Thanks to all of you for the nice comments! I wish I had time to respond to each, but just a couple quickly:
Antigone Q: I'm glad you like the humor. One thing I've always loved about LotR is Tolkien's use of humor, which comes through even in the books' darkest moments. Even though this story is intended to be serious, I've tried to infuse it with many lighter moments. There's some humor in this chapter, too, as you'll see. (The Twins are great for providing it, I think!)
Fliewatuet and Frodo3791: I'm glad you like the portrayal of Aragorn's first battle and his difficulty in coming to grips with his new situation. I was curious about how readers would react to Cirbarad calling Aragorn "soft," although of course he is in the battle-hardened Ranger's eyes. To normal folk like most of us, he would probably appear quite athletic. I was hoping to make young Aragorn seem realistic, while still showing the promise of the hero he is to become. I'm glad you're enjoying the story, and I appreciate all your observations.
Thanks and on with the next chapter!
Chapter 6: Small Comforts
"Estel!" Legolas gathered his friend in his arms and looked worriedly at Diranarth.
"What's wrong? I didn't think he was wounded." The ranger knelt beside them and grasped his nephew's hand. Aragorn didn't stir.
Legolas shook his head. "He wasn't. He's ill. See? He burns with fever."
"Ill!" Cirbarad exclaimed. "Why did he say nothing?"
"Perhaps," Legolas bit out, "he didn't wish to be judged weak."
"There's no reason to be angry," Diranarth said quietly, examining his nephew's still, pale face. "There are none here who believe Aragorn is weak." He glanced at Cirbarad and the other Ranger looked at the ground. "He is very ill, though, and should have spoken of it. Cirbarad, send for Tirion at once." He turned to Legolas. "Our master healer will tell us what must be done."
Legolas lifted Aragorn easily and carried him to Diranarth's house, declining all offers of assistance. They laid him in the bedroom where he and Legolas had stayed on the night of the feast and were just pulling off his boots and travel-stained clothes when Cirbarad returned, followed by a gray-haired man with watery blue eyes. "I'm Tirion, the healer," he said shortly. "Where's the lad?"
"Here," Diranarth said from his place at the head of the bed.
Tirion squinted as he approached them. When he stood beside them, he noticed Legolas looking at him curiously. "I am not a young man and my eyes are poor at distances," he said, "but you may trust that my hands are sure."
"I do not doubt it, but still I fear for my friend. Can you tell the nature of this illness?"
The healer didn't answer, but instead felt Aragorn's forehead and the pulse at his throat. Tirion's face became grave. "How long has he been ill?"
"Four days, since our battle with the wolves, at least," Legolas said, "but it may have been longer. He was reluctant to speak of it."
Tirion nodded wordlessly and continued his examination. Finally he drew back and sighed. "I knew Aragorn was newly returned to us after a long absence. I should have foreseen this."
"What do you mean?" Diranarth asked.
"In my years as a healer I have heard many of our men talk of falling ill when travelling to distant towns. Also, do you remember the girl Giliad rescued from orcs eight years ago?"
"The Rohirrim lass?" Diranarth frowned. "I remember her well. She died of a fever before we could return her to her people."
"Exactly. Several of our own were sick that winter, too, but none were affected as she was."
"What are you saying?"
"Aragorn met all our people at the Presentation Ceremony. A few were sick at the time and I have attended them, but none are gravely ill." He studied the young man on the bed thoughtfully. "There is something that makes sickness worse when one is a stranger. I don't know why, but being raised away from Men is making Aragorn far more ill than would normally be expected. Isn't it true," he asked, turning suddenly to Legolas, "that the Eldar are never ill?"
"It is true," Legolas said quietly.
"Have you ever known this lad to be sick before?"
"I have," Diranarth said suddenly, "He was sick three times as a baby, once seriously. He pulled through each time." He cleared his throat and looked at Tirion with an almost defiant expression. "He was a strong child, remember?"
"I do remember," Tirion said. "Let us hope he is still as hardy."
# # #
For Aragorn, the next day passed in a feverish haze. He slept fitfully, unable to find respite from his parched throat and throbbing head. Once he awoke feeling the wolf's claws on his neck, only to see the master healer standing over him, turning his head gently to the side as he spoke to someone beyond Aragorn's field of vision. "Ada?" he said weakly, thinking he recognized the voice that answered.
"No, it's only me, little one." Elrohir knelt beside the bed and laid a cool hand on Aragorn's forehead. "Elladan and I returned a short while ago. How do you feel?"
"Don't be daft," he muttered, but seeing the concern in his brother's eyes he softened the words with a smile. "I feel surprised, betrayed by my body, humbled. Like a Man and not an Elf." He squeezed Elrohir's arm with a grip that was not entirely weak. "Don't worry, El. It will be well."
"I know. I believe in you."
"What of the wolves?"
"Ah, Young Lord Slug-a-Bed becomes Young Lord Concern," Elrohir teased. "You speak like a true Chieftain already. Very well, since you bid me to report, I will tell you the news. You will be happy to know that the men who were scattered by the first wolf attack have all been accounted for. Three returned here on their own and Elladan and I rounded up the other five. Two were wounded, but not seriously."
Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut, muttering thanks.
"The rest is not so good," Elrohir said in a lower voice. "We found no trace of the wolves, nor do we know when they will attack again." He sighed. "We will have to ride out soon and try again to discover what their purpose is."
"Wait a little and I'll ride with you."
Elrohir smiled. "I'm counting on it, but sleep now."
Perhaps it was the knowledge that the scattered Rangers had returned home. Perhaps it was that his brother was by his side.
# # #
Candlelight threw twisted shadows on the walls of the room. Aragorn's breathing was loud in the semi-darkness. In the hours since his brothers' return his fever had spiked higher. Tirion opined that it must be broken soon, one way or another, and so he had ordered a tub filled with cool water brought up. Now he, Diranarth, Legolas, and the twins stood beside the sickbed, reluctant to do what they knew they must.
"Burning with fever as he is, this water will feel ice-cold to Aragorn," the healer said. "Being dunked in such a bath is a tremendous shock to the system and it will jolt him awake. He will struggle and try to get away, but you must hold him tightly and let the water do its work." He fixed them each with his rheumy gaze. "Do you understand?"
Although all nodded, only Diranarth spoke. "Let's get it over with."
Gently, Elladan lifted his youngest brother, who opened fever-glazed eyes and tried to focus on the face above him. "You're burning up, little one, and we must put you in water now to cool you. Do you understand?" Aragorn nodded, but Elladan wondered if his words had even been heard, much less comprehended. At his side, Legolas and Elrohir made ready to grip Aragorn's arms and legs.
Aragorn's body arched when it hit the water and he inhaled sharply, but there was no struggle. The young man lay stiffly under the restraining hands, his eyes shut. He seemed to be barely breathing.
"Something's wrong," Tirion said, worried by his patient's stillness. "Get him out of there!"
"No, let me be." The low, pained words were loud in the suddenly silent room. With great effort, Aragorn opened his eyes.
Tirion stumbled backwards in astonishment. "Forgive me, my lord," he stammered. "I didn't realize you had such mastery of yourself!"
"Forgiven." Aragorn managed a tight smile. It took all of his concentration to keep from screaming. He had never known such intense cold or such terrible pain in his extremities. His fevered body wanted to struggle, to escape the well-intentioned torment of his friends, even as his healer's judgement understood the wisdom of their actions.
Tirion placed a cold, wet cloth on his forehead and a whimper escaped his teeth. Desperate with pain, feeling his composure crumbling, Aragorn grasped for anything that would help him stay in control. He remembered playing with the Elven children in the wintertime and being determined he could last in the snowy woods as long as any of them. I am an Elf, he told himself then. I do not feel the cold. I am an Elf. I do not feel the cold.
"You're doing well," Tirion said soothingly, seeing the young man's distress. "A few more moments only, if you can stand it."
"Do orcs torment their captives as cruelly as you?" Aragorn asked through chattering teeth.
"Worse, I'm afraid."
"Ai, Legolas! No wonder Ada feared for me to be in their hands. I would be unmanned entirely." He tried to laugh, but the breath caught in his throat, turning into a sob. He lapsed into silence, but he felt Legolas's strong hand slip into his own. Aragorn squeezed it tightly, hanging on to this one small comfort. It was all he had, but it was enough to steady him until Tirion called for him to be lifted out.
Shivering uncontrollably, he protested that he could stand, but he was far too unsteady to manage. Still in pain and feeling more vulnerable than he could ever remember, Aragorn didn't protest as Elrohir dried him gently and Elladan carried him back to the bed. "Sleep now," they said, "if you can. We will be near."
Diranarth was instantly by his side.
Aragorn felt heat that didn't come from the fever rise in his cheeks. "I'm sorry to have been such a bother since I arrived. I meant to make a better impression."
To his surprise, his uncle laughed. "A better impression? You fight with the grace of an Elf and have the stout heart of a dwarf under duress. You needn't worry about what I think of you!" He sobered, eyeing his nephew seriously. "You're young, but you've some steel in you. I've seen it, and the others will, too, in time. Now rest, and stop worrying about foolish things!"
"Good advice," Legolas said. He watched with approval as Tirion felt Aragorn's forehead.
"Fever's gone for now," the healer said. "Let's hope it stays that way." He lifted Aragorn's head and held a cup of water to his lips. "Drink," he ordered.
Aragorn tasted it and grimaced. "Ugh. It isn't very cold." There was a twinkle in his tired eyes.
"Oh, be quiet, Estel!" Legolas said.
# # #
Aragorn woke slowly, feeling cold autumn sunlight pricking his eyelids. For a long while he lay without moving, drifting comfortably in and out of sleep. The bed that had previously seemed so cramped and hot was now warm and soft. The faint scent of athelas wafted across the room, clearing his sleepy mind. A smile spread slowly across Aragorn's peaceful face as his healer's instincts confirmed the diagnosis he hoped for.
It was over.
He chuckled with the sheer joy of the realization and opened his eyes. Afternoon sunlight shone through the window, falling across his bed. He looked around the room as if for the first time and was a bit surprised to find he was alone. He had no doubt that the twins had returned and that Legolas was also near, though. The events of the previous night were too real to have been only a bad dream.
Wrapping a blanket around his waist, Aragorn stumbled to the nightstand on shaky legs. He poured water into the wash basin and splashed it on his face, only to stop in surprise, his dripping fingers touching his cheek.
A pale young man with short, tousled hair and a week's growth of beard stared back at him from the clear surface of the water.
"Master Tirion cut it while you were ill." Legolas entered soundlessly and stood in the doorway, holding a tray. "Putting you in cold water was the last resort, after he had tried everything else to cool your body." He looked at Aragorn with real sympathy. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Aragorn shook his head. "He did the right thing. Anyway, at home my hair was normal, just like everyone else's. But "normal" isn't the same here, and I'm afraid an Elven braid only seems like a foolish affectation in the world of Men."
"Are you saying we look foolish?" Elladan slid past Legolas and confronted his brother. "Who told you to get out of bed?" he asked as he folded Aragorn in a surprisingly gentle embrace, feeling the young man trembling with the exertion of standing. "Get back in at once and eat the food Legolas has brought for you."
Feeling hungry for the first time in days, Aragorn slid under the blanket without argument and set to work on the bread and soup.
"You're the talk of Fornost, you know," Elrohir said, looking at his him slyly.
Aragorn stopped chewing in mid-motion. "Oh, no. Please tell me everyone doesn't know about all this."
"Oh, don't worry. Your uncle is singing your praises, but keeping the details to himself. All he will say is that you're 'as stouthearted as any Dwarf I've ever seen!'" Elrohir laughed at his own imitation of Diranarth.
Relieved, Aragorn resumed eating.
"As long as we're showering Estel with the virtues of the Free Peoples, perhaps we should mention that he seems to have the appetite of a starving halfling," Elladan observed.
Aragorn threw a chunk of bread at him and missed.
"Your aim's off."
"Wait a little and it will become deadly again."
"Elrohir, the child is frightening me!"
"When was Estel's aim ever deadly?" Elrohir mused.
"You two shouldn't tease him when he's still recovering," Legolas said. He shifted the tray and sat down on the bed. "Seriously, Estel, how do you feel?"
Aragorn could tell from the look in his friend's eyes that a joking rejoinder wouldn't be welcome. "Weak," he admitted. "Weaker than I ever imagined I could be. How quickly do illnesses like this really pass, do you think?"
"I don't know," Elladan said, sobering, "but the sooner the better."
Aragorn sensed something besides brotherly concern in Elladan's voice. "Why? What's going on?"
"We didn't leave your bedside this afternoon because we wanted to," Elrohir said. "Diranarth summoned us because another group of scouts has returned. They've picked up traces of a large pack of wolves near Amon Sûl. Diranarth fears for the safety of the towns along the Great East Road. "
"We're going to ride against them," Elladan said. "Diranarth waits only to receive further reports of their movements."
"I can't watch the three of you go into danger and be left behind!"
The three of us were going into danger before you were ever born, Elladan thought, but seeing the expression on Aragorn's face he wisely held his tongue. "That remains for Master Tirion to say," he said gently. "Rest now and gather your strength. No one knows what tidings tomorrow may bring."