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A Question of Duty  by daw the minstrel

6.  Into the Angle 


(October 26-29, 3018 TA)


For several hours they rode, crossing the Ford of the Bruinen and the plain beyond and then climbing into the wooded uplands, occasionally finding the trail so steep that they had to dismount to lead their horses.  The path along which Aragorn led them ran southwestward, roughly paralleling the course of the river.  They were alert for signs of the Nazgûl, believing that since the Nine had last been seen riding through this area, they might have retreated there.  As they rode, Legolas was acutely aware of the fact that Beliond was evaluating every move that Aragorn made, checking his judgment, his choice of route, and probably even his horsemanship.


Toward mid-morning, Aragorn called a halt near a small stream that ran down to the river.  They needed to rest and water the horses, for the climb had been steep.  They all dismounted and turned the horses loose.  Legolas drank from his water flask and then went to refill it in the stream.  Beliond crouched beside him, filling his own flask, and then splashing water over his head, for the day had grown surprisingly warm for late October. Legolas half suspected that the influence of Elrond’s ring may have tempered the weather even this far from his house.


The two of them rose and Beliond turned his gaze on Aragorn, who was picking his way over a small, rocky hill that rose just where the stream left the beech trees of the forest.  “So this is the Heir of Isildur,” Beliond said musingly. “His ancestor was a valiant warrior, but like most Men, he was unable to resist the lure of power.”  He glanced at Legolas. “What do you know of this Man?”


Legolas was still watching Aragorn as he turned over several rocks that lay on the top of the little hill.  He found one that seemed to interest him, and then took another and began to scratch at it with his eating knife.  What was he doing? Legolas wondered.


He turned to Beliond and began to answer him.  “He was fostered in the House of Elrond,” he said slowly trying to think of exactly what he did know about Aragorn.  “But I think that since he came of age, he has lived mostly among Men.  From the things he speaks of, he seems to have traveled as far as Gondor, although I think that recently he has lived among his own people, the Dúnedain. But at least some of them seem to be wanderers, for he has ranged with his kinsmen hunting some of the evil creatures that have come to inhabit Eriador. He also seems to have been on errands with Mithrandir.”  He held Beliond’s gaze and answered the question that lay behind the one that Beliond had asked, “I believe that he is completely trustworthy.”


Beliond grunted in response. “I hope so,” he said and walked off toward where Annael was pointing out something along the edge of the stream to Amdir. Aragorn now approached Legolas.  His gaze went to where the other three Elves were looking, but he made no comment.


“I have left a message for any rangers that pass this way,” he announced, still watching the other Elves.  “They will send word to Elrond if they have seen sign of the Nine.”


Annael straightened up and glanced over at Legolas and Aragorn.  He spoke briefly to the other two and then approached with Beliond and Amdir trailing behind.  “Men have been here within the last two days,” he announced. “There were two of them. The signs are slight, but they are there. They were headed north.”


Aragorn nodded. “Yes, I saw the marks,” he said.  “The Men were rangers. They come this way sometimes, hunting for Orcs and wolves and other agents of the Enemy.”


“How do you know who it was?” asked Amdir curiously.


“They left a sign among those rocks,” Aragorn gestured toward the rocky hill.  “And besides, few Men can travel and leave such slight marks of their passing.”  He looked at Annael. “Your woodcraft is strong,” he said, matter-of-factly.   Annael looked startled by the compliment from this Man who had been so stern-faced and quiet on today’s ride.


“I am a Wood-elf,” Annael offered, as if such an explanation should be obvious.


Aragorn laughed and then turned to Legolas. “Have you felt the presence of the Nazgûl?” he asked. Legolas shook his head.  “Tell me if you do,” Aragorn instructed, and Legolas saw Beliond frown at the peremptory tone.  Aragorn moved off toward where the horses were gathered grazing nearby in equine sociability.  “We should go on,” he said. And they remounted and resumed their ride.


By late afternoon, the early autumn dusk was closing in and they stopped for the night.  This area was reputed to be frequented by stone trolls and night travel was ill-advised. The Elves immediately fell into the division of labor that they had established among themselves on the journey from Mirkwood.  Amdir, who was a good cook, began setting up for the evening meal. They would eventually have to subsist on dried food but tonight he had some bread and fruit that he had brought from Imladris in addition to salted meat.  Annael started off to hunt for firewood and Beliond took charge of the horses.


Aragorn eyed them with approval, recognizing the practiced efficiency of the Mirkwood warriors.  Then he looked at Legolas.  “By process of elimination,” he said, “I conclude that you are your party’s scout.”  Legolas nodded, unsurprised by Aragorn’s perceptiveness. “Would you care to join me in making a circuit of the area?” Aragorn asked with an exaggerated bow of invitation.


Legolas smiled, picked up his bow, and started his circuit on the opposite side of the camp from Aragorn, circling in the same direction.  They each reentered the camp at the points from which they had started, neither having sensed any danger.  By the time they returned, Annael had the fire going and Amdir had a simple meal ready for them. 


As they ate, Legolas was aware that not only Beliond, but all three of his companions were watching Aragorn.  They had had very little contact with him in Imladris and thus were taking his measure only now.  Aragorn seemed untroubled by their scrutiny.  Legolas had never seen a Man who was as comfortable in the company of Elves.  Most Men found an Elf’s gaze hard to bear, but then most Men did not have Aragorn’s background.


After the meal, Aragorn lit his pipe. The Elves were startled. Even Legolas had not seen Aragorn smoke in Imladris and all of the Elves found the smell revolting. The four of them moved carefully upwind of him. 


“So, my lord,” Beliond began, “Just how long do you expect this scouting party to take?” Legolas flinched at his tone, but he kept quiet.  Aragorn had given them a general sense of their route before they had left Imladris, and they knew that they were crossing the southern part of the Trollshaws and then heading south into the Angle, the arrowhead shaped tract of land formed by the Bruinen River flowing into the Mitheithel. There, they expected to find some of the Rangers of the North and ask them to join the scouting party. Then they would search west and south for any sign of a Black Rider.  None of the Elves had been through this part of Middle-Earth before.


“Perhaps as long as two month,” Aragorn said equably, “perhaps a little less.”


Beliond frowned.  Legolas’s account of the council had convinced him of the importance of what they did, but he still hated being away from the realm he had defended for so long. And he clearly did not like Legolas’s interest in the actions of Aragorn and Frodo.  Still, to Legolas’s relief, Beliond held his tongue.  He did not wish to have to arbitrate between the ranger he admired and the Elf who had mentored him for so long.


Aragorn smiled slightly at Beliond. “Believe me, friend Elf,” he said, “you cannot be more interested in completing our task quickly than I am.  I would see Frodo on his way as soon as possible.”  Beliond said nothing, but he seemed to accept Aragorn’s claim.  Aragorn stood and stretched.  “Let us set the watches,” he said. “We will be underway early.”  They divided up the watches between them, with Aragorn taking the first. They rolled up in their blankets and passed an uneventful night.


By late morning of the next day, the road had turned westward and they had left the Bruinen behind.  They rode through steep hills covered in dense forests.  They had been doing so for perhaps two hours, when Legolas became aware of an unusual noise in the woods off to his right.  Glancing at the others, he could see that the other Elves had all heard it too, and that a split second later, Aragorn was also aware of something heavy creeping toward them.  More than one something, thought Legolas, and had such a thing not been impossible in broad daylight, he would have thought that they were trolls.


The Elves were off their horses and into the trees in the blink of an eye, with the horses running riderless on ahead.  Their bows were in their hands with arrows nocked.  Aragorn stayed on horseback and drew his sword, ready to ride at whatever was coming.  The road was narrow but there was still enough room to maneuver, and he hated to surrender the advantage that being on horseback gave.


A moment later, the impossible happened and two stone trolls charged out of the trees.   One of them went straight for Aragorn, while the other clawed fruitlessly for the ankle of Amdir, who was perched in the beech tree next to him.  All four Elves loosed their arrows.  Legolas’s and Beliond’s penetrated the scaly hide of the troll that was charging Aragorn.  Annael’s lodged in the chest of the other troll and Amdir’s pierced the troll’s eye as the beast looked up at him.  Black blood bubbled from the wounds.


The troll whose eye had been wounded stopped and bellowed in pain, tugging at the arrow, but the other continued despite his wounds. Aragorn rode at him with his sword swinging.  He brought his weapon down where the troll’s head joined his shoulder, slicing deeply.  The creature staggered and then dropped to his knees. Frightened, Aragorn’s horse reared and his hooves drove into the troll’s skull, knocking him further to the ground. One arrow and then another flew from Beliond’s bow and lodged in the troll’s back.  He lay unmoving.


Aragorn looked quickly for the other troll and found that Legolas stood on a tree limb directly over the troll, firing arrow after arrow coolly into the top of the troll’s head.  The arrows must have been fired with tremendous force, for they pierced the thick bone of the troll’s skull.  With another bellow, the troll dropped to his knees and then fell face forward.


There was a moment’s pause, and then the Elves dropped cautiously from the trees and Aragorn dismounted, calming his horse as he did so. They checked gingerly on the reeking trolls and confirmed that they were dead. The Elves immediately retrieved their arrows, each recognizing his own, checking them for usefulness, and wiping the ones they wanted on the grass to clear them of the stinking troll blood.  Even in this surreal moment, Aragorn recognized the disciplined care that good warriors take of their weapons.  He wiped his own sword and sheathed it.


They gathered together.  “I thought that stone trolls could not venture out by daylight,” said Amdir in a tone that sounded shaken, although he had been cool enough during the fight.  The disruption of his understanding of the world was far more upsetting to him that another in a long string of skirmishes with the creatures of the enemy.


“Mithrandir said that there were trolls about who were no longer dull-witted,” said Aragorn.  “I cannot say how bright these were, but perhaps the same sort of sorcery has been worked on them.” The five of them regarded one another. The battle here had been small, taking a few minutes at most, and none of them had been hurt. But the idea that the powers of evil creatures might be growing reminded them of the wider danger that was threatening to envelop them all.


“We should move on,” said Aragorn, reaching for his horse. The Elves whistled to theirs, and they were soon on their way again. 


They met no further adventure that day or the next day either, the third day of their trip. In the late morning of that third day, they came to a break in the rocky ridges to their left.  Aragorn called a short halt there and again inspected several small cairns, looking at the flat stones on top.  He scratched at one of them with his knife and then, when they were ready to move on, led the party off the road, turning them south. They bore south for the rest of that day, occasionally having to dismount and lead their horses as they descended from the uplands to the plains. By the next day, October 29, they had entered the Angle.


Aragorn led them on quickly now and bore somewhat east, drawing near to the woods along the edge of the Bruinen again.  As afternoon began to fade, Legolas was startled to see a small herd of sheep grazing on a gentle hill off to his left.  A short distance onward, he was further surprised to see grain fields and a hut just on the edge of the plains, near where the trees began.  They entered the trees and had to pick their way slowly along a narrow path.  Then the trees opened into a wider space and a small, stockaded town appeared. Aragorn led them to the closed gate and before he could even call a greeting, the gate was flung open.


“We saw you coming, Aragorn,” cried the lad who opened the gate. “Welcome to you and your friends.”


Aragorn slid from his horse and embraced the boy.  “Thamind,” he said, tousling the boy’s dark hair, “it is good to see you.  I hear that your father is home.”


“Aye, my lord,” the boy agreed. “But he grows restless and wants to be out again.”  He grinned. “My mother has a hard time keeping him in line.” He peered around Aragorn to look at the four Elves who had also now dismounted.  Aragorn introduced the Elves by name and then added, “They are from Mirkwood.”  Thamind eyed them curiously.


Several more children and some women had now come out of the dozen or so dwellings in the place and were coming to greet them.  “Ah, Aragorn,” one woman cried, and embraced him. “You are most welcome.”


Aragorn returned the embrace and then introduced the Elves again. “This is Thamind’s mother, Elániel,” he told them.  “Elániel, can you give us lodging for two or three nights?  I have left messages for rangers to meet us here, but I am not sure when they will get them.”


“Of course,” she was already turning to make arrangements. “Thamind, take their horses,” she said.  “Aragorn can stay with us, and there is room for the Elves in the hayloft in the barn.”


Legolas could feel Beliond bristling beside him at what felt like an insult, and she may have felt it too for she added, “It is where the sons of Elrond always stay.”


“Thank you, lady,” Legolas said with an incline of his head and a quelling glance at Beliond.


“Come,” she invited.  “You must be hungry.   I have been making stew and I am sure that we have enough for a few more.” She led them into one of the small dwellings.


Legolas blinked and suppressed a wrinkling of his nose. The single room was dark and reeked of tobacco smoke.  Moreover, to an Elf’s sensitive nose, it was obvious that the people here did not bathe nearly as often as Elves did.  Even during this journey, the Mirkwood party had bathed in one stream or another at least once a day. Legolas had no idea whether Aragorn had bathed or not.  He had simply not thought about it, and it had not seemed a pressing matter on the open road.  In this enclosed space, the matter became noticeable.  He began to see the wisdom of sleeping in the barn.


He glanced around the dusky space and became aware that a young woman was near the hearth and a man lay in a bed tucked in one corner.  Aragorn greeted them and again introduced the Wood-elves.  “This is Vánia,” he said, indicating the woman, “and this is Hadon.”  He approached the bed and grasped the man’s forearms in a warrior’s handclasp. “How are you, old friend?” he asked and pulled up a stool to sit at the bedside.


“Well enough,” Hadon grumbled. “I would be up and doing but Elániel seems to take it as a personal affront if I show signs of recovery.”


Elániel made a soft disgusted noise and set about making their guests comfortable, pointing the Elves toward benches at a table and bringing out mugs of ale.  The Elves sniffed at the mugs cautiously.  Elves customarily drank wine; ale was a drink of Men and dwarves.  Elániel noticed their hesitation.  “I beg your pardon,” she cried. “I had forgotten.” Thamind had now entered the cottage. “Go and see if there is any of the wine left that Elladan and Elrohir brought the last time they were here,” his mother ordered.


His companions looked so relieved that Legolas was moved to mischief.  “Nay, lady,” he protested. “We would not put you to such trouble.”  He glanced at his warriors and gave a smile so innocent that it would have sent his older brothers running to check their beds for booby traps.  “We are happy to drink the ale.”  He raised his own mug and took a sip, suppressing a grimace at the bitterness.  Beliond and Amdir looked astonished, but Annael was grinning at him openly.  He toasted Legolas with his mug and then he too took a sip. Legolas watched, amused, as he made a face. Then he happened to glance at Aragorn and found that he too was eyeing Legolas with amusement.


The younger woman, Vánia, now approached and laid bowls and spoons on the table.  In short order, Elániel was dishing up a stew and serving it with loaves of coarse bread.  She called Aragorn to the table and then she propped Hadon up in bed and began to spoon some of the stew up for him.  “Let be, woman,” he protested. “I can feed myself.”  She sighed and then rose, placed his evening meal on the stool beside him, and left him to it.


The serving of stew was meager, as one might expect when a meal intended for four was now shared with five more. But the bread was good and plentiful. The stew was spiced in a way that differed from anything Legolas had eaten before but was actually quite good.  And the ale too was drinkable, once he had gotten a bit accustomed to it.  As they ate, Aragorn and the people in the room exchanged news.  Hadon in particular spoke from his bed to tell about an incident in which Aragorn was most interested, for it concerned the Nazgûl.


“It was early in the morning of September 22,” he said.  “We were near the end of our watch when they swept down on us and tried to cross Sarn Ford and go into the Shire.  The men fought well for a time, but the Riders were able to strike some sort of dread into us, I think by sorcery. For you know these men, Aragorn. They would not have quailed at something ordinary.”  Aragorn nodded.  “We held them for the whole day,” Hadon went on. “But at nightfall, they swept us away and crossed the ford.  I know there were messengers who tried to go north to bring you word, but I do not think that any succeeded.  And it turned out that my leg was broken, so they brought me back here to the tender ministrations of my wife.”  The smile he gave to Elániel softened the sarcastic tone of his words.


Aragorn shook his head. “I learned later that something like this had happened,” he said, “but none of the messengers reached me.” They sat soberly for a moment.  Then, startling them all out of their reverie, a baby began to wail.  Vánia rose immediately and went to a cradle that Legolas had not noticed before.  She lifted the child out, cooing to it gently, and settled in a rocker near the hearth. She tossed a blanket over the child’s head and then opened the front of her dress and began to feed the infant.


Aragorn smiled at her. “I had heard that you and Graodan had a daughter,” he said.  “Has her father seen her yet?”


Vánia shook her head. “No, he has not been home in six months.”


Legolas suddenly became aware of the fact that they had seen only women, children and one wounded man in this settlement.  “Where are your men?” he asked, curiously.


“There are a scattered few guarding the settlement and working the fields,” Hadon said, “but for the most part, they patrol the lands between here and the Shire.”


The Elves were all silent for a moment. Then Beliond asked bluntly, “Why?”


Hadon smiled slightly.  “It has always been the responsibility of the Dúnedain to protect the helpless of Eriador,” he said.  “Ask Aragorn.”


But Aragorn shook his head.  “Not tonight,” he said.  “We are weary, and I think that my Elven friends have had too much ale.”


Amdir began to protest and then realized that Aragorn was teasing.  Legolas had noticed that Aragorn’s serious manner made it very difficult to tell when he was joking.  Thamind led the Elves to the stable where their gear had been stowed in the hayloft.  The hay was deep and soft and sweet-smelling.


“By the Valar, it stank in there,” said Amdir, sinking gratefully back.  “The stew was good though.  I wonder if she would tell me what she put in it.”


With very little more talk, they rolled themselves up in their blankets and settled down for the night.



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