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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

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

“Aragorn, wait.”

I should have known better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your coat, Aragorn,” Halbarad said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aragorn started to thread his arms back into this sleeves.

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

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

Halbarad scooped out a handful. “A salve.”

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

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

“A true healer would warm it up first!”

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

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

“Nothing but.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did I not say it would warm up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had not noticed any mosquitoes.”

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

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

“Did it help your shoulders?”

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

“And will you tell him?”

Aragorn gave him a sidelong look.

“No, I suppose you won’t.”

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

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