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In the Hands of the Enemy: 8. A Battle of Wills
Baranuir laughed. "Why do you think you're dead?"
Aragorn frowned. It seemed to him that death was a reasonable corollary to blacking out with an enraged Dunlending's arm across one's throat and waking up talking to a ghost.
"Because you are," he answered hesitantly, hoping that this would not come as a surprise to Baranuir. He had grown accustomed to seeing the boy in his dreams, but this time the nightmare was different. Always before, it began in an orc cave, with him leading eighteen men and two Elves into a trap, and ended with him kneeling over the body of a boy whose death had finally been a mercy. But the face that smiled at him now was marred by neither struggle nor agony. It was the face of one either untouched by death, or forever carried beyond its grasp.
Baranuir's unblemished face took on a thoughtful expression. "And what is my death to you?"
Aragorn swallowed his grief and faced his shame. "It was my fault."
"Halbarad was right. You shouldn't have been there. You were too young, and though you fought bravely you were no warrior." He shook his head. "But too many warriors were gone."
"To the Shire?"
He nodded. "Most of them."
"It was you who sent them there."
"I had to."
No. Not even Halbarad knew that.
"Why is the Shire so important?" Baranuir pressed. "What did Mithrandir tell you about the Shire?"
Aragorn frowned. "Mithrandir?"
"Gandalf," Baranuir patiently clarified, not understanding the source of his confusion. "Did Gandalf tell you to post the Rangers at the borders of the Shire?"
Aragorn considered the question. The answer was no, not exactly. Gandalf hadn't told him to do anything at all, he never did. To know Gandalf was ever to wander paths of one's own choosing, only to find oneself arriving at destinations of Gandalf's.
Baranuir was still looking at him, expecting an answer.
Aragorn chose the easiest question, the one he could answer truthfully. "Gandalf loves the Shire. That's why it's important to him."
Something was not right here, something that Aragorn could not put his finger on. He looked at Baranuir skeptically. "How do you know the name Mithrandir? The Rangers don't call him that."
Annoyance flashed across Baranuir's features for just an instant, but then he laughed in good-natured defeat, and abandoned Aragorn to oblivion.
When Aragorn awoke, he was instantly certain of two facts: He hurt way too much to be dead, and he was lying on the cold ground again. Beyond that, very little was immediately discernable through a sickening miasma of aches, fever, and a strange, lingering muddiness that seemed to clog his mind and senses.
After his initial attempt at moving his head left him clutched by waves of nausea, he lay still to ride it out, listening. A hollow silence told him that he was not outside, and the damp air carried a whiff of woodsmoke, the odors of rotten wood and mildew, and the fainter notes of grain dust and horse-leather. When finally he cracked his eyes open, they slowly focused on an unpainted plank wall. Something metal rattled as he moved slightly, and he looked down to see a chain, attached at one end to manacles on his wrists, and at the other to a wooden hitching post sunk into the floor a foot from his head. He got an elbow under himself and grabbed hold of the post to pull himself up. Propping his back against the solid support, he looked around to get his bearings. The room was small and dark, and from the dingy clutter of barrels and crates occupying most of the floor space, appeared to be a storeroom. Gray light filtered through the chinks in three of the walls, and by the sharp angle of the roof and the haphazard construction he guessed it was a lean-to attached to another structure.
He glanced down at his waist. His weapons were gone, of course, along with his outer garments. His boots, too, he noticed with dismay and some surprise. They didn’t usually think of that. He found himself somewhat flattered at still being considered a flight risk, his present appearance surely not being far from the half-dead carcass of Halbarad’s recent oratory outpouring.
His hand was in agony, but there was no point in attempting to remove his glove to examine it. The obvious swelling, the awkward cant of his fingers, and the spike of pure agony radiating from the point of impact were proof enough of the damage Teburic had done.
The manacles themselves were in decent condition, as was the short chain attaching them to the post, and neither was likely to be defeated without tools, but a glance about the room revealed nothing which could be put into use as such. A less technical strategy would have to be employed for the time being, one that his mother used to have a term for. She called it "elbow grease". He sighed, and made a practice tug at the post.
He’d been working on it for only a few minutes, with no result except to worsen his headache and break a sweat, when he heard the metallic scrape of a bar being pulled from the door. He lay back down, feigning unconsciousness. Light steps entered the room and stopped near his head. Something was set down next to him, and then he heard the unmistakable sound of a cloth being wrung out. Rolly, he realized, even before he felt the cool dampness against his forehead.
“Strider,” the boy whispered. “It’s me, Rolly. Can you hear me? It’s all right. He’s asleep, he’s not here.”
Aragorn opened his eyes and sat up abruptly when he saw the condition of the boy's face, biting down the nausea induced by the quick movement. “Rolly, what did he do to you?” he whispered, reaching his bound hands toward the boy but afraid to touch the damaged flesh for fear of causing more pain.
The boy shook his head, eyes averted. “I'm all right. He just beat me, that’s all. He was angry that Dergren and Kergelen were dead.” The boy looked up with uncertainty. “He doesn’t know that I was going to go with you. I told him that after you killed them you made me go with you, is that all right?”
Aragorn nodded absently. “Tell him whatever you need to. Where are we?"
"It's a cabin that he keeps for his men that rob along the river road and the Greenway. This is the storage shed."
"How far are we from where he found us?"
"We rode for about two hours. I don't know how far."
"Is Teburic alone?"
The boy nodded. "When we got here he opened a barrel of wine and got drunk."
"Rolly,” he said, grasping the boy’s arm with his good hand and leaning close. “Do you know where Teburic keeps the keys to these manacles?”
The boy nodded. “On his belt.”
Aragorn sighed and bit back a curse. "All right, then. You have to run, do you understand me? Run away and get help.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “I can’t!” he whispered.
“You must,” Aragorn said flatly. He glanced toward the door. "Go quickly, and don’t look back. If you can find any Rangers, tell them what happened and send help.”
“But I can’t leave you!” the boy cried, his thin face pinched with anguish.
“You must,” Aragorn said quietly. “Now go.”
The boy cast him one last, pleading, protesting glance. “Go,” Aragorn repeated, waiting for the boy to disappear out the door before turning his attention back to the post.
Teburic did not sleep long. The boy had been gone barely a half hour, by the Ranger’s reckoning, when the huge Dunlending appeared in the open doorway, scanning the cramped interior of the lean-to. “Where is that boy?” he demanded, closing the distance to the Ranger with surprising speed and yanking him up by his shirt.
“Why don’t you forget about the boy?” Aragorn said, stifling a gasp as the thief-lord’s jerk pulled the iron manacle tight against his injured hand. “You’ve got me now.”
Teburic’s dark eyes narrowed, engaging Aragorn’s grey ones just a few inches from his face. “But that's the best part, Strider. I've got you both. Don't worry, we'll have plenty of time to get acquainted later. But right now, I have a little rabbit to hunt.” He shoved Aragorn roughly back to the floor and turned to leave. “You talked him into it, didn’t you?” he accused, turning back from the doorway. “You told him to run.”
The Dunlending came a step closer and heaved a heavy boot into Aragorn’s side, evoking a choked gasp. “Think about that for a while,” he said. “He won’t get far. And when I come back with him, we’ll get down to business.”
The light filtering through the cracks in the walls had deepened to a shade barely distinguishable from black, and with dusk had come a cooling breeze that brought a small measure of comfort to Aragorn in his labors to dislodge the timber post sunk into the floor. The slight whiff of air drew the heat from his sweat-soaked hair and shirt, and soothed his pounding head, yet exhaustion and fever were gaining on him again, and he did not know how much longer he could continue. He paused his methodical tugging and gave the post a final frustrated yank, confirming that two hours of pushing and pulling had so far resulted in nothing more than a bruised shoulder and another aching hand. If only he could find something with which to dig….
Aragorn released his grip on the post and gingerly leaned his shoulder against it, flexing the muscles of his left hand to ease the cramps. He avoided even looking at the other one, a swollen, misshapen claw beneath the taut leather of his glove, too painful even to touch. He wiped the sweat from his brow, feeling shudders creep into his muscles already as the chills began again. He rested his forehead against the rough wood and closed his aching eyes. There was little chance that he could defeat the massive Dunlending now, even should he escape his bonds. His only hope was that the boy had escaped.
The snort of a horse startled him to alertness, and a man’s heavy footsteps again approached the door to the lean-to. The bar was pulled away, and this time Aragorn didn’t bother to feign unconsciousness. Looking up at the doorway as it filled with the massive bulk of Teburic, Aragorn’s heart sank as he saw what the thief-lord grasped before him, suspended between meaty fists – the unconscious form of Rolly.
“Reap what you sow, Ranger,” Teburic said, heaving the boy’s limp form across the length of the lean-to. The boy landed in a crumpled heap on a pile of grain sacks in the corner and did not move.
Aragorn tensed as the man approached him, aware that he was nearly helpless but unable to go down without a fight. He raised his bound hands in self-defense, but the bear of a man merely stood over him, shaking his head, his bulbous face twisted with amusement. “Hard to believe such a scrawny mongrel as you took out two of my best men,” he said. “When we’re through with business, you’ll pay for that. But first, I have a job to do.”
Aragorn ignored the threat. This was actually a promising development. The man was not as undisciplined as he initially appeared, and a man capable of delaying gratification and setting priorities might be a man he could deal with. "What do you want with me?"
Teburic folded his arms. “Glad you asked,” he said congenially. “It’s always better when men can conduct their business in a civil manner, don't you agree?” He leaned over. “Tell me what all your Rangers are doing on the Shire borders.”
“Protecting it,” Aragorn answered. “It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.”
“Ah, but not quite, is it?” Teburic retorted. “The guard was doubled some years back. Why?”
“Whom are you working for?”
Aragorn’s answer was a kick in the ribs. “First lesson,” Teburic said calmly, as Aragorn doubled over. “I ask the questions.”
Aragorn managed to straighten and faced the Dunlending eye to eye. “You might as well kill me and be done with it."
“An excellent suggestion, and believe me, a very tempting one,” Teburic said, leaning close enough for Aragorn to count his pores. “There’s only one little problem with it. If you don't talk, I don’t get paid. And I have no intention of not getting paid. I hope I’ve made myself clear.” He knelt down and stared Aragorn in the face. “One last chance to do this the easy way. What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?”
“Tell me who wants to know about Gandalf and I will make it worth your while,” Aragorn replied, an instant before a backhanded slap hurled him face-first into the floor. As he lay stunned, Teburic’s knee drove into his back again, crushing his chest against the floor. As he lay helpless, his ankles were bound together, and then Teburic stood up.
Aragorn rolled to his side. "You will never win,” he whispered, craning his neck to meet the thief-lord in the eye.
“We’ll see about that,” Teburic responded. He reached behind him and took up a long staff of wood.
Aragorn ducked his head in an instinctive attempt to protect his face and curled himself inward, managing to set his jaw against the pain before the first blow struck. Eyes tightly clenched, he bit back the urge to cry out as blows landed rhythmically across his back and legs. When finally it stopped, he lay trembling, steeling himself for the resumption of a torment whose force, he began to realize, had been carefully calculated to weaken him without inflicting mortal harm.
“Gandalf,” the Dunlending said simply, lowering the staff and waiting while the Ranger’s gasps slowly subsided. When there was no response, he leaned over until his heavy face loomed inches from Aragorn’s. “Gandalf,” he repeated. “What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?”
Had Aragorn been in a slightly less dire position, he would have laughed. He had asked Gandalf the very same question, many decades ago, when his friendship with the wizard was new and he had yet seen little of the evils of Men and darker creatures. To an ambitious, fearless - say it, reckless, youth, fairly ravenous with the hunger for adventure and exploration, the Shire and all of its incurious, simple folk had seemed incomprehensibly quaint, provincial, and, well, boring. What possible interest could anyone have in a pastoral land populated by such silly, self-interested creatures as hobbits when there were wild, unseen lands to roam, nasty evil creatures to slaughter, and newly-revealed destinies to explore?
“Someday, you will understand,” Gandalf had answered him then, with a knowing smile that Aragorn would come to know well over the coming years. And indeed, years later, when Aragorn had quite had his fill of the evil deeds of Men and fouler creatures, he did.
What is Gandalf’s interest in the Shire?
Though Aragorn had no intention of answering the question in any fashion that would satisfy Teburic, he found himself mesmerized by its very absurdity, and horrified by its implications. Somehow, he and Gandalf had made a grave mistake. Their earnest and well-meaning efforts to protect the Shire and its terrible secret had somehow unwittingly drawn unwanted attention to both. Aragorn drew small comfort from the fact that the man who stood before him had as yet no more conception of the reason for Rangers' presence at the Shire than he had of Gandalf's love for it.
“You will never understand,” Aragorn answered, managing to take one full breath before the blows began to fall again.
The interrogation went on until he passed out from the pain, and when consciousness returned, he found that the fever which had been toying with him had at last come on in full force, burning through his scalp and leaving him tearing at the shirt that seemed to wrap him in hot coals. He tossed helplessly in the restraints, hoping desperately with fading awareness that the rising tide of fever toxins in his bloodstream would kill him quickly, silencing him and forever taking his secrets out of reach, before cloying delirium could loosen his tongue.
Hope for such an outcome was short-lived. In his fevered half-awareness, Aragorn felt hands take hold of his shoulders and lift him, supporting his head as something was pressed against his lips. “Don't go dying on me, Strider,” a familiar harsh voice whispered in his ear. “We haven't even started yet.” He tried to turn his head away, but an iron grip fastened on his jaw and held him still as bitter liquid was poured between his lips. His mouth was held closed and his head held still until he swallowed reflexively to keep from choking. As soon as he gained his breath, the process was repeated. When it was done, Aragorn was laid back down on the floor, too weak and disoriented to move.
Some time had passed, it seemed, when the fever seemed to lift like a fog, and Aragorn opened his eyes to calm lucidity. There was something heavy, stiff, and smelly on top of him. A horse blanket. He pushed it off and sat up slowly. His head felt fuzzy and his muscles were weak but the incessant pounding was gone, for the moment. It was night. He searched the shadows and saw a boy-sized form huddled against the far wall. He tried to move toward it but was held back by the manacles. Leaning as close as he could, he whispered, “Rolly.”
“Strider?” came an answering whimper. “I’m sorry. I got lost, he caught me - ”
“Shh,” he answered. “It’s all right. Can you come over here?”
The huddled shadow obediently crawled over to him.
“Where did he hurt you?” Aragorn asked, reaching to examine the boy for injuries.
“He just hit me. He does that a lot,” the boy answered, as if that were an answer. “My head hurts.”
“Do you feel dizzy? Do you feel like you have to throw up?”
“No,” the boy answered. “My head just hurts. What do we do now?”
Aragorn sighed. Teburic was no fool. The boy would not be given another opportunity to run, and it would soon occur to the Dunlending to use him as leverage, if it hadn't already. Two prisoners could be used against each other, but in this case, he was the only one with something to offer. The stakes had just been raised. He turned back to the wooden post. “I need to get this post out of the ground. Does Teburic keep anything in here that you can use to dig? Knives, tools, anything?”
The boy thought for a moment. “There are some tools he uses to clean the horse’s hooves,” he said. He crawled over to a pile of junk in the corner and rummaged through it by feel. Finally coming up with the items he sought, he brought them over and handed one to Aragorn.
The Ranger took the tool in his hand and felt the curve of the blade. It would not make much of a weapon, but against a dirt floor, it would do just fine.
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