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In the Hands of the Enemy: 4. Friend or Foe
The boy knelt beside the fallen Ranger and put a hand to his back, feeling for the rise and fall of his chest. Probing beneath the swath of dark hair, his fingers found a raised knot in his skull, though the bones seemed intact and the bleeding was slight. He rolled the man over and pushed the mass of blood-soaked hair aside.
The left side of the Ranger’s face was raw and scraped; the right was covered with blood from a cut above his eye. Another gash in his left forearm bled freely, spilling out the Dúnadan’s blood onto the wet ground to join that of the dead Dunlendings in a gruesome, anonymous pool amidst the rocks.
Beneath the fresh wounds, the fading signs of recent battle were evident. Yellowing bruises and healing cuts traced the stubbled jaw line, and a rent in the man’s left pant leg revealed an angry wound in the side of the knee.
The boy peeled the man’s loosely curled fingers away from his sword hilt and carefully slid the bloody blade out from beneath him. Setting it down on the ground, out of the man’s reach, he made short work of disarming the Ranger, adding a bow and quiver, a wicked-looking dagger, and several business-like knives to the mounting pile. He made a last pat-down to check for concealed weapons before gathering the Ranger's arsenal in a blanket.
Aiming to remove the weapons from the man's immediate reach, he laid the bundle down near the horse. Picking up the Ranger’s pack from where it had fallen in the ambush, he rummaged through it and examined the contents, finding only a few items of clothing, tools and oils for weapons repair, some items of food, a few herbs, and one letter. He closed the pack, tied it securely to the horse’s saddle, and went to consider the matter of the dying Dunlending.
The Ranger’s sword had sliced through Kergelen’s ribs as if they were soft cheese, leaving lungs and organs exposed. The wound was obviously mortal. The boy knelt next to the Dunlending for a moment, then wedged his hands beneath the man’s shoulders and heaved to lift them. Still clinging to a last fragment of awareness, the Dunlending moaned in agony as the boy grunted with the effort of dragging him through the mud. Finally reaching the water's edge, he rolled him over and pushed his face below the surface.
As icy water obstructed his failing breath, the man stirred in a desperate, choking effort to fill his lungs with air. The boy obliged him by pulling up on his hair, lifting his head out of the water. “There, is that better?” he whispered into the man’s ear. “Don’t worry; soon your troubles will be over. You have done your part.”
Drawing his own dagger, the boy slit the man’s throat deeply with a single stroke. As the blade severed his veins and windpipe, the man began to kick and thrash reflexively. The boy tightened his grip on the man’s hair and pushed his face below the surface again as red clouds of blood colored the water. As the body beneath the boy’s hands stilled, he slid it into the stream to be taken by the current.
The headless body of Dergren he dragged into the river as well, and then he flung the head out into the middle of the current by its hair. Panting with exertion, he knelt by the bank to catch his breath and to rinse his hands in the water.
Rising, he turned to survey the remains of the grim scene. Where minutes ago, his ill-fated companions had sat and thrown stones in the river, the silence of death and the stench of blood hung in the air. A rasping shriek above him signaled the arrival of carrion birds. He glanced at the skyline, assessing the flattening afternoon light. The blood-scent would soon attract larger predators and daylight was waning. Already the gray day was signaling its end with a faint wash of pink in the west and darkening clouds bespoke a renewed threat of rain. He looked down at the bleeding Ranger lying crumpled at his feet. If the man could not be roused, he would have to be carried, a prospect which did not appeal to him. Though not heavily built, the man had the height of the Dúnedain and lifting him onto the horse would be difficult.
He knelt beside the Ranger once more. Grasping a cloaked shoulder, he shook him first gently and then more forcefully. His efforts were to no avail as the man’s head simply lolled back and forth. Sighing with impatience, the boy reached a hand into the man’s shirt and rubbed a knuckle vigorously against the chest bone. At the painful stimulus, the Ranger finally reacted, gasping reflexively as his neck arched back and his mouth opened in a silent cry. For a moment his gray eyes fluttered open without recognition and his hands tightened into fists; but just as quickly the tension melted from his body and he slumped into unconsciousness again with a soft moan.
Just splendid, the boy thought, resting the side of the man’s head gently on the ground once again. He sighed, stood, and walked over to retrieve the horse. “Come on then, it seems we must do this the hard way,” he said, grasping its dangling reins and leading it over to where the man lay. Kneeling down behind the man's head, he wedged his hands beneath his shoulders and struggled to lift them. Managing to prop the Ranger up against the boulder, he moved around to the front and grasped the slumped figure firmly by the arm, preparing to lever his weight onto a shoulder.
Without warning, the slack muscles beneath his fingers hardened, and faster than he could react, a forceful grip tightened around his arm and spun him around. In an instant he found himself pinned with his back to the man’s chest, an arm across his windpipe, compressing it just a hairsbreadth shy of choking him. The boy felt a groping at his waist, and in the next instant, the arm against his throat was replaced by the cold bite of steel.
“You forgot one,” a voice rasped in the boy’s ear, and he froze in startled confusion for a moment before realizing it was his own dagger which pressed against his neck. The dagger he had just used to kill Kergelen.
“Where is my sword?” the Ranger grated, not lessening the tension of the blade against his throat.
“Over there,” he croaked, raising a trembling hand to point to the blanket-wrapped bundle near the horse. He was yanked helplessly backward as the man craned around to look, dragging him along. "I was afraid you would wake up and kill me."
“How many more of you are about?” the man asked, not slackening his grip. The boy tried to shake his head, feeling the blade of the knife bite against his skin.
“None,” he croaked.
“Where did the others go?”
The boy pointed a quivering hand at the river, and in the silent pause that followed felt the arm around his chest relax slightly.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the boy pleaded as he rose to his feet. “They made me help them.” The Ranger did not answer, but kept a wary gaze pinned on the boy as he pushed himself upright, steadying himself with a hand against the rocks. Where it was not covered with blood, his face showed dead white between the dark of his hair and the dark of his beard. He blinked, struggling to focus, and after moment his gaze hardened from wariness to alarm as he stared at a point somewhere below the boy's chin. He looked down in confusion at the bloody dagger he still held in his hand and then back up at the boy.
“Did I hurt you?” the man asked in confusion. The boy reflexively touched his fingers to his throat and withdrew them to find them bloody. He quickly felt at his throat again, alarmed himself now, but his probing found only unbroken skin. He shook his head in confused denial. “I am not hurt,” he assured the man.
The Ranger scowled at him skeptically. “Let me see.” He lifted the boy’s chin, squinting at the smooth undamaged skin of his neck, until a drop of blood falling from his own hand revealed the source of the blood.
The Ranger withdrew his hand and turned it this way and that, exposing the rent in the leather over his forearm, and beneath it, the cut from Dergren's raised dagger which had bled as he held his arm pressed against the boy's throat. The Ranger sighed in relief and impatiently clamped his right hand over the injury, switching the boy’s dagger to his left. Examining the bloody blade more closely, his brow furrowed again. “If I didn’t hurt you, then why is there blood on this blade?”
“I killed Kergelen with it,” the boy said. “That’s his blood on the blade.”
The Ranger blinked in surprise, and the boy felt the man’s cool gray scrutiny sweep over him for the first time in full, reasoned force, as a man takes the measure of another man. Its intensity was nearly unendurable, and the boy resisted a shiver. He had only stood under the weight of one presence more forceful, and that had been no mere Man.
“Why?” the Ranger asked simply.
“He hit you over the head. He was about to finish you off.”
“He was your partner - why didn’t you help him?”
“I told you, they made me come with them. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t get away from them until you came.”
The Ranger released his gaze without comment and turned away, moving over to the place where the boy had cached his weapons, stumbling as he fought a wave of dizziness. “Who were these men, and how did you come to be with them?” he asked, wavering unsteadily as bent over to flip open the folds of the blanket and visually conducted an inventory.
The boy stood back slightly from the Ranger, wary of risking the man’s ire but reluctant to withdraw from within reach should he fall. “They work for Teburic.”
“And who is Teburic?” the Ranger grunted, grimacing as he bent stiffly to retrieve his weapons from the ground. Edging carefully to one knee, he wiped the worst of the blood off the sword with an edge of the blanket before replacing it in the scabbard. He slung the straps of the quiver over his shoulder and replaced the bladed weapons in their sheaths. The boy’s own dagger he tucked into his belt. Remaining on the ground, he looked up at the boy expectantly.
“He is thief-lord in Bree,” the boy said. “He has robbers working for him, in the towns around Bree and out on the roads as well. He is a big man. Very big.” The boy looked at the Ranger with tears in his eyes. “He wouldn't let me leave. I couldn’t get away, no matter what I did.”
The Ranger’s steady gray eyes locked onto the boy like an arrow seeking its quarry, and he fought the urge to avert his gaze. Finally the Ranger turned away without comment, looking around at the litter of abandoned property lying across the bloody ground. “Is any of this yours?” he asked, making a broad gesture at the scattered refuse and wearily wiping more blood away from his eyes. “Take what you want. Throw the rest into the river.”
The boy took a deep breath and began picking through the dead men’s belongings. Finding some useful items and some food, he stuffed them into his own pack. The Ranger had limped over to the horse and was bent down on one knee, examining its legs. “What did they want with me?” he asked as the boy came up behind him.
“They said they were hunting Rangers. I don’t know why.” At the sharp skeptical turn of the Ranger’s head he protested, “I don’t, I swear! Teburic has someone in town that he does a lot of work for. I don’t know who it is. Whoever it is will pay well to know the Rangers’ business. These men were to hold you until Teburic comes back. I don’t know what he planned to do with you after that.”
“You seem to know little, for one who consorts with thieves and highwaymen,” the Ranger commented dryly. “Where is this Teburic now?”
“He’s coming back at sundown, with some more of his men. He has our horses with him.”
The man stood up slowly and patted the horse on the flank. He glanced down at his arm and seemed annoyed to find it still bleeding. Inspecting the packs lying on the ground, he found a reasonably clean cloth in one and wound it around his bleeding arm, pulling the knot tight with his right hand and teeth.
“Come, we must depart, for all manner of creatures will be drawn to the smell of this blood. The horse must be walked. Some ways down the river is a safer resting place.”
"Where are we going?"
"South, to a company of Rangers two days' ride from here. When we arrive, I will decide what to do with you." The Ranger sighed with weary resignation as he picked up the horse’s reins and began to lead her down the path.
For hours they trudged along the river trail as night fell, the wind turned out of the north, and it began to snow. The boy followed behind the horse and the man, noting how their footsteps grew steadily slower and less sure, the Ranger leaning ever more heavily into the horse’s shoulder. The boy had marked the man’s increasing unsteadiness and had poised himself for the past half hour to catch him should he fall. Surely the man could not keep walking all night. Finally, up ahead, the boy spied the darker blur of a rock outcropping through the flying snow. As they reached it, the Ranger pulled the horse off the path to the shelter of its overhang.
Letting the reins fall to the ground, the man stumbled toward the rock face, putting a hand up to catch himself. The boy lunged forward and grabbed his arm, steadying him as he fell against the wall and then slowly slid down it. Landing at its base, the man sat motionless, his knees bent and his head bowed, hands limp at his sides, the blood-soaked bandage on his left arm dripping blood once more onto the fresh snow. The snow-crusted hood of his cloak cast his features in shadow, and so motionless did he sit that the boy was not sure if he was still conscious. “Mister Ranger?” When there was no answer he pulled the hood back, trying not to let snow fall down into the man’s shirt. Putting a tentative hand to the limp shoulder, he shook it lightly.
Glazed eyes struggled to focus on him, and pale lips fought to form words through chattering teeth. “We will stop here for the night,” the Ranger whispered, before his head dropped back against the rocks and his eyes drifted closed. The boy reached out a hand and touched the man’s face to find it clammy. The body beneath the soaked cloak was shivering uncontrollably. Cold, or shock, or both, would take the Ranger before the morning came unless he got him warm. There would not be a dry piece of wood to be found within fifty leagues, yet he would have to make a fire.
The boy looked around at their meager shelter. The slim overhang provided the barest relief from the weather, but it would hold off the worst of the rain and snow, at least. The snow was falling harder now, and fresh flakes were already filling the traces of their arrival. Despite the overhang, the wind was blowing snow into the shallow shelter. Already flakes were collecting on the Ranger’s uncovered head. The boy went to the man and lowered him to the ground, resting him on his side as comfortably as he could. He covered him with a blanket and an extra cloak scavenged from Dergren’s pack. Then he set off to collect firewood.
“Strider,” Butterbur echoed distractedly, pausing in the doorway of the common room and leaning the beer barrel he’d been rolling up against the door jamb. He straightened, wiping his hands on his apron, sighing with concentration. One side of his whiskered mouth screwed up in a characteristic perplexed scowl as he struggled to bring the full weight of his attention to bear on the question at hand. Gandalf folded his arms, watching for the signature head cock which would signal that something useful had finally been dredged from the depths of the innkeeper’s beleaguered memory.
“Strider,” Butterbur repeated slowly, his forehead knotted with effort. “Tall Ranger, scraggly beard, big sword?”
Gandalf nodded patiently, all too familiar with this ritual and knowing full well that Butterbur knew exactly who Strider was. In all the long years he’d known Barley, he’d never been able to decide if his memory lapses were a genuine character trait or merely the useful affectation of a career bartender.
The innkeeper’s befuddled countenance finally cleared with recognition. “Strider – yes, of course! Funny you should mention him! We’ve not seen too many of them Rangers about this winter, you know - I hear tell that the wolves have been down out of the mountains more than usual, Orcs as well. Now for some reason we have seen more of the Dwarves here lately than usual, though I can’t say why-”
“Strider, Barley,” Gandalf pressed, his voice deepening. He frowned down at the rotund innkeeper with all the weight of authority he could muster.
The man stroked his beard absently. “Right, right. He came in last night. Rented a room, I believe. Yes, I‘m sure of it. Hold on, I can check the register.”
Walking around the bar, he pulled out a heavy leather-bound book and set it down. Spreading it open, he ran a meaty finger down the last page of entries and pointed to the most recent. “See here? He took a room, paid for it ahead, too, and then didn’t even use it, though he looked as needed to, by my recollection. Went out toward the stable a few hours later, though, if I’m not mistaken.” He squinted to read the handwriting on the register. “Haven’t seen him since.”
This was odd. “Where was he going?” the wizard asked, the nagging sense of something gone wrong growing stronger in the back of his mind. “Did he say? Try to remember! I left a letter for him with you a week ago. Did you give it to him?”
At the reminder, Butterbur’s broad face lit up. “The letter! Yes, now I remember!” he exclaimed, nodding triumphantly. “It was right after he read your letter that he bolted out of here. Way past dark, pouring rain outside, and him not even under roof long enough to stop drippin.’”
He shrugged meaty shoulders in dismissal. “Though there’s no accounting for East and West, as we like to say. Strange folk have strange ways. Would you be needing a room, then?” he asked hopefully.
After a moment, Gandalf nodded reluctantly. Somehow, something had gone badly awry, and he could do nothing else until he got to the bottom of it.
Having availed himself of a room and finished supper, Gandalf sat in a corner of the common room, nursing a mug of mulled wine and chewing absently on his pipe. He’d persuaded Butterbur to let him inspect the room Aragorn had rented. It hadn’t been touched. No one remembered seeing him, save the stable boy, a few serving girls, and Barley himself, and all of them during the same three-hour period. Piecing their stories together, it seemed that the Ranger had arrived, stayed but a few hours at the Prancing Pony, and then had abruptly left town again. But why? It was not as if his letter itself had contained anything which should have alarmed the Dúnadan. Perhaps he had been alerted to some other danger. In the morning, he would have to ask at the town gates to see if anyone had witnessed his departure. Maybe then he would have place to start looking.
The first two sensations which intruded upon Aragorn's oblivion were a spiking pain in his head and a sensation of pleasant warmth against his face and chest. Optimistically misreading these clues as evidence that he was safely ensconced in the paid-for room at the Prancing Pony, comfortably warmed by the heat of a fully-stoked hearth, apparently after an evening of serious over-imbibing, he relaxed back into pleasant drowsiness. How much of Bree’s finest must he have enjoyed last night to induce such an impressive hangover, though, he wondered idly.
A kernel of worry began to coalesce out of the realization that he couldn’t even remember going to bed. He pushed the unwelcome thought aside and attempted to burrow deeper into the blankets. It had been far too long since he’d slept soundly in the warmth of a real bed instead of curled up on the cold ground beneath his cloak, restless hands clutching sword hilt and dagger even in sleep, shallow dreams disturbed by every sigh and whisper carried on the chill air.
He had almost succeeded in pushing himself back into dreams when another, all too-familiar sensation intruded on his resisting consciousness.
Rocks. Rocks poking into his ribcage.
He buried his head further beneath the blanket.
Dampness seeping into his trousers.
Outside, he finally conceded with dismay.
Releasing an audible groan aimed more at the unwelcome imposition of reality than at the sudden, clamoring profusion of aches which welcomed him to consciousness, he reluctantly opened his eyes to find himself lying on the ground somewhere beside a roaring campfire, its small pool of flickering light clearly illuminating only a swirl of flying snowflakes and the expectant gaze of a thin-faced, half-grown boy.
Aragorn automatically reached for his sword hilt, and this time it was there. Releasing a sigh, he pushed himself up on an elbow, wincing at the jolting pain the movement caused and probing gingerly at the painful raised knot in the back of his head.
“Don’t pick at it.”
He looked up. “What?”
The boy who sat across the fire from him favored him with a patient, guileless gaze, his pale face framed by a brown cloak hood. “Don’t pick at it, you’ll make it worse.”
He scowled defiantly but lowered the hand in spite of himself and decided to change the subject. “How long did I sleep?” From the considerable snow cover on the ground beyond the overhang, it had to have been some time. The snow had barely begun to stick when he’d stumbled into the shelter, hadn’t it? His memory of the last few hours before reaching the shelter was a confused nightmare of exhaustion and pain.
The boy allowed his liberal use of the term "sleep" to pass without comment. He rose and knelt by the fire, using a cloth to grasp the handle of a small pot nestled in the embers. Aragorn recognized the pot as his own, as was the brown crockery cup into which the boy poured brown steaming liquid. He knelt by Aragorn and handed it to him. “About four hours,” he answered. “Careful, it’s hot.”
The Ranger sat the rest of the way up and took the cup, satisfied to simply cradle it between his hands for the moment, letting the warmth seep into his fingers. He lowered his head and sniffed the brown liquid skeptically.
“It’s starwort,” the boy said impatiently. “I found it in your pack. It’s not good for much but it was all that was left in your herb pouch. If I’d wanted to kill you I could have done it while you slept and saved the trouble of making tea, you know.”
Aragorn frowned in skepticism but conceded the point by taking a sip from the mug, wondering at the irony of being stranded in a snowstorm with a precocious child who had just hours ago been assisting ruffians to kidnap him. The boy looked to be thirteen or fourteen years old, small and thin but healthy. Straight dark hair fell over his pale forehead, half-hiding clear gray eyes. Truth be told, he looked more Dúnadan than Breelander, but there was enough mixing of the bloodlines these days to confuse the issue. His accent was subtly odd; not entirely Breelander, but something the Ranger could not place.
“What is your name, boy?” he asked presently.
“Teburic calls me Rolly.”
“Teburic does? You named him your tormentor. By what name does your family call you? Your friends?”
The boy considered the question. “I don't have any,” he answered presently. “Not any more. Rolly is what everyone calls me. What about you?"
"I am called Strider."
"By your family and friends, too?"
Aragorn cleared his throat. Family and friends had been inspired to call him many things these past weeks. ‘Stubborn Dúnadan’ had been a favorite, of course, along with ‘Arrogant Númenorean.’ Elrohir had been especially proud of ‘Obstinate, stiff-necked, self-absorbed offspring of Arvedui’-
“Is something wrong?”
Aragorn rubbed his face and smiled painfully. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can claim any family or friends, either, at the moment. But you may call me Strider.”
Aragorn settled himself back against a sturdy rock, finding that the combination of the fire and the herb mixture had finally warmed him. He noticed another layer of bandage on his arm; the boy must have added it while he slept. The fabric was already soaked through with blood again but at least it was no longer dripping. Obviously he’d managed to nick a vein and the wound would need stitching, but it would have to wait. He couldn’t do the job one-handed and he wasn’t about to let the boy try.
Stretching his legs out before him until his feet nearly touched the glowing embers, he closed his eyes, resting his head gingerly against the rock face. He absently kneaded the muscles in his sore leg, easing the ache in his knee. “That's infected - it needs to be cut open again and cleaned out,” the boy commented. “It will be much more difficult now than if you had a healer see to it properly before it closed.”
“So I’ve been told,” he grunted irritably. He opened his eyes and watched as the boy mixed more herbs in the cup of his hand, then knelt next to the horse and began applying the paste to the cuts on her legs. “You seem to know much of healing for a pickpocket.”
The boy shrugged noncommittally without turning from his task. “Teburic’s men get hurt a lot.”
“You should get some sleep,” he told the boy, forcing himself more upright against the rock wall and steeling himself against encroaching drowsiness. “I will keep watch until morning.”
The look the boy gave him conveyed unvarnished skepticism that the Ranger could stay awake until the fire needed stoking, much less until morning. Aragorn did not bother disputing the unspoken assessment, but he knew that the bit of rest his overtaxed body had already forced on him would sustain him through another day. It would have to. He reached into his belt and withdrew the boy’s dagger, handing it to him hilt-first. “You might as well have this,” he said. The boy had certainly had the opportunity to slit his throat, if he desired to. “Now, lie down and get some rest. We will leave here at first light.”
The boy took the dagger and set about piling more wood on the fire, apparently insuring against the likelihood that the Ranger would fail in his determination to keep the watch. He cast one last worried glance in Aragorn's direction before curling up next to the fire, drawing a blanket over himself.
Aragorn sat watching the sleeping boy as the snow slowly tapered off and the wind calmed. Drawing a knife from his boot, he picked up a piece of wood from the ground beside him and began carving on it.
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