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Matter of Honor, A: 10. In the Footsteps of Our Fathers
Arriving at the crossing, Halbarad guided his horse into the knee-deep water and waded up and down the weed-covered, undercut banks, scanning the vegetation and earth with a practiced eye, until finally he spotted the well-disguised gouges in the near bank a stone's throw downstream from the crossing where Aragorn had led the horse out of the water. It was a clever spot, to be sure, nearly hidden by the low-hanging branches of a willow. From there, the tracks doubled back toward the southeast, in the direction of the settlement.
Aragorn's return route ran nearly parallel to the main path Halbarad had followed from the settlement, and in a few places, came with in a few furlongs of it, shielded from view by low hills and woodland. Clever; Halbarad conceded grimly, wondering what dark errand of Aragorn's could warrant such haste and deception. If he had only lingered in the settlement a respectable week or two, he could have simply announced his departure and no one would have thought anything of it. It was becoming clearer to Halbarad with every passing minute that Aragorn's true destination had never been the Angle at all; that had been nothing but an excuse to get him out from under the watchful eye of Elrond so he could pursue his true purpose, whatever that was.
After curving in a wide arc to avoid the settlement, Aragorn's tracks settled back into a southeasterly heading again, leading directly to the river trail along the Bruinen. The river trail was straight and flat, and Halbarad urged his horse into a canter. He could ill afford any more delays or deceptions if he hoped to catch up with Aragorn before nightfall. The looping double-back diversion had cost Aragorn two hours, he reckoned, and himself three, but now, on a straight track, he could catch up with him quickly enough. The river was too deep to ford here, and he doubted Aragorn would attempt to swim it. Despite the furtive nature of Aragorn's escape, Daisy's tracks along this part of the trail had settled into a workmanlike but unhurried pace - the pace of a man on a journey of days, or longer. If he was intent on crossing the river, he would do it at Tharbad.
It was shortly after noon when Halbarad rounded a bend in the path and spotted the dark figure ahead, astride the chestnut mare. Aragorn didn't bother turning around at the sound of approaching hoof beats, but merely turned and nodded curtly when Halbarad pulled up alongside. "Halbarad," he said, his face and voice betraying no surprise and only the slightest hint of irritation.
"You're going in the wrong direction," Halbarad said companionably, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "Your mother's grave is back that way. About twenty miles."
Aragorn's jaw tensed. "I'm not going to my mother's grave," he said. "At least, not yet."
"That's strange," Halbarad said, batting away a low-hanging branch, "since Elladan told me that was your excuse for leaving Imladris in such a hurry." Halbarad rubbed at his beard thoughtfully. "That couldn't have been just been a ruse, could it?" Aragorn continued to avoid eye contact, but to an expert interrogator, there were plenty of other clues. The shoulders were rigid, the corners of the mouth tight, the back straight, the hands tense on the reins: the man looked trapped. Good, Halbarad thought. "Ever since I figured out you weren't really headed for Bree, I've been wondering where you're really going. There's nothing in Tharbad except you'd ford the river there if you were going to Rohan. But I couldn't think of a reason you'd be journeying to Rohan in secret. Gondor, perhaps? Though you didn't bother to take any supplies besides what you already had in your pack, so I'd guess you don't intend to go any further than --"
"Go home, Halbarad." Aragorn nudged Daisy into a faster walk.
"Well, I'd like to do that," Halbarad said, easily keeping abreast. "But I'm afraid it's not that simple."
Aragorn's sigh was weary, his voice impatient. "Why not?"
"Well, it just so happens - whoa!" Ducking a low-hanging branch at the last moment, Halbarad batted another away from his head. The trail was too narrow for two horses to pass easily, but Aragorn showed no willingness to stop for the sake of conversation. Obviously he intended to make this as difficult as possible. Halbarad gritted his teeth and scowled at the offending branch. "Well, it just so happens I was headed this same direction myself."
"You don't say."
"Yes, it seems that scoundrel Brandol sent my 17-year-old son down to Tharbad to look into some Dunlending trouble. Between you and me, Aragorn, the boy has his head in the clouds. Gets it from his grandmother, I'm afraid. His mother is worried sick. She begged me to go down there and look in on him before does something foolish."
Aragorn nodded slowly. "I see. Well, since I'll be passing through Tharbad, I'd be more than happy to look in on Húrin for you."
Halbarad smiled. "That's very kind of you, but as it happens there are certain other equities that demand my attention in Tharbad."
There was a longer pause this time. "What equities would those be?"
Halbarad reached over and patted Daisy's back end. "This horse you're riding, for one. You don't have a very good record when it comes to returning borrowed property, you know. And then there's this." He slapped a palm against the dagger sheathed at his belt.
Aragorn stared blankly at the sheath. "Whatever does your dagger have to do with this?"
"Dudo gave it back to me under one condition - that I put it to use saving your skin. I intend to do just that. I don't know what you're up to, but you're not yourself, you're not well, and you'd better know right now that you're not going to Tharbad or anywhere else without me."
Aragorn turned his attention back to the trail and rode in silence while he pondered this assertion. "Suit yourself," he said finally, and nudged Daisy into a trot.
He'll talk, Halbarad told himself, falling in behind him. Sooner or later, he'll have to talk.
Halbarad set down his empty plate and reached into his pack for his cleaning pouch. Aragorn was gazing inscrutably into the fire, absently kneading his sore knee. Three days in the saddle had probably done it no good, though arguably more good than three days of walking would have. His face, shadowed and distorted by the glow of the fire, remained an expressionless, impenetrable mask. A man who did not know him well would see nothing more than a Ranger's typical reserve, Halbarad thought he saw a glimmer of fear in those hooded eyes, well-disguised and overridden by some terrible, grim purpose that Halbarad had still not been able to discern. He ran an oiled cloth over his sword, watching the play of firelight play along its keenly-honed edge as he considered his strategy. Three days, and he'd so far not even managed to elicit their destination from Aragorn. He had considered the possibility that Aragorn was on another secret errand of Gandalf's, but Gandalf was currently headed west, toward the Shire, with Elladan, Elrohir, and Dudo, all of whom Aragorn had taken great pains to misdirect and shake off his trail. No, he decided, whatever this errand of his was, it was a highly private matter. They were a day from Tharbad now. If Aragorn kept going south, he could be headed toward Rohan, or perhaps Gondor. Another thought occurred to him, one that made him shudder. Surely Aragorn had no secret errand in Mordor? With a hasty glance at the packs, Halbarad reassured himself that Aragorn had nowhere near enough supplies, not to mention weapons, for such an expedition. On that basis alone, his destination was likely Tharbad. Halbarad re-sheathed his weapon and gathered the plates. Aragorn's was clean – at least he was eating what was put in front of him, for all that he showed no enthusiasm for it. When Halbarad returned from washing the dishes in the river, Aragorn was cleaning his own sword, running a whetstone lightly over the blade as it lay across his lap. Halbarad noticed he used his left hand to grip the whetstone -- he still favored the right, though the swelling was nearly gone now.
Enough was enough, Halbarad decided. He was a patient man, but he'd endured Aragorn's taciturn silence and one-word replies for long enough. "So," he said, settling down cross-legged on the ground and resting his elbows on his knees, "what's in Tharbad?"
The soft rasp of the whetstone paused for just an instant, then resumed its slow, rhythmic labor. Eight more times did it run across the blade before Aragorn looked up. "I didn't say I was going to Tharbad."
"You didn't have to. If we weren't going to Tharbad, you would have corrected me." Halbarad snapped the twig he was playing with and threw it into the fire. "Enough, Aragorn. I am not your enemy. Why the secrecy? Why the lies?"
At this accusation, Aragorn's brow tightened. "I've lied to no one."
"Is that so? And if I ask Elladan why you left Imladris in such a hurry, what will he say?"
Aragorn's hands tightened on stone and sword until he had to release the right to knead a cramp out of it. "It couldn't be helped. They would not have let me go, otherwise, and I could not bear their...inquisitiveness."
All the tension seemed to go out of him suddenly. Halbarad recognized the signs - he could tell when a man was ready to talk, and this one was. He softened his voice. "This isn't about your mother at all, is it?
"No," Aragorn said, barely louder than a whisper. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose and peered out from between his fingers almost like a child playing peek-a-boo. Finally he sighed and tossed the whetstone back into his pack. "It's about my father."
"Your father?" Halbarad stared at him blankly. "You mean Elrond?" Though the Lord of Imladris was like a father to Aragorn, Halbarad had never heard Aragorn refer to him as such in conversation.
"Not Elrond," Aragorn said quietly. "Arathorn."
Somewhere deep in Halbarad's gut, dread flared to life. What news about a man's long-dead father could ever be good? "Is that why you're headed for Tharbad? Something happened to your father there?"
Aragorn hesitated, then caught his gaze for an instant and nodded tersely.
"When?" Halbarad asked blankly. Beyond the fact that Arathorn had been dead for nearly 80 years, Tharbad was nothing but an abandoned shell of a town. Only the ford and a few ruins were left to attest that it had ever been inhabited. The Rangers patrolled it occasionally, mostly to secure the road that crossed the ford, but there had been no permanent post for decades, and Arathorn had spent most of the last three years of his life on an obsessive troll-hunt in northern Eriador to avenge his father. Whatever had happened in Tharbad must have taken place even earlier.
Aragorn shrugged deeper into his cloak, dropping his gaze once more to look into the fire. "The Fell Winter drove some of the Dunlending hill tribes down into the lowlands," he said, so quietly that the far-off hoot of an owl nearly drowned out his voice. "They took refuge in the wetlands of the Swanfleet, hunting birds and fishing to get through the winter. In the spring of 2912, with the snowmelt, all the rivers coming out of the Misty Mountains flooded - the Bruinen, the Glanduin, the Sirannon – and the Dunlendings were forced to move again. There were feuds over hunting grounds, and some of the refugees started moving north, encroaching on our lands."
"Sounds familiar," said Halbarad. "Brandol worries about the same happening now."
"Maybe for good reason," said Aragorn, "though the floods this spring were not nearly as bad as they were that year. My grandfather sent a company of Rangers to keep the peace – or at least to ensure the Dunlendings stayed south of the Sirannon and Glanduin. The post was manned until 2930, when my grandfather was killed and my father recalled all available Rangers to the north to hunt trolls."
"All right," Halbarad said, throwing another log on the fire. "What happened in Tharbad?"
He was answered only by the crackling of the fire, and Aragorn seemed to have withdrawn into himself again. When he finally mustered himself to stand, Halbarad tensed to follow him, thinking he might simply drift away into the darkness of the woods, as he was wont to do when preoccupied with some weighty matter. But he merely bent to remove a long, flat object from his pack. "Open it," he said, holding it out to Halbarad.
It was an ancient leather wallet, and inside were several pages of parchment, cracked with age. The night was moonless, so Halbarad slid from his log perch to kneel on the ground, slanting the pages to read the faded handwriting in the light of the campfire. Behind him, Aragorn paced restlessly as he read. Halbarad skimmed the letters quickly and thrust them back at Aragorn. "What am I supposed to make of this?"
Aragorn took the letters, handling them as gingerly as if they were molten mithril. "Do you not see now?"
"No, I do not. Explain it to me. Who is this boy the writer speaks of?"
Aragorn took a deep breath and sat down on the log as if the strength had suddenly gone out of his legs. "The boy..." he said, pausing and looking at the letters as if tempted to throw them into the fire, "the boy was Arathorn's first-born son."
The little Halbarad had managed to decipher of the faded script had led him to the same suspicion, but hearing it said sent the knot of dread that had been forming in his gut straight up to the roof of his mouth. He felt himself swallow convulsively. "You are Arathorn's first-born son," he said.
"So I was told."
"Speak plainly, Aragorn! Where did you get these letters? And who wrote them?"
Aragorn set the letters aside and pulled out his pipe and pouch. Only when he had lit the pipe and taken a deep draw on it did he answer. "I found them in the bottom of my father's trunk, in Elrond's attic. It was brought there after his death and forgotten, evidently. The woman who wrote the letters was a Dunlending he met in Tharbad during the years he was posted there. As you can see, he continued to provide support for the woman and her child even after he was re-posted to Evendim, in fact right up until his betrothal to my mother."
"How could no one have known this? If she was sending letters from Tharbad to Evendim, someone must have delivered them."
"Someone did. She names him - Arathorn's good friend Brueglir."
"Brueglir!" Halbarad snatched the letters back and riffled through them hastily. "My father," he said in amazement. "Who knew he was loyal enough to yours to keep his secrets? Well, since he's been dead for thirty years that will do us no good. But someone else must have known. Surely there would have been gossip."
"Let it never be said that the Dunedain cannot keep a secret," Aragorn said with a grim hint of a smile. "You know as well as I that warriors away from home turn a blind eye to one another's discreet dalliances. Nor do they bring such tales home to their families."
Halbarad couldn't argue with that. He'd turned a blind eye to a dalliance or two in his day. He ruffled through the pages, counting nine letters in all. "There are no dates on these letters."
"The Dunlendings do not reckon years as we do," Aragorn said, "But the first letter notes my father's recent transfer to Evendim. That happened in 2927."
Halbarad squinted to read the faded text. He had to admit, it indeed looked as bad as Aragorn believed it to be. The woman wrote of how the boy missed Arathorn, how he was growing tall and lean, like his father. She mused that he would look more like a Ranger than a Dunlending when he was grown.
"The second letter," Aragorn continued – he must have memorized every word of them, Halbarad realized - "was written the following spring. She speaks of sowing peas and cabbage in the field. The cow Arathorn bought her had a male calf that she will be able to sell in the fall, and she traded the silver he sent for an iron plow blade and a copper pot when the trader came through. The boy fishes in the Greyflood the way Arathorn taught him..."
Aragorn's voice trailed off, and Halbarad realized he had never been fishing with his father. What must it feel like to know another boy had gone in his place? He shook his head to break the spell. It was not as if he were about to start believing this nonsense. "Aragorn, this proves nothing. Did you ask Elrond about these letters?"
"No." Aragorn's back had stiffened at the very mention of the name. "Elrond does not know of this; I am sure of it. When I mentioned the trunk he did not react."
"But did you show him the letters?"
"Halbarad, Elrond gave me the tokens of Elendil's house," Aragorn said, emotion overcoming the toneless monotone of his voice. "He expects me to claim the kingship. He would have not done so were he aware of any shadow over my claim to it."
"But surely he could offer some advice --"
"I could not!" Aragorn snapped, then sighed deeply and shook his head. "I could not bring myself to tell him about this until I was sure, one way or the other, whether I really am Elendil's heir. I have to know first, before I tell Elrond any of this."
Halbarad suddenly needed to be on his feet. He rose and took several steps, in no particular direction. "Not Elendil's heir?" Dread ripped through him like a cold wind. Not Elendil's heir... He raked a hand through his hair. "This is nonsense. You cannot seriously be suggesting that a half-Dunlending cur is Elendil's heir."
"If he is my father's legitimate issue, then he is," Aragorn said quietly.
"But he cannot be. Your father was not bonded to this woman."
"We do not know that. Our customs are still close to those of the Eldar. If mutual consent existed for the marriage, it is valid and must be recognized. No public ceremony is necessary. Your daughter might be bonded to Brandol's son at this very moment, for all you know."
Halbarad snorted. "I prefer not to think about that, thank you." He preferred also not to think of the implications of a prior marriage on the legitimacy of Arathorn's marriage to Gilraen. To his knowledge, such a thing had never happened among the Dúnedain. "Your father ended this relationship. He cut off contact with the woman. He would not have done, if they were bonded."
"No. She broke off contact with him, when she learned he was to be married to a woman of his own people, out of a desire to spare him scandal."
Well, that horse might be out of the barn, Halbarad thought. He stepped over to the provision pack and dug out a jug of ale, helping himself to a hefty swig before passing it to Aragorn, holding it out stubbornly until it was grudgingly accepted. "Don't make me drink this by myself, cousin. You know I'm a pitiful drunkard."
Aragorn obediently but woodenly downed a long swallow and passed the flask back. "I have to find him."
"Find him? He's probably dead. The Dunlendings are not as long-lived as we are. He'd be over eighty by now. For a Dunlending, that's ancient."
"Eldacar, son of Valacar of Gondor," Aragorn recited – he'd already considered this, Halbarad realized - "whose mother was a woman of Rhovanion, lived to be 235 years old. My father's bloodline is no less strong."
"Let sleeping dogs lie, Aragorn. No good can come of finding this boy. Man. Ancient doddering relic. Long-buried corpse. Whatever he is."
"I cannot live another man's life, Halbarad."
"You," Halbarad said with a poke at his chest, "are Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, and nothing will change that. What if you do manage to find this supposed half-brother of yours? Would you have the Dúnedain be led through our darkest hour by a Dunlending turnip farmer? Or worse, a marauder? A bandit? Do you think someone like that ruffian Teburic going to lead us to victory against the Enemy?" Halbarad leaned forward. "Listen to me, and listen to me well, Aragorn. The Dúnedain will not have a half-blooded Dunlending whelp for a Chieftain, no matter who his father was. I will not, your other captains will not, the people will not, and you are out of your mind if you think Dírhael will stand for it."
At the mention of his grandfather, Aragorn reached for the flagon. "I value your loyalty more than you know, Halbarad, and that of the Dúnedain, but there is more at stake than technicalities of bonding customs, or even the Chieftainship. Elrond will not allow Arwen to marry any man less than the king of Gondor and Arnor."
Halbarad felt his jaw fall open, and pouring ale into it seemed the most sensible thing to do. He'd been aware of Elrond's displeasure at the surprise betrothal, and it had long been clear that some obstacle still remained to the marriage, but even though he privately believed Aragorn would indeed be king someday, he had never dreamed that Elrond would make it a pre-condition for wedding his daughter. "All right," he said after a moment, passing the flask back to Aragorn. "Becoming king will be no easy task, but I don't see how this prevents it. Surely the Gondorians are no more eager to see a half-Dunlending on the throne than we are. After all, they had a Kin-strife over the half-Rhovanion."
The pipe in Aragorn's mouth glowed in the gathering darkness. Unlike Brandol, he removed it before taking a drink of wine. "Gondor rejected Arvedui's claim, whose status as Isildur's heir was uncontested. It will be much more difficult to prove the legitimacy of one whose ancestors have been wandering the North for a thousand years," Aragorn replied. "Yet there are some in Gondor who would not have the kingship restored at all; and chief among them is the current Steward, Denethor. He is proud, cunning, and resourceful, and he will oppose my claim by any means at his disposal. How convenient would it be if word reached him of an elder half-brother with imperfect blood?"
"Then we make sure word does not reach him."
"I cannot bury this information, Halbarad. What if I make a claim on the throne, and Denethor produces this information him as proof that not only is the claimant a second son, but the northern line is so corrupt and polluted as to breed indiscriminately with Dunlendings?"
"That sounds very unlikely."
"I cannot take the chance. For more than just the kingship, Halbarad. For more than Arwen, even. For my own peace of mind, I must find the truth. I must know."
"And in the unlikely even that you do find this supposed brother of yours? And somehow prove that his position usurps your own? What then?"
"That will depend on him."
"Do you even know where to begin looking? Beyond Tharbad?"
"I'll find him."
Allowing a grunt to convey his opinion of Aragorn's last statement, Halbarad rose to unpack his bedroll. "I can see there is no reasoning with you. Very well; let us go to Tharbad, and resolve this foolishness as quickly as possible. You might as well take the first watch; it is obvious you're not going to get any sleep anyway." He turned his back and crawled under his blankets, and after a moment, Aragorn rose to gather wood for the fire.
The day seemed to dawn unusually bright, but as it wore on and the dull pounding in Halbarad's head gradually eased, he relaxed in the saddle, slackening the reins to allow his horse follow lazily behind Aragorn's. He felt better knowing the tale behind Aragorn's dark mood and urgent quest at last, no matter how bizarre and unlikely he personally found it. This was a pleasant stretch of road, and the day was fine. Bees lazed amidst the late-spring wildflowers, birds chattered in the treetops and meadows, and the horses snatched at mouthfuls of sweet grass that waved across the trail. It had been years since he had ridden like this with Aragorn, he realized with regret, and a wave of cold dread washed over him anew with the realization that Aragorn's long absences, which he had always regretted, had been in preparation for a role he now might never assume. If Aragorn truly was a second son, as he claimed, and the kingship belonged to another, then in Eriador he would stay. No banner would fly in Gondor for him, the scepter of Annúminas would go to another - the sword of Elendil as well; and the Ring of Barahir – oh, sweet Eru, the Ring of Barahir, that currently graced the fair finger of Arwen Undómiel, would have to be gotten back.
Halbarad dismissed that unthinkable image with a shudder. Aragorn could chase his father's demons from here to Mordor, but it did not change what Halbarad knew in his heart – that the throne of Gondor was his to claim. The banner in his dream, the banner he hoped to carry to the foot of Minas Tirith's tower someday, belonged to Aragorn, and him alone. Still, it was useless trying to deter Aragorn from his quest for truth. There was nothing to be done but follow, and try to keep him out of trouble.
The morning's ride took them to within ten miles of Tharbad. As they neared the confluence of the Bruinen and the Swanfleet, marshes spread across the eastern bank, and on both sides of the river flattened grasses still remained from the recent flooding, though the river had receded to within its banks, leaving Halbarad optimistic that the ford would be passable at Tharbad. The trail was flat and easy here, flanked by open oak woodlands. Birds flitted about in the branches, and spring flowers lined the edges of the path. It seemed too perfect a day to be pondering the end of one's dreams.
He heard a soft thud up ahead of him, and instinctively palmed his sword hilt as he glanced up sharply. In the few moments he'd been admiring the roadside lilies, Aragorn had gotten off his horse. Even from a distance his bent posture was unmistakable – he was examining tracks.
"A group on foot, coming from the south," Aragorn said tersely as he approached. "They left the trail here, and set off across that meadow, away from the river."
There were four sets of shod footprints – A man, two sets that could have been women or older boys, and a child. Hoof prints overlaid them. "They were followed by riders," Halbarad said. "But were the riders their guards or their pursuers?"
"The people were walking slowly," Aragorn said grimly. "The horses were moving fast." Handing his reins wordlessly to Halbarad, he set off toward the meadow, eyes intent on the ground.
Halbarad's pulse quickened with the familiar thrill of the hunt, and he could not suppress a small, dark smile. Although he would have preferred a diversion less likely to result in bloodshed than combat with a mounted band of rogues, he felt almost childish relief at the prospect of worrying about something besides the history-shaping personal transgressions of Arathorn son of Arador for a short time. Horsemen, of whatever persuasion, were at least a threat his skills were competent to handle.
The footprints led up a hill, to the center of a grassy clearing, where they diverged in three directions, running. Aragorn caught Halbarad's eye and pointed across the meadow. No more tracking skills were needed. The squawking of crows on the far side of the meadow signaled the final destination of the traveling party. As he and Aragorn drew nearer, Halbarad could see the object of the birds' interest – a body tied to the bole of a tree. "Clear the area," Aragorn said quietly, drawing his sword.
Halbarad circled around the left side of the meadow, while Aragorn took the right. In a stand of oaks on the far side he found an area of flattened grasses and churned dirt scoured by the prints of both horses and people. And blood. Plainly, the horsemen had captured one of the fleeing foot-travelers, and from here, carried or dragged him towards the tree where the first body hung.
By the time he got there, Aragorn was kneeling between two bodies on the ground – a woman and a boy. He looked up as Halbarad approached. "Nothing," Halbarad said. "They're gone."
A stench was already ripening in the warmth of the spring sun, and rising above the pleasant droning of bees was the insistent buzzing of flies. Halbarad turned away from the sight of them feasting on the wounds of the dead. "The boy's throat was slit," Aragorn said shortly, sitting back on his heels. Halbarad forced himself to look at the woman who lay beside him. She had received no similar quick mercy.
The Dúnedain customarily buried their dead quickly, while orcs were piled and burned or, if far enough from settlements or routes of travel, left to rot where they fell. Halbarad thought it just as well he did not know how Aragorn had come to be so habituated to groping through bloating mounds of decomposing flesh. He stood back a few feet, embarrassed at his squeamishness. The woman's body was lying face-down, and now Aragorn was trying to turn it over. Stifling a reluctant groan, Halbarad dropped down beside him and pushed against the rigid shoulders.
"Still stiff," Aragorn said. "Dead for no more than a day."
Having clamped his mouth shut against the urge to vomit, Halbarad merely nodded. The movement of the body had stirred up a fresh whiff of stench, and he started to put his hand over his mouth, stopping only as he remembered where his fingers had just been. He stared at his hand for a moment, then dropped it uneasily to his side. Aragorn had meanwhile turned his attention to a pack on the ground, and Halbarad found himself drawn to the man whose body still hung against the tree trunk. He had been made to watch, Halbarad thought with disgust. Before they killed him -- and they had made sport of doing it -- they made him watch what was done to his wife. Fighting down bile, he unsheathed his knife and cut the body down.
It fell to the ground with a sick thud, and Halbarad knelt beside it to cut the ropes from the wrists, trying not to imagine what it must have been like for this man to run across this meadow in terror, trying to save his family from…whoever the riders on horseback had been. "Why would robbers bother to torture these people?" he said.
"I don't know," Aragorn answered.
Halbarad sat back on his heels and looked at the face. It was battered and mottled, heavily bearded and round beneath the chin. Wrinkles etched the forehead and the corners of the blackened eyes, and a scar ran from the corner of the swollen lips to the edge of the jaw. Halbarad frowned, and leaned closer. "Oh, no," he groaned. "Aragorn."
"What?" Aragorn closed the flap of the pack and stood up. "There should be a fourth body. Did you find it?"
"No. I know him."
"There were four sets of footprints. There should be another child, an older one – maybe a girl…" Aragorn abruptly registered what he had said and turned back from scanning the edges of the meadow. "What do you mean, you know him?"
Halbarad started to run his hand through his hair and stopped just in time. "His name was Begaric. Itinerant peddler."
"I think so. And as a peddler he was able to move about easily enough."
Aragorn's brow tightened. "How did you know him?"
Halbarad's gaze slipped skyward, where clouds were racing across the sky. Rain tonight, he noted idly. "His ability to move about in Dunland was….useful."
"Useful?" Aragorn was staring at him. "He was an informant?"
"Why didn't I know about this?"
"If you'd ever stay around a while, you might know something," Halbarad shot back, recognizing that his anger had nothing to do with Aragorn. "I haven't seen him in over two years. The last I heard of him was six months ago, when he passed through Sarn Ford."
"How many children did he have?"
"Two, I think," Halbarad said, feeling nausea wash over him all over again as the memory of a smiling, dark-haired little boy overlaid the reality of a torn throat and bloodied corpse. "There was the little boy, and also an older daughter. She would be about fifteen now. Maybe she got away."
The look on Aragorn's face mirrored his own sick fear. It was a common enough practice among Dunlendings to take children in raids. It had been the fate suffered by the boy Rolly, back in Bree, if all his stories were not lies. A girl of fifteen would be sold as a wife or a slave – amongst the Dunlendings Halbarad had never observed much difference. "Let's hope so," Aragorn said. "Look for their exit tracks. We have to find out which way they went, and whether they had the girl."
The tracks bore out their worst fears – the girl had been run to ground and captured, put atop one of the horses whose tracks led south. "They're heading to Tharbad," Halbarad noted.
"Your son is there," said Aragorn.
"Yes," Halbarad said thickly, trying not to think about what chance his 17-year-old son would have against ruffians who butchered children and tortured women for sport. He nodded back toward the meadow, where the girl's family lay rotting in the sun. "We should bury the bodies," he suggested half-heartedly.
"There is no time," Aragorn said. Halbarad didn't argue - they had no shovel, Aragorn could not use one if they did, and there were too few stones lying about to build a cairn. Burying the bodies would take all day. "After we reach Tharbad we can send back a burial detail," Aragorn added. "But the trail is getting cold. We have to find her quickly."
This time, Halbarad did not bother to ask him what he would do after that.
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