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Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all recognizable characters and places herein are the exclusive property of J.R.R. Tolkien, his heirs and licensees. This is a work of fan fiction, written purely for fun.
The East Road, Spring, 3008
“Take the horse, at least,” Halbarad said, sliding off his own mount into the half-frozen muck of the road and closing in on his intransigent adversary, otherwise known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, among other names, some of which did not translate well to the common tongue, particularly the ones Halbarad was thinking of at the moment.
Aragorn, naturally, was resolutely ignoring him and continuing to remove his gear from the chestnut mare’s saddlebags. His back was turned through what Halbarad strongly suspected was no accident, and his head was bent over his task, his face obscured by a fall of dark hair.
Halbarad expelled a huff of breath that hung in the chill air and clenched his jaw in frustration as he hovered inches from his chieftain’s shoulder, restraining himself from grabbing the worn cloak and spinning that shoulder around only out of a vague awareness that neither of their badly frayed tempers would withstand any further escalation of the ongoing disagreement. All we need is a fistfight in the middle of the East Road to cap off a really awful day, he thought to himself. Biting back a curse of exasperation, he forced himself into one last attempt at reasoned discourse, to the extent that reasoned discourse is possible when facing only the stiff and unyielding backside of one’s opponent. “If this meeting with Gandalf is so damned important you’d better take the horse,” he argued, hearing the note of derision in his own voice but finding himself too exhausted to care. “It’s 50 leagues to Bree – you aren’t going to make it five miles on foot. Go ahead and try – and when I find you lying on the side of the road a few miles further down, your half-dead, arrow-riddled carcass can get hauled into Bree over the back of this mare like a load of wool for market. Quite an entertaining spectacle that will be for the Bree-folk, I imagine.”
Aragorn, still crouched in the roadway over his pack, did not bother to look up from his infuriatingly meticulous task of pulling indeterminate bits of moldy food out of it and tossing aside those he deemed too far gone to salvage.
“Don’t be so stubborn,” Halbarad pressed. “Take the horse. I’ll ride with you as far as Bree, if you like.” The offer had already been refused twice.
Aragorn spared him the barest glance. “No. Go home to your wife, your men. Your duty is there.”
At this casual dismissal, Halbarad exploded. “And what about your duty, son of Arathorn? It seems to be everywhere else! I suppose I should be grateful that you bothered to drop by and help bury a few corpses on your way through this time!”
Aragorn spun around, eyes flaring and fists clenched. Halbarad recoiled reflexively and took a step back, certain that his chieftain really was going to take a swing at him. He lurched backward in retreat from the fury in the storm-grey eyes. “Aragorn…” he whispered as he lowered his eyes and raised his hands in a placating gesture. How did it come to this? The last thing he imagined, when Aragorn had come down out of the mountains those few short weeks ago, seemingly just when he was most needed, was slugging it out with him at a lonely crossroad on the barren edge of the Angle. Over a horse, of all things.
But of course it isn’t about the horse.
Halbarad held his breath as the furor in Aragorn’s eyes slowly subsided.
“Halbarad,” Aragorn finally said, in a voice barely a whisper. He expelled tension from his lungs, and his shoulders, and reached a hand to grasp Halbarad’s shoulder. Halbarad returned the gesture, noting anew the troubling sharpness of the bony contours beneath his fingers.
Through stray locks of filthy hair spiked with more silver than Halbarad had remembered, Aragorn lifted his eyes to meet his kinsman’s. He released his grip after a moment and pulled away, diverting his uncertain gaze to the barren horizon, a jittery plateau of rock and grass overhung by a slab of gray sky. The barest shake of his head bespoke remorse, or despair, or simple exhaustion. Or possibly just that unerringly accurate sense he always had of what was needed to get the job done.
He turned back to Halbarad with an unsettled look. “Very well. I would be grateful for the horse.”
Halbarad opened his mouth to speak, as much unnerved by Aragorn’s sudden acquiescence as he had been by his resolute obstinance, but his chieftain had already turned away, re-packing his gear methodically back into the saddlebags. Halbarad rubbed a tired hand over his bruised face. It was no use. They were both weary to the bone from grief and battle, and too many angry words had already been exchanged - about the trip to Bree, about Gandalf, about many things. Halbarad’s own words still rang in his ears, and it was too soon to un-say them.
The horse would have to be enough. He silently handed over the reins, and stood in the road watching Aragorn disappear into the west.
The boy yanked the blood-spattered apron over his tousled head and reached up to hang it on a peg in the storeroom. Ducking out the back door of the Prancing Pony, he glanced furtively left and right as he shut the rough door closed behind him and stepped down into the half-frozen mud. Jamming dishwater-chapped hands into his pockets, he hunched his head against the slap of chill wind as he set off at a purposeful pace through the alleys of Bree.
Heedless of the putrid slop squelching between his toes, the boy traversed the familiar odiferous paths with an efficiency born of practice. He barely glanced at three fat rats chewing on a sheep carcass behind the butcher shop.
Few folk were about this chill morning. The winter had been harsh, and rampant banditry on the roads had discouraged whatever travelers would normally have braved the weather. Even now, at the cusp of spring, most of the Pony’s guestrooms still sat empty. The merchant trade would not return until the surface and the safety of the roads improved, and there were few Shire-folk willing to travel in such weather.
As for the Rangers, they were scarcer with every passing year, and little had been seen of them since the onset of winter. Though Butterbur would be the last to admit that their lurking, menacing presence was missed, even he could be heard to reminisce that at least they could be counted on to pay their bills.
The boy was aware that the Pony’s own storerooms were practically bare. The last of the decent Gondorian spirit, despite increasingly audacious dilutions, had run out a month ago, not that anyone in Bree could afford it anyway. The supper menu of late had succumbed to relentless repetitions of potato stew. The locals had found their credit accounts suspended, and Barley himself was overdue paying the firewood supplier, the ale merchant, and the baker.
The help at the Pony had not been paid for two months, a fact which eased the boy’s conscience at what he was doing. Though Barley had so far made good on his promise to keep them all fed until he could make payroll again, even a hobbit could not live by bread alone.
And even in times as bad as this, there was still one commodity in Bree which could always be sold for hard cash. It took only knowing where to find a buyer.
The address the boy sought was five minutes’ brisk walk from the Pony on a residential street bracketed by decaying wooden houses of Men. It was but a narrow sliver of a house, wedged uncomfortably between two larger structures and to all appearances, propped upright solely by their close embrace. A single unpainted door marked its ground floor, above which loomed two shuttered windows like the eyes of a sleeping sentinel.
The boy rapped on the door and waited with his hood pulled close against his face, resisting the urge to glance around.
After a moment, the door cracked open with a rusty squeak, and the boy peered into the dark interior nervously, trying to make out the massive shadowy figure beyond. “Mister Teburic? It’s me,” he whispered urgently. “Tillfield, from the Prancing Pony.”
The door swung open abruptly and an enormous hand grabbed him harshly by the arm, oversized fingers easily encircling his bicep. He stumbled as he was yanked across the threshold and into the gloom beyond.
As the door slammed shut behind him, he was swung around to face the familiar looming countenance of the home’s occupant. He was a huge Man, much bigger than anyone else in Bree, and taller even than some of the Rangers who sometimes still came to the Pony. His dark eyes glared down at the boy from beneath unruly brows. “Tillfield! What are you doing here?” the man hissed, dragging him by the arm down the dark hallway. “I told you never to come here in the daytime.” He released the stumbling boy into the lighter gloom of the back room, its shadows softened by gray light from a single window. “Speak, boy!” he barked.
Tillfield pulled the hood back from his unkempt head and kept his eyes averted. “I thought you would want to know right away,” he hurried to explain. “That old man, the gray-bearded one you asked me to watch – Gandalf, you called him - he left this morning.”
The other’s jaw tightened beneath a fury of tangled ebony beard. “When?” he barked.
“About an hour ago, just after breakfast. He paid his bill and got his horse from the stable and left. He told Barley he was going to Buckland to see friends.”
The big man’s eyes narrowed. “Has he met with anyone?”
“No, but he gave a letter to Barley as he left.”
The man’s bushy eyebrows perked up at this. “Did you get a look at it?”
The boy couldn’t suppress a sly grin at his own resourcefulness as he reached into his pocket. Withdrawing his hand, he held up a wax-sealed letter and waved it before the man’s ebony eyes. “I did better than that.”
The rapid arching of the man’s brows merely added to the boy’s elated self-satisfaction. “This is it?” the man asked, taking the folded and sealed packet from the small hand and turning it over to examine it. “Isn’t Butterbur going to miss this?”
Tillfield chuckled knowingly at his master’s renowned forgetfulness, self-congratulatory hubris at his own cleverness overcoming for the moment his habitual deference to the massive thief-lord. “Are you serious, Teburic? He’s already forgotten he has it. He put it straightaway into his letter drawer and won’t look for it again unless it’s asked for.”
“Stay here,” Teburic ordered abruptly, and lumbered, with uncommon quickness for a man his size, up the dark rickety stairway leading to the second floor, still carrying the letter, his boots clomping heavily on the floorboards. Tillfield waited in the gloomy hallway until he came back down a minute later, without the letter. Taking the boy by the arm again, he ushered him back to the front door.
“Go back to the Pony. Speak of this to no one,” he ordered, leaning over him until his wiry brows almost touched the boy’s own. “Come back tonight, and you will be paid.” He paused as his hand touched the doorknob, and the barest smile bent his lips. “You have done well.”
Teburic waited until the hobbit rounded the corner at the end of the street before barring the door. He mounted the stairs once again, returning to the upstairs room where the letter had found its way into other hands.
“He’s gone,” Teburic said. “I told him to come back tonight, like you said.”
“Excellent work. I knew that Gandalf would leave us a clue, eventually. He is too trusting of that bumbling inn-keeper.” The figure seated behind the desk, fingering the letter lightly, was as slender and fair-featured as Teburic was rough. The hands holding the letter were fine-boned and unmarred by battle or labor, the eyes as clear and sharp as the man’s were dull and blood-shot.
“What’s that writing on the front?” Teburic asked.
“It is a name,” his companion answered. “Strider.”
“Strider? What kind of name is that?”
The other laughed. “No kind of name at all. That is what makes him all the more intriguing. Have you not heard of Strider? I suppose not. He is well known in Bree, though I suppose you arrived here after he was last seen in these parts. Don’t worry; you will be quite well acquainted with him before this is over.”
“Who is he?”
Teburic spat. “A mangy dog.”
“You really should be more open-minded, Master Thief. This is the man who is going to tell us all about Gandalf’s interest in the Shire.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Teburic asked.
“Patience, Teburic,” his companion chided. “I must know first whether I can replicate the seal. I need some more light.”
Teburic moved to light more candles, while his companion opened a locked cabinet and removed an earthenware jar. As Teburic watched, he mixed a grayish powder into a thick paste and spread it over the seal. A few minutes later, he peeled off the hardened mold in one piece and examined it. “Good enough,” he pronounced. “Likely it will not receive close scrutiny once the message is read.”
As Teburic watched, the other slit the letter open and read it. “Elvish, how clever,” he commented, a smile of satisfaction spreading across his face. “Well, now. It seems that our friend Mithrandir - Gandalf - is indeed bound for Buckland. He and Strider were to have met in Bree a week ago, but the Ranger has failed to appear. Gandalf has decided to visit with a certain unnamed friend in Buckland to pass the time,” he continued, effortlessly scanning the flowing text, “and will return to Bree in a week's time to attempt the rendezvous once again.”
Teburic frowned. “Do you want me to send men to Buckland, to get Gandalf there?”
“Absolutely not. Your men would find Gandalf a more formidable adversary than he appears. While I would be interested in learning who his contacts are there, this situation with Strider is the more promising.”
“Why? Who is this Strider?”
“My master has long been intrigued by Gandalf’s curious preoccupation with the Shire,” his companion explained, turning back to Teburic. “For many years the wizard has harbored a strange fascination for the half-witted halflings and their monotonous little Shire. To add to the mystery, the Rangers began keeping an oddly large presence at its borders some years ago, despite mounting pressure from Orcs and wolves further east.”
“The Rangers,” Teburic snorted. “Nothing but a pack of scrawny dogs scavenging for scraps.”
His companion merely smiled. “My Master has discovered that this Strider is a friend to Gandalf. They have been seen traveling together frequently over the past several years. Mystery surrounds this Strider. Some say he is the leader of the Dúnedain – the Rangers of the North - yet he is seldom seen with them. He seems to come and go, disappearing for years, unaccounted for, and when he reappears he is as often seen with the Elves as with the Rangers. Some even say he is Elf-kind himself, though I doubt it.”
“If anyone knows Gandalf’s business in the Shire, it will be this
“And then?” Teburic ventured to ask.
“And then,” the other answered, smiling with a chill that the thief felt in his backbone, “we wait.”
The husky, swarthy, and unopposed thief-lord of Bree paused in the shadows at the top of the stairs and waited for the muffled acknowledgement of his knock before entering the gloomy attic. He approached the lone figure seated at the writing desk, illuminated by the glow of a single candle. “The halfling from the Prancing Pony is downstairs,” he announced. “The Ranger Strider has just arrived at the inn.”
The room’s other occupant did not look up from his work, but a flicker of candlelight captured the amused curl of his lips. “Not a moment too soon,” he commented quietly, fine brows knitted in concentration at the task before him. “Gandalf’s week is almost up. We have little time to spare before he returns. Is the Ranger alone?”
Teburic squinted in the low light to make out the strange script the other was painstakingly inscribing on parchment. “Yes, my lord. He stabled his horse and took a room. He asked after Gandalf, but it was as you said - Butterbur forgot about the letter and remembered only that the wizard had stopped in Bree a week or two ago.” Teburic cast a meaningful glance toward the lone, rain-spattered window. “The Ranger must have been traveling in this weather for days. No doubt as soon as he has supped and chased the chill from his bones he will turn to his bed.”
“I think perhaps not,” the other answered cryptically, a flicker of amusement flashing across his face again. He set aside his pen and ink and unrolled one of the scrolls littering the desk, turning it around to reveal a map.
Teburic leaned over the desk, studying the map in the flickering candlelight. The writing on it was in a language he could not read, but the configurations of roads, streams, and landscape features unmistakably depicted the region around Bree.
“The Ranger will depart Bree on the Greenway tonight,” his companion said, tracing a finger along the main route leading south from the town. “He will head south as we discussed before, to this trail which skirts the forest and leads southwest. You also must leave tonight, and travel quickly.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to delay his departure until we can get a head start?” Teburic said. “It will be hard to make good time in this weather. The roads are nothing but quagmires.”
The other shook his head. “We haven’t the time. The wizard could return any day now and we must have the Ranger gone before then. He must leave Bree tonight.”
“Begging your pardon, but why would he do that? He has only just arrived in Bree and his horse is tired.”
Teburic found himself unnerved by the answering glitter of cold amusement in the other’s pale eyes. “Yes, awful weather to be out in,” the other commented dryly, reaching into a drawer and pulling out a familiar wax-sealed paper. “Unfortunately, the Ranger is about to receive urgent news which requires his departure.”
Teburic’s perplexed scowl slowly relaxed into wide-eyed realization. “The letter!” he exclaimed. “The letter from the wizard!” For a moment he stared at the other with unabashed admiration as the plot became clear, but then his wiry mass of brows plunged together again, deepening the furrow above his much-broken nose. “Why go to all that trouble?” he asked. “If you want the Ranger, my men can take him a mile outside Bree. Or inside it, for that matter.”
A hint of a smile flickered again across his companion’s fairer features. “Don’t be so sure. And in fact much depends on that not being the case. But in any event, I have more elaborate plans for our Ranger than what your ruffian friends can cook up. This is a matter requiring finesse and patience.” He handed the letter to Teburic. “Send the halfling back to the Pony with this. Tell him to wait three hours more, and then remind Butterbur he has a letter to deliver.”
He fingered the map once more, tracing the route of travel as if caressing a favorite pet, then tapped the corner of the table absently. “Go and fetch your men.”
“But it is nearly dark -” Teburic protested, only to be cut off by a flat, expressionless gaze.
“You were told to make them ready,” the other said with a note of accusation. “They must be waiting for him at the falls tomorrow. Everything must proceed exactly according to plan. Do you understand what is required?”
“Yes, my lord,” Teburic answered, suddenly realizing that he was not sure that he did. “But this is a risky plan. Why are you so sure you can trust me?”
The flat stare pinned him again. “Because you have been bought and paid for, Teburic, every bit as much as your young halfling downstairs. Has not the town of Bree been handed over to you? Have not its spoils been yours for the taking? Have you not been given a free hand in its streets and alleyways? Have not your rivals been eliminated? Have not the Rangers found themselves occupied elsewhere?” The large man was favored with another cold smile. “Do not be offended. We all have our price. Even Rangers, I warrant.”
“Just be sure that you are wise enough to stay bought, Teburic,” he added as the thief lord turned toward the door. “My master is jealous and his reach is long.”
Teburic turned back uneasily. “I will stay bought,” he said. “But I don’t like this scheme. The odds are bad. Too much could go wrong. How do I know this master of yours will not hold me accountable if they do?”
Light laughter answered him. “Oh, be most assured that he will. Send the halfling on his way,” the other said with a dismissive wave of his pen, turning back to the cabinet behind the desk and reaching into its depths. He carefully scooped up what looked to Teburic like a handful of amber glass beads and poured them into a small cloth bag. Closing it with a drawstring, he handed it to the thief. “Take this with you, keep it safe. Make sure you do not crush it. Give the halfling his instructions and warn him not to speak of this.”
“Oh, he won’t speak of it,” Teburic said. “He won’t dare.” He hefted the bag in the palm of his hand and stepped out onto the stairs.
As the door closed behind Teburic, the lone remaining figure rose from the desk and began pulling traveling clothes from the wardrobe.
“I’m sorry I must ask this of you,” Aragorn murmured, stroking the mare’s warm neck apologetically. Her winter-thick ginger coat was just beginning to dry, and the leather he worked gently over her muzzle and around her ears was still soaking wet. As too were the saddle, and the blanket, and the girth strap which he tightened and cinched with fingers already half-numb again in the damp chill of the stable.
The Ranger shivered beneath the sodden weight of his own waterlogged coat, which a few hours hanging before the fire had utterly failed to dry. The clammy weight of wet leather clung to him, wicking away what tentative heat he had managed to absorb over the last hours, and another involuntary shudder ran through him as his body resisted the familiar but unwelcome intrusion of cold. As he moved around the horse, adjusting the leather, his boots squelched in the sodden muck of straw and mud.
The mare cast a disbelieving sideways glance at him as he slid the hand-warmed bit into her mouth. He sighed at her well-founded incredulity. “I know; you are even more tired than I am, and your master will surely have my head for this. But we must go on for a little while longer.”
He looked out the open stable doors at the pouring rain, hearing another sigh of resignation escape him. Despite the urgency of Gandalf’s message, he couldn’t quite suppress a glimmer of guilty relief that it had taken three hours for Butterbur to remember where he’d put the wizard’s letter.
He tightened his jaw against the memory of those three hours at the Pony as he hurriedly loaded gear and supplies into sodden saddlebags. The brief respite already seemed to belong to another lifetime, or perhaps even just a wishful dream he might have had while dozing atop the horse in the rain: A dream of a warm, comfortable place lit by a roaring fire blazing in a stone hearth and the yellow glow of candles and lanterns; a room where there was no rain and no wind, where he sat relaxing - dozing, if truth be told, against the wall in a favorite corner he hadn’t seen in – how many years? A bowl of soup found its way into his frozen hands and a mug of beer sat in front of him, as he stretched his cramped and weary legs out in front of him, easing the aches piled on by hard riding and numbing cold and healing wounds. His eyes had closed of their own accord, free for once from the burden of constant vigilance, and he sank more heavily against the wall as tension melted from his neck and shoulders and the raucous babble of simple men with simple cares filled his ears with reassuringly inane noise. In his weariness, the brightness, warmth, and sheer safeness of the Pony were more intoxicating than any Dwarvish spirit Butterbur could serve up.
As he rested against the solid support of the wall, letting exhaustion overtake him finally, breathing air pleasantly pungent with the scents of tallow and wood-smoke and pipe-weed, he mentally released himself from his entire catalog of burdens. No horse to worry about – it was safely housed in the stable, munching on grain. No men to worry about. No men to bury. Thank the Valar. No watch to set, no decisions to be made or defended, no duties to be carried out.
The argument with Halbarad still nagged at him. He hadn't ridden ten miles down the road before his anger subsided into regret, and he nearly turned the horse around. But Halbarad would have traveled just as far in the opposite direction by then, and he didn't know how long Gandalf would wait. There would be time to track Halbarad down later and make things right, at least as right as they could be made with the weight of dead 15-year-olds and long-unrevealed secrets hanging between them.
The serving girl appeared before him with a bowl of soup and he looked down, realizing only then that he had yet to take a bite from the one she gave him earlier. She simply smiled at him and took the cold one away. Aragorn found himself smiling back, grateful for blessed anonymity. For just for a few hours, perhaps; maybe a day - until Gandalf showed up, anyway – there was not one creature in this town who knew who he really was.
In this place filled with simple, laughing, complaining, frustratingly dense Bree-folk, he could once again be simply the ragged and rascally Ranger Strider, a rough-looking and disreputable character, perhaps, but a wonderfully uncomplicated one. A very simple man, in fact; with no problems at all.
Well, none that could or must be solved before morning, anyway, he reasoned, downing the last swallow of beer in his mug and rising to stand before the hearth for a last moment, letting the heat of the fire penetrate his clothing and turn the remaining dampness to wafts of steam.
He had just been reaching for his cloak and turning to make for his room as Butterbur scurried up, holding a folded paper in his hands…
Aragorn heaved himself back onto the horse and settled into the saddle, pulling the hood of his cloak up over his head, for all that was worth, taking cold leather in his hands once again. Night had fallen and the rain was growing ever colder; even in the stable he could see his breath. It was too dark now to safely ride on horseback through the forest trails; that he knew, but he had lost too much time already and the hot pain jabbing through his knee with each step reminded him that he still could not make good speed on foot. There was nothing to be done about it. He nudged the horse out into the cold rain.
In minutes he had put the village of Bree behind him.
The trail was little-used except by the Rangers as a short cut from Bree to Sarn Ford. Skirting the south end of the Old Forest, it followed close on the banks of a tiny stream which sprang from the Barrow Downs. By late summer, the brook's volume would subside to barely a trickle, but on this day, it was running fast and full with late-winter snowmelt.
At the edge of the Downs, the stream had carved out a narrow gorge. Plunging down into it with a roar that cast spray into the air, it tumbled down a short series of cataracts to fill the little canyon with a roiling mass of water. A mile further down, the walls of the gorge would fall away, discharging the slowing current into the flat Brandywine plain.
The trail took a series of steep switchbacks down into the gorge, then followed close beside the cave-pocked limestone bluffs carved by the stream in ages past. The water was high; lapping at the path and leaving little room for the passage of men or beasts. Forty feet up, above the ragged edge of the bluff, the bones of the trees thrust into a overhanging sky, only their very tips beginning to color with tightly furled new growth. Above the wind-lashed branches, the lumbering clouds were ominous with the threat of new rain.
Midway through the gorge, the path was partially obstructed by two immense boulders. One rested half in the water, the other against the bluff. There was barely room between them for the passage of a horse and rider.
Two men waited there. Concealed from the view of travelers approaching from upstream, they had stretched a rope across the path, covering it with leaves and dirt. Huddled in their cloaks against the damp chill, they spoke little as the hours passed.
At hearing his name, the man on the river side of the path abandoned his half-hearted effort at skipping stones into the churning water and raised his head. Knowing what his partner planned to say, he countered the unspoken argument with resolute weariness.
“Kergelen, if you’re about to ask if we can leave, the answer is no.” He turned back to the river and skipped another stone.
His companion sighed deeply, shrugging deeper into his waterlogged cloak. “It is no use,” he protested. “The day is nearly spent. It is pointless to stay here any longer.”
“Be patient. We have been paid well. Where else would you have us go?” Dergren replied without turning. “We will yet make a good catch today. A Ranger, no less.”
Kergelen snorted. “Our only catch today will be a fat ripe fish. What kind of folly is this? To hunt a Ranger? Teburic has sent us on a goose chase. We should go back to town and wait out this weather.”
“And would you care to bear this news to Teburic yourself?” Dergren asked. “I would not. Besides, he has taken the horses. It would be a long walk back to Bree on foot.”
“This was a bad idea, Dergren,” Kergelen pressed. “He says the Rangers travel this road, but what chance that one will pass by today? And alone? We will freeze for nothing. I cannot even feel my feet.” The last point he emphasized by stamping much-mended boots on the ground.
“Get up and walk around, then,” his companion answered irritably. “And check on that boy, make sure he hasn't fallen asleep or wandered off. I haven't seen hide or hair of him in three hours.” With that he buried his head back into the cowl of his cloak and flung another stone into the river.
“That boy is strange,” Kergelen remarked. He got to his feet and started up the path.
“Kergelen,” Dergren called out. His companion paused. “Do not even think of sneaking off for a whiff of pipe-weed. The smell will travel for miles in this weather.”
High above them, at the edge of the bluff, the third member of their party sat huddled against a tree, a smallish mound of a human enveloped in a brown cloak, his arms wrapped around his knees. His position provided a perfect vantage point to observe the approach of the trail, but offered little protection from the incessant wind. Hours of watching and waiting in the cold rain had told on his thin frame. He pulled his cloak more tightly around him and leaned over the cliff face to peer down upon the cowled heads of his companions. They were arguing, though the sound of rushing water obscured all sounds of their voices.
The snap of a branch behind him whipped his head around, and he flattened himself against the tree in time to see a single man on horseback emerge from cover of the woods, moving in the direction of the gorge.
The chestnut mare the man sat astride trudged slowly into the clearing, her head bobbing with fatigue, and the rider himself also seemed bent with weariness, yet still there was a certain set to his hunched shoulders and a quiet tension in his hands which bespoke latent danger. The rider’s face could not be seen, shadowed as it was by the hood of his cloak. His clothing was worn and dirty, its original color obscured by wear and travel. Here and there it bore darker stains whose origins could only be guessed at. Only the bright glint of a sword hilt at the rider’s waist betrayed his identity. The boy caught a glimpse of its full length just before a twist in the path hid the rider’s left side from his view, and he smiled.
The boy waited, motionless, as the horse and rider crossed the clearing and began to descend the first series of switchbacks.
When the Ranger was safely past, he lay down on the wet ground with his chest on the edge of the bluff and waved a hand, trying to catch the attention of his companions. Heads bent against their misery and shrouded in their cloaks, the men were oblivious to his motions. Kergelen had started making his way up the muddy path, meaning to take the long way around to the bluff-top, but he was hunched over, looking down at his feet, and Dergren had gone back to leaning against the huge boulder whilst absently throwing stones into the river.
Stones. The boy looked on the ground beside him and scooped up a plum-sized rock. He threw it at Kergelen, hitting him squarely in the back. The man spun around and looked up. His face darkened with anger at seeing the boy, until a repeated urgent pointing toward the upstream segment of the trail managed to bring the light of comprehension to his eyes and he hurried back towards Dergren’s position.
The boy absently scooped up another stone and knelt fingering it as he looked down at his companions, who had already hidden themselves behind cover directly below him, taking up the ends of the rope, waiting for the moment to strike.
The approaching rider, uncharacteristically, failed to sense the impending danger. He was chilled to the bone and nodding with long-denied sleep, yet he dared not stop until he reached a safer place to make camp. Some miles ahead, there was a place where he might sleep for a few hours. He shifted on the horse, momentarily easing the festering ache in his left leg and the tension in his shoulders.
If not for the leg, he would have left the horse behind in Bree. His own needs were easily ignored - food more or less indefinitely, and sleep - well, small places could always be found where a man might curl up and sleep for a few hours when the need could no longer be deferred.
Horses were a different story. They required a ration of grain every single day, or time for grazing which he could rarely spare, as well as prodigious amounts of water and salt, not to mention frequent stops to remove the stones which were constantly becoming lodged in their hooves. But all of this was mere annoyance compared to the burden of keeping them safe in the Wild. The astounding variety of smells and noises they produced attracted all manner of predators, and there was no easy way to conceal a beast of such enormous size. He had not slept more than an hour or two a night since he left the Angle out of fear for the horse.
Yet without the horse, he never would have made it even as far as Bree by now.
He stroked the mare’s neck as he guided her along the narrow path, so close to the cliff that his right knee and shoulder occasionally brushed against the wet limestone as he fought to keep her steps clear of the drowned riverbank. “Steady,” he murmured, willing his own determination into her through his touch.
Edging between two large boulders in the path, the horse smelled trouble an instant before Aragorn did, snorting and raising her head in sudden alarm. His left hand tightened on the reins while his right snatched off his hood to clear his field of view and then, in a seamless motion, flew to grip his sword hilt.
It was too late. The hidden rope lying across the path was jerked tautly upward in one sharp motion, loosing an explosion of wet leaves. The horse had already been off-balance, gingerly picking her way downward on the rocky path between the boulders, when the rope caught her across the shin.
The horse went down. Aragorn pitched over her head and sailed helplessly towards the limestone bluff. He had time only to register the sight of two assailants at the edges of his vision before slamming face-first into the rock face, pain exploding in his skull. An instant later, he landed on the wet ground with a grunt that knocked the wind out of him.
The horse was thrashing wildly next to him, struggling to rise, and he rolled blindly away, scrambling to escape its flailing hooves. He struggled to his knees, fighting blackness, his swollen knee flaring with renewed agony as river stones ground into it. He shook his head to clear it and found the hilt of his sword with one hand while pushing himself off the ground with the other. Blood was flowing into his eyes now, clouding his vision, but it didn’t matter. There were no friends here. Anything that moved was fair game.
The sword came out and he swung wildly, hitting one of his attackers solidly across the chest with a wet smack that crunched as it penetrated flesh, bone and cartilage. As he followed through, the man fell to the ground, screaming, his own sword clattering on the wet rocks. Aragorn sensed movement behind him and spun blindly, whirling and striking in a precise fluid motion honed of decades of practice.
He heard the dull thud of the second assailant’s body dropping like a grain sack. He wiped a hand across his eyes and his vision cleared to reveal the white rock face in front of him sprayed with great spatters of red. The head fell to the path an instant later, rolling downslope to rest face-up against a rock. The eyes were open, the mouth gaping in what seemed to be surprise.
Aragorn closed his eyes against the sight. He stood on unsteady legs for a long minute, his chest heaving. His sword arm fell to his side, while the other braced him more or less upright against his good knee. He was now drenched in sweat and as the heat of battle subsided he began to shiver in the chill breeze.
Aragorn dimly saw at the edge of his blood-shrouded vision that the first attacker seemed to have stopped moving. He had not the strength to make sure of it. He stumbled to the river’s edge and fell to his knees in the mud, splashing icy water into his eyes to clear the blood away. He bent his head to lap a mouthful of the water from his cupped hand, then forced himself upright, realizing he ought to check on the horse.
He had taken only a single step away from the river’s edge when sudden pain shot through his skull, driving him stumbling blindly backward. Again he fought against blackness, but this time, the blackness won.
Atop the bluff, a small boy in a large brown cloak looked down at the three still figures lying below. Then he started down the twisting trail to the riverbank.
The boy picked his way down the winding path to the steambed, careful of the rain-slick rocks. The ground at the base of the bluff was awash in blood. Stepping into it, he surveyed the scattered wreckage of the brief eruption of violence, fallen weapons and fallen packs and fallen men, now lying strewn and silent amidst the rocks and reddened mud. Only the horse had managed to gain her feet and stood nervously snorting at the pervasive stench of death. The decapitation had painted a garish arc across the white cliff face at head height, and the rest of Dergren’s blood was pooled around his headless body, pumped out of his neck by a heart slow to accept its demise. The second Dunlending lay clinging to life a few feet away from the bank, his chest rent open by a gaping sword wound, breathing in agonized gasps slowly subsiding into wet gurgles. The Ranger lay crumpled where he had fallen, his sword pinned beneath him.
The boy knelt beside the fallen Ranger and put a hand to his back, feeling for the rise and fall of his chest. Probing beneath the swath of dark hair, his fingers found a raised knot in his skull, though the bones seemed intact and the bleeding was slight. He rolled the man over and pushed the mass of blood-soaked hair aside.
The left side of the Ranger’s face was raw and scraped; the right was covered with blood from a cut above his eye. Another gash in his left forearm bled freely, spilling out the Dúnadan’s blood onto the wet ground to join that of the dead Dunlendings in a gruesome, anonymous pool amidst the rocks.
Beneath the fresh wounds, the fading signs of recent battle were evident. Yellowing bruises and healing cuts traced the stubbled jaw line, and a rent in the man’s left pant leg revealed an angry wound in the side of the knee.
The boy peeled the man’s loosely curled fingers away from his sword hilt and carefully slid the bloody blade out from beneath him. Setting it down on the ground, out of the man’s reach, he made short work of disarming the Ranger, adding a bow and quiver, a wicked-looking dagger, and several business-like knives to the mounting pile. He made a last pat-down to check for concealed weapons before gathering the Ranger's arsenal in a blanket.
Aiming to remove the weapons from the man's immediate reach, he laid the bundle down near the horse. Picking up the Ranger’s pack from where it had fallen in the ambush, he rummaged through it and examined the contents, finding only a few items of clothing, tools and oils for weapons repair, some items of food, a few herbs, and one letter. He closed the pack, tied it securely to the horse’s saddle, and went to consider the matter of the dying Dunlending.
The Ranger’s sword had sliced through Kergelen’s ribs as if they were soft cheese, leaving lungs and organs exposed. The wound was obviously mortal. The boy knelt next to the Dunlending for a moment, then wedged his hands beneath the man’s shoulders and heaved to lift them. Still clinging to a last fragment of awareness, the Dunlending moaned in agony as the boy grunted with the effort of dragging him through the mud. Finally reaching the water's edge, he rolled him over and pushed his face below the surface.
As icy water obstructed his failing breath, the man stirred in a desperate, choking effort to fill his lungs with air. The boy obliged him by pulling up on his hair, lifting his head out of the water. “There, is that better?” he whispered into the man’s ear. “Don’t worry; soon your troubles will be over. You have done your part.”
Drawing his own dagger, the boy slit the man’s throat deeply with a single stroke. As the blade severed his veins and windpipe, the man began to kick and thrash reflexively. The boy tightened his grip on the man’s hair and pushed his face below the surface again as red clouds of blood colored the water. As the body beneath the boy’s hands stilled, he slid it into the stream to be taken by the current.
The headless body of Dergren he dragged into the river as well, and then he flung the head out into the middle of the current by its hair. Panting with exertion, he knelt by the bank to catch his breath and to rinse his hands in the water.
Rising, he turned to survey the remains of the grim scene. Where minutes ago, his ill-fated companions had sat and thrown stones in the river, the silence of death and the stench of blood hung in the air. A rasping shriek above him signaled the arrival of carrion birds. He glanced at the skyline, assessing the flattening afternoon light. The blood-scent would soon attract larger predators and daylight was waning. Already the gray day was signaling its end with a faint wash of pink in the west and darkening clouds bespoke a renewed threat of rain. He looked down at the bleeding Ranger lying crumpled at his feet. If the man could not be roused, he would have to be carried, a prospect which did not appeal to him. Though not heavily built, the man had the height of the Dúnedain and lifting him onto the horse would be difficult.
He knelt beside the Ranger once more. Grasping a cloaked shoulder, he shook him first gently and then more forcefully. His efforts were to no avail as the man’s head simply lolled back and forth. Sighing with impatience, the boy reached a hand into the man’s shirt and rubbed a knuckle vigorously against the chest bone. At the painful stimulus, the Ranger finally reacted, gasping reflexively as his neck arched back and his mouth opened in a silent cry. For a moment his gray eyes fluttered open without recognition and his hands tightened into fists; but just as quickly the tension melted from his body and he slumped into unconsciousness again with a soft moan.
Just splendid, the boy thought, resting the side of the man’s head gently on the ground once again. He sighed, stood, and walked over to retrieve the horse. “Come on then, it seems we must do this the hard way,” he said, grasping its dangling reins and leading it over to where the man lay. Kneeling down behind the man's head, he wedged his hands beneath his shoulders and struggled to lift them. Managing to prop the Ranger up against the boulder, he moved around to the front and grasped the slumped figure firmly by the arm, preparing to lever his weight onto a shoulder.
Without warning, the slack muscles beneath his fingers hardened, and faster than he could react, a forceful grip tightened around his arm and spun him around. In an instant he found himself pinned with his back to the man’s chest, an arm across his windpipe, compressing it just a hairsbreadth shy of choking him. The boy felt a groping at his waist, and in the next instant, the arm against his throat was replaced by the cold bite of steel.
“You forgot one,” a voice rasped in the boy’s ear, and he froze in startled confusion for a moment before realizing it was his own dagger which pressed against his neck. The dagger he had just used to kill Kergelen.
“Where is my sword?” the Ranger grated, not lessening the tension of the blade against his throat.
“Over there,” he croaked, raising a trembling hand to point to the blanket-wrapped bundle near the horse. He was yanked helplessly backward as the man craned around to look, dragging him along. "I was afraid you would wake up and kill me."
“How many more of you are about?” the man asked, not slackening his grip. The boy tried to shake his head, feeling the blade of the knife bite against his skin.
“None,” he croaked.
“Where did the others go?”
The boy pointed a quivering hand at the river, and in the silent pause that followed felt the arm around his chest relax slightly.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the boy pleaded as he rose to his feet. “They made me help them.” The Ranger did not answer, but kept a wary gaze pinned on the boy as he pushed himself upright, steadying himself with a hand against the rocks. Where it was not covered with blood, his face showed dead white between the dark of his hair and the dark of his beard. He blinked, struggling to focus, and after moment his gaze hardened from wariness to alarm as he stared at a point somewhere below the boy's chin. He looked down in confusion at the bloody dagger he still held in his hand and then back up at the boy.
“Did I hurt you?” the man asked in confusion. The boy reflexively touched his fingers to his throat and withdrew them to find them bloody. He quickly felt at his throat again, alarmed himself now, but his probing found only unbroken skin. He shook his head in confused denial. “I am not hurt,” he assured the man.
The Ranger scowled at him skeptically. “Let me see.” He lifted the boy’s chin, squinting at the smooth undamaged skin of his neck, until a drop of blood falling from his own hand revealed the source of the blood.
The Ranger withdrew his hand and turned it this way and that, exposing the rent in the leather over his forearm, and beneath it, the cut from Dergren's raised dagger which had bled as he held his arm pressed against the boy's throat. The Ranger sighed in relief and impatiently clamped his right hand over the injury, switching the boy’s dagger to his left. Examining the bloody blade more closely, his brow furrowed again. “If I didn’t hurt you, then why is there blood on this blade?”
“I killed Kergelen with it,” the boy said. “That’s his blood on the blade.”
The Ranger blinked in surprise, and the boy felt the man’s cool gray scrutiny sweep over him for the first time in full, reasoned force, as a man takes the measure of another man. Its intensity was nearly unendurable, and the boy resisted a shiver. He had only stood under the weight of one presence more forceful, and that had been no mere Man.
“Why?” the Ranger asked simply.
“He hit you over the head. He was about to finish you off.”
“He was your partner - why didn’t you help him?”
“I told you, they made me come with them. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t get away from them until you came.”
The Ranger released his gaze without comment and turned away, moving over to the place where the boy had cached his weapons, stumbling as he fought a wave of dizziness. “Who were these men, and how did you come to be with them?” he asked, wavering unsteadily as bent over to flip open the folds of the blanket and visually conducted an inventory.
The boy stood back slightly from the Ranger, wary of risking the man’s ire but reluctant to withdraw from within reach should he fall. “They work for Teburic.”
“And who is Teburic?” the Ranger grunted, grimacing as he bent stiffly to retrieve his weapons from the ground. Edging carefully to one knee, he wiped the worst of the blood off the sword with an edge of the blanket before replacing it in the scabbard. He slung the straps of the quiver over his shoulder and replaced the bladed weapons in their sheaths. The boy’s own dagger he tucked into his belt. Remaining on the ground, he looked up at the boy expectantly.
“He is thief-lord in Bree,” the boy said. “He has robbers working for him, in the towns around Bree and out on the roads as well. He is a big man. Very big.” The boy looked at the Ranger with tears in his eyes. “He wouldn't let me leave. I couldn’t get away, no matter what I did.”
The Ranger’s steady gray eyes locked onto the boy like an arrow seeking its quarry, and he fought the urge to avert his gaze. Finally the Ranger turned away without comment, looking around at the litter of abandoned property lying across the bloody ground. “Is any of this yours?” he asked, making a broad gesture at the scattered refuse and wearily wiping more blood away from his eyes. “Take what you want. Throw the rest into the river.”
The boy took a deep breath and began picking through the dead men’s belongings. Finding some useful items and some food, he stuffed them into his own pack. The Ranger had limped over to the horse and was bent down on one knee, examining its legs. “What did they want with me?” he asked as the boy came up behind him.
“They said they were hunting Rangers. I don’t know why.” At the sharp skeptical turn of the Ranger’s head he protested, “I don’t, I swear! Teburic has someone in town that he does a lot of work for. I don’t know who it is. Whoever it is will pay well to know the Rangers’ business. These men were to hold you until Teburic comes back. I don’t know what he planned to do with you after that.”
“You seem to know little, for one who consorts with thieves and highwaymen,” the Ranger commented dryly. “Where is this Teburic now?”
“He’s coming back at sundown, with some more of his men. He has our horses with him.”
The man stood up slowly and patted the horse on the flank. He glanced down at his arm and seemed annoyed to find it still bleeding. Inspecting the packs lying on the ground, he found a reasonably clean cloth in one and wound it around his bleeding arm, pulling the knot tight with his right hand and teeth.
“Come, we must depart, for all manner of creatures will be drawn to the smell of this blood. The horse must be walked. Some ways down the river is a safer resting place.”
"Where are we going?"
"South, to a company of Rangers two days' ride from here. When we arrive, I will decide what to do with you." The Ranger sighed with weary resignation as he picked up the horse’s reins and began to lead her down the path.
For hours they trudged along the river trail as night fell, the wind turned out of the north, and it began to snow. The boy followed behind the horse and the man, noting how their footsteps grew steadily slower and less sure, the Ranger leaning ever more heavily into the horse’s shoulder. The boy had marked the man’s increasing unsteadiness and had poised himself for the past half hour to catch him should he fall. Surely the man could not keep walking all night. Finally, up ahead, the boy spied the darker blur of a rock outcropping through the flying snow. As they reached it, the Ranger pulled the horse off the path to the shelter of its overhang.
Letting the reins fall to the ground, the man stumbled toward the rock face, putting a hand up to catch himself. The boy lunged forward and grabbed his arm, steadying him as he fell against the wall and then slowly slid down it. Landing at its base, the man sat motionless, his knees bent and his head bowed, hands limp at his sides, the blood-soaked bandage on his left arm dripping blood once more onto the fresh snow. The snow-crusted hood of his cloak cast his features in shadow, and so motionless did he sit that the boy was not sure if he was still conscious. “Mister Ranger?” When there was no answer he pulled the hood back, trying not to let snow fall down into the man’s shirt. Putting a tentative hand to the limp shoulder, he shook it lightly.
Glazed eyes struggled to focus on him, and pale lips fought to form words through chattering teeth. “We will stop here for the night,” the Ranger whispered, before his head dropped back against the rocks and his eyes drifted closed. The boy reached out a hand and touched the man’s face to find it clammy. The body beneath the soaked cloak was shivering uncontrollably. Cold, or shock, or both, would take the Ranger before the morning came unless he got him warm. There would not be a dry piece of wood to be found within fifty leagues, yet he would have to make a fire.
The boy looked around at their meager shelter. The slim overhang provided the barest relief from the weather, but it would hold off the worst of the rain and snow, at least. The snow was falling harder now, and fresh flakes were already filling the traces of their arrival. Despite the overhang, the wind was blowing snow into the shallow shelter. Already flakes were collecting on the Ranger’s uncovered head. The boy went to the man and lowered him to the ground, resting him on his side as comfortably as he could. He covered him with a blanket and an extra cloak scavenged from Dergren’s pack. Then he set off to collect firewood.
“Strider,” Butterbur echoed distractedly, pausing in the doorway of the common room and leaning the beer barrel he’d been rolling up against the door jamb. He straightened, wiping his hands on his apron, sighing with concentration. One side of his whiskered mouth screwed up in a characteristic perplexed scowl as he struggled to bring the full weight of his attention to bear on the question at hand. Gandalf folded his arms, watching for the signature head cock which would signal that something useful had finally been dredged from the depths of the innkeeper’s beleaguered memory.
“Strider,” Butterbur repeated slowly, his forehead knotted with effort. “Tall Ranger, scraggly beard, big sword?”
Gandalf nodded patiently, all too familiar with this ritual and knowing full well that Butterbur knew exactly who Strider was. In all the long years he’d known Barley, he’d never been able to decide if his memory lapses were a genuine character trait or merely the useful affectation of a career bartender.
The innkeeper’s befuddled countenance finally cleared with recognition. “Strider – yes, of course! Funny you should mention him! We’ve not seen too many of them Rangers about this winter, you know - I hear tell that the wolves have been down out of the mountains more than usual, Orcs as well. Now for some reason we have seen more of the Dwarves here lately than usual, though I can’t say why-”
“Strider, Barley,” Gandalf pressed, his voice deepening. He frowned down at the rotund innkeeper with all the weight of authority he could muster.
The man stroked his beard absently. “Right, right. He came in last night. Rented a room, I believe. Yes, I‘m sure of it. Hold on, I can check the register.”
Walking around the bar, he pulled out a heavy leather-bound book and set it down. Spreading it open, he ran a meaty finger down the last page of entries and pointed to the most recent. “See here? He took a room, paid for it ahead, too, and then didn’t even use it, though he looked as needed to, by my recollection. Went out toward the stable a few hours later, though, if I’m not mistaken.” He squinted to read the handwriting on the register. “Haven’t seen him since.”
This was odd. “Where was he going?” the wizard asked, the nagging sense of something gone wrong growing stronger in the back of his mind. “Did he say? Try to remember! I left a letter for him with you a week ago. Did you give it to him?”
At the reminder, Butterbur’s broad face lit up. “The letter! Yes, now I remember!” he exclaimed, nodding triumphantly. “It was right after he read your letter that he bolted out of here. Way past dark, pouring rain outside, and him not even under roof long enough to stop drippin.’”
He shrugged meaty shoulders in dismissal. “Though there’s no accounting for East and West, as we like to say. Strange folk have strange ways. Would you be needing a room, then?” he asked hopefully.
After a moment, Gandalf nodded reluctantly. Somehow, something had gone badly awry, and he could do nothing else until he got to the bottom of it.
Having availed himself of a room and finished supper, Gandalf sat in a corner of the common room, nursing a mug of mulled wine and chewing absently on his pipe. He’d persuaded Butterbur to let him inspect the room Aragorn had rented. It hadn’t been touched. No one remembered seeing him, save the stable boy, a few serving girls, and Barley himself, and all of them during the same three-hour period. Piecing their stories together, it seemed that the Ranger had arrived, stayed but a few hours at the Prancing Pony, and then had abruptly left town again. But why? It was not as if his letter itself had contained anything which should have alarmed the Dúnadan. Perhaps he had been alerted to some other danger. In the morning, he would have to ask at the town gates to see if anyone had witnessed his departure. Maybe then he would have place to start looking.
The first two sensations which intruded upon Aragorn's oblivion were a spiking pain in his head and a sensation of pleasant warmth against his face and chest. Optimistically misreading these clues as evidence that he was safely ensconced in the paid-for room at the Prancing Pony, comfortably warmed by the heat of a fully-stoked hearth, apparently after an evening of serious over-imbibing, he relaxed back into pleasant drowsiness. How much of Bree’s finest must he have enjoyed last night to induce such an impressive hangover, though, he wondered idly.
A kernel of worry began to coalesce out of the realization that he couldn’t even remember going to bed. He pushed the unwelcome thought aside and attempted to burrow deeper into the blankets. It had been far too long since he’d slept soundly in the warmth of a real bed instead of curled up on the cold ground beneath his cloak, restless hands clutching sword hilt and dagger even in sleep, shallow dreams disturbed by every sigh and whisper carried on the chill air.
He had almost succeeded in pushing himself back into dreams when another, all too-familiar sensation intruded on his resisting consciousness.
Rocks. Rocks poking into his ribcage.
He buried his head further beneath the blanket.
Dampness seeping into his trousers.
Outside, he finally conceded with dismay.
Releasing an audible groan aimed more at the unwelcome imposition of reality than at the sudden, clamoring profusion of aches which welcomed him to consciousness, he reluctantly opened his eyes to find himself lying on the ground somewhere beside a roaring campfire, its small pool of flickering light clearly illuminating only a swirl of flying snowflakes and the expectant gaze of a thin-faced, half-grown boy.
Aragorn automatically reached for his sword hilt, and this time it was there. Releasing a sigh, he pushed himself up on an elbow, wincing at the jolting pain the movement caused and probing gingerly at the painful raised knot in the back of his head.
“Don’t pick at it.”
He looked up. “What?”
The boy who sat across the fire from him favored him with a patient, guileless gaze, his pale face framed by a brown cloak hood. “Don’t pick at it, you’ll make it worse.”
He scowled defiantly but lowered the hand in spite of himself and decided to change the subject. “How long did I sleep?” From the considerable snow cover on the ground beyond the overhang, it had to have been some time. The snow had barely begun to stick when he’d stumbled into the shelter, hadn’t it? His memory of the last few hours before reaching the shelter was a confused nightmare of exhaustion and pain.
The boy allowed his liberal use of the term "sleep" to pass without comment. He rose and knelt by the fire, using a cloth to grasp the handle of a small pot nestled in the embers. Aragorn recognized the pot as his own, as was the brown crockery cup into which the boy poured brown steaming liquid. He knelt by Aragorn and handed it to him. “About four hours,” he answered. “Careful, it’s hot.”
The Ranger sat the rest of the way up and took the cup, satisfied to simply cradle it between his hands for the moment, letting the warmth seep into his fingers. He lowered his head and sniffed the brown liquid skeptically.
“It’s starwort,” the boy said impatiently. “I found it in your pack. It’s not good for much but it was all that was left in your herb pouch. If I’d wanted to kill you I could have done it while you slept and saved the trouble of making tea, you know.”
Aragorn frowned in skepticism but conceded the point by taking a sip from the mug, wondering at the irony of being stranded in a snowstorm with a precocious child who had just hours ago been assisting ruffians to kidnap him. The boy looked to be thirteen or fourteen years old, small and thin but healthy. Straight dark hair fell over his pale forehead, half-hiding clear gray eyes. Truth be told, he looked more Dúnadan than Breelander, but there was enough mixing of the bloodlines these days to confuse the issue. His accent was subtly odd; not entirely Breelander, but something the Ranger could not place.
“What is your name, boy?” he asked presently.
“Teburic calls me Rolly.”
“Teburic does? You named him your tormentor. By what name does your family call you? Your friends?”
The boy considered the question. “I don't have any,” he answered presently. “Not any more. Rolly is what everyone calls me. What about you?"
"I am called Strider."
"By your family and friends, too?"
Aragorn cleared his throat. Family and friends had been inspired to call him many things these past weeks. ‘Stubborn Dúnadan’ had been a favorite, of course, along with ‘Arrogant Númenorean.’ Elrohir had been especially proud of ‘Obstinate, stiff-necked, self-absorbed offspring of Arvedui’-
“Is something wrong?”
Aragorn rubbed his face and smiled painfully. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can claim any family or friends, either, at the moment. But you may call me Strider.”
Aragorn settled himself back against a sturdy rock, finding that the combination of the fire and the herb mixture had finally warmed him. He noticed another layer of bandage on his arm; the boy must have added it while he slept. The fabric was already soaked through with blood again but at least it was no longer dripping. Obviously he’d managed to nick a vein and the wound would need stitching, but it would have to wait. He couldn’t do the job one-handed and he wasn’t about to let the boy try.
Stretching his legs out before him until his feet nearly touched the glowing embers, he closed his eyes, resting his head gingerly against the rock face. He absently kneaded the muscles in his sore leg, easing the ache in his knee. “That's infected - it needs to be cut open again and cleaned out,” the boy commented. “It will be much more difficult now than if you had a healer see to it properly before it closed.”
“So I’ve been told,” he grunted irritably. He opened his eyes and watched as the boy mixed more herbs in the cup of his hand, then knelt next to the horse and began applying the paste to the cuts on her legs. “You seem to know much of healing for a pickpocket.”
The boy shrugged noncommittally without turning from his task. “Teburic’s men get hurt a lot.”
“You should get some sleep,” he told the boy, forcing himself more upright against the rock wall and steeling himself against encroaching drowsiness. “I will keep watch until morning.”
The look the boy gave him conveyed unvarnished skepticism that the Ranger could stay awake until the fire needed stoking, much less until morning. Aragorn did not bother disputing the unspoken assessment, but he knew that the bit of rest his overtaxed body had already forced on him would sustain him through another day. It would have to. He reached into his belt and withdrew the boy’s dagger, handing it to him hilt-first. “You might as well have this,” he said. The boy had certainly had the opportunity to slit his throat, if he desired to. “Now, lie down and get some rest. We will leave here at first light.”
The boy took the dagger and set about piling more wood on the fire, apparently insuring against the likelihood that the Ranger would fail in his determination to keep the watch. He cast one last worried glance in Aragorn's direction before curling up next to the fire, drawing a blanket over himself.
Aragorn sat watching the sleeping boy as the snow slowly tapered off and the wind calmed. Drawing a knife from his boot, he picked up a piece of wood from the ground beside him and began carving on it.
Butterbur’s renowned hospitality had obviously suffered of late; Gandalf retired to his guestroom after supper only to find it cold as a tomb, the hearth still dark. Grumbling under his breath, he sparked a small mound of kindling and bent low, breathing the tiny flame to life before stacking some larger pieces of wood optimistically on top.
He heard a knock at the door and rose to answer it, hopeful that it was the chambermaid delivering extra blankets or perhaps a supply of firewood. Instead, he was surprised to find the angular form of a cloaked, filthy, Ranger filling his doorway. With unkempt hair falling halfway down his face and a hand resting casually atop his sword hilt, the man so resembled the one Gandalf had hoped to see that he gaped in startled confusion for a moment before recognition dawned.
“Halbarad!” he exclaimed.
The tall Ranger leaned wearily against the doorjamb, dripping melting snow onto the floor. “Gandalf, listen, have you seen Ara – I mean, Strider?” Halbarad asked, wincing at his slip and glancing about. “I really need to talk to him.”
“This manner of his disappearance seems very suspicious,” Gandalf concluded, having coaxed the Dúnadan back out into the common room and given an account of his own attempts to determine what had happened to Aragorn. He took a sip of tea as Halbarad attacked his supper.
Halbarad grunted a muffled assent through a mouthful of mutton. He looked hopefully about for something to wash it down with, but the serving girl had yet to bring his beer. “Gandalf, Strider would never tell me why, but he was absolutely insistent on meeting you here. In fact, he said he was late. It’s inconceivable that he would leave Bree before you arrived.”
“When we parted, we agreed to meet in Bree on the first of spring this year if all else failed.”
The pause in Halbarad's chewing seemed to convey that he did not consider this to be much of an explanation, but after a moment he merely shrugged and cast about for the serving girl again. “Service is usually so good at the Pony," he commented under his breath as he glanced about the sparsely populated common room.
Gandalf's brow wrinkled. The Ranger seemed tense, almost nervous, and both the hand he was absently rubbing against his jaw and the face beneath it seemed to be marred by a larger-than-usual profusion of cuts and bruises. “What brings you here, Halbarad? Is something ill?”
“More than I knew, it seems." Halbarad sighed and shook his head. "I should never have let him go alone." He rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes with weary fingers.
Gandalf reclaimed the Ranger's attention with a touch of a leather-clad arm. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Again Halbarad shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "We argued about him coming here to meet you. We argued about other things, as well. I said a lot of things I shouldn't have. And, well, I suppose that's why I’m here.”
With the revelation out, the Ranger exhaled deeply and leaned back against the wall, settling his weight into the seat almost as Aragorn would have done and surveying the common room’s sparse patronage with the same keen expression. Were the shoulders beneath the battle-stained cloak not a hand’s breadth too broad and the eyes half-hidden beneath the mass of untrimmed hair not green-flecked brown instead of gray, Gandalf could almost have convinced himself that the strange disappearance of his friend had been a dream.
The serving girl finally brought over two tankards of beer and another basket of bread, explaining that she’d had to wait for a new keg to be brought from the cellar. Halbarad took an experimental half-sip of his beer. Apparently satisfied with its potency, he took a longer drink and glanced about the room once more against the possibility of curious ears. He fixed his eyes on a point somewhere far outside the walls of the common room, but kept his voice pitched low for Gandalf’s hearing alone.
“You know how hard the winter was,” he began. “Every year, the orcs grow more numerous, and more brazen. Wolves, too. And every year, too, there are fewer of us. We are spread too thin.” He glanced up at Gandalf as if to say more on the subject, but then shook his head slightly and took another long swallow of his beer.
“Orcs attacked our winter camp three weeks ago. The women fought them off, but not before two were killed. My men and I came back from a hunting trip to find them digging the graves. We had just finished the burials when Strider came walking up, out of nowhere.” Halbarad looked down at his folded hands, and added in a voice almost too low to hear, “Just like he always does.”
“I asked him where he'd been, but all he would say is east of the mountains. I think he was planning to stop just long enough to pick up provisions, but when he saw what had happened, he began organizing the pursuit.”
“We were only able to round up eighteen men in haste, and less than half of that number were seasoned fighters, but still we caught up with the orcs easily enough. We kept one prisoner and forced him to lead us back to their den. On the fourth day of that trek, Elrond’s sons found us.”
Gandalf smiled. “I would have guessed as much.”
"I don't think there's ever been an orc-hunt within a hundred miles of Rivendell that they haven't known about," Halbarad concurred. He leaned over the table. “I don’t know what Strider was like when you last saw him, Gandalf, but I welcomed the twins for more than just their swords this time. Strider wasn’t fit company for a troll. I had hopes that their influence might improve his disposition."
"Not so I noticed."
Gandalf frowned. “You know that he bears a great burden, Halbarad.”
“I know he does. And it seems to settle on him ever more heavily as the years go by.”
Gandalf too, had seen the shadow of grim resolve creep slowly over his friend, replacing the easy laughter and unguarded smile of his youth, but there were reasons for it he did not feel privileged to discuss with Halbarad. “The years have not been easy for him,” he said finally.
“They haven’t been a picnic for any of us, Gandalf,” the Ranger shot back before catching himself. He leaned back in his seat as if the few minutes of conversation had wearied him more than the journey from the Angle. “I’m sorry. It’s just – I’ve never seen him quite like this. He was so irritable, restless, he wouldn't sit still; he would prowl the perimeter of camp like some half-tamed dog, or go off scouting by himself for half the night. I tried to talk to him…” Halbarad broke off and shook his head. “He’s like a brother to me, Gandalf, but he is my Chieftain as well. I can’t question him in front of the men, and even in private there are some lines I cross only at my peril. That's why I was so glad to see Elladan and Elrohir. It's different for them. Someday, their brother will sit atop the mighty throne of Gondor, ruling half of Middle Earth, and even then they will see fit to remind him of the time he doctored Lord Elrond’s afternoon tea when he was six.”
“Be assured that Lord Elrond has not forgotten that incident, either,” Gandalf chuckled.
Halbarad spared a slight smile. “Do you remember the stories they used to tell?”
“Elrohir was most often the instigator, as I recall,” Gandalf said. “It would all begin quite innocently with the promise of a tale around the campfire...”
“But before long Strider would be hissing death threats at them in Elvish,” Halbarad finished, chuckling, "and the men would be falling off logs in hysterics. Strider, too, despite himself."
“There were no stories this time, I take it?”
“Just one,” Halbarad said. “It ended somewhat prematurely when Strider got up and walked off.”
“What did the twins have to say about all this?” Gandalf asked. Elrond’s sons were not only unencumbered by Dúnedain protocol but were fiercely protective of their foster brother. It was difficult to imagine that such behavior would have gone unchallenged.
Halbarad’s eyebrows furrowed. “Nothing, at least in my presence, and that worried me. They’ll tease him in front of the troops for fun, Gandalf, but when something is really bothering them they keep it to themselves.” The Ranger waved for the serving girl, who had been standing near the bar. Gandalf looked around and realized the few other patrons had departed to brave the snowy streets.
“It took us a week to reach the orcs' den - they had taken over a network of caves in the foothills and it went back a lot deeper than we expected. Either our prisoner was lying to us about their strength or they'd received reinforcements he didn't know about, but either way we found ourselves vastly outnumbered. We lost two men and a boy and barely got the rest of us out. The boy - ” Halbarad’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “His name was Baranuir, he was fifteen years old, and he lived for three days. Strider wouldn't leave him until the end. We had buried the other two men by then, but Baranuir – well, the weather was still cold enough. Strider and I took him home to his mother and dug the grave for her. When we were finished, we rode back to the East Road together. We spoke little on the way, but when we reached the crossroad, I realized that he could be gone for years again, and I might not have another chance to speak my mind on a matter that's been troubling me."
“Such inhibition does not seem to have plagued you in the past, Halbarad," Gandalf said with an edge of humor.
The gentle gibe failed to evoke a reaction. “About this issue, it has. And you’re not going to like what I have to say any more than he did.”
Gandalf smiled patiently. “Do not think me unacquainted with the strength of your kinsman’s opinions, dear Ranger. It was not for nothing that he was raised in Lord Elrond’s house. And you would be mistaken to think we are of the same mind on all issues.”
Halbarad sighed. “On this matter, I believe you are. I know how much you love the Shire, Gandalf. I care about it, too, and I have never begrudged its protection. But things are worse now. Women, children, and mere boys like Baranuir are being slaughtered with this influx of orcs - we no longer have the luxury of keeping half our strength along the borders of the Shire. My own son is captain at Sarn Ford, and he tells me that there have been no incidents that a force half as strong couldn’t have handled. I told Strider this. I told him that fifteen-year-old boys don't belong in orc caves, women shouldn't be left to fight orcs while the men inspect ox-carts at Brandywine Bridge, and I cannot face another dead child’s mother until I understand.”
Gandalf winced. “What did he say?”
Halbarad raised battle-scarred fingers to knead at the bridge of his nose. "He just told me the Shire-watch must remain as it is, and he could not tell me the reasons. So then I asked him why we didn’t just load up the women and children and move them to the Shire, then, where they would be safe?”
Gandalf raised an eyebrow at the image but said nothing.
“He turned to me and when I saw the look on his face I almost wished he would strike me instead. Finally I let him go. I just stood there in the road, watching him until he was out of sight. I almost rode after him. But I didn’t. I went home.”
“What brought you back?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad flushed and ducked his head. “My wife,” he finally answered with a rueful smile. “I rode all day and all night to get home, but the instant she got the story out of me she ordered me right back on my horse. She told me not to bother coming home until I had caught up with him and made things right.”
“I know she was right,” Halbarad said. “I would not let such an ill parting remain between friends when none of us knows what the next day may bring. I should not have spoken so rashly. It’s just that we have been friends for so long, and times are so hard, that I suppose I sometimes forget who it is I’m threatening to tie across his horse like a sack of wool.”
“So here I am,” Halbarad concluded, his flicker of a shrug taking in the common room, the Inn, the town of Bree. “Only now he’s vanished.”
“Into thin air,” echoed Gandalf, deciding to leave the issue of the Shire-watch for a later discussion. Perhaps once they located Aragorn some accommodation could be arrived at. “By all accounts, he was here somewhat less than four hours. He paid for a room which has not been slept in, sat in the common room for a time, spoke to no one but a few servants, and left abruptly after reading a letter I left for him with Butterbur. He retrieved his horse from the stable and rode out into the rain.”
“My horse,” corrected Halbarad automatically. At Gandalf’s questioning look, he shrugged. “Sorry, irrelevant. A letter, you say? Did it contain some urgent message?”
“No, and that is the strange part,” Gandalf mused. “It was not the least bit urgent, and in fact it bade Strider to wait here for my arrival.”
“Well,” said Halbarad, casting his gaze about the common room again, his eyes coming to rest on the serving girl, who was casting him a friendly look and assessing the level of his tankard hopefully, “if there is trouble in Bree, someone in the Prancing Pony will know about it. This place runs on rumor and gossip.”
Halbarad winked at the girl as she brought him a refill, then looked back at Gandalf as she retreated into the back room. The Ranger suddenly favored the wizard with a sly look. “Gandalf, my friend, I think it’s getting a little late for you, isn’t it?” At the wizard’s look of surprise, the Ranger adopted a wicked smile. “Why don’t you go on to bed? I think I’ll stay up a while longer. Trust me.”
It seemed to Gandalf the Gray as if he had barely closed his eyes when he was roused by a mad banging at his door. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” he called wearily, swinging his legs to the floor. A quick glance toward the window confirmed that it was still night. Shuffling to the door, he lifted the latch only to have the door thrust open, banging roughly into his knee. As he yelped in pain, a startled girl was propelled into the room, followed by Halbarad, wearing the same clothes Gandalf had last seen him in, dark shadows under his eyes, a heavy aroma of beer, and a fixed expression like that of a hound on a scent.
Holding the girl firmly by the arm, the Ranger jabbed a finger in the direction of the groggy wizard. “Tell him what you told me,” he ordered.
As the girl glanced up at the wizard skeptically, Gandalf recognized her as the apple-cheeked barmaid Halbarad had been intent on ingratiating himself to earlier. Gandalf couldn’t help but sympathize with her discomfiture at being brought in the middle of the night to the bedchambers of not just any wizard, but a bleary-eyed wizard with sleep-tousled hair and bare feet, wearing a nightshirt. He straightened himself and summoned as much dignity as he could muster. “Halbarad, what is the meaning of this?”
“Tell him!” the Ranger repeated by way of response, looking expectantly from the girl to the wizard and back again. The girl, for her part, bore the countenance of a rabbit standing in a field beneath the eyes of a hawk. In short, she looked as if she might let out a scream at any moment. Sensing that prompt intervention was called for, Gandalf quickly took the girl by the hand and withdrew her from Halbarad’s grasp, leading her to a chair by the hearth.
“There, now, let’s have seat, then,” he said soothingly, carefully pressing the girl down before setting about re-kindling the fire. “Now, Halbarad, dear boy, why don’t you take a deep breath and tell me why you’ve taken this poor girl captive.” He smiled his best grandfatherly smile at the girl, who was casting wary glances about the room and looking as if she was still a half breath from raising the alarm.
“Perhaps you could start by telling me her name,” Gandalf suggested helpfully without removing his eyes from the girl.
The question managed to break Halbarad out of his fixed stare. “Oh, yes, sorry, this is Thursa, you remember. She works here.”
Halbarad looked expectantly at Thursa for confirmation, but her only response was to clench her hands more tightly in her lap, head bowed low.
“Thank you for that insight, Halbarad,” Gandalf said with an edge of weariness. “Thursa,” he probed gently, “Halbarad, here, and I, are very concerned about our friend, Strider. We understand you may have seen him here at the Prancing Pony last night.”
When after a long moment the girl showed no sign of responding, he pressed. “Perhaps you may have served him?” He was finally rewarded with a slight nod of the bent head.
Halbarad was nodding vigorously now as well. “Ask her about Tillfield,” he prompted.
Gandalf shot him a questioning look, to which Halbarad's only response was a renewed emphatic pointing at the girl. Gandalf sighed impatiently at Halbarad and knelt next to the girl, placing one of his large hands over hers.
“Thursa, this is very important,” Gandalf explained in as soothing a voice as he could muster. “You aren’t in any trouble, I promise, but you must tell us if you know anything about where Strider has gone. We are very worried about him.”
The girl’s shoulders began to hitch, and she expelled a choked sob. “I didn’t mean for anything to happen,” she blurted out, bursting into tears and plunging her face into the depths of the wizard’s robe.
Gandalf grunted in surprise and patted her on the back reassuringly, glancing over the top of her head at the Ranger. “Halbarad, have you a clean handkerchief?” he whispered.
The Ranger frowned at him as blankly as if he’d been asked to produce the beating heart of a dragon. “A handkerchief?” he echoed dully.
When the girl’s sobs had subsided to intermittent whimpers, he began again. “There now, that’s better, Thursa. You are safe here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
She sniffled once more and wiped her tear-swollen eyes with the borrowed handkerchief. She swallowed hard and glanced up at Gandalf’s patient gaze before bowing her head, keeping her gaze fixed on her lap. “There are people in town,” she began hesitantly, leaning close and whispering as if the very walls could hear, “who have been asking about you.”
“About me?” asked Gandalf in genuine astonishment.
“I don’t know who they are,” she whispered, eyes darting furtively to the window. “Tillfield knows somebody.”
“Who is Tillfield?” Gandalf asked.
“He’s one of the kitchen boys,” she answered. “A hobbit, a real young one. Maybe twenty. His first name is really Dudo, but it’s such a funny-sounding name that Butterbur can’t hear it without laughing, so everyone just calls him by his last name - Tillfield.”
“When did all of this start?” interjected Halbarad.
“Last year, Tillfield came to me one day and told me that there are people in town who will pay for news of travelers. Nearly all the travelers in Bree come to the Pony. But since Tillfield mostly works back in the kitchen, he said he would pay us maids and serving girls for information.”
Wonderful, Gandalf thought. The Prancing Pony has its own little spy ring. “What kind of information?”
“All kinds. He especially wanted to know any time Rangers came. He wanted me to talk to them and find out where they’d been, what their assignment was, how many there were in their company, who their captain was, things like that. But there haven’t been many Rangers lately.”
Gandalf glanced up and caught Halbarad’s lips tightening. He looked back at the girl. “What else?”
“He wanted to know right away if you ever came.”
Again, Gandalf felt a lurch in his innards. He met Halbarad’s shocked stare, knowing it mirrored his own expression. “He mentioned me by name?”
“Yes, but I didn’t remember what it was, not until I asked Butterbur who you were, when you checked in. I just remembered how Tillfield described you: A tall, old man with a gray beard wearing gray robes. There aren’t too many people in Bree like that,” Thursa explained helpfully. “So when you came in a few weeks ago, I told Tillfield, and he gave me half a penny. Just for telling him you were here!”
“That was a bargain,” Halbarad muttered under his breath.
The girl cast a wary glance in the Ranger's direction, but when prompted by the wizard’s gentle squeeze of her shoulder she continued. “The morning you checked out, I told Tillfield that you left, and that you had given Butterbur a letter to keep. The next day, Tillfield came to me and said that if any Rangers came to the Pony, I was to tell him right away. And sure enough, within a week, that Strider came in. I found Tillfield gutting chickens in the back, and when I gave him the news, he ran out the back door without taking off his apron.”
“I knew right away when I saw that man that he was a Ranger, of course – they all have that look,” she said, casting a meaningful glance at a startled Halbarad. “Butterbur doesn’t like them. He says they never cause any trouble, and they pay their bills all right, but they’re all kind of dangerous-looking, in a quiet way, like a strange dog you meet on the street and you don’t know if it will bite you or let you pass by.” Her glance swept over Halbarad again in a way which suggested that she did not necessarily consider a certain quality of dangerousness an altogether bad thing, no matter what Butterbur’s personal opinions may have been on the subject.
“What happened when the Ranger arrived?” Gandalf prompted.
“Well, it was raining last night. He was soaking wet and his face and hands were all cut up and bruised like he’d been fighting. Just like his,” she added, eyes darting to Halbarad with unspoken accusation.
Halbarad released a small, bitter, chuckle. “You think a drunken brawl accounts for this? Pray that you never know how wrong you are.”
“Halbarad,” Gandalf warned. “Go ahead, Thursa.”
The girl scowled at Halbarad as if she still considered the drunken brawl a strong possibility. “The Ranger sat down at that back table in the corner, where they all like to sit. I brought him a beer and then went back to the kitchen to see if there was any soup left, because he looked so cold. When I brought the soup, he was just sitting there with his eyes closed. I thought he had fallen asleep, but he looked up at me when I put the bowl down in front of him. Then he just sat there holding it in his hands for a long time until it was too cold to eat; so I brought him a second bowl. He was still wearing his soaking wet cloak, so finally I asked him if he wanted me to take it and dry it by the fire. I hung it up for him, and he sat there a while longer. I didn’t see him leave; I was in the back and when I came out again he was just gone. Barley said he’d given him a letter and he just grabbed his cloak and his things from his room and ran out the door. I went to tell Tillfield, and he ran out the back again.”
The girl slumped in her chair. “That’s all I know,” she said softly. “I didn’t want anything to happen to him. He left me a nice tip.”
“Thursa,” Halbarad prodded, “who is Tillfield working for?”
She shook her head without looking up. “Some Dunlending, I don’t know his name.”
Halbarad looked to Gandalf grimly. “A gang of Dunlending bandits moved into Bree about a year ago. They’ve been attacking trade caravans and robbing merchants. We haven’t been able to spare the men to take care of it.”
Gandalf continued patting her shoulder absently, looking up at Halbarad. “We need to find this Tillfield,” he said.
Luckily, Tillfield was not hard to find. Thursa was dispatched to his rented room in back of the cobbler’s shop, and was able to lure him back to the Prancing Pony with the promise that Butterbur had a special job for which he would pay cash. The hobbit entered the inn and walked right into the arms of one highly annoyed Ranger named Halbarad.
Halbarad force-marched the hobbit down the hallway and thrust him into his own guestroom before halting abruptly at the door and turning to Gandalf, effectively blocking his entrance. “This one is mine,” he announced tersely. "Would you get me the chair out of your room? And here,” he said, removing his sword belt and handing it to the wizard. “Take this.”
Gandalf sighed and obediently went to down the hall to his guestroom to retrieve the requested chair. He carried it back to Halbarad’s room and knocked, only to have the chair abruptly snatched from him by the Ranger. “Thanks, Gandalf,” the Ranger said, hauling it through the doorway and attempting to shut the door once more on the wizard.
“Halbarad,” the wizard ventured, attempting to jam a foot in the door, “is everything all right?”
“Sure,” came the Ranger's reply as the crack in the door narrowed. “Trust me. I do this all the time.”
“That's what worries me," Gandalf found himself muttering to the closed door.
Halbarad turned from the door to face his small quarry, who had found a place to cower in front of the hearth. He exhaled deeply, choking down a dangerous flood of rage and forcing the muscles of his face to assume an expression of calm benevolence. It would be so much easier, not to mention more gratifying, to simply beat the snot out of this boy.
If only he didn’t look exactly like a six-year-old.
“Tillfield,” he began, setting Gandalf’s chair down next to the hearth, “is that what you like to be called? Sit down.” The object of his interrogation had backed himself up against the stone fireplace and now held his small arms crossed over his chest, large blue eyes fixed with a defiant look that said he would bolt for the door if Halbarad so much as glanced away.
“I said,” Halbarad repeated, holding the hobbit captive with a hard glare, “sit down.”
The hobbit paused one more moment, then obediently climbed up into the chair and sat expectantly, bare feet dangling a good ten inches above the floor. Halbarad sighed. This was not going to be easy.
“So, Tillfield,” Halbarad began, seating himself in the second chair and pulling it so close that scant inches lay between the boy’s knees and his own; so close that he could lean over and meet the boy’s eyes no matter how the other tried to avert his gaze, “I need you to tell me what happened to Strider.”
He hardened himself against the appearance of the small creature who sat facing him with passive defiance. Innocent and childlike though he appeared, it was becoming more evident by the minute that this diminutive floor-swabber had somehow engineered Aragorn’s disappearance.
He felt his jaw tighten at the hobbit’s lack of response. “You do not understand your peril,” he warned.
The small face turned upward resolutely. “I don’t have to talk to you,” the hobbit challenged. “You don’t have any right to keep me here.”
Halbarad restrained himself by the barest measure from lunging for the hobbit and hurling him against the closest available hard surface. He took a long, slow breath.
“Maybe you’re right, Tillfield. Maybe I don’t need to talk to you at all. I should just go straight to Butterbur. I’m sure he’ll be interested to know that you’ve been using his inn as the headquarters of your own personal spy ring.”
The tousled head barely budged. “I don’t care,” came the whispered response. “He hasn’t paid me in two months, anyway.”
Halbarad felt his jaw tighten. “Pay, is it? Is that what this is all about, then? You would sell a man’s life for a few coins?” He paused, stunned by the hard indifference in the childlike voice.
“Why shouldn’t I? Nobody cares about my life.”
Halbarad's fists tightened. So much for doing it the easy way. It was time for a different method.
Halbarad took a deep breath, absently nodding. “You know, Tillfield, you’re right,” he ventured, with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “Nobody’s going to look out for you but you alone, are they? If you don’t take steps, make sure you’re protected, you can end up rotting in an alley getting picked at by rats, just like that.”
“You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” he said knowingly, seeing a flicker of reaction in the boy’s averted features.
“No, don’t say anything,” he said, raising a hand to cut off the boy’s reply. “I don’t want you to say anything right now. I’m going to tell you what happened, and you just listen, all right?”
He took another deep breath and reached deep into his imagination for a sad, sorry tale of a poor, honorable, young hobbit forced by cruel circumstance to take desperate action.
Out in the darkened hallway, Gandalf pressed himself against the door, craning his ear awkwardly against it, feeling a complete fool. He straightened his back and smiled innocently as a chambermaid passed by, casting him a suspicious glance. Pinning his ear back against the door as she disappeared around the corner, he reassured himself that as of yet, he had heard no sounds of violence from within.
An hour into his monologue, Halbarad had decided the process was taking too long. He was getting tired of listening to himself talk, his attention span was not what it once was, and he’d always been slightly more in favor of the beating method of interrogation, anyway. Orcs were so much simpler.
He got up and walked around the room, stretching his cramped muscles and peering out the window. The barest edge of the rooftop across the street was now distinguishable in the waning darkness. Halbarad turned back to the boy, standing behind his chair and placing a hand on his shoulder. “You never meant for anyone to get hurt, did you?” he said, still groping for a theme which would unlock the small creature's resistance. “You’re a good lad, I can tell. And smart,” he added. He squeezed the small shoulder, gauging the boy’s reaction, noting with satisfaction that the clenched arms were relaxing just a bit. He walked casually back to the window. “Sometimes a resourceful young, er, hobbit, has to take advantage of an opportunity. No one else is going to take care of you except you, right? I’ll bet you have some family to take care of, right? A mother? Sisters?” He watched the boy surreptitiously for a reaction. Finally the bowed head nodded tellingly. “A mother?” he said hopefully. Another slight nod.
“I knew it,” Halbarad said sympathetically, feeling a rush of triumphant jubilation but managing to keep it out of his voice. “You’re a good son. You’re just trying to help your mother, not hurt anyone. You wouldn’t be a good son if you let your mother starve, would you? Times are hard, and they’re getting harder. I’ve seen the business here at the Pony. There weren’t ten men in the common room tonight, and Butterbur's not paying you? Who’s going to take care of your mother if not for you? Anyway, all you did was tell about things that anyone could see anyway, right? It wasn’t like you were hurting anyone. You never meant to hurt anyone, did you?”
The boy gave a slight, defeated, incriminating head shake and his slumping shoulders finally caved in. Looking down on the bowed head, Halbarad patted his arm reassuringly and suppressed a smirk of triumph. “I knew you didn’t. Why don’t you tell me how it all started?”
The only thing Gandalf had to show for almost two hours of holding his ear against the door to Halbarad’s room was a painful crick in his neck, the heavy oak door having proven sufficiently thick to muffle all sounds from within. At least there have been no sounds too loud to muffle, he reminded himself. Alerted to the presence of a nefarious character prowling the hallways of the inn, Butterbur had dutifully come to investigate some time ago, shuffling sleepily down the hallway wearing a red nightshirt and floppy nightcap. Taking one look at the sheepish wizard hunched over with his ear pressed to the door, he had thrown up his hands and disappeared back down the hall, muttering about strange folk.
Just as Gandalf had begun to worry that Halbarad had surrendered to his darker impulses and simply strangled the hobbit, the door he was leaning against opened abruptly, pitching him head-first into the room. As he stumbled to right himself, he found Halbarad standing before him, an arm wrapped protectively around a very confused-looking hobbit. “Come in,” the Ranger announced tersely, his demeanor having lost none of its resemblance to a hound on a scent. “You need to hear this.”
An half hour later, after at least three rundowns of the sorry tale of hobbity descent into corruption, a weary Halbarad scratched his head and glanced over at Gandalf, who was calmly sipping a cup of tea. “The what street again?” he prompted.
“The Street of the White Doors,” the boy sniffled.
Halbarad looked to Gandalf, who shrugged and shook his head. “When were you last there?”
“Tonight – well, last night,” the boy corrected himself with a glance at the graying light penetrating the window.
“You went there to tell Teburic that I had arrived, didn’t you?” Halbarad guessed. The boy flinched.
“It’s all right,” Halbarad said. “Just tell us what happened. You went there last night and what happened?”
“There was no one there.”
“Is that unusual?”
“I don’t know. I don’t go there that often. Sometimes I don’t go there for weeks, especially lately. There’s hardly ever anybody at the Pony these days except for townsfolk, and Teburic doesn’t care about them.”
“No, he only cares about wizards and Rangers, apparently,” muttered Halbarad. “All right, when was the last time that you actually saw this Teburic, or anybody, at the house?”
“The night before,” the boy answered, “when I went to tell Teburic that Strider had arrived. That night I went twice. To tell Teburic that the Ranger had arrived, and later, to tell him that he left. Only the second time nobody answered.”
“Tillfield,” Gandalf said, “it’s very important that you try to remember every single thing that happened that night. Strider’s life may depend on it.”
The boy sighed and looked hesitantly first at Gandalf and then at Halbarad before answering. “Well,” he began, “like I said, I went to the house. I told Teburic that the Ranger Strider had just arrived at the inn. He told me to stay right there and he went upstairs. A minute later he came back downstairs and gave me a letter and told me to wait three hours and then remind Butterbur about the letter from the wizard. From you.” He paused and looked at Gandalf nervously, clearly having never expected to be confronted by the author of the very same letter. “And then he paid me,” he added with a downcast gaze.
“Go on, Tillfield,” the wizard urged. “It’s all right.”
The boy swallowed. “When I got back to the Pony, Strider was still sitting in the common room by himself. When I had waited long enough, I went and gave the letter to Butterbur. Right after the Ranger read it, he left.”
“How did Teburic get the letter?” Halbarad asked, exchanging a glance with Gandalf.
“I gave it to him. A week ago.”
Gandalf blinked hard. “You gave it to him?”
“Yes. I took it out of Butterbur’s letter drawer right after you gave it to him.”
Gandalf threw Halbarad a dark glance. “Are you sure that was the same letter he gave back to you yesterday?”
The hobbit shrugged. “I don’t know. It looked like the same letter to me. I can’t read.”
“Tillfield, stay put,” Halbarad ordered the boy, motioning to Gandalf out into the hallway. Holding the door open just enough to keep an eye on the boy, he leaned closer to his companion. “Ever heard of this Teburic?”
The wizard shook his head. “No, but I am thankfully not on intimate terms with the Bree criminal underworld.”
“Me, either. But I'm about to be."
The boy looked up as the door opened fully again and his two wardens came back into the room. Halbarad bent down before the boy, dark resolve glinting in his eyes. “Tillfield,” he said, “look at me.” The boy looked at him obediently. “Now look at Gandalf.” The boy’s gaze reluctantly shifted to the wizard.
Halbarad leaned close to the boy. “We have a job for you. As long as you do exactly as we ask, you have nothing to fear. But just in case you had any thought of crossing us, I want you to remember that I am a Ranger. And Gandalf is a wizard. And our friend is missing. If you betray us, you have far more to fear from us than from any thief-lord. You know that, don’t you?” He answered the boy’s weak nod with a reassuring pat on the thin shoulder. “Good. You’re going to take us to Teburic’s house.”
“I don’t see any white doors, either,” Halbarad whispered over his shoulder as he lurked in the shadows of the narrow street, a hand firmly planted on the hobbit’s shoulder. “That’s just what they call it, ‘The Street of the White Doors’. Maybe there were some white doors here at some time in the past. Ah, that’s it, down there, is it?” He skidded to a halt in the ankle-deep snow. With daybreak less than an hour away, they didn't have much time. Halbarad was only too aware of the sheer impossibility of a Ranger, a wizard, and a hobbit moving unnoticed about the meaner streets of Bree in broad daylight. Even now, gray light was softening the eastern sky.
Safely cloaked in gloom for the moment, Halbarad squinted halfway down the street to the house the boy pointed at. Its roof badly needed patching. It had no white door. Its door was of no particular color at all, in fact, looking to have not been painted within recent memory.
Halbarad caught a glimpse of Gandalf over his shoulder and winced at the sight of the wizard attempting to blend in to the shadows of the alley. Even with the oversized pointed hat left behind at the inn, Gandalf still managed to be the most incredibly conspicuous person Halbarad had ever seen. He sighed. There was nothing to be done about it. There were no other Rangers in town, and he had no time to wait for any.
A quick check of the rear revealed a muddy, garbage-strewn back yard enclosed by a rotting plank fence and containing one very large, very mean-looking dog, about whose dangerousness Halbarad harbored no doubt whatsoever. The back door looked to be boarded up and there were no signs that it had recently been used. Halbarad dispatched Gandalf to watch the back, just in case. Then he watched from the corner as the boy approached the front of the house and knocked on the door. After a few moments, the boy walked back to Halbarad’s position. “There’s no answer,” he announced.
Halbarad looked down the narrow street, its surface dusted with a layer of pristine snow untouched but for the footprints of the hobbit. There would be no concealing their passage this night. “All right,” the Ranger said. “Let’s go in.”
Halbarad broke open the rusty lock, countering Gandalf's disapproving frown with a glance at the muck of footprints in the fresh snow of the stoop. Only the warmth of day would erase the evidence.
Moments later, the small party stood in the lower hallway of the house, gazing about at scattered piles of junk and detritus, all bathed in the bluish light of Gandalf’s staff. Dismissing it all with a glance, Halbarad turned toward the rickety stairs. He hesitated at the base and cast a hopeful glance toward Gandalf’s glowing staff. “I don’t suppose that thing would work for me?”
“My dear boy,” Gandalf answered, tightening his grip on it, “I shudder to think of the consequences.”
Halbarad grunted and drew a dagger as he assessed the angles of the staircase, suppressing a pervading sense of doom at undertaking this task with only an elderly wizard and a duplicitous three-foot-tall chicken-gutter for back-up.
He turned back around and found the latter determinedly brandishing what looked to be a boning knife from the Pony’s kitchen at a level uncomfortably near his crotch. “Tillfield, watch where you’re pointing that thing!” he hissed under his breath. “Stay downstairs. If anyone comes into this house, scream las loud as you can and then run like - well, just run, all right?”
Fixing his eyes on the top of the stairs, Halbarad turned his head slightly to whisper a curt string of instructions to Gandalf, who he now saw had unsheathed an enormous, wicked-looking sword which would be absolutely useless in tight quarters. Valar, give me orcs any day. “There's a door at the top of the stairs. Stay close to me. When I open the door, I’ll go left. You go right. Whatever you do, don't stop in the doorway. Got it?”
Without waiting for an answer, he started up the stairway.
The door at the top was locked with a padlock. With Gandalf at his shoulder, Halbarad broke the hasp with a sharp wrench and swung the door open, stepping smoothly into the room.
The attic was unoccupied. It consisted of a single unfinished space, with ancient timbers propping up a slanted roof hung with generations of cobwebs. The rear half was cluttered with cascading stacks of dusty crates and other dust-draped storage items. The front half had been in recent use as a living space, reasonably clean and orderly in appearance, containing a bed and several pieces of furniture. A desk dominated the center of the room. When Halbarad had satisfied himself that no one was lurking beneath the bed or in hiding in the wardrobe, he came to join Gandalf, who was inspecting the items on the desk.
“I fear there is more evil at work here than can be accounted for by a mere thief-lord,” the wizard said, fingering a quill pen made of some shiny black material. “See, these are detailed maps, and even the writing materials here are of high quality, fine inks and papers, very expensive. A thief would not value such things. But I think there is more here yet.” He turned his attention to a plain cabinet next to the wall. It was unadorned, made of painted wood, yet its door was fastened with a lock.
“This lock is enchanted,” announced Gandalf gravely, casting a dark glance at the Ranger.
Halbarad swallowed. “Does that mean we can’t open it?”
"No, of course not," Gandalf replied, looking a trifle indignant. “Though it may take a bit of time.”
Halbarad emitted a scornful grunt and stepped over to the cabinet. Inserting the blade of his dagger between the frame of the cabinet and the door, he pried the wood apart far enough to wedge his fingers in between. With a crack of breaking wood, he ripped the door off its hinges. He tossed the remains of the door into a corner and waved Gandalf to the cabinet, returning the wizard's look of diminishing patience with a shrug. “I guess they didn’t bother to enchant the wood.”
Gandalf sighed and leaned over to peer into the interior of the cabinet. Deep in its recesses, he spied a folded paper. He reached in and removed it. As he recognized the handwriting on it Halbarad heard him expel a faint groan of dismay.
“What is it?” Halbarad asked.
The wizard handed the paper to Halbarad, closing his eyes in painful realization. “It is my letter to Aragorn.”
“But Butterbur gave him your letter at the Pony,” Halbarad said, frowning as he picked his way with difficulty through the Elvish text. Suddenly he looked up in dawning horror. “It was a different letter. He’s being led into a trap. Teburic replaced your letter with – something else.”
“Teburic – or whoever owns this cabinet,” Gandalf said. “It appears that someone wanted our friend out of Bree in a hurry last night. We can only guess why.” He removed several jars of ink and blocks of sealing wax from the cabinet before sweeping a hand into its recesses and producing a small object.
Halbarad frowned at the yellowish bauble Gandalf held up to the glow of his staff. "What's that?"
Gandalf squinted at it and shook his head. "I don't know. There is something sealed within. I have seen such containers used before, to preserve caustic or dangerous substances." He shot a disapproving look at the ruins of the cabinet and began scooping up papers and stuffing them into his robe. “Any thought we had to secrecy is lost. Take what you can. We must make haste.”
“But what about - ” Halbarad broke off in mid-sentence as a hobbit-sized scream issued forth from the first floor. The fading cry was followed closely by the rough sounds of Men’s voices and Men’s footsteps.
Halbarad immediately turned to face the stairs, raising his dagger. “When we get downstairs, run, and don’t stop for anything,” the Ranger ordered tersely. Pausing for a mere instant to make sure the wizard was close on his shoulder, he plunged down the stairs.
Straight into a quintet of hefty, dagger-brandishing ruffians, one of whom held a terrified, struggling Tillfield tightly by both arms.
“Cover your eyes!” Gandalf hissed into his ear.
“Close your eyes! Now!” Halbarad barely had time to comply when a blinding flash of light exploded through his closed eyelids. He opened them as the light began to fade, and found even then that he could barely discern shapes through the wild afterimages floating in his vision. As he fought to orient himself, surrounded by a confused cacophony of angry shouts, he felt a hand grab him firmly by the arm and propel him forward. A moment later he found himself out in the dark street.
“Where’s Tillfield?” he managed to gasp, stumbling on the rough ground.
“Right here,” Gandalf’s voice answered from behind his left ear. “Keep moving.”
By the time they made it back to the Prancing Pony, Halbarad’s vision had returned to normal, though the lack of pursuers testified to the lingering effects of Gandalf’s light trick on the unprepared. Tillfield’s reaction had apparently been a moment too slow, and he allowed Gandalf to steer him through the corridors of the Prancing Pony and into the guestroom which had become their unofficial headquarters, still rubbing at his smarting eyes.
Halbarad bolted shut the door to the room and slumped onto the bed in exhaustion and relief. After he had caught his breath he opened his eyes to meet Gandalf’s. “Thank you,” he said simply.
The wizard smiled. “I may look decrepit to your eyes, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeve, young Dúnadan.”
“Thank the Valar,” Halbarad murmured. He rolled over onto his elbow and eyed the trembling boy slumped in the chair by the fire. “Tillfield?”
The boy's eyes were filled with undisguised terror. “They’re going to kill me.”
Halbarad shrugged out of his cloak as he entered Gandalf's room and hung it on the drying rack next to the fire. He swatted futilely at the pall of pipe-weed smoke hanging at chest height and knelt next to the hearth, warming his hands. A glance about the room revealed a hobbit-sized mound under the blankets on the bed.
“Any luck?” asked Gandalf without looking up. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a stolen map spread out before him. Scattered around him, illuminated better now by the morning light, was the hastily-gathered booty of their pre-dawn raid: assorted bottles, leather pouches, and finely-lettered writings in several languages Halbarad was not familiar with.
“Yes,” the Ranger answered, leaning to peer over the wizard’s shoulder. “That's Dwarvish, isn't it?”
The wizard nodded in assent. “The Dwarves are excellent map-makers,” he commented absently. “What did you learn?”
“He was seen leaving the west gate on horseback. I found his tracks a few miles south, along the Greenway. I would say he is making for Sarn Ford.”
“Are you sure?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad shot him an injured look. “It’s my horse,” he explained, as if every responsible horseman should be able to pick his mount’s hoof prints out of a sodden quagmire of churned mud. “Besides,” he added, “he didn’t get far before he had to dismount to lead the horse around a bad patch of road, and he has a gouge in the sole of his left boot where he stepped on an orc-blade. It’s him.”
Halbarad sat next to the fire and pulled off his boots, setting them next to the hearth in an optimistic attempt to dry them. He stretched his bare feet toward the fire with the unself-conscious manner of a man accustomed to handling the necessities of life in the open air.
“Aragorn dislikes traveling by horseback with no one to share the watches,” Gandalf observed without looking up.
Halbarad, too, had wondered if he would find the horse left behind in the stable. “He's got an arrow wound in his leg. It must still be bothering him. I also checked up on this Teburic,” the Ranger continued. “He turned up in Bree last summer, along with the rest of this Dunlending rabble. Seems to be their leader. He managed to take over the Bree underworld with amazing ease. Seems everyone who crosses Teburic ends up in an alley with a slit throat. Or just disappears. Now he takes a cut of every picked pocket and lost load of potatoes in Breeland.” He leaned over and looked down at the subject of Gandalf’s scrutiny. “What have you found?”
“There is more afoot here than common thuggery,” the wizard said. “I fear the involvement of greater forces. Only that would explain this ink,” he gestured at a purloined bottle. “It is enchanted, probably to facilitate such forgery as was directed at Aragorn. There are several herbs and drugs here with strange properties as well, most of which I do not fully understand. I have not been able to decipher these writings as of yet, but the very fact that I have not bodes ill. Aragorn was lured away on a false errand, to what end we can only guess. We must make haste.” He looked down on the maps. “But there are no markings here to indicate where he might have been led.”
“I don’t need markings on a map,” said Halbarad, pulling his boots away from the fire and jamming them onto his feet. “There’s only one tracker in Eriador better than I am, and right now, he’s riding my horse.”
“Please take me with you,” pleaded the hobbit, his tousled head barely grazing the bottom of the horse’s saddle.
Halbarad continued to tighten the girth strap, pressing a shoulder into the horse’s belly to force it to exhale. “No,” he repeated for the third time. He cast a furious glare over the back of the horse at Gandalf and mouthed “No!” again silently.
“Please,” Tillfield insisted, his small hand grasping the sleeve of the Ranger’s cloak. “It’s my fault this happened. Please let me help to make it right.”
Halbarad’s fingers paused in fastening the bridle. He winced and glanced again at Gandalf, who was merely standing patiently next to his own horse, his weathered features bearing a benignly unhelpful expression. Oh, sure, make me be the bad guy, thought Halbarad. You know as well as I do we’ll end up getting this halfling killed. If he doesn’t get us killed first. He leaned over the young hobbit and put a hand on the small shoulder. “Listen, Tillfield, I appreciate your concern, but you’ve helped us enough already. This is going to be a dangerous journey. I can’t be responsible for your safety.”
"I won't be safe here either," the hobbit countered. "Teburic's men will kill me."
Halbarad hesitated. He hardened his jaw with more effort than he would have thought necessary. "You're safer here than you will be with us," he argued. "Butterbur will look after you."
To his dismay, the hobbit’s eyes welled up with tears. “I’m no good for anything,” he sniffed. “Nobody wants me and I can’t do anything right!” The shoulder under Halbarad’s hand hitched once, twice, and then broke out in a series of violent shudders as the hobbit collapsed into sobs of despair. Halbarad looked at Gandalf helplessly to find the wizard still favoring him with that infuriating look of patient expectation. Does he do this to Aragorn? Halbarad found himself wondering.
“All right, all right,” he found himself saying, against all logic. “You can come.” The hobbit’s gasping breaths slowly subsided, and he swallowed a few last sobs to look up at Halbarad with an expression of worship that the Ranger had only seen directed at Aragorn before. “Go on now,” he said, shooing the small being away, uncomfortable not only at the attention but at the whole entire melodramatic display which had just transpired. “You’d better run home and tell your mother that you’ll be gone for a while.”
The young hobbit looked up at him blankly. “I don’t have a mother,” he said. “She’s dead. I’ve been on my own for five years.”
Halbarad frowned in confusion. "What do you mean, you don’t have a mother? What about –“
“Oh, that,” said Tillfield. “I thought if I agreed with you I’d finally get something to eat.” He wiped the tears from his face with a small fist and gestured back towards the inn. “I’ll go get some food from the kitchen.”
Gandalf smiled at the mortified expression on the Ranger’s face. “Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” he said, and went to gather his belongings.
“Rolly.” Aragorn reinforced the name with a gentle shaking of the boy’s shoulder, and finally the gray eyes opened, taking in the still, snowy landscape just emerging out of the shadows of pre-dawn. The boy clutched his blanket protectively to his chest as he sat up. Aragorn, himself huddled against the cold, handed him a chunk of bread and a piece of hard sausage. “Hurry and eat. We must be on our way; we’ll make better time while the ground is still frozen.”
The boy was staring at him with a shocked expression, and he realized what a sight he must look even in the dim gray light. By now, livid shades of red and purple must be evident on his face. His vision was restricted by a right eye that had swollen nearly shut. The cut on his forehead had finally stopped bleeding, but the cut to his arm had not, as was obvious from the soaked bandages wound about it in haphazard layers.
“How is your head?” the boy asked, getting to his feet and reluctantly casting off his blanket in order to roll it. Aragorn had already turned away, barely twitching his shoulders in reply as he set about breaking camp. Standing over the failing fire, he kicked snow impatiently over its last glowing embers before going to check on the horse.
“She will have to be walked for at least another day,” he announced, rising with some difficulty from a kneeling position next to the mare’s front legs. He gave her a reassuring pat and scanned the morning sky. “We had best be on the road, for as slow as our progress will be in this snow, it will be worse once the ground softens.”
The boy gathered his cloak tightly around him and followed him out from beneath the shelter.
By mid-day, Aragorn could feel both his steps and his breath shortening as he struggled along the muddy trail. The rising temperatures had indeed softened the frozen ground once again into a sloppy quagmire, slowing the trio’s progress to a crawl. In better weather a rider on horseback could make good speed through this flat stretch, sloping gently as it did from the downs to the broad plain of the Brandywine, but a lame horse and a lamer Ranger in spring mud make for a slow pair. It was encouraging to see that the horse, at least, seemed to be walking more easily as the soreness worked out of her joints. Perhaps by tomorrow she could be ridden for short periods, which would be helpful since his own leg was not going to hold out much longer. You win another argument, my old friend, he reflected, although when you see what condition your horse is in you may wish you had not…
The day warmed rapidly as the sun marched high in a flawless spring sky, its heat comforting to long-chilled bones but its brightness a stabbing assault to eyes more accustomed of late to the gray gloom of winter overcasts and the dark recesses of Orc-caves. Aragorn fought not to squint in the harsh sunlight, as the slightest movement of his forehead immediately evoked a throbbing reminder of the gash above his right eye. His arm was throbbing as well, and still bleeding, a situation he was choosing to ignore for the time being, beyond occasionally adding another layer to the growing wad of bloody rags decorating his left sleeve.
The wind had turned out of the south, and a delicate breeze was wafting across the plain, carrying spring-scented traces of fallow earth and ripe bog. He realized he was sweating under the cloak and shrugged it off, throwing it over the back of the horse. He glanced back at the boy, who was trudging along in silence ten paces behind, his own cloak wadded up under his arm. He looked tired. No doubt the pace of the march was not pressing him, but he had slept only two or three hours after Aragorn had insisted on taking the watch.
Aragorn still felt a lingering uneasiness at allowing the boy to walk behind him. He would rather have kept the boy where he could keep an eye on him, but he couldn’t very well put him out front, mere youth that he was…. Aragorn paused in his tracks, struck by the realization that in deciding the boy couldn’t be put on point, he was already past considering him a prisoner. When did that happen?
Surprised at himself, and conscious suddenly of the weight of his own weariness, he frowned and rubbed his aching head, pushing sweat-dampened hair off his face and stubbornly summoning fading alertness as he fought the overwhelming urge to cast himself down in this very spot and not get up again for a very long time.
He looked down. The boy was standing next to him, looking up at him with that wide-eyed look that he was still not sure he trusted. “Do you think we could stop for a little while?”
Aragorn nodded after a moment, feeling a rueful smile pull at his sore face. “I think that might be just the thing.”
Ahead was a high bank overlooking the stream. In summer it would be shaded by the immense willows lining the bank here, but on this day their draping green strands were bare of leaves, barely filtering the sunlight. The ground beneath the trees was fairly dry, and Aragorn spread some grain out on the ground for the horse before sinking down against a very solid trunk. Behind him, he could hear the boy foraging through their disorganized and salvaged collection of packs, presumably for food.
Aragorn didn’t realize he had dozed off until he felt a nudge against his shoulder. He cracked open his eyes – the left one, at least, the right was still only partially cooperating - and took the proffered sausage from the boy. It was Butterbur’s sausage, a fact which Aragorn found strangely comforting, though the thought of food had little appeal. The boy’s gray eyes were boring holes into him again. “I think you have a fever,” he announced solemnly. “Do you feel like you have a fever?”
Oh, probably, Aragorn thought to himself. I’ve been walking around with an infected arrow wound for nearly two weeks; I’d say I’m due.
“No,” he answered firmly. “I’m just warm from walking in the sun. I should have taken my cloak off earlier. Sit down and eat.” The boy threw him a skeptical look but complied.
“Where are your parents, Rolly?” Aragorn asked as the boy settled down next to him. He took a disinterested bite of the sausage, wincing as a jab of pain shot through his jaw as he tried to chew.
The boy seemed taken aback. “My parents?” He frowned as if the memory was locked behind a heavy door which had not been opened in a very long time. “They’re dead,” he answered presently. “They died a long time ago.” He fell silent, picking up a stick and scratching it absently on the ground.
The Ranger shifted carefully against the trunk of the willow, trying to find a comfortable position. “I lost my father when I was very young, also,” he offered by way of reciprocity.
The stick paused in the boy’s hand. “You did? What happened to him?”
“He was killed by orcs.”
“My father was killed by bad Men. And my mother, too. And the baby.” The boy picked up the stick in both hands and gripped the ends tightly in his small fists. He began to bend it, his face and arms rigid with effort, as if to snap it. But after a moment he pointed it down at the ground again and resumed drawing in the dirt. “But my father first,” he whispered, delicate brows drawing together in unspoken anguish.
Aragorn sat in silence for a moment, only too sure that the boy knew exactly what had happened. Had probably seen it. He swallowed, suddenly reminded of how sheltered his own childhood had been in comparison to such horrors.
“And then what happened to you?” he asked.
The boy stared at the ground, his pale face blank with memories purged by necessity of all emotion. “The men took me and my sister to a town in Dunland and sold us, along with the animals,” he said woodenly, hunched in on himself. “I never saw my sister after that. I was so little, but I had to work for a brick-maker. I had to work from sunrise to sunset and he hardly fed me anything. I was so hungry all the time. I was so hungry that I couldn’t sleep at night. I had no shoes, I had no cloak. I slept with the animals to get warm. I knew I was going to die. I was going to die and nobody was going to care. Until….”
The boy breathed sharply, as if jarring himself from the hold of the past. He straightened he shoulders and tightened his jaw. “Until I ran away, and Teburic found me,” the boy said. “And at first it was better, because at least he gave me some food. He taught me to steal and pick pockets. He used me to sneak into houses because I was so small. When he came to Bree he brought me with him. But then he started to beat me all the time. He beat me with a board, he beat me with a strap, he beat me with the hilt of his knife. He does bad things to people, and I was afraid that he would kill me, too. So I tried to run away, but his men found me and brought me back. And he beat me and beat me. And then- ” his voice choked suddenly, his thin face screwing up into a mask of pure agony and his thin frame collapsing into silent sobs.
“Don’t worry,” the Ranger found himself saying, reaching a hand to steady the trembling shoulders, setting his jaw set against whatever horrors the boy had endured that were worse than being beaten with a knife-hilt. “You won’t have to go back to him. I promise.”
“You promise?” The thin face turned upward in a desperate search for reassurance.
“I promise,” he answered, knowing that the resolve on his face was plain to read.
The boy smiled and got up from the ground. “I think I should make some more tea for you, before we leave again. You do have a fever. I can see it in your eyes. And you should let me look at your arm while the light is good. You don’t want to leave a blood-trail all the way to Sarn Ford, do you?”
Aragorn forced a smile in reaction, battling a recurrence of uneasiness. There was too much about this boy that he still did not understand, and his own lapses in wariness worried him. Had he told the boy he was headed for Sarn Ford? He couldn’t be sure. “All right,” he said finally, leaning his head back against the bole of the tree. “Just don’t waste too much time. I intend to make the Brandywine by dusk.”
The boy retrieved supplies from the packs and convinced the Ranger lie down before he carefully cut through the layers of blood-soaked fabric as water heated over the fire. Aragorn removed his coat to expose the wound and held his arm outstretched as the boy poured warm water onto a clean rag and carefully washed the blood from the gash. The cut was straight, even, and fairly narrow, but deep. Even now, fresh blood welled up and flowed freely from the wound. Aragorn patiently suffered his right hand to be placed into service against the fresh bandage for pressure while the boy searched the packs for more clean cloths. “It needs to be stitched,” the boy announced solemnly.
“No.” There was no way he was going to let this child sew him up.
The boy persisted. “Do you want it to keep bleeding? You’ve already lost a lot of blood and we have a long way to go. I know how to do this. You have a needle and gut in your pack, I saw it.”
Aragorn considered his options. The wound was not serious, but it was just as obvious that it was not going to stop bleeding, and he couldn’t spare the blood, in the shape he was in. If the boy proved not up to the task, he could simply order him to stop. “All right,” he said reluctantly.
He insisted on sitting with his head propped on a pack so as to supervise the boy’s efforts, but the pain soon overtook his professional interest and he found that he needed all his strength just to keep his body still under the probe of the needle.
When it was over, he found himself lying flat on the ground again, squinting against the early afternoon sun, as clean cloths were wrapped around the injury. He lay still as the involuntary shudders of pain slowly subsided and the repressed, overwhelming urge to struggle abated. As the spring breeze wicked the moisture from his sweat-soaked shirt, he began to shiver.
Feeling the weight of a blanket being placed over him, he opened his eyes and threw it off. “We have to get moving in a few minutes.”
“In a few minutes,” the boy responded, handing him a mug of tea. Aragorn propped himself up on an elbow and sniffed the liquid surreptitiously before taking a sip, but could detect nothing beyond the starwort left over from his own supplies.
“Thank you,” he said hesitantly, and the boy smiled shyly.
“What about you?” the boy asked, seated next to him on the ground, watching him to make sure he drank all the tea.
“What about me?”
“After your father was killed. What happened to you?”
Oh. Well, that's what you get, he told himself. The truth then, as much as was possible. “Another family took me in.”
“What were they like?”
“My foster father was wise, and kind, and gentle, and patient,” Aragorn answered softly.
The boy had heard something concealed within his words. “Is he dead, then?”
“No. He lives.”
The boy’s face tightened in confusion. “Did he beat you?”
“No, child!” Aragorn almost yelped in denial, startled by the absurdity of the very notion. “What made you think that?”
“You look sad,” the boy responded. “I thought that he had hurt you.”
Aragorn wadded up the blanket and pushed himself to his feet. “No, lad. It was I who hurt him,” he confessed, biting back a familiar but unwelcome wave of longing entwined with sick remorse.
"Why?" The boy was still at his elbow as he limped over to the riverbank and bent stiffly to rinse out the crockery.
"It's complicated," he said irritably, shaking water from the mug and shoving it into a pack. "You're too young to understand."
"No, I'm not."
Aragorn slung the pack onto the horse and grabbed hold of the reins. "Lad, I'm too young to understand. Now let's get moving."
Middle Earth, C.S.I.
Halbarad led the way down the narrow set of switchbacks into the gorge. The warmth of the day had dried the trail somewhat and the party had thankfully made decent time from Bree, despite Tillfield’s demanding to stop and eat twice. With luck, they could get three or four more hours of good travel behind them before stopping for the night.
Maneuvering the horse carefully down the rocky path past the falls, Halbarad pulled up abruptly as a hideous, red-spattered cliff face came into view. “Whoa,” he said, partly to the horse, and partly just as a general commentary. Dismounting, he dropped the reins and walked down the path alone to survey the area below the discolored rock. Glancing up at the still-mounted Gandalf, he nodded over at the ominous stain. “Look at that,” he announced. “Strider did that.”
“Strider did what?” Gandalf said, eyeing the gruesome splatters uncomfortably. “I’d like to make completely sure I don’t misunderstand you, if you don’t mind.”
Halbarad jabbed a finger toward the rock face. “Beheaded someone. Right here on this spot.” He cast his glance around the stained ground. "Looks like that's not all that happened."
He looked up at Tillfield and smiled at the hobbit's open-mouthed stare at the garish splash of blood. “Not quite like butchering chickens, eh, Tillfield?” the Ranger called good-naturedly.
“You’re sure that it was Strider?” Gandalf asked, carefully lowering Tillfield to the ground and dismounting after him. “Not that I don’t believe you, mind,” he was quick to add, by now realizing that Halbarad had a bit of a touchy side. He motioned for the wide-eyed hobbit to stay put and hold the horses, and went to join Halbarad at the base of the bluff.
The Ranger stood back from the rock and folded his arms, assessing the spatter pattern with professional admiration. “I’m sure. Look - process of elimination, my dear Gandalf. First of all, this is his signature stroke - very clean, very quick very powerful,” he pronounced, gesturing with a broad wave. “Lopped that head off quicker than one of Tillfield's chickens. Right to left, so probably a right-hander, which is most people, so that doesn’t help much. But practically nobody else in these parts does decent beheadings except Strider, who does happen to be right-handed, as I’m sure you know. I certainly can’t.”
Halbarad took in Gandalf’s expression and merely shrugged. “Oh, sure, I can do it - but in the heat of battle, I probably won't. This is a beautiful stroke - elegant as Elbereth's best ball gown and lethal as my mother's home-brew - but it's risky, too - opens you wide up, and it uses up a lot of space on the follow-through. Takes years of practice to perfect it. My father used to say that this was a stroke for Elves and people who thought they were, not for working Rangers with a job to do."
Gandalf raised a curious eyebrow. "Your father said that?"
"Every time he caught me practicing it," Halbarad chuckled, stooping to read the blood-soaked mud much as Gandalf might have read an ancient Elvish text. “All right - process of elimination again. We know this isn't Strider's blood - not most of it, anyway - because whoever owned all this blood is definitely dead and Strider walked away from this fight. Those are his footprints, see? - heading south, there, along the trail away from here. But there are no footprints of his attackers leaving. They did not walk away. They,” he went on, stooping to read the markings on the ground with a characteristic hunched posture that again shot a pang of recognition through the wizard, “got dragged over to the riverbank and dumped into the water, right there.”
“But not by Strider,” Halbarad added in surprise, squinting at the drag marks and the footprints still visible beside them. He knelt to get a closer look. “These footprints are too small to belong to a man. They belong to a boy, or maybe a woman.” He straightened and made another circuit of the scene, bending down here and there to examine something on the ground.
Finally returning to Gandalf’s side, he crossed his arms, cleared his throat, and summarized. “Strider was ambushed as he came through this narrow gap between the rocks. With this rope here. Oldest trick in the book - remind me to give him a hard time about that when we find him. The horse fell and probably threw him. He beheaded one attacker and cut the other one so badly that he bled out, right on the ground over there. Then somehow he ended up lying here, on the ground, between the others. After that, a fourth person, someone light, with small feet, walked up on the scene after the fighting was all over - see the smaller footprints in the blood, there? That person dumped the two bodies, scuffled with Strider, if I read these signs correctly, and then left here walking behind him.”
“A prisoner?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad shook his head uncertainly, motioning Gandalf back toward the horses. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.” He took his reins from a still-slack-jawed Tillfield. He waited for Gandalf to re-mount and lifted Tillfield into the saddle behind him. He hoisted himself onto his own horse and looked over at Gandalf. “We need to make haste. I have a very bad feeling about this.”
Daylight was waning before Halbarad pulled his horse off the trail. “This is the best place around here to stop for the night,” he said, pointing at a rocky outcropping looming ahead, a short distance off the trail and separated from it by a short embankment and a little clearing overgrown with young scrub. “Night will soon fall, and I wouldn’t risk losing Strider’s tracks in the dark. But look - all three sets of tracks leave the trail just here – it may be that he chose this place to rest, too.”
It may be that he had to, Halbarad thought privately, given the decreasing interval with which he had noted drops of blood spattered along the route of travel. Dismounting, he led his horse from the path, head still bent to read the ground as he made his way through the underbrush. The wizard dismounted to lead the horse behind Halbarad but left Tillfield perched atop the saddle to spare him a hike through face-level shrubbery.
The passage of Aragorn, his mysterious companion, and the horse through the underbrush had left such a wreckage of broken twigs and crushed undergrowth that Tillfield probably could have followed it, Halbarad noted with some concern. Aragorn had obviously been making no attempt to conceal his tracks by this point. Either he wanted to be followed, or he was beyond caring.
As Halbarad emerged from the tangle of low shrubs and weeds into the clearing beneath the overhang, plucking barbed seedpods from the knees of his trousers, he motioned for Gandalf to halt. As the wizard stood obediently at the perimeter of the campsite, holding the horses, Halbarad made a slow circuit of the area.
“Strider rested here for some time,” he announced presently, kneeling at a flat spot between the cliff face and the remains of the campfire. He reached to touch a dark blot on the ground. “Still bleeding."
"The leg wound?" Gandalf asked.
"No, looks like an arm. His traveling companion lay over there, on the other side of the fire. It may have been a boy, after all. He was fairly short, whoever he was.”
“He fed my horse, at least,” Halbarad commented, noting a few grain hulls pressed into the now-dried mud. The Ranger reached down and picked up a stray piece of wood from the ground, turning it over in his hands. “Gandalf.”
The wizard took the piece of wood, squinting to make out the scratched Elvish characters. “This is a message to me,” he said, the lines of his face tightening. “He made all speed to meet me upon receiving my message, but was ambushed on the road by Dunlendings. He travels now with one of their company, a young boy of unknown reliability who says their purpose was to kidnap Rangers. He knows not why.”
“The carvings on the other side are Dúnedain runes,” Halbarad explained. “He was here one night after the new moon and makes for Sarn Ford on urgent business. He warns against bandits on the road hunting Rangers.”
“Strider has been hunted before,” Gandalf said quietly. “I fear for him if his identity is discovered.” He went to the horse and helped Tillfield dismount, then began to unload his packs. “He was led here on a false errand, that much is clear. But was the ambush the beginning and end of it, or is there some deeper plot? At least we know that he survived the attack at the falls and made it this far safely. Perhaps all will be well.” Over Tillfield’s head, he looked to Halbarad with look that belied his optimistic words.
Halbarad didn’t believe it either, but he said nothing. He still stood holding the piece of wood, absently tracing the markings as if his fingers could unlock the location of the hand that carved them. Gandalf laid a hand on the cloaked shoulder. “There is nothing more to be done tonight, Halbarad.” The Ranger sighed, tucked the piece of wood into a pocket, and knelt to kindle the fire.
Aragorn managed to lead the boy and the horse for nearly four more hours along the marshy river trail -far exceeding Halbarad's original prediction, he was careful to note afterward- before the strength went out of his knees and he fell. Finding himself sitting on the wet ground, black bottomland muck soaking into his trousers, he argued futilely with the boy about the relative soundness of the horse's legs versus his own before somehow ending up astride her - not in the manner of a sack of wool, as Halbarad had threatened, but in normal fashion – and thereafter managed little else but to clutch weakly to the saddle as the boy led them onward. As the thin spring sunlight waned, the fickle heat of day dispersed, and he began to fight waves of chills.
As dusk fell across the broad land and the last ruddy glow had slipped from the horizon, the first sting of the night breeze roused Aragorn from a fever-clad stupor and he realized that the horse had stopped. He raised his head and looked around. The flat plain of the Brandywine spread out around him, surrendering gradually to the rapidly settling darkness. Aragorn pulled his leg over the back of the horse and tumbled down, letting the boy steer him to the ground.
Lying against a leather pack, covered with a blanket, Aragorn watched disinterestedly as Eärendil flared to life overhead and the boy crouched over the fire, stirring something in a pot. Starwort again, undoubtedly. He squinted to clear his vision as the boy loomed before him, holding something out. “Drink this,” he urged.
Aragorn turned his head away. He didn't want any more Starwort. Starwort was good for nothing but old folks' joint pains; that was precisely why he still had some left. He closed his eyes against the nauseating, slipping sensation of impending delirium.
The boy was holding his head still, pressing the mug to his lips now. "Just drink this, and you can rest," he said. Insistent lad. Aragorn would have preferred not to be bothered, but he couldn't think of a good reason not to cooperate. If the boy wanted to kill him, he was quite correct in saying he needn’t go to the trouble of brewing tea. He relaxed in the boy's hands and submitted to the pressure against his jaw, keeping a hand atop his sword hilt, just in case.
The liquid burned as it flowed down his throat and he struggled to swallow without choking, finding the ordinarily instinctive reflex oddly difficult. The boy’s face seemed to be swimming in front of him. He was saying something that Aragorn could not understand. It didn’t matter. He was too tired to care.
He felt a tug, like that of a gentle current, and he acquiesced as it pulled him adrift from the cold ground that he rested on. It seemed that he floated at peace for a while, but presently a face loomed in front of him and he instantly recognized the onset of nightmare. Often had this face frequented his nightmares of late. It was the face of a boy on the verge of manhood, with a thin crop of ruddy whiskers poking through his chin, and a voice still wavering between the sweet notes of boyhood and the deeper tones of the man he would never become. Gangly with late adolescent growth, his angular hands and feet somehow seemed too large for the rest of him. He was young, much too young to be along on such a mission, but there had been no choice.
“Baranuir,” he said.
As he feared, as he had come to expect, the boy's peaceful face transformed before his eyes into an agonal, horrifying caricature, with quivering lips struggling to form breath and terrified eyes lunging at him accusingly. And then the desperate cry, the cry that rent his heart.
"I don't want to die!" the boy strained to gasp.
"Baranuir!" he whispered, tightening his grip on the boy's hand, trying to grasp hold of him even as he slipped away.
"Don't let me die!" the boy breathed, locking desperate, terrified gray eyes with his own, his chest hitching and his breath growing short as the blood left his body through wounds to grievous for any medicine to heal.
"Hold on," he whispered.
"Aragorn, don't let me die," the boy pleaded, his eyes fading.
It was the last thing he would ever say.
"I won't," he promised, knowing even as he said it that he lied.
The voice was as faint and hollow as a gull's cry on the sea, but he turned toward it - better it, better anything, than the nightmare. He fought to gain his breath, chest heaving. He opened his eyes to see the pale-faced boy kneeling over him. The other boy. "Rolly."
The boy sat back on his heels, peering at him seriously. "You were having a bad dream. Are you all right?"
He closed his eyes again for a long moment and took a deep breath, nodding. "Yes. I'm fine."
"You said a name- Baranuir." He knew it without being told. Little else had populated his scanty dreams since he left the Angle. The boy frowned. "Who is he?"
He could not answer the question because he had never really bothered to to find out. For two weeks he had managed not to notice the boy who kept a respectful distance from his newly arrived Chieftain, cheerfully carrying out the menial tasks the other men assigned to him, who gazed in wide-eyed admiration from across the camp at the man whose name the others only whispered, and mimicked his movements as they traveled across the wastelands. Aragorn swallowed, tasting regret. "He was a Ranger."
He pushed himself up against the pack. Though his body ached with fever and exhaustion, he didn't want to sleep again. It was near midnight, and moonlight drenched the plain and outlined the ragged shapes of the trees. "What happened to him?" the boy asked.
"He was killed by orcs," he found himself saying, realizing with irony that the boy must think this a repetitious theme. "He was young - about your age."
"He was your friend?"
His friend? No, that would have been unlikely, even under the best of circumstances, given their ages, their ranks, the time they would have had in each other's company - but something - a mentor, an advisor - a Chieftain worthy of half the admiration the boy bestowed on him - that, at least, he could have been, had he not been so utterly preoccupied with his own concerns. Aragorn shook his head. "He tried to be."
The boy came over and pressed him down again. "It has been a long day. Rest, and I will watch until morning."
Aragorn allowed it, but fell asleep only reluctantly, fearing the return of the nightmare. In the end, though, it was the scream of a different boy that snatched him back to consciousness.
His hand found the sword hilt even before his eyes opened, but an instant later it was knocked aside as a boot drove his shoulder into the ground.
Pinned by a crushing weight atop his neck, he gasped as an enormously powerful grip took hold of his wrist and yanked, twisting his shoulder joint to within an inch of snapping. He smelled a sour breath against his face as a deep voice growled in his ear, “Want to get at that sword, eh? We’ll see about that.”
As he struggled wildly to free himself, his imprisoned right hand was slammed against the ground and pinned there by a boot, or a knee. With the weight of a full-grown man crushing his neck and the wrenching torque threatening to dislocate his shoulder, he was held captive as his peripheral vision yielded an image of an upraised arm.
He heard an involuntary cry of pain burst forth as the hilt fell and slammed home against his hand, crushing the bones against the rocky ground. As vision returned, Aragorn saw Rolly in the corner of his eye, cowering in terror next to the horse, and knew without being told that the huge, wild-haired man kneeling on top of him was Teburic.
“Well now, little Ranger,” the thief-lord sneered as Aragorn fought to gain his breath against the shock of fresh trauma and the pressure of a 300-pound weight crushing his torso. “I'm glad that we finally meet.”
Aragorn was quickly disarmed and his hands were bound as lay sick with shock from the trauma of the blow. Managing finally to roll over onto his side, he saw Teburic advancing on the boy, whose face was overtaken with terror. “What happened to Kergelen and Dergren?” the thief-lord demanded, grasping the boy by his shirt and lifting him effortlessly off the ground. “Where are they?”
Aragorn struggled to get his weight under him as Teburic back-handed the slightly-built boy with such force that he was thrown through the air. The boy tumbled end-over-end and scrambled away in a desperate attempt to escape. The huge Dunlending was fast for his size, though, and lunged for the boy again, this time with his dagger flipped to use the hilt as a bludgeon.
Aragorn rocked to his knees and pushed himself forward, desperately scrambling across the distance between himself and Teburic, diving to reach the thief-lord before he could strike the boy with the raised knife-hilt. His head slammed into Teburic’s broad back and both men went down in a tangle. Aragorn twisted for advantage but with bound hands and an injured leg he never had a chance. Fingers caught hold of his hair and yanked his head back, and a thick arm tightened against his throat until blackness overtook his vision.
After dinner, Halbarad leaned against a boulder and methodically sopped up the remnants of his meal with a piece of bread. “You haven’t eaten much, Tillfield,” he observed. “You’re going to give hobbits a bad name.” When the boy failed to answer, the Ranger looked to Gandalf for assistance.
The wizard looked to the young hobbit, who stared expressionless into the fire. “I’m forced to agree with Halbarad, young master hobbit,” he said good-naturedly.
Halbarad caught Gandalf’s worried look and forced himself to his feet. Setting his bowl down by the fire, he reached for his cloak. “I’d better scout the area one more time before we turn in,” he said, and disappeared into the brush.
Tillfield sat motionless as Gandalf rose and seated himself beside him.
“I’m sorry, Gandalf.”
The wizard rested a large hand on the tiny shoulder. “I know you are.”
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” the boy whispered. “It was like a game. It was exciting. I felt important and smart. But I wasn’t. I was just stupid. Now your friend is hurt and it’s my fault.”
Gandalf gave the shoulder a squeeze and reached to cup the small chin in his hand. “Look at me, young one.” Leaning over to meet the boy’s tortured gaze, he said, “I forgive you. And when we find Strider, he will forgive you, too.”
“But that’s not enough,” the hobbit protested. “What if we don’t find him? What if he dies? It will be my fault.”
“It will not be your fault,” Gandalf insisted, taking both small shoulders firmly in his hands this time and squaring off against the small form. “I have been fighting the forces of evil in this world since before there were hobbits in the Shire, Dudo Tillfield, and I know a thing or two about their ways. They are masters of lies and deceit. They corrupt the innocent and mislead the wise. They sow the seeds of doubt and despair and revel in their abundant harvest.” He heard the bitterness in his own words and released the boy’s shoulders before the tension could reach his hands.
Gandalf released a sigh. “Life is a succession of choices, Dudo. Most people manage to make some bad ones along the way. The past is out of our reach, and its choices are beyond recall. You must learn from them, you must live with their consequences, but you cannot allow them to haunt you. You must release yourself from this anguish.”
“You have been forgiven. Now you must forgive yourself.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It is not easy. But it is all we have.”
The boy sat still a few moments longer, hands clasped in his lap. Then he rose and filled his bowl from the stew pot. Sitting back down next to Gandalf, he paused in the act of digging his spoon into the bowl. Twisting around, he wrinkled his nose at the wizard. “How did you know my name was Dudo, anyway?”
The wizard raised an eyebrow and favored the hobbit with a ghost of a smile. “Now, I can’t tell you all my secrets. Why don’t you like that name?”
“It’s a stupid name,” Tillfield replied, head lowered.
“Who says that?”
“Everyone in Bree.”
“Nonsense,” the wizard said. “Dudo is a fine, respectable hobbit name.”
“Not in Bree, it isn’t.”
“Well, in Bree they don’t know everything yet,” Gandalf said, reaching into his pack to remove his pipe and a pouch of pipe-weed. “So tell me, how did a Bree-hobbit come by a venerable Shire name like Dudo?”
“My mother came from the Shire." He looked down. "My father was from Bree."
“And what happened to him”
“My father? I don’t know. She never spoke of him."
"Do you still have family in the Shire?"
"She said they wouldn't want her back," Tillfield said softly. "Or me."
“Well, my young hobbit,” Gandalf began, settling back against the log and chewing contentedly on his pipe. “Your name has a long and respectable history in the Shire. Let me tell a story about a brave young hobbit named Dudo…”
Full night had fallen when Halbarad emerged into the light of the campfire to find the tall wizard and the tiny hobbit sitting companionably close together on a log, blowing twin smoke rings from their long pipes. Halbarad favored Gandalf with a disapproving glance and gestured at Tillfield. “Isn’t he a little young for that?”
“I’m not too young to earn my own keep,” the hobbit piped up with the singular quality of petulant defensiveness which only the young can wield. “I’m not too young to work from sunrise to sunset in the kitchen so people like you can eat a nice dinner. I’m not too young -"
“All right, all right,” Halbarad answered, winking at Gandalf and raising his hands in surrender. “I give up.” He rolled a boulder nearer the fire and sat himself down on it. Glancing up at the star-filled sky, he rubbed his hands to warm them. “It will be cold tonight, but tomorrow will be warm again. If this dry weather holds, we should have no trouble catching up with Strider. Gandalf, do you want the first watch or the second?”
“I can take a watch, too,” Tillfield piped up.
“No, Tillfield, Gandalf and I will take the watches.”
“You both need to be awake tomorrow so you can find Strider,” the hobbit argued. “I can sleep all day atop the horse and it won’t matter. I can take a watch. I know what to do.”
Halbarad glanced to Gandalf for support, but the wizard was smiling with a characteristically unhelpful expression. Halbarad sighed. He would never live it down if Aragorn found out he left a hobbit on the watch, but there was no sense arguing if Gandalf wasn’t going to back him up. He would simply have to appease the hobbit and surreptitiously stay awake for two watches.
“All right, then. You can take the first watch. You sit down right here, between me and Gandalf, and wake us if you hear or see anything.” At this, the hobbit’s broad face brightened with fervent delight. He reached into his cloak and pulled out his boning knife, clutching it before him two-handed.
“I will,” the young hobbit pronounced. “You’ll see. I can be just like a Ranger.”
Halbarad stifled a chuckle. “Listen, Tillfield,” he said, seating himself next to the hobbit. “If you're to be a Ranger, you can't be carrying around a boning knife from Butterbur’s kitchen. You’ll ruin our reputation.” He reached into his boot and withdrew a slim dagger secreted in a burnished leather scabbard. “Here,” he said, handing the knife to the wide-eyed hobbit.
The hobbit accepted the sheathed weapon, brushing his fingers along the polished surface of the hilt, hesitant to pull the blade from the scabbard. “Is this a real Ranger dagger?” he breathed.
Halbarad smiled, catching Gandalf's knowing glance. “This is a very special dagger, Tillfield. It was a gift from a very good friend of mine - Strider’s brother, actually. We were fighting orcs, and I lost all of my weapons. He threw me this dagger and I was able to fight my way out with it. Later, he told me to keep it tucked away, just in case of emergencies."
Tillfield's eyes widened. “And he’s a Ranger, too? Strider’s brother?”
Halbarad laughed. “Yes, well, sort of an honorary one. Like you. Go ahead, take it out of the scabbard – carefully! Don’t cut yourself…”
As the stars spun overhead, Gandalf drifted into sleep to the sound of Halbarad’s voice, talking of orcs and Rangers and brothers who were nearly so...
When Baranuir's face was the next thing he saw, Aragorn thought he was dead, and said so.
Baranuir laughed. "Why do you think you're dead?"
Aragorn frowned. It seemed to him that death was a reasonable corollary to blacking out with an enraged Dunlending's arm across one's throat and waking up talking to a ghost.
"Because you are," he answered hesitantly, hoping that this would not come as a surprise to Baranuir. He had grown accustomed to seeing the boy in his dreams, but this time the nightmare was different. Always before, it began in an orc cave, with him leading eighteen men and two Elves into a trap, and ended with him kneeling over the body of a boy whose death had finally been a mercy. But the face that smiled at him now was marred by neither struggle nor agony. It was the face of one either untouched by death, or forever carried beyond its grasp.
Baranuir's unblemished face took on a thoughtful expression. "And what is my death to you?"
Aragorn swallowed his grief and faced his shame. "It was my fault."
"Halbarad was right. You shouldn't have been there. You were too young, and though you fought bravely you were no warrior." He shook his head. "But too many warriors were gone."
"To the Shire?"
He nodded. "Most of them."
"It was you who sent them there."
"I had to."
No. Not even Halbarad knew that.
"Why is the Shire so important?" Baranuir pressed. "What did Mithrandir tell you about the Shire?"
Aragorn frowned. "Mithrandir?"
"Gandalf," Baranuir patiently clarified, not understanding the source of his confusion. "Did Gandalf tell you to post the Rangers at the borders of the Shire?"
Aragorn considered the question. The answer was no, not exactly. Gandalf hadn't told him to do anything at all, he never did. To know Gandalf was ever to wander paths of one's own choosing, only to find oneself arriving at destinations of Gandalf's.
Baranuir was still looking at him, expecting an answer.
Aragorn chose the easiest question, the one he could answer truthfully. "Gandalf loves the Shire. That's why it's important to him."
Something was not right here, something that Aragorn could not put his finger on. He looked at Baranuir skeptically. "How do you know the name Mithrandir? The Rangers don't call him that."
Annoyance flashed across Baranuir's features for just an instant, but then he laughed in good-natured defeat, and abandoned Aragorn to oblivion.
When Aragorn awoke, he was instantly certain of two facts: He hurt way too much to be dead, and he was lying on the cold ground again. Beyond that, very little was immediately discernable through a sickening miasma of aches, fever, and a strange, lingering muddiness that seemed to clog his mind and senses.
After his initial attempt at moving his head left him clutched by waves of nausea, he lay still to ride it out, listening. A hollow silence told him that he was not outside, and the damp air carried a whiff of woodsmoke, the odors of rotten wood and mildew, and the fainter notes of grain dust and horse-leather. When finally he cracked his eyes open, they slowly focused on an unpainted plank wall. Something metal rattled as he moved slightly, and he looked down to see a chain, attached at one end to manacles on his wrists, and at the other to a wooden hitching post sunk into the floor a foot from his head. He got an elbow under himself and grabbed hold of the post to pull himself up. Propping his back against the solid support, he looked around to get his bearings. The room was small and dark, and from the dingy clutter of barrels and crates occupying most of the floor space, appeared to be a storeroom. Gray light filtered through the chinks in three of the walls, and by the sharp angle of the roof and the haphazard construction he guessed it was a lean-to attached to another structure.
He glanced down at his waist. His weapons were gone, of course, along with his outer garments. His boots, too, he noticed with dismay and some surprise. They didn’t usually think of that. He found himself somewhat flattered at still being considered a flight risk, his present appearance surely not being far from the half-dead carcass of Halbarad’s recent oratory outpouring.
His hand was in agony, but there was no point in attempting to remove his glove to examine it. The obvious swelling, the awkward cant of his fingers, and the spike of pure agony radiating from the point of impact were proof enough of the damage Teburic had done.
The manacles themselves were in decent condition, as was the short chain attaching them to the post, and neither was likely to be defeated without tools, but a glance about the room revealed nothing which could be put into use as such. A less technical strategy would have to be employed for the time being, one that his mother used to have a term for. She called it "elbow grease". He sighed, and made a practice tug at the post.
He’d been working on it for only a few minutes, with no result except to worsen his headache and break a sweat, when he heard the metallic scrape of a bar being pulled from the door. He lay back down, feigning unconsciousness. Light steps entered the room and stopped near his head. Something was set down next to him, and then he heard the unmistakable sound of a cloth being wrung out. Rolly, he realized, even before he felt the cool dampness against his forehead.
“Strider,” the boy whispered. “It’s me, Rolly. Can you hear me? It’s all right. He’s asleep, he’s not here.”
Aragorn opened his eyes and sat up abruptly when he saw the condition of the boy's face, biting down the nausea induced by the quick movement. “Rolly, what did he do to you?” he whispered, reaching his bound hands toward the boy but afraid to touch the damaged flesh for fear of causing more pain.
The boy shook his head, eyes averted. “I'm all right. He just beat me, that’s all. He was angry that Dergren and Kergelen were dead.” The boy looked up with uncertainty. “He doesn’t know that I was going to go with you. I told him that after you killed them you made me go with you, is that all right?”
Aragorn nodded absently. “Tell him whatever you need to. Where are we?"
"It's a cabin that he keeps for his men that rob along the river road and the Greenway. This is the storage shed."
"How far are we from where he found us?"
"We rode for about two hours. I don't know how far."
"Is Teburic alone?"
The boy nodded. "When we got here he opened a barrel of wine and got drunk."
"Rolly,” he said, grasping the boy’s arm with his good hand and leaning close. “Do you know where Teburic keeps the keys to these manacles?”
The boy nodded. “On his belt.”
Aragorn sighed and bit back a curse. "All right, then. You have to run, do you understand me? Run away and get help.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “I can’t!” he whispered.
“You must,” Aragorn said flatly. He glanced toward the door. "Go quickly, and don’t look back. If you can find any Rangers, tell them what happened and send help.”
“But I can’t leave you!” the boy cried, his thin face pinched with anguish.
“You must,” Aragorn said quietly. “Now go.”
The boy cast him one last, pleading, protesting glance. “Go,” Aragorn repeated, waiting for the boy to disappear out the door before turning his attention back to the post.
Teburic did not sleep long. The boy had been gone barely a half hour, by the Ranger’s reckoning, when the huge Dunlending appeared in the open doorway, scanning the cramped interior of the lean-to. “Where is that boy?” he demanded, closing the distance to the Ranger with surprising speed and yanking him up by his shirt.
“Why don’t you forget about the boy?” Aragorn said, stifling a gasp as the thief-lord’s jerk pulled the iron manacle tight against his injured hand. “You’ve got me now.”
Teburic’s dark eyes narrowed, engaging Aragorn’s grey ones just a few inches from his face. “But that's the best part, Strider. I've got you both. Don't worry, we'll have plenty of time to get acquainted later. But right now, I have a little rabbit to hunt.” He shoved Aragorn roughly back to the floor and turned to leave. “You talked him into it, didn’t you?” he accused, turning back from the doorway. “You told him to run.”
The Dunlending came a step closer and heaved a heavy boot into Aragorn’s side, evoking a choked gasp. “Think about that for a while,” he said. “He won’t get far. And when I come back with him, we’ll get down to business.”
The light filtering through the cracks in the walls had deepened to a shade barely distinguishable from black, and with dusk had come a cooling breeze that brought a small measure of comfort to Aragorn in his labors to dislodge the timber post sunk into the floor. The slight whiff of air drew the heat from his sweat-soaked hair and shirt, and soothed his pounding head, yet exhaustion and fever were gaining on him again, and he did not know how much longer he could continue. He paused his methodical tugging and gave the post a final frustrated yank, confirming that two hours of pushing and pulling had so far resulted in nothing more than a bruised shoulder and another aching hand. If only he could find something with which to dig….
Aragorn released his grip on the post and gingerly leaned his shoulder against it, flexing the muscles of his left hand to ease the cramps. He avoided even looking at the other one, a swollen, misshapen claw beneath the taut leather of his glove, too painful even to touch. He wiped the sweat from his brow, feeling shudders creep into his muscles already as the chills began again. He rested his forehead against the rough wood and closed his aching eyes. There was little chance that he could defeat the massive Dunlending now, even should he escape his bonds. His only hope was that the boy had escaped.
The snort of a horse startled him to alertness, and a man’s heavy footsteps again approached the door to the lean-to. The bar was pulled away, and this time Aragorn didn’t bother to feign unconsciousness. Looking up at the doorway as it filled with the massive bulk of Teburic, Aragorn’s heart sank as he saw what the thief-lord grasped before him, suspended between meaty fists – the unconscious form of Rolly.
“Reap what you sow, Ranger,” Teburic said, heaving the boy’s limp form across the length of the lean-to. The boy landed in a crumpled heap on a pile of grain sacks in the corner and did not move.
Aragorn tensed as the man approached him, aware that he was nearly helpless but unable to go down without a fight. He raised his bound hands in self-defense, but the bear of a man merely stood over him, shaking his head, his bulbous face twisted with amusement. “Hard to believe such a scrawny mongrel as you took out two of my best men,” he said. “When we’re through with business, you’ll pay for that. But first, I have a job to do.”
Aragorn ignored the threat. This was actually a promising development. The man was not as undisciplined as he initially appeared, and a man capable of delaying gratification and setting priorities might be a man he could deal with. "What do you want with me?"
Teburic folded his arms. “Glad you asked,” he said congenially. “It’s always better when men can conduct their business in a civil manner, don't you agree?” He leaned over. “Tell me what all your Rangers are doing on the Shire borders.”
“Protecting it,” Aragorn answered. “It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.”
“Ah, but not quite, is it?” Teburic retorted. “The guard was doubled some years back. Why?”
“Whom are you working for?”
Aragorn’s answer was a kick in the ribs. “First lesson,” Teburic said calmly, as Aragorn doubled over. “I ask the questions.”
Aragorn managed to straighten and faced the Dunlending eye to eye. “You might as well kill me and be done with it."
“An excellent suggestion, and believe me, a very tempting one,” Teburic said, leaning close enough for Aragorn to count his pores. “There’s only one little problem with it. If you don't talk, I don’t get paid. And I have no intention of not getting paid. I hope I’ve made myself clear.” He knelt down and stared Aragorn in the face. “One last chance to do this the easy way. What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?”
“Tell me who wants to know about Gandalf and I will make it worth your while,” Aragorn replied, an instant before a backhanded slap hurled him face-first into the floor. As he lay stunned, Teburic’s knee drove into his back again, crushing his chest against the floor. As he lay helpless, his ankles were bound together, and then Teburic stood up.
Aragorn rolled to his side. "You will never win,” he whispered, craning his neck to meet the thief-lord in the eye.
“We’ll see about that,” Teburic responded. He reached behind him and took up a long staff of wood.
Aragorn ducked his head in an instinctive attempt to protect his face and curled himself inward, managing to set his jaw against the pain before the first blow struck. Eyes tightly clenched, he bit back the urge to cry out as blows landed rhythmically across his back and legs. When finally it stopped, he lay trembling, steeling himself for the resumption of a torment whose force, he began to realize, had been carefully calculated to weaken him without inflicting mortal harm.
“Gandalf,” the Dunlending said simply, lowering the staff and waiting while the Ranger’s gasps slowly subsided. When there was no response, he leaned over until his heavy face loomed inches from Aragorn’s. “Gandalf,” he repeated. “What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?”
Had Aragorn been in a slightly less dire position, he would have laughed. He had asked Gandalf the very same question, many decades ago, when his friendship with the wizard was new and he had yet seen little of the evils of Men and darker creatures. To an ambitious, fearless - say it, reckless, youth, fairly ravenous with the hunger for adventure and exploration, the Shire and all of its incurious, simple folk had seemed incomprehensibly quaint, provincial, and, well, boring. What possible interest could anyone have in a pastoral land populated by such silly, self-interested creatures as hobbits when there were wild, unseen lands to roam, nasty evil creatures to slaughter, and newly-revealed destinies to explore?
“Someday, you will understand,” Gandalf had answered him then, with a knowing smile that Aragorn would come to know well over the coming years. And indeed, years later, when Aragorn had quite had his fill of the evil deeds of Men and fouler creatures, he did.
What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?
Though Aragorn had no intention of answering the question in any fashion that would satisfy Teburic, he found himself mesmerized by its very absurdity, and horrified by its implications. Somehow, he and Gandalf had made a grave mistake. Their earnest and well-meaning efforts to protect the Shire and its terrible secret had somehow unwittingly drawn unwanted attention to both. Aragorn drew small comfort from the fact that the man who stood before him had as yet no more conception of the reason for Rangers' presence at the Shire than he had of Gandalf's love for it.
“You will never understand,” Aragorn answered, managing to take one full breath before the blows began to fall again.
The interrogation went on until he passed out from the pain, and when consciousness returned, he found that the fever which had been toying with him had at last come on in full force, burning through his scalp and leaving him tearing at the shirt that seemed to wrap him in hot coals. He tossed helplessly in the restraints, hoping desperately with fading awareness that the rising tide of fever toxins in his bloodstream would kill him quickly, silencing him and forever taking his secrets out of reach, before cloying delirium could loosen his tongue.
Hope for such an outcome was short-lived. In his fevered half-awareness, Aragorn felt hands take hold of his shoulders and lift him, supporting his head as something was pressed against his lips. “Don't go dying on me, Strider,” a familiar harsh voice whispered in his ear. “We haven't even started yet.” He tried to turn his head away, but an iron grip fastened on his jaw and held him still as bitter liquid was poured between his lips. His mouth was held closed and his head held still until he swallowed reflexively to keep from choking. As soon as he gained his breath, the process was repeated. When it was done, Aragorn was laid back down on the floor, too weak and disoriented to move.
Some time had passed, it seemed, when the fever seemed to lift like a fog, and Aragorn opened his eyes to calm lucidity. There was something heavy, stiff, and smelly on top of him. A horse blanket. He pushed it off and sat up slowly. His head felt fuzzy and his muscles were weak but the incessant pounding was gone, for the moment. It was night. He searched the shadows and saw a boy-sized form huddled against the far wall. He tried to move toward it but was held back by the manacles. Leaning as close as he could, he whispered, “Rolly.”
“Strider?” came an answering whimper. “I’m sorry. I got lost, he caught me - ”
“Shh,” he answered. “It’s all right. Can you come over here?”
The huddled shadow obediently crawled over to him.
“Where did he hurt you?” Aragorn asked, reaching to examine the boy for injuries.
“He just hit me. He does that a lot,” the boy answered, as if that were an answer. “My head hurts.”
“Do you feel dizzy? Do you feel like you have to throw up?”
“No,” the boy answered. “My head just hurts. What do we do now?”
Aragorn sighed. Teburic was no fool. The boy would not be given another opportunity to run, and it would soon occur to the Dunlending to use him as leverage, if it hadn't already. Two prisoners could be used against each other, but in this case, he was the only one with something to offer. The stakes had just been raised. He turned back to the wooden post. “I need to get this post out of the ground. Does Teburic keep anything in here that you can use to dig? Knives, tools, anything?”
The boy thought for a moment. “There are some tools he uses to clean the horse’s hooves,” he said. He crawled over to a pile of junk in the corner and rummaged through it by feel. Finally coming up with the items he sought, he brought them over and handed one to Aragorn.
The Ranger took the tool in his hand and felt the curve of the blade. It would not make much of a weapon, but against a dirt floor, it would do just fine.
Gandalf's horse trotted briskly alongside the Ranger's. Dry weather and stiff winds had dried the trail to a passably hard surface, though conditions had obviously been quite different when Halbarad's mare had passed here. Her prints were easily tracked through the now-dried mud, and alongside them, small human ones. Aragorn's boot prints had disappeared some miles back, when he mounted, apparently leaving the boy to lead the horse onward. Halbarad's face had tightened at that development, and even now his hands were tense on the reins. Weariness and strain were showing in his voice as he fielded the hobbit's endless barrage of questions.
"And then what happened?" Tillfield demanded, twisting in the saddle to look up at the tall Ranger. "Did you kill all the orcs?"
"Only the ones standing between me and the way out," Halbarad replied, the lines of worry relaxing for a moment into a chagrined smile.
"And then Strider's brother let you keep the knife," Tillfield prompted, looking down at the polished hilt poking out of his belt.
"Yes, he did. He told me that it might come in handy if I ever needed to save him someday."
"Because Rangers always take care of each other, right?"
The Ranger's brow tightened once more, and the Wizard caught the note of bitterness in his reply. "Almost always."
"I'll bet you've killed lots of orcs."
"I have indeed, but not nearly as many as Strider's brothers have," Halbarad answered, with a wry glance in Gandalf's direction. "You know, Tillfield, Rangers do other things besides kill orcs."
"Well, we keep the roads safe from bandits, we guard the borders of the Shire, we hunt, we plant a few crops, we train our horses and raise our children - "
"Do you have children?"
"I have three, and two grandchildren."
The hobbit twisted around in the saddle in astonishment. "You have grandchildren?"
Halbarad laughed. "Yes, does that surprise you?"
"You're not old enough," the hobbit declared. "Butterbur is older than you and he doesn't have any grandchildren."
Halbarad winked at Gandalf. "I must have had an early start, then."
"Does Strider have children?"
"No, he doesn't."
"Why not?" When the Ranger failed to answer, the hobbit pressed. "Doesn't he want any?"
Gandalf took pity on the Ranger and decided to intercede. "Strider is a very busy man, Dudo. He just hasn't gotten around to it yet."
"What about you, Gandalf? How many children do you have?"
The look of relieved gratitude Halbarad had been in process of directing at Gandalf dissolved into a delighted guffaw. Gandalf managed to aim a threatening glare at him before turning a kindly but firm smile on the hobbit. "My dear hobbit," he said, "I am much too old to endure this line of questioning. May I suggest another?" At the hobbit's nod, he motioned to Halbarad. "Why don't you ask Halbarad where he got that scar above his eyebrow?"
Halbarad looked daggers at him. "Why, you -"
"Well, Halbarad?" the hobbit prompted.
"Ask Gandalf," Halbarad grumbled. "He obviously thinks it's a - Gandalf!" the Ranger broke off as he caught sight of something up ahead. The wizard spurred his mount to a gallop behind the Ranger's, pulling up as Halbarad leapt down to examine something on the ground beside the road.
Halbarad knelt in the dirt, holding a leather pack. As Gandalf came up behind him, he turned his bowed head slightly. "It's his."
Gandalf knelt beside him and gently wrested the pack from Halbarad's protective grasp. Retrieving the item he sought, he unfolded it and read it.
Halbarad leaned over to peer at the letter. "What does it say?"
"Meet me at Sarn Ford," Gandalf read. "Come quickly, or all will be lost." He fingered the seal, frowned at the meticulously flowing script. "If I didn't know better, I would have sworn this is my handwriting."
Halbarad reached for the pack again and rummaged through it. "His tools are all here, his clothes - my wife made this shirt for him. Gandalf, he wouldn't have left this behind."
Gandalf straightend and and rose to his feet. "Halbarad," he said. "Let's have a look around."
"He wouldn't have left it behind," the Ranger whispered. Not if - "
Gandalf laid a hand on the Ranger's shoulder. "Halbarad," he said firmly, forcing the Ranger to meet his gaze. "Go have a look around." The Ranger swallowed and took a long breath. After a moment he got to his feet and began scouting the area.
"May I get down?" Tillfield asked.
Gandalf hurried to lift him down. "I'm sorry, Dudo."
"What happened?" the hobbit asked, looking worriedly at the frantically pacing Ranger.
"We don't know yet, Dudo."
"Campfire over here," the Ranger announced, brushing a hand against the ashes. He stood and took a few more steps before stopping abruptly. "Oh, no."
Gandalf turned. "What is it?"
Halbarad was staring at the ground. "Footprints. Really big footprints."
Gandalf loaded Tillfield onto his horse as Halbarad secured Aragorn's pack to his own mount. The Ranger jerked the packstrap tight with a yank so hard it drew a snort of protest from the horse. He glanced at the setting sun. "They loaded him up on the horse and left the road here, took this little trail. It crosses some upland and joins up with the Greenway about 25 miles east. The moon is waxing. If it stays clear tonight I'll have just enough light to follow it."
Gandalf took hold of the Ranger's shoulder. "Halbarad."
"They've got him, Gandalf!" Halbarad snapped. "He may already be dead."
"Halbarad, your kinsman was not destined to die at the hands of a Dunlending bandit."
"Do you know that, Gandalf?" Halbarad demanded. "Because I know what he's destined to be, too. I knew it the moment I first laid eyes on him. But I doubt very much that Teburic is a big respecter of Dúnedain destiny."
"You must believe, Halbarad," Gandalf said.
"Believe in what? A three thousand year old legend isn't going to stop a sharp piece of steel against his neck."
Gandalf gave his shoulder a pat. "If you don't believe the legends, then at least believe in him."
Halbarad pushed the horses' pace along the narrow trail under the thin moonlight as fast as he could without running a major risk of injury. It was too dark to track effectively from horseback, especially at this pace, and a nagging voice in his head warned him of the risk of losing the trail, but he forced it down. There was no time to lose.
They had gone five miles, maybe more, when the wolves appeared.
The horses smelled them first and snorted in rising panic. "Gandalf!" Halbarad hissed, drawing his sword even as the first set of yellow eyes appeared in the path. "Wolves!"
The Wizard raised his staff and let a burst of light fly from it to a log lying next to the path as several more sets of eyes appeared to the left and right. Halbarad craned around and saw more still on the path behind Gandalf.
The wolves backed off slightly at the sight of the flames, but now the horses were panicking. Halbarad fought for control of the horse and finally leapt down as it reared. He slapped it on the flank and advanced on the wolves, shouting and waving his sword. "Get some more flames up here!" he called back. He didn't know how Gandalf was doing this, but it was working. A flash of light obligingly ignited a downed tree a few feet from him and he broke loose a burning branch and thrust it at the wolves.
He heard the whoosh of another tree bursting into flame behind him, and saw Gandalf wielding an improvised torch in much the same manner. "Where's Tillfield?" he called.
"Up here!" came a reply from over his right shoulder, and Halbarad realized that Gandalf had managed to get the hobbit safely situated in a tree. One less thing to worry about. He thrust at an advancing wolf with his burning brand and it snapped at him as another made a lunge for his leg.
"Halbarad!" cried Gandalf. "Back up! Stay together!"
Halbarad reacted to the warning an instant too late as two wolves moved in behind him to cut him off from Gandalf. He was surrounded. Teeth tore into his leg as the tree above him exploded in a ball of flame so hot it singed his eyebrows. He felt the satisfying slide of his sword through wolf-flesh. By the time he withdrew his blade, the underbrush was crunching with the sounds of retreating paws.
Gandalf was on him as he dropped to his knees, clutching his calf. "Let me see."
"It's nothing," he grunted, looking around. "Where did the horses go?"
"They've run," the Wizard replied.
Halbarad groaned. "It'll take all night to find them, if the wolves don't get them first."
Gandalf produced a cloth from somewhere and wrapped it around his calf. Halbarad stood up and tested his weight on the leg, wincing. Spying Tillfield in the crook of a branch, staring in wide-eyed amazement at Gandalf, he managed a smile and reached up to lower the hobbit to the ground. "Come on down from there, Tillfield. I guess a tree isn't where you want to be right now."
Aragorn let the hand holding the hoofpick drop to his side and leaned gingerly against the post. It wobbled noticeably as he pressed his weight against it. He did not have much further to go and it would be free, yet the night must be nearly over, he sensed that Teburic would be back by dawn, and he could feel his strength draining from him as water from a leaky barrel. The pain from his leg, his hand, and from the beating Teburic had inflicted on him was nearly overwhelming, and now he began to feel the pounding of fever at the base of his skull again. He flipped the horse blanket back over the base of the post and closed his eyes for a moment. Just for a moment.
“Strider.” He forced his eyes open to consider the small blob of grey shadow in front of him.
"When do you think Teburic will come back?"
"I'm surprised he isn't back already."
"He's probably drinking again."
Aragorn frowned. Teburic did not strike Aragorn as the type to let the bottle get in the way of a paycheck. And in fact, throughout his several regrettably close encounters with the Dunlending's breath, alcohol was the one foul odor consistently absent. "Maybe so," he responded noncommitally.
"What happens when he comes back?"
Aragorn sighed. "He will ask me more questions." To be more accurate, not more questions, but the same ones, over and over and over again.
"He'll hurt you some more, won't he?"
"That seems likely."
"Then why don't you just tell him what he wants to know?"
"Rolly, I'm not sure I know what he wants to know." This much was true. The thief's curiosity about the Rangers' guard on the Shire could be driven by pure self-interest - perhaps Teburic suspected an unknown mine or hoard. But Gandalf? It was absurd to imagine that the Wizard's activities could have come to the attention of a Dunlending thief-lord, or anyone who would have hired him, for that matter. It made no sense.
"Who is Gandalf?" Rolly asked, as if reading his mind.
"A friend of mine."
"Why does Teburic keep asking about him?"
"I don't know." This, too, was absolute truth. Obviously the Dunlending had no inkling of Gandalf's knowledge of the whereabouts of the Ring, or his own for that matter, and barring that, no other explanation was plausible.
“Strider, why are Men so evil?”
He squinted at the lighter blur in the darkness. “Rolly, all Men are not evil.” When the boy did not answer, he went on. “I am a Man, do you think that I am evil?”
“No,” came the delayed but admittedly reassuring response.
“What about your father? Wasn't he a good man?"
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. The only thing I remember about him is them killing him."
Aragorn sighed. "Rolly, Men, and all thinking creatures, are given the power to choose between good and evil. Many men choose evil. But there are many who choose good, as well. In one person’s life it is possible to make many choices, some of them good, and some of them ill.”
“And what if you make an ill choice?” the boy asked.
Aragorn leaned against the post, silenced by the question. How could he, of all people, hope to answer it, he whose identity, purpose, and destiny had been defined for him an age ago by one Man's single moment of weakness? Even the well-intended choices of his own life had left behind a tragic trail of death and hurt and hopeless uncertainty.
“A friend of mine once told me that it is never too late to make the right choice,” he said.
The boy looked up at him. "Is that true?"
“You can only do the best you can,” he said after a moment.
"How do you know what the right choice is?" the boy asked.
Aragorn sighed. Gandalf would have said to listen to what your heart tells you, but this wasn't a piece of advice he was ready to endorse. He pushed off the weight of philosophical burdens in favor of immediate concerns. “Why does Teburic want to know about the Shire? About Gandalf?”
“It is what his master requires,” Rolly answered after a minute.
“Who is his master?” Aragorn asked.
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. Somebody in Bree." He took the tool from Aragorn’s hand and resumed digging in the soil around the post.
"Has he ever mentioned a name?" Aragorn pressed.
“You said that you were taken in by another after your father died,” the boy said without looking up from his work. “You said that you hurt him.”
Wishing more than ever that he hadn’t brought it up in the first place, Aragorn didn’t answer, but heaved a shoulder against the post, letting the pain of bruised muscles drown out the pain of that statement.
“I never meant to,” he said finally.
“Why would you hurt him if he was good to you?” the boy pressed. When the Ranger failed to answer, he said, “If someone was ever good to me, if someone made me like a son, I would never fail him. Never. No matter what.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” whispered Aragorn. He sank down next to the post as exhaustion overtook him again. "Wake me in an hour."
He was roused from sleep not by Rolly but by the snap of his neck as Teburic yanked his head up by a handful of hair. “I’m back, Strider,” the thief-lord whispered, wrapping a hand the size of a dinner plate across the Ranger's forehead. "Feeling better, I hope?" Teburic said. "Can't have you dying on me. That would be such a waste."
"My offer stands," Aragorn said, as Teburic released his grasp and allowed him to sit up. In the corner of his eye, he could see Rolly cowering in the corner. "Tell me who hired you and I will pay you twice the agreed upon price."
Teburic's eyes betrayed a mere flicker of interest before he laughed. "You hardly look as if you could do that. But in any case, I honor my agreements. I'm sure that you, as a Ranger," he said with a tone of derision, "can appreciate that."
The Dunlending pulled a milking stool from the corner and perched his bulk atop it precariously. "Are you ready to tell me what I want to know? No, I suppose not," he said, smiling at the Ranger's defiant stare. "You really should, you know. I have all the time in the world. You, on the other hand, do not look as if you can take much more of this."
"Kill me and you'll learn nothing."
"Oh, Strider. I've told you already. That's so unnecessary. We have so much to work with right here." The Dunlending stood and heaved a kick into the Aragorn's injured knee. As the Ranger crumpled reflexively, he found himself pinned to the floor by the Dunlendings's knee again. He felt Teburic take hold of his right wrist and release the manacle, and then his head was forced around to face the hand Teburic held by the wrist. As he watched, Teburic drew his dagger and carefully slit the leather glove which swelling had stretched tight across his hand, revealing skin blackened up to his wrist.
The Dunlending shook his head as he held up the ruined hand before Aragorn's face. "Such a shame; I'll warrant you were an excellent swordsman."
“The Shire, Strider,” Teburic prompted, maintaining his unbreakable grip on Aragorn’s wrist but moving a single finger slowly and deliberately to the precise point on the top of Aragorn’s hand where the knife-hilt had shattered bone. "Just tell me what I want to know, and this can end." As the Ranger watched, he began to apply pressure.
Aragorn gasped, his muscles reflexively jerking in spasm to escape the torturous touch, only to be held in place by Teburic’s unshakable grip. As Aragorn closed his eyes against the agony, Teburic withdrew the pressure. “The Rangers,” he said. “Why all the Rangers at the borders of the Shire?”
Aragorn tightened his jaw and forced his eyes open to see his wrist still gripped tightly, Teburic’s fingertip poised an inch from his hand. Aragorn swallowed back bile. This ordeal promised to be a lengthy one. Fevered and nearly spent, Aragorn could not risk the outcome of a prolonged interrogation. He waited until Teburic once again leaned low so as to speak directly into the Ranger’s ear. “Well, Strider?” the thief-lord said softly. “I’m waiting.”
Aragorn waited until the Dunlending's face was inches from his own before he snapped his head upward and felt the satisfying impact of his skull against Teburic’s nose. An instant later, Aragorn felt an explosion of pain from his hand and heard a scream of agony before realizing it was his own. His body fought to curl protectively around the source of the pain, only to be prevented by the restraints. Blows rained down - blows from boots and fists this time – and for a short time he thought he had succeeded.
As he lay in contorted agony, gasping with breaths that hurt almost as much as the beating, he realized it had stopped. "Nice try," the Dunlending said, when Aragorn had gained enough breath to open his eyes. "I told you, I won't kill you. But now you get to learn another rule." The Dunlending stood and went to the corner. He dragged the cowering boy to his feet and heaved a meaty hand across his face, snapping the boy's head to the side. He dragged the boy over to Aragorn and pushed him down on the ground. "Every time you make me angry, he pays. Every time I ask a question, and you don't answer, he pays."
Aragorn stared at the Dunlending. It was not as if he had not expected this. "I have nothing to tell you."
Teburic dragged the terrified boy to his feet. "That's too bad for him, isn't it? I can't kill you, but I can kill him. And if you make me kill him, we'll just get another one. Maybe a little Ranger boy, next time. Or even better - a little Ranger girl. That might be fun." He thrust a fist into Rolly's abdomen, smiling grimly as the boy doubled over and groaned in pain. "Shouldn't have changed sides, Rolly."
As Aragorn looked on, Teburic dropped the boy to the floor and heaved a boot into his ribs. "I'm waiting, Strider," he said without looking up. "You can make this stop anytime you want. Or this boy's death will be on your hands." Another boot landed, and the boy cried out. "Well, Strider? What'll it be?"
Aragorn looked helplessly at the unmoving form of Rolly, lying curled loosely in ball where Teburic's last kick had landed him, and then at the thief-lord who stood over him bearing an expectant expression. Hauling the boy half off the floor by one arm, the Dunlending dragged him over to Aragorn. “Well, Strider?”
Aragorn struggled to his knees, cradling his injured hand against his chest, noting with some slight satisfaction that the impact of his skull with the Dunlending's nose had managed to leave it bleeding, at least. “Leave him alone.”
The Dunlending glanced down at the boy he held suspended in front of Aragorn. Rolly's head was limp, his arms dangling, his knees dragging in the dirt. Blood flowed from his nose also, tracking down his chin. Teburic raised a bushy eyebrow. “Tell me what I want to know.”
"There's nothing to tell."
Teburic's mouth tensed. "Wrong answer." He hauled an arm back, preparing to strike the boy again.
"Stop!" Aragorn cried, closing his eyes against the sight of the boy.
"I'm waiting," Teburic said, folding massive arms across his chest.
Aragorn sighed and looked up at the thief-lord, sidling closer to the post and wrapping an arm around it as if needing the support. "All right. I'll cut you in if you let him go."
Teburic dropped the boy to the floor. "Keep talking."
Aragorn took a deep breath. "The halflings struck gold in the South Farthing, about ten years ago. Completely by accident - you know how they're always digging. They're no miners, though - they hadn't a clue what to do with it, so they went to Gandalf. He got in touch with me and I brought the Dwarves in. It's a beautiful little operation."
"My men are all over the roads. They've intercepted no hauls of gold."
"Of course you haven't - my Rangers are hauling it out." Aragorn graced Teburic with a smug smile as he leaned surreptitiously against the post, gauging its looseness. It was not what he would have liked, and he would only get one chance. "Your highwaymen are busy taking off loads of cabbages while the gold is going out on the backs of my men."
Teburic replied with a skeptical scowl. "You're making this up. There's no gold in the Shire. You had no gold on you when I found you."
Aragorn sighed impatiently. "That's because I was supposed to get my cut from Gandalf when I met him in Bree," he said pointedly, "at least until I was unexpectedly sidetracked. Think about it - why else would I put half my Rangers on the borders of the Shire? It's not as if the halflings are doing me any good."
Teburic's eyes narrowed. "Where is this mine?"
"If you have a map, I'll show you," Aragorn answered.
The Dunlending scowled again with the look of a man who knew a lie when he heard one, and Aragorn's skills as a liar left much to be desired, but he held the Dunlending's gaze until finally the thief shrugged and moved to the door. "All right," he said, casting a glance backward, "I'll call your bluff. Don't go away."
At the scrape of the bar sliding home, Aragorn tightened his grip on the post and heaved his shoulder against it with all his might. Working frantically, he repeatedly thrust his weight into the wood and yanked it back with all the force he could muster. It was loosening, but it wasn't free yet, and he wouldn't have much time. "Rolly," he whispered without taking his eyes off his task. The crumpled form moved slightly and uttered a faint moan. "Rolly!"
At the harsh whisper, the boy raised his head and tried to focus. "Rolly, get over there in the corner. Do it now!" Aragorn turned back to his desperate task as the boy struggled to his knees and began crawling.
With one last heave of his full weight, Aragorn felt the post break loose in its hole just as the metallic scrape of the bar signaled Teburic's return. As the door opened, Aragorn seized the loosened post in both arms and staggered to his feet, holding it awkwardly before him like a battering ram. Lurching across the room at the startled thief-lord, he thrust the end of the post into the massive abdomen. "Run, Rolly!" he managed to cry as he crashed into Teburic.
His desperate momentum drove both men to the ground. Falling atop the monstrous mound of flesh, Aragorn levered the post sideways and jammed it down across the thief's neck before he could react, scrambling for the leverage he would need to control the enormous Dunlending.
“Who is your master? Tell me!” Aragorn grunted, maneuvering his weight as best he could to plant himself more securely on Teburic’s chest. Biting his lip as he ground the inflamed flesh of his injured knee against the rough wood, he pinned the post tight across the man’s windpipe with his knees and his right forearm while fishing for a weapon with his left hand. Retrieving the thief lord’s dagger from his belt, he pressed the blade against the soft flesh of his throat.
Teburic twitched as if to buck the lighter man off his body, and Aragorn let the blade bite shallowly into the fatty flesh under his chin as a warning. “I wouldn’t move, if I were you,” he warned as a trickle of blood began to flow down the side of his adversary’s neck. “Now talk. Who sent you? Who do you work for?” He drew the knife across the man’s neck, opening a deeper cut, letting his face tell the man that he would not wait for an answer before separating his head from his body. His eyes did not lie. He was spent, he had one hand to fight with, and he was half Teburic's weight. One way or another, this would end now.
Teburic’s dark eyes reflected acknowledgement of the Ranger’s deadly resolve. The thief's gaze darted for just an instant past Aragorn's shoulder, and then he looked the Ranger in the eye and and opened his mouth to speak. Aragorn eased the pressure of the knife ever so slightly and nodded. "Talk."
Before Teburic could utter a word, his eyes looked past Aragorn's shoulder again and opened wide with terror as his body thrashed in sudden panic. Aragorn had barely time to jerk the knife away from his throat and register a flash of movement behind him before Teburic’s body heaved beneath him in a spasm of agony. As it quieted, Aragorn watched in amazement as blood began to run from the slackening mouth.
Aragorn knelt on the dead man’s chest for a moment longer, staring blankly into the still features. Finally he released a sigh and rolled off Teburic’s corpse, careful to avoid the knife hilt sticking out of the man’s upper abdomen. Sitting on the floor next to the dead man, he cradled his injured hand and looked up at the boy.
“Why did you do that?” he asked, hearing barely controlled rage in his voice.
Rolly looked down at the man he had just killed. “He would have killed you. And then he would have killed me.”
“No,” Aragorn countered evenly, hearing the accusation in his own voice. “He was about to talk.”
As Rolly raised his eyes to meet Aragorn’s accusatory stare, the Ranger saw behind them a flash of something as deep and hard as a flat sea under a winter sky.
“I have been a fool,” he whispered under his breath, realizing with a lurch in the pit of his stomach that Teburic had not been the greatest danger in this room, and the rope at the falls not the most cunning trap to snare him. Aragorn held perfectly still, every instinct born of 60-odd years fighting the creatures of darkness telling him to just flip the dagger he still held and send it straight into the boy's heart.
He and the boy stared at each other. "I didn't think you could beat him," Rolly said.
"Neither did I," he replied. “Rolly, why?”
The boy shrugged. “It is what my master requires.”
"Look at you. You're bleeding. You're hurt. You let Teburic do that to you?"
"No. I told him to."
Aragorn shook his head, almost beyond words. "Why?"
“I had a job to do. I still do."
"But who would ask such a thing of you?"
"Someone I would never disappoint."
Aragorn closed his eyes, suddenly understanding. I would never fail him. Never. No matter what. "Was anything you told me true?"
The boy’s eyes flickered to the inert mound of bloody flesh that had been Teburic. “The bad Men were real, Strider. They always are. But after my family was killed, after they took me away, it wasn't Teburic who saved me."
"Someone who made me like a son. Someone who made sure that men like Teburic could never hurt me again." He looked down at the corpse with contempt. "Teburic was just a useful tool.”
“A tool for what purpose?”
“To serve my master.”
“To rob and thieve? To spy on Gandalf? What purpose is there in that?”
The boy dropped his gaze after a long minute, shrugging minutely. "It's not for me to say. He's wiser than I. He has his reasons. You never really believed me, did you?"
Aragorn shook his head, finding that even now, he could not find it in himself to discount this boy. He smiled minutely. "You would have done better to tell the truth about the rock."
The boy frowned. "You were looking the other way. How did you know?"
Aragorn smiled in spite of himself. "The ground was saturated with blood, Rolly. The ground, and every single thing on it. Everything except for one perfectly clean, perfectly white rock, that had no blood on it because it came to land there after all the blood was spilled."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "You knew I threw the rock?" When Aragorn nodded, he shook his head in confusion. "And you still wanted to help me?"
"I wanted to believe that you could make the right choice, Rolly. I still do."
The boy exhaled heavily. He reached a hand into his shirt and withdrew some object which fit neatly in his small palm. Meeting Aragorn’s eyes again with something that looked like regret, he said, “It's too late."
"No, it's not."
The boy swallowed and tightened his jaw. "You haven't told me everything yet. But you will.”
“I have told you nothing,” Aragorn answered, “and I will not.” His hand tightened on the dagger hilt.
The boy smiled. “Do you think so? I have already learned that you would die to protect a young thief you barely know, but that you would forfeit both your own life and his to protect this secret of yours. I also know that Gandalf is behind it, as my master suspected.”
“Why all this interest in Gandalf?” Aragorn asked, buying time, adjusting his grip on the dagger to make the move he knew he had to make. “He is but a harmless old man.”
“Now you mock me, Dúnadan,” the boy chided. “I think we both know better.” The fingers of his right hand worked absently, fingering what looked like some kind of glass bauble. “We will have plenty of time to discuss the Wizard later, once we reach a place where your loyal party of searchers will not find us. Yes,” he acknowledged with a rueful smile. “They are but a few hours behind us now, despite some intervention from allies of my master. We have to get moving.”
Aragorn lunged at the boy an instant too late, tackling him at the knees just as the vial smashed into the floor next to him, releasing a pungent cloud that overtook his senses and plunged him into oblivion.
An unpleasantly familiar mélange of scents assaulted his nostrils- the sharp twang of wet stone, the moist, earthy aroma of clay, and the acrid fumes of torch smoke, all of which failed to mask the permeating, unmistakable stench of orc.
With sudden panic, he reached out blindly, his groping fingers brushing against the hardness of stone. Somewhere behind him, the creaking of leather and the shuffling of boots signaled the presence of Men. Halbarad’s men, he realized with dawning horror. As memory congealed firmly around him, he recognized the silent, familiar presence at his shoulder and knew with terrible certainty exactly where he was.
“Estel, we must turn back,” came a harsh whisper in his ear. Aragorn glanced back, meeting eyes which gleamed from more than just torchlight. Igniting a fresh torch and casting the sputtering remains of the old one aside, the Elf leaned close enough to be heard by his ears alone. “The torches are half spent – if we don’t turn around now we won’t find our way back out.”
“No,” Aragorn shot back under his breath. They had come too far to turn back now. He turned away from Elladan’s disapproving glare, knowing the Elf would not openly challenge him in front of the men. He knelt on the floor of the passageway, bending his own torch low. The slick clay was imprinted with the fresh tracks of many Orcs. The fetid stench of them was so overpowering that even now, after hours of exposure, he felt like gagging –he had no idea how the Elves could stand it. He had no intention of leaving without his quarry, not after weeks on their scent, not after hours of crawling through this putrid, cramped labyrinth of passageways which made the black depths of Moria look like Elrond’s banquet hall. He winced at the unbidden memory and shook it off with a shudder, twisting his head from side to side to free his neck of the kinks pressed into it by hours of walking stooped over. Standing up carefully, so as not to impact the low ceiling with his skull, he turned back to Elladan. “We have to be getting close. Even the orcs wouldn’t retreat much further into the mountain – it would be too difficult to get supplies in and out.”
A firm grip on his arm stopped him as he turned to resume moving forward. “We are overextended, Aragorn,” Elladan warned. Aragorn broke away from his brother’s gaze and pulled his arm free.
They had been shuffling single-file for some time, ever since the passageway narrowed still further, so that a broad Man's shoulders barely cleared on each side. Aragorn’s attention was focused ever ahead, but from the back of the file, the occasional metallic clang of gear banging against the walls testified to the continued presence of Halbarad’s Rangers. Aragorn’s jaw tightened with annoyance. He had forgotten what an enormous racket Men made when they did anything, and these were greener than most; mere boys, some of them.
Before him the passageway walls suddenly fell away, revealing the black void of a larger chamber. He crouched at the opening, holding the torch out before him, but the blackness swallowed its feeble arc of light.
Aragorn dropped the few feet of gap onto the floor of the chamber, landing awkwardly with a wet squelch on its soggy clay surface. He squinted to make out the shaded contours of the walls in the flickering torchlight as Elladan dropped soundlessly down next to him. Several dark blurs along the walls could be passage openings. Aragorn mechanically swapped out his dagger for his sword and began edging along the right wall of the chamber, as Elladan mirrored him on the left. As the Rangers filed in behind them, Aragorn glanced over his shoulder and recognized one of Halbarad’s men at his shield-arm now. The youngster, Baranuir.
Aragorn looked back and caught Elrohir’s eye as the Elf dropped down lightly into the chamber at the rear of the company. Aragorn beckoned him forward with a nod of his head. Together they edged forward to a dark blotch on the right wall that resolved into the maw of a small passageway as they drew closer. Elrohir knelt and peered around the corner, his head at floor level. At length he withdrew and stood up, shaking his head. “This passageway isn’t active,” he whispered. “The scents are old.”
Aragorn motioned for the boy to stay and hold the side passageway while he moved ahead with Elrohir. On the opposite side of the chamber, Elladan and Halbarad were approaching another opening.
With two shield-bearing Rangers for cover, Aragorn and Elrohir moved up to a point directly across from the passageway Elladan and Halbarad were approaching. While they watched, Elladan crept to the very edge and crouched intently; listening, and if Aragorn had to guess, sniffing. Finally the Elf looked over at Aragorn and gave a quick affirmative nod. Reaching behind him, he took a torch from Halbarad. More quickly than a Man could have moved, he ducked his head and shoulders around the corner and flung the torch as far down the corridor as he could.
Elrohir’s cry was still echoing in Aragorn’s ear when the first arrow thunked solidly into the shield in front of him. The discordant clamor of orc-cries rose in the darkness, as a flurry of shadows roiled within the torch-lit corridor.
More arrows flew from the opposite passageway toward Aragorn. After the first one buried itself into the shield, several more clattered against the cave wall above his head. He loosed his first arrow fairly wildly in the general direction of the threat and grabbed the shield-bearer in front of him by the back of his coat to drop them both to their knees.
Crouched into as small a space as possible behind the protection of the shield, he notched another arrow. “Keep them inside the passage!” he shouted at Elladan and Halbarad as a mass of orcs appeared in the opening. If the orcs got out into the larger chamber en masse they were finished. He loosed his second arrow, not quite as blindly, and then let his bow drop to the ground as he charged across the chamber, drawing his sword as he ran. If they could keep the orcs confined to the passageway, they could pick them off one by one.
He and Halbarad and Elladan were fighting three abreast, holding back the black tide of orcs trying to disgorge itself from the passageway. Their carcasses were piling up at the entrance now, in themselves creating a barrier to the onslaught. Elrohir and some of Halbarad’s men were picking off any that slipped through their line. Aragorn slew orc after orc, slicing orc heads with frenzied abandon and rending gray flesh into ragged meat even as his arms grew ever heavier with fatigue. His breath came in ragged gasps and he was vaguely aware of his heart pounding in his chest from exertion. He fought on with mechanical, workman-like precision, cleaving into orc flesh with the dispassion of a stone-cutter. They were winning. He could feel it.
Aragorn heard a terrible, strangled cry behind him and spun around in time to see Baranuir fall to his knees, an orc blade protruding from his belly where it had ripped through him from behind. For one instant, Baranuir's face bore an expression of absolute surprise, as he first looked down at the blade sticking out of his belly and then up to meet Aragorn's horrified gaze. An instant later, his body was pushed aside by a tide of orcs pouring out of the passageway, and one of them pulled the blade from his flesh and raised it to deal a finishing blow.
Aragorn somehow closed the distance before the stroke could fall and severed the orc’s head so violently that orange sparks flew from the stone where the tip of his blade scraped against it. Aragorn was dimly aware that Halbarad’s rangers were busy behind him with the orcs that had managed to pour out of the passageway, but he didn’t spare attention to them as he dragged the boy away from the field of battle, depositing him in a dark niche along the wall. Laying the boy as gently as possible on the floor, he turned to re-join the fray.
Even as he pivoted to strike an orc advancing from the left, an immobilizing pain exploded in the back of his leg. The arrow ripped apart the fibrous structure of his knee as he twisted, but he managed to complete his thrust just as his leg gave out, dropping him to his knees in ironic synchronization with the orc he had just killed.
He yanked his sword out of the orc’s body as it collapsed to the floor and fought to gain his feet, managing to stand precariously just as arms seized him and moved him bodily towards the passageway by which they had entered. “Baranuir,” he managed to gasp. He twisted in Elrohir’s grasp and saw that Halbarad had the boy in his arms.
“We have him,” his brother’s voice assured him. “Now keep moving. We have to get out of here.”
His leg would not support his weight and Elrohir was forced to drag him through the low passageways which seemed to go on forever. Finally breaking into the open under a black sky, driving rain soaking them both instantly, Elrohir simply swung him over his shoulder and ran down the mountain to where they had left the horses. Flinging him onto a horse, the Elf mounted after him and urged the horse into a gallop. Aragorn took a precious gasp of cold, fresh air and fought his brother’s grasp, craning his neck backwards, struggling to take account of the Rangers. “Stop,” he ordered.
“Not yet,” the Elf answered tersely, tightening his grip around the Man’s chest. “We’re still too close. We will stop as soon as it is safe.” By the time Elrohir finally pulled the horse up, dawn was burnishing the eastern sky with ruddy shades of umber, and Aragorn had let his head fall back against Elrohir’s shoulder. He struggled to rouse himself as strong hands took him by the shoulders and hips, lifting him from the horse and carrying him to a sheltered place beneath a grove of trees.
The pain of hands probing his wounded leg brought him fully around and he started, pushing himself to a sitting position. “Steady,” Elrohir ordered, holding his thigh steady with one hand and grasping his shoulder firmly with the other. “You’ve lost some blood. You must stay still.”
Aragorn ignored him and fought against his restraining grasp, propping himself up on his elbows to look about the encampment. On the other side of the fire, Elladan and Halbarad were crouched over a cloaked form on the ground. Aragorn struggled to his knees and crawled over to them, ignoring Elrohir’s protests.
It was the boy. He lay in semi-conscious agony, drawing breath in shallow gasps, his face and lips deathly pale. Aragorn pulled down the blanket and carefully removed the blood-soaked cloths someone had loosely laid over his abdomen. At the sight of the rent flesh and protruding innards, he bit back bile. Without a word, he replaced the cloths and pulled the blanket back up to the boy’s chin, meeting Halbarad’s grief-stricken stare with a half-shake of his head. There was nothing to be said, and little to be done. So he simply stayed.
He heard Elrohir and Halbarad gather the men who could still fight and leave with them to scout for orcs. Only Elladan stayed, helping him tend the boy until there was nothing left to be done.
Aragorn sat uncounted hours with Baranuir, as it rained, and the rain stopped, and the day came and went, and then another. He had given the boy what few medicines he still carried that might dull his pain or ease his passing - and easing his passing was plainly the most Aragorn could hope to accomplish. Not even Elrond could have done more, probably, and Rivendell was three days’ hard ride away – an impossible journey in the boy’s condition.
Aragorn had not expected him to last even the first night, and wished for the sake of mercy that he would not last a second. It was now noon on the third day, and Aragorn still sat on the ground holding the pale hand in his own, whispering words of comfort which had slipped into Elvish hours ago, or maybe days. The boy wouldn’t understand a word of it, but it mattered not. He had finally passed beyond comprehension, the cries and agonized pleading had mercifully stopped. The lines of agony had finally faded from the pale face, revealing once again the smoothly carved angles of youth. Aragorn brushed the boy’s hair from his forehead as his breaths grew short and erratic. “Be at peace,” he whispered. After days awake, Aragorn’s eyes finally drifted shut as he sat hunched over the boy, listening to the fading breaths.
He started abruptly as a hand took hold of his leg. “Let go,” he croaked, jerking his leg away and twisting to dodge the hand that reached for his arm.
Elladan caught the arm and held him still with a gentle but businesslike grip. “Listen to me, Estel, you have done all you can for him. Now you must let me see that leg.” The Elf followed his foster-brother’s fixed gaze to where it rested on the dying boy. Aragorn knew that the Elf, too, would know by the uneven, slowing movements of the boy’s chest that it would not be long now.
Elladan tried again. “You need not leave Baranuir, but at least let me get the rest of that arrow out. ” He leaned closer until his finely arched eyebrows nearly touched the Man’s. “Come now, don’t squander all that fabled Númenorean obstinacy in one rush. Save some for later. Besides, if Elrohir returns and finds you like this, he will slice both of us up for Orc-bait.”
Aragorn's expression did not change, but he let his shoulders relax in a gesture the Elf would recognize as acquiescence. Elladan worked on the wound in silence, wayward locks of dark hair obscuring his face where they had escaped their plaits. Finally he rolled Aragorn’s torn trouser leg back down to cover the wound. “You ought to come back home with us and let Father take a look at this. It's quite deep,” he said, emphasizing the point with a fraternal pat to the Ranger’s good knee.
Aragorn ignored him, and finally the Elf sighed and rose to his feet. He turned back after taking a few steps. “Aragorn,” he said. “There was nothing you could have done.”
Aragorn kept his gaze fixed on the boy’s still face. “Yes, there was. I could have listened to you. I could have pulled out. He would still be alive,” he answered, realizing only as he spoke that the boy’s chest had stopped moving.
“It was your decision to make,” the Elf answered. “You did what you thought was right.”
The Ranger reached over and pulled the blanket up over the boy’s face. “I’m tired of making decisions,” he whispered.
“Strider?” Aragorn released an involuntary groan as the light shaking of his shoulder re-ignited waves of agony from his head all the way to his ruined knee. He rolled partially over to evade the source of his torment and cracked open crusted eyelids to face a bloody and bruised Rolly.
The ranger closed his eyes against a wave of nausea and blindly caught the boy’s arm as it reached to jostle his shoulder again. “Stop that,” he managed to rasp, swallowing bile and holding his pounding head as still against the floor as possible.
“Strider, you have to get up.” The boy was tugging on his arm now. “We have to go. Come on.”
The implication of the boy’s statement slowly penetrated the ranger’s muddled senses and he forced his eyelids open again. Turning his head carefully, he started badly as he realized he was lying on the floor of the storeroom next to a corpse. Teburic’s corpse. Quickly scrambling to a sitting position, he stared dazedly at the body, taking in the wooden post lying partially across its torso, still shackled to his own wrist, and the knife hilt protruding from its belly. “What happened?” he whispered, as much to himself as to the boy.
“Don’t you remember?” Rolly asked. “Teburic was beating me. You pulled the post out of the ground and went after him. He pulled his knife and you struggled with him, and when you both fell to the ground it went into his stomach.”
Aragorn frowned skeptically at this news, struggling with nausea and confusion. He seemed to vaguely remember a fight, though he would have predicted an entirely different outcome to the decidedly one-sided match.
The boy was tugging at him again. “We have to go now. They’re coming. Get up!”
“What’s the hurry?” he growled, still struggling with the odd mental fog as he leaned over the corpse awkwardly and searched it for the shackle keys. “Teburic’s not going anywhere. He’s dead.” Very dead, he noted, as he grunted to lift the enormous weight of flaccid flesh.
The boy got to the keys first and reached for the rusty metal cuffs. “Teburic’s men are coming,” he said again as he struggled with the lock. "Sorry,” Rolly murmured as the ranger winced again, finally succeeding in releasing the cuff.
“Teburic's men?" Aragorn repeated dully, fighting a dull pain in his head that threatened to drag him back to the ground.
“While you were sleeping, Teburic told me that four of his men are coming back today, they are coming to take us to Dunland. They are going to sell me for betraying them, and you – he said they have something even worse planned for you. We have to get out of here now before they get here.” The boy’s eyes darkened with fear once more. “I can’t go back there again! I won’t go back there. They’ll have to kill me first.”
“Nobody’s going to kill you,” Aragorn whispered. He hauled himself up onto trembling legs and staggered out of the storeroom into a cool gray drizzle. No sun gave clue to the time of day, but by the bird songs, it was morning. He spotted Halbarad’s mare, tethered to a tree next to a gray gelding, and noted with relief that Teburic had possessed enough business sense to keep the horses fed and watered. Aragorn gave the mare a reassuring pat on the flank and limped raggedly back to the cabin, entering the main door for the first time and casting his eyes about in the gloom for his weapons and gear. Valar, his head hurt, and his stomach was churning.
The boy followed him inside, watching as he struggled to pull on his boots one-handed – at least they were dry for once, Aragorn noted, as were the cloak and coat the Dunlending had thrown onto a pile of blankets. The ranger leaned over to retrieve his weapons from where Teburic had piled them in a corner, and nearly fell as a wave of dizziness struck him. He managed to catch himself with a shoulder against the wall and felt a cool hand steady his arm. “Strider?” a voice said hollowly, as through a tunnel. “Are you all right?” He looked up and tried to focus his eyes on the source of the voice, but he could only make out an indistinct pale blur in the center of his vision. All around it were nothing but dark shadows that shifted with the ringing in his ears.
He felt hands guide him, stumbling, outside and somehow he got up on the horse. And then they rode.
Halbarad brushed his fingers lightly over the hoof prints in the mud and rose to his feet, slamming a fist against the bare plank wall of the cabin and kicking the door of the lean-to for good measure before ducking inside to where Gandalf stood. “They’re gone. We lost too much time chasing the horses down."
“There was nothing to be done about it,” Gandalf replied, his nose wrinkling slightly at the rising stench from the bloated corpse which occupied most of the floor space. “At least we know Strider is still alive, unlike this poor fellow.”
“Teburic,” Halbarad pronounced. At Gandalf’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged. “He fits the description. Big, bushy, dark, ugly, and prone to violence. I don’t expect there are too many other 350-pound Dunlendings in this part of Buckland.” He knelt next to the body and wrenched the knife out of the stiffening flesh with a sickening squelch just as Tillfield walked in. Halbarad chuckled as the hobbit’s face drained and he ran back outside. “Not like gutting chickens, eh, Tillfield?” the Ranger called after him. Laying the knife down on the dead man’s chest, Halbarad’s face tightened as he took in the iron shackles lying next to the corpse and the post they were chained to. “Gandalf, what was going on here?”
Gandalf knelt on the floor to pick up a broken shard of yellow glass, and produced from his robe the intact vial from the cabinet in Teburic's house. They were identical. “A trap somewhat more elaborate than the ambush at the falls, I fear.” He sniffed his fingertip experimentally. “This is a strange compound. There are similar items in the main cabin which I cannot identify. Whoever planned this escapade is a master of herb-craft such as Elrond himself would admire.”
“There are more cunning and effective methods of obtaining information than simple torture, as you well know, Halbarad,” he answered, rising to his feet. “Can you track them?”
Halbarad’s eyebrows arched with insult. “Of course I can track them,” he muttered, and followed Gandalf out the door.
Dampness. Dampness and dripping water and the dank smells of deep underground. And somewhere beneath the earthy musk, a faint stench of gut-wrenching foulness.
“Orcs,” he muttered.
“Nonsense,” Rolly said, pulling him along the passageway and righting him as he stumbled and careened into the wall. “It’s just an old salt mine.”
Aragorn squinted at his surroundings. It was indeed a mine. A long-abandoned one, by the perilous condition of the beams lining the passageway. “What are we doing in a mine?” He had no memory of entering a mine, and found it difficult to imagine he would have done so voluntarily. He fought for recall, and came up with only fragmented images of Teburic lying on the ground with a knife in his belly - or was it Baranuir?
“We have to hide. Teburic's men are after us, remember?" The boy tugged at his sleeve. "Come on."
An abandoned salt mine. Aragorn knew of such a place, a few miles off the Greenway, though he had never been there. He stopped short, resisting the pull of the slightly built boy. He didn’t care what kind of mine it was. It bore entirely too close a resemblance to an orc den for his taste. “We're getting out of here,” he said, turning around.
The boy pulled him back. “No!” he cried. “Teburic’s men are coming! We have to hide in here.”
“If they find us in here we'll be trapped. We need to get back to Bree. Where did you leave the horses?” Aragorn leaned heavily against the wall, fighting dizziness. He shut his eyes agains the dancing images crowding his vision and pressed a hand to his pounding head as the buzzing in his ears thrummed ever louder. He felt himself sliding down the wall, rough stone scraped against his torn back, and forced his eyes open just as four goblins rounded the corner ahead. He knew that they were real when their hands closed on his arms. “Told you I smelled orcs,” he managed to say, as they yanked him to his feet.
The orcs followed the boy down the old mine tunnels, hauling the senseless Ranger between them. Arriving at a torch-lit chamber, they dragged him to a corner and made to fasten him to restraints bolted into the stone walls.
“No!" the boy said, stepping between the orcs and the chains. "Leave him alone. He is nearly finished.” The orcs shrugged and released their hold, dropping the Man to the ground. The boy knelt beside him and reached through strands of mud-caked hair to feel for a pulse. Settling back on his heels, he directed his gaze at the expectant orc captain. “We are being followed by two Men. Hold them off until I am finished here.”
The orc guffawed and turned to his comrades, his hands tightening on the hilt of his blade. "Did you hear that, boys? Hold them off, indeed - we'll have a feast!" With answering grunts of approval, his underlings lurched out to the corridor.
"Orcs," the boy muttered under his breath. He turned back to Ranger and brushed a clump of dried mud from his cheek. "Why did you have to be so stubborn, Dúnadan?" he said softly. "It would have been so much easier the other way. But since you're a man of honor, maybe you'll understand why I have to do this." He reached into his shirt and withdrew a glass vial. Holding it before the Ranger’s face, he crushed it between his fingers, releasing a puff of gray powder into the man’s nostrils. “Now, Strider, or whatever your name truly is – we will get to the truth.”
“Strider,” he whispered, leaning close to Ranger’s ear. “Wake up." When there was no response, he jostled the cloaked shoulder. "Strider! Wake up!"
The man moaned slightly, his eyelids twitching. The boy leaned close. "Strider, can you hear me? It is I. Gandalf.”
“Gandalf?” The Ranger was barely responsive, eyelids still closed.
“Yes, my friend. I am here. Everything will be all right, now.”
“You’re all right,” the Ranger mumbled.
“Yes. I am fine. But I need your help, do you understand? Hundreds of orcs are massing near the Angle. They mean to wipe out the Dúnedain camps. You must pull all your men from their posts at the Shire boundaries to defend them.”
The Ranger’s head tossed from side to side. “Can’t.”
“No, you must.”
“Why not?” The boy waited as the Ranger’s face twitched in indecision. “Why not?” he repeated, pulling another vial from his shirt and releasing its pungent contents into the air before the Ranger’s face.
The Ranger’s eyes opened, glazed, unrecognizing. His breath hitched in shallow gasps as the drug overtook him. “You know,” he rasped, as his eyelids closed again.
“No, tell me,” the boy demanded, seizing the filth-encrusted cloak. It was not safe to give the man any more drugs but time was running out.
The Ranger’s brows knotted. “Frodo,” he whispered.
A Shire name. The boy leaned closer. “What about Frodo?”
The Ranger’s head merely tossed again, back and forth against the rough stone, as if warding off a swarm of flies. "No," he whispered.
The boy took a deep breath and reached into his shirt again, withdrawing a third vial and crushing it. “You are right,” he said. “We must protect Frodo. Where will he be safe?”
“Nowhere. He will be safe nowhere as long as he has it.”
"Has what?" the boy pressed, but the Ranger's jaw was slackening and the tension was melting from his brow.
"Nowhere," the Ranger mumbled, his voice almost too faint to hear. After a moment, the boy sighed and reached into his shirt for another vial.
Halbarad rose from a crouch and mounted, reaching down to flick the largest clumps of mud from his boots before settling them in the stirrups. Adjusting the position of his bandaged calf against the saddle with a wince, he pulled the edge of his cloak hood aside and turned to meet Gandalf’s eyes. “They split off from the trail here, went overland following this little creek. Aragorn’s horse is still being led by the other,” he added. Not once had he seen Aragorn's footprints on the ground, as he would have expected, stopping to read the lay of the land, to assess the condition of the road. He knew Gandalf would understand his meaning. Aragorn was never led.
Halbarad glanced about at the slumping hills on either side of the trail, their shoulders studded with trees whose naked branches dripped steadily in the cold rain. Suddenly, a memory came to him. “Oh, no," he groaned.
"What is it?"
"I know where they’re headed,” Halbarad said, hands tightening on the reins and legs unconsciously gripping the horse’s flanks with new urgency. “Come on."
"I can't believe this was Strider's idea," Halbarad said after an hour more of picking their way along the creek-bed brought them to the base of a limestone-studded hillock and before it, the black maw of a mine entrance carved out of the hillside.
"Why not?" Gandalf asked.
"It's my guess that he'd sooner face a dragon in full wrath than go underground again any time soon," Halbarad said, not bothering to mention that it was a sentiment he shared. "On the other hand, at least it's out of the rain." He saw the chestnut mare he had given Aragorn tethered to a tree beside another horse. He dismounted and went over to her. "Hello, Daisy, have you been taking good care of Aragorn?" he asked, as the mare snickered softly in recognition and butted his shoulder. Halbarad reached to untie the reins that someone had fastened to a tree branch before turning back to Gandalf with narrowed eyes. “Strider would never tie up a horse in the wild,” he said grimly, “and he wouldn’t leave the horses in full view of the entry point.”
The look in Gandalf's eyes said that he knew this as well, but he spared a slight smile. "Daisy?"
Halbarad flushed. "My granddaughter named her, if you must know." He reached into his saddlebags and began removing gear as Gandalf went to examine the mine entrance. Having rapidly donned every piece of weaponry and hardware in his possession, Halbarad went to join him, still fastening straps as he scanned the rocky ground in front of the mine entrance. “I can’t see any tracks,” he said, “but it's been raining hard all day. They had to have gone in this way. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“They went in,” said Gandalf without explanation, his ageless blue eyes intent on the dark void of the mine shaft.
“We only have two torches,” Halbarad said, with a glance at the wizard’s staff. “Of course, I suppose you don’t need one.”
Gandalf didn’t answer. The Ranger eyed the cracked and warped timbers which shored up the entrance worriedly and reached a hand to test the strength of the wood. “This looks pretty old.”
“It was abandoned nearly 400 years ago,” Gandalf said absently.
Halbarad glanced askance at the wizard. “Was that supposed to make me feel better?”
"Are you going in there?" Tillfield asked, scurrying up with Halbarad’s Elven dagger held at the ready. The Ranger caught him with a firm hand on the small shoulder. “Not this time, Tillfield.”
“I can fight, too,” the hobbit protested.
“I know you can. That’s why we need you to stay and protect the horses,” Halbarad explained, with an eye roll at Gandalf over the hobbit’s head. “It’s a very important job. What if we came back out and someone had stolen them?”
“Halbarad is right,” Gandalf said, inexplicably deciding to be helpful for once, and for once Halbarad almost wished he hadn’t. He had been a hairsbreadth from giving in and allowing the boy to come along, where at least he and Gandalf could keep an eye on him. The idea of leaving the hobbit out here unprotected was worrisome.
Halbarad sighed and knelt before the small hobbit, grasping his arms. Facing the still-defiant gaze, he spoke firmly. “Now listen, Tillfield. We’re going to lead the horses a bit further away. You must stay near them, and hide in the woods where you can see the mine entrance. Don’t come out for anything – anything – except me and Gandalf. If we don’t come out by - ” the Ranger looked about, assessing the deepening afternoon light – “by dawn, take the chestnut and leave. She will let you mount her, but you may have to lead her to a tree. Can you do that?”
"But I want to help, too," Tillfield protested.
“You are helping, Tillfield,” Halbarad answered, “but if we aren’t out of that mine by dawn, we will need more help than you can give us.”
“Don’t worry, young Master Tillfield,” Gandalf added with a reassuring wink as he helped Halbarad lead the growing herd to a copse out of sight of the entrance. “Halbarad and I are quite experienced in these matters. We will return shortly with Strider. You’ll see. Just stay here and stay out of sight.”
Gandalf quickly settled the hobbit with sufficient blankets and provisions to last the night, and turned back to the Ranger. “We will get him back,” he promised as they walked together back to the mine entrance, leaving Halbarad to blink as he saw in the Wizard’s eyes a flash of resolute lethality that Morgoth himself would not have lightly dismissed. Just as quickly, the eyes softened and the craggy old face relaxed again into a gentle smile, as Gandalf waved Halbarad forward with his staff. “Now, my dear Ranger, since you have more recent experience with such subterranean forays, I suggest you take the lead.”
“Good plan,” Halbarad muttered under his breath, as he stooped low to enter the mine. "It all turned out so well last time.”
“I don’t like the smell in here, Gandalf,” Halbarad commented as he knelt to examine a tunnel intersection. “I can’t see any tracks, but I’ll bet my boots there are orcs around here somewhere.” He nodded to a side passage, its timbered walls faintly illuminated by the soft glow from Gandalf’s staff and the flickering light of his own torch. “They went that way.” Halbarad started down the passageway and stopped short, bending low to examine the ground. “Look here.”
Gandalf joined him in crouching low, lending the light of his staff to the object of Halbarad’s scrutiny. In the mud, even the wizard could see the unmistakable impression of an orc boot.
“There goes the neighborhood,” Halbarad remarked, standing and tightening the grip on his dagger. "All right. At least we know what we're up against."
He started off down the narrower passage, with Gandalf at his shoulder.
Scarcely five minutes had passed before the passage reached a four-way intersection and the orcs came at them from both sides. Halbarad was waiting for it and reflexively swung at the nearest one, dropping it headless to the ground with a stroke even Aragorn would have admired. On the follow-through, he managed to get an approximate head count of eight orcs on the attack. He thrust his blade into another one and saw in the corner of his eye that Gandalf was swinging away to similarly lethal effect. "Halbarad, cover me!" he shouted suddenly, and Halbarad got himself between the orcs and Gandalf just as the Wizard's sword dropped to the floor with a clatter.
Halbarad saw the staff come up and didn't need the warning to cover his eyes this time. As the anticipated flash of light faded behind his eyelids, he removed the hand he'd thrown over them and lunged forward at the incapacitated orcs. He got to two of them before they could orient themselves, and chased the others as they retreated blindly down the passageway.
With Gandalf right on his heels, and Halbarad right on theirs, the blinded orcs tumbled out into a large, torch-lit chamber which contained several more orcs who, it was unfortunately apparent, retained full possession of not only their faculties but also their weapons. As he heaved his sword at the first one, Halbarad saw in the shadows of the corner a dark, unmoving form resembling a very familiar Ranger.
The human boy kneeling beside him was rising, backing away, glancing toward the escape route of a darkened passage behind him. Gandalf’s eyes were fixed on him like a hawk on a mouse as he sheathed his sword and raised his staff before him like a spear.
Halbarad withdrew his bloody blade from the belly of a dead orc.
Gandalf hesitated in his pursuit of the boy long enough to swing his head around in Halbarad’s direction, gray hair flying about his shoulders. His eyes were lit with cold fire as they met Halbarad’s, and his gaze darted to the motionless Ranger. “Get him out of here,” he commanded, and turned back to follow the boy.
“Gandalf! Let him go!” Halbarad called after him as he disappeared from view. Sighing in frustration at Gandalf’s impetuosity, he glanced warily around for further threats. But nothing that still moved kept his company in the dark chamber.
Halbarad rushed to the side of his Chieftain.
He knew even before dropping down on his knees beside him that he still lived. Even motionless and brutalized as he appeared, his body lacked the definitive slackness that Halbarad knew only too well.
“Elbereth,” Halbarad murmured, reaching hesitantly to touch the skin of his kinsman's face, clammy with shock and ashen where it was not covered in mud, bruises, or blood. Aragorn’s eyes were open but glazed and unseeing, sunken in darkened and hollow sockets.
“Aragorn,” Halbarad whispered, bending close to his face. “Hold on. We're getting out of here.” He grasped him by an arm and hoisted him over his shoulder, reaching to grab the torch as he pushed himself upright. With one last glance toward the dark passageway Gandalf had disappeared into, he made for the exit.
Halbarad ran through the dark corridors, praying to Ilúvatar that no more orcs would show up while he was trying to run through a fetid maze of damp, slick, passageways on a wounded leg, hauling a sword, a torch, and a Dúnadan Chieftain. Just as he was beginning to fear that he had taken a wrong turn, he saw a lighter patch of darkness ahead and stumbled out into the clearing, inhaling gasping lungfuls of sharp night air. It was not raining any more, but a chill dampness filled his chest as he ran down the short path.
Amongst the spiky silhouettes of trees, he made out the rounded dark shapes of horses, the lighter mist of their breath clouding the chill air. Halbarad ran across the rough ground toward them, stumbling as Aragorn’s weight put him off-balance. “Tillfield,” he gasped, swinging around clumsily. “Tillfield!”
“I’m here,” the small voice answered, and Halbarad expelled a short gasp of relief at the sight of the hobbit emerging from the wood line.
“Are you all right?” Halbarad asked.
The hobbit nodded mutely, staring up in open-mouthed horror at the mud-drenched and motionless figure draped across Halbarad’s shoulders.
“It’s all right, he’s alive,” Halbarad said. He spotted a flat area beneath the trees and lowered Aragorn to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the hobbit standing behind his shoulder, small fists clenched and shoulders hitching in anguish. “Tillfield, don't fall apart on me, I need you,” he said without taking his eyes off Aragorn. “Get me some water and blankets.”
The hobbit handed him a waterskin. “Where is Gandalf?”
Halbarad took it from him, not answering. Aragorn was senseless and limp, his eyes dull with shock, his breath shallow and rapid. Halbarad ripped open what was left of his shirt and checked for wounds.
Sighing with relief at finding nothing grievous, he pulled Aragorn’s head and shoulders up to rest against him. “Aragorn,” he commanded, shaking him lightly. “Can you hear me? Aragorn!”
The ranger’s shoulders twitched beneath Halbarad’s hands and he took a long shuddering breath. His eyelids fluttered and he raised his head, trying twist around to see who held him.
“Steady,” Halbarad said. “It’s just me.”
“Halbarad,” Aragorn murmured, his voice faint and slurred by pain or shock.
“That’s right. Everything is all right. You’re safe now.” Halbarad held him as Tillfield unfurled a blanket and spread it over him.
Aragorn was fighting for consciousness, his eyes struggling to focus. “Are you real?"
"Of course I'm real," Halbarad answered.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to get my horse back,” Halbarad whispered, not trusting his voice.
Aragorn's mouth twitched. "You're real," he whispered.
Halbarad closed his eyes and held the matted head tight against his chest for a moment. “Here. Try to drink a little.” He raised the skin to his Aragorn's lips and managed to get some of the liquid into him before Aragorn’s eyes rolled back and his head fell limply against Halbarad’s shoulder once again.
Halbarad laid him down gently and turned him carefully on his side, pulling the blanket up over him. “Tillfield,” he said to the hobbit as he rose to his feet, picking up his sword. “Stay here and take care of Strider. Whatever happens, don’t let him come after me. Sit on him if you have to.”
“Don’t leave!” the hobbit cried.
Halbarad tightened his jaw. In truth, it was the last thing he wanted to do. He cast a last resigned glance at the still form beneath the blankets. “I have to,” he answered. “I can’t leave Gandalf in there alone.”
“Nobody’s leaving me anywhere,” a familiar voice called from behind him.
“Gandalf!” the hobbit cried, tearing loose from Halbarad’s grasp and running to the wizard as he broke into the clearing, the limp body of the boy from the mine lying in his arms.
Gandalf dropped his burden on the ground somewhat un-gently and caught the hobbit in an embrace as the small figure plunged into his robes. “Easy on an old man, Dudo,” he grunted amicably. Grasping the hobbit firmly by his small shoulders, he extended him to arms’ length, leaning close to examine him for signs of injury. “Dudo, are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” the hobbit affirmed.
“Good.” Gandalf moved past him with a reassuring ruffle of his hair and turned to kneel beside Aragorn.
“He’s been beaten pretty badly,” Halbarad said, dropping down next to him, “and his sword hand is a mess, but I can’t find any other broken bones. He looks awful, though.”
“He does indeed,” the wizard concurred in a low voice, smoothing matted and mud-encrusted hair away from the gray skin of the ranger’s face.
“He feels so clammy. Those little yellow glass things were all over the floor where I found him.”
“We must get him back to Bree,” Gandalf said, resting a hand on the ashen forehead. “And we must leave here before that one can summon further aid.” The wizard cast a dark glance backward at the mysterious boy, who still lay unconscious where he had been dropped. “There are strange forces at work here.”
Halbarad’s eyes widened as he cast an incredulous glance at the boy. “Him?”
It was not a notion that particularly pleased Gandalf, either, but the evidence was mounting. “You had best tie him up before he awakens.”
“What are you planning to do with him?” Halbarad asked.
“We are taking him with us,” Gandalf answered, without looking up.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Halbarad asked. “Why not just leave him here?”
Gandalf was bent low over Aragorn and didn’t answer. After a moment, Halbarad snorted in exasperation and went to find some rope.
“What kind of nonsense have you managed to get yourself caught up in this time, my old friend?” Gandalf murmured, removing the blanket to examine Aragorn more thoroughly. A cursory examination confirmed Halbarad’s initial assessment, and Gandalf sighed and pulled the blanket back over the Ranger’s shoulders. Nothing more could be done at the moment. More orcs were certainly in the area, and Gandalf was uncomfortable with the prospect that they were connected to the boy somehow.
“All right, this one is trussed up like a goose for market,” Halbarad said from behind him. “We’d better get out of here before more orcs show up. Do you want me to take the boy or Aragorn?”
Gandalf reluctantly relinquished his hold on the unconscious Ranger and rose to his feet. “I will take the boy with me,” he said. He gestured Halbarad to his fallen comrade, speaking words that earned him a look of astonishment. “Best remove his weapons."
Gray dawn was filtering through the overhanging tangle of bare branches before Gandalf finally called a halt. The party’s travel throughout the waning hours of the night had been difficult, and though Halbarad would have chosen to continue the remaining several miles to re-connect with the Greenway before stopping for rest, he did not dispute the Wizard’s decision. His back and arms were cramped and exhausted from holding Aragorn on the horse in front of him. The Ranger had been drifting in and out of delirium during their past few hours on the trail, at times becoming so agitated that Halbarad had trouble keeping him on the horse. The clamminess had left him, replaced by fever.
While Halbarad carried Aragorn to a sheltered place beneath the trees and wrapped him in blankets, Gandalf took their unconscious prisoner a safe distance away. By all appearances, the slender sprout of a boy lashed to a tree before him was an innocent. The fine locks of a child fell into his eyes, the long dark lashes of a child lay peacefully against his pale cheek.
Gandalf steeled himself against appearances, deeply, sickeningly certain that whatever had been done to Aragorn had been done at the hands of this child, and whatever had been done to the child was worse still. It remained to be seen whether it could be undone.
He reached a hand to the boy’s forehead. “Wake up,” he commanded.
The boy’s eyes opened, widening with surprise when he saw the wizard poised inches from his face. The look in his eyes was terror born of recognition, and he struggled against his bonds before realizing he was hopelessly caught.
“So you know me,” Gandalf said. “I wonder how. I am sure that we have never met.”
Gandalf raised a water skin to the boy’s mouth. “Are you thirsty? It has been a long ride.” The boy clamped his mouth shut in a resolute grimace, defiance sparking in his gray eyes.
“Very well,” Gandalf said. He lowered himself to the ground and settled himself against the tree next to the boy, pulling his pipe from the recesses of his robe and lighting it. “Terrible habit, I’ve been told,” he said by way of apology. “But in my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of the hobbits. It does much to clear the mind and relax the body.”
The boy was resolutely silent, glaring at him from beneath the swath of dark hair falling over his brow. Gandalf peered at him with a critical gaze. “You so resemble a Dúnadan, do you know that?”
“I do not!” the boy retorted, eyes flaring.
“And why does that suggestion bother you?” the Wizard asked.
“They are Men!”
“You are a Man, my boy,” Gandalf said, “or at least you will be someday. There is no shame in being a
The boy lowered his eyes and was silent.
“What is your name, child?” the wizard asked.
The boy was silent for so long that Gandalf assumed he would not answer. But a twitch of the slim shoulders betrayed him at last, and the wizard looked over in time to see an anguished swallow and a flash of a tormented grimace twist the unblemished features.
The muscles in the boy’s fine jaw line tightened spasmodically as he struggled with himself. “I don’t know,” he whispered finally.
“It’s all right,” said Gandalf. “It is over. You can come with us now.”
The boy looked up at him in genuine astonishment.
“There is only one thing,” Gandalf said. “You must tell me who sent you.”
The boy averted his eyes, and Gandalf saw them slowly harden. With a hint of a head-shake, the boy took a long breath. “I cannot,” he said.
Gandalf reached a hand to the slender shoulder. “Yes, you can. Whatever you have done, whatever has happened to you, it is over now. You are free to decide.”
The boy’s jaw tightened. “Strider is brave," he said. "He'll understand."
"What will he understand?" Gandalf asked.
"He would have died to protect his secret," the boy answered. His eyes darted to the treeline. "Tell him that I make the same choice." The boy closed his eyes, letting his chin fall to his chest.
Gandalf rose to his feet, raising his staff before him. “Halbarad!” he shouted. The Ranger jerked his head around. “Get ready!” the Wizard warned, an instant before he heard the unmistakable growl of a wolf somewhere in the trees behind him.
Aragorn was aware that somehow Halbarad and Gandalf had found him, though not much beyond that fact had penetrated his fog of nightmares and delirium. On the topics of what had happened to him, where he was, or how much time had passed, his mind was mercifully vague. Faces kept appearing in his dreams; asking him questions, questions with no sensible answers. Sometimes it was Rolly's face, sometimes Baranuir's, and sometimes Gandalf's.
There was some truth which had to be protected, a truth that in some way had to do with the questions, but at the same time did not. He groaned and struggled against the dreams.
“Easy,” a voice murmured near his ear, as firm hands caught his shoulders and pressed him back down. “Take it easy, it’s all right.” He felt his head lifted and a cup of water pressed against his lips. Halbarad again. He obediently drank as much as he could, the last few swallows going astray as he swallowed the wrong way. Halbarad patiently held him as he choked and then wiped the excess liquid from his chin and neck before lowering him back to the ground. “That’s good,” he said. “Now rest.”
Halbarad was still talking, though Aragorn could no longer follow the words. It was comforting to hear Halbarad’s voice. A vague sense of regret, of guilt, attached to his memories of Halbarad, though he couldn’t remember why. It didn’t matter. He began to drift back to sleep to the reassuring sound of his kinsman’s voice.
Another voice suddenly pierced his darkness. Gandalf's voice. Even semi-conscious and delusional, Aragorn knew that tone in Gandalf’s voice. It meant imminent and mortal peril.
Halbarad had released his hold on him in an instant, and as Aragorn lay struggling to regain full awareness, he heard the rasp of swords being unsheathed, the guttural growls of attacking wolves. As Halbarad’s running footstepts receded, he was shouting to Gandalf that the wolves were going for the horses.
Amidst the visceral sounds of metal running through flesh, the snarls and yelps of wolves, the cries and snorts of horses, and the shouts of Gandalf and Halbarad, Aragorn forced himself up onto his elbows. His head was swimming, his ears were buzzing, and dizziness prevented him from rising further than his knees. He fumbled at his waist and found his weapons gone again.
A piercing cry of pain rose from behind him, and he pivoted awkwardly on his knees to see a massive wolf tearing into Rolly.
Aragorn crawled toward it, searching himself desperately as he went for a knife, a dagger, anything that may have been overlooked when his weapons had been removed. Finding nothing, he kept moving.
His hand brushed across a decent-sized branch, and he picked it up. So intent was the wolf on rending the boy’s flesh that Aragorn was able to get in one swing with the stick before it turned.
The one-handed blow was weak and the wolf turned amber eyes toward him over a muzzle that dripped with Rolly's blood.
As the wolf's shoulders tensed to lunge and it opened its mouth to bare the fangs that would tear into his throat, a small, tousle-headed figure appeared behind it. Before Aragorn could sort out where in Arda a hobbit could have come from, or what one was doing with a six-thousand-year-old Noldor dagger, seven inches of Elven steel found themselves buried to the hilt in lupine flesh.
Aragorn scrambled to Rolly as the wolf collapsed, ignoring for the moment the hobbit, who he largely suspected to be a figment of his fevered imagination, anyway.
Rolly's body was badly torn, and his left leg was nearly severed at the groin. Aragorn reached his hand into the cavity of the wound, feeling for the ripped vessel from which the boy’s blood poured out onto the ground.
“Strider.” Aragorn abandoned the futile effort to stop the bleeding directly and yanked his belt off instead. Tying it high up on the boy’s leg and cinching it as tightly as he could with his teeth, he leaned close to the boy’s face. Rolly was breathing in short, hitching gasps, his face drained of all color.
Aragorn rested his blood-soaked hand on the side of the boy’s head. “Quiet,” he murmured. “Just lie still.”
“I told you,” they boy gasped. “I told you I couldn’t fail.”
“Don’t try to speak,” Aragorn urged. The boy was shivering uncontrollably, and Aragorn shrugged off his cloak and laid it over him.
“I’m sorry, Strider.”
Aragorn took the boy’s hand.
“I can’t fail him,” the boy gasped. “He would have made me tell.”
“Rolly,” Aragorn whispered. “No.”
The boy struggled to answer with strident breaths. His eyes started to roll back. “You didn’t tell. Remember... that you didn’t tell.”
As Aragorn watched the gray eyes grow dim, he realized that the clamor of fighting had quieted, replaced by the sounds of familiar voices approaching. As they reached him, and their hands grasped hold of him, he let the darkness take him away.
Aragorn’s eyes snapped open at the sound of clanging metal, but it was only a sheepish Gandalf he saw kneeling before the hearth, his head caught frozen in mid-glance at the bed and a fireplace poker poised before him in mid-air. “That’s better,” the wizard murmured cryptically before turning to replace the offending implement in its rack. He stood and looked apologetically at Aragorn. “I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s all right,” Aragorn answered, rubbing absently at his eyes and stretching the parts of him which could be moved without too much pain. “I’m tired of sleeping, anyway. My dreams have been strange.” He glanced about the room, taking in the reassuringly sturdy beams overhead, the mismatched heavy blankets piled about him, and the glow from the hearth glancing off the sword hilt propped in a corner. Through the window, he could see the building across the street awash with the warm tones of sunset. It seemed he last remembered Gandalf standing over him in the gray light of morning. "Did I sleep all day?" he asked.
“Most of it,” Gandalf said, smiling. He raised a defensive eyebrow at Aragorn's accusatory stare. "Peace, Aragorn. It was none of my doing. It is your own body forcing the sleep upon you, and as for your dreams - " He reached into his robe and pulled out a handful of small amber-colored glass vials, each the size of a large grape. “Do you remember seeing one of these before?”
Aragorn frowned. “I don’t think so."
Gandalf tucked the vials back into his robe. “They contain a powder which is released by breaking the glass. Halbarad and I found one here in Bree, in Teburic's house, and several more, broken, where you were being held at the mine and in the shed at Teburic's cabin. They undoubtedly contained some kind of drug intended to confuse your mind and render you more susceptible to interrogation. As the drug is purged from your system, your sleep should ease, and more of your memories may return."
It did not escape Aragorn that Gandalf failed to mention where he found the intact vials now secreted away in the folds of his robe. "I remember more than I want to already," Aragorn said softly.
"I know," Gandalf said, seating himself by the bed. He poured a glass of water and helped the Ranger prop himself up to drink it. "How are you feeling?"
Aragorn dropped his gaze and picked at a corner of the blanket with the hand that was not shrouded in layers of cloth padding. "What would you have me say?"
Gandalf smiled. "It is only you and I here, my friend. I think the truth is safe enough."
Aragorn sighed. "All right. I feel foolish."
Gandalf shook his head. "Aragorn - "
"Gandalf, I have battled every foul spawn of Mordor between the Emyn Uial and the Morgul Vale, only to be nearly undone by a sweet-faced, fourteen-year-old boy."
Gandalf folded his arms and looked at him with fond patience. "Well, dear Ranger, I hardly imagine you would have been undone by a yellow-eyed orc, would you?"
Aragorn was taken aback at the mirthful tone in the Wizard's voice. "What do you mean?"
Gandalf sighed. "Aragorn, deception is the Enemy's greatest weapon. There is a war ongoing, all around us, and few of its battles are won with swords. Even the wise are not immune to lies and deceptions. You resisted with all your might. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
"A boy is dead."
"That was his choice, Aragorn, not your doing."
Aragorn closed his eyes against the image of Rolly's torn body lying still on the bloody ground. "Why?" he whispered, finding that the question he most wanted to answer was not why the boy died, but why, of all the men and boys whose torn bodies he had seen scattered across a score of battlefields, had this been the one he most desperately wanted to save.
"The Enemy's grasp on him was very strong. I felt it myself." Gandalf's voice trailed off and he cast an unsettled gaze into the fire.
Aragorn sank back into the pillows, losing himself in tormented memories. He had felt it too. He had felt it but stupidly thought he could defeat it. "Who was his master, Gandalf? Who would do such a thing to a child?"
Gandalf sat in thought for a moment, clearly troubled. "To mold a child, to instill in him such blind loyalty... such tactics are regrettably not new. But to do so with such preeeminent success - for the child to then in turn control beasts, control orcs...I would not have thought it possible. Perhaps Sauron himself managed to confer this authority on him. But for what purpose, I cannot say."
Aragorn turned to Gandalf. "He kept asking about you."
"About me?" Gandalf's eyebrows arched with surprise.
"About the Shire, as well," he added. "The guard. But especially about you." Gandalf stared at him in open shock. Aragorn met the troubled gaze with hesitation, knowing how such a revelation must horrify the Wizard. "It was as if he knew you."
"When he awoke and looked at me, it was as if he knew me, also. But I am sure we have never met," Gandalf said. "I told him so."
Aragorn closed his eyes, sifting through disjointed memories - idle conversations he'd shared with Rolly along the road and dreams that he now suspected were more than just dreams - trying to draw a common thread. "He seemed to have no idea who I was, and no interest, beyond my association with you, and what I could tell him about the Rangers posted at the Shire borders. But with you it was... personal, Gandalf. There was a sense of arrogance, and..." he paused, fighting to recall tones of voice and turns of expression now shrouded by exhaustion and fever and whatever had been in those little yellow baubles. He closed his eyes, willing memory to seep up from the well of his mind. "And...jealousy. Does that make sense?"
Gandalf sat motionless, vexed by this revelation. "I had not known that I had any enemies," he said quietly. "None who would take such a personal interest in my activities, at least." He shook his head in dismay. "I am sorry, my friend. It seems that that I led them to you. I led them to the Shire. Somehow all my best intentions have been bent against me, and I have brought ruin to those I sought most to protect."
"No one is ruined yet," Aragorn pointed out with a rueful smile. "Not permanently, at least."
Gandalf's face twisted into a forced smile, but his eyes were tight. Aragorn decided to change the subject. "Where is Halbarad?”
Gandalf's eyes crinkled in a slight smile. "I'm not surprised that you don't remember. You were very...weak, when we arrived yesterday. As soon as Halbarad was assured that you would be safe here he rode to the Brandywine to fetch more Rangers. I believe they have spent the day rounding up the rest of Teburic’s gang.”
Of his arrival at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn harbored a single, fragmentary memory of being carried through the door as a wide-eyed Butterbur hastily thrust his doughy form out of Halbarad's way. He chuckled softly. “That should please him. He has always enjoyed playing constable.”
“Yes, I understand all the activity is causing quite a stir among the Breefolk." Gandalf smiled. "He’s a good man, Aragorn.”
“I know he is," Aragorn said sharply. "He does his duty.” The Ranger fixed a stare out the window. “Even Rolly did his duty.”
“Loyal service to an evil purpose is hardly an admirable trait, Aragorn.”
Aragorn turned reluctantly to meet Gandalf's gaze. “Isn't it? What if he saw not the evil but only the loyalty? He was but a tool in his master's hands, Gandalf. He tried to tell me,” Aragorn said, his voice softening. “He said he would never fail someone who had been like a father to him. I don't know if he knew his purpose was evil, Gandalf. But I do know that he managed at least this much. He did as he promised. He didn't fail."
"Aragorn, he did fail," Gandalf said quietly, but with the tone of a lecture. "He failed to complete his mission."
Aragorn closed his eyes, feeling the familiar weight of purpose, of foreboding, of ominous destiny fall onto his shoulders again, wondering what would have been different had the forged note had never been delivered, if he had met Gandalf as intended; here, under the safe and sturdy rafters of the Prancing Pony. Save but for a multitude of bruises and a ruined hand, the entire ordeal might have seemed but one more surreal dream. Save but for that and another dead boy. He opened his eyes again. "As I failed to complete mine."
"What mission was that?"
Aragorn averted his eyes. “I promised you I would not come back without Gollum. I looked everywhere. I followed the valley all the way from Lorien to the Carrock.” He pushed himself up against the headboard, remembering the long months of lonely searching that started with determination and ended with a refusal of failure that left him attempting the passes far too late, trying to make the one commitment it seemed he could still keep. He looked up at Gandalf again. “I didn't want to give up. But finally, I did. Rolly didn't fail, but I did. I have failed you, Gandalf."
“Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” Gandalf sputtered, straightening in his chair. “That is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard come out of your mouth. You haven't failed me. In the first place, I did not set this task for you as if you were a minion to be commanded. I do not even know if Gollum is alive; indeed if he can be found. I was grateful that you offered to continue the search when I had to come back. I would not have agreed to the fail-safe rendezvous if I didn't expect you to return, Gollum or no.”
Aragorn closed his eyes, realizing that the weariness he felt sprang from a far deeper well than the ordeal he had just endured. "It is not just Gollum, Gandalf. I have been out there-” the jerk of his head took in the wild, the far lands, Gondor, Rohan, and every other place in Middle Earth outside the confines of the Prancing Pony – “for nearly 60 years now, and I have nothing to show for it. I have accomplished nothing." It was not just Gandalf that he had failed. At the moment, he could not think of a single person in his life that he hadn't failed, beginning with a certain Elf-lord whose expectations for his accomplishments were far from trivial. But this was not a topic he was up to arguing with Gandalf. He sank back against the pillows as the throbbing behind his temples waxed, and clutched at the edge of the bed as a wave of dizziness snatched at him.
“Your time has not yet come, Aragorn,” Gandalf said softly. "But there is no doubt that it will." His hand brushed the Ranger's brow. "You are tired, and I think it would be good for you to eat something. If you will be all right for a few minutes, I will see if the cook can come up with something light - some soup, or the like."
Aragorn nodded without opening his eyes, deciding that soup was definitely a less threatening topic than destiny. "And what of your wayward hobbit?"
He heard a slight exhalation of air from Gandalf's direction. "Ah, young Dudo. There is no telling what mischief he may have accomplished in my absence."
Aragorn smiled at the consternation woven into the Wizard's tone. "Dudo the wolf-killer. I was sure I was imagining things when I saw him standing there with Elrohir's dagger."
He sensed rather than saw Gandalf's answering smile. "He put that dagger to good use. But his conscience is troubled. He blames himself for what happened to you."
"He saved my life," Aragorn whispered as heaviness overtook him again. "Tell him that."
"Perhaps you can tell him yourself, when you're a bit stronger." He heard Gandalf's robes rustle as he stood. "Rest now. I'll be back shortly."
The entry of eight tall, dark, and extremely well-armed Rangers into the Prancing Pony stirred a rumble of muttering and a wave of heads among the clientele.
Halbarad ignored the stares of the locals and dismissed his men with a wave as they descended on an empty table. Spotting Gandalf and Tillfield in the corner, he lowered himself wearily into a chair across from their bench. “We’re still as popular as ever, I see.”
“On the contrary,” Gandalf said, chewing on his pipe and smiling at the lethal glare the Ranger shot at a particularly slack-jawed Bree-lander, “there is quite a vocal contingent arguing that the temporary displeasure of your presence is a small price to pay for ridding Bree of that lot of Dunlending rabble.”
“I suppose I should be flattered,” Halbarad said, managing another scathing look toward a staring local.
Gandalf cast a glance toward the table of Rangers. "How many did you bring from the Brandywine Bridge?"
"Every last one of them." As he leaned back in the chair and kneaded his sore leg, Halbarad cast a warning glance at Gandalf. "And he won't know unless you tell him."
Gandalf's eyes widened. "That matter would be none of my concern."
Halbarad grunted and cast a suspicious gaze at the book the hobbit held propped against the table edge. “Say, Tillfield, Gandalf isn’t teaching you magic tricks or anything, is he?”
The little hobbit shot a wink at Gandalf before answering. “Well, I’ve just finished learning how to turn a chicken into a dog.” As Halbarad obligingly responded with an appalled look, he laughed. “Of course not, silly, he’s just teaching me to read.”
“Really,” Halbarad said hesitantly, appealing to Gandalf for confirmation with a cock of his eyebrow. As usual, the wizard offered nothing in return but a cryptically benign expression. Halbarad shrugged, deciding that he was getting used to this behavior, and reached over the table to help himself to the scraps of Gandalf’s meal. “How is he?” he asked through a mouthful of bread
The amusement in the wizard’s eyes faded, replaced by a pale smile of reassurance. “Much better today than yesterday,” Gandalf answered, with a cautious glance at Tillfield. “He slept easier, and his mind is clearing.” Gandalf nodded at the raucous table of Rangers, whose jubilant manner bespoke a victory celebration. “I take it you were successful today?”
“Not really,” Halbarad answered, unconsciously rubbing his bruised knuckles. “We just knocked a lot of heads around. We interrogated the last of Teburic’s crew. They didn’t know anything. We set them on the road and made sure they know better than to return to Bree anytime soon. We also searched that house again, on the Street of the Not Painted Lately Doors. It’s been cleaned out. There’s nothing left to do here - I’m sending this lot down south to check out that cabin tomorrow.”
“I doubt they will find anything left there, either.”
“You’re probably right. Teburic’s men have no idea who this Rolly was or where he came from. It turns out that Teburic was nobody down in Dunland, just hired muscle for a thief-lord called Dregan. By most accounts, Rolly showed up on the scene a little over a year ago, right before Teburic talked a few men into coming up here to Bree to pursue greater opportunities. Once they got here, Teburic established himself very quickly, with surprisingly little resistance. In a matter of a few months he had eliminated or recruited all his competition and had every honest merchant in town paying protection to him. As he expanded his little criminal enterprise here, he brought up more men from Dunland as well. That lot Strider killed at the falls had only been here a few months. Apparently they were expendable. Teburic’s men all claim that they didn’t see much of the boy and assumed Teburic was keeping him locked up in the house. Business was good and they didn’t ask questions.”
"That is surely what Rolly intended," Gandalf said.
Halbarad turned his attention to the hobbit. “All right, Tillfield, did you clean that dagger the way I showed you?” At the hobbit’s enthusiastic nod, he held out his hand. “Good. Let’s see it.”
Tillfield produced the weapon and turned it over to Halbarad, who removed it from the sheath and raised it closer to the lamp to inspect it. “Not bad,” he commented. “There’s still a little bit of blood in the crevices here, on the inscription. You have to get that out of there. Work on it a bit more tomorrow, all right?”
He handed the weapon back. “That was a very brave thing you did, Tillfield, killing that wolf.”
“But it didn’t matter,” the hobbit said. “That boy still died.”
“Yes he did,” Halbarad answered. “That happens, sometimes. Doesn’t change what you did.” He looked to Gandalf. "Does Strider remember what happened?"
Gandalf took a last sip from his mug and laid it down. “Most of it. The memories have been slowly surfacing. The boy's death troubles him."
"The boy!" Halbarad choked out. "Gandalf, that...that, boy, nearly killed him!" He rose to his feet. “Let me talk to him."
Gandalf's hand on his arm pulled him back. "Give him time, Halbarad. In any case, you aren't going anywhere near him like that.” Gandalf's disapproving gaze took in the Ranger’s grimy and blood-spattered raiment. “You may visit later, after you’ve washed and found some clean clothes.”
"Who was that boy?" Tillfield interjected.
Halbarad sat down again, and let his eyes rest on the Wizard. "Well, Gandalf? Who was he?"
Gandalf took a deep breath and chewed on his pipe, the hearthlight flickering behind his eyes. He looked down at Tillfield. "Someone who fell into the wrong hands, Master Tillfield, and could not see his way back out again." The Wizard smiled as Halbarad's gleaning efforts targeted smaller and smaller scraps of food. "Dudo, would you mind fetching some more stew from the kitchen? I fear Halbarad will scrape all the finish off Butterbur’s dinnerware.”
“All right,” the hobbit answered. He scooted down off the bench and started making his way to the kitchen.
"He's quite a character, isn't he?" Halbarad chuckled. "I think I might have to offer him a job.”
Concern was in Gandalf's eyes. "He has a plucky spirit but I have worried for him. Strider's condition...it frightened him. It is good that you have returned - this is the first I have seen him brighten since we arrived."
Halbarad laid a frank stare on the Wizard. “What are we going to do with him, Gandalf? He can’t stay here in Bree.” They could never take the chance that Teburic's men would somehow make their way back here and take their revenge.
“His mother’s people are in the Shire somewhere,” Gandalf said. “With help, we should be able to locate them.”
Halbarad’s eyes widened with disbelief. “Gandalf, you can’t unleash Tillfield on the Shire. He’ll have all those complacent little Boffins and Bolgers in an uproar within a week.”
Gandalf chuckled. “I agree that some attempt at reform may be necessary,”
Halbarad groaned. “Please don’t reform him, Gandalf. He’s the first hobbit I’ve ever met who’s interested in something beyond where his next meal was coming from.”
“He is not the first I have met,” Gandalf answered. “But funny you should say that. You have just given me an idea.”
“I have?” Halbarad waited a moment to see if Gandalf intended to expound. When it became clear that this would not transpire, he resumed his foray into the leftovers.
Gandalf sighed and chewed absently on his pipe for a moment before rising. "I had better check on Strider. Keep young Dudo out of trouble, won't you?"
Halbarad snorted. "Something tells me that keeping Tillfield out of trouble could be a full-time job."
Halbarad cracked open the door slowly, squinting into the shadowed room. Only embers from the fading fire illuminated the still figures occupying the bed and the chair next to it. Carefully, so as not to step on any of the numerous creaky floorboards, he made his way to the sleeping wizard and leaned close to his ear. “Gandalf.”
The wizard’s eyes opened, and without a word he stood and silently ushered the Ranger out into the hallway. “Is something wrong?” he asked, glancing up and down the dimly lit corridor.
Halbarad shook his head. “No, I just came to relieve you. When was the last time you slept in a bed?”
Gandalf glanced back toward the half-closed door as if reluctant to leave his charge.
“He’ll be fine,” Halbarad pressed. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
The wizard considered the offer for a moment and finally gave a short nod of assent. “Very well. The midwife just left a remedy which should help the fever and the pain. If he wakes, try to get him to take some; it is in a brown jug by the bed.”
“Did she look at his hand?”
Gandalf shook his head. "No, he was sleeping, but I knew already there was nothing she could do,” he said. “The bones will knit in place, but he will not regain full function unless they are set properly, and there is no one in Bree with this skill.”
The Ranger frowned at Gandalf, realizing where this was going and knowing Aragorn wasn't going to like it. "Gandalf..."
“He must go to Rivendell.”
Halbarad snorted. “He won't.”
“He may resist the suggestion,” Gandalf conceded. “But he must be persuaded.”
“Well, you can persuade him then, Gandalf,” Halbarad said. “I can't even get him to talk about it."
Gandalf sighed. “I, on the other hand, have discussed this topic quite exhaustively, and not just with Aragorn, and I am growing increasingly impatient with all aspects of it. But very well, I will speak with him in the morning.” A ghost of a smile flickered over the worn features. “Fear not, Halbarad. You may yet have the opportunity to sling the Chieftain of the Dúnedain across the back of his horse like a sack of wool.”
Halbarad managed a smirk at the prospect before bidding Gandalf good night and entering the darkened room. He knelt at the hearth, stoking the fire as quietly as he could, and then settled himself in the chair Gandalf had recently vacated and took stock of his charge.
Now stripped of its obscuring patina of grime, Aragorn’s face was covered in bruises and cuts, against which the few unmarked patches of pallid skin stood out in stark contrast. The charcoal smudge of a black eye hugged the contour of his nose, and a swollen lip pulled his peaceful face askew. Some greasy ointment had been smeared on the worst of the cuts and across his cracked lips, and a faint gleam of perspiration shone on his forehead.
Aragorn had pushed the blanket down in his sleep, and it lay bunched at his waist, revealing a shirt big enough to be Butterbur's. With a wincing thought to Tillfield’s criminal proclivities, Halbarad decided that this was a line of speculation best abandoned. He carefully untangled the blanket from Aragorn's hand and pulled it back up over his chest.
Rivendell, indeed. Though Aragorn never gave an explanation, he had quietly avoided the place for years. Halbarad knew enough to guess at why, though he judged it just as well, as it seemed with so many things of late, that he was left ignorant of the entire reason.
Aragorn groaned lightly without waking, tossing his head to the side and pushing the blanket away again restlessly. Halbarad spied a basin of water on the bedside table and fished a cloth out of it. He wrung it out and wiped it gently over the hot forehead.
Gray eyes opened and struggled to focus in the dim light. “Halbarad?” Aragorn whispered, his voice raspy with sleep.
“Hush,” Halbarad ordered. “Go back to sleep.”
Aragorn refused to listen, as usual. “What are you doing here?” he asked, rubbing a hand against tired eyes. “Gandalf said you were out rousting bandits.”
“I was. I ran out of people to beat up.”
Aragorn levered himself upright with some difficulty, aiming to prop himself up against the headboard. Halbarad reached a hand tentatively to help, almost afraid to touch his captain for fear of adding to his hurts. Aragorn grunted as he eased himself into a reasonably comfortable position and rested his head against the headboard for a moment, catching his breath. Finally he opened his eyes, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at Halbarad’s expression. "What?"
“I think you looked better before we got all the dirt off of you,” Halbarad commented.
Aragorn smiled sheepishly. “I don't recall having much say in the matter. But your appearance seems remarkably presentable, as well. Who was it that managed to persuade you to bathe, or has your wife unexpectedly arrived?”
Halbarad snorted. “Who do you think?”
Aragorn laughed, but then his smile faded and his eyes grew serious. “Halbarad,” he began, “There is something I must say.”
Halbarad dropped his gaze. “I know, I was wrong-”
“No,” Aragorn said. “You were not. I was. It was wrong of me to give you a general’s job and expect you to follow orders without question like a common foot soldier.”
Halbarad shook his head. “No, you weren’t - ”
Aragorn raised a hand. “No, let me speak. I left the Dúnedain under your command because I trusted your judgment and leadership as much as my own. Maybe more. Your judgment is true, Halbarad. It was only information that you lacked.”
Halbarad shook his head, realizing what was coming and suddenly knowing he didn’t want it.
Aragorn lowered his voice. “Halbarad, about the Shire…”
“No,” Halbarad said firmly. He shook his head again. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
The battle-scarred countenance tightened with concern. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure," he said. "If what happened to you is because of it, then you were right all along. It’s better that I don’t know.” He lowered his head. “I was wrong not to trust you. I couldn’t see past my own cares. “
“Your care was for our people. There’s no shame in that.”
Halbarad hung his head. “Not in that, maybe. But I was afraid, as well.”
“Afraid? Of what?”
Halbarad sighed, recognizing only now the name of the fear that had long gnawed at him, spurring his frustration, his resentment. His temper. “That in the long years you spent away from us, your care for the Dúnedain had waned, your link to us diminished. I feared that you would forget us when you go to meet your destiny."
A hand as cut and bruised as his own found his shoulder. “I will never forget you, my friend," Aragorn promised. "And I will always be a Dúnadan, though my behavior of late would leave you well justified in renouncing me.” Aragorn’s eyes strayed to the window. “My destiny lurks ever beyond my grasp, Halbarad, and I grow weary of waiting for it. It will not come but at at great cost, and yet if it must come, I would have it come quickly, before my strength diminishes and my resolve fades. I would go out to meet it, if I could, but instead I must watch it hanging ever against the horizon like a bank of distant clouds, threatening rain which never comes.”
Halbarad grasped his chieftain's hand and willed his troubled gaze back from the clouds. He could see them, too, hanging low in a dark sky somewhere far from Bree. It was a sky he somehow knew he would see, would manage to see, no matter what the cost. “Your strength will remain true, and your resolve firm, no matter how long the wait," he promised. "And when you do ride out to meet that storm, I would be at your shield-arm, even if we are both gray-beards like Gandalf by then.”
As Aragorn returned the grasp and brought his gaze back to the present and the room in Bree, Halbarad saw a glint of mischief steal into their desolate gray depths. “I don’t know, Halbarad,” he answered slowly, the gravity in his tone betrayed by a hint of mirth, “I’m not sure if I can spare you from inspecting ox-carts at the Brandywine that day.”
Halbarad grinned broadly as Aragorn broke out into a cascade of self-amused chuckles. "You deserve that,” he chastised indignantly as Aragorn's mirthful eruption abruptly bent him over with pain.
“There is no one I would rather have beside me in battle,” Aragorn wheezed, struggling to regain his breath. “Who else would allow me to abuse his horses thus?”
“You leave my horse out of this. That’s the last horse you’re getting out of me, I’ll have you know.”
Aragorn snickered, giving his arm a cuff, then frowned as Halbarad raised a pottery mug before his face. “What’s this?”
“Just for that, you’re going to have to take some medicine.”
Aragorn sniffed the brownish liquid skeptically, wrinkling his nose at the foul odor. “What is it?”
“How should I know? The midwife brought it.”
Aragorn raised both eyebrows. “The midwife?”
“This is Bree, what do you expect?” Halbarad said. “We tried to get the blacksmith, but he had a previous engagement pulling teeth over Archet way. Now just be quiet and drink this. It’s good for you.” He held the mug expectantly before Aragorn's face.
Aragorn frowned, peering closely at unidentifiable bits of detritus floating atop the liquid. “I don’t think so,” he said finally, with a tone that said the discussion was closed.
Halbarad huffed, exasperated. He stared at Aragorn in frustration for a moment and finally grabbed the mug back from him. Stubborn Ranger, for all that he was constantly pouring noxious substances down other people's throats. “It’s perfectly safe. Look, I’ll take some myself.”
With Aragorn watching expectantly, Halbarad lifted the mug and downed a mouthful of the liquid. The instant the taste hit his palate, he lunged to his feet, his face screwed into a knot, fighting to keep from spitting the liquid out. Finally managing to swallow with an audible gulp, he exhaled forcefully and opened his eyes in shock. “That’s worse than Orc-draught!”
Setting the mug down and hastily downing a glass of water to chase the taste away, all thought to setting a good example gone by the wayside, Halbarad found Aragorn looking back at him wearing a smugly amused expression that would have earned him a belt in the mouth if he weren't currently a certifiable invalid. “Well done, cousin,” Aragorn said. “Very persuasive.”
Halbarad looked down at his captain and then at the tankard on the table. Exhaling with dismay, he set down the water glass and took his seat, regarding Aragorn with a rueful expression. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance that you would just cooperate and drink this now.”
“I’m not feeling terribly inclined to,” Aragorn responded. “What’s more, I imagine you are going to feel very sleepy in a few minutes.”
"Why do you say that?"
Aragorn smiled. "I know these things."
Halbarad groaned, striking his forehead and letting his head fall against the back of the chair. “Gandalf is going to kill me for this.”
Gandalf slipped quietly into Aragorn’s room and smiled at the unmoving pair of Rangers. The one on the bed was so thoroughly buried beneath the covers that only a few stray locks of dark hair peeking from the top end of the blanket were left to attest to his identity, while the other lay sprawled beside him in the chair, long legs stretched out before him and a cloak strewn across his chest. Gandalf set a large pot of steaming water and a stack of clean cloths down next to the bed, and then knelt to re-kindle the fire. As he laid logs on the grate, a booted foot stirred next to him.
Gandalf glanced over at the bleary-eyed Ranger. “Good morning, Halbarad. How passed the night?”
Halbarad frowned and rubbed at his eyes. “Fine,” he muttered noncommittally.
“Did Aragorn sleep comfortably?”
With a sideways glance at the still form of his captain, Halbarad scratched his forehead and chewed on his lip.
Gandalf raised an eyebrow patiently. “Well? Did the medicine seem to help?”
Halbarad cleared his throat. “Oh, yes. Absolutely. Very well, actually.”
“It was positively awful, Gandalf,” interjected a thin but amused voice from the indistinct mound on the bed. Aragorn’s face emerged in a tangle of disheveled hair as he rolled over and pulled the blanket down to his waist. “In the future, if I have to choose between that vile concoction and a slow death by spider poison, I’ll take the spiders.” Gandalf caught him shooting a conspiratorial wink at a relieved-looking Halbarad and was virtually certain that he was being had.
“I see,” he said, looking from one guilty party to the other with his best discerning Istari expression. “Well then, so long as you’re feeling better,” he said presently, deciding that he had never been so pleased to see a pair of septuagenarians behaving like miscreant schoolboys. He turned to Halbarad. “Tillfield is in the kitchen, seeing to our breakfast. Will you see how he's coming along while I see to Aragorn? Unless you would like me to clean that leg wound first.”
Halbarad banged his knee in his haste to get to the door. "No, no, that's fine, I'll just be in the kitchen, helping Tillfield." With a sympathetic glance at Aragorn, Halbarad slipped out into the hallway.
Gandalf urged Aragorn to shift onto his side, and the Ranger lay quiet, eyes closed, as he set to cleaning the healing wounds on his back. Pulling the borrowed shirt carefully back down to cover the injuries, he moved to examine the arrow wound on the Ranger’s leg. As before, he found the area around the healing scar tender and hot. He knew from working the joint earlier that inflammation and scar tissue had spread through it, stiffening it so that the leg could not be bent more than a few degrees.
Gandalf left it alone. Nothing more could be done about it in Bree. He moved to the Ranger’s arm, unwinding the bandage he had wrapped around a deep cut from some bladed weapon. “Who sewed this wound for you?”
Aragorn looked down at the neat row of stitches. “Rolly.” He looked away from the boy’s handiwork.
Gandalf cleaned the injury and re-bandaged it before answering. “You must not blame yourself. It was simply not within your power.”
Aragorn was silent for a long moment, looking away from Gandalf. "It seems that not much is," he said finally.
Gandalf smiled. "Much more than you give yourself credit for. But you must be patient."
"I've been patient."
"I know," Gandalf said. "It has been a long trial for you."
"I know that there will be no comfort for me, no rest, until my trials are over and all that must come to pass is completed,” Aragorn said with closed eyes. “My mother foretold it long ago, and Elrond also."
Gandalf sighed. “Someday, there will be comfort for you, Aragorn. There will be rest. But until then, and indeed after, you need not face your trials alone, unless you choose to. You have had a difficult life, and I know you think it a long one, but you must believe me when I tell you that your life has not even begun. When you are well,” the wizard said, “we will hunt for Gollum again, together."
"You will come back with me?"
Gandalf placed a hand on the Ranger's shoulder. "Of course I will. You cannot do this alone, Aragorn. None of us can. There is no shame in that.”
He eased himself back in the chair and stroked his beard absently. "But you know - I do worry a bit about this little expedition of ours. I am just a feeble old man myself. I can’t be saddled with a decrepit, arrow-riddled, one-handed Dúnadan hobbling along behind me.”
Aragorn locked gray eyes on the Wizard, recognizing in the bantering tone the prelude to an argument.
“There are wounds here which cannot be treated in Bree,” Gandalf said.
The Ranger’s eyes strayed to the bandaged lump lying across awkwardly across his chest.
“Yes, your hand. And this leg, as well.” Gandalf pulled the blanket back from Aragorn’s wounded leg and lightly touched the inflamed knee, causing the Ranger to wince. “This wound is causing your fever. It needs to be re-opened and thoroughly cleaned out. I don’t imagine you would care to allow the midwife to attempt the procedure.”
Aragorn turned away from him.
“Aragorn, there is no other choice. Only Elrond has the skill to repair this damage.”
“Why not?” Gandalf asked, deciding to get it all out in the open for once, while Ranger could not simply get up and walk away.
Aragorn lay silent for long minutes, looking out the window as if it offered escape.
“Aragorn, Lord Elrond can be somewhat-” Gandalf struggled for a diplomatic way to put this – “set in his ways, but he is hardly a troll. He cares for you very much.”
Aragorn turned back to Gandalf and expelled a long breath. “Nearly thirty years have passed, Gandalf, since he set me an ultimatum, and nothing has changed. I cannot be what he asks me to be. What he expects me to be."
"You don't know that."
"The evidence speaks for itself," he said softly.
Gandalf opened his mouth as if to respond, but then raised his eyebrows at a light knocking at the door. “Ah,” he said. “That would be Master Tillfield now.”
Before Aragorn could comment further, the Wizard opened the door and allowed Halbarad to shepherd the young hobbit into the room, guiding him to the side of Aragorn’s bed. The boy’s tousled head was lowered, his gaze focused intently on the tray of food he carried. He set it carefully down on the table and allowed Gandalf to steer him close to the bed. He stood still, his head so bent that Aragorn could not see his eyes even though they were on a level with his own. Aragorn looked up at the wizard questioningly. Gandalf merely patted the tiny shoulder and winked.
“Now that you are feeling a bit better, Strider, there is someone I would like you to meet,” Gandalf announced. “May I present Dudo Tillfield”?
Aragorn pushed himself up a bit straighter in the bed and tried to appear as alert and presentable as possible. “I’m glad to meet you, Dudo. I’m afraid I don’t remember much of our first meeting, or the trip back to Bree. I understand I owe you a great debt.”
As Aragorn watched in growing distress, the hobbit’s shoulders began to hitch with barely repressed sobs, and Aragorn looked to Gandalf in alarm. The wizard merely held the anguished boy quietly and waited for him to calm himself. “Dudo has something he has been waiting to tell you, Strider,” the wizard prompted gently, giving the hobbit’s shoulder another encouraging pat.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” the boy whispered finally, tears rolling unchecked down his round cheeks. “It was my fault.”
“Dudo, it wasn’t your fault,” Aragorn said softly. He reached his good hand to wipe the tears from the boy’s face. “You couldn’t have known what would happen. You were very brave to help Gandalf and Halbarad. You were very brave to kill that wolf. If not for you, I would be dead.”
“That’s the exact same thing that Gandalf said.”
“Well, Gandalf is right. He almost always is, you know.”
“He says that it was all his fault”.
Aragorn shot the wizard an exasperated look. “He did, did he? Well, as I said, he’s right almost always. In any case, he’s right that it wasn’t your fault. We all make mistakes, Dudo. What’s important is that we learn from them. And you have, haven’t you?”
There was no reply beyond more sniffling and hunching of the tiny shoulders, leaving Aragorn to look on helplessly at the obvious despair of the little figure in front of him. He found himself struggling to recall what wise and comforting words Elrond might have found for such an occasion, but found to his frustration that unlike Elrond, his own effort at mature counsel brought forth no words of consolation or wisdom particularly relevant to the present situation.
“Dudo,” he finally whispered, so softly and intensely that the boy finally looked up. Aragorn looked directly into the hobbit’s swollen green eyes and reached out to take the tiny hand in his own. “You must forgive yourself, Dudo,” he said, surprised at the emotion he heard in his own voice. “I have seen so much lost to evil already. I cannot bear the thought that you would be lost to it, as well. The guilt you feel is nothing but the darkness refusing to release its grip on you. You have friends around you now – Gandalf and Halbarad and I. We will not surrender you to despair. You must reject it and let us help you.”
Aragorn grunted with the impact of a small head against his shoulder as the hobbit collapsed across his chest in helpless sobs. He embraced the shuddering little body as best he could, gently stroking the golden curls away from the damp and overwrought forehead.
“Dudo,” Gandalf said gently, when finally the hobbit’s shudders had quieted and he lay still across Aragorn’s chest, “I think Strider had better get on with his breakfast before it is too cold to eat. Why don’t you run along and I’ll come see you in a little while?” He waited until Aragorn released the small being with a last benedictive embrace, then Halbarad led the hobbit to the door and shepherded him out with a broad hand on the narrow shoulders.
Gandalf shut the door and returned to Aragorn’s bedside. “That was wise counsel, son of Arathorn,” he said with a smile.
“And best I should heed it?” Aragorn ventured, sensing a lecture.
“The most cunning snares of the Enemy are fear, doubt and despair, Aragorn. They are more deadly than arrows, and even the strongest are not impervious to them. There is failure only in surrendering to despair.”
"There is failure in failure, Gandalf. And Elrond will not let me forget it." He closed his eyes, remembering Gondor’s rivers, its fields, its towers, remembering the empty throne Elrond had told him was his to claim.
“I went to Gondor,” he said, “all those years ago, because Elrond told me my place was there. I served Gondor as one of its own. I stayed there long enough to know that I will never be King as long as Denethor lives.”
“Denethor will not live forever.”
“Nor will I,” Aragorn said pointedly. “And Denethor has two sons. Why should I think they will be any different? I will not take the throne of Gondor by force, and I cannot outlive Denethor’s entire line. I grow weary of waiting, Gandalf. I grow weary of hiding. If I must act, then I would. Endless waiting brings nothing but doubt, and yet I know not what else to do.”
“Aragorn,” Gandalf said wearily, “you can neither summon the future nor forestall it. It will come in its own time and in its own way. Even Elrond knows this.”
“Then why does he hold me hostage to it?” Aragorn answered, a note of bitterness creeping into his voice. "Why, when my success will take his daughter from him forever? My choices are ill, Gandalf. I will fail him or I will break his heart.”
“He knows this, Aragorn. He has accepted it.”
“Then why can't I?"
“Elrond knows much of love and loss, Aragorn, and he has seen many generations of your line pass. Never before has he told one of them that he must be King,” Gandalf said. “He would not have done so now unless he foresaw that you are so destined. Especially not when it comes at such a great cost to himself.”
“How does he know I'm worthy to be King?" Aragorn asked.
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Gandalf said gently.
There was a time when he could have approached Elrond so freely, so openly, but back then it was a question he had not thought to ask. But now...too much stood between them, and as far as he could tell, duty was the only answer Elrond found compelling anyway. "At first, when Elrond told me that I must be King, I accepted it without question. I was so young then. Being King sounded noble, and purposeful, and so very important. I had no idea what I faced, Gandalf. If he had told me I were destined to sprout wings and turn into an eagle I would have believed him just the same. But the years have been so long, Gandalf, and as I grow older, I find that each time I make decisions that affect men’s lives, I seem to choose badly. Men die.”
“Men die, Aragorn, whether by your command or not. That is a fact of life. It is the burden of a leader to make such choices.”
Aragorn's eyes grew distant with memory, and pain. “I used to believe that, Gandalf. I saw men die at my command in Rohan, in Gondor; even here, my own kin. Maybe I saw one too many die, or maybe age has revealed the value of a life lost too soon. But now, I find that I wish to see no more men die on account of my choices,” he said softly. “And not just men.”
“If you speak of Arwen, not all choices are yours to make,” Gandalf said.
“Aren’t they? Her father sees it differently.”
“Come, Aragorn. Elrond sees with the eyes of a father.”
“I did not say he was wrong,” Aragorn said, leaving unsaid that Elrond had once looked upon him with those same eyes, or so he had thought. “Gandalf, I wish no strife with Elrond. For this reason alone I cannot go to Rivendell now, when I am weary, when I cannot see the road ahead of me.”
“You can if I am with you,” Gandalf said. “Besides, I have another errand in Rivendell which I suspect may distract Lord Elrond from overly preoccupying himself with your lack of progress toward kingship.”
“What is this errand?”
“We are left with the matter of young Dudo. He is an orphan, and it is no longer safe for him in Bree. Besides, he is easily influenced by bad company and I feel he would benefit from mature supervision.”
“You’re planning to take him to Rivendell?” Aragorn couldn't decide whether to be horrified or intrigued by the possibilities.
“Only temporarily. He has family somewhere in the Shire who may be persuaded to take him in. After what has happened, I fear to draw attention to Frodo by my presence, but perhaps through Bilbo it may be possible to identify Dudo’s relatives. Then, perhaps a letter of introduction..." Gandalf smiled. “Our Dudo is not unlike Bilbo in his younger days, and I think the two of them will hit it off splendidly.”
Aragorn chuckled. “You are entirely too gleeful about this, Gandalf. I suspect you are looking forward to disrupting Lord Elrond’s household.”
Gandalf looked injured. “My dear boy, I would stoop to nothing so nefarious. Now that you mention it, though, Lord Elrond has become a bit staid and uncompromising in his old age. It might do him good to be shaken up a bit…”
Gandalf winked at Aragorn as he rose to his feet. “So it’s all settled, then. By week’s end you should be strong enough to travel. Halbarad has arranged for a small escort of Rangers to see us safely to Rivendell. After you recuperate, you may meddle in Halbarad’s affairs or traipse after Orcs with those overgrown Elflings you call brothers while I accompany Dudo back to the Shire and get him settled in.”
“We need to make the passes no later than October,” Aragorn said.
Gandalf's eyebrow lifted. “Word has it that the winter passes are no affront to you, young Dúnadan.”
“Perhaps not,” conceded Aragorn with a smile. “But this time I would like to make it across with my toes and my provisions intact.”
“October it is, then.” The wizard gave the Ranger’s blanketed feet a pat as he turned to go. “Get some rest now. I have to make sure Halbarad’s men have not incited a barroom brawl in my absence.” Gandalf shut the door behind him and walked right into a hobbit clutching a dagger.
“Dudo! What are you doing? ” Gandalf looked down at the hobbit and then to the sheepish Ranger who stood behind him.
“Is Strider awake?” Halbarad asked. “Tillfield wants to show him his dagger.”
Gandalf sighed. “Can this not wait until later? Strider has had quite enough excitement already this morning.”
“Halbarad told me that we’re going on a trip with the Rangers – I have to show Strider my Ranger dagger that Halbarad gave me,” Tillfield insisted.
Gandalf sighed. “Very well. You may go in and show Strider your dagger, but as soon as you have done so you must leave him in peace, is that understood?”
The hobbit nodded enthusiastically, and Gandalf opened the door to let him into the room.
Aragorn’s eyes opened slowly enough at the party’s intrusion that Gandalf guessed he had already been asleep, but the Ranger smiled at seeing the hobbit. “Dudo,” he said, eyeing Gandalf with a questioning glance. “What a nice surprise. What do you have there?”
The hobbit approached the head of the bed and held the sheathed dagger near Aragorn’s face. “You didn’t get to see the dagger I killed the wolf with. Halbarad gave it to me.”
Aragorn smiled and glanced up at Halbarad. “Yes, I know he did. That was a wise gift. He must have known that you have the heart of a warrior.”
“Of course,” Aragorn answered, accepting the dagger from the small hand and pinning it between his elbow and ribs to unsheathe it. Withdrawing the blade, he held it up to the lamplight. “What did Halbarad tell you about this blade?”
“He told me your brother gave it to him.”
“Do you know why?”
“Because once he was in a bad fight with Orcs and he ran out of weapons.”
“Yes. A warrior never leaves his brother warriors defenseless in the hands of the Enemy. If one of us is weak, the others lend him strength. If one of us stumbles, the others keep him from falling.” Aragorn flipped the blade in his hand and handed it back to the hobbit. “This is a very old blade, older than you can imagine, with a distinguished history. You have honored it."
“Halbarad said that I’m an honorary Ranger.”
Aragorn smiled at his kinsman. “If he said so, then it is true.”
“He said that we’re going on a trip with the Rangers to see your family.”
Gandalf thought he saw Aragorn wince. “Yes, if you would like. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“I do want to!” the hobbit exclaimed. “I want to see all the Rangers.”
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at Halbarad. “Rangers?”
Halbarad rolled his eyes. “If you say one more word about your family, nobody’s going to get a wink of sleep between here and Rivendell.”
Tillfield's head tilted up. “Rivendell?”
“It’s a village where the Rangers live,” Halbarad said firmly.
“Dudo,” Aragorn said, “Since you’re a Ranger now, it’s time you learned my Ranger name. Outside of Bree, no one calls me Strider.”
“You have two different names?” the hobbit said in wonder.
Aragorn shot a warning glare in response to Halbarad’s strangled chortle. “Yes. You also have two names, do you not? A Bree name and a Shire name?”
The hobbit nodded slowly.
“Well, I have a Bree name also, and it’s Strider. But when I am with the Rangers, I am called Aragorn.”
“Better stop there, or we'll be here all day,” Halbarad muttered.
Tillfield pondered this for a moment. “Then I want a Ranger name, too.”
Aragorn frowned. “Dudo, you have two fine names already. You should honor your family by bearing them proudly.”
Tillfield crossed his arms. “Why can you have a name for when you visit Bree but I can’t have a name for when I visit the Rangers?”
The hobbit looked expectantly at the faces of the speechless Rangers. Finally, it was Gandalf who spoke. “I think that is an excellent idea, young Master Tillfield. What sort of Ranger name would you like?”
The hobbit’s nose wrinkled with concentration. “I don’t know," he finally admitted. "I guess I don’t really know many Ranger names.”
Gandalf smiled and glanced at Aragorn and Halbarad. “Dudo, the Rangers have a tradition of honoring their comrades who have fallen in battle by bestowing their names on those who come after. That way, the memory of their valor lives on in the minds of their people. Perhaps Aragorn and Halbarad can think of a Ranger whose honor merits remembrance.”
Aragorn looked up at Gandalf in surprise, but then he exchanged a glance with Halbarad, who paused a moment before nodding. Aragorn stretched out his hand. “Dudo, come here.”
The hobbit stepped closer to Aragorn and the Ranger grasped the small shoulder. “Dudo, I bestow on you the name of a Ranger who was young, and brave, and good-hearted, like you. He saw too few summers, and he died fighting bravely. May his valor and his spirit live on in you, Baranuir.”
“Baranuir,” the hobbit said, trying out the sound of it.
“It suits you splendidly,” Gandalf said. “Now, off with you. Strider needs his rest if we are to travel to meet the Rangers.”
Tillfield allowed himself to be steered toward the door, but wriggled in Halbarad’s grasp and stopped himself before exiting. “Thank you, Aragorn.”
Aragorn smiled. “You're welcome, Baranuir.”
“Uh, Tillfield,” Halbarad interjected, with a worried glance at Aragorn, “we Rangers have a rule - we never use our Ranger names in Bree; only our Bree names.”
The hobbit shot a perplexed scowl at Halbarad. “What is Halbarad, then – your Bree name or your Ranger name?”
Halbarad looked appalled. “It's my only name, and it's served me quite well for nearly seventy years. Strider has enough names for all of us.”
“No, you must have a Bree name.” the hobbit pronounced solemnly. He pulled himself up to his full height and looked up at Halbarad very seriously, as Gandalf stood behind him barely repressing a grin. “I name you for an honest ale merchant, whose product is hardly ever watered down. His prices are fair and his barrels sound. May you never suffer from crapulence while you bear his name, Bob Pearblossom.”
Halbarad stood speechless as a snort erupted from the bed behind Gandalf.
Gandalf chuckled and patted Tillfield on the head. “Well done, my boy. Now go with Halbarad and he’ll help you with your reading.”
"What about you, Gandalf? How many names do you have?" Tillfield asked, twisting in Halbarad's grip.
"Out!" Gandalf commanded, shooing him toward the door.
“Good-bye, Bob,” Aragorn called softly as Gandalf ushered the hobbit and the Ranger out into the hallway.
Gandalf pushed the door closed before Halbarad could reverse its motion and frowned at Aragorn, whose gleeful chortles had managed to double him over with pain. “Bob Pearblossom,” the Ranger sputtered, inciting a fresh round of groans.
“Aragorn,” Gandalf admonished sternly, “it was intended as a compliment.”
“I know,” Aragorn said, with limited success at stifling his laughter. “It’s just – the look on Halbarad’s face - ”
Gandalf stood over the Ranger and crossed his arms over his chest. He waited patiently until the Ranger’s mirth exhausted itself and he lay still, catching his breath. “There now, if you are quite finished, I expect you to get some sleep. Is there anything else you need?"
Aragorn's face took on a hopeful expression. "Some Longbottom?"
"Not just yet," Gandalf said firmly. "Perhaps tomorrow." As he slipped out into the hallway, a final chortle escaped through the crack of the closing door. Gandalf smiled. It was good to hear him laugh.
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