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“I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself.” Gilraen, mother of Aragorn II. Appendix A, The Return of the King.
The heavy rains of waning autumn drenched the trio of sombre riders. Casting a glance to the sky, the young woman pulled her heavy cloak even closer around her in an effort to ensure the protection of the precious burden she bore without complaint. As long as her son remained warm and safe in her arms, she did not mind the rain, for the cold, dull greyness of the day seemed only fitting, and she tilted her head back slightly to welcome the water upon her face. Unable to cry despite the desperate ache in her heart, she took some small comfort instead in the tears of the sky.
Her boy had now become the entire purpose of her continued existence, her sole reason for enduring. He was not yet three years of age, and the whole world as he had known it had abruptly come to an end at the point of an orc’s arrow. His father was dead.
Arathorn’s death had come as no shock to her, for she had long foreseen the day would come when the sons of Elrond would return bearing her husband’s body. Though Arathorn had shared a bond of brotherly affection with Elladan and Elrohir since the days of his youth, she had always been wary of the two, and she had kept them at a distance. Each time the grandly noble and wondrously fair twin sons of the half-elven lord, dressed in their fine attire and speaking with courtly grace, had swept into her village to take her husband away on another of their campaigns against the shadow, she had known in her heart it could well be his last.
Now, she was a widow at the age of twenty-six, and Aragorn, barely more than a babe, had a father no longer. Her people no longer had their chieftain, at least not one who was yet out of swaddling.
When the party had returned from their ill-fated patrol, there was much heated debate between the sons of Elrond and the village elders concerning her son’s future and her fate. Elladan and Elrohir had spoken in earnest of the dire situation of the Dunedain. Their father had foreseen that the Enemy was actively seeking to eliminate the descendants of Isildur and, they argued, now that Aragorn was all that remained of his line, it was imperative that the boy be immediately secluded in secrecy in Elrond’s realm.
The Dunedain, of course, had a long history of contact with Imladris. In times of dire need, Lord Elrond had been most generous in offering succour to her people, and many of their chieftains had spent some years of their youth in the haven, learning warcraft and lore from the elven masters there. However, no future chieftain had been taken at such an early age and had his contact with his own people so completely severed as Elrond’s sons now proposed. Eventually, the village elders, included amongst them her own father, reluctantly agreed to allow the sons of Elrond to take her and her young boy away from their people to the protection of an elvish haven. She had acquiesced, for she would have agreed to sail to Valinor itself if it would assure the safety of her only child.
She did not witness the burial of her husband. There was no time to mourn; little time, even, to prepare. She did not need to pack, the sons of Elrond had told her, for all she needed would be provided for her and her boy when they reached their destination. Time was of the essence they told her, and every delay could put their lives in jeopardy.
Now, as they traveled the perilous trails between her home and theirs, she placed her son’s very life, as well as her own, in the hands of the two who had failed to protect her husband. She cast a heated glare at the one who rode ahead of her. As if somehow sensing the angry look directed at his back, the son of Elrond seemed to grow even more rigid in the saddle as they continued their sombre journey in silence.
Were she honest with herself, she would admit that her anger was misplaced. She was not the only young widow amongst her people, for the days were dark indeed, and the Dunedain had grown sadly accustomed to the reality of untimely death. She knew her husband well, and, under the influence of the sons of Elrond or not, nothing would have kept Arathorn from riding out against the Enemy with his men. He was their chieftain, and his sense of honour was far too strong for him to ask of others what he was unwilling to do himself. For now, however, her grief was still too close and, in her sorrow and her pain, she sought an easy target upon which to pin the blame.
The pace of their flight to safety had been relentless and her entire body ached from the strain of the journey. Despite many offers from the twin who spoke in gentler tones to carry her precious burden, she had allowed neither to take her child. They rode in single file, with the twin who seemed inclined to take charge riding at the front of the solemn procession. The other followed closely behind her, as he had done since the beginning of their travels. Both remained ever vigilant, their swords at the ready.
No words had passed between them for many hours. Even young Aragorn, sensing the gravity of the situation, had remained silent. Finally, now, he slept fitfully in her embrace, his head resting against her chest. He was frightened and confused; she could feel the tension in his small body and the unnaturally rapid pace of his heart.
Eventually, they came upon a valley that had been hidden to her eyes until they were directly above it and they carefully made their way down the steep winding path which led them into a forest of pines. Only now did the sons of Elrond relax their guard, if but a little. The trail widened slightly and the twin in the lead allowed his pace to slow as the one who had long guarded her back brought himself to ride at her side. She kept her eyes fixed firmly on the trail as he turned his head to speak to her softly, relief evident in his voice: “Lady Gilraen, we now approach Imladris.”
She acknowledged him with a slight tip of her head, though his words were unnecessary. She could feel a change in the forest around her, for while the day remained grey and the rain continued, the air felt lighter somehow, less oppressive, and she took in a deep breath. A sense of peace pervaded these woods, and though it brought no peace to her heart, she was relieved to feel Aragorn relax slightly in her arms.
After a time, they came to a clearing in the trees beside the bank of a river that was running rapidly and gurgling noisily under the heavy rains of late autumn. All around her, from the very trees it seemed, she could hear soft singing. The voices were glorious and sublime, the likes of which she had never before heard, and although the song was sung too softly for her to decipher the words, the tone was sombre and sorrowful. She imagined that this was some form of elven greeting and, perhaps, a lament for her dead husband.
Her mind turned to thoughts of her village, her home. What were her friends and family doing now? While, no doubt, they were still deeply in mourning, they were not climbing trees and singing, of that she was quite certain. Autumn was waning and the days were growing colder. That meant increased labour, for winter brought even greater hardship. The crops had to be fully harvested and preserved if they were to survive the coldest months without hunger. She dearly wished she could be there to lend her hand, for every able body was needed at this time of year.
She was drawn from her thoughts by the quiet voice of the twin who now stood beside her: “We must dismount and walk our horses over the bridge, my Lady. It is quite narrow, and the only crossing on the river. Please allow me to aid you with your son.”
After a moments hesitation, she carefully passed her waking child to the twin just long enough to allow herself to dismount, before she immediately took the boy in her arms again. “I will carry my son.”
He conceded with a bow of his head. “Permit me to lead your horse then.”
The stone bridge was indeed very narrow; so narrow, in fact, that they were required to cross slowly in single file. Quite an intelligent design from a defensive point of view, she took note, and wondered briefly if Imladris had ever in its long history had need to defend itself.
They continued in silence on foot, and she was most glad for the opportunity to stretch her legs. Soon the buildings of Imladris came into view amongst the trees. Although Arathorn had spoken warmly of the elven refuge where he had spent a few years of his youth, no poetic descriptions that she had heard of its beauty could quite prepare her for what she saw now before her eyes.
It was a city of air and water. Constructed of highly-polished and intricately carved thin beams of wood, the buildings were open and airy, almost ethereal, against the heavy mass of the tree-lined mountain that formed one side of the valley. They were not merely dwellings, for each one was a work of art to her: ornate and grand, yet simple and natural; solid and timeless, yet light and delicate. Several waterfalls of varying heights cascaded down the cliffs, and streams, making their way to the river in the middle of the valley, meandered between and even through the buildings. Everything was in balance and harmony, and the structures seemed to grow out of the very trees and the air and the water all around them.
She felt movement in her arms and looked down to see Aragorn peering out from between the folds of her cloak. Though his mouth was hanging open, he made not a sound, and she nearly smiled at his awestruck expression of childish wonder until she realized that her face likely bore a very similar countenance.
They soon arrived at what she thought to be the main house, and, despite the foul weather, its doors were flung open wide, as if in greeting. As they approached, a figure, seeming to her an apparition, emerged from the doorway and glided down the stairs to stand directly before her.
Not for the first time this day, she found herself gaping in wonder. The being appeared to have physical form, for she could see that he was tall, lithe, and strong, and wondrously fair of face with long golden hair; and yet, to her it was as though the very sun had lowered itself from the heavens to greet her. This translucent corporeal shell seemed barely able to contain the pure white light within, and she had to restrain her ardent desire to touch the empyreal vision before her eyes to assure herself that this was in fact a thing of flesh and blood.
She was roused from her reverie by the melodious sound of a soft, lyrical voice: “Lady Gilraen, I am Glorfindel and I welcome you to Imladris, though I regret deeply that my welcome can not be under better circumstances.”
Then, the golden elf lowered his head, closing his eyes and placing his right fist against his chest, as he continued: “Imladris grieves with you.”
These words made her ire rise. What did this creature of pure light know of her grief and why did he demean them both with such trite and empty phrases of duplicitous bereavement? She bit back the angry retort on the tip of her tongue and instead said nothing in response.
He raised his head and again turned his eyes to her. Her breath caught in her throat. She saw now upon this face untouched by age the raw and undisguised sorrow of ages. It was as though he had lowered a veil and opened himself to her, permitting her a rare glimpse into the fathomless depths of his soul. She then knew with certainty that he spoke with the utmost sincerity and respect, his voice like the most sorrowful, yet most beautiful music she had ever heard, as he added softly: “I grieve with you, my Lady.”
Deeply moved, she knew not what to say. At that moment, however, she was spared from the need to respond by a small arm emerging from her cloak and making its sure way toward the beautiful, and very tempting, golden strands of hair within its reach. She gently, yet effectively, contained Aragorn’s small hand within her own as the boy peeked his head further out from his mother’s cloak.
At this, Glorfindel suddenly smiled and, despite the ceaseless rain, the day grew brighter. “And what do we have here?” asked a now light and merry voice.
“I Aragorn,” answered the toddler proudly as he readily returned the smile.
“Indeed you are,” came the pensive response as a pale hand reached out to softly stroke unruly stands of curly dark hair. “You are your father’s son.”
Then Glorfindel turned to look at her and she could see that the veil was again in place, and his face displayed little emotion as he said kindly: “Please, come with me now, for Elrond, the master of this house, awaits you inside to offer what comfort he can in this time of grief.”
Much to her relief, the elf did not ask to carry her son, but rather held out his arm to her. Resting Aragorn on her hip with her left arm, she accepted his offer with a slight bow of her head, looping her other arm in his. She was grateful for his steady support as they mounted the stairs and entered the house, for, while she was not one to swoon, at this moment she had the very disconcerting feeling that her legs might fail her.
She focused her attention on the surroundings. The grand hall through which Glorfindel now led her was adorned with antiquities of all kinds: paintings and portraits dating back to the second age; ancient sculptures and statues; fine, delicately crafted pottery which looked to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old. Aragorn, usually quite an active boy, began to squirm in her arms, indicating his desire to get down. She held him firmly, for this was no place for a curious toddler.
As she marveled at the finery all around her, her mind again turned to thoughts of home. She found herself thinking of the food that could fill the larders, and the warm clothes that could cover the backs of the children in her village with but a tiny portion of the wealth of Lord Elrond, friend to the Dunedain. With a slight shake of her head, she firmly turned her mind from that path. No good could come from such thoughts, particularly not when she was now directly dependent upon the charity of this elf Lord, perhaps for her son’s very survival.
They stopped at a finely engraved massive oak door, and before Glorfindel could knock, she heard a voice from inside. “Enter.”
Glorfindel brought her into a large study, laden with ancient volumes and tomes which contained within the history of millennia. There she met for the first time the Lord of Imladris.
He stood tall and straight, mighty in stature, and as fair as the most noble of elf lords. His long hair was as dark as a moonless night. In his grey eyes was wisdom, and, though his face seemed ageless, she saw borne upon it the memory of many a profound grief. Yet, despite the sorrow he bore in his countenance, there was about him a sense of serene kindness that was a balm to her heavy heart.
“Father…,” she heard a rough voice and only now did she realize that the sons of Elrond had followed her and Glorfindel into their father’s study. She had not brought herself to look upon the faces of the twins since they had returned to her village with Arathorn’s body and now, as she turned her gaze on them, she saw for the first time the true depth of their anguish.
The father tenderly wrapped his arms around the one who had spoken, and the son seemed to slump wearily into his embrace, as Elrond whispered quiet words into his ear.
The other twin remained standing rigidly and she could see the tension in his body as he spoke with agitation: “Father, there is much to discuss…”
Elrond turned to his other son, and there was great affection, yet firm authority in his tone as he responded calmly: “It will wait till the morrow, Elladan. For now, I will see to the comfort of our guests. You would all benefit greatly from some rest.”
With that, Lord Elrond turned to her, taking her hand in his own as he spoke: “Lady Gilraen,” and then he addressed the child she held in her arm with a deep bow, “and Lord Aragorn.” This brought a smile to her little boy’s face. “I welcome you to our home. It is my most sincere desire that you will find some measure of comfort here.” He gestured toward a large sofa near the hearth, in which a fire burned brightly. “Please have a seat by the fire, for you must be cold and weary.”
Suddenly feeling weary to her very bones, she gratefully sank into the comfortable sofa, keeping Aragorn firmly on her lap despite his protests to get down, and she lowered her eyes deferentially as she responded: “I thank-you for your hospitality, my Lord.”
“Please, call me Elrond, my Lady.” His voice was kind and his words warmed her spirits more than the fire could.
She looked up at him again. “Only if you will call me Gilraen.”
With a bow of his head and a slight smile on his lips, Elrond conceded. “As you wish, Gilraen.”
He poured a small amount of a clear liquor from a silver flask into a goblet, which he then gave to her. “Please drink this. You will find it quite refreshing.”
She accepted the goblet and took a small sip. Her eyes widened in surprise, for, though the liquid had no taste on her tongue, she felt warmed and invigorated by it, and as she drained the rest of the glass, she was much revived. “I thank-you, Elrond. I do feel better.”
“You are very welcome. If you wish now to refresh and take some rest, it would be my honour to show you to your rooms.”
She could think of nothing she desired more than to be alone with her son and her grief and she hoped her face did not betray her eagerness too keenly as she responded: “That would be most appreciated.”
Elrond offered his arm and led them from the room. After giving Aragorn strict instructions not to touch a thing, she permitted him to walk at her side, though she still kept a firm grasp on his hand. She was reluctant to admit it, but he was the only familiar thing around her, and he felt to her like a lifeline.
They were brought to a suite of rooms far more lavish than anything she had before seen. There was a sitting room, with a fire burning in the hearth and a table laid with what to her was a feast. Off the sitting room, there were two bedrooms, one containing a small bed with side railings, suitable for Aragorn, and a bathing chamber containing a large metal tub that she could see had been filled with warm water, still steaming. Several changes of clothing had been laid out for them both, as well as some small carved wooden animals, much to Aragorn’s delight. She marveled at how all had been prepared so well for them in such short order.
“I hope you will find this suitable,” said Elrond as he showed her around.
“It is more than suitable. I thank-you again for the hospitality that you have shown to me and my son.”
“You need not thank me. We will speak again in the morning, when you feel rested.”
He then introduced her to the elf maiden who was placing a vase of fresh flowers on the center of the table. “This is Mereniel. If you have need of anything, just ask it of her.”
“I can think of nothing I could possibly need.”
Mereniel spoke kindly: “If you need my assistance for any reason, my Lady, please just open your door and I will be at your side.” With a warm smile and a deep bow, the maiden left the room, and Elrond followed her, closing the door behind him.
Releasing a deep sigh, Gilraen sank into a chair at the table. She was numb from weariness and grief. Her husband was dead, her family was far removed from her, and she felt very much alone in a foreign land. She wanted nothing more than to give in to her sorrow and move no more, but she could not, for she had her boy to care for. She could not fail her son, he was all she had left. He was now her whole world.
With great effort she turned her attention again to her child. Aragorn, happily playing with his new toys, seemed quite content in these strange surroundings. She managed to get him to sit at the table, and she was most relived to see him eat heartily. The food, though more elaborate than she was accustomed to, had a wonderful aroma, but she found that she could not bring herself to dine with her son.
After bathing Aragorn in the wonderfully warm water of the large tub, and finally convincing him to get out, they both dressed in thick, soft nightclothes which fit as though they were made for them. She brought her son into the big bed with her, holding him close. The bedding was of the finest cloth she had ever seen; intricately embroidered yet soft and warm and beautifully scented. Although Aragorn was still excited by all that had happened that day and he squirmed in her arms, he was also deeply exhausted and, after a brief tale of brave lords and beautiful ladies, he was soon fast asleep.
She remained awake long into the night, listening to the deep, rhythmic breathing of her son in his peaceful sleep. Outside the last homely house, the heavy rains continued unabated. When she closed her eyes and listened, the lonesome and steady sound made by the drops of water hitting the roof transported her to a stormy night in the small but sturdy and comfortable home she had shared with her child and her husband. It was as though she were back there, and Arathorn lay in the bed with her, and Aragorn was curled safely between them. For the first time since her husband’s death, Gilraen wept, until sleep finally claimed her.
Coming up in the next chapter: a conversation between a half-elven Lord and his sons. Please leave a review. Thanks.