The trees were thick and dark in the Valley of the Shadow, as it was called, and often youngsters were taken there to learn tracking in the dense forest, learning to see the small signs that people (or orcs) had passed that way. A broken branch here, a rock out of place there, and little by little the children of the Rangers put the picture together and learned the skills passed down for thousands of years.
Elgarain was silent and focused, all of her intense sixteen-year-old self bent on spotting each and every sign. She knew she was behind where the boys her age would be, for they'd been taken here from a much earlier age. It was only her father's death, and permission from her mother, that allowed Arathorn to bring her here now.
She'd pleaded her case before him over the last few weeks. "I know what my father said." She had lifted her chin proudly. "But I want to be a Ranger, it is all I desire."
"You may be killed, if I let you come with me," Arathorn answered, grave as he almost always was. He was ten years older than her, and yet she could not imagine him as a green boy, untried. He was bearded and tall, with broad shoulders. Beside him, she was, and ever would be, little, but she would show him that she could be fierce as well.
"I may be," she answered him, straightening her shoulders and rising to her full height (she barely reached his shoulder). "But I will have lived the life I needed to live and died the death I needed to die. I will protect the Dúnedain with all the might I have and all the training you will give me, and so my life, and my death, will not be in vain."
He looked into her eyes, and laughed then, a laugh that held little mirth. He was not mocking her. He was proud.
"Well spoken, Elgarain daughter of Eldahil. I will grant you the training you ask for. In two days' time, I will take you to the Valley of the Shadow."
In the Valley, Elgarain pointed out a fallen branch, laid somewhat awkwardly along the forest floor. "A sign?" she asked. "But of what?"
"Yes," Arathorn answered. "That one means there is water in the direction of the thickest branch." He led her to the branch itself. "So which way is the water?"
She glanced down at the branch again. "To the west," she said. "The bare end of the branch points that way."
"Good orientation," Arathorn said. "Not only did you interpret the sign correctly, but you remained in knowledge of your sense of direction. It is easy to get lost in a forest and wander for days in circles. This must not happen to you." He pointed to a rock. "Do you see a sign on that stone? What do you make of it?"
She padded over to it, and stared down, studying it. "There's a white mark that seems to indicate a star in the elf-letters. And there's an arrow pointing south. But what does the sign of the star mean?"
"Think on your lore, Elgarain! What race of people is associated with the stars?"
She shook her head. "Well, Elves, but what does that mean?"
"Well-remembered. So we interpret this as to the south live Elves. Also," he said, bending down to look more closely at the stone, "the arrow that points south is about more than just direction." He turned away, and swept some of the fallen leaf-mulch from the base of the tree directly opposite. "Here. What does that say?"
Elgarain bent down. "It's the number forty-seven," she said. "Written out in Elvish." She looked back up at him. "Why?"
"Orcs can often read numbers and ordinary signs, but rarely full words in Tengwar," Arathorn said. "This forty-seven is the number of miles to Rivendell, an important aid for Rangers wandering in the woods. There are secret signs and words scattered all about the lands for the safety and protection of the Dúnedain. They have often been placed there by Elrond's sons, who are great friends to all our people. You will meet them one day."
Elgarain progressed quickly through her lessons in tracking, and was soon as good at it as Arathorn himself. She was small and stealthy, able to slip through little openings in the woods that others would have missed, and always took care never to leave footprints where it could be helped. During training days in the Valley of the Shadow, Elgarain was the sharpest and most keen among them, often following the trail set out and returning home again well before any of her agemates.
Dírhaborn was her closest rival, and the affection he felt for her was plain to see. He strove ever to outdo her so that she would notice him, but though Arathorn could see her friendly regard for him, it was plain that she did not return his love.
Who she did love was a mystery, Arathorn thought. Or maybe she was one of those ones who did not fall prey to romantic love. That would be a grief, he could not help thinking, for she deserved all that came to a woman, and more. She was strong and noble, she was like a sister to him, and like a brother he worried over her. She deserved more than a Ranger's life and a Ranger's death, though she never seemed to be able to see it.
Her first battle against Orcs took place in a sudden surprise attack a few miles from Taurdal, as Arathorn was taking several Rangers out to check out an outpost which had been too quiet of late. They feared the worst, and it was proven true.
The Orcs plunged down into the valley below the outpost as Elgarain was up in a tree, trying to see the outpost itself. She was the smallest and lightest of them. As they attacked, she scrambled down, frantically pulling out her short sword. She was not yet fully trained in the use of the bow, or Arathorn would have signalled to her to stay put in the tree. Elgarain was among the thickest of the fight in an instant. She was half the size of the Orcs, and much quicker than they were, and she darted in and out among them, slashing a cut to the back of a knee here, her sword coming down smartly on an arm there. She did not kill any but she disabled quite a few, or made it possible for the rest of the Rangers to destroy them.
When all was over, and the Orcs lay in a soundless heap at the foot of the trees round about, Elgarain stood, taking several long slow breaths, as if to calm herself. Arathorn came over to see her, and drew her down to sit next to him on a convenient log.
"I was so afraid the whole time," Elgarain confessed after a moment. She was not weeping but her eyes had a look as if tears were burning up inside her before they could fall. "I ran so fast, I tried to help where I could, I knew I could not kill them, I'm not strong enough yet." She was babbling, her words tripping over themselves.
Arathorn took her hands into his own, feeling the rabbit-beat of her pulse at her wrist. "Shhh, Elgarain, all is well. You did brilliantly." He nodded to emphasise the point, watching her slowly take the words in. "You did so well. You saved lives today, I am sure of it. And you will be strong enough soon. Until then, we must get you trained on the bow. You have such precision, I'm sure you will be a marvel at it."
Elgarain sniffed a little, then suddenly broke out into a smile. "I'd like that, my Captain," she said.
Elgarain had always considered herself immune to the follies of love. When the other girls about her own age (there were not many, but enough), went sighing after soldiers, or stared at blacksmiths over their forges, and when the young men of her age attempted with blushing and false starts to impress them (or indeed, her), she considered it nothing more or less than a joke. Such feelings did not dwell within her for any of them.
Her feelings for Arathorn were something altogether more complicated, more profound than she really wanted to think about. She honoured him as her captain and as the Heir of Isildur, she looked up to him as a role model, and she felt warm affection for him as a friend. When all that transmuted into something entirely more delicious, secretive and unspoken, she could not say.
But the day came when she could no longer ignore it, no longer think of it as just something to dwell on in the night watches, when she lay awake looking up at the stars, her heart hurting inexplicably and her thoughts without her permission drifting into fantasies of saving his life, of the thrill that would go through her if he thanked her with a gentle touch to her shoulder, or even more so, if he kissed her cheek with gentle, soft lips.
This all grew worse when he began instructing her in the ways of the bow. Deep in the forest, he lined himself up behind her, his hands over hers, his voice in her ear as he gave instructions which she barely heard through the pounding of her heart in her ears. Her heart seemed to sing wherever he touched her, and she longed for nothing more than to slip her hand into his, or for his lips to press against her cheek when she turned to ask some question.
To impress him, she worked ever harder at her training, keeping up with him on long marches across the countryside, driving herself to the edge of what she could tolerate, and then sometimes just a little further than that. Every time she pushed herself too far, it was with the knowledge that he would turn, and catch the weariness in her eyes, and then she was in for a short, sharp lecture on the important of pacing oneself.
She always listened to them with a song in her heart, for did it not mean that he cared for her, to be so worried over her?
"You cannot do this to yourself, Elgarain," he protested one rainy night when they got back very late to Taurdal. The small group of Rangers they were with had encountered a band of Orcs, plus a wounded mountain troll, raging in its blind fury and pain. It took seven of them to pull it down, and Elgarain had suffered a broken wrist in the fighting, but carried on regardless of the pain. "If you are injured, you must tell me. How can I lead if my people are keeping information from me?"
"You are right, of course!" Elgarain said, but a smile flickered over her face, and she wasn't quite able to lock it away. "I'll try to do better next time. But I killed that Orc which was heading for you, and I don't even think you saw it."
Arathorn had turned away from her but at that, he turned back, an exclamation on his lips. "You killed your first Orc?"
"In your defence, I'll have you know!" she returned, the smile coming full force to her face. At his stunned look of pride and joy, she laughed outright. "Your face, I wish I could keep it that way!"
He took two long strides, reaching out for her bound wrist, gently bending over it. "Then you have been wounded in my defence," he said, his eyes meeting hers. "And there are no words for how grateful I am for you."
Her mouth went dry at the look in his eyes. Between the space of one breath and the next she understood her feelings: love, in a multitude of wondrous ways.