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Matter of Honor, A: 12. Diplomacy and Double-cross
Silence fell in the Dunlending encampment as a dozen pairs of dark eyes fixed on Aragorn, awaiting his answer to their chieftain's question.
"Well?" Dugaric hooked meaty thumbs in his belt and stared at him expectantly. "Where is she? What have you done with the girl?"
Now that her kinfolks' intentions for her were clear, Aragorn had no intention of revealing that she was hiding with Halbarad's son in the woods just beyond the next hill, and yet he could think of no reply that would do more than buy a little time. "She is safe," he said finally. "We left her at our camp at Tharbad. We will go now and bring her to you."
"They are savages, these northerners!" roared the one called Melnag, the murdered peddler's brother, jabbing a finger at the Halbarad's chest. "You cannot trust them to bring back the girl."
"You will not insult guests to our camp," Dugaric warned. "They came here freely, did they not?" He beckoned to a boy watering horses in a trough near the barn. "Telgar! Take the travelers' horses to drink. They have come a long way and are weary."
Melnag grunted his displeasure and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "What kind of man would leave a woman alone without protection?"
"It was no Dúnadan who raped a woman and killed her in front of her daughter," Halbarad shot back
"Watch your tongue, Northerner!" Melnag snarled, his hand moving to his dagger hilt.
Dugaric thrust out a meaty arm to stop his kinsman's advance on Halbarad. "Silence, Melnag! Or I'll cut out your tongue with my own blade!"
"Yen -- the girl is not alone," Aragorn broke in, fearful that by even uttering her name he might violate some obscure Dunlending prohibition, and suddenly wishing he had devoted a bit more attention to the study of their social customs. "One of our men is guarding her. You have my word that she will not come to harm by the hands or neglect of the Dúnedain."
"One of your men is with her?" Melnag sneered.
"Quiet, Melnag!" Dugaric's eyes narrowed. "Tell me, Ranger, why did you not simply bring her with you?"
"The girl has been through a horrible ordeal," Aragorn said, "She was exhausted, and frightened. We were not sure where to find her clan. With the Karani bandits roaming freely about, we thought it best to leave her in a place of safety and return for her once we found her family. Now that we have done so, we will depart."
"The road is not safe," Dugaric said. "It would be ungracious of me to allow you to risk your lives thrice traveling through such dangerous lands. I will send men with you to see you safely to Tharbad and back."
"That is a most gracious offer, but not necessary," Aragorn said, as beside him Halbarad stiffened. "My kinsman and I are well able to look out for ourselves."
"I insist," Dugaric said smoothly, spreading his meaty hands in a gesture of magnanimity whose true intent was undisguised. "I can see that you are weary. Come, let your man here see to the girl's return while you enjoy the hospitality of my home."
"I cannot allow my captain to take this journey alone."
"Is he not up to the task?" Dugaric asked, peering closely at a glowering Halbarad. "He seems fit enough. And as my guest, you enjoy the protection of this house. We could do no less for one who has been a friend to the Ruliri."
Having negotiated with chieftains, princes, and warlords from Rhun to far Harad, Aragorn knew when he had been outmaneuvered. Irritated at having been so done by Dugaric, he nodded toward Halbarad, whose knuckles were tense on his sword hilt. "May I have a word with my Captain?"
"As you wish." With a slight bow, Dugaric stepped back and gestured for his men to give the Rangers privacy.
Once they had it, Halbarad wasted no words. "Twelve swords, six horses, and a couple of half-grown boys," he said spat out as soon as the Dugaric's men were out of earshot. "We can fight our way out and make a run for it."
Taking him by the elbow, Aragorn spun him around so his back was to the Dunlendings. "No," he said quietly, with a rueful glance at his injured hand. "The odds would be very poor. In any case, I do not intend to fight these men unless I have to. They have done us no harm."
"Yet," Halbarad hissed.
"Dugaric is a man of his word. I will be treated as a guest until such time as they realize we have betrayed them."
"You mean until such time as they realize we don't intend to deliver the girl to them so they can finish the job their enemies started. Once that happens, they'll gleefully slit our throats."
"I have no intention of being here when they come to that realization. Tonight, once they are asleep, I will slip out of the camp and make my way north. I will meet you at Tharbad."
Halbarad's face was bald skepticism. "You plan to sneak out of a camp full of armed Dunlendings, just like that."
"Believe me when I tell you I have sneaked out of far worse places than a camp full of armed Dunlendings," Aragorn said. "You must lead them back to Tharbad, but slowly, to give Húrin and Yenne time to reach safety. Give your escort the slip before you reach Tharbad and leave me a signal near our outpost."
Halbarad's expression remained as rigid as his shoulders. "I am not leaving here without you."
He locked his gaze on Halbarad. "Yes, you are," he said. "Trust me, Halbarad."
Halbarad opened his mouth, probably to tell him he was a raving fool, but Dugaric had evidently had enough of their private council. "My men are ready to leave," he announced, ambling toward them and jabbing a thumb to indicate a group of men standing beside their saddled mounts. "My brother Veraric will accompany your captain, along with Melnag and his cousin, Tulric."
Aragorn sized up the trio with an eye to how much trouble they might pose for Halbarad if he was forced to fight them. Melnag had already demonstrated a typical Dunlending temperament - hot-blooded, short-tempered, and suspicious of outsiders – but with his scrawny build he would be no match for Halbarad with fists or steel. The two men beside him, though, strapping hefty packs onto their saddles, were another story. The larger of the two was built like a bull, and the other was as broad as Halbarad, if not quite as tall. Curious about the absence of the young man who was betrothed to Yenne, Aragorn cast his gaze about the loose cluster of warriors and onlookers. "Will your son be accompanying them as well?"
"The girl is his betrothed, is she not?"
"This is a matter for Begaric's family," Dugaric said gruffly. "It is not for anyone else to interfere."
"I see," Aragorn said, wondering if the boy's absence bespoke dissatisfaction with his clan's remedy for restoring his betrothed's tarnished honor. Dissent could be a useful weakness to exploit. Turning to Halbarad, he addressed him in Westron. "Take these men back to where we left the girl, and bring her safely here."
"Aye, my lord."
Halbarad's short bow and tone of exaggerated decorum told Aragorn everything he needed to know about his kinsman's opinion of his plan. Gripping his arm in a comradely gesture, he leaned close enough to murmur a warning. "Stall them," he said in Sindarin. "And watch your temper."
Halbarad returned the clasp with a press-lipped nod and mounted without a word. As he nudged his horse forward, a Dunlending fell in on either side of him. Dugaric was taking no chances.
With Halbarad and his escorts gone, Dugaric invited Aragorn into his house. The largest in the village, it was nevertheless smaller than the Dúnedain chief's house that Halbarad's family now occupied. It was also far more humble, with dirt floors, a central hearth that vented through the roof, and a simple cowhide flap hung across the doorway. The interior was dingy and heavy with badly vented woodsmoke. Dugaric dropped down onto a pile of threadbare cushions and gestured for Aragorn to occupy another. "Sit down and relax. You are limping. Were you injured in the fight?"
Aragorn lowered himself onto the cushions as gracefully as he could manage, and accepted a mug of ale from a woman who emerged from a back doorway. Whether she was a wife, daughter, servant, or slave, Dugaric did not bother to explain. "Just an old battle wound," he answered with a rueful grimace, kneading the muscle above the knee. "It aches every time the weather changes."
Dugaric grunted his sympathy and motioned to a plate of meat and bread the woman placed on the floor between them. "Eat," he said. "You must be hungry after your journey."
"Thank you," Aragorn said, following Dugaric's lead and spearing a hunk of meat with his dagger. It was venison, tough and stringy as an old rope; but at least it was not spoiled, and compared to some of the more exotic regional delicacies foisted upon him during his sojourns in the far countries, a simple plate of ropy meat was a welcome sight. He noticed Dugaric studying him as he ate, and tried to remember if the Dunlendings attached some significance to eating with one hand over the other. In some southern tribes, it was considered unclean to eat with the left hand, though at the moment his right one throbbed like a speared Warg, and he had tucked it discreetly in his lap to conceal the swelling.
"Your men are not seen much in this land anymore," Dugaric said, relieving Aragorn's concern by gnawing on a joint of venison with both hands. "What brings you here now?"
With the ease of a lifetime spent concealing his true identity and purpose, Aragorn had reflexively concocted a plausible excuse, containing some semblance of the truth. Word had come to the Dúnedain of clan unrest amongst the Dunlendings, he planned to say, and he and Halbarad traveled south to assess any danger it might pose to travelers on the North – South road. Now, though, as Dugaric expectantly waited for an answer, he found himself revisiting his true purpose for traveling here – a purpose he had put aside in the rush to save the girl. Though it went against all his most deeply ingrained instincts to reveal his most troubling secret to a man like Dugaric, he was, after all, exactly the sort of man who was most likely to be able to resolve it. In fact, as he realized belatedly that Dugaric could himself be the very man he sought, Aragorn found himself studying him as he had studied the dead Karani. Dugaric's face looked about as careworn as his own, putting him at around 35 or 40 years of age if he were a full-blooded Dunlending. The cheekbones and brow were heavier, the features coarser than a Dúnadan's, though. He realized he was staring rudely and shook himself out of the fixation on Dugaric's features. "I seek a man," he said finally.
Dugaric tossed aside a bone. "Any particular man?"
"He was born in the years after the Fell Winter, when the Rangers manned the crossing at Tharbad. His mother's name was Bega." Though the Dunlendings did not mark the years with a calendar, the memory of the Fell Winter was imprinted on every society in Eriador. Aragorn had no doubt Dugaric had heard of it.
"Bega is a common enough name for a woman. What was his father's name? That is how our ancestors are reckoned."
"His father was a man of my people."
Dugaric raised a bushy eyebrow. "I have heard no such tale," he said.
"No Dúnadan who married a Dunlending woman?"
Dugaric chuckled. "Do you know how we Dunlendings take our wives, Northerner?" He whistled sharply through his teeth, bringing the woman who had served the food and drink scurrying from the kitchen. "Take off your shawl, wife," he ordered her. Without a word, she untied the headscarf she wore and pulled it off, revealing faded locks of golden hair in braids wrapped about her head. With a grunt, he dismissed her and puffed a plume of smoke at Aragorn. "Do you see?"
"A woman of the Rohirrim? You would marry one of your most hated enemies?"
"The Forgoil are our enemies. The women are just women. Do you not steal wives from your enemies?"
Aragorn bit back an astonighed laugh. "No."
"Taking the women of your enemies makes a man strong, and destroys his enemy's honor," Dugaric said with a satisfied smile. "I took her in a raid on the Westfold. She was thirteen years old. She hated me for a long time, but she is a good wife, now."
"Is that the only way you find your wives, then?"
"Of course not," Dugaric said. "I was a young man when I stole her, not yet a chief or even a man of many horses. I had not the bride price to buy a woman of our own folk. For my son's bride, though, I agreed to pay Begaric three horses, one cow, and two goats. It could be that one of your men bought a wife this way. If not one of our own girls, then an extra one we got in a raid."
"If a Dúnadan married a Dunlending girl, it would not bring dishonor on her family?"
"A marriage, no. A poor family would marry off a daughter to anyone with a scrawny chicken. And after the bad winter, there were many clanless widows and orphans, with no one to speak for them. Most of them starved. Maybe this Bega of yours found a man to put some meat in her cookpot." Dugaric chuckled at his joke and reached into a low cabinet behind him. "Do the Northmen share our weakness for the halflings' leaf?"
With a smile, Aragorn accepted the worn leather pouch and sniffed its contents, supposing he should not be surprised to find Longbottom Leaf in the hands of a Dunlending two hundred miles from the Shire. He was not sure he wanted to know how it got there. "Some of us do indeed." Nodding his appreciation, he packed his pipe and passed the pouch back to Dugaric. With both men smoking, the sweet scent of pipeweed soon mingled with the ubiquitous woodsmoke, cloaking the sharper smells of too many people, too seldom washed, living in too small a space. "So you have heard that the Rangers at Tharbad protected the Dunlendings there after the Fell Winter," he prodded.
"Our clan was living further east then, in the shelter of the mountains," Dugaric said, leaning back to ease his full belly. "Many starved in the bad winter, or were taken by wolves or orcs. In the spring, the fields were flooded, so they could not plant crops, and all the livestock had already been butchered for food or eaten by wolves. There was much raiding amongst the clans, even as you see now. While our men fought, the women and children fled west, toward the city, but they found it abandoned; the river crossing blocked by the floods. They were pursued by our enemies and would have been slaughtered, but the Northmen were there. They protected them until warriors of my clan could drive the marauders back to the hills. After the waters receded, some of the orphans and widows sheltered in the ruins of the town for a time, because they had nowhere else to go. I suppose it is possible one of the Northmen sired a child on some desperate, clanless woman. But surely you know everyone born in those times would be long dead. My grandfather was born the year after the floods, and he died an old man when my son was just a baby."
So Dugaric was indeed as young as he looked, and therefore could not be Bega's son, Aragorn reckoned, though he supposed the grandfather could be. The Ranger post at Tharbad had not fallen into disuse until about twenty years after the Fell Winter. "There is no one among your people who is unusually long-lived? A man who appears younger than his age?"
Dugaric scowled. "You speak strangely, friend. Tell me plainly – why do you seek this man?"
Aragorn masked his reluctance to answer with a long drink of beer. Though he could scarcely abide revealing to a Dunlending a secret he had been ashamed to tell even Elrond, who but a Dunlending would hold the key to unlocking it? He set the mug down, clenching his jaw with distaste at the words he was about to say. "The Dúnadan who sired him was my…grandfather," he said. It would be too difficult to explain how his own father could have been siring offspring nearly 90 years ago. "If he is dead, then I must know if there is a son still living, or a grandson. There is an inheritance at stake."
"An inheritance!" Dugaric sputtered, nearly choking on his beer. "Don't say that that word so loudly! You'll find that every Ruliri in Dunland suddenly recalls having a Northman for a grandfather." He chuckled and wiped his moustache with his sleeve. "How do you expect to find this long-lost cousin?"
It was hopeless, Aragorn was coming to realize. He already knew the Dunlendings kept no written records, and their shorter lifespans made it extremely unlikely that any still living remembered Arathorn. He half-regretted not having taken Halbarad's advice and simply let sleeping dogs lie. The trail he sought had almost certainly gone cold decades ago. That Dugaric knew of no man with a longer lifespan than an average Dunlending suggested that Arathorn's son had not been here for many years, if indeed he ever had been. A half-Dúnadan boy could have been captured in a raid, sold to the Corsairs or killed in one of the clan skirmishes the Dunlendings were so fond of before he had lived long enough for his lineage to attract any notice. Finding him would be an unending, years-devouring quest, and Aragorn had not the time to spare for it. He had already pledged himself to another one. "I had hoped to find someone who remembered him," he said wearily.
Dugaric settled back against his cushions. "If you cannot find this man, what becomes of his inheritance?"
"It will go to me."
Dugaric saluted him with a raised cup. "Then you are indeed a man of honor, my friend. What kind of inheritance do you stand to gain?"
Aragorn shrugged. "A bit of land, and a title."
"We do not go in much for titles here," Dugaric said. "What if turns out this cousin of yours does not desire it?"
Aragorn smiled in amusement, but he had already considered the possibility. To a Dunlending, Gondor would be nothing but a far-off foreign place, and Arnor even less. A formal letter of abdication could be acquired, if Bega's son was indeed a lawful heir and had no ambition to rule. But such a letter, even if witnessed by Elrond himself, would do nothing but provide Denethor all he needed to oppose Aragorn's claim to the throne. He need not even bother to question the legitimacy of the document itself -- the mere suspicion that the alleged heir of Elendil had produced pffspring through a dalliance with a Dunlending would be sufficient proof for the lords of Gondor that the northern line of Dúnedain had fallen into complete depravity. Only if Aragorn could determine that Bega's son was not fathered by Arathorn at all, or that he had died without issue, was there hope his own claim would prevail. Realizing he had been staring into the fire again, he looked up to find Dugaric patiently watching him through a wreath of pipeweed smoke. No fool Breelander, this one, to chatter away and tell more than he learned. "I don't know," he said finally.
"It might cost you, you know."
"What might cost me?"
"To buy him off."
Now here was something he had not considered, but given Dunlending mercenary tendencies and social customs, Aragorn could well imagine the son of Bega demanding a hundred cattle and five Rohirrim virgins in exchange for his succession rights. It would not matter what price he set - to buy the throne of Gondor at any price at all was inconceivable. Suddenly realizing how bone weary he was, he glanced out through the open door flap. The shadows outside had deepened, and the insects were singing. By now, if Húrin had followed orders and not revealed his location, Halbarad should have bypassed him and led the Dunlendings halfway back to Tharbad. Tonight, with luck, they could both give the Dunlendings the slip. Aragorn made a show of rubbing the stiffness out of his neck. "Your hospitality is beyond compare, Dugaric, but I find myself weary from the journey."
With a snap of his fingers, Dugaric summoned his wife. "Fetch Telgar," he said. "Tell him to make up a bed for our guest in the men's house." When his wife had gone to do his bidding, Dugaric snuffed out his pipe and rose to his feet. "Come. You will stay in our barracks tonight, with the other single men. It is humble accommodation, but it is not proper for a man to sleep under the same roof as a woman who is not his wife."
Bunking with several burly Dunlending guards would most definitely not suit Aragorn's plan to sneak out of the camp undetected. "That is most generous," he answered, "but I would be quite comfortable sleeping in your barn with my horse."
"I am sure you would." The Dunlending's mouth twitched beneath his whiskers. "But I would be a poor host to allow a fellow chieftain to sleep in a barn when I can offer him a bed. Come; let me show you your accommodations."
Accepting defeat, Aragorn set down his beer mug and allowed himself to be led to the barracks.
The Dunlending on Halbarad's right, Veraric, was as big as a bull. The one on his left was scarcely smaller. They sandwiched Halbarad between them as they rode, to prevent him from escaping, with the shifty Melnag riding directly behind him for insurance. Unlike their chief, this lot made no pretense of pampering an honored guest. It was perfectly clear what status Halbarad enjoyed in their company – a prisoner. A prisoner who was, for the moment, biding his time. To Halbarad's enormous relief, they had passed the place Húrin had been told to wait uneventfully, with no sign of him or the girl. Now, if the boy followed orders, he would be on the way back to Tharbad through the wild, avoiding the Dunlendings, Ruliri and Karani alike. All that was left for Halbarad was to wait for dark, lose his escort detail, and head straight back to the Ruliri village for Aragorn. He had no intention at all of following Aragorn's ridiculous orders to go on to Tharbad and wait for him there. He had agreed to this ruse only to give Húrin and Yenne a head start.
To his great relief, Veraric called a halt as dusk was darkening over the hills. "Up there," he grunted, pointing to a clump of oaks atop a grassy hillside. It was the longest speech Halbarad had heard out of him in six hours of riding. When the horses were tended, each Dunlending broke into his pack for a cold supper of dried meat. Evidently they were not much for cooking, Halbarad reckoned. Since no one offered him any food, he rummaged through his own pack and finally came up with a hunk of dried meat that didn't smell too bad yet. The Dunlendings did not make a fire, but it was a warm enough night without it, with a mild breeze blowing from the sea, crickets chirping in the grass, and a sky full of stars. Despite the threat of marauding Karani, the Dunlendings wasted no time firing up their pipes, reminding Halbarad that these were farmers and herders who occasionally passed the time raiding their cousins' camps for women and cows – stealth was not their strong suit. Obviously they had never given thought to how far the smell of pipeweed carried out in the open.
"You don't smoke, Northman?" It was Veraric, the two-legged bullock, with his pipe clamped down between his yellow teeth as if he might suddenly decide to bite it in two.
Halbarad smiled agreeably, or at least as agreeably as he could manage while the prisoner of a pack of misguided, bloodthirsty yokels. "Not much" he answered, somewhat proud of his effort at his diplomacy. "I suppose I am something of an oddity amongst my kin, for that."
"We all smoke," Melnag announced proudly.
"Among our kind, only the women do not smoke," Tulric added with a sneer.
Halbarad felt his smile stiffen, as words that were most definitely not diplomatic made their way to his lips. "How convenient for you. It must make it easier to tell everyone apart."
The Dunlendings looked at one another, trying to determine whether they had just been insulted. Predictably, they determined they had. "Now, see here!" Melnag said, rising to his full, if insubstantial, height. "You cannot insult our women like that!"
"Why not?" Halbarad asked, cringing slightly as he recalled Aragorn's warning about his temper. "Because then you'll just have to kill them?"
In the next instant his head rocked sideways as Veraric's fist impacted his jaw. "Watch your tongue, Ranger!"
Melnag stomped over and stood glaring down at him. "We have a responsibility to protect our women's honor, and that of their families!"
Halbarad rubbed his face, absolutely sure that he should not say the words he was about to say. "I noticed what a good job you did of protecting your brother and his family."
This time, Halbarad was ready for Melnag's punch. He ducked to the side, letting it glance off his shoulder. Before Melnag could recover his balance, he was on his feet, landing a blow to the Dunlending's jaw that snapped him backwards like a sapling in a gale. Melnag wavered on his feet for a moment, leaning more and more precariously to the left, before falling flat on his face in the dirt.
As Melnag hit the ground, the point of a dagger jabbed Halbarad in the ribs and stayed there. "I ought to gut you where you stand, Northman," growled Veraric.
"Then why don't you?" Halbarad shot back. "Afraid of your brother?"
"Not as much as you think," Veraric answered. "You're worth more to me alive. In fact, you just did me a favor."
"What do you mean by that?"
Veraric chuckled. "You'll see soon enough."
In the next instant, a blow like a hammer landed at the base of Halbarad's skull.
The village bunkhouse was a ramshackle affair with a dirt floor, no windows and the standard cowhide flap for a door, although the chinks in the walls probably let in enough light to see by in the daytime. Dugaric showed Aragorn to an empty pallet – not surprisingly, the one farthest from the doorway – and bid him goodnight. Aragorn laid his cloak out on the straw mattress and sorted through his pack before turning to regard his roommates, who sat watching him in the light of the single candle like two very thinly whiskered owls. Before departing, Dugaric had briefly led them outside to receive what Aragorn had no doubt was a stern warning not to let him out of their sight on pain of death.
Ramic, the elder by a few years, had clearly taken these instructions to heart. Perching ramrod straight on his pallet, he glared at Aragorn as if expecting him to pull a dagger and slit the throat of everyone in the village. Telgar, somewhat younger with a babyish roundness lingering in his cheeks, was obviously a much less suspicious lad. He sat loosely on his bunk, smiling congenially until Aragorn was forced to smile back out of simple amusement. "You're a Northman," said Telgar.
Aragorn nodded in agreement. "Why, yes, I am."
"Don't talk to him, Telgar," Ramic warned.
"Dugaric said he's our guest," Telgar countered. "I'm just showing him Ruliri hospitality."
Ramic turned a look of disgust on him. "You're stupid, Telgar."
"I promise I'll be no trouble," Aragorn assured him. "I've had a hard day and I just want to get a good night's sleep." He took in the dim surroundings. In addition to the pallets occupied by himself and the boys, a fourth stood empty, covered in a thin blanket. "Does Dugaric's son sleep here as well?"
Telgar looked at the empty bed. "He's supposed to, but --"
Ramic cut him off. "None of your business, Northman."
"I just wondered," Aragorn said. "I thought he might be upset at what happened to his betrothed and her family." Telgar's gaze flickered to the glaring Ramic and then down to his shoes. He shrugged. "Well then," Aragorn said, reaching into his pack for a silver flask, "this will do just the trick to get the soreness out of my muscles." As the boys watched, he uncapped the flask and sniffed the contents with a sigh of anticipation.
"What is it?" asked Telgar.
"It's called Miruvor," answered Aragorn, taking a small sip and closing his eyes in contentment. "Mmmm, that hits the spot."
Ramic's eyes narrowed. "I've never heard of Miruvor."
"That's because it's Elvish," Aragorn whispered conspiratorially. "It's very rare, and horribly expensive, but better than the finest Haradric brandy." Telgar, who in all likelihood had never heard of Haradric brandy, either, was licking his lips now. Aragorn regarded his companions with a skeptical eye. "You could try it, but…it's a man's drink. It would probably be too much for you."
"It would not!" Telgar protested. "I can hold my drink."
Aragorn pressed his lips together and looked thoughtfully at his flask for a moment. "Well, all right. Just a taste."
"Don't do it, Telgar!" warned Ramic. "It's a trick!"
"What trick?" asked Aragorn. "I'm drinking it myself." To prove his point, he took another small sip.
"Please," Telgar pleaded. "Let me try it."
Aragorn handed him the flask. "Just a little, now. It's very strong stuff."
Telgar took a deep breath and raised the flask to his lips. His face relaxed in bliss as the liquid trickled down his throat. When he opened his eyes, he smiled in rapturous satisfaction. "I've never tasted anything like that," he said. "Ramic, you have to try this!"
"No chance," Ramic said. "It's probably poisoned."
"It isn't poisoned, you fool," Telgar argued. "We've both had some already." He narrowed his eyes at Ramic. "Don't tell me you're scared."
"Of course I'm not scared!" Ramic yelped indignantly. Snatching the flask from Telgar, he tipped his head back and downed an entire mouthful that had him gasping for breath once he got it past his gullet. Aragorn watched as he flushed the color of cherries from his neck all the way up to this hairline. Still, it was another minute before he could open his eyes.
"Strong, isn't it?" said Telgar, reaching for the flask. "Give it back."
"In a minute," Ramic replied, taking another huge mouthful before passing it back. With a glance at Aragorn, he shrugged. "It's all right, I suppose. Our ale is better, though."
Telgar took another hefty swig. "It is not better than our ale. Our ale tastes like horse piss."
"And how would you know what horse piss tastes like? Have you been drinking your mare's?"
"Whore's son. Give me the flask back." Telgar's speech was already starting to slur, Aragorn noted with satisfaction. He leaned back against the wall and rested while he watched the boys finish off the flask. He could not afford to relax completely, not with the small amount of potion in him that he'd been forced to ingest, but he would need all his strength for the long trek back to Tharbad. Going to the stable for the horse would be too risky. He would have to leave Daisy behind and walk.
In less than an hour, both boys were lolling senseless on their pallets. Aragorn rose and retrieved the empty flash from Telgar's limp hand before slipping outside. The night was warm and muggy, but he was relieved to be out of the stuffy bunkhouse. The sky was moonless and full of stars, the houses and tents were silent shapes in the darkness, and he could see no movement in the village. He took a moment to get his bearings and listen for signs of movement, then he made his way unhurriedly to the privy, counting on his movement across the camp to arouse the attention of any night watchmen. If challenged at this point, he would have a plausible excuse for his appearance.
When he emerged from the outhouse, the camp was still silent. Instead of turning back toward the bunkhouse, he slid quietly around the corner of the privy and made for the edge of the woods, fifty yards away.
Too late, he heard footsteps behind him. "I think you took a wrong turn, Thorongil."
Aragorn stopped in his tracks. He had one moment in which to decide whether to run, fight, or give up. With his knee, running was out of the question. He could kill Dugaric without much difficulty. Even in the shape he was in, he could spin around and drive a dagger into the chieftain's eye before he could so much as utter a sound. He let his hand relax at his side, realizing he was not yet ready to do that. Instead, he slowly turned around, keeping his hands at his sides. "Did I? I must have lost my bearings in the dark."
"It's easy to do," Dugaric said mildly. "Even I get turned around sometimes. Allow me to help you find your way back to your quarters."
"You're very kind," Aragorn replied lamely.
Dugaric's heavy steps mirrored his own as the chieftain walked at his shoulder. "Do you always carry your pack to the latrine?" he asked conversationally.
"Why yes," Aragorn answered. "It's customary among my people."
"You Northmen have strange customs," Dugaric said. "Here we are," he said, holding back the flap at the bunkhouse doorway. "I trust you will sleep well the rest of the night."
Aragorn nodded and ducked back into the dark barracks. "I'm sure I will."
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