Title: Helping Strangers
Summary: Bree is not friendly to rangers. And neither is the outside world. Can prejudices be overcome when Aragorn helps someone by endangering his own life?
Archive: Just ask, I don't bite.
Disclaimer: Not mine (hihi, I think you already guessed that).
A/N: This story was written for the Teitho Contest "Hobbits". I won the first place (yay!).
Pulling his worn cloak tighter around his shoulders and lowering his head against the biting wind, Aragorn crossed the rain splattered marketplace. The rain that had fallen throughout the night had stopped half an hour ago, and many inhabitants of Bree used this rain free period to hurriedly go about their business. Now, in late February, the rain rarely ceased to fall, and everybody had enough of it.
Aragorn brushed his unruly hair out of his face, hurrying on. A young boy, a heavy sack flung over his shoulders crossed his path, causing Aragorn to step aside to not get run over. He cursed silently as this manoeuvre caused him to step into a mud puddle and cold sludge seeped into his boots.
Shaking his long leg disgustedly, Aragorn splattered even more mud onto his clothing, and with a tired sigh he resumed his walk. He knew Bree as well as its inhabitants, maybe even better, for he knew also the dark corners and the dangerous sides of the town. But protecting Bree and its villagers was not the reason Aragorn was here right now. No. Quite frankly, he had not even planned to visit the town. But circumstances had forced him to rent a small room in one of the shabby inns for a night. He would have loved to stay in The Prancing Pony, but he knew that he would use any coin he had to buy healing supplies. For, that the reason he was in Bree.
Aragorn had spent the winter months travelling the northern borders of The Shire, patrolling and fighting here and there. It had been a cold and snowy winter, with sparse game. Wolves had become desperate to find food, and with every week that had passed, they had moved closer to the Shire, until the rangers had been forced to kill the threat. Two weeks ago, Aragorn had started on his journey south, for he and Halbarad had agreed to meet near Newburry at The Hedge around his birthday. They would patrol the eastern and southern borders of The Shire during the summer, before they would return to The Angle for the winter.
Avoiding another collisions with a wet dog, Aragorn strode on. Here and there some people stared at him, but most of the people he met avoided contact with him. Aragorn was used to such treatment, another reason he had not wanted to stop in Bree on his way south. But his unlucky meeting with a starved wolf three days ago had caused him to change plans. The deep scratch and bite marks on his arms and legs had become infected, and Aragorn's healing supplies were nearly spent. A winter in the north could do that.
A gust of wind caused icy spray to wet his face, and with a sigh Aragorn increased his speed. He rounded a corner, and finally the house of the Bree healer came into sight. With but a few long strides Aragorn reached the door, opened it and entered, making the small bell above the door tinkle. It was warm inside, almost muggy. The air was smoky, and a quick glance at the old hearth told Aragorn that it was not working properly. Almost instantly, his wet cloak began to steam.
Rows and rows of boards lined the walls, all of them filled with boxes, jars and sacks. The healer was not really experienced in the healing arts, but he could read and had therefore taken to store all the herbs he saw in books. Aragorn knew that he would find here what he needed, and being a healer himself, he would have no problems to mix the slaves his injuries demanded.
Woken by the bell, a fat man wobbled out of the back room, wiping his sausage fingers at his apron. Aragorn fleetingly wondered, whether this made the fingers clean or even more dirty. The healer was bald and almost as round as a barrel, but he had not the kind tempter that often went with these kind of people. Aragorn had dealt with this man before, and he knew that he was greedy and bold. And the fact that Aragorn seemed to know more about healing than he did, made his consider the ranger as an arch enemy to his business.
When the healer's small eyes fell on Aragorn, they narrowed dangerously and red spots began to colour the man's cheeks. "You." He said disgustedly, crossing his arms before his round chest. "What do you want here?"
"Do business." Aragorn said, and he reached under his cloak and loosened the small leather pouch from his belt, where he kept his coins. Shaking the pouch, he made the coins tinkle, knowing that this was the only way to get the healer to cooperate. As Aragorn had hoped, the healer licked his lips and stared at the pouch. He seemed to battle with himself, and seemed to have come to a decision when he finally said, "My goods are not cheap, only that you know it."
Aragorn sighed audibly when the door fell shut behind him. The healer had charged a horrendous price for the dried herbs, bandages and needles Aragorn had bought, and Aragorn knew that there was not enough left in his pouch to spent another night in the inn; he would have to leave Bree today and treat his injuries in the wild. Not that he had not done that before…
But, he mused, maybe it was enough left to at least get his old, worn, beloved boots repaired. The winter had done them no good, and they had more holes than cheese. His socks were constantly wet, and small stones and thorns entered his boots and made walking quite uncomfortable.
Hefting the pack with the healing supplies over his shoulder, Aragorn turned and made his way down the street to the cobbler. It had started to rain again while he had been in the healer's store, and the people hurried hither and thither to get out of it. A cart rolled by him, splattering mud onto his cloak and face, and with a shake of his head, Aragorn wiped his sleeve across his face.
The house of the cobbler lay nearly in the centre of Bree was easy to find, and when Aragorn entered, the smell of leather and wax reached his nose. No sooner had he stepped over the threshold, came a voice from behind the counter. "One moment, good Sir! I just have to…Ah, there you are." A triumphant "aha" was soon followed by an angered hiss, and a second later by a soft curse. Then, a red, bushy cat jumped onto the counter, stretched its legs and then trotted to the end of the counter and lay down, licking its paws.
Stepping closer, Aragorn peered over the counter. The shoemaker, a Hobbit of middle age, with sandy coloured hair and brown eyes, sat on the ground, shaking his head and nursing a scratched finger. Obviously, he had tried to catch the cat, but the animal had been quicker.
"Good morning, Master Hobbit." Aragorn said, and the Hobbit came slowly to his feet, coughing slightly. Only then did he look up at his customer. The Hobbit's eyes grew wide at the sight of the tall man leaning over the counter, with the wet and dirty hair, the untrimmed bread and dark clothing. Taking a step back, the Hobbit stammered, "G-good morning. What can I do for you?"
Sighing inwardly, Aragorn took a step back, not wanting to scare the Hobbit. He knew that there were stories and rumours told in Bree about the rangers, and not few of them had to do with Hobbits. Rangers ate Hobbits, rangers kept them as slaves, rangers were murderous, thieves, liars…Aragorn had heard them all.
Trying to sound as civilised as he could, Aragorn pointed at his boots, which had left muddy imprints on the wooden floor of the store. "I had hoped you could fix these boots for me, good Sir."
The Hobbit leaned forwards a bit to inspect the boots, and after a moment he cleared his throat and gestured at them. "They look rather worn. Are you sure you do not want to have a new pair?"
Aragorn almost laughed at that question. He would give a lot to be able to buy new boots, but he had no money and he knew that he would have to wait till winter until he could get new ones. Surely one of Halbarad's sisters would have enough pity with him to convince the shoemaker in the village to make a new pair. For, even in The Angle a man had to pay for his belongings, Chieftain or not.
"I am sure, Master Hobbit. A repair is all I need."
Shrugging, the Hobbits pointed at a chair in the corner. "Take them off then, and let me have a look at them."
Aragorn did as he was told, and the Hobbit took the boots with him to inspect them. More then once he shook his head in disapproval, and when he returned to Aragorn, he shrugged his shoulders, "These are no good anymore. I can repair them, but that will cost you."
Even sitting, Aragorn was taller than the Hobbit, and when he reached under his cloak to retrieve his pouch with coins, the Hobbit felt threatened and took hastily some steps back. The shoemaker had probably thought Aragorn was reaching for a weapon or other.
"I have only two coins left, Master Hobbit." Aragorn said, showing the coins to the Hobbit. He had expected it, and when the Hobbits shook his head, Aragorn sighed and replaced the pouch at his belt.
"This kind of repair will cost you at least eight coins." The Hobbit said, coughing again and taking another step back from Aragorn, who had reached for his boots and pulled over his feet. He grimaced slightly when he felt the wet leather on his shins, but said calmly, "I see."
Standing up, Aragorn took his pack of healing supplies, wincing when his injured arms protested that movement. Aragorn knew that the rangers were charged higher prices in all of Bree, but eight coins was half the price for a new pair, and he knew that the Hobbit simply had no wish to repair them.
So, Aragorn made his way over to the door, but when he reached it, he turned around again. "Excuse me my boldness, Master Hobbit, but the cough of yours sounds not good. You should make some calendula tea, eat some honey and go early to bed tonight. Otherwise it could get even worse."
And with that, Aragorn left the store of the cobbler, stepping out into the falling rain and vanishing out of sight. Inside the store, the Hobbit sat down on the chair Aragorn had vacated, coughing slightly and shaking his head. He was glad that the man had left, for he had lived and worked in Bree long enough to know that these rangers were dangerous folk. The less he saw of them, the better.
Slowly, he reached inside his pocked and pulled out his pipe. Suddenly, the voice of his son, who would one day take over his business, asked from the entrance to the back room. "Why did you not repair his boots? Why did you charge so much?"
Puffing on his pipe, the Hobbit whacked his finger at his son, "Don't mess with those folk, son. They are dangerous people."
"No buts." The Hobbit shook his head to silence his son. "They are dangerous. The less we have to do with them, the better." He coughed again, dry and painful. When the coughing fit ended and he had his breath back, he continued, "Now get back to your room and pack your things, my son. We will leave at first light tomorrow morning. It is a long way to Rushey."
Aragorn winced, and not for the first time that evening did he wish for some strong liquor to dull the pain he was in. After leaving Bree, he had turned west. Because of the wind and the rain he had decided to walk on the road instead of making his way through the wilderness, as he was used to, for he wanted to reach Newburry as quickly as possible. He was already late to meet Halbarad as it was.
When it had turned dark, Aragorn had found a sheltered place under a fallen oak, and in the light of the fire, he had begun to clean the cuts and bite marks on his arms. The healer had charged so much money from him, that he had not been able to buy enough supplies to treat the wounds on his legs, too, and Aragorn hoped that they would not get infected.
Biting down on his bottom lip, Aragorn placed the last stitch into his arm, took a deep breath and then cut the threat. Once the pounding in his arm receded to a bearable level, he cleaned the now stitched cuts with the brew he had made, dried them and bandaged his arms from wrists to elbows.
Aragorn leaned back against the fallen tree, and for a moment he did nothing but rest. His arm hurt, his legs were tired, and he knew that the infected wounds had caused a slight fever to settled into his body. Already he was shivering, and cold sweat stood on his brow. Rubbing his burning eyes, Aragorn sighed heartily. Sometimes he wished to never have left his home for this life.
But almost immediately he regretted his thoughts; the life he now led was not that bad, and he should be grateful that it was not worse. So, he methodically cleaned away the mess he had made, tossed the bloody bandages into the fire and set a pot of water to boil. The herbs he still possessed after cleaning the cuts would be enough to treat his fever until he met with Halbarad, and he hoped that his friend's supplies were fuller than his.
Tightening his cloak around his shoulders, Aragorn rummaged through his worn pack, found the few pieces of stale bread he had bought in Bree, dipped them into the tea to not break his teeth, and settled in for a long, cold and wet night.
To his own surprise, Aragorn fell asleep around midnight and woke up the next day, feverish, aching and not rested at all. It was mid-morning already and heavy rain clouds hid the sun from view. With a curse, Aragorn got to his feet and slowly massaged his back, especially the area around his kidneys, where it hurt the most. He walked around a bit, stretching his legs and warming his muscles, until his stomach suddenly heaved violently. Aragorn had barely enough time to kneel down before he lost the meagre supper he had had the last night.
When it stopped, he wiped his mouth and sat down heavily. Maybe the bread had been too rotten to be eatable, he thought grimly, but it had been the only food the merchant had been willing to sell him. Rubbing his belly, Aragorn reached for his water flask, washed his mouth and hands, and then broke camp.
Before he left, though, he inspected the cuts on his arms. The skin was warm to the touch, the cuts still looking angry. Either his body was not that resilient against the wounds as he had thought, or the healer had sold him diluted herbs. It was not uncommon to stretch expensive herbs with grass, tree leaves or parsley. And it was as good as impossible to see the difference.
Shaking his head, Aragorn swung his pack over his shoulder and set out. The sooner he reached Halbarad, the better. He was not at all sure that he would be able to battle the fever that had taken hold in his body, and it was better Halbarad was there to watch over him, should the fever get worse.
The next two days, Aragorn's steps became more heavy and slow, and he had to pause for rest often. The fever that had settled in his body came and go at will, sapping his strength. He had thrown away the food he had bought in Bree, hoping to find roots or berries along the way, but the winter had raged here fiercely, and no food was to be found. So, Aragorn went hungry.
Four days after leaving Bree, Aragorn finally saw the famous Hedge. The Hedge was a high hedge that ran from North to South at the most eastern border of The Shire. It had been build to protect the innocent inhabitants from the dangerous outside world, and if one did not know the way through, one would never find it by chance.
That night, Aragorn made camp under a willow tree, using the long branches as cover. He did not dare to light a fire, so close to the hedge, for the Hobbit border patrol could detect him. They were no threat to him, rather he would threaten them, and he did not want that. The less the Hobbits saw of the rangers, the better.
Huddled up against the trunk of the tree, his knees pulled up against his chest, Aragorn closed his eyes. He was so tired, not to mention that he was hungry. His wounds had not truly healed yet, and although the fever was finally receding, he still felt lousy. His healing herbs were almost spent and he was not sure whether the few herbs he still had would be enough to fight the fever.
Furthermore, it had rained ceaselessly the last few days, and Aragorn's clothing was drenched. As were his socks, he thought bitterly, for his boots were almost no protection at all against the cold and rain. His feet were cold, and Aragorn knew that part of his misery and illness had to do with the fact that he simply could not get warm.
But, Aragorn thought, tomorrow night he would reach Newburry. And with a bit of luck, Halbarad would already be there, waiting for him with a warm fire, food and a good smoke. For, Aragorn had sold the last of his pipe weed in Bree to have enough money to buy the healing supplies.
Aragorn had drowsed for some time, when a loud noise startled him. His hand going to the heft of his sword automatically, he stared into the surrounding darkness, waiting. Then, it came again, closer this time, and now Aragorn could make out what it was. Crying!
Silently, Aragorn left his resting place, and hushing from shadow to shadow, he made his way into the direction of the crying. The closer he came to the East road, which he had left to find shelter for the night, the louder the crying became. Aragorn crouched down behind some bushes, and when he parted the twigs, he saw the reason.
There, at the side of the road, stood two small ponies, packed with supplies, and on the ground next to them sat a small boy, crying and holding the hand of another boy, who was slightly taller.
Getting to his feet noiselessly, Aragorn stepped onto the road. He stayed where he was, some yards away from the two boys; he did not want to frighten them, and if one of them was injured, then he wanted the other to accept his help. Then, he cleared his throat loudly.
As if bitten by a snake, the smaller of the two boys turned around, eyes wide in fear. His hand clenched around the hilt of a small dagger, and, still crying, the boy got to his feet and stoop protectively in front of the other one.
"Peace, boy. I do not want to hurt you." Aragorn said, lifting up his hands to show the boy that he was not armed. The boy sniffed, unmoving.
"I am here to help you." Aragorn said, bowing his head slightly to be not so impressively tall. "Why do you cry? Has your friend fallen from his pony?"
This garnered a reaction from the boy. "My father is ill."
Aragorn frowned and took a step closer. Only now did he realize that he boy in front of him was a young Hobbit. Peering over the boy's shoulder, he could make out the form of another Hobbit.
"Ill? Then let me help you, for I know a bit about healing." Aragorn said, speaking slowly and gentle. He could tell that the young Hobbit was frightened, and it was not difficult to tell that he was debating with himself whether to let Aragorn help or not. Before the young Hobbit could decide, however, the older Hobbit moaned and began to move.
With but two large steps Aragorn was at the sick Hobbit's side and knelt down. With experienced movements he turned the Hobbit onto his back and felt his forehead, not surprised to find that the Hobbit was running a fever. When Aragorn looked at the Hobbit's face, his eyes widened slightly. He knew that Hobbit; it was the shoemaker who had been so unwilling to repair his boots.
"How is he?" The young Hobbit asked, and Aragorn turned around to answer him.
"I don't know yet. What is your name, boy?" Aragorn looked at the young Hobbit intently, noticing that the Hobbit had put away the dagger into his belt.
"My name is Elring. And that is my father Hal." The young Hobbit sniffed, wiping his sleeve across his nose.
"Hal? Interesting." Aragorn said, and continued his inspection of the ill Hobbit. From what he could see, the Hobbit was running a very high fever, and he seemed to have problems to breathe. His nose was red and Aragorn suspected that the Hobbit was suffering from a very bad cold or even the flu.
"Do you have any blankets with you, Elring? Cloaks?" Aragorn asked, picking up the boy's father.
"What are you doing?" Elring said, following quickly.
"I cannot help him here, on the road. We need a place that is a bit more sheltered. Come, young Hobbit, bring the pony's."
Aragorn led the young Hobbit and the obediently following ponies back to the willow. Under the long branches, the wind was not that biting, and although the ground was soggy, the tree would shelter them from the rain. Using his cloak as a blanket, Aragorn paid the ill Hobbit down and began to examine him more closely. It was as he had feared. The Hobbit was seriously ill, and without immediate care, he would probably not make it through the night. His lungs were infected, making breathing difficult, and when the fever would not be stopped soon, the Hobbit would fall into a shock with would mean his death.
"Elring, do you have blankets? Water?" Aragorn asked, while he began to undress the Hobbit, who's clothing was sweat through.
"Yes." Was all Elring said, before he rummaged through the saddle bags of the ponies. It took him a few minutes, but then he presented blankets and fresh clothing to Aragorn, who used the items to warm the ill Hobbit.
Shrugging back into his own cloak, now that he had enough blankets to warm the Hobbit, Aragorn bid Elring to make a fire, warm water and prepare some tea. And if a border patrol saw them now, the better. For, Aragorn was not sure whether he would be able to help the Hobbit. He was so ill…
As soon as the water was boiling, Aragorn crushed all the herbs he still had, made a strong tea, and with the help of Elring he poured it down the throat of the still unconscious Hobbit. There was nothing more he could really do, and so, for the rest of the night, Aragorn sat by the ill Hobbit's side, cooled his feverish skin, rubbed his limbs to keep him warm, and whispered gentle elvish words of comfort when nightmares plagued the old Hobbit. It was late at night when Elring finally fell asleep, his worry and fear overpowering him. He had not said much at all, but Aragorn was sure that he was no longer afraid of him, for which he was grateful.
Morning dawned grey and misty. It had stopped raining sometime during the night, but a fresh wind was blowing and Aragorn shivered miserably. He had not slept at all, his eyes burned and even his bones seemed to ache. It needed no master healer to tell that his fever had returned full force during the long, cold night, but there were no herbs left.
Leaving the shelter of the willow to stretch his long legs and to get the stiffness out of his muscles, Aragorn was surprised to smell sizzling bacon in the air when he returned. Parting the hanging branches, he spotted Elring near the fire, making breakfast.
"Good morning." Aragorn said, before he made his way over to the now peacefully sleeping Hal, for the fever of the Hobbit had broken sometime during the night.
"Morning." Elring said, munching on some hot bacon. "I made breakfast. Do you want some? There is enough for all of us."
Aragorn could not deny that he was terribly hungry. He had not eaten for days, and his empty stomach rumbled at the sight of the food. "Aye, I'd love to." He said, and gratefully took the plate the young Hobbit offered him.
The food was good, warm and tasty, but as soon as Aragorn had taken more than a few bites, his empty stomach protested. Sighing, Aragorn had to accept that fat bacon was maybe not the right thing to eat on an empty stomach. Placing down the plate, he instead sipped his tea.
"Will my father wake up soon?" Elring's voice asked timidly.
"Aye, I think he will." Aragorn assured the young Hobbit. "But he was very ill and will be weak for a few days. Do you have any relatives living close by, Elring?"
Elring nodded his head. "We were on our way to my father's sister. She lives in Rushey."
"That is not that far from here. A few days." Aragorn mused, tightening his wet cloak around his shoulders when a gust of cold wind rushed by. "And it lies on my way."
"Your way?" The young Hobbit asked, munching on some bread.
"Aye." Aragorn nodded, but did not elaborate. His stomach had quieted down somewhat, but his throat was hurting and his head started to feel fuzzy. He knew that the fever was coming back, and the wounds on his arms began to ache and pound. And, he sighed inwardly, he had probably caught the disease of the Hobbit, too, seeing that his body was already weakened from his injuries.
Suddenly, a slow moan reached his ears, and Aragorn hurried to the ill Hobbit's side. He felt his forehead, and smiled relived. The older Hobbit opened his eyes sluggishly, blinking up at the tall rangers.
"Well met, Master Hal." Aragorn said, smiling.
They spent the day resting under the willow tree. Hal was still ill and weak, and he slept long and deep. Of course he had recognized the tall ranger, and Aragorn had heard the whispered conversation between father and son, when they had thought he was out of earshot. Hal did not trust him, thought him to be a dangerous man who would surely kill them steal their goods. But, his son did not believe that, and seeing that Hal was still too ill to even walk on his own, he had grudgingly accepted Aragorn's company.
Aragorn did not sleep the following night, although he was by now so tired that his eyelids felt like lead. But, he knew enough of colds and the flu to know that the Hobbit could relapse any moment. Vigil was the only thing that could keep him from getting dangerously ill again. But when the seconds night passed uneventfully, Aragorn was certain that the danger had passed for Hal.
If not for himself. The fever that had lain dormant for a few days had broken free again. Aragorn felt hot and cold at the same time, he shivered, sweat and felt absolutely lousy. He was losing his voice and his throat hurt terribly. And to make matters even worse, the wounds on his arms had started to leak pus. They were badly infected and the infection slowly spread up and down his arms. In a few days, the infection would probably enter his blood stream and then it would be too late to help him anymore. Aragorn hope that he would be able to reach Halbarad in time to prevent this from happening.
The next day was as windy and cold as the previous one, but seeing that the old shoemaker was doing better, Aragorn decided to leave father and son, and make his way south to meet Halbarad, ere it was too late for him.
Shouldering his gear and wincing from the pain the action caused him, Aragorn made his way over to father and son, who were eating breakfast, chatting amiably. As soon as Aragorn was in hearing range, the conversation stopped, and both Hobbits looked up at him.
"Gentleman." Aragorn began, but the older Hobbit interrupted him.
"You are leaving, I suppose?" His voice was still hoarse from the illness, but Aragorn had no problem hearing the relief as well as the suspicion in it. Where the young Hobbit had begun to trust Aragorn, his father had not changed his opinion of the wandering folk yet.
"Yes, I am leaving." Aragorn said softly, for his voice was nearly gone. "You should rest still, Master Hal, your body will thank you for it."
"Let that be my business, ranger." Hal said, ignoring the embarrassed look his son shot him. After a moment, the Hobbit added grudgingly, "I thank you for your help."
"It was my pleasure." And before Aragorn could say more, the older Hobbit had turned away from him, clearly showing him the cold shoulder. Sighing inwardly, Aragorn nodded into the direction of Elring, who shrugged in apology, and then left the shelter of the willow.
Night fell and still Aragorn had not reached the place where he should meet with Halbarad. During the day, the fever had spiked, and in the afternoon it had become so bad that Aragorn had seen double. His body shut down slowly, and it cost him all his energy to stay on his feet. Tremors wracked his body, and with every breath he took his lungs seemed to burst into flames. He could not even use his arms to prevent him form stumbling against trees anymore, for the infection had made them swell and become numb.
And when the rain set in barely an hour after nightfall, Aragorn knew that he would never reach Halbarad in time. With a soft sound of surprise, he felt his knees buckle under him, and his long body fell to the wet ground in a helpless heap. Before consciousness fled him, he hoped that Halbarad would find him before the wolves did.
The next thing Aragorn felt were rough hands on his body, shaking him. But the fever raged in his body and mind, and Aragorn had neither the energy to fight these hands, nor to respond in any way. He felt something cool touch his forehead, and then the strange sensation of being lifted and thrown over someone's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. And then, for many hours, he felt nothing at all.
The sound of someone cursing loudly woke him again, and this time Aragorn willed his eyes to open. When his gaze focused slowly and he saw the person cursing so wildly, he grinned weakly. "Halbarad…"
"Aragorn!" In the next second, Halbarad was at his side, his bearded face contorted in worry. "How are you?"
Swallowing dryly, Aragorn licked his lips, "Water…"
Reaching behind him, Halbarad grabbed his water flask and helped Aragorn to drink, "Slowly, my friend, slowly." Halbarad admonished gently, and he took the flask away before Aragorn could satisfy his thirst. "I am sorry, but I need the water for tea." He apologized when he saw Aragorn's look.
Nodding weakly, Aragorn laid back down, but immediately a coughing fit shook his body. He coughed and coughed, and when he thought he might either suffocate or throw up any minute, Halbarad helped him into a sitting position and gave him more water. It helped, and the coughing fit ended.
"Thanks." Aragorn croaked, his voice barely audible.
Halbarad helped him to lay down again, before he shook his head, "I was worried when you did not show up. I am glad I decided to go looking for you." And after a moment, Halbarad added helplessly, "What happened, Aragorn? You are one of the best healers I know, how could it come so far?"
Fighting down a cold shiver, Aragorn shrugged minutely, "It just happened."
Halbarad gave him an exasperated look, but said no more. Instead, he opened his pack, rummaged through it and began to prepare some fever reducing tea. "I only have a few herbs left, Aragorn, the winter was hard. I will need yours."
Aragorn had almost fallen back to sleep, but his friend's words worried him. "I have none left, Halbarad."
"What?" Halbarad looked up from the pot that sat on the fire. "You never travel without healing supplies."
Coughing hoarsely, Aragorn closed his eyes, too tired to stay awake any longer, "Someone needed them more than I did."
And Aragorn heard that Halbarad replied something, but he could not make out the words, and a few moments later he was already asleep again.
It was the pain in his arms that woke him from his restless slumber. When Aragorn opened his eyes, Halbarad was just wrapping the last strip of cloth around his left forearm. A quick look at his other arm showed Aragorn that Halbarad had bandaged it, too. His arms ached, but it was not the hot pounding that he had awaited. Rather, it was a gentle prickling.
"Awake again?" Halbarad asked, a relieved smile on his face.
Nodding, Aragorn moved his arms tentatively, surprised when he could not only move them, but deal with the pain as well.
Patting Aragorn's leg, Halbarad sat down next tm him, "Seems the tea helped."
"Tea?" Aragorn asked stupidly. He could not even remember drinking the fever reducing tea.
"Aye, tea." Halbarad said slowly, pronouncing each syllable carefully, so as if he was talking with a child. But as quickly as his levity had come, it went again. Sighing wearily, he rubbed his eyes, "I wish I could do more, Aragorn, but I already gave you all the herbs I carried. You are still ill, and although the fever does not burn as brightly anymore, it has not broken yet." He sighed again. "You will have to heal on your own, I fear. Unless you have hidden some herbs from me." Halbarad added, winking.
Smiling grimly, Aragorn shook his head, "I have none. As I said, someone needed them more than I did."
For the next three days, Halbarad did all the could to help Aragorn overcome not only the infection, but the illness as well. It was a slow going process, and more than once Halbarad invented a new curse to vent his frustration at the illness. On the third day however, the fever finally broke, and Aragorn knew that he was on the way to heal completely. The wounds finally started to heal, and he and Halbarad decided that they would the next day.
Late that night, they both sat at a small fire, huddled in their cloaks. Munching on some nuts that were left from the last fall, Halbarad sighed miserably, "How could you sell your pipe weed, Aragorn? I just can't believe it."
Taking a deep breath, Aragorn had just opened his mouth to answer, when the sound of approaching horses reached his ears. Immediately, both rangers grabbed their swords and got to their feet. Seeing that Aragorn was still ill and injured, Halbarad moved to stand slightly in front of him. But they should not have worried. A few moments later, two ponies came into view, carrying their Hobbit riders.
Lowering his sword, Aragorn greeted the travellers, "Well meet, Master Hal. Elring."
The Hobbits seemed surprised to see Aragorn there, but returned the greeting. Then, they sat uncertainly on their ponies, not really sure what to do next. It was Aragorn who helped them decide.
"The night is cold, Master Hobbits. It would be an honour for us if you would share our fire."
Hal and Elring exchanged one long look, but then Elring shrugged, and climbed from his pony. His father followed him a moment later. While Halbarad tended to the ponies, Aragorn bade the Hobbits to sit down by the fire.
"I see you are mostly recovered, Master Hobbit." Aragorn said, noticing the healthy colour of the Hobbit's cheeks.
"Aye, I am." Hal said, looking uncomfortable. After Aragorn had left the camp under the willow tree, his son had told him in great detail what had happened, and how the ranger had saved his life. The old Hobbit now felt rather ungrateful and embarrassed for having treated Aragorn so badly.
"I am glad to hear that." Aragorn said, just as Halbarad returned to the fire.
"Hear what?" Halbarad asked, sitting down and adding another log to the fire.
Nodding at the two Hobbits, Aragorn explained, "These are Master Hal and his son Elring. We met a few days ago on the road, quite by chance."
The two Hobbits inclined their heads in greeting, and Elring asked Aragorn friendly, "And you are? You know, although you helped my father and I, you never told us your name."
"My name is Strider, and this is Halbarad." Aragorn said, coughing slightly.
"Oh." Elring made, suddenly knowing the reason why Aragorn had found his father's name interesting. "Two Hal's, then."
Aragorn simply nodded and tightened his cloak around his shoulders; the wind was biting this night. Across the fire, the two Hobbits began to unpack their supper, and in but a few minutes the two Hobbits had manage to eat more than Aragorn and Halbarad had eaten in a week.
Halbarad gave his friend a sideway glance, and when the thought the Hobbits would not hear, he whispered, "I think I know now where your healing supplies went."
Smiling gently, Aragorn simply nodded. But Halbarad was not yet finished, "Next time, my friend, don't use them all when you are ill, too. Promise?"
"You know I cannot promise such a thing, Halbarad." Aragorn answered truthfully, and Halbarad let the matter rest, knowing that his friend always thought of others, before he thought of his own well being.
Seeing that Hobbits have good hearing, both Hal and Elring had heard Halbarad's words, and they exchanged a long look. Guilt crept over Hal's face, and he bowed his head in shame. Not only had he refused to repair this man's boots, no, he had also been so terribly ungrateful to him, although the ranger had saved his life by endangering his own. That night, many, many thoughts raced through the Hobbit's mind, and it was late before he finally fell asleep.
In the morning, rangers and Hobbits broke camp early. Hal and Elring would travel South, while Aragorn and Halbarad would head West. Aragorn had just lifted the last of Elring's bag onto the pony, when the old Hobbit approached him.
"Master Strider, I want to…I…" He cleared his throat, then began again. "Next time you are in Bree, come into my store. I am sure I can repair those boots of yours next time." And before Aragorn could answer, the Hobbit turned around hastened to his pony and sat up. Elring quickly followed his father's example.
Hal steered his pony to where Aragorn stood and then placed a leather pouch into his hands. "It is not much, but…thank you." And with that the old Hobbit steered his pony onto the path that would lead him and his son their destiny.
"Godspeed!" Aragorn called after them, and Elring waved back over his shoulder, before the riders rode out of sight.
"Well, we should be on our way, too. If you feel up to it." Halbarad said, taking Aragorn's pack onto his own shoulders.
That night, Halbarad and Aragorn enjoyed the present the old Hobbit had given Aragorn.
"My friend." Halbarad said, "That is the best pipe weed I have ever tasted."
Grinning, Aragorn breathed in deeply, enjoying the rich taste of the weed. "Indeed, it is."
Halbarad stretched out his long legs before him, puffed on his pipe and gazed into the distance. It was some minutes later that he commented with a twinkle in his eyes, "Aragorn, I think I finally know the real reason we protect The Shire."
Blowing out a cloud of smoke, Aragorn lifted an eyebrow, "Oh, is that so?" Not even he knew the real reason they protected The Shire, seeing that Gandalf had never imparted that information on him, although Aragorn had his guesses.
"Yes, Aragorn." Halbarad nodded eagerly. "The real reason we protect The Shire…" He lifted his pipe into the air triumphantly, "is pipe weed!"
And Aragorn burst out into loud laughter, the worries and aches of the last few days forgotten.
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