Close to Home by Suzelle

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Author's Chapter Notes:

With great thanks to Tehta and Zopyrus for the beta, as well as Cairistiona for taking a look at this in its earliest stage.

 


T.A. 2934

No matter how many times she begged, Nethril’s mother would not allow her to learn archery yet. She was too young, she said, and there were enough girls her age who had not started such training. And after Uncle Arathorn died, her mother refused to even consider the discussion.

It was her grandmother who finally brought it up one evening, after the supper dishes had been cleared, and her mother sent Nethril and her brother off to bed before Nethril had a chance to say anything. She had a silent but vicious fight with Halbarad as to who got the better eavesdropping position, and she pressed her ear to the crack near the doorway.

“How I raise my children is my business, Ivorwen,” her mother snapped. “She is not ready, she’s barely passed her seventh birthday…”

“She needs to learn. More than half the girls her age have started already, and it will certainly be a better use of her energy than trying to climb every tree within her reach.”

I don’t climb every tree, Nethril thought indignantly, but caught herself before she said anything aloud.

“My husband is dead, and I have already given my son to the same cause. I will not sacrifice my daughter so that—“

“No one is asking you to sacrifice her!” Ivorwen exclaimed. “Valar’s sake, Finnael, how long do you think it’s going to be before the Angle itself faces an orc raid? She needs to be prepared, and it is past time. Would you leave her defenseless?”

“Of course not,” Finnael said, her voice almost pleading. “But I…she’s a child, Ivorwen…”

“We all were, once.”

Nethril turned her face so that she could see through the crack in the doorway, hardly daring to breathe, and watched her grandmother rise from the table. She stopped and turned when she reached the door.

“I can teach her, if that would help,” Ivorwen said softly. “You know I would welcome it. But it would be better if it were you.”

The next morning Nethril came into the main room to find her mother sitting at the table, bow in hand, staring at the floor beneath her. Even though she knew she was too big for such things, Nethril climbed into her mother’s lap, and Finnael held her daughter tightly against her.

“Do you remember what berio means, Nethril?” she asked.

Nethril frowned, thinking back to her Sindarin lessons. “‘To protect?’”

“Aye.” Her mother picked up the bow once more and ran her hand gently along its length. “To protect. Remember that, my love…that is what this is for. For our family, and for our people.”

***

T.A. 2938

Nethril studied herblore with her grandmother out of loyalty and not much else. She had a keen mind for memorization, and she knew the plants well enough, but healing held little interest for her. She would rather spend her time learning weaving, or hunting in the woods. Still, Ivorwen managed to make every lesson enjoyable, and she knew that healers were some of the most respected members of the village.

She was in a room of the healers’ cottage, helping her grandmother to mix together a poultice, when the door burst open to admit two men carrying a third between them. The Ranger’s face was scratched and bloodied, and his clothes were torn to reveal a series of ugly bite marks that had shredded his stomach. Nethril sprang to her feet and backed into the corner of the room to clear a path for the men.

The color drained from her grandmother’s face, but her voice was steady when she addressed the men. “What happened?”

“We don’t rightly know. He was supposed to return from a scouting mission two days ago, and never reported. By the looks of it, he ran afoul of a boar or a warg…and that wound’s been open for at least a day.”

“Merciful Eru…bring him here.” Ivorwen gestured toward the bed that lay in the center of the room, and called two other healers to her side.

“Fetch hot water and rags from the next room, and make sure to bring that phial that’s on the table…”

Nethril watched, frozen, as Ivorwen cut the man’s shirt free and began to gently wash the dried blood away, murmuring softly as he cried out in pain. She turned to take the basin of water from the younger healer, and stopped short at the sight of her granddaughter still in the corner.

“Nethril!” she snapped. “What are you still doing in here?”

Nethril shrank back at the look in her grandmother’s eye. “I was…can I help?”

Ivorwen’s expression softened. “You can go outside and fetch some more athelas, nethben. Leave it with Rían in the front room. Our stores will be running low, when this is all over.”

Nethril nodded once and darted past her grandmother for the door, forcing herself not to look back at the patient lying on the bed. She ran from the healer’s cottage as fast as she could before she finally reached the patch behind the Commons where she knew kingsfoil grew. Her hands shook as she tried to cut the plants free, and she finally gave up and sank back against the wall of the Commons, eyes welling up with tears. She knew Ivorwen had only given her the task to get her out from underfoot, anyway.

“Rían told me I might find you here.” She looked up to see her brother peering down at her, face drawn in concern.

She sniffed and rubbed at her eyes furiously. “Go away, Halbarad.”

Instead, he sat down beside her. She was tempted to flee once more, but instead she sighed and let him put his arm around her shoulder.

“You saw him?” he asked.

Nethril bit her lip and nodded.

“Nana Ivorwen and the others will take care of him, Nethril. They’ve done this dozens of times before.”

“You didn’t see him. I’ve never…he looked…” She couldn’t finish.

Halbarad sighed. “Did Ada Dírhael ever tell you about the time he was attacked by a warg?”

Nethril shook her head.

“He told me when we went on that hunting trip last year. He has a huge scar on him still, right here,” Halbarad lifted his own shirt to demonstrate. “They were tracking a band of orcs, back when they still lived in Glamren, and they were caught unawares by a whole pack of ‘em. Ada Dírhael cut the orcs to pieces, but a wild warg grabbed him with its teeth, tore him nearly clean in half.”

“Is this supposed to help, Halbarad?” Nethril asked through gritted teeth.

“He said everyone thought he was dead, when they saw him lying there. A wound like that…but Nana Ivorwen had gone with them, and she saved him. No one thought there was a chance, but she stitched him up good as new.”

Nethril looked up at him. “No one thought he was going to make it?”

Halbarad nodded. “When he told me, even I didn’t understand how anyone could come out of that alive. But Nana Ivorwen is one of the best. She can heal anyone who comes to her still breathing.”

Nethril thought back to the stricken look on her grandmother’s face when they brought the Ranger in, shock that had faded to grim resignation as his breath came out in ragged gasps.

“No,” she said, “no, she can’t.”

***

T.A. 2940

It had been two weeks, and the easternmost patrol had still not returned. The mood in the Angle was quiet, tense, and Nethril’s mother barely let her children out of her sight. Nethril was grateful beyond measure that her brother was still too young to be out in the most dangerous of the summer’s fighting, but some of her friends were less lucky. Mellaer’s uncle had been killed in a skirmish against bandits a month before, and Isilmë’s father and brother were both out on the missing patrol.

She had taken to meeting Isilmë each morning on her way to fetch water, and the two of them would abandon their morning chores to make the steep climb to the top of the gates surrounding the northern edge of the Angle. Technically none were allowed up but the sentries, but the men on duty stood silently by, staring straight ahead and ignoring the two girls who leaned against the ledge and strained their eyes for any sight upon the horizon.

“Do you think they’ll come back?” Isilmë finally asked. Her face was set in practiced determination, but her lower lip trembled, and Nethril knew why it had taken her two weeks to ask the question.

She thought back to Halbarad’s tales of the months following their father’s death, when their mother still harbored the desperate hope that somehow Dirlaeg had survived the troll attack. She wondered if even now, years later, her mother did not still look up to the horn calls without a bit of that hope.

Nethril squeezed her friend’s hand. “They’ll come back.”

***

T.A. 2943

“Your father always loved the water,” her mother would tell her, every time they went down to the river. She did not go to there now to feel close to him, to attempt any sort of connection beyond the circles of the world—at sixteen, she was already too practical for that. But the water brought her calm, a chance to clear her head, and that she supposed she did inherit from him.

“You know, when I was your age, I fought with my mother about men, not politics.”

Nethril jumped in surprise and turned to see Lady Adanel standing behind her, face impassive. Her face burned with shame as she remembered the quarrel that had torn her away from the midsummer festival, but she merely shrugged. “There aren’t any men for me.”

“Give it time,” Adanel said. “There will be.”

No, there won’t, Nethril thought, but knew better than to argue. She and the lady stood in silence, and Nethril shifted uncomfortably. Adanel had never spoken more than two words to her before, and she imagined the acting Chieftain of the Dúnedain had better things to do with her time than chase after one wayward girl.

“You were right, you know,” Adanel remarked. “Our estrangement from the Elves has nothing to do with pragmatism and everything to do with hubris. The only trouble is, now most of the Angle knows you were right, too.”

Nethril blushed and looked down at her feet. “I shouldn’t have shouted at her.”

“I recall an impetuous young woman who once tore down her husband before an entire council meeting, within earshot of half the town.” Adanel smiled in memory. “Even the best of us are given to our passions, sometimes. It took the better part of two years before I could speak before the council again and have the captains take me seriously.”

“And how long did it take for Lord Arador to forgive you?” Nethril asked before she could stop herself.

Adanel’s smile widened. “Not quite that long. And I imagine it will take your mother even less time.”

Nethril nodded once more, and gave Adanel a sheepish glance before she turned back to stare out at the river. The sun was only just beginning to sink behind the trees, and the festivities would be going on for a long while yet. She would return to make her apologies before darkness fell, but in this moment, she found that she appreciated the silence.

“You have a sharp mind, child,” Adanel said. “But take care that you use it in the right places.”

It would be years before Nethril understood the lady’s full meaning.

***

T.A. 2949

Nethril often prided herself on her instincts, yet when it came to matters of the heart, she found herself filled with doubt every step of the way. Her preferences were unusual, this much she knew, and she took great care to keep her feelings from being known, for fear of rejection or worse.

But when Isilmë—unassuming, quiet Isilmë—kissed her behind the stables the night after Tuilérë, Nethril cast all doubts to the wind.

“Do you think we should be doing this?” Isilmë asked at the end of the third week. They had discovered that no one ever visited the practice fields after dark, and they lay in the grass beyond the archery targets, Nethril resting her head in contentment against Isilme’s shoulder.

“Well,” she murmured thoughtfully, “seeing as we have been doing this, quite enthusiastically, the question of should becomes rather redundant, doesn’t it?”

Isilmë laughed and smacked her on the arm. “I’m serious, Nethril! What would your family say, if they knew? What would mine?”

Nethril sighed. She had hoped to have at least a few more weeks of peace before they had to start seriously considering the implications of their relationship, but she supposed it was better they had this conversation now, before things became even more complicated.

“There is precedence,” she finally said. “Brécharn and Hallor are an open secret among the Rangers, and everyone remembers the rumors about Lord Argonui’s sister.”

Isilmë snorted. “Those rumors were hardly kind, Nethril. There are still some who blame her for the failing of the royal line—if she hadn’t been involved with that woman, perhaps she would have married and had children, and our hopes wouldn’t rest on one boy raised in exile, Valar only knows where.”

“Yes, but since neither of us are expected to produce an heir to Isildur, I hardly think people will look at it in the same way…”

Nethril trailed off, and Isilmë looked up at her expectantly.

“What?” she asked. “What?”

“You are Aragorn’s cousin…”

“On his mother’s side!”

“Yes, but you are his closest living relative, after Halbarad. If anything has happened to him, if he and Lady Gilraen never return…”

Nethril let out a soft hmph. “They will return. And things will have grown desperate indeed if people look to me or Halbarad to carry on the line. We can’t have more than an ounce of royal blood…”

“Don’t you think things are desperate enough already?”

Nethril sighed once more. No one could deny that life in the Angle grew more grim each year. And yet…

“It’s another three years before I come of age. No one will be looking for me to have children before that. Besides, Aragorn will return, and he will produce plenty of happy little heirs, when the time comes. And if he doesn’t, Halbarad will. It’s not something I’m worried about, not right now.”

Isilme still looked uncertain, and Nethril turned to face her. Elbereth, let my love be a source of joy, not strife. There is so much we must fight for as it is.  “Isilmë…are you happy with this? With things as they are?”

Isilmë blushed and looked down. “You know I am.”

“Then can we let that be enough, for now? The future will take care of itself.”

***

T.A 2952

She could not remember precisely when her grandmother had started inviting her to meals with the Lady Adanel, but it had begun not long after her cousin Aragorn’s return the previous summer. She was not entirely certain what purpose her presence served at such meetings, but on nights like tonight she was content to serve wine, sit beside the fire, and listen while her grandmother discussed everything from petty gossip to the most important matters of governance with the acting Chieftain of the Dúnedain. The conversation turned to Aragorn near the end of the meal, and the two older women fall into a sharp debate about the question of his assuming the title of Chieftain in deed as well as in name.

“The people still revere him as a symbol, not a leader,” Adanel was saying as Nethril cleared the table. “That will not change unless we allow him to assume his place as Chieftain now. He has proven himself well enough these past months…”

“He does not come of age for another four years. Are you sure your own desire to step down is not clouding your judgement?”

Adanel gave a wry smile. “It might be. But let it. I have earned such lapses, don’t you think?”

Ivorwen snorted. “You will earn them when we see Aragorn through to his proper position, and then we can all take a good long rest. But I am not convinced we have reached that point.”

“What do you think, young one?” Adanel turned her sharp gaze to Nethril. “You have certainly spent more time with him than we have, these last weeks.”

Nethril blinked in surprise. She rarely offered her own opinions in Adanel’s presence, and was asked for them even more infrequently. But when she met the lady’s gaze she saw frank assessment, and Nethril sensed that her own future as well as Aragorn’s lay in the balance of her response.

“What does Aragorn have to say on the matter?” she asked carefully.

“He has said from the beginning he will defer to my judgement,” Adanel smiled once more. “Wise boy. Elrond has taught him well in more ways than one.”

Nethril nodded and thought back to her cousin, so quiet still, and so keenly aware of the weight of his birthright. According to Halbarad, Aragorn’s reserved nature all but vanished when he was in the field, and he had developed an easy camaraderie with the Rangers who fought alongside him. But home, in the Angle, he still walked as if on tiptoe. He spoke when needed at council meetings, and was not afraid to disagree with the old guard, but he was always the first to back down, always too quick to defer to those with more experience.

Adanel was right. That would not change unless he stepped out of her shadow and began to cast his own.

“He has won the love of the people, and he has your teachings as well as Elrond’s,” she said at last. “He is as ready as he will ever be.”

Across the table, Ivorwen smiled, and refilled her granddaughter’s wineglass. “As are you, my dear.”

 


Chapter End Notes:

1. The Númenorian coming-of-age year is listed as twenty-five in Unfinished Tales. Given their lengthened lifespans, I imagine this holds true for the Dúnedain as well.

   



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