10. Chapter Ten
Laeriel reached for a fresh bandage then took his hand in hers. "That was a fool thing to do," she scolded, wrapping the wound in his palm tightly.
"Well, it seemed the right thing to do at the time," Strider said, watching her as she worked.
"Men," she muttered. When she finished, she tied the material on the top of his hand, before easing back to lie on the bed roll. "You are lucky it was not your sword hand."
Strider stared at her a moment then smiled. "I did not even think about that."
"Obviously. We have to decide what we are going to do, Strider. I do not know the way to the rendezvous point. Only Balharn knew," she said, her voice catching on the name of the man who had been like a father to her.
"We will head for Fornost in a few days, once we both have regained our strength. For now, rest," he said, standing, his decision made. "I have to feed the horses."
Laeriel watched as he moved off. He was acting strange. She sighed. Balharn had changed his attitude toward her once he found out about her true identity and now Strider had as well. She watched him under half closed eyes as he moved about the cave.
He was a handsome man, a future king, a man out of her reach. Laeriel turned her head, staring at the wall. Thoughts like that would get her nowhere. She could not expect the future king of Gondor and Arnor to want her. Even if he just remained the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, she was not worthy of him.
"Are you okay, Laeriel?" he asked, kneeling down beside her.
She turned, easing up into a sitting position slowly. "I will be fine. I am just a little tired, and I am weak. I cannot believe how weak I am."
"It is the loss of blood," he said. "And the fever did not help," he added, placing a hand on her forehead to check on her fever. "You should rest. I will fix you something to eat."
Laeriel touched her face where he had and sighed. Why did she have to feel this for him? And why now? Why could they not be different people?
Strider moved about the cave, trying very hard to ignore Laeriel. He could still feel the softness of her skin under his touch, smell the sweetness of her hair tickling his nose. He groaned softly. Why was this happening to him now? He had vowed his love to Arwen.
'But she never vowed her love for you', his subconscious reminded him.
Strider glanced back at Laeriel. She was sitting up, her bad arm cradled in her good, and her back leaning against the cave wall. Her eyes were closed, but in his mind's eye he could still see the blue of her eyes staring at him. Shaking his head, he turned back to the task of looking for food to break their fast.
Laeriel opened her eyes and found Strider sitting on his haunches in front of her, a bowl of steaming liquid in his hands.
"It is not much. Just some broth made from…"
Laeriel took the bowl from him, smiling. "I am sure it is fine. Thank you."
"I should go hunting. We need the food."
"You should not go alone," Laeriel said, struggling to get to her feet.
Strider placed his hand on her good shoulder, applying enough pressure to prevent her from rising. "I will be fine. Stay here. I will not be gone long."
"No, stay. You would be no good to me with that shoulder. In a few days, when it has mended, we will be on our way. Until then, rest easy, Laeriel. And stay hidden."
Laeriel watched as he led Salo through the cave, disappearing beneath the waterfall. She looked around the cave, searching for her weapons. He may have said stay put, but he did not say stay in the cave. There might be food nearby, something she could manage on her own. Maybe even fish in the stream that led from the small lake.
She set her bowl of broth down on the cave floor and stood, bracing herself against the cave wall. It took most of her strength to just gain her footing. Slowly, Laeriel inched along the wall until she reached Maethor. She stroked his neck, murmuring soft words to him. Knowing her shoulder was useless for her bow, she grabbed her sword. Swinging it through the air, she tested her ability to wield it. It would be difficult, but she could manage.
Taking a deep breath, she headed for the cave entrance.
Strider picked his way through the brush, his eyes searching the ground where he walked for signs of game. If they were to stay in the cave for several days, they would need enough food to sustain them. What they had now would not last the rest of the day. Besides, they needed much more than the broth. They both needed to regain their strength.
His thoughts strayed to Laeriel. How had she managed to keep her secret so long? Why had no one seen through her disguise? Now that he knew, he could not imagine seeing her as a man. Not even a boy. Her curves were too noticeable. It was true that she had placed bindings over her breasts, but she could not hide the softness of her jaw, the roundness of her hips, the graceful gait she had.
'You thought she was an Elf at first,' he thought. 'Perhaps, the others did as well.'
He scoffed at the idea. A blind man could tell she was not an Elf. So why had none of them seen through her disguise? Why had he not seen through it? He had been raised to see things that were hidden in plain sight. He had a sixth sense that he relied on. And yet, he had missed all the signs until he had accidentally discovered the truth.
Now they were so plain to him. He could not believe he had missed them before. The way she walked, held her head and the quiet manner in which she spoke. Her demeanor was a far cry from a normal man. She had avoided the tavern wenches at The Prancing Pony, kept to herself on the trail, and only watched the other rangers fighting amongst themselves. And yet, he had missed all those signs until now.
'What a fool you are, Strider, son of man. And you are to be a king? You had best learn to open your eyes and see what is before you a little better or you shall be a laughing stock to your peoples," he told himself.
Kneeling down to the soft dirt under his feet, Strider touched the mark of a stag. It would be too much meat for the two of them, but from the tracks it made, the animal was hurt. It would be easy to bring it down. And perhaps, if they stayed a day or two longer than he had planned, they could find a way to cure the meat, so as not to waste it.
Smiling at his good fortune, Strider followed the tracks, leading Salo behind him. It was not long before he came upon the beast, standing at the river's edge, its head bent to drink. With practiced ease, he strung his bow, nocked an arrow and quickly loosed it, bringing down the stag with one shot.
Strider headed for the water, thanking Arda that he had found a source of food so quickly. Not only did they have food now, he could use some of the tendons to make bow strings. The one he had now was wearing thin and would not last too many more times. Best to have a spare or two.
Strider glanced at the sun, surprised that half the morning was gone. He had not expected to be gone so long. He hoped Laeriel was all right. He had not wanted to leave her alone, but there had been no other choice. They needed food and with her injury, she would have slowed him down.
As it was, his own injuries had slowed his progress. He should have returned to their camp by now. And he still had to get the stag back to the cave. It was not a large animal, but with the gashes on his ribs, he feared the return trip to the small lake would take time he did not have to waste.
With a grim determination, Strider cleaned the carcass, quickly burying the innards of the stag. No sense bringing any unwanted guests back to the clearing with him. The smell of blood would draw every carnivore in the area to them. Once that was finished, he took a deep breath and picked the stag up, throwing it on the back of Salo. Thankfully, the steed had been accustomed to this practice.
"Okay, boy. Time to head back," he said softly, leading Salo along the trail he had cut in the woods.
Laeriel grinned at the growing pile of fish at her feet. She had managed to catch at least six, using her makeshift staff. It had been difficult making it, but she had managed. The hardest part had been shaping the end of the staff into a sharp point. But with a little bit of luck and a lot of determination, she had done it.
Now to get them back to the cave. She could get them started on the fire for the afternoon meal. She was starving. The broth had been forgotten in her desire to help Strider search for food.
Leaning down, she slipped the staff through the gills of each one, effectively stringing them onto the wooden staff. Now all she had to do was carry them back to the cave. Her mouth began to water as she thought about the way fire seared fish tasted. Strider would be surprised. He might be angry with her, but the fish would be welcomed in light of the fact that they were out of food.
Laeriel went to stand, the staff propped over her shoulder, when she heard a low growl behind her. Warily, she looked to find a small wolf snarling just at the edge of the woods. Groaning, she realized her sword lay several feet from her grasp. Even if she had been well, it was too far away from her, but with her shoulder wound, there was no way she would make it to her sword before the hungry wolf decided to attack.
Making a quick decision, Laeriel slowly reached behind her head and took two of the fish off the staff. All she had to do was distract the small beast long enough to reach her sword. After that, she could at least protect herself, if not make her way back to the clearing while it ate.
She tossed the fish a short distance away from the snarling beast, far enough away from her and her sword, but close enough that the smell of fresh fish caught his scent. She watched as he moved toward the fish, cautiously sniffing the air as he did. Once he bent his head to the first fish, Laeriel moved.
She reached her sword just as the hungry wolf devoured the second fish. Searching the ground in front of him, he found there was nothing left of his meager meal. Slowly, the wolf turned its attention back to Laeriel.
"You have gotten all you will get from me, wolf, unless you want to taste the cold steel of my blade," she hissed, pointing the sword at the wolf. "Be off!"
The wolf glanced at the woods, and then dashed off, disappearing into the brush. Laeriel sighed with relief, dropping her arm. She bent down to retrieve the staff of fish at her feet. When she stood back up, she found herself face to face with a very angry Strider.
"I thought I told you to stay in the cave?" Strider asked, helping Laeriel to her feet.
"You told me to stay hidden. I only came a little ways from our camp," she protested. "And I have caught our lunch!" she proclaimed, showing him the remaining fish on her staff.
"And a wolf nearly caught you!"
"I can take care of myself, Strider. As you can see, I am safe and I still have four of the huge trout I caught. Once we get back to the cave, I'll have them on a spit over a roaring fire."
Strider rolled his eyes. Seemed he was out maneuvered. The trout did sound good. They hadn't had hot food since they had arrived at the Inn the other night. "All right. You win. This time. But Laeriel, if I am to protect you and your secret, you must listen to what I say. At least some of the time."
Laeriel glanced at him and smiled. "Okay, Strider. I shall try to be more obedient in the future," she said, a hint of laughter in her voice.
Strider rolled his eyes. He seriously doubted that Laeriel could be obedient. It didn't seem to be in her nature.
A/N: I want to thank you for reading....if you have made it this far, you will be in for a treat in future chapters. I love to hear from my readers....so please drop me a line or two!
I also want to apologize to those that missed out on Chapter Nine...I had accidentally had it marked private and no one left me a note to tell me and I just now caught it. I hope you go back and read it. Thank you!
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