1. Murder in the Shire
A flash of lightning illuminated the scene around him, the leaves on the trees drooping low with the weight of water clinging to them. Everything appeared grey and wet; the trees, the rocks, the distant hillside on the far side of the gently sloping valley and the angry storm clouds that darkened the dawn. He wanted something warm to drink, but even had it been possible to light a fire, their captain had forbidden them to do so. Sodden, he stomped over to where two of his companions whispered in quiet conversation beneath the shelter of a tall beech.
"Been sleeping in the puddles again, Yraen?" one of them jested.
"Aye, the lad will learn one of these days, Halbarad," his companion added with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "It is not hard to see where there is moss there is water."
Yraen glowered angrily at them. On numerous occasions he'd been taught where best to make his bed and, more importantly, where not to. In his mind, however, dulled with cold and miserably wet, it didn't seem to matter. Everyone seemed to tell him something different; "Sleep there, and the ants will make a feast of you," "Bed there, and the river will wash you away," or, "If those rocks fall, you will not awake to see the dawn of day." He'd heard them all and come to the conclusion it didn't matter where he slept, he was destined to wake up wet, cold, crushed or eaten.
"And be watchful of where you stamp your feet, boy," Halbarad told him sternly, "You are marking a trail in the mud that we will never disguise."
Anger flushed red in Yraen's cheeks and spinning around he kicked several deep divots of mud and leaves across the clearing. "I don't care," he shouted, "I'm sick of living wild in these woods. Wet, cold and hungry… And why? Just so the folks around here can scorn us like we're bandits."
He backed off as the two beneath the tree nimbly rose. Not fast enough, however, for the oldest of the pair, grim-faced Grithnad, leapt towards him and dragged him to the ground. Yraen fought to struggle free of the old man's grip, but for all of his age, Grithnad had a wiry strength that a lifetime in the wild had created. Constraining the boy's struggles, he rolled him onto his back and pinning him to the ground with one knee across his chest, he slapped him hard across the face. He was about to follow through with a second blow, but Halbarad caught his arm before it descended.
"That is enough," he said quietly. He looked Grithnad in the eye and helped him to his feet as he rose. "Take the east path towards Woody End. Find what Nathan has to report and return here by nightfall. I shall clean up here and leave marks in the usual place before we move out."
Grithnad tightened his belt before pulling his long cloak tightly around his shoulders. Nodding, he looked to where three other grey-clad figures were cautiously approaching from beneath the trees, disturbed by the commotion. "Haldar, you're with me," he told one of them, and almost silent, the pair of them jogged out of sight.
Halbarad watched them go before turning his gaze to the other two figures, both soaked but apparently oblivious to their discomfort. "Break your fast, lads," he instructed, "and then move out. I want you, Terras, to relieve Haldon out at Tookland… Barak, I want you to meet up with Ulfrad in Bindbale Wood. Make sure nothing is amiss at Bywater and Hobbiton, but do not be seen." He paused for a moment, deep in thought. "Oh, and Terras," he continued, "be wary. Those Tooks are a canny bunch according to the captain."
Halbarad waited as Barak and Terras disappeared once more and then turned his attention back to Yraen. "Let me have a look at that," he said kindly, reaching out to Yraen's face where his left cheek was swelling angrily. "Grithnad has only your best interests at heart."
Fighting back tears of shame, Yraen stepped back, turning his face aside. "Not my interests," he answered coldly through clenched teeth. He turned his eyes back to Halbarad and fixed his gaze with surprising conviction for a youth still in his mid-teens. "That is the last time that he's going to strike me, too."
Halbarad changed his tact. Grithnad had perhaps been hard on the lad over the past few months but the old Ranger was one of the best and if Yraen didn't learn his skills fast he could endanger them all. Unlike many of them, however, who had been trained wood lore from childhood, Yraen had been raised in the warmth of a tavern. Until her death the previous winter, his mother had been a serving wench in the Forsaken Inn on the East Road, while he had earned his keep doing odd jobs around the place. His father was unknown, a secret his mother had taken with her to her deathbed, but Halbarad had his suspicions. Without doubt Dunedain blood flowed through Yraen's veins, which in these parts meant only one thing. When the inn's fat owner had thrown him out after his mother's burial, therefore, Halbarad had taken him under his wing.
"The task we do here is of more importance than first it might seem," he said quietly while stooping to cover some of the tracks Yraen had created in his fit of rage. "We…"
"We do nothing!" Yraen spat. "We guard the gold of some fat halfling, lest someone else comes along to steal it, as he did, supposedly from a dragon."
Halbarad looked at the boy with surprise. That was why they were there, true enough, guarding the Shire, but that was something that had not been revealed to Yraen yet. "Be wary of such words, Yraen," he ordered in a calm but firm voice. "There are those who would bring much harm on this land if they knew of which you speak."
"So it is true then," Yraen scowled. "We live in the cold and rain, so some fat halfling can sleep peaceful at night, safe upon his mattress of gold…. And what thanks do we get? They hate us… Everywhere we go, I have seen their eyes. Mistrust and hatred… We might as well be thieves in the night."
"Aye, there is little thanks in being a Ranger," Halbarad admitted sadly. "Few appreciate the worth of that which we achieve, but you must take solace in the knowledge that we do make a difference." As he continued, Halbarad let his voice rise until he spoke not with sadness, but with resolution and pride. "We are all that is left of a noble and mighty race of Men. Once we were kings, and we fought to hold back the tide of evil. Though the flame of our glory has long since diminished, and our halls have been replaced with the eaves of living oak and beech, our task yet remains the same. While we remain steadfast and resolute in our hearts, evil shall not walk openly within our lands… We are the King's Rangers, and as such we walk boldly along the dark paths, fearless amid the shadows that others dare not tread."
Yraen was visibly moved by Halbarad's speech, but he was still wet, cold and hungry. "That's not enough," he muttered simply. "There is no king now." Turning his back on Halbarad, he began to walk away.
"Where shall you go to, then?" the Ranger called after him. "Know you that, or will you wander blind and lost until it is the gates to the Halls of Mandos that you find?"
Yraen stopped, and only half-turning, replied over his shoulder, "Gondor… There, hard work and toil can bring riches and fine wine, not just a damp bed in some waterlogged ditch."
"Gondor?" muttered Halbarad beneath his breath as he watched the youth walk away. For a moment he was torn. Should he let the lad go, or should he force him to stay against his wishes? "He is of age," he whispered to himself, deciding on the former. "Yraen!" he called after him, before he was out of earshot. Yraen stopped and half-turned. "It is a long and dangerous road that you take… Be sure to remember the skills that we have taught you."
Yraen waved, and hunching his wet cloak tightly around his shoulders, headed off alone into the wilderness.
For a while Halbarad tasked himself with erasing all marks of their presence in the forest clearing. With his deep hood hanging over his head, he crouched low to the muddy patches where their footprints were so obviously embedded. Trickles of water dripped past his face, soaking the exposed locks of long dark hair that clung to his cheek, while the damp penetrated his clothes through to his flesh below. He was a Ranger of the North, though, and accustomed to such conditions he barely noticed the discomfort. One by one, he began erasing each footprint in turn, but his mind was not focused on his task. Should he have argued with Yraen longer? The question would not leave his thoughts. The lad might be of age and able to choose his own paths, but would he be capable of reaching Gondor? His route would take him through some wild country, a land where any folk he met were likely to be hostile.
Cursing to himself, he stopped what he was doing and scattered a thick covering of wet leaves about the clearing, quickly hiding their presence. It was a disguise that would not fool anyone with even half of his own woodlore skills, but to the casual observer nothing would appear amiss. Hastily adding more leaves where required, he shouldered his bow, and pausing only long enough to leave a mark among the roots of a large oak, he began running eastward, following the trail Grithnad had taken. His task might be too important for him to follow after Yraen himself, but Grithnad could be spared.
Doubts did not take long to creep into Yraen's mind. He knew that Gondor lay many leagues to the south, that he must find the crossing at Sarn Ford and follow the Greenway through Dunland until he reached the Gap of Rohan. He also knew that he should then follow the White Mountains east until he came to the White City. He had heard travellers speak of such as they crowded around the hearth drinking frothy ale from pewter mugs, but the places they spoke of were but names to him. Now alone on that route, unsure even where Sarn Ford lay, he realised reality was a far cry from his dreams. And he was ill prepared for such a journey too. His only provisions were a little salted pork and a few slices of unleavened bread. Apart from that he had just the clothes that he wore, a wooden bowl, his short hunting bow, eight arrows, and a long-bladed, steel knife that Grithnad had given to him. The latter had seen better days, but its edge was always sharp, and its presence felt reassuring in his belt.
Picking his way between the trees, travelling up and down the numerous hillocks that seemed to prevail in this part of the Shire, he frequently looked over his shoulder, half hoping Halbarad was following after him. His pride would not let him return alone, but if it was requested of him…?
Suddenly his feet slipped from under him. His mind was wandering far from where it should have been concentrating and he found himself sliding down a steep bank of grass, leaves, and cobbles, slick with the constant rain. He grabbed at a bare branch to slow his descent as he raced past it, but rotten from a life growing in the damp hollow, it snapped off in his fingers. Bouncing over larger rocks barely covered by the decaying leaves, he felt each thump bruising his back and legs, his momentum causing him to tumble and roll. Something hit his elbow hard, causing him to grunt in pain, while small sharp pieces of flint cut into his knees and hands. He grabbed at another tree as it swept past his vision, but missing it, he found himself falling backwards with no ground beneath his feet. He yelled in panic, but the cry had barely left his lips when he crashed through the sharp twigs of a bush and came to rest, suspended a few feet above the rocky bank of a stream.
He lay there for a moment, slightly dazed and catching his breath. Though he was aware of the numerous small cuts and bruises, the pain from his elbow blocked out those lesser pains. Gritting his teeth, he bent and stretched the injured limb a few times, thankful that though it hurt, it was not broken.
"I'm sick of this," he muttered for the second time that day as he began picking himself out of the bush, the branches of which seemed determined to keep their hold on him. He eventually wriggled free, but not before he had torn his cloak, a jagged rip creating a flap across his right shoulder.
Checking his other possessions were still intact, he settled himself on a flat-topped boulder by the stream and bathed his wounds. Superficial, they had already stopped bleeding by the time he was ready to move on, but his elbow would be stiff for a few days to come. Gently rubbing it through the material of his cloak, he looked around, surveying the terrain about him. Peering up, he saw he had slipped into a deep gully, both sides of which towered steeply above him, the sickly-looking trees clinging to the slopes cutting out the sun and shrouding him in shadow. Not far to his left, the gully appeared to form a shrub filled bowl, the far walls of which rose cliff-like and devoid of vegetation, bar a lone bush growing twisted from its precarious anchorage in a crack in the stone. No waterfall cascaded down the slopes so Yraen guessed the stream flowing past him must have come from a fissure in the rocks, maybe from a lake beneath the hills.
Not wishing to climb the steep slopes, he followed the course of the stream, hoping it would eventually lead him out of the gully. Ahead, both slopes stretched some way into the distance before a sharp bend cut off his view. Clambering over damp rocks, careful not to slip into the water, he was relieved upon rounding the bend to see the walls widen and the stream flow across a lush valley less than half a mile away. Seeing rays of sunlight begin to shine through breaks in the clouds, for the first time he noticed it had stopped raining. With the promise of a pleasant day to come, he smiled to himself, his step suddenly more sprightly now that his imaginary burdens had lightened their load upon his heart.
It was only the sight of a wagon travelling a distant track that reminded him of Halbarad's earlier warning. "It is a dangerous road," the Ranger had said. "Use the skills that we have taught you."
Yraen frowned, but deep down he knew Halbarad was right. This land might only be home to the little-folk, halflings, hobbits, or whatever they called themselves, but he knew they did not like strangers. And firsthand he knew how quick they could be when angry, and how accurate with a well-aimed stone. Wishing only to leave their land without confronting any of them, he slowed his pace, treading more carefully and concentrating on the countryside around him. And it was well that he did, for before he had travelled much farther, he became aware of the quietness of the birds ahead, and then the hushed mutterings from a camp hidden in the mouth of the gully.
Trying to calm his pounding heart, he crept forward. Though there were many large boulders to shield his approach, he knew equally well that they could easily hide a sentry. Common sense urged him to take the long route back along the gully, to climb its steep slopes and to exit it by another route, but he tried to convince himself he was being foolish. "Why take the hard route if these men are just travellers?" he asked himself. By creeping close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation, he hoped to ascertain whether it would be safe to stroll past them, or whether he would have to backtrack.
Halbarad had only jogged a couple of leagues in pursuit of Grithnad when he came across the old Ranger's marks. Scratched hastily among the roots of a large beech tree, they indicated he had turned off the path to follow a little used game trail that intersected his own route. Cautiously, Halbarad draw his sword and stealthily began following the trail himself. Something was wrong. What had Grithnad discovered to turn him from his road to Woody End?
Blood… Halbarad fingered it gingerly. Shoulder height and a day old. There were no tracks indicating an injured deer had passed this way recently, but there were boot tracks of someone running. He crept further along, his ears alert for danger as his eyes scanned the ground…. More blood and broken twigs where something, someone, had staggered into a bush. He was studying this scene when he heard the clucking call of a male pheasant. Three calls from not far ahead. He answered them with a call of his own and sheathed his sword as Haldar emerged from a thicket to meet him. His fellow Ranger's face appeared pale and stern.
Without speaking Halbarad followed Haldar to a clearing where Grithnad knelt beside a boggy pool, overgrown with long spears of sharp grass. At his knees a bloody corpse lay where they had pulled it from the water. Careful not to disturb the scene, he approached his friend while Haldar maintained a guard on the trail.
"It's Ulfrad," Grithnad said without glancing up, his voice quiet and devoid of emotion.
"Ulfrad?" Halbarad queried. "But he should be over at Bindbale Wood, keeping a watch on Bywater and Hobbiton." He glanced around alarmed as though expecting to see clues around the clearing that he had missed.
"He was running hard from someone," Grithnad commented. "Not a care about leaving a trail… He took an arrow, but that was not the wound that killed him."
Halbarad squatted in the muddy ground and examined the body. A broken arrow protruded from his right shoulder, but that was not the extent of his injuries. His blue face and the marks around his throat indicated he had been strangled with a thin cord.
"There's these, too," Grithnad scowled. He lifted Ulfrad's arm, revealing a row of bloody stumps where his fingers should have been. "We found them by yonder stump," he added coldly. "Look's like whoever did this took them off one by one."
Halbarad ran his hand lightly over the surrounding grass, slowly examining the area for tracks.
"You're a better man than me if you can find a clue," Grithnad interrupted him. The area's been cleaned of all but Ulfrad's tracks…" He pointed to Ulfrad's bare feet. "I think he even wore Ulfrad's boots when he dragged the body through the mud."
Halbarad glanced around for a moment, but he was searching his mind rather than the clearing for clues. Using his reserves of self-discipline to force the shock of his friend's death to the back of his mind, he tried to think clearly.
"Ulfrad must have discovered something important," he eventually said, airing his thoughts aloud. "He must have been discovered, himself, either as he came to tell us the news, or maybe he was pursued from the start… Whatever, he was taking a route back to our camp… Our killer shot him once, followed him down this game trail, where he tortured him first before strangling him." He paused for a moment, digesting other clues. "By his own skill at hiding his trail, I would say our killer was alone, alone in this clearing at any rate. And he's good… Good enough to hide his own trail, even in this mud."
"But why bother spending the time to hide his own tracks?" Grithnad asked. "He's made no attempt at hiding the body bar leaving it floating facedown in this pool… And the fingers by the stump? He's made thorough work of doing only half a task."
"That is puzzling me, too," Halbarad admitted. Quickly he rose and called Haldar closer. "Whatever answers we are missing, it seems certain our problems now lie in Hobbiton. The Hobbits are preparing a party… Tonight I believe… There have been strangers coming and going for several days now, some from far afield. I guess trouble has slipped in among them, past our guard and beneath our noses… Haldar, I need you to find Terras and Haldon in Tookland. Have them travel to Hobbiton as fast as possible. Grithnad, continue on to Woody End. Once you find Nathan, join us there too. Travel fast and leave some clear marks that others can follow… I'll go straight to Bywater. Try to warn Barak before he runs into the same danger as Ulfrad." He looked down at the body. "Sorry, Old Friend," he murmured. "A light cairn of stones is all we can afford you at present. It'll keep the birds at bay until we return."
Distracted by the death of one of his men, and concerned about what trouble might soon be occurring, Yraen's decision to leave slipped Halbarad's mind, and his absence went unnoticed by Grithnad too.
The Numenorian smiled inwardly to himself. His plans were unfolding easier than he had expected, and from what he had discovered in the past week, would harvest a rich bonus too. Careful not to drop his guard for a moment, while appearing outwardly nonchalant, he studied Grelich and his dozen men. Swarthy Dunlendings; though he smiled at their crude jokes, he despised them all. Primitive, uncultured, and superstitious; they did not even realise who was really giving the orders here. Paid gold to assist them by the same hand that paid for their services, his ambitions were nevertheless his own council, and he feigned subservience to Grelich only because it served his purpose to do so. The White Hand knew his worth. An old acquaintance, he knew his worth and paid handsomely for it too. And not just with gold either. At times the right information could be worth more than a sack of gold to the right ears.
"I still say tonight we do it," Grelich suddenly announced, rising from a detailed map drawn in the dirt. The Common tongue sounded foreign from his lips, but unlike many of his backward, hillmen folk, at least he had a grasp of a second language. Most spoke only their own tongue, and had nothing to do with the world beyond their valleys. He drew a stick over the map pointing to three positions. "Half this way… Half that… and the other half, wait down here in case things go not right." He pointed to a pair of his men and gave them instructions in their own tongue. An animated exchange arose between them, almost breaking into an argument, but firm words from Grelich brought it to an abrupt conclusion. Chastised, his men settled down once more.
"You," he said, pointing to the Numenorian.
The Numenorian, however, shook his head. "Tell your men another outburst like that will cost them their lives," Aware the hills were patrolled by Rangers on the lookout for such as Grelich's band of bandits it was fair advice, but several of them mistook his meaning. Several rose, drawing knives as they did so, believing the Numenorian was threatening them himself. He quickly read the situation and chose the three bandits he would kill first should it come to bloodshed. He had learned, though that such shows of bravado were common among these people and seldom escalated beyond threats.
The Numenorian let an unseen stiletto slide down the inside of his sleeve as he edged slightly backwards. It was not needed, however, for maintaining his dominance over his men, Grelich stormed into them with his stick. Beating them around their arms and their faces, he quickly restored order. Growling at them as they cowered back, he turned once more to the Numenorian.
"Your plan is good, Grelich," the Numenorian said with mock praise, "but as I said, delaying it by a night would be better."
Grelich shook his head and reviewed the map on the ground once more. "First your plan, we attack them after party… All the time, you say night of party when they drunk… Now you say, not night of party… You come back and say one more nights." He looked up suspiciously. "You not cross path with me? Make deal with other?" He advanced a step.
The Numenorian flung his arms wide, palms up, in mock innocence. "Grelich," he gasped, feigning surprise, "I'd not cross you, or our master, The White Hand… Believe me. Things have changed a little, that is all. There are going to be far more guests at the party then first we expected… Not just Little Folk either. Best to leave it a night. Let them all depart."
Grelich nodded thoughtfully for a moment. "Night after party," he muttered to himself. The Numenorian wasn't impressed with Grelich's display of fake intelligence, however. This was the third time they had had this discussion since his return. He had not doubted it would be difficult convincing the Dunlendings to change their plans, but he now felt frustrated as initially they had accepted the change with little apparent objection.
"And you sure this is right hut?" he demanded, pointing his stick at a mound of gravel on the map. "You sure halfling with gold lives in this hut?"
"Burrow, not hut," the Numenorian nodded. Yes he was certain the halfling with the gold lived there. Bag End, at the end of Bagshot Row; built into the side of Hobbiton Hill. He could still see clearly the small gate with the sign: NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON PARTY BUSINESS, and the well-tended garden beyond, full of colourful snapdragons and sunflowers. He had knocked on that round door only two days earlier and delivered five barrels of ale from Bree to the halfling with the gold, himself.
That had been what the White Hand had paid him for of course. To infiltrate the Shire, to discover the whereabouts of the Hobbit that had helped free Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent, and then to make sure this other band of retard misfits did not mess up the whole plot. He had been paid well, not just in gold either, and the task had proved easier than he had first expected. Bilbo Baggins was a little too famous for his own good in the Shire. The party, of course, had been a huge boon, too, enabling him to ride right up to the Hobbit's front door with a consignment of ale.
"When we get there, the halfling's mine. Mine alone," Grelich ordered. "There's something the White Hand wants from him. Something I must find."
The Numenorian just nodded his agreement. This was the first Grelich had let slip this piece of information and he noted, too, that it was something the White Hand had failed to mention to him either. A week ago his curiosity would have been raised over such an admission, but two days ago he had guessed the White Hand's reason for sending them on this raid. It had puzzled him why the sorcerer had planned the raid in the first place, just to gain a chest of gold, but when the Hobbit he had been spying on had disappeared into thin air, he knew the prize was greater. The Hobbit had found something in the dragon's hoard that enabled him to turn invisible. The White Hand desired that object, and now, so did he.
"And what of the other Northmen you claim guard village?" Grelich suddenly demanded. "Will they not try stop us? How you know they not watch village because they want gold themselves?"
"I heard them talking," the Numenorian lied. It was a simple deceit, but it seemed to work. "I will cause a diversion before you enter the village and lead them astray in the countryside. It will be easy. They're only thugs that the halfling has hired."
The Numenorian breathed a sigh of relief when Grelich appeared satisfied with his answer. He knew these Northmen were not simple thugs at all. He knew who they were, why they were there, and further, who was their chieftain. The White Hand had also confirmed something he had long suspected, that the Rangers of the North harboured the Heir to the throne. That information had been his payment for coming here on this mission. He had to admit, The White Hand was certainly shrewd in guessing that particular price. Did he suspect, then, his own lineage; that Aragorn, son of Arathorn was not the only heir in hiding, and that he, Castalghir the Corsair, was in fact the direct descendant of Castamir the Usurper. From father to son his line had passed unbroken, from the time Castamir's son, Castaher had been forced to flee to Umbar with the bulk of the Gondorian fleet, thus founding the Corsair State.
His claim to the throne was as strong, if not stronger, than that of Aragorn. Unlike Aragorn, however, his ambition was to claim what was rightfully his. The king would not come from the North, but from the South, and his hands would not be healing either. It had been his goal while in the Shire to somehow seek out Aragorn and slay him. The mission to steal the Hobbit's gold had presented certain possibilities, but dangerous ones, fraught with uncertainty and chance. His discovery that the Hobbit planned to take a journey east immediately the party was over offered him other possibilities he had not thought about earlier.
Acting on his new plan he had sought out one of the Rangers and slain him. The murder, he hoped, had been committed in such a way as to arouse the other Rangers and draw them to Hobbiton. That would leave the surrounding countryside devoid of their protection, making his own task easier as he stalked the unguarded Hobbit. And once Mr Baggins lay dead by the roadside, he could take his magical device, the one The White Hand had sent them to retrieve, and use its power to help him slay his rival for the throne.
He looked towards the group of unsuspecting Dunlendings as they laughed at a joke one had told at his expense. Not aware that he could speak their native tongue, they were also blindly oblivious to the fate he had planned for them. The White Hand would never discover his deceit, because walking into the ambush he had set for them, none of his Dunmen allies would live to tell the tale.
The two riders, identical in their silver-grey cloaks, tethered their snow-white horses in a dense thicket of gorse and hawthorn. Unshouldering their recurved composite bows, they edged forward, slipping through the undergrowth, silent and unseen, no thorn snagging their garments. Though the moon was hidden behind overcast skies, their sharp grey eyes pierced the gloom, scanning the cottage and outbuildings across the field for signs of life. Apart from the bleating from a small flock of sheep, it lay in silence, not even a barking dog announcing their presence. With just the slightest of glances to each other they separated, heading off in opposite directions as they skirted around the small farm.
Meeting again on the far side of the settlement, they both shook their heads, and then without a word to each other, crept forward. They came to a halt, their backs pressed firmly against the wall either side of a darkened window. Listening for several long moments, on hearing no sounds, they stalked around to the front of the building. One pointed to the corpse of an arrow-riddled dog that greeted them on the porch, while the other shouldered his bow and drew a long hunting knife from a jewelled scabbard. They did not have to knock on the door or force their entry, it already lay smashed in, hanging from its hinges. Covered from behind by the bow of his brother, Elladan slipped through the portal, his knife held before him as he crouched with cat-like poise.
Three bodies lay strewn across the floor in pools of blood, and by the state of their torn dresses, murder was not all that the two women had suffered. Passing the cold embers in the fireplace, Elladan lightly touched the edge of an iron cauldron hanging from an iron peg beneath the chimney. Though still half full of broth it was stone cold. They were still some way behind those they pursued.
Sheathing his weapon, he turned to his brother who was still covering him from the doorway.
"We ride," was all he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
Though neither liked to leave the dead without cairn or prayer, they both realised any delay could cost another farmstead the same fate as this and the previous one. Far now from their usual hunting grounds, they had come across this trail while hunting Orcs. Being two kills down on his brother's nine, Elrohir had insisted on checking out a tall plume of smoke he had espied from the distance. It had taken most of that day to reach the burned out farm, and little smoke still rose by the time they reached it. Though they quickly realised they were no longer hunting Orcs, their pursuit had been delayed when they had discovered an infant cowering beneath the cattle trough. Taking the child to the last homestead they had passed had cost them another four hours before they were able to pick up the trail again.
Mounting, they urged their horses to a slow trot with the slightest of flicks of their bridles. The atrocities impelled them to travel faster, but after two whole days without rest, their horses were tiring. By the end of the night, they were down to a walking pace, but this was not just due to tiredness; a rainstorm was covering the tracks, threatening to erase them totally. By dawn the soaked horses were beginning to limp even though the twins were leading them on foot. They continued to urge them on, however, even though both brothers were exhausted themselves. They had just entered Shire country, and they greatly feared what evil this band of brigands had intended for the Periannath.
Yraen broke into a cold sweat. He knew he had to return to Halbarad and warn him of the conversation he had just overheard but he had left his escape too long. The tall stranger, who Yraen assumed to be a traitorous member of Halbarad's own company, broke away from his discussion with the brutal appearing bandits and settled himself against the very rock he was cowering behind. Trying to steady his breathing, he glanced to his right, back up the gully, but knew he could not slip away with the traitor posted there. All the while fearing for his life, he was forced to remain there, crouching motionless, as the day wore on.
Fighting cramp and thirst, he waited as the sun reached its zenith and then began to fall once more lower in the sky. If anything his predicament had become worse for as the hours passed the bandits withdrew slightly from the mouth of the gully, spreading themselves around his position. As they lounged sleepily in the warm sun, some openly snoring while others wiled away their time playing strange games with carved bones, he contemplated making a dash for safety. He quickly suppressed the urge, however, using techniques the Rangers had taught him to keep the cramp at bay from his muscles instead. Although they appeared to be a disorganised rabble, Yraen knew the bandits were keeping a couple of men on watch at all times, and that any bid he made to escape would not go unnoticed. He was just thankful that they appeared to be using the stream as a latrine, and none had felt the urge to squeeze between the gully wall and his boulder.
The sun sank below the ridge casting the gully into shadow once more. The bandits broke out their rations, complaining bitterly about having no fire, but their leader again bullied them into submission. Yraen, too, dared to break his own fast. The few slices of unleavened bread did little to satisfy his hunger, however, but with no water, he did not wish to aggravate his thirst with salted pork. His stomach still grumbling, he settled down once more, hoping nightfall would allow him the opportunity to escape.
Another hour passed, and as the light began to fade, the Northman rose and left the group. Tactfully insisting the bandits not attack the village for another night, he scaled the opposite face of the gully and disappeared. Yraen relaxed a little the moment he was gone. Of the whole group, it was that one he feared the most, instinctively sensing a great danger about him. Knowing he must now warn his friends, however, Yraen again shuddered. The Northman would be seeking them out too, he had told the Dunlending chieftain; diverting them away from Hobbiton. Knowing he might meet this man again, alone in the woods, for a moment Yraen considered continuing south to Gondor. As he sat, awaiting the cover of darkness, however, Halbarad's words came back to him, refusing to leave his thoughts.
"While we remain steadfast and resolute in our hearts, evil shall not walk openly within our lands… We are the King's Rangers, and as such we walk boldly along the dark paths, fearless amid the shadows that others dare not tread."
He wished Halbarad and the other Rangers were there now. With them he would feel safe. And with that simple thought he understood fully that which he had not comprehended before; the reason for the Rangers being there. They endured the elements and hardship not for gratitude and fame, but simply because they wished to protect others weaker than themselves from the fear he was now feeling. Knowing he had only one course of action, even though the thought of doing it terrified him, he doubted now that any of the others walked fearless amid the shadows. They suffered the same fears as any other men, but shrugging them aside they walked those dark paths anyway. To be bold wasn't the same as being fearless, he suddenly realised. Boldness was facing those fears head on and vanquishing them.
He drew the knife Grithnad had given him and clenched the handle tightly. Surrounded by darkness, and suppressing the urges to hurry, he slowly crept away from the camp. Like a cat, he was almost silent on his feet, each step taking him one closer to safety. But then his luck disappeared. While crossing the stream as it cut close to the edge of the gully, the whole sky suddenly exploded in a flash of light as what appeared to be a thousand golden birds scattering overhead from a massive tree of green light, towering now above the gully ridge in the northern sky. The shock of it made his heart leap, and in that instant he lost his footing, slipping into the cold water. Struggling to his feet against the current, he waded to shore, but in the strange light he could see one of the bandits pointing towards him.
A glance told him that most were either mesmerised by the colourful display or were cowering in terror of it, but as it vanished into darkness again, as suddenly as it had first appeared, he heard angry shouts behind him. The chase was on. He dashed into the darkness, running for his life, but the rocky floor of the gully bottom was not good footing for such a pace. He stumbled, cutting his hands and knees on the sharp stones, but with the cries of pursuit gaining on him, he ignored the pain and continued running. The sky again flashed golden, the cries of a hundred banshees screaming in the distance as a huge eagle burst from a cloud of butterflies overhead, before disappearing over the southern ridge. Its appearance again caused him to stumble, and falling hard this time, he badly twisted his ankle. The sky again plunged into darkness, and blinded by a wave of pain as he put his weight on his foot, so did Yraen's mind. Limping, hopping, staggering, he blundered blindly along, confused and terrified, the world suddenly spinning as a weight suddenly fell across his shoulders.
He fell again, the weight pressing down on his chest as he lay on his back. A silvery blast from above saw a huge sailing ship go floating, ghostlike, above him, and by its light he discerned the silhouette of a bandit sitting across him. The figure had a handaxe poised above his face ready to strike, but as the ship lit up the sky, he stared at it instead, distracted. Yraen seized the moment, and clutching his knife tightly, plunged it deep into the bandit's side. He had never stabbed anyone before and felt nauseous as the warm blood soaked his hand. With a violent spasm the bandit clutched at the wound and screamed, crawling away as Yraen thrashed blindly with the blade.
The ship disappeared to be replaced a moment later with a crimson thunderstorm, a yellow rain of sparks falling from the swirling sanguine clouds. Fearing the Powers were themselves battling above him, Yraen again staggered to his feet. He was fortunate most of the bandits were more terrified of the display than he was himself, but a few, driven by their chieftain, still advanced. Unable to run on his injured ankle, he pressed his back firmly against a boulder as two approached him, their spears levelled at his chest. Leering, the closest suddenly jabbed at him, Yraen only succeeding to turn the blow slightly aside with the edge of his knife, the tip burying itself in his left arm rather than his heart.
Curling up in pain, he dropped his knife and clenched the wound as the Dunlending twisted his spear free. Laughing, the second one rushed at him too, intent on running him through. The blow never came though, the Dunlending being propelled suddenly backwards as an arrow thumped into his throat. The other spearman withdrew a step from Yraen to see where the archer was hidden, but the silver-grey clad figure was the last thing he ever saw. Perched on a tall boulder just fifty paces away, his bowstring sang as his arrow took the second one in the throat.
Grelich, the Dunlending chieftain, barked a command so fiercely his men snapped from the sight distracting them. Another one fell as he swung his axe in Yraen's direction, but then as one, they charged the archer's position. Fearless of the nine men rushing towards him, the archer carefully aimed another arrow, as though he had all the time in the world, and pinned another bandit through the throat. As the man lurched backwards, breaking the charge of his companions, the archer calmly stepped back, dropping out of sight behind the boulder. Grelich's voice boomed above the sound of the fading firestorm in the sky, but as he skirted the edge of the boulder, another of his men lurched into him, an arrow protruding from the back of his neck.
"Here!" a voice shouted from behind them. The Dunlendings turned, and to their disbelief, saw the archer atop another boulder, eighty paces away in the direction they had just charged from. Madness blinding their fears, they again charged their lone assailant, the gully plunging into darkness once more as they ran. Cries of anger and screams of pain created a confused caterwaul, that echoed from the walls around them, their battle-cries becoming quieter the closer they approached the archer.
The sky was again illuminated, this time with a fiery glow emanating from a distant volcano. Grelich reached the boulder, but found to his horror, the charge had cost him all but two of his men. The archer had again disappeared, but glancing around, Grelich could see the damage his bow had caused, the bodies of his men scattered along the path they had run. He cursed, both in anger and fear; their mystery assailant was once more atop his original perch, another of his men falling to the ground, clutching his throat.
Diving for cover, Grelich barked another command. His remaining man darted for cover too, but he took an arrow in the eye as he peered above his defence. In the moment it took the archer to draw another arrow, notch it, and draw back the string, Grelich dashed to where Yraen still stood, propped up against a rock, clutching his wound. Grabbing the boy from behind, he held a cruel knife to his throat as he edged the pair of them gingerly backward, Yraen a shield against the deadly missiles.
"Who are you?" he loudly demanded.
The archer remained silent, motionless behind his taut bow. Behind him in the distance, from the leaping flames of the mountain, a huge creature rapidly winged its way in their direction. Belching fire from its blazing maw, it soared towards them, flying the line of the gully, silhouetting the archer with hell-fire. Grelich stood a moment, transfixed, unable to take his eyes off the beast or the archer. And then, as the beast roared overhead in a sheet of flame, an arm reached over his shoulder and clutched his wrist. As, with tremendous strength, it pulled his own knife away from the boy's throat, he felt a hot pain as another blade slid across his own, severing his windpipe in a single stroke. Falling to the ground, to die in a pool of his own blood, he heard his killer's clear, songlike voice speak just one phrase.
"I believe that makes us even, Brother… Fourteen apiece."
The Numenorian crept from his position beneath a bushy thicket of gorse and studied the path. The Hobbit, Mr Baggins, had left a little earlier than he had anticipated, but he had easily found the trail and been able to follow after. His plan seemed to have worked so far, the Rangers concentrating their guard close to the village of Hobbiton rather than scattering themselves around the surrounding countryside. Observing the sun sinking low in the sky, he smiled to think of Grelich's Dunlending scum even now walking towards the ambush he had orchestrated for them.
Careful not to let overconfidence make him careless, he scanned the nearby bushes and places of concealment to ensure he was not being watched. Content, he studied the ground where the path crossed a slow moving stream. By the banks, where the ground beneath the stony path grew soft and muddy, it held the tracks of all that had recently passed that way. Above them all he could see where the Hobbit had leapt across most recently, his walking stick leaving an impression beside the footprints where his bare feet had trod. Knowing he was still on the trail, the Numenorian was about to move away when he noticed something else too. Careful not to leave marks of his own in the soft ground, he left the trail and crossed the stream thirty paces to the south of the path. Sneaking back to the crossing point, he examined the ground where the Hobbit had landed. He frowned. Amongst all the other footprints and wheel tracks that had been placed there over the past weeks, a single boot print caused him to silently curse. That it lay on top of the impression made by the walking stick meant someone else was following the Hobbit too. Not all of the Rangers had been deceived by his plan.
Travelling even slower, stopping to listen every few paces, and spending time to cover any tracks he happened to make, it was dark before he caught up with his prey. Several times he had come across marks of the Hobbit's passage; flattened grass where he had paused for a rest, a discarded apple core, and tracks where he had left the path to pick wild blackberries. At no stage, though, did he come across another mark from whoever was following the Hobbit. A less experienced tracker may have discarded his previous assumption, but the Numenorian had not lived to eighty years by being careless. The lack of more tracks did not mean his previous judgement had been wrong. It meant whoever was watching over the Hobbit possessed exceptional skills.
He smelled the smoke from the campfire before he was able to see its flickering glow through the undergrowth. The Hobbit had moved away from the path a short distance to make his camp, and was now kneeling before the flames tending to a kettle. He was in a small flat clearing at the base of a steep rocky rise, his camp sheltered on all sides by either the rocky outcropping or dense walls of undergrowth. There was no sign of the other person being there, but looking around the Numenorian guessed he was hiding somewhere on the rise. With a good view of the Hobbit's camp and the advantage of height, it would have been the place he would have picked for himself.
Slowly, with extreme caution, he worked his way around the camp until he had a better view of the outcropping. It took him several minutes of staring into the gloom with his sharp eyes before he was finally able to perceive the figure, but in the end the slightest of movements gave away his position. Two-thirds of the way up the slope he sat within the roots of an ancient tree, the hollows created by the eroding soil providing him with excellent shelter. Overlooking the Hobbit, his bow across his knees in readiness, he slowly ate his supper, oblivious that he was being watched. A tingle ran down the Numenorian's spine and he felt his palms moisten just the slightest. Everything had suddenly changed. That was not just any Ranger guarding the Hobbit; it was Aragorn, himself.
His mind contemplated a dozen options at once. Cleverly, Aragorn had positioned himself where nobody could get a clear bowshot at him from less than twenty paces unless they stood in the clearing itself. It would be no shot in the dark that killed the Ranger. Besides, he realised, any attack that disturbed the Hobbit would have him activating his device and disappearing. Invisible, he would be impossible to find. He considered leaving the attack until morning, but by then the countryside might be crawling with Rangers once more. If any of the Dunlendings survived to talk, it would be doubly dangerous for him. Extracting his stiletto from its hidden sheath, he carefully dipped its needle-like tip into a small vial of dark viscous liquid. Satisfied, he replaced the weapon back up his sleeve, where it sheathed itself in a specially designed greave. Carefully crawling back towards the path, he waited for the Hobbit to settle down in his bedroll and fall asleep.
His plan both excited and terrified him. It was dangerous, but the risk was calculated. Waiting until he was sure the Hobbit was sound asleep, he crept into view of the outcropping, and trying not to make it obvious he was looking up there, raised his hands to his lips and made a bird-call. From the corner of his eye he noticed the sudden movement within the tree roots as Aragorn snatched his bow, but trying to ignore it, he made a show of looking all around before again making the call. It was a sound rarely, if ever, heard in the Shire, but the Numenorian knew Aragorn would recognise it. When he heard the raucous cry of a gull replying to him from atop the rise, he knew his gamble had paid off.
Aragorn stepped from a thicket beside the path and stared at the Numenorian. They could almost be cousins. Both men looked at each other for several seconds, Aragorn's features etched with surprise and disbelief, while the Numenorian tried to hide his fears with a look of joy. In the end he strode forward and clasped Aragorn in a warm embrace.
"Thorongil," he beamed, "At last…" He released his hold, stepping back to look Aragorn in the eye. "My road has been long, but at last I have found my goal… One of your men advised me you would be on this path."
"Marahil," Aragorn finally answered. "For many a year I have feared you dead. It is what,"
"Five years and twenty," the Numenorian smiled. "I escaped from captivity, but when I returned to Minas Tirith, they told me you had gone… They were fine days, were they not? Thorongil, Marahil and Denethor… Names capable of striking dread into the enemy like a sharpened spear." He looked around the camp, his eyes focusing on the sleeping Hobbit. "But what is this?" he asked. "Thorongil once defended Gondor from the Corsairs. Now he defends sleeping travellers from what? Wolves?"
"Thorongil is long gone, Marahil," he answered quietly, his voice betraying perhaps the slightest hint of regret. "And does not even the smallest of travellers deserve my protection? Come, let us off the road. We shall share his fire for a while."
Aragorn stepped off the road and knelt beside the embers of Bilbo's small fire, his back turned to his old friend. Captains in Gondor's fleet, those had indeed been glorious days. The splendour of Court; the sharp prows of their ships cutting the waves, filling the breeze with spray; and the horns and glory of war. He could never serve under Denethor as he had his father, Ecthelion, however. Their rivalry ran too deep for that. He turned quickly as two arrows sped over his head from atop the rise, and nimbly caught the falling body of the Numenorian before it could disturb the sleeping Hobbit. A thin-bladed knife fell to the ground, as with a dying spasm the assassin clutched at the arrows protruding from his own throat. Holding the body still while the Hobbit turned in his sleep, Aragorn kicked the poisoned blade into the undergrowth before dragging the corpse out of sight.
"It is long since I discovered your deceit, Castalghir," he whispered to the body as he covered it in leaves beneath a wild bush of gorse, "for was not I also a spy?" He waved to the two figures dressed in silver-grey as they slipped back behind the rise. He had ridden with them since he was a boy, and it was they who had taught him every skill in woodlore that he now knew. Woodlore, and much more besides. Seeing the two arrow flights protruding from the temporary grave, he smiled. Honour… They could have killed Castalghir at any time during the hours they had trailed him, slew him instead of sneaking past him, but neither could do that anymore than they could murder an innocent child in cold blood. Honour had forbidden them the first blow, just as he had been unable to shoot when he had first spotted Castalghir skulking around their camp believing himself unseen.
He thought back to the glory and splendour he had received as Thorongil and then glanced at the sleeping Hobbit. It was a clear night beneath the stars, with a gentle breeze rustling the leaves above him. He knew without a doubt which world he preferred.
Bilbo sat on a porch overlooking one of the many small gardens scattered around the hidden valley of Rivendell. The sun was setting low in the west, and though it was mid-Autumn, its warmth seemed to linger in Elrond's realm, where the birds still sang and the flowers were still fragrant. With one ear he could hear the distant sound of a fast running river as it flowed over rocks, while with his other he could hear elven harps and singing from one of the many halls within the building. His nose detected the sweet aroma of baking, and of venison basted in honey.
"The feast is almost prepared," Elrond smiled, rising from his seat beside him. "One fit for even a Hobbit… So how was your journey?" he finally asked, leaning on a balcony overlooking the lawn.
Bilbo dipped his hand into the pocket of his waistcoat as if searching for something. "Oh, you know the Shire," he eventually answered. "Quiet… Very quiet." He picked himself up and followed Elrond through the door. "I don't think they'll forget my party in a hurry, though."
"I'm sick of this," Yraen muttered to himself as he awoke from a fitful sleep, his clothes and bedding soaked. He rose from where rivulets of water ran down the rocky outcropping he had used as shelter from the storm and rubbed his bandaged arm. After a week it was still sore, but the mysterious Strider had shown great care when dressing the wound for him. The night in the gully still seemed a blur to him; the bandits, the visions in the sky, and the two Elven brothers who had saved him from certain death. The others had later praised him from averting a great catastrophe, but of those events he could remember little. The two Elves had been tending his wound one moment, but as soon as he had mentioned the disloyal Northman, they had hurried off. What catastrophe he had averted, he had not a clue.
Pulling his cloak tightly about his shoulders and his hood about his face, he trod a careful path towards two of his companions, wary not to leave a trail in the damper patches. He wanted, more than anything, something warm to drink. His wet clothes were clinging uncomfortable against his flesh and he was cold. There was no fire, though. Their captain had forbidden them one, less the smoke be seen. The two Rangers beneath the tall beech tree glanced up as he approached.
"Been sleeping in the puddles again, Yraen?" one of them jested.
Yraen looked at the figure of his tormentor, Grithnad, and grinned. The old Ranger appeared to be soaking wet himself, as did Halbarad beside him. With stoic calm, however, they both appeared to ignore their discomfort.
"Sleeping in puddles," Yraen smiled as a gust of wind blew a shower of droplets from the branches above. "Haven't we all?"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.