Disclaimer: This story is non-profit and written for purely entertainment purposes. All recognized characters and places are property of J.R.R. Tolkien and New Line Cinema. I own nothing but my name.

Yes, I am still alive!!!  Real updates won't come until January-ish, but the search parties were getting rather snappish... and boy is it hard to sleep (or eat or work) with all those Elves and Rangers just staring.  Particularly the Elves.  shudder  And the Rangers were beginning to throw things at me.  (I also think they made off with my stapler.)

Thank you all for the magnificent reviews! :) Each one is a gift in its own right... happy sigh Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Again, thank you!

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A/N: Minor stuff: Aragorn Goes To The Bar has been pushed back a chapter, so my apologies if you were really looking forward to it this chapter. Also, I wasn't too thrilled with the flow of last chapter and will probably be revising it a bit. I'll let you know when it's completed. That being said, Happy Reading!

P.S. Yes, I, too, was very sad about Bergil's fate.


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Chapter 7: Animal Farm

Aragorn awoke to the steady patter of rain upon oiled tent canvas. A damp chill permeated the morning air, and it seeped through blanket and bone like the icy touch of a passing wraith.

Aragorn shuddered and drew into himself, seeking to find some dry warmth beneath his covers. Realizing his plight a lost cause, he at last threw them back and hastily dressed.

Lacing his boots with numb and trembling fingers, he glanced to Halbarad's side of the tent. Halbarad's bedroll was just visible in the grey morning light.

"Halbarad. Halbarad." Aragorn knotted the final bootlace and vigorously blew into his frozen hands. The mound of blankets across from him shifted and emitted a muffled groan.

"Halbarad, awake!"

Aragorn caught sight of Halbarad's tousled head. It promptly disappeared beneath his pillow.

The Heir of Isildur stood, shifting from foot to foot in the dampness. These wet and icy mornings were worst of all—there simply was no way to get warm. A clammy chill settled into the bones and clung to everything. Realizing his breath was visible, Aragorn released a steady puff and watched as the misty vapor hung momentarily before it vanished.

Halbarad, upon discovering himself dangerously close to suffocation, popped upright with a greedy gasp. "Halls of Mandos," he swore, wrapping his blankets around himself like a bulky shroud, "it is freezing. And my pillow is sopping." He gave the offending cushion a punch for good measure.

"Mayhap you should not drool so much." Aragorn grinned and ducked as Halbarad threw it at him.

The rag-stuffed pillow hit the tent wall with a heavy flup! The tent shuddered upon impact, and the two were showered with frigid water droplets. Halbarad yowled.

"Come, Halbarad." Aragorn brushed errant droplets from his face with a light chuckle and tossed the other his thick black cloak. "I shall not miss a hot meal on account of your tardiness." He snatched up the pillow and threw it good-naturedly at Halbarad. It hit the shivering young Ranger in the face with a wet smack.

That damp and chilly morning, Aragorn learned Halbarad's extensive knowledge of all things crude pertained to several gestures as well.

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Following a short but hot meal, the young Rangers gathered upon hewn logs and soggy tree stumps at wood's edge. There, they were met by the Dunedain chief Guttarion. "Today," the scarred Ranger barked, hand resting upon the sword pommel at his waist, "we work with plants. Specifically, those of a healing nature."

A few muffled sighs drown in the morning's frozen drizzle.

"Where are we supposed to find plants this time of year?" a flaxen-haired Ranger leaned over and whispered to his companion.

"Speak up, Caden." Guttarion's flinty eyes settled on the young Ranger's face.

The flaxen-haired Ranger winced. His face, already pale from the cold, went a shade whiter. "Yes, yes sir. I was wondering where we were supposed to find plants this time of year, sir."

"Aye," his companion ventured, a lithe man with a mop of dark curly hair. Aragorn knew little of him, save his name—Nethiron. "They'll—the plants, sir—have changed from the summer."

Buoyed by the fact Guttarion hadn't set upon the two, several murmurs of agreement followed.

Guttarion nodded, craggy face appearing even more delved in the pale light. "You'll also discover some are no longer found, or that their healing properties have changed." He untied a leather healing pouch from his belt and dumped its contents onto an unoccupied tree stump. "First," he said, sifting through the withered leaves, "you'll learn to again recognize the dried plants you collected this summer."

Aragorn heard Halbarad mutter an inventive curse under his breath. Though Halbarad was quite adept at stitching open wounds ("I had little choice in the matter," he once confided to Aragorn. "Tharbad is not a peaceful city."), and was fast becoming one of the camp's better swordsmen and trackers, he had no taste for healing. He had barely been able to identify the assigned plants in the summer. Were it not for Aragorn, Halbarad would still be confusing athelas with mint.

Coincidentally, Aragorn had made a mental note to never let Halbarad treat his ailments.

Guttarion held up a wrinkled brown leaf with a gentleness unexpected from his calloused hands. "This is dock leaf. It is used, if you recall..."

Elbow upon knee, Aragorn rested his chin in his hand and sighed. He knew plants as well as he knew the art of swordfighting. Elrond was, after all, a renowned healer. The young Heir of Isildur shifted on the tree stump, feeling the wetness beginning to seep through his clothes. Idly, he picked at the tree bark. It was going to be a very long, cold lecture.

Halbarad nudged him. "You know why he stands as such?"

Aragorn blinked. "What? Whom?"

"Old Guttarion." Halbarad flashed him a grin. He leaned in closer, well aware he had caught not only Aragorn's attention, but those sitting next to them as well. "He once angered a village of Hobbits—"

"Hobbits?" Flaxen-haired Caden voiced the question before Aragorn or Nethiron could.

"Yes, yes—small folk." Halbarad waved a hand impatiently. "Think Dwarves, only less hairy."

"Hob-bit," Aragorn heard Nethiron quietly repeat to himself.

"Old Gute," Halbarad continued at a conspiratory whisper, "once angered a village of pherianneth. So they took a pole and shoved it right—"

"Master Halbarad."

Halbarad stopped abruptly at Guttarion's call. "Master Halbarad," the Ranger chieftain again said, folding his arms across his chest and standing with his legs braced slightly wider than shoulder-width. "Would you care to repeat yourself so the rest of us can hear?"

'He is unnaturally stiff,' thought Aragorn, resisting the urge to dissolve into wild laughter. The fact that he couldn't only made it worse. Firmly pressing his lips together, he stared at his boots. Caden and Nethiron seemed to be having similar difficulties.

"Well, sir." Halbarad leaned back lazily and scratched his chin, not missing a beat. "I was contemplating with my fellow Rangers the purpose of this lecture. Not that it is without merit, good sir, but I merely wonder why we must learn it all at once."

Guttarion eyed Halbarad with a blank intensity Aragorn found rather Elvish. Halbarad boldly stared back. After a few tense moments, the Ranger Chief shifted and unfolded his arms. Aragorn let out the breath he didn't know he held, as did the rest of the young Rangers.

"We review our plant studies, young Halbarad," Guttarion spoke at last, "because we'll be putting them to immediate use."

He gestured across the encampment, to the area near the Rangers' spare woodpile. Necks craned and bodies shifted accordingly. Aragorn felt his curiosity piqued—there were all manner of wooden crates and cages within the clearing.

"You've each been assigned an injured creature," Guttarion continued, sharp grey eyes glinting despite the misty drizzle. "Your task is to heal this creature." His voice rose as the young Rangers began chattering excitedly among themselves. "You are not allowed to switch animals with one another, and each must tend to his assigned animal without help. The cages are labeled." He inclined his head sharply. "Now go."

Halbarad elbowed Aragorn and grinned cheekily. "Bet they caught you an injured Warg."

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Aragorn was relieved to discover his "patient" a thrush with an injured leg. Halbarad's comment had irked him more than he cared to admit—in truth, he almost did expect some deadly beast of sorts.

The bird chirruped and fluttered nervously in its wooden cage. Aragorn smiled wryly. "I suppose," he addressed the frightened thrush, "you shall do just fine."

He sought out Halbarad, soon finding the other holding a small cage and looking immensely pleased with himself.

"They gave me a thrush with a lamed leg," Aragorn called, lifting the bird's cage.

Halbarad grinned. "I got a field mouse with a broken tail." He held up his cage and poked at it.

Aragorn leaned in for a closer look. The mouse had a tiny pointed face and was dull brownish in color. It was just like any other field mouse Aragorn had ever seen.

Halbarad solemnly placed a fist across his chest. "Do not fear, Halbarad the Second! Soon you shall be mended!"

Aragorn snorted in disbelief and lifted his eyes from the quivering mouse. "Self-centered lout. Only you, Halbarad, would name an assignment after yourself."

"I shall certainly not call him Strider," came Halbarad's retort. He eyed Halbarad the Second approvingly and then glanced at Aragorn's thrush. "What will you name yours?"

Aragorn shook his head. "It is not a pet."

"I have always favored the name Arwen, you know..."

"NO."

"Manivaninan?"

"What? I cannot even say that—"

"Cargil?"

"No."

"Baydar?"

"No."

"Wren?" Halbarad snickered. "Because it is a thrush—"

"No." Aragorn shot him a withering look. "He—or she—shall not have a name."

Halbarad pursed his lips. "Very well, then." He held up his cage. The mouse squeaked as the wooden structure twisted wildly. "Halbarad the Second, I introduce you to Lord NoName."

"Oh for love of the Valar." Aragorn rolled his eyes. "Halbarad, do not get attached—we have to release them when they are healed."

Halbarad ignored him. Poking at Halbarad the Second's cage, the young man frowned. "Strider, do you think he is hungry? Mayhap he would like a noodle or piece of cheese."

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A small lamb bleated and went capering by. The Ranger Crow, whom Aragorn still liked least of all his fellow Dúnedain, swore and ran after it.

"AHH! It bit me!" Bethron, a long-legged youth from Osgiliath howled and took up an odd dance. "Get it off! Get it off!" His companions Tarendel and Théomund desperately attempted to remove the fox kit attached to his hand. Bethron's third companion, Gilthorn, fell to the ground laughing.

"Cah-reep!" Lord NoName the Thrush tucked in his wings and eyed Aragorn solemnly.

Aragorn grimaced. "Yes, I agree."

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Coming soon, Chapter 8! A Ranger and an Elvish-raised man walk into a bar...

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