Many Guises and Many Names
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Rangers of the North: 4. The Holding
Their camp was much as they'd left it; burnt out fire, neatly piled saddle bags and spread blankets. There was no trace of the Sergollim.
"What happened to the bodies?" Hurin wondered.
One of the Padfoot Brothers grimaced. "Believe me, you don't want to know."
Hawkeye cast about in ever widening circles searching for horse sign. "Here they are, heading south."
"Probably run all the way back to Bree." Rumil said gloomily, rolling blankets.
The Ranger shook his head. "More likely they'd have made for Gwathlad once they got over their panic."
"Your 'Ranger Cabin'?" Cemendur smiled.
Hawkeye gave him a wry, sidelong glance in reply.
His nephew told Hurin, "We never would have shown ourselves if you hadn't been making right for the holding." to his uncle. "If the horses did come to Gwathlad its folk will be out looking for their riders."
"Back tracking the horses." Hawkeye agreed. "It may take them some time to find the camp and our trail to the city. Let us save them the effort." Some little time and many miles later the party was unexpectedly hailed. "Welcome and well met, Captain. You are far north of your wardenship."
Hurin was growing accustomed to Dunedain popping unexpectedly out of the downs but this one was a woman, which was slightly startling. Dressed much as Hawkeye and his nephews in hunters' green leathers, dark hair braided, armed with a short bow and a long knife.
"Blame our kinsmen here, I have followed them all the way from Bree." the elder Ranger replied.
The woman gave the three Gondor Men a curious look out of pale, winter blue eyes. "They were your mounts then? We have been looking for their riders since dawn." her eyes went back to Hawkeye. "the Chief chanced to be at Gwathlad when the horses were found. He has delayed his journey in hope of meeting their owners."
It was clear from Hawkeye's face he did not entirely approve of this decision. Cemendur visibly pricked up his ears.
The woman turned back to the strangers. "I am Laebeth daughter of Findegil son of Findobar, Master of Gwathlad," she said formally, "be welcome to our land."
Laebeth led them to a grassy bank between two downs pierced by a wooden gate that opened before them without knock or call.
Hurin saw at once why the holding had been given the name 'Shadow Vale'. Gwathlad stood at the head of a long, narrow valley darkened by the tall hills hemming it round. grassy berms had turned the vale into a secure pasturage for the sheep and small cattle grazing contentedly on the late summer grass.
There were several horses as well, tall and strong but shaggy coated. The three sleek, well curried mounts of the Gondor Men stood out from among them just as their elegantly dressed masters contrasted with the green and brown garbed Rangers. Hurin was begining to suspect the unkempt look of Men and horses alike was deliberate, a not entirely successful effort to hide the breeding of both. The Gondor horses trotted right up to Rumil and it took him some time to greet them properly, checking legs and hooves for injury crooning idiotically all the while. If Hurin hadn't known better he'd have sworn Rumil was part Rohirrim with his passion for the beasts. The rest of them waited with what patience they could muster until the groom was finally satisfied his charges had come to no harm.
At last they were able to continue along the valley floor to a steep path cut into the hillside climbing up to the holding on a terrace just below the crest. Enclosed by grass grown earthen walls with roofs of turf showing above them, Gwathlad had obviously been built with an eye to concealment as well as defense, and by somebody who knew his business.
They entered through a tunnel-like gateway cut between wall and hill and found themselves in a cobbled courtyard surrounded by low buildings of dressed stone, probably salvaged from the ruins of Fornost. The encircling walls were faced with the same material and an oiolaire tree drooped its boughs of dark, sweet scented leaves over the gate arch. There was a large house on the opposite side of the yard and various outbuildings ranged around the walls. Doors had been cut into the side of the hill showing part of the holding was underground.
Laebeth led them across the courtyard and through the open door of the house into a pleasant hall smelling of the chopped heather strewn over the flagstone floor. There was a fireplace at either end with plain but serviceable chairs and settles drawn up before the cold hearths, and benches along the back wall. Sunlight fell freely through the open door and three windows and colorful wall hangings and seat cushions brightened and softened what might have been a stark interior, all cold stone and dark wood. It could have been the main room of any small holding in Anorien or Lebennin and was the most homelike and comfortable place Hurin had seen in months. There were two women seated before the farther fireplace, one spinning with a hand distaff the other carding wool, both in plain gowns of fawn and soft grey. A man dressed as a Ranger sat with them, rising as Hurin and his group entered.
Hawkeye and his nephews had reminded Hurin at once of Thorongil but the likeness was mostly a matter of similar coloring and bearing. This man was even more like the Captain than the Lord Denethor, enough like to be father or brother.
Hurin and Rumil could only gape but Cemendur, with his characteristic presence of mind, stepped forward and bowed. "Lord, I am Cemendur son of Nardil sent by the Steward of Gondor with my companions to seek out our long sundered kin of the North. And now that we have found you I am loath to simply ride away as I have been bid."
Grey eyes quick with that now familiar silvery light passed over Cemendur's shoulder to share a long communicative look with Hawkeye, then returned to the Councillor. "I am Armegil son of Arador, Chief of the Rangers of the North." he said at last in a soft, shockingly familiar voice. "And I will hear what you have to say, Son of Nardil."
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