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Brothers at Heart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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23
Chapter 23

Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha

Author’s Note: I believe I missed responding to some of the reviews for the last chapter and I’m very sorry about that. I do so appreciate each one. It’s been very hectic around here as I get ready to go back to work now. I’m actually surprised I was able to get this chapter out so quickly, but we are rapidly drawing to the end here and so maybe that was a motivating factor. Or, sometimes the busier I am the more I get accomplished!


~~~

Aragorn listened to the low voices of his men as they talked quietly of their expected arrival in Dolomar later in the afternoon. They talked of their families mostly, but also of friends, and their hope that things had gone well in the village during their absence. They wondered if any of the other patrols would be in and if any of the other men had been injured or killed during their own patrols. A sense of excitement lay just under the surface of the normally solemn Rangers.

The weeks they had spent patrolling the area east of the Weather Hills had proved mostly uneventful. They had come across a few small packs of wolves, but had not seen a single orc during those weeks. The weather had been foul for much of the time. It was cold the first week before becoming rainy; the damp and cool weather actually more uncomfortable than the cold had been. Only the past week as they headed home had the weather warmed and become pleasant.

While Aragorn was, of course, looking forward to being back in Dolomar and seeing his family, he was not particularly thinking of them as they rode along the edge of the marshland that was several miles north and west of the village. He was thinking about his plans for the next few months – which villages and Ranger patrols to visit and what routes would best take him to those places. He also needed to decide which of his men to take with him. Faelon could not accompany him; he was too valuable as a patrol leader. Halbarad would ride with him, but Daedaen and Remlas would return to Faelon’s patrol. Gilost had been part of Caladel’s patrol until he had been injured, but Aragorn intended to keep the Ranger with him.

Aragorn was uncertain about taking Nestad. The healer had gone with them to Bree because none of the rest of them had been there before. But visiting the other villages and Ranger patrols did not require that and so there was no real need for Nestad to come. Except, Aragorn admitted to himself, his own personal desire for Nestad’s wisdom and counsel. His concern stemmed from the fact that Nestad was a fully trained healer and could better be used…

Something pulled Aragorn from his thoughts and he tugged hard on the reins bringing his horse to a halt and pulling his sword half way out of its sheath. He assumed that what he had heard or sensed was one of the boys or young men who should be patrolling the area around the village. Behind him he heard the other men readying their swords. “Come out,” he called sharply, looking in the general direction he had heard the noise. To Aragorn’s surprise when Alvist stepped from the bushes it was well to the left of where he thought he would be. The boy had done a good job of quietly sneaking away once he realized he had been spotted, though the chagrined look on Alvist’s face suggested the boy thought otherwise.

“Well met, Alvist.”

“Well met, my lord.” He gave a little half bow and his eyes shifted to look over the men riding behind Aragorn.

“We are all well,” Aragorn said reassuringly and Alvist quickly looked back at him. “How does the village fare?” He patted his horse as it shifted under him.

“Everything is well,” the boy answered. “There haven’t been any orcs or anything like that since you left.”

“Have any of the other patrols returned?” Faelon asked.

“Yes, Caladel’s patrol returned four days ago. Baisael and all of the men are well,” Alvist continued at Faelon’s questioning look.

Faelon nodded his thanks at the news of his eldest son and relaxed back in his saddle with an inward sigh. Even though his son had been a Ranger for a number of years, Faelon still worried about him during the long, lonely watches of the night.

Aragorn made to ride on when a thought occurred to him and he looked down at Alvist. “Are you not a little young to be out here?”

Alvist straightened up. “I turned sixteen last month, my lord, and now I’m allowed to patrol during the day.”

“I see,” Aragorn suppressed a sigh. “You did a good job of slipping away quietly once you knew that we had discovered you, but you need to practice staying still so you don’t need to slip away,” he admonished the boy sternly.

“Yes, my lord,” Alvist replied staring down at his feet.

Aragorn glanced up at the sky and saw that it was only a couple of hours until the sun set. “Were you planning on returning to the village soon?”

“Yes, I have to be in before they close the gates and one of the young men will be patrolling.”

“Ride with me, then.” Aragorn twisted around on his saddle and untied his bedroll and tossed it to Halbarad who caught it with a grin and laid it across his lap. He then took his packs and more carefully handed them to Gilost who placed them behind him and loosely tied them to his own packs. Aragorn turned back to a surprised Alvist and reached his hand down to the boy. “Give me your hand.” There was a slight hesitation and then Alvist smiled and allowed Aragorn to haul him up behind him on the horse which danced around for a moment under the additional weight. Aragorn spoke soothingly to the horse and patted its neck and it settled down. He urged the horse on at a slow trot and he smiled slightly when he felt Alvist lightly grip his belt.

“Have you been practicing the things I taught you with your sword?” Aragorn asked glancing over his shoulder at Alvist.

The boy nodded eagerly. “Yes, almost everyday and I work with Mellonar, too. I think I’m better with my bow, though,” he added after a moment.

“A bow is a necessary and useful tool and weapon, but the sword is something that you must practice and become very skilled at, Alvist,” Aragorn said glancing over his shoulder once again, his grey eyes studying the boy briefly. “You will run out of arrows rather quickly during a battle and a bow does not work well at night or if you are close to your enemy.”

“So everyone says, my lord,” Alvist said and Aragorn could hear the longsuffering tone in his voice. He had evidently been given that well-meaning advice many times over the years and Aragorn bit back the chuckle he felt rising inside of himself and he changed the subject.

“Did you read the books I left with you?”

“Yes, several times.”

Aragorn heard a hesitant, questioning note in Alvist’s voice. Sensing that there were things the boy had not understood in the books he had borrowed, Aragorn began asking him questions and started teaching him the things that the boy desperately wanted to know and understand.

0-0-0-0-0

Eradan and Rosruin met the returning patrol at the gates of the village and Eradan’s enthusiastic cries of welcome drew peoples’ attention to their arrival. Wives, mothers, fathers, children, and friends all hurried to greet their loved ones. Alvist slipped off of Aragorn’s horse with a quiet thank you and Aragorn dismounted and clasped arms with Eradan.

“Well met, Lord Aragorn. Welcome home.”

“Thank you, it is good to be back.” Aragorn smiled his thanks as the young man took his horse and led if off towards the stable, stopping only to greet Halbarad and taking his horse as well.

Aragorn watched the reunions with pleasure and with a faint smile on his lips. He knew the women of the village quite well now and to watch them greet their returning family members touched him in an undefinable way. He was watching Nestad embracing his daughter when Halhigal and Nimrie arrived. Nimrie’s eyes were fixed on Halbarad as she approached. She looked him up and down and Aragorn noticed her eyes lingering on his hand and he knew that the Rangers who had returned earlier had told of Halbarad’s injury. Nimrie did not say anything as she enfolded her son in her arms.

Halhigal watched his wife and son for a moment before turning to Aragorn. “Welcome home, Aragorn,” he said as he clasped Aragorn’s arm before slipping his arm around the young man’s shoulder briefly. “How do you fare?” He looked pointedly down at Aragorn’s leg.

“I am well, Uncle,” he replied as he lifted his leg slightly and rotated it a bit. He let his leg fall back down and gestured at the village. “It is good to be home, how do the people fare? Is all well here?”

Halhigal was starting to explain when Nimrie interrupted them. “This isn’t the time to be speaking of that,” she exclaimed. “At least not until I’ve had a chance to greet him.” She embraced Aragorn, surprising him with the fierceness of the hold she had on him. He patted her back gently and glanced at Halbarad, but he was now speaking with his father. Nimrie released her hold on him and stepped back. “How is your leg, Aragorn? They told us you’d been shot and I worried so about you.”

Aragorn could read the worry and fear in her eyes and he took her hand and patted it gently. “I am well… we both are, Aunt. Nestad is an experienced healer and neither injury was serious enough to send us home. Though, if you had been with us you may have sent us back and tucked us into bed,” he gave her a brief grin to try and lighten her concerns. It did not work.

Nimrie shook her head as she looked Aragorn up and down. “I heard about the arrow you took, Aragorn, and I know how severe it was… do not jest with me.” She sighed and looked away from him for a moment. “But,” she looked back and gave him a small smile that did not reach her eyes, “I also know that you would not… could not have done anything differently. Nor would Halhigal or Halbarad,” she said as she glanced over at her husband and son who were talking in quiet voices with serious expressions on their faces. “It’s your duty and I know that.” She pulled her hand away from Aragorn’s and rubbed them together briskly. “Now, I’m sure you and Halbarad are ready for a home cooked meal, are you not?” Aragorn’s eyes lit up and he nodded. “Good, then let’s go home.”

As Aragorn started after her he felt a sharp tug on the bottom of his tunic and he stopped and looked down into the grinning face of Balrant.

“Hello, Aragorn!” the boy greeted him cheerfully and Aragorn smiled.

“Hello, Balrant,” Aragorn said as he crouched down so he could be at eye level with the little boy.

“I missed you. Will you stay here for a long time now?” he asked eagerly.

Aragorn glanced over the boy’s shoulder to where Faelon was standing with his wife, Arthiell, and his older son and daughter. Faelon was not paying the least bit of attention to anything around him as he spoke with his wife and so Aragorn turned his gaze back to the questioning, hopeful eyes of the boy. “I do not know how long I will be here, Balrant,” he said. “I have not yet decided, but I should be here for a few weeks.” Aragorn knew that he would be here at least until Norgalad arrived so that he could hear him and Gaerwen exchange their wedding vows.

“Oh,” Balrant mumbled crestfallen, his foot kicking at the dirt. He took a deep breath and looked up into Aragorn’s eyes. “You got hurt,” he said quietly.

“I did,” Aragorn responded trying to hide his surprise that the boy knew. Though, he supposed it was not a secret. “But, I am well now.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Yes, it did, but Nestad is an experienced healer and gave me some herbs so that the pain did not last too long.” Aragorn was not going to lie to Balrant, but he did not want to frighten the boy either.

“Were you afraid?”

“When I got shot?” Balrant nodded, biting his lip. Aragorn thought for a moment before answering the question. He finally nodded his head. “Yes, Balrant, I was afraid. At least for a few minutes... but then I became too busy to be afraid, I think. Everyone is afraid when they have to battle orcs or wolves, but you learn how to fight even when you are frightened.” Aragorn glanced up at Faelon and Arthiell who had joined them and had heard his response.

“It’s time to go home, Balrant,” Faelon said, laying his hand on his son’s shoulder and pulling the boy close to his side. “I’m hungry and Nana has promised to make me supper.”

“Chicken?” Aragorn asked as he stood up, his eyes twinkling with amusement.

A puzzled looked crossed Faelon’s face briefly before understanding dawned in his eyes as he remembered their discussion on who cooked the best chicken. He chuckled as Arthiell answered in her soft, quiet voice. “I can roast a chicken, Faelon, if that’s what you want.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied as he put his arm around her waist and steered her off towards home, nodding good-bye to Aragorn as he left. Balrant lingered for a moment.

“I can run errands for you tomorrow,” he offered anxiously.

“I will be around the village,” Aragorn said with a smile wondering just what the boy did when he was not around. Although, he was not so far removed from his own childhood that he did not remember what it was like to follow around those you admired. He quite clearly remembered following his brothers or Glorfindel. It was just odd to have a little boy admiring him or following him in that same way. “If I have any errands you can do, I will let you know.” Balrant grinned and darted away after his parents.

“I’m sure that Nimrie can make you chicken, too,” Halhigal said with a small smile as Aragorn turned to see him waiting patiently. “She and Halbarad went ahead,” he continued as he noticed Aragorn’s wandering gaze.

“I will most eagerly eat whatever she makes,” Aragorn returned with his own smile.

They walked through the village stopping occasionally to speak with those who came up to greet their returned lord. Aragorn spoke briefly with Caladel and made arrangements to meet with the patrol leader the following morning. He smiled at the twins, Culas and Celin, as they ran past with a barking dog at their heels and he wondered what mischief they had been up to. Aragorn paused for a moment to watch Mellonar working with the boys and young men who were practicing with their swords. He could see marked improvement in several of the boys and he nodded at Mellonar as he walked on towards home.

“Is grandmother well?” Aragorn asked as they neared her house.

Halhigal nodded. “Yes, and I’m sure she’ll be looking for you and Halbarad soon. She’s been asking me about the two of you for the last couple of weeks. Wondering if I’ve heard anything about your patrol, though I’m sure she’ll never tell you that.”

Aragorn chuckled and shook his head. “No, I am sure not. I will go and see her after supper,” he glanced down at himself, “after I clean up.”

“And change your clothes,” Halhigal said as he glanced at the elven made tunic Aragorn was wearing. His eyes twinkled with amusement.

“I like this tunic,” he protested with a grin. “I think the only clean clothes I have are elven made. That is all I left here,” he shrugged. “Well, perhaps she will overlook it in her joy at seeing me,” he said with a small laugh.

Halhigal simply shook his head and changed the subject. “How did you find Bree? I spoke of it briefly with Halbarad, but he would not say much.”

Aragorn sobered immediately and his face darkened. Halhigal’s concern grew as he noticed the changes in his nephew’s countenance. “I found Bree… interesting,” Aragorn said after a moment’s pause and a sidelong glance at Halhigal that the older man could not read. “I learned much about the ways of Men,” he paused again and frowned slightly, “and about myself. It was not just a matter of taking the bandits to Bree and leaving them to their village leaders to punish, Uncle.”

“Why? It should have been that simple,” Halhigal looked at Aragorn for an explanation. The two men stopped under the tree nearest the house.

Aragorn sighed and looked away briefly before trying to explain all that had happened in a few, brief words. “Because along the way we got to know the youngest of the bandits and learned how he happened to join the others and that he had not killed any of the travelers. When we got to Bree I explained Will’s… circumstances to the mayor and the other village leaders and asked that he be given a more just punishment.” He sighed again. “But they decided that as he had helped rob the people he still deserved to die and they… hanged him with the others. There were other things, too… the way the people treated us,” Aragorn shrugged. “That was difficult,” he admitted, “but not unexpected. Some of the people cheered as the bandits were hanged and they had their children with them,” he shook his head in dismay, the memory of that day easily called to mind.

“I am glad that Nestad was with us,” Aragorn continued. “He was able to help Halbarad and me gain some understanding as we discussed justice and mercy. That is a very simple explanation, Uncle.” He leaned back against the tree with his arms crossed as he finished. “It is not something I will ever forget.”

“I’m sure not,” Halhigal responded quietly. Even though he did not totally understand all that had happened he could feel the depth of Aragorn’s emotions… as he had with Halbarad earlier. “Nor should you.” Aragorn nodded once. Halhigal decided that he would wait and speak with some of the other men to find out more details of what had happened and motioned towards the house. “I’m sure Nimrie and Halbarad are waiting for us,” he said as he led Aragorn inside.

0-0-0

Cleaned and well-fed, Aragorn and Halbarad left their house and ambled down the road towards their grandmother’s. Halbarad reached for his pipe and then thought better of it as he dropped it back into his pouch with a sigh.

“Perhaps we can join the others later,” Aragorn said indicating the small group of men and women gathering around a fire in the village center. It was still cool in the evenings this first week of May. “You can smoke there.” Halbarad grunted his agreement and Aragorn gave him a puzzled look but said nothing further as they had reached their grandmother’s house. He knocked on the door and stepped back alongside Halbarad to wait, wondering as he did so what kind of reception he would receive this time.

Aragorn saw the quick flash of relief in his grandmother’s eyes as she opened the door and looked her two tall grandsons up and down, but an impassive expression quickly replaced it as she greeted them. “It took you two long enough to come and see me. I heard you got back hours ago.”

“We were filthy, Grandmother,” Aragorn said, “and thought it best to change before coming to see you.”

“As if I haven’t seen dirt before,” Ivorwen snorted. She opened the door and beckoned them inside. “Well, you might as well come in.” Her voice had not warmed appreciably, but neither Aragorn nor Halbarad were fooled by her gruff manner. They followed her inside and sat down on the benches she pointed them to. “I’ll make us some tea,” she said as she pulled three mugs down from the open shelf near the table. Setting the mugs near Aragorn and Halbarad with a jar of tea leaves she then went to the fire and carefully took the kettle of steaming water off the hook and carried it back to the table.

Aragorn had started to add tea leaves to the mugs, but had stopped at Halbarad’s look of dismay and quick shake of his head. Instead he just watched with interest as she opened the jar and began spooning a variety of leaves into the mugs. He sniffed and then asked cautiously, “Are there raspberry leaves in there?” Everyone made their tea a little differently and most made several different kinds with a variety of dried leaves, roots, and flowers. Aragorn had not had any with raspberry leaves since he had been in Imladris. It was a kind his naneth had often made.

Ivorwen’s hand stilled and she looked at Aragorn warily. “Yes, there are. Do you not like raspberry tea?” Aragorn could not tell from her tone what she was thinking and was somewhat surprised. “Would you rather have ale?” she asked after a moment with a slightly worried look and again Aragorn was surprised.

Aragorn shook his head and smiled. “No, no, I like raspberry tea, Grandmother. My naneth used to make it for me and I have not had any since I came here. The smell reminded me of her,” he added softly.

“Oh,” Ivorwen finished with the leaves, setting the jar aside and took up the kettle and poured the hot water into each mug.

“Grandmother always made this kind of tea for me,” Halbarad said to fill the silence that had fallen over them. He gave Aragorn a questioning glance but his cousin simply gave an almost imperceptible shrug.

“I saw that,” Ivorwen said looking between her grandsons with a scowl before she returned the kettle to the fire. She got a plate of honey cakes that had been left warming near the fire and returned and sat in a chair at the end of the table. “Here.” Aragorn and Halbarad murmured their thanks as they each took a cake and eagerly bit into it.

“I’m glad to hear that my daughter makes this tea,” Ivorwen said as she stared down at the table. “My mother taught me how to make it.” Both men could hear the longing in her voice. Whether it was for her daughter or her mother they did not know, but they assumed it was probably for both of them.

“It… it was something that Naneth and I often did, Grandmother.” Aragorn was not sure how much to say to her; he did not want to speak of things that would cause her pain. “She would make tea and we would drink it before I went to bed.” He looked at his grandmother and when she nodded, he continued. “When I was younger she would tell me a story and as I got older we would simply talk. Sometimes about things that had happened during the day, or she would answer my questions… sometimes ones that I did not want to ask my adar or one of the elves.” Aragorn looked down at his tea and decided it had steeped long enough and he carefully scooped out the leaves and took a sip.

“What kind of questions could you not ask an elf?” Halbarad asked, puzzled.

“Remember they are not mortal, Halbarad, and so they cannot understand certain things about us… or, as I mentioned to you before, they see things differently. I remember there was a time when I could see my naneth was changing and so we spoke of… ”

“Changing? What do you mean she was changing?” Ivorwen asked sharply, her eyes fixed intently on Aragorn’s.

Aragorn reached over and for the first time was able to touch his grandmother as he gently patted her hand. “Peace, Grandmother. I was twelve, I think, and had noticed that she had wrinkles around her eyes, and I did not know why. I had never seen an elf with wrinkles like that,” he laughed lightly at the expressions on the faces his grandmother and his cousin. “I was sure she was dying and so I finally got the courage to ask her. She spoke with me about sorrow and aging and death.” He looked at Halbarad. “I did speak about it later with my adar, but as I grew older, those are the kinds of questions I usually did not ask an elf.”

“She’s too young to have wrinkles,” Ivorwen said as she peered into her mug of tea her brow furrowed with worry. “What does she do?” She looked up at Aragorn and he was taken aback by the pleading look in her eyes.

“How does she fill her days?” he wanted to make sure he understood her.

“Of course the days!” Ivorwen snapped. “I assume she sleeps at night.” She took a deep breath to calm herself. “Please, Aragorn, I need to hear what Gilraen has been doing all these years.”

“Yes, of course, Grandmother,” Aragorn said soothingly as he patted her hand once again. “But, I would ask a favor in return.”

“What?” she asked suspiciously.

“I would like to hear of your life,” he replied simply.

“I’d also like to hear that,” added Halbarad. “I know very little of your life.”

It was quiet for a moment except for the small hisses and crackling of the fire. Finally, Ivorwen gave a small nod. “It seems a fair exchange.”

Aragorn smiled. “It is, Grandmother, and I look forward to hearing your stories, but since you asked first, I will start.” He lost track of time as he described how he and his naneth lived in Imladris and the things that they did in the elven refuge. He focused as much as possible on Gilraen and less on what occupied his days. Both Halbarad and Ivorwen stopped him many times to ask questions. It was growing late when he finally stopped, having run out of things to share.

Ivorwen sat very still with her head bowed and the cousins exchanged glances wondering what their grandmother was thinking. But they said nothing as they sipped on what was another of a seemingly endless number of mugs of tea. She finally stirred and looked up at Aragorn. “We’ll have to wait for another time for me to tell you of my life, I’m simply too tired tonight.”

“I… we,” Aragorn glanced at Halbarad, “will be here for some time, Grandmother,” he said quietly. “There is no need to hear it tonight, but,” he gave her a small smile, “I will not forget your promise.”

Ivorwen snorted, “I don’t forget my promises, Aragorn.”

Aragorn rather thought her supposed irritation was more out of habit than anything else and he nodded. “I am sure you do not,” he said as he stood from the bench and stretched his back. Halbarad was already at the door and Aragorn followed him keeping one eye on his grandmother who was still sitting at the table and appeared to be lost in thought once again. Both men said good-night as they left but Ivorwen did not look up as the door opened and closed quietly behind her grandsons.

0-0-0

After speaking with Caladel about his patrol, Aragorn sent Balrant off to ask Faelon, Ladreníl, Nestad, and Sírdhim to join him in the Hall. Halbarad had come in a few minutes before and he joined Aragorn and Halhigal at the table as soon as Caladel left the building and they spoke quietly as they waited for the other men to arrive.

“I heard you’re going to hear Gaerwen and Norgalad’s exchange their wedding vows,” Halhigal commented.

Halbarad interrupted Aragorn’s reply. “He’s never even seen a wedding,” he laughed, grinning at Aragorn who shrugged.

“I have not been here that long,” he pointed out. “I do understand the general idea, Halbarad, and I am sure it will not be that difficult.”

“Hmmm, no, it’s not difficult,” Halhigal said slowly a glint of amusement lighting his eyes. “However, it is probably the most important and special day of a woman’s life, so great care must be taken to ensure that everything is done properly.”

Aragorn’s eyes widened as he considered his uncle’s words. He smiled as he saw the twinkle in Halhigal’s eyes. “You will teach me what to do and if anything goes wrong, I am placing all of the blame on your shoulders, Uncle Halhigal.”

“Nimrie is going to tell you what to do,” his uncle quickly responded. “She knows much more about it than I do.”

Halbarad let out a small laugh. “And who’s been hearing the exchange of vows for the past twenty years, Adar?”

“I have, but your naneth still knows more than I do.”

Aragorn and Halbarad chuckled at that. The door to the Hall opened and the men Aragorn had summoned walked in and joined the three of them. Nestad was carefully carrying four mugs with him and he set them down on the table in front of Aragorn before sliding one in front of Halbarad and one over to Halhigal. He kept one mug as he sat down next to Faelon. Aragorn looked down at the ale and over to Nestad with a questioning look.

“My daughter said she knew how much I’d be talking and she didn’t want my mouth to dry out and that it’d be rude not to have something for you to drink, my lord,” Nestad said with a smile as he took a drink. Small snorts of laughter and smiles met that comment.

“You didn’t bring any for the rest of us?” Sírdhim asked sourly.

“I didn’t have enough hands.” Nestad met the older mans gaze without blinking and without losing his slight smile. Sírdhim grunted and looked away.

“I will get you some ale if you want it, Adar,” Ladreníl offered quietly starting to stand. Aragorn put his hand out to stop him.

“I will send Balrant; I imagine he is sitting on the porch waiting for another errand.”

“He is,” Faelon nodded as Aragorn crossed to the door and spoke to the boy who scurried off to speak with Nimrie.

Aragorn resumed his seat and immediately began asking Ladreníl questions about the fields, the gardens, and the general state of the village. He was not going to let Sírdhim distract him from their purpose in gathering. There were times when the oldest man in the village provided valuable insight, but considering Sírdhim’s mood it looked like that might not happen today. Their discussion of the village and its people lasted close to an hour and Aragorn was pleased at what he learned. For the most part the people were healthy, the crops were being sown, there were new calves and lambs, and the food stores were holding up even with the increased number of people. Eradan and the other young men had done well in supplying fresh meat while he had been gone. The men made some plans for the future before Aragorn turned the discussion to his own plans.

“I have been considering my journey to visit the other villages and to meet with the rest of the Ranger patrols,” he began. Aragorn was not sure how the men would react to what he was going to suggest. “I know that we had originally discussed going to visit Forntaur and a few of the patrols and then returning to Dolomar. But I have decided that it makes little sense for me to go that far and then return home.” He pushed the map he had been using earlier with Caladel over so that all could see it.

“My thought was to go to Forntaur and then continue southwest to Tharbad before heading up the Greenway to Sarn Ford. I will also scout at least the edges of the Shire before returning home. Along the way I plan to stop at each of our villages and go to each of the Ranger patrols and met the men.” Aragorn watched as the men exchanged surprised glances.

“You’ll be gone a long time,” Ladreníl ventured quietly after several moments of silence had passed. “A year at least.”

“Probably closer to two,” Aragorn said glancing sidelong at his uncle who had an unreadable expression on his face. “I will spend some time in each of the three villages. At least a month, possibly longer. I think that is the only way that I will get to know my people and that they will get to know me.”

“You’re right, my lord,” Nestad spoke up. “Our people are widely scattered and you’ve been gone so long that they deserve to have at least a little time to come to know you as we all have. It’s not much time, but I think it’s a good thing to do.”

“It’ll prove to them that you aren’t too elvish,” Sírdhim said without looking at Aragorn.

Aragorn was not sure how to take that remark. Did it mean that Sírdhim had finally accepted the fact that he was a true Dúnedain? That he had not been ‘tainted’ by growing up in Imladris? Or, that at least other people would find him acceptable even if he did not? He sighed inwardly and simply nodded, ignoring Nestad and Halbarad’s looks of amusement.

“What are your thoughts, Uncle?” Aragorn asked, turning slightly on the bench so he could see him better.

Halhigal gave a slow nod. “It is a good idea, Aragorn. You need to have a better understanding of all of Eriador and your people and it makes little sense for you to keep returning here and then going out again to visit another village. Perhaps you should have gone from Bree.”

“I considered it at one time, but I had just as much need to see the northern reaches of Eriador as the southern and I could not leave Faelon without enough men.”

“How many men will you take with you?” Faelon asked.

Aragorn stared down at the table for a moment before answering. “I will take four men. Halbarad and Gilost… I am uncertain about the other two.” He glanced at Nestad who was watching him with a somewhat puzzled expression on his face. “Caladel’s patrol is already short a man because I have Gilost, Faelon needs all five of his men and I will not take one of them.” Aragorn held up his hand to stop the inevitable protest from Faelon. “Between the orcs and the wolves that patrol the North, I will not short you on men, Faelon. There are fewer Rangers patrolling that area and I will not take one from your patrol.” His voice was stern and Faelon nodded.

“Dorlas’s patrol won’t be back for months and so that leaves Thalion’s patrol which will hopefully arrive in a few weeks.”

“Are you going to take two men from his patrol?” Faelon asked sharply.

“No,” Aragorn shook his head. “If my uncle and Nestad thought it wise, I thought I would take Laegrist with me.”

“He is young, only twenty-eight,” Nestad spoke up immediately.

“And you already have Halbarad and Gilost riding with you,” Halhigal added.

“Gilost is not young,” Ladreníl interjected, “he is thirty-four and has been a Ranger for ten years.”

“I know,” Halhigal said, “but in comparison to some of the other men on Thalion’s patrol that could accompany our lord, he is young. I would rather Aragorn have some men with many years of experience riding with him rather than Laegrist.”

“Tadion and Maldathor would be better choices,” Nestad said. Aragorn noticed he did not mention Hirgon who also had years of experience.

“Why did you choose Laegrist?” Faelon asked curiously.

Aragorn cleared his throat. “Because I do not want him on the same patrol as his father. Just as you do not have Baisael riding in your patrol and Halhigal cannot ride with me, I thought it made sense to have him accompany me.” There were small nods and looks of understanding.

“You have not said who your fourth man is,” Nestad pointed out. “Perhaps that will help us decide on Laegrist.”

“I would like you to accompany me,” Aragorn said and Nestad smiled. “However, I am uncertain if that is the best thing to do.”

“Why?” Halhigal asked, his confused expression was reflected on most of the faces of those sitting at the table. “He was just with you on your last journey.”

“I am aware of that,” Aragorn said with a small frown. “As some of you know,” he looked at Faelon, Halbarad, and Nestad, “I have been somewhat concerned about the skills of some of the healers.” There were looks of surprise on the faces of the other three men and Sírdhim scowled. “Especially those that travel with the Rangers. The one that rode with Tathor was not well-trained and…”

“Our healers have been trained the same way for years,” Sírdhim interrupted. Ladreníl put a cautioning hand on his father’s arm.

“I am aware of that, Sírdhim. It is something I think can be improved, however,” Aragorn said eyeing the man closely. “I would like our Rangers to have the very best of healers.”

“We all want that,” Faelon said softly. “How do you suggest we do that?”

“I have thought much on it and as Dolomar already has a well-trained healer I thought that Nestad could ride with the different patrols and train the healers. I know it will take time, but it is the only way I can think of to train them. We cannot have them come here and train them, although I do think that would be the best way to do it.”

“It will take a long time,” Halhigal said slowly.

“I know.”

“How long would a healer need to stay here in Dolomar for training?” Ladreníl asked, his eyes narrowed in thought.

Aragorn blinked in surprise and looked at Nestad for help in answering the question. “It would depend,” he said after a moment, “on the amount of training they already had.” He never thought that any of them would even consider such a possibility.

“A year,” Nestad said firmly. “Most would need at least a year.”

“It’s a long time and I wouldn’t want to be without my healer for that length of time,” Faelon said with a frown. “We should have done it several years ago when things were quieter.”

“Then Aragorn’s idea is the best one,” Halhigal said. “However, I think that we should put it off for a time.”

“Why? I want to start training them as soon as possible.”

“Because I think that Nestad needs to go with you, Aragorn.” Halhigal glanced between his nephew and the healer who nodded. “I know that you value his counsel and wisdom and that both will be needed on this journey. You do not know either Maldathor or Tadion well enough to confide in them and I believe you need that at times.”

“I do,” Aragorn acknowledged, bowing his head as he thought. It was quiet for a time as he made his decision. He truly did want the healers to start their training and wondered if he was being selfish to take Nestad with him simply for his advice and counsel. But, in his heart he knew he was not. Aragorn needed someone older and wiser with him at this time and it would be foolish of him not to heed his uncle’s counsel. Halhigal would have gone with him if he was not Aragorn’s appointed regent, but he was and so Nestad would go in his place. The training of the healers would have to wait two years, it saddened him but there was nothing to be done for it now. He raised his head and looked at his uncle before glancing at Nestad.

“I will take Nestad and Laegrist with me and we will leave the day after the wedding of Norgalad and Gaerwen.”

“Good,” Halhigal said and Nestad nodded and smiled.

“When did Norgalad say he would be here?” Ladreníl asked, a worried frown creasing his brow.

“By the middle of the month, but he was most eager and could be here sooner,” Faelon answered for Aragorn. The men chuckled briefly and exchanged knowing glances.

“I have nothing further to discuss,” Aragorn said, “does anyone else?”

The men shook their heads and they rose from their benches and headed outside into the warm sun of late morning.

0-0-0

Thalion and his patrol arrived three days after Caladel’s patrol had gone and the day before Faelon and his men were to head north. They arrived in mid-afternoon on a cloudy, windy day that had been threatening rain all day. Aragorn looked the six men over as they dismounted and saw no signs of injuries and then he watched as they greeted their families. He smiled as Hirgon tightly embraced Rían before picking up the twins, one in each arm, and held them close for a moment. The two girls who had lost their mother and younger brother in the fire cried softly in the arms of their father and older brother. And so it went.

Aragorn wanted to speak with Thalion about the patrol, but as he watched the patrol leader speaking with his wife and his son, Eradan, he knew it could wait until after supper and he turned to head home. He had only gone a few steps, however when Thalion called to him.

“Lord Aragorn! I must speak with you.”

Aragorn turned, surprised at the urgency in Thalion’s voice. “What is the matter, Thalion?”

“I thought it best to tell you now that on the way here we stopped by Taurnand and,” Thalion grimaced and took a deep breath, “it’s been totally burned to the ground.”

Stunned, Aragorn could only stare at him for a moment and then he shook his head. “I do not know why I am surprised,” he said quietly. “We knew it was a possibility, but…” He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “I am sorry, Thalion,” he said grasping the man’s shoulder briefly. “I am sure that was difficult for you and your men.”

“It was, although we were glad that our families were here, my lord. At least they were safe.”

“Yes,” Aragorn did not add ‘for now’, although he wanted to. Thalion knew it as well as he did.

“But,” Thalion added, “the village had been burned only a few weeks ago from what we could tell. Maybe three weeks ago now and as we rode north we came across orc tracks three days ago.” Aragorn frowned and his eyes glinted with anger. “There were only five or six orcs, Hirgon couldn’t tell for sure, and they were more than a week old so we rode on here. My biggest concern, besides the fact that there were orcs so close, was that the tracks led straight towards the Bruinen.”

“Like the ones we saw last winter during the move,” Aragorn said with growing concern. “Though this was well north of where we encountered them before.”

“Yes, it is somewhat, but only a day or so further north.”

Aragorn stared into the distance for a long moment before he spoke again. “We cannot let them get away this time. We have to go and hunt them down so they do not come here and threaten the village.”

~~~

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


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