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34
Protectors

2MeM Challenge Injuries and other ailments - Black Breath. Song lyrics - The Dark Lord rides in force tonight and time will tell us all; All Ocs, all the time - a twin; Rangers of the North- Arador, Dirhael. Botany - Common mushroom; Beasts - goose; Snippets of verse- arts hid causes are not found; Waters- underwater view

Format: short story

Genre: angst, humour, hurt/comfort

Rating: PG13

Warnings: mild horror, mention of injuries

Characters: Aragorn, Halbarad, OMCs, OFCS

Pairings: none

Summary: Aragorn protects his people in many ways.

These characters all belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. This story was written for pleasure and not for financial gain.

Dedicated to shirebound .

The verse and some lines are taken directly from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings".

B2MeM Challenge Injuries and other ailments - Black Breath. Song lyrics - The Dark Lord rides in force tonight

Gilavir knew that the Rangers were the protectors of the free peoples of Middle-earth and usually accepted his duties gladly and without question. He did sometimes wonder, though, why their Chieftain insisted they concentrate so much on protecting the Shire. It was one of the most peaceful and prosperous regions that he knew, while its inhabitants, the Hobbits, seemed interested in little more than the food that grew there in abundance. The Rangers usually managed to remain unobserved by the Hobbits. On the few occasions they were noticed, they were regarded with hostility and suspicion. It did not seem to trouble Aragorn.

"It is our duty to protect them from the fell creatures that would harm them," he said. "If they knew what lurked outside their borders, they would not sleep easy in their beds."

"Soft goose feather beds, no doubt," Gilavir muttered to himself one morning as he awoke on the hard ground.

"What?" Aragorn was wide- awake and tending their campfire.

"I was just thinking how nice it would be to sleep in a feather bed," said Gilavir.

"When the Dark Lord is defeated we can sleep in feather beds every night," said Aragorn. "Until then, count your blessings that today I let you sleep on until after sunrise and have cooked mushrooms for your breakfast!"

Gilavir laughed. He scrambled to his feet then he made his way into the nearby bushes. Much to his surprise, he encountered a plump goose, which regarded him with beady eyes. For a moment, he thought wistfully of roast goose to accompany the mushrooms, but the bird was plump and sleek, suggesting that it belonged to someone. He beat a hasty retreat. His grandmother kept geese and they were fierce birds.

The goose followed him, though, when he went to a nearby stream to wash his hands and face. It pecked at the fresh grass at the water's edge.

Gilavir paused for a moment watching the minnows swimming between the rocks. It seemed a pity to disturb such a peaceful underwater scene for his morning ablutions, but the Chieftain insisted on cleanliness, repeatedly telling his men that Master Elrond had taught him that not washing led to all manner of diseases.

The minnows darted away the instant his hands touched the water. Gilavir washed as quickly as he could and returned to the campfire.

"There was a goose in the bushes that followed me to the stream," he told Aragorn.

The Chieftain laughed. "At least there were no noisy snails this time you went to answer nature's call!"

Gilavir flushed, recalling one of his first night watches.

The two Rangers began their breakfast. "Beleg and Maglor are taking over guarding the Shire," said Aragorn. "We are to meet up with Halbarad and his grandson near the Barrow Downs, then journey on to the Coldfells north of Rivendell."

Gilavir's eyes widened. "Are we hunting hill-trolls?"

"I hope not, lad," said Aragorn. "My father drove them out of their nest after Arador was slain. We are hunting Orcs. Master Elrond's scouts spotted a raiding party on the very borders of Rivendell."

"My grandsire often spoke of Chieftain Arador before he died," said Gilavir. "He would tell me tales of his great deeds."

"You were fortunate to know your grandsire, lad," said Aragorn. "Arador was slain before I was born and I do not remember Dķrhael, my mother's sire either. He was for a while acting Chieftain during my childhood before being slain in battle. His death greatly grieved my mother, as he had been much opposed to her marriage and they were never fully reconciled."

"My grandsire said Chieftain Arathorn was a mighty man like his father," said Gilavir. "Surely he would see the marriage as a great honour?"

"If you ever have a daughter you will understand," said Aragorn. "My father was indeed respected, but he was much older than my mother. My grandsire foresaw that their time together would be short. My mother told me, though, it was better by far to enjoy a few short years with a great man, than a lifetime with a lesser one. It is better not to marry at all than to wed unwisely." He fell silent and remained lost in thought for a few moments.

Gilavir remained silent, knowing better than to question his Chieftain over such a delicate matter. He finished his mushrooms and washed his plate in the stream, together with Aragorn's.

The Rangers mounted their horses and set off towards where they planned to meet Halbarad and his grandson in the wilds surrounding the Shire. It was sparsely populated here, apart from a few isolated farmsteads, so they cantered openly along the road. Mushrooms grew profusely in the ditches and stopped to fill their saddlebags with some for their next meal.

Suddenly, they espied a small Hobbit lass crying by the roadside. She was a pretty little thing, with brown pigtails, tied with ribbons and clad in a pink checked frock.

"Should we stop to see if we can help?" Gilavir asked.

"Let us see if any of her kin are around first," said Aragorn. "We do not wish to alarm the child, but we must ensure that she takes no harm."

They slowed the horses to a walk and kept a sharp look out. To their amazement, when they rounded the next bend in the road, they saw another little Hobbit lass, identical to the first in every respect, even her tears.

"Am I seeing double?" asked Gilavir. "I have drunk only water!"

"I can see the same," said Aragorn. "I think we should speak to her." He dismounted from his horse and dropped to his knees a little way from the child. "Are you hurt?" he called.

"Ma says I mustn't speak to strangers," said the child. "Especially not Rangers!"

"We will not hurt you," said Aragorn. "It is not safe for you and the other little lass to be so far from home. Where do you live? We will go and fetch your parents".

"We can't go home," said the child. "We've lost the goose we were supposed to be looking after and ma and da will be ever so cross!"

Gilavir also dismounted and dropped to his knees beside Aragorn. "I saw a goose back yonder," he said. "It was eating grass beside a stream".

"That's Goosie!" said the little girl. "She is always wandering off after fresh grass."

"We will try and find her for you," said Aragorn. "Is the other little lass your sister?"

"I'm Pansy and she's Tansy," said the child. "We are twins."

"Ah, that is why you are so alike!" Gilavir exclaimed.

"We're not alike!" Pansy said indignantly. "Tansy has more freckles on her nose and she always wears red hair ribbons, I have blue ones!"

Aragorn smiled. "I see now that you are quite different," he said. "Go now and re-join your sister. We will catch the goose for you. Why don't you gather some mushrooms while you wait?"

"Mushrooms?" Pansy's face lit up as she scampered off.

"Now we catch the goose," Aragorn said grimly.

An hour or so later, two weary and bedraggled Rangers had finally reunited Goosie with the grateful twins. They looked as if they had just fought a major battle as Gilavir's hand had been pecked and Aragorn's breeches torn. They escorted the little girls to the gate of the farm where they dwelt.

A stout Hobbit emerged from the house, shouting and waving his fist. "Vagabonds!" he cried. "Be off with you or I'll set the dogs on you!"

"Some thanks we get!" Gilavir said glumly.

"They do not understand," said Aragorn. "Pansy and Tansy were a joy to meet and who knows what harm might have befallen them had we not passed by?"

"Harm here?" said Gilavir. "This is such a peaceful spot."

"We must make sure it remains so," said Aragorn.

"Why is it so important?" asked Gilavir.

"Gandalf once told me Art's hid causes are not found," Aragorn replied enigmatically. "Now we must make haste. Halbarad and Barahir will think the trolls have taken us!"

They rode steadily on towards the Barrow Downs. Suddenly, Gilavir felt chilled to the bone. In the distance, he saw a cloaked horseman astride a black horse galloping away. His usually placid gelding reared and tried to bolt while Gilavir was seized with a sudden dread. He forced himself to concentrate on calming his horse. Aragorn was having similar problems with his own mount. Both men dismounted.

"Whatever was that?" asked Gilavir. He gripped Aragorn's arm in his terror and found the Chieftain was trembling slightly too.

"The Dark Lord rides in force tonight and time will tell us all," Aragorn said grimly. "That, Gilavir, was one of his most powerful servants, a Nazgūl. This bodes very ill. They spread terror and despair in their wake. It came from the direction of the Barrow Downs. We must ride there in all haste to see how Halbarad and Barahir fare. They might be in danger!"

They remounted the horses that had calmed somewhat and galloped towards the Barrow Downs. There they found Halbarad kneeling on the grass, his grandson cradled in his arms.

Aragorn leapt from Roheryn and ran towards his kinsmen. "What happened?" he asked. "It was terrible," Halbarad said. His face was ashen. "A dread faceless creature rode us down. I was thrown from my horse and winded. Barahir drew his sword and tried to fight the creature. When I regained my footing I found him collapsed here."

Aragorn knelt beside Barahir. The young man's face was drained of all colour and his eyes were closed. When Aragorn called his name, he did not stir.

"Did the Nazgūl wound him?" Aragorn asked. He gripped Barahir's wrist feeling for a pulse. His flesh was deathly cold.

"I can find no wound on him," said Halbarad. "I could not see clearly, but I think the thing touched his arm. It appears quite lifeless."

Aragorn rolled up Barahir's sleeve. His arm was white and numb. He did not stir. Aragorn's face was grave. "Gilavir," he said. "Ride with all haste to Rivendell and tell Master Elrond that the Nazgūl are abroad. We can but hope that only one of them has come this far north, but we must prepare to defend ourselves. Should it approach you, they fear fire. On no account let it touch you. Now go, ride with all haste!"

As soon as Gilavir had galloped away, Halbarad asked, "What ails my grandson?"

"The Black Breath," Aragorn said grimly.

"Can you heal him?" There was a mixture of hope and fear in Halbarad's voice.

"I will need athelas if I am to help him," said Aragorn. "Alas, that I do not have any with me. There might be some growing by the roadside. "

"I will go and find some," said Halbarad.

"If you cannot, we must take Barahir to Rivendell," said Aragorn. "Master Elrond is the eldest of our race and has the greater power, but the swifter Barahir is treated, the better."

Halbarad leapt astride his horse and galloped off towards the road, leaving Aragorn alone with Barahir. The Chieftain swiftly kindled a fire; both for warmth and for protection should the Nazgūl return. He filled a dish with water from his flask and put it on the fire to heat. He then removed Barahir's tunic and shirt, the better to examine him. The young man's arm was white and numb as far as his shoulder and the coldness seemed to be spreading. At least there was no trace of any wound, which gave Aragorn some cause for hope. He was surprised the encounter with the Nazgūl had affected Barahir so badly, but then he recalled Master Elrond telling him that if a Man's spirits were low, it made him especially susceptible to the malady. Halbarad had told him that a young lady that Barahir had set his heart upon had turned down his proposal of marriage, leaving the young man heartbroken. That would explain much.

Aragorn wrapped Barahir in his cloak, then took his hand and repeatedly called his name. The young man moaned and tossed as if caught in some dark dream, but did not awaken. He could only sit on the grass beside the fire and wait for Halbarad's return. He cradled Barahir in his arms to keep him warm and repeatedly called his name.

After what seemed like an age, his kinsman galloped into sight, triumphantly clutching a handful of athelas leaves. "I have it!" Halbarad cried. He thrust the leaves into Aragorn's outstretched hand.

"I might have to enter a healing trance," said Aragorn. "If I should swoon, hold the dish in front of my face." Thus saying, he took two of the leaves, breathed on them, then crushed them and cast them into the bowl of water he had heated. He dipped a cloth in the mixture and laved Barahir's arm and shoulder with it then took his hand and repeatedly called his name.

Halbarad watched while Aragorn grew as pale as his stricken grandson. Yet his heart felt lightened as if a fresh breeze was blowing from the sea. He held the bowl in front of his grandson's face as Aragorn continued to call him. Gradually some colour returned to Barahir's blanched flesh. His eyes flickered open and he gazed at Aragorn as if beholding him for the first time. "My lord," he said. "You called me. I come."

"Barahir, awake and walk no more in shadow!" said Aragorn. "Rest a little and then we must ride for Rivendell."

"I had such dark dreams," said Barahir. "What happened? Was I wounded?"

"You were suffering from the Black Breath," said Aragorn. He started to help the young man don his shirt, noting that his arm and shoulder had returned to their normal colour.

"I remember now, a faceless thing in a black robe!" said Barahir. He shuddered.

"It is gone now," said Aragorn. "Think not on it!"

"I feared I had lost you" said Halbarad, embracing the young man. "Do you feel strong enough to ride?"

"I think so." With the help of his grandfather's arm, he slowly rose to his feet.

Aragorn watched them and smiled for an instant. The smile quickly faded, though. He was filled with foreboding. What was a Nazgūl doing so far from Mordor? Was it a lone scout or had Sauron learned what was hidden within the Shire?

An old rhyme he had heard years ago when he was in Gondor suddenly came into his mind.

When the black breath blows
and death's shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king's hand lying!

Death's shadow was indeed growing. It seemed that the time was approaching when his destiny would be decided. Were that a lonely grave or a crown, only time would tell. Aragorn mounted Roheryn, rode to the crest of the nearest hill, and looked out. "There is no sign of the Nazgūl," he said. "We ride to Rivendell." For a moment, he lingered looking out at the peaceful landscape, the land, which he and his Rangers were sworn to protect. He would fight to his last drop of blood to defend it.

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