Chapter 2: No bravery
Lifting his bow a fraction, Aragorn shot a quick look to his left and right, more sensing than seeing the other rangers lifting their bows as well. His worst fears had come true. The orcs had come to cross the river, and they would flood against his rangers like an unstoppable tidal wave. More and more orcs joined their comrades at the banks of the river, more than Aragorn could count. His heart constricted in his chest in the knowledge that he had send his men into certain death.
He took a deep breath, nodded at Minardil, then closed his eyes in a quick prayer to the Valar to protect his men and those he loved. Aiming, his fingers let go of the arrow, sending it flying across the river. Time seemed to stop and all sound vanished around Aragorn, while he watched the arrow shoot through the night, silent and deadly. A second later the arrows of the other rangers followed, dark blurs over the river. Aragorn's arrow impacted with a dull thud, throwing the orc to the ground. For a moment, nothing happened, but then time seemed to speed up again, sending the scene into bedlam.
Before the orcs that had been killed by the first volley of arrows had even stopped moving, the second volley rushed across the river, each arrow finding its mark. Screeching, the orcs shoved each other around, trying to see where the arrows were coming from. A third volley injured and killed a handful of orcs, but it also gave away the rangers' position. With a howl of anger and fury that was ear-piercing, the orcs raised their spears and scimitars high above they heads and rushed into the river.
Another volley of arrows made the rushing orcs stumble and fall, but it was not enough to even slow them down. There were simply too many and the fallen orcs were trampled to death in the waters of the river.
Aragorn threw his bow to the side and gripped his sword tightly. He send another prayer to the Valar, then jumped to his feet, sword and head held high.
"Elendil!" The old battle cry fell from his lips just as the first orcs reached the banks of the river, and it was taken up by his men, resounding across the river and echoing from the trees. In the next moment the first orcs reached them, the lust to kill shining brightly in their eyes. Aragorn ducked a swing that would have beheaded him and plunged his blade into the side of the orc, killing it instantly. Twisting, his sword beheaded another creature, before it found its home in the belly of a third.
He kicked the falling orc off his blade, jumping to the side to avoid being hacked in two. With a vicious hit he downed one of the foul beasts, feeling the fingers in his left hand crunch under the impact. Something collided with his back, causing him to stumble forwards. Out of the corner of his eye Aragorn saw a scimitar come down on his head, and instinctively he let himself fall to the ground. The blade rushed by him, so close that he could feel it brush his hair. Jumping to his feet in the same movement, he killed the orc with a quick thrust of his sword.
Around him, Aragorn heard the pained screams of the orcs, and numerous already lay dead, but even now more were pouring from the forest and crossing the river. Some of them stopped to join the fight against the rangers, but most of them, having realized that it were not elves they were fighting against, simply glowered at the rangers and sped past them, hoping to find their real prey waiting somewhere in the trees. And Aragorn knew that there was nothing he could d to stop them.
He was ripped out of his thoughts by a fist that connected painfully with his shoulder, spinning him around. Slashing, he cut the hand that had hit him from the arm of the orc, causing dark blood to spray over his face and hands. The orc fell to his knees in agony, but another was already in his spot, attacking furiously. All around him Aragorn saw nothing but orcs, and with a calm realization that he had not known he possessed he knew that he was surrounded.
A painful blow to his back made his stumble slightly, right into the dagger of a smaller orc. The dagger imbedded itself into his tight, and with a yell on his lips Aragorn swung his sword, injuring some of the orcs that stood around him. A scimitar was thrust at his head but Aragorn ducked in time. Spinning around low his blade cut through flesh and bone, felling many of the foul creatures.
By now the fight had brought Aragorn close to the edge of the Bruinen, but the water could give him to reprieve. Dozens of orcs were still around him, waiting for their chance to kill him. Suddenly, a pained, clearly human scream sounded across the scene, but it was quickly cut off by a howl of glee from the orcs.
Anger rose in Aragorn, and with a growl he swung his sword in a wide arc around him, beheading another orc and gutting his companion. But it was not enough. A moment later, Aragorn felt his sword slice through the chest of an orc, where it got stuck between two ribs. Before Aragorn could even try to remove it, a club came down on his wrists, knocking his sword out of his grip and breaking his wrist as easily as a child broke a small twig.
Pain shot up and down his right arm, but it stood in no comparison to the hot agony that enveloped him a second later, originating in his lower back. Once more, time seemed to stand still, and Aragorn slowly looked down at himself, his eyes locking on the ruby red tip of a crude spear that was protruding from his chest, right under his ribs. Blood was already spreading across his clothing, and before Aragorn's mind had registered what had happened, his knees buckled under him, sending him tumbling to the ground.
As if from far away he heard his name being called, but then his head hit the ground with a dull thud, and time sped up again. A cacophony of sounds and smells hit his senses, overshadowed by all consuming pain. The orcs who had surrounded him only moments earlier left him, rushing on into the night. Blinking, Aragorn's gaze followed their retreating backs, and only then did he realize that they all vanished into the trees, one by one.
His mind was confused by pain, and Aragorn looked around for the cause of the orcs's leaving, only to find one of his rangers lying on the ground close to him, eyes staring at the sky unseeingly. Aragorn gazed at his fallen man for long moments, only then realizing that silence had fallen around him. There were no more fights. The orcs were gone.
Pain, so bright and hot burned all inside his body that Aragorn could not move, and breathing became more difficult from moment to moment. Blood rushed in his ears and pounded in his very veins, and Aragorn knew that without help he would not live to see another sunrise. A cold shiver raced down his spine, for he knew that no help would come. And when the world dimmed around him, Aragorn closed his eyes tiredly. He hoped that his men would forgive him when he met them in the Halls of Mandos's tonight, and that their sacrifice would at least give the elves enough time to bring the women and children to safety.
In that moment the clouds opened and heavy, icy rain pattered to the ground. It hit the unresponsive bodies of the fallen, turning the ground into mud and breaking the silence that had fallen. But it was not enough to wash the dark blood off the sandy banks or dilute the red stains that slowly seeped into the ground.
Grey mist clung to the trunks of the trees, hanging over the river and its banks like a blanket. The rain had stopped in the early hours of morning, but even now, close to dusk, the grey mist had not dissipated. No breeze stirred the leaves, and in the stillness of the day the screeching of the black carrion bird echoed loud from the forest.
To anyone who would have listened the sound of the first elven warrior who stepped forth from the trees was nothing more than a whisper, and not even the feasting birds detected his presence. Another elf followed, than a third, their eyes beholding in sadness the sight before them.
Two dozen elves surveyed the scene for long moments, before a soft, but clear command was uttered, "Search for them." It was all the elven Captain said, but his warriors needed no explanation. Quickly they spread out, making their way around the fallen orcs. As soon as they moved the black birds shot into the air, emitting ear-piercing screams that made the hairs on the arms of the elves stand on end.
With an experience than no being should posses in such situations, the elves turned over orcs and unrecognizable bodies, searching for the fallen Dunedain. One by one the bodies of the rangers were found, and with care the elves spread their cloaks over them, before they carried them to the waiting horses.
Suddenly, a small shout came from the edge of the river, "Captain!"
With but a few steps the elven Captain had reached his warrior's side. For a moment he did nothing but stare at the body of the ranger in front of him, sadness filling his heart. When he had been send on this mission he had known what he would find, but knowing it and seeing it were two very different things.
The foster son of his Lord and the Chieftain of the Dunedain lay before him in the cold mud at the banks of the Bruinen. A dagger stuck in his thigh, more slashes could be seen in the material of his shirt and cloak, the red blood having turned brown already. But that was not what was making the Captain pause. It was the long, thick spear that still stuck from Aragorn's back, dripping with rainwater. Even without having turned the man around the elven Captain knew that the spear must have skewered him, having gone right through.
The Captain took a deep breath, coming to a decision. He would not bring the body of Estel of Rivendell home with a spear sticking out of him. Had it not been for the Dunadan and his men, the elves would have never been warned in time to meet the orcs before too much damage had been done. Without him, the orcs would have overrun the whole of Imladris instead of only the outskirts, and many more lives would have been lost. Imladris had been saved, only thanks to the sacrifice of these brave men.
He turned to his warrior, his voice soft, "Remove it, then bring him to the horses."
The elven Captain had already turned around again when the voice of his warrior stopped him, "Captain!"
The funeral pyres burned high, fuelled by dry hay and oil. Thick grey smoke rose into the star bright sky, and the orange glow of the flames reflected from the waterfalls and rivers, even bathing the chambers of the healing wing into flickering light.
Aragorn swallowed thickly and closed his eyes, feeling his throat start to hurt in his attempt to swallow his tears of pain and sadness. Just outside, the earthly remains of his loyal men were burned, before their ashes would be thrown into the rivers, so that they could float down into the sea. The healers had not allowed him to join the funeral, and if Aragorn was honest with himself, he was not even strong enough to sit up in bed on his own. But that did not change anything.
Two days ago the elven warriors had found the bodies of his men, and had brought them back to the Last Homely House, where his men had been brought to the rooms of the Dead to be cleaned and prepared for their funeral. But Aragorn, he had not been dead when the elves had found him, if only barely so. The warrior who had found him had detected that he still drew breath when he had attempted to remove the spear that had skewered Aragorn, and he had been rushed back to Imladris with all haste.
The healers had told him that it was a miracle that he was still alive, had said that the cold rain had probably stopped the bleeding and helped him survive, but Aragorn had not listened. The moment he had awoken, he had seen in the faces of the elves that he was the only survivor, and the knowledge still burned brightly in his heart. Even the young ranger he had sent to get help had not survived the ensuing battle between elves and orcs. His men were all dead.
He had lead his men to their deaths, and although it had not been the first time that one of his decisions had caused men to die, it was different. The rangers had stayed because he had been unwilling to leave. If someone should have died that night than it was he, not his men. If the pain inside his body was any indication, he had been on his way to join them when he had been found, and maybe that would have been the better ending.
And the fact that it was not possible to return the bodies of the fallen to The Angle, where they would rest among their ancestors, that Aragorn was not even able to pay his last respect to his men, gnawed at his spirit.
Slowly, the orange sparkle of the flames grew dimmer until it was gone, and Aragorn turned his head away from the window. It did not take long for the door to his room to open and soft footsteps to near his bed. The soft rustling of robes could be heard, then the creaking of a wooden chair.
For long, long moments it was silent, but then the soft, hesitant voice of Elrond Halfelven filled the room. "I am sorry. I am so sorry, Aragorn."
Swallowing thickly, Aragorn opened his eyes, but he did not look at his foster father, "So am I."
Another pause stretched between them, before Elrond spoke once more, "Glorfindel returned. His warriors have hunted down even the last orc. And Elladan and Elrohir will return tomorrow from their scouting of the borders, if all goes well."
Aragorn nodded, wincing slightly at the pain even this small movement caused him, but he said nothing. There really was nothing to say. He was not surprised when Elrond spoke after an uncomfortable silence in which the elf had obviously hoped that Aragorn would say something.
"Aragorn, I…I made a mistake in not guarding the Bruinen, you were right in your assumption that the orcs would attack there. I simply could not see the danger. I…. I have to apologize to you."
Anger and guilt rose in Aragorn, and his voice was colder than he had wanted it to be when he answered, "Don't apologize to me, my Lord, but to the families of the brave men that died that night to protect your valley and all those who live here. Explain to them why their fathers, sons and brothers have died. Tell Minardil's wife why her husband has died. And after you have done that, my Lord, come to me, look me in the eye and tell me again that you are sorry."
Elrond was quiet for long moments, and his voice was even softer when he next spoke, "I deeply regret the death of your men, Aragorn, as I regret the death of the elves who lost their lives in the battle. I wish I could turn back the time and right the wrongs that have been done, but I cannot. But I will do what I can to honor the sacrifice your men have brought.
Forever shall I be in the debt of the Dunedain. Whenever they need help, Imladris will answer. And never again shall I be so blinded as I have been."
In pain and heartache, filled with guilt and remorse, Aragorn nodded his head stiffly, not able to let his foster father's words penetrate his heart, "The Dunedain thank you for your vow. We will not forget it."
If Elrond had wanted to say more or not, Aragorn never knew, for he closed his eyes and turned his head away, hurting too much. After a moment, the elven Lord slowly got to his feet and left the room quietly.
Fastening the cord that held his bag closed, Aragorn let his eyes roam through the room to make sure that he had forgotten nothing. Three weeks had passed since the attack of the orcs, and only a few days ago a group of rangers had arrived in Imladris, having gotten the message from the elves, explaining what had happened. And, they had come to take Aragorn home with them.
The healers had declared that he was able to ride, if only for very short periods of time and that he would need a lot of rest. But, with every day that Aragorn stayed in Imladris, his urge to leave got stronger, and he was glad that the day of his leaving had finally come. In the past weeks he had barely spoken with his foster father, having seen little of him. His brothers had visited him regularly, often staying with him for hours to simply give him some company. A few stray orcs that had survived the battle had been sighted here and there, but they had been killed quickly. The hidden valley of the elves was safe once more.
When he was certain that he had packed everything, Aragorn took his sword from the bed and buckled the sword belt. He had just reached out to take one of the bags, when there was a soft knock on the door and it opened only a second later.
"May I, Aragorn?"
Surprised, Aragorn bade Elrond enter. The elf closed the door behind him, looking paler than usual. Dark circle shone under his eyes, which was very unusual for an elf.
"What may I help you with, my Lord?"
"I think," Elrond said, locking his eyes with Aragorn, "the question is what I can do for you."
Elrond took a step closer. Numerous emotions swiveled in his eyes, and he did not even try to hide them, "Aragorn…Estel. I know that I made a mistake. A mistake that cost you dearly. Not even my foresight could warn me that something like this would happen. Had I known it, I would have done all in my might to stop it."
Elrond broke off, waiting for Aragorn to react. Deep inside, Aragorn knew that Elrond spoke the truth. The elf, and all of his advisors with him had believed that the Bruinen was a safe border, had never even fathomed that the orcs would dare to cross it. So, Aragorn nodded his head, showing that the understood.
Elrond continued, "I cannot change what happened, Estel, not even the Valar can change the course of time. But, I can influence the future." He took another step closer to Aragorn. "If you let me."
Aragorn was confused, and he shook his head slightly, "And let you do what? The Dunedain already have your offer to help them when they are in need, my Lord."
"No, that is not what I mean, Estel." Elrond said, now so close to Aragon that he could have touched him. "I have made the mistake to not listen to you when you tried to explain to me about the attack. Maybe I should listen to what you try to tell me more closely. To not make another mistake."
Elrond reached out, touching Aragorn's cheek with his fingers. "Do you truly love her, Estel?"
Aragorn did not need to think about his answer, "With all my heart."
An emotion flickered through Elrond's eyes, faster than Aragorn could make it out. The elven Lord removed his fingers, but he did not step back and his voice was soft when he spoke, "So do I. We both only want the best for her, Estel. Let us not make the mistake of hurting her by hurting each other."
Stunned, Aragorn could say nothing for a moment, but it was not necessary. In a movement almost too fast for human eyes to follow, Elrond wrapped his arm around Aragorn's shoulders, holding him close.
"I nearly lost you Estel. And I would not even have had the possibility to say goodbye and to tell you how much I love you….my son."
Suddenly, all the barriers that Aragorn had built up around his heart crumpled, and he hugged his foster father back, "I love you too, ada."
They stayed like this for many minutes, letting their hears finally begin to heal, and when Aragorn rode out of the courtyard that day, he knew that his absence from Imladris would not be as long as he had feared it would be. There was much to do and talk about, not all hurts forgiven and forgotten yet, but the first seeds of healing had been sowed.