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Brothers at Heart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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19
Chapter 19

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 vacations, etc. And my internet connection has been giving me fits!


~~~

Dale was carefully lifted into the saddle in front of Nestad and even in his sleep he grimaced at the pain. Nestad held him as gently as he could but there was no doubt that it was still going to be another pain-filled day for the man. Dale’s horse and the horse that had been shot – it had indeed been a minor wound – were riderless. Kenrick rode his own horse and Will rode the packhorse again, although he now had a proper saddle.

Estel wanted to ride back as quickly as possible to meet up with Remlas and the other two Rangers. Even though he knew it had been necessary, he had not liked splitting their group apart; too much had already gone wrong on this trip and he was uneasy. He called for the Rangers to mount up and he thanked Faelon as he helped him into the saddle once again. Estel had awoken very stiff and sore and when Nestad had checked his wounds there had been, much to his chagrin, a couple of torn stitches. He had had to endure several moments of the healer’s disapproving glare while the damage was repaired and his leg was massaged to help with the stiffness.

It was another bright morning and so they again kept to the road as they headed swiftly back east, keeping a steady pace and alternating between a canter and a walk all morning. While they expected no problems from orcs due to the brightness of the day, the Rangers kept a close watch nonetheless. But it remained quiet except for the peaceful sounds of the birds that filled the cool morning air. As they neared the place where the packhorse had been eaten, they slowed to a walk, looking for signs of the other Rangers. Estel frowned when the men did not immediately show themselves and giving a sign to the others they rode on.

They were forced to ride more slowly now as Daedaen rode through the woods to their left following the trail Remlas and the others had left as they tracked the orcs. Estel could only hope that Remlas’s delay had not been caused because they had run into more orcs than the five they had been pursuing. It was with a great sense of relief when the other Rangers rode into sight not more than a half hour later and Estel and his party reined to a halt.

“Captain,” Remlas gave Estel a respectful nod in greeting.

Estel returned the greeting before turning to the matter at hand. “Did you find the orcs?”

“Yes, though they had traveled much further than we thought they would. They were well past the Last Bridge when we found them, but they won’t bother anyone ever again,” Remlas replied grimly.

“I wonder where they were headed,” Estel mused aloud. He was speaking mostly to himself but Remlas answered him, the look on his face quite serious. Estel bit back a smile at the earnest young man who he thought was about the same age as Gilost, maybe in his early thirties or so.

“I don’t know, I didn’t think you wanted us to capture one, Captain. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, but perhaps elves do such.” Remlas looked from his Chieftain to Faelon and back. He didn’t know this man at all and perhaps he did expect such things from his men. He swallowed nervously as he waited for his response.

Estel shook his head, “No, Remlas, even elves do not capture orcs. I was merely speaking my thoughts aloud; it was not truly a question I expected an answer to.” He watched a look of relief flicker across Remlas’s face. Estel looked sidelong at Halbarad to see his eyes were dancing with amusement and he could tell he was also trying not to smile. Twisting around in his saddle, he looked closely at Dale who was still asleep but appeared to be resting easier than he had been earlier in the day. Glancing at the sun he saw that it was just an hour or so past noon and he turned to Faelon and Nestad.

“I think it best we stop here for the day. Dale needs the rest and certainly the horses need one, they have been pushed hard the last few days.”

“As could you and Gilost and Halbarad,” Nestad pointed out.

“We could press on if we needed to, but we have time,” Estel gave a graceful shrug.

“Should we return to the ruin? We’re close,” Faelon asked.

“No, but we will send a couple of men to retrieve the things we left there.”

Daedaen and a couple of other Rangers were sent back to get their tent and personal things while they set up a camp a short distance off the road. The four uninjured bandits were quickly tied to trees while Dale was gently placed near a hastily kindled fire. Halbarad watched over him as the rest of the men took care of the horses. He stared broodingly at his bandaged hand for a moment before looking down at the injured man. He thought that the bandit’s coloring seemed improved and he no longer seemed so restless.

“How does he fare?”

Startled by Estel’s sudden appearance, Halbarad jumped slightly. His cousin moved quieter and more easily than any other Ranger Halbarad had been around and while he was becoming accustomed to it, he still was surprised on occasion.

Estel patted Halbarad’s shoulder as he sat down beside him, his injured leg carefully stretched out in front of him. “I did not mean to startle you,” he said apologetically, though his eyes twinkled.

Ignoring the comment, Halbarad answered the original question. “He hasn’t moved since he was put down.”

Dale began to stir when Estel reached over and felt his forehead. “He is not feverish,” he sighed with relief. “I would not want to deal with that as well.” He glanced at Halbarad who was staring at his hand once again. “Does it ache?”

Halbarad shook his head, “No, it does not.” He paused. “How long will it take to heal?”

“We will remove the stitches in about ten days. The part that is sprained should feel better and you should be able to move it more freely in about a week, but it will depend on how careful you are. If you try and use it before it is healed it will take longer. The broken finger will take the longest to heal, maybe three or four weeks,” Estel paused at Halbarad’s stricken look. “Since it is your smallest finger, Halbarad, I think that once your stitches are removed we might be able to do something so that you can do almost everything. Though I am not sure how you can grip a bow,” he added thoughtfully. “Well, all you can do is try.”

“We’ll be in Bree before you take my stitches out… or even on our way home,” Halbarad realized with dismay as he figured out the length of their trip.

“Probably, but my stitches will not be taken out until then, either.”

“At least you can use your weapons easily and be of some use,” Halbarad scowled in frustration.

Estel chuckled, which only increased Halbarad’s frown. “I cannot even mount a horse without help, and while I can use a bow and my sword, I doubt I could run or even walk very far right now. It will heal, Halbarad.” He studied his cousin for a moment. “Did I ever tell you what happened on my first patrol?” Halbarad shook his head. “I sliced my leg open with my own sword and Lord Glorfindel had to haul me back to my adar to have it stitched up. I had to stay at home while it healed besides having to endure endless teasing from my brothers.”

Halbarad began to smile and then laughed quietly. “Your own sword?”

“Yes, I was… startled by a noise and I jumped and lost my grip. The sword sliced my leg open just below my knee here.” Estel drew an imaginary five inch line on his leg. “At least your wound was received fighting orcs.”

“Yes,” Halbarad grinned. “Well, then, I’ll just do what I can to help and let you do the rest of the work.”

“Oh, he’s not going to be doing much work, either,” Nestad said as he crouched down next to Dale. His gaze shifted between Estel and Halbarad, “Both of you need to rest this afternoon. It’s a long way to Bree,” he added as he turned his attention to Dale. “Has he shown any signs of waking, Captain?”

Estel bit back the comment he was going to make; he knew the healer only had his best interests at heart. “He stirred a bit when I checked to see if he had a fever, but he settled right back down again. He should awake soon.”

“Probably,” he agreed. “Would you send out someone to get some fresh meat? I think it would be good to make a broth for Dale and all of us would enjoy it. If you think it’s safe, of course,” Nestad added with a small smile.

“I will send someone as soon as Daedaen and the others return.”

A low moan caught their attention and they looked to see Dale moving and his eyes beginning to flutter open. As his eyes focused on the two Rangers looming over him Dale scowled and tried to move away, but he gasped at the pain and he stilled. However, his tongue still worked. “What are ya doing to me?” He cautiously lifted his arms and stared at his bandaged wrists and hands before looking at Estel with puzzled, angry eyes.

“Do you not remember what happened?” Estel hoped that Dale had not lost his memory of the last couple of days.

Remembrance flooded through Dale and his face paled. “The horses… orcs. Ya let me loose so the orcs would get me,” he snarled accusingly.

“They don’t care what happens to us!” Galt called.

Estel shot the bandit leader a quelling stare and the man dropped his gaze to the ground. “We did not let you loose, Dale. The horse behind yours was shot and they all bolted. I am sorry.” He decided not to mention that if Dale had not panicked they could have easily gotten him off the horse and to safety. “We were not able to find you until last night as we were rather busy killing orcs and trying to stay alive ourselves.”

Dale gave a disdainful, unbelieving snort as he stared at the three Rangers. He actually did believe this captain, he had seen the number of orcs and he was surprised that they had been able to kill them all. But, Dale was not about to let the Rangers know that he was grateful for their rescue. He suddenly realized that there were more Rangers in the camp and knew how they had been able to overcome the orcs.

“Your wounds, while very painful, are not life-threatening,” Estel continued after a moment.

“You are, but not my wounds,” he muttered as he glared at Estel.

Halbarad stifled a laugh and Estel turned stern grey eyes on him and Halbarad gave him a half-hearted, apologetic shrug.

Dale glared at Halbarad and uttered what sounded like a curse in a language that neither Estel nor Halbarad understood, though Estel had an idea what language it might be. Nestad knew exactly what Dale had said and while he wanted to strike the man for his insolence, he settled for grabbing his chin, forcing Dale to look at him. “You will not speak so of any of our men, even if it is in a language you think none of us will understand. I will not tolerate it.” Releasing Dale’s chin he deliberately wiped his hands off on his leggings before standing and moving away from the man.

“What did he say?” Estel asked curiously as he and Halbarad followed him.

“I won’t repeat it,” Nestad replied firmly. “It is not something that I would ever speak aloud.”

“All right,” Estel said slowly deciding it did not really matter. “I have never heard that language before, but I think it must have been the language of the Dunlending’s.”

“It is,” Nestad scowled and looked over his shoulder at the rest of the bandits. “Though, they do not have the look of men from Dunland. Their skin may be slightly darker than the men from Bree, but...” He shrugged. “Perhaps they lived close enough to Dunland to pick up a few words of the language or, more likely, their parents or grandparents were from Dunland.”

“It would help explain why they are bandits,” Estel murmured, as he thought about what he knew of the rough and wild people of that land.

“Why? Why would that make them bandits?” Halbarad asked as he had heard very little about Dunland.

“I only know what I was taught and that is that they are a people who are quarrelsome by nature and who hate the people of Rohan in particular. They are less civilized than most men and the lives they lead are harsh and difficult. Perhaps these men’s families came north to escape that life but at some point these men turned to robbing and murder to take what they wanted from others.”

“Are you going to ask them?”

Estel shook his head, “It matters little and I do not believe that Galt or any of them would give me a true answer. The men in Bree can do so if they think it necessary.”

“They might already know all about them,” Nestad pointed out.

“Perhaps, though they found Will there so evidently they moved freely about the village. The people there might not know what they do outside of Bree.” Estel turned as Daedaen and the other Rangers returned from the ruins with their things. Leaving Nestad to watch over Dale, he and Halbarad went to speak with them about hunting.

0-0-0

Estel pulled Faelon and Nestad aside after supper to speak with them about something he had been considering all afternoon. They stepped a short distance away from the other Rangers, out of earshot, but still within sight.

“I would ask for your counsel about something I have been thinking about this afternoon,” Estel said quietly to the two older men. “Ever since Remlas told us how far the orcs he was pursuing had traveled, I have been uneasy. It is not that they would not want to escape, but that they went in the opposite direction from the rest of their troop concerns me.”

“I’ve been wondering about that as well,” Faelon said. “It’s not like orcs, especially as they were so close to the others.”

“They had a specific destination in mind,” Estel stated firmly.

“I thought that as we tracked them here.”

“I think that we just surprised them and they thought we looked like an easy meal,” Nestad said with a mirthless smile.

Estel nodded his agreement. “It appears they were headed for the Angle. The Dark Lord is increasing his attack on our people. Because of that I thought to change our plans. I was considering sending three of your men, Faelon, back to Dolomar and having the rest of you accompany us all the way to Bree. I know it leaves your patrol area uncovered for longer than we planned, but we did just kill off a sizable number of orcs and I am uneasy about leaving our people unprotected.” It was quiet for several minutes before Faelon spoke.

“Would we then return with you to Dolomar or would you join us on our patrol?”

“I am willing to go to your patrol area if you and Nestad believe that we should. I plan to see all of the areas that we patrol in the next year or so anyway. So that might be the best thing to do.”

“Then I believe it would be wise to send men back,” Faelon said, thinking of his family and the others in the village. Although their duty caused them to leave their families with very little protection, he would willingly give them some additional protection for a short time especially with orcs prowling around. Unfortunately he knew that the orcs would only increase. It appeared that the short respite of the last ten years after the dragon, Smaug, had been killed was over.

Estel looked to Nestad who was staring at the ground with an expression that Estel could not read. “Nestad?”

“Who will you send back?” the healer asked abruptly as he looked up.

“Three of Faelon’s men,” Estel responded with a shrug. His eyes narrowed as Nestad looked pointedly down at his bandaged leg. “I am going to Bree, Nestad. I will not leave that duty to anyone else.”

“Perhaps you should, Captain,” Nestad retorted. “Faelon is well able to deliver the bandits to Bree before returning to his patrol area.”

“I know he is,” Estel glanced at the Ranger Captain who was listening to the two men with an uneasy expression. “But my leg will be fine long before we get to Bree. I am going.”

“What about Halbarad? He cannot use a bow and I think even wielding a sword would be difficult for him.” While Nestad had known that Aragorn would not be persuaded to turn the bandits over to Faelon, he did hope to convince him to send Halbarad home. But he wasn’t sure he would be able to do that either.

Now it was Estel’s turn to stare at the ground because he knew Nestad was right. He should send his cousin back to Dolomar, but… he was interrupted by Faelon.

“Would you prefer to discuss this privately?” his gaze drifted between the two men and settled on his Chieftain. This conversation had the sound of something that was best discussed between the two men. He did not know either of them well, but it sounded like it was about more than just sending home a wounded Ranger. If it was his decision, Halbarad would have been the first man he would have chosen to send home. Besides being wounded he was also young which meant he did not have the experience to overcome his injury as an older Ranger might.

Estel gave him a wry smile. “No, there is nothing we will discuss that you cannot hear. And… and I would have your counsel as well as Nestad’s.”

“You barely know me, my lord,” Faelon said quietly. “Certainly not enough to value my counsel in this situation,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“But I do value your counsel. Halhigal would not have chosen you to be a captain without being very sure of you, Faelon. And,” Estel added after a thoughtful pause as he intently studied the Ranger, “While we have not known each other long, it is long enough for me to know that I can trust you.”

Faelon could only give a small nod in acceptance of his words. He was taken aback by the piercing study that had just been done of his heart. Never had he felt as if someone was reading and understanding him so thoroughly. The look his Chieftain had given him was almost… elven in its intensity.

Estel turned his gaze to Nestad who had been watching them with interest. “Nestad, while I do admit that in most circumstances it would be wise to send Halbarad home, I do not believe that to be true this time.”

“Why not?” Nestad was not surprised but thought if Aragorn spoke his reasons aloud then he could point out any errors in his thinking. This was not something he intended to back down from easily.

Raising an eyebrow at the tone of Nestad’s voice, Estel simply answered the question. “You do remember why you are here and not Halhigal, do you not?” At Nestad’s somewhat impatient nod, Estel glanced at Faelon and explained. “I have appointed Halhigal my regent and it was decided that it would be best if we did not travel the wilds together. We do not want to risk losing both of us at the same time.”

“That’s understandable and so Nestad came in his place.”

“Yes.” Estel turned back to Nestad. “You also know that Halbarad is likely to take his father’s place someday.”

“But not for many years.”

“Hopefully not,” Estel acknowledged. “But he needs to be given as much and as many experiences as possible and we do not go to Bree often.”

“If you place him in a patrol that is stationed near there he will have an opportunity to visit the village,” said Faelon.

“That is true, but I do not think Halbarad will be joining a patrol for some time.” At their looks of surprise, Estel sighed and continued, though these were things he would really rather not share with them. “Nestad, you know that I have been bringing him with me to meetings that a man his age has no right being at… unless you are the Chieftain.” They chuckled appreciatively. “None of you have said anything, but I see the looks directed his way. I have been surprised that you, at least, have not asked me about it.”

“I try not to question all of your decisions, my lord,” Nestad said with a small smile. “But that is not something that will harm him or others like going to Bree might.”

“No, it will not. But I bring him because I need him to learn… and learn quickly. I believe it is important that he learn the way that I would do things… the way that I might order something done or how I would respond in certain situations. It is not that Halbarad will not learn from others because he will, but,” Estel stared off into the woods for a long moment before looking back at the much older men. “But I need him to know how I think and would have things done in order to prepare him for whatever the future may bring.”

Estel sighed and ran his hand through his long dark hair and fixed his stern grey eyes on Nestad. “I am not bringing Halbarad to Bree, Nestad, simply because he is my cousin and I enjoy his company, which, I think, is your concern. I would never put my needs above my duty to my people. Nor, would I risk endangering his health for any reason. I am taking him to Bree because, like me, he needs the experience of visiting a village of men who are not Dúnedain.”

“What have you foreseen, Captain?” Faelon asked quietly. He recognized that same sense of foresight that he had occasionally seen in Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, and even once with his grandfather, Arador. Though, from what he had heard from his own father, neither of those men were considered to be particularly gifted in that area.

“I will only say that I have foreseen that Halbarad will come early to a position of leadership. Much earlier, I think, than most would expect and I think we owe it to him and to our people to prepare him as best we can.”

Nestad considered all that had been said before he spoke. “I didn’t mean to imply that you would ever put your needs above your duty, my lord. Forgive me.” Estel inclined his head slightly and the healer continued. “If you’ve foreseen things that make it important for you to train Halbarad, I understand and accept that. But, as a healer, it concerns me to have him accompany us.”

“It does me as well, Nestad. Do you not think I have those same concerns for him? Or, for Gilost? His wound is also quite severe, though it does not hinder him in the way that Halbarad’s does.” Estel looked at Nestad with a small frown creasing his brow, wondering if the healer truly believed he was not concerned for Halbarad. Although as he remembered all of the talks that they had had during the past months he knew that was not so.

“I know you’re concerned about all of your people, my lord, we’ve talked about it at length in the past. Gilost’s wound is not one that I would consider severe enough to send him home… he can still wield both bow and sword. And, he is an experienced Ranger whereas Halbarad is not. However, it doesn’t matter what I think, the only thing that is important is what you believe needs to be done, Lord Aragorn. Only you know what you’ve foreseen and I trust your gift as I trust you.” Nestad met his lord’s eyes steadily.

Estel looked searchingly at Nestad for a long moment and then nodded once. He could accept that Nestad disagreed with him, he understood why he did so. Shifting his gaze to Faelon, Estel saw that the Ranger Captain was studying the ground. “Faelon?”

Faelon looked up. “I would have sent Halbarad home without question, my lord. But with what you have foreseen there is no doubt that he must accompany us.” He shrugged. “If he were part of my patrol in the north he would have to continue doing whatever the rest of us were doing,” his gaze shifted to Nestad briefly. “We do what we have to do. We’ll protect him if we need to, but hopefully he’ll heal before we face anymore orcs or bandits.”

“Valar willing,” Nestad muttered under his breath and the other two men exchanged amused glances.

“Daedaen and Remlas will ride with us and your other men will head back to Dolomar. I would like you to speak with them tonight, Faelon, so that we will waste no time in the morning.”

“Yes, Captain,” he nodded and hurried off.

A somewhat uncomfortable silence fell as Faelon left. “How’s your leg?” Nestad finally asked.

“Better than yesterday, it was good to rest this afternoon. I was more tired than I realized,” Estel admitted. He carefully stretched his leg out in front of him and then stood gingerly. The long time he had been sitting on the log without moving had stiffened his calf up a little.

“An injury like that takes more out of you than you think,” Nestad agreed. “I should check it before you sleep.”

“I am sure that I have not pulled out any stitches since this morning, but you may check it again.”

“You didn’t know you had pulled any this morning either,” he pointed out dryly as they walked back toward the fire.

Estel gave him a sheepish smile as he went to join Gilost at the fire so he could listen to the stories that were being told.

0-0-0

As they headed towards Bree late the following morning, Dale rode his own horse that was securely tethered to the horses of both Nestad and Remlas. His hands and feet remained untied for obvious reasons but he was closely guarded by the two men. The rest of the bandits were tied to Gilost’s horse and were kept well away from Dale. The Rangers returning to Dolomar had left at dawn, but the rest had lingered to give those who were injured additional rest and it was not until an hour or so before noon that Estel had decided to move on.

Mindful of those nursing injuries, Estel set an easy pace throughout that day and for the next several days as well. The weather remained clear but crisp and they saw no signs of orcs or any other foul creatures as they traveled or as they camped at various places along the way. The land flattened gradually as they moved eastward, although there were still gently rolling hills in places. Thickets and rocks covered the ground south of the road while on the north the thickets gradually disappeared until the ground was mostly barren rock. In the distance, but drawing ever closer, stood a single, high hill that towered above the surrounding countryside. Estel knew it was Amon Sûl or Weathertop, as men called it, and he was anxious to see it for himself.

Late in the afternoon of the fifth day since they had parted with the other Rangers they arrived at Weathertop. Faelon led them to a sheltered hollow on the western side of the tall hill that the Rangers often used when they traveled through the area. A small, nearby spring provided water and the grassy dell provided food for the horses which they eagerly tore into as soon as they were cleaned off.

The bandits were kept under close scrutiny. Galt, Beck, and Dale had grown decidedly more truculent the closer they got to Bree while Kenrick and Will became quieter. Not that Kenrick had ever spoken much. There were fewer trees in this area which made it more difficult to keep the men apart at night and they were watched even more closely than they had been in the past.

Estel stood at the rim of the bowl like depression their camp was set up in and he stared up at the top of Weathertop with a furrowed brow before glancing down at his leg. He had not felt any pain in his calf for at least the last day and he was able to walk on it without trouble, though he still would hesitate to run on it. But it was a very steep climb up the hill and he wondered if it would be too much of a strain on his leg. Well, he would at least attempt it; he could always turn around if it was too difficult. That thought almost made Estel laugh aloud as he could not imagine himself ever doing that… ever giving up.

“You’re going to go up there, are you not?” Nestad said as he walked up beside him.

“Yes, I have wanted to see Amon Sûl for a very long time. I heard many stories of it when I was a child.”

“I imagine you did. It must have been strange growing up with people who could not only teach you the history of events thousands of years ago but who also lived it and were part of it.”

Estel shrugged. “I never thought of it; it was just how it was. It is only now that I am among my kin that it seems strange to me. It did make things interesting,” he smiled in remembrance.

Nestad looked up at the steep hill. “Be careful. I’ve been up there and the way is steeper than it looks, especially near the top.”

“I will, and I’ll take Halbarad and Gilost with me so they can carry me if I cannot make it.” Estel’s eyes twinkled with amusement as he glanced at Nestad who merely sighed and headed back down to the camp. Estel watched him leave and then called for Halbarad and Gilost to join him. The three men started up the path immediately and it took almost thirty minutes to reach the summit. It was, as Nestad had warned Estel, very steep and rocky the last couple of hundred yards and he was slowing considerably as the crested the hill.

Halbarad looked at him with concern. “How do you fare?”

“Sore, but I will be all right in a minute,” Estel replied turning away and looking around. A ring of broken and crumbling stones covered with slowly greening grass was all that was left of the ancient watchtower that had once housed one of the palantíri, a seeing stone. He walked to the northern edge of the hill idly brushing the tops of the stones with his fingers as he passed. Staring to the north he could see the Weather Hills stretching into the distance. Estel knew that beyond the hills was Fornost, one of the ancient cities of the Dúnedain and further still were the ravaged lands where the Witch King had once dwelt. Sighing deeply and lost in thought, Estel moved to the western edge.

The Bree-lands lay in that direction. Also to the west was the Shire, a place that Estel looked forward to seeing one day. Annúminas, the former capital of Arnor was northwest of Weathertop and Estel narrowed his eyes as he thought of that place. Someday, perhaps, it would be restored to its former beauty. To the south there were scattered villages of men, mostly along the Greenway all the way down to the deserted town of Tharbad. Finally, as he turned back to the east, there were mostly the villages of his people who lived in the Angle. There were one or two other very small villages of men east and south of Weathertop, but they were widely scattered.

“What are you thinking about, Aragorn?” Halbarad spoke up from where he had seated himself on one of the stones.

“Arnor,” Estel used his hand to gesture to the lands he had been studying and thinking about. “The kingdom and lands of our people,” his gaze moved to Gilost and back. “The lands and people we protect… the lands that are under our care.”

“Though you were thinking specifically about your responsibilities, were you not?” Halbarad asked with a knowing smile.

Estel nodded as he leaned against a stone near Halbarad, stretching out his sore calf. “Some,” he admitted. He glanced at Gilost again as the man joined them. “But more about what it would be like here without the influence of the Dark Lord. If the lands could be cleansed of orcs and wargs and trolls and any other foul creature that he has sent. What would it be like for the people of these lands? What would it be like for our people?” He stood, then, gazing once again at the lands around them. “To see these lands and people free would be a wonderful thing,” he whispered.

“You could do it, Captain,” Gilost said quietly but with conviction. He looked steadily at the startled eyes of his lord. “Someone must do it. Why shouldn’t it be you? Why shouldn’t it be us? The Dark Lord has had his way here for far too long.”

“He’s right, Aragorn. We at least have to try.”

“Do either of you have a plan?” Estel asked with amusement. His amusement faded as he saw their crestfallen faces. “Forgive me. I was not jesting about the fact that we should try because we should. He has had his way here for far too long and our people… all of the people suffer for it. But I do not know how we can stop it. We are too few to launch an attack against Mordor; we barely have enough men to defend these lands. But I was not laughing at the idea of it. I simply have no idea how to do such a thing.”

“There must be a way,” Gilost said slowly. “The Valar will not let this continue forever.”

“No, they will not… he has to be overthrown in our lifetime or I fear it will never happen,” Estel said. “More and more elves are leaving these shores and it is up to Men to overthrow the Dark Lord or not.” Estel thought of Elrond’s words… foresight about how he would either rise above all of his ancestors since Elendil or Men would fall into utter darkness. If Elrond had been given such foresight then there must be some way to complete this task he had been given, but he did not yet know how to do it. Perhaps it was too soon to look for such a thing he mused to himself. There were so many things he had yet to learn.

Estel pushed aside thoughts of Arwen that were creeping into his mind. Elrond had forbidden him to bind himself to her or to any woman until he had completed his task. Not that he would ever consider anyone else but Arwen. Sighing inwardly, he turned his gaze to the south. “Gondor would also be freed of the influence of the Dark Lord, then. I would like to see Minas Tirith someday,” he commented.

“I’ve heard wonderful things about it,” Halbarad said. “I think Elladan spoke of it once.”

“He and Elrohir have been there; it was many, many years ago, though.”

“If the Dark Lord is gone you would be King of both Arnor and Gondor,” Gilost pointed out.

“Perhaps,” Estel shrugged. “Gondor did not recognize Arvedui’s claim over a thousand years ago, I am not sure they would honor mine.” He shrugged again. “It is not something I think on,” he shot Halbarad a quelling glare and his cousin closed his mouth. “We should return,” he said, changing the subject to avoid talking any more about it. “I do not want Nestad to come looking for me.” The other men chuckled as they slowly made their way down the steep hill.

0-0-0

As the company of Rangers and their captives drew close to Bree it was becoming increasingly difficult for Estel to look at Will as the fear in the young man’s eyes was so great. The thought of Will’s impending death was beginning to weigh heavily on Estel. He knew that Will deserved to die for what he had taken part in, but that did not make it any easier. While he knew the young man had made a horrible and foolish choice to go with Galt and his men, Estel wondered what had brought him to the place where he had had no food or money. Several times he had considered asking Will what had brought him to that point, but each time he had decided not to do so, knowing that, in the end, it mattered little.

They camped in the Chetwood the night before they were to arrive in Bree. This heavily wooded area was to the east and north of Bree and after supper Estel, Gilost, and Halbarad finally had their stitches taken out. Estel and Nestad spoke quietly of things in Bree as the healer removed his stitches. Finally, Nestad paused and looked up at Estel with a somewhat uncertain expression. “Are you going to speak to Will?”

Startled, Estel just looked at him for a moment and then asked warily, “About what?”

Nestad sighed, “About why he is with them. About whatever is bothering you so much that you cannot look at him.”

Estel looked away briefly. “Please finish removing my stitches, Nestad.” The healer hesitated a moment before he reluctantly continued. “I know why he is with them,” Estel said softly. “He had no food or money and could not find a job and Galt offered to take care of him.” He gave a disgusted snort. “What I would like to know is what brought him to the place where he had no food in the first place. Why he was in Bree without money or family, either. But,” he sighed, “it matters not.”

“It matters to you and if you don’t speak to him, it will always be something you wonder about.”

“I wish there were a different way for justice to be served.”

Nestad patted his knee. “I’m finished.” He sat back against the log behind him and looked up at his Chieftain. “It’s also hard for me to see him die, but there is no doubt that for the deeds he committed that it is a just punishment. Nine people died in that one raid alone… he has never shown any remorse has he?”

Estel gave him a thoughtful look. “No,” he said slowly, “he has not.”

“I didn’t think so. Still, Captain, I think you should speak with him,” Nestad said as he glanced over at the bandits. Only Kenrick and Will did not have gags in their mouths at this point. Galt had had one for well over a week. Beck and Dale had only worn theirs for the last two days as their increasing fear as they approached Bree had loosened their tongues to a point where both what they were saying and the volume at which they were speaking could no longer be tolerated. Neither Kenrick nor Will had spoken much at all the last few days.

With a last long look at Nestad, Estel turned and studied the bandits for a moment, his eyes eventually fixing on Will. With a weary sigh he arose and made his way around the fire to speak to the young man. He was aware of the curious glances cast his way by the other Rangers and that Nestad was following him, but Estel ignored all of those things as he approached Will. The young bandit eyed Estel with fear as he crouched down next to him. Even Kenrick, who was tied to the tree next to Will, was looking pale and frightened.

“Will, you told me why you went with Galt and the others, but you never told me why you had no food or money. Where is your family?”

Will did not answer immediately as he stared at Estel, his eyes wide with fear. He swallowed hard several times before he could respond. “M-my family? They-they have a farm n-north of Bree near Archet. I-I left there… I didn’t want t-to be a farmer and my-my brother did.” Will shivered, though not from cold and he looked away from Estel’s penetrating gaze.

“You ran away from home? ” Estel scowled at the young man who shook his head in denial.

“They-they knew I was leaving. I-I wanted to do something different and m-my father said I could go.”

“Why did you not go home when you ran out of money?”
Estel asked, appalled that he could have so easily been helped.

“I-I didn’t want to be a failure,” he whispered, hanging his head in shame.

Estel ran his hands through his hair and sighed deeply as he twisted slightly to glance at Nestad who only shook his head in dismay. He turned back when Kenrick spoke.

“Captain, sir?” Estel motioned for him to continue. “Will never killed no one. Not in that raid or in the other raid that he was with us for.”

Estel stared at Kenrick unblinkingly wondering if he had heard him correctly. Glancing first at Will he saw that the young man seemed just as startled as he was. But when he looked at Nestad the healer did not look all the surprised by the information. Estel heard the low voices of his Rangers behind him and knew that they were listening to every word. He turned his attention back to the bandits. He looked at Galt, Beck, and Dale and could see nothing but fury in their eyes and he dismissed them immediately, not that he ever expected to get a straight answer from any of them.

“Is that true, Will? Did you ever kill anyone? How many raids were you involved with?” Estel asked quietly. He was not sure what difference any of this made, but he wanted to know the truth.

Will looked up and met his eyes briefly before looking away again. However, Estel was able to read the remorse and shame in his eyes. “I never killed anyone, Captain,” he said without his usual stuttering. “Kenrick is right, there were only two raids,” he shuddered as the memory of the raids came back to him.

“What did you do during the raids, then? Just stand and watch?” Estel asked with a note of doubt in his voice more to see how Will would react than from any real doubt on his part. It somehow fit. Will did not seem like someone that had taken life wantonly, there was still a sense of compassion about him. Though Estel knew it would have faded rapidly if he had stayed with the bandits, even if had only watched them kill others.

“I-I held the horses and then helped…helped,” Will stopped.

“Go on, Will,” Estel prodded him.

“I helped search for things… to take with us.” He refused to say anymore than that.

“Why did you not say anything before now?”

“You never asked me,”
he said, looking at Estel in surprise.

“No, I did not.” Estel still wondered why Will had not tried to protest his innocence in some manner… not that he was truly innocent even if he did not actually kill anyone… and, yet… He sighed inwardly and looked at Kenrick. “Why did you tell me now, Kenrick?” Estel studied the almost expressionless eyes of the young man. The last few days had been the only time Kenrick had shown almost any emotion and that was fear.

“He don’t deserve to die.”

“I see.”
Estel paused and then asked the question anyway. “What about you, Kenrick?”

The young man let out a mirthless laugh, “I do, Captain, I do.” His eyes glittered strangely in the firelight and Estel stared at him intently and Kenrick was forced to drop his gaze.

“Why are you with them?” he asked quietly.

“Galt told ya… Dale’s my uncle. I’d no choice, my family does this and when I turned sixteen, my uncle, ” he shot his uncle a look of pure hatred, “took me in and taught me all I know.” Kenrick leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes wearily for a moment. When he reopened his eyes and looked again at Estel the hatred was gone and only the slight expression of fear and, possibly, acceptance was there.

Estel did not know how to respond and so he simply nodded and got to his feet and slowly walked over to Nestad shaking his head in disbelief. As hard as it was to think of Will making such a foolish choice, it was somehow worse to think of Kenrick having had no choice at all. He glanced at Halbarad as he joined them, his eyes showing his fury.

“Is it too late to just take the three older ones out and shoot them,” he hissed angrily.

“Peace, Halbarad,” Nestad said as he laid his hand on the young man’s arm. “It would make us no better than them if we did such a thing.”

“Not if Aragorn ordered it,” he retorted.

“Halbarad!” Estel said sharply. “You forget your place… and my name,” he added softly. “I have said that I will not judge these men and to that I hold.” He glanced back at the bandits to see that Will was watching them anxiously while Kenrick had closed his eyes again. “However, I will speak with the mayor and other village leaders tomorrow and explain what we have learned.”

“It will not matter, Captain,” Nestad cautioned him. He had been around far too long and had little faith in the men of Bree.

“Perhaps not for Kenrick,” Estel acknowledged. “He has done much evil and has said as much. But surely they will see that Will should not pay the same penalty as the rest of these men.”

Nestad heard the slight hint of hope in his voice and he simply nodded. He knew that his Chieftain would not listen to anything that he had to say about the judges of men. And, perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps things had changed in Bree since the last time he had been there over thirty years ago. But, somehow he doubted that it had changed at all.

~~~

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


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