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The Ranger and the Eagles  by Cairistiona

Chapter†Eight - To Beornís With All Due Speed

The euphoria, unfortunately, lasted only a few minutes. The gentle rise and fall of each wing beat eventually passed from the illusion of a relaxing float on gentle seas to the upheaval of a ship in the roughest waters imaginable. With each plunge, his stomach rose into his throat, and with each gentle climb, it dropped to his bowels. He could only grind his jaws together and endure, his eyes screwed shut. But he could not stop a short, keening moan coming with each breath.

"Strider? Is something wrong?"

He didnít dare open his lips. "Mmm-mmm."

"Am I squeezing too tightly?"

The talons loosened, and Aragorn frantically grasped Durvainís leg. "No!" he cried, and with that, his battle with his stomach was lost.

"Oh dear," Durvain said. "I suppose I should be honored that you managed to hit my foot with that. But I must say, itís a most unpleasant custom you Men hold to. It reminds me too much of the way vultures urinate on their own legs. Such disgusting birds, vultures, though I suppose they have their uses. Surely you donít do that as well?"

"No," Aragorn said with a slight laugh. His stomach felt better, a temporary condition, he was sure, for he remembered the horrendous bout of seasickness that had beset him and all his fellow sailors as they fought on a storm-tossed sea in Steward Echthelionís service in Gondor. Nausea had built and built and built until death looked a welcome escape; then relief finally came after a spate of retching over the side. Life then was tolerable until the cycle started all over again. This sickness from flying felt much the same. Knowing this quiescent period could not last, he nonetheless dredged up a smile. "Gandalf was making a joke. Men donít do that. This is not a sign of... of anything except illness from too much unsettling movement."

"Ah, I understand. But I am sorry you are ill. Is there anything I can do?"

"Just get to Beornís with all due speed," Aragorn said miserably. His stomach was already quivering again.

Durvain fell silent and they sped through the clouds. Aragorn saw the Anduin slip by far below, and then shortly after that Durvain tilted his wings and they started to descend, slowly at first and then in increasingly tighter circles. And if Aragornís stomach had been unhappy before, it became enraged at this new torment. He swallowed and swallowed but again, events overtook him. Fortunately for Durvainís feet, there was nothing left for him to bring up.

"Dear me, you really are ill, my friend."

"Itís like seasickness," Aragorn groaned. He coughed a few more times and wondered quite seriously if he could give up his life even if he were not yet king, and then quickly recanted, just in case Mandos heard and held him to his decision. He did not, after all, really want to die. Much.

"Seasickness? But we are nowhere near the sea. We are in the air, above Beornís Hall. No sea for many hundreds of leagues. So can you tell me how you can get sick from the sea when it is so far away?"

Aragorn tried to sort out an answer, but such cogitations were utterly beyond him. "Ask Gandalf," he finally mumbled.

"I believe I will, as soon as we land. And it looks as though we have a clear passage into Beornís very courtyard, although I think out of courtesy Iíll land on the grass. I do not see any archers below, nor even any sheep. His horses do not look any too pleased to see me, though."

Aragorn pried his eyes open and saw very far below fields that looked to have been filled with crops Ė flowers, he guessed, for Beornís honey bees were renowned Ė that had now gone dormant with winterís approach. Beyond them was a patch of woods, and within that patch, tucked within a hedgerow, were several long buildings. He saw thatched roofs and a great house with two wings or outbuildings that put the entire affair in the shape of a C. There was a courtyard within the embracing walls, and in that courtyard, two shining horses raced back and forth, obviously watching their approach. It was all fascinating and had Aragorn not felt so awful, he would have been eagerly looking forward to exploring it all, should Beorn allow. But instead, he watched with only the barest of dull interest as everything grew larger and closer...closer... the trees above their heads now... the walls of the buildings looming... and finally Durvain was flaring his wings and landing easily on one leg. He gently lowered Aragorn to the ground at the edge of the courtyard and released him. "There. An easier landing this time for you."

Aragorn mumbled his thanks, but he was too relieved to be on steady, solid ground to do much more than lay quietly grasping handfuls of grass while he waited for the sweating and shaking to pass. When it failed to do so, he prayed for blessed oblivion to release him from his woes. Surely it would not take long, as weak as his grip on consciousness felt...

Durvain brushed him with his wingtip feathers and cooed softly and soothingly. "Did you get too cold? Youíre shaking terribly."

He tried to answer, but his chattering teeth got in the way.

Durvain stopped his stroking and settled himself, belly down, in the grass. He then rested his wing across Aragorn like a great feathery blanket. It felt extraordinary, to be tucked so under the warmth of an eagleís wing. He sighed quietly, feeling the worst of his shivering ease, though he was still racked with sudden shudders and felt alarmingly, desperately ill. He knew what the problem was; he was in shock. His wound, the exertions from the fight, the sickness from flying... it was all too much, and he feared his body was shutting down. He knew he should try to put himself in a healing sleep, but his mind was too cluttered with pain and fever and concussion to let him think on anything other the dull litany of Gandalf, hurry... please hurry... please...

He drifted, lost to all but his misery, until suddenly the wing lifted and cold air struck him and harsh voices rang around them.

"Whatís this, an eagle on my path! Get you gone and donít think about stealing any of my sheep! Shoo! Wait... here now, whoís that youíre hiding?† Did you kill him?"

A second voice interrupted. "Alas, thereís another coming! With someone atop him!"

Aragorn tried to open his eyes, but they would not answer. He felt the light vibration and thump of Menelrisí feet hitting the ground, and then Gandalfís voice, "Stay your weapons! These Eagles have no interest in your animals, nor did they harm this man! He is gravely injured, yes, and ill, but not at their hands. He needs your compassion and the Eagles your gratitude, Master Beorn!"

"Gandalf! I told you my door is always open, but to come with Eagles this time! I know theyíre on the side of good, but they still eat my sheep."

"These two are not here for hunting, Beorn."

There was a pause, then a reluctant, "Very well, I will trust your word." Then in a lighter vein, "So, did you bring dwarves and a hobbit to overrun my hall again?"

"No, there is only my friend hereĖ"

"So you say, but last time Ďa friend or twoí turned into fourteen! Who else have you got hid in the bushes or under your cloak, my good friend?"

"No one, and you can trust that word as well," Gandalf replied testily. "Now if youíve any sense of compassion at all, which I know you do, now that youíre older and wiser, youíll stop with your infernal questions and see to my friend there while I get down..."

More crunching footsteps, then a hand touched Aragornís forehead, then lightly upon his back. "Heís bleeding, all right; see his back? Even through all those clothes. Burning up with fever as well, poor man. Get his feet, Grimbeorn. Heís no dwarf, thatís for certain, and Iím too old to haul men the size of him by myself these days."

And then hands turned him over and lifted him and suddenly his head lolled against a barrel of a chest. He heard a great strong heartbeat and felt scratchy wool against his cheek and the manís whiskers tickled his forehead. The tunic smelled of horse and dogs and the gamey, musky scent of bear. Aragorn finally got his eyes open and squinted upward, where he beheld a face, stern but kindly, with bushy black eyebrows beetling over intelligent and inquisitive eyes. Around it all floated a cloud of silver and black hair and a beard hoary with age. It was by far the largest head and the broadest shoulders he had ever seen. "Beorn?" he mumbled.

"Aye, Ďtis Beorn, and Ďtis my hall Iím dragging you into, where I suppose youíll bleed all over my clean floors and bed linens," he said gruffly. "But better that than leave you to bleed on my grass. Upsets the horses, men bleeding where they can smell it."

Aragorn had nothing to say to that. An apology seemed pointless, even if he could form the words, and besides, as Beorn and Grimbeorn carried him in through a dark doorway, his attention was caught by such an odd sight that he immediately dismissed it as nothing but fever-driven hallucination.

Dogs did not, after all, go around lighting lamps.

~~~

Aragorn had no memory of the next two days, other than dim recollections of pain, sickness and confusion and, far more troublesome, visions of dogs walking about on their hind legs, sheep serving him drinks and more dogs tending the fire. He even imagined a little white pony who brought him blankets.

He was certain he was losing his mind.

When he finally awakened on the third day, fully himself again Ė or so he hoped Ė it was to see a dog sitting beside his bed, with his chin resting on Aragornís arm and deep brown eyes looking at him soulfully. He looked at it uncertainly for a long moment, but it seemed real enough. "Good boy," he whispered, and patted the dogís noble head.

The dog immediately sat straight up, his mouth opening in what could only be said to be a delighted grin. He yipped once, then ran off. On all fours, Aragorn was relieved to see. He watched him trot, tail high and wagging like a flag, through a vast hall, and then disappear through a door at its opposite end. Aragorn looked at the blackened rafters, the great wooden beams, the vastness of the place and felt very small, tucked up as he was against one wall. And as small as he felt, he could just imagine how poor little Bilbo must have felt. And like Bilbo, he was lying on some sort of raised platform. As far as he could tell, he was near the middle of the building, no doubt in the warmest part thanks to a fire burning merrily beside him. He could feel the warmth against his face. There was a table just beyond the fire, lined with sawn tree trunks for seats. No one seemed to be in the room with him. That surprised him a bit; he would have expected to see Gandalf hovering somewhere nearby, ready to start patting his shoulder.

He tentatively raised his head, and when the room stayed steady, he tried to push himself to a seated position. Surprisingly, he had the strength to sit up, but the movement pulled painfully against the stitches in his back, so he gently laid back. Sitting could wait, he supposed; there was little sense in pushing himself too soon and suffering a setback for his troubles. The pillows under his head and shoulders were soft, as was the crackling, straw-filled mattress beneath him. Comfortable enough, though nowhere near as soft as eagle down.

Thinking about the down led his thoughts to Menelris and Durvain. Were they still nearby? Or had they flown back to their eyrie? There were no windows in the room through which to look for them. He felt a pang at the thought that he might never see them again. He wished he had been able to thank them. He wished he could have spent more time with them. He wished...

As improbable as it seemed, he wished he might go flying again, when he was fit and whole and able to enjoy the experience. He supposed the chances of that were slim.

A door squeaked across the room as it opened part way and then stopped. Beyond it, Aragorn heard a rumble of a voice speaking in a strange tongue that sounded almost like a dog barking. Aragorn would hardly have considered himself conversant in such odd speech, but he found he was able to make out some of the words, "Good... is awake. ....along... fetch Gandalf."

And then Beorn himself came through the door. He seemed to fill the entire hall, so strong was his presence. Aragorn tried to hitch himself higher on his pillows.

Beorn waved hands that seemed as big as loaves of bread. "No, no... settle down. Youíve been sick, and I donít need fussed over. And whatever you do, donít offer me your services; if I need them, Iíll ask. Which I donít think I will, because youíve been beating at deathís door these last two days and if you had the strength to lift a spoon to feed yourself, Iíd be surprised." He stopped beside Aragornís bed and smiled down at him from what seemed an impossibly great height. "Aye, youíve got them, all right, just as Gandalf says."

"Got them? Got what?" He looked at his hands and touched his cheeks, wondering if heíd broken out in spots.

"A kingís eyes, bright and keen. Good to see them clear again, Aragorn."

"You know whoĖ"

"Yes, yes, I know who you are. But put away your fear; who would I tell? The bears? My dogs? They care more of cabbages than kings. And my people can be trusted, to a man, woman and child. Weíve been fighting on your side, after all, for as long as Iíve been here, despite rumors that Iím a contrary old crosspatch who cares only about himself and trusts no one. Here, though, let me get a chair if weíre to have a proper visit. Ninety years is a lot to ask out of a pair of knees, and they tend to creak very loudly if I stand on them long."

He pulled a great black chair from the end of the table. It scraped against the floor and groaned a bit as he settled into it. He crossed his hands on his belly, stretched his legs out long before him and regarded Aragorn with eyes that were at once kind but also somewhat guarded, as though he were willing to put up with guests but never altogether trusted that they wouldnít make off with the spoons. "How are you?"

"Weary. But better, I think. I feel a bit stronger than I have of late."

"Good to hear. Head still hurt?"

"No," Aragorn said, with vast relief.

"Belly hurt?"

"No."

"Howís your back?"

"Stiff and very sore."

"Youíll need to stay abed another day at least, I think. Let it get a good start on healing before you go bouncing around doing whatever it is you do. Hunting for that Gollum creature, Gandalf tells me."

"I think that task must be put aside for now. Even if I hadnít gotten hurt, we were close to heading home for the winter."

"And home is where?"

Thereís a question, Aragorn thought. These days, where did he truly call home? Chetwood, where he stayed while guarding the Shire? If home is where one is surrounded by caring and friendly neighbors, that hardly counted. Rivendell? Home of his heart, where he was loved by its people, yes, but he had not actually dwelt there in decades. The little hidden village beyond Fornost, where many of his Rangersí wives and children lived? He had no such family of his own....

Thinking on it all was too dreary. "Arnor," he finally said. True enough, he supposed...

"Bit of a large estate, Arnor."

Aragorn smiled, but it faded quickly.

"Here now, I didnít mean to pry. Gandalf told me you walk a hard road and I can see your journey has written more than a bit of sadness on your soul. So, weíll put aside talking about such things in favor of discussing food. You must be thirsty. Are you hungry? I can bring in some cream and honey cakes, or perhaps just a slice or two of toast. Mild foods that wonít be too hard on your stomach. I donít want you getting sick again."

"Again?"

"You donít remember, do you?"

"I remember being sick when we were flying, and I remember lying on the ground, and you and Grimbeorn carrying me. But after that..." He shook his head, choosing not to tell about his wild hallucinations of fire-tending dogs and ponies acting as valets.

"Just as well. I have seen men in miserable straits before but you surpassed them all for groaning and shivering and tossing back everything we tried to get down your throat. That wound really turned on you, and in a hurry, according to Gandalf. He said you had been improving, but all that flew out the window, along with the contents of your stomach, for a day or so."

Aragorn felt his cheeks burn. He was sure he was as red as the candles on the table. "Iím sorry to have caused you so much trouble."

Beorn waved a hand in dismissal. "Itís not like you could help yourself. You were so taken with fever that you were out of your head completely. Besides, you didnít bother me; my son Grimbeorn and Gandalf were the ones that looked after you, so if youíre going to fuss about with apologizing, save it for them." Beorn reached over and felt Aragornís forehead. "There, thatís better. No fever that I can tell, though Iím more used to checking horses and sheep than men." He chuckled, and as he did his merry eyes nearly disappeared in a maze of fine wrinkles.

Aragorn smiled in return, and this time it did not fade into melancholy, although it did fade to uncertainty. While he found himself warming to this huge fellow sitting beside him, he also felt unaccountably shy. His head buzzed with a thousand questions to ask this legendary figure who had loomed so large in his childhood tales, but he found himself unable to put any to words. One does not, after all, at his age beg to see Beorn to change into a bear, no matter how dearly the child in him wanted to.

"Do you always sit and stare at people like a frightened deer, or have I got something in my hair?" Beorn reached up and brushed at his mop of wavy hair.

Aragorn hadnít thought it possible for his face to burn any more than it had been but now he feared he might burst into flames, so hot was his embarrassment. "No, Master Beorn. Iím sorry... meeting you is such an honor, I fear my tongue is tied completely in knots."

"Well untie it, because kings should never be tongue tied, and I donít bite. At least, not anymore. Fifty-some years ago, I might have sent you and your eagle and your wizard packing with arrows whizzing past your ears, but as Gandalf said, Iíve gained a little more wisdom in my old age. Those dwarves and that little hobbit, Bilbo, melted the thorns around my heart, if you donít mind me mixing my metaphors."

"No, no... of course not." He winced inwardly, wishing he could say something that held at least a modicum of intelligence, but his power of speech seemed to have dwindled to mute idiocy†before the†intensity of Beornís presence. What must he have been like in the prime of his years, Aragorn wondered, then to his horror he realized Beorn was still speaking and he had no idea what he had just said.

"... was a hard one, I wonít deny it. Losing all of my kind to goblins, then living at Mirkwoodís edge and fighting those same goblins and sometimes evil Men... I killed them all off, as they came, but it hardened me. I feared the entire world had turned to evil and treated all who came to my door with suspicion, if I even let them come near my door at all. But Gandalf and his bizarre company of heroes battered down all those defenses, Iím not ashamed to say, so much so that I even went to war at their side! It was a revelation to discover that there were still good folk left in the world, beyond that handful of Elves hiding away in Mirkwood under Thranduilís reign. So now I welcome visitors, after a fashion, as long as theyíre on the side of good. Even visitors who are as much trouble as you."

"I do thank you, for everything."

"Youíre welcome. Now, enough thanking and apologizing and such. Iím getting bored with it, and despite my warm hospitality, I do not suffer boring guests gladly, and I suspect that despite your apparently shy nature Ė funny, Gandalf never said anything about you being so bashful Ė at any rate, I imagine youíre an interesting fellow, being a king in exile as you are. You are the last of your line even as I am, and I want to hear your thoughts on that, if you have any behind that wide-eyed look of wonder you keep giving me. So I have plenty of questions for you, but the first is, are you ready for some honey cakes and cream?"

Aragorn blinked a bit, thrown completely off guard by the sudden rather prosaic question. "Oh, yes... yes, please. Thank you." Would he ever manage to say anything†beyond the†simple response any well-mannered boy of five could blather? But he supposed that was better than rudeness. If he were to make himself out to be a brainless imbecile, best to be a polite brainless imbecile.

As Beorn clapped his hands and signaled to someone beyond the shadowy doorway, Aragorn tried again to spot a window. Finding none, he asked, relieved to finally say something beyond a school boyís please and thank you, "Can you tell me what time it is?"

"Morning, an hour past dawn. In the summer Iíd be out with the hives, getting my honey. But the nights have turned cold and the days cool and my bees are sleeping now, waiting for spring. I expect Iíll be here one more spring, though I must tell you, Aragorn, that I feel my time draws nigh. Iíve a feeling somehow that this winter will be my last."

It seemed such a disquieting thing to say, and yet Beorn spoke as though he were merely discussing the weather. Aragorn searched vainly for a response.

"Does my saying that startle you, boy?"

Aragorn shook his head, then nodded... and then he studied Beornís eyes for a long moment. He saw in their depths a wisdom and peace that stirred something deep within him, and broke, at last, the crippling intimidation he had been suffering. He took a breath and said, "I am hardly a boy, but no, your words do not startle me, exactly. At least, not in the sense that they would have startled a man less familiar with trust. If I seem at a loss, itís because I am perhaps a bit envious. You seem so accepting of the nearness of death, speaking of it almost as a man speaks of... of changing his socks. Faith I might have that more lies beyond this life than memory, but I do not know that I would be so calm in considering the actual ending of my life."

"Even though you are Nķmenůrean, and if what Gandalf tells me is correct and that your own words seem to attest, still hold faith in Erķ and the Valar and life beyond this one?"

Aragorn thought for a long moment. "Yes, but..." he started, then paused again, carefully choosing his words. "Perhaps it is not that I fear death, for as you say, I hold to the same trust the Men of Westernesse kept." He smiled slightly. "Elrond named me Estel, as a child, and a more fitting name I cannot imagine, for estel Ė hope with trust Ė I have in plenty. So I do not fear death itself. But... I suppose I live too near danger to really think on it, death, much. To even consider the boon of a death late in life, at the end of my days..." He shook his head, unable to find the words.

But Beorn sat quietly waiting, with expectant compassion, so Aragorn struggled on.

"I know I should not think long on those in my line who perished too early... my father, my grandfather. Even my namesake, the first Aragorn, who was taken by wolves. Thinking on them is folly, to be sure, but so too is looking too far to my own future, for I have no idea what it may hold, for good or ill. But I do look. I cannot help it. And when I do...." He stopped and rubbed his suddenly sweating hand along his leg, chiding himself for his utter lack of eloquence. He tried again, "When I look too long in either direction, the past tries to ensnare me with fears of a similar fate, of an early death before I accomplish my lifeís goals, and the future shrouds all hope in uncertainty. Taken together, they too easily drain me of all my courage," he finished in a rush, as if by saying it quickly it made the words any less shameful.

But Beorn showed no censure. He merely nodded, slowly. "Courage is not something that any man has in infinite supply, is it, and sitting in safety, looking ahead at possible dangers, thereís no way any man can know his courage will stand him in good stead. And that makes him doubt himself, although from what I hear you rarely have such troubles. Still, even the best of us can have a moment where we wonder, especially when the pastís example is far from encouraging. As for the future, and any hope for happiness and peace... that too can wither in the face of insurmountable odds. It seems to me a man must apportion hope Ė and courage Ė out to himself, day by day, for it to last the duration."

Aragorn took a deep breath. He had hoped... nay, he realized, it was stronger than that: he had depended upon Beornís understanding, and the relief he felt at Beornís wise compassion nearly brought him to tears. "Yes. That is it, exactly. I have learned that I cannot look too far behind or ahead. And yet..." He stopped.

"Yet? Donít tell me thereís more obfuscation coming! Well, if you must, speak and get it out so I can untangle the meaning before the day has completely got away from us."

Again, Aragornís cheeks flared. "Iím sorry. I... maybe it is the blow to the head. I cannot seem to express myself very well."

"Youíre doing fine, lad. Iíve heard worse nonsense from my own son, who to my knowledge has never banged himself in the head in his life. Go on, now. Go on."

"All right," Aragorn said. He took one more moment to think, then plunged straight in. "I say that I should not look ahead, and yet I find I must, sometimes, for though I doubt not what lies beyond this life, I also have a hope for this life, one that I cling to when all seems too dark to survive. It is a priceless thing, and I long for it, but it cannot be mine unless I reach those goals that seem beyond reach." He winced. Hope and courage and fear and love... he was never comfortable speaking these things aloud, and it showed. Despite his best effort, he was rambling like one whose wits are lost, and making a proper hash of all of it.

Beornís eyebrows went up. "If I were to hazard a guess at the true meaning behind your rather enigmatic words, Iíd say you speak of love."

Aragorn nodded but said no more.

"Well. You are far from the only man who finds hope in the love of a good woman. Whoever she is, I am glad she has that boon to give to you. A man needs a helpmeet, and the promise of a happy future to hold him in good stead when the going gets rough."

"She does that. In every way," Aragorn said softly.

Beorn smiled. "My wife brought me more joy than I would have ever imagined. And she gave me a fine son in Grimbeorn. He will be a good leader for my people, when I am gone."

Aragorn shifted a bit, trying in vain to chase away the sudden ache in his heart. Would he ever have a family? A wife? A son to carry on after he was gone?

Beorn gave him a kind look. "I have saddened you again, it seems. Perhaps the philosophies of an old skinchanger are not what you need right now."

"No, no," Aragorn protested, holding a hand out to stay Beorn from rising. "Truly, I am not normally so cheerless. Perhaps it is the wound. Or simply fatigue. Gandalf will attest that I tend to become overly morose and too absorbed by doubt and self pity when weariness is upon me."

"You and I are alike in that way; Grimbeorn growls at me and threatens to take away my honey. As if he could!"

Aragorn smiled. "I would think that a difficult task, if not impossible."

"You think right! I may be old, but the day has yet to come that my upstart son can best me." He turned toward the doorway and shouted, "Do you hear that, Grimbeorn?"

A muffled voice shouted something back, the words indistinct but the tone clear: Grimbeorn failed to agree with his fatherís assessment. Aragorn thought he heard a snort, in fact.

"Ach, donít listen to him," Beorn winked. "Heís just cross because I told him to move all the rams into the north paddock, along the hedge and out of the way of the ewes. Three of the ewes have come into their season, and I donít want any lambs out of that lot but try telling that to the rams. Theyíre rioting. So short of†dousing them†with buckets of cold well water to cool their ardour, the rams must be moved. And have you ever tried moving lovesick rams away from the objects of their affection?"

"No, I canít say that I have."

"Itís no easy task. And thus Grimbeorn has become simply Grim, but youíve cheered up considerably, so I consider my work for the day to be done."

"And so early, at that," Aragorn laughed. "Maybe you can spare a moment, then, to tell me if the Eagles are still here?"

"Theyíve left, right after dropping you and the wizard at my doorstep. But here now, donít look so crestfallen. The little one, Druvish, DervishĖ"

"Durvain."

"Durvain! He said heíd be back in a few days, when his wing was better. They wanted to be nearer the river and food, I think. At any rate, that was the day before yesterday, so he ought to be arriving any time now. Iíve warned the horses and told the sheep, so they wonít be upset."

"Do you speak the languages of all the animals?"

"Oh yes. All the time. Especially the dogs, and of course the bears." His voice grew wistful. "It has been far too long since Iíve seen my friends."

If there were ever a chance to ask Beorn about his skin-changing skills, this was it, but there came a clatter at the far end of the hall, and Gandalf hurried in, his robes flapping about him and dogs bounding ahead of him. He carried in his hands a small bottle and a cup. "Aragorn!" he cried happily, setting both on the table and hurrying to his bedside. He took both of Aragornís hands in his. "Oh, itís good to see you awake and yourself again. You had me very worried."

"Hello, Gandalf," Aragorn smiled.

"Hello, indeed. These past few days have seemed endless but here you are, bright-eyed and with color in your cheeks again. Are you hungry? Do you need anything? Here, Iíve brought some miruvor. I do think itís safe for you to have a bit, now." He hurried back to the table and poured a bit into the cup and held it for Aragorn to drink. "Just a sip, as you know."

Aragorn swallowed a mouthful of the fragrant, clear liquid and sighed as he felt it work. A brightness that had long been missing from his thoughts came upon him, and he felt a return of some of the strength in his limbs.

Gandalf smiled. "Thereís the ticket. Now youíre looking more yourself. Do you want some food?"

"Beorn has arranged for something to be brought, thank you."

And even as he said it, a very amazing thing happened: a dog trotted in, and Beorn started chattering away at it, in that same odd language Aragorn heard before. Beorn sounded a bit cross, and Aragorn made out the words "only cakes and cream" and "taking so long" and then the dog nodded... nodded... and trotted over to a door, disappeared through it.

Aragorn stared at Beorn, who let out an impatient huff. "I apologize, Aragorn. I asked why it was taking them so long, as itís simply cream and cakes and some water. Heís gone off to check."

Before Aragorn could form a reply to that, the door re-opened and a different dog appeared, this time walking on his hind legs and balancing a tray with a pitcher and cup on it across his front legs. Aragorn felt his eyebrows rise and his eyes widen, and he was sure his jaw had dropped somewhere to his chest. "What... I mean, thatís a.... So it wasnít the fever..." Gandalf started to chuckle, so he spluttered to a stop.

"Good heavens, Aragorn, surely youíve heard of the wonders of Beornís Hall?"

"Well, yes... that is to say, Iíve heard the stories since I was a child, but... I thought... I assumed a lot of it was made up just to entertain me as a small child. I mean no offense, Master Beorn," he added quickly.

Beorn threw his head back and it seemed his laughter shook the very rafters. He lost himself in mirth for quite some minutes and then finally wiped tears from his eyes. "So I entertain small children, do I? Oh, thatís rich. I like that, I do." He barked some more of the gibberish at the dog sitting beside him, and the dog in turn wagged his tail and seemed to laugh as he looked at Aragorn, who was feeling more and more foolish and out of his element with each passing moment.

"Well, enough laughter at your expense, young man," Beorn said. "Time to get some food into you. Gandalf, if you will assist, weíll help Aragorn sit up." He stood and lifted a lid that was cleverly built into one of the platforms. He retrieved more pillows from the space beneath and handed them to Gandalf. Then he slid a great arm beneath Aragornís shoulders. "No, donít try to do this yourself; youíll tear the stitches. Let me do the lifting."

Aragorn relaxed and Beorn seemed to lift him without a bit of strain. Gandalf swiftly piled the pillows behind him and Beorn eased him back against them. There was a bit of dull discomfort where the pillows pressed against his wound, but it was tolerable. "Howís that? Comfortable?" he asked.

"Itís wonderful. Thank you."

Beorn reached under the tray held by the dog and pulled down four legs that had been folded beneath it. He then settled the tray across Aragornís lap. "Fit for a king," he said with a flourish, then sat back down in his chair. "Now eat."

Aragorn smiled, and immediately took a long draught of water flavored with honey. It tasted wonderful and his stomach seemed accepting... nay, demanding, so he took a bite of a thick slice of cake drizzled with honey. It tasted heavenly. "Good," he mumbled as he took a bigger bite, and then another.

"Youíll find no finer honey cakes anywhere in Middle-earth."

Aragorn believed it. He finished off the first cake and started on a second one, this time chewing slowly, eyes shut to better concentrate on the marvelous flavors and texture. The cake tasted sweet, but not cloying, and brought to mind summer breezes and the soft scent of clover. He could almost hear the drowsy hum of bees and the distant song of birds and cries of Eagles. He opened his eyes with a start. "Was thatĖ"

"It sounded like Menelris," Gandalf exclaimed, "and she sounds distressed!" He and Beorn both hurried from the hall, leaving Aragorn sitting with the last of the honey cakes halfway to his mouth.

He shoveled it in, then handed the tray to the dog who was still standing beside his bed. That he would ever hand a tray over to a dog... he shook his head at the wonder of the world and threw back the blankets. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself with difficulty to his feet. The dog gave out a worried yip and moved close enough for Aragorn to steady himself with a hand on its head. "Thank you," he gasped, then wondered how in the world he would manage to walk all that way when he could barely straighten. He needed a cane. "Please, I donít know if you can understand me, but I need a cane. Or a walking stick. Something to lean on besides your head."

The dog wagged his tail, barked once, and then trotted away, leaving Aragorn to stand swaying beside the fire. He put a hand on his back, to brace it, and set his feet a bit wider as he slowly straightened completely. It was astounding, really, how one discovered upon receiving a back injury that every single muscle in oneís body was directly connected to the back. He could barely wiggle his toes without it sending a spasm across his lower back; the very idea of walking anywhere seemed a cruel joke. But as he was starting to feel a bit lightheaded, he grabbed his back with both hands and shuffled closer to the table. Rheumy old men had nothing on him, he thought ruefully. He reached the table, caught himself up against it, and was considering the risks against the benefits of lowering himself to one of the stools when the dog came trotting back in, proudly carrying Gandalfís staff in his mouth.

Appalled, Aragorn shook his head. "No, no... that belongs to Gandalf. Itís very special and I dare not use it."

But the dog merely stood beside him, wagging his tail, the long staff rather ludicrously sticking out by a yard on either side of his mouth. Aragorn watched in horrid fascination as a string of drool stretched from the dogís jaw down the staff and onto the floor. He shut his eyes, wincing at such a desecration. But there came another muffled cry from outside. Aragorn sighed, opened his eyes and took the staff from the dogís mouth. He wiped the drool against his sleeve and, leaning heavily upon its support, started slowly for the door, cringing at the indignities he was inflicting on Gandalfís rod of office.

Gandalf would surely roast him.





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