This story was originally written for the November 2006 Teitho Contest under a different pen name.
Fall, TA 3002
He should have listened to Legolas.
His latest adventure with the Prince of Mirkwood had left him feeling a little under the weather, and his best friend had wanted him to stay on in Thranduil's Realm for another few nights at least, claiming that the recent turn of colder weather would only exacerbate his illness. Aragorn had of course insisted that, at the esteemed age of seventy-one and as a healer in his own right, he did not need Legolas on hand to mother him through a simple cold. Legolas had reservations (Aragorn often felt that the elf still viewed him as the child he had once been instead of the man he was now), but the argument that he would, for once, actually take the time to rest in Imladris finally won out. Thus Aragorn departed the Woodland Realm on a bright, sunny day beneath a clear blue sky, and despite his sniffles his spirits were high.
That night, it rained.
He knew he should have listened to Legolas.
The gentle spring shower had cleared in time for the next morning's frost, but the rains came back the following night, and stayed with him until he reached the western borders of the forest. (The fact that Aragorn had ridden hard and fast to try and escape the storms had helped greatly in that regard. However, it also meant that the ranger had enjoyed precious little sleep during that particular leg of his journey.) So it was a bright, clear day, if a bit cold, when Aragorn eventually crossed the Anduin at the Old Ford, and his gear had mostly dried by the time he made camp in the foothills of the Misty Mountains, just before the entrance to the High Pass.
Then, it snowed.
Pride be damned, he honestly should have listened to Legolas.
Winter came early in the Misty Mountains, especially in the north, and the first serious snowfall of the season followed Aragorn with the same nagging consistency of Mirkwood's rains. The only positive side to the wretched weather was that it kept the goblins at bay, for not even their ilk would venture forth from their dens in such storms. Aragorn found that he cared little for such small mercies, however, as he and his mare found themselves enmeshed in an epic struggle against an even deadlier foe — the elements. By the time they at last descended into Eriador Aragorn was shivering, coughing, sneezing, and most likely (he guessed) running a fever — not that he could feel it through the aching numbness left by the cold.
The first time Aragorn made camp on ground he hadn't needed to dig to find, he could not for the life of him coax a fire from the wet timber. The snows on the mountains had been chilling rains down in the lower elevations, and everything was cold and wet. This suited him rather wall, Aragorn mused dejectedly, because by then he possessed not a scrap of dry cloth — not even lining the insides of his traveling packs, which was less of a care for his dwindling food supply but spelled disaster for his cache of herbs and bandages.
Seeing how both he and his mare were exhausted from gingerly picking their way through the ever-increasing drifts and with little rest along the way (as stopping during mountain storms often equated consent to being buried alive), Aragorn decided he didn't have the energy or the concentration to hunt for game, and so he resigned himself to a meager dinner of soggy Lembas. Then, being too exhausted to find a suitable campsite and too sick to care, he wrapped his soggy cloak about his equally soggy shoulders, and reclined against the rough, damp trunk of an ancient beech tree.
Just in time for a drizzle to set in.
As the beech did its honest (if inadequate) best to shield him from the rain, Aragorn grumbled aloud that he really ought to have listened to Legolas.
Aragorn had hoped to stay awake for at least part of the night, keeping a lonely watch, but alas, his body had other plans. Instead, he drifted into a fitful sleep; the miserable conditions kept him teetering on the brink of wakefulness when the fever would have pulled him down into the deepest depths of oblivion. In this foggy, un-restful near-slumber, Aragorn dreamed. He dreamed of a warm bed, a warm fire, and warm arms holding him close. The dream was so inviting that his heart was loath to leave it, even when his mind fought for the return to wakefulness, for it was a dream of Arwen and so was the only peace was apt to find along his lonely road.
Aragorn finally woke to a loud clap of thunder, and subsequently found himself sitting in a mud puddle. He swore loudly and long, cursing the weather and a random assortment of Valar in seven languages — Manwë for the storm front, Yavanna for the inadequate cover (which suddenly became a lot more inadequate when the beech tree overheard him), and even Vána the Everyoung, just for being so damned cheerful in all her portraits. When Aragorn finally hauled himself to standing — tripped over an exposed beech root — dragged himself up again, his very next thought was that, perhaps, calling the wife of Oromë the Huntsman a useless prattling gardener, in old Telerin, was not exactly the brightest thing to do.
For now, the woods had eyes.
Slowly, cautiously, Aragorn reached for his bow and quiver. The howling wind was not so much howling now as growling and Aragorn shivered — and not at all from the cold. The pack had managed to surround him while he slept. He did not know how many there were, but he counted at least three sets of sickly, yellow eyes glowing in the rain-swept gloom.
That meant wargs.
Why oh why hadn't he listened to Legolas?
When the first warg leapt Aragorn was ready, and a well-placed arrow felled the beast long before it reached him. The second warg sprung at him a moment later, however, and it drew close enough for Aragorn to get a nosefull of its foul breath before his arrow pierced its heart.
The third warg he didn't even see.
One moment he was readying his bow again, and the next, he was lying face down in the mud. The evil beast had leapt at him from behind, knocking him forward. Now it stood on his back, biting and tearing, searching for the sweet, tender flesh that surely lay just below the soggy coverings. Unfortunately for the warg, it chose to take a choice bite out of Aragorn's quiver. Unfortunately for Aragorn, it snapped all that remained of his arrows in one fell crunch.
The warg howled in rage, and its momentary distraction was all Aragorn needed. He managed to free his trusty boot dagger from its sheath at his ankle and, with an awkward slashing arc above and behind his head, bury the blade in some unseen part of the warg's anatomy. The beast roared and gave up its hard-earned ground atop Aragorn's back. This enabled the ranger to swiftly (ish) shimmy (splash) away. He shot to his feet and scrambled for his sword. When the warg leapt at him again, its own forward momentum did Aragorn's work for him. The warg's great, keening cry sent a spray of spittle into Aragorn's face before it tumbled to the side, its weight wrenching the sword out of the ranger's trembling hands.
As Aragorn stood, shaky yet victorious above the carcasses of his enemies, the growling wind slowly died away. The rest of the pack obviously though better of attacking their chosen pray. With a weary groan, Aragorn stooped to retrieve his sword. He wiped the blade clean on the warg's mangy coat, and then did the same for his dagger. Then he retrieved his bow, and paid a fond farewell to his fallen quiver. He knew that he would need to leave at once, before the wargs regrouped and decided to try again. He hoped that if he left, the fell creatures would choose the flesh of their own fallen to sate their hunger this night, instead of his own still-living hide.
That's when he noticed his horse had run off without him.
At this point, he couldn't even remember why he hadn't just listened to Legolas.
There was nothing else for it. Aragorn had no choice now but to walk. Imladris was at least three days away by foot, and more if the weather continued to hinder him — which Aragorn had every confidence that it would, considering the nature of his luck these days. At least, in his exhaustion, he hadn't bothered with setting up a proper camp, so with his weapons gathered there was nothing left for him to pack. He would be grieved to lose his saddle — he had only just broken it in — but with his packs slung across his back and now injured on top of ill there was no way he could take it with him. Perhaps he could return for it later? If the leather didn't disintegrate from the rains before he remembered to do so.
Feeling more miserable than he ever remembered feeling before (an impressive statement, to be sure) Aragorn shouldered his pack, repositioned his now relatively useless bow (given that he no longer had any arrows to shoot with it), made sure his sword was secure at his hip, and set off on the long, rocky, hilly, winding road home, coughing, sniffling, sneezing, and cursing as he went. If he'd been more in his right mind, it would have occurred to him that a company of orcs employed more stealth than he was currently using, but then, if he'd been more in his right mind, he would have reasoned that his mare would run straight to Imladris, which would spark a search party for her errant rider, and so otherwise he wouldn't have been interested in stealth anyway because he wanted nothing more in that moment than to be found and offered a ride home in the safe company of his father's soldiers — even the unfriendly ones.
Aragorn didn't know how much time had passed, only that it was now light out (or barely so, given the low, threatening clouds), and that he'd been walking for longer than he remembered ever having walked before, and for one also known by the moniker of 'Strider', that certainly was saying something.
Mostly about his deteriorating health.
As each shuffling step sent sharp spikes of pain through his shoulder and down his spine, thoughts of Legolas tormented him with every ragged breath, poking at his mind like an impatient child in tune with the staccato hammer-strikes inside his skull. Legolas had been right. He had been a fool. Legolas had offered good advice. He had been stubborn and prideful. Why had he been so insistent that he leave immediately? He missed his home and family, true, but what had made the thought of a few days' convalescence in Mirkwood so unappealing? Aragorn liked Mirkwood, or at least the parts where elves lived, and Legolas was his best friend. Why then had he been so keen to leave? Whatever his reasoning it had long since escaped him, and trying to recall it now was an aggravating pastime, but at least it kept him alert enough to put one foot in front of the other. And so Aragorn's ailing memory helped to haul his ailing body along the road. If he did not rest until he had the answer, then surely he would not falter until he reached Imladris.
To his weary, fevered mind, it was a good plan.
Fortunately, the Valar were in a forgiving mood.
It had grown dark again, and some time ago, but still Aragorn trudged on. He knew this stretch of road well enough to walk it in his sleep, and by now he was almost at the point of testing that assumption. Yet though his senses were dulled in the haze of pain and perpetual confusion that kept him on his feet they were not gone, and even a child would have been able to detect the sudden aroma of roasting… something… drifting on the chilly night breeze. Once the scent roused Aragorn from his ambling stupor it did not take him long to spy the faint, flickering light of a campfire some ways away from the main road, conveniently located upwind.
Now Aragorn saw two options: he could continue on his journey and pass unnoticed, or he could approach the campsite. He had no way of knowing what he'd find sitting around that campfire, and hence there was a decent measure of risk in revealing himself, especially injured, ill, and alone. The roads were decidedly unsafe these days, with more unsavory sorts traveling in greater numbers than ever before. However, they could also be simple travelers, or even other rangers (this he doubted, though still acknowledged the possibility). Men, elves, and dwarves all used this road after all, and his odds of an innocent encounter were just as likely.
Yet even as he purported to give equal weight to his options, Aragorn already felt hope warring with despair within his heart, for there was really only one choice he could make. His healer's mind told him that he was ill; actually, it told him that he was seriously ill, and his encounter with the wargs had not left him unscathed. He had not felt them then, but there were wounds in his left shoulder and upon his back, left by either the warg's claws or by its fangs, and they needed to be cleaned and treated if he hoped to stave off infection (which was probably a foregone conclusion anyway, given his weakened state and the nasty nature of warg-inflicted injuries). There was no way he would make it another day and a half without stopping to rest, and with the fever he knew had taken hold in him, a decision to rest alone just might be the last he ever made. If continuing alone held great probability that he would die, then he was willing to chance approaching whoever had started the fire. Aragorn loosened the sword at his hip even though he knew that in his current state he would be easy prey for even the most inexperienced of brigands, and he turned off the road and made for the campsite with a bizarre mixture of confidence and caution.
When Aragorn drew close enough to gain an unobstructed view of the campsite he stopped short, and only belatedly realized that it would be prudent to duck out of sight behind a tree. From there, he observed the individual who was busy with whatever was sizzling on a camp skillet that smelt divinely. At first he took the small individual for a dwarf or even a human child, but then he noticed that the camp held only gear and bedding for one, which all but ruled out the latter. The former he dismissed as soon as he got a decent look at the individual's face, for it was beardless. Furthermore, he realized with a start, it was a face he recognized.
Aragorn didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until he saw the hobbit jump to his feet, walking stick in one hand and a short sword (or would that be a long sword?) in the other.
"Ai! Who goes there?" Bilbo Baggins, arguably the most famous hobbit in all of Arda, took a few cautious steps to the edge of his campsite, his keen eyes striving to pierce the darkness and find whoever called his name. That someone had recognized him wasn't so startling — for a hobbit he was quite very well known, after all — but then he hadn't recognized the voice and furthermore, whoever it was hadn't stepped forward to make himself known; two points that were quite troubling indeed. "I know you're out there," Bilbo warned, "so you might as well come out and present yourself!"
Thus caught, Aragorn had no choice but to oblige. He stepped out from behind the tree and brought his hands up and spread his palms in the tradition posture of parley, demonstrating that he was not a threat to the hobbit. He approached slowly, not wanting to frighten his one-time childhood acquaintance, until he drew close enough at last for his features to be defined by the firelight.
"Peace, my good hobbit," Aragorn entreated.
Bilbo's eyes went wide when he caught a good look at the man who approached, but then they narrowed in skepticism and appraisal.
"I mean you no harm." Aragorn hoped that he sounded reassuring.
"You wear the star of the Dúnedain," Bilbo said at last, his voice just as shrewd as his glance.
Aragorn bowed slightly, both for the stiffness of his muscles at the task and for his reluctance to make any sudden moves, and brought one hand to cover his heart, just below the seven-pointed star pinned to his cloak that gave him away. "I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and yes, the Dúnedain are my people."
"Aragorn?" Bilbo blinked, cocking his head slightly as though taken aback. "Aragorn…" His face was scrunched up as he repeated the word, tasting it on his tongue and trying to discern why it was so familiar. Then suddenly his eyes widened, alit with recognition at last. "Aragorn! Not only a ranger but the captain of the rangers! Oh I do beg your pardon, but a lone hobbit can't be too careful when roaming about in the wilderness, but the capt — er, ah — chieftain! Yes, that's it. The chieftain of the rangers is certainly to be counted as a friend. Well then, what can I do for you, Aragorn son of Arathorn?"
By the time Bilbo finished speaking Aragorn was doing his best not to laugh, but he sobered some when called to task. "The night is cold and long for travelers upon a lonely road. If you would have me, I seek only permission to warm my tired bones beside your fire."
At this the hobbit laughed; a hearty, delighted sound. "What? Is that all? Of course you can share my fire! I know all about what you rangers do and all, how your kin takes the trouble to guard mine, keeping our Shire nice and safe from the evils of the world. I'd be happy to welcome you — here or anywhere else. Count it towards a debt that can never be repaid."
Bilbo spoke so emphatically and with a great wealth of sincerity bubbling beneath the good humor in his voice that Aragorn could not help but smile in genuine gratitude. "Le hannon," he said, his hand still fixed above his heart as he inclined his head in Elven fashion.
"You're quite welcome my good man," Bilbo replied around a pleased grin. "Oh, ah, what's the phrase for 'you're welcome' again? Oh, fiddlesticks, there must be something… Ah!" He punctuated the sudden thought with his index finger. "Elen síla lumenn' omentielvo! There, did I say that right? I doubt it was perfect — my accent is truly atrocious these days. I'll need to work on that, once I get back to Rivendell that is."
"You're bound for Rivendell?" Aragorn asked, completely forgetting Bilbo's question in favor of this new revelation.
"That I am. A wonderful place is Rivendell, and Lord Elrond has been gracious enough to allow me to, well, retire isn't quite the word I would choose — I should say I'm hardly ready for retirement! But the peace of Rivendell calls to me and I should like to stay there for a while. Perhaps for the remainder of my days."
"I know what you mean about peace. The House of Elrond calls to me also; it has been too long since I have been home."
Bilbo blinked. "Home?" Then suddenly his bewildered look warmed into realization. "Aragorn! Oh dear me, where's my head gone to these days? Here I am going on and on about Rivendell and who am I babbling to? Why none other than Lord Elrond's youngest! Estel my boy, how have you been? It's wonderful to see you again!" It was here that Bilbo finally decided to close the polite distance between them. He started towards Aragorn and then noticed that his sword and staff still hung forgotten in his idle hands. These he cast hastily aside with an inarticulate mutter before continuing on his way.
"Though hardly a boy anymore, are you," he concluded as he clasped Aragorn's hand in both of his, which hung roughly at eye level for the hobbit. He had to tilt his head back considerably in order to peer up into the ranger's face. "Why I do believe you've surpassed your father now in height, but come! Come, come to my fire and sit a spell." He eagerly tugged on Aragorn's hand, and the ranger allowed himself to be led to the fallen log that Bilbo had been using as a bench.
"Come on, sit! Rest! Take a load off! Let the fire warm your bones — it's been dreadfully chilly these past few days, hasn't it? Just dreadful, and damp too. Not pleasant weather at all. I'd much rather enjoy it from indoors with a nice cup of tea, myself. Do you like tea? I do believe I have some…" Bilbo's voice drifted as he began rifling through one of his packs. "Ah! Here we go then." He pulled out a small pouch, which he then unbound and allowed a small handful of assorted leaves to tumble into his palm. He smiled at the collection for a moment, but then he shrugged and slid them back into the pouch. Then he busied himself readying a small kettle, but in the way of hobbits he kept up his running chatter as he did so.
"Well, it's not real tea of course. I ran out a while back, but I've gathered some herbs in the course of my travels — just stuff I found growing here and there, along the road or where I camped. I recognized their look from old Hamfast's garden. That would be Hamfast Gamgee of course, best gardener in all of Hobbiton if you ask me. His wife Bell was something of an herbalist — took all kinds of plants and barks and things and made the most delectable infusions you've ever tasted. Can't compare to real honest to goodness tea of course, but then, not everyone can afford real honest to goodness tea around these parts, can they? Ha!"
Aragorn, from where he sat (or rather, squatted) atop the log, tried his best to follow Bilbo's movements and to pay attention to what the hobbit added to the kettle, but he soon found that his muzzy head couldn't follow both Bilbo's hand and Bilbo's words at the same time and so, for the sake of politeness, he decided to focus solely on the conversation and trust that the hobbit wasn't about to poison him. This wasn't so hard to accomplish however, given the Shire-folk's reputation as excellent cooks.
"There now," said Bilbo as he set the kettle by the fire, filled with water from his waterskin and laced with whatever herbal concoction he had formulated from his cache. "We'll have a lovely brew for dinner — ah! Dinner!" Bilbo scrambled to his skillet, which had been smoking quite a bit the last minute or so. He jounced the skillet in his hand to slide the contents around before poking at them with a wooden spoon. "Oh, well, not as bad as I feared," he admitted, both sheepish and relieved. "Our mushrooms will be a bit crisp, but I've got just the solution for that." He reached into some hidden pocket and produced a small silver flask. He uncorked it, took a whiff, and shot a conspiring glance at Aragorn.
"Dorwinion cognac; I traded my spare broach for it in Dale. Now I'm glad I've rationed it!" Bilbo poured a generous amount of the liquor onto the skillet, which began to sizzle and smoke anew. He stirred everything with the wooden spoon and then brought the skillet away from the heat of the fire. "There, that should do it. Put a bit of moisture back in these things. If you grab your plate — you do have a plate in that pack of yours, yes? If you grab your plate I'll serve you a nice helping of Baggins' famous grilled mushrooms — now just a little extra famous, wouldn't you say?" Bilbo put a finger to his nose and winked.
It took Aragorn a moment to realize that Bilbo was waiting for him to hand over his plate, and then it took a moment longer for him to remember that he did in fact have one with him. It was stowed somewhere in the bottom of his pack, which was still strapped to his back. He'd forgotten all about it, in the surprise of meeting Bilbo and then in the commotion of being welcomed to the fireside. Now he shrugged the pack off his shoulders, entirely unable to suppress the wince as it passed over his injuries. He swung it down in front of him and spent a minute digging through his damp belongings until he found the appropriate bundle. This he pulled out and unraveled, revealing a simple tin dinner plate, mug, two-pronged fork, and a wooden spoon.
"You rangers are prepared for everything, aren't you," Bilbo appraised dryly. "Give me your plate then." He snatched the item in question from Aragorn's lax hands while the man was still thinking of a response to his previous statement, rendering it moot. "There you go. I do hope you don't mind, I've nothing else to go with it. I've been living a simple life out here, I'm afraid. And all my bread got ruined in last night's rains. Unfortunately this is all there is." Just then the kettle whistled. "Oh! And tea."
Bilbo passed Aragorn's plate back to him loaded with mushrooms lately sautéed in the Dorwinion cognac. Its tantalizing aroma reached him even through his stuffed nose, and he inhaled deeply. Indeed, Aragorn was so focused on the impending meal that he didn't even notice when Bilbo swiped his mug and filled it with the piping hot brew from his kettle.
Bilbo startled him, and Aragorn nearly dropped his plate. He accepted the mug with a sheepish grin and then set it aside, its contents still too hot to drink.
"Well then, I think we're all set here, at least with dinner anyhow. I do hope you like it. Very simple fixings, I know, but it should do for camp food, at any rate."
"My thanks," Aragorn said sincerely. "Without your hospitality — and your ingenuity — I fear that I would have gone hungry tonight."
Bilbo balked at that. "What? A ranger go hungry? You don't need to go exaggerating things on my account. My food and my fire are small recompense for all the trouble you've gone through for my ever-so-ignorant fellow hobbits. And besides, after over a week on the road alone I am quite glad for your company."
"In that case I regret that I was not exaggerating, for now your honorable intentions have been reduced to humble charity. You may blame the snows in the High Pass for the sorry state in which you found me, for they provided enough of a delay for my food supply to dwindle to naught."
"There's snow in the High Pass now?" Bilbo's voice showed incredulous disbelief, even though he took Aragorn's word without question. "And early this year, too."
Aragorn nodded. "Be thankful that you weren't caught out in it."
"Oh I am, laddie. I'm am, at that. We Bagginses love the snow, but only on our own terms."
"So too do we rangers," Aragorn agreed with due chagrin, and Bilbo laughed.
"Well, don't let me talk your ear off all night — go on and eat your supper!"
Aragorn grinned his thanks, but didn't need to be told twice. After not eating anything in nearly twenty-four hours he was famished, and he tore into the mushrooms with enthusiasm enough to make Bilbo laugh in appreciation.
"If I knew you liked my cooking so much I would have invited you out to Bag End long ago. Perhaps then you could have talked some sense into Frodo. He kept insisting that I don't know how to properly sauté. I swear, the only time the lad and I ever had a scrap of a disagreement was when one of us was cooking."
Aragorn forced himself to swallow. "Frodo?" he asked, his mouth still full enough to test the boundaries of propriety. Thankfully Bilbo didn't mind.
"My nephew. I adopted him after his parents died — well, a short while after his parents died, at any rate. He lived with his mother's family in Brandy Hall for a bit first — his mother having been Primula Brandybuck. I'm related to him through his father Drogo, who was a grandson of old Largo Baggins, a great-uncle of mine. So he's not really my nephew after all, but that's a lot easier to reckon than 'paternal second cousin once removed.'" Bilbo sighed fondly, shaking his head. "He's master of Bag End now; my sole heir. Everything of mine is his now."
"It was good of you to take him in." Aragorn said knowingly.
Bilbo nodded, wistful for a moment before smiling at Aragorn. "That's something the two of you would have in common then, isn't it. Though I must admit I never quite saw myself as the parental sort, but then there was Frodo, and he was enough. Actually, he was more than enough, quite a bit of the time. But then children should be expected to be a handful — shows they have character! In fact, I seem to recall a certain, strapping young lad who ran afoul of his tutor by being far more interested in memorizing a Dwarven marching song than his multiplication tables."
A decidedly pink flush blossomed on Aragorn's cheeks and drifted up to his ears. "Erestor was not pleased with me."
"I daresay he wasn't!" Bilbo agreed. "The same could be said of your mother, I'm sure, when she learned the translation. I do hope you grew out of that rebellious streak, Aragorn. I'd hate to think that you spent the better part of your adolescence writing lines and dusting the tomes in the library."
Aragorn had the good graces to laugh. "Trust me, that was one lesson I did not soon forget." Now Aragorn finally set aside his empty dinner plate, having all but licked it clean. "My thanks again for this feast. Is there a stream nearby? When the pots are cool I should like to wash our gear."
Bilbo frowned. "Now what kind of host would I be if I let the guest do the dishes?" His tone held a familiar note of impatience, and one that proved his claim to parenthood. "No, no, you sit tight and drink your tea. I'll take care of it."
Aragorn gave a thought to protesting, but then he decided that as adamant as Bilbo was, to protest would be akin to insulting his host, which he certainly did not wish to do. Instead he dutifully reached for his mug, its contents now cool enough to drink. He sniffed it once, but to his chagrin his illness had reduced his nose to merely decoration for his face. He took a test sip, but without his sense of smell any nuances of flavor were lost to him. It was strong and bitter and reminded him a bit of the brews Lord Elrond would force him to take whenever he was ill. Seeing that he was in fact ill at this very moment, Aragorn forced himself to drain the mug, hoping that it would do him some measure of good.
"Did you like it?" Bilbo asked, his tone hopeful. "There's more where it came from."
"What of your cup?"
"Oh, don't worry about me. I over-steeped it I'm afraid — shouldn't have put the herbs in until the water boiled. Anyway it's a bit too strong for my tastes. I'd rather settle in with my pipe instead."
With Bilbo's permission Aragorn poured the remainder of the kettle into his cup. He drank it quickly as it was already going tepid, making its bitterness more pronounced. He'd finished the mug by the time Bilbo had fumbled through the right series of pockets to unearth both his pipe and his pipeweed, and by the time the hobbit was blowing idle smoke rings Aragorn was pleased to discover that something in the tea must have loosened his nasal passages because he could actually smell the musky, earthy scent of the burning leaf.
"I don't suppose you smoke," Bilbo said around the stem of his pipe.
"I've sampled some on Gandalf's pipe, but he was always keen to not allow me to make a habit out of it, out of respect for the elves who must 'endure my company.'"
Biblo's nodded. "Doesn't want to get you in trouble with your father, eh?" Then that conspiring smile returned. "Or perhaps he doesn't want to get himself in trouble with your father."
Aragorn laughed but didn't comment, and Bilbo shook his head. They drifted into companionable silence for a while, Bilbo smoking his pipe and Aragorn staring languidly into the fire, his thoughts just as elusive as the smoke that swirled and faded before his eyes. Though there was a chill in his hands and in his feet he felt uncomfortably warm and knew that the fever was putting down deeper roots within him. His head felt heavy with sleep, though the pounding had lessened some for the tea, as the brew had cleared his sinuses somewhat as well as eased his breathing.
Startled, the ranger looked up sharply. Bilbo had obviously been trying to get his attention for a while now.
"You still here, lad?" Undercurrents of concern swirled inside the hobbit's tone.
"Not entirely, I'm afraid," Aragorn confessed on the heels of a sigh. "My apologies."
"Had a long day, did you?"
Aragorn nodded, repressing a grimace. "Many of them."
"Well, why don't you turn in then," Bilbo suggested. "Actually, I should be trotting off to sleep myself soon. I want an early start tomorrow, which I'm sure goes for you, too."
"That would be well," Aragorn agreed, the mere thought of sleep already causing his limbs to grow heavy. His arms felt like wet sandbags when he reached up to unfasten his broach, but when he tried to shrug out of his cloak he was reminded painfully of his injuries, as the damp fabric had stuck to the healing tears in his flesh and by pulling the cloak away he had reopened them.
"What's the matter there?" he heard Bilbo ask. Obviously the hobbit had heard his hiss of pain, and seen the sharp wince that accompanied it.
"Oh, it's nothing," Aragorn dismissed, embarrassed to have his weakness discovered by the infamously resilient Bilbo Baggins.
And the hobbit didn't believe him.
"Nothing, eh? I think I'll be the judge of that." Bilbo crossed the campsite and came to stand beside where Aragorn sat, though with the log and his considerable height the ranger was still head and shoulders taller than the hobbit. Therefore it was quite remarkable that Bilbo was able to effectually stare down at Aragorn while staring up at him. Seeing a spirited lad through his teens and tweens had obviously given Bilbo a keen handle on obstinate youth. "All right then, let me see it."
Aragorn had no choice but to submit to the hobbit's ministrations, though he was grateful that by having to show Bilbo his back he was able to avoid meeting his eyes. If he thought it peculiar that he should show such diffidence to Bilbo he would have chalked it up to having clear memories of an adult hobbit's patient indulgence of a small boy who'd never seen his like before. Yet Aragorn didn't have time for such thoughts, as he was too busy biting down on his cry of pain when Bilbo lifted the back of his tunic.
"This is one nasty bit of nothing," Bilbo admonished sternly. "What have you been into, lad?"
"A pack of wargs wanted to make a meal of me last night," Aragorn explained. "I talked them out of it."
"Not easily," Bilbo huffed. "These'll need to be cleaned. Some of them look infected."
"That's apt to happen with wargs," Aragorn admitted while Bilbo bustled around, looking for a water skin. He found one soon enough, and then brought out a handkerchief from yet another pocket. The initials 'BB' were embroidered on one corner, and Aragorn was ashamed that they would soon be smeared with his blood.
"No you can't. Not unless you've got eyes in the back of your skull."
Just then the sting of the damp rag meeting the tears in his flesh stifled any future protests. He submitted to the hobbit's well-meaning torture, bearing the pain by counting prime numbers in Quenya — the fruit of another of Erestor's 'punishments.'
"Well, I think I've done the best I can, though I wish I had something to bind them with. Your tunic will just stick to the wounds again, and I'm afraid they'll tear while you sleep."
"I suppose I must sleep on my stomach then," Aragorn concluded, though by now he was honestly too tired to care.
"That would probably be best," Bilbo agreed. "Well, you go ahead and make yourself comfortable. I'm going to see to our dishes — and to our supply of firewood."
Aragorn was barely able to summon the energy to nod as he spread his damp bedroll on the ground next to the fire. Then he positioned his pack to serve as an equally damp pillow and pulled his cloak up so that it rested across his lower back, just below the garish claw marks. He was asleep before Bilbo had even finished gathering their dinnerware.
When Bilbo returned from the nearby pool where he'd scrubbed their plates and pots, he tossed the remainder of the tinder on the fireplace. There he stopped for a moment to admire the sudden dance of sparks and bask in the rush of heat as the new wood caught flame before turning his attention to his own bedroll. Before he finally turned in he cast one final glance at Aragorn. The man seemed to be resting peacefully, though the flush to his cheeks worried the hobbit. It was a good thing they were close to Rivendell, he reckoned, because the lad could really use his father's care.
Aragorn blinked in the dappled sunlight that fell through the treetops and splashed his face. The brightness hurt his eyes and he groaned, rolling over in attempts to shield them.
"Good, you're up." Bilbo was already flitting about the camp, stoking the fire and setting a new kettle to boil. His bedroll was already stowed away. "I'm afraid I don't have much to offer in the way of breakfast. Just more tea."
Aragorn stifled another groan. He had slept fitfully, his rest troubled by dreams that lingered behind his eyelids upon waking, just beyond his grasp. His eyes still hurt from the assault of sunlight, though by now that acute ache had dulled some and spread to the rest of his head. He was thirsty though and so his tongue welcomed the thought of tea, even though his stomach seemed mildly pessimistic about the prospect.
"Vinyárë mae govannen," he muttered as he sat up, though his attempt at stretching was stifled by the sudden spikes of pain that shot through his shoulder and back. The muscles had stiffened during the night, and worse, the skin felt tight and hot. The wounds were definitely infected.
"Your back again?" Bilbo asked as he gave Aragorn a critical eye. The man was reclining on his elbow, and though his skin was pale his cheeks were flushed, and sweat beaded upon on brow. His tight expression spoke of pain.
"I—" Aragorn bit back a gasp as he tried once more to achieve a more vertical position. "I just may require your help again, my friend."
"Of course," Bilbo agreed, his voice warm and friendly and striving perhaps a bit too boldly for nonchalance. Experience taught the hobbit to be a light sleeper, and he'd spent the night drifting in and out of slumber. Several times he'd sat and watched, both fascinated and fretful, as Aragorn tossed and turned in the grips of some chimera or other that haunted his sleep. Sometimes he mumbled half-formed words in one of the Elven tongues — usually Quenya, though there was a bit of Sindarin mixed in — adar, for example, passed the man's lips more than once. Bilbo had only understood every third word or so, for which he was secretly grateful. It was hard enough seeing Aragorn as anything other than the skilled, confident ranger he'd heard everyone from Gandalf to Glorfindel spin epic tales of; hearing bright-eyed, exuberant Estel calling out for the comfort of his father in the midst of a fever dream nearly proved too much for the old hobbit to bear.
Aragorn forced his muscles to obey his bidding and he managed to sit up straight in order to allow Bilbo to clean his wounds again. He bit back a familiar cry as the hobbit lifted his tunic, but this time he couldn't quite halt the high-pitched yip that rose in the back of his throat, nor the sudden tremor caused by the fresh onslaught of pain.
However, Bilbo was too busy with his own stifled cry to really notice the ranger's plight, though the hobbit's reaction was one of alarm.
The use of his childhood name snagged in Aragorn's foggy mind as the pain receded to more tolerable levels. "It's bad, isn't it," he hedged, though he couldn't quite unclench his jaw.
"The infection's reached your blood," Bilbo said, forcing his voice to remain steady. "You need your father's skills now, and nothing short of it."
"I thought as much," Aragorn admitted. "I'll need to treat it here somewhat, before I can travel." Though his teeth still didn't unclench — and Bilbo wondered if perhaps that was to prevent his teeth from chattering, as cold bumps began to form on the man's exposed skin despite the fever. The flush crept up from Aragorn's cheeks and sat atop his ears, suggesting that embarrassment was at least partially to blame, and that gave Bilbo his cue.
And right on cue, he cursed. In Dwarfish.
Startled, and for once thoroughly distracted from his plight, Aragorn blinked. "I don't believe I've heard that one."
"That's because you've never asked a dwarf for his opinion of the Woodland King," Bilbo grumbled, though voicing his answer had been secondary to the mental berating he was treating himself to at the moment. "Of all the stupid, ninnyhammered, ill-fortuned…" and the hobbit's voice trailed again, this time into a Dwarfish insult Aragorn recognized. He even managed to arch an eyebrow, which promptly set Bilbo's face reddening in turn.
"I used the last of the water for this morning's tea," Bilbo explained in a voice laced with frustration. "There's not one sorry drop left!"
Aragorn, however, was still confused. "Where did you fill the kettle?"
"From out water skins. There was nice, deep puddle of rainwater I found amidst some stones nearby, but I used it to rinse our dishes and now the water's spoilt." Bilbo was nearly to the point of wringing his hands in agitation.
"Surely there must be other puddles…"
"Not a one. It's all gone to mud now, dried up during the night. Of all the rotten times for the weather to take a good turn!"
Aragorn sighed, though he did his best to stifle it before the effort of it set his muscles to twitching again. "You'll just have to use the tea then."
"Are you sure?"
"You boiled the water, didn't you?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"Then that's the best it's going to get."
Aragorn was right. There was nothing else for it. With a defeated sigh Bilbo retrieved the kettle from the fireside. Then he pulled a clean handkerchief from a trouser pocket, this one pristinely devoid of monograms. He poured a bit of tea, which was warm but not scaldingly so, onto the handkerchief, and then took the sodden handkerchief to Aragorn's back.
"This is probably going to sting a bit," he warned, though he correctly suspected that Aragorn had already known that.
Aragorn had tensed, barely restraining the flinch he wasn't even aware he had the energy for. His hands wound into the fabric of his bedroll and his face, safely out of Bilbo's view, scrunched up in pain. It was slow going, cleaning off the hardened crust of infection from the numerous claw marks, both large and small. Bilbo found himself wincing in sympathy while forcing his mind not to think of the young boy who had asked him once, quite shyly, why his mother allowed him to go running around without any shoes on.
Finally the pragmatist in Bilbo decided that speed was in greater demand than a gentle touch. "You know, this would probably go a lot faster if I poured the tea onto your back directly."
Aragorn winced at the very thought of it. By that point he was having trouble deciding if the pain was keeping him lucid through his fever, or if the fever was dulling the pain enough so that he wouldn't pass out. "I'm ready," he said, and though his voice was husky it didn't waver.
Bilbo held the kettle above Aragorn's shoulder, where the worst of the gashes lie, when he was struck with a sudden though. "There's no call to impress here, you know. I've seen the hardiest dwarves cry over hangnails, and have you ever heard Gandalf when he accidentally burns himself with the ash from his pipe? I wonder if even Lord Elrond would recognize half the languages he curses in!" They were exaggerations of course, but they served their purpose well. When Bilbo poured the tea on Aragorn's back a moment later the ranger gasped, the pain too overwhelming in that moment to allow for any real sound. As the handkerchief began its passes anew, shredding dead, infected skin and letting the wounds drain, Aragorn didn't try to muffle his cries, though his parched throat reduced them to keening moans and gasping whines, and tears of pain pricked his fever-bright eyes.
"That should do it," Bilbo said softly when he was finished. However, he was loath to drop Aragorn's tunic back down over the man's injuries. "We should probably take this off," he said, giving the tunic a slight tug to convey his meaning.
By now Aragorn was nearly insensate, though as the hobbit's ministrations ceased the pain gradually faded in waves of exhausted release that left his muscles twitching. Through that haze he nodded jerkily, and then it was an easy thing for Bilbo to tear the tunic open down the back, as it was already more torn than whole anyway.
"Think we should leave the rest to keep your front warm?" Bilbo asked him.
Aragorn, who had been taking deep breaths in efforts to recover himself, shook his head no. "It would only get in the way," he rasped, his voice a hoarse whisper.
"Here." Bilbo poured the last drops from the kettle into his own tin cup. "You need water, but this'll have to do."
Aragorn downed it swiftly, not caring for the tepidness or the bitter taste, only that it was liquid and as such would ease his throat. His hand was mostly steady when he passed the cup back to Bilbo.
"All right then. Let's see about breaking camp, shall we? We've a long way to travel yet, and the sooner the better." Bilbo used his sturdy hobbit feet to snuff their campfire while Aragorn struggled to his hands and knees and forced his arms to cooperate long enough to roll his bedroll and to shove it back into the bottom of his pack. His clean dinnerware followed suit. Bilbo soon stood with his pack shouldered, sword secured at his hip, and walking stick in hand. Aragorn, for his part, had managed to secure his own sword, but he was staring forlornly at his bow and pack, which he seriously doubted he could carry all the way to Imladris.
"Oh dear," said Bilbo, clearly picking up on Aragorn's thoughts. "We'll have to stash your pack somewhere. You'll be lucky if you can carry yourself all the way to Rivendell, and you sure don't need its extra weight dragging you down. I could hold on to your bow though, if you're not too terribly keen on parting with it."
Aragorn was forced to admit that Bilbo was right. They left his pack hidden in the scrub brush nearby, and then Bilbo swung the ranger's short bow across his shoulders, and on his small frame it was then a longbow.
"Well Estel, do you still remember that Dwarven marching song?"
As a matter of fact, he did.
They sang it all morning as they walked, or rather, Bilbo sang it after he memorized the verses he didn't know. Aragorn merely focused on putting one foot in front of the other, grateful that Bilbo's short legs set a pace his body could handle. All the while they kept a look out for sources of fresh water. Unfortunately in this nice, bright, sunshiny day all the puddles had dried. They were on the hunt for a stream then, and they didn't find one until the sun had nearly reached her zenith.
"I should probably wash your back again," Bilbo ventured after they'd both drunk their fill and replenished their water skins.
Aragorn didn't bother to halt the dejected sigh. His back and shoulder had taken half the morning to calm down from the trauma they received, and now that the agony had receded some his wounds actually felt much better. The heat and stiffness had lessened considerably. Bilbo took the sigh and the following silence as acquiescence on the ranger's part, and when he removed yet another handkerchief from yet another pocket, this one blue and trimmed in green embroidery, Aragorn actually laughed.
"I'd love to know what's so funny," said Bilbo with dry humor as he wet the handkerchief in the stream. For all his purported bravado he was really still quite squeamish, and he dreaded the prospect of causing Aragorn more pain, even for the man's own good.
"Just how many handkerchiefs do you conceal on your person at one time?" Aragorn asked in return, grateful for the distraction from the coming pain.
"You can never have too many handkerchiefs," Bilbo explained quite seriously. "Never know when one might come in handy."
Aragorn could only smile and shake his head, his body already bracing against what was to come. Yet when Bilbo took the handkerchief to his flesh this time, the frigidity of the water had Aragorn gasping in shock. He didn't get much farther than that, as the cold numbed the pain considerably. Not only that, but his wounds didn't require nearly as much attention.
"Well now, these don't look quite so bad as last time," Bilbo mused when he was done and the skin of Aragorn's back was red from the cold. "I think the walking must have drained them some."
What he failed to mention were the reddish-purple lines, bruises like branches of angry lightning that arced across Aragorn's back and attested to the infection in his blood. Even as his hand lingered he felt the fever radiating heat through the chilled, clammy surface of the man's skin where it had felt the bite of the water. With a weary sigh he brought a hand around and felt Aragorn's forehead.
"You're burning up, lad. You know that, don't you."
"There's nothing for it," Aragorn admitted, resigned. "I've seen naught of any herbs that would help along our path."
"Life never gets to be easy, does it?"
Aragorn shook his head. "Not in Arda Marred."
Bilbo sighed again, bobbing his head in a tired nod. "What was it you said this morning?"
"When you woke up, you said something Elvish. I didn't catch all of it. Govannen something-or-other."
"Vinyárë mae govannen?"
"That's it! What does it mean?"
Aragorn snorted a laugh. "It means 'good morning.'"
Bilbo frowned. "You're joking."
"No joke. It's a greeting to the new sunrise. Glorfindel would say it every morning when I had sword practice at dawn."
Now it was Bilbo's turn to laugh. "That sounds like something he would say." He shook his head dismissively, the laughter fading to a sigh. "Come on then. We've still got a ways to go yet."
They walked until dusk.
Or rather, Bilbo walked until dusk. Aragorn walked, and then stumbled, and finally was mostly dragging his feet in long scuffing motions, bracing his hands against random tree trunks as he passed to keep from falling over. He finished his water skin hours ago and was now more than halfway through Bilbo's, though with his fever he wasn't quite aware that the crafty hobbit had switched skins on him. The ranger thought he had become the genius of rationing.
Finally, as the sun dipped below the tree line in the west, Bilbo called a halt to their day's progress. Aragorn's fever had only gotten worse as they went along, and the streaks of blood poisoning, which had almost seemed to have stopped at lunchtime, had spread even farther across the man's back. Though he was loath to admit it (even to himself), Bilbo had progressed from fearing for Aragorn's health up to fearing for his very life. There was another stream here, which was why Bilbo chose it as a stopping place. Aragorn was going take an ice-cold bath, whether he wanted one or not.
It would be much easier on both of them if he wanted one.
He was just about to broach the subject when a chilling sound tore through the twilit glade. Was it a howl? A growl? Both?
Aragorn, who seemed to be nearly asleep where he sat, snapped instantly alert, though his eyes remained in the glaze of fever.
"What's that?" Bilbo asked fearfully.
Aragorn's voice was remarkably steady when he answered. "The wargs."
"I thought you said you talked them out of trying to eat you," Bilbo reminded him.
"That was then," the ranger mused as he forced himself up to unsteady feet, sword already in hand. Bilbo swiftly followed suit, though he seemed to study the blade for a minute in puzzlement before abandoning whatever though he might have had. Meanwhile the howling, growling twilight seemed to close in on them as the shadows came alive.
"All right," Bilbo said, a shrug effected in his voice. "What's the plan?"
"Than plan is you are going to run, and not stop until all you hear are crickets."
"And what about you?" Bilbo asked. For all his grand adventures, he hadn't quite lost the innocence of the Shire.
"I'll do the best I can to buy you time."
"Make for Rivendell. Hopefully my horse made it home and a patrol has already been sent to find me."
By now Bilbo noticed that Aragorn held his sword in one hand and a wicked-looking dagger in the other. His eyes were still bright with fever but there was a cold glint in them now, the steely fire of determination, giving Aragorn a manic look that would have frightened even Bilbo had he not known better. As it was, he was too focused on his indignation to pay much attention to it.
"Now wait just a minute! You can't really expect me to leave you here. And what would you have me say to your father when I saw him — greetings Lord Elrond, you'll be pleased to know that Erebor is doing well, Beorn says hello, and oh by the way I left your youngest son to die by the river?"
As if to punctuate that thought a rumbling growl interrupted their conversation.
"I expect Bilbo Dragonbane to know when it's more prudent to save the fighting for another day."
"And I expect Estel Elrondion to know when to listen to his elders."
Aragorn sighed, though the sound was swallowed by the growling night air. "Get behind me then," he directed tiredly, resigned. Bilbo saw that his muscles were already twitching form the effort of holding his sword, and he was incredulous.
"I won't hide behind you!"
"I don't want you to hide," Aragorn retorted. "If you insist on staying then you're going to guard my back."
Bilbo was sheepish. "Oh. Right. Yes, well, I can do that too."
By now there were definite shapes to the menacing shadows, and every so often a set of yellow eyes shone through the gloom.
"Are you ready?"
Bilbo didn't have time to answer because in that moment the wargs leapt upon them. He saw Aragorn raise his sword out of the corner of his eye as he brought Sting to bear, its silver blade gleaming wickedly in the dusky twilight. With an inarticulate shout that may have been a hasty prayer to Elbereth Bilbo slashed wildly at the air in front of him, which was very nearly filled with warg. Sting slid along the beast's thick hide, tracing a long, shallow cut as the warg desperately turned to the side to avoid impaling itself completely.
The warg stumbled away, bleeding but still on its feet. Bilbo brought Sting up again, fear and adrenaline at war within him, but before he could decide whether or not to stand his ground or to press his advantage the warg suddenly stumbled again, this time falling completely to the ground. Bilbo blinked in surprise.
There was an arrow embedded in its neck.
The hobbit looked up in surprise just in time to see a company of Elven soldiers descend on the glade, bows drawn and arrows flying. In the midst of the chaos he laughed in heady relief — for the split second before he remembered Aragorn. He found the ranger sitting down, a dead warg at his feet and another by his side, though the latter had been felled by the archers. The man had a comical look on his face, as though he couldn't decide whether or not he wanted to laugh or cry and settled for something halfway in between. In that moment Bilbo knew they were saved, and the weight of his relief brought him to his knees.
The elves, meanwhile, had completely obliterated the wargs. Their evil carcasses littered the ground in numbers far greater than the two companions could have handled alone. At the head of their company, bow in hand, Glorfindel sat atop a stunning white stallion, bells jingling in its mane. From where he knelt Bilbo could see worry shining in the elf's bright eyes, but the smile never left Glorfindel's face, even as he dismounted pretended to berate Aragorn for his carelessness in losing his horse.
"Vinyárë mae govannen," Bilbo whispered, never more happy to see an elf in his life.
"So he'll be all right then?"
The Lord of Imladris smiled tiredly and nodded. Bilbo had sat outside the door to Aragorn's sickroom all night, waiting for word.
"The infection was severe, but your treatments helped to stall its progress long enough for aid to reach him."
Bilbo shook his head slightly, a blank expression on his face. "My treatments?"
"The tea you gave him," Lord Elrond clarified. "And the solution you used to cleanse his wounds. I did not know your people knew of Athelas."
If anything, Bilbo was even more confused. "Athelas?"
"You would know it as king's foil. It has great healing properties."
Bilbo's eyes widened. "King's foil? The weed?"
Now it was Elrond's turn for confusion. "Aragorn told me that his own herbs did not survive the rains. If you did not give it to him…"
"Oh no, I gave it to him all right," Bilbo clarified. "My former gardener — or I should say, my former gardener's wife — used to add it to infusions all the time, a cheap substitute for mint." Then Bilbo frowned. "That wasn't the only plant I added, though."
"But it was the only one that mattered. It saved Aragorn's life, and for that I am grateful. My house owes you a great debt, Bilbo Baggins."
Quite thoroughly stunned, Bilbo could only shake his head. "The unwitting hero again. Well, imagine that."
Arda: the world
Le hannon: thank you
Elen síla lumenn' omentielvo: A star shines upon the hour of our meeting (taken from FoTR)
Vinyárë mae govannen: literally, 'new sunrise well met'