4. The Chieftain’s Request
"Where is the bath house? I didn't have time to ask before." The captain looked startled.
"We've none," he answered curtly.
"You don't bathe?" came the incredulous response of the fastidious Aragorn, recognized as fanatical even by Elladan, the very neatest of Elves. He was someone who counted regular hot baths and clean clothing among life's requirements.
"The women use tubs and we have an occasional dunking in the river. Otherwise, it's a pitcher and basin in your room," the captain nonchalantly said. "It's not a custom here. You'll get used to it." Halbarad hefted his pack once more and turned to go.
Aragorn stared after his captain. He had cut his hair; he had given in on what he had been raised his whole life to consider politeness; for the sake of comradeship, he had drunk with his men until the room spun, but he would not give up bathing. He threw back his shoulders and narrowed his eyes in what he hoped was a grand imitation of Elrohir.
"Captain!" The commanding voice Halbarad barely recognized brought him up short. "I will bath and I will do it on a regular basis. So make whatever arrangements are required." Aragorn stared sharply at the men, as if tempting their guffaws. "And though I will not order my men to wash, it certainly would sweeten the hall…and probably please the women." The chieftain of the Dúnedain turned on his heel and went inside, leaving a dozen gape-mouthed Rangers and a surprised Halbarad's weak 'yes, sir' hanging in the air.
A short time later, Aragorn opened his door to a knock and two strong men carried in a large hammered metal tub followed up by steaming buckets of water. Lady Salanda bustled in behind them with assortments of cloths, brushes, and soaps. In short order, the tub was filled and Aragorn sent them all away. He slid into the hot water and made good use of the soap, scrubbing away the dirt of the wild and the remnants of dried orc blood. He shaved and dressed, went downstairs and thanked Salanda who told him Halbarad was in the offices off the great hall. There, Aragorn found the captain, looking out of place behind a littered desk, reading correspondences that had come in while they were gone.
"Shouldn't I be doing that, too? My job is not to lounge about, killing a few orcs when need arises." Halbarad was glad of his offer, sure that Elrond's training had taught the Dúnadan to be a better administrator than he was, and eagerly handed him a stack of reports. The servant lad brought in two mugs of beer; Aragorn sent his away and requested hot tea instead. They worked the afternoon through: Aragorn asking many questions and learning much about the doings of the Rangers and the living state of his people. Halbarad found an apt pupil in the young man and was eager to share his knowledge. Aragorn was soon sorting piles of correspondence while listening to Halbarad explain stationing the Rangers, village political structures, commerce with the dwarves, and food procurement and storage. They worked until Salenda came in to call them to dinner in the hall.
The after-dinner tale-telling centered on the orc hunt and as it became grander and more elaborate, Aragorn decided his people embellished their stories worse than Elladan. The hall listened as one after another version of the hunt was told, but in all, the young chieftain was made out to be a warrior of unsurpassed abilities and considerable bravery. Since early in the evening he had instructed the young servant Graelon who stood behind his chair to keep his wine cup filled with water. Aragorn accepted each toast gracefully, but he finally drifted to a corner where they could not see him blush with modesty. His second purpose in scuttling into the shadows was to avoid the direct looks of several of the unmarried young women in the hall. His reputation with the ladies of the Dúnedain seemed to increase with each telling of the story, and he had become the nervous recipient of several inviting looks and promising glances.
Aragorn had been listening to Aldurand tell of a chance encounter he'd had not long ago with a party of dwarves when he was suddenly joined by a companion. A buxom, young woman sat down beside him. Aragorn did not remember her name, and although she was not one of the Dúnedain, she was at ease with the men in the hall. Aragorn had heard her laughing at their jokes. Earlier, he had noticed her watching him across the room and had smiled. She'd obviously taken it as an invitation. Now, her blond hair brushed his cheek as she leaned in closer to lay her hand upon his thigh.
"I'm Dalenda, my lord…" Her ampleness seemed about to escape her shirt. "…if you'd like to spend some time together alone later…?" she smiled invitingly, glancing obliquely through sooty lashes.
"No, lady. I'm afraid I will be occupied later." Aragorn was careful not to return her smile. He hoped his surprise did not show in his face. Dalenda was not dissuaded.
"Much later? In your bed?" Her lips caressed the side of his neck. His hand grasped hers from where it had strayed and returned it to her own lap.
"Really, lady. You are quite ---fetching, but I cannot accept your offer." He hoped his words carried sophistication and not the nervousness he felt. She looked directly at him, eyes liquid as if she were about to cry.
"Oh," she sounded disappointed. "They said perhaps you didn't care for women." Speechlessly, he watched her rise and provocatively walk away. For a brief moment, he thought to go after her and show her just how much he did like women. In his mind, he heard Elrond repeat 'you will be gone for years' and he saw grey-blue eyes, ageless and lovely, framed with arched brows. His time here at Fornost might indeed prove both painful and tempting. And, he reckoned following Halbarad's edicts and fighting orcs would prove easier than dealing with the exciting young women.
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