Author's Notes: I became enamored of the ancient Kingdom of Arnor and the Dúnedain capital at Fornost. There is so little written about the ruins so I wanted to explore. There's a lot of history to juggle and some things may not be canon though I did research into those elements I needed: questions and comments are appreciated. There are some spoilers for my previous stories but this is a stand-alone.
I would also like to thank WendWriter for her stylistic criticisms and D.G. Arrow for helping get this story off the ground.
Rain lashed his face with all the pent-up fury of a spring storm. Unlike the gentle drizzle of spring, however, the drops stung his face like thousands of tiny needles, pouring down the back of his neck and soaking his tunic, mingling with the crimson stains already seeping through it. His captain would be furious with him for ruining yet another good uniform.
He laughed into the face of the gale but the vicious wind slapped it out of his mouth and stole away his air, leaving him gasping and reeling against his horse's neck as it raced along the dark and rutted road. Long branches, bent and broken in many places, reached out for him, catching his grey cloak and golden hair, raking across his arms and face like knives.
Darkness whipped past them. Even with his keen sight, his eyes could scarcely see the ghostly road flashing away under his steed's hooves. His stomach plummeted when sudden air opened up beneath them as they leapt over a shallow brook foaming over the path. He flinched as they landed hard, hooves sliding and scouring deep furrows into the mud. With every shallow inhale, the point of pain in his back seemed to pierce deeper.
Behind him the screeches were louder now, the thunder of iron shod feet far too close and his steed already lathered in sweat, sides heaving with froth and exhaustion. Gasping, the rider felt along his steed's side until he found the leather satchel, making sure it was securely tied, battered and scarred as it was. The message was safe there, all of his notes and things were safe there. They would make it.
Even if he did not.
Slumping low over his horse's neck, he whispered, his voice almost inaudible even to his own ears over the howling wind. "You have to get to Rivendell. You will be safe there and it is close, east of here. Get the message to Rivendell. Lord Elrond and my kin must be warned…" Someone had to know the tidings he bore…the terrible tidings…
The horse flicked its ears as though in understanding.
Half-frozen more with pain than cold which he had long since stopped feeling, he fumbled at his waist. With trembling, slippery fingers, he unraveled the ropes that bound him to the saddle and slid limply off. He barely felt the jarring impact when the sodden, unforgiving earth connected with his body, or the shattering snap of the arrow embedded in his back. He lay there, listening as hoofbeats faded into the drumming monotone of the rain.
Low growls and disgruntled curses stung his ears as his seekers slowed, their trackers easily finding his bedraggled frame half-submerged in mud at the side of the road. But he no longer cared. He was beyond their power to hurt and the message was safely gone. No one could catch his steed at a full gallop even tired as he was. No one could catch him…
Thought and pain swirling together into cloudy numbness, Caladir of Lothlórien closed his eyes, rain dripping slowly down his pale face.
A Sunny Start
A bright afternoon sun glittered and flashed on drawn steel. Sweat streaking his temples and jaw clenched tight, Aragorn firmed his grip on his broadsword and braced himself. Too late. A sharp, hard blow knocked him off-balance and he smacked face-first into the lawn with his sword under him. To add to his chagrin, ringing laughter echoed from the porch where his brothers relaxed in the shade.
"Honestly, Estel, how many times do we have to tell you to move your feet!" Elladan called, a little less than encouraging.
"Haldir's got him three times with that same move!" Elrohir added his unwelcome opinion. "You'd think he'd learn."
The ranger blew his dark hair out of his face and heaved himself back to his feet, trying and failing to ignore the hot flush that crept up his neck. He couldn't pretend his brothers' teasing didn't rankle just a little.
"Laugh while you can," he growled darkly, shaking his thick, unsharpened practice blade in their direction. A strand of his dusty hair flipped over his eyes which only made them laugh harder. He turned back towards his opponent with a little bow, acknowledging the hit.
Haldir had not joined in the teasing but a distinctly smug, little smile played around the corners of his lips as he began to circle, his blade flickering this way and that, sunlight glinting off the polished steel. Aragorn was not distracted by the glitter. He kept his eyes solely focused on his opponent's where the first flicker of his intention would betray him.
The elf captain knew exactly where the ranger was looking and therefore knew where his eyes were not. Feinting left as though he were going for the ranger's shoulder, he lured him in. Aragorn moved to block the high blow only to find the flat part of his compatriot's blade smacking him a stunning blow in the shin. Had it been a real instead of a play-fight, the stroke could easily have splintered bone. The man shifted his weight quickly off his numb leg, twisting sideways to regain his balance. A pang shot up his thigh.
It had been a little more than two months since a rogue elf torturing and murdering men on the southern ridges of Dunland had stabbed him. The wound still ached at times—especially when he was putting it through more it was supposed to be. More careful now as fatigue gnawed at his dwindling energy, he backed off a few paces, stretching the distance between them to more than a sword-length. Haldir let him, watching his eyes just as Aragorn had his. Knowing the condition of each other's wounds, they both held back the majority of their strength—though neither let the other know it.
"Father's going to have your head, Estel. This isn't exactly taking it easy on your leg is it?" Elrohir's words were meant to remind of the lecture his father had given him before releasing him for the afternoon but Aragorn could hear the underlying concern.
Had he not been evading a particularly vigorous thrust from Haldir's sword, he probably would have rolled his eyes. He loved his brothers, truly he did, but they had not left him alone since he'd returned home. He was glad he hadn't told them the rogue had actually captured him not just fought him or he might very well have found himself locked inside his room until the end of the summer.
He parried Haldir's stroke aimed at his wrist and spun lightly. But his leg twinged more violently and instead of coming up behind his adversary as he'd meant to, he lurched a little sideways and ended up beside him. Haldir took advantage of his opponent's slowness to trip his legs out from under him.
Aragorn hit the dirt again, the breath knocked out of his lungs for the second time in as many minutes. The tip of the practice sword brushed dangerously close to the underside of his jaw as he tried to sit up and he carefully shallowed his breathing so as not to cut his throat.
Elladan and Elrohir were very much amused, having found their own dignity hanging on the point of the marchwarden's sword more than once in their younger days. It was nice to see someone else put through the same treatment.
"Humility, Estel. That's a good lesson to learn from the ground," Elladan said.
"One you never managed. Would you like to be next, Elladan Elrondion?" Haldir lifted his eyes from the ranger's throat with a dangerous gleam towards the twins.
The named elf held up his hands in capitulation. "No, thank you. I have quite enough bruises already that have still not healed from yesterday when you felt the undeniable desire to test your arm's strength."
Haldir smiled, experimentally flexing the aforementioned limb injured in the same fight as Aragorn's leg. He was mostly healed from his deadly encounter with the dark elf but he had paid dearly for his and Aragorn's lives; the deep wounds to his arm and side were unusually slow to mend.
He lifted the pressure from Aragorn's throat and offered the man a hand up which was gratefully if a tad grudgingly taken. The man was tiring and growing short-tempered as his leg threatened mutiny. His energy was gone, his dignity trampled. He just wanted to end this on his own terms.
Risking a gamble, he stepped in too close for the blades to maneuver and lashed out with his crooked arm. Haldir, not anticipating the maneuver, caught the man's elbow right in the side. He grunted and staggered sideways, almost losing his hold on his own weapon. His face whitened slightly.
Aragorn checked immediately. He hadn't meant to hit him there quite that hard but exhaustion had made him misjudge his aim.
Haldir stayed bent over a minute longer, regaining his breath, then straightened determinedly. "Well struck," he beckoned with the tip of his weapon. "Come. Once more."
But Aragorn flung his blade away and flopped over spread-eagled in the grass. His leg was really starting to throb. "Then you practice. I'm done."
The blunt tip of Haldir's weapon poked him in the stomach, forcing an 'oof' out of him. He caught it and tugged sharply, pulling the elf off-balance. His friend mockingly made to fall on him then curling at the last second hit the grass beside him.
"I think they finally killed one another," Elladan could be heard commenting from the shaded porch.
"At last," Elrohir grumbled. "My arms hurt just watching them."
Aragorn grimaced as he sat up and sore muscles drew his attention. "I'm going to have bruises again tonight. Do you have to hit so hard?"
"Do you think your enemies will spare you in combat?" came the predictable, dry-humored reply that made the man roll his eyes as he dusted loose grass off his trousers.
"You're not my enemy."
Earning the elf's friendship and trust had been one of the hardest things Aragorn had ever had to do—and something he still struggled with despite everything they had been through together. The marchwarden had witnessed many horrors in his long life, seen the evils of creatures: both human and otherwise and discovered a darkness in himself he could not forget. Aragorn tried to help him as best he could but some things left scars too deep. Scars he was just beginning to uncover. He knew from the way Haldir still sometimes looked at him or jerked away from a friendly touch that the elf hadn't put certain events behind him as much as he'd like. But Aragorn was proud of how far his friend had come nonetheless.
Aragorn offered the elf a hand up which was predictably refused but Haldir staggered slightly as he got his feet under him and had to grab the man's shoulder quickly to keep from falling. He grimaced and hastily took his weight off the young human.
"I'm sorry," Aragorn mentally cursed himself as the elf pressed a hand against his side. "I didn't mean to hit you so hard."
Haldir waved it off though it took a moment before he straightened fully. His wounds were still at the stage where they could be reopened if strained enough. "Come on. I think at the very least you and I have earned a drink."
Aragorn plucked a grass blade out of the elf's hair with a laugh. "Go in like that and Sadron will have a blue fit." The head of Elrond's household was not well-known for his tolerance of messiness—or anyone who brought such inside.
"There's not going to be anything left for you two if you don't hurry up!" Elrohir warned from the veranda where dinner was being set out.
Haldir playfully shoved Aragorn out of his way and vaulted the porch railing into the cool interior of the house, leaving his companion to chase after him, protesting through his laughter.
The aromatic fragrance of roasted meats and vegetables wafted from covered dishes. Elrond had decided to have the board set out on the veranda since the long dining table in the feast hall was used only on high days and also since they were unusually few this evening with only the three sons of Elrond, the elf-lord himself and Haldir seated around the table. Normally the big house had whole crowds of people passing through it: visiting Dúnedain, envoys from the elven realms, or the rare dwarf or wizard. It was never this empty.
The clatter of plates, dishes and silverware was all that could be heard for a few moments over the musical roar of waterfalls. The veranda was open along three fourths of the sides and a cool wind came down from the mountains to ruffle the magnolia-entwined railings. Summer was in full bloom in Elrond's gardens and the heavy, perfumed air made it quite a pleasant night to sit outside.
They made it almost all the way to the end of dinner without speaking of the afternoon's illicit activities. Aragorn had finished a rather amusing tale about his elder brother's most recent mishap in the house that involved Sadron and a riding crop which had the company in appreciative stitches.
Elladan, however, still bore the marks of that unfortunate encounter with his father's head servant and though he had laughed along with the rest, had not found the story as amusing. Scooping summer strawberries onto his plate with far too much innocence, he proclaimed. "Guess who was sparring on his bad leg today, Adar?"
Aragorn glared at his treacherous brother across the table and flicked a sliver of potato skin at him.
"Estel," Elrond made the name a reprimand. "If you feel the need to waste your supper, you can go without."
"Sorry, Adar." Though he was nearly twenty-one years old, Aragorn knew to some extent he would always be treated as a child in his house. At times like this he didn't mind it. It meant nothing had changed and he was still part of the family.
The elf-lord nodded, easily forgiving, but he had not forgotten his elder son's words. "I have already told you once that you should not be on that leg at all. That was a deep cut and it isn't going to heal if you do not rest it."
"He's fine," Haldir said, unexpectedly supporting the errant ranger, but his focus was still very much on his food. "He held his own more than adequately today."
Aragorn felt a huge, warm upsurge of gratification towards his friend. It didn't last long.
"But he fights like a Noldor: all strength and no grace."
The three Noldor elves at the table paused in their meal. Only Lord Elrond remained composed, a small smile on his lips. He knew the elf-captain of old and was therefore unsurprised by any arrogant, bull-headed or provocative thing that came out of his mouth—for the most part. However, his sons were another matter.
"Simply because our swords do not exceed our heights does not mean we are any less the skilled," Elrohir said, a hint of frost on his lips.
Estel rolled his eyes with a hint of aggravated amusement. He knew the elf captain had said that just to get him out of a lecture and hadn't meant any disrespect to his hosts though the look on Elladan's face alone had been priceless.
"Rameil is Noldor-born!" he chided, referring to Haldir's second-in-command.
"I never said he was a skilled fighter."
"Oh yes?" Elladan challenged. He set his knife and fork down rather too hurriedly and a little gravy splattered onto the white tablecloth. "The Noldor were crafting weapons and battling before your people emerged into starlight."
"All right, Elladan, that's enough," Lord Elrond halted the argument calmly before it went too far beyond jesting. He turned the smile which had not left his face onto his more hot-tempered son to soothe his injured pride. "I will have peace at my dining table. You can squabble about the finer points of Noldorin against Silvan skill when you are out of my hearing."
The master of Rivendell switched his severe glance around the table and pinned the one who had started all this in the first place. "And I've already had words with you, Marchwarden—more than once I might add—about your own wounds."
"I remember something of those words, yes, my lord," Haldir replied absently as he snatched the last roll out from underneath Elrohir's fingers and dropped it on his plate.
Elladan still looked a little rankled but Aragorn stretched a hand across the table and jogged his brother's arm.
"Come on, Elladan, don't look so sour, you'll rot the fruit on your plate. Haldir was only jesting."
"Actually—" Aragorn jabbed Haldir sharply and he amended, "Come, Elladan. Bear me no ill will. Do you think I would be so foolish as to insult the kindred of not only my Lord's grandchildren but his wife and daughter as well?"
Elladan knew full well there was no one in the world the captain respected more than the rulers of Lothlórien and his grief upon the Lady Celebrían's departure across the Sea was etched in his face just as it was in the faces of her sons. Elladan grudgingly nodded and even smiled.
"This is excellent fare, my lord," Haldir told Elrond, turning away from Elladan now that he was forgiven. "Your son is many remarkable things but he is no cook."
Aragorn took up the unspoken challenge eagerly. "Oh? And you are?"
"Nope. Rameil cooks at home. I burn water."
The table laughed and the last of the tension drained away. The remainder of the meal passed in good-humored chatter for an hour longer. After dinner, they relaxed with a last glass of wine and a few story requests that Elladan and Elrohir took up enthusiastically and with increasingly gory detail until Elrond finally ushered them upstairs so the servants could clean up.
Aragorn dropped back a little to talk to his father while Elladan, Elrohir and Haldir went upstairs, still arguing over the debate the elf captain had started at dinner.
"There weren't many to grace our table tonight were there, Adar?" Estel said quietly. He thought his father looked a little tired and worn.
Elrond slipped an arm around his son's shoulders as they walked back towards the elf-lord's study. "No, I'm afraid our halls have been much too quiet of late. The roads are growing ever more dangerous with highwaymen crowding it—and worse things. Fewer and fewer people are seeking farther than their own doorsteps. It is good to have you home safe, my son. I worried when I had no word of you by spring. Elladan and Elrohir were about to go searching."
"I bet they wanted to go searching for me less than a fortnight after I left," Aragorn teased. "Thinking I'd fallen into some ditch or got waylaid by bandits or knocked myself out with my sword."
"True," Elrond admitted with a laugh. "Though had they known you were traveling with a captain of Lothlórien perhaps they would not have been so hasty."
"He has been a…rather interesting traveling companion," Aragorn admitted with a slightly nostalgic smile. "I've learned a lot from him."
"I have never known him to take to strangers as he does to you. You must have done something great to earn his trust," Elrond said as he opened the door to his study and nudged his son on in ahead of him while he lit a lamp in the hall.
Aragon looked at his father in the flaring orange light and wondered how much he knew of Haldir's previous experiences with men. He shrugged lightly. "It must be my winning personality."
Chuckling, the elf-lord set the lamp on the desk, shrugged out of his day robes and draped them neatly over the back of his armchair. "That I can well believe." He brushed off the embroidered velvet absently, his expression growing more distant.
Aragorn watched his father closely. "How do you know him, Adar?"
Elrond's long fingers stilled. "I've never told you this but when your—Elladan and Elrohir's—mother was taken," he corrected himself quickly. "Haldir's command was one of the first to answer our call for aid. I had been introduced to him only once—Celebrían knew him far better. He was relentless in searching for her, so much so that sometimes I feared as much for his health as I did for your brothers'.
Elrond favored him with a quick though slightly sad smile when he realized his son was watching him gravely. "You have wrought a change in him, my son. For the better."
"I hope so, Adar. He deserves a little peace," Aragorn said. He shifted his weight slightly so he was leaning against the door lintel and not his bad leg.
His father noticed. "Does it ache, Estel?"
Aragorn could never lie to his father and with a sheepish smile rubbed the limb absently. "A little. It's healing. Don't worry."
"I always worry," Elrond gave his son a one-armed hug and gently kissed his brow as though he were still the little boy of two who had come into their lives what seemed like such a short time ago. "All right then. It is late and you have had a long day—the best thing you can do for that leg now is sleep. Off to bed, ion nin."
Aragorn did not disagree. His limbs were so heavy he didn't know if he could drag himself up the staircase but before he thought too deeply on it, he was upstairs. Haldir's bedroom door was already closed and no light shone from the gap under the door. A few minutes later, cool sheets slid over his tired body and he was instantly asleep.
One by one the lamps and windows of the Last Homely House darkened as the residents settled down for the night. In the valley, all was quiet with only the never-ending lull of water to break the peace. The night was shattered by rattling stones as a group of hooded figures slithered down the zigzagging path leading into Rivendell's gorge. Skirting a deep pool and keeping in the shadows off the road, they splashed through a stream and up the further bank, heading in the direction of the dark house.
They slowed and went forward more furtively as they drew closer and a brief gleam glided over unsheathed weapons. A few broke off from the main company, scattering to either side and gathering their weather-stained cloaks close about them as they watched the silent house as though looking for some sign of movement or sentinel. Seeing none, they crept forward until they lay at the very edge of the open courtyard, concealed by deep shadows.
One, taller than the rest stood up, sprinted boldly across the open yard and pressed himself in the shadows of the great door. His hard, dark eyes raked the empty court and the high windows overhead. No light flickered on, no cry went up. Sighing, he ran his large hands over the double doors. They were thick and made of solid oak. He pushed ineffectually but they did not budge.
Shaking a mane of tangled hair out of his eyes, he drew his sword blade with a hiss. It fit neatly into the small partition between the two and with a little wriggling he slid it all the way through and heaved until it caught on something. A growing smile of satisfaction spreading across his grimy face, his grip tightened as he levered upwards carefully until something thudded on the other side and he knew the bar holding the doors closed had fallen.
This time the doors yielded with one hard shove. The hinges didn't even squeak. Turning back towards the hedges where the others lay concealed, the man beckoned forward and his rangy frame disappeared into the depths of the house.