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Brothers at Heart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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21
Chapter 21

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


~~~

Gilost knew by the expressions on the faces of the four Rangers as they rode into camp that Will had died and he shook his head sadly. He was not really surprised, but he had hoped that the Men of Bree might be willing to give the young man a different sentence than the rest of the bandits. Wondering if Aragorn had even had a chance to explain the circumstances that had led to Will being with the bandits he approached his Chieftain as he swung down off his horse. But Aragorn spoke first.

“Gilost, there are a couple of hours left before dark and I want to ride on before we settle for the night,” Aragorn said, his face shadowed and full of sorrow and disappointment.

“Yes, Captain,” he replied hiding his surprise that they would move on so late in the day. “I’m sorry,” he added as he turned to ready his pack and saddle his horse. Nodding, Aragorn went to inform Daedaen and Remlas of his plans.

The Rangers rode hard for an hour back east along the Great East Road before Faelon led them off the road just past the borders of the Chetwood. Their route would take them north between the Chetwood and the Midgewater Marshes for about a week where they hoped to meet the patrol from Forntaur. They would then turn east and ride through the Weather Hills to return to Faelon’s regular patrol area.

Faelon led them only a short distance off the road before reining his horse to a halt and Aragorn drew alongside him and gave him a questioning look. “Why are you stopping? There is another hour before the sun sets.”

“This is far enough, Captain,” he said quietly. “There’s a spring here and… this is far enough,” he repeated a little more firmly.

Aragorn thought better of the angry protest that was on his lips and simply bowed his head slightly before reining his horse around to speak to the others. “We will stay here for the night,” he said quietly. With little talk between them the men dismounted and began doing the routine tasks of setting up the camp for the night as directed by Aragorn. Without the bandits to worry about it was much simpler and he assigned himself, Faelon, and Daedaen to care for the horses while the other men were left with preparing supper and scouting the area.

The repetitive motion of brushing the horses was soothing to Aragorn and he spent extra time caring for them. He tried not to think of the events of the day, but the harder he tried to push those thoughts aside the more they crept into his mind. Eventually he gave up and allowed himself to think about all that had happened and what, if anything, he should have done differently. But there were too many things that he could have done differently for him to decide which things should have been changed, or if, in fact, what had happened was the right thing after all, even if he did not agree with it. Aragorn sighed deeply as he put away the brushes.

When he was finished with the horses, Aragorn went to help Nestad prepare supper. Not that he needed much help because besides the dried food they needed for their journey, Faelon had also bought loaves of fresh bread to go along with several chickens that were now roasting over the fire. Aragorn sniffed appreciatively as he sat down next to the fire.

“Do you need any help?”

“No,” Nestad replied and it was quiet for a time except for the crackling of the fire and the sizzling of the cooking chicken. The healer glanced at Aragorn from the corner of his eye to see his Chieftain staring into the orange flames with a blank expression. “My lord,” he began quietly but Aragorn quickly interrupted him.

“Not yet, Nestad. I will speak with you about what happened today, but not yet,” he said glancing over at Nestad briefly.

“Do not wait too long, Aragorn,” he cautioned softly. “It will… “ Nestad shook his head and abruptly changed the subject. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had chicken,” he said.

“Not since we were home,” Aragorn agreed glancing up at Faelon as he joined them, handing each of them their waterskins which he had filled at the spring. The Ranger captain sat down with a long drawn out sigh.

“How is your chest?” Aragorn asked as he suddenly remembered the incident in the stable yard earlier in the day.

Faelon rubbed the spot on his chest briefly. “It’s all right, Captain. A little sore, but not really painful.”

“I have a salve that will help ease it,” he offered.

Faelon shook his head and Aragorn shrugged and returned to staring into the fire obviously lost in his own thoughts once again.

Nestad frowned as he looked across the fire at the two men. Aragorn was usually much more persistent when someone was injured. While Nestad knew that the kick Faelon had received had probably done him no real harm the Ranger could be eased by the salve Aragorn had suggested. He was about to suggest that when Gilost and Halbarad returned from patrolling the area around the camp. Daedaen, too, joined them as he dropped an armload of wood near the fire before sitting down.

None of the men spoke as they silently watched the chicken roasting. Darkness descended quickly on the early spring evening and soon only the sounds of the fire, the snorting and stamping of the horses, the chirping of crickets, and the rustle of small animals in the bushes surrounding them could be heard. Across the camp from the fire, Remlas could be heard humming quietly as he moved about on watch. But none of the men at the fire spoke to one another for quite some time until Gilost cautiously broke the silence.

“Will someone tell us what happened?”

Aragorn looked up with a slight frown. He glanced at the other three men who had been in Bree that day and after a moment he gestured to Nestad. “Would you mind telling them? I do not wish to speak of it yet.”

With a slight nod, Nestad began telling Gilost and Daedaen all that had happened in Bree. He glanced up once at Remlas as he drifted closer to listen. He kept the story short and gave just the basic facts but the three Rangers were saddened at what they heard; expressions of disbelief crossed their faces at various times throughout the telling of the tale. None of them asked questions and as Nestad finished silence descended once again until it was broken by Faelon.

“Is the chicken done?”

“Yes, I think so,” Nestad poked at the chickens and smiled with satisfaction. Removing them carefully from the stick across the fire he set the chickens down and cut them into pieces and set them on the wooden plates with bread and dried fruit he had prepared earlier and handed them around to the others.

“This is good, Nestad,” Faelon said after a few minutes as he wiped his greasy hands off on his leggings. “It’s almost as good as the chicken Arthiell makes,” he commented, thinking longingly of his wife.

“I’ve had her chicken and it’s much better than this,” Daedaen agreed. He glanced at Nestad with a small smile on his lips relieved to speak of something normal.

“It’s not as good as my naneth’s either,” Gilost said with a twinkle in his eye as he took another large bite of his chicken leg.

“Nor mine,” Halbarad added glancing at Nestad and then nudging Aragorn with his elbow.

Startled, Aragorn looked up from his supper and it took him a moment for the conversation he had been hearing but not really listening to, to sink in. When it did, he looked around the circle before his gaze rested back on Nestad. “This is wonderful,” he held up the chicken he was eating. “But elven cooking is so… different than ours that it is hard to compare. However,” a brief grin lightened his face, “I will say that Aunt Nimrie’s chicken does taste better.”

Secretly pleased by the teasing comments, especially those by Aragorn and Halbarad, Nestad nevertheless scowled at the other men. “I think we need to find someone else to do the cooking around here,” he declared. “Perhaps you should do it Faelon since you were the first to mention that your wife’s cooking was better than mine.”

“I only said that my wife’s chicken tasted a little better,” Faelon said mildly. “I made no comment on any other food you have ever cooked. Not that you’ve cooked very often,” he pointed out.

Nestad snorted softly, “No, I haven’t, but then neither have you. Perhaps you should cook tomorrow,” he said with a hint of challenge in his voice and a slight gleam in his eyes.

Faelon studied Nestad for a moment and he realized the ‘challenge’ was not about cooking, but was a way for the younger Rangers to take their minds off the events of the day. He had been a Ranger captain for a long time and he recognized the look in Nestad’s eyes. He gave the healer an almost imperceptible nod.

“I’ll cook tomorrow,” he replied. “Though, I think you’ve had the advantage since you had chicken to cook with tonight.”

“Perhaps,” Nestad shrugged. “But a real cook makes do with what ingredients he has.” There were low chuckles from most of the other Rangers at his words.

Finishing the last of his supper, Aragorn watched and listened to the banter between the two oldest Rangers with an impassive expression though he well knew what they were attempting to do. He did appreciate their efforts on his behalf… and on behalf of Halbarad as well. Aragorn glanced over at his cousin and saw that he appeared to be amused by Nestad and Faelon… and he probably was on some level. But Halbarad’s eyes told a different story. His eyes showed sadness and bewilderment with a touch of anger which Aragorn knew his own eyes probably showed.

When they drew twigs for the night watches, Aragorn was disappointed to draw one for the middle of the night as he knew he would not be able to sleep for some time anyway. But he knew the value of resting his body whether he actually slept or not and he headed for the tent. He was pulling back the tent flap when Nestad stopped him.

“My lord, would you like to check Halbarad’s hand or should I do so? I would not ask if he were not your cousin,” he explained.

Aragorn’s eyes widened in dismay; he had completely forgotten about Halbarad’s injured hand. He spun around to where his cousin had replaced Remlas on watch and hurried to his side leaving a somewhat bemused Nestad behind. “Forgive me, Halbarad,” he apologized as he neared the spot where Halbarad was sitting on a large rock.

“Of course,” he replied with a puzzled expression. “What am I forgiving you for?”

“I forgot to look at your hand.” Aragorn reached for Halbarad’s bandaged left hand, but his cousin pulled it back out of his reach.

“It’s fine, Aragorn, you don’t need to look at it. Nestad checked it this morning right after I hurt it, remember?”

Aragorn frowned at Halbarad. “I know he did, but that was hours ago and it should be looked at before you sleep tonight.”

“But it doesn’t even bother me,” he protested with a hint of anger in his voice. “Just leave it alone… just…” Halbarad stopped with a frustrated sigh and held out his hand to Aragorn. “There’s nothing wrong with it, Aragorn, but you can check it anyway.” He knew his cousin wouldn’t leave until he had satisfied himself that the hand wasn’t injured any further, just as he knew that his own frustration was really not about Aragorn but about the events of the day.

Aragorn dropped down on the rock beside Halbarad, sighing as he ran his fingers through his hair. He stared at the ground for a moment before finally taking Halbarad’s hand and unwrapping the bandages. The glow from the nearby fire gave off little light but it was enough for him to see that his cousin’s hand was slightly swollen and he sighed softly.

“Perhaps I should have sent you home,” he commented as he began carefully and gently rotating Halbarad’s wrist and the three fingers that were not bound together. He would check the broken finger last.

“Send me home? What do you mean?”

Aragorn glanced up at the sharp tone in Halbarad’s voice. “Peace, Halbarad. I only meant that if I had sent you home with the other Rangers you would not have re-injured this today.” He paused briefly. “And, you would not have had to witness what happened,” he added softly as he began removing the cloth that bound Halbarad’s fingers together.

“I don’t want you to protect me like that!” Halbarad hissed angrily. “From either an injury or from seeing things like… like that,” he waved his uninjured hand in the general direction of Bree. “I don’t need you to do that, Aragorn.”

Aragorn continued to manipulate Halbarad’s fingers as if he had not heard a thing his cousin had said. He looked up in concern when he heard a small noise from Halbarad as he gently pressed on the finger that had been broken. The bones did not feel as if they had slipped out of place but that did not mean that they had not been broken earlier in the day and then pushed back into place. “Is this truly not painful for you? If it was re-broken this morning then it needs to be re-splinted, Halbarad. I do not want you to lose use of your finger which you will if this does not heal properly.”

Halbarad shook his head. “It hurt when you pressed on it, but it’s not really painful otherwise, only sore. I really don’t think I re-broke it. I didn’t hear it pop or anything and there wasn’t a lot of pain at the time, Aragorn. My hand is a little sore again,” he admitted, “and Nestad thought I probably re-sprained it. But it’s not as bad as last time.”

“I will be right back,” Aragorn said as he went to retrieve his pack of healing supplies. Halbarad frowned as his cousin walked away and he wondered why Aragorn had not responded to his comments earlier. He had a feeling that the conversation was not finished only delayed until Aragorn was done tending to his hand.

“Halbarad,” Aragorn called quietly and Halbarad looked up to see his cousin beckoning him to come to the fire.

“I’m supposed to be on watch,” he said as he sat down with a yawn.

“I know and I am supposed to be sleeping,” Aragorn retorted quietly, mindful of the sleeping men in the tents. “Not that I would be able to,” he added as he poured hot water from the pot setting near the fire into a bowl. He crumbled several leaves of athelas, blew on them and added them to the hot water before handing the bowl to Halbarad. “Hold this close to your face for a moment and inhale the steam, it will refresh you.” Aragorn took a deep breath of the steam himself before he let go of the bowl and he felt some of his tension ease. Taking a clean cloth he dipped it into the water and gently washed Halbarad’s hand. “This will help it heal more quickly.” He then carefully re-bound the two fingers together glancing up at Halbarad occasionally for any signs of distress as he did so. But his cousin kept his eyes closed and seemed to be lost in enjoying the steam from the athelas. Finally, Aragorn wrapped Halbarad’s whole hand with a light bandage, more to remind Halbarad that it was sprained than anything else.

Aragorn packed away his healing supplies before sitting down at the fire. He added a couple of small logs to the fire and sat quietly for a time poking at it with a long stick glancing at Halbarad occasionally from the corner of his eye. His voice was calm when he finally spoke. “While I suppose I did mean to protect you when I said I should have sent you home after you injured your hand, I am not really sure what I meant when I said I wished you did not have to witness what happened today.” He frowned, drawing up his legs and wrapping his arms around them. “I wish I had not had to experience it so I guess I wished the same for you… perhaps that is a way of protecting you,” he shrugged. “If so, then forgive me. I think we have had a similar conversation in the past,” Aragorn said with a very brief smile.

“We have,” Halbarad acknowledged as he finally opened his eyes and looked at Aragorn. “I wish that we hadn’t been there today either and, yet you know it’s something we would’ve had to see sometime so I guess now’s as good as time as any.” He didn’t sound very convincing, even to himself.

“Which part? The injustice of Men or the hanging?” Aragorn was surprised at how bitter he sounded and he shook his head in irritation.

“Both, I think.” Halbarad rubbed his eyes wearily. “I don’t understand them… the people in the village, I mean.” He furrowed his brow as he thought for a moment. “And it’s not just the injustice, but the way they acted at the hanging… cheering and bringing children.” He shook his head in disbelief. “And, the way they treated us. We’re just men and yet they felt nothing but scorn for us and they were afraid of us… of me!”

“But you’re not ‘just’ a man, Halbarad; you’re a Ranger… a Dúnedain… a descendant of kings.”

Aragorn and Halbarad both jumped, startled, as Nestad’s soft voice suddenly came out of the darkness behind them.

“I thought you were on watch, Halbarad,” the healer said, as he settled down next to them at the fire. “It’s a good thing I’m not an orc,” he added, a hint of amusement in his voice.

“An orc would make more noise,” Halbarad retorted crossly, embarrassed at being caught off guard. He started to get to his feet when Nestad laid a hand on his arm.

“Stay.”

“I thought you were sleeping,” Aragorn said with an eyebrow raised in question.

“I was trying to but I found myself wide awake and thinking of the day and when I heard your voices I thought I’d join you.”

“Hmmm,” was all Aragorn said in response, well aware of why Nestad had joined them. But he found that the prospect of speaking with the older man did not bother him as much as it had earlier. He had come to rely on Nestad’s counsel and wisdom and thought that perhaps he could give him some understanding that he could not find on his own.

Nestad turned back to Halbarad. “The people of the Bree-lands are frightened of us because we’re different,” he began quietly as he pulled out his pipe. “We come into their villages only occasionally and stay for a short time speaking to only a very few people. We dress differently,” he paused and lit his pipe. “Did you notice how much taller you were than the people there?” he asked and Halbarad nodded. “That alone would frighten many people. They know not how we live or if we have families,” Nestad smiled, “though I suppose they must assume we have wives and children since we keep showing up.” Aragorn and Halbarad chuckled. “But,” he sighed deeply, “most of us are frightened of those that are different than themselves and the people of Bree are no different.”

“But we… the Rangers… have never hurt any of them,” Halbarad pointed out.

“No, we haven’t, but we might so it’s easier to just keep away from us. Unless we want to buy something,” he added with a wry smile.

Aragorn simply listened as Halbarad and Nestad spoke of the fear of the people in Bree. While that had saddened him, it was nothing compared to what he was feeling at the injustice in the sentencing of Will. He looked up in surprise when Nestad suddenly asked him a question that had nothing to do with the conversation he was having with Halbarad.

“What sentence would you have given to Will, my lord?”

Dropping his gaze back to the fire and poking at the burning logs with his stick, Aragorn took his time as he considered his answer. He had thought of it several times, both before today and then after Will was sentenced. “I would have sentenced him to a time of servitude for the people of Bree, I think,” he said after a moment. “Though I am not sure for how long or what he might do for the people.” He shrugged and looked up at Nestad who nodded thoughtfully as he puffed on his pipe.

“I see,” Nestad said, making no comment on whether he thought that was a just punishment or not. “And how would you have sentenced him if we had not brought him to Bree? If we had stayed in Dolomar and dealt with all of them there?” His voice was quiet but his gaze was piercing as he studied Aragorn.

Aragorn opened his mouth to say that he would have sentenced Will exactly the same when he stopped himself as he realized that was not true. He glanced at Halbarad when his cousin spoke up.

“You would have sentenced him the same, wouldn’t you?” he asked, his gaze becoming uncertain at the look on Aragorn’s face.

“No, I would not have,” Aragorn said shaking his head. “That is why Nestad brought it up. I did not know Will when we were still in Dolomar and I would have sentenced all of them the same… I would have sentenced them all to death.” He paused briefly as he thought. “It was only because I got to know him a little bit that I felt compassion for him.” Aragorn gave Nestad a rueful smile that was returned.

“You were also angry… we all were,” the healer sighed heavily. “And we were right to be so, but it is hard to judge someone justly when you are angry.” Aragorn gave a slow and thoughtful nod.

“But, if you had talked to Will wouldn’t you have found out about these things? Why he was with Galt and the others?” Halbarad asked.

“Do you remember what he was like that day? He could barely look at any of us let alone speak, just like he could not speak to the men today. Even then I doubt that I would have sentenced him differently.” Aragorn frowned and got to his feet and began slowly pacing back and forth along the edge of the fire as he thought, the stick dangling loosely from his hand. “I am not sure I would even have questioned him or the others very closely,” he admitted. “We knew what they had done, there would have been no reason to do so.”

“So, does it really surprise you that the men of Bree would sentence them any differently?” Nestad asked quietly. “We told them what they had done and they took us at our word.”

Halbarad snorted with disdain. “They believed part of what we said. They just didn’t believe that Will didn’t kill anyone.”

“Yes, they did,” Aragorn replied as he continued his pacing. “That is why the hobbit asked him about robbing the people. They just decided that that was enough to sentence him to death. They did not think that the other things I told them were that important.”

Nestad hesitated as he watched his lord pace back and forth. He knew Aragorn was not going to like what he had to say, nor would Halbarad, he realized as he glanced at the young man who was also watching Aragorn pace. Finally, he spoke. “Aragorn, you will not like what I’m going to say but I’m going to say it nonetheless.” Aragorn stopped and looked at the healer questioningly. “You know that I liked Will and I do think that if he had received a different sentence then he would have learned from his mistakes and would never have done anything like that again.” Nestad paused.

“But?” Aragorn prompted him.

“But his death was the result of his own choices and we can’t blame the Men… the leaders of Bree for that. It was Will’s own choices that led to his death,” he repeated firmly.

“But he didn’t know who Galt was,” Halbarad protested.

Nestad didn’t answer beyond a quick nod as he kept his eyes fixed on Aragorn who was studying the ground intently. He resumed his pacing, idly slapping the stick against his leg as he moved back and forth. Aragorn kept his eyes on the ground and his voice was low when he finally spoke. “Will did not know who Galt was when he left Bree, Halbarad, but he had to have known within a day or two that he and the others were not honest men. I know we saw Galt at his worst, but I doubt that even on his best days he could hide who he truly was and what he was like.” Aragorn stopped and looked up then and met the gazes of both Halbarad and Nestad. “Will should have left then,” he said softly. “There had to have been opportunities for him to leave them and he chose not to do so.” He ran his fingers through his hair and sighed in frustration.

“Nestad is right,” Aragorn said giving Halbarad a grim look, “We cannot blame the leaders in Bree for not doing what we thought was the right thing, not when it was Will’s choices that brought him to this end. Not when I would have sentenced him the same way,” he added quietly, “At least, if I had not known him somewhat.” He paused and stared at the ground. “And, perhaps, I would have been wrong to do so… “ he shook his head and resumed his pacing.

“Wrong to do what?” Nestad asked, knowing exactly what Aragorn meant but seeing confusion in Halbarad’s eyes.

Aragorn glanced at him, “Perhaps I would have been wrong not to have sentenced him to death since he made the choices he did knowing exactly what he was doing.”

“Perhaps,” Nestad said with a small shrug as he re-filled his pipe and lit it with a small twig from the fire.

Aragorn frowned at Nestad. “If Will robbed the people and made the choice to be with Galt and the others knowing full well what he was doing, then he deserved to die.”

“Yes, he did,” Nestad acknowledged. “But, I do believe that there are times when a judge may have mercy on those that come before him to be tried for their misdeeds. I believe that Will deserved mercy even with the very poor choices he made. Knowing him like we do I imagine he was too frightened to leave those men once he had joined them. They may have threatened him,” Nestad shrugged and puffed on his pipe thoughtfully as he looked up at Aragorn. “I don’t know. These things are never simple or easy to decide. At least they shouldn’t be,” he finished.

Aragorn stared at the healer and then snorted with amusement. “You make an interesting counselor, Nestad. You first suggest that Will should be sentenced to death because he made poor choices and knew what he was doing. But now you say that he should have been given mercy!” He shook his head.

“A counselor is only there to help his lord see all sides of something,” Nestad replied quietly. “It is not up to him to make the decisions, my lord.”

“No, it is not,” Aragorn agreed as he resumed his pacing, once again slapping the stick against his leg as he thought. He glanced over at Halbarad briefly as his cousin added a couple of logs to the fire and sparks flew upward into the darkness. “Well,” he said after a time, “I am glad this is not something that I will have to deal with often. At least I hope not,” he added with a grim smile as he thought of the long years stretching ahead of him and the possibility of other bandits that he might have to deal with during his lifetime.

“Unless you become king,” Halbarad said with a brief grin.

Nestad looked startled and then thoughtful at Halbarad’s comment, realizing this was something the two young men had talked about at some point in the past.

Aragorn shook his head, frowning, “I am going to bed now, Cousin.” He turned his gaze to Nestad. “Thank you once again, Nestad. Good-night.” Nestad simply nodded as Aragorn walked off to the tent.

0-0-0-0

The ride north was quiet. Not only were there no signs of orcs or wolves or other creatures of darkness, but the Rangers themselves were subdued the first few days after leaving Bree. It was not until several days had passed and Aragorn was on watch one night that he realized that it was Halbarad and himself that were most affected by the events in Bree. It was not that the other Rangers did not care what had happened to Will, it was just that they were older and were more accustomed to dealing with Men like those in Bree. Not long after Aragorn had come to that conclusion he also realized that his introspective mood was affecting the others. They were subdued because he was quieter than normal… not that he ever spoke much, but even for him he was quiet as he pondered all that happened and the things he, Halbarad, and Nestad had discussed.

It took Aragorn longer to figure out what the problem was with the light banter between Nestad and Faelon that they continued to engage in every evening around the fire. He finally realized that it was only in the last few days that Faelon had ever exchanged in light banter with anyone. Aragorn knew that Faelon was doing it for the sake of the men, mostly to relieve the strain that he was unintentionally putting them under.

Shaking his head, annoyed at himself, Aragorn stood up from the log where he had been sitting and began circling the camp once again, not straying too far out of the glow from the fire. As he listened intently for any sound that was out of the ordinary, Aragorn decided that he needed, as much as was possible, to put the whole incident at Bree behind him. He knew it was something that he would remember for the rest of his life, just as he knew that he had learned much about Men and about himself during the days he had spent with the bandits and then in Bree. But he could not let it effect what he was doing here and now, nor could he let it effect his men. It sobered him to see how his men were responding to the way he was acting, Aragorn had not realized he had quite that much influence over them. Sighing, he leaned against a tree as he thought. Elrond had never mentioned anything about this. Although, Aragorn thought with an inward smile, he supposed that it was not something that ever came up with elves. Glancing up at the star-filled sky he saw, from Eärendil’s travel across the sky, that it was time to wake Daedaen for his watch and he went to wake him and to seek his own rest.

0-0-0

As the Rangers neared the area where they expected to find the patrol from Forntaur, Aragorn was pleased to note that his men were almost back to normal. There were again small jests between all of the men occasionally except for Faelon who had ceased his bantering as soon as he saw that Aragorn had come out of the introspective mood he had been in. That he had been willing to do something so against his nature for the good of the men impressed Aragorn and it was not something he would forget.

Huddling around the small fire one chilly evening, Aragorn asked Faelon about the Rangers they were meeting. “Do you know any of these men well?” he asked, shivering.

Faelon glanced up at him from where he was trying to light his pipe and shrugged. When his pipe was finally lit he answered the question. “I know the patrol leader, Tathor, a little from working together here, but I don’t know him well. It’s the same with the men, I used to know several of them quite well but they’ve all gone to different patrols.”

Nestad looked up at that. “Is Baranor part of the patrol?”

Faelon thought for a moment and then glanced over at Daedaen who shook his head. “I don’t think so, I don’t remember that name. Who is he?”

“My son-in-law. It would be nice to see him, it’s been many, many years,” Nestad replied with a wistful smile. Aragorn reached over and squeezed his shoulder briefly.

“There is someone in the patrol that Gilost knows, though,” Faelon said as he looked over at the Ranger who was wrapped up in both his cloak and his blanket against the cold.

“Is Norgalad there?” he asked with a grin. “I thought he was still stationed down South. It will be good to see him and Gaerwen will be glad to hear news of him when I get home.”

“Gaerwen is betrothed to Norgalad,” Halbarad leaned over and whispered to Aragorn who blinked in surprise. For some reason he had not thought that the quiet girl was old enough to be getting married but he remembered that she was some years older than Halbarad. Gilost certainly seemed pleased about it. As Aragorn looked at his friend he realized that Gilost was also of an age to be married and he wondered if there was a young lady who was special to him. It was something they had never spoken of. Not that Aragorn really wanted to speak of such things because it always brought up such intense longings for Arwen, but he would like to know about Gilost. Well, if he ever had the chance he would speak of it with Gilost.

All of their heads snapped up as Remlas hurried back into camp from his latest survey of the area. He crouched down next to Aragorn. “Captain, there is something out there that is not right… I sense it more than see or hear anything,” Remlas bit his lip nervously as he waited for Aragorn to respond.

“Where?” Aragorn asked tersely, getting gracefully to his feet and peering into the darkness in the direction Remlas had come. The other Rangers also stood and drifted back away from the fire with their hands on their swords.

Remlas pointed behind him, “There and also around to the east.”

Aragorn frowned as he pulled Remlas back into the shadows with him. They had set up camp in the best place they could find. This far north there were very few trees; the land was covered with rocks and low bushes. Their camp was located up against a small jumble of rocks but there was little else in the way of protection for them. The brush would not provide much cover should they go to find what was out there – and they had to find out if orcs or wolves were stalking them.

“Gilost, Faelon,” Aragorn hesitated and then whispered for Halbarad to come as well. Halbarad’s fingers had finally been unbound the day before and Aragorn knew how well his cousin moved in the wild whereas he was less certain of the other men, especially Remlas. Soundlessly, the three men appeared behind him. “We must see what is out there. Faelon, take Gilost and head to the left of camp. Halbarad, you come with me. Remlas, stay here with the others.” Aragorn drew his sword wishing that he had not set his bow aside earlier, but it was too late to retrieve it now. With a nod at Halbarad, he led the way into the bushes crouching down to take advantage of what little cover there was. Ten or so yards away from the camp Aragorn and Halbarad paused, both to let their eyes adjust to the utter darkness that blanketed the land away from their small fire and to listen for anything out of the ordinary.

After a moment, Aragorn touched Halbarad on the arm and they moved on, slowly threading their way through the brush. They froze at a faint sound off to their right. It was not a natural sound; it sounded like metal striking something. Aragorn and Halbarad exchanged grim looks at the thought of fighting orcs again. But, Aragorn suddenly realized that orcs would not be so quiet. If it was not orcs then it was men and the only men this far North were… Rangers. He sighed inwardly. Still, if this was Tathor’s patrol they were quite a bit south of their area and he supposed they could be bandits; he shuddered at dealing with more of them so soon. He leaned over and spoke into Halbarad’s ear.

“I think it may be Tathor’s patrol.”

Halbarad pulled away from Aragorn, surprised. He looked back toward the area where the sound had come from and then back at Aragorn and gave a nod. “Should I give a Ranger call?” he whispered into Aragorn’s ear who indicated his agreement. Halbarad’s low bird whistle sounded loud in the stillness of the night. After he gave the call, they moved away so that if it was not Tathor’s patrol the orcs or whoever it was would not be able to immediately find them. It seemed like a long time, but was probably less than a minute when an answering call came from the area they were watching. A moment later there were answering calls from behind them and to their left and Aragorn assumed it was where Faelon and Gilost were.

Aragorn and Halbarad stood up cautiously and could just make out the faint outline of two men a short distance away. “Who are you?” he called. “Are you from Forntaur?”

“Yes,” a low voice growled back at them. “Who are you and where are you from?” The figures stepped a little closer as if to see more clearly.

Aragorn gave Halbarad an amused look knowing the man would likely be embarrassed when he discovered whom he had been speaking with. “We are from Dolomar and are part of Faelon’s patrol,” he replied as he began walking towards them, keeping a tight grip on his sheathed sword just in case. Aragorn listened closely to the murmur of voices in the distance behind him. He could not make out what anyone was saying, but it sounded friendly enough. Drawing near to the other two men Aragorn relaxed as he could see how tall they were and how they were dressed and he knew they were, in fact, Rangers.

“Well met,” Aragorn greeted the two men as they came together. “Come to our fire, it is too cold to stand out here and talk.” Now that the adrenaline was wearing down the cold and wind was making its presence felt and Aragorn wrapped his cloak more tightly about himself. “Do you have horses somewhere close by?”

The older man was eyeing Aragorn suspiciously and he finally gave a curt nod. “Yes, one of my men stayed with them. I’ll send Norgalad back to get them. I’m Tathor,” he looked at Aragorn with an eyebrow raised questioningly.

“This is Halbarad son of Halhigal and I am Aragorn son of Arathorn. Come.” Aragorn turned immediately to head back to camp, ignoring the shocked look on Tathor’s face.

~~~

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


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