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A cool morning rain had washed Trollshaw Forest clean, and the sound of water dripping was like soft music. A doe stood grazing with her fawns beneath the shelter of a low cliff overhung with bushy sedge. Near her, a door hanging ajar opened into a small alcove carved into the cliff wall. A troll-cave, it had been abandoned long before, and its only residents were small forest creatures. A red squirrel skittered out of a line of fir trees and ran into the opening of the cave, startling the fawns. Unconcerned, the doe kept at the wet grass, walking slowly toward the trees as she fed.

A well-trod path wound around the stony wall and dipped down a thickly wooded slope toward a small clearing. A tall young man in the weather-stained jacket of a Ranger crouched noiselessly behind a low hedge following the path and watched the deer finish their meal. On his back was a bow and quiver, and a long sword hung at an angle from his left side. His black leather boots were caked with dirt and his dark hair hung in damp tangles to his shoulders. He smiled as he watched the peaceful deer finally disappear into the thick line of trees.

He was Aragorn, last Chieftain of the Dunadain, and he had not come to hunt deer but to keep watch over the road running through the forest. It began on the west at Last Bridge over the Mitheitel and continued east to the Bruinen Ford. Just beyond that was Rivendell, the ancient stronghold of Elrond Half-elven.

After the deer were gone, Aragorn stood up, stretched his arms out with a yawn, and began to walk towards the clearing. His long strides brought him quickly across the damp grass to a glade surrounded by very old, thick-trunked trees. In the midst of the trees were three stone trolls, one of which was stooping down as if to look for something. As Aragorn strode past them, he recalled Elrond’s story of how the trolls were turned to stone fifteen years before, when the wizard Gandalf was traveling with his Hobbit friend Bilbo Baggins.

Aragorn continued walking steadily, stopping only once to rest a while and drink from his waterbag. A few miles past the trolls, he came out of the forest and up onto the main road. On either side were low thickets of bilberry brushwood and heather. The sun was now directly above, and he walked quickly, eager to cover a good distance before another nightfall. The young Ranger had slept out in the Wild for several nights, and Rivendell was still two nights away. He knew Elrond would be anxiously looking for his return, hoping for news of Sauraman in the neighborhood of the elf-kingdom. Tucked securely on the western side of the Misty Mountains, Rivendell had always been a bastion of peace and good will, but now even this haven was threatened with encroachment by dark and unknown forces.

Two days before, Aragorn had been challenged by a squint-eyed stranger on the road skirting the river south to Swanfleet. Surprised when the stealthy Ranger had come quietly up behind him on the road, the man had drawn his sword and spoken angrily in broken Westron Holding his empty hand palm up in a gesture of peaceful intention - but with the other hand not far from his swordhilt - Aragorn had managed to calm the stranger enough to discover he was bound for Isengard with a package for the White Wizard. Despite the man's halting speech, Aragorn was able to learn that the package contained a large quantity of pipe-weed from Southfarthing in the Shire.

Only a month before, Aragorn had seen several Orcs traveling west of Weathertop, and he had urged his fellow Rangers to keep closer watch on the Shire. On that occasion, he had made the acquaintance of Gandalf the Grey, a good friend of Elrond. Gandalf was on his way to the Shire and had seemed very worried about agents of Saruman penetrating that far. The wizard had promised to come to Rivendell when his visit was finished to talk about possible threats to the peace of Eriador. He had also promised to join in discussion of Aragorn's future.

The young Ranger’s heart was stirred by thoughts of adventurous travel and deeds of valor. His elders were urging him to leave his patrols of the Wilderland and head to kingdoms in the south. As Isildur’s heir, Aragorn had claim to the throne of Gondor, but that throne had been unclaimed for over eight hundred years.

As he strode purposefully in the direction of the Ford, he sang an Elvish song to himself, a song of longing for the shores of distant Numenor. His friend Legolas had taught him many songs of the past. Legolas had lately been encouraging Aragorn to assert himself more as head of the Rangers.

“As son of Arathorn, you are their chieftain,” he had said at their last meeting just a few months before. “Your kinsmen look to you for leadership, but you are slow to take the reins. You cannot hide forever, my friend.”

Aragorn thought on these things as he walked in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun. He continued to sing but kept a sharp eye on the landscape and road. He came upon a sharp dip to the right around a low, grassy hillock thickly covered with overgrown hawthorne.

His soft singing stopped and he thought he heard another voice from the road ahead. The sound was like low chanting, rising and falling in a melancholy air. He could not yet see the owner of the voice, but as he drew nearer he recognized the Elvish tongue and relaxed a little. It was an old love song about a young maiden watching for the signal fire of her lover. Aragorn slowed down even more, thinking of the Lady Arwen and not wishing to disturb the singer.

The song ceased suddenly, as if the singer had grown tired of it. Aragorn came around the bend in the road and a broad smile brightened his face. Sitting on a large boulder near the road was Gandalf the Grey, his eyes closed amd his hat beginning to slip down over them. His staff lay across his knees. Aragorn’s step was so quiet that the wizard was not aware of his presence.

“What does a wizard know about love?” he asked, grinning. Gandalf’s eyes fluttered wide open and he pushed his hat further back on his forehead. Looking up, he shaded his eyes with his hand to see who had disturbed his attempt at a nap.

“I hoped to see you sooner rather than later, Master Ranger! We can go on our way to Rivendell together, then,” said Gandalf.

“I am very glad to see you, too, Gandalf,” answered Aragorn. “I’ve been busy since returning from that little adventure with my cousin. Elrohir is still up in the Ettenmoors hunting with Elladan, but I decided to stay close by and watch out for strangers.”

“And have you seen any more?” asked the wizard, rising from his perch.

Aragorn shook his head. “No Orcs. But I have met up with a southerner on his way to deliver pipe-weed to Saruman.”

“Pipe-weed! Humph, that old rascal is forever at me about my love of the pipe, but he too has a secret passion for it. Old hypocrite!” Gandalf said indignantly.

Aragorn reached over to help steady Gandalf’s pack over his shoulder and handed him his staff, which he had set down upon seeing Aragorn. The wizard was dressed as he was at their first meeting a little over a month before. His long grey cloak was dusty at the hem, and he sported a scraggily scarf about his neck. His travel pack seemed a good bit heavier than it was on Gandalf’s trip to Bilbo’s home in the Shire.

“I see you’ve returned with more than you left with,” Aragorn said. “Perhaps you remembered to find your own supply of the halflings’ leaf.”

“And I promised you something as well,” Gandalf said merrily as he reached into one of his deep cloak-pockets and pulled out a long-stemmed pipe. He handed it to Aragorn, who grinned and accepted it with obvious delight.

“Many thanks, Gandalf! Elrohir won’t be pleased to see this when he gets back,” he said, “and I suppose Atarinya won’t be too happy, either.”

“Put it away for now. Let us continue on together and we’ll share a good smoke tonight when we camp.”

The wizard and the Ranger walked on, conversing all the while about the Shire’s safety and Saruman’s suspicious business there. Three years before, the White Wizard had assured the Council that the One Ring had been lost, had fallen into the Anduin River and made its way out to sea. Now Gandalf revealed to his new young friend the full depth of his concern.

“There are matters I hesitated to discuss with you when we met,” said the wizard. “I was not sure how much to say in front of Halbarad, not sure what he knows of the Ring.”

“His mother works very hard to shelter him from such things,” replied Aragorn, “but he does know the history of the Ring . . . and he knows that Sauron must never again possess it.”

With an expression of deep concern, Gandalf said, “There is something you need to know. My friend Bilbo Baggins has come into possession of a ring of some power. He found it in a cave beneath the Misty Mountains when he traveled with the dwarves.”

The wizard slowed his walk and, as the young Dunadan listened intently, he related the tale of Gollum’s cave and Bilbo’s finding of the ring. Gandalf explained how the ring could make the Hobbit diappear, and how Bilbo seemed not a day older than when the ring came into his possession.

“Gandalf, do you think . . . do you possibly believe this ring . . . no, it can’t be,” stammered Aragorn. “The ring of Isildur was lost.”

“I don’t know, young friend. I am not at all sure what Bilbo has. But I do know one thing – Bilbo’s ring is quite safe where it is. He has no idea what he might have, Aragorn, and I mean to keep him in blessed ignorance for as long as I can.”

“Do you think Saruman knows of his ring? Is that why he is sending his agents deeper into Eriador?” asked Aragorn.

“I fear that may be so. You and your kinsmen must watch the Shire’s borders even more closely than you do now. The Rangers may have dwindled in number, but you have never been more badly needed. Whatever this ring may mean, neither Sauron nor Saruman needs to know where it is,” warned the wizard.

The two companions continued their journey toward Rivendell, talking of the ring and what it might mean, and affirming their close alliance in opposing the dark plans of Sauron and any who might serve him.


An early morning frost covered the soft firs and woodoaks standing like sentinels along Elrond’s favorite path. Bushes studded with tiny white snowflowers grew thick at the base of the trees, and the deep vermillion of small thornstars peeped brightly here and there through the white-coated greenery. Even with the approach of winter snow, the walking paths and gardens of Rivendell were alive with lovely colors and textures.

Enjoying the cool, crisp air and beauty of the winter garden were Lord Elrond and Aragorn’s mother, Gilraen the Fair. They walked in leisurely fashion, with Gilraen stopping now and then to pick a flower or branch for the intricately-wrought twig basket hanging on her arm.

Rivendell had long been the home of Gilraen and her son, ever since Arathorn had died at the hands of Orcs. Protecting the line of Elendil was Elrond’s special burden. His brother Elros had produced this worthy line of Numenor, and the Elf-lord knew that the best hope of the race of Men rested in its preservation. News of Sauron’s return to Mordor had moved Elrond to reveal to Aragorn his true identity as Isildur’s heir, Chieftain of the Dunadain. Now, five years later, the young man had proved his worth by joining his kinsmen Rangers in their faithful guardianship of the borders of Eriador.

Elrond was exceedingly proud of Estel, now called Aragorn. The young man had shown the keen intelligence and foresight of his race. He had been a quick study of both woodcraft and weaponry, two essential skills for a Ranger. Most importantly, Aragorn’s respect for his heritage and its relics ran deep. Elrond knew the young Dunadan did not take lightly his duty to try to restore the glory of Elendil’s house.

Now his mother and the Elf-lord were discussing her son’s plans for the immediate future. Gilraen was saddened by the thought of her son leaving Rivendell, but she knew he must pursue his royal calling wherever it may lead him. These past few years he had spent more and more time in the Wild, and she had grown accustomed to his absence. But what Elrond was suggesting would mean a far journey and many years away, and she was reluctant to let him go.

“I am glad to hear that Gandalf made such a good impression on him,” she said as she stooped to pick an unusually well-shaped thornstar for her basket. “He could have no better friend to guide his steps south.”

Elrond nodded in agreement.

“I foresee a long and fruitful partnership between them. Gandalf’s hopes are more than met in Estel. He is so young to bear the hope of so many.”

“But the forces that may come against him are so dreadful to consider,” said Gilraen anxiously. “He has no real experience of the Dark Lord’s power, but knows only what he has been told. If Sauron were to find him . . . Elrond, I cannot bear the thought.”

“That is precisely why he has to leave Rivendell, my friend,” replied Elrond. “His presence here makes him vulnerable to many searching eyes. We may have more to fear than just Mordor.”

“You are speaking of Saruman?” asked Gilraen. “So you think there is truth to the rumor that the White Wizard seeks the One Ring?”

“I don’t know what to think,” he answered. “At the Council meeting he seemed so firm in his belief that the Ring had gone down to the sea. It is hard to believe he would be so deceitful in such a vital matter.”

The ringing of a single silver bell interrupted their conversation. Elrond took Gilraen’s arm and they turned toward his house. The two made their way up a stone path leading to a broad wooden terrace. As they drew near, two figures appeared standing at the far edge watching their approach.When they saw Gilraen and Elrond, they walked over to greet them as they came up the steps.

The taller one wrapped his ar,s around Gilraen, who appeared delighted to see him. The other grasped Elrond’s arm in a warm greeting.

“Aragorn, where have you been? You said you would stay closer to Rivendell for a while,” said Gilraen in a mild rebuke. “I have not seen you for over two weeks!”

“Mother, I was never very far away,” the young man answered a bit sheepishly. Then he caught a twinkle of amusement in Elrond’s eyes and added, “Someone has to watch the main road through Trollshaw, and who better than I?”

“Speaking for myself, Lady, I was very glad to have your son’s company these past two days and nights,” said Gandalf. “You should be proud of him, for rumor has it Aragorn is the best Ranger in Eriador.”

“You’ll turn his head with such talk, Mithrandir,” said Elrond. “Aragorn has much to learn and many roads to travel before he claims that title.”

“Ah, my friend, many roads to travel! That is just what I mean to speak about with you,” replied the wizard. “But first, you see before you two very hungry travelers. I”ve a mind to eat “second breakfast,” as my Shire friends call it.”

The four walked over into a large pavilion just off the terrace and arranged themselves comfortably around a large stone table. A soft breeze wafted through the lattice-worked walls, gently scattering the dry leaves already strewn across the floor. The murmur of a nearby waterfall was a pleasing accompaniment to their conversation.

Elrond sounded a small brass gong sitting on a predestal near his chair, and an elf maiden soon appeared carrying a platter of cheeses and fragrant breads. Another followed with a silver ewer and four goblets. Taking the ewer, Elrond poured an amber liquid into each goblet and set them before his guests.

“Well, Mithrandir, how is Bilbo Baggins these days?” asked the elf-lord.

“As jolly and restless as he ever was,” said Gandalf with a fond smile. “All of Hobbiton was turned out for the show! Bilbo is quite generous with his birthday giving. After all these years, he is still something of a local celebrity.”

“And the Shire,” asked Elrond, “is it as you found it on your last visit? Or is there cause for concern?”

Gandalf’s brows knitted together and he hesitated before answering.Gilraen looked from one to the other, sesing worry in both the wizard and the elf.

“I noticed nothing unusual in the Shire, but I did see strangers at the inn in Bree,” Gandalf replied. “Of course, strangers in Bree one always sees, but these spoke in a rough, Southron tongue and acted nervous. I heard

enough of their conversation to give some weight to certain rumors. Saruman is looking west with a keen eye, and that is cause for concern.”

Gilraen took hold of her son’s hand and asked, “Do you think the White Wizard seeks the heir?”

“The heir, the Ring…..who can tell?” replied Gandalf gravely. “And if Saruman is searching, can the Dark Lord be far behind?”

“Well, friends, let us put these weighty matters aside for a while,” suggested Elrond. “Mithrandir, you must be tired after you long journey from the Shire, and I’m sure that a Ranger would welcome rest after so long on watch.”

“The burden of the road was made lighter by Gandalf’s company, but a rest in a soft bed would be good after so many cold nights in the Wild,” agreed Aragorn.

“Let us continue our talk after dinner this night,” said Gilraen, and the four finished their meal in the amiable silence of intimate friends.


Gandalf was surprised to see the Lady Arwen, Elrond’s daughter, present at the evening meal. She was seated next to her father, and her dark hair fell in long, silken waves about her face. Her grey eyes sparkled in the soft glow of the many candles on the table, like so many stars. She sat silently through the meal, speaking only a few words in answer to Gilraen or to her father. Gandalf noticed that her gaze was ever upon Aragorn, sitting across from her next to his mother.

Aragorn was no longer clad in the rough, dark vestments of a Ranger, but wore a deep blue cloak held at his neck with a small silver clasp. He nodded attentively when spoken to, but sat almost as silently as Arwen, his eyes fixed upon her just as hers were on him.

The wizard felt compassion for the two, separated as they were by so many things. He knew that Elrond loved the young Dunadan as his own sons, but was not ready to give his only daughter to a mortal man, even a son of Westernesse. When he was last in Rivendell, Gilraen had told him sorrowfully of the growing attraction between Arwen and her son, and of Elrond’s dismay. Gandalf saw this as another reason for Aragorn to leave Rivendell.

When the meal was finished, most of the company moved over to a group of low chairs around a small fireplace. Arwen kissed her father’s brow and slipped quietly away. Aragorn watched her leave with a wistful gaze and then settled down between his mother and Gandalf.

The wizard pulled out his pipe and put a pinch of pipeweed into its small bowl. To the surprise of his mother and Elrond, Aragorn brought out the new pipe Gandalf had given him and joined in smoking. They had known each other for only a short time, but Gandalf and Aragorn had quickly become good friends. Their common desire to fight Sauron while protecting the peace of the lands west of the Misty Mountains created a deep bond between them. Aragorn knew he had found a wise and trustworthy mentor, and Gandalf in turn had found hope in the young man’s strength of character.

Wearing a slight frown, Elrond watched the smokers as they stretched their legs comfortably before the fire and blew smoke rings. At least, Gandalf blew rings; Aragorn’s resembled cloudy puffs more than circles. Gilraen watched the three with mild amusement. She knew Elrond would not approve of her son using the Halflings’ leaf, but he would not say anything. He would respect Aragorn’s right to decide such things for himself. She also knew he would do whatever he could to encourage the friendship between his foster-son and the wizard. The two could not have met at a more fortunate time.

After a few minutes of companionable silence, Gandalf broached the subject that was on everyone’s mind.

“Well, friends, it’s time to say what must be said,” he began. “Our young Ranger must leave Eriador. We all know this fact, though we may not welcome it. Saruman is looking to the west with too keen an eye, and Sauron, I fear, is gaining new strength. Isildur’s heir must remain hidden from them both.”

“Mithrandir, would you have Estel go off by himself?” asked Elrond gravely. “Who will ensure his safety? Who will guide him to these unknown places?”

“Gandalf has promised to go with me to the stronghold of the King of the Mark of Rohan,” said Aragorn. “He will vouch for me to Thengel without revealing who I am.”

Gandalf nodded in agreement.

“Thengel will accept his service at my word, that is certain. And I can think of no better training ground for Aragorn than riding with the Rohirrim.”

“What can my son learn there that he can’t learn in Imladris?” asked Gilraen plaintively. “Why must he go so far from home?”

“Gilraen, it is only a matter of time until Sauron looks into the Last Homely House for signs of an heir. Estel must go, and so must his name,” answered Elrond. “Have you thought of a name for yourself?”

Aragorn nodded eagerly and said, “Eagle of the star! My kinsman say I have the eyes of an eagle in the Wild, and I will wear the Rangers’ silver star wherever I go. Thorongil – that will be my name in Thengel’s realm. No one can connect that name with the line of Elendil, and it has a bold sound to it.”

“You seem to have your mind set on Rohan, then,” said his mother with an air of resignation. “That is very, very far from the Ettenmoors.”

“There are things I must learn, Mother, experiences not possible for me here,” Aragorn answered. “I don’t know if I have it in my blood to claim my inheritance, but if that day comes, I must be ready. A king must know how to lead men, not only into battle but in times of peace. Gandalf says Thengel is a good man, a wise leader. He will be a good teacher.”

“And,” added Gandalf, “there are important ties between Rohan and Gondor. Who knows what that can mean for the future?”

Elrond had quietly listened to the other three, and now he spoke again.

“I agree that service under Thengel would be valuable experience, but Estel’s identity must be fiercely guarded above all things. Will Thengel really accept this ‘Thorongil’ on your recommendation alone?”

“There is no doubt on that score, my friend. He owes me a few favors, and this will square things quite nicely.”

“When do you propose to leave?” Elrond inquired.

“Gandalf and I can be ready tomorrow!” answered Aragorn excitedly. “If we leave now we will make the Gap of Rohan before the heavy snows come.”

Gilraen’s hand flew to her throat as she gasped in surprise.

“Tomorrow! May I have a day or two to get used to the idea of losing my son?”

Aragorn rose and went to kneel at his mother’s side. Taking her hands in his, he said, “I promise I will not leave for two more days. Once I go, it will be for a very long time.”

“That is settled, then,” said Gandalf. “Aragorn – I mean, Thorongil – and I will leave for Rohan in two days. Elrond, he wants to leave Narsil here in your tribute room, and I agree that is a wise decision.”

“The treasures of the House of Elros have always been my special care. It grieves my heart to see this particular treasure leaving the safety of Imladris, but so it must be for all things to be fulfilled in their due time. My blessing will follow you always, Estel. Your kinsmen will miss their leader, but my sons will continue at their side.”

“In Rohan,” said Aragorn, “perhaps I will discover whether it is in me to be a king.”

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