Dawn found Aragorn curled into a ball atop his pallet, but his weary, bloodshot eyes regarded the lightening sky with exhausted elation. As both occupants of this smallest of infirmaries were now well enough to not require constant vigil Lindewyn had not returned, and so Aragorn was left alone to keep the watch after the Master Healer departed. Through the long hours of the night he fought his toughest battle yet in his efforts to remain alert as the sconces guttered out, and the only light that reached him drifted in through the high windows, washing the cold stones in the faint, dreary silver of diffused moonlight.
Darkness settled thickly in the small room and the lingering odor of sickness hung close in the air, yet even as his treacherous mind likened the keep unto a tomb Aragorn refused to light the bedside candle, not even during his hourly checks on Captain Fengel, for which he relied on his sense of touch alone. The burnt scent of the candle and the subtle shift of the flame as it caught in the slight, unfeeling breeze would have been too great a temptation for the demons that stalked the darker recesses of his mind. Tonight he refused to be their victim.
Through the long, oppressive dark of the autumn night Aragorn kept the lonely watch, his care to the injured captain born more from a need to force his body to move and his mind to focus than from any real concern for the man's wellbeing. Yet any sense of pride he felt in knowing that he was responsible for the captain's imminent recovery had long since run dry, buried in the constant torment of memory just as surely as tonight's moon was buried in the clouds, leaving Aragorn to wallow, mind and body, in stifling shadows.
When he wasn't at the captain's side he was sitting on his makeshift bed with his knees drawn painfully close to his chin, or lying on his stomach amidst the protests of his shoulder and ribs, or pacing when he could stand the stillness no longer. His mind had become his greatest enemy with his exhaustion its greatest weapon, and though the effort nearly proved to be more than he could bear, he suffered not one ounce of sleep that night, and the peal of the morning bells echoed in his heart with the knell of petty victory.
Yet the clouds that served to hide the moon did well to block Anor's early light, and the morning that greeted him was pale and gray. A single birdsong echoed through the air, all the louder for its loneliness. Aragorn stood at the window. With his height he was able to face the new day at eye level, and he couldn't help but wonder if the world hadn't fought its own epic struggle against the terrors that haunted its darker depths last night, and this subdued morning was the evidence of its own exhaustion. It was an apt analogy, his weary mind conceded, considering that the fate of Arda was supposed to parallel his own.
"Have you not slept at all?"
Hilde's voice startled him, but his body was too tired to react properly to the event. Instead Aragorn turned around, his expression a half-hearted mask of surprise at being caught unaware. He hadn't heard the Third Lady enter. For a brief moment he contemplated lying, yet in his heart he knew his haggard appearance would betray him. Instead he sighed and allowed his gaze to fall self-consciously to the floor.
"Need I remind the healer that his body still needs its rest?"
An ironic smirk twisted Aragorn's lips for half a moment. "Not his body, no." Then he frowned, as though he hadn't meant to speak that thought aloud and was both puzzled and dismayed by the sound of his own voice. He still didn't meet Hilde's eyes; his gaze remained fixed on the floor even as he heard her close the distance between them.
The sudden soft warmth of her hand cupping the side of his face, then, was another shock, and his eyes snapped up of their own volition. Hilde was a petit woman even among the Rohirrim and thus Aragorn still had to bow his head in order to meet her eyes. When he did, he found himself the subject of a gentle, maternal scrutiny. After a moment though she smiled, as though she'd found whatever answers she'd sought, and she moved her hand from his face to tuck a stray lock of hair behind his ear.
Aragorn had heard it said that some women were born predisposed to motherhood, but the adage found personification in the Marshal's wife and he was momentarily blindsided by a sharp, familiar pang of longing that vanished just as swiftly as it came. Though he had been dearly loved in Rivendell, he hadn't been mothered, not in the true sense of the word and a part of him, it seemed, would always ache for it. It always had, ever since he'd learned what a mother was supposed to be, and remembered why he didn't have one.
"I have your breakfast," Hilde announced, unaware of the turn Aragorn's thoughts had taken. "If you will not sleep, you must at least eat."
It was then that Aragorn noticed a tray sitting on his bedside table, adorned with a steaming bowl of what was likely some species of porridge, and a goblet. Before Aragorn's weary mind could formulate a suitable reply his stomach spoke for him, rumbling loud enough for Hilde to hear, and the corners of her mouth tipped up in wry amusement. A blush tinted his cheeks for a moment as he nodded, his eyes finding the floor again.
"Thank you," he managed to mumble, all too aware of the awkward ineffectiveness of the gesture. Yet Hilde merely smiled again, regarding him with indulgent affection for a moment before she turned and stepped gracefully aside in a flourish of skirts.
Aragorn walked back to his pallet, where he'd grown accustomed to taking his meals, and lifted the tray into his lap as he sat. He sniffed the dark liquid in his goblet first and was surprised to find watered wine.
Hilde must have noted his startled expression. "Compliments of His Majesty," she informed him, that indulgent smile bleeding into her voice. "Though the healers would not allow it until there was far more water than wine."
A fond smile twitched Aragorn's lips. "He has my thanks." Then he took a sip… and grimaced. "For the thought, at least."
Hilde laughed as she appropriated Lindewyn's chair, but her discerning gaze leaked sympathy whenever Aragorn endured a sip from the goblet. She sat through his entire meal, mercifully content to simply let him eat. Or more likely, content to ensure that he actually ate it, per order of the healers. They needn't have worried. Aragorn's long night had left him famished and he made short work of the meal, though by the end he found himself wishing that the goblet contained either water or wine, not both.
"His Majesty meant well," Hilde said when he set the tray aside.
Aragorn tried for an answering smile, but it came across more like a grimace. However, any further rumination was prevented by a sudden, familiar noise: the creaking of stressed wood. Aragorn's attention snapped to the other pallet as Captain Fengel shifted again, the redistribution of weight resulting in another audible protest from the man's pallet frame.
"The Master Healer hoped he'd wake this morning." Aragorn heard Hilde say as he stood. He also heard her hesitant footsteps follow him as he crossed the short distance to where the captain lay. He knelt at Fengel's side and brought a hand to the man's forehead, eliciting a groan. When the captain brought an awkward hand up, presumably to bat away whatever had landed on his face, Aragorn reached out with his free hand and gently captured it. The captain's grip tightened reflexively around Aragorn's thumb and he groaned again, yet when he tried to pull away Aragorn held fast.
"Lasto beth nîn, hir-gon." Aragorn's voice was low and entreating. When he saw the captain's eyes shift beneath his eyelids he tightened his grip on the man's hand. "Fengel, tolo dan n'galad."
Another groan, and then at last the captain's eyes fluttered opened. After a few frantic blinks to clear his vision his brows snapped together in a frown. "Who in Béma's halls are you?" Fengel's voice was hoarse from lack of use, but it managed to convey incredulous curiosity anyway.
Aragorn gaped, taken aback by the abruptness of the question, and then he was hastily removing his hands from Fengel's person. He looked to Hilde for guidance only to discover that she'd disappeared, most likely to summon the Master Healer. For the moment, Aragorn was on his own.
"My name is Thorongil. I'm—" too late, he realized that he had no idea how to classify himself now. "A healer," he settled on. It was true enough.
Fengel seemed to take a moment to asses his situation, and the young man kneeling beside him. "Well, I guess that means I'm not dead yet."
Aragorn nodded, impressed by Fengel's candor. "So it would seem."
"And the king?"
The captain shoved himself up onto his elbows. "But is he well?"
Aragorn hesitated, unsure of his answer and all too aware of captain's urgency. "I have not seen him," he admitted. "Though others have. He is well enough to take charge of the garrison, but I cannot attest to any more than that."
"Thengel would assume command the garrison from his deathbed," Fengel surmised, distressed. Fortunately the arrival of the Master Healer spared Aragorn the need to answer.
"Ah, Lord Fengel. Awake at last I see." The healer strode into the room, his habitually grim features offset by a sardonic smirk.
"Tell me of the king," the captain demanded. "I must know if he is well."
The healer sighed, rather dramatically. "He's on his feet whenever my back is turned, he isn't resting when he should—we've actually taken to drugging his ale at night to get him to retire. In short, captain, he's perfectly himself, though whether or not he is well is another matter entirely."
That answer seemed to pacify the captain; he relaxed back onto his pillow again. "That sounds about right."
The healer frowned. "Quite." Then he laid his own hand across the captain's brow, assessing the man's temperature, before bringing his fingers down to check his pulse at the neck. Aragorn couldn't help the rush of satisfaction he felt when the healer stepped back, apparently satisfied.
"So how do you feel this morning?" the healer asked in conversational tones as he knelt down beside the captain.
From where he stood Aragorn couldn't quite see what the Healer was up to, but he could guess. His sense of decorum swiftly overcame his own healer's instincts and he turned away. He was still a stranger to Fengel, despite his intimate knowledge of the man's abdominal cavity, and he knew how he would feel if ever a stranger sat in on his own examination. Employing his well-honed stealth, Aragorn slipped unnoticed from the tower and descended the stairs. The captain's questions had reminded him of his own concern for King Thengel and this seemed the perfect time to seek some answers.
Aragorn dimly recalled being awed by the sheer presence of Helm's Deep when he'd first arrived; how it seemed to simply grow out of the earth itself like the mountains that braced it. That, of course, had been before he'd actually stepped inside the fortress, whereupon his view had narrowed considerably. The legendary garrison behind the Deeping Wall, with its labyrinthine passageways and endless honeycomb of rooms, annexes, and hollows stretching back beneath the mountains did not exist to him, not then. What he'd found instead was barely a hospital, where the injured and dying were packed in like paving stones and with bloody straw for mortar, where their gasps and cries and screams echoed off its cavernous walls. Where was the fabled Great Hall extolled in tradition and song, where kings had sat and armies had mustered and men had learned of the dignity in endurance? This had been no more than a massive charnel house, stifled by the heat of a thousand candles, where only the flies could spare the time to pay homage to the dead.
Aragorn might have forgotten, in the aftermath of all he'd endured, the untold hours that he'd slaved in this place. Fresh from the horrors of battle and exhausted after the march from Edbaning, when he first arrived he'd seen only the opportunity; the chance to lose himself in the role of a healer so completely that he could cease to be anything else, to bury his heart deep down in a place that not even memory could reach. He might have remembered only that he'd helped to save lives, and allowed the rest to be swallowed by the haze of pain and fever. He might have escaped Helm's Deep without being reminded that nightmares could contain far worse than scenes of battle…
If only he hadn't blundered down an unknown corridor in his search for Thengel and, after the innocent swing of a door, found himself standing at the heart of it again.
He'd come through a side entrance, one he hadn't known existed, and his startled gasp caught in his throat as he gagged. The entire place reeked of blood and bowels and herbs and sweat and—death. That's what it was. Its pervasive miasma hung thick in the air. Even though the room was positively dim with just the torches on the walls for extra light, even though the floor had been swept clean of straw and long tables stood in place of the rows upon rows of pallets and beds where men now slaved over parchments instead of casualties, Aragorn would have known this place. Just one breath, and the memories came roaring back, for the very air stank of death.
Death, and athelas.
Just standing there, breathing that air, Aragorn felt his stomach roil. He was sure he was going to be sick.
And he probably would have been, too, if someone hadn't suddenly called out to him. If a hand hadn't suddenly gripped his good shoulder and startled him completely out of any reaction his body was about to accomplish. Folca, Aragorn realized. Who else would it have been?
"Are you sure you should be out of bed?" the Marshal asked critically as his gaze swept over Aragorn, no doubt taking in his sickly pallor and unsteady stance. "You do not look well to my eye."
"I…" Aragorn stifled the instinct to take a deep breath. "Perhaps some air, I think."
Folca nodded. He shifted his grip to Aragorn's elbow and led him gently yet firmly across the Hall to the main doors. Aragorn rather resented this assumption of weakness on his part and had half a mind to shake off that hand. He was forced to reassess his situation though, when he noticed patches of pale stone dotting the floor and—too late—realization struck him like a physical blow. Before, he'd taken it for granted that the stones in the floor held the shades of mottled rust. Now he knew, with a sickening clarity that made his vision start to tunnel in, what the floor's true color was, and worse, why he had not noticed it beforehand.
Then suddenly there was a great grating noise and a blast of cool air. Aragorn felt himself bodily maneuvered until the backs of his legs hit up against something solid. His momentum carried him backwards and he lost his balance, only to find himself seated—hard—atop something that groaned under his weight. Slowly the rest of the world trickled back in before his senses. Only then did Aragorn realize that he was in the courtyard between the Deeping Wall and the garrison proper, sitting on an empty crate.
"Better now, Thorongil?" he heard Folca ask, a touch of impatience in his tone. When Aragorn looked up he saw that his friend was casually leaning against the nearby wall, arms folded across his chest, and studying him with muted intensity.
Aragorn felt heat rise in his cheeks and he glanced briefly away. He realized then that what he had taken for impatience in Folca was really something more like concern, carefully but not quite successfully restrained. He'd seen groomsmen behaving similarly when reaching out to injured, skittish horses. It pricked at his pride; a feeling that was only made worse by the simple truth that he had most definitely earned such attention from his friend. Embarrassed by his weakness, Aragorn merely nodded and focused on simply breathing; all the while under Folca's watchful eye, as though he was an untamed stallion that might bolt at any moment.
"Good," Folca spoke at last, once he was reasonably sure that Aragorn was in control again. "Mind telling me what you thought you were doing?"
The Marshal's voice was carefully, deliberately conversational, and it rankled for it was a tone Aragorn recognized. He'd heard it often enough growing up, sometimes covering those very words. Conversations that started with questions like that never ended well, as a lecture inevitably followed whatever answer he gave. If he was lucky, a lecture was all that followed yet more often than not, his father would dock privileges, or Erestor would assign lines or extra essays, or Glorfindel would set him to fletching arrows—which, come to think of it, was probably why he was now quite skilled at the task.
For all of it though, Aragorn held no delusions about his adolescence. At the pinnacle of teenaged angst he'd felt increasingly isolated as the only human among elves who couldn't possibly relate to him, and increasingly confused about why everyone seemed to deliberately avoid his questions. They were questions about his real parents, about members of his family that supposedly still lived among the Dúnedain, and they festered in his heart and turned earnest curiosity into mounting insecurity. Worse still, his brothers—who had ever been willing to take the time to explain the inner workings of the minds of elves so old they'd forgotten what it was like to be young—were leaving him behind in their quests for adventure with increasing frequency, even to the extent of monopolizing Legolas's rare visits. It left him feeling resentful and abandoned—and angry—and his father, tutor, and weapons-master had born the brunt of it: words he'd recognized even then that they did not deserve, and worse, some he'd reasoned they'd actually earned. Then there was the hole he'd punched through his bedroom wall (now hidden behind his dresser) and quite a few invaluable antiques that had met their end in his hands.
He'd grown out of it, of course, and in hindsight he'd accepted that he'd most assuredly deserved those punishments and probably more, besides. Thus he choked back the sarcastic answer that had first leapt to mind, resolving that if he had in fact matured then he probably should show it. Moreover, Folca deserved better from him.
"I simply grew tired of staring at the same four walls, hour past hour," Aragorn confessed, entirely unable to help his petulant tone. He still did not appreciate Folca taking him to task about leaving his sickbed, not when the man had completely misinterpreted the reasons behind his reactions in the Great Hall.
Something in the Marshal's gaze softened then—sympathy perhaps? Though not quite enough of it to undermine his obvious exasperation, as he clearly perceived Aragorn's health as being more fragile than it truly was.
"I can assure you, you'll have an even greater aversion to them if you deal yourself yet more harm through overexertion and end up confined to bed."
"I have not overexerted myself," Aragorn hotly defended. "Really, I feel fine," he added, calmly this time as he earnestly glanced up and met Folca's eyes. "I'm not even tired."
The Marshal must have thought Aragorn sounded entirely too innocent. "Really. And I suppose it's perfectly natural for you to hyperventilate when you feel fine?"
"That—" Aragorn bit off the rest of his reply and looked away, flushing as the words crashed inside his mind. He tried again, but he couldn't bring himself to look up at Folca again. "That had nothing to do with exertion."
"What then?" Folca demanded, his tone short.
Aragorn could tell the man didn't exactly believe him and felt a surge of anger at the thought—Folca had all but called him a liar!—but he quickly suppressed it. He didn't want to argue with his friend. Yet when he tried to explain, to tell Folca the truth behind what happened in the Great Hall, the words just wouldn't come. The pain was still too raw, the reality of it too fresh in his mind. He felt the panic (yes, panic, he belatedly realized) hovering within easy reach of his memories, and so couldn't bring himself to speak of them.
"I know about your arm," Folca said suddenly, softly, as though giving voice to an epiphany.
Aragorn glanced up sharply, his expression guarded.
"The Master Healer told me," Folca continued. "Along with your concerns." Here the Marshal seemed to hesitate, as though carefully weighing his words, but he pressed on a moment later. "Thorongil, you have suffered grievous injury. There is no shame in that, and not a man among us would think you less a healer for seeking outside help to overcome it. If there is healing for you in Dol Amroth then King Thengel would certainly give you leave to find it."
For all of Folca's earnest intent, Aragorn was so completely taken aback that he could have laughed. Is that what the Marshal thought was troubling him? It couldn't have been farther from his mind! The startled humor evaporated though, in the face of what Folca said next.
"Yes there is weakness in your body still, but that is not your fault. You'd go with his blessings, Thorongil. It wouldn't be an act of dismissal. Think of my sister—weakness of body does not mean weakness of character!"
Oh. So Folca still thought he had overexerted himself, but because he feared repudiation for being weak. Though the words had been good to hear in their own right, they violently derailed his thoughts and brought them crashing back to a different matter entirely. They reminded him of a far more important—and far more devastating—fact than his continuing inability to stomach that gruesome aftermath of battle.
"My weakness got Arlath killed!" Aragorn scathed, his anger forcing him to his feet at last. "Fat lot of good my so-called strength of character did him."
Well, Folca certainly hadn't been expecting that one. He looked as though he'd just been slapped. To his credit the Marshal recovered quickly, but even still he was staring as though Aragorn had grown an extra head and he wasn't sure if it was a friendly head, or if it was going to bite him.
"What in Béma's name are you carrying on about?"
Aragorn had expected shock. He'd even braced himself for outrage, once that shock had settled into realization. Thus Folca's sheer bafflement went a long way towards defusing his own anger. It was the disbelief though that undid him completely. So Folca didn't know, then. Aragorn could have sworn he'd told him, almost immediately after the battle, but he'd replayed it all so often in that haunted theatre behind his eyelids that he had to consider that, perhaps, he'd only dreamt it. Accepting that, Aragorn sighed, and felt fight drain out of him. He lowered himself back down to the crate again, all the while trying to organize his thoughts and separate memory from nightmare. He owed Folca the truth, even if he felt something in his chest tighten at the thought of it.
And so it was truth that Aragorn gave him, down to the last, bitter detail. From the moment he realized the weakness in his left shoulder to all he did to exacerbate it, his rough voice grated over the explanations, rendering them in harsh, clinical detail. Then finally, as a man might take a knife to his own flesh, Aragorn dredged up the awful memory of Arlath's death. He spoke of his final return to Edbaning on the heels of wild, unfounded hope and viciously plunged the tale onward until he came to the soul-shattering moment when he realized his grip had failed. His quicksilver eyes had clouded over, all recognition of their audience gone, as he recounted everything in between.
Silence descended when Aragorn finished speaking, a great yawning chasm of silence that separated him from Folca and that left each of them isolated and adrift in the sea of their own thoughts. Aragorn had known in advance how ineffectual an apology would be, but he had been determined to give one anyway. Folca and Arlath had been friends since childhood and Aragorn knew that such a loss merited at least token acknowledgment. He had been bracing himself to make such an acknowledgement when Folca surprised him by speaking first.
"I… Thank you, Thorongil. I hadn't— … But it's of surprising comfort, to know."
Shock from Folca, finally. It was skimming on the surface of the turbulent brew of emotions Aragorn heard in those unexpected words. Relief was there too, and Aragorn realized that, given the absence of a body, hearing in detail the final moments of Arlath's life brought some measure of closure to his death. He hadn't considered that before, but it made sense.
Yet whatever else the Marshal might have been feeling, Aragorn didn't bother with deciphering it. Whether decorum or cowardice, he simply didn't want to know; and beyond that, perhaps, was the fact that it didn't really matter anyway. Folca had been upset first and shocked later, and had even thanked him—thanked him!—for the tale before Aragorn could muster the courage to say anything else. It seemed to him that the world had suddenly, violently, flipped on its head. He could barely sort out his own feelings at that moment, let alone bother with anyone else's. How could he, when he didn't even know which way was up? The subsequent vertigo, so to speak, kept Aragorn seated and silent, and entirely unable to meet Folca's eyes.
"There you are!"
Aragorn tensed, startled by the sudden shout, but it was pure reflex for he recognized the voice. Eolad. His friend was either blessed or cursed with a preternatural sense of timing, as though it was his own unique destiny to rescue Aragorn from the terrifying dangers of the awkward moment. Even now he was jogging his way over, completely ignorant of what he was walking into.
"I've been looking all over for you," Eolad was saying, quieter now that he had Aragorn's attention. "Me and half the staff. You're just lucky I found you first—Master Aldwine isn't exactly pleased that you ducked out on him."
"I wasn't ducking out," Aragorn objected but without any heat; a knee-jerk reaction steeped in exhaustion rather than indignance. He dropped his head into his hands for a moment and, around a ragged breath, pulled himself back together with effort. When at last he looked to Eolad all traces of that internal struggle had vanished, and instead his eyes fairly glittered in the light of renewed purpose. "I was looking for the king."
The healer seemed at least partially mollified by that, or at least, sufficiently shocked that he didn't quite know how to proceed. "Oh. Ah, well—"
"I might have known," Folca's gruff voice wedged itself suddenly into Eolad's attempt at a reply. The healer seemed grateful, and well he should for all knew that His Majesty was waiting somewhat impatiently for the chance to speak with his erstwhile herald and it was only the Master Healer's insistence that Thorongil was not yet well enough that stayed his insistence. That and the fact that with his broken leg His Majesty could never manage the winding stairs up to the keep. To have his master and his king pulling him at cross-purposes was certainly not an enviable position, and then of course Thorongil was known to keep his own counsel, regardless.
"His Majesty has appropriated the garrison offices for his use," Folca went on. "I'll show you—that is, if you're up to a bit of a walk."
Folca was back to studying him again, Aragorn noted with chagrin, like he was an odd-shaped bug in a bell jar. He didn't know what Folca was looking to find, but he did his level best to flash a convincing smile in the Marshal's direction, never mind that it probably stretched as pale and thin as his courage in that moment. Yet somewhere in it, Folca found what he was searching for.
"You will make our excuses to Master Aldwine?"
"Of course, milord," Eolad agreed, relieved.
Folca nodded, either at both of them or neither, and with a decisive turn, wordlessly beckoned Aragorn to follow him.
Mercifully, they did not return through the Great Hall. Instead, Folca led them through the winding, narrow courtyard, which grew more crowded as they went along. Refugees were gathering in clusters, cliquey and yet subdued as they took direction from the soldiers who were attempting—somewhat unsuccessfully—to herd them.
"The first of the caravans are to leave by midday," Folca explained, having caught Aragorn's bewildered look and surmised the cause.
"For wherever they might receive welcome," Folca corrected. "The Hornburg wasn't meant to shelter as many as have come from the ruin of the Westfold. Those with family still hale in the townships left standing will make their way there."
That made sense, Aragorn acknowledged, but it gave birth to another pertinent question. "But, won't they rebuild?"
"Edbaning, certainly," Folca replied. "It remains the pinnacle of our western defenses. Though, it will take quite a bit of time before enough timber can be sent from Gondor."
"I thought this was the pinnacle of the western defense."
That earned a harsh bark of laughter from the Marshal, laced with bitterness and irony and the echoes of old argument. "This fortress may save our skins—and indeed it has, more than once. But it will not save our kingdom, if ever it should come to that. Holed up here, we may outlast our enemies, but so too would we outlast all that we would be fighting for. That would hardly be a measure of victory."
Aragorn bit his lip and focused on matching pace with Folca, who had lengthened his stride. Realizing that he'd unknowingly picked at a scab obviously still sore for his friend, he clamped down on his resolve and promised himself he wouldn't ask the next question that clamored noisily inside is mind. He had more discretion—more respect for Folca than that. No, he would not ask.
"But, what of Strathcomb?"Nai caer menig delyth dui aminesse!
Folca's answer was so soft Aragorn almost missed it amidst the chaos of the courtyard. "There is no Strathcomb," he said, the words bringing him up short. Aragorn nearly crashed into him, but he veered to the left and sidestepped a broken handcart in time to avoid disaster. Meanwhile Folca found the strength to continue; that same strength held him rigid, his back to Aragorn, as he forced the truth to comply with his tongue. "Not by half. Too many stayed, hoping to defend their homes, to stem the tide long enough for reinforcements to arrive."
The truth slammed into Aragorn with the crushing weight of grief and nearly took his breath away. Yet he was left with air enough to rasp: "And we came too late!"
Folca nodded, though it was an abbreviated gesture, with his chin falling to his chest as some of the tension slowly bled from his stance. A harsh exhale and he looked up again, and Aragorn saw for the first time how much this war had truly cost his friend. The Westfold was his protectorate, its soldiers his own command. What was left of that legacy now, save ash and unmarked graves? The mantle of responsibility, which had previously draped over Folca's shoulders like a well-worn cloak, now settled about the man like shackles, irrevocably chaining him to a towering wall of sorrow and guilt. Shame flooded Aragorn as he remembered his own pitiful lamentations of his failures, for though their persistent memories cut him still, his spirit could hardly be as flayed as Folca's must have been.
"The women and children who remain will make their way back to their families," Folca was saying, "if they have them. Those that don't will head for Edoras. Arrangements are already being made. They'll find housing there until they can get back on their feet and apply a trade if they've learned one, or find work in the fields." Then, as though suddenly realizing he'd been rambling, Folca shook his head to clear it of the troublesome thoughts that kept spilling through his teeth.
"You'll find the king through there," the Marshal said, changing the course of their conversation so swiftly Aragorn felt the whiplash. When he recovered, he saw Folca pointing to a large door that even now was swinging wide to admit a trio of soldiers, dressed to ride. "You can follow that to the garrison offices. It's far to the rear, along the entrance to the caves. Mind that you stick to the main thoroughfare and you'll be fine. If all else fails, just follow the sound of arguing."
Aragorn was too much a jumble of nerves to laugh at that statement, but he did manage a tired smile. Yet when Folca bade him farewell around the excuse that he had pressing matters to attend to Aragorn couldn't help but feel oddly abandoned, as though the rock he had been sheltering against had suddenly rolled away, leaving him lonely and exposed, bereft of any support. And now that his first conversation with Thengel since Edbaning loomed imminently on his horizon, Aragorn had to wonder if he was truly equal to the task. His mind was exhausted from trying to keep pace with his heart, which constantly changed tracks with all the reckless abandon of a fox fleeing the hounds.
As his moment of indecision drew out, a bone-weary exhaustion settled over him and Aragorn wasted precious moments trying to determine why he was so blasted tired and, in a fit of irony, wished for nothing more than the chance to flop down onto a bed and sleep; as though avoiding the rest of this mess of a Valar-forsaken day would scrub its memories from his mind and, upon waking, he would find that the world had righted itself again and returned to some semblance of familiar form.
Then he remembered that he hadn't slept the night before.
Then, he remembered why.
With blinding insight, Aragorn realized that the world would never right itself again. It couldn't go back to the way he'd known before for the simple fact that he couldn't go back. An infinite number of new dawns couldn't shed a different light on this day, or any of its horrible predecessors. No amount of avoidance, in dreams or out of them, would rinse his memories clean of them and even if they could, nothing would cleanse the blood from his hands, or from his sword. It was a sobering thought, and ill company in the long, claustrophobic corridor that led inevitably to the garrison offices, and his much belated appointment with the king.
In the end, he didn't have to follow the sound of arguing after all. Instead, he simply followed the messengers. Apparently His Majesty had appropriated the fleet-footed services of many young lads, the survivors of the Westfold. They led him down a winding passageway, darting around corners and ducking beneath low arches as they left the constructed garrison behind in favor of the caves, which had been decked and braced like mineshafts deep into the mountains. When at last he did hear Thengel's voice, the king was dictating a report. Aragorn waited patiently just out of sight until at last yet another messenger departed, sheave of parchment rolled up tightly in one hand.
Deeming it now safe to enter, Aragorn rounded the corner in time to catch Thengel's next directive: he ordered a soldier—one Freca's men, according to his heraldry—to follow up on the inventory of their stores. The soldier nodded and made his exit, nodding politely to Aragorn as he went. Aragorn spared him a polite smile, even as his eyes slid past the man's departure and settled on the king. His Majesty was seated behind a large desk littered with scrolls and sporting a lamp precariously perched on one corner. His left arm was bound tightly to his side in a sling that doubled as rib support, while his right hand clutched a quill that appeared in desperate need of sharpening. Thengel's gaze was fixed on the mess of paper before him, as though he was striving to find his place now that his (borrowed) office was free from distraction, and Aragorn hesitated over the etiquette of distracting a king.
"Sire?" he entreated at last, having collected the final dregs of his courage.
King Thengel started, dropping the quill as his gaze snapped upwards, and he broke into a wide grin when realized who'd just interrupted his thoughts. "Thorongil!"
Aragorn ducked his head as he bent forward slightly at the waist in respectful yet abbreviated diffidence to Thengel's royal station. "Your Majesty."
"Well don't just stand there, Thorongil! Come in! Here, step into the light. Let me get a look at you—Béma knows I can't get up and over to you, so you'll just have to come to me."
Blindsided by Thengel's enthusiasm, Aragorn drifted forward into the pool of light spilling from the desk lamp. Thengel upped the flame and the room brightened a bit, and with the extra light Aragorn noted how pale the king really looked. He had dark circles beneath his eyes, and there were lines of pain etched behind his smile. He was forced to perch awkwardly on the edge of his chair to accommodate the splint that traversed the length of his right leg. Thengel looked haggard, stretched thin across the breadth of his duties, though he hid it fairly well beneath his unbridled delight at his herald's sudden appearance. Yet even still, that herald counted himself a healer first.
"Are you well, my lord?"
"About as well as can be expected," Thengel answered, somehow managing to be both candid and evasive. "And you? The healers have been frustratingly vague regarding your condition."
"I am—recovering." Aragorn bit off the lie at the last possible second. While he could have attested to being well, he knew that the king would not have been fooled and probably would have taken exception to the attempt.
Even still, Thengel's gaze narrowed in his direction. "I'm sure you are."
Aragorn ducked his head, blushing slightly. He suddenly felt impossibly awkward.
"Oh! I am reminded—I have something for you."
Thengel's exclamation grabbed Aragorn's attention again. Blinking, he looked up. "Sire?"
Thengel reached behind him to the floor, then:
"My sword!" For indeed it was. Thengel drew it from its borrowed sheath and presented it to Aragorn with as much flourish as he could manage left-handed and from his seated position. Aragorn saw that it had been well cleaned, and if he had to guess he'd also presume that the blade had been oiled and sharpened. It looked almost pristine, resting awkwardly as it did in Thengel's grasp, for the king was offering it hilt-first. One could almost imagine that it had never seen a day's combat, that it had never shed a drop of blood at all.
Perhaps for that reason, Aragorn was suddenly hesitant to take it up again.
"I must thank you for the lending of it," Thengel was saying, and Aragorn finally convinced his fingers to close around the hilt. Then, as if in reflex, he pivoted his wrist, bringing the sword around in a sweeping arc until the blade was vertical. Sure enough, the blade had been well tended—better than it had seen in a long while. And close inspection revealed the flaws: the nicks in the blade, the notches in the guard, the wear on the leather grip. Yes the sword was well cared for, but it was also well used, and no amount of spit and polish could fully obscure its history. It was not surprising that Aragorn felt a sudden kinship with the blade, for hadn't war also left its mark upon him, body and soul?
For the first time in his life, Aragorn understood exactly what all the old soldiers meant when they insisted that their sword was merely an extension of their arm, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with grace and economy of movement. For the first time in his life, Aragorn felt complete for the weight of that sword in his hand—and for half a breath, fervently wished that it was not so. Then he took the sheath that Thengel offered, and slid the blade home.
"It seems that there is a great deal that I must thank you for, in fact."
Aragorn's gaze snapped up at that, a puzzled frown settling on his features. Thengel raised a hand to forestall the inevitable protest.
"But this is hardly the time for such discussions," he explained. "Nor the place." His gaze warmed on Aragorn then, even as he did his best to ignore Aragorn's careless look of relief for the delay. "For now I'll simply express my gratitude to Béma that you made it home, alive and well."
Aragorn inclined his head, the briefest of respectful nods. "Thank you, sire."
"You're a good man, Thorongil. You served well as my herald."
Aragorn felt himself flush and let his eyes skirt away from the king. "When I remembered to blow the horn," he amended, clinging to his self-reproach because it was the safest answer.
"Well, it was only your first day." That elicited a rueful chuckle, which Thengel counted as victory.
"Indeed," Aragorn conceded.
"And besides, you've more than earned the position—no," there went that hand again, holding off any protests Aragorn might have made. "Let's not speak of such matters now. The future is before us still, once this not insignificant hurdle is past." Half a gesture, an elaborate half-shrug really, in the general vicinity of the Hornburg conveyed his meaning. "Just know that you are welcomed to ride at my right hand."
"I—" Yet whatever words he might have spoken lodged firmly in the back of Aragorn's throat and went no further. He was forced to swallow thickly around the painful lump they created. "I thank you, Thengel Cyning," he managed at last, his admittedly tentative grasp of Rohirric having deserted him, forcing him to bollix his sentence with two languages.
The king paid it no mind, however. "There is just one thing I would like you to consider, Thorongil. Especially as I have not yet released you from my service." The teasing glint in Thengel's eye completely undermined the implied threat, thus Aragorn was merely curious as he waited for the king to elaborate.
"It seems the Master Healer believes it would be the epitome of recklessness for me to ride to Edoras in my present condition," Thengel informed him, his displeasure with the situation obvious in his disgruntled tone. "Never mind that plenty of our countrymen have ridden with broken bones and to no great ill." The king lapsed into silence for a moment, obviously caught up in some memory or other involving that very feat.
Meanwhile Aragorn was frowning. "How do you plan to make your return, then?" he asked after a moment, a sinking feeling swilling in his gut and rooting itself between his toes. Surely His Majesty wasn't about to ask him to countermand the Master Healer?
"Freca's set his carpenters to turning a horse cart into a chariot of sorts, something that will allow me to sit down and still keep my dignity. Well, most of it." It was a decidedly un-regal scowl that transformed Thengel's face as he amended that.
"Ingenious, sire." Aragorn kept his voice carefully neutral, respect for the garrison commander's ingenuity balanced against diffidence to the king's opinions of the matter.
Thengel scoffed slightly, as though he'd been doing entirely too much of that lately and the gesture was starting wear rather thin. "It'll serve well enough," he agreed, "but that brings me to my point. As my herald, it would fall to you to drive the Royal Chariot."
Aragorn blinked, quite certain he'd heard sardonic capitals around 'Royal Chariot.' "Sire?"
"If you're up for it, that is," the king added after a moment's pause, his discerning gaze falling heavily on the sling Aragorn still wore on his right arm.
Aragorn's proclivity to downplay the severity of his injuries was at odds with his tacit appreciation of the consequences of failure at such a task, thus he decided to answer Thengel's question with one of his own. "When are you scheduled to depart?"
"Oh, not for several days, at least. The chariot is still being built, and at any rate it'll take at least that long for the scouts to report in. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the riders took thrice as long."
Aragorn pursed his lips a moment, hesitating. "The longer we delay, the more time for both of us to heal."
"And you? Will you be healed enough when the time comes?" Thengel's tone was light enough, but his piercing glance would settle for nothing less than the absolute truth.
Aragorn dropped his gaze to the floor. He sucked in a slow breath and then glanced up again, a courage that he did not feel now shining in his light eyes. "With proper care my shoulder will take several moons to fully heal; longer still, before it is strengthened once again."
"And your arm?" Thengel prompted, cutting his herald no quarter.
"My arm…" Aragorn's voice trailed awkwardly as he raised the limb in question. His left arm, seemingly in perfect order now, yet it was only days ago that it had failed him utterly. He balled a fist, watched his fingers curl before his eyes, pressed them tightly until his tendons shook with the strain of it. Then, as though it was his will and not his muscles he had mastered, he let his fingers slowly fray until his hand relaxed completely. "My hand…" he murmured, the words harshly pulled from the back of his throat as he studied the small crescent indentations his fingernails had left in his palm.
Then all at once he shuddered, the motion brief and violent, a marionette jouncing on its strings. And he shook his head, to clear the smoke from his vision, to silence Arlath's scream from ringing in his ears. When he looked up again Thengel caught the startled flash of too-bright eyes and knew at once that it would be a long time indeed before Thorongil was fully healed.
"We've no need to decide things now," the king pronounced, his studiously casual tone catching Aragorn's attention at once. "As I've said, the chariot isn't even assembled yet. Just know that your place is with me, Thorongil, when we make the ride to Edoras."
Aragorn flushed, somehow managing to look surprised and awkward and ill, all at once. "Yes, sire. Thank you."
Thengel gracelessly waved him off. "Meanwhile you should rest, recover your strength. I understand you're only lately out of a sickbed, yourself. Heed the healers and doubtless you'll be ready to ride when the time comes."
"Yes, sire," Aragorn repeated, both tone and stance off-kilter still. In his sudden, immense exhaustion he took Thengel's words as a dismissal. He bowed as deeply as he dared, the movements swift and jerky, and made a hasty and graceless exit. Once outside the offices he allowed himself to slump against the wall, knees bent, his back braced against the rough stones. There he tilted his head back as the world pitched and rolled in time with his stomach, and he waited for an end to the incessant pounding in his ears.
When Aragorn finally stumbled back to the little room atop the keep he found Captain Fengel asleep once more, and breathing easily. Then, given that the sun was still high outside their window, Aragorn reckoned that this was perhaps the safest time to rest. His exhaustion had left him punchy, with an aching heaviness in his limbs offset, strangely, by giddiness. He'd been through this before, in the aftermath of the Midwinter War, and so knew from experience that if he pushed his body hard enough he could sleep without dreams. That was exactly what he aimed to do now, in the relative safety of the afternoon, and indeed he fell asleep almost before his body had the chance to stretch itself out atop his pallet.
Aragorn awoke disoriented in the morning twilight, with faceless ghosts dancing before his vision on wisps of smoke. He blinked and sat up, hard, only to rediscover the flaming ache across his chest and the gentle throbbing of his right shoulder. He found a guttering candle flickering on the small table, precariously close to the head of his pallet, and for a moment he sat frozen, captivated by the dancing flame. He wrenched himself out of his trance a second later, saved only by the suddenly urgent need to relieve himself. He discovered then that a chamber pot had been left for his use, but he much preferred the tailor-made excuse to stretch his legs—and, perhaps, to relieve his sudden claustrophobia.
He made his way down through the fortress and into the courtyard. There he reclined against a rain barrel and let his gaze drift heavenwards. He easily spotted the Gil-Estel and tried to feel bolstered by the sight, but the autumn air was chilly and his breath fogged before his eyes. Ill at ease, he stood again and continued on his way. Now wide awake, Aragorn felt that a walk would do him good, perhaps help to calm the nerves that were jangling in jagged edges just below his skin.
Eventually Aragorn found his way outside the garrison, and when he'd traveled a good distance into the countryside he stopped, just as the first rosy fingers of dawn began to creep out of the east. He turned into the rising sun, shivering even as he felt its warmth, and he shut his eyes as Anor arose at last, a giant ball of flame. Aragorn knew that he should start heading back; the Hornburg would be stirring soon and surely he would be missed, but instead he watched the surrounding grassland toss about in the morning breeze, a frothy sea of wilted greens and scorched amber that chased the western horizon. He'd been to Lindon once and had seen the fringes of the Sundering Sea, and on a bleary, overcast morning the water had writhed in shades of iron and slate. It had been a foreboding sight—until Círdan had laughed at him and suggested they go sailing; but this?
For all that the sky was clear, the weather fair, and the ocean made of wheat, it still lay irrevocably in his path, a living, breathing barrier to that which lay beyond, and just like that long-ago morning Aragorn realized with heart-wrenching clarity that the sudden, fierce yearning in his soul would never be appeased, that the sea's siren song of Home was never meant for him. Just as on that long-ago morning he felt that old familiar foreboding at the sight of the one obstacle he was destined never to overcome. Now he found himself standing on the hither shore again, staring headlong into the fundamental truth of what it meant to be of the Second Born, and once again he felt the familiar sting in his eyes, only this time he couldn't blame it on the salt-spray.
A sudden, warm touch on the back of his left shoulder and Aragorn jumped, startled. It was Ulmafan, deciding to practice her stealth in wishing him good morning—or more likely he had simply been too swept up in his thoughts to hear her approach. Apparently the horses had been let out to graze. He greeted her just as silently, leaning his aching right shoulder into her neck for the warmth of it while the fingers of his left hand carded absently through her mane, working out the tangles as they went. Then he sighed, a low, keening sound, and Ulmafan bent her head around just so, and Aragorn was temporarily sheltered from the wind.
"Mellonin," he murmured, the softness of the Grey Tongue sounding oddly harsh as it broke the silence. Aragorn bowed his head and buried his face in Ulmafan's neck, his fingers curling into claws as his hand fisted in her mane. His reward was that his mare stomped her feet, as if suddenly impatient. That had Aragorn looking up again, and Ulmafan tossed her head. Then slowly, a fractured smile slid across Aragorn's face.
It had been far too long since he'd ridden in Elven fashion.
A moment later and Aragorn was swinging up onto Ulmafan's back, and as soon as the mare sensed that he was properly seated she took off. He freed his right arm of its sling and grabbed hold of Ulmafan's mane with both hands while with his knees he urged the mare faster. He bent low along her neck—pain be damned—and together they thundered westward, leaving behind a wake of trampled grass, a narrow swath of burnt sienna. Laughter bubbled up from Aragorn's gut unbidden, smoothing over the rough patches on his heart as it passed by, as he remembered that long-ago day, when he let Círdan drag him out to sea. Nothing had changed—he still could not sail unto the Blessed Shore, could not surmount his simple adan fate, but for one single, blessed day he'd thumbed his nose at it and that had soothed his spirit in ways he never knew he'd needed.
And so began the pattern of Aragorn's days inside the Hornburg. Always he would wake before dawn and wait for Anor in the fields. There Ulmafan would find him, and together they'd blaze new trails through the tall grasses. They'd always return before the sun had reached her zenith and then, after giving Ulmafan her rubdown, Aragorn would present himself to the groomsmen, who'd been so busy as of late with other comings and goings of the garrison-turned-refugee camp that many of the horses had been neglected. Slowly but surely Aragorn worked his way among them, treating the minor trophies of war that had gone unnoticed and washing away its memories. By the end they all had seen him, knew that he was not a threat and appreciated that he was there to care for them, and in doing so Aragorn earned the undying gratitude of the garrison stable master, who had his hands full simply with making sure each horse had a place to shelter every night.
By necessity his work in the fields ended at dusk and so Aragorn retreated behind the Deeping Wall and gave himself over to the Master Healer, who insisted on daily inspections of his injuries. Once this slight indignity had been endured, Aragorn would entreat the Master Healer to put him to work, and so his evenings were spent cataloguing supplies, washing bandages, and anything other thankless task that needed tending. As the need was no longer urgent, the Master Healer was hardly disposed to allow Aragorn to subject his still-healing injuries to strenuous labor. Of course, once the man got wind of how Aragorn had been spending his days (and after the thorough dressing-down) he got to add clipping horsetails for suture fiber to his afternoon routine.
On and on it went, the days bleeding into each other in one long stretch of endless work. Always Aragorn would retire late into the midnight watch, having deliberately pushed his body beyond his mind's capacity for nightmares. Sometimes the smoke of the cooking fires set his teeth on edge. Sometimes when he was forced to suddenly grab hold of something with his left hand a jolt of not-quite-pain would streak up through his arm. Some nights he would take dinner with Folca, and for a few moments he'd actually forget and then catch himself waiting for Arlath to join them.
Some nights, in the quiet moments before he allowed sleep to claim him, grief over the loss of his home would seize his heart in its merciless jaws and threaten to rip him apart from the inside out. He knew that past experiences made it worse, that this new pain was relentlessly carving up old scars, but of course thoughts of Imladris were exceedingly unhelpful. Then he stopped trying to rationalize the hurt into submission, because it felt too much like he was slipping on his own blood, a reminder that he was hemorrhaging inside and wouldn't stop until he bled out. And so he gave himself over to his labors so he wouldn't have to think on anything else, and he gave in each night to sheer exhaustion so that the stray thoughts couldn't catch him unaware.
It was on his eleventh morning—twelfth, if you took the day he first awoke—that King Thengel summoned him at last. Freca's carpenters had successfully converted a small horse carriage into a custom chariot to be drawn by two of Rohan's finest draft horses, and upon receipt of the updated scouting reports the Royal Caravan was making ready to depart at last for Edoras. His Majesty needed to know if Aragorn was fit to assume the herald's station.
Aragorn actually hadn't given the matter much thought after their initial conversation, but in the intervening days he had truly grown to appreciate Folca's pronouncement that one hard-up stay would leave him hating Helm's Deep. Thus when he was reminded of Thengel's request he would have sworn up and down the sky was pink if that's what it took for him to finally be able to leave the confines of the Deeping Wall. By then the bruises on his chest had mostly faded, though his ribs still took every opportunity to remind him that they were less than pleased with his activities of late. His right shoulder ached each morning when he awoke, though with time and use that too was getting better. His left arm—well. At least it didn't pain him; that had to count for something. Therefore Aragorn was able to pledge his services to the king with a relatively clean conscious. After all, how much effort could it be to stand in one place for hours steering a glorified wagon?
Not much at all, as it turned out.
The caravan set out at mid-morning beneath a stunning canopy of bright blue sky marred here and there with high puffy clouds, which peppered the plains below with isolated, drifting shadows. The air was crisp and clean, and the company was in good spirits for the prospect of returning to Edoras, for they were of the king's éored and made their home inside the city. They were led by the Thengel's honor guard: a six-rider semi-circle that surrounded the Royal Chariot on three sides. The rest of the procession, some two hundred riders, followed along behind them.
Aragorn stood at the front of the chariot with the reins held loosely in his left hand. As long as they kept pace with the honor guard he saw no reason why the draft horses couldn't have their heads. He still wore the sling on his right arm, though it was mostly to appease the Master Healer. As long as he wasn't actually exercising the limb it rarely bothered him.
King Thengel rested uncomfortably behind his herald on a wide, padded chair that might as well have been a throne for it sat upon a dais that put His Majesty a good head and shoulders above Aragorn. Of course the king would have much rather ridden, or even driven the chariot himself—and by then everyone had heard of it, probably more than once. Even so, he did his royal best not to complain too loudly en route, not when his herald had to stand the entire time and perfectly within earshot.
It wasn't a terribly long ride from Helm's Deep, but for horsemen accustomed to traversing the distance at speed this particular journey seemed to drag on forever. To pass the time—and perhaps because they were essentially stuck with each other—Aragorn and Thengel drifted in and out of conversations about all manner of things, from archery and hunting and recitations of adventurous yarns therein to comparisons between wines and ales and a few confessions of ridiculous tales of related woe. They spoke of horses, and Aragorn admitted that Ulmafan had been a gift when he came of age and that it was true she had been elf-trained; in return, Thengel recalled the first horse he'd broken for the saddle and shared a few humorous anecdotes about it. They spoke of Gondor, and Aragorn informed His Majesty that though his own ancestry was of the Northern Dúnedain he had never been to the southern kingdom; and so Thengel plied him with tales of Gondorian folklore, and described in loving detail the vales of asphodel and eglantine that followed the River Erui, in Lossarnach where he'd first met Morwen.
At some point along the ride it had been agreed—and no small thanks in part to Aragorn's gifts of persuasion—that the company should come to a halt just outside of Edoras. After all, it was difficult to convey the manner of a triumphant return when it came at the end of a long day's ride. They circled the horses a half a league from the city, passed around their water skins and tidied their appearances, put the long ride behind them and sang rousing songs of victory and encouragement so that they might not look so haggard and downtrodden for their own homecoming parade. Aragorn had been preparing for this moment since the king had first agreed and so when the time came he was more than ready.
"Excuse me, sire, but I should check the splint on your arm."
Thengel shrugged his right shoulder, perplexed but agreeable. "Whatever for?" he asked, even as Aragorn began undoing the ties that held the strips of wood in place.
"It needs adjusting," was Aragorn's distracted reply. He didn't look up from his task and a moment later he had the splint undone entirely. He paused just shy of removing it completely, and shot the king a worried glance. "Is Master Aldwine nearby?"
Thengel used his elevated position to quickly survey the area. "His horse is grazing on the far side from us. Why?"
Aragorn's response was to flash a devilish grin as he grabbed His Majesty's crutch. Then with swift, deft fingers he bound the splint around the upper end and so the crutch was affixed, after a fashion, to Thengel's arm. Aragorn was skilled enough at the task that the king was spared any discomfort, and so his expression was merely one of dumbfounded shock when Aragorn looked up again.
"Sire?" he entreated, reaching out for Thengel with both hands.
The king understood then, and he laughed in sheer delight—either at the prospect of driving his own chariot or of annoying the healers, it didn't matter which. "I imagine he'll be rather upset with you," he informed Aragorn in reference to the Master Healer even as he accepted the offered help down from the dais.
"Oh, probably," Aragorn agreed, sounding altogether indifferent at the idea. Though when his eyes met Thengel's the king was startled by his intent expression. "But as you rode out of Edoras under your own power; your return should follow in similar fashion."
Thengel was rendered temporarily speechless, but he recovered quickly. "Þancword, Thorongil."
Aragorn bowed slightly, no more than a dip of the head, but his eyes were as solemn as the king's voice had been. "Ábútan min gebréman, Thengel Cyning." That time, he was absolutely sure of his translations.
"Take my chair," Thengel directed, nodding to the dais.
Aragorn's eyes widened. "Sire?"
"It's only fair—I've usurped your station; the least I can do is offer up my own in return."
Aragorn smiled his thanks and climbed up to the makeshift throne. From there he watched as Thengel situated himself properly, found his balance between his left leg and the crutch, and took up the reins in his right hand. Once he was ready Thengel ordered their company to form ranks. Aragorn waited until the honor guard had taken their positions and, catching Thengel's eye, he raised the herald's horn to his lips and the call to muster resounded across the plains. And thus the king's éored began its final victory march.
Aragorn watched from Thengel's seat as Edoras slowly loomed larger on the horizon. "Shall I, sire?" he asked when he judged them to be close enough.
Thengel glanced back at him, and grinned.
Aragorn raised the horn again, and this time blasted two loud, long notes, announcing their arrival. Announcing their victory. The chosen of the honor guard hoisted their banners high and the men took up the call, inarticulate cries blending into garbles of Rohirric spiced with Westron, and soon they were riding as hard as Thengel dared to drive his chariot—a brisk yet dignified trot.
Aragorn stood out of the way and watched them go, for while the riders had been lost to their preemptive celebration he'd slipped quietly over the side of the chariot and slinked away, as he had planned to all along. He hadn't yielded control of the chariot to Thengel only to sit in the seat of honor as His Majesty drove them home. As the éored rode on ahead Aragorn followed at a sedate pace, right arm secure in its sling and left hand holding the horn steady at his side, as the sun sunk slowly behind back and cast long shadows before his feet.
And so at last he beheld Edoras beneath a blanket of purple twilight, with faint stars twinkling overhead and a fiery ribbon brushing the western horizon. Already he could hear the sounds of revelry. As he made his way towards the city, a mere eighteen days after he'd so bravely departed, a smile blossomed on his face, incongruent, mirthless, because to him it felt like eighteen years. He had been such a fool. Now he had no choice but to paste a smile on his face, and face his hero's welcome.
Anor: the sun
Arda: the world
Lasto beth nîn, hir-gon: (S) Hear my words, lord-captain.
Tolo dan n'galad: (S) Come back to the light.
Béma: the name in Rohan for the Vala Oromë
Nai caer menig delyth dui aminesse: (S) a curse, "Let (lit: May it be that) ten thousand curses (lit: abhorrences) flow unto me (lit: in me)."
Cyning: (Rohirric (Anglo-Saxon)): king
Mellonin: my friend
Adan/Edain: human (individual)/humans or human race.
Éored: a Lord of Rohan's loyal soldiers.
Þancword: (Rohirric (Anglo-Saxon)): Thank you (lit: 'a word of thanks')
Ábútan min gebréman: (Rohirric (Anglo-Saxon)): On my honor.
AN: Thank you kindly for your reviews and also for your patience in waiting for this update. I will hopefully be getting last chapters review replies out in the next few days. Also, starting with this chapter I'll start answering reviews as they come in, as opposed to all at once when I post the next update. I remind everyone that wishes a reply to either sign in or leave a valid email address.