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Chapter Two - I Liked You Better As†A Weepy-Eyed Lad of Nineteen
"One ... two... yes... thatís it, parry then thrust... three... well done, now, watch your feet... foĖ Ow! By the Ė !" Halbaradís instructive chant disintegrated into incoherent cursing as, before Denladís steel even touched his own, his sword clattered to the ground from his completely nerveless right hand. Or perhaps better to say completely nerve-filled, for tingling pain marched up and down his arm from fingertips to elbow and robbed him of any motion or strength in that hand.
"Are you all right?" Denlad asked.
Halbarad squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to hop up and down. By Elbereth, when would that wound finally get on with it and heal? "Itís nothing," he muttered. He bent over and tucked his hand between his legs, hoping the pressure would ease the tingling ache. He wondered if Denlad would think him unmanned if he fell weeping to the ground...
"It doesnít look like nothing to me," Denlad argued mildly. "Itís that orc cut again, isnít it?"
"Hmmm." Over two months ago, an orc blade had slid past his guard and went on to slice his forearm by his elbow. It hadnít seemed the worst wound ever, but Aragorn told him it had nicked the nerve that ran from his elbow to his hand and thus would be a long time healing. Halbarad had grinned and scoffed and boasted how fast a healer he was Ė and had been completely, dismally wrong. The thing ached and burned and tingled and barely let him sleep at night. Not even his own healing balm seemed to help, though heíd nearly blistered his skin trying it each day.
Denlad sheathed his sword. "Come," he said softly. "Hand it here."
Halbarad straightened and let Denlad take his arm. Aside from plunging it in icy spring water, there seemed only one other solution for it when it flared up, and that was either Denlad, or better yet Aragorn, massaging it. Denlad pushed up the sleeve and dug his fingers gently into the inner forearm along the scar. It brought tears to Halbaradís eyes, but he gritted his teeth. He would endure this even if it killed him, for he knew the spasms would end quicker after such rubbing, and far more importantly, he would not fall weeping to the ground in front of the younger man.††He winced as Denlad hit a particularly tender spot. Aragorn had a better touch Ė he somehow knew exactly where to press hard and where not to and there was of course that entire Ďhands of the kingí consideration Ė but as Aragorn had taken said healing hands to Bree, young Denlad was the next best thing. He knew not to ask Eledh; the one time heíd tried, Halbarad had dropped to his knees, nearly writhing in pain when Eledh sunk his thumb nearly to the bone and actually reopened the wound. Halbaradís arm had been bruised and swollen for a week after. Never ask an archer named after an Elf maiden for medical assistance, heíd sworn darkly, and he had kept to his vow faithfully ever since.
"Getting better yet?"
Halbarad shook his head, and Denlad frowned. "Show me again where Aragorn usually rubs it."
Halbarad swiped his running nose with his other sleeve. He sniffed and cleared his throat and finally unclenched his jaw enough to say, "Along the forearm and then at the wrist. He sort of presses on top and bottom, here." He pointed to the spot.
"But the worst of the injury is higher up your arm."
"Donít ask me why it works; I only know it does," Halbarad snapped.
Denlad said nothing but he moved his fingers where Halbarad directed and this time Halbarad did hop up and down a bit, but finally Denlad hit the right spot and the pain lessened and then faded altogether. Halbarad took a deep breath, opened and closed his fist a few times and nodded his thanks. "Blasted wound. And Iím, er, sorry I snapped at you."
Denlad said nothing. He did, however, start to pull his sword from its scabbard.
Halbarad had a bad moment as he envisioned Denlad running him through to repay him for his rudeness, but of course Denlad would never do such a thing. He merely wanted to continue sparring, surely. Although he had been in a bit of a black mood of late...
No, that was too ridiculous to contemplate. Halbarad waved him off. "Nay, Iím done. Go find Galadh or Eledh to practice with."
Denlad nodded. "Call out if you need me again."
"I wonít. Go." Halbarad retrieved his sword and drove it back into the leather with a disgusted shove. He hated being injured. And he hated even more needing to ask for help. He had a cat, once, as a boy, and any time it felt poorly it ran off to be alone until it healed or died, and thatís exactly how Halbarad preferred to handle his own hurts. Hide in a hole somewhere until he was better or dead, thatís the way to do it. But that luxury was never afforded him. If it wasnít Aragorn fussing over him, it was Denlad. Or if he were home, it was his wife, or his Grandmother Ivorwen. Or... someone. Somewhere it was apparently writ that, no matter how much he might wish it, Halbarad could never be left alone to lick his wounds for even a moment. He rubbed the sweat from his forehead. Still, he was not such a crosspatch as to be ungrateful for the help or heedless of the affection and regard for him that drove them to all but smother him with cosseting. Nor was he unaware of the blessing that he was still in complete possession of his right hand. Had the orc cut just a little bit deeper, heíd be pinning his sleeve back and calling himself Halbarad the Left.
He scowled, nonetheless. His injury notwithstanding, it seemed like theyíd been hit with any number of niggling mishaps of late. Galadhís horse stepped in a hole and not only broke its leg but knocked Galadh senseless when it fell; heíd seen double for three days after and still occasionally fell prey to raging headaches by dayís end. Denlad had been bitten by some sort of nasty bug that gave him a welt on his foot that left him bootless and limping three days before subsiding. And Cannagar... Halbarad hid a grin. The old warrior hadnít been sitting in his saddle with ease these last two days, thanks to a boil right on his arse.
And it had rained. Not just spring showers but flooding cold deluges that left everyone damp and cranky and feeling as though mildew had grown black and smothering over their very spirits.
Of course, all of this happened while Aragorn was gone to check the Rangers nearer to Bree and along the Hedge around the Shire. If Halbarad were the superstitious type, he might believe they were plagued by mishaps simply because Aragorn was gone. But that was foolishness. Aragorn had brought them hope, surely, but he wasnít some sort of walking and talking talisman against mishap and misfortune. Spates of illness and minor troubles hit as often in his presence as away, but it was just so much easier when he was here to scatter athelas leaves and good cheer and promises that things would get better. Halbarad was no good at that sort of thing. Denlad did what he could, and he had a knack for it, Halbarad reluctantly allowed, but he was still young enough no one really took him all that seriously. His boundless optimism usually irritated more than inspired.
Halbarad squelched through the mud to a large rock and sat down, still rubbing his arm gently. He glanced at the sky, which finally this morning showed signs of clearing. Aragorn had set off eight days ago and it had started raining shortly after he left and hadnít let up until now. He worried for a moment about Aragorn, but it wasnít as if heíd never been caught out in the rain. He surely was sitting in the Prancing Pony by now, puffing his pipe with his boots on the warm hearth and living the good life while the rest of the men squatted in the mud wiping rain from their brows and wishing vainly for a hot meal.
"Ach, you are in a foul mood, Halbarad," he muttered to himself, "if youíre begrudging your Chieftain a bit of respite."
Halbarad thought about the men. They were all a bit worse for wear after the long winter. Even the eternally cheerful Denlad was a bit down in the mouth, a rare thing these days now that he was finally believing, despite his questionable siring from an unknown father who left him nothing but life and a head of blonde hair and what Nķmenůrean blood his mother possessed, that he was as fully Dķnadan as anyone born to the life. Yes, they could all use a respite. But sending them all to Bree was out of the question; they could not leave the area defenseless. But perhaps one or two at a time could be feasible. But who to send first? Eledh and Galadh? Cannagar? No, not Cannagar. Heíd give Halbarad no thanks for sending him on a half-dayís ride with that boil gnawing on his bum. So he was back to Eledh and Galadh. That would leave them with Denlad, Cannagar and... he grimaced. Me and my useless sword arm.
But as commander in Aragornís absence, he could hardly go. So it would be Eledh and Galadh. Or he could send Denlad and Galadh... no, would be disastrous. Denlad would talk Galadhís ears off and by the time they reached Bree, Galadh would probably cut out his tongue just to get him to shut up. Galadh liked quiet, he did, and did not suffer talkative fools lightly. Not that Denlad was anyoneís fool, but he did like to talk...
There was a soft step and there stood Denlad before him, as though conjured by Halbaradís very thoughts. Halbarad started a bit as he stared rather blankly at him.
"A man could lose his life while so lost in thought."
"Do you keep such a poor watch that I cannot let down my guard even for a moment?"
Denlad didnít retort with an insult of his own and that bothered Halbarad. "What is it?"
"No one wished to spar with me, not even Elf Maid," Denlad shrugged.
"You shouldnít call Eledh that, you know," Halbarad countered mildly. "Little wonder he wouldnít spar with you."
Denlad almost, but not quite, smiled. "Can I help Eledhís mother gave him such a foolish name?" The scowl came back, full force. "I think it is the weather. This rain, it saps all our spirits, and our strength and resolve with it. I long for days and days of sunshine after such a dreary winter." He glared at the clouds. "I want to cast myself down in a meadow on the new spring grass and bask in the sun like a lizard, until my bones are thoroughly dried out and warmed through."
"The sun will come, soon enough, and then youíll complain of the heat."
Denladís glum reply decided it for Halbarad. "Thatís it, then. Iím sending you to Bree. You and Eledh."
"Bree? Why? I need nothing in Bree."
"You need a good hot meal and a night in a dry bed, as do all the men. As you say, all this rain is drowning our spirits. So Iím sending each of you, by twos. You and Eledh are the first. Stay a night at the Prancing Pony, get yourself a good hot meal and a good nightís sleep, then come back so I can send along Cannagar and Galadh."
Denlad watched him for a moment. "What of you?"
"What of me? Iím well enough. Iím certainly not consumed by the mulligrubs like the rest of you lot."
"If you send Eledh and me away, you not only leave the patrol two short, but two short with two of the remaining at less than full strength."
Halbarad flexed his hand, knotting his fist and opening it several times. "I can manage well enough."
"As fighting is generally done while standing, not sitting, heíll manage."
"I donít like it."
"Neither does he, Iím sure. Look, Denlad... itís not for you to like or dislike. The decision is mine, and youíll go."
"Why not you and I, then?"
He might as well be talking to a rock. Halbarad scowled. "No. Iíll not indulge myself nor abuseĖ"
"Ė your position as leader, yes, yes... I know. You think weíre all sitting around seething with resentment, grumbling how Aragorn grants you a special boon because youíre his cousin, but nothing could be farther from the truth. By Elbereth, man, you think we like watching you drive yourself into the ground trying to prove youíre granted no special favors?"
Halbaradís scowl deepened. "I just donít want to give anyone grounds for envy."
"You havenít, neither in the past nor at present, and believe me when I say I will be the first to very painfully point it out to you if you do."
"How very reassuring."
Denlad smiled, albeit a shadow of his usual cheeky grin. "So, with that bit of nonsense out of the way, I will speak as the next best thing to a healer weíve got with Aragorn gone and advise you to take yourself and your bad arm into Bree so that we can find Aragorn and let him look at it."
"As justification, thatís weak."
"Iím afraid itís the best I can come up with on short notice. And it is true. I donít like the way you dropped your sword."
"I donít like the way I dropped my sword, either, but thereís nothing Aragorn can do about it."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. At any rate, you can do little here to help defend the region, so you might as well go."
And that was the crux of the matter, Halbarad supposed. He couldnít grip a sword and he could barely pull back a bowstring. As a warrior, he was really rather useless.
"You know Iím right."
Halbarad glared. "You need not gloat."
This time the smile was genuine and broad. "But I have so few opportunities."
"I think I liked you better when we found you as a weepy-eyed lad of nineteen."
"Shall I go huddle crying in a corner somewhere, then?"
"Valar forbid! We wasted enough of our handkerchiefs on you then; weíve none left to give you now. So get you gone to ready your horse and your gear."
Halbarad sighed. "And mine." He winced at the slap Denlad gave his shoulder before he went grinning to gather the horses.
Valar, save me from my own reckless decisions.
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