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Exile: 2. Chapter 2
I remember vividly our first meeting, when I arrived at Fornost. Hanging back behind Halforth as he made his report to his commander, uncertain what to say but trying very hard to appear patient and confident, instead of lost and confused.
The commander was not the oldest of all those I had seen here, but there was that in his manner and Halforth's that left me in no doubt he was in command, even before either of them spoke.
"Engroth," Halforth had said simply. He offered no titles, no bows, nor any salute that I recognized, only touched his left hand to the center of his chest briefly. Apparently it had some significance for Engroth returned the gesture.
"Halforth Hithlim's son, mae govannen. What news from the South?"
I blinked at the fragment of Elvish, seeming so incongruous from this bleak-faced Man. His accent, to my surprise, was perfect, but his voice was rough and deep, unlike the clear voices of the Elves I had known. Familiar enough to remind me of home, but so different as to show me that I was among strangers yet.
But you are not an Elf, I reminded myself, resisting the urge to shift my pack to a more comfortable position on my shoulders. Still, I had known few Men in Rivendell, and with the exception of Halforth this was the first Man I had ever spoken to on anything of importance.
Engroth was old. This was the first thing that struck me about him, though as yet I had only a very limited understanding of what the word meant to Men.
In the purest sense of the word, Elladan and Elrohir and the Elves who had raised me were far older in years than any of the Dunedain yet living. Even in the sense of wisdom and experience, the insight and lore of Elrond encompassed things beyond the comprehension of myself or any other mortal, or even many of the Elves. But there was that in war and the Wild, I was beginning to realize, that could embitter a man young, that which neither Elvish light nor Elvish lore could defend against. There were scars on this man's face that would never be healed by Elvish medicine.
I had never before seen a Man who I would have so immediately labeled as old. Surely I had seen tired old graybeards in Bree who walked on crutches, but Engroth's age he carried not on his shoulders but in his eyes--eyes that had seen far too much, and that now were empty black pools in a face of stone.
"In Bree-town there is no news of orcs," Halforth said. "Butterbur assures me he will be vigilant. He at least has not forgotten us."
He was dangerous. That was the second word that came to my mind. Standing before him, even before he noticed me, I felt like nothing so much as a boy caught playing with his father's sword that was much too big for him. I had always been proficient at the sword-drills, and had proven that I could defend myself in actual combat. But I had not yet mastered the art of walking with a blade hung on my belt, without that blade banging audibly against my leg and tripping me if I wasn't careful. In Rivendell, where no enemies came, it was considered a ridiculous ostentation to wear a sword for daily business unless one was using it to practice defense. Besides, most Elves preferred bows and knives to swords, anyway. And though the reality now was much different from the safety of Rivendell, still I carried the weapon as though it were a burden, part of my supplies for traveling.
Engroth did not carry his sword. The blade was not an instrument at all but a part of his body, and he moved as though it had always been there, attached at precisely the same point it was now.
He looked at Halforth, and yet somehow I knew he saw me quite clearly, and was even now examining me, wondering who I was and how I came here, while he discussed tactics with Halforth. He was the same height as I was, but much broader in the shoulders, and his square-jawed face looked as though it had been carved from rock with a few quick, hard strokes, and very little if any refinement after. The lower half of that face was covered by a black beard, and his gray-streaked black hair hung loosely about his shoulders like a lion's mane.
When Halforth finally introduced me to him, he started as if I had struck him. There was something in his eyes then that I could not identify, but it was clear to me in that moment he did not want me here.
Since then he has ignored me, assuming from my age, it seems, that I am as yet unready to take command, and that I must take his orders. Which was no less than what I expected, knowing little or nothing of the duties of a commander.
Yet Elrond and my mother made it clear to me I was expected to be chieftain one day, and I do not know how I can learn what will be expected of me if the current chief insists on pretending I do not exist.
Someone had told me he was my father's cousin, and Arathorn's closest kin before I came. But it is not envy, I do not think. Though he speaks but little to the men around him, but it is obvious they respect him a great deal, and I do not doubt he is a man of honor. Halforth told me that the Dúnedain knew that Arathorn's son lived in Rivendell, and I know that Engroth has no son of his own whom he might want to take my place. And I have not shown him anything but respect since I came here. I am more than willing to honor his decision to retain command yet awhile. Some custom, maybe, I have violated unknowingly. It would not surprise me, for I know precious little of their customs as yet. But while the other Rangers do not seem to know quite what to say to me or what to make of me, it does not seem I have offended any of them. Perhaps some grudge against my father? I know not, and since he does not confront me with my offense I do not know how I can correct it.
"My lord," he greeted me, inclining his head a fraction.
"Sir?" I inquired politely. Another strange thing, this insistence on addressing me as "lord," when as yet I had no real power here. Such an address served only to remind me of the ambiguity of my position here, and how far I still had to go before I could feel like I belonged here.
"You know this country well enough to get to Tharbad?" Like Engroth, brusque but to the point.
"Aye, I do."
"Without using the Road, if need be?" I nodded. "There has been no messenger from the bridge in over a month. One should have been here a week ago. It is time we knew why. If you encounter no enemy and no information between here and Bree, find out what you can from the innkeeper of the Prancing Pony. He knows my name and will aid you."
He paused, looking at me, but not really seeing me, I thought. It seemed he was looking through me, past me, at something else entirely. It was more than a little unnerving, but after a moment he seemed to focus once more. "If they have heard of enemies crossing the bridge, or they have seen nothing of any messenger, go west to the Sarn Ford as swiftly as possible." He pulled a folded square of paper from his pocket. "Give this to the commander of the guard there." I took the paper, tucking it beneath my cloak where it might be secure. "And be prepared for battle," he told me grimly, before turning swiftly on his heel and walking away toward the fire.
Be prepared for battle. The last person to say that to me was Elladan, over a year ago now, before my first encounter with the orcs in the Misty Mountains. I well remember the thrill of anticipation that shot through me then, the excitement of a boy on the eve of his first battle, ready to prove himself a man.
All I felt now was relief, as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. At last I had a task, a specific mission to accomplish. Whatever dangers lay in wait for me on the road, anything had to be better than haunting the ruins of Fornost and waiting for news, while the Rangers watched me and wondered.
I found my horse grazing free on the side of a hill, having refused to be tied to a post with the other horses of the Dúnedain. Such were the horses of Rivendell. He nickered softly as I approached.
"Are you getting bored yet?" I asked, smiling as he butted me in the chest impatiently. "I know, I know, but we're leaving here now. We're going to where the action is."
The horse gave me what I can only call a derisive snort, and I laughed as I mounted. "Come on, let's get out of here."
The guards at the South Road stood and saluted me as I rode past them at a stately walk. The horse lifted his head and tossed his mane proudly, clearly conscious of dignity and enjoying the attention, even though I was not.
I set my heels to his flanks and away we went at a gallop, pounding down the Greenway as though the Hounds of the Nameless Himself were chasing us. The hills were quiet, shrouded in thick mist that muffled all quieter sounds, and the beating of hoofs sounded like distant thunder in the heavy silence.
Even Elvish horses could not keep such a pace for the length of the journey I had to make, but for the moment we were both restless, tired of suffering frustration and inaction. At such a pace few dark thoughts could keep up, with the low bushes and mist-covered fields blurring as we went past, and the force of the wind in my face bringing tears to my eyes.
The Prancing Pony looked much the same as it had when I first saw it. There were fewer guests when I arrived, late at night as the common room was emptying out. Bidding my horse stay by the gate, I opened the door and moved quietly inside, to see that the room was almost empty. The great fire was still burning in the fireplace, so I pulled up a chair at the table nearest the blaze.
It had been some three days since I left Fornost, and I rather hoped someone was still awake who knew how to cook, for I had had nothing but cram to eat since the last time I came through Bree. I was happy for the moment simply to sit in a warm room by a warm fire, in a town where I could reasonably expect to be safe for a while. I had ridden hard to get here, and the weather had only grown colder.
The common room was deserted, but there were still dirty plates on the tables, so I assumed someone must be coming soon to clean up. I would just stay here and wait for them. I stopped shivering gradually, still wrapped in my cloak, feeling the warmth of the fire slowly drain the tension away, leaving me with only a vast weariness.
Pulling the hood of the cloak over my face, I slumped forward and put my head down on the table, pillowed on my arms.
I did not intend to go to sleep, but I was awakened some time later by someone shaking my elbow. Looking up, I saw a boy of about ten years, who looked somehow familiar.
"You can't sleep here, sir," he said, looking very serious as he stood in front of me with his hands clasped behind his back. Wondering what a child his age was doing still awake at such an hour, I blinked. "There are still some rooms upstairs if you want one, but you'll have to pay."
"Of course," I said. "I don't know what time it is, but would there be any chance I could get something to eat?"
The boy shook his head. "Sir, it's after midnight!"
Looking around, I could see that all the tables had been cleared and the floor swept, and the fire was reduced to glowing coals on the hearth. I must have been asleep for quite a while. I remembered then that I wasn't just here to get a meal and a night's sleep. "Is the innkeeper here?"
"No, he's away on business. Should be back by tomorrow, though. I'm minding things till he gets back--with a little help from old Hob, of course."
"Of course," I agreed absently. "I see. Then . . . I'll take a room for tonight."
He was looking at me strangely. "You've been here before, haven't you?"
I nodded. "Aye, I have, once."
"You were cleaner then," the boy observed matter-of-factly.
I laughed, not knowing how else to respond to that. "I imagine I was," I agreed. "What's your name, lad?"
"Butterbur," he said, drawing himself up to his full (not very impressive) height. "Barliman Butterbur. My father owns this inn, and I will someday. What's your name?"
I started to say "Estel" before realizing that wasn't my name anymore. I was about to give him my real name before I hesitated, wondering if that was a good idea if it was true there were enemies in Bree-land. Finally I shook my head. "I don't know," I replied, trying to sound enigmatic rather than simply stupid.
The boy stared at me. "You're one of those Rangers, aren't you?" he said, with a hint of childish scorn creeping into his voice, as if that explained everything.
I froze for a second, then shrugged. "What of it?" I asked, standing up so that I could look down at him, daring him to make an issue of it. He said nothing, only looked at me before turning around and heading for the door.
"Rooms are upstairs," he said. "Follow me."
He bounded up the stairs with the limitless energy of youth, as I trudged wearily behind him. He stopped on the landing, waiting for me to catch up. "Could you possibly go any slower?" he demanded. He took a key out of his shirt pocket and opened the nearest door before handing the key to me. "Breakfast is at seven," he said. "You move so fast, I think I'll call you Trotter. How would you like that?"
I leaned again the half open door, as I groaned out loud, suppressing a yawn. It was much too late at night for this kind of thing. I fixed him with a mock glare. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"
He only laughed, and ran back down the hall, disappearing into the darkness.
Trotter? I thought wryly as I pulled off my boots, not bothering to take off my cloak before letting myself lean back onto soft feather-stuffed pillows. Almost I wished I could lie there awake yet awhile, so as to appreciate such a rare luxury while I could, but I was too weary. My eyes felt dry as if someone had poured sand into them, and it was a great effort to keep my eyelids open more than a second. I let my eyes close.
Regardless of weariness I had become accustomed to waking with the sunrise. It is easier, somehow, though, to wake quickly when you have naught for a bed save grass and tree roots. I was much more reluctant to leave the soft feather-mattress, stumbling out of bed as stiff muscles protested painfully.
Almost as soon as I had finished pulling on my boots, there was a pounding on my door. Opening it revealed the young boy I had met the previous night, standing with his arms folded and an impatient expression on his face.
"My father has returned, Sir Ranger," he said. "You wished to speak with him?"
"Aye." I ran a hand through my hair and decided I could do nothing about my undoubtedly disreputable appearance. If the look the boy was giving me was any indication, nothing I could do in the next half hour was going to make me look reasonably presentable, so there was little use even trying. I followed him out of the room.
He stopped in the doorway to the common room to give greetings to several guests, pointing in the direction of the bar, where a stout man with a bushy beard was serving drinks. I moved quickly past him toward the bar, where the man was engaged in conversation with several other patrons. Leaning against the bar, I waited for him to finish.
It didn't take long for the boy to appear at my side again. "You move faster when you're awake," he commented. I gave him a dirty look. "Well, if you don't like Trotter, how about I call you Strider?"
I shook my head silently, eyeing the drinks set on the counter and deciding I could use one right about now. I saw the bartender notice me out of the corner of his eye, and a startled expression pass over his face. He said a few parting words to a guest, then turned to me.
"Welcome to the Prancing Pony, Master--"
"His name's Strider," the boy supplied helpfully. "He's a Ranger."
I said nothing, seeing no reason to reveal my true identity as yet. Strider was, I supposed, marginally less insulting than Trotter. The bartender looked down at the boy. "Yes, I can see that, lad. Run along, now, and see what the other guests need."
"Yes, Father," the boy responded, and grinned at me cheekily before he moved off toward the center of the room.
"Master Strider," he turned to me. "What can we do for you?"
"You are the innkeeper?" I inquired.
"Aye, I am."
"I come from Engroth, at Fornost," I said, lowering my voice. He nodded, showing no surprise but looking very serious. "We have been out of touch with the guard at Tharbad too long, and wondered if you had heard news, or seen a messenger."
His face was still, carefully betraying nothing. "I have heard nothing. But if this is true it is grave news. If there is trouble at Tharbad, all Bree-land lies unprotected. We here rely on the Rangers to guard our borders from all manner of enemies."
"Engroth keeps his own counsel," I replied, not knowing what else to say as I knew nothing else. "I am merely sent to gather information. He knows his duty, do not doubt it."
He nodded. "I have known Engroth many years, and I know him to be a man of honor. If there is any way I can assist the Rangers, you have only to name it." His voice returned to a normal level. "Now sit, Master Strider, and be at ease a little while! I know your errand is urgent, but take some food and ale before you set out."
"I would be most grateful," I assured him, pulling a stool toward me and sitting down.
In less than an hour, my horse and I were on our way to the Sarn Ford. The innkeeper gave me his blessing but little else. I did not see the boy again. It was a clear day, and the sun shone brightly as it seldom did on the downs at Fornost. I had seen enough of ethereal mists to last me a lifetime, and I was glad of what little warmth the sunlight provided.
It was still cold, and my cloak was damp, and the wind of our passage chilled me as I rode on. Leaving the town of Bree, I grew more and more aware of my own vulnerability, riding alone through a land that might well lie open to attack, if the attack had not already come. Be prepared for battle. Engroth's words came back to me, and I was ever aware of my bow and quiver as they bounced against my back. Trusting the horse to keep to the road and not stumble, I let my eyes roam the bushes and trees alongside the road, searching for anything out of place, for any signs of unfriendly creatures. Often my hand strayed to the hilt of the sword buckled at my side.
Safe in my shirt pocket, the paper Engroth had given me remained a mystery, and I wondered often what instructions it contained. I did not doubt it gave orders to the commander of the Sarn Ford, as well as information as to what action Engroth himself would take. But what action that would be, and what enemy we hunted, I knew not.
Orcs were the most likely source of any disturbance at Tharbad, unless the Dunlendings had come this far North, and that seemed to me unlikely. I had fought against the orcs of the Misty Mountains before, and they were not an enemy I feared overmuch. In the lands between the Rivers Bruinen and Baranduin, the Rangers would have the advantage of the ground, while the enemy would be on territory that was unfamiliar. Still the troubling question remained--what had driven any enemy from East of the Loudwater to come west in sufficient force to neutralize a guard of Rangers? And what was their purpose here?
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