Chapter 4 - Howls in the Nightz88;
Aragorn’s breath plumed out in front of him, as did his horse’s. The entire company sent out such a steamy cloud that it put in Aragorn’s mind images of firedrakes creeping along through the forest. It had been sleeting when they left, an icy mix that soon turned to snow. The snow had since stopped, but the pre-dawn air was now bone-chillingly cold, the kind to burn the inside of the nose and cause feet and hands to lose all feeling in a matter of minutes. He slowed his horse, got down and walked for a while, noting several others doing the same. He stamped his feet quietly and swung his arms vigorously, then when the tingle of warmth returned, got back on his horse. He glanced skyward. What few stars shimmered on the helm of night were gauzy and dim, the lowering moon peeking in and out from behind shredded banners of clouds that proclaimed more weather yet to come. He deemed from the signs that they needed to get this hunt over, and quickly.
They had found no wolves, but there was plenty of sign. This pack was a big one–he and Halbarad had sorted out by torchlight at least twelve sets of paw prints, and the beasts that had left them were large and heavy. They had heard distant howls in the night, to the south, and now that they neared the northern outskirts of Chetwood, Aragorn held a hand up for the company to slow.
"We are now very close, and encroaching on what they no doubt perceive as their own territory," he said softly as the men dismounted to gather around him. "We will stop here for the day, light a fire, warm ourselves, rest and keep watch. The wolves may find us but I guess that they likely have already finished their morning hunt and are holed up in their den, wherever it may be. But they will be out again come evening, and that is when we will strike, barring the wolves finding us first. So ere night falls we will move south on foot, for as many of you may already know, a little less than a half-league from here there is a clearing that has good visibility from the trees at the perimeter. When we get there, pair off and find places just within the trees on the north end of the clearing. From the weather signs, the wind is likely to shift back from the south before the next storm, so we will be upwind of the wolves’ likely approach. Find spots that allow for clear bowshots. Don’t go to the south side too soon or you’ll risk getting shot by one of your own men, but those of you at the edges, do your best to cut off the wolves’ retreat without risking getting caught in a crossfire. Halbarad, when evening falls, you know what to do."
"What of the horses?" a young Ranger named Borongyl asked.
"Over that rise is a natural hollow, surrounded on three sides with stone. We will leave them there, building a fence across the one open side, and trust to hope that they will remain unharmed. Should the wolves attack them, they are not without defense, for I have seen my mount kill a wolf with naught but a swift kick. It is a risk but one I deem worth taking, for all that it may leave us to make our way homeward afoot."
"Not like any of us have never had to do that," Halbarad muttered.
Aragorn gave him a grim smile, then nodded to the men. "See to setting up the camp. Borongyl, take Turgil and set up a watch to the south. Elladan, you and Elrohir take the east." He assigned the west and north to four others, and the eight men moved off as the rest of them set up camp and readied to build the fence. For the rest of the cold day, they rotated duties with huddling around the fire. Aragorn moved among the men, checking their bows and their supplies of arrows. He also helped with building the fence. Anything to keep himself moving and busy. He hated the waiting, the dawdling passage of time before unavoidable battle is joined. Eventually, however, Halbarad snagged his arm on one of his passes through the camp. "Will you settle yourself," he whispered. "I’m exhausted simply from watching you."
"I am not tired."
"No, I suppose you’re not," Halbarad admitted. "And the men appreciate your attention. But watch that you do not tire yourself needlessly. This promises to be a long night ahead of us."
"Not if you can still howl as good as you used to."
"I can still manage to call in wolves," Halbarad assured him. He glanced around at the hills and the trees. "They will come to defend their territory against our ‘pack’, fear not. I only wish it were warmer. This cold will make even the best archer slow, for we will need to be still until the wolves arrive."
"It can’t be helped, unfortunately."
"Trust to hope?"
Aragorn smiled. "Why don’t you go check on the watches. Take Turgil with you."
"And you rest, while you can. Close to the fire."
"Are you in charge, then?"
"Of keeping you in one piece? Always."
A howl shuddered through the night, sending the hairs on Aragorn’s neck standing at full attention even though he knew the howl came not from the wolves but from the man standing not an arm’s length from him. How Halbarad managed to so cannily imitate the cry of a wolf was a secret only he and the Valar knew. He had tried to teach Aragorn, but Aragorn’s howl sounded more like the mewling of a sick pup than the ferocious ululation of a full grown beast.
"If that doesn’t bring them running, they must be deaf," Aragorn muttered as the echoes caromed through the hills and finally faded into nightmare-inducing memory.
"What do you suppose is driving these wolves to attack men? It is not their nature, usually."
Aragorn shrugged. "It was a dry summer, and winter fell early. Perhaps game became scarce. Or they may simply have developed a taste for the flesh of Men. It is hard to guess."
"Could something more evil be working?"
"We can of course never rule that out. But these are not wargs."
"Thank the Valar," Halbarad said. "What of brain fever? That could drive them to attack even each other."
"I spoke at length with Elladan about that. He assured me that none of the people that were attacked showed any signs of coming down with it themselves. I think we are safe at least on that one point."
"Another reason to give thanks," Halbarad said. He paused for a moment, listening. "If they haven’t come in a few minutes, I will try again. And hope none of the more nervous among us shoots an arrow my way for my troubles."
They waited, and again Halbarad threw back his head and let loose a howl worthy of the most bloodthirsty wolf sire. And this time, as the echoes died, an answering howl rent through the night.
"They come," Aragorn whispered. He tightened his grip on his bow and readied an arrow. Halbarad made him jump as he let loose another howl, and this time the answer came not as a single howl, but as a snarling chorus fit for the pits of Utumno.
Aragorn glanced into the shadows beside him, knowing his brothers were but ten feet away but unable to see them in the darkness. The half-moon edging above the eastern treetops, still shrouding itself in the high thin clouds, sent a watery light into the clearing, but its glow was not strong enough to penetrate the dense canopy of leafless limbs over their heads. Wolves could see well at night, but it was Aragorn’s hope that as the wolves crossed the clearing, the dim light would be enough to blind their eyes to what lay in the shadows before them.
"One more," he whispered, and Halbarad complied, and suddenly the clearing was alive with dark shapes and the night filled with growls and snarls and yet more howls as the pack came to defend their territory against these invaders. Arrows immediately started whistling out of the darkness and as they hit their marks, sharp yelps of pain added to the cacophony. Aragorn pulled back his bow and let arrow after arrow fly, and still the wolves kept charging toward them.
One large brute, three arrows already protruding from his shoulders and neck, charged right between Aragorn and Halbarad. Halbarad’s sword flashed in the moonlight and Aragorn felt the hot splash of the creature’s blood as it died on the point of Halbarad’s sword. But he had no time to admire his kinsman’s handiwork, for two more wolves had made it all the way to the treeline. "Keep firing!" Aragorn screamed, but he dropped his own bow in favor of his sword, for it seemed his and Halbarad’s bad luck to be right in the path of the pack’s charge.
He swung to his left and his blade sank into snarling flesh, but before he could turn, a monstrously huge wolf rammed into him from the right side. He fell heavily and awkwardly beneath it, his left shoulder popping ominously as he crashed into the frozen ground. He retained his grip on his sword, though, and before the creature could seize him in his jaws, he rolled onto his back and shoved the blade upward. The beast roared but did not fall. Aragorn yanked hard to pull his sword free, but even as he did, the wolf’s jaws closed on his left arm. He cried out as his arm lit with fiery pain. He beat at the wolf’s nose with the pommel of his sword. The jaws fell away and he yanked the sword downward along the wolf’s neck and severed its head from its body. He shoved the body away from him.
"Aragorn?" Halbarad yelled.
"Keep fighting!" Aragorn snapped. He stood, his left arm limp and useless but his right still held the sword and good thing it was, for another wolf sprang at him. He sliced its neck and it fell shuddering in death throes at his feet.
He stepped over it, moving toward Halbarad, who was again shooting arrows into the bulk of the pack. The pack had turned, finally, the few left alive trying to flee. They fell to the Rangers’ arrows and the howls faded then finally fell away altogether as the last one died.
Aragorn sheathed his sword. "Rangers! Name yourselves!" he shouted, and only dared breathe when every last man gave his name. "Injuries?" Aragorn called. Besides my own, he thought wryly as he grasped his left wrist and held it tucked against his stomach.
"Turgil got nipped, but not bad," Borongyl called.
There was a short silence, no one else reporting any injuries, and then, "Elladan has a scratch on his arm," Elrohir reported. Aragorn could hear the stifled laughter in his voice. "He probably needs to go home to Ada and have it stitched up."
There was a muffled thud and Elrohir let out a yelp. Several of the men laughed, and Aragorn allowed himself a small smile. Elrohir had very effectively eased any lingering tension among the men. Including his own.
He took a deep, thankful breath. It seemed they had gotten off very lightly.
Aragorn stepped over and around the wolves into the open, trying not to be obvious in how he held his left arm. Halbarad and the rest of the men followed suit and for a long moment they stood quietly in the midst of the carnage, hardly daring to believe they had survived such a fearsome attack. Aragorn finally took a deep breath. "Well done, my kinsmen. You have fought well this night." He started to say more, but he suddenly swayed as he was hit by a bout of lightheadedness.
Halbarad immediately grabbed his arm. "You’re bleeding!" he cried, and helped Aragorn settle to the ground. He pulled at Aragorn’s coat.
Aragorn cried out and knocked his hand away. "I’m not, much. Most of that is from the wolf. It’s my shoulder... I think it’s dislocated."
"Of all the–" Halbarad muttered. "Elrohir, are you done with Elladan’s scratch yet? I need you here."
Aragorn saw the shadowy shape of his brother against the starlit sky. "What have you done to yourself now?" Elrohir asked. "Tried to go the way of the first Aragorn and get yourself eaten by a wolf?"
"Not intentionally," Aragorn said. He hissed as Halbarad tried again to loosen his coat. "Halbarad, just pop my arm back in place and then deal with the bite–most of that blood is from the wolves. The shoulder is far worse."
"If you’re certain," Halbarad said. "Very well. Lay down."
Aragorn did, and Elrohir knelt beside him, placing a hand firmly on Aragorn’s right shoulder. Halbarad then reached down and bent Aragorn’s arm upward at the elbow. "Good thing I’ve done this before, although doing it for you is a treat I could have gladly skipped. Stay relaxed," he said, and eased Aragorn’s left arm up and out from his body. Aragorn shut his eyes and tried not to cry out as Halbarad rotated the arm gently. There was a sudden pop and the sharp pain faded almost immediately into a more manageable throbbing ache. "Better?"
"Yes," Aragorn breathed and then sat up. "Help me get my coat off."
Elrohir slipped behind him and eased Aragorn’s coat off his shoulders. Even in the dim moonlight, it was easy to see the bitemarks along Aragorn’s forearm. Fortunately, the thick coat had kept the teeth from sinking in very far. It was indeed as he had thought: most of the blood coating his side was from the wolf. Someone handed Halbarad a water skin, and he sluiced water liberally over the wounds. "Those aren’t so bad. Not very deep. We’ll clean them well and bandage them. They’ll heal faster than that shoulder."
Within minutes, he had dried Aragorn’s arm and applied a neat bandage around the wounds. Aragorn struggled back into his coat. As he stood, Halbarad tried to get him to tuck his left arm in his coat, like a sling, but he slapped aside his hand. "Leave it be."
"Cease your stubbornness, brother," Elrohir said. He grabbed Aragorn’s forearm and stuck it between the clasps of his coat.
Aragorn knew his glare would be lost in the dim light, so he simply turned away. "We can save these pelts, bring them home with us. The horses will likely shy at the smell but the fur is too valuable to leave to predators."
"Shall we leave any for the Breelanders?"
Aragorn nodded. "Two of you pull out half the pelts to take into Archet. Let them distribute them to any that may have need. But for now, someone build a fire and let us chase the chill from our bones before we freeze where we stand." Gladly leaving the work to others, Aragorn sank down to a seat on a log. He tried raising his left arm, winced, then rested it across his lap to ease the grinding ache in his shoulder. He watched the men, saw their somewhat giddy smiles and listened to their laughter as they readied the camp, and he smiled.
Thank the Valar they had prevailed. Now they could head home, where hearth and home and a delayed Mettarë celebration awaited.
Above his head, the stars slid behind a cloud, and showed themselves no more.