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The Better Huntsman  by Aelaer

Completely off-topic: I got to have dinner with Richard Taylor *geekspasm* It's a long story. I may have also landed my first job as an illustrator. I'll be updating about that here and there, especially if it effects my writing schedule. But yes, that's what I did this weekend.

And here's more story :)


Chapter Four: The House in the Woods

Aragorn could not believe how events had turned out. Now here he was, but a couple days after he had made the decision to go Emyn Arnen, following a simple woodsman and supporting a limping Faramir through Ithilien. It truly had sounded like such an excellent idea at the time- all he wanted to do was get away from bothersome councilmen and go hunting. Was it too much to ask?

“Of all the possible events to occur to both of us, this was one that did not come to me," Faramir muttered in Sindarin.

"Trust me, this was the last place I thought we would be,” said Aragorn in the same language. “When I said hunting, I did not mean taking a little swim in the river and meeting one of Gondor's fine citizens. At least he doesn’t know who we are. I do think that he would be in shock.”

“Or he wouldn’t believe us.”

“Or that.”

"After all, you do have that nasty bump on your head. It may have affected you."

"Oh yes. And that scratch on your leg, it is surely infected and has poisoned your thoughts."

"Definitely. But since we know that we are suffering from our various wounds, we then know that these thoughts of being king and steward are obviously fantasies."

"Correct. So once we recover from our various wounds, we should start our lives anew since all we can remember are these odd stories of the Citadel of Minas Tirith."

"I hear Mordor is lovely this time of year. Perhaps we should settle with the people of Nurn."

"I was thinking about Dol Guldur, myself. Have you ever been there, Turgon?"

"I have not, Thorongil. Have you?"

"Once. Terrible experience. Let's not go there."

"Nurn it is, then."

"I do not think Arwen would like Nurn."

"Neither would Éowyn; too dry and barren for her tastes."

Aragorn chuckled as he thought about their wives' faces if they heard this conversation. Nurn, indeed! Faramir, as if he read his mind, said, "Let us not tell our wives about that proposition."

"It would be very foolish to do so."

The conversation died and a peaceful silence came about them as they trailed behind Maethor. They stayed as such for a few minutes. When Faramir started to notice the pain in his leg more, he started the conversation anew, determined to not dwell on the pain.

“You are fortunate to have an available alias, Thorongil,” said Faramir with a glance towards the king. “I actually had to think one up, and in a very short amount of time.”

“And you were not very clever at thinking up one, Turgon," Aragorn rebutted. "Giving yourself the name of your great-grandfather does not take much thinking.”

Faramir cleared his throat. “Actually, I was thinking about the king of Gondolin when I chose it.”

Maethor turned around, confused when he saw Thorongil burst out laughing. When Turgon simply shook his head, Maethor shrugged and continued forward. He didn’t understand what they were saying, and as it was, it was none of his business. It probably wasn’t anything important, anyways.

Aragorn suddenly stopped laughing when his head started pounding again. Faramir shot him a look of concern, but the king simply ignored it. Once the pounding had settled down again to a small throbbing, he looked to Faramir and smiled.

“Only you, Faramir, would think of the old elf king before your own ancestors.” Faramir raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. However, not even he could hide the small smile threatening to turn into a grin.

They soon fell silent once more, and brooded on their own thoughts. Suddenly Faramir frowned, but still he said nothing. Aragorn waited for him to speak, but when he did not say anything, Aragorn asked, “What ails you? You look as if you are in distress.”

Faramir was still silent, but at Aragorn’s encouraging look, he sighed and said, “This is my fault. If it were not for me, we would not be in this situation. I give you my most sincere apologies, my lord.”

Aragorn frowned. “Whatever do you mean, Faramir? If there is anyone to blame, it should be me.”

Faramir looked genuinely surprised at his words. “You, sire? No, it was me! It was I who followed the stag, and it was I who grabbed onto you and pulled you with me into the river. If I had not, you would be well now and with your men!”

"I would hardly be better off if I did not know where you were," Aragorn pointed out. "Besides, I followed the stag not because you did, but because I was adamant to catching it,” he admitted. “And it was I who suggested this silly hunting competition, and it was I who insisted on coming despite signs of bad weather. Indeed, I believe I am the much larger fool in this case.”

Faramir shook his head. "You cannot be blamed for the weather, my lord; we both have been in the rain many times, and never a misfortune has occurred because of it. And less dangerous than the rain is hunting! No, you hold no blame on that account."

"Nonetheless, I followed the stag, just like you. You are not alone in blame in that regard."

"I suppose," Faramir said, frowning. "But I cannot blame you for chasing the creature. The stag was not a normal animal. There was an intelligence and knowing in his eyes that I have seen in no other beast."

"I have seen it," Aragorn said in a grim tone, "yet the beasts that did also had the power to speak our tongue. I do not think this animal could talk, yet it was certainly no mere stag. As it is, I doubt we shall see something like him in Ithilien ever again." The king sighed. "In the end, I remain the one who proposed this misfortunate venture in the first place.”

“It was a good idea, sire,” Faramir argued. “It is hardly your fault that nearly everything turned out wrong.”

Nearly everything?” asked Aragorn skeptically.

“Well, we are not dead,” said Faramir with a smile. “And we were found by a friendly citizen of Gondor.” Aragorn nodded as Faramir continued. “If I may be so bold, my lord, I do believe that we both equally share the blame. And I am sure Beregond and Galdir shall scold us enough to make us both feel equally guilty.”

“Our wives, too,” added Aragorn. Faramir grimaced.

“I was trying not to think about it,” he said.

They once again fell into silence. A minute later, Aragorn broke the stillness by chuckling. When Faramir gave him an inquiring look, the king could only shake his head. "The irony."

"Do tell."

He shook his head again. “We went on this hunt to see who the better huntsman is, and to see who could outwit the stag. In the end, the stag outwitted us both!” Faramir frowned as Aragorn chuckled once more, failing to see the humor in this. However, the laughter was contagious and soon he found himself chuckling as well.

Maethor shot the two Rangers an odd look as their laughter became louder. He supposed that their wounds were affecting them in some odd way that made them act strangely. 'Or,' he concluded, 'maybe Rangers are just strange like that.'

***

Soon enough they came to the house. It was a moderately-sized wooden cabin, with a small fenced garden right to the side of the structure. A column of smoke rose from the chimney, and the front door of the home was open to keep the warm air from overheating the cabin. Right outside the cabin, carving a long stick, was the boy Handir.

When he heard the three of them approach, he looked up from his work. After seeing his father with two strangers, Handir decided to give his mother a warning about the visitors. Sticking his head through the door, he said, "Ma! Father is back, with two other men."

"Visitors?" his mother sighed. She was sitting by the table, finishing scrubbing her daughter's feet. The young girl, who sat on top of the table, looked excited at the prospect. His mother sighed again and muttered, "Visitors at such a short notice. Well, at least you're clean again," she then directed to the young girl. "Now Haneth, don't you go jumping in the river again. You got yourself all muddy and wet; you're old enough to know you'll catch a cold that way."

Handir did not stay to hear his younger sister's rebuttal, but rather went back outside to meet his father and his companions. He quickly walked over, eager to see who these two tall men were.

"You are back, Father," the boy said with a smile. He had wanted to follow him desperately, but did not want to disobey him, either. Handir was glad it had not taken him long to return. "Did you find what Haneth had seen?" he then asked, glancing at the strangers who were just approaching them.

"Yes," he replied. "Thankfully they were not dead as she had thought." Maethor smiled as the two joined them. "Thorongil, Turgon, this is my son Handir. Handir, Thorongil and Turgon are Rangers."

Handir could not help but stare at them. The two were taller than most men, and looked like well-seasoned warriors. He was stunned to see the terrible wounds on both of them; it was worse than anything he had seen in many years.

Maethor could see the shock in his son's eyes, so rather rebutting him for his lack of manners, he gently said, "Son, why don't you tell your mother that we will be needing some clean strips of cloth and some heated water. Go, now."

Handir nodded, and with one last look at the Rangers, turned and hurried back into the house.

Faramir stared at his back sympathetically. "He is not used to seeing wounded?"

"No, he never did like blood much, even if he won't admit it. We kept both our children away from the war as much as possible. Haneth is still too young to remember, but Handir saw things no child should see. War reached all of Gondor."

The three men went to the open front door and Maethor let his guests inside before going in himself. Aragorn and Faramir found themselves in the main room of the house. To their left was a fireplace with two pots hanging over it. Around the hearth were many shelves filled with various cooking utensils, as well as a small table to prepare food. Near the fireplace was a small dining area, where a woman and a young girl were sitting. On the other side of the room were a small couch and a rocking chair. Handir was currently leaning on the back of the couch, watching the two strangers with open curiosity. Beyond this room were two doorways that led to the rest of the small, cozy home.

"Oh, good gracious me!" said the woman when she saw the two wounded men. "No wonder you called for bandages! I may need to rip a few more." They now saw that she had a couple long strips of worn, but clean cloth on the table, as well as an old blanket in her lap. She put the blanket down, stood and strode over to the two Rangers. "Now, you two look as if you are going to collapse. Come now, sit, sit." She guided them over to the old couch, which Handir abandoned quickly.

Maethor took one look at his son's face and realized that he looked queasy. His daughter, however, looked fascinated. Now that she realized that the men she had seen were not dead, she was not nearly as frightened of their looks as she was before.

"Come, Handir, let us go find Haneth's boots," he said. Handir nodded and left the home quickly, not once looking back. "Haneth, you shall stay out of your mother's way and do as she says, right?"

"Yes, Papa," she replied, but was still watching her discoveries with open fascination.

Maethor nodded in satisfaction and left to go with his son, closing the cabin door behind him.

As her husband had spoken, the woman was busy inspecting her two patients. Once he was gone, she glanced them over for a final time, and frowned. "Your wounds will need to be cleaned and stitched. They don't look infected, but it must be prevented."

As she went over to the fireplace to take off one of the pots, Aragorn managed to get in a word. "You know a little on healing, mistress?"

"Oh yes, good soldiers," she said, putting the pot down on the dining table. "You are soldiers, are you not? Rangers, I would guess."

"We are Rangers," he replied with no hesitation.

"Yes, I thought so; we have had some visit us in the past, though it's been quite a while now." She went to the small counter near the hearth and started searching through the drawers. "But yes, I worked in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith during the War, for a year or so. During the battle on Pelennor, my husband's home and business on the first level were destroyed. So rather than rebuilding in the city, we decided to be one of the first to populate Ithilien again. Truth be told, I was rather tired of fixing all the wounded, only to see them get broken again." She sighed and she stilled, her expression dark and her eyes wide as she became lost in her memories.

"Mistress, is all well?" Aragorn asked, concern evident in his voice.

His voice brought her back to the present. "My apologies," she said, but said no more on the subject and continued her search. She gave a small exclamation when she finally found what she was looking for. "Here they are, my needles and thread. It has been a while since I've sewn up a wound, but it should come back."

Faramir threw Aragorn an uneasy glance while the man simply shrugged. He'd been through less experienced healers before, and was still alive.

"I must apologize for my son's behavior," started the woman again. "He does not like the sight of blood. My son will never be no soldier with that attitude, I know- I am glad the War is over so he doesn't have to go, to be honest. But I do wish he would be less sensitive about it. Ah, well, my daughter here seems to be undaunted by the sight.

"Here, Haneth," she turned to the girl in question, "tear up some more strips." She gave her daughter the old blanket. "Don't worry if you tear too many, just tear." She then found a small cup and a ladle, poured some of the boiling hot water into the cup, and then put her needles in it. "An old habit from the Houses. I never was quite sure why it was done, but the needles boiled in water seemed to have better results than not. Lords know why."

She took a few of the strips and the small pot of hot water and brought it over to the Rangers. She glanced at both of them. "Who would like to go first?"

"He needs it more than I," Aragorn said, indicating to Faramir.

"Madness. I am not the one with the head wound," Faramir pointed out.

"I must say I agree with him," she said, indicating to Faramir. "Head wounds are much more dangerous, after all. You don't know much about healing, do you?"

Aragorn looked slightly annoyed but said nothing. Faramir held back his amusement but had to turn away lest he caught Aragorn's glance. The woman did not notice any of this and started cleaning Aragorn's wound.

"I can clean it myself, mistress-" he started.

"Yes, but it would be rather cumbersome for you, wouldn't it?" she said pointedly. "And slower. But don't you worry, I'll get you and your friend in good time."

As Aragorn relented, she continued. "Oh, goodness me, I don't think I've even introduced myself! Maethor gave you his name, yes?" The king nodded and the woman sighed in relief. "Good. At least his manners are still around. I must say I am terribly sorry, when I get like this I lose all sense of etiquette. Another reason I left the Houses, I dare say. Anyways, I am Celon. Apparently means 'river', though I couldn't say in what language."

"Sindarin," Faramir supplied.

"Sindarin? Ah, I have no use for it. I know some in the City know it, but I never bothered learning it myself. One language is good enough for me. Oh, and goodness me, there go my manners again! What are your names, my good soldiers?"

"I am Turgon, and he is Thorongil," Faramir said.

"Well, Turgon and Thorongil, Maethor did not give me the story, so I ask that you will. How did you two end up like this?"

Briefly the two explained that, in the storm, they had been split off from their company, slipped on the muddy banks, and had fallen into the river. They left the stag out of their explanation, both rather loath to give the woman more to chat about.

Once they were done with the story, she had already moved onto Faramir's ragged leg wound. "What a tale. I am glad that my daughter found you two. And, of course, I am glad you two survived the river. It can certainly be vicious at times, to say the least."

Haneth was sitting quietly at the table while the woman finished cleaning the wounds. She had already given her mother all of the torn cloth and was watching the older woman with fascination. Her nonsensical chatter to these two tall, strong warriors captivated her. When the young girl had first seen the two men, she thought they were dead, a concept that frightened her beyond all else. Their blood had only made the scene worse. However, once she had seen them walk with their own power into her safe home, Haneth felt all fear disappear, and found her mother's treatments mesmerizing.

"Yes, we owe your daughter- your whole family- much," said Aragorn. "You have our gratitude."

"Of course," she said as she straightened herself. "And we owe you, soldiers of Gondor. We would not be here without you. So think nothing of it." Celon turned to the silent child by the table. "Haneth, do remove the soup off the fire, I am sure it is ready by now." She nodded and went to remove the large pot as the woman finished off the ties on the strips of cloth on Faramir's leg. "There we are. You may have a bit of a hard time walking for a while, but I removed all of the filth inside the wound, so it should heal fine. Another thing I learned in the Houses- cleaning out all the dirt supposedly prevents infection. Who would've thought the knowledge would be so handy?"

"Who taught you in the Houses in Minas Tirith?" Aragorn asked as she moved towards the soup pot on the table.

"Well, naturally the Warden taught me some things, but I learned quite a bit from everyone. Ioreth took a particular liking to me and taught me how to stitch a wound, and while I liked her well enough, she did sometimes prattle on and on. A little annoying at times, but one does get used to it. Some people are like that; they simply do not know when to stop and listen to the rest of the world and hear what they have to say."

Faramir raised an eyebrow and glanced at Aragorn as Celon dished out bowls of soup for her family and her two guests. Aragorn smiled and muttered lightly in Sindarin, "If I did not know any better, I would say she is closely related to Mistress Ioreth."

"I cannot imagine two Ioreths in the Houses," Faramir said. "I am blessed that I was not there when they both worked there."

Aragorn was lightly chuckling as the front door opened and Maethor, with his son, came in. Handir dropped his sister's boots near the front door and glanced at the two men on the couch. When he saw their wounds were covered, he relaxed.

"Perfect timing, husband," said Celon as she put down the last bowl of soup. "Haneth, there is bread in the cupboard over there, do bring it to the table. Handir, bring some spoons and a knife." The children complied with her wishes as she turned to her guests. "Come, come, you must be hungry. I have some soup and bread, and I believe my husband can find his stash of wine..." She looked expectantly at her husband.

"Of course," he said. "I bought it when I was last in Minas Tirith," he said to Aragorn and Faramir, "and we drink it for special occasions. Guests certainly qualify!" He went into one of the side rooms as his wife nodded in agreement.

"Oh yes," she said. "We do not have guests often at all- there simply are not many people in Ithilien yet. So while your circumstances were hardly favorable, it is truly lovely that you landed ashore near our home."

"And fortunate for us," said Faramir. "It is an honor to receive such hospitality."

"Oh, well, it is nothing," she replied, but was obviously pleased. "Now come, please be seated and have as much as you would like."

The two men stood, and- Aragorn supporting Faramir- made their way to the table. Celon held out a chair for Faramir as Aragorn let him sit down. Aragorn took his own seat as Haneth brought over the bread and Handir set the utensils down on the table.

Maethor soon came out of the smaller side room with a flask of wine, and poured the drink into goblets for his guests, himself, and his wife. Said wife was looking at the two men expectantly.

"Well, don't wait for us, you must be starving. Please, eat!"

With one last glance at each other, the king and steward obeyed the command of the housewife and began to eat the broth.





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