7. The Swearing at Annúminas
Sunlight glinted off the polished mail and the gleaming hides of the horses. The troop of Dúnedain rode into the green dale, the gray cloaks and dark standards billowing behind the cantering horses, causing the stir Halbarad wanted. The captain had orchestrated the whole trip, sending wagons ahead to set up the camp and pitch the elaborate tent he had borrowed or stolen from somewhere, building anticipation for the arrival of the son of Arathorn who would become the new Dúnadan. They had ridden thirty of the leagues from Fornost, dressed in the usual hunting leathers and green hoods, and then Halbarad had made them camp on a bend in the Brandywine, and turned the scruffy Ranger troop into a lordly escort befitting the Dúnadan. So, an elegant troop of horse, polished and liveried to rival any in Gondor, clattered into the encampment on the banks of Lake Evendim.
Annúminas, the ancient capital city of the north, lay on the lake east of the blue shadowed Emyn Uial and north of the Shire. The once-powerful seat of government of Arnor and Eriador left little mark on the land. Unlike Fornost, there were no ruins here. Any traces of the once grand buildings had been carted away by hobbits and lesser men, and truth be told, many houses in Bree sat on foundations built from the stones of Annúminas. All that remained of the once great court of Elendil were grass-covered mounds. A cool wind, redolent of past glories, blew over them even in high summer.
For a fortnight every Mid-summer, the widespread heirs of Numenor came together for the annual meeting of the Legate, the ruling body of nobles, for the welcoming ceremonies for new children, for the anointing of new Rangers, and for a general reunion of kin. These meets allowed discourse between the eastern and northern groups of the Dúnedain, and usually the atmosphere was one almost of carnival, with games, trading, and wooing among the marriageable, but this particular summer, the meeting was most festive: the descendents of Numenor were about to swear allegiance to their new chieftain. The fair-like meeting had drawn peddlers and merchants from Bree and even a few enterprising hobbit farmers sold early produce and flowers.
Aragorn reined in on the heights and surveyed the encampment spread out before him on the banks of the sapphire lake. Tents cut the greensward with colorful bands and smoke from cooking fires rose in the clear air. Packs of children ran, shrieking with joy. Along the former court of the old city on the eastern shore of the lake, the Dúnedain nobles had pitched their camps, neat rows leading up to his blue and white billowing monstrosity at the crown of the low hill. The thought that these were his people still amazed him. Dúnedain as far away as the southlands often attended this summer gathering and by the numbers of tents spread out around the lakeshore, this year had brought them all north. The lords of the Ered Luin, of the Evendim Hills, and Harlindon would be here. He did not doubt that a few of the western elves would also appear. He looked to his companions on either side.
Graelon, his herald, sat his horse, proudly dressed in dark livery bearing a black banner empty of device. On his right, Halbarad well known and well respected by all here nodded to him. Aragorn urged Swallow down into the encampment. The column edged between the pitched tents. Rollicking children and adults talking in groups stopped as they rode by. Silence moved over the encampment in a wave, held briefly, then sound burst like the sea on rock: the young man who was the new Dúnadan had arrived!
Entering the court of the king, Aragorn recognized the group from Caew Thoronath and reined in. He swung down, followed by Halbarad and strode through the group. Eyes alight, he came upon Harwilthel and Wyorven, who had shed their farm clothes and were as elegantly dressed as he, holding court before their tent surrounded by a crowd of old friends. Aragorn bestowed grand embraces on each, though both tried to do obeisance to their chieftain. He stepped back to introduce Halbarad, but observed curiously that his captain was well acquainted with his relatives. Halbarad executed a deep military bow to Harwilthel. Aragorn was startled; among the Dúnedain, his captain was second in rank to no man but him, and had only bowed to him perfunctorily when protocol dictated the need. His uncle took Halbarad's hand.
"How fare you, Captain? You've had trials aplenty with this one?" he suggested knowingly, gesturing at Aragorn. He eyed Aragorn's silver-laced black tunic and the regal standard-bearer behind him. "You've tricked him out well."
"My lord, assisting your nephew is a joy and honor." Halbarad replied and Aragorn nearly dropped from astonishment. Halbarad was nothing if not consistent in his criticism.
"My Lady Wyorven." Halbarad bowed low over his aunt's hand as if she were a princess. Shaking his head at his captain's new-found deference, the Dúnadan arranged to sup with his Angle relatives and, sending Graelon on with the standard and horses, he and Halbarad walked on to where the chieftain's tent was pitched.
"Halbarad, why were you so deferential to my uncle? You don't show me such respect." Aragorn joked.
"I do not honor him for being your uncle, my lord. I honor him as Captain of the Rangers before me, your father's Captain until his injury. And," Halbarad added, "I owe him respect. He was my mentor." This was new family information to Aragorn and he remembered his uncle's words to ask Halbarad about him when they met.
"What injury?" Halbarad looked at him curiously, sighed under this young burden he must bear, and told the story.
"Some years ago, there was a desperate battle with Bolg's orcs in the Coldfells. Harwilthel was commanding an eastern force sent to drive the orcs into a trap set by your father. The enemy's forces were larger than we suspected and instead of retreating, they turned and fought. An orc arrow pinned Harwilthel's leg to his horse's side, but he continued to command. When finally it was over, we could not find your uncle. It took Lord Elladan two days to trace the tracks. His horse had staggered away, slid down a hillside, and finally died. Harwilthel could not free himself and when we found him, he was still trapped beside his mount, deep in the throes of wound fever. Arathorn sent for Elrond and after weeks of care, Harwilthel finally recovered without losing his leg. However, he could no longer ride well enough to command the Rangers. He retired to Caew Thoronath. Wyorven resigned her commission and went home to care for her brother."
"Aunt Wyorven was a Ranger?" Aragorn interrupted. Halbarad snorted in exasperation.
"Wyorven was commander of the Sarn Ford Rangers for twenty years. Do you know nothing of your family?" The gruff, familiar Halbarad had returned. Aragorn heard him muttering about ignorance going hand in hand with arrogance as he strode away to arrange billeting for the men.
"You young fool!" Halbarad was on his feet and incensed. "By what right do you have to defy the Dúnadan's authority?"
"You have been a fine leader, Halbarad and why should we not allow you to continue leading us?" Halbarad waved a disgusted gesture of dismissal. "What right do I have to say this?" the young man continued. "The right given to all of us. I am one of the heirs of Numenor, defenders of the North. I have been leading my men against encroachments on the people's freedoms since before I came of age. Many of you know me and have ridden with me. I am Garendel, son of Elgarand and I took my fallen father's place protecting the Western Hills. I have proven my worth as defender of the western road." He gestured to Aragorn. "And I am to swear to one who seems conjured out of the very air; a man I have never seen before? A youth who has left us to fend for ourselves for a score of years?"
Aragorn had been carefully listening to this exchange and now he waved Halbarad's defense away. He rose and strode slowly down the length of the pavilion to face Garendel. Aragorn was a head taller but both shared the dark thick manes of their Numenorean fore bearers.
"You ask by what right I have to be here? I stand with you asking why myself." There was an unsettling stirring in the group. "You will swear to me because it is destiny. You have no choice and I have no choice; I have been called by my father, by my father's predecessors. I understand that now as I never have before. I see what our future holds and I understand why it is fated that it is I here before you." He stood and faced the man, his senior by ten years, garbed as a warrior like himself. "Look into your heart. You as Dúnedain see this too and know it to be true. My mother is Gilraen, Durhail's daughter and my father was Arathorn, last chieftain of the Dúnedain. I trace my lineage in an unbroken line to Elendil and on back to Elros. We are both linked by this thread of descent and culturally we know what must be." The captain shifted uncomfortably under the unwavering grey gaze.
"That is old legends and old ways. Why should we continue as we have? Our brethren, the men of Rohan and Esgaroth, make for their king he that is strongest in battle; he that is a war leader."
"We are Numenor, not lesser men." Aragorn reminded him. His gaze continued to bore into the dissenter. "Do you ask me to prove myself in combat? Are you asking me to fight you?" Aragorn turned away. "I won't war with any of my people. I will not create a schism between those of the West. If you choose, you can ride out of here today without giving your oath of fealty." His eyes swept the gathering. "Any may. I will not order your families cut down in the road as the leader of lesser men might." Garendel casually saluted.
"Then I shall be on my way home, my lord, to continue to keep the Blue Mountains free of orcs." Aragorn's voice halted him.
"Nay, you cannot continue to ride as Rangers without my authority. I want no man I cannot trust at my back. If you want to follow the rules of lesser men, then you may not reap the glory that is Numenor." The captain turned with his lieutenants to leave. "Garendel, think carefully, do you represent your people, the Dúnedain of Ered Luin? Is this what they desire?" Garendel stood silently eyes unreadable, mouth drawn in a stern line. He bowed abruptly and stepped out of the pavilion, never turning his back to Aragorn, a sign of respect or mistrust.
At the same moment, in another part of the camp, the young Ranger Amarië was protesting her officer's command. It was not the first time the hotheaded woman questioned her lieutenant's orders but this time her insubordination occurred before several officers from other troops. He could see the smirks on their faces. Simmering with rage, Arnetol listened to her blather; the fool was unaware of the wrath she was about to incur.
"I know him; he would not like this!" She stood hands on hips, gainsaying his command about searching all wains coming into the encampment, and disarming and perhaps turning away any not of the Dúnedain. Arnetol balefully eyed this troublemaker. "He would choose to make none feel unwelcome!" She arrogantly stated.
"What is this you think you know?" her commander asked sarcastically. "I know what he would want!" he mimicked her. "I know that your so-called cousin has not appeared yet to greet you and rode by you yesterday without a nod. I know that I am tired of your insubordination. I wish you out of my sight for the remainder of the encampment. By day, you will lead the detail to search the wagons and you will check on the pickets each night until midnight and you will serve in that role until the last wain is packed and has rolled from Evendim!"
For once, Amarië was speechless. Midnight! By that time, most of the festivities would be ended by tiredness or drunkenness! He had given her no opportunity to enjoy the encampment. And, most important to Amarië, there would be no time to dine and visit with her aunt and uncle. There would be no chance to meet her cousin, though she doubted that he remembered her anyway, especially since he had, as Arnetol said, ridden right by her yesterday without a even nod.
The cool breeze had returned at sunset. Aragorn sat before his uncle's pavilion, enjoying a last cup of sweet wine and the sweeter company of Harwilthel and Wyorven. The fireflies meandered through the twilight air as the stars matched their glow in the purpling sky.
"I am disappointed that Amarië did not appear." Aragorn stretched his long legs out before him.
"I am surprised." Wyorven said, looking off into the night as if to conjure up the absent woman. "I expected her to spend most evenings here when her duties were done, but I have yet to see her." A commotion of raised voices broke the peacefulness and an older man, a retainer by the looks of his clothing, appeared carrying a young boy in his arms.
"Lady Wyorven, they said you were a skilled healer," the man panted. "Can you help?" Aragorn and his aunt were both on their feet and leading the man into the tent. Lanterns were quickly blazing. Aragorn swept the items off a camp table and Wyorven gestured the man to lay the boy there. The child whimpered softly once as he was jostled. By the light, both saw the silver hilt of a dagger protruding from the boy's right side.
"Was this a crime?" Aragorn demanded, eyes blazing at such a thoughtless act against a youngster.
"Nay," the man replied. "He and his fellows were playing and Gereint fell on the knife. Please, please help him." The boy's eyes were closed, his face was pale, and dark blood oozed from the wound. Aragorn could see the pulse racing in the boy's throat; he must be calmed. Aragorn sent the retainer running to his tent. Graelon would know what was needed. The youth was learning herb craft and healing as well as the duties of the Dúnadan's assistant. Aragorn spoke quietly to his aunt, who had set water to heat.
"I believe the knife is embedded in the child's liver. We must calm his heart as much as possible before we draw the weapon out." She smiled grimly.
"You logic's as sound as mine." She looked at the small form on the table. "A brave child and one too young to pass from this world."
"Aunt, if there is a great spray of bright blood when the dagger is removed, the boy will die quickly; but if the blood is dark and slow flowing, he can be saved."
"You've learned your craft well from Lord Elrond." His aunt laid a steadying hand on his shoulder.
Aragorn heard a demand outside and Harwilthel's calm answer. The tent flap was pushed aside by Garendel. His eyes went to the boy on the table, and then they met Aragorn's.
"He is my brother," was all that needed to be spoken.
At that moment, Graelon entered with Aragorn's wooden medicine chest. Sorting through the herbs, Aragorn soon made an infusion, lifted the young boy's shoulders, and bade him drink. The boy's hazel eyes were filled with fear and pain, but he murmured 'yes, my lord,' and drank down the small cup. In a moment, the dark curly head fell against Aragorn's shoulder. He made ready to draw out the dagger.
"Aunt, can you pull? I wish to cover the wound as quickly as possible." Wyorven's hand grasped the hilt and the dagger slid from the wound; there was a flow of dark blood that Aragorn stopped quickly. He almost grinned in relief and bandaged the wound tightly. He looked up to Garendel who had watched silently and nodded; the lord's dark eyes were unreadable.
Aragorn rinsed his bloody hands in a basin of fresh water.
"May he stay here?" he asked his aunt, though Garendel nodded his permission also. "He shouldn't be moved. I will be by tomorrow to check on him to see if we might still need to do some stitching."
Word had traveled swiftly through the camp. The new young lord had healed a mortal wound. The returning king would have the hands of a healer, the old legends said, and the morning camp buzzed with speculation. Garendel's brother would recover and it was a miracle; a sign!
"So you are raising children from the dead, are you now?" Halbarad had dryly greeted Aragorn as he breakfasted. Aragorn had crooked a disbelieving eyebrow and Halbarad lightened his morning meal with tales being told around the camp of the heroic deed.
The sun was not well risen when Aragorn pushed back the flap of Harwilthel's tent to check on his patient. His aunt had spared no energy to make the boy comfortable on his table-bed, and the child was alert, swathed in the finest, softest blankets, meekly sipping broth from a solicitous, spoon-wielding Wyorven.
Wyorven announced the lad's wound had stopped bleeding. Aragorn explained in that case they would let the wound close naturally and that Gereint could be carried back to his brother's tent by the end of the day.
"You must stay quiet at least a fortnight." Aragorn cautioned the boy. "No rough play until the wound is fully healed." Gereint looked at him shyly through dark lashes.
"Thank you, my lord, for saving me," the boy said. "I know my brother said he would not swear to you." The boy looked at him with shining eyes. "If I were of an age, I would swear."
"One day you may, if you avoid getting skewered until then." Aragorn announced and laughed with the boy. "Rest easy, Gereint, and grow tall enough to be one of my Rangers."
"No fancy speeches this time about being king," Halbarad reminded him. "Although your medical skills have won over some, others of this lot are not as amenable to old legends as those of Fornost and the Angle. They swear to you as Dúnadan, as Arathorn's son only. Most have yet to care about the King of Gondor," said the captain. "And we don't especially yet want Gondor worrying about a king," he added under his breath.
"This forum is too open for my liking," Halbarad continued fussing. "I feel uneasy about the Dúnadan standing in so open a place while all swear fealty." He sighed, gliding his cup through the wet rings on the table before them. He again surveyed the large open field the Rangers had carefully searched earlier. A random arrow from anywhere in the crowd could end all hope of a future king and Halbarad would have little hope of apprehending an assassin in such a throng. He had ordered a light mithril vest under Aragorn's velvet tunic and threatened to dress him himself when the young man protested. He had then disbursed many of their own Rangers from Fornost throughout the crowd. Now he sighed again, took one last drink of his ale for fortitude, and led Aragorn out before the crowd. A hush fell over the throng.
The pair stood on the swearing rock, a table-like flat boulder of gray granite as the sun tracked down to the horizon. The captains and commanders and their officers, the Rangers, and their families, were spread out before them. The constant wind snapped the pennants and standards. Halbarad stepped back and Aragorn took a deep breath. Just before Timorion, captain of Sarn Ford, came forward to begin the fealty ceremony, a toddler, dark curls blowing in the wind, marched up. He waved his wooden sword.
"I swear! I swear!" he babbled. He was dressed in his best but the scamp already had smears of mud on his cheek and knees. The boy reminded Aragorn of himself many years ago in the great hall of Imladris, swearing to Elrond to protect the lands from dragons and trolls. At the time, it was but a silly child's pledge but true and sincere as any man's pledge was this day. Aragorn saw the child's words as an echo of his past and an omen of tomorrow. He smiled and took the boy by the hand and turned to the watching crowd.
"I pledge to you, my people." He looked out over the sea of faces, turned golden by the slanting sunlight, his grey eyes shining. He dropped to his knee before the child and, placing his hands on the wooden sword hilt, spoke. "I swear to protect this land from evil, to bring peace and prosperity to the North, to regain the glory that is the right of the Men of the West." The simple action elicited a roar of acceptance from the Dúnedain. He heard Halbarad sigh deeply behind him, pleased with the showmanship.
So, troops came forward, led by their captains. Hands were laid on the hilt of his father's sword and each bend on knee, swearing to support the chieftain of their people. Finally, all were done except Garendel. The western captain stood aloof with his men. There was an expectant pause. Silence fell over the gathering and the banners hung limp. The wind itself seemed to hold its breath as the sun, nearly gone, crimsoned the scene. Then Garendel came forward, flanked by his lieutenants. He stood before Aragorn, staring arrogantly into those depthless eyes.
"It's a fine day, my lord." Garendel began as if in polite conversation. "Perhaps you might be a fair and just man to follow…and you have wisdom for one so young…" He paused, studying Aragorn carefully. "And you possess the healing hands of legend." He grinned as if coming to a decision, then dropped to one knee, and placed his hand on the chased guard of Aragorn's sword.
"I acknowledge Aragorn, son of Arathorn, as the Dúnadan, to command me and mine." He half turned his head to the crowd, his voice rising, carrying to the farthest edges. "And, I will follow you as rightful heir of the Reunited Kingdom to the Black Gate, if need be." The crowd gasped with a single voice and then broke into wild cheers.
Halbarad's hand tightly gripped his sword hilt and he wanted nothing more than to lop this upstart's head from his shoulders. 'What agents of the South will we now be dodging? Ecthelion's as well as Sauron's?' the old captain thought. He turned and whispered urgently to Camalac who stood at his side.
Aragorn closed his hand over Garendel's before the man could rise. "I thank you for your confidence," he said quietly. His eyes, eerily ruby in the dying light, glittered dangerously. The captain suddenly felt great power from this young man he had earlier discounted, and his eyes nervously shifted away. "But I believe you overly rash in anointing a king so soon." Garendel's soul was laid bare under the relentless gaze and he knew Aragorn found his loyalty wanting. Aragorn released his hands and was simply the son of Arathorn again, newly anointed as the Dúnadan.
The captain rose shakily and made way through the milling crowd, needing to get away from the noise and think on what he had witnessed. Not far into the throng, Camalac came up beside him and matched strides, speaking low but earnestly.
"Please know, Garendel, that you are marked. Oath breakers to my lord will find from those loyal a certain and sudden death." The Ranger melted into the crowd as a shiver crawled up Garendel's spine. Perhaps he was gravely misled about this Aragorn. Perhaps the stories carried up the Great South Road were untrue. Perhaps he had just sworn to the true heir of Isildur. If so, in breaking his oath, his life and the lives of his sons would be forfeit and any gold received for his disloyalty would be cold comfort to his widow.
In the chaos as the joyous crowd headed for the long tables and the roasting pits, two swarthy riders edged away to the high road to gallop south. They took news of this event to those freely handing out gold for such information. Two pairs of keen grey eyes watched the road from the heights and not far south, the riders' path was barred. They faced glittering blades forged in Gondolin's fires long ago and tempered with the black blood of the wicked. The riders drew their swords thinking to beat past the elf-lords. The sword work was quick and deadly, and the watchers melted back into the forest and caught the first stars blinking on from the heights above Evendim. The crebain would also feast well this night and it would take a while longer for the news of the new Dúnadan to get to interested persons in the South.
Again, Aragorn came upon a couple pressed against a tree, rustles and murmurs steering him away. He noticed they were both Rangers. It seemed even many of the Rangers spending the evening raising cups to their new leader, had gain amorous courage in drink, and now gave in to kiss and caress. Suddenly from behind, he heard a protest from a feminine voice quickly muffled by a hand and a gruff male one answering that she was about to get what she had asked for. Aragorn promptly turned back. He had no sword but his dagger was in its sheath on his belt, though he did not believe he would need it.
He came back to the two. Both seemed quite drunk. The male was struggling with the laces on his leggings while trying to hold the other against the tree trunk. The female Ranger was more than able to cut his throat, she enlightened her companion in a loud whisper. Aragorn did not doubt a moment she could if she got free; he recognized the voice.
"She doesn't seem much interested in you." Aragorn's quiet observation, coming at the man's shoulder, caused him to jump and loosen his hold, allowing his partner to slither drunkenly to the ground at his feet.
"If you wait your turn you can have at her when I'm finished," the Ranger suggested reeling around to face the interloper. Even in his drunken state, he recognized the man they had all sworn to that day. "My lord…" he sputtered, backing away. "You may have her, though the wench is treacherous." He stepped back and gave Aragorn a clear look at the woman sprawled at the base of the tree. The torches flickered on her warm brown hair and as she looked up, trying to focus on him, he realized he was about to deal with a very drunken Amarië.
"I believe I'll take my chances," he said grimly. The man conceded the rights of his lord without protest and went off into the night. Aragorn dragged Amarië to her feet. She staggered against him and wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her face against his chest. He began to lead her erratically off toward his pavilion.
"Where are we going?" she slurred, so drunk she was nearly incapable of moving her feet.
"To my tent." He half-dragged, half-pushed her in that direction, trying to avoid getting his feet entangled in hers, working valiantly to prevent them from ending up in a heap on the dewy ground.
"Hhmmm, at least you smell better than the last. What is your name, my love?" She nuzzled his neck and he felt her tongue tracing his ear. She was so in her cups, she had no idea who she walked with.
"Amarië, 'tis Aragorn. Stop that and come along." She stopped abruptly then, disbelief and pain in her eyes, and attempted to jerk free of his hold."Nay," she whispered, horrified, trying to twist away. His arm caught her before she fell. She tried to pull free again, protested she was fine, and in her embarrassment, refused to look at him. She struggled and objected to the point Aragorn was sure anyone who saw them would believe the Dúnadan was forcing this young woman to his bed. There was nothing for it, but to swing her into his arms. She ceased to struggle then and began to weep, and he quickly carried her the remaining yards to his tent. His stoic guards gave no sign there was aught amiss with the Dúnadan carrying a sobbing young female Ranger into his pavilion, but Aragorn was sure one would fly to tell Halbarad immediately.
Aragorn dropped Amarië to her feet at his bedside, relieved her of her dagger and sword, and pulled off her vest, all the while trying to keep her upright on legs wobbly as a new foal's. An easy push sent her toppling into his camp bed. He hauled off her boots.
"Did you think to ravish me, my lord?" She could not focus on his face but grasp his hand fiercely as if he would disappear and another take his place.
"Nay, I seek to keep you from being ravished, Amarië." He sat on the edge of the bed.
"Thank you," she whispered, kissing his hand. "I cannot drink; it does strange things to me."
"'Tis a family trait. Neither can I." He smiled down at her. "I have been known to sing Elvish lays and tell my most secret thoughts."
"You should not drink then!" she admonished. Suddenly she looked panicked. "I do not feel well." He held back her hair while she retched into the unlit brazier, which he carried outside the tent immediately. Handing the mess to the one remaining guard, he dropped the flap back into place and came to the bedside again.
"All I ask is that you not be sick in my bed." He joked easily and handed her a cup of cool water to which he had added a pinch of dried herbs.
"Yes, my lord," she murmured, less than half-aware, drifting away. He tossed a blanket over her, stood and stretched until his back cracked loudly. He trimmed the lamp to a low glow and folded himself into his camp chair to spend the night at vigil. Aragorn picked up a book and began to read. He had not finished half a page when the tent flap parted and Halbarad stormed in.
"My lord---" Aragorn held up his hand and rose, checked Amarië who was now quietly asleep, and stepped over to stand close to Halbarad so their voices would not rouse the girl.
"Captain, is aught amiss?" he asked innocently. Halbarad sputtered incoherently so Aragorn gestured back toward the bed. "My cousin had a bit too much to drink and needed a safe place to sleep." With one glance at the bed, Halbarad recognized the troubled Ranger. He muttered a good night and Aragorn moved aside as if to let him leave, then grasped his captain's upper arm firmly, his eyes glittering dangerously. In Halbarad's mind, they immediately conjured up visions of Arathorn when he was crossed.
"Oh, Captain…what if I had been bedding a wench?" Red-faced, Halbarad shrugged without an answer. "I believe I am owed some privacy." The Dúnadan nodded toward the men on guard. "Please inform them they are my men, not my nursemaids."
It was full morning when Amarië opened her eyes. And closed them quickly, protesting the brightness. She groaned, realizing she was not in her own narrow cot. She was in one of the pavilions…had she allowed a nobleman, a commander, to lay with her? Last night she had made a last check of the sentries and then had met up with several Rangers, mostly from the eastern patrol celebrating the new chieftain. She had quickly downed a vast quantity of spirits, matching toasts to her cousin to make up for all of the reveling she had missed. She was angry with both Arnetol and illogically with Aragorn, and tossed down the strong wine with abandon.
In the light of day, she cursed herself. Anger made her drink and drink was her downfall. She became wanton with too much wine and only the vigilance of her close friends had saved her from this fate before. Truly, this was scandal! Reason enough this time for Lieutenant Arnetol to send her packing!
She felt a hand on her head, smoothing back her hair. Did he desire her again? She could not even remember a name or a face. She could remember little of last night, only a sensation of being carried in his arms, of feeling safe. Red-hot blood flamed her cheeks and she opened her eyes, starting to protest she could not allow such liberties again, and stared into her cousin's silver gaze.
"Aragorn." It just was not a pavilion: it was the Dúnadan's tent, opulent with rugs and tapestry, soft bedding and warm braziers. Had she…had he? A wave of nausea that had little to do with the drink set her to shaking. Seeking a quick exit that required no answers, she swung her legs off the bed too abruptly and sat too quickly. Her head reeled. She peered out of slitted eyes and saw her vest and boots on a chest near by and she realized she was fully dressed. He was still there, smiling kindly, holding out a mug to her. Suddenly parched, she grasped it and drank greedily. The cool water cleared her head and it slowly dawned on her she had slept in his bed but he had gallantly not shared it. He poured her another mug.
"It's mixed with athelas and willow bark. It will ease your head and calm your stomach." His voice was musical even to her throbbing head. She sipped more slowly from the cup. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she rose unsteadily. Eschewing his help, she shakily pulled on her boots and vest and rearmed herself.
"I must get back to my unit." As she near the tent flap, she turned. "Aragorn…" Amarië began. "Thank you…I should explain."
"Truly you need not explain to me. Though might I suggest, cousin, you do not drink. It would make me worry for your safety." He guided her out into the bright sunlight. Halbarad stood nearby with several of the western lords, ready to breakfast with him in the open air and talk troop numbers and protection for the southern road. Aragorn sternly eyed his captain. Halbarad wisely kept silent."It was good to see you again, cousin," he said loud enough for the assembled group to hear. He bent and kissed her forehead. "I vow, we have talked the night away. Stop and look in on Aunt Wyorven; she worries about you. Send them all my love." The stoic guards stared forward. Amarië hurried away to where her unit was billeted as Aragorn stepped over to greet the dignitaries. He did not see her again before camp was broken and all the Dúnedain set off to their homes.
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