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22
Chapter 22

Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha


~~~

Daedaen and Nestad had built the fire back up by the time Aragorn and Halbarad returned with Tathor. The rest of the Rangers arrived not long after them and, as horses were settled, the men gathered around the fire, grateful for its heat on the cold March night. Aragorn was content to listen and observe the five new men, all of whom had been startled and, then, pleased to meet him there unexpectedly. He found himself watching two men closely, Tathor and Norgalad. Norgalad appeared to be a quiet, thoughtful man in his late thirties and Aragorn found himself wondering how he and Gaerwen had met. It was something he would have to ask Gilost or Halbarad.

Aragorn observed the patrol leader, Tathor, to try and gain a sense of the man. He had been, as Aragorn had known he would be, somewhat embarrassed by his greeting earlier, but had seemed to relax slightly at his Chieftain’s reassurances. Aragorn knew a bit about him; he and Halhigal had spent time talking about each of the patrol leaders so he knew that Tathor in his sixties, was married to a lady named Lalaith, had two daughters, and his father and brother served on patrols down near Sarn Ford. He listened closely as Faelon asked Tathor the question he himself had been wondering about.

“Why are you this far south? I didn’t expect to find you for at least another day, if not more.”

“Wolves,” he answered shortly with a grimace of distaste. “We’d been tracking a pack for a few days and finally caught them this morning. It’s been a harsh winter and they were scraggly looking beasts. I don’t know where they were headed, but they were headed south in a hurry.”

“How many were there?” Aragorn asked, frowning.

“Fourteen.”

“Were any of your men injured?” Nestad asked with his own frown knitting his brow. He knew, depending on the situation of the encounter, that even fourteen of the large animals could be a lot for five men to handle.

Tathor shrugged, “A few scratches,” he said dismissively. “One of my men saw to the wounds.” He gestured in the direction of one of the Rangers who ducked his head in embarrassment when he saw his Chieftain and the other men looking at him.

“He appears young,” Aragorn said quietly and with concern on seeing the man’s reaction. “Is he well trained? Wolf claws are filthy and can cause serious infections.” Nestad nodded his agreement.

“He’s trained well enough; he’s been our healer for several years and no one’s died yet,” he shrugged again.

“I see,” Aragorn exchanged a glance with Nestad, uncertain if he ought to offer to look at the wounds or not. The injuries did not sound particularly serious and he had seen no evidence of bandages so the men must be wearing their gloves over any wounds on their hands, and if any had injuries to their arms or legs they were hidden under the cloaks they wore. Tathor seemed unconcerned, but the Ranger who was their healer did seem awfully young. Nestad’s expression was unreadable and Aragorn finally decided that he would at least check the skills of the healer by looking at the care he had given to the men. “Nestad and I have some skill in healing, Tathor, and with the permission of your healer,” Aragorn looked across the fire at the man who nodded shyly, “I would like to check the wounds in the morning.”

Tathor nodded and Aragorn decided he would also take the opportunity to speak with the young Ranger about the amount of training he had had in the healing arts. It was something that he still needed to find out about… how much training the healers of each village received and also the men that served as healers for the Rangers. He had pushed that to the back of his mind as so many other things had taken its place in the months since he had rejoined his people. But it was something that he wanted to find out about and he would start by asking this young man. Aragorn glanced around the fire and his gaze fell on Norgalad.

“I hear you are betrothed to Gaerwen, Norgalad. I wish you much joy,” Aragorn said warmly.

“Thank you, my lord,” Norgalad inclined his head after giving his lord a brief, though bright smile. He hesitated before asking, “My lord, would you be willing to hear our vows? I’m sure it would please Gaerwen as much as it would me.”

“She’d like that,” Gilost agreed.

Aragorn looked uncertain and then nodded slowly knowing that it was one of the responsibilities he had as lord of his people. “I would be honored to do that for you. But, you should know that I have never even seen a wedding before,” he confessed, almost embarrassed.

“Never?” It was one of the Rangers from Tathor’s patrol who asked.

“No. There have been none since I returned to our people and there were certainly none among the elves in Imladris as I grew up.” Aragorn looked back at Norgalad. “But, I know that my uncle, or someone,” he glanced at Nestad, “will explain what I need to do. Where do you intend to get married? In Dolomar or Forntaur?” Aragorn did not even know if it was traditional for his people to get married in the village of the bride or the groom. He had never thought to ask.

“In Dolomar, my lord. I’ve decided to move there. My naneth died last year and there is nothing to keep me in Forntaur. I don’t want Gaerwen to be without some close kin around her when I’m away.”

“When will the wedding take place?”

“We hoped to marry about the middle of May, but we know that it might not be possible.”

Aragorn read the longing in Norgalad’s eyes and sighed inwardly, pushing the thoughts of Arwen away that the look had awakened. “We should be back in Dolomar by the first week in May,” he glanced over at Faelon who nodded. “If you arrive around that time I will hear you and Gaerwen exchange your vows,” he promised with a brief smile. “Do not travel alone, though,” he cautioned him strongly. “There have been too many orcs prowling our lands for it to be safe for one man to travel alone.” At Norgalad’s and the other Rangers’ questioning looks, Aragorn and his men told them of all that had happened in the last few months.

0-0-0-0-0

Aragorn had the last watch. He pulled his hood closer around his head and wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself as he kept moving against the cold that had deepened during the night. He supposed he should be grateful that there was no snow but knew that snow was rare even this far north in the middle of March. As he kept a wary eye out for danger he pondered what he should do with the two groups of Rangers – whether to continue on as he had planned or for his group to join Tathor’s patrol and seek out any other packs of wolves that might linger in the area. They had discussed it briefly last night, but no decision had been made.

As the stars faded above him and the faintest pink lightened the sky to the east, Aragorn stirred up the fire and set a couple of pots of water close to the flames. The men would be waking soon and hot tea would be welcomed by all. Gazing east towards the Weather Hills, Aragorn could barely make out the faintest outline of the hills, a dark black against the lightening sky. Faelon’s normal patrol area was just on the other side of those hills and he had been gone now for almost four weeks. While it was true that they had killed a large number of orcs that had prowled in that area, there was no telling what other servants of the enemy might be stirring there. Perhaps wolves were also gathering on the east side of the hills. Aragorn knew they would have to leave Tathor and his men to deal with their own area while he continued on. He glanced towards the tents as Halbarad slipped outside and hurried to the fire pulling the hood of his cloak up as he moved.

“Good morning,” Aragorn greeted him quietly.

Halbarad grunted sleepily in response, rubbing at his eyes as he crouched down beside the fire.

Aragorn’s lips twitched as he joined his cousin and set about making them tea. He did not speak until the tea was ready and he handed a mug to Halbarad. “Here.” Halbarad looked up in surprise from where he had been staring sightlessly into the fire and took the mug with a sheepish smile.

“Thanks.”

They sat quietly for a time sipping on the hot tea and enjoying the peaceful – if cold – morning. There were a few birds singing, but the only other noise came from the horses and the faint noises of the sleeping men.

“Have you decided what we’re going to do?” Halbarad asked after a time.

“Go on as we had planned. There may be wolves or other dangers in that area that we do not know about.” Aragorn shrugged. “Tathor and his men will have to deal with whatever is in this area by themselves - just as they would have if we had never shown up.”

“At least there will be some trees in the hills,” Halbarad muttered.

Aragorn nodded, “I do not like this mostly bare rocky area either… it is not like home.” He smiled briefly, “Not like either of my homes.”

Halbarad chuckled. “From what you’ve told me of Imladris I don’t think it’s much like this. Perhaps I’ll see it someday.”

“Hopefully I will have a reason to take you with me sometime. I would like you to see it. To see where I grew up and to meet my family… the rest of my family,” Aragorn corrected himself and Halbarad smiled.

“I remember your mother, but not very well.”

“I hope she is doing well without me there,” Aragorn furrowed his brow as he thought of his mother alone amongst the elves in Imladris.

“Why would she not?” Halbarad asked confused by Aragorn’s worried expression. “You told me the elves are kind and…”

Aragorn quickly interrupted him. “Of course they are. It is just that it might be hard to be the only mortal there even if she has lived there for such a long time. Elves see things so differently than mortals, Halbarad, and sometimes it was hard for my naneth.”

“Wasn’t it hard for you?”

Aragorn stared at the hard rocky ground for a moment and then looked up and met Halbarad’s gaze intently. “It was different for me,” he said softly. “I was raised there and so even though I am mortal, I see things differently than most mortals, I think.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Now that I am with my people, I can see things like the elves and I am learning to see things as the Dúnedain see them.” He gave a rueful smile, “It is rather strange at times…” Aragorn paused, putting his hand to the hilt of his sword as he quickly arose peering into the distance.

Halbarad quickly followed his lead having heard some distant sound, though he could not tell what it was. He saw that the horses were looking off to the north as well - their ears twitching forward and back as if they, too, were trying to listen to something.

“Get the men up quickly,” Aragorn ordered urgently in a low voice and Halbarad turned without question to wake them. He darted between the tents poking his head into each one and rousing the men with a low whispered call. By the time he returned to Aragorn, who had moved out to the edge of the camp and now had his bow strung and an arrow nocked, men from the first tent were already joining them.

“What is it, Captain?” Faelon asked as hurried to his Chieftain’s side stringing his bow as he ran. He had immediately seen the horses, but could not yet tell what Aragorn had seen or heard.

“I heard the distant howl of a wolf a few minutes ago, but nothing since,” Aragorn replied with a frown and a sidelong glance at Faelon. “If it were not for the horses, I would think I had imagined it.” He turned slightly as Tathor joined them and he realized that besides Faelon’s men, whom he had taken command of at some point in the last few weeks without even being particularly conscious of it, he also now had Tathor and his men.

“Were you only tracking a single pack of wolves?”

Tathor gave him a single abrupt nod, “There was no sign of any other packs and no wolves left the pack we were tracking. We followed that trail closely and no wolf broke away.”

The horses were starting to move restlessly and pull at their ropes. “Send a couple of your men to watch the horses,” Aragorn directed Tathor. Hesitating only briefly, Tathor went to speak to his men. Aragorn hoped that would be enough men to guard the horses as they could not afford to lose any of them, but until he knew how many wolves were out there he could not spare any more than two men. He quickly turned back to Faelon.

“I have never fought wolves before. What would you suggest?”

“I’d set the men around the camp in a loose circle with the horses in the middle. If they’re bold enough to attack a camp of men, there are either a lot of them or they’re starving. Having fires may help ward them off, though we do not have much to burn.”

Tathor had returned and was rocking on his heels slightly and looking impatient. Aragorn turned his gaze on him. “Yes?”

“My lord, I do think that my men might… serve you better were they to fight instead of holding the horses. Perhaps some of the younger men,” his eyes strayed to Halbarad who was standing next to Faelon, “might watch the horses instead.”

Aragorn replied softly, although his jaw was set and his gaze was stern. “Everyone here is a Ranger, Tathor, and should be able to serve in whatever capacity is given him.” A slight frown crossed Tathor’s face before he gave a slight nod.

Turning quickly to the defense of their camp, Aragorn set the ten Rangers around the horses in a circle taking advantage of the rocks whenever possible and keeping the men as close together as he could. Small fires were kindled with what little wood and dead branches from the bushes were available but it would not last long. Then they waited to see what the wolves would do.

Aragorn kept one eye on the horses even as he scanned the area surrounding the camp. The bushes and rocks would make it difficult to see the wolves until they were almost upon them, but the horses would be able to smell them drawing near and would react accordingly. A few short howls came one after the other… from different sides of the camp and the already nervous horses began to snort in fear. The howls had obviously been a signal of some kind and the Rangers tightened their grips on bows and swords. Aragorn had set his bow aside and gone to his sword, feeling more comfortable with it in the rocks and bushes that surrounded him.

When the attack came, Aragorn was surprised at the swiftness of the wolves as one large, raggedy looking beast darted out of the bushes. It was headed for an opening in the rocks between where he and Gilost were crouched and Aragorn got to the animal first. The wolf lunged towards him snarling and snapping at him with long razor sharp teeth and Aragorn had to dance back and to the side to escape. Recovering swiftly, Aragorn jabbed at the wolf with his sword and opened a large gash on the wolf’s shoulder. Yelping in the pain the wolf turned back towards him with an angry growl and it seemed to Aragorn he could almost read the fierce hatred in the animal’s eyes, and he reminded himself that this was not an ordinary animal, but a creature of darkness. He was aware that another wolf had slunk out of the bushes and that Gilost was fighting it, but he kept his focus on the wolf as he sprang at him again. Without hesitation, Aragorn stepped to the side once again but this time he turned as the wolf flew past him and he brought the flat side of his sword down hard on the neck of the animal, breaking it and killing it instantly. It fell to the ground with a heavy thud and Aragorn looked at Gilost to see if he needed help but the wolf he had been fighting was already dead.

It was quiet in the camp and Aragorn looked at Gilost in surprise. “That is all of them?”

Gilost slowly nodded. “They would not hold any back in reserve,” he said with a faint smile. He looked at the two dead wolves on the ground and nudged the one he had killed with his boot. “These animals are starving.”

“So it appears. It has been a hard winter, but…” his voice trailed off and he took a deep breath to try and still his racing heart. He had been prepared for a longer, more difficult battle and it would take him a moment to calm. “Stay here,” he directed as he walked to the middle of the camp. “Is anyone hurt?” he called out. There were various negative responses from most of the men, though Remlas had been bitten and Aragorn beckoned him in along with Faelon, Tathor, and Nestad. He left the rest of the men on alert in the event other wolves might still be in the area, though he did not think that any were left.

“How many did we kill?” Aragorn asked the other men as he sat Remlas down by the fire and began examining his arm.

Faelon and Tathor took a quick look around. “I see eight, Captain,” Tathor replied as he returned.

Aragorn shook his head but did not look up from what he was doing. The wolf had bitten deeply into Remlas’s right forearm before one of the other Rangers had been able to kill it. The skin was ripped open on both the top and the underside of his arm from where the wolf’s teeth had clamped onto his arm during their furious struggle.

“Here,” Nestad handed Remlas a mug of willow bark tea to help with the pain and he gulped it down, grimacing at the bitter taste. Nestad looked to Aragorn and said quietly. “I have hot water ready, my lord.”

“Thank you,” he murmured. “Look here, Nestad,” Aragorn pointed into the deep wound. “It just missed the tendon.”

Nestad looked up at Remlas, “You’re a fortunate man.” He turned back to Aragorn. “Would you like me to stitch him up?” he offered.

Aragorn hesitated, looking from the wound to Nestad and back. He did need to speak with Faelon and Tathor to decide what they were going to do and Nestad was a gifted and experienced healer and Aragorn knew that there were things that he needed to let others take care of… he could not do everything. He nodded. “I will steep some athelas so you may bathe his wounds before you do the stitches.” Aragorn quickly prepared the healing herbs and stood, gently patting Remlas on the back before he walked to where Faelon and Tathor now stood at the edge of the camp.

“It surprises me that there were not more of them,” he said as he approached.

Faelon half-turned and looked at Aragorn with a grim smile. “Be thankful that there were not and that these were half-starved. They are vicious killers.”

“I am thankful, it just surprised me with the way the horses were acting,” Aragorn replied with a shrug as he stared out into the distance.

“Horses would have acted that way with a wolf pup,” Tathor snorted and the men chuckled briefly.

“What are your plans, Captain?” Faelon asked after a moment.

“I had thought to have us continue on to your patrol area, but now I wonder if we should stay and help Tathor and his men here.” A thought struck him and he turned and looked Tathor up and down seeing his thin body for the first time. “How have you and your men fared this winter in regards to food? If these wolves are doing so poorly, then it must have been difficult for you to find game.”

Tathor looked away for a moment. “It’s been poor hunting, my lord,” he admitted. “Deer have been scarce so it’s mostly been rabbits and such, but we carried some supplies with us, of course, and we’re doing all right.”

Aragorn glanced at Faelon before looking around at the rest of Tathor’s men and seeing that they, too, seemed thinner than they should be and he sighed inwardly at not having seen it the night before. They had shown up after supper and so there had been no reason to eat together or he might have noticed it then. Aragorn would just have to give them some of the supplies they had purchased in Bree and both groups would have to get by on short rations until they returned home. He was not sure what to say to Tathor, however. It was part of the cost of him doing his duty as a Ranger and Aragorn did not know whether to thank him or to apologize. In the end he decided that Tathor would probably not appreciate him saying anything about it directly, so he instead simply spoke of the matter at hand.

“We will share some of our supplies with you before we part.” Tathor nodded his thanks.

“Captain, while I’m sure that there may still be wolves in this area, I’m concerned about wolves in my patrol area,” Faelon cast a worried look at Aragorn. He had been gone a long time from the area that he had patrolled for many years. It was a place that he felt responsible for and he did not want the wolves to gather together in large packs that might head south towards populated areas.

It only took Aragorn a moment to decide that Faelon was right and he nodded. “Tathor, we will have to leave you and your men to continue your normal patrol while we ride on.”

“I understand, my lord,” he gave Aragorn a grim smile. “I would have welcomed the help, but we’ve patrolled these lands for years on our own and we’ll do well enough without you.”

“Good. Have a couple of men stand watch while the rest of them pack up. Nestad and I will fix a hot breakfast.” Aragorn glanced at Tathor. “I think all of us could use it this morning.”

“The men would like that, my lord.”

“I will see to dividing up the food supplies, Captain,” Faelon said before heading off to set the men to their tasks.

Tathor lingered for a moment. “My lord, forgive me for questioning your orders earlier. I should not have done that.”

“No, you should not have,” Aragorn agreed as he intently studied the patrol leader. “But, I am willing to overlook it this time. I am going to assume you did so because you do not know me yet and, perhaps, are uncertain of me because of my youth.”

“I… well…” Tathor was not sure how to respond to such a calm, accurate assessment of him and the penetrating gaze of his lord was hard for him to hold. “Yes,” he finally admitted, “I suppose I do think you a little… young.”

“I am. And, yet I am not,” Aragorn said. “But, my age matters not, as I do expect that my orders will be followed without question while we are preparing so quickly to engage the enemy. That is not the time to stop and discuss them. Afterwards, or if we have more time to plan, then, of course I am willing to talk with my patrol leaders about decisions that have or must be made. I am sure you do the same with your men, do you not?”

“Yes,” Tathor said with a slight bow. “Again, forgive me and it won’t happen again.”

“I know and we will speak no more of this. I need to make breakfast and you need to go and help the men get ready.”

Tathor slowly followed him with a thoughtful expression on his face as he tried to decide if Aragorn reminded him of Arathorn or Arador. He finally decided that his young Chieftain was different than both his father and his grandfather. That while Aragorn might look very much like Arathorn there was something about him that was markedly different. Tathor had never met someone so young that had such an air of authority, that could be as stern as he had just been, and, yet kind and caring as well. Tathor had watched Aragorn with the Ranger who had been bitten and had seen his gentleness and knew that it was not feigned, that there was genuine compassion there, the mark of a true healer. Tathor was sure that it was due to Aragorn being raised amongst the elves, but perhaps the influence of Gilraen had also played a part. She was said to be a kind and gentle woman. Whatever the reason, Aragorn, young as he was, was a Lord that was well worth following. Tathor picked up his pace and hurried off to help with the horses.

0-0-0

The two groups of Rangers went their separate ways as soon as breakfast had been eaten. Faelon was especially anxious to return to his normal patrol area. Aragorn had taken time to speak with the Ranger who did the healing work for Tathor’s patrol and found him competent, but not particularly well-trained and he was troubled by the knowledge. The man knew the basic facts of healing, but Aragorn knew he would be overwhelmed if he encountered anything beyond the normal injuries any of the men received in battle. Aragorn did not yet know how to overcome such a lack of knowledge. Perhaps this Ranger was unusual and most of the others had more training. He considered different possibilities as he rode along and was only vaguely aware when someone rode up alongside of him.

“You are lost in thought, my lord Aragorn,” Halbarad said grinning as he took in the faraway look in his cousin’s eyes. “I hope there are no other wolves around.”

Aragorn gave him a sheepish smile as he glanced around to see if others had noticed his preoccupation as he followed Faelon. But no one else was nearby and his horse was following Faelon obediently as it was supposed to do and Aragorn gave it an affectionate pat on its neck. “Yes, I am,” he admitted. “And, if there are wolves around I will leave it up to you to alert me to their presence.”

Halbarad chuckled and shook his head. “I’ll try, but you seem to have better hearing than I do. What were you thinking about?” he asked curiously, wondering what could take Aragorn’s thoughts so far away when they were riding in an area that was at least somewhat dangerous.

It took Aragorn only a moment to decide to share his concerns with Halbarad. If he wanted him to learn his thoughts and feelings on his people then these were the kinds of things that his cousin needed to know and so he shared his concerns about the lack of training that some of the healers had. Halbarad listened intently, his brow furrowed in concentration as Aragorn spoke. When he was finished, they rode quietly for a time before Halbarad spoke up tentatively.

“But, it’s always been done this way, Aragorn. I think these healers have as much training as they’ve always had and I don’t know that it’s ever been a problem. At least, I’ve never heard of it being a problem.”

“It may not be,” Aragorn conceded. “I do not know enough about all of the villages and I really should speak with Nestad. When I think of Gilost’s father, Ladreníl, I wonder if the healer had been better trained perhaps he would not have that limp that he has, perhaps he would not be blind in his one eye. I do not know,” he shrugged. “Certainly your naneth and Nestad are wonderful healers, but I do not know if that is because they are in the villages and have time to study and learn such things. But, I would like to see that the Rangers who act as healers are also well trained. I just do not know how to do such a thing… when the men would have time to learn the skills needed.”

“Maybe when they are in the villages between patrols the village healers could give them more training.”

“Perhaps. But there is always so much for them to do for their families; however, it may be something that I will insist on.” Aragorn scowled down at his saddle for a moment and then shrugged. The people might not like it now, but if he could spare them some future suffering he would do so. He would speak with Halhigal when he returned to the village. He glanced back over at Halbarad. “I will speak of this with your father and Nestad when we return to Dolomar.”

Halbarad nodded as he pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. The late morning sun had driven much of the cold from the air, but it was still colder than he liked. “Can we stop early tonight so we can go hunting? Giving away some of our supplies means we’ll need to do that and we haven’t gone hunting for a long time.”

Blinking at the sudden change in subjects, Aragorn’s lips curved up into a slow smile as he regarded Halbarad. “We will be hunting wolves soon enough, Cousin.” Halbarad just scowled. Aragorn laughed quietly. “It is probably a good idea, though,” he paused and looked at their rocky, bush covered surroundings, “I do not know what kind of game we will find here. It is obvious that the wolves were not finding much to eat.”

“Probably only rabbits,” Halbarad said, “It’s too early for fowl. Well, perhaps you might be able to catch a bigger rabbit than me,” he added with a sly glance at Aragorn. “Though, it’s harder to tell with rabbits since they don’t have antlers, maybe one of the other men can judge them for us.”

“Perhaps you would like to care for all of the horses this evening while I go hunting with Gilost and Daedaen?” Aragorn asked mildly as he looked into the distance.

Halbarad laughed. “You really need to come up with something better to say than threatening me with chores every time I remind you that I’m a much better hunter than you are.”

Aragorn gave him a rueful smile. “I suppose I should, or else I should actually follow through on my threat. It would give me time to practice my poor hunting skills without your interference.” He chuckled at the expression on Halbarad’s face and after a moment his cousin joined him and the two young men continued their discussion as they rode eastward towards the Weather Hills.

0-0-0

Gilost followed a quietly grumbling Halbarad back to camp. The younger Ranger had only managed to shoot a single rabbit while he had gotten three, though they were all quite small. He had heard of the friendly competition between Halbarad and Aragorn and even with young Eradan back in Dolomar, but Halbarad seemed quite put out about the matter much to Gilost’s amusement, which he kept carefully hidden.

Aragorn had already returned and was sitting by the fire with Faelon, Nestad, and Remlas when the two men walked into camp. He made no comment, but his eyes sparkled with amusement when he took in the single rabbit that Halbarad carried and he looked pointedly down at the three rabbits that were cooking over the fire. Halbarad scowled at his cousin as he went to the far side of the camp to clean the rabbit. Returning to the fire when he was finished he handed the skinned rabbit to Aragorn who inspected it closely before carefully rubbing some of their precious stores of seasonings on it and putting it on a spit and setting it over the fire to cook.

“No wonder the wolves are starving,” Nestad commented. “If that’s the size of the rabbits in this area they would need to eat five of them a day just to survive!”

“And, there aren’t very many of them either,” Gilost added as he joined them. Aragorn took the rabbits Gilost handed him and set them aside to cook after they had eaten. There was not enough room to cook all of the rabbits at once and the meat from those rabbits could be eaten in the morning. The men talked quietly of the path ahead of them as the meat cooked and as they ate their simple meal of rabbit and dried fruit taken from their now meager food supplies.

They had not seen any signs of wolves during the day, nor did they in the days following as they continued their journey. Although they stopped frequently at likely places to check for any signs that indicated wolves had been in the area recently. The weather warmed up again as they crossed through the Weather Hills and descended down the eastern slopes of the hills and onto the rolling, rock and bush covered plains. Although the eastern side of the Weather Hills had more trees than the western side, they were widely scattered across the land in small copses or along the banks of streams. Faelon led them to one of the stands of trees along a fast moving stream that was swollen with the spring run off.

“This is one of the places we use as a camp, Captain,” Faelon said to Aragorn. “I thought we might stay here for some time before we ride on further east and then head back south towards home.”

Looking around at the small sheltered area Aragorn could see that it would be an ideal place for a small group of Rangers to stay for a few days or weeks while they rode out to patrol in various directions. “This should serve us well,” he replied as he dismounted.

The men turned to the mundane tasks that it took to set up their camp each evening, though they took a bit of extra time in placing the tents since they would be there for some days. Aragorn was learning that much of what his Rangers did was simply tedious work. There were days and days of riding and hunting and being extremely vigilant as they looked for signs of orcs, and wolves, and other creatures of darkness. Those long days might be followed by short, intense bursts of fighting and blood and death. After patching up the wounded… or burying the dead, they then returned to the monotony of their patrolling.

When Aragorn had been in Imladris the longest he had ever been out on patrol was a little over four weeks as he scouted with his brothers and Glorfindel up into the lower foothills of the Misty Mountains. By the time they returned to Dolomar he would have been gone just over two months. For Faelon, Daedaen, and Remlas it would be over six months. And these men had done that for years… and would continue to do so for many more years assuming they stayed healthy enough. The reality of it sobered him. He was part of these men… part of the Dúnedain… their Chieftain… their Lord. And his life would be even more unsettled than most of his Rangers. Aragorn knew he would rarely stay with a patrol for any length of time, that he would most likely travel between the various patrols and villages to check on his people.

Adjusting the firewood he was carrying so that he could add another small log to the load, Aragorn shook his head slightly as he once again considered the incredible strength and endurance of his people. They had been serving the people of Eriador in this way for hundreds of years now.

“Is the load too heavy for you? Do you need my help?” Halbarad asked as he walked up behind his cousin with his hands full of waterskins. Aragorn heard the teasing note in Halbarad’s voice as he glanced over his shoulder at him.

“No, I do not.”

At the serious expression on Aragorn’s face, Halbarad quickly put aside his jesting. “What is the matter, Aragorn? What troubles you?”

Aragorn glanced down at the ground briefly before meeting Halbarad’s questioning gaze. “I am not truly troubled. I was just thinking about our people and the life they lead.” He gestured with the small log toward the rest of the men who were caring for the horses, setting up tents, and starting supper. “Being on patrol has let me see what it is truly like for our Rangers. It is not something you can understand by hearing about it.”

“No, it’s not,” Halbarad agreed. “I’ve grown up hearing stories about being a Ranger… but this isn’t quite what I thought it would be like. I thought it would be more…” he paused.

“More interesting? More exciting?”

“I suppose so. It’s not that I want to fight more orcs or wolves,” he hastened to add, “but I just thought it would be different somehow. Is that what you were thinking?”

Aragorn shifted the load of wood as he slowly shook his head. “No, that is not quite what I was thinking, Halbarad. I see these men who have toiled for years without complaint…well,” he gave his cousin a faint smile, “at least not as far as I know. But, they are out here in all kinds of weather, away from their families, moving from place to place and searching out the enemy to beat back the creatures of darkness. But it is a monotonous type of work that wears at a man’s soul, I think. They do it because it is our duty as the Dúnedain, and, I think, because they hope that one day things might be different. That is what I was thinking of,” he said with another small smile at his cousin who nodded with a serious expression.

“We do it for you,” Halbarad said quietly as his grey eyes studied his lord’s suddenly startled ones. “For all of the heirs of Isildur, and right now that’s you. We do it so that some day you will have a restored kingdom and your rightful throne.” He gently grasped Aragorn’s arm and began pulling him towards the fire where Nestad was watching them curiously. “Nestad needs the wood for the fire, my lord Aragorn.” This time there was not a hint of teasing in Halbarad’s voice as he called Aragorn his lord.

0-0-0

To be continued…

~~~

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