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Exile: 3. Chapter 3
He smelled something, that much was clear. I had learned to trust him instincts, and dismounted. Laying a hand on his neck, patting the animal absently, I reached for my sword with my other hand.
The Road at this point wound through a forest, and the forest had of a sudden gone silent. Even the wind had stilled, and I could feel the small hairs rising on the back of my neck as I stared into the green gloom, turning slowly round and trying to determine what manner of creature watched me.
The horse whinnied softly. Standing perfectly still, I heard a rustle off to my right.
My sword cleared its sheath almost of its own accord, leaping to my hand as I whirled around. There was no more sound, but my eyes were fixed on a patch of tall undergrowth by the side of the Road, that I had seen move.
"Show yourself!" I commanded, bringing my sword up, tense and ready.
"I--mean you no harm." The voice that spoke from the bushes was hardly more than a reedy whisper, faint and weak. Casting a glance round at the surrounding woods, I lowered my sword slowly, advancing toward the voice.
Lying on the ground before me was a young man, perhaps a year or two younger even than myself. Dark eyes blinked up at me out of a face that was waxy and drawn. One arm lay twisted at an obscene angle, and there were dark stains on his torn clothing that could only be blood.
His eyes followed me as I knelt swiftly beside him, unslinging my pack from my back. "Have you--had good hunting?" he asked, taking a deep, rasping breath, as though the words were an effort.
Confused, I frowned, having expected a plea for help, a warning of enemies on the Road . . . perhaps the young man was delirious. If he had lost as much blood as it seemed, such would not be a surprise.
"Good enough," I replied, reaching into my pack for water, and something that might serve as a bandage. I had learned something of the healing arts from Elrond, but I had carried no medicines with me from Imladris.
Surprise flickered across the young man's face, then an expression that might have been disappointment. The eyes that watched me were quite lucid, I decided. Not delirious after all, though in serious straits all the same.
"I will not harm you," I said quietly, surveying him quickly. He had obviously lost a great deal of blood, and by the extent of the swelling in his arm I judged he had been lying here for some time. Valar only knew what manner of wounds were hidden by what remained of his clothes. "How came you by these injuries?"
"Orcs," he breathed, reaching up with his good arm to pluck weakly at my cloak. I froze.
"Heading--west," he whispered. "You must go--Bree-town--inn of--Prancing Pony. Tell the innkeeper . . ." Probably at least one rib broken, part of my mind noted, judging by the way he is breathing . . .
I frowned, noticing for the first time the similarity between his raiment and what the Rangers traveled in. He wore no cloak or weapons, nor the rayed-star clasp that the guard at Fornost wore, but that could easily have been taken from him by raiding orcs. His garments were the same soft brown as Halforth's and his boots were of the same make as well.
"You dress even as the Rangers do," I said, drawing my hunting knife to cut the sleeve away from his broken arm. The young man flinched at the sight of the blade. Very slowly, I reached for the tattered sleeve. The cloth parted a few inches when I set the edge of the blade against it, sawing carefully so as not to jar his arm. "I must set your arm," I told him, taking care to keep my voice level and as reassuring as I could.
"And so do you," he said finally, and it took me a moment to realize he referred to my Ranger cloak. "And yet you do not know--" He stopped abruptly.
I remembered his first question, and it dawned on me that I had perhaps failed to give a certain password he had requested. Surely, I thought, the Rangers must have ways of recognizing one another in the Wild--ways that no one had bothered to explain to me.
Of course, I had no way of knowing that the boy was indeed a Ranger without asking him, and he was unlikely to reveal himself to a stranger if he were. I debated but a moment, deciding that he was in no condition to be a threat.
"I am called Aragorn, son of Arathorn," I said at last, running careful fingers over his arm, feeling as gently as I could for the break. He took a sharp breath, though whether from pain or surprise I could not tell. "I have but recently rejoined my kin, and I do not yet know all their ways."
He was staring at me now, sunken eyes wide, and he hardly seemed to notice as my fingers continued to probe the bruised and swollen flesh around his elbow. "So it is true," he said, letting out a long, shaky sigh. His good hand reached out to seize mine, and I clasped it firmly, wondering what he meant. "You have returned." I nodded, confused. "I am called Halbarad, son of Halforth. Praise to the Valar that I have found you! You must warn them--"
Suddenly it all snapped into place, and I would have smacked a hand against my forehead if I'd had one free, for not seeing it sooner. "You come from Tharbad." It was not a question.
He nodded. "Aye." He swallowed, his eyes darting this way and that, as if expecting to see enemies lurking behind every bush. "We were attacked--orcs, maybe a hundred of them. We were only ten at the bridge, but we gave a good fight . . ."
I gripped his hand tightly. "Which direction did they go? How swiftly were they moving?"
"They went west. It took them two weeks to reach here, though, for they turned aside to pillage nearly every farm they passed. They carried me with them a prisoner, but they left me for dead here a few hours ago."
Then not all those injuries came in battle, I thought grimly, noting for the first time what seemed to be burn marks, along his arm and showing on his chest through the tears in his shirt. About his neck and shoulders there were several long gashes that still oozed dark blood. I took a long, slow breath, feeling suddenly very alone and very frightened. The severity of the situation was just beginning to dawn on me, and with it the enormity of the responsibility that rested on my shoulders. There was a large band of orcs west of me, maybe between me and Sarn Ford, and who knew how many would die if I failed to reach the Ford before they did?
"Why did they take you prisoner?" I asked finally, surprised at the steadiness of my voice. "Were there any other prisoners?"
"Nay," he replied. "All the others are dead. They wanted--information."
I felt a chill run through me. "What information?"
"Isildur's Heir," he whispered. "They wished to know if an heir lived yet, and where he could be found. I told them nothing, for indeed I knew nothing of where you were until now."
The import of his words sank in slowly, as I cast around for a stick to use as a splint, my hands moving by pure instinct, for my thoughts were far away. A large band of orcs had come west of the Misty Mountains to look for me? Until now the raid had seemed little more than a larger-than-normal pillaging party, which had by sheer force of numbers managed to break through the Rangers and was now running wild across the unprotected farmlands of Eriador. Such was common behavior for orcs, though it was unusual that so many of them would get together at once. But for so large a party to come west, on account of me . . . I knew little of the ways of the Rangers, but from Elladan and Elrohir I had learned something of orcs, and I knew that they would not undertake such a mission on their own. Someone or something was directing them. Someone or something was looking for me.
Halbarad pulled my hand toward him, squeezing weakly. "You must--fly," he said. "Make for Sarn Ford while there is yet time! Send to Fornost . . ." He paused, gasping for breath. "I am finished," he rasped. "Go while you can."
I stared at him. Yes, here was a stick that would do nicely. My hands moved of their own accord to trim the wood, but my eyes did not leave the boy's face. Too much too think about, too much hanging on my next move, and not enough time to make a decision. But decide I must.
He had said they were moving slowly. But what if they had cast aside their prisoner because they wanted to move faster now, and could not be burdened? The message had to reach the Ford. The guard at Sarn Ford didn't even know there were orcs west of the mountains. They didn't even know that there was trouble. I did not want my first command decision as a Ranger to be to leave a comrade to die. Nor to leave an entire guard to be surprised by orcs. Halforth had been kind to me at Fornost . . . how could I leave his son to die alone?
He might die anyway before I got to the Ford.
I knew how to fight. I had fought before. But this making decisions that would affect others' lives was new to me, and I did not like it. I knew nothing of strategy, nor of the necessity of sacrifice in war. But I did know something of healing, so I lifted Halbarad's arm as gently as I could.
"This is going to hurt," I warned him, freeing my hand from his grip. He started to say something again, but I shook my head. I did not know what I should do, but I knew what things I was capable of doing, and leaving this boy to die was not one of them. "I'm not leaving you, so lie quiet and let me help you!" For the first time I let my voice turn sharp.
Feeling gently for the break, laying the stick along side the arm, then a quick pull and it was done. Halbarad made a strangled sound, and when I looked back at his face I saw that he had fainted. It was better that way, I thought. He is in less pain, and he cannot argue. I concentrated on binding the splint to his arm.
Wetting a strip of cloth, I washed the gashes on his neck and shoulder as best I could, binding them carefully. Next I bound his ribs as best I could, thanking whatever Valar still watched over us in these dark times that none had punctured a lung. After ascertaining that there was nothing more I could do for him here, with no medicines and little water, I began to think how I would get him onto the horse. He was much lighter than I had expected, though still difficult to lift, and I feared he would be too weak from starvation as well as from his wounds to live long.
Doubt assailed me once again as I took the reins of my horse in one hand, holding him steady astride the horse with my other arm around his shoulders. I should mount the horse myself and gallop as swiftly as I could, toward the Sarn Ford. But I could not do it. I could not leave him here, so I set out at the best speed I could manage, walking and leading the horse and trying not to let him fall off.
It did not take me long to discover the tracks of the raiding party. I had never hunted orcs alone in the Wild before, but there was no mistaking the trail here. A wide swath of torn and trampled earth stretched out before us as I turned toward the Ford. I debated the wisdom of staying on the Road then, but I had already been delayed too long by my wounded companion, and so I decided to risk traveling on the Road for a while, at least. The trail was still fresh, and if they were moving as slowly as Halbarad said I hoped to pass them within a day, maybe two.
I did not like to think what toll so swift a journey with so little rest would take on the boy, but I had no choice. He would die for certain if I left him alone in the forest, and I had no time to stop and rest. There was little enough I could do for him in the forest, anyway--he needed shelter, and medicines such as I hoped would be found at Sarn Ford. I could only pray he had enough strength yet to survive the journey.
He never seemed to fully regain consciousness that day, or if he did he never spoke. He spent most of the day in an uneasy slumber, muttering occasionally, but never anything I could understand.
We left the Road a few hours after dusk. If I judged aright, we had gained on the raiders considerably, enough so that I did not want to risk continuing after them on the Road after dark. Here and there throughout the day, I had seen columns of black smoke rising off to the side of the Road, where the trail of the orcs diverged before returning to their course. Innocent farmers--such as these I was sworn to protect, as a Ranger. But there was nothing I could do for them now, save to bring the news of orcs to Sarn Ford.
The crescent moon had risen over the barren heath when at last I halted. The boy was still unconscious, but to my mind he looked paler than he had when I first encountered him. It might have been the moonlight. I myself was nearly overcome with weariness, and under the light of the moon any orc would see better and fight better than under the full light of day. Better to stop now, than risk running into the rear guard.
I guided the horse to a fairly even patch of ground, easing the boy down onto the grass as gently as I could. He moaned, and stirred briefly, but he did not open his eyes. The night was bitterly cold, and I dared make no fire. Shivering, I unwrapped my heavy cloak, wrapping it securely around Halbarad and tucking it under his shoulders. Cold as it was, I knew he needed the warmth far more than I.
Reaching out with one hand, I felt at his neck for a pulse. It was there, but slower than I would have liked. Of course, I added to myself, the hearts of the Elves beat faster than those of Men, and for all I knew this could be normal for him.
"My lord." I blinked, jerking my head up and realizing I had been about to fall asleep. I inched closer to the boy and adjusted the cloak, feeling singularly useless. There was only one plant that grew in the Wild lands between Imladris and Mithlond that could strengthen him, and so far I had seen no athelas on the Road.
"Shh," I said softly. "If you're going to tell me I should have left you behind, save your breath. I'm not going to do it."
"You must warn . . ." He took a rasping breath. "Warn Fornost. And Sarn . . ."
"Fornost already knows," I cut him off. Which was not entirely true--Engroth knew something had gone wrong at Tharbad, but he had no idea as to the size of the raiding party--nor of their interest in me. But Engroth had ordered me to proceed with all speed to Sarn Ford regardless of what information I found. Though with an injured companion I was hardly making "all speed." "We're on our way to Sarn Ford now."
"They must--be warned," he repeated, and his voice was a whisper. I reached out a hand, laying it on the boy's forehead. No fever, thank the Valar! Not yet at least.
"How old are you?" I asked, not at all certain of the wisdom of letting him fall asleep in the cold.
"Eighteen," he whispered, sounding perplexed and a tad defensive.
"Then I'm older than you," I said matter-of-factly. "And if I understand the customs of the Rangers, and it's a fair chance I don't, I probably outrank you, too, since my father was chieftain. And in any case you're not in any condition to stop me from bringing you to Sarn Ford."
He stared at me for a long moment before he spoke again. "I have been raised as a Ranger all my life--to fight and to die for the Dúnedain. If my time has come now, I am not afraid to give my life. I would not expect any Dúnadan to let one man sway him from his duty, comrade or no. Such is our way."
There was fear in his eyes, and in the pale moonlight he looked unbelievably young to be saying such words. But there was unmistakable pride in his voice, and it was clear he meant them. I stared at him, not knowing quite how to respond.
"You are fortunate I was raised by the Elves, then!" I snapped finally. I pushed myself to my feet, stamping and blowing on my hands against the cold. This was not the sort of night one wanted to be sitting still if one could help it. Particularly without a cloak. Wrapping my arms around myself, I cast more than one regretful glance at my own cloak, tucked carefully around Halbarad.
But he needed it more than I did, and if I was going to delay so long for his sake, I was not about to let him die on the Road.
"So tell me," I asked, trying to keep him talking, while stopping my teeth from chattering, "What's it like being raised by Rangers? I never met one until about a month ago."
He did not speak for some time, and for a while, I feared he had fallen asleep again. "I would not trade this life for any other," he replied. "Though it is not an easy one. My father is a noble man, and I am proud to follow his example." Again he seemed defensive, as though expecting a challenge, but I offered none, standing with my arms folded, trying not to stare at the Evening Star just above the horizon. Where are you tonight, Arwen? Some place warmer than here, Valar grant it! For it will be long ere I sit at your side in the Hall of Fire.
"I never knew my father," I said at last, thinking of Elrond. And what do you think, Ada*, when you think of me? Or do you think of me at all?
"Nor did I," Halbarad said softly. "He was slain the year I was born. But even today, all among us honor his memory. He was an honorable man, and kind and generous as well."
Kind and generous . . . well, he must have been, or my mother would never have married him. But he had left nothing to his son save a broken sword, and a legacy I still longed to be free of, though it shamed me to think so in the face of this boy's calm courage. Arathorn son of Arador, chieftain of the Dúnedain. From what little Elrond and my mother had told me, I knew he had been well-respected, and the way in which Halforth and his son both spoke of him, it was clear he was remembered with love, even after eighteen years. But to me, his son, he would never be more than a name, a legend . . . a standard against which I would be measured, and, I did not doubt, found wanting.
"So I have been told," I murmured, lifting my eyes to the Evening Star where it burned fiercely bright, surrounded by wisps of cloud--or smoke--heedless of doubt, or shadow.
"Raised by the Elves," he said, with a chuckle that ended in a fit of coughing. "I wonder how Engroth liked that!"
I frowned, not understanding what seemed to be some kind of private Ranger joke. "Not at all, I fear," I told him ruefully. "Though I know not what I have done amiss, that he dislikes me so."
Halbarad let out a short breath of laughter. "Oh, merely that you were raised by Elves, and Elves of Imladris no less, would be enough," he assured me.
I sighed. I knew not why he was so amused, but if my words kept him from falling asleep in this cold, I cared little if he desired to have a little fun at the expense of my ignorance. "Does Engroth dislike the Elves so much?" I inquired finally, curious.
He looked at me for a long while as though truly perplexed by my lack of knowledge. "Worse than any of us," he replied at last. "Truly, I am surprised he spoke not of it to you. He will trust nothing Elvish, nor has he, as long as I have lived. Not that he isn't a disagreeable sort without any Elves or Elf-raised lords around . . ." He trailed off, as though embarrassed to be saying such things of a commander to his future chieftain, but I only laughed.
"Aye, it does seem at times he cannot tolerate anyone."
Halbarad blinked at me, startled. Then, finally, he smiled. "And then we ignore his stern looks, most of us younger ones, and he grows even worse. Still . . . one grows accustomed to many things in the Wild, and there are times when disagreeable commanders may be the least of your worries. So my father always said." His smile faded, and he seemed to be looking at something else, not seeing me at all. "And I suppose he was right."
I nodded, watching his face with some concern. Reaching into my pack, I pulled out a few of my less-crumbled cram wafers. "You should eat something, " I said. I ate a few mouthfuls hastily, taking a long gulp from my water-flask before turning to my companion. He was watching me intently, and it occurred to me to wonder what sort of food, if any, he had had from the orcs. From the way he was watching me, as I rummaged in my pack for more, it could not have been much.
Carefully I put one arm under his shoulders, wincing in sympathy at his barely-suppressed exclamation of pain. Taking care not to jar his broken arm, I helped him to sit up, letting him lean against my shoulder.
"Slowly," I cautioned, as he bolted the wafer I gave him, and looked expectantly at me for more. I poured some more fragments into his open palm.
When we had finished eating, I uncorked my water-flask again and held it to his lips. Convincing him to drink in small sips was no easy task, but eventually I managed it. Afterwards I let him lean back against me, wrapping my arms gently around his shoulders in an attempt to shield him from the worst of the cold. He was faring much better than I had any right to expect, after I had dragged him off on such a long and swift journey through the cold, when he should be resting someplace warm. Perhaps he had not been injured as badly as I had at first believed. Or perhaps the race of Men of the West were hardier than the Elves of Rivendell gave them credit for being.
At some point in the course of the night I must have fallen asleep, despite my best efforts to stay awake. I was awakened abruptly when I felt Halbarad jerk half-upright against me. He seemed caught in some nightmare, and I, barely awake, was disoriented, fumbling at my side for my sword, before I remembered where I was and who was with me.
Grasping him by the shoulders, I shook him gently, calling his name. He flailed at me with his good arm, landing a surprisingly strong blow across my face. I cursed, but did not let go, and with a cry his eyes flew open, unfocused, staring.
"Halbarad?" I said, squeezing his shoulders gently, willing him to the present. He blinked, seeming to focus on my face. It was several seconds before he seemed to recognize me.
"Aragorn?" he whispered. The name jarred me, and it took me a second to nod reassuringly.
"I am here."
He glanced around at the still-darkened heath, putting his good hand to his forehead and grimacing. After a while he looked at me again.
"My lord," he said, and his voice was stronger now. "Forgive me."
I shook my head. "There is nothing to forgive," I told him quietly. "It was a dream." I let him lie back on the grass, standing up stiffly and stretching sore muscles. By the positions of the stars I could tell it was nearly dawn, though the sun's first light had yet to show herself glimmering over the crown of far-off Amon Sûl. "And please," I said, looking down, "call me Aragorn. Too many people calling me lord makes me nervous." I did not mention that as yet the name Aragorn made me hardly less nervous.
We stayed off the Road that day, moving as swiftly as we could. We kept far enough North of the Road that we never saw an orc, but when I saw new smoke rising in the East, from a farmstead we had already passed, I knew we had overtaken them.
It was nearly nightfall by this time, but the Road was now open before us, and I did not want to stop until we were far enough ahead not to have to worry about being passed in the night. I was weary beyond words, but I did not know how I would get up again if I allowed myself to lie down and take some rest. It had grown cold enough that it would be more dangerous to rest than to keep on, for myself as well as my companion. During the afternoon it had started to snow, large delicate flakes settling on my unprotected face. It was not sticking, not yet, but the wind was chill. I knew we needed to reach the warm fires of the Sarn Ford guard soon.
I had found a sprig or two of athelas by the Road, when first we returned to the open Greenway, growing bravely despite the snowflakes that clung to it. There was no time to stop and boil it in water, so I gave it to Halbarad and told him to chew it, hoping that would help somewhat, in the absence of other medicine.
Before, he had seemed somewhat improved by food and water, but now he was shivering constantly, as he drifted in and out of his troubled dreams. But as yet no fever had set in, and so I counted my steps and prayed we would soon reach our destination.
It was after midnight when we finally arrived. My vision had narrowed to include only the Road in front of me, and I needed all my powers of concentration simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I saw the glow far off and directed the horse toward it, tugging on the reins with stiff fingers, stumbling and nearly falling as we left the Road and made straight across the plain toward the light. There was a faint roaring in my ears.
We blundered into their camp before I even realized I was looking at a fire. I heard surprised exclamations, and then there were firelit faces all around us, and a wave of warmth that made my entire body tingle with the return of sensation.
There were hands on my arms, gray-streaked black hair, and gray eyes peering into mine. It took me several long seconds to register their garb, their swords and bows, the rayed stars that clasped their dark green cloaks.
"Halbarad!" Someone took the reins of the horse from my frozen fingers, and two more were lifting the boy down and carrying him to the fire. "And who is this?" The roaring was louder, and I realized it was not coming from my head but rather from a river flowing over stones.
Hands guided me toward the fire, and I looked around, seeking my companion. A deep voice was speaking. " . . . all right, once he is warm. And so will you be. Come!" A warm cloak was draped about my shoulders, and I was pushed down to sit by the fire. "Tell us, what is your name, and how came you by our comrade? We are in your debt."
I blinked, tearing my eyes away from the mesmerizing dance of the flames, forcing myself to focus on the speaker. A tall man, sitting cross-legged beside me, hair gray like a wolf's, tied back by a strip of leather. Eyes creased by too many smiles, or too much squinting to aim a bow. Other faces, blurs of black and gray and firelit orange, were silent before this one.
I reached into my pocket, remembering my mission. For a horrible moment I feared I had lost Engroth's message, but my fingers brushed paper and I pulled out the folded sheet and handed it to him. "Orders," I whispered. "From Fornost. There are orcs behind us, fifty at least."
He took the paper, and as his face turned grave, I felt my eyes beginning to close almost of their own accord. I was shivering, even sitting by this fire, wrapped in a heavy cloak. I opened my eyes with an effort, to see the man putting the paper into his pocket. "I am Caran, son of Daglod. I command this guard." He beckoned to another of the Rangers, and someone thrust a mug of some hot, steaming liquid into my hands. I wrapped my fingers gratefully around the warmth, smelling some kind of savory soup. "You have done well. Rest now, for we will move tomorrow." I nodded, sipping at hot soup. "What's your name, lad?"
I sat up as straight as I could, looking him in the eye and thinking I really didn't look the part right now. "I am called Aragorn, son of Arathorn," I said in a hoarse whisper, with as much dignity as I could muster. Caran's eyes widened, and he touched his forehead with one gloved hand, then the center of his chest. It was a gesture I was unfamiliar with, but I hoped he would take my blank stare as evidence of exhaustion, rather than ignorance.
"We had heard no word that you had returned, my lord," he said gravely. "But I rejoice that you are with us once again."
I nodded my thanks, sipping again at the soup, too tired to play at being royalty any longer. "I am glad to be here at last," I said, referring to the fire and the camp, though I did not doubt he took it to mean I was glad to be back with my own people.
"You have traveled long, and you are weary," he said. "Rest now, my lord, for we are ordered to move in the morning."
He stood, and I looked up at him. "Halbarad . . . ?" I trailed off, looking around for him. Finally I saw him, sleeping by the fire, and two men near my age keeping watch over him.
"He will be cared for," Caran said softly. I nodded, stretching out in front of the fire and wrapping the cloak around myself.
*ada: father, in Sindarin
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