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
Estel stood holding the reins of his horse as he watched the last of the three parties of villagers disappearing into the woods. It was an hour after dawn and while there had been some confusion sorting out wagons, carts, horses, cows, sheep, and children, it had actually gone fairly smoothly and now the only group left was the one he was leading back to Dolomar. He was looking forward to being back in that village and he could only hope they would make it safely and without delays. Estel turned at the sound of an approaching horse.
“The villagers are ready, my lord,” Thalion reported.
With a brisk nod, Estel turned and let his gaze sweep over the people assembled and waiting to leave. They had a wagon and one cart which were piled high with food and possessions. Another, smaller wagon had been fitted out with a comfortable place for Rían to ride sitting up and where Culas could ride as he needed, though Nestad felt that the boy would be able to walk a good part of the day. Celin was to walk or trade off in the wagon with Culas if she became too weary. The rest of the small wagon carried more of their possessions.
Estel had placed Eradan in charge of the cows and sheep. He knew the young man was disappointed, though Eradan tried to hide it. But he was the youngest and with all of the other men, Estel did not need him to scout and patrol as he had when there was no one else available. There were thirteen men in their company and all of them, with the exception of Halbarad and Eradan, were very experienced Rangers. He had briefly considered placing Hirgon in charge of the animals, but it had only been a passing thought on a day when the man had been particularly aggravating. Estel had asked the three girls in their company, aged fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen, to help Eradan with the cows and sheep and the four of them, along with a couple of the dogs should be enough to keep the animals under control and moving. If not, then he would have to ask one of the other men to help, probably Halbarad as he was the youngest of the Rangers. He just hoped it would not become necessary.
Besides the injured Rían, there were only three other grown women in their party – Laereth, and the wives of Maldathor and Mellonar. Laereth and one of the other women drove the wagons, while the third woman led the horse pulling the cart. The pace of the party would be slowed by those who had to walk and the animals, but it could not be helped. The animals were necessary for the survival of the families and they simply did not have enough horses for everyone to ride. Estel hoped to make the journey in less than two weeks, but he knew it might take longer.
Several hours before, Estel had sent Halhigal and Maldathor out to scout the route they were taking. He wanted to make sure that the trail was clear of not only orcs but also of fallen trees or other things that might delay them. The rest of the men he assigned to various points around the small company, some to ride with them and some to scout and ride at a short distance to each side and behind them. He, himself was to ride at the head of their small company and after one last glance at his people, Estel swung up into the saddle.
Estel was starting to urge his horse ahead when a thought struck him and he pulled his horse around. The eyes of the women expressed the grief that they felt at leaving their home, and for one of them, the grave of her recently buried son. He could not clearly read the girls expressions from where he sat his horse, but he imagined that the three of them would be the same, especially as each of the three girls had lost a brother and the oldest two had lost their naneth as well. Glancing at the Rangers that remained with them, Estel saw that their eyes mostly mirrored the women’s, though he also saw regret and anger that they had not been able to stop this from happening. Searching for words and knowing there was nothing that could take away the sting of this loss; he spoke quietly yet with conviction.
“There is hope that you will be able to return in the future, but for now your new home awaits you in Dolomar and we have many miles to travel this day.” His gaze flicked from person to person, lingering on the twins and he gave them a gentle smile. “Do not use up all of your energy in the first hour, young ones; it will be a long day.” They just grinned and as Estel turned his horse back to the front his gaze fell on Hirgon who frowned and looked away. The man did not like it when Estel spoke to either of his children, though he had never said anything to him about it. Hirgon was content to show his displeasure with brief scowls, though one time Estel thought he looked thoroughly puzzled at the interest he was showing in the twins. But both children knew Estel quite well from the time he had spent tending to their injuries and he had no intention of ignoring them.
Pulling his horse alongside Thalion’s, Estel led the company at a walk, glancing back several times to make sure that the wagons, the cart, and the animals were following without trouble. Satisfied that all was going well, he fixed his gaze forward and led them on hoping to make ten to twelve miles this first day. But, as with many such things, the day did not go quite as he had planned.
An hour before noon Estel was still riding alongside Thalion and speaking with him about how he ran his patrol and how things might work now that they would be living in Dolomar. Estel and Halhigal had spent many hours in the last few weeks discussing how to re-arrange all of the patrols with the move of the villagers from Taurnand to the other villages. It would take time to make the changes, but it would have to be done when winter was over and before the men returned to their spring patrols. They were deep in discussion when loud shouts from behind brought them to an abrupt halt and they quickly turned their horses, pulling their swords as they did so. Exchanging dismayed, yet amused glances, they re-sheathed their blades and sighed as they watched more than a dozen of the sheep bolting off into the woods on either side of the trail with the girls chasing after them.
“I knew this was not going to be easy,” Estel remarked with a sidelong glance at Thalion. The Ranger simply shook his head and urged his horse back towards the animals and Estel followed him.
“Do you know much about sheep, Aragorn?” Halbarad inquired with a grin as Estel neared his cousin where he sat on his horse watching Eradan and one girl trying to hold back the rest of the sheep while the cows had begun grazing. Two of the dogs had gone after the sheep and two were helping Eradan and the girl.
Estel paused and looked at the gleam of amusement in his cousin’s eyes. “Not much, Halbarad,” he admitted with a small shrug. “I did not spend much time with the flocks and herds in Imladris. However, I have a feeling that you do. Come along,” he ordered with a smile tugging at his lips. “You, too, Nestad, Hirgon,” he said, glancing over at the men briefly. “I have feeling it might take all of us to round them up.”
“Do you want our help as well, my lord?” Laereth asked quietly, indicating herself and the two other uninjured women of the company.
Estel shook his head after glancing up at the sun. “We might as well eat something as long as we have stopped. In fact,” he looked back at Hirgon, “will you stay and unhitch the horses? We should probably give them a rest as well.” Hirgon nodded, his face a blank mask. Estel and the other men rode on and dismounted a short distance from where Eradan was desperately trying to keep the flock of sheep together. Estel had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the young man as he grabbed one sheep and steered it back to the main flock only to have another one dart past him. However, he did briefly grin at Gilost as the Ranger rode up and dismounted alongside them. Gilost smiled back as he tied his horse beside the others. Estel looked helplessly at the other men having no idea if it would be best to first go after the sheep in the woods, especially as he was concerned about the girls straying too far, or if they should help Eradan get the main flock settled first. He turned to Halbarad. “I want you to take charge here; I have no idea what should be done.”
Halbarad gave him a look of surprise and then turned to the other men, “Gilost, Thalion, go and help the girls bring those sheep back,” he ordered decisively. “Lord Aragorn and I will help Eradan and Héthurin get the flock back under control. Nestad, watch and see that the cows don’t stray.” Gilost and Thalion trotted off into the woods while Nestad cautiously circled around the milling sheep to take care of the small number of cows. Halbarad looked at his cousin. “Move slowly around them… it’s the only advice I can give you.”
Eradan gave Estel and Halbarad a grateful look as they cautiously approached the flock. Estel had never spent a more frustrating hour than he did calming the flock of sheep and slowly adding in the ones that had strayed. He decided that sheep had to be some of the most witless animals he had ever even heard of. At some point during that hour a couple of the other Rangers came in from patrolling, concerned when they had not seen the wagons. Eventually the flock was brought under control and calmed and Estel finally had a chance to speak with Eradan.
“What happened?” he asked in what he hoped was a calm and reasonable tone, though he was thoroughly frustrated at the waste of time and the delay. Estel knew after spending an hour with the sheep that it probably would not have taken much to have spooked them, but he did not want it to happen again if it could be prevented.
Eradan looked away briefly, not sure how to tell him what had happened. He knew it would get the twins in trouble and might cause more tension between Aragorn and Hirgon, yet he would not lie to him and he knew they could not afford any further delays. Looking back at Aragorn, Eradan saw that he was watching him with a puzzled frown. “I’m sorry, my lord, that I could not stop them.”
“Who?” Estel was puzzled and then he realized that he had not seen either Celin or Culas since the sheep had scattered. “What did the twins do?” he sighed.
“They didn’t do it on purpose, they were just playing,” Eradan said slowly. “The last time I had seen the twins they were up near the wagons and then suddenly they were back here alongside us and throwing pinecones to each other. Before I could even scold them pinecones had hit several of the sheep, scaring them and it didn’t take long before they started running… you saw the results.”
Estel groaned inwardly at the thought of having to deal with the children… and with Hirgon over the matter, but it could not be helped. They could not be allowed to do things that would delay their journey; the results could be deadly for them. His eyes briefly met Nestad’s and then Estel looked around for Celin and Culas and he finally spotted them sitting by Rían at the wagon eating their lunch. Hirgon was leaning against the wagon talking to his family. Estel looked back at Eradan. “Before that happened, did it seem to be going well?” The young man nodded. “Good, then make sure you and the girls get some lunch before we move on.” He patted him on the shoulder and turned to the other men. “Go and eat and I will join you, but first I need to speak with the children.” He hesitated briefly and then gave Nestad an inquiring look. “Care to join me?” Nestad nodded and they left the others behind.
“May I make a suggestion, my lord?” Nestad’s voice was cautious, his eyes concerned as he gazed at Aragorn.
“Of course, you can, Nestad. In fact, I am surprised you are even asking before giving it to me… you usually give me advice without waiting for my approval.” Estel tried to grin, but the healer’s serious expression stopped him and he slowed to a halt. “What is it?” he asked quietly.
“Be very careful, my lord. Hirgon will not take this well, not if you accuse his children and they do not admit what they have done. If they do admit to it, then I suggest that you allow Hirgon to find a fitting punishment for them. Do not take that right away from him,” Nestad cautioned. “As a father myself, I know how that would make me feel.”
Estel gave him a thoughtful look, having not considered actually punishing the children beyond speaking to them sternly and pointing out the problems they had caused. He assumed that would be enough to stop them from future misdeeds, but perhaps he was wrong. “All right,” he said slowly. “Is speaking to them not enough to stop them from doing something like that again?”
A slow smile spread across Nestad’s face and he bit back a laugh. “You are young yet, my lord, and I think that you will find that Celin and Culas and many other children sometimes need help remembering not to do certain things. Perhaps being responsible for gathering all of the wood for the fire or something similar will help them remember not to do something like that again.”
“Oh,” was all Estel said in reply and then he continued on his way. Hirgon straightened at his approached and the twins looked at him warily, but he ignored them for a moment and looked down at Rían. “How do you fare, Lady Rían? Is the wagon to your satisfaction?”
“I’m doing well, and the wagon is fine, my lord,” she replied quietly and with a shy smile.
“Good,” Estel smiled at her for a moment and then his gaze shifted to Celin and Culas and he looked at them patiently until they shifted nervously under his steady regard. “Well,” he asked in a soft voice, “would you like to tell me what happened?” He glanced at Hirgon when the man growled at him.
“What are you talking about… my lord?”
Estel kept his voice calm and simply stared at Hirgon for a moment before turning his gaze back to the twins. “I believe that Celin and Culas need to answer that question, Hirgon.” The children stared wide-eyed at him and then their eyes darted to their ada and back to Estel.
“Tell Lord Aragorn what he wants to know,” Rían said quietly.
Estel glanced at her briefly and then he relaxed somewhat. In his concern over how Hirgon would react, he had forgotten about Rían. He should have realized that she would want the children to tell the truth about what they had done. Finally Celin spoke in a low voice as she stared at the ground.
“We were just playing… and throwing pinecones to each other…”
“We didn’t mean to spook the sheep,” Culas interrupted his sister as he reached out and grabbed her hand. “We were just tired of walking and… and just trying to have fun,” his eyes which had been looking pleadingly at Estel for understanding shifted to his father and then he lowered his gaze to the ground. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Me, too,” Celin echoed in her own whisper.
Estel ignored Hirgon’s shocked expression and focused on the children. “Look at me,” he said gently. Two sets of bluish grey eyes locked onto his. “I am going to ask you to remember that we are on a journey that is quite dangerous. I know you did not do it on purpose, but what happened today cost us a delay of several hours and we cannot afford that, we need to get to Dolomar as quickly as possible. There might be snow,” he hesitated only briefly and then went on, “there may be orcs.” Their faces paled at that thought, they were young but Estel needed them to think about the consequences of what they had done. “We have to get there as quickly as we can. Do you understand?”
Both of them nodded vigorously.
“I am going to leave it up to your ada,” he glanced at Hirgon again who was watching him closely with an expression Estel could not read, “to decide on a punishment that he thinks is appropriate for you. He knows you better than I do and has much more experience with children.” He inclined his head to Rían and started off to where Laereth and the others were waiting with food; Nestad joined him, giving him a brief smile though he said nothing. They had only gone a dozen paces or so when Hirgon called out.
He swung around, surprised that there was no hint of anger in the voice, only uncertainty and Estel watched warily as the man approached. “Yes, Hirgon?”
“I… umm… I’m sorry for not watching after my children better.” Hirgon swallowed hard, hating to apologize to anyone, let alone this particular man. “I will keep a closer watch on them from now on.”
Estel studied him for a moment and then nodded, “That would be a good idea, Hirgon. I know that you want to arrive just as quickly and safely as the rest of us.” He paused, “But I do know that you have other responsibilities as well and I will speak to the others so that all of us will keep an eye on them.” He paused again at the brief flare of anger he saw in Hirgon’s eyes. “Would you rather I not do that, Hirgon?” he asked quietly, frustrated at the man’s anger over a simple offer of help. “I am not… I am not trying to have anyone take your place or your wife’s place as their parents, but simply to help you. Lady Rían cannot watch them right now and, unless you want to always ride with the company itself… which is all right… then you will probably need help.”
“Oh, I think the talk you just gave them impressed them mightily, my lord,” Nestad said, “I doubt you’ll have too much trouble from either of them.”
Hirgon looked between the two of them suspiciously and then gave a reluctant nod. “All right, my lord… and I would like to do some of the scouting and hunting. I think I would get tired of just riding here with the wagons and such.”
“That, I understand,” Estel sighed and turned away from the man and went to get his lunch. Nestad followed him laughing quietly while Hirgon just stared after him for a moment before he turned back to discuss an appropriate punishment for his wayward children. He thought that helping with the meals might be something they could do… it was needed and they would not enjoy it.
The first week passed uneventfully except for light dustings of snow they awoke to several mornings. It remained cold, but not bitterly so and the cloaks and blankets they had were able to provide them with sufficient warmth. They rode from dawn until dusk each day, taking at least an hour break around noon to rest the horses pulling the wagons. Except for the first day, they were able to travel about twelve miles each day depending on the trail. Sometimes the woods and brush were thicker and more difficult to get the wagons through and sometimes there were steep hills to climb or streams to cross and those things took extra time, though they did not delay them long. Eradan and the girls were able to keep the sheep and cows moving well and they had not had any further problems with them. The twins had been quiet and subdued the first few days after they were scolded and they worked hard helping with the meals, but Estel could see that they were starting to return to their normal rambunctious selves once again, though he noticed that they never went back near the animals.
Estel kept all of the Rangers rotating between scouting and riding with the company, though he, himself always rode with the company, feeling that he needed to be there in case there was an emergency of some sort and some type of decision needed to be made quickly. However, he did go out hunting every day, either in the morning or evening, often going with different men so that he might come to know them better. The hunters usually came back with something and they were able to stretch their meager supply of dried food. Estel kept two men on four hour watches throughout the night at the camp and another two men on the same schedule a mile or so away. That allowed each man to have a full nights sleep every couple of days; he wanted to keep them as rested as possible, especially those that had just returned from their patrol. He could see the bone deep weariness in each of them.
At night, after supper had been eaten, they would sit around the fire for only a brief time before heading to their tents. Estel heard some fascinating stories of his people as he sat and listened quietly to the tales that were being told supposedly for the benefit of the children in their company, though sometimes he wondered if they were not being shared for him as well.
As they sat around the fire one evening a little over a week into their journey, Nestad turned to Estel with a twinkle in his eye and requested that he tell an elvish tale of some kind, insisting that he must know one or two from his years in Rivendell. At the urging of the others, he finally shared a story that Glorfindel had told him about Gondolin. Not about the destruction of the great elven city, but about the building of it and its beauty and about the people that lived there. Estel found many elven tales full of either great sorrow or horrifying creatures and he did not really want to share them with the children, especially while they were traveling. But his people seemed to appreciate the story well enough and murmured their thanks to him as they headed off to sleep. After speaking with those who were on watch, Estel finally slipped into the tent he was sharing with Halbarad, Halhigal, and Gilost. He did not sleep long.
“My lord?” Beraid’s low voice brought Estel instantly awake, also waking Halbarad and Halhigal. Estel sat up and tried to see who was speaking to him, but it was too dark.
“What is the matter?” he also kept his voice low. The tents were close together and he did not want to wake anyone else. Estel grabbed his sword as he stood and made his way outside, closely followed by his cousin and uncle.
“I’ll let Laegrist tell you…” Beraid replied, frowning. His voice trailed off as they approached the small fire that had been banked for the night and was now just a bed of orange coals.
“Laegrist?” Estel asked sharply, knowing he was supposed to be on patrol and a feeling of dread filled him. “What happened?” He crouched down next to the Ranger at the fire where the man was warming his hands.
“There is a small group of orcs just north of us, my lord,” Laegrist explained, his eyes glittering in the light of the coals. “There weren’t more than four or five of them and they were headed northeast towards the Bruinen when they passed me and…”
Estel laid his hand on Laegrist’s arm to interrupt him and he looked around. “Halbarad, Beraid, get the rest of the men up and try not to disturb the children at least.” He saw that Gilost had joined them from the other side of the camp and Estel turned back to Laegrist and motioned for him to continue. Halhigal stirred up the fire and added several small logs as Laegrist continued.
“I waited for about ten minutes after they went by thinking they might be scouts for a larger party, but nothing else moved and the normal night sounds started up again and so I trailed them for a half a mile or so to make sure they were not coming back toward us and the trail heads right for the river.”
As Laegrist finished the men started arriving at the fire looking concerned and grim and they looked at Estel for direction. He stood, thinking through all of the possibilities and none of them were good. He looked briefly at Halhigal and then back at the ground as he thought. The women, even Rían, were also emerging from the tents, and though they hung back a little they could still hear every word that was said. Estel looked around at the others and his gaze landed on Beraid.
“Your father is the other man out on patrol, is he not?” Beraid nodded. Estel did not want to leave him out there alone with orcs in the area. “Halbarad, were you going to relieve Tadion?” His cousin nodded and Estel grimaced inwardly, Halbarad was really too inexperienced to send and yet he was a Ranger. “Then you and… Maldathor go and bring him back. I do not want him out there alone.” He glanced at Halhigal and saw understanding and approval in his eyes. As much as he wanted to go after the orcs Estel knew they could not risk doing so. Not with the women and children with them. In the morning he would send someone after them, but for now all they could do is stand watch and hope the orcs were not part of a larger group that might be heading their way.
“We will have to wait and go after them in the morning,” Estel said quietly and he saw the looks of disappointment in a few of the younger men’s eyes, though no one spoke. “We need to protect our families first,” he reminded them. He glanced around the camp, knowing that they had set up the tents in the best defensive place that was available on the site, but he wanted to double check. Seeing nothing better than the thick trees they were huddled under, Estel turned back to the men. “Eradan, Mellonar, I want you to go and watch over the animals.” They hurried to where the horses and cows had been tied on leads for the night and the sheep had been placed in a crude pen made from fallen tree limbs and rope and other materials they could find and where the dogs had been tied up for the night to serve as extra guards and to sound an alarm in case of danger.
Estel looked at the other men and his brow furrowed in thought as he tried to think of what he knew of each man and how they moved in the woods as he had been hunting with most of them in the past week or so. “Hirgon, Gilost, Laegrist, and… Beraid, I want you to go out around the camp about two hundred yards and slowly patrol the perimeter.” Estel pointed to the areas where he wanted them to go and the four Rangers headed off into the night. That left Estel standing with Halhigal, Nestad, and Thalion and he looked at his uncle questioningly.
“Can you think of anything else we should do?”
“No, perhaps when the other men get back you might add one or two of them to the outer patrol,” Halhigal shrugged.
Estel glanced at Nestad and Thalion with an eyebrow raised in question, but they both shook their heads. “We have to find out where these orcs are coming from. If this is just a small group as Laegrist says, we can deal with them, but where are they coming from? They must have a large den somewhere,” Estel frowned.
“We don’t have time to track them back,” Thalion pointed out cautiously, hoping that he did not mean to chase them down right now.
“Oh, I know, Thalion,” Estel grimaced. “Though I would like to while the tracks are fresh and untouched by snow. But we cannot leave our families and I will not send a few of you off to check on them. However,” he gave Thalion a grim smile, “I may have your patrol ride back this way and see if you can find any trace of them.” He shook his head slightly and thought about where to station the four of them around the camp, mostly around the shelters he thought.
“My lord?” Laereth’s quiet voice interrupted Estel’s thoughts and he looked up and gave her a small nod and she continued. “What would you have us women do?”
Estel saw that the women held sheathed swords and he started as he realized that they were just as ready to defend the camp as were the men. He took a moment to think about what they should do as he had never had women fight before and he hoped it would not come to it this time either. Though, he knew that they had fought in Taurnand. “Stay close to the tents and be a last line of defense. I do not want any of our children taken… any of us taken,” he looked closely at Laereth and then at the other women to make sure they understood him. Quick flashes of horror followed by understanding and acceptance crossed the women’s faces. He hoped it would never come to that, to have to kill children to keep them from being taken by orcs, yet he knew it would be the most merciful thing that they could ever do. Estel just hoped that he was never faced with making that decision. The women retreated back to the tents and the men spread out around the camp, first scattering the logs of the fire apart to help it burn down quickly.
It was a long quiet night. Halbarad, Maldathor, and Tadion came back in a relatively short time and Estel sent Maldathor and Tadion back out to patrol the perimeter of the camp with the other Rangers. But nothing disturbed them throughout the night and just before dawn broke a group of weary men and women gathered back around the fire which was being re-kindled. Estel wished they could rest but he knew that had to push on as quickly as possible. He also knew he had to send some men after the orcs and, while he wished that he could go himself, he knew he could not, not with the responsibility of the rest of the company. He had spoken with Halhigal during the night and between them they had decided on the best way to handle both the orcs and the company. Estel looked around at his people and gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile.
“Well, at least we were not attacked. However, we must move on as quickly as we can and yet we cannot leave those orcs behind us either… not without finding out where they are going. Thalion, I want you to take Laegrist, Hirgon, and Gilost and track them down. If you find it is a larger band than we thought, then leave them and come back for help. We will be continuing in this same direction towards Dolomar. Rejoin us a quickly as you can.” Thalion nodded and he and his men scattered to gather their belongings as Estel turned to the others. “Beraid, Halbarad, Maldathor, as soon as the children are up, get the tents and shelters taken down and into the wagons and then come and help the rest of us with the horses. Mellonar, Nestad, remain on watch for now while the rest of us get the horses ready.” Estel looked at Laereth and the other women. “I think breakfast will have to be something cold today so that we can leave as soon as possible.” Two of the women hurried to the food packages and began pulling out some of the smoked and dried food, while the other two woke the children and packed up the tents so the men could take them down.
Horses were saddled and Thalion and his men quickly rode out of camp in pursuit of the orcs. The rest of the horses were either saddled or hitched to the wagons as swiftly as possible and it was less than thirty minutes after Thalion left that the rest of the company set out. Estel had Halhigal continue to lead the way, though he kept him closer to the rest of the company than he had in the past, not letting him out of earshot. He assigned Halbarad to ride close to the animals in case Eradan and the girls needed help as they could not afford any distractions or delays. The twins were placed in the wagons and told not to walk. Estel placed the other five men in a protective ring around the company as they traveled, two of them keeping within eyesight of the wagons and the other three a little further away that they might have some warning in case of an attack.
Estel rode alongside the wagons, his eyes constantly moving as he scanned the thick brushy woods they were traveling so slowly through. He absently noted the sounds of the few birds that still remained at this time of year, their presence a comforting sound that signaled that no danger lurked nearby. Occasionally he spoke briefly to the women or to the twins, but mostly they all remained quiet as the morning passed. The stop they took at noon to rest the wagon teams was shorter than usual, but Estel did take a break knowing that he needed the horses to be well rested for the final five days of their journey… at least he hoped they could make it to Dolomar in only five more days.
It was a couple of hours after noon when Thalion and his men rejoined them, suddenly appearing in front of them as their search had taken them swiftly in the same direction they were traveling, though well east of the company. Their return was much quicker on horseback as they were not slowed by either the animals or the wagons. They spoke first to Halhigal and then all of them rode back to Estel and the others. Estel signaled the women to halt and he called in the rest of the men to hear what had been discovered. He waited for the men, looking them over carefully as they approached. None of them showed any signs of being in a battle and he frowned wondering if they now faced an even bigger threat or if they just had not been able to find them. Though that seemed unlikely; Gilost at least was an excellent tracker.
“My lord,” Thalion greeted him before looking past him and giving Laereth a quick nod. His gaze shifted immediately back to his Chieftain. “I am sorry, my lord, we found the trail of five orcs and we followed them… they were moving very quickly and didn’t turn aside as far as we could see. They plainly had a purpose,” he frowned, “… or a destination in mind, but what and where that is I don’t know, my lord.” Thalion hesitated, wondering, as he had often on the way back, if he had made the right decision. “We followed them to a spot where the Bruinen is a little wider and shallower and they crossed the river. I…I didn’t think we should follow them any further, my lord. They were obviously not coming back this way and with our families,” he gestured towards the women and children, “I thought we should return. Though, I will go back…”
Estel shook his head, “No, you did the right thing, Thalion. As much as I would like to have seen them dead, right now our main goal is to get to Dolomar quickly and safely and that might have taken you far too long.” He gave the patrol leader a grim smile, “And you do not know what was waiting for you on the other side of the river.”
“I did consider that,” Thalion acknowledged.
“Perhaps that is where the orcs are holed up,” Halhigal said.
“The ones that attacked our village came from the southwest,” Hirgon pointed out, surprising Estel by speaking up.
Estel nodded, “Yes, they did. But it is something we will have to check out when we send out a patrol to track them down. There is nothing on the other side of the Bruinen that would capture the orcs interest, but anywhere along there would be good places for them to den up.” He shook his head, frustrated at their inability to go after them now. This area was well south of Imladris and he knew that their patrols on the other side of the Bruinen did not normally swing down so far so it was unlikely that the orcs would be discovered by the elves. He glanced around at the returned Rangers. “Do you need to eat before we move on?”
“No, we had food in our packs, Lord Aragorn,” Thalion replied, “and ate as we rode.”
“Then we will continue.” Estel quickly appointed Gilost to ride ahead with Halhigal and the other three returned men to ride with the company and sent the rest of the men back to their original posts and they rode on until just before dark with no further sign of orcs. Gilost and Halhigal found a small clearing with a steep hill at one side for their camp and they quickly set up the tents before eating another cold meal. Estel did not want the smell of smoke or the light to possibly attract orcs. The women and children went to bed immediately after supper and Estel sent half the men to sleep at that time as well. The other half would stay on watch for half the night and sleep for the rest of it. He felt they would get better rest that way and he wanted that many men up and guarding all through the night. Though, part of him felt that there truly was no danger - that the small party of orcs had been all that there were. But, of course he could not take any chances.
Another long night passed and there were no sign of orcs and when dawn approached, it was with a sense of relief and with the thought that perhaps the danger had passed. Estel quietly agreed with his people, but reminded them that they still needed to be cautious and alert as they continued. They ate a hot meal of porridge before packing up and heading out once again.
The next several days passed uneventfully and while snow fell all one day, concerning Estel greatly, it did not greatly interfere with them except to make them wet and miserable. The night before they were to arrive in Dolomar a sense of relief pervaded the camp and they stayed up later than usual telling stories and Estel noticed that even Tadion, who had lost his wife and young son in Taurnand, stayed close to the fire with his daughters and seemed to be enjoying the stories. Beraid hovered over the three of them, watching his father and sisters with concern and yet a hint of relief in his eyes. Estel knew he had been worried about them and was concerned about what the move would do to his sisters, especially after he and his father left again to return to their patrol. Shaking his head slightly as he watched them, Estel glanced around looking for Halhigal and then went to speak with him.
“Uncle Halhigal, I have been thinking that it might be a good idea to send someone ahead in the morning to warn the villagers that we are coming. It would give them a chance to prepare for our arrival and to have a nice meal ready.” Estel frowned and lowered his voice as he moved further away from the others. “I do worry somewhat about how the villagers will receive these people. It is not that I think they will not want to help them, but…”
“You need not worry, Aragorn,” Halhigal said quietly. “The Dúnedain take care of their own. We are too small of a group of people to do otherwise. I do think it is a good idea to send someone ahead and if they leave here at dawn they should arrive before noon.” He looked closely at his nephew, “Did you have someone in mind? You will need to send two people,” he reminded him. A faint twinkle lit the depths of his eye as he well knew who would like to go.
Estel sighed, “It will have to be Gilost and Halbarad then. I do not want any of the people from Taurnand arriving early in case the reaction is not quite as positive as we had hoped.”
Halhigal gave a thoughtful nod and then asked in a quiet voice. “Do you not want to go?”
“Of course, but I know my duty is here, Uncle,” Estel shrugged and mostly succeeded in keeping the wistfulness out of his voice. He was tired of riding so slowly with the wagons and not even going out to do any of the scouting, though he still thought it was the best thing for him to do.
“I think that perhaps you might better explain to the people of Dolomar why all of these people are coming. It is certainly not something that either Gilost or Halbarad are used to doing,” Halhigal bit back a smile as Aragorn’s eyes lit up.
“I had not considered that,” Estel said slowly. “Would you be willing to lead the people tomorrow?” Halhigal nodded and Estel continued. “I will take Halbarad with me, if you think that would be all right.”
“I think that would be all right, my lord,” Halhigal suddenly smiled.
Estel narrowed his eyes and stared at his uncle for a moment before giving his uncle a smile in return, realizing Halhigal knew exactly how he was feeling. “I will tell Halbarad and speak with the people in the morning, Uncle.” He walked off in search of Halbarad slightly amused at how easily his uncle had talked him into deciding it would be best that he go and yet grateful for it at the same time. Estel found Halbarad just on the edge of the firelight standing under a tree with his arms crossed, his eyes hooded as he appeared to be listening to whatever story was being told by those seated around the fire.
“Why are you standing so far away?” Estel asked quietly as he approached. “Are you not cold?”
Halbarad shrugged, “I’m warm enough, I have my cloak. I just was thinking and only half listening to the stories.”
“Thinking about being home?”
“Yes… and other things,” Halbarad’s voice lowered and he glanced at the fire and then back at Aragorn. “We’ve been gone a long time…”
“Only two months.”
“It seems longer,” Halbarad muttered.
“It does, so much has happened,” Estel acknowledged even as he wondered where this conversation was heading.
Halbarad hesitated, not sure he could or even if he wanted to share what he was feeling with Aragorn and then he remembered the things Aragorn had shared with him and he let out a small sigh. Pushing himself away from the tree he started moving further away from the people at the fire indicating Aragorn should follow him. He stopped when he was sure they were out of earshot.
“What is the matter, Halbarad?” Estel asked, the concern for his cousin evident in his voice.
“It sounds selfish, Aragorn, and I don’t mean it to be, but while I’m looking forward to seeing Naneth and everyone tomorrow, I am not looking forward to being at home again,” he looked away from Aragorn’s surprised expression. “I wanted to be gone for the winter and to see and do different things,” Halbarad’s voice dropped to a whisper. He risked a glance at his cousin but did not see disappointment, but understanding on his face. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, Aragorn… not after what these people have suffered and gone through, but…“ he shrugged.
Estel studied Halbarad for a moment as he tried to find the right words. He was not sure what to say even though he remembered what it was like going off with his brothers on patrol and then returning home and being treated the same as he had been before he had been off fighting and killing orcs. He felt all grown up and yet those around him did not recognize or treat him that way yet. “You are concerned that your naneth and others will treat you as they did before you left, are you not? As a young man and not the Ranger that you are… that you have become in the last two months.”
“Yes,” Halbarad sighed and gave his cousin a rueful smile.
“My naneth did the same when I would return from patrols with my brothers or Lord Glorfindel. She might still do the same when you are fifty, Halbarad,” Estel grinned.
“But what about others, will you… never mind,” Halbarad stopped and shook his head. He had not meant to bring up the one question that was most important to him.
“Will I what?” Estel asked, his eyes questioning.
Halbarad took a deep breath. “When you look at me do you see me as your cousin or one of your Rangers?”
Estel blinked in surprise and then he took a step away and stared at the ground and did not answer him as he struggled to contain his hurt, wondering how Halbarad could possibly think he saw him only as another of his Rangers.
“Aragorn?” Halbarad’s low, hesitant voice finally made him look up once again. “That didn’t come out the way I meant it to…” he tried to explain.
“I hope not, because I have many Rangers and only one cousin. One here among my people that I consider almost a brother,” he added quietly, finally meeting Halbarad’s eyes.
“I feel the same,” Halbarad replied and then took another deep breath. “But that’s what I wanted to ask you… I know you feel that way and when you are assigning the Rangers to different duties, I wonder if you,” he paused and carefully considered his words. “Because I’m your cousin… your brother, do you not assign me to dangerous things because you’re afraid I might get hurt?” There, it was out, the thing that had been bothering Halbarad for days as they had been traveling. It seemed to him that Aragorn skipped over him for certain assignments and the only reason he could think of was because he was his cousin.
“Is that what you truly think? That I would not allow you to go on a patrol because you are my cousin and it is too dangerous, that I would send someone else in your place?” Halbarad shifted uneasily, suddenly realizing how that sounded. “The reason I do not assign you to some of those things, Cousin, is because you are the youngest Ranger and everyone else has years of experience. Why would I send someone who has been a Ranger less than two months when I could send someone with experience?”
“So that they can gain that experience,” Halbarad replied promptly. “I will not learn, Aragorn, if I don’t go out with the patrols. It seemed to me that Adar kept me in Dolomar a little longer than was usual. I’ll be twenty-four next month and most young men join the Rangers soon after their twenty-third birthday. I just… I just want to be treated like every other Ranger.”
“I will never treat you as if you were any other Ranger,” Estel said with a small smile. “However, you are correct that you do need to gain experience and I will keep that in mind. Perhaps I was trying to protect you without even realizing it.” He paused and thought for a moment. “I wonder if Uncle Halhigal kept you home because he knew I was returning. If so, then I am sorry.”
“That is not your fault, and at least that would be a good reason, but I wish he would have at least told me that.” Halbarad looked closely at Aragorn wondering if he was upset with him, but he did not appear to be. “I’m sorry if what I said was disrespectful, I was not trying to be and I never even meant to ask you,” he grimaced.
Estel laid his hand on Halbarad’s shoulder, “You were not and I would rather you said something than to have it worry at you.” Halbarad nodded. “Now, I did come to speak with you for a reason,“ he frowned. “Though, maybe you would rather not go. I am leaving early in the morning to ride ahead to Dolomar to warn them that we are coming and I would like you to come with me. But, perhaps you would rather come later with the wagons.”
Halbarad shook his head and grinned. “I’d much rather ride ahead with you than stay with the wagons. I’m tired of going so slow and as we are going to arrive there tomorrow anyway, I might as well get there quickly.”
“Good, we will leave at dawn. I will leave you to finish out your watch and see you in the morning. Good-night, Halbarad.”
“Good-night, Lord Aragorn,” Halbarad grinned at his cousin’s grimace before turning and walking off to finish the rest of his watch in silence as he thought about the conversation he had just had with… his brother. He’d always wanted a brother, or even a sister for that matter, and now it appeared that he finally had one.
To be continued…
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.