5. Chapter Five
He strode through the camp, quietly heading away from the fire. Several of the rangers had turned in, having ridden a long ways to meet with the sons of Elrond and himself and he didn't want to disturb them with his restlessness. As he passed through the perimeter of camp, he found another thinking along the same lines as he. Thurin.
"Strider. You cannot sleep?"
Strider looked at Thurin, smiling faintly. He was still unused to the name, though he imagined it fit well enough. "I am in no need of rest."
"Everyone needs to rest," he said, eyeing the tall, lanky future King. "Some more than others, it seems," he laughed, looking back at Aron and Balharn, both sound asleep near the fire.
Strider placed a finger along his lips, but had to smile. Aron and Balharn had been the first to fall asleep after darkness had fallen over the camp. "They are much older than we, Thurin. Pray we are both that able when we reach their age."
"I would pray to just reach that age. With the Orc encampments we have encountered the last few weeks, I fear none of us will see many years."
Strider glanced at Thurin and saw the weariness in his face. "How long have you fought against the enemy, Thurin?"
Thurin reached a boulder by the stream and sat down on it, contemplating the stars overhead. With a sigh, he answered. "Three long years. Since my parents and older brother were killed in an Orc raid. I have sought vengeance for their deaths ever since."
Strider watched as the weariness was replaced by a hardness he had not seen in one so young before. Thurin had seen much in his young life. Maybe too much. He had seen firsthand how hard the Orc attacks had been on Elladan and Elrohir. They had lost their Mother to them. She hadn't been killed, but she had been lost to them nevertheless. And he had lost the Father he had never known. The Enemy had to be stopped.
"How old are you, Thurin?" Strider asked, reaching for a thin reed that grew by the water's edge.
"Twenty and one years have passed since I was born. Most of those years had been happy."
"I am sorry," Strider said, twirling the reed between his fingers.
"Many have lost those that they loved since the Orcs have been on the move. Balharn lost his wife and daughter. Aron, his son and Father," Thurin said sadly. "The Enemy must be stopped. And that is why we fight."
Strider dropped the reed he held and placed his hand on the young ranger's shoulder. "We will fight this fight together Thurin. And in time, we will overcome the Enemy."
Thurin smiled in the moonlight. Time would indeed tell the tale.
The morning of the fourth day for the return trip back to Bree dawned crisp and chilled, a light frost covering the ground. The rangers began to stir and soon they were all up, making ready to break their fast. Aron looked around, expecting to find Balharn and Gaelon on watch as he had ordered.
"Where are Gaelon and Balharn?"
Thurin looked about camp, frowning. "We woke them for their watch hours ago. Where are Elladan and Elrohir?"
Aron glanced around him, noticing for the first time that Elladan and Elrohir were missing as well.
"Those two I do not worry about. They fend for themselves quite well."
A rustling in the brush caused Aron to abruptly cease his speech. He quickly unsheathed his sword, balancing on the balls of his feet, prepared for any attack. Beside him, Thurin did the same. It wouldn't be the first time an Orc attack had come upon them unawares.
"Easy, it's Elladan and Elrohir," Strider said, placing his hand on Aron's arm.
Aron lowered his sword as the twins re-entered camp. "Where are Gaelon and Balharn?" he asked them.
"They are right behind us. We happened upon an Orc scouting party early this morning," Elrohir said, tossing his pack to the ground.
"Why did you not wake us?" Aron demanded.
"It was only two dozen, Aron. No need to wake the rest of you. We handled them," Gaelon said, coming into camp, his sword still dripping the black blood of an Orc.
"That is of little consequence! You left your posts and left the rest of us open to an attack."
Strider cleared his throat. He didn't want to contradict their leader, but he had to set things right. "When I became aware of their leaving, Aron, I took it upon myself and stood watch in their stead. We were not left unguarded."
Aron groaned, throwing his arms up in the air. It never failed. When the twin warrior sons of Lord Elrond were about, there was dissension amongst his men. He couldn't have this. Order and discipline were key to their very survival. They had to trust each other. Follow their orders.
"I am sorry, Aron. It seems we have usurped your authority once again. Perhaps it is best if we take our leave now," Elladan said, gathering his belongings.
Aron noticed Strider's frantic look to his brother and sighed. He didn't want to distress the boy. Not yet. That would come as he grew within the ranks of the rangers, for he would indeed excel. It was only a matter of time.
"No, pray do stay, friend. It is just hard to accept another that has the love of my men, for whom they would follow into certain danger."
"There was no danger, Aron," Balharn said. "We had them surrounded."
Aron had to laugh at that. He was certain the four of them had indeed taken the Orc party unawares or they would have need of Huor's skill with needle and thread. Sighing, for there was nothing to be done now, he settled near the fire where Authon was preparing a hearty stew of hare for breakfast.
"Well, I am sure it was the fine fare Authon is preparing that brought you back to camp from your fine adventures. Sit and eat. We will be underway soon."
Balharn, Gaelon and the others joined Aron around the fire, warming themselves against the low flames. Strider eased toward his brothers, the thought of them leaving already weighing heavy on his mind.
"We would have to leave sooner or later," Elladan said.
Strider frowned. He had always hated the fact that his brother could read him like an open book. "How do you do that?"
"You need to learn to veil your emotions. They play across your features and can easily be read by those that know you best. It would be to your advantage, brother, if you learned to be secretive, like Thurin."
"There is something odd about him," Elrohir said, eyeing the ranger that sat across the fire. "I have watched him for days, but cannot put my finger on the reason I feel he is different. Keep an eye on him, Estel. He is not what he seems."
Strider followed their gaze, watching Thurin for himself. It was true there was something about the young ranger that he couldn't quite place. Something about his mannerisms struck him as odd. He was quiet, secretive, that was true. But it was more than that, much more than that. Strider just couldn't figure it out yet.
"Thurin is not in question here," Strider said, knowing his brother had brought up the young ranger so he wouldn't be questioned about his words he had spoken earlier. "Are you leaving?"
"I told you before. We were to leave sooner or later. Perhaps it is best if we continue on now on our own. You need to learn the ways of your Father as well as you learned the ways of the Elf. You are well versed in everything we could teach you. But you walk like an Elf, talk like an Elf. It is time you become a man in the true sense of the word," Elladan told him, picking up his pack.
Elrohir placed his hand on Strider's arm, holding him back as Elladan walked toward the horses. "Peace, Strider, son of Man. He is taking this parting as hard as you."
"We will return by the next rising of the moon. I swear it to you. Be watchful for our coming. It will be a grand reunion," Elrohir said as he raced to his own mount.
Strider watched as they rode off in a cloud of dust. Neither of them looked back, but he knew they wished him well. Sighing, he turned and found his new companions watching him.
"It's for the best, Strider," Aron said.
"Come and eat, young lad. It is a long ride we face this morning and we will not get another such meal until we stop this evening," Balharn said, offering him a bowl of the steaming stew.
With a slight shake of his head, Strider joined them, taking the offered food. If what Balharn said was true, if they were traveling far today, he would need the strength the stew would give him.
The night caught up with the rangers just as they were riding into the town of Bree a week after the twin warriors of Elrond had left them on the East-West road. Strider had not been this far West before and glanced around as they rode in. He had been to many places in the last few years, but not this town. Here, men, dwarfs and halflings walked about together.
"Strider, do not stare so. You will get us into trouble. We are not well liked here as it is," Thurin said in hushed tones.
Strider pulled his gaze away from the small throng that had gathered in the road, turning instead to his companion. "These small..."
"They are called Hobbits in these parts. You would know them as halflings or maybe wee folk. But here they are Hobbits. They come from Bree and the Shire. They are a pleasant folk. Quiet and unassuming. Ah, here we are at the stables. Aron pays the stable master well to care for our horses."
Strider followed Thurin in dismounting, handing the reins of his horse over to a small stable boy. "Take good care of him, boy, and there will be another coin in it for you."
The boy grinned and rushed off, intent on earning himself another coin.
"You shouldn't throw your coin about, Strider. Word will get around that you have plenty to spare if you do. Then you will have trouble more than you can handle," Aron warned.
"Come. Leave the boy alone, Aron! Let's go visit Butterbur. He is sure to have fine ale and even finer women about the Pony tonight," Gaelon declared.
Thurin wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "I want no woman. Just good hot food, cold ale and a warm bed. In that order."
"The food is only passing and the beds are hard. But the ale is the best in the area!" Balharn laughed, clasping the young man on the shoulder. "But this you already know. Come on Strider, we will introduce you to the best bar in the whole of Bree."
Strider grinned as he followed Balharn and Thurin into the street. He looked up at the wooden building and read the sign. 'The Prancing Pony'. Strange name for an establishment. But when in Bree...
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