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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.
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