1. Cuts Gone Wrong
Berty Heathertoes, drawn from his chores by the commotion and last on the trail, was out of breath by the time he caught up with the dogs. "Man oughtn't have to hurry himself if he's decent! He'll have his day laid out, no rushing needed," he panted resentfully, leaning on his pitchfork.
A lanky figure, muddy from the sodden field, slowly sat up as the dogs retreated to Berty's side. The one-time fugitive wiped at his face with a sleeve wet from the ditch the dogs had brought him down in. This accomplished little, other than to smear dirt further, and the farmer scowled. "What's your business here, boy?" he demanded, giving the sole of a well-worn boot a warning tap with the pitchfork.
"I apologize, Master Heathertoes," came the reply. "I'm to meet a friend in town, and—"
"'Nother trespassing Ranger, you mean," harrumphed Berty, and shook his head. And he gave him another tap with the pitchfork, a little harder this time. "No good! Up now, lad, and just you start walking back where you came from."
"Sir, please, I'm late," the young man pleaded, as he climbed to his feet. "It's six miles around, and but a half mile to the road from here—"
"And you'd've been on it long ago, were you decent folk. Here now," Berty said and paused, eyeing the bedraggled lad, who topped him by a head and more standing. "Aren't you the one they call 'Strider'?"
"I am, sir," came the cautiously hopeful acknowledgment, to which Berty only grunted.
"Lucky thing. Be your name, boy, and you'll only be half late. Wolf, Bear, up," Berty said sternly, and the dogs obediently rose, ears pricked attentively forward. Glancing up at the Ranger again, he warned: "Off with you now. My dogs'll follow so don't try any tricks, hear? Go! And next time," he added, to the lad's retreating back, "you keep off my land!"
For a time, Berty stood watching as the lad, after a shake of his sodden cloak, and a shrug of the shoulders to settle his pack squarely once more, lengthened his stride and indeed began hurrying away. Wolf and Bear padded in his wake, bristling still, and Berty shook his head.
"Wretched wild lot," he muttered as he turned and began making his way back to his hay stacks.
And so he did not see the lad's head lift, or his hands tighten to a white-knuckled grip on the straps of his pack, did not see wounded young pride stiffen his back. For the morning was now well begun, and Berty Heathertoes was a decent man: he had work to do and little time to spare for disruptions. By lunchtime, he had all but forgotten the incident, though he would remember it later, over ale with friends.
"Rascals all," he would say, to the approving nods of the upstanding citizens of the town. But other than hours whiled away rehearsing Bree-land virtues against the vices of mannerless outsiders, it was of no consequence to one who had a farm to tend in the quiet lands round Bree-hill, where nothing ever happening was the measure of life.
But in other quarters—in the empty corner of the Prancing Pony's common room, for one—'nothing ever happening' was not the measure of life, but its end that was rarely enjoyed by those who strove for it. Pelhar, son of Belendir, and captain of the Ranger guard at Sarn Ford, wrestled with himself as he watched the Pony's serving girls bustle about the room. Every so often, they glanced his way, worriedly. He supposed they had reason—Rangers in the evening were one matter, but he had been there since before sunrise. The girls had come yawning in to help ready the inn for the earliest guests, only to find him there already, smoking. He had long since put away breakfast, yet still he lingered, much to their discomfiture, though in the past hour he had several times thought of leaving.
But each time, he had decided against it. Give it another hour, he told himself, as he chewed gently on the stem of his pipe. The weather's turning and with the rains, he may have started late or got side-tracked around a flooded out stretch of road. Long experience told him such things were wont to happen; still, he could not quite quell his anxiety. Nowhere in Middle-earth was entirely safe, after all, and even in the Bree-lands, Rangers lived more precarious lives than the Bree-landers themselves would care to think of, did they but know what things walked the wild around their hill.
Nevertheless, the Sarn Ford guard was an easier post than many. Far from the Misty Mountains, and little used by any but the Shire folk or the occasional Dwarf down from the Blue Mountains on business in Hobbiton, it was the nearest thing to a safe station for the Dúnedain. Most trouble round the Bree-land went for the Brandywine Bridge or Forsaken Inn, and so to the North Greenway guard, which quietly, if ruthlessly, disposed of it, out of sight of the inhabitants of either Bree or the Shire.
For that reason, the Rangers liked to send their new lads south to spend a season or two with Sarn Ford, and then the North Greenway, before they left with more experienced companions to make the long journey out to Dale, there to hire out as the caravan guards who turned the coins that helped earn their collective keep. Then it was back again with the merchants to the Forsaken Inn, the unloved edge of the Bree-land, then onward to another month or two with Sarn Ford or North Greenway. There they would patrol and wait for the winter replacements before they finally returned home to be admitted as Rangers. A long year—grueling when it was not dull, trying for a young man full of salt and fire—and prelude to harder years that would see fewer than began them return to be called "seasoned."
Pelhar himself had seen twenty years come and go on a Ranger's watch; in the seven years since he had been made a captain, he had seen many new faces pass through his company, and knew well he would not see all of them again. There were always a few who failed their fledgling year not by some lack of trustworthiness or ability, but who simply did not live to see the end of it. Which was why he fretted now, wondering if a stray Orc, or wolf, or the rare brigand, or even a simple accident, had claimed the latest messenger from North Greenway's main post around Forsaken Inn. What if he had slipped on the trail and broken a leg? Or perhaps he had fallen ill? Or it may be nothing; he may simply be late, or perhaps have turned an ankle walking in the dark, he reminded himself. Such things happen. They—almost—never kill anyone. He will likely turn up soon enough.
Nevertheless, he had just about resolved to go and have a look about beyond the town walls when a chubby boy of some six years—the innkeep's youngest, Barliman—came skipping up.
"You're Blackboots," the boy informed him, and Pelhar nodded, with only a slight inward wince after so long for the hated name. His first journey to Bree as an unstarred lad had led him and his company through the Midgewater marshes and peat bogs, and he had not emerged unscathed. It had not been only his boots that had been blackened, but most of his clothing had proclaimed him the victim of a near drowning in one of the bogs. For whatever reason, though, only his boots had mattered to old Butterbur's wife, whose complaints had led to his Bree-land christening.
The boy, he realized, was waiting for him to say something, and so he asked, "Is somewhat the matter, lad?"
"Goody Elspeth says there's a man come to see you, but he can't come in or Mam will have her head," Barliman said solemnly. "She says you should come round to the kitchen and talk to him back there."
"Ah," Pelhar replied, and breathed a silent sigh of relief. Who else could it be but Geldir's messenger? Rising, he made as if to give the lad a pat on the shoulder, but Barliman scuttled back, shaking his head.
"Mam says I'm not to get dirty today, since I just had my bath last night, and she's always saying Rangers are filthy."
Which was unfortunately true—at least until the bedraggled newcomers found their grateful way to a tub—and the blunt-spoken innocence of the boy but a reflection of one of the other reasons new lads were sent to the Bree-land. It is so wonderfully disillusioning, he thought, even as he told Barliman: "Then you're a good lad to listen to your mother. Thank you for the message." With that, he emptied his pipe into the ash pot, tucked it into his scrip, and made haste for the kitchen and the back door.
Goody Elspeth was a stout woman of middling years, her hair gone grey and her waist permanently thickened from bearing five children, and this morn, she had the look of a long-suffering mother confronted with the antics of boisterous young boys.
"Ah, Master Blackboots," she said as soon as she spotted him, annoyance coloring her voice. "There's a lad here for you, and he's certainly one of yours by the look of him." With a shake of her head, she pointed to the door near the night hearth. "See him outside. I'll come get you when we're ready for him."
With that, she went off, calling for Tobbard and his Tib-lad as she went. Pelhar stared after her a moment, then, eyebrow raised, he approached the door. At first, he saw no one, but as he stepped outside, a dark figure straightened quickly from where it had been leaning on the wall. A black stain remained there upon the pale stone, and Pelhar found himself staring at the sodden, mud-splattered Heir of Isildur—Geldir's messenger of the week.
"Captain," the lad said, and by his rigid good posture, he was expecting the worst. Pelhar folded his arms across his chest, considering the other a long moment, ere he said, in Sindarin:
"Well, I see now what Elspeth meant when she said you were one of mine. Was there trouble?" he asked.
"Nothing dangerous, sir," Aragorn replied, a little stiffly.
"Then what happened?"
At this, the other glanced down slightly, ere he answered, "Farmer Heathertoes caught me crossing his field. He had his dogs with him."
"I see. Made you go around in the end, did he?" A nod. Pelhar sighed. "A year on the Road and you forget the second rule of the Hill: never cut across the fields unless it is immediately a matter of lives. Was it?"
"Not yet, Captain," came the forthright enough admission.
"I see." Pelhar paused, scrutinizing his chieftain who, to his credit, met his eye, though from the flush to his cheeks, visible beneath the dirt, dignity had taken a definite hurt. And that is why we send them here, Pelhar reminded himself. And so, dutifully: "No one will fault you arriving late if there's good reason for it, but save such delays for the times that deserve it. You would have been here earlier, and caused less worry, had you followed the rule, lad," Pelhar said oppressively, and frowned at his young lord, whose jaw clenched.
But he did bow, and there was no lack of sincerity as he apologized: "I am sorry, Captain."
"It is a small thing, Aragorn, it truly is, and we both of us know it," Pelhar continued his lecture, undeterred by this evidence of contrition. "But often as not, lives depend on small things—on keeping your head and your orders. Of all the new lads, you need most to learn that, for you cannot give orders that you yourself do not keep."
Pelhar grunted. "We will speak later of this and the North Greenway's business, when you have had a chance to make yourself presentable." Pausing, he cocked his head a moment, then nodded. "I hear Goody Elspeth coming this way, so I am hopeful that means we need not delay our conversation much longer. Go on, lad. Come find me in the common room when you are done." The other nodded, but as he made to go, Pelhar laid a hand on his shoulder. And at Aragorn's questioning look: "Be glad you are named already," the captain advised, raising a brow at the other's filthy garb, "or they would be calling you 'Mudclumper.'"
If this effort at levity had any noticeable effect on his young lord's air of shamed humiliation, Pelhar could not discern it. He simply turned and made Elspeth a polite bow, who pointedly told him to wipe the mud off his boots at least before allowing him to follow her within. Pelhar watched him trail after her, then shook his head, bowing his head to hide the smile he could not quite suppress.
Caught cutting over Berty Heathertoes' land! Brought down by the dogs! he thought, biting his lip as his shoulders shook a bit with quiet laughter. It was but another reason to keep the new ones 'safe' around Sarn Ford and Bree after their maiden journey—there was always that slip at the end, before they fully settled. Better it happen in the quieter lands round Bree than elsewhere, where it might truly matter. Trespassing was not so high on the list of sins, after all; in the twenty years Pelhar had been on the Road, he had never heard of anyone dying from it in Bree.
Could be worse, he thought, even as he grew once more thoughtful. It could, indeed, be worse, and it was a captain's duty to do everything in his power to prevent 'worse' from coming about. But lads who would be Rangers had not only to learn sword and bow and stealth—the spirit, too, needed discipline to withstand such duty and the little thanks it brought, and an upbringing in the Angle, for all the long wisdom of mothers and grandmothers, could not impart more than its foundation. Even an elvish upbringing could do no more, for in the end, not even elves could be all things to all men, and elves did not guard the wild ways beyond their borders.
So it fell to Pelhar and others like him to tend to such matters, and a man of his experience could hardly miss the fact that something troubled his young chieftain that went beyond simple resentment with having been dumped in a mudhole, to judge by his appearance.
Or at least, he thought it went beyond such feeling. He had not got the impression, during the cold watches of the winter when Aragorn had been under his command, that he had a sullen streak in him, though certainly, he could be moody and mercurial as only headstrong young men could be who found themselves aching to make sense—visceral, gut-level sense—of the gap between the high-flown rhetoric of a Ranger's calling and the bleak, grimy, and above all lonely reality of it.
And Aragorn's calling is higher than most, the gap greater, and he but lately come from a life under the elven hills, Pelhar thought.
With that in mind, he made his way back to the common room and reclaimed his table. There he sat in silence, pipe to hand once more as he settled in to wait with a Ranger's patience for the object of captainly duty to emerge from the bathroom.
It was perhaps an hour later that Aragorn appeared, looking much improved for the sojourn in the washroom, but also somewhat ill at ease in a borrowed shirt, to judge by how high the sleeves rode on his arms. No doubt Goody Elspeth, never one to be gainsaid, had turned the poor lad's pack inside out and bustled off to the laundry with most of its contents and his cloak, besides.
Accordingly, he drew a number of somewhat wary stares from other guests and the serving lasses, and not simply because of the shirt. Not that Rangers ever went about unarmed, but usually a cloak covered over the extra dagger or two down the back of the belt, and some worried looks were being cast his way. As Aragorn joined him at the table, Pelhar's eyes went to the lad's exposed forearms, noting the marks of leather strap and buckle where a wrist sheath was wont to reside, then drifted over his person 'til he noticed the slim dagger now strapped neatly to the sheath of his sword, where at least it might not attract such attention.
"Captain," Aragorn said quietly as he sat across from him.
Pelhar pushed a bag of pipeweed across the table towards him, and said, by way of greeting, "Light up, lad, it's cold today. Have you eaten yet?"
"I ate on the Road," Aragorn replied, surreptitiously trying to push the sleeves up about his elbows to disguise the misfit. And when Pelhar raised a brow at the audible growl of the other's stomach that belied that claim, Aragorn sighed and revised: "Not very much, though."
"Well, then that is to the good. The girls ought to be reassured to have someone to serve at this table, rather than simply to stare at," Pelhar replied, with a slight smile, and signaled one of the lasses, who wiped her hands on her apron and nervously approached.
"Second breakfast or first?" the girl asked, her eyes coming to rest uneasily upon Aragorn.
"First, please," Pelhar replied. "And if you would, make the tea strong and see if Cook will spare her infusion against chest colds."
"Aye, then, I'll be a moment," the girl replied, bobbing a quick curtsey before hurrying away to the kitchen.
"I am not ill, Captain."
"And you'll stay that way if I have aught to say about it," Pelhar replied, unperturbed. Then, switching once more to Sindarin: "Report. What news from the North Greenway?"
Aragorn had just taken a puff on the pipe, but he quickly lowered it. "Captain Geldir reports no trouble yet, though we expect there may be soon. In Dale, we heard tell of trouble between Dunland and Rohan again. 'Tis said the horse-herders of Rohan and the cattle-drivers of Dunland are fighting for pasture land."
"We have heard the same from Tharbad; Caranthar has pulled our border-walkers further back, to stay well clear of it," Pelhar said, referring to Arathorn's most senior lieutenant, and the man who, in Arathorn's absence and while Aragorn served his apprenticeship and learned the craft of governance, captained the Rangers.
"From what the merchants say, that seems wise," Aragorn replied, drawing again on the pipe ere he continued. "It seems that the lawless are drawn to such conflicts, and already there are brigands of both people taking advantage of the confusion to rob and slay merchants making their way through the Gap. That has sent many caravaners to us and over the High Pass, for King Fengel had taken little care to put a stop to such matters earlier this season."
"Well, that ought to help us a little, at least," Pelhar said, and sighed, as his chieftain took a quick glance about to make certain no others were listening.
"It has put more in our company coffers than expected, certainly," he affirmed. "Captain Geldir has done the reckoning for all of us who came back late with the merchants this season. He sent Sarn Ford's share of pay with me."
"That is welcome news. But we shall deal with that later," Pelhar replied. Though the Bree-landers were by and large a trustworthy people, there was no sense in passing purses in front of everyone. There was enough trouble to be had in the world without asking for it, and so he simply gestured minutely, and said, "Continue."
Aragorn nodded, and obeyed, swiftly returning to the topic at hand. "When we rejoined the North Greenway five days ago, Captain Geldir told us word had come that King Fengel had finally given the Second Marshal leave to aide the Westfold as he saw fit. By now, 'tis no doubt over, or nearly so, but that means only that the brigands ought to be fleeing west, rather than risking capture and trial in the Mark or Dunland."
"No doubt," Pelhar murmured, his voice hardening a bit. Aragorn, too, looked rather grim—it hardly needed to be said that as soon as the brigands crossed the borders into Eriador proper, they became the Rangers' concern.
"We had two scouts come back down the Road after us to say they had seen signs of small groups of men passing near the Road, heading west but staying off the path," Aragorn said, and the captain grunted.
"So the North Greenway ought to be busy this season and next," Pelhar concluded, mentally shifting routes in his head, for the Sarn Ford guard would no doubt be asked to cover parts of the Bree-land more carefully, to free up men in the North Greenway to hunt bandits further abroad. We shall all have to increase our patrols, Pelhar thought, and quirked a brow as he asked, "No trouble yet, though?"
"No." Aragorn shook his head. "Not yet, or I doubt Captain Geldir would have sent but one messenger."
Not, at any rate, a messenger who hasn't yet earned his star. Especially not if he is Isildur's Heir, too, Pelhar thought, but kept that to himself. "Geldir knows his business," he said instead, and neutrally. "Tell him Sarn Ford stands ready to assist, should the North Greenway need us. The doings in the south have been quiet enough."
"Aye, Captain," Aragorn replied, just as the lass returned with breakfast and a little brown, earthenware teapot whence sharp-scented steam rose, and two mugs. On unspoken agreement, they fell silent until she had departed again, and then Pelhar gestured for his companion to go ahead and eat. After carefully testing the teapot for heat, the captain poured them each a mug of tea and sat back with his to watch with veiled amusement as the lad set to with a will. As a rule, one could always count on a Ranger's appetite, but particularly during that last spurt of growth when a young man finally got his height among the Dúnedain. His own son, Danhúr, was of an age with Aragorn and ever ravenous, and Pelhar had learned to keep any serious questions for after supper as a consequence.
Thus only when the other had finished and pushed the plate aside did Pelhar speak. "So," he said, cradling his half-empty mug in his hands, "do you want to tell me what happened when Berty caught up with you this morning that had you under so black a pall? Besides the mud, that is."
To his credit, Aragorn managed a slight smile for the humor. But it faded swiftly, as he let his eyes drift over the company in the Common Room. Pelhar, after but a moment, followed the lad's gaze: farm hands and crafters, old aunts and uncles, gaffers and gammers, all come in for second breakfast, most likely after a very early first. The Men of Bree tended to keep to hobbit custom where meals were concerned, if after their own fashion, and the Common Room was filled with the low buzz of conversation and many a back turned toward them.
For the Bree-landers paid little heed to the Rangers in their midst—too early for trouble, they no doubt thought, whether 'trouble' meant nosing about in Rangers' affairs or Rangers meddling in Bree-land business. For their part, Rangers were largely content with such neglect—Bree-landers asking questions of them most often meant something afoot that had as yet not come to rest blame at anyone's doorstep.
Nevertheless, it took a bit of getting used to, that chill, and Pelhar eyed his young chieftain thoughtfully. Feeling a want of warmth, perhaps? He did not ask, however—not yet. Instead, he but stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankle, and he refilled his mug, deliberately sliding the teapot back into place so that it grated upon the table. Aragorn twitched at the noise, glancing back out of habit, and as hoped, once distracted from his intent observation of the Pony's guests, he remembered himself and his captain.
"I'm sorry, sir," he apologized, helping himself then to more tea.
"Mm," Pelhar grunted, watching as the other wrapped his hands about the mug, letting the heat sink into his skin. And he raised it to his lips at length, blew upon the steaming surface of the liquid, then sipped at it. At length, the captain, sensing reluctance gaining the upper hand, prompted gently, "Come, lad. Out with it."
Aragorn's lips grew thin as he pressed them a moment together, and a furrow creased his brow, ere finally he said, in a low voice, "It should be nothing. I know enough of what roams the lands east and north of the Bree-land—'tis only good sense for a farmer to keep dogs, keep others off his land, even if the farmer does not know it. I know it. I should be content with that."
"But you are not." It was not a question, but Aragorn shook his head anyway, affirming Pelhar's statement. The captain of the Sarn Ford guard sipped his tea, measuring his young chieftain in silence from over the rim of his mug. "Dogs made a difference?"
"Well, dogs will make the mood last longer than the mud… if the mud in itself isn't enough to sour a man, reminding him of a certain want of recompense," Pelhar replied. And when Aragorn did not respond to that, other than to frown the more pensively, his captain narrowed his eyes slightly. "No?"
"It is not untrue, what you have said," the lad answered. Pelhar cocked his head, hearing the qualification hovering unspoken, and so voiced it:
"They put you in question, the dogs and the mud and the farmers,” Aragorn said after a few moments. Then: “Master Elrond taught me that it is wrong to esteem oneself too high, but wrong also to undervalue one's own worth, just as one should not falsely praise or detract from another.” He shook his head, though as if to clear it this time. "I cannot find my balance here—between Rangers and Bree-landers, there is naught but spin and dizziness!"
"Spin and dizziness, is it?" Pelhar grunted, by way of inviting further speech. Not, it seemed, that much invitation was needed.
"Turn one way, and everyone looks up; turn the other, they look down," Aragorn replied, frowning and clearly vexed. "Among Rangers, I'm my father, and his fathers all before him back to Isildur and Elendil; among any others, I'm nothing—not even Estel, which was false enough; just a no-name vagabond who gets names as others find one to hang on him."
"And who are you now?" Pelhar asked quietly, and got a shrug.
"I'm in the middle, I suppose, sir." Aragorn paused, turning his cooling mug in his hands. Then: "This morning I was no one at the end of a man's pitchfork and the mercy of his dogs—and the moment he turned his back on me, I could have struck him for it!" He grimaced. "Lord's son or vagabond, they're neither of them Rangers to raise a hand to such a one, so I know I've not been that today!"
At that, Pelhar frowned. "Did you raise a hand to him?"
"I wanted to," came the low, troubled reply, as Aragorn lowered his eyes. "There was a moment… I nearly did."
Thank the Valar! Pelhar breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Lad," he said, "there's a great world of difference between wanting and doing, though I'll grant you 'tis better not to want to. But I assure you, that with the rare exception of a few lads whose guilelessness nearly ended them before they could end it, there's not one of us who hasn't been tempted to beat ignorance into respect under the guise of knowledge. And there is not one among us who has not felt his head reeling from time to time, and wondered who he was and why."
Aragorn seemed to consider this a moment, but then: "With all due respect, Captain, I do not see the others reeling so."
"Not yet, perhaps, but they will—most men spend their first year in the Wild bored and weary. They shall bear it awhile, and then later on, it starts to wear on them and then they start to teeter on doubts, questions they thought they had banished as starless yearlings," Pelhar replied with the confidence that came of twenty years under a Ranger's cloak.
"But they shall stop teetering, will they not?" And when Pelhar nodded, he demanded further, "For there will be someone over them to steady them?"
At that, Pelhar shook his head and hastened to forestall the objection clearly working towards a hearing in that question.
"'Tis true, you are the son of the Chieftain, and will take up his place yourself one day soon enough—none other can say that. And 'tis true, none of us has been Elrond's fosterling," he conceded. "None of these matters are light, nor easily borne up to, and I should not say otherwise.
"But," and now his tone grew markedly sharper than it had been, "you're mortal as any of us, and young as we all have been, and there's no one who hasn't stumbled over being his father's son in the eyes of others, or being spit and dirt to a Bree-land cotter. Don't begin to think, lad, that there is no one who understands what troubles you—go far enough down that road and you will be lost beyond finding or aid. Rangering is lonely enough work—do not make it lonelier thinking there's somewhat special about your own pains. There will be someone who can hear what it is pains you, if you'll look for him."
Pelhar paused a moment, eyeing his companion, taking in the slight flush to the other's cheeks, but also the thoughtful silence across the table, and the fact that Aragorn was watching him straightly enough. Mayhap he's begun to grasp it—we'll hope so! he thought.
Perhaps he had, in a way. For he asked then, "So… had you been in my place this morning, Captain, how would you have taken it?"
Pelhar raised a cautionary forefinger. "I'm compelled to point out: I would not have been in your place this morning—I've not been doing this twenty years to traipse over some farmer's field with no urgent reason. But," he allowed, "I have no doubt that when I was your age, I would have limped the long way back to the road, dreaming of vengeance and dogskin coats the while, and composed a fairly slanderous song in honor of the insolent fellow until my captain sat me down and had a word with me about the matter."
Aragorn frowned at that. "Limped?" he echoed, displaying an irritating aptitude to catch on words others might have overlooked. Pelhar sighed.
"There was a tree involved," he explained, with vast dignity. And when Aragorn, after a moment's nonplussed staring, began to laugh, even putting his head down on the table, the Captain of the Sarn Ford guard looked on with an expression of pained tolerance, though in truth he was glad to see it.
And so, when Aragorn at length straightened, and reached for his tea, attempting, apparently, to drown the last of the chuckles, Pelhar let his face soften into a slight smile, as he finished gently, "'Tis a hard road, Aragorn, and it hurts to give what wounds you up to another's understanding, but 'tis better than hoarding such hurts. That I know, if nothing else."
"I shall strive to remember it, Captain," Aragorn promised. "And I shall look for those to remind me of it by their understanding."
"Good," Pelhar replied, and took a long draw on his pipe. And: He'll be all right, then, I think, he judged, as his young lord settled into his chair to join him in savoring the smoke. Aye, he ought to do well indeed!
He would remember that morning conversation some years later, when he came home from the cold and a long walk back from Dale to find Aragorn gone east to dwell among strangers and a note waiting for him.
I remember well your lesson, Captain. I would put it to the test before it is urgent—if there is hope, then I should find many who can hear what wounds us here in Eriador. Perhaps then, too, I shall get a hold upon myself and stop reeling.
Pelhar had cursed his own advice for a long, beery night that had left his head aching and him ruing the cleverness of age, which he could feel all too surely as he watched the sun rise. But there was no rest for the wicked, nor even for the wounded, and he had turned to other matters, setting guilt to one side, if not worry.
"There's no unsaying what's said, nor what's true," as he told Caranthar later. "May it not kill him, this seeking after truth!"
"No, there is not," the Lieutenant of the Angle had replied. Then: "Estel he was among the Elves. He'll be well, I trust. As for the rest of us…"
"Aye," Pelhar had murmured, fervently, and gave Caranthar a wan, meaningful smile. "I know."
Caranthar had stared at him a moment, then sighed and clapped his shoulder. "So do we all," he had replied. "So do we all!"
Birthday well wishes to Vilwarin, first of all, but also to Gandalfs Apprentice, who got a part of this story for her birthday last year. I hope you don't mind sharing!
This started out as the story (no doubt one of several) that Aragorn conveniently forgot to mention to the hobbits when he claimed that his cuts, short or long, didn't go wrong. It ended up somewhere else, but I think it holds together well enough despite that.