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15
Chapter 15

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.

Author’s Note: I did research before I started writing this story and from what I read in the appendixes at the end of Return of the King it did not appear that the Dúnedain spoke Sindarin on a regular basis. That, among men, it had mostly become a language used in and around Minas Tirith among the descendents of those from Númenor. While some people in the North used it, it appeared it had mostly died out in favor of Westron. However, I was using the wonderful resources on the HASA site and found that in the Unfinished Tales it quite clearly states that Sindarin was the main language of the Dúnedain. Thank you, HASA! Right now you are wondering why any of that matters, but it will become abundantly clear in this chapter. All conversation is assumed to be in Sindarin. Any conversation that is in italics is in Westron, the common tongue of Middle-earth. I have gone back and fixed the first two chapters to reflect those changes.


~~~

“Alvist, tell me what these tracks tell you,” Gilost asked quietly as he crouched down next to the deer prints they had come across. While they did hope to bring back a deer, today was as much about teaching Alvist about tracking as it was about hunting. Estel had begun taking one of the boys with them every few days so that he and Gilost could help the boys increase their skills. Eradan and Halbarad had ridden off in pursuit of their own game, giving Estel cheeky grins as they left him behind.

They had ridden well north and west of the village, skirting the marshland, to come to this area where deer were known to frequent during the winter, drawn by a small spring. It was warming now the last week of February, a relief from the unusually bitter cold wind that had blown in for a week in January when every step outside had taken a persons’ breath away and left eyelashes and eyebrows coated with frost. But now there was a sense that spring was within reach, that the trees were just waiting for some signal so that they could bud, birds which had disappeared for the winter were slowly starting to reappear.

Alvist studied the tracks pressed into the soft dirt for several minutes and then said, with a hint of a question in his voice, “There are three deer and at least one of them is a buck… a large one with how deep this track is,” he pointed at a set of tracks. “I think the deer passed by here about,” Alvist bit his lip nervously, “about two hours ago.” He glanced between the two men anxiously as he waited for them to either tell him he was right or to correct him. But Alvist never found out because as he looked at them, neither man was looking at him but stood frozen and gazing off to the north, their brows furrowed and their heads cocked as if listening intently. And, then, Alvist heard it, the sounds of men’s voices. “Are they Rangers?” he whispered excitedly, hoping his adar had returned early from his patrol.

Estel put a warning finger on his lips and shook his head before leaning close to his ear. “No Ranger would speak so loudly.” He leaned over to Gilost, “Who would be here at this time of year?”

Gilost gave him a grim look as he replied, “Bandits.”

Nodding, as that is what he had assumed, he listened once again to try and get a sense of how many men there might be. He heard two or three voices speaking as they drew near on the trail that ran a short distance away, but it sounded like several more horses than that. “Whistle for Halbarad,” he ordered Gilost as he turned to Alvist. Gilost let out a series of bird chirps and calls that were designed to carry a long distance in hopes that Halbarad and Eradan would return. They heard no response. “Alvist,” Estel said to the boy who was listening and watching eagerly. “You are to stay with the horses. Keep an arrow nocked and ready and your sword at hand, but you are not to leave the horses unless I or one of the other men call for you. Do you understand?” His gaze was stern and unyielding as he stared down at the boy.

“Yes, my lord,” Alvist swallowed hard, having never seen him with the expression he wore now.

With that, Estel and Gilost slipped off without a sound in the direction of the approaching men. They each kept an arrow loosely nocked as they hurried through the bushes, angling to arrive at a spot on the trail just ahead of the men. Many thoughts whirled through Estel’s mind as he moved, centering mostly around why the men were in this area, if they were looking for Dolomar or if they were just passing through. In any event he would not allow them to approach any closer and he intended to find out what they were doing so far off of the Great East Road. Estel spoke quietly with Gilost when they reached the trail and then sent him to the other side with instructions to wait until he was speaking with the men before showing himself.

Estel remained hidden and carefully looked over the six rough looking men as they rode into view. They varied in ages from what he guessed would be early twenties to mid-forties and, unlike the Dúnedain, their long stringy hair ranged in colors from blonde to dark brown. All of them had swords and bows hanging from belts and backs. They were cocky. Estel could tell by the way they sat their horses and the way the one he assumed was the leader spoke to the two men alongside him. His eyes darkened in fury as he listened to them speak of a raid they had recently made… and the lives they had taken during it.

As they drew within twenty yards, Estel took a deep breath and stepped out onto the trail, his arrow pointed at the ground. “Halt,” he called out commandingly, his hard grey eyes meeting the eyes of the leader. Shocked by the sudden appearance of this man, the men did just that, horses rearing slightly as they pulled hard on the reins. Recovering from his surprise the leader scowled at Estel and started to ride forward when he found an arrow pointed at him and he reined in his horse once again.

“Who’re you? What’d you want?” he spit out harshly, his eyes gleaming in anger.

“It matters not who I am,” Estel’s bow moved slightly to cover a man who was reaching for his knife and the man dropped his hand to his lap. Gilost stepped out of the wood on the other side of the trail and a little closer to the men and they all reacted by shifting their horses away a bit. “Hold,” Estel ordered and they froze once again. “Why are you here?” he demanded. “This is not the time of year that most people travel the wilds. Most travelers use the Great East Road if they have to travel at all.”

“We go where we want,” the man sneered. “There’s nothing says we can’t travel this trail and ya can’t stop us.” He spit on the ground before urging his horse forward and Estel swung his bow back to cover him, pulling his bowstring taut as he did so. The man stopped once again, his brown eyes furious.

“Yes, I can. Dismount. All of you.” Estel’s voice was hard and his eyes were like grey flint as he stared at the man unblinkingly.

The man was hesitating when one of the other men, further back in the line, spoke up, “Galt, he’s a Ranger; we should do what he says.”

“He’s no right!”

“There’s only two of ‘em,” one of the men closest to Galt whispered loudly.

Estel was starting to wonder if they were going to have to take them by force, not that he doubted that he and Gilost could do so, when a slight flicker of movement in the bushes beyond the men caught his eye. He saw that Halbarad and Eradan had arrived and he breathed an inward sigh of relief. Things had just gotten a little easier. Though Eradan was young for this, he was at least competent with bow and blade. Without taking his eyes off of Galt, he called loudly, “Come ahead, Halbarad, Eradan.” Arrows nocked, the two stepped into the trail behind the men, spreading out on opposite sides so that the men were effectively surrounded. Galt and several of the others cursed loudly at their appearance.

The youngest looking man in the back was the first to dismount and he moved slowly, keeping his hands well away from his belt where sword and knives were kept, but he kept a tight rein on his horse as he looked nervously at Halbarad who was standing closest to him. “Slowly,” Estel ordered the men as they started to dismount and they grudgingly obeyed as their eyes darted angrily between the Rangers. “Loosen your belts and let them fall.”

“Why’re ya doing this?” Galt demanded stepping towards Estel but stopping abruptly at the look in Estel’s eyes. He undid his belt, his eyes never leaving Estel’s.

“Hold, Eradan,” Estel called as he saw the young man stepping forward out of the corner of his eye, whether to gather the belts or take the horses he was not sure. He knew this was a dangerous time because he was sure most of the men carried hidden knives and they had to take them. They also needed to get the horses out of the way and gather up the dropped weapons before searching and tying up the men. “Step forward,” Estel gestured with his bow for the men to move away from their belts. “Let go of the reins,” he called to the young man who was still holding his like a lifeline. The men’s eyes were fixed on him, mostly showing anger, but a good bit of frustration and fear was also appearing in the eyes of some of the men. “Sit.”

Estel waited until the men were on the ground before calling to Eradan, “Come and gather up the weapons.” Deciding that at this point he would rather have his sword in his hand, he beckoned Gilost to his side with a jerk of his head. Making sure that Gilost knew what he was doing, Estel left the arrow loosely nocked so he could switch back quickly if he needed to do so as he swiftly pulled his sword. Once it was free of the sheath, he then carefully set his bow aside never once taking his eyes off the men.

A cunning look crept into the eyes of Galt. “We’ve got money, take it and let us go,” trying to distract Estel from the fact that Eradan was moving a little too close to his men.

“I already have it,” Estel retorted. “There is no reason to let you go.” He noticed Eradan at the same time as one of the men in the middle of the line stretched his feet out and tripped the young man, knocking him hard to the ground before leaping at him. The man ignored Estel’s shouted call to halt and twin bowstrings sang as Gilost and Halbarad released their arrows. Estel had his sword at Galt’s throat before the arrows thudded into the body of the man.

“Do not move,” Estel hissed at him and then his gaze shifted briefly to the other four men who were not even looking at him but at the man who had been shot and was now moaning in pain as he lay dying. Eradan pulled himself out from underneath the dying bandit and gave Estel a wide-eyed stare. “Continue with what you were doing, Eradan,” Estel directed calmly, hiding his sorrow at the death behind an impassive mask. “And then get some rope from the horses so that we can tie them and they will not be tempted to try that again.”

“Y-yes, my lord.”

“You… you killed him,” one of the men said accusingly, looking between Estel, Gilost, and then turning to look back at Halbarad. Estel noted that Halbarad had an expression that was totally unreadable and he grieved for the fact that his cousin had just had to kill a man… not an orc, but a man.

Turning his gaze back on Galt who had not moved an inch since Estel’s sword had come to rest at his throat; Estel answered the man, though it was not truly a question. “He did die and I am grieved that any man should lose his life in such a manner, but his death was brought about by his own choices. Both to join your band and for his attack just now on my Ranger.” Eradan had collected the weapons and dumped them off to the side before hurrying to get several lengths of rope.

“M-my lord?”

Estel glanced briefly at Eradan and saw the fear flickering in his eyes as he held up the rope questioningly, but there was nothing he could do for the young man now. “Start down near Halbarad and search them carefully, Eradan, before tying their hands in front of them. Halbarad, watch them closely. Gilost, move down that way a bit.” His Rangers did as directed without speaking, while the prisoners were looking confused at whatever language was being spoken.

Galt finally found his voice once again and, with evidence that these Rangers were deadly serious, his voice was quieter, though no less demanding. “We’ve done nothing wrong and now ya killed one of my men. Let us go and I won’t tell no one what ya done!”

Estel stared down at him with undisguised fury and disdain in his eyes. “Done nothing wrong? Would you like to explain to me about the raid you recently made on a group of wagons on the Great East Road and the people you killed? While I know that was your most recent work, I am sure it is not the only raid you and your men have conducted.”

Confused at how this Ranger could know of this recent raid, Galt tried to bluster his way out of it. “We didn’t! We’re… hunters and we’re trying to find food for our families.”

Gilost let out a short bark of grim laughter at that, “Then the families that you were so casually discussing having killed a short time ago was just in jest?” He did not move his eyes from the men he was guarding as Eradan moved to the second man. “The wagons you burned were part of your fun?” his voice was cold and full of fury.

“I, myself, am anxious to see what the packhorses are carrying,” Estel said, his voice soft and dangerous, his gaze piercing as he studied Galt.

“That’s ours! Ya can’t…” Galt began shaking his head vehemently, but stopped when Estel’s sword cut long thin furrows into his neck as he had never moved the blade away.

“I would stay still and quiet until my sword is removed,” Estel advised, looking closely at the man’s neck to see if the wounds were serious. Assuring himself that they were not life threatening and it would not further harm Galt to wait for treatment; Estel just left them until the man was bound. He did not trust the man to not attack if he tried to treat the wounds with his hands unbound. Glancing at Eradan, Estel saw that he had pulled quite a few knives from the men and had tossed them into the pile with the rest of the weapons that had been collected.

“Where is Alvist?” Halbarad asked with concern. He had just realized that the boy was not with them and he hoped that he had not been injured before he and Eradan had arrived, though that did not seem likely.

Estel answered as he backed away a short distance so that Eradan had room to search Galt. “He is with the horses a short distance from here. I will send Eradan to fetch him when he is done.” He watched closely as Eradan found knife after knife from the man sitting on the ground in front of him. Eradan was very thorough in his search, making the man turn so he could search the back of his leggings, tunic, and cloak, as well as his every part of the front of him and his boots. Finally, Eradan tied the man’s hands together quite tightly before standing and giving Estel a brisk nod.

“Well, done,” Estel lowered his sword, though only slightly as he was well aware that the men’s legs were still unbound. “Go get Alvist and our horses. We left him about one hundred yards in that direction.” Eradan nodded and ran off. “Halbarad, Gilost,” he beckoned them to him and the three of them stepped back a short distance, though they kept their eyes fixed on their prisoners and Halbarad and Gilost had their bows pointed towards them, though the strings were now slack.

“What are you going to do with them?” Halbarad asked.

“For now we are going to take them back to the village and then I guess we will have to take them to…” Estel paused, his brow furrowed as he thought. He had not yet fully considered what they would do with the men besides removing them from being a threat to the Dúnedain and the other peoples of Eriador. “I will speak with Halhigal,” he finally finished.

Gilost looked at him sidelong and then spoke softly, “Normally bandits are taken to Bree, my lord, but we’re a long way from there. I’m not sure when any were caught this far east, certainly before I became a Ranger. But the village there is big enough to have a judge to deal with men like these. Though,” he gave his lord a brief smile, “you, of course, are able to judge them yourself.”

The Lord of the Dúnedain and uncrowned King of Arnor returned Gilost’s brief smile. “I am aware of that,” he sighed softly. “However, at this time, I think it best that I leave these things to the men of Bree to judge and punish as they see fit. From what I understand, the majority of the people of Eriador are already fearful of the Rangers and if they hear that we are also judging and punishing people, even men like these, I think that it would only increase their fear.” Gilost nodded and was about to respond when one of the bandits spoke.

“S-sir?”

The voice sounded young and frightened and Estel glanced down the row of men to see that the youngest appearing man had spoken and he walked down towards the blonde headed man who eyed him warily, his wide blue eyes frightened. “Yes, what do you want?”

“Sir, the last… raid…”

Noises of protest broke out from the other men. “Don’t, Will!”

“Shut yer mouth, boy!”

“Cease,” Estel commanded the men, shooting them a quelling look and with mumbles of protest, they quieted, though angry glares were directed at both him and Will. “What do you want… Will… is that your name?” The man nodded and Estel suddenly wondered if he had been off on guessing his age. He had thought he was in his twenties, but, on closer inspection, the man appeared much younger, though he had a beard that among the Dúnedain would indicate a man in this twenties. Estel reminded himself that this man was not Dúnedain. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen, sir.”

Estel nodded and indicated he should continue. While certainly the man would be considered young by Dúnedain standards, he was not young by the standards of most of the men of Middle-earth.

“The raid yesterday…” Will averted his eyes from Estel’s intense stare. “We left… there were people alive…” his voice trailed off as he heard the muttered threats of his companions.

Drawing in a sharp breath, Estel crouched down in front of Will. “Were these people injured?” Will nodded, not meeting Estel’s eyes. “How badly?” he asked sharply.

“I’m not sure, sir… I didn’t see them all, b-but I could hear them as we rode away,” he bit his lip.

Estel twisted on his feet and glanced back at Gilost and Halbarad and saw the horror he felt mirrored in their eyes. As horrible as it was for these men to have killed what he assumed were two families from what he had overheard, it seemed far worse to have left them alive to suffer. He turned his furious gaze on the rest of the bandits but they quickly dropped their heads and he turned back to Will.

“When did this raid occur?”

“Yes-yesterday afternoon, sir.”

“Where?”

Will shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. We…we rode a good ways along the road afterwards before heading into the woods and taking this trail and then stopping for the night.”

Estel stood and walked over to Halbarad and Gilost. “We have to get these men back to the village and then we are going to see if anyone is still alive.”

“We should bury them at the very least, my lord,” Gilost murmured.

“I had not considered that, but, yes, we will.” Estel turned his attention to Eradan and Alvist as they arrived with the horses and he saw Alvist pale as he took in the dead body. “Alvist, tie the horses to that tree. Eradan, bring me my healing pack.” As he waited for the healing supplies, Estel looked at Halbarad. “I want you and Eradan to get the body on a horse, we will have to take him back and bury him there. I will tend to Galt’s wounds before we go.” Nodding, Halbarad turned to do as he was bid and Estel went to tend to Galt while Gilost covered the bandits with his bow nocked and ready. Estel ignored Galt’s comments and pleas as he cleaned and bound his injured throat.

The bandits were blindfolded before they were put on their horses, their hands tied to the pommels of their saddles and their feet tied together under the belly of the horses. Estel had Alvist lead the way, the reins of the two packhorses tied to the pommel of his saddle. Each prisoner had their horses tied on lead lines to the saddles of the Rangers, who rode with swords drawn. Eradan brought up the rear, leading the horse with the body of the dead man. It took well over an hour to return to Dolomar and, as they neared the village, Estel finally threatened to gag Galt and several of the men if they would not cease their complaining and cursing.

At the gate, Estel sent Rosruin to fetch Halhigal, Ladreníl, and Nestad and bring them to the Hall and told Caladithil to run and make sure that all of the children were inside. He also directed Alvist to go and get some of the other boys to help care for the prisoner’s horses and to give their own a quick rubdown and re-saddle them to ride out again. Galt struggled violently and spit as Halbarad and Eradan pulled him from the horse and Estel had never before been so tempted to hit someone out of anger as he was this man.

Finally, Estel’s patience was at an end and he took a length of bandaging material from his pack. “Hold him still,” he growled at Halbarad and Eradan and he waited until they had him firmly under control on his knees before forcing a gag into Galt’s mouth and tying it neatly around the back of his head. Finished with Galt, Estel turned to the other men whose blindfolds had been removed. “Do you need gags?” he asked harshly.

“N-no, sir,” Will shook his head.

There was no reply from the other men who stared at the ground. By this time Halhigal, Nestad, Ladreníl, and even Mellonar and Sírdhim had arrived, their eyes assessing the situation and swiftly drawing the correct conclusion they wasted no time on questions that could be answered later.

“Where do you want to keep them, my lord?” Ladreníl asked.

“I know not. Has this never happened before?” There was a general shaking of heads and murmurs of no and Estel frowned again. “Perhaps one of the storage sheds?”

“There are no places for fires in those buildings,” Halhigal replied, “and it’s too cold yet to leave even men such as these without a fire at night.”

“I suppose not,” Estel growled, scowling at the bandits, though he would not mind leaving Galt in such a place. “We will have to leave them in the Hall, then, until we return.” He motioned for them to move that way and Halbarad and Eradan urged the prisoners forward while Gilost grasped Galt’s arm and steered him in the proper direction.

“Return? Return from where, my lord?” Nestad asked as they walked behind the prisoners.

“Their latest raid was yesterday and evidently they left some of the people alive,” Estel grimaced. “In fact, Nestad, I would like you to come with us. If there are some still alive, then I imagine they are sorely injured and may need both of our skill.”

Anger darkened Nestad’s eyes as he replied, “I will go and prepare supplies to take with us.”

“How far away is this place?” Halhigal asked. “You know the chance of any of them still being alive at this time is small.”

Estel gave him a grim look, “I know, but it is not far from what one of them told us. We have to find out and, as Gilost pointed out, we need to bury them at least.” He turned to Mellonar, “Please go and get shovels and take them to the stables. Alvist is readying our horses so we can ride out again as soon as we are done here. Rosruin, go and ask Nimrie to prepare food for me and Halbarad to take with us and also our bedrolls. Sírdhim, will you do the same for Gilost?” Both of them nodded and hurried off.

Inside the Hall, each prisoner was tightly bound hand and foot to one of the heavy wooden tables with just enough room to lie down. There was simply nothing else to secure them to and with men guarding them; it should be enough to keep them under control. Estel crouched down in front of Will to try and get more details about where the attack had taken place in hopes that they might be able to ride more directly to the spot instead of having to backtrack and follow the bandit’s trail.

“Describe the area where you attacked the wagons.”

“There w-was a sharp bend in the road, sir,” Will refused to look into the stern grey eyes of this man questioning him. “W-we waited in the woods until they come around it and then… It was just trees there and I don’t know how else to describe it.” He glanced briefly up at Estel and then dropped his gaze again.

“Were there large boulders or cliffs along the road there?” Halhigal asked sternly.

Will nodded slowly, his brow furrowed. “I-I think there were, sir. B-but I wasn’t paying much attention.”

“I know where that is.” Halhigal looked at Gilost who nodded his agreement.

“I do, too and we should be able to ride there in four or five hours, my lord. I know a way that will get us there more quickly than following their trail.”

“All right, then we should be able to make it before nightfall. Uncle, we will be back sometime tomorrow.” Halhigal nodded as Estel, Gilost, and Halbarad strode swiftly from the room.

0-0-0

The four Rangers rode hard as they tried to make it to the site of the raid before nightfall. Gilost led the way, following paths that only he seemed to be aware of, but he led them without hesitation and Estel knew it would take them directly to where they needed to go. There were a few patches of snow in a few sheltered hollows that the sun had not been able to reach, but for the most part they encountered little difficulty.

Estel was concerned about Halbarad who had spoken very little since he and Gilost had shot the man earlier in the day and so he kept an eye on him as they rode. Not that there was anything he could do for him at this time Estel realized with an inward grimace, but he knew that eventually Halbarad would speak to him about it… or at least he thought he would.

They arrived at the Great East Road about an hour before nightfall and they rode cautiously out of the woods, reining to a halt in the middle of the track. Looking up and down the road Nestad spotted the half burned remains of the wagons about a quarter of a mile west and they urged their horses into a canter. It was deathly quiet as they swung down off their horses, tying them to an unburned section of a wagon wheel. Without a word they split up and grimly began their search for bodies. It did not take long. Two men were found near the wagons, while the bodies of five children, who appeared to be anywhere from the age of five to twelve, were found scattered in a wide radius around the horrific scene, evidently caught in the act of fleeing. It took longer to find the women, whose bodies were near the edge of the woods, partially hidden in the underbrush. It was clear that some of them had been alive for some time after Galt and his men had left, but based on their injuries Estel doubted that any of them had survived the night.

“Where should we bury them?”

Estel just looked at Nestad for a moment, stunned at the brutality of what had happened and finally he shrugged. “Does it really matter?” he whispered. There was no answer and he looked around and indicated a spot just off the road and near the cliffs where rocks were plentiful knowing they would need those to cover the graves.

Gilost handed Estel a shovel and was starting to dig in the hard ground when he stopped and looked up, his normally bright friendly eyes shadowed with grief and anger. He quietly asked, “How many graves should we dig, my lord?”

Looking at the nine blanket covered bodies, Estel considered the question for a moment. “If we knew which family was which we could make two, but we do not know who is married to whom or which children go with which adults. I suppose we should make individual graves, then,” he sighed wearily and with frustration, running his hand through his hair.

“I suggest one grave for all of them, my lord,” Nestad spoke up in a grief-stricken voice. “It matters not to them and I think it’s better to only have one heap of stones so that it’s not obvious how many are buried here. We might more easily make it look natural than if there were nine piles. I don’t know if anyone would disturb the graves, but…” his voice trailed off.

“What will we do with the remains of the wagons?” Halbarad spoke for the first time in hours as the four men began digging in earnest.

“I suppose we burn them the rest of the way,” Estel replied. “We cannot leave them here and we certainly cannot take them with us. We will use the light they give off so we can finish this tonight.”

They worked steadily for a couple of hours, pausing once to move the horses away and to set the wagons afire. When the grave was finished, they carefully set the bodies down into it and then filled the dirt back in. Using the horses they dragged large boulders over the site of the grave and filled in gaps as best they could in the growing darkness as the fires burned down. As they finished, the four men stood by the grave for a moment, uncertain about what to say. Words needed to be spoken and yet they did not know the names of the people or where they were from, though the wagons appeared to have been headed east, so perhaps they were from Bree.

Finally, Nestad spoke, simple words but from his heart. “We don’t know who you were, but no one deserves to be treated this way. We’ll see the men that did this brought to justice. May Ilúvatar grant you peace now beyond the circles of the world.”

Gathering up their tools and horses they walked a short distance down the road before heading into the woods to find a somewhat sheltered area to spend the night. Finding a small thicket of bushes and trees that was set back against some of the larger boulders that dotted the area they settled in for the night. Few words passed between them as they ate their supper sitting around the small fire that sparked and snapped in the cold night air.

“Halbarad and I will take first watch,” Estel announced in a low voice as they prepared to turn in. He ignored the look his cousin shot him from across the fire as Gilost and Nestad said good-night and slipped into the tent. Neither of them spoke until the soft sounds of the other two men had evened out and they knew they were asleep.

“What did you want to speak to me about?” Halbarad finally asked, staring into the woods and chewing on the stem of his unlit pipe.

“Oh, I am sure you know. You have hardly spoken since you shot the man this morning, Halbarad, and I know it weighs on you. I thought you might like to speak of it, but if not… “ Estel’s voice trailed off as he studied Halbarad’s rigid body which was half turned away from him now. “Perhaps later, then. You know I will listen if you want to talk with me.” Silence descended and Estel drew up his legs and wrapped his arms around his knees as he listened to the night sounds. After a time he unconsciously began humming under his breath one of the many songs he had learned in Imladris.

“What are you humming?”

“What?” Estel looked over at Halbarad, startled, and then realized what he had been doing. “Oh, just a song that I learned when I was young… Glorfindel taught it to me, I think. I did not realize I was doing it, though my brothers have told me that I often do so when I stand watch alone. And it was quiet now…” he shrugged.

“If you are alone, then how do they know?”

“Because it wakes them,” Estel grinned briefly. “They are elves and evidently it is loud enough for them to hear, though they said they became accustomed to it and fell back to sleep immediately.”

Halbarad shook his head and it became quiet once again. Finally, Halbarad took a deep breath and looked at his cousin. “Was I wrong to shoot him?”

“No, you did what had to be done.”

“Should I have tried to… wound him, maybe? I aimed right for his heart, Aragorn.”

Estel heard the anguish in Halbarad’s voice and he grieved that his cousin had had to shoot the man, even though he knew that it was something that he would have had to face at some point in his life. “No, you did exactly what you needed to do, Halbarad. He was attacking Eradan. What if he had had one of his knives out? Eradan could have been injured or killed or taken as a hostage. Anything could have happened at that point. You had to act to protect one of your fellow Rangers. The other Bandits were about to join him. Gilost did not hesitate either… you both did exactly as you should have, though I am sure that right now that brings you no comfort.”

Halbarad shook his head, staring down at his feet. “It does not. I killed a man today, Aragorn, and I know, especially after seeing this…” he waved back towards where they had buried the two families, “that the man deserved to die. But…” he wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

“But you did not want to be the one to take his life.” Halbarad nodded and Estel could see the glimmer of tears in his eyes. “I do not know what to say that will ease this for you as I have never had to take the life of a man… yet.” He gave Halbarad a small, grim smile; Estel knew that it was something he would have to face someday. “I think that time will help heal your heart and, perhaps, speaking with your adar will help. I am sure that he has had to battle and kill men at some point during his life.”

“Probably,” he muttered, looking away again.

“Halbarad, look at me,” Estel ordered in a commanding, somewhat stern tone and Halbarad looked at him in surprise. “So far I have spoken to you as your cousin, your brother, your friend, but now I’m going to speak to you as your Chieftain. You did what I would expect any of my Rangers to do in that situation and I am proud of you for that. I also expect you to do the same thing again in the future if it is needed.” Estel looked at him carefully, hoping that speaking to him in such a way would help him battle his feelings of guilt.

Not at all sure how to respond to that statement since he did not feel in any way proud, Halbarad simply nodded.

“I do not think that both of us are truly needed on watch, so I will seek my rest now and give you some time to think, Cousin. Wake one of the others in a couple of hours and I will take last watch.” Estel stood gracefully to his feet and as he made his way to the tent he went around the fire and gently patted Halbarad on the shoulder before continuing on.

“Aragorn?”

He stopped and looked back at Halbarad with an eyebrow raised in question at the slight tremor he heard in Halbarad’s voice.

“How… how could men,” his voice dropped to a whisper and Estel walked back and crouched down beside him. “How could they do that? To other men, to… well, to anyone… how can they…”

Estel sat down hard beside him and slowly shook his head, trying not to replay the horrific images in his mind. “I know not.” He rubbed his forehead and felt tears prickle at his eyes but he blinked them away and took a deep breath. “I know not,” he repeated softly.

“That one is so young…”

“Younger than either of us… but not Dúnedain, so it is different.”

“Why did he tell us?”

Estel shrugged, staring into the flames. “I know not… perhaps he still feels some level of shame…perhaps he hopes to escape from justice by seeming to help us… I know not.”

Halbarad turned and looked at his cousin, forcing a ghost of a smile across his lips. “You don’t seem to know very much, my Lord Aragorn.”

With a brief grin, Estel nodded his agreement. “And, on this subject, I hope I never do.”

“Did you bring your pipe?” Halbarad asked as he pulled out his pouch of pipeweed.

“No, but I am sure that you will share yours with me and, perhaps, this night I might even enjoy it.”

“You’ve slowly been getting better; you hardly ever choke on it anymore.”

“Thank you, I have spent a lot of time practicing,” Estel said laughing quietly.

“Well, then you need to find a better teacher because you’re not learning very quickly.” Halbarad handed him the pipe and Estel took a short draw on it before handing it back with a smile. “Hmmm, perhaps you are doing better than I thought.”

The two young men stayed up quite late, sharing stories of their childhoods and laughing quietly about unimportant things as they strove to drive unimaginable images from their hearts and minds.

0-0-0

Eradan and Alvist were waiting at the gate when the four Rangers arrived in Dolomar shortly before noon. They looked anxiously at the spare horses to see if anyone else was with the four men and Estel saw their looks of disappointment when they realized that none of the people had survived. Reining to a halt near them, Estel dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to Rosruin. He then beckoned Alvist and Eradan to him.

“There were no survivors,” he said quietly, putting up his hand to forestall the questions he could see they wanted to ask. “That is all I will tell you and all you need to know.” Estel turned to the boy, “Alvist, you did well yesterday in following my directions and I am pleased with you. Go and help Rosruin with the horses,” he watched Alvist walk off with a small, proud smile on his face before he turned back to Eradan.

“You, too, did very well yesterday, Eradan, and I am proud of the way you handled yourself in a very difficult situation.”

Eradan bit his lip nervously and stared at the ground for a moment before meeting Estel’s understanding gaze. “But, I-I got too close to that man and I could have gotten us all killed, Aragorn… my lord.”

“Walk with me.” Estel gestured down the main road of the village and they walked silently for a moment. “Yes, you did get too close to that man, Eradan, but it does not change the fact that you did well in your very first conflict of any sort. And, I would think… hope you would learn from that and be more aware of your surroundings in the future. You are only nineteen and you show great promise as a Ranger and I would not want you to believe that this one mistake means you are a failure or will not become one of my very best Rangers one day.” He gave Eradan a sincere smile and he watched the young man nod and take a deep breath.

“He… he died because of my mistake.”

Estel stopped and studied Eradan for a moment before he answered. “No, he did not,” he said firmly, laying his hand on Eradan’s shoulder and gazing directly into his eyes. “It is as I told those bandits yesterday, he died because of the choices he, himself, made - the choice to join their band, to rob and kill people and, finally to attack you. You may have made a mistake to get too close to him, Eradan, but it was his choice to trip you and to jump on you. Do not shoulder the blame or feel guilty for his death.”

Eradan stared at him for several moments and then nodded once. “Thank you, my lord. I-I needed to hear that.”

“You are welcome.” Estel turned to go into the Hall where he could see Halhigal and several of the men waiting for him.

“My lord, may I ask you a question?”

Twisting back around, Estel motioned for him to continue and Eradan did so hesitantly.

“Are you really only twenty?”

Estel blinked his eyes several times in surprise, “Yes, I am twenty… though,” he said with a small smile, “I will be twenty-one next week.”

“You seem so much older than me and I’ll be twenty in a couple of months and I just wondered if it were really true.”

Estel did not know what to say because he knew it was true. He did seem much older than Eradan and Halbarad, as well. Though, perhaps not in everything, he thought as he remembered back to Mettarë and dancing with the young ladies. “I think,” he replied slowly, “that it is because I was brought up amongst elves, taught by them, and without other children around, only adults. It was different than here and the life you have led so far. I also started going out on patrols with my brothers and Lord Glorfindel at the age of seventeen and I know that matures you in many different ways. Or, perhaps,” he grinned briefly, “I was just born old.” Which, considering the heavy burdens his ancestry had placed on Aragorn son of Arathorn, was not too far from the truth.

Eradan grinned in return, “I think that is probably the reason, my lord.”

Shrugging and giving him another small smile, Estel turned away once more and headed to the Hall, his eyes hardening as he thought of the bandits tied inside and what they had done to innocent people. He was not sure how he would be able to be in their company for the twelve to fourteen days it would take to travel to Bree. But he would do what he must and with that thought in mind, he pushed open the door.

~~~

Reviewers: Thanks to everyone who reads the story and especially to those who review, I appreciate the encouragement.


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