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The Way through the Woods by Linda Hoyland

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B2MeM Challenge: Image prompt: Winter Fog and Trees
. /the_winterwitch/13030705/4348/4348_
Format: Ficlet
Genre: horror, hurt/comfort
Rating: PG
Warnings: none
Characters: Aragorn, Halbarad, OMCs
Pairings: none
Summary: Aragorn loses his way in thick, freezing fog.

The fog came down unexpectedly. One moment, Aragorn was trudging determinedly through the snow on his way to the Ranger's meeting place, his mind filled with daydreams, the next he was enveloped in a freezing white blanket.

He cursed inwardly. He had been a Ranger for over a year now. He should have been more alert to his surroundings and seen it coming. What would Master Elrond and the twins have said about such carelessness? He could not recall them ever having given him advice concerning finding his way in fog, though; it was never foggy like this in Rivendell. A fine mist would sometimes hover around the Bruinen, but that was all.

Aragorn concentrated on simply keeping moving. If he stayed onthe path and kept walking towards the North, he would reach his destination. He could see neither sun nor stars, though, and soon he became uncertain in which direction he was heading. He continued moving until he began bumping into trees and bushes. It was hard to see even a short distance ahead. He had never seen anything like this fog. Was it some device of the enemy? It was then he almost collided with a vast pine tree. Strange, he was certain this part of the forest was broadleaved trees. He looked around him, trying to make out indistinct shapes in the fog. The trees he could make out were mostly shaped like pines. Where was he? He could not recall this part of the forest.

It was then Aragorn began to feel frightened. He was hopelessly lost. He could hardly see his own feet in the icy whiteness. Tendrils of mist seemed to wrap clammy fingers around the exposed areas of his skin. Did foul creatures lurk here? He knew he was not far from the Barrow Downs. Did the ancient evil that lingered there reach into this forest? The young man's heart thumped wildly. He knew he should keep moving, but the further he wandered the more hopelessly lost he became.

Maybe he was nearer to the campsite than he thought Aragorn whistled the birdcall, which the Rangers used as a signal, but the fog muffled his voice. He felt as if he were enveloped in a thick freezing blanket. Trying to overcome his fear, he kept on walking; hoping that he would reach a place where the fog was thinner and he could see the way ahead. His hopes were vain, for if anything, the mist seemed to thicken and wrap its tendrils more tightly around him. The damp permeated his many layers of clothing and the woollen fabric felt cold and wet. Completely disorientated, he paused for a moment beneath a great pine. He began to feel very sleepy. Aragorn stamped his feet as he struggled to remain alert. It was growing dark and the forest was utterly still. Not a leaf stirred and no birds sang.

A dark shape loomed out of the mist and he knew no more.

000

"Wake up, come on, wake up!"

Aragorn blearily opened his eyes a slit at the sound of Halbarad's voice. He was cold, so very cold. "Can't get warm," he muttered through chattering teeth.

"Throw more logs on the fire and huddle closer!" Another voice, which he recognised as belonging to Vardamir, the oldest of his patrol.

Aragorn realised there was blissful warmth emanating from either side and in front of him.

"Make him a hot drink, Vardamir," said another voice, this time belonging to Tarcil, a young Ranger who was the proud father of two children and rarely ceased talking about them.

Aragorn forced his eyes open. He was lying in front of the campfire, wrapped in blankets and tightly wedged between Halbarad and Tarcil. The fog still lingered amongst the trees, but it was much clearer here. He noticed that his damp cloak and outer garments had been laid out to dry in front of the fire.

"Here, drink this, it should get some warmth into you, lad," Vardamir thrust a steaming mug into his hands, in his concern forgetting the usual deference he showed the young chieftain. Aragorn did not care. He tried to grasp the mug, but it almost slid from his frozen fingers. Halbarad gripped it and held it for him. Aragorn took a sip. It was soothingly warming. He concentrated on his drink for a few moments then asked, "What happened?"

"That is what we wondered," said Halbarad. "We were sore worried when you failed to arrive at the meeting place."

"I lost my way in the fog," Aragorn said sheepishly.

"A Ranger who gets lost!" Halbarad tut tutted, but he placed a comforting arm around his kinsman's shoulders.

"I know," Aragorn said glumly.

"Cheer up, lad, we've all done it once in our youth," said Vardamir.

"How did you find me?" asked Aragorn.

"When you never arrived at the meeting place, we set out to find you," Tarcil answered. An experienced Ranger can pick up tracks even in thick fog."

"We found you collapsed beneath a great pine tree. You were frozen half solid," Halbarad continued. "We hurried back to the campsite with you to thaw you out. Don't ever do that again, kinsman, you scared us half to death! We feared we had lost you when we came upon you lying so cold and still. You are lucky even the Orcs were not even to be abroad in such weather."

"I fear I still have much to learn," said Aragorn.

"Never fear lad, we will teach you," said Vardamir.

"We'll make a Ranger of you yet," said Halbarad.

Aragorn felt his spirits lifting. The terrors of the fog-shrouded forest seemed remote now. He was finally feeling truly at home amongst these men. It was obvious that they cared about him and not only for what he represented to them. He huddled into the blankets, enjoying the comforting warmth around him and took another sip of his drink.