A/N: I do not own Middle Earth. But if wishing made it so . . . Anyways, I also do not have a LotR beta, so please forgive the typos. I'm new to this world, and constructive criticism is very welcome.
For Aragorn, the most surprising thing about Edoras was all the children. They seemed to run in packs throughout the surrounding countryside. Little girls sat by the creek beds clutching dolls made of cornhusks, little boys formed impromptu companies complete with wooden swords and shields, wild herds of both sexes galloped around the outlying pastures on ponies of all sizes, irreverent of property divisions or class boundaries.
Nor did the trend stop at the city walls. As Aragorn rode up the winding, cobblestone street towards the Golden Hall, gangs of children darted through the marketplaces and alleyways, their tow heads gleaming under varying degrees of dirt. There were beggar children draped in oversized rags and cast-offs, peasant children in coarse rustic skirts and breeches, and all manner of better-arrayed city children—the sons and daughters of merchants, servants, and military men. On any given street, there might be two or three gaggles of playmates in view, and these little packs were all but certain to contain representatives from all three classes. Several times, to Aragorn's initial shock, he had even espied Thengel's own Théoden and Théodwyn romping dusty and sweaty among equally dirty friends.
The first time this had happened, Aragorn had brought it immediately to the King's attention. To his surprise, Thengel laughed and slapped him on the back. "They're children, Thorongil, what else would you have them do? Sit in closed halls and be lectured at? No, that might be enough for the little ones of Gondor, but these are children of Eorl. They were born to run wild about the plains."
It seemed strange to Aragorn, but if he were honest with himself, he had little to compare it to. His own childhood had been spent in Imladris, a city that was lucky to raise a child once in a century. His family—particularly his Elven "relatives"—had been almost shamefully permissive, but no amount of indulgence could make up for the absence of other children.
When he returned to his own people, the young Ranger found a very different situation. Dunedain parents had few children—a major contributor to the decline of the race—but for those blessed with offspring, each one was a treasure. Each child was a piece of history, the heir of some great lord or other, a person to be preserved and protected. Mothers kept the smallest children close, rarely allowing them to venture out of their secluded villages. From the time they could speak, the little ones were taught history and languages, the names of their forbearers and the departed kingdoms of Middle Earth. Among their elders, the children grew solemn and respectful after the fashion of their parents, but often amid gatherings of friends, a precocious child would be called upon to recite some new lay he'd learned or share a treasured piece of artwork.
By the time they passed adolescence, most Ranger youth were not children anymore. At this age, boys and girls alike were taught hunting, tracking, and survival skills. Their teacher was their father, if he were still living, an uncle or neighbor if not. Even those who had not lost their fathers were rarely untouched by tragedy. Each family had lost someone—a cousin, a brother, a mother. By the time their training was complete, even the youngest Rangers were grim and silent; a force of vengeance to be unleashed against the world's darkness.
His first few years abroad with these dour guardians had greatly expanded Aragorn's worldly knowledge. He could now tell at a glance which tracks were left by game, which by men, and which by more dangerous beasts. He knew which northern villages would shelter a penniless traveler, which would tolerate him, and which would throw him out in the rain. He was intimately familiar with the wilds and could estimate how long any given journey would take by foot or by horse, on the road or through the wild.
Children, however, remained a mystery. Villagers were mistrustful, a trait they passed on to their youth. More than once, Aragorn watched fields and schoolyards empty as the Rangers strode by. Innkeepers sent their young sons to bed when the green-cloaked strangers came through their doors. Mothers clutched babies tighter and pulled toddlers brusquely away.
"Marshal Thorongil! I'll race you!"
A young boy, the son of an éored captain, pulled up beside Aragorn on a chubby pony. The man laughed and sent his mount into a quick trot, allowing the youth to easily outstrip him.
"Marshal Thorongil!" A little girl dashed up, skirts flapping. "Mama picked you these!" She waved a sprig of wildflowers over her head like a trophy. Aragorn took them with a wide grin and a word of thanks.
A small pack of boys and girls darted across the street in pursuit of a rolling ball, and to Aragorn's horror, one lad lost his footing and fell right at the feet of Aragorn's war horse. Aragorn's heart skipped a beat. The northerner pulled up sharply on the reins, but his stallion had already stopped. The great horse tossed his head and sidestepped, but seemed more annoyed by his rider's overreaction than by the small obstacle at his feet. The child, for his part, sprang back to his feet and bounded after his playmates, either not knowing or not caring that he'd nearly been trampled.
"Marshal Thorongil, you're back!" Another child jogged up beside him. Aragorn looked down and was surprised to see the King's son, his face clean, bedecked in some sort of livery.
The man slowed his horse so the boy could keep up. "I am indeed, my young lord Théoden. And I see you've entered your father's service while I was away."
The twelve-year-old spread his arms, clearly proud of his hay-flecked finery. "I'm almost a groom now!"
"A worthy post indeed." Aragorn responded with a solemn nod.
"Were there orcs in the Westfold?"
Aragorn affected a fierce expression. "Many, many orcs, but your uncle and I sent them flying."
An eager light came upon the boy's eyes. "I'm gonna fight orcs too someday. And command an éored and wear a horn!" Aragorn could see it, too: this brash child grown into a bold man clad in mail atop a powerful steed. He saw how the youth would put away toys and take up a spear, and turn his wild, fierce, childish joy into the greatest weapon of the Mark. And he realized that perhaps it is not only the Dunedain who treasure their children for the warriors they will become.
Aragorn hid his disturbance under a light laugh. "Let your legs grow long enough for the stirrups first, little Rohirrim. Now run along! I'm sure the stables are falling apart without you!"
Aragorn watched the boy's retreating back for a moment longer.
Run free, Son of Eorl.