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Brothers at Heart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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24
Chapter 24

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the recognizable characters; I am only borrowing them for fun for a little while. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha


~~~

The area in front of the open gate was filled with men and horses as they prepared to ride out after the orcs. Sunrise was only a few minutes away and it was cool in the pre-dawn light as men and boys hurried to and fro finding equipment and supplies and stuffing them into packs. Aragorn stood off to the side keeping one eye on the preparations even as he spoke with Faelon, Halhigal, Nestad, and Thalion.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” Nestad asked with an uneasy expression on his face.

Aragorn shook his head once again. “No, I want you to stay and take care of your daughter and grandson. Her wrist is badly broken and there are enough other men here right now that I do not need you to come this time.” He clasped the healer’s shoulder briefly to acknowledge the man’s disappointment. He turned to Thalion.

“Hirgon, Laegrist, and Maldathor will lead us to where you spotted the tracks and from there, Gilost and I should have no difficultly following…”

“That rain last night won’t help,” Halhigal interrupted.

“It will make it more difficult,” the Chieftain acknowledged. “However, I am sure we will find them. Did you not say that Hirgon does well at tracking?” he asked looking at Thalion.

“He does. He’s the best tracker among my men,” Thalion replied.

“Faelon can occasionally follow a track as well,” Aragorn said with a twinkle in his eye as he glanced at the older man. Faelon snorted softly while the other men chuckled.

“If Norgalad arrives while I am away, give him my apologies. Tell him I will understand if he would rather not wait for my return but instead would have you hear his and Gaerwen’s vows,” Aragorn said to his uncle who nodded. Seeing the Rangers now standing quietly by their horses and speaking to their families and one another, Aragorn began moving toward Alvist who was holding his horse. “Farewell,” he said to the men as he took the reins from the boy, thanking him with a smile. “We will return as quickly as we can, but…” he shrugged before he swung into the saddle.

“May the Valar keep you safe, Aragorn,” Halhigal said in farewell, his words quickly echoed by the others.

Nodding his thanks Aragorn reined his horse around and rode over to the seven men that were accompanying him and Faelon. He looked them over briefly and at their acknowledgement that they were ready he led them through the gate. They turned south, heading towards the destroyed village of Taurnand. The men were somber as they rode through the woods on the beautiful spring morning. Aragorn knew that the three men from Thalion’s patrol were tired and disappointed to be riding out again so soon. But he needed them. Daedaen, Gilost, Halbarad, and Remlas completed the large patrol group.

The woods were alive with birdsong and Aragorn breathed deeply of the cool morning air as they rode. Occasional drops of water landed on him, rain left over from the night before that lingered on the fresh green leaves of the trees. Squirrels chattered as they raced across the branches above them, stopping only to scold the Rangers who dared to invade their territory.

It was on days like this that Aragorn wished he was back in Imladris, wandering the gardens and the woods, seeking a place where he could sit and read a favorite book; or, to simply sit and ponder the future and what it might hold. Well, he mused with an inward smile, at least he knew somewhat of that future now. Still, he seldom had time to do those things anymore and it was something he missed.

Shortly before noon Halbarad came trotting back from where he had been scouting ahead of the main patrol. “A small group of riders is heading our way, Aragorn,” he reported briskly. “I believe it’s a group of Rangers, but I couldn’t see them very well from where I was hidden and knew if I didn’t leave quickly they would see me.”

“It is probably Norgalad,” Aragorn said glancing at Faelon who nodded. “But… “ He turned to his men. “Laegrist, Hirgon, Daedaen, and Gilost, go with Faelon to the other side of the trail. The rest of you stay with me. Wait for my signal, Faelon.” The men swiftly divided into two groups and took their positions. They tied their horses well back from the trail before slipping into the bushes alongside the trail with bows in hand and swords loosened in their sheaths. Time seemed to slow as they waited for the group of men to ride into view but it was less than ten minutes later that they heard the sound of approaching horses and the low murmur of voices. As they rounded the slight bend in the trail, Aragorn relaxed at the sight of a group of Rangers riding into view. He immediately recognized Norgalad and Tathor and three of the other men as members of Tathor’s patrol, but the sixth man was unknown to him.

Letting out a short Ranger call, Aragorn stepped out onto the trail and was quickly followed by Halbarad and the rest of the men. Tathor and his men reined to a sudden halt and the Patrol Captain looked down at his Chieftain with dismay. “It appears that I’m always going to be running into you unexpectedly, my lord.”

Aragorn chuckled. “Yes, it does.” He gestured for him and his men to dismount. “We may as well rest the horses and eat lunch and I need to speak with Norgalad.” He turned his gaze on the groom for a moment who was looking at him with questioning, concerned eyes.

“Is Gaerwen well?” Norgalad asked anxiously as he swung down off his horse. “Did something happen to her?” His gaze shifted to Gilost and he bit his lip nervously as he waited for one of them to respond.

“She is quite well, Norgalad,” Gilost said smiling at his soon-to-be brother and clapping him bracingly on the back. “She was making clothes and… things,” he shrugged dismissively, “and waiting impatiently for you to arrive.”

Norgalad breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed somewhat before he remembered that Aragorn had wanted to speak with him. He turned anxious eyes to his lord. “My lord?”

“Be at peace, Norgalad. We will talk while we eat.”

Aragorn’s patrol retrieved their horses and they all moved a short distance off the trail. Horses were tethered and saddles were loosened before the Rangers dug into their packs. Cheese, dried meat, and fruit were taken out by most of the men and the men from Dolomar shared some of their fresh bread with those from Forntaur who had been traveling for more than a week.

Noticing that Norgalad had not taken a bite of his food but was watching every bite that he took, Aragorn bit back a grin and took pity on the man. “Eat, Norgalad,” he urged. “I only wanted to tell you that I will not be back in Dolomar for some time.” He again bit back the smile that threatened at the crestfallen look of the man. “You do not have to wait for me, unless you want to. Halhigal will hear your vows if you do not want to wait until I return.” A small smile crossed Aragorn’s lips at Norgalad’s look of relief. The Ranger reddened, however, at the light laughter and comments that came from the other Rangers.

“I…I will ask Gaerwen,” he finally replied. “But, it would be such an honor to have you hear our vows, my lord. How long will you be gone?” He glanced at Gilost wondering if Gaerwen would insist on waiting for her brother to return before marrying him.

“Where are you going?” Tathor asked. “This is a large patrol and you have some different men with you than you had with you before.”

“I hope to be back in ten days, Norgalad,” Aragorn answered the groom’s question first before turning to Tathor. “We are going after some orcs that we think are across the Bruinen. We first saw a small group of them last winter when we moved some of the people from Taurnand to Dolomar. We could not pursue them because of the women and children we had with us. But, Thalion’s patrol, that Hirgon, Laegrist, and Maldathor are a part of,” Aragorn indicated each man, “came across more tracks a few days ago. The tracks lead to the river and, last winter at least, it appeared they crossed it. We have to find them before they decide to come to Dolomar.”

Tathor shook his head and mumbled something inaudible under his breath before looking back at Aragorn. “Do you want us to go with you, my lord?” he offered.

“No, go on to Dolomar. You will go on to your patrol area from there?”

Tathor nodded. “Yes. We will stay for the wedding and then head east. I wanted to ask you about having Norgalad join one of the patrols from Dolomar now since he’s moving there. It’s why I brought Baranor with me,” he indicated the Ranger that Aragorn did not know. “He’s Nestad’s son-in-law and he’s been assigned to me,” he gave Aragorn a small smile. “He asked to come because he wanted to see his family, if only for a short time. I’m surprised Nestad isn’t with you.”

“He would be, but his daughter broke her wrist quite severely two days ago and as I had enough men in the village for this patrol, I had him stay behind. He will be very glad to see him, Nestad mentioned that it had been years since they last saw each other,” Aragorn said. “Norgalad will join one of our patrols. I just wish he had been here sooner, he could have gone with Caladel.”

“Dorlas will return in a couple of months, Captain,” Faelon spoke up. He glanced at Norgalad. “I’m sure that Norgalad wouldn’t mind staying around Dolomar until then.” Amused smiles and light laughter followed that comment.

“Probably not,” Aragorn agreed. “Stay in Dolomar, then, Norgalad.” Norgalad gave him a grateful smile as he nodded.

Glancing up at the sun and seeing it was past noon, Aragorn reluctantly got to his feet. “We need to ride on,” he announced quietly.

0-0-0

The small fire was crackling and sparks were popping up and out of the small stone ring the Rangers had built to contain the flames. Men kept an eye on the fire as they ate and talked, frequently brushing off sparks that landed on their clothes. An occasional quiet curse, followed by chuckles from the others, would occur when an especially large spark would land on skin and could not be brushed off fast enough.

The men shared stories of their recent patrols as they ate; the Rangers of Thalion’s group had not seen a single orc and had only seen a couple of lone wolves – neither of which they killed – during the months they were gone. They listened with shock as Gilost told them of the bandits that had been captured near the village and then of the orc attack as they took the men to Bree. Halbarad joined in at that point, describing what had happened and how Faelon and his men had arrived in time to rescue them.

Aragorn mostly listened as the men talked, speaking briefly of the time in Bree and answering the questions that Laegrist and Maldathor occasionally asked him. Hirgon remained silent for much of the evening. But, then, so did Faelon. In Aragorn’s eyes the older man seemed even quieter than usual and he appeared troubled in some way. He spoke to him before the man headed for his bedroll.

“What troubles you?” he asked in a low voice after pulling the older man aside.

Faelon started, surprised that Aragorn had noticed his unease. “I’m not sure,” he confessed after a moment. “Something seems wrong about this. If there are orcs this close to Dolomar they should have attacked. They wouldn’t stay away,” he scowled, ‘it’s not in their nature to do that.”

“Maybe they do not realize Dolomar is there,” Aragorn said without conviction knowing how unlikely that was. “Or, perhaps, there are not enough of them to attack and take the village… like they wanted to do to Taurnand. Maybe they are waiting for other orcs to join them.”

“Perhaps,” Faelon grudgingly agreed. “But if these are the same ones we saw last winter they’ve been waiting for a long time and orcs don’t usually do that. I’d think they would come and raid and steal what they could at least.”

Aragorn nodded. “Yes, except they know that we would track them down and they would not be able to take the village. Maybe the orcs that attacked us were on the way to join these and then they would have attacked Dolomar,” he said thoughtfully and with a grimace.

Faelon paled as he considered that and he slowly nodded. “Those orcs were going somewhere… not just looking for trouble… but they had a specific destination.” He sighed and stared down at the ground for a moment before lifting his gaze to meet Aragorn’s eyes. “It’s a… good thing you ran into them. I don’t know if we would have caught up with them in time to stop them from doing considerable damage to the village and our people… my family.” He visibly shuddered at the thought.

“Yes, it is.” Scowling, Aragorn ran his fingers through his hair as the thought of Dolomar in flames as Taurnand had been horrified him. The thought of any of his people suffering like that appalled him, but more so for the people of Dolomar whom he had come to care for deeply in the time he had been with them. He finally shrugged. “We will probably never know their true intentions, but that is as good a guess as any. Now get some rest.” The Ranger nodded and headed off to sleep while Aragorn began his watch.

0-0-0-0-0

Late in the afternoon on the third day out from Dolomar they arrived in the area where Thalion’s patrol had come across the tracks of the orcs. Aragorn spoke quietly to Maldathor and gestured for him to take the lead. The Ranger threaded his horse through the trees as he led the way to a spot a couple of miles further on and stopped near a small spring. The spring burbled up out of the ground and created a small pool roughly ten yards around before it disappeared again into a pile of rocks.

“We saw the tracks over there, my lord,” he pointed across the spring where knee high grass and wildflowers grew, well watered by the spring which continued its underground journey to the Bruinen on the gentle downward slope on that side of the pool.

Aragorn looked at the grass, frowning. None of it showed any signs of being disturbed recently. Not that he really expected it to; it had been more than two weeks since the orcs had been there if Thalion’s estimate was correct. He turned to his men. “Gilost, Hirgon, come with me. The rest of you eat something, we will probably ride on as soon as we find the tracks.”

He turned to Hirgon. “You lead the way and, hopefully, between the three of us we can find some trace that was not washed away by the rain.” Hirgon nodded and grunted an acknowledgement before walking away. The Ranger had been quiet while on the patrol and any interaction that Aragorn had had with the man had contained a certain amount of stiffness on the part of Hirgon. Aragorn remained somewhat wary of the man, but as long as the Ranger did his duty and obeyed the orders given him, then he was content to let him be.

The three men stepped carefully around the pond and onto the rocks. They stopped there and surveyed the area in front of them for any sign, but nothing was visible.

“How did you ever find tracks before,” Gilost murmured.

“It was mostly by chance,” Hirgon admitted. “One of the horses wandered away and when Beraid went to retrieve it, he spotted the tracks. The grass is longer than even a week ago,” he added with a scowl as he stepped off the rocks.

Aragorn and Gilost followed several feet behind and to the sides of him, searching those areas. After thirty minutes of searching, it was Gilost who found the first faint trace and he called to the others who quickly joined him. It was the barest indentation in the still damp earth and the faint outline that might have been an orc boot, but that was all. Sighing, Aragorn stood and looked around as he thought. They were wasting time here and there was little chance of finding more tracks. If their guess was correct then these orcs had continued to the Bruinen and crossed it. Of course, they could not be sure of that without following the tracks.

Gazing down the slope and into the trees, Aragorn saw that the tall grass and wildflowers continued for at least as far as he could see. But he knew it would not last; the trees would stop the growth of the grass after a time. Perhaps they should ride forward and hope to pick up the trail further ahead. It was a risk, but one he knew they would have to take.

“I think we will have to ride on and hope to find tracks further on in the woods.” Gilost nodded and Hirgon narrowed his eyes and stared at the ground. Aragorn turned to the rest of the men. “Faelon!” he called, waving the man towards him. Faelon jogged to his side.

“Captain?”

“Gilost found a partial track here, but it appears that most of the tracks have been washed away. I think we need to ride on and try and pick up their trail further on. What do you think?” Aragorn watched him closely and there was no hesitation on Faelon’s part.

“I agree; we are taking time that is better spent in pursuit. I think we’ll come across the tracks soon enough.”

Glancing up at the sun and seeing there were several hours before the sun set, Aragorn turned and headed back towards the horses. “Perhaps we will find sign of them today if we hurry,” he said glancing back over his shoulder at the others.

“We are going to ride on,” he announced to the rest of the men. “We only found a partial track here, but if we ride on we hope to find more sign once we are in the woods and away from this tall grass and where, hopefully, the trees blocked the full force of the rain from wiping out all the tracks.”

Aragorn took the reins of his horse from Halbarad who also handed him a chunk of cheese and some bread that was rapidly drying out. “Thank you,” he said with a smile.

“I filled your waterskin,” he indicated the one hanging from the saddle. Aragorn smiled his thanks around the mouthful of food he was chewing.

“Do you think these are the same orcs as the ones we saw last winter or different ones,” he asked as he prepared to mount his horse.

Swallowing and reaching for his waterskin, Aragorn shrugged. “I know not. I hope they are the same ones so that we only have to deal with a small group of them.” He took a long drink of the cool spring water and re-plugged it before swinging up onto his horse. “But, my fear is that these are different ones and that we are going to have to deal with many more orcs. It is why I brought so many men.” He reined his horse around to take the lead once again and Halbarad followed close behind.

They rode swiftly for an hour until the tall grass thinned and gradually gave way to grass that barely covered the forest floor. Slowing the horses to a walk, Aragorn had the men spread out in a long line… some quarter of a mile wide… to try and find some sign of the passing of the orcs. They rode on silently for another hour, their attention fixed on the ground. Laegrist and Remlas rode behind the rest of the men keeping watch for any danger in the woods around them.

“My lord!” Gilost called from the right edge of the line. “I’ve found them,” he said with a grin as Aragorn rode up to him. He slid off his horse, tossing the reins to Halbarad as he landed.

“Join us, Hirgon,” Aragorn ordered as he cautiously moved to Gilost’s side scanning the ground around the Ranger.

Gilost pointed out the faint traces of orc prints on the ground that were heading in the direction they had assumed they would be going – towards the Bruinen.

“You have keen eyes,” Hirgon said with grudging respect as he glanced at the younger Ranger. Gilost shrugged and looked at Aragorn who was following the trail with his eyes.

The orcs had made no attempt to hide their trail; it had only been foul weather that had hindered them thus far. Now that they knew for certain where the orcs were headed, Aragorn wondered if they should abandon the trail altogether and head straight for the river. It would take them longer if they closely followed the trail, but it would bring them to the exact point where the creatures had crossed the river. Frowning, he turned and beckoned to Faelon.

“Would you ride straight for the river or follow the tracks closely?”

Faelon walked along the trail of the five orcs for several yards and then came back to his Chieftain. “The tracks are headed straight for the Bruinen and I doubt they’d turn off somewhere now.” He paused, thinking. “There isn’t anything around here for them to attack. I’d ride straight for the river. We’ll be there by late tomorrow if we ride hard.”

“That was my thought as well.” Aragorn glanced up at the sun and turned to the other men. “We will ride until full dark and leave early in the morning. I want to cross the river a few hours before sunset.” Nodding, the men remounted their horses and they headed off once again.

It was full dark when they stopped and made camp in the lee of a small hill. They lit no fire and the men ate a quick meal of dried meat, fruit, and bread before heading to their bedrolls. Two men kept watch throughout the night, Aragorn and Halbarad drawing the final one before dawn. It was dark under the trees, the full moon hidden behind the clouds that had blown in, and the two men moved carefully as they circled the camp. Except for the normal nightly sounds of small animals and insects and the sounds of men and horses it was quiet and still in the woods around them.

After a couple of circuits of the camp, Aragorn stopped and sat on a boulder, pulling out his pipe and stuffing it with pipeweed. Halbarad soon joined him and he chuckled quietly when he saw what his cousin was doing. “You’ve become a true Dúnedain,” he whispered as he pulled out his own pipe.

“I have you to thank for it,” Aragorn retorted as he lit the pipe. He was somewhat surprised at how comforting the habit had become and it amused him when he imagined what his brothers and father would say when they found out.

“You’re welcome,” Halbarad grinned. “Remember, it’s my duty to teach my Chieftain all that I can about our people and our ways.”

Aragorn snorted softly but did not otherwise respond. “This reminds me of a patrol I went on with Glorfindel,” he said instead.

“Were your brothers not with you?”

“Yes, but Glorfindel led the patrol. I had not been patrolling very long then and there were three other elves with us. We were scouting north of Imladris in the foothills of the Misty Mountains when we came across the tracks of three orcs that were several days old. It was autumn and the weather was cool and had rained since the orcs had passed, but we were still able to follow the trail. At least for awhile,” Aragorn grimaced at the memory.

“You lost the trail?” Halbarad asked incredulously. “Elves did? You did?”

“We did. We followed them to a fast moving stream and all trace of them disappeared. There were no tracks directly across the steam, although it appeared they had entered the water. We searched for several miles up and down both sides of the stream and found no signs of them leaving the water. None of us could understand it because they did not know we were behind them… at least they had no reason to know that since we were several days behind them.”

“We even checked the trees above the stream to see if they had somehow leapt into a tree and scrambled out of the water that way even though that made no sense… orcs do not do that. It was the most unusual thing I had ever seen up until that time in my life. Especially watching the elves,” Aragorn grinned. “They got more and more upset, although I doubt you would have even noticed for their expressions changed little. They finally decided that the orcs had been swept downstream in the fast rushing water. That perhaps the rain had raised the level of the stream enough to sweep them away.” He shrugged, “It makes as much sense as anything, but I still wonder about it.”

“Are you worried about that happening here?”

“No, it has never happened since that time and it had never happened to Glorfindel or my brothers before. In fact,” he smiled, “they placed the blame on my presence.”

Halbarad laughed softly. “It would be awful to be swept away in a river,” he commented, shuddering.

“Do you not swim?”

“Just a little, there is neither a river nor a lake near Dolomar,” he reminded Aragorn. “Occasionally we would go to a small area in the swamp that had sort of a deep area where we learned to swim, but we had little time for such things.”

“I learned to swim by the time I was four. There was so much water in and around the buildings of Imladris that it would have been too dangerous not to teach me.”

“Who taught you? I doubt your naneth knows how to swim any better than my naneth does.”

That gave Aragorn pause. “She never did really swim with me,” he replied slowly. “She would stay along the edge of the river while I swam and played.” He smiled. “I always thought she just didn’t want to get wet. Ada and my brothers taught me to swim and I often played in the water for hours in the summer when I was young. As I grew I discovered it was a wonderful way to cool off after training with elves for several hours.”

Halbarad gave a wistful sigh and glanced off to the east. “I suppose we should wake the others, it will soon be light enough to ride on.” Aragorn nodded and they arose to start a new day.

0-0-0

The Rangers rode hard throughout the cool spring day and finally reached the Bruinen a couple of hours before the sun set. They stopped in the trees a hundred feet back from the water’s edge and watched the swiftly flowing river as they dismounted. The area between the men and the river was open to the sky and rocks and broken tree limbs littered the ground.

Aragorn frowned as he studied the scene in front of him. There had been a lot of snow during the winter and the river was high and murky with churned up dirt. The horses would need to go down a small, steep bank to enter the water before crossing the wide river. Across the river the bank was somewhat lower and appeared to be less steep. He turned to Faelon and Maldathor.

“Is there a ford nearby? I do not like the look of the water.”

Faelon shook his head and glanced at Maldathor.

“The only one that I know of is the one down at Taurnand.”

Grimacing, Aragorn shook his head. “We do not have that kind of time. The only other ford I know of is up at Imladris and that is even further away. We shall just have to cross here, then.” He glanced at the two men who gave reluctant nods, evidently not liking the look of the river any more than he did. Aragorn turned to the rest of the Rangers.

“Who has not crossed a large river like this except at a ford?” his eyes strayed to Halbarad.

“I have not,” Remlas answered immediately followed more slowly by Halbarad and, surprising to Aragorn, by Gilost as well. He realized, then, that his normal patrol area took him far from the two largest rivers in Eriador.

“Neither have I,” said Aragorn. “Faelon will lead the way. Halbarad, ride near Maldathor; Gilost, you stay with Hirgon; Remlas, ride close to Laegrist.” He had deliberately placed each of the men from Dolomar with one of the men from Taurnand, assuming that those men could swim well since they lived right on the river. As he looked out at the swiftly moving current, Halbarad’s words from their conversation the previous night came back to him and he felt uneasy. “Daedaen, you and I will bring up the rear. If any of you have rope, keep it near to hand.”

Aragorn watched as Faelon carefully picked his way through the rocks, and the branches that had been swept downstream by the melting snow. At the edge of the steep bank, Faelon paused and then turned and rode upstream for several yards before urging his horse down into the Bruinen. Halbarad and Maldathor followed close behind the patrol leader. There was then a gap of several horse lengths when Gilost’s horse balked at descending the bank, but soft words of encouragement brought the horse back under control and it entered the swiftly moving brownish colored water. Remlas’s horse also hesitated at the edge but needed little urging to continue after the other horses. None of the rest of the horses showed any hesitation.

Guiding his own horse down the steep bank and into the river took all of Aragorn’s attention. He could feel the slight trembling of the horse at the unevenness of the footing caused by the rocks of the riverbed and he spoke soothingly and patted its neck as he urged it on. The horse responded to his voice and walked carefully after Laegrist’s horse.

The water rose quickly up his horse’s legs and was soon lapping at the soles of his boots. Looking ahead to Faelon, Aragorn saw that he was almost halfway across the river. The water was well above the older Ranger’s knees and Aragorn could tell his horse was going to have to swim and he swore softly under his breath. He did not want them to be forced too far downstream – they might come too close to the area where the orcs had crossed. But it could not be helped.

Feeling his horse slipping, Aragorn clenched his legs more firmly together to get a tighter grip on the animal who had just as quickly regained its footing. He had not felt this uneasy on a horse for years – not since he was a boy and learning to ride. Glancing ahead again he saw that Faelon, as well as Halbarad and Maldathor, had reached truly deep water and their horses were having to swim. The strong current was pushing them swiftly downstream, but they were already nearing the far bank.

Setting aside thoughts of Halbarad’s words of the previous night, Aragorn looked at the rest of the men, his gaze lingering on Gilost whose horse was still giving him problems. Even as he watched, the horse stopped and refused to go on. Hirgon carefully guided his horse to the downstream side of Gilost’s and after speaking briefly to Gilost began gently pulling on the horse’s bridle to urge it on. The horse took a few tentative steps before stopping once again.

Remlas hesitated as he neared and at Hirgon’s impatient gesture he rode around the two men on the upstream side, closely followed by Laegrist. Aragorn, however, stopped when he reached the two men, ignoring the glare of Hirgon. He turned in his saddle and motioned for Daedaen to move past, but the older Ranger shook his head and stayed where he was a few yards behind them, his horse placidly looking back at Aragorn with big brown eyes.

Glancing at Gilost, Aragorn saw a glimmer of fear in his eyes and he exchanged a quick look with Hirgon and knew he had also seen it. Aragorn was no longer surprised that the horse had stopped. Leaning out of his saddle towards the two men, he called out in a loud voice that he hoped could be heard over the sound of the rushing water. “Hirgon, what do you suggest? You have probably done this sort of thing before.” Aragorn saw the quickly masked look of surprise but there was no answer as Gilost’s horse suddenly reared and then bolted forward taking all of them by surprise - Gilost most of all.

The Ranger fell back and off his horse, his right foot caught in the stirrup for only a few seconds. But that was long enough to drag him through the water and away from the others. Gilost reached desperately for his horse, but it was just out of reach and the current began pulling the man downstream and dragging him under. Their cries of alarm had alerted those ahead of them who turned, but could do nothing to help.

Hirgon reacted first, kicking his horse after Gilost who had come up sputtering and spitting out the foul, bitter water. He instinctively swam for shore, though his flailing arms were largely ineffective against the swiftly flowing river and he cried out in pain as he struck hidden rocks as he was swept downstream.

Aragorn and Daedaen followed behind Hirgon, but Aragorn’s mind was searching desperately for other solutions because all of their horses were struggling in this water and he knew they would never be able to catch Gilost. He saw that Hirgon had a rope out and watched as he threw it towards the struggling Ranger, but it fell well short of him. Gilost suddenly slowed and stopped. Aragorn could see that he was clinging desperately to something hidden under the water – a rock or log he assumed. But he could not hold on long enough for them to reach him. The force of the water loosened his grip and he had to let go.

That short delay, however, was enough time for the men who had already crossed – Faelon, Halbarad, and Maldathor – to finish their desperate dash down the riverbank to get ahead of Gilost. Maldathor shouted instructions to the other two men and, without hesitating, the three men rode back into the river determined to rescue Gilost. Upstream, the rest of the men had stopped their rather reckless pursuit downstream and were urging their horses to the river’s edge.

Maldathor and Faelon separated, Maldathor plunging straight out into the river while Faelon veered off downstream - Halbarad following after Faelon. Maldathor had his rope in hand and, standing in his stirrups briefly, he flung the quickly knotted end of the rope out towards Gilost. It fell a few feet short, but the Ranger saw it and lunged desperately for it catching the end of it with the tips of his fingers. His desperate lunge caused him to briefly go under the water but he came up with the rope firmly clenched in his right hand. Maldathor immediately wrapped the rope around the pommel of his saddle and tried backing his horse away, but the horse refused and he had to slowly turn the horse around to draw the line taut.

Keeping one eye on Gilost, and shouting at Faelon to stay where he was, Maldathor slowly made his way back towards the riverbank. On the other end of the rope, Gilost was barely able to hang on and he fought hard to reach up and grab the line with his left hand as well, finally succeeding after several attempts. The current continued to pull at Gilost even as Maldathor rode to the shore and Faelon and Halbarad stayed downstream of the endangered Ranger in case he could not hold on.

The rest of the Rangers thundered into view on the bank above them and leapt from their horses. Aragorn gave quick orders for a fire while he motioned Hirgon and Laegrist to the river’s edge. The men stood there watching helplessly as Gilost was slowly dragged through the water towards the shore. Maldathor soon rode ashore and up the bank past them still pulling the Ranger behind him. Finally, Gilost was close enough that the two men rushed out into the cold water and grabbed him; loosening their grips slightly as he winced in pain.

Daedaen, and Remlas frantically looked for dried bedrolls or clothing on any of the horses while Aragorn set a couple of pots of water on to boil before searching through his pack of healing supplies. He was grateful once again that his pack was as thoroughly waterproof as was possible and that nothing inside his pack was even damp. Thousands of years of experience gave the elves much practical knowledge of such things. Knowing his clothing would also be dry, he directed the two Rangers to his horse. He wished he could say the same for his bedroll, but it was not encased in a pack; instead the blankets were simply tied to the back of his saddle – as were all the other men’s.

Glancing down at the water, Aragorn saw that Hirgon and Laegrist had succeeded in bringing Gilost to the riverbank and he sighed in relief. He watched with narrowed eyes as they spoke to him and saw Gilost coughing and spitting out water as he tried to struggle to his feet. As he was about to run down to the water to tell Gilost to let the men carry him, Faelon rode up and spoke sternly to the younger man who stopped struggling and let the men carry him up to the fire.

“Get his clothes off,” Aragorn ordered as they gently laid him down on a pile of clothing. As Gilost’s clothes were being removed, Aragorn looked around and saw that Faelon was directing the men in setting up the camp and gathering more wood and he turned back to his patient with a reassuring smile. “You will be all right, Gilost,” he said as the last of his clothing was removed and dry clothes were placed over him. Aragorn looked up at Hirgon and Laegrist.

“We need more water if you can find a spring nearby.” Aragorn knew that everyone would need hot drinks and something hot to eat that night. The two men nodded and, gathering the waterskins Aragorn had emptied into the pots, hurried away. He turned back to his patient who had closed his eyes and was very still.

“Is there any one place that hurts more than any other?” he asked.

The Ranger started to shake his head and then stopped with a small cry of pain. “I don’t think anything is broken if that’s what you’re asking,” he whispered opening pain-filled eyes and looking up at his Chieftain. “But, I hurt in lots of places on my arms and legs,” he grimaced, “and the back of my head.” He coughed harshly and groaned at the pain that caused.

“Do you need help, Aragorn?” Halbarad asked as he crouched down beside them. “Faelon thought you might need some and I’ve helped my naneth occasionally.”

Aragorn nodded but did not take his eyes off of Gilost as he began examining the Ranger. Starting with his head he carefully felt all around his skull for possible fractures and he breathed a small sigh of relief when he felt none. There was a shallow gash on the back of Gilost’s head that would need stitches, however. “Does this hurt?” Aragorn asked softly as he carefully moved his fingers around the injured man’s neck, pressing lightly in different places.

“No.”

“Good.” The worst of his concerns laid to rest, Aragorn turned to the numerous scraps and bruises that he knew were on the rest of Gilost’s body. While he knew none of them were life-threatening, they were certainly painful... and would be for several days. “Halbarad, pour some of the hot water into a couple of bowls.”

Taking the bowl of hot water from Halbarad, Aragorn noticed that his cousin was trembling slightly and he gave him an appraising look before turning away from Gilost to wash his hands in the hot water. “Are you cold, Halbarad or is something else troubling you?” he whispered.

“I am cold,” he whispered back as he handed his Chieftain a cloth that was damp from the river. “But,” he paused. “You must teach me how to swim better, Aragorn.” His eyes were wide with fear for a brief moment as he looked at Aragorn, but his expression quickly became impassive as he glanced around at the other Rangers.

“I will,” Aragorn promised quietly before handing him the bowl he had been using. “Clean this out and fill it with more water.” He turned back to Gilost. Carefully and gently he began cleaning each of the various scrapes on Gilost’s body. Besides the gash on the back of his head, there was also a long shallow cut on his left forearm that needed stitches. The willow bark tea Aragorn had given him helped with some of the pain, but the Ranger still grimaced and moved uneasily from time to time as his wounds were tended to.

Faelon appeared and crouched down next to Gilost and laid a reassuring hand lightly on his shoulder. “How does he fare, Captain?”

“He is in considerable pain, but otherwise he is doing quite well.”

Gilost opened his eyes and looked up at Faelon. “I’m all right and the pain isn’t too bad.” Aragorn snorted softly but said nothing as he continued stitching. “Where is Suldal?” Gilost suddenly cried. He tried to sit up but Aragorn pushed him gently back to the ground.

“He is with the other horses. He was fine once he left the water and he followed us here,” Aragorn said with a reassuring smile. He turned his gaze to Faelon as the Ranger spoke.

“They found a spring about half a mile away.”

“Good, we will need it.”

“I think we should move the camp there, this area is too open.”

Aragorn paused and looked around for a moment. They were barely inside the first row of trees and, with the fire, they would be easily visible to anyone across the river. He was not sure how far downstream they had come, but he knew they had to be drawing close to the place where the orcs had crossed. “Leave Halbarad and…” he glanced around, “Daedaen with us and go and set up camp. That will give me time to finish up here and by the time we arrive you should have a fire going. He is going to need one tonight. We all need one.”

“Just to dry out our clothes,” Faelon agreed. “Do you want a litter?”

Gazing down at Gilost for a moment and assessing the injuries he had, Aragorn slowly shook his head. “No, I think he can walk with our help, and if not, we will carry him. It is not that far. He will actually be much sorer in the morning.” Gilost groaned. Faelon gave the younger Ranger a sympathetic smile and walked away to take care of moving the camp.

“Rinse out this bowl and fill it with the rest of the water.” Aragorn handed a bowl to Halbarad who had been silently sitting next to him and had handed him water and bandages as he needed them. “How long have you had Suldal, Gilost?” he asked as he wrapped the last bandage around a deep scrape on the Ranger’s shin.

“A couple of years, but I’ve never tried to cross a river like that before.” Gilost paused briefly and then his eyes widened in fear as he looked up at his Chieftain. “We have to cross this again to get home.”

“We do. But do not concern yourself with that right now, there are other ways and places to cross this river.” Aragorn ignored the expression on Halbarad’s face, but he wondered if Daedaen noticed it, though the older Ranger made no comment.

“You two get him dressed while I clean up my supplies.” It was a slow process to get the injured Ranger into the dry clothes as the two men carefully maneuvered the driest clothing they had over the scrapes and bandages that dotted Gilost’s body. When they were finished, they poured dirt and sand on the fire and checked it thoroughly to make sure it was completely out before they left for the new camp. Gilost leaned heavily on Halbarad with his arm across his shoulder as they slowly walked through the woods in the growing darkness. Remlas, who was on watch, met them halfway to the camp and led them the rest of the way.

The men had made a place for Gilost close to the fire and he was soon settled down into it with the driest blankets that they had. Laegrist brought him a cup of broth and, much to his embarrassment, helped him drink it. As he finished the warm soup made from the dried meat they carried, Gilost lay back with a weary sigh and closed his eyes. He fell almost immediately into a deep sleep.

“Is anyone else injured?” Aragorn asked looking around the fire. He did not really think that anyone else was injured, but things had happened so quickly and he knew that sometimes people did not realize they were injured until things calmed down. There was a general shaking of heads and murmurs of no.

“Thank you,” he said to Maldathor as the Ranger handed him a steaming mug of tea and a bowl of soup. He greedily began eating the soup realizing just how cold he was in his wet clothes and he inched closer to the fire. There was no help for it, though. Gilost was wearing his spare clothing and the injured man needed them more than he did.

“What will we do in the morning, Captain?” Faelon asked glancing quickly at Gilost and then back at his Chieftain. “Will we be able to move on?”

Aragorn took several more sips of tea before he answered so that he could think about what would be best to do. “Gilost could ride on if we had to,” he replied. “However, I think that we are probably close to the area where the orcs crossed the river. A couple of men will stay here with him while the rest of us go and look for any sign of their crossing. Once we find their trail we will decide if we should go on tomorrow or wait another day. It will give Gilost at least a few more hours of rest.” Faelon and the other men nodded.

“We can all use the rest,” Faelon said as he glanced around at the rest of the Rangers. “I know I’m tired,” he yawned.

Biting back a smile, Aragorn echoed the patrol leader’s words. “I am as well. Set the watches and wake me if you notice Gilost moving about too much. He may need more willow bark tea.”

With quiet murmurs the men settled down to sleep, huddled close to the fire and to each other to keep warm without their blankets and with their still damp clothing clinging to them. But, none of that mattered because they were grateful that what could have been a horrible tragedy had been narrowly averted.

0-0-0

To be continued…

~~~

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


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