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Matter of Honor, A: 13. The Price of a Chieftain
It was not the spiking pain shooting through his skull that surprised Halbarad. The Dunlending had hit him hard, probably with the hilt of his dagger. What surprised him was finding himself hanging crossways over the back of his horse with his face resting against soft belly fur and his freshly-healed ribs grinding against the hard edge of a saddle. When he tried to right himself, he discovered that his hands were tied behind his back and his feet were secured to something on the other side of the horse. He was trussed up like a sack of wool going to market.
He cracked his eyes open, swallowing bile as the rhythmically striding legs of the horse came slowly into focus, long dark shapes moving against the dark earth, barely visible in grey light. Birdsongs echoing in the cool air confirmed the approach of dawn. He must have been unconscious for hours. If they were heading for Tharbad, they would have reached it by now. Setting his jaw against the pain in the back of his skull and the nausea in his gut, he managed to lift his head a few inches to better see his surroundings. Flat, unfamiliar woodland stretched out on either side of the road. Ahead of him he could see another horse, a limp figure draped across its back in a posture much like his own. He could not see who it was. With a groan, he let his aching head fall back down to rest against the horse's side.
"He's awake." It was Tulric's voice, calling out from behind him.
Veraric's answer came from in front. "We're almost there. Just keep an eye on him."
"Untie me, Veraric!" Despite his dire situation, Halbarad could not suppress a chuckle at realizing the identity of the other prisoner – Melnag. "This is not the way to Tharbad! What is the meaning of this?"
"I thought I told you to gag him," Veraric said.
"I did gag him," Tulric answered. "He must have worked it loose. Don't worry, Melnag," he continued scornfully, "there will be plenty of time to collect your deflowered little niece later. Only we've decided to give her to someone who appreciates her market value better than you do!"
Melnag jerked in his bonds. "Traitors! Dugaric will make you eat your own balls for this!"
Veraric came into Halbarad's view, wheeling his horse around to strike Melnag a sideways blow to the head. "Shut your trap, you little worm."
Halbarad let his eyes drift closed and rested his head once again against the horse's warm side, feigning unconsciousness. Now that it was clear what Veraric was – no blindly loyal and probably stupid clansman after all, but an ambitious, treacherous mercenary who wouldn't hesitate to slit his throat or sell him to the Corsairs for a galley slave – there was nothing to gain by further provoking him.
As the sun breached the treeline, the landscape became marshy and patched with wetlands. It became evident they had spent the night traveling east, away from Tharbad, following the swampy southern valley of the Swanfleet. As far as Halbarad knew, none now dwelled here, even Dunlendings. But before much longer, a sentry somewhere ahead of them called out a challenge. When Veraric answered, and arrows did not fly, Halbarad guessed that they had been expected. As they rode into a rough camp of ramshackle tents, a crowd of Dunlendings approached them. Halbarad felt hands loosening the straps around his legs, then he was grabbed by the shirt and belt and dumped unceremoniously onto the ground. With his hands bound, he was not even able to break his fall. His head exploded in pain and he felt his knees tuck into his chest, instinctively protecting him from a blow he expected at any moment.
"What is this?" Someone poked him in the ribs with the toe of his boot, evoking a gasp and a grunt of pain.
"A Northman," Veraric answered.
"A Northman, eh? He could be worth something." Halbarad sucked in a breath and squeezed open an eye to see a pot-bellied, squashed-nosed Dunlending standing over him with a pipe clenched between his teeth. "And this other?" Squashed-Nose slid his boot over a few feet to nudge the prone and squirming Melnag, hurling muffled and unintelligible oaths. Evidently someone had thought to replace his gag.
"Melnag, the peddler's brother."
Squashed-nose turned to Veraric with his hands on his hips. "The men you had me send after the peddler have not returned."
"They're dead. This Northman and his chief killed them. Then they came to Dugaric to tell him they stashed the girl somewhere up by Tharbad. They were leading us to Tharbad, to turn her over to Melnag."
"Melnag? This worm? What is he to her?"
"Her father's brother. He claims the right of honor, to cleanse the bloodline."
Squashed-Nose grunted. "My men were ordered to keep their hands off her. We agreed that she's mine, to do to with as I please. As for this Melnag of yours, I care not for his honor, but he's worth nothing to me. I don't know why you didn't kill him and be done with it."
"He could yet be useful."
"How? You were foolish to bring him here. Now he'll just blab to Dugaric of your treachery."
Veraric stood looking over Melnag with a sneer. "I will happily kill him – but not until I can kill Dugaric as well. I need your help to do it."
Squashed-nose grunted in surprise. "You think to do away with your brother, eh? And why should I help you in this treachery?"
"Dugaric is a thorn in your side, Relnar. You raid our camps, we raid yours. Neither of us has anything worth raiding anyway. As long as this goes on, the Karani and Ruliri are both weak. United as allies, we would be strong. Instead of attacking each other, we could combine our strength against our true enemies – the Forgoil and these meddling Northmen. We could control the roads, the river crossings, the passes, instead of these meddling Northerners. The Forgoil would bow to us; the Breelanders would pay us for protection."
Relnar considered this while chewing on his pipe. "I already have men in Bree, and I am near to controlling the southern road. What do you have to offer me?"
"Tulric can be trusted. Send him back to Dugaric with a message that you are holding me, Melnag, and the Northman hostage. Offer to exchange Melnag and me for the Northern chieftain."
Relnar's head cocked with interest. "He has the Northman chief as well?"
Veraric nodded. "He is holding him hostage for the return of Begaric's daughter."
"Yes," Relnar murmured. "He could be quite a valuable prize indeed. I know a party who would be quite interested in the chieftain of the Northerners."
"Dugaric will agree to exchange the Northman for me and Melnag," Veraric continued, "and as my own dear brother, and our chief, he will lead the treaty party himself. Right into ambush."
"What do I get out of this?"
"Me, as an ally."
"Begaric's daughter, and both of the Northmen, to do with as you wish."
"And what do you get?"
Veraric's face broke into a dangerous smile. "I get to be the Chief of the Ruliri."
Relnar mirrored his expression with a crooked grin. "A fair deal, my friend." He clapped Veraric on the shoulder, then, without warning, walked over to Tulric and slugged him hard in the stomach. With Tulric doubled over, he smashed the hilt of his dagger into his temple and then opened a gash in his upper arm. Wiping off the blood on Tulric's own shirtsleeve, Relnar grinned at Veraric, showing a mouthful of broken teeth. "We might as well make this look good."
Aragorn started to consciousness, realizing only as his eyes slowly focused on a dirty straw mattress that he had fallen asleep at all. He rolled over and sat up, groaning in disgust at his weakness. After Dugaric escorted him back to the bunkhouse, he had lain down on his pallet with the intention of resting for just a few hours, hoping to outlast the chieftain's vigilance and slip away before dawn. But evidently his exhaustion had finally betrayed him; and now, with morning light filtering through the chinks in the rough plank wall, escape would be impossible until dark. He scratched absently at a flea bite and looked around, trying to recall what it was that had awakened him. Clearly not the two Dunlending boys still sprawled senseless on their bunks. Though the plan had worked, at least partially, he now regretted giving them all of the Miruvor. A swallow of the restorative cordial would have been most welcome.
"Disobedient whelp! I should kill you for your impudence!"
The voice was Dugaric's. Aragorn strode to the door without bothering to lace his boots, stepping outside in time to see him backhand his son across the face with enough force to send the young man staggering into the arms of an onlooker.
"And you!" Dugaric redirected his fury at stooped figure in a threadbare cloak, standing beside his son. "You were warned never to return here!" Though Aragorn could not see the person's face, he guessed by the short stature and frail build that it was an old woman. Strands of wiry grey hair escaped from a hood pulled over her head, and she was bent so far forward over her walking stick that she looked as if she would fall over if it were removed. The fingers clutching it were gnarled and twisted with age. Dugaric took another step towards her and raised his hand as if to strike her.
"No!" Dugaric's son rushed forward and blocked his father's raised hand. "Leave her alone!"
"Get out of my way, Veric," Dugaric growled, shoving his son hard.
Veric recoiled, then regained his balance and held his ground, preventing his father from reaching the old woman. "Father, please allow the denigha to examine Yenne. Her life can be spared if the denigha can prove her honor has not been lost."
Dugaric face was dark with loathing as he looked at the old woman. "This is no denigha," he spat. "This is just a decaying old witch." He shouldered past his son and stepped closer to the old woman, towering over her like a stolid oak over a withered fern. "The penalty for violating banishment is death."
"Suit yourself," the woman answered with a voice as brittle as the cackle of a crow. "I was invited here by your own son."
"That is a choice you can be sure he will regret," Dugaric said. "As for you, I should have killed you long ago, and I swear on my father's sword that if I ever see you again I will. Be gone from our sight before your ill spirits poison our women's wombs."
"There are indeed ill spirits in this place, Dugaric son of Hilnag, but they are not of my making. It is not my poison that fouls your women's wombs, but the bitterness within your own hearts."
There was silence in the yard, broken only by Dugaric's harsh breaths. "If there is bitterness in my heart, it is you who sowed it," he said finally. "You have until dark to remove yourself from our lands. After that, if you are seen again, you will be killed on sight." He turned to his son. "Shall I banish you, too, or shall I kill you for your defiance?"
The young man flinched, but kept his eyes fixed on his father. "Are you going to kill everyone?" he said softly. "What will you do then?" Without another word he turned and stalked away.
"You ought to listen to your son, Dugaric," the old woman said. "He is wiser than his father."
With a curse, Dugaric went for his dagger. Aragorn stepped forward and caught him by the wrist. "Leave her be."
Dugaric shook his arm free, his dark eyes flashing with rage. "Don't interfere, Northman! This is none of your business."
"She is but a crippled old woman – hardly a threat to a chieftain."
"Think you that, do you?" Dugaric spit in contempt, but lowered his hand to his side, staring at the woman with loathing. "You don't know her like I do."
"A Northman!" The old woman clawed her hood back and squinted at Aragorn through filmy eyes like black dots of coal in her heavily lined face. "Yes, I see it now. You have those same eyes, the color of the sun hidden behind a rainy sky."
"The same as who? You have seen my kind before?"
The withered face broke into a shapeless, gummy smile. "Long ago, long ago," she began to chant in a crackly, sing-song voice. "Long ago, when the world froze and the river rose, the Northmen came. But they are all gone now. Gone whence they came, to the west, like the sun when night falls. West they stay, though in the East shall they find their doom, when comes the King again."
"Enough nonsense!" Dugaric roared, seizing the old woman's arm and roughly spinning her around. "Be gone with you!"
Aragorn caught other stick-thin arm, more gently, and bent close to the wiry grey head. "What do you know of the King?" he whispered.
The old woman looked up at him with deep black eyes, deep as the waters of Evendim, eyes that seemed to see right through him. She began to chant again.
"Out of the west the tall kings sailed,
With gleaming swords and eyes of grey;
O'er cursed Mordor they prevailed;
And kept the world from ruin
Their footsteps still the stones remember,
The time will come for their return,
From the east they will come hither
Whence the evil mountain burns."
"There, that's it," she chirped. With a satisfied nod, she began to hobble away.
"Wait!" Aragorn called out. "Where did you learn that verse?" Seeming not to hear him, she kept walking away, leaning heavily on her walking stick and humming to herself.
He took a step after her, but Dugaric caught him by the shoulder and held him back. "Let her go," he said. "The denighal spout nonsense like that all the time. Pay her no mind." At last noticing the cluster of onlookers that had gathered to watch the spectacle, he waved a hand to shoo them away. "Get out of here! Go on; go back to your houses. There is nothing to see here." He glared at them until they began to disperse, then with a curt nod beckoned Aragorn to follow him home. "Come. My wife has breakfast ready."
Aragorn would have much rather followed the old woman. Not only did she look old enough to have at least met his father, she knew some very interesting verses. But Dugaric obviously had it in for her. For her own safety, as well as the privacy of the conversation he wished to have, it would have to wait until he could speak to her alone. He had no idea where she had come from, but given her decrepit condition, it could not have been too far. He could find her again later. Reluctantly, he turned his back on her retreating figure and followed Dugaric to his house. Taking the proffered seat before the fire, he accepted a steaming cup of tea from Dugaric's wife. "What is a denigha?" he asked, glancing up to gauge the expression on his host's face.
He was not surprised to see Dugaric's mouth drop into a resentful glower. "Midwife," he said after a moment. "Herbmistress, healer, seer, witch. They claimed to speak to our ancestors, to the spirits in the water, in the mountains, in the trees. In the olden days, every village had one. They are all gone now. There are no more."
Aragorn refrained from commenting that recent evidence suggested otherwise. "What did your son mean, when he said she could examine Begaric's daughter? Is there a way to prove the girl was not dishonored by the Karani?"
Dugaric took a drink from his mug. "Hmm. There is no need."
"No need? Is the girl's life worth nothing?" Even inured as he was to obscure and distasteful cultural practices, Aragorn found himself recoiling at the callousness of Dugaric's pronouncement.
Dugaric studiously stirred his bowl of porridge. "Among our people, the honor of the clan is more important than any person's life. In the past, it was the denighal who examined girls before marriage, to guarantee that they were healthy, unspoilt, and would bear children. If there was a question about a girl's honor, the denigha was called to settle it. But no such proof is needed in this case. The girl was in the hands of the Karani - you saw what they did to her mother. She is ruined; of that there can be no question."
"Would it not be harmless to at least let the denigha examine her?" Aragorn
"It is Melnag's family, it is his decision. But I tell you, there are no more denighal. The one you just saw was the last, and she is a fraud. I did not lie when I said I will kill her if she sets foot in this village again."
"What has she done to deserve death?" asked Aragorn.
Dugaric swirled the tea in his mug, his lower lip stiff against his teeth. Finally he rubbed a meaty hand against his beard and shook his shaggy head as if to dispel a memory. "She killed my daughter."
Aragorn stared in disbelief. "That old woman?"
Dugaric's eyes flashed in the firelight. "She slit my little girl's throat. I saw it with my own eyes. My little girl…" he rubbed his face again and glanced back at the kitchen. "I would have killed the witch that day, with my own hands, but they dragged me away. Later they convinced me to banish her instead. She went out into the forest. I have not seen her since that day."
"I am sorry for your loss," Aragorn said.
"Have you ever lost a child, Thorongil?"
He had seen enough children die that he dreaded ever seeing it again; had seen the hopeless grief in the eyes of mothers and fathers as they held the limp little bodies one last time. It was a pain he hoped he would never have to endure. "No, I have no children," he answered.
"After more than ten years, I can see my daughter's little face smiling at me, hear her laughter." Dugaric's face seemed to brighten as he spoke, only to tighten with pain again. "And I can still see her face white and cold atop her funeral pyre. It is a hard world we live in, Thorongil. That witch took from me the only pure and good thing in it, and for that I will never forgive her."
"Could it not have been an accident?"
"It was no accident!" Dugaric erupted, thrusting himself to his feet. "My daughter choked on her own blood as I held her in my arms."
"I am sorry," Aragorn repeated dully. Whatever had happened, there would be no convincing Dugaric it was not murder.
Suddenly Dugaric frowned at the sounds of hoofbeats fast approaching. Aragorn reached the doorway a second behind him, just as a Dunlending staggered through, supporting a bloodied, reeling figure.
Together they lowered him to the floor, and Dugaric bent close to his face. "Tulric!" Aragorn scanned the battered face – the eyes and nose were so bruised and swollen he had not recognized him. His hair was matted with blood from a gash in his scalp, and his shirt soaked in blood from a cut in his arm. Dugaric hurried to unlace his shirt, pushing it aside to reveal a ribcage and abdomen dark with bruises. "Tulric, where are the others?" he prompted, getting only a cough and an incoherent mumble in reply. While he coaxed a cup of water into Tulric, Aragorn went to look outside. In the common were only a few villagers milling about, talking amongst themselves. When they saw him watching, they fell silent. Another man was tending to a lathered horse; presumably the one Tulric had ridden in on. It appeared uninjured, and Aragorn could see no sign of damage to the leather. Of Halbarad and the two other Dunlendings who had gone with him, there was no sign. Aragorn went back inside and dropped down beside Dugaric. "He came alone."
Dugaric laid down the cup he had been holding to Tulric's lips and began mopping blood from his face with a wet rag. "Tulric, speak to me. What happened? Where are Veraric and Melnag?"
Tulric fought to focus blackened and swollen eyes. He opened his mouth, but the effort to speak sent him into another coughing fit. No doubt his bruised ribs were hampering his breathing. "Karani," he croaked after he had finally gotten his breath. "Attacked our camp."
Dugaric's lips pressed into a thin line. "Where are the others?"
"The Karani have them."
Aragorn glanced at Dugaric, then leaned closer to Tulric. "My kinsman, Halbarad. Do they have him as well?"
Tulric nodded, sitting up with Dugaric's help and wincing as his chief examined the cut on his arm. "They have them all. Veraric, Melnag, and your kinsman."
"What about the girl?"
"Don't know," Tulric choked out. "The Karani attacked before we reached Tharbad."
Aragorn sighed with relief. At least he could hope that Húrin and the girl had reached safety.
"Where are they?" Dugaric demanded.
"A camp, at the edge of the marshes. But they could be anywhere by now."
"How many Karani?"
"At least twenty. Maybe more."
Dugaric cursed, and Aragorn found himself uneasy with Tulric's account. Halbarad would have had no motive or inclination to fight the Karani – he would have been far more likely to use the attack as a cover for his escape than to join in the battle. Nor was he the surrendering sort. Aragorn could scarcely imagine him allowing himself to be taken captive – by anyone. Having been forced into combat, he would prevail or go down fighting. More implausible still was the notion that this Dunlending had managed to escape while Halbarad evidently had not. But then, Aragorn realized, he had not claimed to escape. "How did you manage to escape your captors?" he asked frankly.
Tulric ducked his chin, avoiding Aragorn's frank stare. "I didn't, exactly."
"What then?" Dugaric's eyes flashed with impatience. "Speak plainly!"
"They sent me back to give you a message."
Dugaric's face darkened. "What message?" he asked thickly.
Tulric's gaze darted to Aragorn for a second before settling uneasily on Dugaric. "The Karani want a trade. Veraric and Melnag in exchange for this Northman. You must deliver him into their hands by sunset today."
Dugaric hurled an oath. "Or what?"
"They promised to start cutting pieces off your brother and feeding them to the dogs. Starting with his manhood."
Dugaric spit out another curse at no one in particular, then frowned in skepticism. "What do they want with the Northmen? They are of no use to the Karani."
"They claim to know someone who will pay a lot for them, especially for the chief."
Aragorn's jaw stiffened as Dugaric's hard gaze swung to rest on him. Still recovering from his last turn as a captive of Dunlendings in the hire of some shadowy agent of the Enemy, he had no intention of falling into their hands again. Nor did he plan to abandon Halbarad to a similar fate. "Dugaric, this is nonsense. Together we can rescue your kinsmen as well as mine."
Dugaric eyed him expectantly. "What have you to offer?"
Dugaric's skeptical gaze swept over him, taking in the swollen hand, the knee that had not stopped throbbing since he left Imladris, the gauntness of recent illness still etched on his face. "You are but one man, and already injured, if I'm not mistaken."
"I am not so injured that I cannot fight. And I can call upon more Dúnedain as well."
"I see none."
"They must come from Sarn Ford." That was a problem, he knew – Sarn Ford was two days' ride from Tharbad. The Karani could slice Dugaric's brother into stew meat before reinforcements could be summoned. His only hope was that Haerost had reached Sarn Ford safely and was already on the way back with help.
Dugaric dismissed his offer with a curt shake of his head. "Too far."
"One of my men rode for aid several days ago. They should already be on their way. Let us work together."
"The Karani will not harm your kinsman as long as they think they can sell him," Dugaric said. "But my brother and Melnag are of value only as long as the Karani believe they can be traded for you. I have seen what they do to captives. We cannot wait for more men to arrive." He went to the doorway and glanced at the sky. "It is half noon already. We must leave as soon as the warriors can be assembled."
Aragorn was hesitant to state the obvious, but he felt obliged to ensure Dugaric did not overlook it, nevertheless. "This could be a trap."
"I know." Dugaric smiled thinly. "Don't worry, Northman; I still have a few tricks up my sleeve."
Aragorn nodded. "Very well. I will be in the barn, saddling my horse."
Dugaric had twelve warriors at hand, as near as he could tell. That was assuming he did not elect to leave some back in reserve against the very real chance that the prisoner exchange was a diversion to facilitate a raid on the undefended village. He was not at all happy with the odds. Twelve Dúnedain would have made quick work of twenty Dunlendings, but Aragorn had no reason to believe Dugaric's fighters held any appreciable edge over the Karani. Dunlending battle tactics were typically lacking in organization and forethought. The fight could well be a bloodbath for both sides. As he finished tightening the girth strap around Daisy, he considered that his best option might be to simply leap onto her back and bolt for freedom. Alone, he might well have a better chance of finding and rescuing Halbarad than he would with a dozen Dunlendings in tow.
His decision made, he gave a last tug to the girth strap, realizing as Dugaric appeared in the barn doorway that his opportunity to escape had already vaporized. The chieftain was flanked by a half dozen armed warriors. Three were archers with arrows nocked and bows drawn – aimed at him.
"What is this?" he said quietly.
Dugaric's face was solemn but resolute. "I am sorry," he said. "Drop your weapons now."
Aragorn kept his boots planted where they were but slowly slid his left hand from Daisy's bridle to the pommel of the saddle. "You mean to turn me over to the Karani."
"I have no choice. They have me outnumbered and I cannot risk it."
"You do have a choice. I told you I would fight with you."
Dugaric shook his head. "It is not enough. I know the Karani. If we attack them, they will slit the captive's throats before they can be rescued. This is the only way."
"I thought you prided yourself on being a man of honor," Aragorn said, hearing disgust color his voice. "What honor is there in betraying an ally?"
"Honor has just become a luxury I can no longer afford," Dugaric retorted. "My duty is to my own flesh and blood. Surely you understand."
Halbarad would have understood. Possessing the same fierce, unquestioning instinct to protect his own, he would have been unsurprised at Dugaric's choice. Aragorn supposed he might even make the same one. Most men would. It was one of many lessons he had learned as a perpetual outsider, a stranger, pledging his sword to other men's armies, fighting for the safety of other men's fields, and homes, and children, keeping the wolf at bay simply because it was the wolf, without regard for whose throat was spared. Many men had fought at his side, shared a pipe, tended his wounds, even called him brother, yet hadn't he always known what their choice would be, if faced with Dugaric's choice? He had not let it matter. He had always known that their choice could not be his, that he could not allow his loyalty to be so simply bound by blood. But now, this once, he would choose as other men did, to protect his own kin, his own blood. With silent thanks to Dugaric for releasing him from his offer, he tightened his hand on the pommel and tensed his good knee. "I do now," he answered, and launched himself onto the horse.
If Daisy had been a warhorse of Rohan, he might have had a chance. She reared as he mounted, caught off guard by his abrupt weight. It took him a moment to get her under control, costing him the surprise he would have needed to get through the barn opening before the Dunlendings could react. He charged toward them anyway, and an arrow flew past his shoulder. A blade swung toward him, and he smashed it away with the hilt of his sword as Daisy reared in panic. Metal sliced into his leg, and then hands were upon him, dragging him to the ground. A knee between the shoulder blades pressed him into the dirt, his arms were yanked behind him, and hands groped at his waist, removing his sword belt and daggers.
When he was disarmed, his hands were roughly bound with a leather thong, and he was rolled over onto his back and pulled to a sitting position. Dugaric knelt beside him and peeled back the already blood-soaked fabric of his trousers. "Bring me some bandages," he ordered one of his men.
"Why bother?" Aragorn asked, wincing against the throbbing that had begun as soon as he saw the wound. With some relief he noted that although it bled freely, the wound was on the outside of the thigh, clear of nerves and arteries. "Afraid the Karani won't honor the bargain if you show up with damaged goods?"
Dugaric pushed a wad of cloth onto the cut and wound another around the outside of his thigh. "I truly mean you no harm," he said. "I am only doing what I must."
With the bleeding staunched to Dugaric's satisfaction, Aragorn was lifted to his feet and put on his horse. As they departed the village heading north, he was positioned near the front of the line, behind Dugaric, with a guard at his side holding Daisy's reins. He tried to relax as best he could and save his strength, but found that with his hands tied behind his back and his left knee still weak, it required a moderate amount of effort just to maintain his balance on the horse. The constant flexing of his leg muscles and the jarring motion of the horse soon left the bandage around his thigh soaked with blood that dried dark red in the warmth of the sun. Following Tulric's instructions, Dugaric was leading the party toward the marshy lands at the mouth of the Swanfleet. Aragorn counted thirteen warriors besides himself in the column, riding silent and watchful. As they traveled, hills flattened into marshy flatlands studded with lowland shrubs and trees. Aragorn shifted in the saddle, testing his bonds for the twentieth time, becoming resigned to the prospect of capture by the Karani. Though a quick escape now seemed unlikely, the situation was far from hopeless. Once reunited, he and Halbarad together had a good chance of escape, and as long as they had value as hostages, they would not be killed. Aragorn was more than slightly curious about the identity of the mysterious buyer interested in acquiring the Dúnedain chieftain. It seemed an unlikely coincidence that within a span of a few months, two groups of Dunlendings suddenly developed a keen interest in kidnapping him. If he allowed this situation to play out, he might be able to solve the mystery that the boy Rolly had died to protect – the identity of his mysterious master. Something about this prisoner exchange rang false to him, though – something he could not quite put his finger on. He thought back to Tulric's injuries. They were colorful, but at the same time superficial for a man who'd just been in battle with his sworn enemies. Aragorn could not recall seeing any defensive wounds on his hands or forearms, such as a man would have suffered before being taken captive. And his weapon… "Dugaric," he called out. "I must speak with you."
The broad back in front of him did not react.
The Dunlending riding beside him leaned over and cuffed him. "Shut your trap, Northerner! Or you'll be gagged."
Dugaric twisted in the saddle. "Leave him be, Morgab." The Chieftain slowed his horse until he came abreast of Aragorn. "What do you need to say?"
Aragorn glanced behind him. Spotting Tulric at the back of the column, hunched over from the pain of his bruised ribs, he leaned closer to Dugaric and spoke in a low tone. "Did you examine Tulric's sword?"
"No. Why would I?"
"A blade that endured a battle with twenty adversaries would be bloody and nicked."
Dugaric's face darkened. "What are you saying?"
Aragorn looked at him unflinchingly. "I am saying his blade should show signs of battle. Ask him to show it to you."
Dugaric held his stare for a long moment, then wheeled his horse around and gestured for the column to move ahead. When Tulric came abreast of him, he halted him with a raised hand. "Draw your sword."
Tulric's eyes darted back and forth between Aragorn and Dugaric. "Why?"
"Because I said so," Dugaric snarled. Without another word he reached across and pulled Tulric's sword from its scabbard. Its edge gleamed bright and sharp in the afternoon sun. "Explain this," he demanded.
Dugaric turned the blade this way and that, letting sunlight play off the smooth, undamaged surface. "No blood, no nicks, no damage at all to the blade. Were you in a fight or not?"
"Of course I was!" Tulric's voice was rising with panic. "I cleaned and polished the blade before I arrived back in the village."
"You stopped to clean your weapons on your way to deliver a ransom demand?" Dugaric sneered. "You are either lying or stupid."
"His hands were covered in his own blood when he arrived," Aragorn said. "If he had stopped to clean his blade, they would have been wiped clean as well."
Dugaric lowered Tulric's blade until the tip was poised inches from his throat. "You'd better think of a better story than that. Quick."
Tulric's eyes widened as the sword tip scratched against his skin. "It is the truth! Why do you take the word of a foreigner over mine?"
"The truth speaks for itself." Without lowering the sword, Dugaric motioned to the warriors who had moved in to flank Tulric. "Seize him. And get some rope. It won't take me long to get to the bottom of this. And untie the Northerner. It seems we might need his sword after all."
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