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Aragorn opened his eyes after a night of fitful sleep to see the face of Mallor looming above him, not even an armís length from his face. With a loud cry, he flinched violently and pushed himself away until his back hit the wall on the far side of the cot.
"Iím sorry, sir!" the apparition cried, and ran out of the room, leaving Aragorn to stare wildly at the doorway and try in vain to calm the frantic thudding of his heart. Had he just seen a ghost or had he, despite Halbaradís skill with the athelas, somehow left the circles of Arda after all? Taking in the rustic room that seemed unchanged from the night before, he ruled out the latter, but that small fact did nothing to comfort him, nor did the fact that he did not really believe in ghosts, at least not the type that hovered over you as you lay innocently sleeping, waiting to so terrify you on awakening that your heart nearly stops. So that left him with only one other alternative:
He must have lost his mind.
He groaned and slowly sat up. Every muscle protested. He could never recall being so stiff, sore, and weak in his life. He was not certain but what even his hair ached. He rubbed his face, feeling every one of his years. Acutely. I suppose even a mere sixty-nine-year-old Nķmenůrean can feel old after battling a Nazgfl. But to then be confronted by ghosts...or more likely the apparent loss of oneís sanity...
He scrubbed at his face with both hands and whispered, "What did I just see?"
A chuckle from the doorway surprised him. He had thought he was alone.
"It wasnít a lost spirit," Halbarad said. He walked over to sit on the edge of Aragornís bed. "That was Mallorís younger brother. Mirror image of Mallor, even though heís nearly four years younger. He could no longer contain his curiosity about the Chieftain of the Dķnedain and apparently sneaked in here to see just what you looked like."
"That was... wait... you mean to say that was...." He stopped and took a deep breath. "You are telling me that the boy that I just saw was Mallorís brother? How is it that he isĖoh." The answer to the question he had never seemed able to ask yesterday finally came to him, though it seemed too farfetched. "We are at the home of Malthen? But how?"
"Yes, this is their farm. When we ran from the NazgŻl, we had the choice of crossing the river into the Wilds and seeking Rivendell, or trying for more immediate shelter. Denlad knew their farm was not far off, and he thought it best to seek the shelter there. And he was rightótrying to go all the way to Rivendell might have been the end of you."
Aragorn frowned. "So Mallorís mother learned of her sonís death in the midst of our invasion of her home." He pinched the bridge of his nose. He could not remember the last time in his life when things had gone according to plan. "This was not how I would have broken the news to her."
"Nor I, but ofttimes life does not acquiesce to our plans. I tried to comfort her as best as I could."
"But where is she? Surely you did not drive her from her own home? Weíve taken enough from her!"
Halbarad gave him a look his accusation deserved. "Of course not we did not drive her from her home! Thereís a small house beside this one... a little cottage where she said Malthenís mother once lived. Sheís staying there, with Randir, the one who just scared the living wits out of you. Her name is Neala, by the way. She is waiting for you to give her leave to come."
"Give her leave? When we are uninvited guests in her own home? And when she has already lost two of her loved ones in my service? No... I will go to her this very morning." He swung his legs over the bed, causing Halbarad to scramble to his feet out of the way. Aragorn saw the protest in Halbaradís face and hardened his voice as he staggered upright. "She will not come to me like some supplicant on her knees! I am the one in greatly in her debt, and... and... I will... I.... " He stammered to a halt as the room suddenly seemed to fade and slide away from him.
Halbaradís hand immediately grasped his arm. "Easy, easy," he soothed as he guided Aragorn back into bed. "Calm yourselfĖyouíre not ready to be up yet."
"...I will give her the honor she deserves," he finished stubbornly, but the way he had to gasp it took all the fire out of his declaration. He settled for glaring at HalbaradĖ all three of himĖinstead. Then he shut his eyes. One Halbarad was vexation enough. The very idea of there ever being three of him was simply too much to take.
"My apologies, my lord," he said, drawing Aragornís gaze again. If Aragorn could but focus his eyes, he was sure he would see that Halbaradís cheeks were aflame. "You are right, of course."
"Apology accepted," Aragorn muttered. He wanted to glare one more time, but the spinning room forced him to shut his eyes again. But the contrition in Halbaradís voice immediately melted all his anger. Still, when the room finally settled down and he dared open his eyes again, he managed a weak glare. "And donít call me Ďlordí."
"Aragorn," Halbarad protested somewhat petulantly, but with a gleam in his eyes that Aragorn liked even less than seeing three Halbarads, "you know that there are times when I simply cannot help but call you that. When anger stirs you into acting like the king you will be someday, itís all I can do not to drop to one knee and grovel." Then, openly grinning at Aragornís snort of disbelief, he added, "But seeing as you are now back to being nothing more than a lowly Dķnedain chieftain, and one flat on his back, no less, I will, in the best manner of certain members of Bree society, try to hide any sign of respect, Mr. Strider."
"Thank you. I think."
Halbaradís smile changed to a grimace. "Driven her from her home, indeed."
This time it was Aragorn who felt his cheeks warm. "Now I am the one who is sorry. I meant no insult. Her sorrow lies heavy on my conscience, and regret made my words clumsy. Forgive me."
"Nothing to forgive, my friend. None of us are thinking as straight as we should these days, Iím afraid."
"You have had your hands full, dealing both with a grieving mother and a broken chieftain."
"Iíve had to deal with worse. Of the two chores, getting you mended was definitely the more onerous."
"I will try not to be such a burden in the future."
"I would appreciate that. So how do you fare this morning, aside from the obvious in that you are not quite ready to leap to your feet? You seemed to have had quite a rough night."
"Dark dreams, nothing more. I suppose itís to be expected, after...." He lifted one shoulder in a rueful shrug, leaving the words unsaid. The same nightmare had chased him throughout the night. Floating, coming ashore, Halbarad and Denlad slapping him in chains. The ring and the hilt ripped from him. And the added enjoyment of watching Halbarad spit on him as he told him was unfit to be king. It had been a far from restful night.
Halbarad frowned. "These nightmares... I am sorry youíre having such troubles. The athelas seems to help somewhat, but you seem to go straight back to them as soon as you fall asleep. Tonight I will make sure one of us keeps the athelas steaming throughout the night."
"No, Halbarad. There are too few of you to keep watch for the NazgŻl and play nursemaid to me all night. No one would get any sleep. The nightmares are of no consequenceĖI am sure they will fade. Today, I am merely sore and stiff and feel as though Iíve lived five decades in the span these last few days."
"Is that all? Well, then, why am I worried?"
"I am sure I have no idea," Aragorn smiled. "And truly, I do feel a bit better. The chill has lessened from my bones. And," he said with a pointed look as groped under the bed for the chamber pot. Halbarad bent and pulled it out for him. "Thank you. Obviously, I have a specific need to take care of, so if you would be so kind...." He waved his hand toward the door.
"Can you do it by yourself?"
Aragorn stared at him without answering.
"Of course. Very well, then. I will, er, be outside. If you need help, call out and Iíll...."
Aragorn continued to stare.
"Of course, you wonít need help." Halbarad moved quickly to the door.
"Just make sure Mallorís mother doesnít come in!" Aragorn called out as Halbarad slipped out and left him to his privacy.
Aragorn managed just fine by himself, thank the Valar. He grimaced at the thought of having to call Halbarad back inside to help him. It was one thing for Halbarad to have assisted with all of that when Aragorn was unconscious and unaware, but the very thought of being conscious and having then to call on his help...
Best not to think about it.
He limped carefully across the room. Getting up more slowly, in stages, had been the solution to the vertigo problem, and he was not surprised at his overall weakness, nor the aches and pains of his stiff and sore muscles. But he was dismayed to discover that in addition to all that, his left ankle felt well and truly wrenched. He vaguely remembered turning it on a stone at some point during the fight. Two days lying in bed in varying states of unconsciousness seemed to have done little to speed its healing. He supposed a wrenched ankle was a small price to pay for avoiding a Morgul blade marked with his death, but between the ankle and his wounded left arm, his entire left side was well nigh useless.
Still, he reached the door, bad ankle and all, without mishap. Steadying himself with a hand against the door post, he squinted against the late morning sunshine at a small farm that was showing as many signs of ill-use as his own body. But then he amended thatĖthe farm was in need of repair, but not ill-used. Weeds clustered around fenceposts and a section of top railing had broken at one end and sagged downward to rest on the middle rail, but the horses within the enclosure looked sleek and well cared for, including their own mounts. He watched Bronadui contentedly nibble at the grass, swishing a nonchalant tail. Mallorís mount looked happier now that it was home, and the menís horses all looked groomed and well satisfied with their accommodations.
But his gaze could not rest long on the peaceful sight of the horses, for the rest of the farm bore aching witness to the tragedy of a father and eldest son riding to war, never to return. The stable had been painted a soft blue at some time in the past but had faded to a chipped and peeling grey. A black hole gaped in the roof where winds must have torn away some of the thatching. He stepped out onto the small porch, glancing behind him at the house itself. A crack snaked across one diamond pane of the window; a shutter hung crooked, hanging on by a single bent nail. Aragorn ran a finger along the shutterís edge. How many other families have I torn asunder as men leave their homes to follow me...
He shook off the dark thought. Simple logic reminded him that he was not the cause, that they had no choice but to face the battle the enemy laid before them. But tell that to my heart....
Halbaradís soft voice interrupted his joyless reverie. "Needs some work," he said as he came around the corner of the house, a hammer in his hand, and when Aragorn only nodded, continued, "Randir does what he can, but heís youngĖhe has seen only twelve summers. He has his hands full just taking care of the horses."
"And he does well with them. But you are right in saying this place needs some care. If we can do so without insult, I think, before we resume our pursuit of this NazgŻl and his orcs, we must make things right for them. We cannot tarry long, but while we do, the men can do some repairs for them, although it seems too small a thing compared to what they have lost. What she has lost."
"Aye, it wonít bring her husband or son back, now, will it? But it will help, whatever we are able to accomplish, and I have already spoken to her about it. She was very grateful for anything we might do, so no fears of insulting her pride. And to be honest, I do think we will have the time to do quite a bit. You need at least a weekĖno, donít argue! I am the one looking at the grayness in your skin and dark circles under your eyes and the tremble in your hands that you think you are hiding. Healer or no, I say you need a week. At least. Besides, the men are weary as well. Itís been a hard road of late and much as I would desire we ride forth right now, we would do Windydale no good at all to show up as battered as we are." His troubled gaze dropped to the hammer in his hand, then toward the horizon before coming back to Aragorn. "Perhaps taking a day or two to rebuild what the enemy and time have torn down will restore us better than any medicine."
"You said battered ... are the men badly wounded?"
"None seriously save you, Aragorn, as Iíve told you. Aside from bumps and a few cuts, the men are... well enough."
Aragorn pounced on Halbaradís hesitation. "What is it? What is wrong?"
Halbarad flipped the hammer end over end in his hand, hefting it and then taking a swing at an imaginary nail somewhere in the air in front of him. He finally shrugged. "Itís Denlad. You saw how he was last night, and you know how fell moods plague him at times... heís as bad as you for taking on burdens of guilt that donít belong to him." His glance caught Aragornís and let him know that Halbarad knew exactly the dark paths his thoughts had taken him.
Aragorn looked away, refusing to acknowledge Halbaradís unspoken concern. "Have you talked to him?"
"Until my face turned blue!" Halbarad growled. He pointed the hammer accusingly. "He also has you beat for being stubborn. If I did not know better, I would swear you were long lost brothers."
"How bad is it?"
"Who can tell? He may snap out of it tomorrow, or he might mope around for days yet. It gets on my nerves, to be honest."
Aragorn smiled. Halbarad might hold Aragorn by the hand to bring him back from the dark pit of despair, but he had no patience to spare for so coddling any other man. "If he doesnít come out of this on his own, I will talk to him."
"Good, because I have run out of words to say, and to be honest, we could use a prank or two to lighten things up around here." He shook himself and changed the subject. "The orcs are still out there, so we cannot tarry long here a moment longer than we must. The Valar only knows what is happening at Windydale. I know yesterday we spoke of staying together, and even now we spoke of resting the men, but at the same time, my heart is heavy with fear for Windydale. I know we cannot leave today nor tomorrow, but I would like to leave the day after, when the rest of the men are ready, even if you need to remain here, or better yet, take yourself to Rivendell as soon as you are able."
"I will not need to remain behind, nor go to Rivendell."
"We will see," Halbarad countered mildly. "I am so torn, as I am sure you are. I want to stay and let you and the men rest, but at the same time, I want to charge off to Windydale. Now.††This very instant. For while we tarry, I know he is out there regrouping, preparing to wreak more havoc. Our help, such as it is, may make the difference between someoneís life or death. I just..."
Halbarad stared at the plains to the west. "I am ashamed for having such selfish thoughts, but I could not help thinking, last night as I sat watch, how glad I am that Miriel and our son are far away to the west."
"Now who is taking on unwarranted guilt? Taking comfort that your own family is safe is nothing to be ashamed of. I too am very glad that Arwen is safe in Lůrien, and my father in Rivendell. And I wish my mother had stayed there." He worked his shoulders and neck, then flexed his left arm carefully. "I am sure we can all move out together. I will not need an entire week. I am not at my best but I think by tomorrow I will have sufficient strength to travel, and should the need to fight come upon us, I can manage."
Halbarad let out a longsuffering sigh. "So speaks a man who can barely stand up. We will speak of plans to resume our pursuit of orcs and wraiths later, when you are not in such a stubborn mood. No, much as it chafes, we must wait. Today, and perhaps even for the next two days, we will set aside our duties to become nothing more than merry carpenters and thatchers, painters and farriers. Thereís some light repairs needed to some of the tack that I think even you can handle. Broken bridles to fix, things like that."
Aragorn had to admit he was not exactly ready for climbing on roofs to replace thatching, and he might not, despite his hopeful words, be able to travel so soon. Bad ankle aside, his shaky legs had barely carried him across the room to the door. Halbarad had acute eyes, for even now his knees were threatening to buckle. He slowly lowered himself onto the small bench beside the door. "I fear small tasks are all I can handle just yet, despite my wishes otherwise." He looked long and hard at the surrounding grassland and the hills along the river to the south, where the Hoarwell took a more westerly course. "Where do you have pickets posted?"
"To the north and south. Right now Eledh and Denlad have watch. Weíre trading off every four hours, trying to both catch some sleep and do some of the much-needed work. And I take care of you, for the most part, though Denlad has spelled me a time or two."
"And when do you actually sleep, Halbarad?"
He grinned. "Had you not noticed? When Iím taking care of you. Iíve done it so often I can do it in my sleep."
"I am getting my sleep, fear not."
Aragorn hardly believed him, but he let the matter drop. "The pickets... they can see well in all directions?"
"Aye. Clear views all around. And from this porch, you can see both west and south. Nothing will come here without our notice."
"You and I keep saying that... and yet..."
"Well, itís the best we can do, any road. I still think the NazgŻl is far from here, though." He shoved the hammer into his belt and plucked a stem of grass. He chewed on it thoughtfully as he leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. "This is a good place. Malthen chose well. It has good grass, a fresh spring, and is the highest point for many miles. There are two springs, a deep well, and the Hoarwell not even a dayís ride away, plenty of water for the stock. And moreover, there is a feel of peace about the place that I like."
"It is beautiful," Aragorn agreed. He leaned his head back, enjoying the soft breeze that played across his face and tugged at his hair. In Octoberís fickle way, the air had turned mild again, a last kiss of summer before ice and snow came down from the north to cover the hills and plains and wild places. They needed to be heading back to their homes, preparing for winter, but with the threat of a NazgŻl plaguing the river, they dare not stop their patrols. He did not know how to balance it all, the conflicting needs, the scarcity of men. But that was a thought for later, when his mind was not so clouded with fatigue and....
He frowned. Darkness still vexed the corners of his mind. Some lingering... presence. He shivered slightly, and absently started to rub the spot where the blade struck him, only to stop when the merest brush of his tunic against the bruise seemed to drive a dagger into his chest. He clenched his teeth against the pain, and for a moment, the sunlight dimmed and he felt his gaze traveling unbidden to distant, dark places. It was a darkness beyond losing his vision from pain, beyond the loss of sight from mere lightheadedness. It was a darkness that was somehow... alive. He shuddered.
Halbaradís voice brought him back. He blinked and saw once again the bright morning and the grazing horses. He took a careful breath and held it for a moment before letting it out slowly. "Iím sorry. Itís just..." He left the thought unsaid, for somehow the very idea of speaking it aloud brought a frisson of fear down his back. "I think that I may have a broken rib or two," he lied.
"Shall I wrap them? I didnít think you had any broken ribs when I checked you yesterday." He moved to Aragornís side.
"No, no. Thereís no need for wrapping them." He made a pretense of wincing as he let Halbarad press on ribs that felt completely free of any pain. "Perhaps they are merely bruised."
"I think you are right. I donít feel anything amiss. Still, if you think it will help, it would be an easy thing for me to wrap them."
"No. I just need to be more careful when I breathe. Thank you, though." He rubbed his hand across his brow and dredged up a smile. "I could use some breakfast. Where does one find Denladís wonderful cooking?"
Halbarad face cleared. He bowed elaborately as he swept an arm toward the stables. "Alas, Denlad is on watch. But for the Chieftainís pleasure, we have a guest chef at yonder campfire where Galadh awaits your order. I can bring it to you here, or, if you would rather, I can serve you breakfast in bed."
Aragorn grimaced. "Breakfast in bed is for leisurely consumption of the finest dishes. Galadhís cooking, on the other hand, is best eaten quickly and swallowed without tasting. So just bring it to me here where the sunshineís warmth can distract me while I choke down whatever it is heís burnt."
Halbarad laughed as he sauntered off toward the outer edge of the farmyard where he and the others had set up camp. Aragorn smiled as he saw Galadh eagerly leap to his feet to grab a plate and pull something very black off the spit.
Definitely burnt, but at least it will fill the ache in my stomach.
But his smile slipped away as he thought of the far more worrisome ache in his chest. He shut his eyes, turning his face to the sun, but try as he might, its warmth and light could not penetrate the chill in his heart.
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