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"You most certainly will not!" Halbarad roared.
They were alone in the small inn. Upon hearing the dread news, Aragorn and Glorfindel had conferred and it was decided that Glorfindel would be the one to organize and lead the defense. Loathe as Aragorn was to admit any sort of weakness, he knew it only made sense for Glorfindel to lead the men in battle instead of an exhausted, battered Chieftain, and one who had already managed to lose a man in battle, botch a rescue attempt, and nearly succumb to the Black Breath at that. Hardly fit qualifications compared to a mighty Elf lord who had slain a Balrog and driven the Witch-king from Angmar. As far as Aragorn knew, there was little that Glorfindel feared, and still less that he could not defeat. When a few of the less understanding townspeople grumbled about being led by a "pointy-eared elf instead of our Chieftain," Aragorn had quickly and decisively quelled the dissent by pointing out the lunacy of foregoing the leadership of one nearly as mighty as a Maia. Glorfindel had listened to the debate in silence, his arms folded and the faintest of smiles tilting the corners of his mouth. When at last he was grudgingly accepted as the leader, he had given Aragorn a surreptitious wink and a whispered promise not to completely usurp his chieftaincy. "I promise to give it back to you in one piece," he murmured as he offered his hand.
"I will hold you to that," Aragorn said, clasping Glorfindel’s arm.
Glorfindel gave Aragorn’s arm a squeeze that nearly crushed it, then left with the patrol to set up the defense.
Aragorn rubbed his arm even as he now dealt with Halbarad. "I most certainly will go forth and fight," he told Halbarad calmly.
"You do not even have a sword!"
"I will borrow one of Elladan’s. I have used his blade often enough." He sat down on a rudely made stool and tugged his left boot off and felt his swollen ankle. It was better for his short bit of sleep, but standing on it for all those hours in the healer’s quarters had done it no good. But if he wrapped it tightly, he supposed it would hold up. If not ... well, there was little use in speculating, just as there was little use in speculating how well his wounded left arm would hold up. He stretched his hand toward the table, waggling his fingers. Halbarad glared at him but snatched up the length of cloth laying there and handed it to him.
"You dare not get close to the Nazgűl, Aragorn. Such an encounter when you are still suffering from–"
"I am no longer suffering from the Black Breath, Halbarad. At least no more than after one has a cold and all that remains is a bit of a sniffle."
"A sniffle! That you would compare...." He seemed to lose all power of speech for a moment, but he quickly regained it and the fire in his eye, if possible, grew hotter. "If you no longer suffer the Black Breath, then I have three heads and six arms! Aragorn, do not force me to do battle with you."
"Of course I won’t," Aragorn assured him in the most reasonable voice he could muster considering how thin his patience was wearing. "We are here to battle the Nazgűl, not each other. Battling me would be counterproductive... and highly painful." He finished wrapping his ankle and stamped into his boot. Better. He looked up at Halbarad and a sudden reckless joy surged within him, a feeling he had not felt in weeks, or perhaps months. Whatever the outcome, this thing would end here and now and he could not hold back a feral grin. "Come, my friend, stop your mollycoddling and gnashing of teeth. Now is the time to battle our enemy!"
"I will not leave your side," Halbarad growled into Aragorn’s ear as they stood in the shadows of a small cottage to the rear of the men guarding the gate. Elladan’s extra sword hung at his belt, but Aragorn’s pride chafed as he gripped Eledh’s spare bow. An archer. He had been assigned to the shadows, to rain down arrows upon the orcs. Glorfindel knows I am far from the best archer even when I have two good arms. That and keeping Halbarad hovering over me like a nursemaid is jeopardizing the success of this battle in order to keep me ‘safe’... But he immediately chided himself. Arrogant fool. Had he not, after all, agreed to let Glorfindel lead this thing? If Glorfindel felt Aragorn would serve him better by using a bow than by wielding a sword, and felt Halbarad would be better used watching his back, so be it. The battle would likely not hinge on any single sword stroke of his own, and Valar knew the scant success he had in his last encounter with the Nazgűl. Still, it galled and there was aught he could do about the feeling save try to ignore it.
Then he smiled slowly. Of course, I will eventually run out of arrows....
He loosened Elladan’s sword in its scabbard.
Halbarad nudged him to get his attention. "And if I fall, it will be on your head because I will have been too distracted protecting your stubborn hide to watch after my own."
"You will not fall," Aragorn murmured. He strained to see Halbarad’s face, but the night was too dark. Still, he could almost feel Halbarad’s displeasure beating against the back of his neck. "Halbarad, we have been through much together. It will not end here."
"Promise me, at the very least, that you will not go after the Nazgűl. Leave him for Glorfindel as we have planned."
Aragorn tested the tightness of the bowstring before answering. The bow felt right enough in his hand, even though it had been made for Eledh. The greater question was whether his injured arm held enough strength for him to wield it properly. He frowned into the darkness. A borrowed blade, a borrowed bow. He longed for the comfort and familiarity of his own sword. But it lies shattered ten leagues to the north, so stop this foolish pining after what cannot be! He hefted the bow. "I promise only this: I will not seek out the Nazgűl unless I have no choice."
"Just stay hidden," Halbarad persisted, as if he feared that at the first orc through the gate Aragorn would leap screaming from his post in some berserk fit of singlehanded vengeance. "We do not want the enemy to find out who you are. It would seem the wiser strategy to keep you entirely out of his sight."
"He does not know who I am."
"Yet," Halbarad muttered.
Aragorn smiled grimly. He supposed he could not blame Halbarad for his gloomy spirit. Optimism was a commodity in short supply of late. He wiped his sweating hand against his leggings and hitched the quiver to a more handy position. He drew an arrow and swiftly notched it, satisfied that although he lacked the speed with which Eledh handled his bow, he would make a fair accounting of himself when all was said and done. "I will not launch myself willy nilly at the Nazgűl, Halbarad. My post is here, and here I shall stay unless all seems lost."
"No, if all seems lost, you will hie thyself far from here, and I shall be right behind you, guarding your back and pushing you to safety."
"The only one to hie himself anywhere will be that wraith, when he sees Glorfindel."
Halbarad made a snorting noise, but if he started to reply, it was lost on Aragorn, for he suddenly felt an immense dread press upon him. "Halbarad," he gasped.
"I feel it. He is here."
Aragorn was unprepared for the fear that rose in him. For a long moment, he felt he could neither move nor speak nor even breathe as the familiar sickening blackness tried to take him. No. I will not let this defeat me. Not again. Never again.
He took a deep breath and raised his bow, notching an arrow to the string. An orc horn blew, shattering the stillness of the night, and then dark shadows poured through the gate–low, squat ugly shapes that let out keening cries and shrieks that grated on the ears. It seemed like hundreds swarmed through before he heard Glorfindel’s cry.
Aragorn felt his arm draw back the arrow, felt the tension in the bow and the soreness in his left arm but the arm was steady and then he felt the slight sting as his fingers released the arrow. He heard the swish of it leaving the bow and saw a hunched shadow fall and then he felt his hand reach back and find another arrow and notch it and pull it back and release it and another shadow fell and somehow it seemed it was not he who controlled his arms but someone else, some other sane and calm man who was not ready to scream in fear and who was not trembling of knee and short of breath and consumed with terror. Why is the fear so much stronger this time than the last? Is it the Nazgűl, or am I truly weaker than I thought?
Vaguely he was aware of other archers loosing their arrows, that more orcs fell than could be accounted to his arrows, but as terror wrapped itself around his very bones, it was all he could do to simply draw, pull, release... draw, pull, release....
And then his hand met an empty quiver. He dropped the bow and his left arm pained him but his right hand fell to the sword at his waist, and he drew it and something about the touch of that solid hilt under his hand steadied him. He looked at the moonlight glinting cold and savage along the steel’s length and the battle song surged and in its flood some of the terror was washed away. He lunged forward to engage the nearest enemy, but a hand fell hard upon his shoulder, and he was jerked back. Halbarad pushed him hard against the cottage wall, holding him there with an iron-hard arm across his chest. He winced both from the pressure on his bruised chest and from the rough stones gouging into his back. "Halbarad, let me go!" he growled, trying without success to push Halbarad away.
"No! My orders come straight from Lord Glorfindel: I am not to let you out of my sight nor into the midst of the fight. And by the Valar, I aim to do just that!"
Aragorn struggled again and managed to free himself from Halbarad’s arm. "The battle will come to us whether we like it or not. Far better to make an attack of our own choosing, in the open, instead of remaining trapped back in this corner!"
He spun away from Halbarad’s flailing arm and heard his friend utter a curse, but then he screamed out, "Elendil!" and drove his sword through the back of an orc and all thought of Halbarad and Glorfindel faded beneath the siren call of battle.
Another orc fell and Aragorn savagely wrenched his sword free of its mangy hide, the sudden release of it sending him off balance to one knee. The fall saved his life as an arrow intended for his heart flew past his head into the darkness behind him. He heard a grunt, then the sound of a falling body and for a moment he froze.
He leapt to his feet and spun around, heedless of any pain in his bad ankle as he ran to the dark shape lying on the ground. He reached down....
"Thank the Valar," he whispered.
It was an orc, felled by his own kind. Aragorn gave it no more consideration as he turned his head this way and that, trying to locate Halbarad. He saw Eledh, still launching arrows from what must surely be an inexhaustible supply. Galadh and Denlad fought with their backs to one another, protecting each other as one after another of the enemy fell to their blades.
Of Halbarad, Glorfindel or his brothers, there was no sign, and fear churned in the hollow void of his gut.
The persistent echo of Halbarad’s voice... I will not leave your side!... refused to be ignored. "Halbarad!" Aragorn shouted, and then had to fend off an orc who answered the call instead. Aragorn grunted and slashed and the orc finally fell and then Aragorn ran stumbling down the street, where a knot of orcs was being decimated easily by a group of townsfolk armed with cudgels. They did not appear to need his help, so he kept on, trying to look everywhere at once.
Halbarad, where are you?
He finally spotted his brothers, both of whom seemed to be handily dispatching a pair of orcs. Aragorn was starting to feel decidedly unneeded. Which would make Halbarad happy, if he could but find him.
He rounded a corner, then another. Windydale seemed a rat’s warren of twisting alleys and streets. He finally staggered to a halt in a darkened alley between the crumbled remains of an ancient barn and a shop of some sort. He wished he dared call out Halbarad’s name, but he had already proven that calling out only brought attention his way from the wrong quarter. And the way his head was starting to swim, he had no desire to take on a group of orcs singlehandedly. He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees.
Valar, but his stamina was not what it should be.
He took in several deep breaths, fighting to calm his wildly beating heart and find some way to block the cursed terror of the Nazgűl that surged against his spirit in ever-strengthening waves. Glorfindel, I hope you drive that wretched beast away, and soon, or I will have to find a hole somewhere to crawl into and hide...
He shook himself in disgust. He would not flee. "Valar speed your fight, Glorfindel," he murmured and shoved himself upright and started jogging down the street again, stumbling a bit over the broken and uneven paving stones. His ankle twinged in warning, but he dared not stop. Another corner, another pause to check that the way was clear of orcs but there was still no sign of his comrade.
Halbarad, please ... show yourself!
He ran again, more slowly, barely managing a limping shuffle as he carefully crossed the yawning mouths of two more dark alleyways. He rounded the edge of the apothecary shop and even as he caught a glimpse of a tall, robed figure, wreathed in shadows, the Nazgűl’s black miasma consumed him as if he had dashed straight into the billowing smoke from a fire. He staggered backward, blinded, his mind inundated by such a cloud of hopeless desolation that surely all that was light and good had in that moment ceased to exist. He fell to one knee, his sword clattering to the stones as pain knifed into his chest.
A very small voice screamed at him to pick up his sword... pick up the sword!... but he could only kneel as the nightmare that had been confined to the boundaries of sleep surged into his waking thoughts. He fell heavily onto his side as all his strength drained utterly away. "Valar, no ..." he whispered, trying without success to hold to the vestiges of coherent thought, but the black voice pressed on his mind and again he was lost in that forsaken sea where he was alone and no one could reach him. Not Halbarad. Not Denlad or Elrond or his brothers or Arwen...
There was only himself. No one else.
"No," he groaned, and suddenly anger surged hot within him. "No!"
It will not end this way!
Summoning strength from some deep well that he did not realize was within him, he grasped his sword and put his hand to the building beside him and hauled himself to his feet. His sword scraped against the rocky ground with the ugly sound of its edge chipping, but he paid it no mind. He simply leaned against the wall, trying to draw in air that seemed unable to get past the agony in his chest. Vaguely within that pain he felt another in his left arm. With another wrenching groan, he staggered back the way he came and the pain eased enough to let him draw a breath as he stopped and leaned against a giant tree that grew close to a cottage.
As he stood trying to organize his muddled thoughts, he heard footsteps pounding toward him. He swept his blade upward and nearly skewered Halbarad as he ran up to him. Halbarad blocked Aragorn’s blade easily with his own. "Easy, Aragorn! Mind where you swing that," he cried, then broke into a laugh. "I know it feels as though Morgoth himself has descended on us, but truly we are about to win, my friend. Glorfindel is just round that corner yonder, and he has the Nazgűl retreating even as we speak."
When Aragorn failed to reply and simply let his sword arm fall limply to his side, Halbarad’s mirth faded. "Aragorn! Are you wounded?"
Aragorn shook his head, still clutching his chest. "It... it is nothing. Just the old bruise. Somehow... proximity to the wraith is making it ache." Ache. More like burning with icy fire straight from Forochel. He swallowed hard and forced his hand from his chest, struggling to project a facade that all was well when he knew it was far from that. "Where were you?"
"I might easily ask the same of you. I stopped to stave off an orc’s pike and when I turned, you were gone."
Aragorn still could not seem to catch his breath. He leaned his head against the tree and shut his eyes. His free hand strayed back to his chest. "You say Glorfindel is defeating the wraith?"
"Aye," Halbarad answered. He pried Aragorn’s hand away and with one swift movement jerked Aragorn’s tunic up. He ran his hands across Aragorn’s chest and ribs.
Aragorn shoved his hand away. "Stop. The pain is... is manageable." As the fear will be, soon. He dredged up a smile. "We seem to have succeeded this time."
"So it would appear. But there are still orcs about. Keep your sword ready."
As if he could put it away when such terrible dread still coursed through his veins. Still, the menace was weakening, if only slightly. He took a deep breath and some of the fire in his chest cooled. Relief made his hands and voice shake. "Halbarad, I am sorry."
Another steadying breath, and his voice strengthened. "For preventing you from performing your sworn duties. I am a man used to giving orders but it seems I have trouble following them. Forgive me. I should never have fought you off and run into the battle. It was the act of a foolish child, not a seasoned warrior, and I have no excuse to offer."
Halbarad waited a moment. "Is that all?"
"So be it, then, I forgive you," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Now mind we still our tongues lest our idle chatter draw the last remnants of orcs down on our heads."
Aragorn nodded, and taking another careful breath, hefted the sword in his hand. "Let us find Glorfindel. He may need us."
"Are you sure?"
"No," Aragorn admitted. The way fear and pain had overwhelmed him, he had doubts that he could make it a step past the apothecary. "But I cannot cower in the shadows if Glorfindel needs my sword, however feeble my help may be."
"And feeble it just may be, from the looks of you. But your stubbornness knows no such weakness, I fear. So come, and at least walk behind me. How’s your arm?
"Hurting. But there is strength in it yet."
"And your ankle?"
Aragorn merely grunted. That it was holding up was about the only thing he could say about it.
"That bad, eh?"
"Fear not, it will hold. Now move."
They kept to the side of the street where the moonlight cast its deepest shadows. They passed the apothecary, then crossed the area where Aragorn had glimpsed the Nazgűl and pressed on. This part of town seemed quiet, so empty of the enemy that a few frost-hardy crickets had resumed their desultory chirping. It would seem that all was well, but for the pain in his chest that would not ease and the fear that trailed cold fingers along his spine, both of which told him that Glorfindel had not yet succeeded in overcoming the wraith. In the near distance, Aragorn heard the clang of swords. Without thinking, he quickened his pace and started to move past Halbarad.
He slowed down, giving Halbarad a rueful smile that he could not see in the darkness. "Perhaps you should put rein and bridle on me."
"Do not tempt me."
They carefully rounded a corner and Aragorn nearly bumped into Halbarad when he suddenly stopped. He followed Halbarad’s speechless gaze.
They had found Glorfindel.
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