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If the sorrow that pressed down on them at Brackenís Ferry was a matter of silence and the empty stares of the dead, the tragedy of Windydale battered them with weeping and the shattered gazes of the living.
Aragorn rode slowly through what was left of Windydaleís gates, Halbarad beside and just behind him. His brothers and Lord Glorfindel, followed by the rest of the Dķnedain, trailed behind Halbarad. The morning sun shone gently down on an ancient town that once had been fortified in time beyond memory with a high stone wall. Now, much of that wall had crumbled and been replaced by wooden stockade fencing. It seemed sturdy enough, and should have been sufficient for the usual threats that lurked north of the East-West Road and west of the river Ė bandits and the occasional wolf pack straying down from the north during hard winters, even the occasional attack from smaller bands of orcs. But it had not been sufficiently stout to hold off a determined attack by a sizeable contingent of orcs led by a NazgŻl, with its debilitating weapon of the Black Breath. The gate had been smashed into splinters. A large bloodstain covered one of the fallen panels. Aragorn wondered whose blood it was. A knot formed in his gut, one that tightened with each step of his horse until the pain of it thrust into him like a dagger.
He took a deep breath. There was no smell of dead things this time. The dead had been cleared away, no doubt properly buried by now, and the survivors, singly and in small clusters, stood in silence, watching the Rangers as they progressed through the desolate landscape that had once been a small but lively river town. A place that had once been called home by so many, but to call it that now seemed preposterously ill-spoken. How could it ever be a home again, after this? Aragorn forced himself to meet the eyes of the people, eyes that still reflected horrors that should never have been witnessed, eyes that asked the inevitable question.
Why did you not come?
He pulled up outside the apothecary, an establishment he had patronized occasionally to refill his healing supplies. He wondered if the old herbmaster had survived. It bothered him that he could not recall the manís name. He dismounted as the rest of the patrol pulled up alongside. Elladan leaned down without dismounting and spoke quietly. "By your leave, I will take Eledh and ride further ahead," he said. "There may be signs that I missed in our hurry to find you. Look not for us for some hours, perhaps not until evening, for I wish to do a thorough reconnaissance of the lands surrounding this village."
Aragorn nodded absently, for his attention was caught by a woman, young and with a child no more than three or four clinging to her skirts. Her hands clutched a blanket, squeezing it in a spasmodic rhythm of grief. Her eyes were dry but burned as with a fever. "My baby," she whispered as she impaled him with that cauterizing gaze. "It killed my baby."
Words had never seemed so inadequate, but he said softly, "I am sorry, my lady."
"It killed my baby," she said, loudly and distinctly, as though he were a half-deaf simpleton, unable to understand speech. "It killed my son and left his body in the street and then it killed my husband!"
She took a step forward, and Halbarad quickly stepped in front of Aragorn. "Please, my lady, do not do this," he said softly, holding a hand out to ward her off should she step closer.
"Peace, Halbarad," Aragorn murmured. He stepped around Halbarad and walked to the woman, holding a hand out in comfort. "I truly am sorry."
"What is your sorrow compared to mine! Why did you not come?" she choked, then suddenly threw herself at him, beating his chest with her fists as she broke into sobs. "Why did you not come?" He felt the blood drain from his face as each blow hit unerringly on the worst parts of the bruise across his chest. The sickening blackness rose again in his mind, but he set his jaw against it. He caught at her arms, giving his men a wordless glance to stay back. She struggled, her arms surprisingly strong, but he managed to lower them and pull her instead into his embrace. Then, as suddenly as she had attacked, she fell limp and sobbing against him. For a long moment, he simply held her, feeling her shuddering cries, letting her grief flog him. I tarried too long... coddled myself when people... children... were dying.
He deserved every bit of pain she dealt him.
She finally pulled away from him with an almost angry jerk. She did not look at him but grabbed the hand of her small child and stumbled away from him, down the street and into a small house. Aragorn watched her until the closing door shut her off from view. After a long moment, he turned to his men. "Galadh, Halbarad... go around the town," he said quietly. "See who might still need assistance, see what remains of the buildings... anything that we can do to help them, offer it freely. Denlad, Elrohir, I would have you come with me to help tend the wounded. I am sure what healer they may have is quite overwhelmed and needs our help."
He watched them nod and slowly spread out down the muddy street, then tugged at the girth strap of his horse, not because it needed to be checked but because it gave him something to look at besides the awful, accusing sorrow in the faces of all those around him. He heard a footstep beside him, one so light and quiet that he knew it was Elrohir or Glorfindel. He really didnít want to talk to either. "Before you ask it, I will tell you: no, I am not fine. Nor am I likely to be fine any time soon, not until I drive that wretched monster from my lands."
He heard a chuckle and glanced up in surprise to see it was Glorfindel who laughed. But the amused set to his mouth did not reach his eyes. "I did not expect anything less from you, Estel Elrondion. You are indeed your fathersí son, after all. Both of them," he added.
Elrohir stepped over. He placed a hand on Aragornís shoulder and squeezed gently. "We will find the wraith, Estel. This shall not happen again."
Aragorn wished he could believe him. But what, really, could five men and three Elves do against such power? The blackness in him surged again, swelling into a wave of hopelessness that threatened to utterly engulf him. He shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against his saddle, fighting back weariness. The leather was still warm from where his leg had pressed against it during their hard three hours of riding. He concentrated on the smell of the it and the sweat-darkened stain of it and the buttery softness of it that years of riding had wrought and wished he might never lift his head again.
Elrohir. His brotherís mind gently within his own. Concerned, as always.
"Worry not, Elrohir," he said aloud, "despite what I said. I am simply tired." He straightened up and looked grimly at the town, at the people who had left their despairing huddles and moved away, as though the presence of their Chieftain failed to be of the smallest interest to them. And why should it be, when my arrival comes far too late? He looked at Glorfindel. "I would not presume to order you to do anything, but I would like you to go round with Halbarad and Galadh for now, and, if you agree, to meet with Elladan and Eledh when they return. We will decide our next course based on their report. I will be with the wounded."
"You do not presume upon me, Aragorn. When I am here, in your lands, with your people, I follow your orders," Glorfindel said, his eyes shining warmly at him. "I will of course do whatever you need me to." He nodded to Elrohir, then turned and trotted down the street to catch up with Galadh.
Aragorn looked at his brother and Denlad. "Come. Let us put to right those that we can."
Aragorn pulled the blanket up around the wounded manís shoulders and straightened, wincing at the twinge in his lower back. He rubbed the back of a bloodstained hand across his forehead, trying without discernable success to massage away what felt like an iron band squeezing his skull. "He will sleep now," he rasped. He could not remember when he last took a drink of water. The manís wife nodded her thanks, and Aragorn staggered over to a laver and plunged both hands into the tepid water. He stared vacantly at the swirling brown stains as the blood washed from his hands.
How many hours had it been since he walked into this shadowed place of pain and suffering? At least six? He squinted at the grimy window. The sun had nearly set, so more likely closer to seven. Normally he would barely feel the first hint of fatigue after such a time, but even he had to admit he was far from normal, far from fit. The hard ride and the backbreaking work of lifting broken bodies to reapply bandages or ease them into more comfortable positions had taken their toll. The townís healer had died in the attack, and despite the care Elladan and Elrohir had initially provided,†much was left to be done to help the wounded. Aragorn was right in that the people tending the wounded were overwhelmed and in dire need of help. So the three of them had labored far beyond their endurance. Or at least beyond his endurance. Elrohir seemed as tireless as ever, and even Denlad seemed to be holding up well. But Aragornís hands trembled, his left arm ached and his ankle throbbed. His head felt as though a company of dwarves were mining mithril within his skull. But as hard as it was physically, his spirit flagged far more. He felt beaten. Bruised of heart and broken in his soul, and in his darker moments, he really had no idea how or where or when he might find any sort of solace for his wounded spirit.
He winced. Darker moments. As if of late there were any moments of light and hope. My life has become nothing more than a constant stream of dark moments, one flowing indiscernibly into the next like the foul waters of Mordor.
A patient groaned and he saw Denlad bend quickly to lay a cloth across the manís brow. So many brows had they wiped. Too many. Just as they had held too many hands, many of which were far too small, as they helplessly watched one after another slide into deathís unrelenting embrace. Denlad even now was bent over one of the children, singing a soft lullaby to try to calm the little oneís heart-wrenching cries. Denlad glanced up at that moment, his face pale, his eyes murky with sorrow and fatigue. He shook his head slightly.
Aragorn blinked several times, telling himself his eyes burned from fatigue. He dumped the dirty water into a bucket provided for that purpose and refilled the basin with fresh water from a stoneware pitcher. Another plunge of his hands into the water and this time the water remained clear. He clenched his fists, hunching his shoulders as he bowed his head.
He could still feel a tiny hand in his as, an hour earlier, another childís life had slipped away. And suddenly he was in an altogether different place, one smelling of soot and ash and death and resounding with the crashing groans of a burned-out building collapsing around him as it stole yet another small life out of his hands.
His hands and the laver and the wooden tabled blurred and he quickly splashed his face with water, but it did not wash away the sorrow.
Nothing would ever do that. And somewhere, buried beneath the crushing sorrow, a spark smoldered. Anger started to fester and burn. "You will pay, Sauron," he whispered. "Somehow, I will make you pay..."
And how do you propose to do that, when you cannot manage to warn one small town less than ten leagues away that they are about to be attacked?
He balled up the towel in his hands. Tried to banish the mocking voice of his doubts, but again the darkness overshadowed his mind, turning it toward despair, cutting off any ray of hope with its stygian hand...
A voice from the open doorway ripped him from his troubled thoughts. "Aragorn?"
Halbarad. Aragorn turned away and scrubbed his face with the towel, knowing even as he did so he would be unable to hide anything from Halbarad. "Here."
Halbarad made his way through the maze of beds. He took in Aragornís reddened eyes, but only said quietly, "I hate the smell of these places. Blood and vomit and worse. ĎTis the smell of fear."
Aragorn folded the towel, laying it neatly beside the basin.
Halbarad picked up a cup and filled it with water. He handed it to Aragorn. "Drink."
Aragorn took it but did not take a drink. He stared down at it as if he had never before seen a cup of water.
"Will any of these make it?" Halbarad asked.
Aragorn blinked and looked up. He took a drink, finally. The water felt obscenely comforting. It nearly gagged him, but he choked it down and with it some of the guilt. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he surveyed the room. "Some will. Others," he shrugged. "They are now in the hands of the Valar. I have done all I know to do."
They stood for a wordless moment, each of them watching as Denlad moved to another bed and knelt, softly speaking to a man who had lost his arm to an orcís scimitar. He held the manís remaining hand and said something that brought a smile to the manís face.
"Our mighty warrior hides a healerís heart behind that sword of his," Halbarad said. Then he sighed when Aragorn said nothing. "As do you, my friend, but you have given more of yourself than you can afford, I fear. You are dead on your feet. Come and eat, then rest. Denlad and Elrohir will keep things well in hand for a time. And the rest are hard at work helping the many families whose homes were damaged. We can spare you while you find a bit of a respite."
It was a sign of his exhaustion that he did not argue as Halbarad grasped his arm and led him into the evening twilight. His steps faltered, however, when he was confronted by a knot of scowling men, one of which, a dark-haired man who was nearly as tall as Aragorn but about fifty pounds heavier, stepped forward. "We would speak to you, Lord Aragorn."
An air of ill-defined tension hung heavily on the small crowd, enough so that Halbaradís hand went to his sword. Aragorn stayed his movement with a touch to Halbaradís elbow. "Of course," he told the man. He wondered how long he would last should the huge man decide to take out his rage on his Chieftain. Not long, he decided, and wondered tiredly if perhaps being beaten into oblivion would not be such a bad thing.
"My name is Belendur," the man started, then waved a hand vaguely at the assemblage behind him. "We, that is, all of us here, want to apologize for our behavior as you and your men arrived. We were sore of heart and angry but you should not have borne the brunt of our rage. It is to our shame that we took out on you what should be saved for the one truly deserving of it." He ducked his head and stepped back.
Aragorn was speechless for a long moment, then he fumbled to find words. "You have not offended me, nor any of my men. Far from itĖit is we who must ask you for forgiveness, if such can ever be granted, for our lateness is inexcusable."
The man looked up, shaking his head. "ĎTwas a fell thing to have happened, but it is not for any of us to go about placing blame on any save Sauron himself. You have only to tell us what we might do, for we will follow you, as we have always followed our Chieftain."
Perhaps there might still remain a bright moment ...
Aragorn sized up each of the men, seeing nothing in their eyes but forgiveness. One or two of the men nodded as their gazes met. Aragorn looked again at their spokesman. "The greatest thing you can do is to rebuild Windydale. As for the other... your faith in me, in light of what has happened, is...." Aragornís throat seemed to close up entirely. He had to look away to the shadowed hills far beyond the ruined town, to try to find some sort of composure in their timeless solitude. Moonlight shone on the mists gathering in the folds of the valleys, and its beauty calmed him. "Thank you," he finally managed, not trusting himself to say more, nor daring to meet anyoneís eyes for fear it would be his undoing.
Halbarad put a hand on his elbow. "If you will excuse us, the Chieftain is sore of spirit and tired of body and would rest."
The men parted, but one, a short man with thinning grey hair but a luxuriously full white beard, held up a hand. "I would have you stay with me, Lord Aragorn. You and all your men are welcome to find respite in my inn, which, thanks to the Valar, remains standing."
Aragorn nodded, grateful. "That would be most welcome. You will be paid in full."
"No, sir! I would never dream to so levy my Chieftain or his men, especially after the long hours you labored to save so many of our wounded. I was in there, not long before you came. I saw the fevers, the wounds that needed cleaning but had not because there were too many fallen and not enough able-bodied men and women to help. Many more would have died had it not been for the healing in your hands. And the rest of your men, laboring so tirelessly to repair homes and make them livable. No, offering you shelter for the night is the least I am able to do. It is all set up and waiting for you. So you will stay, at my behest."
Aragorn dredged up a tired smile. "Then we accept, and no coin shall pass between us to cast a shadow on your generosity."
They followed the man toward a small stone building, a crumbling structure barely bigger than a cottage. It certainly was not anything to which Aragorn would have given a second glance, and it definitely did not appear to be an inn. As he took in the sagging roof and the low eaves, his doubts grew. "There canít be room in there for all of us," he whispered to Halbarad.
Halbaradís raised eyebrow conveyed his own doubt, but they were catching up with the owner and dared say no more.
The little man fumbled with the door latch and disappeared inside. They followed him in and found themselves in a surprisingly spacious room, with a fire snapping and crackling on the hearth. Cots had been set up, enough for all of them, and while it made the room crowded, there was room enough after all. The man even had food and drink spread on a table. Aragorn lowered himself to one of the cots with a tired sigh. It felt good to be off his feet. "Thank you. This will do very nicely."
The old man smiled widely and bowed. "I will leave you to your rest. Please, call on me should you have any need. I have a room in the back." He gave them both one more bow of his head, then left them to fend for themselves.
"Shall I get you a plate?" Halbarad asked.
Aragorn nodded, but even as Halbarad walked toward the table, weariness pressed on Aragorn with an urgency he could no longer ignore. He stretched out on the cot and within moments was fast asleep.
He was dreaming. Standing in a doorway, looking on row upon row of hurting people, crying for him, reaching for him. He looked into their burning eyes and tried to speak comfort but no words came. He tried to reach out to touch them but he could not lift his hands. Then a child at the very end cried out his name, over and over, each strident call throbbing with her pain and fear†and he tried to run to her but his feet would not move and he looked down and it was the sea, that black sea, rising to engulf him and all those wounded, hurting people, and if he did not move it would take even the child but he could not move... he could not...
He gasped and opened his eyes, the dream shattering but leaving in its wake cobwebbed fragments of guilt and hopelessness and defeat.
He rubbed a hand over his face. He sat up, pushing away the blanket that Halbarad must have draped over him. He was unsure how long he had slept. The room was dark, but for the light of the fire. He was alone, a plate with bread, fruit and a bit of cheese sitting on a table beside him. The thought of food sickened him, but he reached for the tankard. He sniffed. Tea. Trust Halbarad not to let him drink ale on an empty stomach. Windydale certainly did not need a drunken Chieftain on top of all their other ills. He took a long draught. It was tepid but good and strong. He picked up the piece of cheese and gave it a desultory nibble, for he knew he must eat something, even if it tasted of ash. He chewed and washed it down with tea, then forced himself to eat the rest of the food. He wondered where Halbarad was.
He eased to his feet, grunting as his back popped. He stretched and twisted and worked out the worst of the stiffness. He walked toward the door, his footsteps a bit unsteady with the fatigue that still pulled at his movements and dulled his thoughts. But as he opened the door, he could hear the sound of approaching hoofbeats, and their urgent cadence drove his weariness from him as effectively as a dash of cold water.
He hurried out onto the stone stoop. Halbarad had been sitting on the step, eating his own meal, and he scrambled to his feet. "Looks like Elladan and Eledh are returning."
Aragorn glanced at the sky, gauging the time from the stars. He had slept for perhaps three hours, maybe four. It had not been enough but it would have to do. "Were you able to find some rest, Halbard?"
Halbarad shrugged. "I was not overly tired."
They fell silent as Elladan and Eledh thundered toward them at a speed that would no doubt break their necks if their mounts were not so sure footed. He watched, worried, as they reined in, Eledhís horse†rearing at the sudden stop. Halbarad hurried forward and grabbed the bit and helped Eledh control his excited mount. "I pray I am wrong, but you do not appear to bear good news," he said.
"Why in these dark days would you think we bring aught but bad news?" Eledh retorted, then nodded at Elladan.
"We need not ride out after the NazgŻl," Elladan said, his lips tightening into a grim slash. "Even now, the wraith and his fell company march again toward Windydale.
"We have perhaps an hour, no more, and they will be upon us."
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