|About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search|
A/N: For the B2MeM Prompt #17 "Breaking Stereotypes".
BEATING OUT THE PAIN
Aragorn slid down from the saddle and leaned against the mare's shoulder, his arms wrapped around her neck as the awful images rose up once again behind his eyes. He tried to focus his mind on the familiar scent of horse, sweat and leather, and the sound of the steady thudding of the mare's heart beneath her ribs; but his nose was full of the odor of orc blood, and his ears still rang with the terrible shrieks of the creatures that had attacked the patrol beneath the stars on the night of the first new moon of summer. How am I ever going to forget this?
He'd done his part to cut down the foul beasts, and had even kept one from putting a blade into Halbarad's back; but even as they slaughtered the last of the orcs, a hideous roar came from the ridge beside which they'd fought.
* * * * *
The 22-year-old Ranger looked up towards the sound just in time to see a massive troll leap down the side of the ridge, just barely visible in the starlight. Stunned by its appearance, he stared for a moment too long before racing towards where Hildurin was sprawled on the ground, unable to rise for the deep gash in his thigh. Before the older Rangers, who had been faster off the mark than Aragorn, could get to the wounded man, the troll leapt from the last stony outcropping and used its own body to crush Hildurin beneath it.
Aragorn never knew if the cry came from his own throat or from one or more of his companions as they all attacked the troll with blades still covered with black orc blood, hacking, stabbing until one of Rangers—Aragorn never was quite certain after who it was—managed to get a mortal blow up beneath the ribs into the monster's heart. It reeled for a long moment, and then fell once more, for the last time.
Breathing hard, his heart racing, Aragorn staggered after Halbarad as the patrol leader returned to where Hildurin lay. Fumbling at the belt pouch in which he kept the medicines and the suturing material that his foster father provided him, the younger man dropped to his knees beside Halbarad. Oh, please, let me able to help him.
Then he twisted away, retching until all that came up was bile. Shamed, he spat out the taste and shakily wiped his mouth on his sleeve, forcing himself to turn back to what was left of Hildurin. Neither the vials of opiate nor the needles and silk would be necessary.
Halbarad pulled a fold of the grey cloak across the smashed body. "Make a pyre to burn the orcs--and the troll," he ordered the men who had gathered about them. "I want to be back at the base camp by dawn." He rose and pulled Aragorn to his feet. "Let's put those skills of yours to work where they'll do the most good."
Aragorn followed numbly and tried to shut out the horror as he cleaned and stitched and bandaged the worst of the wounds of his companions, while those who had escaped injury heaved the orc carcasses on top of the troll by the light of hastily constructed torches. Elrond had taught him well enough that he managed to focus on the necessary tasks, but at the back of his mind was the image of the Ranger who had been the first to befriend him when he'd finally been allowed to officially join his people. The subtle sparkle in the kind grey eyes and the laugh lines that would suddenly appear when Hildurin was amused were no more. His mentor would never again crouch next to Aragorn, handing him bandages and asking intelligent questions about why Isildur's Heir was treating a wound a certain way, and he would never again talk proudly of the son he'd left behind in the Angle with his beloved wife. How could Halbarad walk away from Hildurin so--so coldly and dispassionately?
Aragorn swallowed back his grief and forced himself to do what was necessary, even to piling the last of the orcs on the pyre once the last of the injured were succored. Then Halbarad called to him again, and he reluctantly crossed the bloodstained grass to where Halbarad knelt by where Hildurin lay.
The patrol leader had closed Hildurin's eyes, and was unfastening the silver star brooch that held the cloak at the throat when Aragorn finally joined him.
"As Chieftain, you must write to his wife and son, and give this to the boy," Halbarad said softly, pressing the star into Aragorn's hand.
"But... you lead the Dúnedain, not me. Not yet," Aragorn protested.
"It is your duty to take on this task. This is different from your lack of knowledge of our tactics and strategies, Aragorn, which time and experience will remedy. But I know that you have training in diplomacy, and even though you don't speak much, when you do, you have the gift of eloquence that many of the rest of us lack." Halbarad closed the younger man's fingers over the brooch, and gave them a slight squeeze. "Now, help me lift him to the top of the pyre."
Aragorn was taken aback. Burning the orcs and the troll were one thing, but Hildurin? "Aren't we taking him back home?" He should be laid to rest with his father and mother, where Aneldis and Beren can visit him.
Halbarad shook his head and in a low voice, "We don't have the time to build a cairn, the ground is too rocky to dig a proper grave, and I will not leave him for the wargs to find, and it's high summer. There's no way to get him to the Angle before—before he—" The patrol leader went silent and even more grim-faced, and Aragorn watched his mentor wipe a sleeve across his face, smearing the viscous orc and troll blood that had spattered him.
Remembering Elrond's lectures about decomposition of the dead and possible contagion, Aragorn nodded and bowed his head, looking down at his friend. He stooped, resting a hand on the hood that Halbarad had drawn over the the distorted face, and whispered, "Be at peace, my friend, until we meet again beyond the circles of Arda."
* * * * *
Aragorn, lost in memory and grief, started and whirled around, drawing his knife defensively before he recognized the tall, slender figure before him. "Elrohir!"
The Peredhel laid a hand on Aragorn's shoulder, squeezing it gently, as the Ranger put the weapon away. Beyond Elrohir's dark head, the sky was lightening with the first rosy fingers of dawn. "Elladan and I wondered if you were ever going to come inside. You haven't even seen to your horse; come, I'll help you. I grieve with you for Hildurin. He was a good man."
"Hildur—How did you know?" Aragorn patted his mare's neck, thanking her for her patience, and led her to the corner of the stables where he began to remove her tack.
Elrohir shook his head. "If you are this unobservant out in the Wild, I fear you will not last long. Halbarad told us, of course. Everyone else is inside, waiting for you." He picked up a brush, tossed another to Aragorn, and in short order they had the mare settled for the day.
Aragorn paused in the doorway that led to the yard of the base camp, one of the few permanent sites hidden throughout Eriador that the Rangers used to recover from their patrols. "He was my first friend here," he whispered, his fingers curling around the star brooch at his own throat, thinking about the one in his pocket. "I was helping Brandir dispatch the last surviving orcs when the troll appeared. I should have been at Hildurin's side."
Elrohir shook his head and, placing an arm across Aragorn's shoulders, gave him a slight shake. "And if you had, you would likely be winging your way to Mandos to cross from this world along with him. Ada taught you better than that," he chided. "Come, you reek of orc and I'm sure that someone will have come up with hot water for bathing."
Aragorn sighed and gave a half-hearted grin as Elrohir slipped easily back into the "big-brother" role. "I'm coming."
Inside the low wooden building that served as a barracks and a storeroom for weapons and gear, forty-two—no, forty-one—Rangers and one Peredhel were going through the routine drawdown after a night patrol, but the mood was somber and there was none of the usual light-hearted teasing and joking that helped to release the energy and tension of a skirmish. The twenty-one Rangers who had the day patrol headed for the stables, forcing Aragorn to step to the side of the outer door. He leaned lightly against his foster brother for a moment as he stared around the room, his eyes blank until Elrohir nudged him into motion again.
Elladan was helping wash an injured man, but looked up when Elrohir guided Aragorn through the still-crowded outer chamber to the back corner of the hall, and gave a brief nod of greeting before turning back to his work.
Brandir came out of the room that was Aragorn's by virtue of the Chieftainship, carrying an empty bucket in each hand. "You've got enough water for a proper wash, Captain," he said, soberly giving a respectful nod to Aragorn and Elrohir as he passed the pair, heading back to the hearth.
Safely behind the wooden door that granted him privacy from the others, Aragorn stripped off his bloodstained gear, tossing it in a pile to clean later, after he scrubbed the last vestige of gore from himself. Even when Elrohir poured the last of the hot water over his freshly-scrubbed hair, he didn't allow himself to relieve his grief by weeping. I am Dúnedain—I am the Dúnadan—Rangers do not scream out their anger and pain aloud. I will not disgrace my men nor my mentors by an immature and unseemly emotional display.
He gave a token protest when Elrohir pushed him down on his cot, but was glad to roll to face the wall and slide into an exhausted sleep when the elf insisted. He thought he felt Elrohir's hand touch his forehead before sleep overtook him.
* * * * *
When he awoke shortly before sunset, he was relieved to realize that he hadn't dreamed of the battle, but the grief struck him hard as he remembered again the loss of his friend. He found that someone, probably Elrohir, had cleaned his gear and had taken his filthy clothing away.
After he dressed and emerged from the chamber, Halbarad handed him a bowl of stew from the communal pot, and mentioned that there was ink and parchment on the map table, and Aragorn hid a grimace as he took the hint and sat to write the necessary missive to Hildurin's wife and son. After a bit, Brandir came by and removed the empty bowl, softly apologizing that there wasn't enough for seconds.
Taken up with the composition, Aragorn was dimly aware of quiet conversations in the background behind him, but it wasn't until he'd finished the painful missive that he realized that the day patrol had returned, but that none of the Rangers were preparing to go out for the night watch. He put down the pen by the guttering oil lamp and went to join Halbarad, who sat near the fire nursing a tankard of wine.
"Aren't we going on patrol tonight, Halbarad?" he asked, dropping to sit cross-legged on the hearthstone, the fire toasting his back.
"No, tonight we will properly farewell Hildurin. Have you finished the letter?" Halbarad asked.
"Ask one of your brothers to take it and the brooch to the Angle when they head back that way; but not tonight. Here." Halbarad reached for another tankard and filled it from the wineskin he guarded. "You look like you could use this. Brandir, fetch out the drums," he called.
The quiet activity in the room stilled for a moment, and then suddenly picked up again, as if a rush of energy had filled each of the Rangers. Dishes were cleared from the long trestle table and the table top lifted from its supporting legs and propped against the wall. Someone began to haul the straw-filled mattresses from the cots at the far end of the room and arranged them in a shortened semi-circle of three rows on the floor before the fire. Another brought forth a small keg of ale from the storeroom, along with a pair of wineskins.
Aragorn blinked, startled by the change in atmosphere. He took a sip of the liquid in his goblet, and nearly choked, for it was spirits, not wine that filled his cup. Silently, he watched Brandir come from one of the storerooms, rolling a large drum that, when stood upright, the stretched hide drumhead came to his knees. Two of the others from the day patrol whose names Aragorn couldn't yet remember carried out a pair of smaller drums, and from the opposite corner of the room, the plaintive sound of a carved wooden flute floated through the woodsmoke-laden air.
"What is this?" he asked, confused, as one by one, the other Rangers settled down on the mattresses, brushing elbows and whispering to one another.
"Just wait and watch," Halbarad told him.
Soft clinks indicated metal and pottery cups were being set on the flagstone floor; a bright counterpoint to the apparently random bass thrums that Brandir was eliciting from the large drum, which was set before the hearth. The two smaller drums were set on the floor, one on each side of it; and several drum sticks of plain wood, one pair padded on the end with what looked like stuffed balls of leather were laid next to them.
Halbarad handed his wineskin to Seludan, who filled his own cup and passed it down the row. Other skins were passed down the other rows until every cup was filled, including a top-up of Aragorn's.
Elladan built up the fire, making it flare brightly, then moved to stand next to Brandir, behind the middle-sized drum. It rapidly became uncomfortably hot, forcing Aragorn to move from his perch on the hearthstone to a space on one of the front row mattresses.
Halbarad stood up and joined Brandir by the big drum, backlit by the flames behind him. He held up his tankard and looked around, meeting every Ranger's eyes briefly, one by one, before he spoke.
"Tonight we celebrate the life of Haldurin, who has gone on before us to the Halls of Waiting. He it was who taught me to move silently through the trees to reach my prey, and he it was who taught me the riddle game when I was very young."
Brandir gave a double thump to the large drum, hitting harder with the second blow than the first. Halbarad lowered his tankard to his lips and drained it, before handing it off to Brandir in exchange for the padded drumsticks.
Halbarad bent over the drum and began beating out a driving rhythm that mimicked a heart beat, first slow, and then increasing in tempo until his shoulder length black hair was flying wildly, his face flushing with exertion. At his side Elladan matched him on the higher pitched drum, throwing in an extra beat at some points of the pattern. Aragorn stared at the usually composed patrol leader and his foster brother in disbelief.
His breath came faster and faster as the drums' vibrations grew stronger. He not only heard it, but felt it on his skin and in his bones; a wild, primitive feeling very alien to anything he'd felt before. He dimly remembered the cup of spirits in his hand and looked down at it, seeing the surface of the liquid ripple in time to the drumming. He sat mesmerized by the ripple pattern and the repetition of the drumbeats for an unknown amount of time.
The wooden flute began to wail, and then suddenly Elrohir was on his feet and scooping up the treble drum. Elven hands made the sticks fly in a complicated counterpoint to the bass drumming, and when his beats and the others coincided it was almost as if they were knocking at the door in Aragorn's mind behind which he'd thrust his grief, battering it open.
He stared at Elrohir, whose fair face was twisted with rage and hurt and anguish that echoed the feelings Aragorn had been doing his very best to hide.
As he fought to keep control of his emotions, he missed Halbarad seamlessly transferring his drumsticks to Malduren, then moving to sit down next to Aragorn.
"Drink to Hildurin," Halbarad told him in a voice that sounded somewhat congested, and the younger man looked up to see the stoic leader was stoic no more, the weathered face wet with sweat, but also with tears, and grief clear to see, unhidden.
Shocked by the sight, Aragorn obeyed without thinking, and choked on the strong spirits once again, requiring Halbarad to thump him between the shoulder blades until he caught his breath once more. Even those thumps seemed to echo the ongoing drumbeats, as one by one, various Rangers rose and took over the large drum, while the Peredhil continued their patterns on the smaller ones. Some sang laments as they drummed, others chanted out memories, stamping their feet, or rapping the drumsticks together as their pain and the music inspired them.
Music and tears flowed, and finally Aragorn found himself stumbling to his own feet, reaching for the drumsticks. Elladan was at his left, and Elrohir at his right, matching him as his hands and arms and body absorbed the rhythm and pounded it forth again. Sweat beaded his head and his hair flew in his face as his grief and rage at what happened to his friend finally flowed free, tears streaming down his cheeks.
He didn't know how long he stood there, swaying to the pounding of his heart, and the impact of the sticks on the drumhead, until the muscles of his arms and shoulders burned, and his knees buckled. Strong hands caught him while others caught the drumsticks and kept the beat going.
Halbarad supported his back while Brandir held the cup of spirits to his lips; Aragorn's hands trembled so violently that he could not hold the tankard himself. Tears continued to flow down his cheeks and the alcohol made the room swim. He succumbed to welcome, exhausted oblivion, the continuing percussion following him there, to merge with the beating of his pulse in the darkness.
* * * * *
Someone shook the Aragorn's shoulder, urging him to rise, and he snapped awake. His hands automatically went for a weapon that wasn't there, before he focused on Halbarad's tired-looking but once-again composed face.
"Aragorn, your brothers are leaving. Do you have the letter for them to give to Aneldis?"
He pushed himself up to sit on the edge of the bed and dragged a hand down his face, surprised not to feel hungover. "I left it on the small table, with the star brooch." He waited for the avalanche of grief to slam down on him as it had when he'd awakened the previous day, but found himself surprisingly calm. There was sorrow, yes; but it was bearable. "Halbarad… last night…" His voice faded as he failed to find the words for the questions in his mind.
The older Ranger clasped his shoulder and squeezed it gently. "We pour out our anguish in the drums, so that it will not cripple us when we go out to our duty. Come, farewell your brothers, and then get ready for the evening patrol. There's been a report of orcs near the west road near Weathertop." He stepped away to let Aragorn get to his feet. "I'll explain more of the tradition as we ride, I promise."
* * * * *
Elessar stood at the window of his study in the Citadel, staring out into the starlit night over the seven levels of Minas Tirith towards the faint glimmer of the Anduin beyond the celebratory fires on the Pelennor. His formal outer robes lay abandoned on the chair by the fireplace, and he clenched his gloved fingers on the marble window sill as he moved his gaze to the encampment of what was left of his Dúnedain.
The fire in the ornate fireplace behind him glimmered on the mithril edging of the leaf-shaped brooch at his throat, but the Lórien cloak concealed both his battered Ranger leathers and Anduril, which was strapped to his waist.
There were only a few tents around the particular fire that he watched. Of the thirty warriors who had come south to his need, less than twenty remained. "Halbarad," Aragorn whispered, "You should have been here today. You should have borne my banner at my coronation."
"Estel? You sent for us? Why are you dressed like that?" Behind him, Elrohir's voice was soft, but Aragorn could hear the undercurrent of concern in it.
"Let's go find a drum."
| || |
|Home Search Chapter List|