Tales of the North
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Becoming: 3. Draw
Ranger training camp, the Angle – Mettarë 2951-January 2952
Halbarad didn't say anything when Aragorn put down his bow with a wince of pain. He kept silent when Aragorn fumbled to undo the straps on his bracer. Finally, though he still said nothing, his lips did twitch in amusement as Aragorn tried to take off his quiver without moving his shoulders.
"Of course, you realise that it won't really hurt until tomorrow?" his friend asked. Now it was Aragorn's turn for silence, and an affronted glare. Aragorn carefully moved his right shoulder to loosen it up. Halbarad was right; this would hurt in the morning.
Looking worried, Halbarad started to say something, but stopped again.
"What?" Aragorn asked.
"Never mind," Halbarad said. "I was wondering whether you'll be ready for the archery contest."
"It should not be a problem by then; it's just a bit sore," Aragorn said, rubbing his shoulder and hoping he was right. If he had pulled a muscle, he wouldn't get far in the contest. Trying to sound unconcerned, he asked, "Why? Are you worried I will beat you?"
"Hardly. I am the better archer, even when you're fit," Halbarad replied with a smirk.
"We'll see about that," Aragorn said; although he would have to be lucky to beat Halbarad even if his arm wasn't sore. He was a good archer, but Halbarad was better.
The next day Aragorn's right shoulder was so stiff that he could barely move at first, confirming that he had pulled a muscle. Luckily, he only had sentry duty in the morning, and the afternoon was for cleaning and mending his gear. After eating with the other recruits and time spent around the campfire, he and Halbarad returned to their tent.
"This is something I've meant to ask for a while," Halbarad asked as Aragorn tried to find a way to sleep that wouldn't hurt his shoulder, "What was it like, growing up in Imladris?"
What was it like? Aragorn found that the question didn't call up the intense feeling of homesickness it would have done a mere few weeks ago. Is this becoming home then? And then what is home anyway? This camp? Grandfather's house in Caras Dirnen? He tried to collect his thoughts. "I remember so little of the time before, not even..." He paused, thinking further about it. "It is difficult to say; I do not have anything to compare it with. The house and the grounds are much larger than you would think when you come there from outside, and within the bounds of the valley I could roam freely as I grew older, but what made it different I think was that I was the only Mannish child there."
"That must have been strange," Halbarad said.
"Not really. It was all I knew," Aragorn replied. "But I was kept busy with lessons, and there were some Elvish children to play with, though it was difficult to make friends among them."
"Because you weren't an Elf?"
"In a way," Aragorn said. "I grew much faster than they, and the previous year's companions would suddenly seem childish."
"What do you mean?" Halbarad asked, sounding confused.
Aragorn explained further. "Elvish children walk and talk sooner than we do, but beyond that, they grow much slower. A twenty-year old Elf would be much like a ten-year old child with us. Mostly though, I was around adults. Mother, Master Elrond, members of his household, his sons..."
"The sons of Elrond?" Halbarad asked. "They were in Caras Dirnen a few years ago to meet with Dírhael and the Council, but they spent some time at the archery range as well; they told the story of Bard the Bowman and the Dragon, and practiced archery with us."
"So that explains your archery skills," Aragorn observed with a grin.
"Hardly," Halbarad retorted. "They taught you for much longer than one afternoon, and I'm still better than you… Which reminds me, how is the shoulder?"
Aragorn shrugged and bit back a curse as his shoulder protested. "Well enough," he replied as casually as he could. He was unlikely to win against Halbarad even if he was fit, but now he'd likely be out after the first or second round. It wasn't that he minded losing – well, he did, to be honest – but it would make him look much worse than he was. It upset him more than it probably should, were it not that he'd overheard some of the others saying that they couldn't see why he had come to the camp – he would get his star anyway, no matter how he acquitted himself.
"Aragorn!" Halbarad sounded irritated, and Aragorn realised that this wasn't his kinsman's first attempt to get his attention.
"Sorry, I was thinking," he replied.
Halbarad snorted, making Aragorn feel as if he knew what bothered him even if he said nothing.
"I've been thinking about something else," Aragorn said, "I thought that all who come here want to become Rangers?"
"Because of Dannir and Meneldir leaving last week?" Halbarad replied. As Aragorn agreed, he went on. "It depends. There are usually a few like them from the Outside villages who cannot be missed at home, and who do not stay to gain their star. They'll do what they can around their village and they may sometimes join patrols near there."
Aragorn went on. "So how long do recruits usually spend here?"
"Usually about one patrol season. Didn't Dírhael explain?" Halbarad replied. "Now can I go to sleep? I'd like to get some rest for the contest. And don't think half the night about whatever is bothering you."
Aragorn grinned as Halbarad immediately started to snore demonstratively; he supposed it was quite late. Of course, in the mornings Halbarad, as an early riser, had the advantage of him, so it evened out.
Halbarad had already gone out by the time Aragorn woke up, so he took some time to loosen up his shoulder. It was still sore, but again better than the day before.
There already was a group of recruits, both competitors and spectators, waiting at the archery field when Aragorn got there. Aragorn waved a greeting at Halbarad, but didn't go over to speak to him, as their archery instructor, Arminas, and the other Rangers arrived just then. Unlike most of their regular practice, the contest involved fixed, distant targets rather than roving. The targets hadn't been set up yet, so Arminas called over some of the recruits who weren't taking part to assist him with them.
"Listen," Arminas called to the competitors once the targets were set up. "Before we begin, you can all shoot three arrows to warm up. After that, the first round is six arrows at eighty yards. Two arrows inside the third circle to go to the next round. Any questions?"
As he lined up for the first practice shot, Aragorn felt a twinge of protest from his shoulder as soon as he drew the bow close to full tension. The arrow was only barely within the third circle of the target. He didn't shoot again in the practice round, but watched the others. Halbarad got the centre twice, and the third arrow only just outside it, and five of the others also had an arrow in the centre at least once.
The first round was easy. Halbarad got his score with just two arrows, both in the centre of the target. All who took part should be able to get this distance, and he watched as the others shot, waiting until it was Aragorn's turn.
Aragorn shot fast, not holding the draw long; clearly then, his shoulder still bothered him. He needed four attempts, the second-worst score in the first round.
The second round was five arrows for two hits at ninety yards, and again Halbarad only needed two arrows. Aragorn was next to go. His first arrow fell far short of the target and there was a nervous rush of laughter from the watching recruits, quickly silenced by a gesture from Arminas. His concentration broken, Aragorn fumbled as he nocked his second arrow, although it did hit inside the third circle. His third arrow fell short again, but at least this time no one laughed. The fourth was in the outer circle. As Aragorn nocked his last arrow, Halbarad realised he was holding his breath, and he forced himself to relax. Steady, he urged Aragorn on in thought; take your time and draw properly. Aragorn released the arrow too quickly again, and it too hit the outer circle.
There were nine recruits left for the third round, which would be four arrows for two hits at a hundred yards. Halbarad was the third to go, and he waited, trying to stay calm, as Gelmir put two arrows barely within the third circle, and Indor only managed one.
Steady. Halbarad took the first of his arrows, quickly checking the fletching. Nock. Draw. Aim. Breathe. Steady. Release. Off the centre, but well within the second circle. Again. The arrow struck the target on the edge of the fourth circle. Curse it. Missed. Next arrow… Nock. Draw. Aim. Breathe. Release. This one was closer, but still outside the third circle. He took the last arrow. Steady now. He nocked the arrow. Draw. Aim. Breathe. Steady. Steady… Release. The centre. He smiled as he walked back to watch the rest of the round.
Six more. Five didn't go through, and now it was Maldir's turn. He was likely to make it to the final, and Halbarad watched closely. The first arrow was on the edge of the target, but he put his second and third arrow inside the second circle.
"For the final, we go to one hundred and twenty yards, total of three attempts from each of you," Arminas said.
Gelmir was first, and he hit the centre once, with one arrow falling short and one in the third circle.
Halbarad was next. His first arrow was right on the edge between the centre and the first circle. As he drew for his second shot, he realised that his arms were getting tired – not surprising, and the others probably had the same problem. Steady, he told himself. Just two more. Steady. Release. Fourth circle. Last arrow. Nock. Draw. Aim. Breathe. Steady. Release. First circle.
Maldir was the last to go. His first shot was in the first circle, but Halbarad couldn't see if it was closer in than his own. The second was on the board, but outside the target. Halbarad almost daren't look as Maldir drew again. Release. The arrow struck the second ring.
I've won. Halbarad knew he was one of the best archers in the training camp, but Maldir and Gelmir could just as easily have won. They were first to congratulate him, followed by the other competitors. Suddenly Halbarad realised Aragorn hadn't come over with the others. When he looked around, he saw him with Arminas, and though they were too far away to hear what was being said, it was likely about his poor performance.
Mettarë and the archery contest had been the last leisurely moment in the camp. Now, with four months to go until the recruits who were ready would join a patrol, the attention of the Rangers teaching them was wholly on fighting skills, endurance and surviving in the Wild.
Arminas had sent Aragorn to see the captain, who was also the camp's healer, straight after the archery contest, and he had been told to rest his arm for a week, followed by strengthening exercises. As a result he had spent two weeks on daily sentry duty, with several night watches included for good measure. He didn't mind, as dull as his days were – from Halbarad's grumblings before he collapsing into exhausted sleep each night, Aragorn gathered they were mostly repeating basic forms and running rounds of the camp.
The only break in the monotony of standing guard came when lieutenant Soronto attempted to sneak up on him; this time he had been alert and noticed the approach, thus redeeming himself in the lieutenant's eyes for his inattention from their first encounter. None of it had helped in dealing with how badly he had done in the contest; even if Aragorn knew very well he wouldn't have won, to have done this badly was embarrassing – and with no possibility of a rematch, also frustrating.
Now, though, the captain had said he could take up his regular duty again, followed by an admonition not to be stubborn and neglect injuries.
In the morning, Halbarad woke him up well before sunrise. "Go find a gambeson and a practice sword, and join us."
"Right now?" Aragorn attempted to stifle a yawn.
"Right now," Halbarad replied, sounding annoyingly awake as he rummaged around on his side of the tent.
"Not even breakfast?"
"Not even breakfast." And with that, Halbarad was out of the tent and away. With a groan, Aragorn got up and followed him to the practice area
"Today we will practise some attacks and defences," lieutenant Gelion, their instructor, said. "There will be one new move for you all to learn, but first some familiar sets to warm up."
Aragorn was just pleased to have sword in hand again after two weeks of enforced rest, so he didn't mind that the moves they were practising were basic ones, and that the sword was a wooden practice sword. Eventually, though, they reached the end of the repeat sets, and Gelion called for their attention.
"Watch closely," he said, gesturing at Halbarad to step up, "I will attack Halbarad and he will defend as best he can."
Watching as Gelion put Halbarad through the attack and how to defend against it, Aragorn realised that he knew this move; Elrohir had taught it to him the previous year, and he had been glad of that the next time they went out on patrol. It had been…
"Pay attention!" the Ranger snapped at him, just as Maldir, who was standing next to him, gave him a sharp nudge.
"Sir!" With a glare at Maldir, Aragorn was immediately alert again.
"Please tell me if I'm boring you," Gelion said, an amused glint in his eyes.
"Not at all, sir," Aragorn replied.
"Good. In that case, I'm sure you won't mind demonstrating the defence now." The Ranger turned back to Halbarad. "Speed isn't important yet. Pay attention to your feet, and try not to leave an opening for your opponent this time."
Halbarad nodded and turned to face Aragorn.
Aragorn positioned himself to defend, noting from the corner of his eye that the captain had turned up to watch the recruits. This was not the first time he'd been asked to show a move for the others, and he made sure to move somewhat slower than he would have done in a real fight. Halbarad's attack was fast, especially considering the move was new to him.
"Again," Gelion said, "And slow down, both of you. You can do it properly later on."
Gelion made them go through the move a few times, then told them to them switch so that it was Aragorn's turn to attack, and repeat again.
"Now everybody pair off and let me see how you fare," he said, and as the recruits tried the move themselves, he moved around to correct them, leaving Halbarad and Aragorn to practice alone.
They moved into position again, and Aragorn smiled to himself as he briefly caught Halbarad's eye – though Halbarad was one of the best swordsmen among the recruits, Aragorn knew he had the edge over him; even if a little voice inside him whispered 'for now'.
The first time, Aragorn attacked, and broke through Halbarad's defence, striking him on his upper arm. Even with wooden swords, it would hurt, but Halbarad merely grinned and stepped up again.
It was now Halbarad's turn to attack, and Aragorn found his hit from the previous round had only made Halbarad the more determined, enough to break through his defence and strike him on the head. Pushing his advantage as Aragorn was briefly dazed, Halbarad attacked again and Aragorn's instinctive parry left him open to a wide swing that caught him in the ribs. Gasping for breath, he struck out blindly, a loud curse telling him he had somehow hit Halbarad.
Halbarad, clumsily cradling his right hand, looked shocked more than anything.
"Did I hurt you?" Aragorn asked at the same time as Halbarad asked him if he was all right. Simultaneously came a belated shout from Gelion to ease off.
The other recruits gathered round, only to move aside immediately for Gelion and the captain. Gelion was about to speak, but the captain stepped in. "I will deal with these two. Continue the lesson for the others."
"Now, come." Aragorn and Halbarad followed the captain as he led them to the healer's tent.
"Can't any of you recruits stay of trouble for one day?" the captain asked, sounding resigned as much as angry. Aragorn thought it wisest not to disagree, or to answer at all, nor did Halbarad react beyond an indrawn breath and an indignant expression.
"Your injuries," the captain now said curtly. Aragorn indicated, somewhat sheepishly, what by now felt like an enormous lump on his forehead and his sore ribs, and Halbarad, equally awkwardly, held out his right hand.
"That lump should go down by itself; let me know if you start to feel dizzy or sick," the captain said to Aragorn. "Now take off your gambeson so I can look at your side."
"Probably not broken," he added as Aragorn bit back a curse when he prodded him in the ribs.
"Your hand," he said to Halbarad. "Well, those are broken," he added after examining Halbarad's fingers closely. "You, hand me some splints for fingers," he snapped at Aragorn, who quickly complied.
Aragorn stood by worriedly as the captain splinted Halbarad's fingers. His own injuries hurt worse now the heat of the fight was disappearing, but Halbarad looked almost green, as if he was undecided between fainting and throwing up. The captain did bind up the fingers neatly, but Aragorn suspected he had been a bit less gentle than he could have been, as he had been in prodding at his side before.
As soon as he was done, the captain stepped back so that they both faced him.
"What did you think you were doing?" The captain held his gaze, and Aragorn found it difficult to reply, or meet his eyes for long.
"I… I forgot myself," he replied eventually, catching a glimpse of Halbarad nodding in agreement, then stopping abruptly as the captain turned to look at him.
"You forgot yourself," the captain repeated. "I suppose I should be pleased that you remembered again. Had you forgotten yourselves any more than this, I'd not have been surprised if I'd ended up explaining to the Chieftain how I'd let either his grandson or his wife's cousin be killed on my watch."
The captain was silent for some time, regarding them both sternly, until Aragorn was ready to squirm. At last, the captain spoke again. "You did both fight well, and I'd be hard put to it to declare a winner. However, I never want to see this lack of sparring discipline from either of you again."
"No, sir." In chorus.
"Now as for your punishment," the captain said, shaking his head. "I doubt mere sentry duty will strike much fear in either of you, but the other recruits are going to be pleased to find out that there will be a slight change in the latrine duty roster. As soon as you can put some force into digging, that is."
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