With thanks to Raksha and Virtuella.
Part Two - Aragorn
Aragorn urged his horse forward inwardly begging the Valar that he would not arrive too late. Word had reached him when he was out patrolling early that morning that Halbarad had been severely wounded three days previously. His kinsman now lay unconscious and very close to death.
His mind was filled with memories of his cousin. In the four years since they had known each other they had grown to be close friends who loved each other as dearly as brothers. When they had first met, such a bond had seemed unlikely, as neither knew quite what to make of the other. Halbarad had considered Aragorn to be an over pampered youth, out of place amongst the Dúnedain, while Aragorn had regarded Halbarad as uncouth and lacking in social graces.
Initial suspicion and dislike had been overcome after Halbarad's greater experience had saved Aragorn's life during a skirmish with a band of Orcs. Halbarad had been won over by Aragorn's genuine gratitude and eagerness to learn the ways of his people. Halbarad was only five years older than Aragorn and the two found they had much in common despite their very different upbringings. They both had a love of lore and of music, of horses and of the countryside. Both cared deeply about their people and fiercely desired to protect the helpless, fight Sauron's evil and restore the lost glory of the Dúnedain.
Aragorn thought of the last time he had seen his kinsman. They had been on a successful hunt for game to feed the women and children of their village. On the way back they had camped under a clear starlit sky, roasted a rabbit and told each other tales of old Númenor late into the night. They had then gone their separate ways as each were in different patrols, but had hoped to be reunited for the Mettarë feast. Now it seemed that that parting might be the last time they were destined to see each other within Arda's bounds. Until these past few years, Aragorn had been denied the companionship of a friend or brother close to him in age, and now it seemed that the gift of Halbarad's friendship would be cruelly snatched from him.
Aragorn slowed the horse to a trot as the village came in sight. The sentry recognised the Chieftain and waved him through the gate in the stockade.
At the sound of hoof beats a women came running out of one of the huts. "Aragorn, praise the Valar, you are here!" she cried.
Aragorn swung from the saddle. A boy took the horse's reins and led it to a stable in the village.
"Aunt Inzilbêth! How is Halbarad?" Aragorn asked anxiously. He embraced his mother's older sister as he spoke.
"Alas, he grows weaker by the hour. I have used all my healing arts upon him, but in vain."
Aragorn's expression grew even graver. His aunt was the village healer, and a skilled one at that. If she feared the worse for her son, his condition was grave indeed. Aragorn followed her into the hut and through to the bedchamber where Halbarad lay.
"He took an Orc blade across his ribs three days ago," said Inzilbêth. "One of his companions staunched the gash and brought him home where I cleaned and dressed the wound. He was conscious then, but developed a fever within a few hours and has not opened his eyes since. You need hot water?" She lifted the kettle onto the hob before Aragorn had a chance to ask her for any.
"Halbarad?" Aragorn called. His cousin lay motionless on the bed, his face as pale as the pillows he was propped against to ease his laboured breathing. Halbarad made no reply. Aragorn pulled off his gloves and laid a gentle hand on his cousin's forehead. It was dripping with sweat.
Inzilbêth briskly placed bandages, a towel and a bowl of water on the table by the bedside. Aragorn washed and dried his hands, then pulled aside the blankets that covered his cousin. Halbarad's ribs were swathed in bandages.
"When did you change these, aunt?" Aragorn enquired.
Aragorn looked grave. "They are unstained. The wound should be draining by now." He started to unwrap the bandages. Inzilbêth helped him lift her unconscious son.
Aragorn swallowed hard when the deep and ugly gash was revealed. He had seen many such wounds and treated far worse, but never before on someone who was so dear to him. He had found it difficult enough to stitch a cut on Elrohir's arm after a battle they had both fought in, and that was but a minor wound that his foster brother had made light of.
Forcing himself to concentrate on the task at hand, Aragorn carefully examined Halbarad. Master Elrond had taught him both how to feel an injury and also sense damage to the life force that surrounded all living beings. He could feel at least two broken ribs, but as Halbarad still lived, it was unlikely that they had pierced his lungs or any other vital organ. The wound was scarlet and hot to the touch. "I need to try and drain the infection," said Aragorn. He took a very sharp knife from his healing supplies and placed the blade in the fire to cleanse it. "Erm, could you fetch me more towels," he asked his aunt, once the blade was ready.
"You will need me to hold him down," she said stoically, only her eyes revealing the pain she felt. "I have had to drain his wounds myself in the past. You are still very young, Aragorn. You have to learn not to let your feelings interfere with what is to be done."
Aragorn nodded mutely. He braced himself, trying to pretend that it was not his cousin that he needed to use the knife on. He managed to expertly lance the wound. It was a futile exercise as very little infected matter issued forth. Halbarad did not stir.
"We could try bathing him in the hope of abating his fever," he suggested.
"I have been doing that ever since he was brought home, boy, " Inzilbêth said a trifle sharply. "If that was all that was needed, I would not have sent for you!"
"Have you added athelas to the water?"
"I do not have any."
"We will try that then. Could you heat more water, please, aunt?" Aragorn rummaged in his pack and took out two leaves of the herb. "I need a bowl of steaming water."
"I will change the linens too," Inzilbêth said. "Fresh sheets should be cooler and more comfortable for him."
"I doubt he is aware of his discomfort," said Aragorn. "Let us try the athelas first."
As soon as she had brought what he has asked for, Aragorn breathed on the leaves and crumbled them into the water. At once a living freshness filled the room, which invigorated Inzilbêth and her nephew. On Halbarad it had no effect whatsoever. They began bathing him with the mixture.
"Usually he cannot abide anyone tending him," Inzilbêth said sadly.
"Nothing would make me happier than if he sat up and berated us both soundly!" said Aragorn.
They finished their ministrations and Aragorn felt Halbarad's forehead again. It was no cooler. They could only sit by the bedside and wait.
Slowly Halbarad's breathing became more laboured. When Aragorn felt his pulse it was weaker, but still the fever burned. His skin only slowly sagged back into position when Aragorn pinched his arm. Aragorn and Inzilbêth regarded one another with mutual anguish. "He is dying," she said bleakly. "My son is dying and there is nothing we can do to save him!" She sank down on to a chair and buried her face in her hands. "I suppose I knew it," she said, her voice sounding unsteady. "But when you came, I thought - I hoped… Master Elrond might have tutored you, but you are still but a boy. I was a fool to send for you!"
"There is still something I have not yet tried," Aragorn said slowly. "I could attempt to enter a healing trance to seek his wandering spirit. It is but a slender hope, though, I do not know if I am able to do so at will. Master Elrond says I have the power, but I was only a child at the time when I fell into a trance accidentally and Elrond was there with me."
"Please try it for the love of my son!" Inzilbêth begged.
"I need fresh hot water and more athelas. If I should swoon, place the bowl under my nose so I can breathe the vapours." Aragorn looked away, trying to conceal the fear he was certain must be apparent in his eyes.
As soon as the hot water was produced, Aragorn again crumbled the leaves into it, this time more slowly. He offered a solemn invocation to Estë, begging the Healing Valar to aid his endeavours. Aragorn then dropped to his knees beside the bed and took Halbarad's limp hand in one of his. The other he placed on his cousin's brow.
Closing his eyes, he concentrated on calming his mind and trying to recall all Master Elrond had taught him about entering a healing trance. To begin with, Aragorn feared he would be unable to reach inside his kinsman's mind as his own brain refused to quiet. His thoughts were brimming with half forgotten memories of everything he had been told or experienced about healing trances. He was afraid too, remembering the last time and the terrifying precipice he had almost fallen from. Would doing this kill him? Master Elrond had constantly warned of the dangers that Elven healing might pose for a Man. And even if he succeeded in joining with Halbarad's spirit, would he be able to bring him home? Did he know the way himself?
Aragorn heard a muffled sob and looked up to see that Inzilbêth's stoic demeanour had finally crumbled. His aunt was weeping for her dying son. Her life, like that of all her people, was bleak and harsh, and would grow much bleaker if she lost Halbarad. How bleak Aragorn's life would be too without Halbarad's loyal and cheerful companionship! Better that he should die trying to save his kinsman and friend rather than abandon him to his fate. Aragorn took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of the athelas and tried again to free his mind from all distractions.
He found himself in a dense forest unlike any he had been in before; the trees were unfamiliar menacing shapes while thick briars and thorns covered the forest floor. The air felt heavy and oppressive causing him to struggle for breath. Aragorn looked frantically around him trying to find Halbarad. Then he spotted his cousin a little way ahead making his way along a path, which seemed to lead to a gap amongst the trees as a bright light shone through them. Maybe that was the way out of this place?
Then Aragorn recalled that Master Elrond had told him. "The brightness leads beyond the circles of the world, my son. Do not venture there until your time is come to seek your home beyond Arda that Eru has gifted to his younger children. You may yearn for the light when sorely wounded, but there is only one right time to enter it".
Aragorn knew that he must try to make Halbarad take a different path. Frantically he called his name.
Halbarad turned and looked at him. "How did you come to be in this place?" he asked.
"I have come to take you home," Aragorn replied. "Your mother is anxious about you and I promised her I would find you."
"I have found the way out," said Halbarad. "See, there is light over there."
"No, that is not the way," said Aragorn. "We must retrace our steps and go back the way we came."
"I have forgotten the path," said Halbarad.
For the first time since Aragorn had met him, his kinsman sounded afraid. "We will find it together," said Aragorn.
"No!" Halbarad protested. "The light yonder is fair indeed. I am too weary to go back."
"I, your Chieftain, command you to follow me!" Aragorn said sternly. He grabbed hold of Halbarad's arm and started to pull him along in the opposite direction to the bright light.
"Let me be, I am weary!" Halbarad protested.
"If need be, I will carry you!" said Aragorn. "We must leave this place." He half dragged, half carried his kinsman along the overgrown path. His arms ached, his legs felt heavy and he could hardly breathe. He stumbled along almost blindly with his burden until he saw a chink of faint light through the trees. He glanced upwards and to his amazement saw it was the Star of Eärendil.
"We must follow the star," he told Halbarad. Then everything went black.
"Aragorn, wake up!"
Aragorn groggily opened his eyes to see the concerned face of his aunt bending over him. Tears streamed down her face. She was holding a steaming bowl in front of his face. He breathed deeply, inhaling the refreshing scent of athelas. "Halbarad?" he murmured.
"He is awake. The fever has broken."
His strength rapidly returning, Aragorn sat up, albeit with a helping hand from his aunt.
Halbarad raised his head from his pillows and looked at him. His eyes were full of the love he bore his kinsman and also a mixture of wonder and fear. "My lord!" he whispered. "How did you find me?"
Aragorn looked at him in bewilderment. Why did Halbarad look at him so strangely?
"You appeared to me, tall and mighty as Elendil himself, the Star of the North upon your brow and the light of the stars shone around you," said Halbarad in an awe struck tone.
"You were feverish and must have been dreaming," said Aragorn, getting to his feet. "Drink, you are in sore need of water." He picked up a full glass that Inzilbêth had placed on the bedside table and offered it to his cousin. Halbarad drank deeply.
Aragorn smiled, his whole face lighting up with joy at his cousin's improvement. When Halbarad had drunk his fill, he placed his hand on his cousin's brow. The fever had gone. When he pulled the covers aside to examine Halbarad's wound, he found it was oozing foul matter, the poisons rapidly being expelled.
Inzilbêth brought more hot water and bandages and cleansed and dressed the gash across her son's ribs and washed the dried sweat from his body.
"I am not an infant!" Halbarad complained. "Mother!"
"You are as weak and helpless as when I brought you into the world!" Inzilbêth retorted. Her twinkling eyes belied her tone, though.
Meanwhile Aragorn mixed a herbal tea for Halbarad to drink to promote healing and help restore his strength.
"How do you feel now, cousin?" Aragorn enquired.
"Very tired and my chest hurts," said Halbarad.
"I fear that is not surprising as those foul Orcs broke your ribs," Inzilbêth replied.
Aragorn held his hand a few inches above the wound and Halbarad cried out, "The heat in your hands! I thought only Master Elrond had such power!" He then sighed and fell into a deep natural sleep.
"He will recover now," Aragorn told Inzilbêth with a new found confidence. It seemed that he had greater healing powers than he could ever have imagined. And what did Halbarad's vision portend? Was it foresight or simply fever dreams?
"You have a true healer's gift, nephew," said his aunt. "I foresee the years to come will bring you greater powers still."