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Middle Earth, C.S.I.
Halbarad led the way down the narrow set of switchbacks into the gorge. The warmth of the day had dried the trail somewhat and the party had thankfully made decent time from Bree, despite Tillfield’s demanding to stop and eat twice. With luck, they could get three or four more hours of good travel behind them before stopping for the night.
Maneuvering the horse carefully down the rocky path past the falls, Halbarad pulled up abruptly as a hideous, red-spattered cliff face came into view. “Whoa,” he said, partly to the horse, and partly just as a general commentary. Dismounting, he dropped the reins and walked down the path alone to survey the area below the discolored rock. Glancing up at the still-mounted Gandalf, he nodded over at the ominous stain. “Look at that,” he announced. “Strider did that.”
“Strider did what?” Gandalf said, eyeing the gruesome splatters uncomfortably. “I’d like to make completely sure I don’t misunderstand you, if you don’t mind.”
Halbarad jabbed a finger toward the rock face. “Beheaded someone. Right here on this spot.” He cast his glance around the stained ground. "Looks like that's not all that happened."
He looked up at Tillfield and smiled at the hobbit's open-mouthed stare at the garish splash of blood. “Not quite like butchering chickens, eh, Tillfield?” the Ranger called good-naturedly.
“You’re sure that it was Strider?” Gandalf asked, carefully lowering Tillfield to the ground and dismounting after him. “Not that I don’t believe you, mind,” he was quick to add, by now realizing that Halbarad had a bit of a touchy side. He motioned for the wide-eyed hobbit to stay put and hold the horses, and went to join Halbarad at the base of the bluff.
The Ranger stood back from the rock and folded his arms, assessing the spatter pattern with professional admiration. “I’m sure. Look - process of elimination, my dear Gandalf. First of all, this is his signature stroke - very clean, very quick very powerful,” he pronounced, gesturing with a broad wave. “Lopped that head off quicker than one of Tillfield's chickens. Right to left, so probably a right-hander, which is most people, so that doesn’t help much. But practically nobody else in these parts does decent beheadings except Strider, who does happen to be right-handed, as I’m sure you know. I certainly can’t.”
Halbarad took in Gandalf’s expression and merely shrugged. “Oh, sure, I can do it - but in the heat of battle, I probably won't. This is a beautiful stroke - elegant as Elbereth's best ball gown and lethal as my mother's home-brew - but it's risky, too - opens you wide up, and it uses up a lot of space on the follow-through. Takes years of practice to perfect it. My father used to say that this was a stroke for Elves and people who thought they were, not for working Rangers with a job to do."
Gandalf raised a curious eyebrow. "Your father said that?"
"Every time he caught me practicing it," Halbarad chuckled, stooping to read the blood-soaked mud much as Gandalf might have read an ancient Elvish text. “All right - process of elimination again. We know this isn't Strider's blood - not most of it, anyway - because whoever owned all this blood is definitely dead and Strider walked away from this fight. Those are his footprints, see? - heading south, there, along the trail away from here. But there are no footprints of his attackers leaving. They did not walk away. They,” he went on, stooping to read the markings on the ground with a characteristic hunched posture that again shot a pang of recognition through the wizard, “got dragged over to the riverbank and dumped into the water, right there.”
“But not by Strider,” Halbarad added in surprise, squinting at the drag marks and the footprints still visible beside them. He knelt to get a closer look. “These footprints are too small to belong to a man. They belong to a boy, or maybe a woman.” He straightened and made another circuit of the scene, bending down here and there to examine something on the ground.
Finally returning to Gandalf’s side, he crossed his arms, cleared his throat, and summarized. “Strider was ambushed as he came through this narrow gap between the rocks. With this rope here. Oldest trick in the book - remind me to give him a hard time about that when we find him. The horse fell and probably threw him. He beheaded one attacker and cut the other one so badly that he bled out, right on the ground over there. Then somehow he ended up lying here, on the ground, between the others. After that, a fourth person, someone light, with small feet, walked up on the scene after the fighting was all over - see the smaller footprints in the blood, there? That person dumped the two bodies, scuffled with Strider, if I read these signs correctly, and then left here walking behind him.”
“A prisoner?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad shook his head uncertainly, motioning Gandalf back toward the horses. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.” He took his reins from a still-slack-jawed Tillfield. He waited for Gandalf to re-mount and lifted Tillfield into the saddle behind him. He hoisted himself onto his own horse and looked over at Gandalf. “We need to make haste. I have a very bad feeling about this.”
Daylight was waning before Halbarad pulled his horse off the trail. “This is the best place around here to stop for the night,” he said, pointing at a rocky outcropping looming ahead, a short distance off the trail and separated from it by a short embankment and a little clearing overgrown with young scrub. “Night will soon fall, and I wouldn’t risk losing Strider’s tracks in the dark. But look - all three sets of tracks leave the trail just here – it may be that he chose this place to rest, too.”
It may be that he had to, Halbarad thought privately, given the decreasing interval with which he had noted drops of blood spattered along the route of travel. Dismounting, he led his horse from the path, head still bent to read the ground as he made his way through the underbrush. The wizard dismounted to lead the horse behind Halbarad but left Tillfield perched atop the saddle to spare him a hike through face-level shrubbery.
The passage of Aragorn, his mysterious companion, and the horse through the underbrush had left such a wreckage of broken twigs and crushed undergrowth that Tillfield probably could have followed it, Halbarad noted with some concern. Aragorn had obviously been making no attempt to conceal his tracks by this point. Either he wanted to be followed, or he was beyond caring.
As Halbarad emerged from the tangle of low shrubs and weeds into the clearing beneath the overhang, plucking barbed seedpods from the knees of his trousers, he motioned for Gandalf to halt. As the wizard stood obediently at the perimeter of the campsite, holding the horses, Halbarad made a slow circuit of the area.
“Strider rested here for some time,” he announced presently, kneeling at a flat spot between the cliff face and the remains of the campfire. He reached to touch a dark blot on the ground. “Still bleeding."
"The leg wound?" Gandalf asked.
"No, looks like an arm. His traveling companion lay over there, on the other side of the fire. It may have been a boy, after all. He was fairly short, whoever he was.”
“He fed my horse, at least,” Halbarad commented, noting a few grain hulls pressed into the now-dried mud. The Ranger reached down and picked up a stray piece of wood from the ground, turning it over in his hands. “Gandalf.”
The wizard took the piece of wood, squinting to make out the scratched Elvish characters. “This is a message to me,” he said, the lines of his face tightening. “He made all speed to meet me upon receiving my message, but was ambushed on the road by Dunlendings. He travels now with one of their company, a young boy of unknown reliability who says their purpose was to kidnap Rangers. He knows not why.”
“The carvings on the other side are Dúnedain runes,” Halbarad explained. “He was here one night after the new moon and makes for Sarn Ford on urgent business. He warns against bandits on the road hunting Rangers.”
“Strider has been hunted before,” Gandalf said quietly. “I fear for him if his identity is discovered.” He went to the horse and helped Tillfield dismount, then began to unload his packs. “He was led here on a false errand, that much is clear. But was the ambush the beginning and end of it, or is there some deeper plot? At least we know that he survived the attack at the falls and made it this far safely. Perhaps all will be well.” Over Tillfield’s head, he looked to Halbarad with look that belied his optimistic words.
Halbarad didn’t believe it either, but he said nothing. He still stood holding the piece of wood, absently tracing the markings as if his fingers could unlock the location of the hand that carved them. Gandalf laid a hand on the cloaked shoulder. “There is nothing more to be done tonight, Halbarad.” The Ranger sighed, tucked the piece of wood into a pocket, and knelt to kindle the fire.
Aragorn managed to lead the boy and the horse for nearly four more hours along the marshy river trail -far exceeding Halbarad's original prediction, he was careful to note afterward- before the strength went out of his knees and he fell. Finding himself sitting on the wet ground, black bottomland muck soaking into his trousers, he argued futilely with the boy about the relative soundness of the horse's legs versus his own before somehow ending up astride her - not in the manner of a sack of wool, as Halbarad had threatened, but in normal fashion – and thereafter managed little else but to clutch weakly to the saddle as the boy led them onward. As the thin spring sunlight waned, the fickle heat of day dispersed, and he began to fight waves of chills.
As dusk fell across the broad land and the last ruddy glow had slipped from the horizon, the first sting of the night breeze roused Aragorn from a fever-clad stupor and he realized that the horse had stopped. He raised his head and looked around. The flat plain of the Brandywine spread out around him, surrendering gradually to the rapidly settling darkness. Aragorn pulled his leg over the back of the horse and tumbled down, letting the boy steer him to the ground.
Lying against a leather pack, covered with a blanket, Aragorn watched disinterestedly as Eärendil flared to life overhead and the boy crouched over the fire, stirring something in a pot. Starwort again, undoubtedly. He squinted to clear his vision as the boy loomed before him, holding something out. “Drink this,” he urged.
Aragorn turned his head away. He didn't want any more Starwort. Starwort was good for nothing but old folks' joint pains; that was precisely why he still had some left. He closed his eyes against the nauseating, slipping sensation of impending delirium.
The boy was holding his head still, pressing the mug to his lips now. "Just drink this, and you can rest," he said. Insistent lad. Aragorn would have preferred not to be bothered, but he couldn't think of a good reason not to cooperate. If the boy wanted to kill him, he was quite correct in saying he needn’t go to the trouble of brewing tea. He relaxed in the boy's hands and submitted to the pressure against his jaw, keeping a hand atop his sword hilt, just in case.
The liquid burned as it flowed down his throat and he struggled to swallow without choking, finding the ordinarily instinctive reflex oddly difficult. The boy’s face seemed to be swimming in front of him. He was saying something that Aragorn could not understand. It didn’t matter. He was too tired to care.
He felt a tug, like that of a gentle current, and he acquiesced as it pulled him adrift from the cold ground that he rested on. It seemed that he floated at peace for a while, but presently a face loomed in front of him and he instantly recognized the onset of nightmare. Often had this face frequented his nightmares of late. It was the face of a boy on the verge of manhood, with a thin crop of ruddy whiskers poking through his chin, and a voice still wavering between the sweet notes of boyhood and the deeper tones of the man he would never become. Gangly with late adolescent growth, his angular hands and feet somehow seemed too large for the rest of him. He was young, much too young to be along on such a mission, but there had been no choice.
“Baranuir,” he said.
As he feared, as he had come to expect, the boy's peaceful face transformed before his eyes into an agonal, horrifying caricature, with quivering lips struggling to form breath and terrified eyes lunging at him accusingly. And then the desperate cry, the cry that rent his heart.
"I don't want to die!" the boy strained to gasp.
"Baranuir!" he whispered, tightening his grip on the boy's hand, trying to grasp hold of him even as he slipped away.
"Don't let me die!" the boy breathed, locking desperate, terrified gray eyes with his own, his chest hitching and his breath growing short as the blood left his body through wounds to grievous for any medicine to heal.
"Hold on," he whispered.
"Aragorn, don't let me die," the boy pleaded, his eyes fading.
It was the last thing he would ever say.
"I won't," he promised, knowing even as he said it that he lied.
The voice was as faint and hollow as a gull's cry on the sea, but he turned toward it - better it, better anything, than the nightmare. He fought to gain his breath, chest heaving. He opened his eyes to see the pale-faced boy kneeling over him. The other boy. "Rolly."
The boy sat back on his heels, peering at him seriously. "You were having a bad dream. Are you all right?"
He closed his eyes again for a long moment and took a deep breath, nodding. "Yes. I'm fine."
"You said a name- Baranuir." He knew it without being told. Little else had populated his scanty dreams since he left the Angle. The boy frowned. "Who is he?"
He could not answer the question because he had never really bothered to to find out. For two weeks he had managed not to notice the boy who kept a respectful distance from his newly arrived Chieftain, cheerfully carrying out the menial tasks the other men assigned to him, who gazed in wide-eyed admiration from across the camp at the man whose name the others only whispered, and mimicked his movements as they traveled across the wastelands. Aragorn swallowed, tasting regret. "He was a Ranger."
He pushed himself up against the pack. Though his body ached with fever and exhaustion, he didn't want to sleep again. It was near midnight, and moonlight drenched the plain and outlined the ragged shapes of the trees. "What happened to him?" the boy asked.
"He was killed by orcs," he found himself saying, realizing with irony that the boy must think this a repetitious theme. "He was young - about your age."
"He was your friend?"
His friend? No, that would have been unlikely, even under the best of circumstances, given their ages, their ranks, the time they would have had in each other's company - but something - a mentor, an advisor - a Chieftain worthy of half the admiration the boy bestowed on him - that, at least, he could have been, had he not been so utterly preoccupied with his own concerns. Aragorn shook his head. "He tried to be."
The boy came over and pressed him down again. "It has been a long day. Rest, and I will watch until morning."
Aragorn allowed it, but fell asleep only reluctantly, fearing the return of the nightmare. In the end, though, it was the scream of a different boy that snatched him back to consciousness.
His hand found the sword hilt even before his eyes opened, but an instant later it was knocked aside as a boot drove his shoulder into the ground.
Pinned by a crushing weight atop his neck, he gasped as an enormously powerful grip took hold of his wrist and yanked, twisting his shoulder joint to within an inch of snapping. He smelled a sour breath against his face as a deep voice growled in his ear, “Want to get at that sword, eh? We’ll see about that.”
As he struggled wildly to free himself, his imprisoned right hand was slammed against the ground and pinned there by a boot, or a knee. With the weight of a full-grown man crushing his neck and the wrenching torque threatening to dislocate his shoulder, he was held captive as his peripheral vision yielded an image of an upraised arm.
He heard an involuntary cry of pain burst forth as the hilt fell and slammed home against his hand, crushing the bones against the rocky ground. As vision returned, Aragorn saw Rolly in the corner of his eye, cowering in terror next to the horse, and knew without being told that the huge, wild-haired man kneeling on top of him was Teburic.
“Well now, little Ranger,” the thief-lord sneered as Aragorn fought to gain his breath against the shock of fresh trauma and the pressure of a 300-pound weight crushing his torso. “I'm glad that we finally meet.”
Aragorn was quickly disarmed and his hands were bound as lay sick with shock from the trauma of the blow. Managing finally to roll over onto his side, he saw Teburic advancing on the boy, whose face was overtaken with terror. “What happened to Kergelen and Dergren?” the thief-lord demanded, grasping the boy by his shirt and lifting him effortlessly off the ground. “Where are they?”
Aragorn struggled to get his weight under him as Teburic back-handed the slightly-built boy with such force that he was thrown through the air. The boy tumbled end-over-end and scrambled away in a desperate attempt to escape. The huge Dunlending was fast for his size, though, and lunged for the boy again, this time with his dagger flipped to use the hilt as a bludgeon.
Aragorn rocked to his knees and pushed himself forward, desperately scrambling across the distance between himself and Teburic, diving to reach the thief-lord before he could strike the boy with the raised knife-hilt. His head slammed into Teburic’s broad back and both men went down in a tangle. Aragorn twisted for advantage but with bound hands and an injured leg he never had a chance. Fingers caught hold of his hair and yanked his head back, and a thick arm tightened against his throat until blackness overtook his vision.
After dinner, Halbarad leaned against a boulder and methodically sopped up the remnants of his meal with a piece of bread. “You haven’t eaten much, Tillfield,” he observed. “You’re going to give hobbits a bad name.” When the boy failed to answer, the Ranger looked to Gandalf for assistance.
The wizard looked to the young hobbit, who stared expressionless into the fire. “I’m forced to agree with Halbarad, young master hobbit,” he said good-naturedly.
Halbarad caught Gandalf’s worried look and forced himself to his feet. Setting his bowl down by the fire, he reached for his cloak. “I’d better scout the area one more time before we turn in,” he said, and disappeared into the brush.
Tillfield sat motionless as Gandalf rose and seated himself beside him.
“I’m sorry, Gandalf.”
The wizard rested a large hand on the tiny shoulder. “I know you are.”
“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” the boy whispered. “It was like a game. It was exciting. I felt important and smart. But I wasn’t. I was just stupid. Now your friend is hurt and it’s my fault.”
Gandalf gave the shoulder a squeeze and reached to cup the small chin in his hand. “Look at me, young one.” Leaning over to meet the boy’s tortured gaze, he said, “I forgive you. And when we find Strider, he will forgive you, too.”
“But that’s not enough,” the hobbit protested. “What if we don’t find him? What if he dies? It will be my fault.”
“It will not be your fault,” Gandalf insisted, taking both small shoulders firmly in his hands this time and squaring off against the small form. “I have been fighting the forces of evil in this world since before there were hobbits in the Shire, Dudo Tillfield, and I know a thing or two about their ways. They are masters of lies and deceit. They corrupt the innocent and mislead the wise. They sow the seeds of doubt and despair and revel in their abundant harvest.” He heard the bitterness in his own words and released the boy’s shoulders before the tension could reach his hands.
Gandalf released a sigh. “Life is a succession of choices, Dudo. Most people manage to make some bad ones along the way. The past is out of our reach, and its choices are beyond recall. You must learn from them, you must live with their consequences, but you cannot allow them to haunt you. You must release yourself from this anguish.”
“You have been forgiven. Now you must forgive yourself.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It is not easy. But it is all we have.”
The boy sat still a few moments longer, hands clasped in his lap. Then he rose and filled his bowl from the stew pot. Sitting back down next to Gandalf, he paused in the act of digging his spoon into the bowl. Twisting around, he wrinkled his nose at the wizard. “How did you know my name was Dudo, anyway?”
The wizard raised an eyebrow and favored the hobbit with a ghost of a smile. “Now, I can’t tell you all my secrets. Why don’t you like that name?”
“It’s a stupid name,” Tillfield replied, head lowered.
“Who says that?”
“Everyone in Bree.”
“Nonsense,” the wizard said. “Dudo is a fine, respectable hobbit name.”
“Not in Bree, it isn’t.”
“Well, in Bree they don’t know everything yet,” Gandalf said, reaching into his pack to remove his pipe and a pouch of pipe-weed. “So tell me, how did a Bree-hobbit come by a venerable Shire name like Dudo?”
“My mother came from the Shire." He looked down. "My father was from Bree."
“And what happened to him”
“My father? I don’t know. She never spoke of him."
"Do you still have family in the Shire?"
"She said they wouldn't want her back," Tillfield said softly. "Or me."
“Well, my young hobbit,” Gandalf began, settling back against the log and chewing contentedly on his pipe. “Your name has a long and respectable history in the Shire. Let me tell a story about a brave young hobbit named Dudo…”
Full night had fallen when Halbarad emerged into the light of the campfire to find the tall wizard and the tiny hobbit sitting companionably close together on a log, blowing twin smoke rings from their long pipes. Halbarad favored Gandalf with a disapproving glance and gestured at Tillfield. “Isn’t he a little young for that?”
“I’m not too young to earn my own keep,” the hobbit piped up with the singular quality of petulant defensiveness which only the young can wield. “I’m not too young to work from sunrise to sunset in the kitchen so people like you can eat a nice dinner. I’m not too young -"
“All right, all right,” Halbarad answered, winking at Gandalf and raising his hands in surrender. “I give up.” He rolled a boulder nearer the fire and sat himself down on it. Glancing up at the star-filled sky, he rubbed his hands to warm them. “It will be cold tonight, but tomorrow will be warm again. If this dry weather holds, we should have no trouble catching up with Strider. Gandalf, do you want the first watch or the second?”
“I can take a watch, too,” Tillfield piped up.
“No, Tillfield, Gandalf and I will take the watches.”
“You both need to be awake tomorrow so you can find Strider,” the hobbit argued. “I can sleep all day atop the horse and it won’t matter. I can take a watch. I know what to do.”
Halbarad glanced to Gandalf for support, but the wizard was smiling with a characteristically unhelpful expression. Halbarad sighed. He would never live it down if Aragorn found out he left a hobbit on the watch, but there was no sense arguing if Gandalf wasn’t going to back him up. He would simply have to appease the hobbit and surreptitiously stay awake for two watches.
“All right, then. You can take the first watch. You sit down right here, between me and Gandalf, and wake us if you hear or see anything.” At this, the hobbit’s broad face brightened with fervent delight. He reached into his cloak and pulled out his boning knife, clutching it before him two-handed.
“I will,” the young hobbit pronounced. “You’ll see. I can be just like a Ranger.”
Halbarad stifled a chuckle. “Listen, Tillfield,” he said, seating himself next to the hobbit. “If you're to be a Ranger, you can't be carrying around a boning knife from Butterbur’s kitchen. You’ll ruin our reputation.” He reached into his boot and withdrew a slim dagger secreted in a burnished leather scabbard. “Here,” he said, handing the knife to the wide-eyed hobbit.
The hobbit accepted the sheathed weapon, brushing his fingers along the polished surface of the hilt, hesitant to pull the blade from the scabbard. “Is this a real Ranger dagger?” he breathed.
Halbarad smiled, catching Gandalf's knowing glance. “This is a very special dagger, Tillfield. It was a gift from a very good friend of mine - Strider’s brother, actually. We were fighting orcs, and I lost all of my weapons. He threw me this dagger and I was able to fight my way out with it. Later, he told me to keep it tucked away, just in case of emergencies."
Tillfield's eyes widened. “And he’s a Ranger, too? Strider’s brother?”
Halbarad laughed. “Yes, well, sort of an honorary one. Like you. Go ahead, take it out of the scabbard – carefully! Don’t cut yourself…”
As the stars spun overhead, Gandalf drifted into sleep to the sound of Halbarad’s voice, talking of orcs and Rangers and brothers who were nearly so...
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