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Enter the Ranger  by Larner

Enter the Ranger

Prologue - Words of Hope

            “My Lord Halbaleg—the sons of Elrond are newly come.”

            Halbaleg son of Dírhael looked at the one who’d entered the office where the current Steward of the Northern Dúnedain had been looking over reports of harvests throughout the lands his people inhabited.  He’d left word he didn’t wish to be interrupted—he hated going through such reports, and found that any interruption tended to distract him sufficiently that he’d not get back to them for many days, if at all.  But certainly the coming of Elrond’s sons was sufficient reason for those who served within his keep to disregard those instructions.

            With a feeling of distinct relief he set the report from the region of Lhûn aside atop the other reports he’d not read as yet, and after placing a block of stone from Annúminas atop them so they shouldn’t be caught by any stray drafts and blown about, he headed for the main chamber to the keep, in which he usually met with visitors and those come to consult with him as Steward.

            Elladan and Elrohir of Imladris had come amongst the Dúnedain of the Angle rarely enough over the past five years, not since he’d learned that his sister’s son had earned the right to ride out with the patrols from Elrond’s home by managing to disarm one of the twins during a sparring match.  Halbaleg was uncertain as to which of the twins had been so treated by young Estel, as the Elves named him, for neither would say as to which had lost his sword to the young Mortal who lived with them as if he were their younger brother.  How he wished he’d been there at the time!  How appalled they must have been to see one of them disarmed by the boy!  Unconsciously he smiled at the images that the idea raised in his imagination.  A great swordsman he’d prove, the son of his sister and her husband.  Such a one he should prove as Chieftain of their people!

            He found the two tall sons of Elrond standing side by side in the main chamber, each with a cup of wine in hand.  He rejoiced that his wife had seen to it that they were offered some refreshment after their long ride from Rivendell.

            “My lords, I welcome you again to my home.  And how is your esteemed father?”

            “He does well, Lord Halbaleg,” responded one of them, although he had to admit that, unlike either Arathorn or Gilraen, he’d never learned how to discern which was which.  “He sends you word:  Now is the time for the Lost to come forth.  He bids you to gather together those of your people whom you consider most necessary to receive new-found Hope, and have them meet on the eve of the summer solstice atop Amon Sûl.  It is time, Adar believes, for Hope to be restored to your people.  Indeed, by restoring Hope to the Dúnedain we believe that it shall be restored to all of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, south as well as north, east as well as west.”  So saying, he and his brother swallowed down the last of their drinks, and holding out their glasses for their shocked host to accept, they gave profound bows and departed as suddenly and unexpectedly as they’d come.

            Hope, hope to be restored to the Dúnedain?  Did that mean…?  It must mean that—that the boy would be returned to them!  But was he ready?  Were the Dúnedain ready for the return of Arathorn and Gilraen’s son to their lands?  Oh, but they must be!

            Clutching the glasses to his chest, Habaleg turned blindly to seek out his wife.  She must be the first to know!

 

Originally written for B2MEM prompt several years ago.

Building on the Ruins

            A gentle breeze brushed the hilltop, combing the ruins as Estel—nay, Estel no longer, now Aragorn son of Arathorn--breasted the crest of Amon Sûl in the wake of his uncle, Elrohir following after.  Halbaleg son of Dírhael had served in the stead of the Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain since the death of Arathorn, who, so advised by the Council of Elders, had named the brother of his wife the Steward of Arnor (such as Arnor was in these latter days).  Aragorn had seen the Man at least once a year since he and his mother were taken into refuge in the House of Elrond.  Now he knew why:  Halbaleg and his wife were two of the seven witnesses who knew the truth of the survival of the son of Arathorn and Gilraen, and who would stand for his identity before the rest of the remnant of the people of Elendil, Isildur, and Valandil.

            It felt strange, to think of those names as being those of his own first forebears in this land.  He had learned them well enough in his childhood lessons of the histories of Middle Earth.  But to think of them as having been Men of flesh and bone such as his own, and from whom he himself was descended, and whose responsibilities were now become his own?  How was it that the passage of a mere day—the day of his twentieth birthday—had so turned his world upside-down?  Oh, he’d known that his real father had been a Man and a Ranger, and one of nobility and responsibility.  So he’d been assured by both his naneth and his adar often enough since his earliest years.  But since the age of two, his few memories of the Man who’d once swung him confidently up upon his shoulder each time he returned from a patrol had grown vague indeed, and he’d never thought of him as the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain whose name he’d had to learn along with those of all who’d come before him, Chieftains and Kings.

            He realized that his party had not been the first to arrive here.  Others had been awaiting them, and now Men began to rise from where they’d been sitting in the grass.  Nor were all of the tall shapes in the shadows remnants of statues and tumbled walls, he realized.  At least four Men and two women had been standing there, leaning on spears or staves, and now for the first time stirred.  One of the women at least he recognized—his Aunt Anneth, Halbaleg’s wife, who’d come a few times to Imladris to see him, usually for the odd birthday celebration.  The other—well, she reminded him of his mother, but older.  And the look on her face—was it hope?

            Aunt Anneth stepped forward, followed by a young Man who appeared near to his own age, his eyes measuring and uncertain as they met Estel’s own.  A few others also followed Aunt Anneth forward, each of whom he’d seen two or three times over the years.  These came to flank him, and turned to face the rest who’d gathered here.

            He felt Elrohir’s hand upon his shoulder, familiar and comforting.  And it was Elrohir’s voice that rose to break the silence.  “I come this day to return to the descendants of my adar’s muindor one of your own.  Behold, today we return the one we have ever acknowledged as the Hope of your people as well as our own that the Darkness will once more be defeated.  Indeed, such was his name when he dwelt with us as if he were son to our adar and our brother indeed, for the child’s name bestowed upon him was Estel.  As has been done with each of the Heirs of Isildur, he has been educated in the histories of Arda, in the ways of policy and judgment, of administration and leadership, in healing and warcraft.  You will find him a canny tracker and hunter, and a paragon with sword and dagger.  He speaks Westron, Sindarin, Quenya, and Adûnaic fluently, and is already skilled in the sifting of hearts.  Five years has he ridden out with our patrols to fight the enemies of the Free Peoples, and he has proved himself well.”

            An elderly Man who stood by the older woman who resembled his own naneth stepped forward, leaning upon the staff in his hand.  “You say that this is my grandson, the son of my daughter Gilraen and her husband Arathorn?” he asked.

            “Do you doubt my word, Lord Dírhael?” Elrohir responded.

            “We all stand witness for him, Papa,” said Uncle Halbaleg.  “We agreed with the wisdom of Elladan and Elrohir that the Enemy has sought too assiduously to end the line of the ancient Kings.  When he went comatose with the fever and it was believed that he’d died, we let that belief stand, and for his own protection as well as that of our people.  It was not only grief at her husband’s loss that took your daughter from us and into Elrond’s house, you see.”

            The woman was smiling tremulously.  “I certainly see our daughter’s expression upon his face, husband!  Aye, then I was right, and he was not taken from us forever!  Welcome, Aragorn!  Welcome home to your own people, Ari.”

            Ari.  How familiar that dear-name was, in spite of being spoken to him only infrequently during his youngest years in his adar’s house.  He felt his lip work as he tried to put together long set-aside pieces of his past and history, tried to join them together with what he’d once thought of only as matters of study for study’s own sake!

            “And what is to be done with him?” demanded a big bear of a Man with the stance of a tried warrior.

            Elrohir laughed easily.  “Take him and train him well, Baerdion!  He has learned all that we can teach him of our ways.  Now it is time for your people to do the same.

            “Ai—think of it this way:  you all stand now in the ruins of Amon Sûl, the Watchtower of the Winds.  I remember well when it stood as tall as Elendil built it.  Well, this tower can be built anew upon the ruins of Elendil’s own works, for his foundations still remain.  And so it is for the Northern Dúnedain—Estel here, Aragorn the Valiant, shall become the cornerstone for the rebuilding of Arnor and its honor; and, we hope, will bring together North and South once more.  No longer should there be a King with no kingdom here in the north and a kingdom with no King in Gondor.”

            Considering the weight of uncertainty he saw in so many faces, Aragorn was feeling a most inadequate cornerstone indeed.

            Then he realized that the only young Man in the company, the one who’d followed his Aunt Anneth and who must be her son, hers and Uncle Halbaleg’s, perceived his uncertainty and was beginning to feel sympathy for him.  He turned his attention back to him, and searched his face, those eyes as grey as his own, and suddenly he felt reassured he could indeed find a place among these people.  He smiled----

            And the youth, obviously surprised, looked back, his mouth first in an O of startlement, then his eyes growing warmer as he began to return that smile.

            He felt Elrohir’s hand squeeze his shoulder for a moment, and then his brother loosed him.  Aragorn swallowed.  He was now deemed ready, he realized, to fly on his own.  He took a step forward….

 

Written for the LOTR Community Character Study challenge.  For Radbooks, Awallen, Erulisse, and Aliana for their birthdays.

The Elven Princeling 

            “Are you certain that you wish to return to our people by joining a training patrol of newly recruited Rangers?”  Baerdion, who had been tasked with preparing the young Men of the Northern Dúnedain to protect their ancestral lands from all enemies, carefully surveyed the youth who stood before him.  The young Man’s face was beardless, his hair long and arranged in Elven warrior braids the older Man was certain had been properly earned, his grey eyes, which held a touch of green and blue like the Sea, steady.

            “Is this not how those who become Rangers usually meet one another?” asked Arathorn’s son.

            “Most of them live either within the Angle or between the ruins of Fornost and Annúminas,” Baerdion explained, “and so they have all had occasion to meet with at least some of those from other villages.  This time, other than you, only the two who come from our settlements on the Firth of Lhûn are strangers to all the others chosen for this patrol.”

            “At least I will not be the only stranger to the others in the group, then.”

            “No,” agreed Baerdion, “that is true.  But you will stand out from the others by your speech, your dress, and your training.”

            “My brothers have told me that they have had a hand in the training of many of the Dúnedain’s warriors for many lifetimes of Men.  How will mine be any different?”

            Baerdion gave a twisted smile.  “When the sons of Elrond come among us, they come for a few months at a time, and they work primarily with Men who have already had experience in both battle and surveillance, helping them to enhance skills they already have honed.  You, on the other hand, have been working with them from your earliest days, and I have been told by Elrohir that you began training in tracking when you were barely able to walk and that you can follow the trail of a mouse that passed that way six days previously.  None of these young Men will have such skills.  And as you have been trained in archery and swordcraft by Elves from the beginning, you will begin by holding your weapons in a different manner, and the others will find that questionable.  Can you bear with their criticism of you?  For you can believe me that they will be critical of you, of all you say and do and of how you say and do it.  You were not raised as they were, and they will most likely all see you as alien in nature to themselves, and many of them will feel threatened by that sense of difference.”

            Young Aragorn shrugged, and Baerdion felt relieved to see that he had not as yet been able to perfect the level of arrogant grace with which Elves performed such a simple gesture.  Had he been able to fully replicate the shrug as performed by, say, Lord Glorfindel, it would be unlikely that the boy would be accepted at all by the others who would be joining them over the next few days.  Nor had he learned fully to hide his thoughts, not as yet, at least.  The Man could see that Aragorn now felt concern for how he might be accepted by others.  As for Halbarad, who had been standing quietly beside his newly-met cousin throughout the interview so far, he noted that Halbaleg’s son was nodding his agreement with Baerdion’s assessment of the situation for which he was trying to prepare their new Chieftain. 

            Aragorn said, “I have been warned that this might well be so, and I will accept it.  I must if I am to take my father’s place with this people.”

            Well, at least Gilraen, Elrond, and the denizens of Rivendell had not sought to convince the lad that it would be easy to come of a sudden into the midst of the Dúnedain and be accepted as Arathorn’s heir immediately!  Baerdion found himself giving a nod of understanding and further relief.  “Then it would appear that you have been prepared in a realistic manner, young Lord.  But tell me, why have you chosen to enter immediately into a training mission?  I am told that you have already proved yourself as a warrior.  You could merely have been introduced to the elders as the son to your father and the Lady Gilraen, and could then have walked by the sides of your grandfather Dírhael and your Uncle Halbaleg and learned of our style of leadership and the nature of our people from them.”

            “My----”  The young Man stopped, as if suddenly uncomfortable with what he had been ready to say.  He began again.  “Lord Elrond and I discussed this, in company with Glorfindel, Elladan, and Elrohir.  In the end it was left for me to decide how I should present myself to this, my true people, the ones for whom I must offer leadership and rule, for whom I must be ready to spend myself if it proves necessary.”

            Again Baerdion nodded slowly.  “Go on,” he prompted.

            Aragorn took a deep breath.  “I could go first to my uncle and my grandfather and apprentice myself to them, but in doing so I would be identifying myself with them, with those older than myself.  I would not have established ties to those of my own age, those who will be my own first lieutenants as we take the field and offer protection to the peoples of Eriador, all of whom, whether or not they are of the Dúnedain, are yet under my protection as the Heir to Isildur.”

            Baerdion did his best to suppress the twitch of surprise and pleasure his lip wanted to show at the youth’s words.  Instead he gave a single nod.

            “I need to prove to those who will be the commanders I must rely on that I am not distant from them.  Yes, I know how to fight and track, how to handle sword, knife, and bow, how to anticipate how orcs, trolls, and ruthless Men are likely to attack or respond to the threat those with me pose to them.  I have stood by my adar’s side as he has dispensed judgment and have even been consulted at times as to how I might respond to such cases as are likely to come under my decision when I am accepted as the ruler to the Northern Dúnedain.  But will those I would lead onto the field accept that role for me if they are not convinced that I can indeed fight?  Will they listen if they have not found personal reasons to trust my judgment?  Will they accept my help in the healers’ tents if they are uncertain as to how much of the gift of healing I have inherited from my great-father Eärendil, much less that I have been trained to use it properly?

            “I am already accepted as a warrior, as you say, but not by those whose acceptance of that role is crucial to my rule in the future.  I have been accepted as such by Elves, but it will be among Men that I will live from this time forward.  As these will not be accepted as full warriors until they have finished their training mission, so it must be for me.  Also, I must become more aware of how it is that Men have been taught to fight and protect themselves.  I have only fought by those who have had millennia to perfect their skills.  I know that I have much to learn about working alongside Men, who are, after all, my own people.  By going on this patrol, not only will I learn of them, but they will be learning from me.  As we are all supposed to be learning together, they will hopefully be more open to learn what I have to teach and show them, and in the end have more respect for what they have learned about my abilities once they realize who I am and what I am intended to be as the leader of the Dúnedain.”

            “Then you do not intend to reveal your true identity to them from the beginning?”

            “And have them forcibly deferring to me from the start?”  Aragorn shook his head, his imagination already playing out that scene for him.  “No, let them think of me as merely a youth as they are, although one who grew up amongst Elves rather than Men.  Some will discern the truth easily enough, I suspect, while others will be stubbornly obtuse about my likely parentage.   But unless they are able to easily express their discomfort for the differences between us, I doubt that that discomfort will ever truly be put aside as we learn to trust one another.”

            “Then how am I to introduce you?”

            Halbarad spoke up then.  “How about calling him Peredhrion?  He has lived as the fostered son of the Peredhil, after all.”

            This time Baerdion allowed himself to smile.  “A good plan, Halbarad.  You have your grandfather’s sagacity.”

            Apparently unable to think of a better name to take unto himself, Aragorn indicated his agreement, and so his first patrol as a would-be Ranger of the North began.

*******

             Those who would take part in the training patrol varied in age from seventeen to twenty-two.  Even the one who was seventeen was beginning to show signs that he would grow a full beard within a year or two; against the others the one called Peredhrion appeared youthful indeed, his cheeks still smooth with no trace of down.

            Baerdion was himself but thirty-two.  He had spent some time in his early twenties riding with the sons of Elrond, who had praised his skills.  He had proved himself good with the new recruits, and so had been involved in such training missions for the past six years, alongside Malvegern, who had been working with the youngest Rangers for better than three decades.  They and Túrin son of Gardir, who’d been a Ranger for five years and who served as quartermaster for the patrol, knew the true identity of Peredhrion; only Halbarad of the recruits themselves knew this information.  All four were sworn to silence by Halbarad’s father Halbaleg, who had served as Steward for the Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain until a new Chieftain should be finally appointed, a day that had not come any more than had happened in Gondor in nearly a thousand years since Eärnur disappeared into the mouth of the Morgul Vale.

            It took three days for those who would join this patrol to gather near their Steward’s dwelling, and the youths greeted one another cheerfully enough, save for the new one in Elven dress—no one seemed to know quite how to respond to him.  One of those who was nineteen, a narrow-faced youth with a suspicious air, made a point of approaching Malvegern and asking in Adûnaic in what was meant to appear a confidential manner but which in fact was intended to be heard, “What are we doing with that one in our midst?  What do Elves do, seeking to train with Edain?”

            Malvegern kept his expression strictly neutral.  “I assure you that Peredhrion is as much one of the Dúnedain as you are, Orominion.  In years past his father often fought alongside the sons of Elrond, and he died during one of their sojourns together.  When they came to bear word to Peredhrion’s mother, they found her ill and the boy also near death, so they took the two of them into their keeping, feeling they owed their friend’s family a debt of honor.”

            “And they send a mere stripling to train alongside us?”

            Malvegern turned an evaluative gaze upon Peredhrion.  “And just how is he more a stripling than you or any of the rest?”

            Orominion gave a vague wave of his hand at the youth in question.  “Look at him—he has not yet begun to grow a beard!  Even Berevrion there will likely be shaving ere we’re through with this patrol, and he’s but seventeen!  They send a mere child to learn a Man’s duties?”

            The Ranger’s expression grew stern as he turned his gaze on Orominion.  “He is taller than any of the rest of you.  And not all of us grow beards.  Ripon has never done so, and he is your own close kinsman, is he not?”

            Orominion straightened, obviously stung by the tone of Malvegern’s voice.  “Ripon has never appeared a foppish fellow,” he grunted.  “Not like that one there.”

            One of the other young Men, a broader youth with a cheerful expression, broke into the discussion.  “Agreed, he looks quite the Elvish princeling, but you’d best remember that Elves are deadly fighters.  Odds are that he’s good with that blade of his, particularly if he was trained by the sons of Elrond; and as that sword appears to be of Elvish make I’d also hazard that it’s a deadly weapon indeed.”

            Orominion gave his fellow a disapproving stare.  “The meanest sword borne by a true Dúnedain Ranger is the equal of any Elvish blade, Dirigil.”

            Dirigil merely shrugged, refusing to be chastened by the likes of Orominion.  “If you say so.  I would be glad enough to carry a sword crafted by the Elves.”

            One of the others laughed.  “I’ll match my sword with anyone else’s blade.  It’s of Dwarvish make from the hills beyond Fornost, and it’s been in my family for six generations!  Wouldn’t give it up for love nor money!”

            Peredhrion glanced over at the others, and then turned back to going through his pack, his mouth set, making certain that all was settled properly, with those things he suspected he would need frequent access to within easy reach.  He had a second long bag he’d brought with him that so far he’d not allowed Halbarad to look within.  Halbarad sat nearby, working a new lace through the leatherwork for a worn stirrup that it not give way unexpectedly while they were on the road.  Halbarad also glanced at the others, and when he turned his attention back down to his work he murmured softly in Sindarin, “He is assuming by the fact that you have no beard as yet that you are younger than Berevrion, even.”

            “I know what he’s saying,” Aragorn returned, his words abrupt.  “I do speak Adûnaic, after all.  When I was a child my mother usually addressed me in Adûnaic, m-Master Elrond would speak with me in Sindarin, Glorfindel in Quenya, and Erestor in Westron that I become proficient in all of the languages commonly spoken throughout Eriador.”  He worked quietly for a moment, listening to the others in spite of his apparent distraction.  At last he glanced up from his pack to meet Halbarad’s eyes.  “Let them think for a time that I cannot understand Adûnaic.  I suspect that when it becomes obvious I do it will cause Orominion particularly a good deal of embarrassment.”

            Halbarad’s hands went idle momentarily as he searched his cousin’s face.  A small smile twitched at his lips.  “You would listen in on what they say about you, would you?”  At Aragorn’s slight nod he continued, “My mother has always warned that listening in on what others say about you is bound to make you uncomfortable, as you most likely will hear things that you do not want to know.”

            “Perhaps,” Aragorn said softly and slowly, “I shall not wish to know all that they think of me.  But that does not mean I should remain ignorant of it.”

            Halbarad gave a slight shrug, and both resumed their work.

            Baerdion came down to join the party not long afterward, his attention focused on Aragorn.  “Peredhrion!” he called in Westron.  “If you will come, Berevrion’s father has sent down from his horse herds a steed that should serve you well.”

            Aragorn looked up, gave a nod, and swiftly replaced the last few items within his pack and fastened it.

            “He doesn’t even have a horse of his own?” Orominion demanded, switching to Westron.  “Since when do the Elves deny their young princelings a steed?  Is he even a proficient rider?”

            “I can ride well enough,” Peredhrion answered him as he rose to approach Baerdion.  “But the horses I rode when I was younger belonged to my hosts, never to me.  Anyway, a fine Ranger I would make riding a horse far beyond my apparent station.”  He turned to Baerdion.  “How am I to repay Lord Halbaleg and Berevrion’s father for a mount of my own?”

            Malvegern sighed.  “I suppose that if it serves as balm to your bruised honor you may think of this horse also as a loan, youngling.  But Berevrion’s father had his life saved by yours more than once, as is true of most of those who rode with him ere he died, and accounts a single horse for that Ranger’s son but a tithe of what he owes in return.”  Peredhrion’s neck flushed, but his expression remained fixed.  Malvegern straightened and addressed the other young Men in the party, speaking still in Westron.  “Know this—every Man who has ever fought in the Rangers has managed to do similarly—to save his fellows more than once, and we do not forget such service.  Not ever.  And considering that when we last saw Peredhrion here we thought him dying, and indeed many have thought him dead these many years, to have him returned to us to take his father’s place amongst our Rangers and our people is a great gift indeed to those of us who have grieved so long for his father’s loss.  Now, I see that while the rest of you have been indulging in idle talk, Halbarad and Peredhrion alone have been preparing for our training patrol by readying their gear.  I suggest that the rest of you do the same.  Now, go!

            The party dispersed at speed, and the one known as Peredhrion went with Baerdion to examine the gift made him by Berevrion’s father.

*******

             Of the young would-be Rangers, most spoke primarily Westron and Adûnaic.  Besides Halbarad, Peredhrion, and the two from the Firth of Lhûn, only three others spoke any Sindarin beyond the most basic. 

            Halbarad’s two younger brothers spent a good deal of time with those who would take part in the patrol before they left Halbaleg’s lands.  Here they camped for four days as they were evaluated by Malvegern and Baerdion and as the final supplies to be administered by Túrin were gathered and prepared for the two pack horses.  Peredhrion was not the only one to be riding a steed new to him; the two from Lhûn admitted that they rarely had known any chance to ride astride prior to this, as most horses that far west were draft animals.  Their mounts were gifts from an uncle who dwelt near the ruins of Fornost, and they were usually sore after only an hour or two of riding practice.  The other young Men were surprised to see Peredhrion assigned to apply ointment intended to ease their sore muscles, but it soon was accepted that the Elvish princeling, as he was usually entitled, had a deft hand when dealing with medicaments.  By the time they were ready to ride out for the first time together, all accepted that Peredhrion would most likely serve as their orderly should any suffer injury.

            Halbarad’s brothers stood by rebelliously to watch them leave, the younger one, Hardorn, swearing that he would not wait more than a year more before he, too, rode out on his initial patrol with the Rangers.  Peredhrion smiled down upon him and bade him keep a guard upon his father’s keep, and waved back at the two brothers ere the patrol disappeared into the forestlands, heading eastward toward the Ettenmoors and the Misty Mountains.  Their initial patrol as Rangers of the North was begun at last!

            “Well,” commented young Berevrion to Dirigil in Adûnaic, “there’s no question of Peredhrion’s ability to ride!”

            That was true enough.  The horse sent down by Berevrion’s father was a gelding of three years who might have been properly broken to the saddle, but he made it plain that he did not like being ridden for prolonged periods of time.   Yet, in spite of the fact he wore no spurs, Peredhrion swiftly and effectively exerted his mastery over the animal, and within the space of a day was experiencing no more balking from his mount.  No one understood what it was that Peredhrion said in Quenya to the horse, but whether it was the words or merely the tone of voice did not matter in the end.  The animal calmed notably and was soon one of the steadiest mounts in the entire patrol.

            They camped that first night in the ruins of a former hamlet on the banks of a stream that fed into the Mitheithil.  It was the first time that most of those taking part in the patrol had seen the damage inflicted upon their people by the Enemy’s creatures, and even Dirigil grew solemn as he surveyed the extensive signs of fire and heavy clubs and saw the mound raised over the mass grave for the dead.

            Peredhrion examined a wall where it had been beaten down, and commented, “Trolls did that.”

            “And how is it the likes of you would recognize the work of trolls, Princeling?” demanded Orominion.

            Baerdion shook his head, saying tersely, “He is right, Orominion,” and leaving it at that.

            They awoke to lowering clouds and a stiff westerly breeze that intensified into an uncomfortable gale by midmorning.  Not long after noon it began to rain, and within an hour all were wet in their saddles as they worked their way southward along the foothills of the mountain chain.  Most were complaining under their breath, even Halbarad.  Only Peredhrion and the two from Lhûn held off from voicing their discomfort, although the younger of those two was soon white with cold and pain from his saddle sores.  Peredhrion wore now a cloak that appeared to shed much of the rain, although he was constantly rearranging it so as to keep water from finding a larger opening down his neck.  His knees were as sopping as were those of the rest, but he bore it silently, his eyes ceaselessly watching from side to side.

            “What is he looking for?” asked one of the smaller youths.

            Halbarad nodded toward Malvegern and Baerdion.  “Most likely the same as them—anything out of the ordinary.  He has ridden out with Elvish patrols, after all.”

            “So he says,” muttered Orominion in Adûnaic, and one of the oldest of them grunted his agreement.

            There was nothing to indicate that Peredhrion had been listening, but Halbarad was certain that he’d heard even the quietest comments. 

            Halbarad became aware that his cousin was also keeping a concerned eye on the two from Lhûn, for after a glance over his shoulder at the younger of the pair he turned his horse to come alongside Malvegern, with whom he spoke in soft Sindarin.

            The Man gave a quick glance at the miserable youth, and said in Westron, “We shall be coming to shelter soon, at which time we will do what we can to ease whatever discomfort anyone feels.  But all need to know that what we would wish for is rarely what we find when we ride out on patrol.”

            Not long afterward they approached a valley between two hills, and all could see Peredhrion become even more alert, eyeing the valley with suspicion before turning his attention upwards at the slopes to either side.  At the last moment, however, they turned to the right to skirt the outer hill along its western flank.  Peredhrion gave a single nod, but he still divided his attention between the hillside to their left and the way ahead.  Suddenly he stopped, signaling those behind him to halt as well.  When Malvegern eyed him in question, the young Man indicated a tumble of stone lying on the edge of the path, and Halbarad noted it was not the same color on top as it was on its sides.  Malvegern exchanged a glance with Baerdion, who gave a nod.  Smiling grimly, Malvegern loosened his sword in its sheath, and Baerdion signaled for the rest to do the same.  Remembering the instructions they’d been given before leaving Halbaleg’s lands, they increased the distance between them, and two who carried horse bows swiftly strung their bows and slipped arrows from their quivers.

            “Let’s hope that the strings have not taken the damp,” muttered Dirigil.  Wet weather could play havoc with bowstrings; that Halbarad knew as well.

            The assault was sudden, but they were prepared for it.  A small boulder rolled down the hillside before the nose of Orominion’s horse, and behind it came three orcs, none of them particularly large but all carrying scimitars stained dark with filth.  One fell with an arrow in its side, while Orominion managed to defend himself from the second.  Four more followed the first three, and the young Men were soon busy defending their line.  The skirmish didn’t last particularly long, and soon all seven orcs lay dead.  Dirigil had a shallow cut to one arm, and the older boy from Lhûn had been hit by a thrown rock and was holding the side of his head with blood seeping out from between his fingers.  But they had all survived—that was good to know!

            Baerdion called on three of the youths to help him dispose of the bodies, and Peredhrion to stand guard on them as they did so.  The rest followed Malvegern beyond the hill, where he led them past the ruins of an ancient watch tower to a hidden covert along the wall of the next hillside.  He indicated they should remain quiet behind a screen of trees and bushes and wait while he scouted the place he’d chosen, and at last he appeared from the shadows beneath the hillside and signaled for them to join him.  There was a natural bowl in which the horses could be successfully hidden, and a shallow cave where they could take refuge from the weather.  As the group crowded into the cave Halbarad realized he was shaking badly, now that the danger was past.

            Berevrion and another were assigned to keep watch while two of their number and Túrin saw to the horses and Halbarad and one of the older youths fetched water as directed by Malvegern.  Dirigil had shed his cloak when they returned, and a fire was burning in a hollow in the furthest reaches of the cave where a small crack served as a chimney to draw off what smoke there might be.  Soon they were joined by Baerdion and his party, who threw off their damp cloaks as quickly as could be managed.  Malvegern was examining Dirigil’s wound, and beckoned Peredhrion to join him.  They conferred as to what ought to be done in rapid Sindarin, and at last the Man indicated for Peredhrion to see the wound treated while he examined the two youths from Lhûn.

            “You’re going to allow a mere boy to treat Dirigil’s cut?” demanded Finwë, one of the older youths from a settlement near the ruins of Annúminas, in Adûnaic.

            Malvegern cocked an eye at him.  “Do you have a healer’s kit from Rivendell?  No?  Then let the one who has one do what he’s been trained to do.”  He turned his attention back to the older one from Lhûn and switched back to Westron.  “I will need to clean where the stone hit you, Damrod, although it will be an easier job than Peredhrion there is facing with Dirigil.  You, Finwë—get some clean rags from Túrin and dampen them in cold water.  We may also need a bandage to bind about his brow.  I doubt the wound is too deep, or it’s likely Damrod would be unconscious by now.  Brendor, if you will help Peredhrion—when it comes to cleaning that wound Dirigil is likely to fight it.”

            Brendor, whose father had a farm near Halbaleg’s land, nodded his understanding and turned to join Peredhrion at Dirigil’s side.

            Dirigil did seek to fight Peredhrion at least at first as the young Man sought to cleanse the wound with spirits.  “It’s but a shallow enough cut!” he objected.  “Spirits will burn it like fire!”

            “That is true enough, but I fear water alone won’t be enough to counter all that is likely to be found on an orc’s blade,” Peredhrion pointed out.  “Orcs smear all sorts of filth and poisons on their weapons—that Lord Elrond has learned to the grief of many far too often in the years he has served as a healer and as a teacher of healers.  Spirits serve to cleanse away such filth more effectively than mere water.  Now, if you will look into my eyes and hearken to my voice….”

            There was something soothing in his tone as he spoke quietly and calmly, and Dirigil’s eyes first opened wider, then half closed as if he were nearly ready to sleep.  As Peredhrion took his arm and began cutting away the sleeve of his shirt to expose the wound, Dirigil made no outcry of protest, not even when Túrin, at Peredhrion’s quiet direction, poured the liquor directly over the cut, Brendor catching the overflow in a bowl held under the arm.  Peredhrion used clean cloths to make certain that all was properly cleansed, finally smearing the wound with honey and bandaging it tightly.    “I will have to check it several times a day in order to make certain that it does not become seriously infected, and there are other treatments we can use if that happens,” he said as Dirigil suddenly snapped back into full awareness.  “But it is likely that we were able to wash out the worst of what might cause infections.  It is not deep enough to require stitches, so it is better to merely bandage it so that we do not accidently hold any filth within the wound to cause problems later.”

            Dirigil looked questioningly between his bandaged arm and Peredhrion, at last offering a confused thanks for what the other youth had done, and he went over to where packs and bedrolls were set to get a different shirt to change into and to draw his blanket about his shoulders.  He told the others quietly that he had felt somehow distanced from the proceedings, as if it were another who was having raw spirits poured over his wound rather than himself, and that although there was still a burning in the wound that it at least felt clean and wholesome.

            Peredhrion was now examining the wound on the side of Damrod’s head, agreeing with Malvegern that it did not appear serious but advising the younger boy that it would most likely be rather painful and swollen for a few days.  Malvegern directed Peredhrion to bandage it, and once that was done Damrod announced with surprise that he felt much the better, and smiled tremulously up into the taller youth’s eyes.

            Finwë and Orominion exchanged looks of confusion, which Peredhrion pointedly ignored.  Halbarad shook his head at the other young Men’s discomfiture, knowing that Aragorn had easily understood Finwë’s objections to him being chosen to minister to Dirigil.

            As they gathered about the fire to eat the meal Túrin had prepared for them, Damrod turned to Peredhrion.  “You knew that orcs were likely to be on that hillside, didn’t you?”  At the taller youth’s nod, he asked, “How did you know?”

            Peredhrion exchanged glances with Baerdion.  “It was the fall of rocks by the path—it was too fresh, and the upper surface of many of the stones had plainly been deeper into the soil of the hillside very recently.  It was likely that there were enemies of some sort above us, although that hillside could not hold many unseen.  I was relieved that we did not go between the two hills, as then it would be possible that we could have enemies above us on both sides, ready to roll stones down upon us from above with no room for us to move out of the way as Orominion was able to do.”

            “Were there any enemies upon the other hillside?” asked another youth named Geldir of Baerdion.

            “We saw signs after we saw to the disposal of the bodies that originally the four who came second had been waiting upon the other hill, which was why they came down upon us after the first three.  But we saw no further signs than that.  We will send a small group out in the morning to see if this was a scouting party for a larger troop of orcs, but we should be safe enough here for the night.”

            “But why here?” demanded Orominion.  “Why not in that watch tower?  It ought to have been more comfortable for us.”

            Malvegern cast an eye at Peredhrion.  “Can you hazard a guess as to why we did not use the watch tower for shelter?”

            “There were trees and shrubbery right up to the wall of the tower on one side,” came the answer.  “We could not have been able to clearly see any approaching us, and there was no sheltered place for the horses.  And there were signs that orcs had been there recently, perhaps the very party that attacked us.”

            “I saw no signs of orcs there,” objected Orominion.

            Baerdion shook his head.  “Perhaps we should return there in the morning, although by then the rain might well have washed away the signs Peredhrion recognized.  The rest of you should know this—Peredhrion here may not have ridden out on patrol with any of the Dúnedain in the past, but he has ridden out with the sons of Elrond.  He has been instructed in how to recognize the passage of orcs, trolls, and evil Men by those who have had many, many lives of Men to learn to recognize their signs.  If any of you have the chance to ride with the Elves in the future, you would do well to take it and learn from them what they are willing to teach.  There is no better tracker to learn from than an experienced Elven warrior.”

            There were low murmurs as the young Men of the patrol considered this information. 

            Not long afterward the three older Men withdrew slightly.  Baerdion went out to watch with those keeping guard, while Malvegern indicated he intended to get some sleep while he could.  Túrin chose three to help him clean up after the meal, and the rest sat about the fire, talking idly, eventually to be joined by those who’d done the washing up.  Soon the party began exchanging boasts and jokes.  But while even Halbarad was laughing freely with the rest, Peredhrion, though he sat with them, did not appear to find the jests humorous.  At last he, too, indicated he would rather sleep than sit up longer, and he fetched his blanket roll and set it out in an out-of-the-way place and lay down.  Those at the fire switched to Adûnaic, continuing to speak quietly until, one by one, the rest slipped away to find places of their own to sleep. 

            Halbarad came to lie down near his cousin, and realized that Aragorn was still awake.  “Why could you not laugh with them?” he demanded in whispered Sindarin.  “They now think that you consider yourself too far above them to appreciate their jests and boasts.”

            Aragorn gave a slight shake to his head.  “But why were those stories considered funny?” he whispered back.  “I do not see anything humorous in considering the possible last thoughts of a dying orc!”

            “That story you told about someone named Erestor certainly was not funny,” Halbarad responded.

            “It was if you knew him,” his cousin insisted.

            Halbarad shook his head in exasperation.  “But how are we to know anyone you’ve been around while you were growing up?  Few Men have been free to come and go within Imladris for many years.”

            Aragorn sighed.  “I suppose that you are right.  But I simply do not appreciate why that story Bregorn told about his father should be considered funny at all.”

            Halbarad was about to respond to that when he realized that he had been ready to use precisely the same reasoning as his cousin had used regarding the story about Erestor.  He merely shook his head, and advised Aragorn to get some sleep while he could.

            But Aragorn did not sleep, for he was now listening to the three who remained around the fire, who included Orominion, Finwë, and Bregorn.  And the three of them were discussing the braids that Peredhrion wore and what his reaction might be should he awaken to find them gone….

*******

             It was Finwë who drew the short straw and was expected by his fellows to cut at least one of Peredhrion’s braids from his head.  He lay awake in his bedroll until it was plain all others were asleep, at which time he slipped out of his blankets and crept with great quietness to the place where Peredhrion lay near Lord Halbaleg’s son.  It had been agreed that it was most likely that Lord Halbaleg had enjoined his son to befriend the newest member of the Dúnedain that the young Man not feel totally alone while out upon this patrol.  How close the two of them were was unclear to the rest, particularly as the tone of voice Halbarad had used when he went to lie down near Peredhrion had indicated that he, too, was annoyed with the one raised by the Elves.  Finwë drew the knife he wore in an ankle sheath, knowing it was honed to razor sharpness.  It should work well enough to remove a braid from the side of Peredhrion’s head, he thought.

            But as he leaned over his intended victim suddenly his wrist was caught in a vise-like grip.  “I do not suggest you ever think to approach me with a drawn blade,” Peredhrion hissed in Westron, applying additional pressure until Finwë’s knife fell from his hand and clattered on the stone floor of the cave.

            To his credit, Finwë did not cry out, although his expression indicated he was in a good deal of pain.  Baerdion, who was entering the cave at that point in order to summon the next pair to take the watch, was upon the two of them like a panther leaping.  “What is this?” he demanded.  He saw the glint of reflected light from the knife’s blade and instantly realized whose it was.  He turned on Finwë.  “Why did you come upon Peredhrion with a drawn knife?” he asked, his tone deadly serious.

            Peredhrion sat up, although he kept hold of Finwë’s wrist.  “Do not worry, Lord Baerdion.  He meant me no real harm, thinking that what he intended was merely a jest of sorts.  But I will not allow my dignity to be taken from me in what is intended to be a mere prank.”

            The others were rousing and raising themselves up on their elbows, all craning to see what was causing the disturbance.  Baerdion looked from one of the two linked youths to the other, seeing a braid on Peredhrion’s head swinging as the young Man straightened further.  “Oh, so that is it, eh?” he said.  “I would almost wish to see his wrist broken for thinking to do such a thing, but then he would be of little use to the rest of us for the remainder of our patrol.  Let him go, Peredhrion.”

            Peredhrion did so, and instantly Finwë was cradling his wrist.  “I cannot feel my fingers!” he protested.

            “Had you received your due, you would be more concerned about having to have your hand splinted and immobilized,” Malvegern noted, coming to stand by his second.  “Threatening one who has the training this one has is never a good idea, even if it were perceived as the joke you’d intended.  He probably could have snapped your wrist like a twig, had he been so inclined.  And threatening a warrior’s braided locks was as stupid a move as anyone could have considered.”

            He looked around at the group of would-be Rangers.  “You have never been amongst the Elves as have Baerdion or I,” he said, “so you can have no idea as to what the warrior’s braids mean.  Each twist and entwined bead has its own meaning, and no Elf is allowed to braid his temple locks at all until he has earned that right in battle.  I suspect that Elladan and Elrohir, possibly assisted by the great Lord Glorfindel himself, first braided this one’s hair, but not until he had proven himself by their standards, which I assure you are high.  The braids indicate that he has fought and fought hard, and that his actions served to spare one or more of his companions in the patrols he has ridden with from imminent death at the hands of their enemies.  He is a fair shot with the bow as Elves judge it, but is an expert with sword and knife.  I have noted that in the sparring we did back ere we left Lord Halbaleg’s keep Peredhrion always tempered his blows, not allowing any of us to see just how good he is with a blade.  As we meet more orcs and other enemies I suspect that we will begin to see just how good he actually is.  No, he does not hold his weapons as you do, but then he has been trained from his childhood by Elves, not Men.  And he has already proven to us all that he is familiar with the tactics of orcs and with seeing signs of disturbance.”

            He turned his attention now on Peredhrion himself, who’d risen to his feet.  “On the other hand, you have already been warned that by identifying yourself with the Elves who saw you raised after your father’s death you set yourself apart from these, who are now your true peers.  Remember that, Peredhrion.”  So saying, he turned to Baerdion.  “For the next watch, I suggest Bregorn and Orominion, and these two for the watch ere dawn.”  At Baerdion’s nod, he looked about him and ordered, “The rest of you, sleep while you can.”  So saying, he swept up Finwë’s knife and returned it to its owner.

            Aragorn lay down again by Halbarad.  “I warned you,” the latter yawned.

            Aragorn gave a slight shrug.  “Well,” he responded in Sindarin, “you must remember that I was raised another way.”  He closed his eyes and was soon—apparently—asleep.

The Patrol

            When the others rose in the morning, Peredhrion was already out amongst the horses, currying his mount, speaking to it in soft tones as he did so.  When he came within the cavern to share the dawn meal, he took his rations and sat on his rolled blankets to eat, watching the others thoughtfully.  When he was done he saw his own plate and cup cleaned and returned to Túrin’s keeping before approaching first Damrod, then Dirigil, and finally the younger boy from Lhûn to check on the condition of each.

            Dirigil’s arm appeared to be in good shape, as did Damrod’s head.  But for Varadorn, the younger boy from Lhûn, the situation was not so good.

            “There are decided breaks in the skin here and here,” Peredhrion explained to Malvegern, “and the cold damp of the ride yesterday did him no favors.  Should those breaks become infected, it could be quite serious, as close as they are to the blood vessels in the groin.”

            “Should we wash the affected area with an infusion of athelas, do you think?” the older Ranger asked.

            The younger Man considered their patient thoughtfully.  “That, and perhaps some special balm that m-Master Elrond made up at my request.  Then wrap them to offer more protection?”

            “See it done, then, youngling.”  He looked up to note that most of the other youths were standing about, watching with curiosity.  “And what has drawn you lot like moths to a flame?  Get on with you!  We ought to be ready to leave in an hour’s time, so see to it your things are packed and your horses readied.  Bregorn, I would like for you to prepare Varadorn’s horse and his saddlebags and bedroll.  Peredhrion, when we mount up, will you please examine Varadorn’s seat to see if there is anything we can adjust to make things more comfortable for him?”

            The others appeared to be surprised at this last request by their mentor, and there were a few comments shared about it in soft Adûnaic as the others prepared to leave the shelter of the shallow cave.

            Halbarad saddled Peredhrion’s horse for him, and settled his saddlebags, pack, and bedroll in their proper places.  When at last the tall, beardless youth had finished helping Varadorn pull his trews on over the bandages gently bound about his thighs and had finished his evaluation of how Varadorn sat his steed, he seemed both surprised and grateful for Halbarad’s aid.  He checked the girth for the saddle as well as the seat of the bridle in his mount’s mouth before he swung up onto the horse’s back.

            “What’s the matter, Princeling?” demanded Finwë.  “Don’t you trust Halbarad to see it done right?”

            Peredhrion appeared surprised by the question.  But it was Berevrion who came to his defense.  “Did no one ever tell you that a good horseman always checks the bridle and girth for himself, no matter how much he trusts others to prepare the horse otherwise?  Well, that is what my father always told me.  And it appears that Peredhrion has been taught the same way that I was.”

            Baerdion appeared amused.  “As Berevrion’s father is one of the best breeders and trainers of horses amongst all of our people, I suggest, Finwë, that you listen well to his advice.”

            Finwë flushed, but there was nothing further he could say without making himself appear more foolish, so he wisely kept his mouth shut.

            They rode out of their shelter, back the way they’d come.  Berevrion came alongside Peredhrion and asked in a warm voice, “What have you named this one?”

            The taller youth smiled in welcome.  “I’d thought to name him Carniaxo, or Redbone, in honor of his reddish color,” he said.  “But I did not wish to change his name if he already had one from your family’s time with him.”

            The younger boy laughed.  “We have just called him the red colt, so you aren’t far off of what he’s used to answering to already.”  He reached over and scratched an attentive ear.  “He answers well to you.  The Elves appear to have taught you properly how to work with horses.  Have you always ridden?”

            Peredhrion nodded.  “I was introduced to horses when I was young.  My mother felt that I would need to know how to ride, so a pony was procured for me when I was still quite small.  I rode around the valley frequently behind my mother and my—behind the sons of Elrond.”

            “What was the pony’s name?”

            “It was named Gerontius.”

            Berevrion laughed.  “What kind of name is Gerontius?”

            “Erestor says that it was the name of a Hobbit of the Shire who visited Rivendell on occasion.  M-Master Elrond admired him, and said that the pony was wise, like Gerontius the Hobbit.”

            Finwë, who rode not that far away, snorted.  “Hobbits of the Shire do not travel outside their own lands,” he said with authority.  “Papa says that they distrust us Big Folk, and think that all of the other lands are wild and dangerous.”

            Peredhrion shrugged.  “I met one once, back when I was a child.  He came to Rivendell with thirteen Dwarves.”

            Before Finwë could belittle that statement Brendor spoke up.  “That did happen, that a Hobbit of the Shire came out of his land with thirteen Dwarves and Gandalf the Grey.  My father saw them not far from Amon Sûl, and was amazed that any Hobbit of the Shire would go so far from his home.  But my grandsire said that in his youth he heard tell of another Hobbit who would travel at times to Lord Elrond’s house alongside the Grey Wizard.  My uncle has served on many patrols through Bree and has even ridden through the Shire from time to time.  He says that the Hobbits of the Shire distrust Gandalf, and consider him a bad influence upon their young people.”

            “He makes wonderful fireworks, though,” Berevrion said.  “My father said that those he displayed when Lord Arathorn married the Lady Gilraen were things of wonder.”

            Peredhrion appeared to be intrigued by this and was preparing to ask a question when they were all interrupted by Malvegern.  “Peredhrion!  Here!”

            The youth put aside all curiosity at the tale of the Grey Wizard’s fireworks at the wedding of the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain, his attention now fixed upon the Man who’d called him forward.  “Captain?” he said.

            The Man indicated the watch tower ahead of them.  “You said last night that you saw signs that orcs had come this way.”

            Peredhrion nodded, and swept his gaze about the area.  “You were correct in indicating that the rain would most likely sweep away most of the signs I’d seen.  But note that branch there of the birch just this side of the tower, how it is broken.  Had it been a Man, the damage would be small, most likely a bent leaf at most, for it would have struck him upon his head had he been walking beneath it and it would have done him but small harm; therefore he would not have done much in response.  But that branch is almost torn off the limb.  That is common to orcs, who resent all that is lovely and growing and will see any perceived insult to their own deformity responded to with needless and destructive violence. 

            “Last night I could see footprints common to the heavy, rough boots worn by those who dwell in the lower slopes of the mountains and who thus do more raiding of the lands below them.  Among the boot prints were three other prints, those of at least one large animal with great claws, which I judged to be the prints of a great wolf or small warg, which are often ridden by the orcs as we ride horses.  The prints came from the way that we have just come, heading that way, toward the two hills that we skirted and where we met the seven orcs we slew.  This is attested also by the angle of the cracked branch, indicating that the orc who sought to pull it from the tree was heading in that direction.  But most of the footprints I saw last night appeared to have gone to the west, indicating that most were intent on making a raid on whatever homes, farms, or settlements might lie west of us.  That seven met us upon the hills is most likely due to one or more of those seven smelling our scent upon the wind—many orcs have senses of smell as keen as that of any good hound.  They were perhaps hungrier than the rest, or may have been sent as a rear guard to take us captive or slay us that we not attack the others.  Either way, they had hoped we should ride between the hills and thus would make of ourselves easy prey.  That we went west of the outer hill must have frustrated them terribly.  If they were hungry, we certainly denied them their meal.”

            He looked about again, and pointed here and there where he said that the heel or toe of one of the boots of the orcs still could be discerned.  Some could be readily seen by the others, while many were not clear enough for anyone other than perhaps Baerdion to recognize.  They went a ways west, and more branches broken as had been the one he’d indicated back by the tower led the other youths to realize that he was right about a larger group heading further out into the lands in that direction.

            “What shall we do?” asked Brendor.  “Are there any who dwell in the path the orcs have taken?”

            “What if there were any others left on watch near where we fought the orcs last night?” asked Orominion.  “They might have scurried off to their kin and warned them that we survived, in which case they may turn back in search of us.”

            Malvegern and Baerdion allowed the discussion to go on for some minutes, apparently pleased that the young Men under their tutelage were thinking of how the orcs might act and were conscious of the dangers said creatures posed to others as well as to themselves.  However, decisions needed to be made, and Malvegern called a halt to the debate. 

            “Orominion, Peredhrion, and Finwë, accompanied by Túrin you shall go back to the hills where we encountered the orcs and search for their back trail as well as any sign that others might have been on watch.  We shall go forward—slowly and carefully, ever mindful that orcs have a far keener sense of smell than do we Men, and that they may well be aware we follow them long before we realize they are anywhere about and that they are likely to be lying in wait.  It is still cloudy, and they will move in daylight if there is enough shadow for them to hide within, or if they know enemies are nearby.  Finwë, you and Orominion will follow Peredhrion’s orders as if they were from Baerdion or myself.  Túrin, unless you see an orc with your own eyes and thus know Peredhrion is wrong, you will do so as well—this time.  He has shown that the sons of Elrond were correct when they said he was the best tracker among Men they have ever trained, which is quite the thing to say when one remembers they have been doing this for over two thousand years.  They say also he is the best with a blade among Men they have trained in the same time.  We will learn, most likely, if this is true should you be forced to fight today.  He had little enough to do yesterday with the actual fight, as he was on the end of the line, and the rest of you handled the situation well.  But today I suspect that all shall fight.  Do not hesitate to strike and to strike deeply, for the orc will never hesitate to kill you if he can.

            “Now, go.”

            If Peredhrion was unhappy to find himself charged to direct these two who appeared to see him as a rival to themselves he did not show it.  Instead, he inclined his head to acknowledge the order, and looking between Orominion and Finwë, with a glance at Túrin, he indicated that they should follow him.  He turned his horse, and the four of them continued back the way they’d come the day before. 

            “Which way did they come from?” asked Orominion of Túrin.  The latter, leading their two packhorses, shrugged and looked to Peredhrion in question.

            “They came from the northeast,” Peredhrion said, indicating a trampled area slightly behind them that led back toward the mountains.  “They did not come by the cavern where we spent the night, which appears to be favored by Men and Elves, considering the signs I noted there.”

            “How can anyone know who else tends to stay in a specific place?” demanded Orominion.

            “There were signs for those who have the experience to recognize them,” Peredhrion answered.  “One of the Elves from Rivendell always leaves a certain mark beside the entrance of more sheltered camping spots such as that cavern to indicate he had been there and had found it clear of enemies on a particular day.  His mark was there on the cavern, and the signs indicate he was there a fortnight since.  Orcs do not like the scent left by Elves, and will not willingly use any shelter frequented by the Eldar if they can avoid doing so.  That is the most likely reason that Lords Baerdion and Malvegern took us there, knowing that orcs rarely will approach such places when Elves are known to frequent them except to attack those who might rest within, and then only when they are certain that with their superior numbers they are likely to prevail in a pitched battle.

            “As for Men—there were layered traces of old boot prints similar to the boots worn by the Rangers indicating that Men have used that cavern many times throughout living memory.  And you, Finwë, were not the first to scrawl your name upon the walls there.”

            Finwë flushed at having his act recognized, although there was no tone of condemnation in Peredhrion’s voice.

            They reached the two hills.  Peredhrion and Túrin both examined the ground and the slopes thoroughly as they approached, indicating how the seven that had attacked the patrol the day before had separated into the groups split between the two hillsides.  The bodies of the slain orcs had been laid in the valley between the two hills and dirt and rocks had been shoveled over them, and Peredhrion indicated how scavengers had already been drawn to the shallow mass grave and had sought to uncover the carrion.

            Now they went more slowly, and with Finwë at his side, Peredhrion dismounted so as to check the earth more closely.  When Finwë discovered a place where ferns were crushed into the dirt he earned a smile of approval from the taller youth.

            Orominion whistled.  “Then one did watch the fight yesterday!”

            Peredhrion nodded.  “And you realized that this might well have happened.  He went this direction, which should lead him back to the same trail followed by the larger group.  Yes, it would appear that the orcs may well be aware of our fellows tracking them long before they are close enough to scent.”

            They went more quickly, hoping to come even with the other trainees before they might be taken in an ambush.

            It was almost an hour, however, before they heard a clash of arms and realized the orcs and their companions were battling it out behind a stand of trees.  Peredhrion again dropped from his mount, and leaving the horses in the keeping of Finwë, he, Túrin, and Orominion split up so as to approach the battle from opposite sides, the two younger Men going together.

            “We have come!” shouted Peredhrion as he and Orominion joined the fight, his sword already cutting away the hand of an orc who’d been pressing Berevrion.

            Seventeen orcs finally lay dead, and the young Men stood at last over the bodies of the slain, two of them rapidly turning green as the violence they’d just indulged in caught up with them.  Varadorn was one who was beginning to lose what he’d eaten earlier, but he’d also managed to kill two of the orcs.  Túrin had a shallow cut to his forehead, while two others had each been caught in the shoulder.  Bregorn’s wound wasn’t that serious, but that suffered by Nardir, who was from a settlement not far from Lake Evendim, could easily cost him his arm if it wasn’t dealt with immediately.

            All had seen Peredhrion fight now, and no one questioned any longer just how good he might be with that sword of his; now they learned firsthand his skill with the surgeon’s knife, herbs, and needles he carried with him in that red healer’s bag that was part of his gear.  Túrin had Halbarad and another raise one of the tents from the packhorses’ burdens, and Nardir was carried within it.  Lamps were lit, and Peredhrion knelt down to begin working….

 *******

            It was sunset before he was done.  The bodies of the orcs had been hauled to a swamp of which their two mentors knew and disposed of; the area around them was carefully searched, a camp was raised, and a meal was already being cooked.  Peredhrion was pale when he finally came out of the tent, and asked for water to be brought him so he could cleanse his hands once more.  Once he’d washed himself and removed the shirt he’d been wearing, showing he wore under it a second long-sleeved garment of silk, he sat wearily on an ancient stump with a tin mug of tea in his hand.  Halbarad had aided him, and now sat within the tent at Nardir’s side, carefully administering sips of rich broth as the young Man could swallow it. 

            “He is able to move his fingers,” Peredhrion reported to Malvegern, and the older Man grunted his relief.

            “Then he should not lose the arm.”

            “Not unless the wound should fester,” Peredhrion agreed.  “I hope that I was able to cleanse it sufficiently.”

            “That we shall tell only with time,” Baerdion sighed, joining them at the fireside.  “So, you have been advised about wearing silk under your gear?”

            “Yes, to make it easier to remove any arrows that might be used against us.  I am only glad that none of the orcs was an archer.”

            Several of the others had come closer now that Peredhrion had come out of the tent.  “How does silk aid in the removal of arrows?” asked Varadorn.

            “The fibers are able to stretch, and often the barbs cannot penetrate the cloth and so tear at the flesh,” Malvegern explained.  “Silken undergarments are not simply an indulgence, but have been known to save the limbs and at times the lives of their wearers.”

            There were quiet comments regarding this intelligence, and it was plain that those who could manage it would be investing in such garments for themselves and perhaps brothers and fathers as well, when it was possible to obtain such things, of course.   Varadorn and Dirigil were exchanging glances—their families were able to trade with the Elves of Mithlond; if they could arrange to get shipments of silken cloth to Lord Halbaleg, all within the Northern Dúnedain should benefit.

            Malvegern continued, “We shall go no further tonight or tomorrow.  Hopefully Nardir will be able to ride on the second dawn; we will then continue our patrol.  We should meet with Iorvas’s patrol in three days.  If it is necessary, he can take Nardir back with him to his parents’ village while he recovers.”

            All nodded their understanding.

            Save for those on watch few remained awake long that night.  Peredhrion returned to the healer’s tent and laid himself down by the low cot produced for Nardir’s benefit, and slept lightly, waking frequently to check on the other youth’s condition, and seeing to it he was comfortable and offered water and broth at frequent intervals.  When Orominion awoke and rose to visit the area designated for relieving oneself, he saw through the tent’s flaps that Peredhrion now sat by the cot, his hand resting on the other youth’s breast, attending to the beating of Nardir’s heart, and singing softly to himself.  Somehow Orominion found all of this proper and comforting, and as he slept he dreamt of the first rising of Eärendil, back in the depths of time.

           

For Tari for her birthday.  Enjoy!

Mutual Knowledge

            The healer who accompanied the patrol led by Iorvas looked up to meet Baerdion’s eyes.  “You say that he was wounded three days ago?” he asked, indicating Nardir, who sat patiently on a fallen tree trunk.

            “Yes.  We found a troop of orcs northwest of Eldar Deep.  Nardir was the one who was worst wounded.”

            “Who closed the wound?”

            “Peredhrion, there,” Baerdion answered, indicating where said young Man stood near the horses, speaking with Varadorn.

            “An Elf?  Why would an Elf ride with your patrol?  Was he trained in healing by Lord Elrond, then?”

            At that moment, apparently feeling the healer’s gaze upon him, Peredhrion turned, and the healer saw his face and found his attention fastening upon the youth’s eyes.  He went pale with shock, and then flushed.  Peredhrion turned back to his companion, and the healer returned his own attention to Baerdion. 

            Baerdion gave an odd smile of mixed satisfaction and warning.  “Yes, he has been fully trained by Lord Elrond and his people.  But, as you can see, he is no Elf, and he wished to return to our people in this manner.  His father died, you will remember, when he was little more than a babe, only just beginning to walk and speak.”

            “We thought he was dead!” whispered the healer.

            Baerdion’s smile widened as he returned in extremely soft tones, “As you can see, he did not die.  How better to protect him from the Enemy than to allow almost all to think him dead?”

            “And he exhibits the King’s Gifts?” came the whispered question.  Not waiting for a reply, the healer shook his head with amazement.  “When did this come to be?”

            “On Midsummer Day they brought him to Amon Sûl to see him returned.  He was as you see him now.  Lady Ivorwen has accepted him, but his grandfather still questions how it was that he was not advised the child lived after all.”

            The healer gave another glance at the young Man in question.  “I am not surprised at his confusion,” he commented dryly.  “And we missed this news because we were out on patrol.”

            “Even so.  As for Nardir there, do you believe he should return to his parents’ home?”

            With a sigh, the healer returned his attention to the youth he’d examined.  “Perhaps he should return home, but his recovery is already well advanced.  There is no question that—Peredhrion there is a skilled healer who has learned well from Elrond and his people.  We shall undoubtedly all rejoice to have him among us in the near future.  But I believe I shall leave the decision as to whether this one returns home to Nardir himself.  He shall most likely be fit for full duty within two weeks if the healing continues as it has gone so far, and I doubt he wishes to need his training patrol to start again from the beginning.”

            The healer glanced again at Peredhrion.  “How is he as a warrior?  Is he such as will do well as a captain of Men?”

            “He won the right to ride on patrol with the sons of Elrond by besting one of the two of them in sparring at the age of fifteen.  What does that tell you?  And I watched him fighting the orcs the other day—to watch him with a sword is to watch a master of the dance of death.  Nor is he given to airs.  He dresses as an Elf because this is how he has seen warriors dress all of his life, and he knows no other way.  I tell you, he has earned those warriors braids fairly.”

            “But if he is to become who he is meant to be, he must identify with our people, not the Elves, not even the Elves of Rivendell.”

            “Yes, you are right.  But it must be his own choice to do so.  We cannot impose that decision upon him.”

            Nardir chose to remain with the patrol, and only when the other group was far out of sight of Malvegern’s trainees did the healer reveal to Iorvas what he’d seen of the new recruit to the Rangers come from Elrond’s hidden valley.

            The feeling of Hope Returning and Coming to Be was spreading even now amongst the Northern Dúnedain.

 *******

            “Was it hard to grow up amongst Elves?”

            “Did they treat you badly because you are a Man rather than an Elf?”

            “Do they eat different things than we do?”

            “When did you realize you are different from the Elves?”

            “Is it true that Elves don’t sleep as Men do?”

            Malvegern and Baerdion were amused by the questions they heard being put to Peredhrion, and often they were as curious as were the other youths as to what he might answer.

            “Did Lord Elrond marry your mother?”

            Peredhrion appeared shocked at the very idea of that one.  “Marry my naneth?  But why?  He is already married, although his wife has departed over the Sea to Elvenhome for healing.  She was very badly hurt, you know.”

            “Then why did he not go with her?”

            Peredhrion shrugged.  “He believes he is intended to stay here in the Mortal Lands until Sauron is finally vanquished.  He will not leave until that day comes.  Sauron has cost too many he has loved.”

            That appeared to give the other trainees a good deal to think on, not to mention the thoughts entertained by their mentors.

            One night as they sat in their camp, having heard one of the tales that Peredhrion had to tell, a story he said was commonly told in the Hall of Fire in Elrond’s House, Berevrion asked, “What did you do when you were a little boy?  Did you play with the Elves’ children?”

            Peredhrion shook his head, his warriors braids swinging, his expression rather sad.  “There have been no children born in the vale of Imladris for over six hundred years as Men count time.  Elves must agree for a child to be conceived, and it can cost the father as much as the mother for the child to come to its birth, for the child draws as much upon the spirit of its father as it does the spirit and body of the mother.  There are few children conceived in times of uncertainty, not when the attention of those who would be parents must needs be focused on the welfare of their people and homes.

            “Master Elrond’s sons would play with me often enough when they were within the valley, much, I imagine, as do much older brothers or uncles of mortal children, teaching me to follow a trail and to look at all that was around me, and sometimes teaching me to use my imagination to plan how I would sneak past a dragon or hunt fabulous beasts.  But they were often away upon patrol or seeking out orcs and brigands who haunt the mountain passes or trolls come down from the Ettenmoors.  So, when I must play by myself I would pretend I had brothers, and together we would hunt great cats in the gardens or plan raids on pirates’ fortresses.  Sometimes when I was very small I would pretend to save the princess in the great tower, and my nana would be the princess and perhaps Elladan would be the wicked enchanter who held her prisoner.  But I had little time to play at such things once I was old enough for lessons.  I learned something, it seemed, from each and every Elf within the valley.  I began practicing with a wooden sword when I was still very small, learning how to carry it, how to draw and sheathe it, and how to hold it properly, what stances I must use.  I must learn to read and to write, and to understand what it was that I read.  I must learn how to keep proper records.  I learned how to care for my pony from those who kept the stable, and how to care for my cat from Elladan and Elrohir.  I learned to work with the hunting hounds from those who worked in the kennel, and how to fly a hawk from those who saw to the mews.  I began to study how to care for common wounds from the first time I chanced upon the Healing Wing, and often worked in the healers’ garden alongside m-Master Elrond himself and the other healers, learning to tell the plants and how to care for them, and how to harvest and prepare each properly for use by the cooks or with those who might come to us for healing.

            “Some days I would work in the scriptorium, copying texts and books or learning to conserve scrolls of lore.  Other days I would help those who worked the farmlands, laboring alongside those who planted and harvested the grains and foods we depended upon.  I learned to hunt, and how to serve at table.  I learned the histories of the Elves, Men, and Dwarves who have dwelt in Middle Earth.  I learned how to construct and string a harp, although I do not have one now, and how to blow upon the pipes.  Sometimes I was expected to sing or to chant rhymes of lore in the Hall of Fire in the evenings, or to play with other musicians.  But my best musical skill lies in my singing rather than skill with any instrument.  My mother wished for me to learn to dance, but there seemed not to be time for that, considering how much else there was to learn and master.”

            The young Men all appeared to be impressed by the rigors of Peredhrion’s education.  So when he asked Berevrion how he spent his time as a child, the younger trainee shrugged as if embarrassed to say, “I had lessons, yes; and I was required to study Sindarin as well as Westron and Adûnaic.  But it seemed mostly I must see to those chores assigned to me.  I worked in the stables and the herding grounds with the horses and ponies alongside my father and brothers and sisters.  I learned to ride when I was perhaps five years old.  My pony was named Pererohir—it was named by my older brother, and I fear Beregil had no true imagination when it came to naming any beast.”

            “Was it the front or rear half of the creature you rode?” jested Finwë.

            Berevrion gave him a wry smile before continuing, “We also work in the fields, and mostly my sisters keep the gardens.  It was my job primarily to bring in wood for the fires, and Beregil was tasked with seeing to it that there was always fresh water on hand.  When we have free time we often play kick-the-ball in the fields where we have no crops growing.  But we always have to watch for enemies, who come mostly from the north, from the remnants of Angmar.  Part of the reason I was chosen to go upon this mission was because the last time they came I managed to kill two of the raiders with my bow, after they slew Beregil.”

            The other youths gave whistles and words of compassion and appreciation.  Death of friends and family from raids by orcs, trolls, and evil Men were too common an occurrence in the lives of them all.

            Peredhrion laid a hand on the shoulder of his younger companion, and they nodded their mutual recognition of the types of loss they had in common, including the loss of innocence at a young age.

            After several minutes of quiet thought throughout the group, Malvegern cleared his throat.  “We shall be riding out early, perhaps just before dawn.  You had best see to it that you are all well prepared for the morrow’s needs.  Dirigil and Orominion, see to it that you have new laces in your boots—it will not do to have to stop tomorrow should the worn ones each of you had to knot together today break.”

            Dirigil smiled, “I shall do so right away.”

            Orominion merely shrugged, although he had trouble hiding a smirk.  It was not long before the source of that smirk became obvious to all, when Dirigil, going through his pack, held up a single cord and cried out, “Someone has taken one of my spare laces!”

            Most of the young Men had leather laces that were undyed, and certainly earlier in the day when Orominion’s bootlace broke his had been similarly tan.  The lace Dirigil held up was dyed black, however, while now Orominion wore one lace that was light brown and the other dark as an orc’s blood.  “Why did you take one of my laces?” Dirigil demanded.

            “You only broke one of yours today, and I didn’t have a spare,” Orominion said as if that explained all.

            Baerdion, Malvegern, and Túrin exchanged despairing glances.  “It may be true,” Malvegern noted, “he does not need two new laces at this point, but that does not give you the right to take one of his without asking.  And why did you not bring extra laces?  Was it not written on the letter your parents received when you were accepted to this patrol that you should be so equipped?”

            Orominion’s smirk disappeared, his expression now sullen.  “We are not wealthy, those in my family.  It took a good deal to get me the equipment I carry.  There was nothing left over for extra laces.”

            Túrin sighed.  “Then you ought to have applied to me rather than to go into someone else’s pack, Orominion.  I carry such things, you should realize.  I am, after all, quartermaster for this patrol.”

            Orominion gave an elaborate shrug and turned away.  It was the first time it was noticed that Orominion freely “borrowed” from his fellows and thought nothing of the practice.

 *******

            Two days later a gang of six ruffians was found attacking a farm, and the recruits quickly had them captured.  For two days they quick-marched their prisoners until they came to one of the villages inhabited by the Dúnedain, where they happily released the lawless Men into the keeping of the locals, who would see them brought before Lord Halbaleg for judgment.  That night as the recruits rested around their campfire the discussion turned to what might have happened had the ruffians been more willing to fight them.

            “I don’t know if I could have borne to kill a Man,” one of the eighteen-year-olds said.

            Finwë asked, “How many besides Berevrion have had to fight Men?”

            Six hands went up.  Peredhrion did not raise his.  One of those who raised his hand was Varadorn.

            Finwë continued, “How many have seen a Man die?”

            Almost everyone raised his hand this time.  Only Bregorn and two of the eighteen-year-olds had been spared the experience.  They looked at Peredhrion, and Finwë asked, “When did you see a Man die?”

            “The first time it was a woman.  The sons of Elrond were riding with the Dúnedain a few years ago, and as the patrol passed a farmstead not far east of Amon Sûl they were hailed by the farmer, who asked if there was a healer amongst them.  His wife had given birth to a son, but by nightfall the child died in obvious pain, and by the next evening his wife also was very ill, and the midwife had told him there was nothing further she could do.

            “Elladan and Elrohir did what they could for her, but agreed that there was little chance for her to survive, although they hoped that perhaps their father could do more.  They took turns carrying her before them as they returned to the Last Homely House, and she was brought to the Healers Wing.  But all that could be done for her by then was to ease her pain that she might die more comfortably—it was too late to undo the damage done.  M-Master Elrond said that it was the fault of the midwife, who had not cleansed her hands, her instruments, or the bedding properly, and the womb became infected.  The babe was infected as it was born and thus could not live without special treatment that the midwife could not give it, and now the infection had spread throughout the mother’s body and she had not the strength any longer to recover.

            “Another time one of the Elves found a wounded Man who had been set upon by highwaymen and left for dead upon the East Road.  He had been struck repeatedly upon the head, and again it had been too long since he was injured for him to recover.  He did finally wake and spoke with me, and the sons of Elrond were able to find those who attacked him and brought them before our—their father, who saw them properly punished.  I held his hand as he quitted the body, and I was glad that he did not appear to be afraid.”

            He was quiet for a time before adding, “I have also seen Elves in our patrols die twice.  One was cut off by a number of orcs who set upon him in particular, while another was taken by an arrow to his chest that severed the great arteries.  Each time we took great vengeance upon the orcs who beset us.”

            “So you have killed orcs before this patrol.”

            “Yes.”  There was no change in his expression to indicate whether he felt good or bad or indifferent about killing orcs—the feeling the others got was that it was simply something that had needed doing at the moment, so he and those with him had merely done what was necessary.

            Orominion’s face twisted.  “I have no love of orcs, and will kill all I ever encounter.”

            Peredhrion shrugged.  “To kill is an evil in itself, but is too oft necessary to save what is worth seeing preserved.  And certainly orcs were twisted to love destruction more than any other thing.”  He met Orominion’s eyes and gave a shrug of his shoulders.  “I know that someday I must face Men in battle, and I do not look forward to that day.  But, when Men take on the nature of orcs….”  He let the sentence go unfinished.

            Malvegern said quietly, “When the time comes, I am certain that you will discern rightly whether or not the Men you face are intent on killing you and those you are bound to protect and that you will choose to do what is necessary.  But certainly you are right---sometimes Men indeed do take on the nature of orcs, and because they have chosen destruction they must be stopped however it must be done.  But it does not do to dwell on what has not happened as yet, save to be prepared when it confronts one; and when the time does come that you must fight other Men, you will need to accept that since it was inevitable that such things will happen from time to time, you cannot hold guilt to yourself, but must go on with life as it ought to be lived while it is yet with you.”

            Peredhrion gave a slight nod, a small, sad smile lightening his expression.  “When that day comes, it will come,” he responded. 

            So saying, he rose from the group, beckoned Nardir to him, and set about checking the state of healing of his wound.  Berevrion set himself to washing his stockings, something he did whenever he had the chance to do so, having told the others that his mother had enjoined him to watch the health of his feet in especial, and the others prepared for the night’s rest.

            In the morning one of the pairs of stockings Berevrion had so carefully cleaned was missing, and were found on Orominion’s feet, Orominion having neglected to realize his own needed to be cleaned.  The young Man said that he was sorry, but somehow the others were not convinced he truly meant it.

For IgnobleBard and LaPrime's birthdays.  

Danger

            Baerdion shook his head as he considered the trainee standing before him.  “You cannot continue to borrow other people’s things, Orominion.  This time it was all I could do to restrain Finwë from blacking your eye at the very least after you took his spare shirt.”

            “Why does it bother them so?” the young Man demanded.  “It does not bother my brothers when I borrow from them!”

            Baerdion’s brow rose.  “Is this indeed how it is with your family, Orominion?  I know that my older brother took great exception to me even touching anything that he thought of as his.”

            Shaking his head, Orominion ignored what their mentor said.  “And are we not to consider ourselves brothers-in-arms?  Why do they begrudge sharing with those who have less than they?”

            “Less than they?” the Man returned, not certain he’d heard aright.  “But I have counted at least five shirts that you brought with you, while Finwë has but three with him.  It appears that if your own things are not fit to wear it is then that other people are judged to have more than you.”

            At that moment Nardir returned to the encampment at a run.  “To the east!” he gasped.  “There is a dust cloud to our east!”

            Orominion was forgotten as Turin hurried over to hear the youth’s news.  “A cloud of dust?” the quartermaster asked.  “And where is Peredhrion?”

            “He remained behind so as to keep an eye on their movement.  He does not believe it is orcs, as they will not usually move when the Sun is bright.  But it may be either a party of traders or of raiders.  He says that the cloud of dust appears to be due to the movement of wagons.”

            Baerdion and Túrin exchanged looks.  “Wagons are not used by orcs,” Baerdion said, “and are seldom used by Elves, so again this indicates that those who come this way are more likely Men, or possibly Dwarves.  But Dwarves seldom leave proper roads with their wagons, and we are far from the East Road here.  We will be cautious, then.”  He sent Túrin off to warn Malvegern, and gathered the young recruits together to advise them regarding the approaching wagons.

            “Not Dwarves,” Finwë murmured to Orominion and Varadorn, who crouched beside him in the brushy borders to the faint track the Men approaching them used.

            “Not from the Breelands, either,” Varadorn whispered, his expression grim.

            The whisper was passed down the line from Túrin, “Dunlendings!”  All of the recruits in this group straightened, and most touched the hilts of their swords to assure themselves that their weapons could be easily drawn when the time came.  The Men of Dunland had a reputation for being fierce enough in a fight, although they were usually not as well trained in swordcraft as were the warriors of the Dúnedain.

            There was the sound of cursing from down where Túrin knelt, and now the word was passed from youth to youth, “Beware—that is a power bow.  They are not particularly accurate from a distance, but they can be deadly.”

            There were eight mounted Men and two on the wagon’s bench.  At least one of the riders held what appeared to most of the recruits to be a child-sized bow mounted somehow upon a stick, as did the one sitting next to the wagon’s driver.  Most of the young warriors in training were now peering at the odd weapons, hoping to make sense of their configuration before the strange Men came close enough to pose a real threat to them.

            One of the eighteen-year-olds commented in a low voice, “I wonder if Peredhrion has seen such weapons before?”

            Nardir replied, “I suppose we shall soon learn the answer to that.”

            There was a short shared laugh amongst them, one last release of the tension building within them as the Dunlendings came closer.

            Suddenly Baerdion stepped out of the trees opposite Nardir, his longbow ready and an arrow nocked to the string.  “Hold!” he commanded, his voice ringing in the clear air.

            The rider with the strange bow raised it, laying a odd looking dart upon the stick by which he held it, but before he could do more he let go of his weapon, an arrow having transfixed his shoulder.  When another arrow struck the wooden bench of the wagon by his hand, the second archer cried out in surprise, and his bow also fell to the ground.  Its dart, however, flew faster than the young Dúnedain had expected, and sank its point deeply into the trunk of the tree behind which Berevrion crouched.  Had it hit him….

            “Hold!” Baerdion said once more, following it with the same command in several different languages.  The horses pulling the wagon bucked and tried vainly to rear, at which Berevrion ran forward to capture the headgear of the animal closest to him to calm it. 

            There were too many arrows aimed their way for the intruders to ignore, and soon all had their hands raised, and Túrin and Malvegern went forward to see them all disarmed and forced to dismount.  Peredhrion and Finwë were set to seeing the arrow wound suffered by the one Man dealt with, and soon he found himself, with his arm bound across his chest, sitting on a log alongside his fellows while the young defenders went through the contents of the wagon.

            “There are many sacks of grain under a tarp toward the front, and weapons in the back,” Nardir reported to their mentors.  “And two barrels of what appears to be smoked pork.”

            “The grain is barley and wheat,” added Bregorn.

            “Neither of which grows easily in the hills of Dunland,” Malvegern commented.  “Are they trading weapons for grain, I wonder?”  His tone of voice made it clear he suspected that the weapons were indeed used in obtaining the grain, but not in trade.

            “But these are but boys!” one of their captives commented in heavily accented Westron.  “We ought to have been able to take them easily!”

            Baerdion gave a feral smile.  “These may be young, but they are swiftly becoming seasoned, and more than one has fought successfully against enemies before coming on this patrol.  You would not find any of them as easy to overcome as you appear to believe, my friend.”

            The Dunlending spat.  “I am no friend to you or yours,” he growled.

            “Nor to the farmer from whom you took this, I suspect,” Peredhrion said, raising a particularly fine sickle he’d found amongst the weapons.

           “Nor his wife, from whom you most likely took these,” Túrin added grimly, pulling from a small bag he’d found beneath the wagon seat a pair of gold earrings, perhaps once the only treasure owned by the wife of a Man who’d taken land in the wild to farm. 

            They bound the intruders and aided most to mount their own horses, only to tie their feet together under their steeds’ barrels.  With the wounded Man and the former driver loaded in the wagon and the others each on leading strings behind one of their captors, they headed toward the site where they were to rendezvous with another patrol within the next two days.  As they rode the youths took turns examining the power bows taken from the Dunlendings, taking note of the manner in which the bows were mounted upon their stocks and the way in which strings were winched back to give the darts used in them greater force once the strings were loosed.

            “They are ugly weapons,” Dirigil commented, “but I suspect that they are most effective.”

            “They can easily pierce a Man’s skull, or that of a troll, even,” affirmed Malvegern.  “But they are not particularly accurate over any real distance.  Had Berevrion been struck by the one dart that was loosed in our attack on them it is likely it would have gone clear through his body.  As it was, we did not bother to recover it from the tree, as it is buried too deeply to easily remove, and it would be useless to try to use it again.”  He turned to look more closely at Peredhrion as they rode.  “Have you had the chance to see such things before, growing up as you have in Lord Elrond’s halls?”

            “I have seen a few, and was permitted to handle one recently taken from Men routed in Rhudaur,” he answered.  “Elladan and Elrohir described them much as you have.  I was allowed to fire the weapon to get the feel for it, but they did not allow me to pull the string to its greatest tension, for they said that it could easily be pulled apart by its own stresses.  They told me that it was not the best of such weapons they had ever taken.”

            “It is good that at least one of you has had the chance to handle such things, and the Twins are correct as always in their evaluation of the power bows.  Know this—the more complicated the weapon, the more easily it can break down during use, and the greater the danger it poses to its own wielder should it do so.”

            This was advice the young Men were to remember always, and Halbarad saw that his unacknowledged cousin was nodding as he filed the information away in his mind to ponder further when time allowed.

The Demands of Seniority

            Halbaleg was sitting in his wife’s solar, reading to her and their daughter, when his second son, Halladan, entered and leaned down to report, “I am sorry to interrupt you, Papa, but Grandfather Dírhael has arrived and is pausing only to visit the water closet before he joins you and Mama.”

            The Steward of the Northern Dúnedain felt his jaw tighten.  His father had not been pleased to learn that he had been denied the knowledge that his daughter’s son Aragorn had indeed survived the illness most had believed had left him dead when he was so very young, only days after word came that the child’s father had been slain by orcs.  For years he had believed that his daughter had been so overborne by the double grief of the deaths of both her husband and her child that she had fled life among her own people so as to avoid reminders of her terrible loss.  Now he realized that it had all been a ruse, and no matter how needful that artifice might have been in order to protect the boy, Dírhael felt as if he had been needlessly deprived of information that was due to him both as the child’s grandfather and as one of the patriarchs of their people.

            Halbaleg slipped the ribbon marker into the book to mark his place and set the volume on the small table beside his chair.  He rubbed at his temple.  It was not going to be an easy interview, he knew.  However he might sympathize with his father, there simply had been no other choice at the time.  Catching his wife Anneth’s concerned gaze upon him, he gave her a wry smile.  “You had perhaps best not linger long, beloved,” he murmured, to which she nodded.

            Then Dírhael was entering the solar, and Halbaleg, his wife and their daughter all rose to greet him. 

            “Daeradar!” Eliessë said, running to him and throwing her arms about his waist.  “Where is Daernana?”

            “She went to Fornost with your uncle Sedras.  They intend to see it made habitable once more.  And since when do you greet me in Sindarin, child?”

            She smiled up at him ingenuously.  “Peredhrion speaks Sindarin, and it sounds so elegant!  Don’t you like Sindarin, Grandpapa?”

            Dírhael gave his son a questioning look.  “Peredhrion?” he asked.

            Halbaleg shrugged.  “It is what he chooses to call himself for now, now while he learns about our people.”

            Eliessë tugged at her grandfather’s sleeve, wanting to draw his attention.  “Don’t you like it when I speak Sindarin, Grandpapa?  Peredhrion says I have a lovely accent.”

            Anneth, ignoring her daughter, was demanding, “Is it truly safe for Mother Ivorwen to go so far, all the way to the ruined fortress?  What if raiders come south from Angmar?  We don’t need Fornost reopened, surely?”

            With an almost desperate laugh, Dírhael focused on his son’s wife first.  “After the heavy drubbing the forces of Angmar received at our hands last fall, it is unlikely that they will seek to attack us now, Anneth, and particularly not so far west of the Angle.  I assure you that Ivorwen and your brother and those with them will be safe enough—for now, at least.

            “As for you, granddaughter, I must say that I, too, find your accent pleasant when you speak Sindarin, and I am proud that you are attending to your studies so closely.  However, I need to speak with your father and would appreciate it if you would please leave us for the moment.  We will send for you when we are done with our talk, and you and I will speak in Sindarin for the rest of the evening if it should please you.”

            Only half mollified, the girl left the room, followed by Halladan at a nod from their father.

            Dírhael did not have a chance to speak before Anneth again was importuning him.  “But why is there a sudden interest in doing reconstruction at Fornost, Father Dírhael?”

             He sighed as he looked into her eyes.  “He has come back to us, Anneth.  He has returned with all of his promise.  Shall we not now do what we can to prepare for the return of the King to that estate?  If all goes as we pray that it will, the Kingdom of Arnor will be restored, and he shall be King of the South Kingdom as well.  Arnor and Gondor shall once again be united under one rule as had been intended by our great-fathers, Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion.  Are we to wait until all of the prophecies are fulfilled, and leave him with nothing of worth here in the north for him to claim as his kingdom?”

            She looked down.  “Gilraen has allowed her son to return to us, yes.  But,” she said more challengingly, meeting his eyes directly, “he is not King yet and may not come to that estate for many years—if the prophecies are indeed fulfilled.  Our enemies are many, and come against us from all sides.  He, too, may not live more than a few years before he dies as did his father and grandfather before him, having lived only as our Chieftain as has been true of so many generations of the Heirs to Isildur.  Can we afford to restore old ruins when our communities are few and so often vulnerable to destruction by orcs and other enemies?”

            It was her husband who answered her rather than his father.  “It is for this reason, to prove to himself and our people that he can meet our needs to protect and lead us, that he has gone on the training patrol with the others learning to serve as our warriors and guardians.  We already receive word that he is the warrior that he was proclaimed by Elrond’s son, and that he is winning the respect of the other recruits as a result of his skills with both weapons and with the healer’s knife.  The healer with Iorvas’s patrol has praised him for the way in which he has dealt with what could have been a crippling wound to one of his comrades.”

              Dírhael was searching his face.  “Then—then he has already begun to show forth the King’s gift of healing?”

            “Yes, Papa, he shows the King’s gift of healing.  Young Nardir took a serious wound to his shoulder, but was already far upon the path to recovery when he was seen by Lendiras.  Lendiras left Nardir with the patrol, considering that he showed such renewed strength.  But he says that without the services of Peredhrion that Nardir would have most likely lost the arm completely, or at the very least it would have been almost totally useless to him.  And others have spoken of how much care he has shown to all of them for their wellbeing.”

            Dírhael was smiling.  “Then perhaps he shall be as the prophecies have foretold, and the two kingdoms shall be reunited!”  His gaze sharpened.  “But Halbarad also shows a talent toward healing.  It is small, I know----”

            Halbaleg gave a wry smile.  “Many within what remains of the North Kingdom show some remnants of the King’s healing hands, Papa.  But what—what Aragorn shows forth is the full gift, and has been properly trained by the teaching of Elrond and his sons.  He shall be for us the full healer our Kings ever were.”

            “Does he show forth any of the other gifts common to the Kings of our people?” Dírhael asked.

            “There is no question that he is gifted with languages, for as Elrond’s son said when he returned him to us he is fluent in Sindarin, Quenya, Adûnaic, and Westron.  According to the report we received from Iorvas, Malvegern told him that Peredhrion does not look down upon the others, but also does not allow them to take undue liberties with him.  They were not fully welcoming of him when they learned he was to be as one of them, but they are coming to accept his greater skill in tracking and in anticipating the actions of enemies as being advantageous to them all, and honor him for his abilities as a healer, now that he has proven himself.  He does not boast idly, nor does he put himself forward unless directed by Malvegern or Baerdion.  He listens to others, and offers honest praise when it is due, and increasingly the others are drawn to listen to him.  In short, he indicates he will prove a good leader.  And he certainly has proved he has a way with beasts as well, considering the manner in which he has gained mastery over the steed he was given.”

            “But why did you send him out upon a patrol?  We could be teaching him the ways and customs of our people.  You saw him upon Amon Sûl—he appears a very Elven warrior, at least until you look into his eyes.  But we need him to be a leader of Men, not of Elves.”

            “He desired to reenter the life of our people in this way, Papa.  He argued with all of us—Malvegern, Baerdion, and me—that he needs to find his place first with those who will be his captains when they go out upon the field, with those who will in turn lead those of our people they know best.  He does not wish to be introduced back into the remnants of Arnor as the Chieftain with no one certain he is able to serve the Dúnedain as we need to be served.”

            “Is this Elrond’s plan for him, then?” Dírhael demanded.

            But Halbaleg was already shaking his head.  “No, Papa.  He insists that this has been strictly his own decision.  He asked his mother how it is that those among our people come to be accepted as adults, and she told them that usually it is after our young Men have either finished an apprenticeship in a craft or they have completed training as Rangers.  As he seeks to enter our people, he considers it best that he should do as the other young Men do, and that he should complete a training patrol.  He said that he was convinced this was necessary when he learned that his father and both grandfathers had done so in their own youth.  So, although he has completed an apprenticeship with the healers of Imladris and has accompanied patrols guarding the vale for the past five years, he still felt it necessary to do what is expected of our other young Men so that none should question that he is capable of protecting our lands and people.  After that he is willing to follow at your side and mine to learn more of our ways and the manner in which our people are ruled.  Not that he is likely to prove ignorant in matters of rule, having been raised by Lord Elrond.”

            Dírhael sighed and looked up at the ceiling to the room.  “I hope that this proves wise, as it is too late now to go out and bring him back.”

            “True,” agreed his son.

            After a moment’s additional thought, Dírhael added, “And I hope that the others will not give him too much grief.  Do any of them know who he is?”

            “Only Halbarad knows of all of the youths.  He, Malvegern, Baerdion, and Túrin have all taken an oath not to tell the others who he is.  Lendiras only realized his true identity as a result of seeing how swiftly and how well Nardir was recovering from the wound he took.  Peredhrion indicated he would admit to his real name and station only when he deemed the others were ready to know.”

            Dírhael sighed.  “The word will be spreading throughout our lands that he is actually alive and has returned to us.  It will be ironic, don’t you think, if it is those who are with him who realize last who he truly is.”

            Halbaleg smiled.  “Indeed, Papa.  Shall we summon the children to return, do you think?”

For the birthdays of Armariel, Ansostuff, Ellyn, Xhebepiv, and Maniac 1, and to honor that of Aragorn son of Arathorn.

Three Days’ Work

            It was good to be rid of the Dunlendings, all agreed.  The patrol that accepted them reported that at least six farms had been raided by this group, and Lord Halbaleg was eager to see them dealt with appropriately.  These had broken away from a larger raiding party that had been captured not far south of Amon Sûl, and were apparently seeking to rejoin their fellows when taken by Malvegern’s patrol.  Each of the young Men under Malvegern’s governance was praised by the more experienced Rangers, but all noted that Peredhrion’s presence excited surprise and quiet—and private—talk and speculation among the older Men before the two patrols parted company.

            Four days later they found themselves outside a newer settlement that a few Dúnedain families were struggling to see grow successfully.  A double handful of small timber-framed houses were clustered around a larger, rough-hewn hall within a wall constructed of tree trunks with sharpened tops, each dwelling surrounded by herb and vegetable gardens, with tilled fields outside the walls and a small herd of kine inside a railed fence.  Land had been cleared for at least a furlong or two in each direction so that newcomers could be seen approaching and appropriate welcomes could be prepared before they could pose a threat.

            Rain had pounded the new settlement, turning the rough road leading to it into a quagmire of black mud.  The sky was now clear, but none of their mounts liked the surface underfoot as they neared the gates to the tiny village.  Even Peredhrion had to speak to his horse, although none could tell what he said, for it was spoken in Quenya directly into the ear of the creature.  Carniaxo flicked his ear back as if listening, then shook his head, his ears flapping audibly for a moment, but he steadied, and his rider patted his neck.

            Halbarad, who followed Peredhrion closely on his left flank, tapped the taller youth on the arm and indicated Berevrion, who was closer to the beginning of the column.  Berevrion’s horse was picking up each hoof in an exaggerated manner, fastidiously shaking off as much mud as it could before stepping forward, its neck arched, snorting with obvious disgust with each step.  Nardir, who rode slightly ahead and to the right of Peredhrion, looked back, his freckled face smiling.  “Looks as if the horse is trying to dance,” he said, amusement clear in his voice.

            “Looks as if it’s been taking lessons from my older sister Arien,” commented one of the other youths, and those near enough to hear all laughed good naturedly.

            Men could be seen gathering up on the walkway near the top of the palisade.  One of them gestured toward those on the ground, and the gate began to creak open.  Obviously they were expected, and welcome to enter the village.  Even Berevrion’s horse began to move forward more rapidly.

            The Man who’d gestured to see the gates opened disappeared from view, and was waiting for them just inside the gates as the troop of young Men reached it.  He looked out at them, and fastened his attention on Malvegern.  “Well, you have come in good time, Malvegern, Baerdion.  Enter and be welcome.  The women have been preparing a small feast ever since you were sighted by our outriders three hours since.  Ah, Túrin—it is good to see you!  Come, you and your recruits.  I suspect we will have good use for what aid you can give us on the morrow.”

            They were brought to the larger structure that served as both a meeting hall and as a sleeping place for visitors to the village.  Straw mattresses were stacked in a corner, and there were a number of wooden horses generally used to support trestle tables on either side of the doors, and rough benches against the walls.  A small fire blazed in the fire-pit that ran down the center of the room, and they were advised that this would be open to them all during their stay.  Several older boys offered to see to the horses, and although a few of the trainees followed Orominion’s lead in surrendering their animals to the boys’ care, the rest followed Peredhrion, Halbarad, and Berevrion out to settle their own steeds.

            One of the village boys was looking Peredhrion up and down surreptitiously as each brushed his charge.  At last he said, “My papa says that you are dressed Elf-fashion.  Why?”

            Peredhrion shrugged and gave a half smile.  “I was raised amongst the Elves, and this is how I saw people dress all my life.  I find Men’s dress to be odd, although I admit I’m now becoming more accustomed to it.”

            “Why were you raised amongst the Elves?”

            The young Man’s expression became more thoughtful.  “My father was killed when I was very small, and when they came to tell my mother of his death they found that both she and I were very ill.  So, the sons of Elrond took us to their father’s house so that we might be healed.  Afterward we simply did not return.  I only learned my father’s name in the early spring, and it was decided that I should return to our people to live.  My mother intends to return, also, but wished for me to find my own place amongst our own before she follows me.”

            Berevrion, apparently unnoted by Peredhrion, straightened, his eyes immediately looking toward Halbarad as if asking an unspoken question.  Halbarad did his best to remain impassive.  It was the first his lord cousin had mentioned about the possible return of his mother to their people.

            “What’s your name?” the boy asked.

            A gentle, endearing smile.  “You may call me Peredhrion, as do these others.  But as a child amongst the Elves I was called Estel.”

            The boy’s brows rose.  “Estel?  They named you for the stars?”

            Peredhrion laughed.  “For the stars?  No!  In Sindarin and Quenya estel means hope, the hope known not through reason but through the offices of your fëa, or spirit.”

            Nardir asked, “But why did they name you Hope?”

The older youth shrugged once more.  “Perhaps because I lived in spite of that illness, while my father died.  The Elves of Imladris appear to have held a good deal of respect for him.  But perhaps it was mostly to impress upon my mother that she should not allow herself to fade to follow him betimes.  I doubt that she has ever given over mourning his loss to her company.  She loved him most dearly—that is plain to all who know her, for all she can barely bring herself to speak of him.”

            Halbarad let his eyes slide sideways toward Berevrion, who had returned his attention to his horse’s mane, but who was still giving little looks at Peredhrion from time to time over his steed’s neck.  He’s realizing who this truly is, Halbarad thought, and returned his own attention to the mud he was picking out of the frog of his horse’s near hoof.

            All came to the hall for the evening meal, and it did appear to be a feast indeed.  While they ate news was shared.  The wagonload of Dunlendings they’d captured had been seen by the Men of the village, but had ridden away when they became aware they were being watched and had given no trouble.  The harvest last year had been barely adequate for their needs, but they’d been able to trade skins from animals killed and trapped for what stores they’d not been able to produce for themselves.  So far things looked better for this year, but only if there wasn’t another driving rain such as had been known in the past few days.  Another family had joined the village this year, and one child had been born in the past seven months.  Traders had brought them three new books, so there was more for the children to study in their lessons.

            Peredhrion was listening with interest, and both Malvegern and Baerdion were watching the young Man with smiles of approval, Halbarad noted.  He realized that his lord cousin was doing just what they felt their Chieftain should do in his circumstances—listen and learn as well as he could. 

            Most of the villagers gave the young Men little heed, save, perhaps, to size them up in order to judge just how much help each might prove in the coming days.  For the next three days the young Rangers in training were to assist the villagers here in completing projects that would be needed ere the summer waned, for once harvesting began there would be but little time for finishing walls or making certain that the roads would remain passable once the autumn rains came.  “And considering how bad the road is now,” Finwë confided to his fellows, “just imagine how bad it would be when the weather changes in earnest.”

            The rest nodded their agreement.

            But Peredhrion’s dress and stance managed to attract attention once the meal was over and all began to mingle and talk.  One of the seventeen-year-olds was a kinsman to the headman of this village, and several who knew him gathered about him to share their greetings—and more than one question posed to him involved a glance or gesture Peredhrion’s way.  It quickly became obvious to Halbarad that the youth’s answers were judged inadequate, and three of that group drew away from the others to carry on a quiet yet spirited discussion of their own.  They then descended upon Baerdion, who pointedly refused to answer their questions, finally giving them a low-voiced dismissal that sent them scurrying across the hall.  There they were joined by an older lady that Halbarad felt he might have known when he was younger, and after speaking with them for quite some time, she approached the young recruit known to the villagers and spoke a while with him before nodding and bidding him a quiet and restful night. 

            “Are they ever going to leave us to our rest?” muttered Peredhrion into Halbarad’s ear.  “I had quite a long watch last night and feel as if I could sleep for a week.”

            “Are you perhaps feeling as if there were too many people here within the hall?” Halbarad asked.

            His cousin gave the slightest of nods of agreement.  “I find myself trying to watch each of them, but cannot yet predict where they might move next.  There is so much confusion.”

            “And this is but a small village.  Wait until you must deal with a feast in the hall of my father’s Keep!”

            He noted that Peredhrion gave a barely contained shudder.  “I do not know if I am ready for such an event,” he said softly.

            It was at that moment that the older woman Halbarad had been watching brushed against Peredhrion oh, so gently, then turned in artless apology.   “Oh, but please forgive me!  I fear I was not looking where my feet were taking me.”  She stopped as if she were only now aware of whom it was she’d bumped up against.  “Oh, but you are the one I am told is called Peredhrion, and that you were raised amongst the Elves of Imladris.  Is that true?  Oh, but how interesting!”

            Does he realize that this is all but a great show? Halbarad wondered.

            The woman continued to gush.  “I visited Lord Elrond’s home many years since, when I was but a girl.  I had a growth upon my arm that he removed that it not become the crab sickness.  He is indeed a great healer, the greatest of all within Middle Earth, or so it is said.”

            Peredhrion bent his head politely, responding, “Yes, so I have been told, also.”

            “And it is told me that he trained you in healing as well?”

            On the young Man’s nod of assent she continued, “Then I fear I must entreat you to come with me to see my father.  He did not come tonight—he says that he cannot bear being around too many people at a time, that it causes his joints to ache the more.”

            She knows how to engage his attention, Halbarad thought, watching his Lord Cousin’s gaze focus.

            “Are his joints swollen and distorted?” asked Peredhrion.

            “They are beginning to do that,” the woman answered.  “But mostly in the past few years cold and damp cause them to ache to the point he cannot easily rise to his feet or reach above the height of his shoulders.  If you could come, perhaps you could bathe them with an infusion of the King’s herb….”

            But Peredhrion merely looked blank at that suggestion, obviously not recognizing the herb she’d mentioned.

            “No matter,” she said.  “But if you will please come to him, I would be ever so grateful.  Please?”

            Peredhrion gave Halbarad a confused look as the woman took possession of his arm and drew him out of the hall.  Giving a sigh, Halbarad followed after, making certain his dagger was in place at his belt.  If she should prove an enemy, or her purported father….

            They walked down the lane to a house on the left that seemed somehow better constructed than the others, and she pushed open the carefully crafted door.  “Papa!” she called.  “If you can come out, we have a visitor!”

            They could hear movement in a room off to the left, and a querulous voice demanding, “Ercassë, why are you bringing guests here at this time of night?”  There was a series of uneven thumps, and at last the curtain that closed off the inner room was shoved aside by a wasted hand, and an aged Man emerged, leaning on a stick on both sides.

            “Oh, sweet Yavanna,” Halbarad muttered under his breath.  “It is Lord Iorgil.”  To his cousin’s confused look he added in a low whisper, “He was an advisor to Lord Arador, and he and my daeradar tend to argue—constantly!”

            The woman—Ercassë—was already speaking to her father.  “He lived amongst the Elves, and has been trained as a healer by Lord Elrond himself, Papa.  If he can soothe your joints----”

            Lord Iorgil was already shifting his attention from his daughter to the two young Men who’d accompanied her to his home.  His eyes grew wide, his mouth dropped open, and he paled.  “Arador!” he said.  It almost sounded like a cry, but with no volume to it.  He fumbled sideways to a straight chair that sat there, obviously placed there deliberately to give him a seat when he emerged from what was most likely his private chamber, and dropped heavily into it.  “Arador!  Brother of my heart!”

            Halbarad’s cousin’s eyes rolled upwards briefly, then looked upon the Man with compassion.  “No, Lord Iorgil, I am not your friend.  But if I can aid you----”

            The old Man’s eyes focused, and his color began to return as his mouth snapped shut.  “I see,” he said, eyeing the taller youth closely.  “But it is obvious that word of your death so long ago was—perhaps premature?”  He shifted his attention to Halbarad, and sighed.  “Welcome, Halbalegion,” he said.  “Why was I not told of this before?  Or,” he added thoughtfully as he returned his gaze to Peredhrion, “was this the subject of that meeting called at Amon Sûl at Midsummer?  It would appear I should have made more effort to get there.”

            “There is no way you could have gone so far, Papa!” objected Ercassë.  “What with your joints so inflamed, you could not have made it.  It would have most likely killed you to make such a journey?”

            “As if I’d not made similar journeys daily for years,” he growled at her.

            Peredhrion stifled a small laugh.  “I am certain you did indeed, my lord,” he said.  “But that was before your joints began to swell and twist, I am certain.”  He moved to lean forward over the older Man and pressed the back of his hand to Iorgil’s brow while examining the Man’s face and eyes.  “How long since the swelling of the joints began?”

            “Definitely healer trained,” grunted Iorgil.  “Five years and some months ago.”

            Peredhrion nodded absently as he now examined Iorgil’s right hand.  “What herbs have they given you for it?”

            He asked for the store of herbs in the house to be brought him, and these he examined as closely as he had Iorgil.  He opened a packet of parchment and smiled.  “Athelas!” he said.  “This will help.”

            “I thought you did not know the King’s herb,” the woman said, but when he asked, she went off to the lean-to kitchen at the back of the house to bring a kettle of steaming water and a basin and some cloths. 

            He poured the water into the basin, breathed upon the leaves and rolled them between his hands, softly singing an invocation for healing as he cast them into the water.

            Soon he had Iorgil divested of much of his clothing and with blankets pulled about him to ward off any errant breezes.  Carefully he bathed each joint, feeling deeply as he checked to see how much it could move without causing the old Man pain or discomfort, then having him lean forward so as to better check the spine and the neck. 

            While Peredhrion worked, Halbaleg had a good chance to inspect the house in which father and adult daughter lived.  It was a sound place and solidly constructed, but the wooden walls were roughly finished so far.  The front door had obviously been brought from elsewhere, and when barred would undoubtedly hold up against anyone seeking to force an entrance.  He was rather surprised that the cooking hearth was in a separate room, but perhaps that was simply Lord Iorgil’s idea of how a house should be arranged.  Iorgil had once commanded a keep of his own, but a flood some years ago had left sufficient destruction to the village the keep defended that he had given it over to his son and grandsons, declaring he would not live more comfortably than those of his people who had lost their homes.

            And now he was here with some of the villagers who had once depended upon him, seeking with them to start a new community where once a different village had stood.  Halbarad wished them luck in their endeavor!

            “Halbarad!”

            Halbarad was startled to hear his name called, and looked up to meet his cousin’s eyes.  “Then you haven’t gone to sleep on me with your eyes open,” commented Peredhrion.  “Please go back to the hall and fetch me my red healer’s bag from inside my personal bag.”

            “Yes,” Halbarad responded, feeling as if he had indeed just awakened.  “I will be right back.”

            He returned within moments to find both his cousin and Lady Ercassë leaning over Iorgil’s back, with the young Man supervising her as she performed a massage on her father’s shoulders.  “This,” Peredhrion explained as Halbarad closed the door after himself, “should allow his shoulders to relax and to feel better after he has been walking with his sticks.  It is best done while rubbing a soothing oil or balm into the skin.  Ah, Halbarad—thank you so!”  He turned to take the bag, and with a casual tug undid the complex knot that held the bag closed.  He rummaged through it until he came out with a jar of carved translucent stone stoppered with a wide piece of soft wood.  He opened the jar and dipped his fingers into it, then came forward to take over the massage, rubbing the fragrant balm from the jar into the muscles of the old Man’s shoulders.  Both Halbarad and the lady could see Iorgil’s muscles relax, his eyes close and his head tip back with a small smile of pleasure on his face.

            “That,” he murmured, “is the best my shoulders have felt in months!  Do not stop, young Man!”

            But in the end Peredhrion did stop and stepped back, turning to now cleanse his hands in the basin in which he had steeped the athelas.  Iorgil drew the blanket back around his shoulders as if it were a shawl, now eyeing the younger Man dressed Elf-style thoughtfully.  At last the old Man said, “So, Arador’s grandson still lives.  He and Arathorn would both be proud of you, I think.  And where is your mother, Aragorn, Arathorn’s son?”

            Aragorn shook his hands free of clinging drops.  “She remains in the house of Elrond for now.  She wished for me to find my own way back into our people’s regard.”

            “I was a friend and counselor to your grandfather, and an advisor to your father as well.  Why was I not advised you had not died after all?”

            Aragorn turned to look him in the eye.  “I am told that only seven who were likely to survive to see me return were advised of that, to stand witness when I was deemed old enough to take up my rightful role as the Dúnadan.  I was not even allowed to know my true name or heritage until last spring, when at last my foster father told me my father’s name and what is expected of me as Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain, as well as why he gave me the child’s name of Estel.  I assure you that you are not alone in having been allowed to think that I had died when still but a child.”

            Iorgil laughed, and his eyes were alight as he realized, “And your own grandfather did not know it, either?  How droll!”

            “He appeared most unhappy to realize he had not known that I recovered from the coma into which I’d sunk.”

            “So, why has it not been told abroad that you have returned to us?”

            Peredhrion—Aragorn—shrugged.  “I asked those who attended the meet at Amon Sûl not to speak of my return abroad until I had finished training as a Ranger amongst those who were to be trained this summer.  I wish to earn my place as an adult as is true of these, my fellow future protectors of our people.  To simply return as Chieftain of our folk without proving my ability to serve or protect I believe would be an insult to all.  And I need to know that I would even wish to serve as Chieftain to those I am intended to lead.”

            Iorgil examined him again from head to foot, and gave a twisted smile.  “Well enough, Arathorn’s son.  I would not have expected such wisdom from one so young, but if indeed Elrond saw to your raising I can see his wisdom in so advising you.”

            But the younger Man was shaking his head.  “This was my decision, as my—my Lord Elrond would not advise me one way or another, telling me that it was my duty and privilege to determine how I should introduce myself to the northern Dúnedain.”

            “And your mother did not tell you how you should rejoin our people, either?”

            “She answered my questions as to how our young Men proved themselves in the eyes of our people, but gave me little counsel beyond that.  And she told me she would give me time to prove myself to the Dúnedain and myself before she returned as well.”

            The old Man gave a thoughtful nod to his head.  “I see that she, too, garnered wisdom in Elrond’s house.  Well enough.  Then, Ercassë and I will also guard your secret until you choose to reveal yourself.  You understand that you are bound now, daughter, to keep secret his true identity?”

            Her eyes bright with excitement, Ercassë declared, “I so promise, Papa, my Lord Aragorn!”

            But the younger Man was shaking his head.  “Peredhrion—I am known now as Peredhrion, not yet by the name given me by my parents.”

            “I will keep my own counsel, Peredhrion,” she agreed, speaking the name slowly and carefully.

            The others were abed when they returned to the hall, and so Peredhrion and Halbaleg found themselves taking the two beds furthest from the doorway and fresh air.  Neither cared overmuch, and the taller youth stowed his healer’s bag in his personal satchel and fell onto the straw mattress left for him and was swiftly asleep.  A few were yet awake and asked low questions as to what Halbarad and his fellow had been doing, but Halbarad merely shook his head.  “Healer’s business,” he answered shortly, and the questions stopped.  Soon the hall was filled with the soft breathing and snores of the assembled youths, all glad they would not be called upon to serve on the night’s watch, and Halbarad found himself looking up at the dimly visible rafters, thinking on what his cousin had told first the boy in the stable and then the aged lord in his roughly built house.  What must it have been like to learn as Peredhrion—Aragorn—had who he was and what was expected of him?  To not know his own father’s name, much less his own true name, until he was declared a Man grown?  How confused his cousin must have felt! 

            It was past the middle of the night before he went to sleep himself.

            For three days the young Men labored alongside the Men of the village to finish a byre for the village’s cattle and a large barn intended for the storage of hay and grain, and on the afternoon of the third day they spread gravel over the road and trod upon it and dragged heavy flattened stones along its length to hopefully deter it returning to mud once it rained again.  A few had labored upon the log walls where until now there had been gaps. 

            “Good work!” declared the headman for the village when all was done.  “We thank you all for your aid, or I doubt not we would still be laboring once the time for harvest comes.”

            Many of the young recruits came to Peredhrion to have splinters removed, and Finwë had a scrape cleaned where he’d tumbled forward onto the gravel when it was his turn to drag the great grading stone.  They slept one last night in the long wooden hall, and Peredhrion went briefly, Halbarad knew, to see Iorgil once more before they quitted the village. 

Berevrion now rode near Peredhrion again, and he showed more deference to the tall, beardless youth than he’d shown before.  As for the young Man who was known to those of this village, he kept looking over his shoulder to where Peredhrion’s horse carried its master near the end of the column, unsure as to why so many who’d questioned him within the village had seemed quietly excited by the sight of the one who’d been raised amongst the Elves. 

            Halbarad merely watched the others and smiled to himself.  He wondered how long it would be before Aragorn son of Arathorn revealed himself to the rest, but was content for now to allow his cousin to keep his secret as he could.

For Inzilbeth, Elveses, Aliana, and Radbooks for their birthdays, and with special thanks to Radbooks for getting me interested in how Aragorn might have returned to the Dúnedain.

The Emergence of Leadership

            Halbarad still wasn’t certain what to think about the time they’d spent among Iorgil’s people.  He knew that word of the youth Peredhrion’s true identity and name must be spreading there for all of the secrecy his cousin had exacted of Iorgil and his daughter.

             They’d had an uneventful ten days after leaving the village.  The days had been hot and clear, and overhead the hawks had circled lazily for hours before dropping suddenly down upon some unsuspecting creature that had slipped out of its burrow for a breath of fresher air.  Even many of the biting insects that had been plaguing them and their horses for much of their patrol appeared to have been enervated by the now relentless heat, so that now it was primarily sweat that caused their itching and discomfort.

            “I could happily do with a good bath,” commented Dirigil, to which several others readily agreed.

            Varadorn pointed to a line of trees in the distance.  “Is that the line of a river?” he asked Baerdion.  “Perhaps we could bathe there.”

            They were not far from the Mitheithil, and Malvegern and Baerdion agreed that they might indeed camp near its banks and they could take turn bathing in it.

            “Oh, to be cool and cleansed of my own stink!” breathed Finwë, to which sentiment most of the others agreed wholeheartedly.

            But Peredhrion cautioned, “Do not so think of the relief that you let down your guard betimes.  There might be enemies even here, deep in lands you think safe.”

            Orominion groaned at such a warning.  “And why should we look out for an attack now, when we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of any enemy for so long?”

            Malvegern sniffed, “Perhaps precisely because it has been so long since we saw any such sign.  A wise Ranger never lets down his guard, for it’s too often when he does so that he’s struck from behind.”

            It took nearly an hour before they found a camping spot to the liking of their mentors, by which time many of the young Men were so anxious to cool down in the river they appeared willing to ignore all warnings to keep up their watch for danger.  Halbarad held his own impatience back by force of will, however, and when Peredhrion indicated he would be among the first to take the watch he indicated he would stand by the taller youth’s side, as did Berevrion.  Since he apparently realized Peredhrion’s true identity Berevrion was seldom far from the side of the young Man with the Elven braids. 

            “I wish I had a bow,” muttered Peredhrion.

            Túrin asked, “You are skilled with a bow?  I do have two or three amongst the stores should you wish one of them.”

            The side of Peredhrion’s mouth twitched.  “Raised amongst Elves, you think they would not train me with a bow?  It’s not my first weapon, but I am skilled enough to be at least competent, if with nowhere the aim of any Elf I know.”

            In moments Peredhrion and Halbarad were equipped with a bow and quiver of arrows each, and both were stringing their new weapons and checking the tension.

            “It is well made, although of a design with which I am unfamiliar.  Does it tend to pull one way or another?” Peredhrion asked.

            They quickly returned to the watch alongside Berevrion, Túrin joining them with his own bow, and after considering the area for a few moments, Peredhrion indicated to each of his fellows where it was he felt each would do best should they find themselves having to protect their bathing companions.

            Baerdion watched with interest, approving of the manner in which Peredhrion’s judgment was accepted as naturally by Berevrion and Halbarad—and Túrin—as was that of Malvegern or himself.  The young Man might still be perceived as an outsider and lacking in knowledge of the ways of the Dúnedain, but rarely now was his experience or knowledge questioned by the other recruits.  Peredhrion already knew that Berevrion was well skilled with a bow, so he was given the spot that offered the greatest coverage of the whole area, and it was much the same with Túrin.  He put Halbarad and himself in positions where they would not likely be in the crossfire of the other two and where, should an enemy show himself, they would have clear shots; but they would also be able to move swiftly to where their swords would do the most good, each being well skilled with their blades.

            Assured that their Elf-trained recruit had the protection of the others well in hand, Baerdion fetched his own bow and made certain that his sword was free in its sheath before joining the other four on guard.

            The bathers began retreating onto the bank within half an hour, some dressing and joining the watch but most lying lazily in the sunlight for a time.  “Orominion is snoring,” Finwë reported to Halbarad as he joined the watch, shaking his head half in admiration and half in disgust.  “And Dirigil has relieved him of the small clothes Orominion has been wearing the last few days, as they came from Dirigil and Brendor’s packs.”

            “Do you think he will ever learn better than to continue to ‘borrow’ from others?” Halbarad responded in low tones.

            Dirigil shrugged with a wry smile, but at that moment a number of birds rose with cries of alarm from trees near the path they’d taken to arrive here, and all turned to look.  Peredhrion rose briefly into view, pointed to Finwë and Halbarad, and gestured that they should move across the pathway swiftly to cover on the other side while Baerdion touched Damrod on the arm and led the boy quietly down toward the point of disturbance to do some reconnoitering. 

            It was not long before Damrod returned, reporting to Peredhrion.  “There are five young Men, all apparently from the Breelands, and apparently long-time friends.  They are after our horses, and are working themselves up to become violent if necessary in order to take them.  Baerdion stayed behind to keep watch on them, and said that you should direct the defense against them.”

            Peredhrion visibly winced, but nodded.  “Well enough, I suppose.  What kinds of weapons do they carry?”

            “Three have slings, all have knives, and one an ancient sword that is improperly sharpened.  He is the biggest and fancies himself the leader.”

            After considering for a moment, Peredhrion suggested, “Go back to that oak there where the river comes closest to the trail we followed in, and signal when they are close.  The call of a wood pigeon should do.”

            Damrod nodded, and slipped noiselessly off through the trees as directed.  Almost immediately they heard a pigeon’s call, and all stiffened into readiness.

            It was not long before the five strangers came into view, two with slings at the ready, cradling stones in the pockets held in the hollows of their hands, two each holding a knife, and the fifth with his hand on the hilt of his sword inexpertly thrust through his belt.  Looking at it, Halbarad felt himself cringe, imagining the damage the fool might do to himself seeking to draw the weapon with any rapidity.

            “Are you certain they’re near here?” one of the newcomers asked the tallest of his fellows.

            “You heard’em as them come by us,” came the answer.  “Not thinkin’ o’ nothin’ but gettin’ cooled off in the river, them was.”

            “Glad as us come the other way so them didn’t see our trail,” commented a third.

            “They got swords,” the first one said warningly.

            “And we got slings,” the leader answered.  “Can get them afore they get close enough for swords, and I’m even with’em on that count.”

            “I don’t like it none at all,” muttered the smallest of the five.  “Yes, we got slings and at least Abe an’ me’s good with’em.    But these’ve got the look o’ Rangers to’em, and ever’one knows as the Rangers is all good with those swords of theirs.”

            The leader gave a dismissive gesture.  “Too young t’be Rangers, them.”

            “And we’re too young t’be ruffians,” countered the smallest.  “Face it, Fry, we’re but lads ourselves.”

            “Don’t you be a-callin’ me no lad, Jimson Greenbriar,” the one called Fry answered.  “I amn’t no Hobbit!”

            “I know as you amn’t,” Jimson answered.  “Hobbits got more sense’n t’run off into the wilds to become ruffians just a’cause somebody was found dead.”

            “And they’re all a-thinkin’ as us was the ones as killed ol’ Gaffer Teasel,” Fry spat out.

            “But we didn’t!”

            “But them is thinkin’ as we did whether we done it or not,” another of the youths said.  “After all, Jimi, you was the one as come t’tell us what they was sayin’ t’home about it after we found ol’ Teasel dead and run off t’hide.”

            “And a’cause we all ran away, now they’re all certain as we done it,” Jimson muttered.  “And now we’re all wolfs’ heads!”

            “Well, if’n we’s all wolfs’ heads we may’s well be proper ones and earn the title as them give us,” Fry answered.  “May’s well be hanged for sheeps as fer lambs.”

            “I don’ wanna be hanged fer nothin’!” declared the taller of the two with the slings.  “I’ve had enough o’ bein’ a ruffian.  I wanna go home!”

            “It’s too late fer that, Tad Oatbarrow.”  Fry gave Tad a look that was disgusted and sad at the same time.  “Now, if’n we’re t’be proper ruffians, we’ll need horses t’ride and carry our loot.”

            “What loot?” demanded the first one.  “We ain’t got no loot!  Was tryin’ t’steal loot as got us in this mess t’begin with!”

            “Well, we would o’ had loot if’n someone else hadn’t of killed old Teasel and took that gold cup as him found diggin’ his new root cellar,” said Fry.

            “But none of us would’ve killt him,” reasoned the first one.  “We’d of just let him go t’sleep and snuck in there and took it without him knowin’.”

            Fry shrugged.  “Too late fer that,” he grumbled.  “Let’s find where them boys went and get us some horses.”

            “I would advise you that not only are those you seek not boys any longer, but that they are not about to allow the five of you to take their horses,” Baerdion said, emerging from the woods behind them, his sword at the ready.  “Not that three of us have been even youths for many years.”

            At that Peredhrion, Berevrion, Halbarad, and Túrin rose to show themselves, their arrows aimed at the five young Breelanders, and Damrod came out of hiding, sword in hand, to stand beside Baerdion.  Others were coming up to the road from the riverbank, most with a weapon to hand, and they encircled the five would-be ruffians.  Peredhrion said in a deceptively casual tone, “I suggest that you drop your weapons.  We can loose arrows before you could swing your slings----”

            With that he loosed his own arrow, catching the taller one with a sling in hand just above the wrist even as the young Man had sought to hurl a stone toward Baerdion.  The sling fell to the ground, and its stone bounced on the path and rolled to an ignoble stop while the would-be assailant grabbed at the place where Peredhrion’s arrow pierced his arm.

            Peredhrion gave a quick glance at Túrin and announced, “It pulls slightly to the left, I see.  Just in case anyone else asks.”

            The laughter at this was short and without a good deal of humor.  At a gesture from Peredhrion several went to surround their prisoners.  Peredhrion himself handed his bow to Berevrion and went to the one who’d been the target of his arrow.  “If you will stand still, I shall break and remove this and then cleanse and bind it for you,” he said.  “You are Abe?”

            The youth he faced gave a numb nod. 

            After a brief examination of the young Man’s face, Peredhrion ordered Nardir, “Go and get a blanket.  He is entering shock.  Dirigil, go with him and fetch my healer’s bag from my pack.”  He pulled his knife and gave a swift, certain slash at the arrow, cutting it cleanly a few inches from the skin, and after handing the knife to Halbarad grasped the feathers of the arrow shaft to pull it backwards out of the arm, swiftly pressing a shirt handed him by Túrin against the wounds with one hand while guiding Abe safely to the ground with the other arm.  “Do not fear—you will be well.”  He turned to his fellows.  “Disarm them and take them in hand.  I do not believe we will have to bind them, not with what I see in their faces.  And do be careful relieving Fry of his sword—I do not wish to have to stitch up his leg.”

            Abe was quickly wrapped warmly, at which time Peredhrion cleansed, examined, and bound his arm.  “I do not believe stitches are called for,” he said, “but it needs to be kept scrupulously clean and the bandage changed regularly for the next several days.”

            By sunset they had the full story out of their five—guests.  Fry was sullen and reluctant to answer for himself, but Jimson, Tad, and the last youth, whose name proved to be Ledo, told the story of the misadventures that had led five youths from the Breelands this far east of their own place.

            “It all started with old Gaffer Teasel,” Tad explained.  “His old root cellar had gone damp the last few years, so him chose a place more uphill to put in another one.  As him was a-diggin’ it he found this gold cup—very old and dented, but surely gold.  Well, ’twasn’t his t’begin with, an’ ought to’ve been up for whoever might take or need it, see?  So, as Fry’s mam was that sick, he thought t’take the cup and sell it hisself and get a healer t’see t’her.”

            “We said as we’d help him, all but Jimi there,” Ledo continued, indicating the smallest of the group.  “Him didn’t want nothin’ t’do with the plan.  So the rest of us went to old Teasel’s farm, but it seemed as nobody was t’home when we got there.  So we went in, and it looked as if wights’d been through the place.  Then we found the Gaffer hisself a-lyin’ on the floor near the cookin’ hearth, all dead.  Somebody’d stuck a knife through him.  And the cup wasn’t nowhere t’be found.  We run fer it, and hid out in a hole where we go when we’ve been a-scrumpin, don’t ya know.  Didn’t know as what we needed t’do next, so we stayed there the rest o’ the night.  Late afternoon Jimson come t’tell us what was bein’ said in Bree, and lots o’ folks was certain as we’d done fer him and as we all needed t’be strung up.  Even me own dad was sayin’ as if’n I’d been part of this I should be hanged with the rest.”

            His face was white, and there was no guile to be seen in his expression.

            “Why did you come with them?” asked Peredhrion of Jimson.  “You weren’t there, after all.”

            “But they’re me mates,” the smallest youth said.  “I couldn’t let them go off on their own, could I?”

            Halbarad looked up to see Malvegern, Baerdion, and Túrin standing back, all watching the interrogation of the five young Breelanders with interest and obvious satisfaction.  He wasn’t certain where Malvegern had been earlier while the rest were swimming and bathing in the river, but the Man’s smile as he watched Peredhrion question Fry’s companions was full of approval.  But then, Halbarad thought, of course he’s glad that my cousin is showing he has the skills to take up his place as our Chieftain!  Well, it was obvious that Lord Elrond had seen Peredhrion—Aragorn—properly trained for his intended place amongst the Dúnedain.

            With that in mind, Halbarad turned back to listen to the final portion of the story that was being told now by the supine Abe.

           

An Unexpected Detour

            A day later the troop of Rangers-in-training was on the East-West Road, heading west for the Breelands, their five young prisoners now riding double, each in front of or behind one of the young Men who’d captured them.  Jimson, the smallest of the youths, rode before Peredhrion, with Berevrion on one side and Halbarad slightly behind on the other.

            “I don’t understand fully why you chose to follow your fellows into exile,” the tall Dúnadan youth commented, “particularly as you had not agreed to take part in their intended folly.”

            “You have t’understand,” Jimson answered again, “as they’re all my mates.  We’ve done everythin’ together all our lives, and I’m not gonna let them go off all on their own to become ruffians.  Mebbe I could help them get by for a time, and then go home, knowin’ as them could take care o’ themselves now.”

            Noting the continued knotting of the brow of the young Man who held him, he said, “I suppose as you’d not understand, seein’ as you’re not one o’ these.”  He waved his hand to indicate the other trainees.

            Peredhrion straightened.  “What makes you think I am not one of these, my own fellows?  Are we not riding together?  Have we not learned to work together in the past many weeks?”

            “But you don’t look like ’em, nor dress like ’em, nor move like ’em.  Don’t even talk like them!” Jimson countered.  “It’s gonna be a time afore you’re actually one o’them, you ask me.  If you ever are,” he added.

            It was the first time that Halbarad saw his recently returned young kinsman flush and look uncertain.

            Jimi continued, “Them, bet as most of ’em has known each other most o’ their lives.  Most times, one had started somethin’ right foolish, I’d wager the others has stood right by him no matter how much they tried t’ warn him off ahead o’ times.  That’s what friends do!”

            “Even when it could lead to you being named a wolf’s head, too?” Peredhrion asked sternly.
            Now Jimi looked away.  “My folks know as I’m not a wolf’s head,” he muttered.  “I was with them all that night when the Gaffer died.”  He turned to eye Peredhrion defiantly.  “They’ll speak up for me.”

            Berevrion answered, “But a family will often lie for a child or a brother, trying to protect them.  Will the others in Bree believe your parents would not do so for your sake?”

            The boy started to reply, but paused, unable to answer in the end.  He looked away once more, clearly disturbed.

            Peredhrion looked from Berevrion to Jimi, and at last asked, “Do you believe that your friends here killed Gaffer Teasel?”

            Jimi was shaking his head no before the tall youth finished.  “Only one as might even think o’ such a thing’s Fry, and I don’t believe as him has the stomach for it, not really.  Certainly Tad, Ledo, nor Abe wouldn’t do it.  And I’m not sure as they’d of actually took the cup if’n they’d found it—I mean, if’n someone else hadn’t of already took it and stabbed ol’ Teasel and left him dead on the floor.”  Halbarad could see Jimson shiver.  “There was no call t’kill ’im, after all,” he added.  “It’s not like he coulda stopped someone else takin’ it.  He’s a bit frail.  Oh, he’s able t’dig a new root cellar, I’d say.  But his eyes ain’t what they was, and too oft he’ll not even hear what’s said t’him.  Or, that’s the way it was.  I don’t understand just why whoever did it killed him!”

            “Who knew that he’d found the cup?”

            Jimi shrugged.  “About everyone, I’d suppose.  He’d took it t’the Pony—the Prancing Pony, that is.  That’s the main inn there in Bree, you know.  He was askin’ if’n anyone else thought as it was gold, and then said as he was takin’ it home agin, and was gonna keep it t’give to his daughter what lives in Combe when she come t’see him next, t’sell fer his grandson.  Don’t know as what use a bairn like his grandson could have for the money, but you know grandparents!”

            Halbarad did his best to suppress a smile, for he knew well enough that Peredhrion did not know much about grandparents, although he would learn soon enough, he supposed.

            But Peredhrion was asking, “Would anyone who was there when Gaffer Teasel was at the inn be likely to wish to take the cup?”

            “Most like ol’ Ferny hisself what used to run the Pony would of liked to have it, and most of the Bigs there.”

            “Bigs?”

            “Men.  See, there’s Bigs and Littles as live in Bree, Men an’ Hobbits.  Most Hobbits would never think o’ takin’ things as amn’t theirs, but seems as too many Bigs is needin’ coin, or at least wantin’ it.”

            “Can you think of many who would kill someone else to get what they want from them?”

            Jimi paused thoughtfully.  Finally he said slowly, “Mayhaps Hap Goatleaf.  Lives near the South Gate, an’ is a rough sort.  Some o’ the Fernys as live close by the East Gate amn’t too concerned about whether what they have is rightfully theirs, or so my dad says.  But I don’t think as they’d kill someone else t’take what they want.  Cheat’em or pick up somethin’ what was left lyin’—yeah, they’d most like do that.  There’s the Mistletoes over near the Chetwood—they don’t have a good name.  But, you ask me, I’d say as it was one o’ those as comes up the Greenway.  Not all of those as visits Bree’s strictly honest traders.”

        *******

            It took a few days to ride to Bree.  Malvegern sent a message to Halbaleg via a solitary Ranger message rider they met near Amon Sûl letting the acting Steward know where the patrol was riding and why, and he and Baerdion set to instructing their charges on how to properly travel the roads, how to send out scouts and set a proper rear guard, and how to camp well off the road leaving little sign they’d been traveling that way so as not to attract attention during their periods of rest.

            The boys from Bree quickly adapted to the routine of the camp.  Fry proved to be handy at setting snares, while Jimson turned out to have excellent knowledge as to what plants were good to eat and which should be avoided completely.  “My neighbors is Hobbits,” he explained as if that ought to be reason enough to have garnered such knowledge.

            All of the boys helped in the fetching of water and wood for the camp, and Fry and Abe both proved able and willing to help with the horses.  Halbarad was glad they were willing to be helpful and showed no resentment toward the Rangers-in-training.  Nardir directed Abe in the exercises Peredhrion ordered the boy to do so as to strengthen his wounded arm.

            “How come you know what I ought t’do?” Abe asked.

            “I must do similar exercises myself,” the Dúnadan youth explained.  “I almost lost my arm in a battle with orcs, and am having to make certain that the muscles strengthen properly without causing more injury to my arm.”

            “Orcs?” asked Fry, who was nearby, currying Orominion’s horse.  “What’s them?”

            “It’s Elvish for goblins,” Nardir answered.  “We had quite the battle with them a few weeks back.  I was the worst injured.”

            Fry shuddered visibly.  “I never seen goblins, but from what I’ve heard, I don’t think as I’d want to.”

            Nardir gave a twisted smile.  “You are fortunate not to have had to face such things.  However, they are far too common nearer to the mountains where our major dwellings lie hidden.”

            “Your arm seems fit enough,” Abe observed.

            “It is now, but you did not see it when I was first struck down, before Peredhrion did what he could to keep me from losing it.  He tells me it will likely ache whenever the weather prepares to change, probably for several years.”

            Both of the Bree youths glanced over their shoulders toward the tall, oddly dressed young Man who was sitting at the fireside speaking with several others of the trainees.  “How come he wears different clothes than you others do?” Abe asked.

            “He only returned to us recently from years of living with the Elves,” Nardir explained.  “He is accustomed to wearing such garb.”  The others of his company had all come to accept this was true of Peredhrion by this time.

            “An’ he amn’t an Elf hisself?” Fry asked.

            Nardir shrugged.  “So all say, including himself.”

            “I’ve always wanted t’see an Elf,” Abe said thoughtfully.  “Sometimes they’d come t’Bree, you see, and my dad said they was passin’ beautiful.”

            “Peredhrion can tell you about them, or perhaps Varadorn or Dirigil, who grew up on the Firth of Lhûn where the Elves have their major Haven here in the north.  Although the Elves will at times ride with our fathers, they have never been frequent visitors to our villages, save for the sons of Elrond, and even they have visited rarely for the last five or six years.  But, yes, they are indeed fair and noble of face, and their voices clear and beautiful, and their songs are wondrous to hear.”

            Abe gave a satisfied smile, although a moment later, when one of the exercises pulled too much at one of the injured muscles he gave a brief, sharp cry of pain.  Almost immediately Peredhrion appeared, his brow furled with concern, reaching to take Abe’s arm gently and examining it carefully, allowing himself to feel deeply, moving the injured joint, then holding his hands about the injury, finally massaging it gently before smiling and letting it go. 

            “That is enough for now,” he said.  “Go and rest for a few minutes, and then our meal ought to be ready.”  And with a smile he went to rejoin the others near the campfire.

            Abe watched after him, his eyes wide with surprise.  The pain had eased almost immediately, and his whole arm felt warm and relaxed.  He turned his eyes to meet those of Nardir, who smiled in return.  “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” the Dúnadan youth murmured.  “How just his touch can help one feel better!”

            Halbarad, who was cleaning the hoofs of his own horse, smiled to himself as he again bent over his work. 

 

            That evening Malvegern and Baerdion questioned the boys from Bree, asking similar questions to those Peredhrion had asked of Jimson and receiving similar answers to those the smaller boy had given.

            “So,” Malvegern growled, rubbing his right hand against his temple, “the one who entered his home and killed the old fellow could have been anyone, even a newcomer to the Breelands.  But would one newly come to Bree be able to learn where Master Teasel lived?”

            The Breeland youths looked questioningly at one another for a moment or two before Fry gave a shrug and answered for all of them.  “Anyone what wants t’know aught about anyone in Bree only needs t’ask Giddy Goldenrod.  Giddy’s potboy at the Pony, and when he’s got nothin’ else t’do he spends a lot o’ time there near the stable.  Just ask him anythin’ an’ he’ll answer.  Giddy’s rather simple, and wants t’please people.”

            Malvegern, Baerdion, and Túrin exchanged looks.  At last Baerdion commented, “It does appear we, too, would be well advised to question Giddy Goldenrod.”

******* 

            In the morning the company was gathered together once all had a serving of pottage in hand.  “We are less than a day’s journey from the Breelands,” Baerdion advised the youths, “and it would not do to take all of you into the town of Bree at the same time.  The folk of Bree are suspicious of strangers, although they welcome the custom and coin travelers bring; but they have no love for us as Rangers.  Not understanding why we travel about Eriador as we do, well armed but apparently rootless and purposeless, they tend to see us as reckless and most likely dangerous.  They have developed the habit of bestowing upon us names they see as descriptive of us, and it has become our policy to accept and embrace these names, even to use them amongst others.  That we do not pull away at the Breelanders’ attempts to belittle us intrigues them in the end, we’ve found, and makes them wary of trying to upset us in other ways.

            “I am uncertain which of you Túrin and I should take with us.  Baerdion will stay with the rest of you in case anyone should stumble across our camp.  The last time he visited Bree there was an—incident—that might make him somewhat unwelcome at this time.  However, should he be encountered here by Breelanders it is probable all of you would be treated with a greater degree of respect, and our own guests will be less likely to be summarily dragged off to questionable justice.”

            He turned to the boys from Bree.  “Of you I propose to take only young Jimson, as he is most likely to be seen as innocent of Master Teasel’s death and thus perhaps able to convince your elders that you are all innocent.  The rest of you will stay here with our young Men until we are certain you will be able to return to your own with safety.”

            “Which of us will go with you?” asked Orominion.

            Malvegern looked thoughtfully about at the trainees.  “Finwë,” he began slowly.  “Damrod.”

            “Won’t you take Halbarad?” suggested Dirigil.  “After all, he’s his father’s son.”

            “Berevrion’s father outranks Finwë’s or Damrod’s,” objected Geldir.  “Perhaps he ought to go, too.”

            Orominion surprised them all by declaring, “I think that the Princeling ought to go.  He’s the most sensitive of all of us, after all, and the people from Bree are likely to take him for an Elf and hold themselves from acting without thought.”

            Baerdion rubbed his beard to hide a smile of pleased satisfaction.  “That is a good observation, Orominion,” he commented.

            “Indeed,” agreed Malvegern.  “Although I had reason to wish him to remain as well, including the fact that as the best swordsman amongst you he would serve well as a second to Baerdion should anyone stumble upon the camp.  Not all who pass through Bree and follow the road toward the High Pass are of good character, as has been made plain by our Breeland guests.  Should ruffians find you, they may well need—persuasion—to leave you all be.”

            The Man stood thinking for a few minutes, his eyes considering Peredhrion.  At last he turned his gaze to Halbarad.  “What think you, as Halbaleg’s son, as to whether Peredhrion should go with me?”

            Halbarad knew that the Breeland boys had no idea of the significance of his own father’s name, and he suspected only Berevrion was certain as to the actual parentage of the one they all knew as Peredhrion.  He licked his lips nervously, and thought.  At last he said, “We have faced both orcs and evil Men so far upon this patrol, and we know that we can—and must—stand against such creatures.  We do not need Peredhrion’s example to protect ourselves should it come to a fight.

            “As for Peredhrion accompanying you into Bree—well, I am of two minds.  He has no experience of which I am aware with the communities of Men.  He needs to learn the nature of such places, and certainly if this is a training mission for those of us entering manhood, it is needful he should gain this experience.  But the question arises:  if he accompanies you, might he become so distracted by all that he sees and hears that is new to him that he fails to be at his greatest vigilance when it might be most important that he use those faculties in which he has been trained by those who raised him?  Still, to see how our people negotiate with those who live within the Breelands and those who pass through the town of Bree is a lesson that we all need.  I simply put these ideas before you that you might better decide whether or not to have him accompany you further.”

            He sensed approval from both Malvegern and Baerdion.  “Well stated, Halbarad.  And it is neatly done that you return the final decision to me,” Malvegern responded.  He addressed all of the trainees.  “A good commander chooses lieutenants whose judgment he trusts, and he does not counter their decisions without good reason.  Halbarad has given me reasons I might myself change my mind, and has indicated that with this increased intelligence he trusts me to make a final decision in the best interests of all, including Peredhrion here.”

            He now turned to Peredhrion himself.  “What say you?  Why might it be wise that you accompany me, or that you might do better to remain with these others?”

            The tall youth stood quietly looking at Malvegern for some moments before responding, “Halbarad is correct that I have need to learn how others live and support their communities, but as he also said that is true of all of us.  As the Breelands support a fairly large population within a relatively small area, and as Bree itself serves as a crossroads where Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and Men from many regions of Middle Earth meet, I must agree we should all learn much by visiting the town.  However, as I understand it, although our Rangers may visit Bree fairly often, usually only a few will visit at any one time.  This is correct?”

            At Malvegern’s nod, he continued, “As I understand it, the Rangers are believed by most others throughout Eriador to be wanderers, most likely hunters, and possibly sell-swords.”

            “Yes,” Baerdion indicated.  Malvegern again nodded.

            “So, the main reasons we do not wish to arrive, all of us, within Bree is that we do not wish for most Breelanders and those who are within the place at this time to realize that, first, we are possibly as numerous as we are, and secondly, that we prepare our youths to become Rangers by taking them out upon such patrols as we do?”

            “Correct.”  Malvegern straightened some.  “As long as we arrive few in number and stay basically aloof, interfering only when things become excessively dangerous or rowdy, we are treated with a degree of deference by the Breelanders, and for the most part we are ignored by both the inhabitants of the land and by those who are passing through Bree.  But,” he added, “this does not indicate why you should or should not accompany us into the town.”

            “Well,” Peredhrion said slowly, “I would be an anomaly in the eyes of the people who dwell here, for I do not dress as you do, nor move as you do, nor properly sound as you do.  It would most likely confuse them, and if as I suppose few Elves enter Bree itself, most would likely take me for an Elf and would do their best to avoid me.  It would possibly add to your stature in the eyes of those who see me—were I, of course, to accompany you.  And, as you know, I have been trained in observation by Master Elrond, Lord Glorfindel, Master Erestor, and the sons of Elrond.  Perhaps I might notice something that you might not while people talk to you of what is known and supposed regarding the death of Master Teasel.

            “On the other hand, my presence might draw too much attention to yourselves, particularly if anyone is observant enough to realize that I am merely a young Man in Elvish costume.  Or, those you would question might be so distracted by my presence and appearance they might fail to respond appropriately to your questions.”

            Baerdion and Malvegern exchanged amused glances.  “It would appear,” Baerdion drawled, “that this one, also, is skilled at allowing those he would advise to make up their own minds.”

            “Go not to the Elves for advice, for they will answer both yes and no,” quoted Túrin in a dry tone.  “He obviously has learned that lesson well.”

            The other two adults laughed briefly, while most of the others glanced sideways at the tall youth who wore Elven braids before returning their attention to their mentors.  Halbarad moistened his lips and added, “Peredhrion has been speaking with Jimson and has perhaps learned from him and the others somewhat of those most likely to have more accurate suspicions as to who slew Gaffer Teasel.”

            Again Baerdion and Malvegern exchanged looks, clearly thinking on this new intelligence.  At last Malvegern gave a great sigh.  “We cannot and will not take all of you,” he said solemnly, “but as it appears that independent of us Peredhrion has already been making his own inquiries, it would appear that Orominion is right in suggesting that he ought to accompany Túrin and me into Bree.  So, we will go accompanied by Jimson, Finwë, Damrod, and Peredhrion.  Both Damrod and Finwë have visited Bree in the past, and both have lately proved themselves increasingly observant.  And both have learned somewhat of dissembling before outsiders.  The rest will remain here with our remaining Breeland guests and Baerdion.  Do as little as you can to draw the attention of those who might be traveling along the East Road, and keep vigilant and aware of all that passes around you.”

            With that he directed the three chosen youths to prepare their horses alongside Túrin, and with Jimson before him on his own steed the small party headed on to Bree.

******* 

            They returned early the next evening, without Jimson, Halbarad noted.  Peredhrion was quiet and showed no signs of what he was thinking or feeling; Damrod’s eyes were wide, and he kept glancing between Malvegern and Peredhrion; Finwë sat his mount with his mouth firmly shut; Túrin’s eyes were twinkling but he held his own counsel.

            Those returned from Bree saw first to their horses, and finally joined the other youths near the fire ring they’d established, Peredhrion having lingered over Carniaxo’s hooves so that he joined the others last.  Tad, Abe, Ledo, and Fry were anxious, eager to learn whether they might return home or must remain wolfs heads.  No one, however, appeared eager to answer the questions of any of them.  Malvegern was involved in being advised as to all that had occurred while he was gone from the group, and Dirigil and Geldir were assisting Baerdion in offering this information while Brendor saw to serving the new arrivals with a hot drink and making some warm stew and cold bannock available to those who wanted something to eat. 

            It was some time before the impatience of the rest was finally assuaged. 

            “Well?” demanded Dirigil.

            Damrod was looking at Malvegern imploringly until the Man finally gave a dramatic sigh and said, “Well, go ahead then, Damrod.  You may tell them.”

            Damrod smiled triumphantly and turned to the rest.  “We were well upon our way, and Malvegern had called Peredhrion up alongside himself, and they spoke together quietly, and we could not hear what it was they said to one another.  At last we paused, and after a few more words, Peredhrion left us.  It had been decided between them that it would be better if Peredhrion did not appear to be a member of our party, so he was instructed to go southwest so as to approach Bree through their south gate, as if he had come up the Greenway or had approached via the Shire.  We would continue westward so as to enter the town through their east gate.

            “We waited for a time before going on, hoping he would arrive before us, which he did.  When we reached the Inn of the Prancing Pony he was there before us, and in company with Elves!”

            Baerdion looked up with surprise. “Elves?  But Elves rarely enter Bree itself, preferring to bypass it either south of the town walls or north of Bree Hill.”  He turned to fix his gaze on Peredhrion’s face.

            At a nod from Malvegern, the young Man explained, “As I approached the south gate I was hailed, and realized I’d been seen and recognized by Elves from the wandering tribes out of Lindon.  They suggested it would be better if I arrived in their company, considering my dress and general appearance—that it would draw less attention to me as an individual were I to arrive with them than if I appeared to be alone.”

            Baerdion smiled approvingly.  “Good advice, I would say.  So, these were among the folk of Gildor Inglorion?”

            Peredhrion gave a slight shrug.  “One of them was Lord Gildor himself,” he said.

            As he had apparently said all he would, Malvegern indicated Damrod should continue. 

            Damrod glanced at the tall youth before turning back towards the others.  “We did not see Carniaxo when we entered the stable at the Prancing Pony, and feared we had come before him.  Only when we entered the common room we found he was there before us, and in company with other Elves, as he has told you.  Malvegern ignored him, giving only a bow of respect to those about him as we approached the table in the back corner, whose occupants rose and gave it over to us without a word.

            “Jimson was recognized as we entered the gates, and one had run off through the streets.  Soon after we seated ourselves at the table in the corner a Man and his wife entered and hurried toward us—Jimson’s parents were come!  They were followed by others, including the Headman for Bree and several others from the Breelands Council, all of whom wished to question Jimson regarding these others who have been accused of the death of Gaffer Teasel.  Malvegern spake for Jimson, telling that we had found him out in the Wild, and that he had told us he had gone in search of his fellows to tell them that it was believed they had killed a Man of Bree in hopes of taking from him a golden cup that he had found by happenchance.  He said that we had taken him among us and promised to bring him back again to his home to the comfort of his family.

            “Then the Headman for Bree and those from the Breelands Council made it plain they wished to question Jimson as to what he knew or guessed of the death of Master Teasel, and he told them that he knew that his fellows had considered stealing the golden cup so that Fry could pay for a healer’s services for his mother, and I saw many of those who were listening look at one another as if shamed that they’d done naught for the lady in her illness.  But he also told them that he was satisfied that they had not taken the cup, as when he glimpsed his friends from a distance none carried aught about him indicating they had either the cup or money from the sale of the cup.  By that he guessed that none of you,” he turned to look at the four youths from Bree, “had taken the cup, but that instead you had come to the house and had found Master Teasel already slain.”

            “True enough,” commented Fry, “although he might as well have told them he’d been with us betwixt times, I suppose, and thus had more than ample chance to know as none of us had the cup.”

            Damrod shrugged.  “That is so, but he feared that if he admitted he’d been within your company all would realize the rest of you were perhaps near at hand and some might come out of Bree to seek and take you.  He’d discussed with us what he might or might not say as we approached the East Gate, and Malvegern had agreed that for now, at least, this was all he should admit to.”

            He shifted slightly before continuing.  “All within the room had risen and crowded close behind the members of the Breelands Council.”

            “Even the Elves?” asked Orominion.

            “They were seated at the next table,” Malvegern answered.

            Túrin added, “Those who had sat at the table in the corner had been contemplating moving when we entered.  They were relieved to leave the table to us, as in doing so it appeared to be an expression of thoughtfulness rather than one of  rudeness due to being uncomfortable sitting so close to a party of the Eldar.”

            Several of the youths laughed openly at that, and Baerdion commented, “So, they would leave the two parties that made most of them most uncomfortable close to one another so as to hopefully make each in turn uncomfortable as well.”

            Malvegern’s expression was sardonic as he agreed, “Even so, my friend.”

            Damrod smiled, and continued his tale.  “The members of the Breelands Council appeared convinced that you four must have killed Gaffer Teasel and taken the cup, and did not wish to believe that Jimson could have seen truly that none of you carried it away with you.  And they were being spurred on to this belief by one they called Hap Goatleaf, who was supported by another they named Rod Ferny, who stood alongside someone who we heard it told had come up the Greenway from the south.  Whoever he was, he was no merchant or farmer looking for lands to break and settle.  This southerner at least kept his own counsel, although he would nod agreement almost every time Hap Goatleaf or Rod Ferny would speak.

            “This Goatleaf told that he had overheard the four of you and Jimson together speaking of taking the cup and carrying it away to a place where it would be safe to sell it.  He admitted that Jimi had refused to have anything to do with the plan, but said that he believed that Jimi had agreed to bring news to you of what was said of it having gone missing afterwards.”

            Ledo shook his head insistently.  “No, that’s not true,” he said.  “Jimi told us plainly he’d not take part in any plot to steal the cup, and that we’d be on our own should we try.”

            When the other Breeland boys agreed, Damrod gave a single nod and continued.  “So Jimson insisted there in the inn, that he’d refused to be part of it at all.  But when Master Teasel was found dead he knew that you four would not have done such a thing, so only then did he go out to warn you that all four of you were being named wolfs heads.  But he said he came after, only in time to see you all quitting the town, and so he followed after, being fearful for your safety.”

            “I thought he left Bree with the rest of you,” Orominion said.

            Abe explained, “Nah, he went to get supplies, since none of us felt it safe to return to our homes afore we fled out o’ the Breelands, and we met up some ways east of town.  He told us after as he got them from his neighbors, those as is Hobbits.  Hobbits is usually willin’ t’give what food as them can spare to those as might need it, even if they disapprove of what they might of done.”

            “But how did you get out of the town without being seen?” Damrod asked.  “The gate keeper was watching all come and go when we went to pass through the east gate.”

            The four boys exchanged glances before Tad explained, “The hole as we hid out in—it was an old Hobbit hole as was on the east slope o’ Bree Hill, just inside the hedge.  It’s not very big—a couple o’ brothers dug it long ago, an’ it just has a few rooms.  Jimi’s neighbors as is Littles, them have two lads about the same age as Jimi an’ us, an’ them showed the hole to him years ago, an’ we all use it as a secret place t’go, away from the grown-ups.  There’s a hidden door as leads out o’the smial outside the hedge.  The brothers, them had fields that-aways, so they’d use it t’go in an’ out an’ not worrit ’bout havin’ t’knock at the gate when it was closed t’come an’ go.  That was how we got out and nobody saw us.”

            “So, there is a secret way into Bree, is there?” commented Baerdion.  “That is useful to know.”

            “As long as it is not known by enemies,” agreed Malvegern.

            Baerdion returned his gaze to Damrod.  “Jimson did not tell this to those in the Prancing Pony?”

            Damrod indicated he hadn’t.  “Nor to us,” he added.

            Finwë took over the narration of what had happened.  “The way these two, Goatleaf and Ferny, were insistent that the rest of you from Bree were guilty of murder and needed to be hunted down and hanged immediately was----”  He sought for the right word, finally settling for, “odd.”

            “Disturbing,” Malvegern suggested at almost the same time.  “Most disturbingly insistent, the two of them.”

            Berevrion’s eyes had narrowed.  “Papa always insists that when a person becomes too insistent that someone else has done a terrible deed, it is likely that in reality the insistent one is who committed it to begin with.”  He looked at Peredhrion questioningly.

            “As I was taught as well,” Peredhrion said. “And so I became convinced in this case.”

            Bregorn asked, “But how could it be proved?”

            Finwë continued, “That was when Peredhrion here straightened in his seat and began to ask questions.  How did they know that you boys had killed Master Teasel?  Had either of them seen you in or near Teasel’s dwelling?  Yes, or so they said!  Did either of them live nearby?  No?  Then how was it they could see what they had claimed to see?  What was this Man strange to the Breelands doing in their company?  How was it he appeared to stand as a witness as to what you might or might not have done?  Where was he from?  What was the bulky item to be discerned within the bag that lay by his pack?  How had he come by Master Teasel’s gold cup if you boys had killed the old fellow to steal it?”

            All of the boys straightened at that.  “He had the cup—this Southerner?” demanded Berevrion. 

            At the same time Orominion was asking, “But how did you realize he had the cup?”

            The Bree boys were shocked.  “Ferny and Goatleaf were in company with this Southerner?  And they still claimed to have seen us somehow killing Gaffer Teasel and taking the cup—the one their friend had in his sack?”  Fry’s voice was shrill with frustration.

            More questions were raised, and Malvegern was forced to stand to make himself heard.  “Enough!” he insisted.  “With all of you shouting over one another, how can anyone find a clear thought within his head to answer?”  When all had gone quiet, he turned to Peredhrion.  “Now,” he said, “it is time that you described what you realized and how it was you came to do so that led you to reveal that it was not any of these—” here he indicated the boys from Bree, “—that stole the cup and slew its finder.”

            Peredhrion sighed and straightened, dropped his gaze as if he saw again the scene in the common room of the Prancing Pony playing out as if against Malvegern’s chest, and began to speak.

            “Lord Gildor’s people were heading for a site near Annúminas where they have not visited for several sunrounds but that has pleasant associations for them, so they have just come through the Shire and were planning to go around Bree Hill so as to pass through some of the farms and woodlands that they favor ere they found the Greenway north of Archet.  As they approached the south gate of Bree, however, they sensed the upset of the land over the death of Master Teasel and the theft of the cup.  They were debating whether they should proceed unseen or if they should send a party into the village to learn what was the source of the disturbance they felt when we approached, and they stopped on seeing me within the company.”

            “They know you?” asked Nardir.

            Peredhrion gave a slight nod.  “Lord Gildor has seen me within the Last Homely House when he has come to speak with m-Master Elrond, which happens on occasion.  He recognized me even from a distance, and realized that we, too, must be aware of the discord set up by first the finding and then the disappearance of the cup and the death of its finder, and that it was likely we were come to investigate.  He asked if I saw this as a test of my ability to reason, and I told him, yes, I believed so.  So it was suggested that four of their party should accompany me into Bree to the Inn of the Prancing Pony so that I should not stand out in memory as an apparent Elf who had come alone to the Breelands, which would be a most unusual event, and I agreed.  Carniaxo was left in the care of one of those who did not enter the village.  I was given some assistance so that I should not look as different from their party as I did, and we went into Bree and to the inn, where we entered the common room not all that long ere Malvegern and our others and Jimson arrived.  As Lord Gildor explained softly that the Rangers usually chose to sit at the back of the room, near the corner, we chose a table there at which to sit.

            “As soon as Malvegern and the others arrived, matters began to move most rapidly.  They had barely taken seats at the table next to ours than others followed them into the room, beginning with those who appeared to be Jimson’s parents, who were accompanied by a man from amongst the Hobbits.  They cried out in their relief to see their son come again to his rightful place and begged to be told where he had been found.  But those who had followed them began to shout, demanding that he be taken into charge for having taken part in the murder of Master Teasel, that he tell where the rest of you might have gone for it was believed that you had killed Master Teasel and stolen the golden cup, that he tell where the golden cup was hidden, that he tell why it was decided by all of you to steal the cup and kill Master Teasel, and more demands that became increasingly difficult to hear or understand as each person sought to outshout the rest.  Finally the headman for Bree and some I learned were from the Bree Council arrived, and most fell silent. 

            “The expressions I saw were mixed.  Most showed concern, but many showed stern anger, and too many appeared gleeful that there was someone upon whom they might rightfully rain accusations and abuse.  A few appeared somehow fearful, as if Jimson had proved himself a monster they had never dreamed lived within his person.  The headman and the Councilors sought to question Jimson, but they were often interrupted, and each time that happened the headman for the town had to shout out so as to make the others quiet themselves.  Jimson barely had the chance to answer a word or two before someone else would speak out a different question or would shout out a different accusation or threat.  And the whole time more and more crowded into the room and pressed toward the end of the room where we sat. 

            “In the midst of this confusion two Men entered, both unkempt and with expressions of what appeared to be triumph on their faces, a triumph that appeared furtive and sly.  Another also pushed to the front of the press who was clearly not from the village, for he looked not like any of those I saw who dwelt in Bree, and was dressed in a mode that I have seen only on those we took with the wagons.”

            The other trainees straightened and exchanged looks of surprise with one another along with quiet comments that stopped almost immediately.

            “These three,” Peredhrion continued, “pushed their way to the front of the crowd, the two local Men together on one end of the line of the Councilors, and the Southerner where he could easily see them and they him.  The glances they shared made it plain to me, at least, that they were familiar with one another, and all equally interested in seeing the case made against Jimson or you four as those who must have killed Master Teasel.

            “The stranger wore a pack upon his back wrought from rough sacking, and carried a leathern bag within his arms as if it and its contents were precious to him.  When the two unkempt Men joined with the crowd in calling demands that Jimson be forced to tell where you others were so that you each and all might be hanged for the murder of Gaffer Teasel and the theft of the cup he’d found, the Southerner held his tongue, although it was soon obvious that he wished also to be free to shout out, even as he held the bag more tightly to his chest.

            “The headman sought to question Jimson as to where he’d been and why he had not returned before this, and he told of hearing that many believed that you four had taken part in the murder of Master Teasel and wished to see you hanged, and that he felt you should be warned to flee lest you be slain out of hand with no one seeking to learn what truly might have happened.  But after that no one could make any sense of what he sought to say, as he was not allowed to speak without interruption.  Most loud were the two unkempt Men.  Finally Lord Gildor rose to his feet, and suddenly all went quiet.  He said not a word, but few will continue to rant when a lord among Elves rises in his power.”

            There were a few nervous laughs at this.

            “When all had gone quiet, he finally spoke.  He suggested that if all wished to know what had truly occurred, each needed to speak in turn, and the rest needed to listen.  He asked that all who had knowledge of the crime should raise their hands.  Both of the unkempt Men and the Southerner were among those who did so.  Lord Gildor asked each in turn for his or her name and to speak shortly as to what they knew or believed they knew of the theft and the death.  The unkempt Men and the Southerner he spoke to last.  The only ones who claimed to truly know what had happened were the two unkempt Men and the Southerner.  The others had seen the four of you passing their homes or their fields, or thought they had heard noises on the night before Gaffer Teasel was found dead.  One woman said she heard people run by her house in the night, and caught a glimpse of several figures when she looked out her window.  She said she recognized you, Abe, as you live near her home and are supposed to start your apprenticeship with her husband as a saddler soon.”

            Abe groaned.  “Missus Alba!” he sighed.  “She would o’ seen us, I suppose.  Always hears ever’thing, or so Lars, their apprentice now says.”

            Peredhrion nodded.  “I spoke up, asking, ‘Then, when he has finished his apprenticeship he will be his own master and accepted as an adult?’ to which she agreed.

            “At that Lord Gildor gave me a long-suffering look and said, ‘Well, as you wish to learn more of the ways of the Men in this place, let you continue the questioning, and show us who it is that slew this Master Teasel and took the cup.’  And with that he sat down.

            “I motioned for those who had raised their hands but who had not yet spoken to come forward, which they did, the Southerner drawing closer to the two unkempt Men.  One looked alarmed at the bag the Southerner carried, so he shrugged himself out of his pack and placed it upon the floor and set the bag upon it, only the bag fell, and many could hear the clink of metal as it struck, muffled though it might be by the bag.  It drew many eyes to him.  At that almost all noticed how close he was now to the two unkempt Men, who indeed proved to be Hap Goatleaf and one who named himself Rod Ferny, and the others drew away from these three.”

            He took a deep breath.  “The two others who had not yet described what they’d seen or thought to have happened on the night that Master Teasel died and the cup was stolen now spoke, but it was obvious that they had been distracted by the falling of the bag, and that they had an idea as to what it contained.  Their answers were short and blunt, and they both seemed to cede the floor that I might question the stranger who’d come up the Greenway and who now held this clinking bag.”

            “It was quite funny,” Finwë interrupted, “watching as the Southerner sought to protect himself by crowding against Ferny and Goatleaf, while they were trying to distance themselves from him by creeping further away from him each time he came closer.  It was as if he were pursuing them sideways across the common room!” 

            His gestures and expressions as he described the scene had them all laughing, and even Peredhrion was smiling widely.  “Indeed!” he agreed.  “And now all attention was on the three of them, and one of those who’d stood near to them crowded forward so as to see better, and knocked the stranger’s pack over.  It was not properly secured, and one portion of the flap fell open, and some small items fell out—items that were immediately recognized by some of the villagers.  ‘My bairn’s silver milk cup!’ called one woman, while a man pounced upon a bracelet, saying, ‘This is my Jenny’s—I’d know it anywhere!  But it went missing a month past!  Where’s it been in the meanwhile?  After all, this Man’s been here less than a week!’

            “And then the saddler spoke up, saying, ‘And what is this Southerner doing with your pack, Hap Goatleaf?  Didn’t I just make this for you a few months back?  As the three of you came in together, you can’t have missed the fact he was wearing your pack!’”

            “So, they were all in this together!” Orominion said.

            All thought on this.

            Peredhrion eventually continued, “The headman for Bree came forward and searched both the pack and the bag.  Sure enough, the missing cup was found in the bag, and there was a knife in the pack that appeared to be the one used in killing Master Teasel, or so proclaimed the village healer.  I could not say, as I was not able to see the body to make a comparison.”

            “You were trained in such things?” asked Malvegern.

            Peredhrion gave a nod.  “The Elves have had ages to learn how to recognize how wounds have been inflicted, and m-Master Elrond was able to teach some of the art to me.”

            Malvegern and Baerdion exchanged thoughtful looks.  “That could indeed prove important in the future,” the former commented.

            Baerdion nodded his agreement.

            “So,” Baerdion asked, “were all satisfied that these three had brought about the death of Gaffer Teasel together?”

            Malvegern was shaking his head, and Peredhrion dropped his gaze.  Túrin explained, “Most of those within the village did not wish to believe some of their own would conspire in the death of someone they’d known as a neighbor, so in the end both this Hap Goatleaf and Rod Ferny were let go, although the headman for the village made it clear he did not believe they were as innocent as they claimed, and would be watching them closely.”

            Finwë gave a humph! of disgust.  “While they were still talking, Jimson led me out, explaining to his parents he was showing me where the privies were.  Instead, he showed me where it was that Goatleaf and Ferny lived, and where the home of Gaffer Teasel was.  None of you had said that he was a Halfling, by the way.  Ferny lives near the east gate, and Goatleaf near the south gate.  As Gaffer Teasel lived in a low house near a spur of Bree Hill at the northwestern end of the village, no one could have seen his home from either of theirs, much less heard anything from it.”

            “The Gaffer wasn’t rightly a Hobbit,” Abe objected.  “His mum was a Big and his da was a Little.  Gaffer Teasel married a Hobbit woman and them lived in the place as she got from her mum and da when they died.  But their daughter was born bigger’n both of them and married a Man.  But it’s true—nobody could of heard nor seen nothin’ t’do with his place from either Goatleaf’s or Ferny’s.  If’n either of them saw any of us around theres, they’d of had t’be there themselves.”

            “How did they explain this Southerner having things that had disappeared months ago?” asked Nardir.

            Peredhrion frowned.  “When I asked that question, Goatleaf suddenly began coughing and choking loudly.  The Southerner said that he’d been given them by Rod Ferny, but I doubt anyone could hear him say it other than the Elves and me.  I tried asking again, and again Goatleaf began choking, and all were distracted by trying to aid him to overcome the cough.  I have to admit he was very good at feigning the cough—had I not been watching closely I, too, might have been fooled.  When at last he quieted again one of the Councilors spoke over me, asking a different question.  Nor was I allowed to ask the question again.

            “We did get to question Giddy Goldenrod, and he admitted that he’d been asked by the Southerner where Gaffer Teasel lived, so this was seen by most as proof he could have--and thus did--commit the crime without assistance.  That he was last seen before the old one’s death in the company of Goatleaf and Ferny was apparently forgotten by everyone else.  He knew the site of the dwelling, and had the cup and other stolen items and the apparent weapon used to stab Master Teasel in his possession, and he was not one of their own.  That appeared to settle it for almost all present.”

            All went quiet for a time, digesting this information.  “So,” assayed Fry, “they’re all for blamin’ the Southerner, are they?  What they gonna do about it all?”

            “They plan to hang him tomorrow evening,” Peredhrion answered, his eyes full of an emotion the rest could not truly name.  Halbarad wondered if his cousin was appalled at the lack of true justice here, at the plan to execute the Man so swiftly, at the apparent lack of a proper, orderly trial, at the violent finality of the sentence, or what precisely was bothering the young Man.  He suspected that it was a combination of all of these.

            Abe asked, “Then we can go home?”

            Malvegern nodded.  “I told the townsfolk and those of your parents who were there that we would search for you to send you home.  I suggest that you not go home for at least two to three days, and that each of you should appear rather unkempt so that they do not realize you have been in our safekeeping for as long as you have.”

            “What of my mum?” Fry asked, obviously remembering all too well why they had considered stealing the cup to begin with.

            Peredhrion’s expression lightened.  “One of the healers for the village of Archet has seen her and offered her care, and I was allowed to visit her ere we left.  Jimson told her why it was you had considered stealing the cup, and she was much relieved to learn that none of you actually was involved in the murder of Master Teasel.  The problem proved to be an abscess in her jaw; once it was lanced and cleansed and she began receiving proper herbs to fight the infection she started recovering rapidly.  I do not understand why the healer for Bree village had not done so.”

            Fry ducked his head.  “Missus Marshsweet and my mum—they’ve never got on well, not since my mum married my dad, what Missus Marshsweet had set her cap for years agone.  She wouldn’t agree to see Mum without us had paid her first, and we had none t’spare.”

            “I see.  Well, the headman for Bree had words with her, and paid for the healer to come from Archet himself.  She should be close to full healing when you get home again.”

            Fry had a watery smile on his face and appeared much relieved.  “So,” he said shakily, “all’s well as ends well, as they say.  We can go home again, and not have to go for robbers after all!”

            “Well, I’m all for that,” Ledo responded.  “I never liked the idea as we could end up wolfs heads from the start!”

******* 

            They broke camp in the morning and moved some miles further east along the road, and remained there for a day and a night.  They gave the lads from Bree enough to see them through another night and the tramp back home, and left them well provisioned and in good cover, knowing they’d now be welcomed back among their own.

            It was as sunset approached of that first day in the new camp, while the two of them were seeing to the horses, that Halbarad saw Peredhrion stiffen suddenly, standing as if he were hearing a sound he could not identify far off to the west.  Then there was a look of shock and surprise—and pain—that caused the hair on the back of Halbarad’s neck to rise.

            “What is it?” he asked, but Peredhrion apparently could not answer.  Halbarad turned and called out to Malvegern, and soon all were crowding about, wanting to understand what it was that was wrong. 

            Malvegern’s mouth opened in surprise, then closed with apparent understanding.   “Get the rest of these back to the camp,” he commanded Túrin.  “Peredhrion does not need them adding to his distress with their concern and questions.  Go, now!” he told the rest.  “See to it a meal is prepared, and tea—strong tea.  He will likely need it.”

            “Is it a fit of some kind?” demanded Dirigil.

            Malvegern gave him a stern look.  “No.  Now, go.  We ought to have been aware this could happen.  He was raised in Rivendell, after all.  Túrin?”

            The rest were all shepherded off by the quartermaster, leaving only Halbarad with Malvegern and Baerdion.

            Now it was Halbarad’s turn to demand, “What is wrong with him?”

            Baerdion exchanged looks with Malvegern.  “There is nothing wrong with him.  But he of the lineage of our Kings and Chieftains, after all.”  At the apparent blank expression Halbarad showed, he added, “It is the King’s Gift.  He said, did he not, that they would hang the Southerner near sunset today?  Yes?  Well, they apparently have done so, and he has felt it.  He will feel the griefs and the joys of all he comes to know as those whose lives he touches.  This is not uncommon amongst those who have ruled over us.  It helps make them better leaders, and less likely to turn to unnecessary violence or the form of injustice he saw yesterday in Bree.  Do you understand?”

            Halbarad found he did.  “Like me knowing that time that my sister had injured her foot.  Papa said that I appeared to have some of the King’s Gift myself.”

            Malvegern nodded.  “Yes, you do, as is true to a lesser extent of your father as well.”

            He turned to Peredhrion and placed his hands upon the young Man’s shoulders.  “It is well, our son.  This is the pain another feels, and it will very soon be over, if it is not done with yet.  You did what you could to see proper justice rendered, and I suspect you know that he was the one who most likely did kill Master Teasel.  Let him go now, and do not hold the pain to yourself.  I suspect this is not the first time he’s killed to get what he wanted, and most likely it would not have been his last time, either, had he not been caught.  But know that, yes, you have had a part to play in his doom, but that it was his own decision to do what he did and to keep company with others probably little better than he was.  It was his own actions that brought him to the hangman’s noose.  This is part of what you will always know now, now that you are engaged in finding your proper place amongst us.”

            Peredhrion’s eyes were haunted as he searched Malvegern’s face.  “I will feel this again?” he asked in a hollow voice.

            “Yes.  And it does not matter whether you are here or amongst the Elves of Elrond’s household—you are our rightful Chieftain and King.  You will know the echo of both the pain and the joy those who come to depend on you will experience.  Accept this, and learn from it.  You will need to order too many executed over time.  But you will also rejoice with the bride and the bridegroom, and with those who welcome new family members, and who merely rejoice to be alive and happy on a glorious day.  Now, sit and put your head down until you are calmer.  The others are preparing a meal, and they will have tea awaiting you.  Or perhaps you would prefer some wine?  I do have some in my gear, if Orominion has not found and ‘borrowed’ it.”

            Halbarad and his cousin both gave weak chuckles, and Aragorn sank heavily down upon a stack of saddles, his hand to his forehead.

            “So, as I was a part of the trial, such as it was that he knew, I must know when he was executed.”  He sighed.  “They tried to warn me, m--Master Elrond and the rest.  But one cannot know what it is truly like without experiencing it.”

            “They warned you?  Good!  Now, when you can, lift your head to see the glory of the Sun going to her sleep in the west.  And be glad that you did not order the death in this case.”

            “It could be worse yet?”  He looked alarmed.

            Malvegern nodded slowly.  “Oh, yes, child, it could be worse.  And one day it will be worse.  Just remember to let the joy in as it comes, too, for it will help to keep you grounded.”

            After a few minutes the young Man rose shakily to his feet.  His pace, however, was steady once more as they joined the rest back in the main camp.

            Baerdion remained behind to finish the work with the horses.

 

For HarrocatLiz for her birthday, with love.

The Battle of Lifewater Farm

            Baerdion offered to accompany the boys from Bree back to within an hour’s walk from the hedge that protected the town, after which he would watch from a distance to see them safely to the gates.  He would then follow after the rest of the troop.

            Malvegern gave a nod of assent.  “We will follow the Road back eastward, and will turn off to the northeast near Lifewater Farm.”

            “Leave a sign so that I might know where you left the Road and the specific route you take, and I will most likely catch up with you either sometime tomorrow or the following morning,” Baerdion suggested.  “And be careful, as we know that it is oft at the end of a patrol that things tend to get worse, when Rangers are more focused in the idea of returning home than they are on what is going on about them.”

            That, of course, was not the type of warning any of the young Men had wished to hear; but as Peredhrion was nodding his head as if this was already an accepted piece of wisdom for him, the others did not groan or argue.

            At last they were ahorse and on their way back toward Habaleg’s steading, most of their training patrol finished.  When they came upon the lane to a farmstead, Malvegern stopped to examine the wagon tracks leading off of the road.  “Come and examine these,” he commanded the young Men.  Once they were crowded around, he examined their faces, and at last said, “Let us see how our Elf trained tracker sorts out these wheel tracks.”

            Halbarad noted a slight flush to Peredhrion’s face as he came forward and crouched down to one side of the ruts left by wagon wheels, although his expression was neutral as was common with him.  “Thank you all for avoiding the tracks so as not to distort them or wipe them away,” he said to all at large, then leaned down further, cocking his head to the side, his eyes rapidly searching out all details and teasing out information.  “The wheel tracks were all left by one wagon, which last came out from the farm not quite two weeks past, remembering the weather and looking at the state of the horse dung through which the wheels rolled.  The rear wheel on the right is not properly aligned, leaning outward on its axle.  The driver sits on the right side of the bench, and used the brake to slow the vehicle as it came down the rise from the farm to the Road.  The driver is most likely a heavy Man, considering how more deeply the front wheels sank into the dirt than did the rear ones.  The wagon was largely empty when he last came forth, so I doubt he will have taken much to market.  He went west, most likely toward Bree, and was perhaps there when the Southerner was tried and condemned.  I could not say what errand took him away from his farm for this length of time.  He drove a team of two, although the wagon is usually drawn by four horses, indicating he usually has a good deal he carries both to and from the market.

            “They keep at least four draught animals and two horses for riding.  The horses have been ridden out twice since the wagon left the steading, the last time most likely yesterday.  On that occasion it appears that the riders were hunting, considering the greater depth of the hoof prints of the larger animal on its return and the flies on that blood spoor there.”  He pointed at a place where a cluster of flies gathered on a dark brownish stain some feet north of the road, before the lane reached the shadow of dusky elms.

            Malvegern was smiling.

            “They also have at least two, possibly three dogs, one larger hound and the other or others small dogs that yet appear to be adult.  The larger dog is male and has been out sniffing along the road within the last hour, and one can see the wet on the stake there with which they indicate the entrance to their lane where it has marked its territory.  The smaller dog or dogs accompanied an older child or a small woman down the road toward that wooded area where she most likely was picking berries yesterday.  It is difficult to be certain how many of the smaller dogs there are as the tracks circle the woman frequently as she walks, indicating it or they are her special companions.  She appears to have overfilled her basket or bowl, for there is a spill there.”

            Malvegern’s smile broadened, and Túrin was almost beaming.  “I think that you have done very well in teasing out the members of this family,” the young quartermaster said.

            Brendor was shaking his head with wonder.  “I never dreamed one could see so much by searching the ground!” he murmured.  Several others indicated their agreement with Brendor’s sentiment.

            “How did you learn all of this?” asked Finwë.

            Peredhrion shrugged.  “I was taught by the sons of Elrond, and they have been doing this for well over a hundred times my age.  They saw to it that I learned to see as much as was there.”

            “But where is the one with the wagon?” asked Brendor.  “If he went to Bree, one would think that he would have returned by now.  After all, we are but two or three days from there on foot.  He did not take anything of any weight for sale, you say.  So, why did he take a wagon?  Why not ride there upon a horse?  And why stay away for so long?”

            Malvegern nodded.  “You are asking the proper questions, Brendor.  These are the things we would wish to know if someone were to disappear and we must seek where they went and why.  It is why I wonder if we should linger nearby until the one who took the wagon should return—or not.  After all, all of those who dwell within Eriador are at least in part under our protection, even if they know it not, much less why we should care about their wellbeing.  But, we are the descendants of Númenor, and all who dwell in the lands that once comprised the kingdom of Arnor are our responsibility.”

            The young Rangers all exchanged looks, for this was a new thought for many of them.

            “We shall camp northeast of here,” he directed.  “Not a league to the east is a place where two tracks leave the road on the north side, one heading northeast and the other following the boundaries of the farm more directly northward.  We will go northward.”

            “How shall we notify Baerdion as to which direction we take?” asked Varadorn.

            They soon learned, although most of those who grew up in the Angle were at least somewhat familiar with the method.  A number of fist-sized stones lying alongside the Road were piled into a small cairn, and a flattened one that was already marked with what appeared to be an arrow was set atop it, with the point indicating the path they would take.

            “We use such cairns frequently to leave temporary directions to those who may come next.  This is a place where we often must choose which way we shall go, so you will almost always find loose stones lying here.  When Baerdion comes, he will note the direction we take, and then will kick apart the cairn that we not leave signs to lead enemies directly along our chosen path.”

            In the end they set up a camp east of the farm, which they learned was the Lifewater Farm Baerdion had spoken of the preceding day.  Malvegern began to instruct them:  “Once we had great cities here in the north; and farms, hamlets, and villages filled the land of Arnor.  I am told that there has always been a farm here for as long as the Men of the West have lived within Eriador.  How much longer such a farm may remain here, however, is a matter for conjecture.  The farm is far enough away from the mountains that trolls have never come here, save when the Witch-king’s people overran Arnor when Arvedui disappeared into the north, and rarely have even orcs come so far.  In the past ten years, since the Battle of Five Armies far east of the Misty Mountains, I fear that people have in many ways become too certain that our enemies are a thing of the past.  Always there have been farms and hamlets particularly along the East-West Road, but in the past two years there have begun to be attacks on such places, mostly by foreign Men intent on stealing cattle and swine, grain, tools, and such stores of weapons and treasure as they might find.  At its far northern border, Lifewater has a small lake fed by a spring that has never failed to produce good water.  The stream that leads from the farm runs westward to the Baranduin, feeding many farmsteads and hamlets along its route.  The soil is rich and its pastures have fed healthy herds of cattle and horses.  As the marauders have worked their way along the Road we have begun to find more homes and farms burned to the ground and their people slaughtered in their wake, and we fear those who dwell here may be soon targeted.

            “Those who have dwelt along the Road have always kept packs of dogs to guard them.  Two years ago a new plague of distemper swept along the road, one that this time left dogs dead everywhere it touched.  Where those who live on Lifewater Farm once had sixteen great mastiffs that guarded its boundaries, they had merely four dogs left a year ago—two larger dogs and two smaller dogs that bark to warn but serve primarily as companions to the wife and daughter of the farm.

            “That the wagon has been gone for at least two weeks as determined by Peredhrion is troubling indeed.  Yet two have ridden forth to hunt game south of the Road, which may indicate that their poultry, cattle, and swine may have known murrain or other diseases.  And one probably of the womenfolk has walked abroad guarded only by lapdogs to pick berries.  They are seeking out other sources of sustenance.  Now, this may merely be due to it being a time when berries and game are naturally plentiful, with the farm’s people desiring to enjoy such things whilst they are so readily available and to put by for the coming winter; or it may indicate problems with their herds and crops.  The current family that owns and runs the farm is as suspicious of our Rangers as are any who live in the Breelands, and do not welcome visits by us.  So, it has become difficult to ascertain just how precarious or certain their safety may be.”

            “If they don’t welcome us, then perhaps we should let them fend for themselves,” suggested Orominion.

            Both Malvegern and Túrin were shaking their heads, however.  “That is not our way,” Malvegern reproved him.  “Arvedui was King over all of what constituted Arnor, even the lands that now are known as the Breelands and the Shire.  He saw to the well-being of all who dwelt within his lands.  And we, as the descendants of his people, keep the faith that he did, whether or not those whom we guard appreciate it, as I said earlier.

            “Those of our people who have inherited the gift of foresight, those such as Dírhael and Ivorwen, have known troubling dreams and portents concerning the people surrounding and inhabiting Lifewater Farm.  And such warnings have been forwarded to Lord Halbaleg from Lord Elrond’s house as well.  The errand rider we sent word by as to our trip to Bree gave me this warning.

            “So, here we are, and here we will await the return of Baerdion, keeping an eye out for the approach of any enemies and offering such protection as we might.  Our patrol may be approaching its close, but we remain watchful to the end.  Is this understood?”

*******

            Watches were set, and those of the training patrol settled in for the evening and night.  Halbarad was to have the third watch, but when he awoke, Peredhrion, who’d had the first watch, was still walking the circuit of the camp, listening intently.

            “Why has Finwë not taken his watch?” Halbarad murmured softly.

            Peredhrion was shaking his head.  “Something is out there,” he murmured back, his attention still focused on that which was beyond the camp, somewhere to the east of them.  “I can see no movement, but I can feel danger drawing nearer, slowly but surely,”

            “You are gifted with foresight?” asked Halbarad.

            There was but the smallest of nods.  “I am told it is frequently known in our family,” he breathed.  “After all, Elrond of Imladris is distant kindred to us, and it is said that most descended from the Lady Lúthien are so blest.  My naneth has informed me that both of her parents have at least somewhat of the gift.”

            Thinking on his father’s parents, all Halbarad could do was to indicate his assurance that this was true.  “Although perhaps it is but the slightest of sounds that you hear,” he all but whispered.

            Again that least of nods.  “Perhaps.”  There was a time of quiet, and finally Peredhrion continued, “I knew I would not be able to rest, so I did not bother to call Finwë, wishing to know what it is that I sense.  But whatever it is comes close enough to threaten us.  Perhaps you should awaken Túrin.”

            Halbarad slipped away to the place where Túrin lay somewhat removed from where most of the young Men slept near to one another.  In moments the Man joined Peredhrion and Halbarad just outside the bounds of the camp.  “Tell me,” he said.  He listened to what Peredhrion had to say, and asked, “Which direction?  Have you a sense as to how far the danger might be?”

            Once he’d heard all of the younger Man’s report, he said, “It is not wise to ignore such feelings, not in the case of those in whom the gifts of the Mariner lie most strongly.  Halbarad, you are supposed to have this watch, correct?  Remain here, and quietly rouse the others—have them arm themselves.  And have all bows ready.  You,” he added to Peredhrion, “lead the way.  We shall seek out the source of this danger before it creeps closer.”

            Halbarad woke Malvegern first, and then the young Rangers as he found them about the camp.  Soon all were armed as best they could be on such short warning, and wordlessly Malvegern was directing them to such places of protection as the site provided, with those with bows directed up the slight rise that separated the camp from Lifewater Farm.

            It was Orominion who first spotted the movement from north of the farm as a number of forms moved closer to the buildings at the center of the place.  “They are circling about the house and outbuildings,” he informed Malvegern.  “I believe I saw dark lanterns!”

            “Curse them!” the Man spat.  He took Orominion, Damrod, Brendor, and Finwë with him, leaving Halbarad in charge of the rest, and set off to intercept the invaders.

            And so it remained for some time, with no one certain what was happening with either of the parties who’d left.

            Túrin returned first.  “We’d got not a quarter of a league when Peredhrion said he could smell orcs.  A moment later I could smell them, too.  A party of about twenty of the beasts was waiting in a defile for some signal.  Peredhrion watches them.  Where is Malvegern?”

            Halbarad told him, and Túrin, too, cursed the invaders.  “So, the warning that Lifewater Farm is in danger is proved true this night?  Well, my friends, shall we earn our places among the heroes of the Dúnedain?”  He gave directions to Halbarad and Dirigil as to how to find Peredhrion, and was setting the others in the best array he could so as to answer which force ought to be fought first as the two young Men crept away.

            Not long after they left the camp, Halbarad and Dirigil saw a flash of light above them.  “A flaming arrow!” Dirigil said.  “This must be the signal the orcs were awaiting!”

            They heard the sound of battle before they came to the edge of the defile in which Túrin had told them they would find the orcs.  They turned the opposite direction to where weapons clashed before they looked down, and both gave nearly soundless gasps of dismay as they saw that Peredhrion was facing the whole of the score of orcs alone. 

            “At least they cannot attack him in force in such a narrow place,” Halbarad realized.

            “But we are behind them,” Dirigil noted, and so saying both strung their bows and nocked arrows.

            The rest of the orcs did not notice the first three deaths of those behind them, but the fourth was hit in the shoulder and cried out, causing the others to turn to realize they now had enemies on both ends of their line.

            “Keep firing on those in the center!” Halbarad directed before dropping his bow and quiver, and with sword in hand he leapt down into the gully to face those orcs who were racing back toward him.  Just as the narrowness of the place had kept Peredhrion’s attackers to no more than one or two at a time, Halbarad also was able to keep his fight down to acceptable odds—or as acceptable of odds as fighting orcs ever proved.  And with those who could not face either young warrior bunched up in the middle, Dirigil was able to do even more damage to the orcs’ numbers before he finally fired the last arrow from his quiver.

            With that the young Man prepared to follow Halbarad’s example, only to hear Peredhrion command, “Stay there!  Deny the orcs the high ground!”

            Indeed two of the surviving creatures were seeking to climb the side of the defile, although they were hampered by their weapons.  Dirigil looked down at them, and suddenly smiled in grim satisfaction as he found a large stone and dropped it deliberately into the face of the one higher up on the slope, then kicked a second one after it.

            Then the fight was over.  “Twenty-two,” Peredhrion counted.  “More than I’d thought at first.”

            Dirigil saw to the dispatching of those four still moving, and he and Halbarad then dealt each unmoving figure another wound that would assure none would arouse later to follow them as they returned to the rest of the troop.  Halbarad explained the situation back at the farm while he retrieved his bow and quiver, and Peredhrion sighed. 

            “We will go, then.  I suspect that we are needed there,” Peredhrion said.  “Come!”

            With that they headed northwest, following the narrow way beaten down by the feet of those who’d gone before to enter the farm from the north, loping forward at a pace that ought not to leave them totally winded when they arrived.

            They all heard clashing blades, cries of effort, and grunts of pain before they came over one last rise to the site of battle.  One outbuilding was ablaze, and by its light they saw the raiders facing the young Rangers.  But none of the raiders appeared to be orcs—no, they were Men, Men dressed much like the Southerner who’d been hanged in Bree and, before him, those they’d taken prisoner far closer to the foothills of the Misty Mountains.  Dirigil, Peredhrion, and Halbarad arrived behind them, and Halbarad was able to take out two who were attempting to sneak up behind Malvegern before the others became aware of their presence.  There were two young Men who had joined the battle against the raiders, one armed with a hunting bow and the other with a hoe he’d been using to good purpose, and the raiders were now definitely outnumbered.  Turning, they ran northward, and pursued by half of the young Rangers led by Malvegern they fled the fight.  Neither Dirigil nor Peredhrion had the chance to raise their swords against this party.

            Seven of the raiders lay where they’d been cut down about the burning outbuilding, and two more further out where Halbarad’s arrows had found them.  One raider lay weeping in pain and shock where he’d crashed over a low fence into the herb garden, and eventually they found another huddled in the shadows of a smokehouse, clutching at a gaping wound in his side.

            But one of their own was dead, for an arrow had caught Bregorn in the side, and he’d died quickly due to blood loss.  “Not an arrow of ours, the Powers be thanked,” Peredhrion said, but all could see that his face was unnaturally pale and his brow taut with the loss.

            “Does he think that we would shoot one of our own?” demanded Orominion in a furious whisper of Túrin.

            Their quartermaster merely shook his head sadly.  “If you think that it does not happen, think again.  He may well have seen it before, riding with Elrond’s sons in the patrols from Rivendell.  If he’s not seen it, he will have heard of such things.  It happens too often, particularly when there are multiple parties involved arriving from different directions, and too often when the battle takes place at night in uncertain light.  It could well have happened tonight.”

            The two young Men who’d joined them proved to be the sons of the place, and realizing that someone was trying to fire the farm’s buildings but that others were seeking to deter them, they’d come out where they could assist in defending their home, swiftly finding themselves fighting alongside the young Rangers.  Berevrion returned from the race after the fleeing foe to report that Malvegern had managed to kill two more and to capture one additional Man, and he asked permission to move their camp onto the farm itself, near to the house so that they could imprison those they’d captured perhaps in a building upon the farm for the day and following night and so they could deal with whatever injuries there might be and learn how it was these foreigners were found upon a farm along the Road.  The two young farmers agreed, grateful for the help in staving off the attack on their home and property and willing to do almost anything to show their gratitude.

            “Will you allow me the use of a table so that I can help those who are wounded?” Peredhrion asked.  “This Man who has the wound on his side especially will need for me to cleanse the wound carefully and to close it.  I can do so kneeling down, but it is much easier if I can stand up while I work.”

            “We can do better than that!” one of the young farmers insisted.  “We will allow you to work within the house.”

            So it was that Peredhrion found himself working in the kitchen with lanterns and candles all about him and his patients laid out for him to work upon, there on the work table where usually food was prepared, Nardir standing alongside him to aid him as he might.  Bregorn’s body was washed and wrapped in linen given them by the lady wife of the farmer, then laid in a stone building where the residents kept halves of beef or mutton and such game as they took hanging until it was wanted within the house.

            Meanwhile the others who’d remained upon the farm moved their gear and horses onto the farm itself, and Túrin set up three tents near the paddocks for the use of the young Rangers and for those Peredhrion would be watching overnight.

            Day was well advanced when Peredhrion finished first with their prisoners and then with the last stitches needed by their own party, with Malvegern but recently returned with his prisoner.  Finwë had a wound to his left shoulder, and Varadorn had his head bandaged, with dried blood streaked upon his forehead and cheek; otherwise there was no more need for Peredhrion’s services as a healer, for which Halbarad found himself grateful.  The prisoner himself had been knocked senseless, but appeared to be fully alert now that he was back on the farm, and he was shouting abuse as he was bound and thrust into a stable box and locked in.

            At last all save Brendor and Dirigil, who were on watch, were brought into the great room of the farmhouse to be thanked by their hosts.  The farmer’s wife was indeed a small woman, perhaps just five feet tall—if that; her daughter was but a bit taller, a slight girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years.  There were indeed two smaller dogs, one of whom sat upon the girl’s lap, its ears alert as it watched the strangers crowded into the room, and the other seated upon the floor at the mistress’s feet, growling under its breath at any shuffling of feet.  The two greater hounds lounged between the family and their guests, the older one watching benignly, the younger obviously approving of these new acquaintances, rolling over to present its stomach to be scratched by Varadorn, who sported a new, clean bandage about his brow.

            Malvegern explained that he and his companions were heading east from Bree toward the mountains and had camped not far east of the farm, awaiting the coming of one of their number who had tarried in the Breelands and was expected to join them today or tonight.  “Not long before the dawning we became aware that there were others north of us, a fairly large party whose purpose we could not easily ascertain.  Túrin here went northeast with three others to spy upon the strangers, while the rest of us moved to where we could keep watch about your farm.  When Orominion spotted strange Men with what appeared to be dark lanterns approaching your outbuildings, we moved in to stop them as we could.  With the aid of your sons we sent those who survived fleeing northward, and we believe that your farm is now safe, at least for the foreseeable future.”

            “You are Rangers, are you not?” asked the woman.

            Malvegern bowed his head respectfully.  “Indeed, we are, lady,” he answered her.

            She examined the rest of the party.  “But these, for the most part, are little more than boys.  Certainly they are all of them much of an age with my sons there.  Why is there such a party of boys out upon the Road with two Rangers?”

            Malvegern gave her a tired smile.  “We seek to give the young Men of our people more knowledge of Eriador and those who dwell within it, Mistress.  We do not seek to give any who dwell within these lands any trouble, but all of our lives we have had to fight incursions from Men who come from north and south of us as well as of orcs, or goblins, and such trolls as come down from the Ettenmoors.  When we see strangers entering a farm we know to be held by honorable people, we will do what we can to protect those whose property and lives are endangered.”

            “As you did this night past,” she suggested.

            “Even so.”

            She nodded thoughtfully.  “You helped to save our barn and animals,” she commented, “not to mention our home and ourselves.  We owe you much.”  She sighed.  “And to think that for all my life I have thought you Rangers little more than vagabonds and ruffians yourselves.”

            His smile became sardonic.  “Considering the way we are treated in Bree, you are in good company.”

            She nodded, and finally pronounced, “We will welcome you to stay here for as long as is needed for your young Men to be sufficiently healed, those who were wounded, and rested to travel back to your homes.  Our hired hands have received word they are to give you anything you might need to provision your party for three days.  Why none of them came out to aid you and my sons we will not ask, but I suspect most of them will be finding different masters before the end of the year.”  Her voice was stiff with the thought that her own hired help had played the coward so.

            Now she turned to Peredhrion.  “So, you are trained as a healer?” she asked.  “You are young to take the healer’s knife in hand.”

            “I am told that my father had such training as well, Mistress,” he answered her.  “When I began watching those who raised me offering such aid to others, he who served as a father to me in the absence of my own sought to prepare me to do as much as I could to aid others who are ill or wounded.  He held that all of the gifts I had inherited should be fully trained, both those that served to protect others and those that offered ease to those who suffer bodily.”

            She smiled.  “It is not common that those trained to weapons also know how to ease the wounds those weapons cause.”  She rose to her feet, stretching, and the dog who’d sat by her rose, also, its tail straight over its back and its posture more relaxed, if still rather watchful.  “Go out to your place in the barnyard, and my hands will bring you food and drink.  I do believe you have more than earned it.”

            “One thing, Mistress,” Túrin interrupted.  “We have noted that your husband has been gone now for a fortnight or so.  Is there anything to worry about regarding his tardiness in returning to you?”

            Her eyes were wide as she examined him.  “You know that?  How?  Have you been spying upon us so long?” she demanded.

            Now it was Peredhrion that answered.  “No, none of us was near your farm ere late yesterday, lady.  But I noted as we passed the lane into your farm that the great wagon of the place has been gone for at least that long, and that it was not heavily laden.”

            She looked on him with wonder.  “Indeed it is so,” she admitted.  “My husband has been away at Staddle now for that long, but it is not until now that the long absence might be feared.  Nay, he went to his kinsman’s home there to fetch home young dogs to add to the number we keep.  Always we have had over half a score of hounds to protect the place, until two years past when the distemper hit all of the farms and hamlets along the Road.  We were left with these four—the two mastiffs and the two little ones.  Not that Allset and Bounder were the fiercest of our dogs to begin with.  Allset is now aged, and his teeth are not what they were, while Bounder was not even half grown when the others grew ill.  He was the only one of his litter that survived, the only one left of seven pups.  I fear that we have spoiled him utterly as a result, and I doubt he would have known what to do last night had he been outside when the raiders came.

            “Hobart is son to my husband’s mother’s sister, and both he and his neighbor had pups born this year.  Hob’s bitch whelped twelve, we are told, and the neighbor’s bitch had nine.  We have been promised half of Hob’s brood and four from the neighbor.  Ten new dogs we are to have!  And Carf intended to stay two weeks to test the dogs and to choose well which will suit our needs best.  This being so, we expect his return any time in the next three days.”

            Varadorn grinned.  “So, it is no wonder that he took the wagon unloaded and but two of the draft horses!” he exclaimed.  “It is no great weight bringing back young dogs!”

            She smiled politely.  “Indeed.  The dogs are related, but not all that closely.  We will probably send the bitches elsewhere to breed when it comes time for it that we not allow bad traits to set in hard within our kennel.”

            Finwë knelt down and held out his good hand for the little dog by her to sniff, and she bared her teeth and snapped at him.  He drew back.  “I think she would have done well last night,” he commented, rising to his full height again.  “She is more protective than these two together.”  He indicated the two mastiffs.

            The daughter laughed openly.  “Indeed, Malta takes her duties as our personal protector most seriously,” she said.  “While Ezra is happiest when he is being held.”  She rose also, setting Ezra down upon the floor.  “Come, I shall see you out the back and check to see that the promised meal is being prepared.  I hope that venison stew will be acceptable.”

            “Most acceptable!” declared Malvegern.  “Almost anything would be better than what we cook for ourselves!”

            And all were laughing as they made their way outside.

Rivalry

            Geldir son of Marmidion stood outside the kitchen door, waiting for Peredhrion to call him into the room to stitch the injuries he’d received to his wrist.  Túrin had pressed a quick dressing over the cuts, one of which had been rather deep, and wrapped it roughly about with a wide ribbon of cloth bandage, and told him he should be next seen by the young Man who’d been trained in healing by Lord Elrond.

            Geldir had been quiet much of the time during this training patrol, feeling somehow that he had little enough to add to what others said or did.  He was only eighteen, and most likely was not through growing taller.  Certainly he knew he had nowhere the muscles exhibited by Finwë, Orominion, Bregorn, or Peredhrion.  He was nowhere as tall as they were, either—he wasn’t even as tall as Halbarad or Damrod, although he was taller than Varadorn and was much of the same stature as Dirigil.  His beard was little more than a down upon his cheek and chin, although that was dark enough to show it would be the same ebon shade as his hair.  Perhaps the older young Dúnedain had looked at Peredhrion’s smooth cheeks without a trace even of the fuzz Geldir sported and dismissed him as a boy; but Geldir saw that of them all Peredhrion was the tallest, with a grown Man’s muscles, not those of a youth, and a jaw that was also that of a grown Man in spite of its beardless state.  He and three others of the younger recruits listened and did as they were told, and had learned to defend themselves and one another, but were all convinced that only one another understood or respected them.

            Will Lord Halbaleg ever honor me as I am told Lord Arathorn did my father? he wondered.  Marmidion had been promoted to a captaincy early in his career as a Ranger, and had served well until he lost much of the use of his left leg some seven years after the death of Lord Arathorn.  He was still well respected as one who truly understood the type of warfare the Dúnedain Rangers waged, and now he spent much time devising tools and weapons and protections to be used against their most common enemies, orcs and Mannish invaders from the remnants of Angmar to the north and from Rhudaur and Dunland to the south.  All of his life Geldir had patterned himself on what he knew of his father’s abilities and achievements, and it was one of his deepest wishes to become a Captain while yet in but his twenties.

            Peredhrion will do so, he thought.  No one will question it, not even Finwë or Orominion.  Of course, as Lord Halbaleg’s sons Halbarad and his brothers will be given positions of command early, while Damrod and Varadorn, being of the region about Lhûn, will have few to challenge their right to lead the Rangers there.  And in spite of their loud mouths, Orominion and Finwë are good warriors already.

            He had almost resolved that he would have to wait many long years for the recognition he knew he deserved when he realized that the daughter of this house was standing beside him, smiling.  “How very serious you look,” she commented.  “Do you ever smile?”

            He was so surprised that he found himself releasing the grasp he’d been maintaining upon the bandages wrapped around his wrist.  “What?” he asked, and flushed as he realized how vapid that exclamation must make him appear.

            “Oh!  But you were wounded, too!” she said.  “Are you waiting for the young healer to see to it?  But that bandage is all crusted through with blood, and your arm filthy.    I just came out, and he is busy over the one whose shoulder is so bad.  Let me clean this as I can and put a clean dressing upon it.  It does not do to allow dirt to remain near a serious wound.”

            “Would you?” he asked without even thinking about it, and he noticed the dimple in her cheek that showed as she nodded at him, smiling.

            She went inside and came out with a basin of clean water and several clean cloths.  She gently but deftly removed the bandage that was there already, exposing the wounds.  He saw the flinch she still sought to hide from him before she commented, “I see at least three wounds, this one the worst.  Let me clean off the dried blood and the dirt that is sticking to it.  It will make it easier for the healer when he can get to you.  Does it hurt?”  At his shake of his head she smiled again, looking up at him under her pretty eyelashes, commenting, “But, of course you would not admit that it hurts, any more than my brother Londo did when he cut himself upon the newly sharpened scythe last fall.  You young Men are all much alike, I suppose.  How brave you were, to see ruffians coming to our farm and to face them, not knowing how good or bad they might be with their own weapons.  I hope you realize how grateful we are to you for your courage and willingness to fight for people you don’t even know.”

            “Thank you,” he breathed as she bound the new dressing into place.  “You were very gentle.”

            She appeared surprised, then gave a truer smile than she’d given him before.  “And you are very kind,” she responded.  “I think he will be done soon.  Such a tall young Man he is.  Have you known one another all of your lives?”

            He shook his head, his mood growing more solemn.  “No, I’ve known him but six or seven weeks.  He grew up among the Elves, so he learned the skills of a healer and surgeon while yet young.  It is said that Lord Elrond, ruler of Rivendell, is the greatest healer and teacher of healers of both Elves and Men in all of Middle Earth.”

            “And this one is a good healer?”

            He nodded.  And she would be drawn to one such as he rather than to one such as I am, he thought.

            “He is very good looking, I suppose.  But I do not understand the braids in his hair.  I’ve not seen such things on Men before.  I bet that Mariessë, who is my Uncle Hob’s daughter, would think him quite the most handsome thing she has ever seen, all unusual as he is, but I like your looks better.”

            He did not realize it, but his eyes had grown round with surprise, and his mouth opened in wonder.  She smiled again as she poured out the water in her basin.  “I will help the others as I can,” she said.  Then she did something unexpected, leaning forward to peck a kiss upon his cheek.  She was flushing as she straightened.  “Thank you again,” she whispered before she disappeared again into the house.

            He was still standing, his wounded hand pressed to the place where she’d kissed him, when Halbarad held open the door to allow to the girl’s brothers to carry the one Peredhrion had been working on out to the tent set aside for those who’d been seriously injured.  “Are you next, Geldir?” Halbarad asked.  “Peredhrion will be washing his hands, and then will see to your wounds.”

            The girl was refilling her shallow basin with warm water from a kettle, and grabbing up another small store of cloths and bandages she went out again, flashing him a smile as she backed out of the door.

            Halbarad swiftly wiped off the surface of the table where Peredhrion had been working with clean water in which the King’s herb had been steeped, and set a sheet of toweling over it before indicating that Geldir should sit upon it.

            As Peredhrion returned to the table with clean instruments, he examined the bandage on Geldir’s wrist with some surprise.  “It is clean, except for that bit of blood there,” he noted.

            Geldir nodded.  “You see,” he began, then remembered he had no idea as to the girl’s name, “well, she cleaned it for me, saying it would be better if there were no dirt on the wounds.”

            “Her name is Adiella, I’ve learned, Geldir, and she is most right,” the taller young Man agreed, carefully undoing the fresh bandage.  “Although this means that it will have been dressed three times by the time I am through with it.  But I often was charged with helping cleanse wounds before the proper healers came to see to appropriate treatment back when I was doing my training, so I appreciate her aid.  It is perhaps a sign that I am now indeed the master healer m-Master Elrond named me.”

            Once he had the wounded wrist laid bare, he examined it carefully, cleansing it again with a clean cloth he’d dipped into the basin in which athelas had been steeped.  Geldir felt his body calm, and he seemed to smell the patch of peas that grew outside his family’s cottage and the larch trees that grew beyond the vegetable garden. 

            Peredhrion was also smiling as he more closely examined the wounds.  “This one needs only to be bound to close properly,” he said, “although these other two will each need to be stitched.  The edges are straight and the wounds clean of any debris.  There may be some additional minor seepage of blood, but nothing more.  I will redress the wounds tonight and tomorrow, and as long as you keep a fresh bandage about them to keep them clean, they ought to be ready to have the stitches removed in a week’s time.”  He looked up to meet Geldir’s eyes.  “You are fortunate—had this cut occurred here rather than there, you might well have lost the use of your thumb.  Do you wish to bite upon something?”

            Anxiety stung at the youth as he looked down at the wrist again, but he shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “I don’t think that I need that.”

            Peredhrion smiled with approval as he met the younger youth’s eyes once more.  “Then look at my face rather than at your wrist, and all will be well.  It may hurt a bit, but far less than it did when the cuts were first made.”  He looked down and lifted a curved needle already threaded with dark silk, and taking the young Man’s arm below the wounds in his other hand, he began setting the stitches.  “I saw you fighting as we approached,” he commented, “you, Hedron, Mardos, and Huor.  The four of you have always worked well together, I’ve noticed, and without demanding the acclamation of your deeds that some others have insisted upon.”

            Geldir was surprised, and felt a warmth growing within him.  He’d not thought anyone other than Malvegern noticed how well or badly the four of them did, and to know that they’d been noticed favorably by Peredhrion of all people pleased him beyond his imagining.  “You mean, like Orominion?” he asked, greatly daring.

            Peredhrion gave a small, almost soundless laugh.  “Indeed, although do not mention this conversation to him if you do not wish to experience the sharp side of his tongue.  He does not bear well with what he sees as criticism of his skill with his weapons.”

            “I know,” Geldir said.

            “Do the four of you all come from the same settlement or village?”

            And so it was that as Peredhrion stitched and dressed the three cuts one last time Geldir was able to know a true conversation with the taller young Man for the first time during the patrol, and when at last Peredhrion indicated he should go and call in the next waiting beyond the door Geldir felt with elation as if they were fast friends already.  There was something about the tall Dúnadan that let one know that he was truly interested in the one with whom he spoke, and that he did indeed care about that person as well.

*******

            Geldir found himself helping as best he could to unload a light farm wagon that had been sent with Túrin to retrieve the young Ranger’s gear from their camp, and then to see the horses cared for and released into the paddock near where their new camp had been set up.  Then he and the others who’d been wounded were told to bed down for an hour, after which they were brought into the farmhouse to receive the thanks of the mistress of the farm. 

            On his way out afterwards he paused in the doorway to speak with the daughter of the house.  “I wish to thank you, young mistress Adiella, for your aid to me earlier in the day, and for your kindness.”

            “You learned my name?” she asked, apparently pleased.

            “I did.  And mine is Geldir.”

            She smiled.  “It is a pleasure to know you, Master Geldir.”

            He clasped her fingertips for a moment, and thought that never had he felt such smooth hands in spite of the evidence she did much of the work ordinarily done about farms by the womenfolk.  He then bowed his head respectfully and went on, glancing back to find her watching after him.  There was quite the bounce in his step as he made his way back to the camp by the paddock.  He’d fought well and had suffered wounds that were serious, but not too serious; he’d been spoken with by Peredhrion, who had praised him for the protection he’d offered these people last night; he’d not cried out while his wrist was stitched; and a lovely girl had looked at him with admiration and had kissed his cheek.  So many blessings in but one day!

            But someone behind him spoke his name.  “Geldir!”  He turned to find Peredhrion behind him, his face beyond being chalky—it was grey with fatigue and pain, and his right leg trembled visibly.  “Geldir, can you help me?  Now that the need is over, I fear my own injury has caught up with me.”

            Geldir found himself ducking beneath the taller young Man’s shoulder, and Peredhrion was balancing himself with difficulty by putting his arm around the smaller youth.  Others coming out of the door stopped in surprise, until Malvegern came out and saw the situation. 

            “What is this?” the Man demanded, then was calling, “Halbarad—Orominion!  Come—immediately!  Here—make a seat by crossing your arms and taking one another’s wrists.  We will have to carry Peredhrion back to the healer’s tent.  When did this happen?  Did you step wrongly coming out of the door?  Yes, Geldir—guide him to sit down upon their crossed arms—yes, like that!”

            Peredhrion sat down just before he collapsed completely, and was carried between the two other youths to the tent where the two injured captives lay deeply asleep with Dirigil keeping guard over them, placing him upon a pallet originally intended for Finwë, whose injury, while yet more serious than what Geldir had endured, had proved to be less than it had first appeared.  Finwë had rested but a short time before rising and going out to assist as best he could until he was shooed off to sit upon a chopping block in the sun.  Geldir knelt to remove Peredhrion’s left boot while Halbarad did the same for the other.  “I am glad this is of this Elvish design rather than ours,” Halbaleg’s son commented as he removed the lacing completely, “or I suspect it would have had to have been cut off of him.  See how much the ankle has swollen?”

            Túrin took over from the others, carefully feeling the ankle and foot, which Geldir was impressed to see sported several dark shades of bruising.  “Can you wriggle your toes?” he asked.  Peredhrion could do so, although it plainly caused him near agony, as did any touch to the injured limb.  “It all feels to be in the proper alignment,” the quartermaster continued.  “If there is a break, I suspect it is merely of a toe, and most likely the break was not due to it having hit something but rather from the pulling of the muscles to cause such a sprain.  When did this happen?  It obviously was pulled some hours since, considering the colors of the bruises and the amount of swelling.”

            “It happened in the last hours of the night,” Peredhrion admitted, his face tight with pain.  “When I leapt down into the gully to face the orcs, I didn’t leap out far enough, and landed on the angled side rather than the bottom, and just rolled back onto my feet again.  I put down the pain as best I could, for I knew I must fight them for my life, and shortly thereafter Dirigil and Halbarad arrived and began loosing arrows on them from behind.  Then Halbarad leapt down as I had done, but did it properly, while Dirigil kept firing upon those between the front and back of the line while Halbarad and I used our swords, and soon enough all twenty-two were dead.  Then we had to run to see what aid we might offer to those who fought against the Mannish raiders here on the farm.  Again, I pushed down the pain, for we knew not what we might find here, only it was all but finished when we arrived.  I was last in line by that time, and I think that only Halbarad did any good, for he was able to take out those two who were seeking to take you from behind, Malvegern, using his bow.

            “And then there were the wounded to care for, and again I managed to push down the pain as was needed, but now that all needful is finished it refuses to stay pushed down further.”

            Malvegern gave a deep sigh of exasperation.  “You right fool!” he sputtered.  “Such a sprain and you not only stood and fought upon it, but ran all the way here, and then stood how many hours since, working upon the wounded?  You could possibly have lamed yourself for life!  And we cannot have that!”

            Peredhrion’s face went stony.  “I did what I must.”

            “Túrin could have dealt with the wounded!  He’s had training.”

            “You yourself first recognized that as I have been trained by Elrond himself it is I who ought to take the brunt of the work as healer and surgeon.”  The young Man’s voice was colder than Geldir could imagine being used by a mere trainee responding to a dressing-down by their patrol captain.  “And how would Túrin have done with either of these?”  He indicated the two seriously wounded captives.  “I am not certain that I have done the one who fell upon the fencing for the garden much good, for one of the pales impaled him, and there was a tear to the gut I had to mend.  I have flushed it all as well as I can, but such gut wounds all too often cause the whole of the body cavity to become inflamed and infected.  As for the other—there were several layers of stitches I had to use to close up his wound, and it, too, had to be flushed several times, with both salted water and water in which athelas has been infused.  I also needed to leave a drain in each of them that I will need to examine frequently.  I am uncertain that either will survive.”

            “Perhaps,” Orominion commented dryly, “it would have been best to let them both go rather than to waste your time upon them.  After all, it is likely that both will need to be executed eventually.”

            It was difficult for Geldir to decide which looked at Orominion more coldly, Malvegern or Peredhrion.  Halbarad looked from one to the other before turning to Orominion and directing him, “Go and get Peredhrion’s saddle.  He will need to keep his foot raised no matter what.”  Nods from the two full Rangers confirmed this order, and Orominion disappeared swiftly from the tent. 

            “He is an ass,” commented Túrin in a low voice.

            “As his father was when young, as I remember it,” agreed Malvegern.  “I wish Baerdion were here.  He would teach the young wolf some manners and maybe, just maybe might turn him into a good dog eventually.”

            Peredhrion was brushing his hair back from his face when Túrin caught at his arm.  “And you have a nasty cut to the back of the hand, and bruises to your arm and shoulder,” he said, pulling back the fabric of the young Man’s sleeve and then the collar to examine him more closely.  “I know these garments need cleaning, and I must needs examine the rest of you to see what your fall left you with.  There are times when even the healer must submit to the same offices he gives others.  Let us get that shirt off of you.”

            Some moments later Geldir was sent out of the tent with Peredhrion’s now filthy garments, with orders to gather the same from the other trainees and to see if he could get the use of a wash tub or two and set those garments that were bloody to soak so that they might be cleaned the following day.

            “Geldir?  Is there something you need?” 

            He turned to find Adiella nearby, Ezra standing by her shoes.  “A washtub,” he explained.  “All of us fought hard, and our clothes need cleaning desperately.”

            She nodded, and led him into the wash house, pointing to a tub he could use.  One of her brothers came by carrying the bridles of the horses used to draw the wagon to put back where they belonged, and he nodded and called to his brother to help carry water into the wash house for their guests’ laundry.

            “It is too late today to clean them, but hopefully by morning the dirt and—and blood will be loosened enough to clean properly,” she said.  “I will have some of the salt in our store poured into the tub to help while they soak.  Shall I help you fetch in the other clothing that needs cleaning?”

            Geldir had just received Varadorn and Damrod’s clothing and was headed back once more to the wash house, glad to have the last of it, when he heard Adiella’s voice raised in some anger about the corner of the place.  There he found Orominion had the girl backed against the wall of the place, speaking in a low voice to her, a most obvious leer on his face.  Geldir saw black before his eyes, and he stepped forward as Adiella spoke.

            “I have told you, sir, that I do not wish to offer you any such thing as you demand.”

            “But you gave such a sweet kiss to that boy earlier in the day.  You could not do the same for me?”

            “She told you no, Orominion.  You had best let her go!” Geldir said, stepping forward and raising his hand to pull at the older youth’s shoulder.

            He had to admit to himself that the only reason Orominion turned was to see who it was who’d grabbed him so, not due to any real strength shown by Geldir.  Orominion’s expression darkened.  “So, she has a defender, has she?  And you think that you can do me any real harm, do you, child?  And she would rather kiss you than a true Man?  We shall see about that!”  So saying, he shook off Geldir’s hand and stepped back to face the shorter trainee more directly, and with a sneer he charged forward. 

            Only Geldir had studied wrestling with his older brother under their father’s direction for years, and he knew well how to deal with a charge by a larger opponent.  “Don’t allow someone larger to wrap you about or put both his hands upon you if you can help it.  Let his own rush work against him,” his father had said countless times, and Geldir waited to the right moment to grasp Orominion about the wrist and turn the rush into a flip through the air, with Orominion landing flat upon his back in the dirt.  Too bad!  Geldir had meant to get him upon his face!  The taller youth was on his feet in an instant, and had learned to beware the younger boy’s grasp, but he was now angry and had been shamed before a woman, and was intent on getting swift revenge.  Geldir backed away, and sidled a bit to give himself more room to maneuver by going behind the wash house.  Orominion made a few lunges, each time pulling up before Geldir could catch his arm again, seeking to put the boy’s back against the wall to the building, and at last after a feint to the left he rushed from the right, giving a swift glancing blow that left Geldir sprawling in the dirt.  Geldir was back on his feet swiftly enough, but he was now warier than ever of his opponent, and he pretended to favor his right shoulder.  Again with a sneer on his face, Orominion sought to catch him, and this time Geldir managed to flip him over the low fence to the pig pen.  The shoats, shocked by this intrusion into their meal, stampeded to the other side of their yard, grunting and squealing as they turned to watch the young Man rise from their trough, wiping potato peelings and darkened lettuce from his face.

            “Why, you—you—you bastard!” exclaimed Orominion, seeking to step over the wall to the pen but catching his foot and falling on his face in the muddy soil extending beyond the pen’s wall.

            There was a shout of laughter from those who’d come to see the source of the sounds of battle they heard, and Orominion’s face flushed the more as he pulled himself upright.  But as he stepped forward intent on launching still another attack, someone grabbed him again by the shoulder, this time someone he could not shake off in his blinding rage.  Baerdion spun him around most effectively.  “So, you are fighting with a younger boy a good head and more shorter than you, are you, Orominion?” Malvegern’s second said.  “What a thing to find as I just arrive here where you are encamped.  And why is it you are not where I expected you on the way back northeast but here on Lifewater Farm?”

            When Orominion responded by trying to strike away his hand, Baerdion backhanded him once more to the ground.  “I would not suggest you ever try such a thing with me again, boy,” the big bear of a Man said in a carefully controlled tone.  “Or to any other trainee in this patrol.  Do you understand?”

            Somehow this got through to Orominion’s awareness, and he sat there, wet, muddy, and covered with pig slop, and nodded slowly at Baerdion.  No one offered a hand to help him to his feet, and he limped back to the tent where the young Rangers had been changing their clothing to again divest himself of his now fouled garb, full of impotent fury.

*******

            Baerdion joined them in their meal and gave his report to all of the party at once.  “I saw the boys from Bree back to the east gate, and watched from afar as they went in.  All were greeted civilly, so at last I came away, content that they were safe enough as of their arrival.  As I rode I found myself coming upon a wagon headed in this direction, a heavy farm wagon filled with young dogs!  A young Man on a plough horse accompanied him.  The young Man had a cudgel at his belt, and I later learned that the farmer also had an even larger one beside him on the wagon bench.  On realizing that I was overtaking them, they pulled to the side of the Road and waved me on around them.  The younger Man had allowed the largest of the dogs out of the wagon, and it sat beside his horse with the young Man holding it on a leash that did not allow it to lunge at me, although the snarl I saw on its face was threat enough.  I nodded civilly to them as I passed, and continued on, but at a slower walk, interested to see what they would do.

            “They pulled in behind me, and followed at my pace, their eyes always upon me to determine how much of a threat I might pose them.  As we approached the western bounds of Lifewater Farm I realized someone was hidden behind the trees on the northern side of the Road, so I loosened my sword.  But the hidden ones did not offer me any open threat, allowing me to pass them, perhaps unaware that I recognized they were there.  Once the wagon came even with them, however, things were different.  I do not believe they noted the cargo, or perhaps they would have allowed the wagon to pass them also.  It proved to be about six Men afoot, all torn and bloody, two missing any weapons, who were apparently intent on taking the wagon and its horses and probably the young Man’s horse as well.  The youth let the dog he held loose, and the farmer reached behind him to pull loose a rope that had kept the other dogs in their places within the wagon.  All of them dragging short leashes behind them, they rushed on the Men, and of course I, too, turned to join the fray.  The farmer realized I was fighting for them, and so turned to use his cudgel upon the strange Men, and soon two were dead, two running, and one was lying upon the ground insensible.  The last was clutching his wrist, where I’d struck away his hand.  I bound it as best I could, and we loaded the two prisoners into the wagon and came to the lane to the farm, at which I was invited to become their guest.  Imagine how surprised we all were to find you lot encamped here, also as honored guests!  As we were learning from Túrin of your encounters with these Southerners the sound of a battle occurred behind the wash house, and I found that young Geldir here had managed to pitch Orominion into the pig pen, where the inhabitants were most definitely not approving of the fool’s company.

            “So, there you have it.  Now, give me the details of your battle, and where is Peredhrion, for I would have him deal with the now one-handed Man?”

            It fell to Túrin to deal with the maimed prisoner, although the most he could do was to set a torch alight so as to cauterize the wound, then cleansed it as much as possible.  He had passed out prior to their arrival, so all was done with a minimum of additional pain on his part.

            Halbarad led Baerdion to the site of the defile in which he and Peredhrion had fought the orcs with Dirigil’s assistance, and Geldir and Huor went with them to see to the burial of the creatures.  A small dire wolf and a pair of foxes were busy at the bodies when the party arrived, but it was still apparent how effectively the three young Rangers had dealt with this threat.

            “I do not like it that Dunlanders were apparently in alliance with a party of twenty-two orcs,” Baerdion grumbled.  “Now, how best to deal with the carrion?  I would not wish for the local scavengers to be poisoned by eating orc flesh.”

            In the end they did much as they’d done before with those orcs who’d attacked them near the Misty Mountains, and brought down the walls of the gully to cover them deeply, laying larger rocks over the pile of earth so as to hold the bodies in place even should a heavy rain cause water to run through the gully again.  Baerdion gathered samples of the swords and knives carried by this party.  “Never have I seen the like of these in the keeping of the orcs I’ve fought in the past,” he commented.  “And the iron is itself blackened, not just smeared with filth and poisons as we usually see.  I must bring them to the attention of Lord Halbaleg and our Council.  There is apparently a new enemy at work here in Eriador.”

            They arrived in full dark, tired and dirty but filled with satisfaction they’d done a good job of it.  Baerdion went to report to Malvegern, who was sitting by the fire with the farmer.  The sky was growing cloudy, and it was obvious it was likely to rain before dawn.  Many of the young Rangers already had fetched out their cloaks, Orominion among them, although he wore his cloak more to hide the fact he was nearly naked as the rest of his clothing was all soaking in tubs in the wash house, and no one else was willing to share their garb with him.  Hedron told Geldir with a laugh that when Finwë caught Orominion trying to “borrow” a shirt, he’d slugged the brash borrower with his good hand. 

            “That’s how he ended with the black eye he’ll be sporting tomorrow,” the younger trainee said with satisfaction.

            Orominion, hearing the sound of laughter across the camp and rightly assuming it was at his expense, glared at them but dared not do more.

            All were sent to their bedrolls, and the new dogs were brought out to sniff at them and be assured these were welcome on the place.  With that all of the young Rangers fell asleep, and Baerdion took the watch for the whole camp.

*******

            A latrine had been dug, with the permission of their hostess, beyond the barn, near the site of the tool shed that had been burned down by the raiders.  When Geldir was awakened by the need to visit that latrine, he saw that another of his fellows was already headed that way, and carefully throwing off his blanket roll, he made to follow.  As he came around the barn, however, he heard voices.  “So,” said someone he’d not heard before, “you'd insult my neighbor’s cousin, would you?  And you sought to beat the one of your fellows as sought to protect her and her virtue?  Perhaps we should set you straight on the proper way to act with young women.”

            There were three young Men facing Orominion, who stood with his cloak wrapped closely around him, Adiella’s two brothers and the young Man who’d accompanied the farmer back from Staddle.  They rushed forward and lifted Orominion among them, carrying him north, kicking and screaming, until they came to the stream that exited the lake.  The land here was swampy, and there they pitched him into the mud, standing back with their boots blackened by their own brief entrance into the swamp, and laughed at him.  “This,” announced one of the brothers, “is how we treat those who insult our sister.  We may not always be kind to her, but then we are her brothers!  That is our right and perhaps dubious duty, but not yours!”

            With that, the three young farmers lounged off, back toward the house, and Geldir laughed aloud as he returned to the latrine, fairly certain that Orominion had most likely no further need of it that night, probably having lost the contents of bowels and bladder as he flew into the swamp.

For Lady Branwyn for her birthday.

Rest and Recovery

            Not long after Geldir returned to the camp Baerdion came to wake them all up with directions that all were to move into the hayloft of the barn, as already a light rain had begun, and indications were it would grow worse before it was finished.  No one demurred at this change to their orders, although there were a few groans given by those who’d been injured as they found how stiff they now felt.  Halbarad saw that Orominion was wrapped in a blanket rather than his cloak, and wondered just what he’d been up to this time.

            They awoke to the greying of morning to find that there was a full downpour out in the farmyard, and all were grateful not to necessarily have to do anything today.  About midmorning the rain lightened some, but the gap was filled with a thunderstorm, and all who were not set to the washing detail huddled near the upper opening into the haymow to watch, all happy they weren’t out getting further soaked.

            Finwë stood at the back door of the barn, which looked west, looked up as best he could to the door into the haymow and commenting, “I pity anyone who must be out in that weather.  At least we have good reason to stay where we are for the duration of the storm.”

            Those upstairs indicated their agreement.

******* 

            One of the lightning strikes had downed a tree close by the road just as Lady Ivorwen, accompanied by her younger son Sedras and four others, were riding by it, and Ivorwen’s mare was so startled she threw the woman and took off southward.  Two of those with them headed out after the horse, but she’d thrown a shoe during her flight and was not fit to ride further.  But neither was Lady Ivorwen in any state to ride herself once they returned with the poor mare, for she’d taken quite a tumble and it was feared she might have broken an arm and possibly her shoulder. 

            “We must find shelter!” Sedras exclaimed.

            One of the others pointed.  “Lifewater Farm is not a league distant.  We can possibly claim shelter there.  They will not turn away someone injured upon the Road.”

            “Not if the injured one is a woman, at least,” agreed Sedras.  “Let us hurry to get my mother out of the wet before she can take a chill.  She is game enough, but not young any longer by anyone’s standards.”

            With her arm immobilized to the best of their abilities, Sedras took his mother up before him, and they rode on, leading the lady’s horse, hoping no further disasters could come upon them before they reached Lifewater Farm.

            They found the lane to the farm at last and turned into it, glad that the thunderstorm had moved eastward, although the heavier rain that followed it had drenched them, managing to penetrate even Lady Ivorwen’s riding cloak; and with her dress underneath wet and bedraggled from her fall, she was shivering in her son’s embrace.  “It should be but moments now ere we are given shelter, Mama,” Sedras assured her as they passed under the elms, through which the heavy rain was penetrating far more easily than might be expected.  “Hold on, and we will arrive.”

            When they reached the dooryard at last, one of their companions slipped from his horse and knocked upon the door.  A slight girl, apparently a maid of all work, answered the knock, a look of exasperation on her face.  “More people to disturb the household?” she asked, looking beyond the Man at the door to those who were helping Lady Ivorwen to dismount.  “A lady, alone amongst you?  Is she hurt?  Oh, do bring her in, and I’ll see the Master and Mistress and let them know that it’s raining even more visitors!  Wait here, please.”

            With that she disappeared into a nearby room to make her report. 

            “Get more towels, then, girl, for this lady.  She must be soaked to the skin.  How many are with her?  Five Men?  Let those in the patrol know, please, and get the towels, and perhaps a blanket as well.  Oh, but when it rains it does pour!” 

            A woman emerged from the room, clearly the Mistress of the farm, her step purposeful.  “I am Andradë of Lifewater Farm.  I am told that there is a lady in distress here?  Do let me see, please.  Please forgive my husband, but he is but newly returned last evening from Staddle and has much to see to elsewhere about the farm.  We had some trouble two nights ago, you see, although all came out well enough.  Mistress, may I see you?  Ah, but you must be wet through!  What led you to travel along the Road on a day like today?  It’s not fit weather for Man or beast!   Bring her into the great room by the fire so that she might warm herself.  You have horses?  Londo!  Take these Men around so that they might stable their horses.  Bring them back in by way of the kitchen, will you?  Now, off with you.”

            “Even more visitors?” one of the others commented quietly to Sedras.  “How many visitors do they have, I wonder?”

            Sedras could only shrug as he set his mother upon her feet and helped her after their hostess.

            The situation that led them to need shelter was explained as toweling and blankets were brought and Ivorwen was seated by the fire, a warm cup of tea pressed into her hand.  “I was doing well enough until a bolt of lightning struck closely enough to frighten my Rohel,” she explained.  “Then I was rolling across the road, and I fear I am covered with mud from one end to the other.”

            She was not exaggerating, and Mistress Andradë, offering her a dampened thick cloth with which to wipe her face, indicated she would have her sons bring in the copper tub and set it before the kitchen fire so she could bathe.  “Although I doubt I have aught you could wear other than an older nightdress and dressing gown, Mistress Ivorwen.  But hopefully that could help you until we can see your own clothing cleaned.  Now, let me take your cloak.  We can let it dry in the kitchen and see whether it can be brushed clean or must needs be laundered.”

            But as she reached to take her guest’s cloak, Ivorwen cringed with intense pain, barely suppressing a cry.  Startled, the Mistress of Lifewater Farm drew back, pulling the filthy cloak to her, shocked to see she’d exposed a roughly wrapped sling and bandage about the older woman’s shoulder and upper arm.

            “It is where I landed when I fell from my horse,” Ivorwen sought to reassure her hostess, clutching against the pain of her shoulder.

            “Perhaps the young healer should see her,” suggested Adiella.

            But her mother was shaking her head.  “Your father and brothers tell me he was himself injured whilst fighting those who sought to attack us, and they don’t wish him to rise from his cot as yet.  They’ll barely allow him to see to those who lie with him, whose lives he saved with his healer’s knife and needle.”

            Ivorwen and her younger son exchanged shocked looks.  “Young healer?” breathed Sedras.

            Ivorwen’s face had begun to show a hopeful look.  “Could it be?”  She turned quickly, ignoring the additional pain caused by the movement.  “You have other guests?  Are they a party of young Rangers?”

            “You know of such people, there where you dwell?” asked the mother.

            “Certainly, for they are our own, as we are theirs,” answered the older woman.

            “You are of the people of the Rangers?”  Andradë sounded as if the idea threatened her credulity.

            Ivorwen gave a brief and almost bitter laugh.  “Did you think that the Rangers came of no families, had no people of their own?” she asked.  “We live mostly far east, north and south of you along the mountains, or in the hidden places north of Dead Man’s Dike; but we are indeed a people in our own right, one that has dwelt within what is now Eriador for all of this Age of the Sun and more.  My son here and I, along with our companions, were visiting a site that is of reverence for us, and I chose to return home by coming south along the Greenway to take the Road from Bree to the Mountains of Mist back to our own lands that I might see more of Eriador than I have seen in the past two decades.  Who might have guessed that this storm should rise out of the Sea to drench us in this way and leave us subject to your hospitality?  To come and find that our young people are also caught here by the storm, and to learn that they apparently fought to destroy a threat to you and your farm—that is a blessing none of us expected.”

            “Then you know these young Men?” asked the farmer’s wife.

            “Most of them, although perhaps not all of them, or not as yet.  Our villages are by needs small and hidden, for we are often attacked by orcs and by enemy Men from both north and south.  Some of our more distant villages few of us visit save at great need.  Tell me—does this young healer of whom you have spoken dress in Elven style?”

            Adiella brightened.  “Is it then indeed Elven fashion, to have such long hair with the forelocks braided, and the strangely cut clothing?  Oh, it is lovely enough, I think, but still strange to us.”

            Ivorwen again shared a quick glance with her son.  “Yes, it is the fashion known in Rivendell, from the home of Elrond Half-elven.  There this one young Man has dwelt, we are told, for most of his life, his father having been well known to Lord Elrond’s sons and they feeling that they owed it to the memory of the Man to take in his widow and child after he was slain by orcs.”

            “And Elves would teach this child of Men healing?” Andradë asked.

            Sedras and his mother both nodded.  “So they have done,” he agreed, “since before the end of the Second Age, should the Man demonstrate he has a gift for it.”

            It was clearly a new thought for both Andradë and Adiella to ponder upon.

            At that moment others could be heard coming forward through the house.  “I doubt as there’s more correction needed, what with one of your’n tossing the young rascal into the pigpen and my two and Hob’s boy throwing him into the soft land by the lake,” a Man could be heard saying.  “But from what my wife and daughter tell, there’s a good chance as he’s no clothes to wear today, what with all that was brought to the wash house last eve.  And with this rain, most like none of it will be dry before tomorrow.”

            “He will still be expected to offer a sincere apology for the insult given,” another voice said, one Sedras knew well.  “Our young Men are expected to behave well toward those we might be among, and what he said and tried to do is not tolerated amongst us.  I will tell you this—had he tried such a thing with one of our young women he would most likely be walking bowlegged for at least a fortnight, and her brothers or other kinsmen would have done more than pitch him into a marsh.”

            Neither Sedras nor Ivorwen was surprised to see Malvegern and Baerdion entering the room along with the Master of Lifewater Farm.  The two Rangers, on the other hand, were immobilized by the sight of their Steward’s mother and brother sitting in front of the fire in the great room of the farmhouse.  “Lady!” exclaimed Malvegern, finally stepping forward.  “What are you doing here, of all places within Eriador?”

            “We might ask the same of you, Malvegern,” Ivorwen said, setting her cup down and pulling the blanket with which she was wrapped more closely around her.  “This was not the route we’d expected your patrol to take, here this far west along the Road.”

            “We had an unexpected need to visit Bree,” Malvegern explained.  “Baerdion stayed behind so as to see some young Breelanders we found wandering out in the wild returned to their people, and so we were camped east of here awaiting his return when we realized that enemies were closing in upon this farm.”  He turned to face Sedras.  “They included Men from Dunland and a party of great orcs such as we’ve not seen before, particularly large and muscular, and carrying swords unlike what we have ever seen such creatures use.  Baerdion has them out with our goods.  We’d intended to show them to Halbaleg and the Council.  Perhaps Gandalf could identify them, if we can find out where he is.  After all, he has traveled much further afield than any of ours.”

            “Gandalf?  You mean that wandering conjure-man?” demanded Carf.

            “He does not live a settled life, no,” agreed Sedras, “but he is more than a mere vagabond, and has seen much of Middle Earth.  He has never offered advice to us that ever steered us into error.  He has given us great reason to honor his wisdom and experience.”

            The farmer was eyeing Ivorwen.  “We’d not known Rangers had womenfolk, although if we’d thought on it we’d have realized it must be so.  It appears as the storm caught you unawares and has done you a mischief.  We would have aided you simply because you needed it, but we do so more gladly considering the good your young Men have done us.  I doubt I’d have returned to find my farm and family still standing, hadn’t it been for them.  Well, I’ll go out and bring in the tub, for you’ll be needing to clean the mud off you and out of your hair.  Then I’ll have Londo bring me something your one young Man can wear for the nonce.”  With that he left, followed at a nod from Malvegern by Baerdion.

******* 

            The cots holding Peredhrion and the four Southrons had been carried into the barn and settled into the stall where the riding horses usually were housed, the stall having been carefully forked out and clean straw strewn thickly over its floor.  They were well fed, and orders were given that as soon as the weather cleared Berevrion and Huor were to go out hunting with the farmer’s sons to add to the food available with all these newcomers here on Lifewater Farm.

            Lightning flashed, thunder roared and grumbled across the land, and now and then they’d hear cracks as trees somewhere south of the farm were struck.  At last the storm rolled off eastward, and again the rain grew heavier.  All groaned at this, even though most were glad to know they were well out of it.

            Then Baerdion was into the barn, bawling loudly that all that could were to come into the house once more.  New guests had arrived, and it was needful that the trainees come to give them honor.  They had half of an hour by a Dwarf-wrought clock to make themselves presentable.

            Baerdion was accompanied by the farmer, who carried a pair of farmer’s trews in his hands as well as a work tunic.  “I was told by my lads that they gave one of these young Men a dressing down for having been forward with their sister.  I have a feeling the one they—talked with--deserved some correction, but not to the point they took it, perhaps.  My Londo says the one they threw into the swamp was about his width around the waist, so he’s kindly allowed me to bring some of his clothes so the fellow shouldn’t needs go naked until his own clothes are clean and dry, which won’t be before nightfall, if then.  If he’ll return them after, I’ll be grateful.”

            Baerdion took them and after taking a look around, shook his head and threw the garments toward Orominion with his blankets.  “You had best express your gratitude for this courtesy, Orominion,” he said, and followed the farmer back into the house.

             “Well, you do look a sight!” commented Finwë as Orominion came out of the tent where their goods were kept, dressed now in farmers’ garb.  The trews were too short by several inches, and the baggy smocked shirt was not at all flattering to one of Orominion’s build.  “Seeking to take a kiss from the farmer’s daughter was not one of your better decisions, my friend.”

            Orominion’s glare did not faze him, and he was not surprised when it faded rather quickly.  “And now I must apologize to the girl and to her brothers, and must thank this Londo that he has loaned me this garb.  But what a fool I look!”

            “Not as foolish,” Finwë said, “as you must have looked, half naked in that swamp, dressed in but small clothes and your cloak.  I would have given much to see that!”

            Orominion sighed.  “And here I still am with not enough to keep me warm in this storm.  Do you have an extra cloak I might wear until mine is dry?”

            “No, I don’t, and do not think to try to ‘borrow’ anyone else’s when you are headed into the house with the rest of us to see this unexpected visitor of theirs whose arrival we must honor.  Although I cannot imagine an acquaintance of theirs we would be expected to honor, can you?”

            Orominion had to agree, and together they reentered the barn where the rest of their fellows were finishing their own toilets.  Hair was combed as it had not been since the day they’d swum in the river, and many a spot was scrubbed at before being left as a bad job.

            “Are you coming?” Finwë asked Peredhrion where he sat upon his cot in the horse stall while Túrin worked at wrapping cloth about both his ankle and splints to keep it as immobilized as possible while it healed.

            Peredhrion stared morosely down at where Túrin was working, and answered, “I shall have to do them honor later.  I’ll be going nowhere on this foot today, I fear.”

            “Too true,” agreed their quartermaster equably.  “Perhaps you might rise tomorrow and hobble about some, but today you ought to remain off of it.”

            The Man who’d lost his hand groaned upon the pallet of straw he’d been granted.  “You will need to give him some more of the poppy juice,” Peredhrion said.  “And I wish to check out the drains on those two whose wounds I closed yesterday, so you might ask that one of the others here remain with you to help move me as needed.”

            “Berevrion?  Will you stay?” Túrin asked.  “I would be most grateful for your aid here.”

            It was hard for Halbarad to tell whether or not Berevrion was happy to be asked to remain.  Then Nardir, who stood next to him, whispered, “Are you wishing it were you being allowed to stay here?”

            “They’d not allow me to stay behind, not with my father serving as acting Steward,” Halbarad answered him back.  “Whether others know our leadership or not, I am expected to represent our people.”

            Baerdion asked each one who’d been injured if they’d had their wounds examined and redressed that day, and all indicated they had.  Assured all were as presentable as could be managed, he led them out of the barn.

            “The rain is letting up!” exclaimed Varadorn, shaking back the hood to his cloak and looking upwards.

            “Summer has not fled us yet,” agreed Damrod, rubbing at the bandage across his chest where he’d been hit with the back of the sword wielded by one of the raiders.  “Hopefully the rest of our journey home will be quiet and sunny.”

            “May the Belain hear your words,” Halbarad said, smiling.

            “Ow!” Varadorn said as a particularly large raindrop landed directly in his eye. 

            The others laughed good naturedly.  “Put your hood back up,” suggested Orominion.

            Varadorn did so, but he smiled to see Orominion dressed in farm clothing with the legs to his trews so short.  Orominion shook his head and focused on the back of the young Ranger ahead of him.

            They were brought around the front of the house, which surprised them, and led through the front door to the great room, and there they found----

            “Daernaneth!” murmured Halbarad.  “And Uncle Sedras!  And why are they here?”

            All were shocked to find their Steward’s mother and younger brother within the room, particularly as Lady Ivorwen wore both a nightdress and a dressing gown that clearly were not her own, her hair, obviously freshly washed, turbaned with toweling.  And when four other Men came into the room after them all turned and realized they recognized these as well.

            “Papa?” said Hedron to one of Lady Ivorwen’s escort.

            The Man smiled down upon him.  “I’d not thought to find you in this area, my son.  I rejoice to see you looking so well.”

            “The Lady Ivorwen should see this young healer of yours,” another said, addressing Malvegern.  “She was thrown by her horse during the storm, and we fear she might have broken her shoulder.”

            Malvegern and Baerdion briefly exchanged glances.  “When the rain has stopped we can take you out to the barn to see him, or perhaps in the morning Túrin will allow him to come into the house.  However, he managed to pull the sinews in his foot, and he is in a good deal of pain himself.  As much as we could restrain him, we have had his foot and ankle raised all day.”

            She was definitely concerned.  “Is it a serious injury?”

            Malvegern was already shaking his head.  “We do not believe so.  He was able to stand to fight a troop of orcs, ran back here to the back of the farm to see the end of the battle with the raiders, and then stood for several more hours to work on those who were worse injured than himself before the pain overcame him.  I have berated him, and he berated me in return for not recognizing that he must do what he can to both protect and help others.”

            Her eyes widened, but all she said was, “I see.”  She turned as if in question to her son, who shrugged. 

            “He appears, then, to be his father’s son.”

            She replied, “Indeed.”

            Finwë asked, “Then you knew his father?”

            Her voice was dry as she answered, “And his mother—few better.”  She turned back to their hosts.  “If you will tell me the story of the assault on your farm?”

            The youths, as best they could, sat upon the floor while the story was told, after which Farmer Carf told of his own return from Staddle with the dogs and how they had been attacked by the surviving ruffians and of Baerdion’s return to fight against the six Southerners, then their arrival at the farm itself to learn that this was but a continuation of the battle fought two nights ago.

            Ivorwen had been examining the faces of the young Rangers, and at last asked, “Berevrion and Bregorn?”

            “Berevrion remained within the barn to assist with those who were wounded.  Bregorn—well, he was our only loss, Lady.  He lies shrouded in their cool house.”

            She sighed.  “His mother will grieve.”  She searched their faces once more.  “We would all grieve for the loss of any one of you.  But we can rejoice that all others are likely to return home with no further injuries.  And we are all extraordinarily proud of all of you.  Even you, Orominion, although I hope that on our journey home you will tell me how it is you are so garbed.”

            Orominion flushed bright red and ducked his head, and she gave a last smile.  “I believe these should be released back out to where they are staying for the coming night.  How long shall it be before we should be able to return home, think you, Malvegern?”

            “We will need a wagon to bring our prisoners, and with that we ought to convince Peredhrion as well to remain off of his feet while we go.  He will wish to be by them while we travel, for three of them were badly wounded.”

            “Peredhrion?”

            “So he has named himself, Lady.”

            Her lip twitched in apparent amusement.  She turned to their host.  “I will ask you—have you a heavy wagon and draught animals to pull it we might hire so as to carry those who are injured and our goods back to our homes?  We would offer you fair recompense, and would return your property within a month and a half, the Powers being willing.”

            “Why do you wish to bring the prisoners?  Why not execute them and be done with it?  They’d have killed us, no questions asked, had your folk not happened to be near, more like than not.”

            She nodded her head, indicating his question was a fair one.  But it was Malvegern who answered him.  “We are accustomed to attacks from Dunland and Rhudaur, as well as from what remains of Angmar.  This is the third party of Dunlanders we have direct knowledge of during this patrol alone.   We are accustomed to attacks from orcs, or goblins, and trolls.  When one lives as close to the Misty Mountains as most of us do, these are to be expected.  But this situation is unique—Southrons working in concert with a new breed of orcs using weapons such as we’ve never seen before?  The people of Dunland have never cooperated with orcs to our knowledge, and it indicates a new power is rising that has found the means to forge such alliances.  We will need to learn what these know so as to discourage such raids in the future.  If we could identify who brought together these orcs and these Men we would be in a better state to see an end to such raids permanently.”

            Carf gave a nod of appreciation for the Ranger’s logic.  “It’s late in the season to be allowing our heavy wagon off, but I think as we could allow it.  Let Andradë and me think on it overnight, and we shall discuss terms tomorrow.  We certainly don’t want any of these ruffians wandering loose about the area, so it’s better you take them away.

            “As for tomorrow, these lads of yours appear likely enough.  I know as my two and two of yours are intending to go hunting tomorrow, and that is good, considering how many as there are to feed.  I know as my wife has been relieved to receive food such as you and yours had brought with you in return for what we’ve fed you all.  But we’re behind on some of our harvesting now.  If those as can work will help alongside me and my Men, it will most likely help reduce the cost of hiring our wagon and horses.”

            “Done,” Malvegern said. 

            “Two of these are excellent hunters.  They can go with the young hunters, and will allow your sons to direct the hunt as they best know the land here,” Sedras suggested, and again Carf agreed.

            “Then we shall send ours back to the barn, with your permission,” Baerdion indicated.  At a gesture from him, the young Rangers rose to their feet, and gave bows of respect as they began filing out through the house and around it once more.  Halbarad, noting that his grandmother was summoning him, left the line to go to her.

            Orominion lingered, speaking in low tones with Malvegern, who indicated assent to the young Man, then instructed those who’d noticed and had paused in curiosity to get on with them.  When the doors closed behind the rest, Orominion stepped forward to address the farmer and his wife.  “I wanted to thank the two of you for the loan of the clothes, such as they are.  And I—I wished to—apologize—for the insult that I gave to your daughter.  I cannot say why I did and said what I did, but I have to admit I deserved what your sons and their friend did to me last night.  I know my mother will have words with me for it.  Please forgive me my rudeness.”

            Carf gave him a searching look before responding, “It’s not us but Adiella you need to apologize to, young sir.  But I’m pleased you now recognize as you need to apologize—shows you have more personal honor than we’d given you credit for.  Now, get on with you.  Adiella’s out in the wash house with her brothers and Milt, who came with me from Staddle so as to meet her and to work with us for at least the harvest and winter—see a different kind of farming than what his dad does in the Breelands, and maybe give her an idea as to what type of Men she might look forward to meeting when we go into Bree next spring.  But be warned, she might not accept your apology, and that’s her right, too.”

            Orominion looked relieved as he gave a brief bow and quitted the house.  Halbarad, knowing him as he now did, could imagine how difficult it had been to admit his fault before Adiella’s parents, and wondered what had inspired him to do so.

            Ivorwen, who was gently holding onto her shoulder, watched after him, too, then turned her attention back to her grandson.  “You haven’t been injured during this patrol?”

            He shook his head.  “The worst I’ve known was getting splinters in my hands while we worked in the new village.  Peredhrion was very gentle when he removed them.”

            “So, he does have the Healing Hands.”

            “Yes, he does.  Wait until you see Nardir—he could have lost the use of his hand and arm completely.  The healer in Iorvas’s patrol barely believed what he saw when he realized how much Nardir has recovered from his wound.  I don’t think even Nardir realizes how fast he’s healed.  And it’s only because Peredhrion is who he really is, and because his gift was trained by Lord Elrond.”

            “Do they respect him?”

            “Yes—all of them, even Orominion, Finwë, and Bregorn—at least until he died.  He was already dead when we reached the fight.”

            She sighed.  “May the Doomsman receive him with gentleness.  But I have to admit that I rejoice that you have not been seriously hurt, and I pray you return safely to your mother and father.  Now, go!  The others must not think I care so much of you as my grandson that I would ask special treatment for you.”  He let her kiss his cheek, and did the same for her before he bowed his farewells and left, also.

******* 

            The rain was over, and the westering Sun shone down upon a freshened landscape, with mist rising from the earth and the last clouds swiftly fleeing eastward to the mountains now so far away.  He went first to check on the horses in the paddock, and saw they had been more than adequately sheltered by a byre that was open on two sides.  A manger was now filled with fresh hay and a trough with grain, and all of the animals appeared in good health except for the mare he realized his grandmother must have been riding.  She was limping, and he hoped she’d not been seriously lamed.

            His own horse and Carniaxo came to him, pushing their heads through the bars of the fence so he could scratch their ears and murmur his appreciation of them both.  At last they turned away to their fellows, and Carniaxo rubbed his muzzle against the mare’s side, pressing her toward the trough, before taking a mouthful for himself and heading across the paddock to a stand of fresh grass.

            As he approached the wash house Orominion emerged, a sour expression on his face.  “Didn’t it go well?” Halbarad asked, falling into step with his fellow trainee as they returned to the barn together.

            “Not particularly.  Oh, Adiella has said that she forgives me, but I suspect that, goaded by that Milt, her brothers would throw me back into the lake with my hands tied and a stone bound to me this time if I even look at her sideways.  And he said that I look like a Hobbit, with my trews so short upon my legs.  He said that all I need is the hair upon my feet!”

            Halbarad wanted to laugh at that, but restrained himself as best he could.  Instead he ventured, “It took courage to admit your fault and apologize.”

            Orominion shrugged.  “I suppose.”  After a moment he added, “It was harder than fighting the raiders.”

            “Did Finwë convince you to apologize?”

            The other looked at him with one brow raised.  “Finwë?  I think not!”

            When they entered the barn, Peredhrion and Túrin looked up from where they were bowed together over one of the injured Men.  Peredhrion asked, “Well?”

            Again Orominion shrugged.  “I did my part, at least.”

            “If they don’t accept your apology, that is not your fault, Orominion.”

            “Perhaps.”

            Peredhrion nodded, and Halbarad followed Orominion back to the ladder into the loft.  He noted that his companion’s mood had brightened at the recognition he’d received from the one he called the Princeling.

           

The King’s Gift of Healing

            “Look at it!” shouted Orominion, furious.  “It’s shrunk!  No one could wear it now!”

            There was no question that Orominion’s cloak was now several sizes too small to fit him. 

            “Who washed it in hot water?” he continued, pointing at it accusingly.  “This should not have happened!”

            As Ivorwen was escorted to the barn by Malvegern and Sedras, they could easily see and hear the anger in Orominion’s voice.

            “I hope,” Sedras said quietly, “that no one will admit to having been the one who used hot water on his cloak.  I doubt he could easily humble himself one more time today to forgive whoever was to blame.”

            “I believe that you are correct,” Malvegern responded.  “Although I suspect he might well be the author of his own misfortune.  The rest of his clothing was taken early to the wash house, and those assigned to the washing detail spent part of yesterday afternoon and early evening sorting the clothing as to whether it should be boiled or merely scrubbed in cold water.  If he went into the place after his visit to the swampy ground near the lake, he may well have simply tossed it onto the wrong pile or tub.”

            Sedras gave a soft laugh.  “In which case he would again be forced to admit his own guilt.  Not an easy thing for him to do.”

            Inside the barn they found Peredhrion sitting atop a disused churn, his right foot heavily wrapped in bandages, a long staff held to his shoulder.  He was looking at his foot thoughtfully and with signs of distaste while Halbarad finished adding another layer of protection about it.

            “There,” Halbarad declared, handing the rest of his materials to Berevrion, who carried them away.  “That should allow you to walk and yet protect your foot.”  He glanced up to see who had entered and smiled.  “Daernaneth, have you come to have your shoulder seen to?”

            Peredhrion rose to his feet, leaning upon the staff, his face uncertain.  “You are hurt, Lady?” he asked.

            “I had a fall from my horse today.  She was startled by a lightning strike and bolted away, throwing me upon my shoulder.  We are concerned that it might be broken.”

            He moved awkwardly to stand behind the churn.  “Come and sit, and I will examine it for you.”

            As she sat she asked, “Then it was Lord Elrond who taught you the arts of a healer?”

            He nodded, setting his hands upon her shoulders, then moving them both to the one that had been injured.  “Please advise me if what I do causes pain, Lady.  Yes, I was taught by Master Elrond himself as well as by his sons and those who serve as healers within his house.”  He began by first untying the shawl that was being used as a sling, then removing the bandaging that had been wound about the injury, and handed each to Halbarad.  “They did well to immobilize it for the time.  Now, let me feel it.”

            He went quiet, and his eyes closed as he considered what he felt beneath his fingers.  At last his eyes opened, and he came around her to look down into her face as he leaned forward to feel the injury from this side.  “Can you move your fingers?  Your hand?  Can you bend your elbow at all?  Does it hurt if I press here?”

            The gasp of pain she gave answered that question without the need for further speech.

            He nodded.  “I do not believe that the shoulder is broken, but it is not fully within its socket.  It will hurt to put it back where it belongs, but far less than to leave it as it is.  Are you willing to allow me to put things right, my Lady?”

            “Oh, yes, please,” she whispered through gritted teeth.

            He again nodded.  “I will do so, then.  Halbarad, kneel here and hold her thus.  No, with your left hand here, and your right supporting her there.  And, if you—I am sorry, for I do not know your name.”

            “I am Sedras, the younger of her two sons.”

            Peredhrion paused, searching the Man’s face momentarily.  “I see.  Please forgive me for not being aware….” he began.

            Sedras smiled reassuringly.  “I am certain that when your patrol is over and you have returned to my brother’s hold we shall come to know one another much better.”

            “Well,” the younger Man said, “if you will stand here and support your mother so….”

            He made as if to kneel facing Ivorwen, but found that the bindings about his foot, ankle, and lower leg made it impractical, so he at last withdrew behind her once more, once again placing a hand on each shoulder.  “Hearken to my voice,” he said in a soft, low yet compelling voice.  “Close your eyes and hearken to my voice.  Listen, and be at peace.”

            He leaned down somewhat and spoke in softer tones obviously meant for the Lady Ivorwen alone.  She appeared surprised at first, but relaxed at the gentle pressure on her shoulders.  He continued to speak, and her eyes did close, and her face softened, eventually showing a small smile as if of quiet pleasure.  It was almost as if she had fallen asleep sitting up upon the churn, completely secure in her knowledge that she was safe. 

            At last he went quiet, and appeared to be centering himself.

            A few of the trainees paused in the doorway to the barn, realizing something important was happening and unwilling to break the concentration of either Peredhrion or the Steward’s mother.  Others looked down as they could from the loft, all equally quiet and expectant.

            When Peredhrion began to sing it was still in low tones.  Sedras recognized the tune—it was an invocation for healing offered in Sindarin, calling upon certain of the Powers to look down on the one who suffered and to offer her easing and healing.  As he sang, Peredhrion’s one hand slid slowly down her shoulder to the upper arm, and the other now lay upon the shoulder near the socket.  The invocation drew to a close, and the young Man took a deep breath and felt deeply----

            Then there was a firm twist—and it was over!  Ivorwen’s eyes opened part way, and her lips formed an O as if of surprise, but that was swiftly followed by another smile, one this time of relief.

            Now Peredhrion was massaging the injured joint, once again speaking in a quiet voice intended only for Ivorwen, his tone reassuring, authoritative.  He had done what was needful, after all.  Sedras heard what appeared to be whispered words of thanksgiving, then a few more quiet words to the lady before he indicated that Halbarad should hand him the shawl once more.  He folded it expertly to the shape proper to a sling and soon had it fastened about her to support the arm so as to relieve the pressure on the shoulder.  He then stood once more behind her, his hands again resting one on each shoulder, and at last he went silent. 

            Slowly Ivorwen opened her eyes, which had gone closed again as he’d massaged the injured joint, and she sat up straight, her eyes somewhat confused as if she were still within the spell of an interesting dream.  At last she rose, and he let his hands slide away, his left falling to his side and his right taking hold of the staff, bracing himself somewhat with it.  She turned to face him, searching his face.  At last she said quietly, “I see that indeed Lord Elrond and his sons and people have taught you well.  I do not know any healers among our people who could have done as well and gently as you have done.  I thank you, and as my son has said, I look forward to the day when your patrol is over and we might come to know one another better.”

            Is he flushing? Sedras wondered, suppressing a laugh at the thought.  Indeed, he displays this portion of the King’s Gifts.  It would appear that he will prove a proper Chieftain for us.

            “M-Master Elrond sought to impress upon me that as I have apparently a gift for healing that it must be properly trained and used.  I rejoice that it has eased you, and pray that the injury will heal swiftly and properly,” Peredhrion answered her, bowing his head respectfully.  “It should remain supported by a sling for at least two days, after which it should much recovered.  If there are any other bruises that need tending?”

            But she shook her head.  “Mistress Andradë has already anointed them with arnica, and the scrapes have been cleansed and properly bound.  This only needed a true healer’s touch.  I suspect that your skills will be well sought after once your patrol is over.”

            Now there was no question he was flushing.  Sedras and Ivorwen both smiled at him, bowing their heads in return before turning away to make their way back to the farmhouse.  Both were well pleased with what they had seen of the young Man’s skills.

            As they approached the barn door, Sedras could hear Malvegern saying, “That was well done.  As Rangers of Eriador, it is our duty to each use whatever skills and talents we have for the good of all we meet who are of good will, and you have done this admirably.  Now, Peredhrion, it is time that you should return to your cot.  Túrin and Berevrion will see to the prisoners for the rest of the night.”         

            “He will fulfill his destiny,” whispered Ivorwen.  “He will restore both Arnor and Gondor!”

            “Nasië,” he replied equally quietly.  “May it be so.”

For Virtuella for her birthday, and for the beginning of Advent.

Revelations of Family

            As the trainees’ patrol left Lifewater Farm, Malvegern looked forward along the line, which Finwë was leading at the moment, and smiled at Baerdion.  “Well, we have left the people here better off than when we arrived, I believe.  And with their new hounds they are better guarded than before as well.”

            The hunters had brought back three stags and a half-grown shoat, which had fed all of the party and still left the farm with plenty of meat for the next week.  Several of the young Men had set snares about the lake, which had brought in even more food in the form of coneys and two quail; and Geldir had presented Adiella with several rabbit skins he’d caught and worked over the course of their patrol.  “I hope that you can find them useful to decorate perhaps a pair of gloves for the winter,” he told her, and she’d rewarded him with another kiss to the cheek, which had pleased him greatly.

            Farmer Carf and his wife were also pleased with the work the young Rangers had performed on the farm during the last days of their stay.  Most of the harvest was in, and there had been a good start in the fall plowing and harrowing.  The remains of the burned shed had been cleared away, and lumber had been stacked about the site for its replacement.

            Peredhrion had now demonstrated that he was good at mending leatherwork.  When Londo had exclaimed at how well the young Man had repaired part of the plow harness, Peredhrion explained that he had been required to spend three months working with the leather worker who provided all of the harness work for Rivendell’s stables.

            “Why would they have you, who was trained as a healer, to learn such work?” Londo’s brother asked.

            Peredhrion colored slightly, but admitted, “It was because I was caught taking apart some of the harnessing for the sledge on which hay was carried.  I was twelve at the time, and was both curious and bored, and was making rather a pest of myself about the farm plots.  Naneth and m-Master Elrond both felt it would be good for me to learn to turn my mind to making rather than marring, and it proved most useful when I was out on patrols with the Twins as I was often set to repairing tears to saddle bags and such.”  He smiled ruefully.  “I doubt that it was truly that much of a punishment, but I never did such a thing again.”

            Several of those who were working about the barn at the time smiled to think that the Princeling also got into mischief when he was just a boy, and quickly shared this intelligence with others in the patrol.

            Malvegern smiled at the thought of the staid, Elvish young Man having acted much as his own sons had done at the same age.  Perhaps there wasn’t as much distance to be bridged between Peredhrion and the other trainees as it had seemed.

            Two of Sedras’s Men rode ahead to herald the return of the patrol.  Halbarad and Varadorn had gone forward to scout the way, and Geldir and Orominion ranged behind them.  They’d lost but one recruit, which thought caused the Man to go solemn.  How he wished they’d lost none at all!  But it was still far less than they usually lost, and for that they had Peredhrion to thank as much as the Powers.

            From the looks of it, he will be command much respect and honor once he is recognized as our Chieftain, he thought.

            It appeared Baerdion was thinking along much the same lines.  “I wonder if the prophecies will prove true,” he murmured over the clopping of the horses’ hooves, “that in his day the Kingship will be renewed, and north and south kingdoms reunited at long last?  Perhaps we might well live to see this happen!”

            “From your lips to the ears of the Valar,” Malvegern answered.

            They shared a laugh born of sheer hope.

 *******

            The days were shortening, so the company chose its campsite by about the sixth hour of the afternoon as told by the Steward’s Dwarf-made clock, or so Halbarad judged it.  Within two moons, he realized, it would most likely be dark by this time, while but a few weeks back the Sun had stood much higher.  For some reason he felt the hair on his arms prickle at the thought.  Were it not for the presence of Daernaneth and Uncle Sedras the troop of trainees would most likely have continued on until sunset; but travel was impeded by the need to find a place that could support tents both for their female guest and for those who were wounded, as well as accommodating more horses and a heavy wagon.

            Carniaxo and Ivorwen’s mare trailed the wagon.  Farmer Carf had summoned a farrier who came with his portable forge.  The Man had smoothed the mare’s hoof and wrapped the hock before fitting her with a new shoe.  He’d found the mare apparently sound, but had advised against her being ridden for at least three days to be certain she had taken no permanent damage from her flight during the storm.  Therefore Ivorwen had ridden on the wagon’s bench alongside the one assigned to drive it, while Peredhrion rode in the wagon’s bed alongside the prisoners for the first day of travel.

            The prisoners were now all conscious and aware of their circumstances, and so far had given no problems.  The one who’d fallen over the fence fought an infection, while the one who’d been injured on his side was still weak with blood loss.  The one who’d lost his hand was in a good deal of pain, and the last, the one who’d been struck on the head by Farmer Carf, found he could not easily sit up without growing dizzy and nauseous and so had given up much of his belligerence.   Peredhrion had kept watch over them all as they traveled, and when at last the camp was set up he oversaw the removal of the four of them to the tent prepared for them, calling for hot water and his healer’s bag so that he might hopefully help the one with the infection.

            Halbarad assisted his grandmother to descend from the wagon, and they were immediately joined by Sedras. 

            “Have you spoken much with him?” Sedras asked his mother.

            But she was shaking her head already.  “He lay with his head toward the tail of the wagon, so we could not easily converse.  Nor did I feel it to be politic to speak with him about personal matters with the prisoners present.  What if one should escape and carry away news that this one did survive in spite of the belief he’d died when little more than a babe in arms?  Do you think that the great Enemy would allow such intelligence to be ignored?  No, better to speak with him perhaps this evening under the guise of him examining my shoulder.  Or do you not agree?”

            So it happened.  Once the tents were erected, the prisoners secured and the cooking fire was lit, Ivorwen asked that her grandson and the young healer be allowed to attend on her.  Malvegern gave her a knowing smile as he went to summon Halbarad and Peredhrion to her.

            Halbarad had been cleaning tack, and finished the saddle and bridle he’d been working on before allowing Huor to take his place.  Peredhrion took longer to appear at the door to the tent where the Steward’s mother would sleep that night.  He gave a deep bow, but said not a word.

            “You could not come sooner?” she asked.

            “I was seeing to the prisoner whose side was impaled on a fence pale,” he answered.  “There has been infection, and I have been trying to express the pus and flush the wound.  I fear that the fight to save him may well take another day at the least, whether the infection clears or—or takes him in the end.”

            Her face grew solemn.  “I am sorry to take you from his side,” she said softly.  “My shoulder is of little enough concern compared to a Man’s life.”

            He smiled gently, and it lit his face.  “All wounds and injuries are of the greatest concern to those who bear them, Lady Ivorwen.”

            Her expression grew somewhat rueful.  “Will you not call me Daernaneth as does your cousin here?” she asked.

            He gave a slight shake to his head.  “Not yet, if you can bear with me.  As of yet only Berevrion is certain of my true identity, although a couple of others suspect strongly who my father was.  I do not wish to reveal myself fully.”  His voice was very soft as he said this.  “Would you have me examine your shoulder?”

            At her nod he stumped along behind her.  His foot caught on the ground and he almost fell, and for the first time Halbarad caught a glimpse of the frustration the mass of bandages and splinting of the foot caused him.  “I cannot continue with this indefinitely,” he admitted, catching Halbarad’s gaze.  “One more day, and I will have to remove it all.  The foot will not take much longer to heal without the bandaging, and although I admit it is likely to remain tender and even painful at times without the protection, it shall be far easier to do what I must while we travel.”

            He took deep breaths to center himself, and placed a hand on each of her shoulders, feeling deep to compare the feel on the two sides.  He began to massage her shoulders on each side of her neck, moving slowly outwards, then returning to the neck and working outwards again, and finally moving both hands to the one that had been injured and massaging on both sides of the joint.  “It is warm, but not heated as it was before it returned to its place,” he commented.  “It heals nicely.”

            Ivorwen smiled and relaxed into the massage.  “It feels nearly normal,” she murmured.

            At last he returned his hands to either side of her neck, and felt the line of her spine with his thumbs.  “It is slightly off center, here in the neck, and here between the shoulder blades,” he noted. 

            Having her stand and turn slightly, he came to stand behind her and had her lace her fingers together over her head, and then lacing his arms through the loop he gave a carefully calculated pull upwards, after which he had her sit again with her arms in her lap while he again felt down the line of her spine.  At last he gently grasped her head and did similarly to what he’d done before, and smiled at her pleased surprise.

            “I did not realize that these were uncomfortable until you managed to put them in place properly!” the woman exclaimed.

            He smiled as he massaged the back of her neck.  “While the shoulder was out of place your muscles tightened in protest.  It is not uncommon to find the spine itself slightly twisted afterwards, and it is easy enough to straighten things once again, although one must not pull too strongly for fear of making things worse.”  Again he moved down near the other site he’d noted had been out of proper alignment, and cupped his hands over the place, singing softly under his breath before he resumed massaging there, and finally moving back to the shoulder, again cupping the joint before once more massaging that area as well.  “I believe you will find yourself feeling much more comfortable, Lady,” he said softly as he finally straightened.

            Sedras had been watching with approval.  “Thank you for easing my naneth so,” he said.  “Elrond has trained you more thoroughly than we had realized.  Here, let me offer you this seat that you might not have to loom over us while we speak together.”

            He pressed the young Man to take his stool, and offered him a cup of watered wine before seating himself comfortably upon the ground beside Halbarad.  “Your mother did not speak of me?” he asked.

            Peredhrion shook his head.  “If she did, then it was in a manner that I did not recognize indicated she had two brothers.  I knew of my Uncle Halbaleg and my Aunt Anneth and that they were married, but did not realize that he was my mother’s brother until I was perhaps eight years of age.  There were seven who came from time to time to speak with Naneth and to see me.  I knew that they were kinsmen of one sort or another, but was not advised as to how particularly we were related or why they cared to visit us as they did.  I was discouraged from speaking with outsiders or visitors to the Last Homely House, although they did not forbid me to leave our rooms when others came.  I simply was allowed to know that it was not wise to announce my presence within the valley to most strangers.  I did speak with a few such people, and was allowed to mix freely with any who were Elves who came to consult with the Lord of Imladris.  But when most Men came I was advised to absent myself, or Elladan or Elrohir or Glorfindel would take me out of the house to practice tracking and hunting until they were gone.  I seldom had much to do with Men or women unless they had been brought for healing.”

            The others nodded their understanding of what he told them.  “Did your naneth never speak of your family, then?”

            He shrugged.  “Rarely did she do so.  I knew that my father had been a Ranger of the Dúnedain and that he died in a battle with orcs of the Hithglaer.  I remember him as being tall, and I remember he always wore beautiful boots, decorated with colored carving.  I know that my mother loved him dearly, and that she misses him terribly.  I believed that she did not speak more of him because of the pain of his death.  Now and then she would speak of her childhood and what she did with other girls, of hunting for mushrooms and learning to weave, of swimming in the river and working in the fields.  She spoke of caring for the baby, but did not tell me whose baby it was.  She remembered being ill and her own naneth nursing her, urging her to drink the draughts provided, and how she tried not to swallow them.  She said her father taught her to ride and to care for her horse.  But most of her stories were those tales she said were told among our people.

            “I learned my true name when I turned twenty.  I had been out on a patrol with—with Elladan and Elrohir and those who usually ride with them.  We were attacked by two troops of orcs, and we all fought desperately, especially during the second battle, for they appeared determined to kill us all.  The orcs of the Hithglaer hate the twins deeply, for they have done their best to destroy every orc they come across.  Ever since the Lady Celebrían, Elrond’s wife, was abducted by orcs and received a poisoned wound that forced her to sail to Elvenhome, their sons have sought to avenge themselves upon the whole race of such creatures.  The orcs, in turn, have spent much of the last five centuries attempting to destroy Elladan and Elrohir.

            “There were two of us who were slain on that patrol, and two others wounded whose lives I saved while the twins protected us.  I then rejoined the battle and slew four more while Elladan and one other Elf carried the wounded Elves safely away.  Elrohir and two fellow warriors and I cleared the pass of the rest.  They have told me that I slew fourteen orcs that night, one of whom I realized was intending to strike Elrohir down from behind.  I remember how his leer changed to dismay when my sword sheered away the arm holding his weapon, and how Elrohir slew another attacking him from his front at the same moment, and turned to strike away the head of still another immediately.

            “I don’t remember much more of that battle, I fear—only that it seemed to go on forever before we realized there were none left to defend ourselves from.  The others so lauded me to m-Master Elrond that he decided that I should indeed be treated as a Man grown from that moment, and the next day he called me before him and told me my true name and my parentage, and told me that it was time that I look to return to my own people to take up my role as Chieftain of the Dúnedain.”

            “And you’d known nothing of your place among us until that day?” Sedras demanded.

            “That is true.”

            Ivorwen was shaking her head in disbelief.  “You were known there by another name?”

            “I was given the child’s name of Estel.  So everyone called me all through the time I dwelt there in Rivendell.”

            She persisted, “And you did not remember the name your father gave you?”

            Again he shook his head.  “No, it was not familiar to me.  Although when you called me Ari there on Amon Sûl, then I knew it for the dear-name I’d answered to before my father’s death.”

            She dashed away errant tears.  “So, you do have some memories of your life before you were taken to Rivendell.  Hopefully that will help you find your place amongst us again.”

            “Hopefully,” he agreed, although he did not sound fully certain.

 *******

            The two trainees returned to the others and helped in the chores for the evening.  Sedras volunteered to take the first watch.  Orominion and Hedron’s father stood guard on the prisoners’ tent, and after checking on the welfare of the wounded one last time, Peredhrion bedded down alongside Halbarad not far from his charges.

            “So, the Elves did indeed name you Hope,” Halbarad said softly.

            “Have I not told you this more than once?”

            “I suppose it took hearing you say this to our daernaneth to believe it fully.”

            “I do not understand why you might think I should lie about such a thing,” Peredhrion answered.

            Halbarad answered with a wordless humph.  After a moment he gave a chuckle.  “I can imagine you must be growing confused with so many names—Aragorn, Ari, Estel, and now Peredhrion.  How difficult it must be to remember that all of them mean you!”

            His cousin gave a soft bark of a laugh in return.  “I imagine how difficult it must have been to be one of the Noldor returning to Middle Earth, each with a mother-name and a father-name and who knows how many epessës or nicknames besides, and they get here to the hither shore and they must change their names from Quenya to Sindarin instead.  Finderato becomes Finrod Felagund, Nom, Nomin, Friend-of-Men, and so on.”

            “So, do you see yourself gathering names and nicknames and titles all through your lifetime as was common to the old Elves?”

            Peredhrion turned on his side to better see Halbarad’s face.  “Why shouldn’t I?”

            They grinned at one another.  “I can see it now,” Halbarad said cheerfully.  “One day they will need an entire volume just to hold all of the names they call you by.”

            “Well, they will know I was important, won’t they?”

            They laughed together, and there was a stirring amongst the other young Men who could hear the laughter and wondered what it was about.

            Peredhrion rolled upon his back once more.  “I am wondering how long it will take for me to become accustomed to sleeping in a proper bed when we are back in your father’s keep,” he murmured as he settled himself as well as he could.

            “Probably a few days,” came the answer.

            They were quiet for a time before Halbarad asked a question he’d been pondering for several days.  “Do you hate the Elves for not telling you your proper name and all for so very long?”

            Peredhrion turned his head to look at him again.  “Hate them?  Why?  What would make you think such a thing?”

            “Well—well, you can barely say Lord Elrond’s name.  You stammer every time, and it’s much the same when you name Elladan and Elrohir.”

            Peredhrion lay back and laughed loud and long.  “You think that this signifies that I hate them?” he finally said.  “Ah, no, my friend—it does not mean that I hate them.  It’s only—ha!  It’s only that it is strange to me to name them so!”

            “What?”

            Peredhrion struggled to turn and lean upon his elbow, his eyes somehow rueful and laughing at the same time.  “There is another designation for me—Arathornion, the son of Arathorn.  He was my father, my Papa.  I know that as a very small child I loved him dearly, and I honor him that he gave me life and that he and my mother were so devoted to one another.  I honor him for not allowing others to take all of the risks for him, that he led those who fought for our people.  I honor him for the fact that he died protecting us all.

            “But it was—it was Elrond who was there to help pick me up when I was small, who cleaned my knees when I skinned them, who took turns with my naneth caring for me when I was ill or injured.  It was on his knee as well as that of my naneth that I learned to read.  He and my naneth taught me to sing.  It was from him I learned the history of our families, both mortal and immortal, although I did not appreciate that Beren and Tuor, Lúthien and Idril, Thingol and Melian, Eärendil and Elwing were as much my ancestors as his, not until the day he gave me back the name I’d been granted at my birth.  I have but one mother, one Naneth, but two fathers, my Papa Aragorn and my Adar Elrond.  Now that I am given back, it does not seem proper to speak of him as Ada anymore.  It feels disrespectful, somehow, to name him so when I now dwell amongst the Men of the Dúnedain who will know me as Arathorn’s son.  But it feels—clumsy to call him as they know him, as Master of Imladris, or Rivendell as it is more commonly called now.  So when I start to say my adar I have to stop and correct myself.  And Elladan and Elrohir I try not to refer to as I have all my life as my brothers, not here before the others.  I know I look more the Elf in their eyes than I do a Man.  If I were to continue to call the Peredhil my family, what would they make of that, do you think?”

            All Halbarad could think to say was, “I see.”  He lay back, his hand now pillowed on his right forearm.  “We will find it rather difficult to appreciate that now you do have two families, I fear.  You are right in your reasoning.”  After a pause he added, “Please forgive me for not understanding.”

            His cousin also lay back.  “Naneth could tell me so little, for she and Ada were trying so hard to protect me.  Too much knowledge of my family here could draw the wrong attention from anyone who stayed in the healing wing of the house, so Nana never named her parents or what brothers or sisters she might have had.  I knew about my father and how he died, for I was made to memorize my ancestors all of the way back to Elros Tar-Minyatur, although I did not know they were indeed my ancestors.  I was even shown where Arathorn was buried, near where he fell, although I did not realize that this was my papa’s grave.  And I grieve that I did not honor this fallen one as I truly ought to have done—as both the fallen Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain and as my own Papa, who always lifted me up onto his shoulders when he returned to our home, there just before he would put his arms about my Mama and pull her to him to kiss her.”

            All was said so softly, so quietly, so privately.  For the first time Halbarad felt he was truly seeing the heart of this, his now so beloved companion, the one who fought like a demon and healed like an angel of mercy, who showed so many of the Kings’ Gifts.

 *

            In that moment Halbarad of the Northern Dúnedain knew a vision of a possible future.  He saw Aragorn son of Arathorn, dressed in ancient armor, kneeling before someone dressed in white who was setting what he knew must be the Winged Crown of Gondor on his brow.  He then stood up, and Halbarad could see that he was taller even than he was now, fully muscled, his face bearded, his eyes filled with wisdom, compassion, joy, and—

And Hope.

For Armariel, Lily Baggins, Lily the Hobbit, and Elynn's birthdays.

Butchery

            When Halbarad woke the following morning as the false dawn was just being supplanted with the real thing, he found Peredhrion already up and busy.  The taller youth had gone to a nearby grove of birch and had come away with two lengths of bark.  On returning to his bedding, he sat down and removed the unwieldy bandaging from his foot and ankle, exposing the extensive, most colorful bruising to be seen there.

            “Here,” he said, tossing a stocking that sat beside him to Halbarad.  “Put this on my foot, please—it is difficult for me to do this for myself at the moment.”

            Once the stocking was in place he took one of the lengths of bark and bent it under his foot, and had Halbarad bind it into place with short lengths of the bandaging he’d removed.  A second went under his foot and up behind his ankle, and this, too, he had bound into place, and then had a second stocking placed over the first.  He then had Halbarad fetch his second boot, and with a good deal of care he donned that and had it laced carefully into place.

            “There!” he finally said, apparently satisfied with the new arrangement.  “This should help protect and immobilize the ankle and foot while the muscles heal without restricting my movements totally.  I will need to ride today.” 

            He accepted his cousin’s help in rising, and went off to the tent where those who were healing were sleeping.  The one who’d been impaled upon the fencing proved markedly better, and all looked much improved from how they’d been the preceding evening.  He gave each proper treatment, and was soon amongst the horses, greeting Carniaxo with pleasure and rubbing his ears before seeing to the horse’s tack.

            “Then you shall ride today?” asked Túrin.

            “I shall,” Peredhrion answered.  “Somehow I feel certain that it would be better, that I will be needed.”

            Their quartermaster gave a nod of assent, and soon enough all was ready for the day’s journey.

            “It is perhaps good that it was your right foot that was injured,” Halbarad commented as his cousin swung into the saddle at last.

            “I agree.”  But Halbarad sensed that there was unspoken discomfort behind Peredhrion’s tone.  There would be a cost to the tall youth’s choice to ride with his fellows rather than once again within the wagon.

 *******

            They had been riding for about three hours when Peredhrion straightened as if he heard something approaching.  Within twenty minutes one of those scouting ahead of the party returned at speed, approaching Malvegern to announce that two riders, one of them one of those Sedras had sent ahead, were approaching, their expressions grim.  Malvegern nodded his understanding and signaled for his best fighters to come forward, including, after obvious thought, Peredhrion.  Sedras and his remaining escort were directed to remain with the wagon, Lady Ivorwen, and the prisoners, with the lighter trainees and Baerdion and Túrin as extra protection.  Many appeared surprised Geldir, Dirigil, and Peredhrion were included in the party to accompany Malvegern along with Orominion, Halbarad, and Berevrion, but none thought to openly question his choice as he led his chosen young warriors to meet those approaching.

            As they came within hailing distance, the returning member of Sedras’s escort called, “There have been incursions from Angmar right along the foothills of the Misty Mountains.  They skirted our northernmost settlements and keeps, and appear headed for the region where we are most densely settled.  They attacked Margold’s farm, and there are two known deaths amongst our folk there, although they were driven off.  However, they fled into the foothills of the Misty Mountains and hid, and appear to have skirted most of the farm’s herd lands and continued south, and were seen yesterday some leagues north of Elendil’s Bounds.  They made off with at least three horses from Margold’s herd, although it cost them at least one Man’s life, and it’s believed three of their warriors are wounded.”

            “Guide us, then,” Malvegern said to the newcomer, and signed that the one formerly of Sedras’s party should go on to advise Sedras and Baerdion of what was happening, and at the acknowledgment of the remaining messenger the small band following him headed northeast at what speed they could make.

            Within a few hours they joined a larger party of Dúnedain also responding to the call to arms, and by nightfall they were further north than most of the young Men other than Berevrion had ever been.  They stopped for rest for a few hours, and then were astride again, taking advantage of a full moon and clear skies to ride through the early morning hours until daybreak came.  They were going more slowly, for the paths they followed were narrower and less well defined than those they’d followed since leaving Lifewater Farm, but still more quickly than many might have looked for.  Twice during the day they paused to rest themselves and their horses, and they were joined again by others who advised them of other parties of defenders converging on the area where the invaders had last been seen.

            Late in the third afternoon the group they’d joined was broken into three companies, and the one in which the trainees found themselves was sent eastward toward an area where the Angmarians might well have gone to ground.  It was rough country, with tumbles of great stones that had fallen from the mountains over the space of many, many years.

            “It is likely that trolls favor this area,” Peredhrion commented, to which two of their more experienced fellows grunted assent.

            But as sunset approached it was not trolls they discovered, but instead a party of about eighteen young Men, thin and poorly armed, Men who were definitely not of the Dúnedain.  Five of these had managed to scramble atop great boulders, and sought to take those native to the land by surprise with thrown spears and slung stones before they could come close enough to engage the invaders hand to hand.

            The Dúnedain archers handily disposed of these, however, and the rest were forced to come out of their hiding place and fight as others from the Dúnedain found ways to penetrate their defenses.

            The Dúnedain had dismounted to fight on foot.  Berevrion, Halbarad, and Peredhrion stood near one another to guard one of the expected escape routes the Angmarians might choose to attempt.  Orominion, Dirigil, and Geldir were already engaged in a fight with a cluster of six Men when two broke away toward the spot where the other obviously younger Men waited.  Neither of the Angmarians was particularly skilled with a sword, but they made up for their lack of expertise with a particularly violent level of desperation. 

            “You cannot hold your stroke, Peredhrion!” shouted Malvegern.  “They are too desperate to appreciate your desire to spare them!”  But at that he had to turn all of his own attention to the two who were attacking the small group with whom he was fighting.

            Peredhrion had stepped out in front of his two companions, but Halbarad was quick to notice that Malvegern had been right in recognizing that the tall Dúnadan was indeed not using his full weight or skill against these two enemies.  They were young Men, probably no more than seventeen or eighteen years themselves, neither with more than sparse fuzz upon his cheek or upper lip.  Realizing that the tall youth who was dressed differently from the rest was tempering his blows, the taller of the two raiders sought to slip past him.  Twice Peredhrion forced him backwards, but on the third attempt the taller raider struck out at Halbarad, catching him a glancing blow high on the chest.  Realizing his own attempts to spare these two boys were endangering his fellows, Peredhrion groaned and surged forward, swiftly killing the one who’d just wounded Halbarad, and then turning to face the smaller one who remained.  The sword swung at him was clumsily wielded, but Peredhrion now recognized that these invaders intended to kill if they were spared, and with an expression of frustration he defended himself, then drew his sword down and across from the neck down into the rib cage of the youth now facing him.

            The young Angmarian’s furious expression changed to the surprise so often seen upon the faces of those who were struck down in battle as the young Man crumpled, his knees buckling forward as he fell backwards and to the right.  He struggled to breathe, to cry out, to look up into the face of the one who’d struck him down before the spark of life left him.  Peredhrion’s own face was white, and the grating of his sword on bone as he struggled to free it from the young Man’s body was sickening.

            He turned to see if there were any more enemies to fight, only to find that apparently these were the last of the Angmarian raiders to fall.  He absently wiped his now freed blade on his cloak as he turned to Halbarad, who lay on the ground, himself surprised to find how difficult it was to breathe.  But in spite of his injury, Halbarad could see how unnaturally pale Peredhrion’s face was, how bloodless his lips, as his cousin still disciplined himself into healer mode.  “Let me feel how deeply the sword penetrated,” Peredhrion was murmuring as he fell to his knees, already gesturing for Berevrion to bring him his red healer’s bag.

*******

            When Halbarad was fully awake again it was after sunrise.  A tall, burly Man he could not quite put a name to was sitting on a large stone, and facing him stood Peredhrion, his face still pale but set, the hand Halbarad could see balled at his side.  Malvegern stood between the Man and the beardless youth, off to the Man’s left, perhaps somewhat closer to his charge among the trainees than he was to the other Man. 

            “So, why are you dressed in Elven fashion?” the Man asked.

            What is his name?  Halbarad wracked his brain, but it appeared some shadow stood between himself and the identity of the burly Dúnadan sitting upon the stone.

            “I was raised among the Elves of Imladris.”

            Malvegern added, “It is how he has ever seen warriors dress, in the style of Rivendell.”  

            “And what do they call you?” demanded the burly Man, ignoring Malvegern.

            His kinsman had apparently taken a dislike to the one interrogating him, for his voice was far cooler than Halbarad had generally heard him.  “I am called Peredhrion.”

            “Half son?” translated the Man.  “And what kind of name is that?”  When the youth did not deign to answer, he asked a new question.  “Why did they raise you within Rivendell?”

            Halbarad’s vision was not particularly clear at the moment.  He thought Peredhrion shrugged.  “I am told that my father was befriended by the sons of Elrond, and that they often rode out together.  They were accompanying his last patrol when he was slain in an attack by orcs, and it appears they felt obligated to see to the well-being of his only child.”

            “Why did you hold your hand when you faced those two raiders?”

            Peredhrion stiffened—Halbarad could almost feel it where he lay, wrapped in blankets, some of which smelled of horse and must have been removed from some of the horses they’d ridden to get here.  “They were little more than boys themselves.  They were not evil, only desperate.  They did not come to kill, but to take what they and their families needed to survive.”

            “Your refusal to use your sword led to your companion there being sorely wounded.  He could have been killed due to your lack of willingness to strike.”

            Peredhrion’s voice was now chillingly cold.  “Yes, the young raider was able to slip by my guard due to my unwillingness to strike a killing blow.  But—Halbarad knew he should have already had his own sword at the ready to deflect any blow that came his way.  So we have been taught and told countless times during our time under the tutelage of Malvegern and Baerdion.  We were there to fight as a team, Halbarad, Berevrion, and I.”

            “Halbarad?  Lord Halbaleg’s son?  Do you not realize that he is his father’s heir, and will likely lead our people one day?  That it was your duty to protect him?”

            “I have been taught that it is the duty of all Men of honor and skill to protect all of our people.  And I stepped before Halbarad and Berevrion in hopes of doing that, knowing that although they have been taught the same, I should be the one to draw the blows of the two raiders rather than either of them.  But I also knew that all of us have been told repeatedly to be ready in case one of our attackers should manage to slip past the guard of those in front.”

            There was a time of quiet as the seated Man considered Peredhrion and his words.  At last he said, “I see your logic.  But I also saw that your unwillingness to strike from the beginning endangered both you and those behind you.”

            Malvegern spoke again before the young Man could answer.  “It was his first fight with Men rather than orcs, trolls, wolves, and wargs.  Remember your first such fight, Duinhir, and how you reacted?  I certainly remember well enough.”

            Duinhir, the son of Belechar!  That is the burly Man who is questioning Peredhrion!  He was not at the meeting at Amon Sûl at Midsummer!  He has no idea as to who this one with the Elven warrior braids might be!  He probably does not know how to read the warrior braids, either.  Not, of course, that I do.  Halbarad found himself stifling the urge to chuckle at Duinhir’s expense.  Who should have been protecting whom? he asked himself.  And he found himself wondering what Duinhir had managed to do in that first martial encounter with Men that brought out that observation from Malvegern.

            There was an awkward silence before Duinhir spoke again, addressing himself again to Peredhrion.  “Well, at least it ended well enough.  That last blow was mighty enough, if inelegant.”

            “There was no time for elegance,” he was answered.  Even Halbarad could tell that Peredhrion was beginning to shiver.

            “I suppose so.”  But then Duinhir’s voice changed.  “And what are you shaking about?” he demanded.  “Do you so hate the idea of fighting Men?”

            “He is himself only starting to recover from an injury he suffered whilst fighting orcs along the Road, Duinhir,” Malvegern said, stepping to the young Man’s side and clasping him about the chest.  “He needs to sit down.  You,” he added, addressing himself to Orominion and the Man he stood by, “bring something for this one to sit upon.  His right ankle is trying to give way.”

            A fallen tree was dragged forward, and Geldir added a saddle atop it to make it sufficiently high enough to accommodate Peredhrion’s height, and Malvegern eased his charge down to sit.  Even seated, Halbarad judged that Peredhrion’s eyes were still higher than Duinhir’s own. 

            Duinhir shifted his gaze to meet that of Malvegern.  “Then why was he allowed to come, if indeed he was injured while your troop was on its training mission?”

            It was Orominion who answered.  “First, because he put himself forward, and second because he is the best swordsman among us, and because he’d already shown that as long as there are enemies to fight he can and will do all he can to offer protection to others.”

            Halbarad’s vision had cleared, and he could see the smile upon Malvegern’s face as he nodded his thanks to Orominion.  “He has spoken truly,” he said, turning back to meet Duinhir’s eyes levelly.  “Peredhrion injured himself leaping down into a defile to face a line of orcs hiding there, but fought each in turn, with help from Halbarad there and another, then ran over a mile to join the fight at Lifewater Farm, arriving just too late to join in the battle there, after which he stood for hours in the farm kitchen stitching up the wounds endured by both our young warriors and those we captured before he allowed the weakness in his ankle and the break in his foot to make themselves manifest.”

            “I noted you allowed him to work over the wound Halbarad suffered.  He is trained in healing, then?”

            “By Lord Elrond and his sons themselves.  There are no greater teachers of the healing arts here east of the Sundering Sea.”

            Halbarad could hear the murmurs shared amongst the gathered Men.  One of these stepped forward.  “Then he will serve us well even if the break in his foot fails to heal properly,” the Man observed.  “We always need trained healers.”

            “He will heal,” Malvegern promised.  “And he shall indeed serve the Dúnedain well.  Of that I am certain.”

            “He handles a blade well enough,” someone else added.

            But Peredhrion was shaking his head.  “What I did today was not fighting—it was sheer butchery, and I pray I never have to strike such a blow again.”  His face was pale as the Sun, rising higher and emerging from behind the eastern mountains, showered her light down upon the gathering.

            Someone brought a blanket and laid it around the youth’s shoulders, and the Men began dispersing, seeing to one another’s well-being and that of their horses, which had been gathered into a line.  Halbarad drifted into a doze, and awoke suddenly to find Peredhrion leaning over him.

            “I did not mean to startle you.  How is the pain?”

            Halbarad lay there, taking stock of himself.  “I do not feel much in the way of pain, not lying here.  But I do feel weak.  I do not want to sit up, I find.”

            His young kinsman smiled.  “There does not seem to be excessive warmth over the wound—some, but not an unhealthy amount.”

            “What was done to me?”

            “Your lung was pierced, and I had to close it that you might breathe properly.  You were fortunate that it did not collapse, and that the weapon was wrought and carried by—by Men, and not orcs.  Not that the one who wounded you was indeed a Man grown.”  He shook his head.  “Nay, he was but a boy, and younger than both of us.”

            “And you slew him?”

            Peredhrion—Aragorn—his face was almost grey at the memory of it.  “Yea, I slew him.  It was horrible, Halbarad!  The way my sword caught in his collarbone and ribs!”  He was shaking, Halbarad realized.  He had done what he needed to do—what he as a warrior was trained and expected to do, what he had known he must do one day; but it had scarred him, as would be true of every decent Man who was forced to kill against his nature.

            “I am sorry that your first kill among Men should be such a one.  It was perhaps easier for me, as I was able to use my bow and did not have to feel the point hew into a Man’s bones.  It is bad enough fighting orcs, or so I have found.”

            Peredhrion nodded.

            Berevrion, who had been lingering behind the taller youth, came forward with a water skin and a horn cup at the ready.  “Would either of you like something to drink?” he asked.  “He can have something to drink, can’t he?” he asked, addressing the young healer.

            “Yes.  Let him drink first, and then I shall accept some.  And, thank you, my friend.”

            Berevrion smiled.  Between the two of them they helped Halbarad to sit up so he could drink, then lie back down again.  Peredhrion drank deeply before returning the cup to Berevrion, then stood and stretched.

            “Well, are we going into those rocks to check out their camp or not?” asked someone over near the tumble of stone where the Angmarians had been hidden.

            The three youths turned their heads to look at those crowding near to the hidden area.  Peredhrion shook his head.  “I feel I need to be one who goes into there,” he murmured, and he hobbled over to join those standing near to the opening from which the Angmarians had emerged.

            “Go with him,” Halbarad commanded Berevrion, who nodded and followed the tall trainee.

            Two Men had already entered the area where the invaders had hidden themselves, and Peredhrion pushed himself in behind them, earning glares from those he’d pressed backward that turned to questioning glances at their fellows as they noted the Elven braids.  The one in front turned to call back, “There are two more in here,” only for one of the two hidden Angmarians to lunge at him with a knife.

            Exactly how Peredhrion managed to get past the second and even with the first Dúnadan to chop the Angmarian’s wrist with the side of his hand so that he dropped his knife no one could say, but by the time the second Dúnadan came forward with sword drawn the Angmarian was hunched over his hand, clutching at his stinging wrist, his face white with surprise.  The other invader half lay, half sat on a flattened boulder, torn cloth wound about his torso, indicating he had taken a major wound earlier.  Peredhrion’s eyes were busy assessing the situation, and he turned to the other three now within the hidden hollow in which they found themselves. 

            “He will be no threat now.  Bind him, but be gentle about it.  His left shoulder is bandaged, indicating he, too, was wounded.  As for this one—he is badly off, and is no threat to anyone, save perhaps as a carrier of infection.  Berevrion, go fetch my red bag.”

            The former knife-wielder was led out, and Berevrion came back to Halbarad with an ironic lift to his eyebrow as he grabbed up the healer’s bag to bring to their fellow trainee.

            It was some time before Peredhrion allowed the young raider to be moved, and he was issuing orders that only clean blankets were to be wrapped around this patient.  The three Men who carried him out rolled their eyes, but complied.  As for Duinhir, the Man watched with marked surprise as the young Ranger took control and issued orders, and the older warriors simply followed them as if they were accustomed to being ordered about by beardless young trainees.  Malvegern had come to sit near Halbarad, and both the Steward’s wounded son and Berevrion could see that he was most pleased with the situation.

            Once satisfied as to the well-being of the more severely wounded raider, Peredhrion immediately saw to the one who had sought to use the knife.  Both of these were well under twenty years of age.  The wound on this second Angmarian ought to have been stitched closed three days earlier.  It was healing, but it would undoubtedly catch should the young Man seek to move his arm swiftly over his head, and the scar would not be a pretty sight.  Peredhrion did what he could, and the raider was looking at him with wonder, not knowing what to think of having what was obviously a proper healer from among his enemies seeing his wounds and those of his companion set right.

            “What kind of madman have you brought us, Malvegern?” demanded Duinhir.  “Offering aid to our enemies!”

            Malvegern indicated the row of dead raiders being assembled by many of their number, including Orominion and Geldir.  “Look at them, my friend.  Peredhrion there is right—all are astonishingly young, save for that one there.”  He indicated the only one who appeared to be of middle age.  “All are also terribly thin and ill fed.  Where they are from there has apparently been famine.  They needed food and transport, not necessarily to feed and equip more enemies, but more likely their families.  It is probable that they heard all of the old lies about us—that we are implacable foes who roast our enemies alive, or who torture them cruelly.  That one there,” he nodded toward the one with the heavily scarred shoulder, “now is learning better, and he cannot reconcile what he experiences with what he has been told of us in the past.  We may just win at least one friend in that one, one who will owe us a debt of honor—or at least he will owe Peredhrion such a debt.  We could learn much from him, and see to it that at least one young Man of Angmar knows the truth of our nature.

            “As for Peredhrion himself, he was sent with excellent reports from Lord Elrond and his sons.  He has shown himself the best swordsman among Men that I have seen in all of my days, and he is, as you have seen, also a skilled healer and even a surgeon, as young as he is.  He also well understands the nature of orcs and their tactics, and has been teaching to our company all that he has learned within Rivendell from the sons of Elrond, Lord Glorfindel, and even Elrond himself.  He has just demonstrated that he has also taken on lessons in command, and you have seen how the others have responded naturally to the tone of his voice as if they were accustomed to responding just so to him, even though none of them has seen him before, or at least not that they know they have.  His mother chose to remain in Rivendell until he finished his time on the training patrol, but intends to come to pin his father’s star upon his cloak on our return.  And I do believe she will have reason to be pleased with his performance.”

            “But none of the women of the Dúnedain have dwelt among the Elves of Rivendell,” Duinhir objected.

            “None?” Malvegern responded, and with that he closed his mouth, shaking his head as he watched his tallest recruit work his way back to the saddle atop the log where he’d sat before.  Berevrion removed the stocking and wrappings from the injured leg, examined it, answered the tall youth’s questions, resettled the bark splints, and retied them in place.

            And Malvegern continued to smile with approval and satisfaction.

Alterations and Recognition

            The group remained camping in place one more night while Halbarad and the two Angmarians rested and began recovering from their wounds. 

            A search deeper into the rocks at the foot of the mountains led them to two of the missing horses, a milk cow, and three sheep.  Signs were that a number of fowl had been taken and had provided the raiders with at least one meal.  One of the Rangers who owned a farm saw to the milking of the cow, whose udder was painfully full; the other animals were led out and allowed to graze and drink alongside the Ranger’s mounts.  A pole drag was prepared for the young Man who was more severely incapacitated, and one of the recovered horses was chosen for the scarred young raider to ride.

            Shortly after noon the bodies of the slain raiders were carried into the tumble of rocks and settled quietly back by the foot of the mountain.  The scarred Angmarian youth watched with concern until he realized they were being treated with respect.  He followed two who carried one of his former fellows, and appeared satisfied when he saw the body laid gently down in a line with the others already there, and appeared reassured when he realized that earth from the steep slope overhead would be used to bury them.  He emerged and returned to the line of bodies that remained.  Seeing Peredhrion standing, looking down with pity at the two he’d been forced to kill, he said something in his own tongue.

            Berevrion explained, “I believe he has told us that these were brothers.”

            Peredhrion looked at him with surprise.  “Then you speak their language?”

            Berevrion shrugged.  “Somewhat.  We had a Man from Angmar whom my father found injured, so he brought him home and saw him treated.”

            “Was that Hagmar?” asked a Man nearby.

            A nod.  “Yes, Hagmar.  He never agreed to return to Angmar.  He said that the local warlord had stolen his wife and land, and had slain his children.  He said there was nothing to return to.”  Then, realizing that the young Angmarian standing by was trying to understand, he repeated this information in that one’s language.

            “Hagmar?” 

            This was followed by a question that Berevrion answered as best he could, and further words from the youth that Berevrion relayed to the attendant Dúnedain.  “It is a slightly different form of the tongue than what I learned from Hagmar.  He knows the story of Hagmar being forced to flee southwards.  He says, if I understand him correctly, that Vanwein, Hagmar’s enemy, is now dead, having been poisoned by Hagmar’s former wife.  The woman was burned as a witch, and no one will live on the land Hagmar once farmed, believing it cursed.  But she was pregnant when Vanwein took her, and so Hagmar has a son living now among his mother’s people.  Things have been bad in their area since Hagmar was driven south, and there has been a terrible drought, and their animals are beginning to die of thirst.  All are now convinced that somehow when Hagmar left, he took their luck with him.  They came south perhaps to find him and convince him to return north.  But they also came in hopes of bringing back horses and cattle with which to replenish their herds and to work the land.  Things are very bad among them.”

            “Would this Hagmar agree to return to his own place?” asked Duinhir.

            Berevrion shook his head.  “No.  He died three years ago, or nearly that.  We miss him greatly because he was good with the land and our horses.  I can see why those who lived in the area would wish to have him return.”

            The youth was allowed to help move the bodies, and watched as some of those accustomed to the work climbed the steep slopes over where the Angmarian bodies were laid.  One of the Dúnedain spoke over the bodies, asking the Doomsman to be merciful to them as they’d come primarily not to bring war but to obtain what they believed their people needed for them.  At a signal those upon the slopes began to work to release a contained slide intended to cover the bodies.  When the slide was over, many worked to distribute the fallen soil and rocks as evenly as could be worked over those who had fallen, after which they went on with the work of the camp.

            Halbarad was encouraged to rise and walk about late in the afternoon, and he helped in some of the lighter camp chores before returning to his bedroll and falling into a surprisingly restful sleep.  In the night he woke to the sound of singing; much as Peredhrion had sat by Nardir and sung after the younger trainee almost lost his arm, the tall Dúnadan youth now sat and sang over Halbarad, an Elvish song of healing that called upon various of the Powers to offer one who suffered easing, strength, and comfort.  Warmth appeared to flow into Halbarad’s breast where his young kinsman’s hand lay over the wound he’d received.  He smiled up into Peredhrion’s eyes, and the taller youth returned it.  Before the song was ended, Halbarad was once again asleep, seeming to see Varda scattering the stars across the sky, Manwë beside her, his breath blowing them into the familiar constellations.

            No one seemed to think it odd that he rose the next morning with little memory of the pain he’d suffered, and that he went about preparing to leave as readily as the others.  The scarred young raider was directed by gesture to assist Halbarad, and watched with interest as the Rangers cleaned their campsite, shoveling dung and offal from those small animals caught for their meals into the hole dug as a latrine and filling it in, making certain that the fire was thoroughly out and buried, brushing the ground to cleanse it of signs of occupation.  Little save foot and hoof prints would remain to speak of the party that had camped there, and wind and rain would wash that away soon enough.  His fallen fellows had been treated with respect, and he had been shown mercy and care far beyond what he had expected.  He accepted the portion of the meal offered him, which was no less than what the others received, and he swung up upon the back of the horse assigned to him readily enough for the ride south, realizing that no one intended to offer him further hurt.

*******

            They were joined by other parties as they rode, and found still more groups as they traveled closer to the lands surrounding Halbaleg’s keep.  One other party had encountered raiders.  Two of the Dúnedain had died in the encounter, and they had six prisoners, all of them bound hand and foot and laid over the backs of the mounts used to transport them.  Yet even these showed little sign of bad usage, or so Halbarad realized that the Angmarian youth riding with them noted.

            Peredhrion had been spending time riding near to Berevrion and the scarred Angmarian, doing his best to learn the language their prisoner spoke.  Already he spoke both Sindarin and Quenya, Westron, and Adûnaic; that he would seek to learn this youth’s dialect of Angmarian was understandable to Halbarad, at least.  Duinhir, on the other hand, looked at Peredhrion’s new interest with uncertainty, even with a hint of disfavor.  But the tall Dúnadan youth merely shook his head at Duinhir’s obvious disapproval and continued on, and in return helped the young Angmarian to learn some basic words in the Common Tongue.

            It took much of four days to come to the village that housed the Steward for Arnor and his keep, and Malvegern drew his young recruits out of the by now large party of Dúnedain defenders, bringing them back to the place where they’d been camped before they started their training patrol.  They were gladly welcomed back by their fellows, and all had much to tell one another as they found their places.

            “We are to be granted our stars tomorrow about sunset, or so I’m told,” Nardir announced.  “Your brothers have been much about our camp, Halbarad, although they keep being called back to the keep by their mother, who has had a good deal of work they must accomplish.  Hardorn is most disgusted by the whole affair, and insists that his sister would be better to do much of what they have been expected to accomplish.

            “Bregorn was buried on the second day after our arrival, and his parents are in deep mourning.  Rarely does any training patrol end with but one death, however, so most are in excellent spirits, seeing this as a good sign for our group of trainees.  Nardir’s parents have rejoiced to find him with only scars to indicate how badly he was wounded, and it is much the same with all others Peredhrion has treated.  Our parents are not allowed to come to us today that we might ready ourselves for the morrow.  We’ve had to wash our own clothing, just as the older Rangers must before rejoining their families, and we’ll be expected to bathe in the small lake over there and to make ourselves as presentable as possible.  Orominion’s family has sent word that they cannot arrive before late afternoon tomorrow, however, so there has been no way for them to know he needs a new cloak.”

            At this Orominion grew anxious.  “Am I to be the only one with no cloak when I am presented my star?” he demanded.  “I could wear Bregorn’s, I suppose—he shan’t need his now.”

            But Varadorn was shaking his head.  “He was wrapped in it for burial,” he explained, “as is true of all Rangers who die protecting the lands we guard.”

            At this Orominion was ready to find the grave and open it so as to take possession of Bregorn’s cloak, and it took Baerdion’s order to make the young Man realize that this would not be tolerated.  “If your star must be fastened to your shirt or tunic for the present, it will be enough,” he said.  “But if you seek to despoil a dead Ranger of his cloak, you will be cast out of our company.  Do you understand?”

            Orominion calmed, but Halbarad was certain that the desire to appear wearing a cloak onto which to pin his star as a Ranger of Arnor would become increasingly an obsession before the end.

            Their three trainers withdrew to the keep immediately after the younger warriors received their evening meal.  As they sat about their campsite with their metal plates and cups, Peredhrion, who’d remained quiet all through the time since they’d rejoined the rest of their patrol, finally spoke.  “I have heard much disquiet amongst the Men with whom we have ridden over the past week,” he said, “over how I am dressed and my Elven warrior braids.  The majority of the younger Men especially appear to find my hair makes me look a woman.”

            Orominion interrupted, “Well, among us, we menfolk rarely wear our hair beyond our shoulders, after all, unless we have full beards to go with the longer hair.  Even our beards we tend to cut fairly short so that enemies may not grab them during a close fight.”

            When the rest of the group indicated that Orominion was correct, Peredhrion sighed.  “I hate to sacrifice my warrior’s braids, but I don’t need them to indicate I am a warrior when I live among Men.”  So saying, he pulled out his belt knife, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, carefully positioned the blade close to his scalp, and with a swift motion cut away the left braid.  The cut to the right braid was not quite as carefully done, and he had a slight cut to the side of his head that bled freely until Brendor managed to find a soft cleaning skin to hold to it until the bleeding might stop. 

            “Well,” Geldir noted, “you will certainly need to wash your clothing and to bathe so that you don’t appear to have been attacked here in the camp!”

            All laughed nervously.

            Varadorn asked, “What about the rest of your hair?  It looks odd, what with the braids being gone.”

            “It will have to be cut, too,” Orominion noted.

            “We wouldn’t want to do that with a belt knife,” commented Finwë.

            Dirigil suggested, “How about the scissors you carry in your healer’s kit, Peredhrion, the one you use to cut linen into bandages?”

            First the tall youth went to the lake and bathed to wash the blood from his face and hair and to make the hair easier to cut.  Then he combed it thoroughly to smooth it.  Orominion was granted the right to do the cutting, it being accepted that he’d had the most experience, seeing he often cut the hair of his brothers.  Halbarad wasn’t certain of the wisdom of allowing Orominion this honor, but he held his tongue, and had to admit, once it was all done, that Orominion had done a creditable job of it in the end.

            Baerdion, Malvegern, and Túrin returned just as this operation was being completed, and appeared surprised to see Peredhrion seated calmly, dressed in his small clothes and wrapped with his cloak, while Orominion worked to straighten the last cuts.  “What is this?” demanded Baerdion.

            Peredhrion sighed.  “If I am to live and work amongst Men from this day forward, I must suppose it only right that I should appear a Man in my own right.”

            Túrin was lifting the discarded Elven clothing and eying the blood.  “And did this decision come after a fight?” he asked, holding the shirt so that Malvegern could see the stains.

            “No—I did that myself.  I am good at fighting with either hand, but apparently not so good at cutting off my own braid with my left hand,” the tall youth admitted.

            “So it would appear,” Malvegern drawled, more concerned than he allowed himself to show.  “So, this was your own decision, was it?”

            “Yes, sir.  It was totally my own choice.  Did you not yourself say that I must identify myself with the Men of my own people if I am to be accepted fully amongst the Dúnedain?”

            Malvegern’s expression softened.  “Indeed I did, but I did not expect you to nearly bleed to death to see your hair cut.”

            All laughed, and this time the laugh was one of shared relief.

            Túrin straightened.  “Should I return to Lord Halbaleg and ask if he has clothing that Peredhrion might wear tomorrow when the stars are bestowed, Malvegern?”

            But Peredhrion was shaking his head.  “My hair should be enough of a change to allow others to accept that I may have been raised amongst the Elves, but that I am yet a Man of our people.  I have more clothing and an extra cloak amongst our goods.  Not all I brought from Rivendell shouts out Elf, or so you will find.”

            Túrin smiled as he dropped the stained clothes Peredhrion had shed.  “I shall show you where those goods that were not taken with us have been held while we were off on patrol.  Some of those closest to Lord Halbaleg have taken it in turn to make certain that the goods tent remained inviolate whilst we were gone.”  So saying, he led the youth off toward a red tent that stood alone north of their campsite.  “The long chest that came with you lies along the left wall,” he was saying as they walked away from the other trainees.

            Halbarad noted that Orominion was listening closely as Túrin and Peredhrion headed for the storage tent.

*******

            All were up early, each trainee seeing to it his goods, tack, and horse were all in good order as they waited for the late afternoon when they would appear before those gathered to the Steward’s village to be accepted as Rangers of the northern Dúnedain.  Peredhrion and the others who had gone on the journey northward repaired to the shallow river at the western end of the lake where they all were to bathe later in the day to clean the clothing they’d worn.  Fortunately, the Elvish material he’d worn the previous evening appeared not to stain easily, and most traces of the blood from the wound to the side of his head washed away easily enough.  His newer shirt was plainer than the ones he’d worn on the patrol, although it had a subtle pattern of embroidery across its yoke that relieved its apparent severity.  Certainly it fit him well, as was true of the surcoat worn over it.

            In the light of day his hair appeared quite short indeed, although that had come as a result of how close to his head he’d cut his own braids.  The cut he’d made was barely to be seen—it certainly did not look to have been made just the preceding evening.  But as they bathed together, Halbarad noted that none of the scars that had been garnered by the trainees during their first patrol that Peredhrion had treated appeared particularly new, not even the one on his own chest where his breast and lung had been pierced.  The King’s Gift of healing appeared to be quite potent in Peredhrion—or Aragorn, as he would be known by all after this evening.

            For Hardorn and Halladan had slipped out of the Keep and into the camp to let it be known that a party had come from Rivendell, one that included a number of Elves and at least one woman, perhaps two.  The twin sons of Elrond had come to the Keep to meet briefly with Halbaleg, after which they’d returned to the place on the eastern bounds of the village where they were to set up their own camp, there to remain until the ceremony of recognition for the new Rangers was to begin.  Among those who’d arrived within the last week were all of those who had served as witnesses that Arathorn and Gilraen’s son had lived; with those who’d come from Rivendell, Halbarad was certain even the most resistant Dúnedain would be convinced that this was indeed Aragorn son of Arathorn, the rightful Chieftain for their people.  He found himself looking forward to Duinhir’s reaction to the proper identity of the young trainee he’d questioned so closely during the day spent near the rocks in which the Angmarians had been hidden.

            Orominion was one of the first to leave the lake, although he was not near his own bedroll once the rest returned to the campsite once more.  Damrod sighed.  “I wonder whose cloak he will end up borrowing?” he said.  “There is no way in Middle Earth that he will agree not to wear a cloak today.  I’m only glad he’s far too big to wear mine!”

            There were many who agreed with him.  Now they worked to don their clean clothing and to see their hair combed carefully.  A few went through their own goods to see what might have gone missing, but other than a vest belonging to Finwë all appeared to be in order—until Orominion came strolling down to the camp from the red storage tent wearing a cloak none of them had yet seen, and bearing a sheathed sword.

            Sweet Valar! Halbarad thought.  He’s gotten into that long chest Túrin spoke of yesterday!  Those are Peredhrion’s goods!

            And indeed Peredhrion was straightening, his eyes fixed on the sheath Orominion now carried in his hands.

            “Look, all!” Orominion exclaimed.  “It is not only extra cloaks that our Elven Princeling carries with him, but even an extra sword!  Now, how wasteful is that?  Shall we see just what kind of sword it is that he refused to bring with him upon the patrol we just finished?  After all, he just might have broken that fine Elvish blade he wears at his hip!”

            With a flourish, Orominion shook out the sheath upon the ground.

            Only it was not a complete sword that fell upon the earth at Peredhrion’s feet.  The handle was that of a long sword, made for either a single or two hands to grip; but the blade went not even foot from the tang before it was broken off.  The rest of the blade was clearly etched with intricate runes.

            “No Man made that sword,” Varadorn whispered.

            “And no Elf, either,” muttered Damrod.  “That was made by a Dwarven Master!”

            Orominion’s face had gone stark white with shock.  He had certainly not expected this!

            Peredhrion’s face was nearly as pale as that of the youth who still held the worn sheath in his nerveless fingers.  As he’d dressed, he’d slipped a scrip of green leather around his neck.  The lacing of the placket of his embroidered shirt was not yet tied, and all could see him lifting out the scrip and fumbling it open.  All watched with fascination as he delved within it.  Every young Man present knew the story of a certain blade that had been broken an age ago, one that had remained in the keeping ever of one of their people, at first in the keeping of each of their Kings in turn, and then in the keeping of each of their Chieftains.  This broken sword had not been seen since the death of their last Chieftain, Arathorn son of Arador.

            “Does that mean…” whispered Hedron.

            But Peredhrion was drawing out something from the bag, and placed upon his own finger the….

            “The Ring of Barahir!” said Finwë.  “He wears the Ring of Barahir!”

            “And those are the shards—the shards of Narsil!” agreed Varadorn, stepping forward.  “And that makes you….”

            “And that makes me Aragorn son of Arathorn,” Peredhrion finished.

            “Oh, blessed Creator!” moaned Orominion, who fell to his knees and buried his head in his arms.  “What have I done?”

*******

            The Sun drew westward toward the distant Sea early that evening.  It was nearly the day for the autumnal equinox, after which the days would be shorter than the nights to follow.  The young trainees, much subdued, were led to the open square in the center of the village before the hall of meeting by their three trainers, with Hedron as the shortest in the lead, and Orominion at the back, only just ahead of the one they’d all thought of as Peredhrion until a mere hour or so before.  Orominion wore no cloak.

            “Behold our new Rangers, each having proved himself well upon this newly finished patrol,” announced Halbaleg, the Steward of Arnor.  “May each be honored as one who has worked to protect our people and who has sought to see things made right throughout what was once the proud land of Arnor, which may be again recognized under that name, the Powers willing.”

            Women were lining up to greet the newly anointed guardians of the northern Dúnedain, looking to see that each was properly placed to meet her own son, grandson, or brother, each holding in her hand a grey or green bag in which lay a brooch in the shape of a star.  Some of these stars were newly made, while others were handed on from a late or disabled father or grandfather or uncle, displaying that this family had given their people a lineage of protectors over the years.  At the end of the line one of the two women who had come from Rivendell stood, cloaked and hooded, holding a worn bag of silver that she kept turning in her hands.

            “Hedron son of Bolsig,” Halbaleg intoned, and Hedron stepped forward to stand before his mother, who removed the star brooch from her green bag and carefully pinned it to the shoulder of his cloak before bending to draw him to her, forgetting the bag, which fell unheeded to the ground while she embraced and kissed her son.  Varadorn stooped to retrieve it, and returned it to Hedron before he stepped forward to stand before his own mother as his name was called.

            “Where’s your cloak?” asked Orominion’s mother as his turn finally came.  “Oh, but never you mind—I have a new one for you anyway, only I didn’t think to bring it with me to the ceremony!  Here—this is now yours, my son.  It was my father’s, and now it is yours.”  Smiling proudly, she pinned it to the tunic he now wore, and at last he accepted that he was just as much a Ranger of Arnor as was any of his fellows as he fingered it with wonder before hugging his mama to him, kissing her cheek soundly before moving to the side as their tallest new Ranger stepped forward to stand before his own mother.

            “Naneth,” he murmured as she stood looking up into his face from beneath her hood.

            “Sweet Creator!” she breathed, pausing to examine him.  “How much you favor your father!”  She brought out her own star, one no one had seen for eighteen years, and pinned it to the shoulder of his green cloak.  “May you not meet his ending, but may you do our people as proudly and as well.”

            Those who had not recognized the star did recognize her as she pushed back her hood.  “Aragorn son of Arathorn,” she said clearly, “my beloved son, who has been known as a child as Estel, or Hope, I give you back to the Dúnedain as their next Chieftain, assured as I am that you have earned your place fairly, and have shown forth the King’s Gifts on this, your training patrol.  May you prove worthy of your new standing, and may our people prove worthy to receive you as their new leader.”  She drew him down to kiss his brow, and then hugged him to her as closely as any other of the women who’d greeted their sons this evening.  “How I do love you!” she whispered into his ear as she did so.  Halbarad, standing next to his own mother, Anneth, smiled proudly as his kinsman was finally greeted in his own name, watching as now fathers, brothers, friends, and others crowded close to recognize these returning sons as the hope for the future of the remnant of Elendil’s people.





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