18. Chapter Eighteen
For three days they rode ever north, the elves keeping a steady pace. As they neared the southern borders of Fornost, Legolas pulled Strider aside, wishing to speak to him alone.
"We will take our leave now. You are not far from the northern camp of your fellow rangers and we need to make for Mirkwood. We have been gone too long."
Strider nodded and reached a hand out to the fair-haired elf. "Le hannon, Legolas. Thank you for traveling with us."
"Cuio vae," Legolas said, clasping Strider's arm within his hand. "Farewell Strider. We will meet again."
"I look forward to the day."
Legolas swung up onto his horse and with a quick wave to the rest of his party of elves, he rode off, leaving Strider and Laeriel alone for the first time in days. Strider turned and smiled at Laeriel, who had already begun to set up camp in the small ruins of Fornost Erain or Deadman's Dike as the rangers called it.
"If I remember correctly, we are less than two days ride from the camp," Strider said, pulling the saddle off Salo.
"Your memory serves you right. We are about fourteen hours from the main camp. When was the last time you were there?"
"Nearly a year. I had joined my brothers and went hunting for Orcs. We met up with the rangers and had stayed with them for a week or so. Most of the rangers were out on patrols while I was there. I don't remember meeting many of them."
"Do you know others, beside Aron?" Laeriel asked, beginning a quick stew for their dinner.
"A few. Halbarad is the leader. His father was second in command when my father was Chieftain of the Dúnedain. When they both were killed, Halbarad took over. He is a few years older than I am, but still a young man. Aloet was Halbarad's second in command. Then there was Caer and Dagros. Brothers I think. And Uladan and Tarthelion. I am unsure of anyone else. As I said, many were on patrols."
"There are not many of us left. The six you remember were all still with us last time I was in camp. Then there are the two of us and Aron, Huor, Gaelon and Authon. Another two dozen are on patrols through the vast regions of Eriador. They range from Forochel in the north as far south as Tharbad. To the east into Michel Delving and to the west into Rhudaur."
"The reach of the rangers is far. I never knew the full extent," Strider said, knowing that when he became the leader of the Dúnedain, he would be responsible for the lives of the many men that patrolled the region, keeping it safe.
"You will make a fine leader, Strider."
"How did you know what I was thinking?"
"It's easy to read your face. I need to teach you to hide your many emotions."
Strider sighed, accepting the bowl of stew she handed him. It was hot and looked good. "My brothers have always said my face read like a book. I guess that will be something I need to learn."
"I will help you. But now, you must eat. We are close to the northern camp and I need to don my disguise. It would not do to return without not only Balharn but Thurin as well."
"I am sad to see you disappear. Are you sure this is what you want? I can put your joining the ranks to a vote at the next council. Many women have needed to become warriors, to fight the ever growing enemy. Why should you not fight as well?"
"It is too late for that Strider. We both know that the council leaders would not be happy that I deceived them for so long."
"They will understand. Many of the men have lost loved ones in the battle with evil. They will know the heartache and the burning desire for vengeance and justice."
"You do not know these men as I do. They will burn with indignation for the betrayal I have committed. We trust each other with our lives. They will not understand how I could have lied to them."
"We will make them understand!"
"You don't just command men to understand your position!" Laeriel cried, jumping to her feet. "You have much to learn to become the leader of the Dúnedain, Strider. The men are hard, they have seen too many winters of fighting, seen too many deaths. They are distrustful of change. You will need to win many of them over. You can't just walk into their midst and command their loyalty. You will need to earn it. As well as their trust. For that you will need not only Aron, but Thurin as well."
"I know I need to gain their trust…and I know I need to protect your secret. I just wish there was another way."
"As do I. But there is not. And we both know it. Now, finish your stew. I am going to resurrect Thurin."
Strider watched as she disappeared into the ruins, her pack slung over her shoulder. He wished with all his heart that there was another way, that she wouldn't have to don her disguise as Thurin.
"Ho, the camp!"
Strider set the bowl down and reached for his sword. Warily, he glanced toward the voice in the darkness, cursing himself for a fool for not taking better care. He knew Laeriel was just beyond the firelight, but he wasn't certain if she was armed or not. He couldn't call out to her, in case whoever was approaching the camp didn't know she was with him.
"Come into the light," he called out to the voice.
Three men eased into the firelight, armed heavily with bow and arrow and swords. Strider eased to his feet and waved to the log by the fire.
"I have little in the way of food, but what I have is offered to you freely. Please, sit."
"Thank you, we are weary, having travelled far this day. I am Arodion, this is my son, Iauron and my brother, Loston," he replied easing to the log.
Strider noticed their garb, glancing over the dirt covered cloaks of the men that shared his fire. If he was not mistaken, they were some of the northern rangers. He would ask, but if he was wrong about them, he would give away much.
"What brings you this far north?" he asked, as he prayed that Laeriel would stay out of harm's way.
"Arodion! You old dog! Where did you come from?"
Strider glanced over his shoulder to see Thurin emerge from the ruins. He could see that all traces of Laeriel were gone and the young ranger he had first met nearly a month ago had returned. It was obvious from the way the four of them were acting, they all knew each other. Thurin had crossed to the other side of the fire and had embraced the old man warmly.
"Thurin, you young whipper snapper…where the hell have you been? Aron has turned the region upside down looking for you and Balharn. Where is the old coot, anyway?"
"He fell, my friend. We were attacked by wargs just this side of Chetwood. Strider and I barely made it out alive. We had to recover from our wounds before we could travel north. We are on our way to the camp now."
"I am saddened to hear of his death. But Aron will be pleased to see you and young Strider. Do your wounds need tending?"
"Nay, we are fine. Strider is a skilled healer."
"Well, it is good that we ran into you. We had to move the main camp. Too many of the enemy had been near. We are further into Emyn Uial just beyond the shores of Lake Nenuial. Halbarad feared for the safety of the women, though his wife wasn't too happy about picking up an entire household again," Arodion said, returning to his seat by the fire.
"Cristiel calmed down once Halbarad told her she would have a bigger house. The new encampment already had homes built and a barn for all the horses too. It's an abandoned town that we found several months ago. All we had to do was pack up and go," Loston said, chuckling in his cup.
"You make her sound mercenary, Loston," complained Arodion. "The woman has less in the way of valuables than any other I know and still she is happy with her family and her station."
"Will she be happy when Strider returns to the northern camp?" Loston asked, eyeing the younger man intently. "I know who you are, though you have not said. You have the look of your sire about you, young man. Although you have your mother's eyes."
"You knew my parents?" Strider asked, eager for any information he could glean from the brothers.
"Aye…I knew them. And your grandparents as well," Loston said.
"My grandparents…are they still with the northern camp?" Strider asked.
"I know not. The last time I was there, they were. But that has been several months. How is your mother, young one?"
"Saddened by my leaving, but she understands that I need to learn the ways of my father's people."
"Your mother was always a wise woman," Arodion recalled. "Seems to me she got that from your grandmother, Ivorwen. She was instrumental in convincing your grandfather to allow your parents to marry. Dírhael was quite against their union at first because Arathorn was so much older than Gilraen. He had already seen six and fifty years whilst Gilraen was just a young maiden of two and twenty. But your grandmother saw in a vision that it was to be. I do believe she saw you…though she has never said."
Strider wondered what he would say to them if his grandparents were still in the camp. Would they know who he was? Everyone he had met so far from the rangers knew him by sight, including the two older men that shared his fire. Surely his grandparents would know their own flesh and blood.
They broke camp early the next morning before the sun peeked over the horizon. The five of them rode toward the mountains to the west and Lake Nenuial. The way the brothers and Iauron led them, they would arrive in the newly formed camp in less than a week.
Strider was anxious to get to the camp now. He hadn't thought before that he might discover more of his family. His mother hadn't mentioned her parents, or his father's for that matter. He wondered what his paternal grandparents were like. Were they still alive and living in the newly formed village?
"Loston, can you tell me more of my family? I would know of my father's family. Are there any living in the village?"
"I am sorry son. Your father's father, Arador, was killed by hill-trolls north of Rivendell a year after your parents wed. Your grandmother died giving birth to your father. Ivorwen and Dírhael, as well as your mother and your foster family, are all that is left to you."
Strider nodded solemnly and turned his thoughts to Imladris and his foster family. He never expected to miss them as he did. Elladan and Elrohir had said they would return with the next rising of the moon. With the encampment moved, how would they find him? Would he see his family again?
"The rangers are a tight knit group; we will become your family," Thurin said, riding up beside him. He reached out and placed a hand on Strider's arm in reassurance.
Strider glanced to his face and saw the brilliant blue eyes of Laeriel and smiled.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.