The Reins of Power
At twenty, Aragorn discovers that he is the hereditary captain of a people he has never met, but it will take many years and he will endure many hardships before he becomes a true leader of men.
I am posting this as a single story with five chapters. However, I could just as easily have posted it as a series consisting of five separate short stories. Each "chapter" is complete in itself, and there are no cliffhangers. However, each "chapter" makes references to the events of the earlier ones, and they are intended to be read in order. Each "chapter" is set some time – usually several years – after the previous one. The entire story (c. 32,000 words) is already written, but needs quite a bit of editing. I hope to post a part every few days.
This is my attempt to clarify my own head canon of Aragorn's backstory, in particular his life with the northern Dúnedain. Obviously, it's a subject that other authors have already played with, but I couldn't resist playing with it myself.
I: The World of Men
So this was what Men smelled like, thought Estel, from his quiet place in the corner. It was smoke and sweat and something foul and bitter. It was meat and salt, and earth, too, but not the earth he was familiar with.
He took an experimental sip from the drink they had given him: beer, they called it. It was not pleasant. The bitter smell came from the beer, he decided: years of spillages seeping into the woodwork and the gaps between the stone flags. None of the Men seemed to mind it. The smoke came from the fire, which at least was familiar, but a strange and more aromatic smoke issued from the mouths of some of the Men. His father had told him about galenas, a plant with no healing virtues, and Estel had laughed to hear that hobbits liked to burn it and inhale the smoke through reed-like things called pipes. It seemed that the habit had spread to some Men. Estel could not understand it.
Of course, he reminded himself, Elrond was not his father, and he was not called Estel, after all. Perhaps he would have to understand it, if he were to become… whatever it was that he would become.
He tried the beer again, but it was no less foul. The inn was filling up. He understood that there were parlours where people could eat and drink in peace, but many Men chose to eat in the crowded common room, slamming down bowls of salty stew, elbowing their friends to make room for them at the bench. They ate messily, in a way that was unpleasant to watch. Many of them did not know how to hold a spoon, and few used a napkin properly. They even spoke with their mouths full.
My people, he reminded himself. He looked down into his beer, at his reflection distorted by froth. The bitter smell made him want to wrinkle his nose.
The Men were talking throughout, shouting insults at each other that after an anxious while, he concluded were good humoured. Then the singing started. It was like no singing he had ever heard. It was louder and harsher, and when everyone sang in chorus, their voices were all slightly different. This music was not liquid sunlight or flowing water, but something loud and jagged, with rhythmic beats in it like the pounding of a hammer. The expected response to it was not quiet dreaming, but raucous banging on the table in time with those beats.
Estel found his own foot tapping under the table. He tried the beer again, and wondered if it was a taste that improved upon renewed acquaintance; certainly, none of the Men in the Prancing Pony seemed displeased by it. Some of them started moving with a clumsy, exaggerated expansiveness that Estel did not understand. "I think you've had a bit too much, mate," he heard one man say, from which he concluded that this was what drunkenness looked like.
He took another mouthful of beer, and turned his gaze inwards, using the skills his father had taught him. Yes, the potency of the brew was there, trying to work on him. He posted an internal guard against it, but truth was, he would have to drink far more than this one small tankard for the beer to challenge his defences. Given how vile the brew was, he doubted that would ever be a problem.
Time passed. A tall man came in all alone; Estel only noticed him because he was struck with a sudden conviction that this man was commanding everyone to pay him no heed. Half shrouded in his hood, Estel watched him. The tall man meandered through the crowd like a snake or a dancer, slipping through gaps without drawing the eye. He ordered beer from the bar, though, and the landlord nodded at him and took his coin, exchanging a few words. Not invisible, then, just inconspicuous.
I wonder why, Estel thought, but he, of course, was doing exactly the same. There were many reasons to go unnoticed, and many ways to hide.
A group of Men pushed past his table, fighting about a girl. No, Estel realised, when they laughed; not a fight, just banter. He wondered how old they were. He thought they were little more than boys, but he had no point of comparison. His own face was the only young Man's face he knew, pale and grave in the mirror. He knew now that he came from a long-lived race, so would other young Men of twenty look older or younger than he did? He knew, because he had seen it in books, that Men grew wrinkled and grey when they were old, but he had never seen such a thing until this day. His mother was not much over forty, and had faint lines between her brow, but Arwen – oh, Arwen! – was nearly three thousand years old, but untouched by any frost.
"…then she'll never look at you," said one of the boys, and the others laughed, and they went off arm in arm, teasing each other, and attempting song.
Friends, Estel thought, letting out a breath. Equals. In Rivendell, he was loved, but he would be forever a child. If he was successful in finding his mother's people, then he would be… What? he thought. I wonder…
No, this was not the time for it. He tried to find the tall man again, but he had lost him in the crowd. Perhaps he had left… No, there he was, having found a corner much like Estel's, in another niche between pillars. Estel watched him for a while, in the way he would with a nervous animal, watching him while seeming not to. The man seemed unaware of him, wrapped in his own silence like a cloak. He appeared to be drinking steadily, but from the way he held his tankard, Estel thought he was actually drinking barely at all.
He wondered whether to ask about him, then decided not to. A group of hobbits came in, and the crowd of Men parted tolerantly to let them reach the bar. Firelight glittered on the tall man's keen eyes.
The landlord came hurrying by, dishing out rebukes and greetings with equal-handedness. Two young men were to be ashamed of letting their young brother drink so much, "and what will your mother say when she finds out?" A dark-haired man was warned that he was here on sufferance, "and any repeat of your old nonsense, and you're barred for good this time." A farmer was greeted like a long-lost friend. Empty bowls were tidied away, and empty tankards were filled, sometimes without asking, although money was still expected.
Estel put his hand over his tankard when the landlord approached. "No more, young sir?" the landlord asked, even so. He hesitated somewhat over the epithet, but whether he was doubting the "young" or the "sir," Estel did not know.
Estel was alone in a strange land. Always, before, when he had seen something puzzling or unclear, there had been his father or his brothers on hand with a ready explanation.
"No more," he said, but he took the risk, and he said more, for the landlord's bulk hid him from the tall man in his corner. "A man came in not long ago." He was careful to say it naturally: 'man,' not 'Man.' "No, do not turn round. He was tall, came in alone, spoke to nobody but you. He wears a grey cloak. Who is he?"
The landlord's face turned less than friendly. "Why? I'll have no fighting here."
Estel spread his free hand, showing it empty; the landlord, he trusted, would not recognise the calluses made by a sword. "I just wondered. Nobody paid him any attention." But he seemed remarkable, he could have carried on, but did not; surely that much was obvious.
"That's because he's not worth any attention," said the landlord, "if he's who I think you mean. He's just one of them Rangers. Some say they're no-good fellows who steal chickens and wander off into dark places where no goodly folk have any cause to be. Me, I see no harm in them, but little good, either. But they pay their way and cause no trouble, so they're welcome here. So is everyone," he said, a little more pointedly than was necessary, "who pays their way and causes no trouble."
Estel decided that it was a hint. He removed his hand from the tankard, and let the landlord top it up, and paid what was asked. The landlord appeared surprised by the coin that was offered, but took it, anyway. After he had gone, the man at the end of the bench laughed, and shuffled up to Estel's side. "You, my friend, just got yourself royally ripped off."
Estel was not sure what 'ripped off' meant, but could hazard a guess from context. "The landlord is dishonest?"
"Old Butterbur? No, he's a good 'un. But you were meant to haggle. He never expected you just to pay up like that. You're a green 'un, aren't you?"
Estel attempted another sip of beer. He had killed a dozen orcs in one fight. He had survived a month in the wilderness alone. His father had deemed him fit to receive his birthright. He dared aspire to the hand of the most beautiful maiden in the world.
"You look too old to be this green," said the man. "You look…" He frowned. "No, I can't rightly tell how old you are. But you're not from these parts, I can tell that, seeing as how you speak fancy-like."
"Do I?" Estel thought back to the snatched conversations he had heard that evening, and tried to catch their accent, their intonation. "I don't think I do, my friend."
"Well, you don't now." The man swatted him on the upper arm.
Estel knew about hunting. He knew how to hide himself in the long grass, so that nobody who passed would notice him. He knew how to pass unseen through wild places, and how to walk through the woods so that no twig bent beneath his feet. He was a Man, and he could pass, it seemed, as many things, except as a Man.
He let his gaze pass slowly, casually across the crowded common room, noting turns of phrase, and the way people moved, and the things that they said. His father had once told him that Men considered elves to be cryptic, fond of riddles and words that led you obliquely to the truth. Men were worse, Estel decided. They said one thing, but meant another. They spoke in hints and innuendo. Sometimes their insults conveyed friendship, and sometimes their smiles covered hatred. He knew their language, but in all the ways that mattered, he knew their language not at all.
But that, too, could be learned.
The tall man was still in his corner. A Ranger, the landlord had said. Was this just ignorant vernacular, or was this man indeed one of Estel's mother's people? The Rangers of the North; that was what his fa- what Elrond had called them. He had come across them in books, and had even been drawn to their stories, but not even his mother had told him the truth, telling him only that he was the son of a brave man who had died. Was this man one of his mother's… My father's people, thought the Man who was not, after all, called Estel, whose true father was not, in fact, Elrond. My people.
Aragorn wondered if he should approach the Ranger; he had, after all, left Rivendell in part to find his people. But, you're a green 'un, he remembered. He had known as soon as he entered the inn that he could defeat any one of these Breelanders in a sword fight. He could ride faster and walk further and survive horrors that would send them screaming. He had a lineage more noble than any Man in Middle Earth, and one day, if that was to be his fate, he might be King.
But he did not know how to pay for a pint of beer. He could not tell when a man was teasing, or when he meant to fight. It had not even occurred to him, at first, to change the way he spoke. He should not have asked the landlord about the tall man, but he was unused to being without older, wiser kin whom he trusted with his life.
I am not ready, he thought. If this man was a Ranger, then Aragorn was his Chieftain. How could he be their Chieftain when until tonight he had never been in a room with another Man?
The Ranger was not looking in his direction. Aragorn waited until a crowd blocked him from view, and stood up. "Here," he said to his helpful bench companion, imitating the local accent as well as he could. "I don't feel so good. You can finish my beer."
He wove through the crowd the same way the Ranger had done, trying to convey the same sense of inconspicuousness. Outside was a shock. The fresh air was cold, and achingly familiar. A few steps away from the inn, and he was free of the smell of old beer. The smell of wood smoke took him back to Rivendell, to singing in the Hall of Fire. A few more steps, and then a few more, and he was outside even the range of the smoke. He let out a breath, and felt his shoulders gradually lose a tension he had not been aware of carrying.
And what a strange thing it is, he thought, for the heir of the Kings of Men to feel more at home outside, alone, then in a room full of Men.
Just for that thought, he almost turned and went back in again. He could evade the Ranger; evasion was something he had been taught. When the time was right, he would seek them out, but not yet. He would…
The sword tip found the side of his throat. He heard the hiss of the other man's breath behind him. It was intentional, he thought, although he did not know how he knew. Estel moved his head slowly to the side, and the sword tip followed his movement, although it no longer touched him.
"A little young," said a voice, "to be out alone?"
Estel nodded. The sword withdrew, although only just. "Perhaps," he agreed. He sensed that he had surprised the other man. Perhaps the man had expected him to bluster and say that he was a man full grown, and how dare anybody say otherwise?
Estel turned round, and his attacker let him. It was the Ranger from the inn, of course. Estel… No, Aragorn was a green one, after all. He had been so sure that the Ranger had not noticed him; so sure that he had kept himself inconspicuous, even as he had seen through the other man's desire to remain unseen.
The Ranger's eyes shone black and silver in the moonlight. "How old are you, lad?"
Aragorn wondered how to answer. He was aware of the different accents of the elves, but until today had never realised that Men, too, spoke in many ways. "Young enough to be a fool," he answered, in the accents of Bree, "but old enough to know it." The Ranger did not smile, but something flickered in his eyes. "Why pick on me? There were plenty younger lads back there in the inn."
"True," the Ranger agreed, "but they mature young, live slight lives, and die before their time."
Aragorn glanced down at the silver sword. "And I do not?"
"Perhaps not," said the Ranger. "What do you say?"
Aragorn looked hard at the sword, then at the Ranger, then at the sword again. The Ranger's hand twitched, as if he was fighting the urge to sheathe it. "I say," Aragorn said, "that you should put that sword away and stop threatening innocents in the dark."
The Ranger laughed, a harsh, strained sound. "The accent has promise and the act is not bad, but to play the part properly, you should have screamed about murder and robbery the moment you felt my sword." He took half a step closer, his voice low. "And you should not have tried to hide from me in the inn."
"I thought I had," Aragorn admitted, with a wry smile.
The Ranger returned his smile. "Alas, no. It takes a master to evade all notice, and you are no master."
"Not yet," Aragorn agreed. The inn door opened, bringing with it a waft of smoke and a blaze of orange light. Aragorn shifted position, so his own face was in shadow and the Ranger's was in the light. The Ranger, he realised, was well aware of what he was doing, and was willing to allow it. Because he is confident, Aragorn thought. Why? "You tried to evade notice," he pointed out to the Ranger, "yet I saw you."
"Yes." The door closed again, and Aragorn lost the advantage of the light. In the sudden contrast, he was almost blind. "Yes," said the Ranger, "you did. And why is that?" He stepped closer. "Who are you, who wears the clothing of the elves but the face of Númenor? Tell me, boy. Who are you?"
The urge to answer was almost overwhelming. Aragorn dug his nails into his palm. No, he thought, I will not tell him, not this way. The compulsion disappeared like a candle flame blown out by the wind. "I had a sheltered childhood," he said, "and now that I am a man, I wish to see the world." He had lost the accent of Bree, he realised, but it mattered not; the Ranger had never been fooled.
"Which is no answer." The Ranger was breathing rapidly, his left hand pressed to his chest. "I understand your caution, if you are…" He shook his head. "You should not have been able to…" He let out a breath. "Can you not trust me?"
"You put a sword to my throat," Aragorn reminded him. "I drew no weapon."
"True." The Ranger sheathed his sword with a sigh. "But I have said out loud a name that should not have been spoken here, where unfriendly ears can listen from dark houses. But because I have said it, I will say it again. Your face is unmistakeable. Maybe in time you will learn to hide it, but you cannot do so yet. Or maybe you choose not to." His hand once again sought the hilt of his sword. "The stories tell of Dark Númenoreans. Maybe such creatures still exist, and use their faces to win the trust of those that they would undo."
"I did not seek to win your trust," said Aragorn. "I merely sought to pass unseen, as you did."
"As I did." The Ranger pressed his hand to his face, the fingertips digging in to either side of his brow. "And now I have said too much."
What would happen if Aragorn just walked away? Although the Ranger looked heartsore and shaken, Aragorn had no doubt that he could draw his sword in an instant. But even if he did not, what would happen if Aragorn walked away? One day, in the future, Aragorn had to show himself to these people, and assume his rightful place. His actions today would be remembered. He was their rightful Chieftain by lineage, but true respect had to be earned. For one wild, heady moment, Aragorn had forgotten that, but then he had looked into Arwen's eyes, and realised that great ancestors meant nothing unless the one who possessed them showed themselves worthy of them.
He closed his eyes for a moment, wrestling with thought. Even if he wandered for a year, for five years, for ten years, it would never be easy to return to his father's people. Now was as good a time as any.
"And so I, too, will say more than perhaps I should," Aragorn said, pitching his voice too low to be heard by anyone who might be listening in the darkness. "I was brought up in Rivendell. I am twenty years old, and until this year, I knew only that I was called Estel, and that Master Elrond stood in the place of my true father. But my true father was called Arathorn."
"Ah," sighed the Ranger. "Ah, yes. I will not doubt you, for I see the truth in your face. I was thinking all along that you reminded me of someone, but until you named him, I could not put a name to the memory." He made as if to grab Aragorn's hand, but drew back. He made as if to bow, but did not. "We feared you were dead. Lord Elrond assured us that we still had cause to hope, but he would say no more than that, and so some of us dared to doubt."
"Dared to?" Aragorn asked, unable to stop himself.
"It requires courage, of a sort, to keep going despite lack of hope." The Ranger smiled. "But I was not one of those. I was newly married when the last Chieftain… when your father died. In due course, my wife gave me a son. He used to ask me why we lived as we did." The Ranger seemed to remember suddenly where they were. Although they had been talking quietly, he moved them further out into the darkness, away from any listening ears. "I said we lived to protect the heir of… the one whose heir you are," he whispered. "Who was this heir, he asked me, and when would he see him? I told him that we had to be ready for the heir when he came to us, and if he did not…?"
Aragorn said nothing. He had thought for weeks, he realised, about what it meant to discover that he was Isildur's heir. He thought he had also considered what such a person might mean to the Dúnedain, but he realised now that he had barely considered it at all.
"If he did not," said the Ranger, "then it would change nothing, I told him. We are the old nobility of Arnor. We guard the small folk from foes of which they are heedless. That is our task, and will be until the world is changed."
Estel had no words. These were not his people. He was not worthy of making them his people. Any arrogance, any pride, had faded when Arwen looked into his eyes, and died utterly in the face of this man's simple devotion.
No, not Estel, but Aragorn, he thought, because he could not escape who he was. To walk away would be a betrayal worse than any pride.
"I did not know who I was," he said. "Elrond brought me up as one of his own, but I was always kept away from any visitors, but it was so subtly done that only now do I see it for what it was." I would have come before, had I known, he meant.
The Ranger nodded gravely, as if accepting the protestation Aragorn had not made out loud. "And we were still welcomed in Rivendell, but subtly kept from asking those questions we most wanted to ask, and from receiving answers from those we that did ask." The Ranger stopped, then opened his mouth to speak, then stopped again. At length he tried again. "Is your mother…?"
"She is alive and well," Aragorn said, with a smile, "and still resides in Rivendell."
"That is good news indeed," said the Ranger. "Her mother never doubted it, but it will ease her heart to hear it." He laughed suddenly. "But harken to me! What fools we mortal Men can be! First I threaten you, and now we stand chatting like hobbits on market day. This is not the place for extravagant gestures, but this is no common day." He bowed his head, the movement barely visible in the darkness. "My name is Halbarath, my lord."
Aragorn bowed his head, acknowledging the respect. "My name is Aragorn," he said, although Halbarath surely knew this already.
Halbarath pressed his hand to his chest, this time, perhaps, in salute, not consternation. "But we are in Bree, and far from safety," he said, "so if you consent, I will not call you lord again where others can hear."
Do not call me lord at all, Aragorn almost said. It would have been different before he had met Arwen, of course. Then he had been filled with the pride of his position. Now he knew little, only that he had so much to learn, and a lifetime to prove himself worthy of his name.
The inn door opened; they had left it far behind, Aragorn realised. He watched the dark figures leaving, and heard the snatches of raucous song. If he were to be true to his heritage, these Breelanders were his people, as much as the Rangers were. He would have to learn their ways. He would have to protect them and bleed for them and be ready to die for them. He would have no early heir, if Elrond's words were true, but to be the heir of kings meant nothing for its own sake. It was better to live well, but let his bloodline die, than preserve the bloodline, but walk away from those who needed him.
Ah, Arwen, he thought, what wisdom you taught me with a glance. And, of course, the greatest wisdom that she had taught him was the knowledge that he was not yet wise.
"What will you do now?" Halbarath asked him. "You said you intended to see the world."
"And learn," Aragorn said. And show Arwen that I am worthy. "Elrond has taught me much lore and healing, and I have gone on long errantries with his sons, but I know little of Men, and nothing of my father's people but what is told in the old scrolls of kings."
"Did you intend," asked Halbarath, sounding almost shy, "to seek us out?"
"I… did," Aragorn said. He wondered whether to say the next bit, but decided on honesty. "I feared it, too."
"That is understandable," Halbarath said. Aragorn sensed rather than saw the smile, and knew that he had made the right decision. "But now that you have met me, will you come and live with us?"
Aragorn had meant to answer yes, but other words came to him unbidden, as had happened when he had spoken to Elrond about Arwen. "Others paths will call me," he said, "and I will walk many distant roads before the ending comes, although whether this ending will be for good or ill, none yet can tell." The flow of words left him. The image of dark roads faded. "But I would come and live with you for a little while first, for as many years as I may."
"You have foresight." Halbarath sounded choked. "Of course you do." Aragorn dimly saw him pressing his hands to his face, scraping them over his mouth, and then away, down, to clasp them over his chest. "And how would you come to live with us?"
Of course he was asking if Aragorn intended to return as an exiled king, and take up the mantle of leadership that his father had never ceded, despite his death. Aragorn had no idea how to answer. If he answered yes, would his people resent him as an upstart stranger who demanded honour merely because of his bloodline? If he answered no, would they despise him because he was weak?
You're a green 'un, he remembered. It brought with it memories of those boys who had not, after all, been fighting, and the landlord who had never expected to be paid a whole gold piece for two finger widths of foul beer.
"I cannot deny who I am," he said. "Our people live as they do because they hold bloodlines to be important. But I know little of Men, and even less of my father's people. I have fought many battles, but I have never led anyone else into battle. I have never given orders upon which another life might depend. And I am just twenty years old." So old, he had thought just half a year ago. So young, he had thought, when Arwen had looked upon him, and smiled. "How can I claim to lead you in any way that matters?"
Halbarath took his hand and squeezed it; brought it towards his lips and almost kissed it, but did not. "You can," he said, "in all those ways that matter here." He released Aragorn's hand, and once again pressed his hand to his chest. "But you are right," he said. "Present yourself as our Chieftain by blood. They will expect nothing else, and they will draw hope from it, more hope than you could ever imagine. But if you will accept my advice, then hear this. Do not put yourself forward as Chieftain in more practical matters, not yet. They will honour you all the more for it. Our boys come late to adulthood. We honour an honest admission of ignorance more than we honour false pride."
Aragorn gave a self-deprecating chuckle. "And I am indeed ignorant."
Halbarath laughed. "I noticed. Old Butterbur couldn't believe his eyes when you gave him that gold piece." He was back in his Breeland speech with all its contractions, but he said more than he knew. Aragorn had been so sure that Halbarath had been unable to see his dealings with Butterbur. "But I jest," Halbarath said, suddenly solemn. "My son Halbarad is fifteen years old. If he is half as wise as you are at twenty, I shall consider myself blessed."
Aragorn shook his head. "I am not wise."
Halbarath clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I beg to differ. Skills can be learned, but a man is so much more than the skills he possesses. I am no loremaster, but I believe that no man has become truly great, who has not at one time admitted that he knew nothing at all."
"Then I admit it," Aragorn said, "but not because I seek to be great. I left Rivendell…" Because of Arwen, he thought. "I left Rivendell because once I knew who I was, I had to discover who I could become. In truth, I looked for a friend to guide me."
"And perhaps you have found one," Halbarath said, "if I can so presume. If you seek my guidance, my guidance is this. Go to your people, and go to them now. It matters not that you know little of Men. Eighteen years is a long time to live with dwindling hope. Your father's sworn sword brother, Berenor, has been leading us in the absence of a rightful Chieftain. He is a good man, and he has led us well. He will offer to pass command to you, but I would advise you to refuse. They will think the better of you for it, if you say to them what you said to me. When you feel yourself ready to become Chieftain in fact as well as by right, he will yield the title with nothing but joy."
"Then I will do as you advise." Aragorn nodded his thanks. He was suddenly, quite unexpectedly, terrified by the prospect, but he kept his voice level. "I thank you." The inn door opened again, far, far away, in another world. They both watched the dark figures leave. Will you come with me? he wanted to ask, but did not. If Elrond was right, he would walk dark, solitary roads before his ending came. He would be tested in far deeper ways that this, just meeting his own father's people, who would greet him with joy, or so he was told.
"I will come with you," Halbarath said, "if you would like me to."
Aragorn laughed. "I would like you to, very much." He reached for Halbarath's hand, and clasped it. "I am glad to have met you."
"Ah," said Halbarath, "but will you feel the same in a year? Our life is not an easy one."
"I know," Aragorn said, suddenly solemn, "but it will be my life, and not just by birth, but by choice."
And, side by side, they headed back towards the inn, and the new world that lay beyond it.