20. Chapter Twenty
The meeting with the Council Elders lasted well into the night, well after the moon had crested the zenith of its travels. There was much arguing, mostly that Aragorn, son of Arathorn was untested and too young to take on the mantle of Chieftain. Finally, it was decided that Halbarad would remain the leader of the Dúnedain until the time that Strider had been trained in the ways of his father and was ready to inherit the title.
"It's not right!" Halbarad growled as they left the meeting.
"I understand their train of thought. I am young and untrained in the ways of the Dúnedain. I will learn all I can, from whoever is willing to teach me. There were more that agreed with you than I had anticipated," Strider said, trying to make Halbarad see reason.
"You expected this?"
"You did not?"
"I admit, I did. I just didn't think so many would be against you."
"They aren't against me. They are against my inexperience and youth. They will come around once you and the rest of the rangers teach me all I need to know."
"You would think living with the twins of Elrond would be school enough. Those two know more than all of us put together," Halbarad said.
When they reached the home of Ivorwen and Dírhael, he turned to Strider and clasped him on the shoulder. "No matter what the Council agreed to, you are my Chieftain and I will follow you to the end of Middle Earth."
Strider stared at him, the moonlight shining on his dark hair, glittering in the silver-grey eyes and he saw that he meant the words he had spoken. Halbarad was his man. It meant a lot to him.
"Thank you, my friend."
"Oh, you may thank me now. But after tomorrow, I am not sure you will ever thank me again. Your training will start right after breakfast. Eat hearty, my Chieftain. You will need your strength."
Strider woke with the smell of fresh bread and sausage. He stretched and sighed softly. His grandmother was up before the sun and making him breakfast. A man could get used to this; though he was sure he wouldn't have the time. He swung his legs over the side of the small bed and pulled his soft elven leather boots on. Heading out into the main room, he spied Ivorwen at the fire, turning the sausages.
"Good morning, grandson. Would you like eggs with your sausage and bread? The chickens actually laid a few big ones this morning."
"Don't go to any trouble, grandmother."
"You have to eat. It is my understanding that your training will start today. This may be the last good meal you have for a while. Rangers tend to take their new recruits out into the wilds to learn the ropes, so to speak," she said, placing a plate full of fresh cooked sausages on the table.
Strider looked at the table, laden with fresh fruit, cheese, bread and cold milk from the cellar. It wasn't the sumptuous fare that the cooks of Imladris set out, but he thought she might be right. Halbarad did say to eat heartily. And he was never one to turn down a good home cooked meal.
He pulled the chair out and settled at the table. Strider made a plate full of fresh bread, a hunk of cheese, apple slices, sausages and the three eggs Ivorwen slid from the pan. He ate well, washing it all down with the fresh milk. Sitting back in his chair, he rubbed his full stomach. Maybe he shouldn't have eaten so much.
"That was wonderful," he said.
"Good. I have packed you some food for later. I know Halbarad will have you working hard today, but he won't starve you. There is enough for both of you. You had best go find your teacher," she said, handing him the bundle of food.
Strider kissed her cheek, took the bundle and headed for the door. Just by the heavy wooden door was his sword, which he grabbed. With a last wave at her, he slipped from the house, ready to begin his training as a Dúnedain ranger.
Strider met Halbarad at the edge of the village. They were going into the woods so Strider could show Halbarad the skills he had learned in tracking and hunting. If he were to be a ranger, he would not only have to take care of himself, but all the men that served under his command.
Halbarad silently led the way, knowing that some of his men were already in the woods, laying down trails and setting traps. It would be up to Strider once they were at the appointed place to find the traps and trails within a certain allotted time. If he could do that, he would pass the first of many tests.
"There are false trails, Strider, and many traps along the way. You must follow the true path, avoid getting captured and find the flag that matches this one," Halbarad said, showing him a deep green piece of cloth. "It will not be easy. Some of my most valued men are on the trail. You must either avoid them, or relieve them of their weapons. They will not go easy on you and you must not mistake their intent on seeing you fail."
Strider nodded. Glorfindel and the twins had made him play a much similar war game in Rivendell. There were no mercies given and he had received many a cut, scrape and bruise along the way. But he had passed and he was confident that he could pass this test as well.
"You have an hour, Strider. Not a moment longer."
Strider nodded then headed off onto the clearly marked beginning of the trail. He was sure that this was going to be the last easy part of the task.
The wood was dark, even at mid-morning. Strider glanced cautiously about him, reading the broken branches, the over turned rocks, the crushed blades of grass. All around him the wood spoke to him, showing him the way that the rangers had taken before him. He found where one man had walked into the brush only to return on the same path, walking in the footsteps he had previously made.
It was a trick that Elladan had fooled him with the first time they had played this war game. He had gone into the woods, only to walk back out of them backward, in the steps he had already made. Elrohir had taught him that the footprints were deeper, because they had been stepped in twice.
Strider now saw the same indentations as he had then. They were deeper, more so because they were made by a man and not an elf. Passing by the false path, he continued on his way, listening to all around him. What he didn't hear any longer were the birds.
Sensing danger, he pulled his sword from its sheath at his side and slowly continued on. Before he head taken three steps, Strider side stepped off the path into the brush, concealing himself behind a huge tree trunk. Peering out from behind the tree, he saw two men walking stealthily along the path. Each man was wearing the garb of a ranger and carrying a sword at the ready.
'Ah…' he thought. The valued men Halbarad spoke of. They didn't give him much time before they started to hunt him. He waited silently until they moved off. The path would be well guarded. He would have to find another way through the woods.
Halbarad stood at the edge of the wood with Ortherion and Tawarlann, two of his best lieutenants. They were waiting for Strider to make his way out of the trees. By looking at the sun, he knew that the time that had been allotted for Strider to complete this task was coming to a close.
"So where is he, Hal?" Ortherion asked, shielding his eyes against the bright sun.
"He has some time yet," Halbarad answered searching the tree line.
"I thought he had been trained by elves?" Tawarlann asked.
"He was…" Strider said, placing the tip of his sword at Tawarlann's throat.
Tawarlann visibly blanched. He swallowed deeply and waited with baited breath for Strider to lower his weapon.
"Strider…" Halbarad began, frowning at him.
Strider lowered his sword, grinning at Halbarad. "Did I come in under the allotted time?"
"It seems you did, but you were supposed to bring the flag with you. Without it, I can't say that you passed the test."
"You mean this flag?" Strider questioned, holding up the green flag.
"How did you get that?" Ortherion asked. "My men were standing guard over that flag."
Strider looked at the ranger and smiled. "They are unharmed. A little tied up at the moment, but unharmed nonetheless."
Halbarad couldn't hold back the mirth any longer. A huge belly laugh escaped from between tight lips and he clutched at his gut. Ortherion glared at him before heading into the woods to free his men.
"Well done, Strider!" Halbarad exclaimed, clasping the young man on the shoulder. "Come along. While Ortherion rescues his men, we shall begin your next challenge."
Strider circled his opponent warily, watching for signs of weakness. Every man had a certain way of fighting; his brothers had taught him that. It was unusual for a man to be able to change those habits. There was always something that he did that gave away his upper hand. All one had to do was wait and watch. That is if one had time.
Thankfully, he had learned to spot a weakness quickly. Just as Baranor lunged forward, Strider parried, effectively blocking the attack. The blades caressed, the metallic scraping sound echoing in the open field. Strider swung his blade around, knocking Baranor slightly off balance. Sensing the opening he needed, he pressed the attack, causing Baranor to retreat.
"Hold!" Halbarad cried, stopping the training.
Baranor eased to the ground, breathing hard. "Thank you, Hal. The boy has some talent with a blade."
Strider nodded regally at Baranor and reached a hand to help the older ranger to his feet. "I am sorry, Baranor. I did not mean to tax you."
"The training you have received is beyond any I can teach you, young one. I say you have passed this test as well."
Halbarad grinned. Baranor was the most experienced sword trainer in all of Eriador. If he could not teach Strider any new tricks, then the young heir was well on his way to claiming the Chieftainship.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.