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Hunted: 2. Meeting by the Marshes
He glanced ahead to Strider, who stalked along silent and intent. While Frodo trusted him, he wished that Strider might be a bit more, well, reassuring in his manner. Sam did not like him at all, and always tried to stand in between the Ranger and Frodo when Strider was paying attention to the hobbits. Merry did not much care for him, either, but then Merry never liked any of the Big People except for Gandalf. Pippin was more concerned about when the next stop would be so he could rest and try to grab something to eat, and did not pay much mind to Strider one way or the other.
Frodo worried about Pippin - he was much younger than the rest of them and not really full grown. He chided himself again for having let the irrepressible scamp come with them, but knew there was really no way Pippin would have stayed behind. Pippin always figured out when his older cousins were up to something, and would never permit them to leave him out of it. Merry had said Pippin had been the most enthusiastic member of the conspiracy, and had been the most clever at thinking up ways to keep track of Frodo so that he would not slip away without them knowing. Frodo just hoped he could keep his little cousin safe on the journey, and hoped cousin Paladin would not be too angry with the lad when he finally returned home.
They had just walked around the base of a low hill, following a narrow track, when Strider came to a halt. Looking up, Frodo gasped, and all the hobbits stopped. Bill the pony neighed cheerfully and swished his tail.
Ahead on the path was the Lady from the inn, mounted on a large white horse.
Aragorn gestured to the hobbits to stay back. He was quite shaken that this rider had appeared, though he knew better than to show it. The calmness with which she sat said to him that she had been expecting them. He studied her intently, trying to figure out who she was and what she might want.
Her horse was of very good stock, though thin as though from long travel. He was tall, clean limbed, with a long neck and a delicate head, and was watching him as intently as his rider. His bridle was very odd. There was no metal on it - not a buckle, not even a bit - and there were leather knots that obviously were meant for sliding to adjust the fit. Something clicked in Aragorn's mind. Harad! This was like a Harad harness, though subtly different. He glanced at what he could see of the saddle, and saw that it too was in a Haradic style, though not exactly so.
But the rider was not Haradrim. She was of northern folk, given her yellow hair and grey eyes, though of what folk he could not tell. The way she sat the horse made him inclined to think Rohirrim, especially given the quality of the horse. Her clothes gave away nothing. Leather gloves with the tips cut off the fingers, much like his own, high soft boots that were dirty and worn - she obviously walked as much as she rode - and plain breeches of durable cloth. A long-sleeved leather tunic sat over a more-or-less white shirt with a high, closed collar. A broad belt and a heavy, grey-green travel cloak completed the wardrobe. There were no ornaments or tokens anywhere on her, nothing to indicate more than that she was a Big Person from the west and north of Middle-earth. Or at least that she wished people to think so.
Aragorn was impressed when he looked at her weapons. They were as fine as her horse, as distinctive as her attire was nondescript. Over her right shoulder poked the end of a huge steel-grey long bow. A subtle design was carved into it, but there was no metal work or runes upon it. The bow string shimmered slightly in the light. Aragorn idly wondered how she had come upon Cúthalion's bow, for such did it appear. Over the other shoulder was a quiver of black-fletched arrows, the shafts heavy and of the same steel-grey as the bow. Between them, rising up from behind her head, was the hilt of a sword. The grip was black leather, and the hilts themselves reflected back the light with a ripple like small waves in a lake. If the blade matched the promise of the hilt, it would be a mighty one. The haft of a long knife was at her waist.
As he completed this inventory, he looked into her face. She did not appear dismayed by his appraisal. He assumed she had done a similar one of himself, and did not like that the expression on her face was closer to amusement than respect. Aragorn began to speak when Frodo cut him off.
'Lady? It is you! What are you doing here?'
Surprised, Aragorn risked a glance over his shoulder at Frodo. ‘You know her?’ The hobbit stared in amazement to the lady, and Aragorn wished he could question the Hobbit, but knew he dared not put his back to an armed stranger in the wild. He turned back to face her, hand on Narsil’s hilt. When she spoke, that would tell him much of where she came from.
'We had a brief conversation in the hall of The Prancing Pony about wizards, did we not, Mister Underhill?' She crossed her arms in front of her and smiled cheerfully at the hobbits, then gave the Ranger an amused glance, eyebrow raised, looking pointedly at his hand on the sword hilt. Aragorn refused to drop his hand from the hilt and stared back. Her voice had given away little. There was a slightly southern accent to her speech and her words were spoken precisely, just a shade slower than a native speaker, but clearly she was confident with her words. Not from Rohan or Rhovanion, however her horse might seem. But, where, then? He decided that he needed to maintain control of the situation, especially given that his opponent was mounted.
'Well, Lady, what are you doing here? This is not a place upon the Road.' He looked at her expectantly. He needed her to speak more, and to drop her guard. She might smile, but one hand was too close to her belt knife for Aragorn's tastes.
'I look for some traveling companions on the way to Imladris,' she replied, with a smirk.
Aragorn did not know if he was more surprised that she knew where they were going or that she said "Imladris" rather than "Rivendell". The fact that she would know either name was the greatest mystery. Only dwarves, Rangers and wizards had any certain knowledge of his foster father's hidden sanctuary. And a few hobbits. He decided to bluff and see if he could find out more of her intentions. 'What makes you think we are going the same way, Lady? Or that we would want another companion, regardless of where we are going?' He shifted his weight slightly to be ready if she tried to charge them, and waited for a reply.
Frodo was glad Strider was there to talk to the Lady. He did not trust himself to know how to negotiate this request. He realized as he looked at her that she was probably very dangerous. The horse was huge, taller than any he had ever seen, and her weapons looked equally formidable. But her clothes were simple and she looked at him with the same kindness she had shown back at The Pony. Was she really going to Rivendell, or was she just following them? He hated feeling so exposed and endangered, and he hated even more not being able to simply trust this woman which he very much wished to do.
The Lady cocked her head to the side and seemed pleased by Aragorn's questions. Her face lost its smirk and her voice was matter-of-fact. 'Well, as for where you are bound, that is a guess on my part. Mister Underhill questioned me quite closely the other night when I said Imladris was where I needed to go, I know it is somewhere east along this road, and you appear to being going that direction. I have not heard there is anything else this way, so I put a few things together and decided the reason the hobbit was so interested in my journey was because he was going there himself, right?' She looked back at the hobbits with a wide smile, and they all nodded, then froze as they caught Strider's aggravated glare. She shook her head gently at the hobbits. 'Little ones, you really should not say or indicate anything to a stranger in the wild. Let the Ranger here do the speaking and your own secrets will be better kept.' Frodo dropped his head and silently cursed himself for his foolishness.
Aragorn found himself getting quite angry at all of them - himself, the Lady, the hobbits. This was not going well. He could not discern more of her origins from her speech and she knew how to manipulate the hobbits' trusting natures. He disliked the idea of having to kill her steed, and liked even less the thought of perhaps having to kill her. She had not the feel of one of the Enemy's servants, yet… The Lady continued, her left hand remaining close to her knife.
'As for why you might want me as a traveling companion, that I will need to convince you of, yes?' she asked.
The Ranger did not himself care to speak quite yet, so simply nodded and then raised his eyebrows to indicate she should continue. She smiled at the Ranger rather less nicely than she had just smiled at the hobbits, and went on.
'In truth, there are two questions, why would I want traveling companions, and why would you would want me as a traveling companion. The first question is easy enough to answer. The road in these parts is dangerous for a single traveler and I am a fool to try to make my way by myself if companions can be found. As for why you would want me to travel with you, a few reasons. First, I carry my own provisions, and am willing either to eat only from my own or to mix them with yours and share them. Second, I am good enough with sword and bow and can offer some protection to you. The horse may not look like much more than a scrawny nag, but he is good in a fight, too. Third, I know tales and tunes to tell along the way and help the trip be less burdensome. Finally, I will not ask you what your business is, and I will not burden you with mine. That is my plea. What say you?'
Frodo thought it all made a great deal of sense, but saw that Strider's stance did not become any less vigilant with her words. If anything, the man became more wary.
Aragorn considered what the Lady had said, and thought it entirely too convenient. An offer of food, weapons, pleasant company and no prying was not something he trusted. He started to think how he would kill or capture her if she proved an enemy. He also wondered how he could convince the hobbits to trust him if he were forced to do so. The fact that she was waiting for them kept pounding in his mind. This was no chance meeting. How could she have found them in the middle of the wild, far from a clear path, let alone the Road? He decided that fact was where he would begin to question her.
'How did you find us? How do you come to be standing exactly where you are?'
She gave him an appreciative look, and Aragorn suddenly found himself pleased that she approved of his questions and just as fast found himself angry with himself for being flattered. He scowled, but wondered that he had been so easily distracted. This was not right.
'I was going to ask to go with you that morning in Bree,' the Lady began, 'but decided I did not want all the attention you had attracted. Some people coming back to town after you went out said you had been seen going north towards Archet. I figured you would go just far enough north to lose any followers, then swing east again.' How is it that you know the Breelands so well, strange traveler? Probably from talking to hobbits at the Pony, or listening to the gossip in the street after he and his charges had departed. Her voice remained clear of distinct inflection and lacked odd words.
'I left later that day, going south down the Greenway, then spent the rest of the day swinging back north to meet the East Road. I did not see you on it, and so made camp just to the north of it, below the wood. That night, Black Riders came east on the road, and I knew I did not dare use it. So, I have slowly traveled in parallel with the road, having a good idea that you were doing the same, but more slowly and even more to the north than I.'
'But how did you know we would be on this path?' Aragorn thought her tale rang true thus far, and was becoming genuinely curious about how she came to be exactly here. Her hand had left its place near the knife and was resting on her thigh. He did not relax his grip on Narsil.
'I came to be here as much by accident as design. When I saw the marshes, I knew you had to get by them, or go through them. You were not south, or I would have crossed your path. So that meant north or directly through. Whatever path you took, you would need choose a direction afterwards. I guessed you would not go north as that would be too far off your path with too few provisions in the middle of a waste and winter weather coming. So, that meant due east or else south.'
She stopped and gave Aragorn a sharp glance. He simply smiled slightly back at her and motioned her to continue. She returned the smile, and went on.
'So, east or south? I rode the edge of the marsh to the south, and found no path that went southwards towards to the road, so I decided you would head east and maybe trend southwards. I started riding at an angle north and east to find a likely path. I found a few paths yesterday, and rode both east and west upon them, but found neither you, nor any sign of tracks. I located this one early this morning some ways east of here. I saw no tracks of boots or pony hoofs going east, so started riding slowly back west upon it. The nag here caught sound and scent of your pony a few moments before you came around the hill, so I was stopped and waiting for you. If you had not been on this path, I would simply have kept moving north until I did find your tracks. With a horse, I can cover a lot of ground.' She stopped and placed both her hands on the pommel of the saddle.
Aragorn was dismayed by this account of her woodcraft. She had described in detail the only way they could have been found, and said enough to let him know she could probably track them anywhere along the Road, now that she had found them. If it were only himself, he knew he could loose her, but the hobbits and the pony would be impossible to hide. He considered what he should say next.
'A believable account, Lady. But if you have such woodcraft, why do you not simply go along just off the Road yourself? And if you are so good with a bow and sword, what greater safety would you have with us? One man, some hobbits and a wretched pony?'
She watched him closely for a second, then looked away south for a time. When she looked back, her expression had hardened considerably. 'If it were just the usual mix of footpads and ruffians on the Road, Ranger, you would be right. I would have no need to fear the Road or rely on you. But then why are you not taking the Road? The Black Riders. I could manage if there were but one or two of them, but I cannot stand against all of the Nine.'
Frodo had shivered at her first mention of Black Riders on the Road, and was glad the Lady had avoided them. The way she said "nine" made Frodo think it was a title, not simply a count, and he shivered again. Aragorn, however, became as serious as the Lady and stepped forward.
'The Nine? Then you have seen all nine together? Was that what you saw on the road four nights ago?'
She stared intently at Aragorn. 'No, I have not seen more than four of them together at a time, but I know that there are nine. I know what they are. You wear the Star of the North on your cloak; you are a Ranger, and I know what you are. A Ranger is someone to stand next to in a fight with things like that, even if you yourself, my dear, do look like something a dog dragged out of a ditch.'
Frodo spared a glance from the Lady to Strider's back. So, she thought there was something special about this man, too. Gandalf had indicated in his letter that Strider himself was to be trusted, but the Lady's words were more that he was of a kind of men that stood against dark things. Frodo really wished Strider and the Lady would stop bickering and they could all go together. Her account made perfectly good sense to him.
'Come now, Ranger, enough of the questions. Will you or won't you have me as a traveling companion? We already know we are going to the same haven. We fear a common thing, and I do not come empty handed. Are you really going to turn down a sword, horse and food in the wild?' Her tone was cross, and she folded her arms over her chest.
Aragorn was not satisfied. She would not declare her purpose, and her words about knowing what both the Nine and the Rangers startled him. Gondor? Where else would Rangers be known? If he could but place where she was from. He was tempted to let her join them, if only to puzzle out this mystery. This was someone with uncommon knowledge, and she was unsettling him greatly, too greatly. It was time to unsettle her.
'If the price of such things is a stranger in our midst, then yes, I will turn them down. Of course,' he said recklessly, 'we could just take them.' With those words, he took a step towards the Lady.
The hobbits yelled in surprise and fear as the Lady's steed reared up, screaming and lashing out with his forefeet, then lunged towards the Ranger, head low, ears back, teeth bared and snapping. Strider scrambled backwards very fast until he ran into the hobbits, then stopped and drew his broken sword. The horse came to a sudden stop a length away from Strider, neck still extended and low, eyes fixed on the Ranger, teeth bared. The Lady sat still as a stone, bow in hand, arrow nocked and drawn back fully, eyes also fixed on Strider. The two Big People stared at each other.
The Lady spoke first. In an icy cold voice, she said, 'You are welcome to try to take them. Tell me, Ranger, do you prefer to be stomped or skewered? One of those fates will be yours if you lay hand on me or mine.'
Frodo found his voice. 'Please, Lady, I would prefer you not do either to Strider. He is our guide and we need him if we are to find our way to Rivendell.' Summoning his courage (or seized by foolishness, he was not certain which), Frodo stepped around Strider and between the man and the Lady's arrow. Sam tried to pull him back by his cloak, but Frodo braced himself and would not budge. 'Leave him be, please.'
The Lady never looked at Frodo, but her horse started backing up step by step, until he stood where he had started. Only then did she lower the bow, but she did not un-nock the arrow from the string. Aragorn let out the breath he did not know he had been holding. From the way she handled the bow, he knew she was not exaggerating her claims to skill with it. And from the behavior of the steed, he knew he was facing a perfectly trained warhorse. She had never touched the reins or given a spoken command - it was all done with shifting weight in the saddle and the pressure of her legs. Only Elven horses or the steeds of the mearas were trained this well. He wondered if he would be able to kill the horse, given his weapons.
'If you want to come with us, Lady, then you will have to tell us something of your purpose,' Aragorn found himself saying when he thought his voice was steady. 'What puts you on the Road to Rivendell? How do we know you are not sent to waylay us?'
She looked at Frodo and held his eyes a long while. He willed her to speak, to give Strider some reason to say yes and bring her into the company. She spoke not to Strider, but to him.
'I have been sent by my lord, whose name I may not speak except before those whom I am charged with speaking to. I have been sent with information about things fair and foul. I have been charged to find the Wise of Middle-earth, and to speak to them my lord's name and his messages. I was told to find the elf-haven, Imladris, and to find there Lord Elrond Halfelven, if he still lives on these shores, and lay before him my lord's words and to seek of him his wisdom and counsel concerning those words. I was also told to find the wizard, Mithrandir, and do likewise with him. I am also to speak to whomever these lords deem right and good that I should speak with, and seek also that wisdom. That is all I shall say of my purpose and quest. I have spoken more than I should have, and I shall not tell you any more!' Her eyes blazed in anger at him, and Frodo scuttled back behind Strider.
Aragorn knew that they would receive no other proof of her intentions. An idea took root in his mind, and he did not allow himself to hope overly much that it might be so, yet it could explain a great deal. There really was nothing more he could ask of her, not on the Road. We have not offered her so much proof of our intentions, he wryly considered, except that the Riders pursue us. What was it to be? In any event, a decision had to be made, now. They could spare no more time. She had to join them, or he would have to kill her, and what had she done to earn such a fate? She followed you. She has sought you out. She can track you. If she is false… If she is false, she would have put that arrow through you. She would join them.
He decided to try one more test before allowing it. 'That is a fine story, but proves nothing either way. I think you are more than capable of defending yourself upon the Road. Between the bow and the horse, even a Rider would back down. My advice is to get to the Road and ride fast. You can probably outrun them to Rivendell on a steed as fine as your own.' He gave her an insolent stare.
She un-nocked the arrow and returned it to its quiver while replacing the bow on the other shoulder. She gave Aragorn a mocking bow and gathered the reins on the horse. 'As you wish, Ranger. You do not trust my company, and I now find that I have no taste for yours, so grudgingly do you offer it. Good day!' With that, she turned the horse about and started off.
'No!' Frodo shouted as loud as he could, hoping she would hear it above the sound of the horse's hooves. Evidently she did, since she wheeled her steed in a full circle.
'No, Strider, we cannot do this!' Frodo cried. 'We cannot just turn her out and send her by herself on the Road, not with those Riders upon it! It would be little short of murder.' He searched the Ranger's face in growing anger. 'You are not going to make her face even one of those Riders by herself. I forbid it!' Strider looked at him in astonishment.
Frodo turned to the Lady. 'Lady, you are more than welcome to join us for as long as you care to. Indeed, I insist that you must. I trust you, and I want your company on this journey. Ignore Strider here, and please say you will travel with us.' He took a step towards her, and gave her his most pleading look.
The Lady looked little less astonished than Aragorn. She gazed at Frodo, shaking her head slightly as though unable to believe what she just saw. Then she gave him a kind smile, and spoke gently. 'Mister Underhill, my dear, sweet fellow. Your heart is as kind as it is brave, but you cannot contradict what your leader says. Strider has your safety to consider, and when he decides something, you must needs obey. I may think him churlish, but it is his duty to defend you. I will be all right.'
'He is not our leader!' Frodo hotly retorted, 'he is but our guide!' The Lady raised an eyebrow in surprise and looked back and forth between Aragorn and Frodo. Aragorn was staring at Frodo in even more astonishment than he had before. Frodo was staring right back, but with a fiery determination. The other hobbits had never seen Frodo like this before, and they were both impressed and a bit intimidated.
'You, Strider, are our guide. Your pledge is to get us safe to Rivendell. The business of this journey is mine and I shall decide who does or does not travel with us. And I have decided that the Lady will be part of our company. If you do not like that, well, then we part company with you right here and go on with her.' Frodo put his hands on his hips and dared Strider to contradict him.
Aragorn had not thought the day could become more odd than having a mysterious woman on a warhorse appear as though from the ground at the edge of the Wild. He was wrong. A minute ago, he had only been waiting for the Lady to turn her horse around and start riding off before he called her back and allowed her to join. Frodo's shout had thrown him off, and then Frodo's rebellion left him dumbstruck. He stood still and tried to figure out how he had lost all control of this encounter, and what he was going to do with Frodo's defiance. He realized that there was nothing to be done, except acquiesce, since Frodo had said no more than what he had already decided would be done.
'As you say, Frodo, she shall join us.' Aragorn turned to the Lady, and bowed, 'Lady, please be kind enough to join our company.' He straightened up and put on what he hoped was an inviting expression. 'Please.'
The Lady looked at him, then back to Frodo. Her face slowly broke out in a broad grin. Kicking her stirrups loose, she tossed her right leg up over the horse's neck and dropped lightly to the ground. She walked over to the hobbits, with the horse trailing a few steps behind. Then she turned to Strider and stuck out her hand. 'As I have told these fine hobbits, I am no lady. I am called Laurë.'
He walked over and took her hand, shaking it firmly. 'Welcome to our company, Laurë. You may call me Strider.' She gripped his hand a little harder than was necessary, and her smile barely touched her eyes as she looked at him. Oddly enough, her distrust of him reassured him more than if she tried to be friendly.
Turning back to the hobbits, she repeated, 'I am called Laurë. The nag here answers to Dragonheart. I know you are Mister Underhill,' she said, holding her hand out to Frodo, 'so who are the other fine travelers?' She gave them a smile, which they all returned.
'Actually, please call me Frodo,' said Frodo as he took her hand. Then he took a deep breath and said before his courage failed him, 'Frodo Baggins.'
She went rigid and stared down at Frodo. Aragorn rose up on his toes and wondered if it were possible for Frodo to do any more foolish things today. I suppose he could tell her all about the Ring, he thought. Frodo wondered if he had made a very bad mistake.
Laurë kept hold of Frodo's hand, but knelt down so her eyes were almost on level with his own. 'Baggins? That is your true name?' Frodo nodded. 'You have shown me great trust indeed, dear Frodo. Those evil creatures are searching for someone named Baggins. Is it you they are searching for?' She looked at him with great concern.
Frodo tried to think quickly. 'They search for someone named Baggins,' he replied, 'and that is my name, though I am not the only one who bears it. So they pursue me for my name and I flee from them.'
She smiled at him and gathered up both of his hands in hers. 'I am sworn to defend anyone the creatures of the Great Enemy would harm. Frodo Baggins, I pledge my sword, my honor and my life in defense of you and your companions from the servants of the Enemy from this moment until you shall sleep safe in Imladris.' She cast a glance over her shoulder at Strider. 'I will even defend him,' she said with a smirk, and rolled her eyes. Frodo laughed a bit at that. Strider did not.
'So,' she sat back on her heels and looked over the other hobbits, 'to whom have I just sworn my life? How shall I call you?'
'I'm Samwise Gamgee, and this is Bill,' said Sam gesturing to the pack pony.
'Well met, Mister Gamgee!'
'No, not Mister, just Sam.'
'As you wish, Just Sam!'
'No! Sam, call me Sam!' Poor Sam was getting quite flustered
Merry whacked Sam affectionately on the back of his head. 'Pay no mind to Sam here, he is not always too clever with his tongue. I am Meriadoc Brandybuck, and my friends call me Merry.' He bowed to Laurë.
'And I'm Pippin, Peregrin Took, and you can call me Pippin,' said Pippin.
'His friends call him trouble,' said Frodo sweetly, and then ducked as Pippin slapped at him. Laurë laughed again, then stood and turned to Aragorn.
'Shall we be off? We have wasted rather a lot of time with this.' Aragorn refrained from commenting that they would not have wasted so much time had she been more forthcoming more quickly, and simply turned and started walking, letting the others fall into line as they pleased. Laurë let out a low whistle, and motioned to Dragonheart. He snorted, and stood still until all were walking, then fell into place behind Bill.
'He will guard our rear,' said Laurë by way of explanation to Frodo's curious expression. 'He is a well trained warhorse, and as good as an armed man.' The company walked on until noon.
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