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Butterbur’s renowned hospitality had obviously suffered of late; Gandalf retired to his guestroom after supper only to find it cold as a tomb, the hearth still dark. Grumbling under his breath, he sparked a small mound of kindling and bent low, breathing the tiny flame to life before stacking some larger pieces of wood optimistically on top.
He heard a knock at the door and rose to answer it, hopeful that it was the chambermaid delivering extra blankets or perhaps a supply of firewood. Instead, he was surprised to find the angular form of a cloaked, filthy, Ranger filling his doorway. With unkempt hair falling halfway down his face and a hand resting casually atop his sword hilt, the man so resembled the one Gandalf had hoped to see that he gaped in startled confusion for a moment before recognition dawned.
“Halbarad!” he exclaimed.
The tall Ranger leaned wearily against the doorjamb, dripping melting snow onto the floor. “Gandalf, listen, have you seen Ara – I mean, Strider?” Halbarad asked, wincing at his slip and glancing about. “I really need to talk to him.”
“This manner of his disappearance seems very suspicious,” Gandalf concluded, having coaxed the Dúnadan back out into the common room and given an account of his own attempts to determine what had happened to Aragorn. He took a sip of tea as Halbarad attacked his supper.
Halbarad grunted a muffled assent through a mouthful of mutton. He looked hopefully about for something to wash it down with, but the serving girl had yet to bring his beer. “Gandalf, Strider would never tell me why, but he was absolutely insistent on meeting you here. In fact, he said he was late. It’s inconceivable that he would leave Bree before you arrived.”
“When we parted, we agreed to meet in Bree on the first of spring this year if all else failed.”
The pause in Halbarad's chewing seemed to convey that he did not consider this to be much of an explanation, but after a moment he merely shrugged and cast about for the serving girl again. “Service is usually so good at the Pony," he commented under his breath as he glanced about the sparsely populated common room.
Gandalf's brow wrinkled. The Ranger seemed tense, almost nervous, and both the hand he was absently rubbing against his jaw and the face beneath it seemed to be marred by a larger-than-usual profusion of cuts and bruises. “What brings you here, Halbarad? Is something ill?”
“More than I knew, it seems." Halbarad sighed and shook his head. "I should never have let him go alone." He rested his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes with weary fingers.
Gandalf reclaimed the Ranger's attention with a touch of a leather-clad arm. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Again Halbarad shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "We argued about him coming here to meet you. We argued about other things, as well. I said a lot of things I shouldn't have. And, well, I suppose that's why I’m here.”
With the revelation out, the Ranger exhaled deeply and leaned back against the wall, settling his weight into the seat almost as Aragorn would have done and surveying the common room’s sparse patronage with the same keen expression. Were the shoulders beneath the battle-stained cloak not a hand’s breadth too broad and the eyes half-hidden beneath the mass of untrimmed hair not green-flecked brown instead of gray, Gandalf could almost have convinced himself that the strange disappearance of his friend had been a dream.
The serving girl finally brought over two tankards of beer and another basket of bread, explaining that she’d had to wait for a new keg to be brought from the cellar. Halbarad took an experimental half-sip of his beer. Apparently satisfied with its potency, he took a longer drink and glanced about the room once more against the possibility of curious ears. He fixed his eyes on a point somewhere far outside the walls of the common room, but kept his voice pitched low for Gandalf’s hearing alone.
“You know how hard the winter was,” he began. “Every year, the orcs grow more numerous, and more brazen. Wolves, too. And every year, too, there are fewer of us. We are spread too thin.” He glanced up at Gandalf as if to say more on the subject, but then shook his head slightly and took another long swallow of his beer.
“Orcs attacked our winter camp three weeks ago. The women fought them off, but not before two were killed. My men and I came back from a hunting trip to find them digging the graves. We had just finished the burials when Strider came walking up, out of nowhere.” Halbarad looked down at his folded hands, and added in a voice almost too low to hear, “Just like he always does.”
“I asked him where he'd been, but all he would say is east of the mountains. I think he was planning to stop just long enough to pick up provisions, but when he saw what had happened, he began organizing the pursuit.”
“We were only able to round up eighteen men in haste, and less than half of that number were seasoned fighters, but still we caught up with the orcs easily enough. We kept one prisoner and forced him to lead us back to their den. On the fourth day of that trek, Elrond’s sons found us.”
Gandalf smiled. “I would have guessed as much.”
"I don't think there's ever been an orc-hunt within a hundred miles of Rivendell that they haven't known about," Halbarad concurred. He leaned over the table. “I don’t know what Strider was like when you last saw him, Gandalf, but I welcomed the twins for more than just their swords this time. Strider wasn’t fit company for a troll. I had hopes that their influence might improve his disposition."
"Not so I noticed."
Gandalf frowned. “You know that he bears a great burden, Halbarad.”
“I know he does. And it seems to settle on him ever more heavily as the years go by.”
Gandalf too, had seen the shadow of grim resolve creep slowly over his friend, replacing the easy laughter and unguarded smile of his youth, but there were reasons for it he did not feel privileged to discuss with Halbarad. “The years have not been easy for him,” he said finally.
“They haven’t been a picnic for any of us, Gandalf,” the Ranger shot back before catching himself. He leaned back in his seat as if the few minutes of conversation had wearied him more than the journey from the Angle. “I’m sorry. It’s just – I’ve never seen him quite like this. He was so irritable, restless, he wouldn't sit still; he would prowl the perimeter of camp like some half-tamed dog, or go off scouting by himself for half the night. I tried to talk to him…” Halbarad broke off and shook his head. “He’s like a brother to me, Gandalf, but he is my Chieftain as well. I can’t question him in front of the men, and even in private there are some lines I cross only at my peril. That's why I was so glad to see Elladan and Elrohir. It's different for them. Someday, their brother will sit atop the mighty throne of Gondor, ruling half of Middle Earth, and even then they will see fit to remind him of the time he doctored Lord Elrond’s afternoon tea when he was six.”
“Be assured that Lord Elrond has not forgotten that incident, either,” Gandalf chuckled.
Halbarad spared a slight smile. “Do you remember the stories they used to tell?”
“Elrohir was most often the instigator, as I recall,” Gandalf said. “It would all begin quite innocently with the promise of a tale around the campfire...”
“But before long Strider would be hissing death threats at them in Elvish,” Halbarad finished, chuckling, "and the men would be falling off logs in hysterics. Strider, too, despite himself."
“There were no stories this time, I take it?”
“Just one,” Halbarad said. “It ended somewhat prematurely when Strider got up and walked off.”
“What did the twins have to say about all this?” Gandalf asked. Elrond’s sons were not only unencumbered by Dúnedain protocol but were fiercely protective of their foster brother. It was difficult to imagine that such behavior would have gone unchallenged.
Halbarad’s eyebrows furrowed. “Nothing, at least in my presence, and that worried me. They’ll tease him in front of the troops for fun, Gandalf, but when something is really bothering them they keep it to themselves.” The Ranger waved for the serving girl, who had been standing near the bar. Gandalf looked around and realized the few other patrons had departed to brave the snowy streets.
“It took us a week to reach the orcs' den - they had taken over a network of caves in the foothills and it went back a lot deeper than we expected. Either our prisoner was lying to us about their strength or they'd received reinforcements he didn't know about, but either way we found ourselves vastly outnumbered. We lost two men and a boy and barely got the rest of us out. The boy - ” Halbarad’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “His name was Baranuir, he was fifteen years old, and he lived for three days. Strider wouldn't leave him until the end. We had buried the other two men by then, but Baranuir – well, the weather was still cold enough. Strider and I took him home to his mother and dug the grave for her. When we were finished, we rode back to the East Road together. We spoke little on the way, but when we reached the crossroad, I realized that he could be gone for years again, and I might not have another chance to speak my mind on a matter that's been troubling me."
“Such inhibition does not seem to have plagued you in the past, Halbarad," Gandalf said with an edge of humor.
The gentle gibe failed to evoke a reaction. “About this issue, it has. And you’re not going to like what I have to say any more than he did.”
Gandalf smiled patiently. “Do not think me unacquainted with the strength of your kinsman’s opinions, dear Ranger. It was not for nothing that he was raised in Lord Elrond’s house. And you would be mistaken to think we are of the same mind on all issues.”
Halbarad sighed. “On this matter, I believe you are. I know how much you love the Shire, Gandalf. I care about it, too, and I have never begrudged its protection. But things are worse now. Women, children, and mere boys like Baranuir are being slaughtered with this influx of orcs - we no longer have the luxury of keeping half our strength along the borders of the Shire. My own son is captain at Sarn Ford, and he tells me that there have been no incidents that a force half as strong couldn’t have handled. I told Strider this. I told him that fifteen-year-old boys don't belong in orc caves, women shouldn't be left to fight orcs while the men inspect ox-carts at Brandywine Bridge, and I cannot face another dead child’s mother until I understand.”
Gandalf winced. “What did he say?”
Halbarad raised battle-scarred fingers to knead at the bridge of his nose. "He just told me the Shire-watch must remain as it is, and he could not tell me the reasons. So then I asked him why we didn’t just load up the women and children and move them to the Shire, then, where they would be safe?”
Gandalf raised an eyebrow at the image but said nothing.
“He turned to me and when I saw the look on his face I almost wished he would strike me instead. Finally I let him go. I just stood there in the road, watching him until he was out of sight. I almost rode after him. But I didn’t. I went home.”
“What brought you back?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad flushed and ducked his head. “My wife,” he finally answered with a rueful smile. “I rode all day and all night to get home, but the instant she got the story out of me she ordered me right back on my horse. She told me not to bother coming home until I had caught up with him and made things right.”
“I know she was right,” Halbarad said. “I would not let such an ill parting remain between friends when none of us knows what the next day may bring. I should not have spoken so rashly. It’s just that we have been friends for so long, and times are so hard, that I suppose I sometimes forget who it is I’m threatening to tie across his horse like a sack of wool.”
“So here I am,” Halbarad concluded, his flicker of a shrug taking in the common room, the Inn, the town of Bree. “Only now he’s vanished.”
“Into thin air,” echoed Gandalf, deciding to leave the issue of the Shire-watch for a later discussion. Perhaps once they located Aragorn some accommodation could be arrived at. “By all accounts, he was here somewhat less than four hours. He paid for a room which has not been slept in, sat in the common room for a time, spoke to no one but a few servants, and left abruptly after reading a letter I left for him with Butterbur. He retrieved his horse from the stable and rode out into the rain.”
“My horse,” corrected Halbarad automatically. At Gandalf’s questioning look, he shrugged. “Sorry, irrelevant. A letter, you say? Did it contain some urgent message?”
“No, and that is the strange part,” Gandalf mused. “It was not the least bit urgent, and in fact it bade Strider to wait here for my arrival.”
“Well,” said Halbarad, casting his gaze about the common room again, his eyes coming to rest on the serving girl, who was casting him a friendly look and assessing the level of his tankard hopefully, “if there is trouble in Bree, someone in the Prancing Pony will know about it. This place runs on rumor and gossip.”
Halbarad winked at the girl as she brought him a refill, then looked back at Gandalf as she retreated into the back room. The Ranger suddenly favored the wizard with a sly look. “Gandalf, my friend, I think it’s getting a little late for you, isn’t it?” At the wizard’s look of surprise, the Ranger adopted a wicked smile. “Why don’t you go on to bed? I think I’ll stay up a while longer. Trust me.”
It seemed to Gandalf the Gray as if he had barely closed his eyes when he was roused by a mad banging at his door. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” he called wearily, swinging his legs to the floor. A quick glance toward the window confirmed that it was still night. Shuffling to the door, he lifted the latch only to have the door thrust open, banging roughly into his knee. As he yelped in pain, a startled girl was propelled into the room, followed by Halbarad, wearing the same clothes Gandalf had last seen him in, dark shadows under his eyes, a heavy aroma of beer, and a fixed expression like that of a hound on a scent.
Holding the girl firmly by the arm, the Ranger jabbed a finger in the direction of the groggy wizard. “Tell him what you told me,” he ordered.
As the girl glanced up at the wizard skeptically, Gandalf recognized her as the apple-cheeked barmaid Halbarad had been intent on ingratiating himself to earlier. Gandalf couldn’t help but sympathize with her discomfiture at being brought in the middle of the night to the bedchambers of not just any wizard, but a bleary-eyed wizard with sleep-tousled hair and bare feet, wearing a nightshirt. He straightened himself and summoned as much dignity as he could muster. “Halbarad, what is the meaning of this?”
“Tell him!” the Ranger repeated by way of response, looking expectantly from the girl to the wizard and back again. The girl, for her part, bore the countenance of a rabbit standing in a field beneath the eyes of a hawk. In short, she looked as if she might let out a scream at any moment. Sensing that prompt intervention was called for, Gandalf quickly took the girl by the hand and withdrew her from Halbarad’s grasp, leading her to a chair by the hearth.
“There, now, let’s have seat, then,” he said soothingly, carefully pressing the girl down before setting about re-kindling the fire. “Now, Halbarad, dear boy, why don’t you take a deep breath and tell me why you’ve taken this poor girl captive.” He smiled his best grandfatherly smile at the girl, who was casting wary glances about the room and looking as if she was still a half breath from raising the alarm.
“Perhaps you could start by telling me her name,” Gandalf suggested helpfully without removing his eyes from the girl.
The question managed to break Halbarad out of his fixed stare. “Oh, yes, sorry, this is Thursa, you remember. She works here.”
Halbarad looked expectantly at Thursa for confirmation, but her only response was to clench her hands more tightly in her lap, head bowed low.
“Thank you for that insight, Halbarad,” Gandalf said with an edge of weariness. “Thursa,” he probed gently, “Halbarad, here, and I, are very concerned about our friend, Strider. We understand you may have seen him here at the Prancing Pony last night.”
When after a long moment the girl showed no sign of responding, he pressed. “Perhaps you may have served him?” He was finally rewarded with a slight nod of the bent head.
Halbarad was nodding vigorously now as well. “Ask her about Tillfield,” he prompted.
Gandalf shot him a questioning look, to which Halbarad's only response was a renewed emphatic pointing at the girl. Gandalf sighed impatiently at Halbarad and knelt next to the girl, placing one of his large hands over hers.
“Thursa, this is very important,” Gandalf explained in as soothing a voice as he could muster. “You aren’t in any trouble, I promise, but you must tell us if you know anything about where Strider has gone. We are very worried about him.”
The girl’s shoulders began to hitch, and she expelled a choked sob. “I didn’t mean for anything to happen,” she blurted out, bursting into tears and plunging her face into the depths of the wizard’s robe.
Gandalf grunted in surprise and patted her on the back reassuringly, glancing over the top of her head at the Ranger. “Halbarad, have you a clean handkerchief?” he whispered.
The Ranger frowned at him as blankly as if he’d been asked to produce the beating heart of a dragon. “A handkerchief?” he echoed dully.
When the girl’s sobs had subsided to intermittent whimpers, he began again. “There now, that’s better, Thursa. You are safe here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
She sniffled once more and wiped her tear-swollen eyes with the borrowed handkerchief. She swallowed hard and glanced up at Gandalf’s patient gaze before bowing her head, keeping her gaze fixed on her lap. “There are people in town,” she began hesitantly, leaning close and whispering as if the very walls could hear, “who have been asking about you.”
“About me?” asked Gandalf in genuine astonishment.
“I don’t know who they are,” she whispered, eyes darting furtively to the window. “Tillfield knows somebody.”
“Who is Tillfield?” Gandalf asked.
“He’s one of the kitchen boys,” she answered. “A hobbit, a real young one. Maybe twenty. His first name is really Dudo, but it’s such a funny-sounding name that Butterbur can’t hear it without laughing, so everyone just calls him by his last name - Tillfield.”
“When did all of this start?” interjected Halbarad.
“Last year, Tillfield came to me one day and told me that there are people in town who will pay for news of travelers. Nearly all the travelers in Bree come to the Pony. But since Tillfield mostly works back in the kitchen, he said he would pay us maids and serving girls for information.”
Wonderful, Gandalf thought. The Prancing Pony has its own little spy ring. “What kind of information?”
“All kinds. He especially wanted to know any time Rangers came. He wanted me to talk to them and find out where they’d been, what their assignment was, how many there were in their company, who their captain was, things like that. But there haven’t been many Rangers lately.”
Gandalf glanced up and caught Halbarad’s lips tightening. He looked back at the girl. “What else?”
“He wanted to know right away if you ever came.”
Again, Gandalf felt a lurch in his innards. He met Halbarad’s shocked stare, knowing it mirrored his own expression. “He mentioned me by name?”
“Yes, but I didn’t remember what it was, not until I asked Butterbur who you were, when you checked in. I just remembered how Tillfield described you: A tall, old man with a gray beard wearing gray robes. There aren’t too many people in Bree like that,” Thursa explained helpfully. “So when you came in a few weeks ago, I told Tillfield, and he gave me half a penny. Just for telling him you were here!”
“That was a bargain,” Halbarad muttered under his breath.
The girl cast a wary glance in the Ranger's direction, but when prompted by the wizard’s gentle squeeze of her shoulder she continued. “The morning you checked out, I told Tillfield that you left, and that you had given Butterbur a letter to keep. The next day, Tillfield came to me and said that if any Rangers came to the Pony, I was to tell him right away. And sure enough, within a week, that Strider came in. I found Tillfield gutting chickens in the back, and when I gave him the news, he ran out the back door without taking off his apron.”
“I knew right away when I saw that man that he was a Ranger, of course – they all have that look,” she said, casting a meaningful glance at a startled Halbarad. “Butterbur doesn’t like them. He says they never cause any trouble, and they pay their bills all right, but they’re all kind of dangerous-looking, in a quiet way, like a strange dog you meet on the street and you don’t know if it will bite you or let you pass by.” Her glance swept over Halbarad again in a way which suggested that she did not necessarily consider a certain quality of dangerousness an altogether bad thing, no matter what Butterbur’s personal opinions may have been on the subject.
“What happened when the Ranger arrived?” Gandalf prompted.
“Well, it was raining last night. He was soaking wet and his face and hands were all cut up and bruised like he’d been fighting. Just like his,” she added, eyes darting to Halbarad with unspoken accusation.
Halbarad released a small, bitter, chuckle. “You think a drunken brawl accounts for this? Pray that you never know how wrong you are.”
“Halbarad,” Gandalf warned. “Go ahead, Thursa.”
The girl scowled at Halbarad as if she still considered the drunken brawl a strong possibility. “The Ranger sat down at that back table in the corner, where they all like to sit. I brought him a beer and then went back to the kitchen to see if there was any soup left, because he looked so cold. When I brought the soup, he was just sitting there with his eyes closed. I thought he had fallen asleep, but he looked up at me when I put the bowl down in front of him. Then he just sat there holding it in his hands for a long time until it was too cold to eat; so I brought him a second bowl. He was still wearing his soaking wet cloak, so finally I asked him if he wanted me to take it and dry it by the fire. I hung it up for him, and he sat there a while longer. I didn’t see him leave; I was in the back and when I came out again he was just gone. Barley said he’d given him a letter and he just grabbed his cloak and his things from his room and ran out the door. I went to tell Tillfield, and he ran out the back again.”
The girl slumped in her chair. “That’s all I know,” she said softly. “I didn’t want anything to happen to him. He left me a nice tip.”
“Thursa,” Halbarad prodded, “who is Tillfield working for?”
She shook her head without looking up. “Some Dunlending, I don’t know his name.”
Halbarad looked to Gandalf grimly. “A gang of Dunlending bandits moved into Bree about a year ago. They’ve been attacking trade caravans and robbing merchants. We haven’t been able to spare the men to take care of it.”
Gandalf continued patting her shoulder absently, looking up at Halbarad. “We need to find this Tillfield,” he said.
Luckily, Tillfield was not hard to find. Thursa was dispatched to his rented room in back of the cobbler’s shop, and was able to lure him back to the Prancing Pony with the promise that Butterbur had a special job for which he would pay cash. The hobbit entered the inn and walked right into the arms of one highly annoyed Ranger named Halbarad.
Halbarad force-marched the hobbit down the hallway and thrust him into his own guestroom before halting abruptly at the door and turning to Gandalf, effectively blocking his entrance. “This one is mine,” he announced tersely. "Would you get me the chair out of your room? And here,” he said, removing his sword belt and handing it to the wizard. “Take this.”
Gandalf sighed and obediently went to down the hall to his guestroom to retrieve the requested chair. He carried it back to Halbarad’s room and knocked, only to have the chair abruptly snatched from him by the Ranger. “Thanks, Gandalf,” the Ranger said, hauling it through the doorway and attempting to shut the door once more on the wizard.
“Halbarad,” the wizard ventured, attempting to jam a foot in the door, “is everything all right?”
“Sure,” came the Ranger's reply as the crack in the door narrowed. “Trust me. I do this all the time.”
“That's what worries me," Gandalf found himself muttering to the closed door.
Halbarad turned from the door to face his small quarry, who had found a place to cower in front of the hearth. He exhaled deeply, choking down a dangerous flood of rage and forcing the muscles of his face to assume an expression of calm benevolence. It would be so much easier, not to mention more gratifying, to simply beat the snot out of this boy.
If only he didn’t look exactly like a six-year-old.
“Tillfield,” he began, setting Gandalf’s chair down next to the hearth, “is that what you like to be called? Sit down.” The object of his interrogation had backed himself up against the stone fireplace and now held his small arms crossed over his chest, large blue eyes fixed with a defiant look that said he would bolt for the door if Halbarad so much as glanced away.
“I said,” Halbarad repeated, holding the hobbit captive with a hard glare, “sit down.”
The hobbit paused one more moment, then obediently climbed up into the chair and sat expectantly, bare feet dangling a good ten inches above the floor. Halbarad sighed. This was not going to be easy.
“So, Tillfield,” Halbarad began, seating himself in the second chair and pulling it so close that scant inches lay between the boy’s knees and his own; so close that he could lean over and meet the boy’s eyes no matter how the other tried to avert his gaze, “I need you to tell me what happened to Strider.”
He hardened himself against the appearance of the small creature who sat facing him with passive defiance. Innocent and childlike though he appeared, it was becoming more evident by the minute that this diminutive floor-swabber had somehow engineered Aragorn’s disappearance.
He felt his jaw tighten at the hobbit’s lack of response. “You do not understand your peril,” he warned.
The small face turned upward resolutely. “I don’t have to talk to you,” the hobbit challenged. “You don’t have any right to keep me here.”
Halbarad restrained himself by the barest measure from lunging for the hobbit and hurling him against the closest available hard surface. He took a long, slow breath.
“Maybe you’re right, Tillfield. Maybe I don’t need to talk to you at all. I should just go straight to Butterbur. I’m sure he’ll be interested to know that you’ve been using his inn as the headquarters of your own personal spy ring.”
The tousled head barely budged. “I don’t care,” came the whispered response. “He hasn’t paid me in two months, anyway.”
Halbarad felt his jaw tighten. “Pay, is it? Is that what this is all about, then? You would sell a man’s life for a few coins?” He paused, stunned by the hard indifference in the childlike voice.
“Why shouldn’t I? Nobody cares about my life.”
Halbarad's fists tightened. So much for doing it the easy way. It was time for a different method.
Halbarad took a deep breath, absently nodding. “You know, Tillfield, you’re right,” he ventured, with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “Nobody’s going to look out for you but you alone, are they? If you don’t take steps, make sure you’re protected, you can end up rotting in an alley getting picked at by rats, just like that.”
“You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” he said knowingly, seeing a flicker of reaction in the boy’s averted features.
“No, don’t say anything,” he said, raising a hand to cut off the boy’s reply. “I don’t want you to say anything right now. I’m going to tell you what happened, and you just listen, all right?”
He took another deep breath and reached deep into his imagination for a sad, sorry tale of a poor, honorable, young hobbit forced by cruel circumstance to take desperate action.
Out in the darkened hallway, Gandalf pressed himself against the door, craning his ear awkwardly against it, feeling a complete fool. He straightened his back and smiled innocently as a chambermaid passed by, casting him a suspicious glance. Pinning his ear back against the door as she disappeared around the corner, he reassured himself that as of yet, he had heard no sounds of violence from within.
An hour into his monologue, Halbarad had decided the process was taking too long. He was getting tired of listening to himself talk, his attention span was not what it once was, and he’d always been slightly more in favor of the beating method of interrogation, anyway. Orcs were so much simpler.
He got up and walked around the room, stretching his cramped muscles and peering out the window. The barest edge of the rooftop across the street was now distinguishable in the waning darkness. Halbarad turned back to the boy, standing behind his chair and placing a hand on his shoulder. “You never meant for anyone to get hurt, did you?” he said, still groping for a theme which would unlock the small creature's resistance. “You’re a good lad, I can tell. And smart,” he added. He squeezed the small shoulder, gauging the boy’s reaction, noting with satisfaction that the clenched arms were relaxing just a bit. He walked casually back to the window. “Sometimes a resourceful young, er, hobbit, has to take advantage of an opportunity. No one else is going to take care of you except you, right? I’ll bet you have some family to take care of, right? A mother? Sisters?” He watched the boy surreptitiously for a reaction. Finally the bowed head nodded tellingly. “A mother?” he said hopefully. Another slight nod.
“I knew it,” Halbarad said sympathetically, feeling a rush of triumphant jubilation but managing to keep it out of his voice. “You’re a good son. You’re just trying to help your mother, not hurt anyone. You wouldn’t be a good son if you let your mother starve, would you? Times are hard, and they’re getting harder. I’ve seen the business here at the Pony. There weren’t ten men in the common room tonight, and Butterbur's not paying you? Who’s going to take care of your mother if not for you? Anyway, all you did was tell about things that anyone could see anyway, right? It wasn’t like you were hurting anyone. You never meant to hurt anyone, did you?”
The boy gave a slight, defeated, incriminating head shake and his slumping shoulders finally caved in. Looking down on the bowed head, Halbarad patted his arm reassuringly and suppressed a smirk of triumph. “I knew you didn’t. Why don’t you tell me how it all started?”
The only thing Gandalf had to show for almost two hours of holding his ear against the door to Halbarad’s room was a painful crick in his neck, the heavy oak door having proven sufficiently thick to muffle all sounds from within. At least there have been no sounds too loud to muffle, he reminded himself. Alerted to the presence of a nefarious character prowling the hallways of the inn, Butterbur had dutifully come to investigate some time ago, shuffling sleepily down the hallway wearing a red nightshirt and floppy nightcap. Taking one look at the sheepish wizard hunched over with his ear pressed to the door, he had thrown up his hands and disappeared back down the hall, muttering about strange folk.
Just as Gandalf had begun to worry that Halbarad had surrendered to his darker impulses and simply strangled the hobbit, the door he was leaning against opened abruptly, pitching him head-first into the room. As he stumbled to right himself, he found Halbarad standing before him, an arm wrapped protectively around a very confused-looking hobbit. “Come in,” the Ranger announced tersely, his demeanor having lost none of its resemblance to a hound on a scent. “You need to hear this.”
An half hour later, after at least three rundowns of the sorry tale of hobbity descent into corruption, a weary Halbarad scratched his head and glanced over at Gandalf, who was calmly sipping a cup of tea. “The what street again?” he prompted.
“The Street of the White Doors,” the boy sniffled.
Halbarad looked to Gandalf, who shrugged and shook his head. “When were you last there?”
“Tonight – well, last night,” the boy corrected himself with a glance at the graying light penetrating the window.
“You went there to tell Teburic that I had arrived, didn’t you?” Halbarad guessed. The boy flinched.
“It’s all right,” Halbarad said. “Just tell us what happened. You went there last night and what happened?”
“There was no one there.”
“Is that unusual?”
“I don’t know. I don’t go there that often. Sometimes I don’t go there for weeks, especially lately. There’s hardly ever anybody at the Pony these days except for townsfolk, and Teburic doesn’t care about them.”
“No, he only cares about wizards and Rangers, apparently,” muttered Halbarad. “All right, when was the last time that you actually saw this Teburic, or anybody, at the house?”
“The night before,” the boy answered, “when I went to tell Teburic that Strider had arrived. That night I went twice. To tell Teburic that the Ranger had arrived, and later, to tell him that he left. Only the second time nobody answered.”
“Tillfield,” Gandalf said, “it’s very important that you try to remember every single thing that happened that night. Strider’s life may depend on it.”
The boy sighed and looked hesitantly first at Gandalf and then at Halbarad before answering. “Well,” he began, “like I said, I went to the house. I told Teburic that the Ranger Strider had just arrived at the inn. He told me to stay right there and he went upstairs. A minute later he came back downstairs and gave me a letter and told me to wait three hours and then remind Butterbur about the letter from the wizard. From you.” He paused and looked at Gandalf nervously, clearly having never expected to be confronted by the author of the very same letter. “And then he paid me,” he added with a downcast gaze.
“Go on, Tillfield,” the wizard urged. “It’s all right.”
The boy swallowed. “When I got back to the Pony, Strider was still sitting in the common room by himself. When I had waited long enough, I went and gave the letter to Butterbur. Right after the Ranger read it, he left.”
“How did Teburic get the letter?” Halbarad asked, exchanging a glance with Gandalf.
“I gave it to him. A week ago.”
Gandalf blinked hard. “You gave it to him?”
“Yes. I took it out of Butterbur’s letter drawer right after you gave it to him.”
Gandalf threw Halbarad a dark glance. “Are you sure that was the same letter he gave back to you yesterday?”
The hobbit shrugged. “I don’t know. It looked like the same letter to me. I can’t read.”
“Tillfield, stay put,” Halbarad ordered the boy, motioning to Gandalf out into the hallway. Holding the door open just enough to keep an eye on the boy, he leaned closer to his companion. “Ever heard of this Teburic?”
The wizard shook his head. “No, but I am thankfully not on intimate terms with the Bree criminal underworld.”
“Me, either. But I'm about to be."
The boy looked up as the door opened fully again and his two wardens came back into the room. Halbarad bent down before the boy, dark resolve glinting in his eyes. “Tillfield,” he said, “look at me.” The boy looked at him obediently. “Now look at Gandalf.” The boy’s gaze reluctantly shifted to the wizard.
Halbarad leaned close to the boy. “We have a job for you. As long as you do exactly as we ask, you have nothing to fear. But just in case you had any thought of crossing us, I want you to remember that I am a Ranger. And Gandalf is a wizard. And our friend is missing. If you betray us, you have far more to fear from us than from any thief-lord. You know that, don’t you?” He answered the boy’s weak nod with a reassuring pat on the thin shoulder. “Good. You’re going to take us to Teburic’s house.”
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