7. Chapter Seven
Strider rode Salo alongside a very smug Thurin, Balharn bringing up the rear, muttering with every step his horse took. From what he understood, Gaelon had received his weekly bath the hard way. Thurin had doused him and the strumpet who was still in bed with him, with a bucket of ice cold water. And if the look on his face was any indication, Thurin had thoroughly enjoyed his little prank.
"This will teach me to instigate trouble," Balharn muttered as he took a bite of his cold bread. If he had just kept to his own counsel his breakfast would have been hot and inviting.
"I am sorry you got into trouble on account of my actions, Balharn," Thurin said. "If I had known Aron would be so put out...."
"Not your fault, lad. He was already put out as he received much the same wake up as Gaelon. I fear there will be much animosity toward the two of us for quite some time."
Strider looked from the one to the other, trying to figure out how he came into the play of the situation. He had neither been involved, not privy to the pranks, and yet, here he was, traveling with the two culprits.
"You aren't in trouble, young ranger. Do not fear. Aron more than not sent you with us to keep us out of trouble," Balharn laughed, taking a swig of his water.
"I was wondering what I had done to warrant being banished from a warm kitchen to ride on the open road so early. And without my own hot breakfast."
Thurin grinned. "I am surprised that Aron even sent you along. I thought he would be worried that we would corrupt you. He knows well that Balharn and I are the pranksters of the company."
"Maybe he thinks Strider will rub off on us," Balharn said with a chuckle.
"I am afraid that Aron may have miscalculated. I am nearly as bad as Elladan and Elrohir when it comes to pranks. I guess I learned it from the best of them," Strider said with a grin. He could well remember the trouble the three of them would get into.
"You will have to tell me some of your adventures sometime, Strider. I am sure we would be able to compare and exchange ideas."
Strider laughed at Thurin's suggestion. He was sure they would have much in common. There was much he wanted to talk of with Thurin, including the young man's skill with a blade. He was anxious to test his own prowess with the sword against the young ranger. "I am sure it will come up around a fire at some point in our travels. I would also like to stage a contest between us with swords. Aron pointed out that you have some skill with both bow and sword."
"I understand you are quite accomplished as well. It would be something to see," Balharn commented. "I think we are far enough ahead now that we could take a rest. There's a stream close by that would be a welcome diversion from this dusty road."
By Strider's reckoning, they had put some distance between themselves and the rest of their troop. Thankfully, Balharn knew where Aron had planned to camp this night. The others would join them there.
"We have been riding for several hours. I think we have put enough miles between us and Aron's riders," Strider mentioned, eyeing the sky.
"Good. I want a proper meal. Eating on the run this morning does not constitute a good meal to my mind," Balharn complained.
He tugged on the reins lightly, leading his horse into the brush off the side of the road. Thurin followed, with Strider bringing up the rear. With one last look at the road, they disappeared into the thicket.
"Don't stop on my account," Thurin said, his sword tip resting on the ground. He watched as Strider circled him, looking for an opening.
"I haven't stopped. I am...regrouping," he said, breathless. Thurin was indeed good with a sword. It was taking all he had to stay with him.
"Shall we call the match even?" Thurin asked, lifting his sword. Strider was a fair opponent. He was tired, though he wouldn't admit to it.
"I say you are evenly matched and there would be no fair outcome of a bout such as this. Besides, we have wasted enough time along the bank of the stream. We should continue before the others catch up," Balharn said, dousing the fire with the water he had collected.
"Perhaps another day, Thurin. Maybe I will get the upper hand then."
"We shall see, Strider, my friend. We shall see."
"Come on lads, if we don't leave now, Aron and the others will catch up. We don't want that happening. It will be bad enough when we camp for the night. I am sure Gaelon will still be quite upset."
Strider and Thurin quickly sheathed their swords and swung up into the saddle. They had several more hours before they reached the rendezvous point. Perhaps they shouldn't have lingered so long, Strider thought. It would have been better if they arrived early to set up camp before the others arrived. Now it would be all they could do to reach the campsite before Aron and the rest of the company.
Balharn led the way out of the glen, but not back to the road. When he received confused looks, he laughed. "We are much closer to the campsite if we travel this shortcut I know. That's why I did not mind stopping by the stream or allowing you boys to have your little competition. Though now we must hurry or Aron will have my hide for tarrying along the way."
"You never cease to amaze me, old man," Thurin laughed, following closely behind Balharn.
"I will give you old man, you young buck! Wait until you have lessons again. I won't be so easy on you! Old man. No respect..." Balharn grumbled.
Strider had a hard time holding back his mirth. Though it sounded as though Thurin was being disrespectful, he knew better. He knew the younger man looked up to Balharn much as a son would to a father. And since his own was lost, Thurin considered Balharn his foster father. It was plain to see to anyone that looked.
"Don't grumble so loudly Balharn, you will scare away the Orcs," Thurin laughed.
"Then I shall grumble even louder. I shall not want to run into a band of them with just two young saplings such as yourselves," Balharn quipped.
"You should count your blessings that you have such as us as your companions. We are young and sturdy, able to bend with the wind. We are quick and agile," Thurin pointed out.
"...and you know not when to respect your elders," Balharn groused. "Now be quiet. We are riding into dangerous territory," he told them as they approached the edge of the wood.
Thurin quieted immediately. Their play was one thing, but when Balharn commanded silence because of danger, he listened. The three of them continued through the woods until they came to a field. Balharn motioned for them to stop, then he swung down from his horse. With eyes trained to look for danger, he scanned the open field.
"We should hurry across here. We need to reach the other side of the clearing as quickly as we can," he told the two, swinging back up into the saddle.
Strider looked around him, sensing unrest. He couldn't see anything amiss in the trees behind him, and nothing lay ahead of them, but his gut told him that something wasn't quite right. Balharn was correct. They needed to proceed quickly. They were in danger here.
They raced out from the protective underbrush into the clearing, Balharn leading the way. The horses' hooves pounded across the ground, turf flying from under their weight. Strider leaned over Salo, urging his gallant steed on with words spoken in Elvish.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He was being watched. He could feel it. With a quick glance over his shoulder, Strider saw the danger he had sensed. Wargs. Many of them running parallel with the three rangers.
"Balharn! Wargs!" he called.
The older ranger chanced a quick glance over his shoulder. He had hoped they would cross unhindered. It had been a risk, he knew, but they had delayed by the stream too long. He should have known better. There had been reports of Wargs in the area. He should have paid heed to them and taken the longer way around to the appointed campsite.
"Make for the woods! We are too exposed here!" Balharn warned the younger rangers, spurring his horse toward the safety of the woods.
Salo, sensing the imminent danger, flew by Balharn's steed, leaving the two other rangers behind. Strider tried his best to rein the scared animal in, not wanting to leave his companions. He pulled on the reins hard, turning Salo in time to see a large warg pounce on Balharn's horse, knocking both animal and rider to the ground.
Strider heard Thurin's cry and found the young man had turned his own mount back toward the pack. Strider, not hesitating, raced back to help his fallen comrade. He watched as Balharn had gained his footing and had quickly dispatched the lead warg, but the others were closing in on his position. Strider stared on in horror as three wargs descended on Balharn's position, circling him.
He was too far away to help Balharn, but he was close enough to help Thurin with the six that had closed in on him and his steed, cutting him off from the older ranger. With a loud cry, Strider forced Salo into the fray, taking out a large black beast with his sword. With blood dripping from the tip, he turned and swung the blade at another beast, taking it by surprise. The blade, honed by the Elves, sliced through the warg's throat and it fell, unmoving.
Strider looked around, finding that Thurin had dispatched two of the fell beasts as well, leaving just the two largest. They were slowly advancing, causing the already spooked horses to rear. Thurin was tossed from the saddle and landed with a hard thud, his head bouncing off the ground. Quickly, Strider leapt off Salo, taking a stand between the fallen youth and the first of the two wargs.
He faced down the beast, blood running down the blade of his sword to his fingertips. Just as the beast crouched down, prepared to leap, the second warg came up behind Strider, swiping at him with a paw full of razor sharp claws. They raked across his ribs, ripping cloth and skin, causing him to fall to his knees. Knowing he had not a moment to give in to the searing pain, Strider regained his footing and continued his fight with the largest of the wargs. He had to protect Thurin.
Dazed, Thurin struggled to his feet, using his sword as a brace. He heard the cry of the warg, calling out for the remained of its pack. The howl instilled fear in the youth. Shaking it off, Thurin turned to face the warg that stalked him. He could smell the foul breath as it approached, see the blood matted fur. The warg growled, saliva dripping from its fangs. It crouched and sprung.
Two things happened unexpectedly. The warg lunged over Thurin's shoulder, its fangs sinking into the flesh, trying to tear his arm from his body and Thurin, poised for the attack, had sunk his sword into the underbelly of the beast, nearly to the hilt. A tortured cry slipped from his throat and he fell, the weight of the beast pulling him to the ground.
Strider thrust his sword into the beast's mouth, the tip of the blade protruding from the back of its neck as it fell in death to the blood soaked ground. He pulled it from the flesh, the sound of sucking heard loudly. He turned and found Thurin, the mouth of a dead warg still wrapped around his shoulder. Strider knelt beside the young man and pulled him from the dead beast as carefully as he could.
"I couldn't reach him." Strider looked to where he had last seen their companion and hung his head. The wargs had overtaken the man. Even now they were tearing flesh from his bones. "He is lost, Thurin. We must go. Now. While we can."
"No! I have to help him!" he cried, struggling against the strong arms of Strider.
"We cannot. He would want us to go. Thurin! We must go!" Strider said, pulling the young man to his feet as another long howl shattered the silence.
With a last look over his shoulder, Thurin nodded. The two raced for their horses and pulled themselves painfully into the saddles. Then without another backward glance, they raced to the safety of the woods.
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.