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The candlelight flickers feebly across your face, as feebly your heart beats within you.
Your brow creases. Hands fret with the blanket. Your quiet cries seem swallowed by shadows pressing in from the corners. Like living things, those shadows. Stealing toward you like the hands of death. I move my chair closer to the light. Closer to you. The legs scrape loudly on the stones.
Your eyes open.
"I am sorry. I did not mean to wake you."
You stare, unknowing. My heart stutters, then steadies; its strength shames me. Would that I could lend it to you!
A voice beside me. "How fares he?"
I shake my head, my words held captive by the fear raging in me.
An Elven hand rests on your forehead and you momentarily still your battling movements. All is quiet and he murmurs comfort to you in words that seem as ancient as Arda and as soothing as the seas. Elladan looks at me. "He fights."
"He always has."
His hand squeezes my shoulder. "Keep watching."
"Have I not always?"
He smiles. "Few have a friend so faithful."
"Few are as precious to Arda as he," I counter. "He must not die."
Hours trickle. I rub my hands over my face. This waiting is the hardest part of being counted your friend. I have done this too often, sitting at your bedside, in deathwatch...
No! Not a deathwatch, but a guarding of life, to ensure that it does not abandon you.
I sigh. As if I could stop it if it did.
I count your breaths, grateful for each one that marks life’s continuation. Life’s unfaltering perseverance.
I watch your chest, the erratic rise and fall of it as pain smites you.
If only I could bear it for you, that pain.
Another voice beside me. I jerk awake, ashamed at my weakness. "Does he live?"
"Yes. He is sleeping, I think."
I watch his hand caress your brow, as his brother’s hand did. You flinch and groan, as if the softest touch is a burning brand against your skin. The fever gnaws at your flesh as a flame eats through wood, and my helplessness to stop it chokes me.
"Is he better?" I whisper, pleading.
The despair haunting his eyes gives me no reassurance. "I do not think so."
I grasp your hand.
Hold on, my friend. You must hold on.
Sullen dawn breaks over Fornost. It is cool, for mid-summer, but perhaps that will help slow the fever’s spread. Too many have already died–women, children, even the strongest men.
You breathe still, but I fear you may be next. I watched you exhaust yourself in the healing house, fearing you would fall victim yourself. That you did nearly kills me.
I think fleetingly of myself, wondering if I too will fall. I am as strong a Dúnadan as you, or nearly.
But my death matters little. It is you who must live, for without you, the future holds only hopelessness.
The Peredhil chased me away from your bedside. I slept, but it was restless. I dreamt the fever took all I loved, and doomed me to roam Arda, alone and lost. I pray this fever will not sweep north of Fornost, where my family dwells. But my home is far from the fetid bogs and slow-moving rivers where the illness starts. The people are warned to keep away, but some have no other source of water. They fall ill, then the malady spreads. This year it is so virulent even Fornost’s southern edge has not escaped.
But my wife and children will hopefully be safe in the Northern hills. I put them out of mind, for worry brings no profit. I walk back to your small cottage. You will dwell in a fine Citadel as king, but I fear we Dúnedain can offer only rustic comforts to our Chieftain. But its thick walls are cool in summer and warm in winter and the roof is tight. I enter and walk to the bedchamber. I nod at Elladan. The fever will not affect Peredhil, but they suffer fear just the same. His worried eyes meet mine, and bring me no comfort.
"His fever is no better," Elladan says.
"But it is no worse," Elrohir offers.
I look from one to the other and frown. "Which is it, then? Better or worse?"
They answer simultaneously.
I shut my eyes, pinching my nose. I feel a headache coming on. Would that the healer had not also fallen victim and we had real help instead of two stubborn Peredhil and an exhausted Ranger. Aragorn, you could not have picked a worse time to fall ill.
I walk to your bed and sit gently beside you, to see for myself. Improbable as it is, it seems both twins are right. Your forehead still burns beneath my hand, but you are no longer so restless; indeed, you seem to be sleeping peacefully. Your cheeks still seem unnaturally flushed but the grey pallor is gone. I take a careful breath, but my hope is still tempered by fear, for even as I watch, I see you shiver. "He does seem better."
Elrohir shoots Elladan a triumphant look.
"But he is still very ill."
Elladan folds his arms and glares back at Elrohir.
I glare, weary of both. "Are there no orcs you can go slay?"
"I am sorry," Elrohir immediately says. Elladan nods his own apology. They love you, those two. I see it in their eyes, in their tireless care for you; even in their arguing.
You must not die, Aragorn. You would take the hearts of all of us if you do.
You murmur, then shiver again. I reach for a cup, and Elladan raises your head. Your eyes do not open but you swallow. Willowbark tea. I wish for stronger medicine. Willowbark is for sniffles, not this deadly raging fever.
It is like fighting a dragon armed with only the smallest dagger.
You shiver again, pulling at the blanket. "Cold," you cry and your whimper breaks my heart. If you were yourself, I know you would prefer death to letting me or your brothers see such helplessness. Ever do you hate showing weakness.
I tuck the blanket closer, but your shivering grows more intense; your cries more heartrending. I know not what to do, but Elladan stands and removes his own tunic. "He needs warmth," he says simply, and slips beneath the blankets, pulling you into his embrace.
"Hush, little brother," he whispers, and your shivering eases. You sigh, and fall asleep.
Elrohir and Elladan spell each other keeping you warm. Elves are warmer than humans, or so I have heard. I am sure even the Half-elven can provide a measure of warmth that could not be found elsewhere. I am grateful for their presence, for you are drawing strength from them. There exists a bond between you three that I can never truly share. But I see it at work as they hold and comfort you. Lord Elrond might offer you similar succor, but I can think of no one else I would want at your side in this trying hour.
Except perhaps Arwen. I am sure you would prefer it be her body pressed against you rather than your brothers’. My certainty was confirmed when suddenly you turned and in your delirium ran your hand through Elladan’s hair and tried to kiss him. Never did an Elf leap from a bed so quickly! Elrohir and I laughed long at his scowling embarrassment, but our laughter hid our fear and the strain that threatens to break the three of us.
We laughed because if we did not, we might weep.
I do not know how much longer I can stand this.
Elrohir’s voice shakes. "I think his fever has broken!" He crawls from the bed, where you have kicked off all the covers. Sweat soaks your shirt, your hair. Your eyes flutter briefly, but fall shut. It seems fever has released you, but illness lingers still.
Elladan wipes your face with a cloth. I grin and whisper as I nudge him, "No more kisses for you."
He glares at me. "Thank Ilúvatar."
"Do we tell him?" Elrohir asks.
We stare at him. "Do you wish Aragorn to kill you?" I ask.
His cheeks flame. "No."
"Then keep silent," I tell him.
I look up, for I feel eyes upon me. Your eyes, tired but finally shining with clarity. How my heart soars!
"Halbarad..." A weak whisper. "How many ...have died?"
How like you to ask after others’ health before your own. I do not want to say, but your gaze demands my honesty. My joy fades, and I swallow. "Thirty-two, so far. Four more likely will not last the night."
Sorrow mars your brow. "And you... your family?"
"To my knowledge, they are well."
You sigh, and as you drift back to sleep, I wipe the tears tracking down your temples.
Elladan touches Aragorn’s tears. "Is he in pain?"
"Only in his soul, I think." The deaths this summer are a sore blow. We Dúnedain bear constant witness to tragedy, and the long ages of the decline of the Faithful brings me sorrow that is nigh inexpressible; countless times worse must it be for you, charged as Chieftain and Heir with our people’s very survival.
Elladan squeezes my shoulder. "There is still hope. Not idly did Father name him Estel."
"I fear sometimes the name is too heavy to bear."
"No. He is strong. He fights, remember?" His smile strengthens me.
"You must eat." I resist the urge to jam the spoon between your tightly closed lips.
"I am not hungry."
I offer a cup instead. "Drink, then, stubborn one," I growl and am pleased to see your faint smile. My goal today is to chase the sorrow from your eyes however I can.
You swallow, then lay back, gasping.
"Time will give you back your strength. But only if you eat."
You glare, weakly. "You are ever the hard taskmaster."
"Only when the student is stubborn." I smile.
You stare at the ceiling for a moment. "I remember... our first sparring match."
"You were green."
Elrohir laughs as he listens to us. "You were not exactly a war-hardened Dúnadan, brother."
"And whose fault was that?"
"Ah. So Father coddled you? Nay. He feared for your safety, and rightly so. We trained you, but you were indeed green when we escorted you to your people. Halbarad had his work cut out for him."
I smile, vindicated.
You give me another glare. "Stop smirking."
I laugh instead and that brings more angry sparks in your eyes. It is far better seeing you angry than so despairing.
My plan is working.
The day passes slowly but happily as many stop in to see how you fare, and as you see each healthy man, your spirits rise, which raises my own. But I had to leave to tend to matters of our people, and now that I am back, I like not the pensive look in your eye. "Aragorn, what worries you?"
Not an unexpected answer. "Aragorn."
You shift uneasily but finally sigh. "I had ... troubling dreams."
Elrohir steps over from where he had been tending a pot of soup sent you by Ivorwen. "Fever changes sleep. I would not worry overmuch."
"I do not, only ..."
"What?" I ask.
"One in particular seemed too vivid to be a mere fever dream."
"Tell me about it?"
You glance at Elrohir, blushing a bit. "It was about Arwen." I hear a quiet "Ah" behind me and Elrohir goes back to his soup-stirring. Elrohir avoids speaking of any matters of the heart, unless it be his own.
"If you would rather not speak it, I understand," I offer, hoping that you take me up on it, for I have a sudden suspicion about where this will lead.
"No, I want to." You hitch yourself up in the bed. "I was about to ... to kiss her ... and she simply vanished! Do you think it is a portent?"
I hear a choking noise behind me and it takes every bit of skill I possess to keep my own face straight. Steps cross the room and the choking fades with the door’s slam. Though it is faint, I know I can hear Elrohir’s wild laughter. In your turmoil, you seem not to notice, looking at me expectantly instead.
"I ... ah ... I do not think it a portent," I finally manage. I stand quickly. "I ... ah ... I need to check on ... on something. I will be back."
I hurry out of the cottage and find Elrohir collapsed under a tree, breathless with laughter. I struggle to keep my voice stern, for my own mirth bubbles within. "Stop it, you fool!" I hiss. "He will hear you!"
"‘She simply vanished!’ Oh, Valar help me but I could not hold back my laughter. Would that Elladan were here!" More gales of laughter and tears roll down his cheeks.
I glance uneasily at the cottage, and groan. "You are about to get your wish."
Elladan has just slipped through the door.
The door flies open. I expect Elladan but it is you: face pale, hair awry and gaze murderous.
Suddenly I fear for Elladan’s life.
Elrohir scrambles to his feet, laughter forgotten. We stand, struck dumb. You point at me, then Elrohir. "You...and you! And him!" Words failing, you growl incoherently and disappear back into your cottage.
I blink and take a long, slow breath. "It seems he now knows."
"I wonder if my brother lives."
"Then may his passing have been painless."
"Elladan really should have kept quiet." He walks toward the cottage, and I follow.
I enter behind Elrohir, afraid of what awaits. Elladan bloodied and dying on the floor? It would not surprise me. Even ill, I fear your sword.
I spot the blade in the corner and breathe a bit easier.
Elladan sits, alive, studying his hands as though he has only just now noticed he has knuckles.
You are standing by the table, hands on your hips. The anger in your eyes is sharper than any blade. I scratch my eyebrow, wondering what to say. I clear my throat. "’Tis good to see you on your feet."
Your glare would wither Fangorn.
Call me reckless, but I grin. "Come now, Strider. It is funny and well you know it."
Your jaw works. You hold my gaze for a beat, then glance at Elladan, then Elrohir, then back to me. And then I see it. The first hint of a twinkle in your eyes. Your brothers, still busy studying their newfound knuckles, miss the wink you give me.
Oh, this shall be good.
You walk to Elladan and suddenly grab his hair and yank him to his feet. I am amazed at your strength, considering you were nearly dead not a day ago. Elladan squawks, but your grip holds him. You bring your face to his. Orcs have seen more warmth in your eyes.
I think this is the first time I have ever seen Elladan’s knees actually buckle.
Still holding Elladan, you then stare hard at Elrohir.
I have never seen him turn that particular shade of pale.
You look back at Elladan. He is searching for those knuckles again, so you shake him. "Look at me and harken to my words, brother!"
Elladan winces, but reluctantly meets your eyes.
You lean in and suddenly smile. "Thank you for saving my life."
Elladan sags, then growls, "Something I now regret!"
You clap him on the shoulder, then stagger to bed. I pull a blanket across you. "Well played, my friend, but you tired yourself needlessly."
You smile sleepily. "’twas worth it."
Elrohir chuckles. "Retribution will be sweet."
"Best leave well enough alone," I warn.
You open an eye. "Halbarad speaks wisely."
"That you know of this is your own fault, Estel," Elladan huffs. "I had to refute your delusion of Arwen’s death somehow."
You lift yourself up on both elbows. "You could have simply assured me it was a nightmare!"
"I tried! But you kept worrying at it. ‘How do you know, Elladan? It was so real! What if she is dead?’ Truth was my only option." He smiles slyly. "It would be a merry tale in the Hall of Fire."
You eye your brother, then sit up and lean forward. You smooth his still-disheveled hair. "And I would then tell everyone," your voice a velvet whisper, "how much you enjoyed it."
Elladan leaps away with a disgusted roar. You collapse in the bed, laughing. "What say you, brother? Shall it remain our secret?"
"Until and beyond the ending of Arda, yes!"
I cherish the memory of those moments between you and your brothers. Such love and laughter are rare flowers; beautiful but fleeting. Too soon your brothers returned to Imladris, and as always when those of Firstborn blood depart, joy diminishes in those left behind.
And how desperately we need joy these days! The fever’s legacy is bitter: thirty-six dead: men, women, children. It is now nearly July. You are stronger, so come morn, you and I depart nearly a month late to join the patrol around the Shire. We will carry with us heavy hearts.
But you fulfill one last duty ere leaving.
I watch, silently, as you stand by two low mounds, holding the grieving mother who lost both a son and a husband. As you ever have done, you take her pain as your own. I chide you often, warning you that you cannot bear the sorrows of all, yet I would do better to try to catch the wind in my hands, for it is not in you to keep yourself above the suffering of your people. Of our people.
I watch, silently, as tears mar your face as they do hers.
And my own eyes sting.
"I do not need a tent."
"Yes, you do." I continue strapping the bulky canvas behind my saddle. Tarlanc twists his head around and glares at the strange luggage I am asking him to bear. "I did not nurse you back to health to have you drop again after the first damp night in the open."
"I am not that fragile, Halbarad."
"Hah! Pale and thin as a starving waif, still shadowed under the eyes–no, if you go, so does the tent."
"None of the other men have tents."
"None of the other men had fever. Nor are they Chieftain."
"I will so rarely be in camp, it is silly to haul it along."
"Then it is my own choice to be foolish."
"It is a needless burden for your horse."
"Tarlanc doesn’t mind, do you?" I pat his rump. He snaps at me.
"It seems he does."
"Nay. He is always like that in the morning. He is like me in that way."
"That at least is true," you mumble. "Fine, then, bring the tent. But do not cry to me if Tarlanc bucks you from his back in retaliation."
I look uneasily at Tarlanc. Surely he would not ...
I shift in my saddle, wincing. You chuckle. "‘Tis cruel, Strider, laughing at my suffering."
"Did I not say he would buck?"
"At least I did not come crying to you."
"No, you handled it manfully. Even if you did cry out for your mother." Another chuckle.
"You take far too much pleasure in your own poor jokes," I grumble, but your mirth, like fever, is contagious. I cannot stay angry.
Your smile suddenly fades, as it does too often these days as your thoughts darken.
"I wish I had seen my mother ere leaving. She grows weary, Halbarad. I worry that I may not see her before ..."
"You will see her again."
"Your foresight speaking?"
"Possibly. I do not think it her time yet."
"I hope you are right."
Gilraen does not trouble me, but the months ahead do. I feel unease stirring, like a fell breeze before the storm. A shadow has fallen, whether on your heart or over this land, I know not. But I fear winter’s onset. Its drear days dampen the brightest spirits, and your spirit has wearied even in the fullness of summer.
But there is little I can do, except continue keeping watch.
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