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Such sleep he had. And such dreams! Dreams of Arwen, of riding Bronadui across windswept plains, of eating at banquets and dancing and singing and laughing. It seemed that after so many nights of nightmares, his mind was desperate to fill his sleep with all that was pleasant and good. But fever still plagued him, and nightmares crept in and he fought battles that went ill and watched loved ones die because he could not reach them in time and through it all he felt hopeís flame falter and weaken. He cried out at such times, and invariably felt a calming hand on his brow and then the good dreams would return until fever drove them out once more.
He woke up at intervals, long enough to drink from cups held to his lips, some filled with broth, others water, and still others with a bitter brew of medicine. Sometimes he was aware enough to recognize the face that belonged to the hand holding the cup; other times it seemed all were strangers to him, and it was at those times that the nightmares rushed in and he was convinced all hope was lost.
But as time seeming unmeasured passed, the nightmares faded and the good dreams strengthened and more and more he knew faces and voices around him. And then finally came the day when he opened his eyes to a clear world, with sunshine falling warm on his face and dancing on the wall through the billowing curtains and a sense that he had emerged at last from a dark place to which he would never return. He blinked a few times and tried to lift his head, but he was too weak. So he rolled his head on the pillow and saw Elrond sitting in a chair beside his bed, reading a book.
As if he felt Aragornís gaze, Elrond lifted his head and smiled. "So you have decided not to sleep away the rest of your life after all."
"How long?" he rasped, feeling like he had been here before, had gone through this already, and then realizing he had, with Halbarad, on a farm along the plains overlooking the Hoarwell. It was getting tiresome, this.
"Today is the fifth day."
Aragornís eyes widened as he silently took in that information. He looked around the room and saw the evidence of Elrondís care... no, his battle, for Elrondís face held the fatigue of a soldier who had fought long and hard but knew the joy of victory. Indeed, the cluttered nightstand looked like a field after battle: a pitcher of water, and a bowl and cup. A pile of fresh bandages. Several jars and bottles of medicine. He smelled athelas and wintergreen and a mix of other spicy and medicinal odors, not all of which were pleasant. He had the thought to hitch himself up in the bed but managed only a weak shift of his right arm that barely moved the sheets covering him.
Elrond moved to his side. "How do you feel, my child?"
"Tired," he whispered. He did not understand how he could spend five days sleeping and wake up feeling like he could sleep for five weeks more.
"You are weakened not only from both fever and the Black Breath, but also from plain and simple exhaustion. You pushed yourself too far this time, Estel.†You nearly died."
"A festering wound and the Black Breath make a formidable partnership. The presence of either could have certainly killed you, and both of them combined...." He left the thought unspoken. "The Valar must be exhausted from watching over you."
"I am sorry, Ada."
"My words are not a reprimand, Estel," Elrond assured him. "Only a small joke, and one poorly placed, for you are still in a fragile state. No, do not argue!" Elrond added as he saw the frown building on Aragornís brow. "You have managed to come back from the road upon which there is usually no returning, and that is no small feat of strength. But still, you have a long way yet to travel before you can call yourself healed."
"As long as it takes."
Aragorn pulled a face. His father may be a Peredhel but when it came to answering questions, the Elven side of him usually took over to give answers that were no answers at all.
Elrond looked at the bandage wrapped around Aragornís left arm, pulling its edge back just enough for a peek. "It is better now, but the infection in your arm found a strong hold before any of us realized you were wounded. You insisted I take care of Halbarad, and in my haste to care for him, I foolishly ascribed the fever and pain I saw in your eyesĖeven the shadow I sensed in your soulĖto nothing more than exhaustion and simple sorrow. So I hurried off when I should have seen to it that you received care yourself. But you hid your pain so well from all of us Ė from me, from Erestor and Gandalf Ė that we did not realize how ill you truly were. And for that," he said with a deep inward breath, "I do not know how you will ever forgive me." Tears suddenly shimmered in his eyes. "My son came home at last and I nearly let him die."
My son came home at last...
The words cast a warm glow in Aragornís heart, but it was overshadowed by dismay. He could not allow his father to take any blame in this fiasco. "No, Ada. Do not blame yourself." He licked his lips. Speaking at length was proving very difficult. "My fault... for hiding it."
"You think you are the only one skilled in self recrimination," Elrond said with a sad smile. "You no doubt learned it from me." Then he waved his hand in a dismissive manner. "But that is not for you to worry about, either way. What matters now is getting you well."
"How... what happened? Did I fall?"
"You apparently collapsed in the hallway outside your bedroom. Gandalf heard you, and summoned Ė nay, not summoned but in truth shouted for me loudly enough that I would have heard him had I already been in Valinor." He reached over and moved a stray lock of Aragornís hair out of his face. "You should purge the word Ďfineí from your vocabulary. I never want to hear it coming from your mouth again."
Aragorn smiled faintly, but other concerns weighed on him. "How is Halbarad?"
"He is well. Back on his feet, as a matter of fact, though I ordered him to rest. But I cannot keep him from your side; when I am not here, he insists that he must be, telling me that while he may not be able to fight off orcs, he can surely manage to sit quietly and watch over his chieftain. He is a rare friend, your Halbarad."
"The best," Aragorn murmured. So why did I dream over and over that he was a traitor?
"Estel? Something troubles you."
He waited a moment, drawing strength. "I dreamt of him... betraying me. How I could be so unfair... to dream of him like that?"
"Fever affects the mind in strange ways, and so does the Black Breath. It twists our thoughts, turns good to evil and evil to good. The nightmare realm you were trapped in... I have never seen such in all my experience. Usually it is far darker, more murky, less vivid, less... terrifying. I would give anything to have prevented you from experiencing what you did." He paused, his gaze troubled, but then he gave Aragorn a reassuring smile. "But rest assured, dreaming such does not mean somewhere deep down you harbor mistrust toward Halbarad. I think, perhaps, so twisted by the Black Breath that your thoughts were, he somehow became a symbol of evil corrupting even the best, most pure things in your life."
They made sense, Elrondís words. Aragorn let out a long breath. "I hated that more then anything else, I think."
Elrond said nothing, but merely took Aragornís hand and gave it a squeeze.
"My men... Glorfindel... my brothers?"
"I have not heard any news."
"I hopeĖ" Aragorn started, but there was no point in finishing the thought. Whatever had happened after he left was nearly a week past, and worrying now served no purpose. That the wraith did not follow Aragorn and Halbarad across the river must mean that Glorfindel and the others were successful in some measure in their pursuit. But not knowing worried him greatly.
"If it helps, I do not sense that Glorfindel or your brothers are in any danger."
Aragorn nodded. It was not the complete reassurance he sought, but neither could he dismiss the comfort Elrondís words offered.
"Would you like some broth?"
Aragorn shook his head. "Too tired." And he was. He could barely keep his eyes open. "Ada?"
"Tell him... tell Halbírad..." His words slurred and he tried again. "Tell him... thank you." He felt Elrond squeeze his shoulder, then he drifted back to sleep.
"Aragorn," a voice whispered softly, urgently. Someone gently shook his shoulder. He took a deep breath and let it out. He was floating on a warm cloud, safer and happier than he had been in months and he did not want to leave that cozy place. He burrowed deeper into his pillow.
But the voice would give him no peace. "Aragorn!"
A chuckle, then another shake of his shoulder. "Come now, Strider, open your eyes."
Since it seemed whatever intruder trying to haul him from his comfortable cloud was not going to give up, he slowly opened his eyes. Halbarad stood over him, pale and wan and with his right arm in a sling, but grinning like a cat that had just finished off the cream. Aragorn could not help grinning back. "Halbarad!"
"Lord Elrond told me you had finally wakened. He also told me to leave you be, but I†have†never been any good at following orders." He looked him over, even lifting the sheet to check out the rest of him. "You look fairly awful, but I suppose Iíve seen you in worse shape. How do you fare?"
"I have been in worse shape."
Halbarad snorted. "Ever do you avoid a direct answer when it comes to how you feel. Tell me straight, Strider."
Aragorn sighed. "Very well. I ache all over. My left arm still feels like a Balrog is whipping it. And Iím tired. Very, very tired. But otherwise, more or less recovering well, according to Elrond."
"I am on the mend, truly."
Aragorn shot him a look of exasperation. He was far too tired for all this. "How about you?" He nodded toward the sling and frowned.
"This? Oh, your father has me using it to ease the strain on my shoulder and back muscles. Have to admit that he is right. My back gets very sore if I try to go long without it. You have no idea how heavy an arm can be."
Thinking of how heavy his eyelids felt at the moment, Aragorn figured he had some idea, but he merely nodded. He longed to say more but he was already losing the battle against sleep. He wondered when he might be able to keep his eyes open for longer than a few minutes at a stretch.
"Yes, I am definitely on the mend, thanks to your fatherís skill, and thanksĖ" Halbarad stopped and suddenly looked so stricken that all of Aragornís sleepiness momentary fled.
He chewed his lip for a moment, struggling for control, then finally said, "You nearly sacrificed your life for mine, riding through the night, sick and wounded yourself. It is no small thing, and I have no words sufficient to thank you."
Sleepiness again swept over Aragorn in a warm wave, but he forced himself to keep his eyes open. "It was truly no sacrifice."
"Aragorn, you nearly died!"
"But I did not. I am still here."
"Only by the mercy of the Valar." He paced away from the bed and stood by the window for a few minutes, and when he turned, his eyes were shining with unshed tears. "Do not ever do this to me again, Aragorn. Promise me."
"You do not want me to save your life?"
"No... I do not want you to lie to me. Say that all is well when you know†it is not. I cannot..." He stopped, struggling for control, then continued. "When I woke up, after Elrond had removed the arrow, and Erestor told me what had happened, that you had collapsed, that you might lose your arm and that you were nearly overcome by the Black Breath..." Anger brought color to Halbaradís cheeks. "The same Black Breath you kept telling me you had defeated and that I, putting aside every instinct that screamed otherwise, accepted as truth!" He shook his head and whispered, "Do not ever do that to me again."
Aragorn looked long into Halbaradís eyes. He saw in his companionís burning gaze a demand for trust. For the honesty that Aragorn knew was fully Halbaradís due. Aragorn again cringed at the unfairness of his nightmares, of them casting this stalwart companion into the role of traitor. He looked at Halbarad and the naked emotion in his face and knew he could give him but one answer. Aragorn struggled to prop himself on one elbow, wishing beyond measure he could go to Halbarad and put a hand on his shoulder. "I promise you, I will not do that again. Ever."
"Do I have your oath?"
Halbarad shut his eyes and breathed in deeply. He nodded. "Thank you," he said, and returned to Aragornís side. He helped him lay back down, then settled himself in the chair beside the bed. "Do you need anything?"
"My strength back."
Halbarad chuckled. "Only time will do that."
"Will you stay long?"
"Another week, perhaps. I think I should get back to Windydale as soon as possible. And seeing how youíll be flat out until at least MettarŽ..."
"No. That is too long," Aragorn murmured. My people need me sooner, much sooner...
"Hmm. You should see yourself in a mirror, Strider."
"Let me simply say that the color of your skin should not match the grey of your eyes."
Aragorn shut his eyes. "I certainly feel grey."
Halbarad made a sympathetic noise, then a quiet fell between them, comfortable and easy. Aragorn felt himself dozing but some part of him still heard the little noises Halbarad made as he shifted in the chair or let out a soft sigh. The sounds comforted him more than he ever would have thought.
He opened his eyes. "Halbarad?"
He held out his hand, and Halbarad took it. Aragorn looked at him for a long moment, wanting to say so many things, but in the end he finally simply gave his hand a squeeze.
Halbarad smiled, understanding plain in his eyes. But he only said, "Sleep now, my friend," as he pulled the blanket higher and tucked Aragornís hand under it. He laid a hand on Aragornís forehead, and Aragorn closed his eyes and let himself drift toward sleep, but not before hearing Halbaradís whispered benediction, "Sleep, my liege. I will watch over you, as I always have."
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