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The earth thundered beneath the pounding hooves of six strong, rough-haired horses, one of which galloped riderless. After shaking off the initial lethargy the shock of Mallor’s death had put on him, Aragorn had never before felt so possessed by the need to flee, to take flight.
Between burying Mallor, gathering their scattered and trampled belongings and rounding up the frightened horses, it had taken far longer to leave the area than it should have. He had pushed the men hard, barely allowing them time to say more than a hurried prayer over the grave. The threat pressing down on them had felt too close, too terrible, and every last instinct urged Aragorn to get his men away, to find safety where they could regroup and recover.
The need for haste had acted as a balm, numbing him to their loss, but now, as the immediate danger faded, he struggled to keep his heartache locked away. If only they could put the carnage and the sorrow behind them as easily as their horses had put miles under their fleet hooves!But the harsh images stained his every thought. He was frightened by the way his heart ached. Sorrow was an emotion he could ill afford to entertain, for he feared that when he finally gave in to its pull, it would drown him like waves in the sea.
Later. I will grieve later. I cannot give into this, not yet.
He felt his horse, Bronadui, falter, ever so briefly, but it was enough to wrench his attention to the needs of the horses. Even one named Enduring could not run at such speed forever. He reined in. “Easy,” he murmured. “You shall rest soon.”
Halbarad, riding beside Aragorn at the head of the small group, slowed his own speed to match. Aragorn was aware that his kinsman was watching him, casting swift glances his way when he thought Aragorn would not notice. But Aragorn felt the scrutiny, indeed had felt it since they left the cursed camp, and Halbarad’s ill-concealed worry, along with nearly every other aspect of this dark day, was wearing on him. He reined in and brought his horse to a walk. “We take a short rest,” he called behind him. His gaze lingered on Denlad for a moment, but apparently he had recovered from the blow to his head. He seemed pale, but clear-eyed. One small blessing in a string of evil events. “Let the horses catch their wind.” Then he turned to Halbarad. “Out with it,” he snapped.
Halbarad blinked, his face a mask of innocence. “Out with what?”
“You have been watching me ere we were a furlong away from Mallor’s–” His throat maddeningly seized up, and he struggled to hide the catch from Halbarad. “Since we left,” he finished, the lame response further adding to his ire.
Halbarad’s overly sympathetic gaze fixed itself on Aragorn’s face. But fortunately he looked away before Aragorn lost all control. “Nay, not I,” Halbarad merely replied. He tugged at a lacing on his left hauberk and inspected it, as if to indicate his utter nonchalance at being so accused.
Halbarad’s horse twitched one ear back. Aragorn snorted. “Even your horse does not believe you.”
Halbarad shifted uneasily. “Very well. Turn those steely gray eyes away from me and I will keep my own off you, if you insist on being so testy about it.”
Aragorn obliged him by focusing on the golden waves of the grassland through which they rode, grasslands that proved easier for fast travel than the hills they had left behind. They would regain the hills several leagues further south, when he was certain they had left the orcs, and whatever unknown evil seemed to accompany them, behind. But first, to deal with Halbarad. “You still have not answered my question.”
Valar help me not to draw my sword and slam the hilt up the side of your thick skull! Aragorn pointedly brought his steely gray eyes, if that was what Halbarad cared to call them, back to Halbarad’s. “‘Out with it’ were my words, if I recall.”
“Technically that was not a question.”
“No, it was an order!” Aragorn snapped, then lowered his voice as Galadh glanced their way. “You try my patience, which is already worn perilously thin.”
Halbarad sighed deeply. “Aye, it is. Your patience, that is. Stretched thin and tight to the breaking point.” He paused, seeming to Aragorn as if considering whether his life would be forfeit if he said the next words. Evidently willing to risk it, he continued softly, “And it seems to me that your spirit is stretched nearly as thin.”
This time it was Aragorn’s turn to shift in his saddle. “No more than any man’s in these dark times.”
“There is truth to that, I’ll not argue. And yet...”
Halbarad’s dark gray eyes were troubled. “It is bad enough, what happened this morning. It lies heavy on all our hearts. Mine, Denlad’s, all the men. But you... I worry that you will try to carry this burden as though it were yours alone to bear.”
“Let me say my piece, Strider,” Halbarad interrupted, ignoring Aragorn as he pulled a face at Halbarad’s use of the less-than-flattering appellation put on him by Breelanders. Halbarad used it as an affectionate insult, but also whenever he thought Aragorn was getting too stubborn, as he obviously did now. Aragorn resigned himself to a lecture as Halbarad went on. “You know of what I speak. Your destiny, indeed your very character, makes you take on burdens no single man can carry, no matter how great his strength. I see it weighing you down, as day by day goes by and the shadow grows unchecked. And you need rest, and you are not allowing yourself any. You have not fully recovered the strength you lost to fever.” He stopped, frustration creasing his brow. “If one of us falls, Denlad, myself, Eledh, and yes, even Mallor... it is of no great note save to a few grieving friends and our families. But you are more than just a Ranger, and if you were to fall, either to a blade or to illness or even to the failing of your own hope–”
Aragorn winced. He knows. Halbarad had, blast his infuriating perceptiveness, seen through the facade behind which Aragorn thought he was well hidden, and the thought frightened him. But he cannot know the extent. Too much is at stake. It has fallen to me, in the incomprehensible wisdom of Ilúvatar, to be the hope that all look to, and because of that I cannot give up. No matter what the cost to myself. He cut him off. “I am fine, Halbarad. And today, I am a Ranger. A Dúnadan, just like you, nothing more. Whatever the future holds, it holds in shadows through which no man can see, but I have not lost hope. Let us speak of it no further.”
Aragorn saw from the stubborn set of Halbarad’s jaw that he was more than ready to contradict, and he knew Halbarad, as his faithful second in command, had every right and obligation to speak to him, to caution him and advise him and remind him of hope when the lies of the shadow clouded all truth. But of late Aragorn found it harder and harder to see how hope could prevail, and today especially he felt he would draw his sword against any who spoke of his duty or his destiny. Sauron’s shadow grew in the east, and it was reaching even the uttermost parts of Middle-earth, and how could one man, no matter how strong his heart’s desire, vanquish such evil? Especially one as beset by despair as I have been of late?
But he could speak his doubts to no man, least of all his faithful captain. So he shook his head slightly, pleading without saying a word.
Not now, Halbarad. Not now. My heart is too sore.
He kicked his horse into a gallop, and his men fell in behind him.
As the sun slipped beyond the day’s grasp, they came upon a rock-lined hollow nearly hidden by the rising swells of the plain. A small stream bubbled from a crack at the base of the rocks, a spring of some sort, brought to the surface by the previous week’s rains. Aragorn swept his gaze across the surrounding area. Surrounded as it was by the wall of rock on the north, and with a view open from there to every compass point, any orcs would be hard pressed to find them before noise of their clumsy feet across the rocky ground betrayed their presence, or before a sharp-eyed sentry saw their approach. Or so Aragorn hoped. Their last camp had seemed similarly defensible, to no avail.
He dismounted, hoping that no one noticed his wince as pain shot across his shoulder blades. The bruises from the battle were stiffening up. “This is as good a camp as we’ll find tonight. We will eat, and then Eledh, you and I will take the first watch.”
Eledh nodded, studying the outcropping of rocks. He pointed toward a large group of boulders that jutted out from the rest. “I will take the post atop that outcrop. It will afford me a clear shot in any direction.” Eledh replied. He glanced sadly at the empty saddle of Mallor’s horse. “Although I hope I do not need it."
Aragorn squeezed Eledh’s arm, then looked at the rest of the men. “Halbarad, you and Galadh take the second. I’ll take the third with Denlad. Take what sustenance and rest you can, and keep your weapons to hand.”
Galadh nodded. Aragorn felt a faint stirring of wry humor as he watched Galadh dismount. A nod from that man amounted to a lengthy speech.
Halbarad walked over to Aragorn. “Do you think there will be another attack?” he asked quietly, keeping his voice low enough to be covered by the noise and clatter of men dismounting and unloading packs.
“Who can say?” Aragorn replied just as softly. “I no longer feel the impending presence of evil, but then I had no sense of danger before we were attacked this morning, only after.” He ran his hand under Bronadui’s mane, looking with troubled eyes toward the hills to the southeast. “Rumor may have brought us out here, but it was no rumor that killed Mallor.”
“Do you think this might have been a solitary incident, or could it be all the villages along the Hoarwell are in danger?”
Aragorn started to shrug, but remembered the pain in his shoulders and thought better of it. “The only word I have is what I told you: a rider traveling the settlements along the Hoarwell claimed he saw Bracken’s Ferry under attack by a hoard of orcs. That part I trust as truth; it happens often enough, for the scattered settlements along the river are far apart and easily struck by bands of orcs descending from the Misty Mountains. But he also mentioned some sort of shadow falling on all the villagers, knocking them senseless and making them easy prey. That part of the tale... I don’t know what to think about it, to be honest. But I know this man, and he has always been trustworthy, an honest trader not given to exaggeration, so I felt we had to ride out. And after this morning... I cannot shake the fear that something more foul than orcs besets this land.”
“So we guard ourselves against orcs and who knows what else.”
“We will simply have to be even more vigilant.”
Halbarad drew a deep breath and let out in a rush. “It bothers me that the orcs were so swift, and we so unaware of their approach, even with Galadh and Eledh on watch, and they with the sharpest ears among us save yours. It’s as though...” But he shook his head, unable find the words.
“The darkness in the East is creeping ever closer, and they hide within its shadow.”
“That is as good an explanation as any. Not that I like it any better now that you have explained it so eloquently.” He gave Aragorn a wry look, then led his horse to drink.
Aragorn felt a smile tug one corner of his mouth for the first time that day.Only Halbarad would have the temerity to mock his chieftain to his face. And the heart big enough to worry over me like a mother hen. Feeling grateful for such a stalwart friend, even if such faithfulness came with aggravating stubbornness and the occasional round of disrespect, Aragorn walked his own horse to the spring. As Bronadui drank, Aragorn pulled his pack off, gasping a bit as again his shoulders protested. Clumsily, he let the pack drop to the ground. Praying that no one saw, he stood a moment until the muscles in his back stopped their spasms. Then he loosened the girth, running a careful hand beneath the blanket. He didn’t find any sign of soreness. He left the saddle on, but kept the girth loose, ready to tighten at a moment’s notice. He ran his hand down all four legs and found no undue warm spots, which relieved him. As hard as he had forced Bronadui to run, he feared he may have lamed him, but Bronadui was proving as sturdy as his northern forebears, stouthearted and full of stamina. Still, Aragorn was glad to be able to finally offer the horse a respite. “Rest, my swift friend. You have earned it,”he murmured. The horse nickered, bending his head to touch Aragorn’s.
Another horse whiffled against the back of Aragorn’s head, playfully nipping at his hair. He turned and found himself eye to eye with Mallor’s mount, who had followed them to the water. With a fresh pang of grief, he realized he had never learned the horse’s name.Time gave me too little chance to know this lad fully–or perhaps I simply let my duties keep me from paying the attention I should have. Galadh was caring for him until they could return him to Mallor’s family. But while he was busy with his own horse, Mallor’s evidently took it upon himself to follow Aragorn. He ran his hand in a gentle caress under the horse’s mane as he had seen Mallor do so often. The horse lowered his head, then looked up and around him, as though searching for his lost master. He let out a mournful whinny.
“Shhh. Nai tyeldar sí nyérelyar. Coluvan nyérelyar,” Aragorn sighed as he laid his head against the horse’s neck. He patted him and thought about the ancient Quenya words: May your sorrows now be ended, my friend. I will carry your sorrows. Lord Elrond had often whispered them in his ear when he was a small boy beset by heartaches that in his childishness he felt certain would end life itself. Elrond had taught him the words’ meaning and, with a far-away look in his eyes, told him of the story of his childhood, of being orphaned and then taken in for a time by the Noldor Elf Maglor and his brother Maedhros. He told him that the words were Maglor’s own, and that the Elf had spoken them often over Elrond as he grieved the loss of his mother, Elwing.
Thinking of those ancient days always brought a great lump to Aragorn’s throat. So much tragedy in this world. So much sorrow, then and now. Will it ever end? Will happiness ever become the rule on Arda, or must life always remain something stained by tragedy and death and loss? Swallowing hard, Aragorn stroked the horse’s head lightly. “Halbarad says I carry the sorrows for too many,” he murmured, “but I suppose I have strength to carry yours as well.” Suddenly feeling weary beyond all reckoning, he hobbled both horses, and then gingerly hoisted his pack and headed to the camp.
Denlad had a small fire going. In a patrol of six men who were all terrible at cooking, Denlad was the best, and the big, fair-haired Ranger usually took it upon himself to take care of what meals they were able to scrape together. After Aragorn dropped his pack and settled down beside it, Denlad handed him a stick with a half-burnt sausage impaled upon it. “That is the last of the fresh meat that doesn’t have a foul smell. Or at least not much of a foul smell. We took a vote and decided to give it to you.” Aragorn was relieved to see a bit of sparkle return to Denlad’s blue eyes, but he worried a bit about the cause. Denlad was known for his pranks and Aragorn would not put it past the man to have spiked the sausage with some wild weed that would set his mouth afire.
But Denlad’s gaze seemed guileless enough, so Aragorn took it, nodding to the men around the fire. “Thank you.” He sniffed the meat and added, “I think.” He took a tentative bite and tried not to curl his lip at the meat’s ripeness. He had eaten worse, with no ill effect, but it never made for a pleasant meal.
The men laughed, but the mirth soon faded. Denlad poked the fire a bit. He looked like a man waiting for the right moment to speak. Aragorn stifled a sigh as he chewed. It seemed each man was all but bursting with unsaid words, Galadh excepted, and after Halbarad’s little lecture, Aragorn feared that a full-fledged discourse of his state of mind was mere moments away.
Here it comes. “What, Denlad? You know you are always free to speak.”
“We... that is, all of us....” Again he ground to a halt, and when Aragorn remained silent, he struggled on. “Well... that black feeling in the air this morning during the battle–did you feel it?”
“Yes, Denlad, I did.”
Relieved, Denlad forged ahead. “In those fell moments it seemed like I was fighting more than just orcs. They carry enough evil in their own right, but there was something else. Something I could neither see nor put a sword into but something I felt like I had to slog through nonetheless. It was a malice that none of us have memory of. Do you know what I mean?”
Aragorn nodded again, inwardly relaxing. Orcs and blackness and evil are easy subjects compared with Halbarad’s confounded worries about me. He finished chewing and swallowed. “I did. And I have no answer, other than I think the Dark Lord is...flexing his might, perhaps? Or perhaps it is some evil from days of old now come back to life? Although I have never put much stock in ghost stories, there are plenty of evil things in Arda that have no name but might stir themselves without warning to plague Man and Elf alike. I wish I could explain it better, but I don’t have the answer. But I felt it. And it worries me. Something bigger is stirring, something....” He shook his head, frustrated. The skin on his back suddenly crawled, as though an orc arrow was about to strike between his shoulders. He dropped the sausage and stood, his hand resting on his sword’s hilt.
The men all lunged to their feet with a muted cacophony of swords sliding from sheaves. Eledh snatched up his bow and notched an arrow.
“What is it?” Halbarad whispered.
Aragorn hurriedly climbed to the top of the rocks, but the plains were empty. He stared into the deepening twilight for a long moment, listening, but no sound reached his ears other than muted roar of the north wind scything through the grasses. “A mind full of fear, evidently,” he admitted as he jumped from rock to rock to return to the fire. He felt his cheeks burning and he let out a small laugh. “It seems my imagination has stirred up a threat that does not exist.”
Halbarad squatted beside Aragorn as the men settled themselves again. “I’ll trust your imagination over hard facts any day.”
Denlad nodded. “As will I, for I do not think this threat is a mere trick of the mind.”
“Nor I,” Aragorn said. He picked up the sausage from where it had fallen and tried to brush off the dirt without burning his fingers. “But our mission has taken us not too very far from realms that were once dark and terrible. The Witch-King of Angmar is long departed now, but perhaps there still lingers some foul spirit on this land by which the orcs have somehow contrived a way to go forth from under its protective shroud I have walked that country north of here, on the other side of the Ettenmoors, and I remember once when the wind suddenly blew cold and seemed to carry with it the scent of some far-away dead thing. I thought it at first to be a rotting deer carcass, but then the wind switched around from the south and carried with it the same foulness and in my heart I knew it was not anything natural that I sensed. But when the wind died just as suddenly, and the stench faded to naught but memory, I blamed my fear on a wild imagination and too many long childhood days with my nose stuck in books about the Witch King. We must remember that he was driven into the East and though he still dwells there, it is far from Arnor, thankfully. But some other evil is abroad. And whether echoes of the past be the reason or some present danger we cannot begin to envision, as we watch tonight, keep more than eyes and ears open. Trust your gut, and do not be ashamed to call out a warning if something feels amiss that your eyes do not see. Better to lose a little sleep than be caught unawares again.”
Halbarad cleared this throat. “That reminds me. I think it might be best if I take the first watch with Eledh, then stay through the second watch with Galadh. That will let you have more rest.”
Aragorn narrowed his eyes as his earlier irritation at Halbarad’s overprotectiveness flared back to life. “First all of you vote to give me the best meat, a questionable boon though it was. Now Halbarad is talking of taking my watches so I can rest. Have I suddenly grown so feeble that you feel the need to coddle me like an old man?” He made sure every one of them felt his glare. “The watches stay as they’re set.”
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