He slowly became aware of quiet voices nearby.

"How did you find him?" the rumbling voice of the blacksmith asked.

Lord Aragorn replied, "We had left him to guard the horses, but when I looked back, they were running loose."

"And the trail of bodies led us right to him," Halbarad added.

The blacksmith gave a short laugh.

Brandir opened his eyes and saw Lord Aragorn kneeling beside him in the early morning light. They were on the long slope between the Greenway and the Barrow-downs, where Brandir had ordered the frightened men to stay behind and build a fire. Around them, rangers and Breefolk were cooking breakfast and feeding the horses.

The lord felt his brow and smiled at him gravely. "You have taken no lasting hurt, though no doubt that broken arm will ache each time it rains until the end of your days." He drew aside the blankets, and Brandir saw that his injured hand had been swathed in linen and the broken arm had been neatly splinted.

Leaning over Lord Aragorn's shoulder, the blacksmith grinned down at him. "I am glad to see you are still with us, ranger. When they brought you back, we feared the worst."

"What happened to the others?" Brandir managed to whisper.

In Sindarin, the lord replied, "Three of the Breefolk are wounded, and one may be left a cripple. I have done what I can for Tom Heathrow, but I have little skill against the spells of Angmar, It may be too late to save his life. " With a sad shake of his head, the lord rose and went to where the stricken Breelander lay. They had wrapped him in blankets warmed by the fire, but his skin was so pale that Brandir would have thought him dead save for the slow rise and fall of his breast. Lord Aragorn laid a hand on his brow and spoke quietly to him, but the Breelander did not stir. Sitting cross-legged beside him, sword resting on his knees, the lord watched the ailing man closely.

As the first rays of sunlight slid over the ridge and gilded the empty lands below, Tom opened his eyes and stared at Lord Aragorn.

"My lord," the Breelander murmured.

The blacksmith peered in his face. "Tom, that's just Strider the Ranger. Don't you remember him?" Turning to Lord Aragorn, he said, "After all he's been through, it's no wonder he's lost his wits."

Lord Aragorn took the sick man's wrist and felt for the heartbeat. "He was struck in the head and may be confused for a while." The lord slid an arm behind Tom's shoulders then he held a cup so he could drink.

When he had emptied the cup, Tom stared at Lord Aragorn doubtfully. "Now why on earth did I say that? We don't have any lords in the Breeland."

"And I scarcely look like the son of a nobleman," Lord Aragorn said with a wry smile.

To spare the wounded a long journey on horseback, two riders were sent to Bree to fetch a wagon. The rest of the party would have to wait until they returned in the late afternoon.

Closely wrapped in blankets, Brandir sat propped against a hawthorn tree as the rangers and Breefolk hurried about the work of the camp. He was weary and his wounds ached and never had he felt so useless in his entire life. With one arm set in a sling and the other one swathed in bandages, he could not even eat a bowl of gruel without help.

A hawk was circling high above the road, and in the clear autumn light, he could see the dark barring on its feathers. Back and forth, the creature drifted with graceful ease. Perfect and without effort. As he watched the hawk, he thought about the past day. It had been his duty to protect the Breefolk, and he deemed that he had done little to earn his lord's praise. It seemed as if every choice he had made had gone amiss, yet others had paid the price for his mistakes. As the hawk drifted back and forth, he decided what he must do, and before they left for Bree, he would speak of it to Lord Aragorn.

When the sun was at noon, the lord brought him a bowl of hot stew. Since Brandir could not wield a knife, he set about cutting the meat in small pieces.

"May I speak to you frankly, lord?" the young ranger asked.

Lord Aragorn looked up from his work. "Certainly. What is on your mind?"

"I wish to ask your leave to return to the Angle."

The lord nodded. "You will need to rest for several days, but once you are fit to travel, you have my leave to go. I had planned to send you to stay with your kin until you are fully recovered from your wounds. That broken arm will take some weeks to mend."

"I mean that I should stay there, lord, and not return," Brandir said, and he felt his face turning red.

Lord Aragorn set down the knife and looked at him gravely. "Is it your wish to resign from your company?"

With a heavy heart, Brandir pressed on. "My father's brother has often said that I have the makings of a farmer. His lands are near the Mitheithel, and he is ever in need of men to work the fields."

"So you wish to be a farmer instead of a ranger?"

Brandir did not answer this question, for he could not lie to his lord. Instead, he replied, "I think it would be for the best."

"That is useful and honorable work, for our people must be fed as well as defended. Yet you have spent many years learning the skills of a ranger. Why do you now wish to follow another path?"

Brandir stared across the grassy slope, toward the empty road. The hawk was still wheeling overhead. "Lord, you would be better served if I were weeding turnips. I was charged to protect these people from harm, yet three of the Breefolk lie wounded and all would have been slain if you and your kinsmen had not come to our aid."

The lord laid a hand on his shoulder. "You did not act unwisely, and often things will go awry in spite of the wisest decisions. Take the word of an old campaigner who has seen his share of disaster. Return to the Angle for now, and we will speak of this matter again once your wounds have healed." Then Lord Aragorn glanced at the bright, blue sky and smiled. "But I think you are no more a farmer than that hawk up there is a pigeon."

The End