27. Day 29: Dearly Bought (Aragorn, Halbarad, OCs)
Aragorn must have read his thoughts, for he directed a rather pointed look at him before turning to face the young man in front of him.
"Well, Hildor," Aragorn began. "Surely, you heard the racket."
A cold gust of wind brought him Hildor's barely audible answer. Halbarad would have chuckled if things were not quite so serious: Hildor had fought a wolf--his first one--two nights previous, the scratches that could not be patched up still showed red on his skin; yet, here he was, quite subdued under Aragorn's stern look.
Cannot blame him, Halbarad thought when he was treated to the same look. And what does he want with that? I am not helping him out of this mess.
He thought he heard Aragorn sigh, ere he said, "We are not in a position to risk the wrath of the locals. It makes our job--"
Harder, grimmer, impossible, ridiculous?
Halbarad could think of a number of adjectives that he could use to complete Aragorn's train of thought, but the Chieftain finished with, "slightly problematic," instead.
Halbarad heard muffled chuckles and gasps at that, but could not put them on any face. Just as well. They know what they have coming should I find out.
Aragorn winced, almost imperceptibly, but remained straight and dark. He advanced a few steps so that he was quite towering above Hildor.
"I have a farmer who claims that you killed two of his chickens. 'Since you seem to be in charge now,' he tells me, 'I expect full retribution, or else.' Else, what, I asked?"
Here, Aragorn seemed to Halbarad to stiffen. The burden of responsibility already weighs heavy on him, and it has only been such a short
time since he took it on...
"'Or else the life of your lad.'"
That really brought silence on. They would have heard crickets chirping had there been any, but the cold had been so merciless that they must have thought it better to stay put. There was bitter irony in Aragorn having to call Hildor a lad, but there it was. Duty fell heavy upon all, and it did not wait for the wisdom of a gray head ere it did so. That Hildor did not huddle further in his cloak made Halbarad immensely proud of him.
A man's a man that faces peril squarely. Although, I do wonder, how are we getting out of this one... It cannot end as badly as that, surely not! But there was a question lurking there, for Aragorn had not been Chieftain long, and though he did not have to prove himself, he was not Arathorn in some of the more seasoned rangers' eyes.
Aragorn advanced yet even more, shadowing Hildor now. But, instead of doing the obvious, he put a hand on his shoulder.
"Tell me, Hildor son of Hador. Did you kill those two birds?"
And Hildor son of Hador finally looked up, straight into his Chieftain's face.
"No, sir. I wanted to... I was so hungry. But they weren't mine, so I let them be. I know that you have no reason to believe me, there being no proof and the chickens dead and all... If death be my fate, so be it."
"Would you lose your life for two chickens, Hildor?"
"No, sir, not for the chickens. For my honor."
A small smile drew itself on Aragorn's face. "From what I have seen," he said, encompassing them all with one sad, wistful glance, "when we protect them secretly, these worthy people complain unceasingly about our queerness, our foul looks, and our endless lurking around their lives and homes. If such people accuse us of something, I am rather inclined to believe the tale to be the exact opposite of how they tell it. The day when they start giving us chickens and singing our praises... That day will I worry."
And that, effectively, restored the spirits of them all. Breaths were released, shoulders were patted, glances exchanged among the veterans.
To Hildor, Aragorn said. "If only for your father's sake, I would believe you, but I know you to be a good man, and I can see the truth in your eyes. Be at peace, Hildor. But do not go too near that farm."
"You do not have to tell me twice, lord Aragorn, but what about the ransom? Will the farmer believe me, you think?"
"Leave it to me to straighten matters, Hildor."
"You mean you paid him?" Halbarad asked when the small crowd of rangers had finally dispersed.
"Of course. I was not about to lose a man, and a good ranger, for the price of two chickens, a fortune though they cost me. Even if he had killed them."
"So you believe him."
"I am glad. Honor means a lot to these men."
"I am finding that to be the case," Aragorn said, wry amusement coloring his words.
Halbarad thought it a good time to bring up something that had been bothering him for the past few minutes.
"Slightly problematic seems quite the understatement to me," he said. "Try saving an ungrateful local from a hidden wolf that lurks behind his rose bush while he throws apples at you for stealing said apples..."
If any had doubted before whether their new Chieftain could laugh, their doubts were effectively put to rest.
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