After Arathorn's death, who might be trusted with the duties of the head ranger?
Taurdal was disbanded by Gilraen's order, and the Dúnedain of Rhudaur scattered into hidden settlements like rain into the wilderness. The blood of the Sea-Kings then ran only in hidden wells, and in a young spring of hope in Rivendell. It would be a long time until it could be fostered into the stream it was meant to become, steady and powerful as the River Anduin, and perhaps once more reclaiming the old home of the Dúnedain - perhaps even the lands in the south that had long since passed beyond their grasp.
But as hope sprang, so did darkness. For while Estel yet lived in the Hidden Valley, the threat of Sauron persisted. He had been driven from Dol Guldur by the Wise while Estel was yet a youth, but the White Council knew that the assault had but bought them time, not defeated the Shadow entirely.
Elgarain, who had only barely survived the Orc attack that had launched the scattering of the Dúnedain, and battled through a fraught recovery in Rivendell, was entrusted with his care. She taught him what woodcraft she had learned from Arathorn, always guarding her tongue to not reveal his name by accident, for even as Estel was kept in disguise, so was his name, and all of his line. He knew his father then only by the name of Thorongil, a Ranger of the North, but Elgarain kept him in reverence nonetheless, and her charge followed suit.
A long road lay ahead of him, and he and Elgarain would traverse much of it together.
"Estel," Elgarain called, straightening from a crouch to examine marks on the ground - they were tracking a deer that Estel had wounded but failed to kill, and it had reached a patch of beech forest near the confluence of the two arms of the Bruinen. The water was loud through the trees.
Elgarain stood, frozen with familiar longing.
Light slanted from the edge of the forest, reflected by the water and rippling in the waving branches. Not two days' walk, and she could reach whatever remained of Taurdal after almost a decade and a half. She had seen other villages abandoned in fear of the orcs as their population flocked to safer homes, or worse, their people slaughtered in the hunt for Isildur's Heir. At least there would be no bleached bones resting unburned and unburied in the remains of her old home. Not much would be left for her to find - the white daub-and-wattle walls of the roundhouses would be crumbling, and the latticework fences would be overrun by nettle and the fireweed they'd always fought to keep outside. Beasts would have made their abode in the old homes.
It was folly - and worse than that, sentimental folly - to go, but Elgarain found she could not rid herself of the temptation as swiftly as she wished. She wondered sometimes if eternal exile was ever the lot of her people. Longing for Númenor of old ran heavy in the hearts of the Dúnedain, the higher their line the keener the pain, then Arnor of the Kings and Annúminas upon Lake Evendim, and then even Taurdal. It ran heavier in her the longer the years grew, and even so she was young by the measure of her people, still.
She looked around briskly, seeking whether the deer still was within arrow's reach. She found nothing, spotting Aragorn's silhouette instead, and waved him closer.
"We must go back," Elgarain said. "Elrond's lands end beyond the river, and if you stray, any harm that comes to you will be visited on me twofold. Your mother and your foster-father would have my -"
" - hide for it, I know," he said, coming through a thicket of flowering elder-bushes, carelessly spinning a long-stemmed umbel in his hand and scattering its small white blooms. "Even if I fail to understand why. Beyond lie the lands of the Dúnedain, do they not? They are our people."
"They were," Elgarain agreed. "Do not hang your heart on it lest it be broken. It may be that they reunite some future day, and then perhaps you and I shall be called to duty, but for now, Rivendell is your home and you must not question it. Thorongil would have my hide from beyond the grave if you dishonoured his memory thus."
"You seem different, when you speak of him," Estel said, looking keenly at her face, and Elgarain felt compelled to turn her head away. "You loved him, did you not?"
He'd broken the spell. She made for the thicket, briskly walking back the way they had come, and he followed suit, trailing behind a step or two.
"I shall take that as a sign that I spoke true," he said. "But he loved you not?"
"As a sister, not as I would have had him love me," she said. "He raised his voice on my behalf after my father had died in his service, and trained me when no one else would. He was a great leader, and I served under him for a decade, and I believed his heart would turn to me, so I held my tongue. I never learned to ask." She gave a rueful smile, turning around to face Estel and his wide eyes. The familiarity of the hapless glance tore at her heart, even though she had never seen Arathorn so young - he had already been a man grown in her first memories of him.
"Then your mother came to Taurdal, and their first meeting made me curse my faltering tongue. For the longest time I thought he might have loved me yet, regardless of his marriage, regardless of you, for my selfish, foolish sake - and I only found my heart with another when it was too late, and I lost all then. I nearly lost my life that day, also."
Mercifully, the boy did not press her more about his father. "I remember you saying that a woman saved you, and I have been wondering who she was. You never speak her name. Was she your heart?"
Elgarain snorted. "No. At least not in this way. I love her, also, but it is love born out of the gratitude and loyalty I bear her, not my heart's love. I do not think I shall find another to give my heart to when you command so much of my care and attention."
They both laughed, and Elgarain willed the sting of old pain away. "But who is this woman?" Estel asked. "A companion of Elladan and Elrohir, this much I learned, but when I asked the Elves, they would not answer, saying only that she lives now in the land of her mother's kin."
"And so she does," said Elgarain. "Come now, it is best to go back. Free your heart of her; you have much to pledge yourself to instead of thoughts of idle fancy."
"And ever you harry me," came the petulant reply. Estel pulled a face, but he nodded as they turned their back on the river and began the march back into the High Moors, still spinning the umbel in his hand.
* * *
On the day past Midsummer, Minas Tirith was still was decked out in white. Ribbons still fluttered from the buildings and clotheslines, and hid the damages of war that needed repairing yet. Ornaments of the white tree glinted silver in the sunlight, and white flowers lined the way that Arwen and Aragorn had gone through the city, umbels of hemlock and elder, white roses and flowers of Gondor that Elgarain could not name. She smiled briefly.
Anduin rolled like a silver band through the morning, and the city was quiet.
The wedding had run long into the night, and though it was late in the morning, the people still rested, and only a soaring flute from somewhere on the walls accompanied her way. It suited Elgarain fine; she enjoyed the calm as her boots found a way past the corners of narrow alleys between the houses and back courtyards to the lower levels, and eventually out onto the Pelennor, into a copse of trees not far from the gate that had survived the battle by some miracle.
Inside the forest canopy, small as it was, and strange to her with the fragrant trees bearing leathery, shining leaves so unlike the beech forests of the north, she breathed more easily. Her bones had begun aching by then, and she did not relish the thought of the climb back up to the palace when her observance was done. Perhaps she should have gone to Rath Dínen, as she had planned.
Finally, kneeling in the grass in the shadow of the trees, she burrowed her fingers in the loose, dry earth. "My task is done," she said. "I delivered your son to his fate, through the long years that you could not be here. Would that you were."
"Speaking to the dead on such a morning?" came a soft voice behind her. Gliding soundlessly over the grass, Arwen joined her. Her bare feet were speckled with dew, and the skin of her hands was as smooth as the day they had pressed a poultice of athelas to her wound. She wore a circlet of stones wrought in the likeness of hemlock umbels in her dark hair.
"I should resent you for your youth and beauty, had I not learned long ago that such is poison. Thank you for coming to me, Lady. Then and now."
Arwen only smiled, and brushed a strand of silvering hair from Elgarain's face. "And I thank you for coming the long road to Minas Tirith. You are a friend and teacher to Aragorn, and you meant much to Arathorn and Gilraen, this much I know. The King would have missed you last night, had you not stood in their stead."
"Ah, the wisdom of the Elves. Such grace, and so little of substance in it at times," Elgarain answered. "Forgive me," she added with a cough that was almost laughter. "I remember us sparring when I came to Lothlórien once. Verbal sparring is what remains to me now. I am truly glad to have come, even if the city is strange to me and makes me uneasy, a little. I will remain a ranger at heart, and the forests of Eriador remain my home."
"Deep roots are not touched by the frost," Arwen intoned solemnly. "And it will be good for him to have one who shares his plight, I think."
"His plight?" Elgarain echoed. "He is King, and has only to look forward now."
"And yet there is no forward motion without looking back and remembering," Arwen countered. "As you proved by coming here."
Elgarain's lips twitched. "Perhaps. And I think I am beginning to think why they call it the Circles of the World, with us all caught up in them and swirling like dancers. How does it feel?" She looked at Arwen and was surprised to find the bright eyes darken briefly. She took a moment to answer.
"In truth I cannot yet say, but I know that I do not regret."
Elgarain nodded. A sting of old pain, remembered and nourished in her heart for many years, made itself known briefly, but she had made her peace long ago, and being where she was could not help but think that she had succeeded in its spite. Perhaps she might have gone to some other settlement with a man at her side - Arathorn, or Dírhaborn - but she had chosen to come to Rivendell with Gilraen and Aragorn, and she had chosen to ride to Gondor with the Grey Company.
"Nor do I, in such choices that I had to make. And I have you to thank for being here because you came to Taurdal so many years ago with your brothers. In saving me, you brought yourself here, in a way."
Arwen rose and offered a hand. "And I think perhaps it was fated to be that way, and it is moot to discuss in so many words. In truth, I came to you with a proposal."
Elgarain's fingers closed around Arwen's softer ones, and she climbed to her feet. "I am all ears."
"I had word that Legolas plans to bring life back into the city, with birds and trees, and make it fairer yet, but he knows little of the forests of Eriador that you and Aragorn so love… is that not a task for you?"
Elgarain answered just as they passed back inside the gate, and a vision of white stone robed in trailing ivy came to her.
"I had never thought I would be a gardener, but then I hear they are heroes now. I might like that," she said at last. "Make this a home, and bring the roots that we both left in the North. Yes. I think I shall accept this proposal, for as long as my time still lasts. And perhaps if I find myself in more familiar surroundings I may find the strength to spar with you again after all, my lady."