Disclaimer: would that they were mine! But, they're not, they're Tolkien's.

Author's note: Has this been done? Well, if it has, sorry. In the Appendices and the Tale of Years, it simply says that Aragorn made 'great journeys' and served both Thengel of Rohan and Ecthelion of Gondor as Thorongil. This is the story of those years. Some of 'em, anyways.

THORONGIL: Chapter 1

Aragorn stood looking over the valley of Rivendell, his legs weary but his heart joyous at seeing the home of his youth. It had been a long two years since he had left, and he longed for the light and music of the Last Homely House, and, perchance, a glimpse of the fair face of Arwen Evenstar. He smiled at some memory and set off towards the blinking lights.

Inside he could hear singing from the Hall of Fire, and leaving his bag outside the door he pushed it open and went in.

The long room was lit with the flickering red light from the huge fire blazing, and the shadows cast upon the walls were strange and tall. At one end Elrond sat in a wooden chair, Elladan by his side. In the middle of the room one tall Elf was singing the tale of the downfall of Isildur, and Aragorn standing there listened motionless, one hand on his sword hilt.

As the song ended, on a single mournful high note, Elrond looked up and saw the figure of the Man in the doorway. He got up from his chair and came forward, the Elves turning as he did so to see Aragorn.

"Aragorn!"

"Master Elrond," said Aragorn, embracing his foster-father.

"This is a pleasant surprise, Aragorn," said Elrond, beckoning for a glass of wine. "What brings you home?"

"Mithrandir," said Aragorn. "We met in Bree."

A shadow of concern flitted across Elrond's face.

"I see." He handed Aragorn the wine. "Drink that, Estel. I'll have some clean clothes sent to you, and I will be in my room in an hour. I sense we need to talk."

Aragorn nodded, and turned to go out of the room. As he did so, the clear voice of an Elf was lifted again in song.

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel, Estannen e môr ."

The sound faded as he walked away into the house.

Later, cleansed and dressed in new clothes, Aragorn went to Elrond's study. The Elf was sitting in front of a roaring fire, thinking quietly. Aragorn took the seat opposite Elrond and stretched out his legs with a sigh. Elrond glanced across at him and smiled.

"Tired?"

"Yes. Too long in the Wild."

Elrond folded his hands and got straight to the point.

"You said you met Mithrandir, Aragorn. How long ago?"

"Nearly a week," Aragorn said.

"What did he say?"

"Very little, save that Saruman's spies were following him. One of them caught up with me a day outside Bree. He knew nothing. He won't be going back to Isengard. But there are too many strange people in the North, Elrond, too many that do not belong."

Elrond assented with a nod, and turned his chair a little more toward the fire. "So what brought you home, Aragorn?"

"I am going South."

"South?" exclaimed Elrond.

"To Rohan. Mithrandir says that Thengel needs help."

"Thengel does indeed," said Elrond, "but it is a long and perilous journey before you reach Rohan."

"What are long journeys to me?" asked Aragorn. "I have a desire to see the white mountains of Gondor. I am no longer a child."

"To me you will always be a child," said Elrond with a sad laugh, "but then I am looking on from another perspective. I remember the founding of Rohan, all those years ago." He leant forwards slightly. "But, Aragorn, have you thought how you are to get to Rohan?"

"I imagined I would go south through the Gap of Rohan," Aragorn said with a shrug. "I was going to ask you for the loan of a horse."

"It would certainly be the quickest way," Elrond mused. "Otherwise you will have to scale the heights of Caradhras or go into Moria - I do not advise *that* way at all. I have heard the Dwarves wish to recolonise their ancient home, but I am wary of them doing so. Something lurks there. Besides, the way in is hidden and hard to find even for the most skilled hands. Yes, you should take a horse." He stood, and went to the large table in the centre of the room, on which lay a pile of parchments. He rolled out a map, and Aragorn went to join him.

"See, here is Imladris. And there is Rohan, with Edoras there. You cannot speak the language of the Rohirrim. You should try and learn some words before you set out; they will welcome you more eagerly. Though Thengel, and his wife, I believe, both speak the Common Tongue and possibly some Sindarin."

"I will try and learn a little." Aragorn moved across to the window and twitched the hangings aside to look out into the starry night. "Elrond . is the Lady Arwen here at present?"

Elrond looked up from his perusal of the maps.

"No. She is in Lórien again. There are so few womenfolk here. And Gilraen your mother is quiet company, Aragorn. I fear she is lonely."

Aragorn said nothing, but continued to stare out at the night.

"Tomorrow I can begin to teach you some words of Rohirric," Elrond continued, watching Aragorn's back. "And Elladan and Elrohir would be pleased to talk with you; they have travelled further south than you and mayhap can tell you much. In the meantime you should try and get some sleep."

"I will take a walk first," said Aragorn, turning eventually. "I need fresh air. Thank you." He bowed his head to Elrond and left the room, leaving his foster-father staring after him.

The stay in Imladris showed Aragorn how much five years in the Wild had changed him. He no longer felt completely at ease in the homely surroundings, and spent most of the days outdoors under the sky. He talked a little with his mother, whose hair had turned prematurely grey and whose eyes showed the pain of long loss. Still she seemed glad to see him. Elladan and Elrohir proved the most cheerful of Aragorn's companions in Imladris that week, telling him tales of the south, and continually marvelling at his height; for now Aragorn surpassed all but the tallest of the Elves in that household, and being broader of shoulder and back he seemed much sturdier. Privately, Elrond and his sons spoke of the early wisdom and knowledge in Aragorn's grey eyes, and indeed it was true that each of them thought of Arwen when they thought of Aragorn.

After a week, Aragorn had a horse saddled up, and made provisions, and he took his leave of Gilraen and of Elrond. Elladan and Elrohir came with him, for they also had an errand and would ride with Aragorn some way down the Bruinen of Rivendell.

On a bright crisp morning the three of them set out, Elladan and Elrohir with the Elven-light in their eyes, and Aragorn stern and proud on his horse. The sun was high in the winter sky, and the three sang as they travelled. They made good progress and on the third morning the brethren turned off East. Aragorn wished he could have accompanied them, for they were taking the high roads over the Misty Mountains before striking south to Lothlórien and their sister Arwen.

Aragorn made good pace after Elladan and Elrohir had gone. He spurred his horse on over the stony ground, and only ten days after leaving Imladris he had reached the ford at Tharbad, and the intersection with the North-South Road.

Here he pulled up the hood of his cloak, wishing anonymity. There was much traffic on the Road; Elves, Men, Dwarves, and at night some other folk; Orcs passed on two nights. His horse seemed to sense his urgency, and they pressed on south. This was the land of the Dunlendings, swarthy people with a look of urgency about them. They paid little attention to Aragorn on the Road. In contrast, Aragorn was much interested in the Dunlendings, finding them different to any Man he had yet encountered. Their behaviour and manners seemed uncultured to Aragorn, used as he was to the house of Elrond, and yet he could tell that he was as like to the Dunlendings as he was to the Elves. He spurred his horse on, sensing ahead of him the hills of Gondor and the grassy plains of Rohan.

Three weeks after leaving Imladris, Aragorn reached the Gap of Rohan. North lay the vast ranges of the Misty Mountains, and he could see a thin wisp of smoke reaching up into the sky not thirty leagues distant - the smoke of Isengard, the home of Saruman the White. To his east were miles and miles of gently swaying grassland, the sweet scent reaching the nostrils of his horse. And away to the south Aragorn could at last see the foothills of the White Mountains, the Ered Nimrais, the border of Gondor. His heart lifted, and he rose in his stirrups and called the horse on. They sped east, on through the Gap in the mountains, on to the plains. The thudding of the horse's hooves was music to Aragorn's ears.

He followed the West Road, keeping on the soft grass for pure pleasure. This part of the journey did not take long, and three days on from the Gap of Rohan, with the morning sunrise, Aragorn saw the light glittering redly on the golden roof of Meduseld, the house of the kings of Rohan.

Around the long house built on top of the hill were many other buildings; indeed, Edoras was a large city. Down on the grasslands below the habitations were stables for thousands of horses, and Aragorn could see them grazing - well fed, well-kept battle steeds, their coats gleaming with health. And he caught also his first glimpse of the Rohirrim. They were tall Men, with fair hair and stern features, and they were dressed simply in tunics of brown and green.

As Aragorn came into the grazing lands, the Rohirrim straightened from their tasks and regarded the stranger with interest. But nobody challenged him, and Aragorn listened to their tongue; one full of rich vowels, rolling and deep like the land itself. He continued to ride without having to speak until he reached the gate of the fort of Edoras, where the two guards stepped in front of the gate, their spears crossed, barring his way.

"Hail, stranger!" the left guard said. "What is your business here?"

Aragorn thought he understood the gist of the question.

"I come to see Thengel," he said, slowly.

"Your name?"

"Men call me Strider," replied Aragorn.

The guards stepped aside, and the gates swung open. Aragorn rode up the stony path into Edoras. By the side of the road ran a stream, trickling downhill to the plains. Ahead of him were the green terrace and the high golden roof of Meduseld. At the gates Aragorn dismounted and gave the reins of his horse to a boy, who led the horse off talking gently to it. Aragorn adjusted his hood and walked confidently up to the gate wardens. Somehow he knew that this was one of his first tests, and that it was paramount that he passed it.

The gate wardens examined Aragorn for a moment before speaking. They wore high helms topped with horsehair plumes, and the metal on their armour gleamed with care. They carried round shields of green, emblazoned with the image of a white horse. In comparison, Aragorn, in his travel-stained cloak, felt very inadequate. He waited for them to speak.

"You have come to see Thengel?" asked the taller of the gate wardens.

"Yes." Aragorn had not understood exactly the meaning of the question, but evidently he phrased the answer right, as the wardens opened the doors.

"We must ask you to lay down your sword," the other warden said, first in his own language and then in the Common Speech. Aragorn nodded, and unbuckled his belt, laying down the weapon before the gates of Meduseld. Then the wardens parted and Aragorn son of Arathorn entered the hall of the Kings of Rohan.

Inside Meduseld the light was patchy, but clear and bright where it entered through the high windows. The vast pillars held up the golden roof, and as Aragorn walked down the room his footsteps echoed off the wooden walls. At the far end of the room he could see a table, around it sitting a number of men, and in the corners of the room a number of servants. A bright fire burned in the centre of the hall.

Aragorn stopped walking a number of strides away from the table, and bowed.

"Thengel King, I bring you greetings from Elrond and from Mithrandir." He had learnt this phrase whilst in Imladris.

From the table a man stood, tall and fair, yet the tale of years bore upon his face and his greying hair. His hand resting upon his sword hilt, he came forwards to Aragorn.

"From Mithrandir? Gandalf Greyhame?" he said, in the language of Gondor.

Aragorn breathed an inner sigh of relief.

"The same, my lord."

"And who is this messenger from the North?" asked Thengel. "Are you Elf or Man?"

"A mortal am I," said Aragorn. "A wanderer."

"A wanderer? Even wanderers must have a name," Thengel returned. "What is yours?"

"What you choose, lord," answered Aragorn.

"But what do Men call you?" Thengel said.

"My childhood name was Estel," Aragorn told him.

"A strange name for a Man," Thengel said, "but it will do. What do you have to tell me, Estel?"

"Naught, save that both Mithrandir and Elrond were concerned for you and your land. I am come to give you what aid you might need."

Thengel threw back his head and laughed, turning to his advisors.

"This solitary man," he said to them, "is come to save Rohan. What think you of that?"

"I would ask, lord, what he can do," one of the Rohirrim said. "He looks to me to be young."

"I am but six and twenty years of age," said Aragorn, "yet I have spent the last six years in the northern wilderness. I can track and hunt and kill as well as any Man. And I can ride a horse, and I have some knowledge of warfare."

"Impressive achievements," said Thengel. He waved at his men. "Look you, continue with those plans. I will talk with this stranger alone."

Aragorn followed Thengel out of the back of the hall, his mind full of the splendour of the king's hall, and the knowledge that should fate work for him, he could himself one day have halls greater yet still.

The passage led into a small antechamber, furnished with comfortable chairs, a table, and tapestries and murals on the walls. Looking around him, Aragorn could see many horses, running on the wild open plains, and streaks of gold and silver glinting in the threads of the wall hangings. Thengel gestured at a seat and took one himself.

"So," he said, leaning back in the chair and examining Aragorn, who had taken off his hood, "what brings you, a stranger from the North, and by your voice and your looks, a man of Gondorian descent, to me?"

"I have told you, lord," Aragorn said. "Mithrandir suggested I come to you."

"Ah - yes, Mithrandir. Know ye not, Estel, that the name of Mithrandir brings the Rohirrim no joy? A wise mage he certainly is, but seldom does he bring good news. And Elrond. We know very little of Elrond. You are fortunate that I know more than most. Wisdom is said to dwell yet in Imladris."

Aragorn met the king's blue eyes with his own grey ones.

"You know that Saruman has sent spies to follow Mithrandir, then, lord?"

"No, I knew not this. Yet it does not surprise me. Recently there has been more activity from Isengard, and some of Saruman's men have come to buy horses from us."

"Did you sell them?" asked Aragorn.

Thengel nodded.

"Why should we not? Saruman has been in Isengard since Fréalaf's time; that is, two hundred years or so. Fréalaf was the tenth king of Rohan, I am the sixteenth. Saruman has not harmed Rohan at all, and indeed having a wizard on the border is somewhat comforting." Thengel bent forwards. "But we are not here to talk about me, nor about Rohan, we are here to talk about you, Estel. I say; Estel is not a name for a Man."

"Men call me what they will," Aragorn said. "I am content for them to do so."

"Well, so be it," said Thengel, obviously dissatisfied. "It is clear that you will not give me your true name, if you have one. I daresay you will have one given to you. Which brings me on. Can you speak our language?"

"A few words," Aragorn admitted. "I have been taught the basics."

"Well," Thengel said. "It matters little, since I prefer the Gondorian tongue. But that is unpopular here and the éoreds use our language. My queen will be pleased, though; she is from Lossarnach. Have you been to Lossarnach?"

"Nay, lord," Aragorn said. "This is the furthest south I have yet been."

"Ah, well, I warrant you will journey further south from Edoras," Thengel commented. "Gondor is a wonderful land. The stewards' line is strong."

"I heard that Ecthelion II is now Steward," said Aragorn.

"Indeed. He has ruled four years now, and we have had no difficulties. There are rumours that the people of Minas Tirith are saying that as the king will surely never return, the stewards may as well take the throne."

Aragorn forced a laugh, and Thengel laughed with him.

"Of course, they never will," he continued. "Too much tradition behind the post. But here am I once more not talking about you. So you can speak a little of our tongue, and that of Gondor; what else?"

"Westron," said Aragorn, "Sindarin and Quenya if need calls."

"A learned wanderer!" said Thengel. "And you can ride, I hear; at least I am told you rode here."

"I ride, yes, lord," Aragorn replied. "Yet I would not be able to match your riders, I am sure."

"And you are a swordsman?"

"Yes, lord."

Thengel nodded his satisfaction.

"That is good. Well, Estel, I see no reason why I should not let you stay. I see a light in your eyes that convinces me you are not a spy from the Enemy, and indeed a spy would not speak Quenya. I shall order lodgings to be made suitable for you, and you shall have a horse of Rohan whilst your own rests from your journey. You will ride in the first éored. The lands hereabouts are uneasy. Another rider will be welcome."

Aragorn stood and bowed to the king.

"Your generosity is much welcome, lord," he said. "Rohan is indeed a great land."

Thengel shrugged, looking up at his guest.

"Yet not the greatest, nor shall it ever be," he said. "I swore an oath when I came to the throne, an oath to ride to Gondor's aid should she call. All those who ride under the banner of the horse must do the same."

"Ever in Gondor's need shall I come," said Aragorn.

At Thengel's command a servant came, listened to the king's orders, and led Aragorn to some lodgings. Aragorn bowed again, and followed the servant out, leaving Thengel looking after him thoughtfully. Finally he got up and went to join his counsellors in the great hall.

That evening, after dining with the leaders of the marks of Rohan, Thengel and his wife Morwen sat alone in their chambers. A fire burnt in the hearth, and in the next room their nine-year old son Théoden slept peacefully.

Morwen was a woman younger than her husband, but steadier of mind. She had dark flowing tresses and brown eyes, taking after her father's people from Lossarnach; yet she was happy in the city of Edoras, for she loved her husband greatly. Still the news of the arrival of the stranger interested her, and she listened curiously to what Thengel had to say.

"Was I right, do you think?" the king asked her. "Right to let him in?"

"I could not say without meeting him," Morwen said, laughing. "I daresay you were."

"There's something . something about him," said Thengel. "He is young, yet there is an air of authority about him, and a light in his eyes the like of which I have not seen before." He stood and stretched, yawning. "One man, sent here by Gandalf Greyhame. There must be a reason."

"Doubtless we shall find out in time," Morwen said, brushing out her long hair. "So long as he proves to be a loyal and willing servant, what complaint should you have? I am certain the wizard had a valid excuse."

"Well, if he comes to Meduseld again, I shall ask him," Thengel said.

On the next morning, Aragorn awoke early, and dressed in the new clothes he had been brought the day before. Then he made his way to the communal kitchens where he was given a roll and some milk.

At mid-morning Aragorn made his way to the great enclosure on the plains, and was given a horse. Evidently orders from Thengel had been passed down, because as he sat astride the horse, a little apart from the rest of the éored, one on a horse taller than the others came to him. His helm was high, and he held his head proudly. He wheeled the horse as he came to Aragorn's side, and halted.

"Estel?"

"Yes."

"I am Léod, first Marshal of the Mark. I lead the first éored. I've had orders from the king that you should ride with us. Your horse suits?"

"Very well, thank you," said Aragorn.

"Good. I fear few of the Riders speak the Common Speech. I shall put you next to one who does. Today we ride to one of the settlements in the centre of Rohan. We must verify the safety of all the Rohirrim, wheresoever they may be." Léod beckoned to Aragorn. "Come."

Aragorn followed him through the Riders until they came to a group of men earnestly discussing something. At Léod's arrival they broke off their conversation. Léod broke into a flurry of Rohirric, gesturing at Aragorn, and one of the Riders nodded and said something back. Léod seemed satisfied and rode away. The Rider who had spoken smiled cheerfully at Aragorn.

"It seems I have been selected to look after you," he said in the Common Speech. "Welcome to Rohan."

"Thank you," Aragorn replied. "I must confess to feeling rather inadequate in my inability to speak your tongue."

"Not many can!" laughed the Rider. "You can at least converse with the king in the language he prefers."

"True," said Aragorn.

"But tell me, what may be your name and where are you from?" asked the Rider. "There was a great fluster yestereve when it was told that a stranger from the North had arrived and had held long talk with the king. Did you have important news?"

"No news," Aragorn replied. "Your lord was but interested in why I had come."

"And why have you come?" pursued the Rider.

"I wanted to see more of the world," Aragorn said honestly. "I have lived all my life in the North and I have tired of it. That is all."

"Fair answer," the Rider said. "And your name?"

Aragorn shrugged.

"Call me what you will. I have been given many names over the years, one more will not matter. I do not know your name either?"

"I am Rodulaf," the Rider said. He turned to his fellows and there was a quick debate in the language of the Rohirrim, before he swung back to Aragorn. "For now, we shall call you Thorongil. It is fitting you should have a name in your own tongue."

"Thorongil," Aragorn said. "Eagle of the Star. Well, Rodulaf, so be it!" With his free left hand Aragorn touched the brooch on his shoulder gently.

"But there is an Elvish light about you . your clothes and your sword at least!" Rodulaf continued. "Mayhap an Elvish name is more appropriate ."

"You see well, Rodulaf," Aragorn said. "In truth, my sword was forged for me ."

He was forced to cut off his sentence as several horns were blown from the front of the éored, and the host began to move, the horses trotting in time with each other. Aragorn followed Rodulaf in the middle of the éored.

They rode all day, crossing the great plains of Rohan. Aragorn marvelled at the landscape he found himself in; vastly different from anything he had ever seen before, he recognised its usefulness as a border for Gondor, and he sensed also the fierce pride the Rohirrim had for their land as well as the way they had adapted to be at one with the grasslands. He liked the Rider Rodulaf, and he realised very quickly that Léod was well respected by his éored.

By the end of the day the group of horsemen had reached the small rural settlement almost in the centre of the land, farmed by a few men. The land looked healthy and the people were content, but happy to see Léod and his men. The éored camped out that night under the stars, their horses tethered by stakes driven into the ground. Before he slept Aragorn lay for a while looking at and learning the southern stars, feeling glad he had come, and then he closed his eyes and fell at once into a deep slumber, within sight of the kingdom awaiting him.

For the next week the éored traversed the great plains, inspecting the king's lands and practising battle manoeuvres, and at night sleeping under the open sky. They arrived back in Edoras on a clear bright evening. Aragorn took his horse to a stable and then visited the Elvish horse from Imladris, who seemed to be content and was growing fat on the lush grass. He then returned to his lodgings, where he found an invitation to dine that night with Thengel and the queen. He dressed accordingly in the clean clothes he found lying on his bed, and fastened his cloak over the top with the star brooch he had been given.

The hall of Meduseld was lit by firelight, the gold glistening in the flames. A long table was set down the centre of the hall, with two carved seats at the far end and long benches down the sides. Other men and a few women were arriving also, and servants directed them to their places. Aragorn was seated directly to the left of the seats, at the top of the table, and soon he found that Léod was opposite him. The marshal introduced Aragorn to his neighbours, and soon a three-way conversation in Rohirric and Gondorian was flowing. They were interrupted by the voice of a servant announcing the arrival of the king and queen, and all the assembly rose from their seats as Thengel and Morwen entered and stood behind their own places. A few words of Rohirric were said, and then everyone sat down and the food was served.

Thengel, accepting a plate of mutton stew from a servant, turned to Aragorn with a smile.

"So, how goes it?"

"Well, lord, thank you," Aragorn replied, taking a plate himself.

"I must present to you my wife. Lady, this is our guest from the North, called by our Riders Thorongil, or so I am told. My queen Morwen."

Aragorn bowed his head to her.

"I am honoured to make your acquaintance, lady," he said.

"And I yours," Morwen said. "It is not often we have visitors from elsewhere, least of all those who speak my own tongue with such ease and grace. From whence do you hail?"

"The North, lady," said Aragorn.

"The North is a large place," Morwen replied.

"Nevertheless, it is my home," Aragorn said. "I am a wanderer, a huntsman. I do not belong anywhere."

"But where did you grow up?" she pursued.

"I spent some of my childhood in Imladris," Aragorn said, though reluctant. Next to him, Thengel listened intently. Here was perhaps a chance to discover more about his strange guest. Morwen looked interested.

Aragorn picked up his goblet and drank a draught of the light ale they were served with, his eyes far away. He put down the ale.

"But Imladris is far behind me," he said, marshalling his thoughts, "and now I find myself in one of the fairest lands I have yet seen, with one of the fairest ladies at its head."

Thengel laughed.

"And very fair is the tongue of one who has lived with the Elves," he said, still laughing. "But tell me, Léod, how do you find your new Rider?"

"A credit to the éored," the marshal said cheerfully. "He'll do well, lord."

"I am pleased to hear that," Thengel smiled. "I hope you stay long, my friend."

"I hope so too," Aragorn replied sincerely.

Stay long he did. For nearly seven years Isildur's Heir rode as the Rohirrim in the first éored, rising swiftly to become one of Thengel's most trusted advisors. The Rohirrim soon learnt that the stranger had far more skill in tracking and hunting on foot than they, in their lives spent on horseback, could ever hope to gain, and so it was that when an enemy was spied and then disappeared, Aragorn was sent to find them. He grew to be respected and liked by the other Riders, and he picked up their language quickly, being fluent in under a year. Yet Aragorn at times longed for the peace and quiet of the North, and he missed the sound of Elvish voices, of the song and stories of Elrond's halls, and he missed also the gentle voice of his mother Gilraen, living in eternal grief amongst the joy of Imladris. From time to time he would spend the nights asleep under the stars, dreaming of those he loved, and at these times Arwen Evenstar would come to him and smile upon him.

Three years into Aragorn's life at Edoras, Thengel had a visitor. Aragorn heard only rumours as he returned to the city from a foray into the plains, but when there came the gentle tap on his door as he washed away the dust of travel, his heart rose as he crossed the room and opened it.

"Hail and well met, Thorongil!" said Gandalf, smiling broadly under his hat. Aragorn smiled back.

"Come in, old friend, come in." He ushered the wizard in and pushed a chair forward. "Sit down."

"Do you mind if I smoke?"

"Not at all," Aragorn said. "In truth, I have missed the scent of smoke; the Rohirrim do not use leaf at all."

"You're well?" asked Gandalf, cupping his gnarled hands around the pipe to get it going.

"Very," Aragorn said, sitting himself. "The Rohirrim are gracious people."

"They're certainly generous hosts," Gandalf agreed. "I've heard good things of you. Thengel thinks highly of you."

Aragorn said nothing.

"Your mother has gone home to your kindred," Gandalf said. "Imladris is a lonely place for those who are unhappy."

"Have you seen her?"

"Before she went." Gandalf lowered his voice. "She's left the shards of Narsil with Elrond, Aragorn. He sends his best wishes."

"When you next see him, greet him for me?"

"I will do that."

"So, what brings you to Edoras?" asked Aragorn.

"I had business with Saruman," answered Gandalf, his face a little grave. "I am going on to Minas Tirith to speak with Ecthelion. Have you been there yet?"

"Not yet," Aragorn said. His voice was full of longing. "One day, maybe."

Gandalf puffed a smoke ring out of his pipe and thoughtfully sent it spinning up to burst on the ceiling.

"But what will be the manner of your coming?" he mused. "I cannot see. You have kept your lineage a secret, I trust?"

Aragorn frowned.

"I am not a fool, Mithrandir. I know as well as you what must and must not be said. Yet Thengel is no idiot, and neither is his lady Morwen. I believe they guess I am from Gondor, which is both right and wrong. The Dúnedain are a forgotten people."

"Not forgotten everywhere," Gandalf said. "I have not forgotten, neither has Elrond or the Lady Galadriel. Ecthelion remembers too, but he has been taught that the race of Isildur died out. And Sauron also remembers, but with fear in his black heart."

"Ah, well," Aragorn said. "If he remembers but no more, that is good."

Gandalf sent a smoke ring spiralling around the rafters.

"He remembers. He remembers. The Eye is searching for something, and on whether he finds it or not rests the future of Arda." He puffed again at his pipe. "But we are too close to Mordor now. I will not speak further."

For a while the two friends talked of lighter matters, and Aragorn promised once more to be careful. Then Gandalf left to sleep, and Aragorn lay down on his own bed and thought long into the night. The image in his mind as he drifted off to sleep was that of his mother.

Aragorn awoke early the next morning and was able to say goodbye to Gandalf as the wizard rode off towards Minas Tirith. Thengel rose also to see his guest away, and he noted with interest the relationship between the young Man and the old wanderer. Aragorn stood awhile watching the wizard ride away before turning and going back into his quarters, lost in thought.

Another four years passed, during which Aragorn grew restless, and as summer grew into autumn in the fourth year he went to Thengel and begged leave of absence from the Riddermark. Thengel was loath to see his favourite Rider go, but he could not deny Thorongil leave after so many years' faithful service, and reluctantly granted the boon. Aragorn left the next day, having saddled his horse and gathered provisions from the stores. He dressed in his old clothes, a green cloak over brown and green garments, and carried no token of Rohan with him as he rode off into the grasslands.

To the south the great White Mountains rose up, impenetrable, and Aragorn kept on the West Road east, through the Eastfold and the lands of Anórien. As he rode the grass grew thinner and the desolate Mountains of Shadow, the Ephel Duath on the borders of Mordor, formed a dark barrier. Aragorn skirted the forest of Druadan, leaving behind him Thengel's lands, and on one sunny morning, with the sky tinged pink and orange, he saw with a leap of his heart the City of Minas Tirith, the white tower at its peak shining in the morning light.

But his plan was not yet to enter into the city walls, and instead of passing through the Rammas, the outer walls, he turned away and headed towards the fortress of Osgiliath. Here his papers from Thengel smoothed his passage, and soon he was over the River Anduin and heading south on the Harad Road.