3. Amon Sûl
Aragorn took his evening meal with Halbarad and Salanda in their kitchen. After the table was cleared, Halbarad sat silently smoking, preoccupied, looking into the fire. Aragorn wrote, faithfully keeping journal pages that he would dispatch to Arwen as promised. When Halbarad suddenly started speaking, it seemed in mid-thought and disjointed.
"No one questions the hideous evil of orcs, lad, and there is certainly rejoicing in the death of them, especially by some of those dear to you because of their history. It's a pity though, that long ago we stopped feeling regret for the deaths of our enemies. It's made less of us." He paused as he drew on his pipe. When he spoke again, his thoughts had taken another tack. "Fear is common; there is no shame in it. All of us must face it for the first time. However, as a warrior, you must realize that to hesitate would mean your own end. Take no risks but show the men that you can stand firm. Rest assured, I'll have your back if there is a fight." Aragorn looked at him quizzically, wondering if Halbarad was unaware of the many orc hunts he'd been on. His captain seemed to want no reply, though. He soon knocked out his pipe and went off to bed. Aragorn followed shortly after.
Darkness still covered the northern moors, but Ithil had set already. Aragorn ate a cold breakfast, tightened his leather vambraces, and carrying his sword and bow, went out to the stables. He was surprised to find the yard still deserted and all the horses in their stalls. He tossed his saddle onto Swallow and led him out. As he was tightening the girths, a dozen Rangers and Halbarad strolled across the yard, and stopped, surprised to see him ready to leave.
"Is an hour before dawn later here?" Aragorn asked innocently, buckling his saddle bag.
Brash young Maracus blurted out in all honesty. "No, my lord, but we didn't think you'd be down yet." Aragorn's raised brow sent them hurrying to saddle and mount up.
The group rode east and south from Fornost, the Weather Hills green uplands on their left and the broad downs stretching to the right all the way in the blue distance to the North Road. It was a clear day, cloudless and warm. Hawks to the south circled on air currents, bright eyes looking for prey. They cantered down the broad valley, then angled east and were soon climbing between clumps of blooming heather and boulders into the green and wild hills. It was desolate and empty land left to deer and hawks, and probably wolves in the winter, Aragorn decided. To him, it did not look much like orc range.
They entered a pine forest, the air dense with the smell of needles crushed under the horses' hooves. Like a noxious smoke, instantly he felt the evilness around him. Swallow snorted and danced a bit, aware of what lay ahead, and his rider calmed him silently. Aragorn motioned to the Rangers and pointed at an outcropping of sandstone up ahead. Suddenly arrows whickered through the air and a group of twenty or so orcs, snarling hideously, charged the horsemen. Aragorn met one with his sword as Swallow reared and caved in the skull of another. He dismounted and sent the brave grey back behind the fighting. He met the next orc's charge with an Elvish spin that ended with the orc missing his sword arm.
Nearby, Halbarad was finding his skills a bit rusty. He had not been on an orc hunt for some time and primarily had come to protect his young charge; however, he quickly found himself in tricky combat with a big orc that wielded a large ax. The captain looked upon the creature's foulness, into its yellow eyes, and realized it was getting the best of him, as each swing of the ax drove him back and he danced between the many tree roots to keep his footing. Suddenly, his dark, young chieftain, eyes alight with zeal, sprang before him, deflecting the orc's ax with his sword, and in the return swing, severing its head. He gave a quick salute to his captain and charged after another of the evil beings.
The fighting was intense but over quickly. As the last orc died, Halbarad assessed their injuries. One trooper had been slightly grazed by an arrow. Twenty-three orcs lay dead with Aragorn responsible for several. Smeared with black blood and leaning on his sword, he looked over at his captain and grinned, and the old warrior for a moment saw Arathorn standing in his place.
"My lord Aragorn, my liege," Halbarad said awe-struck, breathing hard. "Well done." Aragorn sent out four pairs of scouts to survey the surrounding woods but they returned saying there was an empty camp but no more sign of living orc. This seemed to be an isolated group, hoping to take up residence in the woodlands; thereby, spreading the maliciousness that the Rangers and Elves sought to restrict to the mountain desolation. The troop continued its trek down the Weather Hills, planning to ride as far as Amon Sûl then return by way of the eastern track.
It was a pleasant ride. Halbarad or Camalac often rode beside Aragorn explaining the history of the countryside. The weather held fair, though the evenings were turning cool, making the campfires a pleasant, welcomed warmth. The Dúnedain loved stories as much as the Elves and each evening brought a different tale. Many were familiar to Aragorn but they were told from the perspective of men, which put a different twist on them. His eyes glowed as he heard so many of the tales he loved so well told with joy and reverence by these kinsmen and a bond grew in his heart between him and the Dúnedain.
One evening as the pipes were lit, Maracus asked if they were to hear a story from him. Aragorn thought a moment, and then began his favorite tale: the story of the battle at Dagorlad and the siege of Baradur. He had learned story-telling from masters of the craft and held the group entranced. The men felt the great weariness of the long struggle; they breathed the heat, stench, and constant blowing grit of Mordor. He ended his tale with the fall of Gil-galad and Elendil. The Dúnedain sat silently for a time.
"You tell it like you were there," commented Camalac, finally. Aragorn laughed, pleased at the highest praise a bard could earn.
"That is because I learned it from my ----Lord Elrond, who was."
Three days' easy travel brought them to the craggy hilltop of Amon Sûl. In the setting sun, they camped upon the crown in the ruins of the watchtower. Aragorn listened that evening rapt as Halbarad told the tale of the fortress built by Elendil on Weathertop, the tallest of the hills, to guard the East-West Road, the breaking up of the northern kingdom, and the treachery of the witch-king of Angmar. The once-strong guardian of the peace was now in ruins. Its pinnacle, crowned with vine-covered stonework, was crumbled and broken. Desolation hung over the land around it.
Later, Aragorn walked out along the tumbled battlements, watching the insidious fog roll on the downs to the south. He seemed deep in thought. Halbarad followed him.
"What's wrong, my lord?" There was a concern in the captain's rough voice Aragorn had not yet heard.
"Don't worry, Halbarad. I am simply restless. Sometimes…" Aragorn began, hesitant to tell a secret about himself. "sometimes, in places like this, I can feel the past, almost---sometimes I see the people who were here." He didn't want Halbarad to think him foolish or daft. "I judge it to be the fancy of an over-imaginative mind that as a lonely youngster dreamed up countless adventures to play act through." Halbarad looked out, as if he were a sentry of old, to the East-West Road.
"Your father was the same. We would ride through the country and he would tell me of the farmers that once tilled there, and the lords, both men and elves, who had dwelled in the tumbled-down ruins of great houses."
"What was he like?" It suddenly was important to Aragorn to know.
"You are somewhat like him in appearance, though you are a bit taller, and he was broader. You have his coloring and the same clear gaze…though in your eyes…there's something deep in them. Arathorn was a good commander but he took too many risks. He was proud, a bit too arrogant…and grim, terribly grim until your mother came. He loved her very much, you know." Halbarad stood silent a moment, musing. "And you---he wept when you were born and your grandmother called you the hope of our people. He believed her words. He made me swear I would see you in Gondor on the throne." They stood in silence for a while, one remembering and one imagining.
"Halbarad, go to bed. We must be up early…and thank you." Aragorn's eyes glimmered in the star shine. For a bit longer, he stood on the battlements like a king of old. The wind ruffled his hair and swirled his cloak, sighing through the ruins, asking who this might be. The stones whispered back, saying Elendil had returned. Aragorn looked up at the starry sky and picked out Elbereth. He sent a prayer to the Lady and whispered, "Father, I pray your belief in me was not misplaced."