Disclaimer: I do not own any of the recognizable characters; I am only borrowing them for fun for a little while. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha
Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha
There was a moment of silence after Rosruin’s announcement about the returned patrol and the injured Rangers and then noise filled the Hall as people began talking, benches were pushed back, and people rushed towards the door. “Stop!” Halhigal’s strong, commanding voice rose above the noise and people froze and looked back at him with looks of surprise. Estel had not moved away from the table. His mind was focused on the wounded men and he was prepared to go with Nimrie, but she had not moved either and was apparently waiting for Halhigal to take charge of the situation.
Halhigal opened his mouth to give directions to the people and then abruptly glanced at Aragorn and a quick look of dismay crossed his face. He leaned over to speak with him, “Forgive me, my lord,” he whispered apologetically, “I didn’t mean to take your place. What would you have us do?”
Startled, Estel looked at Halhigal blankly for a moment and then, realizing that he was in charge of the village, he forced his mind and heart to slow while he quickly thought about what they needed to do. Assuming the Rangers had been fighting orcs, they would first need to protect the women and children in case any orcs remained in the area. “We need to leave the women and children here in the Hall and send the men out to make sure that the gate is secure,” he replied quietly, yet decisively. “We will have to talk with Caladel and see if they destroyed all of the orcs and then send men out to make sure,” Estel added. Halhigal nodded in approval and indicated that Estel needed to speak to the villagers who were staring at them and shifting uneasily, clearly wanting direction. “I want the women and children to stay here in the Hall,” Estel called out, his calm, steady voice carrying easily throughout the room. “I want the men and boys sixteen and older to come with me.” He glanced at his aunt, “Nimrie will you go and take care of the wounded? I will come by and see them as soon as I can.” She nodded and hurried out a side door as Estel strode quickly from the main door of the Hall followed by the other men.
Outside in the darkness several horses were milling about and Estel sent Rosruin and another boy to lead them to the stables. Dorlas and three other men were sent to the gate to make sure it was secured and to help the young men on guard there. Spotting a light shining out of an open doorway of one of the small buildings near the smithy and a couple of men clustered around the doorway, Estel swiftly moved in that direction.
“Halhigal!” Baisael called as he turned and saw Halhigal and a group of men approaching. “We were ambushed by orcs not five miles from here. Caladel and Gilost are injured,” he paused at the sharp indrawn breath of Ladreníl and then the man pushed past him and limped into the building with Sírdhim right behind.
“Did you kill all of the orcs?” Estel asked, drawing Baisael’s attention to him.
Baisael looked at him, at Halhigal and then back to Aragorn. “Lord Aragorn?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes. Did you kill all the orcs?” he asked again, somewhat impatiently.
“Yes, well at least I think so, my lord,” he hedged. “It did not seem to be a large troop, perhaps twelve or fifteen and the five of us were pushing them back and seemed to be overcoming the orcs until they got hurt,” Baisael jerked his head towards the building. “It became more difficult then as we had to protect them as well as fight,” he frowned. “I don’t think any escaped, my lord, but the brush is thick along the trail and around that clearing,” he finished.
Estel nodded, looking him over carefully for injuries absently noting his resemblance to Balrant as he did so. He spotted blood on his leggings and the sleeves of his tunic. “Are you injured?” he asked pointing to the stains.
Baisael shook his head and lightly touched his blood-stained sleeve, “It’s not mine; Caladel rode before me on my horse.”
“Where are the other men of your patrol?” he asked. Estel glanced up at the quarter moon and grimaced slightly. At least there are no clouds he thought with relief. He did not relish the thought of hunting orcs at night, especially in the low light, but he could not take a chance on letting any of them escape and threatening people at another time.
Baisael glanced around and then shrugged, “They must have gone inside, Talagan was just here.”
“What do you plan to do, my lord?” Halhigal looked closely at Aragorn, trying to get him to think about what they needed to do next.
Estel gazed at his uncle for a moment knowing full well what he was doing and then he turned back to Baisael. “Get the other members of your patrol and wait here for me.” Baisael nodded and went into the building while Estel moved a short distance away and Halhigal followed him.
“What do you mean to do?” Halhigal asked again, pitching his voice low so it would not carry to the other men.
“I mean to go out and make sure they are dead. We cannot take the chance that some have survived.”
“You are going to do it now.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yes.” There was a pause and a look of uncertainty crossed Estel’s face as he looked at his uncle. “Do you not think we should do it now? Should we wait until morning?”
“No, we should do it now,” Halhigal said quickly, “though I wish there were more light,” he too grimaced as he briefly glanced at the moon. “I wasn’t questioning you, Aragorn.”
“Uncle,” Estel glanced over his uncle’s shoulder to the waiting men and then met Halhigal’s eyes with an intensity that startled the older man. “While I would prefer not to be questioned in front of the men,” he said quietly, “I would rather that happen than to have men killed because of my lack of experience or knowledge. I am well aware of my youth and I want your advice in situations like this. You will not offend me,” Estel paused and looked away briefly, “and yet I also know that I have the responsibility to make the final decision on what has to be done.”
Halhigal nodded, “Yes you do, my lord,” he replied softly. “Tell me what you planned and I will give you my thoughts.”
“I thought to take out a small patrol,” Estel said. “Have at least one of Caladel’s men go with us to guide us to the site of the ambush and check to see if they killed them all. If not, then track them down.”
“Were you planning on leading the patrol?”
“Yes, of course,” Estel replied, startled that there would be any doubt on the part of his uncle.
“I would advise against it, my lord,” Halhigal said, carefully watching his Chieftain to see how he would take his advice. He continued at Aragorn’s questioning look. “You do not know the area around the village as do the other men and until you do, I suggest that you allow Dorlas, Faelon, or I to lead the patrol.”
Estel ran his hands through his hair and furrowed his brow in thought for a brief moment. It galled him to let someone else lead the patrol when it was his responsibility to do so, yet he knew his uncle was right and he would not let his pride stand in the way. With Ladreníl’s son injured, Estel decided it would probably be best to have Halhigal stay in the village to take charge in case there were some kind of attack and that left Faelon or Dorlas to lead the patrol. “I am going,” he said firmly, gazing at his uncle who nodded once. “I would like you to stay here and I will have Faelon lead the patrol.” Halhigal nodded again.
“I think you should take Talagan instead of Baisael, Talagan is older and more experienced. Unfortunately our best tracker is Gilost,” he said, frowning.
“I am fairly good at tracking,” Estel commented before walking over to the assembled men and boys. “Faelon, I would like you to lead a small patrol out to make sure they killed all of the orcs and to see if there are any more in the area.” Faelon nodded. “Where is Talagan?” he looked around and a man stepped forward. “We have not met,” he said, reaching over and clasping the man’s arm and Talagan bowed slightly and murmured a greeting to his Chieftain. “I would like you to go and show Faelon the site of the ambush. Faelon, I am also going with you.” Faelon’s eyes widened but he made no comment. “I think that two or three other men should be sufficient and I will let you decide who to take.” Estel deliberately did not look towards Halbarad. “I know we need to leave as soon as possible but I am going to check on the wounded and I know we need to get the horses ready and gather our weapons. How long before we leave?”
Faelon narrowed his eyes as he thought about the place where the men had been ambushed and then he shook his head, “We won’t be taking horses, my lord. I want to stay off the main trail and with the brush in that area it will be much easier on foot. We can meet at the gate in fifteen minutes.” It wouldn’t take that long to gather their weapons but if Aragorn was going to look at the wounded men then Faelon wanted to give him enough time to do so.
“I will be there,” Estel said turning towards the healing room and motioning Halhigal to join him. “Will you send one of the boys to get my bow, my cloak, and my small pack of healing supplies which is on the chair in my room?”
“I will go, my lord,” Halhigal said turning to run down the lane.
Estel watched him go reminding himself to speak to Halhigal later about calling him ‘my lord’ and then hurried into the healing room. He took in the room at a quick glance. There were four beds in the room, two of which had men lying on them. One man was moaning quietly, and the other was lying perfectly still, obviously unconscious. The beds were arranged in a row in the middle of the room and on the far side of the room, across from the door, stood a long counter with shelves above it that held the herbs, salves, bandaging supplies, and the various instruments that were used. There was a fire to the left of the door and there were many holders along the walls for candles and oil lamps and the room was well lit.
Alpheth was kneeling next to the unconscious Gilost, wiping a damp cloth over her son’s face and crooning softly while Ladreníl sat on the edge of the bed holding his hand. Sírdhim stood at the end of the bed with his arm wrapped around Gaerwen’s shoulder as she watched her brother with a worried frown, her head leaning against her grandfather’s chest.
Nimrie was working on Caladel and his wife, Emeldir, was kneeling on the opposite side of the bed, watching the healer’s every move as she caressed his hand. “Do you need my help, Aunt?” Estel asked as he looked over her shoulder at the long somewhat deep gash she was stitching across the upper part of Caladel’s chest. Another bloody bandage was high on his left arm near his shoulder. While serious, the wounds did not appear to be life-threatening. Estel could see that his aunt had done a thorough job of cleaning the wound and that the herbs she had used were appropriate to prevent infection. Of course as someone who had sewn most of her life, her stitches were small and neat.
“Not with Caladel, but you could check Gilost again, Aragorn. He has a wound that will need to be stitched but he fell and hit his head and that concerns me. His neck seems to be all right, but you might check his ribs. I don’t think any are broken, but he seemed to flinch a bit when I touched his right side.”
Estel nodded and moved towards the other bed and then paused and glanced back at Nimrie. “Do you have any athelas?”
Nimrie did not look up but nodded her head as she replied. “Yes, a few dried leaves, I haven’t used it much, Aragorn. It’s not as effective for us as it is for you and I’ve used other herbs instead, as did our last healer.”
“I will show you how you may use it at another time,” Estel commented. “Halhigal is bringing my pack and I have some leaves that have been recently picked.” Stepping to the counter he scanned the various herbs and supplies that were there as he carefully washed his hands in the basin of hot water that Nimrie had pointed out. When he finished, he motioned Ladreníl to move back and he crouched down next to Gilost. He gently laid his hand on Alpheth’s to stop the cloth from moving over Gilost’s face and she looked up at him with anguished eyes. “Alpheth, would you please get me a basin of hot water and then some clean cloths?” he asked softly. He would have asked Ladreníl but Estel knew that she needed something to do to help her son. Alpheth hurried to the fire and poured steaming water from the kettle into one of the basins sitting on the table and she carefully carried it back and set it on the floor before going to grab a pile of cloths from the counter at the far end of the room. While she was gone, Estel pulled back the blanket covering his leg and unwrapped the bandage on Gilost’s thigh. He breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw that the wound itself was not too deep, though it ran from the front of his leg halfway around the side. He laid a clean cloth over the wound and turned to examine Gilost’s head.
Feeling gently around the back and sides of the head to make sure there were no wounds other than the obvious one on Gilost’s left temple, he gave a small nod of satisfaction when he did not find any other injuries. There was a small amount of dried blood in his hair and on his face and Estel parted Gilost’s hair and found a narrow cut on the top of the swollen knot that was rapidly turning an interesting shade of purple. He decided it would not need stitches. Checking the Ranger’s eyes he was pleased to see that they responded to the light in the room and he knew it was just a matter of time until the man woke up. Estel moved his fingers carefully down and around Gilost’s neck but could not feel anything out of place, not did the Ranger stir. Sliding the blanket down to his waist, he ran his fingers over Gilost’s ribs, gently pushing on each one. As Nimrie had mentioned, Gilost flinched when he pressed on three of the ribs on his right side. Estel did not think they were broken, merely cracked but obviously it was causing Gilost pain and would probably do so for some time. Estel finally turned to Alpheth and Ladreníl, “He will be well. It will take time for him to wake up, but I do not believe he is in true danger. He will most likely be sick to his stomach for a time and he will have headaches for several days, perhaps a week, but he will recover.”
Estel looked up at a touch on his shoulder and Halhigal handed him his pack and he nodded his thanks. “I will put your bow and cloak by the door, my lord.” Estel nodded absently as he searched through his pack for his athelas leaves. Finding the carefully wrapped packet he pulled it from his pack and set the pack to the side, hurrying as he was aware that he was running out of time. He blew on the leaf that he had taken out before he crumbled it in his hands and scattered the broken pieces into the steaming basin of water. He lifted it up and set it near Gilost’s head, breathing in the scent of fresh cut hay that the water had released and he wondered if this man would rather be a farmer than a Ranger since that smell evidently soothed and refreshed him. Taking a clean cloth he dipped it into the water and carefully cleaned the wound on his head and then gently wiped the blood from his hair and face before neatly tying a bandage around his head. Moving to the injury on Gilost’s thigh, he took a clean cloth and began washing off the dried blood. As Estel parted the lips of the wound to make sure it was thoroughly clean and as safe from infection as he could make it, Gilost moved, moaning quietly and he knew that he was starting to awake. He placed a new clean cloth over the wound, leaving the stitching for Nimrie to do.
Taking some long strips of material, Estel wound them tightly around Gilost’s ribs to give him some support while they healed. Ladreníl helped lift his son and Estel gave him a nod of thanks. “How much time do I have, Uncle?” Estel asked as he straightened up.
“The men are assembled at the gate now, my lord.”
Frowning, Estel glanced at Caladel, and made a quick decision. The orcs would still be there in another five minutes. “Will you bring me a basin of hot water?” he asked Sírdhim, who hesitated and then moved to follow his request. Shifting his gaze back to Halhigal he asked “Will you go and tell Faelon that I will be there in a few minutes?” Halhigal gave a brisk nod and disappeared. “Thank you,” Estel said with a small smile as he took the basin from Sírdhim and walked to Nimrie’s side and knelt down. “How does he fare?” he asked as he took out another leaf of athelas.
“Better, the draught I gave him finally took full effect,” she replied as she neatly tied off the last stitch in his chest. Nimrie sat back on her heels and turned her gaze to Aragorn, dropping her voice to a whisper. “How is Gilost?”
Estel blew on the leaf and crumbled it into the water before he replied. “He will be well. You were right about his ribs, though they are not broken all the way just cracked. You will need to stitch his leg, I must leave.” The scent of pine trees rose from the steaming water and he smiled. “Use this to wash Caladel’s wounds; it will help with the healing.” He looked at Emeldir, who he had not met, and gave her a gentle smile. “He will recover well, lady, take heart.” She nodded, her eyes never leaving her husband. Estel patted Nimrie’s shoulder and then stood, stretching his long lean body before walking over and gathering his things.
“Be safe, Aragorn,” Nimrie called and he smiled inwardly, touched by her words and reminded of his naneth. However, he simply nodded as he fastened his pack of healing supplies to his belt before putting on his cloak and then his bow. He checked Gilost one last time, murmured encouraging words to Alpheth and the others before he headed outside and jogged down to the gate.
“Forgive me for keeping you waiting, Faelon,” Estel said quietly as he joined the small group of assembled men. Faelon had selected two others to join the patrol – Halbarad, who looked rather pleased, and a middle-aged Ranger named Dúrvain. Estel had only spoken with him briefly when they had been introduced the day before and all he knew of him was that he served on Dorlas’s patrol. He had a sudden, appalled thought. Faelon should not be leading this patrol; his group of Rangers was leaving in the morning and he should not have asked him to do this. But then Dorlas’s group was leaving in two days and so he supposed it made little difference… except to Faelon and his family. Estel grimaced inwardly; he would have to apologize to Faelon later. He shook off those thoughts and waited for Faelon’s instructions.
Surprised at Aragorn’s apology, Faelon simply nodded, he knew his Chieftain had been with the wounded men and wondered why he felt it necessary to apologize. He was finding it hard to understand this young man. Faelon was not looking forward to leading this patrol with Aragorn as one of its members, though he was interested in seeing how skilled he was in the woods. However, he knew he had to try and ignore the fact that Aragorn was the Chieftain and to concentrate on what had to be done.
“I’ll lead the way until we get closer and then you can take over, Talagan. Dúrvain, you be rear guard. Halbarad, Lord Aragorn,” he swallowed hard as he gave his instructions, but they were young and he would have said the same to any men of their age, “stay close to me.” They both nodded. Faelon turned to the men at the gate and they swung it open just enough so that the five men could slip out.
The Rangers headed northwest to skirt the edge of the marshlands that lay directly west of Dolomar. Even with the low light of the quarter moon the men were able to make good time through the woods. Faelon led them swiftly and unerringly around the worst of the dense brush in the area and along paths that various animals had made over the years. They moved almost silently, though Estel noticed that the men did make more noise than any elf ever would but still he was pleased to learn what his Rangers were capable of doing. As he had been instructed, Estel followed closely behind Faelon, all of his senses alert to his surroundings. They had been traveling for more than an hour and Estel had just caught a whiff of the stench of orcs when Faelon stopped and crouched down, his body taut as he carefully and quietly pulled his sword from its sheath.
Faelon glanced back and saw that the others were huddled right behind him. Halbarad was watching him while Talagan and Aragorn were alertly scanning the area and Dúrvain was keeping a wary eye behind them. “Talagan,” he said in a low voice, beckoning the Ranger to him. The man crept to his side and they began talking in low pitched voices. “I want you to take over now, we must be close.”
Talagan nodded, “Just a few hundred feet further, the orcs were waiting for us near that rocky outcrop where the trail takes a sharp turn and then widens.” He got to his feet, his body bent at the waist and his hand tightly gripping his sword as he wove his way through the woods. The other men followed him after a few moments, their actions mirroring Talagan’s. Stopping frequently to listen for any sounds of movement, yet hearing none, the five men soon reached the site of the ambush. Talagan stopped in the bushes at the edge of the trail and waited for the rest of the Rangers to join him. They could see the bodies of the dead orcs that lay scattered across the trail in front of them; the openness of the small clearing allowing the area to be bathed in what light could be had from the moon.
Quickly counting the bodies he could see, Estel came up with only ten, perhaps eleven if the dark shape he saw half hidden in the bush on the far side of the trail was an orc. He frowned; Baisael had thought there were between twelve and fifteen of the foul creatures. Estel did not sense any particular danger here, but he believed that several orcs had managed to escape and would need to be hunted down. He pondered what he would do if he were in charge of this patrol, what his brothers or Glorfindel might do while he waited to see what Faelon would do.
There was no hesitation on Faelon’s part. He was well aware that there were fewer bodies here than there should have been. Glancing quickly at the men and using hand signals he split them up. He sent Halbarad and Talagan to the right and took Aragorn with him back around to the left, leaving Dúrvain behind to protect this side of the trail. As the two of them worked their way through the brush, Faelon was amazed at Aragorn’s ability to move noiselessly. He kept glancing back at him to make sure that he was still following. Reaching the trail a short distance away from the site of the ambush, they stopped and listened intently for any sounds that might indicate the presence of orcs. Hearing nothing, they quickly crossed the open area and continued their cautious circle of the area around the bodies. Finding nothing, the two of them waited at the agreed upon tree and were soon joined by Talagan and Halbarad.
“Anything?” Faelon asked softly. Both men shook their heads. “I thought not. We need to count the bodies, there seem to be fewer here than Baisael mentioned. What do you think, Talagan?”
“There doesn’t seem to be as many as there should be. But,” Talagan shrugged, “you know what a battle can be like.” The other men nodded.
With just the slightest hesitation, Faelon ordered Aragorn and Halbarad to wait while he and Talagan crept out to count the bodies and to make sure the orcs were dead. He also wanted to make sure that there was not some type of hidden ambush that they had overlooked and he would not endanger all of his men needlessly.
Estel watched them go with an impassive expression on his face, frustrated at being left behind even though he understood why Faelon had done so. He glanced at Halbarad when his cousin lightly touched his arm giving him a wry grin and shrugging his shoulders. Sighing softly, Estel briefly returned his grin and then returned his gaze to the Rangers who were carefully exploring the ambush area. Dúrvain had joined the other two men now and Estel shifted impatiently. Since he believed that some of the orcs had escaped, Estel turned his attention to looking for the most likely way they might have gone. They would not have stayed on the trail; the Rangers would have seen them. He turned back to Halbarad and whispered, “Which way do you think the orcs would have gone?”
Halbarad shrugged and shook his head and then he too began looking around the area for any indication of where the orcs might have escaped. He knew that the orcs would most likely have come down from the North and so he assumed they would try and make their way back in that direction. “I assume they will head back north even if they don’t leave this clearing heading that way.” Estel gave him a thoughtful look and then slowly nodded. The two young men turned their attention back to the three Rangers as they rejoined them.
“There are only eleven bodies,” Faelon said with a quiet, resigned sigh. “We’ll have to hunt for the rest of them. They might head back north,” he said thoughtfully. “But if there are four or five of them left, they may stay around, though I think the leader is dead.” He fixed his eyes on Aragorn. Faelon knew the tracking abilities of the rest of the men, even of Halbarad, but did not know what Aragorn was capable of doing. “Lord Aragorn, are you any good at tracking?” he asked bluntly.
“Yes.” Estel met his gaze without blinking.
“Good, then I’ll pair you up with Talagan and you two take that side,” he gestured to the opposite side of the clearing. “Dúrvain take Halbarad and start working your way around to meet them and I’ll go around this side. Whistle if you find anything.”
Estel began following Talagan across the clearing but paused in the middle and began studying the bodies of the orcs and reading the tracks that he could make out in the dim moonlight. He could easily see the hoof prints of the horses as they reared in fright and he could tell that the Rangers had worked hard to bring their mounts under control. The churned up earth showed the utter chaos of a battle that probably lasted less than ten minutes. Estel was preparing to move on when something about the body of one of the orcs caught his eye and he stared at it for a moment, puzzled. After glancing at the other orc bodies, it quickly dawned on him. All of the belts and harnesses – anything that was used to carry weapons or food - that the orc normally wore had been stripped off of it. The orc was larger than the others lying around it and Estel assumed it was the leader and probably had the best weapons. One of the surviving orcs had come back for those weapons and that meant there were tracks that led from this spot he thought grimly. He just had to find them.
“Do you see something, my lord?” Talagan’s low voice asked as he walked back to see why Aragorn had stopped.
“Stop,” Estel commanded softly, not wanting anymore tracks to have to sort out. It should be much easier to sort out a single track from here than to scour the woods. Talagan halted immediately, surprised at the depth of authority in that single word. “Everything has been taken from this orc,” Estel said, without looking up from his intense search of the area as his keen eyes and well-trained mind catalogued each mark, each leaf, and each clump of dirt that surrounded the orc’s body looking for some clue that would help him.
“I did not see it,” Talagan admitted, “none of us did.” He crouched down nearby to watch his Chieftain as he worked, though he also kept a wary eye on their surroundings. “Do you want me to alert Faelon?” he asked after several minutes.
“Yes, I think you should,” Estel replied just as he spotted what he had been looking for. He crouched down and examined the outline of the orc’s boot as Talagan let out a low bird call to signal the other Rangers. He lightly traced the outline with his finger and saw where the straps of the belts had been dragged across the ground as the orc had pulled it from the dead orc’s body. He had begun following the tracks of the orc when Faelon and the other men joined them.
“What did you find?” Faelon asked. Talagan quickly filled him in as Estel continued the slow work of tracking the creature across the churned up ground. He lost the trail several times but shortly found it again each time as he painstakingly made his way across the clearing, the tracks swerving several times, so he could not be certain in which direction the orc was heading.
Faelon took in the body of the orc in a glance and quickly realized that what Aragorn had seen was correct and he checked the tracks the younger man was following and he nodded with approval, knowing he was on the right trail. He then watched Aragorn work with narrowed eyes as he and the other Rangers stood to one side so that they did not disturb the tracks. It was clear to him that Aragorn knew exactly what he was doing and that he had been well trained by the elves of Imladris.
Estel paused and glanced over his shoulders at the others, “Faelon,” he called softly and waited until the man joined him. “Does this look like another orc joined the first one?” he pointed to another indention on the ground that might have been a boot print. Estel did not want to lose the trail he was following by checking on it and it was too dark to see very far.
“I will try and trace it back a short distance while you go ahead.”
Nodding, Estel continued and had only gone a few more feet when he clearly saw that there were, in fact, two sets of boots. “There are two prints here, Faelon,” he said and the Ranger joined him, crouching down alongside him.
“The tracks are going in a straight line now,” Faelon observed quietly. “Heading straight into the bushes near the rocks,” he paused and then made a decision. It would take too much time to continue checking the trail this way. “I am going to check and see if they entered the woods there. You wait here.” He patted Aragorn’s shoulder and quickly made his way to the area near the rocks where he thought the orcs had gone. The ground was not torn up here and he could easily spot the tracks from not two but three orcs. “Come,” Faelon called to the others and the four men quickly joined him. Broken twigs from the bushes also littered the ground from when the orcs pushed their way through in their hurry to escape.
“There is blood,” Halbarad said, crouching down and feeling the damp spots that stained the forest floor. He stood and wiped his hands off on his leggings.
“It’s on the bushes too,” Faelon said, pointing it out in several places. “Aragorn and I will lead the way,” he continued, deciding that his Chieftain’s tracking skills were superior to the other men’s, even his own and he was acknowledged as a good tracker. “Dúrvain, bring up the rear again.” He turned and eased his way through the bushes, Aragorn falling into step alongside him. The broken branches and dark patches of blood on the ground made it easy to follow the trail; the orcs had made no effort to cover their tracks. They moved rapidly yet cautiously for some time and then slowed as the pace of the fleeing orcs had obviously dropped off. “They are seeking shelter,” Faelon murmured to Aragorn who nodded, glancing up to see that the moon was now low in the sky and that dawn was not far off.
“Is there some place around here they could den up for the day?” Estel asked.
Faelon halted and the other Rangers joined them. “Halbarad, you know this area even better than I do now, you patrol around here. Is there a place the orcs would den up for the day? Someplace close? Somewhere small and dark?”
Halbarad stared at the ground, chewing on his lip as he thought. “There aren’t any caves,” he slowly replied. “But about a mile ahead and a little to the west of here there are some rather large rocks that might make a good place for them to hide.”
Frowning, Faelon nodded. He remembered the place and if the orcs were there it would not be easy to get to them. But they had no choice and the patrol moved on, still following the trail the orcs had left but now keeping to the shadows as much as possible. As they suspected, the tracks led to the jumble of rocks and the five men stopped at a safe distance to decide what to do. The rocks were part of a low ridge that cut across the forest but here rocks had slipped down from the ridge and created a place where the orcs could hide. This area had less brush and was densely wooded with tall evergreen trees and Faelon could tell that even in daylight it would remain dim and well shadowed. The only option that Faelon could see would be to wait until dawn and then smoke them out. At least then the Rangers would not be disadvantaged by the lack of light. He turned to speak softly to the men eyeing Aragorn carefully to watch his response, but his chieftain’s face remained as impassive as the other men’s, only Halbarad’s eyes showed a trace of anxiety.
“We’ll have to smoke them out. The ground inside those rocks must be littered with dry pine needles so if we can set fire to those it should work. They won’t be able to scale the ridge without us seeing them; we’ll just need to cover the front and the sides. Dúrvain, you’re a better archer than any of us,” Faelon paused and considered Aragorn briefly, wondering if that were really true but he had no time to test it now. “You cover the left side of the rocks because I think you’ll have an easier angle to send in a lit arrow from that side. Do you have some bandaging material in your pack?” Dúrvain checked the small pack of healing supplies that all the Rangers carried and nodded. “Talagan and Aragorn take the right side and I want you to send in arrows if you can, I just can’t tell from here if it’s possible. Halbarad and I will protect the front. Hopefully the smoke will drive them out and we can use our bows. If not…” he let the sentence trail off and gave a half-hearted shrug.
Faelon watched the men creep off to their positions, his eyes lingering on Aragorn for a moment wondering what he was thinking and then he dismissed the thought from his mind. He could not afford to be distracted by things that did not matter. Glancing at Halbarad he noticed the young man was staring blankly at the rocks as he ran his fingers up and down the arrow he was holding. Faelon reminded himself that while Halbarad had fought orcs once before, he had never had to sit and wait for a battle to begin and that the tension it caused was difficult for those who had never experienced it. Patting the young Ranger’s shoulder to get his attention, he motioned for him to move several yards to the left. Partially it was because they needed to spread out to better cover the area but it was also to keep the young man’s mind occupied. Faelon glanced around and saw that the rocks were becoming more distinct and he thought that they would be able to attack soon. He looked towards the other rangers but he could barely make them out and decided to wait another couple of minutes.
Estel crouched down next to Talagan and the two of them carefully wrapped small lengths of cloth around their arrows, securing them with a small amount of pitch to help them burn longer. Then they sat back on their heels and waited for Faelon’s signal. When it finally came they quickly used their flints to strike sparks and lit the end of the cloth. They sent their arrows soaring into the middle of the rocks; aiming for the place where they could see that appeared to be downed tree branches and pine needles and they hoped it would ignite quickly. They watched Dúrvain’s arrow arrive at almost the same time. Nothing happened for several minutes except that a thin column of dark smoke began wafting up out of the rocks and Estel decided that it was not going to work, that they were going to have to go in after them. But then growls of anger and curses in the black speech came rolling out from the rocks and Estel tightened his grip on his bow and checked one more time to see that his sword was ready to slip free of its sheath.
The smoke was thicker and darker now as the pine needles caught and they could hear more curses as the orcs tried to stamp out the flames. An arrow passed over Estel’s head and he ducked down further behind the tree in front of him before lifting his own bow, aiming it and releasing it towards the orc that had fired at him. But the orc had moved away and his arrow bounced harmlessly off a rock and he swiftly nocked another arrow. Arrows were flying from all of the orcs now in a desperate bid to escape from the fire and the smoke and while the Rangers fired back if they had a clear shot, mostly they waited as the smoke made it difficult to see. They knew that the orcs would be forced to leave their refuge shortly and they could afford to wait for better odds.
Finally the orcs burst out of the rocks, making a wild dash for freedom. They had barely cleared the front of the rocks when five bowstrings sang and the three orcs dropped to the ground with arrows lodged in their chests. The Rangers waited for a few minutes to make sure they were dead and then cautiously walked to the bodies with swords drawn and ready. When poking and prodding the orcs with the tips of their swords brought no response, the five men exchanged grim smiles of satisfaction and finally relaxed.
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