My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Matter of Honor, A: 11. A Matter of Honor
Halbarad bit back a yelp as his elbow came down on a rock. In the blackness of the nighttime forest he could barely see his hand in front of his face. Night had fallen a few hours earlier, and the thick canopy blocked out any glimmer of light from the moon or stars. He was on the hunt, blindly slinking toward his prey with the stealth of a fox and the persistence of a hound. Except a fox’s lower back would probably not be aching quite so much after an hour of slinking, he reckoned. Ahead, an incongruous patch of yellow light played in the dark treetops. Ignoring his aches, Halbarad pushed himself toward it, reaching the edge of a short drop-off to see the source of the light below him – a campsite built on a flat patch of land beside the Greyflood. A few rough tents had been set up around a fire, no more than tarps stretched between tree trunks. With relief he saw three figures were seated around the fire -- two heavily-armed Dunlendings and a dark-haired girl in a blood-smeared dress. Her hands were bound in front of her.
There was a rustling in the leaves behind Halbarad, and a series of muffled grunts. When Aragorn reached his side, he turned and fixed a weary gaze on him. “I thought I told you to wait back with the horses. You shouldn’t be dragging that knee across the ground.”
He sensed rather than saw a look of annoyance as Aragorn turned toward him. “The girl looks uninjured,” Aragorn said in a barely audible voice.
“I wonder why. They certainly showed no mercy to her family.”
“They'd show no mercy to her, before they finished," Aragorn said. "From the amount of rubbish strewn about, this isn’t the first night they’ve spent here. But this is no permanent camp.”
“There’s no sign of the third man,” Halbarad commented, noting the glint of firelight on a sword hilt as one of the men stood to refill his mug from a cask. His wiry head of hair looked like it had never seen a comb and his ragged beard was salted with grey, but his shoulders were broad and he wore a shirt of rusty mail as if he’d been born in it. He would not go down easily. His companion was younger, leaner, and twitchier, and laughing himself sick as he recounted to the older one what he had done to the wife of the peddler.
“He may have gone scouting,” Aragorn said.
“We can’t afford to wait for him to return,” Halbarad whispered. The younger man had sauntered over to the girl and was leaning over her, playing with her hair. He did not look as if he would be content to stop there. “He might bring back reinforcements; men who are not plastered with ale. Our odds are as good as they’re going to get.”
“But not good enough.” Aragorn rolled to his side and unsheathed a dagger, fisting the handle to test his grip. “A ground fight under these circumstances would endanger the hostage. The best tactic will be a surprise attack - take them both down simultaneously, with arrows.”
Halbarad pressed his lips shut. Under ordinary circumstances, a pair of Dúnedain could easily defeat a half-dozen ruffians such as these, especially if one of the Dúnedain was Aragorn; but the circumstances were not ordinary. Aragorn was in no shape for a fight, and the hostage gave the Dunlendings an advantage. “Agreed,” he said finally, shrugging out of his baldric and unfastening his bowstrap. Untying a sheaf of arrows - short-tipped hunting arrows; not much good against armor, even the rusty kind, he noted unhappily – he rolled back over to see Aragorn still lying unmoving, his unstrung bow still strapped to his back. “So what are we waiting for?”
Aragorn slid the dagger back into its sheath and stretched out his hand. “Give me your bow.” Halbarad did as he said, and Aragorn took the bow in his left hand and hooked tge fingers of his right gingerly around the string. He pulled slowly, but when his elbow was not yet fully extended, he stifled a hiss and released the tension on the bowstring. Taking his injured hand to his chest, he kneaded it with his left. “Not strong enough yet,” he said.
Halbarad picked up the bow and gave it a test draw himself, noticing for the first time the strain on his fingers and hand. “Maybe we could rig a –“
“We cannot afford maybes. We cannot afford to miss and we will not get a second chance.”
“Then what --” Halbarad snapped, remembering almost too late to keep his voice down. “What do you suggest? If you can’t draw a bow, how do you plan to swing that sword?” Aragorn’s sword was heavy. He could wield it one-handed– when he was hearty, hale, and not nursing a game knee. Halbarad doubted he could do it now.
“I don’t,” Aragorn admitted after a moment.
“Then what?” Halbarad asked. “You just said we can’t risk a ground fight.”
“We are going to have to kill them while they sleep.”
It was the flat pronouncement of a battlefield commander, dispassionate and non-negotiable. Halbarad laid down his bow and fingered his dagger hilt, wondering what Dudo would think of his hero’s gift being used to slaughter a man like one of Butterbur’s chickens. He supposed that Aragorn, as a captain of armies, had killed hundreds of men in battle, but things were different in lonely, lawless Eriador. Most men, Halbarad had learned, did not want to die, and men with no oath to a king, a general, or a chieftain usually chose not to. Most violent men were cowards, preying on the weak and fleeing when faced with sure defeat. The Rangers made it their business to convey that surety. Halbarad had killed so few men that it took years for him to finally, mercifully lose track of the exact number. Even those few had died in the hot blood of battle – dirty battle; more often than not – blades, sword hilts, boots, fists, rocks if necessary – but always against an opponent eager to do the same to him. Never before had he killed a man in his sleep. There could be no doubt that these two deserved it, if any man ever had, yet bile rose in his throat at the thought of kneeling beside a man, watching his last breath rise in his chest, and slicing quickly through slack, unresisting flesh.
He shook off the hand resting on his shoulder. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Aragorn clapped him on the back and lowered himself flat on the ground once more, resting his chin on his folded hands. “Get some rest, then. I’ll wake you when they’re both asleep.”
It was Aragorn who should be resting, but his eyes were lit with starlight and fixed on his quarry with a look Halbarad knew only too well. With a sigh of resignation, he flipped himself over onto his side and pillowed his head on his arm. “All right. With all that ale in them, it shouldn’t be long, anyway.” Better one of them be rested than neither, he reckoned.
It seemed he had no more than closed his eyes when a clatter and an angry shout jolted him to alertness. Down in the camp, a drinking mug was rolling to a stop beneath a tree, and the younger Dunlending was stomping around, waving his hands and complaining loudly to his partner. Halbarad’s command of Dunlendish was something short of fluent, but the words were easy enough to understand. “Perfect,” muttered Halbarad, pushing himself up onto his elbows. “A bad drunk.”
“I’ve had enough of waiting!” the young one was barking. The ale consumption had slurred his speech, and his gait was weaving as he paced back and forth in front of the campfire. “Garstic should have been back by now. It’s too late to make Tharbad now before daybreak, even if we can get past the cursed Rangers. We’ll end up wasting another night here.”
“Settle down, Malek,” the older one said. “Pick up your mug and have some more beer.”
Malek turned on an unsteady heel and took two steps back toward his partner. “What happens when we run out of beer? What then? And this is swill! The useless peddler didn’t even have any good stuff!” The younger man stopped his pacing and walked over to the girl. Standing behind her hunched form, he ran his hands through her hair, playfully winding it through his fingers. “I guess we’ll have to find something else to do while we wait,” he said, pulling the dark hair into a queue at the nape of the girl’s neck.
“Leave her alone, Malek,” the older one growled.
Malek kept his grip on the girl’s hair. “If we have to sit around and wait, what’s the harm in having a little fun?”
“You had your fun already with her mother,” the other said. “You know the rules. The chief gets the young ones.”
Firelight glinted off an ugly show of teeth as Malek smiled. “The chief doesn’t have to know, does he? There’s plenty we can do without ruining his pretty little prize.” Pulling a dagger from his boot, he reached over the top of the girl’s bowed head and sliced down the front of her dress.
With her chest exposed, the girl tried to bring her bound hands up to cover herself, but Malek caught them and held them pinned to her abdomen, as the other Dunlending released a deep, throaty laugh. “Well, that was smart! Deliver her naked and he’ll know what you’ve been up to for sure.”
“We’ll say she tore her dress trying to escape,” Malek answered, his voice thick with excitement now. “Are you with me, Halig?” Without waiting for an answer, he straddled the girl’s shoulders, pinning her torso between his thighs as he cupped her chin and roughly tipped it up, forcing her to look up at him. She was shaking so hard Halbarad could see her tremors from his perch atop the bluff, yet she made no sound. “Don’t fight me,” Malek growled, leaning over to force her into a rough kiss.
Halig set his mug down. “For the last time, leave her be, Malek.”
Malek ignored him, keeping one hand wrapped around the girl’s head and teaching down with the other to roam in the folds of her skirt.
Halbarad’s hand tightened on his sword hilt, and he heard his own breath escape in a long, slow hiss. He turned to Aragorn. “How far are we going to let this go?”
“Not yet,” Aragorn said, though his hand, too, was on his hilt. “Get your bow ready. Try to get a clean shot at the one holding the girl, but wait for my signal before you shoot.”
Halbarad climbed to his feet, nocked an arrow, and sighted it on Malek. It would have been a difficult shot at this distance in the dark under any circumstances, but with no margin for error it would be nearly impossible. The Dunlending had managed to position himself so the girl’s body shielded him from Halbarad's position. Halbarad sighed and sidestepped a few feet to his left, freezing in his tracks as one of the Dunlendings’ horses whinnied and stamped. Malek broke his kiss and snapped his head up. “What’s that?”
“Nothing; it’s just Garstic coming back,” Halig said.
A moment later an answering whinny came from down the trail, and the sound of approaching hoof beats could be heard in the underbrush. Malek relaxed and spit onto the ground. “That son of an orc - gone all day and he comes back just in time to spoil my fun.”
A brown horse trotted into the clearing; saddled but riderless, its reins tied loosely to the pommel. Malek stepped forward and grabbed the reins as it ambled into the campsite. “Halig, look! It’s Garstic’s horse!” Looking first at his companion in confusion, then down the trail in the direction whence the horse had come¸ he called out. “Garstic? Are you there?”
“Quiet, you fool,” Halig hissed. He was already on his feet, drawing his sword as he moved. “Something’s wrong. Get out of the light of the fire. Into the trees!”
Halig made for the base of the bluff atop which Aragorn and Halbarad waited, just managing to dart behind the cover of a tree before a new voice rang out from the darkness beyond the campfire’s circle of light. “Drop your weapons! You are surrounded!”
The command was given in the Dunlendish language, but it was not the coarse throat of a Dunlending that barked it. As horrified recognition gripped him in a clammy chill, Halbarad only hoped the Dunlendings were not familiar enough with the Dúnedain to realize that this particular voice was still reedy with adolescence and quaivering with fear. “Oh, no,” he groaned. Stealth be damned. He took a step forward and nocked an arrow.
Aragorn was at his side in an instant. “Húrin?”
Halbarad nodded without taking his eyes off Malek. "Fool boy is going to get himself killed."
Malek, through either great luck or more presence of mind than Halbarad would have given him credit for, was still sandwiched between the girl and the horse so that neither Halbarad nor Húrin could get a shot at him. “My archers have you surrounded,” Húrin nevertheless threatened. “Drop your weapons and raise your hands or you will be shot.”
Halig stayed put behind his tree. “Let’s see these men of yours, Ranger!” Halbarad gave up on shooting Malek for a moment and trained his arrow on the tree Halig cowered behind. He could not quite get a clean shot from this angle, but if the Dunlending moved just a bit to the left…
“This is your last chance!” Húrin shouted. “Haerost, Halbarad, get ready! On my command, fire at will…”
That was enough for Malek's jittery nerves. He chanced it, bolting toward the cover of the trees only to fall, screaming, as Húrin’s arrow tore into his back. Good boy, thought Halbarad. Malek had barely hit the ground when Halig sprinted forward, heading for the girl. Before Halbarad could get aim, before Húrin could nock a second arrow, the Dunlending had dragged her into a choke-hold.
Ignoring the wailing Malek, writhing on the ground several feet away, Halig pressed the blade of his knife against the girl’s throat. “Show yourself, Ranger!” he called. “Throw out your weapons and give up or I’ll kill the girl.”
“You’re outnumbered and surrounded!” Húrin shouted back, in what Halbarad had to admit was a fairly authoritative tone. “Give up or you’ll be killed!” With this, Húrin edged forward out of the shadows just far enough to display a second arrow nocked in his bow.
“You’re bluffing, boy,” the Dunlending chuckled throatily. “If you weren’t alone, I’d be dead already. Lower the bow or I’ll cut her throat.”
“Can you take him from here?” Aragorn whispered in Halbarad’s ear.
“Not without hitting the girl,” Halbarad answered curtly. “Should we signal Húrin?”
“No,” answered Aragorn. “We can’t afford for either Húrin or the Dunlending to startle.”
The Dunlending looked well ready to. He had slowly backed up to put distance between himself and Húrin’s arrow, and now he was trapped against the base of the bluff. Still, he presented his side to Halbarad’s arrow, not the broad, safe, expanse of his back. At this range in the dark, Halbarad could not risk it. With a nod to Aragorn, he began moving to his left along the edge of the bluff, still trying to get directly behind the Dunlending. Last year’s leaves crunched beneath his boots; he was moving faster than he could move soundlessly, but it could not be helped. He did not know what the man might do with his back against the wall, but would not allow Húrin to bear the guilt of this girl’s death. Halbarad's foot stepped on nothing and he pulled it back from the crumbling edge of the bluff, grasping a sapling for balance. He could get no better angle than this, but Halig still presented an impossibly narrow target. If the shot missed him and was lucky enough not to kill the girl, the Dunlending would slit her throat. It was not a shot Halbarad could afford to take. Without hesitation, he drew the bow anyway, taking a step backward to stabilize his stance, and cringing as a branch snapped hard under his boot.
Halbarad froze, and the Dunlending spun towards the sound, yanking the girl around harshly to keep her between him and both Rangers. She screamed as the knife bit shallowly into her throat; the first sound Halbarad had heard from her. “Show yourself!” the Dunlending shouted. “Give up, or I start cutting! I killed her family, don’t think I won’t kill her, too!” To make his point, he tilted the knife blade against the girl’s pale neck, drawing a faint welling of blood. Húrin’s arrowhead flashed in the firelight as it wavered a bit from its target, and Halbarad adjusted his aim to the man's groin. The man still held the girl as a shield to protect his head and torso, but an arrow in the leg might be enough to distract him and give Húrin a clean shot.
“Hold, Húrin!” Aragorn barked. His voice came from below Halbarad, from a stand of trees no more than twenty feet from the Dunlending. How he had managed to get down there so fast, Halbarad did not know. The Dunlending flinched and whirled to face this new threat. As he did so, his broad back faced Halbarad and his knife came away from the girl’s throat.
“Elendil,” Halbarad murmured, and released his arrow.
The arrow bounced off the mail shirt, but the impact was enough to make the man arch his back and let go of the girl. She crumpled to her knees, and Aragorn flew from the trees, severing Halig’s head from his body with a mighty sword stroke. The Dunlending’s body fell like a sack of grain and Húrin stepped out of the trees, eyes wide as saucers and an arrow still nocked in his bow. For a ghastly instant, Halbarad thought the boy, in his confusion, might shoot Aragorn. “Húrin!” he shouted.
The boy looked up, shock and confusion in his face, squinting into the darkness. “Father?”
Halbarad took hold of a tree trunk and leaned as far forward as he could without risking a tumble over the edge of the bluff. “It’s me, Húrin. Lower your bow.”
Húrin did as he was told. He took another few steps forward and stopped, his glance wavering between the headless Halig, the huddled girl, the groaning Malek, and Aragorn, who had knelt beside Malek to relieve him of his weaponry. He was still standing there when Halbarad got himself ungracefully down to the base of the bluff and took the bow from his hand. The boy sagged, and Halbarad dropped both bows and took his son’s trembling shoulders in his hands. “It’s all right,” he said softly, pulling him close and noticing for the first time that the forehead he pressed against was now slightly higher than his own. “It’s all right. It’s over.” Even as he said the words, he found he did not want to release this awkward, coltish boy from the safety of his arms; this boy who had kept baby rabbits as pets, this boy who had cried when his favorite hen met its destiny in the cook pot, this boy who had drawn portraits of his family on the planks of the barn, this boy who had just tried to bluff two cold-blooded killers. He did not want to release him back into this world full of orcs and wolves and Dunlendings with knives at children’s throats. And then he did. Thrusting Húrin out to arm’s length, he scowled at him clinically, searching for injuries. Seeing none, he nodded brusquely. “Are you all right, then?”
The boy nodded. His face was pale, his forehead was slick with sweat, and he was staring wide-eyed at Aragorn. “Is that…?”
“Yes, it is. Where is Haerost?”
“He rode for Sarn Ford, to get help. The Karani clan are down out of the mountains, raiding and pillaging the local Dunlendings. We were trying to guard the ford to keep them east of the river, but there were too many of them.”
“Where is the owner of the brown horse?”
Húrin chewed on his upper lip, as he always had when he was upset. Except that until recently the lip had not been covered in a dense blanket of dark whiskers. He nodded to the upstream trail. “Back there. I followed him from the ford and he ambushed me. I think he’s dead.”
Halbarad’s chest tightened and he clenched his fists to keep himself from pulling the boy back into his arms. He had not killed his first man until he was thirty, and Húrin was scarcely more than half that age. He would talk to the boy later, and comfort him when he woke in the middle of the night, shivering, unable to keep their faces from his dreams. But now, he must help him to be a Ranger; to brutally ration his feelings just as he did his water and food and arrows, salving his hunger and thirst and weariness only in a place of safety. He forced himself to nod approvingly. “He was alone?”
Húrin's nod was shaky, but Halbarad saw a glint of pride that his father was treating him as he would any other warrior. “Yes. But there are more Karani about. They’re everywhere.”
“They’re attacking the Ruliri?” The Ruliri lands were in the low hills southeast of Tharbad. They were a peaceful folk, as Dunlendings went, rarely causing trouble outside of their own inscrutable internal squabbles.
Húrin nodded. “The winter was even harder in the mountains than in the lowlands. There was no food, so parties of Karani warriors came down to the lowlands and began raiding the Ruliri farmsteads and villages. Yenne’s father told us.”
Halbarad shook his head. “Who’s Yenne?”
Húrin nodded to the girl. Aragorn had cut her bonds and wrapped her in his own cloak. Now he was kneeling beside her, speaking to her softly and coaxing her to drink from a flask Halbarad suspected contained Miruvor. “Her,” Húrin said, pointing. “That’s Yenne.”
Halbarad felt his eyes widen. “You know her?”
“I met her when her father brought the family across the ford three days ago. They were headed for Bree, to buy gifts for her dowry. She was just betrothed to the son of the Ruliri chieftain.” He bit his lip again and Halbarad saw tears in his eyes. “Her father was so proud of her. And her mother talked about how beautiful she would be on her wedding day.”
Húrin’s shoulders started to tremble again, but with a glance at Aragorn he squared them and thrust his jaw out bravely. There were many more questions Halbarad wanted to ask his son, but they could wait. With a clap on the shoulder, he instructed him to retrieve his and Aragorn’s horses from the spot they had left them. Once the boy was gone, he turned to Aragorn, but did not approach for fear of frightening the girl. “Thorongil. A word, if you please.”
Aragorn pulled the cloak tighter around the girl's shoulders before standing stiffly and coming over to him. “Is Húrin all right?”
“He’s fine. I sent him to get the horses.” Halbarad stood looking at the headless body of Halig. “Someday I must get you to teach me that.”
Aragorn shrugged with a hint of a smile. "I have tried." He turned to look at the girl. “The girl is unharmed, but in shock. We must get her to a place of safety. But where? I do not know if she has any other family – I could not get any information at all from her.”
“Her name is Yenne. Supposedly she’s betrothed to the Ruliri clan chieftain’s son. The last I knew, the Ruliri chief was Dugaric, and his village was about twenty miles southeast of the ford. If she’s betrothed to the chief’s son, surely they’ll take her in.”
Aragorn nodded. “The girl is frightened and exhausted. Let us take her as far as Tharbad tonight. Tomorrow we can take her to the Ruliri.”
Halbarad walked over to Malek’s body – he seemed to have expired as well -- and nudged it with a boot. “What do you want me to do with these?”
Aragorn’s face was stone as he leaned over and wiped his sword with an edge of the Dunlending’s cloak and then stood looking at the dead face as if studying it. Halbarad wondered if he would ever again look upon a Dunlending without reflexively seeking a familiar arch to the brow or angle to the jaw line. Finally Aragorn sheathed his sword and turned away. “Throw them into the river.”
Tharbad existed in name only. Abandoned since the Great Plague, the last of its crumbling ruins were finally swept away by floodwaters in 2912. In Aragorn’s lifetime, there had been nothing to see there but a few scattered piles of stones and an occasional rotten timber pushing up out of the ground. If not for its strategic location where the North-South Road crossed the Greyflood, even its name would have been long forgotten by all except the Elves.
They came within sight of the ford as the rising sun painted the sky over the Misty Mountains orange. Bypassing the ford and the ruins of the town, Aragorn found the trail leading to the cabin the Dúnedain kept atop the wooded bluff overlooking the ford. The cabin was small and rough, but it was as welcome a sight as Elrond's house to his weary eyes. His old injuries ached fiercely, especially the hand, and as he dismounted in the dooryard of the cabin a stab of pain shot through his bad knee that left him gripping his saddle until his leg adjusted to his weight again.
Halbarad’s son was helping the girl down from her horse. Aragorn needed to speak with him, to find out all he knew, and try to speak with the girl again after she was fed and had rested. To be truthful he was light-headed from hunger and lack of sleep himself. Rest would do them all good. He turned to unstrap his saddlebags and found a battle-scarred hand blocking his way. “I’ll unload the horses,” said Halbarad. “Let me see your hand.”
Aragorn dodged his reach. “It’s fine.”
Halbarad was undeterred, capturing his wrist in a gentle but firm grip. “Let me see it. I saw you swing that sword.”
“I swung it left-handed.”
“You swung it two-handed. Unclench your hand and let me see it.”
Aragorn glanced at Hurin, who had turned to look, and grudgingly relaxed his fist. “My mother will never be dead as long as you live.”
“Why thank you,” Halbarad said in his most annoying tone, prodding the hand inexpertly. “It’s a bit swollen.”
“No more so than it was before,” he replied. “It is fine, Halbarad.” He attempted to regain possession of his hand, only to yelp in pain when Halbarad failed to release his grip.
“Not sore at all, then, is it,” Halbarad deadpanned.
Aragorn shot him a warning glare that Glorfindel would have respected. “If you would stop squeezing it, it would be a good deal less so.” He shooed Halbarad away and stood kneading his hand. “Leave me in peace and go do something useful.”
“Excellent suggestion,” Halbarad said agreeably, unstrapping the saddlebag. “I’ll just unload the horses, then. If you want something to do, you might busy yourself finding something to put in the cook pot.”
There was not much to cook. Between their own provisions, what they had scavenged from the Dunlendings’ packs, and what little Húrin and Haerost had stored at the cabin, Aragorn was able to scrape together a little bread, some dried meat, a few vegetables, and some meal. To his surprise, Húrin approached as he was chopping vegetables and discreetly took over the preparations, promising stew. Aragorn happily turned over the cooking responsibilities and relaxed against a tree near the cookfire, relishing the aroma wafting from the bubbling pot. When dinner was finished to Húrin’s satisfaction, he ladled a healthy portion of lumpy stew over dumplings and presented it to Aragorn with a bow. Aragorn tasted it and raised an eyebrow at Halbarad. “This is really good!”
Halbarad chuckled wryly. “You sound so surprised.”
“I had not thought it possible to eat such palatable fare while traveling with Rangers,” Aragorn said. “Húrin, your skill at cooking is only surpassed by your skill at archery. You made your father and me both proud today.”
Húrin ducked his head in embarrassment but beamed as he handed his father a bowl of stew and went to sit next to the girl. Her dress was ruined; Húrin had found her a pair of trousers and a clean shirt to wear. She had washed her face and combed her hair, but although she seemed comfortable enough in the Rangers’ presence, Aragorn had yet been unable to coax a single word from her beyond a whispered “thank you.” She was a pretty girl, by Dunlending standards, with large dark eyes framed in long lashes. It was easy to see why a chieftain would covet her for his son. He knew enough of Dunlending marriage customs to be reasonably sure it was not a love match, though he had encountered many families in Harad who seemed content in such marriages. The love came later, they said, and he of all people could not dispute the wisdom of such customs.
Halbarad sat down next to him and handed him a mug of beer. He cocked his head at the girl, who was at least eating Húrin's stew. “She seems to be getting on well with Húrin.”
“He’s a very brave young man,” Aragorn said with a smile, “with a heart of gold. I can easily believe he is your son but for the inexplicable quality of his cooking.”
Halbarad shrugged. “He has his father's wisdom, bravery, looks, and wit. It's only fair he gets something from his mother."
"I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear that."
"I fear it will come as no surprise to her. Sadly, she knows I'm a scoundrel."
"It's no wonder she begged me to take you off her hands, then."
Halbarad's face dropped. "She did not."
Aragorn smiled. "No, she didn't. Strange; the woman seems so sensible in other matters."
"I have heard the same said of my lord's beloved," Halbarad said innocently, scratching his beard to disguise a smirk.
Aragorn shot him a glare and dug into his pouch for his pipe. "I have heard your lord does not take kindly to such gossip about his beloved. It is said the last man who risked such an unkind word found himself posted to Forochel in winter."
Halbarad raised an amused eyebrow and gathered up Aragorn's stew bowl. "Be careful, I might think Forochel a more attractive assignment than what awaits us tomorrow. I'll clean up. You had better get some sleep, if you're still bent on taking the girl to the Ruliri in the morning.”
"I can think of no better place to take her," Aragorn said, though he felt uneasy. Dunlending clan politics were treacherous, Dunlending social customs impenetrable, and he was not at all certain how a Dunlending chief would react to three Rangers riding up with his son’s betrothed clad in clothes other than her own. The last thing they needed was any confusion about who was responsible for her being in that state. "We must be careful, though. The Ruliri might easily misinterpret the situation and conclude we were responsible for the attack."
“The Karani have been attacking the Ruliri villages for months," Halbarad said. "Surely the Ruliri will realize they’re responsible.”
“The Karani are their enemies, but still fellow Dunlendings; their own kind,” Aragorn said. “We are foreigners, and not to be trusted.” He had learned that bitter lesson over and over again, during his years abroad. He set his mug down and stretched out his legs. He would have liked a bed under a roof, but the girl would be allowed her privacy tonight in the cabin. He, Halbarad, and Húrin would sleep outside, under the lean-to where they kept firewood and muddy horse tack. “They will instinctively mistrust us. We must be very careful.”
“Careful,” echoed Halbarad. “I’d rather be lucky. Let’s get some rest. Tomorrow is liable to be a long day.”
In the morning, while Halbarad packed their gear and Húrin tacked the horses, Aragorn sat beside Yenne as she finished her tea by the fire. He had heard no sounds of stirring from within the cabin during the night, but the girl did not look as if she had slept at all. She still wore the clothes Húrin had given her the night before, though she seemed less shaken than she had and she did manage to eat a little breakfast. Aragorn supposed it was too early to expect anything more. He had seen much death, and much grief, but he had seldom seen such brutality as this girl had witnessed. Not for the first time, he wished for Elrond’s ability to heal the fëa as well as the body, for this, surely, was a fëa that was broken. If she were an Elf, he had no doubt that she would fade from such a trauma, and his thoughts went unbidden to Celebrían, who nearly had. At least for her there was an escape when all attempts at healing failed, but for mortals, there could be no release but the final one; no escape to Valinor, no ability to fade from the torment of unbearable memories. But Aragorn had found in his travels that no matter how strange or unfathomable their language or customs, people across Arda shared a common love for their children, giving him hope that this broken and fragile soul could find comfort and healing in the arms of her kin. “Today we will take you to your betrothed, Yenne,” he said gently. “Do you understand?”
She closed her eyes as if the words pained her, and then nodded once, slightly.
“Is that what you want? Is there somewhere else you have us take you?”
She shook her head. “It does not matter,” she whispered. Aragorn's instinct was to comfort her, stroking her dark hair or pulling the thin shoulders into an embrace, but she tensed at his gentle touch and he withdrew his hand, realizing it was too soon; the memory of Malek's touch was too fresh. He sighed and stood. He supposed it was too early for anything to matter to her but that her family was dead. "It will be better," he promised, knowing she would not believe him. "You'll see."
At mid-morning, they crossed the river at Tharbad and continued south. The day was fine, and the road climbed from the river valley into a land of rolling hills covered in grass and trees. It was a gentle land that belied the ungentle nature of its people; but though they were unlettered, suspicious, and fierce in their hatred of the Rohirrim, the Dunlendings were not altogether a dishonorable people. Despite their ingrained suspicion of outsiders, Aragorn held hope that someday the Dunlanders could be allies of the Dúnedain. A gesture such as this, he reckoned, could go far to allay their instinctive distrust. Nevertheless, he ordered both Húrin and Halbarad to ride with bows strung and arrows ready.
“The village was in that valley up there, last time I came this way,” Halbarad said, pointing at a low, wooded ridge to the south.
Aragorn turned in the saddle. Húrin, who was riding beside Yenne, leaned over and spoke softly to her, pointing in the direction of the hill. She looked up and nodded. She had not spoken since they left the camp, but though Aragorn could not shake a bad feeling about the impending reunion, there was no better solution to be had. He turned to Halbarad. “What do you think?”
Halbarad eyed the narrow trail. “I think we’re taking a big chance.”
“What would you do? Take her back to the Angle with us?”
“And have the Dunlendings accuse us of kidnapping her? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when they get upset they hold a grudge for a long, long time.”
“Well, then, it’s decided.” Aragorn looked around the cluster of hills that framed the valley, his gaze coming to rest on a tuft of trees atop a nearby hillock. “But I have no intention of riding into a trap. Get Húrin up here.” Halbarad beckoned to his son, and when the boy joined them, Aragorn pointed to the thicket atop the hill. “Take the girl up there and hide in the trees. Keep yourselves concealed. Halbarad and I will ride to the village. Do not show yourself, even to me or your father, unless you are given this password – 'Ravenhill.' If we are not back by nightfall, take the girl and ride for Sarn Ford. Is this understood?”
Húrin nodded. When he and the girl had ridden out of sight on the hilltop, Aragorn turned to Halbarad. “Are you ready?”
Halbarad fingered his sword hilt. “You realize this is suicide. They’d as soon hack us to pieces as look at us.”
“I have traveled far, Halbarad, and met many strange folk. But I have learned that most folk behave honorably if given the opportunity to do so.”
Halbarad looked as if he thought that was the most foolish thing he had ever heard in his life, but he nodded. “I hope you’re right.”
The trail led into deeper woods, sheltered by the close hillsides. The canopy of leaves lent a dark stillness to the air; the silence broken only by birdsong. Deep leaf litter muffled the sound of their horses' hooves, and Aragorn shook off a chill of dread that had nothing to do with the shade of the trees. Ahead the shadows lightened, and the woods thinned again as the hills opened up into a meadow. Tilled fields appeared on either side of the trail, and as Aragorn rounded the last jutted shoulder of a hill, a village appeared ahead of them. “Is that it?” asked Halbarad.
“We shall soon see,” he answered. The village was little more than a collection of ramshackle huts and ragged tents, making the shabby dwellings of the Dúnedain look regal by comparison. Tattered clothing hung on clotheslines, cook fires vented through thatched roofs, but there were few people about. It must be dinnertime. A stick fence held a half-dozen skinny cows and four or five horses, while chickens roamed freely between the houses.
They had been seen – a half-grown boy ran across the barnyard and into one of the larger dwellings, shouting the alarm. A moment later, a man came out, strapping on his sword. He called out in Dunlendish, materializing a dozen or so more men from inside various dwellings. They quickly descended on the Dúnedain with drawn swords, leaving women and children peering from the doors of the houses. Aragorn dismounted and raised his empty hands in greeting, while beside him Halbarad did the same.
The first man to have appeared took his time getting to them, striding purposefully across what Aragorn supposed was a common of sorts. The cluster of armed men parted for him as he approached, and he crossed his arms as he stood before them with his sword still sheathed. He was bearded, tall, and well-muscled beneath a tunic and leather jerkin, his demeanor projecting an air of confidence and authority. This was the chief, Aragorn concluded, and he let the man know he knew it. Ignoring the others, he looked this one directly in the eye as he kept his hands raised at shoulder level. “We come in peace,” he said in Dunlendish. “I am Thorongil, Chieftain of the Dúnedain. I wish to speak to your Chief.”
“The Chief of the Ruliri am I,” the man said. “Dugaric is my name. What is your business, Ranger? Your kind are not welcome in Ruliri lands.”
“A group of your clansmen was attacked by Karani, north of Tharbad. The trader Begaric and his family. All were killed save one – a young girl.”
“Yenne!” the young man standing closest to the chief cried.
The chief silenced the younger man with a glare before turning back to Aragorn. His dark eyes held a stare for longer than most men could have endured, but finally he blinked and shifted his weight. “Why should I believe you?”
“Why should I lie?” Aragorn gestured to himself and Halbarad. “We are two men against a dozen. It is we who put ourselves at risk to come here. We were told the girl is betrothed to your son, is this true?”
Dugaric did not answer, but his eyes flickered to the young man who had cried out. “Where is the girl?”
“She is safe,” Aragorn said. “If you assure us she will be well treated, we will bring her to you.”
Dugaric’s dark eyes flared. “You insult me, Ranger. How dare you suggest the Ruliri do not know how to treat their women? Do you think us savages? Yes, I think perhaps you do.”
A rumble of discontent was spreading through the gathered Dunlendings now, and out of the corner of his eye, Aragon saw Halbarad’s hand tighten on his sword hilt. “Hold,” he warned him under his breath, then addressed Dugaric. “I suggest nothing. I can see that your women here are well cared for. Is this girl your son’s betrothed, then?”
“She is,” Dugaric said. “She was in the hands of the Karani, you say?” Angry muttering rose amongst the men, and one of them spit onto the ground.
“Yes,” Aragorn answered. “We rescued her, and killed the Karani.”
“Liar!” accused a short man with a stubby beard. “These northerners probably killed Begaric themselves, and took the women.”
“Silence, Melnag!” Dugaric turned to him and spoke very slowly. “It is the Karani, not the northerners, who burned our villages and stole our women and cattle. We have had no trouble with these men and I am not looking for any.” He turned back to Aragorn. “Forgive his mistrust. He is Begaric’s brother. We are in your debt. Show us where you have taken the girl and we will restore the honor of her family.”
Aragorn fixed a neutral expression on his face and addressed Halbarad in barely-audible Sindarin. “What did he say?”
“Something about restoring the honor of her family.”
Aragorn smiled thinly. The hairs were rising on the back of his neck, along with the memory of some obscure customs he had encountered in Harad. “Forgive my ignorance of your language, Dugaric, but I do not understand that expression. Can you explain to me what it means?”
“The Karani dogs have destroyed the honor of Begaric’s family, and mine as well, since the girl is betrothed to my son.”
“But she was not --” Halbarad broke off, and appeared to be searching for the right word.
“Defiled,” Aragorn said. “She was not defiled.”
"How do you know?" asked the chief's son.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aragorn saw Halbarad kneading the bridge of his nose. "This was a bad idea," he murmured.
“She was in the hands of the enemy,” Dugaric said firmly. “She has lost her honor. It must be restored.” Murmurs of assent rumbled through the assembled men.
Aragorn was not sure he wanted to know the answer to his next question. “And what will restore it?”
“The girl must die,” Dugaric said. ‘It is a matter of honor." He frowned at Aragorn. "You seem like an honorable man. Do you not understand such things?”
"Surely there must be some other way," said Halbarad. "We could take her with us, find a home for her --"
"You see!" shouted Begaric's brother. "They want our women for their own!"
"This is our way," Dugaric stated. He crossed his arms firmly against his chest. "We can not allow this dishonor to stand. Do you have no respect for a woman that you would allow her to be disgraced in this way?"
"And her family," said Begaric's brother. "Think of her family!"
“We’re outnumbered," Halbarad whispered. "In case you haven’t noticed.”
“Very well,” Aragorn said to Dugaric. “We will take you to the girl.” Then, leaning close to Halbarad, he switched again to Sindarin. “And let’s hope your son knows how to follow orders.”
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