It was a stony-faced party of elves that rode into Rivendell just as the sun was setting. Aragorn and Legolas, riding in the center of the group, exchanged weary, sympathetic glances. The scouting party was supposed to have returned hours before, and would have if it hadn't been for them. If Legolas was dreading Elrond's reaction when Glorfindel told him what had happened, he couldn't imagine what his friend was feeling.
The Lord of Imladris was waiting for them on the porch of the great house. His features were impassive, but Legolas read relief in the older elf's eyes as he surveyed the group and realized all were unharmed. "Glorfindel." Elrond's voice held mild reproach. "We expected you back this morning. Is everything well?"
"All is well, praise the Valar, but it might not have been!" The balrog slayer flung himself off his horse and glared at the two youngest members of the party. Neither Man nor Elf would meet his gaze.
A slight scowl creased Elrond's forehead. "Estel? Legolas?" He turned back to the elf who stood seething before him. "What has happened?"
"I ordered the party to split up at nightfall yesterday in order to cover more ground," said Glorfindel. "We were to meet again at midnight, but Estel and Legolas chose to track a group of orcs on their own rather than report back at the appointed time. By the time I found them they were halfway up Raven Pass."
Aragorn, who had been examining the ground at his feet, looked up when he heard his father's sharp intake of breath. The elf lord's voice remained calm, but now it held a chill note that penetrated to the young man's bones. "Thank you, Glorfindel. Thank you for bringing them home in one piece. We will speak more later."
Glorfindel bowed stiffly and with one last, baleful glance at the unfortunate pair, strode away. The rest of the elves began leading their horses to the stables. Aragorn and Legolas turned to follow.
It was not a request. Elrond approached slowly, his gaze fixed on Legolas. "I am not overly surprised by my son's behavior, but I expected better judgement on your part. I would be loath to have to explain your death to your father."
"My lord..." Elrond held up his hand and Legolas closed his mouth quickly.
"I am not Thranduil, and I do not know what he would say to you if he were here now. You are a prince, it is true, but you are also a guest in my house. As the master of the house, I suggest you go to your chambers and stay there. I do not wish to see you again until the morning."
"Estel is not your concern. Goodnight, Legolas." The Lord of Imladris turned his back on the prince and focused on his youngest son. Looking over his father's shoulder, Aragorn caught Legolas's hopeless shrug. Aragorn nodded ever so slightly, knowing Elrond was aware of both gestures. Reluctantly, the prince of Mirkwood turned and entered the house, leaving father and son alone.
"Come with me."
Aragorn followed Elrond through the corridors of the great house, groups of elves falling silent as they passed. The Lord of Imladris' black mood cast a pall in their wake. At last they reached Elrond's library and Aragorn was ushered inside with a brisk gesture. There was a crackling fire already on the hearth. Elrond lit the tapers in the wall sconces before finally turning back to his son, who stood quietly in the middle of the room.
Puzzled, Aragorn slowly sank to his knees. Looking into his son's upturned face, Elrond could see the uncertainty in the young man's eyes. The Lord of Imladris frowned. "Have I ever treated you harshly?"
"Then compose yourself. Anger does not turn me into an orc, Estel."
Ashamed, Aragorn dropped his eyes. His father's hand gripped his shoulder lightly. "In any case, it is better to spend the night kneeling in my library than as a guest in a goblin cave, which is where you would be now if it weren't for Glorfindel." Elrond regarded his youngest child sternly. "You will apologize to him tomorrow."
"Yes, father, but if I could explain..."
"You may explain at dawn, if you find you still wish to. Tonight you will kneel there and hopefully in this place of learning something of value will penetrate into your stubborn head. You will neither rise, nor eat, nor drink until sunrise comes and I release you. Do you understand?"
"Good." Without another word, Elrond seated himself at the table and opened a large, yellowed parchment. He was quickly absorbed in its contents and paid no further attention to his son.
Aragorn knelt for a long while without moving, arms straight at his sides. He could not tell how much time had passed, but the miles he had ridden in the last two days were starting to make themselves felt. The muscles in his legs ached dully, and he could feel his empty stomach churning. He hoped Legolas, confined to his room, had been allowed something to eat.
He knew better than to stare at his father, but he couldn't help glancing over at the elf lord. Elrond's face was grave as he studied the sheet before him, and Aragorn felt a sudden lump in his throat. This punishment, while more serious than the usual lecture, was relatively easy to bear. What was harder was the knowledge that he had truly angered his father, jeopardizing what little respect Elrond might have for him. It had not been long since his father had revealed his true name to him. Since that day, Aragorn had wanted to prove himself worthy of the lineage he bore. Somehow, it seemed that by acting the part of the bold warrior he had accomplished exactly the opposite.
"Ada, may I speak?" His voice was soft.
"I have not forbidden it." The elf lord didn't look up.
He wanted to say something, anything, that would bridge the distance between them. "What are you doing?"
"Studying a map." Perhaps his father could hear the anxiety in his voice. Aragorn didn't care. Elrond had read his previous fear, so there was no reason to protect his pride. "Would you like to see it?"
"Yes." Surprised by the offer, Aragorn started to rise but sank back under his father's withering glance. Not deterred, he scooted over to the table on his knees. Despite his anger, Elrond couldn't suppress a small smile as he watched his irrepressible son. Aragorn, seeing his father's expression soften, smiled shyly up at him. The tension between them dissipated as their gazes locked, leaving the young man off-balance and lightheaded. He swayed and would have bumped against the table, but Elrond gripped his elbow.
"When did you last eat?"
Elrond grunted softly but made no further comment as he moved his chair to make room for his son in front of the map. "What do you make of this?"
"It is a map of the mountains surrounding us." Aragorn traced his finger over the parchment. "There's the Bruinen, here's the Sky Road and the Valley Path..." He stopped, frowning. "I don't understand these marks." Small "x's," carefully made in his father's graceful hand, were scattered throughout the mountains.
"Those are goblin caves," Elrond said quietly.
Aragorn studied the meticulous markings with awe. They represented the combined information of many scouting parties, reaching back through long years. "There are so many," he breathed. How foolish he had been to imagine he could do any real good by killing a handful of the creatures! And yet, since he had learned of his true father's death at their hands, he had burned to face them in battle.
Wordlessly, Elrond tapped a segment of the map. Aragorn paled as he recognized Raven Pass. The "x's" were thickest there, running the length of the narrow gap. He shuddered to think he had dragged Legolas up there with him alone at night.
"You would have been butchered," Elrond said, as if he could read his son's thoughts. "Or worse, taken."
Aragorn did not reply. He was staring at the map, unblinking.
"Do you remember the fate of the last king of Gondor?" When Aragorn didn't answer, the elf lord continued, "In his pride he accepted the challenge of the Witch King and so died before his time, broken and despairing." Elrond gripped his son's shoulder again, this time more tightly. "I would not have your fate be the same, Estel."
"You believe I would make such a bad end?" He was inclined to feel a bit hurt that his father thought so little of him.
"I believe there is no good end to be had in an orc lair," Elrond said patiently. "A noble death may be achieved in battle with the creatures, but in the deep places of the earth the strongest heroes scream out their last breaths in the darkness." His voice hardened. "I have seen their handiwork. You have not." He took a deep breath and gently brushed a strand of dark hair away from his son's eyes. "I do not insult you, but if you hunt orcs recklessly you must consider how you would fare if captured, a lad who has seen but twenty summers and been raised knowing only peace and gentleness in your short life."
The truth of what might have been was now laid before him in all its ugliness, impossible to deny. "I am a fool," Aragorn said simply.
"You are young," Elrond corrected. "You have many years before you to gain wisdom, if you live long enough."
"I risked Legolas." He couldn't believe his own callousness. "He didn't think it was a good idea for us to go alone, but he wouldn't leave me."
"I rather guessed as much."
"He might have been killed!" The visions Elrond had conjured were too powerful to be cast from his mind. Aragorn rested his forehead against the table, closing his eyes. "It would have been my fault."
"It would," Elrond agreed. "That is why you are being punished."
"You are too gentle with me," Aragorn muttered.
"There is no such thing as 'too gentle,' Estel." As if to demonstrate the truth of this, Elrond carefully took his son's face in his hands, lifting it toward his own. With great effort, Aragorn forced himself to meet his father's eyes. "The world beyond these borders is not a gentle place. You will learn hardship and pain soon enough, I am afraid." The elf lord sighed. "I have dreaded this moment since you were a child, but I believe the time has come for you to leave Imladris."
"You're casting me out? Because of this? Ada, please…"
Elrond silenced him with a finger to his lips. "I'm not casting you out. This is your home and you will always be welcome here. Nor does my decision have anything to do with your behavior today. I have always been proud of you and always will be."
"Then why?" Aragorn blinked quickly, forcing back hot tears.
"You know your true name now. You know your lineage and the responsibility it brings. Imladris has been a haven, a shelter for your childhood, but you are a child no longer. It is time you lived among Men and learned their ways."
Aragorn knelt in silence. He no longer felt the hardness of the floor beneath his knees or the ache in his muscles. He knew his father was watching him, expecting a response. Was he a child or was he a man? How was it possible to feel like both at the same time?
"It will be hard to leave you." The words were spoken softly, with quiet dignity. He could sense his father's relief at his acquiescence.
"It is a new life, my son."
"Do not expect it to bring you the joy or peace you have known here. The wide world is not kind, but it offers something Imladris, for all its virtues, cannot."
"What is that?"
"The opportunity to achieve your full potential. Now you are an untempered sword, but to become truly strong you must pass through fire."
"Forgive me, ada. I don't feel very strong tonight."
"Tonight," Elrond said, "you don't have to."
With a sigh, Aragorn dropped his head against his father's knee. He closed his eyes and, in spite of the turmoil he felt, sleep slowly overtook him. His last memory was of Elrond's hand on his hair, his father's quiet breathing in the stillness of the room. I will remember this, he thought, when I am in the Wild. I will remember this when I am alone.
The tapers burned low. The fire died and was not rekindled. Elrond, wakeful but unmoving, waited in the darkness for the dawn.