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A Question of Duty  by daw the minstrel

8.  Fire (November 6 to November 14, 3018 TA)


For the next five days, they rode southwest across the plains that lay for a distance south of the Great East Road.  The grey sky rose over them in an inverted bowl, and the late autumn grasses stretched in all directions.  Legolas found that the unfamiliar openness was still disturbing, and as the days wore on, he increasingly longed for the comforting presence of trees. On the third day, they climbed and crossed the long, grassy slopes of the South Downs and then rode across a further plain. They intended to intercept the Old North Road that ran south from Bree and then turned east toward Tharbad on the River Gwathlo. 


Late in the afternoon of November 10, they crested a small rise and the road lay in the distance before them.  Legolas looked over at Aragorn riding beside him as the Man raised his hand and halted the group’s progress.  The road was empty in either direction as far as even Elven eyes could see.  “The Old North Road,” said Aragorn. “You see why they call it the Greenway now.”  And indeed, the road was so little used that grass grew over it.


To Legolas’s left were the horses of Beliond and Caroran.  Beliond usually tried to stay near Legolas and he still kept Aragorn under more or less constant surveillance, but he seemed to have taken a liking to the young human with whom he had been scouting for the last week and more.  Legolas had been amused when Beliond had talked Caroran into trading off caring for the horses when they camped, so that each of them could have a turn to bathe. Teoran and Sadoc had teased their young companion about his Elven behavior, but he had simply suggested that they too could use a swim.


Annael and Sadoc were halted quietly behind him and, off to the right, Teoran was murmuring an explanation of the lay of the land to Amdir, pointing off to the north in the direction of Breeland.  The two of them had been scouting together again since Amdir had replaced the pipe-weed.


“We will camp here tonight,” said Aragorn, indicating a hollow just north of the road. Grateful for the early halt, they set up camp with practiced cooperation and slept early.


At daybreak, they joined the road and began to travel south, scouting along the way.  About mid-morning, Legolas’s sharp eyes caught sight of something moving on the road ahead.  In a moment, he was sure. “There is a small group of people approaching us,” he told Aragorn.


Aragorn was immediately cautious.  The road eventually led down toward Dunland, and he knew from his visits to Bree that some of the people who came north on it were smugglers and worse.  “What can you tell me about them?” he demanded.


Legolas studied the group.  “They are on foot,” he said, “and moving slowly, for they appear to be heavily burdened. “There are seven of them and it looks as if several of them are children or perhaps hobbits.”


Reassured, Aragorn led them forward until the people ahead were clearly visible to all of them. The foot party now visibly consisted of one man, two women, and several children. The man and the women were laden with packs and even the children carried bundles.  As the travelers spotted the scouting party, they plainly hesitated, evidently uncertain about the intentions of this party of armed warriors on horseback.


Aragorn halted his party and spoke to Legolas.  “They are nervous,” he said. “You and I will approach them.  The rest of you wait here.”  Legolas could hear Beliond shifting uneasily but the older Elf did as Aragorn ordered.


The two of them rode toward the foot party.  As Aragorn and Legolas drew near, they began to scramble into the scrubby growth to the north, as if looking for shelter, although there was precious little along the road here.  “Friends,” Aragorn called to them, “we mean you no harm.” They stopped and waited tensely as Aragorn and Legolas approached.


The people before them were thin and raggedly dressed and clearly ready to take flight.  Aragorn dismounted and Legolas followed suit, hoping to make these anxious people feel less threatened.  “Greetings, friends,” said Aragorn, holding his hands out palm upward.  “We seek only information.  Where you are traveling from?”


Most of the people eyed Aragorn warily, but one of the women was staring at Legolas.  “By the stars above!” she cried, “An Elf.”


All of them now turned to stare at Legolas, who also had his hands out away from his weapons.  Now he politely placed his right hand over his heart and bowed to the woman and her companions.  They gaped at him.  He was made forcibly aware again that he now moved in the world of Men.  He had never before felt quite so alien.


“This is Legolas of the Woodland Realm,” Aragorn introduced him, “and I am Aragorn of the Dúnedain.” Their eyes turned to him again, less frightened looking this time. The sheer normalcy of the introductions had evidently soothed them a little. Aragorn tried asking his question once more.  “We are seeking news of dangers you might have seen along the road,” he said.  “Can you tell us of any that you may have met?”


The man spat into the dirt. “Dangers,” he said bitterly. “Aye, there are dangers on the road, although none of those that we have met have equaled those we have fled.”


“Where have you come from?” asked Aragorn.


“We have a farm seven leagues or so west of Tharbad,” the man told him.  “With Tharbad in ruins, there aren’t many of us left in that part of the world, but we could not leave our land so easily. And we had a few neighbors still, though they were at a distance. But the Dunlendings have finally driven us out.”


“What has happened?” Aragorn urged him on.


“The Dunlendings have always been hard neighbors,” the Man answered. “But something is stirring them up now, and they have been raiding and burning the homes of Men in the south.  We could not stay.  We thought that we might be able to find safety and a new start near Bree, for we hear there is a strong community of Men there.”


Aragorn nodded. “There is,” he said, “although Bree too has its share of villains.” He looked at the man again.  “Have you met any unusual dangers along the road?” he asked carefully, not wanting to frighten these people further.


“Dangers, yes, although I fear they are not unusual in these terrible days,” the man answered.  “We had heard that there were evil men preying on travelers along this road, and we saw signs of them five days back - a man and a woman dead by the side of the road with their few poor belongings stolen from them.  We buried them, poor souls. It was all we could do.”


Legolas could not suppress a shocked intake of breath.  That Men could slaughter one another so casually made them seem primitive compared to Elves, for whom kinslaying was an offense that reverberated through millennia of consequences.


Aragorn frowned.  “Where did this happen?” he asked urgently.


“We are traveling slowly with the children,” the man said thoughtfully. “It was perhaps twenty leagues back, perhaps a bit more or less.”


Aragorn nodded grimly.  “We will see what we can do with these thieves,” he said. He turned and signaled to the rest of the scouting party to approach.  “Take care, friend,” he told the man.  “Thank you for your information.” He and Legolas remounted as the people passed them and started again on their long trek.  The other members of the scouting party skirted around them carefully, calling greetings, and approached Aragorn and Legolas.


“They have seen nothing of the Nazgûl,” Aragorn told them, “but they told us of other matters.”  They remained halted while Aragorn told them about the plight of the refugees on the road. They all looked aghast, but Legolas thought that the faces of the Elves reflected his own shocked revulsion.


Beliond’s face took on a look of cold determination that chilled even Legolas.  “I think that we can spare some time in this mission to dispose of these animals. Do you not agree, Aragorn?”  Legolas blinked. It was the first time on this trip that he had heard Beliond urge anything other than its speedy completion.


“I do,” Aragorn nodded.  “Let us watch for signs of them in the next day or two.”


They rode southeastward for the rest of that day and all of the next, meeting two other groups of refugees who told stories similar to the one they had already heard. They continued to scout for any sign of the Nazgûl and were grateful that they found none.  At mid-morning of the next day, though, Annael and Sadoc returned from a scouting foray with grim faces.


“We have found what looks like the aftermath of a raid by the thieves,” reported Sadoc. He and Annael led the group a short distance into some underbrush, where three dark heaps lay half hidden.  Aragorn and Legolas dismounted while the others waited.


Legolas crouched near one of the figures and found a grey-haired Man with an arrow through his throat.  He wore only a tunic and leggings, the thieves having taken even his cloak and boots.  Legolas rose and glanced over Aragorn, who was standing over the body of a younger Man.  They both turned toward the third dark heap.  A woman lay sprawled there. She was young and had probably once been fair. Her clothes had been torn from her.  Dried blood covered her thighs, only some of it from the stab wound in her belly.


Bile rose in Legolas’s throat and then fury flooded his body.  These people had been helpless.  Whoever did this had been both cowardly and evil.  He drifted toward the other Elves, feeling that they would share his horror at this scene that Elves found almost inconceivable, while the Men might take it all too much for granted.  Then he glanced at Aragorn and saw the white-hot anger on his face.  He scanned the faces of Sadoc, Teoran, and Caroran and found that they, too, looked sickened.


“Dismount and spread out,” Aragorn ordered the waiting party. “Look for signs of the direction they took.”  He glanced at the pathetic figures in the underbrush.  “We will bury these folk once we have read what the ground has to tell us.” He had no need to tell this group of experienced warriors to be careful not to destroy traces of their prey by walking over their trail.


They searched carefully, but it was Aragorn himself who noticed the faint marks that showed where the attackers had lain in wait.  The marks told them that there were as many as seven Men in the band and that the thieves had come and gone by the road. They buried the dead refugees as best they could in the hard ground, piling rocks over their shallow graves to protect them from scavenging beasts.


Then they made their slow way down the road on foot. Aragorn and Annael had shown themselves to be the best trackers over the last few days and they went before the party, searching the road and its edges for signs of the thieves.  The others stayed behind them, leading the horses in what shelter there was near the side of the road, so that they would be less easily seen if the thieves were watching.


At length, Aragorn gave a small cry. “Here,” he said.  “Here is where they left the road.”  He straightened up and looked north, the direction in which the trail he was following led him. He glanced at the others. “We will split up here,” he said.  “Annael, Legolas, Teoran, and I will follow this track north and see if we can locate their hiding place. The rest of you should seek a sheltered place south of the road and make camp. Make sure it’s hidden. We don’t want the thieves to know we are here. Send someone back to guide us there when we return.  Take the horses.”


They did as they were told, and the smaller search party was soon creeping slowly north with Aragorn and Annael in the lead, reading the signs that the thieves had left behind them.  Their quarry had obviously not had the kind of training that Rangers or Wood-Elves took for granted, for their trail was plain to see. After perhaps an hour of cautious advance, Aragorn raised a hand to warn them to silence, although their approach had been almost noiseless as it was.


They crept slowly through a denser wood and then stopped.  In front of them, the ground dropped away, cut over the years by a small stream that ran below them. To their left, the ground sloped downward toward the rocky streambed, and about halfway down, a dark opening, half hidden by bushes, revealed the existence of a cave, facing east.  They waited in silence, but heard nothing.


Aragorn signaled to the two Elves, pointing toward the cave. They looked at one another, and then in a partnership born of long practice, both of them swung into the trees and slipped silently toward the cave.  Annael worked his way around to the other side to get a different view, while Legolas descended cautiously and landed in utter silence on the rocks over the cave.  He lay still with one ear to the ground but heard nothing. He crept forward and peered cautiously over the edge.  He could see signs of a campfire site just outside the mouth of the cave, but no fire burned.  He glanced over at Annael who shook his head and then carefully eased his way over the edge, dropping to the ground to one side of the opening.  Annael now stood erect on a tree limb with his bow drawn, and the two Men, watching in tense anticipation, rose and readied their weapons too.


Legolas nocked an arrow in his own bow and drew it.  He edged forward, listened again, and then slipped into the cave.  He paused for the second it took for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside but he felt immediately that there was no one in the cave.  He moved forward carefully.  In the first twenty feet or so inside the cave, signs that a number of people lived here were spread about.  There were bed rolls piled carelessly to one side, and cooking gear was stowed in a pile.  Clothes that were none too clean were thrown carelessly about.


The cave was a bit deeper than Legolas had expected and as he explored further he found small barrels stacked against a wall and a pathetic pile of clothes, small household goods, and other possessions that must have come from the refugees. The entire place stank of unwashed Men.  Legolas took another moment to count the bedrolls and then was only too glad to leave.


He made his way into the trees again and, joined by Annael, started back toward Aragorn and Teoran.  “There is no one there,” Legolas reported, “but this is certainly their hide-out.  I think that you were right, Aragorn, and that there are seven of them. The cave contains some of their plunder.  They must be selling some of what they steal in an organized way and perhaps doing some smuggling on the side.  There is far too much there for it to be solely for their use.”


Aragorn considered.  “Annael,” he finally said, “stay in the trees here and watch for their return. Do not let them know you are here.”  Annael looked affronted and Aragorn amended, “Do not engage them.  We need to form some sort of plan.”  They left Annael on watch and the three of them went to seek out their companions.  They found Caroran waiting out of sight near the road.  The young Man led them south to a denser growth of trees where the rest of the party waited.


Aragorn told them what the scouts had found.   The warriors pondered the information.


“There are too many of them for us to be certain that we could simply overwhelm them,” said Sadoc.


“Perhaps,” responded Beliond, “perhaps not.  We do not know what kind of fighters they are.  Men who slaughter defenseless old people and women may not do well against a war party.”


“Do not underestimate them,” warned Aragorn.  “If they are smugglers, then they have attacked merchant parties too, and those are usually well-guarded.”


“If they were holed up in that cave, they could be hard to get at,” Teoran mused.


“We need more information,” Aragorn said.  “We will watch the cave and see how they come and go.  We need to know when they are all there and whether they set guards. They left the cave unguarded today. Perhaps they rely on their isolation for their safety.”  He quickly organized the party, assigning guards for both the cave and their own campsite.  Teoran led Sadoc back to the cave to stand watch with Annael and then himself returned to their campsite. They stowed their gear and tied the horses, needing no one to tell them not to light a campfire.


In the late afternoon, Aragorn and Legolas moved silently toward the thieves’ cave to relieve Sadoc and Annael.  They halted some distance away and Legolas whistled a signal.  The group had found over the last two weeks that the Elves and the Rangers both used bird calls to signal one another and had taken the trouble to learn one another’s calls. After a moment, Annael and Sadoc emerged from the trees.


“They came back a short while ago,” Sadoc murmured quietly.  “They had a pack pony but it carried nothing, so perhaps they had delivered some goods somewhere.  The pony is staked in the woods just north of the cave. There is one guard in the shadows of the bank next to the near side of the cave opening.”


Aragorn nodded. “Tell the others,” he said, “but do nothing yet.”  Annael and Sadoc moved silently away to the south while Legolas and Aragorn slid into positions similar to those they had taken when scouting.  Legolas perched hidden in a tree near the cave, while Aragorn watched while lying flat on his stomach on the stream bank.


The pony had whinnied once as they approached but when the Elf and the Man drew no nearer to it, it returned to its grazing.  The guard sat on a rock, looking as bored as guards usually did when they assumed they were safe.  As afternoon turned to evening, two more of the Men emerged, built a fire, and roasted some small game. They appeared completely relaxed and unsuspicious that they were being watched.  Several emerged, ate, smoked, and then went back inside.  By the time they had set their night guard, Legolas and Aragorn had a very good idea of what they would be up against.   These were tough looking villains who would kill on a whim.


Beliond and Caroran came to relieve them, and Legolas and Aragorn withdrew. They walked back to their camp in thoughtful silence. As they crossed the road, Aragorn murmured, “I think that dawn would be a good time.”  Legolas nodded and they went to meet the others and lay their plans.


Just before dawn, they crept back toward the cave to take up the positions they had worked out.  Teoran and Amdir awaited them.  “All quiet,” murmured Teoran. He glanced at the small torch that Legolas carried and grinned. “The wind is from the east,” he observed. Legolas flashed him an answering grin.

“The Valar are on our side,” he said.


“The guard is asleep,” Amdir put in with malicious glee.  Aragorn snorted in disgust and then signaled the rest to get ready.  They scattered to their tasks.


Caroran went off to release the pony and send it away.  Sadoc slipped down the slope and approached the sleeping guard.  Without a moment’s hesitation, he slit the guard’s throat and then dragged the body off to hide it in the woods.  Legolas found himself recalling Sadoc’s pregnant wife and then thinking of the dead refugee woman.  For Sadoc, this was not kinslaying, he decided. It was the removal of a dangerous and disgusting beast that might threaten his family. Kinship was not just a matter of the same blood; it was a matter of the same wish for the welfare of others besides oneself.


Beliond and Amdir crept quietly toward the mouth of the cave, carrying large bundles of twigs soaked in pine pitch that they had prepared and carried with them.  With Elven stealth, they piled them as close to the mouth of the cave as they dared. They withdrew and took up positions in the trees across from the cave mouth, bows at the ready.


Legolas stood across from the cave with Annael next to him.  He had stuck the torch into the ground between them.  They each had several arrows whose heads were wrapped in moss that they had also soaked in pine pitch.  They were about to use a technique that Mirkwood Elves had used to flush giant spiders out of hiding.  Legolas glanced at the Men ranged near them, bows also ready.   Dawn was creeping over the horizon and there was now enough light that anyone leaving the cave would be visible.  Aragorn turned and pointed to Legolas and Annael, signaling them to proceed.


The two of them lit their arrows from the torch, took careful aim, and then fired into the kindling that Beliond and Amdir had set before the cave mouth.  They quickly repeated the shots and then did so again.  The kindling was burning now and smoking, and the wind that had risen with the dawn was pushing the smoke into the cave.  The warriors had to wait only briefly before a string of oaths erupted from the cave and two men came stumbling out, both shouting for the guard. The waiting warriors let them get slightly away from the cave mouth and then Aragorn and Teoran put arrows into their chests, sending them to the ground with only a single muffled cry.


The smoke was thick now and more men were staggering out of the cave, choking and sputtering.  The rest of the warriors now fired freely, and three more men fell dead under the rain of arrows.  But two of them skidded to a halt and retreated toward the cave, one of them taking the time to kick at the fire and scatter much of it.  Beliond, Amdir, and Caroran stayed where they were to guard against anyone escaping the area, but the others now charged down the slope toward the cave.  Arrows flew from the cave, one of them striking Sadoc in the shoulder, but the momentum of the Elves and Men carried them forward.


Legolas pushed into the smoky cave at Aragorn’s side, his long knife out and ready.  Instead of hot rage, he felt the cold concentration that had sometimes filled him in the rare battles that he had longed for rather than regretted.  The two remaining thieves were swinging swords and backing up, but they were badly outnumbered.  Aragorn struggled with the one nearest him and Legolas had no hesitation about shoving his knife into the Man’s back.  He spun and saw Teoran shove his sword deep into the other thief’s gut.  Teoran looked at him, and in his eyes Legolas saw understanding and kinship.


The battle was over within minutes after it had started.  Legolas walked out of the cave to find Sadoc seated on the grass with Aragorn bending over him, examining his wound.   Aragorn had removed a small healer’s pouch from his belt and was using a salve from it to clean the gash.  Sadoc sucked in his breath in a hiss of pain.  “What is that?” he asked irritably.


Aragorn straightened up.  “It’s new,” he said, grinning. “Lord Elrond showed it to me this last time I was in Imladris.  It is supposed to be very good at preventing infection. The wound is not serious,” he added, “but we’ll bind it well as soon as we get back to the campsite.” They had taken no other injury.  The thieves, on the other hand, would never again trouble the weak. 


Legolas sat on the bank outside the cave, feeling his heart slow and his battle frenzy fade.  Aragorn dropped down beside him. They rested in wordless companionship.


Caroran approached them with an unexpected grin on his face.  “You’ll never guess what was in the barrels at the back of the cave,” the young man said.


“What?” asked Aragorn rather wearily.


“Pipe-weed,” Caroran crowed happily. “The good Longbottom stuff.” Legolas could not repress a groan.  And suddenly Aragorn started to laugh, the first real laugh Legolas had heard from him in several days.  His enjoyment was infectious and the laugh spread.  For a few glorious moments, Elves and Men joined together in a laugh of relief, and shared experience, and genuine friendship.


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