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Aragorn leaned his head against the unyielding cave wall, grunting sofly as he tried without much success to ease his aching body into a comfortable position. Weariness plagued every muscle and made his head ache and his stomach feel queasy. At least, he supposed it was fatigue that had him feeling as though his innards were rolling on high seas. He rubbed his gritty eyes with the heels of his hands. Fatigue, perhaps, but heartache as well. His spirit felt bruised, pummeled. Broken. He did not know when, if ever, he would be able to put the dayís events behind him. He watched Denlad start a fire in the center of the cave and in its flames he saw again the piles of bodies, the rising column of the pyreís smoke that seemed to write across the sky their failure to protect Bracken's Ferry. They had tried to bury the townspeople, but the ground proved too rocky, so, knowing that any new flames would go unnoticed among the smoke still rising from the smoldering town, where fires still spontaneously reignited from the hot ashes and cinders, they built a great pyre instead.
He could still smell the sickening stench.
Firelight flickered across Denladís face, illuminating a spasm of grief that was there and gone, quickly replaced by the stoicism of a man long used to hiding his emotions. Aragorn turned his gaze to the other men and saw the same hooded expressions that he knew hid sorrow deeper than any of them really knew how to deal with. Including me. To think of Bilfen, whose greatest joy was to give comfort to strangers... murdered.... He clenched his fist.
They would find those responsible. They would find them and exact justice, however long it might take.
And to that end it remained to ride to Windydale to warn them, if it was not already too late. The orcs that had laid waste to Brackenís Ferry could easily be attacking Windydale right now. Aragorn and his men seemed doomed forever to be a step behind, a day late. But as he looked at the weary faces of his men, he knew he could not force them to ride through the night. They were exhausted in body and in spirit, just as he was. No, they would take this one night of rest and hope tomorrow brought better fortunes.
He shifted, struggling to find a way to hold his left arm without waking the dragon that had been chewing on it. Halbarad had dug out all the splinters, and wrapped it well, but some had been large and deep and Aragorn wondered if a bit of fever was settling in. He felt shivery, but he wasnít sure if that was from the wound or simply from the overwhelming toll the day had taken on him. He shut his eyes to try to snatch sleep, but jerked them open when a vision of collapsing walls and crushing timbers and a childís broken body assaulted his mind. He sighed without meaning to, and Denlad glanced his way, then to his surprise, quietly came to sit down beside him. Denlad had not spoken to him since the disastrous rescue attempt. Aragorn was not sure the man would ever willingly speak to him again.
"I apologize," Denlad said without preamble.
"Denlad, you do not needĖ"
"No, Aragorn, I do. My sorrow filled me with fury, and I made you the target when I should have saved my wrath for the foul wretches responsible. It was unforgivable and I apologize."
"Apology accepted, then. But I never held blame against you, Denlad. Grief makes a man do things his heart would never let him do otherwise."
Denlad picked up a rock chip and tossed it toward the fire. "You would think I would learn to control myself better."
"If you figure out how, pray share the secret with me. I have plenty of my own moments when anger gets the better of me."
"If you have, Iíve not seen them."
"And now I fear you lie to your Chieftain," Aragorn said drily.
"I have never felt your wrath."
"Thatís because you have never given me cause for such anger."
"Now who is telling falsehoods? Either that or that wound has obviously made you delirious."
Aragornís smile was fleeting. "Perhaps."
Halbarad came over and handed Aragorn a cup. "Hot tea. You look like you need something stronger but itís all we have."
"This will do, thank you," Aragorn said, taking a cautious sip. "Get some sleep, the both of you. Daybreak will find us on the trail again, and very likely in battle at some point. You must rest while you can."
"And that goes for you as well, Aragorn," Halbarad said. "You look fairly well used up."
"I am simply tired, and if you will both leave me in peace, I will drink this and lay me down like a good little chieftain and sleep. I promise."
Denlad chuckled and left to dig a blanket from his own pack, but Halbarad scooted around to Aragornís left side. "Let me see that arm before you bed down."
"It has not changed since you looked at it an hour ago," Aragorn grumbled, but he gentled his arm from his coat for Halbaradís inspection.
After some poking and prodding that more than sufficiently awakened the sleeping dragon and brought forth several involuntary grunts and hisses of pain, Halbarad pronounced his satisfaction that thus far there was no sign of infection. "It looks good."
"It feels terrible."
"And it will no doubt feel worse tomorrow."
Aragorn pulled a face. "Ever do you speak words of overwhelming comfort."
Halbarad gave him a crooked smile and then retired to the other side of the fire, where he spread his blankets between the men and the cave opening, and lay down with a soft groaning sigh. Aragorn sipped his tea, then set it aside and stretched out on his back. It was a long time before he finally found sleep.
"Ho, the camp!"
The manís echoing shout along the hidden caveís long corridor brought them all, hearts lurching, from their restless sleep. Aragorn shook his head to clear it from nightmares that clung like cobwebs and climbed wearily to his feet. Holding his hand out in a gesture for the rest of the men to stay behind him, he quietly took several steps toward the cave entrance, his hand on his sword and a prayer on his heavily pounding heart that the stranger was friend and not foe. He did not think he could face a battle right now, nor could his men. He had thought this deep cave, with its northern entrance well hidden by undergrowth and its eastern entrance barely wide enough for a man to pass, and that only on his belly, was sufficiently concealed that there was no need for a watch. He had weighed the risk of discovery against the men's need for a full night's rest, and gambled that they would stay hidden.
And it now seems to be a gamble I have lost...
Impatience with his apparently endless proclivity for making wrong choices and not a little fear for his men's safety leant harshness to his voice. "Come in, but with your empty hands showing!"
As the figure slowly approached the outer reaches of the glow cast by their fire, arms held high, Aragorn could scarce believe his eyes. "Bilfen?" he cried incredulously. Another, taller figure followed him. "Kenevir!"
"Bless me if it isnít that rascal of a Ranger, Strider!" Bilfen Broadbow cried, lowering his hands to clap them together with delight. His round face wreathed itself in smiles and, completely missing the dumbfounded expressions on all the men, he launched into a rambling greeting. "Halbarad, Denlad... and you two young men whom I have yet to meet... what a wonderful surprise! You know, it was pure chance that I saw your fire. I had to stop to pick a stone from my horseís hoof and while I was bent low, I saw the faintest gleam through the bottom of the bushes. Youíve a good hiding spot here. I doubt even orcs know of it." He glanced back at Kenevir, who nodded his confirmation. The manís glittering black eyes silently took in the walls, the horses in the rear, the narrow passage that led to the opening. He nodded again, with approval.
Bilfen went on, "And I hope you didnít ride through Brackenís Ferry expecting a meal at my innĖitís been closed these last three weeks while weíve been visiting my cousin in Bree. We started back four days ago, intending on a leisurely return trip but Ďpon my word, it has been a queer and disturbing journey weíve had. Strange reports Iíve been hearing all along the river of ghosts and dragons, and every so often we feel a chill on the wind that does not feel natural. Not at all. Night before last... or was it the one before that?" He glanced at Kenevir, who raised two fingers. "That's right, two nights back, there was such an eerie feel to the night that we pulled off the main trail and slunk into the bushes and hid like a couple of frightened children. We liked it not, whatever it was."
As Aragorn listened dazedly to Bilfenís voice, some of what he said registered, but the shock of waking from nightmares of Bilfenís death to finding his friend standing before him was too overwhelming. He was still staring at the small man, unable to speak, when he realized Bilfen was waiting on him to say something.
Bilfen tapped his arm. "Strider?"
Somehow when Bilfen called him that name, it never felt like an insult, and never before had he been happier to have anyone call him that than at this moment. Another tap on his arm and Aragorn finally pulled his straying thoughts together. "IĖ" But his words caught in his throat and he could not go on.
"I say, young man, are you ill?"
Aragorn shook his head, a smile trembling on his lips. "No," he choked, finally finding his voice. "No, Bilfen Broadbow, I feel better at this moment than I have felt in many a long day." Unable to hold himself back, he pulled the astounded innkeeper into a rough embrace, knowing the man would feel the tremor of emotion shaking him and not caring. He reached past Bilfen with one arm and Kenevir clasped his hand, a bemused expression on his face.
"What is this, Strider?" Bilfen said, pulling back to peer into Aragornís face. He touched the tears tracking down Aragornís cheeks. "Such lines of care and sorrow..." He carefully looked at the rest of the men, at their sooty faces, their muddy clothes and the weariness in their eyes that Aragorn knew was mirrored in his own. "Oh dear. You look... all of you look... oh my. What has happened to put such grief in your hearts?"
The men silently looked to Aragorn to tell the tale. Aragorn walked back to his bedroll and dropped onto it, feeling like his legs would no longer hold him. He swiped an impatient hand across his cheeks and nose and took a deep breath that shook more than he wanted. "Bilfen, Kenevir, sit down, please."
Alarm rose in Bilfenís normally merry blue eyes. He and Kenevir exchanged glances before slowly lowering themselves to the stone floor beside Aragorn, Kenevir taking a spot just behind Bilfen. They looked at him with expectation and dread.
"I fear we have only ill tidings for you. I wish I had softer words to say it, but I do not. Bilfen, Kenevir... Brackenís Ferry is gone."
Bilfen paled. "Gone? What do you mean, gone? Has there been a flood? Oh my, I knew someday the river might rise suddenly, and we have had so much rain this fallĖ"
"No, Bilfen, it was neither rain nor flood that struck your village but something far more evil, an evil that I have no doubt is the source of the rumors you have heard on your trip here. Indeed, it was the same rumor that brought my patrol to the Hoarwell. We received a report of attacks along the river, and we set out as soon as we heard. But orcs beset us, and we were delayed. By the time we reached Brackenís Ferry, we were too late. Bilfen, Brackenís Ferry... and your inn... has been burned to the ground."
Kenevir, his tongue long ago cut out by orcs, could only growl his rage and sorrow, but Bilfen was more vocal. "Burned... oh dear," he said faintly. "Oh dear. What of the people? Telvor, the other families? Were they spared?"
Aragorn shook his head.
Bilfen let out a mournful cry, a small hooting sound of despair that tore at Aragornís heart. He squeezed Bilfenís shoulder and felt completely useless. "I am sorry."
Bilfen produced a large handkerchief from a jacket pocket and blew his nose. "Oh dear," he repeated. "So youíre telling me we are the only ones left?"
"We found one other alive, a small child," Aragorn said softly. "She was trapped in the house behind the mill. We tried to save her but... ." His throat closed and he dropped his gaze to the floor.
"Annelia. That would have been Annelia. She turned two this summer. Oh dear."
So it was indeed a girl.† Aragorn glanced at Denlad, but Denlad was staring with empty eyes into the fire.
Halbarad cleared his throat. "We did all we could to save her, but the building collapsed. It nearly took Strider, here, with it."
Bilfen noticed the bloody bandage visible through the rip in Aragorn's coat. "Are you badly injured?"
"It will mend."
Bilfen was silent for a long moment, then shook himself. "It is well to mourn the dead, but care for the living cannot be neglected. You men look half starved. I may no longer have an inn, but I do have supplies on my pack horse, which is still outside. I have vegetables, and Kenevir took down a stag just this afternoon. Itís late, I know, but if you will allow, Iíll bring my animal in and fix all of you some food. I always say that food can provide comfort when nothing else can." He laughed softly and patted his ample belly. "I obviously have had much need of comfort in my life."
Halbarad managed a chuckle and Aragorn even managed a smile. "You do well to remind us that there is still joy in this dark world."
Denlad immediately got to his feet. "I will get your pony," he said briefly and, followed by Kenevir and Bilfen, headed down the cave corridor without waiting for an answer.
"He is taking this very hard," Halbarad said softly.
Aragorn nodded, but there was not much to say. They had all had moments where the emotional toll was too heavy and they had broken down in tears or in anger, Aragorn included. Denlad would overcome this, as they all would, given time. Finding and defeating the orcs would do much toward achieving that end. He picked up a rock and rolled it between his fingers. Valar, speed our chase and give us strength to overcome...
The three returned, interrupting Aragorn's thoughts as they led a heavily laden pony through the cave. Bilfen hurried after Denlad as he tied the pony in the back beside the rest of their horses.
Aragorn tossed the pebble aside and again leaned his head back against the cave wall, watching as Bilfen busied himself with making a stew. He did not think he wanted any food, not now nor at any time in the immediate future, and the way his stomach turned over as the smell of Bilfenís soup rose to fill the cave only confirmed his suspicions. He knew he should try to choke something down, that he needed food to keep up his stamina, but he could not face even a spoonful. He stood. "Iím going outside to ensure that less friendly eyes have not spied our cave."
He hurried out of the cave, blind to the stone walls, his mind awash with more emotions than he really knew how to deal with. Relief, sorrow, joy, anger... they all churned inside him in a nauseating whirlwind. He leaned his forehead against the granite, hoping its unfeeling coldness would calm the fevered rush of his thoughts.
He heard a step behind him, recognizing Halbaradís heavy tread. He straightened, turning away to look outside. He could at least appear to be checking for enemies, even if the reality was that a hoard of trolls could have descended on him and he might not have noticed. "There seems to be no pursuit," he said.
"Nor did you really expect to find any."
Aragorn fiddled with the hilt of his sword, lifting it free from its scabbard and then sliding it back home. "I should have been more cautious. If Bilfen found us, others could as well."
"It is a decision we all agreed to."
"But I had the final say and I made a poor choice. We are fortunate it was merely Bilfen Broadbow and not our enemies. We will post pickets from here on, no matter how safe we might feel. Rest will do us no good if we are slaughtered in our sleep."
At Halbarad's noncommital grunt, Aragorn risked a glance at him. "You feel otherwise?"
He shook his head.
Halbarad was watching him with that piercing look that Aragorn knew portended questions about his well-being, questions for which he had little desire to provide answers, even if he had answers he was willing to give. "Before you ask, I will tell you that there is nothing wrong with me."
Aragorn glared at him briefly before gazing at the night sky. Clouds obscured the stars. It seemed somehow fitting. "We must get word to Rivendell. I will send Kenevir and BilfenĖthey will need a place to stay, and they will be welcome at the Last Homely House until Bilfen decides what he should do next."
"Is that all you can say?" Aragorn snapped. "Or, like Kenevir, have orcs cut out your tongue and left you to try my patience with your silence and your incoherent mumbles?"
Halbarad laughed. "Ah, Aragorn, your sword has less bite than your wit when anger has hold of you. But to answer your question... I still have a tongue in my head and, believe it or not, sometimes I actually know how to hold it."
"Your hand is on your sword already. One ill-timed word from me and I fear you will slice my head from my shoulders. So I am sticking with Ďhmmí. Itís safer."
Aragorn deliberately folded his arms. "Now my hand is nowhere near my sword. Speak your mind."
"Very well. I think that sending Bilfen and Kenevir to Rivendell is a good idea."
"And for that you think I would lop off your head?"
"I also think," he continued, "that you should go with them."
"At least considerĖ"
"There is nothing to consider. We need to alert the towns along the river. And to do so safely means we must stay together. I dare not split up the patrol."
"But neither do we dare send Bilfen and Kenevir on alone. And yet we must notify Lord Elrond. To me it seems we have too many Ďmustsí and not enough men, so we must take that option which holds fewest risks, and their arrival is a gift beyond just the joy of seeing them alive. Before Bilfen showed up, we would have had to split the patrol into numbers even smaller--two to Rivendell, three to Windydale, and both inadequate in strength to fight off any orcs. But now, we will have the strength of four men and three. Denlad, Eledh, Galadh and I to Windydale; you and Kenevir and Bilfen to Rivendell. And rest assured, the four of us who go on to Windydale will move with great care and stealth. Now that we know a bit more what to watch for, we can evade any direct encounter. And although there is no Ranger post at Windydale, there are plenty of able-bodied men in the village, skilled at arms and brave. We will join with them and not be as easily defeated as Brackenís Ferry."
"You do not know if Windydale still stands. We narrowly won the conflict with the orcs when we lost Mallor. If the men at Windydale have fallen, and orcs find you, you will be hard pressed to survive with only four men."
"Taking nothing from your skills with a sword, but we would be hard pressed to survive it with five," Halbarad countered. "I would prefer you head safely to Rivendell than risk losing your life in a senseless encounter with orcs."
Aragorn narrowed his eyes, anger rising hot within him. "I do not call defending my people a senseless act, even if it were to lead to my death."
"Aragorn, you must remember your destiny. You must take careĖ"
His patience gone, Aragorn shoved Halbarad back, pinning him against the rough stone. "My life, and my destiny, are my own, to command or forfeit as I see fit," he hissed. "And you forget your place!"
Halbarad gazed at him with infuriating calm, not trying to free himself. "I have not forgotten my place. Lord Elrond conferred on me the task of keeping you safe, and ever has it been that my house has defended its Chieftain. Even if that means risking harm at your own hand, I will do my duty."
Aragornís anger dissolved into shame. He shut his eyes, dropping his head and then his hands and took a step back, appalled at his loss of control. While he groped for the words to apologize, Halbarad stepped close and grasped Aragornís good arm. "If I could, I would take your burden and carry it for you, for surely it is crushing you."
"It is mine alone to bear," Aragorn whispered. And I can only pray that I find the strength to†go on†bearing it. Then he worked up a crooked smile. "And I am not crushed. A bit wilted, perhaps, but not crushed."
Halbarad did not look convinced and Aragornís smile faltered. "Truly, Halbarad. I am frustrated, yes, and full of sorrow, but not crushed." He paused as he looked out into the dark night. He spoke almost as if to himself. "I spoke too harshly just now. My life is not solely my own, I know. And long have I accepted that, and gladly do I bear the burden of my destiny. But these days it seems my future lies in shadow, and more than ever I feel that evil will overtake this world before I figure out how to take the first steps toward defeating it." But then he glanced back at Halbarad and cut his musing short. He had no right to add to his friendís worries by speaking aloud of his dwindling hope, especially after his harshness a mere moment ago. Halbarad was too loyal to deserve the ill treatment he had just meted out. "Your devotion deserves more respect than I just gave you. I am sorry," he said softly, then walked back to the fire.
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