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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

16 October, T.A. 3000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am sorry, Mallor. So very sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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