Tales of the North
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Becoming: 4. Bridge
Late March/April 2952
"The captain wants to see you!" Maldir called as Halbarad walked past him on his way to the archery field.
Halbarad raised a hand in acknowledgement, and turned towards the captain's tent, wondering what the captain wanted him for.
As he entered the captain's tent, he saw that Aragorn was there as well, and he wondered even more what this was about. His pallet and the tent he shared with Aragorn were tidy, he had not fallen asleep on guard, and he had heard only praise from his instructors. Both he and Aragorn had taken their punishment for the sparring incident; but even so, most of the others had already been assigned to a patrol, and he was still waiting, just like the previous season.
"Stand easy," the captain said, going on as Halbarad did, "Most recruits from your group have already been assigned to a patrol."
"I know, sir," Halbarad replied. Oh no, not another season in training, he thought, unable to stop himself from worrying. Or he has patrols in mind for us, or …
The captain sighed and continued. "Halbarad, stop fretting. You are the youngest in your group; I did hold you back for your age last season, but if you are not ready, none of you lads would be. You are more level-headed than many who have years on you, and you have learned all about Rangering that you can learn here."
"Thank you, sir."
"But I did not call you here to sing your praises," the captain said.
Halbarad waited. "Sir?" he finally asked.
"Since Arag...Estel has already been on patrol when he lived in Rivendell, the captain of the Hoardale Company is willing to have him in his patrol. I have commended you to him also. So, if you are willing, you will go to the Coldfells patrol together with Estel. If you say no, no harm done; I also have a place with the Bree Company for you."
Halbarad quickly considered his reply. The Coldfells? The Hoardale Company never takes recruits, but the captain thinks I can do it, and he would not just say that. I think I can do it. Well, so I hope... He did not look at Aragorn, as he knew what his friend would say. Above all, he realised that, as fearsome as the Coldfells were, he wanted to go.
"I will take the Coldfells place, sir," he said.
"Good," the captain said, his expression turning stern after a nod of approval. "Now, you have done well here, but that doesn't make you a Ranger. It makes you a recruit who's done well in training. Thinking you know everything when you go on patrol will only make you a corpse. Continuing to learn may turn you into a Ranger, though you may still end up dead before you gain your star." He paused, then turned his head slightly to include Aragorn. "And that warning goes for you as well, no matter how well Elrond's sons prepared you."
"Why was the Captain so concerned about the Coldfells?" Aragorn asked that evening in their tent. "I understand it's a dangerous patrol, but he seemed very worried even so."
"For a start, that patrol never takes recruits," Halbarad replied. "I don't know much about the Coldfells, except that it's troll country, and it's where your grandfather was killed."
Aragorn only nodded. He knew of course, but it was hard to relate Arador to himself. He could barely remember his father, and his grandfather was truly no more than a name and the tale of a gruesome death. Even so, he suddenly felt the lack keenly.
A week later, as he and Aragorn – Estel, Halbarad corrected himself, especially once we're outside the Angle – set off to meet up with their patrol. Halbarad could barely contain his excitement, as he had only been outside the Angle a few times, and always with his father. Still, a patrol was not a pleasure outing, and he should gain control of himself before they met with the Rangers – even if a glance at A… Estel betrayed that his friend looked as excited as he himself felt.
"Are you sure you know where we are supposed to meet the patrol?" Aragorn asked.
"Yes," Halbarad said, "And that is the third time you asked. Stop worrying. Anyway, I thought you had patrolled with Rangers before?" They were to meet a few miles to the north of the Last Bridge, on the other side of the Hoarwell; the place should be easy enough to find even though he had not been there before.
"You are telling me not to worry?" Aragorn replied, and went on at Halbarad's grin. "Only once, and it wasn't around here and I didn't have to track them down first."
Halbarad nodded, and added, "Shouldn't we start to look for a good place to camp? It'll be dark in another hour."
"Any luck?" Aragorn asked as Halbarad returned to their camp.
"No," Halbarad replied and with a grimace held up the snares he had set the previous night.
"Maybe tonight," Aragorn said. "Anyway, we do have enough food with us."
"I know, but our bread isn't getting less stale, and rabbit is better than dried meat."
"And in a few weeks' time, if we have no luck hunting then, we'll be glad of stale bread and dried meat," Aragorn replied with a snort. "Fine Rangers we'll make, complaining about our food after a day."
"Then it's just as well our new captain can't hear us," Halbarad grinned, his mood restored. "Let's go; it's good walking weather."
That was certainly true, Aragorn thought. It was a fine, sunny day, though it was still cold this early in the morning.
They walked in silence for a while. Aragorn looked around him eagerly, for these lands were new to him. Though the Road was quiet, they had been warned to avoid it; even if it was still early in the year, there might be Dwarves travelling between Wilderland and the Blue Mountains already. Instead, they should take the closest path they could find skirting the road in the hills to the north.
He wondered when he would have the chance to travel to the Blue Mountains, and maybe even see the Sea – he had seen maps in Rivendell, and read descriptions of the lands of Eriador, and of course Elladan and Elrohir had told him of their travels. But none of that could compare to being there, seeing a place with his own eyes.
"What are those?" he asked after some time as he noticed a ruined wall and tower high above their path.
"I can see that." Aragorn ignored Halbarad's grin.
"They are of Rhudaur," Halbarad added.
"Rhudaur?" Aragorn asked.
"Some may be as old as Arnor," Halbarad said, "but most of the towers along the Road were built by them when they were at war with Cardolan and Arthedain."
Aragorn nodded. He hadn't always paid attention to his history lessons, but even though he'd had no idea that any of it was relevant to him he had taken an interest in the story of the end of Arnor, and the wars between the three kingdoms.
"Of course the Angle was part of Rhudaur too in those days," Halbarad added, looking south towards the Road. "And hardly anyone even lived there until the hobbits, before they moved on west to Bree and their Shire."
"Have you ever met a hobbit?" Aragorn asked.
Halbarad shook his head. "No."
"I have seen one," Aragorn said.
"But you've not been that far west, and they're said to stay at home if they can at all help it."
"It was in Rivendell. I was ten or so, and a hobbit had come there travelling with a troop of …"
"…Dwarves," Halbarad interrupted him.
"How do you know?"
"The story of their quest was told all through the Angle for a year, though I'm sure most people didn't believe even half of it," Halbarad said.
"Most of it seems to be true," Aragorn responded, "Except for Thorin Oakenshield killing the dragon with his bare hands, or Erebor being paved with gold, if you've heard those tales. I didn't get to meet the hobbit, though; I only saw him from a distance. I was kept out of their way, and that of all other travellers, even if I never realised it at the time. I would have liked to hear him tell his tale himself when he came back."
"Who knows," Halbarad said. "Perhaps you still will one day. But unless you plan on walking through the night, we should start looking for a good place to sleep."
The next day went much as the previous one, although by now they had left the ruins behind. The land began to fall towards the river, but their path was barely worth the name, and they still often had to scramble across or go around rocky ridges. Even so, Halbarad kept an eye out for tracks and Ranger signs that might have been left behind. It might still be almost a day to the meeting point, but it would be embarrassing to be caught if the Rangers had a scout out this far.
That evening Halbarad set snares again; they didn't really need to, but saving their supplies for later was still a good idea – he'd heard enough of his father's stories of patrols that were reduced to eating old bulrushes and tree bark to know that much. Besides, fresh meat would be welcome.
He had the last watch, so as soon as Aragorn was awake, he set off to check and collect his snares. Again, all his snares were empty, but it was still early enough in the morning that he could probably have waited another hour or so. I want to be well underway by then, though; maybe tomorrow…
On the way back to their camp, Halbarad took a different route from the one he had taken the night before. I wonder how close I can get before Aragorn notices me. Wait… what is that?
There were deer prints on the path, heading off to the right.
And the wind to my advantage… Halbarad took his bow in hand, an arrow at the ready. The trail was easy to follow, and it was not long before he reached a small clearing. A roe buck, very young judging by its antlers, was standing in the clearing, so focussed on its meal of fresh spring grass that it was oblivious to any danger.
Halbarad slowly put the arrow to the string and drew, the deer still unaware of its danger.
The arrow struck a tuft of grass just in front of the deer, and Halbarad smiled as the animal bounded off and was gone.
Learn some wariness, young one, he thought as he walked over to pick up his arrow. Next time I may actually be hungry, rather than merely bored with dried rations.
"You let it go?"
Halbarad nodded and shrugged, unapologetic.
"I must introduce you to Glorfindel when I get the chance; he'd probably have done the same," Aragorn added with a shake of his head. "Now let's get going; I want to meet up with our patrol."
The narrow path forced them to walk single file, and they mostly walked in silence. Aragorn wished he hadn't mentioned Glorfindel, for now as well as looking forward to meeting the patrol, he thought of Rivendell. Even though he had settled in well in the Angle and among the recruits, Rivendell would always remain home to him, even if the Angle was so as well. Looking ahead, if he was honest with himself, he was anxious about meeting the Rangers. Aside from the Rangers in Caras Dirnen and the training camp, he had only previously met the ones who had been on that one patrol. What if… He glanced at Halbarad, who seemed to have shaken off all cares, and smiled inwardly. If Halbarad can stop worrying, surely I can?
Halbarad waited at the edge of the road while Aragorn went ahead to see whether the Last Bridge was safe to cross; there was no reason it shouldn't be, but if there were sentries from their patrol anywhere, it would be there. Besides, the captain had sent them off with the instruction to be as careful as if they were trailing an Orc-troop.
He could hear Aragorn coming back already, his footsteps rustling softly in last year's dead leaves.
"The bridge is clear. Let's go," Aragorn said, and Halbarad quickly stood up to follow him. He had been here once before, though he had not crossed the bridge then – he had been twelve or so, and his father had taken him on a walking trip up to the Bridge and back south into the Angle again.
"Why can we not cross the Bridge, Father?" he had asked.
"Let's keep that for when you're a Ranger, lad," and his father had given him one of his all too rare smiles.
The Last Bridge looked no different than it had then, but as he crossed it, even if he wasn't a Ranger yet, he couldn't help a quick grin at the memory.
"What is it?" Aragorn asked as they left the Road again after crossing the bridge.
"Nothing much, I was thinking of a trip I took with my father a few years ago," Halbarad replied.
Aragorn's wince was so brief that Halbarad could almost believe he had imagined it, but he knew he hadn't. Any apology would make it worse, though, and he said nothing in the end.
"Now to find the camp," Aragorn said.
"Down along the river, and turn left at the marker stone." Halbarad replied.
Are we there yet? Aragorn felt like asking, but he followed Halbarad's lead silently.
"Here," Halbarad said at last, and Aragorn had to admit that he would have missed the marker.
"Now we should follow the path until we find the camp," Halbarad added.
The path was no more than a deer trail, but eventually they came to a small clearing among the trees. Halbarad stopped and whistled a signal. He then sat down to wait, and Aragorn followed suit.
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