Watching Aragorn and Saelind together at the harvest festival, Halbarad guessed that Aragorn was at last learning Daeron's story. He himself, on his father's orders, circled among the people, welcoming them and asking after their farms and families.
"There is a lot of fear," he told his father the next day. "The rumors of Mordor and the Orc raid have set the people to sharpening their knives and hoes. They wonder if our guard is enough."
"So do I," said Hallor grimly.
"They also rejoice in Aragorn's return. That, more than anything we could do or say, gives them hope."
Hallor cupped his pipe in his calloused hand. "In that, too, I agree with our people. Arathorn would be proud of his son. But still some Rangers question his youth and training, and he knows it. He has asked to be sent on patrol, and I am happy to grant it. As it is, I fear I must keep Hawk at the Point till the council meeting. You and Aragorn must both go to the Point."
They left the next morning for the Rangers' main outpost in the Angle. Loaded down with pack, bedroll and weapons, Halbarad went to Aragorn's quarters and found him reverently placing Narsil on an ornate weapons rack that had been newly mounted on the wall.
"I hate to leave it, but fear even more for harm to come to it in the Wild," he said with an uncertain frown.
"It would be no aid, but a hindrance. Let it stay here safe. I'm sure Fíriel will not dare to dust it."
Aragorn chuckled. "Yes, she remains quite afraid of me. I had no idea I was so daunting."
In the stable their saddled horses were restless, blowing noisily with excitement when their masters appeared. Once out of the Keep, they gave the horses their head, and Brelach and Vingilot sprang forward at a gallop, neck and neck down the beaten path to the north. Halbarad reined his mount in first, and, laughing with the joy of it, watched Aragorn and Brelach flow like the wind. They were as one creature. At last they turned, and Brelach danced back down the path.
"Has he always been yours?" Halbarad asked.
"Say rather that I am his," Aragorn laughed. "He chose me from a foal, five years ago, and since he grew to a stallion I have ridden no other."
"And he will have no other rider, I suppose."
"He has his ways, tis true. Come, let's away! I chafe to fight our enemies."
They settled into a swift and steady pace. As they went, Halbarad described the Point. It, too, was Dwarvish work enlarged and altered by the Men of Númenor: Caves riddled the crest of hills that cut east and west across the Angle, and the Point, a stark abutment thrust into the northern part of the land, where few husbandmen lived, guarded the way to the Keep. There the largest cavern had been fitted to hold thirty men and a stable of twelve horses. Along the northern edge of the hills, a path wound through the rough boulders, in and out of tunnels, all the way to the farthest reach of the Angle: the Ranger station on the far shore of the river, where the Dúnedain traded goods and news with the traveling Dwarves from the Blue Mountains.
The autumn chill had settled into the bones of the country, and they slept back to back to share their warmth against the steely night. On the second day a grey rain began to fall, and they pulled their hoods low over their cold faces. The drizzle had hardened into a steady downpour when they rode into the yard behind the Point. Halbarad felt a moment of pity for the unfortunate sentry, whose broad hat was just visible over the rocky wall of the lookout.
Hawk, Malbeth, Goenor and Rodnor were within, repairing and cleaning their gear. A brisk fire threw shadows against the walls. Huan, with his companion, Carcharoth, dozed in the hearth's warmth.
"Damrod's aloft?" asked Halbarad.
"No, Rodnion," Hawk grunted.
"He's a man now, he says." Goenor's smile was broad, and he cocked his head at Rodnor, who swiftly bent his head over his chore. "This one knows better than to claim a few downy lip hairs as manhood. Damrod's on foot along the path, doing the daily check. He'll bring a few rabbits, we're hoping. Well, Aragorn, I see you've shed some of the Elven princeling. Good, rugged Ranger clothing, that."
Aragorn laughed. "Between my cousin Idhril and my grandmother, I am well outfitted."
Halbarad smiled to hear their banter. Here, at least, Aragorn was accepted—no, welcomed—as one of their own.
The days settled into the familiar vigilant tedium of patrol: long days walking the trails; watching from the lookout; at night the sound sleep of exhaustion when they slept in the safety of the cave. In the wild, sleep was a chance thing, grabbed in between watches and rain. They patrolled north to the Road and east to the Loudwater's sharp swing toward the mountains, where a wide ford provided the only way across the river between Rivendell and Tharbad. To the west, they shared the territory with Rangers stationed on the Hoarwell. Every day, whatever the weather, Aragorn insisted on sword practice, but otherwise they had little use for their weapons beyond the hunt for food. The growing danger had not come to the Angle itself. Yet, Halbarad told himself, as he sharpened his arrow points.
At last the rains cleared, the sky a brisk blue with a chill wind. For two days Halbarad and Aragorn had been scouting the rolling country near the Loudwater. Scanning the trees to the north for a possible sight of game, Halbarad felt a sharp tug on his arm, and turned to find Aragorn staring toward the steep incline down to the river, not a mile away.
A man struggled up the slope—a wounded man, dried blood encrusting his face, his arm dangling loose, his gait staggering with evident pain.
Halbarad cried, "May the Valar save us, it is Beleg," and leaped through the trees.
By the time he reached the wounded man, Beleg had collapsed on the ground with a scream of pain. Crouching at his side, Halbarad was relieved to see a glimmer of recognition in the man's anguished eyes. "Orcs." he panted, his voice harsh with pain. "Across the river." Then his eyes flew open, focused beyond Halbarad's shoulder. "Arathorn? Arathorn? Am I dreaming? Am I dead?" He fainted.
Aragorn stooped at Halbarad's side and laid his hands on the man's face. "Fever. Help me to get him to shelter while he's out."
They carried him to a brake of small evergreens and laid him on a heap of fallen leaves. Quickly Aragorn stripped his tunic from his arm and shoulders. "Water, hot water. Then you had better go summon the others."
Halbarad wasted no time talking. By the time he had fetched water and got it to a boil, Aragorn, too, was covered in blood, his face grim. Halbarad caught his breath in distress. "Will he live?"
"The wounds themselves are not grave. But exhaustion has aggravated the injuries. See? His clothes are damp. He swam the river, I guess, though how he did that with a broken arm, I wonder. A log, I suppose."
Beleg groaned and opened his eyes. "Arathorn. I am dreaming."
"I am his son," Aragorn said gently. "Tell us what happened."
"His son," Beleg said. "Yes, his son." He lifted his one good hand and let it fall on Aragorn's wrist. "Halbarad. Tell Hallor—Orcs. A troop of nine or ten. Across the river, by the Eye. They ambushed us. Talthar and Dúrphor are dead. Horses too."
"I am on my way." Halbarad grabbed his weapons and set off at a run.
He headed straight for the path along the hills toward the Point. For half a day he strode at a great pace; fear kept his feet moving long after his body would have given out. At last he found Damrod on horse; he mounted behind him for a swift gallop to the Point, where Hawk dispatched all men and horses. From the lookout Rodnion shot fire arrows—three for Orcs, a long pause, followed by two for east—to signal the next camp of the danger. "Truly, you are a man now," said Goenor, and there was no humor in his voice, "defending the Angle against Orcs."
"Six of us on horse can take nine or ten Orcs easily," said Hawk. "Let's go."
When they reached the dell where Aragorn waited at Beleg's side, the injured man was deep in sleep, bandaged and covered with Aragorn's cloak.
"He will be all right," Aragorn said. "He needs sleep, and food, when he wakes. Who will stay with him while we ride?"
"For that purpose I brought Rodnor," said Hawk.
Quickly Aragorn instructed the boy in the care of the wounded man.
"What other news?" Halbarad asked. "Did he tell you more?"
"No ordinary Orcs," Aragorn said, as he girded on his sword. He flung his pack across Brelach's back and leaped into the saddle. "They are Uruks from Mordor, and headed north and west. They will not stop for the sun."
They set out at great speed, following a horse trail hidden in the woods that led to the ford across Loudwater, then south to pick up Beleg's trail. All too soon they came upon the dead Rangers and horses, hacked, mutilated and butchered as for food.
Halbarad's stomach heaved, and he turned away, covering his eyes. Aragorn laid his hand on his shoulder. "They will be avenged."
"But we must leave them till that time," ordered Hawk.
"What, for the beasts? For wolves to prey upon?" cried Malbeth.
"Unless you wish more dead to join them, yes," said Hawk harshly. "The Uruks are hours ahead of us."
The rank ruin left by the monsters' brutal feet, trampling through the heather of the open downs to the east of the river, made a trail easy to follow, and on into the night the Dúnedain rode. They halted when the darkness made travel dangerous for the horses, and resumed the journey at first light.
As he rode, Vingilot moving like thunder beneath him, Halbarad's horror turned to fury and hate. The sharp weight of his sword at his side called out for the black blood of Orcs. In his mind he counted his arrows, and chose the best for his first shots.
Toward mid-day Hawk spotted the enemy and cried a warning. The horsemen regrouped, and swept down with the fury of a blinding storm as the Orcs broke and scattered with harsh cries, "Tarks! Curse them!" The first assault cut the Orcs' numbers in half. The remaining scouts turned to face their enemy, their heavy weapons at the ready, their cries of hate tearing the autumn air.
Their stench filled Halbarad's nostrils, their yellow eyes lit with the lust to kill. He saw Aragorn ahead of him, wheeling Brelach to chase down two Uruks fleeing into the trees. Morchamion flashed, and a powerful swipe sheered off the monster's head. Halbarad took aim to shoot his best arrow into the other Orc, when suddenly, with a wild cry resounding with fear, Aragorn threw out his arms and lurched in the saddle. Brelach reared, screaming, and in a tumble of helmet, shield and sword, Aragorn fell to the ground.
Halbarad's arrow went astray; he cursed, shouting, "To me! To me!" desperately hoping the others would hear. As Halbarad urged Vingilot toward the fallen man, the leering Uruk swing a spiked club toward Aragorn, who lay motionless, his sword fallen from his hand.
Neighing in fear and fury, Brelach reared and lashed out at the Orc with his hooves. The roaring monster swung his club at the horse, striking his shoulder. Brelach screamed again and lashed out even more fiercely, but the Orc's second swing smashed his leg. Yet again Brelach reared, slashing at the Orc with his good leg; the other a red mangle of bone and muscle. His blood spattered his fallen master as Halbarad lunged and took off the Orc's hand. Seemingly out of nowhere, Hawk leaped to his side, his bright blade flashing. The monster collapsed to the ground, his head cloven in two, the acrid smell of his black blood fouling the air.
His heart in his mouth, Halbarad dropped to Aragorn's side. "Aragorn, Aragorn, speak."
"He's breathing, but not conscious," Hawk said. "Find out where he is hit. I'll get Goenor."
Seeing no blood, Halbarad began to unlace Aragorn's leather tunic to search his body for wounds. Aragorn's eyes fluttered open. "Stop, I am not hurt, but from the fall," but he caught his breath with evident pain. "See to my horse."
"You were hit, I saw it."
"No," Aragorn hissed. "Brelach, now." For all his pain, his grey eyes commanded.
The horse's front left leg dangled, shattered where the club had hit. Brelach was quiet, turning inward to his pain, his eyes dull. When Halbarad approached him, hand stretched out to reassure, the horse bared his teeth with a wild gleam of his eye.
"He will not let me near him. I'm afraid his leg is ruined."
"I'm sorry." Halbarad knew what would have to be done. He knelt again at Aragorn's side. "Now let me look at you."
"I am all right." Wincing, Aragorn heaved himself up, and Halbarad braced his shoulder. He panted with pain. "I may have broken a rib or two. Help me up." Limping, he went to the horse, his left side stiff and drooping. He reached his arm over Brelach's fine neck, and murmured unheard words.
Hawk returned with Goenor then. Aragorn looked at him, his eyes as dull as the horse's. "The men?"
"Some wounds, nothing bad. You're the worst hurt, I fear. The Orcs are every one of them dead. They will carry no tales to their masters."
"I am not wounded." Aragorn turned back to the horse. "Oh, my friend," Halbarad heard him say, as he stroked the horse's soft muzzle. "What have I done to you?"
"Aragorn," Hawk said sharply. "You must lie down. Do not risk yourself this way."
Aragorn leaned his head against Brelach's proud neck.
"Aragorn," Hawk said again. "Must I order you to obey me?"
He turned to look at Hawk and Halbarad. "Put him down. I can't wield the axe with sufficient force, not with this arm," and he indicated his left shoulder. "Who is best for this task? I will have it quick."
Hawk met his eyes and held his glance for a long moment. "All right. Then you must see to yourself."
Aragorn nodded. Dashing the sweat and blood from his eyes, Hawk called to Goenor. "The horse," he said as the man approached. "You can see."
Goenor was bleeding from a cut on his cheek; black Orc blood smeared his chest. "I will fetch the axe."
"Come," Halbarad said. "The healer must look at your wounds."
With one last caress of the horse's soft muzzle, Aragorn turned away and allowed Halbarad to bear some of his weight. "You saved my life, both of you. I am in your debt."
Hawk nodded. "It is what we are for."
Struggling to move slowly, Halbarad half-led, half-carried his friend to the small fire where Malbeth was seeing to a slash in Damrod's shoulder. As he helped Aragorn to lie down, Halbarad heard the sound of the axe blow that ended Brelach's life. Aragorn moaned, grief and pain mingled on his face.
Halbarad stripped Aragorn's tunic and softly probed his badly bruised side. "What happened? Why did you fall? Did the horse throw you? I thought for certain you were hit."
Aragorn shook his head. "No, it was my fault. I lost my balance and threw all my weight on the reins. It was as if some dark creature seized me. I've never felt such a thing before."
"I don't understand."
"Nor do I." His voice was clipped and short through gritted teeth. "Bind my side, and get me a draught for pain."
As he worked Halbarad saw a wild light of panic in Aragorn's eyes, staring into the dark under the trees. "What is it? What do you fear?"
Aragorn grabbed his hand. "A black thing, with wings."
Dismayed, Halbarad wondered at this uncharacteristic flight of panic. "It's nothing, they are all dead. Sleep now."
He left Aragorn to help Damrod and Malbeth drag the bodies of the Orcs to a nearby ravine. He shuddered to touch their carcasses, even more hideous in death. Goenor and Hawk hauled stones to cover Brelach where he lay, in pain no more.
"What happened to Aragorn?" asked Damrod as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "Did the horse stumble?"
"He says no, he says it was his fault. I don't think he knows what happened."
Damrod shook his head. "Has he never fought Orcs before?"
Halbarad turned on him sharply. "He knows more of them than you or I."
"It doesn't look like it."
Malbeth shuffled his feet uneasily, but said nothing. And Halbarad saw his own doubt mirrored in their eyes, full of misgiving because their young chieftain had panicked in the test of battle.