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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

A story this complex and this large does not get written without a lot of help. More detailed thanks can be found in the Author Notes that will be posted the end of the story, but for now, thanks to meckinock, Amarok, Inzilbeth, Estelcontar, NiRi & Darth Fingon for translations, Estelcontar and all the kind folks on the Aragorn Angst group.   Translations for the most part will be explained in the context of the story. 

Now, onward to T.A. 3000...

~~~

"‘They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Do you wish them to find you? They are terrible!’  

The hobbits looked at him, and saw with surprise that his face was drawn as if with pain, and his hands clenched the arms of his chair. The room was very quiet and still, and the light seemed to have grown dim. For a while he sat with unseeing eyes, as if walking in distant memory or listening to sounds in the Night far away.

‘There!’ he cried after a moment, drawing his hand across his brow. ‘Perhaps I know more about these pursuers than you do....’"

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

 

~~~

"I feel as though I stand at hope’s edge, and any step from here will only lead me farther away from all that I once thought possible."

~~~

Prologue

Late September, T.A. 3000

Aragorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, dipped his pen into the inkwell and continued his letter to his foster father, Elrond Halfelven, of Rivendell.

...and because of the summer’s losses from fever and battle, the number of able-bodied men in the Grey Company has fallen drastically, and our other companies to the north and west suffered similar losses. The east patrol is all but decimated and I had to further reduce the ranks of the Grey Company to replenish the man fallen to orcs coming down from the Misty Mountains. The Grey Company now numbers fewer than fifty. My heart is troubled as never before–it seems as though year by year I am watching the dying gasps of the remnants of the Faithful, and it tears at my heart. Time is weighing heavily on me, and hope seems a thing that is as shifting and impossible to hold onto as smoke from a fire. The shadow in the East grows, and it is hard, sometimes, to know how we will ever defeat it. I feel almost trapped, unsure what the future holds and helpless to do anything about it.

But at least the remaining number in the Grey Company are steadfast and hardy. Halbarad is as well as ever; I do not think the man is ever bothered by injury or illness or doubt. He sends his regards. My chosen men are still with me–Denlad, Galadh and Eledh, loyal all three and good friends. We have a young one with us right now. Mallor son of Malthen is his name; he is all of sixteen summers, and seems, as his name suggests, as good as gold, as his father was before him. He hails from a farm not far from the Hoarwell River, and an honest, openhearted boy he is. He is like a sponge, soaking up every bit of information I give him on everything from herbs to stories of our people’s past. He sits quietly by the fire every night, listening to the men and day by day seems to grow in stature as he watches and learns. He has become a bit of a pet to our small company, to be honest. I think we all wish for sons like him. I will be taking him on his first patrol into the wilds soon, for he is nearly ready for patrolling beyond the relatively easy assignment around The Shire. He has learned much of swordplay from Denlad, archery skills from Eledh, and stealth and speed and the value of silence from Galadh. I daily thank the Valar for such men as I have around me; they truly are chosen men, not just by me but by the Valar themselves, gifted by Ilúvatar with every skill we need to defend these lands, and the bravery with which to face all the challenges before us.

There is so much more I would wish to tell you of these men, but Halbarad is pacing outside my tent, waiting for me to go with him into Bree. He wants to buy a Mettarë gift for his wife and is all but hopping from one foot to the other, for we leave tomorrow to head north and east, following a report of possible orc attacks along the Hoarwell, and it is unlikely we will be near any sizeable settlements before the Winter Solstice arrives. Unless he wants to bring her back an orc pelt, there will be precious little opportunity to find a gift if he does not do it today. If it were not for him waiting, I would tell you more of the men: of Denlad, a kinder man I have never known, despite being fatherless and born of a cold, immoral woman who failed to give him much in the way of a name or of love; of Galadh, who measures and distributes his words as if they were mithril, and filled as they are with such wisdom and quiet humor, maybe they are indeed made of that precious metal; Eledh and his silly name thrust upon him by family tradition after being the last of none but brothers in his family. But Halbarad has thrice stuck his head through the tent flaps and even though as chieftain I could order him to wait until the eighth day of the week if I so choose, I really cannot treat him so callously.

So I bring this to a close, wishing you and Erestor and Glorfindel well. If my brothers have not yet set out to join us, please give them my regards, and tell them I think of them often and look forward to seeing them again. They were invaluable in helping me overcome the fever, and I will be forever in their debt. If they are not otherwise engaged in duty to you, tell them that if we do not cross paths on our way to the Hoarwell, they are to go down to the north of Chetwood, just within the trees (we are well hid, but their sharp eyes will see this tent that Halbarad insists I use–he lugged it all the way from our outpost at Fornost when we relocated to this temporary camp this summer). They are to speak with Bellech for placement around the Shire, and wait for our return. The men guarding the Shire will appreciate their help.

Warmest regards,

Estel

Aragorn put his pen down and carefully blew on the ink to dry it. Then he sat back and looked at the letter.

"‘...hope seems a thing that is as shifting and impossible to hold as smoke from a fire’," he whispered. Perhaps he should not have bared his soul to such an extent. Lord Elrond would be worried enough by the grim news of the state of the Dúnedain; he did not need to know just how low Aragorn’s spirits had fallen with the death of each man, woman and child. Orcs were one thing, but the fever... it had struck with such severity that it seemed almost as though it were a beast intent on devouring the Dúnedain. Aragorn himself had not escaped its touch, and while it had been a close run thing, he had survived. But fifteen men, eight women and thirteen children had not been so fortunate. It was a cruel blow atop the fifteen other warriors who had died in orc attacks as the summer months wore on. Thirty men. Four entire families wiped out. Fifty-one people, gone forever. The faithful of Númenor were dwindling day by day; Aragorn feared it might very well be his fate to live to see the last of the Men of the West pass from Middle-earth forever.

He rubbed his face tiredly. Of late it seemed that sorrows plagued him like a pack of curs nipping at his heels, but there was no sense in burdening Lord Elrond with what was his alone to bear. Elrond expected him to become king–as indeed Aragorn expected it for himself and hoped for it with all his heart–and a king was expected to be able to shoulder his own difficulties. Much as Aragorn would love to relinquish his cares, if only for a moment, he knew such a luxury was not meant for him.  Ilúvatar had ordained he walk a lonely road, and walk it he would, even if lately it seemed that the road led only to dead ends.

He crushed the letter and threw it into the fire. Casting a guilty glance toward the tent flaps, beyond which he knew Halbarad paced with ever increasing impatience, he started again, writing as quickly as he could.

Dear Adar,

As fall approaches, I sit to write to you. It has been a hard summer, but hope has not deserted us...

Aragorn paused, then squeezed his eyes shut. "I am sorry, Ada, but I dare not tell you the truth." He picked up the pen and continued writing.

16 October, T.A. 3000

The October dawn draped its golden mantle across the forests hugging the foothills approaching the Hoarwell River valley, but the early morning splendor was lost on Aragorn, son of Arathorn. The Dúnedain chieftain grunted as he was slammed with teeth-rattling force against the bole of one of those golden-shrouded trees. Almost too late, he hauled his sword upward to parry the blade of an orc. Sparks flew as steel clashed against steel. Summoning what felt like his last shred of strength, he turned the orc blade aside and then plunged his own through the yielding flesh of his attacker. The orc hissed once, then fell at his feet, dead.

Aragorn yanked his sword free and raised it, but there was no more need. The battle was over. The black blood of dead orcs now soaked the ground where only minutes before the small Ranger scouting patrol had been sleeping. Or had it been hours? Time had ebbed and flowed in the way it does in battle, making it impossible to know whether minutes or hours had passed. He dragged his sleeve across his forehead and finally decided from the mere tip of the sun coming over the eastern hills that not much beyond a half hour had passed. He let his sword drop and for a moment leaned his head back against the tree and concentrated on breathing. His racing heart slowed and battle fever diminished and finally he was left with nothing more than the usual shakiness in his limbs and the sick clenching in his gut that were always his lot after a battle. He watched as Rangers stepped through the carnage, kicking orc bodies to ensure no life breathed in them, caring for what looked to be mostly minor wounds, gathering fallen weapons. He saw Eledh, and Galadh, but as he looked for Mallor, Denlad and Halbarad, his eye fell on a dead orc whose dead gaze seemed to glare straight at him. Aragorn swept up his sword, but the orc did not blink nor move. That he seemed to be glowering right at Aragorn was just one of those chance oddities on the field of battle. He tore his eyes away from the grisly sight and took another deep, shaking breath. For the first time since waking from a dreaming sleep into this pre-dawn horror, he noticed the wind drawing its icy fingers across his cheeks. Like the hand of death.....

He shuddered. He realized the chill that touched him had not come from the wind, but from within him, somehow. He frowned, looking again at his Rangers, trying to determine what triggered such a foreboding.

What have I missed? All seems fine... but...

His eyes swept the field, until he finally spied his second in command, Halbarad, stepping from behind a tree as he cleaned some of the foul stains from his blade by swiping it across a dead orc's tunic. "Halbarad! How many?" Aragorn called as he wiped his own blade on the grass and slid it back into its scabbard. He knew he had killed at least four on his own.

Halbarad looked up from his grisly task, his eyes holding relief at seeing Aragorn whole but also a greater sorrow that stung Aragorn more than the cruel wind. He walked closer. "Seventeen dead," Halbarad grunted, then added softly, "Sixteen of them orcs."

For a moment, Aragorn was sure he would fall into the black chasm that suddenly seemed to yawn before him. He thrust an arm out and steadied himself against the tree trunk.

So many have we lost in recent months. How many more before the Dúnedain fade to numbers too few to fight this cursed Darkness? Too few to even exist? He dug his fingers into the rough bark of the tree, momentarily shutting his eyes as if to hide from the swirling shadows of grief. These five men he traveled with were his best; his chosen elite of the Dúnedain, and close friends. He was not sure he had the strength to hear the name. But he set his jaw. "Who?"

Halbarad merely jerked his head toward the far edge of the field. Aragorn took a step forward as dread tightened its cold grip in his gut.

"Ah, no," Aragorn breathed as, trying not to stumble in his weariness, he drew near the man lying in the uncompromising stillness of death. "No. Not Mallor." He dropped clumsily to his knees as sorrow tore away the last of his strength. For a long moment, he did not move. He simply sat, and his mind longed for someone to tell him that the youngest among them wasn't really dead and that what he was seeing was some foul trick, a sick joke. But no one came and the wind whipped his cloak and drove his hair across his face and stinging into his eyes and he wanted to sing a lament or scream at fate or weep... but the words and the song and the tears remained locked in his throat and the pit of despair yawned ever wider. When will it end....

He finally reached out and laid his hand on Mallor's forehead and brought it down to gently close the unseeing eyes. He found himself reading the signs of the young man's final battle. Mallor had sunk his blade, the one passed to him by Malthen his father, who had died in service to Aragorn some thirteen years earlier, into the throat of the orc, but as he looked carefully at the tracks left on the ground and the bodies before him, the tragedy played out as clear as a vision.

Mallor stood, his feet planted wide, just as I taught him . . . and then he thrust his sword through the orc's chest, and as he tried to pull his sword free...

"... his blade became trapped and the orc managed to swing the pike," he whispered. Suddenly consumed with anger, he stood and with a loud cry, wrenched Mallor's sword free of the hateful body that still held it. He kicked at the orc's body, and as if the action had finally unlocked a torrent of rage inside him, he kicked it again and screamed at the sky... and then just as quickly fell silent. He bowed his head, forcing back stinging tears as memories tumbled unbidden to pierce his heart; one in particular from their first night on the trail together, outside Bree, only two months before.

"May I see your blade, Mallor?" Aragorn asked as he settled down at the fire beside the young man.

Mallor stopped his careful honing and handed the sword to his Chieftain. "This sword was my father's," he said, his dark blue eyes warm with a quiet pride.

"I recognize it," Aragorn smiled. He ran his thumb along the shining steel, pleased to see the young Ranger taking such care to keep its edge keen. "Malthen was a skilled fighter; I remember well this blade in his hands. It saved my life many times. And from the edge you keep on it, it looks like he raised a warrior as fine as he was. May this sword serve you as well as it did him."

Aragorn's hand tightened on the hilt of that sword, and he squeezed until his very bones ached as he struggled to regain control over his sorrow. He remembered how ridiculously pleased Mallor had looked at the praise, squirming almost like a puppy basking in the approval of its master. Perhaps because he had gone so long without a father, as soon as he had joined the Grey Company, Mallor had conferred upon Aragorn a sort of surrogate fatherhood, coming to him often with questions about fighting, about herb lore, about life itself and his place in the world. About courage and destiny and the future. More than once, when Mallor felt the pangs of doubt, Aragorn had found the words to encourage, to give hope.

His mouth twisted bitterly. Hope. The meaning of Estel, the name given me by Lord Elrond. Giver of hope, and so people look to me to dispense it like candy among children. This, when my own hope has been consumed.... He cut his dark thoughts short. He would not give in to the despairing shadows of doubt that every day seemed to strengthen their assault on the edges of his soul.

He sighed. So now Mallor has gone to his fathers. Aragorn stared blindly at the sword. "Who will wield the sword of Malthen now?" he whispered. Then he pressed his lips together, holding himself tightly, locking sorrow away until some unknown day when battle was ended and the luxury of safety and time allowed for such indulgences as weeping.

He knelt again and kissed the already cold flesh of Mallor's forehead. A gesture of blessing, of farewell. Of futility.

I am sorry, Mallor. So very sorry.

A soft step crunched the dried grass, and he looked up to see Denlad standing beside him, his face partially covered by straggles of blonde hair darkened with sweat and blood from a cut on his forehead. "He saved my life. That orc had me flat on my back. It should have been the end, but Mallor... ." He swallowed. "Mallor came out of nowhere. You would have been proud of him, the way he thrust with the point of the blade just as you always taught him. But the orc was strong, and turned on him despite his wound, and before I could regain my feet, Mallor was gone." The tall Ranger's blue eyes seemed to stare blankly at Mallor's body, but Aragorn knew Denlad well enough to know his empty gaze hid sorrow too deep to share.

"Then his death was not in vain," Aragorn said softly, then his concern for the living took over as Denlad swayed and took a step to the side to recover his balance. "What of you, Denlad? That cut looks like it needs care."

Denlad jerked his gaze to Aragorn, and for an instant, Aragorn read naked grief... and guilt... there. "It is nothing," he said and stalked away before Aragorn had a chance to tend to him, or find words of comfort.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, then Halbarad spoke. "Leave him. He will work this out, and his wound is not serious. I would suggest that we move, and move quickly, for I sense fell tidings still on this wind. And the village we seek lies yet a day's ride before us."

Aragorn felt ancient as he turned from Mallor's body. He stared hard at the distant mountains, allowing himself one last shuddering breath of the biting air before banishing sorrow to the farthest reaches of his heart. He finally nodded. "We are too far from his kin to take his body to them. Let us make his grave here, so he may rest where he so bravely fell, and then we will ride."

The earth thundered beneath the pounding hooves of six strong, rough-haired horses, one of which galloped riderless. After shaking off the initial lethargy the shock of Mallor’s death had put on him, Aragorn had never before felt so possessed by the need to flee, to take flight.

To run.

Between burying Mallor, gathering their scattered and trampled belongings and rounding up the frightened horses, it had taken far longer to leave the area than it should have. He had pushed the men hard, barely allowing them time to say more than a hurried prayer over the grave. The threat pressing down on them had felt too close, too terrible, and every last instinct urged Aragorn to get his men away, to find safety where they could regroup and recover.

And grieve.

The need for haste had acted as a balm, numbing him to their loss, but now, as the immediate danger faded, he struggled to keep his heartache locked away. If only they could put the carnage and the sorrow behind them as easily as their horses had put miles under their fleet hooves!But the harsh images stained his every thought. He was frightened by the way his heart ached. Sorrow was an emotion he could ill afford to entertain, for he feared that when he finally gave in to its pull, it would drown him like waves in the sea.

Later. I will grieve later. I cannot give into this, not yet.

He felt his horse, Bronadui, falter, ever so briefly, but it was enough to wrench his attention to the needs of the horses. Even one named Enduring could not run at such speed forever. He reined in. “Easy,” he murmured. “You shall rest soon.”

Halbarad, riding beside Aragorn at the head of the small group, slowed his own speed to match. Aragorn was aware that his kinsman was watching him, casting swift glances his way when he thought Aragorn would not notice. But Aragorn felt the scrutiny, indeed had felt it since they left the cursed camp, and Halbarad’s ill-concealed worry, along with nearly every other aspect of this dark day, was wearing on him. He reined in and brought his horse to a walk. “We take a short rest,” he called behind him. His gaze lingered on Denlad for a moment, but apparently he had recovered from the blow to his head. He seemed pale, but clear-eyed. One small blessing in a string of evil events. “Let the horses catch their wind.” Then he turned to Halbarad. “Out with it,” he snapped.

Halbarad blinked, his face a mask of innocence. “Out with what?”

“You have been watching me ere we were a furlong away from Mallor’s–” His throat maddeningly seized up, and he struggled to hide the catch from Halbarad. “Since we left,” he finished, the lame response further adding to his ire.

Halbarad’s overly sympathetic gaze fixed itself on Aragorn’s face. But fortunately he looked away before Aragorn lost all control. “Nay, not I,” Halbarad merely replied. He tugged at a lacing on his left hauberk and inspected it, as if to indicate his utter nonchalance at being so accused.

Halbarad’s horse twitched one ear back. Aragorn snorted. “Even your horse does not believe you.”

Halbarad shifted uneasily. “Very well. Turn those steely gray eyes away from me and I will keep my own off you, if you insist on being so testy about it.”

Aragorn obliged him by focusing on the golden waves of the grassland through which they rode, grasslands that proved easier for fast travel than the hills they had left behind. They would regain the hills several leagues further south, when he was certain they had left the orcs, and whatever unknown evil seemed to accompany them, behind. But first, to deal with Halbarad. “You still have not answered my question.”

“What question?”

Valar help me not to draw my sword and slam the hilt up the side of your thick skull! Aragorn pointedly brought his steely gray eyes, if that was what Halbarad cared to call them, back to Halbarad’s. “‘Out with it’ were my words, if I recall.”

“Technically that was not a question.”

“No, it was an order!” Aragorn snapped, then lowered his voice as Galadh glanced their way. “You try my patience, which is already worn perilously thin.”

Halbarad sighed deeply. “Aye, it is. Your patience, that is. Stretched thin and tight to the breaking point.” He paused, seeming to Aragorn as if considering whether his life would be forfeit if he said the next words. Evidently willing to risk it, he continued softly, “And it seems to me that your spirit is stretched nearly as thin.”

This time it was Aragorn’s turn to shift in his saddle. “No more than any man’s in these dark times.”

“There is truth to that, I’ll not argue. And yet...”

“Yet?”

Halbarad’s dark gray eyes were troubled. “It is bad enough, what happened this morning. It lies heavy on all our hearts. Mine, Denlad’s, all the men. But you... I worry that you will try to carry this burden as though it were yours alone to bear.”

“Halbarad...”

“Let me say my piece, Strider,” Halbarad interrupted, ignoring Aragorn as he pulled a face at Halbarad’s use of the less-than-flattering appellation put on him by Breelanders. Halbarad used it as an affectionate insult, but also whenever he thought Aragorn was getting too stubborn, as he obviously did now. Aragorn resigned himself to a lecture as Halbarad went on. “You know of what I speak. Your destiny, indeed your very character, makes you take on burdens no single man can carry, no matter how great his strength. I see it weighing you down, as day by day goes by and the shadow grows unchecked. And you need rest, and you are not allowing yourself any. You have not fully recovered the strength you lost to fever.” He stopped, frustration creasing his brow. “If one of us falls, Denlad, myself, Eledh, and yes, even Mallor... it is of no great note save to a few grieving friends and our families. But you are more than just a Ranger, and if you were to fall, either to a blade or to illness or even to the failing of your own hope–”

Aragorn winced. He knows. Halbarad had, blast his infuriating perceptiveness, seen through the facade behind which Aragorn thought he was well hidden, and the thought frightened him. But he cannot know the extent. Too much is at stake. It has fallen to me, in the incomprehensible wisdom of Ilúvatar, to be the hope that all look to, and because of that I cannot give up. No matter what the cost to myself. He cut him off. “I am fine, Halbarad. And today, I am a Ranger. A Dúnadan, just like you, nothing more. Whatever the future holds, it holds in shadows through which no man can see, but I have not lost hope. Let us speak of it no further.”

Aragorn saw from the stubborn set of Halbarad’s jaw that he was more than ready to contradict, and he knew Halbarad, as his faithful second in command, had every right and obligation to speak to him, to caution him and advise him and remind him of hope when the lies of the shadow clouded all truth. But of late Aragorn found it harder and harder to see how hope could prevail, and today especially he felt he would draw his sword against any who spoke of his duty or his destiny. Sauron’s shadow grew in the east, and it was reaching even the uttermost parts of Middle-earth, and how could one man, no matter how strong his heart’s desire, vanquish such evil? Especially one as beset by despair as I have been of late?

But he could speak his doubts to no man, least of all his faithful captain. So he shook his head slightly, pleading without saying a word.

Not now, Halbarad. Not now. My heart is too sore.

He kicked his horse into a gallop, and his men fell in behind him.


~~~


As the sun slipped beyond the day’s grasp, they came upon a rock-lined hollow nearly hidden by the rising swells of the plain. A small stream bubbled from a crack at the base of the rocks, a spring of some sort, brought to the surface by the previous week’s rains. Aragorn swept his gaze across the surrounding area. Surrounded as it was by the wall of rock on the north, and with a view open from there to every compass point, any orcs would be hard pressed to find them before noise of their clumsy feet across the rocky ground betrayed their presence, or before a sharp-eyed sentry saw their approach. Or so Aragorn hoped. Their last camp had seemed similarly defensible, to no avail.

He dismounted, hoping that no one noticed his wince as pain shot across his shoulder blades. The bruises from the battle were stiffening up. “This is as good a camp as we’ll find tonight. We will eat, and then Eledh, you and I will take the first watch.”

Eledh nodded, studying the outcropping of rocks. He pointed toward a large group of boulders that jutted out from the rest. “I will take the post atop that outcrop. It will afford me a clear shot in any direction.” Eledh replied. He glanced sadly at the empty saddle of Mallor’s horse. “Although I hope I do not need it."

Aragorn squeezed Eledh’s arm, then looked at the rest of the men. “Halbarad, you and Galadh take the second. I’ll take the third with Denlad. Take what sustenance and rest you can, and keep your weapons to hand.”

Galadh nodded. Aragorn felt a faint stirring of wry humor as he watched Galadh dismount. A nod from that man amounted to a lengthy speech.

Halbarad walked over to Aragorn. “Do you think there will be another attack?” he asked quietly, keeping his voice low enough to be covered by the noise and clatter of men dismounting and unloading packs.

“Who can say?” Aragorn replied just as softly. “I no longer feel the impending presence of evil, but then I had no sense of danger before we were attacked this morning, only after.” He ran his hand under Bronadui’s mane, looking with troubled eyes toward the hills to the southeast. “Rumor may have brought us out here, but it was no rumor that killed Mallor.”

“Do you think this might have been a solitary incident, or could it be all the villages along the Hoarwell are in danger?”

Aragorn started to shrug, but remembered the pain in his shoulders and thought better of it. “The only word I have is what I told you: a rider traveling the settlements along the Hoarwell claimed he saw Bracken’s Ferry under attack by a hoard of orcs. That part I trust as truth; it happens often enough, for the scattered settlements along the river are far apart and easily struck by bands of orcs descending from the Misty Mountains. But he also mentioned some sort of shadow falling on all the villagers, knocking them senseless and making them easy prey. That part of the tale... I don’t know what to think about it, to be honest. But I know this man, and he has always been trustworthy, an honest trader not given to exaggeration, so I felt we had to ride out. And after this morning... I cannot shake the fear that something more foul than orcs besets this land.”

“So we guard ourselves against orcs and who knows what else.”

“We will simply have to be even more vigilant.”

Halbarad drew a deep breath and let out in a rush. “It bothers me that the orcs were so swift, and we so unaware of their approach, even with Galadh and Eledh on watch, and they with the sharpest ears among us save yours. It’s as though...” But he shook his head, unable find the words.

“The darkness in the East is creeping ever closer, and they hide within its shadow.”

“That is as good an explanation as any. Not that I like it any better now that you have explained it so eloquently.” He gave Aragorn a wry look, then led his horse to drink.

Aragorn felt a smile tug one corner of his mouth for the first time that day.Only Halbarad would have the temerity to mock his chieftain to his face. And the heart big enough to worry over me like a mother hen. Feeling grateful for such a stalwart friend, even if such faithfulness came with aggravating stubbornness and the occasional round of disrespect, Aragorn walked his own horse to the spring. As Bronadui drank, Aragorn pulled his pack off, gasping a bit as again his shoulders protested. Clumsily, he let the pack drop to the ground. Praying that no one saw, he stood a moment until the muscles in his back stopped their spasms. Then he loosened the girth, running a careful hand beneath the blanket. He didn’t find any sign of soreness. He left the saddle on, but kept the girth loose, ready to tighten at a moment’s notice. He ran his hand down all four legs and found no undue warm spots, which relieved him. As hard as he had forced Bronadui to run, he feared he may have lamed him, but Bronadui was proving as sturdy as his northern forebears, stouthearted and full of stamina. Still, Aragorn was glad to be able to finally offer the horse a respite. “Rest, my swift friend. You have earned it,”he murmured. The horse nickered, bending his head to touch Aragorn’s.

Another horse whiffled against the back of Aragorn’s head, playfully nipping at his hair. He turned and found himself eye to eye with Mallor’s mount, who had followed them to the water. With a fresh pang of grief, he realized he had never learned the horse’s name.Time gave me too little chance to know this lad fully–or perhaps I simply let my duties keep me from paying the attention I should have. Galadh was caring for him until they could return him to Mallor’s family. But while he was busy with his own horse, Mallor’s evidently took it upon himself to follow Aragorn. He ran his hand in a gentle caress under the horse’s mane as he had seen Mallor do so often. The horse lowered his head, then looked up and around him, as though searching for his lost master. He let out a mournful whinny.

“Shhh. Nai tyeldar sí nyérelyar. Coluvan nyérelyar,” Aragorn sighed as he laid his head against the horse’s neck. He patted him and thought about the ancient Quenya words: May your sorrows now be ended, my friend. I will carry your sorrows. Lord Elrond had often whispered them in his ear when he was a small boy beset by heartaches that in his childishness he felt certain would end life itself. Elrond had taught him the words’ meaning and, with a far-away look in his eyes, told him of the story of his childhood, of being orphaned and then taken in for a time by the Noldor Elf Maglor and his brother Maedhros. He told him that the words were Maglor’s own, and that the Elf had spoken them often over Elrond as he grieved the loss of his mother, Elwing.

Thinking of those ancient days always brought a great lump to Aragorn’s throat. So much tragedy in this world. So much sorrow, then and now. Will it ever end? Will happiness ever become the rule on Arda, or must life always remain something stained by tragedy and death and loss? Swallowing hard, Aragorn stroked the horse’s head lightly. “Halbarad says I carry the sorrows for too many,” he murmured, “but I suppose I have strength to carry yours as well.” Suddenly feeling weary beyond all reckoning, he hobbled both horses, and then gingerly hoisted his pack and headed to the camp.

Denlad had a small fire going. In a patrol of six men who were all terrible at cooking, Denlad was the best, and the big, fair-haired Ranger usually took it upon himself to take care of what meals they were able to scrape together. After Aragorn dropped his pack and settled down beside it, Denlad handed him a stick with a half-burnt sausage impaled upon it. “That is the last of the fresh meat that doesn’t have a foul smell. Or at least not much of a foul smell. We took a vote and decided to give it to you.” Aragorn was relieved to see a bit of sparkle return to Denlad’s blue eyes, but he worried a bit about the cause. Denlad was known for his pranks and Aragorn would not put it past the man to have spiked the sausage with some wild weed that would set his mouth afire.

But Denlad’s gaze seemed guileless enough, so Aragorn took it, nodding to the men around the fire. “Thank you.” He sniffed the meat and added, “I think.” He took a tentative bite and tried not to curl his lip at the meat’s ripeness. He had eaten worse, with no ill effect, but it never made for a pleasant meal.

The men laughed, but the mirth soon faded. Denlad poked the fire a bit. He looked like a man waiting for the right moment to speak. Aragorn stifled a sigh as he chewed. It seemed each man was all but bursting with unsaid words, Galadh excepted, and after Halbarad’s little lecture, Aragorn feared that a full-fledged discourse of his state of mind was mere moments away.

“Aragorn...”

Here it comes. “What, Denlad? You know you are always free to speak.”

“We... that is, all of us....” Again he ground to a halt, and when Aragorn remained silent, he struggled on. “Well... that black feeling in the air this morning during the battle–did you feel it?”

“Yes, Denlad, I did.”

Relieved, Denlad forged ahead. “In those fell moments it seemed like I was fighting more than just orcs. They carry enough evil in their own right, but there was something else. Something I could neither see nor put a sword into but something I felt like I had to slog through nonetheless. It was a malice that none of us have memory of. Do you know what I mean?”

Aragorn nodded again, inwardly relaxing. Orcs and blackness and evil are easy subjects compared with Halbarad’s confounded worries about me. He finished chewing and swallowed. “I did. And I have no answer, other than I think the Dark Lord is...flexing his might, perhaps? Or perhaps it is some evil from days of old now come back to life? Although I have never put much stock in ghost stories, there are plenty of evil things in Arda that have no name but might stir themselves without warning to plague Man and Elf alike. I wish I could explain it better, but I don’t have the answer. But I felt it. And it worries me. Something bigger is stirring, something....” He shook his head, frustrated. The skin on his back suddenly crawled, as though an orc arrow was about to strike between his shoulders. He dropped the sausage and stood, his hand resting on his sword’s hilt.

The men all lunged to their feet with a muted cacophony of swords sliding from sheaves. Eledh snatched up his bow and notched an arrow.

“What is it?” Halbarad whispered.

Aragorn hurriedly climbed to the top of the rocks, but the plains were empty. He stared into the deepening twilight for a long moment, listening, but no sound reached his ears other than muted roar of the north wind scything through the grasses. “A mind full of fear, evidently,” he admitted as he jumped from rock to rock to return to the fire. He felt his cheeks burning and he let out a small laugh. “It seems my imagination has stirred up a threat that does not exist.”

Halbarad squatted beside Aragorn as the men settled themselves again. “I’ll trust your imagination over hard facts any day.”

Denlad nodded. “As will I, for I do not think this threat is a mere trick of the mind.”

“Nor I,” Aragorn said. He picked up the sausage from where it had fallen and tried to brush off the dirt without burning his fingers. “But our mission has taken us not too very far from realms that were once dark and terrible. The Witch-King of Angmar is long departed now, but perhaps there still lingers some foul spirit on this land by which the orcs have somehow contrived a way to go forth from under its protective shroud I have walked that country north of here, on the other side of the Ettenmoors, and I remember once when the wind suddenly blew cold and seemed to carry with it the scent of some far-away dead thing. I thought it at first to be a rotting deer carcass, but then the wind switched around from the south and carried with it the same foulness and in my heart I knew it was not anything natural that I sensed. But when the wind died just as suddenly, and the stench faded to naught but memory, I blamed my fear on a wild imagination and too many long childhood days with my nose stuck in books about the Witch King. We must remember that he was driven into the East and though he still dwells there, it is far from Arnor, thankfully. But some other evil is abroad. And whether echoes of the past be the reason or some present danger we cannot begin to envision, as we watch tonight, keep more than eyes and ears open. Trust your gut, and do not be ashamed to call out a warning if something feels amiss that your eyes do not see. Better to lose a little sleep than be caught unawares again.”

Halbarad cleared this throat. “That reminds me. I think it might be best if I take the first watch with Eledh, then stay through the second watch with Galadh. That will let you have more rest.”

Aragorn narrowed his eyes as his earlier irritation at Halbarad’s overprotectiveness flared back to life. “First all of you vote to give me the best meat, a questionable boon though it was. Now Halbarad is talking of taking my watches so I can rest. Have I suddenly grown so feeble that you feel the need to coddle me like an old man?” He made sure every one of them felt his glare. “The watches stay as they’re set.”

Finishing the sausage, Aragorn tossed away the stick and stood up to ready himself for the first watch, assuming that his glare had been sufficient to stop even an oliphaunt in its tracks, let alone any protests from a small patrol of Rangers. But even as he started to walk away, Halbarad stood.

“Aragorn, wait.”

I should have known better.

Aragorn kept walking and started to climb the rocks, but Halbarad, impertinent fool that he was, simply followed him. Aragorn glared one more time, but undeterred, Halbarad placed a hand on Aragorn’s arm, stopping him from climbing to the top of the rocks where he planned to set up his vigil. “Feeble old man is just what you look like, Aragorn,” he whispered low enough that only Aragorn could hear him. “Do not think I have not seen you wince every time you lift an arm.”

Aragorn glanced back toward the men, but they were studiously keeping their eyes turned away. Too studiously. This ambush of Halbarad’s looked to have been organized by council. “How long have you and the men had this little uprising planned?”

“Since I saw that you were barely able to lift your pack from your horse.”

“My back is merely sore from where the orc slammed me against the tree. I am quite well, I assure you.”

Halbarad subtly but firmly steered Aragorn a step further away from the men. “Then show me you can raise your sword.”

Aragorn’s chin lifted. “There is nothing so wrong with me that I cannot fight.”

“Aragorn, I do not do this to undermine you.”

They locked gazes for a long moment, until finally Aragorn had to look away. He tried one last tack. “I am the healer, not you. I can be trusted to know the status of my own injuries.”

“As you wish, then. But pray tell me, so I can learn from such a great healer, how you somehow contrived to stretch your neck around to see your own back.”

Aragorn struggled to unclench his jaw. Halbarad was only doing what a friend would do, he supposed, much as it galled him to admit. “You are not going to give up, are you?”

Halbarad’s grin flashed white in the gathering twilight. “You should know me better than that.”

“What I know is that your mother should rue the day you were ever born,” Aragorn muttered, but he returned to his place by the fire and sat on the ground, Halbarad kneeling behind him. To his disgust, the rest of the men immediately came over and formed a ring in front of him. He scowled upward as three pairs of eyes looked down with varying degrees of worry, and in the case of Denlad’s, not a little amusement. Halbarad’s influence is greater than I thought; he’s turned an entire scouting patrol of Rangers into a flock of hand-wringing maidens. He glared at Denlad. Laughing, hand-wringing maidens.

He opened his mouth to order the men away, but Halbarad was quicker.

“Get your gaping eyes back,” he barked. “Give Aragorn room to breathe.”

The men reluctantly moved back a pace, and then another as they gave way under Aragorn’s murderous glare. But they still hovered close enough to further irritate Aragorn’s already frayed temper. But since drawing his sword and slaying them all was not really a viable option, tempting though it was, he gave up trying to get them to ignore what he knew would shape up to be lively fireside entertainment. For them. As for himself... he would rather face a fire-drake in its den.

“Your coat, Aragorn,” Halbarad said.

Aragorn sighed, but he pulled off his leather coat, then his jerkin, and finally untucked his shirt. He grunted as he struggled to pull it over his head. His shoulders really did hurt, there was no denying it, and a small part of him feared that perhaps Halbarad’s worries were justified after all. But even so, he cringed at the idea of the men knowing such. He pulled his arms back down and pulled the tunic back over his head. “It is too cold to take off my shirt,” he said.

“For Valar’s sake,” Halbarad muttered. “At least pull your arms out of the sleeves.”

“You do not need to look at my arms. Simply lift the back.”

He heard Halbarad’s swift intake of breath and knew Halbarad had nearly lost his patience with him, and the result might be the loss of a perfectly good tunic. He glanced over his shoulder and confirmed that a thundercloud had indeed formed across Halbarad’s brow. Without another word, he quietly slipped his arms out of the sleeves, but left the shirt hanging around his neck, draped across his chest in a meager attempt to ward off the cold. His skin immediately shriveled into legions of goose bumps. “There. Look quickly before I freeze in this wind, and see that there is nothing wrong with me other than a bruise or two.”

Halbarad surveyed Aragorn’s shoulders. “Your back is starting to look as black as Sauron’s heart.” He pressed a thumb against Aragorn’s right shoulder blade.

Aragorn hissed and flinched. “Stop! A great healer you are, trying to break what is not broken!”

“You are right in that, at least; nothing seems broken. As for me being a great healer, well, at least I haven’t killed anyone I was trying to save. Yet.”

Aragorn started to thread his arms back into this sleeves.

“Wait, Aragorn,” Halbarad said. He stretched a hand out to Galadh. “Hand me the salve, if you would, Galadh.”

Aragorn, one sleeve already pulled on, watched warily as Galadh handed over a pot of truly foul-smelling ointment. “What is that?”

Halbarad scooped out a handful. “A salve.”

“I can see that . . . ahhhh!” Aragorn twisted away as Halbarad slapped the ointment none too gently across his back.

Halbarad clapped a firm hand on Aragorn’s shoulder. “Hold still!”

“A true healer would warm it up first!”

“Never claimed to be a healer.” Keeping his iron grip on Aragorn’s left shoulder, Halbarad used his right hand to rub the balm across Aragorn’s shoulders. It felt like he was grinding rocks into his back. “And the horses do not mind it cold. Besides, it will warm up soon enough.”

“They may not mind it cold, but I am not a... wait... horses? You mean this stinking ointment from Mordor is horse balm?”

“Nothing but.”

Aragorn tried to glare over his shoulder, but the fumes were starting to make his eyes water. The men took another step back. Denlad pinched his nose shut and retreated upwind to the far side of the fire, and Aragorn could hardly blame him. He thought he knew nearly every remedy there was, but this ... this utterly defied any description of a decent medicament. Dreadful did not begin to describe the smell. “You may call it horse balm, but I cannot imagine a horse standing still when approached by such a...a... stench.” He coughed and tried waving his hand in front of his face to clear the air, to no avail. Now his nose was running. He blinked and tried not to sniff.

“It does smell a little strong, I admit. We usually have to tie the horse’s head to a post so he does not run off,” Halbarad said. “It’s my father’s own recipe, you know. Handed down from his father and his father before him. Family secret.”

“Then why did you not keep the secret to yourself?” Aragorn muttered. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed wearily.

I am defeated. I am completely and shamefully defeated, and at the hands of my own men; at the hands of my own kinsman, no less!

He suddenly gasped. His skin . . . he was sure it was aflame! “You... ahhh... I will wring your.... ” His threat died to an inarticulate growl through clenched teeth. If he lived through this, he would tear Halbarad limb from limb.

“Did I not say it would warm up?”

He resisted the urge to leap for Halbarad’s throat. He was sure this... this sludge... was not meant for use on men. “When I have died from the burns you’ve inflicted,” he ground out, “will you at least send my bones to Minas Tirith? Or what’s left of them after this foul paste has eaten through to my very heart!”

“Now, now, it’s not that bad,” Halbarad grinned as he wiped his hands on his own pants. “The burning only lasts a minute or two, and trust me, afterwards, you will feel reborn. It works better than any herb in your pack, I’ll wager. Now, on with that shirt before you catch your death.”

Aragorn slapped away several pairs of hands that reached down to help. He tugged his shirt back on, then grabbed his jerkin and coat. “I go to take watch,” he grumbled. “Eledh, you best do likewise.”

He gave Halbarad one last glare before he turned his back ... his burning, aching back... on him and started to climb. He could not believe he let Halbarad smear that... that ...

He could not find a word vile enough to describe it. He trudged on, occasionally stopping to mop his sleeve against his still-streaming eyes, until he finally reached a suitable lookout spot and sat down to put his clothes back on. Eledh passed him and gave him a sympathetic look but wisely said nothing as he assumed his own position on the outcrop. Aragorn sighed. At least the burning sensation would help him stay awake. Fatigue sat on his shoulders like a oxen’s yoke.

He glanced down at the camp. The men were settling down in their bedrolls, Halbarad spreading his out beside the empty one that was Aragorn’s, making sure to put his own to the outside edge of the camp so as to be between Aragorn and whatever evil that might strike from the darkness. Seeing the evidence of Halbarad’s protectiveness in even that small thing, Aragorn’s anger cooled. Halbarad had truly meant no harm, and it was not his fault that he was a bit on the ham-handed side when it came to the healing arts. Halbarad was a warrior, not a healer, as he had said. It was not as though Halbarad had deliberately set out to char the flesh off his Chieftain’s back. Aragorn laughed quietly. What an end that would be: the sixteenth Chieftain of the Dúnedain, fallen not to trolls or orc arrow but to a misguided attempt to ease a set of sore muscles. They would sing of it in songs, but not the kind written to extol the virtues of Arnor’s heroes. No, he would have become a character to amuse small children and drunken tavern-dwellers.

He gazed out at the land; nothing moved in the starlit plains surrounding them. His thoughts returned to this morning’s events, and again he felt grief washing over him like the beginnings of high tide. Mallor had been so young. Sixteen short summers. Need drove Aragorn to take all able bodied men he could find, but Mallor ... he truly had been but a boy. A boy filled with life and love and with a bright future awaiting him. And now he lay moldering in a grave that time and memory would soon forget. Is this what the Dúnedain have come to? A remnant of forgotten kings, as old Tom Bombadil calls us, so weakened that now we have only our young boys left to offer up on the altar of Sauron’s evil? It seemed a poor end to a noble people.

“No,” he whispered. The wind carried his word away, lost to the night, but he spoke it anyway. “Our people will not come to an end. We will not fall. We cannot.”

But how to keep it happening. The faces of those who fell during the summer paraded before his mind’s eye, one by tragic one. Who would rise to replace the men’s strong arms and valiant hearts? Who would step forward to be mothers to the orphaned children? And what of the children gone? How could the potential of their lost lives ever be replaced?

Aragorn restlessly climbed to his feet to pace the length of the cliff. And what of Bracken’s Ferry? What would they find there? More lives lost? A hollow ache had settled in his gut as soon as he had heard the reports of the attacks, and now that they were only a day’s ride from the village, his growing anxiety made the ache feel more like someone had tied his innards into a hard knot. In his pacing, he crossed Eledh’s post. He stopped briefly and squatted on his heels beside the archer. “Do you see anything?”

“Nothing. The area is clear, except for a nighthawk and about three half-frozen crickets.” He grimaced and then slapped his leg. “And mosquitoes big enough to drill through clothing.”

“I had not noticed any mosquitoes.”

Eledh leaned toward him and sniffed, then coughed. “No, I don’t think they will come near you.”

“An alternative use for the horse balm, eh? Although I would not recommend it. I think I would rather be eaten alive by bugs than endure again the stinging heat of that stuff.”

“Did it help your shoulders?”

He flexed them. “Surprisingly, yes. They do feel better.”

“And will you tell him?”

Aragorn gave him a sidelong look.

“No, I suppose you won’t.”

Aragorn smiled faintly, and they sat watching the night, silent but in accord. It was moments like this, Aragorn realized, that acted as a balm to his aching soul just as Halbarad’s ointment had helped his aching shoulders, and far less painfully at that. He eased to his feet and nodded to Eledh, then walked back to his original post. He stood looking into the shadows, and watched as one by one the stars came out. Tomorrow may bring sorrows unimaginable, but tonight, as Eärendil sailed toward the western horizon, all was still under his bright beacon.

“By all that’s sacred,” Halbarad muttered as he drew his arm across his nose and mouth. “That smells worse than my horse balm.”

The smell of smoke and something far more dreadful mingled with the closer odors of damp leaf mold and wet grass as they traversed the mist-shrouded hillside. The sun had climbed past its zenith, but dense fog continued to lock the world in dreary white gloaming where trees became grasping wraiths and shrubs crouching trolls. Suppressing a shiver, Aragorn glanced behind him. He could barely make out the ghostly shapes of Denlad and Galadh where they rode to the rear.

“Close up,” he called softly and was almost amused at the alacrity with which they kicked their horses to catch up with Eledh and Halbarad. He couldn’t blame them for their unease, not when dread ran its cold fingers down his own spine with disquieting frequency.

Weary and sore of heart from the orc attack, they had garnered some much-needed undisturbed rest through the night and awoke feeling, if not refreshed, then at least better able to struggle on. After breaking his fast, Aragorn had rejected Halbarad’s offer of another application of his beloved horse balm, going as far as drawing his sword in firm, incontrovertible proof that his shoulders were fine. And even with Aragorn’s sword at his neck, Halbarad had the nerve to look smug at the effectiveness of the balm. Aragorn had briefly toyed with the idea of giving Halbarad a very close shave, but he pulled his sword away with a disgusted look and ordered the men to mount up.

All morning they had ridden unmolested, heading east by slightly northeast. As they closed in on the hills that marked the Hoarwell River valley, they spotted a column of smoke that writhed and clawed toward the sky. Aragorn had stepped up their pace, but their progress slowed as the mist thickened, and now, nearing mid afternoon, frustration rode him so that he felt he must either kick Bronadui into a hard gallop or fly to pieces from the tension. But riding at speed when they could barely see ten steps in front of them was to openly court disaster, so he forced all thoughts of urgency from his mind as they picked their way along this last wooded ridge.

They were close now. At the end of this ridge, below the fog, lay the Hoarwell River and Bracken’s Ferry, a small settlement of fifty or so families some thirty leagues north of the Last Bridge. It was a village Aragorn had visited often. Like its name suggested, there was a ferry there, one of only a handful of such crossings north of the Bridge, and many times when stealth had greater value than expediency, he had cut across country to use it instead of riding farther downstream to the ferry at the more populous Windydale, or even farther south to the Last Bridge and the East-West Road. For all its remoteness, Bracken’s Ferry was a friendly town, sporting a smithy, a mill and a small but good inn called The Hunter’s Horn. Bilfen Broadbow was its keeper, a round, cheerful little man who wore a perpetual smile and always greeted Aragorn with an “Oh ho! Lock up your daughters, all you fathers! That handsome rascal Strider's a'prowlin' these parts!” Then he would throw back his head and roar with laughter, and Aragorn could never help but join in, even after the fifth, tenth and thirtieth time the joke was repeated. Many a cold night Aragorn had spent with his feet warming on Bilfen’s hearth as he ate some of the best roast mutton to be found west of Rivendell.

Thinking about Bilfen always sent Aragorn's thoughts toward the other man who was a mainstay of the inn's cozy public room. As cheerful and welcoming as Bilfen was, Kenevir could hardly be called such. A dour man of indeterminate age, he could always be found glowering over a tankard of ale in a dark corner booth by the window. Orcs had slit his tongue and he could no longer speak, but tales of a hundred skirmishes could be read in the scars on his face and in the fiery depths of his black eyes. Had Aragorn not had the assurance of both Gandalf and Bilfen that Kenevir was a friend, he would never have felt he could turn his back on him. The man looked on foe and friend alike with a gleam in his eye that Aragorn could never quite decide was murderous or merely cantankerous.

Aragorn pulled up, his men stopping with him. As he tried to see past the thick fog, the hollow ache in his gut told him that there would be no more happy evenings at The Hunter’s Horn.

He glanced at Halbarad, who was, like him, breathing through his open mouth to try to avoid the smell. Not that it helped. The rank odor was so thick he could taste it. Halbarad gave him a small shrug. “We have to see what’s happened. Nothing else for it.”

With a terse nod, Aragorn directed his horse toward the steep slope that led into the town. Bronadui’s feet slid and clattered on the loose rocks, and Aragorn had to lean far back in the saddle to keep balance as they went down the steep hill. The fog and wet ground made the way even more arduous, but Aragorn trusted Bronadui not to falter. Eventually they reached the spot where the grade became too steep to continue their straight path down. He pulled Bronadui to the left, and one by one, the Rangers rode down a switchback trail of their own making until finally reaching the bottom. As they descended, the fog lifted but the stench of death grew ever more unbearable. Aragorn lifted his hand to call a halt just before they emerged from the forested hillside onto the road that led into the town.

“Draw weapons!” Aragorn said in a hushed voice. “We don’t know what we may be facing.”

Swords scraped out of scabbards, and Eledh readied his bow. Assured that his men were as ready as they could be, Aragorn nudged Bronadui out into the road, and he caught his first glimpse of what was left of Bracken’s Ferry.

He heard a choked cry from one of the men and felt his own throat constrict.

The town was ruined. Smoke rolled from the ashes of the buildings, and as they rode in, what looked like misshapen piles of rags revealed themselves to be bodies. Aragorn’s stomach reeled as his eyes unwillingly took in the carnage. Men, women . . .

Dear Valar, they did not spare even the children.

He looked away, halting Bronadui and listening, but the silence pressing down around them was mute testimony that nothing was left alive in Bracken’s Ferry. Aragorn sheathed his sword and dismounted, keeping a firm hand on the reins. Bronadui was battle-trained and experienced, but horses like the smell of death no more than men, and he could see from the look in Bronadui’s eye that given the chance, the horse would gladly turn tail and take to the hills. And I would likely follow you. He patted the horse’s neck and murmured a few comforting words.

“I’d say this happened about four or five days ago, from the looks of the bodies,” Halbarad said. “The warm weather–”

“That will do, Halbarad!” Aragorn hissed. He was having a hard enough time keeping his bile down without hearing a discourse on the effect of heat on decomposing bodies. He swallowed hard, then continued walking.

There were no signs of life, save for a flock of vultures that flew briefly upwards from a dark bundle on the ground as the men approached, returning almost immediately to their unholy feasting once the men passed. Galadh’s horse shied at the sudden burst of flapping wings, but he brought him under control with a quiet word.

Aragorn turned and looked up at his Rangers. “We will check every building, in case there might be someone still alive.” He received quiet nods in answer, and he wondered if his own eyes looked as haunted as his men’s. “I know how heavy your hearts must feel, for mine feels the burden of grief as well. Hope seems gone, but we have to try. Be careful as you search. These buildings still smolder and could collapse. We will leave the horses yonder, in those trees, upwind from the stench. Be sure to tie them securely, though. A shift of the wind and they'll abandon us for the hills and I wouldn't blame them. Halbarad, stay with me. Denlad, take Eledh and Galadh with you and start from the far end of the street and work your way back.”

After they had secured the nervous horses and the three younger Rangers moved off, Aragorn took some time to look at what little the signs told him. Orcs had swept into the town from the north. Aragorn looked at a ridge very similar to the one down which they had just ridden, and as the fog started breaking up, he spotted the torn vegetation and disturbed earth left by the charging horde. The trammeled ground led straight into the town. The orcs must have caught the townsfolk by complete surprise, for there was little sign of resistance. Near The Hunter's Horn, one man’s dead hand still clutched a broom he must have been holding when an orc arrow pierced his heart. Aragorn swallowed and looked closer, but it was not Bilfen.

He shut his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath and walked to what remained of The Hunter’s Horn. He pushed against the door. It opened a few inches before banging up against something behind it and refusing to budge. He peered through the crack but saw only the charred remains of what looked like collapsed roof rafters. “Bilfen! Kenevir!” he shouted, but as expected, there was no answer. He threw himself against the door, trying to drive it open through the sheer weight of his body, but he only managed to bruise his shoulder.

“Aragorn, do you think it’s wise–” Halbarad started, but Aragorn merely waved him off as he stepped back and aimed a vicious kick at the door. He felt it move slightly, so he drove his leg at the door again. The door shifted another inch, but then a creaking groan issued from deep within the building.

“Look out!” Halbarad yelled. He grabbed Aragorn’s arm and yanked him away from the building. What was left of the roof line sagged several feet, and they scrambled backward as the front of the building suddenly lurched toward them. Halbarad dragged Aragorn another twenty feet before he let go. “What was that you said about being careful?”

“I know, I know. But–” He shook his head, unable to put his sorrow and frustration... his rage... into words. Unbidden, a memory of his last visit flashed through his mind. It had been rainy and foggy much like today, and Bilfen had chided Aragorn for tracking mud across his clean stone floors.

I don’t know how you manage to get so muddy, Strider. Even when you come in on horse, you look like you strode through mud instead!”

Unshed tears burned the back of his throat. “Farewell, Bilfen Broadbow,” he whispered. Then he abruptly turned away from the listing building and headed across the street. Mud pulled at his boots.

Halbarad caught up with him, giving his shoulder a squeeze but keeping mercifully silent, for which Aragorn was grateful. He was having a hard enough time keeping the lid on his sorrow without Halbarad mouthing some sort of comforting blather that would only serve to drive him to tears. He quickened his pace and, as he approached what had been the blacksmith shop, he felt heat still radiating from the ashes. The fire must have been fierce, for the only surviving item that Aragorn recognized was the great anvil.

“I remember Telvor,” Halbarad said. “Good ’smith but he wasn’t much on conversation.”

“No, he wasn’t. I used to watch him from the windows of the inn, and I don’t remember him ever smiling. I always wondered what made him so surly.”

Halbarad kicked at a clump of wood. It disintegrated with a puff of ash. “Woman, most likely. A woman can turn any man sulky.”

This from a man utterly besotted with his wife. Aragorn stared at Halbarad from a moment, then shook his head. He would never really understand the way Halbarad’s mind worked. “We will never know, I suppose,” he said and turned to look at the village. He rested one hand on the hilt of his sword and the other on his hip and frowned. “Why, Halbarad? I know that orcs attack the settlements, but this... this feels like something beyond that. Look at the way every last building has been burned, if not to the ground, then at least to ruin. Orcs rarely take the time to burn even a single building, let alone an entire village. There’s something almost methodical in the destruction.”

“The beginnings of an invasion of the North,” Halbarad growled.

“With so small a force? We faced perhaps twenty orcs, no more. Unless those were some sort of scouting patrol, an invasion force would need to be greater, even in this land of scattered remnants.”

“Someone with a grudge, perhaps?”

“Orcs begrudge the very existence of Men and Elves and all free folk. But that still does not explain this sudden change in their tactics.” Aragorn squatted on his heels and looked closely at the ground. The rains had washed away anything of value. The tracks of their horses and their own boots were sharp, but anything older had dissolved back into pockmarked mud. He straightened back up and walked over to a dry patch of ground that had been somewhat sheltered by what remained of an awning that stretched along the front of the building that housed the town’s apothecary.

“What are you looking for?” Halbarad asked.

“Anything. Horses, men, orcs. A fire-drake. Sauron himself. Anything.”

He didn’t see Sauron’s footprints but something did catch his eye. He leaned in closer. “Halbarad, what do you make of this?”

Halbarad squatted, his knees popping, and steadied himself with a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder as he bent low to look. “Huh,” he grunted. “I’m not sure. It could be a boot track that the rain partially washed away.”

“It seems big for a boot track.”

“Telvor was a huge man. Could be his.”

“But look here, that looks like the heel. See the nail marks? I don’t remember seeing a heel of any kind on Telvor’s boots, nor any nails.”

Halbarad raised an eyebrow. “You remember the kind of boots a backwater blacksmith wears? I barely remember the color of the man’s hair.”

“His hair was black, and the only reason I know Telvor’s boots is from one day seeing him kick a vagrant out of his shop when he was fixing a broken harness link for me. His boots had smooth leather soles, completely flat. They were Elven make–my brothers wear similar boots, and it stuck in my mind. And look at this.” He pointed to a series of swirling arabesques in the dust up against the wall.

“A long cloak dragging the ground?”

“Could be. Which seems odd. I’ve never seen an orc wear a cloak.”

Halbarad straightened, nearly knocking Aragorn over as he used him for leverage. “I don’t know, Aragorn. All it really says is that a tall man with a cloak stepped here. That does not explain who, why, or where he is going next or if it even matters a gnat’s eyelash to us. Most likely, the tracks belong to one of those poor souls lying yonder.”

Aragorn studied the track one last time. “Perhaps,” he murmured. He reached out and touched the track, and for a moment, no longer than it takes to blink, he felt... something. Not a breeze, not a splash... but something brushed him. Or perhaps brushed his mind. Something very, very cold, and blacker than the depths of Moria. He jerked his hand away, then hurriedly stood and backed away. He looked at the hill to the north, then down to the river and the road that led across the ford and into the woods beyond. Nothing stirred, and the feeling was gone as quickly as it came.

Halbarad’s hand went to his sword. “What is it?”

“Nothing. Or... perhaps... an echo.”

“Echo? I heard nothing.”

“It was a feeling more than a sound,” Aragorn said, then paused, struggling to describe what he felt. “It seemed like the memory of something evil, the brush of a dark and cold shadow in my mind. But no more substantial than a thin cloud briefly dimming the sun.”

“The same thing we felt yesterday morning?”

Aragorn nodded. He loosened his sword, but did not draw it. “Something evil is stalking these lands... perhaps looking for something, but what that may be, who can say. I think the destruction here came when he failed to find whatever he sought.”

“What could possibly be of any value in a small village like this?”

Aragorn gazed at the river. “Something washed ashore? Or perhaps not something but someone?” His words trailed away. A memory tried to surface, something not from this place but from Rivendell, a glimpse of a picture on a page and a sleepy, bored child listening to Erestor’s voice lecturing....

He shook his head. Whatever lesson from his childhood was trying to nudge him, he couldn’t grasp it. He would have to hope it came to him later; right now, more pressing matters awaited. “Let us keep moving.”

They worked their way down the street, searching three more buildings and finding enough tortured remains of townspeople to fill their heads with nightmares for the rest of their days. At first, Aragorn searched the faces, trying to find people he recognized, but finally his shredded heart could take no more and he focused instead on trying to find more of the mysterious tracks. He came up empty.

As they approached the unrecognizable remains of what he thought had been the mill, they heard shouts from behind it. Aragorn broke into a run, hanging onto the hilt of his sword to keep it from banging awkwardly against his leg.

“Have you found someone?” he gasped as he turned a corner and saw Eledh.

“Denlad thought he heard something, so he and Galadh went in.”

Aragorn looked with some dismay at the remains of the blackened, roofless mill. The family that ran it lived in a small set of rooms tacked onto the back of the two-story mill, and it looked as though most of that section was intact, although the upper part of the rear mill wall leaned perilously over the small one-story portion. One misplaced step and the entire thing could come down on their heads. He moved to an opening that was once the back door. “Denlad!”

“We’re back here!” came the muffled answer. “Keep to the right side of the kitchen and then come through the doorway. The floor is still solid there. But mind you do not lean on any of the walls!”

He entered a small room, the kitchen, still largely intact. Threading his way past a fallen beam and charred remains of furniture, Aragorn passed through a doorway into a second room that abutted the mill’s back wall. To his left he found Galadh leaning over Denlad, who was squatting near the floor, gazing at a pile of debris that at first glance seemed impenetrable. From the looks of it, the entire north section of the house had given way. “What have you found?”

Denlad’s light hair shone in the weak sunlight that filtered through a gaping hole in the ceiling as he stood. He pointed toward a small opening, barely a foot wide and half as high, at floor level. “Listen there.”

Aragorn bent low and after nearly a minute’s silence, he heard it: a soft whimper.

Someone was still alive.


"A child?"

"It sounds like one," Denlad agreed. He looked at the mound of broken beams. "But how in Arda do we reach her? I reached in as far as I could, but she’s too far back."

Aragorn straightened up and took a step back. His heel bumped into some debris and he would have fallen but for Galadh’s quick steadying hand. He nodded his thanks and moved more carefully until he had a better view of the collapse. It looked as though a single touch of one of the timbers would send what was left of the building crashing down on their heads.

As if sensing the doubt in Aragorn’s thoughts, Denlad frowned. "We have to try."

"We will. But we must do so with great care or we will not only kill the child but ourselves. Is there another entrance to this building, from the other side?"

"No, Aragorn," Eledh said as he joined them. "Beyond this pile of debris is yet more debris. The entire side of this building has collapsed. It’s a miracle the child survived at all. I think though the front part of the mill burned, the rains kept the fire from spreading back to this section., and by some grace the fires in the mill did not reignite like so many other buildings have. It would be my guess that the rains helped keep the child alive, as well, giving it–"

"Her," Denlad interjected softly.

Eledh cast a quizzical glance at Denlad, but continued, "Her... something to drink."

Aragorn nodded absently, his mind working on the problem. How the collapse happened or even how a child managed to stay alive for four days trapped so was less important than how they were to proceed from here. "We need to shore this up before we try to move anything. Galadh, you and Eledh go and find as many sound timbers as you can. Tell Halbarad to help. We’ll shore up the ceiling and wall as best we can."

They left, and Aragorn bent down beside Denlad, who had again knelt to listen. In the silence, above the sound of his own breathing, he could pick out an occasional whimper. "The cry sounds weak. The child is probably dehydrated, despite the rain. Maybe injured. Definitely starting to suffer from hunger."

"And no doubt frightened out of her wits," Denlad said.

Aragorn studied the tangled pile, finding little to like about the situation. Then he sat back on his heels and regarded Denlad. "Why do you think it is a girl?"

There was a pause and then, softly, with a note of embarrassment, "I always wanted a little girl."

"Do not feel embarrassed, Denlad. It is in the heart of all men to have a wife, a family." He could not stop the wistful tone creeping into his voice.

"Your own hope will be fulfilled, Aragorn. Of that I am certain," Denlad said quietly.

Aragorn said nothing. Now was not the time to be dwelling on dreams that may or may not ever come to pass. He stiffened as the child whimpered again. He leaned down to the opening and peered into the stygian darkness that was all the child knew. He recalled his own childhood, when nightmares woke him crying in the dark and his father would steal into his room and sing him to sleep with quiet lullabies. So now Aragorn sang softly, in a mix of Quenya and Sindarin, snatches of nearly-forgotten lullabies. The whimpers quieted, but somehow that proved worse, because now his mind filled with worry that the child had died.

"Those words . . . some of them I do not understand, but they bring peace to the heart."

"They are lullabies, mostly. The words you don’t know are probably in Quenya. My father and sometimes my brothers sang them to me as a child, when I had nightmares."

A longing crossed Denlad’s face, there and gone so quickly that had Aragorn not been watching him, he would not have seen it. "I never learned much Quenya," Denlad admitted. "I barely feel I know Sindarin."

"You speak it as well as any Dúnadan," Aragorn assured him quietly. He knew very well the hardships Denlad faced as a child. Far from the gentle life Aragorn had known in Rivendell, Denlad had spent his childhood years on a remote farm, with only his mother for company, and she a woman of questionable virtue and stern demeanor and little in the way of love for her fellow man. Aragorn remembered her reaction when once he tried to speak to her in Sindarin. She had all but hissed at him that he speak to her in the Common Tongue. One of the first things Denlad had done after he joined Aragorn’s patrol was lose himself in learning Sindarin, and he had done well for himself. Learning the difficult language had seemed, to Aragorn’s thinking, like walking through a door that led from darkness into light, and he had felt immense pride in seeing Denlad’s progress. He still held Denlad in high regard, actually. But he did not have the words to say such things without embarrassing the man.

Still, Denlad gazed long at Aragorn, seeming to measure Aragorn’s words, looking for their deeper meaning and holding them against his own doubts, and finally, as if accepting their truth, his troubled gaze cleared and he nodded. "Thank you."

Aragorn nodded but said nothing more.

Denlad turned back to the pile of debris. "This child, should she live, will grow up knowing neither father nor mother. What should we do with her?"

"If you have any ideas, I am listening."

"Lord Elrond took in a waif, once."

"I somehow doubt at this point in time he would be willing to do that again," Aragorn smiled. It was incongruous and probably a little ridiculous, but it felt good to talk of light matters in the midst of such horrors. "Besides, I was a relative. As the Rohirrim would put it, a brother-son, a nephew, although many generations removed."

Denlad’s voice held a hint of laughter. "And I am certain that bit about ‘Sixteenth Chieftain of the Dúnedain, Isildur’s heir didn’t cross his mind at all when he decided to take you in."

"It may have, I suppose." Aragorn's grin was fleeting, however. He looked around the dim room, then leaned down to peer again into the hole, but no light had miraculously appeared to pierce the gloom. He tried reaching into the hole, but like Denlad, encountered only emptiness. He sang a few more snatches of lullaby, then sighed. "Perhaps taking her to Windydale would be the best thing. She may have relatives there. She should grow up among her own people."

Denlad studied Aragorn for a moment. "Was it hard, coming back to the Dúnedain after being raised as an Elf?"

"I wasn’t raised as an Elf. Just raised with Elves. My mother and Lord Elrond both saw to it that I had a thorough understanding of my own people and their culture. Still... there were some surprises."

"Such as?"

"The food, for one. Or maybe I should say the lack thereof."

"Lost some weight, did you?"

"A little, yes," Aragorn admitted. "It took some getting used to, living in the wild, missing meals more often than not." They fell silent again, then Aragorn ventured his own question. "And what of you, Denlad? What was hardest for you to get used to when you joined the Grey Company?"

Denlad took a long time to answer, and when he did, his quiet reply cut straight to Aragorn’s heart. "Friendship."

Aragorn could think of nothing to say, so he merely reached out a hand and gave Denlad’s shoulder a squeeze.

Another whimpering cry floated from the wreckage and Aragorn saw Denlad wince. "It is hard to listen to," Denlad whispered.

"We will get her out," Aragorn promised, but as he looked over the tangled mess of timbers, his hopes sank. It would be like trying to unscramble an egg.

Thuds and muttered curses from the back of the building alerted them to someone’s return. A moment later, Halbarad staggered in, trying not to knock into the walls with the long timbers he carried. "The other two have more," he panted as he dropped them with a clatter.

Galadh and Eledh shuffled in with similar loads, and soon they were at work, hope lending them strength as they hauled timbers upright and jammed them against the leaning ceiling. But even as they shored up the ceiling, beyond the wall adjoining the mill, the building creaked and groaned as if it were in pain. Aragorn looked at their handiwork with a troubled eye. "I do not know that I trust it to hold, but it is the best we can do."

"Start at the top?" Halbarad asked.

Aragorn nodded, and Halbarad stepped forward and felt of the timbers lying in the jumble near the ceiling. He found a loose one and eased it back, slowly and carefully. They all sighed audibly when nothing above or around it shifted.

"Keep going," Aragorn said as Halbarad handed him the board. Denlad remained on the floor, listening for any signs of distress from the child. Aragorn reached over him to take the board from Halbarad, then passed it back to Eledh, and he passed to Galadh who tossed it out the broken window, and in such a manner, one by one, they were able to gingerly slide more and more boards and timbers away, until Halbarad tugged on one stubborn fragment and the entire pile abruptly shifted.

"Stop!" Denlad cried.

Halbarad froze, hands still above his head as several boards fell from the top and a beam scraped heavily against the mill wall before crashing to the floor. For a breathless moment, all was silent as dust and ash filtered down.

Denlad squirmed closer to the debris. "I can’t hear anything," he said, his voice strained. He started to thread his arm through the now much smaller opening.

"Denlad, no!" Aragorn warned, then added more quietly, as though his very voice might bring the walls crashing down, "No one move."

The floor creaked slightly as Halbarad, arms still awkwardly stretched toward the top of the pile, shifted his weight slightly. "Aragorn, I cannot stay like this much longer."

"Ease back, carefully. This entire building seems poised on a precipice. Move slowly."

Halbarad released the board he had been trying to work free and lowered his hands and stepped back. The floorboards creaked again, but for a moment, it looked as though the crisis was past.

"I think–" Aragorn started, but stopped as the floor suddenly vibrated beneath his feet. Something behind the mill’s wall rumbled.

"Get back!" Aragorn cried, grabbing Halbarad around the waist and whirling him around to shove him toward Galadh. Galadh steadied Halbarad and they both ran toward the kitchen. Eledh scrambled after them but Denlad remained behind, on his belly, again reaching into the small opening with one arm. "Denlad, get out!"

"I think I can reach her!"

"No! It’s too dangerous!" Aragorn reached down and hauled Denlad to his feet. Denlad turned on him, fury flashing in his eyes, but Aragorn didn’t give him time to argue before shoving him hard toward the doorway where Eledh still waited. "Get him out of here! All of you, out!"

As the men ran out of the building, Aragorn started to follow, but tripped over a fallen board. He fell against the wall and even as he pushed himself upright, the ceiling sank another foot. He curled himself back against the wall, throwing up an arm to block falling debris, then scrambled toward the doorway. He had just gained the kitchen doorway when, as abruptly as the crashing disintegration had started, a silence fell. The building stilled. He stopped, looking with wild eyes at the ceiling. It seemed to be holding. His gaze strayed back toward the tangled pile of timbers.

I have to try.

He hurried back. He dropped to his knees, then to his stomach and reached in with his left arm, stretching back as far as he could. His fingers brushed something soft and he heard again the whimper but as if his temerity in trying again to rescue the child angered the building, the child's whimper was drowned out by a louder, almost thunderous groan, the death cries of tortured wood reaching the breaking point. The floor thrummed beneath him, for all the world feeling like the faltering heartbeat of a dying old man. Aragorn pushed himself hard against the opening, trying to gain another few inches... just a few... and his fingers closed on soft cloth and he felt movement under his hand and hope surged wild and soaring within him. He grasped the cloth as tightly as he could and pulled. Again the building groaned and he pulled and the child moved toward him and for an instant hope turned to joy.

She’s going to make it...

And then the building shook once more and kept shaking and the timbers suddenly collapsed around his arm. He was trapped. He bit back a scream of frustration as pain bit deep into his upper arm and his hand reflexively opened and the cloth fell away. A board clattered to the floor inches from his foot and another scraped across his shoulders and all around him the cacophony of the building's death throes deafened him. He had to free himself, had to forget about the dying child... oh Valar, how can I save myself and not her... but he had to. She was gone. It was over. He choked on a sob and gritted his teeth and pulled his arm. The sleeve of his coat tore and jagged splinters plunged like needles into his flesh but then he was free and scrambling to his feet and running, the child left behind.

~~~

He staggered out of the building, where he fell to his knees in the mud and buried his face in his hands. He had come so close. So close.

"We tried," Halbarad said quietly, kneeling beside him. "Do not blame yourself."

Aragorn looked up and the first eyes he met were Denlad’s. "I am sorry," he said. "I had her, but the timbers fell... I could not hold on. I am sorry."

Anger warred with sorrow in the tall Ranger’s blue eyes and Aragorn was certain a large part of the anger was deservedly aimed at him. He dropped his head and grasped his aching arm.

"Let me see," Halbarad said, gently pulling Aragorn’s hand back. He peeled back the torn leather. "Now there's a bit of a mess for you. You’ve amassed a fine collection of splinters. It will hurt, but I’ll have to dig them out."

"Just get on with it."

"What happened in there?" Halbarad asked. "I turned around expecting to see you and you weren’t there."

Aragorn lifted his chin at the mild reproof in Halbarad’s voice, but just as quickly lowered his head. I suppose I deserved that. A quick glance at Denlad showed he was still staring at him, but his expression was unreadable. Deciding it was safer not to look at his men at all, he concentrated instead on Halbarad’s hands as he worked splinters out of his arm and dabbed at the blood flowing down. "I was so close. I had her in my hand... I had her...." His throat closed and he squeezed his eyes shut. "The timbers collapsed on my arm. My grip weakened. I could not hold onto her."

Halbarad gently felt all along Aragorn’s arm. "It doesn’t seem to be broken."

Aragorn shrugged. If tearing it off at the shoulder would save the child, he would prefer living life as a cripple over enduring the pain he felt in his heart right now. He dropped his chin to his chest and shut his eyes. "Have the men gather the bodies of the townspeople for burial," he said dully. "Since we cannot save any of them, we will at least keep the vultures from further desecrating their remains."

 

Aragorn leaned his head against the unyielding cave wall, grunting sofly as he tried without much success to ease his aching body into a comfortable position. Weariness plagued every muscle and made his head ache and his stomach feel queasy. At least, he supposed it was fatigue that had him feeling as though his innards were rolling on high seas. He rubbed his gritty eyes with the heels of his hands. Fatigue, perhaps, but heartache as well. His spirit felt bruised, pummeled. Broken. He did not know when, if ever, he would be able to put the day’s events behind him. He watched Denlad start a fire in the center of the cave and in its flames he saw again the piles of bodies, the rising column of the pyre’s smoke that seemed to write across the sky their failure to protect Bracken's Ferry. They had tried to bury the townspeople, but the ground proved too rocky, so, knowing that any new flames would go unnoticed among the smoke still rising from the smoldering town, where fires still spontaneously reignited from the hot ashes and cinders, they built a great pyre instead.

He could still smell the sickening stench.

Firelight flickered across Denlad’s face, illuminating a spasm of grief that was there and gone, quickly replaced by the stoicism of a man long used to hiding his emotions. Aragorn turned his gaze to the other men and saw the same hooded expressions that he knew hid sorrow deeper than any of them really knew how to deal with. Including me. To think of Bilfen, whose greatest joy was to give comfort to strangers... murdered.... He clenched his fist.

They would find those responsible. They would find them and exact justice, however long it might take.

And to that end it remained to ride to Windydale to warn them, if it was not already too late. The orcs that had laid waste to Bracken’s Ferry could easily be attacking Windydale right now. Aragorn and his men seemed doomed forever to be a step behind, a day late. But as he looked at the weary faces of his men, he knew he could not force them to ride through the night. They were exhausted in body and in spirit, just as he was. No, they would take this one night of rest and hope tomorrow brought better fortunes.

He shifted, struggling to find a way to hold his left arm without waking the dragon that had been chewing on it. Halbarad had dug out all the splinters, and wrapped it well, but some had been large and deep and Aragorn wondered if a bit of fever was settling in. He felt shivery, but he wasn’t sure if that was from the wound or simply from the overwhelming toll the day had taken on him. He shut his eyes to try to snatch sleep, but jerked them open when a vision of collapsing walls and crushing timbers and a child’s broken body assaulted his mind. He sighed without meaning to, and Denlad glanced his way, then to his surprise, quietly came to sit down beside him. Denlad had not spoken to him since the disastrous rescue attempt. Aragorn was not sure the man would ever willingly speak to him again.

"I apologize," Denlad said without preamble.

"Denlad, you do not need–"

"No, Aragorn, I do. My sorrow filled me with fury, and I made you the target when I should have saved my wrath for the foul wretches responsible. It was unforgivable and I apologize."

"Apology accepted, then. But I never held blame against you, Denlad. Grief makes a man do things his heart would never let him do otherwise."

Denlad picked up a rock chip and tossed it toward the fire. "You would think I would learn to control myself better."

"If you figure out how, pray share the secret with me. I have plenty of my own moments when anger gets the better of me."

"If you have, I’ve not seen them."

"And now I fear you lie to your Chieftain," Aragorn said drily.

"I have never felt your wrath."

"That’s because you have never given me cause for such anger."

"Now who is telling falsehoods? Either that or that wound has obviously made you delirious."

Aragorn’s smile was fleeting. "Perhaps."

Halbarad came over and handed Aragorn a cup. "Hot tea. You look like you need something stronger but it’s all we have."

"This will do, thank you," Aragorn said, taking a cautious sip. "Get some sleep, the both of you. Daybreak will find us on the trail again, and very likely in battle at some point. You must rest while you can."

"And that goes for you as well, Aragorn," Halbarad said. "You look fairly well used up."

"I am simply tired, and if you will both leave me in peace, I will drink this and lay me down like a good little chieftain and sleep. I promise."

Denlad chuckled and left to dig a blanket from his own pack, but Halbarad scooted around to Aragorn’s left side. "Let me see that arm before you bed down."

"It has not changed since you looked at it an hour ago," Aragorn grumbled, but he gentled his arm from his coat for Halbarad’s inspection.

After some poking and prodding that more than sufficiently awakened the sleeping dragon and brought forth several involuntary grunts and hisses of pain, Halbarad pronounced his satisfaction that thus far there was no sign of infection. "It looks good."

"It feels terrible."

"And it will no doubt feel worse tomorrow."

Aragorn pulled a face. "Ever do you speak words of overwhelming comfort."

Halbarad gave him a crooked smile and then retired to the other side of the fire, where he spread his blankets between the men and the cave opening, and lay down with a soft groaning sigh. Aragorn sipped his tea, then set it aside and stretched out on his back. It was a long time before he finally found sleep.

~~~

"Ho, the camp!"

The man’s echoing shout along the hidden cave’s long corridor brought them all, hearts lurching, from their restless sleep. Aragorn shook his head to clear it from nightmares that clung like cobwebs and climbed wearily to his feet. Holding his hand out in a gesture for the rest of the men to stay behind him, he quietly took several steps toward the cave entrance, his hand on his sword and a prayer on his heavily pounding heart that the stranger was friend and not foe. He did not think he could face a battle right now, nor could his men. He had thought this deep cave, with its northern entrance well hidden by undergrowth and its eastern entrance barely wide enough for a man to pass, and that only on his belly, was sufficiently concealed that there was no need for a watch. He had weighed the risk of discovery against the men's need for a full night's rest, and gambled that they would stay hidden.

And it now seems to be a gamble I have lost...

Impatience with his apparently endless proclivity for making wrong choices and not a little fear for his men's safety leant harshness to his voice. "Come in, but with your empty hands showing!"

As the figure slowly approached the outer reaches of the glow cast by their fire, arms held high, Aragorn could scarce believe his eyes. "Bilfen?" he cried incredulously. Another, taller figure followed him. "Kenevir!"

"Bless me if it isn’t that rascal of a Ranger, Strider!" Bilfen Broadbow cried, lowering his hands to clap them together with delight. His round face wreathed itself in smiles and, completely missing the dumbfounded expressions on all the men, he launched into a rambling greeting. "Halbarad, Denlad... and you two young men whom I have yet to meet... what a wonderful surprise! You know, it was pure chance that I saw your fire. I had to stop to pick a stone from my horse’s hoof and while I was bent low, I saw the faintest gleam through the bottom of the bushes. You’ve a good hiding spot here. I doubt even orcs know of it." He glanced back at Kenevir, who nodded his confirmation. The man’s glittering black eyes silently took in the walls, the horses in the rear, the narrow passage that led to the opening. He nodded again, with approval.

Bilfen went on, "And I hope you didn’t ride through Bracken’s Ferry expecting a meal at my inn–it’s been closed these last three weeks while we’ve been visiting my cousin in Bree. We started back four days ago, intending on a leisurely return trip but ‘pon my word, it has been a queer and disturbing journey we’ve had. Strange reports I’ve been hearing all along the river of ghosts and dragons, and every so often we feel a chill on the wind that does not feel natural. Not at all. Night before last... or was it the one before that?" He glanced at Kenevir, who raised two fingers. "That's right, two nights back, there was such an eerie feel to the night that we pulled off the main trail and slunk into the bushes and hid like a couple of frightened children. We liked it not, whatever it was."

As Aragorn listened dazedly to Bilfen’s voice, some of what he said registered, but the shock of waking from nightmares of Bilfen’s death to finding his friend standing before him was too overwhelming. He was still staring at the small man, unable to speak, when he realized Bilfen was waiting on him to say something.

Bilfen tapped his arm. "Strider?"

Somehow when Bilfen called him that name, it never felt like an insult, and never before had he been happier to have anyone call him that than at this moment. Another tap on his arm and Aragorn finally pulled his straying thoughts together. "I–" But his words caught in his throat and he could not go on.

"I say, young man, are you ill?"

Aragorn shook his head, a smile trembling on his lips. "No," he choked, finally finding his voice. "No, Bilfen Broadbow, I feel better at this moment than I have felt in many a long day." Unable to hold himself back, he pulled the astounded innkeeper into a rough embrace, knowing the man would feel the tremor of emotion shaking him and not caring. He reached past Bilfen with one arm and Kenevir clasped his hand, a bemused expression on his face.

"What is this, Strider?" Bilfen said, pulling back to peer into Aragorn’s face. He touched the tears tracking down Aragorn’s cheeks. "Such lines of care and sorrow..." He carefully looked at the rest of the men, at their sooty faces, their muddy clothes and the weariness in their eyes that Aragorn knew was mirrored in his own. "Oh dear. You look... all of you look... oh my. What has happened to put such grief in your hearts?"

The men silently looked to Aragorn to tell the tale. Aragorn walked back to his bedroll and dropped onto it, feeling like his legs would no longer hold him. He swiped an impatient hand across his cheeks and nose and took a deep breath that shook more than he wanted. "Bilfen, Kenevir, sit down, please."

Alarm rose in Bilfen’s normally merry blue eyes. He and Kenevir exchanged glances before slowly lowering themselves to the stone floor beside Aragorn, Kenevir taking a spot just behind Bilfen. They looked at him with expectation and dread.

"I fear we have only ill tidings for you. I wish I had softer words to say it, but I do not. Bilfen, Kenevir... Bracken’s Ferry is gone."

Bilfen paled. "Gone? What do you mean, gone? Has there been a flood? Oh my, I knew someday the river might rise suddenly, and we have had so much rain this fall–"

"No, Bilfen, it was neither rain nor flood that struck your village but something far more evil, an evil that I have no doubt is the source of the rumors you have heard on your trip here. Indeed, it was the same rumor that brought my patrol to the Hoarwell. We received a report of attacks along the river, and we set out as soon as we heard. But orcs beset us, and we were delayed. By the time we reached Bracken’s Ferry, we were too late. Bilfen, Bracken’s Ferry... and your inn... has been burned to the ground."

Kenevir, his tongue long ago cut out by orcs, could only growl his rage and sorrow, but Bilfen was more vocal. "Burned... oh dear," he said faintly. "Oh dear. What of the people? Telvor, the other families? Were they spared?"

Aragorn shook his head.

Bilfen let out a mournful cry, a small hooting sound of despair that tore at Aragorn’s heart. He squeezed Bilfen’s shoulder and felt completely useless. "I am sorry."

Bilfen produced a large handkerchief from a jacket pocket and blew his nose. "Oh dear," he repeated. "So you’re telling me we are the only ones left?"

"We found one other alive, a small child," Aragorn said softly. "She was trapped in the house behind the mill. We tried to save her but... ." His throat closed and he dropped his gaze to the floor.

"Annelia. That would have been Annelia. She turned two this summer. Oh dear."

So it was indeed a girl.  Aragorn glanced at Denlad, but Denlad was staring with empty eyes into the fire.

Halbarad cleared his throat. "We did all we could to save her, but the building collapsed. It nearly took Strider, here, with it."

Bilfen noticed the bloody bandage visible through the rip in Aragorn's coat. "Are you badly injured?"

"It will mend."

Bilfen was silent for a long moment, then shook himself. "It is well to mourn the dead, but care for the living cannot be neglected. You men look half starved. I may no longer have an inn, but I do have supplies on my pack horse, which is still outside. I have vegetables, and Kenevir took down a stag just this afternoon. It’s late, I know, but if you will allow, I’ll bring my animal in and fix all of you some food. I always say that food can provide comfort when nothing else can." He laughed softly and patted his ample belly. "I obviously have had much need of comfort in my life."

Halbarad managed a chuckle and Aragorn even managed a smile. "You do well to remind us that there is still joy in this dark world."

Denlad immediately got to his feet. "I will get your pony," he said briefly and, followed by Kenevir and Bilfen, headed down the cave corridor without waiting for an answer.

"He is taking this very hard," Halbarad said softly.

Aragorn nodded, but there was not much to say. They had all had moments where the emotional toll was too heavy and they had broken down in tears or in anger, Aragorn included. Denlad would overcome this, as they all would, given time. Finding and defeating the orcs would do much toward achieving that end. He picked up a rock and rolled it between his fingers. Valar, speed our chase and give us strength to overcome...

The three returned, interrupting Aragorn's thoughts as they led a heavily laden pony through the cave. Bilfen hurried after Denlad as he tied the pony in the back beside the rest of their horses.

Aragorn tossed the pebble aside and again leaned his head back against the cave wall, watching as Bilfen busied himself with making a stew. He did not think he wanted any food, not now nor at any time in the immediate future, and the way his stomach turned over as the smell of Bilfen’s soup rose to fill the cave only confirmed his suspicions. He knew he should try to choke something down, that he needed food to keep up his stamina, but he could not face even a spoonful. He stood. "I’m going outside to ensure that less friendly eyes have not spied our cave."

He hurried out of the cave, blind to the stone walls, his mind awash with more emotions than he really knew how to deal with. Relief, sorrow, joy, anger... they all churned inside him in a nauseating whirlwind. He leaned his forehead against the granite, hoping its unfeeling coldness would calm the fevered rush of his thoughts.

He heard a step behind him, recognizing Halbarad’s heavy tread. He straightened, turning away to look outside. He could at least appear to be checking for enemies, even if the reality was that a hoard of trolls could have descended on him and he might not have noticed. "There seems to be no pursuit," he said.

"Nor did you really expect to find any."

Aragorn fiddled with the hilt of his sword, lifting it free from its scabbard and then sliding it back home. "I should have been more cautious. If Bilfen found us, others could as well."

"It is a decision we all agreed to."

"But I had the final say and I made a poor choice. We are fortunate it was merely Bilfen Broadbow and not our enemies. We will post pickets from here on, no matter how safe we might feel. Rest will do us no good if we are slaughtered in our sleep."

"Hmm."

At Halbarad's noncommital grunt, Aragorn risked a glance at him. "You feel otherwise?"

He shook his head.

Halbarad was watching him with that piercing look that Aragorn knew portended questions about his well-being, questions for which he had little desire to provide answers, even if he had answers he was willing to give. "Before you ask, I will tell you that there is nothing wrong with me."

"Hmm."

Aragorn glared at him briefly before gazing at the night sky. Clouds obscured the stars. It seemed somehow fitting. "We must get word to Rivendell. I will send Kenevir and Bilfen–they will need a place to stay, and they will be welcome at the Last Homely House until Bilfen decides what he should do next."

"Hmm."

"Is that all you can say?" Aragorn snapped. "Or, like Kenevir, have orcs cut out your tongue and left you to try my patience with your silence and your incoherent mumbles?"

Halbarad laughed. "Ah, Aragorn, your sword has less bite than your wit when anger has hold of you. But to answer your question... I still have a tongue in my head and, believe it or not, sometimes I actually know how to hold it."

Aragorn snorted.

"Your hand is on your sword already. One ill-timed word from me and I fear you will slice my head from my shoulders. So I am sticking with ‘hmm’. It’s safer."

Aragorn deliberately folded his arms. "Now my hand is nowhere near my sword. Speak your mind."

"Very well. I think that sending Bilfen and Kenevir to Rivendell is a good idea."

"And for that you think I would lop off your head?"

"I also think," he continued, "that you should go with them."

"No."

"At least consider–"

"There is nothing to consider. We need to alert the towns along the river. And to do so safely means we must stay together. I dare not split up the patrol."

"But neither do we dare send Bilfen and Kenevir on alone. And yet we must notify Lord Elrond. To me it seems we have too many ‘musts’ and not enough men, so we must take that option which holds fewest risks, and their arrival is a gift beyond just the joy of seeing them alive. Before Bilfen showed up, we would have had to split the patrol into numbers even smaller--two to Rivendell, three to Windydale, and both inadequate in strength to fight off any orcs. But now, we will have the strength of four men and three. Denlad, Eledh, Galadh and I to Windydale; you and Kenevir and Bilfen to Rivendell. And rest assured, the four of us who go on to Windydale will move with great care and stealth. Now that we know a bit more what to watch for, we can evade any direct encounter. And although there is no Ranger post at Windydale, there are plenty of able-bodied men in the village, skilled at arms and brave. We will join with them and not be as easily defeated as Bracken’s Ferry."

"You do not know if Windydale still stands. We narrowly won the conflict with the orcs when we lost Mallor. If the men at Windydale have fallen, and orcs find you, you will be hard pressed to survive with only four men."

"Taking nothing from your skills with a sword, but we would be hard pressed to survive it with five," Halbarad countered. "I would prefer you head safely to Rivendell than risk losing your life in a senseless encounter with orcs."

Aragorn narrowed his eyes, anger rising hot within him. "I do not call defending my people a senseless act, even if it were to lead to my death."

"Aragorn, you must remember your destiny. You must take care–"

His patience gone, Aragorn shoved Halbarad back, pinning him against the rough stone. "My life, and my destiny, are my own, to command or forfeit as I see fit," he hissed. "And you forget your place!"

Halbarad gazed at him with infuriating calm, not trying to free himself. "I have not forgotten my place. Lord Elrond conferred on me the task of keeping you safe, and ever has it been that my house has defended its Chieftain. Even if that means risking harm at your own hand, I will do my duty."

Aragorn’s anger dissolved into shame. He shut his eyes, dropping his head and then his hands and took a step back, appalled at his loss of control. While he groped for the words to apologize, Halbarad stepped close and grasped Aragorn’s good arm. "If I could, I would take your burden and carry it for you, for surely it is crushing you."

"It is mine alone to bear," Aragorn whispered. And I can only pray that I find the strength to go on bearing it. Then he worked up a crooked smile. "And I am not crushed. A bit wilted, perhaps, but not crushed."

Halbarad did not look convinced and Aragorn’s smile faltered. "Truly, Halbarad. I am frustrated, yes, and full of sorrow, but not crushed." He paused as he looked out into the dark night. He spoke almost as if to himself. "I spoke too harshly just now. My life is not solely my own, I know. And long have I accepted that, and gladly do I bear the burden of my destiny. But these days it seems my future lies in shadow, and more than ever I feel that evil will overtake this world before I figure out how to take the first steps toward defeating it." But then he glanced back at Halbarad and cut his musing short. He had no right to add to his friend’s worries by speaking aloud of his dwindling hope, especially after his harshness a mere moment ago. Halbarad was too loyal to deserve the ill treatment he had just meted out. "Your devotion deserves more respect than I just gave you. I am sorry," he said softly, then walked back to the fire.

Nothing more was said between them that evening, and the next morning, after a restless night of soul-searching, doubts and dark dreams, Aragorn still felt he could not possibly go to Rivendell, not for the sole reason of saving himself for a destiny that lately even in his most wildly optimistic, most confident moods seemed infinitely unreachable. He could not justify sequestering himself away in the name of protecting himself for the future, not when so many lives were at stake in the here and now, lives that depended on his care, on his marshaling of forces. Gondor may need him someday, and Ilúvatar willing, he prayed he would be able to meet the challenge of kingship, but Windydale needed him now, and needed him more. It was as simple as that.

But even so, come the dawn, his harsh treatment of Halbarad continued to plague his conscience, and he found himself unable to comfortably meet Halbarad’s gaze. So in the midst of the clamor of breaking camp, he concentrated on loading his gear onto Bronadui and tried to block out both Halbarad and the litany of self recrimination that droned relentlessly in his mind.

"Aragorn."

He briefly shut his eyes, but he knew he could not avoid him forever. He reluctantly turned.

"Let me look at your arm," Halbarad said quietly.

Aragorn started to speak, but found no words, so he stood silently as Halbarad peeled back his tunic in order to loosen the bandages. Aragorn winced, for as Halbarad had warned, the arm felt more stiff and sore than ever this morning. And as Halbarad unwrapped the last winding, he winced again. Two of the deeper cuts had angry red edges.

"Bit of infection," Halbarad said. He looked at Aragorn’s eyes and felt his forehead. "No fever, at least." A sly smile played about his mouth. "Some of my horse balm would–"

"I have salve... made from lavender and comfrey... in my pack," Aragorn said quickly, moving to his horse. "It will work well enough." As sore as his arm was, horse balm would likely send him sobbing to his knees, a performance he would not care for any of his men to see. Bad enough they had already bore witness to his hissing and squirming after the first go round with that ooze of Mordor.

Halbarad chuckled and took the healing salve from Aragorn. "Mine would work with more speed."

"Yours would cause my arm to fall off."

Halbarad studied him for a long moment, then lifted a shoulder in a rueful shrug. "I suppose it is best that you stay with me, so I can keep after this arm of yours. You’d likely ignore it or stuff it full of the wrong weeds and let it fall off from rot by the time you reached Rivendell."

Aragorn let out a soft laugh, the weight of guilt lifted by all that Halbarad left unspoken. He nodded toward the cave entrance, where Bilfen and Kenevir had ridden out an hour earlier. "I gave Bilfen a report for Lord Elrond. I wanted to send Galadh with them, but Kenevir glared at me like I had insulted him, and Bilfen put his foot down and insisted Windydale needed Galadh more. I did not like it, but I let them go alone as long as they agreed to swing back to the north, and not toward Windydale."

"They made it this far, evading the orcs. They will likely make it to Rivendell without harm."

"I hope so. Bilfen said they would go to what's left of Bracken’s Ferry. He wants to say his farewells and I cannot fault him that. It should be safe enough, since there is nothing left there to interest orcs. Then they will take the boat across, for Eledh said the ferry survived, and hope to find a patrol. But if they do not, with care, they should reach Rivendell in three days."

"Let us pray they find a patrol, then."

"A patrol of Elves would certainly help," Aragorn sighed. "But we dare not wait. Windydale may be under attack even as we stand here fiddling with salves and bandages."

"There.  That should do," Halbarad said, tying the last knot in a fresh bandage. He tucked the salve back in Aragorn’s pack while Aragorn adjusted his shirt. "Let me know if you feel fever coming on."

Aragorn shot him a look. "Lest you forget, I am a healer. I can take care of myself."

"Hmm."

"I would not ‘stuff it with the wrong weeds’."

"Hmm."

"Mumbling fool. Go mount your horse," Aragorn finally growled, although he gave Halbarad a faint smile as he swung atop Bronadui. He gathered the reins, looking at the rest of the men. "Let us ride to Windydale, and let your every move be marked by caution as never before!"

~~~

They traveled south cautiously but swiftly, following the river as much as possible, but thanks to another round of heavy rains and fog that descended on them by mid-day, they were slowed to the point where, as night fell upon them, they were forced to find a secure camp before they reached their destination. After rejecting several sites as either too open or too cloistered, they settled on a small sloping hill that backed up to a stony cliff on its west and the river on its east. The approach from the south was too open for Aragorn’s liking, but compared to the possibilities they had rejected up to this point, it seemed a veritable fortress. Still, they would have to keep double watch. None of them would see much in the way of sleep this night.

Halbarad paced up and down the river, rubbing the base of his left thumb absently with his right. "I don’t like any of this, Aragorn. I feel...." But his words died away and he shook his head.

"Should we move on?"

Halbarad studied the bluff and the river and the hillside and finally shook his head. "No. The horses are tired and there’s no guarantee we would be better situated even if we press on. Night could fall before we found a safer camp than this."

"That was my fear as well. This is no more to my liking than yours," Aragorn admitted, "but I doubt we would find better. Should they approach with more numbers than we can handle, we have escape routes to the south and north, and we could, if needs must, abandon the horses and take to the river, although I pray it will not come to that. We’ll post one guard up on the top of the bluff, one here below." He shivered as a light breeze wafted across the river. The rain had cleared away but left a heavy dampness in the air that seemed to seep into all his joints. He hugged himself, pulling his cloak tighter around him and wondered if it was just the chilly evening air that made the skin on his neck tighten. "It’s gotten to the point where every cool wind has me reaching for my sword."

"I feel nothing more than the normal night air. For now, at least. I’ll head up the cliff for first watch."

Aragorn nodded, then squeezed Halbarad’s shoulder reassuringly and walked back to where Denlad was setting up a fire. "Keep it small, just enough to cook some food. No sense advertising our presence any more than we have to. Galadh, you have first watch with Halbarad–set up at the top of that rise."

Denlad frowned as he watched Galadh hurry off. "Maybe we should make cold camp. This wind has a coldness to it that I do not think a fire can touch. I don’t like the feel of it."

Aragorn studied the river and the road south for a long time before slowly answering. "I do not question your instincts, but still... I do not feel the close presence of evil. I think now, before it gets too dark, the risk of a fire is small and the benefits of a hot meal great. But still, make haste." He smiled. "Now is not the night for a slow-roasted goose and all the trimmings."

Denlad smiled but his eyes remained worried. "It yet lies afar off, but I feel the brush of evil, Aragorn. There is a foreboding in the air, an unease that stirs fear into my heart, though I am trying my best to ignore it."

Aragorn nodded. "I do not think it is entirely your imagination. We will rest lightly tonight."

~~~

This time, at least, they were not caught by surprise.

Aragorn had fallen into a light doze, having been relieved of an uneventful watch by Denlad, and now, before consciously recognizing the reason why he was jerked so suddenly from his sleep, Aragorn’s hand had drawn his sword, and he was on his feet. Then he heard Denlad’s harsh cry ring through the night and knew what had awakened him.

"They’re coming! Awake! They’re coming!"

Halbarad and Galadh rose, blades ready, only seconds behind Aragorn as Denlad thundered into the camp. "They’re coming from the west northwest, at least twenty orcs, I guess, less than a half-league away. We must have slipped past them despite the weather, and now they come from behind," he gasped. "And, Aragorn, I felt that same presence of wickedness, heavier than ever."

"As I feel it even now," Eledh growled as he rejoined them from his picket post on the south edge of their camp.

"Twenty, you say?" Aragorn asked.

"Perhaps twenty-five," Denlad gasped, still winded from his pell-mell descent from the cliff. He glanced up at the clear sky. "Even with the moonlight, it is hard to say with any certainty."

Aragorn nodded, a grim smile playing about his lips. "We can surely handle a mere twenty-five orcs. This thing shall end tonight." He glanced around the campsite. "Eledh, build up the fire, quickly, then hide yourself with your bow ready. And all of you, wad up your blankets to look like someone is sleeping in them. We will go up the hill, and when they attack the empty camp, we will catch them by surprise." He looked at each one of them, gauging their resolve and finding their returning gazes fierce and gratifyingly firm. "Take care not to let them separate any one of you from the rest. I’ll not lose any one of you tonight."

Grim nods acknowledged him, and then they melted into the shadows, and waited.

~~~

They came, a black swarming shadow in the night, and with the desire for revenge burning in their veins, the Rangers shouted their war cry and charged down the hill at them, taking the offense for the first time in this forsaken chase. In the first moments of battle, three orcs lost their lives to Eledh’s swift arrows, another to Denlad’s slashing sword. Halbarad stabbed the life from a fifth, and then Aragorn was fighting with his own orc and the battlefield became a blur of dark, foul-smelling bodies and screams of dying orcs and grunts of men pushed to the limits of their strength, and over it all, the hovering malice that by now had become almost expected, almost familiar.

Aragorn hacked with his sword and rammed with his elbows and kicked with his feet as he fended off one orc, then another and another and still another. For every one that he slew, it seemed that three took its place. As he slammed the hilt of his blade against the jaw of another and watched him fall, the brief yet alarming thought that surely there were more than twenty-five orcs briefly twisted Aragorn’s gut. But no matter. They were engaged and they would prevail and a grim smile played across his lips. Adrenalin surged through his veins and his wounded left arm was forgotten as a part of him exulted in the fight. His blood sang in battle as it did at no other time, and he knew that afterward, if he lived, he would be exhausted and sore of heart and sickened by the charnel but in this moment he gave himself to the warrior spirit of his ancestors and he fought with the strength of Arathorn his father and all those who had gone before him.

And he fought for the dead of Bracken’s Ferry.

He jumped back to avoid the black splatter of orc blood as one of the foul creature’s bodies fell one way and his head the other. Aragorn swung around, seeking the next brute that dared to challenge his blade, but no other orc came near him; those that remained were engaged by the other Rangers.

He ran forward to help Halbarad, but suddenly a dread stronger than any they had yet experienced stopped him in his tracks. Fear again tightened its clammy fist on his gut and he actually stumbled under the onslaught. It seemed almost a physical presence, like some wholly unnatural mist, so heavily did it fall upon the hillside. Where before there had been only hints and vague shadows, Aragorn now knew that whatever evil being carried such wickedness was coming forth at last.

But from where?

Casting a quick glance at his men as they fought nearer to the fire, he noticed not only the fierce concentration of men fighting for their lives but also apprehensive glances at the black night beyond the orcs. They, too, felt the increasing oppression and watched warily for the advent of something far more terrible than orcs. He saw in their eyes the same terror that gnawed at the edges of his own heart.

Aragorn looked desperately around him, trying to see into the shadows cast by the nearly full moon. The bluff seemed barren, the river dark and empty, the current gleaming undisturbed in the moonlight. He turned and looked down the hill, at the scattered rocks and shrubs that studded the southern approach to their camp. One dark contour, about seventy feet away, shifted slightly, but froze as soon as Aragorn directed his gaze toward it.

There! I can feel its cold vapor even from here.

Aragorn felt his eyes stretching wide as he tried with little effect to see what manner of creature lurked there. There was a darker shadow within the blackness cast by the rocks, a shadow that seemed to pull all light into it. There was no sheen, no reflecting glint that might reveal something of its nature. Just a formless black hole in the lesser darkness around it. Aragorn swallowed against a suddenly bone-dry throat. He tightened his sweating grip on his sword’s hilt.

He did not want to go near it.

He had to.

He took a step. Stopped.

His breath quickened, but he forced each foot forward as he walked slowly toward the shadow, away from his men and their battle, ignoring his own orders not to allow themselves to become separated. His Rangers were winning against the ever-shrinking band of orcs, but this shadow... he knew he could not let whatever evil lurked within that blackness find his men, or any more of the people they strove to protect. And with that resolve, he found the courage he needed. With a swift prayer to the Valar, he raised the sword before him, holding it with both hands.

"Come out!" he called, his voice harsh as he threw every ounce of authority he could into his shout. "Skulk not in dark corners but come out and face your doom!"

The shadow moved into the moonlight.

Aragorn froze, his heart nearly failing him as he gazed into a faceless apparition of darkness, shaped like a man, but seeming far taller, helmed in black and robed in a dark cloak that covered him from his head nearly to his feet. Moonlight glinted a cold silvery blue on the dark metal of his gauntlets and sword. A voice whispered, whether aloud or within Aragorn’s own mind, he could not tell. The words were foreign, harsh on his ears and cruel in his heart, and although he could not delve their meaning, their origin was as clear as their evil intent: they could only be the fell words of Mordor.

Aragorn set his stance firmer, and a single word from a nearly forgotten conversation with Elrond... the lesson he had tried but could not remember... cut cruelly through his mind:

Nazgûl!

He had no more time than for that one dismaying thought before the Nazgûl rushed forward and brought down his sword. Aragorn desperately threw his blade upward and to the side, instinct alone guiding his clumsy parry. The shock of their colliding blades rattled Aragorn’s hands and numbed his arms. Pain flared through the forgotten splinter wounds of his left arm. He barely retained his grip on his sword. With no hope to bring it back to bear, he simply ducked as the Nazgûl’s back stroke whistled a hair’s breadth past his head.

He jumped backward, scrambling up the hill across the rocky ground, as much to get away from the frigid miasma that seemed to flow from the Nazgûl as to avoid the black sword. And he knew he had to draw the Nazgûl as far away from his men as he could. He grimly banished any thought about the danger such a move placed on his own life. Standing in the breach in order to spare his men was nothing particularly new to him, nor anything worth ascribing glory. When such an act became necessary, he did it and prayed to come out, if not whole, than at least alive. It was as simple as that.

But never before had it been so terrifying.

He felt grim satisfaction as the Nazgûl followed him. And then, banishing all thought of Halbarad and the others, Aragorn narrowed his focus to the wraith before him. The noise of the Rangers’ battle with the orcs faded as he tried fiercely to concentrate only on where the dark lord would bring his sword to bear next.

As if sensing the strength of Aragorn’s concentration, the taunts of the Nazgûl grew louder. Words in a barbarous language he barely recognized battered not his ears so much as his very mind with an ever-rising chorus of evil. Aragorn staggered back a step at the onslaught, momentarily overwhelmed. He resisted the urge to uselessly throw his hands over his ears and plead for the voice to stop Elbereth help me make it stop and instead shook his head and stepped forward, raising in his mind a stern refrain of his own.

Do not listen to him! Do not think! Attack!

Their swords rang against each other in a harsh cacophony, a sickening parody of bells tolling death and despair and Aragorn again had to shake his head to stop the overwhelming flood of hopelessness. He blocked the parry, then another and somehow another but his arm was growing heavy and cold and it took every last measure of skill he possessed to match sword stroke for sword stroke. He found himself too often simply ducking or jumping backwards or sideways, twisting and spinning in a desperate dance to avoid the death promised by the Nazgûl’s swinging blade.

Do not listen... do not think...

He kept his eyes away from the black shadow where the Nazgûl’s face should be. To look there filled him with terror sufficient to melt the strength from his legs. As it was, his heart hammered in near panic, as though it were trying to escape this menace by bursting from his chest. He saw an opening and thrust his blade but the Nazgûl swiftly turned and Aragorn’s sword bit only frigid, empty air. Off balance, he had to throw himself hard to the ground as the Nazgûl countered with a lunging swipe of his own. Winded from landing on jagged stones, Aragorn staggered back to his feet. The voice pressed harder on his mind, taunting, laughing... nearly impossible to ignore.

Do... not... listen...

His parries grew slower. Breath rasped against his dry throat as his lungs dragged in ever-colder air. It took both hands on his sword now to force the Nazgûl’s blade away. His chest burned; his legs dragged. His left arm felt afire, but at the same time he was getting cold, so very cold. The only warmth he felt stemmed from his own blood flowing down from re-opened wounds. He stumbled, caught himself, lifted his sword... and the blade met the Nazgûl’s at an awkward angle and shattered into smoking shards that fell around him. For a timeless moment, Aragorn stared helplessly at his foe, knowing his death was now certain. But as the Nazgûl raised his sword, Aragorn dropped to the ground and the blow that would have severed his head from his neck missed.

The Nazgûl uttered an angry growl. Cold lanced deeper, into Aragorn’s very heart. The Enemy’s voice swelled... filled his mind... buffeted him... hammered away at his courage...

I cannot... it’s too much... I cannot...

But one more time, he found the strength to move, to roll clear as the blade whistled down past his head. He flinched at the loud clang as the Nazgûl’s steel cracked open a rock inches from where he lay.

Aragorn shuddered as another wave of glacial air swept over him. The blackness battering his soul was unbearable. Icy fingers clawed through his mind and suddenly Aragorn knew this wraith meant not to kill him but to bend his very spirit to his will. To Sauron’s will. In a flash, Aragorn saw himself defeated, in chains, thrown at the feet of Sauron.

He knew he could never let that happen. He risked precious breath to growl, "No! You will not have me!"

The Nazgûl laughed, and Aragorn’s soul shrank from such a hissing travesty of mirth, for the noise seemed to have been born in the depths of Mt. Doom itself. Aragorn rolled to his left, his hand landing on a stout limb. He clasped it and thrust it upward and blocked another slash of the evil blade, but the force of it knocked the branch from his hand.

Cannot breathe... the very air is poison... I cannot... cannot last...

But he had to. His Rangers were fighting their own battles. No one could help him, nor could he let the Nazgûl defeat him and go after his men.

Another roll, another dodge... another staggering climb to his feet, and then hope! A remnant of his broken sword lay within reach. He put out a hand toward it.

The Nazgûl slammed Aragorn hard across the chest with the flat of his blade, seeming almost to toy with him as he threw Aragorn off balance. Aragorn’s foot turned on a stone and with a cry, he slammed onto his back, strength a fading memory. His chest burned from the icy touch of the Nazgûl’s blade and he had nothing left in him. No breath. No strength.

No hope.

The cold... Valar, it hurts...

Blackness edged closer, blinding his eyes with its foul mist, filling his ears with its dizzying roar.

All became shadow save the Nazgûl. Aragorn stared upward at the faceless wraith, caught like prey in the hypnotic spell of a wolf’s gaze. Sorrow pierced through his terror as the Nazgûl raised the sword for the killing stroke.

He has won. I have failed...

A sudden blinding flash of fire stunned him, and he threw up his hands to shield his face, but the heat rushed past him, toward the Nazgûl. A wailing shriek rent the air and suddenly Aragorn found himself struggling against an even greater surge of chilling malice, a physical wave of fury and unbearable hatred so great it crushed him against the ground. For a moment he felt he could not possibly fight against it, but with a groan that seemed torn from the depths of his soul, he pushed against it and rolled over. He forced himself to his hands and knees. But he could not find the strength to stand. He stayed where he was, head hanging, drawing wheezing breaths into his tortured lungs. Waiting for the death blow to finally come. This time there could be no escape.

Another flash of light and a wave of heat and he flinched, but instead of death, the blackness deafening his ears retreated enough for him to hear a bellowing voice.

"Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!"(1)

Aragorn tried to make sense of it. Those were Beren’s words... Beren as he faced Carcharoth, the great beast, in long ages past... but how could Beren be here?

The voice boomed again. "You will not have your way this day, not while the arm of Halbarad is strong and the fire of my wrath burns!" Fire flashed once more and there was a terrible shrieking.

Hope surged for a moment, but the mist covering Aragorn’s vision would not clear. The darkness and malice and terror were too strong. Darkness... blackness... black breath...

Terror consumed him and he collapsed to the ground, and all light and knowledge fled.

_________

(1)"Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!" page 181, The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1977.

Freezing...

For what felt like unmeasured ages, Aragorn drifted helplessly on a current that pulled him inexorably away from life. Pain, fear, hopelessness... death awaiting. It was all he knew and all he had ever known and all that would ever be. There was no air... no light... no sound... only emptiness and a savage cold that cut through to his very marrow. He sank into achingly frigid black waters.

He struggled to move, to fight the current but strength eluded him. His limbs felt frozen, too heavy and stiff to move. He could not even find it in him to pray for help. Who would hear, in this desolate place?

The Nazgûl has won... I have failed. I have failed Gondor... Middle Earth... my men.

And Arwen... I have failed her...

Something like a sob wrenched itself from his throat.

"Aragorn! Can you hear me?" The plaintive cry broke through the oppressive silence, but it came from so very far away. Too far away to help him. He curled into himself. Despair consumed him; he had no strength left to fight it and he was alone, so alone...

But then someone touched his hand.

He flinched. In such an evil place, how could it possibly be a friend?

But the touch turned into a hand that gently took his and gripped it tight and then a voice called his name, a voice tangled with worry and tears and despair and Aragorn sobbed again as he felt warmth. He had so little strength left but whatever remnants of life force he still possessed he poured into grasping the hand that held his and he clung to it more tightly than he had ever held onto anything. He would not let it fade away and leave him to die alone in this icy Valar-forsaken sea. For die he surely would... but not alone. Not alone.

Again the voice came, closer this time, tinged with hope. "He’s alive! Aragorn? Aragorn!"

He opened his eyes. What a struggle, but they were open. Shadowy mist still blurred his sight, but through it he saw a familiar face lean down. "Aragorn, can you hear me?"

"Hal... Halbarad." Broken glass words scraping across his throat. Deep coughs suddenly tore through him.

The hand he was gripping tightened, hurting him, but it was a good pain. It was a pain that told him he was alive. But then he started to shake, his body racked with shudders he could not seem to stop. He moaned and shut his eyes. Darkness reached for him once more...

"Aragorn, open your eyes!"

"So... c-cold."

He felt hands pulling at him, probing him. Stop... hurts...

Halbarad’s voice was tight with fear. "Aragorn, did his blade find you? Where are you hurt?"

"N-no. He d-did n-not..."

Another anxious voice spoke. Denlad. "Halbarad, we must leave this place, and quickly. You managed to chase it off, but Eledh fears they are about to circle back around. He’s found our horses. Can you carry him?"

Aragorn felt arms sliding beneath his body, and he was lifted upward. Pain drove consciousness from him, and his spirit screamed within him as he fell back into the icy void.

~~~

Voices and words and sounds tumbled through his mind. Something jarred his shivering, aching body, over and over. "Stop," he cried, but no one heard him. He lifted his head and something tightened around him. He reached up and felt a strong arm across his chest.

"Easy, Aragorn," a voice said in his ear, gentle, soothing. "I have you. You will not fall."

Coherent thought dribbled slowly together. I am on a horse. Riding. Halbarad behind me, holding me... why is he holding me? Am I wounded? Nothing made sense, so he quit trying to figure things out, instead letting the pain and cold wash him into a semi-conscious stupor. If it had not been for the pain, he would have felt like he was floating somewhere outside himself. But the pain was too fierce and the shudders too constant to imagine that he was anywhere but on stone cold Arda.

Eventually the jolting rhythm slowed and he felt the arm across him loosen. He gasped as he started to fall, but many arms reached out and caught him before he could crash to the ground. He struggled to move his legs but they felt like dead things.

"No, Aragorn, do not try to walk. We have you. Do not struggle."

Hands gripped him; arms circled his waist and he did not fall, but it hurt. Oh Valar, how it hurt to move. They passed through a doorway, and light stabbed his eyes. He shut them, but not before glimpsing a candle on a table and a fire laid on a hearth. Sounds assaulted his ears... men’s commanding voices, and a woman’s startled cry. The hands... my men?... laid him gently on a cot and a blanket dropped across his body. He could barely feel its warmth, so chilled was he. Another hand smoothed his hair back from his forehead. He opened his eyes, squinting, and Halbarad’s face swam into view.

"Aragorn, you must tell me... where are you injured?"

Aragorn’s tongue felt thick. He could only frown at Halbarad as he mumbled, "Cold... "

"Are you injured?" Halbarad repeated. "You must tell me! What did this evil thing do to you?"

Memories roared back and Aragorn’s heart raced. The room faded and he was back there, facing the terror. His breathing quickened. He fumbled for a sword that no longer hung at his side. "Cannot... cannot let him get to the men... to you..."

"Aragorn, it did not harm us. Whatever it was, it is gone and cannot hurt any of us." He took Aragorn’s face in both hands. "Aragorn, look at me. Look at me! It is gone."

He searched Halbarad’s eyes, for assurance. For an anchor. The evil vision faded, replaced by the reality of a quiet room full of worried men. "Gone...?"

"Yes, Aragorn. It’s gone. You are safe now." One rough hand stroked Aragorn’s hair back, over and over as one might try to soothe a frightened child. "You are safe."

Aragorn let his eyes close. He could not stop shaking. "I-I tried not to..." He coughed, then kept coughing as though his very lungs would tear themselves to pieces. "... tried not to..."

"Shhh. Save your strength."

"... not t-to... listen... to h-his voice... b-but... "

Halbarad’s hand gripped his. "Never mind the voice. It is gone and he is gone. You are safe, Aragorn."

Aragorn took a shuddering breath and swallowed. "He w-was... terrible."

"I know, my friend. I know."

Aragorn felt himself start to drift, but Halbarad’s sharp cry called him back. He blinked, but his eyelids felt burdened with lead weights. "I-I’m s-sorry... so tired. So c-cold."

"Stay with me, Aragorn. You must tell me where you’re injured."

Aragorn shook his head weakly. His entire body seemed awash with pain. "I-I don’t know. H-hurts to breathe." The blanket lifted, and then cloth ripped. Cool air brushed his skin and he cried out as Halbarad touched his chest.

He heard Halbarad’s sharp intake of breath. "He hit you with the flat of his blade. It did not break the skin but the outline is plain as words on a page. Aragorn, what did this to you? What was that thing we fought?"

Aragorn shut his eyes tightly, as if that would do anything to dispel the horrific images that still burned in his mind. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering and ground out, "It was a Nazgûl."

"One of Sauron’s wraiths!"

"They b-breathe out... p-poison. Surrounds them. L-lord Elrond called it... the B-black Breath."

"And that is what is wrong with you? This... this is the Black Breath?"

Aragorn tried to answer, but the shaking was getting worse, pulling the cold into a tight knot in the center of his being. Thought drifted, shattered...

"Aragorn!"

"I-I can’t..."

"Aragorn, you must tell me! Did Lord Elrond tell you of a cure?"

Aragorn frowned, trying to pull his rapidly scattering thoughts together. He felt his hold on consciousness slipping away. The room swirled and a vision flickered... a strident cry from an Elven Lord’s lips... athelas! But before he could voice the word, the light faded and he passed into the darkness of nightmares.

~~~

When next he swam back to consciousness, the cold and the pain were worse. He was dimly aware that someone was beside him, holding something to his lips. He couldn’t stop himself from groaning.

Immediately a voice called out. Aragorn thought it was Denlad. "He’s waking!" Then the cup pressed more urgently against his mouth. "Aragorn, please. Try to drink."

He parted his lips and a foul-tasting liquid sloshed into his mouth and down his throat before he could swallow. He choked and the pain that knifed through him felt like a shaft of fire.

Somewhere in the pain came another voice, urgent and worried. "Aragorn?"

Halbarad. It was Halbarad. Halbarad, what is happening? Why am I trapped in this cold black sea? Why does it hurt so fiercely? If only he could open his eyes, maybe it would all prove to be some dreadful nightmare, but try as he might, his eyes would not open. He was sinking again into those deadly waters, and their hold was too strong. The world of Arda, where comfort and help waited, felt far away and impossible to reach. He heard another groan and was ashamed to realize it came from his own throat.

The voice came louder, a note of desperation stretching it higher than Halbarad’s usual deep rumble. "Aragorn, can you hear me?"

He managed to nod. A hand... Halbarad’s... once again grasped his and he clung to it and somehow fought his way back to the surface.

"Aragorn, you must stay with me. You must listen to me! All the medicines and herbs I know to try are not helping. Do you know anything that will?"

Again, the sudden vision of his father, holding out a bundle of green leaves. But Aragorn was so weary, so tired. Forming words was too much...

"Aragorn!"

It was Halbarad’s voice, so broken, so choked with worry, that finally gave Aragorn strength. He could not bear hearing his friend in such sorrow. But it is so hard... so hard. Valar, help me...

His lips moved but he didn’t have breath to say the words.

Halbarad leaned closer, so close his hair touched Aragorn’s lips as he turned his ear toward Aragorn’s face.

"Athelas," Aragorn finally whispered. Darkness clawed at him, but he was able to say it one more time. "Athelas...."

  ~~~

Long had he drifted on this barren sea, a sea forsaken even by Ulmo, but now his body washed up on a desolate rocky shore. He looked for help and saw his men coming but even as he cried out, his joy turned to horror as they chained his hands and feet and dragged him over the rocks and through a black gate.

They dropped him at the base of a tall, black tower. He tried to cry out, but his voice was trapped deep within his fear. He stared upward, pleading with his eyes, but Halbarad... no, not Halbarad... my friend...my kinsman...no... simply stared back at him, then jerked Narsil’s hilt from his belt and tossed it contemptuously to the ground.

No! He wanted to scream his anguish but no sound came from his mouth. His men stepped back and they were no longer men but orcs and he turned his head toward the Tower and he saw a great eye, ringed in flames and unblinking... unblinking as it tried to pierce through to his innermost thoughts....

Sauron!

"No," he whispered and tried to close his eyes against it but still he saw it and it consumed him and the world was filled with the Eye and the Eye saw... saw who he was and all was lost... Sweet Eru, all is lost and I have failed....

"No," he groaned. "No..."

And then the eye inexplicably shattered.

Aragorn gasped and jerked his head to the side as fire and smoke rushed toward him but he felt only the softest breeze touch his cheek, a soothing zephyr that carried with it warmth and light and all the goodness of Arda on the first day of life. As the chains fell from his limbs, strength returned and he spun around to fully meet the wind, taking a deep breath, then another, and another, as fast as he could draw it into his lungs.

As the burning smoke of Mordor receded into nothing more than flickering firelight against his closed eyelids, he realized that he was waking up. For the first time since his fight with the Nazgûl, his eyes opened easily. He lay for a long moment without moving, simply measuring his breaths as he stared at a rough plastered ceiling overhead. It took many more minutes of watching that ceiling, of listening to his own breathing and the crackle of the fire and the small noise of the wind outside before he accepted that this was reality. That this room, this cot, this air he breathed was true and real and that the rest had been nightmare... hideous, terrifying, but of no more substance than smoke from a fire. He reached up and put a hand over his eyes as unbidden tears of relief flooded them. His bones still felt as though the snows of the North had settled into his very marrow, but the horrible shudders were gone, and the nightmare was gone, and he was alive.

He was alive.

He took a deep breath. Again the sweet fragrance of athelas caressed him and it seemed as though the breezes of all the summers of his youth filled his aching lungs.

"By the Valar, this little weed does work," Halbarad said, his voice full of wonder.

Aragorn lowered his hand and turned his head, wincing a little as the room briefly whirled around him. His voice was but a breath. "You found... athelas."

Halbarad nodded. He held up a small steaming bowl and waved a hand over it so the fragrance drifted across Aragorn’s face. Then, like a river released from a dam, Halbarad’s words tumbled out, one coming on the heels of another. "I wasn’t sure what to do... all you were able to say was athelas and we had Morgoth’s own time finding any... your pack had gotten trampled and destroyed in the fight, and Denlad had no athelas in his, nor did any of us. But Eledh found some, still untouched by frost, in a thicket not far from here. But none of us knew what to do, whether to crush the leaves and feed them to you or make a poultice and then Denlad thought maybe to make a tea... he had seen you do that... and somehow spoon it into you but I was afraid you would choke. But you were sinking, fading so fast, crying out...." He stopped and swallowed. "I knew we had no more time. So we made the tea and thank the Valar, as the fragrance came up, you took one whiff and color came back to your face and then another and you were blinking and waking up. ‘Tis a good thing, for I think we were that close to losing you." He suddenly stopped again and shut his eyes for a moment. He shook his head hard and looked away. "Too close," he said hoarsely.

Aragorn saw in the shadows below Halbarad’s eyes and the careworn lines of fatigue along his mouth just what price Halbarad had paid in worry over him. He felt too weak to speak, so he simply held his hand out. Halbarad took it and Aragorn gave his hand a feeble squeeze, hoping it was enough to convey his thanks. A look passed between them that held all their long years of hard times and good, of friendship and soldiering and trust. Halbarad said nothing, but Aragorn saw in Halbarad’s dark eyes all he needed. He understands. I long to say more, but for now, it is enough.

Aragorn let his tired gaze travel around the dim room. There was not much to see: a small table, three chairs, a fireplace. A gray-striped cat drowsing on the stone hearth. As far as he could tell, he lay on a simple cot, a brown homespun wool blanket covering him. Beside the door, a small diamond-paned window let in weak sunlight, but it made poor inroads against the gloom. He watched dust motes swirl lazily and realized he had no idea if it was morning, noon or evening, nor how many days had passed while he languished in the nether world of nightmares. "How long?" His voice was more a croak, like a rusted hinge long unused.

"Two days, nearly." Halbarad set the steaming bowl aside and grabbed up a cup and poured water into it. He moved to sit beside Aragorn on the edge of the cot and, tucking a hand under Aragorn’s head, lifted it enough to let him drink. Fine wine had never tasted so good.

"Thank you," he whispered.

I have been lost to the world for two entire days. Not as long as the lifetime it had felt, but to have lost that much time was still disturbing, especially when the bulk of those hours had been filled with nightmares such as he had never–

No.

He stopped his thoughts from turning down those troubling paths. There was no profit to be gained in remembering what were merely conjured-up imaginings, however real they felt. Instead, he continued looking at the room. A doorway led to another room where he saw the end of a bed. Across the room where he lay, a ladder disappeared up into a hole in the ceiling, presumably to an attic room of some sort. Aside from Halbarad, the house seemed empty. He wondered what place this was that his men...

His men!

Alarm flooded him and he struggled to sit up. Might as well have tried to leap from Mount Gundabad to Gondor; he barely managed to lift his head, and even that small movement left him gasping. But he had to know. "The men... Halbarad, the men... what of our men?"

Halbard slid a hand behind Aragorn’s head and reached again for a cup of water. "Calm down. We are all fine. All but you."

"I... " His voice rasped and he coughed and the room dimmed and swirled in a sickening kaleidoscope of lightheadedness.

"Drink." Halbarad lifted his head and held a cup to his lips. "You need water."

He drank a few sips of water. The dark spots that bloomed before his eyes faded. "I thought I could fight it, but... I placed you all... in greater danger than I should have." He stopped to catch his breath. Valar, but when did mere speech become such a test of endurance? "I failed. I am sorry... "

Halbarad shook his head vigorously as he lowered Aragorn’s head back onto the pillow. "No," he said. "Do not be sorry. You did not fail, my friend."

"We... I... should have ordered the men... you... to run."

"Shh, quiet yourself. None of us knew what we were about to face–what you were about to face. And we all knew the time for running was long past, or nothing would be left of our people along the Hoarwell."

"But he ... it... the wraith is still out there. I was not strong enough..." Another long pause while he tried to catch his breath. "I had not the strength to defeat him."

"Aragorn, you are wrong." His voice thickened with emotion. "You... you only... among us are strong enough to have fought the Black Breath for so long without falling. The Nazgûl may yet roam, but your actions have given us time. He is in disarray, his orcs vanquished. And had you not kept his attention from us, the Black Breath would have been the death of every last one of us. Feel no shame, for truly, you saved us all."

Aragorn looked away. Halbarad had it wrong. He had failed them. So many of the decisions he had made in the last weeks had been wrong. Too often he depended on a strength that he did not possess, on intelligence that was wanting. If he had but given the matter the least thought, he would have known that the evil presence they had felt could only have come from a Nazgûl, and he would have sent for help from Imladris, from all of Eriador, from every corner of Middle Earth. But instead, he foolishly believed it was an evil he could handle by himself with a mere four Rangers. It had cost Mallor his life, and that the rest of the men had so far survived he could only ascribe to the grace of Valar. But he was too tired to argue all that to Halbarad, so he turned his face toward the wall and shut his eyes, hoping that Halbarad would drop the matter and think he had fallen asleep.

But Halbarad would not leave him alone. "Aragorn, look at me."

For a moment, Aragorn refused, but then he supposed that was childish. He turned his head and reluctantly looked at his friend, and was a little taken aback to see the frown darkening Halbarad’s brow.

"Don’t wallow."

Aragorn blinked. "I am not–"

"Yes, you are. Aragorn, you are by far the worst liar on Arda and I can see self-pity writ large across your face."

"It is not self pity," Aragorn growled. He started coughing again but he struggled on. "But realization... that... I am not fit–"

He couldn’t finish his thought for coughing, so Halbarad waited for the spell to pass and in the silence while Aragorn struggled to catch his breath, finished it for him. "–to be chieftain, to marry Arwen, to fulfill your destiny and rule Gondor and Arnor and save Middle-earth from all evil, bad weather, bad manners, and spoiled vegetables," Halbarad said, ticking them off on his fingers and ignoring what Aragorn hoped was a withering glare. "Have I missed anything? No, I could not possibly have, because I have heard you recite the litany of all you are not worthy of a hundred times and a hundred times I have beaten the self pity out of you with my words, tempting though it is at times to use my fists instead." He leaned closer, the bantering light in his eyes giving way to pleading. He grasped Aragorn’s hand again and squeezed as though he could drive the words into Aragorn with the intensity of his grip. "Aragorn, heed my words. You are the bravest man I know. Braver than any in Eriador, braver than any in all of Arda, and Elven-wise beyond any man alive. You are brave enough, wise enough... more than enough... to meet your destiny. Have faith in yourself. Have faith in the strength Ilúvatar gave you; yea in the strength of your line, for there remains much strength still in the blood of Isildur. In your blood, for the purity of Elros’ line has not diminished, either in Isildur or in you. It remains pure, unfaded and undimmed."

Aragorn knew how he should answer, that he should nod and smile and thank Halbarad but he felt too... fragile. As fragile as a glass sword and equally useless. Halbarad’s eyes filled with a despair that Aragorn knew was a mere reflection of what was in his own eyes. "I am sorry," he whispered.

Halbarad smiled sadly. "And as usual, I am pushing too hard, too soon. But I will not give up on you, nor will I allow you to give up on yourself. Not as long as I have breath."

He said it with such a forbidding look that Aragorn could not help but think of similar stern gazes Lord Elrond had laid on him as a child. He suddenly laughed and shook his head, immediately regretting it as the room spun. He groaned, bracing his hand against his forehead as he shut his eyes and rode out the wild disorientation. "The Valar only know why I put up with you," he finally muttered.

"Because you know you need setting straight now and then, and I am the only Ranger feebleminded enough not to be intimidated by you and all those fancy names you haul around. Now come, breathe," Halbarad said. He moved the steaming bowl closer.

Aragorn sighed and breathed in the fresh aroma of athelas as it sweetened the air. He shut his eyes, letting the fragrance ease the tightness in his chest and the turmoil in his heart. Perhaps Halbarad was right... but that was something only time would reveal. But for now, sleep beckoned, and he heeded its quiet call.

"Are you hungry? We have some broth."

Aragorn grimaced. "No." He had slept for an hour, at most, before a horrible nightmare brought him gasping back to wakefulness. It was the same terrible vision of Halbarad binding him in chains and casting him before Sauron. He woke up shuddering with cold and crying out and Halbarad had flown to his side with the athelas and although it helped, he still felt shivery and unsettled. The thought of food, even broth, made his stomach do a slow flip. But then he looked at Halbarad’s worried eyes and tried to find a way to reassure him. "Perhaps later."

"As you wish. We have had a hard time keeping you warm," Halbarad said as he reached out and laid the back of his hand against Aragorn’s forehead and then his cheek, "yet you do not seem to have fever. Is this coldness part of the Black Breath?"

"It must be, although I am not certain."

"Nothing has been certain since we left Chetwood," Halbarad sighed. He dipped a cloth into the bowl and slowly wrung it out. "However, it is certain that you are still cold even now."

Aragorn nodded. Truth to tell, he was miserable with cold. He pulled the blanket tighter under his chin. "My arms, especially. Every time my sword hit his... " His voice trailed away. He had no words to describe the deadness each shocking parry of the Nazgûl blade had driven into his arms. To even bend his thoughts in that direction opened visions of horrible black hands clawing for his spirit. Even now he felt himself somehow falling, and the line between waking and nightmare wavered, and safety and comfort crumbled under a sudden onslaught of malice that Aragorn could not tell was real or simply remembered. He bit his lower lip hard, gripping the sides of the cot and telling himself he was safe, the Nazgûl was gone. I am safe! But the terror felt too real, too immediate. His breathing hitched and before he could stop it, a soft guttural cry escaped his throat.

He heard as if from the depths of a well Halbarad’s voice. "Shhh. Peace, Aragorn, remember you are safe!" but he still felt himself slipping down, down into that chasm and he didn’t know if he had the strength to drag himself up from the blackness. But he stared hard at Halbarad’s eyes and slowly, slowly the fear started to leave. Halbarad quickly thrust the steaming athelas toward Aragorn’s face. "Breathe! Breathe as deep as you can!"

He did and the blackness took a reluctant step back and after another breath finally retreated enough that Aragorn’s heart calmed and he could ease his death grip on the cot.

"I won’t ask what just happened," Halbarad said shakily, "for I would not want to trouble your spirit again, but I know now without doubt that you need more care than I can give. I think we should take you to Rivendell as soon as you’re able. You need the care of a real healer, not secondhand ministrations from a man taking orders from his own patient."

Aragorn said nothing, but he quailed at the thought of journeying to Rivendell. It seemed as impossible as storming Thangorodrim, as exhausted as he felt.

"Now that we know what we are facing, Lord Elrond must be informed of the Nazgûl," Halbarad pressed. "Bilfen and Kenevir will have made it to Rivendell, but they will not know that it is a Nazgûl we fight."

"We can send Eledh and Galadh."

"No, we can send you... and the entire patrol with you. There is nothing the five of us can accomplish against such an enemy. We need help, and Rivendell is the closest aid."

Aragorn shut his eyes. He had no strength to argue, even if there was something he could think of to counter Halbarad’s very sound logic. "We will discuss it later," he finally sighed.

"Of course. I’m pushing too hard again. The only thing you need to do now is rest. Try to go to sleep."

Sleep was tempting, but knowing the nightmares lurking therein, he was reluctant to return to its uneasy embrace. He pulled the blanket back and stretched out his right arm, wincing at the stiffness of it.

"Shall I try laving it with the athelas?"

Aragorn nodded. Maybe the water’s warming touch would bring some life back into his deadened limbs. He watched as Halbarad, humming softly, rhythmically and gently ran the cloth down his arm. It felt good, the warm touch of it.

Halbarad suddenly chuckled and started softly singing. "‘Enchantment healed his weary feet ....’(1) I am no Luthien, nor are these your feet, but may winter’s touch flee your limbs as they fled poor Beren’s." He then continued to hum the beloved song, and Aragorn sighed, this time with contentment as warmth finally stole its way back into his limbs. He flexed his right hand. His fingers moved stiffly, but at least they moved. His left arm... he winced. Athelas would do little for that arm. The splinter wounds were stiff and very, very sore.

"You tore the wound open, in the fight," Halbarad said, frowning. "There is no infection and Denlad cleaned it and re-bandaged it, but it will be that much longer in healing, I fear."

"I seem to have made quite a mess of myself."

A glimmer of amusement suddenly softened the grim lines of Halbarad’s face. "Yes, it was a bit clumsy of you, all this." He winked as he carefully lifted Aragorn’s left arm and wiped down the arm below the bandage. "I imagine you are finding this more to your liking than my horse balm."

Aragorn thought he was too tired for the smile he felt to reach his lips, but somehow he must have managed, for Halbarad’s amusement bloomed into a smile. "‘Tis a good thing to see something besides terror looking through your eyes."

Halbarad laid the cloth across Aragorn’s forehead for a moment, then gently wiped it across his cheeks. He pulled Aragorn’s torn shirt open. "Life distanced from death by the turn of the Nazgûl’s sword," he said softly. "You are indeed fortunate." He touched it lightly.

Aragorn gasped. It felt like Halbarad had driven a dagger into him. He felt beads of sweat pop out on his forehead.

"I am sorry!" Halbarad cried. "I thought after two days it might not be as sore. I will not touch it again." He leaned forward and peered closely at it. "I do not see any broken skin, at least not in this light. But still... is there not something I could give you, to ease the pain?"

"Maybe some willow bark, if you have any."

"I think there is some, yes. But for now, let me try placing this cloth against it. I will simply lay it across the bruise, without pressing. It is light, but tell me if even its weight causes you too much pain."

Aragorn nodded, not trusting his voice.

Halbarad gently laid the cloth across the bruise, carefully watching Aragorn’s face. "Better?"

"No. Wait...." Finally the ache yielded. "Yes, it’s better." He felt muscles he hadn’t realized were clenched relax under the warming touch of the athelas. He wiped his forehead with a shaky hand. Halbarad still looked stricken at having caused him such pain, so he dredged up a smile. "Where did you learn a healer’s touch?"

"Where do you suppose? My teacher is stretched out before me. And I bet you thought I was not listening to your endless tedious lectures out on the trail."

"You have learned much, Halbarad," Aragon murmured. Sleep’s relentless clamor returned, now that the pain eased. He shut his eyes, letting his thoughts wander where they may, for some reason–perhaps the athelas–no longer quite so fearful lest he fall into some bottomless black pit. The shadows were still there, but weaker and pushed back into the dark corners of his mind where, maybe for a moment, he could ignore them.

But sleep, for all its insistence, refused to come, and his thoughts returned to Halbarad. Aragorn would never have believed his gruff kinsman had such gentleness in him. He certainly had never shown it up to now. He remembered the stinging slap of that horrid horse balm across his shoulders. Revenge would be sweet... all I would need is some of Denlad’s fiery spices and Halbarad’s water skin. And although he knew he could never do it, he could not hold back a quiet laugh at the idea.

"I do not like the sound of that laugh," Halbarad commented as he removed the cloth and soaked it again in the athelas water.

Aragorn smiled.

"Nor the look of that smile! The last time you aimed it my way, you followed it with a sound thumping."

"Just thinking about that horse balm.  And revenge."

"Yes, well, I’ll thank you to get that look of retribution off your face. I only find comfort in knowing that you are too weak to swat a gnat right now."

Aragorn sobered. As Halbarad moved to put the cloth back on his chest, he reached out and grabbed his wrist to stop him. "Weak but alive, thanks to you." Aragorn did not try to blink away the tears stinging his eyes."I cannot thump you after all you’ve done. I cannot even find words sufficient to thank you."

"Ach, away with you and your weepy gratitude." He gently pulled his wrist free and placed the cloth again on Aragorn’s chest. "I have no doubt that, despite this lovely display of heartwarming thanks, you will get even with me as soon as your strength returns."

Aragorn breathed a laugh and again shut his eyes to try to slip into the embrace of sleep. He was so tired, weary beyond anything he had ever known. But even as he sought the refuge of rest, questions started to crowd his thoughts, swirling through his mind and demanding answers. He gave up trying to sleep and struggled to sit up. He made it as far as propping himself up on his right elbow before Halbarad stepped in to pull him up until he was sitting upright. He leaned back dizzily against the wall for a moment, and when the world finally settled down around him, he reached for the bowl of steaming athelas.

But Halbarad pulled it out of reach. "No, I think I best hold it, or you’ll bathe yourself in it, and we don’t have enough athelas to waste it so wantonly. And don’t glare. Those hands of yours are still trembling like leaves."

Aragorn ruefully looked at his hands. They shook like those of a palsied old man. He balled his fists and let them lay in his lap, and pointedly ignored Halbarad’s smirk. They sat for a long moment without speaking, letting the fragrant steam do its work as Aragorn tried to catch his breath and felt grey and ill and old. But alive. Thank the Valar, alive. The wonder of it helped him ignore how wretched he felt. Halbarad finally pulled a small stool closer to the cot and set the bowl down on it. "So, do you think you will live after all?"

Aragorn smiled faintly. "I think so." He looked around the cottage. "Halbarad, where are we? Whose cottage–"

"Aragorn!" a glad voice interrupted as the door flew open. Denlad came into the room with an armload of wood. He dropped it with a heedless clatter on the hearth, hardly noticing as the cat ran off, tail bushed out and hissing at being driven from his comfortable spot. Denlad’s gaze fixed on Aragorn as though he were afraid if he blinked Aragorn might disappear. He came over to the cot and squatted beside it, resting a concerned gaze on Aragorn’s face and a gentle hand on his forearm. "How fare you, Aragorn? It does my heart good to see you sitting up, but you look, well... I am sorry but I cannot say it in a more gentle way: you look terrible."

Aragorn laughed. "I am not as bad off as I must look, Denlad. I will be well, given time."

Denlad drew a deep breath and blew it out, blinking rapidly. "I’m glad," he said, then rubbed a hand across his face. He gave Aragorn’s arm a squeeze. "Very glad."

Halbarad gave Denlad a sympathetic glance, then turned to Aragorn. "I have to admit, when I saw you lying there on the ground, I thought you were done for this world, you were so still and white. Your skin was like ice. And these two days have been... well, I won’t burden you with it. I’ll just say that when you woke up long enough to tell me about the athelas, I felt that perhaps hope had not abandoned us after all. I should have known you were made of sterner stuff. It will take more than a wraith to stop the Heir of Isildur, thank the Valar."

"Where did it–the Nazgûl–go?" Aragorn asked.

Halbarad shrugged. "Back whence it came, I hope. Mordor, maybe? That seems the only place foul enough for his like. His orcs are now dead, so maybe he’s given up."

"Or he’s gone for reinforcements and will be back to plague us with ten times their number," Denlad muttered.

"Pessimism does not suit you, Denlad," Halbarad said. "I prefer to hope the Nazgûl finished whatever evil task he meant to accomplish and has now left our lands."

"Hope for that seems dim," Aragorn sighed, "but remains a hope, all the same. I wish I knew why he was here."

"As do I, but we must be satisfied that for now, he is gone," Halbarad said firmly, his hard glance daring Denlad to argue. "I feel no shadow."

Aragorn was not sure if he would know the difference between an approaching Nazgûl and the shadows still lingering in his mind. He would have to trust to Halbarad’s discernment. He frowned as a memory stirred. "I remember... fire... flashing in the air. And shouting... for a moment, I thought I had somehow fallen from this time into the time of Beren. I do not really understand it now, though. The memory is too hazy."

"You remember part of it aright," Denlad chuckled. "Would that you had seen it more clearly, Aragorn, but I suppose you were too far gone by that point. Our Halbarad snatched up a flaming brand in each hand and ran at the Nazgûl. ‘Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!’ he bellowed, just like Beren of yore."

"Denlad, I’m sure Aragorn is not interested..."

"I am sure he is," Aragorn countered softly.

"That Nazgûl turned toward him," Denlad continued, shooting a triumphant look at Halbarad, "and you could feel his rage pressing against all of us, and fearsome it was. I felt frozen in place, but not our Halbarad. He jabbed his torches at it again and cried, ‘You’ll not have your way this day, not while the arm of Halbarad is strong and the fire of my wrath burns!’"

Aragorn raised an eyebrow.

Halbarad scratched his beard. "I might have said something like that, yes. It seemed appropriate, at the time."

Denlad slapped Halbarad’s back. "They will sing of this in songs, old man, just as we do Beren and Carcharoth." Then his mirth died as he dropped his gaze to stare fixedly at his clenched hands. "You were able to do what the rest of us could not."

"Feel no shame, Denlad," Aragorn said, and with an inward grimace at the irony of handing out advice he couldn’t follow himself, he continued, "This is the first anyone here in the North has seen of the Nazgûl for generations. They carry an evil none of us have ever encountered, and, unlike in Mirkwood, where they battle the Wraiths still, our knowledge of defeating them has largely fallen away into myth. That we failed to identify the source of the evil is not entirely surprising, although I should have known what it was, for I have been near Mordor and Dol Goldur and sensed the evil of the Enemy, from afar and from nearer than any man should pass. I have no excuse. But be that as it may, I could not have asked for greater valor than all of you have shown during this fell chase."

Denlad failed to look convinced, and Halbarad merely grunted and wrung out the cloth and twisted it absently in his hands. They all fell silent, and Aragorn did not miss the shadows that fell across the faces of his two companions. It will be long before the nightmares from this fade. For the men to feel anything but failure that they did not earn. But if blame is to be laid at anyone’s feet, lay it at mine. He struggled for something to say, to break this gloom that had settled on them all. Then he cursed himself again for overlooking the obvious. "Halbarad, what of you? Are you sure the Black Breath didn’t affect you?"

He shrugged. "Not enough to cause any problems. I felt him trying to... to probe my mind, if that makes sense."

Aragorn nodded. "His voice intrudes into your thoughts." And claws at your soul...

"Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Words that I didn’t understand–and didn’t want to understand, mind you–came into my mind, not through my ears but as clear and loud as if they had. It was disconcerting."

"That’s one way of putting it," Aragorn agreed drily.

Halbarad grinned. "Suffice to say, any lingering effects I might have felt, the athelas pretty much took care of. I don’t think I fought him long enough for him to do any permanent damage."

"That and your skull is so thick even a Nazgûl can’t penetrate it," Denlad muttered, then ducked as Halbarad swung a fist toward his head.

Aragorn smiled. Denlad and Halbarad hurling insults... life as it should be. Maybe we will somehow come through this after all. "How did you know to use fire?"

Again the mirth faded, and Halbarad was long in answering. "I had nothing else," he finally said softly. "As I started for you, I saw how your blade eventually disintegrated under the Nazgûl’s. I feared my own sword would have been useless–it’s not Elven make like yours and not as strong. I hadn’t a hope with it. So it was fire or my bare hands. Fire seemed more of a threat."

"You drove this wraith off much like Glorfindel drove off the Witch King. I will remember that," Aragorn murmured. He leaned his head back against the wall. And I will remember how you succeeded where I failed. Not for the first time, the thought crossed his mind that Gondor might be better served by its Stewards than it would by a king as prone to error as he seemed to be.

"Aragorn?" Denlad asked softly. "Do you feel worse?"

Aragorn forced a smile. "No, I am well enough. Just too full of questions and too tired to ask them, nor comprehend the answers even if I did ask." Indeed, the questions crowded his mind almost as thickly as the Nazgûl’s foul words had: where was the Nazgûl now? Why was the wraith here? What evil might be unleashed next, and where?

And how on Arda could they hope to drive him out? Somehow he did not think brandishing torches at him would chase him away for good.

"Time for answering questions later, I think," Halbarad said. "For now... you have earned your rest, son of Arathorn. Lay back down, and fear not any nightmares, for I will be here."

Aragorn nodded, but then once more realized that he had no idea where they were, whose farm they had taken over. It bothered him, but his thoughts were getting increasingly hard to focus and it seemed less and less important as each minute passed. He let Halbarad help him resettle himself. He shut his eyes. "Son of Arathorn," he murmured. "I think my father might have handled himself better in this than I did." But that was as much as he would speak of his failure. He would not burden his men with the need to prop up the shaky confidence of their leader.

Halbarad tucked the blanket around Aragorn’s shoulders. "I think you give yourself too little credit, but that argument can wait as well. Sleep. That’s an order."

"Yes, sir," Aragorn tried to answer, but he was asleep before he could form the words.

________

(1)"Enchantment healed his weary feet ..." - page 187, The Fellowship of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, New Line cover paperback edition, 2003.

Aragorn opened his eyes after a night of fitful sleep to see the face of Mallor looming above him, not even an arm’s length from his face. With a loud cry, he flinched violently and pushed himself away until his back hit the wall on the far side of the cot.

"I’m sorry, sir!" the apparition cried, and ran out of the room, leaving Aragorn to stare wildly at the doorway and try in vain to calm the frantic thudding of his heart. Had he just seen a ghost or had he, despite Halbarad’s skill with the athelas, somehow left the circles of Arda after all? Taking in the rustic room that seemed unchanged from the night before, he ruled out the latter, but that small fact did nothing to comfort him, nor did the fact that he did not really believe in ghosts, at least not the type that hovered over you as you lay innocently sleeping, waiting to so terrify you on awakening that your heart nearly stops. So that left him with only one other alternative:

He must have lost his mind.

He groaned and slowly sat up. Every muscle protested. He could never recall being so stiff, sore, and weak in his life. He was not certain but what even his hair ached. He rubbed his face, feeling every one of his years. Acutely. I suppose even a mere sixty-nine-year-old Númenórean can feel old after battling a Nazgfl. But to then be confronted by ghosts...or more likely the apparent loss of one’s sanity...

He scrubbed at his face with both hands and whispered, "What did I just see?"

A chuckle from the doorway surprised him. He had thought he was alone.

"It wasn’t a lost spirit," Halbarad said. He walked over to sit on the edge of Aragorn’s bed. "That was Mallor’s younger brother. Mirror image of Mallor, even though he’s nearly four years younger. He could no longer contain his curiosity about the Chieftain of the Dúnedain and apparently sneaked in here to see just what you looked like."

"That was... wait... you mean to say that was...." He stopped and took a deep breath. "You are telling me that the boy that I just saw was Mallor’s brother? How is it that he is–oh." The answer to the question he had never seemed able to ask yesterday finally came to him, though it seemed too farfetched. "We are at the home of Malthen? But how?"

"Yes, this is their farm. When we ran from the Nazgûl, we had the choice of crossing the river into the Wilds and seeking Rivendell, or trying for more immediate shelter. Denlad knew their farm was not far off, and he thought it best to seek the shelter there. And he was right—trying to go all the way to Rivendell might have been the end of you."

Aragorn frowned. "So Mallor’s mother learned of her son’s death in the midst of our invasion of her home." He pinched the bridge of his nose. He could not remember the last time in his life when things had gone according to plan. "This was not how I would have broken the news to her."

"Nor I, but ofttimes life does not acquiesce to our plans. I tried to comfort her as best as I could."

"But where is she? Surely you did not drive her from her own home? We’ve taken enough from her!"

Halbarad gave him a look his accusation deserved. "Of course not we did not drive her from her home! There’s a small house beside this one... a little cottage where she said Malthen’s mother once lived. She’s staying there, with Randir, the one who just scared the living wits out of you. Her name is Neala, by the way. She is waiting for you to give her leave to come."

"Give her leave? When we are uninvited guests in her own home? And when she has already lost two of her loved ones in my service? No... I will go to her this very morning." He swung his legs over the bed, causing Halbarad to scramble to his feet out of the way. Aragorn saw the protest in Halbarad’s face and hardened his voice as he staggered upright. "She will not come to me like some supplicant on her knees! I am the one in greatly in her debt, and... and... I will... I.... " He stammered to a halt as the room suddenly seemed to fade and slide away from him.

Halbarad’s hand immediately grasped his arm. "Easy, easy," he soothed as he guided Aragorn back into bed. "Calm yourself–you’re not ready to be up yet."

"...I will give her the honor she deserves," he finished stubbornly, but the way he had to gasp it took all the fire out of his declaration. He settled for glaring at Halbarad– all three of him–instead. Then he shut his eyes. One Halbarad was vexation enough. The very idea of there ever being three of him was simply too much to take.

"My apologies, my lord," he said, drawing Aragorn’s gaze again. If Aragorn could but focus his eyes, he was sure he would see that Halbarad’s cheeks were aflame. "You are right, of course."

"Apology accepted," Aragorn muttered. He wanted to glare one more time, but the spinning room forced him to shut his eyes again. But the contrition in Halbarad’s voice immediately melted all his anger. Still, when the room finally settled down and he dared open his eyes again, he managed a weak glare. "And don’t call me ‘lord’."

"Aragorn," Halbarad protested somewhat petulantly, but with a gleam in his eyes that Aragorn liked even less than seeing three Halbarads, "you know that there are times when I simply cannot help but call you that. When anger stirs you into acting like the king you will be someday, it’s all I can do not to drop to one knee and grovel." Then, openly grinning at Aragorn’s snort of disbelief, he added, "But seeing as you are now back to being nothing more than a lowly Dúnedain chieftain, and one flat on his back, no less, I will, in the best manner of certain members of Bree society, try to hide any sign of respect, Mr. Strider."

"Thank you. I think."

Halbarad’s smile changed to a grimace. "Driven her from her home, indeed."

This time it was Aragorn who felt his cheeks warm. "Now I am the one who is sorry. I meant no insult. Her sorrow lies heavy on my conscience, and regret made my words clumsy. Forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive, my friend. None of us are thinking as straight as we should these days, I’m afraid."

"You have had your hands full, dealing both with a grieving mother and a broken chieftain."

"I’ve had to deal with worse. Of the two chores, getting you mended was definitely the more onerous."

"I will try not to be such a burden in the future."

"I would appreciate that. So how do you fare this morning, aside from the obvious in that you are not quite ready to leap to your feet? You seemed to have had quite a rough night."

"Dark dreams, nothing more. I suppose it’s to be expected, after...." He lifted one shoulder in a rueful shrug, leaving the words unsaid. The same nightmare had chased him throughout the night. Floating, coming ashore, Halbarad and Denlad slapping him in chains. The ring and the hilt ripped from him. And the added enjoyment of watching Halbarad spit on him as he told him was unfit to be king. It had been a far from restful night.

Halbarad frowned. "These nightmares... I am sorry you’re having such troubles. The athelas seems to help somewhat, but you seem to go straight back to them as soon as you fall asleep. Tonight I will make sure one of us keeps the athelas steaming throughout the night."

"No, Halbarad. There are too few of you to keep watch for the Nazgûl and play nursemaid to me all night. No one would get any sleep. The nightmares are of no consequence–I am sure they will fade. Today, I am merely sore and stiff and feel as though I’ve lived five decades in the span these last few days."

"Is that all? Well, then, why am I worried?"

"I am sure I have no idea," Aragorn smiled. "And truly, I do feel a bit better. The chill has lessened from my bones. And," he said with a pointed look as groped under the bed for the chamber pot. Halbarad bent and pulled it out for him. "Thank you. Obviously, I have a specific need to take care of, so if you would be so kind...." He waved his hand toward the door.

"Can you do it by yourself?"

Aragorn stared at him without answering.

"Of course. Very well, then. I will, er, be outside. If you need help, call out and I’ll...."

Aragorn continued to stare.

"Of course, you won’t need help." Halbarad moved quickly to the door.

"Just make sure Mallor’s mother doesn’t come in!" Aragorn called out as Halbarad slipped out and left him to his privacy.

~~~

Aragorn managed just fine by himself, thank the Valar. He grimaced at the thought of having to call Halbarad back inside to help him. It was one thing for Halbarad to have assisted with all of that when Aragorn was unconscious and unaware, but the very thought of being conscious and having then to call on his help...

Best not to think about it.

He limped carefully across the room. Getting up more slowly, in stages, had been the solution to the vertigo problem, and he was not surprised at his overall weakness, nor the aches and pains of his stiff and sore muscles. But he was dismayed to discover that in addition to all that, his left ankle felt well and truly wrenched. He vaguely remembered turning it on a stone at some point during the fight. Two days lying in bed in varying states of unconsciousness seemed to have done little to speed its healing. He supposed a wrenched ankle was a small price to pay for avoiding a Morgul blade marked with his death, but between the ankle and his wounded left arm, his entire left side was well nigh useless.

Still, he reached the door, bad ankle and all, without mishap. Steadying himself with a hand against the door post, he squinted against the late morning sunshine at a small farm that was showing as many signs of ill-use as his own body. But then he amended that–the farm was in need of repair, but not ill-used. Weeds clustered around fenceposts and a section of top railing had broken at one end and sagged downward to rest on the middle rail, but the horses within the enclosure looked sleek and well cared for, including their own mounts. He watched Bronadui contentedly nibble at the grass, swishing a nonchalant tail. Mallor’s mount looked happier now that it was home, and the men’s horses all looked groomed and well satisfied with their accommodations.

But his gaze could not rest long on the peaceful sight of the horses, for the rest of the farm bore aching witness to the tragedy of a father and eldest son riding to war, never to return. The stable had been painted a soft blue at some time in the past but had faded to a chipped and peeling grey. A black hole gaped in the roof where winds must have torn away some of the thatching. He stepped out onto the small porch, glancing behind him at the house itself. A crack snaked across one diamond pane of the window; a shutter hung crooked, hanging on by a single bent nail. Aragorn ran a finger along the shutter’s edge. How many other families have I torn asunder as men leave their homes to follow me...

He shook off the dark thought. Simple logic reminded him that he was not the cause, that they had no choice but to face the battle the enemy laid before them. But tell that to my heart....

Halbarad’s soft voice interrupted his joyless reverie. "Needs some work," he said as he came around the corner of the house, a hammer in his hand, and when Aragorn only nodded, continued, "Randir does what he can, but he’s young–he has seen only twelve summers. He has his hands full just taking care of the horses."

"And he does well with them. But you are right in saying this place needs some care. If we can do so without insult, I think, before we resume our pursuit of this Nazgûl and his orcs, we must make things right for them. We cannot tarry long, but while we do, the men can do some repairs for them, although it seems too small a thing compared to what they have lost. What she has lost."

"Aye, it won’t bring her husband or son back, now, will it? But it will help, whatever we are able to accomplish, and I have already spoken to her about it. She was very grateful for anything we might do, so no fears of insulting her pride. And to be honest, I do think we will have the time to do quite a bit. You need at least a week–no, don’t argue! I am the one looking at the grayness in your skin and dark circles under your eyes and the tremble in your hands that you think you are hiding. Healer or no, I say you need a week. At least. Besides, the men are weary as well. It’s been a hard road of late and much as I would desire we ride forth right now, we would do Windydale no good at all to show up as battered as we are." His troubled gaze dropped to the hammer in his hand, then toward the horizon before coming back to Aragorn. "Perhaps taking a day or two to rebuild what the enemy and time have torn down will restore us better than any medicine."

"You said battered ... are the men badly wounded?"

"None seriously save you, Aragorn, as I’ve told you. Aside from bumps and a few cuts, the men are... well enough."

Aragorn pounced on Halbarad’s hesitation. "What is it? What is wrong?"

Halbarad flipped the hammer end over end in his hand, hefting it and then taking a swing at an imaginary nail somewhere in the air in front of him. He finally shrugged. "It’s Denlad. You saw how he was last night, and you know how fell moods plague him at times... he’s as bad as you for taking on burdens of guilt that don’t belong to him." His glance caught Aragorn’s and let him know that Halbarad knew exactly the dark paths his thoughts had taken him.

Aragorn looked away, refusing to acknowledge Halbarad’s unspoken concern. "Have you talked to him?"

"Until my face turned blue!" Halbarad growled. He pointed the hammer accusingly. "He also has you beat for being stubborn. If I did not know better, I would swear you were long lost brothers."

"How bad is it?"

"Who can tell? He may snap out of it tomorrow, or he might mope around for days yet. It gets on my nerves, to be honest."

Aragorn smiled. Halbarad might hold Aragorn by the hand to bring him back from the dark pit of despair, but he had no patience to spare for so coddling any other man. "If he doesn’t come out of this on his own, I will talk to him."

"Good, because I have run out of words to say, and to be honest, we could use a prank or two to lighten things up around here." He shook himself and changed the subject. "The orcs are still out there, so we cannot tarry long here a moment longer than we must. The Valar only knows what is happening at Windydale. I know yesterday we spoke of staying together, and even now we spoke of resting the men, but at the same time, my heart is heavy with fear for Windydale. I know we cannot leave today nor tomorrow, but I would like to leave the day after, when the rest of the men are ready, even if you need to remain here, or better yet, take yourself to Rivendell as soon as you are able."

"I will not need to remain behind, nor go to Rivendell."

"We will see," Halbarad countered mildly. "I am so torn, as I am sure you are. I want to stay and let you and the men rest, but at the same time, I want to charge off to Windydale. Now.  This very instant. For while we tarry, I know he is out there regrouping, preparing to wreak more havoc. Our help, such as it is, may make the difference between someone’s life or death. I just..."

"What?"

Halbarad stared at the plains to the west. "I am ashamed for having such selfish thoughts, but I could not help thinking, last night as I sat watch, how glad I am that Miriel and our son are far away to the west."

"Now who is taking on unwarranted guilt? Taking comfort that your own family is safe is nothing to be ashamed of. I too am very glad that Arwen is safe in Lórien, and my father in Rivendell. And I wish my mother had stayed there." He worked his shoulders and neck, then flexed his left arm carefully. "I am sure we can all move out together. I will not need an entire week. I am not at my best but I think by tomorrow I will have sufficient strength to travel, and should the need to fight come upon us, I can manage."

Halbarad let out a longsuffering sigh. "So speaks a man who can barely stand up. We will speak of plans to resume our pursuit of orcs and wraiths later, when you are not in such a stubborn mood. No, much as it chafes, we must wait. Today, and perhaps even for the next two days, we will set aside our duties to become nothing more than merry carpenters and thatchers, painters and farriers. There’s some light repairs needed to some of the tack that I think even you can handle. Broken bridles to fix, things like that."

Aragorn had to admit he was not exactly ready for climbing on roofs to replace thatching, and he might not, despite his hopeful words, be able to travel so soon. Bad ankle aside, his shaky legs had barely carried him across the room to the door. Halbarad had acute eyes, for even now his knees were threatening to buckle. He slowly lowered himself onto the small bench beside the door. "I fear small tasks are all I can handle just yet, despite my wishes otherwise." He looked long and hard at the surrounding grassland and the hills along the river to the south, where the Hoarwell took a more westerly course. "Where do you have pickets posted?"

"To the north and south. Right now Eledh and Denlad have watch. We’re trading off every four hours, trying to both catch some sleep and do some of the much-needed work. And I take care of you, for the most part, though Denlad has spelled me a time or two."

"And when do you actually sleep, Halbarad?"

He grinned. "Had you not noticed? When I’m taking care of you. I’ve done it so often I can do it in my sleep."

"Halbarad."

"I am getting my sleep, fear not."

Aragorn hardly believed him, but he let the matter drop. "The pickets... they can see well in all directions?"

"Aye. Clear views all around. And from this porch, you can see both west and south. Nothing will come here without our notice."

"You and I keep saying that... and yet..."

"Well, it’s the best we can do, any road. I still think the Nazgûl is far from here, though." He shoved the hammer into his belt and plucked a stem of grass. He chewed on it thoughtfully as he leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. "This is a good place. Malthen chose well. It has good grass, a fresh spring, and is the highest point for many miles. There are two springs, a deep well, and the Hoarwell not even a day’s ride away, plenty of water for the stock. And moreover, there is a feel of peace about the place that I like."

"It is beautiful," Aragorn agreed. He leaned his head back, enjoying the soft breeze that played across his face and tugged at his hair. In October’s fickle way, the air had turned mild again, a last kiss of summer before ice and snow came down from the north to cover the hills and plains and wild places. They needed to be heading back to their homes, preparing for winter, but with the threat of a Nazgûl plaguing the river, they dare not stop their patrols. He did not know how to balance it all, the conflicting needs, the scarcity of men. But that was a thought for later, when his mind was not so clouded with fatigue and....

He frowned. Darkness still vexed the corners of his mind. Some lingering... presence. He shivered slightly, and absently started to rub the spot where the blade struck him, only to stop when the merest brush of his tunic against the bruise seemed to drive a dagger into his chest. He clenched his teeth against the pain, and for a moment, the sunlight dimmed and he felt his gaze traveling unbidden to distant, dark places. It was a darkness beyond losing his vision from pain, beyond the loss of sight from mere lightheadedness. It was a darkness that was somehow... alive. He shuddered.

"Aragorn?"

Halbarad’s voice brought him back. He blinked and saw once again the bright morning and the grazing horses. He took a careful breath and held it for a moment before letting it out slowly. "I’m sorry. It’s just..." He left the thought unsaid, for somehow the very idea of speaking it aloud brought a frisson of fear down his back. "I think that I may have a broken rib or two," he lied.

"Shall I wrap them? I didn’t think you had any broken ribs when I checked you yesterday." He moved to Aragorn’s side.

"No, no. There’s no need for wrapping them." He made a pretense of wincing as he let Halbarad press on ribs that felt completely free of any pain. "Perhaps they are merely bruised."

"I think you are right. I don’t feel anything amiss. Still, if you think it will help, it would be an easy thing for me to wrap them."

"No. I just need to be more careful when I breathe. Thank you, though." He rubbed his hand across his brow and dredged up a smile. "I could use some breakfast. Where does one find Denlad’s wonderful cooking?"

Halbarad face cleared. He bowed elaborately as he swept an arm toward the stables. "Alas, Denlad is on watch. But for the Chieftain’s pleasure, we have a guest chef at yonder campfire where Galadh awaits your order. I can bring it to you here, or, if you would rather, I can serve you breakfast in bed."

Aragorn grimaced. "Breakfast in bed is for leisurely consumption of the finest dishes. Galadh’s cooking, on the other hand, is best eaten quickly and swallowed without tasting. So just bring it to me here where the sunshine’s warmth can distract me while I choke down whatever it is he’s burnt."

Halbarad laughed as he sauntered off toward the outer edge of the farmyard where he and the others had set up camp. Aragorn smiled as he saw Galadh eagerly leap to his feet to grab a plate and pull something very black off the spit.

Definitely burnt, but at least it will fill the ache in my stomach.

But his smile slipped away as he thought of the far more worrisome ache in his chest. He shut his eyes, turning his face to the sun, but try as he might, its warmth and light could not penetrate the chill in his heart.

Aragorn lifted his fist to knock, then hesitated. He took a steadying breath, then stepped back a pace, tightening his grip both on the linen-wrapped sword he carried and on his shaky courage. As ever, he failed to understand why doing the right thing must always be so taxing on the nerves. Despite the fact that he had eaten it hours earlier, Galadh’s burnt wild duck still sat like a rock in his stomach. How can a man manage to so overcook a duck so that it chews like old wood, yet at the same time leave it so greasy that.... He couldn’t suppress a shudder. "Do not think about it," he whispered to himself. "It will only bring back the nausea."

He knocked firmly on the door.

It opened, and a dark eye peered through the small crack. The eye widened, then the door swung open enough to reveal a shorter version of Mallor, the same young face that had loomed so startling over Aragorn as he awoke that morning. "Lord Aragorn!"

Aragorn inclined his head, bowing slightly at the waist. "And you must be Randir?"

The boy nodded mutely, but did not immediately offer to let Aragorn inside, much to his dismay. The short walk across the courtyard to this smaller house had not been more than ten steps, but still, it may well have been the longest journey of ten steps Aragorn had ever made. He stood in the doorway with a throbbing ankle and legs trembling with irksome weakness, and he really could not be sure his knees would not at any moment betray him and send him falling flat on his face. But he hoped he hid his discomfort as he continued, "We are well met, Randir. I came to thank you and your mother for giving us such excellent care and hospitality."

Randir still stood uncertainly, staring at Aragorn as though moonstruck, until quick footsteps came up behind him and a small, work-roughened hand pulled him away from the doorway. "My apologies, Lord Aragorn!" Mallor’s mother cried. "I am Neala, and of course, you now know Randir. Please, come in." Blue eyes in a care-worn but still pretty face snapped with impatience as she shooed her son out of the way. She was younger than he expected, a bit older than Denlad, perhaps thirty-five or -six. "Randir, step aside and let him in before he falls down!"

Aragorn smiled. "Is my weakness so obvious?"

She gave him a frank, assessing look. "You look in danger of falling victim to the next light breeze." He followed her inside, and gratefully sank into the chair she offered. "You should not be up and taxing your strength so!"

"You must be in league with Halbarad. Right now, he is pacing back and forth, worried that I will come to my end because I dared rise from my bed."

"You have a wise friend."

"And none with a more caring heart. But I did not come here to speak with you about Halbarad. I came to offer you my deepest thanks, and my humblest apologies for the way we burst into your home. I fear that my men may have been overzealous in their care for me and put you out of your home without reason."

"Without reason? No, my lord, they had grave reason to do exactly as they did. I have never seen a man as near death as you were that night. And it was beyond my abilities to help you, so I thought it best to move Randir and myself out of the way." She made a gesture that took in the room, one that was very similar to the larger room at the other house, down to the cat on the hearth, although this particular specimen was orange and white. "We winter in this house, because it is smaller and easier to keep warm. We merely moved a week or two earlier than we would have otherwise. It was no burden."

"If you say so, then I thank you." He dropped his eyes to the sword laying across his knees. "I also wanted to bring this to you." He carefully unwrapped the linen and revealed the well-oiled leather scabbard. His throat suddenly caught, as he looked at the hilt that had hung so proudly first at Malthen’s waist, and then from Mallor’s. He held the sword out to Neala, not trying to hide the emotion pooling in his eyes. "Mallor was a brave and valiant man. He is sorely missed."

At the sight of the familiar scabbard and sword, Neala let out a soft cry. She took it lovingly in her hands. "Mallor was so proud when he finally was able to strap on his father’s sword." She stroked the leather, lost in memory, then finally lifted the hilt to her lips and kissed it. Randir reached out with a tentative finger to touch it, then ran from the room. Aragorn winced as the door slammed loudly shut.

Neala sighed quietly. "His brother was everything to Randir. After their father died, Mallor, young though he was, took on the role of father to Randir. They were inseparable until the day Mallor left to take his place among your men. Randir was so proud of Mallor, as I was. As I still am," she said with a trembling smile. "I grieve, but I have no regrets. Mallor died doing what he was called to do from birth. But... I would ask one thing of you, though I feel perhaps I shouldn’t, for I see in your eyes that the death of my son causes you great pain."

"Anything, my lady."

"Then please, I must know... did he die quickly?"

For a moment, Aragorn was unable to speak. "Yes," he finally managed. "He did not suffer, nor was his death in vain. He died saving Denlad from an orc’s pike."

She nodded, her eyes burning with a fierce light despite her tears. "Then that is all the mother of a warrior can ask. He is now with his father, and Randir and I will remember him, as we do his father, with pride."

"Your strength does you great honor, Neala." At her embarrassed shrug, he continued. "I held Malthen, whom I fought alongside for many years before he fell, in the highest esteem. Few were braver than he. And now, having met you, I see that you are no less a true Dúnadan warrior than he."

"I am no warrior, my lord."

He reached out and caught her hand, looking into her eyes. "But you are, my lady. You and every wife and mother who sends husband or son to fight for me, for our people... it takes a rare bravery to do such a thing. I want you to know that it does not go unnoticed, or unappreciated."

She said nothing, but he could tell his words had touched her deeply. He smiled, releasing her hand and letting the weight of the moment pass. "Randir is in good hands."

"As he will eventually be in yours, my lord. He has the same warrior spirit singing in his veins as his brother and father. I won’t be able to keep him tied to hearth and home for very many more years."

"Then I pray that whatever doom is before us is settled long before I need to call on his services. Even such a valiant mother as yourself needs to have one strong son beside her, especially living as you do, in such an isolated place." He glanced toward the door. "Do you think I should go to him?"

"No, he finds his solace among the horses these days, and that is likely where he has gone. When we are through here, if he’s still with them, you might find a word to say to him." She smiled fondly. "He is eaten up by curiosity about you. Since you and your men arrived, he can speak of nothing but Lord Aragorn this and Lord Aragorn that and will he ever speak to me and do you think he might show me his sword? On and on."

With a pang, Aragorn suddenly remembered that his sword lay broken in shards on a rocky hillside along the river. But that was no concern of Neala’s, so he merely smiled. "I remember being his age... although I don’t remember being particularly awe-struck by the leader in Rivendell."

"I imagine being the foster son to Lord Elrond might have taken some of the sheen off his image in your eyes. Ah, we parents might present ourselves as high and mighty to the world around us, but our children always know us for who we are."

"Indeed," Aragorn laughed, but his mirth faded as his thoughts turned to a son of his own. I need a wife to have a son. And I need to be a king before I can wed the one I love. And that seems so far from my reach...

"Lord Aragorn? Does something trouble you?"

Aragorn felt himself blush slightly. He had not meant to wear his heart so plainly for her to see. "I just worry, Neala, about you and Randir, out here by yourselves," he said. It wasn’t a complete lie. He did actually worry about them. There were many farms scattered in the outlying areas, far from the fortified settlements not by choice but by necessity. Horses, cattle, sheep... all the livestock necessary to keep the people of Arnor fed... needed good pasture and water, neither of which could be found in sufficient quantity within the fortified walls of a settlement. But their locations made them vulnerable to attack by roving bands of orcs. It was another of the worries that plagued his nighttime hours and robbed him of sleep.

"We will be fine, don’t worry. Randir is a good boy, growing in strength and stature day by day. And you said yourself, I am a true Dúnadan." Her eyes sparkled with mirth and pride. "I said I was no warrior, but that does not mean I am helpless. I’ve no small talent with a bow. There are several orcs and bandits whose bones are moldering in the plains, thanks to a well-placed arrow."

He laughed as he bowed his head to her. "I may have to recruit you instead of Randir! But still... do not hesitate to ask if you have any need. The Dúnedain are scattered and few, but it has always been my heart’s desire to strengthen the bonds between all of us, any way I can."

"And you have done that, and done it well," she assured him. Then she gave him what could only be a motherly look. "But right now, the only need I have is to feed this starving man who sits before me. You must take some tea, and some stew, and perhaps some bread and cake. While I’ve never laid eyes on you until two nights ago, I have a feeling that tunic you wear is not supposed to hang so loosely on your shoulders."

Aragorn ruefully pulled at his shirt. "Ranger patrols are not known for their fine cuisine."

She rewarded his small joke with a laugh so merry and a face so light that he felt he was surely glimpsing the pretty girl she must have once been, before life’s cares had whittled her countenance into sorrowful planes. Sorrowful but strong, he amended, and wasn’t sure if the woman before him was more beautiful than any untested young girl could be. As he watched her busying herself with bowls and cups and plates of steaming dishes, his thoughts strayed to another strong woman, a fair Elf maiden far away in Lothlórien. He rubbed his bare index finger, where the Ring of Barahir would have been had he not given it to Arwen as a betrothal gift. How he missed her right now as he sat amidst the comforts of a home that was not his own.

Someday....

A clatter of crockery and the rich aroma of venison pulled him from his reverie. He looked at the table and was dismayed to see more food spread before him than he and all his Rangers could eat in an entire day. "This is too much!" he protested.

"Nonsense. Besides, it is not all for you, but for your men as well."

"But even so–"

"Hush, my lord. Do you know how long it has been since I’ve had the honor of cooking for more than Randir, Mallor and myself? Years! And I will not let it be said that the Chieftain of the Dúnedain and his men found my generosity lacking in any way. Now, eat!"

"I recognize a direct order when I hear it," he laughed, then after briefly looking to the West and with an inward apology to the Valar for not standing, he obediently tucked a fork full of stew into his mouth. His eyes widened at the explosion of flavor. The meat melted on his tongue, and the spices... he’d not tasted such since leaving Rivendell many years ago.

"There, I see in your eyes that I haven’t lost my touch!"

"You truly have a gift!" He would have said more, but decided the best compliment he could pay her was to keep his mouth as full as possible. And he discovered that despite the Nazgûl, and despite the burnt offering Galadh had called breakfast, his appetite had very happily returned.

Aragorn walked slowly back across to the main house, stomach comfortably full, even if he had not been able to eat as much as he normally did, and certainly nowhere near as much as Denlad and Eledh had packed away in their brief visit to Neala’s repast before they returned to work. Aragorn still felt a general malaise, the sort of feeling one gets when the horrible part of an illness is past but the body still needs to find its equilibrium and strength. His ankle throbbed, but it bore his weight and he would just have to put up with the nuisance of it until it healed. Just like he would have to put up with the ache that still arced across his chest, and the darkness that kept trying to creep back into his mind. And the chills that still rippled up and down his skin like dozens of tiny Mirkwood spiders. And the twinges from the splinter wounds on his left arm, whose healing had not been encouraged in the least by his battle with the Nazgûl.

When was the last time I did not have some sort of wound, or ache, or broken bone or sprained limb?

He realized he couldn’t remember.

He looked toward the horses. Randir was nowhere in sight, but Bronadui was standing by the railing, looking at him with an eager expression that meant he was ready to be ridden or be given some sort of treat. Aragorn smiled and dug out the apple Neala had pressed into his hands. "Give that horse of yours a treat, Lord Aragorn," she had said, and now he walked to Bronadui, slicing the apple with his dagger. He held out a piece. "Someone evidently thinks I don’t spoil you enough," he said.

Bronadui huffed and then his sensitive lips found the apple and in seconds, it was gone. Aragorn fed him the rest, smiling with pleasure as he scratched around Bronadui’s ears. Bronadui crunched the last of it, then, looking for more, nudged Aragorn’s chest, right on the bruised area. "Ahhh, don’t do that," Aragorn wheezed as the bruise flared to uncomfortable life. Stars danced before his eyes and he grabbed the railing and stood for a long moment, hardly breathing, afraid the darkness would come swooping down on him. But this time, for whatever reason, he felt nothing beyond the ordinary but no less excruciating protest of muscles that had been bruised nearly beyond their capacity. When the pain finally relinquished its grip and he could breathe again, he opened his eyes. Bronadui’s liquid gaze seemed to apologize. "Fear not. I am not angry. How could you know?" Aragorn rubbed the horse’s soft nose and bent his forehead to touch Bronadui’s.

A loud yelp and then an enraged shout from the roof of the stable caught his attention and he watched with mingled amusement and alarm as Eledh, legs akimbo and arms grasping ineffectually at handfuls of thatching, slid down the roof and off the low eave to land on his backside in a pile of hay. Denlad’s head appeared at the ridge line, his expression ludicrously innocent as he nonchalantly picked up something from the thatching. From this distance, it was hard to say, but Aragorn could have sworn it looked like a very large, and hopefully dead, spider. He chuckled. "It seems Denlad’s over his latest fit of melancholy and up to his usual tricks," he said to Bronadui. "Halbarad will be happy."

With a final pat on Bronadui’s neck, Aragorn pushed away from the fence and hobbled back to the house where he sat on the bench and picked up the broken harness Halbarad had found in the stable and left for him with orders that, if he survived the foolhardy trip to Neala’s quarters, he could spend the afternoon quietly repairing. Aragorn shook his head with amusement. To say Halbarad had been displeased with him walking about so much and so soon would be like saying Forochel was a bit chilly in winter. Halbarad had all but threatened to sit on Aragorn to keep him abed, a solution that would not have had any sort of good outcome for either of them. Too bad Halbarad is not around to see that I survived my outing. But he was on watch, along with Galadh, so Aragorn had no opportunity to gloat.

Aragorn ran his fingers over the leather straps, finding several places too worn to even bother with splicing in a repair. There was nothing for it but to fashion a new strap entirely. He picked up an awl and a new strip of leather, but before he could get started, he suddenly yawned mightily and uncontrollably, a huge jaw-cracking intake of breath that made his shoulders shake and his eyes water. He blinked several times and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He knew he needed sleep, but he also was full aware that to take a nap would be to court nightmares. Perhaps if he simply kept himself so busy he drove himself to utter exhaustion, he might sleep dreamlessly tonight. It seemed as good a plan as any, and to that end, he kept his hands busy and his mind occupied on making sure each new hole he punched in the leather was exactly the same distance from the last, and for roughly five minutes, it worked. But then the holes blurred and he clumsily dropped the awl.

He blinked and rubbed his very dry and scratchy eyes. His eyelids felt far heavier than any eyelids had a right to feel. He leaned his head back against the wall, letting his hands fall idle as he watched his men working. Eledh had now climbed back onto the roof, his fall evidently damaging nothing more than his pride. Denlad had abandoned the roof in favor of the paddock, no doubt to avoid Eledh’s retaliating. He was walking slowly toward a gray horse that paced nervously at the far end. Aragorn watched for a while, but approaching half-wild horses is tedious, painstaking work. Before long, Aragorn’s head nodded. He brought it up with a jerk and blinked, then resigned himself to the fact that the onset of sleep was inevitable and fairly immediate. Better to succumb to it in bed than sitting in the open where he would topple off the bench in an undignified sprawl like some drunken beggar.

Setting aside the awl and the leather straps, he let himself into the dim cabin and with a groaning sigh, stretched out on the cot. He closed his eyes, but, contrarily, sleep did not immediately come. Instead, his thoughts trailed toward Rivendell, and his father. Much as he did not wish to return to Rivendell, and the always precarious walk on the tightrope that was his relationship with Lord Elrond, a nagging worry pestered him that only at the hands of his father could he be truly healed. Elrond was familiar with the Black Breath, after all, and Aragorn had heard stories of how Elrond had healed those who had fallen under the wraith’s spell. He bit his lip as a cold tendril of fear wormed through his mind. He had also heard stories of those who had been touched by a Morgul blade who had not received such healing... and who ever after walked in the nether world between the living and the dead, having become wraiths themselves.

He rubbed his chest lightly, tracing the outline but not touching the bruise itself. The blade had not exactly touched him–merely the flat side of it, and that through his coat, his jerkin and shirt. It had not broken his skin. Though the bruise was a fierce one, surely he was not bound to the fate of slowly losing himself to this world to forever wander as a wraith. He felt no sense that he was losing his grip on life. He looked out the rectangle of the doorway. The sky seemed its normal bright blue, the grassy plain amber, the distant trees russet, gold and vermillion. He felt the scratchy warmth of the wool blanket, the softness of the pillow beneath his head; smelled the tangy fall air as it wafted through the open doorway and the smoky aroma of the banked fire on the hearth. Heard Eledh’s voice raised in song as he worked, and the twittering of meadowlarks beyond the paddock. But still... there was the blackness. He could feel that as well, pressing against his mind. If he let himself, he could still hear the black speech pouring through him. Was it merely memory felt so strongly that it seemed real, or something worse?

He shifted uneasily. He felt... exposed. Alone and naked and terribly vulnerable, as if he were somehow trapped on a wind-swept ledge, with no one to throw down a rope and help him climb back to safety. One misstep...

He punched his pillow. He would make no misstep.

Time will heal this. That’s all I need. Time.

~~~

It could not have been ten minutes after finally falling into a fitful rest that Aragorn woke to a shout, followed by the sound of someone running. He waited a moment, listening for any indication that might mean real trouble was afoot, but after the footsteps faded, all was quiet. He frowned, but no further sound broke the stillness. He rolled onto his side and tried to find his way back to much-needed slumber, but the ongoing silence would not let his ears rest. Grumbling under his breath, he sat up and watched through the doorway. When no one came pounding in to get him, he started to relax. Eledh had no doubt fallen victim again to Denlad’s spider, and that was something he had no desire to get involved in. He lay back down and closed his eyes, but a heavy step on the porch and then a pained sigh brought him back upright. He looked out the doorway and saw part of Denlad’s knee as he sat down on the bench outside.

Aragorn swung his legs over the bed, but stopped again as he heard Neala’s soft voice. "Does it hurt?"

Denlad’s leg flinched. "No. Just a... a bump."

Despite concern over whatever may be wrong with Denlad, Aragorn had to smile. Put a pretty woman within a league of Denlad and his normal dry wit melted away into shy, painful stammering. He had spent his entire time eating with his eyes on his plate and his cheeks flaming.

"May I see?" Neala asked.

Wishing he dared get up and walk to the doorway to see better, but knowing the creaky floors would give him away, Aragorn could only rely on his imagination to picture the squirming anxiety sure to be on Denlad’s face. He saw Neala move in front of the open doorway, and after a moment, he heard Denlad hiss.

"I’m sorry!"

"No... you didn’t do any–  I mean... it... just a little t-tender."

Aragorn felt his eyebrows rise. As fractured as Denlad’s words were, it was the closest thing to a full sentence Aragorn had ever heard him say to a woman. His curiosity could be denied no longer. He got up and walked slowly and softly to the doorway. He peeked out and saw that Neala had a wet cloth pressed against the back of Denlad’s head. Her other hand supported his forehead, and Aragorn had to suppress a wild desire to laugh at the tension that held Denlad rigidly upright, tension that Aragorn was sure had little to do with pain from a bump on the head. Denlad’s knuckles were white where his hands gripped the edge of the bench.

Aragorn didn’t think he chuckled out loud, but he must have made some sound, because they both suddenly turned to look at him. Aragorn had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at the barely concealed panic in Denlad’s eyes.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Nothing," Denlad muttered.

Aragorn looked to Neala, who elaborated. "He was trying to approach the wild one, that gray horse yonder. He has no name, but for reasons of his own, he follows our herd and allows himself to be penned. Denlad came closer than the horse has ever let anyone. But then the horse charged and sent Denlad to the ground. He hit the back of his head." She moved aside so Aragorn could inspect the damage.

Aragorn saw nothing more than a small bump. He gently pressed the area around it; Denlad’s skull was intact. "Good thing you have a hard head."

Denlad’s briefly flashed an exasperated look at Aragorn’s mild teasing, but he stood, keeping his eyes firmly on Aragorn. "I’d best be getting back to painting the stable." Then, belatedly remembering his manners, he glanced at Neala, turned an even deeper red, and stammered, "Th-thank you, my lady." He stumbled off the porch, nearly falling, and hurried to the far side of the stable.

Neala sighed. "Did I do something to anger him?"

Aragorn laughed. "No, Neala, you did nothing wrong. I suppose he has simply never had the opportunity to learn much about the ways of well-bred women." Aragorn stopped, not feeling it was his place to explain Denlad’s problematic upbringing. Being the son of a fallen woman, and having no father nor any knowledge of who the man was, did not exactly lend itself to Denlad learning the finer points of dealing with women of quality. To Aragorn’s knowledge, a pretty woman was the only thing that could send Denlad into full-blown retreat.

Neala’s wistful voice interrupted his reverie. "A man such as that, and no woman waiting for him?"

Aragorn tilted his head to look at her. There was no mistaking the faint blush on her cheeks. He slowly smiled. "Perhaps he has never found the right one."

Her cheeks turned rosy, and she suddenly became very interested in the cloth she held. She finally muttered something about needing to check on the evening meal and hurried off. Aragorn laughed, and, no longer feeling a need for sleep, settled down on the bench. As he picked up the bridle, a movement caught his eye. It was Randir, walking around the stable. The boy stopped when he saw Denlad, who had climbed atop the roof, and started to walk away, but Denlad saw him. He called out something too low for Aragorn to make out and immediately climbed back down the ladder. Randir waited, eyes downcast and hands bashfully shoved into his pockets. Denlad reached the ground and knelt beside him, talking softly, and finally elicited a small grin from the boy. Seeing Denlad so took Aragorn back to another time, where he had knelt in just such a fashion to talk to another shy boy.

Aragorn’s path had crossed that of Denlad’s mother several times over the years before Denlad finally accepted Aragorn’s bidding to join the Grey Company. The first time had been before Denlad was born, and was in no way pleasant. One of the more foolish members of his company had been with her and subsequently lost a blade and far more silver from his money bag than the cost of a night’s favors would warrant. Both Denlad’s mother and his Ranger had felt the lashing of Aragorn’s tongue that night. She had disappeared shortly after that, and he did not see her again for many years, until a chance patrol in the North Downs brought them to a shambles of a farm, and he saw that it was hers and that she now had a strapping young son of perhaps nine summers, a golden-haired boy who looked so wistfully at the small band of Rangers, who must have seemed to have appeared by a wizard’s magic on his front step, that Aragorn’s heart was pierced. The mother may have chosen poorly, but through her, the son had the blood of Númenor in his veins, and his path lay untrammeled before him. A nudge in the right direction, from the right person, might be enough to keep him from falling prey to the same sort of tragic mistakes that had claimed the dignity of his mother. And since Aragorn knew just a little about what it was like to have to overcome an ancestor’s error, he figured he might be just the one to do the nudging.

"And who is this mighty warrior?" he had asked the young man, who promptly blushed to his hairline and ran into the cabin.

No amount of coaxing had convinced the lad to emerge, so Aragorn and his men had ridden off, but Aragorn never forgot the desperate longing in the boy’s eyes, nor the steadfast cut to the young man’s chin. So he made it a point each year to swing by the farm, to drop off a deer or a brace of pheasants, but mostly to watch the boy as he grew over the years. He was pleased with what he saw: as the tall boy grew into a strapping young man nearly as tall as Aragorn, the condition of the farm slowly improved, the cabin in better repair, the horses and cows in finer fettle. Denlad’s mother even seemed to soften, to mellow from the hard-faced woman who could only glare at Aragorn to a mother who instead watched her own son with a quiet pride.

Then at last came the year he and his company had arrived to find a fresh mound of dirt in a clearing beside the house, and a tearful young man sitting bereft against a tree. When Denlad stood, angrily wiping his eyes, embarrassed at being caught in his grief, Aragorn asked what they could do to help. At Denlad’s vehement denial of any need, he then asked another question.

"Is the mighty warrior ready?"

And this time the young man did not run away.

Now Aragorn watched, a curious lump coming to his throat, as Denlad pulled a small knife and sheath from his pocket–one Aragorn had given him when Denlad was roughly Randir’s age–and handed it to Randir. Randir’s face lit up with a huge smile and he ran off. Denlad watched him go, a thoughtful look on his face, then he moved to the fence to stare moodily at the recalcitrant horse that had bested him. Denlad had won over Randir, and Aragorn had no doubt that given time, he would win over that horse. "And perhaps with time, Neala could win over you," Aragorn said softly. Then he cleared his throat and picked up the bridle. He started to work on it, but a passing cloud dimmed the sunlight, and its shadow left a chill in the air. Aragorn glanced at the sky. Sullen clouds seemed suddenly to race across the heavens, as if rushing toward warmer, more southerly climes before winter’s bite fell upon them.  He looked again at the men, then turned his eyes to the south, toward Windydale.  "It seems that time is all any of us need. But I fear time may be the one thing none of us have."

Chapter 12 - Repercussions

"Eledh, the wind is too strong!" Aragorn called. "Get down from there before it blows you to Rohan!"

Eledh sat back on his haunches, glaring at the sky, then waved a hand to show he had heard. The wind had been steadily rising as the afternoon wore on, and now it was tearing the bundles of thatching out of Eledh’s hands before he could fasten them down. With the deepening chill and the smell of fast approaching snow, Aragorn had called him in, fearing Eledh’s sense of responsibility would keep him on the roof until he froze in place. Eledh left the roof in the same method as he had when Denlad’s spider startled him, sliding down to land on the haystack. He followed Aragorn into the cabin, warming his hands over the fire while Aragorn stirred it to life and added another log. "Well, that roof job isn’t pretty, but it should be waterproof, for a while, anyway. She needs real thatchers, not a bunch of men more skilled at hacking at orcs with swords than fixing roofs."

"I doubt any thatchers will be by until spring, so whatever work you have done I’m sure will be appreciated." Aragorn dug into his pack and found his small bag of coins. He tossed it lightly, wishing it had more weight. "I’ll leave her some money to pay for the real thatchers to redo what we cobble together."

"We can all pitch in a bit," he offered, eyeing the nearly empty bag. "I’m not sure you have enough."

Aragorn shook his head. "No, you men need your money for your own homes and families. I have enough, fear not."

Eledh shrugged and turned around to warm his backside. "It’s definitely blowing in a storm. I saw snow approaching from the northwest, and approaching fast. As soon as I get something to eat, I will head out with Denlad and send Halbarad and Galadh back in. I doubt orcs’ll be about in this weather, but sure as I say that, they’ll come swarming in like devouring insects."

"Then do not say it," Aragorn retorted.

Eledh laughed and then settled himself in a chair. Aragorn tucked some coins in a crack between the mantel and the wall, where hopefully they would go unnoticed until long after they were gone, then limped to the set of shelves Neala used as a larder and found a loaf of bread and a ham. He handed the bread to Eledh and cut off a thick slice of ham. "Neala’s generosity seems to have no bounds. She told us to help ourselves, but I worry that she doesn’t really understand how much food five hungry men can eat."

Eledh plied his knife and soon had a large slice of bread in his hand. "Perhaps after the storm is passed, Galadh and I can do a little hunting, although game is likely to be scarce if this turns into a right blizzard," he mumbled around a large bite.

Aragorn nodded. He felt the weight of delay pressing on his patience. His own health, the repairs to the farm, replenishing Neala’s food... each seemed to add more and more days to the time when they could depart and resume their hunt of the Nazgûl. He felt an urgency to leave now, before the storm hit, but he knew that was only his impatience speaking. It would be reckless and deadly to venture out with a blizzard nearly on their doorstep. Without meaning to, he sighed.

"Aragorn? Is all well with you?"

Aragorn shrugged. "Merely chafing at delay. I would like to have been heading out tomorrow, but there seems little chance of that, with the weather turning ill. But perhaps the storm will not be as bad as it looks. I would like to leave no later than the day after tomorrow."

"And do you think Halbarad will agree to that?"

Aragorn smiled grimly. "Halbarad better, if he knows his place."

"Oh, he knows his place–hovering over you like a very stubborn and ugly mother hen. Denlad nearly had to put him in a headlock to get him to take some rest those two days when you were lost to this world. I can foresee a very loud argument ensuing when you tell him we are leaving so soon."

"It hardly takes the gift of foresight to predict that," Aragorn muttered. Eledh was right. There was a good probability that Halbarad would dig in his very large heels and refuse to let Aragorn leave, unless perhaps it was to Rivendell.

And perhaps that was the wisest course. But his last departure from his childhood home had been.... He frowned as he searched for the right word. It had not been contentious, exactly, but he had felt keenly an unspoken anger coursing through his father. Elrond had not spoken openly about anything, but always there lay between them Aragorn’s love for Arwen, and their betrothal, and it did not seem to Aragorn to be a leap in logic to assume that somehow the betrothal had been the cause of Elrond’s silent fury. Truth was, Elrond had looked so dark and forbidding that Aragorn feared he might not be welcomed back with open arms ever again.

He shook himself. Any reluctance to face his father mattered little compared to the fact that the wraith was no doubt still lurking along the river somewhere. Even had his last visit home been ended on a cheerful note, Aragorn was loathe to simply leave the settlements to whatever doom awaited them. No, they would leave, and leave soon, and it would be to the south and west, not the south and east. And Halbarad would simply have to accept the order of his chieftain.

Eledh eyed Aragorn, seeming to read his thoughts. "If you need me to, I’ll do the beating. I doubt you’re strong enough to take on Halbarad just yet."

"Hopefully it will not come to that."

"You don’t know how worried Halbarad is about you."

The door flew open and Denlad entered with a rush of cold air. He slammed the door shut and shivered. "The snow is starting to fall already. Come on, Elf Maid. Our turn to watch. Think of it–we can hurl snowballs at the wraith!"

"I’d like to hurl something at you," Eledh muttered but he shoved the last bites of his ham into his mouth, strapped on his sword and gathered his coat. He slung his quiver and his bow over his shoulder and then tossed a salute toward Aragorn as he headed out the door. Denlad shot Aragorn a grin and followed. Aragorn shook his head as their bickering voices receded into the evening’s gloom. Much as he hated to see any of his men upset, he couldn’t help but think that it was much more peaceful when Denlad was quiet and morose.

A few minutes later the door blew open again and Aragorn gave up trying to stay warm by the fire and instead snatched a blanket off the cot and wrapped it around his shoulders. Galadh and Halbarad trooped in, stamping snow from their boots and brushing white flakes from their hair.

"The snow is already around my ankles," Halbarad said. "We’re in for it, I’m thinking. I told Eledh and Denlad to stick close. If it continues to worsen, they might as well come back into the house. They won’t be able to see their hands in front of their faces, let alone see or hear approaching orcs, not over the howl of that wind, if even there are any orcs foolish enough to be about in such weather."

"Where did you post them?"

"Eledh’s by the stables. Denlad’s on the north side of the small house. They’ve both got ropes to guide them back here." He shot a questioning look at Aragorn. "What went on between those two today? You should have heard Eledh’s laugh when I sent Denlad to the north side of the house. Denlad will be staring straight into the teeth of the wind, and it’s not like Eledh to laugh at another’s misery."

"Do you really want to know?"

Halbarad considered for a moment. "No. No, you’re right. It’s best not to know."

"How about Neala and Randir? Will they be warm enough?"

"I piled enough wood inside their door to last through a week of foul weather. She assured me they had plenty of food, and that the house was snug. They should be fine."

"And the horses?"

"In the stable, and I’ve strung a rope between here and there, to keep any of us wandering off blind to be lost on the plains," Galadh said, glancing at the snow scouring the windows white. "Even that wild grey had the sense to come in out of this storm."

"Denlad will be glad to hear that. I think he has his heart set on taming it."

"If anyone can, it’s Denlad," Halbarad said. He shook off his coat and draped it over a chair, setting it close to the fire beside Aragorn. "He has an uncanny way with animals, that boy."

Aragorn smiled. "‘That boy’ has passed thirty-eight summers, Halbarad."

"A puppy," Halbarad snorted. "He still has much to learn. As do you, upstart," he added with a pointed look at Galadh, who was smiling.

"Better an upstart than ancient. We’ll be kitting you out with a cane and a blanket for your knees before too long." Galadh reddened as he glanced at Aragorn, who was now seated with a blanket across his knees that he hastily pulled off. "I am sorry, sir."

"Upstart," Aragorn growled, cuffing Galadh on the back of the head. He limped to the fireplace and tossed in yet another log. He hid his smile as Galadh found a sudden pressing need to sweep up fallen snow from the floor near the door.

Halbarad stood up and put his coat back on. "I think, since it looks as though we’ll be holed up for at least a day, that I’ll bring some things from the stable in that we can work on repairing. Keep us from lunging at each others’ throats from all this enforced togetherness."

He left in a swirling gust of snowy wind and Galadh continued to avoid Aragorn by furiously sweeping up the additional snow. Aragorn chuckled softly and sat back in his chair. He did not, however, drape the blanket across his knees. He stared into the fire, feeling the heat on his face and hands. He was grateful for the sensation, but how he wished the warmth could touch the cold that still lurked in the center of his being. He frowned and switched his gaze to his hands.

"Aragorn," Galadh said tentatively. "I apologize. Truly, I never meant for that crack to be aimed at you."

"Your jest did not trouble me." Aragorn forced a rueful smile. "But I do feel a bit old, of late."

Galadh pulled the chair around and straddled it backwards, folding his arms across the back of it and resting his chin on his forearm. He regarded Aragorn, his dark eyes grave. "I do not think age has anything to do with how you feel. A man of younger years than even Mallor would be feeling sore and a bit old, had he gone through such a thing."

"I suppose."

Galadh nodded, his burst of loquaciousness apparently over. They fell silent, each man lost in his thoughts. Aragorn listened to the wind howling across the roof. The house occasionally shuddered as a blast hit the north side. He thought of Denlad and Eledh, out in the midst of it, and stirred. "We need to get Denlad and Eledh inside. They’ll freeze to death if we don’t, and unless orcs have changed their habits completely, they won’t be traveling in such weather."

Galadh leaped to his feet, as though eager for something to do other than sit glumly staring into the fire. He said nothing, but grabbed his cloak, and with a gust of wind and a slamming door, Aragorn was alone with thoughts that too easily turned down dark pathways. He chided himself for brooding and went back to the table. He pulled his knife out and started cutting slices of ham for the rest of the men. By the time he started on the bread, the door swung open. He expected it to be Galadh with Eledh and Denlad, but when he heard a soft clinking noise, he glanced up and saw it was Halbarad. He looked at what Halbarad held in his hands and froze.

Chains.

His chest suddenly felt tight as the room seemed to darken. No. This is not my nightmare. He merely has brought in some broken chains to fix. This is not my nightmare.

"Aragorn?" Halbarad asked. "Are you well?"

Aragorn blinked and tried to still his pounding heart. "I," he started, but his mouth had gone bone dry. He coughed, tried to banish this illogical fear that shook his limbs and stole his breath. "I’m fine. You just startled me."

Halbarad came closer, the chains still in his hands. Aragorn could not stop himself from taking a step backwards. His hand closed tighter around the knife. He could not take his eyes off the chains.

"Aragorn? Are you sure? You look ill..."

Halbarad’s voice seemed to come from a long way off, muffled by the sound of Aragorn’s own pulse raging in his ears. "Halbarad, I..." He took another deep breath and sternly told himself to get hold of himself. But those chains... he could almost feel their cold embrace pinning him. Trapping him like an animal.

Like a sacrifice.

Halbarad grasped his arm with his free hand and something inside Aragorn snapped. "No!" He jerked his arm free from Halbarad’s grip and some small voice of sanity screamed at him to not use the knife do not use the knife so he dropped it but at the same time shoved Halbarad away from him, hard. Halbarad let out a startled cry and dropped the chains as he scrambled to keep his balance. He staggered into a chair, knocking it over, then went down on top of it with a loud grunt when his feet tangled in the rungs.

At the sound of the chains hitting the floor, reason suddenly returned to Aragorn’s mind. He stood blinking, unsure what had just happened. "Halbarad, I... I’m sorry."

Halbarad disentangled himself from the chair and accepted Aragorn’s hand as he hauled him upright. "I’m sure I have no idea what that was all about," he said, eyeing Aragorn warily. "But I expect you’ll tell me. What did you think I was going to do?"

Aragorn shakily sank onto the chair Halbarad just righted. His foot inadvertently kicked the chains piled on the floor and he couldn’t help flinching.

"It’s these chains, isn’t it?" Halbarad said. He started to pick them up, thought better of it, and shoved them away with his foot. He squatted down in front of Aragorn and looked up into his face. "Tell me what terror struck you when you saw me carrying those chains. For it was terror I saw in your eyes, no doubt about it, and terror lingers yet."

Aragorn rubbed his face. Several long minutes passed before he finally spoke. "It is a nightmare. One that I keep having over and over, ever since fighting the Nazgûl. It started during those two days I was under the spell of the shadow, of the Black Breath. Before you found the athelas. I was floating in a black sea, and then when I crawled ashore, I saw you coming. I-I thought you were there to help." He scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands, then stared bleakly at the fire. How he hated putting the horrible memories into words, admitting his weakness, his inability to overcome such a stupid trifle as nightmares. But he owed Halbarad an explanation. He finished with a rush. "But you had chains, and you bound me and carried me into Mordor and handed me over to Sauron."

Halbarad’s eyes widened. For a moment he seemed unable to speak, but he finally found his voice. "Aragorn, surely you know I would never do such a thing."

"Of course I do," he snapped, then moaned. "I am sorry. But something has... there is a dark..." He ground to a halt, digging his hands into his hair as if he could force clarity and calm into his scattered wits by pressing against his scalp. He let out a frustrated, inarticulate growl. "I can’t explain it, but it’s as though something black... some malevolent and fearful thing... still lingers in my mind. I think I have it bested but when I least expect it, it suddenly rises up and consumes me." He turned stricken eyes to Halbarad’s, his voice dropping to a strident whisper. "I do not know how to fight it."

Halbarad chewed his lip. "Aragorn, now more than ever you must realize that we have to get you to Rivendell, to your father. He will know how to help you."

Aragorn immediately shook his head. "He will not want–"

"No, Aragorn. He will welcome you back, as he always does."

"But he was so angry–"

Halbarad stilled him with an upraised hand. "Aragorn, you are his son. In every way but by blood. He has never turned you away, nor will he now. Not when you need help, no matter how angry he may be with you on other matters. I know that you must realize that." Halbarad paused and then placed a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder. "I fear that the Nazgûl’s evil has somehow blinded you to the fact that he loves you."

Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut when they suddenly burned with unexpected tears. "I am not blinded. I know that he loves me," he whispered. He took a shaky breath and swiped a hand across his eyes. "But our path cannot turn to Rivendell yet. I cannot leave our people undefended."

"But we are not strong enough to face them again ourselves, and you especially are not. It would do our people no good if our chieftain were killed, and Middle-earth cannot lose the Heir. We can get help from Rivendell. Elladan and Elrohir will come, and surely other warriors–"

Aragorn cut him off. "I have no doubt they will come and glad I would be for their swords, but I will not run back to my father like some child who cannot handle his own troubles." He stood and limped to the fireplace, cursing the pain in his ankle and the pain in his chest and every ache in every muscle and most of all the evil that plagued the river even as it plagued his own sanity. He glared back at Halbarad. "I cannot run away, and I will not run away. I will not let this thing defeat me! We will leave as soon as the weather breaks."

Galadh, Eledh and Denlad chose that moment to pile through the doorway. As they shook off coats and laughed at the snow dusting their beards and eyebrows and lashes, they only gradually noticed the tension that seemed to vibrate the very air between Aragorn and Halbarad. Denlad nudged other two. "Quiet, fools, " he hissed. The three of them fell silent.

Aragorn barely glanced at them before glaring back at Halbarad, who wisely said nothing more. Aragorn knew Halbarad’s silence was only temporary. But at least at the moment, Halbarad was showing the good sense to hold his tongue. Aragorn walked over to him and said quietly, "We will discuss this later."

Halbarad raised an eyebrow. "Of that I have no doubt. But for now, I suggest you sit down before you fall down. I’ll get the food."

A ghost of a smile flitted across Aragorn’s face, then he bowed his head in acceptance of the temporary truce and retreated to the table.

Eledh, having watched the quiet exchange, sat down across from Aragorn and gave him a wry look. "So," he said, "how loudly did the ugly mother hen squawk?"

Aragorn suddenly laughed. He looked at Halbarad, who looked back at him with no little amount of confusion on his face. "Loudly, Eledh. I am surprised you did not hear it over the noise of the wind."

Denlad scooped up the chains. "Where did these come from?"

Aragorn tensed, but Halbarad immediately moved between the table and Denlad so Aragorn’s view was blocked. "Toss them back out on the porch. I was going to fix them, but," he added with a quick but pointed glance over his shoulder at Aragorn, "they’re not worth saving."

As Denlad walked out of the house, Aragorn met Halbarad’s gaze and nodded his thanks. But from the grim look he received in return, Aragorn knew the fight was far from over.

Aragorn won the battle, hollow victory though it was.

By the following morning, the worst of the storm had eased, although the argument had continued and finally Halbarad left Aragorn no choice but to thunder at him to cease his protests lest he lock him in the stable under charge of insubordination. Halbarad had turned white, but he pressed his lips together and said no more, except to bow slightly with a very stiff, "Yes, my lord," as he left the cabin. The silence with which he carefully shut the door behind him bespoke his anger more loudly than any ear-splitting slam could possibly have.

Aragorn sighed, then looked at the rest of the men, who were scattered around the room, all very diligently looking anywhere but back at him. "We will ride out tomorrow, at daybreak. The storm is moving on, but southward, and I fear we would only encounter it again if we rode today. So we will take this last day to do what we can towards finishing repairs and replenishing Neala’s larder. Eledh, Galadh, go take the watch. Now that the weather has cleared, the orcs will no doubt resume their activities."

The two men slipped out quickly, their relief to be out from under the stern gaze of their angry Chieftain coming off them in palpable waves. Denlad walked to the fireplace and stirred the coals. Aragorn saw the angry set of the man’s shoulders and didn’t try to stifle his irritation. "Say in words what the stiffness of your neck speaks in silence."

Denlad turned, spinning on the balls of his feet as he remained kneeling by the fireplace. "You were too hard on Halbarad," he said without preamble. He rose to his full height to stand nearly eye-to-eye with Aragorn. "You know that every word of his mouth and action of his hands is done with the sole motive of keeping the one he loves as a brother safe from all harm."

"But that is not his sole mission any more than it is my sole mission to simply ensure that I survive to ascend some future throne!" Aragorn turned away, working to soften his tone, "Halbarad’s heart makes him lose sight of the purpose of the Rangers–to protect our people from the Enemy. His job is not solely to protect the chieftain."

Denlad’s eyes flashed. "Would you not have his protection, then? Our protection? Would you rather we had left you to the tender mercies of the Nazgûl and let Middle-earth suffer whatever fate it may without the Hope of Men?"

"Do not do me the disservice of putting words in my mouth," Aragorn said very softly, aware that the rein on his temper was fraying and fraying quickly. "I am grateful beyond words for what he did. For what you did. But that does not change the fact that I am healing and well able to resume my duty. And it is neither his place... nor yours... to question that."

"No, it is not," Denlad agreed, his anger melting into concern as he placed both hands on Aragorn’s shoulders. "Nonetheless, I will never relinquish the stirring of my own heart, and it tells me this: you are far from healed, Aragorn. Hold whatever anger against us that you may, chafe however much you will against our care for you, but know that we–Halbarad and I, and Galadh and Eledh as well–will not let you destroy yourself." He held Aragorn’s gaze for a long moment, then nodded as though satisfied with what he saw, and left.

Aragorn took a deep breath. Denlad had never spoken in that way to him before. It was as if the younger Ranger had suddenly grown in stature and confidence, he now the teacher and Aragorn the student.

It left him feeling shaken.

And confound it, Denlad was right. Not that Aragorn felt he could concede to Denlad’s wishes any more than he could to Halbarad’s. He simply could not abandon his duty to his people. He would deal with the wraith, and then go to Rivendell and hope for the best. That is after all what I do best, isn’t it, he thought sourly. Hope.

He wished he could kick something.

Burying the urge to slam his boot against all the furniture, he moved to the window. Looking out, he saw Halbarad and Denlad standing together by the empty corral. Denlad slapped Halbarad’s shoulder, and then they both turned toward the house. Denlad veered to the left, toward the small house where Aragorn, by craning his neck, could see Neala waiting on the porch. Denlad greeted Neala with a smile and an ease that astounded Aragorn. But any thoughts of Denlad’s potential change of fortune faded as Halbarad continued toward the main house. Aragorn moved back to the fireplace, suddenly swamped by regret at his anger, and studied the flames as he heard Halbarad just outside the door, stamping the snow from his boots.

The door opened. Aragorn glanced over, trying to judge from Halbarad’s expression whether his fury still simmered or if perhaps his storm, like the blizzard, had blown over. But Halbarad’s emotions were too carefully veiled. Aragorn turned his gaze back to the fireplace. He chewed his lip, unsure how to undo the mess his loss of temper had unleashed. "Denlad seems to be a bit taken by Neala," he finally said, just to break the heavy silence.

"And she is by him, no doubt about that. And Randir has been following him everywhere like a lost puppy."

"I am happy for him. A man should have a wife, a family."

Halbarad grunted an affirmative and the silence fell again. Aragorn picked up the poker and stirred the logs a bit, cringing slightly as the wound on his left arm reminded him that even that small nuisance had yet to clear itself up. He switched the poker to his right hand and shoved at the logs until flames licked hungrily at them.  He stepped on a cinder that flew popping and hissing onto the hearth, then took a deep breath. "I would not have locked you in the stables."

Halbarad grunted and Aragorn heard a chair creak. He turned. Halbarad was seated at the table, polishing an apple on his tunic and regarding Aragorn with that same hooded expression. "You would not have been able to."

Anger flared anew, but Aragorn fought it down. Halbarad was right. As feeble as Aragorn’s strength was, there was no way on Arda he could have wrestled Halbarad into submission, and he knew from the set of Halbarad’s jaw that it would have taken a fight to lock him away anywhere. So he nodded and remained silent.

"Aragorn, do you see this?" Halbarad pointed to a spot on his head, near his temple.

Aragorn frowned. "Your hair?"

"Yes. My hair. What color is it?"

"Black, of course."

"No, look closely."

"Very well. Black with a little bit of grey."

"A lot of grey," Halbarad corrected. "Put there mostly by you and your stubborn ways."

It was an old accusation, and overused. "It is not I who put the grey in your head, but time, and you know it."

"What I know is that every time you get yourself hurt, it becomes a battle on the scale of the Dagorlad to get you to take care of yourself afterward."

"And your exaggerations are on the same scale."

"Hmm."

Aragorn dropped into the chair opposite. "Halbarad, you forget that the blood of Númenor runs more strongly in me than in most men. I do not require much in the way of recuperation."

"‘Much’, he says," Halbarad snorted. "So tell me how being Númenórean makes you invincible."

"You know it doesn’t." He regretted the testiness in his voice, but he was growing weary of this line of conversation.

"Are we not your chosen men?" Halbarad suddenly asked.

"What?"

"Just answer me. Are we–Denlad, Eledh, Galadh, and I–not your chosen men? Sworn to defend you above all other duties?"

"Not necessarily above all other duties, no."

"But that is indeed one of our charges–to protect you."

Aragorn sensed defeat just around the corner. "Yes," he sighed.

"Then why do you fight us when all we are trying to do is our sworn duty? Why do you fight me?"

Frustration made Aragorn sound almost petulant. "And why do you not realize that I am well?"

"Because all the evidence screams otherwise!"

"You cannot win this argument, Halbarad."

"I know, I know. I will not win because you are the Chieftain and I am not." He studied Aragorn so long that Aragorn felt like squirming. "You and I have been friends for a long time."

"And we still are, I trust."

Halbarad stood and took a great bite out of his apple. "I suppose," he mumbled. "And I suppose I must continue to be your friend, for surely no one else is softheaded enough to put up with you. We will leave, as you order, but if I see even a hint that you are faltering, I will not hesitate to tie you across Bronadui’s saddle and haul you to Rivendell."

Aragorn sketched as close to a bow as he could while seated. "As you wish."

"And you can get that little self-satisfied smirk off your–" Halbarad started but was interrupted when the door suddenly opened.

Galadh stuck his head in long enough to announce, "Riders approach–the Sons of Elrond and, though I can’t say for certain, it looks like Lord Glorfindel."

Aragorn shot Halbarad a quick look. It was not unusual for his brothers to ride out from Rivendell and join the Rangers–in fact, he had been expecting them, given the rumors flying throughout Eriador–but it was a bit unusual for Elladan and Elrohir to have the exalted company of Lord Glorfindel with them. "I hope this is not ill tidings," Aragorn said.

"Maybe it’s Prince Legolas–from a distance, with that golden hair of his, he might be mistaken for Glorfindel," Halbarad said.

"He would have no reason to be here in Arnor. But I suppose the only way we’ll know is to go look." Aragorn rose and, even with taking the time to snatch up his sword and belt, beat Halbarad to the door by a half step, which left him with an absurd feeling of triumph. He stopped on the porch beside Eledh and Galadh and strapped on his sword, then raised his hand to shield his eyes from glaring sunlight that was just starting to break through the clouds. "No, it is Glorfindel, on Asfaloth. I can hear the bells."

"How does he get away with putting bells on his horse?" Halbarad mused. "I would think that would attract every orc within a hundred leagues."

Aragorn smiled. "If you were as mighty a warrior as Glorfindel, who killed a Balrog, who died and was reborn, and who drove out the Witch-king from Arnor, you could put bells on your horse and sound trumpets everywhere you went and still the orcs would run far, far from you."

"Excellent point."

They fell quiet, watching the trio gallop ever closer. Denlad hurried over. "They ride hard."

Aragorn nodded, his worry edging up another notch. Even from a distance he could see their horses were lathered from long and hard riding. Finally the three thundered into the yard before the house, the bells on Asfaloth’s headstall jingling an oddly merry counterpoint to the grim faces of the Elf and two Peredhel. Aragorn hurried forward, trying to hide his limp, and took the reins from his oldest brother. Elladan slid from his horse, shoving back his snowy hood as he gave Aragorn a brief embrace. "Mae govannen, my brother," Aragorn said, then repeated the greeting and embrace with Elrohir. He ignored the sudden sharp look of concern that Elrohir gave him and turned to Glorfindel. He bowed his head and offered a more formal salute. "Lord Glorfindel."

The Elf-lord returned the salute. "It is good that we found you. It was a guess, that you would be in this area, but one I hoped had merit."

"Your haste in riding through a storm tells me that you do not bring welcome news."

Glorfindel slid down from Asfaloth and patted the horse’s neck. "Ill news does not always travel in solitary fashion. We bear tidings both ill and good."

Aragorn grimaced. "Let us hear the ill first, then. Maybe then the good news will provide a measure of comfort."

"I fear what small good news we have will not serve to alleviate the sorrow we bring, Estel," said Elladan as he stepped forward.

"What has happened? Has Arwen–"

"Arwen is well, as is our father," Elrohir hurriedly supplied. "In fact, Lord Elrond is expecting Mithrandir’s arrival any time now, for the old wizard apparently has some sort of news that he hopes will be to the benefit of us all, but like a wizard, his message was half riddle and impossible from which to glean anything in the way of actual facts. Adar wants you home, Estel. As soon as possible."

Aragorn glanced at Halbarad. It was impossible to ignore the triumphant gleam in the man’s eyes. You are getting your wish, my stubborn friend. It seems we must go to Rivendell whether I like it or not. He said to Elrohir, "It may be some days before we can set out, but we will come. What other news from Rivendell?"

"That is all, and our only good news, I fear. Now for the ill, which reached us as we traveled." Elrohir seemed to gather himself before continuing. "You are of course aware of the events at Bracken’s Ferry."

Aragorn nodded. "We were there a week ago yesterday. It has been destroyed. I sent Bilfen Broadbow and his companion, Kenevir, to Lord Elrond with despatches."

"We passed them as we traveled here," Glorfindel said. "We can only hope the news has reached Lord Elrond safely. You saw the ones responsible for the slaughter?"

"Not at the time of the attack, no. We rode out as soon as we heard the first rumors, but we arrived too late," he said bitterly. "We know now it was a Nazgûl, leading a small force of orcs. We do not know the reason for the attack, though."

Glorfindel nodded. "Lord Elrond has received word that one of the Nazgûl has unexpectedly moved forth from Dol Goldur–indeed, that is another reason why we ride with such haste to find you, although I see our warning is unnecessary. We are not certain of his motives, but Sauron does not sleep. It could be that he is plotting a move against Imladris, but that seems unlikely. He knows it is strongly protected by the power of the Elves, and of Vilya, power that at this time Sauron himself is not yet strong enough to overcome. No, our greater fear is that he has sent the Nazgûl to test the will and strength of the Dúnedain, perhaps to see if the Witch-king might again take over Arnor."

"He found our strength greater than he anticipated," Halbarad growled.

Elrohir sharpened his study of Aragorn. "You have already fought with him?"

Aragorn merely nodded. He felt the ever-rising concern in Elrohir’s thoughts, but he closed his mind to his not-so-subtle probing, earning himself a glare. But the last thing he needed was for Elladan and Elrohir to unleash a suffocating flood of brotherly concern over him. They would both no doubt torment the truth from him later, but now he needed to know all the news the three had to share. "We fought with a band of orcs a day’s ride southwest of Bracken’s Ferry. There was a strange menace that hovered over the battle, but we did not see the Nazgûl at that time nor understand that the Nazgûl was the driving force behind the attack. Frankly, that it could be a Nazgûl simply did not occur to me, although looking back, it should have. I thought perhaps it was just an echo of past evil still upon this land. Strange things happen in these barren areas.

"Regardless, we slew the orcs, losing one man, and then rode to Bracken’s Ferry and found utter destruction. Still unsure of the true cause of the attack, we set out to warn Windydale. It was along the way south, near the Hoarwell, that we encountered the Nazgûl and truly saw our foe for the first time. We killed some twenty of his orcs, then drove off what remained, including the wraith, but we do not know where he went from there. It is our hope that we weakened his forces sufficiently to prevent him heading to Windydale before we can arrive and defend the village."

"It is no easy thing to drive off a Nazgûl, Estel," Elladan remarked. "Few come away unscathed."

"Suffice for now to assure you we did just that and lived to tell the tale. Now what further news have you, for I fear you know more than you have told."

Glorfindel’s eyes held all the bleakness of Caradhras. "Windydale was attacked, three days back. We would have ridden here sooner but for the storm."

Aragorn closed his eyes. Three days ago. While he lay under the Black Breath, his people were dying, with no one to succor them.

"Aragorn?" Elrohir asked sharply.

"What happened at Windydale?" Aragorn asked softly.

"They partially burned the town, although the people there gave strong defense and turned them away before they could utterly destroy it," Elrohir said.

"So there were survivors?" Halbarad asked.

"Roughly half the town. Mostly women and children. They survived by fleeing into the hills. Many of the men perished in the fight, though not all. And there are many wounded–men, women and children."

Aragorn’s hand ached and he realized he was gripping the hilt of his sword as though he expected the wraith to spring from the earth beneath his feet. He forced himself to relax his fingers. "The Nazgûl was there as well?"

"Aye," Elladan said. "Aside from those with grievous but nonetheless ordinary wounds, Elrohir and I spent many hours treating those who had fallen under the Black Breath. We helped all we could before we had to leave, to find you." Again, he gave Aragorn a piercing look, which Aragorn ignored.

"Where then did he go?"

"We are not sure," Elrohir said. "We did not cross paths with him, only with the destruction left in his evil wake. He may yet linger in Rhudaur, which is my suspicion. But I have hope that he may have headed south, through Rhudaur toward the Trollshaws and from there back to Mirkwood, or east through the Misty Mountains and south to Mirkwood. Or he may have continued west, deeper into Eriador and perhaps toward The Shire. But I somehow doubt that is the case. This news of your battle with him strengthens my hope that he has turned south, to return to his foul lair at Dol Goldur. He may realize that word is spreading of his presence and that Imladris is stirring."

"Lord Elrond is sending out warriors?" Aragorn asked.

Elladan nodded. "He is considering it. He awaits word from outlying patrols, and from us. From you."

"Elrohir speaks hopefully of its being gone, but I fear the wraith still lingers around Windydale," Glorfindel added. "I will try to speak with Gwaihir the Windlord, to see if he has any news. Assurance from him that there is no larger force of orcs anywhere near would be most welcome."

"One thing I have wondered," Aragorn said, "is from whence the orcs came. The wraith seems able to replenish his forces at will."

"Mostly from the Misty Mountains," Glorfindel said. "They heed the Nazgûl’s call. But without his leadership, they likely will retreat back into their caves as the weather deepens toward winter. That is my hope, at any rate. But what I would know, however," he said, as he raked Aragorn from head to toe with a gaze that made Aragorn feel that every secret he tried to keep had been laid bare, "is what exactly he may have discovered in his encounter with you."

"He did not discover who I am."

Glorfindel nodded, satisfied, but Elrohir frowned and stepped over to grip Aragorn’s arm. "From the first moment, I sensed a shadow upon you, an echo only but evidence still of evil’s touch, but hoped I was wrong. What happened?"

When Aragorn hesitated, Halbarad stepped forward. "Aragorn was nearly killed by the Nazgûl. That is why we lingered here instead of heading to Windydale," he growled. "But he would never tell you that. No, he would rather stand swaying on his feet, imagining he were fooling you into thinking all was well."

"Halbarad, hold your tongue," Aragorn hissed.

Elladan snickered, but Elrohir merely intensified his already painful grip on Aragorn’s upper arm. "Is this true?"

He glared at Elrohir. "If you would release your death grip on my arm, I might be able to unclench my jaw long enough to explain."

Elrohir let go. "Speak, then."

"I fought with him, yes, although Halbarad was the one that ultimately drove him off. I am a bit worse for wear, perhaps, but nothing from which I will not recover."

"‘A bit worse for wear’, you say! You came within an eyelash of dying," Halbarad said bluntly, then turned toward Elrohir. "While the rest of us were engaged with the orcs, your brother here fought long against the Nazgûl, until his blade shattered and he could no longer stand on his feet. And even then, he fought with a branch and for all I know his bare hands before he finally fell to a blow to his chest from the flat of the Nazgûl’s blade and the Black Breath finally overcame him. None of us would have lasted so long." Assorted nods from the other Rangers affirmed his words. Aragorn stood silent, fighting back the urge to clap a hand over Halbarad’s mouth. Halbarad continued, "We managed to use fire to scare the wraith off–"

"No," Aragorn finally interrupted, unable to hold his tongue any longer. "You used the fire, Halbarad. You were the one that drove off the Nazgûl. So if you feel you must put me on a pedestal like some sort of ridiculous hero, dispense with the false modesty and put yourself up there right alongside me."

"Hush, Strider, I’m the one telling this tale," Halbarad muttered into his ear. The men did not hear his words, but the sharp-eared Elves did, and despite the grim nature of the tale, Glorfindel and Elladan eyed Aragorn with undisguised amusement. Aragorn started to protest, but then decided silence was the only safe option. He clamped his lips together and stared down at his boots. Better to stare at the snowy mud than endure their mocking gazes.

Halbarad continued. "As I was saying, we were able to scoop up Aragorn and ride to safety. Aragorn was halfway to Mandos’ Hall, but the Valar had mercy and we managed to bring him back with athelas." He put a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder, continuing more softly, all hints of teasing gone. "But he has suffered greatly and has yet to fully recover. It is my contention that he needs the care of Lord Elrond. It is his contention, however, to stubbornly ignore my advice and charge off to Windydale to save the town. Now that we know the town is beyond our help, maybe he will actually acquiesce to common sense."

"Halbarad exaggerates. Greatly. I am well on the way to recovering.  And from the sound of it, Windydale needs our help more than ever, in caring for the wounded and rebuilding what we can."

"What of your arm?" Elladan said, pointing at the bandage visible through the tear in Aragorn’s sleeve that he had yet to repair.

"Merely splinter wounds, from Bracken’s Ferry. They are healing."

"Why do you limp?" Elrohir demanded.

"I turned my ankle, nothing more." To demonstrate, he lifted his right leg and put all his weight on his left ankle. It twinged mightily but he gritted his teeth and hoped the pain did not show.

Elrohir did not look overly convinced at his act. "I feel the Black Breath is still upon you, in some fashion."

"All you feel is the aftereffects. I am on the mend, and have no need of additional care from you, or from Elladan, or Lord Elrond, or anyone else." Aragorn took a deep breath to control the anger rising in him. "My health is not a hindrance. What is important now is to ride to Windydale to offer what comfort we can. Lord Elrond can wait another day for my arrival." He glared at his brother, at Glorfindel. At Halbarad. Daring them to protest his next words. "We will ride on the morn."

He felt little satisfaction at their silent nods. Windydale had been taken. He had been too late. He had failed his people.

Again.

If the sorrow that pressed down on them at Bracken’s Ferry was a matter of silence and the empty stares of the dead, the tragedy of Windydale battered them with weeping and the shattered gazes of the living.

Aragorn rode slowly through what was left of Windydale’s gates, Halbarad beside and just behind him. His brothers and Lord Glorfindel, followed by the rest of the Dúnedain, trailed behind Halbarad. The morning sun shone gently down on an ancient town that once had been fortified in time beyond memory with a high stone wall. Now, much of that wall had crumbled and been replaced by wooden stockade fencing. It seemed sturdy enough, and should have been sufficient for the usual threats that lurked north of the East-West Road and west of the river – bandits and the occasional wolf pack straying down from the north during hard winters, even the occasional attack from smaller bands of orcs. But it had not been sufficiently stout to hold off a determined attack by a sizeable contingent of orcs led by a Nazgûl, with its debilitating weapon of the Black Breath. The gate had been smashed into splinters. A large bloodstain covered one of the fallen panels. Aragorn wondered whose blood it was. A knot formed in his gut, one that tightened with each step of his horse until the pain of it thrust into him like a dagger.

He took a deep breath. There was no smell of dead things this time. The dead had been cleared away, no doubt properly buried by now, and the survivors, singly and in small clusters, stood in silence, watching the Rangers as they progressed through the desolate landscape that had once been a small but lively river town. A place that had once been called home by so many, but to call it that now seemed preposterously ill-spoken. How could it ever be a home again, after this? Aragorn forced himself to meet the eyes of the people, eyes that still reflected horrors that should never have been witnessed, eyes that asked the inevitable question.

Why did you not come?

He pulled up outside the apothecary, an establishment he had patronized occasionally to refill his healing supplies. He wondered if the old herbmaster had survived. It bothered him that he could not recall the man’s name. He dismounted as the rest of the patrol pulled up alongside. Elladan leaned down without dismounting and spoke quietly. "By your leave, I will take Eledh and ride further ahead," he said. "There may be signs that I missed in our hurry to find you. Look not for us for some hours, perhaps not until evening, for I wish to do a thorough reconnaissance of the lands surrounding this village."

Aragorn nodded absently, for his attention was caught by a woman, young and with a child no more than three or four clinging to her skirts. Her hands clutched a blanket, squeezing it in a spasmodic rhythm of grief. Her eyes were dry but burned as with a fever. "My baby," she whispered as she impaled him with that cauterizing gaze. "It killed my baby."

Words had never seemed so inadequate, but he said softly, "I am sorry, my lady."

"It killed my baby," she said, loudly and distinctly, as though he were a half-deaf simpleton, unable to understand speech. "It killed my son and left his body in the street and then it killed my husband!"

She took a step forward, and Halbarad quickly stepped in front of Aragorn. "Please, my lady, do not do this," he said softly, holding a hand out to ward her off should she step closer.

"Peace, Halbarad," Aragorn murmured. He stepped around Halbarad and walked to the woman, holding a hand out in comfort. "I truly am sorry."

"What is your sorrow compared to mine! Why did you not come?" she choked, then suddenly threw herself at him, beating his chest with her fists as she broke into sobs. "Why did you not come?" He felt the blood drain from his face as each blow hit unerringly on the worst parts of the bruise across his chest. The sickening blackness rose again in his mind, but he set his jaw against it. He caught at her arms, giving his men a wordless glance to stay back. She struggled, her arms surprisingly strong, but he managed to lower them and pull her instead into his embrace. Then, as suddenly as she had attacked, she fell limp and sobbing against him. For a long moment, he simply held her, feeling her shuddering cries, letting her grief flog him. I tarried too long... coddled myself when people... children... were dying.

He deserved every bit of pain she dealt him.

She finally pulled away from him with an almost angry jerk. She did not look at him but grabbed the hand of her small child and stumbled away from him, down the street and into a small house. Aragorn watched her until the closing door shut her off from view. After a long moment, he turned to his men. "Galadh, Halbarad... go around the town," he said quietly. "See who might still need assistance, see what remains of the buildings... anything that we can do to help them, offer it freely. Denlad, Elrohir, I would have you come with me to help tend the wounded. I am sure what healer they may have is quite overwhelmed and needs our help."

He watched them nod and slowly spread out down the muddy street, then tugged at the girth strap of his horse, not because it needed to be checked but because it gave him something to look at besides the awful, accusing sorrow in the faces of all those around him. He heard a footstep beside him, one so light and quiet that he knew it was Elrohir or Glorfindel. He really didn’t want to talk to either. "Before you ask it, I will tell you: no, I am not fine. Nor am I likely to be fine any time soon, not until I drive that wretched monster from my lands."

He heard a chuckle and glanced up in surprise to see it was Glorfindel who laughed. But the amused set to his mouth did not reach his eyes. "I did not expect anything less from you, Estel Elrondion. You are indeed your fathers’ son, after all. Both of them," he added.

Elrohir stepped over. He placed a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder and squeezed gently. "We will find the wraith, Estel. This shall not happen again."

Aragorn wished he could believe him. But what, really, could five men and three Elves do against such power? The blackness in him surged again, swelling into a wave of hopelessness that threatened to utterly engulf him. He shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against his saddle, fighting back weariness. The leather was still warm from where his leg had pressed against it during their hard three hours of riding. He concentrated on the smell of the it and the sweat-darkened stain of it and the buttery softness of it that years of riding had wrought and wished he might never lift his head again.

Estel...

Elrohir. His brother’s mind gently within his own. Concerned, as always.

"Worry not, Elrohir," he said aloud, "despite what I said. I am simply tired." He straightened up and looked grimly at the town, at the people who had left their despairing huddles and moved away, as though the presence of their Chieftain failed to be of the smallest interest to them. And why should it be, when my arrival comes far too late? He looked at Glorfindel. "I would not presume to order you to do anything, but I would like you to go round with Halbarad and Galadh for now, and, if you agree, to meet with Elladan and Eledh when they return. We will decide our next course based on their report. I will be with the wounded."

"You do not presume upon me, Aragorn. When I am here, in your lands, with your people, I follow your orders," Glorfindel said, his eyes shining warmly at him. "I will of course do whatever you need me to." He nodded to Elrohir, then turned and trotted down the street to catch up with Galadh.

Aragorn looked at his brother and Denlad. "Come. Let us put to right those that we can."

~~~

Aragorn pulled the blanket up around the wounded man’s shoulders and straightened, wincing at the twinge in his lower back. He rubbed the back of a bloodstained hand across his forehead, trying without discernable success to massage away what felt like an iron band squeezing his skull. "He will sleep now," he rasped. He could not remember when he last took a drink of water. The man’s wife nodded her thanks, and Aragorn staggered over to a laver and plunged both hands into the tepid water. He stared vacantly at the swirling brown stains as the blood washed from his hands.

How many hours had it been since he walked into this shadowed place of pain and suffering? At least six? He squinted at the grimy window. The sun had nearly set, so more likely closer to seven. Normally he would barely feel the first hint of fatigue after such a time, but even he had to admit he was far from normal, far from fit. The hard ride and the backbreaking work of lifting broken bodies to reapply bandages or ease them into more comfortable positions had taken their toll. The town’s healer had died in the attack, and despite the care Elladan and Elrohir had initially provided, much was left to be done to help the wounded. Aragorn was right in that the people tending the wounded were overwhelmed and in dire need of help. So the three of them had labored far beyond their endurance. Or at least beyond his endurance. Elrohir seemed as tireless as ever, and even Denlad seemed to be holding up well. But Aragorn’s hands trembled, his left arm ached and his ankle throbbed. His head felt as though a company of dwarves were mining mithril within his skull. But as hard as it was physically, his spirit flagged far more. He felt beaten. Bruised of heart and broken in his soul, and in his darker moments, he really had no idea how or where or when he might find any sort of solace for his wounded spirit.

He winced. Darker moments. As if of late there were any moments of light and hope. My life has become nothing more than a constant stream of dark moments, one flowing indiscernibly into the next like the foul waters of Mordor.

A patient groaned and he saw Denlad bend quickly to lay a cloth across the man’s brow. So many brows had they wiped. Too many. Just as they had held too many hands, many of which were far too small, as they helplessly watched one after another slide into death’s unrelenting embrace. Denlad even now was bent over one of the children, singing a soft lullaby to try to calm the little one’s heart-wrenching cries. Denlad glanced up at that moment, his face pale, his eyes murky with sorrow and fatigue. He shook his head slightly.

Aragorn blinked several times, telling himself his eyes burned from fatigue. He dumped the dirty water into a bucket provided for that purpose and refilled the basin with fresh water from a stoneware pitcher. Another plunge of his hands into the water and this time the water remained clear. He clenched his fists, hunching his shoulders as he bowed his head.

He could still feel a tiny hand in his as, an hour earlier, another child’s life had slipped away. And suddenly he was in an altogether different place, one smelling of soot and ash and death and resounding with the crashing groans of a burned-out building collapsing around him as it stole yet another small life out of his hands.

His hands and the laver and the wooden tabled blurred and he quickly splashed his face with water, but it did not wash away the sorrow.

Nothing would ever do that. And somewhere, buried beneath the crushing sorrow, a spark smoldered. Anger started to fester and burn. "You will pay, Sauron," he whispered. "Somehow, I will make you pay..."

And how do you propose to do that, when you cannot manage to warn one small town less than ten leagues away that they are about to be attacked?

He balled up the towel in his hands. Tried to banish the mocking voice of his doubts, but again the darkness overshadowed his mind, turning it toward despair, cutting off any ray of hope with its stygian hand...

A voice from the open doorway ripped him from his troubled thoughts. "Aragorn?"

Halbarad. Aragorn turned away and scrubbed his face with the towel, knowing even as he did so he would be unable to hide anything from Halbarad. "Here."

Halbarad made his way through the maze of beds. He took in Aragorn’s reddened eyes, but only said quietly, "I hate the smell of these places. Blood and vomit and worse. ‘Tis the smell of fear."

Aragorn folded the towel, laying it neatly beside the basin.

Halbarad picked up a cup and filled it with water. He handed it to Aragorn. "Drink."

Aragorn took it but did not take a drink. He stared down at it as if he had never before seen a cup of water.

"Will any of these make it?" Halbarad asked.

Aragorn blinked and looked up. He took a drink, finally. The water felt obscenely comforting. It nearly gagged him, but he choked it down and with it some of the guilt. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he surveyed the room. "Some will. Others," he shrugged. "They are now in the hands of the Valar. I have done all I know to do."

They stood for a wordless moment, each of them watching as Denlad moved to another bed and knelt, softly speaking to a man who had lost his arm to an orc’s scimitar. He held the man’s remaining hand and said something that brought a smile to the man’s face.

"Our mighty warrior hides a healer’s heart behind that sword of his," Halbarad said. Then he sighed when Aragorn said nothing. "As do you, my friend, but you have given more of yourself than you can afford, I fear. You are dead on your feet. Come and eat, then rest. Denlad and Elrohir will keep things well in hand for a time. And the rest are hard at work helping the many families whose homes were damaged. We can spare you while you find a bit of a respite."

It was a sign of his exhaustion that he did not argue as Halbarad grasped his arm and led him into the evening twilight. His steps faltered, however, when he was confronted by a knot of scowling men, one of which, a dark-haired man who was nearly as tall as Aragorn but about fifty pounds heavier, stepped forward. "We would speak to you, Lord Aragorn."

An air of ill-defined tension hung heavily on the small crowd, enough so that Halbarad’s hand went to his sword. Aragorn stayed his movement with a touch to Halbarad’s elbow. "Of course," he told the man. He wondered how long he would last should the huge man decide to take out his rage on his Chieftain. Not long, he decided, and wondered tiredly if perhaps being beaten into oblivion would not be such a bad thing.

"My name is Belendur," the man started, then waved a hand vaguely at the assemblage behind him. "We, that is, all of us here, want to apologize for our behavior as you and your men arrived. We were sore of heart and angry but you should not have borne the brunt of our rage. It is to our shame that we took out on you what should be saved for the one truly deserving of it." He ducked his head and stepped back.

Aragorn was speechless for a long moment, then he fumbled to find words. "You have not offended me, nor any of my men. Far from it–it is we who must ask you for forgiveness, if such can ever be granted, for our lateness is inexcusable."

The man looked up, shaking his head. "‘Twas a fell thing to have happened, but it is not for any of us to go about placing blame on any save Sauron himself. You have only to tell us what we might do, for we will follow you, as we have always followed our Chieftain."

Perhaps there might still remain a bright moment ...

Aragorn sized up each of the men, seeing nothing in their eyes but forgiveness. One or two of the men nodded as their gazes met. Aragorn looked again at their spokesman. "The greatest thing you can do is to rebuild Windydale. As for the other... your faith in me, in light of what has happened, is...." Aragorn’s throat seemed to close up entirely. He had to look away to the shadowed hills far beyond the ruined town, to try to find some sort of composure in their timeless solitude. Moonlight shone on the mists gathering in the folds of the valleys, and its beauty calmed him. "Thank you," he finally managed, not trusting himself to say more, nor daring to meet anyone’s eyes for fear it would be his undoing.

Halbarad put a hand on his elbow. "If you will excuse us, the Chieftain is sore of spirit and tired of body and would rest."

The men parted, but one, a short man with thinning grey hair but a luxuriously full white beard, held up a hand. "I would have you stay with me, Lord Aragorn. You and all your men are welcome to find respite in my inn, which, thanks to the Valar, remains standing."

Aragorn nodded, grateful. "That would be most welcome. You will be paid in full."

"No, sir! I would never dream to so levy my Chieftain or his men, especially after the long hours you labored to save so many of our wounded. I was in there, not long before you came. I saw the fevers, the wounds that needed cleaning but had not because there were too many fallen and not enough able-bodied men and women to help. Many more would have died had it not been for the healing in your hands. And the rest of your men, laboring so tirelessly to repair homes and make them livable. No, offering you shelter for the night is the least I am able to do. It is all set up and waiting for you. So you will stay, at my behest."

Aragorn dredged up a tired smile. "Then we accept, and no coin shall pass between us to cast a shadow on your generosity."

They followed the man toward a small stone building, a crumbling structure barely bigger than a cottage. It certainly was not anything to which Aragorn would have given a second glance, and it definitely did not appear to be an inn. As he took in the sagging roof and the low eaves, his doubts grew. "There can’t be room in there for all of us," he whispered to Halbarad.

Halbarad’s raised eyebrow conveyed his own doubt, but they were catching up with the owner and dared say no more.

The little man fumbled with the door latch and disappeared inside. They followed him in and found themselves in a surprisingly spacious room, with a fire snapping and crackling on the hearth. Cots had been set up, enough for all of them, and while it made the room crowded, there was room enough after all. The man even had food and drink spread on a table. Aragorn lowered himself to one of the cots with a tired sigh. It felt good to be off his feet. "Thank you. This will do very nicely."

The old man smiled widely and bowed. "I will leave you to your rest. Please, call on me should you have any need. I have a room in the back." He gave them both one more bow of his head, then left them to fend for themselves.

"Shall I get you a plate?" Halbarad asked.

Aragorn nodded, but even as Halbarad walked toward the table, weariness pressed on Aragorn with an urgency he could no longer ignore. He stretched out on the cot and within moments was fast asleep.

~~~

He was dreaming. Standing in a doorway, looking on row upon row of hurting people, crying for him, reaching for him. He looked into their burning eyes and tried to speak comfort but no words came. He tried to reach out to touch them but he could not lift his hands. Then a child at the very end cried out his name, over and over, each strident call throbbing with her pain and fear and he tried to run to her but his feet would not move and he looked down and it was the sea, that black sea, rising to engulf him and all those wounded, hurting people, and if he did not move it would take even the child but he could not move... he could not...

He gasped and opened his eyes, the dream shattering but leaving in its wake cobwebbed fragments of guilt and hopelessness and defeat.

He rubbed a hand over his face. He sat up, pushing away the blanket that Halbarad must have draped over him. He was unsure how long he had slept. The room was dark, but for the light of the fire. He was alone, a plate with bread, fruit and a bit of cheese sitting on a table beside him. The thought of food sickened him, but he reached for the tankard. He sniffed. Tea. Trust Halbarad not to let him drink ale on an empty stomach. Windydale certainly did not need a drunken Chieftain on top of all their other ills. He took a long draught. It was tepid but good and strong. He picked up the piece of cheese and gave it a desultory nibble, for he knew he must eat something, even if it tasted of ash. He chewed and washed it down with tea, then forced himself to eat the rest of the food. He wondered where Halbarad was.

He eased to his feet, grunting as his back popped. He stretched and twisted and worked out the worst of the stiffness. He walked toward the door, his footsteps a bit unsteady with the fatigue that still pulled at his movements and dulled his thoughts. But as he opened the door, he could hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats, and their urgent cadence drove his weariness from him as effectively as a dash of cold water.

He hurried out onto the stone stoop. Halbarad had been sitting on the step, eating his own meal, and he scrambled to his feet. "Looks like Elladan and Eledh are returning."

Aragorn glanced at the sky, gauging the time from the stars. He had slept for perhaps three hours, maybe four. It had not been enough but it would have to do. "Were you able to find some rest, Halbard?"

Halbarad shrugged. "I was not overly tired."

They fell silent as Elladan and Eledh thundered toward them at a speed that would no doubt break their necks if their mounts were not so sure footed. He watched, worried, as they reined in, Eledh’s horse rearing at the sudden stop. Halbarad hurried forward and grabbed the bit and helped Eledh control his excited mount. "I pray I am wrong, but you do not appear to bear good news," he said.

"Why in these dark days would you think we bring aught but bad news?" Eledh retorted, then nodded at Elladan.

"We need not ride out after the Nazgûl," Elladan said, his lips tightening into a grim slash. "Even now, the wraith and his fell company march again toward Windydale.

"We have perhaps an hour, no more, and they will be upon us."

"You most certainly will not!" Halbarad roared.

They were alone in the small inn. Upon hearing the dread news, Aragorn and Glorfindel had conferred and it was decided that Glorfindel would be the one to organize and lead the defense. Loathe as Aragorn was to admit any sort of weakness, he knew it only made sense for Glorfindel to lead the men in battle instead of an exhausted, battered Chieftain, and one who had already managed to lose a man in battle, botch a rescue attempt, and nearly succumb to the Black Breath at that. Hardly fit qualifications compared to a mighty Elf lord who had slain a Balrog and driven the Witch-king from Angmar. As far as Aragorn knew, there was little that Glorfindel feared, and still less that he could not defeat. When a few of the less understanding townspeople grumbled about being led by a "pointy-eared elf instead of our Chieftain," Aragorn had quickly and decisively quelled the dissent by pointing out the lunacy of foregoing the leadership of one nearly as mighty as a Maia. Glorfindel had listened to the debate in silence, his arms folded and the faintest of smiles tilting the corners of his mouth. When at last he was grudgingly accepted as the leader, he had given Aragorn a surreptitious wink and a whispered promise not to completely usurp his chieftaincy. "I promise to give it back to you in one piece," he murmured as he offered his hand.

"I will hold you to that," Aragorn said, clasping Glorfindel’s arm.

Glorfindel gave Aragorn’s arm a squeeze that nearly crushed it, then left with the patrol to set up the defense.

Aragorn rubbed his arm even as he now dealt with Halbarad. "I most certainly will go forth and fight," he told Halbarad calmly.

"You do not even have a sword!"

"I will borrow one of Elladan’s. I have used his blade often enough." He sat down on a rudely made stool and tugged his left boot off and felt his swollen ankle. It was better for his short bit of sleep, but standing on it for all those hours in the healer’s quarters had done it no good. But if he wrapped it tightly, he supposed it would hold up. If not ... well, there was little use in speculating, just as there was little use in speculating how well his wounded left arm would hold up. He stretched his hand toward the table, waggling his fingers. Halbarad glared at him but snatched up the length of cloth laying there and handed it to him.

"You dare not get close to the Nazgûl, Aragorn. Such an encounter when you are still suffering from–"

"I am no longer suffering from the Black Breath, Halbarad. At least no more than after one has a cold and all that remains is a bit of a sniffle."

"A sniffle! That you would compare...." He seemed to lose all power of speech for a moment, but he quickly regained it and the fire in his eye, if possible, grew hotter. "If you no longer suffer the Black Breath, then I have three heads and six arms! Aragorn, do not force me to do battle with you."

"Of course I won’t," Aragorn assured him in the most reasonable voice he could muster considering how thin his patience was wearing. "We are here to battle the Nazgûl, not each other. Battling me would be counterproductive... and highly painful." He finished wrapping his ankle and stamped into his boot. Better. He looked up at Halbarad and a sudden reckless joy surged within him, a feeling he had not felt in weeks, or perhaps months. Whatever the outcome, this thing would end here and now and he could not hold back a feral grin. "Come, my friend, stop your mollycoddling and gnashing of teeth. Now is the time to battle our enemy!"

~~~

"I will not leave your side," Halbarad growled into Aragorn’s ear as they stood in the shadows of a small cottage to the rear of the men guarding the gate. Elladan’s extra sword hung at his belt, but Aragorn’s pride chafed as he gripped Eledh’s spare bow. An archer. He had been assigned to the shadows, to rain down arrows upon the orcs. Glorfindel knows I am far from the best archer even when I have two good arms. That and keeping Halbarad hovering over me like a nursemaid is jeopardizing the success of this battle in order to keep me ‘safe’... But he immediately chided himself. Arrogant fool. Had he not, after all, agreed to let Glorfindel lead this thing? If Glorfindel felt Aragorn would serve him better by using a bow than by wielding a sword, and felt Halbarad would be better used watching his back, so be it. The battle would likely not hinge on any single sword stroke of his own, and Valar knew the scant success he had in his last encounter with the Nazgûl. Still, it galled and there was aught he could do about the feeling save try to ignore it.

Then he smiled slowly. Of course, I will eventually run out of arrows....

He loosened Elladan’s sword in its scabbard.

Halbarad nudged him to get his attention. "And if I fall, it will be on your head because I will have been too distracted protecting your stubborn hide to watch after my own."

"You will not fall," Aragorn murmured. He strained to see Halbarad’s face, but the night was too dark. Still, he could almost feel Halbarad’s displeasure beating against the back of his neck. "Halbarad, we have been through much together. It will not end here."

"Promise me, at the very least, that you will not go after the Nazgûl. Leave him for Glorfindel as we have planned."

Aragorn tested the tightness of the bowstring before answering. The bow felt right enough in his hand, even though it had been made for Eledh. The greater question was whether his injured arm held enough strength for him to wield it properly. He frowned into the darkness. A borrowed blade, a borrowed bow. He longed for the comfort and familiarity of his own sword. But it lies shattered ten leagues to the north, so stop this foolish pining after what cannot be! He hefted the bow. "I promise only this: I will not seek out the Nazgûl unless I have no choice."

"Just stay hidden," Halbarad persisted, as if he feared that at the first orc through the gate Aragorn would leap screaming from his post in some berserk fit of singlehanded vengeance. "We do not want the enemy to find out who you are. It would seem the wiser strategy to keep you entirely out of his sight."

"He does not know who I am."

"Yet," Halbarad muttered.

Aragorn smiled grimly. He supposed he could not blame Halbarad for his gloomy spirit. Optimism was a commodity in short supply of late. He wiped his sweating hand against his leggings and hitched the quiver to a more handy position. He drew an arrow and swiftly notched it, satisfied that although he lacked the speed with which Eledh handled his bow, he would make a fair accounting of himself when all was said and done. "I will not launch myself willy nilly at the Nazgûl, Halbarad. My post is here, and here I shall stay unless all seems lost."

"No, if all seems lost, you will hie thyself far from here, and I shall be right behind you, guarding your back and pushing you to safety."

"The only one to hie himself anywhere will be that wraith, when he sees Glorfindel."

Halbarad made a snorting noise, but if he started to reply, it was lost on Aragorn, for he suddenly felt an immense dread press upon him. "Halbarad," he gasped.

"I feel it. He is here."

Aragorn was unprepared for the fear that rose in him. For a long moment, he felt he could neither move nor speak nor even breathe as the familiar sickening blackness tried to take him. No. I will not let this defeat me. Not again. Never again.

He took a deep breath and raised his bow, notching an arrow to the string. An orc horn blew, shattering the stillness of the night, and then dark shadows poured through the gate–low, squat ugly shapes that let out keening cries and shrieks that grated on the ears. It seemed like hundreds swarmed through before he heard Glorfindel’s cry.

"Fire!"

Aragorn felt his arm draw back the arrow, felt the tension in the bow and the soreness in his left arm but the arm was steady and then he felt the slight sting as his fingers released the arrow. He heard the swish of it leaving the bow and saw a hunched shadow fall and then he felt his hand reach back and find another arrow and notch it and pull it back and release it and another shadow fell and somehow it seemed it was not he who controlled his arms but someone else, some other sane and calm man who was not ready to scream in fear and who was not trembling of knee and short of breath and consumed with terror. Why is the fear so much stronger this time than the last? Is it the Nazgûl, or am I truly weaker than I thought?

Vaguely he was aware of other archers loosing their arrows, that more orcs fell than could be accounted to his arrows, but as terror wrapped itself around his very bones, it was all he could do to simply draw, pull, release... draw, pull, release....

And then his hand met an empty quiver. He dropped the bow and his left arm pained him but his right hand fell to the sword at his waist, and he drew it and something about the touch of that solid hilt under his hand steadied him. He looked at the moonlight glinting cold and savage along the steel’s length and the battle song surged and in its flood some of the terror was washed away. He lunged forward to engage the nearest enemy, but a hand fell hard upon his shoulder, and he was jerked back. Halbarad pushed him hard against the cottage wall, holding him there with an iron-hard arm across his chest. He winced both from the pressure on his bruised chest and from the rough stones gouging into his back. "Halbarad, let me go!" he growled, trying without success to push Halbarad away.

"No! My orders come straight from Lord Glorfindel: I am not to let you out of my sight nor into the midst of the fight. And by the Valar, I aim to do just that!"

Aragorn struggled again and managed to free himself from Halbarad’s arm. "The battle will come to us whether we like it or not. Far better to make an attack of our own choosing, in the open, instead of remaining trapped back in this corner!"

He spun away from Halbarad’s flailing arm and heard his friend utter a curse, but then he screamed out, "Elendil!" and drove his sword through the back of an orc and all thought of Halbarad and Glorfindel faded beneath the siren call of battle.

~~~

Another orc fell and Aragorn savagely wrenched his sword free of its mangy hide, the sudden release of it sending him off balance to one knee. The fall saved his life as an arrow intended for his heart flew past his head into the darkness behind him. He heard a grunt, then the sound of a falling body and for a moment he froze.

Halbarad...

He leapt to his feet and spun around, heedless of any pain in his bad ankle as he ran to the dark shape lying on the ground. He reached down....

"Thank the Valar," he whispered.

It was an orc, felled by his own kind. Aragorn gave it no more consideration as he turned his head this way and that, trying to locate Halbarad. He saw Eledh, still launching arrows from what must surely be an inexhaustible supply. Galadh and Denlad fought with their backs to one another, protecting each other as one after another of the enemy fell to their blades.

Of Halbarad, Glorfindel or his brothers, there was no sign, and fear churned in the hollow void of his gut.

The persistent echo of Halbarad’s voice... I will not leave your side!... refused to be ignored. "Halbarad!" Aragorn shouted, and then had to fend off an orc who answered the call instead. Aragorn grunted and slashed and the orc finally fell and then Aragorn ran stumbling down the street, where a knot of orcs was being decimated easily by a group of townsfolk armed with cudgels. They did not appear to need his help, so he kept on, trying to look everywhere at once.

Halbarad, where are you?

He finally spotted his brothers, both of whom seemed to be handily dispatching a pair of orcs. Aragorn was starting to feel decidedly unneeded. Which would make Halbarad happy, if he could but find him.

He rounded a corner, then another. Windydale seemed a rat’s warren of twisting alleys and streets. He finally staggered to a halt in a darkened alley between the crumbled remains of an ancient barn and a shop of some sort. He wished he dared call out Halbarad’s name, but he had already proven that calling out only brought attention his way from the wrong quarter. And the way his head was starting to swim, he had no desire to take on a group of orcs singlehandedly. He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees.

Valar, but his stamina was not what it should be.

He took in several deep breaths, fighting to calm his wildly beating heart and find some way to block the cursed terror of the Nazgûl that surged against his spirit in ever-strengthening waves. Glorfindel, I hope you drive that wretched beast away, and soon, or I will have to find a hole somewhere to crawl into and hide...

He shook himself in disgust. He would not flee. "Valar speed your fight, Glorfindel," he murmured and shoved himself upright and started jogging down the street again, stumbling a bit over the broken and uneven paving stones. His ankle twinged in warning, but he dared not stop. Another corner, another pause to check that the way was clear of orcs but there was still no sign of his comrade.

Halbarad, please ... show yourself!

He ran again, more slowly, barely managing a limping shuffle as he carefully crossed the yawning mouths of two more dark alleyways. He rounded the edge of the apothecary shop and even as he caught a glimpse of a tall, robed figure, wreathed in shadows, the Nazgûl’s black miasma consumed him as if he had dashed straight into the billowing smoke from a fire. He staggered backward, blinded, his mind inundated by such a cloud of hopeless desolation that surely all that was light and good had in that moment ceased to exist. He fell to one knee, his sword clattering to the stones as pain knifed into his chest.

A very small voice screamed at him to pick up his sword... pick up the sword!... but he could only kneel as the nightmare that had been confined to the boundaries of sleep surged into his waking thoughts. He fell heavily onto his side as all his strength drained utterly away. "Valar, no ..." he whispered, trying without success to hold to the vestiges of coherent thought, but the black voice pressed on his mind and again he was lost in that forsaken sea where he was alone and no one could reach him. Not Halbarad. Not Denlad or Elrond or his brothers or Arwen...

There was only himself. No one else.

"No," he groaned, and suddenly anger surged hot within him. "No!"

It will not end this way!

Summoning strength from some deep well that he did not realize was within him, he grasped his sword and put his hand to the building beside him and hauled himself to his feet. His sword scraped against the rocky ground with the ugly sound of its edge chipping, but he paid it no mind. He simply leaned against the wall, trying to draw in air that seemed unable to get past the agony in his chest. Vaguely within that pain he felt another in his left arm. With another wrenching groan, he staggered back the way he came and the pain eased enough to let him draw a breath as he stopped and leaned against a giant tree that grew close to a cottage.

As he stood trying to organize his muddled thoughts, he heard footsteps pounding toward him. He swept his blade upward and nearly skewered Halbarad as he ran up to him. Halbarad blocked Aragorn’s blade easily with his own. "Easy, Aragorn! Mind where you swing that," he cried, then broke into a laugh. "I know it feels as though Morgoth himself has descended on us, but truly we are about to win, my friend. Glorfindel is just round that corner yonder, and he has the Nazgûl retreating even as we speak."

When Aragorn failed to reply and simply let his sword arm fall limply to his side, Halbarad’s mirth faded. "Aragorn! Are you wounded?"

Aragorn shook his head, still clutching his chest. "It... it is nothing. Just the old bruise. Somehow... proximity to the wraith is making it ache." Ache. More like burning with icy fire straight from Forochel. He swallowed hard and forced his hand from his chest, struggling to project a facade that all was well when he knew it was far from that. "Where were you?"

"I might easily ask the same of you. I stopped to stave off an orc’s pike and when I turned, you were gone."

Aragorn still could not seem to catch his breath. He leaned his head against the tree and shut his eyes. His free hand strayed back to his chest. "You say Glorfindel is defeating the wraith?"

"Aye," Halbarad answered. He pried Aragorn’s hand away and with one swift movement jerked Aragorn’s tunic up. He ran his hands across Aragorn’s chest and ribs.

Aragorn shoved his hand away. "Stop. The pain is... is manageable." As the fear will be, soon. He dredged up a smile. "We seem to have succeeded this time."

"So it would appear. But there are still orcs about. Keep your sword ready."

As if he could put it away when such terrible dread still coursed through his veins. Still, the menace was weakening, if only slightly. He took a deep breath and some of the fire in his chest cooled. Relief made his hands and voice shake. "Halbarad, I am sorry."

"For what?"

Another steadying breath, and his voice strengthened. "For preventing you from performing your sworn duties. I am a man used to giving orders but it seems I have trouble following them. Forgive me. I should never have fought you off and run into the battle. It was the act of a foolish child, not a seasoned warrior, and I have no excuse to offer."

Halbarad waited a moment. "Is that all?"

"Yes."

"So be it, then, I forgive you," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Now mind we still our tongues lest our idle chatter draw the last remnants of orcs down on our heads."

Aragorn nodded, and taking another careful breath, hefted the sword in his hand. "Let us find Glorfindel. He may need us."

"Are you sure?"

"No," Aragorn admitted. The way fear and pain had overwhelmed him, he had doubts that he could make it a step past the apothecary. "But I cannot cower in the shadows if Glorfindel needs my sword, however feeble my help may be."

"And feeble it just may be, from the looks of you. But your stubbornness knows no such weakness, I fear. So come, and at least walk behind me. How’s your arm?

"Hurting. But there is strength in it yet."

"And your ankle?"

Aragorn merely grunted. That it was holding up was about the only thing he could say about it.

"That bad, eh?"

"Fear not, it will hold. Now move."

They kept to the side of the street where the moonlight cast its deepest shadows. They passed the apothecary, then crossed the area where Aragorn had glimpsed the Nazgûl and pressed on. This part of town seemed quiet, so empty of the enemy that a few frost-hardy crickets had resumed their desultory chirping. It would seem that all was well, but for the pain in his chest that would not ease and the fear that trailed cold fingers along his spine, both of which told him that Glorfindel had not yet succeeded in overcoming the wraith. In the near distance, Aragorn heard the clang of swords. Without thinking, he quickened his pace and started to move past Halbarad.

"Aragorn."

He slowed down, giving Halbarad a rueful smile that he could not see in the darkness. "Perhaps you should put rein and bridle on me."

"Do not tempt me."

They carefully rounded a corner and Aragorn nearly bumped into Halbarad when he suddenly stopped. He followed Halbarad’s speechless gaze.

They had found Glorfindel.

Glorfindel stood before the Nazgûl, arms raised, in one hand his great sword and in the other a fiery torch. With his legs braced and his head thrown back, flames reflecting on his golden hair, it almost seemed as though he were alight with the power of the Maiar.

"By the Valar," Halbarad breathed. Aragorn could say nothing, for fear seemed to have frozen his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He felt his knees weaken, and he was only vaguely aware that Halbarad had slipped his arm around him.

"Aragorn?" Halbarad said, taking a step backward and pulling Aragorn with him.

Aragorn shook his head, trying to brace his legs as he fought off the filmy darkness that threatened to drop like a veil across his sight. Another staggering step backward, and finally he felt his mind clear. "Stop," he croaked. "This is far enough."

"Are you sure?"

He nodded. He pulled away from Halbarad and switched Elladan’s sword to his left hand so he could dry the cold sweat from his right hand. Taking a firm grip once again on his sword, he watched Glorfindel face the wraith. He felt Halbarad’s hand again on his arm, gripping it so tightly that Aragorn winced. He glanced at Halbarad and knew from his cousin’s transfixed, terrified gaze that he likely was holding to Aragorn more for his own comfort than to help Aragorn.

Glorfindel took a step forward, then another, and as he circled the wraith, his face came into view and Aragorn saw wrath burning in the Elf lord’s eyes. Glorfindel then started to chant and as his voice raised, Aragorn recognized the ancient hymn.

"O Elbereth Star-kindler

from heaven gazing afar

to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!

O look towards me, Everwhite!"(1)

The Nazgûl responded to the holy words with a ranting litany of fell words in the Dark Tongue, then swung his black sword downward. Sparks flew as Glorfindel raised his blade to meet it. Glorfindel then jumped back and circled, and the wraith circled as well. To Aragorn’s wide-staring eyes, it seemed almost as though Glorfindel was leading the wraith in some otherworldly dance. As Glorfindel continued to circle, the wraith feinted and jabbed, but the wraith’s blade never came near him. Finally, Aragorn could again see Glorfindel’s face, and he heard Halbarad’s shaky chuckle.

"Bless me if that Elf is not enjoying this," Halbarad said.

Indeed, Glorfindel had a slight smile on his face, a look that seemed to say that he had done this before and was somehow both slightly amused and mildly annoyed to have to do it again. He kept circling until again his back was to Aragorn, and then suddenly, as though weary of playing games, he thrust the flame toward the Nazgûl. It let out a shriek that drove through Aragorn’s skull with all the pain of a orc pike. He bit back a scream and grabbed his ears, falling away from Halbarad’s grasp to land hard on his knees. The sound went on and on and Aragorn thought he would shatter from its intensity but finally it cut off and when he dared open his eyes, Glorfindel stood alone, his sword lowered and the flaming brand guttering on the ground before him. The wraith was nowhere in sight. Aragorn pulled his hands from his ears and looked around him as a man emerging from a horrendous nightmare.

"It has fled," Halbarad said wonderingly. He reached down and pulled Aragorn to his feet. Aragorn could not help but see the way Halbarad’s hands shook, but Halbarad’s voice was firm. "I can feel it. It is gone. Glorfindel vanquished it."

Now that the overwhelming terror was fading, all Aragorn felt at that moment was his skull vibrating from those horrendous screeches. He pulled at his ears, opening his mouth to make them pop, trying anything to rid himself of the feeling that his ears were stuffed with wool. "He nearly deafened me."

Halbarad nodded as he tugged on his own earlobe. "Yes, that was certainly some howl he let loose."

Aragorn gave up on his ears and looked around at the dark street. "He does seem to have fled," he said cautiously, but he still felt... something. A menace still hovered, faint like a whiff of far away smoke or the sour smell of rain-soaked ash from some great blaze now extinguished.

"What is wrong?" Halbarad asked when he noticed Aragorn still held his sword at the ready.

"I–" he started, then stopped. "I do not know, other than to say that I do not think the Nazgûl is completely gone."

"You still feel it?"

Aragorn rubbed his chest, which still ached like a broken bone in winter. But was it simply an old ache or indication that the Nazgûl still lingered? It was impossible to tell. Weariness dragged at his limbs and he longed to find rest, but dare not hope for that, not yet. "I do not think we should let down our guard."

"Glorfindel might argue," Halbarad said, and indeed, Glorfindel walked toward them with the nonchalant air of one who has merely shooed away a stray dog.

But as he drew near, his eyes still glinted with such a deadly light that Aragorn had the sudden unlikely urge to fall back to his knees and cower out of the way. But Glorfindel smiled, putting his fist on his chest and bowing deeply. "My apologies for the noise," he said.

Halbarad threw back his head and laughed, a great ringing sound of relief mingled with joy, and Aragorn, despite his unease, found himself able to manage a grim smile. "We will try to overlook it," he said.

Glorfindel straightened and now, with nothing more dangerous than the joy of the Eldar shining in his blue eyes, said, "I do think Balrogs are quieter, on the whole."

Halbarad chuckled, but Aragorn looked past Glorfindel, trying to probe the shadows. "I do not feel the threat is completely gone. There may still be orcs about, although thankfully none were near while you fought the Nazgûl. We need to find my brothers and the rest of my men. Lord Glorfindel, I do not propose to wrest command from you after so freely granting it, but I would like for you and several others to follow the Nazgûl, to verify that he is indeed leaving these realms."

"Of course," Glorfindel nodded, all humor gone. He melted into the night as only the Noldor seemed able, and Aragorn followed him, Halbarad on his heels. They had gone a mere thirty paces when Halbarad let out a cry even as a whooshing noise split the heavy night air. Part of Aragorn’s mind recognized the sound and categorized it as an orc arrow even as he ducked for the deeper shadows. Another hiss cut through the night and he heard a grunt behind him, then something slammed into Aragorn’s back and he was borne violently to the ground. All the air in his lungs abruptly vanished. Stunned, he lay silent and still, trying to decide if he had just been felled by an arrow. As sense returned, he realized he was unharmed, but a heavy weight had his legs pinned. He pushed himself up and twisted, looking behind him.

"No," he choked. "No, no, no."

Halbarad lay across his legs, an arrow sticking in obscene defiance from his upper back. Aragorn wrenched his legs out from under his friend and scrambled on hands and knees to Halbarad’s side. "Halbarad!" he cried, heedless of the danger of drawing more orc arrows. He felt the side of Halbarad’s neck and felt weak as the thrum of life pulsed against his fingers. "Hang on, my friend. Hang on. This is not your time." Valar help us, this is not... cannot be... your time!

Trying to stay low, he scooted around behind Halbarad’s head and slid his hands under Halbarad’s arms, tugging him deeper into the shadows. He was barely aware of Glorfindel flashing past, a grim shadow in the night. He heard the sickening squelch of blade cutting flesh and the dull thump of a body hitting the ground and prayed it was the orc that tasted death and not Glorfindel.

"Halbarad, can you hear me?" he said softly as he gently rolled Halbarad onto his side. He ran shaking hands over the front of Halbarad’s body. The arrow had not passed entirely through him, a small blessing but welcome. "Halbarad!"

Halbarad let out a soft groan. A tremor shook him. "I hope you killed it, Strider," he ground out from between clenched teeth.

"It will shoot no more arrows from the darkness," Glorfindel said grimly as he dropped to a crouch beside them. He brought with him a torch. "The orcs seem finally to be gone, so I deemed it safe to risk a light. How is he?"

"‘He’ is right here, Glorfindel," Halbarad growled, "And he feels like a firedrake is chewing on his back."

"Ever the cranky one when he is under the weather, is he not, Estel?"

Aragorn did not answer, for fear seemed to have a choke hold on his voice. Halbarad’s hair had fallen across his face. Aragorn pushed it back, frowning. Even in the warm glow of the torch’s light, the grey pallor of Halbarad’s skin alarmed him. Halbarad groaned suddenly as he shook with a spasm of pain, and it seemed to Aragorn that he could feel Halbarad’s pain in his own body. He swallowed hard, suddenly afraid he might be sick. He took a deep breath, fighting for the calm control of a healer, trying to push past the shock of this sudden devastating change in their fortunes. Forget that it is Halbarad. Forget that it is your sworn brother, your kinsman. Your friend. Concentrate only on the injury. A semblance of calm came over him finally and he felt gently around the arrow shaft. "The arrow seems perilously close to his spine."

"You two seem to forget I am right here," Halbarad gasped, his voice weakening. "Quit talking about me and talk to me."

"My apologies, my old friend," Aragorn murmured. "Can you move your legs and arms?"

He grunted in pain, but was able to move all four limbs. Still, Aragorn’s anxiety was hardly eased. A wrong move and it looked to him as though the arrow could shift and cut through his spine. It may have even punctured Halbarad’s lung. Aragorn had no way of knowing, and if it had passed through a lung... well, that indeed was beyond his skill.

Aragorn turned to Glorfindel. "The arrow does not seem to have affected his spine," he whispered. "But I fear it is so close. Too close. I cannot try to remove it – I have not the skill, nor is there anyone between here and Imladris who does, even my brothers. But do we dare move him? Which is the greater risk?"

Glorfindel gave no answer, and the worry that haunted his eyes did Aragorn’s state of mind little good.

He turned back to Halbarad, noticing he was starting to shiver. He quickly pulled off his coat and laid it over him, careful to avoid the arrow. He looked again at the wicked shaft, wondering if the point was poisoned, wondering what to do, wondering how on Arda he could find the courage he needed to deal with this when fear for Halbarad so consumed him he could barely think straight. He sat back on his haunches and laid a hand on Halbarad’s forehead. Whether it was the coat that warmed him or Aragorn’s touch, the shivering lessened. "Easy, my friend. We will solve this," he said, wishing he knew how.

He looked around, although for what, he did not know. He spied another arrow, one that was fired and missed its target, laying on the ground some distance away. He scrambled to his feet and retrieved it. He touched the tip lightly with a finger. "No poison," he said. "And likely the one in Halbarad is the same – their flights match. We can be thankful for that small favor, and the fact that as long as the arrow is in place, it is keeping bleeding to a minimum." He tapped the shaft against the palm of his hand. He had said he had not the skill... but if there were no other choice....

Perhaps. It would test his knowledge to its limit, and test the skills of his hands to their utmost, but he might be able....

He swallowed. He would need steady hands... two steady hands. He flexed his left hand, and then slowly raised his arm, holding his hand out. After only a moment, the arm trembled and pain started shooting down its length. His hand involuntarily twitched.

It was no good.

Fighting tears, he dropped his arm. Glorfindel looked at him questioningly, but he merely shook his head. It would be far too great a risk.

He took a deep, steady breath. Since he dare not remove the arrow himself, there was only one option. He shut his eyes, praying it was the right decision. "We must get him..." He stopped and corrected himself and looked at Halbarad, whose pain-filled eyes looked back at his with such unshakeable trust that an empty hollow yawned in Aragorn’s gut. He did not know that he could live up to that trust. "I am sorry. We must get you to Rivendell, somehow. I think only Lord Elrond has the skills you need. We will find a wagon–"

"No," Glorfindel immediately said. "A wagon would be too slow and jostle him too much. And you would be forced to go all the way to the Last Bridge to cross. That would add days to your travel."

"But what other choice have we?  He cannot ride– "

Glorfindel raised his hand to silence Aragorn.  "Hear me out. Even cutting across the river here, using the ferry, and into the Wilds by the hidden trails, any ordinary horse would take two days, but Asfaloth is Elven-trained and nearly as strong as the Meara. He can take you there by dawn, even riding double, as long as you yourself have the strength to bear Halbarad."

Aragorn could not say for certain that he had such endurance, but he set his jaw. "I will find the strength."

Glorfindel nodded. "Asfaloth knows the way, and he knows you. And even at speed, he will know to set his gait so that Halbarad will not be jarred, and we will bind the arrow so that it cannot move. All I need do is tell Asfaloth to bear you and Halbarad swiftly and safely to your father’s house." Without waiting for an answer, he let out a low, quavering whistle, calling to his mount.

Aragorn looked at Halbarad. "Do you think you can do this thing?"

"I have... little choice," Halbarad whispered. He shut his eyes, then added, "I trust you. You will get me to Rivendell."

Aragorn blinked away a sudden burning in his eyes and turned to Glorfindel. "Thank you, my friend. It is a gift beyond price. I will leave things here under your charge." Aragorn could not hold back a bitter smile. "Perhaps I would be wiser to leave the Dúnedain under your leadership than ever take it back upon myself. You have done far better than I."

"I will do as you ask, but believe me when I tell you I will be more than relieved to turn things back over to your charge. You are a fine chieftain, Estel." He reached out and touched Aragorn’s shoulder. "Do not lose sight of your worth."

Aragorn could not speak for a moment, then he cleared his throat even as he busied himself tearing long strips from Halbarad’s tunic in order to bind the arrow more tightly against any movement. "I will not. Tell my brothers what has happened. They may want to follow, and that will be up to your discretion, but I dare not wait for them. Bronadui is not the horse Asfaloth is, but he will live up to his name and bear you as far as you ask him. Take as many of my men as you see fit and see to it that the Nazgûl is truly gone. "

"As you wish, Lord Aragorn."

Aragorn smiled fleetingly. Not "Estel" this time, but "Lord Aragorn." The Elf lord was anything but subtle. He was sure Glorfindel meant it as an encouragement, but any thought of his chieftaincy simply wearied him.

Asfaloth clattered up to them, a pale shape in the night, flowing with the soft music of the bells on his headstall. Glorfindel leaped to his feet to whisper into his ear. The magnificent horse nodded his head as though in agreement and pawed the ground once. He then turned his great liquid eyes toward Aragorn and nudged his shoulder gently.

"It will be as you say, Aragorn, son of Arathorn," Glorfindel said. Aragorn kept himself from wincing at the Elf lord’s continued heavy-handed measures of encouragement. "Asfaloth is ready for you, as you can see. Let us get you and Halbarad aboard and on your way. Give Asfaloth his head and fear neither badger holes nor orcs nor wraiths. He will bear you to Lord Elrond without fail."

Aragorn nodded, his hands suddenly sweating. He had never actually ridden Asfaloth, and expert horseman though he was, the idea of riding an unfamiliar steed under such dire circumstances gave him a flutter in his belly. But there was nothing for it; it had to be done. He started to reach for Halbarad, but Glorfindel stayed his hand.

"Wait," he said, and knelt beside Halbarad. He bent low over him, and Aragorn could see his hand moving to Halbarad’s back. He murmured something too low for Aragorn to hear, but immediately it seemed as though Halbarad’s labored breathing eased. Glorfindel pulled a small bottle from a hidden pocket and held it to Halbarad’s lips. That at least Aragorn recognized: miruvor, an Elven drink that gives strength to wearied limbs and refreshing to tired spirits. He realized he could do with some himself, and as if Glorfindel read his mind – a highly likely event, he thought wryly – Glorfindel straightened and held the bottle toward him. "Take a small sip."

Aragorn did, and the colorless and tasteless liquid warmed him and some of his weariness dropped away. "Thank you," he said and handed the flask back. "Halbarad, you will have to ride behind me. Can you hold on, do you think?"

Halbarad responded by trying to raise his arm, but he gasped and the arm dropped. "I-I don’t think I can."

"Then we will put you behind Aragorn and tie you to him and you will lean on his strength," Glorfindel said.

Halbarad unexpectedly laughed.

"What amuses you, my friend?" Glorfindel asked, exchanging a puzzled look with Aragorn.

Halbarad kept his gaze on Aragorn. "I was... was supposed to tie you across a horse to... to take you to Rivendell."

"So you were," Aragorn said, but he could not bring himself to smile. He was barely able to speak.

"I have no idea what you two are talking about, but best you be going," Glorfindel said, then muttered under his breath, "The minds of Men are as murky as the Bruinen after a hard rain."

Halbarad laughed again, but his smile turned to a grimace as they knelt and eased him to a sitting position. Aragorn kept his hand on the back of Halbarad’s neck, trying to keep any movement from jostling the arrow. But despite his care, Halbarad turned even more pale. "Can you make it?" Aragorn asked. "Did you feel the arrow move?"

"No, it seems to be holding steady." Halbarad took several breaths. "Give me a moment."

They waited and when he finally nodded, eased him to his feet. "Steady, Halbarad," Aragorn murmured. He left Glorfindel to support Halbarad alone and sprang into the saddle. As he pulled himself up, he felt a sudden tearing pain in the wound on his left arm, but he ignored it as he settled himself and reached for Halbarad.

With Asfaloth standing as steady as the Argonath, Glorfindel guided Halbarad to the horse and between Aragorn’s pulling hand and the Elf lord’s lifting arms, Halbarad slung himself behind Aragorn. Aragorn felt him sag against him, heard Halbarad’s gasping breath and felt his rapidly beating heart even through his vest and tunic. "Halbarad? Is the arrow–"

Halbarad’s answer was barely above a breath. "It has not... not moved. You bound it well."

He clung to Aragorn’s waist, resting his head against Aragorn’s back, but his grip seemed perilously weak. Aragorn reached down to grasp Halbarad’s arm, wishing he had the Elven skill of imparting strength through thought. "Hang on, Halbarad," he murmured, knowing the words were nothing but platitudes. Still, Halbarad’s arm seemed to strengthen as it tightened slightly around his waist.

"Thank you," Halbarad breathed.

"Do not die on me and that will be all the thanks I need."

A movement of Halbarad’s head told Aragorn that his friend had nodded. Amazingly, he almost fancied he could feel Halbarad smiling against his back. Perhaps I took too big a swallow of the miruvor.

Glorfindel fished out a coil of grey elven rope and shook it loose. "Lift your arms, Aragorn." Aragorn complied, wincing at another sharp twinge in the splinter wounds on his upper left arm.

Glorfindel swiftly tied a length around Halbarad’s and Aragorn’s waists, then again around their chests, binding them securely to one another while avoiding placing the rope anywhere near the arrow. Halbarad remained silent throughout, although Aragorn could feel him trembling. Glorfindel tied a sure knot, then laid one hand on Aragorn’s knee and another on Halbarad’s. "May the Valar give you swift passage, Estel Elrondion, and lend strength and grace to you, Halbarad Dúnadan. I will see you both at Rivendell and we will sing songs in the Hall of Fire and remember not the fear of this night but the victory."

With that benediction, he slapped Asfolath’s haunch. "Ride as swiftly and smoothly as the wind, Asfaloth!"

_____

(1) Translated from J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Two Towers, "The Choices of Master Samwise".  I have taken a bit of license with the invocation of Sam's, borrowing it to use for Glorfindel's situation.  Here is how it appears in the book:

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel

o menel palan-diriel,

le nallon sí di'nguruthos!

A tíro nin, Fanuilos!"

Two hours had passed to the steady rhythm of hooves and musical bells. Aragorn tightened his hands on the reins. No, it had been more like three hours. Time had slurred into a meaningless passage of night-shadowed steps down an endless road of misery. Aragorn’s back ached with a ferocity he had never before experienced as Halbarad’s weight leaned against him. And the rope! Halbarad’s every move, no matter how small, made it saw into Aragorn’s chest with breath-stealing agony. Not for the first time he cursed his stupidity in failing to see that the rope had not cut across the bruise on his chest when Glorfindel tied it in place. But there was nothing he could do about it now but grit his teeth and endure.

But at least Halbarad still lived. He lived, and that was no small comfort.

Halbarad shifted behind him, awake again, or at least partially. Aragorn shifted his death grip on the reins to place his left hand over Halbarad’s where it gripped his belt. Halbarad had not let go of him since they left, not even when he drifted into unconsciousness. It was as if some primal instinct kept his hand locked in place. Aragorn glanced over his shoulder. Halbarad stilled, and, if the deep breathing Aragorn felt against his back was any indication, almost seemed to be peacefully sleeping, his cheek pressed against Aragorn’s shoulder. Aragorn knew better than to believe it was mere sleep, but the pulse in his wrist was strong and at least Halbarad seemed not to be in any sort of agony. And from the way he moved his hands and occasionally shifted his legs, Aragorn knew the arrow must not have slipped any closer to his spine. The bindings were working, and Asfaloth’s gait was as smooth as Glorfindel promised: despite his steady gallop, Aragorn could almost imagine that they were barely moving, so little did Asfaloth jar them. The horse somehow was able to evade rough patches and avoid holes and all the while keep up a mile-eating gait that was neither too fast nor too slow. Asfaloth seemed to possess such miraculous wizardry that Aragorn found himself sending endless thoughts of thanks to Ilúvatar, Glorfindel, Elbereth and every other person, Maia, Vala and Elven horse trainer he could think of who might have had a hand in creating this wonderful creature.

After this, it would be hard to return the horse to Glorfindel, he thought wryly.

With slow careful movements, he reached up and tried to ease the rope to a new position. Halbarad sighed and murmured, and he immediately stopped. What, really, did it matter if he was uncomfortable? If a little discomfort on his part ensured Halbarad’s survival, Aragorn would endure far worse.

Valar, help him live!

Time crept forward. Aragorn stared dully at the dark hills around them, trying to ignore the myriad aches in his body, in his legs and back and arms. The wind in his face carried the scent of heather and moss and fallen leaves and he wondered how much farther they had to go. He had hunted these lands, once or twice as a youth tagging along with Elladan and Elrohir. And he had dwelt here for a time, after learning his true name; long, joyless days trying to bury the pain of losing what had felt all chance at marrying Arwen. He had roamed lost through these rugged hills and thickets for months, seeking for peace to come and settle the storm in his soul. But peace ever eluded him, and at last he turned westward, to join the people of his blood and take his rightful place among them. In all the years since, he had managed to avoid like plague this cheerless land and the dark memories it held.

And now here he was again, lost not in a fog of heartache but lost all the same.

He tried to see a landmark that might clue him in as to their whereabouts, but the darkness and his fatigue conspired to leave him utterly lost. It was not a feeling to which he was accustomed, but he found he was too exhausted to be alarmed. He shifted slightly, trying to ease a cramp in his lower back, but that set off the pain in his chest, and in the last hour or so he had noticed the throbbing around the wound in his left arm had deepened. He reached up and gently massaged the area around it, to no noticeable relief.

More unmeasured time passed and his arm continued to throb with each heartbeat. He tucked it against his body and supported it as best as he could with his right, thankful that Asfaloth seemed not to really need him to keep an active hand on the reins. He really should have somehow contrived to grab some medicines from his pack before they left, but it had been impossible. He felt shivery, as if bugs were crawling all over his skin. Fever setting in, he supposed.

He shut his eyes. How he longed for the moment when he could succumb to sleep, to rest without fear of nightmares and the dark shadows that even now pressed against the edges of his mind. Oh to lose himself in sleep’s warm oblivion, to dream sweet dreams of Arwen! How long had it been since he had enjoyed pure rest? Too long... far too long...

He felt himself sag and jerked his head back up, heart pounding at the near calamity. He must not fall asleep! He dared not risk tumbling from the saddle and pulling Halbarad with him. To fall at such speed would be the death of them both. And although Glorfindel had tried to assure him that Asfaloth would not let them fall, Aragorn could not take the chance that even so great a horse as Asfaloth might not be quick enough to counter Aragorn’s own clumsiness. He rubbed his face with his hand and shook his head to clear away the fog. He felt Halbarad’s wrist. A pulse, steady but growing more faint. His own heart lurched. Time was chipping away at Halbarad’s strength.

"Hang on, Halbarad," Aragorn rasped, the wind catching at his words and whipping them away into the night. "Please, you must hang on."

He looked at the sky, at the stars. Looked for Eärendil but could not find him. He frowned. Gil-Estel, the star of his ancestor, should be there, guiding him with the light of the Silmaril and giving him hope. But it was not. He looked everywhere but did not see it and suddenly tears of despair and pain blurred even the thin light of the stars he could see. He dropped his head. "Elbereth, help me," he whispered. His thoughts strayed to his beloved. "Arwen, how I need you right now."

He raised his eyes again, but it was hopeless. This torment would never end. He would go riding for eternity, never reaching Rivendell, forever chased by shadows of evil, lost in the half light before dawn...

He blinked. The half light before dawn. He stared at the horizon, trying to see past the silhouettes of the trees...

The silhouettes of the trees! Of course he could not find Eärendil! He had finished his nightly voyage, hours ago, and now it was it was dawn.

"Halbarad!" he cried. "It is dawn! We must surely be close!"

Halbarad was silent but his arm tightened ever so slightly against Aragorn’s waist. He had heard.

New life surged in Aragorn, driving away the despair like so much mist before a strong wind. Even the pain suddenly seemed tolerable. He paid close attention to the trail, trying to determine where they actually were in relationship to Rivendell. As they passed a white rock, and then after a ways another, joy rose in his heart. The trail markers! He now knew exactly where they were, and they were close. Very close. The secret valley of Imladris lay just ahead, and the first sentry should spot them any moment–

"Halt! Who approaches the realm of Imladris?" called a grim voice.

Asfaloth stopped at a gentle pull on the reins. He shook his head and pranced as though he had not just raced nearly a hundred miles through the night. Aragorn longed to lay his head alongside the horse’s proud neck, in exhausted thanks, but he could not pull Halbarad into so painful a position, so he settled for patting Asfaloth’s neck. "You have done it, my valiant friend!" he whispered, fighting to keep a giddy smile off his face, to keep from laughing aloud like a lunatic. But despite his best efforts to sound calm, joy filled his voice as he called out, "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, here to see my father!"

A movement in the shadows caught his eye and then a tall, dark-haired Elf stepped up to Aragorn. Aragorn recognized the Elf but did not know him well. Dûrion was his name, if he recalled. "Welcome, Lord Aragorn! Such singing shall there be in the Hall of Fire at your return!" Dûrion cried with a merry laugh, all sternness gone. "Forgive me for not recognizing you. I did not know what to make of two dark-haired men astride Lord Glorfindel’s horse, and caution seemed necessary over welcome, given recent events. I trust Lord Glorfindel is well?"

"Thank you, Dûrion, and yes, Glorfindel is indeed well, or was when I saw him last evening. I am indebted to him beyond what I can repay for the loan of Asfaloth. But I must hurry, for my companion is wounded and in dire need of Lord Elrond’s care."

Dûrion stepped closer and let out a small gasp when he saw the arrow. "My pardon, Lord Aragorn. I did not realize! Go, and ride swiftly! I will sound the news so that they will be ready for you."

"Thank you, my friend," he said softly, then touched his heels to Asfaloth’s sides. Even as they moved out, silver trumpets sounded through the trees and beyond the hills. As the liquid notes echoed through the air, Aragorn’s heart lightened and tears formed again, but this time they were tears of relief.

~~~

Asfaloth took them surely and steadily down the treacherous path that hugged the tall stone-sided cliffs, and then across the bridge over the Bruinen. Aragorn could not stop a quick intake of breath at the sight of the Last Homely House.

Home. He was home. Whatever awaited upon his meeting with the father, nothing ever took away the warmth that bloomed in his heart whenever he rounded the last bend and the great house of Elrond spread before him, standing watch over the valley even as Aragorn felt it stood watch over his own life. Sanctuary, shelter, peace... such were the offerings of Imladris, and his soul always seemed to settle within him when he arrived.

The sun that brightened the sky beyond the hills would not reach this deep valley for another hour yet, but lights shone warmly in several windows and through the wide open doors. A tall figure paced there, his shadow moving back and forth in agitated crossings. "Lord Elrond," Aragorn murmured, though they were still too far away to call out. His heart thumped oddly at the sight of his father. The house’s welcome he already felt, but what manner welcome would he receive from his father?

Halbarad stirred. "Rivendell?" he rasped.

"We are almost there."

"He ... he will be glad to see you," Halbarad whispered.

"Is my fear so obvious?"

Halbarad’s words were barely audible, but even so, there was no mistaking the mocking humor in his voice. "Unless you always ride... with a back stiff as a...a board."

Pulling a face that Halbarad could not see, Aragorn tried to relax, without much success.

They clattered up into the courtyard at last and two Elves ran forward with a litter held between them. "Lord Aragorn! Let us see to Halbarad." Eager hands reached up to catch Halbarad as Aragorn loosened the knots in the ropes that held him. There were no words to describe the sense of relief that washed over him as Halbarad slipped into their strong arms.

Then Elrond was standing at his knee. He looked down at his father’s face. "Father," he said, his voice hoarse with fatigue and emotion.

"It is good to see you, my son," Elrond said warmly. He reached up and clasped Aragorn’s hand. "I have missed you."

Aragorn tried to smile, but he was so exhausted and his feelings in such a muddle he felt almost numb. "It has been too long," he managed, then slid stiffly down from Asfaloth, trying his best to hide the fact that his feet hitting the ground sent a spike of pain through the top of his head. There was time for only the briefest embrace, a matter of clasping both hands, before he turned to Halbarad, who had been placed on his side on the litter. Aragorn knelt down and grasped Halbarad’s hand. "How do you fare, my friend?"

"I have had ... better nights," he sighed, then closed his eyes. He pulled his hand away and fumbled in his cloak, then pressed something into Aragorn’s hands. Aragorn looked down and saw it was the mithril necklace Halbarad had bought from a traveling peddler when they were in Bree. Valar, how long ago did that seem! "Give it to Miriel for me, if..."

"Give it to her yourself," Aragorn said, and tried to tuck it back into Halbarad’s pocket, but Halbarad pushed his hand away.

"Then hang onto it for me. Don’t want to... to lose it."

"That I can do." Aragorn brushed a hand against Halbarad’s hair. "Rest, my friend," he murmured, then nodded to the Elves that had positioned themselves at either end of the litter. They lifted him, and Aragorn rose stiffly and stepped back.

But Halbarad opened his eyes again and called out. "Wait."

The Elves halted and Aragorn hurried over and bent close. "What is it?"

Halbarad smiled faintly and moved his head toward Lord Elrond. "I told you so," he whispered, and winked.

Aragorn stared at him for a moment, then let out a disbelieving laugh. He stood and nodded to the Elves and they again moved out. Aragorn’s smile faded as Halbarad winced. "Valar be with you," Aragorn whispered. He watched as they hurried off to the House of Healing, wondering if perhaps they had just exchanged their last words.

No. Halbarad is strong. He will live.

He has to.

As the door slammed behind them, Aragorn flinched at the finality of the sound. Like the closing of a tomb....

He cut short the morbid thought, looking instead at the chain in his hand. He remembered how long it had taken Halbarad to finally decide to buy it, for the price had been steep, even for such a slender strand, and Halbarad had been sure the peddler was a thief for demanding such a high price. They had left the peddler’s cart and then gone back, and when Halbarad tried again to leave without making the purchase, Aragorn could stand it no more and told him crossly to buy the thing and be done with it; he was getting hungry. And with a relieved grin, Halbarad had pulled out the money and paid for it, and they went to the Prancing Pony to sup. That grin did not leave his face the rest of the night, and he kept pulling the necklace out to show everyone and talk of how lovely it would look around Miriel’s neck, how it needed no gem because she was the jewel, and finally Aragorn could stand no more of the lovesick prattle. He had moved to a booth by himself, where his thoughts strayed toward Arwen and the seeming hopelessness of ever gaining her, and he gave himself over completely to abject self pity. Halbarad seemed not to notice and that only soured Aragorn’s mood still more.

He rubbed the necklace absently with one finger. What he would give to be back in that inn right now. He started at a touch on his shoulder.

"It is a lovely thing," Elrond said, but then he closed Aragorn’s hand around it. "Keep it for him, but find rest for yourself now." He slowly took in Aragorn from head to toe. "It takes no healer to see that you have suffered a long and hard journey. I will tend Halbarad. Go to your room and sleep."

"Father, I ..." But he couldn’t finish. There were so many things to say, so much to tell. The words eluded him.

Elrond pulled him into a fierce embrace. "Say nothing, child," he whispered against Aragorn’s hair. "You need say nothing. Just be, Estel. Here you are safe and can lay down your burdens, if only for a little while."

Aragorn put his arms around his father, hesitantly at first, but then something within him seemed to break and he clung to him. He buried his head against Elrond’s shoulder, breathing in the comforting familiarity of him. Tears threatened but he blinked them away and then pulled back. "Thank you," he whispered.

Elrond smiled sadly, cupping Aragorn’s face in his hands. He looked so deeply into his eyes that Aragorn felt as though his father could see into his very soul. Then he ruefully admitted to himself that Elrond most likely could see that far. Concern wreathed Elrond’s brow as he said, "It is as I felt it. There is a shadow on your fëa."

For a moment, Aragorn was sorely tempted to blurt out everything, to let go and allow Elrond to care for him like he did when he was a small boy in need of patching up after a hard fall. But those days were long over, and Halbarad needed Elrond far more. He shook his head and, though he did not feel like it, smiled. "I am fine. Just tired. It has been a long journey and a hard one. Worry not, for Halbarad needs you, and you must not be distracted by needless concerns over me."

Elrond searched his eyes for a moment more. "Needless my concerns are not, but we will talk long of this, as soon as I am able. In the meantime, find sustenance and rest, for I feel fever upon you–I will have some willowbark tea sent to you."

"Adar, let me help–"

"No, my son. You are too full of care and grief, and I fear ill besides. What you need is rest. I will have Erestor with me. Do not worry."

As if he could stop worrying. But he nodded and, tucking the necklace safely away in a pocket, patted Asfaloth’s neck. "I will care for Asfaloth, then," he said. He knew that Asfaloth normally suffered no one to touch him but Glorfindel, but he hoped the horse would tolerate his hand on the brush. "I will await word."

Elrond touched Aragorn’s arm one more time, then turned to go.

Aragorn felt a moment of unaccountable panic as he watched Elrond walk away. "Adar!"

Elrond stopped. "Yes?"

"I.... Nothing. Never mind," Aragorn said. He could not explain even to himself why, after all these years of dreading to see him, he now could hardly bear for his father to leave his sight. He finished lamely, "May the Valar guide your hands."

Elrond smiled, then hurried away. Aragorn’s shoulders sagged as he pressed his forehead against Asfaloth’s. "Thank you, Asfaloth. You have earned your rest, but I fear I will not rest for a long, long time."

It was as Aragorn feared. Rest utterly eluded him.

He could not bring himself to go upstairs to his room. He only went inside as far as the kitchens, eating a meal standing by the door, as though he were some frightened stray dog ready to bolt at the slightest crosswise look. He barely tasted the food and a moment after swallowing the last bite could not remember what it was he ate. And he grimaced but swallowed a cup of willowbark tea, hating the taste but knowing it would help both his headache and his growing fever. As he finished, he had to politely shake off an offer of a bath, and then refuse another of a chair, and a third of a change of clothing. By the time he disentangled himself from the last cloying offer of assistance from the well-meaning staff, he felt ready to explode.

He hurried outside where he prowled through the gardens around the Last Homely House, trying to find solace in the flowers and trees that flourished there even this late in the autumn. He sat down on a bench, but restlessly moved on after just a few minutes. He sat on a rock beside a small stream, but its incessant gurgling only jangled his already taut nerves. His mind seemed to buzz with the intensity of his worries. Thought circled thought and fear swirled around fear and peace was something that he may have known in the distant past but was far out of reach this day. He paced and shoved his hands through his hair and tore off leaves from the bushes and shredded them in his nervous fingers. He scowled at the heat of the sun and shivered at the shade and as the minutes ticked into hours and the morning waxed and then waned into afternoon with no news, his anxiety over Halbarad grew to unbearable proportions. Finally, when the sun’s shadow told him it was well past mid-afternoon, he could endure it no longer. He turned on his heel and headed for the House of Healing.

He entered the quiet sanctuary nearly on tiptoe, afraid of what he might find. A familiar Elf carrying a bowl of water turned toward him as he hovered uncertainly in the doorway. "Estel! I wondered how long it would be before you came to haunt the doorstep. You lasted longer than I would have thought. I trust you found some rest," Erestor said with a smile, and Aragorn said nothing to disabuse him of the notion. Erestor lowered the bowl to a counter and embraced Aragorn. "How very good it is to see my favorite pupil again!" He released him and picked the bowl back up and dumped the water down a drain. He worked the pump handle to refill it. "You will have to forgive my tardiness in coming to greet you. I have been a bit preoccupied."

Aragorn bowed respectfully. "Please, do not apologize. I hope you are well?"

"As ever. But I would assume inquiring after my health is not the reason you are here."

"No," Aragorn admitted, "although I am glad to see you. But please, can you tell me... what of Halbarad? It seems to be taking so very long."

"Again, please accept my apologies, for I should have come to you sooner with news or at the very least sent someone to you. We become so involved in the matter at hand, we sometimes forget that loved ones are waiting and worrying. So," he said, clasping his hands and falling into the old role of teacher. "You know, of course, that it appeared the arrow was very close to Halbarad’s spine."

"Yes. I dared not try to remove it myself."

"At first look, we feared it was nearly beyond Lord Elrond’s skills as well, but last I checked, he was making good progress. It was not as near to his spine as we feared. But the arrow’s point broke off and splintered as it hit his shoulder blade, and while the shaft was easily removed, removing the arrowhead itself and all the small shards has proven both difficult and painstaking. Some were perilously close to his lung."

"How much longer do you think–"

"I cannot say," Erestor said, not without sympathy. He took a moment to thank a young Elf who came for the bowl of fresh water, then continued, "But Lord Elrond is not concerned. He is merely being very, very cautious, moving slowly and carefully so as to do no further damage and to make sure he gets every last bit of arrowhead, lest infection set in later, or the shards work their way into spine or lung. But the arrow was not poisoned, thank the Valar, and Halbarad is hardy; his Númenórean blood is serving him well, as yours so often has you. His heart is maintaining its sure and steady rhythm and his breathing is strong despite the medicine that keeps him asleep." He paused and looked thoughtful. Aragorn stifled a groan; Erestor the Endless Elocutionist, as he used to silently grumble under his breath as a bored child, was about to regale him with far too many facts about surgical procedures and the risks thereof. The Elf could lecture for hours on end when such a mood fell on him, and sure enough, Erestor leaned a hip against the counter, pressed a finger thoughtfully against his chin, and continued on as though he had all the time in the world. "Sometimes the medicine will put a patient too far into sleep, as you may know, if one does not get the dosage just right. Weight, muscle, all these things must be taken into account. Halbarad has not an ounce of fat on him, and that makes it easier, for it is the heavy men, the ones too fond of sitting before a tankard of ale and a plate piled high, that give Elrond the most trouble. Those patients tend to move so deeply and quickly into the realm of slumber that they actually quit breathing, and then of course all sorts of terrible complications ensue from the lack of air. The brain starts to die, you see. And if air is not restored, if breath does not return, the damage can be so severe that there is no recovering. I knew of one unfortunate man who–"

Aragorn wondered if his eyes looked as wild as he felt. He lifted his hand, ready to take Erestor by the collar and shake him and only just managed to thrust his hand through his own hair instead.

Erestor saw the movement and actually blushed. "Ah, I apologize again. The urge to teach, you know," he smiled, but as Aragorn’s frown deepened, he hurried on, "Lord Elrond will be some hours yet before he can come to you himself, perhaps not even until late evening, for even after he finally removes the arrow, he will stay with Halbarad until he awakens, to keep him still and to ensure that he still has use of his arms and legs."

Aragorn felt the blood drain from his face. "What do you mean, he still has use? Did the arrow indeed hit his spine? Is there still great risk? Has he lost the feeling in his legs?"

"Steady!" Erestor cried and put a bracing hand on Aragorn’s arm. "I said no such thing. I said ‘to ensure that he still has use’, as in, ‘retaining his normal abilities’." He raised an austere eyebrow and it was Aragorn’s turn to blush. He looked down at the floor and resisted the urge to hunch his shoulders and squirm like the school boy he had been those many years ago.

"I am sorry. I just thought... I was afraid that..."

"Calm yourself, my child. All will be well." Erestor tugged him toward the door. "Come. Lord Elrond can do without me for a few moments, and you need to wait where it is quiet and you can find rest and distraction, for you are quite beside yourself. Fortunately, I know just the place."

Aragorn let Erestor lead him away from the House of Healing. "Will you come and tell me any news?"

"Of course. But I must be able to find you and I do not fancy having to trek over all Imladris to do so. So I will take you to a spot where a certain small child of Men used to play and fight imaginary armies and, as he grew older, while away the hours with his nose stuck in a book."

And indeed, he led him to one of Aragorn’s favorite childhood haunts: a giant willow tree growing near the Bruinen. Under the embrace of its vast weeping branches, Aragorn had fought armies of orcs from a hidden fortress and battled Smaug alongside an imaginary Bilbo and company of dwarves. He had watched baby birds hatch in their nests in its branches, and once he found a small lizard that let him feed it by hand. And in the secret bower beneath its fronds, he found escape from the sometimes merciless aggravations of twin brothers who never seemed to tire of tormenting and teasing their younger brother when they were not out on patrol. After a particularly trying day that had left him in tears, Elrond had come to his rescue, declaring the willow as Estel’s own, and forbidding Elrohir and Elladan entrance into Estel’s leafy domain upon pain of, if not death, then severe application of kitchen duties.

Lost in memory, Aragorn stepped into the verdant space, thick moss springy beneath his feet. Someone had added a cushioned chaise and a table, whereas Aragorn had only ever had a stump for a seat and a rock for a table. Not that he had needed more. As a boy, he had never been overly interested in reclining sedately when there were dragons to slay. He ran his hand over the table. "I remember this place well, although this is new."

"I added a few creature comforts after you left. A rock might have done for a small child but my bones prefer a little cushioning. I come here often," he added.

Aragorn took a deep breath. The air was cool, but comfortable, redolent with the sweet aroma that was found only in Rivendell. He never could decide what created the fragrance. It smelled of heather and honeysuckle, athelas and fresh rain... and something exotically spicy that he could never place. He always thought of it as the scent of all that was good on Arda. It was the scent of home. "It is a good place to wait. Thank you."

"Do not think I did not notice how you failed to go into the house save for a meal," Erestor said quietly. "Perhaps the Ranger, like the child he once was, still seems most comfortable out of doors?"

Aragorn shrugged ruefully but said nothing. He was not sure himself why he felt unable to go inside his old home. Perhaps the comforts therein were too sumptuous, too luxurious to indulge in when Halbarad lay suffering and perhaps dying.

Or perhaps he did not want to feel caged.

Erestor gave him a small, sad smile. "It is hard, I know. Even the most blind Elf can see that you are troubled and careworn and exhausted. Speak and unburden yourself if you wish, but if not, find what solace you can here." He smiled a bit wistfully, looking up into the willow fronds. "‘...they came at length to Nan-tathren, the Land of Willows, and there they rested a while, and were healed of their hurts and weariness...’"(1)

"‘But their sorrow could not be healed,’" Aragorn murmured, finishing the quote about the remnant of Gondolin. He shrugged. "Forgive me. My mood is dark this day."

Erestor patted his shoulder in a paternal gesture. "I will send someone with food and drink. You look as though you need it." He lifted an eyebrow and then added delicately, "And a bowl of water, towel and comb, I should think."

"Thank you, Erestor. Again, I am sorry I am such poor company."

"There is nothing to forgive, my child. Rest, and recoup your strength. I would like to see the light of Elendil shine once more in your eyes."

So even Erestor sees that there is no light within me. Little wonder, really. It seemed for weeks now that his spirit was as a lamp that was fast running out of oil, and now, after Windydale and the hard ride, there seemed only the most feeble flicker to ward off the encroaching darkness. But that was not something of which he could comfortably speak to his old teacher. He looked toward the Last Homely House, barely visible through a gap between branches. "Tell me, Erestor," he said, searching for some other subject, something to divert his mind from dark paths if only for a little while longer, "did Bilfen Broadbow arrive?"

"Oh yes. He and his dour companion both. Kenevir, that was his name. Master Bilfen has been through much sadness, has he not? I think of Rivendell destroyed as Bracken’s Ferry was and my fëa grows cold within me. But he seems to possess remarkable resiliency, as all Men seem to. It is something I greatly envy about the Race of Men," Erestor said almost wistfully.

Aragorn was taken a bit aback at the thought of an Elf as wise and seemingly content with his life as Erestor feeling any dissatisfaction with his lot. He said nothing, though, and Erestor continued, "Right now he is in the eastern reaches of Rivendell, hunting mushrooms or some such thing. He said he would be back in two days, maybe three, so he is not here to greet you. But he has been busy in the kitchens, watching the cooks and learning new recipes to prepare in, as he puts it, ‘the Hunter’s Horn Reforged’. It seems he was quite taken with the murals of Elendil and Isildur battling Sauron and said he wanted to honor the Shards of Narsil, and Isildur for his bravery, and for producing such a fine descendent in, as he put it, ‘that crazy Ranger, Strider.’ While I was a bit surprised he knew your true identity, though I suppose many in the North do know who you are, I must say, it touched me deeply for him to do such a thing for your house, and for you."

Aragorn felt his cheeks color at the secondhand news of such praise. "Bilfen has a good heart."

"Just so, just so." Erestor looked at the sun and clasped his hands. "Well, I must be returning to the House of Healing. You are sure you will be well here?"

"Yes, it will do perfectly. Rivendell’s own Nan-tathren," he smiled. He paused, then put a hand on Erestor’s shoulder, "Thank you, Erestor. It has been good to speak with you."

"Then I take it Erestor the Endless Elocutionist did not bore you over much?"

Aragorn felt his face flame. "How did you know–"

Erestor merely smiled without answering, then bowed and left.

Aragorn rubbed his face, trying to wipe away his embarrassment. How does Erestor know everything that happens in this realm, from whether or not I entered the house to knowing the thoughts that I try to keep hidden?

Hidden thoughts ... he wondered if the extent of the emptiness within him escaped Erestor’s notice. Probably not. In the silence that fell with the Elf’s departure, Aragorn felt the shadow swell again. He shivered, then wrapped his arms around his chest. He looked up at the leafy canopy and the limbs where he had sprawled as an ungainly teenager, his nose indeed buried in a book most of the time. He had been so young, and life so full of promise. He touched the furrowed bark of the tree, and for a dizzying moment, Rivendell vanished and he was bracing himself against the rough bole of another tree, one shrouded in golden splendor in a field to the west, the body of a young Dúnadan at his feet, his eyes accusing him as he lay broken and dead among the corpses of dozens of orcs. Aragorn groaned and shut his eyes, and when he opened them again the grisly scene had faded. Strength left his legs and he dropped to his knees. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and took several deep breaths, trying to slow the heavy pounding of his heart.

Where had that vision come from? He shook his head, trying to clear it but the movement merely made it feel as though his brain were rocking from one side of his skull to the other. He held himself perfectly still and the pounding finally eased. Elrond was right... he was indeed ill. Something beyond fatigue was causing this fever. Maybe he had picked up a chill riding through the cool night air. Or maybe his arm was so infected it was poisoning him. Not that it really mattered. He kneaded his temples, wondering at his lack of concern over either possibility.

He found that the truth was that he simply did not care.

Finally, out of nothing more than a vague sense of duty as a healer, he roused himself to lift his left arm. There was a sharp sting as the muscle flexed. He peeled back his shirt. The bandage was stained with dried blood but there was evidence of fresh bleeding and some yellowish pus. He laid his hand over it and felt heat even through the layers of bandage. He sighed and pulled his shirt back up. So it was infected, probably much worse than before. "You said you would keep an eye on it, Halbarad," he whispered, and his throat ached.

He shook himself. Maudlin thoughts never accomplished anything. He lowered himself completely to the ground and drew his knees up to his chin. Wrapping his arms around them, he watched the river. With nothing left to distract him, he could sense the shadow hovering at the edges of his mind, there and gone in glimpses, like seeing a snake sliding through tall grass. Would he ever be rid of its haunting presence? Freedom from its constant bedevilment seemed as beyond reach as the throne of Gondor. As impossible as gaining Arwen’s hand in marriage. And hope.... He picked up a rock and threw it forcefully into the water.

Hope was nothing more than a word bereft of any promise.

He stared, unblinking, unmoving, and the river flowed ever onward. Its swirling eddies seemed to beckon to him, to call to him to dive into its embrace. How easy it would be! He could just walk slowly in... the water first coming to his ankles... then swirling around his knees... then his hips and then his chest and then lifting him as the current carried him away from this hopeless darkness... down to the sea and to the unknown lands beyond where he would find rest at last...

No! I cannot. I will not.

The depth of his despair shook him. But how could he not despair? The road before him was so clouded that he could not see beyond today. Nay, not even beyond the next hour. He could not tell if a cliff awaited his next step, or a snare to entrap him, or if the way would suddenly open to a broad and sunny lane. He grimaced. Small chance of that.

He threw another rock in the river. Tried to deafen his ears to its seductive call, to fight back that cursed shadow with strength that was waning moment by moment.

You are Estel. Hope. You must not give in.

The words rang false, like a chord struck on a harp that had never been tuned. He took in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Sent another rock to pierce the treacherous waters. Why do they so tempt me? Long have I known my destiny, and long have I known the road would be long and difficult, but ever have I felt the joy of it. Middle-earth looked to him for their hope. He saw it every day in the eyes of Halbarad, of Denlad and Eledh and all his men, and in the faces of the villagers and farmers and traders and all those scattered remnants of Númenor that he led. He had seen it in Gondor, where he had served under their Steward as Captain Thorongil and listened as men wondered with wistful voices how it might be if a king ever did reclaim the throne. He had seen it in Rohan, when a young soldier had sighed and told him that if Gondor only had a king, Rohan would be immeasurably safer from Sauron. And in the eyes of the men of Gondor and the man of Rohan, he saw the same expression: hope daring to war with disbelief, faith in what was likely a myth nonetheless lighting their eyes, if only for a moment.

No, he could no more take that hope from them than he could snatch food from the mouth of a starving child.

So why this doubt? This despair? This... this weakness. Did he not have the pure blood of Númenor flowing in his veins? How often had he been told by Elrond that he was the best of all that had gone before. Why then did he now falter, suddenly seeking escape when none other of his ancestors had suffered such failings. Would he be the lesser son of greater ancestors? Why could he not follow the example of his own mother, who kept no hope of her own, but gave of it freely through her son? The memory of her self-sacrifice flayed him, derided him for being so impotent that he seemed unable to find his way out of this dark tunnel in which he found himself. Gilraen never would find herself in such straits, nor would Arathorn had he lived. They had found their hope, and given it away without fear or hesitation. They had lived up to the legacy of Elendil their ancestor, who had given all in the battle against Sauron. Now so must he.

So must he.

He squeezed his eyes shut. "But how?" he whispered. "How do I find the hope that I once had, that I might give it to others?"

Willow fronds swayed in the breeze but gave no answer. There was no answer in the waters, nor in the sky nor the mountains nor the sea. In all of Arda, there was none who could give him what he needed most, and he feared he no longer had the strength to find it for himself. It was as though the pure blood of Númenor had faltered in him, somehow. Diluted perhaps by time itself into something unrecognizable and something without strength or purity. He shuddered. Has it come to be that the last descendent of forgotten kings is the weakest? My own lack, my own inabilities... have they doomed the Men of the West to extinction, and Middle-earth to ruin?

He longed for someone to tell him no, that it was not so, that his blood had not failed, but he knew not who could so reassure him. He dropped his head to his knees and choked back silent tears of despair.

__________

(1) Excerpted from the following quote:

"Thus led by Tuor son of Huor the remnant of Gondolin passed over the mountains, and came down into the Vale of Sirion; and fleeing southward by weary and dangerous marches they came at length to Nan-tathren, the Land of Willows, for the power of Ulmo yet ran in the great river, and it was about them. There they rested a while, and were healed of their hurts and weariness; but their sorrow could not be healed." Pages 243-244, The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Ltd, 1977.

Aragorn hesitated before the doorway to his room, looking at Erestor. The Elf had found him half asleep, still sitting on the ground beneath the willow, and Aragorn was sure that he had seen the tear tracks on his face. It bothered him, being caught in a moment of weakness.

Moment ... as if my weakness only lasted a moment! How much time, how many hours, passed as I sat wallowing in self pity?

He had drifted in and out of a light sleep, the only kind he was able to get in these days of nightmares, for he knew not how long, but when Erestor finally sought him out, the sun had already sunk below the western walls of the valley, and full dark had fallen on their short walk into the house. Aragorn knew Erestor’s keen sight could not have missed seeing his reddened eyes, but Erestor had said nothing. He had merely smiled broadly and told Aragorn the good news.

Halbarad would live, and there was no damage to his spine or lung.

In that joyful moment, it did not matter that Aragorn had lost all hope and that his head throbbed and his body ached. It all fell away in a wave of giddy relief. His friend would recover and live to walk and run and fight and love, and that was enough.

And now, standing before his door, a bed and fire waiting within, Aragorn felt that real sleep might actually, after all, be obtainable. He put his hand on the door handle. "Thank you," he said softly. He felt he should say more, but he was so tired he could barely string together those two words.

Erestor pulled him into an embrace. "Thank your father. I am merely the messenger." He stepped back but continued to hold Aragorn at arm’s length. "Maybe now you will allow yourself some rest?"

"I will. I promise."

"Good. May your slumber be peaceful. I will see you at breakfast." Then, with a final smile and a receding swish of robes, he was gone, and Aragorn was alone.

He stood for a long moment, staring at the closed door before him, awash in so many emotions that he felt paralyzed. He ran a hand over the smooth wood, looking at it as if for the very first time, and maybe he was. He ran a finger along the straight, tight grain of the wood, down to the vine-shaped iron latch, then touched the doorframe and the stone wall beside it. For reasons he could not fathom, he was still reluctant to go in.

He did not understand why he felt so out of place.

He took a deep breath and opened the door. The room in which he had spent all but two years of his youth had changed little. Some of his childhood treasures – an eagle feather, a rock with a hole in it, an old journal, several books – still sat on a shelf above the fireplace. And the wooden sword he had fenced with as a young boy eager to learn the ways of fighting still leaned in a corner. He walked over and picked it up, smiling ruefully. It used to feel so large.

He put it back, and then dropped heavily into a chair. He had to admit that part of the reason he felt out of step with the rest of the world was that he simply felt terrible. Shivery and hot at the same time, with a head that seemed to slosh every time he turned it. His eyes grated in their sockets. All things a good night’s sleep would cure, he thought sourly, if he could but gain one.

He struggled out of his boots and let them fall to the floor, cringing as a scattering of dried mud fractured itself from the sole to litter the spotless flagstones. He eyed the ornate bed that sat against the far wall, with its elaborate carvings and fine bedding and soft pillows. There was even a silk nightshirt and breeches laid neatly on top of the linen counterpane. How long had it been since he had returned home to stay any longer than a brief visit to report to Lord Elrond? Fifteen years? No, more like twenty, he realized. Nearly twenty years ago, after he had returned from Lórien. After he and Arwen had broken Elrond’s decree that they not plight their troth. Twenty years now its shadow had quietly fallen on his relationship with Elrond. And in all those years, not once had he slept in his room, wearing silk nightclothes and stretching out between cool sheets or under warm blankets. Instead, he only allowed himself to snatch a few hours of sleep on a couch in the Hall of Fire before leaving as quickly as possible to ride or walk back into the wilds and back to his people. But now he was here, and the room seemed exactly the same as those long-ago days when life was far less complicated. The room was utterly unchanged.

He was the one that had changed.

Time and struggle had chipped at him so much that he felt he was all rough edges and – he could not help rubbing his aching arm – splintered fragments that needed smoothing. Where he used to find solace in sleeping under such fine ceilings, on something designed for both beauty and comfort, now he found himself feeling suddenly uncouth and uncultured. Somehow, though he still longed to call Rivendell home and could think of no other place on Arda he would wish to live, the manners and customs that used to be second nature in his youth now felt almost foreign.

Maybe I have assumed the mantle of the Ranger a little too comfortably.

He straightened the boots, storing them beside the hearth, and tried to pick up the chunks of dried river mud. Despite his care, some of them crumbled and left dust behind that would need to be swept up. He sighed and tossed what he could into the fireplace. He stared at the flames for a moment, wondering still why he no longer felt comfortable in his own home.

I am probably just tired. Tired and too full of care. Too full of sorrow.

Too full of... fear.

Something within him went very still as the truth sunk in. He was afraid. The horrors of the last three weeks haunted him, robbed him of hope and courage even in what should be the safe confines of Rivendell. He shut his eyes and a dark litany of images stormed across his mind: Mallor’s death, Bracken’s Ferry, Annelia, the dying children in Windydale, Halbarad...

He had not been able to save a single one of them from death or severe harm. One wraith, and a small band of orcs, and still he could not prevent utter ruin from falling on his people. What then could he hope to accomplish against the time when Sauron marched forth from his lands and brought full war upon all of Middle-earth?

The despair of the afternoon again wormed its cold fingers around his mind. He frowned and tried to turn his thoughts toward more practical matters. Erestor had always chided him for ever trying to eat an oliphaunt before taking the first bite. So perhaps instead of trying to save the entire world, he should simply try to solve this one thing. If he could reason out why the Nazgûl was stalking his lands, he might find some way to grapple with the fear, subdue it and put it behind him as he took this one step forward against his enemy.

He took a deep breath, feeling calmer already.

He steepled his fingers together, staring at them as he focused his thoughts. What had the Nazgûl really wanted? Was this some sort of first movement of an invasion from Mordor? If so, why had they heard nothing of such plans? Were their own lookouts and spies so ineffective? He would have to speak to Halbarad about that, when his health improved. They would see what could be done to strengthen their watch along the borders. How they would accomplish that, he did not know. They were already stretched too thin in what areas they had to cover most. He dared not pull anyone away from The Shire – aside from Gandalf all but ordering a heavy presence there, Aragorn knew the Shirelings were no warriors, despite their faith in their own Shirriffs and Bounders. A peaceful folk, the Hobbits, keeping to themselves and suspicious of outsiders, especially Rangers, who Aragorn knew firsthand they regarded as little better than brigands. It was hard, sometimes, being accounted a rascal when you were the one protecting the name-caller from dangers they could not begin to imagine. But he felt no rancor. The Hobbits were... well, he was not quite sure what they were. Or what they would be in the end. He was sure, however, that Gandalf was onto something in his admiration of the small folk.

So the Shire’s guard could not be touched. And with this ever-increasing influx of orcs from the Misty Mountains, he dared not pull men from the eastern reaches. And there were so few Rangers patrolling the far north that pulling them south would barely make a difference.

He sighed. This was getting him nowhere.

He turned his thoughts toward Gondor and Rohan, picturing their placement in his mind. Why would Sauron jump across the southern realms of Man sitting just to his west to suddenly attack the empty wastes of Arnor, and with so small a force? Was this some sort of exploratory foray, the embryonic stages of an eventual flanking maneuver against the southern realms? Move stealthily, bit by bit, to the northern, uninhabited lands and somehow amass an army to take Rohan from the north and then follow it down to Gondor’s northern border and in a pincer action take Gondor from the east and the north?

He immediately discarded the idea. Arnor was simply too far north to be of any strategic importance. Using Arnor or even Eriador for a northern base of operations simply made no sense. Rohan lay so far south an army would take weeks to march there; there could be no hope of moving an entire army that far to catch Rohan by surprise. These were empty lands, certainly, but not uninhabited. There were still plenty of eyes about to see any change in the number of orcs or the way in which they attacked. Right now, the Nazgûl situation excepted, the orcs attacked in relative handfuls, not in full-size invasive forces. Any increase in their number and news of an army gathering in the lonely wilds of the Ettenmoors or the grasslands between Carn Dûm and the North Downs would quickly reach Rivendell, and from there travel to Mirkwood and Lórien and Isengard and all points south. All advantage would be lost. It would make more sense to try that ploy south of the Greyflood, say in Dunland, for the Dunlendings certainly had no love for Rohan and would, if not ally themselves with Sauron, certainly cooperate with him and let him cross their lands, despite Isengard standing watch on Rohan’s northern border.

There had to be some other reason, then, for the wraith’s presence. He rested his forehead in his hands. "Think," he whispered. "If I were a Nazgûl, what would I be looking for? What errand would I be on for Sauron?"

The One Ring... but it was lost, washed down to the Sea, according to reports he had heard. The Wraiths may have once lived to find the One Ring but with it gone, their purpose was... what?

It was no good. Answers eluded him and all that came to mind were images of dead children and rotting corpses. And such would be the landscape across all of Arda if he should continue this inept leadership. His hands shook as he imagined vast armies pouring forth from Mordor. Burning, killing... imprisoning the free folk of Middle-earth and bringing all that is beautiful and good and right to a horrifying end. He saw flames and darkened skies and smelt the stench of death and no valley, no mountain, no cave would be deep enough or high enough to escape it.

Unless the Dúnedain prevailed. Unless somehow, he prevailed.

But, oh Valar, he could not see it. He could not see it. The path had ended; he had either lost it or it was no more. All of Arda looks to me as though I have the power of the Valar at my disposal to make all things right... yet I cannot see the path beyond this moment. And what I see at this moment is... defeat.

"No, not defeat," he whispered. He rubbed his scratchy eyes with the heels of his hands. "I am not defeated. Just... exhausted." Exhausted in body and spirit. Exhausted of hope. His mind shied from the thought that exhaustion was merely a kinder word for defeat.

He shook himself. Nothing needed to be decided this night, he supposed. Not when he was so weary he could no longer think straight. He pulled off his shirt and draped it as neatly as he could manage on the back of the chair, then slipped the nightshirt on over his head, gentling his wounded arm through the sleeve. The smooth linen snagged on his rough fingers.

He looked at his hands. Browned by the sun, scarred and rough and chapped from days of cold and rain and winds, they were the hands of a warrior. Certainly at times their touch had worked healing in the sick and the wounded, but they were the hands of one who wielded a sword more than herbs. They were the hands of a man whose existence seemed defined by harsh conditions and untold dangers and an endless battle against hopeless odds.

Would fate allow them ever to become the hands of a king? And will I be up to the task when that day finally comes?

Aragorn wished he knew a sure answer.

He looked again at the bed, with its soft feather mattress and white sheets. He fingered the fine cloth, ran a hand down the elegantly carved post. Then he abruptly grabbed a pillow and threw it on the floor. Drawing his stained leather coat over him, he settled down on the hard flagstones to try to find sleep that was not riddled with nightmares.

~~~

The nightmare returned. Twice Aragorn gasped himself awake, crying and trembling with the sure knowledge that all who loved him had turned against him and all hope was beyond his grasp. He sat up, rubbing his face, shivering as cool night air wafted in through the open window.

I thought perhaps here in Rivendell, under Vilya’s gentle power, the nightmares’ hold would ease.

It would appear he was mistaken. If anything, they seemed worse... far more terrifying, and far harder to shake off. He rested his aching forehead on his knees for a moment, taking several measured breaths. His heart finally calmed its frantic beating.

He crawled forward on his knees to stir the fire. He dropped another log onto the coals and in a few minutes flames once more flickered cheerfully and drove the dank cold back into the far corners of the room. Then he struggled to his feet and staggered to the window, unsteady still from sleep and a headache that seemed worse now than when he had first laid himself down. The night was quiet, as it always seemed to be in Rivendell. No night-prowling predators shrieking; no furtive rustlings in the darkness to send a chill down his back. A whippoorwill chanted its song into the night, and an owl sent his query through gently rustling treetops, and above both the gentle breeze sighed among the pine trees. Those small sounds, far from disrupting the peace, only seemed to enhance it. Far below the house, the Bruinen chuckled and sang as it danced across its stony bed, the roar of the mighty waterfalls along the cliff faces muted by the bulk of the house. Aragorn could see moonlight glinting on the water, and the call of escape he heard from it this afternoon seemed to echo again through his spirit.

He pulled the window shut.

Aragorn lay back down, pulling the coat he’d kicked off back across his body. Rubbing his aching left arm, he watched the flames until his eyelids drooped, and prayed that this time, his dreams would be peaceful.

~~~

The third time the nightmare jolted him from sleep, he kicked off his coat and stood, giving up, once again, on any kind of restful slumber. He ran a hand through his hair and stretched his neck and back until they popped, then dropped back down to his knees and picked up the fireplace tongs. He gave the fire a desultory poke, then winced and dropped the poker with a noisy clang as pain suddenly bit deep into his arm. He peeled back his collar and looked down. He saw more evidence of fresh bleeding, but there was not much of it, and he did not bother to check it further. He cared about it no more than he cared if the room was cold or warm. Truth be told, at this moment he no longer cared about much of anything.

He just wanted sleep.

A soft knock on his door startled him. Father. He must have heard me. He snatched up his coat and tossed it on the chair and returned the pillow to the bed. "Come." He turned back to the fire, stirring it with more purpose this time. "I’m sorry if I woke you," he said over his shoulder.

"A wizard’s sleep is not so easily disturbed," a familiar voice chuckled. "I was awake."

Aragorn stood up and spun around so fast his head whirled. But he hid the dizziness and smiled with pure pleasure. "Gandalf! I heard you were coming but did not know you had arrived!"

Gandalf shook Aragorn’s offered hand. "Only just. I arrived a mere hour ago. I am glad to find you here." He stood back and looked Aragorn up and down. Aragorn could only imagine what must be going through the Grey Wizard’s mind. He was sure he looked like something dragged in by an orc.

And indeed, Gandalf’s blue eyes filled with concern. "I see my friend before me, but he is not the same hale and hearty man I saw only a few months ago. You look ill, if you don’t mind my saying." He tried to lay a hand against Aragorn’s forehead but Aragorn irritably pushed it away.

"It is nothing that rest will not fix."

"I think it is more than mere fatigue. I see fever in your eyes."

He met Gandalf’s gaze for a moment, then he had to break away. He walked to the fireplace and held his hands out to its warmth, but it barely touched the chill in his bones. His words, when they came, were jerky, as though he could only pull them from himself at great cost, although in truth, he suddenly wanted very badly to pour out his woes in a great torrent. "Perhaps. Mostly what you see is anger. And sorrow. It has been a hard few months. My people have suffered great losses. You no doubt know of the Nazgûl attacks?"

"Yes, word reached me over a fortnight past that evil was stirring anew in parts north. That is partly why I came."

Aragorn nodded. "The same rumor reached us in Bree." His left arm started to ache fiercely. He grasped his left elbow and tried to support it as unobtrusively as possible. "We rode hard for Bracken’s Ferry but were waylaid by the orcs a day’s ride from there. They killed my youngest man." His throat tightened but he went on. "That was the first in what has felt like an unbroken string of foul luck. We rode on to Bracken’s Ferry, but we were too late. We could not manage to save even one small child, the last survivor, trapped in the rubble. At every turn, we have been harassed and stymied and unable to save anything or anyone." He had to stop. Remembering and retelling brought back the anguish in almost nauseating waves.

"Take your time, Aragorn," Gandalf said.

Aragorn felt his breath hitch and he shuddered. Forgetting his aching left arm, he braced both arms on the mantel and stared into the flames, seeing burning towns and dying children and weeping. So much weeping.

And his feeble hands empty of any help or comfort.

He pushed himself away and continued, his voice sounding dead even to his own ears. "We made to ride on to Windydale, but again we were attacked. We prevailed, just. Windydale lay hard on my mind, but my men... they were reaching the end of their strength and that attack had been hard, very hard. I felt I had to let them rest, recuperate." He paced across the floor to again stare into the fire. "It is a hard thing, Gandalf, to have to weigh the lives of your men against the lives of your people. I prayed I was making the right decision. Prayed that our fight had bought Windydale time."

A heavy silence fell, broken only by the crackling of the fire. The flames found a hidden pocket of moisture and it fizzed and hissed before the wood fell apart in a shower of sparks. Aragorn kicked an ember back toward the fireplace, barely noticing the way the heat burned against his bare foot.

"Foul weather moved in," he finally continued. He cleared his throat and tried to work moisture into his mouth, which felt as though he had not drunk in days. He moved to the nightstand and drained the cup of water sitting there. He poured another and swallowed it before finally continuing, "We could not ride in such a blizzard and had to wait another day. When the weather cleared, my brothers and Lord Glorfindel arrived with the news of Windydale. We were too late."

Gandalf studied him in silence for a moment, then said, "And what of you, Aragorn? I hear much about your men’s sorrows and fatigue, but any telling of your own suffering seems conspicuously absent. And I can see with my eyes that you have indeed suffered."

Aragorn shook his head, unsure what to say. He could tell more of his clash with the Nazgûl, but what good would that do? It was something that was over and done with, and he was recovering. Rehashing the event would serve only to stir up the shadows until all was dark and clouded.

But dare he speak of his hopelessness? His despair?

His first instinct always was to keep such things to himself. To not weigh down anyone else with troubles that were solely his own to work out. But still... to finally unburden himself... to drop, even for a moment, the exhausting encumbrance of his own pride....

"Aragorn?"

But no. The burden was his to bear. There was no wisdom that would help him. The only answer was to merely keep putting one foot before the other, even if his spirit had lost all its vigor and his heart all its joy. He would not give in to his weakness and abandon the quest to become king, even if it cost him every last shred of hope and pulled from his grasp everything he held dear. As his mother had done before him, so he would hold no hope for himself but give all to his people, and to all the free peoples of Arda.

He looked at Gandalf. "I am fine."

"‘Fine,’ he says!" Gandalf glared at him from under those massive grey eyebrows of his, which were drawing toward each other like two warships bent on destroying each other. "Aragorn, did Lord Elrond not teach you that it is exceedingly unwise to prevaricate to a wizard?"

"Gandalf, truly... there is nothing you can do for me."

"Do? That tells me that there must indeed be something you need, from me or from someone." His gaze softened. "Come. Tell me, old friend."

Aragorn’s shoulders slumped. Maybe....

Yes. He would tell him. Carrying the burden of hopelessness was too tiring, maintaining a facade that all was well too exhausting. Still, his words were faltering and slow. "Somehow... I feel I have lost the path. Or perhaps the path that I once saw so clearly in my youth is no longer open to me. I feel as though I stand at hope’s edge, and any step from here will only lead me farther away from all that I once thought possible." He looked far into an empty distance. "I-I feel like my destiny is so far out of reach that it is nothing more than the hopeless dream of a... of a fool."

"Is that what your heart tells you?" Gandalf asked gently.

Long minutes passed as he searched for an answer in the dancing flames. He finally turned to Gandalf. "My heart sees only shadow."

To his surprise, Gandalf smiled, gently and a touch sadly. "And you think that yours is the only heart blinded in these dark days?"

"But I am to be the king! I cannot afford to be so blind!" Aragorn said angrily, turning from Gandalf’s infuriating calm to pace the distance to the window. He stared out but saw nothing of moonlit beauty of Rivendell. His voice fell to a whisper. "What good is it to Middle-earth if the heir to the throne of Gondor is so easily defeated?"

"Defeated? I think you use too strong a word. The inability to see the path before one’s feet does not always amount to defeat, else we would all fail before we left our doors, whether we be merchants or farmers, wizards or, yes, even kings. We are all feeling our way through an impenetrable fog, Aragorn, moving forward only one uncertain step at a time. But moving forward nonetheless. " Aragorn heard robes rustle, then a hand gently squeezed his shoulder. "Tell me, Aragorn, my friend. It is not like you to have such despair in your eyes. What is it that so haunts your dreams that you cry out in the night?"

Aragorn folded his arms around his chest and tried to hide his shiver with a shrug. "I have no dreams of late. Only nightmares. "

"We all have nightmares, but I must say I have never known you to suffer unduly from them, no matter how bleak the night."

Aragorn gave no answer. That after all this time, the effects of the Black Breath would still be plaguing him only brought a wave of shame that he should be so weak. To speak it aloud... no, he could not bring himself to do it. To have admitted his despair had been hard enough.

Gandalf sat down on the bed and leaned his ever-present staff beside him. He folded his hands over his knee and studied Aragorn so intently that Aragorn felt as though he were being judged before Ilúvatar himself. "Gandalf," he protested, but fell silent at Gandalf’s raised hand.

"You mentioned fighting off orcs. But what of the Nazgûl? Did you encounter him directly?"

After a long moment, Aragorn gave Gandalf a terse nod.

Gandalf’s eyebrows shot upward. "Ah," he said, as if coming to full understanding. "And how long ago did you fight him?"

"Almost two weeks, then again, briefly, just yesterday."

"And in this first encounter... how close were you yourself to him, Aragorn?"

At Aragorn’s continued silence, Gandalf’s fierce scowl returned. "Aragorn, you must tell me everything. Do not leave out even one detail."

So Aragorn told the entire sad tale, trying to skim over his own defeat by merely saying, "I fought with him, and he fled after Halbarad threatened him with fire. We contended with him again at Windydale, only I did not get quite so near, nor for very long – a matter of minutes only. Glorfindel finally drove him out of the area, as far as we were able to ascertain. Then Halbarad was shot, and I brought him here, for it was only the skill of Lord Elrond that could save him."

"Aragorn," Gandalf said, a warning flashing in his eyes. "Do not try to fool a wizard! Is that truly all that happened? Are you trying to tell me that you did not feel the effects of being so near a Nazgûl not once but twice?"

"Yes... I mean, no. I did, but I am fine. I..." Aragorn started, but then the lie locked in his throat. The blackness that seemed more and more to take all his energy to keep at bay surged once more. He forced it back, bleak in the knowledge that the next time it would return stronger than before, like an ever rising tide, and the way he felt at the moment, it would be highly unlikely that he could fight it off again. "It... I feel it... him... I don’t know what it is, if it’s simply the memory that still plagues me, or something... something worse. A blackness... like a cold shadow that the sun cannot penetrate... still lingers in my mind. And there is a chill in my bones that no fire seems able to thaw."

Gandalf leaned his head back to squint at Aragorn down the considerable length of his nose. "It is unusual, I must say, after all this time. Most men would long have died by now," he mused, seeming to be talking to himself more than Aragorn. He blinked, then fixed Aragorn with a bright gaze. "But your Númenórean blood gives you greater strength than lesser men, and you do know a bit about healing, and there is the fact that your line has a special touch with the athelas. Although I’ve not heard of a healer healing himself of this, I suppose to a certain degree, you managed. Yes, I do believe that’s all this is. Well then." He stood up, shaking himself and arranging his long grey cloak.

"That’s all what is? Surely you are not leaving without explaining yourself?" Aragorn asked, his voice a bit sharper than he intended, but his head was starting to throb harder than ever, and he had little patience for the wizard’s enigmatic ways.

"Of course not, my dear boy," Gandalf said, a kind smile on his face as he put both hands on Aragorn’s shoulders. He studied Aragorn’s eyes and then shook his head sadly. "Ever do you think you can carry burdens too big for you."

Aragorn shook off Gandalf’s hands. He had to change the subject–this was getting them nowhere. He angrily stepped away and started pacing before the fireplace. "It is not so great a burden. I lived, and I will get better in time. You said it yourself; the healer can heal himself, and I have. Or am still doing so, however you want to say it." He made an impatient gesture and went on, "What really concerns me is what to do about the fact that a wraith lingers yet in my lands, terrorizing and murdering my people for reasons I am apparently too much the dullard to figure out, save that it is evil and, like its foul master, full of hate for all men."

"Trust me, Aragorn, you are neither a dullard nor a fool. None of us have figured out the wiles of the enemy or he would have been defeated ages ago. But, since you seem so eager to avoid the topic of your own well being, let us for a moment speculate together and maybe we will come up with something that assures us that neither of us are as thickheaded as we might fear," Gandalf said with a mischievous wink.

Any other time, the twinkle in Gandalf’s eye would have lightened his mood, but Aragorn merely scowled, not missing a step in his restless measuring of the distance across the room and back. His legs were feeling shaky but he used his anger to goad them to keep moving. A pulse started to beat deep within the wound on his arm, so he again surreptitiously grasped his left elbow. "I would be glad of your insight, for mine has been of precious little use."

"Right, then. Let us consider. He may be searching for the One Ring. That is, after all, their sole purpose in whatever it is that passes for their lives," Gandalf mused. "Saruman claims it washed down the Anduin to the sea, and may it be so. But if the servants of the Ring... of Sauron... are stirring, then I fear that Saruman may be wrong in his assertion that the Ring is no more. It may have awakened and is calling to its servants, and this one is searching for it." Gandalf paused and looked pointedly at him.

Aragorn slowed but did not stop his troubled prowling. "Go on. I am listening."

"Like talking to the pendulum on Bilbo’s clock," Gandalf huffed, but continued. "Sauron does not rest quietly in Mordor, nor has he for many long years. No, he is stretching out his power in all directions, and never doubt for a moment that Arnor will escape his sight. It was once a region fully in his control and he would desire it to be laid waste again. He may be testing the resolve of the people of the North."

"That was Glorfindel’s surmise. And I thought that it might be that Sauron is trying to put an army here, to invade the lands to the south, although that seems unlikely."

"There is that chance, I suppose, although this is rather far north for such a strategy."

Aragorn nodded. "That was my conclusion as well. And that leaves us back to having absolutely no idea."

"Not quite. I think there could be another reason the wraith is astir in your lands."

Aragorn stopped. "And that is?"

"Foremost always in Sauron’s thought is his desire for the One Ring. How he wants it, for it is part of him and he of it. They are bound to one another. But second to that desire is this: he seeks the Heir of Isildur. He seeks to utterly destroy both him and his line, because it is only through him – through you, Aragorn, son of Arathorn – that his defeat will be assured."

"But the secret... he surely does not know I am the one he seeks." He hunched his shoulders, rubbing his arm. It felt like someone was jabbing it with a hot poker.

"Sauron’s spies are everywhere, their methods devious and cunning. Who is to say that Sauron has not heard rumor that a son yet lives, a son that is hiding among the Dúnedain remnant? A son that has taken his rightful seat as Chieftain?"

Aragorn felt as though someone had punched him in the gut. "He is destroying the settlements in order to draw me out." That could explain why he doubled back to attack Windydale a second time... I was there... I drew him there...

"I am not sure, of course, but it is something we cannot dismiss."

Aragorn stared at Gandalf without seeing him. Instead he saw burning buildings and the tormented faces of the dead. "Ever have I sought to protect my people," he said, his voice sounding thin and somehow distant, even to his own ears. "But now it seems as though my very existence has hastened their destruction."

Gandalf shook his head. "No, Aragorn. Do not look at it so. Your service to your people has not been undermined. You have led them better than any other chieftain before you, and none in the long line of Isildur’s heirs have given themselves so selflessly to such a seemingly hopeless task as you have. You have not brought them destruction, but hope, and hope ever will be embodied in who you are and what you will become."

"Hope does little to serve the people when the enemy uses it against them," Aragorn said, bitterness riding hard on his heart. "If he knows who I am, then I give no succor to my people but am a threat to their very survival." He gathered his coat and his sword, then bent to pick up his boots. "I must leave. We will put forth the word that the Chieftain has died, the line truly ended, and maybe thereby give my people time while I go forth to Mordor."

"Aragorn, I am certain that Sauron does not know–"

"It is as the visions... the nightmares... showed, only it will not be by the hand of my friends that I find myself at Sauron’s feet, nor chained and helpless, but by the strength of my sword and Sauron will be the one–"

"Aragorn!" Gandalf’s voice sliced through the room like lightning.

Aragorn froze, a boot dropping from his hand. He barely kept himself from cowering in fear at the sight of one of the Istari in full-blown wrath. He started to open his mouth to speak, but shut it with a snap as Gandalf seemed to loom larger than the room itself.

"You will do no such thing! The time is not yet full, and you would only destroy yourself and with that, all of Middle-earth!" Then Gandalf’s rage passed as quickly as it erupted. He seemed to shrink, to become again a harmless-appearing old man with friendly eyes who spoke as a patient teacher to a stubborn pupil. "I have no idea what you mean with this prattle of visions and being thrown to the enemy, but trust me in this: the enemy does not know you exist, else this region would be swarming with every evil weapon and soldier Sauron has at his disposal. That there has been just the one Nazgûl with a small force of orcs, as terrible as that is, tells me that your identity is mere rumor, as it always has been. Nothing more. And, goodness, my boy, none of us will bind you over into Sauron’s hand."

Aragorn put his sword down, and suddenly weariness replaced panic and he felt very foolish. As if he could hope to take on Sauron! "I know," he sighed. "It is just a recurring theme in my nightmares, nothing more. As to the other, I spoke rashly. I know I cannot take on Sauron, not now and not alone, much as my anger would drive me to try." He laid the coat back across the chair and then stood for a moment, chewing his lip before he finally spoke again. "So you truly think he has not discovered who I am?"

"He cannot possibly have, else you would not be standing before me, even in so bedraggled a condition that you seem barely able to stand. Aragorn, you look like the brush of a butterfly’s wing would knock you down."

Aragorn pulled a face. "I am fine." He resumed pacing in front of the fireplace, albeit more slowly than before.

"Again, you try to fool a wizard at your peril. And I do wish you would sit down and stop pacing," Gandalf said sharply. He added under his breath, "Is it any wonder you call yourself Strider?"

"I don’t call myself that. Usually." Aragorn stopped his prowling but refused to sit down. "The question is, then, what can I do to stop the wraith returning?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" Anger rose again. "How can you say–"

"You do not stop him. No, not by yourself nor with your Rangers, nor even with Glorfindel, although he has bought us time with his strength. No, you have a large role to play on the grand stage of Middle-earth’s doom, you and your Rangers, but before this is over and Sauron is defeated, you will have help from an entire array of folk, both expected and unexpected."

Aragorn frowned. "What ‘folk’?"

"All in time, my dear friend, all in time," Gandalf replied cryptically. "But we must first deal with the matter at hand, for you can only play your part if you are healthy and strong. This broken-down shell of a man standing before me is not capable of dispatching a mosquito, let alone a Nazgûl. You must heal, and then we will talk of strategy, and of the plans I have for you."

"What plans?" Aragorn asked warily. He was far too tired for the wizard’s riddles.

"Future plans, nothing imminent," Gandalf waved him off. "I am still searching and watching and traveling, trying to find answers that are slow in coming, but coming nonetheless. But they needn’t concern you yet. In the coming months, perhaps. But for now... you need the care of your father. You have not told him of the Nazgûl, have you?"

Aragorn glanced away. He rubbed his temples, which were pounding with an intensity that threatened to rob him of his sight. "Not yet. He has had his hands full with Halbarad. My own troubles can wait until morning. The dark of night is not the time I would have preferred to speak of it. To anyone," he added pointedly.

"Then you should learn to keep your mouth shut while you sleep. I’m surprised your howls were not heard in the Shire."

Aragorn felt his cheeks burn but he could not really say anything in his own defense. He had woken himself up, after all. And over the past week, Halbarad and the men certainly had let him know in no uncertain terms that their sleep had also suffered because of his nightmares. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I am sure I was not heard in the Shire," he muttered.

Gandalf again put his hands on Aragorn’s shoulders, his eyes compassionate. "I should not tease, for I know how distressing this is. You have suffered much but rest assured, Aragorn, this affliction is near its end. Elrond knows how to treat the Black Breath and rid your mind fully of this menace, fear not. Shall I find him now?"

"No. He worked long and hard today; there is no need to disturb him."

"If you are sure?"

Aragorn nodded, wincing a little as the motion sent a wave of pain rocking through his head. "I just need to sleep."

"I do not know whether to trust your judgment in this, but seeing as it appears you have gotten yourself this far, I will agree. And you are right in that Elrond worked long and hard on Halbarad and needs rest before dealing with you.  Very well. Get some rest of your own, in the meantime. And have you any athelas?"

"I can find some, yes."

"Good, good. Use the athelas... I think perhaps in the rush of fighting off wraiths and hauling wounded friends to Imladris that you have neglected yourself too much."

Aragorn ducked his head but did not argue. Gandalf was right, as always.

"Feel no shame, my dear boy. ‘tis one of your strengths, that you look to the welfare of others before you take care of your own. It will serve you well as King. But it can also be a great weakness when you neglect yourself to the point where you are near collapse." Gandalf patted his arm. "There. I will stop my lecturing and let you rest. Then I will see you in the morning and take you straightaway to your father."

"What, no breakfast?"

Gandalf stared for a moment, then laughed. "You must not be too near death, if you can still make a joke."

"Who was joking?" Aragorn smiled, then opened the door. He leaned his arm on it as Gandalf walked out. "Gandalf, wait."

Gandalf stopped in the hallway and turned.

"Thank you. For listening."

"All in a day’s work." He glanced toward the darkened window. "Or night’s, as it were. Good night, old friend."

"Good night, Gandalf." Aragorn shut the door and leaned back against it. He shut his eyes for a moment as again he kneaded his temples. Maybe before hunting down athelas, he should go down to the kitchen and get another cup of willowbark tea. Then he could stop by Elrond’s study... he always kept a supply of athelas and other medicines there. Aragorn opened his eyes and looked once more at his room, and at the bed.

Somehow now it all looked very inviting. It would be good to come back to it and finally sleep.

Smiling, he opened the door and stepped into the hallway, but stopped short as a knife of pain suddenly stabbed through his skull. He gasped as he grabbed his head with one hand and slapped a hand against the wall to steady himself with the other.

He stood that way for a long time, praying for the pain to ease but it did not, and shadows gathered in a filmy haze before his eyes. He took another step but his knee buckled and he slid down the wall, knocking into a potted fern on an iron stand. He tried to grab it but pain from his head and his arm made him clumsy, and he only succeeded in knocking it completely over. It crashed to the floor with the clamor of shattered pottery and clanging metal and he landed on top of it, its wrought iron edge digging excruciatingly into his wounded arm. Aragorn cried out and then felt more than saw a door open and footsteps rapidly approaching.

"My dear boy!" Gandalf’s alarmed voice in his ear. "My dear boy. Let me help you."

Strong arms slipped beneath Aragorn’s and he felt himself being pulled to his feet. "Gandalf..."

"Shh, do not try to speak."

Aragorn tried to walk but his legs seemed incapable of supporting him. He sagged dizzily against Gandalf and started to fall again. He felt an arm sweep behind his knees and he knew he was being carried and hated it.

"I am a fool of a wizard for believing you! It is as I feared. Worse even; you are burning up with fever. We cannot wait for morning. Elrond!" Gandalf bellowed and then hurried into Aragorn’s room. He laid Aragorn on his bed and Aragorn grabbed at the coverlet, hoping against hope that he might ride out the crazy spinning of a world gone wildly out of control. He felt a hand on his forehead. "Yes, you are indeed ill beyond the remnants of Black Breath, young man," Gandalf said testily. "And no doubt have been all evening and yet all you could tell me is ‘fine’. Stubbornness, your name is Estel Elrondion!"

His footsteps moved away and again Aragorn heard a bellow. "Elrond!"

Aragorn tried to sit up.

"No, no. Lay down. Be still."

But he had to get up. Had to keep moving. "No... have to move... the shadow..."

"Shhh. Easy, my child." Against the footsteps faded and again a bellowing shout into the hall. "Elrond, cease your slumber and come immediately!"

Aragorn looked toward the doorway, but the room seemed dim, full of shadow and flame. He groaned. It was getting hard to breathe. He dropped his head back to his pillow with a low cry. Fire-wreathed darkness enveloped him, and then it felt as though he fell into black waters. They closed over his head and he knew no more.

It was the same, in many ways.

Utter loneliness. Utter despair. Drowning in frigid waters.

He sank under dark, churning waters that had never been touched by life, that had never known the song of Ulmo or danced with the air of Manwë. He sank, and then he fought to the surface, then sank again, and wondered why he should bother. He knew what awaited him. Knew that as soon as he crawled ashore, Halbarad would be there, chains in hand. He knew that everyone he knew and loved would condemn him for his failure and chain him and leave him in the merciless hands of Sauron.

Far better to simply let himself drown. Had that not after all been what he wanted as he sat along the Bruinen?

He went limp, feeling the weight of the water push him ever downward. There could be no hope of rescue this time. He was too deep in the realm of shadow, too far into that nether region where evil sundered the gift of death from mortal life and trapped its victims for all eternity.

But in the end he discovered it simply was not in him to give up. It was wrong. It went against every pulse that still coursed through his veins. It might be hopeless, but he had to keep on. He would never surrender his will to the enemy. Never.

And so he kicked, feebly, then with more strength and his head broke the surface and he gasped and choked but he could breathe.

And if he could breathe, he could fight.

He looked around him and almost wished he had not. Gone was the endless black sea of the last time he was lost. Instead, he found himself in a river twisting through a corruption of all that he knew of Arda. Trees, misshapen and horrid, crowded the banks of the river. Their branches stretched down into the water, reaching for him as he floated past, as he fruitlessly looked for a break along the bank where he could crawl out. He dove under and felt their branches snag on his clothing and he twisted and fought them off and kicked harder as he pulled with his arms, and somehow stayed just ahead of their grasping clutches.

Finally the river turned a bend and the forest fell behind him. He was tossed about against rocks and pulled under in eddies and whirlpools and the battering seemed to go on endlessly but eventually he was able to lunge for a low bank and pull himself out of the water. He knelt, dripping and exhausted, and looked around him. It seemed he was in a valley, a sere place filled with rock and dead grasses and pockmarked with vents in the ground that spewed out sulphurous fumes. Black stone walls rose sheer and forbidding all around the valley’s perimeter, save for this one spot where the river cut through them. He pulled himself to his feet and stood swaying, wondering if he should continue into the valley or simply collapse here by the river and accept whatever fate awaited.

He looked to the far horizon. Blackness there ate at what little light the sky held, and a red glow suffused the land below, reflecting dully on the roiling underbelly of clouds that seethed as though they were furious with the sky and the ground and all things between. It was there, he knew, that Sauron dwelt, and it was there that he would be dragged, chained and helpless.

Panic started to rise in him but he fought it back. He looked around the valley again, trying to find a hiding place, but there was none. There were only a few scattered trees, stunted and bare. Even if he had the strength, there was nowhere to go. He staggered toward one of the shriveled trees and slumped to his knees beneath it, wondering if, like its cousins in that foul wood behind him, it would snatch him up and crush him in its branches. He eyed it warily, but it remained motionless.

There was little sound here. No birds twittering. No insects buzzing. He glanced upward and saw a break in the clouds, and a star dimly shining, but the clouds moved over it and even its small comfort was lost to him. He searched the sky all around and caught a glimpse of a bird, high and far off. An eagle, but it did not see him. Its attention seemed focused on the jagged peaks far away, and not on this dead valley. And that was truly what it was: a dead place. Here he would die and here Sauron would seal the doom of Middle-earth.

I am sorry, Adar. Please forgive me.

For a moment, an instant only, a feeling came over him... or was it merely a dream within this dark dream? The drear valley around him faded and he was aware, somehow, of being in another place entirely: a calm place, a place filled with peace where gentle hands touched him, held him. He heard his own voice crying out that Sauron knew who he was... and then another voice, a musical voice that had filled his childhood with words of encouragement and love...

"No, Estel. You have not failed me, my son. You have not failed."

But then the vision faded and he saw only the scorched, empty valley and he was alone.

He knelt in the silence, too weak to go on, and waited.

~~~

He heard a step beside him. With an effort, he raised his head. Halbarad stared at him, his hands filled with chains.

"No," Aragorn growled, staggering to his feet. "I will not let you take me."

Halbarad said nothing, but reached out and grabbed Aragorn’s left arm. Aragorn yanked his arm back and for a moment freed himself but then Halbarad swung the chains at him and they slammed into his upper arm. Pain exploded in a thousand blinding flares of light and he crumpled to the ground. But even in the midst of the pain, he sensed a movement behind Halbarad, a flash of purest light emerging from a cleft in the rock wall. He saw it and for an instant hope bloomed in his chest, but then Halbarad again swung the chains. Pain dimmed his vision and the sight of... whatever that had been... was lost to him. Aragorn felt the cold touch of a manacle around his right wrist and then his left and he knew he had lost.

~~~

Aragorn’s eyes were shut. He knew what was happening; he had no need to see it. It was his nightmare come to life or death or whatever passed for existence in this plane. He felt a tug at his waist; Halbarad was taking Narsil from him. He heard the broken blade clatter to the ground and cursed the weakness that doomed him to be the failure, the one to bring to an end the line of Isildur, the line of Kings. He had thought perhaps... maybe... he might have had the strength after all... but no.

What passed for his own strength was utterly spent. The fight was over, and he had lost, and thus sealed the doom of all.

Halbarad took him by the arm and started to lift him, then unaccountably let him fall back. Aragorn’s head hit the ground with a blow sharp enough to send lights shooting through his closed eyes. He groaned and rolled over on his side, away from Halbarad, away from the valley. He knew not what was happening but he did not care. He huddled against the base of the tree and tasted the bitterness of his failure.

He heard Halbarad’s feet shuffle. Heard a sudden intake of breath. Then, incredibly, he heard another voice, a voice strong and confident. "Be gone, servant of darkness! Leave him be!"

But Aragorn did not stir himself to look. It sounded almost like Elrond, but Elrond surely could not have delved so far into this evil place. No, it was only his mind playing cruel tricks on him. Better to stay where he was, his eyes shut tight against the terrible sight of his friend turning on him.

He heard footsteps coming toward him.

"Estel!"

Elrond’s voice again. How could that be? He wanted to ignore it, to shoo it away as just another trick of his mind, but something compelled him to look. He started to roll over, but the chains were too heavy, and somewhere along the line Halbarad had managed to manacle his ankles as well. He lifted his arms, then listlessly let them fall. It is not Ada... it is nothing more than a dream... a failing hope...

"Tolo enni, Estel," Elrond cried.

Come to you? But how... how can I trust you? Still, the imploring tone cut straight through to his soul and could not be denied. He turned his head and opened his eyes.

For the longest moment, what he saw simply did not register in his mind. It was Elrond. Shimmering with light and more radiant and powerful than Aragorn had ever seen him, but unmistakably his Adar. But it made no sense for Elrond to be here.

"Estel!"

He blinked. As unlikely as it seemed, Elrond knelt on the ground a scant arm’s length away, looking at him with a mixture of love and fear and joy and fatigue such as he had never seen on his father’s face. Of Halbarad there was no sign. "Adar?" he whispered.

"Yes, Estel. It is your adar. I’m here. I have come to take you home." He held out his arms, reaching for Aragorn.

"Home? " Aragorn whispered. Home! How he longed to take his father’s hands, to let him draw him into his arms and take him away from this vile place, but how could he know this was really Elrond? How could he know that this was not another apparition designed to make him reveal his true name? He shut his eyes and re-opened them, trying to sort out the confused muddle of his thoughts. He finally stiffened his resolve and shook his head. "No... it is a trick. I will not... not tell you... who I am. You cannot make me..."

"Estel," Elrond implored. "Listen to my voice! It truly is me. You must trust me!"

He shut his eyes. "No!" he moaned. "It is a trick... I will not listen!" He curled into a ball, burying his head in his arms. Perhaps if he refused to look, refused to even speak, the vision would go away.

There was silence for a time, then, quietly, "Estel, a few moments ago you woke from this, briefly. You looked at me and told me that Sauron knew who you were."

Aragorn shuddered, but did not look up.

"There is more, Estel, things that I would know but Sauron and his minions would not. If you search your mind you will know to them to be true and know that I am true. Halbarad was injured. You brought him to Rivendell. You waited all day beneath the old willow tree, worrying over him, as I worked to remove the shards of the arrow from near his spine and lung. And you were so concerned for his well-being that you ignored your own wound, the splinter wound on your left arm. It has become inflamed, and is giving you fever."

Aragorn opened his eyes. But he did not look at Elrond. He stared instead at the ground in front of him, weighing Elrond’s words and wondering; if this were not Elrond, how then could he know these things? He did not feel Elrond’s presence in his mind, so it could not be that Elrond knew these things that way. And neither did he feel any other darker presence, and that gave him the tiniest bit of hope.

"I followed the eagle, and then the star. You saw them both, from a distance. They are your tokens, my son, and they drew me to you."

Hope flickered brighter, but Aragorn still could not bring himself to look up.

"Just now I saw Halbarad," Elrond continued, "or the being that was pretending to be Halbarad, swing the chains and hit you. But the chains did not wound you; you were already wounded when you came to Rivendell."

"At Bracken’s Ferry," Aragorn whispered. He finally looked at Elrond. "How do you know? I have not told you anything..."

"No, but I can see the wound on your arm, and no chain did such damage. Splintered wood, still embedded and festering. Erestor has cleaned it, though, and that was the pain you thought came from those chains," Elrond said with a gentle smile. "Come, my son, let me take you home and then you can tell me everything."

He stared at Elrond, then looked around at the deadness surrounding him. If this was a trick, could it be any worse than staying here in this wretched place? He looked again at Elrond, then dared to stretch out a trembling hand. "Ada, is it really you?"

Elrond reached forward and as soon as he touched Aragorn’s fingers, Aragorn knew. "Ada!" he cried and threw himself into his father’s arms. Elrond folded him into his embrace, and as he did so, the chains fell and a sweet wind laden with the aroma of athelas swept away the toxic fumes. The valley seemed to melt around him. He shut his eyes and buried his face against Elrond’s neck....

...and when he next opened his eyes, he saw the familiar walls of his room, and Erestor’s drawn face, and Gandalf’s smile of relief. And he saw Elrond. Saw him and heard him and felt his arms holding him, keeping him safe. "Ada," he croaked.

"Give him water!" Elrond cried, and Erestor hurried forward with a cup. He handed it to Elrond and then helped support Aragorn’s head. Elrond’s hand was shaking as he guided the cup to Aragorn’s mouth. Some of the water slopped onto his chest, but he greedily drank down the rest until Elrond pulled the cup away.

"Slow down, Estel," he laughed.

Erestor lowered Aragorn’s head back to the pillow and Elrond released him, and for a long moment, Aragorn simply looked at Elrond, savoring the sight of him and the sight of his room and wondering how in the world he was suddenly back here, safe and in his home.

"Welcome back," Elrond finally said softly, and laid a tender kiss on Aragorn’s forehead, just as he had done so many times to him when he was a small child.

He found his voice if not coherent words. "What... how did..."

"Shhh. Save your questions, my son," Elrond said. "You were in a far country, and an evil one, but now you are back home and you will recover."

Still confused, Aragorn shifted uneasily on the bed, wincing as the movement jostled his arm.

"Your arm is deeply infected," Elrond said. "It will trouble you for some time, I fear, but it will heal."

Aragorn nodded and closed his eyes. He was so tired, and still in so much pain. But there was a spaciousness, a weightlessness, within him that had not been there in a long, long time. Gone was any trace of a dark shadow, and as he dared turn his thoughts toward the Nazgûl, he felt only memory, like so many of his other memories of horrific events and bitter tragedies and hard-won and hard-lost battles. Wrenching and sorrow-filled and still so fresh that it almost brought physical pain, but still... it was merely a memory. Nothing more. He sighed softly and looked again at Elrond. His father was watching him with a curious expression – a wistfulness, but with a depth of sorrow that only immortal elves could know.

"Adar?" he said softly, asking with his eyes questions he had no strength to speak.

Elrond blinked, then a ghost of a smile lit his face. He laid a hand against Aragorn’s cheek and the sorrow fled from his eyes. "Worry not," he said. "I am not troubled. Not any more."

Aragorn frowned, not accepting the words. He knew what had put the sorrow in Elrond’s eyes – his betrothal to Arwen, his failure as a leader... so many, many things, but mostly his love for Arwen. But he dared not speak of it, so he simply whispered, brokenly, "I am sorry, Adar."

Elrond’s eyes filled with concern. "Shh. You have nothing to be sorry for, my son. Cease your worries, Estel, for there is truly no need." He pulled the blanket up closer to Aragorn’s chin and smoothed it over his arms. "Now get some sleep. There will be time for talk later."

Aragorn nodded. His eyes drifted closed, but before slumber took him into its gentle embrace, he murmured, "Thank you, Ada."

He felt another gentle kiss on his forehead, and then he slipped at last into the healing warmth of true sleep.

 

Such sleep he had. And such dreams! Dreams of Arwen, of riding Bronadui across windswept plains, of eating at banquets and dancing and singing and laughing. It seemed that after so many nights of nightmares, his mind was desperate to fill his sleep with all that was pleasant and good. But fever still plagued him, and nightmares crept in and he fought battles that went ill and watched loved ones die because he could not reach them in time and through it all he felt hope’s flame falter and weaken. He cried out at such times, and invariably felt a calming hand on his brow and then the good dreams would return until fever drove them out once more.

He woke up at intervals, long enough to drink from cups held to his lips, some filled with broth, others water, and still others with a bitter brew of medicine. Sometimes he was aware enough to recognize the face that belonged to the hand holding the cup; other times it seemed all were strangers to him, and it was at those times that the nightmares rushed in and he was convinced all hope was lost.

But as time seeming unmeasured passed, the nightmares faded and the good dreams strengthened and more and more he knew faces and voices around him. And then finally came the day when he opened his eyes to a clear world, with sunshine falling warm on his face and dancing on the wall through the billowing curtains and a sense that he had emerged at last from a dark place to which he would never return. He blinked a few times and tried to lift his head, but he was too weak. So he rolled his head on the pillow and saw Elrond sitting in a chair beside his bed, reading a book.

As if he felt Aragorn’s gaze, Elrond lifted his head and smiled. "So you have decided not to sleep away the rest of your life after all."

"How long?" he rasped, feeling like he had been here before, had gone through this already, and then realizing he had, with Halbarad, on a farm along the plains overlooking the Hoarwell. It was getting tiresome, this.

"Today is the fifth day."

Aragorn’s eyes widened as he silently took in that information. He looked around the room and saw the evidence of Elrond’s care... no, his battle, for Elrond’s face held the fatigue of a soldier who had fought long and hard but knew the joy of victory. Indeed, the cluttered nightstand looked like a field after battle: a pitcher of water, and a bowl and cup. A pile of fresh bandages. Several jars and bottles of medicine. He smelled athelas and wintergreen and a mix of other spicy and medicinal odors, not all of which were pleasant. He had the thought to hitch himself up in the bed but managed only a weak shift of his right arm that barely moved the sheets covering him.

Elrond moved to his side. "How do you feel, my child?"

"Tired," he whispered. He did not understand how he could spend five days sleeping and wake up feeling like he could sleep for five weeks more.

"You are weakened not only from both fever and the Black Breath, but also from plain and simple exhaustion. You pushed yourself too far this time, Estel. You nearly died."

"I did?"

"A festering wound and the Black Breath make a formidable partnership. The presence of either could have certainly killed you, and both of them combined...." He left the thought unspoken. "The Valar must be exhausted from watching over you."

"I am sorry, Ada."

"My words are not a reprimand, Estel," Elrond assured him. "Only a small joke, and one poorly placed, for you are still in a fragile state. No, do not argue!" Elrond added as he saw the frown building on Aragorn’s brow. "You have managed to come back from the road upon which there is usually no returning, and that is no small feat of strength. But still, you have a long way yet to travel before you can call yourself healed."

"How long?"

"As long as it takes."

Aragorn pulled a face. His father may be a Peredhel but when it came to answering questions, the Elven side of him usually took over to give answers that were no answers at all.

Elrond looked at the bandage wrapped around Aragorn’s left arm, pulling its edge back just enough for a peek. "It is better now, but the infection in your arm found a strong hold before any of us realized you were wounded. You insisted I take care of Halbarad, and in my haste to care for him, I foolishly ascribed the fever and pain I saw in your eyes–even the shadow I sensed in your soul–to nothing more than exhaustion and simple sorrow. So I hurried off when I should have seen to it that you received care yourself. But you hid your pain so well from all of us – from me, from Erestor and Gandalf – that we did not realize how ill you truly were. And for that," he said with a deep inward breath, "I do not know how you will ever forgive me." Tears suddenly shimmered in his eyes. "My son came home at last and I nearly let him die."

My son came home at last...

The words cast a warm glow in Aragorn’s heart, but it was overshadowed by dismay. He could not allow his father to take any blame in this fiasco. "No, Ada. Do not blame yourself." He licked his lips. Speaking at length was proving very difficult. "My fault... for hiding it."

"You think you are the only one skilled in self recrimination," Elrond said with a sad smile. "You no doubt learned it from me." Then he waved his hand in a dismissive manner. "But that is not for you to worry about, either way. What matters now is getting you well."

"How... what happened? Did I fall?"

"You apparently collapsed in the hallway outside your bedroom. Gandalf heard you, and summoned – nay, not summoned but in truth shouted for me loudly enough that I would have heard him had I already been in Valinor." He reached over and moved a stray lock of Aragorn’s hair out of his face. "You should purge the word ‘fine’ from your vocabulary. I never want to hear it coming from your mouth again."

Aragorn smiled faintly, but other concerns weighed on him. "How is Halbarad?"

"He is well. Back on his feet, as a matter of fact, though I ordered him to rest. But I cannot keep him from your side; when I am not here, he insists that he must be, telling me that while he may not be able to fight off orcs, he can surely manage to sit quietly and watch over his chieftain. He is a rare friend, your Halbarad."

"The best," Aragorn murmured. So why did I dream over and over that he was a traitor?

"Estel? Something troubles you."

He waited a moment, drawing strength. "I dreamt of him... betraying me. How I could be so unfair... to dream of him like that?"

"Fever affects the mind in strange ways, and so does the Black Breath. It twists our thoughts, turns good to evil and evil to good. The nightmare realm you were trapped in... I have never seen such in all my experience. Usually it is far darker, more murky, less vivid, less... terrifying. I would give anything to have prevented you from experiencing what you did." He paused, his gaze troubled, but then he gave Aragorn a reassuring smile. "But rest assured, dreaming such does not mean somewhere deep down you harbor mistrust toward Halbarad. I think, perhaps, so twisted by the Black Breath that your thoughts were, he somehow became a symbol of evil corrupting even the best, most pure things in your life."

They made sense, Elrond’s words. Aragorn let out a long breath. "I hated that more then anything else, I think."

Elrond said nothing, but merely took Aragorn’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

"My men... Glorfindel... my brothers?"

"I have not heard any news."

"I hope–" Aragorn started, but there was no point in finishing the thought. Whatever had happened after he left was nearly a week past, and worrying now served no purpose. That the wraith did not follow Aragorn and Halbarad across the river must mean that Glorfindel and the others were successful in some measure in their pursuit. But not knowing worried him greatly.

"If it helps, I do not sense that Glorfindel or your brothers are in any danger."

Aragorn nodded. It was not the complete reassurance he sought, but neither could he dismiss the comfort Elrond’s words offered.

"Would you like some broth?"

Aragorn shook his head. "Too tired." And he was. He could barely keep his eyes open. "Ada?"

"Yes?"

"Tell him... tell Halb’rad..." His words slurred and he tried again. "Tell him... thank you." He felt Elrond squeeze his shoulder, then he drifted back to sleep.

~~~

"Aragorn," a voice whispered softly, urgently. Someone gently shook his shoulder. He took a deep breath and let it out. He was floating on a warm cloud, safer and happier than he had been in months and he did not want to leave that cozy place. He burrowed deeper into his pillow.

But the voice would give him no peace. "Aragorn!"

"Go away."

A chuckle, then another shake of his shoulder. "Come now, Strider, open your eyes."

Since it seemed whatever intruder trying to haul him from his comfortable cloud was not going to give up, he slowly opened his eyes. Halbarad stood over him, pale and wan and with his right arm in a sling, but grinning like a cat that had just finished off the cream. Aragorn could not help grinning back. "Halbarad!"

"Lord Elrond told me you had finally wakened. He also told me to leave you be, but I have never been any good at following orders." He looked him over, even lifting the sheet to check out the rest of him. "You look fairly awful, but I suppose I’ve seen you in worse shape. How do you fare?"

"I have been in worse shape."

Halbarad snorted. "Ever do you avoid a direct answer when it comes to how you feel. Tell me straight, Strider."

Aragorn sighed. "Very well. I ache all over. My left arm still feels like a Balrog is whipping it. And I’m tired. Very, very tired. But otherwise, more or less recovering well, according to Elrond."

"Hmm."

"I am on the mend, truly."

"Hmm."

Aragorn shot him a look of exasperation. He was far too tired for all this. "How about you?" He nodded toward the sling and frowned.

"This? Oh, your father has me using it to ease the strain on my shoulder and back muscles. Have to admit that he is right. My back gets very sore if I try to go long without it. You have no idea how heavy an arm can be."

Thinking of how heavy his eyelids felt at the moment, Aragorn figured he had some idea, but he merely nodded. He longed to say more but he was already losing the battle against sleep. He wondered when he might be able to keep his eyes open for longer than a few minutes at a stretch.

"Yes, I am definitely on the mend, thanks to your father’s skill, and thanks–" Halbarad stopped and suddenly looked so stricken that all of Aragorn’s sleepiness momentary fled.

"Halbarad?"

He chewed his lip for a moment, struggling for control, then finally said, "You nearly sacrificed your life for mine, riding through the night, sick and wounded yourself. It is no small thing, and I have no words sufficient to thank you."

Sleepiness again swept over Aragorn in a warm wave, but he forced himself to keep his eyes open. "It was truly no sacrifice."

"Aragorn, you nearly died!"

"But I did not. I am still here."

"Only by the mercy of the Valar." He paced away from the bed and stood by the window for a few minutes, and when he turned, his eyes were shining with unshed tears. "Do not ever do this to me again, Aragorn. Promise me."

"You do not want me to save your life?"

"No... I do not want you to lie to me. Say that all is well when you know it is not. I cannot..." He stopped, struggling for control, then continued. "When I woke up, after Elrond had removed the arrow, and Erestor told me what had happened, that you had collapsed, that you might lose your arm and that you were nearly overcome by the Black Breath..." Anger brought color to Halbarad’s cheeks. "The same Black Breath you kept telling me you had defeated and that I, putting aside every instinct that screamed otherwise, accepted as truth!" He shook his head and whispered, "Do not ever do that to me again."

Aragorn looked long into Halbarad’s eyes. He saw in his companion’s burning gaze a demand for trust. For the honesty that Aragorn knew was fully Halbarad’s due. Aragorn again cringed at the unfairness of his nightmares, of them casting this stalwart companion into the role of traitor. He looked at Halbarad and the naked emotion in his face and knew he could give him but one answer. Aragorn struggled to prop himself on one elbow, wishing beyond measure he could go to Halbarad and put a hand on his shoulder. "I promise you, I will not do that again. Ever."

"Do I have your oath?"

"You do."

Halbarad shut his eyes and breathed in deeply. He nodded. "Thank you," he said, and returned to Aragorn’s side. He helped him lay back down, then settled himself in the chair beside the bed. "Do you need anything?"

"My strength back."

Halbarad chuckled. "Only time will do that."

"Will you stay long?"

"Another week, perhaps. I think I should get back to Windydale as soon as possible. And seeing how you’ll be flat out until at least Mettarë..."

"No. That is too long," Aragorn murmured. My people need me sooner, much sooner...

"Hmm. You should see yourself in a mirror, Strider."

"That bad?"

"Let me simply say that the color of your skin should not match the grey of your eyes."

Aragorn shut his eyes. "I certainly feel grey."

Halbarad made a sympathetic noise, then a quiet fell between them, comfortable and easy. Aragorn felt himself dozing but some part of him still heard the little noises Halbarad made as he shifted in the chair or let out a soft sigh. The sounds comforted him more than he ever would have thought.

He opened his eyes. "Halbarad?"

"Yes?"

He held out his hand, and Halbarad took it. Aragorn looked at him for a long moment, wanting to say so many things, but in the end he finally simply gave his hand a squeeze.

Halbarad smiled, understanding plain in his eyes. But he only said, "Sleep now, my friend," as he pulled the blanket higher and tucked Aragorn’s hand under it. He laid a hand on Aragorn’s forehead, and Aragorn closed his eyes and let himself drift toward sleep, but not before hearing Halbarad’s whispered benediction, "Sleep, my liege. I will watch over you, as I always have."

Aragorn swung his legs over the side of the bed and positioned his arm carefully in the sling Elrond had insisted he use until his arm fully healed.  Halbarad and I make a matched set, he thought ruefully.  He shoved the blanket away from him and, eyeing a small book on the shelf by the fireplace that he wanted to read, slowly eased himself to his feet.  He felt shaky, and for a brief moment his eyesight dimmed but only in the way that it does when one has been squatting at length and then stands too quickly. A few blinks and his sight returned.  He smiled grimly.  He was ready.  His goal:  the book, then the chair by the fireplace.  He was tired of reading in bed.  He was tired of eating in bed, of sleeping in bed.  He was tired of being in bed.  It was time for a change of scenery.  

He took a deep breath and then a step, and then in short order several more.  Not a twinge from his ankle; it had finally healed, as well it should, with all this bedrest.  He was feeling ridiculously pleased with his progress when the room suddenly took a slanting dive to the left and then a swoop back to the right.  He thrust his good hand out and grabbed at the back of the chair and braced himself as he waited for things to settle back in place.  Little lights popped at the edge of his sight.  Valar, do not let me faint!   After a long, scary moment where he felt hot, then cold, then hot again, and icy sweat broke out on his brow, things did indeed settle down.  Moving more slowly this time, he eased himself around the chair until he could grasp the fireplace mantel.  That accomplished, he crept sideways, feeling far too much like a toddling infant pulling himself along a cot, until he was within arm’s length of the shelf.  He snatched the book from the shelf, and promptly dropped it and with his clumsy grab for it succeeded only in knocking to the floor the eagle feather, the rock and everything else on the shelf.

Uttering a wordless growl, he slowly bent down and retrieved the book, then, without bothering to straighten back up or pick up the rest, he fumbled for the chair and pulled himself into it, gasping and trembling and cursing his weakness.

He was still sitting, eyes shut, head spinning, the book closed on his lap, when a knock came.  He took one last deep breath and mopped his sweaty forehead against his sleeve.  He fumbled to get the book open one-handed.  “Come,” he said.

Elrond entered.  “Estel!  What are you doing out of bed?”

“I thought I might read for a bit.” He turned a page, acting as nonchalant as he could considering he could not seem to focus his eyes on the words.  He prayed Elrond did not see how his hands trembled.

Elrond’s eyes trailed across the room to the now empty shelf, taking in the items on the floor and then to the book in Aragorn’s lap.  “The book is upside down.”

Aragorn hurriedly tried to right the book but it slid from his grasp.  Elrond bent and retrieved it, placing it on the night stand.  “Your impatience has gotten the better of you.  You have only been fully awake for two days, and you are not yet ready for any sort of rambling, even if only across the room. Let me help you back to bed, young one.”

“I am tired of staying in bed,” Aragorn grumbled, immediately cringing as he realized how petulant that sounded.   “Forgive me, Adar.  I did not mean to complain.  I am just frustrated at how slowly my strength is coming back.  A long convalescence is simply not something to which I am well accustomed.”

“Rare indeed is it for you to be in such shape, and for that I am very thankful,” Elrond said as he helped Aragorn stand.  “But this has been no ordinary wound, and no ordinary illness.  It will take time.”

Aragorn lowered himself to the bed and suffered to let Elrond lift his legs and swing them to the bed.  “How long?”

“As I’ve told you, as long as it takes.”  At Aragorn’s glare, he added, as he pulled the blankets over him, “You keep asking but I honestly cannot tell you, Estel.  It will depend on so many things, not least of which is that you do not push yourself too soon.  It has only been two days.”

“Point taken.”

“If you rest and eat well, I would say you might expect to be on your feet in another day or so.”

“That does not sound too bad.”

Elrond smiled.  “On your feet.  But not on your horse heading for the Wilds, nor probably even into the hallway.  Your stamina, as legendary as it is, has been utterly drained, Estel.  It will take many weeks to regain what you have lost.”

Aragorn shut his eyes.  “Weeks.  You are as gloomy about my prospects as Halbarad.   Ada, I do not have weeks.  My people will need me well before then.  They need me now.”

“The best thing you can do for your people is rest,” Elrond said rather archly.  “Do not fret.  They have at whiles in the past gotten along just fine without you; they will again now.”

“So now you tell me I am not needed,” Aragorn grumbled, refusing to be comforted.

“I think you know better than that.”

“Yes,” Aragorn sighed.  “I hate being helpless.”

“It is never an easy thing, no.  Here, let me see your arm.”  He watched in silence as Elrond changed the bandage and put on a smaller one.  “There.  I think that will be more comfortable.  Can you move your arm?”

Aragorn eased it out of the sling and slowly lifted the arm as high as he could before pain and tightness stopped it.  

“It is improving.  You will be lifting a bow again before too very long,” Elrond said, well satisfied.  He helped Aragorn slip his arm back into the protective sling, then reached forward and brushed the back of his hand along Aragorn’s forehead and cheek.  “You seem a bit feverish this morning, though.  How do you feel?”

Aragorn shrugged.  “I suppose I feel as good as can be expected.  I feel–” He stopped, unable to sort out just how he felt.  Tired, yes.  Weaker than he ever remembered being in his life.  Still a bit achy.  Impatient to be better.  But something else seemed wrong, beyond what he would say was the normal outcome of such illness.  It was as though there still lingered a sort of malaise from the Black Breath, not quite a shadow but a dimming of his spirit that he could not really explain.  Still, he had to try.  “I feel... I feel like a lamp that is out of oil except for that which is still in the wick.  I feel like any moment the spark within me will fade away.  I feel... tired.”  He only hoped that Elrond understood what he meant, because he was not sure himself.  

Elrond frowned, then laid his hand on Aragorn’s forehead and closed his eyes.  He took several deep breaths and after a moment Aragorn’s own eyes drooped and in the quiet darkness, he sensed Elrond’s comforting presence within his fëa.  After a long interval, Elrond pulled his hand away and Aragorn opened his eyes and sighed.  “What did you see?”

“Nothing of the Black Breath, thankfully,” Elrond assured him.  He seemed to be weighing his words.  “But I did sense something.  I confess that though I do not know exactly what it is, I have my suspicions.  So I want you to sort it out for me, and for yourself.  Gandalf told me a bit of the conversation you and he had, the night you collapsed.  He sensed in you a great weariness, one beyond illness or injury.”

Aragorn picked at the covers.  “He sensed aright,” he said quietly.

Elrond covered his hand with his own.  “I would that you would tell me about it.”

Aragorn glanced sharply at him.  He did not know if he could bring himself to talk to his father.  Anything he said would surely lead around to that which Elrond had commanded they never speak.  He frowned and looked away, toward the window.  But still, maybe he should at least try.  He owed Elrond that much.   “I do not know where to start.”

“I have always considered the beginning to be the best place to start a tale.”

“The beginning... I do not know when that was,” Aragorn said faintly.  “I do not know when my hope left me.”

“Estel,” Elrond breathed.  “Has it come to that?”

“I do not know.  I sometimes think it has; other times, I find my way again.”  He rubbed his face with an impatient gesture.  “I only know that when I look around me, at my people, at their suffering... I see the children dying...”  He shook his head hard, trying to drive back tears that refused to be gainsaid.  “Ada, my soul seems to die within me,” he choked.  “I see my people dwindle year by year, and they look to me... they look to me as though I will save them and I do not know if I can.”  He took a deep, shuddering breath.  “I do not know.”

Elrond gazed at him with eyes full of compassion.  “Such has been the despair of every chieftain, Estel.  I listened once as your father poured out his heartbreak to me in just such a fashion.  You are so like him, Estel.  Your heart is great and filled with compassion for your people, and that is both your strength and your weakness, just as it was Arathorn’s.  Just as it was Arador’s and all those chieftains who have watched the descendants of Númenor fade to numbers seeming too few to survive.  But they have survived, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, grandson of Arador.  They have survived and will survive... and with you, they will at last regain all that has been lost.”

“How I want that, Ada. I only wish I could be so certain.”

“Be certain of that, and of the strength of your people.  They have endured.  They will endure.”

“So many decisions I have made have gone ill,” Aragorn whispered.  “How can my people survive when I do not seem able to find a course that does not lead always to disaster?”

“I heard the report from Bilfen Broadbow on what happened at Bracken’s Ferry, and Gandalf told me what happened after that and also at Windydale.  Disaster was laid at your feet through no fault of your own, Estel.  You did not take a course that led to the tragedies there.”

“But I failed to find a course that would have led my people through safely, and that is unforgivable.”

“Failing to find what does not exist is nothing for which you need seek forgiveness.  Neither I, nor Gandalf, nor the wisest of the wise could have done anything different had we been in your shoes.”   He paused.  “This despair is not like you, Estel, and indeed it is not you.”

Aragorn frowned, longing to understand.

“I speak again of the Black Breath.  It has many ill effects, one of which is a feeling of utter despair.  It seems to last longer in those who may have already been walking through dark times, and in those who have had a prolonged exposure to a wraith, and from the sound of it, you suffered both circumstances.  You had become careworn, and then you were forced to contend with the wraith far longer than any lesser man would have and survived.”

“But you said that I no longer suffer...”

“True.  I said that, but I meant it in this way: the Black Breath is no longer upon you.  It can do no further harm.  You were not pierced by a Morgul blade; you are not destined to become a wraith.  All those things are good and for them we thank Ilúvatar Himself for delivering you.  But you were nearly lost to the shadow – you fought it admirably but the second exposure to it, combined with the weakness from your arm wound, proved to be your undoing.  The harm that was done...”  He stopped and looked away, staring as though into some distant land, or at memories that brought no joy.  “The Nazgûl are skilled at violating one’s thoughts.  You may think you have your mind utterly closed to them, but the smallest weakness, the smallest chink, and they pry into your mind, wrenching it open to pour their unspeakable poison into your soul.  It is a terrible thing to endure, and a trauma from which one does not quickly nor easily recover.  Most never do.”   He paused, and tears pooled in his eyes. “It is very much the same as when a woman is violated.”

“Ada,” Aragorn whispered.  He knew now where Elrond’s gaze traveled, and the reason for his tears, and perhaps even for the earlier sadness in his eyes:  Celèbrian, his wife, attacked by orcs and who finally sailed to the Undying Lands, unable to bear up to the sorrow over what had been done to her.  He sat up and put his right hand on Elrond’s shoulder and looked earnestly into his eyes.  “No, Ada.  Be at peace, for it is not as bad as that.  I assure you.”

Elrond nodded and grasped Aragorn’s arm.  He bent his head and was very still, and several minutes passed before he finally raised his head again.  “I am glad, Estel.  I would not want that–”

“Shhh.  Speak no more of it.”

“Now who is comforting whom?” Elrond said with a shaky smile.  “I love you, my son.  I always have.  I hope you know that.”

Aragorn nodded.  “I allowed myself to forget it, and for that I ask your forgiveness.”

“You need not.”  He studied Aragorn for a long time, then said, “This one thing I know, Aragorn, son of Arathorn: though you have had a hard and cruel road to travel, you have stood up to your trials as no one else could have.  Whatever you might whisper to yourself in the secret watches of the night, know that you are no failure.  The blood of Elendil remains strong and pure within you, fear not.”

Aragorn took a sharp, shuddering breath as Elrond’s words seem to rip through to his very soul, cutting through to the very heart of his fear.  He hung his head, fighting against the grief rising within him, but his emotions betrayed him.  A ragged cry ripped itself from his throat, a deep, groaning noise that shamed him and frightened him with its intensity.   He tried to turn away from Elrond, to wrest control over himself before all was lost, but Elrond stopped him.  He put a hand against Aragorn’s cheek and whispered, “Nai tyeldar sí nyérelyar. Coluvan nyérelyar.  Sorrow no more, my son.  Sorrow no more.  Let me hold your tears and your sorrows, if only for a little while.  Coluvan nyérelyar.”

Elrond’s gentle words, the same soothing words from Aragorn’s childhood, were his undoing.   The grief that he had kept bottled up for so many long weeks now seemed to pour out of him uncontrollably, and it shamed him to be so weak but he could no more stop the flood of tears than he could have stopped the flow of the Bruinen.   Terrible sobs tore through him with such strength that he felt he would fly apart if Elrond’s strong arms did not hold him.   As Elrond crushed him to his chest, he reached his own arms around him and clung to him and wept for Mallor, for the people of Bracken’s Ferry and Windydale... each man, each woman...

Each child.

He gave his grief free rein and it flew through him like the violent storms that assail the coasts of Gondor and somewhere in the wildness of it, in the tumult of pain and grief, something tight and cold and hard loosened and warmed and softened, and the tears finally slowed until the storm blew itself out and left only exhausted, empty silence.  He started to pull away, but Elrond tightened his hold.  “Not yet,” he murmured, and so Aragorn stayed where he was, and somewhere in the barren place that was his soul, peace stole its way back.  He sighed and when Elrond felt him relax, only then did he ease him back onto his pillow and release him.

Aragorn rolled over onto his back and wiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand.  “I am sorry.  I did not mean to lose control like that.”

“Sorrow cannot stay forever locked away.   Weeping must come when the heart is broken.”  He took Aragorn’s hand and touched the wetness there.  “Men or Elves, it matters not. Tears must be shed, or all that is good in a man will wither like a flower in drought.”

Aragorn thought on that, and after a moment, he said, “My heart truly has been broken, more times than I can count, in these last years.  I know I am no Elf, but sometimes the pain of what I have seen seems so great that I wish I might sail away to the Undying Lands and be healed, somehow.  But I know I cannot, that I must live through each and every moment, no matter how they tear at my soul.”   He stared blindly at the ceiling.  “And sometimes that brings the worst despair of all.”

Elrond gave no reply for a moment, but ran a light hand across Aragorn’s hair.  A wistful smile played about his lips.  “I remember when you were about three, or perhaps four.  You fell out of a tree... one of the many times you fell out of a tree because you thought at that time you were actually a Silvan Elf we were holding captive.”
 
Aragorn frowned.  He could not imagine where Elrond was going with this.   “I thought what?”

“It was shortly after you saw a contingent from Mirkwood for the first time.  They so impressed you that you swore you were a prince of the Woodland realm, and we were holding you for ransom.  If I remember, the ransom amounted to forty-eleven peppermint sticks.”  He let out a soft laugh, remembering.  “You could not count very well at that age.  I imagine forty-eleven seemed an outrageously high number.”

Aragorn could not help but smile.  He truly loved candy as a child.  He still did, though he rarely had a chance to so indulge himself.  He rolled over onto his side and propped his head up on his hand, much in the way he did as a child when Ada told him bedtime stories.  To his wry amusement, he was finding he still enjoyed a bedside story.  “And did anyone pay said ransom?”

“You still owe King Thranduil’s seneschal for the two sticks of peppermint you forced him to pay after we negotiated a more reasonable amount, since none of us were quite sure how much ‘forty-eleven’ amounted to.  Erestor, being Erestor, argued it was fifty-one, but Glorfindel and the twins insisted it had to be four-thousand and eleven.  Needless to say, you sided with Glorfindel and your brothers.”

“I don’t remember that at all.”

“Oh, that was just one of many wild scenarios your imagination conjured.  It went on for about three months, you insisting you were King Thranduil’s long-lost son and I the evil warlord of some realm whose name you made up and I could never pronounce.  Too many z’s and x’s and some sort of odd spitting sound in the middle of all of them.”

Aragorn chuckled, wishing he could remember that.

“In fact, it went on for so long that I was truly afraid that you might have some sort of serious problem in the mind.  You see, you were the youngest of all the heirs I fostered over the ages, and I was unfamiliar with the ways of very young edain, for although I have had many children of Men underfoot, they always had both their parents to care for them.  I was never quite as involved in their lives as I was... and still am... with yours.  But your mother assured me it was common for children to go through, as she called it, seasons.  She assured me that as your imagination latched onto some new thing, it would pass as winter gives way to spring, and that indeed happened.  You decided one day at breakfast that you were not a Wood Elf after all, but a Hobbit.  You even strapped rabbit fur to the tops your feet and, though it was the dead of winter, refused to wear shoes.   You called yourself Trotter, if I remember correctly.  And you tried to convince me to let you drink ale instead of milk.”

“I did not.”

“Ask your brothers.”

Aragorn would definitely not ask his brothers anything of the sort.  If they remembered, best not to remind them of the follies of his childhood.  

“But to get back to the days when you were the captive lost Princeling of Mirkwood... you fell from a tree and came crying to me with a skinned knee.   I washed it, and kissed it – for at that age, you still suffered me to treat you in such an unmanly way.”  He paused, his wistful smile turning sad.  “The small hurts of that little boy were easily healed, but these wounds you now carry on your soul... they will take more than a father’s kiss to heal them, and more even than such Elven medicine as I can provide.  Time and your strength alone will bring your healing to you.  And your healing will come, Estel.  Have no fear otherwise.”

Aragorn picked at the coverlet, running a bit of fringe over and over through his fingers.   After several minutes, he spoke.  “I... I was afraid I would not be welcome here.”

Elrond shifted, and his words, when they came, were quiet.  “Do you remember when last you left here, three months ago?   Regrettably, our parting was not warm.”

Aragorn nodded.  He had asked after Arwen, as he often did, wanting only to know how she fared.  Usually such inquiries were returned with warm assurances of her well-being.  Though they had carefully avoided speaking of his betrothal for all these years, they could speak still of Arwen herself, and thus Aragorn stayed always carefully within the bounds of what he knew Elrond would allow in asking after her.  But for reasons he still could not fathom, his cautious inquiry that day had angered Elrond.   Though no words passed between them, Elrond’s terse reply that she was well, in Lothlórien, held such tension that Aragorn could only assume that he had somehow roused his father’s fury.  He thanked Elrond as humbly and as quickly as he knew how, then hurried out of the study, shaken and hurt.  And as he made his leave of the house itself, he had paused at the door, thinking himself out of earshot.  He remembered standing in the double doors, looking toward the sky, thinking how Elrond could never understand how much his spirit was torn asunder at the two conflicting loves in his heart.  Love for Arwen, love for Elrond... and whatever choice he made would leave all their hearts broken.  He had not been able to keep the pain inside, and he had spoken the words to the listening sky, in a nearly soundless whisper.  “I have chosen Arwen, but it feels almost as though, because of love, I have had to choose to tear off my left arm instead of my right.”  But Elrond could not have heard him.  Aragorn had left Rivendell without a backward glance, knowing in his heart that unless circumstances were dire, he would not return, not if it caused Elrond such pain.  And if return he must, he knew it would not be to any sort of welcome embrace.

“I would not wish for you to tear off either of your arms, Estel.”

Aragorn jerked his head up.  Elrond knew, and it explained so much.  It explained why Elrond had welcomed him with open arms and not with coldness.  But still... how had he heard?  Elven hearing was sharper than men’s, but he had barely made a sound.  “You did not... you could not have heard that ...”

“I can hear the softest whisper of your heart, my son.  You should know that by now.”

Aragorn shut his eyes.  Elrond had heard, and understood, and in his selfish ignorance, he had deemed his father uncaring.  It was unconscionable.   I seem able only to cause suffering to those I love... Father... Halbarad... even the people over whom I am Chieftain.    

He collapsed back onto the pillows and laid his forearm across his eyes, wishing suddenly for the oblivion... the escape... of sleep.  He was just so very weary of himself, and he was growing ever more certain that everyone else was tiring of his constant blundering as well.  “I am sorry, Adar.  I foolishly misjudged you.”

“No, you did not misjudge me.  I heard your words but did nothing, when what I should have done was rush to your side and give you reassurance.  I had been in a foul mood that day, worrying over some no doubt foolish trifle that now I cannot even recall, and I took it out on you.   And when you finally returned, and collapsed as you did... my fear was that you would die before I had a chance to make things right between us.  Ilúvatar has granted me mercy in this, however, and so now I must ask you to forgive me.”

“We seem to be doing nothing but exchanging pleas for forgiveness,” Aragorn said with a rueful smile.

“Because we seem to have done much to hurt one another.  Or at least I have done much to cause you sorrow.”

“No, Ada.  I think, were anyone keeping score, perhaps we would fall just about even.”

“Then shall we simply move forward from here?”

Aragorn smiled, and a weight seemed to lift from his soul.  “I think that is an excellent idea.”  It was not a perfect solution, by any means.  His betrothal to Arwen still stood between them, and this dancing around the issue was far from a satisfying resolution, but for now, knowing that he had not lost his father’s love entirely because of that was more than enough to reassure him that somehow, someday, things might work out.    And knowing that things were as right as they could be between Elrond and himself gave him that much more strength... and hope... to carry on.   

It was enough.

Elrond’s smile was like the sun coming out.  “Ah, that is good to see.”

“What is good to see?”

“The light in your eyes.   It is back, and it makes my heart glad to see it again.”

Aragorn hitched himself up against his pillows.  “There may be a light in my eyes, but there is precious little in my stomach.  Are meals provided with the convalescence, or is starvation part of the treatment?”

Elrond laughed and rumpled Aragorn’s hair and laughed again as he stood.  “I will arrange to have breakfast brought to you.”

“Thank you,” Aragorn said as he smoothed his hair back down, or tried to.  From the feel of it, he was sure it looked as unkempt as a packrat’s nest.   Elrond reached the door, and Aragorn suddenly cried out, “Ada, wait!”

Elrond’s spun around in alarm at Aragorn’s frantic tone.  “What is it, Estel?”

“Can you please hand me that book?”

Elrond scooped the book off the night stand and tossed it onto Aragorn’s stomach.  “Helpless Dúnadan!” he snorted in very un-lordly fashion, then left.

Aragorn smiled as Elrond’s chuckles faded down the hallway, then opened the book to the first page.  

    “The leaves were long, the grass was green...” (1)

____________

“The leaves were long, the grass was green...”- page 187, The Fellowship of the Rings,  J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, New Line cover paperback edition, 2003.

Epilogue – The Year That Followed – Part I


Excerpts from the Journals of Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain




6 November, T.A. 3000

Seeing as how I am stuck in bed with not much more to do than stare down the length of my legs to my feet sticking up in twin lumps at the end of the bed (I really do seem to have big feet), or twiddle my thumbs, or count the ceiling beams (there are fifteen), I pulled down my old journal and have decided to add to it, jotting down whatever thoughts flit through my mind. Not that I have many, nor yet any that ‘flit’. I still am so tired that my thoughts move sluggishly, like leaves floating down a lazy stretch of the Bruinen. There is a portion of the river, well beyond Rivendell’s borders, where the channel spreads out into a sort of marshy area. There is still a current, but it is slow, and outside the main channel, debris piles up and it is a fairly nasty place to find oneself. I went in there once, chasing down a stag, and swore never again to do such a foolish thing. The stagnant water is dark and smells of sulfur and filled with dead things and leeches and stinging bugs. That is how my mind feels these days.

But it is still better than it was, so I must try to be patient. Or so I hear Ada’s voice admonishing me. We had a long talk yesterday, and cleared the air between us of many things (although not of the one thing that will always stand between us, I fear). Our conversation eased my mind considerably, but there are still so many hard memories... I see the faces in my dreams....

Some might tell me to forget, to put it behind me, but if I, the Chieftain, the leader of my people, do not remember the faces of those killed by this unspeakable evil... who will?

I will remember.

And I will repay.



7 November, T.A. 3000

Ada woke me up before dawn this morning. I was not happy about that, but he said he heard me cry out in my sleep. I do not remember crying out in my sleep, but maybe I did. The Black Breath is gone, but my dreams are still at whiles troubling and dark. But Ada assures me that there is really nothing wrong with me that time will not sort out. I just wish time would do its job more quickly.

Will write a letter to Arwen today, I think. She has been much on my mind of late.



8 November, T.A. 3000

Another adventurous day of doing nothing but lie abed. I think by the time I am finally recovered, I will have no strength in my legs. I may not even have legs; they might simply whither away entirely from lack of use.

My appetite is odd. I wake up feeling like I could eat enough food to feed an entire family of hobbits, but once I put the food in my mouth, it seems tasteless and often sticks so in my throat that I feel I will choke. Again, Ada told me not to worry; it is only that my stomach has shrunk from my illness, but I cannot help but wonder what has gone so wrong with my body that I cannot enjoy food. Good food, at any rate. There have often been times when I could not enjoy eating out in the wilds, but that was no fault of my body’s; that was the fault of my cooking.

Erestor came by and we spent a pleasant hour in conversation. His talkative ways are soothing when one is still too tired to hold up his end of the conversation. He told me many stories from my childhood, events I had long forgotten, and some that I do not recall whatsoever and really would rather no one brought back to my remembrance, like the ridiculous story of my wanting to be a hobbit named Trotter. I can see already that Ada has been reminiscing with all who will listen about that, and I dread the day when my brothers return, for I am sure he will share it with them as well. Sometimes I think Ada has a right cruel streak in him.

Erestor sat laughing at me until, annoyed beyond what I could endure, I feigned weakness sufficient to drive him guilt-ridden from the room for so tiring me.

Being bedridden has its uses.


9 November, 3000 T.A.

Nothing to report today. The sun rose; I did not.

This is getting quite tiresome.


10 November, T.A. 3000

I re-read the story of Beren and Lúthien this morning, the second time through since being bedridden. “Bedridden”... how I hate that word! It speaks of one who is old and used up and feeble and in my heart, I know I am none of these things... but my body still betrays me and it is a sore thing to accept that only time’s slow passage will change my situation. But at least in reading I can escape such dark thoughts.

Theirs is my favorite tale, always has been, but now I feel more than ever a kindred spirit to my distant ancestor. Such a trial he faced to win the love of his heart; it makes my own challenge seem a breeze. At least I do not have to snatch the Silmarils from Morgoth’s crown. I merely have to regain the throne of two nations, snatching them from Sauron’s clutches and destroying him in the process. A lark, that. I can just hear Halbarad. “Should be an easy enough task,” he would say. “That is, if you happen to think it easy to fight through insurmountable obstacles to reach unattainable goals.”

I miss my friend. He cheers me up no end when I find myself, as he says, ‘all grim and gloomy skies’. He has recovered far faster than I have, and made his leave yesterday, promising to report back with despatches until I am able to join him. He will visit Windydale to see what help they may still need, then go on to Fornost to help ready our people for winter. Bilfen and Kenevir went with him, so I will no longer have the benefit of their company, either. Bilfen told me he is considering Fornost for his new inn. Fornost will someday be a thriving town again, or so I hope, so it was with great pleasure that I heard of his plans. In my wildest dreams, when I think of what I will do should I finally ascend Gondor’s throne, foremost in my thoughts is rebuilding the Northern Kingdom, and Annúminas. But that is so far in the future I almost dare not even hope. Yet I do, for it is central to my nature to be hopeful, which makes the loss of it all the more mystifying. May it never happen again.

Elrond came in at one point while I was reading. He glanced at the title of the book in my hands but he did not say a word. He simply checked my fever (which still comes and goes a bit) and then left with a brief nod. This cursed wall between us... despite our talk the other day, it is still there, sometimes almost invisible but other times rising to block all that we might speak to one another. Seeing the look in Ada’s eyes just now, I am saddened to the point where it seems Anor herself no longer can shine as brightly. I long to sit and talk to Ada, but the pain must simply be too much for him. It nearly is for me, but I cannot help but think if we could just talk, it might be an easier thing to bear. But like him, I remain silent, and my silence seems to scorch my heart with unsaid words that burn like coals.

Bah. I must be feverish again, to write such overblown, whining drivel. I never did claim to be a bard, and as I read what I have written, it is obvious that I never will be. I am ever better with a sword than with words. It is just as well that I do not have to face down Sauron with pen in hand.


11 November, T.A. 3000

Glorfindel is back! He came into my chamber and surprised me while I was eating luncheon (my appetite seems a bit better finally, and I can even toddle about a bit, at least to the table from the bed, and out onto the balcony. Tomorrow's grand adventure will be to finally conquer the corridor. I am not called Strider for nothing, after all). I bade him sit down and tell me everything and he did. To my relief, he said that my brothers and my men are all quite well. Elladan and Elrohir stayed with the Dúnedain, to add to their defense during the winter. Ever am I grateful for their willing strength.

Denlad suffered a blow to his shoulder but it will heal. Galadh came through unscathed, which does not surprise me. That whippy lad moves like lightning in a fight. Eledh’s treasured bow fell to an orc axe, but it saved his head from a similar fate. I will see if I can petition Ada to send to Lórien for a bow of the Galadhrim. It is a hopeless request, I know, for the Galadhrim do not give their bows lightly, and rarely to Men. But mayhap being Lord of Imladris, he might be able to ask on my behalf. What a pleasure it would be to see the surprise on Eledh’s face as I hand it to him! But if not a Galadhrim bow, then I will have one made here in Imladris. Eledh could do no better, save one from Lórien.

Glorfindel chased the wraith east, to the foot of the Misty Mountains north of Rivendell before turning back–he joked that he was wearying of shooing wraiths from these lands and would be pleased if I could try not to let such riffraff in again. I immediately told him that as the Wraith came from the East, perhaps it was his own lapse that let it in, which earned me a playful slap alongside my head that left my ears ringing. Sometimes I think Glorfindel does not realize his own strength.

On his return, Gwaihir the Windlord found him and gave report that the wraith had indeed crossed the Misty Mountains and traveled at haste south toward Gladden Fields. He followed them, high in the air, until he saw them at last turn toward Mirkwood and presumably Dol Goldur, and Glorfindel deemed it safe to assume that the Nazgûl was done with whatever mission sent him into our lands–or that the defense of said lands was stronger than he expected. Considering Glorfindel’s power over the Nazgûl, I have to think that is the only reason the foul thing fled. It surely was not anything I or my men brought to bear against him that instilled such terror in whatever passes for his heart.

Glorfindel, Elrond and Gandalf counseled with one another long into the night but could not come to any sort of definitive conclusion as to what brought the wraith here. The only thing that really makes any sense at all is that it was after me, the Heir, and that is a chilling thought. Although I know that the Enemy has long held great hatred toward Númenor and its dwindling descendants, it is something else entirely to think of his wrath being poured out on me personally. I have ever kept to the shadows, even as Chieftain, and kept my name and ancestry hidden except among my own people. To think that someone may have leaked such information to the Enemy, and, although it is apparent that I am still unknown to Sauron, that the information was enough to bring a Nazgûl to our lands... to think of the treachery of it... my hand even now shakes with barely suppressed rage.

But I must put aside my anger. Spies are everywhere; there is nothing for it. I must simply accept the fact that for some, my life is worth no more than a handful of coin. I must stay vigilant.

If only I were not so blasted weak!


13 November, 3000 T.A.

Gandalf left today, off on another of his mysterious treks through Arda. I thought he might tell me what it was he had only hinted at that night I fell so ill, but he remained his mysterious self, merely twinkling his eyes at me and smiling and saying absolutely nothing.

I did not bother writing anything yesterday. What entertainment is there, after all, in reading, “Stayed in bed all day except to walk ten paces down the corridor and back”? I can attest that there is no entertainment in living it, nor in writing it.

I fear I am turning into a right curmudgeon. An Elleth brought in clean bedding and I nearly snapped her head off when she asked me to please move to the chair. She turned red and nearly burst into tears and I felt shame down to my very marrow. I apologized profusely and she forgave me but it still horrifies me to think how badly I treated her, when all she was doing was taking care of me.

There is much weakness in me yet, weakness of character... selfishness that I must learn to subdue. A king cannot be so quick to anger, especially when there is no reason for such fury.


20 November, 3000 T.A.

A week has gone by, and it was not a pleasant one at all. Something went awry in my arm and the fever returned in force. I do not know for certain but I may have wrenched it helping the Elleth make my bed–I was so filled with shame, I wanted to do it all myself but she would not hear of it, so I tried to help. I lifted the mattress for her and felt a sharp pain in my arm but thought nothing more of it until that night, when it started throbbing and the sick feeling of fever came on me.

Elrond was terribly unhappy with me. I was not very happy with me, either. But when he checked the wound, he pulled forth one (hopefully) last splinter, and now I am doing somewhat better.

I hate to think how long this will delay my return to my people.

21 November, 3000 T.A.

The weather turned cold and rainy, even for Imladris, and the dampness seems to settle deep into my bones. I feel like an old man. I shiver and ache and sit by the fire with a blanket over my knees and another around my shoulders and I think what a pretty pass the Chieftain of the Dúnedain has come to.

30 November, 3000 T.A. 

First day able to write. Adar said the fever had settled in my lungs.

Very weak.

16 December, 3000 T.A.

I cannot believe Mettarë is nearly upon us and I am still so weak and useless. Oh, I can walk about now, even down to the Hall of Fire and back if I go slowly, but the lung infection set me back so far that now it will be well after the New Year before I can return to my people. I have been called the hardiest of living men, but I feel anything but hardy these days. I cannot seem to take a breath for coughing.

Halbarad sends despatches often. Things seem well enough at home...

At home.

In writing those words, an ache suddenly stirs in my heart, for I realize that although the home of my heart is Imladris, a part of my heart now belongs out there, in the wilds of the north with the scattered remnants of my people. I miss my men. My sworn brothers. I miss the children who laugh and play in the settlements. I miss seeing the calm grey eyes of the women as they look upon their men with love and pride. If not for Arwen, I would be proud and humbled to have a Dúnedain woman as my wife. There can be no more beautiful women in all of Arda, beautiful for their strength and compassion and pure hearts.

Windydale still haunts me. I will go back to that place first, to try again to make amends, although I fear the people there will never truly forgive me, despite the words of the men that dark night. I would try especially to talk to the woman who lost her babe, whose shattered grief still flails at my spirit even as her fists flailed my chest. So much grief and loss... it is something from which I doubt my heart will ever truly heal.

I need to go home.  To my Dúnedain home.

20 December, T.A. 3000

Mettarë is nearly upon us, and the Last Homely House is filled with secrets. Good secrets. Ada is going around looking very pleased with himself; Erestor has a constant twinkle in his eye, and Glorfindel keeps chuckling at me with no explanation. I have no idea what to think of it all.

I have not been idle in preparing for Mettarë. My father is kind to celebrate the Winter Solstice in the way of the Dúnedain whenever I am home (the Elves mark the Solstice in quiet contemplation and of course song and tales, but nothing like the way the Dúnedain carry on), and I must repay in what kind I am able. So I have been busy making gifts for the three of them, and for my brothers. Nothing fancy, just simple scabbards for their hunting knives. Dûrion sought out and found what I needed to make them, as, while I am stronger and able to get around, I am not up for a hunt through Imladris for deerskin. I tooled the emblems of the House of Elrond into the leather. I am no artist, so I cheated a bit and used a tracing Dûrion had made from a plaque by the front entrance. He managed to do it without Elrond or anyone seeing, and it is no easy thing to sneak past the likes of Glorfindel and Elrond. Erestor, I know from personal experience, can be easily eluded. You simply wait until he is so engrossed in an old manuscript that an oliphaunt could sit on him without his notice.

I hope they like the scabbards and do not think them too crude to be worth keeping. I probably should not have even attempted such artistry, but I could think of nothing else to give them. I owe them so much.

I wove a bracelet for Arwen. She will not receive it until spring when it can be sent to Lórien with a messenger or a patrol, but I wanted to be sure she knew I was thinking of her in these quiet hours before Mettarë. But as I look at it laying on the desk, I have about decided that it is too ugly for her to ever wear, and not worth giving to her at all. But I do not have any other thing to offer, and have no way of obtaining anything finer short of pillaging the treasures in Rivendell’s library, and I doubt somehow that such a thing would put me in better graces with Adar. I did work in several strands of blue silk the color of Arwen’s eyes, taken from a leftover scrap Dûrion found in the seamstress’ workroom, so it is not entirely drab. But compared to her beauty...

No, I do not think I will give it to her. It is not worthy of her.

If only she could come for a visit this Mettarë.

21 December, T.A. 3000

It is now almost midnight, and I am very tired, but very, very happy.

Erestor, Glorfindel and Ada professed much admiration over their scabbards. I have a feeling they were only being kind, for to my eyes, a twelve-year-old elfling could have done better, but I suppose after all, it is the thought and effort that went into the gift that gives the gift value.

Their gift to me ... how to tell of it? What a surprise it was, and completely unlooked for.

Halbarad is here! As are Denlad, Galadh and Eledh.

Ada is far too sneaky for an Elf of his station, that is all I can say.

He had already given me what I thought was his only gift–a beautiful sword to replace the one shattered by the wraith. Thinking that was the extent of it, I was fully content, or as fully content as I could be without Arwen by my side and without my Dúnedain kinsmen around me. I sat with my legs stretched out to the fire, admiring the etchings on the new sword, trying to convince myself that a quiet, introspective Mettarë in the way of the Elves was really what I needed more than one spent with Arwen in my arms or one spent in boisterous, noisy celebration with the Dúnedain. But I could not convince my heart of the same, and an odd loneliness settled onto my spirit.

So I sat, hoping I was hiding my sudden melancholy, and admired the sword and chided myself for my self pity. So deep in thought was I that the singing did not at first register on my ear. I started humming, though, without realizing, and finally I stirred enough out of my reverie to realize that there were voices coming down the hallway toward the Hall of Fire, voices loud and raucous and deep and strong and nothing like the ethereal, hauntingly light voices of the Elves. This singing was a raspy, untrained and off-key affair that I normally hear only in taverns.

Or around Ranger campfires.

My head shot up and I stared toward the doorway, and as Elrond started chuckling, the door flew open and in walked Halbarad, his wife Miriel and their two children, followed by Eledh and Galadh!

Never had melancholy so quickly released a man from its grip! I leaped to my feet (and had to apologize later to Ada for letting my new sword clatter to the floor... I fear I nicked the blade) and ran to embrace my kinsmen. There was much back-pounding and not a few tears mixed in with the smiles. Halbarad looked fully healed. He gave me a once over and declared that while he was glad I was no longer grey, I had lost far too much weight, and I found I could not argue with him. I had seen myself in the mirror, after all, and knew how my clothes hung on me with no more grace than on a scarecrow. I merely shrugged and turned my attention to his wife, for to my delight, Miriel was heavy with child. I kissed her gently on the cheek, noticing the fine mithril chain that graced her neck. I glanced at Halbarad and he gave me a wink, and then Miriel placed my hand on her belly. The baby immediately kicked and I laughed and it felt good to be so light of heart.

But that was not the end of the surprises. Denlad came in then, with such a red-faced, shy smile that I wondered what had gotten into him. He had been to Rivendell before, and had seen me dressed in the finery of Elrond’s house, so surely it was not that he felt intimidated... and then I saw the reason for his bashfulness: he had Neala by the hand! He led her into the room and stopped before me, his arm protectively around her waist. I know I must have stood gaping at them like a landed fish, but how great was my surprise to see, as I had suspected that long ago day at her farm, that love had indeed blossomed between them. I finally collected my wits and bowed my head to Neala. “I am happy for you, my lady,” I murmured. Denlad beamed like he was the man who had invented love, and Randir, who was standing behind them both, gave me his own shy grin as he shook my hand. I pulled Denlad aside and whispered to him wryly that I was glad that, since I had to have suffered such misery during those days on her farm, at least he had taken full advantage of it, and he threw back his head and laughed.

But as I watched him guide Neala to a couch and as I watched Halbarad fuss over Miriel’s cushions, I had to turn away. The longing to have my own beloved beside me to fuss over and cherish nearly overwhelmed me. Not wanting to be the curmudgeon who darkens the day, I moved quickly to the wine table and busied myself with pouring glasses. While I was furiously telling myself to cease this exasperating self pity, Erestor came up behind me.

There is no fault in feeling sorrow when your own beloved is absent,” he said quietly.

I kept my eyes on my hands as I carefully put each glass on a tray. “It is hard, sometimes.”

He took one of the glasses and sipped from it, eyeing me over its brim. He held up the goblet and let the light shine through it. “This is a good wine,” he said. “It has mellowed with time, and has developed character that can only come through long years of aging.” He said no more, but patted me on the back and walked off.

I smiled ruefully. It was impossible even for a dullard like myself to miss his meaning, and it gave me some measure of comfort. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and carried the tray of drinks to the happy group by the fire. As I served each one of them, I was reminded that this, too–serving my people in even the smallest ways–was a source of joy to me, and the loneliness faded to a more manageable ache. Halbarad took a goblet, lifted it to me, and murmured, “To Arwen.” Once again, my friend knew the right words to say.

I touched my glass to his. “To good friends.”

It was a Mettarë to remember.

 

Epilogue – The Year That Followed – Part II


Excerpts from the Journals of Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain



10 October, T.A. 3001


A year has fled since those dark days last autumn, and I did finally journey back to my people. But here I am again in Rivendell, in my old room, writing in this old journal. This time there will be no collapsing in the hallway; I am all but whole, although it has been a struggle. I would never have dreamt that I could have traveled so far down the road of weariness and pain that even a year later, I still feel some of its effects. My arm aches when it rains, and thoughts of the Nazgûl... I fear I will never be able to think of those unholy beings without feeling my grip tighten and a sweat break on my brow.

As summer gave way to autumn and the leaves turned, my thoughts grew heavy and dark and again I felt that old feeling of being chained, of being trapped with no way out and no way forward. When Halbarad suggested I visit Adar, this time I did not argue (much to Halbarad's delight).

And yet as hard and long as the year has been, it was not without its rewards.

I rejoined my people shortly after my birthday, in mid-March. Adar insisted I spend the entire winter with him in Rivendell, and seeing how even Rivendell’s mild winter chill seemed to cause the very marrow of my bones to ache, I did not argue, although I very much wanted to leave with Halbarad and the others shortly after the New Year. But I knew it was a matter of me needing them more than reverse. Had not Halbarad led the Dúnedain for years while I journeyed the world to the south and east? He needs no help leading our people, at least not from me.

And I sent Denlad home a married man, which still astounds me. He asked me to perform their bonding ceremony on the day the Dúnedain mark the New Year. What a joyous day that was–I think we all ate and sang until we felt that all this joy and good cheer might be our end. Halbarad was three days recovering from all the wine he washed down his gullet.

So the winter was not without its days of joy and merriment, but oh, how good it felt to mount Bronadui at last and ride into the wild places, turning my face toward the fresh western winds! My heart was light that day, lighter than it had been in many long months. But darkness fell upon it too soon, for my first stop was Windydale, and fell memories beset me with every step Bronadui took as I traveled northward from the Last Bridge.

The winter fortunately had been kind to that beleaguered village, and the people had been busy. The walls rose stout and strong again, and the gate was open. I quietly rode in, without escort or fanfare, and the few people along the street did not recognize me under my hood. I stopped at the house of the mother whose cries had so raked at my soul, but it was empty and abandoned. I stood for a long moment in the small yard, awash in sad memory, until finally a young boy came around from the house alongside it and told me she had moved to Bree, to be closer to her family. I thanked him, and he nodded and went away. If he knew me as his Chieftain, he made no sign.

I looked at that town from where I stood, and I realized that they, like myself, had healed, to some extent. The scars still showed–many houses were empty and crumbling, and to my sadness, the ferry that served the village was no longer operating. I saw the remains of the barge on the far side of the river, half sunk and apparently broken beyond repair. I wondered at that, wondered if the ferry master had died in the attack and no one was left with the skills to rebuild the ferry, or wondered if perhaps the Nazgûl had used the ferry to come across and the villagers decided it too great a risk to re-open. I thought I might ask, but there seemed little point. Windydale was a village that I knew would diminish. Without the ferry, travelers, like myself, would need to ride down to the East-West Road to cross the Hoarwell, and there would be little reason to stop at a small village twenty miles to the north. Eventually everyone would move on, like the grieving woman and her surviving child.

But that was a sadness for tomorrow. On this day, I saw smiles. I heard a woman’s voice in the distance, singing. And I heard the sound of a hammer on iron as the blacksmith toiled. There were smells, also... good smells of cooking and flowers and fresh-tilled earth. On this day, life continued, and that was a comforting thought.

I mounted Bronadui and rode out of there, keeping to myself, for the sun was high and no enemies lurked. They had no need of their Chieftain. My presence would only bring back to mind all the horrible things they had endured. They had moved forward with their lives, in the way that the Dúnedain have ever done, and forcing them to look back would serve no purpose. I had no right to mar this perfect day in seeking forgiveness to assuage my own guilt. So I rode away from there, my hood still concealing my identity, and I still remember the gatekeeper’s cheerful wave.

My next stop was to see my mother. She knew a little of what had happened to me, for Elrond had written to her of some of it, and it grieved me to see the worry in her tear-filled eyes. It also grieved me to see how time and care had bent her back and lined her face. But her embrace was as comforting as always, and her smile as radiant and loving. Long hours we spent talking, and some we spent in silence, our souls in quiet communion. I would have spared her, but one day as I sat at her feet, my head in her lap and her hand stroking lovingly over my hair as in days of old, she asked what still troubled my heart. So I told her of all the things dark and terrible that I had endured in this past year and my tears stained her skirts (never have I wept as much as I have in this past year). She spoke words of wisdom and love that I still cannot bear to set onto paper, for they are too dear to me. But they are etched forever on my heart, for they healed a part of me that Adar could not reach, and that neither time nor my own strength could ever have touched. Such is the balm of a mother’s love.

I made my reluctant leave of her at last and rejoined my men. Such a time we had that first day back! Laughing and telling tales and singing songs. Halbarad was beside himself with joy and I felt we would need no fire, so warm were the smiles on all their faces. This too healed a part of me that I had not realized was still wounded, for I had approached the camp at Chetwood with a tension in my back that only relaxed when I felt their acceptance. It made no sense to be so worried, and never before had I been so filled with trepidation over rejoining my men, not even on that long ago day when my brothers deposited me, a green, barely tested youth, on Halbarad’s doorstep. It was then that I realized just how deeply the enemy had gone into my fëa ... how much had been destroyed of my hope and my joy and my confidence. There are still hidden pockets of darkness within me, and doubts still linger, and that is why I am here in the house of my father again. But it is better. Far, far better.

Summer brought with it the usual mix of blessing and sorrow. The crops were good this year, but several children died of summer fever, and we lost nearly a dozen good men in skirmishes with orcs. But Halbarad’s wife bore him a healthy new daughter, and as I left finally for Imladris, Denlad quietly told me that by the time I returned, he hoped that Randir would have a baby brother or sister before summer next. It was hard to leave the men, as it ever is, but it was good to have such good news to warm my thoughts on the lonely journey to the Last Homely House.

And so here I sit, having had a hearty supper to fill my belly and good wine to warm my veins and a night of singing and tales in the Hall of Fire to fill my soul. Ada seems happy to see me, and of course Glorfindel and Erestor are as well.

It is good to be home. I may not have much in the way of goods and riches, but I am wealthy beyond measure in having two homes, one here in Imladris, and one out in the lands of the Dúnedain. Few men are so blessed.



October 16, T.A. 3001


Gandalf arrived today, and excitement and anticipation so fills me that I can scarcely settle myself to write of the news he brought, but write I shall, for I feel another page in my life and in Arda’s future is turning at last, and I want to mark its every detail.

He was returning from one of his mysterious journeys. It is always good to see him, but the ways of the Maia are ever beyond my understanding, and Gandalf’s further still at times. He seems at whiles almost as a beloved uncle to me; then he will suddenly shift and a veil of secrecy falls across his countenance and I can only stand in fear before him. I am by turns comforted and vexed and sometimes even frightened by him, and this day was no different.

He came to me, as I cleaned out the stalls in the stables. Adar insists again that I spend some weeks here at Rivendell–I think he wants to keep an eye on me, and I cannot deny him that, for there is still some worry in my heart that I might lapse back into that dreadful darkness, and knowing he is near is a comfort I cannot deny myself right now. But sitting idly chafes, and I am so filled with restless energy that I have been driving all around me to the brink of murder as I pester them to give me something... anything... to do. Adar wants me to rest, to abstain from any patrols, but one can only spar with practice swords for so long, and shoot at targets for so long, and run the paths for so long. So I have taken to riding the horses out to exercise, then swamping out their stalls and feeding them their grain and brushing their coats until they shine. The stable master has thoroughly enjoyed my labors, for it has given him a much needed bit of rest. Or so he tells me as he sprawls on the hay in leisure as he watches me sweat and grunt and endure horses stepping on my feet and playfully butting me with their heads hard enough to send me sprawling. I love every moment of it, even when I have to climb back to my feet rubbing my bruised backside. It feels good to work, to feel the strength coursing through my limbs, for the memory is still too fresh of those days when I knew only weakness.

It was while I was braiding Bronadui’s mane that Gandalf walked into the stables, his staff thumping lightly on the hay-strewn floor.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries and Gandalf assured me his journeys were productive, but he did not elaborate, as is his wont. I have learned not to ask, but I have yet to master the feeling of frustration that comes over me when Gandalf turns incomprehensible.

He looked long at me, taking me in from head to toe, as is also his wont. I stood still for it, even smiling a bit and turning all the way around with my arms out for full effect. He nodded, satisfied, then bade me come into the Hall of Fire where he might thaw the ice from his limbs, for it was a cold day for October. I followed, after washing up a bit, and he sat down in a chair by the fire and I poured him a cup of warm mulled cider, then stood by the fireplace with one of my own and waited. Soon enough, he came to his point.

I have need of your Rangers, Aragorn.”

We are ever at your service, you know that.”

They still heavily guard the Shire.”

It was a statement more than a question, but I nodded.

I need it guarded still more vigilantly,” he said, then stopped and looked at me with troubled eyes. “I need you to double the guard, in fact.”

I took a deep breath. That was no easy task he was asking of me, or my men. “May I ask why?”

You may ask, yes.”

I waited, and when he still did not speak, spoke rather sharply myself. “Well, then. Why?”

I am not at liberty to say.”

I shut my eyes in exasperation. A simple no would have sufficed, but why be straightforward when you are a Maia and can vex all those lower than yourself? I slowly relaxed my clenched jaw and looked at him. To my consternation, he simply smiled back at me as though he were enjoying this cat and mouse game he called conversation. Which no doubt he was. I finally laughed. “Gandalf, you speak in riddles.”

Perhaps to you, but a wizard’s words are always precisely what he means them to be.”

I opened my mouth to argue otherwise, but decided it would be wiser to get back to the matter at hand. “I assume you want the guard doubled immediately?”

I have already spoken to Halbarad, before I came here. He told you not to worry; it will be taken care of.”

I nodded, and waited to see if there were more, for he had the look of a man weighing his words, and when a Maia gets that look, unease stirs in my belly.

Perhaps I am wrong in keeping the reasons from you, Aragorn.”

Much as I longed to shout that yes, you are indeed wrong, fill me in, you confounded old wizard, I held my tongue.

Yes, I think I will tell you, for who better to trust than the King of Men.” My heart started to warm but before I could puff up with too much pride, he smote me with a stern glare. “But it must remain between us. I am afraid you cannot tell even Halbarad.” And he then proceeded to tell me what he feared he had discovered in the Shire, and it chilled me.

The One Ring,” I whispered, as if saying it too loudly would bring Sauron down on us, or worse, onto the Shire. I confess that panic tinged my next words, for my brush with the Wraith was too recent, and I knew their evil power was nothing compared to that which Sauron, with the Ring on his hand, would bring to bear on the peoples of Middle-earth. “Sauron cannot find it.”

He has not.”

I dared breathe again.

Yet.”

And with that small word I again stopped breathing. I forced myself to calm down. I carefully put my goblet of cider on the mantel. “Is there any reason,” I said slowly, “to think that he might somehow discover it?”

There could be. Yes, there most certainly could be.”

Then cease your maddening hints and riddles and tell me all!”

Gandalf immediately looked contrite, or as contrite as he ever looks. “I am sorry, Aragorn. It is just that my mind is not fully made up on this, and I must measure each word. I do not know for certain that this ring is indeed the One Ring, although my heart warns me that it is. Yes, my heart warns me....” His voice trailed off and for a moment, he stared as if into some distant, evil realm. The room seemed to dim, and I felt evil's cold touch trail down my spine. My hand reached for a sword that was not hanging at my side, but just as suddenly, Gandalf shook himself and blinked and but for the goosebumps I could still see on my arms, I would have wondered if I had not imagined the entire thing. “There is one other,” he continued, “besides you and I, who knows of this ring’s existence, and he knows in whose hands it has now come to reside. The creature Gollum. You have heard of him, no doubt, from the stories of Bilbo?”

Bilbo stole his ring... won it really, through a game of riddles. But Gandalf, surely this creature cannot know the import of the ring. To him it must simply have been a magic ring, nothing more.”

Gollum may not know it's importance, but the story of his ring is surely not unknown to Sauron. I fear that Sauron, driven to exhaust all possible leads, might eventually turn his attention to Gollum, on the chance that Gollum's magic ring is that which he seeks.”

Fear trembled my gut and my mouth suddenly seemed dry. For a moment it seemed no time at all had passed since my own encounter with the Wraith, and terror threatened to undo me. I told myself firmly to get hold of myself, then cleared my throat. “Bilbo still has the ring?”

He has.”

And Gollum of course knows it was Bilbo who took it from him, so therefore Sauron would then hear of Bilbo.... it is very plain to see where this will lead.”

If Sauron, through Gollum, hears of its possible existence in the Shire, as I fear it truly is, he will do all within his power to invade the Shire and seize the ring, by whatever means necessary.”

Visions of the Shire in flames did not help stem the rising tide of panic. I rubbed my face, running my hands across my cheeks and then holding them clasped before my mouth, as if in prayer. I closed my eyes before I asked the next question, trying to brace myself for an answer I was sure I did not want to hear. “So tell me what you truly think: does Sauron know of this creature’s existence?”

I do not know, and that is what worries me. I think it likely he does. But I cannot say for certain, nor can I say if he knows where to find Gollum, and therein may lie our hope, if such is to be found.”

It was not the answer I wanted–indeed, it was barely an answer at all. Still... as Gandalf said, it seemed there might still be hope. And with that thought, something stilled within me. I felt calm again, almost relaxed. It is the same feeling that comes over me in those last seconds before the battle is joined, when all questioning and planning and speculating are done and it remains only to raise sword and fight. I almost smiled. I opened my eyes and looked steadily at Gandalf. “Then our task is simple. We must find Gollum before Sauron does.”

Gandalf’s eyebrows shot upward. “You have a way about you, Aragorn, of making the hardest challenge sound easy.”

Oh, it will not be easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. But find him we must, and find him we will.” I laughed then, for a reckless joy surged within me, despite the fear that had settled in my heart like a cold stone. The Ring may have been found, yes, and terrible it was to contemplate its import. But at the same time, it was as if that fell discovery had opened a locked door which now swung wide, and though I knew not what may come of it, one thing was clear: the path I had lost now lay broad and inviting at my feet. I clapped Gandalf on the shoulder. “Come then, old friend. Let us go together and hunt this creature named Gollum.”

We will leave in the morning.


~~~ Fini. Until the road goes on... ~~~


 Acknowledgements



Many, many thanks to all of you who have faithfully left reviews, chapter by chapter, as this was being posted. Your patience and encouraging words mean the world to me. Not that any reviews left from here on out are not equally treasured, but there's a certain bravery in following a work in progress, even when the author assures everyone that it is a complete tale. All those cliffhangers... I'm amazed none of you threatened to throw me over a cliff!


As I mentioned at the beginning, a work this large requires a lot of help. My very deepest thanks to Inzilbeth, whose knowledge of canon surpasses anyone I know and certainly my own, and whose patient replies to my many questions helped me navigate around obstacles that surely would have sunk this tale. That this story reached its conclusion is due in large part to your encouragement and constant reassurances. Everyone should have a beta to hold their hand as wonderfully as you did mine. I treasure our friendship.


Thanks as well to Meckinock, one of the first people in the fandom I encountered and whose friendly, helpful advice and chats about all things Tolkien eased the intimidating first step into this giant fandom more than she will probably ever realize. Her Halbarad remains the inspiration for my own exploration of the character, and if there are any similarities between our two versions, it was done inadvertently, out of admiration.


Thanks also to Amarok, a lovely lady whose “I need to see more emotion here!!” comments helped me strengthen the characters and how they interacted. Her insight and helpfulness is greatly appreciated.

Thanks go to Estelcontar, for being a lovely and gracious "test audience", reading through the story in its entirety one last time before I posted and letting me know that it all worked, and gave me confidence to put the prologue up at long last.


Although I've never actually “met” him online, thanks to Darth Fingon for his expertise and assistance with Quenya. I have only the barest clue about the languages of Tolkien, so any errors are mine, not his. Thank you to Niriel Raina for obtaining said translations for me when I was a bit to shy to ask on my own.


Thank you to the Aragorn Angst list community, one of the friendliest neighborhoods in the fandom.


Thank you to Michelle at the Naice a Nilme website, and Nilmandra at the Stories of Arda website for granting me posting rights. Like Aragorn, I feel very blessed to have two loving homes for my stories.

And finally, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien for creating such a wonderful, astounding, astonishingly realistic world.  I only hope my explorations of his characters do them justice.


Where will things go from here? Obviously, any tale of Aragorn's life will be in essence just one pearl on the string. He goes on from here to many more adventures, and the hunt for Gollum will span nearly the next two decades of his life, far too great a period of peering into caves and under bushes and into valleys to tell in one tale. But more stories will be coming, some of which include the hunt and others that will have Aragorn back among his people, or at Rivendell, or out in the Wilds battling those dark things in the houseless hills...


I hope you come along as I continue to follow him across Middle-earth.







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