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Aragorn won the battle, hollow victory though it was.
By the following morning, the worst of the storm had eased, although the argument had continued and finally Halbarad left Aragorn no choice but to thunder at him to cease his protests lest he lock him in the stable under charge of insubordination. Halbarad had turned white, but he pressed his lips together and said no more, except to bow slightly with a very stiff, "Yes, my lord," as he left the cabin. The silence with which he carefully shut the door behind him bespoke his anger more loudly than any ear-splitting slam could possibly have.
Aragorn sighed, then looked at the rest of the men, who were scattered around the room, all very diligently looking anywhere but back at him. "We will ride out tomorrow, at daybreak. The storm is moving on, but southward, and I fear we would only encounter it again if we rode today. So we will take this last day to do what we can towards finishing repairs and replenishing Neala’s larder. Eledh, Galadh, go take the watch. Now that the weather has cleared, the orcs will no doubt resume their activities."
The two men slipped out quickly, their relief to be out from under the stern gaze of their angry Chieftain coming off them in palpable waves. Denlad walked to the fireplace and stirred the coals. Aragorn saw the angry set of the man’s shoulders and didn’t try to stifle his irritation. "Say in words what the stiffness of your neck speaks in silence."
Denlad turned, spinning on the balls of his feet as he remained kneeling by the fireplace. "You were too hard on Halbarad," he said without preamble. He rose to his full height to stand nearly eye-to-eye with Aragorn. "You know that every word of his mouth and action of his hands is done with the sole motive of keeping the one he loves as a brother safe from all harm."
"But that is not his sole mission any more than it is my sole mission to simply ensure that I survive to ascend some future throne!" Aragorn turned away, working to soften his tone, "Halbarad’s heart makes him lose sight of the purpose of the Rangers–to protect our people from the Enemy. His job is not solely to protect the chieftain."
Denlad’s eyes flashed. "Would you not have his protection, then? Our protection? Would you rather we had left you to the tender mercies of the Nazgûl and let Middle-earth suffer whatever fate it may without the Hope of Men?"
"Do not do me the disservice of putting words in my mouth," Aragorn said very softly, aware that the rein on his temper was fraying and fraying quickly. "I am grateful beyond words for what he did. For what you did. But that does not change the fact that I am healing and well able to resume my duty. And it is neither his place... nor yours... to question that."
"No, it is not," Denlad agreed, his anger melting into concern as he placed both hands on Aragorn’s shoulders. "Nonetheless, I will never relinquish the stirring of my own heart, and it tells me this: you are far from healed, Aragorn. Hold whatever anger against us that you may, chafe however much you will against our care for you, but know that we–Halbarad and I, and Galadh and Eledh as well–will not let you destroy yourself." He held Aragorn’s gaze for a long moment, then nodded as though satisfied with what he saw, and left.
Aragorn took a deep breath. Denlad had never spoken in that way to him before. It was as if the younger Ranger had suddenly grown in stature and confidence, he now the teacher and Aragorn the student.
It left him feeling shaken.
And confound it, Denlad was right. Not that Aragorn felt he could concede to Denlad’s wishes any more than he could to Halbarad’s. He simply could not abandon his duty to his people. He would deal with the wraith, and then go to Rivendell and hope for the best. That is after all what I do best, isn’t it, he thought sourly. Hope.
He wished he could kick something.
Burying the urge to slam his boot against all the furniture, he moved to the window. Looking out, he saw Halbarad and Denlad standing together by the empty corral. Denlad slapped Halbarad’s shoulder, and then they both turned toward the house. Denlad veered to the left, toward the small house where Aragorn, by craning his neck, could see Neala waiting on the porch. Denlad greeted Neala with a smile and an ease that astounded Aragorn. But any thoughts of Denlad’s potential change of fortune faded as Halbarad continued toward the main house. Aragorn moved back to the fireplace, suddenly swamped by regret at his anger, and studied the flames as he heard Halbarad just outside the door, stamping the snow from his boots.
The door opened. Aragorn glanced over, trying to judge from Halbarad’s expression whether his fury still simmered or if perhaps his storm, like the blizzard, had blown over. But Halbarad’s emotions were too carefully veiled. Aragorn turned his gaze back to the fireplace. He chewed his lip, unsure how to undo the mess his loss of temper had unleashed. "Denlad seems to be a bit taken by Neala," he finally said, just to break the heavy silence.
"And she is by him, no doubt about that. And Randir has been following him everywhere like a lost puppy."
"I am happy for him. A man should have a wife, a family."
Halbarad grunted an affirmative and the silence fell again. Aragorn picked up the poker and stirred the logs a bit, cringing slightly as the wound on his left arm reminded him that even that small nuisance had yet to clear itself up. He switched the poker to his right hand and shoved at the logs until flames licked hungrily at them. He stepped on a cinder that flew popping and hissing onto the hearth, then took a deep breath. "I would not have locked you in the stables."
Halbarad grunted and Aragorn heard a chair creak. He turned. Halbarad was seated at the table, polishing an apple on his tunic and regarding Aragorn with that same hooded expression. "You would not have been able to."
Anger flared anew, but Aragorn fought it down. Halbarad was right. As feeble as Aragorn’s strength was, there was no way on Arda he could have wrestled Halbarad into submission, and he knew from the set of Halbarad’s jaw that it would have taken a fight to lock him away anywhere. So he nodded and remained silent.
"Aragorn, do you see this?" Halbarad pointed to a spot on his head, near his temple.
Aragorn frowned. "Your hair?"
"Yes. My hair. What color is it?"
"Black, of course."
"No, look closely."
"Very well. Black with a little bit of grey."
"A lot of grey," Halbarad corrected. "Put there mostly by you and your stubborn ways."
It was an old accusation, and overused. "It is not I who put the grey in your head, but time, and you know it."
"What I know is that every time you get yourself hurt, it becomes a battle on the scale of the Dagorlad to get you to take care of yourself afterward."
"And your exaggerations are on the same scale."
Aragorn dropped into the chair opposite. "Halbarad, you forget that the blood of Númenor runs more strongly in me than in most men. I do not require much in the way of recuperation."
"‘Much’, he says," Halbarad snorted. "So tell me how being Númenórean makes you invincible."
"You know it doesn’t." He regretted the testiness in his voice, but he was growing weary of this line of conversation.
"Are we not your chosen men?" Halbarad suddenly asked.
"Just answer me. Are we–Denlad, Eledh, Galadh, and I–not your chosen men? Sworn to defend you above all other duties?"
"Not necessarily above all other duties, no."
"But that is indeed one of our charges–to protect you."
Aragorn sensed defeat just around the corner. "Yes," he sighed.
"Then why do you fight us when all we are trying to do is our sworn duty? Why do you fight me?"
Frustration made Aragorn sound almost petulant. "And why do you not realize that I am well?"
"Because all the evidence screams otherwise!"
"You cannot win this argument, Halbarad."
"I know, I know. I will not win because you are the Chieftain and I am not." He studied Aragorn so long that Aragorn felt like squirming. "You and I have been friends for a long time."
"And we still are, I trust."
Halbarad stood and took a great bite out of his apple. "I suppose," he mumbled. "And I suppose I must continue to be your friend, for surely no one else is softheaded enough to put up with you. We will leave, as you order, but if I see even a hint that you are faltering, I will not hesitate to tie you across Bronadui’s saddle and haul you to Rivendell."
Aragorn sketched as close to a bow as he could while seated. "As you wish."
"And you can get that little self-satisfied smirk off your–" Halbarad started but was interrupted when the door suddenly opened.
Galadh stuck his head in long enough to announce, "Riders approach–the Sons of Elrond and, though I can’t say for certain, it looks like Lord Glorfindel."
Aragorn shot Halbarad a quick look. It was not unusual for his brothers to ride out from Rivendell and join the Rangers–in fact, he had been expecting them, given the rumors flying throughout Eriador–but it was a bit unusual for Elladan and Elrohir to have the exalted company of Lord Glorfindel with them. "I hope this is not ill tidings," Aragorn said.
"Maybe it’s Prince Legolas–from a distance, with that golden hair of his, he might be mistaken for Glorfindel," Halbarad said.
"He would have no reason to be here in Arnor. But I suppose the only way we’ll know is to go look." Aragorn rose and, even with taking the time to snatch up his sword and belt, beat Halbarad to the door by a half step, which left him with an absurd feeling of triumph. He stopped on the porch beside Eledh and Galadh and strapped on his sword, then raised his hand to shield his eyes from glaring sunlight that was just starting to break through the clouds. "No, it is Glorfindel, on Asfaloth. I can hear the bells."
"How does he get away with putting bells on his horse?" Halbarad mused. "I would think that would attract every orc within a hundred leagues."
Aragorn smiled. "If you were as mighty a warrior as Glorfindel, who killed a Balrog, who died and was reborn, and who drove out the Witch-king from Arnor, you could put bells on your horse and sound trumpets everywhere you went and still the orcs would run far, far from you."
They fell quiet, watching the trio gallop ever closer. Denlad hurried over. "They ride hard."
Aragorn nodded, his worry edging up another notch. Even from a distance he could see their horses were lathered from long and hard riding. Finally the three thundered into the yard before the house, the bells on Asfaloth’s headstall jingling an oddly merry counterpoint to the grim faces of the Elf and two Peredhel. Aragorn hurried forward, trying to hide his limp, and took the reins from his oldest brother. Elladan slid from his horse, shoving back his snowy hood as he gave Aragorn a brief embrace. "Mae govannen, my brother," Aragorn said, then repeated the greeting and embrace with Elrohir. He ignored the sudden sharp look of concern that Elrohir gave him and turned to Glorfindel. He bowed his head and offered a more formal salute. "Lord Glorfindel."
The Elf-lord returned the salute. "It is good that we found you. It was a guess, that you would be in this area, but one I hoped had merit."
"Your haste in riding through a storm tells me that you do not bring welcome news."
Glorfindel slid down from Asfaloth and patted the horse’s neck. "Ill news does not always travel in solitary fashion. We bear tidings both ill and good."
Aragorn grimaced. "Let us hear the ill first, then. Maybe then the good news will provide a measure of comfort."
"I fear what small good news we have will not serve to alleviate the sorrow we bring, Estel," said Elladan as he stepped forward.
"What has happened? Has Arwen–"
"Arwen is well, as is our father," Elrohir hurriedly supplied. "In fact, Lord Elrond is expecting Mithrandir’s arrival any time now, for the old wizard apparently has some sort of news that he hopes will be to the benefit of us all, but like a wizard, his message was half riddle and impossible from which to glean anything in the way of actual facts. Adar wants you home, Estel. As soon as possible."
Aragorn glanced at Halbarad. It was impossible to ignore the triumphant gleam in the man’s eyes. You are getting your wish, my stubborn friend. It seems we must go to Rivendell whether I like it or not. He said to Elrohir, "It may be some days before we can set out, but we will come. What other news from Rivendell?"
"That is all, and our only good news, I fear. Now for the ill, which reached us as we traveled." Elrohir seemed to gather himself before continuing. "You are of course aware of the events at Bracken’s Ferry."
Aragorn nodded. "We were there a week ago yesterday. It has been destroyed. I sent Bilfen Broadbow and his companion, Kenevir, to Lord Elrond with despatches."
"We passed them as we traveled here," Glorfindel said. "We can only hope the news has reached Lord Elrond safely. You saw the ones responsible for the slaughter?"
"Not at the time of the attack, no. We rode out as soon as we heard the first rumors, but we arrived too late," he said bitterly. "We know now it was a Nazgûl, leading a small force of orcs. We do not know the reason for the attack, though."
Glorfindel nodded. "Lord Elrond has received word that one of the Nazgûl has unexpectedly moved forth from Dol Goldur–indeed, that is another reason why we ride with such haste to find you, although I see our warning is unnecessary. We are not certain of his motives, but Sauron does not sleep. It could be that he is plotting a move against Imladris, but that seems unlikely. He knows it is strongly protected by the power of the Elves, and of Vilya, power that at this time Sauron himself is not yet strong enough to overcome. No, our greater fear is that he has sent the Nazgûl to test the will and strength of the Dúnedain, perhaps to see if the Witch-king might again take over Arnor."
"He found our strength greater than he anticipated," Halbarad growled.
Elrohir sharpened his study of Aragorn. "You have already fought with him?"
Aragorn merely nodded. He felt the ever-rising concern in Elrohir’s thoughts, but he closed his mind to his not-so-subtle probing, earning himself a glare. But the last thing he needed was for Elladan and Elrohir to unleash a suffocating flood of brotherly concern over him. They would both no doubt torment the truth from him later, but now he needed to know all the news the three had to share. "We fought with a band of orcs a day’s ride southwest of Bracken’s Ferry. There was a strange menace that hovered over the battle, but we did not see the Nazgûl at that time nor understand that the Nazgûl was the driving force behind the attack. Frankly, that it could be a Nazgûl simply did not occur to me, although looking back, it should have. I thought perhaps it was just an echo of past evil still upon this land. Strange things happen in these barren areas.
"Regardless, we slew the orcs, losing one man, and then rode to Bracken’s Ferry and found utter destruction. Still unsure of the true cause of the attack, we set out to warn Windydale. It was along the way south, near the Hoarwell, that we encountered the Nazgûl and truly saw our foe for the first time. We killed some twenty of his orcs, then drove off what remained, including the wraith, but we do not know where he went from there. It is our hope that we weakened his forces sufficiently to prevent him heading to Windydale before we can arrive and defend the village."
"It is no easy thing to drive off a Nazgûl, Estel," Elladan remarked. "Few come away unscathed."
"Suffice for now to assure you we did just that and lived to tell the tale. Now what further news have you, for I fear you know more than you have told."
Glorfindel’s eyes held all the bleakness of Caradhras. "Windydale was attacked, three days back. We would have ridden here sooner but for the storm."
Aragorn closed his eyes. Three days ago. While he lay under the Black Breath, his people were dying, with no one to succor them.
"Aragorn?" Elrohir asked sharply.
"What happened at Windydale?" Aragorn asked softly.
"They partially burned the town, although the people there gave strong defense and turned them away before they could utterly destroy it," Elrohir said.
"So there were survivors?" Halbarad asked.
"Roughly half the town. Mostly women and children. They survived by fleeing into the hills. Many of the men perished in the fight, though not all. And there are many wounded–men, women and children."
Aragorn’s hand ached and he realized he was gripping the hilt of his sword as though he expected the wraith to spring from the earth beneath his feet. He forced himself to relax his fingers. "The Nazgûl was there as well?"
"Aye," Elladan said. "Aside from those with grievous but nonetheless ordinary wounds, Elrohir and I spent many hours treating those who had fallen under the Black Breath. We helped all we could before we had to leave, to find you." Again, he gave Aragorn a piercing look, which Aragorn ignored.
"Where then did he go?"
"We are not sure," Elrohir said. "We did not cross paths with him, only with the destruction left in his evil wake. He may yet linger in Rhudaur, which is my suspicion. But I have hope that he may have headed south, through Rhudaur toward the Trollshaws and from there back to Mirkwood, or east through the Misty Mountains and south to Mirkwood. Or he may have continued west, deeper into Eriador and perhaps toward The Shire. But I somehow doubt that is the case. This news of your battle with him strengthens my hope that he has turned south, to return to his foul lair at Dol Goldur. He may realize that word is spreading of his presence and that Imladris is stirring."
"Lord Elrond is sending out warriors?" Aragorn asked.
Elladan nodded. "He is considering it. He awaits word from outlying patrols, and from us. From you."
"Elrohir speaks hopefully of its being gone, but I fear the wraith still lingers around Windydale," Glorfindel added. "I will try to speak with Gwaihir the Windlord, to see if he has any news. Assurance from him that there is no larger force of orcs anywhere near would be most welcome."
"One thing I have wondered," Aragorn said, "is from whence the orcs came. The wraith seems able to replenish his forces at will."
"Mostly from the Misty Mountains," Glorfindel said. "They heed the Nazgûl’s call. But without his leadership, they likely will retreat back into their caves as the weather deepens toward winter. That is my hope, at any rate. But what I would know, however," he said, as he raked Aragorn from head to toe with a gaze that made Aragorn feel that every secret he tried to keep had been laid bare, "is what exactly he may have discovered in his encounter with you."
"He did not discover who I am."
Glorfindel nodded, satisfied, but Elrohir frowned and stepped over to grip Aragorn’s arm. "From the first moment, I sensed a shadow upon you, an echo only but evidence still of evil’s touch, but hoped I was wrong. What happened?"
When Aragorn hesitated, Halbarad stepped forward. "Aragorn was nearly killed by the Nazgûl. That is why we lingered here instead of heading to Windydale," he growled. "But he would never tell you that. No, he would rather stand swaying on his feet, imagining he were fooling you into thinking all was well."
"Halbarad, hold your tongue," Aragorn hissed.
Elladan snickered, but Elrohir merely intensified his already painful grip on Aragorn’s upper arm. "Is this true?"
He glared at Elrohir. "If you would release your death grip on my arm, I might be able to unclench my jaw long enough to explain."
Elrohir let go. "Speak, then."
"I fought with him, yes, although Halbarad was the one that ultimately drove him off. I am a bit worse for wear, perhaps, but nothing from which I will not recover."
"‘A bit worse for wear’, you say! You came within an eyelash of dying," Halbarad said bluntly, then turned toward Elrohir. "While the rest of us were engaged with the orcs, your brother here fought long against the Nazgûl, until his blade shattered and he could no longer stand on his feet. And even then, he fought with a branch and for all I know his bare hands before he finally fell to a blow to his chest from the flat of the Nazgûl’s blade and the Black Breath finally overcame him. None of us would have lasted so long." Assorted nods from the other Rangers affirmed his words. Aragorn stood silent, fighting back the urge to clap a hand over Halbarad’s mouth. Halbarad continued, "We managed to use fire to scare the wraith off–"
"No," Aragorn finally interrupted, unable to hold his tongue any longer. "You used the fire, Halbarad. You were the one that drove off the Nazgûl. So if you feel you must put me on a pedestal like some sort of ridiculous hero, dispense with the false modesty and put yourself up there right alongside me."
"Hush, Strider, I’m the one telling this tale," Halbarad muttered into his ear. The men did not hear his words, but the sharp-eared Elves did, and despite the grim nature of the tale, Glorfindel and Elladan eyed Aragorn with undisguised amusement. Aragorn started to protest, but then decided silence was the only safe option. He clamped his lips together and stared down at his boots. Better to stare at the snowy mud than endure their mocking gazes.
Halbarad continued. "As I was saying, we were able to scoop up Aragorn and ride to safety. Aragorn was halfway to Mandos’ Hall, but the Valar had mercy and we managed to bring him back with athelas." He put a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder, continuing more softly, all hints of teasing gone. "But he has suffered greatly and has yet to fully recover. It is my contention that he needs the care of Lord Elrond. It is his contention, however, to stubbornly ignore my advice and charge off to Windydale to save the town. Now that we know the town is beyond our help, maybe he will actually acquiesce to common sense."
"Halbarad exaggerates. Greatly. I am well on the way to recovering. And from the sound of it, Windydale needs our help more than ever, in caring for the wounded and rebuilding what we can."
"What of your arm?" Elladan said, pointing at the bandage visible through the tear in Aragorn’s sleeve that he had yet to repair.
"Merely splinter wounds, from Bracken’s Ferry. They are healing."
"Why do you limp?" Elrohir demanded.
"I turned my ankle, nothing more." To demonstrate, he lifted his right leg and put all his weight on his left ankle. It twinged mightily but he gritted his teeth and hoped the pain did not show.
Elrohir did not look overly convinced at his act. "I feel the Black Breath is still upon you, in some fashion."
"All you feel is the aftereffects. I am on the mend, and have no need of additional care from you, or from Elladan, or Lord Elrond, or anyone else." Aragorn took a deep breath to control the anger rising in him. "My health is not a hindrance. What is important now is to ride to Windydale to offer what comfort we can. Lord Elrond can wait another day for my arrival." He glared at his brother, at Glorfindel. At Halbarad. Daring them to protest his next words. "We will ride on the morn."
He felt little satisfaction at their silent nods. Windydale had been taken. He had been too late. He had failed his people.
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