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"Are you hungry? We have some broth."
Aragorn grimaced. "No." He had slept for an hour, at most, before a horrible nightmare brought him gasping back to wakefulness. It was the same terrible vision of Halbarad binding him in chains and casting him before Sauron. He woke up shuddering with cold and crying out and Halbarad had flown to his side with the athelas and although it helped, he still felt shivery and unsettled. The thought of food, even broth, made his stomach do a slow flip. But then he looked at Halbarad’s worried eyes and tried to find a way to reassure him. "Perhaps later."
"As you wish. We have had a hard time keeping you warm," Halbarad said as he reached out and laid the back of his hand against Aragorn’s forehead and then his cheek, "yet you do not seem to have fever. Is this coldness part of the Black Breath?"
"It must be, although I am not certain."
"Nothing has been certain since we left Chetwood," Halbarad sighed. He dipped a cloth into the bowl and slowly wrung it out. "However, it is certain that you are still cold even now."
Aragorn nodded. Truth to tell, he was miserable with cold. He pulled the blanket tighter under his chin. "My arms, especially. Every time my sword hit his... " His voice trailed away. He had no words to describe the deadness each shocking parry of the Nazgűl blade had driven into his arms. To even bend his thoughts in that direction opened visions of horrible black hands clawing for his spirit. Even now he felt himself somehow falling, and the line between waking and nightmare wavered, and safety and comfort crumbled under a sudden onslaught of malice that Aragorn could not tell was real or simply remembered. He bit his lower lip hard, gripping the sides of the cot and telling himself he was safe, the Nazgűl was gone. I am safe! But the terror felt too real, too immediate. His breathing hitched and before he could stop it, a soft guttural cry escaped his throat.
He heard as if from the depths of a well Halbarad’s voice. "Shhh. Peace, Aragorn, remember you are safe!" but he still felt himself slipping down, down into that chasm and he didn’t know if he had the strength to drag himself up from the blackness. But he stared hard at Halbarad’s eyes and slowly, slowly the fear started to leave. Halbarad quickly thrust the steaming athelas toward Aragorn’s face. "Breathe! Breathe as deep as you can!"
He did and the blackness took a reluctant step back and after another breath finally retreated enough that Aragorn’s heart calmed and he could ease his death grip on the cot.
"I won’t ask what just happened," Halbarad said shakily, "for I would not want to trouble your spirit again, but I know now without doubt that you need more care than I can give. I think we should take you to Rivendell as soon as you’re able. You need the care of a real healer, not secondhand ministrations from a man taking orders from his own patient."
Aragorn said nothing, but he quailed at the thought of journeying to Rivendell. It seemed as impossible as storming Thangorodrim, as exhausted as he felt.
"Now that we know what we are facing, Lord Elrond must be informed of the Nazgűl," Halbarad pressed. "Bilfen and Kenevir will have made it to Rivendell, but they will not know that it is a Nazgűl we fight."
"We can send Eledh and Galadh."
"No, we can send you... and the entire patrol with you. There is nothing the five of us can accomplish against such an enemy. We need help, and Rivendell is the closest aid."
Aragorn shut his eyes. He had no strength to argue, even if there was something he could think of to counter Halbarad’s very sound logic. "We will discuss it later," he finally sighed.
"Of course. I’m pushing too hard again. The only thing you need to do now is rest. Try to go to sleep."
Sleep was tempting, but knowing the nightmares lurking therein, he was reluctant to return to its uneasy embrace. He pulled the blanket back and stretched out his right arm, wincing at the stiffness of it.
"Shall I try laving it with the athelas?"
Aragorn nodded. Maybe the water’s warming touch would bring some life back into his deadened limbs. He watched as Halbarad, humming softly, rhythmically and gently ran the cloth down his arm. It felt good, the warm touch of it.
Halbarad suddenly chuckled and started softly singing. "‘Enchantment healed his weary feet ....’(1) I am no Luthien, nor are these your feet, but may winter’s touch flee your limbs as they fled poor Beren’s." He then continued to hum the beloved song, and Aragorn sighed, this time with contentment as warmth finally stole its way back into his limbs. He flexed his right hand. His fingers moved stiffly, but at least they moved. His left arm... he winced. Athelas would do little for that arm. The splinter wounds were stiff and very, very sore.
"You tore the wound open, in the fight," Halbarad said, frowning. "There is no infection and Denlad cleaned it and re-bandaged it, but it will be that much longer in healing, I fear."
"I seem to have made quite a mess of myself."
A glimmer of amusement suddenly softened the grim lines of Halbarad’s face. "Yes, it was a bit clumsy of you, all this." He winked as he carefully lifted Aragorn’s left arm and wiped down the arm below the bandage. "I imagine you are finding this more to your liking than my horse balm."
Aragorn thought he was too tired for the smile he felt to reach his lips, but somehow he must have managed, for Halbarad’s amusement bloomed into a smile. "‘Tis a good thing to see something besides terror looking through your eyes."
Halbarad laid the cloth across Aragorn’s forehead for a moment, then gently wiped it across his cheeks. He pulled Aragorn’s torn shirt open. "Life distanced from death by the turn of the Nazgűl’s sword," he said softly. "You are indeed fortunate." He touched it lightly.
Aragorn gasped. It felt like Halbarad had driven a dagger into him. He felt beads of sweat pop out on his forehead.
"I am sorry!" Halbarad cried. "I thought after two days it might not be as sore. I will not touch it again." He leaned forward and peered closely at it. "I do not see any broken skin, at least not in this light. But still... is there not something I could give you, to ease the pain?"
"Maybe some willow bark, if you have any."
"I think there is some, yes. But for now, let me try placing this cloth against it. I will simply lay it across the bruise, without pressing. It is light, but tell me if even its weight causes you too much pain."
Aragorn nodded, not trusting his voice.
Halbarad gently laid the cloth across the bruise, carefully watching Aragorn’s face. "Better?"
"No. Wait...." Finally the ache yielded. "Yes, it’s better." He felt muscles he hadn’t realized were clenched relax under the warming touch of the athelas. He wiped his forehead with a shaky hand. Halbarad still looked stricken at having caused him such pain, so he dredged up a smile. "Where did you learn a healer’s touch?"
"Where do you suppose? My teacher is stretched out before me. And I bet you thought I was not listening to your endless tedious lectures out on the trail."
"You have learned much, Halbarad," Aragon murmured. Sleep’s relentless clamor returned, now that the pain eased. He shut his eyes, letting his thoughts wander where they may, for some reason–perhaps the athelas–no longer quite so fearful lest he fall into some bottomless black pit. The shadows were still there, but weaker and pushed back into the dark corners of his mind where, maybe for a moment, he could ignore them.
But sleep, for all its insistence, refused to come, and his thoughts returned to Halbarad. Aragorn would never have believed his gruff kinsman had such gentleness in him. He certainly had never shown it up to now. He remembered the stinging slap of that horrid horse balm across his shoulders. Revenge would be sweet... all I would need is some of Denlad’s fiery spices and Halbarad’s water skin. And although he knew he could never do it, he could not hold back a quiet laugh at the idea.
"I do not like the sound of that laugh," Halbarad commented as he removed the cloth and soaked it again in the athelas water.
"Nor the look of that smile! The last time you aimed it my way, you followed it with a sound thumping."
"Just thinking about that horse balm. And revenge."
"Yes, well, I’ll thank you to get that look of retribution off your face. I only find comfort in knowing that you are too weak to swat a gnat right now."
Aragorn sobered. As Halbarad moved to put the cloth back on his chest, he reached out and grabbed his wrist to stop him. "Weak but alive, thanks to you." Aragorn did not try to blink away the tears stinging his eyes."I cannot thump you after all you’ve done. I cannot even find words sufficient to thank you."
"Ach, away with you and your weepy gratitude." He gently pulled his wrist free and placed the cloth again on Aragorn’s chest. "I have no doubt that, despite this lovely display of heartwarming thanks, you will get even with me as soon as your strength returns."
Aragorn breathed a laugh and again shut his eyes to try to slip into the embrace of sleep. He was so tired, weary beyond anything he had ever known. But even as he sought the refuge of rest, questions started to crowd his thoughts, swirling through his mind and demanding answers. He gave up trying to sleep and struggled to sit up. He made it as far as propping himself up on his right elbow before Halbarad stepped in to pull him up until he was sitting upright. He leaned back dizzily against the wall for a moment, and when the world finally settled down around him, he reached for the bowl of steaming athelas.
But Halbarad pulled it out of reach. "No, I think I best hold it, or you’ll bathe yourself in it, and we don’t have enough athelas to waste it so wantonly. And don’t glare. Those hands of yours are still trembling like leaves."
Aragorn ruefully looked at his hands. They shook like those of a palsied old man. He balled his fists and let them lay in his lap, and pointedly ignored Halbarad’s smirk. They sat for a long moment without speaking, letting the fragrant steam do its work as Aragorn tried to catch his breath and felt grey and ill and old. But alive. Thank the Valar, alive. The wonder of it helped him ignore how wretched he felt. Halbarad finally pulled a small stool closer to the cot and set the bowl down on it. "So, do you think you will live after all?"
Aragorn smiled faintly. "I think so." He looked around the cottage. "Halbarad, where are we? Whose cottage–"
"Aragorn!" a glad voice interrupted as the door flew open. Denlad came into the room with an armload of wood. He dropped it with a heedless clatter on the hearth, hardly noticing as the cat ran off, tail bushed out and hissing at being driven from his comfortable spot. Denlad’s gaze fixed on Aragorn as though he were afraid if he blinked Aragorn might disappear. He came over to the cot and squatted beside it, resting a concerned gaze on Aragorn’s face and a gentle hand on his forearm. "How fare you, Aragorn? It does my heart good to see you sitting up, but you look, well... I am sorry but I cannot say it in a more gentle way: you look terrible."
Aragorn laughed. "I am not as bad off as I must look, Denlad. I will be well, given time."
Denlad drew a deep breath and blew it out, blinking rapidly. "I’m glad," he said, then rubbed a hand across his face. He gave Aragorn’s arm a squeeze. "Very glad."
Halbarad gave Denlad a sympathetic glance, then turned to Aragorn. "I have to admit, when I saw you lying there on the ground, I thought you were done for this world, you were so still and white. Your skin was like ice. And these two days have been... well, I won’t burden you with it. I’ll just say that when you woke up long enough to tell me about the athelas, I felt that perhaps hope had not abandoned us after all. I should have known you were made of sterner stuff. It will take more than a wraith to stop the Heir of Isildur, thank the Valar."
"Where did it–the Nazgűl–go?" Aragorn asked.
Halbarad shrugged. "Back whence it came, I hope. Mordor, maybe? That seems the only place foul enough for his like. His orcs are now dead, so maybe he’s given up."
"Or he’s gone for reinforcements and will be back to plague us with ten times their number," Denlad muttered.
"Pessimism does not suit you, Denlad," Halbarad said. "I prefer to hope the Nazgűl finished whatever evil task he meant to accomplish and has now left our lands."
"Hope for that seems dim," Aragorn sighed, "but remains a hope, all the same. I wish I knew why he was here."
"As do I, but we must be satisfied that for now, he is gone," Halbarad said firmly, his hard glance daring Denlad to argue. "I feel no shadow."
Aragorn was not sure if he would know the difference between an approaching Nazgűl and the shadows still lingering in his mind. He would have to trust to Halbarad’s discernment. He frowned as a memory stirred. "I remember... fire... flashing in the air. And shouting... for a moment, I thought I had somehow fallen from this time into the time of Beren. I do not really understand it now, though. The memory is too hazy."
"You remember part of it aright," Denlad chuckled. "Would that you had seen it more clearly, Aragorn, but I suppose you were too far gone by that point. Our Halbarad snatched up a flaming brand in each hand and ran at the Nazgűl. ‘Get you gone and fly! For here is a fire that shall consume you, and all evil things!’ he bellowed, just like Beren of yore."
"Denlad, I’m sure Aragorn is not interested..."
"I am sure he is," Aragorn countered softly.
"That Nazgűl turned toward him," Denlad continued, shooting a triumphant look at Halbarad, "and you could feel his rage pressing against all of us, and fearsome it was. I felt frozen in place, but not our Halbarad. He jabbed his torches at it again and cried, ‘You’ll not have your way this day, not while the arm of Halbarad is strong and the fire of my wrath burns!’"
Aragorn raised an eyebrow.
Halbarad scratched his beard. "I might have said something like that, yes. It seemed appropriate, at the time."
Denlad slapped Halbarad’s back. "They will sing of this in songs, old man, just as we do Beren and Carcharoth." Then his mirth died as he dropped his gaze to stare fixedly at his clenched hands. "You were able to do what the rest of us could not."
"Feel no shame, Denlad," Aragorn said, and with an inward grimace at the irony of handing out advice he couldn’t follow himself, he continued, "This is the first anyone here in the North has seen of the Nazgűl for generations. They carry an evil none of us have ever encountered, and, unlike in Mirkwood, where they battle the Wraiths still, our knowledge of defeating them has largely fallen away into myth. That we failed to identify the source of the evil is not entirely surprising, although I should have known what it was, for I have been near Mordor and Dol Goldur and sensed the evil of the Enemy, from afar and from nearer than any man should pass. I have no excuse. But be that as it may, I could not have asked for greater valor than all of you have shown during this fell chase."
Denlad failed to look convinced, and Halbarad merely grunted and wrung out the cloth and twisted it absently in his hands. They all fell silent, and Aragorn did not miss the shadows that fell across the faces of his two companions. It will be long before the nightmares from this fade. For the men to feel anything but failure that they did not earn. But if blame is to be laid at anyone’s feet, lay it at mine. He struggled for something to say, to break this gloom that had settled on them all. Then he cursed himself again for overlooking the obvious. "Halbarad, what of you? Are you sure the Black Breath didn’t affect you?"
He shrugged. "Not enough to cause any problems. I felt him trying to... to probe my mind, if that makes sense."
Aragorn nodded. "His voice intrudes into your thoughts." And claws at your soul...
"Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Words that I didn’t understand–and didn’t want to understand, mind you–came into my mind, not through my ears but as clear and loud as if they had. It was disconcerting."
"That’s one way of putting it," Aragorn agreed drily.
Halbarad grinned. "Suffice to say, any lingering effects I might have felt, the athelas pretty much took care of. I don’t think I fought him long enough for him to do any permanent damage."
"That and your skull is so thick even a Nazgűl can’t penetrate it," Denlad muttered, then ducked as Halbarad swung a fist toward his head.
Aragorn smiled. Denlad and Halbarad hurling insults... life as it should be. Maybe we will somehow come through this after all. "How did you know to use fire?"
Again the mirth faded, and Halbarad was long in answering. "I had nothing else," he finally said softly. "As I started for you, I saw how your blade eventually disintegrated under the Nazgűl’s. I feared my own sword would have been useless–it’s not Elven make like yours and not as strong. I hadn’t a hope with it. So it was fire or my bare hands. Fire seemed more of a threat."
"You drove this wraith off much like Glorfindel drove off the Witch King. I will remember that," Aragorn murmured. He leaned his head back against the wall. And I will remember how you succeeded where I failed. Not for the first time, the thought crossed his mind that Gondor might be better served by its Stewards than it would by a king as prone to error as he seemed to be.
"Aragorn?" Denlad asked softly. "Do you feel worse?"
Aragorn forced a smile. "No, I am well enough. Just too full of questions and too tired to ask them, nor comprehend the answers even if I did ask." Indeed, the questions crowded his mind almost as thickly as the Nazgűl’s foul words had: where was the Nazgűl now? Why was the wraith here? What evil might be unleashed next, and where?
And how on Arda could they hope to drive him out? Somehow he did not think brandishing torches at him would chase him away for good.
"Time for answering questions later, I think," Halbarad said. "For now... you have earned your rest, son of Arathorn. Lay back down, and fear not any nightmares, for I will be here."
Aragorn nodded, but then once more realized that he had no idea where they were, whose farm they had taken over. It bothered him, but his thoughts were getting increasingly hard to focus and it seemed less and less important as each minute passed. He let Halbarad help him resettle himself. He shut his eyes. "Son of Arathorn," he murmured. "I think my father might have handled himself better in this than I did." But that was as much as he would speak of his failure. He would not burden his men with the need to prop up the shaky confidence of their leader.
Halbarad tucked the blanket around Aragorn’s shoulders. "I think you give yourself too little credit, but that argument can wait as well. Sleep. That’s an order."
"Yes, sir," Aragorn tried to answer, but he was asleep before he could form the words.
(1)"Enchantment healed his weary feet ..." - page 187, The Fellowship of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, New Line cover paperback edition, 2003.
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