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25
Chapter 25

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.

Author notes: I’m sorry for the very long delay, though I cannot promise that it wouldn’t happen again for the next, and final, chapter. Real life and issues that are explained in the author note at the end of this chapter are to blame. Hope you enjoy!


~~~

Maldathor and Remlas stayed behind in the camp to watch over a still sleeping Gilost as the rest of the Rangers headed off into the woods in the cool morning air. Deciding that they would move more quickly and quietly on foot in the rocks and debris that lined the banks of the river, Aragorn left the horses behind as well. Grey clouds hung low in the sky overhead allowing only a few weak rays of the sun to pierce the gloom as the five Rangers followed Aragorn as he headed back towards the Bruinen. It was light enough that the orcs should have denned up for the day, although he knew a sentry would have been posted and the men moved quietly and cautiously as they made their way through the woods.

Aragorn frowned as they arrived back at the river’s edge. The thought of what had almost happened still gnawed at him, but he pushed those thoughts firmly to the back of his mind to focus on what he needed to do. He kept Hirgon and Halbarad close to him as they crept downriver with bows in hand. Faelon, Daedaen, and Laegrist trailed them but kept back away from the river and just inside the tree line. Half a mile from where they had pulled Gilost from the water they found the orc tracks. While the most recent tracks showed the five orcs they had been following, it was obvious that the place had often been used as a crossing for orcs. Faint traces of older tracks remained, scattered in different places along the bank. The tracks led into the woods, but the trail angled downriver.

“We’re fortunate they didn’t hear us last night,” Hirgon commented in a low voice as they picked their way through the rocks following the trail into the woods.

“We are,” Aragorn agreed as he crouched down to study one of the older tracks and compare it to the freshest one only an inch or two away. “Are these the same?” He was trying to determine if they would be facing only the five orcs or, perhaps, many more of the creatures.

“I don’t know,” Hirgon admitted after a moment’s study. “It’s similar, but this one,” he pointed to the oldest track, “has worn away so much that I can’t tell if the heel of the boot is the same.”

Aragorn sighed. “That is my thought as well.” He glanced at Halbarad who gave a somewhat hesitant nod of agreement. The three men continued quickly along the trail, which the orcs had made no effort to hide, until they reached the trees. Aragorn signaled for the other men to join them so he could speak with Faelon.

“These orcs are in no hurry now,” Faelon said studying the tracks as he crouched down next to Aragorn.

“No, they are not. Either they feel safe because they have crossed the river or because they are near their den.”

“Or both,” Faelon added. “Are we going on or back to camp?” he asked in a low voice.

Glancing at the sun, though there was little need to do so for he knew less than an hour had passed since they had left camp, Aragorn scowled down at the tracks. He did not like the thought of leaving only the three men in camp with orcs in the area – especially with one of his men injured. But he needed to find the orc den and this early in the day would be the best time to seek them out. He turned his gaze back to Faelon.

“We will go on and see if we can find their den. If we do not find it in two hours, we will return.”

“And if we do find their den?” Faelon asked.

“We will decide what to do then. It will depend on what we find… what the den is like and how many orcs we think might be there. I am uneasy about lingering here any longer than necessary. I do not think these orcs will stay here long.”

Faelon nodded. “And they will likely pick up our scent if we stay this close to their trail. I think you should send someone back to tell Maldathor what we’re doing. It won’t take long and it will ease their worries when we don’t return as quickly as we said.” Aragorn nodded and they sent Laegrist back to the camp. As soon as the Ranger returned, they cautiously moved on.

Aragorn led the Rangers through the woods alongside the trail that the orcs had evidently been using for quite some time and he briefly wondered once again what had drawn them to this area. The forest floor on this side of the river had more bushes and ground cover than the western side, but still less than the area around Dolomar. He grew increasingly concerned that if the orcs had their den in the hills they were nearing - which seemed likely - they could easily be seen as they approached.

It was a faint noise that alerted Aragorn that the orcs were near. He froze and tried to locate where the noise was coming from. Glancing at the rest of the men he was not surprised to see that none of them appeared to have heard the faint snarling voices. He had realized some time before that his hearing was somewhat keener than his men’s. Aragorn thought his years in Imladris living amongst elves, whose hearing was so much better than his own, had forced him to pay close attention to his surroundings and to details that other men might miss. He turned to Faelon.

“There are orcs a short distance ahead. I think just beyond where the trail bends,” he said in a low voice as he pointed ahead.

“Do you hear something?”

Aragorn nodded. “It is very faint but, yes, I can hear orcs speaking. Only two, I think.” Faelon shook his head slightly.

“What would you have us do?”

Studying the trees ahead and the area around them while he thought, it took Aragorn only a moment to decide. “I believe it would be best if we circle well around and come at them from the other side. If I was on guard duty, I would be most closely watching this trail and would be less concerned about the other side.”

“Unless the other side has a trail leading away from here,” Faelon pointed out.

“It is not a perfect plan,” Aragorn conceded. “But… “ he shrugged, “we need to see what is there and I do not like the looks of this,” he gestured to the sharp bend in the trail around which they could see nothing.

Faelon nodded, “No,” he said slowly as he nodded his head, frowning. “Does… does this seem like a place they would have their den? It doesn’t seem rocky enough to have caves and I think if they’ve been here for as long as we suspect they would have more than just a crude shelter.”

Aragorn looked around the area once again and realized Faelon was right. While they had been slowly climbing as they left the river, it had been a gradual incline and they did not appear to be close enough to the hills to have reached any sort of rocky outcroppings that would suggest the presence of a cave. He shook his head.

“Perhaps it is simply a guard post, then, and the den is further away,” he said, frowning. That would make things much more difficult for they would then have to deal with two groups of orcs at the same time and it would split his already small number of men even further. Aragorn gave a small shrug, “Well, we cannot tell what it is from here, come.”

Gesturing for the Rangers to follow, Aragorn led the way slightly back down towards the river on a course that took them roughly parallel to the trail but well away from it. However, he could still occasionally hear the faint voices of the orcs as he and his men crept through the bushes. Ten minutes later they stopped and Aragorn gathered the men around him.

“Faelon, take Daedaen with you and head about fifty yards to my right before starting back towards where the trail should be. Hirgon, I want you and Laegrist to stay between me and Faelon. Signal if you see any sign of the den and I will respond. If you only see the guard post, then wait and give me the details when we meet back here again. I do not want to risk more signaling or movement in front of the guards than is absolutely necessary.” The two Rangers nodded. “Do not stay overly long, but scout the area as thoroughly as possible.” He paused and gave each of the men an intent look. “I do not know if you will need to cross the trail, but if you do, be very careful. I do not want to engage the enemy now.”

“Perhaps we should,” Hirgon said. “They’ll be sleeping now.”

“Yes, I have considered that, but I would first like to know how many we will be facing.”

“We may not be able to find that out,” Hirgon responded with a slight scowl.

“I know, but we will try nonetheless.” Aragorn said. Hirgon dropped his gaze and gave a single, abrupt nod.

Faelon gestured to Daedaen and the two of them melted off into the woods followed almost immediately by Hirgon and Laegrist. Aragorn glanced at Halbarad. “Keep to my left,” he directed before he started to move. A hand on his arm stopped him.

“What will you do if you cannot see how many orcs there are?” Halbarad asked.

“My sense is that there are not more than twenty of the creatures or else the tracks we have seen would have been even more distinct, or there would have been more of them. But, no matter how many orcs there are, we must destroy them. If we cannot see them, then we will simply have to be more cautious in our planning and try to plan for every possible response the orcs might make depending on the numbers they have.” He gave Halbarad a grim smile. “It is something I have done before, the first time was several years ago and I was with my brothers at the time. They did try to help me plan,” he added almost absently.

“I assume you defeated the orcs and your plan worked,” there was a hint of question in Halbarad’s voice.

“We did defeat the orcs in the end, but my plan did not work well and I was fortunate to be with elves and not with men or people would have died. Elladan and Elrohir spent a long time with me later explaining what I had done wrong and how I should have set up the ambush.”

“Why did they not tell you about it before you attacked?”

“They knew they could overcome the flaws in my plan with little danger to themselves and that I would best learn from my mistake by watching it unfold,” Aragorn shrugged. “And, I did. However, you will have to learn by listening to me and Faelon as we make plans. Now, come, we have lingered here far too long.”

They slowly and cautiously made their way through the woods. The voices of the orcs had ceased some time before and Aragorn wondered if they had heard or seen something stirring in the woods. As they neared the area where the trail should be located, they began to crawl, finally stopping when they reached the trail. Aragorn exchanged a quick, somewhat relieved glance with Halbarad as he pressed his body into the ground amongst the dense bushes.

Across the trail from them and to their right was a small clearing and there was indeed a cave of sorts. It was more an opening into the hillside that had evidently been started when a large tree had been blown over. The uprooted tree was still lying there with dirt clinging to its mass of roots. Much of the tree had been hacked away, probably to be used for the fire. The hole that the fallen tree had left behind appeared to have been enlarged to make a den for the orcs. That the orcs had used the area for some time could be seen by the tramped down grass and bushes, the dying trees they had hacked into, and the piles of filth lying scattered about.

As Aragorn took in the encampment he tried to imagine how many orcs might fit into the cave, which he could only see into a little way. He doubted it would be too large simply because he did not believe the orcs would be willing to dig very deeply into the hillside which meant there probably were not an overwhelming number of orcs inside it. Swallowing the relieved sigh he wanted to release, he gazed around searching for the sentries he had heard earlier. Halbarad’s slight gesture took his attention to the far left of the camp where Aragorn could just make out two orcs lounging under the low hanging branches of a large fir tree. The dim light they were standing in made it impossible for Aragorn to see anything other than their general size and shape.

A bird call that was just slightly different than the others that filled the air caught Aragorn’s attention and he recognized it as Laegrist’s voice. He whistled the calls that signaled he had seen what they were searching for and would return to their meeting place. After one last look around the area to memorize the location of trees, bushes, and rocks, Aragorn eased back away from the bush he was hiding behind and he and Halbarad began their cautious way back.

Aragorn and Halbarad were the first to arrive, but the other two groups quickly joined them. Faelon and Daedaen had discovered that the trail had narrowed and then ended not far past the clearing at a small spring. Hirgon and Laegrist had not seen anything different than what he had seen.

Frowning down at the ground as he thought, Aragorn turned the various options over in his mind. The six of them could attack now, but he did not like the idea of going into the cave where the orcs had the advantage with their superior vision in the dark. Of course, he and his Rangers would have the advantage of surprise, but without knowing the layout of the cave they could be trapped too easily, especially with an unknown number of orcs inside. He felt it was just too much of a risk.

The other choice was to come back near dusk and to ambush the orcs as they left their den. While the orcs would still have some advantage with their eyesight, if it was planned right and the orcs left the cave while there was still some light, Aragorn thought they could overcome that by the use of their bows. He would much rather fight the orcs in the open than in the confines of the cave. His decision made, he turned to his men.

“We will return to camp and come back here late this afternoon,” Aragorn said decisively. Seeing no questions from the others he led them back to camp. The return trip was much quicker – a little more than an hour – as they went directly to the camp instead of following the trail back down to the river.

Gilost was sitting by the small fire drinking hot tea when they arrived. After seeing that Maldathor and Remlas were nearby – caring for the horses – Aragorn joined him at the fire. “How do you fare?” he asked as he carefully looked Gilost up and down. Most of the man’s wounds were under his clothing making it difficult to check them at a glance. His battered hands were still swollen, but at least he was able to use them.

“I’m sore,” he admitted as he stared into the fire.

Aragorn could sense his embarrassment. “I would imagine so. Have you been up and walking around?”

“Yes. Did you find the orcs?” he finally looked up as he tried to change the subject.

“Yes. Where do you hurt the most?” Aragorn returned to the previous subject, hiding the smile that threatened at Gilost’s chagrined look. He glanced sidelong at some of the other men who had joined them and had begun to eat. None appeared to be paying attention to him and Gilost, however Aragorn knew they were listening to everything that was being said.

Gilost let out a soft sigh. “I don’t really know if one place is worse than any other, Captain. Maybe my head and arm where the stitches are, but I’m sore everywhere. But,” he hastened to add with an earnest, imploring look at Aragorn, “I can still fight the orcs. It’s not that bad, my lord.”

“I am sure that you could fight if it was necessary, but I need someone to stay here and guard the horses and I will leave you and Maldathor to do that,” he glanced at Maldathor who gave him a single nod in acknowledgement. Aragorn had decided that he would risk leaving the horses with only two guards in order to have one more man with him when they attacked the orcs. The camp was in a well-sheltered location and unless additional orcs crossed the river and stumbled upon them, they should be safe until the rest of them returned. However, he had decided to leave the older and more experienced Maldathor with the injured Gilost.

“Yes, my lord,” Gilost said with a grimace.

“I will make you some willow bark tea if you need something for the pain,” Aragorn offered.

“Maldathor made me some a little while ago.”

“Good,” he shot the older Ranger a small smile, “then I will leave you in peace while I eat.” He gently patted Gilost on the shoulder as he stood. Beckoning to Faelon and Halbarad, Aragorn pulled them aside and they planned the ambush as they ate.

0-0-0-0-0

Aragorn was uneasy as they lay in wait for the sun to set and the orcs to emerge from their den. Not knowing how many orcs were in there weighed heavily on his mind even as he tried to push those thoughts away. He knew there was nothing they could have done differently and that they were as prepared as they could be, but it did not stop him from worrying. He also knew that as soon as the battle started all such thoughts would disappear from his mind. Waiting for a battle to start was one of the hardest things he had to do, even more so now that he was a leader and he had time to second guess his plans.

The plan was really very simple. The seven Rangers were spread out along the trail facing the orc den with bows in hand. When it appeared that no more orcs were leaving the cave, Aragorn would signal them to shoot. Hopefully, that would take care of all of the orcs but none of them thought that it would be that easy. They did hope, however, that the orcs would not have their bows nearby and if, as they expected, the orcs hid behind the various rocks and fallen trees, then the men would be able to move forward and engage them with their swords before it grew too dark to see.

Glancing to his left, Aragorn realized dusk had fallen quickly and he could now barely make out the rough outline of Halbarad some ten feet away. Beyond his cousin were Daedaen and Faelon; to Aragorn’s right lay Laegrist, Remlas, and Hirgon. Noise in the orc’s camp caught his attention and he shifted his gaze to see that the sentries were moving from their spot beneath the trees. One began stirring up the fire while the other moved slightly to the side to relieve himself. The orc at the fire looked up and barked at him, Aragorn assumed he was cursing at him but he had no knowledge of the Black Speech. In any case, the orc growled right back at the first orc before stomping over towards the cave.

As he passed the orc at the fire, the second orc slapped him alongside the head with another threatening growl. Jumping to his feet, the orc quickly had his large hands wrapped around the other’s throat and the two fell to the ground yelling and growling as they rolled on the ground punching and biting each other.

Aragorn watched the two in awed amazement. He had never before seen orcs fight each other like this, though he had often heard them yelling what seemed to be curses at each other. It was so hard to tell what sort of things they might be saying since their language sounded so harsh. Another voice broke into the din as a large orc came out of the den and bellowed at the two orcs. They paid him no heed and he shoved two orcs that had followed him from the cave towards the orcs on the ground. Aragorn tightened his grip on his bow and began watching the entrance of the cave as the quarreling orcs were pulled apart.

More orcs came rushing from the cave and he carefully counted them even as he noted that none of them had bows, though most had swords in hand. Probably because they were uncertain of the cause of the disturbance, Aragorn thought. Raucous laughter filled the air over something that was said or done but Aragorn kept his eyes fixed on the cave entrance. There were nineteen orcs in the clearing when it appeared the last of them had left the cave. Several minutes had gone by without any other orcs appearing and Aragorn decided not to wait any longer. Night was quickly approaching and the orcs were still milling about… they could easily be heading off into the woods at any time.

Pursing his lips, Aragorn made the call to attack before quietly getting to his feet and, making sure he was hidden behind the tree as much as possible, he loosed his first arrow. He aimed for the leader and swore softly under his breath when the large orc turned slightly and his arrow pierced it’s right shoulder instead of it’s heart. Screams of rage and pain burst from the orcs as those still alive scrambled for cover behind the nearest shelter. Aragorn saw at least five orcs fall to their death from the first volley of arrows and more died or were wounded as each Ranger shot another arrow before all of the creatures made it to cover.

Knowing that full dark would be upon them soon, and that the orcs were confused and off balance, Aragorn gave the call to advance. He shouldered his bow before pulling his sword and advancing on the clearing. Moving slowly he kept a wary eye on the orcs while at the same time he watched for the rest of his men to join him as he crossed the trail. Seeing that they were with him, he quickened his pace and was quickly in the midst of the camp.

The orcs had recovered from their initial shock and as the Rangers appeared, they leapt to their feet snarling and growling with swords or knives in hand. The largest orc, still with Aragorn’s arrow sticking from his shoulder, barked what sounded like orders to the ten or so orcs who were able to fight and they formed a semi-circle around the leader.

Aragorn was surprised at such behavior from orcs who usually fought strictly for themselves in this sort of battle. He wondered if there were some secret this orc carried, and what hold he had over the rest of the orcs to bend him to his will in such a manner. However, having all of the orcs in one place made it easier for him and his men, especially as they were near the fire and the additional light was helpful.

The ringing sounds of steel meeting steel filled the air as the two sides came together in a furious clash of strength and fury. The orcs growled, snarled, and cursed at the Rangers as they fought while the men were silent as they concentrated on simply killing those they faced. Though, as they fought they were aware of the need to keep the orcs in the camp and to let none of them escape into the woods – either to get help from other orcs who might be close by or to attack Maldathor and Gilost.

As Aragorn battled a surprisingly skilled orc he saw, from the corner of his eye, Hirgon and Remlas each kill an orc and rush the leader of the orc troop. He focused back on his own fight and with a slight scowl he finally thrust aside the orc’s rusted sword and plunged his sword into it’s heart. Jerking the sword back out, he watched impassively as the creature fell to the ground. Glancing quickly around the clearing, Aragorn’s eyes were drawn to the cave and a slight movement he saw within the darkness. Was it only the light from the fire reflecting off some piece of metal or was there something hiding in the darkness? He stared intently, forgetting, for a brief moment, the still ongoing battle.

“Look out!”

Aragorn was roughly shoved in the back and he stumbled away, although he did not fall. He heard a loud yelp of pain, and turning watched in horror as an orc began to lower his blade towards Halbarad who was lying on the ground – obviously injured in some manner. Before Aragorn could reach the two of them, however, his cousin somehow found the strength to lift his sword and ram it deeply into the orc’s stomach. Black blood spurted out all over Halbarad’s face and upper body, but the force of the blow and the depth of the wound were enough to cause the orc to stagger backwards and it fell to the ground clutching its stomach and howling in pain as life began to seep from him.

Ignoring the dying orc, Aragorn raced to Halbarad who was struggling to sit up and wipe the sticky blood from his face at the same time.

“Let me help,” Aragorn cried as he dropped to his knees beside his cousin who was coughing and spitting out the foul black blood that had made it into his mouth. He quickly glanced over Halbarad for the source of his pain as he tore off a piece of his shirt. Pausing at the sight of red blood flowing from a long gash in Halbarad’s upper leg he swore softly before he turned back to look at his cousin and gently pushed him back to the ground. “Stay still,” he ordered gently, but firmly.

Halbarad shook his head and continued to try to sit up. Aragorn pushed him more firmly to the ground as he frantically looked around, finally remembering the battle. It was too dark now to see very far, but he could neither see nor hear any more orcs and he let out a sharp breath of relief as he turned his attention back to Halbarad. Grabbing his waterskin, he poured water on the torn piece of cloth and handed it to Halbarad before moving down to examine his leg.

“You should not have done that,” he scolded his cousin as he ripped and pulled back the torn legging from around the wound.

“What? Saved you from being killed?” Halbarad responded with a half smile that quickly turned to a grimace as Aragorn prodded the area around the injury.

“No, shoved me in the back,” he retorted. “It hurt.” The small smile on his lips did not reach his eyes as he guiltily remembered his distraction, which had caused Halbarad to have to rescue him and brought this pain to his cousin.

Halbarad chuckled briefly before clenching his teeth against the throbbing pain in his left leg.

“How is he, Captain? Do you need help?” Faelon asked as he and Daedaen crouched down next to them with a small burning branch in hand. Faelon laid a comforting hand on Halbarad’s shoulder.

“He is going to need quite a few stitches,” Aragorn replied as he glanced at the two men. “It is not too deep, but it is long.” He paused in his attempt to staunch the flowing blood to show them the gash. “Did any of the orcs escape? Is anyone else wounded?” he asked, glancing around the clearing once again, but all he could see were the dim shadows of his men reflected by the fire as they checked the cave and the bodies of the orcs.

“No one else has even a scratch, and we killed them all,” Faelon replied with a grim smile of satisfaction. “Do you want to move him to the fire?” he indicated Halbarad.

Aragorn thought for a moment and then shook his head. “No. I am going to simply cover and bind this and wait to clean and stitch it when we are back at camp. This place is filthy.” He indicated the refuse scattered in the area all around them.

“Daedaen, make a litter,” Faelon ordered the Ranger who was on his feet and moving away before he finished speaking.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Give me your waterskin.” Aragorn glanced briefly at Faelon as he held out his hand for it. “I have already used both mine and Halbarad’s.” Faelon passed it over without comment. With the blood stopped and the wound temporarily bandaged, Aragorn thoroughly washed his hands before reaching back into his small pack of healing supplies and pulling out a few pouches of various herbs and a small metal cup. He poured water into the cup and handed it to Faelon. “Heat this at the fire.” The older Ranger left without a word, though he did give his lord a searching look at the brusqueness of his manner.

His manner was gentler when he turned back to Halbarad. “How do you fare?” He frowned at the blood in his hair and the blood soaked shirt that his cousin was wearing, though he could do nothing about either of those things until they returned to camp.

Halbarad’s eyes opened briefly. “I hurt,” he said with a grimace.

“I am… sorry.”

Hearing remorse in Aragorn’s voice that went beyond concern for the pain he was feeling, Halbarad opened his eyes again and gave his cousin a puzzled look. “For what?”

“I did not see the orc… I was distracted…”

“You think you need to apologize?” Halbarad began slowly shaking his head as an incredulous look appeared on his face.

The arrival of the men with the litter interrupted their conversation. It was a simple thing made from the men’s cloaks and some hastily cut tree limbs, but it was sufficient for carrying Halbarad back to the camp. A small hiss and clenched fists were the only signs of pain that Halbarad showed as he was carefully lifted and placed on the litter. A cloak was gently tucked around him.

Aragorn took the lightly steaming cloth wrapped cup that Faelon handed him and, after an appraising look at his cousin, carefully measured out a number of herbs – the largest portion being willow bark – and poured them into the water. He swirled it gently and let it steep for a few minutes before bringing the cup to Halbarad’s lips.

“This will help with the pain,” he said quietly. He nodded at Faelon as the man slipped his arm around Halbarad’s shoulders and helped him sit up enough to drink the bitter tea. As soon as he was finished, the wounded Ranger closed his pain-filled eyes and lay back with a weary sigh. Aragorn grimaced inwardly and looked around at the rest of the men.

“Faelon, you lead the way. Daedaen, bring up the rear. The rest of you will help me carry the litter.”

As they began their slow walk through the woods, Aragorn was thankful for the rising of the moon that was just two days past full. The trees blocked much of the light, but enough filtered through to make their passage easier than it otherwise might have been. Still, it was slow going with the litter as they had to maneuver it between trees, around bushes, and over and around rocks and fallen trees. Halbarad, aided by the herbal tea Aragorn had given him, fell into a restless slumber not long after they left the orc camp.

It took close to two hours to reach their camp. As they drew near, Faelon hurried ahead to prepare the things Aragorn would need. The fire was built up and several pots of water were boiling by the time the rest of the patrol arrived. Halbarad was gently set down by the fire. Aragorn looked to Maldathor and Gilost before he started tending to his cousin.

“Did anything happen while we were gone?”

“No, Captain, it was quiet here,” Maldathor reported frowning with concern at Halbarad. Gilost simply shook his head as he slowly and carefully knelt down opposite Aragorn.

“How do you fare?” Aragorn paused in his search through his larger pack of healing supplies and giving him an appraising look.

“I’m well,” Gilost replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Will he be all right?”

“Yes, the wound is not deep. I helped him to sleep on the way back to lessen his pain, but he should be on his feet in a day or two.” Aragorn resumed his search, finally pulling out the leather folder of very sharp knives of various sizes that he was looking for. Glancing around he gave a satisfied nod as he saw that Faelon was quietly directing the men to do what needed to be done around the camp before they ate and settled down for the night. After thoroughly washing his hands once again, he turned back to his patient.

Aragorn neatly sliced through the bandage and peeled it back using the tip of the blade. He stopped, dismayed, at the sight that greeted him. The wound was swollen and the edges looked inflamed and he swore. The sword had been poisoned…or, he reminded himself sternly, it could simply have been the filth of the orcs themselves that had covered the blade. Either way, what had been a relatively minor wound had just turned much more serious… perhaps even deadly. He bit his lip to keep from groaning aloud when he looked up at Halbarad’s face to find it pale and beaded with sweat. How had he not noticed that before?

“It is infected?” It was more of a statement than a question that came from a visibly concerned Gilost.

“Or poisoned,” he replied grimly. He very lightly touched one edge of the wound and, as he expected, it felt hot. Halbarad flinched at his touch and moaned softly. Aragorn was no longer sure if his sleep was from the tea he had been given or from the fever he obviously had. He looked around for Faelon and was startled to discover the man was standing at the end of the litter with a scowl on his face.

“I am going to need more water… for poultices. I will not be able to stitch this just yet.”

“Do you want someone to go back for the sword?”

Aragorn shook his head. “No, if it is a poison or simply a filthy blade that is causing this, I would treat it the same. I do not have as many types of herbs as at home, but I should have something that will help,” he replied worriedly. “Athelas if nothing else,” he said almost under his breath as he turned back to Halbarad.

“I’ll get the water,” Faelon said as he went to gather waterskins and the last of the cooking pots. Hirgon joined him while the rest of the Rangers began congregating on the far side of the fire away from where Aragorn was working on Halbarad.

Quickly thinking about what he knew of orcs and the poisons they used, Aragorn pulled open two pouches of herbs and measured a small amount in a cup. He hesitated briefly as he looked at the athelas wondering if he should add some of those leaves to the tea. Deciding that the athelas might best be used to sooth and strengthen Halbarad and that the herbs he had were effective in counteracting poisons orcs were known to use, he did not add any. He added a small amount of water – it needed to be strong – and set it down to steep, while he ground the herbs he needed for the poultice.

“Gilost, lift his head up a bit, we need to get him to drink this,” Aragorn said as he picked up the cup of tea.

“Halbarad, wake up,” Aragorn said softly as he leaned forward over him. His cousin stirred and a frown darkened his face but there was no other response. “Come, Halbarad, I have something for you. Wake up,” he said in a cajoling voice. The injured man’s eyes fluttered open briefly and then narrowed to slits. “You need to drink this,” Aragorn said more sternly now that he had his attention, knowing that it was very bitter and needing him to drink it anyway.

Halbarad took one sip and started to gag. Aragorn stopped, frowning as he sat back and looked at him while Gilost gently patted his back. “Halbarad, I know this tastes horrible, but you must drink it. Please.” Opening his eyes a bit wider, Halbarad gave him one small nod and swallowed hard as Aragorn brought the cup back to his lips. Slowly, sip by sip, he downed the cup of bitter liquid. A cup of cool water followed that before he was allowed to lie back down.

Now Aragorn had to thoroughly clean out the long gash. It ran almost all the way across the front of his left leg about five inches above his knee. Taking a deep breath he picked up a cloth and began to clean the wound with the herbal solution he had prepared. At the first touch of the damp cloth, however, Halbarad opened his eyes again, crying out in pain and jerking his leg away. Aragorn spoke soothingly to him until his eyes closed and his breathing slowed. He looked around.

“Gilost, hold his head and arms still. Daedaen, Laegrist, come and hold down his legs.” Aragorn tried again and the sound of his cousin’s pain made him work quickly, though not so quickly that he did not clean the wound thoroughly. He did not need to make the situation any worse than it already was. He laid a clean cloth over the wound when he was finished and began preparing a poultice to draw out the infection. As he was grinding the herbs, Aragorn glanced at Gilost.

“There are more clean cloths in my pack, wet one with cool water and start wiping down his face and forehead - it will help bring his fever down.” Gilost gave him a blank stare for a moment, then shook himself and reached for the pack.

“Do you want us to clean him up and change his shirt?” Faelon asked as he suddenly appeared once again.

Aragorn finished the warm poultice and began laying it in the wound as he started to answer Faelon. Halbarad struggled against it and the men held his leg still until Aragorn finished. He placed a light dressing over the poultice and a heavier bandage over that to hold in the warmth and to keep it in place. It would have to be changed every few hours until the infection was gone. He finally answered Faelon.

“Go ahead and clean him, but do it quickly. He needs to be kept warm.” Already turning to steep the athelas, Aragorn missed the slight frown that crossed Faelon’s face.

Halbarad had been cleaned and his shirt had been changed by the time the athelas was ready. When the bowl was set by his head, a faint scent of baking bread was released and Aragorn watched as the lines of pain on his cousin’s face softened somewhat. He frowned when he felt Halbarad’s forehead and discovered how hot it was.

“This came on quickly,” Faelon said, indicating the fever, as he laid a blanket over Halbarad who had begun to tremble slightly.

Aragorn nodded. “It is not a good sign,” he said in a low voice that was full of worry. “Wipe the cloth around the back of his neck as well,” he directed Gilost.

“Will you see to the watches and such?” Aragorn asked Faelon. “I need to tend him throughout the night.”

“The watches are already set, Captain.” The older Ranger hesitated before continuing with a wary look. “Some of us can also sit up with him, Captain. I can change a poultice and dressing, I’ve done it quite often.”

Aragorn shook his head. “No, I will do it,” he replied more sharply than he had intended. “It was my fa… I will do it,” he repeated stubbornly. “He must be watched over very closely tonight.”

A quickly masked look of understanding crossed Faelon’s face and he bowed his head almost imperceptibly. “All right, Captain.” He had seen what had happened during the battle and recognized the guilt Aragorn was feeling. He patted Aragorn’s shoulder before walking around the fire to get his supper.

0-0-0

It was quite late and Aragorn had taken over the cooling off of Halbarad’s face and neck for Gilost and sent him off to sleep several hours before when a low voice intruded on his dark, brooding thoughts. “Captain?” Maldathor squatted down next to Aragorn and held out a cup of tea and a few strips of dried meat. He took the tea, but waved off the meat.

“I am not hungry,” he whispered, mindful of the sleeping men around the fire.

The Ranger hesitated before setting the meat on a nearby log, he knew his Chieftain had not eaten supper. “I’ll leave it here, you might get hungry later.” He glanced down at a restlessly moving and quietly mumbling Halbarad. “How does he fare?”

“Not well, the fever has still not broken.” He sipped at his tea and stared worriedly down at his cousin before shifting his gaze to Maldathor. “Why are you not sleeping?” He glanced over to where he could dimly make out Daedaen at the edge of the clearing.

Maldathor shrugged, his eyes puzzled. “There are two of us on watch. Faelon thought it necessary in case there are other orcs around.”

“Yes, of course,” Aragorn replied annoyed with himself for not realizing that. How had he missed Faelon assigning them that duty? he wondered as he sipped pensively on his tea.

“I best return to my duty,” Maldathor said as he stood. His Chieftain nodded absently.

0-0-0-0-0

An hour before dawn, Aragorn prepared to change the poultice once again. It had been a long night. Halbarad was still feverish, though he thought the temperature had dropped a tiny bit after he had pushed his cousin into a healing sleep sometime after midnight. Aragorn had grown increasingly concerned about the fever and his inability to lower it and thought perhaps the healing sleep would help and it appeared to be working… so far. He groaned softly and ran his fingers through his hair when he removed the poultice. Small, greenish pockets of pus were forming along the edges of the wound. The poultices were obviously not working to draw out the infection as he had hoped.

Frowning as he stared at the pus, Aragorn considered what to try next to stop the spread of the infection. There were a few other herbs he could try, but he sensed that they would do no more good than what he had already been using. It would have to be athelas then. He had not used it on the wound because he thought the poultices had been drawing out the infection and he had wanted to use the athelas to strengthen and refresh Halbarad, and to help combat the fever. It would take quite a few of the healing leaves each time he needed to replace the dressing and his supply was already growing low. He did not know if athelas grew in this area. As far as he knew no Dúnedain settlements had ever been on this side of the Bruinen and athelas was normally only found near places the Dúnedain had lived. Deciding that he really had no choice, Aragorn took out a few leaves and began to prepare them.

As he waited for the water to boil, Aragorn became lost in his own thoughts – as he often had during the long night. How could I have let this happen? How could a small flicker of motion in that cave so completely draw my attention away from my surroundings? I know better than to be so distracted. It was a lesson I started learning from Glorfindel and my brothers when I was very young… to stay focused on the battle and my immediate surroundings. What if Halbarad dies? How will I live with myself? I know that he has pledged to protect me, but if he dies because of my own carelessness I will never forgive myself.

A long, deep sigh escaped Aragorn’s lips as he lightly bruised the leaves, blew on them and added them to the water and he stared at it broodingly as he waited for the athelas to steep. He started wondering if he should tell the men what had happened... why Halbarad was injured. He wondered what their response would be and he tried to imagine what his own response would be if someone confessed that to him, but he was not able to do that. Carefully fishing the athelas leaves from the water one at a time, Aragorn shook the excess water from them before neatly placing them in the long gash. Covering the wound with a damp dressing and then a loose bandage only took a moment and he sat back with a grim smile knowing there was nothing to do now but wait.

Aragorn glanced at Gilost as the Ranger gingerly sat down beside him. “His fever is down,” he observed quietly.

“Some. I put him in a healing sleep and it seems to have helped, but the infection is worsening.”

“Can I do anything?”

“Not yet,” he replied glancing up at the lightening sky. “I need more athelas and if you are able to walk easily, then you and some of the others will need to go and look for some. I do not know if it grows near here, though, our people did not live on this side of the Bruinen.”

Gilost shrugged. “Then we will cross the river and find it on the other side. There must be some in the woods near there. Our people did live along the river there in the distant past.”

Aragorn twisted slightly so he could look the Ranger full in the face, amazed that he would make such an offer after what he had just experienced in crossing the river.

“Of course I would cross the river again to try and find something that would help save his life,” Gilost said with a faint smile as he gazed at Aragorn. “I would do it for anyone, but he’s a good friend and I’ve known him since he was born. Besides,” he shrugged again, “I’ll have to cross it again as soon as you decide he’s able to travel.”

“I do plan to cross here so that we can get him home more quickly,” Aragorn acknowledged. “But I had thought to send some of us down to Taurnand to cross at the ford. There is no need for all of us to cross at this spot and it should be safe enough to split up.”

“You mean to send me,” Gilost said with a rueful smile and Aragorn gave a small nod. “There is no need, I will cross here,” the Ranger stated adamantly. “I cannot always cross rivers at a ford, Captain.”

“No, you cannot, but…” Aragorn paused for a moment as he thought. Gilost was right. He should not try to protect him… there was no doubt he was going to have to cross other rivers in the future and avoiding it now might only increase his fear. His decision made, he gave the Ranger an intent look as he continued in a quiet voice, “Then we will all cross here.”

“Good. I’m going to get us breakfast,” Gilost said as he stood up. “After that, I’ll go and find some athelas.” He walked away before Aragorn could say anything else.

0-0-0

Shortly after noon, Aragorn called Halbarad awake. The fever seemed to be rising once again and Aragorn wanted him to drink water and some athelas tea that he hoped would lower it. It was the last of his athelas and the men he had sent out searching for more had not returned. So far the athelas had seemed to have had little or no effect on the wound, but it had not gotten any worse either.

Halbarad’s pain-filled eyes opened slowly and his gaze wandered around before finally settling on Aragorn. “I still hurt,” he said hoarsely and then coughed. He grimaced at the pain even that slight jarring caused his leg.

“I know. Here, drink this.” Aragorn raised Halbarad’s head slightly and helped him drink tiny sips of water.

“Thank you,” he whispered as he lay back, shivering. “Wh-when are we going home?”

A ghost of a smile crossed Aragorn’s lips. “You are not quite ready to travel. Here, this will not taste pleasant, but you need to drink all of it.”

“What’s it for?” he eyed Aragorn suspiciously.

“For the fever,” he replied patiently. He was starting to raise his cousin’s head again when Faelon knelt down and slipped his arm under Halbarad’s shoulders. Aragorn gave him a small nod before he once again helped Halbarad drink. The injured man wrinkled his nose in disgust at the taste but drank the tea without comment before lying back with a weary sigh.

Halbarad’s gaze drifted between the two men with a concerned expression. “D-did we get them all? Is anyone else hurt?”

“Everyone is fine,” Faelon answered as he gently patted his shoulder. “And I watched you kill the last orc,” he continued. He wanted Aragorn to know that he had seen what had happened. Maybe it would help the younger man speak with him about the guilt he was carrying.

“Good.” The confusion appeared on his face once again. “I thought… I thought this wasn’t a very bad injury… “ his voice trailed off and he pulled his blanket around himself against the chills that wracked his body.

“The injury itself was not, but the blade was either poisoned in some manner or was simply filthy. Whichever it was, by the time we returned here, infection had set in and that is why you are feverish. We need to lower the fever and stop the infection from spreading.” A worried look filled his eyes and darkened his countenance.

“Oh. You’ll find a way to stop it, Aragorn,” although weak, his voice was full of confidence. As were his eyes behind the pain.

Aragorn did not respond to that. “I am going to send you back to sleep, I believe that will help you more than anything else.” He reached out, laying his hand on Halbarad’s hot, sweaty forehead and sent him back into a healing sleep. When his cousin was deeply asleep, he ran his fingers down to his neck to check his pulse. It was as he suspected, the pulse was faster than it had been which indicated the fever was going up again. He swore softly.

“What is it?” Faelon asked with concern.

“His fever is going up,” he replied frowning. “Perhaps the tea will help,” he murmured glancing at the older man.

“I’m sure it will.” Faelon watched his Chieftain adjust Halbarad’s blanket and begin to wipe his brow with a cool cloth once again. “You need to get some rest, Captain.” Aragorn had barely left Halbarad since he’d been injured.

“I am not tired.”

“Yes, you are,” Faelon stated firmly. “You do not need to do this on your own, my Lord Aragorn.”

Aragorn looked up in surprise at his tone and the use of his title. Faelon had called him captain since their time with the bandits. Most of the men did. “No, I suppose not,” he said, sitting back with a weary sigh and rubbing at his eyes.

“He may need you even more tomorrow or the next day,” Faelon said softly. “You must sleep, my lord. I will do this for you… for him.”

“I am not sure I can sleep,” he replied with a low voice. “However, I will let you do this for a time and I will try. At least I will rest my body.” If not my mind, he added silently to himself. Aragorn handed the cloth to Faelon. He stood up and stretched his stiff and sore body for a moment before walking to the edge of the clearing.

As Aragorn stared blankly out into the woods, he ran his fingers through his hair as he considered Faelon’s words. Not just his words, but also the fact that many of the men had come and offered to help – both during the night and again this morning – and Aragorn had turned them all away. Well, he said disparagingly to himself, except to let them go off and hunt for the athelas. Was it that he did not trust the men, or was it his own guilt that made him want to care for Halbarad by himself he wondered. Mostly it was guilt, he decided after a moment of honest reflection. While none of the men were healers that did not mean that they could not sit with Halbarad and cool him off as Faelon was doing now. He could easily be woken up if there was need for his skills. It was simply easier for him to care for his cousin by himself. It helped both to sooth his guilt-ridden conscious and to keep him occupied so he did not have too much time to think about what he had done.

But his mind whirled with not only the thought of Halbarad dying, but of the infection spreading up his leg and him having to make a choice whether or not to take his leg. Aragorn did not know if he had the strength in him to make such a decision. Would his cousin want to live a life without his leg? Would he even survive such a drastic surgery here in the wild? Would he want to live the rest of his life in the village? Could he live such a life and truly be happy? He thought about Ladreníl and the loss of his eye and the damage to his leg that kept him in the village now. He seemed happy enough, but then he had been a much older man who was married and had grown children when it had occurred. The adjustment, while difficult, had probably been easier than what Halbarad would face as a very young man without a leg. Aragorn shook his head in frustration at the thought of his cousin limping around the village doing… something. He could not even imagine that and he pushed those thoughts and the guilt he felt aside.

Turning, Aragorn glanced around to see where the rest of the men were. Hirgon was on the far side of the clearing near the horses and Remlas was on the opposite side towards the river, the other four men were still out looking for athelas. Deciding that where he was at was as good as place as any to rest, he sank to the ground leaning back against a tree where he could keep an eye on Halbarad. He knew he would not sleep, but, as he had told Faelon, rest would be good for his body. He yawned. His eyes slowly slid shut.

0-0-0

Aragorn started awake. He looked around wildly his eyes wide with fear, his heart racing as he reached for his sword to kill the orc… no… it was only a dream… a nightmare. He scrubbed at his face and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. It had seemed so real. Halbarad had not been able to kill the orc and the orc’s blade had come down stabbing his cousin through the heart. His pain and cries of anguish had been horrible to watch and listen to.

Shaking his head to try and clear the images from it, Aragorn glanced around the clearing realizing as he did so that it was only an hour or so before full dark. Dismayed, he scrambled to his feet and hurried over to where Gilost and Faelon were tending to Halbarad. “Why did you let me sleep so long?” he asked Faelon sharply as he knelt down next to Halbarad. He did not wait for an answer as he turned to Gilost. “Did you find any athelas?”

“Yes.” The Ranger handed him a leather pouch stuffed with small leaves. “I’m sorry it took so long, but they were small plants and hard to find.”

“It does not matter,” Aragorn gave him a grateful smile. “He will need it.” He took a deep breath and shifted his gaze back to Faelon. “Forgive me, I should not have spoken to you that way.” The man nodded. “How does he fare?” Aragorn ran his hands lightly over his cousin’s still hot forehead before taking his pulse which seemed to have slowed.

“There hasn’t been much change, if any.”

“His pulse has slowed… so the temperature should drop as well. I will change the dressing and clean the wound out again.” As Aragorn cut off the bandage and peeled back the dressing he examined the wound carefully. The pockets of pus had not re-formed and he sighed softly before glancing up at the other two men with a brief smile.

“The paste I made from the athelas seems to have worked to stop the infection… at least from spreading any further. I will…”

“Is he getting better?” Remlas called from the other side of the fire.

Aragorn looked up to see the concerned faces of the other Rangers watching him. “I think so,” he said, “but it is too soon to know for certain. I believe the infection has stopped spreading.” He saw relief fill the eyes of the men before they returned to their supper, though he noticed that they kept one eye on what he was doing.

0-0-0

By midnight it was clear that Halbarad’s fever had broken. Aragorn felt himself relax somewhat as the chills that had caused his cousin’s body to tremble for the last day and a half lessened and finally stopped. The sweat that had poured off of Halbarad and soaked through several changes of shirts also stopped and Aragorn and Daedaen cleaned and changed him once again, borrowing clothing from one of the other Rangers. Checking the wound, Aragorn saw that the pus had dried up entirely. The edges were still a little red and swollen, but not warm to the touch. He cleaned it again.

“He’s going to survive, isn’t he?” Daedaen whispered.

“He is,” Aragorn said firmly and without a doubt in his mind.

“I knew you would save him.”

Aragorn cringed inside.

0-0-0

Faelon took over for Aragorn a couple of hours before sunrise so that he could get a few hours of sleep. Aragorn went without protest this time, wrapping himself in a blanket and lying down only a few feet away from Halbarad. Faelon just shook his head.

0-0-0

After checking his wound at mid-morning and finding that the swelling had not returned, Aragorn awoke Halbarad. He watched closely as his cousin blinked and slowly opened his eyes. There was still a measure of pain in those grey eyes, but the overwhelming pain he had been in seemed to be gone. He and Gilost helped him slowly drink a cup of water.

“How do you fare?” he asked softly.

Halbarad frowned as he considered the question. “Better… better than I was. My leg,” he glanced down at it, “still hurts somewhat, but not as badly.”

“Good. We were able to stop the infection and your fever finally broke last night. I believe you are going to live.” The small smile on his lips did not match his slightly uncomfortable expression.

“I know.” Halbarad frowned at the look on his cousin’s face. “I knew that I would. Can we go home today… well, tomorrow anyway,” he amended at the incredulous look that appeared on the face of both Aragorn and Gilost.

Chuckling, Aragorn shook his head as he replied. “I will not even be able to stitch this until tomorrow, Cousin. We may be able to leave the day after that.” He patted Halbarad’s shoulder gently. “Now, would you like something to eat? We have some…”

“I’m famished! I’ll eat anything!”

Smiles and quiet laughter broke out from the men scattered around the clearing as it was made perfectly clear that Halbarad was well on his way to a full recovery.

~~~

Reviewers: Thanks to everyone who reads the story and especially to those who review, I appreciate the encouragement. I will TRY and answer everyone by email if I have an address.

Author’s Note: I am not a doctor nor do I have any type of medical training beyond basic first aid. I used the resources at the HASA site, the Yahoo group FanFic Medicine, and a couple of Internet medical sites specifically regarding fevers. My goal was to write a plausible chapter regarding Halbarad’s injuries without getting too graphic or specific and I hope I was able to accomplish that.

Part of the delay in this chapter also had to do with making this chapter fit in with my other long story, ‘In Aragorn’s Safekeeping.’ This incident was mentioned a couple of times in that story and so I had to make sure that everything fit together, which ended up being much more difficult than I thought it would be. When I wrote ‘Safekeeping’ I never intended to write this story and so there were no other characters beside Aragorn and Halbarad in my mind and there were just a few sketchy details and meshing those things all into a coherent story was tricky. However, on the positive side, this chapter was the whole reason that I even started this story. I was just intending to write the back story for this event… and it went a little beyond that. :)


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