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In the Hands of the Enemy: 11. Rolly's Decision
“Orcs,” he muttered.
“Nonsense,” Rolly said, pulling him along the passageway and righting him as he stumbled and careened into the wall. “It’s just an old salt mine.”
Aragorn squinted at his surroundings. It was indeed a mine. A long-abandoned one, by the perilous condition of the beams lining the passageway. “What are we doing in a mine?” He had no memory of entering a mine, and found it difficult to imagine he would have done so voluntarily. He fought for recall, and came up with only fragmented images of Teburic lying on the ground with a knife in his belly - or was it Baranuir?
“We have to hide. Teburic's men are after us, remember?" The boy tugged at his sleeve. "Come on."
An abandoned salt mine. Aragorn knew of such a place, a few miles off the Greenway, though he had never been there. He stopped short, resisting the pull of the slightly built boy. He didn’t care what kind of mine it was. It bore entirely too close a resemblance to an orc den for his taste. “We're getting out of here,” he said, turning around.
The boy pulled him back. “No!” he cried. “Teburic’s men are coming! We have to hide in here.”
“If they find us in here we'll be trapped. We need to get back to Bree. Where did you leave the horses?” Aragorn leaned heavily against the wall, fighting dizziness. He shut his eyes agains the dancing images crowding his vision and pressed a hand to his pounding head as the buzzing in his ears thrummed ever louder. He felt himself sliding down the wall, rough stone scraped against his torn back, and forced his eyes open just as four goblins rounded the corner ahead. He knew that they were real when their hands closed on his arms. “Told you I smelled orcs,” he managed to say, as they yanked him to his feet.
The orcs followed the boy down the old mine tunnels, hauling the senseless Ranger between them. Arriving at a torch-lit chamber, they dragged him to a corner and made to fasten him to restraints bolted into the stone walls.
“No!" the boy said, stepping between the orcs and the chains. "Leave him alone. He is nearly finished.” The orcs shrugged and released their hold, dropping the Man to the ground. The boy knelt beside him and reached through strands of mud-caked hair to feel for a pulse. Settling back on his heels, he directed his gaze at the expectant orc captain. “We are being followed by two Men. Hold them off until I am finished here.”
The orc guffawed and turned to his comrades, his hands tightening on the hilt of his blade. "Did you hear that, boys? Hold them off, indeed - we'll have a feast!" With answering grunts of approval, his underlings lurched out to the corridor.
"Orcs," the boy muttered under his breath. He turned back to Ranger and brushed a clump of dried mud from his cheek. "Why did you have to be so stubborn, Dúnadan?" he said softly. "It would have been so much easier the other way. But since you're a man of honor, maybe you'll understand why I have to do this." He reached into his shirt and withdrew a glass vial. Holding it before the Ranger’s face, he crushed it between his fingers, releasing a puff of gray powder into the man’s nostrils. “Now, Strider, or whatever your name truly is – we will get to the truth.”
“Strider,” he whispered, leaning close to Ranger’s ear. “Wake up." When there was no response, he jostled the cloaked shoulder. "Strider! Wake up!"
The man moaned slightly, his eyelids twitching. The boy leaned close. "Strider, can you hear me? It is I. Gandalf.”
“Gandalf?” The Ranger was barely responsive, eyelids still closed.
“Yes, my friend. I am here. Everything will be all right, now.”
“You’re all right,” the Ranger mumbled.
“Yes. I am fine. But I need your help, do you understand? Hundreds of orcs are massing near the Angle. They mean to wipe out the Dúnedain camps. You must pull all your men from their posts at the Shire boundaries to defend them.”
The Ranger’s head tossed from side to side. “Can’t.”
“No, you must.”
“Why not?” The boy waited as the Ranger’s face twitched in indecision. “Why not?” he repeated, pulling another vial from his shirt and releasing its pungent contents into the air before the Ranger’s face.
The Ranger’s eyes opened, glazed, unrecognizing. His breath hitched in shallow gasps as the drug overtook him. “You know,” he rasped, as his eyelids closed again.
“No, tell me,” the boy demanded, seizing the filth-encrusted cloak. It was not safe to give the man any more drugs but time was running out.
The Ranger’s brows knotted. “Frodo,” he whispered.
A Shire name. The boy leaned closer. “What about Frodo?”
The Ranger’s head merely tossed again, back and forth against the rough stone, as if warding off a swarm of flies. "No," he whispered.
The boy took a deep breath and reached into his shirt again, withdrawing a third vial and crushing it. “You are right,” he said. “We must protect Frodo. Where will he be safe?”
“Nowhere. He will be safe nowhere as long as he has it.”
"Has what?" the boy pressed, but the Ranger's jaw was slackening and the tension was melting from his brow.
"Nowhere," the Ranger mumbled, his voice almost too faint to hear. After a moment, the boy sighed and reached into his shirt for another vial.
Halbarad rose from a crouch and mounted, reaching down to flick the largest clumps of mud from his boots before settling them in the stirrups. Adjusting the position of his bandaged calf against the saddle with a wince, he pulled the edge of his cloak hood aside and turned to meet Gandalf’s eyes. “They split off from the trail here, went overland following this little creek. Aragorn’s horse is still being led by the other,” he added. Not once had he seen Aragorn's footprints on the ground, as he would have expected, stopping to read the lay of the land, to assess the condition of the road. He knew Gandalf would understand his meaning. Aragorn was never led.
Halbarad glanced about at the slumping hills on either side of the trail, their shoulders studded with trees whose naked branches dripped steadily in the cold rain. Suddenly, a memory came to him. “Oh, no," he groaned.
"What is it?"
"I know where they’re headed,” Halbarad said, hands tightening on the reins and legs unconsciously gripping the horse’s flanks with new urgency. “Come on."
"I can't believe this was Strider's idea," Halbarad said after an hour more of picking their way along the creek-bed brought them to the base of a limestone-studded hillock and before it, the black maw of a mine entrance carved out of the hillside.
"Why not?" Gandalf asked.
"It's my guess that he'd sooner face a dragon in full wrath than go underground again any time soon," Halbarad said, not bothering to mention that it was a sentiment he shared. "On the other hand, at least it's out of the rain." He saw the chestnut mare he had given Aragorn tethered to a tree beside another horse. He dismounted and went over to her. "Hello, Daisy, have you been taking good care of Aragorn?" he asked, as the mare snickered softly in recognition and butted his shoulder. Halbarad reached to untie the reins that someone had fastened to a tree branch before turning back to Gandalf with narrowed eyes. “Strider would never tie up a horse in the wild,” he said grimly, “and he wouldn’t leave the horses in full view of the entry point.”
The look in Gandalf's eyes said that he knew this as well, but he spared a slight smile. "Daisy?"
Halbarad flushed. "My granddaughter named her, if you must know." He reached into his saddlebags and began removing gear as Gandalf went to examine the mine entrance. Having rapidly donned every piece of weaponry and hardware in his possession, Halbarad went to join him, still fastening straps as he scanned the rocky ground in front of the mine entrance. “I can’t see any tracks,” he said, “but it's been raining hard all day. They had to have gone in this way. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“They went in,” said Gandalf without explanation, his ageless blue eyes intent on the dark void of the mine shaft.
“We only have two torches,” Halbarad said, with a glance at the wizard’s staff. “Of course, I suppose you don’t need one.”
Gandalf didn’t answer. The Ranger eyed the cracked and warped timbers which shored up the entrance worriedly and reached a hand to test the strength of the wood. “This looks pretty old.”
“It was abandoned nearly 400 years ago,” Gandalf said absently.
Halbarad glanced askance at the wizard. “Was that supposed to make me feel better?”
"Are you going in there?" Tillfield asked, scurrying up with Halbarad’s Elven dagger held at the ready. The Ranger caught him with a firm hand on the small shoulder. “Not this time, Tillfield.”
“I can fight, too,” the hobbit protested.
“I know you can. That’s why we need you to stay and protect the horses,” Halbarad explained, with an eye roll at Gandalf over the hobbit’s head. “It’s a very important job. What if we came back out and someone had stolen them?”
“Halbarad is right,” Gandalf said, inexplicably deciding to be helpful for once, and for once Halbarad almost wished he hadn’t. He had been a hairsbreadth from giving in and allowing the boy to come along, where at least he and Gandalf could keep an eye on him. The idea of leaving the hobbit out here unprotected was worrisome.
Halbarad sighed and knelt before the small hobbit, grasping his arms. Facing the still-defiant gaze, he spoke firmly. “Now listen, Tillfield. We’re going to lead the horses a bit further away. You must stay near them, and hide in the woods where you can see the mine entrance. Don’t come out for anything – anything – except me and Gandalf. If we don’t come out by - ” the Ranger looked about, assessing the deepening afternoon light – “by dawn, take the chestnut and leave. She will let you mount her, but you may have to lead her to a tree. Can you do that?”
"But I want to help, too," Tillfield protested.
“You are helping, Tillfield,” Halbarad answered, “but if we aren’t out of that mine by dawn, we will need more help than you can give us.”
“Don’t worry, young Master Tillfield,” Gandalf added with a reassuring wink as he helped Halbarad lead the growing herd to a copse out of sight of the entrance. “Halbarad and I are quite experienced in these matters. We will return shortly with Strider. You’ll see. Just stay here and stay out of sight.”
Gandalf quickly settled the hobbit with sufficient blankets and provisions to last the night, and turned back to the Ranger. “We will get him back,” he promised as they walked together back to the mine entrance, leaving Halbarad to blink as he saw in the Wizard’s eyes a flash of resolute lethality that Morgoth himself would not have lightly dismissed. Just as quickly, the eyes softened and the craggy old face relaxed again into a gentle smile, as Gandalf waved Halbarad forward with his staff. “Now, my dear Ranger, since you have more recent experience with such subterranean forays, I suggest you take the lead.”
“Good plan,” Halbarad muttered under his breath, as he stooped low to enter the mine. "It all turned out so well last time.”
“I don’t like the smell in here, Gandalf,” Halbarad commented as he knelt to examine a tunnel intersection. “I can’t see any tracks, but I’ll bet my boots there are orcs around here somewhere.” He nodded to a side passage, its timbered walls faintly illuminated by the soft glow from Gandalf’s staff and the flickering light of his own torch. “They went that way.” Halbarad started down the passageway and stopped short, bending low to examine the ground. “Look here.”
Gandalf joined him in crouching low, lending the light of his staff to the object of Halbarad’s scrutiny. In the mud, even the wizard could see the unmistakable impression of an orc boot.
“There goes the neighborhood,” Halbarad remarked, standing and tightening the grip on his dagger. "All right. At least we know what we're up against."
He started off down the narrower passage, with Gandalf at his shoulder.
Scarcely five minutes had passed before the passage reached a four-way intersection and the orcs came at them from both sides. Halbarad was waiting for it and reflexively swung at the nearest one, dropping it headless to the ground with a stroke even Aragorn would have admired. On the follow-through, he managed to get an approximate head count of eight orcs on the attack. He thrust his blade into another one and saw in the corner of his eye that Gandalf was swinging away to similarly lethal effect. "Halbarad, cover me!" he shouted suddenly, and Halbarad got himself between the orcs and Gandalf just as the Wizard's sword dropped to the floor with a clatter.
Halbarad saw the staff come up and didn't need the warning to cover his eyes this time. As the anticipated flash of light faded behind his eyelids, he removed the hand he'd thrown over them and lunged forward at the incapacitated orcs. He got to two of them before they could orient themselves, and chased the others as they retreated blindly down the passageway.
With Gandalf right on his heels, and Halbarad right on theirs, the blinded orcs tumbled out into a large, torch-lit chamber which contained several more orcs who, it was unfortunately apparent, retained full possession of not only their faculties but also their weapons. As he heaved his sword at the first one, Halbarad saw in the shadows of the corner a dark, unmoving form resembling a very familiar Ranger.
The human boy kneeling beside him was rising, backing away, glancing toward the escape route of a darkened passage behind him. Gandalf’s eyes were fixed on him like a hawk on a mouse as he sheathed his sword and raised his staff before him like a spear.
Halbarad withdrew his bloody blade from the belly of a dead orc.
Gandalf hesitated in his pursuit of the boy long enough to swing his head around in Halbarad’s direction, gray hair flying about his shoulders. His eyes were lit with cold fire as they met Halbarad’s, and his gaze darted to the motionless Ranger. “Get him out of here,” he commanded, and turned back to follow the boy.
“Gandalf! Let him go!” Halbarad called after him as he disappeared from view. Sighing in frustration at Gandalf’s impetuosity, he glanced warily around for further threats. But nothing that still moved kept his company in the dark chamber.
Halbarad rushed to the side of his Chieftain.
He knew even before dropping down on his knees beside him that he still lived. Even motionless and brutalized as he appeared, his body lacked the definitive slackness that Halbarad knew only too well.
“Elbereth,” Halbarad murmured, reaching hesitantly to touch the skin of his kinsman's face, clammy with shock and ashen where it was not covered in mud, bruises, or blood. Aragorn’s eyes were open but glazed and unseeing, sunken in darkened and hollow sockets.
“Aragorn,” Halbarad whispered, bending close to his face. “Hold on. We're getting out of here.” He grasped him by an arm and hoisted him over his shoulder, reaching to grab the torch as he pushed himself upright. With one last glance toward the dark passageway Gandalf had disappeared into, he made for the exit.
Halbarad ran through the dark corridors, praying to Ilúvatar that no more orcs would show up while he was trying to run through a fetid maze of damp, slick, passageways on a wounded leg, hauling a sword, a torch, and a Dúnadan Chieftain. Just as he was beginning to fear that he had taken a wrong turn, he saw a lighter patch of darkness ahead and stumbled out into the clearing, inhaling gasping lungfuls of sharp night air. It was not raining any more, but a chill dampness filled his chest as he ran down the short path.
Amongst the spiky silhouettes of trees, he made out the rounded dark shapes of horses, the lighter mist of their breath clouding the chill air. Halbarad ran across the rough ground toward them, stumbling as Aragorn’s weight put him off-balance. “Tillfield,” he gasped, swinging around clumsily. “Tillfield!”
“I’m here,” the small voice answered, and Halbarad expelled a short gasp of relief at the sight of the hobbit emerging from the wood line.
“Are you all right?” Halbarad asked.
The hobbit nodded mutely, staring up in open-mouthed horror at the mud-drenched and motionless figure draped across Halbarad’s shoulders.
“It’s all right, he’s alive,” Halbarad said. He spotted a flat area beneath the trees and lowered Aragorn to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the hobbit standing behind his shoulder, small fists clenched and shoulders hitching in anguish. “Tillfield, don't fall apart on me, I need you,” he said without taking his eyes off Aragorn. “Get me some water and blankets.”
The hobbit handed him a waterskin. “Where is Gandalf?”
Halbarad took it from him, not answering. Aragorn was senseless and limp, his eyes dull with shock, his breath shallow and rapid. Halbarad ripped open what was left of his shirt and checked for wounds.
Sighing with relief at finding nothing grievous, he pulled Aragorn’s head and shoulders up to rest against him. “Aragorn,” he commanded, shaking him lightly. “Can you hear me? Aragorn!”
The ranger’s shoulders twitched beneath Halbarad’s hands and he took a long shuddering breath. His eyelids fluttered and he raised his head, trying twist around to see who held him.
“Steady,” Halbarad said. “It’s just me.”
“Halbarad,” Aragorn murmured, his voice faint and slurred by pain or shock.
“That’s right. Everything is all right. You’re safe now.” Halbarad held him as Tillfield unfurled a blanket and spread it over him.
Aragorn was fighting for consciousness, his eyes struggling to focus. “Are you real?"
"Of course I'm real," Halbarad answered.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to get my horse back,” Halbarad whispered, not trusting his voice.
Aragorn's mouth twitched. "You're real," he whispered.
Halbarad closed his eyes and held the matted head tight against his chest for a moment. “Here. Try to drink a little.” He raised the skin to his Aragorn's lips and managed to get some of the liquid into him before Aragorn’s eyes rolled back and his head fell limply against Halbarad’s shoulder once again.
Halbarad laid him down gently and turned him carefully on his side, pulling the blanket up over him. “Tillfield,” he said to the hobbit as he rose to his feet, picking up his sword. “Stay here and take care of Strider. Whatever happens, don’t let him come after me. Sit on him if you have to.”
“Don’t leave!” the hobbit cried.
Halbarad tightened his jaw. In truth, it was the last thing he wanted to do. He cast a last resigned glance at the still form beneath the blankets. “I have to,” he answered. “I can’t leave Gandalf in there alone.”
“Nobody’s leaving me anywhere,” a familiar voice called from behind him.
“Gandalf!” the hobbit cried, tearing loose from Halbarad’s grasp and running to the wizard as he broke into the clearing, the limp body of the boy from the mine lying in his arms.
Gandalf dropped his burden on the ground somewhat un-gently and caught the hobbit in an embrace as the small figure plunged into his robes. “Easy on an old man, Dudo,” he grunted amicably. Grasping the hobbit firmly by his small shoulders, he extended him to arms’ length, leaning close to examine him for signs of injury. “Dudo, are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” the hobbit affirmed.
“Good.” Gandalf moved past him with a reassuring ruffle of his hair and turned to kneel beside Aragorn.
“He’s been beaten pretty badly,” Halbarad said, dropping down next to him, “and his sword hand is a mess, but I can’t find any other broken bones. He looks awful, though.”
“He does indeed,” the wizard concurred in a low voice, smoothing matted and mud-encrusted hair away from the gray skin of the ranger’s face.
“He feels so clammy. Those little yellow glass things were all over the floor where I found him.”
“We must get him back to Bree,” Gandalf said, resting a hand on the ashen forehead. “And we must leave here before that one can summon further aid.” The wizard cast a dark glance backward at the mysterious boy, who still lay unconscious where he had been dropped. “There are strange forces at work here.”
Halbarad’s eyes widened as he cast an incredulous glance at the boy. “Him?”
It was not a notion that particularly pleased Gandalf, either, but the evidence was mounting. “You had best tie him up before he awakens.”
“What are you planning to do with him?” Halbarad asked.
“We are taking him with us,” Gandalf answered, without looking up.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Halbarad asked. “Why not just leave him here?”
Gandalf was bent low over Aragorn and didn’t answer. After a moment, Halbarad snorted in exasperation and went to find some rope.
“What kind of nonsense have you managed to get yourself caught up in this time, my old friend?” Gandalf murmured, removing the blanket to examine Aragorn more thoroughly. A cursory examination confirmed Halbarad’s initial assessment, and Gandalf sighed and pulled the blanket back over the Ranger’s shoulders. Nothing more could be done at the moment. More orcs were certainly in the area, and Gandalf was uncomfortable with the prospect that they were connected to the boy somehow.
“All right, this one is trussed up like a goose for market,” Halbarad said from behind him. “We’d better get out of here before more orcs show up. Do you want me to take the boy or Aragorn?”
Gandalf reluctantly relinquished his hold on the unconscious Ranger and rose to his feet. “I will take the boy with me,” he said. He gestured Halbarad to his fallen comrade, speaking words that earned him a look of astonishment. “Best remove his weapons."
Gray dawn was filtering through the overhanging tangle of bare branches before Gandalf finally called a halt. The party’s travel throughout the waning hours of the night had been difficult, and though Halbarad would have chosen to continue the remaining several miles to re-connect with the Greenway before stopping for rest, he did not dispute the Wizard’s decision. His back and arms were cramped and exhausted from holding Aragorn on the horse in front of him. The Ranger had been drifting in and out of delirium during their past few hours on the trail, at times becoming so agitated that Halbarad had trouble keeping him on the horse. The clamminess had left him, replaced by fever.
While Halbarad carried Aragorn to a sheltered place beneath the trees and wrapped him in blankets, Gandalf took their unconscious prisoner a safe distance away. By all appearances, the slender sprout of a boy lashed to a tree before him was an innocent. The fine locks of a child fell into his eyes, the long dark lashes of a child lay peacefully against his pale cheek.
Gandalf steeled himself against appearances, deeply, sickeningly certain that whatever had been done to Aragorn had been done at the hands of this child, and whatever had been done to the child was worse still. It remained to be seen whether it could be undone.
He reached a hand to the boy’s forehead. “Wake up,” he commanded.
The boy’s eyes opened, widening with surprise when he saw the wizard poised inches from his face. The look in his eyes was terror born of recognition, and he struggled against his bonds before realizing he was hopelessly caught.
“So you know me,” Gandalf said. “I wonder how. I am sure that we have never met.”
Gandalf raised a water skin to the boy’s mouth. “Are you thirsty? It has been a long ride.” The boy clamped his mouth shut in a resolute grimace, defiance sparking in his gray eyes.
“Very well,” Gandalf said. He lowered himself to the ground and settled himself against the tree next to the boy, pulling his pipe from the recesses of his robe and lighting it. “Terrible habit, I’ve been told,” he said by way of apology. “But in my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of the hobbits. It does much to clear the mind and relax the body.”
The boy was resolutely silent, glaring at him from beneath the swath of dark hair falling over his brow. Gandalf peered at him with a critical gaze. “You so resemble a Dúnadan, do you know that?”
“I do not!” the boy retorted, eyes flaring.
“And why does that suggestion bother you?” the Wizard asked.
“They are Men!”
“You are a Man, my boy,” Gandalf said, “or at least you will be someday. There is no shame in being a Man. Who taught you that there was, I wonder?”
The boy lowered his eyes and was silent.
“What is your name, child?” the wizard asked.
The boy was silent for so long that Gandalf assumed he would not answer. But a twitch of the slim shoulders betrayed him at last, and the wizard looked over in time to see an anguished swallow and a flash of a tormented grimace twist the unblemished features.
The muscles in the boy’s fine jaw line tightened spasmodically as he struggled with himself. “I don’t know,” he whispered finally.
“It’s all right,” said Gandalf. “It is over. You can come with us now.”
The boy looked up at him in genuine astonishment.
“There is only one thing,” Gandalf said. “You must tell me who sent you.”
The boy averted his eyes, and Gandalf saw them slowly harden. With a hint of a head-shake, the boy took a long breath. “I cannot,” he said.
Gandalf reached a hand to the slender shoulder. “Yes, you can. Whatever you have done, whatever has happened to you, it is over now. You are free to decide.”
The boy’s jaw tightened. “Strider is brave," he said. "He'll understand."
"What will he understand?" Gandalf asked.
"He would have died to protect his secret," the boy answered. His eyes darted to the treeline. "Tell him that I make the same choice." The boy closed his eyes, letting his chin fall to his chest.
Gandalf rose to his feet, raising his staff before him. “Halbarad!” he shouted. The Ranger jerked his head around. “Get ready!” the Wizard warned, an instant before he heard the unmistakable growl of a wolf somewhere in the trees behind him.
Aragorn was aware that somehow Halbarad and Gandalf had found him, though not much beyond that fact had penetrated his fog of nightmares and delirium. On the topics of what had happened to him, where he was, or how much time had passed, his mind was mercifully vague. Faces kept appearing in his dreams; asking him questions, questions with no sensible answers. Sometimes it was Rolly's face, sometimes Baranuir's, and sometimes Gandalf's.
There was some truth which had to be protected, a truth that in some way had to do with the questions, but at the same time did not. He groaned and struggled against the dreams.
“Easy,” a voice murmured near his ear, as firm hands caught his shoulders and pressed him back down. “Take it easy, it’s all right.” He felt his head lifted and a cup of water pressed against his lips. Halbarad again. He obediently drank as much as he could, the last few swallows going astray as he swallowed the wrong way. Halbarad patiently held him as he choked and then wiped the excess liquid from his chin and neck before lowering him back to the ground. “That’s good,” he said. “Now rest.”
Halbarad was still talking, though Aragorn could no longer follow the words. It was comforting to hear Halbarad’s voice. A vague sense of regret, of guilt, attached to his memories of Halbarad, though he couldn’t remember why. It didn’t matter. He began to drift back to sleep to the reassuring sound of his kinsman’s voice.
Another voice suddenly pierced his darkness. Gandalf's voice. Even semi-conscious and delusional, Aragorn knew that tone in Gandalf’s voice. It meant imminent and mortal peril.
Halbarad had released his hold on him in an instant, and as Aragorn lay struggling to regain full awareness, he heard the rasp of swords being unsheathed, the guttural growls of attacking wolves. As Halbarad’s running footstepts receded, he was shouting to Gandalf that the wolves were going for the horses.
Amidst the visceral sounds of metal running through flesh, the snarls and yelps of wolves, the cries and snorts of horses, and the shouts of Gandalf and Halbarad, Aragorn forced himself up onto his elbows. His head was swimming, his ears were buzzing, and dizziness prevented him from rising further than his knees. He fumbled at his waist and found his weapons gone again.
A piercing cry of pain rose from behind him, and he pivoted awkwardly on his knees to see a massive wolf tearing into Rolly.
Aragorn crawled toward it, searching himself desperately as he went for a knife, a dagger, anything that may have been overlooked when his weapons had been removed. Finding nothing, he kept moving.
His hand brushed across a decent-sized branch, and he picked it up. So intent was the wolf on rending the boy’s flesh that Aragorn was able to get in one swing with the stick before it turned.
The one-handed blow was weak and the wolf turned amber eyes toward him over a muzzle that dripped with Rolly's blood.
As the wolf's shoulders tensed to lunge and it opened its mouth to bare the fangs that would tear into his throat, a small, tousle-headed figure appeared behind it. Before Aragorn could sort out where in Arda a hobbit could have come from, or what one was doing with a six-thousand-year-old Noldor dagger, seven inches of Elven steel found themselves buried to the hilt in lupine flesh.
Aragorn scrambled to Rolly as the wolf collapsed, ignoring for the moment the hobbit, who he largely suspected to be a figment of his fevered imagination, anyway.
Rolly's body was badly torn, and his left leg was nearly severed at the groin. Aragorn reached his hand into the cavity of the wound, feeling for the ripped vessel from which the boy’s blood poured out onto the ground.
“Strider.” Aragorn abandoned the futile effort to stop the bleeding directly and yanked his belt off instead. Tying it high up on the boy’s leg and cinching it as tightly as he could with his teeth, he leaned close to the boy’s face. Rolly was breathing in short, hitching gasps, his face drained of all color.
Aragorn rested his blood-soaked hand on the side of the boy’s head. “Quiet,” he murmured. “Just lie still.”
“I told you,” they boy gasped. “I told you I couldn’t fail.”
“Don’t try to speak,” Aragorn urged. The boy was shivering uncontrollably, and Aragorn shrugged off his cloak and laid it over him.
“I’m sorry, Strider.”
Aragorn took the boy’s hand.
“I can’t fail him,” the boy gasped. “He would have made me tell.”
“Rolly,” Aragorn whispered. “No.”
The boy struggled to answer with strident breaths. His eyes started to roll back. “You didn’t tell. Remember... that you didn’t tell.”
As Aragorn watched the gray eyes grow dim, he realized that the clamor of fighting had quieted, replaced by the sounds of familiar voices approaching. As they reached him, and their hands grasped hold of him, he let the darkness take him away.
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