Learning Something New the Hard Way
It was a brilliant night, full of stars. Unfortunately, this did not help the hunted warriors as they paused at the boundary where tree met rock. The craggy ground stretching before them sparkled until it receded under the cliff's iron shadow. Already evidence of battle lay in the drag-marked dust and dark splotches bleached by the moon.
Aragorn sighed shakily, wondering if this had been such a good idea after all. The barren floor stretched ahead of them, craggy and uneven for at least thirty yards before it began a steepened ascent into the infamous climbing cliffs. Just staring at the height of them made him feel queasy.
The elves beside him were tense too, fingering their bowstrings and blades nervously, glinting eyes staring at their previous battleground with residual horror.
Haldir did not speak but with a slight, sharp gesture hurried them forward. As silently as only elves could, they broke cover and raced for the far cliff-side where concealing shadows dropped their heavy loads.
A sharp pain stabbed between Aragorn's sore ribs with every jolting step he took but he kept dogged pace with the elves, feeling terribly exposed as the moonlight radiated across the back of his neck, casting his dim, rushing shadow on the rocky ground. Icy water spiked up to his knees in a shocking torrent as he plunged straight through it, sliding on unseen rocks.
Suddenly the elf in front of him tripped in the shallows.
Aragorn was already at the fallen elf's side, assisting him to his feet with his good shoulder. Quickly, Déorian got on his other side, bolstering his weight and nodding a short gratitude. Together they bolted the last few yards of broken ground and scooted under the cliff line beside the rest of their comrades.
Haldir eyed them over as they staggered panting into the shadows, his eyes resting briefly on the ranger. "Good work."
Aragorn smiled at the praise but his pleasure was short-lived as Annondil, brushing past him, purposefully slammed his shoulder into the man's arm. The ranger flinched but refused to give the vindictive elf the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. The rest of the Galadhrim had already pulled ahead, keeping carefully within the safe darkness of the overhanging cliff.
Fighting back a wave of nauseating pain, Aragorn briefly closed his eyes, stumbling in the rear as they came upon a ragged inset in the stone. Some ancient movement of the earth had shifted the flat plates of the gorge creating a natural, crumbling stairway later shaped and evened by unknown hands in years long lost.
They had barely started up this zigzagging path when an ear-splitting howl shrilled the air as tense and jarring as an alarm. Dark shapes suddenly swarmed everywhere, creeping from darkness, yellow eyes flaring from unseen crevices both above and below the narrow stairs on which the elves now stood.
There was nowhere to run. They were trapped.
The thought trickled dully through Aragorn's stricken mind as he fumbled for the knife sheathed at his waist. Gripping it tightly in his fist, he faced the attackers racing up the stairs towards him.
A wolf bared long teeth at him as it bounded eagerly ahead of its masters. Thankfully these were not the dreaded wargs of the lower plains. But they were wolves, five feet at the shoulder, beaten and half-starved in orc-cages. Wide maws producing lolling red tongues and glinting teeth, they lunged from above and below.
As the wolf bunched its hindquarters for a spring, Aragorn tightened. Suddenly a saber blade flashed between them and took the wolf through the chest, cleaving it through the heart and hurling it back towards its furious masters.
The young man glanced at Haldir and felt a shiver run up his spine that had little to do with the whistling wind stabbing his back. The elf captain's face was white and livid with fury. Haldir jerked his head to one side as an arrow zipped past, so close it ruffled his hair in its slipstream. Another rebounded sharply off the stone inches from Aragorn's boot and Haldir's hand snapped forward, closing around his uninjured shoulder to keep the man from falling headfirst down the steep stairs.
Regaining firmer footing, Aragorn gave him a spare nod of thanks but the elf was already taking the stairs two at a time to pursue the battle elsewhere.
He turned as if to follow him when a dark shape reared out of the shadows on his left and slashed out with a curved blade. Aragorn deflected the blow, barely, the shockwaves sending piercing prickles of pain up his wrist. Sweat broke over his brow again as the fierce-eyed creature thrust forward again, trying to rip open his thigh. The tip of the blade missed his leg by inches but the flat side jarred his wrist. A bolt of pain sliced upwards from his wrist and before he had time to do more than gasp, his unseen enemy kicked his sword out of his weakened hand.
A slick, raspy voice like blood-spattered rock slid over the young man's ears as he knelt on the hard stone. "Thought I had finished with you, gangrel."
Staring up the deadly blade hovering before his throat, Aragorn narrowed his eyes. He recognized that voice, and that blade.
Slacquer grinned down at him, pressing a little harder until the ranger's sword dug into the soft throat, a thin rivulet of blood snaking from under the lame. "Well, now I'll make sure I do it good and proper."
Blood trickled down his chest, hot and wet inside his tunic and the pain made him dizzy but, with difficulty, Aragorn managed to fight it back and focus. His knife lay against the uneven black wall, three stairs above him. It was his only chance.
Acting fast, he threw himself backwards from the blade, crawling the precious few inches and just closing his hand around the smooth wooden handle before a cruel, clawed hand dug into his ankle and dragged him painfully back down the stairs. The orc straddled him with a tight rictus stretching deformed lips as he brought the long sword up towards the man's chest.
Slacquer's triumphant grin turned into a grimace as one of the battling wolves tumbled into his heels and sent him stumbling forward. Tripping over the ranger's legs, he fell heavily. Straight onto Aragorn's knife. Both orc and human stared at one another for a shocked second. Then Aragorn grabbed his sword from the orc's failing grasp and tugged his knife free as the body tumbled limply down the stairs, coming to rest at the base.
Aragorn twisted around at Haldir's shout.
The Galadhrim had cleaved though. The way ahead was clear.
Aching and bleeding, Aragorn dragged himself up the stairs past black shapes impaled by white arrows, emerging onto a windswept plain empty but for the night grasses and the group of elves, some of whom were mounted and carried bows.
"We came as soon as we could, Captain," one said as he dismounted. He was flushed with excitement and the wind.
"Better speed could not have been made by the west wind, Gilas," Haldir said, granting his scout with a smile that somehow contained both relief and bitterness. "The colonel didn't trouble you overmuch?"
Gilas gave a slight abashed grin. "He doesn't know, sir."
At that moment, Aragorn's shaking legs gave out on him and he slumped against a chip of rock at the head of the stairs, his bloody sword sliding uselessly out of his hands. He almost didn't feel the pain radiating from his arm and shoulder so great was his relief. They were alive. For the moment disregarded, he just sat there, regaining his breath and letting the adrenaline wash out of his system. He was exhausted. The last few days had been torment for him and his body, still healing, craved rest. Without realizing it, he let his head fall against the rocks and closed his eyes.
A soft prod roused him slightly.
"You do not know us yet you were willing to die for us," Haldir said, very quietly as the ranger raised weary eyes to his face. "Why?"
A gentle, slightly lopsided smile lifted Aragorn's lips. "Why wouldn't I?"
"That is no answer."
"That, Captain, is all the answer I'm afraid you will get from me right now," Aragorn muttered, losing the battle to keep his eyelids open.
Dissatisfied but seeing the exhaustion in the young man's face, the elf nodded reticently. "I will have an answer from you, ranger. But not tonight." A teasing smile shone in his eyes. "You fight well-for a human."
"Hey," the barb brought Aragorn's head up again until he realized Haldir was smiling. "I guess humans aren't all bad after all?"
Haldir's silver eyes lowered, the smile sliding off his face. "Maybe one is not," he allowed.
Aragorn sat up a little more and, hesitatingly, touched the elf's sleeve as he started to rise. When Haldir looked down at him questioningly, he fumbled for a moment, not sure if it was his place to pry but plunged on anyway when the silence grew protracted. "I'm sorry."
"You did nothing."
"No," Aragorn conceded. "But my race did…someone…hurt you…I can see the shadows in your eyes. And I'm sorry. It is men like that who ruin it for the rest of us."
Haldir stared, disconcerted and amazed. Am I really that easy to read? He thought he had put the events of almost two millennia ago far behind him. He was no longer a prisoner to his memories but something about this ranger had woken them, twisted them all out of their long hiding.
But now was not the time to dwell on it. They had a roughly four hour journey still ahead of them before they reached Lothlórien and the company was exhausted. But it was too dangerous to stay here any longer.
"Come," Haldir jerked his head in the direction of the waiting troops. "I am not carrying you to Lothlórien."
Aragorn nodded vaguely but as he tried to stand up his head spun and the warrior had to grab his arm to keep him from falling.
"You will ride with me."
Aragorn didn't know how he got there but suddenly found himself sitting on a chestnut horse behind the captain. As best he could, he balanced himself in the saddle, wondering where he could place his hand without making his riding companion uncomfortable. Haldir settled that for him and, seizing the cuff of his overcoat, clapped the man's uninjured arm firmly around his waist.
"Hold on, you idiot. I am not picking you up off the ground again."
They set off up the ravine, locating a zigzagging path that the horses could negotiate. When the path had widened enough, Ancadal slipped up beside his friend and gazed down at the human riding behind him. Aragorn had fallen asleep again, dark tendrils of hair half-sliding over his youthful face as his bowed forehead bumped gently between Haldir's shoulder blades.
Ancadal smiled at the brave young man's peacefully sleeping face. "They look so innocent when they sleep."
Haldir shifted slightly, trying to shift into a more comfortable position without waking the human. "His chin's digging into my shoulder blade."
Ancadal laughed at his friend's grimace of discomfort. "That will teach you to take in strays."
"I blame you."
The laughter of the other elf quickly muffled as Aragorn stirred a little but he only turned his head the other way before settling. "What on earth have you brought down on us?"
Haldir, one hand clasping the human's arm to keep him from sliding off, glanced over his shoulder. "He has proven himself a worthy soldier. Who knows? Perhaps something will come of it."
Ancadal could not discount his captain's intuition; he had been right too many times in the past. But he couldn't help feeling that a change would be wrought on them all, for better or worse and this young human would have a part in it.
"Perhaps something will."
End Notes: It's a relief to finally get this posted! My first foray on the 'net since July…I don't quite know what to make of it. I hope you do. I'm actually rather nervous- I haven't written Aragorn for a very long time and since I have neither seen the movie in its entirety nor read the book for some months, I think I'm a bit rusty. Any helpful suggestions, comments, criticisms are very much welcome.
The Lady of Light