Heritage and Horsehair by MP brennan

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Story Notes:

This was written for Cairistiona in honor of her birthday.  It features an original character, Arandur, from my other stories "While Hope Lasts" and "The Quiet War," but it's not necessary to read those first.

A half-dozen riders picked their way down a street of packed dirt. All around them, the bustle of a village at midday continued. Chickens pecked at the dirt, women wrung out the week’s washing, children ran to and fro, enjoying a brief respite from chores or studies. For once, the well-armed company was not the subject of suspicious glances or muttered insults. Instead, women waved from the doorways of their houses, and old men greeted them with solemn nods. Aragorn smiled. It was good to be among his own people once more.

His own people. People who looked to him. Even now, several years after leaving the House of Elrond, it was a strange thought. He was no longer the dazed, lovelorn boy who had first arrived in these villages to great fanfare, but neither did he truly feel like their leader. Over the past two weeks, he had taken a big step by commanding his first patrol, but it felt like a symbolic step only.

The other riders had pulled up their mounts and were watching him expectantly. With a jolt, Aragorn realized that, symbolic or not, they awaited his leave to depart. He smiled as he glanced from face to face. “This patrol is dismissed. You have done good work this past fortnight.”

Grins broke out among the other Rangers as they swung down from their saddles. Most were younger even than Aragorn—too young for marriage, but certainly old enough to race off to their sweethearts.

Arandur, son of Dírhael, was less easily gratified. “You lads have training at dawn tomorrow,” he barked as he handed his reins over to a stable boy. Arandur had been acting-chieftain during Aragorn’s long childhood absence, and was still acting-chieftain in all but name. “Try not to be late, for once.”

A second young stable hand waited to take Aragorn’s mount, but he waved the boy off politely and trailed after the other Rangers as they led their horses into the stable. He felt rather than saw the frown Arandur directed at him, but his uncle said nothing in front of the others. It was always rather bemusing—the selective steps his elders took to show deference for their Chieftain. The same grizzled Rangers who would think nothing of tossing him around the practice yard like a sack of potatoes or of disparaging his tracking skills in the privacy of a camp in the wilds still seemed to think that combing his own horse was somehow beneath his dignity. As a result, Aragorn was shamefully unfamiliar with the layout of the village stable, and had to be directed to the tack room by a sympathetic fifteen-year-old.

Still, it wasn’t long before he had his horse settled in the cross-ties and was slowly working a curry comb through mud-splattered hair. All around him, the others rubbed down their mounts quickly and efficiently and hurried off to their day’s amusement. Aragorn lingered. He carefully picked out his horse’s hooves one by one and rubbed a bit of oil into them. He had just turned his attention to the tangled chestnut mane, when he heard a man clear his throat behind him.

Aragorn turned his head and was unsurprised to find his uncle standing near the stable’s door. Unsurprised, but perhaps a little intimidated. Arandur had that effect on him. The grim Man had shadowed him almost constantly since he’d first returned to his people. That first week, the elders had announced a grand celebration to mark his return, with night after night of feasting, minstrels, and dancing. The often-raucous celebration was like nothing he had ever seen in the Last Homely House. After the third night, he had summoned his nerve to speak with Arandur—the only Man quieter than himself—about his discomfort with the whole showy affair. Gilraen’s brother had fixed him with a stern look. “This feast is about you,” he had said, “It is not for you. It is for the people who gave you up for so many years and had despaired of your ever returning.” Aragorn had wanted to protest that his long absence was hardly his own fault, but he had held his tongue. Arandur wasn’t the sort of Man you said such things to.

And now, he watched Aragorn with those same vaguely-disapproving eyes. “Hello, Uncle,” Aragorn said cautiously.

Arandur merely nodded. “We should be off to the council meeting.”

Aragorn frowned. “We’ve returned two hours sooner than expected,” he said, sounding to his own ears like a wheedling child, “Surely Dírhael and the others can wait half an hour while I see to my mount.” He returned his gaze to the snarled mane.

“You ought to let the stable boys handle that.”

“’Tis no trouble.”

“It is part of their training.”

“There is enough labor for the boys without my adding to it.” The words which had sounded so decisive and right in his mind, nonetheless came out with an almost sulky undertone. Aragorn kept his face towards the horse’s neck so that Arandur would not see his frustrated scowl.

“A Chieftain has greater concerns.”

“That is no reason not to help in the everyday work.” Aragorn paused. “Perhaps I want to be a different sort of Chieftain.” Arandur did not respond. After a moment, Aragorn turned. “You disagree.”

The older Ranger met his gaze, his eyes frank and evaluative, finding Aragorn wanting as always. “I want you to be some sort of Chieftain,” he said bluntly.

“Perhaps you’re right.” Aragorn stared at his fingers, as if he found the straggly horsehairs between them infinitely fascinating. He could still feel, deep in a defiant corner of his mind, the rightness of his words and actions, but Arandur was not moved. If he could not sway his kinsman over a matter as simple as the care of a horse, how could he hope to ask more difficult things?

What would a true Chieftain say? It did no good to think of Arathorn; his true father was little more to him than a hazy impression of strong arms and rough cloth. Instead, Aragorn found himself thinking of the one he’d called Ada. He thought of the dignified way Elrond held himself—the quiet gravitas that made one heed his words whether he sat at the head of a council table or knelt in the garden with a trowel in his hand.

Subconsciously, he straightened his back. He turned fully to face his uncle with cool eyes and a mild expression. He spoke softly but with certainty, knowing that every word would be heard. “I wish to tend my horse, Arandur. I will see you at Grandfather’s house in twenty minutes’ time.”

A flicker of surprise danced across Arandur’s eyes and was gone in an instant. He regarded his nephew thoughtfully, with just a glimmer of grudging respect. “Aye, sir.” And, with that, he inclined his head slightly and walked away.

In the wake of his uncle’s departure, Aragorn inhaled deeply, his hands automatically working the last of the burrs out of his horse’s mane. Stables smelled the same everywhere, and scents carried powerful memories. He could almost hear their voices in his ear.

“Careful, Estel, brush gently to get the mud out.”

“Mind her side—she’s a touch sensitive there.”

“Well done, now off with you; I hear your mother calling.”

He had only to close his eyes and he could see again the terraced balconies and sparkling waterfalls.

He closed his eyes, and he was home.

But, this time when he opened them, he was home still.


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