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Aragorn walked slowly back across to the main house, stomach comfortably full, even if he had not been able to eat as much as he normally did, and certainly nowhere near as much as Denlad and Eledh had packed away in their brief visit to Nealaís repast before they returned to work. Aragorn still felt a general malaise, the sort of feeling one gets when the horrible part of an illness is past but the body still needs to find its equilibrium and strength. His ankle throbbed, but it bore his weight and he would just have to put up with the nuisance of it until it healed. Just like he would have to put up with the ache that still arced across his chest, and the darkness that kept trying to creep back into his mind. And the chills that still rippled up and down his skin like dozens of tiny Mirkwood spiders. And the twinges from the splinter wounds on his left arm, whose healing had not been encouraged in the least by his battle with the NazgŻl.
When was the last time I did not have some sort of wound, or ache, or broken bone or sprained limb?
He realized he couldnít remember.
He looked toward the horses. Randir was nowhere in sight, but Bronadui was standing by the railing, looking at him with an eager expression that meant he was ready to be ridden or be given some sort of treat. Aragorn smiled and dug out the apple Neala had pressed into his hands. "Give that horse of yours a treat, Lord Aragorn," she had said, and now he walked to Bronadui, slicing the apple with his dagger. He held out a piece. "Someone evidently thinks I donít spoil you enough," he said.
Bronadui huffed and then his sensitive lips found the apple and in seconds, it was gone. Aragorn fed him the rest, smiling with pleasure as he scratched around Bronaduiís ears. Bronadui crunched the last of it, then, looking for more, nudged Aragornís chest, right on the bruised area. "Ahhh, donít do that," Aragorn wheezed as the bruise flared to uncomfortable life. Stars danced before his eyes and he grabbed the railing and stood for a long moment, hardly breathing, afraid the darkness would come swooping down on him. But this time, for whatever reason, he felt nothing beyond the ordinary but no less excruciating protest of muscles that had been bruised nearly beyond their capacity. When the pain finally relinquished its grip and he could breathe again, he opened his eyes. Bronaduiís liquid gaze seemed to apologize. "Fear not. I am not angry. How could you know?" Aragorn rubbed the horseís soft nose and bent his forehead to touch Bronaduiís.
A loud yelp and then an enraged shout from the roof of the stable caught his attention and he watched with mingled amusement and alarm as Eledh, legs akimbo and arms grasping ineffectually at handfuls of thatching, slid down the roof and off the low eave to land on his backside in a pile of hay. Denladís head appeared at the ridge line, his expression ludicrously innocent as he nonchalantly picked up something from the thatching. From this distance, it was hard to say, but Aragorn could have sworn it looked like a very large, and hopefully dead, spider. He chuckled. "It seems Denladís over his latest fit of melancholy and up to his usual tricks," he said to Bronadui. "Halbarad will be happy."
With a final pat on Bronaduiís neck, Aragorn pushed away from the fence and hobbled back to the house where he sat on the bench and picked up the broken harness Halbarad had found in the stable and left for him with orders that, if he survived the foolhardy trip to Nealaís quarters, he could spend the afternoon quietly repairing. Aragorn shook his head with amusement. To say Halbarad had been displeased with him walking about so much and so soon would be like saying Forochel was a bit chilly in winter. Halbarad had all but threatened to sit on Aragorn to keep him abed, a solution that would not have had any sort of good outcome for either of them. Too bad Halbarad is not around to see that I survived my outing. But he was on watch, along with Galadh, so Aragorn had no opportunity to gloat.
Aragorn ran his fingers over the leather straps, finding several places too worn to even bother with splicing in a repair. There was nothing for it but to fashion a new strap entirely. He picked up an awl and a new strip of leather, but before he could get started, he suddenly yawned mightily and uncontrollably, a huge jaw-cracking intake of breath that made his shoulders shake and his eyes water. He blinked several times and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He knew he needed sleep, but he also was full aware that to take a nap would be to court nightmares. Perhaps if he simply kept himself so busy he drove himself to utter exhaustion, he might sleep dreamlessly tonight. It seemed as good a plan as any, and to that end, he kept his hands busy and his mind occupied on making sure each new hole he punched in the leather was exactly the same distance from the last, and for roughly five minutes, it worked. But then the holes blurred and he clumsily dropped the awl.
He blinked and rubbed his very dry and scratchy eyes. His eyelids felt far heavier than any eyelids had a right to feel. He leaned his head back against the wall, letting his hands fall idle as he watched his men working. Eledh had now climbed back onto the roof, his fall evidently damaging nothing more than his pride. Denlad had abandoned the roof in favor of the paddock, no doubt to avoid Eledhís retaliating. He was walking slowly toward a gray horse that paced nervously at the far end. Aragorn watched for a while, but approaching half-wild horses is tedious, painstaking work. Before long, Aragornís head nodded. He brought it up with a jerk and blinked, then resigned himself to the fact that the onset of sleep was inevitable and fairly immediate. Better to succumb to it in bed than sitting in the open where he would topple off the bench in an undignified sprawl like some drunken beggar.
Setting aside the awl and the leather straps, he let himself into the dim cabin and with a groaning sigh, stretched out on the cot. He closed his eyes, but, contrarily, sleep did not immediately come. Instead, his thoughts trailed toward Rivendell, and his father. Much as he did not wish to return to Rivendell, and the always precarious walk on the tightrope that was his relationship with Lord Elrond, a nagging worry pestered him that only at the hands of his father could he be truly healed. Elrond was familiar with the Black Breath, after all, and Aragorn had heard stories of how Elrond had healed those who had fallen under the wraithís spell. He bit his lip as a cold tendril of fear wormed through his mind. He had also heard stories of those who had been touched by a Morgul blade who had not received such healing... and who ever after walked in the nether world between the living and the dead, having become wraiths themselves.
He rubbed his chest lightly, tracing the outline but not touching the bruise itself. The blade had not exactly touched himĖmerely the flat side of it, and that through his coat, his jerkin and shirt. It had not broken his skin. Though the bruise was a fierce one, surely he was not bound to the fate of slowly losing himself to this world to forever wander as a wraith. He felt no sense that he was losing his grip on life. He looked out the rectangle of the doorway. The sky seemed its normal bright blue, the grassy plain amber, the distant trees russet, gold and vermillion. He felt the scratchy warmth of the wool blanket, the softness of the pillow beneath his head; smelled the tangy fall air as it wafted through the open doorway and the smoky aroma of the banked fire on the hearth. Heard Eledhís voice raised in song as he worked, and the twittering of meadowlarks beyond the paddock. But still... there was the blackness. He could feel that as well, pressing against his mind. If he let himself, he could still hear the black speech pouring through him. Was it merely memory felt so strongly that it seemed real, or something worse?
He shifted uneasily. He felt... exposed. Alone and naked and terribly vulnerable, as if he were somehow trapped on a wind-swept ledge, with no one to throw down a rope and help him climb back to safety. One misstep...
He punched his pillow. He would make no misstep.
Time will heal this. Thatís all I need. Time.
It could not have been ten minutes after finally falling into a fitful rest that Aragorn woke to a shout, followed by the sound of someone running. He waited a moment, listening for any indication that might mean real trouble was afoot, but after the footsteps faded, all was quiet. He frowned, but no further sound broke the stillness. He rolled onto his side and tried to find his way back to much-needed slumber, but the ongoing silence would not let his ears rest. Grumbling under his breath, he sat up and watched through the doorway. When no one came pounding in to get him, he started to relax. Eledh had no doubt fallen victim again to Denladís spider, and that was something he had no desire to get involved in. He lay back down and closed his eyes, but a heavy step on the porch and then a pained sigh brought him back upright. He looked out the doorway and saw part of Denladís knee as he sat down on the bench outside.
Aragorn swung his legs over the bed, but stopped again as he heard Nealaís soft voice. "Does it hurt?"
Denladís leg flinched. "No. Just a... a bump."
Despite concern over whatever may be wrong with Denlad, Aragorn had to smile. Put a pretty woman within a league of Denlad and his normal dry wit melted away into shy, painful stammering. He had spent his entire time eating with his eyes on his plate and his cheeks flaming.
"May I see?" Neala asked.
Wishing he dared get up and walk to the doorway to see better, but knowing the creaky floors would give him away, Aragorn could only rely on his imagination to picture the squirming anxiety sure to be on Denladís face. He saw Neala move in front of the open doorway, and after a moment, he heard Denlad hiss.
"No... you didnít do anyĖ† I mean... it... just a little t-tender."
Aragorn felt his eyebrows rise. As fractured as Denladís words were, it was the closest thing to a full sentence Aragorn had ever heard him say to a woman. His curiosity could be denied no longer. He got up and walked slowly and softly to the doorway. He peeked out and saw that Neala had a wet cloth pressed against the back of Denladís head. Her other hand supported his forehead, and Aragorn had to suppress a wild desire to laugh at the tension that held Denlad rigidly upright, tension that Aragorn was sure had little to do with pain from a bump on the head. Denladís knuckles were white where his hands gripped the edge of the bench.
Aragorn didnít think he chuckled out loud, but he must have made some sound, because they both suddenly turned to look at him. Aragorn had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at the barely concealed panic in Denladís eyes.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Nothing," Denlad muttered.
Aragorn looked to Neala, who elaborated. "He was trying to approach the wild one, that gray horse yonder. He has no name, but for reasons of his own, he follows our herd and allows himself to be penned. Denlad came closer than the horse has ever let anyone. But then the horse charged and sent Denlad to the ground. He hit the back of his head." She moved aside so Aragorn could inspect the damage.
Aragorn saw nothing more than a small bump. He gently pressed the area around it; Denladís skull was intact. "Good thing you have a hard head."
Denladís briefly flashed an exasperated look at Aragornís mild teasing, but he stood, keeping his eyes firmly on Aragorn. "Iíd best be getting back to painting the stable." Then, belatedly remembering his manners, he glanced at Neala, turned an even deeper red, and stammered, "Th-thank you, my lady." He stumbled off the porch, nearly falling, and hurried to the far side of the stable.
Neala sighed. "Did I do something to anger him?"
Aragorn laughed. "No, Neala, you did nothing wrong. I suppose he has simply never had the opportunity to learn much about the ways of well-bred women." Aragorn stopped, not feeling it was his place to explain Denladís problematic upbringing. Being the son of a fallen woman, and having no father nor any knowledge of who the man was, did not exactly lend itself to Denlad learning the finer points of dealing with women of quality. To Aragornís knowledge, a pretty woman was the only thing that could send Denlad into full-blown retreat.
Nealaís wistful voice interrupted his reverie. "A man such as that, and no woman waiting for him?"
Aragorn tilted his head to look at her. There was no mistaking the faint blush on her cheeks. He slowly smiled. "Perhaps he has never found the right one."
Her cheeks turned rosy, and she suddenly became very interested in the cloth she held. She finally muttered something about needing to check on the evening meal and hurried off. Aragorn laughed, and, no longer feeling a need for sleep, settled down on the bench. As he picked up the bridle, a movement caught his eye. It was Randir, walking around the stable.†The boy†stopped when he saw Denlad, who had climbed atop the roof, and started to walk away, but Denlad saw him. He called out something too low for Aragorn to make out and immediately climbed back down the ladder. Randir waited, eyes downcast and hands bashfully shoved into his pockets. Denlad reached the ground and knelt beside him, talking softly, and finally elicited a small grin from the boy. Seeing Denlad so took Aragorn back to another time, where he had knelt in just such a fashion to talk to another shy boy.
Aragornís path had crossed that of Denladís mother several times over the years before Denlad finally accepted Aragornís bidding to join the Grey Company. The first time had been before Denlad was born, and was in no way pleasant. One of the more foolish members of his company had been with her and subsequently lost a blade and far more silver from his money bag than the cost of a nightís favors would warrant. Both Denladís mother and his Ranger had felt the lashing of Aragornís tongue that night. She had disappeared shortly after that, and he did not see her again for many years, until a chance patrol in the North Downs brought them to a shambles of a farm, and he saw that it was hers and that she now had a strapping young son of perhaps nine summers, a golden-haired boy who looked so wistfully at the small band of Rangers, who must have seemed to have appeared by a wizardís magic on his front step, that Aragornís heart was pierced. The mother may have chosen poorly, but through her, the son had the blood of Nķmenor in his veins, and his path lay untrammeled before him. A nudge in the right direction, from the right person, might be enough to keep him from falling prey to the same sort of tragic mistakes that had claimed the dignity of his mother. And since Aragorn knew just a little about what it was like to have to overcome an ancestorís error, he figured he might be just the one to do the nudging.
"And who is this mighty warrior?" he had asked the young man, who promptly blushed to his hairline and ran into the cabin.
No amount of coaxing had convinced the lad to emerge, so Aragorn and his men had ridden off, but Aragorn never forgot the desperate longing in the boyís eyes, nor the steadfast cut to the young manís chin. So he made it a point each year to swing by the farm, to drop off a deer or a brace of pheasants, but mostly to watch the boy as he grew over the years. He was pleased with what he saw: as the tall boy grew into a strapping young man nearly as tall as Aragorn, the condition of the farm slowly improved, the cabin in better repair, the horses and cows in finer fettle. Denladís mother even seemed to soften, to mellow from the hard-faced woman who could only glare at Aragorn to a mother who instead watched her own son with a quiet pride.
Then at last came the year he and his company had arrived to find a fresh mound of dirt in a clearing beside the house, and a tearful young man sitting bereft against a tree. When Denlad stood, angrily wiping his eyes, embarrassed at being caught in his grief, Aragorn asked what they could do to help. At Denladís vehement denial of any need, he then asked another question.
"Is the mighty warrior ready?"
And this time the young man did not run away.
Now Aragorn watched, a curious lump coming to his throat, as Denlad pulled a small knife and sheath from his pocketĖone Aragorn had given him when Denlad was roughly Randirís ageĖand handed it to Randir. Randirís face lit up with a huge smile and he ran off. Denlad watched him go, a thoughtful look on his face, then he moved to the fence to stare moodily at the recalcitrant horse that had bested him. Denlad had won over Randir, and Aragorn had no doubt that given time, he would win over that horse. "And perhaps with time, Neala could win over you," Aragorn said softly. Then he cleared his throat and picked up the bridle. He started to work on it, but a passing cloud dimmed the sunlight, and its shadow left a chill in the air. Aragorn glanced at the sky. Sullen clouds seemed suddenly to race across the heavens, as if rushing toward warmer, more southerly climes before winterís bite fell upon them.† He looked again at the men, then turned his eyes to the south, toward Windydale.† "It seems that time is all any of us need. But I fear time may be the one thing none of us have."
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