Tasana wished Frodo were with her just then. If she understood the young Wargs correctly, they had spotted orcs in the area. Frodo would be able to pinpoint orcs, if any, with that elven blade of his. That trumpeting in the distance was not an orc horn, but it sounded at least as foreboding of trouble to come. Every good citizen of Gondor should know the call of that trumpet: it had been passed down from the Steward to his heir for generations.
Tasana passed quickly from the top of one tree to another, hoping to use the old limbs for the advantages of shooting angle and surprise for as long as possible. She moved as fast as she could, cursing her injured arm that kept her from charging into the battle with a drawn scimitar. She had come too late for either sword or bow, despite her efforts for speed. There were a good twenty corpses there, with the rest of the orcs fleeing from the wolves of the South Woods and a furious northern ranger. “You missed the hunt, Chev’yahna,” a younger member of the pack greeted the woman in the treetops. “We will eat well tonight!”
“How are the pack members?” Tasana asked after greeting him in turn. She did not see a single wolf carcass, but in the center of the glen-
“Our pack hunts well. None of the Wargs were hurt,” the brown Warg said with a noticeable trace of pride, but then he followed her eyes to the glen, laid back his ears and tucked his tail between his legs fearfully. “Your yearlings were stolen, though, Chev’yahna, and your mate is dying.” He licked his muzzle with a lowered head, showing his sympathy for her loss.
“Mi – my mate?” Tasana finished in Common Tongue, reverting back to the language of her birth in her shock.
“Come,” the hunter replied gently. The youngster was probably no more than a yearling himself, Tasana noted unconsciously, yet wise and delicate beyond his years.
She knelt beside her brother, examining their patient’s physical condition to try to avoid thinking about who it was. Three arrows had penetrated his armor, and there was evidence that he had pulled a fourth out already. Blood everywhere. Broken rib or two on his right side, probably a dislocated shoulder as well. “-Tried to take the Ring from him, chased him away. It’s my fault Pippin and Merry were captured -” Babbling: probably due to lightheadedness from shock and blood loss. At least there was no significant damage to major organs. None of the individual wounds were deadly, due to some small mercy of the gods, but altogether -most men would not survive this long. She pulled out her herb bag and healer’s knife, ripping the patient’s shirt off. “Please, my Chev’yahna. Let me go. Let me die.” He weakly reached for her hand with his left.
“Nonsense,” Tasana pushed his hand back down, reining in thought and emotion. “Boil some water, Aragorn,” Chev’yahna said in a businesslike manner that neither needed nor tolerated a reply. She made quick incisions to remove the arrow points, and then used a bent sewing needle to stitch up the wounds with quick, neat efficiency and very thin thread. Just because her mother had trained Tasana as a Dunedain herbs woman did not mean Celeste had neglected the more useful of traditional women’s skills in the swordswoman’s education. Both Strider and the fallen warrior seemed a little surprised at her cool headed needlework. “Now there’s a big boy, didn’t even scream.” She felt her stiff self-imposed barriers falter at the tears in his warm hazel eyes and she bent to shyly kiss them away.
“I love you, Tasana.” The eyes of the man she had fallen for closed in a deathlike sleep. But he was not dead, not yet, the healer assured herself as she checked his shallow breath. If only he did not look so pale-
“The bandages are boiled,” Strider reported.
“You added Kingsfoil?” Chev’yahna asked automatically. Kingsfoil was uncommon in Gondor leech-craft, but Celeste Rivermerchant had always sworn by the wonder herb’s miraculous curative powers. If there were any help to be found in ancient Dunedain remedies, Tasana would willingly take it.
“Don’t presume to instruct a healer in his own craft.” Her brother said in a mock serious tone. He draped the hardening linen first atop the patient, and then the ranger gently lifted the unconscious man as Tasana wrapped it tightly about the warrior’s ribcage to set the bones and stop the bleeding.
Reaching into her bag for willow bark, Tasana ran her fingers across her present from Lady Galadriel. It may yet give hope to those who have none- The healer had never needed hope more than now. She stuck an end into the boiling water, and then gritted her teeth as the hot metal penetrated her wrist. A small amount of blood dribbled from the other end. Supporting her hand with her herb bag, Chev’yahna lay half atop Boromir and inserted the open end into his left wrist, opening and closing her hand to keep his donated lifeblood flowing.
“What are you doing, Tasana?” Aragorn asked her, at once curious and afraid for his sister’s sanity.
“Healing him,” she answered tersely. Tasana kept her face close to Boromir’s to monitor his breathing, her free hand resting lightly against his chest.
“You almost look like lovers,” Strider joked halfheartedly, trying to lighten his sister’s mood.
“If that’s what it takes.” Her tone had not changed, but there was a bittersweet light in her eyes as her brother knelt next to her, gingerly laying a hand on her shoulder. “He’s proposed, Aragorn. Two nights ago.”
“And I take it you accepted?” Strider asked her gently. The Dunedain could feel no jealousy for Boromir whilst he was in this pitiable condition. Even without vocal affirmation from his sister, Aragorn knew the treachery she had feared had passed, tearing the company apart. Pippin and Merry were lost, and the ranger knew not the fates of Legolas, Gimli, Frodo, or Sam.
“No, not yet. I don’t plan on getting married until you produce another heir.” So Tasana still clung to futile hopes, even after all that had come to pass? How Aragorn wished he could have a fraction of her optimism! Sighing, the ranger buried his memories of Arwen’s sweet touch and grasped for a more reasonable way to settle Chev’yahna’s hopeless demands.
“If you’re so adamant about it, I’ll name one of our cousins my heir.” Aragorn hid the torment that rose up within him under an air of disaffected gruffness that might make Gimli look like a bleeding-heart beside the ranger. Had the dwarf foreseen his own end as well?
“You won’t be able to call me your sister within twenty leagues of Minas Tirth, then. Or don’t you know Gondor’s property laws?” Gondor didn’t allow women as many rights as the Dunedain clans, but the society was at least not so backward as to prevent wives and sisters from inheriting from husbands and unmarried brothers.
You don’t have to worry about me blurting that out at an inopportune time, Tasana, Strider thought bitterly. I’ll never make it to Minas Tirth. “What has you so concerned, Tasana?” was all he said out loud. As if I didn’t know.
“I love Boromir and trust him with our lives, Strider, but there are forces in the White City that would find a crowned steward most convenient. Forces that wouldn’t particularly care what happened to Isildur’s Heir.” Aragorn was afraid that he would never have to worry about Boromir becoming that “crowned steward”; the man had been too grievously wounded to last the night, despite Tasana’s best care.
Yet she had a point. If Boromir died, Chev’yahna would be forced into the very center of Gondor’s politics without a guardian. That was a maelstrom the woods-woman was totally unprepared for, and not something to be approached lightly by an untrained novice. No amount of woods sense could prepare her for cutthroat politics at the heart of the largest of the human kingdoms. This gave Aragorn another reason to find a way to do the impossible and escape Mordor. “Good,” he growled. “I’d hate to think I’d get bored.”
“Why don’t you go find Legolas and Gimli? And get that nose fixed, it’s been nearly broken off.” Tasana said sleepily, tired from a full day of rowing, hunting, fighting, healing, and bleeding.
Aragorn reached up to his face, feeling a sharp tenderness as he touched his nostrils. While tending to Boromir and Tasana, he had been completely unaware of his own injuries. “It’s not that bad,” the ranger shrugged off the pain and blood. “I’ll fix it once we get some downtime.”
“Since when did you get any downtime, Strider?” his sister asked teasingly, green eyes half-closed in an exhausted sleep.
Finding the missing elf and dwarf reminded the ranger that two other members of the company were missing as well. Ignoring her gibe, Aragorn asked, “Have you seen Sam? He was right behind me when I heard the horn, but he’s disappeared now.”
“He went with Frodo.” Tasana did not elaborate. The fatigued sleep she had been fighting off had finally overcome her.
“Good night, dear sister. May this latest bit of wizardry work even better than you expect it to, for all our sakes,” he kissed her on the cheek. Aragorn sat down next to his sleeping sister and her patient who clung to life with only the thinnest metal rod. The ranger planned to keep watch on them all night if he had to; he certainly would not abandon them alone in the middle of an orc-infested forest with no one on guard.
A brown wolf came and sat down beside Strider. This one was smaller than the gigantic adult Wargs the Dunedain had worked with through the aid of his sister before, but that did not make it any less disconcerting to see something Aragorn had always thought of as a prey animal at best and a dark friend at worst up until the past couple of months sit down next to him of its own volition and attempt to communicate. Wargs had killed his father before he was old enough to ever really have known the man, and now here Aragorn was, depending upon their aid. “You must forgive me. My sister has not yet had the time to teach me your language.” Strider said formally to it.
The wolf made some noises the ranger did not understand, giving the man a small, reassuring lick on the face. It sniffed at his sleeping sister, made a guttural whine that sounded like “Chev’yahna” and gave Strider a questioning stare, its head and tail lowered.
“She will heal, but she needs protection. Will you stay on watch?” One part of Aragorn was shocked and disgusted at himself for trusting his sister’s fragile life to a wild wolf, but somehow Strider could identify with this young fellow wanderer and knew it was trustworthy. The young Warg raised its head and wagged its tail, as if eager to prove itself in the Dunedain’s confidence.
Before he returned to the campsite to check for the missing company members, Aragorn removed the elven lady’s gift from his sister’s arm, a bandage in hand to tie off her self-inflicted wound. The healer was no more immune to the loss of lifeblood than her patient. To Strider’s surprise, the wrist scarred over within seconds of pulling out the silver ivy-covered blood wand. The Dunedain took it loose from Boromir’s arm to see an identical scar form before his eyes. Strider made good on his nickname, running to camp as quickly as possible. “Legolas! Gimli!” he called before him. Aragorn hardly dared to hope they had found Frodo, and Tasana had said Sam had gone off to whatever strange places his best friend had disappeared to.
“Aragorn!” the elf welcomed him, reaching up to ruffle the Dunedain’s black hair as the archer had often done when the ranger had been no more than a boy named Estel, unaware of his heritage and more than eager to run at the young elf lord’s side. It was funny how Legolas looked up to Aragorn now that the Dunedain had reached manhood, as Strider had so often looked up to Legolas during his youth. “Have you seen the others?” the archer continued after he and Gimli had greeted Strider. “Frodo and Sam’s packs are missing, as is one of the boats.”
“They’ve gone on to Mordor,” the ranger answered grimly, needing no more evidence in order to put two and two together. “Pippin and Merry are missing; Boromir said they’ve been captured. Boromir himself is in critical condition; I don’t think he will last the night. My sister is with him now.”
Gimli and Legolas stood in shock a moment, and then grabbed their packs. “We can’t leave Pippin and Merry to the orcs,” Gimli said, hoisting his broad axe.
“As much as I’d like to go with Sam and Frodo, two are as likely to pass through Mordor unnoticed as nine, if not more,” Legolas agreed, testing the blade of a dagger against his thumb.
“We have no time to waste, then. We’ll have to leave all we don’t need behind.” Strider sorted quickly through his own light pack that contained most of his worldly possessions. He tossed aside some of the extra firewood. Spring was well on its way, and he would not need the old cloak he had brought from Bree, either. “They’ll be driven to Mordor like cattle to the slaughter if we can’t catch up with the orcs.” The ranger hefted his lightened pack to his shoulders and led the others from the camp. “Let’s go find Chev’yahna,” Aragorn let loose a small sigh. The group had trusted the Dunedain to lead them, but he had ultimately failed to keep the fellowship together.
Strider could understand his sister’s concerns about leadership. It was not so much the lack of freedom that bothered Aragorn, but the stress and guilt that came with the decisions he had to make. Decisions that had led to Gandalf’s death. Choices that had left Boromir maddened and severely wounded. After Merry and Pippin were captured, was it any surprise that Frodo had lost faith in the ranger’s leadership? Aragorn had expected that he would die before the completion of this journey in all probability, but he had always believed the company would be able to overcome personal discord to stay together all the way to Mordor.
Aragorn shook off the black spiral, and then steeled himself. He had been responsible; he had failed. Strider would simply have to learn from these mistakes and carry on. Tasana, Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir were still under his protection; still had faith in his abilities to guide them. For their sakes, he must carry on.