The sun had just crested the far
light and warmth into the small bowl of the valley and painting the
tall grass a golden green. The young man walking through woods spread
his hands palm down and swept them across the tops of the tallest
fronds, catching the dew with his fingertips. The moisture wet his
and his overcoat, staining them a darker brown than they already were.
His clothing enabled him to hide easily and become instantly invisible
in the surrounding wilderness. Quick, sharp eyes the color of the
deepest woods shot through with silver looked cautiously around the
seemingly empty expanse of the glade before him. His dark hair spilled
down around tall shoulders and swept back slightly from his angular
face. The sun painted streaks of gold and red through his unkempt
locks and he turned his face into the soft morning breeze to keep it
from spilling into his eyes.
He was a ranger, albeit a very young one. He walked cautiously but with a definite spring in his step. His thoughts were far from where he presently was. His name was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, direct descendant of Isildur, King of Gondor, and raised by Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, half elf, a lineage that he had only just recently been told of and one that he was not yet comfortable with. He still preferred his elven name, given by his elven father: Estel, it meant hope. However none of that mattered at the moment to the young man. He had given up his claim to the throne and chosen instead to become a Ranger; he would walk in the path of those who had gone before him and learn the ways of the land. Excitement radiated from him like the morning mists rising from the earthen bowl he walked as the sun warmed the cooled grass around him.
Motion to his right brought his attention back to his surroundings as a buck leapt into the path in front of him. Catching sight of the man, it shied back and bolted for the safety of the trees to his right. He slowly straightened his stance and laughed at himself as he removed his hand from the hilt of his sword. Shaking his head, he chastised himself for being so easily caught off guard. He was a ranger now; he would need to learn not to be caught unaware like that.
His path took him to the edge of the meadow and, as he crested the lip of the depression, he was given a slight glimpse of the lay of the land before him. Mountains and forest as far as a man could see stretched beneath the canopy of the morning sky. From where he stood he could just barely see the forests of Mirkwood. Indecision caught him and he slipped beneath the protective shielding of the forest trees that ringed the glade as he made up his mind. He had wanted to travel to Mirkwood and perhaps visit the elves that lived there. He knew that Thranduil, king of the wood-elves, was a friend of his adopted father, Elrond, lord of Rivendell. Elrond had been the only father that the young man had ever known. He knew he had a human father, but there were no memories of the man who held that position at one time. His human father had been killed when he was young and Elrond had taken him in and raised the boy. Elvish was his first language and Common after that. Many were the stories that he had heard of the Elves who lived in Mirkwood.
With a smile, he remembered the cautions of his elven father before he had set out on this his first foray as a ranger.
"Aragorn, there are many things
in this world for
which you are not yet prepared, my son." Elrond walked the broad
overlooking the deep rift in which Rivendell had been built so many
Aragorn stepped up his pace, tearing his eyes away from the vista point they had just passed. He could never get enough of this place, his home. It always seemed new to him, more beautiful and peaceful than each day that had already passed.
"Yes, Father, I know, but..."
"Do not interrupt me, Estel." Elrond turned back towards his son and stopped the youth, placing his large hands on the young shoulders and staring into the familiar, dark eyes. "You only think you know. All the elves you have ever met in your young years have met you with kindness because I have taken you under my wing as my own. You are one of them. But they will not all view you that way. You must remember that some have had the displeasure of being subject to men who have no love for elves. You will meet men who will scorn you because of your lineage and because you were raised by elves. The world is not as kind as you have thus far known. There are places that men have no business being. Do not think your link to my house or your heritage will save you. You must be wise, young one."
"I’m just going out for a short time. It’s my first time on my own. I won't get into any trouble, I promise," Aragorn said seriously, yet his eyes were still twinkling with the prospect of his first real adventure.
Elrond smiled and shook his head. "I know that look, my son. Mind yourself. I have every knowledge of just what you are capable of getting into."
Aragorn rolled his eyes and looked out toward the far heights of Rivendell. With a sigh he looked back at the man who had raised him. "Father, don’t send anyone out to trail me this time. I can do this on my own. How will I ever learn?"
More than just the usual youthful eagerness for independence, Aragorn was driven by an even deeper-seated desire. The desire to prove himself to himself. He did not forget the blood that flowed through his veins, blood that held a history of both high honor and deadly weakness. Some part of his heart was anxious to know which part would be his lot and determined to do all he could to bear the virtues, and not the faults, of his long and distinguished lineage.
"Yes, well, I seem to remember the last time we had this conversation and Moranuen had to save you from that mine shaft." Elrond hid his smile by turning and continuing his walk along the pathway.
Behind him his adopted son groaned. "That does not count. It wasn’t my fault. I was trying to lose Mora and he distracted me."
With a laugh Elrond turned. "You consider calling out a warning a distraction?"
Aragorn began to laugh as well as he closed the distance between himself and the elder elf. "Please just promise you’ll let me do this on my own. I’ll return to you in a fortnight. Will that do?"
Elrond stared long and hard into the brightly twinkling, dark eyes that were fastened so hopefully upon him, but could not contain the smile that spread across his face. "So young and yet so old. Go then, my son. Watch yourself and, if you should decide to visit our relatives in Mirkwood, go to the south of the wastelands and travel around them, not through them. There are rumors of wars there between the dwarves and the orcs and it is not safe."
"Yes, Father. I will be safe. I will come back." With a quick hug the young man was running back up the walkway already planning his path into the wilds.
"Be careful, Estel. You do not realize how important you will be to the fate of men in Middle-earth," the elf lord quietly murmured to himself. From the shadows on his left the eldest of his twin sons, Elladan, silently stepped out next to him.
"Shall I have him trailed, Father?"
"No, let him go. He must learn." Elrond sighed with heavy resignation.
"Is that wise?" Elladan questioned with concern.
"He is a man. He must learn the ways of the Dunèdain; they will aid him in his life. We cannot always be there for him."
With a smile Elrond clasped his eldest son's shoulder and turned the elf away from the retreating form of Aragorn. "He has his own path, Elladan. Men often learn best the hard way. If he is not back in a fortnight, you and Elrohir may go after him."
"I will never understand them, Father." Elladan focused his attention ahead of them, though in his heart he feared for his mortal brother.
"You will. Some day you will."
"Yes, when I’m three-million years old perhaps."
Elladan’s response elicited laughter from the elder elf, "Yes, maybe by then."
Aragorn shook his head at the
memory. His father
worried too much about him. True, he was mortal, but still he was
twenty-two; it was high time he got out on his own. He glanced quietly
around the area in which he stood. The sounds of the forest brought
news to his ears; he could hear the buck he had spotted earlier running
with a group of does a few yards ahead, the birds in the trees
twittered undisturbed, and at the base of the large pines a squirrel
darted across the soft earthen floor. There were no intruders about;
danger did not walk under these trees at the present. He tested the
air. It was sweet and clean. It blew from the west and brought hints of
the sea. There was rain on the fringes of the wings of the breeze that
caressed his face, but the storm was well off and the direction of the
wind meant to take it far north of the area he would be traveling. The
scent of the warming valley swelled up around him as the heat from the
sun caused small eddies of warm wind to sweep past him, hidden beneath
the canopy of the pine forest. All these things he had learned to
detect from his elven brethren and yet he knew there was still more
that escaped him.
He turned towards the Mirkwood forests. Elladan and Elrohir had told him tales of the elves that lived there. He had seen the Mirkwood elves on high holidays and rare occasions, but the thought of spending time with them excited him. His brothers had said that their Silvan brethren were experts in warring and hunting. He longed for more experience in those arts. So, mind made up, he headed out through the forest and made his way to the edges of the rocky wasteland that served as Mirkwood's western border.
For an hour the young ranger stood silently on the wooded ridge, keeping watch. His sharp eyes scanned the horizon and the rocky buttes and plateaus for any sign of danger or life. His father’s words floated back to him, ‘take the southern route around the wasteland.’ But he had promised to be back in a fortnight. If he crossed the wastelands during the day, he should be safe and if he left within the hour, he would be nearly across by nightfall. Going south would cost him time, days that he could not spare and he would have precious little left to spend with the elves once he reached their territory as it was.
Yes, his father worried too much. With a last glance around him, he stepped out into the open and began to pick his way to the far side and the safety of the woods of Mirkwood.
Short scrub brush dotted the landscape, twisted and warped by the winds that shallowed out the plateaus and carved the rocks into smooth, odd shapes. Remnants of large riverbeds trickled through eddies, grooves in the granite created by years of following the same paths. The going was easy and quick but daylight was fading fast as the young ranger jumped a deep gorge. The cut in the rock face was not more than three feet wide, but he could hear the rush of water somewhere hundreds of feet far below. Steadily he made his way to the far side of the wasteland. He was determined to make it by nightfall.
Night had fallen hours ago and
Aragorn bit back a
curse as he tripped on a rocky outcropping; the jagged rocks caught at
his boot toes as he quickly moved across the boulders. He was
frustrated with himself. He should have gained the wooded lands by now.
He was close; he could smell the pines. How many times had he been out
at night? This was no different, he chided himself. But deep inside he
knew it was. He caught himself glancing over his shoulder just waiting
for Moranuen to step out from behind some large rock and chastise him
for being out in the wastelands at night, just as his father had warned
him not to be. And yet there was no one there.
Or was there? A skitter of rocks to his left caused him to pause midstep. Silently he drew his sword and froze in the quiet moonlight. It was cooling rapidly now; his breath gathered in a hazy white fog when he exhaled. He tried to still his breathing and listen but the pounding of his own heart was too loud in his ears. Carefully he continued moving, his every sense heightened. Someone was on the plateau with him, but must have been downwind because he could not tell who it was or where. The growing sounds of shuffling feet on the rocks around him ricocheted back from the granite walls – he had company.
Glancing frantically around, the ranger realized for the first time that he was vulnerable. There were no trees to hide in or behind. The rock shelf he was trapped on had no shallows or gullies. Fear froze him in place and he wondered oddly who it would be that he met first, the dwarves or the orcs.
He didn’t have to wait long to find out. A swiftly moving group of dark figures rose before him, rushing up the gently sloping rock face towards his vantage point. Starlight glinted from the tips of cruelly twisted scimitars and the odd shaped blades of orc broadswords.
Widening his stance, Aragorn raised his sword into a ready position. There was nowhere to run and the orcs had seen him by now. Their large, luminous eyes suited for night travel had spotted him easily enough. Their howling banter caught on the winds that scoured the rocky expanse caused the hair on his neck to stand on end. He would never live this down if he lived through it at all, he thought darkly to himself. As the first orc gained his position he stepped forward, prepared for battle, and was surprised to find himself forcefully thrown backwards by a smaller heavy dark shape that had darted into the fray from his right. Dwarves! One of the powerful, small cousins to men and elves had shoved the ranger out of the way and with a fierce battle cry slew the oncoming orc.
"Damn it!" Aragorn hissed under his breath; he was caught in the middle of an orc/dwarf battle. Swarms of dwarves clambered over the rocks and soon the plateau was a moving mass of chaos as the two enemies chased each other across the expanse engaging in battle; the sounds of clanging armor and death cries assaulted his ears.
He tried to gain the edge of the cliff he was on. If he could get into the forest he could lose them. Wading into the fray, he made for the granite lip. An orc on his left took a swipe at him with a scimitar, the blade dripping with a liquid darker than the night. He didn’t even want to think what the weapon had sliced through before its attention was directed at him.
Bringing his sword up in a low arc, he met the haft of the weapon and cleaved the blade from the shaft. Following the arc of his swing, he spun around and stepped back into the orc, thrusting his blade into the foul creature's chest. It fell with a howl to the stone floor. He danced over the prone body and barely kept from beheading a dwarf that had stumbled into him, knocked senseless by an orc hammer. He lowered the small fighter to the rock; there was nothing he could do for him now, the ranger had to move as the wave of fighting flowed across the granite and cut off his way of escape. He stood from his kneeling position preparing to defend his location and was assailed by the sound of arrows whistling through the night air. One passed inches from his face, close enough to stir his hair with its passing. On instinct he ducked, but without protection he was at the mercy of luck and she had long ago left the plateau for saner regions.
An arrow bit deeply into his right thigh and dropped him to his knees. He stifled a cry and rose to his feet once more. An orc loomed up before him and he staggered back, narrowly avoiding the thick, slashing blade. Thrusting his own sword before him, he caught the enemy’s weapon with his and held the beast off. The orc’s strength surprised him as it pressed the human down with the steel edge. Two dwarves jumped onto the black creature, attacking its crude armor and bearing the beast to the ground.
Aragorn attempted to rise once more, but his balance was off and he was precariously close to the edge of the plateau. He wove unsteadily trying to force his injured leg to bear his weight. As he got his balance and began to move back into the battle, the orc before him rose up, throwing off the dwarves as though they were nothing. One of the compact, heavy bodies slammed the ranger full in the chest. The wind was forced from his body and he was thrown backwards by the impact. His feet lost contact with the rock face and he was free-falling through the night air. He realized with calm clarity that the collision with the dwarf had pushed him off the plateau and he was falling from the heights.