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Warm Beds and Warmer Heads: 1. Warm Beds and Warmer Heads
Author’s Notes: The story is set roughly in the fall of the year 3000 in the Third Age. That puts it eighteen years before the formation of the Fellowship, for those of you who are interested in such things. As for what was happening then, this is the same year in which Saruman used the Ithil stone and became ensnared by Mordor. Also around this time, Gandalf asked the Rangers to increase their watch on the Shire. The following year was witness to Bilbo’s disappearing act at his birthday party, six years after that, Gilraen (Aragorn’s mother) died, and two years after that, Elrond sent word to Lothlórien asking that Arwen be sent back to Rivendell. In other words, the year 3000 was more or less the calm before the storm really began to break. Which, in my mind, made conversations like these possible.
A large fire crackled merrily in a small clearing, its heat driving back the chill of a brisk, autumn night. Perhaps a stone’s throw away, a dusty road ran from east to west, the scattered growth of plants upon it showing occasional but hardly frequent use. Stars danced merrily overhead, and a glimmer of light upon the western horizon heralded the departure of the setting moon as it abandoned the sky and left the stars to fend for themselves. To the east, dark silhouettes were all that could be seen of the Weather Hills. Amon Sûl’s rather curious top set it apart from the rest of the range, but shape was the only thing that could be discerned in the darkness. If travelers occupied the slopes, they were hidden.
Pulling his thick cloak snugly about his lanky form, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, turned his back on the warmth of the fire and studied the black outline of Weathertop. Keen eyes scoured every inch of the darkness before eventually turning to scrutinize to the neighboring hills. Aragorn searched not for objects but rather for movement, as it would be much easier to see. At length, though, he nodded in silent satisfaction and turned back to the fire, having found nothing. Folding his long legs beneath him, Aragorn knelt and poked absently at the fire with a nearby stick, stirring the logs at the bottom and enticing the flames into a more vigorous dance. It was unusually cold, even considering how late in the year it was. And though he sensed no evil in the immediate area, Aragorn could not help but wonder if this might be a sign of things to come. A sign of darker days.
With a slight shudder, Aragorn sighed and gave the fire a final poke. Those were ill thoughts for a night that held no obvious danger. Perhaps what he needed was a good smoke. Unfortunately, that would involve retrieving his pipe from the bottom of one of his bags. It was by no means an impossible task, but he’d just repacked his bags after finishing dinner and his almost-elven need for order and organization protested against searching through them again. He would have to rearrange everything. But then again—
The faint sound of crunching leaves suddenly caught the Ranger’s ear, and Aragorn stiffened, all his senses now tuned to his surroundings. Making his movements as casual as possible, Aragorn stretched his arms above his head and arched his back while at the same time he gathered his feet beneath him in the event that he would have to move quickly. Bringing his arms back down and wincing as his spine popped with the movement, he reached over to his pack with his left hand as though searching for something while his right hand closed upon the haft of a long belt-knife hidden beneath his woolen cloak. The night was now utterly silent save for the quiet crackle of the flames, which said quite a bit for whatever moved beyond the firelight. Apart from being an unusually cool autumn, it had also been strangely dry, and silent travel in the Wilds was currently a difficult prospect even by elven standards. Whatever stalked the darkness was in possession of either great skill or great fortune.
"The night is quiet, Aragorn. It is enough to make one believe in peace again."
Or it is both skilled and fortunate, Aragorn thought, releasing the knife and standing to greet the other Ranger as Halbarad strode out of the shadows. "I was wondering when you would arrive. You found nothing, then?"
Flipping back the hood of his cloak, Halbarad shook his head as he glanced back into the darkness. "I backtracked some distance and swept the area. We are the only two to have passed this way for several days."
"And given its current condition, it should be next to impossible to hide a trail in the Midgewater Marshes," Aragorn murmured, running their recent journey through his mind.
Leaving their respective commands, Aragorn and Halbarad had met in Bree to compare notes on the growing number of troublesome creatures that wandered the nights of Eriador. The two were currently en route to Rivendell in the hopes that the elves might have tidings on the subject, for it was rumored that Elladan and Elrohir had recently returned from the High Pass bearing word on increased Warg activity. So far, their journey toward Imladris had proven remarkably uneventful, and this was causing feelings of paranoia in both Rangers.
"Perhaps evil is merely biding its time, waiting to catch us when we are but a day away from Rivendell and within sight of our goal," Halbarad offered after a moment of silence.
Aragorn felt his lips quirk to one side. "That would be consistent with our usual fortune."
"Indeed, it would be," Halbarad said with a faint smile, moving over to his packs. "But whatever the cause for our unusually long period of safety, the fact remains that this night should pass without incident. Judging by all the signs I could read, we are the only two in the area worth mentioning. I do not intend to take this for granted."
Aragorn raised a brow at his companion’s words. "You say we are the only two worth mentioning? What of those not worth mentioning?"
Halbarad shrugged, rifling through his bags and tossing things about. "Away to the south on the other side of the Road is what appears to be a hunting party. I caught the scent of their fire and investigated. I would guess they hail from Archet or Combe. I saw most of Bree’s primary hunters in the Prancing Pony, and the men of Staddle usually journey south for their game. In any case, it is a small hunting party, and judging from their tracks, they are headed home. They will take no note of our presence."
"They are far afield to be hunting if they are indeed, as you say, from the Bree area," Aragorn said with a frown.
"Game is scarce this year. It has been unusually dry, and the hunting parties have ranged further than is customary. Some from Archet came so far as to interfere with our patrols around the North Downs."
"I was unaware that conditions had forced the men of Bree to journey so far," Aragorn murmured with a slight frown, somewhat upset that he was not more informed as to the situation in the northern part of Eriador. Most of Aragorn’s summer had been spent with a group of Rangers stationed near Tharbad, investigating rumors that Dunlendings had been raiding small settlements along the Green Way. These attacks had occupied the bulk of his time and attention, but he should have requested more news from the North Downs, where Halbarad had been left in command. "How large an area is affected by this dry spell?" Aragorn asked.
"Almost the entire stretch of land between the Weather Hills and the sea," Halbarad sighed, looking up from his packs and pressing his lips together in a thin line. "One month ago, lightning started a fire in the Chetwood. We feared it would burn Archet to the ground before we managed to contain it. And there have been other fires as well. The rains that came through last week have helped greatly, but it cannot be denied that the forests are dry. And this has made food scarce."
"Will this draw danger from the snowfields?" Aragorn wondered, thinking of the white wolves that drifted south during the winter to hunt deer.
"It is possible, but I think not," Halbarad said slowly. "By happy chance, many of the fires drove the deer north. Though they are not so numerous as they have been in years past, they are closer to the hunting grounds of the wolves. But I have sent some of my men up toward Forochel to make certain that the wolves do not stray too far to the south."
"That is well, then," Aragorn said quietly as Halbarad turned back to his bags and began searching through them once more. "We cannot afford another winter such as…" Aragorn trailed off when he realized that his voice had become lost amidst the rustling of fabric as Halbarad began to further disembowel his packs. Watching with a touch of bewilderment, Aragorn tipped his head to the side and studied his companion. "Might one ask what you are doing?"
"One might," the muffled reply came from deep within the folds of a leather bag.
"And what might the answer to such a question be?"
"Given the lateness of the hour, the answer should be obvious," Halbarad answered before loosing a small exclamation of triumph and extricating himself from the disaster that had once been his traveling bags. Raising his arm into the air as though he brandished the standard of Gondor, Halbarad waved the wrapped package he’d found and then ducked as crumbs cascaded onto his head. "Supper," he announced.
Aragorn gave a quiet snort of amused exasperation and shook his head, turning away to watch the darkness beyond the light of their fire. Halbarad’s rather peculiar style of organization sometimes left much to be desired. If given command over a band of Rangers, Halbarad could work marvels, engineering feats of brilliance in the midst of what some might deem to be maddening chaos. But when it came to managing his own belongings…well, that was another matter altogether.
"Would you care for some?"
Aragorn turned back to the fire and discovered that Halbarad was offering him some food. Specifically, he was offering him some cram. His stomach suddenly churning with distaste, Aragorn hastily shook his head and moved away, suddenly very grateful that he’d listened to his instincts and eaten while Halbarad was scouting. "Nay, though I thank you for the thought. But I have already dined this evening."
Halbarad frowned. "You did not wait for me?"
Aragorn sighed and tried to look appropriately contrite. "My apologies if I have caused offense. I simply thought it best to eat while you scouted so that I in turn might keep watch while you ate."
"Ah." Halbarad suddenly appeared very knowing, and his eyes betrayed a hint of mirth. "Or perhaps you did not wish to share that precious cache of elven bread you’ve been hoarding."
Despite his best efforts, Aragorn could not keep a smile from his face. "Perhaps," he conceded, reluctantly admitting to himself that this had indeed been his primary reason for eating early. "I have not been in Rivendell for some time, and there is little enough of the bread left. It will not last if I share, and you have food of your own." Aragorn gave a slight shrug. "I did not think you would mind overmuch."
"Thus explaining why you did not see fit to tell me in the first place," Halbarad laughed. Shaking his head, the other Ranger rose and walked over to join Aragorn at the edge of the firelight. "In truth, I much prefer my own dinner to your elven wafers, though if pressed, I could learn to cope. I doubt you could do the same, though. When will you understand that there is nothing wrong with the food of men?" he asked, once again offering Aragorn a piece of cram.
"Halbarad, I do not want to hazard a guess as to how long that cram has been festering in your packs," Aragorn answered, stepping away from the proffered food. "Moreover, I know for a fact that cram does not keep as well as Rivendell’s waybread. There is a good possibility that your food is no longer fit for consumption. If you wish to eat it, that is your own affair and I will say naught of it. But do not look to involve me. It would seem an ignoble end if I were to perish because of bad waybread."
Halbarad scowled indignantly. "I will have you know that this cram was recently given to me by Belegost, and he received it only months ago from some dwarves traveling through the Shire."
"And ever since it passed into your hands, it has been lying beneath soiled clothing and bloodied blades."
"Kindly credit me with some measure of intelligence," Halbarad said, a pained look upon his face. "I keep my food carefully wrapped, and I try to wash all the entrails from my weapons before I employ them as utensils."
A bark of laughter escaped Aragorn and he clapped Halbarad on the shoulder. "Perhaps you are not entirely without hope, then."
"I am glad that holds true for one of us," the other Ranger muttered, earning himself a shove toward the fire. Easily righting his balance, Halbarad pushed the rest of his cram into his mouth and moved toward his packs again. "You will be sorry you did that," he mumbled through his full mouth, "for I have something you might enjoy. Something, Valar forbid, from the world of men!"
"And what would that be?" Aragorn asked, wondering if it was already too late to go for his pipe. Halbarad seemed to be playing a strange game of sorts.
With a flourish worthy of elven bards, Halbarad reached into his packs and pulled out several water skins. "These."
Aragorn studied this somewhat anticlimactic finish and raised an eyebrow, managing a rather remarkable impression of Lord Elrond. "Indeed, Halbarad, I see now what you mean. And I assure you that I am already greatly enjoying this. Pray tell, is there more to come? For I am altogether unsure that I can contain my excitement."
In response to Aragorn’s sarcastic tone, Halbarad rolled his eyes and unstopped one of the skins. "Have you so little faith in your humble captain? These seemingly innocent water skins contain that which is precious beyond measure. Caught within the tanned hides is the golden brew that has made the Prancing Pony famous. O great Chieftain of the Dúnedain, I give you Butterbur’s finest ale!"
Aragorn blinked, and several conflicting emotions immediately assailed him. "Butterbur’s finest ale?" he repeated slowly, hoping that he had somehow misheard his companion.
"His very own house brew," Halbarad confirmed with a broad smile.
Aragorn shook his head and struggled ineffectually to master his rising alarm. "How did you come by this?" he demanded. "It has been a trade secret of the Prancing Pony for years. Butterbur never allows this ale to leave his inn."
"Butterbur does not, but the pretty serving wench currently working for him is another matter," Halbarad said with a wink.
"Ai, Elbereth," Aragorn groaned, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. "Halbarad, the men of Bree are suspicious of us already. If Butterbur discovers what you’ve done—"
"I doubt very much that he will," Halbarad answered. "Unless you choose to tell him, that is. But I doubt this, for you were with me at the Prancing Pony when I obtained this fine drink and would thus be equally guilty in his eyes. And his treacherous bar maiden shall not be confessing anything for she is moving to Combe next week and has no wish to jeopardize future employment by angering her current employer." Grinning widely, Halbarad tossed Aragorn one of the skins, which the other caught purely out of reflex. "Drink," Halbarad commanded. "The night is cold and it will warm you as elven wine cannot."
Eyeing the skin warily, Aragorn hesitated for a moment. Thanks to Halbarad’s complete lack of discretion and propriety, it was now well known among the Rangers that Aragorn had a great weakness for the brew at the Prancing Pony. Since being exposed, Aragorn had tried valiantly to overcome this failing, but in the end he was simply not strong enough. Pipe-weed and Butterbur’s ale were among the few mannish products that he sorely missed whenever he stayed at Rivendell, and he was rather ashamed to say that sometimes not even miruvor could compete with the bold taste of the Prancing Pony’s brew. And Halbarad is using this against me, Aragorn thought with a hint of both anger and resignation. But as there is no hope for it, I might as well indulge. The night is cold, and this shall put some warmth back into me. Sighing, Aragorn shook his head, sent Halbarad a rather dark glare, and surrendered.
Like the bitter night air, the ale was cold, yet its flavor quickly warmed Aragorn’s stomach and he felt its heat spread throughout his body. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that Halbarad was also drinking, and long years of training quickly made him put down his own drink. "If we intend to sustain the fire, one of us must stand watch," he warned. "The flames may draw others, despite your assurances that none are about."
"I have already considered this," Halbarad said, licking his lips. "You took the first watch last night, so it is only fair that I take the first watch this night."
"Then should you be drinking?" Aragorn asked pointedly.
"I have resolved to restrain myself, though I must confess that this ale is quite tempting."
"It is indeed good," Aragorn admitted, taking another drink. "You are certain that you can resist its flavor?"
"I am quite capable of watching my drinks," Halbarad answered. "You are the one that worries me. Sometimes I wonder if we should keep you away from the Prancing Pony altogether."
Aragorn shook his head and took yet another drink. "As you pointed out earlier, I am too fond of my elven tastes to ever over-indulge for long. I doubt that I have a problem." He was silent for a moment, relishing the ale’s thick taste upon his tongue. "But you, by contrast, do seem to have a problem. As your Chieftain, Halbarad, I feel it necessary to point out that stealing this drink was wrong."
"I did not steal it!" Halbarad protested indignantly. "I paid gold for it."
"Regardless of whether or not you paid for it, the fact remains that you should not have taken it out of the Prancing Pony in the first place. Butterbur would consider it stealing."
"Butterbur considers it stealing if we do not use his stables, despite the fact that he charges more for his mangers than any other stable in Bree," Halbarad retorted.
"The man concerns himself with business," Aragorn said.
"When his mind is alert enough to concentrate on such things," Halbarad snorted. "Lately I believe his mind has been wandering. It would not surprise me if his son Barliman were given charge of the business within the next year or so. We will have to see if his mind is as flighty as his father’s. And speaking of minds, yours is of a rather traitorous sort tonight. How can you justify reprimanding me for my actions when you enjoy the fruits of my labors?"
"I cannot justify it," Aragorn admitted, seating himself beside the fire and stretching his long legs out before him. "But that does not mean I feel no obligation to remind you of your place and station."
"Then I consider myself duly reminded," Halbarad said with a chuckle. "I suppose next you shall tell me that I must never do aught like this again."
"I had thought of doing so," Aragorn said, leaning back against his packs and looking up at the stars. "But in light of such a wonderful drink, I may not touch upon that subject. Besides, it might be necessary to test young Barliman’s mind if he does inherit the Prancing Pony, and slipping away with some ale might prove an appropriate challenge for you."
Halbarad laughed. "I shall make a true rogue of you yet!"
"Were I you, I would be more concerned with making a decent Ranger of myself before looking to help others," Aragorn answered, drinking again and reflexively catching the blanket Halbarad threw at him before it could sail overhead and land in the fire. "If you wish to add to the flames, you can always gather wood," Aragorn said blithely.
Halbarad scowled and stalked to the edge of the firelight, taking another drink of the ale as he did so. "While some here enjoyed the comforts of a southern summer, others of us labored in the frigid north. We are able to endure the chill of the night."
"Especially if there are others about to stave off some of that chill," Aragorn said, allowing himself a sly grin. "That bar maiden who sold you this brew seemed unusually friendly."
Aragorn had been hoping to draw either a blush or a flustered response from Halbarad, but he was disappointed as his companion flashed a rakish smile and bowed slightly. "The maiden shows exceptional taste."
Wadding up the blanket he’d caught earlier, Aragorn lobbed it back at Halbarad. "You are fifty years her senior."
Halbarad grinned. "True, but I can not help my passions. I have studied and learned only from the best."
Aragorn frowned and sat up a bit, suddenly suspicious. "What mean you by that?"
"Only that relationships with a vast amount of years between participants seem to be those relationships worth pursuing. Tell me, Aragorn. Was not your own father thirty years older than your mother when they wed? And as for your own example, just how many centuries has Lady Arwen walked Arda?"
Giving his friend a glare worthy of Sauron himself, Aragorn grunted and rolled over, setting his ale next to the fire.
"My apologies if I have caused offense," Halbarad said, though he sounded anything but apologetic.
"I think I shall sleep now," Aragorn said with a note of finality. Halbarad was feeling far too cheerful this night and it was probably best to end the conversation before they ventured into other embarrassing or uncomfortable topics.
"I wish you pleasant dreams." There was silence for a moment, and then Halbarad spoke again, his voice containing a sudden and rather unnerving note of mischief. "Are you certain you shall be warm enough?"
Aragorn blinked and rolled onto his back, studying Halbarad’s face. Something about that question had set off warning bells. "I beg your pardon?"
"Are you certain you shall be warm enough?" Halbarad repeated blandly.
"Yes," Aragorn said with a slow nod, still attempting to decipher his companion. "Yes, I am certain I shall be warm enough.
Halbarad shrugged as though it had been naught more than an idle question. "Good. I am glad to hear it."
Deciding to avoid any more conversation, Aragorn gave a final nod and turned back to the fire. "As am I," he said.
"I only ask because of what we talked about last spring."
Dear Valar, no. Not again! Aragorn squeezed his eyes shut and lay completely still, hoping that by ignoring Halbarad, the other would cease his chatter and let him sleep. He knew it was a vain hope, but it was all he had.
"That was an equally cold night," Halbarad continued casually. "And as I remember, we had a fire burning in the midst of the camp as well as some excellent ale brought by those younger Rangers from Minhiriath."
Aragorn continued to lie quiet and still, but he was burdened with the knowledge that he could not fool Halbarad. The other Ranger knew him far too well, and perceptiveness was one of Halbarad’s greatest talents. The slight, involuntary tensing of his shoulders had probably already given him away.
"You and I talked long into the night, though we had not the watches. Aside from the guards about the camp, I believe we were alone in our wakefulness, were we not?" There was a pause as though Halbarad was waiting for a response, but in the absence of one, he forged ahead. "It was the night after the last day of the council, and it had been a trying week for all. Do you recall, Aragorn, what we spoke of that night?
Certainly I recall it, if only because you will not let me forget it! Aragorn groused, thinking back to the event in question. Early in the spring, a number of Rangers had gathered together at Sarn Ford for a rare but necessary council meeting. Gandalf had asked that the Rangers implement a closer watch upon the Shire. The wizard had not explained himself save to say that he felt something was amiss, prompting a disparaging mutter from Halbarad along the lines of "as forthcoming as Saruman." But despite the lack of obvious reasons, the Rangers were quick to hearken to Gandalf’s request, and at his counsel they had reassigned several patrol groups from Hollin to watch the southern boundaries of the Shire while other units were sent north. Hammering out the specifics of such changes, though, had been an exhausting process and by its end, Aragorn had been more than ready to turn leadership of the Dúnedain over to anyone who even thought of asking for it. As a result, he found himself indulging in a little too much ale later that night, and before he quite knew what was happening, his mouth had run away with him.
"I believe I remember our words," Halbarad murmured, his voice taking on a note of nostalgia. "Ah yes, I recall them clearly now."
I am certain that you do, Aragorn thought caustically.
"You spoke of fealty and the union between an elven husband and an elven wife. And I reminded you of the fact that when elves consummate their relationship it is viewed as a marriage bond. And then you talked of how the night was cold and how companionship was a desirable thing."
Sweet Elbereth, let him stop now! Aragorn wailed.
"Do you remember the plans we made? How we would descend upon Lothlórien atop elven steeds, our cloaks billowing behind us and stars overhead lighting our way? How we would sweep through the forests, past the guards, and gallantly make our way to the talan atop which the home of Lord Elrond’s radiant daughter sits? And then you would take her in your arms and together we would race away, ignorant to the cries and protests behind us." Halbarad’s voice was now steadily rising in volume and Aragorn could hear the fabric of his sleeves flapping about as his gestures increased with the pace of the story. "We were to separate, and I was to lure the elves after me, possibly making a valiant stand and a glorious end for the sake of your love. And while I led the bewildered elves on a wild chase, you would make Lady Arwen yours. You would tumble together into the spring grass, inhaling the rich fragrance of blooming flowers and new life. You would make your own new life that night as you—"
"Enough!" Aragorn finally snapped, breaking the silence and rolling over to glare at his friend. The plans after that point had become rather ribald in nature, and already a crimson flush was beginning to warm his cheeks. "Enough, Halbarad. We had both indulged too much that night. Such talk is unbefitting our station."
"But you cannot deny the fact that after the completion of these plans, Lord Elrond would have no choice but to give you his daughter’s hand. For all intents and purposes, you would already be wed."
Aragorn scowled. "It was a passing whim brought on by a tiresome week and a warm drink."
"A passing whim?" Halbarad questioned. "When we finally allowed ourselves to sleep that night, you were of the firm decision that we should set out on the morrow in pursuit of your dreams." He moved closer to Aragorn, his voice dropping to a whisper. "We can still act, you know. We can abandon the trip to Rivendell and ride to Lothlórien, the wind at our backs, and—"
"Halbarad, I appreciate your enthusiasim, but I would much rather you leave this matter alone."
But leaving the matter alone was not within Halbarad’s capabilities. Aside from a chance to poke fun at his leader, Halbarad was secretly a hopeless romantic. When Aragorn returned from his travels in the east and told Halbarad that he had met Arwen in Lothlórien and that she had accepted his love, the other Ranger had been ecstatic. More so, it seemed, than Aragorn himself. The notion of a forbidden love between mortal and immortal appealed to Halbarad’s sense of the tragically dramatic, and the fact that this love paralleled the legendary romance of Beren and Lúthien simply made it too much for Halbarad to ignore. Aragorn’s rather ill-conceived and drunken idea of sweeping Arwen away into the night in order to foil Elrond’s stipulations on their engagement had sealed his fate, and Halbarad was of the opinion that bold and valiant deeds should be undertaken to ensure a romantic future for the Dúnedain chieftain.
Aragorn now considered the act of telling Halbarad anything about Arwen to be among the more foolish decisions of his life.
"You surprise me, my friend," Halbarad said. "I would not have thought you to be so meek with regards to your lady. These are times that demand courage and valor!"
"These are also times that require a good night’s sleep," Aragorn warned, turning away and hoping that this would signal the end of the conversation.
"Perhaps you are in need of greater support," Halbarad murmured. He was silent for one blissful moment, but a moment was all Aragorn was granted. "Gilraen!" Halbarad exclaimed, prompting Aragorn to roll over again. "We shall enlist the aid of your mother! Doubtless she will aid us in our plan, for I am sure that she wishes to see your children ere she—"
"You will say nothing of this to my mother!" Aragorn ordered harshly even as horror filled his thoughts. Halbarad was not especially circumspect when it came to matters of love—though thankfully he had managed to avoid speaking of this to anyone else—and if he began talking of these inane plans in Rivendell where it seemed that there were always listening ears… Aragorn shuddered. Should Elrond ever hear of what he had said that spring night, there would not be enough left of him for Elladan and Elrohir to mangle once the Lord of Imladris was finished. "In fact, you will say nothing of this ever again," Aragorn added, deciding that he was tempting fate by even allowing Halbarad to live with this knowledge. "And that is a command!"
Wide, soulful eyes gazed back at Aragorn, and then Halbarad shook his head. "So you will forever deny your love? She will be consigned to an existence where she can watch only? Never hearing the words she desires? Never feeling the soft caress of—"
"Enough!" Aragorn shouted, sitting up and giving Halbarad the deadliest glare he could summon. "Valar, you shall raise the wights with your babbling. Cease this prattle and let me sleep!"
"If only it were so easy," Halbarad sighed theatrically, looking up at the night sky. Then he blinked and seemed to brighten. "If you will not seek after your love, perhaps I will do so alone. I could bring her to you, and Arwen would certainly fall beneath your spell were she to see you lying there. In fact, should any maiden happen by and glance your way, the sight of you gleaming beneath the stars would—"
"To begin with, I do not gleam," Aragorn growled. "And even if I did, it would not be caused by the stars but rather by the fire. And I’m of half a mind to make this fire even larger by adding you to it, so I suggest you hold your tongue and be silent!"
Halbarad laughed, his mirth ringing crisp and clear in the cold night air. "You are testy after drinking, my friend. Remind me to have more of Butterbur’s ale on hand for future journeys. It is far more entertaining to provoke you when you have had something to loosen that elven control of yours."
Giving up on the notion of Halbarad ever behaving like a normal Ranger, Aragorn pulled his blankets and cloak over his head and slumped back down onto his side. "I am going to sleep now," he announced firmly. "I will hear no more foolish ramblings, and I will tolerate no more talk of Arwen."
"You speak as though you have a choice in the matter."
"Peace!" the other laughed again, perhaps recognizing from Aragorn’s tone that he had pushed Isildur’s heir too far. "Peace, I will cease my words. In fact, I think I will leave you so that I might scout a bit more. Perhaps I can find tomorrow’s breakfast in the darkness."
"Do not stray far," Aragorn cautioned automatically, nestling down into his cocoon of blankets.
"How can I when my desire to see you kept pure and chaste for Arwen will draw me back?"
Aragorn pulled aside just enough of his cloak to give Halbarad a stern glare. "I thought you were going to cease."
"And so I am," Halbarad said with a dramatic bow. "Pleasant dreams, my lord. Should another stumble upon this camp and seek to use you for companionship, I will be close enough to hear your cry."
"Halbarad!" Aragorn sat up again, looking for something large and heavy to throw, but Halbarad was a firm believer that discretion was the better part of valor and had already left, vanishing into the night.
With a shake of his head for his irreverent friend and a promise to himself that vengeance would be achieved, Aragorn lay back down and closed his eyes. Halbarad was next to impossible at times, but Aragorn could think of no one he would rather have at his side. And so with an exasperated but contented sigh, Aragorn slowly drifted into dreams, reassured by the knowledge that the irrepressible Halbarad stood watch this night and would continue to stand watch as his chief captain for many years to come.
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