Of Stewards and Rangers
Playlist Navigation Bar
Captain of Gondor, A: 2. The Hunters
“Rather too well, I’m afraid, sir,” the other man murmured with a quick smile. The fierce noon-day sun beat down upon them, for there was no shelter in the rocky eyrie that the two Hunters chose to halt and take stock of the chase. From their high outcrop of barren stone, North Ithilien fell away before them, green wooded country for most part, hump-backed hills rising darkly against a brilliant sky, and here and there, the straight white line of the ancient road leading north to Minas Ithil, struggling to emerge out of swamp and tangled brush.
The Captain’s companion, a slight, fair ranger of some two years’ standing, shaded his eyes against the sun, searching the distance for their prey. Within three short summers, he had grown from boy to man; the smooth unformed features of childhood buffeted by the elements, shaped by battle, etched already with the lines of compassion, joy and sorrow that only men constantly at war would recognise in each other.
Outwardly, there was little to set him apart from the other young rangers of his company save, perhaps that he was quieter than the rest, deadlier with bow and arrow, and already a skilled swordsman like his brother. He was a joy to watch, for few Henneth Annûn could equal him in grace and quickness, and his sword was the envy of the company. Never had a father’s gift been better chosen, for it was finely a tempered blade with a hilt inset with Harad ivory, a scabbard of gold-chased leather embellished with the swans of Dol Amroth. This young man was also, the Old Man noted with wry amusement, the proud owner of the only book in Ithilien, a battered copy of The Lays of Beleriand.
Three times the seasons had turned since he had arrived in Henneth Annûn, an unhappy child stuffed full of book-learning, yearning for home. Time flies here, in the wilderness, he smiled to himself. Time heals all wounds, or so men say – but time had not smoothed away the deep scar on the boy’s cheek, the one thing that marred his beauty, or those other hurts that were invisible to the eye. Three summers, and Ithilien had cast her gentle spell over him; she had claimed the boy for her own, as she had with them all. The sullenness had vanished, and at times the Old Man even believed that the Steward’s younger son was happy after a fashion, indulging occasionally in foolish scrapes with that impudent pup Damrod. Yet, in the early days, he could not help but notice, with a little flash of anger on the boy’s behalf, the stricken look in his eyes when the time came for the men to open the letters from home – there were always fat missives written in Boromir’s bold hand, but never from the Steward himself. Now, three years later, the young ranger had learned to hide his disappointment behind an ironic half-smile.
At first, the boy’s posting to Ithilien had mystified and even annoyed him. The rangers could ill afford to cosset a spoiled young tenderfoot, and he, their hard-pressed Captain had neither the time nor patience to play the nursemaid to a Steward’s son. Like the rest of the lads, he had heard little enough of this boy who stood so deep in his brother’s shadow – and what he had heard had made his heart sink into his boots. Scholar, poet, he was, with hands made to wield the pen rather than sword and bow. But Ithilien had no need for scholars or poets now. He remembered the long faces of his lieutenants across the camp fire; none of them, not even young Anborn who leapt at the smallest challenge with the enthusiasm of a hunting hound would take the boy into his troop. He had sensed their unspoken resentment and understood it well, for he liked this intrusion as little as they did. Hard-bitten and fiercely independent, they were a blood Brotherhood - men whose fathers and grandfathers had been rangers before them, and of these, many could count among their forefathers the intrepid few who had formed the very first company in the days of Turin II. The Brotherhood was, intensely proud of their pedigree, their own jealously guarded customs, their lore and heroes. And the Brotherhood had never taken kindly to any outsider they thought unworthy, no matter how noble or ancient his lineage.
But orders were orders, and as soldiers of Gondor, they must obey. He had sighed, looking expectantly from face to face until his eyes found Mardil’s. He remembered how the other’s dark gaze lit with sudden laughter, and shrugging in his easy way, Mardil had said simply, “I’ll take him.” And so, it was the long-suffering Mardil, whose store of patience with unruly cubs was seemingly endless, who took the boy under his wing.
To the Brotherhood’s collective surprise, the boy did not take long to prove his worth; the stiff-legged wariness with which the men regarded him soon thawed into a discreet warmth. Before the year was out, he was being tyrannized and laughed over by his troop just like any of the other cubs, and Mardil’s lads were soon making themselves insufferable by crowing to the others that they had a warrior poet of their very own.
It was not difficult to see how the Steward’s younger son had charmed them all –humility, valour, wisdom and wit he had in abundance. Youth and vulnerability he had too, and although the men scarcely spoke of the Lord Denethor and their young comrade in the same breath, they made known where their sympathies lay in a thousand little ways too subtle for words. In Ithilien, it was impossible for a man to keep secrets from his brothers.
If the boy had ever lacked a father’s love, surely he had found a measure of it here, for what was the Brotherhood but fathers and brothers to each other? The Old Man drew a hand across his brow. He shifted his grip on his bow, his wary eyes still trained on the woods behind them. “Make haste, Faramir – must I wait all day? What do you see?”
“Nothing of our cubs, but something’s afoot. Look.” Turning, he followed Faramir’s narrowed gaze. To the north-east, perhaps five leagues as the crow flies, he saw carrion birds, circling and diving above the trees, and as he watched, they grew as thick as a black cloud, their faint cries beginning to shrill in the heavy air.
“Well, what do you make of that, sir?”
“Ill tidings, my boy, that’s what it is,” the Captain said, frowning as he leapt to his feet. “If those cubs are worth their salt, they’ll look after themselves for an hour or two. Come with me.” And without another word, the Old Man vanished into the woods, leaving the other man to hurry after.
“By the pits of Angband! –“ Softly, the Old Man followed up with string of choice oaths, each more furious than the last. His companion said nothing, but his pale eyes were bright with rage and grief. Crouching in the scrub, the two men looked on in grim silence. The slanting light of late afternoon, streaming serenely through the roof of foliage above, illuminated the clearing with a pale golden glow. In the middle of it lay the broken bodies of two rangers, their green-and-browns soiled with dried blood, wreathed with the flapping black wings of carrion birds. All around them the heavy smell of death lingered, for no kindly breeze stirred here.
It was a sight sickening enough to turn the stomach of the hardest warrior.
They were not yet close enough to name their fallen comrades, but it was obvious that both men had been dead for at least a day, if not more. With characteristic swiftness, the Old Man swept the woods with his sharp green gaze, then signalled to Faramir to cover him with his bow. Out he crept, so lightly that the grass scarcely seemed to bend under his feet, and even the large black birds in their busy feasting took no notice of him. Nearer and nearer he came – until he was but an arm’s length away from the nearest man. The Captain’s keen eyes missed nothing, neither the three short black-fletched darts that protruded from the breast of one man, nor the great teeming wound between the neck and shoulder of the other. Only one man, it seemed, had had time to draw his sword. Of their mutilated faces, nothing was left but raw flesh, but the Old Man was certain that they were Asfaloth and Glanhir, both Hunters from Anborn’s troop. Both had seen more than five years’ service in Ithilien. He read the signs of a struggle, a furious scuffle that had churned grass into the soft dark earth, and here and there the tell-tale narrow foot-marks of the Haradrim. Three, perhaps four attackers, yet he saw with frustration that they had left no tracks that the rangers could follow to exact vengeance. This was a wolf-pack well versed in forest craft. But what in the name of the Valar were they doing so far from their desert-lands in the south?
Rising, the Old Man gave a long, low whistle. Instantly, Faramir was beside him; he heard a sharp, in-drawn breath and noted how the other man’s fingers grew white on the curve of his bow.
“Yes, not a pretty sight, is it?”
Faramir shook his head, his fair brows drawing together. He had seldom seen the boy at a loss for words. Suddenly, Faramir dropped his bow and stooped, warding away the pointed beak of a determined kite as the bird screamed its protest. Gently, he took up Asfaloth’s hand and prised open the dead fingers. Nails, black with blood, and in the grimy open palm lay a crumpled snatch of cloth, a sullen juniper green.
The Old Man took it in his own hand, and frowning, rubbed the rough cloth between his fingers. Abruptly, he tucked it into a pouch at his belt. He saw the unspoken question in Faramir’s eyes and ignored it. And Faramir, seeing at once that the Old Man had descended into what Damrod impertinently called ‘one of his crotchety moods’ sighed and held his peace.
In the silence broken only by the flapping of black wings, the Old Man, cupping hands to lips, let out a long plaintive howl – the cry of a fox. As the sound lingered in the still air, the birds flapped, screeched in a frenzy of fear, then one by one settled down again to resume their disturbed meal. The two men stood listening; then from a great distance, an answering cry rang out, then another fainter one. The call had been heard, and even now, it was echoing through the hills and woods of Ithilien, passed from man to man – the unmistakable signal for all patrols to stay on the alert, and for all other rangers, Hunters and cubs alike to return at once to Henneth Annûn. This year, the Wild Hunt had ended early.
There was little more they could do but to send up a burial party in the morning.
“We shall avenge you, my brothers,” Faramir said softly.
“Ware!” cried the Captain. He caught the other man, thrusting him roughly to the ground. An instant later, three black arrows thudded into the grass beside them quivering with venom.
Another flight of arrows came whistling wickedly through the air.
And they were up again, running as though Morgoth himself were after them, slipping between the trees like shadows. Not far behind, the ululating rallying-cry of the Haradrim rose in the woods, and the ground trembled under the pounding of many war-like feet.
Now the hunters had become the hunted.
Wow! This is my first piece of ME fiction after a one and a half year hiatus. Inspiration flagged, and I simply grew tired of writing. I left two stories hanging and probably lots of mail unanswered as my yahoo account got deactivated. Needless to say I lost everything in there, including email addresses of everyone I knew here. Apologies to all who were waiting to hear from me. Well, now I’m back. ?
My interpretation of the rangers’ traditions, attitudes towards ‘outsiders,’ in particular their pride in their heritage is my own – nothing I have read supports this, but any elite guerrilla force that has maintained a perilous foothold in enemy country for a thousand years has a right to feel proud of itself.
Thanks to Raksha and Elanor for pointing out an error I made in the dating of Turin II's stewardship. This has now been corrected.
Playlist Navigation Bar