Terrified of the trees, he’d managed to flee south of the road, then East along its verge, carefully scouting around the village, until he was far from the Downs where the horror had sought to take him. What it was that had started it he had no idea, but there were places similar to it in Angmar where the Witchking and those closest to him had reportedly done unspeakable things to augment their power. Had the people of Arnor done such things there? he wondered. What kinds of things must one do to awaken the evil spirits in that manner? He’d been fortunate he was not that far from the border, that he’d recognized the feeling, that even in the unseasonable fog that had suddenly risen around him he’d kept his sense of where the road was and had made his way to it swiftly and passed the hedge and was across it ere the wights could take him.
Once east of the village he just kept going, finally crossing again to the forested area north of the road. Before day’s end he came back to the road, for the forest had ended at the foot of a rise, and he was in danger of traveling through a great marsh if he continued. He’d seen no others so far that day, so he traveled along the road in the gathering dark, then went south of it to rest. The following day he again traveled from before sunup, managing to get far East of the marshlands and into an area of intermittent trees, rocky outcrops, and frequent ruins that spoke of this area having once been settled. He finally found a copse of trees north of the road where he felt hidden, and made his meager camp there. Where the rest of his people were he had no idea. He was certain Godro and Herrstein, who’d entered the Downs before him, must be dead, that the horror he’d felt had been between them and himself, was intent on taking them, in fact. He grieved for Godro, with whom he’d trained. Herrstein was no loss. As for all else--they could all be taken by this time.
Again he woke before dawn and headed East, taking cover near noon to rest. Not long after he hid himself away in the ruins of what appeared to have been a shepherd’s cote, he heard a soft and gentle sound, had risen up to see a riding of Elves along the road heading West. They were not of a great number, not more than six men of the Elves. They rode not with banners, but with a light cart which carried poles and rolls of fabric, yet they sang as they rode and indeed their voices were haunting as the legends of Angmar reported. He watched with awe as they disappeared to the West. He wondered where they went, but soon forgot them as he found the further travel that day was made difficult by lack of cover.
He finally stopped again in what seemed to be the ruins of a farmstead, and there he ate a small amount of what remained of his rations, found the well had not fallen in and he was able to get water, then paused to rest. He felt somewhat feverish, and was glad of the shelter. He slept long, through the rest of the afternoon and into the following morning, past the dawning, in fact. He sighed as he woke to the day, wondering if he ought to move on. He’d come down from Angmar with a purpose, to assist in the fomenting of war between the peoples of Arnor and his own, and he still was bound to that purpose. He’d been chosen because he was an archer, and one of the best in his land. Well, he could perhaps still manage his task, he supposed, even if the rest were all killed or taken.
He did not move on, but stayed there in the shelter of the ruins, and ate a handful of grain from his rapidly dwindling supplies. He had good sight of the road and any who might come along it. It had been rumored that the King’s party would come this way, although the destination was not clear. What was there, after all, East of this place? After some water taken from the well, he settled himself down, saw his bow strung, stuck three of his arrows into the soil before him, set himself to wait.
It was the drowsing, perhaps, that saved him from discovery by the Elves riding out from the party. As his attention was drifting with the vague dreams that had filled him, they did not notice his presence even in thought; and the manner in which he’d taken cover under a fallen branch from the dying elm tree that grew in the ruins hid him from view. Only Legolas seemed unsettled, which was odd as he was the one least familiar with the way.
The King rode this noontide with Brendilac Brandybuck on one side and Master Saradoc on the other, discussing law, the land of Buckland, what it was like growing up so near the river’s bank, accidents along the Brandywine, and, inevitably, the details learned of the deaths of Drogo and Primula Baggins and the childhood of Frodo.
“We were unable to piece it all together, save that Primula, who was a strong swimmer, had a serious bump on her head, indicating she probably came up under the boat and struck her head on the gunwale. She stunned herself, apparently, and drowned. We think Drogo was thrown clear. We found the boat, upside down, and Primula early in the morning, but didn’t find Drogo until the following day, quite far down river, caught in the roots of a tree which had been washed downstream the preceding winter and had fetched up against the bank. All we could figure is that something probably disturbed the boat just as Drogo changed his position, which appears to have tipped it.”
“They were alone?”
“Yes. Primula loved drifting down the river, and had come to enjoy doing so under the stars. Frodo inherited her fascination for the stars, and never lost his love of them. No one seemed to realize they weren’t back until Frodo came alone to early breakfast, asking after his mum and dad. They went out immediately to look, found the boat and her soon after. That was bad enough for the lad. But when, next day, they finally found Drogo’s body and brought it back, he was badly taken. We’d told all the little ones to stay inside, but several of the young ones came out anyway. The body was already badly bloated, and all of a sudden Mum realized Frodo was there, seeing that.”
Brendi nodded. “We’d been told repeatedly to stay inside, but Frodo was half mad with anxiety. When they wouldn’t let us out the main door, we went round to one of the side doors that they weren’t watching at the moment. Frodo went around the front to where the river watchers were bringing up the litter on which they’d carried his dad’s body. He looked at it, went totally white, and just stood there. All of us were shocked, for it didn’t look like Cousin Drogo any more. But Frodo---- He just stood there, his face blank with shock, his eyes deeply shadowed and fixed on that bloated corpse, shaking with the horror of it. Then Aunt Menegilda took his wrist and became terribly concerned, laid her head on his chest, went white herself, and had them take him inside to his room.
“That was when they stopped letting him play properly and all. They told us he was weakened by his folks’ death, that he needed to be kept calm and quiet--but he never seemed to recover from it, if you understand me--not according to Aunt Menegilda. She was absolutely livid when Bilbo arrived just in time for the funeral, and came from the Hall to the graveyard bringing Frodo with him. He finally got across Frodo was worse upset not knowing what was happening than if he were present, but I thought she was going to forbid Bilbo to come back after that.”
Before them Pippin began singing a soldier’s song to entertain Piper, Alumbard, and Levandoras, and Merry was telling Narcissa and the wives about finding the stone trolls and thinking they were alive, and Strider’s casual approach to them with a rotten branch. “He knew what they were, of course; must have seen them countless times since Gandalf tricked them into arguing until after sunrise, and probably heard Bilbo retell the tale at least a hundred times as well.”
Brendilac stopped to listen, and started to laugh. He looked up into the King’s eyes. “Did you really?” he asked.
Aragorn laughed. “Oh, yes, I did, and he was right about my having passed them often--and having heard the story often as well. We will stop to see them if you’d like.”
Faramir, who rode not far behind the King, laughed and shook his head. “It is wonderful, my Lord, to see you in your own lands, and to see the proofs that your own tales are yet true. Although, if I remember correctly, the first time I heard that tale Merry was telling it then, too, to distract us while we waited in the Houses of Healing.”
Lady Éowyn looked back to see what had sparked laughter in her husband, saw that he and the King and those around them were all relaxed and laughing once more, and turned to share a relieved smile with Arwen and Mirieth. Suddenly Arwen straightened, began to look around, as did Lord Glorfindel. Legolas was already unshouldering his bow and automatically nocking an arrow....
The sound of singing and laughter woke him, and he rose up to see that the King’s party was passing on the road. They’d been told the King was extraordinarily tall, almost like an Elf himself, but bearded, and there he rode, apparently in the midst of a group of children. Why were they bringing such a party of children through this wilderness? Didn’t matter, really, he supposed. He raised bow, casually nocked the arrow, let fly----
----And before the string on the bow had the chance to stop thrumming, he himself had an arrow in his upper arm and the bow was lying useless on the ground, and he looked to see that one of the children was straightening, turning to the King, and his own arrow took him in the left shoulder.
Brendilac had seen a flower growing there beside the path, one he’d not seen before, similar to a sunflower but smaller and purple where sunflowers were golden. He leaned down to look at it, straightened to share the beauty of it with the King----
----And he was hit by something, was falling, felt puzzled, then was fled somewhere....
It was the reflexes of Strider the Ranger that caught Brendilac before he could pitch off the pony completely, who was off Roheryn before his conscious mind fully registered that the attack had consisted of that one, single arrow. The guards had the rest of the Hobbits and the group from Bree gather together and counted to make certain all were safe and accounted for. Legolas, Elladan, and Glorfindel were already surrounding the lone archer, and Elladan, leaning over the Man, called out in Sindarin that the Man was alone, had been struck by Legolas’s arrow, and would not bend the bow further today, but was largely unhurt. They lifted the Man almost casually and brought him back to where the rest were beginning to quickly assemble a camp as the King checked over the lawyer.
“Shock to the body, but above the lungs. Still probably seriously wounded,” he stated flatly to Budgie and Elladan. “Near one of the major blood vessels....”
Lasgon was there already with the surgeon’s kit and healer’s bag from the cart, and Gimli had started a fire going while Sam had managed to get his kettle off the pack pony for his family and was filling it from the water bottles they carried. After checking over the Angmarian archer and ascertaining he was in no immediate danger, he asked Hardorn to remove the arrow. “Best to break it and push it through,” he suggested, “but do be gentle. I wish to question him when I have time.” Assisted by the Hobbit healer and Elladan, he turned his major attention to Brendilac.
It took almost an hour to get the arrow out without doing more damage, and a while longer to get the blood staunched and the wound stitched properly. Sam had steaming water there by them throughout, and the athelas was steeping, smelling, the King noted, of river water and the scent of pinks. Finally free to begin the invocation, he and Elladan began to let their fingers feel deep. The amount of healing drawn from both was substantial, and both were surprised, but then heartened as the breathing of the Hobbit began to deepen, the heartbeat to strengthen and steady. He looked up at them briefly from surprised eyes, then drifted into a proper sleep. Wrapped in a couple of blankets and tended by Narcissa and Forsythia, they left him to tend to the other.
Already Sam had set steaming water there, too. He’d checked out the ruined farmstead and found the well, had managed to refill the bottles as well as his kettle. The cooled water Sam had set the athelas to steep in sat there, too, and there was a lingering odor of pastureland. The King took up one of the cloths his wife, Éowyn, and Esmeralda Brandybuck had set out for the use by those working in the healing, and dipped it into the cooled water, carefully removed the packed bandages, and began cleaning the wound. As Sam came to his side with a packet of athelas, the King accepted the leaves with thanks, crushed them and breathed on them, then set them to steep, beginning again to sing the Invocation.
“No--no spells!” the archer said, writhing.
Sam looked on him with distaste. “There’s no spell,” he said. “Can’t you tell the difference between spells and prayers?”
The archer didn’t quite understand, but was calmed by the small figure’s coolness. They weren’t children, he realized--at least, not most of them. Plainly this was a man of his people, competent, his eyes revealing he’d seen far too much to ever look innocence for himself in the eye again. A child approached him, a girlchild, small and delicate, her hair golden as the sun compared to that of the small manling which was the deep golden brown of dark honey, her eyes hazel and clear as she evaluated this odd, deadly guest. He realized both father and daughter were barefoot, that there was thick hair on the tops of their feet, that their ears were slightly pointed. The girlchild reached up to take her father’s hand, smiled up trustingly into his eyes, then looked back at him again, her smile fading as she examined him with a level of calculation no child that small ought to be able to make. He dropped his eyes from hers, then gave a hiss of pain as the King dabbed again at the wound, then set down the cloth and basin, was reaching for thread and needle. Another of the small manlings was taking out a thick piece of leather, holding it up for him to take in his mouth and bite down on it, and he was glad of it as the stitching began. The King himself was tending to him, and doing a highly competent job of it, the archer realized. One of the Elves stood beside him and assisted as necessary, and the manling who’d given him the leather to bite upon was also helping. The archer recognized the look in the eyes of each of these--healers, all three. No one had told him that the King of Arnor was a healer.
Several of the female manlings had begun helping the Elf who was preparing the meal, and when at last the King was done, he and the two who’d assisted him were brought food. The archer didn’t think he’d receive food as well, although he realized his body craved it after his short rations over the last three days; but the small manling who’d spoken to him earlier himself brought a plate to him, began to feed him. This was one who knew what to do after short rations, for he fed him slowly, was watching him closely for any bad effect, nodding after every sign the archer could retain what he’d just taken in. Finally he said, “That’s enough for now, or you’ll but lose it again,” rose, and took the plate away. The archer was surprised at how strong the desire was for him to bring it back, but bit it back, recognizing this manling was indeed experienced.
The King was now kneeling again over the wounded manling he’d hit. Those who guarded the archer goaded him to his feet, and made him come closer. Yes, this was a manling like the others, not a child. Pleasant, intelligent face, although shadowed now by pain as he awoke once more. Cuffs stained deeply with ink, and ink spots on his shirtfront as well. Not a warrior. Approaching him was another manling, this one in mail and a leather hauberk, this one definitely a warrior, as well as the manling archer who accompanied him. They were looking him up and down, obviously angry at the injury done their fellow.
“What are we going to do with this one?” asked the warrior manling.
“He will accompany us to Rivendell,” the King said quietly. “Tell me, Brendilac, do you think you can bear being lifted?”
The wounded manling moved his shoulder and went white with pain. “If I don’t move it,” he managed, “I think I could bear it.”
Leather straps and strips of cloth were brought, and the shoulder was bound and strapped. Finally the healer Elf mounted his horse, and the King lifted the small figure gently and laid him in the the rider’s arms. A brief exchange in the Elves’ language between King and mounted Elf, and the Elf turned and rode off swiftly and smoothly.
The King then turned to the archer. When he spoke, it was in the Angmarian’s own tongue. “I am not pleased with you, needless to say. Obviously I was your primary target, and had not Brendilac straightened when he did, I’d have been gut wounded, which could have been deadly. As it is, he is seriously injured. You will find I do not take well to injuries inflicted on the Periannath.” The King looked into his eyes, felt his pulse. “You can ride, and ride you will. They’ve unburdened one of the packhorses, and you will be bound to it. Do not seek to take it where you would--it is Elven trained, and will respond to my command. Do you understand?”
At the archer’s nod, he was led to the pack horse and lifted onto it, where he found no saddle or bridle. His feet were bound beneath the horse’s belly, and his good hand was able to do no more than hold the horse’s mane. Satisfied he was mounted, those who’d seen to it went to mount their own animals. Soon the small fire was out and they were on their way again.
Several days they traveled in this way. The archer had the chance to observe his companions. The King spent time with all those who rode with him, talking to each one in turn, Men, Elves, Dwarf, and the small, barefoot manlings that called themselves Hobbits. Most of the Hobbits were cheerful sorts, given to jokes and songs and idle talk. Two, however, the largest of all of them, were definitely warriors, both armed with swords which they obviously knew how to use. Several were archers. All of them, even the womenfolk and children among them, he realized, were good with thrown stones. One day during their noon rest a target was raised and all were throwing stones at it--and he saw only one whose stones were likely to miss it--and he proved to be blind. Several of the archers, Men, Hobbits, and Elves, shot at a cloth sack filled with grasses, and he saw that the Men and Hobbits were equally skilled, although of course the Men and Elves could pull a stronger bow than the small ones. As for the Elves, their accuracy with their bows was beyond belief.
Several times in the morning the swordsmen would spar, and he saw that none refused to spar with the two Hobbit swordsmen, and that their lack of reach was more than outweighed by their agility. He was surprised when he realized that one of those who sparred with them was actually a woman, and that she was as good as many of the Men. He watched her weave and bob, twist and parry, and realized his jaw had dropped in amazement.
“She’s quite good, she is, the Lady Éowyn.” The unexpected voice beside him startled him, and he looked down to see that the solemn Hobbit who’d first fed him was standing beside him.
“That is her name?”
“Yes. Her brother’s King of Rohan. She’s married the Lord Prince Steward Faramir of Gondor. She’s taken to healing since the war, but she’ll never fully leave off sword practice, I think. Gives Merry there a good workout, she does.”
“What happened to the one of your people I shot?”
The Hobbit breathed deeply through his nose, then answered, “The Lord Elladan took him on ahead to Rivendell. Elven horses can go swifter’n mortals’ steeds, and lots faster than our ponies. He was pretty bad hurt.”
“I did not intend to hit him.”
The Hobbit looked up at him sternly. “I know. You intended to shoot our King, and I’ll tell you this--had you got him, you’d of regretted it. We tend to love our King, you see.”
“He practices fell magics....”
The Hobbit snorted. “There you go again about fell practices, you whose folk followed the Witchking of Angmar for how long? What fell practices? And don’t go on about feedin’ old folks and children to the great Eagles, cus I’m here to tell you that is sheer rot.”
“How do you know it’s--rot?”
“Cuz I was one of the two your fool witness saw being carried by them. They wasn’t taking me to eat me--they was rescuing my Master and me from the ruin of Mordor. And as for folks making women and children stand up to the Nazgul--well, there the two of them stand as done that, the Lady Éowyn and Merry there. Oh we heard it all, there in Bree.”
“Someone awakened evil spirits there West of the place you call Bree.”
“Yes, someone did, and as the King can tell you, that was the Witchking of Angmar, when King Arvedui’s folk fled across our lands and our people helped them to safety. Was intent on making the passage to and through the Shire unsafe, he was, so he took the old burial mounds and called the wights to them. Right unpleasant soul, the Lord of the Ringwraiths was. At least we don’t have him to worry the world of Arda no more, thanks to them two. Not that he’d of survived any more than the others once the Ring was gone.”
After a time of silence as they saw Merry and Éowyn finish their sparring and another pair take their place, the archer asked, “What were you doing in Mordor?”
“Helping my Master.”
“Helping him do what?”
“See to it the Enemy’s Ring got to where it could be destroyed.”
“What would he care about a ring?”
The small one looked up intently into his eyes. “Sauron used his own power to charge that thing, so much of it that he couldn’t continue if it was gone. Long as it survived, he could survive. When it was gone--well, that was the end of his power. Even less substantial than Morgoth now.”
“Why do you travel with the King?”
“There’s a conference for the leaders of the peoples of the Kingdom. We’re all going to it.”
After another period of silence, the archer asked, “What happened to the rest of my people?”
“Apparently six died in the Old Forest or the Barrow Downs. Trees in the Old Forest hate people, will shift their places, herd them to Old Man Willow, who will kill them if he can. You don’t want to meet Old Man Willow, believe me. As for the Barrow Downs--since the Witch King brought the wights, that’s among the most dangerous places in Arnor or Gondor.
“Legolas got into the Old Forest in time to save four of those as crossed the road. Said the trees was very vindictive, and only one got away by hisself, and I guess that was you. Probably let you go cuz you carry arrows instead of a sword. They don’t like any blade as could cut down a tree, you see.
“The rest the Rangers and Strider and Bowman took. We heard it all there in Bree.”
“Then they are all dead?”
“All dead? What makes you think that? No, they’re not all dead. Only one is, and he’s only dead cuz he said as he was going to break his sword, but instead he picked up someone else’s and tried to stab Lord Faramir. Got hisself beheaded, he did. The others is locked up for now, I guess, but they ain’t dead, and not likely to die in any case afore the natural time, I suppose, less’n one of them takes the notion to threaten someone again.”
“Sam-Dad,” said a child’s voice. Both looked down to see the tiny girlchild. “Mummy says you ought to come and fill up the corners.”
“Thank her, dearling, and tell her as I filled them up the first time I et.”
“You did not. You didn’t eat much at all. She says you start looking like Uncle Frodo and she’ll have the King force feed you.”
“She would, too, wouldn’t she? Well, just tell her I’m a far sight from ever looking like him. And tell her I love her and worship the ground she stands on. Go on now, Elanorelle.”
With a disapproving look the child disappeared back toward the Hobbit women. The Hobbit smiled after her. “Takes after her mum, Elanor does.”
The King sat with the people from Bree today, listening as the five of them explained some situation they felt to be of supreme importance. The archer looked at him thoughtfully. “He said he wished to question me, but hasn’t done so yet.”
The Hobbit shrugged. “No, but he’ll get around to it. He’s most like letting hisself cool down proper afore he speaks to you. One way he’s like the Ents--doesn’t like to get too hasty, he doesn’t. When he questions you, he will be in control, and then the questioning will be thorough.”
“You say the King doesn’t practice fell magics?”
“Only truly odd thing as he does I’ve ever seen is that he can help folks as to heal faster than usual, but that’s something he inherited from his Elvish side--that and having foresight. Same thing with Lord Elrond and his children. Never seen any sign of him doing any kind of fell things.”
“Then why are the trees in the Old Forest able to move?”
“They’ve been able to move, the Elves tell me, since the days of Starlight, them and the Trees of Fangorn Forest. Naught to do with the King at all.” He stretched. “I’d best be getting back, or my Rosie will be putting a bug in Strider’s ear as how I’m not eating proper and all. We’ll be leaving soon, we will.” He nodded and headed off for his family, and the archer saw a small toddling child hurry toward him and reach up to be lifted easily to his left shoulder, his face alight with the pleasure of parenthood. Reaching down his right hand to a small boychild, he continued on to the Hobbit woman the archer had identified as his wife, kissed her tenderly, and they continued on to the ponies.
The one he’d had identified as the Lord Prince Steward Faramir of Gondor came now close, accompanying his wife, the Lady Éowyn, whose swordmanship he’d been watching. She had changed from the trousers she’d worn earlier when sparring with the Hobbit Merry, now wore a skirt split for riding, as did all the women among Men he’d seen riding with the assembly. Her long golden hair had been brushed thoroughly, braided, and wound into a coronet about her head; she carried a roll of clean cloths and bandages while her husband carried a steaming basin; and as she walked by the side of her husband they exchanged soft words the archer could not hear, and smiles that displayed a wondrous intimacy. Then she looked at himself, and a studied neutrality filled her face. She came closer.
“I am to examine your wound this morning,” she said quietly. At the archer’s nod she set her roll on her husband’s arm, then rolled up his sleeve and carefully removed the bandages he’d worn since the previous evening and examined the wound with a practiced eye. “Still some seepage, but that is to be expected of an arrow wound that pierced the arm,” she said. She took one of the cloths and dipped it into the steaming water, carefully but thoroughly cleansed the wound, set one of the leaves that had been steeping in the water against each side as had the King and the smaller healer who’d checked it three times a day since he unwillingly joined the party, and began to wind a new bandage about it.
As she worked, he commented, “You are skilled with a blade.”
“Yes,” she responded.
“The one known as Sam-Dad tells me--tells me that you faced the Lord of the Nazgul.”
“Yes.” Her mouth had begun initially to twitch as if suppressing a smile, but it had faded as he’d completed his statement.
“That was a brave deed.”
She looked up into his eyes. “It was a desperate one. I thought I desired but death, and he threatened my Lord uncle’s life. In the end I did not save my uncle--he died but moments later of his injuries; while I lived, and have lived to rejoice that the death I thought I sought did not come to me then.” She looked down to finish off the bandage. “At least my uncle’s last awareness was not of being eaten by--by that creature of the Enemy’s.” She examined his eyes professionally. “You will be well enough, I think. I would still suggest the wearing of a sling for a few days more.”
“Thank you, my Lady.”
It was the other small one who brought him his breakfast, the one who was bearded and traveled not on pony back but with a great wagon drawn by great dray horses. He did not look as the Hobbits did, and he wore fine boots of a yet curious design, one sole quite thick, and clothing of the design of the Men of the South Kingdom. He traveled with two tall youths and a small woman who was plainly his wife, yet she was a woman among Men, not one of the Hobbit-kind. What his place was within the party was difficult to discern. As his wagon traveled at the back of the troop it could not be seen precisely what he did as he traveled, but the archer knew that often those among the Hobbits hung back to ride with him, and often in the evening he and his wife would join them by the fire before retreating into the wagon for the night.
“Thank you,” the archer said.
“I am Ruvemir of Lebennin,” the small fellow said. “Has any inquired as yet what your name is? I’d heard none use it.”
After a moment’s pause, the archer answered, “Sestor.”
The one who called himself Ruvemir nodded and smiled. “You are doing much better, it appears.”
“I feel well enough. Thank you.” He ate quickly.
The small Man looked at the company. One of the Hobbit women, one who traveled with two who appeared to be brother and sister and were almost grown, was seeing to her charges. She had the preoccupied look she’d borne since Sestor had joined the party. Sestor, as he finished his meal, looked at her. “She is worried.”
“Yes, for you wounded the one she is coming to care for,” Ruvemir said. “I think she is only now coming to realize how much Brendilac has come to mean to her. It is a good thing, now that the one she loved earlier in her life is gone from us.”
“She loved one who has died?”
“I did not say he died, merely that he is gone from us. Although, for those of us here it is perhaps no different than it would be had he indeed died.” He looked out over the entire assembly. “All of us have been touched by the legacy of the Lord Frodo Baggins, including,” he said, turning to examine Sestor’s face, “you and your people, whether or not you know it as yet.”
“What did he do?”
“He went with the Lord Samwise to Mount Doom to the destruction of the Enemy’s Ring and thus to the destruction forever of Sauron’s power. From now on the evil we face will be that we bear in our own hearts, not the actions of a great one intended to be an immortal power.” He sighed. “I see the King is readying his horse. We will leave soon. A good day to you, Sestor of Angmar.”
He took back the now empty plate and utensils and carried them to the tub where such were cleaned, scoured them with the fine sand they carried there, rinsed them, and bore them back to his wagon, where his horses were already harnessed. One of the youths assisted him onto the box while his wife looked out of the window behind him and said something in greeting. He smiled back over his shoulder at her. Sestor found himself experiencing feelings of envy for those here who were obviously so happily married. Sestor looked at where the King was tightening the cinch on his horse. Beside him was the Elf woman who was his wife. He aided her onto her steed and sprang upon his own, reached down to the maid standing there and took the small girlchild who was apparently his daughter before him, tenderly brushing her hair back from her forehead as she smiled up into his eyes, and Sestor was suddenly glad he’d not managed to injure this Man.
Not long after noon they came to a place where the way they would go left the road. Now there was a stop as the King and one of the Elves went back to speak with the ones with the great wagon. Finally they drew it over to the side, unharnessed the dray horses, carefully drew and fastened the shutters and doors, and all took to the steeds they’d led behind the wagon, leading the dray horses with them. Some bags were carefully loaded into the light cart brought by the Elves, and soon they were on their way down the other path through the woods.
A mark later they paused as one of the scouts came back with a report of a party seen ahead. “My Lord King, Lord Berenion and his folk come to join us.”
The King smiled, as did many from the Northern Kingdom. “So, the old bear himself is coming, is he?” he commented. “Good--it is far too long since we last saw him.” He gave the signal to continue on.
It was a further mark later when a goodly party came down the hills from the north to join with the King’s group. They were led by a tall, well muscled Man with a thick shock of grey hair and a well-groomed white beard. “Well, Aragorn,” he said as they came near, “it has been almost an age, or so it seems. You have indeed filled out well, and I will swear you look younger than you did when last I saw you. The rule of Gondor and Arnor, it appears, suits you well.”
The King laughed. “Nay, Berenion, it is not rule that is the tonic, but marriage to my beloved, and the fathering of my daughter. It is good to see you, good to see you indeed. How many young recruits are you beating into shape as Rangers as you beat me?”
“Now, don’t be exaggerating on me, young Man, for I beat you rarely and only when necessary. Not that you didn’t beat me back.” He noted the ones who rode as personal guards to the King, one the Hobbit warrior who dressed in the garb of the Southern Kingdom, the second one who resembled the King himself. “Ah, another of my former pupils, one you took from me and sent to your brothers and Lord Glorfindel. Hardorn, it is good to see you. And this?” He looked into the King’s eyes. “A Perian among your personal guard?”
“I taught him myself every trick you ever taught me, plus some learned elsewhere. And then he brought a few from his own land, and was further taught by Boromir of Gondor and Legolas of Eryn Lasgolen. I am satisfied with him.”
“Good, then.” The Man smiled. “I brought you a gift, my Lord, if you will have it.”
“A gift? What need have I for a gift from you save your company?”
“The foals born two years ago included a fine stallion, and a descendant of Roheryn there. He is fully worthy to succeed his long sire. I have named him Harthad.”
“You named the horse after me?”
“You and the two who went to Mordor, Aragorn.” The faces of both had become solemn. “It is good to have hope found after the long years of strife.”
After a pause, the King replied, “I thank you, my Lord Captain.”