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A Question of Duty  by daw the minstrel

Author’s note:  The song that Teoran sings is a slightly edited version of an anonymous poem from the early sixteenth century.




7.  Smoke (October 30 to November 5, 3018 TA)


They spent the next two days in the Angle, waiting for the Rangers who Aragorn assured them would appear shortly. Late in the evening of the second day, three men rode through the gates of the stockade to be greeted with warm cries of welcome from those within.  A middle-aged woman and a young woman who was obviously pregnant ran to embrace two of the men and the third, who looked younger than the other two, put his arm around the shoulders of an elderly woman who was probably his mother.


Aragorn greeted them all gladly but gave them little chance to see their families before he called them to a meeting in Hadon’s dwelling.  The three Rangers, four Elves, and Aragorn sat around the table while Aragorn explained their mission.  “We have heard nothing of the Nine in over ten days,” said the oldest looking of the three, whose name was Teoran.  “They were seen in Bree and then on the Great East Road, and then they rode east. But I don’t believe any of us has had word of them since then.”


The other two, Sadoc and Caroran, murmured their agreement.  Like Aragorn, all three of the Rangers were dark-haired and grey-eyed.  They were serious to the point of grimness, even Caroran, who could not have been more than five and twenty.  Legolas supposed that such gravity was natural, given the life they led away from their own homes and families, protecting those of others.  But the tenor of life among the Dúnedain was very different from the light-hearted playfulness of Elves, even in Mirkwood.


“The disappearance of the Riders bodes well for us,” Aragorn said.  “We hope they have gone back to their master, but we need to be sure.  So our purpose is to scout the area west toward Bree and then south along the Greenway.” The other three nodded silently.


Teoran glanced at the Elves.  “You will be accompanying us?” he asked.


“Yes,” said Legolas. “We have had much contact with the Nazgûl in Mirkwood.”


“The sons of Elrond have always spent much time with us,” said Teoran, “but Mirkwood Elves have never come to our aid before.  It is said that they mind their own business and have little interest in the business of others.”


“This concerns all of us,” said Legolas rather heatedly. “It is our business.” To his surprise, he could hear murmurs of agreement from all three members of his party.


Caroran had been studying Legolas.  “You are Thranduil’s youngest son?” he asked with a sudden smile.


“Yes,” Legolas answered.


Caroran laughed. “Then if the old tales are true, Teoran is wrong and you have come to the aid of the Dúnedain before.”  Legolas flushed, and Aragorn smiled.  “You will have to tell us the story,” Caroran went on, “and tell us whether Aragorn inherits his taste for travel from this ancestor.”


“Peace, you young fool,” said Teoran. “I was just wondering about why they were here.  He does not owe us his life story.”


“They are here because I asked them to accompany me,” said Aragorn.  “We met some trolls on the way here.  I think that you will find that the tales of the archers of Mirkwood are not exaggerated, Teoran.  They will be good companions. And Legolas can sense the Nazgûl’s presence even from touching objects they have handled.”


“I meant no offense,” said Teoran.  “I welcome help, but it is seldom offered to us.”


They would be leaving early in the morning, so Aragorn sent the Men home for what brief time they would have with their families. The Elves too withdrew to sleep. And in the morning, the eight of them rode out of the little stockade and north again toward the Trollshaws.


Aragorn set a swift pace, for he did not want to linger on the plains where they were highly visible while they were so close to the Dúnedain settlement.  Their course was more westerly this time, and they intended to be into the trees near the River Mitheithel by nightfall.  The Rangers rode in a close formation, immediately behind Aragorn, while the Elves were together in the rear.  None of the Elves was accustomed to long rides over open areas, for, with the exception of Beliond who had been to Dagorlad, they had spent their lives maneuvering in tight spaces between the trees. Legolas found that the lack of shelter made him feel exposed and uneasy, and when he glanced at his companions, he saw that all of them were looking around uncomfortably, as if surprised by the open space surrounding them.  Annael seemed particularly disturbed and in his cautious examination of his surroundings he was lagging somewhat.


“Stay close,” Aragorn called sharply. “We want to be together if trouble arises.”


Annael kneed his horse and caught up, but his face was flushed. Aragorn had told him what any novice warrior was taught in Mirkwood. Beliond scowled, and Legolas knew that he was unhappy at being under the Man’s command. 


They made only three brief stops, all for the sake of the horses. They themselves snatched what food and water they could while stopped.  At the first pause after the incident with Annael, Legolas approached Beliond and spoke quietly. “This is Aragorn’s mission, Beliond.  I have put us all at his disposal.”


Beliond glanced at him.  “Always remember that he has his own goals, Legolas.”  Then he remounted and that was the end of the matter.  He was too disciplined a warrior to create any problem and Legolas knew it.


Their effort at speed was rewarded when the tree line appeared in front of them as the day began to fade.  Aragorn led them into the sheltering woodlands, and at the first likely spot, they made camp.


As they slid from their horses, Aragorn called orders.  “Annael and Sadoc, gather some firewood.  Beliond and Caroran, take care of the horses.  Amdir will cook.  Legolas, Teoran, and I will scout the area.”  It took Legolas a moment to realize that Aragorn had assigned each of the Elves the task that he had undertaken in the smaller party that had ridden from Imladris.  Presumably he had done something similar with the Men. He had also mixed the Men and the Elves together for most of the tasks.  Legolas had been commanding the Mirkwood Home Guard for only a few years and knew that he still had much to learn about managing warriors.  He was curious to see if Aragorn’s tactics would help the two parties to merge into one.


He slid into the woods on one side of the campsite and circled silently, extending his senses to search for any danger.  He could hear Teoran moving ahead of him, but the Man was moved very quietly for one who was not an Elf.  Aragorn was apparently not the only Ranger who had been well-trained, Legolas thought.  He reentered the campsite, put down his bow, and sat leaning back against a tree, grateful to be back once again in familiar wooded shelter.


Amdir had finished cooking some sort of mix of dried meat and vegetables and was now dishing it up.  Legolas rose and retrieved his plate and then returned to his place by the tree.  Sadoc and Caroran had seated themselves near him with their plates full and, to Legolas’s amusement, they were now poking tentatively at the food in much the same way that the Elves had inspected the stew that Elániel had fed them.  Caroran tasted it cautiously, considered, and then tucked in with the hunger of the young.  Observing his reaction, Sadoc too began to eat with some enthusiasm.  When he had finished, he went hopefully to the cooking pot, found a bit more, and came back with it.


“Did your wife not feed you when you were home?” Caroran asked teasingly.


Sadoc grimaced.  “When she is at this stage of pregnancy, she loses her own appetite and the rest of us have to make do,” he said.  “By the next time I come home, she will be cooking again.”


Caroran shrugged. “By the next time we come home, she may well have had the baby.”


Legolas felt a stab of sympathy for these men who missed so much of the lives of their families.  And the lives of Men were so short!


When they had finished eating, they all relaxed under the trees and, to the muffled distress of the Elves, the Men all lit their pipes.  The combined smoke from all four pipes was thick and hard to escape.  After a moment, Annael began to sing a soft song of sympathy for the trees who were being subjected to it, and the other Elves joined in.


The song was subtle and the words did not speak of smoke or pipes directly.  When the song was done, Sadoc, who had been partnered with Annael in gathering wood, said, “I am not sure I understand that song, Annael.  Why are the trees in it sorrowing?”


Annael grinned at him.  “They are choked by the pipe smoke of Men,” he said blithely.


Sadoc raised his eyebrows.  “The sons of Elrond complain about the smoke, too,” he said, his tone showing that Elven complaints about smoking were something that did not particularly worry him.  “But they have not mentioned the trees.”


“They are not Wood-Elves,” said Annael.


Sadoc laughed slightly.  “I will promise to try to smoke downwind of you,” he said, “but I do not think I can make a similar promise about the trees. They are harder to avoid.”  And true to his word, he did move downwind of the Elves, as did Caroran.


After a while, Aragorn knocked the ashes from his pipe and suggested that they draw for the watches.  They rolled up in their blankets and slept.


The next day they rode up the eastern bank of the Mitheithel into the Trollshaws and made for the Last Bridge that would take them westward across the river and onto the Great Eastern Road.  As they neared the bridge, Aragorn called a halt and broke them into pairs. For the most part, they were matched as they had been the night before except that Aragorn now sent Teoran with Amdir and himself rode with Legolas.  They scattered and searched the area, Ranger experience augmented by Elven senses.


Legolas followed Aragorn north through rocks rising steeply on either side of them, crowned with thick growths of trees. They were alert but neither one of them sensed any danger. As they reached a small hollow, Aragorn dismounted and Legolas did likewise, watching as Aragorn searched again among small piles of rocks, looking for signs that other Rangers might have left.  He evidently found nothing and returned to stand next to Legolas as both of them took deep draughts from their water skins.


“Tell me about the Rangers,” said Legolas.  “What did Hadon mean when he said that they have always protected the helpless of Eriador?”


Aragorn smiled and shook his head a little.  “It has not quite been ‘always,’” he said, but it has been so for a thousand years and more.”  Legolas looked at him inquiringly.  “My ancestors once ruled this land,” Aragorn went on.  “But the Witch-king killed too many of the Dúnedain and the kingdom was shattered.  The kings of Arnor became the chieftains of the Dúnedain, but they have still tried to keep faith with the kingdom they had ruled, and the Rangers have done what they could to protect the scattered remnants of the people.”


Legolas nodded.  “A ruling family has obligations to the realm,” he said seriously, voicing a sentiment he had been taught since birth.  He hesitated and then said, “Elrond said that you were Chief of the Dúnedain.”




“You are often gone,” Legolas added mildly.


Aragorn looked at him.  “It is possible to serve your people even when you are far away,” he said. “And I have responsibilities to people beyond the Dúnedain.”


Legolas thought of how Aragorn had roamed Middle-Earth and supposed that what he had been doing was important.  But he wondered what Thranduil would have made of a ruler who left his people to manage without him.  He rather suspected that, despite his carefully worded letter, Thranduil would not even approve of the son of a ruler who left his people.  It could not be helped now, he thought.  He would be on his way home as soon as this scouting mission was finished, and his father could have his say then.


He and Aragorn remounted and rode back toward the rendezvous point at the eastern end of the bridge.  Teoran and Amdir were waiting for them, crouched down on their haunches with Teoran mapping out their route in the dirt for the untraveled young Elf. The others arrived soon after. None had seen any sign of the Nine or of any other servants of the Enemy.


They crossed the Last Bridge and rode westward along the Great Eastern Road, not troubling to conceal their own presence.  They were a strong enough party of warriors to repel any attack likely to come in this area, and if they drew the Enemy’s attention westward, they were diverting it from the way that Frodo would go anyway.  Indeed, riding openly might even draw the Nazgûl toward them if the Riders were about, not entirely a pleasant thought, but at least such an event would tell them what they wanted to know.


They scouted occasionally to each side of the road, always riding in pairs.  Twice more, Aragorn checked possible sites for messages from other Rangers.  They saw no sign of the Nine and had no word of them in messages.


They camped that night among the bushes and stunted trees that filled the Lone-lands to the south of the road.  They followed the same routine they had established the night before, except that Caroran volunteered to tend the horses by himself so that Beliond could bathe in the stream near which they were camped.  Beliond looked surprised and pleased by the offer.  Caroran shrugged. “The sons of Elrond seem to enjoy bathing,” the young man said.  “I thought perhaps you might too.”  Beliond clapped him gratefully on the shoulder and went off toward the stream.


Legolas returned from scouting the surrounding area to find Amdir alone in the campsite, fussing with their evening meal. “Where is everyone?” he asked.


“Annael and Sadoc brought back enough wood to start the cooking fire and then went for more,” said Amdir.  “It is scarce here. No-one else is back yet.”  At that moment, Aragorn emerged from the trees, and Beliond returned from the stream. Soon, they were all present and Amdir was dishing up what he had prepared. The Men seemed to have decided that Amdir’s cooking was good and they all ate with relish.  Legolas had finished and was leaning back against one of the small trees to watch the stars, when he became aware that Caroran was searching through his pack. 


“I cannot find my pipe-weed,” he said. “Surely I did not leave it at last night’s camp site.”  The other Men all made a noise that was between a laugh and a groan.


“If you did,” said Teoran, “your mood is going to be even fouler than usual.  It’s probably just lost in that rat’s nest of a pack you keep. You should have let your mother organize it for you.  Let me give you a bit of my pipe-weed just for tonight.”  He began to look through his own pack, frowned, and then searched again with increasing concern.  He finally gave up. “I cannot find mine either,” he said slowly and then turned to scan the Elves in the campsite, suspicion written large on his face.


Legolas was affronted and then suddenly remembered Amdir, alone in the campsite tonight when he had returned from scouting.  Across the campsite now, he could see Amdir with his eyes resolutely cast down, repacking some of the cooking gear.


Aragorn gave a snort of disgust and then intervened.  “My pipe-weed is right here in my pouch,” he said, “and Sadoc carries his that way too.  We can spare a little.” Sadoc made a face. Teoran looked as if he might be getting ready to say something, but Aragorn quelled him with a look.  “You probably left it behind,” he said resolutely. “We will speak no more about it.”  He passed some of his pipe-weed to Teoran, and Sadoc did the same for Caroran. The Men lit their pipes, but the atmosphere was unpleasant from more causes than the resulting smoke.


Legolas rose, crossed the campsite, and spoke to Amdir.  “Come,” he said shortly and walked off into the underbrush. Reluctantly, Amdir followed him.  Legolas led him some distance away, for the tree cover was sparse and he wanted to be out of earshot of the campsite.  Finally, he stopped and turned to Amdir.  “Where did you put it?” he asked.


Amdir looked as if he was about to protest his innocence but saw by the angry look on Legolas’s face that such a lie would make things worse. “I flung it into the stream,” he said sullenly.


Legolas bit his lip. They would not get the pipe-weed back, and Aragorn had told the Men to speak no more of its loss.  Forcing Amdir to apologize might stir things up again.  “Amdir,” he said, “these Men are our allies. You will not touch their belongings again, and you will treat them with respect.”  He paused.  “When we get home, I may have more to say about this depending on your actions for the rest of the trip.”  He examined Amdir’s face and was satisfied that he had made an impression on the younger Elf. “Come,” he said, and they returned to the campsite, were told what watches they were responsible for, and then went to sleep.


The next morning’s ride was quiet.  The continued their routine of scouting in pairs, but now Aragorn matched Amdir with Sadoc instead of the still angry Teoran, whom he sent with Annael.  All of the Men seemed to know very well what had happened to Teoran’s and Caroran’s pipe-weed, probably because they had seen Legolas lead Amdir way the night before. Amdir appeared chastened.  Legolas rather thought that he had enjoyed riding with Teoran the day before, for Teoran had taken trouble to make Amdir more familiar with a country that had made him wary.  But Amdir’s impulsive action with the pipe-weed had quashed any friendship that might have been growing between them.


Late in the morning, they overtook a party of three dwarves on ponies.  The Men approached the stout dwarf who appeared to be the leader of the party while the Elves hung back, for the dwarves were sending them wary glances. “Master Dwarf,” called Aragorn, “we bid you good day.”


“Good day to you as well,” said the dwarf, but Legolas noticed that the right hands of the other two dwarves were straying toward the handles of the axes in their belts.  Travelers with any sense were cautious these days.


“We ask news,” Aragorn continued. “Have you seen anything unusual on your journey?” He did not want to alarm the dwarves unduly, so his inquiry was general.


“Unusual?” repeated the dwarf doubtfully.


“Yes,” Aragorn persisted.  “Any trouble?”


“No,” said the dwarf.  “No trouble.  Only a fool would trouble us.”


Aragorn was satisfied and was about to bid them good day, when Amdir suddenly rode forward and spoke.  “Master Dwarf,” he said, “have you any pipe-weed you might be willing to sell?”


The other members of the scouting party stared at Amdir with their mouths open.  The dwarves too seemed startled, but recovered quickly. “What would an Elf want with pipe-weed?” asked their leader curiously.


“My need is none of your affair,” said Amdir snappishly.  “Have you any to sell?”


The dwarves conferred and then their leader answered.  “We can sell you a bit,” he said rather nastily, “but it is dear.”


Amdir grimaced and then dismounted.  He strode to the dwarf, pulling out his pouch as he did so.  He and dwarf conferred and, after some haggling and an oath from Amdir, the sale was made.  The rest of the scouting party watched with small smiles gradually appearing on their faces.  Amdir walked toward them and remounted, flinging the bag of pipe-weed to Teoran as he did so. The Man snatched it out of the air, now grinning broadly.


“Well done, Amdir,” said Legolas quietly.  And with no more ado, they rode on, soon leaving the dwarves behind.


When they camped that night, their spirits were better.  On one of their side excursions, Annael and Teoran had flushed several pheasants from the grass and then brought them down.  Thus they had fresh meat for evening meal, and Amdir roasted it to perfection.  They all ate with satisfaction.  Legolas sat near Sadoc and Caroran.


“Can all Elves cook this well?” asked Caroran.


“No,” said Legolas. “When you Men ride together,” he went on curiously, “who fixes the meals?”


“Teoran,” said Caroran promptly, “but he is a terrible cook.”  The three of them laughed, drawing the glances of the other members of the party.


They watched the stars open, with the Men smoking off to one side of the campsite.  Beliond started a song of the trees and stars of Mirkwood and the other Elves joined in. Then, to the surprise of the Elves, Teoran sang:


O western wind, when wilt thou blow


That the small rain down can rain?


Ah, that my love were in my arms


And I in my bed again!


Legolas was startled at this romantic, wistful song coming from this grim, practical warrior.  Men were amazing, he thought.  He would never understand them.


Soon after that, they slept.


They kept to this routine for two more days, and late in the afternoon of November 5, they reached Weathertop. This was as far west as they had intended to come on the Great Eastern Road.  They scouted the area and checked for any messages from other Rangers.  Thus far, their mission had been reassuringly quiet, and their brief stay on Weathertop was no exception.  They stayed overnight, and then started south toward the Greenway.

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