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18
Chapter 18

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

All conversation is assumed to be in Sindarin. Any conversation that is in italics is in Westron, the common tongue of Middle-earth.

Author’s Note: The next few chapters may be delayed somewhat due to wrapping up the end of my school year and vacations, etc.

There is a character list at the end of this chapter… it’s pretty long, but I decided to include everyone since these new Ranger’s are here.


~~~

Estel awoke, instantly becoming alert in the grey light that signaled the coming of the sun. He rolled over and sat up gingerly, carefully keeping his left leg from scraping along the ground. Flipping the blanket off of himself he frowned as he took in his bandaged calf. It ached and was painfully sore, but the intense stabbing pain of the previous night was gone. Estel was suddenly aware of his need to wash and to change his clothing. He wrinkled his nose in disgust at the smell of the black orc blood that spattered his hair, leggings, shirt, and tunic. Nestad or someone had evidently washed off his face and hands at some point because they were almost clean, though he could still feel the sticky residue and he tried to wipe it off.

Halbarad was sleeping next to him and Estel looked closely at his cousin’s bandaged hand. From the way the hand was bandaged - there was no splint on the hand itself, just on one of his fingers - he assumed that his cousin’s hand was severely sprained and not broken. He would check Halbarad’s stitches that evening. Estel trusted Nestad, but wanted to see them himself. Gilost and Nestad were also deeply asleep on the other side of Halbarad. Faelon and another Ranger were sleeping on the far side of the fire.

A slight movement caught his eye and he turned to see one of Faelon’s Rangers approaching with an armload of wood that he set down next to the fire. He added a couple of logs before turning to Estel and speaking to him in a low whisper. “Good morning, Captain. How do you fare?” He looked Estel over with obvious concern.

“Better than I was. Your name is Daedaen, is it not?” Estel remembered meeting him when he had arrived in Dolomar but there had been many men and most had left within a day or two to return to their patrols and he had not gotten to know them. Though, he did know Daedaen’s wife and children somewhat from the past few months he had spent in the village.

“Yes. Can I get you anything? Water? Something to eat?”

“No, I am going to change my clothes before I do anything else. Has anyone found a well or a water source? The people who used this must have had something nearby.”

“There’s a spring near the back of the building.” Daedaen stood and extended his hand down to Estel. “Let me help you, I imagine you’ll have trouble walking on that for a few days.”

“You sound like you have experience.” Estel grimaced as he let the man haul him up. Daedaen simply nodded as Estel tried putting weight on his leg while still holding on to him. It was not as painful as he had feared. The movement or their talking awoke Halbarad and he opened his eyes lazily and looked up at his cousin with concern.

“Can you walk on it?” he asked yawning. He started to rub his eyes but the bandages stopped him on the one hand and his other hand was filthy and he scowled at it.

“Yes. How is your hand? Is it broken?”

“No, this finger is, but my hand is just sprained. It just feels broken. But at least Nestad didn’t have to set any bones in it. I don’t know how many stitches he had to put in, but it wasn’t too bad.”

“Good,” Estel gave him a relieved smile. “I am going to get cleaned up,” he indicated his filthy clothes. “You need to join me, you look worse than I do.”

Halbarad laughed quietly, “Yes, Captain. Good morning, Daedaen,” he greeted the man as he crawled from his bedroll.

“Morning.” Daedaen looked back at Estel. “Shall I show you to the spring, Captain?”

“As soon as I get my pack,” Estel glanced around and saw that someone had set it nearby and he hobbled over to it. He was relieved that the pain was not overpowering. He would not like to walk or run a long way, and he knew the pain would be worse at the end of the day, but for now he could tolerate it. Estel leaned over and picked up his pack, being mindful of his balance and trying not to strain his calf.

“Are the rest of the men out scouting?” Estel asked Daedaen as the Ranger led them out the door and back around the side of the building skirting around the bodies of the orcs as they walked.

“Yes. We killed a couple of orcs not long after midnight but it’s been quiet since then.”

Estel frowned, wondering if they were going to need to track down the orcs that had escaped. But Dale was out there somewhere tied to the back of a horse and even though he was a bandit, he would not leave him to such a horrible fate if he could help it. He doubted that the horses would leave the road, but he knew that orcs had pursued them and they needed to leave here as soon as possible to look for him. When they reached the small spring, Estel turned to Daedaen. “Will you please collect the arrows from the orcs? All of our quivers are empty and I am certain we will need them again before we get to Bree.”

Daedaen shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Captain Faelon told me to watch over you,” he replied apologetically.

“I do not need a guard,” Estel protested with a frown. “But, since Faelon told you to do so, you need to follow his orders.” Since he was about to speak with Halbarad about following orders it did not seem right to tell one of his other men to disregard theirs. “I do want you to stand out of earshot. Halbarad and I have things we need to discuss privately.” Out of the corner of his eye Estel saw Halbarad, who was putting his pack down on the far side of the spring, straighten up and look at him with a worried expression. Daedaen nodded and moved off, staying in sight but well out of earshot.

Estel stripped off his tunic and shirt before settling down on a rock and easing first his boots off and then his leggings, shivering in the cold morning air. “Do you need help?” he asked Halbarad as he saw him struggling with his boots.

“No.” Halbarad finished untying his boots before continuing. “I’ll probably need help tying them up, though. Nestad said I’m not supposed to use it very much.”

“I imagine he told you not to use it at all,” Estel replied. He leaned over and carefully scooped up some of the icy water and began washing the dirt, sweat, and blood off of himself.

“Well, yes, but I don’t see how that will be possible.” Halbarad joined Estel, crouching down on the opposite side of the spring.

“Ask for help… like I did last night.” Estel’s eyes became dark with anger as he stared at his cousin. “I will help you, Halbarad, as will any of the other men.”

“It’s hardly the same thing! We’re not in the middle of a battle for our lives and…”

“It is the same thing,” most of the anger was gone from Estel’s voice, replaced by weariness and disappointment. “I depended on you and instead I had to have a bandit help me when I needed you.”

Halbarad looked stricken. “But… but you were hurt, Aragorn. I didn’t want you to injure yourself any further. I couldn’t let you do that,” he added stubbornly.

“The decision was not yours to make.”

“If I had been lying there, you’d have done the same thing.”

“Perhaps,” Estel conceded. “But I honestly do not believe so. We were in a battle for our lives and this wound, while painful, is relatively minor and you should know that.” He began drying himself before pulling on clean clothes.

“All I could see was that you were in pain and I wanted to protect you.” Halbarad awkwardly started to dress.

Estel looked at his cousin for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. “I know. But last night there was no need to protect me and all of us were needed just to survive.” He cleared his throat and shifted uneasily on the rock. His voice became stern. “As for you disobeying my order…”

“Forgive me, Captain, but again I…”

“Yes, of course, I forgive you, Halbarad. But it is not something that I can just overlook either. I need to know that I can depend on you to follow my orders… or the orders of any captain you might be serving.”

“Do you really think I wouldn’t?” Halbarad asked quietly, staring intently at Estel.

Estel sighed, running his fingers through his damp hair as he replied, “No, not really. But I think if it concerns me, you might choose to disregard my orders when it has to do with my safety and I do not want you to do that.”

Halbarad chewed on his lip and stared off into the woods for several minutes before his gaze shifted back to his Chieftain. “Aragorn, I told you once that you are my cousin before anything else, but that you are also my Chieftain and my Lord. For both of those reasons I would lay down my life for yours… and do so gladly. Every Ranger would willingly do the same,” he added to stop the protest he saw forming on his cousin’s lips. “So I will not promise to never again disregard your orders, but I will promise to only disregard an order if I think that you are risking your life. Yesterday was not one of those days and I’ve already apologized for that.”

“You cannot do that,” Estel protested. “I will not have you trade your life for mine!”

“Aragorn…it is not something I want to do either.” Halbarad gave him a small smile. “And, perhaps, if it comes to it, I won’t have the courage to do so. But our people need you. Arnor needs you. Gondor needs you. And until you have an heir, you must stay alive. As you said before we left home, a lot of trouble was taken to keep you hidden away in a place of safety and I’m just doing my part to keep you protected.” Halbarad watched his cousin lace up his boots. He knew that he needed time to think and so Halbarad just sat quietly waiting.

“It is a heavy burden,” Estel finally said as he stared down at his ring, absently tracing the serpents and flowers with his finger. “I know that my duty calls for me to leave my home and family to lead our people,” he looked up then with eyes full of both sorrow and resolve. “But the thought of others risking their life for mine…” his voice trailed off and he shook his head. “Halbarad, I will promise you that I will never risk my life without cause… you can trust that if I give you an order it is something that I need and expect you to do.” Estel studied Halbarad, his brow furrowed thoughtfully as Nestad’s words came back to him. “You may always ask me questions. Though, perhaps, the middle of a battle is not the best time.” He smiled briefly and Halbarad acknowledged the comment with a grin of his own.

“I do want and expect and need you to think for yourself, Halbarad. I do not want you to follow me without question; especially if it is something that you truly think is wrong. More than anyone else, I need to know that you will be honest with me and will tell me the things that I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. I believe a few of the older men will always do that. Your adar and Nestad certainly do so, but neither of them will be around over the course of my life as you will be.”

“I certainly hope to be,” Halbarad responded. “Of course I’ll be honest with you, I always have been. And, I’ll try and give you counsel, but I’m young and don’t have the experience yet that you need.” He grinned before quickly turning serious once again. “Do you really think that none of the other young men can be counted on to give you honest counsel? Gilost, perhaps? Eradan as he grows older? You don’t know most of the men yet – either the younger ones or those that are in their middle ages. Faelon is a good man as is Eradan’s father, Thalion… you seemed to get on well with him. I think you just need to give yourself time to get to know these men and you will find that some of them will be very good counselors for you.”

Estel nodded. “I am sure there will be others. But, I will always trust you and your counsel more because of who you are. Just as I am also sure that you will have more responsibility placed on your shoulders for that same reason.” He glanced over his shoulder at the sound of voices and saw that Nestad, Gilost, and Faelon were approaching. Looking back at Halbarad, Estel realized his cousin was sitting with his clothing on but with none of the laces tied and his eyes twinkled with amusement. “Do you want my help?”

Glancing down at himself, Halbarad couldn’t help grinning. “I think I’m going to have to. It wouldn’t be wise to appear in front of Galt and the others dressed like this.”

Smiling, Estel hobbled around the spring and began tying up the various laces on Halbarad’s clothing. He paused, frowning, when he looked down at his cousin’s boots. “I think that one of the other men should do up your boots. I am not sure if I can or even should bend down.”

“No, you should not, Captain,” Nestad said with a scowl as he reached them. He looked both of his patients up and down with an experienced eye. “How do you fare?”

“I’m clean at least,” Halbarad replied with a cheeky grin. “Thank you, Faelon,” he said to the Ranger as the man knelt down and began tying his boots. Faelon grunted in response.

“Did you keep your hand dry?”

Halbarad gave an exasperated sigh. “Of course I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.”

“What happened to your hands, Nestad?” Estel asked sharply, seeing bandages wrapped loosely around the palms of the healer’s hands.

“Rope burns. Evidently when Dale’s horse jerked away from me he took some of my skin with him. I truly did not realize they were burned until I was going to bed.”

“Let me see,” Estel motioned for Nestad to step closer and with a grimace he did so. Estel unwrapped the bandages and carefully checked the healer’s hands and the salve he had rubbed into them and finally nodded his agreement. “They do not appear to be serious but I will check them again tonight.” He turned his gaze to Gilost, whose arm was tightly bandaged. “How do you fare?”

“I’m sore, of course, but I’m ready to ride on, Captain. We need to find Dale. I would not see anyone suffer like he will if we cannot find him.”

“We need those horses, too. Will and Kenrick will have to ride together on the packhorse which means we will have to carry all of the other things between us and that will slow us down. But, it cannot be helped. Halbarad, Daedaen, and I will go and start getting things ready while you get cleaned up.”

“I’ll go with you,” offered Faelon. “I’m clean enough and I don’t think that you and Halbarad will be able to do much with your injuries.”

As they returned to the building, Estel gave Faelon and Daedaen a brief explanation of the bandits. Neither said much, though Estel saw grief and anger in their eyes. The four men went to the back room where the horses and bandits were tied to begin readying the horses.

“It’s about time ya got here,” Galt growled. “We’re hungry.”

Estel ignored him. “We do not have a saddle for the packhorse so it will be difficult to tie them to the horse. I can ride bareback, but I believe I will need stirrups to support my leg.”

“We can tie them to the pack saddle, Captain. That’ll work well enough, though it won’t be comfortable. We won’t be going very quickly today anyway. What about the orcs? Do we just let them go?”

“After we find Dale and the horses we will decide, Faelon. We may find them on our way since some followed him. Do you have any sense of how many escaped last night?”

“Not many got past us… less than ten with the ones we killed late last night.”

“We counted fifty-seven bodies around here and on the slope,” Daedaen said.

Frowning, Estel thought back to what Gilost had told him the night before. “That means there could be at least thirteen missing,” he said with a sigh. “Gilost thought there were about seventy of them, but of course that was as he was watching us trying to escape from them and it was a little…tense at the time.” Light laughter followed that comment as they began to saddle the horses. Estel sent Halbarad off to get food since he could not help prepare the horses.

So that he did not put any extra strain on his leg, Estel worked on bridling the horses while Faelon and Daedaen saddled them. They talked quietly as they worked, Faelon describing the area they would be riding through and any places he thought that the orcs might possibly den up for the day.

“Captain, sir? Are ya going to find Dale or leave him to die?”

Estel paused and turned to study Kenrick whose face was almost expressionless and he wondered once again about this young man who seldom spoke. “As soon as we ready the horses we are going to search for him, Kenrick. Despite what you may think, I am not a cruel man and would never leave him or anyone,” his gaze shifted to Galt, “to such a horrible fate. My only concern is that some of the orcs chased after him and the horses last night and we may be too late.” Will drew in a sharp breath and looked horrified at the news, but Kenrick simply nodded. Galt and Beck shrugged and Galt looked over at Kenrick and asked with a sneer,

“Bet ya’d be glad to see yer uncle gone, wouldn’t ya, boy?”

Kenrick ignored him and stared down at the ground. Estel exchanged a glance with Halbarad who had returned with the food and had heard the last part of the conversation. Estel wondered what Galt meant by the comment, but he had no time to discuss it further and turned back to the horse he was bridling. Gilost, Nestad, and a couple of the other Rangers joined them and they quickly finished saddling and loading the horses. The tent and a few personal items were stowed in the most protected part of the building to lighten the load on the horses as much as possible. If they found Dale and the other horses nearby they might return for the items, if not, they would pick them up on the way home. Finally, Estel drew his sword and turned to the bandits. He noticed that Gilost quickly pulled his sword as well.

“Captain Faelon and his men are here now and I expect you to follow their commands without question,” he said sternly. “Do you understand?” There were nods and the usual muttering from Galt and Beck. Estel turned to Faelon, “Get them mounted. Watch their feet... they like to trip people.”

Faelon’s jaw was set and his eyes were hard as he responded. “I will, but I don’t think I’ll have any problems.” He and Daedaen grabbed Beck and held him still while another Ranger untied his bonds. Beck struggled briefly, but a hard shake and fierce glare from Faelon stopped him and he was quickly tied to his horse. Glancing at the other bandits, Faelon stepped over to Will who shrank back away from him in fear. Faelon paused briefly, glancing at Estel who only shrugged, and so he continued without speaking to the man. The only sound Will or Kenrick made was when Kenrick asked to be moved forward on the horse he was sharing with Will so that he could be a little more comfortable.

Turning last to Galt, Faelon stared at him for a long moment, wanting to ask him questions about other raids he may have lead in the past. He and his men had come upon the wreckage of wagons or the bodies of people in the course of their travels along the Great East Road and he wondered if Galt was responsible for those. But, it was not something Faelon could ask him about now and so he contented himself with making the man uncomfortable under his scrutiny. As soon as Galt was untied, Faelon prodded him with his foot. “Get up,” he growled, grabbing him under the arm at the same time Daedaen did on the opposite side.

Galt struggled mightily and growled right back at Faelon, “Get yer hands off’ve me, ya filthy, stinking Ranger!”

Faelon stopped immediately and grabbed Galt by the front of his tunic, almost lifting the smaller man off of the ground. “The captain ordered you to follow our commands without question. Now, I suggest you come along without opening that foul mouth of yours again or you’ll see what happens when you don’t listen.” His blue-flecked grey eyes were dark with anger as he stared down at Galt.

But Galt had been a bandit for a long time and was not easily cowed. His lips curled up into a sneer as he started to respond. But before he spoke his eyes happened to fall on Gilost and the bandit dropped his head under the intensity of Gilost’s gaze and the remembrance of the blow he had received from the Ranger. As Faelon released him, Galt obediently moved to his horse, though he muttered curses under his breath as they tied him to his horse.

They led the horses out of the building where the Rangers began to mount up. Estel glanced at his horse and down at his leg, frowning. Even if he mounted on the off-side of the horse, it would put a lot of pressure on his calf and he looked around for help and found Faelon standing behind him. “I need a hand.” Faelon nodded and helped Estel into the saddle without putting too much strain on his leg. Glancing around to see that Halbarad, Gilost, and Nestad were safely in their saddles and that the other Rangers were also mounted, Estel led the company through the trees and to the steep slope overlooking the road. They slowly and carefully picked their way down the incline joining the two Rangers that had been scouting ahead. They had not seen any signs of orcs beyond the tracks they had followed for a short distance, nor had they seen Dale or the horses. Urging their horses forward they trotted west along the road, keeping a wary eye out for movement along the sides of the road. The sky was clear and the sun shone brightly which should keep the orcs denned up for the day, but they were cautious nonetheless.

Estel sent a couple of Rangers a short distance ahead of the main company while he rode alongside Faelon occasionally speaking quietly about the area they were passing through. Their men rode behind them, the bandits again tied in a line, this time to Nestad’s horse as he was the least injured of Estel’s men. It left the five other men, including Gilost and Halbarad, able to freely move around as needed. The tracks of the fleeing horses and the pursuing orcs were easy to spot as few traveled this road. Though, Estel did see the faint signs of wagon wheels, evidence of the two families that had passed this way less than two weeks ago.

They had been traveling for an hour or so when Estel saw the Rangers ahead of them suddenly rein to a halt, looking to the left of the road. He urged his horse into a canter and the rest of his men followed suit. As he neared Estel could see the bushes had been disturbed and he slid to the ground with a grimace before hobbling over to join Daedaen and the other man. Both horse and orc tracks littered the ground and Estel read the signs quickly and easily. There were only the tracks of a single horse and Estel assumed the packhorse had fallen behind Dale and become prey for the orcs. Even though he was tied to his horse, Dale would at least be able to encourage his horse to keep moving and that, along with their fear of the orcs, would help those horses keep running.

Faelon stepped up alongside of him. “I’ll go down and look, Captain,” he offered, indicating the somewhat steep downward slope covered with thick brush that now had broken limbs and a wide open swath and showed signs of a fierce struggle.

“Take Daedaen and,” Estel paused trying to remember the other man’s name.

“It’s Remlas, my lord,” Faelon murmured under his breath and Estel nodded his thanks.

“Daedaen, Remlas, go with Captain Faelon.” As they slipped away, Estel turned back to the rest of his men, noting the three other Rangers of Faelon’s patrol had spread out protectively around the prisoners and his own men and he gave an inward nod of approval. “Well, Gilost, Halbarad, how do you fare now?” his gaze also moved to Nestad to include him in the question.

“I’m well, Captain,” replied Gilost with a brief smile. “Nestad appears to be a competent healer.”

Nestad gave a small snort. “I’ve been a healer much longer than you’ve been alive, young Gilost.” Nestad turned his penetrating gaze on Estel. “How do you fare, Captain?”

“Well enough…”

“Captain? D-did you find Dale?” Will interrupted him.

Estel moved back a bit from Nestad’s horse to look at the young man. “I do not believe so, Will. I think it is the packhorse, but Captain Faelon is looking.”

“D-do you think he could have gotten s-so far?”
his blue eyes were wide with concern.

“Yes, I do. Especially if the orcs stopped to eat as I suspect they did. The tracks indicate they lingered here for a time and then went on.” He shrugged once. “It may have given Dale enough of a lead to escape them.” As Estel turned away from Will to continue his conversation with Nestad, something on the other side of the road caught his eye and he started hobbling in that direction. “Gilost,” he called back over his shoulder, “come with me.” The Ranger was quickly at his side, his eyes sweeping over the ground and bushes and suddenly seeing what his Chieftain had seen.

“How many do you think?”

Estel’s bit his lip in pain as he crouched down by the orc tracks that led into the woods. He glanced at the bushes that had been barely broken, unlike the other side of the road where the horse had either jumped or fallen down the incline causing a huge, gaping hole in the bushes. “I count five,” he replied, frowning. “These tracks are more recent,” he added.

Nodding, Gilost got to his feet and began following the tracks up the bank and into the bushes. Estel followed a little more slowly. “Perhaps these are the ones that escaped when Faelon’s men attacked,” Gilost suggested. They stopped, sighing in frustration as the trail suddenly turned back east.

“They are behind us or they were headed that way some… six or seven hours ago,” Estel ran his hand through his hair as he thought. “Well, it cannot be helped right now. We still need to find Dale and it just means there are less orcs pursuing him.” He led the way back to the horses where he quickly told the others what they had discovered.

Faelon handed him some small items taken from the packhorse. “There are a lot of these types of things scattered around the remains of the horse, but if that horse was carrying anything larger then the orcs took it.”

“Are any of your men good at tracking?”

“Yes, Remlas is quite good and I use him when I do not go out myself.”

Estel looked back east with a frown furrowing his brow and then his gaze flicked back to Faelon and Nestad. “Do you think we should send three men back to take care of these orcs while the rest of us go on? I do not like the thought of orcs behind us, nor do I like the idea that they might escape and threaten our people as we continue westward.”

“We may catch up with these orcs in a matter of hours and then come back and track these down,” Nestad pointed out.

“We might, but it could take us all day to find the ones we’re after,” said Faelon, shaking his head. “As much as I hate to split up, Captain, I think it best to do so. We can always come back and join my men if we find Dale quickly.”

Estel studied the two men for a moment and smiled inwardly at the totally opposite counsel they had given which had left the decision squarely back on his shoulders. It was ultimately his decision anyway, but it was, of course, easier when everyone agreed with whatever decision he made. He saw the understanding look in Nestad’s eyes as he made his decision. “Faelon, pick two of your men and we will send them with Remlas after the orcs.” Faelon turned and hurried off to get them while Nestad and Estel waited.

“Did you hurt your leg further, Captain?” Nestad asked. “You were limping more heavily when you returned and I thought perhaps you hurt it when you crouched down to check the tracks.”

“I am well. I will tell you if I tear my stitches or need help with my injury, Nestad. My adar was quite insistent that I learn not to risk further injury to myself because of pride.”

“More men should learn that,” murmured Nestad with a brief grin as Faelon returned with the three Rangers.

Estel gave Remlas detailed instructions on what he wanted them to do and where they would meet again after both groups had completed their tasks. He was somewhat uneasy sending the three men off alone, but there were only five orcs and he felt that the three men would be capable of dealing with them. Estel had considered sending Faelon, but as several of them were injured and they were facing an unknown number of orcs, he felt he would need the older man. If something should happen to him, Faelon would need to take charge as he was used to leading patrols, unlike Nestad.

Without the additional Rangers, Estel and Gilost scouted ahead of the main group of riders. It was clear at first that the stop the orcs had taken had gained Dale at least an hour lead, but as the miles slipped past they could see that Dale’s horses were slowing and the orcs were gaining on him. It would all depend on whether or not Dale had been able to keep his horses moving when he did not have any kind of direct control over them. If he had been able to do that long enough for the sun to rise, then he would have survived and they should be able to find him. If not…

It was just past noon when Estel and Gilost reined to a halt, staring down at the tracks on the road before exchanging grim smiles. The orc tracks stopped abruptly, but the hoofprints continued on. The orcs’ trail led to the left of the road and disappeared into the trees and bushes. The two men carefully slid down from their horses and waited for the others to join them. Estel spoke quietly with Faelon and Nestad while the rest of the Rangers tied the bandits and horses just out of sight behind the trees on the right side of the road. Faelon did not know of any caves in this area as it was not an area that he had ever thoroughly explored. Mostly likely the orcs were denned up in some dark hollow or rocky overhang sheltered by trees. The land had leveled somewhat from the area that they had been in previously, more gently rolling hills than the steep inclines. It would aid them in their search.

Estel had to decide who to send after the orcs and which two men to leave behind to guard the bandits. Faelon and his men would go as all of them were uninjured, which left only the four of them with various injuries to choose from. He knew there were at least ten orcs and he wanted to send as many men as he could. “Nestad, you are the least injured so I want you to come with us.” Estel paused briefly as he realized he had automatically included himself in the patrol going after the orcs. “Halbarad will stay as he cannot use a bow right now,” he added.

“Then Gilost will stay with him, Captain?” Nestad asked cautiously. This was one time that Nestad hesitated to speak his mind until his Chieftain had decided one way or the other. He knew that he could not always give his counsel without it being sought, especially in a situation like this. But Nestad was concerned about the injury Aragorn had suffered and if he could even keep up with them if they had to travel very far.

Those same thoughts were running through Estel’s mind. If the orcs were close to the road then he knew that he would not have any problems with his leg and would easily be able to use bow and sword. But if they had to go very far or had to chase the foul creatures, he would be a liability they could ill afford. Nestad or one of the other Rangers would insist on staying with him and he did not want to risk that happening and risk losing the orcs altogether. Running his hand through his hair and grimacing in frustration he slowly shook his head as he replied.

“No, I will stay. Gilost can use a sword and, perhaps, a bow if it is truly needed. Faelon, you are in charge. Be as quick as you can and still be safe. We still have to find Dale.”

“Yes, Captain.” Faelon gave him a respectful nod and hurried off to speak to his men. Nestad slowly followed, pausing only to give his Chieftain a brief pat on the back.

Estel hobbled off to where the bandits had been tied to the trees and was quickly joined by an upset Halbarad who barely glanced at him before settling down on a nearby log, his eyes fixed on the prisoners. “Are you hungry?” Estel asked him after the other Rangers had disappeared into the woods on the opposite side of the road. The only reply he received was a shrug and Estel sighed as he went to the packs to get out some of the dried meat and fruit they carried. He took it first to the bandits, saving Galt for last as he had to remove the gag he was wearing once again. The man had been warned not to talk so loudly as they rode and when he had refused to follow their orders they had gagged him.

Before Estel pulled it from his mouth, he studied Galt for a long moment and the man was forced to look away under his scrutiny. “I am starting to think that you like wearing this, Galt, yet I cannot imagine that it is comfortable. We are riding in far too dangerous of an area for you to be talking so loudly and I will not put up with it anymore. If there is one more problem with you and the things that you say or the way that you say them, you will be wearing this at all times until we arrive in Bree, except when you eat. Do you understand?” He removed the gag so Galt could answer.

“I understand that ya don’t want me to talk cause yer afraid of me,” he spat out. He hesitated as he watched Estel’s eyes grow dark with anger and he quickly backtracked. “But I don’t wanna wear that cloth all the time so I’ll… obey.” There was a mocking tone to his voice that none of them missed, but Estel was satisfied that for now the man would be quiet and he nodded and handed him his food.

Estel grabbed more of the meat and fruit, taking it over and silently handing it to Halbarad. He was returning to his own spot when Halbarad spoke up. “I’m not angry with you, if that’s what you thought.”

“I thought you might be, though I was hoping you did not take it personally,” Estel gave Halbarad a brief grin.

“I am at angry at the orc who did this to me,” he scowled and gestured at his bandaged hand.

Nodding, Estel began eating deciding not to mention that even if Halbarad had not been injured he most likely would have been left behind to guard the bandits as he was the youngest Ranger. Although, he did remember the promise he had made to Halbarad to not always leave him behind on things like this. To give him the chance to gain the experience that he needed. Though he had gotten quite a bit of experience lately, Estel thought with amusement.

Their food finished, they sat quietly keeping a close eye on the prisoners while their ears were straining to hear any sounds that might indicate that the Rangers had come across the orcs. Will started to speak one time, but a stern look from Estel stopped him immediately. The tension mounted as time stretched on. Estel finally got to his feet and began slowly hobbling around the area, always keeping within sight of both Halbarad and the bandits as he moved. More than two hours had passed when a faint sound reached them and it was so indistinct as to tell them nothing and Estel and Halbarad exchanged looks of pure frustration and concern. The noise last for fifteen minutes or so, growing slightly louder at one point before fading away altogether. While they had been alert before, both of them drew their swords and moved to opposite ends of the small clearing on the off chance any of the orcs escaped from the Rangers, though the chance of that seemed remote.

“Captain?” Will whispered so low that Estel would not have heard him if he had not been looking in that direction and seen the young man’s lips move.

“What?”

“D-did the orcs have Dale with them?”


Estel looked at him in surprise before he realized that Will could not read the tracks and the bandits had not been told anything. His gaze slid to Kenrick who was watching him, his face carefully expressionless and again Estel wondered about his relationship with Dale. “The horse tracks continued on past here, so I believe Dale is somewhere ahead of us still. We will ride on as soon as my men return.” Will looked relieved while none of the other men said anything.

As his Rangers returned less than an hour later, Estel looked them over carefully as Faelon came to speak with him. All of them appeared to be in good shape, none were limping or bleeding that he could see and Gilost and Nestad did not seem any worse than they had been when they left.

“We got them… all twelve of them, Captain,” Faelon reported. “They were in a deep hollow sheltered by trees and a few large boulders. It was fairly dark and suited their purposes well for sleeping, but not for protection. We were able to shoot them from a distance and when a few broke out we did have to go to our swords, but they were easily taken.”

“No injuries, either,” added Nestad with a brief smile.

“Good. Get something to eat and we will leave,” Estel glanced at the sun. There were only a couple of hours of daylight left and he did not want to leave Dale out another night if he could help it. There were other dangers in the wilds besides orcs.

They were all mounted and on their way within ten minutes. Estel pushed them hard. It soon became apparent that Dale and the horses were having problems. The tracks showed the horses slowing from a trot to a walk and then back to a canter all within the space of a couple of hundred yards. The horses were also beginning to weave back and forth across the road a bit. Estel was amazed that they had gotten this far. He knew that the arrow that had hit Will’s horse had not been enough to truly hinder the horse, that it had been more startled than hurt. That Dale had been able to keep the animals moving this long surprised him.

An hour before sunset they spotted the group of horses standing in the middle of the road, their heads down, utterly exhausted. Estel motioned Nestad to keep the bandits back and the Rangers approached cautiously, though the chances of the horses bolting seemed remote. Dale was slumped forward over the pommel of his saddle and did not stir as they rode up beside him. Gilost grabbed the reins of the horse while Estel and Faelon prepared to cut Dale loose.

“Dale?” Estel called to the man softly, as they cut the bonds holding his feet tied together. He stirred and moaned as his legs moved after more than thirty hours of being tightly bound in place. Dale cried out in pain as they carefully cut the rope tying his wrists and hands to the saddle. Estel’s heart softened with compassion at the pain he read in Dale’s eyes as the man opened his eyes briefly. Daedaen and Faelon gently pulled him from the saddle and carried him to where Nestad had led the other men and was directing the starting of a fire and the setting up of a camp for the night. He turned those responsibilities over to Halbarad as Estel and the others arrived with Dale.

Directing Faelon to lay him down near the fire, Estel and Nestad began checking Dale for any injuries other than the ones caused by the ropes but none were readily apparent.

“Does he have any other clothes?” Nestad asked, looking at the man’s soiled and filthy clothing. “We need to get him out of these.”

“There should be some in his pack. Gilost, see if there are any spare clothes in Dale’s pack,” Estel called over to the Ranger who was helping with the horses. “And, bring me my pack of healing supplies.” He turned back to find Nestad beginning to cut off Dale’s shirt and tunic and he pulled his belt knife and started on his leggings. “Should I pull off his boots?” he asked with concern, not wanting to hurt the man further. Even though they were being as gentle as they could possibly be, Dale was moaning at the pain they were causing from simply cutting off his clothing and touching his skin anywhere close to where his wrists had been bound. Blood was oozing from gashes all around his wrists where the rope had cut deeply into his skin, evidence of his fierce struggle to free himself. Deep bruises also covered his forearms where he had hit them against the pommel of the saddle.

Nestad looked down at Dale’s feet with a frown. “Not yet. I think those can wait until last. It will give the muscles some time to relax on their own. We need water.” He glanced over and saw that Faelon had started a pot boiling and asked him to heat even more as they would need some for cleaning Dale as well as some to tend to his wounds.

“Is-is he going to be all right, Captain?”

“Yes, Will, he will be. We just need to take care of his wounds and give him time to rest and recover.”
Estel glanced over his shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile and then looked back at Dale with a slight frown, wishing all of the bandits could be more like Galt, it would make it much easier.

“He’s a likeable young man,” Nestad murmured and Estel nodded with a grimace.

“Why do ya bother doing that?” Kenrick asked. “You’re going to kill him in a couple of weeks anyway.” His voice was not raised nor did he sound particularly angry, just curious and Estel wondered at the lack of emotion toward this man who was evidently his uncle.

“Ya might as well just kill him now. It’d save ya a lot of trouble,” Galt laughed callously, joined immediately by Beck.

Ignoring them for the moment as they gently moved Dale onto a bedroll, Estel thought about how best to respond to men who he knew would never understand him, or the Dúnedain, or indeed any honorable man. As he and Nestad began cleaning Dale, speaking softly to him to keep him calm and as still as possible, Estel finally answered Kenrick.

“As I told you this morning, Kenrick, I am not a cruel man. Nor are any of my men.” Estel ignored Galt and Beck’s low, mocking laughter. “It would not be right to let Dale suffer when I can relieve it. I would do the same for any of you. But it does not change the fact that he has committed brutal murders of men, women, and children. However, I am not the judge and I will not be the one to carry out whatever punishment is ordered for him or for any of you.” Estel looked up then and his hard grey stare met Kenrick’s eyes briefly before returning to their task. “There are some things you do, Kenrick, because they are the right thing to do. The honorable thing to do,” he added as he and Nestad finished washing off Dale.

Dale awoke fully as they began pulling his leggings back on. He started to thrash around at the pain, begging them to stop. Estel and Nestad paused and spoke reassuringly to the man, explaining what they were doing and he quieted, though he whimpered with pain as soon as they touched his legs.

“Do you need any help, Captain?” Halbarad asked as he suddenly crouched down next to Estel. He had seen a brief flicker of pain cross his cousin’s face and knew that all of the crouching and kneeling he was doing was not good for his injured calf.

“We need some water for him to drink.”

“How’s your leg?”

Nestad looked up sharply at that. He had not truly forgotten about Estel’s leg, but had shoved it to the back of his mind as they worked on Dale.

Estel glanced at Halbarad briefly and then returned to what he was doing. “I am well. A little sore, perhaps, but the sooner we finish with Dale, the sooner I can rest.”

“We will tend his wounds first and then you will rest, Captain. Any of the men can help dress him.”

“I need the water, Halbarad,” Estel reminded his cousin. As soon as Halbarad left, Estel looked at Nestad, “I truly am well enough to finish this,” he said quietly. “I told you earlier that I would ask for help if I needed it and I do not.”

Searching his Chieftain’s face intently for signs of pain, Nestad finally gave a reluctant nod. “I still think that it would be better if you let others do this for you, but I will not insist.”

Estel grinned at that. “It is nice to know that I have a small amount of authority here.” Nestad chuckled and they returned to dressing Dale. They did not want the man to chill while they worked on his wrists. As the man continued to move restlessly and whimpered in his pain, Estel continued speaking softly to him, but while he knew Dale heard him and even responded at times, he would not settle down. He knew that the pain Dale was in was considerable, but he was beginning to suspect that what was bothering him most was the terror of what he had been through in the last twenty-four hours. Estel told Nestad what he was thinking and the older healer gave him a thoughtful look.

“It’s possible. Did you have something in mind?”

“I wondered if perhaps I should push him into a healing sleep. I do not know if it would help him, but he is not going to get any rest tonight and he needs it.”

“I thought to give him more of the willow bark tea we’ve already given him for the pain. It would relax him enough to sleep. But a healing sleep would be better if you’re willing to do it.”

Estel hesitated briefly before nodding. They gave Dale several sips of water and then, taking a deep steadying breath Estel placed his hand on the bandit’s forehead and closed his eyes to concentrate. Reaching for Dale’s spirit all Estel felt was darkness at first and then he felt sheer terror and he recoiled back from it instinctively. But he forced himself to go on and was, once again, able to sooth the terror and pain and helped Dale slide into a deep sleep. Now exhausted himself, Estel pulled away from the man with a weary sigh, blinking tiredly at Nestad and Halbarad. He took a long drink from the waterskin Halbarad handed to him.

“I am all right,” he murmured at their concerned looks. “Halbarad, I need a bowl of hot water.” Estel pulled some athelas from his pack.

“There must be a way to control that,” Nestad said frowning. “It does little good if it wears the healer out so fast.”

Estel nodded his agreement as he blew on the crumpled athelas leaves. “I will speak to my adar about it the next time I see him.” For now he let the soothing steam of the athelas refresh him for a moment before he and Nestad cleaned, stitched and bandaged each of the deep wounds on Dale’s wrists.

“I’ll clean this up,” offered Nestad as they finished. “Go and eat, Captain.”

Knowing that arguing would do him no good, Estel murmured his thanks and went to join the rest of the Rangers at a second, smaller fire a short distance from Dale and the rest of the prisoners.

“How does he fare, Captain?” Gilost asked as Estel sat down between him and Faelon.

“He is sleeping. The wounds will heal; mostly he is terrified of what he has endured.” Estel thanked Daedaen for the bowl of stew he handed him, the first hot meal he had had in several days.

“Will he be able to travel tomorrow?” Faelon asked with concern marring his brow.

“He has to,” Estel replied between bites of his supper. “We must return to Remlas and the rest of the men and I will not split us up again. He will probably have to ride with someone.” He frowned at that thought and wondered if he could keep him in the healing sleep during the ride. It was something to consider.

“Are you finished eating?”

Estel looked over his shoulder at Halbarad and slowly nodded.

“Good,” Halbarad grinned. “Give the bowl to Gilost, I have something for you.” Estel reluctantly did as Halbarad said, noting Gilost eye’s were sparkling with amusement as he took the bowl. “I found this in my pack a little while ago. You should have had it yesterday, but we were a little busy,” he grinned again as he thrust a package into Estel’s hands. “Naneth sent this for your birthday. I believe you are twenty-one now.” He slapped his cousin bracingly on the back. “May your year be blessed by the Valar, Cousin!” He was joined in his well wishes by the rest of the Dúnedain.

Estel smiled his thanks at his men. He thought back briefly to his last birthday when he had simply been Estel, son of Gilraen and foster son of Elrond. Life had been much simpler then. Everything had changed a few weeks later when Elrond had told him his true identity. He could, and probably always would, recall that day quite vividly. The shock he had felt and a shiver of excitement as well. Estel had always known he was Dúnedain and even that his father had been a good friend of Elladan and Elrohir and that they had taken him and his naneth in out of love for his father, but never had he suspected more than that. He was now becoming more and more comfortable in his position as Lord and Chieftain of the Dúnedain. In fact, he realized with surprise, he never hesitated anymore when someone called him Aragorn and more and more often he was starting to think of himself as Aragorn. It was a startling realization.

“Aren’t you going to open that?” Halbarad prodded him in the back impatiently.

“Perhaps,” Estel shrugged and after a long moment began to slowly open the package that Aunt Nimrie had neatly tied together. It felt like some sort of pouch and as the cloth fell away he saw that it was indeed a new belt pouch. There was something inside of the pouch and he assumed it was pipe-weed until he opened it and saw another carefully wrapped package. Opening the package, he grinned when he saw that his aunt had packed four of the apple tarts that he had so enjoyed at Mettarë. They were a little dried out, but Estel did not mind. He paused, though as he realized there were only four tarts. He assumed that Nimrie had made one for Gilost, Halbarad, Nestad, and himself. But now there were three more Rangers and he was not sure how to share them. With an inward grin he realized he did not have to share the tarts.

Trying to hide a smile, Estel picked up one of the tarts and lifted it towards his mouth. Just as he was about to take a bite he looked up from the tart and glanced around at the others to see them either staring into the distance or staring at him with disbelief, though they quickly looked away.

“Oh, would anyone else like to have some?” he asked, trying to sound reluctant. There were polite refusals from those around the fire and Estel began to chuckle quietly. The Rangers that did not know him well looked at him in surprise.

“You should not be greedy, Cousin,” whispered Halbarad as he reached over Estel’s shoulder and broke off a piece of one of the tarts and popped it in his mouth.

“I suppose not,” Estel said grinning as he broke the tart he held in half. He passed the package of tarts to Gilost who took a piece of the treat eagerly before passing it on. Daedaen and the other Ranger, seeing now that their Chieftain had only been jesting, also took a piece before handing it to Faelon.

Faelon paused, studying his lord thoughtfully before he took a piece of the tart. The young man had changed much since he had seen him almost six months previously. Aragorn was obviously more confident and sure of himself and he seemed more open – even before his jesting about the tarts, Faelon had seen that change in him. Faelon supposed that was due to him feeling more comfortable in his surroundings and living amongst their people. Whatever the reasons, Faelon was pleased with this young man who had returned to them from the elves and he knew that he would be an excellent leader for the Dúnedain. He passed the package back to his Chieftain who took it with a small smile before returning to his story about what it had been like to celebrate his birthdays in Imladris.

~~~

Character List:

Characters in bold print are Tolkien’s, all others are mine. I have listed them in family groups and given a brief description of them.

PEOPLE IN DOLOMAR:
Estel/Aragorn - 20- Well, if you don’t know who he is…

Halhigal - 70 -Halbarad’s father – Gilraen’s brother
Nimrie - 54 - Halbarad’s mother
Halbarad - 23
Ivorwen - 110 - Mother of Halhigal & Gilraen (and 2 children who died tragically)

Ladreníl - 82 -Father of Gilost & Gaerwen, head of village when Halhigal is gone.
Alpheth - 66 -Mother of Gilost & Gaerwen, sister of Arthiell
Gilost -34 -Ranger
Gaerwen - 25 -Young lady (she and Gilost are cousins of Baisael, Braniell, & Balrant)
Sírdhim - 120 -Ladreníl’s father

Caladel- 53 -Father of Caladithil, patrol leader
Emeldir- 45- Mother of Caladithil, daughter of Nestad of Taurnand
Caladithil - 12 - Errand boy

Faelon - 67 - Father of Baisael, Braniell, & Balrant, patrol leader
Arthiell - 62 - Mother of Baisael, Braniell, & Balrant, sister of Alpheth
Baisael - 30 - Ranger
Braniell - 22 - Young lady (these 3 are cousins of Gilost & Gaerwen)
Balrant - 7 - Little boy

Talagan - 55 - Farther of Alvist & Imlos, Ranger
Linnor - 47 - Mother of Alvist & Imlos, sister of Laereth of Taurnand
Alvist - 15 - Boy, gate guard(he and Imlos are cousins of Rosruin, Eradan, & Laegrist)
Imlos - 1 - Baby girl
Rosruin - 16 - Boy, gate guard. Orphaned, lives with his Uncle Talagan’s family.

MOVED FROM TAURNAND:

Thalion - 65 - Father of Laegrist & Eradan, Patrol leader
Laereth - 60 - Mother of Laegrist & Eradan, sister of Linnor
Laegrist - 28 - Ranger
Eradan - 19 - Young man (he and Laegrist are cousins of Alvist & Imlos)

Mellonar - 101 - Husband of Nínael, teaches swordplay
Nínael - 92 - Wife of Mellonar

Nestad - 89 - Father of Emeldir and a daughter in Forntaur. Healer.

Hirgon - 48 - Father of Celin & Culas, Ranger
Rían - 45 - Mother of Celin & Culas, severely injured in Taurnand fires
Celin - 9 - Little girl, injured in Taurnand
Culas - 9 - Little boy, injured in Taurnand

Tadion - 70 - Father of Beraid, Miniel, & Tadiel. Wife and Son died in Taurnand. Ranger.
Beraid - 27 -Ranger
Miniel - 17 - Girl, both girls live in Estel’s house & are cared for by Hareth
Tadiel - 16 -Girl

Maldathor - 55 - Father of Héthurin and a son who died in Taurnand. Ranger
Hareth - 50 - Mother of Héthurin, lives in Estel’s house.
Héthurin - 14 - Girl

MISCELLANEOUS RANGERS:

Daedaen - 45 - Member of Faelon’s patrol
Remlas - 31 - Member of Faelon’s patrol

BANDITS:

Galt Thornapple - 46 - Leader
Dale Sundew - 42
Beck Nightshade - 36
Kenrick Hosta - 24 - Nephew of Dale
Will Larkspur -19


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