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Aragorn looked helplessly at the unmoving form of Rolly, lying curled loosely in ball where Teburic's last kick had landed him, and then at the thief-lord who stood over him bearing an expectant expression. Hauling the boy half off the floor by one arm, the Dunlending dragged him over to Aragorn. “Well, Strider?”
Aragorn struggled to his knees, cradling his injured hand against his chest, noting with some slight satisfaction that the impact of his skull with the Dunlending's nose had managed to leave it bleeding, at least. “Leave him alone.”
The Dunlending glanced down at the boy he held suspended in front of Aragorn. Rolly's head was limp, his arms dangling, his knees dragging in the dirt. Blood flowed from his nose also, tracking down his chin. Teburic raised a bushy eyebrow. “Tell me what I want to know.”
"There's nothing to tell."
Teburic's mouth tensed. "Wrong answer." He hauled an arm back, preparing to strike the boy again.
"Stop!" Aragorn cried, closing his eyes against the sight of the boy.
"I'm waiting," Teburic said, folding massive arms across his chest.
Aragorn sighed and looked up at the thief-lord, sidling closer to the post and wrapping an arm around it as if needing the support. "All right. I'll cut you in if you let him go."
Teburic dropped the boy to the floor. "Keep talking."
Aragorn took a deep breath. "The halflings struck gold in the South Farthing, about ten years ago. Completely by accident - you know how they're always digging. They're no miners, though - they hadn't a clue what to do with it, so they went to Gandalf. He got in touch with me and I brought the Dwarves in. It's a beautiful little operation."
"My men are all over the roads. They've intercepted no hauls of gold."
"Of course you haven't - my Rangers are hauling it out." Aragorn graced Teburic with a smug smile as he leaned surreptitiously against the post, gauging its looseness. It was not what he would have liked, and he would only get one chance. "Your highwaymen are busy taking off loads of cabbages while the gold is going out on the backs of my men."
Teburic replied with a skeptical scowl. "You're making this up. There's no gold in the Shire. You had no gold on you when I found you."
Aragorn sighed impatiently. "That's because I was supposed to get my cut from Gandalf when I met him in Bree," he said pointedly, "at least until I was unexpectedly sidetracked. Think about it - why else would I put half my Rangers on the borders of the Shire? It's not as if the halflings are doing me any good."
Teburic's eyes narrowed. "Where is this mine?"
"If you have a map, I'll show you," Aragorn answered.
The Dunlending scowled again with the look of a man who knew a lie when he heard one, and Aragorn's skills as a liar left much to be desired, but he held the Dunlending's gaze until finally the thief shrugged and moved to the door. "All right," he said, casting a glance backward, "I'll call your bluff. Don't go away."
At the scrape of the bar sliding home, Aragorn tightened his grip on the post and heaved his shoulder against it with all his might. Working frantically, he repeatedly thrust his weight into the wood and yanked it back with all the force he could muster. It was loosening, but it wasn't free yet, and he wouldn't have much time. "Rolly," he whispered without taking his eyes off his task. The crumpled form moved slightly and uttered a faint moan. "Rolly!"
At the harsh whisper, the boy raised his head and tried to focus. "Rolly, get over there in the corner. Do it now!" Aragorn turned back to his desperate task as the boy struggled to his knees and began crawling.
With one last heave of his full weight, Aragorn felt the post break loose in its hole just as the metallic scrape of the bar signaled Teburic's return. As the door opened, Aragorn seized the loosened post in both arms and staggered to his feet, holding it awkwardly before him like a battering ram. Lurching across the room at the startled thief-lord, he thrust the end of the post into the massive abdomen. "Run, Rolly!" he managed to cry as he crashed into Teburic.
His desperate momentum drove both men to the ground. Falling atop the monstrous mound of flesh, Aragorn levered the post sideways and jammed it down across the thief's neck before he could react, scrambling for the leverage he would need to control the enormous Dunlending.
“Who is your master? Tell me!” Aragorn grunted, maneuvering his weight as best he could to plant himself more securely on Teburic’s chest. Biting his lip as he ground the inflamed flesh of his injured knee against the rough wood, he pinned the post tight across the man’s windpipe with his knees and his right forearm while fishing for a weapon with his left hand. Retrieving the thief lord’s dagger from his belt, he pressed the blade against the soft flesh of his throat.
Teburic twitched as if to buck the lighter man off his body, and Aragorn let the blade bite shallowly into the fatty flesh under his chin as a warning. “I wouldn’t move, if I were you,” he warned as a trickle of blood began to flow down the side of his adversary’s neck. “Now talk. Who sent you? Who do you work for?” He drew the knife across the man’s neck, opening a deeper cut, letting his face tell the man that he would not wait for an answer before separating his head from his body. His eyes did not lie. He was spent, he had one hand to fight with, and he was half Teburic's weight. One way or another, this would end now.
Teburic’s dark eyes reflected acknowledgement of the Ranger’s deadly resolve. The thief's gaze darted for just an instant past Aragorn's shoulder, and then he looked the Ranger in the eye and and opened his mouth to speak. Aragorn eased the pressure of the knife ever so slightly and nodded. "Talk."
Before Teburic could utter a word, his eyes looked past Aragorn's shoulder again and opened wide with terror as his body thrashed in sudden panic. Aragorn had barely time to jerk the knife away from his throat and register a flash of movement behind him before Teburic’s body heaved beneath him in a spasm of agony. As it quieted, Aragorn watched in amazement as blood began to run from the slackening mouth.
Aragorn knelt on the dead man’s chest for a moment longer, staring blankly into the still features. Finally he released a sigh and rolled off Teburic’s corpse, careful to avoid the knife hilt sticking out of the man’s upper abdomen. Sitting on the floor next to the dead man, he cradled his injured hand and looked up at the boy.
“Why did you do that?” he asked, hearing barely controlled rage in his voice.
Rolly looked down at the man he had just killed. “He would have killed you. And then he would have killed me.”
“No,” Aragorn countered evenly, hearing the accusation in his own voice. “He was about to talk.”
As Rolly raised his eyes to meet Aragorn’s accusatory stare, the Ranger saw behind them a flash of something as deep and hard as a flat sea under a winter sky.
“I have been a fool,” he whispered under his breath, realizing with a lurch in the pit of his stomach that Teburic had not been the greatest danger in this room, and the rope at the falls not the most cunning trap to snare him. Aragorn held perfectly still, every instinct born of 60-odd years fighting the creatures of darkness telling him to just flip the dagger he still held and send it straight into the boy's heart.
He and the boy stared at each other. "I didn't think you could beat him," Rolly said.
"Neither did I," he replied. “Rolly, why?”
The boy shrugged. “It is what my master requires.”
"Look at you. You're bleeding. You're hurt. You let Teburic do that to you?"
"No. I told him to."
Aragorn shook his head, almost beyond words. "Why?"
“I had a job to do. I still do."
"But who would ask such a thing of you?"
"Someone I would never disappoint."
Aragorn closed his eyes, suddenly understanding. I would never fail him. Never. No matter what. "Was anything you told me true?"
The boy’s eyes flickered to the inert mound of bloody flesh that had been Teburic. “The bad Men were real, Strider. They always are. But after my family was killed, after they took me away, it wasn't Teburic who saved me."
"Someone who made me like a son. Someone who made sure that men like Teburic could never hurt me again." He looked down at the corpse with contempt. "Teburic was just a useful tool.”
“A tool for what purpose?”
“To serve my master.”
“To rob and thieve? To spy on Gandalf? What purpose is there in that?”
The boy dropped his gaze after a long minute, shrugging minutely. "It's not for me to say. He's wiser than I. He has his reasons. You never really believed me, did you?"
Aragorn shook his head, finding that even now, he could not find it in himself to discount this boy. He smiled minutely. "You would have done better to tell the truth about the rock."
The boy frowned. "You were looking the other way. How did you know?"
Aragorn smiled in spite of himself. "The ground was saturated with blood, Rolly. The ground, and every single thing on it. Everything except for one perfectly clean, perfectly white rock, that had no blood on it because it came to land there after all the blood was spilled."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "You knew I threw the rock?" When Aragorn nodded, he shook his head in confusion. "And you still wanted to help me?"
"I wanted to believe that you could make the right choice, Rolly. I still do."
The boy exhaled heavily. He reached a hand into his shirt and withdrew some object which fit neatly in his small palm. Meeting Aragorn’s eyes again with something that looked like regret, he said, “It's too late."
"No, it's not."
The boy swallowed and tightened his jaw. "You haven't told me everything yet. But you will.”
“I have told you nothing,” Aragorn answered, “and I will not.” His hand tightened on the dagger hilt.
The boy smiled. “Do you think so? I have already learned that you would die to protect a young thief you barely know, but that you would forfeit both your own life and his to protect this secret of yours. I also know that Gandalf is behind it, as my master suspected.”
“Why all this interest in Gandalf?” Aragorn asked, buying time, adjusting his grip on the dagger to make the move he knew he had to make. “He is but a harmless old man.”
“Now you mock me, Dúnadan,” the boy chided. “I think we both know better.” The fingers of his right hand worked absently, fingering what looked like some kind of glass bauble. “We will have plenty of time to discuss the Wizard later, once we reach a place where your loyal party of searchers will not find us. Yes,” he acknowledged with a rueful smile. “They are but a few hours behind us now, despite some intervention from allies of my master. We have to get moving.”
Aragorn lunged at the boy an instant too late, tackling him at the knees just as the vial smashed into the floor next to him, releasing a pungent cloud that overtook his senses and plunged him into oblivion.
An unpleasantly familiar mélange of scents assaulted his nostrils- the sharp twang of wet stone, the moist, earthy aroma of clay, and the acrid fumes of torch smoke, all of which failed to mask the permeating, unmistakable stench of orc.
With sudden panic, he reached out blindly, his groping fingers brushing against the hardness of stone. Somewhere behind him, the creaking of leather and the shuffling of boots signaled the presence of Men. Halbarad’s men, he realized with dawning horror. As memory congealed firmly around him, he recognized the silent, familiar presence at his shoulder and knew with terrible certainty exactly where he was.
“Estel, we must turn back,” came a harsh whisper in his ear. Aragorn glanced back, meeting eyes which gleamed from more than just torchlight. Igniting a fresh torch and casting the sputtering remains of the old one aside, the Elf leaned close enough to be heard by his ears alone. “The torches are half spent – if we don’t turn around now we won’t find our way back out.”
“No,” Aragorn shot back under his breath. They had come too far to turn back now. He turned away from Elladan’s disapproving glare, knowing the Elf would not openly challenge him in front of the men. He knelt on the floor of the passageway, bending his own torch low. The slick clay was imprinted with the fresh tracks of many Orcs. The fetid stench of them was so overpowering that even now, after hours of exposure, he felt like gagging –he had no idea how the Elves could stand it. He had no intention of leaving without his quarry, not after weeks on their scent, not after hours of crawling through this putrid, cramped labyrinth of passageways which made the black depths of Moria look like Elrond’s banquet hall. He winced at the unbidden memory and shook it off with a shudder, twisting his head from side to side to free his neck of the kinks pressed into it by hours of walking stooped over. Standing up carefully, so as not to impact the low ceiling with his skull, he turned back to Elladan. “We have to be getting close. Even the orcs wouldn’t retreat much further into the mountain – it would be too difficult to get supplies in and out.”
A firm grip on his arm stopped him as he turned to resume moving forward. “We are overextended, Aragorn,” Elladan warned. Aragorn broke away from his brother’s gaze and pulled his arm free.
They had been shuffling single-file for some time, ever since the passageway narrowed still further, so that a broad Man's shoulders barely cleared on each side. Aragorn’s attention was focused ever ahead, but from the back of the file, the occasional metallic clang of gear banging against the walls testified to the continued presence of Halbarad’s Rangers. Aragorn’s jaw tightened with annoyance. He had forgotten what an enormous racket Men made when they did anything, and these were greener than most; mere boys, some of them.
Before him the passageway walls suddenly fell away, revealing the black void of a larger chamber. He crouched at the opening, holding the torch out before him, but the blackness swallowed its feeble arc of light.
Aragorn dropped the few feet of gap onto the floor of the chamber, landing awkwardly with a wet squelch on its soggy clay surface. He squinted to make out the shaded contours of the walls in the flickering torchlight as Elladan dropped soundlessly down next to him. Several dark blurs along the walls could be passage openings. Aragorn mechanically swapped out his dagger for his sword and began edging along the right wall of the chamber, as Elladan mirrored him on the left. As the Rangers filed in behind them, Aragorn glanced over his shoulder and recognized one of Halbarad’s men at his shield-arm now. The youngster, Baranuir.
Aragorn looked back and caught Elrohir’s eye as the Elf dropped down lightly into the chamber at the rear of the company. Aragorn beckoned him forward with a nod of his head. Together they edged forward to a dark blotch on the right wall that resolved into the maw of a small passageway as they drew closer. Elrohir knelt and peered around the corner, his head at floor level. At length he withdrew and stood up, shaking his head. “This passageway isn’t active,” he whispered. “The scents are old.”
Aragorn motioned for the boy to stay and hold the side passageway while he moved ahead with Elrohir. On the opposite side of the chamber, Elladan and Halbarad were approaching another opening.
With two shield-bearing Rangers for cover, Aragorn and Elrohir moved up to a point directly across from the passageway Elladan and Halbarad were approaching. While they watched, Elladan crept to the very edge and crouched intently; listening, and if Aragorn had to guess, sniffing. Finally the Elf looked over at Aragorn and gave a quick affirmative nod. Reaching behind him, he took a torch from Halbarad. More quickly than a Man could have moved, he ducked his head and shoulders around the corner and flung the torch as far down the corridor as he could.
Elrohir’s cry was still echoing in Aragorn’s ear when the first arrow thunked solidly into the shield in front of him. The discordant clamor of orc-cries rose in the darkness, as a flurry of shadows roiled within the torch-lit corridor.
More arrows flew from the opposite passageway toward Aragorn. After the first one buried itself into the shield, several more clattered against the cave wall above his head. He loosed his first arrow fairly wildly in the general direction of the threat and grabbed the shield-bearer in front of him by the back of his coat to drop them both to their knees.
Crouched into as small a space as possible behind the protection of the shield, he notched another arrow. “Keep them inside the passage!” he shouted at Elladan and Halbarad as a mass of orcs appeared in the opening. If the orcs got out into the larger chamber en masse they were finished. He loosed his second arrow, not quite as blindly, and then let his bow drop to the ground as he charged across the chamber, drawing his sword as he ran. If they could keep the orcs confined to the passageway, they could pick them off one by one.
He and Halbarad and Elladan were fighting three abreast, holding back the black tide of orcs trying to disgorge itself from the passageway. Their carcasses were piling up at the entrance now, in themselves creating a barrier to the onslaught. Elrohir and some of Halbarad’s men were picking off any that slipped through their line. Aragorn slew orc after orc, slicing orc heads with frenzied abandon and rending gray flesh into ragged meat even as his arms grew ever heavier with fatigue. His breath came in ragged gasps and he was vaguely aware of his heart pounding in his chest from exertion. He fought on with mechanical, workman-like precision, cleaving into orc flesh with the dispassion of a stone-cutter. They were winning. He could feel it.
Aragorn heard a terrible, strangled cry behind him and spun around in time to see Baranuir fall to his knees, an orc blade protruding from his belly where it had ripped through him from behind. For one instant, Baranuir's face bore an expression of absolute surprise, as he first looked down at the blade sticking out of his belly and then up to meet Aragorn's horrified gaze. An instant later, his body was pushed aside by a tide of orcs pouring out of the passageway, and one of them pulled the blade from his flesh and raised it to deal a finishing blow.
Aragorn somehow closed the distance before the stroke could fall and severed the orc’s head so violently that orange sparks flew from the stone where the tip of his blade scraped against it. Aragorn was dimly aware that Halbarad’s rangers were busy behind him with the orcs that had managed to pour out of the passageway, but he didn’t spare attention to them as he dragged the boy away from the field of battle, depositing him in a dark niche along the wall. Laying the boy as gently as possible on the floor, he turned to re-join the fray.
Even as he pivoted to strike an orc advancing from the left, an immobilizing pain exploded in the back of his leg. The arrow ripped apart the fibrous structure of his knee as he twisted, but he managed to complete his thrust just as his leg gave out, dropping him to his knees in ironic synchronization with the orc he had just killed.
He yanked his sword out of the orc’s body as it collapsed to the floor and fought to gain his feet, managing to stand precariously just as arms seized him and moved him bodily towards the passageway by which they had entered. “Baranuir,” he managed to gasp. He twisted in Elrohir’s grasp and saw that Halbarad had the boy in his arms.
“We have him,” his brother’s voice assured him. “Now keep moving. We have to get out of here.”
His leg would not support his weight and Elrohir was forced to drag him through the low passageways which seemed to go on forever. Finally breaking into the open under a black sky, driving rain soaking them both instantly, Elrohir simply swung him over his shoulder and ran down the mountain to where they had left the horses. Flinging him onto a horse, the Elf mounted after him and urged the horse into a gallop. Aragorn took a precious gasp of cold, fresh air and fought his brother’s grasp, craning his neck backwards, struggling to take account of the Rangers. “Stop,” he ordered.
“Not yet,” the Elf answered tersely, tightening his grip around the Man’s chest. “We’re still too close. We will stop as soon as it is safe.” By the time Elrohir finally pulled the horse up, dawn was burnishing the eastern sky with ruddy shades of umber, and Aragorn had let his head fall back against Elrohir’s shoulder. He struggled to rouse himself as strong hands took him by the shoulders and hips, lifting him from the horse and carrying him to a sheltered place beneath a grove of trees.
The pain of hands probing his wounded leg brought him fully around and he started, pushing himself to a sitting position. “Steady,” Elrohir ordered, holding his thigh steady with one hand and grasping his shoulder firmly with the other. “You’ve lost some blood. You must stay still.”
Aragorn ignored him and fought against his restraining grasp, propping himself up on his elbows to look about the encampment. On the other side of the fire, Elladan and Halbarad were crouched over a cloaked form on the ground. Aragorn struggled to his knees and crawled over to them, ignoring Elrohir’s protests.
It was the boy. He lay in semi-conscious agony, drawing breath in shallow gasps, his face and lips deathly pale. Aragorn pulled down the blanket and carefully removed the blood-soaked cloths someone had loosely laid over his abdomen. At the sight of the rent flesh and protruding innards, he bit back bile. Without a word, he replaced the cloths and pulled the blanket back up to the boy’s chin, meeting Halbarad’s grief-stricken stare with a half-shake of his head. There was nothing to be said, and little to be done. So he simply stayed.
He heard Elrohir and Halbarad gather the men who could still fight and leave with them to scout for orcs. Only Elladan stayed, helping him tend the boy until there was nothing left to be done.
Aragorn sat uncounted hours with Baranuir, as it rained, and the rain stopped, and the day came and went, and then another. He had given the boy what few medicines he still carried that might dull his pain or ease his passing - and easing his passing was plainly the most Aragorn could hope to accomplish. Not even Elrond could have done more, probably, and Rivendell was three days’ hard ride away – an impossible journey in the boy’s condition.
Aragorn had not expected him to last even the first night, and wished for the sake of mercy that he would not last a second. It was now noon on the third day, and Aragorn still sat on the ground holding the pale hand in his own, whispering words of comfort which had slipped into Elvish hours ago, or maybe days. The boy wouldn’t understand a word of it, but it mattered not. He had finally passed beyond comprehension, the cries and agonized pleading had mercifully stopped. The lines of agony had finally faded from the pale face, revealing once again the smoothly carved angles of youth. Aragorn brushed the boy’s hair from his forehead as his breaths grew short and erratic. “Be at peace,” he whispered. After days awake, Aragorn’s eyes finally drifted shut as he sat hunched over the boy, listening to the fading breaths.
He started abruptly as a hand took hold of his leg. “Let go,” he croaked, jerking his leg away and twisting to dodge the hand that reached for his arm.
Elladan caught the arm and held him still with a gentle but businesslike grip. “Listen to me, Estel, you have done all you can for him. Now you must let me see that leg.” The Elf followed his foster-brother’s fixed gaze to where it rested on the dying boy. Aragorn knew that the Elf, too, would know by the uneven, slowing movements of the boy’s chest that it would not be long now.
Elladan tried again. “You need not leave Baranuir, but at least let me get the rest of that arrow out. ” He leaned closer until his finely arched eyebrows nearly touched the Man’s. “Come now, don’t squander all that fabled Númenorean obstinacy in one rush. Save some for later. Besides, if Elrohir returns and finds you like this, he will slice both of us up for Orc-bait.”
Aragorn's expression did not change, but he let his shoulders relax in a gesture the Elf would recognize as acquiescence. Elladan worked on the wound in silence, wayward locks of dark hair obscuring his face where they had escaped their plaits. Finally he rolled Aragorn’s torn trouser leg back down to cover the wound. “You ought to come back home with us and let Father take a look at this. It's quite deep,” he said, emphasizing the point with a fraternal pat to the Ranger’s good knee.
Aragorn ignored him, and finally the Elf sighed and rose to his feet. He turned back after taking a few steps. “Aragorn,” he said. “There was nothing you could have done.”
Aragorn kept his gaze fixed on the boy’s still face. “Yes, there was. I could have listened to you. I could have pulled out. He would still be alive,” he answered, realizing only as he spoke that the boy’s chest had stopped moving.
“It was your decision to make,” the Elf answered. “You did what you thought was right.”
The Ranger reached over and pulled the blanket up over the boy’s face. “I’m tired of making decisions,” he whispered.
“Strider?” Aragorn released an involuntary groan as the light shaking of his shoulder re-ignited waves of agony from his head all the way to his ruined knee. He rolled partially over to evade the source of his torment and cracked open crusted eyelids to face a bloody and bruised Rolly.
The ranger closed his eyes against a wave of nausea and blindly caught the boy’s arm as it reached to jostle his shoulder again. “Stop that,” he managed to rasp, swallowing bile and holding his pounding head as still against the floor as possible.
“Strider, you have to get up.” The boy was tugging on his arm now. “We have to go. Come on.”
The implication of the boy’s statement slowly penetrated the ranger’s muddled senses and he forced his eyelids open again. Turning his head carefully, he started badly as he realized he was lying on the floor of the storeroom next to a corpse. Teburic’s corpse. Quickly scrambling to a sitting position, he stared dazedly at the body, taking in the wooden post lying partially across its torso, still shackled to his own wrist, and the knife hilt protruding from its belly. “What happened?” he whispered, as much to himself as to the boy.
“Don’t you remember?” Rolly asked. “Teburic was beating me. You pulled the post out of the ground and went after him. He pulled his knife and you struggled with him, and when you both fell to the ground it went into his stomach.”
Aragorn frowned skeptically at this news, struggling with nausea and confusion. He seemed to vaguely remember a fight, though he would have predicted an entirely different outcome to the decidedly one-sided match.
The boy was tugging at him again. “We have to go now. They’re coming. Get up!”
“What’s the hurry?” he growled, still struggling with the odd mental fog as he leaned over the corpse awkwardly and searched it for the shackle keys. “Teburic’s not going anywhere. He’s dead.” Very dead, he noted, as he grunted to lift the enormous weight of flaccid flesh.
The boy got to the keys first and reached for the rusty metal cuffs. “Teburic’s men are coming,” he said again as he struggled with the lock. "Sorry,” Rolly murmured as the ranger winced again, finally succeeding in releasing the cuff.
“Teburic's men?" Aragorn repeated dully, fighting a dull pain in his head that threatened to drag him back to the ground.
“While you were sleeping, Teburic told me that four of his men are coming back today, they are coming to take us to Dunland. They are going to sell me for betraying them, and you – he said they have something even worse planned for you. We have to get out of here now before they get here.” The boy’s eyes darkened with fear once more. “I can’t go back there again! I won’t go back there. They’ll have to kill me first.”
“Nobody’s going to kill you,” Aragorn whispered. He hauled himself up onto trembling legs and staggered out of the storeroom into a cool gray drizzle. No sun gave clue to the time of day, but by the bird songs, it was morning. He spotted Halbarad’s mare, tethered to a tree next to a gray gelding, and noted with relief that Teburic had possessed enough business sense to keep the horses fed and watered. Aragorn gave the mare a reassuring pat on the flank and limped raggedly back to the cabin, entering the main door for the first time and casting his eyes about in the gloom for his weapons and gear. Valar, his head hurt, and his stomach was churning.
The boy followed him inside, watching as he struggled to pull on his boots one-handed – at least they were dry for once, Aragorn noted, as were the cloak and coat the Dunlending had thrown onto a pile of blankets. The ranger leaned over to retrieve his weapons from where Teburic had piled them in a corner, and nearly fell as a wave of dizziness struck him. He managed to catch himself with a shoulder against the wall and felt a cool hand steady his arm. “Strider?” a voice said hollowly, as through a tunnel. “Are you all right?” He looked up and tried to focus his eyes on the source of the voice, but he could only make out an indistinct pale blur in the center of his vision. All around it were nothing but dark shadows that shifted with the ringing in his ears.
He felt hands guide him, stumbling, outside and somehow he got up on the horse. And then they rode.
Halbarad brushed his fingers lightly over the hoof prints in the mud and rose to his feet, slamming a fist against the bare plank wall of the cabin and kicking the door of the lean-to for good measure before ducking inside to where Gandalf stood. “They’re gone. We lost too much time chasing the horses down."
“There was nothing to be done about it,” Gandalf replied, his nose wrinkling slightly at the rising stench from the bloated corpse which occupied most of the floor space. “At least we know Strider is still alive, unlike this poor fellow.”
“Teburic,” Halbarad pronounced. At Gandalf’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged. “He fits the description. Big, bushy, dark, ugly, and prone to violence. I don’t expect there are too many other 350-pound Dunlendings in this part of Buckland.” He knelt next to the body and wrenched the knife out of the stiffening flesh with a sickening squelch just as Tillfield walked in. Halbarad chuckled as the hobbit’s face drained and he ran back outside. “Not like gutting chickens, eh, Tillfield?” the Ranger called after him. Laying the knife down on the dead man’s chest, Halbarad’s face tightened as he took in the iron shackles lying next to the corpse and the post they were chained to. “Gandalf, what was going on here?”
Gandalf knelt on the floor to pick up a broken shard of yellow glass, and produced from his robe the intact vial from the cabinet in Teburic's house. They were identical. “A trap somewhat more elaborate than the ambush at the falls, I fear.” He sniffed his fingertip experimentally. “This is a strange compound. There are similar items in the main cabin which I cannot identify. Whoever planned this escapade is a master of herb-craft such as Elrond himself would admire.”
“There are more cunning and effective methods of obtaining information than simple torture, as you well know, Halbarad,” he answered, rising to his feet. “Can you track them?”
Halbarad’s eyebrows arched with insult. “Of course I can track them,” he muttered, and followed Gandalf out the door.
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