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Unto the ending of the world: 20. Captain
April 23 – May 4, 3019
The view from Weathertop was clear, and for as far as Halbarad could see the road was empty, as it had been on his way here. He had found Orc tracks leading north across the road the previous day, and while he was glad not to see more of them, he had expected that he might see some sign instead of the archers Rivendell was sending to Fornost. He shrugged as he made his way to a more sheltered spot further down. Perhaps the Elves would catch up with him the next day, but in truth, he would not mind if they did not just yet. Coming home had settled him somewhat, yet he welcomed the solitude of the Wild, even if his thoughts turned to Aragorn as much as to what he would find at Fornost and how to deal with the ruffians.
Halbarad laughed humourlessly as he realised that the place he had chosen to sleep must be the same dell that Aragorn and the hobbits had used the night they were attacked by the Ringwraiths. Perhaps he should find another spot? But the place itself did not feel evil, and he remained where he was. To his surprise he slept well, his rest disturbed by nothing more ominous than some pebbles digging into his ribs.
In the morning, there was still no sign of Elves or anyone else to be seen from Weathertop. At least it was good weather for travelling, and it was not long before Halbarad was on his way, heading north on the path that ran along the Weatherhills. He intended to turn west towards the Greenway only when he was far enough north to avoid both Bree and the Midgewater Marshes.
The day passed quietly, and as the sun was sinking towards the horizon, Halbarad started to look for a good place to stop for the night. He waited at the edge of a line of trees when he saw someone approaching in the distance; a Ranger, riding in haste. As the other noticed him and slowed down, he called out. "Greetings, Ranger. What news of the road?"
"Capt... my lord," the other said as he dismounted. "I am glad to find you here."
"Captain will do, Orleg," Halbarad replied, as he too got off his horse.
"Captain," Orleg responded, with a quick bow of his head. "The road is quiet from here to Fornost."
"Where are you headed?"
"Caras Dirnen, sir, carrying messages. The captains at Fornost are concerned that they have not yet had any answer to their message."
Halbarad doubted that 'concerned' was an accurate description of the captains' mood, but that displeasure went both ways. "There has been no news from Fornost since March."
"But a rider was sent weeks ago." Orleg looked worried. "At least that explains..." He fell silent as he reached for his pack.
"Tell me. Keep the written reports for Borlas in the Angle."
Orleg nodded, and after a short pause replied, "Bree is under siege. The ruffians that were already troubling the Bree-land before you went south were joined by about the same number of Dunlendings, some at least half Orc by the look of them."
Halbarad grimaced at the news; it was as bad as he had feared, though it did confirm where the group that Daeron had failed to stop at Tharbad had gone. "What else?"
"The ruffians are dug in around Bree and raid along the Greenway up to about ten miles north of the village. The farmers who still hold out will now shoot at any stranger they see. Some of our men were wounded that way. The ruffians destroy as much as they take. Farms have been raided and burned down."
"Our own? Sixteen dead and some badly wounded. There have been deaths among the Bree-landers too, but I do not know how many. The ruffians lost several tens, but there must still be close to two hundred and fifty left."
"Have there been messengers from Tharbad?"
"Two," Orleg replied. "One to warn us about the ruffians, and the other brought the news of the Chieftain's death." He paused, then added, "Sir? I ought to go on. What of the road to Caras Dirnen?"
"Clear," Halbarad replied, "Except for one Orc trail I saw nothing. Keep an eye out for a company of Elves coming this way, and warn them to avoid Bree. Tell Borlas to be ready to send another company to Fornost." Halbarad did not like having to ask for more men; the eastern companies were always hard-pressed, but they could not afford to lose Bree or the Shire, and he would need the extra strength if the situation was not resolved quickly.
"I will do so, Captain," Orleg said as he mounted his horse again.
Halbarad looked after the Ranger pensively as he rode away. He would do well to get to Fornost sooner rather than later, and with a sigh he too set off again. It was a bright evening and would be a clear night, and the path familiar enough that he could have walked it eyes closed.
It was two days more before he glimpsed the Greenway, winding away into the distance below him. Halbarad urged his horse forward; one of the Rangers guarding this stretch of the Road had no doubt seen him already, and he would be stopped soon.
Ah, there... He spotted movement in the undergrowth, and almost immediately a sentry stepped on to the road some distance away, signalling him to halt and dismount, with a second man approaching from the other side of the road.
"Who goes there?" the second Ranger called out, then before he could reply, "Oh, it is you, Captain." After a quick exchange of news Halbarad rode on; he should still make it to Fornost before the end of the day.
Night had fallen by the time Halbarad led his horse past the gatehouse of the ancient fort. There was little to indicate that castle and town were not abandoned until one stepped into the ruined keep's courtyard, and no intruder would make it this far unchallenged. Not that many outsiders would try to come here; few remembered what these ruins had once been, and even those that did, considered them haunted: Deadmen's Dike, a name of ill omen and a place where honest men had no business.
The Ranger who came up to take Halbarad's horse also directed him to the meeting hall, saying that the captains were already waiting for him. That did not bode well for their mood, Halbarad thought as he walked downstairs to what had once been a storage area. The original meeting hall had been in a part of the upper structure that had collapsed several hundred years ago.
The men in the dimly-lit room were gathered around the central table, bent over the maps that lay spread out on it, but all turned to face Halbarad as he entered.
"Captain. You took your time getting here," the Fornost captain, Marach, started angrily. "I sent to Caras Dirnen for help weeks back."
"You sent for help?" Halbarad held his gaze until Marach looked down. "There is no report from here in Caras Dirnen beyond the middle of March. Surely, for something so important, you sent more than one man?"
"No, just the one," Marach admitted, adding, "But an experienced message-rider."
As Halbarad did not reply – Marach knew as well as he did that the message should have been sent with at least two men – Marach went on, still sounding angry. "What else could I do? We were short of men already. I could not spare more messengers. All we knew here was what we heard from Tharbad; we had only just heard of the Chieftain's death, we had to deal with the Bree ruffians, and then when we sent to Caras Dirnen there was no answer..." With his anger deflated, he fell silent, then sighed. "But it seems the fault for that is mine. I am more than glad you are here now, Captain."
Halbarad walked over to look at the maps, nodding a terse greeting at the other Rangers. "I ran into Orleg near the Weatherhills and have already heard much from him, but give me the full situation now."
Marach quickly pointed out on the map where both Rangers and ruffians were, with the others occasionally interrupting to provide details of their own companies.
"Had you attacked here and circled around here, you could have pushed them away from Bree and back south nearer the Barrow-downs," Halbarad commented, marking the places on the map. Obviously, while the Rangers were not losing ground against the ruffians, they were not advancing either. "Have you done nothing more than hold position?"
"With all respect, sir," Baran, the lieutenant of the Barrowdowns company, replied, "But we could not attack in force without the Bree-landers finding out what the Rangers are; nor am I certain that would be a wise course."
Elatan now spoke for the first time, addressing Baran first and then turning to Halbarad. "We discussed that before. We are doing all we can without coming into the open, and the situation has not yet turned bad enough to do so without the Ca... without you here."
Halbarad gave him a sharp look as he started to reply, but then stopped again. He could not fault them for holding back. In their place, he too would have waited until the choice was between immediate, open action or having the Shire or Bree fall, before acting and revealing the purpose of the Rangers without his lord's awareness. Had Marach acted on his own, the Council would have said treason, no matter the circumstances; treason to reveal any of the secrets of the Dúnedain to outsiders: the purpose of the Rangers, the existence of Isildur's Heir, the location of the Angle. Even now, with Halbarad here to condone this course of action, the Council, and the people, were likely to take a dim view of it, though at least the Angle was yet hidden.
It was not even solely to protect Isildur's heirs or the safety of the Angle that the Rangers' work had so long been kept secret; they were few enough that it had always been the best way to perform their task. Not many people looked beyond the first impression of vagabonds, shiftless wanderers who seemed to make a living by hiring out as merchants' guards or doing odd jobs around farms, and it let them roam the whole of Eriador without questions being asked.
"We cannot afford to lose Bree or the Greenway, even if it means breaking the secrecy of the Dúnedain," Halbarad said. He liked it as little as the others did, but he saw no other option. "How many men can you find in addition to the ones already there?"
"Maybe another fifty or so," Marach replied after some thought.
"I can move the rest of my company south from Lake Nenuial," Elatan added.
"My company is already near Bree," Tavor said. "But will we have any backup from the east, Captain?"
"Not immediately," Halbarad replied, "But some archers from Rivendell should arrive soon, and I have asked Borlas to have a company standing by to join us as well if needed."
Tavor looked pleased at the news of the Elves joining them, but asked, "One company? So few?"
"The eastern companies are busy too, and I will not take more from them." Halbarad did not say it, but if it came to it, he could cancel the rest of the Grey Company's leave; he would rather not, but they would have had some rest at least. "Let us look at what messengers and scouts need to be sent out. I intend to march the day after tomorrow."
After the meeting with the captains, Halbarad was about to go to the kitchens to see if there was still some food to be had, when there was a knock on the door of his room. He tried to recall the name of the man who stood there; Nólimon... no, Vardamir, Nólimon's nephew, from Elatan's company.
"Captain?" Vardamir said, then fell silent.
"Yes, Vardamir, what is it?" he asked rather sharply.
The Ranger hesitated, taken aback by his irritated response, then took a deep breath and spoke. "Captain, would you please come with me? Some of the men would like a word or two."
Halbarad was inclined to refuse. "It has been a long day and it is late. Can this not wait?"
"No, sir. It will not take long, but it is important," the other insisted.
"Very well." Halbarad gave in and stepped outside to follow Vardamir, his curiosity piqued.
Vardamir quickly led him to a hall in the upper part of the castle, where about thirty Rangers were gathered already. Seeing their solemn expressions as they turned towards him, Halbarad had an idea now what this was about.
His suspicion was confirmed when Maethor, one of the older men present, stepped forward and spoke. "Captain, we wanted... that is, there are a few things we would like to say." Maethor hesitated. Halbarad indicated that he should go on, and after a deep breath, Maethor continued to speak. "Captain, all of us here have served directly with the Chieftain, and it was horrible when we heard that he had... had fallen. For what it is worth, sir, we share your grief, both for our fellow Ranger and for our lord."
Halbarad had noticed earlier that none had yet mentioned Aragorn to him, though he knew it was not indifference, but rather reticence and respect that restrained speech. For these men to speak meant much, and Halbarad was deeply touched by it. As he tried to collect his thoughts before replying, he saw that Marach and Elatan had quietly entered and joined their men. Maethor continued. "I also want to say, sir, that the Chieftain chose his successor well, both Captain and lord. Most of us have already served under your command, and it will be an honour to continue to do so."
The others nodded their approval at Maethor's words, and Halbarad waited until he had their full attention again before replying. "There is very little I can say to your words, except 'thank you'. Hard times are coming, alas, for the Enemy's war is not yet over, and it means much to know that you are whole-heartedly with me."
The next afternoon, sitting in the sun in a corner of the courtyard and watching the bustle as the garrison made its preparations, Halbarad felt at somewhat of a loss. Marach had everything in hand, and Halbarad had already checked on his horse and repacked his gear twice; there was little point in polishing Andúril again. As he wondered whether he should go inside and take another look at the maps of Bree, a scout rode into the courtyard.
"The Elves are here!" the Ranger had barely announced when they rode in behind him. Halbarad stood up, quickly counting how many there were; thirty, rather than twenty, he saw. Glorfindel had been generous; not surprising, given the importance of the road to the Grey Havens for Rivendell. As the Elves dismounted, Halbarad walked over to greet them.
"I am Hithaeron, in charge of this band," their leader introduced himself. "We were delayed slightly," he went on apologetically, "We found a troop of Orcs near the Road, and we had to deal with them before continuing our journey."
"Of course," Halbarad replied. That is one problem solved at least. "But be welcome now that you are here. One of my men will take you to the stables and once your horses are settled, to a hall where you will be served food and drink if you wish. We shall speak further after that."
The following morning, looking at the Rangers standing in the courtyard, Halbarad thought of the thousands upon thousands he had seen thrown against Minas Tirith by the Enemy. The few men he had gathered here were enough to deal with the ruffians, yet this was only a skirmish, not the real battle. Once Sauron's great attack came, all his Rangers and all others who were able to fight, and all the Elves in Rivendell would not be enough. Halbarad firmly pushed that thought out of his mind as he raised his hand to order the Rangers to march. He would deal with each battle as it came, not lie down in defeat before the death blow had been struck.
As the men filed out past him, it struck Halbarad that, strange as it was for the Rangers to openly march to war, and even with only about half of the men mounted and no livery, they made a fine warband. Though garbed similarly in greens and browns and greys, the only thing all wore in common was the rayed star holding their cloaks. Suddenly painfully aware of the plain pin on his own shoulder, Halbarad wondered what the men thought of it. He considered putting on Aragorn's star that even now sat in a pouch on his belt, yet a voice inside him still said No, not yet.
The men from Annúminas and Lake Nenuial caught up with them on the second day of the march, and Halbarad hoped to hear soon from those already in place around Bree. It was too early yet for confirmation from the Tharbad Rangers that they were in position on the Greenway south of Bree, but they and their fellows from Sarn Ford should be ready to do their part once battle was joined.
Halbarad did not expect they would meet their opponents in force even the next day. The ruffians held the road near Bree, but they were wary of venturing out further than the land they controlled, except in swift raids. There was still a danger of encountering their opponents' scouts, but the Elves, who were taking care of most of their own scouting, had not yet spotted any ruffians and reported that the land lay quiet. They were making good speed, though Halbarad had to take care to not let the riders get ahead. He had few enough men that he did not want to split his force.
As they were an hour or so into the third day of their march, a scout returned to the main group at some speed. Though the man signalled that there was no immediate danger, Halbarad's hand had strayed to Andúril almost without thought, and he noted that many of the others also checked their weapons. Good, he thought. They will be sharp for battle when we do find the ruffians.
"Captain, I found tracks about three miles or so ahead," the scout reported.
"A few days at most."
"Likely, but I only followed the trail for a short distance."
The Rangers had halted while Halbarad talked with the scout, and as Marach came over to find out what was going on, Halbarad turned to him. "I will take a few men to investigate. If you set up camp a mile or so west of here, there is still cover before the land becomes more open; and send some patrols further ahead."
Marach said he knew the place Halbarad had in mind, and that he would see to the patrols. "Will you be gone long, Captain?"
"That depends on what we find." Marach looked distinctly unhappy at the reply, but said nothing.
Apart from the scout, Urthel, Halbarad chose five more men to accompany him. As it was not far, they went on foot, running the first part of the distance. Once Urthel indicated that they were getting nearer the place where he had found the tracks, they slowed to a more cautious pace, following the scout's lead.
"Does anyone else smell burning?" Amlaith asked suddenly.
"Yes, but very faint," Halbarad said.
"The wind is turning. It is coming from ahead," Urthel added. "This is as far as I followed the trail."
They moved forward even more carefully now, and it was not too long before they were at the edge of a clearing, with a small house built into the hillside behind it, sheds and outbuildings scattered around it.
"Hobbits?" one Ranger asked. "This far from Bree?"
"Yes, they have a few farms around here," Urthel replied.
"Falassion, Urthel, hush," Halbarad said softly, but sharply. "We do not know if the place is empty."
Most of the outbuildings were at least partly burned, but as the house appeared undamaged, there might be survivors.
"Captain, come quickly!" one of the others, who had gone around the clearing slightly further, said urgently.
Edging closer to get a better look, Halbarad cursed under his breath as he saw the two arrow-pierced bodies lying close to the house; children, by the look of them. Vardamir was about to get up and break cover, but Halbarad held him back. "Take care. It may be a trap."
Vardamir halted reluctantly. "Shall I go round further to see if the area is clear?" Halbarad nodded and waved him off.
After the Rangers had made sure there were no ruffians in the vicinity, though Vardamir did find a trail heading away from the farm, they warily entered the clearing. Even if the only living thing to be seen outside was a lone chicken scratching about in the dirt, Halbarad tried to hold on to the hope that there might still be someone alive in the house.
Falassion now gestured for Halbarad to come over to one of the sheds. "I have found another of the hobbits," he said softly as Halbarad joined him. A small body was lying in the doorway.
Looking past the hobbit into the shed, Halbarad spotted another, larger unmoving shape in the dim interior, and stepped inside to look closer. With the blade from a broken scythe sticking from his chest, there was no doubt that the raider was dead.
"Dunlending," Falassion who had followed him, observed. "At least the little ones got one of the scum," he added with some satisfaction.
Reluctantly, Halbarad turned towards the house. "We should look inside as well," he said, as the others joined him.
The Rangers moved across the farm's inner yard to the house, and Halbarad went over to where the children were lying. As he had feared, they were dead; two boys, no older than about ten or twelve as far as he could tell. Heavy-hearted, he got up and led his men into the house.
Once inside, they split up to search quicker. Halbarad headed towards the kitchen with Urthel, moving in an awkward half-crouch to accommodate the low ceiling. Just as he discovered another dead ruffian in the kitchen, Amlaith, his face pale as death, came through from where Halbarad thought the sitting-room would be. "We found the family, Captain, all dead; gutted or their throats cut," he announced. As he spoke, he already turned around to the sink, and barely made it before he started retching.
It was close to nightfall by the time they were done burying the hobbits. Though he would have preferred leaving the ruffians to rot where they lay, Halbarad had ordered a grave dug for them as well. Leaving them as carrion was likely to attract wolves or bears, and this place was too near Bree to risk that.
Halbarad considered going back to the Rangers' camp, but he was certain that they were less than a day behind the remaining four or five ruffians; they should at least try to find their first camp before sending a patrol after them. His men agreed, and so he led a grim-faced patrol further along the trail the raiders had left behind. The ruffians were not light-footed, and their passage was easy to follow by the pale light of the Moon. They were also heading away from the Bree-land. Had they known the Rangers were approaching and had they tried to take what they must have thought would be easy pickings from the hobbits before fleeing?
Suddenly Halbarad could see the faint flicker of flames through the trees, at the same time that Urthel raised his hand.
"Campfire," the scout whispered. "I will try to get closer, and see if they have a sentry."
The others waited quietly for Urthel's return, though it was some time before he came back. "Four men, no one on guard," he said softly. "We can take them easily."
Afterwards, Halbarad thought that it had barely been a fight. Three of their opponents died before they even woke up, and though the fourth had stirred at the sound of the attack, Halbarad killed him before he could reach for a weapon.
He had considered taking a prisoner for questioning about the ruffians' position and numbers, but he doubted that they would have heard the truth before their own scouts found out the same information.
The sun had already risen by the time they returned to the Rangers' camp, and Halbarad joined Marach, the Elven captain and the seconds of the other companies with them to look at what their scouts and patrols had reported. Above all, it was clear the ruffians had fallen back at the approach of the Rangers. The other patrols had also found recently attacked farms; the Elves had been nearest to Bree, and Hithaeron reported that the ruffians' main position seemed to be close to the West-gate of the village, with smaller fortifications blocking the other gates. He confirmed that there were many half-Orcs among the ruffians. Another patrol, led by Elatan, had gone into the Chetwood to find out the situation around Archet. Elatan had also sent out men to the Rangers already in position around the Bree-land.
"We must not wait much longer," Marach said. "The longer we wait, the worse it will be for the villagers."
At least now that Marach knew he had his Captain's backing, he was quick to action, Halbarad thought. "We will advance tomorrow," he confirmed.
The next morning, Halbarad studied the makeshift fortifications the ruffians had put up. A frontal assault would be unwise, but while the barriers protected the ruffians, they also kept them in one place; and as Hithaeron pointed out with a rather feral smile on his face, they had reckoned without the reach of Elvish bows.
To Halbarad's relief, there had finally been a messenger from Daeron. The Tharbad company and the Sarn Ford men had been delayed by having to root out a small group of ruffians who had tried to set up an ambush near the Andrath. Daeron thought they would reach Bree that evening or early the next day.
Some thirty or so ruffians were holed up in the woods near Archet, and Halbarad sent half a company of Rangers, along with a few of the Elves, to safeguard the village and to stop the ruffians there from further raids.
The houses of Bree looked unharmed, though there was damage to dike and hedge near the gates. There were villagers up on the dike, keeping a close eye on both ruffians and Rangers.
"What do you have in mind now?" Elatan asked. "Attack?"
"Not yet. They are still too many, and as long as they hold their barriers, it would cost us to break through. We pick off as many as we can, and starve them out." With only what the ruffians had taken from the farms around Bree in their camp, it should not take long. More importantly, it was unlikely they had enough water to last them more than a day or two.
Over the next few days, the Rangers and the Elves made certain the ruffians could not stray far from their camp. Though they did try to break out several times, Halbarad suspected the attempts were mostly to test the strength of the Rangers' cordon. Yet he could not rule out that some ruffians had slipped away through the trees to join the ones near the other villages, or to escape completely.
In the grey pre-dawn light of the third day of the siege, Halbarad was pacing restlessly. Something had woken him up, but he could not work out what it was. All he knew was that he should go and take a look at the ruffians' camp. But first... he wondered as his hand brushed against the pouch that held Aragorn's star. Yes, it was time.
As he looked at the brooch gleaming palely in the dim light, Halbarad remembered the day Aragorn had received it from Dírhael. It had also been the day he himself had received his own star, the youngest to do so for many years, and the first to take it from Aragorn's hand. Aragorn's star had belonged to Arathorn before him, but not to Arador, whose star had been lost with him in the Wild.
Halbarad briefly let his hand linger as he pinned the star on his shoulder. There, he looked like a proper Ranger again, he thought with a grim smile, even if the days he was no more than that were gone. The feeling that had woken him up was still there, though, and he really ought to go look at the ruffians' barricades.
Though the Rangers' camp was still mostly quiet as he walked down to where the sentry nearest the village was standing, men were starting to wake up and one or two were already up and about. Maethor acknowledged Halbarad with a nod when he joined him at the sentry post, then after his gaze passed over the star, gave him a searching look.
Halbarad looked towards where the ruffians were; at first their camp seemed quiet too, as it should be at this hour of the morning, but then he saw that men were moving about inside. Maethor also noticed. "Captain? Shall I raise the alarm?" he asked.
"No, not yet. I do not think they intend to break out. They are all watching Bree."
"An attack on the village?"
"Yes," Halbarad said. That had to be the ruffians' intention, but when? While tradition favoured early morning for surprise attacks, it did not look as if they were about to attack immediately. A plan was starting to form in his mind. If the ruffians held off a while longer... "Keep an eye on them. I will rouse the camp, and send some more men over here. If they stir beyond their barricade, sound the alarm immediately."
Throughout the morning, Rangers moved into positions closer to the ruffians' camp. From their opponents' lack of reaction, Halbarad was certain the ruffians were so intent on their own plan that they had no attention to spare for the danger at their back.
In the afternoon, the ruffians began to leave cover and head closer to the West-gate. Halbarad signalled the Rangers to move in closer also, and settled back again to wait until most of the ruffians were in the open. He had a good overview from the spot he had chosen, near the gate and within sight of many of his men. It could not be long now.
Wait... what was that? He could not see what was going on, but there suddenly was a commotion inside the village gate. At the same time, shouts went up from the ruffians, and they rushed towards the gate.
"Now!" Halbarad shouted, as he raised Andúril high, the light reflecting off the blade with a sudden flash, and leapt forward from where he had lain in hiding.
The ruffians swiftly found themselves caught between the Rangers and Bree's defences. Some tried to scale the dike around the village, but the first few fell to the Elves and the archers among the Rangers, with the rest kept at bay by the defenders of the village.
Though the ruffians fought boldly, it was not long before Halbarad knew the battle was going his way. Not that it was done; their opponents now attempted to regroup after the first confusion, but as long as the Rangers held steady and kept the ruffians back, the battle was theirs. By the end of the afternoon, there were only a few small groups of ruffians still offering resistance, though they proved fierce opponents.
This one was certainly dangerous, Halbarad thought as he observed his latest adversary. Unlike many of the ruffians he did not wield his sword as if it were a cudgel, but appeared to know how to use a blade. Halbarad had already had to parry several strikes, rather than ending the fight in one, perhaps two exchanges. He did have the measure of his opponent, and waited for the other to make his next move. Now! There it was. The ruffian stepped forward, feinting first left, then right, finally committing to the left as Halbarad moved aside to bring him off-balance, letting what was intended as a killing blow slide harmlessly off Andúril. The ruffian recovered quicker than Halbarad expected, and caught him with a glancing hit on his leg, just before Halbarad finished his own move with a swing that cut deep into his opponent's throat.
Halbarad stepped away from the sudden spray of blood as the ruffian went down and looked around to see how the fight was going. Only a few of their enemies were still standing and it was not long until the last of these were also slain.
At last, Halbarad thought. He quickly wiped the worst of the day's gore off Andúril before sheathing it. As he did so, he noticed that the cut on his leg was still bleeding. He had thought it no more than a nick when it happened, but with the rush of battle fading, he was acutely aware of it, as well as of the various smaller cuts and bruises he had collected in the course of the afternoon. The wound did not appear to be deep, but it would require some attention, and he had best see to that first. On his way to the queue for the healers, he directed Elatan and Marach to make a start on tearing down the ruffians' fortifications.
"What have you done to yourself this time?" the healer asked as he sat down.
"Ciriondil..." Halbarad started with an exasperated sigh.
"Was the blade poisoned?" Ciriondil went on, examining and cleaning the wound as he spoke.
"I hardly stopped to ask," Halbarad replied, biting back a curse as the other used the distraction of their conversation to jab a needle into his leg for the first stitch; he had forgotten about that trick of Ciriondil's. "But I doubt it; this was a regular Dunlending, not one of the half-Orcs."
"Looks clean enough," Ciriondil agreed as he continued working. "See me again tomorrow morning, and take it easy for a few days. No riding, no fighting."
Yes, mother, Halbarad thought, but wisely said nothing. Ciriondil knew his business, and while he could be relied on not to return men to duty too soon, he did not coddle them unnecessarily either.
Once the healer was done with him, Halbarad called over Marach and turned towards Bree. Hithaeron also came with them.
"Hail the gate!" Marach called out as they neared the village. The three kept a respectful distance until someone climbed up to the roof of the gate lodge and indicated that they could come closer. Halbarad could see several hobbits among the villagers close to the gate holding bows trained on them as they came nearer.
Soon the gate opened and a group of about twenty men of Bree – some armed with swords or spears, but most wielding pitchforks and scythes; and was that Butterbur clutching a hatchet? – approached cautiously.
"Is this wise?" Hithaeron whispered at the sight of the armed villagers coming towards them.
The Elf was as tense as the villagers, Halbarad realised; likely enough that among Men he had only ever had dealings with Rangers, and was now feeling out of his depth. "Just remain calm," he replied just as softly, hoping he was right in his reassurances. "They are wary of us, but it will not come to violence."
There was some discussion among the Bree-landers who had ventured out, but finally the mayor took another few steps forward, with Butterbur and two others alongside.
"Greetings, Master Rushlight," Halbarad spoke to the mayor, who still appeared wary and somewhat hesitant about how to approach them. "The ruffians have been defeated. Bree shall be safe again."
"And will your lot be taking the place of those other bandits in front of our gate to 'protect' that safety?" Cadman Crackwillow, the village's smith, started with a sneer before the mayor had a chance to speak.
Before Halbarad could respond, the smith was hushed by his companions. Well, Crackwillow was a hothead, and he had never made a secret of his opinion of Rangers, though he had not objected to taking their coin for his work either. Perhaps he should have brought Hunthor along, Halbarad thought. It would certainly have shaken the smith to know he had kin among those he so despised.
The mayor seemed to have found the courage to speak – probably because none of the Rangers had struck down the smith for his words, Halbarad thought – and said, "We are of course grateful for your help in getting rid of these villains, and will be glad to repay you for your effort."
"We do not require reward for our work," Halbarad replied sharply.
"Then it appears we may have been wrong about you," the mayor went on smoothly, not hiding his relief that no recompense was demanded, though the smith still looked sceptical. Next, the mayor asked, with a broad gesture at the Rangers behind Halbarad, "Is this what you Rangers have always done?"
Halbarad nodded slowly, suddenly reluctant to speak. The secret of the Rangers' task had been kept for a thousand years, though from how quickly the mayor had reached the right conclusion he wondered if it had ever been wholly a secret. But it was done, and he could only hope his judgement that it had been necessary was right.
Now Halbarad noticed Butterbur looking at him more closely. "Hey, did you not come into the Pony with that Strider at times?" the innkeeper asked. "We have not seen him around for a while, not since he went off with that group of Shire hobbits last year. Odd business that, and just before the troubles started, too. I wonder what happened to any of them."
"Strider is dead," Halbarad interrupted gruffly.
"Sorry to hear it. He was a decent enough sort for a Ranger. Always had a good tale if he was feeling talkative. Not that he could not be more than a bit... ah... intimidating... at... at times," Butterbur said, his rush of words turning to a stammer under Halbarad's gaze.
And the tales he would tell in Bree were not even the half of it, Halbarad thought. Still, there were worse ways to be remembered, and Aragorn's willingness to entertain the common room with a tale or two had got them into the Pony more than once when the landlord would probably have preferred to refuse entry to such ragged vagabonds as they. Halbarad could scarcely put all blame for its scorn and suspicion on Bree, when the Rangers had themselves sought secrecy and disguise.
Late that evening, shivering as he quickly washed with water from a nearby brook, Halbarad thought that he ought to have demanded a hot bath as his reward from the villagers. Even so, it was a relief to get rid of the grime from the battle.
Earlier, Halbarad had joined Ciriondil and the other healer on their round of the camp to see the men; they had lost ten, and several of the wounded might not make it, the scout Urthel among them. He shook his head at that. It was not just losing good men, but this whole situation had already come close to costing the Rangers a full company. Nor were they done with the ruffians, as they would still need to hunt down the ones that had run.
The Rangers' camp was restless throughout the night, with the ruffians who had got away making several attempts to get at their supplies and horses. Around midnight there was a disturbance and noise from the village too, but that at least did not seem to be an attack; the Rangers who went over to investigate were told by the villagers on guard at the gate that it did not concern them.
The next morning, several patrols rode out to look for the ruffians that were still on the loose, and while Halbarad would have preferred to join them in their hunt, Ciriondil had repeated his ban on riding. And while his leg was painful this morning, he could get about without too much of a limp, but Halbarad had to admit some rest would not go amiss. Hopefully, he would not have to stay here too long. Marach and the other captains should be capable to deal with the aftermath, and the sooner he returned to Caras Dirnen and met with the Council, the better.
At least he had no captives to deal with. A few of their opponents had attempted to yield, but they had been slain by their own fellows before they could throw down their weapons. In a way, it was probably for the best. Having seen the carnage on the farms that had been attacked, Halbarad doubted he would have spared any of the ruffians, even had they surrendered.
These Dunlendings – especially with the half-Orcs among them – had hardly been hillfolk driven to raiding by a failed harvest or disease in their herds. Saruman may have misled them into following him at first, but they had continued on this path on their own. Halbarad wondered how many of the ones they fought here had already been granted mercy once by the Rohirrim after the attack on the Westfold and the Hornburg.
And that thought led to yet another thing that worried Halbarad. There was still much he would need to find out about Saruman's dealings in the North. He had heard from Aragorn there was pipeweed from the Shire in Isengard. How and where had that been brought across the river? Not at Tharbad, or the Rangers would have known about it. Was it merely coincidence that the wizard's followers had headed here, or had they known they would find either allies or easy pickings? Wizards, Halbarad cursed in thought. Could any of them be trusted? He was still unwilling to consider Gandalf too deeply, but Saruman too had seemed an ally for years.
Halbarad was distracted from his thoughts by Maethor approaching with some Bree-landers, who had come to help the Rangers in digging a pit to bury the dead ruffians. The Rangers who had fallen had already been laid to rest near the crossing of the Greenway and the East Road. One of the villagers said that the mayor wanted to speak with him and Halbarad replied he would come to the village later in the morning. First, he should speak to Daeron about clearing the remains of the bridge at Tharbad.
Daeron proved easy to find, as he was already waiting for Halbarad. "I have been thinking on what you said," he started. "Tharbad will be one of the first places under attack when the Enemy comes north."
Halbarad nodded. "That is my thought also. Tharbad and the mountain passes."
"Tharbad cannot hold long as it is now."
That judgement Halbarad could only agree with, but he waited to hear what Daeron had in mind.
"I would ask for more men if I thought that would help to hold the river crossing." Daeron smiled grimly as he went on. "No, I know you do not have enough men at hand. I have another idea. I do not know if it is doable or not, but if we can clear the ruins of the bridge from the water..." He stopped as he saw Halbarad's approving nod. "You had this in mind already?"
"Yes, and I am glad to find you in accord. After the Council, I will see to starting the work as soon as possible." It would not stop the Enemy crossing Greyflood, but it should slow him down if he had to build boats or a temporary bridge to get his armies across the river.
After speaking with Daeron, Halbarad sought Tavor and Marach to accompany him for the meeting with the Bree-landers. They were met at the gate by the mayor and the smith. Neither of the men of Bree said much as they walked through the village, and the Rangers followed in silence as well. Though the streets were empty, Halbarad spotted more than a few people watching warily from inside their houses.
They crossed the village's main square towards the road that led to the Pony. Halbarad glanced at the great oak tree that stood there, then looked closer. Was that... ? Yes, there were two bodies dangling from one of its branches. As the other Rangers stopped to look, the Bree-landers halted as well.
The smith spat on the ground before he spoke. "Ferny and Goatleaf. We caught them trying to open the gate to the ruffians. Turns out the filthy traitors were helping them all along. Got the truth out of them last night and gave them what they had coming." Crackwillow looked grimly pleased.
The hangings must have been the disturbance the Rangers had heard in the village during the night. Halbarad would have liked to question these two himself, but he understood the villagers' desire for swift justice.
"Helping them?" Marach asked. "In what way?"
"Telling them where the most prosperous farms were," the mayor replied. "Also when and where the village watch were going to be out trying to protect people."
"Taking their share of the spoils," the smith added grimly. "They got off easy for all they did."
As they reached the Prancing Pony, the mayor indicated that the Rangers should wait at the arch leading into the courtyard, while he himself led the smith to a spot a small distance away, just out of hearing. There appeared to be some disagreement between the two, with Crackwillow shaking his head in denial several times as the mayor spoke to him. Finally, the smith cast a glowering look at the Rangers before walking off to leave the mayor standing on his own.
The mayor looked as if he was about to say something upon rejoining the three Rangers, but settled for a shrug as he led them into the inn. Inside, he took Halbarad and his companions to one of the private rooms off the Common Room, where the group was joined by two hobbits, Porto Brockhouse, the mayor of Staddle and Will Sandheaver, a farmer, also from Staddle. Butterbur sat down with them as well, closing the door before he did.
Glancing at the Bree-landers, Halbarad wondered if more than soothing them could come of this meeting. Even if they no longer faced the smith's surly mood, Butterbur's seemingly permanent look of stunned disbelief, and the mayor of Staddle who twitched and ducked his head every time he thought one of the Rangers was looking at him, made it clear the villagers were still wary of them. But perhaps no more was required now; he could not expect centuries of distrust among the villagers to disappear overnight.
Master Rushlight spoke first. "I would like to thank you and your men again for getting rid of those ruffians. The Bree-land would surely have been lost without your help."
The mayor of Staddle spoke as well, turning to Tavor, whom he seemed to find the least intimidating of the three Rangers. "But why do you do what you do, if, as you said, it is not for reward?"
Halbarad noted the nods of agreement from the other Bree-landers as the hobbit spoke. It surprised him that the question had not been asked before. He held back, curious what Tavor would say, taking the opportunity to surreptitiously rub at the cut on his leg.
"It is our duty," Tavor said, after casting a quick glance at Halbarad to see if he should reply or whether Halbarad preferred to do so himself.
"Duty? Like the King's Men used to do?" Master Brockhouse asked, eyes wide with wonder.
"That is what we are," Tavor replied laconically, to the hobbit's even greater amazement.
"Then there is still a King?" the hobbit went on.
Halbarad could not help flinching at the question. He noticed that, though the other Bree-landers were watching the exchange between Tavor and the hobbit, Butterbur had his eyes on him; the innkeeper looked away as soon as he saw that Halbarad was aware of his scrutiny.
"No," Tavor answered tersely, his tone forestalling further questions.
The Bree-landers mulled on this for a short while, until the second hobbit spoke, addressing the two mayors as much as the Rangers. "And what happens now? This talk of duty is admirable, but how do we know you will keep to your task, and that we will be able to work our land in peace?"
"That would be my question too," Master Rushlight said, turning to Halbarad. "Are we truly free of these ruffians?"
"Some are still at large," Halbarad replied, "But we will maintain our watch, and try to keep them from your lands." That much at least he could promise; how Bree would fare once the Enemy attacked was something he was glad he did not have to consider now. One battle at a time, he reminded himself.
The mayor looked troubled. "And that is all you intend for Bree? In all honesty, though you do have our deepest gratitude for your aid, all we want is to live our lives in peace, free from the fear of those ruffians, and free from interference by outsiders."
"I assure you again, Master Rushlight," Halbarad replied, trying to keep his irritation out of his voice, "We have no interest in the running of Bree, and will not interfere with you." Was there anything that would convince the villagers that the Rangers had no designs on the Bree-land? Perhaps he should have asked for reward; it seemed that the villagers would have understood that better than the truth. But no, the time for subterfuge was past. Meanwhile, he still had to deal with the mayor. In the first flush of victory, the man had been willing to accept his reassurances, but now he seemed to have turned as mistrustful as the smith.
To Halbarad's surprise it was not Master Rushlight who spoke next, but Butterbur who turned to address the mayor. "Robin, I expected it from Cadman, but you are being even more of an ass than he was. These Rangers have helped us out of a tight situation when they did not have to; some of them even died, and the least you could do is to show some proper gratitude, not act as if you do not trust them not to turn around and rob us themselves."
The mayor appeared taken aback at Butterbur's words, and though he gave a snort that matched his sceptical expression, his next words to Halbarad were conciliatory. "I can only admit that we have been wrong in the way we looked at you, and offer you my apologies, Master Halbarad. I know Bree has not always treated the Rangers very well, but we did not know that you were... well, had we known, we would have been more welcoming. I can promise you that there will be an end to your people being turned away from the village."
"I am glad to hear that, Master Rushlight," Halbarad replied. Welcome as the mayor's words were, Bree's prejudices would be slow to disappear, no matter what was said here. Harry Goatleaf had only been one in a long succession of gatekeepers who had not been welcoming to Rangers. Something that was as surprising as it was welcome was finding Butterbur defending the Rangers.
Halbarad wondered how long-winded the mayor was going to be. With his wounded leg starting to pain him from sitting still for so long, he wanted to get up and pace and he had to be careful not to fidget. At least it seemed he was not the only one who was less than patient, he thought as he saw Will Sandheaver suppressing a yawn. The hobbit farmer caught his eye and looked away with an embarrassed grin.
As if Master Sandheaver's yawn had been a signal, Butterbur stood up and left the room. Halbarad could hear him speak softly to someone outside, but too low to be overheard. For one moment, his suspicion was aroused, and he tensed as he looked around the room. Marach and Tavor clearly had similar thoughts for, though neither moved except to watch Butterbur leave, Halbarad knew both were ready should they be attacked.
Butterbur was back almost immediately. "We will certainly need a reliable gatekeeper," he said. "Who would have believed Harry was betraying us all the while? Everyone knew he must have some funny business going on, him and Bill, buying up pipeweed and other things and selling them on to who knows where. We could all see that they were both doing better than they should have been, but betraying their own folk all that time?" The innkeeper shook his head as the other Bree-landers voiced their agreement, and with nothing untoward happening, Halbarad forced himself to relax again.
"Speaking of pipeweed," Will Sandheaver said, "We will be lucky not to lose this year's harvest, unless the weather stays dry. Many of the plants have already come down with the rot, and they are barely above the ground."
Tavor looked openly worried at that news, and Halbarad tried to remember how long it had been since he had last been able to sit down for a smoke. Oh, of course, the Hornburg on the way south; that was where he had run out of pipeweed. All the same, he was not too concerned with pipeweed – it was a luxury and they could do without if they had to, but if other crops failed, not only would there be hunger in the North, it would also mean that he would not be able to send anything to Gondor should they need it.
'Who will come to trade for pipeweed, even if it does grow?" Butterbur complained, disturbing Halbarad's line of thought. "There has hardly been any traffic through Bree this spring, and if that does not improve, it will be a lean year, even if the harvest turns out good. My business is already slow, and not even the Dwarves are travelling." He watched Halbarad expectantly.
"I can hardly conjure up Dwarves or other travellers," Halbarad replied, sharper than he had intended. He could scarcely say now that it was likely there would be traffic going south as soon as Gondor... There was no reassurance in that, and any benefit Bree would have from such trade would be short-lived. Before he could say aught else, there was a knock on the door, and all three Rangers tensed, ready to draw sword or knife.
Butterbur stood up to open the door. Two of the Prancing Pony's serving men entered to set out a somewhat belated midday meal. Halbarad could only smile at the exclamations of delight from both hobbits; still, the meal was indeed welcome, as was the mug of ale served with it. One other thing was certain as well, he admitted ruefully to himself; it was not just the Bree-landers who were more distrustful than they perhaps ought to be.
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