Twilight came early in the Wild at this part of the year. Dark clouds hung low over the Weather Hills, colored deep rose and grey by the sun as it sank towards the heavy mists shrouding Midgewater Marsh far to the west. A solitary figure plodding steadily along the Old Road watched birds wheeling in the sky, searching for evening shelter.
As he trod, his walking staff’s rhythmic striking echoed against the crags of Weathertop. This was no ordinary stick; the twisted twigs forming its crown held a small crystal. Its silver glimmer barely illuminated the path just ahead of the weary traveler.
He held his long, dusty grey cloak closely to his body to ward off the evening chill. Upon his head sat a tall, pointy hat which bobbed gently with each step. He sang softly to himself – an ancient rhyme of Westernesse – here rendered as near as possible in the common tongue:
Nimloth’s seed still slumbers
In the hills above the White City
The fruit Isildur stole from fire
Waits long for Envinyatar.
As he sang, watching the birds spiral ever lower over the ruined stones of Weathertop’s ancient watchtower, he noticed the brief flare of a small fire. It appeared to flicker out from a hollow place in the hillside, just beneath the old stone ring of Amon Sul.
“Who is foolish enough to let his fire show to any passersby?” The traveler spoke half-aloud, though no one stood by to hear. Unable to stem his curiosity, he called up loudly, “Hail, friend! Can a peaceful stranger warm himself a while by your fire?”
After a few seconds, a deep voice called down, “From where have you journeyed, and where are you bound?”
“I come this past fortnight from the House of Lord Elrond of Rivendell. My destination is my own affair.”
At these words, a pause of several minutes ensued. The traveler leaned on his staff, listening to the faint murmur of voices above him. Soon, a tall figure appeared at the edge of the hollow, silhouetted against the darkening sky. He peered down in the dusk to see who might be seeking shelter so boldly. As he leaned forward, his long golden hair glinted in the firelight’s reflection. At sight of the traveler’s staff, he called out merrily,
“Mithrandir! What lucky chance brings you into our company? Come, follow the marked path around this side of the hill, just ahead on your right. One of us will meet you on your way up.”
“Is that the voice of Elrohir, son of my friend? This is a happy chance indeed! I will come up gladly to share your fire and fellowship!” With that, the weary walker set forth for the path winding around and up Weathertop. The way was clearly marked by small, moss-covered boulders laid down many years before. His staff’s crystal shone brighter as he climbed. Shortly, a tall, handsome-featured young man came running toward him with a huge smile.
“Mithrandir, it has been months since we last met at my father’s home. Much has happened in that short time. There is someone in our company I am anxious for you to meet.”
“Young Elrohir, as always it is good to be with you. It has indeed been far too long. But wait, let me finish the path and then we will share our news.”
They were an interesting pair, the slim young man clad in elvish brown and green beside the older cloak-wrapped gentleman in his pointy grey hat. Soon they reached the small grassy hollow buried into the side of the hill. Sitting around a small fire made within a blackened cairn, there sat two other young men, their faces alit in the flame’s warm glow. One was some years older, with raven hair down to his shoulders. The visitor noticed that this one held his hand very near the hilt of a sword hanging at his side. He seemed quite solemn, even stern-featured, as he watched the elf and his guest approach the fireside. The other, younger boy sported hair of an unusual auburn shade, with a very wide, open grin playing about his features. Both had deep grey eyes and seemed to bear themselves as sons of a noble race, with grace and dignity apparent in their posture and mien.
Elrohir cleared a place close to the two and said, “You have heard my father speak of the wizard Gandalf, the Grey Wanderer, and now chance brings him to us. We call him Mithrandir, but to men and dwarves and Halflings he is always Gandalf. Here are two young men of the Dunadain. This bright-eyed one is Halbarad, and the frowning one is called in my father’s house Estel.”
Gandalf’s eyes widened at mention of “Estel,” for he well knew the secret history masked by that name. He moved to sit close to the young man so-called and peered intently into his eyes. Estel returned the gaze unflinchingly, but no smile of welcome softened his expression.
“You are Elrond Halfelven’s foster-son, child of Gilraen and Arathorn, are you not?” asked Gandalf encouragingly.
Surprise flickered across the young man’s face. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “My mother is Gilraen the Fair, Dirhael’s daughter. My father was Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dunadain, until he was slain by Orcs. But how do you know these things?”
With a chuckle, Gandalf answered, “So intense! So serious! Why, Elrond and I have spoken often of you before this day, though I have never laid eyes on you since you were a babe…..Aragorn!”
When he heard this name, the young man’s mouth fell open with a gasp of surprise. His hand moved to grasp his swordhilt firmly, as if to steady himself. But he made no answer.
Halbarad broke the silence with an impatient gesture of dismissal toward Aragorn-Estel. “He takes himself far too seriously these days, Sir. I will answer for him. My cousin Aragorn is indeed he who sits before you dumb-struck as an ox, clutching his sword as if he were a great warrior.”
Elrohir laughed as Aragorn turned upon his young cousin with a look of displeasure. “Come, Estel, surely you will not show discourtesy to an old and trusted friend of our father. Gandalf is more trustworthy with your secret than you can imagine. He has known of your birth and heritage these many years, and has helped keep you hidden away. You owe the wizard much thanks for his discretion and wisdom.”
Turning to the bemused visitor, Aragorn-Estel removed his hand from his sword and extended it to the wizard with a sheepish expression.
“Forgive my seeming rudeness, but I meant no discourtesy, Sir. It has been impressed upon me to keep my family secret, for there are great enemies who desire my destruction. When I heard the name of Isildur’s heir on a stranger’s lips, I became wary.”
Gandalf took the grave young man’s hand and answered with a warm grin, “You are right to withhold trust till you are certain it can be safely given. There is an enemy who, if he knew who you were and where you were, would send terrible forces against you. Elrond Halfelven has taught you wisely.”
Halbarad tugged at the wizard’s long sleeve. “He is always worrying over his family history. Ever since Elrond told him what he came from, it’s all he seems to think about. I am glad my father was not so high and mighty!”
Elrohir tousled the boy’s hair. “You are both of the Dunadain, Halbarad. Much may depend on you both as time passes and you come into the fullness of manhood. The blood of Numenor runs high in your veins, both of you, and it will surely push you into greatness.”
“This talk of mighty deeds and destiny has given me an appetite!” said Gandalf merrily. “Let us share supper before any new revelations.”
The three friends brought out cakes of lembas wrapped in large leaves and offered some to Gandalf, who in turn offered a share of the carrots and apples stashed in one of the deep pockets of his cloak. The four ate with relish and spoke of the history of the ruins above where they were camped. Aragorn told his young cousin of how Elendil himself once had stood upon Amon Sul and watched as the dark hosts of Mordor marched.
Contented and full, the four sat back and a peaceful quiet covered them for a time. Then out of the stillness a voice came sweetly and softly chanting….
There is great joy in Armenelos
For the gold-sailed ship comes home
“West-wings” red with setting sun
Carrying the glad traveler
Numerramar returns from Lindon
With Aldarion at the helm
He leaves behind, for Eruhantele,
The cloud-wreathed mount, the green shores…
As Aragorn sang, Halbarad closed his eyes and Elrohir hummed softly. When the chant was finished, there was a brief silence, and then Gandalf spoke.
“I see you are well-versed in the history of Numenor, Aragorn, and that is as it should be. Aldarion’s desire for the sea remains deep in your blood.”
“Such songs were taught me by my friend Legolas, son of Thranduil of Mirkwood. He and I and the brethren hunted together last spring near Trollshaw,” said Aragorn. “There is something about Aldarion’s story that brings me both joy and pain. I wonder if I will become a wanderer in the world as he did.” As he spoke, an expression of longing filled his face and his eyes shone bright in the light of the fire.
Gandalf gazed with affection at the wistful young man. He moved closer and patted his shoulder encouragingly. “You have many roads to travel, young Dunadan. There is a glory that awaits you, but it is hidden in the mists of an uncertain future. Much depends on your desire and will. But you have many friends eager to help you, many you do not even know yet.”
“Gandalf,” interrupted Elrohir, “you have not said where you were going. Is it some great secret?”
“Why, I am headed for the Shire, Elrohir. You know the Hobbit Bilbo. You met him fifteen years ago in Rivendell, I believe.”
“Hobbit?” said Halbarad.
“That is what Halflings are called in many places, cousin,” said Aragorn.
“Yes, of course I remember the brave Hobbit who helped the dwarves recover their treasure. Baggins, was it? He had a great sense of adventure – and loved to sing with the elves, if I remember aright.”
“In two weeks,” explained Gandalf, “Bilbo will celebrate a birthday, and his parties are always great events in Hobbiton. I have promised to provide a little entertainment.” Gandalf’s eyes twinkled as he thought of his part in the coming celebration.
“You are providing the fireworks, no doubt!” laughed Elrohir.
“I have never seen a Halfling,” said Halbarad. “In fact, I have never been as far west as Bree, but Elrohir says we may go there on this trip. He and Estel – I mean, Aragorn – are teaching me woodcraft and tracking skills. Yesterday we tracked a strange creature through the Wild for many miles, but we let him go because Elrohir said he was too dangerous.”
“Yes, Gandalf, we tracked an Orc,” said Aragorn, “and he wore the marking of the servants of the White Wizard Sauraman. When we left him, he seemed to be heading toward Midgewater Marsh. Why would Sauraman send an Orc this far west?”
“That is a riddle that needs solving, and soon,” Gandalf answered gravely.
“The night is full upon us now,” said Elrohir. “Why not stay and sleep here in this hollow near our warm fire?”
“Is it wise to leave the fire burning so brightly when it can be plainly seen from the road? Perhaps this Orc was not alone. Maybe there are unknown enemies near.” As he spoke, Gandalf glanced quickly toward Aragorn with a thoughtful look. He walked over to the edge of the hollow and saw the Old Road below, visible as a thin moonlit ribbon winding off to the west.
“We have elven-cloaks with us,” Aragorn reminded Elrohir. “If Gandalf’s cloak is sufficient against the cold, perhaps we should douse the fire.”
“Halbarad,” the elf said, “take the wooden bowl in my pack and fetch enough water to kill the flames.”
The boy jumped up, retrieved the bowl, and headed quickly down the hill to the clear spring which flowed just beneath where they were camped. Aragorn unfastened the star-shaped clasp holding his dark brown cloak, took a grey elf-cloak, and wrapped up tightly in it. The air was cooling and a gentle breeze was blowing out of the north across the hill. Soon, Halbarad returned with the water and threw it on the fire. As the flames died, their hissing was the loudest noise in the night, as the four were settling down to rest.
They lay quietly for some time, but old friends newly-met must soon have more to share, and quiet conversation started up between the elf and the wizard.
“You spoke of travel and glory to Estel,” Elrohir whispered, “and so has my father. He must soon go where he can learn the things a ruler of men needs to know. He is a highly-skilled hunter and woodsman, deadly with the bow, thanks to our friend Legolas. And I know of no one of his years more skilled with the sword. It is like another limb to him. But there are things a leader can learn only by leading, Gandalf.”
As Elrohir spoke, Gandalf could see Aragorn’s eyes in the dark, and he knew the young man needed to take part in this conversation. The wizard beckoned to him and said, “Let the little cousin sleep and come here by us. Who knows when we will get a chance to speak like this again?”
Aragorn moved over and sat between the elf and the wizard. His face had lost the half-frown he had sported since Gandalf had arrived. The two made a place for him and they spoke of the young man’s future.
“Your brother here tells me you have been a good student of the bow and sword,” said Gandalf. “In times like these, such skill is necessary for a man such as yourself. But you need experience using such weapons in real battle against real foes. Has Elrond suggested a path you might take to gain such experience?”
Aragorn smiled and replied, “You seem to have read Atarinya’s mind. He says there are enough Rangers to watch over Eriador. He has talked of my riding with the Rohirrim in the service of Thengel of Rohan. There has always been a close bond between Rohan and Gondor, hasn’t there?”
“The two realms have a long history together, it is true,” agreed Gandalf. “You seem more than ready to test your skills against other men. There is no better way to learn warfare than fighting alongside older, more experienced men, and I can think of no better horsemen than the Rohirrim to learn from.”
Elrohir nodded in agreement and Aragorn looked thoughtful. Then he replied, “You give good advice, as does Elrond, but how will I mask who I am? Surely it would be a mistake for me to go either to Rohan or Gondor as Aragorn, or even as Estel.”
“No, you cannot think of using either name,” agreed Gandalf. “You must think of some other name to call yourself if you ride with Thengel’s men.”
“Then you think I am ready to serve a king, to engage in battle?” asked the earnest young Dunadan.
“I trust your brother’s judgement of your skill. And I must confess something to you, Aragorn. While I was in Rivendell, Elrond and I spoke of just these matters. He described your swordsmanship to me in glowing terms, and he convinced me you are ready.” As the wizard spoke, Elrohir nodded in agreement.
“I will miss you, Estel,” the elf said, “and Halbarad will miss his older cousin, but it is time for the Chieftain of Arnor to step forward and take his place in the world.”
The young man sat with his chin on his knees, peering intently into the night. Gandalf felt the conflict within Aragorn. He was ready to leave the refuge of Rivendell behind, to enter the arena of men and conflict, but he lacked confidence. Placing his hand on Aragorn’s arm, the wizard shook him gently.
“Come, enough serious talk for one night! I need rest, for it is a long way still to the Shire, and I am sure Elrohir has more adventure planned for you two. It is good that you weigh carefully the choices laid before you. Just remember, there are many who are anxious to see you succeed! There are many friends ready to assist you on your way to Gondor’s throne.”
At the mention of Gondor’s throne, Aragorn’s head went up and his eyebrows raised.
“Do you think Elrond is the only one who sees where things must lead?” asked Gandalf. “The road that ends in Minas Tirith will be long and full of trials. Your first step may be to go to Rohan and serve Thengel. There you would be able to study the ways of a ruler with his people, for Thengel is a good leader and you could learn much from him. But for now I will say goodnight, Aragorn. You have much to dream of.”
The young man moved back to his place nearer his cousin and lay quietly. Elrohir and Gandalf spoke a while longer, and then lay down to sleep. But Aragorn remained awake, pondering their words together for a long while before finally closing his eyes.
When Aragorn opened his eyes again, morning had begun to break. He looked over and saw Gandalf standing near the place from which Elrohir had called down the evening before. The wizard seemed very intent on watching the road below. Following an instinct for caution, Aragorn rose very quietly and stepped over to the wizards’s side, being careful not to startle him. Gandalf raised his finger to his lips and pointed down. The young man stepped over and saw a pair of black-cloaked Orcs walking slowly, leading horses, now and then stopping to peer at the roadside. The sun was just over the horizon, its rays filtering through a light mist floating delicately above the grass.
The wizard and the young man continued to watch as the Orcs made slow progress along the road, heading west toward Bree. The strange creatures made no sound, but walked slowly, as if they were looking for something they had lost. It appeared that they were sniffing the air at times, trying to catch a scent of whatever – whomever – they sought. When they were well out of sound and sight, Gandalf said, “Are these like the Orc you saw before?”
“They are dressed alike, but they were not close enough for me to see if Sauraman’s mark was on their chest,” replied Aragorn.
“You are right to wonder why Orcs would be this far west of the Misty Mountains. It is very odd, and if they come from Sauraman, that is even stranger. I have heard rumors that he is interested in the Shire-folk, but why is still a mystery, although I have a hint of an idea. The Hobbit I go to visit may have some treasure he brought back from his adventures with the dwarves. Perhaps that is what has Sauraman’s attention,” sighed Gandalf. “In a few days I will be in Hobbiton and maybe there will be some news of these Orcs.”
“I have long wanted to meet some of the Halflings. They sound like a merry, friendly people. Atarinya thinks highly of them.”
“I am very fond of them, too,” said the wizard. “The Shire-folk live very peaceful lives, tucked away as they are far from the shadows in the east and south. But I fear change may be coming. There are hints of a spreading darkness that trouble me greatly. I go to Hobbiton not only to see Bilbo but to see what I can discover. The presence of these Orcs is a sign my fears are justified.”
A voice suddenly broke into their conversation: “You should have waked me, Estel! The sun is higher than I would like it to be. Come, help me rouse your cousin from his dreaming.”
Elrohir stood up and stretched, and walked over to where Halbarad lay curled up in his elf-cloak and gently nudged him. Aragorn called out, “Wake up, sleepyhead! You have missed half the morning already! This is no way for a Ranger to behave!”
Halbarad slowly sat up and rubbed his eyes. “The sun is barely over the hills. But I’m glad you woke me. My sleep was heavy and dreamless, and it is time to be up.”
Gandalf reached into his pocket and took out a long-stemmed wooden pipe. Reaching into another pocket, he removed a small bag and untied the string tightly knotted around it. He took out a pinch of dry, grassy-looking stuff and placed it carefully in the bowl of the pipe.
“I am nearly out of pipeweed. I hope there is a good crop of Old Toby waiting for me in the Shire. I would have smoked a pipe last evening, but I’m rationing the little I have left,” said the wizard with a chuckle. “Let’s get a good fire going, for breakfast and for smoking!”
“I have never tasted the weed, though I’ve known some who could not go long without their pipe,” said Aragorn with a definite note of curiosity. “Some say it clears the mind.”
“Perhaps you would care to try it?” asked Gandalf, his eyes twinkling. “Let’s get the fire going and I’ll give you a taste.”
Elrohir said with an aggravated tone, “Gandalf, you are a poor influence on Estel. Elrond has tried to keep him from the bad habits of men and Halflings – and crafty wizards.”
“A little pipeweed won’t hurt him, Elrohir, and anyway he is old enough to make such choices for himself. Smoking has not hurt me and it certainly won’t hurt him.”
Halbarad’s eyes grew wide as he watched the friendly argument between the wizard and the playfully indignant elf.
“What about my choices? Can I try some?” the boy asked.
Gandalf laughed and said, “No, young friend, you need a few more years under your belt. Aragorn here is a man and able to do many things you cannot. Your time will come, my eager young Dunadan.”
Soon a good fire was glowing bright and so was the bowl of Gandalf’s pipe. As the sizzle and smell of bacon filled the morning air, the wizard drew reflectively on the pipe and blew out several smoke rings. Fascinated, Aragorn gestured for the pipe and Gandalf handed it over to him.
“Pull a little smoke into your mouth and breathe it in slowly. Just a little, and hold it a few seconds.”
Aragorn drew on the pipe and waited, and then his eyes began to water slightly. With a cough, he blew out the smoke and sputtered a bit. Elrohir said something that sounded like “Huhnm” and Gandalf laughed merrily. After a second or two, Aragorn joined in the laughter.
“It is not as I expected, but not so bad. Let me try again,” he said, and Gandalf replied, “Go ahead. The second taste is always better than the first.”
“While you two blow smoke rings, Halbarad and I will eat all this delicious bacon,” said the elf, and he and the boy started in on their breakfast. Aragorn took another puff and handed the pipe back to Gandalf.
“I don’t want to waste the little you have left for your journey. Perhaps I will get another chance to taste a pipe,” he said with a grin.
“It is good to see you in such a merry mood, Estel, for last night you looked ready to cut me to pieces! I like to start the day in a light vein, for who knows what things may befall one before the sun sets again?” said the wizard.
The four companions finished their meal and then Elrohir and Aragorn quenched the fire and started to pack up. Gandalf summoned Halbarad to help him pick up his part of the camp, and while they worked they spoke quietly together. What Gandalf had to say to the boy was for his ears alone, and not until many years later would Halbarad remember the wizard’s words and fully understand them.
When everything was packed, Elrohir sent Halbarad and Aragorn to fill their water bags from the hillside stream nearby. When they were out of sight, he turned to Gandalf.
“This meeting was fortunate. Much was shared of importance for them both, but it is especially good that Aragorn has finally met you. He will need your guidance and friendship in the coming years if he is to have a hope of fulfilling his destiny.”
Gandalf nodded in agreement. “It is time for him to leave Rivendell, the sooner the better. Your father is heartbroken over Aragorn’s desire for the lady Arwen . But it is best that he not take Narsil with him when he goes, for it would be a terrible loss if the shards went missing before they could be reforged.”
“Elendil’s sword is quite safe,” said Elrohir. “My father did give the shards to Estel five years ago, when he told him he was Aragorn. But my brother refuses to carry it, and prefers to keep it lying in the tribute room at Rivendell. He seems fearful of it.”
“He has a reverence and awe for his ancestors, and this does him honor,” replied Gandalf. “I am pleased to see he does not take these matters lightly, for the day may come when the fate of many will depend on Aragorn’s acceptance of Numenor’s burden.”
“He carries a weight of fear, Gandalf,” answered the elf gravely. “He fears Isildur’s legacy, Isildur’s blood , the weakness of men. Yet, he is proud of it, too. Oh, Gandalf, I miss the carefree Estel who knew nothing of Gladden Fields, who knew only the grace and peace of Imladris.”
Gandalf started to speak in reply, but then Halbarad and Aragorn appeared carrying water for the journey. The wizard gave a knowing look to Elrohir and stepped over to the young men.
“It’s down the hill and off to Bree for old Gandalf. Where might you three be heading?”
Aragorn frowned and glanced at the elf, saying, “We talked of going as far as Bree, but I think the Orcs have changed our plans, have they not, brother?”
Elrohir hesitated, and then answered, “It is too dangerous to bring you so close to wandering Orcs who may be spies for Sauraman, when we don’t know what or whom they are searching for. Isildur’s heir must remain hidden at this time.”
At the mention of this name, Aragorn’s frown deepened. “But everyone is pushing me to leave, to strike out on my own in the world. How do you suppose Isildur’s heir will remain hidden if I go?”
“Elrohir is right, Aragorn,” admonished the wizard. “When I pass through Rivendell on my way back from the Shire, you and I and Elrond will discuss the next steps of your journey. Wait for me at Rivendell, and decisions will be made. They must be, and soon.”
Halbarad looked from one to the other and sighed. “Then I suppose we head north? My mother will be pleased; she hated to see me so far from home.”
“First we head east. Your cousin must return quickly to Elrond and tell him of these strange Orcs. Then I will bring you home to Ettenmoor. Perhaps I can get Elladan to come with us , for the hunting should be good this time of year. We may bring your mother surprises for her winter larder.”
Aragorn placed his hand on his sword and said with eyes flashing, “If we see more Orcs between here and Bruinen Ford, I am ready for them. They owe me a life.”
With a troubled look, Elrohir said, “My mother’s blood calls to me as loudly as your father’s does to you, but we will not engage in any battles, Estel, not while your young cousin is in our company. I promised his mother we would study woodcraft, not warfare!”
“Well, I will see you in a few weeks, Aragorn,” said Gandalf. “Be patient and listen to your brethren and Elrond. They have worked too hard to protect you only to have you forget your value and become careless. Halbarad, don’t forget my words. You will be a brave warrior one day, but you must stay near Ettenmore for a few years more. When next we meet, you will wear the Ranger’s star.”
With these words, Gandalf took up his staff and trudged down the path ahead of the three. Aragorn and Halbarad picked up their packs and the former slung a bow and quiver over his shoulder. They followed the wizard down the hill with Elrohir bringing up the rear.
When they reached the Old Road, Gandalf said, “Namarie, my young friends. Be watchful, but try to enjoy the last days of your journey together.”
“Namarie, Mithrandir, old friend. Give my blessing to Bilbo on his birthday,” replied Elrohir.
Halbarad ran up and impusively threw his arms around Gandalf, hugging his cloak tightly. The wizard smiled broadly and bent to whisper into the boy’s ear. Then he gently pulled Halbarad’s arms from around him.
Aragorn stepped forward and extended his hand to the wizard. “Thank you for your concern and advice, Gandalf. I am not named “Hope” for naught, and I will wait in hope for you at Rivendell. But,” he added with a grin, “be sure to bring some more pipeweed with you!”
“Not only weed, but your own pipe! Farewell, Aragorn,” and with those words the wizard turned and started west toward Bree.