Story summary: At twenty, Aragorn discovers that he is the hereditary captain of a people he has never met, but it will take many years and he will endure many hardships before he becomes a true leader of men.
Chapter summary: Aragorn has been with the Dúnedain for two years, but although he is their chieftain, he is not yet in command. When three Rangers go missing, Aragorn faces his first real test as a leader, with men's lives depending on the choices that he makes.
The Reins of Power I: The World of Men"
The old warrior sat against a slender tree, a naked sword across his lap.
Aragorn approached him from behind. He knew where the watchers were concealed, and was careful to choose a path that kept him hidden from their eyes. Autumn leaves were thick on the ground, and not all had become damp enough to be silent. A cold wind blew down from the north, shivering those leaves that remained on the trees. He watched the way the branches moved, and made sure to move only when the gusts reached the nearest trees. You will not hear me, he willed.
A blackbird landed on a holly bush, looking for berries that were not yet ripe. Aragorn stood utterly still until the bird had flown away, not wanting to provoke its alarm call. The old warrior had not moved. Aragorn took a sideways step, putting the tree trunk fully between him and his quarry. A leaf blew across his face, brushing the side of his neck, catching against the brooch that fastened his cloak, but he could not risk brushing it away. He took another step. He reached for his sword, moving his arm away from his body to prevent cloth brushing against cloth. A gust of wind, stronger than before, covered his next step, and the next.
He was several paces away when the old warrior spoke. "You are four steps behind the tree, and slightly to my left."
Aragorn let out a breath, and took those last few steps. "What gave me away?"
Perhaps there was a smile in Berenor's eyes, but his mouth was not made for smiling. "I cheated," he said simply. He nodded towards the sword across his lap, its bright blade angled backwards to catch the reflection of movement.
Aragorn considered it for a moment. "It was not really cheating, then, but a lesson. Enemies will not play by the rules."
"And you would have been alert for such behaviour, had I really been an enemy," Berenor said. "You trusted me to play by the rules, and I did not." He looked tired, his face etched with more lines than had been there two years before. "In truth, the only way I can win this game against you now is if I cheat. Even when you came to us, already you knew almost as much about woodcraft and wilderness survival as the best of us."
Aragorn crouched down beside him. He hesitated a moment over whether to say it, but credit had to be given when it was due. "I had good teachers. I rode with the sons of Elrond for many years."
Berenor's mouth tightened a little, as Aragorn had expected it to. Aragorn had been unsure at first if it was indeed dislike that he was seeing. Instinct had told him so from the start, but his unfamiliarity with the facial expressions of Men had caused him to doubt his own instincts. Many Rangers considered elves to be inscrutable, but at first, Aragorn had found his brothers' faces far easier to read than the faces of these dour Rangers who were to be his own people.
But it was indeed dislike; he knew this now. At length he had dared to ask his brothers about it. Many of the skills that the Rangers used were the same as those Aragorn had learned from Elladan and Elrohir. Of course they were, Elladan had told him, because the sons of Elrond had taught Aragorn's forefathers for many centuries. When the Dúnedain had first taken to the wilderness, Elladan and Elrohir had been there to show them the way.
That was when Aragorn had asked the question. "So why does Berenor dislike it when I talk about you?"
Elladan had looked sorrowful; not inscrutable at all, Aragorn had thought even then. "Because he loved your father as a brother, and because your father was riding with us when he died."
"But surely he cannot blame you?" Aragorn had asked him.
Elladan had shaken his head. "We were there, and Berenor was not, he who always rode at your father's right hand. Who did Berenor blame as he wept in the night in that first bitter season of his loss?"
"The orcs were to blame," Aragorn had said with confidence.
Elladan had pressed a hand to Aragorn's shoulder. "Grief is a complicated thing, as is regret. You are still young, and you were raised in the House of Elrond, and you have known neither. It is hard for you to understand." But Elladan was an elf, and Berenor was a Man, as was Aragorn. Aragorn ought to be able to understand why Berenor reacted as he did.
"I may be skilled in woodcraft," Aragorn said now, crouching at Berenor's side, "but I still have much to learn from you."
"Perhaps," Berenor said. He looked deeply weary. He was getting old, and although he had the blood of Númenor, he was not of the line of kings. For twenty years he had borne a burden of leadership that had never truly wanted. Aragorn might be young and unfamiliar with the ways of Men, but he had learned that much within days of his arrival.
But it was early, it was still too early, for Aragorn to take that burden away from him. Aragorn was Chieftain by right, and nobody questioned that, but a threatened, dwindling people needed their day-to-day commands to come from somebody who knew how to give them.
It was a delicate dance that they were stepping, the two of them. It was growing more delicate by the month.
Sometimes Aragorn wondered how it would end.
"Not 'perhaps,'" Aragorn said. "I still have much to learn."
"So do all men alive," said Berenor. "I would worry more if you did not see it. Some boys reach the grand old age of sixteen and think they know everything, and declare that their elders have nothing worth teaching."
"Not boys of the Dúnedain." Aragorn smiled. "Or at least not any that I have seen."
"Ah, but we are more wise than lesser men." Berenor answered with a smile of his own. "And we train our boys well, and the wilderness and a thousand year trust are harsh teachers." His smile faded. "Do you know why I put myself forward as captain after your father's death?" he asked suddenly.
"Put yourself forward?" Aragorn said, surprised. "I thought..." Thought you found it a burden, he almost said, but did not. Assumed it had been thrust upon you against your will.
"Put myself forward, yes." Berenor looked at Aragorn, and there was something fierce in his expression that Aragorn could not read. "Yes, I sought this command that should be yours."
"Then you did so for a good reason," Aragorn said. "You knew my father well, and knew better than anyone what commands he would have given. You were the best..."
"No." Berenor stopped him with a sharply raised hand. "It was because I had no right to it. I was your father's oldest friend, but I am not of the line of kings."
"I... do not understand," Aragorn confessed.
"We did not know if you were still alive." Berenor's hand was clenched into a tight fist at his side. "I held you when you were two days old. Arathorn was so delighted with you, and I..." He let out a tight breath. "I didn't know if my closest friend's son was still alive. They wouldn't tell me." He closed his eyes; kept them closed for a while, and was slow to open them. "But we had to believe that you were. If one of your close kin had taken command, as they could have done, then it would have seemed..."
As if Arathorn's son was dead indeed, and the chieftaincy had passed by right to another line. Aragorn thought he understood.
"But if it was me," Berenor said, "nobody would ever think that it might be permanent. I was captain merely by necessity. I was never anything more. Nobody would ever see me as anything more."
I think you underestimate yourself, Aragorn thought, for he had seen how the young men looked up at Berenor, and how desperate they were for his sparing praise. But this was not the time to say it; perhaps there never would be a time. Perhaps he ought to assure Berenor that he had made the right decision, and that Aragorn did not resent him for it. Perhaps he ought to thank Berenor for his stewardship, but to do so would be to invite Berenor to surrender his office, and it was not yet time. Aragorn had learned so much in Rivendell, but about some things, he had learned nothing at all.
He had never given a command that had led a man to his death. He had never had to find the words that would inspire a man to risk death willingly. Aragorn was respected because of his lineage. Berenor, with no royal blood and no title, inspired loyalty just because of who he was.
Berenor let out a slow breath. He looked even more weary than before. Aragorn realised that he had misstepped. He should have thanked Berenor, after all, and assured him that he had acted correctly. It seemed remarkable to think that somebody as old and accomplished as Berenor might need a word or two of encouragement every now and then, and even more remarkable to think that Aragorn might be the only person who could give it.
He opened his mouth to speak those words, but hesitated still, wondering how to start. Truly I am not ready, he thought.
"But we should not be talking of such matters," Berenor said. "I apologise, Aragorn. It is easy to dwell on things when you are sitting so long alone, waiting to be found." He sheathed his sword, then stood up and stretched, wincing as he did so. "And easy for old muscles to stiffen up, too."
"I found you as quickly as I could," Aragorn said.
"Quicker than most," Berenor said. "It was barely an hour. Most take four hours at least, if they find me at all. Most fail, or get caught on the way. Speaking of which…" He stretched again, rolling stiffness out of his shoulders, then brought his hands to his mouth and made a harsh bird's cry.
Within a few minutes, two young Rangers emerged from the trees, summoned by the call. They were close friends, Hador and Garavion, and less than a year younger than Aragorn. They had played together as children, learned together as young men, and would probably journey together as adults, as long as their duties let them. As long as I let them, Aragorn thought. It still amazed him, sometimes, to remember that one day he would have the power of life and death over these people, merely because of who his father had been.
"He found you!" Hador said to Berenor, then turned to Aragorn. "How did you get past me? I was sure..."
"I thought I'd found your trail," said Garavion. "It went in quite the wrong direction. I imagine it wasn't yours at all." He turned back to his friend. "So he laid a false trail, then. Yes, you were right. No gloating, please."
Aragorn had trained with these two on and off for two years. He knew them barely at all. They were always full of tales of places he had never been, and old events that he had not seen. Sometimes, when they forgot themselves, they called him "lord." Other times they were too caught up in childhood memories to pay him much attention at all. As a newcomer, Aragorn did not presume to seek friendship from them. Because he was a stranger and their chieftain, they did not presume to offer it.
Together they walked back through the trees, heading for the camp, temporary base of a dozen Rangers out in the wilds. As they walked, Berenor lectured Hador and Garavion on tracking and the dangers of over-confidence. Aragorn he did not lecture at all. Aragorn suddenly wished fiercely that he was back at Rivendell and a child again, returning with his brothers from some long journey, listening intently as they told him how to improve.
By the time they reached the camp, Aragorn was walking a dozen paces ahead. He had not intended to. He had not noticed it happening.
The guard at the camp nodded respectfully as Aragorn reached it. Aragorn smiled, but said only the necessary words of greeting. Berenor, when he came, said more.
Aragorn returned to his shelter. He dug out a flask from his pack, and sipped from it for a while, then decided that he ought to seek somebody else out and offer to share it. But there was nobody there, just the guard, so Aragorn approached him again.
"I hear those lads failed to catch you," the guard said. He was called Thalon, Aragorn remembered. He had never dared to admit that at first he had found it hard to tell the Dúnedain apart.
"Indeed," Aragorn agreed. "But Berenor did. I thought I had him, but he knew I was there all along."
"He says he cheated." Thalon laughed, but his eyes were always focused on the world outside the camp. He might talk, but he never relaxed his vigilance. "He says it's the only way anyone can best you in Ranger hide-and-seek. I can well believe it. Your father was unbeatable, too."
"I... am not my father," Aragorn said.
Thalon looked at him, just a quick glance, before he turned to his task of watching. "Of course you aren't. Nobody thinks you are."
Aragorn had no idea what he meant by that. The Dúnedain had been overjoyed to learn that he was still alive, but had they been disappointed by him? He still knew more about elves than Men. He was young. He did not share the memories that shaped them. While they had suffered in the wilderness, he had lived in peace and joy in Rivendell.
Sometimes he felt like a child who had dressed himself in the robes of a king. People gave honour to the robes, but what did they feel about the child who wore them?
"Nobody thinks you should be, my lord," said Thalon.
Aragorn turned away. Berenor was hurrying across the camp, looking grim. "A patrol is missing," he said. "Heredil and Ranor are out with young Halbarad. They should have been back six hours ago."
"Many things can cause delays," Aragorn said, "and not all of them ill."
"That is true." Berenor nodded. "And six hours is not long, when they have been out for three days. But Halbarad is young, and Heredil and Ranor are both skilled and experienced. They would not willingly allow a delay when they have a boy in their care." He gave a quick flash of a mirthless smile. "We like to show off to the young ones, you see. If we say we will return at noon, then we return at noon, even if we have ridden through fire and war to get there."
"We could follow their trail," Aragorn said carefully.
Berenor nodded slowly, but there was a thick line between his eyes. "And a messenger has come in from the company currently in Fornost. There is trouble nearby, wild beasts and men still wilder, and they need more men. I need… I think I need to send as many people as possible down there to help them."
"I..." Aragorn moistened his lips. "I could go and look for the patrol by myself."
"You could," Berenor agreed. "You are the best tracker here."
It was always like that, and had been from the start. Except when they were training or caught up in battle, Berenor never issued any command to Aragorn, phrasing everything as suggestions and possibilities. Aragorn was just as careful to do the same.
"I think it would be wise to leave someone here," Berenor said. "Thalon, perhaps. A patrol of two is due in tomorrow afternoon. If Heredil's party has still not returned, they can ride out after you, unless you leave signs telling them not to."
"And if all is well," Aragorn said, "we could ride down together after you."
"To Fornost by the secret way," Berenor said, "and get news of us there."
Aragorn nodded. Berenor pressed his hand to Aragorn's shoulder, gripped it tight, then let it go. Aragorn was reminded suddenly of Elladan, the last person to touch him so. Both Elladan and Berenor were his teachers, but while Elladan would forever be older and wiser, Berenor was… what? Forever older and wiser, perhaps, but one day Aragorn would have to command him.
One day, he thought.
Aragorn wasted little time in leaving. He said no farewells, merely nodded once at Berenor as he passed him. He rode fast at first, although not so fast as to miss the signs. When he had first learned about the Rangers, he had imagined that they wandered in the wild on unknown paths, but he now knew that many of their routes were regular ones. They walked them sufficiently seldom to avoid a visible path being formed, but frequently enough for another Ranger to follow them easily, if he knew the land and its ways.
Aragorn did not know the land as well as those who had wandered it from childhood, of course, but he had ridden for years in similar terrain with his brothers, and he was quick to learn. He was quick to learn many things; he knew that. When it came to the practical skills of a Ranger, he had already surpassed many men twice his age.
If this were all I was expected to be, he thought, as he rode alone through the rising downland, I could be content.
He paused at a fallen tree, and saw the subtle sign that had been left by the patrol a few days before, showing that they had passed here, and all was well. He dismounted, and left a sign of his own.
The light began to fade as evening approached. Then the clouds parted just before the end of the day, and a bright sunset illuminated the hillside, showing the paths of crumpled grass left by animals and perhaps by men. He looked at the path that led back to the east, back to Rivendell, where his mother and his brothers were; where he knew who he was and knew his place; where Arwen was. Then he made himself turn his back, and looked south, to distant plains and distant hills, and roads that he knew he would one day travel. Then back to the north again, where his current duty lay.
He rode on. The hills grew steeper and more rugged. Just before the light faded completely, the undergrowth seemed to rise up around him, as if it was offering to hide him and lose him forever more. He stopped for the night, and spent hours wrapped in his blanket, watching the clouds scudding across the night's sky, never parting enough to show the stars.
If this were all I was expected to be... he thought. But even if it were, he could not be content, because then he would never have even the faintest, most slender hope of winning Arwen's hand.
But there was a comfort in riding alone. It was easy, and he knew how to do it. The wind rose in the night, and brought with it the chill of the coming winter. He fastened his cloak more tightly, and rode on. He found another sign, just where he had expected it. Apart from the signs, there was little indication of the patrol's passage. They were skilled Rangers, and knew how to hide from people who did not know how to look for them.
Birds sang in the trees, and a squirrel ran across his path, readying for winter. If this were all... he thought once more, but this time he stopped himself before he could finish the thought.
It was not all. Of course it was not all. His people had waited for him for eighteen years. Although grieving for his friend, Berenor had assumed a position he had no desire to hold, because he was determined that his people would never stop believing that Aragorn would come back to them. He was their reason for living the way they did, and for enduring what they endured.
I wish I could be what they want me to be, he thought, but in truth he did not even know what they wanted him to be, except alive.
The morning passed. A watery sunlight began to seep through the thinning clouds, but it did nothing to warm the air. He rode into a deep shadowed valley, and found the place where the patrol had left their horses and gone off on foot to investigate something. Aragorn could see nothing that might have excited their suspicion. Perhaps it had been a noise. It was hard to trace the way they had gone, but he managed it: a broken twig here, a smear of earth there. Halbarad, perhaps, for the boy was only seventeen, and this was his first time out on a proper patrol.
The trail led in a circle, back to the place where the horses had been. Smiling wryly, Aragorn carried on, and found the sign not far ahead: three Rangers, it said, and all was well.
But it is not well, he thought suddenly, and shivered.
It was late afternoon before he found it, the signs of horses hastily pulled off their course. He followed cautiously, sword in hand. Not far afterwards, he found the spot where the horses had been left, three of them tied up in a cluster of hazel trees. From the disturbance of the ground, he thought the horses had been there for some hours, but they were no longer there. Someone with heavy boots had come and released them and led them away. It was not someone who walked with the gait of a Ranger.
Sword in hand, Aragorn raced after those footprints for a dozen steps, when the voice of Elrohir spoke quite clearly in his imagination, urging him to stop. He had to be cautious. The boots had come for the horses many hours after the horses had been left. They were the end of a story, and he had to go back to the beginning.
He left his horse where the others had been tied, and held up a hand elf-style, bidding it to stand and wait. He found the flat stone a moment later, half trampled into the mud. There were hasty scratches on its reverse: the signs for 'ambush' and 'orcs.'
But where? And who had laid the ambush? Aragorn crouched down, and brushed his fingertips across the blades of grass, and brought his face to the ground, looking at the moss and the earth and the tree roots. The Rangers were good when their lives depended on it. He could find no sign of where they had gone after they had tied up their horses.
He decided to hazard a guess, based purely on his assessment of where Elladan and Elrohir would have gone, had they caught sight of a party of orcs while they had a young Estel in their charge. He judged rightly. Before he had walked for many minutes, it was unmistakeable. The Rangers had indeed set an ambush for the orcs, and it had been a successful one. He found where they had hidden themselves. He found where they had leaped out and struck their first blows.
Half a dozen orcs lay fallen on the ground. Aragorn bowed his head just for a moment, summoning the strength for it, and went from body to body. All were dead, and dead for several days. Crows had been about the corpses, and the smell was foul, although carried mercifully away from him by the wind. He saw no red blood on the ground, but there was too much disturbance to be sure of it.
Aragorn stood up, walked a few steps away from the battlefield, and pressed his hands to his face, then dragged them down, exhaling into his steepled fingers. So what had happened to the patrol afterwards? He could see no sign of anybody leaving the battlefield, neither orc nor Man.
He walked a few steps, then a few more. When he was away from the stench of the battlefield, he knelt down, and let out a long breath. Then he bowed even lower, and pressed his ear to the ground, spreading his hand, all five fingers pressing into the grass.
His senses roved out into the surrounding countryside. He heard the birds, and the quiet whispering of insects in the grass. He felt the movement of worms underground, and the badgers and foxes that were sleeping until darkness fell. The felt the wind moving across the world. He felt a stirring of old memories; echoes of a past when these hills were still inhabited by Men. He felt marching footsteps, a long long way away. Far to the south, he thought he felt Berenor riding away in disappointment, but perhaps that was just his own fears speaking. He cleared them from his mind, and closed his eyes.
And that was when he felt it: heard it or saw it or scented it, he was not quite sure. It was fear. It was desperation. It was a tortured gasp of pain.
Instinct was to run towards it, but Aragorn forced himself to approach cautiously, ready for a trap. It was no trap. The young Ranger was well concealed, tucked between boulders and half covered with old leaves, although he had long since kicked most of them away.
Aragorn looked round. Nothing, he thought. Nobody else. Sheathing his sword, he crouched down at Halbarad's side, and spoke his name.
"No..." Halbarad moaned, his head tossing weakly from side to side. His lips were dry and cracked, and he was very pale. "No. Can't..."
"Halbarad." Aragorn tried to touch him, but Halbarad cowered away, trying to curl in on himself, then moaning with the pain of it. "Halbarad," Aragorn tried again. "What happened?"
"Can't..." Halbarad moaned. "Got to..."
"Halbarad!" Aragorn had never before spoken with a snap of command, but he knew instinctively that this was what Halbarad needed.
Halbarad's eyes opened fully, and he stopped moving. "My lord. You came. I'm sorry..."
"You have nothing to apologise for," Aragorn assured him. "I'm the one who must apologise, for I need to ask you questions. But I have herbs with me." He touched the pouch at his belt, although he doubted Halbarad could see him do so. "I will do what I can for you."
"Let me... report first," said Halbarad, "because if you touch me, I don't think I can..." His face screwed up in pain, and he bit his lip. Just a young boy, barely seventeen, and very badly hurt. If Aragorn guessed right, he had been lying here alone for over two days.
"Then report," Aragorn said gently, but Halbarad said nothing, lost in his pain. Aragorn tried again, once more using that snap of command that he had heard Berenor use at times. "Report, Halbarad."
He could have hated himself for it, but Halbarad looked at him with something that might have been gratitude. "Heredil saw orcs, my lord. He has keen eyes. We dismounted; set an ambush. It worked, but I was wounded. They bound it up as best they could, to stop me leaving a trail, but then... then as we went back to the horses… Heredil saw them just in time. They hid me here and went off to fight them. They never came back. They never came back. I tried… I tried to stay awake like they told me, but..."
His voice faded. Aragorn spoke his name again, but Halbarad had fainted. Or, rather, allowed himself to faint, Aragorn realised, because he has given his report. It implied that Halbarad trusted him. It implied that Halbarad believed that Aragorn would know what to do with the information. It was no longer Halbarad's responsibility, because he had passed it on to... to another Ranger? To someone older?
To his captain?
Aragorn let out a breath. This was not the time to think about such things. Taking advantage of Halbarad's unconsciousness, he cleared away the last of the dead leaves, and located the wound. It was a nasty one, a deep slash across the hips from his lower ribs down to the outer thigh. It had been hastily bound when it was fresh, and Halbarad had clearly done what he could to tend it, but it was not enough. The flesh around the wound was badly inflamed, and the boy's skin was warm with fever. Aragorn doubted he would have survived many more hours alone.
Halbarad moaned when Aragorn touched the wound, but did not truly awaken. At first Aragorn soothed him quietly, but the more he soothed him, the more Halbarad moaned. Elrond had taught Aragorn that different people needed different treatment when they were in pain. Some needed gentleness, but gentleness encouraged others to slip away and give up the fight. Warriors sometimes responded better to firmness, because it reminded them that they were strong.
"Halbarad," Aragorn said, no longer trying to keep his voice gentle. "Rest now. All will be well."
"Yes." Halbarad's eyes fluttered open. "Because you're here."
Aragorn's hands froze, but he resumed again, tending the wound as best as he could. Halbarad lay still, perhaps conscious, perhaps not, but still breathing. His flask still held water, but only the last few drops. Aragorn used water from his own flask to clean the wound, and eased a few drops of water past Halbarad's dry lips. The rest of his food and water were back with his horse, and he had no wish to leave Halbarad until Halbarad was conscious enough to know that he was going.
The wound was freshly bandaged and suffused with herbs when Halbarad opened his eyes again. "My lord," he murmurs. "It feels better."
Aragorn doubted that it did. The wound was grave, and it had been untended for too long. He had been well trained in the healing arts, but if there was any magic in his blood, it came in the ability to counter the weapons of the Enemy, and not the mundane horrors of blood loss and infection.
"Of course it does," Halbarad murmured. "You're the better than anyone at healing, everyone knows that." He blinked, and seemed to recollect where he was. "But, my lord, the others... They didn't come back. I wanted to go after them, but I couldn't, I couldn't. My leg. I couldn't. I... fainted, I think. I couldn't hear anyone when I woke up... I tried to make it back to the horses, but an orc was taking the horses away. I should have stopped him. I should have followed him. I would have. I tried. I tried."
"I know you tried," Aragorn said. "You did everything you could."
And it was enough. Aragorn could have laughed at it, or wept at it, because Halbarad accepted his reassurance, as if it was coming from someone whose opinion really mattered.
"But you must leave me, lord." Halbarad shivered as he said it, and the shiver turned into a cry of pain. "Go after them. Find them. You must..." He moaned, and bit his lip. Aragorn offered him water. Most of it trickled down his chin. "Sorry," Halbarad said. "Can't... can't say 'must', not to you. But please..."
Halbarad's eyes slipped shut again, and this time he did not awaken. Aragorn watched him for a while, and tended him as well as he could, but evening was coming, and the wind was growing colder. He needed supplies if Halbarad was to be certain of surviving the night. No, he corrected himself, he needed supplies, and even with them, it was far from certain that Halbarad would survive.
"I will be back before long," he told Halbarad, although he doubted the boy could hear him. He left his flask at Halbarad's side, then, pausing to think for a while, found a flat stone and scratched onto it the signs for a swift return.
His horse was where he had left it. Before taking the reins, Aragorn pressed his ear to the ground, and once again sent his senses out into the world around him. He thought he could still hear the sound of Halbarad's pained breathing, either asleep and dreaming, or no longer asleep. There was no-one else moving within miles, neither Man nor orc. He risked riding his horse, then, and riding it openly.
He found the place where Heredil and Ranor had set their second ambush. Once again, they had killed many, but this time they had been overwhelmed. Red blood speckled the ground, but not enough for a killing wound. He saw clear signs of a struggle, and an orc with bruises on its throat and scratches on its face, killed with a knife in its chest.
Prisoners, Aragorn thought. The orcs took them as prisoners, and wanted them alive. It was unusual behaviour, and troubling. The last time he had seen them, Elladan and Elrohir had passed on a warning from their father. Rumours had come to him that orcs, and things yet fouler, were asking questions and seeking the Heir of Isildur, if still he lived. Had Heredil and Ranor been taken because of Aragorn?
He followed the tracks of the surviving orcs for a while, as they headed away north. The trail was already two days old. The single pair of boots came back later, overlaying the main trail. His guess was that somebody had remembered the horses, and an orc had been sent back for them, perhaps to take them for meat, or else to help them transport their prisoners. There were three horses, and only two prisoners, but whoever had come for the creatures had not searched for Halbarad, but had merely followed orders, and led the horses away.
Twilight was thickening around him. Aragorn looked into the north, but saw no lights, no smoke, no sign of anything alive, except for crows returning from the battlefield. He closed his eyes. It has come, he thought, the moment when I must decide. But it took little thought in the end, or at least this first step did.
He made his way back to Halbarad. It was almost fully dark, and he lit a fire, building around it a low wall of stones to shield it from the north. He had more herbs in his saddlebag, and he chose what he needed, and steeped them in hot water. He covered Halbarad with his blanket, tucking the edges around him, just as his own mother had done when he was a child.
Halbarad woke with a start. "I thought...!" he said, then, "Of course... Of course..." His face crumpled, and he began to cry.
"Halbarad." Aragorn spoke his name quietly, but without the gentleness that Halbarad seemed not to like.
Halbarad looked at him with naked relief on his face. "My lord. I thought..." Then he was struck with sudden horror. "But my lord, if you're here, you're not..."
"Peace, Halbarad," Aragorn said, and once again Halbarad obeyed, although he sobbed as he did so. Aragorn still thought of himself as someone who struggled to read the faces of Men, but Halbarad's feelings were unmistakable. He wanted Aragorn to save his comrades, but he dreaded being left to die alone. "Peace," Aragorn said. "It is my decision to make."
It is my guilt to bear.
He had never had to make a decision upon which the lives of men depended. Now that the time had come, it was... not easy – oh, never that – but less difficult than he had feared. If he left Halbarad alone for another night, Halbarad would almost certainly die. If he went after Heredil and Ranor… They had been captured two days ago. There were over a dozen surviving orcs, and they had been moving swiftly. He could gain on them if he went on horseback, but as he drew close to them, he would have to dismount and rely on stealth. There was little chance that he could slip in and rescue them without being seen, and if he was seen, there was even less chance that he could fight his way to their side.
One life, or two. The certainty that Halbarad needed him, against the possibility that he could save the other two.
"There should be three others coming after us, a day's ride behind me," he said at last, but perhaps he was trying to ease his own doubts, rather than Halbarad's. "I will look after you tonight, and in the morning, we will ride down to meet them."
"You will ride faster if you go without me, my lord," Halbarad said.
"Or perhaps my horse will trip in the darkness, and I would not get there at all," Aragorn said.
"But…" Halbarad said.
"No," said Aragorn, just that.
And Halbarad accepted it. Aragorn turned his face away for a moment, and when he looked back, nothing had changed. Halbarad accepted it. He accepted the medicine when Aragorn offered it, and he let Aragorn tend his wound, trusting him implicitly with his life. It was too new, too remarkable, too dreadful.
Halbarad slept in the end. Aragorn stayed awake all night, and tended to him. An animal screamed in the darkness. Halbarad stirred a little, and Aragorn thought of two lost Rangers. Perhaps, like Halbarad, they were hoping that their captain would come for them. He was not their captain in anything but name, but still…
All will be well, he had told Halbarad, and Halbarad had agreed, because now you're here.
Could it be...? "No," Aragorn murmured out loud. He shivered, and Halbarad whispered something in his sleep.
He thought of Heredil and Ranor in the hands of orcs. Orcs could hunt by smell, he knew, while in the darkness, Aragorn would be all but blind, robbed of his strongest sense. Perhaps he could go after them in the morning, after all. Hunting them at night was folly, but in the morning... Perhaps Halbarad would be stronger in the morning, and the other patrol would not be far behind.
At times, he had the gift of foresight. He wished he had foresight now. Would Halbarad die if he was left alone in the morning? Could Aragorn alone save Heredil and Ranor?
He laughed bitterly to himself. The decision had been less hard than he had feared merely because it was not yet irrevocable.
But Halbarad grew worse, despite Aragorn's tending. Morning came, and Aragorn knew that to leave him would almost certainly kill him. Merely to move him could lead to his death.
Aragorn stood up; stared into the north; pressed his hands to his face…
It had no easy ending.
The second patrol arrived not long after noon. Aragorn left Halbarad just long enough to bring them in faster, to urge them to hurry. They gathered round Halbarad, and they looked grave, but although they were all much older than Aragorn, and had lived in the wilds for so much longer, they had no easy answers. On the contrary, they all seemed to look to Aragorn to do what was needed.
You're better than anyone at healing, everybody knows that, Halbarad had said, but Aragorn had not known that, not really. Elladan was better, and Elrohir, and Elrond better than both. Aragorn had always assumed that these grim-faced Rangers were better, too.
Nobody took command. Nobody told Aragorn that he should stay with Halbarad, while they rode out after the orcs. Nobody commanded Aragorn to go with the rescue party, and offered to stay with Halbarad themselves.
"I think I need to stay with him," Aragorn told Thalon, careful to stand out of Halbarad's earshot. "I can do little more for his wound or his fever – only nature and his own strength can heal that now – but if he begins to drift towards death, I… have some skills that could call him back."
Thalon nodded, apparently accepting it. No, Aragorn realised, genuinely accepting it.
"But I have no desire to abandon Heredil and Ranor to the mercies of the orcs," Aragorn said. "They were taken three days ago, and there is little hope left now, but I will not abandon men while any hope remains."
"No," Thalon agreed.
"I would go with you," Aragorn said, "but Halbarad needs me. I..." He hesitated. Should he tell Thalon that he feared the Rangers had been captured because the orcs wanted to question them about the identity of the Heir of Isildur? Perhaps it would seem arrogant, as if he thought that everything had to be about him. "Be careful," was all he said. "There are over a dozen of them, I think, and they must be taking Heredil and Ranor somewhere, perhaps to a place where there are even more."
Thalon frowned. "This is the first time we have had any reports of orcs in these hills, and orcs don't usually take prisoners."
"No." Aragorn decided to tell him, after all. If there was any chance that his fears were correct, he had to ensure that his men were properly warned. "Elrond reports that orcs have been heard asking questions about the Heir of Isildur. This could be linked."
Thalon nodded, accepting this, too. "All the better that you stay behind with Halbarad, then,"
Aragorn's head snapped up. "That isn't why..."
"I know," Thalon said. "I know that, my lord. Our Chieftains have always risked themselves without a thought; that is why we love them. But because we love them, we wish they would keep themselves safe." He looked at Aragorn, more serious than Aragorn had ever seen him. "It is a hard thing to know that your people's whole reason for living could be wiped out with a single arrow."
As indeed happened, Aragorn thought, or so you sometimes feared. "And it is a hard thing for me, too," he said, stung into replying. A hard thing to be your people's whole reason for living, when you are not sure if you are worthy of it.
Had his father ever been sure? He would ask his mother next time he saw her. Halbarad had looked at Aragorn with such faith. Perhaps it was just the desperate faith of a wounded boy, or perhaps Aragorn's performance in the last two years had looked different to those on the outside than it had seemed to himself.
But this was not the time for wondering.
"Be careful," Aragorn said. "Take no unnecessary risks. Bring them home if you can, but if they are beyond help, bring yourselves home. There are too few of us to throw lives away needlessly."
"Yes," Thalon said, pressing a hand to his chest in a salute. "Yes, my Chieftain." And he was smiling, genuinely smiling. Aragorn had no idea why.
The next night was bad, even worse than the one that preceded it. Aragorn slept when he could, because he had to; if he allowed himself to get too exhausted, he could kill Halbarad by accident, through his own weariness. He dreamed not just of Heredil and Ranor, but of Thalon and the others, too, all five of them dying, cursing their poor excuse for a Chieftain as they died.
But Halbarad lived through the night, and by noon he was stronger, able to stay awake for minutes at a time, and capable of taking a small amount of solid food. "Thank you," he started to say again and again, as he slipped back into sleep. "My lord. My lord."
"Don't," Aragorn begged him, but Halbarad did not hear him, or did not understand.
The patrol returned shortly before darkness fell, just three of them, with two dark lumps across their saddle bows. Aragorn knew they were bodies as soon as he saw them, but he told himself that they were not.
But they were. Of course they were. Dead for days, Thalon told him. Heredil had died of a slow wound, and had been cast aside barely hours after the original attack. Ranor had lasted longer. After marching for perhaps a day, the orcs had stopped and met up with an even larger party. From the evidence on the ground, the Rangers' best guess was that Ranor had contrived to escape, perhaps knowing that he would never get away, but hoping that he would be killed in the attempt. If that had been his intention, he had gained his wish.
Both dead, then, long before Aragorn had made his decision not to go after them. It should have made things better. It just made things worse.
What had Ranor been afraid of, Aragorn wondered. That he would be tortured? That he would betray Aragorn?
I do not want such loyalty, Aragorn thought, as he returned to the familiar comfort that was Halbarad's bedside. Halbarad looked up at him with faith and adoration in his eyes. I do not want this, Aragorn thought again, as he told Halbarad the facts clearly and without embellishment or false platitudes.
"But if you hadn't stayed with me..." Halbarad cried.
"Then they would still be dead." Aragorn said it in that firm voice that seemed to give Halbarad such comfort.
"But if I hadn't been wounded in the first place..."
"Then they would still be dead," Aragorn said, "and so would you."
And Halbarad was not dead, and that was good. Aragorn reminded himself of that fact repeatedly in the days that followed.
It was not enough, but for now, it had to be.
He would think about the rest of it later.
On to part 3