Aragorn glanced up at Rebecca and Thomas as they joined the Fellowship members gathered around the fire. Both were quiet and Thomas had a shadowed look around his eyes that spoke of grief and despair. Puffing thoughtfully on his pipe as he studied Thomas, Aragorn thought back to his conversation with Boromir who had relayed what had happened earlier in the day. It was obviously still affecting Thomas and it had to stop or he would become even more of a burden than a help on this journey. As Aragorn watched, though, Pippin and Merry approached Thomas and started chattering about something to do with the Shire and Thomas's eyes lightened as he smiled and spoke with them. Maybe he just needs a little time... but do we have the time? I fear I may have to force him to face it. I wonder what shadow haunts his past, Aragorn mused for a moment before standing abruptly.
"Come, Thomas, it's time to practice."
Choking on the last bite of his dinner, Thomas glanced up at Aragorn.
"B-but, Aragorn, I'm too tired," he pleaded before looking away.
Aragorn's eyes hardened as he looked down at Thomas, "Do you think that the only time we fight is when you are rested?" his voice was cold as he continued. "It is not so. Many times you will fight when you are totally and completely exhausted and yet you will go on or you will die."
Thomas was staring at his feet as Aragorn spoke. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see that only Rebecca was looking at him, most were gazing into the fire. Embarrassed, Thomas raised his head before standing and looking at Aragorn. "You're right Aragorn... I wasn’t thinking of that," he said hesitantly.
Aragorn nodded curtly though the hardness did not leave his eyes. "Come."
Thomas followed him to a spot where the barest minimum of light from the fire illuminated the ground in the growing darkness.
"Uh... Aragorn, do I need to borrow Boromir's sword from him?"
"No," was Aragorn's clipped reply.
Thomas gulped inwardly, knowing that he must have really upset Aragorn.
Aragorn pulled his sword from its sheath, looked down at it for a moment, and then gestured for Thomas to take it.
"Are… are you sure, sir? Legolas told me this was a really old and special sword." Thomas looked from Aragorn to the sword and back again.
"Yes, take it. But, carefully."
Reaching out with both hands, Thomas grasped the sword gingerly around the hilt. He noticed immediately that while it was slightly longer than Boromir's sword, it was lighter in weight. Aragorn's sword seemed to have some sort of strange markings or writing on the blade itself and the hilt was some sort of silvery metal with black leather grips. "It's a beautiful sword... if you can call a sword beautiful. But... but it doesn't look old," Thomas glanced up at Aragorn.
"Trust me, it is," Aragorn replied. "Someday I will tell you the history of the sword. For now I have another purpose." He reached down and drew a dagger from his belt. "This morning you did not like the feeling of having a sword at your throat, did you?"
Thomas shook his head, vehemently.
"No one does," Aragorn noted with a hard glint in his eye, "since it usually means capture or death. Sometimes, though, it is just as hard to have your sword at the throat of another man..." he paused seeing realization hit Thomas's eyes.
Thomas couldn't believe what Aragorn had just said and he knew that Boromir or Gimli, probably Boromir, he thought bitterly, had told Aragorn of their conversation earlier in the day and how he had reacted. Thomas turned to glare at Boromir only to find that he was gazing steadily back with stern grey eyes. Thomas flinched slightly under Boromir's regard so he let his eyes sweep around the circle gathered at the fire where all were watching. Turning back to Aragorn, Thomas finally responded, "Yes, sir, I imagine it is," he said through clenched teeth.
Aragorn looked at Thomas for a moment wondering how best to proceed when the boy was obviously so angry. He did not want him to cut his throat. Maybe I should let Boromir do this, he chuckled inwardly. "We are going to take this slow. And I truly mean slow, Thomas. For my safety." Aragorn's eyes bored into Thomas's. "I'm going to trust you with my life right now. Just like I may have to in a battle someday soon. I will have my dagger so that it will seem like you are really fighting someone. Thomas! Look at me!" Aragorn suddenly commanded. Thomas's eyes had drifted off into the woods as Aragorn spoke, but he quickly jerked them back to Aragorn. "You have to focus on what you are doing, Thomas or I will get hurt. You have to practice this and get over your fear..." Thomas's eyes blazed at that. "…before you are in a real battle or it may cost you your life or mine or one of theirs." Aragorn pointed over to the circle of people gathered around the fire.
Thomas ran his fingers through his short hair totally frustrated, but knowing that Aragorn was right and that he spoke from experience. "Tell me what I need to do, Aragorn," he finally responded quietly. "I-I trust that you know best about this."
Searching Thomas's blue eyes and seeing nothing but quiet determination there, Aragorn gave a small inner sigh of relief knowing that just making the decision to continue meant that the worst part was over for Thomas.
"To start, I just want you to slowly lift the sword and point it at my heart." Aragorn said matter-of-factly, knowing all the while that he was in no danger from Thomas. His elven trained reflexes were too quick and he would easily be able to dodge any slips Thomas might make. "Ah, Thomas, you are going to have to be a little closer if you are going to kill me." Aragorn watched Thomas flinch at the word 'kill'. He knew Thomas had to get over this...sensitivity he had. It saddened Aragorn, but he also knew that it had to be done for all of their lives might end up depending on Thomas at some point. Thomas took a couple of steps closer to Aragorn and the sword, while wavering, was pointed right at his chest. "Good, Thomas. However, you need to remember that the heart is on the left side and to kill someone, you need to stab him there." Aragorn's voice was calm with just a hint of amusement and Thomas flushed at the quiet laughter that came from those at the fire.
Swiftly, Aragorn brought his dagger up and struck the sword, knocking it down and away from his body. The force of the blow caused Thomas to stagger back and he almost dropped the sword. Aragorn stood glaring at him. "Pay attention to me, Thomas! You have to ignore those kinds of distractions and focus solely on things that might get you killed."
"Damn it." Thomas swore softly. "I did it again." He started muttering and swearing under his breath. "Can we try again?" He looked questioningly up at Aragorn.
"We will keep doing it until you get it right," Aragorn answered mildly.
"Great, we could be here for days, Aragorn," Thomas mumbled.
Aragorn's only reply was a quiet laugh.
Thomas took his stance and approached Aragorn again, unconsciously licking his lips, forcing himself to concentrate on Aragorn and trying to block out everything else around him. He tried to recall Boromir's instructions from the morning. Thomas knew not to watch Aragorn's eyes because those could be deceptive so he concentrated on Aragorn's body and the hand that held the dagger. This time when his sword reached Aragorn's heart, his arm was steady. Still not quite sure what to do since he didn't want to take his eyes off the dagger, Thomas relied on an old movie line. "Drop your weapon," he said harshly.
Surprised, pleased and amused all at the same time, Aragorn let the dagger fall to the ground. He watched Thomas start to bend for the dagger, hesitate and then kick it aside. Finally, Thomas looked up at him with a grin.
"How was that, Aragorn? Was that better?"
"Much better. You did a good job of concentrating on the dagger and my hands. And kicking the dagger away was the right thing to do as well. Well done, Thomas! However, be sure you also pay attention to your surroundings, because, if for example, Legolas were sneaking up behind you and you were so focused on me and my dagger that you did not hear him, you would be just as dead as if I killed you." Aragorn grinned, looking over Thomas's shoulder.
Thomas jumped as he felt the small tip of a knife digging into his back. He groaned and hung his head mumbling inaudibly under his breath.
Laughing softly as he re-sheathed his knife, Legolas stepped forward and patted Thomas on the shoulder before whispering in his ear, "Aragorn is right, Thomas, you need to be alert, but I tell you truly that most men cannot hear an elf approaching." Legolas suddenly stepped back as Thomas turned around with the sword still in his hand. Anger flared briefly in Thomas's eyes at being tricked again and at Legolas's laughter, but then he nodded curtly to the elf and turned back to Aragorn. He watched as Aragorn exchanged glances with Legolas, but he ignored them, he just wanted to get this over with so everyone would stop looking at him.
"All right, Thomas, one more thing. I do want you to put the sword to my throat... it is an easier kill at times." Aragorn watched as Thomas sighed and nodded in resignation. "This time I will not use my dagger." Aragorn strode over and picked it up. "You need to do this, Thomas."
For some reason this seemed even harder to Thomas. Pointing a razor sharp sword at Aragorn's throat seemed ridiculous to him. Taking a deep breath, Thomas looked Aragorn in the eye and raised his sword slowly, willing his hand not to tremble. The closer he got to the throat, however, the harder it was to control. Aragorn stood stock still staring intently at Thomas, though Thomas knew he was watching the sword carefully as well. Finally Thomas stopped with the sword just at Aragorn's chin.
"That's as far as I can go, Aragorn," he said softly.
"It is enough, Thomas. I yield." Aragorn took a graceful step back and Thomas lowered the sword.
"Yes?" Aragorn replied, walking up to Thomas and retrieving his sword.
"Do you remember when I asked you to teach me how to use a sword?"
"I never would have asked it I'd known how hard it would be," he smiled at Aragorn, relieved that he was done for the evening.
Aragorn laughed as they walked back to the fire. "Oh..." he paused as if he had just remembered something, "did I tell you that you have last watch tonight?"
Thomas's eyes widened in surprise. "No, you didn't. What time is that? Will someone wake me?"
"Yes, someone will wake you. But for now it means you need to sleep." Aragorn pushed Thomas off in the direction of the bedrolls while he walked over to join Legolas.
Merry woke Thomas for his watch sometime in the middle of the night. The only light was from a few bright orange embers in the fire. Carefully crawling from his sleeping spot between Pippin and Rebecca, Thomas stood and blinked the sleep from his eyes as he listened to Merry's whispered instructions. He could just make out the forms of the sleeping figures around him and he wondered which ones were Aragorn, Boromir and Legolas as he had no desire to trip over them in the dark. Legolas's warnings from yesterday were still fresh in his mind. Still, he couldn't just stand here so he moved as carefully as possible between Pippin and Rebecca and then around to the far side of the camp to the log Merry had mentioned.
The night seemed filled with noise and he wondered how on earth, he would know which ones were just animals or birds – like the owls he could hear, and which ones were 'bad' things. He decided that if anything seemed to be coming his way, he would just wake someone. Peering into the darkness, his eyes slowly adjusted and he decided to draw his dagger just to have something in his hand if he needed it.
Thomas had been on watch for an hour or so when a slight noise behind him made him spin around on his log. A tall shadowy figure stood before him and Thomas leapt to his feet with the dagger in front of him and his mouth opened to call for help.
"Peace, Thomas," the figure said softly, raising his hands slightly palms up to show he held no weapons.
"Aragorn?" he asked, a little uncertainly though he did not lower his dagger.
"Yes, it is me, Thomas."
"Why are you up now? You should be sleeping," Thomas asked, wondering if Aragorn was just checking on him.
"I wanted to speak with you. I did not want to do it earlier with everyone listening. But I will be blunt and to the point now. Boromir told me of your reaction to fighting men." Aragorn held up his hand to stop Thomas's protests. "And I can understand why it would be hard for you to do since you have never fought before. That is why we practiced like we did tonight." Aragorn paused briefly. "But neither Boromir nor I understand the anger you displayed earlier today and yet again tonight towards Legolas. Though, you hid that well both Legolas and I felt it. That kind of anger and loss of control can get you killed quicker than anything else." Aragorn's voice, which had been quiet, but matter-of-fact suddenly turned gentle, "What is it Thomas that has you so angry?"
Thomas stared back at him in shock; he couldn't believe what Aragorn was asking. How could he tell him about his home and his father? Thomas shifted uncomfortably and then abruptly sat back down on the log. "I'm – I'm not sure I can tell you that, Aragorn."
"You need to, Thomas; I do not want to see you dead. Or others killed because you lose control," Aragorn's voice was firm.
Thomas started at that and he stared down at his hands before looking over towards the hobbits and Rebecca, though he couldn't really see them in the dark. "All right... I don't want that to happen either, Aragorn."
Thomas shuddered. Whether at the thought of someone dying or telling his secrets, Aragorn was not sure. Trying to make Thomas more comfortable, Aragorn sat down on the ground beside him, clasping his hands around his pulled up knees.
"Go ahead, Thomas, I am listening," he urged softly.
Thomas's words when they came were halting and slow. "We – we had a... big war in my...world that ended...less than 10 years ago. I-I think we have a bigger... world than ...yours. More countries anyway. Some... some of them decided... they wanted... the whole world for themselves." Thomas paused caught up in memories. He shook himself and went on. "M-my country was one... they wanted and so-so we had to fight them." Aragorn closed his eyes in sadness as he knew where this was going. "My – my father..." Thomas paid no heed as tears started rolling unchecked down his cheeks, "he-he left when I was seven and...my brother was born two months later. I-I never saw him again. He was killed a month before the war ended," he whispered. "Like I told Boromir, I hoped it was different here. That Men were better so that innocent people didn't have to suffer and die. That's – that's why I was angry, Aragorn." Thomas finally looked up at Aragorn through his tear-filled eyes.
Aragorn had a look of such sorrow and understanding on his face that Thomas buried his head in his hands and started weeping quietly. Aragorn let him cry for a time and then pulled him into a fatherly embrace. "I am sorry, Thomas that your father died and all that you had to go through in your world at such a young age. I wish I could tell you that it was different here, but it is not. My father was killed many years ago when I was two and this is still part of the ongoing war... though if Frodo is successful in destroying the Ring it will be the final victory. I have been alive long enough to know that Men can choose to have good hearts or evil ones. We can only judge them by their deeds, Thomas."
Thomas had stopped crying and was quietly listening to Aragorn.
Thomas looked up to find Aragorn's grey eyes studying him intently. "You, too have to choose. I see you right now as a young man with a good heart who is kind and protective of those around him. But as I said earlier if your anger gets out of control... other things might happen, you may make the wrong choices, people may get hurt." Thomas looked up at him and nodded thoughtfully. Aragorn stood and stretched, deciding that enough talking had occurred for one night. Debating whether or not to send Thomas to bed, Aragorn decided against it knowing that Thomas would be insulted and that he needed time to think about their conversation. Before Aragorn moved off a thought struck him,
"Thomas? What about Lady Rebecca and her family? Were they caught up in this war too?"
"Yes. She was only five when her father left and he died about a year before mine."
Aragorn nodded sadly and moved back through the camp though he had no real intention of sleeping. Passing the hobbits he noticed the gleaming eyes that indicated one of them was awake. Crouching down he saw it was Frodo.
"Why are you awake, Frodo?" he whispered.
"I woke a little bit ago and then I heard voices... you and Thomas were talking. I could hear what you were saying... I didn't mean to though, Aragorn. It's just so quiet. I feel bad for him, Aragorn."
"It is all right, Frodo, I just think you should not speak to the others of what you heard. It is Thomas's story to tell if he so wishes. How do you fare, Frodo? I have not spoken to you much the last few days, but I have noticed your quietness." Aragorn's voice was full of concern for the hobbit who carried the fate of Middle-earth on a chain around his neck.
"I'm – I'm all right, Aragorn. It's getting heavier though. Some days are worse than others." Frodo smiled wearily. "I wish we could just get there and get it done with," he sighed.
"For your sake, I wish we could, too. Unfortunately, I am afraid we still have many days ahead of us... and they will not all be pleasant," Aragorn looked down at Frodo sadly. "You need to rest even if you cannot actually sleep, Frodo."
Frodo nodded and rolled over.
Rebecca awoke to the movement of a small body next to her. Opening her eyes she saw that Pippin had scooted over during the night and now occupied the spot where Thomas had lain. She was actually grateful for the extra warmth he provided. Cautiously she raised her head to look around. Thomas was sitting on a log nearby and looked half asleep though he was clearly still on watch. Legolas and Aragorn were both gone and she could see where Boromir and Gimli lay still sleeping. Wondering where Gandalf was, Rebecca turned her head more to the left and found herself looking straight into his piercing blue eyes. "Good-good morning, Gandalf," she said quietly trying to sound sincere and pleasant and not fearful.
"Good morning, young lady. Did you rest well?" Gandalf replied with a hint of amusement in his voice.
"Yes, sir and you?" she responded politely.
"Quite well. Now, it is time to wake the others. If you will wake the hobbits, I will deal with Boromir and Gimli."
Nodding in agreement, Rebecca started shaking the hobbits awake. "Come on, wake up. We have to leave soon." Merry, Frodo, and Sam were soon up, stretching and yawning. Pippin, however, mumbled something like 'just a few more minutes, mom' and rolled over. Wondering what to do, Rebecca decided to treat him like she would her youngest cousin and so she leaned down and started tickling him.
Pippin shot straight up with a small yelp. "I'm up, I'm up!" He looked at Rebecca with narrowed eyes. "Where did you learn that trick? My sister Pearl always does that to me to get me out of bed."
Laughing and shrugging her shoulders as she walked away, Rebecca replied, "I'll never tell." Looking around again, she saw that Thomas was now some distance away talking with Aragorn and Boromir. Rebecca watched as Aragorn handed his sword to Thomas and they started practicing again. She shook her head, realizing how much work it took learning to use a sword. This time though it appeared to be more of a true sparring match with Boromir and Thomas 'attacking' each other. They paused often for Aragorn and Boromir to give correction and advice. Rebecca turned away, suddenly relieved that she wasn't learning to use a sword, though she did wish she at least had a knife.
With Thomas, Boromir, and Aragorn busy and Legolas gone, Rebecca didn't much feel like joining the others at the fire. True, the hobbits were there but so were Gandalf and Gimli. But she knew it would be rude to eat alone and she supposed she had to get to know Gimli sometime. She sighed as she walked to the fire to wait for breakfast. She didn't have to wait long as it was just more of the dried meat and the crackery bread stuff they called 'cram'. She wondered if this was all they ate here or just when they traveled. Not sure who to ask and not wanting to offend anyone, Rebecca cleared her throat.
"Um... I was wondering... not that this is bad... or I'm complaining... but is this stuff the food you eat all the time around here or just when you travel?"
Six pairs of eyes stared back at her for a moment and she shifted uncomfortably on her log before the hobbits and Gimli burst into laughter and even Gandalf smiled.
"Ah, lassie, no this is strictly travel food. In the halls where I live we have great feasts of fresh meats and fresh breads and good ale." Gimli smiled fondly in remembrance.
"And that's nothing like the Shire," Pippin burst in. "We usually eat six meals a day!" Rebecca's eyes widened at that and she looked at the other hobbits to make sure Pippin was telling the truth, but they all smiled and nodded.
"We make delicious things, like custards and fruit pies and all kinds of sweet things," Frodo licked his lips.
"We grow lots of fresh vegetables in our gardens," Sam said longingly, his fingers twitching as if he could just feel the dirt between them.
"But we love mushrooms most of all!" Merry added, "In anything and in everyway."
Rebecca wrinkled her nose at that since she detested mushrooms.
"Why Lady Rebecca, do you not like mushrooms?" Gandalf asked with a twinkle in his eye.
"No, I do not!"
As the hobbits raised their voices in protest at this obvious lack of good taste, Legolas came dashing into camp and began speaking urgently to Aragorn. Rebecca watched nervously as Gandalf hurriedly joined the 'men' and was closely followed by the hobbits and Gimli. Aragorn swiftly retrieved his sword from Thomas as he listened to Legolas who was pointing into the woods. Rebecca edged closer, trying to hear the discussion. It seemed Legolas had found fresh wolf tracks not far from the path they intended to travel that day. Remembering Boromir and Gimli's descriptions of the evil creatures, Rebecca shuddered and looked around wondering if even now they could be hiding in the woods surrounding them. Looking back at the 'men' she saw Boromir gazing at her and he gave her a brief, encouraging smile before turning back to the conversation.
Making his decision, Aragorn ordered them to quickly break camp so they could be on their way. They would just have to try and go around the area where Legolas had seen the tracks hoping their passage would remain unnoticed. All along Aragorn had known that they would run into wolves, spies, orcs and other dangers but he had hoped to get over the mountains without being seen.
Pausing on his way to collect his belongings, Boromir spoke with Rebecca. "Be at peace, Lady Rebecca. Legolas only found the tracks of two wolves and even if they found us they would be no match for us. Remember we have sworn to protect you." He spoke gently seeing the fear in her eyes.
"I know but... are- are they the giant...wargs you and Gimli spoke of yesterday?" she asked. She scolded herself inwardly, I'm such a coward, and I wanted to fight, I just can't let my fear stop me.
Boromir frowned, "No, these are just ordinary wolves, though they may be spies for the dark lord. We are not sure."
Unconsciously raising her chin in defiance of her fear, Rebecca replied in a much stronger voice. "Oh, okay then. There's nothing to worry about... just overgrown dogs is all. I could probably take them even with my broken wrist," she smiled, though she looked around nervously.
Boromir shook his head slowly and smiled at her attempt at humor, “You are probably right... though I beg you to leave that to us should the need arise, my lady." He bowed slightly and then moved on to gather his things.
In less than ten minutes they were on their way. Legolas was, of course, far ahead checking the trail and trying to find the wolves to see if he could kill them. Everyone else walked silently behind Gandalf as Aragorn was also walking some distance to the front. Walking between the hobbits and Thomas, Rebecca watched the woods around her, constantly moving her eyes from the path to the woods and back again. As the morning wore on Rebecca noticed that even the birds seemed to have stopped singing and the atmosphere grew increasingly oppressive. The rising tension made Rebecca want to scream because she didn't know what caused it. She wanted to ask Thomas if it bothered him, but was afraid to turn around as the path they were currently traveling was especially rough and steep.
There was no break at lunch time, just a quick stop for Sam to pull out more dried meat and cram. He handed it out as they resumed walking. Rebecca knew she never would have made this on day one, she wasn’t even sure she could make it now. She grimaced as she walked along, mentally cursing the wolves and whoever sent them if they were indeed spies.
Late in the afternoon, coming from their left and sounding quite close, was a loud high pitched noise that was quickly cut off. Boromir, Gandalf and even the hobbits pulled their swords. Thomas and Boromir quickly converged on Rebecca protectively, while Gandalf drifted back nearer the hobbits. Aragorn came back towards the group though he angled off towards the left in front of them since all were facing that way except Boromir and Gimli who kept a wary eye to the right and rear.
"Wh-what was that?" Pippin was the first to speak up.
"Was it Legolas? Is he hurt?" Merry was next, sounding uncharacteristically frightened.
"That was a wolf dieing," Aragorn replied shortly. "I only hope he got them both."
"Of course he did!"
Aragorn turned, surprised to hear Rebecca defend Legolas so strongly. At his look, Rebecca blushed and looked away. Aragorn was even more surprised by that, but was too busy to deal with it now so he turned back to the woods.
Dropping from a tree a few feet in front of Aragorn, Legolas laughed briefly as the man started. "Ah, mellon nín, when are you going to learn to look up? You know I often travel through the trees."
Smiling faintly and ignoring his friends teasing, Aragorn turned back to the matter at hand. "Did you kill them both? We only heard the one dying."
"Yes, they are both dead and there are no other tracks around that indicate the presence of other wolves."
Everyone relaxed at his words and most sheathed their swords, though Rebecca noted that Aragorn and Boromir did not.
Since there had been no lunch break and there was a sheltered area nearby, Aragorn and Gandalf decided to stop early for the night. Thomas was exhausted Rebecca noticed, wondering if all of the sword practicing was taking too much of his energy. He had also been on watch last night and Rebecca wondered if they would let her do that. She couldn’t think of any reason why she couldn’t sit on a log and watch for danger. She decided to find a time when she could speak to Aragorn privately.
Rebecca sat and rested and watched for an opportunity to speak to Aragorn when he was alone. It was hard in such a small crowded space with so many people around. Finally, frustrated, Rebecca approached Aragorn where he sat leaning against a tree talking with Boromir.
Aragorn looked up at her and greeted her with a smile. "Lady Rebecca, come and join us," he indicated the ground next to him. "How do you fare? I have not had a chance to speak with you today."
"You've been a little bit busy," Rebecca smiled up at him. "My wrist is feeling fine, though my legs are tired with no lunch break. Thanks for stopping early... it almost makes up for it." She laughed.
Aragorn and Boromir chuckled. "You are most welcome, Lady Rebecca, I feared your wrath if we continued." Aragorn's eyes twinkled as Rebecca laughed again.
"It is nice to stop during the day, to enjoy a bit of sunshine even if it’s cool. But it seems strange here, Aragorn... no birds are singing. The very air seems oppressive."
Aragorn glanced up and around as he nodded thoughtfully. "I know, it is strange to me as well. I have been here in Hollin many times before and have never seen it like this." He looked at Boromir for ideas, but he shrugged and shook his head.
"Hmm, well anyway, Aragorn, I wanted to ask you a question and I know the answer is probably no, but I thought I'd ask anyway." Rebecca took a deep breath.
"You think you already know my mind on something without asking me?" Aragorn asked, taken aback. He watched Rebecca fiddle with her hair, a sign he was coming to realize indicated extreme nervousness.
"W-well, yes, at least I think so," she said uncertainly.
"Rebecca," Aragorn sounded exasperated and he glanced at Boromir who grinned and shrugged, "never assume you know my mind or heart on anything. Even if I do say 'no' it might not be for the reasons you think. Always ask, remember?"
Rebecca looked up at him with a faint smile and said softly, "Well, I am, Aragorn. I just said I thought I knew the answer not that I wouldn't ask it anyway."
Boromir started chuckling and Aragorn smiled at Rebecca, "That is true, Rebecca, and I apologize. What is your question?"
Staring intently at Aragorn, Rebecca spoke firmly, "I want to help with the watch." Seeing the frowns starting to appear on both men's faces she hurried to finish. "I know I can't fight but I can sit on a log and watch for danger. I see how tired Thomas is because he is walking, training and now doing watch too. I know I can do this, Aragorn."
Aragorn examined her closely before slowly nodding. "All right, Rebecca..." Her eyes lit up in surprise. "But on one condition." Rebecca looked at him suspiciously. "You must be able to keep up with the group. If I feel you are falling behind or slowing us down in any way then I will not allow you to stand watch."
"I won't, I won't let you down!" Rebecca couldn't believe he was actually going to let her do this. "Thank you," she added softly.
"Tell me thanks the morning after your first watch," he grunted before smiling at her enthusiasm. Rebecca beamed back.
Rebecca soon left to join the hobbits at the fire and as soon as she was out of earshot, Boromir turned to Aragorn in fury. "Are you out of your mind? Letting her stand watch? In her condition?"
Aragorn stared at him before sighing, "I know Boromir... but I had to. It would have broken her heart to say no... and it's been broken enough in her young life." Boromir looked at him in confusion. "Besides," he shrugged, "she is right, it is something that she can do. It will help all of us." Aragorn paused and was about to continue when he hastily stood up and peered into the distance shading his eyes with his hand.
"Boromir," he hissed urgently, "do you see it?"
"That... black cloud?" Boromir squinted trying to get a clear look. "It appears to be moving this way... and fast!" His eyes widened in amazement.
Aragorn swore under his breath and turned to the camp, "Quickly, we must hide," his voice was quiet, yet urgent.
Seeing the serious expression on his face everyone scrambled to their feet, gathering their belongings and racing into the woods. Rebecca shook Thomas awake and practically dragged him with her. In less than a minute the camp was deserted and all were hiding quietly in the underbrush and trees.
Rebecca was frightened as she lay next to Thomas wondering what was going on. Aragorn had sounded worried and she had never heard him like that before. She wondered if it could be more wolves, but realized that they wouldn’t be hiding like this because they couldn’t use their swords. Suddenly bursting into the clearing came a flock of loud cawing crows. They swirled and dipped and swooped back and forth for many minutes as if they were searching for something. Finally they circled one last time and flew straight back out the way they had come. Rebecca glanced over at Thomas whose eyes were staring back, "What was that?" he mouthed, not daring to even whisper until Aragorn gave an all clear sign of some kind. Rebecca shrugged and mouthed back, "No idea."
Looking around, Thomas and Rebecca joined the others as they came crawling out of their hiding places and stood staring into the distance though the birds could no longer be seen.
"What were those birds, Strider? Those weren't normal crows." Sam looked up at Aragorn with a frown.
"No, Sam they weren't. Those were crebain out of Fangorn and Dunland. Spies most likely... looking for something...us, I imagine." Aragorn looked at Gandalf with a furrowed brow. "We must be more cautious. No more fires." The hobbits groaned at that bit of news. "Also we must move as quickly and quietly as possible and as long as possible every day..." Aragorn's eyes strayed to Rebecca and Thomas for a moment, but they both nodded firmly as he continued. "The crebain will probably be back so we will need to travel through a thicker path to try and remain hidden." Aragorn paused and ran his fingers through his hair as he thought about the possible paths they might take.
"Aragorn, who are those birds, spies for?" Merry asked quietly.
It was Gandalf who answered him, "Saruman, I would imagine. Though Sauron too bends many creatures to his will." Glancing up at the sky before turning to Aragorn, "Should we move on, Aragorn? There are a couple of hours of light yet."
Shaking his head, Boromir intervened, "I suggest we stay here, Gandalf. We are settled already and if we will be traveling long in the next days, there will be few opportunities for Thomas to practice... and he needs it." He looked over at Thomas with a sly smile, but Thomas only nodded in agreement before returning the smile.
As Rebecca listened absently to the 'men' her eyes were drawn to a large stand of bushes at the far side of the clearing. It seemed to be moving slightly though there was not a puff of wind. Uneasy, Rebecca edged closer to Thomas, "Uh... Aragorn, Boromir" she whispered fiercely, "should that bush be moving?" Caught by the tone of her voice, everyone looked at Rebecca.
"Which bush?" Aragorn's voice was sharp as he pulled his sword and was immediately followed by Boromir and Gandalf while Legolas had an arrow on his strung bow faster than a mortal eye could follow it. Rebecca pointed to the bushes and all could see the slight shaking of the branches.
"Lady Rebecca, Thomas, get behind me," Boromir hissed.
Rebecca moved immediately, but Thomas started to protest, "Now, Thomas!" Boromir's voice was cold and commanding. Defeated, Thomas moved behind him joining Rebecca and the hobbits, though the hobbits at least had swords he realized bitterly. It reminded him of his dagger and he pulled it out as he moved over closer to Rebecca, reaching down and holding her hand. Blinking in disbelief, they watched as a pack of five wolves exploded from the underbrush and charged across the clearing heading straight towards them.
One wolf was dropped immediately and tumbled head over heels with an arrow from Legolas piercing its eye. Legolas swiftly put his bow away and got out his knife and continued across the clearing towards the wolves. His hands were such a blur of motion that mortal eyes could not follow the movement and another wolf was soon lying dead on the ground with its throat cut and Legolas standing over it with a bloody knife in his hand.
Closing quickly with the wolves Aragorn, Boromir and Gimli engaged in their own deadly battles with the savage beasts.
Gimli charged straight ahead at the wolves and started swinging madly with his large axe. He growled right back at the beast and ignored its teeth when the wolf tried to latch onto his arm knowing his armor would protect him. The keenly honed axe soon had the wolf lying on the ground hacked to pieces.
As Aragorn thrust his sword toward the wolf he was fighting he looked for any opening or weaknesses. He danced back quickly from the snapping razor sharp teeth as the wolf lunged at him. Seeing a small opening, Aragorn drove his sword quickly into the wolf's chest, it was not a killing stroke, but it was enough to severely hamper the wolf and a moment later Aragorn slit its throat. Backing away Aragorn glanced around and noticed that all the wolves were down except the one Boromir was dealing with and he watched, amused, as he finally dispatched it.
Boromir must have been frustrated because instead of the usual calm demeanor, Aragorn could hear him swearing steadily. The wolf kept trying to get around him and the beast was very quick. Finally Boromir slipped a little to the side to let it pass, and as it did, he jabbed the sword in the wolf's side, pulled it out just as quickly and loped off its head. Annoyed, Boromir kicked the wolf as he leaned down to clean his sword.
In spite of the seriousness of their situation, Aragorn's lips twitched watching Boromir as he kicked the wolf. Then, glancing around the clearing again he took stock of their situation focusing on the hobbits and Thomas and Rebecca which reminded him of who had alerted him to the presence of the wolves in the first place. He strode quickly over to speak with her.
"Lady Rebecca?" His voice sounded loud in the sudden stillness that had descended on the clearing.
Aragorn smiled faintly, sensing her unease. "Earlier, when you asked to be on watch I was hesitant to allow it, but you have just proven me wrong. Maybe you should be on watch all the time..." he teased, "since all the rest of us..." he gestured around him, "missed what you spotted. Well done." He smiled again.
Rebecca smiled back, "Thank you... I'm just glad no one was hurt. Uh... by the way, you are all really good." She looked from Aragorn to Boromir to Gimli before resting her gaze on Legolas.
"Lots of practice," Aragorn said dryly. "Now some of you..." he looked pointedly at Rebecca and the hobbits, "need to go and rest. We will move the bodies of the wolves out of the clearing, otherwise it will be a clear sign that someone was here. Boromir, if you are not too tired...," Boromir shot him a dirty look. "Maybe you and Thomas can get in some practice before dark." Aragorn hesitated, not really wanting his sword out of his hands at this time, but then gave it to Thomas.
As the group dispersed, Legolas approached Aragorn, a troubled look on his face. "Forgive me, mellon nín," he spoke quietly.
"Forgive you? For what, Legolas?" Aragorn looked at his friend in surprise.
"I missed their tracks. I should have seen them." Legolas hissed angrily. "Someone could have been hurt or killed. And even if I missed their tracks, I should have sensed them here."
Aragorn stopped and faced his friend. "We all missed them here... well, except for Rebecca. Legolas it is a big forest. Maybe they just now arrived, following the crebain." Aragorn shrugged. "I do not blame you... if anything I blame myself for being distracted by the birds and talking. But it is in the past and we cannot dwell on it.”
"One thing before we begin, Thomas." Boromir started speaking quietly as they moved away from the others. He slowed, then stopped and turned to face Thomas, looking directly into his eyes. When Boromir spoke again his voice was cold and hard, "Thomas, when I give you an order, I expect you to obey it without question. A battle is not the time or place to start questioning my decisions, do you understand?" Boromir's gaze was as cold as his voice and Thomas nodded abruptly.
"Yes sir, I do... I'm sorry about earlier..." Thomas's voice trailed off.
"I know you want to help, but you have to think first. You only had a dagger and you could have been killed." Boromir's voice warmed slightly, "Thomas, I have been in too many battles and seen too many lads killed over the years because they would not listen and learn or they did not think. I do not want you to be one of them. You must think with your head…” here Boromir tapped Thomas lightly on the forehead with his finger, "during battle and not with your heart...," he tapped Thomas's chest. "Otherwise your emotions will get you into trouble. Save your emotions for women, they will cause you enough trouble!" he laughed lightly as Thomas blushed. "Come now. And after practice, I will tell you all you need to know about women."
It was still dark when Aragorn shook Rebecca awake. "Come quietly," he whispered, holding her hand to guide her. With no fire and only the faint starlight overhead, Rebecca stumbled, but was caught by Aragorn before she fell.
"Aragorn! I can't see a thing, it's too dark," she whispered.
"Just a couple more steps... here, sit," he helped her down to the ground.
"Well this is fun... I hope you don't plan on leaving me here because I'd be lost," Rebecca squinted, trying in vain to see Aragorn though her eyes were slowly adjusting and she was starting to see vague outlines of things. Total silence met her remarks though. She yawned tiredly. "Aragorn, it's too early to be teasing me. I know you're right there, trying to scare me."
Aragorn chuckled, "You sound quite disagreeable this morning, Lady Rebecca."
Sighing, Rebecca looked in the direction the voice came from, "Well, I'm just tired and not in the mood for being teased right now," she said irritably.
"Forgive me, Lady Rebecca, for disturbing your sleep," Aragorn's voice was sincere since he knew how much she truly needed the rest. "But I wanted to give you something before we leave this morning and I knew there would be no time later."
"Oh, a present," Rebecca perked up.
"Yes, but probably not what you are expecting," Aragorn replied dryly.
"Well, since we haven't passed a single store since I've been here, I doubt you've been able to do a lot of shopping for me," she responded in the same tone.
Laughing quietly, Aragorn reached out and clasped her hand. "No, this" he pressed something long and thin into Rebecca's hand, "is a dagger."
Rebecca drew in a sharp breath in surprise, turning the sheathed dagger over in her hands to feel its size and shape. "B-but, Aragorn, you said..."
"I know what I said," Aragorn interrupted her. "But...you will be on watch and seeing the wolves today..." he paused momentarily. "You cannot be totally defenseless. Have you ever used a dagger before?"
"No..." Rebecca replied slowly, but Aragorn heard the smile in her voice, "But I have used a kitchen knife lots and lots of times. To cut up chicken and meat and stuff like that."
"It is not the same thing," Aragorn said. "However it will have to be enough that you at least feel comfortable with it in your hands."
"After today, I know it's not. But thanks for it anyway. I feel better just knowing I have it."
“You are welcome. I just hope that you never have to use it," Aragorn said fervently.
"Me too, Aragorn, me too."
"Come, let's wake the others. We must leave soon."
"Aragorn, just how are we supposed to walk when it’s this dark?"
"It will be difficult, Rebecca, and I want you to stay with Boromir so he can help you. I do not want you to re-injure your wrist."
"All right, Aragorn."
And so began another day.