The icy north wind whipped and howled around the small band of men as they walked soundlessly through the forest under the silent stars of the cold winter's night. The trees around the humans creaked and groaned with the force of the wind as the branches swayed and danced with the storm.
A tall, dark man walking at the head of the group paused for a moment to pull the worn leather coat he wore tighter around his body, grumbling quietly under his breath as he tried to shield himself from the bitter coldness of the freezing headwind. The man was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and leader of the Dúnedain people. Throwing back his hood to reveal a pale, strong face, Aragorn, or better known in the wilds as Strider, bent low to the ground, studying the forest floor carefully, frowning as his hand moved across the foliage tracing the faint indentation in the dirt.
The rangers were tracking a large pack of Orcs that were attacking and destroying everything that lay in their path. The rangers had been following this pack for close to a fortnight, but had lost both sight and sound of the evil creatures since they had entered the forest. It was an unusual feat for Orcs to be able to achieve.
Aragorn growled with frustration, clenching his fist as he realised that he had lost the trail of the Orcs again. This pack was far cleverer and slyer than most. Normally, it was child's play to follow an Orc trail because of the sheer destruction always left behind from the creature's movements. But not with this one. It worried Aragorn. Obviously, someone or something was behind the attacks, driving the Orcs on in their ruthless plundering and killing of innocent people. For them to be using stealth, something was definitely wrong.
He straightened up, sighing deeply with annoyance. He felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to see Halbarad, his second-in-command, standing beside him, a concerned expression on the older man’s face.
"You've lost the trail again, have you not?" Halbarad asked quietly. The dark look present on his leader's face confirmed the answer.
Aragorn scowled, his dark, shaggy hair whipping across his face from the wind. "These Orcs are different. There is evil at work here. They are working together like I have never witnessed before.” He glanced over his shoulder at the other men before looking back at Halbarad, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Someone or something is driving them on, using stealth to avoid us. Who or what I do not know, nor do I wish to.”
Halabard regarded the sharp grey eyes that watched him closely. “That may be so, but there is little you can do about it tonight. The men are weary. Let us take rest and resume our hunt for them on the morrow, when there is light and this storm has exhausted itself. There is little point in attempting to track them now. It would be folly.”
Aragorn sighed and glanced again at the men behind him waiting for his orders. Halbarad spoke the truth. They were tired; he could see it in their faces. Battling through the harsh wind and the rain for the best part of a day had exhausted them. There was no point in trying to follow the Orcs now. It was too dark and he had lost the trail. They would have to wait until morning, when they could retrace their steps and find the Orcs' tracks once more.
"We will find shelter for the night and continue on at first light," Aragorn shouted over the noise of the growing storm. Halbarad nodded and started issuing commands for the men to search for a place to shelter. It would be a relief to get out of the driving wind and rain.
Aragorn stood, staring out into the storm from the shelter of the trees and watching as the branches moaned and moved with the wind, caught in an intricate dance of their own that he could not follow. His leather coat slapped against his calves, but he ignored it, his mind focused. He did not hear Halbarad approach him.
"These Orcs puzzle you, do they not?" The older ranger's voice held a slightly accusing tone to it as he stepped around a tree.
Aragorn glanced at Halbarad with an irritated look as he recovered from his mild shock. "Yes, as I am sure you have already guessed, have you not?”
Halbarad shrugged. "I could sense your dissatisfaction," he answered mildly.
Aragorn's frown deepened and he turned his gaze once more out into the night. "These Orcs are different. Instead of going through the forest, which is by far the quickest route, they must have cut around the trees, for there is no destruction to be seen as such a large group would cause. They planted a false trail to trick us.” He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword and glanced sideways at Halbarad. “This is no ordinary pack. Something strange is at work here – something evil, I fear.”
“And what does Lord Elrond have to say on this matter?” Halbarad rocked back on his heels, gauging Aragorn’s reaction out of the corner of his eye.
Aragorn’s mouth hardened into a grim line. “I have not broached the subject with Lord Elrond. I have had little opportunity to speak with him. Indeed, I have not dwelt in Rivendell for some time now.”
Halbarad opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was lost when his attention was distracted as one of the men came back into sight at a run.
“Strider, there is a small cave not far from here. But there is an awful smell of burning and–” He bent over, his hands on his knees as he coughed violently.
"And what?" Aragorn asked as he moved over to the man, concern flashing in his grey eyes. “Speak quickly.”
Halbarad turned with a frown and followed his leader. “Someone get this man a drink!” he called out, waving towards one of the other rangers standing close by.
"–and death," the young ranger finished, gratefully taking the waterskin one of the other men passed to him.
Aragorn caught Halbarad’s eye, worry deep within his own. This news did not bode well. The nearest settlement was Cragknock, a small human village near the North Downs, only a short distance from where they now stood. Could the Orcs have reached and destroyed it? Fear begin to invade Aragorn's mind as his thoughts turned to the people there. It was a small village, mainly inhabited by farmers. Being quiet and out of the way, often rangers would stop and stay in the village for a while. Nobody would suspect the Dúnedain of being in such a place. The people of Cragknock would not stand a chance against the Orcs, armed with only pitchforks and spears.
Aragorn’s mind made up, he turned to Halbarad. "We make for the village of Cragknock. Something tells me the Orcs have reached the village already. I fear what we may find."
The older ranger studied his leader's face for a moment. He, too, feared for the people of Cragknock and what would have happened had the Orcs stumbled upon the small defenceless village. He nodded once in agreement.
"We make for Cragknock!" he called out. Around them, the storm was beginning to die out. The rain had ceased and the wind had lost its rage.
The rangers did not question either of their leaders, instead, standing up, grabbing their packs and securing their weapons. They knew Aragorn and trusted both his judgement and his heightened senses. If he felt there was something wrong and wanted to investigate, they knew he had a good reason.
Guided by Aragorn and Halbarad, the band rangers moved as one, swiftly navigating their way through the swaying trees. Branches snagged at their clothing and faces, and the wind whipped through their hair as fallen leaves blew in front of them, obscuring their vision.
Stepping around the smaller trees that gathered at the edge of the forest, they gazed down the slope at the small village. It was sight none of them would forget.
Strong and brave as they were, more than one of the men felt the urge to empty his stomach at the desolated scene that lay before them in the small valley.
Nestled at the base of the large hills lay Cragknock, or what was left of it. The village lay in blackened ruins. Smoke rose from the destroyed buildings in thick grey columns, blowing across the countryside in swirls by the dying wind. Not one house was left standing.
The land around the village was blackened and burnt, crops destroyed and animals slaughtered. Here and there, the dying red embers of fires could be seen, glowing faintly among the ash. Human and Orc bodies lay strewn around the surrounding land. The smell of burning and death was almost overwhelming. There had been no rain for weeks, just high winds that now carried the stench of death and destruction over the land.
Aragorn stood, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, and gazed down at the once small, bustling village. Now it was nothing more than an empty, burnt shell.
Halbarad moved to stand beside him. "We should check it out, just in case there are any survivors. If not...” He shrugged his shoulders sadly. “Well, we at least might discover where this pack of Orcs is heading towards or what they are seeking.”
Aragorn nodded, his face grim and his grey eyes saddened. He knew the chances of survivors were slim, but there was the possibility that some had escaped into the hills and would soon return to the village to seek their loved ones.
"Check for survivors," he told his men crisply, his voice gruff with emotion. The rangers nodded, quickly scrambled down the small slope, and entered almost hesitantly into the destroyed village. Aragorn followed at a slower pace, wishing he could have done something to prevent the tragedy that had occurred.
Halbarad gave his arm a quick squeeze as he passed. “There was nothing you could have done. These Orcs will stop at nothing to get what they want.”
It was with a heavy heart that Aragorn moved his way through the blackened and charred buildings that had once been people's homes, all that was left now of what once was a lively, happy place. He mindlessly stepped over the bodies of Orcs as he wandered through the burnt village. Spying a still smouldering pile of wood to his left, he reached down and pulled out a branch, gently blowing on it as he coaxed the glowing embers to burst into flame. Holding the now-flaming torch ahead of him, he surveyed the disarray around him.
The people of Cragknock certainly put up a good fight, he thought as he automatically noted the number of Orc bodies littering the ground. The ranger sighed deeply. He had little or no idea why the Orcs were plundering and destroying the countryside. He knew they were vile, evil creatures with a craving for blood and death, but never had he seen a pack so determined to destroy every living creature that lay within their path. It did not make sense. It was as if they were either taking joy from killing every human they came across, or else they were looking for something or someone.
“Anirnë hene beriad i chun un. Ned Imladris nauthant e le beriathar aen.” The words his foster father had spoken to him came back to Aragorn as he stood among the wreckage. “She wanted to protect her child. She thought that in Rivendell you would be safe.” Elrond’s rich voice drifted through his mind. “In her heart your mother knew you'd be hunted all your life, but you would never escape your fate.”
Shoving an Orc out of the way with his boot, Aragorn moved closer to what was once one of the larger houses. The whole upper floor had caved in, bringing down the ceiling and crushing the supporting beams of the walls. The door was hanging off its hinges, and swung idly in the light breeze, making an eerie creaking sound in the silence of the ruined village.
Stepping over the rubble, Aragorn pushed the door open and peered inside, careful of his head. The walls were blackened, and any furniture was burnt beyond recognition. He moved the torch around, taking in the scene before him. There were a number of Orc bodies littering the floor, suggesting a fight had taken place. In light of the flames, a flash of metal caught the ranger’s eye. Frowning with curiosity, Aragorn entered the house, climbing over bodies and broken rubble until he reached the far side of the room. There he spotted a sword stuck into the neck of a gruesome Orc. He pulled it out in one smooth motion and looked at it carefully, turning it over in his hand. It must have belonged to a ranger, he decided, for there were elvish inscriptions down the side of the blade.
Aragorn could tell that the blade had been well cared for. The metal underneath the blackness of the Orc blood gleamed a bright silver. Closing his eyes in sorrow, he turned to leave but halted in his tracks when a soft mewling noise, almost like a sob, reached his ears. He turned back sharply, trying to place where the sound had come from.
Listening intently, he slowly picked his way deeper into the burnt house to see if he could hear the sound once more. Nothing but silence reached his ears. It must have been the wind, he thought with a shake of his head, deciding that it was merely playing tricks with his mind. However, as he went to move again, his heartbeat sped up as the noise reached his ears once more. It sounded pitiful, like an animal in distress or…a small child crying.
Carefully, Aragorn made his way further into the ruin stepping over the charred remains of furniture and stone. Another pitiful sob, followed by a softer one, reached his ears, coming from the back of the building and to the left of where he was standing.
Aragorn cursed as he tripped over a large stone, dropping the torch in his haste to catch himself before he hit the ground. Immediately the noise stopped. “Who’s there?" he called out cautiously.
There was dead silence save for the rusty creaking of the door. The sound of his voice must have frightened whoever or whatever it was. Cautiously he made his way through the ruined house, searching for the source of the noise. Towards the rear of the house, he spied a collapsed doorway and made his way over to it. He wedged his touch into a gap between two stones and studied the cave-in. A piece of wood had become trapped between the rubble, creating a small gap at knee height. Aragorn knelt down and tried to peer into the darkness using what little light the sputtering torch offered.
"Is anyone there?" he called softly into the gloom, his voice low and calm, not wanting to scare whoever it was that was making the noise.
"W-who are you? Wh-what do you want?" a small, scared voice answered him.
Aragorn closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. Valar, it was a child, albeit a very young one. By the sound of his or her voice, he or she must be trapped behind the pile of rubble blocking the doorway.
"I am…Strider, little one. I am a Ranger. Don't worry…I will not harm you." Aragorn wondered how he was going to get the child out. He cast his eyes over the blockage. It looked unstable and liable to collapse at any moment. "Are you injured, little one?"
"I-I cut my leg and… and it's trapped under something and… and I'm really thirsty." The small voice broke off in a sob, and Aragorn felt his heart go out to the child. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of there. Just hold on for a few more moments," he murmured softly as he stood up.
“Please don’t go!” the small voice called out. “Please don’t leave me alone here!”
Aragorn crouched down and spoke into the gloom, “I will be back, I promise. I will not leave you here."
Leaving the house as quickly as he could, he searched around wildly for any of the other men. He found Halbarad standing near one of the buildings at the entrance of the village and swiftly walked over to him. "Halbarad," he called out, and the older ranger turned to face him, his eyes grim and sorrowful.
"Strider," he acknowledged with a dip of his head. "We are ready to depart. The men found no survivors.” Towards the far end of the village, Aragorn could make out several large fires burning brightly. Halbarad waved towards them. “We cremated the remains of the villagers. We did not want them left to the wild animals. The orcs, we burned.” He pointed to a lone fire outside the village. “Imrathorn and Arendur are leaving to warn Strayton of any possible attacks in the coming future."
"We cannot leave yet," Aragorn told him sternly, cutting across Halbarad’s words. "There is a child trapped behind a pile of rubble. Possibly injured, but most surely alive."
Halbarad stared at Aragorn incredulously before looking over his shoulder at the crumbling building Aragorn had emerged from. "A child? In there? Are you sure, Strider? That building is nothing but a pile of rubble.”
Aragorn nodded, his face grave. "I have spoken to her."
"‘Her’?" Halbarad raised one eyebrow questioningly.
"Yes, I think it is a girl. But I can't be sure. She seems relatively fine, if you count being in need of water, frightened beyond anything, and trapped as fine," Aragorn said grimly. "The child is trapped behind a curtain of debris from where the roof collapsed. It is unstable and I did not chance to move the rubble alone. I feared that I would cause the child or myself injury.”
"Well I am glad you had the sense not to do that." Halbarad's voice held a note of sarcasm. "Men, come over here; we have a trapped child, and we need to get her out." The rangers shared surprised glances, but said nothing as they followed after Aragorn and Halbarad.
When they arrived back at the burnt ruin of the house, Aragorn, Halbarad, and two other rangers entered, leaving the rest outside, for no more would fit inside the crumbling building. Halbarad frowned when he saw the collapsed doorway. There was no way they would be able to remove all of the rubble; it would just bring the rest of the house down on top of them. “Strider, we can't remove all that rubble. It would be foolish. The best we can do it make a hole big enough for one of us to climb through and reach the child," Halbarad pointed out.
Aragro rubbed his chin thoughtfully before nodding in agreement. "But we must be careful. The child is frightened; I could tell it from the sound of her voice. Let me speak to her first and explain what we are going to do." Without waiting for an answer, Aragorn knelt down at the small gap. "Little one, can you hear me?"
For a few moments, there was no reply, and Aragorn began to worry that perhaps the child had fallen unconscious or that it had been his mind playing tricks with him again. But then he heard a small voice.
"Yes. Please get me out!" The child's voice shook with the sound of frightened sobs.
"We are going to, little one, but I need you to stay very still for me. We are going to try and remove enough of the rubble to make a hole. Then I will climb down to you, all right?" Aragorn waited for a response.
"All right” came the soft reply.
Carefully, the four rangers began to pull bits of burnt wood and stone away. It was painstakingly slow, but soon they had made a hole large enough for Aragorn to slip through.
“Are you sure you will fit?” a ranger named Arador asked, eyeing the hole suspiciously and then back at Aragorn. “Would it not be better if Kril went in to get her? He is not as tall as you.”
Aragorn shook his head. “No, I will fit, besides, the child has heard me speak; there is a chance she might not fear me as much as another.” With a nod to Halbarad, Aragorn eased himself through the gap. He blinked a few times, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the gloom behind the rubble. “Where are you, little one?” he called out softly.
“Over here, near the back.”
Cautiously, the ranger picked his way in the darkness over to where he hoped the child would be. In the blackness, he could just make out the tiny figure of a small child, no more than seven or eight years old, curled up in a corner at the far end of the collapsed room.
"Little one, are you there?" Aragorn whispered softly, not wanting to startle the child as he crawled over the rubble, pieces of sharp stones digging into his knees.
"I'm here," the child's voice whispered back.
Aragorn sighed with relief and crouched down in front of her. He couldn't make out much, except that the girl had dark, shoulder-length hair and was clutching something small in her hands.
"Are you all right, little one?" Aragorn asked kindly as he reached out and gently brushed the girl's hair away from her face.
The young girl whimpered and pulled her head away from the ranger’s touch. "My leg hurts!" she sobbed. "It's caught under something and I can't move it."
Aragorn gently felt for her legs in the dark and found the one that was trapped under what seemed to be a wooden beam. Most likely from when the roof collapsed, he thought as he felt the small limb for any breaks. There were none, but he hissed between his teeth as he ran his hands along the injured limb and discovered a jagged gash along her thigh down to her knee. The girl cried out softly when she felt Aragorn's hands on the cut and it began to sting.
"I am sorry, little one. I did not mean to hurt you." Aragorn withdrew his hand and placed it over the child's.
"W-who are you?" Where did you come from?" the girl asked, still wary of trusting this man who had come to help her.
Aragorn could hear the underlying fear in the child's voice. "My name is Strider, and I am a ranger. I will not harm you. I promise you. What is your name? ”
"A-Aerinel" came the small, whispered reply.
Aragorn looked mildly surprised when he heard the girl's name. "Aerinel...? That is an elvish name," he murmured to himself. "We will talk about that later, little one. First, let's get you out of here.” He said the latter part loudly enough for Aerinel to hear.
Aerinel nodded, but he felt her tensed as he slid his hand between her leg and the wooden beam. She cried softly in pain as Aragorn carefully lifted the broken beam off her leg, the jagged end of the wood catching in her clothes and pulling the material across the now-reopened wound. The pain in her leg increased as she tried to move it and she bit her lip as if to stop herself from screaming. “Please stop! It hurts!” She feebly tried to push the ranger’s hands away from her.
"Hush, little one," Aragorn murmured distractedly. "Hold on, almost there. Try not to move if you can."
"Have you got her yet, Strider?" Halbarad's voice drifted through, slightly muffled. "I don’t think the roof will last much longer."
Oh, please shut up, Aragorn thought, frustrated. He was doing his best as quickly as he could. With one hand, he tried to steady the child, cautioning in her to remain still while he pulled the beam away from her.
But after being trapped for so long, all Aerinel seemed to want to do was to move, to get away. Her instincts of fright kicked in and she tried to push herself up, but instead gasped and tried to grab hold of something to stop herself from falling.
Aragorn dropped the wooden beam and quickly caught her as she fell forward. He gently touched her forehead and frowned when he felt the unnatural heat radiating off the child. It was clear that she was unwell. He felt something warm and wet trickling over his fingers and realised it was blood from the wound in Aerinel's leg. The wooden beam must have been holding the wound closed, and now that it was removed, there was nothing to staunch the blood flow.
"Aerinel...Aerinel?" Aragorn tapped her cheek with his fingers, but the child did not respond. Cursing softly under his breath, Aragorn scooped the child up in his arms as best he could in the small space, amazed to feel how light Aerinel was and how thin and scrawny she felt. Obviously, the child was starving and in need of water. Valar only knew how long she had been trapped.
Carefully cradling the unconscious child close to him, Aragorn crawled back over the rubble, pausing momentarily to pick up the cloth toy as he made his way back over towards the hole in the rubble. “Here, can you take her?” Gently he eased the child out through the hole, into the waiting arms of Halbarad before climbing out himself.
Halbarad waited on the other side, the limp child cradled in his arms. Aragorn nodded his thanks to the older ranger and took Aerinel back into his arms, supporting her head closer to his shoulder as they existed the destroyed house.
The rest of the rangers, who had gathered near the house, shifted and sent sympathetic glances at the child lying limply in Aragorn’s arms he emerged from the ruined building. Rough and rugged they might be, but the men still had hearts, and all of them felt sorry for the small girl Aragorn carried.
Halbarad placed the back of his fingers against the child's neck. He could faintly feel the light flutter of her pulse under her skin and the unnatural heat radiating from her, knowing immediately she was ill. “Strider...?" he asked uncertainly, his eyes betraying his worry.
Aragorn looked over at him. "We cannot stop here. She is ill, Halbarad, and needs medicine. She will not last long without it. I fear she has suffered much. But first…" He crouched down on one knee and shifted Aerinel in his arms to reveal her leg. "Halbarad, there are strips of cloth in my pack. Take one and wrap it around her leg. The beam she was trapped under was helping to keep the wound closed. I will need to treat it later, but there is no time to do it here.”
The older ranger did as he was asked, wincing as the child whimpered and tried to shift away from his calloused but gentle hands as he wrapped the strip of cloth around the wound.
"Easy there, little one," Aragorn murmured, tightening his hold slightly on the child as Halbarad tied off the end of the bandage.
With ease, Aragorn stood and quickly strode forward, wrapping the folds of his leather coat around the child to shield her from the bite of the cold northerly wind blowing through the destroyed village. Halbarad signalled for the rest of the rangers to follow.
Nobody saw the band of rangers slip away from the destroyed village into the darkness of the night, taking with them the young girl who had many secrets that were yet to be discovered.
Or did they?
Somewhere, deep within the trees and undergrowth on the far side of the burnt remains, a bush shook as a branch was snapped back.