Tendrils of foreboding wound their way around the three Rangers, leeching the cheer from the fire crackling in front of them. They contemplated the flames, their routes, or their individual futures. For all of their sombre quietude, they were actually not a grim lot— Rangers were simply taciturn by nature.
A chill wind sent unwelcome fingers under the hem of Halbarad's cape, which he pulled closer about himself. For a moment his gaze was pulled upward to the crumbling stone of Weathertop. Its edifice challenged the dim moonlight like a warrior kneeling at his last stand brandishing a shattered sword. The fire popped and a hiss turned to a short whine as one of the logs shifted in its red-hot bed. Halbarad, too, shifted in his seat on the ground, glancing first toward the heavy clouds cloaking the mountains in the east, then to the weary and watchful faces of his kinsmen.
"You are off to Fornost, then, and will return to the Angle?" he asked Tharaburn at last, who nodded his response.
"Should all go well," came the expected reply. Tharaburn idly played with a large plaited leather circlet on his wrist, seemingly lost in thought. "It has been not quite half a year. I admit, I am ready to sleep in my own bed once more." A smile played on his lips, though it was so subtle it could merely have been a trick of the firelight.
There was an affirming rumble to Halbarad's right. "I sometimes despair of ever spending more than a month or two again in my own," Lorabar agreed ruefully. "Though I at least am to travel to Rivendell. Doubtless I shall have council with the sons of Elrond only a short while, but the hospitality will refresh me a hundredfold."
Halbarad gave him a genuine smile, and saw it returned in Lorabar's light eyes. "I am still not comfortable with any in Elrond's house save the warrior twins," Halbarad admitted.
He thought of how stone and wood seemed as if they could come to life at any moment in Rivendell, it was carved with such devotion and skill. It was there that he felt his mortality gnaw in him; each solid boot step he took compared to the near-silent passing of the Elves reminded him he was bound to the earth. He would one day return to its awaiting hold, and if the dis-ease and malevolence he felt with an increasing weight each tour he took around the north was any indication, it would be far sooner than he hoped.
Tharaburn appeared to read the disquiet in his thoughts and rummaged through his supply bag to produce a piece of cured meat, always a comfort. "Elladan and Elrohir are excellent companions," he stated, handing the provision over to Halbarad, who accepted it gratefully. "They are Elf-kind, to be sure, yet they seem not altogether different from us."
"Their sword work against Orcs is a sight to behold," Lorabar added, tugging his knife out of its sheath at his waist. From his pack he retrieved a much-used whetstone and began to sharpen the edge of his blade. "And you, Halbarad? The runes you wrote indicate you are now taking the road to Bree to confer with Aragorn."
Halbarad listened to the familiar sussurative grinding strokes as Lorabar tended to his weapon. "Yes— if the signs near Tharbad are true, he should be there for a few days."
A low thunder of anticipation at having seen such a message had thrummed in his groin when he had read the runes. Now he was careful to keep his expression impassive, though the thudding drumbeat of desire had been awakened in him anew.
"I believe he is still on errantry by some request of the wizard Gandalf," Halbarad said. "I sense it has no pertinence to the Angle, nor our mission to keep guard on the northland, but perhaps he will tell me otherwise." He fingered the horn their leader had given him eight years ago, the last time Aragorn had spent any significant time in the Angle.
"Errantry for Gandalf?" Tharaburn repeated, his interest piqued.
Halbarad gave a noncommittal shrug. "His business is not truly known to me, aside from his part in our patrol."
"His business is not truly known to any," Lorabar said dryly.
"He is our leader and we must trust him, even though he now has many alliances outside those of the Dúnedain," Halbarad spoke firmly. "I do not worry for him on that score; he can well defend himself. And his significant," he paused, "ties to Lord Elrond and Rivendell can only benefit all of the northlands. But I do wonder if he will ever have to choose between those allegiances, and if so, where he will find his ultimate loyalties?"
The last sentence was said mostly to himself, a more personal musing which, like a hawk set loose of its jesses, had now flown free for all to see.
"He is the leader of the Dúnedain, first and foremost," Tharaburn said without hesitation, fingering the star on his chest. "I am glad you will see him soon. Now. Who will take the first watch?"
Halbarad hastily offered to do so, wishing to be with his thoughts, even though the night seemed restless and he needed to be fully on his guard. As his kinsmen readied their bedrolls, Halbarad went to check on their horses. The steeds were contentedly grazing, and after an affectionate pat to the side of his beloved Salupad, Halbarad took his position near the edge of their camp.
The night was neither inky nor brightly lit with stars; the sky had a smudged, uncertain quality which caused Halbarad to be especially alert. Keeping a hand on the hilt of his sword gave him reassurance— the three of them had purposefully converged at the ancient watchtower and noted any recent disturbances or activity, of which there was none. His senses were highly attuned to the changes in the air; rain would be coming soon. He could count on a muddy arrival in Bree.
While he kept part of his attentions devoted to listening for any disturbance, Halbarad allowed himself to think of what he hoped would transpire at the Prancing Pony. It was the only place where he and his kinsman lodged when visiting the town they surreptitiously protected.
Aragorn: his leader, his kinsman, and one who was not unfamiliar to his bed. Again, a shiver of anticipation coursed through his veins to lodge firmly between his legs. With a low sigh of yearning, Halbarad tried to force away the memories of how they had first become lovers. It was a practice not entirely unknown amongst the Rangers, so solitary by nature, yet decidedly not immune to the craving for another's touch. Halbarad was younger than Aragorn by a good fifteen years, and his fealty had roared in his blood when their liege lord had at last returned to their barren homeland. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, lodestone for Halbarad's admiration and unwitting kindler of a fire which continued to smoulder both in Halbarad's heart and body. It made him disconsolate.
When a rare illness had afflicted several among the Dúnedain, Aragorn's ability to heal had been a gift beyond measure. Struck down with the malady, for days Halbarad had been wracked with fevers, aches, and nightmarish hallucinations. As he had drifted in and out of self-awareness, he was conscious of Aragorn always at his side, or in the room, murmuring words of healing in a tongue Halbarad did not recognise. The fever had broken and Halbarad remembered lying in his bed, utterly drained by the toll of the illness. After a long night's sleep, he'd woken refreshed, and he realised he must have been sponged clean by his caretaker. Glancing over to a corner, he saw Aragorn stripped down, taking a standing bath using Halbarad's washbasin. Aragorn had turned slowly, surely having intuited the change in the room once his patient had awakened. He was unashamed in his nudity, and continued to bathe in the warm room under Halbarad's increasingly hungry gaze. No words were spoken, not then.
The instant Halbarad had felt his offering would not be rebuffed, he'd slowly turned down his bedcoverings, uncovering his arousal and inviting his kinsman to bed. Halbarad had been gratified to see the stirrings of interest in Aragorn's form. His chieftain's quiescent cock began to rouse to life as he searched around for something which proved to be a woodsy-scented unguent to ease his way into Halbarad's heat.
A disembodied moaning sound snapped Halbarad back to the present. With practised speed his sword was in his hand, every nerve buzzing as he used his keen eyesight to peer around him, pivoting this way and that. When the noise again threaded the air, he realised it was the wind in a nearby copse of trees and he minutely relaxed. He shook his head and lowered his weapon, determined to spend the rest of his watch thinking about things other than his carnal needs and desires. Out in the wilds, it could get him killed.
* * * * *
"I know, I know. I won't try to stable yer horse!" Bob snapped irritably at Halbarad, waving his hands like angry moths. "Rangers have to do everything their way, all secret-like," he continued on as he stomped away from Halbarad in the stable which adjoined the Prancing Pony.
Halbarad let the man's mutterings roll off of him as rain did from a roof. It was not his concern what the Inn's groom thought of him; he wanted to make sure that his horse was stabled to his personal satisfaction and to rub her down himself. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent scents of feed, manure, and wet horse.
"Sorry, Salupad," he murmured as he removed his tack and brushed down his devoted animal. His own hair was soaking wet despite having worn his hood. For the entire day of his approach to Bree, the sky seemed to have had a vendetta against the earth, hurling sheets of rain to the ground. Halbarad had ridden through it, swearing under his breath. In spite of his discomfort and the unpleasant odours, Halbarad could not suppress his excitement at the prospect of seeing his occasional lover again, but as always when it came to Aragorn, he was conflicted. While finishing his grooming, he became unusually aware of the star on his cloak; it felt heavy, as was his spirit.
"Always in secret, always shrouded," he said to Salupad, removing the star and stashing it away in an inner pocket of his overvest. "And it will not endure." He straightened his shoulders, though he let his head hang down for a moment.
"I know it cannot endure." An image of Arwen Undóminel flashed across his mind, but he tried to banish her utterly from his thoughts. He was in Bree, he was in dire need of both a bath and one of Butterbur's stoutest ales, and if the runes that they used to communicate with each other were to be trusted, the leader of the Dúnedain should also be arriving forthwith. He adjusted his arms belt as he left the stall and strode toward the Inn.
An hour later Halbarad was clean and ensconced in the shadows of the busy tavern, sitting near the fire but away from the melee of local men, Bree-hobbits and a smattering of Dwarves. He took a long draught of the peaty ale, paying particular attention to what the hirsute companions were saying to each other, seated at the table next to him.
"I know trade isn't what it used to be!" one of them said irritably, his russet hair, festooned with a collection of plaits, gleaming in the torchlight. "It's no better in Laketown. And the new Men from the south are suspicious. Won't buy, won't barter."
"We're best off sticking with each other," another retorted, glancing furtively around at the other patrons in the tavern as though they all could be potential spies.
Yes, perhaps you are best off that way, Halbarad mused to himself, turning his attentions to a scuffle between two local inhabitants, which seemed to stop as soon as it started. He found he was somewhat captivated by the table of Dwarves, surreptitiously but intently making note of the differences between them, hair colour notwithstanding. They wore differing coloured capes with hoods, one or two wore thick rings on their fingers, and only one wore his beard in a distinctive forked plait. Were all of those affectations personal preference, or were they clues to a kind of hierarchy among their kind?
His ruminations on the secretive artisans came to an abrupt halt when the main door opened. Halbarad's heart sped up and seemed to stumble over its beat as a familiar head of wet, tousled dark hair came into view. Aragorn's entrance was noted by many in the Inn's common-room as any newcomer's arrival would be. He went to the bar counter and spoke briefly with Barliman, who busied himself in getting one of his underlings to take a tankard to the requested cask and pour the Ranger's ale. In the few moments it took for Aragorn to get his libation, he made a quick survey of the room until his gaze locked on Halbarad. The view of Aragorn's strong features, even from across the room, knit a warmth from Halbarad's neck to his groin. A faint nod in his direction let Halbarad know his kinsman acknowledged his presence. He squirmed slightly; his skin became awash in gooseflesh, and his shadowed location now seemed under a beam of light. None but this noble kinsman affected Halbarad with such a startling jolt of recognition. As Aragorn made his way over, Halbarad nursed the bittersweet foretaste of what would be a brief encounter. He tried in vain to wash it away with a quick mouthful of ale when Aragorn sat down, his grey eyes welcoming.
"You saw my message," he said by way of greeting. As a rule, Rangers didn't address each other by name in questionable areas.
"Yes." Halbarad couldn't help but let a hint of his enthusiasm show as he said, "It is so good to see you."
Aragorn arched an eyebrow, but his faint upturn of lips in such a public place was the equivalent of a shout from a mountaintop. "And you. You look well. How fare the roads you have traveled?"
"Surprisingly empty. One of the others has heard from the twins. There's activity south near the border of Rohan— I believe Lorabar and the two will be heading that way within a week. Ten days at most, leaving from their home in the valley."
Aragorn nodded thoughtfully, though his gaze had become faraway for a moment. Halbarad felt rather like he'd been dealt a blow to the gut, knowing full well which member of Elrond's house his companion now contemplated. When Aragorn refocussed on him, his attentions fully engaged on Halbarad, the heat in his loins was stoked back to an insistent blaze. Halbarad intended to keep his face impassive until they were back in his room — or Aragorn's lodging — but of anyone in Middle- earth, Aragorn read his expressions as easily as he did the patterns of the stars in the night sky.
"I'd like to get a hot meal in me, and I am in certain need of a wash," Aragorn said, lifting his tankard and giving Halbarad a provocative look. "You've already taken a room, I suppose?"
Halbarad made an affirmative noise, suddenly noticing that it had become quieter to his right. His gaze slid over to the table of Dwarves, now leaning in, huddled together so that their conversation was even more difficult to discern. The likelihood of them planning any kind of skirmish or outright war was quite slim, so Halbarad looked back to Aragorn and gave a small shrug.
"And you?" he asked, pausing when Barliman appeared at their table with a bowl of fragrant corn chowder and a platter with a hank of dark bread and wedge of cheese.
"Bread's just out of the oven," he noted, giving the two Rangers a speculative look before Aragorn gave his thanks.
True to his word, steam rose from the bread when Aragorn tore off a piece to dunk in his chowder. He waved his hand at it in invitation to Halbarad, who tore off his own hunk and cut a bit of cheese to go with it.
"I see no need for my own lodging," Aragorn said smoothly.
Arousal flared along Halbarad's spine, the nubs on his chest hardening at the implications at Aragorn's answer.
"You've been out searching with Gandalf, is that correct?" Halbarad said quietly as Aragorn ate his meal. He'd relaxed into the familiarity of their conversation, allowing himself to enjoy the slight loosening of his tongue and heaviness in his cock now that he knew Aragorn would be sharing himself. From the one obtuse question about lodging, it appeared that he would even spend the night, a rare and hopefully exhausting opportunity.
"Yes," Aragorn answered, eating his meal with gusto. "We're searching for something — someone, who is proving very difficult to find. This creature came from the south and may have the answers to questions which have formed deep grooves in Gandalf's mind."
It was as though the clouds parted and morning sun blazed through. "This is why we've been asked to keep ever more vigilant?" Halbarad asked, already knowing the answer.
"Indeed. That's why there are more Dúnedain around the periphery of the Shire. The world is growing agitated with the shadow of the dark, regardless of the quarry Gandalf and I seek. I'm sure you have noted this without the news of which I just spoke."
Halbarad nodded, chewing on a piece of warm bread after he slathered it with butter.
"It's a frustrating pursuit, I must admit," Aragorn said, sopping up the last of the contents of his bowl with some bread.
Halbarad watched him, a growing impatience to get to his rooms warring with the treasured, lazy comfort of simply sitting with his beloved companion over a meal. Aragorn finished the last of his ale and then gave Halbarad a mischievous look.
"I think I'd like to enjoy my pipe," he said. One side of his lips quirked in a near smile, making some of the years and weariness melt from his countenance.
"You haven't kept that up!" Halbarad exclaimed, now exasperated.
A grin bloomed on Aragorn's lips, and he slowly nodded. "I have. Too much time spent around the Shire. But I can sense your readiness to leave, and in truth, I share it."
His gaze grew more heated, and Halbarad felt the bulge beginning to grow uncomfortable against the confines of his leather breeches. He'd not lain with Aragorn for over two years now; in the interim, he took care of himself in hand, as they all did. Unlike some, he had yet to avail himself of anyone else between his too-occasional passionate interludes with the sternly handsome man across the table from him. Other Rangers slept with a woman — or man — here and there, paying coin for the privilege. As they both rose and made their way unobtrusively from the raucous, smoke-filled ambiance of the Inn's common-room, Halbarad hoped fervently that the time would not come too soon when he would have to do the same.
* * * * *
Rain lashed at the windows, trying to beat its way into the fire-warmed room. Winds buffeted the thin plate glass so that the windows rattled in their frames like chattering teeth. Halbarad had quickly tuned out the elements and their futile attempts to enter the temporary bower he shared with Aragorn. His need was a slow, demanding throb centred in his erection and spreading throughout his limbs. He'd not wanted to touch himself until Aragorn had finished his ablutions, but the sight of his lover's muscled form as he used a flannel to wash the road from him and soaped up his hair was too evocative. With a low moan, Halbarad spread his legs, palming the hard cock straining up to his belly through his thin leggings.
As Aragorn rinsed himself off and stood, reaching for a towel, Halbarad couldn't stifle the groan that escaped from his open mouth.
Aragorn's look was sly. "It has been a long time out on patrol, hasn't it?" he said, stepping out of the tub and drying himself off. He faced Halbarad as he sat on the bed so the girth of his cock hanging against his heavy sacs was fully on display.
"You know it has," Halbarad said, sinking back against the headboard as he watched his leader rub the towel in his dark wavy hair. Aragorn stopped and gave Halbarad a searching look, his expression contemplative. "Is something troubling you?" Halbarad asked, a flash of hot and cold streaking through him with the sudden thought that Aragorn had changed his ways or mind.
Aragorn tossed the towel over a nearby chair and slowly padded toward the bed, glancing once at the window when a flash of lightning speared the night sky. He blew out all but two candles and climbed onto the bed while Halbarad hesitated, uncertain. Aragorn lay on his side, gesturing that Halbarad do the same. His fingers were roughened from years of wielding a weapon; warrior's hands cupped Halbarad's jaw, the thumb pad running over the auburn hair of Halbarad's newly trimmed beard.
"I'd just been thinking back to the first time we came together like this," Aragorn murmured.
His other hand slid down Halbarad's abdomen to grasp his stiff shaft with a confident, possessive grip. Halbarad gasped and arched into the touch, his eyes widening at Aragorn's surety. His grey eyes shone with remembered affection.
"As before, you were in bed, watching me as I bathed. But we are no longer in the Angle, and the world is changing swiftly. I have so much I desire to accomplish," he said in a grave voice.
"And you will achieve those desires and accomplishments," Halbarad reassured him, leaning forward to kiss him firmly. It was a pledge without words that he would follow his leader to whatever end.
Aragorn opened his mouth, sending his tongue to plunder Halbarad's mouth as Halbarad did the same to him. He put his arm over Aragorn's back, splaying his palm across his shoulder blade, his fingers kneading into his still-warmed skin as he pulled Aragorn closer to him. The blood roared in Halbarad's ears while his hard cock was expertly worked up and down in the heat of Aragorn's palm. Halbarad kissed him hungrily, his tongue sliding around Aragorn's own before pulling back to breathe and suck on Aragorn's lower lip, the friction of their beards sending sparks of lust showering through him. He'd only ever responded thus to men, their corded arms, the pikes of their jutting organs and flat chests decorated with inviting hair.
"My desire right now is that you get out of the rest of your clothes," Aragorn said, breathing heavily and moving backward to give Halbarad the room to do so. A loud rumble of thunder growled in the night sky as though the storm voiced its approval of their brash coupling.
Halbarad could feel his heart thumping against his ribs as, with trembling fingers, he pulled off his leggings. "So long," he said helplessly, kicking away the garment and grabbing at Aragorn to draw him in, to devour his mouth and grind against him, hip to hip.
"That is the way of things for us," Aragorn replied, using his strength to pull out of Halbarad's grasp and kiss open-mouthed down Halbarad's quivering abdomen. He feasted on Halbarad's flesh until he was perched on his knees between Halbarad's spread legs.
"But that does not mean I have to like—"
Halbarad's sentence faded into a babbling jumble of groans, profanity, and reverent chanting of Aragorn's name as his cock disappeared into Aragorn's mouth. Aragorn sucked and swirled his tongue around Halbarad's straining erection, bobbing his head up and down as he attuned his motions based on Halbarad's cries of pleasure. He paused up at the crown, tonguing the slit of the bared sensitive flesh. Halbarad bucked and clenched his buttocks, running his fingers through Aragorn's coarse waves, feeling as though nothing existed outside of his cock and the wet heat of Aragorn's talented tongue. Aragorn hummed and rumbled his enthusiasm, the vibrations taking Halbarad almost to the breaking point much too soon.
"Aragorn," he rasped, tightening his grip in his lover's hair in as gentle a warning as he could manage. "Not yet, please."
With a last long swipe from the base to the tip, Aragorn eased away, wiping his glistening lips with the back of his hand. His own organ curved up from a nest of dark curls, a pearly string of his essence clinging from the reddened crown to his belly. A feral look haunted his features. Halbarad felt like a wolf in his pack, and pulled up his ankles toward his buttocks, readying himself for Aragorn to claim him, to take his sizeable erection and bury himself in Halbarad's body.
"It has been just as long a famine for me," Aragorn said hoarsely, placing one hand on Halbarad's knee and beginning to stroke himself with the other. Halbarad watched tirelessly as the skin slid up and down, exposing the purpled crown and then covering it up again.
"Then have me," Halbarad pleaded, not caring how wanton or needy he looked, spread open for his lover without shame, begging with his eyes. "I ache."
Lightning ripped across the sky, casting Aragorn's usually austere face into a vivid chiaroscuro relief of hunger. He licked his dry lips, feasting on Halbarad's form as the younger Ranger waited, realising that his arms were outstretched in entreaty, hoping for Aragorn to fall upon him in a rush of untamed passion.
"Fill me completely," Aragorn said in a low voice, reaching over for the phial of oil and pouring a generous amount in one palm. He took the same care to make sure Halbarad's steely cock was thoroughly slicked as he did to ensure his weaponry was in prime condition. Dozens of thoughts raced through Halbarad's mind like a flock of startled birds. He was dizzy with the anticipation of being joined with Aragorn that way; they had done so before, but not often. Aragorn seemed to want someone else to wield control for a brief while, he appeared to yearn to focus on his own pleasure while wholly sharing his body
Halbarad vowed to make the experience memorable, to plough him deep and long until Aragorn was shaking and desperate for his completion.
"You will never forget this night," Halbarad promised, shifting on to his elbows and stretching upward.
Aragorn rose up from his sitting position to get on his knees, straddling the outside of Halbarad's thighs and placing a hand on the bed beside Halbarad's shoulder. His whole body was taut; he kissed Halbarad aggressively and Halbarad responded in kind, lips mashed together until their tongues duelled and Aragorn forcefully held both of their erections in his wide hand. The matchless feeling of their cocks rubbing together caused Halbarad to make needy moaning sounds. He'd been asked — no, demanded — to sink deep into the tight furnace of Aragorn's most intimate channel. He made to roll them over, but again Aragorn's extraordinary strength stopped them. He let go of their slicked organs, one hand still planted near Halbarad's shoulder, and guided Halbarad's glistening shaft to his cleft, teasing himself by tracing the hidden crevice. He hovered over Halbarad's twitching cock, the wide dome poised at his entrance. Aragorn kept his gaze trained on Halbarad as he eased down, flexing his strong thighs to force Halbarad's way past the initial tight ring. With a groan of satisfaction, Aragorn's body accepted the intrusion and Halbarad closed his eyes at the enveloping heat around his cock.
"My lord," Halbarad whispered once he was fully sheathed.
A faint sheen of sweat gleamed on Aragorn's forehead; the wind hurled a few waves of rain to batter against the windows. Aragorn began to move up and down and Halbarad rocked his hips up and back to meet him. The oil on his shaft eased his thrusts but did not in the least diminish the exquisite resistance of Aragorn's muscles clenching around him. Aragorn set a faster pace, leaning forward to ransack Halbarad's mouth, kissing and biting at his lips as he took his pleasure.
"Carandol, ai, so good," Aragorn breathed against his mouth, his husky voice fanning the flames of Halbarad's desires. He was thrusting hard and fast, the tension coiling low in his sacs as Aragorn rode him with skill and speed as though chasing the wind. He paused from his murmurings to hold his palm over Halbarad's mouth. After a flicker of incomprehension, Halbarad licked it and then Aragorn took himself in hand, beginning to piston into his own fist, expertly guiding himself to his own point of release. Like seeing something out of his peripheral vision, sensed but not wholly present, Halbarad's orgasm became an inexorable force, unstoppable and powerful.
"Aragorn!" he cried raggedly, trying in vain to hold on longer, to postpone the inevitable. "I can't—"
"Don't hold back!" Aragorn panted, his face flushed, a mask of concentration.
Two more snaps of his hips and Halbarad arched against the heat of Aragorn's buttocks, trying not to shout as his body was wracked with the waves of his completion. He felt his swollen cock throbbing in the tight glove of Aragorn's body; his right leg jerked involuntarily and phantom stars danced behind his closed eyelids as his throaty moans punctuated the room.
"Halbarad, by the Valar, Carandol, Carandol," Aragorn gasped, his broken incantation changing to a keening cry as he was overtaken by his release. Pearly fluid fell down on Halbarad's still trembling belly, jets of warm, white essence that fountained from Aragorn's shaft, held tightly in his grip. Eventually Aragorn tilted his head back down to look at Halbarad through heavy-lidded eyes, his expression one of rapture, sated and content. Halbarad memorised his leader's face in these precious moments after their coupling and before the world would so surely lay its burdens back on him. Aragorn breathed out a long, peaceful sigh, releasing his spent cock.
"Long have I needed that," he said without a shred of irony in his voice.
Halbarad huffed a laugh as Aragorn carefully eased up and off of his softening cock, and then walked over to retrieve his washrag. He cleaned himself, then rinsed and wrung out the cloth before tossing it to Halbarad, who had sat up despite the cooling, sticky mess on his stomach. Aragorn took a poker and tended the fire, throwing on two additional logs for good measure while Halbarad cleaned off the evidence of their recent activity. The air about him and infused in the bedcoverings still smelled of musk and sweat; he breathed deeply of the powerful scent of their sex, trying to trap it and hide it away for the future and many lonely nights he could expect.
Aragorn crawled up on the bed and got into a sleeping position with the efficiency of one who is used to few comforts. A smile played on his lips as Halbarad blew out the remaining candles, noting that the rainstorm still raged outside. They did not often stay in each other's arms after their coupling, but Aragorn murmured, "Come here," and Halbarad gratefully lay alongside him, insinuating one leg between his lover's calves, shifting so his still heavy cock was tucked above Aragorn's hip. He nuzzled against Aragorn's neck, slowly turning his face from side to side, his lips grazing the short stubble that marched down Aragorn's jaw. He heard stoccatoed snaps and imagined the shower of sparks as one of the logs tumbled back in the fireplace.
"I am glad not to be having to seek shelter in such a downpour," Halbarad said quietly against Aragorn's salty skin. "And even more grateful to be at your side. You felt " He paused to place a tender kiss on a crescent-shaped scar on Aragorn's jaw near his ear. "Better than anything. Better than the softest leather of perfectly worn boots that feel like a second skin."
Aragorn made a pleased rumbling sound and wrapped his arm around Halbarad's ribs as Halbarad did the same. He didn't want to think about how brief their time together would be, unless perhaps Aragorn was planning to stay for a few days; perhaps he was waiting for the wizard to arrive and the two Rangers could go hunting for clues for Aragorn's prey together. After all, two sets of hunters were more effective than one. Aragorn absently stroked his hair, keeping silent but not brooding. He had been so taken away by their passion, he'd called Halbarad something he'd not heard before—
"What is Carandol?" he asked, letting his hand drift down to rest atop Aragorn's hip, feathering his fingers on the warm skin.
"Red head. Elvish," Aragorn said, the words heavy with affection. "I know your hair is somewhat dark, but back when I first saw you again down in the tavern, sitting near the fire, the copper caught the light of the fire. Your beard especially catches the eye. You were hooded and cloaked, and would blend in to anyone else's eyes, but to me you gleamed like polished brass."
"I think you must be running a fever," Halbarad said, shaking Aragorn's hip with a gentle push, happiness sparking in him as though filled with summer fireflies. "Your words are never so honeyed."
"I feel at ease for the first time in months." Aragorn leaned on the last word for emphasis. "And you have always stood out, had a unique and treasured role to fulfill. Why else do you think I asked you to be our herald?"
"Because I act with honour and serve the Dúnedain with eyes unclouded," Halbarad said automatically, the words having been intoned over him when Aragorn bestowed on him the privilege of bearing the horn he carried.
Aragorn let out a deep breath; Halbarad could feel the heaviness creeping back into his lover's spirit like chill fingers of fog drifting tenaciously across the ground. The weight was equally impossible to bar as the cold mist.
"And so you do," Aragorn said, removing his hand and rolling away slightly so they lay side by side, no longer curled around each other like pups. "I will certainly remember this night— you've exhausted me," he said, patting the top of Halbarad's thigh. "I am grateful for it. Sleep well."
"You too," Halbarad replied.
The exertion of their coupling should have allowed him to fall quickly to sleep, but the desire to watch over the valourous man at his side prevailed. It was the way of Rangers, this coming together and parting again like tides which forever flow in and out, never standing still. Halbarad so often craved solitude; it was part of why he had volunteered to go on patrol when he had at a young age. As the moments went on, however, and he was able to gaze at Aragorn in a relatively untroubled sleep, he wished that Middle-earth was already a place of peace with no need for them to roam.
When he awoke the next morning, it was still raining, though the fury of the night's tempest had disappeared.
So had Aragorn.
* * * * *
"Halbarad, I would have your company, if you will give it," Aragorn said as they approached the Hornburg.
"Of course. We have ridden with all haste to be with you; I would not turn away from you in your hour of need." He turned to his right where Lorabar rode at his side. The other Ranger nodded his understanding.
"We will take our place near that of the horse lords' king's encampment," Lorabar stated, "and await the fruits of whatever your thoughts dwell upon tonight. But do get some rest," he said sternly, and Halbarad felt a melancholy smile drift to his lips. "You seemed pleased and invigourated to see us, but it's obvious you're driving yourself beyond exhaustion. There lies madness or at the least, bad judgment."
"I know you mean well, but you approach insolence," Aragorn warned him. Halbarad sensed Lorabar quail slightly under Aragorn's uncompromising gaze.
"I meant no offense," Lorabar said evenly. He had been acting as their leader, functioning as a steward of the Dúnedain in the Angle in Aragorn's near-constant absence.
"No, I know you didn't," Aragorn replied, his tone less sharp but weighty with his preoccupied spirits. "There are not many hours left in this night and now that you all are with us, I feel more at ease. But I will not find sleep tonight, no matter how diligently I search. There will be other nights for that."
Halbarad saw Lorabar nod his understanding; all of them were hardened warriors and scouts, and they knew well what it was like to go for days fueled by adrenaline or abject hatred, if pursuing Orcs. At last they reached the Hornburg where the broken gate and death mounds spoke plainly of the battle which had taken place mere days before. Halbarad entrusted Salupad to Lorabar's care while Aragorn, after speaking affectionately to Roheryn at their brief initial reunion, asked Tharaburn to continue to care for him until the next day. Aragorn spoke for a few moments with King Théoden as Halbarad waited, marveling at the stone keep under the watchful shelter of a line of snow-covered mountains. Curious, he stepped away from his companions to one of the men of Rohan who seemed to be of high rank.
"We are glad of your unexpected arrival," the man said, clasping Halbarad's hand with a sturdy grip. "I am Éomer, nephew of King Théoden."
"And I am Halbarad Dúnadan of the Angle and longtime friend to Aragorn."
"You and your fellow warriors are indeed most welcome," Éomer enthused, glancing over Halbarad, who stood several inches taller than the golden-haired man. "Are you or your companions in need of any assistance or provisions?"
"No, we can take care of our own," Halbarad said kindly. "But thank you. The peaks behind this hold— what are they called? I have been near your borders while on patrol, but never had I crossed into these lands until so recently summoned."
"Those are the Thrihyrne," Éomer said, pulling out a waterskin and offering it to Halbarad, who demurred. "An effective barrier, and the edge of our western lands."
Aragorn approached at that moment and Halbarad took his leave of the king's nephew. Halbarad had been warring with himself, being in Aragorn's close proximity once more. He wanted Aragorn to tell him everything so that he could share the burden, whatever was in the murky darkness of the future that seemed to trouble Aragorn to the marrow. He followed Aragorn in silence up to one of the highest rooms in the Hornburg, up flights of stone stairs until they sat, still unspeaking, in front of a small fire that Halbarad lit to ward off the chill of earliest dawn.
When at last he couldn't bear the distance any longer, Halbarad got up from the simple wooden chair, and stood behind his beloved kinsman and began kneading at his shoulders. Aragorn let out a jerky sigh, a wounded sound as Halbarad tended to the knots straining under his skin. Aragorn was as taut as a bowstring, tense, brooding, and lost in the labyrinth of his own solitary thoughts. This was no time for sex or even the languor of lying in each other's arms, but Halbarad suddenly felt reckless. By the Valar, Aragorn had asked for his company, he had asked Halbarad to continue to encumber himself with the standard that he'd been loath to take from Rivendell in the first place. He'd felt it was a bad omen, Elvish work and black, and given to him with words that were not full of optimism and hope. 'Elfstone' Aragorn might be to Elrond's daughter, but to Halbarad he was a man with needs he understood well. He would sacrifice himself a thousand times over for this man who had once saved his life, this lover who brought ecstasy to Halbarad in ways he couldn't describe in words. He was stung with barbs of possession; despite Aragorn's fey mood, Halbarad's blood had pooled in his groin at his scent and the freedom offered by their isolation.
He didn't ask Aragorn's thoughts, nor did he ask his permission before coming around to kneel between his kinsman's legs, pushing aside the stained pants which smelled of leather, horse, and earth. Halbarad felt possessed, or that he was in some kind of dream, the only sound those of the crackling fire and creaks in the chair as Aragorn shifted, allowing Halbarad to move his vest and tunic out of the way and to unlace his breeches. He took out Aragorn's limp organ, leaning in to bury his face in the musky heat trapped in the dense thatch of dark hair. He felt his own shaft growing harder as he carefully took Aragorn into his mouth, anxious to bring his cock to life even if his lover didn't say a word the entire time.
A hand gently tangling in Halbarad's hair was all he needed for permission to go on, to give this guerdon to his lover and force away some of the tension since he would neither sleep nor speak of the shadows that ran rampant in his thoughts. He undid his own leather pants, freeing his length while sucking around Aragorn's awakening arousal. The sounds he made as he hummed and slurped Aragorn's fully erect staff sounded obscene, especially when combined with the smacking sounds as he rubbed himself. He used tongue and lips to bring him to hardness as he fondled the heavy sacs underneath, rolling the papery skin in his fingers.
At last Aragorn made low sounds of pleasure, though the moans were edged with caution as though he were trying to keep silent. Halbarad, overcome with the desire and desperate affection for Aragorn that mauled and marked his soul, did the opposite. It had been a few years, but Halbarad was still familiar with the language of Aragorn's body and the clues to be found there. He listened carefully as he heard Aragorn's breath quicken and sped up his ministrations, gratified as Aragorn slid lower in the chair to give Halbarad easier access while he kneeled in the vee of his muscled thighs.
"Halbarad, by the grace, aughnnnnngh!" Aragorn choked out as he spent himself in Halbarad's mouth. The bitter lemony seed slid down Halbarad's throat; his eyes stung with forbidden tears. He had done it, but he doubted that Aragorn had looked at him once the entire time. With a last lick to the crown, Halbarad sat back on his heels, determined to bring himself to completion.
"Aragorn," he pleaded, his breath coming in gasps, the tingling of his release beginning down in his toes. It was moments away from barreling out of his aching cock to be spilt on the stone floor of this high room in a land Aragorn seemed determined to defend. "Look at me," Halbarad said, hearing the anguish in his own voice even as he teetered on the cusp of a torrent of pleasure.
When Aragorn did, his grey eyes fixed on Halbarad's face, Halbarad came with a broken cry, chanting Aragorn's name over and over like a prayer until he sat, his thighs trembling, his hand still at the base of his sticky cock.
"I see you."
The words were hoarse and strained with foreknowledge or unknowing, Halbarad knew not which.
"Good. Don't ever forget. You summoned me, called for us. I am here. Please, now, talk to me. You know I can keep your confidence."
While he said this, he rummaged through his own vest, found a cloth and wiped himself clean. Both Rangers moved their plackets back in place and laced up their breeches; Halbarad stood, his knees creaking as he did. He cradled Aragorn's jaw in his hands, seeing for the first time the lines at the corners of his eyes, the rogue strands of grey barely visible in his hair. In the dim light of the room, Aragorn's pupils were large, surrounded by a thin granite ring. He seemed far away despite the intimacies they had just engaged in; Halbarad wanted to shake him, strike him, whatever it took to bring him back from whatever turmoil raged in his mind that he so resolutely refused to share.
"I don't believe I'm of any use to you whatsoever," he snapped, the words like sour bile on his tongue. "Would you like for me to bring Lorabar? Or the King of Rohan? Perhaps you need only your own company. I will wait for you and your guidance with our kinsmen."
His hands dropped from Aragorn's bearded jaw as his controlled fury and hurt raged into knots in his stomach. He stormed to a table where he'd laid his cape and flung it around his shoulders when he heard Aragorn say, "Halbarad. Please stay."
His tone was as bleak and sombre as the very stone of the refuge, and underneath it, Halbarad heard the unspoken message he'd been hoping for since they had been reunited: I do not want to be alone; I need you with me.
There was an unraveling of tension in his gut as Halbarad slowly took his place in the chair next to his chieftain, the guide of his star.
"I will stay."
* * * * *
Halbarad was restless, and aggravated at himself for feeling that way. The entrance to this Path of the Dead going through the mountain at the far edge of the Firienfeld, ensnared his imagination. He took his leave of Tharaburn and two other Rangers with whom he shared a bivouac, saying that he needed to stretch his legs. Silently he wandered nearer to some of the warriors of Rohan, listening to them as they spoke in their own tongue. He thought back to their evening meal when he'd been struck by the ferocity of the King's niece, flashing in her like lightning before she'd schooled her features. She was obviously smitten with Aragorn; Halbarad smiled grimly to himself at that irony. Aragorn was truly a compelling man, drawing to him an ever-growing assembly of admirers who would do anything to gain — and keep — his affections.
Soft footsteps alerted Halbarad that he was not alone. Aragorn approached, coming close to walk right at Halbarad's side.
"There is so much on my mind," he said, resting his hand on Halbarad's shoulder. "May I speak freely with you?"
"Of course. I would be most glad to hear your thoughts. You know I value you above all else."
The sorrow in Aragorn's eyes changed to gratitude. "I do know. There are few I esteem more than you, dear Halbarad. In these hours of darkness and unknowing, I am so glad that you, my closest kinsman, are here."
If it had been in Halbarad's nature to blush, he would have done so at Aragorn's effusive words. Instead he raised his hand to clasp it above Aragorn's, wordlessly giving him his reassurances that there was nowhere else he could possibly wish to be. Aragorn led him away from the tents of the Rohirrim so that they could speak undisturbed. They stopped where a burning torch had been driven into the earth for light; Aragorn sat on the ground a short distance away in the shadows. Halbarad joined him, sitting close enough to be able to rest his hand on Aragorn's knee.
"What troubles you?" Halbarad asked quietly.
"What doesn't?" Aragorn said, barking a sardonic laugh. "I'm not fearful by nature, as you well know, but the evil we will face on the other side of this mountain, the number of minions now in Sauron's vile army facing Gondor and ready to battle all free peoples of Middle-earth " his voice failed. "Sauron's strength was not inconsequential when I was there to serve Ecthelion. The dark lord has only become stronger, with a token so powerful as not to be believed heading toward him in secret, kept safe, I hope, by two hobbits."
Halbarad sat, digesting this news. It all sounded like riddles to him, but at least Aragorn was talking and confiding in him at long last.
"We're with you," he reminded him. "I couldn't muster all who are battle-ready, and there were some who rightly wished to remain and defend our homeland, if it came to that. I, for one, have put my affairs in order, should I not return. Raniel expects me back." Halbarad paused, a flutter of apprehension in his stomach as he thought to how he felt about the yawning cave at the edge of the Dimholt and what lay beyond. "I did not tell her my true thoughts before we left. She's my sister; she's used to me being gone for months on end. But not to heed the summons I heard? Impossible."
Aragorn nodded gravely, regret whispering across his features. "I've seen many things and been to many places in this world, but I may never again see the stars blazing in the sky like a band of shimmering salt high above the Angle."
"Your destiny has never truly been among us, though, has it?" Halbarad said, voicing a thought he'd kept to himself since Aragorn's last departure from their homeland.
"My destiny is unknown to me," Aragorn said, his expression pensive, overlaid with weary resignation. "The burden of being Isildur's heir has been with me a long time, but after the battle at Helm's Deep, and the standard you've carried, the trepidation that gnaws at me about what will happen once we are beyond that far door—"
He took Halbarad's hand in a rare public gesture. His hand was cold, so Halbarad clasped it in both of his hands, warming Aragorn's fingers, taming his own fear as he waited to hear everything his chieftain had to say. For a crazy moment he hoped Aragorn would stay with him all night, just talking, filling Halbarad with the bounteous thoughts, wishes, hopes and anxieties which seemed to be scrabbling for attention within Aragorn's spirits.
"Éowyn sought me out to beg to go with us," Aragorn said, shaking his head. "She is loyal and brave, and would be an asset, without doubt. But she sees me through eyes clouded by what she thinks is love. She's needed here, but cannot see the nobility in it because she's ruled by the desire to wield her sword."
This news surprised Halbarad. Not her being drawn to Aragorn, but that she wanted to go into battle. Even the women of the Angle, strong and knowledgeable in self-defense, would not seek out a warrior's lot.
"I assume you told her she couldn't come with us."
"I did. In not so many words she said that others who loved me were allowed to go, and to be at my aid, but she wasn't deemed worthy. Then she stormed off. I hope she is able to reconcile in herself the honour of being the interim leader of her people— no-one else could serve them better with Théoden and Éomer going south to Gondor."
In the ensuing silence, Halbarad battled with his thoughts, which were winging and darting from one topic to another like birds trapped in a cage. There were so many things Halbarad wanted to say.
"Do you remember several years ago that summer's day when the sun was relentless, as were you in my sword instruction?" Halbarad asked, gently squeezing Aragorn's hand. "And the river we went to bathe in, and how we spent much of that afternoon?"
Aragorn's facial expressions were barely discernable in the bleak cover of nightfall, but his body seemed to relax. "Of course. It is a treasured memory. Your skill and enthusiasm for our coupling made me more sore than any of our other practice."
"If memory serves, you didn't complain!" Halbarad said slyly, arching an eyebrow.
Aragorn laughed, a low sound that was music to Halbarad's ears.
"Carandol," he murmured, shifting so that they were face to face, their knees almost touching. Halbarad felt such a wave of bittersweet affection he was surprised not to choke on it. He wasn't a man of words, but he wanted Aragorn to know the depths of his own loyalty and how desperately he needed to be by his side through these dark days.
"I would have you claim me, and mark me," Halbarad said, his voice rough, saturated with longing. "But I know this is not the time or place for such a union. Would that it were." He was surprised at how angry he sounded, and was about to apologise when Aragorn spoke up.
"My dear kinsman, my herald and standard-bearer," Aragorn said in a low voice, causing Halbarad to lean in closer to hear each word. "I have been privileged to share your affections and the gifts you've given me when we've shared a bed and the pleasures of the flesh. Such experiences are especially precious because you and I both have known they couldn't go on forever."
There it was: the words hanging there, nearly visible to Halbarad, the truth he had always known and yet had wanted to postpone hearing spoken aloud for as long as possible. That time had come. Halbarad felt he was like the stone he'd kneeled on at the Hornburg only two days ago— chilled, silent, a support void of life.
"Halbarad," Aragorn said, the word a plea, but Halbarad had closed off inside of himself. Brutally he shoved away all thoughts of Aragorn that were outside of fighting at his side, at defending all he could from the forces of evil and hatred that were lying in wait. He thought of his father and uncle, slain by Orcs just as Arathorn had been, and wrapped that desire for revenge around himself like his cape.
"Halbarad," Aragorn repeated, placing something in Halbarad's palm. It was a plaited leather wristband, similar in make to the one Tharaburn wore, though Tharaburn's had been crafted for him by his betrothed. "Wear this, my esteemed brother among the Dúnedain."
A horse whinnied in the distance and all at once Halbarad remembered his father, his bruised and bloodied body wrapped in a shroud, waiting to join his father before him at the grave barrows on the northeastern periphery of their land. He thought of his sister and nephew, how Hisael had clasped his thighs, clinging to him, asking when he would return. Halbarad didn't want to die so many leagues away from those he loved He looked at Aragorn's face, and wondered if his chieftain could tell his thoughts. Who else was closer to his heart than the man in front of him? And yet, Halbarad bore enough already. Even if they did claim victory on the battlefield, Aragorn would never again lie in his arms; such a personal gift would only remind him of just how temporary their time together was. This talisman should stay with Aragorn.
"It is enough, what I carry now," Halbarad said, surprised at how even his voice was. "Your standard, the horn to call us together against a common foe, and our Ranger's star, worn above my heart. It is enough," he said again, holding out his hand for Aragorn to take back the leather band.
Aragorn let out an almost imperceptible sigh as he lifted the circlet and slid it back over his hand. "I think we should try and get some sleep," he said, slowly rising to his feet. He reached out to help Halbarad from the ground. They stood facing each other for a few moments until Aragorn pulled Halbarad into a firm embrace. Halbarad found that his arms had gone around Aragorn's ribs, holding him fast. He could sense his own fears and resolutions off in a distant part of his thoughts, tumbling like rocks down a mountainside, but he focussed on the familiar scent of Aragorn's skin. He kissed Aragorn's jaw, resting his cheek briefly against the soft bristles of his beard. Everything inside of himself seemed muffled; the emotions would doubtless come roaring at him, but for now, he was strangely at peace.
"Sleep well, Aragorn," Halbarad murmured before he turned and headed toward the back edge of the camp where the other Rangers had set up their tents. Once he had settled into his bedroll, he thought of how haggard Aragorn had looked. Despite the tremendous tension in his body and spirit, Halbarad felt a great weariness steal over him. Protect him, our guiding star, he prayed to whomever would listen. He turned onto his side, draping his arm over the cold metal of the horn held close to his chest.
* * * * *
My thanks to Elfscribe for exposure to the word carandol, which stuck with me from her luscious Elladan/Elrohir/Elphir story, "Swan Prince". While the Dúnedain traditionally do have dark hair and grey eyes, there's bound to be some genetic variety. Canonically Halbarad has a unique and presumably closer relationship with Aragorn than the other rangers, and being a fan of redheads, I decided that Halbarad would at least have russet to auburn hair since Tolkien didn't say he didn't have distinctive hair. ;)
Salupad= 'dark-coated' in Anglo-Saxon
Raniel= daughter of a wanderer
Hisael= wise eyes