The Angle: Alternate Arc
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Father Feeling: 1. Father Feeling
My lord, Halbarad is dead. My lord? Aragorn?
"Estel, enough!" Aragorn blinked, then blinked again when his vision did not quite clear the first time. How long since the news came? He was not certain, but it felt an eternity, and he had lost count of the number of those who had gone that same way under his hands as Halbarad had. But that was past, he told himself, and made an effort to focus on the present. For before him stood a very solemn Elrohir, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and with a clean towel in his hands. His foster brother jerked his chin at the door, and said, "I would have a word with you, brother. The wounded here can be tended awhile in our absence. Elladan and the mistress of this house can manage. Come," Elrohir reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder that only looked lightly placed, and held out the towel. "Dry your hands and come."
"Estel, do not cause a scene," his foster brother said in a pleasant undertone, and Aragorn shook his head sharply, feeling his thoughts begin to cloud under Elrohir's influence. "It would not be kingly to faint, but since you will drive yourself to it if you continue, you cannot hold it against me if I hasten it a bit, for 'tis past time you slept. Elladan and I can continue, but you need rest." Aragorn hesitated, torn between sharp argument and the knowledge that his brother was right, that he had passed the point of duty and now risked his patients if he continued. A healer must always know his limits. That is your first duty, Elrond had taught him, long ago. A bitter thing, duty, and on the swift and sudden tide of resentment, Aragorn cursed it, wishing he dared work to exhaustion. Is this not my place? he demanded silently, probing his own wounds. Were not the lives that he saved no more than just recompense for his dead? If naught else, at least healing had kept his mind occupied these past several hours, kept him from thinking...
"Estel," Elrohir's voice held now a note of warning in it, "do not persist in this, or I shall ask Mithrandir to walk you out."
"That is unnecessary," Aragorn replied then, if somewhat stiffly, and sighed, withdrawing his hands from a basin of water—water now red from his laving—and Elrohir handed him the towel. "Gandalf is needed here as well," he said, glancing about as if making a final check of the progress of other healers at work into the night, but Elrohir's hand on his face stopped him, and forced him to look his brother in the eye.
"Aye, Mithrandir is needed by many. But you, too, have need of someone. I think you should not walk that field alone," Elrohir said in a low voice, to keep their words between them.
"As you have walked Eriador alone and vengeful all these years in despite of all wisdom? Do not coddle me!" Aragorn shot back, the words out of his mouth as soon as he thought them, so swiftly did ire rise. Elrohir's eyes narrowed at the wholly uncharacteristic outburst, and even Aragorn grimaced slightly, embarrassed. It was not as if there were not others about them who might hear, after all, and to snipe at Elrohir so was uncalled for. With a sigh, Aragorn reached up and took his brother's hand from his face, guiding it down to his shoulder, which Elrohir readily allowed, and he said softly, "My apologies, Elrohir, that was cruel. But I need no escort tonight. Nor any night, for have you not taught me well? Have not sixty years taught me well enough the rule of necessity?" To that, Elrohir could say nothing, which did not prevent him from frowning, but he did nod.
"I suppose that they have, and that we have," he replied, and quirked a humorless smile. "But you are my brother—and my younger brother at that; do not grudge me my concern, for do I not know something of such grief as family brings?" And to that, Aragorn was forced to nod, acknowledging the truth of those words. Elrohir squeezed his shoulder tightly, then released him, reaching down to take the towel back from Aragorn, and he said, "Go now. Rest and be dreamless this night. We shall speak in the morning, you and Elladan and I."
"Good night, Elrohir." And with that, Aragorn left the crowded ward of the Fourth Circle, but one of many Houses of the Sick sheltering too many men who could not be moved further for lack of space. Retrieving his cloak, he threw it round his shoulders against the chill of the night and began making his way down the streets of Minas Tirith. Mostly deserted they were, though messengers and those who had business upon the field still went about their tasks. Further down, he knew, in the Second and First Circles, there would be more people, for fires still burned and men and the women who served the Houses went about the task of quenching them, of saving what could be saved, and of ridding the roads of gruesome trophies. Trophies...
How can I tell her? he wondered as he walked, and felt his heart clench at memory of Halbarad's battered face. His mother, Haldeth, would scarcely have recognized her son, for all that she had seen him come limping home wounded before. Valar help me, I know not even whether I shall be able to bring the news to her. I may have to send it, if we are successful against Sauron. If they were not, of course, the point would be moot, but nevertheless....
"Aragorn?" So preoccupied was he, that Aragorn started badly, and rounded on the caller fiercely. Éomer of Rohan held up his hands, and took a hasty step back, eyes widening, even as the guard trailing in his wake made haste to step before his liege. "Easily, man! 'Tis I."
"Éomer," Aragorn sighed, and shook his head, releasing Andúril's hilt. "I did not hear you," he offered by way of poor apology. And it does seem the night for apologies, he thought, as he gave the Rohirric guard a nod of silent approval for his quickness. The man gave a slight bow, and then drifted back to his place since the danger seemed to have passed.
"Whither do you go?" Éomer asked then.
"To the field, to take what rest I can," Aragorn replied. "What of yourself? Are you not housed in the upper circles? What brings you here?"
"The Prince did arrange rooms in the Sixth Circle, but my men lie tonight beyond the gates, and I should be with them. For Théoden is gone," the other replied, and Aragorn heard the other's voice tighten slightly, and felt a sympathetic ache in his own chest.
"I see," he replied. "Fer thu Thengelsson hal." Éomer smiled at that, and nodded.
"Aye, just so. But let us walk then, and keep what company we may," Éomer said, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder, while at the same time signing to his guard to trail back a bit. "For I have not thanked you as I ought for my sister's life."
"She was fortunate," Aragorn replied. "Few would survive such a wound, even did Elrond attend them." Aye, few indeed. In truth, she should have died. Ah me! I spoke true when I said I knew not how I should speak of her, he thought, and tried to suppress the well of bitter regret. Not for Éowyn, but for the one among many who had not lived, and whom he had most wanted to live. Had I remained, might Halbarad have survived the night? he wondered. It had been such a fragile thread that had held him to life, an even slimmer chance that he should have been found in time to hope, even, that with care Halbarad might recover. Had he purchased Faramir's and Éowyn's and even Merry's lives with that one? Good sense said 'no.' He had done all that he knew to do for one injured so badly as Halbarad, and at Gandalf's urgent request, had left him to the care of others. Rangers knew well what to do, and no few in the Grey Company were healers in their own right. Of necessity they were, for who cared for Rangers but other Rangers? He had had no fear of their competence, and yet....
I should have been there, guilt insisted. He answered the call, stood in my stead in the North for years, did all that I could have asked of him, and where was I in the end? Tending to the children of strangers. What shall I tell his mother? Haldeth had asked so little of him over the years, save news of her son, and Aragorn was glad of that. She loved her husband, was content with the children she had borne—two daughters in addition to Halbarad, who had come earlier—and was fortunately a gracious woman. Even when we both were young, and I new to the Angle, she was so. Her family has always had Rangers in it, so she knows somewhat of loss, yet.... "Aragorn?"
"Mm?" Aragorn shook his head, drawn out of his thoughts by Éomer's sharp-voiced question.
"I said, have you thought of what must come next?"
Next. Of course there was a 'next'—time did not stop, and since they had beyond expectation driven the enemy from the Pelennor, they would need to continue.
Éomer was gazing at him now with an air of puzzled concern, as he asked, "Is somewhat the matter? Aragorn!" Éomer paused a moment, and caught the other's arm, stopping him as well. And this time, he shot a glance at his sentry, and jerked his head. After a moment's hesitation and a sharp prompting from Éomer in Rohirric, the man retreated still further, leaving his king space to speak in privacy. The King of Rohan turned back to Aragorn then, eyes glinting in the moonlight, and he asked in a low voice, "Who was it?"
"I was away when the news came to Edoras about Théodred, but I knew the moment I set eyes on my uncle what word awaited me upon my return," the other cut him off, and eyed him closely. "You have the same look. And so I ask: who was it? That captain out of the North, whom you greeted with such affection, as I recall? Hal...beor?"
"Halbarad," Aragorn supplied, since clearly the other would not let it lie. "Aye, he is dead, rest him well."
"On the field?"
"Nay, under a healer's hands. One of several to die tonight," Aragorn replied curtly, and made himself remember that. Of the thirty Rangers who had ridden south, twenty-five remained, and mayhap only twenty would fight the next battle. There would be many a wife or mother or sister who looked in vain for the return of husband, son, and brother, and they not alone: all the Angle would grieve when news passed over the mountains.
"I am sorry. He was your kinsman, was he not?" Éomer asked.
Kinsman. Aragorn felt something akin to an hysterical laugh escape him, and he pressed a hand over eyes that burned, so weary was he. So he told himself, and knew it otherwise, but sometimes one must lie to oneself. Kinsman? Halbarad? "No, Éomer." And before the other could ask, he lowered his hand, stared the other in the face, and replied in a low voice, "He was my son."
And while Éomer gaped, he signaled the sentry to return, laying hands bracingly on Éomer's shoulders. "The night grows old, my friend, and mourning awaits us both, does it not? Come to my tent tomorrow, and we shall speak of what must come next. For the moment, let there be no future, only what is past. Good night, Éomer King." So saying, he set forth determinedly again and alone, casting his hood over his head. Unknown and unnoticed, he passed through the City and grieved not as king or captain or lord, but as a father only.
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