Chapter 10: Where the heart is
'No, please no.' Halbarad prayed inwardly while he stood up on shaky legs. All he could see was the assassin who was bent over Aragorn, slowly strangling the life out of him. And Aragorn, he did not move any longer.
With a full blown panic and more fury than he had ever felt, Halbarad grabbed his sword that lay beside him on the ground, lifted it high, advanced on the assassin and in one strong stroke he brought the blade down, killing the man instantly.
Later, he could not say how he had managed to move so quickly or so silently, with his leg thus injured and his ribs hurting that much, but in that very moment all that Halbarad could see was the pale, motionless form of Aragorn, lying so still and quiet on the cold ground, with the dead assassin slumped across his body and bright, red blood pooling around him.
"No please, Sweet Eru no." With shaking fingers Halbarad reached out and touched Aragorn's neck, hoping and praying to find a pulse. One second, two, three…
A huge sigh left Halbarad's lips and he bowed his head in relief. Aragorn was alive. He was breathing shallowly and he had a pulse.
"Aragorn, weak up. Aragorn!" Heedless of Aragorn's or his own injuries, he began to shake Aragorn, wanting him to wake up, but no matter how hard he shook him, Aragorn did not stir. Sighing, Halbarad sat back on his behind, only now realizing the pain in his leg and chest. Wiping a hand across his brow, he could not stop the small chuckle that left his lips.
"Ai, Aragorn, how do we manage to get into all these scrapes, my friend?" When he got no answer, Halbarad began to check Aragorn for injuries. The wound to his side had indeed reopened, but the amount of blood staining the shirt and tunic was not alarming. Halbarad bound the injury with strips of cloth from his cloak. When he examined Aragorn's head, his hand came away bloody, and Halbarad cursed himself in all the languages he knew for not having checked that sooner.
Gently, he turned Aragorn's head to the side, and in the weak moonlight he could see that there was a cut at the back of Aragorn's head that would need stitches. Using the rest of his cloak, for there was not much left anyway, Halbarad pressed against the wound and after what seemed like an eternity, the bleeding stopped.
Still, Aragorn did not stir, and so Halbarad bedded Aragorn's head on the cloak, while he checked himself for injuries. His chest hurt fiercely, but he felt not broken ribs. His head hurt even more, but he encountered only a small amount of by now dried blood on his temtple. The blow must have been heavy enough to knock him out, but it had done no serious damage.
That done, all he could do until sunrise was to search the mysterious attacker. Cursing loudly, Halbarad made his way slowly over to the dead assassin, who lay still close to where he had fallen, although Halbarad had rolled the body away after examining Aragorn. The man had no pack with him, no water skin, no bow, nothing.
"Perhaps he had a camp close by." Halbarad said loudly, hoping that the sound of his voice would rouse Aragorn, but a quick glance showed him that he was still unconscious.
Sighing, Halbarad rubbed his sore chest. "Great. He could at least have had the courtesy to have some food with him. I am starving." When he got no answer, Halbarad sighed once more.
Then, suddenly, another thought hit him. With the assassin gone, there was no reason why they could not…
A few minutes later, Halbarad held his cold hands over the warming flames of a flickering fire. There had not been much wood, but some dry bushes served as food for the greedy flames. Grey smoke rose into the sky and when the first light crawled sleepily over the eastern horizon, Halbarad had positioned Aragorn close to the fire, with the assassin's cloak draped over him and his own sword resting close by.
The sun shone weak and bleary, but no snow had fallen during the night. The air was even colder than the day before and soon Halbarad felt the urge to move around to keep warm, despite the small fire he had built earlier.
It was mid-morning when Aragorn finally stirred. A moan left his slightly blue lips and Halbarad was at his side in an instant. "Aragorn? Can you hear me?"
"H-Halbarad?" The voice was soft and scratchy and Halbarad wished he had some water to ease the pain Aragorn surely felt.
"Aye, it is I. How do you feel?"
After some moments of slow blinking, Aragorn locked his eyes on his friend. "Alive. You?"
A huge grin spread across Halbarad's face. "Me too."
They spent the rest of the morning close to the fire, warming themselves and in Aragorn's case, resting. For a few hours Halbarad slept, too, but his worry for his friend and Chieftain woke him around midday.
"Aragorn? Are you awake?"
Taking that as an affirmation, Halbarad continued. "We need to move on, if you are up to it. We cannot stay here. I have been looking for the man's camp, but either he had none or he concealed it very effectively. I cannot find it." He sighed. "We need to reach the ford soon."
"Aye, I know." Aragorn turned his head, grimacing at the pain that shot through his skull and neck. His neck was swollen and dark bruises marred his skin. His voice was scratchy and dry, and every word pained him. "Hal, you go. Let me stay here."
"No." Shaking his head, Halbarad lifted a hand to stop any further words. "We leave here together or not at all."
"No 'buts'." Locking his eyes with Aragorn's, Halbarad gazed at him with the same stubborn look that Aragorn adopted sometimes.
"I could order you to leave me behind and bring back help, Captain." Aragorn said softly.
"Aye, you could. But would you? Truly?" Halbarad asked softly.
After a moment, Aragorn shook his head weakly. "No, my friend. I would not."
A small smile lightened Halbarad's face and he had just opened is mouth to retort something, when he suddenly became still as stone. Tilting his head to the side, he listened intently.
"Horses. Four riders. They come from the East. Fast approaching."
"Help me up."
Swiftly but gently, Halbarad helped Aragorn to his feet, steadying him until he found his balance. Even then Halbarad was loath to release him, for Aragorn was not steady at all on his feet, but they could show no weakness in the face of danger.
Gripping the hilts of their swords, both rangers gazed into the distance. There was nowhere they could go, no place to hide. Whoever was coming their way, they would have to meet him.
Agonizing minutes passed and the riders grew bigger and bigger, but with the sun glaring from the cloudless sky, they could not be made out. Rather soon, Aragorn and Halbarad could see that one of the horses was rider less, but it was no packhorse either, for it bore no packs or bundles.
Then, when the riders were in shouting distance, a shrill whistle met their ears. Instantly, Aragorn and Halbarad loosened the hold on their swords and relaxed. Rangers. The riders were rangers. And from the whistle, it were some of the rangers from the ford, for all of the different outposts had different signals.
Relief flooded Halbarad's body and he quickly gave the answering whistle. The horses sped up even more, and soon he could make out the tall forms of the riders. Smiling, he turned to Aragorn. "It seems we are rescued, Aragorn."
"A shame." Aragorn said with mock sincerity. "And here I was so looking forward to the march back. The landscape is so fascinating."
A loud bark of laughter erupted from Halbarad and Aragorn chuckled softly beside him, although it hurt his throat to do so.
The ride back to the ford and the ranger outpost took them the rest of the day and most of the next day as well, for they had to share the horses; furthermore they rode slowly, due to Aragorn's and Halbarad's injuries.
But, that gave the rangers the time to enquire how they had been found and why the rangers had even searched for them, for they had not been overly late yet. So, they learned that Halbarad's loyal horse had found its way to the ford, knowing the way after many travels. The sight of the sweaty, rider less horse had of course alarmed the rangers at the ford.
They had sent out as many man as they had been able to spare, divided into two groups with a spare horse each in the case it was needed. So it had happened that this group had seen the smoke of the fire and had headed in the general direction.
Once at the ford, they did not rest long but headed out the next day, for Aragorn's fever and cough had worsened and there were not the right medicinal supplied available. The village was only a day's ride from the ford, and after much convincing Halbarad agreed to let Aragorn ride home with him, instead of sending a rider back from the village with the needed herbs and supplies.
While they travelled, the weather worsened, and when they finally entered the village shortly after nightfall, a cold wind was howling around the houses and an icy rain drenched them from head to foot. They rode up to Halbarad's house and Aragorn stopped, but did not dismount immediately.
The door to the house was opened and light spilled onto the gloomy street. Smiling, Halbarad dismounted and hobbled over to the door, embracing his wife tightly. She buried her head in his hair, not minding that she became wet, too. "You are home, my love."
"Aye, I am home, my love."
Something very painful twisted in Aragorn's heart as he watched the scene. It was almost as if someone had taken a dagger, stabbed it into his heart and was now twisting it. Before he truly knew what he was doing, he had urged his horse forward, only wishing to get away from the scene in front of him. His house was just down the street, only a stone throw, actually.
But before his horse had taken more than a few steps, Halbarad's voice called out to him, "Aragorn!"
Turning in his saddle and ignoring the pain this movement caused, Aragorn raised a questioning eyebrow. His throat hurt far too much for speech by now.
Halbarad had taken a lamp from his wife and was standing under the wide roof, sheltered from the rain. "What do you think you are doing, Aragorn?"
Shivering from the fever and cold, Aragorn looked at the shape of his house. There was no light behind the windows, for no one had known that they would arrive tonight, so no one had bothered to kindle a fire in the hearth. The house looked cold and empty. Not like his home, only like a house.
And it was no home, Aragorn knew that now more than ever. For the last two days, Halbarad had practically done nothing else than to speak of his wife and child, and how he wished to come home. Of the presents he had bought in Bree and how happy he was that the goods had not been lost.
Aragorn had wished to reach the village, too, but out of different reasons. He wanted to lay down, sleep, rest and heal. He knew he would have to leave soon and investigate the case of the attempted assassination, although he had no hope of finding out anything. Things like these had happened before, and never had they found any true hints as to who was ordering the killings.
The prospect of returning to Bree or the Wilds did not sit good with him, but staying in the village left a bad aftertaste, too. Aragorn felt no inclination to do either. And that showed him that this village, this house was not his home. Not like it was a home to Halbarad.
"Come into the house, Aragorn. It is cold outside." Halbarad's voice was soft, almost as if he knew some of the thoughts that raced through Aragorn's mind.
Gazing at Halbarad's wife who stood in the open doorway, eying her husband lovingly, a scarf wrapped around her slim shoulders and her long hair blowing in the wind, with the light of a warm fire in the background, Aragorn felt his stomach knot painfully.
This was not his family, his home. He would only intrude. Already he was keeping Halbarad from his family and he knew that should he stay, he would do so even more. No. This felt wrong. He had no place in that home and he felt … misplaced there.
Aragorn shook his head and opened his mouth to say something despite the pain it would cause, but Halbarad beat him to it.
"Don't be so stubborn, Aragorn. You know that my home is your home as well. Come now, my friend." Halbarad said gently, knowingly, and then nodded his head into the direction of the open doorway.
Had he not enjoyed the company of the young rangers in Bree? Or the trip back with Halbarad, before the madness had begun? Aye, he had felt save and at ease for a while.
Aragorn nodded and slowly turned his horse around. With the help of one of the other rangers that had by now come from the gate to the village to take care of the horses, he dismounted and made his way into the house.
As soon as he stepped over the threshold, the smell of warm tea filled his nose and the warmth of the fire made his wet clothing steam. Halbarad and his wife helped him into the spare room, a luxury that only few houses had.
The village healer examined him and Halbarad only a short while later and Aragorn drank the sleeping draught without complain, for he would have described it himself. When he knew that Halbarad was alright as well and after thanking Halbarad's wife for her hospitality, he soon fell into a dreamless sleep.
The wind was howling around the house, making the fire in the stone hearth crackle and flicker. The red flames cast eerie shadows on the walls, and the darkness inside the building seemed almost deeper than the wintry blackness outside.
For long moments Halbarad stood in the doorway, one hand on the handle of the door, the other on the rough wood of the frame, steadying himself. Closing his eyes tightly, he let his head hang and took a deep breath, therewith avoiding his eyes from the heavily bandaged figure that lay motionless on the bed. 'So close,' he thought. 'It was really close this time.'
Opening his tired eyes, he stood for a moment longer in the doorway, unable to completely tear his eyes from Aragorn's injured form. The dark hair contrasted starkly against the pale skin, and even more against the bandages that wound around his head and torso, hiding various wounds.
Suddenly, he heard soft footsteps behind him and without turning he knew that his wife was approaching. A gentle hand was placed on his shoulder, and another above his own that still held the handle. A whisper reached his ears, "Let him sleep, Hal."
He nodded, closed the door softly, and then let his wife lead him towards the fireplace. Without even thinking, he slid his arms around her slim waist and pressed her against his broad chest, feeling her arms come around his shoulders. Breathing in her familiar scent as he buried his face in her hair, he whispered tiredly, "We almost lost him this time."
"He is strong, he will survive."
He nodded, suddenly feeling very tired. The events of the past few days replayed in his mind and he tightened his hold on his wife, needing the calm comfort she always provided. That was one thing why he loved her so much, her calmness that could weather even the strongest storm.
"Father?" A sleepy voice came from the other side of the room, and almost reluctantly Halbarad let go of his wife and turned to his young daughter. He smiled at her weakly, and she pitter-pattered towards him, her stuffed rabbit in her arms.
Lifting his daughter into his strong arms, he stroked her cheek with two fingers, "You should be asleep, my dear."
"I heard you talking." The little girl blinked sleepily, "Is uncle Aragorn sleeping?"
"Aye, he is. We have to be quiet so as not to wake him." He placed a finger at his lips to strengthen his words. His daughter eyed him seriously, and then took a deep breath. Nevertheless, her voice was but a whisper when she asked, "Will he wake up again?"
Halbarad knew very well that his little daughter adored her kind 'uncle', and he gave her a reassuring smile, "Aye, he will heal, my dear. He always does, does he not?" He added as he saw her frown.
She gazed at him for a moment longer and then she placed her head tiredly on his shoulder and nodded. Closing her eyes, she let her father carry her back to her own bed. Just as Halbarad tucked her under the covers, he heard her say sleepily, "I am glad you are back, ada. I love you."
Halbarad looked down at his little daughter, who despite her age already knew the bitterness of death. "I love you too, my dear." He answered softly, kissed her forehead and watched her drift off into sleep.
For a moment longer he stood at the bed, watching his young daughter sleep. Then, he blew out the small candle, closed the door and made his way slowly over to his wife. His leg still hurt, but it was not as bad as it had been before.
She held out her hand and he gripped it tightly. "Come to bed, Hal. It is late and you need your sleep. Tomorrow, things will look better, you'll see."
"Aye, you are right." He gazed deep into the familiar eyes and after a moment he placed a feather light kiss on her lips. "I love you." He whispered softly.
"Not as much as I love you."
But despite all that had happened in the last few days and his own weariness, sleep did not come easily for Halbarad that night. For hours he lay awake, musing about the things that Aragorn had said and done since he was back from the Wild.
When he finally drifted off to sleep, he vowed to help his friend feel more at home in the village. Or somewhere else, wherever that may be. And maybe, maybe Aragorn would one day tell him why he could not truly feel at home here, and who it was that held his heart so captured.
For, in Halbarad's opinion the old saying was true: Home is where the heart is.
And Aragorn's heart…that had to be in so many places at the same time, caring for so many people…
And one person especially had it captured, Halbarad had no doubt about it. 'Maybe', he thought sleepily. Maybe one day…
A/N: I let Halbarad's daughter use the term 'ada' here, because the Dunedain spoke more Sindarin than Westron, and I think children could have used the elvish terms.
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