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9
Chapter 9

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


~~~

Sitting in a small storage area off of the healing room, Estel, Halhigal, and Nestad sat discussing what needed to be done to help the villagers. They discussed the rationing of food, the supply of medicinal herbs, the need to send out scouts to patrol the area surrounding the village, and the need to return the animals back to their normal pastures and whether or not they had enough uninjured boys to do that and, if not, the possibility of having some of the older girls helping them. It was Estel who first broached the idea of sending people to other villages for at least the winter months.

“Nestad, Uncle Halhigal and I have been considering sending the people off to the other villages. We are concerned that there is not enough food to last over the winter, especially wheat and vegetables. The men can provide meat, but you know that those other foods are essential. I know it would be difficult to move people and hard to abandon the village and it will also place a burden on the other villages, but it should not be an overwhelming burden. At least I hope not,” Estel added with a thoughtful frown. “It should also allow the men to return to their patrols in a short amount of time.”

Nestad gazed at him without blinking and then glanced at Halhigal and back to Aragorn. “Are you asking for my opinion, my lord? It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.” His voice was carefully neutral.

Estel returned his gaze steadily. “I do believe it is necessary and the best thing for our people,” Estel replied. “However, that does not mean that I will not listen to your counsel on the matter. You know the people and may have knowledge that I do not... that we do not,” he glanced at Halhigal who nodded once.

“Indeed,” he murmured, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms across his chest. Nestad stared out the window at the clear blue sky as he thought about moving all of the people. It would be difficult at best and the thought of leaving his home after living here for close to ninety years appalled him. Yet he tried to push those thoughts aside and concentrate on what truly was best for everyone and what needed to be done to ensure their survival. After several long moments, his gaze shifted back to Aragorn. “I think you’re right,” Nestad said slowly. “It is not something that I want to do and it will be difficult and dangerous, but I do think it is probably the best thing for all of us. I worry about the injured, but hopefully by the time we leave most will be able to be moved without causing further damage to themselves.”

“I cannot see us leaving for three weeks at the earliest,” Halhigal pointed out. “The Rangers won’t arrive any sooner than that… at least the furthest patrol will not.”

“We’ll most likely be moving in the snow then,” Nestad said with a frown, shaking his head.

“It seems rather early for the snow we have had,” Estel remarked. “It is not even November yet. Perhaps more will hold off until we are able to move.”

“Perhaps,” Nestad agreed, though the doubtful tone of his voice said otherwise.

“Do we tell the people now or wait until the men return?”

“I think you’ll have to tell them now, my lord. It will take time for them to prepare and we’ll want to be ready to leave as soon as the last of the men arrive.”

Estel nodded and then stared down at the floor for a moment wishing that someone else could inform the people but he knew that it was his responsibility. “When should I tell them? Tonight at supper, or should we gather them together this afternoon?”

Nestad and Halhigal exchanged glances and then Halhigal spoke. “I think you can wait until tonight. Most of them are busy now and will be unduly concerned if you interrupt them. We have a lot to decide before we talk with them.”

Although relieved that he could delay telling the people for a time, Estel knew it was going to be difficult. He knew the people would not be happy to have to leave their homes even if they understood that it was for the best. Still, he knew it was the right thing to do and he would just have to convince them of that. “How will we divide the people up between the villages? I do not want to overburden any one village.”

“Many of them have kin in the other villages and I assume they will want to go there,” Nestad replied. “I have a daughter in both Forntaur and Dolomar.” He smiled at Aragorn’s look of surprise. “Yes, my daughter is Emeldir, the wife of Caladel. I hear I have a wonderful grandson.”

“Yes, he is. Caladithil was the first person I met in Dolomar. Well, he and a boy named Balrant,” Estel shared a quick amused glance with Halhigal. “Caladel was wounded by orcs recently, but he is fine and back out leading his patrol,” he said quickly at Nestad’s look of dismay.

“His patrol was ambushed only a few miles from Dolomar,” Halhigal explained.

“They’re on the increase again,” Nestad said with a weary sigh, rubbing his head. He knew that the last ten years had only been a brief respite from the evil that plagued them, that the somewhat peaceful times would come to an end. He had hoped it would last through the rest of his lifetime, if not beyond. But even as he had hoped for it, Nestad knew it would not happen.

Halhigal steered the conversation back to the task at hand. They discussed how many families had kin in the other villages. While Estel wanted to simply ask each family to go to a certain village so that they could split them up evenly, both Halhigal and Nestad cautioned him against doing that. It was going to be hard enough on the people without them feeling they had no choices. If one village seemed like it was going to be overburdened then they would step in and speak to those families and ask if some of them might reconsider. If not, then and only then, would they intervene.

They turned to discussing the actual move. The village had five wagons of varying sizes that were mostly used when harvesting the crops. Some were pulled by two horses and some by only one, but none of them were going to be big enough to carry everything that the people needed to take to their new homes. Besides food, they were only going to be able to take clothing, bedding, and small personal items. There were some horses in the village along with the cows, sheep, and numerous dogs. Estel wondered if the wagons could actually travel the paths that they had taken on there way here, though perhaps his uncle knew other routes that had paths that the wagons could traverse. With people having to walk, Estel figured it would take more than two weeks to travel back to Dolomar, meaning they wouldn’t arrive until sometime around the first of December. He turned his attention back to the conversation.

The children, the oldest women, and the injured were the biggest concern, though most of the injured should be recovered enough in three weeks to make the journey with some assistance. Rían and Culas were the ones that Nestad was the most worried about and he felt that they would probably need to ride in a wagon which would take up valuable space that was needed for carrying supplies, but it could not be helped. Infants and toddlers would have to be carried or, perhaps, placed on top of the loaded wagons, while other children would just have to walk. The pace should be slow enough that they could keep up.

Estel wondered if there was some way they could make some type of simple carts for the horses to pull. The smithy was intact and while he knew nothing about making wheels or putting an axle together, it did not look that difficult. A cart would certainly be able to carry more than a packhorse and would ease what the people would have to carry and would, perhaps, allow them to bring at least some of their kitchen items. Estel was growing more and more concerned about his people showing up in the other villages without all of their personal effects. Perhaps he, Halbarad, and some of the other men could return and bring back more of the peoples’ things. As Estel shared his thoughts with Halhigal and Nestad they agreed about the carts but were more uncertain about returning to the village. They reminded him that this was, hopefully, just a temporary move; though all of them knew that in reality it was likely they would never return. It was decided that Halhigal would speak with Mellonar about making wheels for the carts as he did much of the smithing work for the village. Estel would start the rest of them cutting trees for the carts themselves. They would be very simple, basically just a flat surface on top of wheels, but things could be lashed to them and it would be a tremendous help.

When the three men had covered all that could be decided at this point, they parted, Nestad returning to the healing room and Estel and Halhigal heading outside. The two of them stood on the porch, blinking in the early afternoon sunshine and pulling their cloaks on. Halhigal looked at his nephew from the corner of his eye and saw his thoughtful, if somewhat nervous expression and he was surprised when he spoke. “I knew when I returned that it would be difficult for a time; that I would need to learn the ways of the Dúnedain and people would have to learn to accept me and my ways which I knew would be different than my… father’s.” Estel walked over and leaned against a pole, staring sightlessly down towards the ground. He continued in a low voice as Halhigal came alongside him. “But never did I imagine that anything like this might happen. That I would be forced to do something that might turn my people against me before they even had a chance to know me.” He sighed and glanced up at his uncle and gave him a wry smile. “I do know it is the right thing to do.”

“Yes, it is,” Halhigal responded firmly and clapped him on the back bracingly. “The people will understand,” he paused, “eventually. I imagine it will be hardest on those who have no kin in the other villages.” A thoughtful look crossed his face and he glanced around, “Come,” he urged. Halhigal hopped down from the porch and Estel followed him, looking at him expectantly, but his uncle did not speak until they were well away from the buildings and standing under the tree that Estel had sat under the day before.

“I do understand something of what you are feeling, Aragorn, and I know it’s not easy. Of course, I was much older than you when I suddenly became acting Chieftain of the Dúnedain and at least I grew up knowing the people and they knew me.” Halhigal studied his nephew intently for a moment. “Do you know what the first decision I had to make was?” Estel gave him a confused look and shook his head.

Halhigal leaned back against the tree and his eyes took on a distant look before snapping back to Aragorn’s. “My first decision was to send you away. It was not something people agreed with… even my own kin.”

“Grandmother?”

“Yes… and your naneth,” Halhigal said quietly as his gaze rested on his nephew. “Why are you surprised Aragorn? Your naneth had just lost the man that she loved and now she was being sent away from everyone and everything she knew to a place where she knew no one and she knew nothing about.” He shook his head and looked at the ground. “And I sent her there,” his voice was full of regret. “I knew it was the right thing to do. But the people were angry. They did not want you sent away like that, to live with the elves,” Halhigal gave Aragorn a brief smile. “They felt that we could protect you ourselves. But I was concerned, we had lost Arador and Arathorn within three years of each other and after speaking with Elladan and Elrohir, I knew you needed to be sent off for your own protection. But it was not an easy decision to make and it was a long time before people accepted it.”

“Some never have, have they?”

Halhigal shook his head, “No, there are still a few who haven’t forgiven me, who were afraid you would become an elf.” His eyes sparkled with amusement as he looked Aragorn up and down, “They weren’t too far wrong there,” he commented.

Estel shrugged, he was becoming accustomed to the jests his uncle and Halbarad made about how elvish he appeared no matter what clothing he was wearing. There was little he could do about it; it was part of who he was. “Uncle,” he said slowly, “I will tell you that naneth long ago accepted that it was the right thing to do and that while I often sensed sorrow in her, I think that had to do with missing Arathorn. When I learned of my heritage she spoke very highly of you. I do not think she is angry with you.”

Halhigal took a deep breath and smiled, “I’m glad to hear that. It has always bothered me that that was between us.”

“Why did you never send her letters? I gave Grandmother a letter from naneth and she said it was the first thing she had ever gotten from her in the eighteen years I was gone. Why? My brothers often ride with you and the Rangers.” Estel gave his uncle a puzzled look.

“Letters can fall into the wrong hands and it was best to pretend that you had never even existed. It was difficult for all of us, but…” Halhigal shrugged. “I wondered if I made the right decision when things became a little more peaceful about ten years ago, but I still believe it was the right one.”

“I know it was… but then, I cannot imagine being raised anywhere else,” Estel gave Halhigal a long, searching look. “I think I understand what you are telling me, that I need to stand firm with the decision I have made even if it is difficult.” There was something of a questioning tone in his voice.

Halhigal nodded, “Yes, that’s why I’m telling you this. Not that you didn’t know it already, I know that you do. But you do need to be prepared to hear things that are difficult. These people are hurting already and they may well question this decision quite vocally… and I imagine that your youth might come up and the fact that you were not raised among us… things of that nature.” He shrugged, “Any number of things might be said, Aragorn, and you will have to stand firm, knowing that your decision is the right one.” Halhigal watched as his nephew stared at the ground, his foot making little circles in the dirt and snow.

Estel finally looked up and gave Halhigal a wry smile as he asked, “I do not suppose you would like to tell them, would you?” Halhigal chuckled, laying his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and steering him away from the tree and over towards the Hall.

“No, I would not, but I will stand alongside you, as will Nestad. Let’s get some lunch… such as it is.” Estel nodded and the two of them walked the rest of the way in silence.

0-0-0

“Tell me again why we are doing this,” Halbarad said in tone that others might have taken as irritation, but Estel knew he was simply trying to annoy him.

“I thought it would be fun,” he grunted in reply as his axe bit into the tree once again.

“I see.” Halbarad swung at his own tree while nearby Eradan and Pador were trimming off the branches of the handful of trees they had already brought down.

The trees were not very large and it was only a few more strokes before Estel called for the others to stand back and he watched it fall. Felling trees was not something he had much experience with, and he grimaced as it landed well away from where he wanted it. Well, the horses would just have to drag it a little further than the others. Estel looked around for another tree that would be about the right thickness for the simple carts they would be making. They could split the logs if they had to, but it was much easier if they could take trees that were approximately the right size to begin with.

“How many logs do we need?”

“Mellonar plans to make eight carts and he thought it would take about eight logs per cart… so sixty-four logs.”

“Sixty-four!” Halbarad stopped and looked at his cousin in dismay. “I don’t think there are that many trees around here of that size, Aragorn.”

Estel’s lips twitched in amusement as he studied his cousin. “Logs, not trees. The carts will not be as long as a tree, Halbarad. We will have to cut them to the right length.” He shook his head and grinned, “You must be tired… sixty-four trees.” He moved to a tree that appeared to be the right size, chuckling quietly and ignoring the glare Halbarad was sending his way.

“It feels like we’ve already cut sixty-four trees,” Halbarad muttered as he returned to his own work.

0-0-0

Estel waited until it appeared that most of the people had finished their supper before he arose from his place at his table to speak with them. Outwardly he appeared calm, but those that knew him well could sense his underlying nervousness. However, as the people noticed him standing there, they quieted, hushing their children at the same time, and his voice was calm and steady as he spoke. “Before you return to your homes this evening, I wanted to share a few things with you. After a lot of discussion with Halhigal and Nestad, I have decided that it will be best for everyone if we split up and go to the other villages for the winter.” A low murmur broke out among the people, but Estel continued, his eyes scanning the room and meeting the gazes of different people and they quieted. “I know it will not be easy, but I fear more the lack of food that we have here… especially for the young ones. Many of you have kin in the other villages and I know they will take you in. For those who do not, I trust that our people will take you in without question and I will write to the village leaders to make sure that you are provided for. We do need to make sure that none of the villages are overburdened with additional people, however. Mellonar is already working on some additional carts, but you will not be able to take anything beyond clothing, bedding, and small personal items.”

Estel had decided it was best to tell them everything at the beginning. More and louder murmuring broke out and this time he held up his hand to quiet them. “I am sorry,” he continued, “but I am not even sure if we will even be able to carry those things as well as the food that we need on the carts. Some of it will have to be carried on our backs.” Estel looked down for a brief moment and then he lifted his gaze once again and glanced around at the children. “There are also the children, the injured, and several elderly people that may need to ride in the wagons. This will not be easy,” he said firmly, “yet it needs to be done. That is all I needed to tell you, but I would like to know what village you want to go to in the next couple of days. You may speak with me, or Nestad, or Halhigal.” Estel stepped back a pace, but he did not sit down assuming there would be questions… and there were.

“Lord Aragorn?” A middle-aged woman hesitantly stood and Estel recognized her from seeing her in the healing room, though he did not know her name. He nodded at her to continue. “What about our husbands who are on patrol? Don’t they have a say in where we are going?”

“I trust that you know where your kin live and can make that decision yourself. However, when your husband returns, if he is totally opposed to your decision, I will speak with you and your husband and perhaps we will change it.” Estel gave the woman a small smile, “But keep in mind that I do not want to overburden any one of the other villages.” She nodded and sat back down with a dubious expression, but said nothing further.

Another similar question followed and Estel started to think that perhaps his uncle was wrong, that people would not oppose this move as he had supposed. But then another woman stood and her voice was angry as she spoke.

“I don’t want to move, it’s too dangerous. What if there are more orcs?”

Other women joined in then, calling out their own fears and concerns. “It’ll be too cold.” “We won’t have enough food.” “The other villages are too far away.” “The children can’t walk that far.” “How do we know if there will be homes there for us?” Estel simply listened as they spoke, seeing the fear in their eyes. He did, however, glance at Halhigal and Halbarad who both gave him small smiles of encouragement. Estel thought they were finished when one last voice rang out from the back of the Hall. “You don’t understand! I can’t leave my home and my friends.”

Estel gave her a long, considering look as he debated within himself how to respond. Of course he knew how it felt to leave his home, and his friends and his family as well. Finally, he decided that all of them deserved to know that he did understand that much of what they were feeling. “Yes, I do understand what it is like to leave my home and my friends and even my naneth behind,” he responded. “If you will remember, I just recently returned to our people from Imladris where I spent all of my childhood and youth. My naneth is still there as are those I consider family.” He paused briefly and his gaze swept the room and landed back on the woman who had spoken and she met his gaze and then looked down, her cheeks turning red. Estel continued in a strong, firm voice that left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were going to be leaving the village.

“As for your other concerns, all I can say is that I will do the best that I can to see that you arrive safely in your new villages. As I said earlier, I do know it will not be easy for any of you, but I wanted to tell you now so that you may begin preparing so that as soon as the men return we may leave.” Estel watched them closely and while many of the women were upset and some were near tears, he felt that it was the best response he was likely to get. “That is all I had to tell you,” he said in a gentler voice. “Does anyone have any other questions?” After a few minutes wait, Estel inclined his head slightly and returned to his seat next to Halbarad.

A low buzz of conversation filled the Hall as the women began speaking to one another; only the table where Estel was sitting with Halbarad, Halhigal, and Nestad was quiet. After a moment, Halhigal leaned forward to see Estel past Halbarad. “You did well, my lord.”

0-0-0

“Aragorn,” Eradan whispered, his low voice breaking the stillness of the deepest part of the night. “Someone is coming.”

“I hear them,” Estel replied calmly, hearing the hoofbeats of approaching horses. “Ready an arrow, Eradan. We do not know who they are,” he said as he nocked his own arrow. He knew it was mostly like the first of the patrols, though only a week had passed since Gilost had gone and they should not be here yet. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and squinted into the darkness; the quarter moon was half hidden behind the clouds and provided little light. They would have to be quite close to the gate before Estel would be able to clearly make them out. “When they draw near, I want you to tell them to halt,” he directed Eradan and the young man nodded, biting his lip. Estel patted his shoulder and moved further down the wall to have a better angle if he needed to use his bow.

“Halt,” Eradan called out loudly as the riders trotted up towards the gate. The six riders reined in sharply and a couple of the horses reared before settling.

“Eradan!” Two voices called out at the same time from the men below him.

“Adar! Laegrist!” he called back in excitement. Eradan turned and Estel could just make out his grin in the darkness, “It’s the Rangers, Aragorn!”

“So I gathered,” he replied dryly. He quickly thought over the men in this group and what he would need to tell them. Estel rubbed his eyes again, he was exhausted and was glad these men had returned and would be able to help. Though obviously they had pushed themselves hard and would need to rest.

“Open the gate, Eradan,” a much sterner voice came from below.

“Hirgon,” Eradan muttered and Estel just barely caught the name. “I’m coming,” Eradan called back down.

The two of them carefully made their way down the steps and while Eradan headed to the gate, Estel went to the small sheltered fire they kept burning and lit two torches that they might have at least a bit of light and then he followed Eradan, putting the torches in holders near the gate. As soon as the gate opened the Rangers rode inside, their faces grim and exhausted, a hint of fear in their eyes at what they might find. They had discovered the trail of the orcs in the course of their normal patrol and had been tracking them east towards Taurnand. Gilost had come across them and had sent them hurrying back to the village. All they knew was that several of their homes had been destroyed and that Celeblas was dead. Gilost had been either unwilling or unable to give them more information of their kin, saying he did not know the names of those who had died. The Rangers had traveled hard, taking only short breaks to rest the horses and to sleep for a couple of hours themselves.

First off his horse was Thalion and he grabbed Eradan and looked him over carefully, running his hands over his head and shoulders before embracing him tightly. Pulling back he kept his hands on his son’s shoulders as he asked in a shaky voice, “Is… is…”

“Naneth is fine, Adar,” Eradan interrupted him quickly and Thalion pulled him into another embrace and then Laegrist was there embracing his brother. Estel watched the reunion with an inward smile, wishing all of the men could have such a joyous time with their families. He turned to see that the other men were also quickly dismounting and some had started to move off down the lane towards their homes and he called to them.

“Wait,” Estel’s voice was quiet, yet commanding and all of the men turned to him in surprise and some of them quickly frowned at this unknown man. “I need to speak with you before you go.”

“Why? I want to see my family.” Hirgon said rudely, looking Estel up and down wondering who this man was, though something Gilost had said was starting to trickle into his tired mind.

Eradan drew in a quick breath, “You should not speak to Lord Aragorn that way, Hirgon!” he exclaimed. Thalion tightened his grip on his son’s shoulder in warning, but Hirgon ignored the young man and kept his eyes on Aragorn.

“Forgive me… my lord,” Hirgon said with a small bow, though his tone was far from apologetic. “I didn’t know who you were.”

Estel simply nodded, hoping his rudeness was caused by his exhaustion and fear for his family, but Eradan’s earlier comment made him wonder. He pushed that aside and instead spoke to all the men. “I asked you to wait because you do not all know where your families are. I do not know what Gilost told you… or how you got here so fast, though we can discuss that later.”

“Gilost told us little except that... Celeblas is dead and that several homes had been destroyed, my lord,” Beraid spoke up, watching his Chieftain anxiously.

“Yes, I sent him before I even knew who had… died,” Estel pursed his lips and looked at the four men who had moved closer and were searching his face for information and he knew there was no easy way to break the news to them and so he simply told them. He looked at the youngest man who had just spoken. “Are you Beraid?” The man nodded, swallowing hard as he shifted uneasily on his feet. Estel moved closer and laid his hand on his shoulder, looking at him with compassion. “I am sorry, Beraid, but your family’s home was one of the houses that collapsed from the fires.” Beraid’s face paled and Thalion came up behind him and placed his hand on the man’s other shoulder. Estel continued in a low voice, his eyes never leaving Beraid’s. “Your naneth and your brother both died, Beraid. I am sorry,” he repeated softly as Beraid’s eyes filled with tears.

“My sisters?” he whispered.

“They are well; they were burned but are recovering well. They will be most glad to see you.”

Beraid took a deep breath and wiped his hand across his eyes. He could not imagine his life without his naneth or his young brother. His sisters must be devastated, to have been here all alone. And his father… what would his father do when he returned with his patrol. “Where are they?”

“There are staying at Thalion’s home.”

“They are in my room, I moved my things into Laegrist’s room,” Eradan spoke up quietly and Beraid nodded and hurried off, his eyes full of tears once again.

Estel looked between the last two men that he did not know, both of whom were looking at him with trepidation in their eyes and he sighed inwardly. “Maldathor?” he asked softly and one of the men stepped forward, his eyes widening in alarm. “I am sorry, Maldathor, but,” Estel cleared his throat and continued softly. “Your son, Elgalad, also died.”

Maldathor simply stared at him and began shaking his head in denial, “No,” he whispered. “Not Elgalad. How can he die? He’s only seven.” He took a deep, shuddering breath and his eyes were full of grief and pain as he asked, “My wife? My daughter?” Maldathor’s jaw and fists clenched in expectation of more bad news.

“They are recovering; they were injured in the fire that took your house. They were burned and, I think, your daughter injured her wrist.”

Maldathor’s grief-stricken eyes filled with tears that he quickly blinked away. “Where are they,” he whispered brokenly.

Estel paused for a moment as he tried to remember and he turned to Eradan, “Where are they staying?”

“At Celeblas’s house, my lord,” Eradan said quietly, his eyes glimmering in the torchlight and Estel nodded his thanks.

As Maldathor started to hurry away, Estel turned to the other man, ignoring Hirgon who was impatiently shifting from side to side. “Your family is well, Pendem.” A smile lit up his features briefly and then he sobered again at the loss and pain of the others. “Will you and Laegrist take care of the horses?” The two men nodded and began grabbing the reins of the horses that had started to wander and began to lead them to the stables. Estel looked at Eradan, “Keep watch until I return.” He turned to the other two men, “Thalion, I believe that Laereth is in the healing room now, she and Nestad have been taking turns watching those that still need their care. Hirgon, your wife and son are still there under Nestad’s care.” A small cry escaped the man’s lips and then he quickly set his jaw and his face became a blank mask. “Celin is also there, but only because we felt it best to keep her with her nana and twin. Though,” Estel warned him as they began to quickly walk down the lane towards the healing room, “she was also quite badly burned.

“Will they recover?”

Estel ran his hand through his hair and then nodded slowly. “I believe so,” he answered. “I honestly was not sure four days ago. I thought that Rían was going to die.” Hirgon drew in a quick, sharp breath. “But we have had some success with different treatments and she has responded well. Culas too, though I think that Rían’s injuries were worse to begin with.” Estel let out a long deep sigh and they walked in silence for a moment.

“My lord?”

Estel turned and looked at the man walking on his other side and, from what he had seen at the gate and what he could make out now; he decided that Thalion looked a lot like Eradan.

“Yes?”

“Has anyone else died?”

“Yes, Lanthir,” he grimaced. “Her mother and brother were also injured.”

Thalion eyes welled with tears at the loss of another child. He took a deep breath and asked another question. “How fares the village otherwise? My boy is exhausted, as are you it appears.”

Estel gave him a grim look. “No more than you and the rest of your men from the looks of it. But, yes, we are and when you have rested for a day, I will be glad to have your help. It sounds like Gilost did not tell you much, but besides those I have mentioned, there are others who were burned or have broken bones and two young men were shot during the battle itself. Only Eradan and Pador among the young men are available to help… and we have needed them desperately just to try and keep up with the hunting.” He frowned, they had not gotten any deer that day and they had to find something in the morning. Perhaps some of the snares would have something in them, though rabbits did not feed many, it at least flavored the stew the women made.

Thalion exchanged a concerned glance with Hirgon before he laid his hand on his Chieftain’s arm and pulled Estel from his thoughts. “My lord, what about Mellonar? Is he wounded as well? And why is hunting such an urgent need, surely the food that is stored…” his face paled and he stopped walking as did Hirgon and then Estel.

Estel scrubbed his face with his hand, “Mellonar is fine. All of the food storage buildings were destroyed in the fires, Thalion, and we have been hard pressed to bring in enough food for everyone.” He resumed walking. “People had some food in their homes and we brought it all into the Hall and everyone eats together, but I want to save as much of the dry food for as long as I can.” Estel paused, wondering if this would be the best time to tell them about the move and decided not to, they had enough to absorb. He glanced at Thalion, “Eradan has done a wonderful job, you would be proud of him.”

“I always have been, my lord.” Thalion replied absently. He was appalled at the devastating loss of the food for the village and he wondered how they would ever be able to supply enough for the people to get them through the winter. Now he understood why Aragorn had sent for them, though he would have wanted to come and check on his family anyway. He followed the other two men up the steps, listening to them speak and noting Hirgon’s slightly brusque manner with their returned Chieftain. Thalion sighed inwardly as he watched and listened.

“Hirgon, I do not know if Rían will awake. She was asking for you earlier today so it would be all right if she does even though it is late. I warn you that the burns on all of them look quite… terrible, but I assure that the scars will fade in time, though they will never completely disappear.” Estel would not lie to him and while the athelas had helped more than anything else could have, it could not make the scars disappear. Of the three of them, at least only Celin had a burn on her face and it was small.

“You seem to know a lot about them,” Hirgon growled. “My lord,” he added.

“I am also a healer,” Estel said, giving him a sharp glance. “I was there… I have tended to all three of them at times, Hirgon.” Reaching the door first, he eased it open quietly and cast a quick smile at Laereth who was sitting near the fire with her sewing. She looked at him in surprise and then her eyes flew to Hirgon and then beyond to Thalion. She stood with a soft cry and rushed towards him. Thalion met her and embraced her gently before kissing her. Estel watched them briefly before he slowly trailed behind Hirgon to where his family was sleeping.

Hirgon’s steps slowed as he looked at his family lying so still in their beds, the parts that were visible above the blankets having numerous bandages and Culas and Rían also had splints on hand and leg, respectively. He knelt down between the beds of Culas and Rían, his jaw set once again as he turned first to his wife. Stroking her hair gently he softly whispered her name, but she did not stir and he spent some time just looking at her. As Hirgon turned to his son, he caught a glimpse of Aragorn watching him and he scowled at him before looking down at Culas.

Estel blinked in surprise at Hirgon’s look and then shook his head and sighed. Evidently here was another man that had something against him or his family for some reason. He started at the hand laid on his shoulder and he looked to see Nestad standing next to him.

“Ignore him for now, my lord,” the healer advised quietly. “Hirgon has his reasons, though I know you will not be able to overlook his rudeness, but let it go for tonight at least.”

“I can do that,” Estel gave Nestad a weary smile. “I am going off watch soon and will not see him until tomorrow.” He straightened up from where he had been leaning against the wall. “We will need to speak with all of them tomorrow, a couple of hours before lunch will be soon enough, I think.” Nestad nodded and Estel turned to leave.

“My lord,” Thalion called softly from across the room and Estel looked at him questioningly. “Laereth and I would walk with you if you are returning to the gate. She is eager to see Laegrist.” Estel waited for them to join him and the three of them headed towards the gate, walking carefully in the darkness. Estel watched the couple from the corner of his eye, amazed at the transformation in Laereth who was much more vocal with her husband than she had ever been in the healing room.

“Laereth tells me that you have appointed Nestad leader of the village,” Thalion suddenly turned to his Chieftain.

“Yes, Halhigal and I spoke about it and he seemed best suited for it,” Estel responded somewhat cautiously. He was uncertain whether or not Thalion would think Mellonar was the better man for the position.

“He is a good man,” Thalion confirmed as they neared the gate.

“I have found him to be so,” Estel replied, fighting off a yawn. He glanced up along the wall of the stockade at Eradan and saw that Laegrist had joined him and the two were deep in conversation and he suppressed a smile as he wondered how much watching they were doing. Thalion must have thought the same because he cleared his throat loudly and his sons jumped and looked down at them with guilty expressions that Estel could read in the flickering light of the still burning torches. He beckoned them down.

“Thank you, Laegrist,” Estel said and the man nodded once. “Eradan, go ahead and go home with your family, our watch is nearly over.” He shook off the young mans protests. “I will be fine until Halhigal and Pador arrive. Good-night.”

They responded in kind and started towards their home, slowing only to pick up their packs. Estel watched them go for a moment and then wearily headed back to the wall to finish out his watch wondering what the next day would bring.

~~~

Reviewers: Thanks to everyone who reads the story and especially to those who review, I appreciate the encouragement. I will answer everyone by email if I have an address.


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