Sadhros was a gentle horse, with a light trot, and they quickly came to understand each other. They weren’t on the road long before she was glad of the loan. After crossing the river Bruinen Aragorn described the rest of the route to her. “We will take the Road,” he said, “for that is the quickest and it is my duty as Ranger to watch it. It will take us across the Wild to a town called Bree, and from there we will continue westwards. At the Sarn Ford we shall cross the River Brandywine into the Shire where the Hobbit-folk dwell. No doubt we shall have word of Gandalf there, and if his business is going well we both shall continue by secret ways on to the Havens.”
“And if Gandalf’s business does not go well?” she asked, feeling oddly anxious now that they were out of the protected vale of Imladris. “What then?”
“Then it is likely that I will be called upon to aid him. You will be left with another choice as far as continuing on. There are many parties of Elves that pass to the Havens and now that you have Elrond’s favor they will be willing to let you join them. There are also many more Rangers than I who will help you if needs be. But fear not, for I don’t think that Gandalf should have run into any problems there. From what I have heard, the Shire has been little troubled by the rising tides of war.”
“War…is that the darkness I began to feel when we crossed the river?”
“In part, yes, it could be. Many strange men and tidings have come up the Greenway these past couple of years. The name of Mordor has been spoken more and more oft of late. But there has always been an undercurrent of evil here, as it is in all of Middle Earth. You are merely more sensitive to it than most.”
“It’s the poison, I think,” Amaril said with a sigh. “I never felt it so strongly before I was shot. Growing up in Rhûn I always knew there was evil in the air, but it never made my skin tickle the way it does now.”
“You skin tickles?” Aragorn asked, sounding a little surprised. She wondered briefly why. How did he know when evil things approached?
“Yes, well maybe prickles is a better word. It feels like getting chilled, but without the cold, until the evil gets close. Then I feel the cold.” She spoke softly; she didn’t like discussing this much.
“Does Elrond know?” Aragorn drew his horse to a halt and stared straight into her eyes. The Elves and the Wizard would do that too, look into her as if they could see what lay in her heart. It always made her strangely afraid, though she’d told them no lies and kept nothing secret. Under that piercing gaze, she had no escape, no way to dodge an unfriendly question.
“I – I don’t know,” she faltered. The gaze became harder, and stumbling over the words she continued. “I never told him, because he never asked, but he is so wise that there seems to be much he knows without being told. I’m not sure it really matter in the end, does it?”
“No, I suppose not…just do me a favor,” Aragorn said, releasing her from his wizard-stare. How did he do that? Was it in his blood, in the blood of all Kings?
“Name it,” she said, relieved to be out from under those piercing gray eyes.
“Tell me when you feel it. It is a useful gift to have out here.”
Five days later, as they finished their evening meal, Amaril felt the familiar crawling in her skin. She waited a moment, sipping slowly at the tea Elrond had instructed her to drink. While this brew was nowhere near so bitter as the one Indis prescribed, it too had the effect of keeping her up late into the night. For this reason she invariably took the first watch and that was why as the sun dipped low Aragorn was sitting back, smoking a pipe and dozing lightly. After a long moment, the prickling feeling was if anything growing stronger, and, convinced that it was not her imagination, she hissed at Aragorn to wake up. He seemed to be fast asleep but nevertheless, something in her voice when she called his name caught his immediate attention. “Where?” he asked, jumping to his feet, understanding immediately.
“Behind us, east,” she replied, setting her cup aside. “In the open.”
“Just a moment ago.”
“Are they moving?”
“Yes…it’s getting stronger.” Aragorn stood up, squinting into the gathering night, listening, and sniffing the air. Suddenly he cursed. “What it is?”
“Wolves.” He whistled, calling their horses to them. “Gather your gear. They’ll be on us in a few moments. We’d be better off if we got out of here.” She drained her cup, scalding her mouth as the last of the medicine went down.
She was gathering her gear when a violent chill ran through her, causing her to drop the cup she was stowing in her saddlebag. “You alright,” Aragorn asked, looking up with concern from his own pack.
“They’re coming faster,” she said, shoving the cup into the bag and lashing it shut.
“Hurry then. This is no small pack coming our way.” She obeyed, and in moments she had Sadhros saddled and bridled. She was attaching the rest of her gear when they heard the howls. The horses had already caught the wolf scent and were anxious, and Roheryn let loose a spooked whinny. Aragorn calmed him quickly and mounted, and Amaril followed suit, but before they could make their break the wolves were upon them.
She drew her sword and Aragorn pulled out his big Elf-knife. They hacked and hewed at the creatures springing at them, and the horses bucked, reared, and bolted, trying to escape the predators. Horseback was the last place to be in the case of a wolf-attack, Amaril realized as she fought both to protect and remain on her mount. She though briefly about leaping off the horse and taking the wolves on her two steady feet but Aragorn yelled at her to stay mounted. She stabbed at teeth and claws, and somehow stayed on Sadhros’s back despite the malicious onslaught. How did wolves become so evil, she wondered as she knocked the head off a huge white wolf that leapt at her with its jaws gaping. It must have been the leader of the pack, for when it fell the others fled, whimpering into the darkening wilderness.
Panting she pulled her sweaty horse up next to Aragorn. She’d lost track of him in the fight, and was glad to see him still mounted. She and Sadhros had been lucky, having escaped the savage attack without so much as a scratch between them, but as she drew nearer she saw that her companion and his horse had been less fortunate. The sleeve on Aragorn’s upper right arm had been ripped open and he was bleeding beneath it. His horse, however, seemed fine. She wondered anxiously if he’d been bitten. Scratches she could handle but if he’d lost a chunk of himself she’d be of no use.
He let her take a closer look when they returned to their camp. He’d been clawed, not bitten, and though the scratches started deep and got shallow, none of them were serious. He brushed off her concern as they gathered their gear, but after they made their new camp he let her tend it. It was easier than doing the job himself.
“Wolves don’t carry pestilence on their claws do they?” she asked as she swabbed out and bound the wound. Their new camp was far from the last one, and it was now full night. In the light of the fire it was hard to tell if she’d cleaned all the dirt out. She looked up at the sky. The Moon was but a sliver, and the Lover’s Star was not up yet.
“No,” he replied. “Finished yet?”
“Almost. There, you’re done.” She tied off the bandage. He flexed experimentally and rewarded her with his kind, easy smile.
“Well done, Sun-child. My thanks.”
“It was the least I could do,” she shrugged. “Strange how you could get away from that Orc hoard with nary a scratch but not a pack of wolves.”
“Perhaps, but not surprising. Wolves aren’t anything to trifle with,” he replied. “They’ve been the death of more than one Ranger, my father among them.”
“I was very young,” Aragorn shrugged, “and already fostered in Rivendell. I didn’t even know his name until I was twenty, and Elrond told me what my heritage truly was.” She nodded. She already understood that Aragorn’s ancestry was best left undiscussed in the open country.
“You know you’re going to have to be careful with that arm until it starts to close,” she said changing the subject. He nodded with a dry smile, and then drew his knife and made a few experimental passes before sheathing it.
“I’ve had worse, and I can fight left-handed if I have to.” He glanced up at the sky. “Your watch is over. Get some rest. We’ve a long ways to go yet.”
“The night’s not halfway old yet,” she protested but Aragorn gave her a hard look and she relented. “Do you think we’ve seen the last of them?” she asked, looking back the way they came.
“Of that pack, yes, until they choose a new leader. That’ll take them a day or two, and then they will be out a-roving, ready to attack other travelers, but we shall be long gone by then. Do not fret; it was not your fault.”
The moment she laid down was the moment Amaril realized how tiring that briefest of skirmishes had been, and how grateful she was that Aragorn had forced her off her watch. Her left arm twinged with pain, as it always did after a fight these days, and she shifted so she was not lying on it. It was a wound that would not, could not heal, and it was a hindrance in so many ways. She felt ashamed to be so weak, and tears slipped from her eyes as she tried to sleep. What would her family think of her now, if they saw her? How could she have been so foolish, to let those Easterlings catch her off guard like that! The simple tears built into sobs, and, though she bit her hand to smother them, Aragorn still noticed her shaking, and as darkness finally took her she was aware of a light hand on her shoulder and a man’s rough voice singing something, softly, in the Elven tongue.
The next few days passed without incident. She was now more than ever aware of her weakness, aware of the darkness destroying her from the inside. At first she’d wanted to deny it, as she denied all evil, but this was an evil she could neither flee nor destroy. Well, no, she could destroy it by destroying herself, and that was an option she briefly considered in Rivendell, but that was the coward’s way. She bound by an oath to either find grace for the Harachin or die trying. Suicide because her blood was poisoned did not count as death in trying. Suicide was failure. No, she understood that this was an evil she could not turn her face from, and it made her angry. Angry at herself for her carelessness, and angry at Fate, that her people might be denied salvation and that she herself would be denied her chance to return home and lead them to the West they’d abandoned so long ago.
She said nothing of this to Aragorn, who watched her like a hawk for any sign of returning fever. Elrond’s brew would slow the poison, but travel was wearing. One could neither eat nor rest properly on the road, and though the broth was doubtlessly doing its job she could still feel her weakness growing each passing day. Secretly she was glad nothing else hindered their road. It was turning about to be a pleasant enough trip. Aragorn knew the country well, and was able to name the sights and describe their history. Much of the lore she’d absorbed in Imladris was alive in this country. She’d never cared so much for history, until she’d come to this place, where the ghosts and shades of battles and kings seemed to ride the very wind she breathed. Then they reached Bree.