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At Hope's Edge  by Cairistiona

"A child?"

"It sounds like one," Denlad agreed. He looked at the mound of broken beams. "But how in Arda do we reach her? I reached in as far as I could, but sheís too far back."

Aragorn straightened up and took a step back. His heel bumped into some debris and he would have fallen but for Galadhís quick steadying hand. He nodded his thanks and moved more carefully until he had a better view of the collapse. It looked as though a single touch of one of the timbers would send what was left of the building crashing down on their heads.

As if sensing the doubt in Aragornís thoughts, Denlad frowned. "We have to try."

"We will. But we must do so with great care or we will not only kill the child but ourselves. Is there another entrance to this building, from the other side?"

"No, Aragorn," Eledh said as he joined them. "Beyond this pile of debris is yet more debris. The entire side of this building has collapsed. Itís a miracle the child survived at all. I think though the front part of the mill burned, the rains kept the fire from spreading back to this section., and by some grace the fires in the mill did not reignite like so many other buildings have. It would be my guess that the rains helped keep the child alive, as well, giving itĖ"

"Her," Denlad interjected softly.

Eledh cast a quizzical glance at Denlad, but continued, "Her... something to drink."

Aragorn nodded absently, his mind working on the problem. How the collapse happened or even how a child managed to stay alive for four days trapped so was less important than how they were to proceed from here. "We need to shore this up before we try to move anything. Galadh, you and Eledh go and find as many sound timbers as you can. Tell Halbarad to help. Weíll shore up the ceiling and wall as best we can."

They left, and Aragorn bent down beside Denlad, who had again knelt to listen. In the silence, above the sound of his own breathing, he could pick out an occasional whimper. "The cry sounds weak. The child is probably dehydrated, despite the rain. Maybe injured. Definitely starting to suffer from hunger."

"And no doubt frightened out of her wits," Denlad said.

Aragorn studied the tangled pile, finding little to like about the situation. Then he sat back on his heels and regarded Denlad. "Why do you think it is a girl?"

There was a pause and then, softly, with a note of embarrassment, "I always wanted a little girl."

"Do not feel embarrassed, Denlad. It is in the heart of all men to have a wife, a family." He could not stop the wistful tone creeping into his voice.

"Your own hope will be fulfilled, Aragorn. Of that I am certain," Denlad said quietly.

Aragorn said nothing. Now was not the time to be dwelling on dreams that may or may not ever come to pass. He stiffened as the child whimpered again. He leaned down to the opening and peered into the stygian darkness that was all the child knew. He recalled his own childhood, when nightmares woke him crying in the dark and his father would steal into his room and sing him to sleep with quiet lullabies. So now Aragorn sang softly, in a mix of Quenya and Sindarin, snatches of nearly-forgotten lullabies. The whimpers quieted, but somehow that proved worse, because now his mind filled with worry that the child had died.

"Those words . . . some of them I do not understand, but they bring peace to the heart."

"They are lullabies, mostly. The words you donít know are probably in Quenya. My father and sometimes my brothers sang them to me as a child, when I had nightmares."

A longing crossed Denladís face, there and gone so quickly that had Aragorn not been watching him, he would not have seen it. "I never learned much Quenya," Denlad admitted. "I barely feel I know Sindarin."

"You speak it as well as any Dķnadan," Aragorn assured him quietly. He knew very well the hardships Denlad faced as a child. Far from the gentle life Aragorn had known in Rivendell, Denlad had spent his childhood years on a remote farm, with only his mother for company, and she a woman of questionable virtue and stern demeanor and little in the way of love for her fellow man. Aragorn remembered her reaction when once he tried to speak to her in Sindarin. She had all but hissed at him that he speak to her in the Common Tongue. One of the first things Denlad had done after he joined Aragornís patrol was lose himself in learning Sindarin, and he had done well for himself. Learning the difficult language had seemed, to Aragornís thinking, like walking through a door that led from darkness into light, and he had felt immense pride in seeing Denladís progress. He still held Denlad in high regard, actually. But he did not have the words to say such things without embarrassing the man.

Still, Denlad gazed long at Aragorn, seeming to measure Aragornís words, looking for their deeper meaning and holding them against his own doubts, and finally, as if accepting their truth, his troubled gaze cleared and he nodded. "Thank you."

Aragorn nodded but said nothing more.

Denlad turned back to the pile of debris. "This child, should she live, will grow up knowing neither father nor mother. What should we do with her?"

"If you have any ideas, I am listening."

"Lord Elrond took in a waif, once."

"I somehow doubt at this point in time he would be willing to do that again," Aragorn smiled. It was incongruous and probably a little ridiculous, but it felt good to talk of light matters in the midst of such horrors. "Besides, I was a relative. As the Rohirrim would put it, a brother-son, a nephew, although many generations removed."

Denladís voice held a hint of laughter. "And I am certain that bit about ĎSixteenth Chieftain of the Dķnedain, Isildurís heir didnít cross his mind at all when he decided to take you in."

"It may have, I suppose." Aragorn's grin was fleeting, however. He looked around the dim room, then leaned down to peer again into the hole, but no light had miraculously appeared to pierce the gloom. He tried reaching into the hole, but like Denlad, encountered only emptiness. He sang a few more snatches of lullaby, then sighed. "Perhaps taking her to Windydale would be the best thing. She may have relatives there. She should grow up among her own people."

Denlad studied Aragorn for a moment. "Was it hard, coming back to the Dķnedain after being raised as an Elf?"

"I wasnít raised as an Elf. Just raised with Elves. My mother and Lord Elrond both saw to it that I had a thorough understanding of my own people and their culture. Still... there were some surprises."

"Such as?"

"The food, for one. Or maybe I should say the lack thereof."

"Lost some weight, did you?"

"A little, yes," Aragorn admitted. "It took some getting used to, living in the wild, missing meals more often than not." They fell silent again, then Aragorn ventured his own question. "And what of you, Denlad? What was hardest for you to get used to when you joined the Grey Company?"

Denlad took a long time to answer, and when he did, his quiet reply cut straight to Aragornís heart. "Friendship."

Aragorn could think of nothing to say, so he merely reached out a hand and gave Denladís shoulder a squeeze.

Another whimpering cry floated from the wreckage and Aragorn saw Denlad wince. "It is hard to listen to," Denlad whispered.

"We will get her out," Aragorn promised, but as he looked over the tangled mess of timbers, his hopes sank. It would be like trying to unscramble an egg.

Thuds and muttered curses from the back of the building alerted them to someoneís return. A moment later, Halbarad staggered in, trying not to knock into the walls with the long timbers he carried. "The other two have more," he panted as he dropped them with a clatter.

Galadh and Eledh shuffled in with similar loads, and soon they were at work, hope lending them strength as they hauled timbers upright and jammed them against the leaning ceiling. But even as they shored up the ceiling, beyond the wall adjoining the mill, the building creaked and groaned as if it were in pain. Aragorn looked at their handiwork with a troubled eye. "I do not know that I trust it to hold, but it is the best we can do."

"Start at the top?" Halbarad asked.

Aragorn nodded, and Halbarad stepped forward and felt of the timbers lying in the jumble near the ceiling. He found a loose one and eased it back, slowly and carefully. They all sighed audibly when nothing above or around it shifted.

"Keep going," Aragorn said as Halbarad handed him the board. Denlad remained on the floor, listening for any signs of distress from the child. Aragorn reached over him to take the board from Halbarad, then passed it back to Eledh, and he passed to Galadh who tossed it out the broken window, and in such a manner, one by one, they were able to gingerly slide more and more boards and timbers away, until Halbarad tugged on one stubborn fragment and the entire pile abruptly shifted.

"Stop!" Denlad cried.

Halbarad froze, hands still above his head as several boards fell from the top and a beam scraped heavily against the mill wall before crashing to the floor. For a breathless moment, all was silent as dust and ash filtered down.

Denlad squirmed closer to the debris. "I canít hear anything," he said, his voice strained. He started to thread his arm through the now much smaller opening.

"Denlad, no!" Aragorn warned, then added more quietly, as though his very voice might bring the walls crashing down, "No one move."

The floor creaked slightly as Halbarad, arms still awkwardly stretched toward the top of the pile, shifted his weight slightly. "Aragorn, I cannot stay like this much longer."

"Ease back, carefully. This entire building seems poised on a precipice. Move slowly."

Halbarad released the board he had been trying to work free and lowered his hands and stepped back. The floorboards creaked again, but for a moment, it looked as though the crisis was past.

"I thinkĖ" Aragorn started, but stopped as the floor suddenly vibrated beneath his feet. Something behind the millís wall rumbled.

"Get back!" Aragorn cried, grabbing Halbarad around the waist and whirling him around to shove him toward Galadh. Galadh steadied Halbarad and they both ran toward the kitchen. Eledh scrambled after them but Denlad remained behind, on his belly, again reaching into the small opening with one arm. "Denlad, get out!"

"I think I can reach her!"

"No! Itís too dangerous!" Aragorn reached down and hauled Denlad to his feet. Denlad turned on him, fury flashing in his eyes, but Aragorn didnít give him time to argue before shoving him hard toward the doorway where Eledh still waited. "Get him out of here! All of you, out!"

As the men ran out of the building, Aragorn started to follow, but tripped over a fallen board. He fell against the wall and even as he pushed himself upright, the ceiling sank another foot. He curled himself back against the wall, throwing up an arm to block falling debris, then scrambled toward the doorway. He had just gained the kitchen doorway when, as abruptly as the crashing disintegration had started, a silence fell. The building stilled. He stopped, looking with wild eyes at the ceiling. It seemed to be holding. His gaze strayed back toward the tangled pile of timbers.

I have to try.

He hurried back. He dropped to his knees, then to his stomach and reached in with his left arm, stretching back as far as he could. His fingers brushed something soft and he heard again the whimper but as if his temerity in trying again to rescue the child angered the building, the child's whimper was drowned out by a louder, almost thunderous groan, the death cries of tortured wood reaching the breaking point. The floor thrummed beneath him, for all the world feeling like the faltering heartbeat of a dying old man. Aragorn pushed himself hard against the opening, trying to gain another few inches... just a few... and his fingers closed on soft cloth and he felt movement under his hand and hope surged wild and soaring within him. He grasped the cloth as tightly as he could and pulled. Again the building groaned and he pulled and the child moved toward him and for an instant hope turned to joy.

Sheís going to make it...

And then the building shook once more and kept shaking and the timbers suddenly collapsed around his arm. He was trapped. He bit back a scream of frustration as pain bit deep into his upper arm and his hand reflexively opened and the cloth fell away. A board clattered to the floor inches from his foot and another scraped across his shoulders and all around him the cacophony of the building's death throes deafened him. He had to free himself, had to forget about the dying child... oh Valar, how can I save myself and not her... but he had to. She was gone. It was over. He choked on a sob and gritted his teeth and pulled his arm. The sleeve of his coat tore and jagged splinters plunged like needles into his flesh but then he was free and scrambling to his feet and running, the child left behind.

~~~

He staggered out of the building, where he fell to his knees in the mud and buried his face in his hands. He had come so close. So close.

"We tried," Halbarad said quietly, kneeling beside him. "Do not blame yourself."

Aragorn looked up and the first eyes he met were Denladís. "I am sorry," he said. "I had her, but the timbers fell... I could not hold on. I am sorry."

Anger warred with sorrow in the tall Rangerís blue eyes and Aragorn was certain a large part of the anger was deservedly aimed at him. He dropped his head and grasped his aching arm.

"Let me see," Halbarad said, gently pulling Aragornís hand back. He peeled back the torn leather. "Now there's a bit of a mess for you. Youíve amassed a fine collection of splinters. It will hurt, but Iíll have to dig them out."

"Just get on with it."

"What happened in there?" Halbarad asked. "I turned around expecting to see you and you werenít there."

Aragorn lifted his chin at the mild reproof in Halbaradís voice, but just as quickly lowered his head. I suppose I deserved that. A quick glance at Denlad showed he was still staring at him, but his expression was unreadable. Deciding it was safer not to look at his men at all, he concentrated instead on Halbaradís hands as he worked splinters out of his arm and dabbed at the blood flowing down. "I was so close. I had her in my hand... I had her...." His throat closed and he squeezed his eyes shut. "The timbers collapsed on my arm. My grip weakened. I could not hold onto her."

Halbarad gently felt all along Aragornís arm. "It doesnít seem to be broken."

Aragorn shrugged. If tearing it off at the shoulder would save the child, he would prefer living life as a cripple over enduring the pain he felt in his heart right now. He dropped his chin to his chest and shut his eyes. "Have the men gather the bodies of the townspeople for burial," he said dully. "Since we cannot save any of them, we will at least keep the vultures from further desecrating their remains."





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