Add Story to Favourites A Star in Midwinter by cairistiona
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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.


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