1. Chapter 1
The South Downs -- late July 3018
The farmhouse crackled and roared; flames devoured the ancient beams as Tarkil fought his way to the child’s high-pitched screams. Acrid black smoke stung his eyes so he bent down to crawl along the floor, the heated wood scorching his hands and knees.
A rafter crashed to the floor, exploding on impact, showering him in embers and sparks. With a curse, the ranger beat the searing pieces away to continue to search for the child, her screams reduced to hacking sobs. “I’m coming, child. Get down on the floor – the air is clearer there,” he yelled.
He tried to remember the layout of the house but it had been a few months since he had been inside. He wracked his brain to remember how many children there were – just the two girls, he finally remembered, Lilly and Daisy.
He continued to crawl blindly in the direction of the coughing when he ran into something soft. It was a body of a child – no more than 2 years old. Daisy. He felt the child’s chest but could sense no movement so sought the pulse in the toddler’s neck to find her still alive. He lifted her in one arm and continued to awkwardly pull himself towards the coughing.
“Lilly? Can you crawl towards me? Stay on the floor but come towards my voice!“ He continued to call. Finally he felt her and grabbed a handful of her nightgown. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”
He clutched her in his other arm and rose. Another rafter crashed down, allowing the smoke to billow unimpeded into the night sky. The Ranger took a deep breath of the clearer air then charged over the burning beam towards the door.
As he staggered out into the fresh air, hands reached to take the girls from him. He collapsed onto the grass, coughing, his lungs aching from the black smoke. Neighbours from the surrounding farms had come to help and a line of people passed buckets of water from the wall to toss their meager contents futilely onto the flames.
Tarkil stood once he could breathe again, “Where are the Greenbanks? Mr. and Mrs. Greenbanks -- has anyone seen them?” He faced a series of heads being shaken and blank looks in response.
He sought out Lilly, finally finding both girls being cared for by a neighbour who had wrapped them in blankets. “Lilly, where are your parents? Are they still in the house?”
“No, they weren’t in the house, my lord. The men came and my dad went out to see what they were doing. The fire started right after that.”
Tarkil shared a look with the woman who now held the trembling girl. He knelt down in front of them both. “What men, child?”
“We could hear them doing something in the barn, so Daddy grabbed his axe and went out to talk to them. I never saw them clearly but they talked funny. Momma said they were from the south. She said there have been a lot of them coming up into our land lately. Right after that, two men came in and took Momma. Daisy and I were in our bed, I don’t think they saw us. I heard Momma screaming so I got out of bed to try to help her, so did Daisy but that’s when the fire started. Where’s Momma?”
Tears streamed down her sooty cheeks. Tarkil wiped some of the tears away with his thumb leaving a smudge across her face, “I don’t know where your Momma is, Lilly, but I am going to try to find your parents. You stay here with Mrs. Goatleaf.” With a glance at the lady, he headed towards the barn where the youngster said the trouble started.
The doors to the barn stood open as did the animal pens – the animals scattered. The barn, eerily lit by the dancing light of the flames, was quiet after the roar of the burning house. Towards the back, several barrels were overturned, spilling their aromatic contents of pipe weed across the floor.
Strange, he thought, this time of year the barn should be crammed with barrels of pipeweed. The Greenbanks had a good harvest this year, and the leaf would have had time to dry. So where are the barrels?
A call went up from the men who had been filling the buckets. He ran to find the group huddled around the well, holding a torch as they stared into the depths. Tarkil leaned over and saw the body of a man snagged on the bucket.
“It’s Reg Greenbanks. He must have fallen in trying to get water to stop the fire,” said one.
The men grabbed the rope and hauled in an attempt to bring up the body of the farmer, but the bucket could not take the weight. It snapped from the rope and both bucket and body splashed back into the water.
Dawn revealed a smoldering mass, no longer in the shape of a house. The men had long since given up trying to fight the fire and had turned their efforts instead to retrieving their friend’s body. After a struggle with ropes and hooks, they finally managed to lift him out of the well.
Tarkil bent over the remains, observing the deep cut in his neck. “They slit his throat and then threw him into the well,” he quietly said. The exhausted neighbours looked at him in surprise and asked who would have done such a thing to their friend.
The Ranger told them what Lilly had said about the strangers. Angry murmurs went through the crowd, each talking of how they had noticed an influx of southerners.
Tarkil left them to their talk and walked back to the barn now the sun had risen. He stood in the doorway and saw the few barrels of spilled pipeweed and signs of barrels that had stood around them but were there no longer. He interrupted them while they were stealing his weed. Tarkil turned to face the smouldering ruins as he continued to think. They killed him and set his house on fire so no one would know. But where is his wife?
“I heard Momma screaming,” Lilly said. Tarkil slowly walked around the barn and stopped abruptly. A woman’s nightdress lay on the ground, ripped from its wearer, but no sign of the farmer’s wife could be seen. He picked up the tattered remains as he bent down to see the footprints the murderers left. There were at least four from the differences in size and tread. He followed the trail to the back of the barn. His jaw tightened as he imagined the reason for the screams the child had heard.
The pain in his hands became unbearable and he looked down to see the burns on them torn open, bleeding and raw from helping pull on the rope to retrieve the farmer's body.
He headed for the rainbarrel that caught the barn’s runoff hoping to plunge his hands in and cool them, but found the barrel had a rough plank placed over it, a heavy rock on top. That’s strange, he thought. Tarkil pushed the rock off the barrel then removed the plank and found himself staring at Mrs. Greenbank's lifeless eyes.
He leaned back against the barn and wiped his dripping hands on his breeches after removing her body from the barrel. With a glance down at the now covered body of the farmer's wife, he could find no reason other than malice for their treating her body in such a degrading fashion. Mrs. Greenbanks had been a gentle woman who had opened her hearth and her home to him, who offered strangers comfort and succour if they asked.
Yet these strangers had tortured and killed her and her husband, then set fire to the house trapping their daughters to burn alive inside. It sickened him what men could do to innocents. It wasn’t the first time he’d faced it, but each time it was equally hard to stomach. These were not men, he cursed, these were worse than any animal and deserved to be fed to the orcs.
Tarkil took Mr. Goatleaf aside from his wife who still sat with the two little girls, telling the man about his find. After spending a few more moments settling some details, Tarkil knelt by Lilly who had finally fallen asleep in the safety of the neighbour’s arms. “I’m sorry, little one, there was nothing I could do for them, I got here too late. But I promise you I will find the men that murdered your family and they will pay for this.”
He knew she didn’t hear what he vowed, but he stood and with a nod to Mrs. Goatleaf he headed back to the tree where he’d tethered Nâlo. “Come on, boy, let’s follow those cart tracks.”
~ ~Notes~ ~
Tarkil's name -- the name is one Tolkien gave to the sixth King of Arnor. It is Quenya/Westron meaning "High Man". Though in the appendices it is spelled Tarcil, in the Peoples of Middle Earth, the Professor spells as I have used it here -- Tarkil. I have chosen this spelling as I figure over time, names would evolve and change.
"There isn't no pipe-weed now," said Hob; "at least only for the Chief's men. All the stocks seem to have gone. We do hear that waggon-loads of it went away down the old road out of the Southfarthing, over Sarn Ford way. That would be the end o' last year, after you left.” ROTK – Homeward Bound.
In the Unfinished Tales – The Hunt for the Ring, it is said, “Saruman had long taken an interest in the Shire – because Gandalf did, and he was suspicious of him; and because (again in secret imitation of Gandalf) he had taken to the ‘Halflings’ leaf, and needed supplies, but in pride (having once scoffed at Gandalf’s use of the weed) kept this as secret as he could. Latterly, other motives were added. He liked to extend his power, especially into Gandalf’s province, and he found that the money he could provide for the purchase of ‘leaf’ was giving him power and was corrupting some of the Hobbits, especially the Bracegirdles, who owned many plantations, and so also the Sackville-Baggineses.
Some while ago one of Saruman’s most trusted servants (yet a ruffianly fellow, an outlaw, driven from Dunland,) where many said that he had Orc-blood) had returned from the borders of the Shire, where he had been negotiating for the purchase of leaf and other supplies. Saruman was beginning to store Isengard against war.
Therefore I’ve taken the liberty of assuming the ‘ruffianly sallow-faced fellow’ could have extended some of his efforts at purloining pipeweed from the Bree area as well as leaf from the Shire.
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