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."
"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."
"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?"
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," 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.
Another head shake.
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."
"You’ve heard of him?"
"He is the Dark Lord? The same one that’s down..." Denlad pointed, hoping it was to the south.
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?"
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."