Author's Note: OK, I realize that's not the most original title in the world, but I couldn't think of any others at the moment. Anyway, this is set a little before my letter fic . . . this is going to be pretty long hopefully, the story of Aragorn's first adventure after leaving Rivendell and going to live among the Rangers. He is about twenty at this time, and hopelessly in love, and . . . well, read it if you want to know the rest! Review and I will love you forever!

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters, and I am not making any money off of them. Please don't sue me. I am a poor broke college student with no money!

The Rangers are hard to see. I never thought that I would be one of them, among the ruin of their ancient seat.

My ancient seat. It still feels strange to call it that, and so far I never have where any of the others can hear me.

Deadmen's Dike, the Bree-folk call it now. It used to be Norbury, to the common Men of Arthedain, but the Dunedain still call it Fornost, as they always have. As we always have. Folk in Eriador now think it deserted, a barren heath where no men go, save those who flee from civilization.

This whole place has a sort of otherworldly feel about it, on the edge of the populated North. The older Rangers say that is Angmar, the still tangible Shadow of the Witch-King who killed so many of their forefathers. My forefathers. Hard to believe that this place was once the center of a living government, where a people lived and laughed in times of peace. The whole place fairly moans with an unbearable loneliness, as if the very jagged stones cry out in pain for something they cannot name. There is a grandeur here, but a remoteness, too, that might grind down the strongest will of any man alone here, and the ghosts of those who fell defending them linger in every hollow. The Shadow of the Witch-Kingdom still presses too close about these hills, and the ghosts do not confine themselves to darkness here. Here they walk abroad under the plain light of day. We do not see them, but all of us can feel them. The air is saturated with the sorrow of those who were here before us, foreboding worse for us if we remain.

This was once a seat of kings, but whatever honor and dignity is left here is too incalculably high and remote for any to touch, descendants of Numenor though we be.

The old king's seat stands alone at the top of the highest hill, made of chipped gray stone, and the wild athelas springs from cracks in its base. None now go near it, though we live in sight of it. I have never sat in it, though it must be my birthright, and I doubt any of the others would object if I did so. The ordering of the scouts and the planning of forays may go to the older men, men experienced in the hard reality of warfare as I am not yet. But to sit in the ancient seat is a symbolic right, one granted only to the heir of Isildur, and however young or inexperienced I might be they know that Elrond would not lie as to my blood.

There are barely two dozens of us here, most of them much older than I. Of the few who are nearer my age, most have traveled in the Wild for several years already, and are far more familiar with this land than I. I have traveled in wild areas with the sons of Elrond, but always far to the East of where the Dunedain of Arnor usually traveled, and I had seldom been gone from Rivendell more than a fortnight. Even the lads my own age knew the customs and lands I was supposed to one day defend better than I did.

It was one thing to learn from Elrond my foster-father that I was a prince in exile, an heir of kings I thought had died out centuries ago. In the House of Elrond Halfelven, who himself is as old as the first king of Numenor would be were he yet living, such a title had meant little more than the end at last of the questions that had plagued me throughout my childhood. Questions of my lineage, my house, my father's deeds, things that allow a young man to find some root in this world. And it was a joy to me to discover that my house was indeed high and noble, higher than many of the houses of the Edain in Middle-earth, that my lineage had not been hid from me out of a desire to spare me shame, that my father had died well and been beloved by all who knew him. Such things are of utmost importance to a young man growing up, especially growing up surrounded by Elves who are of much more noble birth than any Man were he Beren or Turin himself.

To present myself and my knowledge of my house to others of my own kind, dour Men who have little time for leisure or lore or song as found in Rivendell, men who had served my father for many years of bitter war but knew nothing of me, was something else entirely.

It was not that I feared they would doubt my claim, and they did not. Nay, I feared more that they might accept me as who I said I was, and that I would be expected to live up to their idea of what their chieftain and the son of their chieftain should be. That I should do as they had done from the cradle, unsheath my sword and not sheath it again until we regained our ancient kingdom or I perished. This was the oath of their people, of my people, of their fathers and their fathers' fathers through all the generations since they had served the heirs of Elendil. This was the trust for which my father had died, for which they had bled, for which they had watched sons and brothers and friends fall. For which they endured long partings and uncertain lives, no permanent homes, protecting the common folk who no longer gave them fealty.

And here came I, a young scholar of barely twenty years, learned in the lore of Rivendell and the ancient tongues, knowing a little of combat but nothing of the pressures and miseries of a lifelong war in the wilderness. Raised in seclusion by Elves, surrounded by music and song and learning, sheltered in light and warmth while others had fought the battles to protect the kingdom that belonged to me.

Born to their people, yet I knew next to nothing of their ways, growing up surrounded by another race. By what right did I come to take that which their blood and sweat had preserved?

If these things were in their hearts they did not speak them aloud. Still I felt my presence was an intrusion on something sacred, something which I had not yet begun to understand as they understood it.

I knew what they expected of me. One day I would lead them, when I was old enough and had enough battle experience. Their first loyalty, their first and only duty, was to my house, to the reestablishment of the house of Isildur in the North and the restoration of my throne.

Could I match their devotion to me? Could I hope to be as committed to this hopeless war as they had been for generations? Could I give my life over to this fight, and think nothing of bloodshed and hardship and separation from all those I loved?

They do not know the real reason that I came here, what finally prompted me to go to Elrond and tell him I could no longer dwell in peace in his house when my people were at war. He accepted the noble intentions I claimed, and gave me his blessing, but he at least knew what is in my heart.

But there will be no choice before Arwen my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn's son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.

It was only a day since he spoke those words that I left. He cannot have thought it a coincidence.

And now, for the first time in my life, I truly belong nowhere.

She is of lineage greater than yours, and she has lived in the world already so long that to her you are but as a yearling shoot beside a young birch of many summers.

Will there ever come a night when I can sleep without hearing those words repeated in my head? I could not stay in Rivendell any longer, not after those words. Arathorn of the Dunedain is my father and I honor his memory, but Elrond I love and know, and he has treated me as his son for many years. But I am not his son, and whatever affection he might have for me, it seems there are lines I may not cross and yet keep his friendship.

Why, oh, why, if it were as impossible as he claims, did he not bid Arwen stay in Lorien till I was far away? Ten years hence I would have been in the Wild, fighting with my kindred, even if nothing had happened in Imladris to drive me out. If I am "but as a yearling shoot" to her, it must be that one so long-lived would think nothing of ten more years apart from her father.

If only Elrond were as Thingol, and Sauron of Mordor held some treasure that could satisfy him. However impossible it might seem, if there were only a Quest I could undertake, some deed I might perform, as Beren did once. If only I were as Beren, unburdened by duty to family or kin or to a forgotten throne, free to abandon everything and risk my life for love alone.

She is too far above you. And so, I fear, it will seem to her.

Alas that the good will of Elrond will avail nothing if her heart is not changed. She knows nothing of my feelings, of that I am sure. Yes, she speaks with me, walks with me at times in the woods of Imladris. But such is no more courtesy than she would extend a kinsman from afar, and that is indeed all she counts me, and as such perhaps she may love me. But that is no comfort.

I can sense that they still do not know quite how to treat me. Elladan and Elrohir would have ridden out with me to introduce me to my kin, but I refused their offer. I wished to present myself as I am, alone, without any Elvish lords to back up my claim. Also, I do not know how much they know of my feelings for their sister, and if by them I have forfeited the love of my brothers as well I do not wish to know it yet.

I met my first Ranger at Bree, in the common room of the Prancing Pony. I don't know how it was I recognized him, as no one else in the room seemed to think he was anything special, but somehow I felt a flash of something the first time I laid eyes on him, as of an old friend who has been long away. It was the first and so far the last of such feelings I have gotten since I left Rivendell, but it is all I have to comfort me, to try to convince myself that I truly have come home. He was tall, though there were others in that room larger than he, and it seemed he was known in this place, for he sat near the center of the room at ease, long legs outstretched in front of him, as he stared at the fire.

He did not speak, but he seemed to be listening attentively to the chatter going on around him, and there was a sort of half-smile on his face. No one seemed to remark him as anything unusual, and he smiled and nodded as comments were addressed to him.

I watched him for a long time, conscious suddenly in this rustic town of my raiment, which though stained from many days of travel was still made by Elves in the house of Elrond, and did not exactly fit with the rough wool of the Bree-folk. The cloak I wore was of dark green and had belonged to my father once, kept by my mother for many long years since his death, but beneath it I wore the soft gray that the Elves travel in.

Perhaps it was this that made the Ranger look up when I walked in, but aside from that one glance he seemed to pay me no mind, as I sat at a table near the door. I made a motion to the innkeeper, who waved a young boy of maybe eight or ten over to my table.

"Can I get you anything, sir?" he asked, staring unabashedly at me until I began to wonder if I had got my sword fastened on upside-down.

"Dinner," I said curtly. "Something hot. And something to drink."

He bobbed his head and disappeared into the crowd, slipping adroitly between two large men as I took out a pipe. I had not smoked much before leaving Rivendell, but in the weeks since I had left I had found it something of a comfort in the Wild. Though expensive, as I had heard from the few settled areas I had passed through that the best pipeweed came from far West in the Shire of the halflings, and it was often hard to come by.

I finished my dinner quickly and was nursing my second tankard of ale when the common room hushed, and a voice was raised in song. I looked up to see the Ranger now in the center of a circle, standing and singing without accompaniment in a voice that was rough but not unpleasant.

But could it not have been any other song he sang, than the Lay of Tinuviel? It was a much abridged version, translated into the Common Speech, but the tune was the same as I had once sung it in Rivendell, and before he finished the first line I rose from my seat and moved quickly toward the door, throwing a few coins on the table as I left.

I did not want to think of Rivendell, not here, so far from all I knew, and I especially did not want to think of Arwen. Strange, how a simple melody can lodge in one's head, and how vivid are the memories of the times and places that accompany it! I could see myself once again in the woods behind the house of Elrond, watching as the lady of whom I sung appeared before my very eyes . . .

I could still hear his voice, the rough baritone carrying even outside the doors of the inn. This, I thought, in an attempt to subdue my emotions with cold reason, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the man was indeed one of the Dunedain—few others would know such a lay in this land. Few others had use for songs of Elves, or counted the history of Beren and Luthien important, save those of their distant kindred.

Perhaps it was a blessing she did not know of my feelings. Though how she could have missed it I do not know, especially as I had played such an incredible fool at our first encounter. Running after her, calling out Tinuviel! Tinuviel! As though I were Beren son of Barahir himself, and not a barely grown boy new-come from his first battle.

Some sense warned me a second before the wooden doors swung open, and a second later I noticed that the music had stopped. The Ranger was now carrying a pack, and I could see the sword that hung at his side. The scabbard was worn and scratched, and the hilt was dulled from many years of use. He stopped as the door closed and looked at me with a faint smile, and I tried to recapture that feeling of familiarity that had struck me when I first looked at him, but if we were kin from afar I no longer sensed it.

"I hope I did not offend with my song, Master—"

"Es—" I stopped, looking down at my boots in confusion. I was no longer Estel of Rivendell, I realized. This man was of the Dunedain of the North, and it was to find them and declare my true lineage that I had left. "I am called Aragorn, son of Arathorn," I said simply.

He peered at me sharply for a moment, dark green eyes narrowed in disbelief, then a look of respect came across his face. "Son of Arathorn!" he said softly. "Aye, thou art Arathorn's son indeed. Thou hast the look of my kinsman and my chief."

"I have come from Rivendell," I said, feeling somewhat awkward. I had come to find the Dunedain, and I had found them. Now I was unsure what to do next. What little I knew of the Dunedain was their role as protectors of the North from orcs and other such foul servants of the Enemy. Did I ask to be taken to their leader and offer my service wherever I could be of use? Or would they assume that I had come to take command of them all? I had no knowledge of the country or the threats, and in my current ignorance would be a disaster in command of the entire region.

"We had heard you were there," he replied. "Although I did not know how old you were. Halforth is my name, son of Hithlim. I served with Arathorn many years. He was a valiant man." There was great respect in those eyes, although I could not tell what portion was for me and what was for my father's memory.

"So my mother has told me," I said. "I am in my twenty-first year, and have just learned his name. I have come seeking my own kin."

"You have found them," he said, and his weathered face smiled, and it seemed that years of care fell away only for a second. He embraced me, kissing me on both cheeks. "Welcome home, my lord."

I essayed a brief smile, but could think of nothing to say to this. Standing in front of this rustic inn far to the West of everything I had ever known, having found at last that which I had sought, I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes and find myself back in Rivendell. I wanted to sit in the Hall of Fire with Elladan and Elrohir, and talk of the adventures we could find in the valley of Imladris. I wanted to sit in Elrond's study and feel the warmth of his approval and love as he told tales of his youth and exploits in the First Age. I wanted to sit in the woods behind the house and watch the stars, and wait to see if Arwen would come.

But there was no fire here, no Elven halls or music, and it was only by renouncing that which my heart held most dear that I could keep the regard of Elrond and his sons. There was only the inn and the forest around it, and the dirt track winding into the pines. It was getting on to night, and the Evening Star twinkled in the fading blue above the horizon.

"Engroth has filled the post of chieftain, since you were gone," Halforth said as he turned toward the stable. I followed him, turning my back on the Evening Star and resolving to gaze no more on it tonight. "He commands the guard at Fornost, and if he is not there, those who are will know whither he has gone."

Fornost. The name was familiar, but . . . The ancient seat of Arnor, I reminded myself. It would do no good for the so-called chieftain of the Dunedain to arrive with no knowledge of their sacred sites.

There was no escaping the fact that I knew much too little of the organization and activities of the Dunedain. When Elrond had first told me of my lineage and my duty, it was assumed by Elrond at least that I should not leave Rivendell until I had gained more experience in combat with Elladan and Elrohir, riding with the guard of Imladris against the orcs of the Misty Mountains, and I would be introduced gradually to my own kin when now and then companies of the Dunedain would accompany us. He had never intended that I should leave Rivendell of a sudden as I had done—as I had wished to do when he first told me of my father and my ancestors. Indeed, it had been my intention to leave Rivendell within a fortnight, and Elrond's to try to prevent my departure.

That was before Arwen.

What power is it in a woman's eyes, in an Elf-woman's eyes more than any other's, that makes the most reckless and daring of untried boys abandon all thoughts of adventure and long only to sit in peace by her side, and listen to her voice? Indeed I wonder that Elrond did not see what was in my heart earlier, from the abruptness of my decision to remain in Imladris longer.

What little I learned of the Dunedain during those months, though, was from my mother, and she could tell me little of military movements and the ways of their men at war. All thoughts of war were chased from my mind, and Elrond was surprised and pleased at my sudden desire to learn more of lore and foreign tongues which I had had scant patience for throughout my childhood.

When my lessons were done I would go out to the woods where I had first seen Luthien walk, and I would try to focus my mind on my books, studying halfheartedly as I waited for her to appear. I told my mother that I liked the quiet of the woods at evening for studying, and at first she did not question me further. I would sit beneath an elm tree with a book propped open on my lap, and when the sun went down I would lie on the grass and gaze up at the Evening Star until I fell asleep.

Some nights she would come, and I can still hear the sound of her gentle laughter.

"My father may believe you are studying, but I know better. Unless you have the eyes of a cat to read in the dark!" I would laugh and cast the book aside, and beg her not to tell Elrond I was not as diligent as he believed.

It was a few weeks before I got up the courage to tell her that my study of ancient tongues would be made much easier by a companion with whom I could speak them. She had no suspicion of what my heart hid, but having a gentle and generous nature agreed to meet me several times a week, that we might converse in ancient languages on such subjects as the weather and the doings of Elrond's household. Never have I applied myself so to the study of any books, and indeed Elrond was so pleased that for a little while it did not occur to him to be suspicious of my sudden hunger for knowledge, that I had once thought deadly boring.

When finally Elrond learned what I had tried to hide from him, he did not seem angry, only sad. But he did not try to prevent me from leaving the next day. No word was said to try to convince me to stay, not by him or by his sons—or by Arwen. Only my mother tried in vain to dissuade me, in fear, no doubt, that I would die as my father had. She knew as well as Elrond why I wished to leave.

"Do not cast your life away in recklessness or in bitterness," she warned me. "You will find a wife one day, one who will stand by you as I would have stood by your father, one of your own people. No mortal man who looks on Arwen Evenstar could fail to desire her, but such is not true love. You will see, my son. I would not have you risk everything for an illusion."

Her words cut me more than any of Elrond's ever could. I knew, of course, why she said what she said, and I even recognized that she might not even believe the words herself. She loves me, and she would say anything to keep me from peril. She knew only too well the anguish of losing those she loved to war's cruel necessity, and I was indeed all that she had.

But any who have ever loved another with their whole heart at a young age will know the pain I felt at my own mother's dismissal of my heartfelt emotion as only a childish infatuation. Elrond might have condemned me for my temerity, but the very gravity with which he treated the situation, and my obviously changed position in his eyes left me in no doubt that he believed me sincere. And much as that change hurt, I was grateful that he did not treat me as a child.

I had been here but a week and so far had done little of importance, besides sitting in my appointed post to watch the North road. For hours on end I would sit, my father's heavy cloak wrapped tightly around me and my knees drawn up to my chest so that I looked like part of the surrounding green, save for my face. No one had told me what I was supposed to be watching for. "Anything and everything unusual," was all Engroth said when I asked him. So far I had seen nothing, save the vague outlines of the hills of Carn Dum on the horizon, and those stood motionless amid the mist, shrouded in their ancient mystery. It was not a job I relished, for it left me entirely too much time to sit and think.

To think, and to wonder. To wonder if Arwen ever thought of me, huddled on a bleak hillside as winter approached the North Downs. I wondered it she could see me, somehow. It used to be said the Elves could see far away if they wanted to. Though why Arwen should want to see me I did not know.

I wondered what Elrond thought, when he thought of me these days. I wondered if he missed the days when we were at ease in one another's company, when nothing save my intense dislike of sitting still for lessons came between us. I wondered if he knew how much I missed those days.

I wondered what my mother would think of me, if she saw what thoughts were in my mind. What would she think if she knew how even here, among my own kin, my thoughts turn ever to Arwen, or what I would give if I could forsake all claim to the throne of Arnor, simply to be her husband? I knew nothing of my own people till a year ago, but my mother lived among the Dunedain all through her childhood, married a Ranger, and was prepared to devote her life to Arathorn's cause even as these men around me now are. She rarely speaks of my father now, but I know she loved him dearly. What would she think of me, if she knew I had even once wished to be free of her husband's name and his legacy?

Such thoughts were what I had thought to escape, by going into the Wild. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had assumed that the life of a Ranger would be full of traveling in strange countries, tracking evil men and orcs, and fighting often. This, I thought, would not allow me much time to think of all I had lost, and all I would have to give up eventually. The idea of long, lonely nighttime watches with nothing but the cold stars for company had never crossed my mind back in Rivendell. So far, it seemed, that was my primary duty, when I wasn't sleeping.

You will never understand, Elrond had told me once, what is the meaning of honor, until you come to wish you had never heard the word. Then, and only then, my son, if you still hold to the duty laid on you, then you will have found honor, though you will take no joy in it. That, long ago, was Elrond's answer to a child's dream of battle-glory. I hadn't though much of the words when he said them, or long after, but for some reason I remembered them now.

It wasn't until later that night, curled up in my cloak and gazing at the cloudy, starless sky, that I recalled my mother had once said something very similar about love.

She was right, too.

"What are they waiting for?" I asked Halforth one night, as we sat by the fire. We had finished our watch, he watching the North road and I the South, and after waking our replacements we ate a hurried breakfast by the fire. It was a few hours before dawn, and soon I would sleep until noon, or until Engroth decided we needed to drill, or extra guards were needed.

Halforth shook his head. "News. And I fear it will not be good."

I frowned, feeling my relative ignorance keenly once more. "Whatever bad news it is, I wish it would come soon, so we could know what it is we fear!" I said, reaching into my pack for breakfast and finding most of the cram wafers to be crumbled.

Halforth stared into the fire. "I sometimes forget that you know so little of our ways, my lord," he said. "We regularly send runners back and forth between guard posts, so that all may know what is passing in other parts of the country. The latest runner from the bridge at Tharbad is now a week overdue."

I pondered this in silence a while, pulling out a handful of crumbs and grimacing at the too-salty flavor. Tharbad at least was a name I knew . . . the only crossing on the Bruinen south of Rivendell, it would be the only crossing the orcs could use to come west, unless they came from Carn Dum out of the North. The Rangers had always kept a guard there, against such invaders. "Perhaps he was injured along the road," I suggested. "Have any been sent to look for him?"

Halforth shook his head. "Not yet, though Engroth will send someone soon, I do not doubt. Still, it is a straight path down the old Road from Tharbad to Fornost, and most of it through Bree-land, and that is settled country. The bridge itself is at the edge of what they in Bree call the Wild. Any Ranger could easily elude most common outlaws, unless there were a great number of them. The Road through Bree-land is supposed to be one of the safest routes to travel in the West. If that has changed, I fear what may have caused such a thing."

I nodded slowly, recalling our relatively peaceful passage up the Road from Bree to Fornost. "And it has changed suddenly, if it has changed," I pointed out. "For when last I traveled them those Roads were clear."

"Aye," Halforth agreed. "If trouble came out of Bree-land, we would have heard of it sooner."

And if it was not outlaws from Bree . . . "Orcs? But they would have had to cross the River at some point, and I know they could not have come through Rivendell. Surely the guard would have known if orcs crossed at Tharbad, and sent warning."

"If any were left alive after the orcs crossed," Halforth replied darkly. He passed a hand over his eyes. "This is all speculation. His horse could have thrown him and broken his leg. But there is something in the air. A foreboding. I like it not."

I said nothing, holding my numbed hands out to the fire's warmth and rubbing them together briskly. After a while, Halforth rose and bade me goodnight, moving toward his blankets.

I stayed a long time by the fire, watching the flames flicker and dance, thinking of what Halforth had told me. Trying to think how I would handle the situation if I were in command, as one day I would be.

It was not a day I was looking forward to.