My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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The Reaches of the North: 6. Survival Training
Aragorn watched from the hall entryway, thinking he should be there in line, weary and mud-splattered. The instructor was about to dismiss the lot to care for their mounts when he noticed the Dúnadan watching. His command snapped the troop to attention, and he invited the chieftain to inspect the cadets.
Aragorn was about to wave off the man's offer, but Halbarad came out behind him and guessing his reluctance, gave Aragorn a push that propelled him toward the troop. He walked uneasily down the line between the instructor and his captain, trying to listen to the Ranger's explanation of the training the troop had just completed, but well aware that he was of the age of most of these cadets. Although their eyes where focused straight ahead, he wondered if their hearts held disdain for him. Recognizing one, he stopped before a tall cadet whose dark hair was cropped short. It was Radarth, his adversary from Caew Thoronath. Weariness deeply etched the young man's face and something in his eyes warned Aragorn not to acknowledge him. Aragorn nodded slightly and moved on.
"Halbarad, I wish to train with these cadets," Aragorn said quietly that evening. "They are about to begin survival training on the high moors." He looked around his office, expecting immediate refusal. Camalac and Elrohir, who lounged near the fire, perked up at this conversation topic.
"It's unnecessary, my lord," Halbarad replied, obliging him, "and dangerous."
"But, Halbarad, I must be able to endure what my Rangers do and is it not necessary that I am able to survive in the wild?" Aragorn pointed out. "I should at least complete the trial."
"Their trial is a seven day trek; they must find their way back to camp from the Ettenmoors with only their weapons, a water flask, and one square of cram." Halbarad reminded him.
"Not your favorite food." Elrohir commented. All present remembered Aragorn's fastidious reluctance when presented with his first loaf of the way bread, wrinkling his nose at the distinct odor and delicately asking if they had any lembas.
"Give him credit for what he knows," Camalac spoke up. "Doing this is asking no more of him than any cadet, than any Ranger he will lead. He already has the skills to complete the trial; I say allow him."
"I agree," Elrohir said. "He is well-trained in arms and disciplined. He has more control than many men twice his age and I've seen him endure both hardship and injury." The elf sized up his pupil. "It will give him confidence to lead his Rangers." Aragorn gaped at the two astonished as they spoke so highly of him. Halbarad muttered it was madness and that the pair's heads would decorate pikes before the hall if anything happened to the Dúnadan, but by afternoon, the cadets' instructor knew he had an additional pupil.
One month later, in the weak afternoon sunlight, Aragorn dropped heavily from Swallow's back, handing his rein to a groom who looked in disbelief at the mud-encrusted saddle. He hobbled to the doorway leading into the hall at Fornost, hoping everyone was about their daily work. He did not believe he would ever be able to remove the swamp muck from his body; his clothes and boots were definitely ruined. He had left his fellows still bivouacked on Midgewater Marsh when Halbarad's messenger arrived, calling him back to his duties at Fornost.
In that catch pool of all that was vile, he had spent a week scrambling through icy water. At least in early spring, there had been none of the insects that gave the place its name, but the chilled water held other hazards. He looked down at the grimy bandage on his hand and the rusty bloom spreading across it.
Aragorn reached the archway and stopped, leaning heavily against the newel. He stood on the flagstones of the hall, avoiding the carpets. Every muscle screamed; every bone ached as if he were a greybeard. He had inhaled so much swamp water that he felt his lungs slosh as he moved.
Salanda, coming down the hall, gasped when she saw him. He smiled weakly at her and his teeth and eyes stood out starkly white in his muddy face. The lady began cursing her husband for allowing him to get in such a state. Aragorn held up a hand to stop her.
"Go easy, Salanda, it was my idea."
"You cannot stay inside in that state of filth, my lord," she stated with finality. "Frankly, you stink of swamp gas."
"I'll wash off in the River."
At that moment, Graelon entered at a run and announced that Captain Halbarad wanted to see him immediately. Aragorn shook his head.
"I'm going out to the River. If I don't return, send someone to fetch my body." Aragorn limped across the field to the wide stream they called the River which provided clean water to Fornost.
"You'll catch your death, my lord!" Lady Salanda called from the archway. "The water edge had ice this morning."
"Build up the fire then!" He ordered.
Aragorn waded in completely clothed. Perhaps running water would help salvage his boots at least. He shuddered as he ducked his head under water. Salanda was correct; the river was frigid but no colder than the swamp had been. At least, it was clean. Aragorn, teeth chattering, began stripping off his clothing and tossing it to the bank.
Graelon stood there with a thick robe, grinning at his master's plight.
"Lady Salanda has a hot bath set in the kitchen," his servant announced. With as much dignity as he could muster while shivering uncontrollably, Aragorn wrapped the robe around himself and stalked inside.
"Bitten by a turtle?" Elrohir exclaimed, sitting across from his brother's desk a short time later. The elf had tossed off his jacket in the blazing warmth of the room.
"It could have been an adder." The Dúnadan was again mostly clean and nearly warmer than a corpse. Aragorn tried again to stitch the still bleeding wound on the back of his right hand with his left. His self-applied first aid was not working well.
"Would you care to let me help?" Elrohir took the needle and gut from him and made short work of the wound. He sat back and surveyed Aragorn, dressed in heavy layers, and leaning nearly in the roaring fire. The redness was beginning to return to his blue lips.
"Well, how was it?" the dark-haired elf asked.
"Did you hold your own against those arrogant cadets?"
Aragorn grinned, "Aye!"
"Good boy!" Aragorn looked at him with seriousness.
"Elrohir, you have trained me well, but this ending trial…"
"'Twill not be a problem for you. You have skills at discerning direction that most elves would envy. There is no danger in the wild of Rhudaur you cannot defeat. Orient yourself, follow the water, and find whatever food you can." Elrohir sipped from his wine glass. "Camalac and I have a wager on you, so don't lose us money, gwahur."
Heavy clouds had obscured the sun and the stars. Elrohir and Camalac lead the Dúnadan and two cadets on a two-day ride across the downs, circling back many times upon their trail, confusing even Aragorn about what direction they traveled. Radarth and Caerthon, the two cadets, were the first to finish their training and were eager to face the final challenge. On the third day, they climbed into the uplands of what the cadets suspected was the Ettenmoors. The trial gave them just seven days to find their bearings and head south to meet Halbarad at the Last Bridge on the East-West Road.
"This is where we part company, gentlemen," Elrohir announced, reining in his stallion. "You must find us within one week or you will be walking back to Fornost." They stood at the base of a sharply sloped wooded hillside, in a glade where no landmarks could be seen through the thickness of the trees. The two cadets swung off their horses, buckled on their swords, and hefted their packs. They turned to receive any last instructions and realized the Dúnadan stood next to them, his pack over his shoulder.
Radarth now glowered with downright hostility. He had wondered why Aragorn rode with them and now he was saddled with 'his highness' again! When they first heard the Dúnadan would join them for training, the troop had guffawed in derision out of earshot of their officers, of course. How could anyone who had already missed the weapons schooling in Sarn Ford catch up? Among the troopers, rumors abound that several captains would refused to swear to this unskilled youth during summer meeting at Annúminas, and many of the cadets had voiced the same opinion.
However, it soon became obvious to all that his cousin lacked no skill with weapons, and as the survival training progressed, their grudging acceptance became downright camaraderie, especially when Aragorn completed the Midgewater experience. What caused Radrath to curse his cousin still was that the instructors seemed intuitively to know they were grudging enemies and paired them often in practice. It never occurred to the youth that he and Aragorn had abilities that far outweighed the rest of the cadets which made them an ideal team.
Radrath continued to fume. This was this examination trial! Failure here would end his training and send him home in disgrace!
"What's this?" Radarth asked, his voice rising in anger. Caerthon looked ill at ease.
"I'm with you," Aragorn announced mildly.
"But, we must pass this to be Rangers!" he sputtered, gesturing to Caerthon. "We cannot be slowed down by someone lacking skills!"
"Cadet!" Camalac roared. "The first rule of your training is to support your team! And you must act as a team to succeed at this test!"
"Best of luck!" Elrohir told the cadets as he gathered up their loose reins. The pair wheeled and galloped off, Camalac wondering how long it would take Radarth to bury his dagger in his cousin's back. By his look, Aragorn should already be dead.
The trio watched as the trees quickly hid the departing horsemen. The woods became still and the liquid notes of birdsong returned. Finally, with a great sigh, Radarth turned to Aragorn.
"Should we defer to you, my liege?" Radarth asked acerbically.
"Lead on, cousin, unless Caethron has other thoughts." The quiet youth shook his head, dismayed in the choice of both of his companions.
"I think we should head to the higher ground to see if we might get our bearings and view the expanse," Radarth announced. The other two nodded and they began climbing into the hills. After an hour's hike through cold mist, they came to an open plateau that offered them a wide view to what they believed might be the south and east. The mist had stopped, the sky lightened, and Aragorn believed he could make out the lighter gray of the Misty Mountains to the east.
"If that is true, we should strike directly south. It would be the quickest route to the Road." Radarth said. Aragorn shook his head. He squatted and drew in the dirt with a stick.
"If we do so, we spend too much time in the open away from water." He drew a crooked dogleg in the dirt. "The Hoarwell runs directly west for a ways from the mountains and then veers sharply south. If we move, southeasterly we should run into the river. It will provide us with water, and food since animals will go there to drink and there should be fish in the stream."
"The route is longer; we may not get to the rendezvous in time." Caerthon pointed out.
"We only have one flask of water and one loaf of cram each," said Radarth. "Water and food will prove most welcomed soon."
"Any way we trek, we mostly likely will be hungry when we reach camp but without water, we will be dead," said Aragorn.
"Aragorn is right," Radarth said grudgingly. Caerthon after a moment's hesitation, nodded and the three hefted their packs and headed east, the ridge of the mountain directly ahead.
"Don't move!" Aragorn hissed. They were crouched behind cover, watching a large black bear sniff in their direction. "It will move on."
"Not if it feels threatened," Caerthon whispered. At that moment, two pudgy cubs charged out of the brush and ran straight for them. The cubs saw them. Their sudden stop sent them head over heels, tumbling and squalling. With a growling scream, the mother bellowed her outrage and charged toward them.
"Tree!" shouted Radarth.
"Black bears can climb!" replied Aragorn. But there was no help for it. Caerthon was already well on the way to the highest branches of a tall oak. Aragorn boosted Radarth into the limbs and jumped himself, swinging his leg around the limb. He felt the claws pawing at his dangling cloak.
"Higher!" he called to Radarth. The bear was on her hind legs looking hungrily up at them. Aragorn did not wish to harm her; she had young she was trying to protect but he drew his sword. She seemed to acknowledge the stand off and dropped to all fours, prowling about the base of the tree. The cubs gamboled happily about, bleating in mock anger at each other.
"We are wasting time!" Radarth exclaimed as the first stars found them still trapped in the oak.
"Explain that to her." Caerthon said, eliciting a laugh from Aragorn and a snarl from the bear.
After a night treed by the she-bear, they had spent three days trekking along a stream that they hoped would run into the river so they had had plenty of water but no food. Aragorn was sure his stomach was pressing against his backbone. The shallow steam was icy and clear but did not seem deep enough to support fish. And the three did not move silently enough to avoid scaring all the game away. They saw plenty of birds but they had no bows and it was too early in the spring to raid nests. At least the sky was bright allowing them to keep their course; unfortunately, the cloudless days meant the nights were clear and cold, and they had no flint for a fire. They could start one by friction, but the time and effort was barely worth it without something to roast.
Aragorn bent to drink as they stopped for a rest. Suddenly, he reared back from the stream, fear coursing through his veins. Before him on the bank was the fresh print of a hobnailed boot. It was broad and deep: it could belong to a giant of a man or a dwarf, but something in Aragorn's mind screamed 'orc!". He could hear Caerthon and Radarth's voices behind him. He turned and fled back to them.
"Quiet!" he whispered, jerking both down behind the cover of a stone outcropping. "There are tracks by the river. They could be orc."
"Not likely!" Radarth sneered and stood up. At that moment, a black feathered arrow whickered by his head and he dropped to the ground beside them white-faced and shaken.
"It won't be long before they realize we have no bows." Aragorn whispered. He peered into the brush but could see no movement.
"We need to flee," Caerthon said. "We are unsure of their numbers."
"Rangers don't flee!" insisted Radarth.
"If we want to stay alive, we flee." Aragorn announced. They broke cover and ran, flitting between the willows that lined the stream. A keen howl broke out behind them. The three realized they were running for their lives. Their booted feet flew along the gravelly stream bank as they headed up the incline toward the line of hardwood trees.
"Keep together!" Aragorn commanded. He angled down a deep, brush-filled ravine cut into the land, and the three scuttled through the brambles until they were cover half by over hanging slabs of sandstone and half by the brush. They crouched there, trembling silently, trying to quiet their breathing and straining their ears to hear the approach of heavy boots. The woods filled with the liquid notes of doves as darkness fell. The three heard the crunch and scrabble of loose gravel near by, sure the orcs were combing the area for them. Six eyes stared into the darkness, watching for any movement.
It was the longest night of Aragorn's young life. He spent it sleepless, waiting for the dawn. When it finally broke, he told the others they must move south, quietly and quickly. They started off, frightened, shielding themselves in the cover of the tress, but by midday, they felt they had left the orc behind and moved back from the tree line to their stream. It was widening.
The young leader licked his dry lips and looked back at the others waiting expectantly farther up the bank. He did not know if he could stab the fish and feared chasing them from the pool into the open stream. The others were relying on him; in his mind, it seemed to be a test of his leadership skills to be able to feed his comrades. He drew his sword and watched the angle of the light and the movement of the shadowy shapes. He struck lightning quick and raised a large whiskered fish, then another until he had three flopping on the bank to the cheers of Caerthon and Radarth.
"Shall we build a fire?" Caerthon asked, optimistically as Aragorn, hugging the fish to him, came up the streambed to them.
"Nay." Aragorn looked grimly at his catch, pulled out his dagger and soon had filleted six slabs of white, raw fish. He cut a chunk of the cold gelid flesh and handed it to Caerthon. The young cadet chewed mightily, swallowed, and wretched.
"It's easier to eat without chewing." Aragorn advised him. Radarth and Aragorn were soon tossing back gobbets like young kestrels; Caerthon more daintily followed suit. Too soon, they finished their meal and they shouldered their empty packs, staggering forward until twilight drove them to find a place to camp. All three wrapped their cloaks about them and fell into sleep. Born of exhaustion, the decision came easy to give up setting watches; the three trusted Varda to keep them safe.
The cadets woke the next day feeling stronger and more alert. As Aragorn rolled from his cloak, he saw Caerthon was up already, cloak pulled tightly around him in the morning chill. He was intently studying the river. As the Dúnadan came to stand beside him, the young man shook his head dismally.
"Through hunger and fear, I hadn't thought of it before, but we need to cross to the western bank. If this is the Hoarwell, it becomes wider and swifter from here to the Road. To be safe, we actually should have crossed sooner."
"Why not walk to the Road and simply stroll back west to meet them at the Bridge?" Radarth asked, coming up to them.
"There is a palisade of sheer rock on the eastern side of the river about three leagues north of the Road. We'd have to track around it, which could add several days to our journey and have us traverse the Trollshaws. If there truly are still trolls in the world, our luck would certainly have us cross their paths. I don't choose to add trolls to the bears and orcs we have encountered." Caerthon said.
"We're still not sure it is the Hoarwell. We're basing our travel on the idea they left us in the Ettenmoors." Radarth argued. "Perhaps we are farther east and we follow the Bruinen. We could be closer to the road that we imagine."
"Either way," Caerthon said, "we are either badly off course and need to bear west or we are about to start hitting feeder streams. Crossing those will find us thoroughly wet and the time it takes will be wasted."
"Nay," Aragorn said, "I am certain it is not the Bruinen. I know that river and its surrounds well. If it were, we would have been tucked into featherbeds and feasting well in Imladris three days ago." Radarth looked as if he were about to argue but finally he said quietly:
"I don't swim." The three debated about back tracking to where the river was shallower, but fear of orcs and lost time ruled that out. "Although I fear deep water, I don't want to march all the way back to Fornost."
"Perhaps it is not so deep it cannot be waded." Caerthon encouraged a reluctant Radarth. He waded out from the bank but the shelf dropped off abruptly, and after a dunking, waded back to shore.
"We can float across." Aragorn announced, eyeing a long, wind fallen log on the bank. They pulled the log into the water where it bobbed merrily. Working knee deep in the current, the chill quickly numbed Aragorn's feet through his boots.
The three stuffed their cloaks and coats into the water resistant packs and tied them to the log. Taking Radarth's sword from him and buckling both it and his Elvish fashion over his back, Aragorn wrapped the cadet's belt around a knobby branch and buckled it under Radrath's arms. "You can't float away from us now," he announced.
"Cousin, I cannot do this!" Radarth whispered to him as Caerthon prepared himself on the far side of the log. The boy was a strong swimmer and would guide them across, while Aragorn pushed from behind and watched Radarth.
"Certainly you can," Aragorn spoke low. "It is the first step that is the most difficult. I will help you!" They towed the log out into the swift current and struck out paddling for the far bank. Aragorn gasped for breath; the icy water pulling the air from his lungs. The two swords pressed heavily on his back. He paddled, kicking and pushing the log, occasionally coughing as water filled his throat. He struggled to kick and breathe and hoped that Caerthon who was guiding them on the far side fared better. Radarth seemed to be doing well, clutching his branch and kicking spasmodically.
The cold was like a numbing hand squeezing Aragorn's chest. He felt his vision narrow until all he saw was the intricate detail of the tree bark before him. He felt his legs cramping and knew he could go no further. Dimly he heard Caerthon call out and he felt his toes drag in the mud. Aragorn crawled ashore, sputtering. He and Caerthon lay exhausted on the bank.
Radarth had fared better, floating beside the log. He freed himself from it and scuttled to the bank. When he saw the state of his companions, he began gathering twigs and small branches. Selecting two thin ones and a twist of dried grasses, he began the daunting task of building a friction fire.
"You need warmth!" he exclaimed at Aragorn's protest about no time. Caerthon and Aragorn's lips were blue and they were played out. Radarth had learned this skill young and well and soon, smoke rose from his fast spinning friction sticks and he was feeding shavings to a small blaze. Within minutes, he had a sizeable fire going, and Aragorn and Caerthon huddled near it. They had stripped out of their wet clothing and wrapped their near dry cloaks from their packs about them. Radarth had his flask leaning in the ashes, water heating.
"We have no tea," Radrath announced to his comrades, handling them the warm flask, "but we do have hot mint water. A little of your herb lore has rubbed off, my lord." He bowed jokingly. Aragorn smiled weakly at his cousin, unable to answer through his chattering teeth.
He was sure he smelled stew. Aragorn knew it was his overworked mind dwelling on what he most desired. The fish had gotten wise and for dinner last night, they had dined on six white grubs and a trio of gritty earthworms found under a rock. Even rinsing the things thoroughly in the river had not removed the taste of soil from them. His teeth still ground on the silt. The thought of cram made his mouth water uncontrollably. He tried to forget their evening meal by counting the days they had been walking: the first night on the ridge, the bear tree, hiding from the orcs…fish dinner night…there had been more but they were vague; what preyed on his mind was he was certain they had passed their allotted days.
"Can anyone else smell that?" Caerthon burst out.
"I thought I was dreaming." Radarth said. They forced their tired bodies to climb a rise to higher ground that set them above the thick trees. From the heights, they saw the East-West Road stretched like a ribbon before them, winding in and out of glades and thickets to the western horizon less than a league away.
"It's the Great Road!" Aragorn exclaimed happily. "We have been following the Hoarwell!" They whooped and stumbled down the hill, breaking into a lumbering headlong run to the stone bridge, hopeful someone still waited for them.
"Nothing." The captain slid down the embankment at the foot of the Last Bridge into their camp. He wearily tossed his scabbard down on the blankets near the fire. "No word from Elrohir."
"We could break camp in the morning and ride north." Camalac suggested. They had arrived two days before the appointed time at the Last Bridge and had been camped there now for four days, waiting. There had been moderate traffic on the road and the Rangers had politely inquired of each group if they had come across any stray young men. The last passers had been a troop of hearty dwarves. When asked if they had seen any missing cadets, one old fellow had wrinkled up his forehead and snorted "Rangers!" in disgust.
Camalac rose from the fire and went up to the bridge arch to begin his lonely vigil. Halbarad scooped up a bowl of the stew simmering over the fire, ate, and settled down to sleep until his lieutenant came back to change watches. Just as he was dozing off, Halbarad was awakened by the snuffling nickers of Aragorn's grey stallion.
"Quiet!" he shouted at the beast. Swallow was the noisiest horse he had ever come across; the animal was constantly talking, whether to another horse, a man, or his flies. The stallion turned his head and laid back his ears. Halbarad ignored the horse and breathed deeply, savoring the clean air of the pinewood. It felt good to be out again sleeping under the stars. He had spent too many years as captain behind a desk. Now if only the Dúnadan would appear, it would be the perfect camping trip. He was not yet as worried as Camalac and Elrohir, but then he had not wagered a small fortune on the outcome. The stallion gave another whuffling snort, his ears pricked. He was focused to the north. Halbarad rose. Was there another horse there? Suddenly the horse let out a bugling neigh. Something was coming quickly through the brush. Halbarad drew his sword. The trio of cadets emerged from the trees and Halbarad sighed in relief.
"How late are we?" Aragorn asked. The three dropped to their knees in exhaustion near the fire and Halbarad whistled for Camalac, who came down off the abutment with a tremendous smile on his face.
"Two days," the Ranger answered.
"It must have been the orcs," Aragorn said, drawing a startled look from Halbarad as he scooped up a spoonful of the stew Camalac offered. Between mouthfuls, he related their tale to the astonishment of the Rangers. When it was obvious Halbarad would not allowed him to eat as much as he desired, Aragorn wearily rolled into his blankets before the sun was close to setting. While Caerthon had also collapsed exhausted after eating, Radarth nervously whetted his dagger, sitting by the fire. He made as if to speak several times and closed his mouth as if rethinking his words.
"Shall we have to do this again, since we are beyond the time?" Aragorn asked drowsily from his warm nest.
"Nay, one week is just a time we give the cadets to strike fear in them. Many have to be collected, disoriented and starving, and never reach their goal." Camalac answered, pouring Radarth another cup of tea.
"Thank Oromë we made it here. I'd not choose to do that again!" Caerthon muttered, also nestled in his bedding.
Hoof beats sounded coming fast along the riverbank. Elrohir's dark bay stallion wheeled into camp and the Elf dismounted. He had picked up the trail of the three a few leagues north, and although by the tracks all seemed well, he wanted to see his brother in the flesh to be sure. Relief washed across his face before he regained his acerbic tongue. He stalked into the camp in mock anger, nudging Aragorn none too easily with his boot, and startling the two cadets.
"Aragorn! A toddler elfling could have followed your trail!" he roared. "I despair you are too dense to ever become the warrior I wish you to be!"
"I'm glad to see you also, gwahur nin," Aragorn murmured unperturbed from his blankets. "The mission was to survive and get here. That our team did to the best of our abilities."
"I beg your pardon, but I wish to speak!" An indignant Radarth broke in finally finding his tongue. "Maethron veleg,*" he addressed Elrohir, "you must give the Dúnadan the respect he deserves." He turned to Aragorn, "My liege, I was wrong about you. I have been all along. You have the skill of a Ranger; I'd be willing to follow you into the Wild anytime." Looking at the earnest Radarth, Elrohir chuckled at the boy's interpretation of his harassment of Aragorn and allowed the insubordination to pass.
"Thank you, but I don't plan on sleeping anywhere but my bed anytime soon," Aragorn murmured, nearly asleep. "The Dúnadan commands it so." Halbarad met Camalac's eyes over the glow of his pipe. Elrohir sat down near the captain.
"Actually, Camalac, I thought we might take them up near Gundabad and let them trek to Rivendell next." The elf's comment brought howls from the two cadets but was lost on the Dúnadan; Aragorn was already deeply asleep.
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