beautiful lady," he crooned to Red as he scooped her up. "Time for another adventure, and this time you’ll go somewhere warm and nice where there are all kinds of other lady chickens to gossip with." She made no protest as he settled her in the crate.

Copper, however, seemed to have no interest in joining her companion. Denlad reached for her and she clucked and spread her wings, half hopping and half flying out of reach. He followed her, but she kept running, zigging and zagging and staying just beyond his fingertips. By the time he finally cornered her and picked her up, he was actually warm from the exertion. "You daft bird," he muttered as he cradled her against his chest. "Running me ragged in this cold." He spied an egg in the straw in the corner but he knew it would be frozen so he left it. He slid Copper into the crate beside Red and got pecked on the finger for his troubles. "Ouch! That was very naughty, Copper, and very ungrateful of you," he chided. "Don’t you know I’m trying to help you?"

She glared at him.

He shook his head and picked up the crate. He stopped in the cottage long enough to pile the bundle of food atop it, which elicited a squawk from Copper. He heard her pecking at the bottom of the bundle and hoped his blanket wouldn’t be full of holes by the time he made it back to Dirhael’s.

He set his burden on the porch long enough to shut the door, then started up the hill to Dirhael’s. Snow was piling up in the ruts of the path and several times his feet nearly flew out from under him as he stepped on a slick patch. He slowed, placing his feet with more deliberation but as careful as he was, his left foot slid away from him and he crashed to the ground. The crate hit on its corner with a loud crack. The door to the crate popped open and before he could right the calamity, Copper was out and running for freedom. He slapped the door shut before Red could make good her own escape and slid and shuffled to his feet. "Copper!" he cried. "Come back here!"

She stopped a few feet away from him, near a bush, and nonchalantly started scratching at the ground, oblivious to the snow. Denlad moved slowly and carefully, but at the last possible moment, Copper ran away from him. He hurried after her, falling down three times, but finally he managed to corner her where two crumbling walls met. He grabbed her and held her against his chest. "I should cook you for dinner," he muttered. He made his way back to the crate and, still holding Copper firmly with his left hand, looked over the damage. Red still sat quietly inside, but the end of the crate was broken open more than enough to let the wily Copper escape with no troubles. Denlad sighed. Looked like he would have to carry both chickens the rest of the way. Red he knew would give him no troubles, but he would need both hands for Copper unless he wanted to carry her by her feet, which she absolutely hated.

"Sorry, old girl, but you leave me no choice." He grabbed her legs and gently flipped her upside down. After a few moments of murderous glares and furious wing flapping, she calmed down. Denlad knew that was merely a subterfuge, though. As soon as he put her down, she’d come flying at him with her talons bared. But that was a problem for later. He reached down and scooped up Red, who let him tuck her under his arm without even a cluck of protest. His bundle of food would have to wait for a return trip.

He slogged up the hill, slipping once but not falling, and finally made it to Dirhael’s. He stood by the front door for a moment, wondering how best to knock, but it swung open before he could decide.

"I saw you coming up the hill," Ivorwen said.

"Thank you," Denlad said. "I fell, and the crate broke. That’s why I had to carry them both."

"Did you hurt yourself?"

"No, I’m all right." Copper suddenly pecked his leg. "Ow!"

"Here, let me help you." Ivorwen reached down and plucked Copper from his hand. Copper immediately started to squawk and flap but she didn’t stand a chance in such experienced hands. "Now stop this nonsense," Ivorwen scolded, and to Denlad’s amazement, Copper immediately settled down. Ivorwen ran a loving hand over Copper’s plumage and then headed for the coop around the back of the cottage. She opened the door, and they turned Copper and Red loose on their side of the board that Dirhael had installed, away from the population of Ivorwen's hens scratching feed off the ground. It was just as well Dirhael had added the barrier, for Copper immediately started running back and forth, squawking at the other chickens. Red merely moved to the far corner and started scratching at the hay strewn floor. "There we go. Red’s right at home already, although it looks as though we were wise in keeping Copper out of the flock."

"Copper’s always had a mean streak," Denlad said ruefully.

"Well, some of them just do. But we love them anyway, don’t we?" Ivorwen smiled, patting his arm. "Now let’s hurry along and get inside where it’s warm."

"I can’t. I left the crate and a bundle of food back on the path," Denlad said. He pulled his hood tighter. "I’ll be right back."

"See that you don’t slip and hurt yourself!" she called after him.

He was lucky this time and made it to his things without mishap. As he picked them up, a voice hailed him. He looked up and saw a small boy of perhaps seven watching him. "Hello."

"Hello. What’s that?" The boy pointed to the crate.

"It holds chickens. Only it broke when I fell a little while ago."

"I saw you chasing that chicken. It was funny."

You would, Denlad thought sourly, but he only said, "You best get home, before this turns into a right blizzard."

"Oh, I play in the snow and cold all the time," he said. "What happened to your hair?"

Denlad blinked. "My hair?"

"Yes. What happened to it that made it turn yellow? Where’d all the brown go?"

"It’s always been, er, yellow."

"Why?"

Denlad started walking, hoping the boy would leave. "Because."

"Because why?" the boy asked as he trotted alongside Denlad, keeping up with his long strides with the boundless energy of the young.

"Because my father had blonde hair." It wasn’t a complete lie. For all Denlad knew, his father was blonde.

"Who was your father?"

"No one you know." Unfortunately, no one I know, either...

"Is he as nice as my ada?"

"I don’t know your ada, so I couldn’t say." Denlad wondered if the Dúnedain frowned on picking up annoying children and dumping them in convenient rivers...

"My ada is Halbarad."

Denlad’s heart sank. There’d be no dumping this one anywhere. "I’m sure my ada is not as nice as yours, no."

"My ada is off hunting wolves. He can howl like one, really loud."  He threw back his head and let out a long wailing yowl that Denlad thought sounded more like a cat in pain, but he held his tongue.  "Just like that!  And my ada said he’d bring me back a wolf’s head!" He grinned. He had more gaps than teeth.

"I am certain he will."  As long as he does not howl like that...

"My name is Halbaron. I’m seven."

"And I am Denlad. Very nice to meet you."

"How old are you?"

"Nineteen."

"That’s really old."

And getting older by the minute....  Denlad glanced longingly down the path and was relieved to see that Dirhael’s cottage was but a few steps away.

Halbaron ran ahead and bounded up on the porch and pushed open the door. "Ada Dirhael! It’s me, Halbaron!"

Denlad followed more quietly, and as he took off his coat and shook the snow from it, he watched Dirhael scoop up Halbaron and give him a bear hug. "It’s a good thing you told me or I might have thought you a troll!" He tickled the boy’s ribs and set him down with a smack on his rear end. "Get yourself a cookie. Nana Ivorwen just pulled a batch from the oven."

He gave Dirhael another of his gap-toothed grins and scampered off. Dirhael caught Denlad watching. "My great grandson."

So that would make Halbarad Dirhael's grandson.  Denlad wondered if he would ever figure out who was related to who and in what way.  "He’s a bright lad."

"He is at that. Never stops asking questions, that one."

"I noticed."

Dirhael grinned. "Had a chat with him already, did you?"

"I will only say that he will make a good interrogator someday."

Dirhael threw his back his head and laughed.

Halbaron came back into the room, a cookie in each hand. Dirhael sat in the rocker and pulled the boy onto his lap. "Tell me, young man, what do you think of our new friend here?"

Halbaron took a large bite of cookie as he solemnly regarded Denlad. He chewed and swallowed, then finally said, "He has funny hair, and he’s too old, but I think he’s all right."

"Oh, he is old, yes. Nineteen is very old, after all. But do you ever stop to consider that he might think we have funny hair?" Dirhael asked.

"No. Because we don’t. Our hair is black. Or brown. It’s not funny." He took another bite of cookie, his interest in the topic obviously spent.

"Can’t argue with that logic," Denlad said, smiling despite his annoyance at being discussed as though he were part of the fittings instead of flesh and blood with ears to hear.

Halbaron squirmed off Dirhael’s lap, turning to give him a crumb-flecked kiss on the cheek. "I have to go. Nana will be mad if I’m late."

He trotted over to Ivorwen. "Thank you for the cookies," he said politely, then gave her the same crumbly buss on the cheek. He then headed toward Denlad. Denlad put out his hand to shake, to forestall a cheekful of sticky crumbs, but Halbaron ignored it and gave him a kiss anyway. "I like your hair," he announced, and before Denlad could say anything ran out the door, slamming it shut behind him.

"There we are, then!" Dirhael said. "You and your hair have been approved by Halbaron. You need ask for no greater benediction."

"He is a sweet child," Denlad said.

"All of Halbarad’s children are. They take after their mother."

"He’s joking, dear," Ivorwen said, smiling at the alarm on Denlad’s face. "Don’t look so frightened. Halbarad is fierce, but he is not unkind. You will get along with him quite well."

Dirhael relit his pipe. "And if you don’t, take comfort in knowing Halbarad is skilled at meting out an easy death."

Denlad jumped to his feet. "I... I am going to go milk the cows," he squeaked, and hurried out, shutting the door on Dirhael’s laughter.

TBC

Chapter 6 - Winds of Winter by cairistiona

Chapter Six - Winds of Winter

By mid-morning the band of Rangers were sufficiently rested to tackle the job of skinning the wolves. It was messy work, and strenuous, but it kept the men warm. Aragorn’s shoulder hurt worse than it did the night before, but it was bearable. He walked back with a small portion of the company and retrieved the horses. They had a bit of a problem with the horses as they neared the slaughtering field, for the horses wanted little to do with the smells of wolves and blood and death, but they herded them downwind and tied them all firmly to trees, handy to the men as they rolled each pelt and brought it to tie to the back of a horse. Only one horse, Turgil’s, absolutely refused to bear such a load; the rest Aragorn, Elrohir and Elladan managed to soothe enough to convince them it was not the end of the world to be asked to carry the hide of a dead wolf.

It took them most of the day to finish the work, and the cold seemed to bite harder still as mid-afternoon approached. Aragorn held his hands out to the fire, but unless he all but plunged his hands into the flames, the heat seemed to have little effect. He walked over to where Elladan, Elrohir and Halbarad sat and squatted beside them. "We may have to go into Bree tonight; there are so many of us the Prancing Pony is the only inn big enough. I am afraid this chill will prove deadly, and I do not like the look of the clouds coming down from the north. If we leave now, we can get to Bree just after nightfall."

Halbarad immediately stood. "I think it wise to seek shelter. Those clouds portend a blizzard before day is out, or my name’s not Halbarad Dúnadan. But I deem it better to aim for Archet instead. It’s much closer, and I know of a woodsman there who would be glad to lend us the use of his barn. I have hunted wolves on his behalf in the past and in thanks he said his home, buildings and lands would always be at our disposal."

"Would that all in these parts have such generous hearts toward us," Aragorn murmured. He rubbed his hands together, then plunged them in his pockets again. What he wouldn’t give for a pair of steaming hot potatoes to put in his pockets. "Very well. Tell the men we ride out in the next half hour."

It wasn’t terribly far to Halbarad’s friendly woodsman, a matter of an hour on a good day, but it was taking twice that, for the horses had to go slowly because of the treacherous ruts in the frozen road. The slow walk through steadily plunging temperatures had them chilled enough, but now a stiff wind laden with moisture coming before the storm sprang up to drive the chill deep into their bones. Aragorn tried walking and stamping his feet but nothing seemed to have any effect; he simply could not work any warmth at all into his body. He had been shivering but now he felt as though the cold were pulling his entire being into a hard, frozen knot in the center of his belly. He pulled his horse aside and watched the men as they passed. Underneath their hoods and scarves he saw eyes dull with cold, but one by one, they nodded to him and assured him they were not as cold as they appeared. Aragorn had his doubts about that, but he had to take them at their word. Stopping now would be useless; no fire they might build could compete against this crushing cold.

They needed shelter.

It could only have been another half an hour, if not a bit more, but it felt like a frozen eternity had passed when finally, coming around a bend in the road, they found a cottage and a large barn. It was the woodcutter’s place, at last.

As they pulled up in the yard, Aragorn stiffly dismounted. His feet felt like twin lumps of dead wood; he could not feel them hit the ground. He stamped them hard, which only caused sharp pain to rock through his knees and hips. He pulled the scarf that his breath had limned with ice away from his face and stumbled to the front porch of the farmhouse. He pounded on the door with his gloved hand. He hoped the woodsman would hear the muffled thumps.

He must have, for the door opened, a mere crack, and a round blue eye looked out at Aragorn. "Shelter in the barn," a voice said. "I’ll get my coat and be out to join you and get a fire going out there." The door shut before Aragorn could say thank you or ask how the man could possibly light a fire in his barn.

He turned, nonplused, and tried to smile but his face was too stiff from cold. "Barn," he mumbled, and waved a clumsy hand toward the large structure beyond the house. "Drop the pelts off outside," he called, struggling to form the words.

No one answered. They were simply too cold to talk. They plodded to the barn doors and Halbarad and Aragorn managed to get them open just as the farmer arrived. Inside the cavernous space were stalls filled with the woodsman’s great draft horses, and along one wall stood a large wagon, fit for pulling loads of heavy logs. A rock-lined forge in the center of the barn provided the answer to the mystery of fire, but it held no flames at present. Despite that, it was noticeably warmer inside the barn than outside.

"Bring your horses in, tie them off on the stall doors," the woodsman said as he stirred the banked coals in the forge. "My horses won’t mind. But best you leave those pelts outside, like your leader here said. My horses don’t take to the smell of wolves, dead or otherwise. I’ll get the fire built and have you men warmed up in no time."

So, one by one the men dismounted and brought in their horses. Borongyl, Halbarad and Aragorn remained outside the door, helping each Ranger untie and toss his frozen wolf pelt in a pile well away from the barn. All went smoothly until Turgil dismounted to lead his horse in. The horse caught scent of the wolf hides and planted his forefeet, refusing to go forward. Turgil cursed under his breath and tugged on the lead, but the horse wanted nothing to do with walking past the pelts. He dodged sideways, knocking Halbarad off his feet, and then reared up. The reins slid from Turgil’s gloved hands, and the horse spun around and raced toward the road, Turgil bounding after him.

"Shut the barn door," Aragorn yelled to Borongyl as he helped Halbarad to his feet. They both ran after Turgil. Aragorn thought he heard Elladan shout at them to stop, but between the pounding of his feet against the ground and the wind rushing against his ears, he could not be certain. He only knew that they needed that horse.

It led them on a far from merry chase but between the three of them, and the fact that the horse was already exhausted from the cold ride, they hemmed him in near some hedges, head hanging and all his fear extinguished by his wild flight. Aragorn reached for the reins. It took him three tries but he finally managed to grasp them. He leaned his head against the horse’s heaving sides for a moment. It felt almost hot against his nearly frozen cheek. "Let’s get him back," he mumbled.

The three of them slowly walked back to the farm. The strengthening wind drove at them, wringing tears from Aragorn’s eyes. He looked to the north; the heavy grey clouds glowered down at them from just above the treetops, and hurled below them a white wall of snow. "Hurry," he mumbled and tried to spur more speed from his own feet, but it was hard to manage more than a shuffling run. The snow started, a few flakes at first but within minutes it was a swirling maelstrom that veiled all but the closest objects. He stumbled on, Halbarad and Turgil beside him, and hoped they were keeping to the right direction. Onward he staggered, the icy snow grinding against his nearly closed eyes. Ducking his head lower, he tugged his hood down to try to shield his face but the wind seemed to blow in crazed circles, dancing and tormenting him no matter what direction he faced.

He glanced behind. "Stay close!" he shouted and the wind snatched his words and tossed them into the clamor of the storm. He reached out and snagged Halbarad by the arm, then pointed back at Turgil. Halbarad turned, sluggishly, but he reached out and hooked his arm around Turgil’s. Linked together, Aragorn stayed as close to the horse as he could without getting under the hooves. He no longer had any clue what direction was the right one. He could only hope some equine instinct led the horse back to his kind.

Just about the time he thought they surely must have veered so far from the farm as to be hopelessly lost, a gray looming shape emerged from the heavily falling snow. It was the barn. "Back door," Aragorn mumbled, not sure he could be heard above the wind but too exhausted to shout.

But Halbarad must have heard, because he nodded. The three of them guided the horse past the barn’s front, well away from the wolf pelts and around to the back. It seemed to take forever, but they finally reached the rear door. It took all three of them an inordinate amount of time to wrestle it open, and by the time they were all inside with the door shut behind them, Aragorn felt frozen to the core and stupid from cold. Someone took the reins from his hand and led the horse away. He stood blinking for a long moment, then only slowly became aware that Elrohir was shaking him, saying something....

He turned his head slowly. "What?"

"... said you’re all but frozen to death! We need to get you in the house."

Aragorn stared at Elrohir, then dragged his gaze to Halbarad, who was leaning against a stall door, his head hanging, eyes closed, lips nearly blue with cold. He looked ready to fall asleep.

Sleep... that sounded good... lie down in the sweet warm hay... sleep until spring...

"Aragorn!" Elladan said sharply.

"Wha’?"

"This is no good," Elrohir growled. He turned to Elladan. "Get him inside the house. Halbarad and Turgil as well–they never should have chased that horse. Hurry."

Aragorn wanted to protest as Elladan grabbed him around the waist and propelled him back out into the cold, but he couldn’t seem to find the words. He was weary... so weary.... He tripped going up the steps, but Elladan didn’t let him fall. A door opened and in an instant he was plunged from deadly cold air into warmth he could barely feel.

"Sit them by the fire. Get their clothes off."

Clothes off? Aragorn blinked. He didn’t want to take off his clothes... he was too cold already... cold was a ravening beast... a wolf... crouching in the center of his being that gnawed at him and hurt terribly... but someone tugged at his sleeves and his coat fell away and then someone else yanked his boots off and suddenly he blinked and started to shiver uncontrollably. Someone pressed a cup against his lips. Aragorn dragged his eyes up the hand and then the arm and saw Elladan. He looked angry. Why would he be angry, Aragorn wondered. Had he done something wrong?

"Aragorn! Pay attention! Drink!"

He shut his eyes so he could no longer see Elladan’s anger and concentrated instead on taking a sip. He could not understand why it was so hard to drink... had he never drunk before? He decided he would rather take a nap first...

A slap against his cheek surprised him. He dragged his eyes back to Elladan. He wanted to ask why he was so angry with him but his lips wouldn’t form the words. He just wanted to sleep...

"I am sorry I hurt you, but you must drink!"

The cup pressed against his mouth again and then he was surprised when hot tea dribbled into his mouth. He spluttered a bit then swallowed and the warmth hit the cold knot in his belly and loosened it, just a little bit. So he took another swallow, and another. With each sip, he felt the icy knot inside of him give way little by little, and finally his mind started to clear and a hot rush of shame made him shut his eyes. Beyond the wry thought that at least embarrassment had its usefulness in warming frozen bodies, his conscience castigated him. How could he have been so foolish, chasing after a horse in such conditions... and worse, letting Halbarad and Turgil do so as well? Of all his years’ experience, how could he have done such a thing? He looked with anguished eyes toward Halbarad and Turgil, both still so cold they were barely conscious.

"Estel," Elladan said softly. He draped a warm blanket across Aragorn’s shoulders. "The best and most experienced of all of us have been caught off guard by the weather. I have, Elrohir has. I’ll wager even Glorfindel has, although he would be loathe to admit it."

Aragorn dragged his gaze back and honored Elladan’s attempt at humor with a perfunctory smile. It faded as quickly as it came, and he shook his head and shut his eyes. There was nothing he could say. No excuse he could give. He could only vow to himself to never let such a thing happen again.

"They will recover, as will you," Elladan said softly. "Now here, drink some more."

He tried but he was shaking again, so hard his teeth were rattling against each other. The tea sloshed down into his beard and onto his lap. "S-s-orry..."

"Shh. Do not talk. We will keep trying. All will be well, you shall see." He put the cup against Aragorn’s lips again, and this time more went into his mouth than down his chin. Between Elladan’s comforting flow of words and the warm fire, the shaking finally eased enough to let him take in more than mere drops. With the tea warming him within and the flames warming him without, he finally took a good look at Halbarad and Turgil. They were sitting, like him, nearly naked with blankets around their shoulders as they shuddered and shook, faces pale and pinched with cold but eyes more alert. Halbarad met his gaze and tried to smile, but it was a miserable effort. Aragorn looked then at Elladan. "W-w-hat about the r-r-rest–"

"Master Houndswell is getting them settled in the barn. He has the forge blazing. They will be warm enough from that and the heat from all the animals. You three, however, are an entirely different matter." A note of admonishment lingered behind his words, a hint at the earlier anger. Aragorn pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. He avoided Elladan’s gaze.

"I sh-should have known b-better. You have every r-right to be angry."

"Hush, my brother." Elladan put a hand on the back of Aragorn’s head, briefly pressing his own forehead to Aragorn’s as in old when Aragorn was only a child tagging along after the half-Elven brothers he idolized. He moved his head back but kept a hand on the back of Aragorn’s neck. "I am not angry. And you are far too old for me to chide, and far too experienced in wilderness lore to chastise as I did when you were a stripling. Take no blame. This onslaught of cold was vicious and sudden. You were too cold even before we arrived here; it clouded your thinking. Truth be told, we had all gotten too cold, myself included. If I had not been so numbed by the cold, and paying closer attention to the state you were in, I would have moved more quickly to stop you from chasing the horse. I think perhaps that is the cause of my anger–far easier to be angry with you than to admit my own fault. Forgive me, my brother."

"F-f-orgiven," Aragorn said, and realized he must forgive himself as well. Elladan’s reasoning was sound, after all. Ever were they at the mercy of nature’s whims, and when the whim turned brutal, there was often naught a man could do. They were all still alive, and that was no small mercy. He shed the guilt in favor of retaining the wisdom. The smile came back, and this time it did not fade so quickly.

"That is more like it," Elladan said and moved to kneel in front of Aragorn. "Let us see to your feet. Move closer to the fire, if you can."

Aragorn scooted his chair forward, cautiously putting his feet on the hearth. He still could not feel them, but he didn’t see any white patches of frostbite on his toes. He tried wiggling them. They moved, stiffly. But at least they moved.

"I do not see frostbite," Elladan said, "but I think it best if you soak your feet in warm water. It will warm you faster."

Plunging his entire body in a warm bath sounded more like what he needed but he was sure he could not put out his host in such a manner.

A woman Aragorn presumed was Master Houndswell’s wife came in carrying three dishpans partially filled with snow. She set them down, one in front of each of them, and then pulled an iron tea kettle from its hook over the fire and carefully poured the steaming hot water over the snow. She tested the temperature with her finger, then nodded at Elladan.

"Thank you," Aragorn said.

She gave him a shy smile and curtsied, then replaced the kettle and walked out of the room.

"Easy now," Elladan said as he gently placed Aragorn’s feet in the warm water. It was only then that Aragorn noticed Elrohir kneeling before Halbarad’s feet, doing the same. He caught Aragorn’s questioning gaze.

"Halbarad has three toes with frostbite; Turgil here has only a bit on one toe. Both should be fine, although I fear Halbarad will have sore toes for quite some time."

Aragorn nodded, but then all his attention was taken with the pain that the returning blood brought to his legs. It felt like thousands of ants were stinging him from the inside out. He let out a hiss, then a groan and yanked his feet out of the water.

Elladan immediately put them back in. He grinned. "The pain is good. It means you are thawing."

"I liked frozen better," Aragorn muttered. He didn’t, really, but how he hated that feeling of needles plunging in and out of his feet. He heard Halbarad hissing like a snake and Turgil cursing in a steady stream under his breath. They were in no better straits than he. Not that it made him feel better. Misery may love company but it remained misery.

After nearly an hour, the stinging finally eased. Elladan pulled Aragorn's feet out and gently dried them with a warm towel and then put warm socks on them. Aragorn felt he should protest, that he should offer to do that himself, but the warmer he grew, the more weary he felt. He could barely keep his eyes open. He blinked slowly, then his eyes closed of their own accord. His head dropped and he brought it back up with a jerk, which caused a sharp twinge of pain to his left shoulder. With all his other troubles, he had forgotten about that injury, but now it reminded him of its presence in no uncertain terms. He carefully moved his forearm to cradle it in his lap.

"Here," Elladan said. He draped a cloth over Aragorn’s neck and quickly tied it into a sling.

"Thank you," Aragorn sighed. The occasional shudder still jerked him but he was finally feeling truly warm. He slouched a bit lower in his chair and rested his head against the back.

Elladan laughed softly. "Aragorn, let’s get you on the floor before you slide off your chair into the fire."

Aragorn offered no argument, and when he awoke several hours later laying beside the fire, he had no memory of how he had gotten there, nor of anyone putting warm blankets over him. He sat up, looking around the room and at the quiet, blanketed shapes of Turgil and Halbarad. Both were sound asleep, breathing deeply and evenly. The room beyond the firelight was dark, night crouching in the corners. The wind moaned and cried around the eaves, the blizzard well and truly upon them. Elladan sat in a chair, his eyes gleaming in the darkness as he kept quiet watch over them. He moved silently from his chair to kneel beside him.

"How are the men?" Aragorn whispered.

"Fine. With the fire and all those animals, it’s snug and warm for them. Probably warmer than the house, actually."

"Do they have food?"

"Aye. The packs are in the barn. We will eat our own stores, where possible, and not trouble Master Houndswell to feed all of us.  Elrohir and I have talked, and when the storm breaks, we will go hunting, and so repay his kindness."

"Could he use some of these pelts?"

"Undoubtedly.  Whatever you choose to leave for those in needs, Elrohir and I will take care of.  We will return to the settlement at such time as we are free.  Do not look for us for at least a week."

"Thank you, my brother, for your help," Aragorn said around a yawn. He laid back down and pulled the blanket close to his chin. He listened for a moment to the wind, then murmured, "We cannot leave until the storm breaks."

"No. I am afraid not."

He sighed quietly in the darkness. At this rate they would be celebrating Mettarë when the trees were in bloom. He hated the delay, for there was so little reason to celebrate in the harsh winter. But it could not be helped. By the time they returned, the food would have been eaten, without fanfare, for he imagined despite his plea to Dirhael not to delay the bonfire, there would have been little in the way of celebration.  And what gifts anyone exchanged would have been done quietly, if at all...

His eyes widened. In his concern with hurrying to the hunt, he suddenly remembered he had left all of Denlad’s gifts in plain sight, on his table. What if Denlad had seen them?  He balled his fists around the blanket and stared up at the ceiling, plagued by this new worry.

Sleep was a long time returning.

TBC

Chapter 7 - How Long Can a Blizzard Last? by cairistiona

Chapter Seven - How Long Can a Blizzard Last?

"This blizzard will keep the men south until it clears," Dirhael said. He and Denlad stood by the window near the door, but there was naught to see. The wind scoured the snow against the window in a blinding white cloud. The only way they had managed to care for the animals was to feel their way along a rope stretched between the back door of the cottage and the barn. Without it, no telling where the wind would push them. Neither man had any desire to be lost on the downs, witless and freezing in the howling snow.

Howling. Denlad shivered. The wind sounded too much like wolves. It pried at the eaves and tried to reach icy fingers through the cracks of the door. Ivorwen had pressed folded blankets along the bottom of the door, but standing there, Denlad could feel the draft across his ankles nonetheless. He moved back to the fire and sat by the hearth. For two days now they had listened to the banshee wailing and crying of the wind and the swishing scour of the hard pellets of snow against the windows. It was an unrelenting beast, gnawing and snarling and clawing...

"Denlad," Ivorwen called, startling him. "Could you come lift this for me?"

He hurried over to where she stood by her spinning wheel. "Where would you like it?"

"By the fire, as close as you can get it."

Dirhael scooted his chair back to make room and Denlad carried the large contraption to the hearth. "How’s that?" he asked.

"Perfect. Thank you, Denlad." She sat down and started the wheel.

Denlad eased himself back into the chair. He and Dirhael had sparred for quite some time this afternoon in the barn, where there was space, and he was tired. If it weren’t for Ivorwen’s good cooking awaiting for supper and the fact that he would need to check the animals once more this evening, he would be tempted to call it a day and go to bed now. But instead, he sat quietly in the chair, trying to keep his eyes open and trying to ignore the constant roar of the blizzard. But that and the soft rhythmic whirring of Ivorwen’s spinning wheel soon lulled him into a doze. The sounds of the room faded until all that was left was the howling... the never-ending howling... a dervish of noise that flowed and swirled, dizzying and disorienting. He saw snow, endless vortices of white, coiling and uncoiling and within their amorphous mass shapes sulked and hid and eyes glowed... wolves’ eyes and wolves’ teeth in freezing caverns of ice. He was drawn into their dark maw, the cold digging its teeth into him and pulling him toward the darkness. Shadow shapes loomed and retreated and the voices of dying men cried out in anguish and when he stopped to listen he heard his mother’s death groan, louder even than the howling...

He jerked, coming awake with a startled cry.

"Denlad?" Dirhael said. The spinning wheel slowed to a stop as Ivorwen looked at him with concern.

"It was just a dream... that’s all." He rubbed his eyes. He felt stupid and dull.

"Tell me of this dream," Dirhael said.

"It was nothing. Just a nightmare of howling wolves, brought on by the wind, no doubt. Truly, it was nothing."

"If you’re certain."

"I am." He nodded to Dirhael, then stood and bowed slightly to Ivorwen. He needed to move, to do something to take his mind off worrying. "It is early yet, but I will go check the animals, see that all is settled for the night."

He bundled up and slipped through the door, only opening it wide enough to let himself out. The wind immediately stole his breath, buffeting his body as he grasped the rope that would lead him to the barn. He did not release the door handle until the rope was firmly in his hand, and then he inched along, his head down, chin buried in the fur of his hood, making sure the rope remained taut in his hands. By the time he reached the barn, he was breathless and aching from cold, but the barn was steamy and warm inside. He let himself into the large enclosure in the back of the barn, where the three milk cows stood quietly chewing their cud. Dirhael had made a very nice pen for them, Denlad thought. They had room to stretch their legs but it was warmer than outside, and more importantly, nice and dry, for too much moisture was always a problem for cows kept in a barn. Sometimes it was better to leave them out in the elements, letting them find shelter in trees or even a three-sided roofed shed. But it would be impossible to find them in such a storm had Dirhael left them to their own devices, so Denlad was grateful for the old man’s wisdom. He guided his own cow to the center post and tied her to it, then patted her on the back. She was already looking better than she ever had at their old farm.

"This life agrees with you as much as it does me, doesn’t it, old girl?" he said. He scratched her poll and then placed the milk bucket beneath her udder. He snagged the stool with his foot, then sat down to milk, his cheek pressing against her warm flank.

He listened to the wind as the first stream of warm milk fizzed in the bottom of the pail. How long could a blizzard last, he wondered. He had never experienced a storm like this before, where the winds howled for days and the snow never ceased.

Much as he tried not to, he kept worrying about Aragorn and his men. Where were they? Had they found shelter, or did the storm catch them unaware, freezing them in some lonely stretch of wilderness?

His mind shied violently from such an image, but both his dreams and his waking thoughts were haunted with their cries. Even now, a vision of Aragorn’s face, contorted and frozen, floated out of the dim corners of the barn. "No!" he cried and shut his eyes but the vision persisted and a sob clogged his throat at the thought of the entire world falling into shadow because the king had been lost while on a foolhardy wolf hunt. He scowled down at the milk, fear turning into the hot fire of anger. How could Aragorn be so reckless? So flagrant in his disregard for his own life and the importance of it to every soul in Middle-earth?

The cow mooed softly, turning her head to look at him with a mildly annoyed eye. He realized he was squeezing her too hard. "I’m sorry, old girl. I’m just angry," he said. "Aragorn had no right to go off into this storm like he did. Risking all for the sake of a few travelers who don’t have the sense to carry their own swords as they travel. So what if a few fall to wolves? They would be of little import. They’re certainly not kings. And they won’t even know it is a king that comes to defend them!"

The cow responded with a flick of her tail, catching Denlad in the side of his face.

"Now stop that," Denlad muttered. "I’ve every right to be angry, haven’t I? It’s my future too that he’s messing with, after all."

"And mine."

Denlad started, then spun around to face Dirhael standing just inside the barn door. Denlad had been so lost in his worries and anger that he had not noticed Dirhael slip in. He watched as Dirhael walked over, unable to think of anything to say. He would not apologize. He was too angry for that, and besides, he was right and he knew it, so what reason could there be for apologies?

"Aragorn carries the weight of this world’s doom on his shoulders, and that is a thing the difficulty and danger of which none of us can come close to imagining," Dirhael said, his tone chiding but his eyes kind. "But let me ask you this: would you want a king on the throne who, in his past, never lifted a finger to help others? Who never risked his own life for yours, as insignificant as your life, or mine, is compared to his? Could you respect such a king?"

Denlad thought for a moment, then shook his head.

"Nor could I. Aragorn will be no figurehead when, Valar willing, he ascends that throne. He must live today as he hopes someday to rule. With bravery. Compassion. Wisdom. Those are things that are a part of him, as inseparable from him as your nose is to your face. This is not the first nor even the most dangerous mission he has undertaken." Dirhael pulled a small keg over from the corner and sat down on it. "Carry on with your milking while I tell you a bit about my grandson."

"Your... your grandson?  Aragorn is your grandson?  Then why are you not..."

Dirhael smiled.  "Why am I not chieftain?  I am not of the line of kings.  I am his grandfather on his mother's side.  Gilraen, his mother, is my daughter."

"And what then of Halbarad?  He is Aragorn's brother?"

"No.  Halbarad is the son of my youngest son.  He is Aragorn's cousin."

"Oh, I see."  And indeed, he felt glad that some of the pieces of the puzzle that was this Dúnedain community were falling into place.  "I am sorry.  You were about to speak about Aragorn and I interrupted."

"No need to apologize.  I should have explained the family connections instead of leaving you to sort it out on your own."  He paused for a moment, then, as Denlad milked, Dirhael told him of Aragorn’s life. Losing his father at the age of two. Living in Rivendell until he was twenty. Coming to the Dúnedain, learning their ways, living amongst them not as chieftain but as just another man until such day as he finally was deemed ready to take on leadership. "A decision he made on his own but also with the wise counsel of the leaders of our settlement. A good king will make his own decisions but he will also rely on the wise counsel of others." He went on. "He fought many battles alongside us, never shirking, never hanging back. His urge to protect his people knows no bounds. He earned our respect and he earned our love. And then he left us, for many long years. He traveled south and east into realms that are only names to the rest of us. He went because he will be king of a vast territory, and those countries will hopefully be his allies. Some will be enemies. He had to know them, to learn the hearts of men and see both the evil and the good therein. And he had to see for himself the evils that beset the land that come not from the hearts of men. He came back to us, weary and careworn, but possessing a wisdom that those same years spent here could never have given him. So you see, in comparison to the road he has already traveled, this wolf hunt, and this blizzard... neither present risks greater than those Aragorn has already overcome. He will return to us, hale and whole."

Denlad nodded, chastened. "I am sorry. I suppose I did not think about all that. I thought only of my own safety and future."

"Naturally enough. Despite my fine words to you, I still occasionally find myself falling into that same trap. We all look first to our own interests, until our better nature kicks us out of our self-pity."

"Is it that? Self-pity?"

"What would you call it?"

Denlad was quiet for a while. "Self preservation, I suppose," he finally said, but then he frowned, speaking as the thoughts formed. "But... when I think only of my own future, and not of anyone else's cares, I start thinking of all those things that could endanger it, and I feel fear... but now, even as I think about the fear, I do see that I am also sad, sad that I might never reach my own goals in life. Marriage, children, bright springs followed by slow summers and finally a peaceful death in my old age. So I see that it is self pity, in its way, isn’t it?"

"You are learning fast, my son. Some men live a lifetime without coming into such wisdom, and here you’ve got it figured out at nineteen. As all men must find their way to such wisdom, Aragorn also has done so. Faith has much to do with it. Faith that there are forces working in this world beyond what we see, and forces other than those that serve evil."

"The Valar you speak of?"

"Aye. And greater even than they, for, great as they are, they serve not themselves only."

Denlad finished stripping the last drops from the teat and carefully pulled the pail away. Dirhael moved a milk can toward him and Denlad poured the milk into it, then replaced the stopper. He tied the next cow off, and Dirhael moved to milk the last one. They worked in companionable silence, and Denlad mulled over all that he had heard. There seemed so much to learn; he felt he had only touched on the very peak of a vast hidden mountain. He wondered if he would ever be counted truly wise. Then he wondered if it really mattered. Perhaps he did not need to be the wisest man to walk Middle-earth. Perhaps he need only do the thing that those forces of good required of all men. To be compassionate. Kind. Brave. Loyal. Wisdom seemed beyond his reach, but surely he could do those things.

"You are quiet," Dirhael said as he poured his milk into the can.

"You have given me much to think on."

"It will keep you warm in this blizzard. Are you finished? I can take the milk in if you will feed the animals and finish cleaning the stalls."

"That would be fine, thank you." Denlad poured in his last pail.

Dirhael made a clucking sound. "Not as much milk in there as yesterday. This cold is affecting them. Best give them a bit more grain when you feed them tonight, I think. Keep them warm. But not too much or we’ll have three cows with aching stomachs. A scoop each of barley, I think, will be plenty."

"Yes, sir." Denlad fastened the lid over the can. He leaned on the can for a moment, looking up at Dirhael. "And thank you for your patience with me."

Dirhael smiled, then hefted the can and let himself out.

Denlad busied himself clearing away the manure and sweeping out the stalls. Despite the chilly air, it was almost cozy, working in the barn with the large, gentle eyes of the cows watching him. He hummed as he forked out new hay into the manger. It took a bit of poking around in dark corners but he found the bag of barley and a scoop and added that as well. The cows immediately crowded around the manger. Denlad leaned on the partition, watching them, enjoying the peaceful quiet....

The quiet!

Denlad spun around and ran to the door and flung it open. A wave of icy air washed over him but the wind had died down at last. The snow still fell, but straight down in silent, gentle drifts. He looked up and let it fall into his face as he looked to the sky. Far away to the north, a few stars shone faintly.

The men would finally be returning!

He smiled, then started running for the house.

TBC

Chapter 8 - I Would Never Look by cairistiona

Chapter 8 - I Would Never Look

Aragorn was still worried about his Mettarë gifts. For two days they waited out the storm, then on the third evening, the winds died and the snow lessened and by morning, a weak sun broke through the clouds. By mid-day the temperature had risen sufficiently to make the icicles along the eaves drip and crash to the ground, and by the morning after, Aragorn and his men were astride their horses, heading north with their spirits high and their hearts light. Once out on the open lands north of Chetwood, the wind had scoured away much of the snow, and the riding was surprisingly easy. They made good time the first day of travel, and now on this second day, as they drew closer to home with every stride, Aragorn’s mind could not rest.

What if Denlad had seen the boots and the sword? The surprise would be utterly lost. But did it really matter? The gift itself was the important thing, after all. But Aragorn selfishly wanted to see the look on Denlad’s face when he handed him the boots and the sword. And it went without saying that the entire settlement should be present when he received his pin.

"I hope it’s good quality," Halbarad said as he pulled up beside him.

"Hmm?"

"This wool you’ve been gathering. You’ve enough to knit me a dozen pairs of socks, and after this little misadventure in the snow, I need more socks."

"Oh. Yes." Aragorn pulled his thoughts together. "I simply have much to be thankful for."

"Your ability to lie is pitiful. That is not the look of a thankful man. That is the look of a boy who is afraid someone will find his secret stash of pipeweed."

"Nothing so devious," Aragorn laughed. "I am simply worried that Denlad may have found his gifts while I was gone. I did not have time to hide them."

"I don’t know Denlad well, but he does not seem to me to be the type to go snooping about in someone’s house when he’s not there."

"No, he seems an honest one, through and through."

"Well then. No reason to worry."

"But what if Dirhael went in for some reason? Or Ivorwen? Denlad may not be a sneak, but our grandmother is. She’s forever slipping into my house and leaving me gifts to find on my return. What if Denlad went with her? All his gifts are in plain sight, on my table."

"I think you need to put it out of your mind. If he sees them, he sees them. He likely won’t realize they’re for him anyway."

"That may be true," Aragorn admitted.

"Of course it is. Unless you’ve written ‘For Denlad’ in bold strokes on all of them, he will assume they are all your own belongings."

Feeling better, as he often did after hearing Halbarad’s sensible counsel, he changed the subject. "What of you and your gifts? What did you do with them?"

"Where I stash my gifts to everyone is my own affair."

"Come now, you can tell me."

"No, I can’t. What sort of friend would I be to lay such temptation at the feet of my Chieftain?"

"I would never look."

"You say as your eyes dance with mischief. Nay, I know you well enough, Aragorn son of Arathorn. You would be rooting around looking for your gift the moment my back was turned."

Aragorn grinned. "Which is also why Elladan and Elrohir never told me where they hid gifts for me when I was a child."

"Your brothers are wise. And I am certain they would agree when I say, in that regard, you have yet to grow up." Halbarad craned around in his saddle. "Speaking of, where did they go?"

"They’re off hunting. Elladan said they would meet us at the settlement in a week or so."

"Little chance of them finding anything. Those wolves likely stripped all the game from this area."

"If there is ought to be found, they’ll find it," Aragorn said, unconcerned. But there was something that did concern him. "How are your feet?"

"Sore."

"Is this cold affecting them? Your toes have fairly serious patches of frostbite."

"Last night they ached terribly but today is warmer and so it is bearable, just. But as soon as we’re home, I’m going to sit by the fire with my feet in a nice warm pan of water. Or," he said, his eyes gleaming in a way that had Aragorn suddenly on edge. "I could put them between Miriel’s–"

"Put them in a pan of water," Aragorn interrupted. He had absolutely no desire to hear where else Halbarad had in mind to stick his feet.

"Ah, but it would be far more fun to put them–"

"Halbarad," Aragorn growled. He glared at him with the full strength of will of one who is descended from the line of Kings.

"Very well. But if you would just allow yourself to listen, you will have no end of tricks up your sleeve when you do finally wed your beloved Arwen."

"I am sure I will manage just fine left to my own devices."

"‘Tis a shame she is not here to rub your shoulder. Which, I might add, would be far more comfortable if you still kept it in a sling.  How fares it this morning?"

"Like your toes. Sore.  I did use the sling, at first, but I think now I can get by without it, although I will have to be careful not to overdo it." He tried to lift his arm but stopped less than halfway. "It will be some time before it fully heals, I fear."

"Let us hope then that it is a quiet winter and you need not do more than lift a tankard as you read books and rest."

Aragorn smiled. "And when has such a winter ever been our good fortune?"

"I can dream of such a thing, though," Halbarad sighed. Sorrow shadowed his eyes. "Aye, I can dream."

~~~

An hour later, Halbarad grunted as he walked gingerly alongside his horse. Aragorn watched with sympathy. He had had frostbite before and knew fully well the lingering pain that came with it. He wished they had not had to camp along the way last night, but it had been too far to ride straight through, weary as the men and horses still were from enduring the storm. He glanced at the hills to the north, blue with distance but moving ever closer. Another hour and they would be home and Halbarad could put his feet in warm water. Or wherever else he wished.

"So," Halbarad said. "Denlad. What exactly shall we do with the lad?"

"Let him do as he wishes, for the most part. He is a man grown, after all. I cannot force him to do anything against his will."

"Yet you will give him a pin of the Dúnedain."

"I will offer him a pin of the Dúnedain, and tell him of its full import. He need not take it."

"Yet I see from your eyes that it would grieve you if he did not."

Aragorn said nothing.

"For ten years, we have watched that boy, from afar. You read the hearts of men as well as anyone, and far better than I. Yet I worry that you may have misread this boy’s. We only saw him once a year. ‘Tis a hard thing to read the heart of a growing boy when you see him so seldom."

"And yet I have read his heart. And I see courage there, and a true spirit."

"And what of his parentage? There will be those even among our settlement who will doubt. Who will whisper. Are you sure he has the strength to overcome that?"

"No," Aragorn admitted. "No one knows a man’s strength, not even the man himself. Only time and Denlad himself can answer that question, Halbarad."

"He seems an able lad. Moves with a grace that will serve him well with the sword and bow. And all those years on the farm, doing the work himself for the most part, has left him strong in arm, leg and back. Whether he is as strong in mind or spirit..." He shrugged. "As you say. Time will tell. But one thing I do know: until such time as he proves himself worthy, I will not allow him to be in a position where his failing will endanger you."

Aragorn nodded. "That is fair enough. I would that you undertake his training, though. That you be his mentor."

"Aye, I’ll train the lad. I will be as hard on him as I was on you."

"Then we will know his strength sooner rather than later," Aragorn laughed.

"He may not last a day under my gentle tutelage."

"Gentle is not a word that comes to my mind when I think back on those days."

"When did I not treat you with tenderness and love?"

Aragorn snorted. "Archery. The first day."

"You missed the target completely!"

"Because you knocked my bow just as I fired!"

"A good archer never lets distractions interfere with his aim."

"A good archer does not let his kinsman stand so close. That much I did learn that day. That, and where your weak point lies."

"Your reaction was uncalled for. I still have a scar on my instep from your boot heel, I’ll have you know."

"I had to do something to get you to move away."

Halbarad grinned. "And it worked. That was the moment I knew we had ourselves a man who would make a wise and wily King."

"I thought you knew that the first day we met, when Elladan and Elrohir brought me to your door and you did all that bowing and scraping and vowing allegiance to the end of Arda or whatever it was you said."

"Surely you haven’t forgotten?"

"No, I haven’t," Aragorn smiled. "‘If by my life or death I might serve you, my sword is yours.’ The pledge of the Dúnedain, after all."

"Aye. And I’ve never regretted saying it, for the most part."

"For the most part?"

"Well, there was that incident when I had to fish you out of the Branduin after that orc slapped you silly and you fell in. I am still not certain my oath extends to drowning in stagnant, muddy waters."

"You dried out."

"I came up with leeches clinging all over me!"

"But you lived."

"I hate leeches."

"But you lived."

Halbarad gave him a sour look without replying. He swung himself once more atop his horse and looked to the approaching hills with a sigh of contentment. "Always warms the heart to see home on the horizon."

"Your children will be happy to see you."

"Halbaron will be pestering me immediately for that wolf’s head I promised him. I doubt he will be happy to hear that he cannot don it immediately."

"You could always wash his hair after."

"Miriel would skin me if I let Halbaron put on a fresh wolf’s head. No, he will have to learn patience and wait until it has cured. The real question is," Halbarad added, looking at Aragorn’s shoulder, "how do you propose to hide from Ivorwen the fact that you have injured yourself yet again?"

Aragorn grimaced. "I do not want to spend the next month lying in their cottage, having her wait on me hand and foot."

"See now, that is what I do not understand about you. If I were so injured, I would hie myself to her doorstep and prostrate myself on the ground, groaning and crying. And then I would happily lie about and let her feed me her excellent cooking."

"Is that what you do to Miriel?"

"No. Miriel is not as good a cook."

"Oh ho! I shall tell her you said that!"

"Don’t you dare!"

Aragorn smiled and said nothing.

"You would not... you can’t... she would..."

"Peace, Halbarad. Stop your spluttering. You know I would say nothing."

"I know nothing of the sort! It would be just like you to exercise your evil streak in such a way."

"Evil streak! Do not even jest about such a thing."

Halbard was immediately contrite. "You are right, of course. I apologize."

"Accepted." Aragorn shot him a peeved look. "‘Evil streak’. If I had such, I would have had you hanged for such a remark."

Halbarad grinned. "Which only proves you are good to the core."

"I don’t know if I am as perfect as all that, but I try not to be evil."

"Denlad would attest to that. Not many would take in an orphaned waif."

"He is not a waif nor am I taking him in."

"What then would you call him, and what you’re doing?"

"I call him as I did earlier: a man grown. And I am merely lending a hand."

"A very generous hand."

"And why not?"

Halbarad shrugged. "No reason other than we do not really know him."

"It keeps coming back to that. You will see, Halbarad. My judgment will not fail."

"And I suppose if it does, I will be there to protect you."

"As always," Aragorn smiled.

"As always."

TBC

Chapter 9 - The Light of Hope by cairistiona

Chapter 9 - The Light of Hope

"They’re here! They’re here!"

The children’s glad cries roused them all out of their homes. Denlad followed Dirhael and Ivorwen as far as the door, then stopped, again finding himself hanging back, a stranger standing to the side of the celebration, always apart...

No, not always apart. Had not Ivorwen and Dirhael treated him almost as one of their own these four days of storm and cold? He chided himself for self pity. He was blessed to be here, and he would do well to remember that. He walked outside.

The returning men seemed tired, but triumphant, and from the pelts tied to the backs of the horses, they had good reason. In the noisy melee, he heard snatches of conversation.

"... killed eighteen... left half for those in need..."

"... a few scratches and bruises, for the most part, but..."

"... got four, I think, right off the mark..."

"... blizzard was the worst..."

"... no sign of brain fever in those beasts, thank the Valar..."

"... nearly froze his toes off, thanks to that wool-brained horse..."

"...missed you as well, my love..."

"No, you cannot wear the wolf head... it must be cured first..."

"... tired of Turgil’s cooking..."

Joy seemed everywhere before him, but Denlad found his gaze on Aragorn, who was giving Ivorwen a gentle hug. He looked even more tired than the rest of the men. But as Denlad watched the stiffness in Aragorn’s bearing and movements, he realized Aragorn was more than simply weary: he was hiding pain. Denlad took a step forward, involuntarily, and then he saw it. Aragorn held his left arm close to his side, doing most of the work of untying his pack with his right hand.

So something had happened to his arm. And it appeared that Ivorwen’s sharp eyes had noticed as well, for she stood beside Aragorn, slapping his right hand away from the packs as she motioned Dirhael to come do the unloading.

Denlad wasn’t certain if his help would be wanted, but he pushed nonetheless through the crowd surrounding Aragorn. "Let me," he said softly to Dirhael.

Dirhael smiled and nodded. "Thank you, Denlad," he said.

Aragorn turned, hearing his name. "Denlad!" he cried with a glad smile. "How did you fare in this blizzard? Was your house warm enough?"

"I am well," Denlad said. "I stayed with Dirhael and Ivorwen. But what of you–"

"I am well," Aragorn said firmly. His gaze brooked no argument, so Denlad held his tongue. But he knew he was looking as worried as Ivorwen.

Aragorn looked around at the village and his gaze rested on the as yet unburned bonfire. "Dirhael, can we celebrate tonight, do you think?"

Dirhael nodded. "Aye, if you... that is, the men are not too weary."

"They are not." Again, that note of steel in his voice. Ivorwen’s mouth thinned in disapproval, but Denlad could tell there was aught any of them could do. Aragorn seemed in his way just as stubborn as Dirhael.

"Then, yes. We will celebrate! We still have the roast boar, and the women will make cakes and pies. And there is venison a plenty, and roast goose.  The harvest was not as bountiful as some years, but we still have plenty of vegetables. We will have more than enough to eat without paying for it with the coin of starvation come spring."

"I suppose everyone will think it too late to do Chieftain’s Call," Aragorn sighed. Denlad had never seen him look so wistful.

Dirhael shook his head. "We will do it. It is too important to the children, who were sorely disappointed that you had to leave on this hunt. Too many years have we done without that tradition, so none thought it wrong to delay it."

Aragorn smiled broadly. "Good. I suppose if I’m to do all this tonight, I best get my horse settled and get ready."

"I’ll mind your horse, Aragorn," Denlad offered. He had no idea what this Chieftain’s Call business was about, nor what other duties Aragorn had to perform, but from the tired slump of his shoulders, he needed as much help as he could get. Perhaps if he could do a lot of the chores, Aragorn might be able to take a well-earned nap. "And anything else you may need."

"Thank you. If it pleases you, I would like for you to come by my cottage after you have the horse settled in. I need to speak with you about something."

"Yes, sir," Denlad said.

Aragorn turned and looked at the crowd of joyful faces. "My people!" he cried, and a silence fell. "We are thankful to have returned in one piece–"

"More or less!" Halbarad shouted, to much laughter.

"More or less," Aragorn conceded with a wry grin. "And though I should be angry that Dirhael disobeyed his Chieftain..." More chuckles, and Aragorn laid a stern look on Dirhael, who merely smirked back, "we are doubly grateful at your willingness to delay celebrating Mettarë until our return. So now... let us put it off no longer! Tonight, we feast!"

There was a great roar of approval, and then it seemed to Denlad that the settlement took on the appearance of a great ants’ nest disturbed by a mighty giant’s kicking foot. Men hurried their horses to barns or ran toward the bonfire, women toward their homes, and giggling and shrieking children ran in circles unsure where to go first. He could not help but grin at the joyful chaos that Aragorn’s words had let loose.

~~~

"So now that you know of the hard road down which it will lead, do you want to live as one of us, Denlad? Embrace the heritage that is yours, through your mother, by taking the pledge of the Dúnedain?"

They were in Aragorn’s cottage, and Aragorn had just laid out for Denlad what life as a Dúnadan would mean. Denlad was seated at the table, a bowl of hot soup and tankard of ale sitting untouched before him.  Aragorn sat across from him, his grey eyes keen and grave as he waited for Denlad’s answer. The sounds of laughter and singing outside wafted through the closed doors and windows. Now and again a shadow flashed by the window as people ran hither and yon, preparing for the bonfire and the feast. He thought of their kindness, of their courtesies and joy and love for one another. Theirs was a hard life, and often lonely, but when had Denlad’s life not been a lonely struggle? Here at least he might finally know kinship and fraternal bonds...

If they would but accept him.

"I do," Denlad said softly. "I-I feel at home here, or as at home as I ever imagine I could feel."

"But?"

Denlad looked down at his soup. "I do not know if I deserve this."

"I take it you are not referring to the soup," Aragorn said, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"No. I’m referring to the welcome of your people. I know if you approve of me, they will as well, for you are the chieftain, but I fear it might be obedience to your word only, nothing deeper. I do not think I will ever truly fit in."

"You will not. At least not at first," Aragorn said bluntly. "How could you? We cannot tiptoe around the facts: you look different, you were born out of wedlock and know not your father. Your very name brings no meaning to your life, though I have no doubt very soon the name Denlad will stand for honor and bravery. But that is for the future. In the here and now, it will be difficult. There will be those who will be very reluctant to accept you, even at my behest. You have already seen the doubts in their eyes. But know this, Denlad: there are many more for whom those things matter not a whit. Dirhael and Ivorwen, Halbarad, myself.... and many others. Those are the people to whom you will bind yourself, and prove yourself. And those are the ones whom you will call family."

Denlad’s eyes stung. "And if I fail?" he whispered.

"I do not believe you will fail, Denlad." Aragorn stood and walked around the table to lay his hand on Denlad’s shoulder.

Denlad nodded, unable to speak. How he hoped Aragorn was right.

"I have some things for you, Denlad," Aragorn said, moving past him to open a chest at the end of his bed. He handed a blanket wrapped bundle to Denlad.

Denlad took it, casting a questioning glance toward Aragorn. Aragorn grinned. "Go on. Open it."

He loosened the leather belt, and the blanket fell open. The first thing he saw was a pair of boots, the likes of which he had never hoped to own.

"See if they fit. The socks as well."

Denlad wasted no time in scooting his chair back and tugging off his old, cracked boots. He pulled on the socks, then slid his foot into the supple leather. He stood up and stamped his feet to settle them and then walked around the room.

"You need say nothing," Arargorn laughed. "I can see by the way your eyes are shining that they fit."

"Thank you," Denlad breathed. He walked around some more, then leaped in the air and came down. He laughed out loud. "Thank you!"

"I fear the rest in that bundle is not nearly as exciting. Hose and another pair of socks. But they will be a comfort on cold nights."

"They’re wonderful. Did Ivorwen make them?"

"Yes, and the blanket as well."

Denlad put them on the table. He had never known such a Mettarë, but Aragorn was not finished. He handed Denlad a pile of tunics. "Miriel made them," he said, then he pulled out an empty scabbard, finely tooled. He handed it to Denlad.

"But I don’t have a...." Denlad’s words trailed off as he saw the gleaming sword in Aragorn’s hand. "... sword," he finished weakly. "That can’t be..."

"It is. A proper Dúnadan can’t go around without a sword. Take it."

Denlad grasped the hilt Aragorn held toward him and lifted the sword’s point to the ceiling.

"Try it. Test the balance. See if it suits you."

Feeling he was moving in a dream, Denlad moved well away from Aragorn and swung the sword back and forth in a figure eight. It handled beautifully, its balance nearly perfect in his hand. He looked closely at the edge, at the designs etched in the blade, at the silvery wire no bigger around than a single hair inlaid around and around the hilt. His eyes widened. "Is that... is that mithril?"

"Yes, that’s true silver. A single strand only, but finely crafted for all that."

Denlad immediately held the sword out to Aragorn, shaking his head. "No. I cannot. It is far too dear a gift. You... you barely know me!"

"I know you well enough. Keep the sword, for it needs to be used. It was Dirhael’s, an extra one given him by Master Elrond in years past. He would be honored for you to have it, for he knows you will use it well." He saw Denlad fingering the scabbard. "And Halbarad made that for you."

"He did? I will have to thank them both." Denlad laid the sword on the table, then slipped the scabbard onto the belt and swung the belt around his waist. He slid the sword carefully in the scabbard, then walked around the room. Between the new boots and the sword banging against his leg, he no longer quite felt like himself. But he suddenly grinned. Nonetheless, he felt certain he would have no trouble getting used to this new man he was becoming.

"I have more, but they will come later, at the feast. For now, I need you to take that," he pointed to a crumpled bag in the corner of the room, "and fill it with all that’s left in this trunk."

Denlad peered down into the trunk. There was an assortment of coins, small carved toys, necklaces of brightly colored beads, and small bundles of sticks. He hefted one of the bundles. "What are they for?"

"Blessings," Aragorn said cryptically. He knelt down and started handing the items up to Denlad. "Now hurry. This needs to be packed up before we go to the bonfire for there will be little time after. And since I banged up my shoulder, I will need you to assist me after the bonfire is done."

Denlad placed the items into the bag, which was made of a dark burgundy velvet. He had never felt anything so soft. "What do you need me to do?"

"Carry that for me."

Denlad waited but Aragorn did not offer any further explanation. Denlad smiled to himself. Somehow he did not mind wondering, this time.

~~~

Denlad held an unlit candle in his hand as he stood by the wood for the bonfire, listening to Aragorn as he spoke.

"... and we now stand, the remnant of the Faithful of Númenor, scattered and few, and just as our ancestors sailed with Elendil and his sons, Isildur and Anarion, to unknown shores, so also do we look to an unknown future. But we look forward with the light of hope, for just as I hold this one candle, so the light of the Dúnedain still shines in Middle-earth, even as the light of the Silmaril still shines forth each night as Eärendil sails among the stars created by Elbereth. Ever have our people found comfort in Gil-Estel, our star of hope, and ever will that light brighten our hearts in dark hours, even as this candle I hold pushes back the dark of the longest night of the year. May the light of hope spread until it burns brightly within every heart." He then turned and touched the flame of his candle to the one held by Halbarad, who turned and lit Dirhael’s, and thus it went around the entire circle of men and women standing in a ring around the piled logs. Turgil turned to Denlad and lit his, and thus the circle was complete.

Aragorn held his candle high. "To the light of hope!" he cried, and laid his candle against the dried moss  tucked amongst the the kindling and larger logs of the bonfire. Everyone followed suit, and Denlad hurried to light his section of the fire. The kindling caught and the blaze flared upward, eating hungrily at the stacked wood. Denlad stepped back away from the heat. He watched with wonder as the flames grew, sending sparks toward the stars. It seemed to Denlad as if those sparks flew all the way to the heavens to kiss the very stars Aragorn said Elbereth put into place. He had never seen anything more beautiful.

After that, there was much cheering and someone brought forth a harp and another a pipe and soon lively music filled the night air. But Denlad’s heart was still too full of wonder and awe, so he found a quiet log to sit on and simply watched the merry making. Soaking it all in, as Aragorn had suggested. Many of the women scurried around setting food on the tables that had been placed along one side of the great fire. He laughed as one woman scolded three little children when she caught them trying to filch a pie. He could not blame the children for trying; looking at the delicacies weighing down those tables was making his own juices flow.

There was a step beside him and he looked up, then scrambled to his feet as Halbarad handed him a tankard. "Peace, Denlad. I do not know what lies Dirhael has filled your head with, but I do not bite. Have some ale," he said. "You have found a nice warm spot and I wish to share it. Sit yourself but leave me room."

Denlad perched on the very end of the log, which elicited a raised eyebrow from Halbarad. "I do not think I require that much room." Denlad scooted more toward the center and Halbarad sat down beside him with a sigh. He stretched his left foot toward the fire. "Don’t ever get frostbite, Denlad. I have three toes that sting and hurt worse than Morgoth’s bad tooth right now. I spent the better part of the afternoon soaking my foot in hot water, and still it pains me."

"I’m sorry," Denlad said quietly.

"I will live," Halbarad grinned. "What do you make of all this?"

Denlad shook his head. "It is almost too wonderful to take in."

"Aragorn gives a fine speech," Halbarad said. "You can’t help but stand a bit taller and prouder, listening to him."

Denlad nodded.

"I hope you are finding our little settlement to your liking."

"I am, thank you. Everyone has been very kind.  And I thank you for the gift of the scabbard.  It is truly beautiful."

"'Twas nothing much, really.  I was glad to do it for you," Halbarad shrugged, then took a sip of ale and smacked his lips with a satisfied sigh. "Good this year," he said, then waved the tankard in an all-encompassing gesture. "Better people you will never find. Take Maevor over there. He has three children, a wife who is ill, and yet he still finds time to craft and repair our boots, and he is rarely without a smile on his face."

"Did he make these?" Denlad said, stretching out his legs to show Halbarad his new boots.

Halbarad lifted Denlad’s right foot and looked at the sole. "Aye, he did. That’s his mark, see?"

There was a small star engraved in the sole, against the front of the heel. "The Star of the Dúnedain?"

"Aye."

"Halbarad–" Denlad stopped. He wasn’t sure how to ask, or even if he should ask, but Halbarad was watching him with those keen eyes of his, so he plunged forward. "The star pins you wear... what do they stand for? And how do... how did you get yours?"

Halbarad put his tankard carefully on the ground, then removed his pin and handed it to Denlad. "These are the Stars of the Dúnedain. There is a jewel... the Elendilmir, or Star of Elendil, that the Kings of Arnor once wore, bound to their brow on a silver fillet.  These pins remind us of that emblem, and of our heritage and our hope that someday we might regain all we have lost. My own pin I received from my father, and he from his, and so on. How ancient it is, I cannot say, but I prize it above any other possession."

Denlad carefully turned it, looking at the way the fire glinted along its rays. "It is beautiful." He handed it back. "I suppose, then, that is how everyone has received theirs? Through their fathers?"

"Aye. For the most part."

Denlad nodded, hiding the sudden stab of despair. That was it, then. He might take whatever this pledge was that Aragorn had mentioned, but he could never have such a pin, never be fully equal with these brave men. He blinked several times as the fire blurred. He nodded to Halbarad. "Thank you," he said softly, then hurried away, feeling more than ever an outsider looking in.

"Denlad!" Halbarad cried, but Denlad pushed beyond the ring of people dancing until he was lost in the shadows beyond the edge of the fire. He took several deep bracing breaths of the cold night air and stared at the stars. One shone in the west, above the deep teal and purple of the lingering sunset. He wondered if that was Gil-Estel. "You will have to be my star, Eärendil," he whispered, and then his throat closed, and he could watch it no longer.

"Denlad!" Halbarad’s voice called again. "There you are."

Denlad turned.

"Aragorn needs you. Come along." He grabbed Denlad’s arm and dragged him back to the fire, where Aragorn was standing near the food. "Stay right there until Aragorn bids you come," Halbarad growled, then hurried over to join Aragorn. He picked up a grey bundle from the table and nodded to Aragorn.

"My people!" Aragorn cried, and when he had everyone’s attention, he continued. "We have lit the fire of Hope, and we have enjoyed music and food and even more important, good ale!"

A roar of laughter went up.

Aragorn smiled, then spoke again. "There is plenty of food and drink left, and I am sure the musicians will play for hours yet, but first we must take a moment to make welcome someone who has been unknowingly lost to us these past nineteen years. Any time we can swell the ranks of our people is a time to celebrate. Usually that celebration comes with a new birth, but this time, the new Dúnadan has come to us a man grown. Denlad, step closer."

Denlad gaped for a moment, then joined Aragorn. His heart thumped heavily in his chest. He wasn’t sure he was breathing properly. Aragorn put his arm across Denlad’s shoulders and turned him to face the people. In the moment before Denlad dropped his eyes to his boots, he saw many smiles and a few nods of approval.

"Denlad," Aragorn said, turning him to face him. "You have told me of your wish to live among us, as befits the bloodline of your mother."

Denlad swallowed hard and nodded. His tongue seemed to have cleaved itself to the roof of his very dry mouth and he was certain nothing could ever remove it.

Aragorn seemed not to care that he could not speak. He pressed slightly on Denlad’s shoulders. "Kneel, please," he said quietly.

Denlad dropped to his knees. A hush had fallen, and even the flames seemed to have silenced their roar. Denlad felt a tremor building in his belly, a tremor that swelled and spread to his arms and legs. It was just as well he was kneeling, for he was certain he would not have been able to stand.

Aragorn kept a hand on Denlad’s shoulder as he spoke in a quiet voice that nonetheless carried to every listener. "When a boy reaches his majority, deemed fully grown and steady of mind and arm, whether that be sixteen or twenty-six, he takes the oath of the Dúnedain. Denlad, in speaking with you, and watching you, I deem that the time is right for you to take that oath. But first I ask you: do you wish to become of member of this company? Let your answer be yea or nay, but know that this is something you do of your own free will."

"I-I do. I mean, yea. Yes."

Aragorn smiled down at him. "Very good. This then, shall you swear: Denlad, do you swear to uphold Dúnedain law and tradition, in service to your Chieftain, by your life or your death serving him even as by his life or death he has sworn to serve you?"

Denlad took a deep breath. "I do," he croaked.

"Do you swear to fight the Darkness in whatever form it takes, which is the charge of the Dúnedain, to preserve all that is good and true on Arda, helping those who are in need, protecting those who are weak?"

"I do."

"Will you hold true to your faith in the Valar and Ilúvatar, at all cost in pain, loss of worldly possessions or even death itself, even as did the remnant Faithful of Númenor, who forsaking all goods and lands, held to their faith and thus were spared from the drowning of that isle to build a new kingdom here in Middle-earth?"

Denlad nodded, his mind awash in so many emotions he could barely breathe. "I do," he said belatedly when he realized Aragorn was waiting his spoken reply.

Aragorn placed his hand on Denlad’s head for a moment, then bid him to rise. He did, on legs that were trembling so hard he was unsure he could stand. He saw Halbarad shake loose the grey bundle. Denlad’s breath caught. It was a cloak, just like the rest of the men wore. He shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them. The cloak was still there. Aragorn smiled slightly, his eyes twinkling with quiet mirth. "It is no dream, Denlad," he whispered, then louder, "Turn around."

Denlad did, stumbling a bit, and Halbarad settled the cloak across his shoulders, then handed Aragorn a small box.  Aragorn then stood before Denlad and opened the box. In the moment before tears blinded his sight, Denlad saw the flash of a many-rayed star. He dropped his head, holding himself tightly against the sob building in his chest. Aragorn pinned the star to the cloak, then leaned forward to whisper in Denlad’s ear, "You are a part of us. A Dúnadan. Do not ever believe otherwise."

Denlad nodded, unable to speak, to look up, to even breathe. His starved lungs soon demanded a breath, though, and it came in a great gulping rush. He grasped the star pin, feeling it dig into his palm and the pain steadied him somehow. He took another breath, then lifted his head. "Thank you."

Aragorn smiled, his eyes alight with joy, then he turned Denlad to face the people. "I present to you Denlad, a Dúnadan, and a mighty warrior he will be!" In the clamor that rose up, Denlad’s heart swelled with joy.

He belonged. He was a Dúnadan.

He had his star at last.

Epilogue - Chieftain's Call by cairistiona

Epilogue - Chieftain’s Call

"What exactly are you doing?" Denlad said, a little breathlessly as he tagged along at Aragorn’s heels.

Aragorn smiled. "We have a long tradition, started by one of the chieftains, perhaps Arathorn the First or his son, but it was never written down and now no one remembers. But every Mettarë night, at midnight, the Chieftain comes to the door and calls. And if the people within answer and bid him welcome with a warm fire and a sip of ale, then that household will be blessed in the coming year with good crops and healthy children."

"And the things in this bag?"

"As I told you earlier, they’re blessings. Toys for the children, kindling for the men, beads for the women. When circumstances allow, I spend a good part of my time out in the wilds carving the toys. It helps pass the lonely evenings at the fire. The beads I buy from a merchant in the Grey Havens. The kindling I gather from the woods hereabouts."

"What about the years when you’re not here?"

"Then there is no Chieftain’s Call. But Dirhael manages to come up with alternatives. He dresses up as a bear and delivers the toys. He calls it Beorning’s Growl and I wouldn’t wonder that the children enjoy that far more than their very ordinary Chieftain calling."

Denlad chuckled.

They were approaching the first house. Aragorn looked up at the night sky; they were still a few minutes early. He stopped and looked at Denlad, smiling at the sight of the young man still proudly wearing his new cloak and pin. "Will you sleep in it, do you think?" he asked.

Denlad grinned. "I might. It seems a dream, somehow. I worry I will wake up and it will all be gone."

"’Tis no dream, Denlad. You are now where you belong."

The grin widened.

"Come. It is time.  There are not many houses in this settlement, but I need to get to all of them before the hour slips away."

"Whose house is this?"

"This is Maevor’s. He has three children, and a wife who is quite ill." Aragorn pulled out three carved spinning tops, a bundle of sticks and one of the necklaces. He tucked the tops in a pocket and the bundle of kindling under his arm, but held the necklace for a moment, running his fingers across the beads. "This may well be her last Mettarë."

"Halbarad mentioned she was ill. I did not realize it was so bad."

Aragorn nodded, his throat momentarily closing on him, then he tossed the beads a few times. "We must hide our sorrow this night," he finally said, clearing his throat. "The family needs happy memories, not sorrowful ones."

"Do I stay outside?"

"I’m afraid you must, yes. Only the Chieftain calls, and only the Chieftain enters."

"I will wait right here, then."

Aragorn nodded, then stepped up to the door of the cottage and pounded. "The Chieftain calls! How will you answer?"

A muffled chorus of children’s voices cried, "We bid him come! We bid him come!"

Aragorn smiled at Denlad, then opened the door. "Behold, he comes, and may blessings be upon this house!" he cried and immediately three children launched themselves at him. He laughed, squatting down to meet them with hugs, then handed out the wooden toys. He shooed them away, then stood as Maevor handed him a tankard. Aragorn sipped from it, then handed it back. He went to the fire and placed the bundle of sticks in the flames. "May your fire always burn brightly."

"Thank you, Lord Aragorn," Maevor said, his smile as broad as ever.

"Is Idril well enough?"

"Aye, she would not miss this! Come along."

Aragorn followed Maevor to a small bedroom at the back of the cottage. There was a large bed in the room’s center, and a tiny woman within, nearly swallowed by the linens and pillows. Aragorn paused at the door and knocked softly. "The Chieftain calls!" he said playfully.

"Lord Aragorn," she said softly, her smile as wide as her husband’s. If she were in pain, Aragorn could not see it. She stretched out her hand. "Of course I bid you come."

Aragorn smiled as he gently took her hand. It felt as fragile as a bird’s wing, translucent skin stretched so delicately over the bones that his own strong and large hand felt clumsy and vulgar in comparison. Here, he knew, was a woman close to death. He had many weeks earlier conceded that there was nothing he as a healer could do for her, for her time was nearly at hand. He swallowed and kept his expression calm, his voice steady. It was likely the hardest thing he had ever done. "Blessings upon you, Idril. How are you feeling?"

"I will live to see a few more sunrises, fear not."

"Of that I have no doubt." He held up the beads. "May beauty be yours in the coming year." He slipped the strand gently over her head. "Is there anything else you need?"

"No, I have all I need right here," she said, smiling at her husband and children, who had trooped in to ring around her bed.

"That’s right!" the youngest, a little girl of five, piped up. "I help cook!"

"And I clean the floors!" the second boy chimed.

"And I give her peppermints!" the oldest laughed.

"Ah, so that’s why you climbed up my back and tackled me, you little rascal!" Aragorn growled, feigning a punch toward the boy’s head. "Stealing my peppermints for your mother!"

The boy ducked, laughing, and ran out of the room. Aragorn bent over Idril and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "I will come by tomorrow, to check on you."

"I would like that, Lord Aragorn."

He shook Maevor’s head and let himself out of the house. He paused for a moment, looking long into the night sky. Gil-Estel had set, but there was a host of lights scattered in a frosty band across the heavens.

"Aragorn?" Denlad said softly. "Are you all right?"

"A moment," Aragorn said, his voice catching. "A moment."

Denlad waited, saying nothing, and Aragorn finally sighed. "I am a healer," he said quietly. "And yet..." He shook his head and worked up a smile. "Come. We have many more homes to visit ere the hour is past."

Denlad fell in step beside him. "Aragorn, may I ask you something?"

"Yes."

"Do you drink at every house?"

Aragorn laughed, his mood lifting. "You are no doubt wondering if you will have to drag home a drunken chieftain by the end of this, aren’t you?"

"It has crossed my mind."

"I drink only a sip at each house."

"Good."

"Watching out for me already, are you?"

"Always," Denlad said firmly.

Aragorn smiled. "Then perhaps I will start taking more than a sip."

Denlad stumbled a bit, and Aragorn laughed aloud. "Fear not, Denlad! I promise to stay quite sober."

And so they walked from house to house, Aragorn entering, Denlad faithfully waiting outside, until the bag was nearly empty and Aragorn’s heart full. After emerging from Dirhael’s home, he took the bag from Denlad. "Run along home, now. And await your Chieftain’s call."

Denlad grin nearly split his face in two, and he hurried down the hill. Aragorn watched him go. "Run along home, Mighty Warrior," he whispered into the night. "Run along home."

He hitched the bag, then walked down the hill.

z88;

~fine~

~And a Merry Christmas to all~

Author’s Notes:

My imagined tradition of the Dúnedain’s Chieftain’s Call borrows heavily on the Scottish tradition of first-foot or first-footin, in which the first person–usually a dark-haired male, preferably young and handsome (can you now see why I had to include something like this??)–to cross the threshold bearing gifts on the night of the New Year brings good luck and prosperity for the new year. He brings with him symbolic gifts of coal or coin or even whiskey. I borrowed that idea and reworked it into a traditional role for the Dúnedain chieftain to perform at Yule.

As for the meaning of the Star of the Dunedain pins–that is something I have often wondered about. Tolkien left no clear definition of their significance of the pins, so I have drawn my own conclusions, based on the history of the Dunedain and the importance of the star to that people. I did not think it a stretch to have it be a symbol of the lost mithril Elendilmir, even as it is a symbol of hope that they would once again have a King that would wear the Elendilmir upon his brow once more. I do not see the pins as a symbol of rank, but more as a symbol of hope and of their responsibility to protect the line of Kings.

I hope this story added a little bit of entertainment to your Christmas season, and a blessed New Year to you all!

This story archived at http://www.naiceanilme.net/viewstory.php?sid=1368