I know everyone is waiting for the next chapter of either "The Roots of Evil" or "The Assassin". I can assure you that I am still continuing with both stories. Chapter 36 of The Roots of Evil will be posted as soon as it is betaed and Chapter 6 of The Assassin will be posted next week. So far, so good. :)
Now, this fic was written for the Teitho Challenge "If I could turn back time". I just found it on my computer and realized I had not posted it. So, here it is. Enjoy!
Title: Sometimes I wonder
Summary: Dark was the night when the Nazgul came to Sarn Ford and swept away the guard of rangers. Would things have been different had their Captain been with them? And why was Aragorn late to meet the Hobbits in Bree?
Disclaimer: Neither do I own the characters nor the setting, nor anything that came out of the quill of the great J.R.R. Tolkien. I make no money with this story, it was written for enjoyment only.
A/N: Written for the Teitho Challenge "If I could turn back time". There is not much known about Gildor, so this story represents my own view, which means he had the gift of foresight. I tried to stay as book canon as I could, I am sorry for some clashes with it, though.
Aragorn's pov, present
"Have you ever wondered what could have gone wrong during the Quest? I have. In the split of a second I can think of a hundred things that could have gone wrong ere the ring was destroyed. We were all strangers, starting out on a journey that brought us to the edge of the world as we knew it. And back.
"Alas, it could have all ended before it had even begun. Before I even met the Hobbits in Bree or hurried from field to field, shrub to shrub on my way to Imladris. Even before I fought the Ringwraiths at Amon Sûl. No, it could have ended even sooner.
"No, I am not talking about Mithrandir being held prisoner by Saruman, or the dangers that the Halflings encountered in The Shire. I am not talking of the threat that Gollum's escape posed to the Ring, or the masses of orcs and other foul beasts presented to all free peoples.
"No, not at all. I am talking about my own failure. My own steps that could have ended the Quest that had not yet started. For, had I died, who would have protected the Hobbits in Bree, or guided them through the wild lands that separated their sheltered home from the next safe haven? I have no doubt that had I died before I had been able to meet the Hobbits, they would not have survived their first night in Barliman's beds, and all Gandalf would have found in Bree had been corpses. Or not even that.
"But it was a close call, for I was late in meeting the Hobbits and they travelled a long way without my protection. This was my mistake and I still regret my actions that led to their lonely journey. And in a way, I do not regret it. Elrond told me that I could not have changed the outcome even if I had been there, that I would now be as dead as… But I am digressing. Let me start at the beginning of this story…"
Sarn Ford, 1st of May 3018TA
The sun was just peeking out from behind the horizon, sending her rosy tendrils out across the lands. The long grass swayed in the mild morning breeze, and the first birds twittered from their perches high up in the trees. Grey, milky mist covered the rolling hills and wide plains, but the sky was clear and the day was going to be warm and sunny.
Two figures made they way through the morning mist, nodding to the guards as they went. They passed a low burning fire and already the scent of freshly prepared breakfast drifted towards their noses.
Shrugging his cloak a bit tighter around his broad shoulders, Aragorn gave his companion a sideways glance, "Are you sure you do not want to stay for breakfast, Gandalf?"
The old wizard gave his friend a quick look, and then drew his hand through his long beard, "I admit I could eat a bite or two, but I am in a hurry, Aragorn, and I must not tarry."
Aragorn nodded, but he could not suppress the small smile that tugged at his lips, "Well, perhaps it is better this way. It seems the food in The Shire has suited you a bit too well as it is."
"I am doing as if I had not heard your words, Dunadan, or else I would be forced to take rather drastic measures."
A laugh came from Aragorn, and he clasped his friend on the shoulder, "I meant no offence, old friend. It is good to see you alive and well."
"As it is to see you." And Gandalf copied Aragorn's gesture and squeezed his shoulder gently. His bushy eyebrows rose a bit in concern, "Although it seems you are in need of some Hobbit food and pampering."
"Ah, Gandalf, you know me. I would get bored if I had to stay in The Shire." The two friends had reached the area were the horses were kept, and Gandalf called out to his steed, which came trotting towards him obediently. Scratching the forehead and letting the horse nuzzle his hand, Gandalf gave Aragorn another concerned look, "Aragorn…"
"I am fine, Gandalf, do not worry." Aragorn interrupted his friend, and the wizard merely looked at him for another moment, and then began to tack his horse for his journey. "He will set out in the last week of September and travel towards Bree. I will try to come to Bag End before he leaves, but just in case I am not able to, keep an eye on him for me, Aragorn."
"Two eyes, whenever I can spare them."
"No, Aragorn, this is important." Gandalf came closer to Aragorn and dropped his voice to almost a whisper, "Whatever happens, he has to reach Imladris safe and sound. Promise me, Aragorn."
A cold gust of wind ruffled Aragorn's hair and he felt his stomach churn painfully. Nevertheless, his voice was steady and strong when he answered, "You have my word, Gandalf, that I will do all I can to see him safely to Imladris. Though I hope that my presence will not be necessary, but that you will be at his side."
"Thank you." And with that Gandalf gave Aragorn's shoulder another quick squeeze. His hand lingered a moment longer than absolutely necessary, and Aragorn could not suppress the feeling that Gandalf wanted to say more. But then the wizard shook his head and clicked his tongue, whereupon his horse swished its tail in anticipation. With an ease that belied his aged features, Gandalf mounted the horse and looked down on Aragorn. His wise eyes glimmered in the rising sun, and again Aragorn had the feeling that his friend wanted to say something important.
Stepping up to the horse, Aragorn placed a calloused hand on Gandalf's knee, "Gandalf…"
The wizard sighed deeply into his beard, "My friend, the world is changing. I feel it in my bones. Be careful, Aragorn, and although I know it is hard for you to do, keep an eye on yourself as well."
"I will, Gandalf. Have a safe journey and may the Valar protect you."
"Ah, I fear we will need more than the Valar's protection ere this is over." And with that said he patted his horse's strong neck, pressed his thighs to the animal's sides, and with a muttered, "Ride, boy" he was gone. For long moments Aragorn stood on the wet grass, his keen grey eyes following his friend's departing figure, ere he turned to join his men for breakfast.
With long strides he made his way over to one of the fires, the smell of sizzling bacon in his nose. His stomach gave a low rumble, reminding him that he had skipped the evening meal yesterday. Reaching the fire, he nodded a good-morning to the assembled rangers, one of whom placed a mug of steaming tea into his cold hands.
"Thank you, Foron."
"Ah, your welcome, Captain. I saw Gandalf leaving, he seemed to be in a hurry."
Aragorn sighed and took a sip from his tea to forestall his answer. Of course he could not tell his men why Gandalf had been in Sarn Ford, or where his friend was heading, or even where he had come from. Sometimes it galled him that he could not tell his men why they were protecting The Shire, or why they were stationed in Sarn Ford, so far away from their homes and families.
Having already taken the second sip from his tea, he felt the eyes of his men on him and knew that he had to answer, "Aye, he was in a hurry."
Silence met his comment, but then an older ranger said lightly, "You know Aragorn, sometimes you could be mistakes for an elf."
Surprised at this statement, Aragorn lifted his mouth far enough from the rim of his mug to question, "How so?"
The ranger's eyes twinkled merrily, "Don't you know the saying, Captain, "Never ask an elf, for he will say yes and no"? It suits you well, too."
Some of the other rangers chuckled, some looked rather unsure. A few of the rangers that were stationed in Sarn Ford had never before met their Chieftain, and they were therefore not sure how Aragorn would react to such a statement. But Aragorn knew most of the rangers surrounding the fire since his early years as a ranger. They were not really family, but close enough to him to be allowed to jest with him. When he was in a good mood, that was.
Taking another long sip from his tea and letting the warm liquid swirl through his mouth, Aragorn pondered his answer. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the youngest ranger of the group shoot fearful glances over his shoulder, as if he was looking for the best way of escape.
Swallowing, Aragorn grinned sweetly at the ranger who had addressed him, "And surely you know the old saying "Curiosity killed the cat"?" Another moment of silence met the statement, and the young ranger took a step away from the fire.
Then suddenly, the ranger who had talked to Aragorn burst into a fit of barking laughter, "Well said, Aragorn, well said." More and more of the rangers sniggered into their mugs, and when the laughter died away, Foron stepped up beside Aragorn and said softly, "Really Aragorn, you should not frighten the young ones so. Blimey, I thought Wesley would wet himself any moment."
Aragorn smirked into his tea, but his eyes followed the tall and thin form of the youngest ranger, Wesley. The young man, barely 22 years of age, had only recently joined the rangers and had therefore never before met Aragorn and knew not of his rather relaxed relationship with most rangers.
Maybe Aragorn was the heir of Isildur, and maybe he was their Chieftain, but he was also their friend and companion. The rangers obeyed his commands not out of fear, but loyalty and respect. They knew they were safe when he gave the orders, and that they would return to their families once their duty was done. Or at least, most of them would, for not even Aragorn could save them all.
Sighing a bit into his warm tea, Aragorn nodded. "He will soon see that I merely bark and not bite."
Foron patted his shoulder with a laugh, "Oh, you bite fairly well if you wish to, make no mistake."
Giving the ranger a half shrug, Aragorn was glad that the breakfast was pronounced to be ready. Not that he was not enjoying the light-hearted bantering with his rangers, but his mind was somewhere else. There was so much to think about, so many things to ponder. Taking the plate that one of the rangers handed to him and rejecting the dried fruits the ranger wanted to place on his plate, Aragorn made his way over to one of the large wooden tables and sat down.
Although Sarn Ford had been destroyed a rather long time ago, it had underwent some drastic changes since the rangers had begun to guard it. There were no houses or shacks, no defensive stone walls or barriers, but the rangers had repaired the old bridge, had built some wooden huts and some of the tents already stood so long here that bushes and trees grew around them.
Aragorn took his time eating, his eyes travelling over the rangers as they started their day. Most them had been stationed here for a year, some even longer. They knew the ford as well as their own homes, perhaps better. Just as Aragorn's eyes followed one of the rangers, a tall, grey haired man who was older than most here towards a supply tent, a little commotion from the other side of the camp aught his attention.
Turning his head, Aragorn watched with keen eyes how two rangers gestured wildly, obviously arguing. He could not hear what they were talking about, but he knew that he would have to intervene before the argument became violent. Under normal circumstances the rangers under his command did not argue so openly, but the times were dark and the tempers swirling under the surface. And, Aragorn reminded himself wryly, it has been long since I was here for more than a few days, so I know nothing of the private feuds between the men.
For a few more minutes he watched the argument, but then the two rangers seemed to have come to an agreement, and both shook hands in goodwill. Sighing inwardly, Aragorn turned back to his meal, only to see the young ranger, Wesley, stand uncertainly near the next table. The man looked unsure whether he should sit down on his own, or join his Chieftain.
Making the decision for the young man, Aragorn gestured towards the free place across form him. Blanching a little, Wesley nodded his thanks and sat down, spilling his tea as he did so in his nervousness. Aragorn had to suppress a small smile and asked himself if he was really that frightening to behold.
Well, he thought, better to take this young ones fears than let him stew in them ere my reputation has swum down the Greyflood. Smiling, he gestured at the young man's food, "Eat lest you want to eat cold bacon today."
Wesley gave a little start, eyed him out of big eyes, and then dug so feverishly into his meal that Aragorn had to suppress another chuckle. "Oi, slow down, Wesley, I won't eat your food. It's all yours."
Wesley gave him another wide stare, swallowed thickly, and mumbled an apology. But, he resumed eating with normal speed, which was an improvement. Aragorn watched him for a few moment, and when he was sure that the young man would not throw up all the food out of nervousness when he was spoken to, Aragorn took up the conversation again, "So, you are Wesley, right? I have only heard good words about you so far."
This made the young ranger blush a little and he said meekly, "My friends call me Wes, Sir. And, thank you, Sir."
Aragorn nodded, "Wes, it is then. How long are you stationed here already?"
"For three months, Sir. I volunteered."
This made Aragorn raise an eyebrow. Normally none of the rangers volunteered to be stationed at Sarn Ford. It was far from their homes and families, and furthermore, Sarn Ford was not exactly an adventurous spot to live.
"Why did you freely chose to do your service here, Wes?"
Swallowing and a bit more at ease now that Aragorn was not biting his head off, Wesley answered, "I have no family back at home and so I though it would be good to do my service here. It means another ranger can go home, does it not?" Wesley scratched the end of his nose and eyed Aragorn a bit unsure.
"That is right of course, Wes. I am sorry to hear that you have no family at home."
Wes shrugged and gave Aragorn a lopsided grin, "I guess the rangers are now my family, Sir. Like a bunch of big brothers."
A laugh escaped Aragorn's lips and he nodded, "Aye indeed, Wes. And if you listen to them, you will live long enough to perhaps meet some your sisters, then." Aragorn winked and when he noticed the deep red blush that crept up Wes's neck and cheeks, he wondered for a moment if the young man had not already had that pleasure.
But before he could say anything more, Foron came to their table, "Aragorn, a word if I may."
"'Course." Aragorn got up and addressed Wesley before he left, "Eat up! And would you be so kind as to take my plate with yours to be cleaned? Thank you, Wes."
Wesley nodded and resumed eating, the red blush still painting his cheeks. Foron led Aragorn towards the other side of the camp, and only stopped when they stood on the bank of the swiftly flowing Brandywine. The water rushed and gurgled so loud that no one would be able to overhear their conversation, and Aragorn wondered for a moment what was so important.
Taking a quick look around and making sure that none of the other rangers were eavesdropping, Foron sighed wearily, "Aragorn, you have no idea how good it is to see you alive and well. Things have changed in the last months, and had you not come here I would have send word to you."
A strange, cold feeling settled in Aragorn's stomach. He had only arrived in Sarn Ford a few days ago; he had planned to stay for a few weeks, at least until summer, but now he got the feeling as if his plans would not work out.
In a serious tone, all the jesting forgotten, he asked his old friend, "What has happened, Foron? Why did you wish to talk to me?"
Foron sighed and ran a hand through his hair, which already began to thin at his temples. "Many things have happened, Aragorn, and most of them worry me. While you were away for such a long time, what news reached you?" He gave Aragorn an apologizing look. "I mean no offence, Aragorn, but you were gone so long we wondered whether you would come back at all."
A shadow passed Aragorn's features that he could not hide, and his jaw muscles tightened. He knew that he had been long gone and he had not been able to tell his rangers where he had been or why. Little news had reached him, but upon his return he had not learned of anything drastic. Pushing his own feelings of guilt into the back of his mind and reminding himself that his long absence had been for good, Aragorn gestured for Foron to continue.
"Aragorn, ill news reach us from the South and East. Orcs have been seen in Dunland, some have even roamed near Tharbad. Enedwaith and Minhiriath are no safe places anymore, for dark shapes have been seen there and wargs prowl the plains and hills. Some even say they have seen trolls in Eregion, but I do not think that is true. Darkness sweeps over the lands, and it does not stop where it used to. It becomes bolder and more violent.
"A patrol I send out two weeks ago has never returned. We…We found was left of them four days from here. Aragorn, there was not even enough of them left to identify who was who."
Foron scratched his chin and looked out across the river as if he was lost in that gruesome memory. Then he said softly, "I fear for the rangers, Aragorn. Something stirs in the darkness of this world, and it is no friend of the Dunedain."
Aragorn sighed and gazed across the river for a moment before he answered, his voice grave, "I, too, have heard of these things, but the loss of the patrol grieves me, for I had not heard of it until now."
"I will not ask you where you have been, Aragorn, nor do I ask why you doubled the guard at Sarn Ford, and nor do I want to know what business you have to discuss with Gandalf until deep in the night. But, what I do ask is this, has it begun?"
Aragorn locked eyes with his old friend, and for many long minutes his sharp grey gaze pierced Foron's; it was almost as if Aragorn was searching for something that would help him in his answer. Then, apparently having found what he had been looking for, he answered softly, his voice barely audible over the gurgling of the river, "Aye."
Quickly, Aragorn placed a hand on Foron's shoulder and gave it a strong squeeze. Looking in the eyes of his friend, Aragorn leaned closer to give his words the needed seriousness, "Aye, but promise me this, old friend, no word will leave your lips, for this could mean the death of us all if they do."
Foron nodded weakly, and then let his gaze travel across the camp, "You will not tell tem?"
"No, it would not help their fight."
"I see." Foron nodded, and then turned towards Aragorn once more. "Aragorn, there is more."
For two weeks Aragorn was now travelling northwards, always on the lookout for signs that something was not as it should be. Foron had told him of missing rangers, burned villages and travelling bands of bandits, but so far his journey had been uneventful. Neither had he met orcs, wargs or trolls, not wolves or other foul beasts. What worried him a bit were the huge amount of ravens and crows that inhabited the trees, and that would not fly away when he drew closer, but instead stay perched on the lower branches, eying him warily.
Aragorn knew that the enemy had many spies, and he only hoped that these birds were no spies, but birds that had returned to these lands now that the harsh winter was over and spring had come. The trees grew tall and green here, so close to the Weatherhills. For indeed, Aragorn had not tarried on his journey, but made good progress, so that he had crossed the Great East road a few days ago, leaving Bree behind without having entered it, and was now on his way even further North before he would turn West.
After what he had learned of Foron, Aragorn had decided to check on the other ranger camps, even those that were positioned in the far North. Then he would make for the outskirts of The Shire. The thought that Gandalf was with the Hobbit that carried 'it' relieved him of his worries concerning his leaving Sarn Ford. He had doubled the guard there, had given instructions and his men knew where he was to be found. He had done all he could to make sure that the ford was well protected. Of course he would have liked to station more than thirty rangers in Sarn Ford, but there simply were no more.
With the dwindling numbers of the Dunedain and the serving rangers in particular, thirty was almost more than he could spare as it was. A gust of warm wind ruffled his hair and made the long grass sway, and Aragorn took a deep breath of the warm May air. Indeed, he thought, I am glad to be back.
For long weeks Aragorn visited the various ranger camps, talked to his men and gave orders, and learned of more missing and dead rangers. Wherever he went, the news he heard were grave, and when July turned into August, he reached the Gulf of Lune and rested there for a few days. His feet were weary and his heart troubled. He had known most of the rangers that had been killed, and it depressed him that he only now learned of their passing, many months after their bodies had been buried.
With the first of the cold September winds Aragorn travelled along the southern border of The Shire, having visited the last ranger camp a few days ago. His plan was to stay in the forest surrounding Hobbinton, keep an eye on the road and make sure that this Hobbit reached Bree alive and well. Of course, when he saw Gandalf cross into The Shire, he would make his way to Bree on his own and make sure that there were rooms available and the road clear.
One rather cold and wet night at the end of the second week of September saw Aragorn seated in the shadows of an old beech tree, his lit pipe between his lips and his ears and eyes trained on his surroundings. His leather boots were muddy, his cloak still wet from the rain shower in the early afternoon, and a frown graced his features, making him look older than he was.
He had found disturbing tracks that day, signs that told of other humans near the borders, humans that were no rangers and had no skill in hiding their traces. No humans lived in these parts of Middle-Earth and none besides that rangers travelled so far West. Aragorn had tried to track the men down, but the signs had been old and he had abandoned the search upon reaching a small brook with stony banks.
Puffing on his pipe, Aragorn wondered what the men had wanted so close to The Shire, but he knew that all the answers he could come up with would not make him happy. Just as he was about to put out his pipe and roll out his blanket to settle in for the night, his keen ears detected a high, tinkling sound.
Aragorn stopped in his motions, his head tilted to the side, listening. The wind rushed through the boughs of the trees, showering him with small, cold water droplets, but he ignored them and instead got slowly to his feet. There is was again, a soft, clear sound, like small bells that moved in the wind.
The next gust of wind brought the sound of laughing voices to his ears, and suddenly Aragorn knew who it was that journeyed through these woods, and with a quick smile he shouldered his pack, put away his pipe and scrambled out of the shadow of the beech and onto the sandy road.
Aragorn waited, hiding behind some high bushes, and when he saw the ones that had alerted him to the presence of someone else in the woods, he stepped into the road and swept his hand out before him in greeting, "Mae govannen, Gildor. Long is it since our paths crossed."
The dancing and softly singing elves in front of him stopped in their tracks and eyed him curiously. Aragorn was no stranger to them; they had met more than once while Aragorn had patrolled The Shire, and of course they knew who he was and from whence he hailed.
A tall elf stepped away from the others and bowed his head, "Mae govannen, Estel. Indeed it is long since we last met, and never have the times been that dark before when we met."
Aragorn sighed, "Indeed, the shadow has awakened and is growing. It gladdens my heart to see you well, Gildor."
"Aye, my companions and I are well, although our number has diminished and I feel it is time for us to stop our wanderings and return to some safe place."
Surprised, Aragorn took a step closer and let his eyes travel over the group of elves. With sadness he saw that indeed many of the faces he had expected to see where missing and that some of the immortals looked sad and stern. "Gildor, you know that Lord Elrond would welcome you anytime."
"Aye, iston, and I am glad for that. But tell me Estel, what brings you to these woods and where have you been the last years?"
And so Aragorn travelled with the Gildor and the other elves for the day and they talked about everything and nothing at all, as is the wont with elves. When night broke over the forest, the elves set up their camp under some mighty oaks, letting the late summer wind play with their long hair and the stars glitter in their ancient eyes.
But Aragorn had no mind to join the elves in their soft laughter or graceful dancing, for Gildor had relayed sad and disturbing news to him. Frowning, Aragorn leaned closer and lowered his voice, "And that is certain? No word from Gandalf, no sign? Nothing?"
"Alas, nothing. We neither saw him or have heard of him for weeks. He is missing, Estel."
"Missing." Aragorn repeated the word and could not help but feel a cold hand grip his heart and squeeze it. Gandalf was missing, aye, that were grave news indeed. And that would mean that the Hobbit had no protection on his dangerous journey. Aragorn knew that the Hobbit would leave the next week; he had to hurry if the wanted to provide adequate protection for the small being.
Taking a deep breath, Aragorn turned towards Gildor, "That is disturbing news you bring, but it is good I know now of Gandalf's absence. Alas, I must leave now, my friend, for I have a long journey ahead of me."
And Aragorn got to his feet, rearranged his bow, quiver and sword and bowed low to the elf. "Namarie, Gildor, may the Valar protect you."
"And may they protect you as well, Estel. I have a feeling our paths will cross sooner than we think."
Sarn Ford, 22nd of September 3018 TA
The night was waning and the sky was clear and dark. Silver stars sparkled overhead and reflected on the dark surface of the gurgling Brandywine, making the river look alive with silver light. Foron suppressed a yawn and rolled his shoulders. His watch would end with the first light of the sun, and already he though of his warm blanket and bed roll that awaited him in his tent.
He greeted another ranger on his hourly round around the camp and then returned to his post near the bridge. Nothing had happened since Aragorn had left the camp, but they had heard disturbing news from two frightened merchants who had travelled northwards. Strange things happened in Rohan and Isengard, but they had no explanation for the many disturbing things they had seen, yes, they could not even say what it was exactly that made them uneasy.
Tightening his cloak around his shoulders, Foron had to remind himself that it was late September and the night therefore cold. But, he wondered, never before had it been that cold in September. Sighing, he rubbed his arms… and then froze. His heart sped up in his chest, the hairs on his neck stood on end, and cold sweat appeared on his brow.
Foron snapped his head up, his hand automatically going to the hilt of his sword, his eyes piercing the darkness at the edges of the camp. What had alerted him? Was someone out there? He listened intently, but no sound reached his ears. No sound at all…
Shooting a quick glance in the direction the other guard stood, Foron saw that the other ranger was as tense as he, his sword already drawn and ready in his hand. A cold gust of wind rushed through his hair and made him shiver, and all of the sudden he wished that Aragorn was in the camp.
Gripping his sword tighter and stepping a bold step forwards, he gazed into the darkness, all senses alert, thoughts of his sleeping mat forgotten. Something was out there, somewhere hidden…
A screech filled the air and Foron felt his blood freeze in his veins. Shrill and evil it was, and an icy shadow laid itself over his heart. He could not breathe, he could not move, and when his eyes caught the movement at the other side of the camp, it was already too late.
Like dark shadows they came upon them all, their horses taller than any Foron had ever seen. Long swords were in their gloved hands, and they were cloaked in darkness and malice. The Black Riders swept over the camp like a plague, killing the sleeping rangers and those on guard one by one.
One of the dark riders rushed towards Foron, his sword raised in a killing blow, but before the rider could complete the kill, Foron found his voice and yelled as loud as he could, raising the alarm. It were the last words he ever spoke.
Chaos came over the camp as the rangers groped for their weapons and blinked the sleep out of their eyes. But warriors they were and so they quickly formed a barrier out of swords and bows, arms, legs and bodies, and the Black Riders turned as the first light peeked over the horizon and vanished into the woods.
But their evilness lingered in the camp. Those wounded cried and whimpered in pain, injuries would not stop bleeding and they all felt that their end was near. Never before had they seen such malice or felt such a cold. Some fled to the North, hoping to bear news to Aragorn, but some still dared to bar the ford during the day.
The small group of surviving rangers held the ford as long as the day lasted, but at night the riders returned. Among them was the strongest of them all, and the Lord of Morgul swept the rangers away ere it was midnight. Four riders entered The Shire ere the cocks crowed, five riders pursued the fleeing rangers northwards and eastwards, slaying them all or driving them into the wild.
And when their evil deed was done and none of the Dunedain guarding Sarn Ford had escaped them, they reined in their evil horses, returned to the Greenway and watched it for signs of the one they sought.
The Shire, The Yale, Near the Great East Road, 25th September 3018 TA
Aragorn crouched behind some bushes, trying to control his breathing. For days he had spied on the borders of The Shire, had eavesdropped on the few Hobbits he had seen, and hurried here and there along the Great East Road to make sure that there were no dangers ahead. And secretly, he had hoped to find a sign of Gandalf, anything that would tell him that his friend was alive and well and on his way.
But alas, he had found nothing of that sort, and his heart became heavier as the days went by. And then yester eve, he had seen some dark shadow ride across the land; mighty it had been and terrible to behold. His blood had run cold and his heart had ached, and for many long minutes he had not been able to move. He knew not what the presence of such a foul being indicated, but he hoped that it had nothing to do with the Hobbit he should protect. Deep inside, he knew better.
Now, hidden behind some thorny bushes, he waited with slightly trembling hands for the being he had heard only a few moments ago. Aragorn thought he knew who it was who was hurrying down the road, but after what he had seen and felt yesterday, he wanted to make sure. With his hand on his sword hilt he waited, a shadow among others. The voices grew louder, but they were subdued at the same time, as if the speaker wished to not be overheard. And then, Aragorn saw them.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he stepped into the path, just as he had done only a few days ago. "Mae govannen, Gildor. Indeed, I thought not we would meet again so soon."
Gildor eyed him for a moment, then he came closer and grabbed his arm, whispering, "You should not be here, Estel. They have come, and they will kill you should they find out who you are. You have to go. Quickly."
"Who has come? Of what are you speaking?" Aragorn asked with apprehension. He could see quickly disguised fear in Gildor's eyes, and that in itself scared him.
"Have you not felt them, the Black Riders? Sauron's most loyal and deathly servants? They came yesterday, up the Greenway. Four they are and they are terrible. The Hobbit left his home ere they came. I know it for we met him only yesterday. He is on his way to Bree and he is not alone."
Aragorn's face lit up and he asked eagerly, "Gandalf is with him?"
Gildor shook his head sadly and Aragorn felt his heart plummet into his stomach. "No, he is not. But another Hobbit is with him and they are on their guard. As you should be, too, Estel. There is nothing here for you to do. Go and seek a safe place, as we do now."
"You are going to Imladris?"
"Aye. We are on our way to maybe the last save haven East of the Sea."
Aragorn pondered this for a moment, but then another horrible thought struck him, one that he had pushed to the back of his mind at the hope of Gandalf's return. Turning concerned eyes on the elf, he asked worriedly, "They came up the Greenway you say? Are you certain?"
"Aye, I fear so. I am sorry, my friend." Gildor's hand, which still rested on Aragorn's shoulder, squeezed gently. But Aragorn did not feel it; his gaze turned southwards, and he frowned, his eyes suddenly of such a stormy grey as Gildor had never seen before. From one moment to the other, Aragorn's whole demeanour changed, and he became strong and grim, his eyes hard and determined. He almost looked like the Kings of old as they stood hewn in stone in the great halls in Minas Tirith, had it not been for the storm in his eyes.
His voice was determined and strong when he turned to face Gildor, "I thank you for your words, my friend, but once more I have to leave you standing on the road, for my path leads me elsewhere. Fare well."
But Gildor tightened his hold on Aragorn's shoulder and would not let him go, "There is nothing there for you. Your road lies to the East, not to the South. The Hobbit is your charge now. Forget the rangers, Aragorn."
Anger swelled in his heart at these words, "Forget them? They are my men, I will never forget them, nor leave them to fight alone."
"But the fight is over, there is none left."
"How can you know that? Have you been there? Have you seen them? No, you have not, and for all your wisdom and foresight, why have you not told me of this when last we met?"
"I had if I had seen any reason to do so. But had you gone to fight alongside your men, you would be as dead as they are now. No, your road lies East and East you must go!"
Unwilling to proceed with this conversation, Aragorn shrugged out of Gildor's hold with more force than would have been necessary. He turned and made a few steps into the direction of the woods, then stopped and turned back, "I cannot leave my men, not ere I am certain that there is nothing more I can do."
"And what about the Hobbit?" Gildor asked sadly, almost wistfully.
Aragorn gazed westwards for a moment, knowing that the Hobbit was travelling the very road he stood now on, perhaps only a day away. Taking a deep breath and swallowing, he said, "He is save for the moment. As you said, he is not alone. He made it this far, he will make it further, even without my help. I will be back ere he reaches Bree."
And with that said Aragorn turned and vanished between the trees, his steps silent on the forest ground and his passing by only a small disturbance in the very air. For long moments Gildor watched the spot where Aragorn had disappeared, and his eyes were sad and dark. "I know what you will find, Estel, and it will do your heart no good." And then Gildor turned and together with the other elves he resumed his escape to Imladris.
South of The Shire, Near Deephallow, night from 26th to 27th September 3018 TA
Aragorn could not believe it and the rapid pounding of his heart in his chest mirrored his disbelief. They could not be dead, that was simply not possible! Foron, Wesley, more than thirty rangers had been stationed in Sarn Ford, thirty brothers, sons and husbands. He had stationed them there, had only seen them a few weeks ago. No, this could not be true.
A few low hanging branches cut shallow scratches along his face and unprotected neck, but he ignored them and hastened on. Since his encounter with Gildor he had not stopped in his relentless trek across Eriador, had neither paused to eat nor sleep. If it was true, if all that Gildor had said was true…
Fear gripped with icy, bony hands for him and tried to hold him, invisible weights pushed down on his shoulders, made him stumble and sway. His legs had long since gone numb and every breath he took burned in his lungs like liquid fire, but Aragorn forced himself onwards. Over the next hill, down the same, across the river, over the rocks, under the low branches, through the corn field, around the pond and through the marsh. No, he would not let himself stop ere he had certainty. Whether for the good or the bad, he knew not.
The though of the Hobbit burned brightly in his mind, but he could not stop, his heart could not ignore the horrid feeling that had settled there, and for the first time in his life Aragorn valued the life of the men he knew higher than the life of a Halfling who was unknown to him.
Darkness reigned as the moon was partially hidden behind deep hanging clouds that carried rain, and a swift wind was flattening the long grass on the meadows. The River Shirebourn flowed quickly, rushing rather than gurgling, and when Aragorn reached the bank of it he halted his steps and took a deep breath.
Panting, he looked around and then bent down to the water and took a few gulps of the cool liquid. His throat was dry and felt as if he had swallowed sand, and the water was refreshing and reviving. With skilled hands he took his water flask from his pack and filled it, stowed it away again and then splashed some handfuls of the dark water into his sweaty face. Wiping the excess water from his face, Aragorn took another deep breath and was just about to get to his feet again, when a soft sound alerted him.
Quick as lightning he drew his sword and rushed behind some rocks for cover. The reed on this side of the river grew only a few inches tall, but on the other side it rose a few feet, hiding the view of the forest behind almost completely.
For long moments Aragorn waited, barely daring to breathe. Then, he slowly crept forwards, his sword ready, his ears strained to hear the soft sound once more. Silently he crawled through the plants, and then he heard it again! A low, almost imperceptible sound…a moan.
Frowning, Aragorn sped his steps and when the sound grew louder he was certain that it was a soft moan. He gripped his sword tighter and slowly made his way over to the other side of the river, cursing the splashes he made while wading through the brook. Once on the other side, he focused on the sound and then made his way over to it.
Parting the reed with one hand and holding his sword in the other, Aragorn slowly drew nearer to the one who had made the moan. The closer he came the better he could make out the sound, and by now Aragorn was convinced that whoever had made the sound, had to be in great pain.
Another pitiful moan, almost a sob, reached his ears, and cautiously Aragorn parted another cluster of reed…and stopped dead in his tracks. There before him on the ground, illuminated in pale moonlight, lay a young human. Aragorn needed not to kneel down to recognise the man.
Rushing to the young ranger's side, Aragorn crouched down and stretched out his arms to turn the man onto his back, but he stopped in mid air. A horrified gasp left his lips as he took in the numerous injuries that not even the dim light could veil. A deep, ugly gash crossed Wesley's back, so deep that Aragorn could see the white of the ribs shine through, and so wide that Aragorn wondered how the boy could still be alive.
Dark blood crusted the edges of the wound, and more blood caked the rest of the cloak and leggings. A great deal of it also clung to the young ranger's hair and the side of the pale face that Aragorn could see.
"Oh, Wes…" Gently, Aragorn rolled the semi-conscious man onto his back, but not even the gentleness of Aragorn's hands could prevent Wesley from crying out in agony. The scream died on Wesley's lips as his breath caught in his throat, and he began to cough hoarsely.
"Shhh, easy. Easy, Wes." Aragorn wiped some of the boy's dark hair out of his face, and as if the warmth of Aragorn's hand had roused Wesley, he opened his eyes and stared up at Aragorn's face.
For a mere moment he simply stared at Aragorn, but then his eyes widened at the grabbed the front of Aragorn's cloak with surprising strength, lifting himself a few inches off the ground. "Chief…they came…all dead…"
"Easy Wes, calm down." Aragorn pried the young ranger's hands off of his cloak and laid him down on the ground once more, but Wesley would not let go of Aragorn and he grabbed one of his hands instead.
"All dead…came to find you…had to know."
"Shh Wes. Who came?" Deep down, this was what Aragorn had feared, why he had left Gildor and made his way South, but he needed to hear the words.
"Riders…dark riders…evil horses…c-cold…it was s-so cold…"
With his free hand, Aragorn felt for Wesley's pulse, not at all surprised to find it weak and irregular. The amount of blood he had lost, combined with the severity of the injuries and the undoubtedly long flight Wesley had endured…it would kill him, and Aragorn knew it.
Licking his lips, Wesley croaked, his eyes fixedly on Aragorn, "I-I left them alone…scared…"
"Shh Wes, calm down, please."
"N-no. All dead…you needed to know. S-someone had t-to warn you."
"Aye, I needed to know." Aragorn wiped the sweat from the ranger's forehead, but he knew that there was nothing he could do. The wounds were to grievous.
"C-Captain…I am sor-ry. C-coward."
"Oh no, no Wes." Aragorn felt his heart constrict in his chest. He did not know when the riders had caught up with Wesley, but from the look of the injuries probably a day ago. What horrors must the young man have felt, alone and abandoned in the wilderness, with the Nazgul on his trail. And here he lay now, bleeding and close to death, and he apologized to him!
Forcing a smile to his lips, Aragorn bent down low to the young ranger, feeling that his end was near, "No Wes, you are no coward. You tried to warn me and therewith safe my life and that of others. I am proud of you."
But Aragorn was not sure whether Wesley had heard his last words, for while he spoke the young man drew his last breath and died in his arms.
Aragorn let his head hang, but he said a prayer to the Valar to guide this one's soul to the Halls of Mandos. Then, he closed Wesley's eyes, folded his arms across his chest and send another prayer to the Valar on behalf of all the other rangers, good friends and those that could have become friends, who had lost their life to the Nazgul.
For many long minutes Aragorn sat near the dead body of Wesley, his mind completely blank. What was he to do? He had found out what he had wanted to know. Sarn Ford had been attacked, his rangers killed. He had failed to protect them. He had not been there.
And when the night waned to day, Aragorn dug a shallow grave near the brook and buried Wesley, the turned and made his way northwards again. But his steps were slow, his shoulders burdened, and so it was that he reached the Greenway and Bree only shortly before four, small Hobbits.
But when he saw them, hurrying towards Bree and fake safety, he vowed with all that he was that he would not let the Nazgul win a second time. No, this Hobbit and his companions would find their way safely and alive to Imladris, come what may. And perhaps he could make good a small part of the guilt that he felt he carried, because of his dead rangers.
Aragorn's pov, present
"Now you know my tale. And a sad one it is, filled with much grief and even more regret. Long hours I sat with Elrond and Gandalf, talking about what if's. But they were right, of course, they always are. I could not have changed the fate of the courageous men that lost their lives at Sarn Ford, even had I been there. No, more likely than not I would be dead now, had I stayed at the Ford.
"But sometimes, I cannot stop and wonder what had happened had I been there. And what I would do if I could turn back time."