Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Exile: 7. Chapter 7
Beregir's voice startled me, making me whirl about as he and Hirion came to stand beside me.
The younger men of the company were gathering behind them, speaking in soft voices and casting uncertain glances at one another, and the older Rangers were clustered near the pines where Halforth and Rohar knelt by Engroth. Whatever had happened, the younger Rangers seemed to know no more than I did.
"I know not," I answered. "We found tracks in the pines, survivors, maybe twenty or thirty."
Swift looks were exchanged. One of them, a young man I recognized from the Sarn guard, looked at me. "What course shall we take now, my lord?"
He used the title like he expected me to have the answers. "I know no more than you," I said. "Less, even. I do not know even who will command us, if Engroth-" I didn't finish, and the others looked at the ground. None seemed to want to look toward their fallen chieftain.
As they looked up, I realized uneasily that all were looking at me. Most were at least a few years older than me, and had grown up in the Wild. Yet they looked to me to speculate on what had happened and what it might mean, or to approach Engroth and find out.
Halforth stood as I walked toward them. The rest of the older men looked up, their eyes grave but not confused. Whatever had occurred, these understood the mind and heart of their leader, and I had the sense I was intruding on something deeply private, something I could not begin to comprehend.
If any of the others thought so, they made no sign. Halforth nodded to me. "My lord."
Engroth still knelt with his head bowed, and did not react any of the Rangers speaking softly to him. I had no idea what to say, so I started with the obvious. "Is he wounded?"
There was a deep sorrow in Halforth's face. "Not in body, my lord," he said finally. "But there are other wounds not so easily seen."
That much was clear. "Will he be able to lead us from here?"
Footsteps crunched behind me, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Beregir and Hirion coming closer. "Nay," Halforth answered wearily. "I fear not."
The rest of the younger Rangers were drifting over to gather around us. "What shall we do now?"
"I do not know." He looked at Engroth, then back at me, but he said nothing.
"We cannot linger here!" I said. "We have little enough time already."
"Aye, we cannot," he agreed. "We know the direction the survivors took when they left this place, but beyond the trees their tracks will disappear for a time. We can only hope they will not deviate from their course, and we can pick up their trail soon."
"Should we not move out as swiftly as possible?" I asked.
He regarded me steadily. "We await your order, my lord."
The men standing around Engroth were looking at me, now, too, I realized. I stared at Halforth. "Do not mock me!" I said. "You cannot be serious."
"This place is yours, as it was your father's," Halforth said, quiet but assured. "Engroth was only holding it for you, since his death."
"I cannot command these men!" My voice was little more than a fervent whisper. "I know nothing of the Wild, nothing of your ways of fighting! Why cannot you lead us? Even the youngest of us has more experience than I."
"You knew enough to bring my son from Bree to Sarn safely," he reminded me. "We all have experience, of some sort, but only you are your father's son."
"You must know this is madness!" I took his arm, drawing him away from the others, not wanting to proclaim my own incompetence before the others, but I had make him see! "I am not ready, you know that. All here know it. Our chances of surviving this chase are slim enough even with an experienced chief!"
"In the Wild, my lord, you will find that whether or not you are ready makes little difference to anyone." There was understanding there, but no sign of sympathy. "I was first tested as a boy long before I was ready-and so I fear my son has been." A shadow crossed his face. "It is a harsh life we lead, and a harsh destiny to which you were born. We take on this duty gladly, but we do not take it on by choice. All here will lend you the wisdom of our experience, where you are uncertain, but the burden of command has been given to you."
"Even though lives may be lost because of what experience I yet lack?" I demanded, struggling none too successfully to hide my rising panic.
"Lives will be lost regardless," he said. "And it is not experience we need, in such a chase as this. Only time-and faith. We had little enough hope of surviving when we left Sarn, and less when we came here. It was not Engroth's experience that got us this far, but rather the belief we all had in him. They might have followed Caran with the same belief, had he lived, but now both are fallen there is only one other who could always rally us when all hope was lost. That was your father."
"I am not my father," I said. "I never knew my father's name until a year ago. To me he is no more than a legend, and I-I am only too human." I shook my head. "I cannot do this."
"That is what I am trying to tell you," he said. "It matters not what you can do-only what is your duty."
I stared at him. He said nothing more, only clasped my shoulder briefly, then turned and walked away toward the others.
It matters not what you can do . . . I clasped the hilt of my sword nervously, glancing left and right at the Rangers as they stood, uncertain, leaderless. The chief I had feared, on his knees and motionless as stone, whatever iron will had kept him moving without rest or sleep now gone. The faces of the slain women and children, partly covered in snow. And somewhere, to the south, more who would die unless somehow I, Estel of Imladris, Aragorn son of Arathorn, could produce a miracle.
It was not a task to which I felt at all equal.
Let me rephrase that-I was absolutely terrified.
I straightened, unwrapping my fingers slowly from my swordhilt and pulling my cloak tighter around me. The first thing we had to do was clear-get away from this place and find the survivors. I walked slowly toward the others. Now, to get their attention.
"Rangers!" I hoped desperately that I sounded commanding and sure, instead of simply ridiculous. They all looked up at my voice, and they were all silent. "There may be some of this camp who live yet. We go to follow their trail now, as swiftly as we may." I gestured away toward the pines where we had seen the tracks.
I was afraid they would not listen to me, that they would laugh at the idea of me in command. But somehow it was even more frightening to see them all move to obey, as though it were perfectly natural that I should give orders. Within minutes, they were standing in a rough line, packs shouldered, hoods up. All except for Engroth, and Halforth.
Coming to stand beside them, I saw Engroth had not moved. Halforth knelt beside him now, talking to him softly, a hand on his arm. He didn't look aware of either of us, and I wondered if we could even get him to come with us-and what we would do if we couldn't. I was not about to leave him . . .
Caran's words echoed in my mind again. A day will come when you must leave a comrade to die, when there will not be time or means to save him . . . But for the first time, Engroth looked at Halforth, standing slowly, one hand gripping Halforth's arm hard. Without speaking, he walked over to the fallen pine, retrieved his sword, and sheathed it. Then he moved to take a place at the back of the line.
His eyes met mine briefly as he passed me, and I flinched from his gaze. There was nothing behind those eyes, nothing at all.
"We're leaving," I told Halforth softly, as we both watched him. "I will need your help to track them."
His expression was blank, as if he had no memory of our conversation. "Yes, my lord."
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