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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.
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