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In the Hands of the Enemy: 6. A Clandestine Raid
Safely cloaked in gloom for the moment, Halbarad squinted halfway down the street to the house the boy pointed at. Its roof badly needed patching. It had no white door. Its door was of no particular color at all, in fact, looking to have not been painted within recent memory.
Halbarad caught a glimpse of Gandalf over his shoulder and winced at the sight of the wizard attempting to blend in to the shadows of the alley. Even with the oversized pointed hat left behind at the inn, Gandalf still managed to be the most incredibly conspicuous person Halbarad had ever seen. He sighed. There was nothing to be done about it. There were no other Rangers in town, and he had no time to wait for any.
A quick check of the rear revealed a muddy, garbage-strewn back yard enclosed by a rotting plank fence and containing one very large, very mean-looking dog, about whose dangerousness Halbarad harbored no doubt whatsoever. The back door looked to be boarded up and there were no signs that it had recently been used. Halbarad dispatched Gandalf to watch the back, just in case. Then he watched from the corner as the boy approached the front of the house and knocked on the door. After a few moments, the boy walked back to Halbarad’s position. “There’s no answer,” he announced.
Halbarad looked down the narrow street, its surface dusted with a layer of pristine snow untouched but for the footprints of the hobbit. There would be no concealing their passage this night. “All right,” the Ranger said. “Let’s go in.”
Halbarad broke open the rusty lock, countering Gandalf's disapproving frown with a glance at the muck of footprints in the fresh snow of the stoop. Only the warmth of day would erase the evidence.
Moments later, the small party stood in the lower hallway of the house, gazing about at scattered piles of junk and detritus, all bathed in the bluish light of Gandalf’s staff. Dismissing it all with a glance, Halbarad turned toward the rickety stairs. He hesitated at the base and cast a hopeful glance toward Gandalf’s glowing staff. “I don’t suppose that thing would work for me?”
“My dear boy,” Gandalf answered, tightening his grip on it, “I shudder to think of the consequences.”
Halbarad grunted and drew a dagger as he assessed the angles of the staircase, suppressing a pervading sense of doom at undertaking this task with only an elderly wizard and a duplicitous three-foot-tall chicken-gutter for back-up.
He turned back around and found the latter determinedly brandishing what looked to be a boning knife from the Pony’s kitchen at a level uncomfortably near his crotch. “Tillfield, watch where you’re pointing that thing!” he hissed under his breath. “Stay downstairs. If anyone comes into this house, scream las loud as you can and then run like - well, just run, all right?”
Fixing his eyes on the top of the stairs, Halbarad turned his head slightly to whisper a curt string of instructions to Gandalf, who he now saw had unsheathed an enormous, wicked-looking sword which would be absolutely useless in tight quarters. Valar, give me orcs any day. “There's a door at the top of the stairs. Stay close to me. When I open the door, I’ll go left. You go right. Whatever you do, don't stop in the doorway. Got it?”
Without waiting for an answer, he started up the stairway.
The door at the top was locked with a padlock. With Gandalf at his shoulder, Halbarad broke the hasp with a sharp wrench and swung the door open, stepping smoothly into the room.
The attic was unoccupied. It consisted of a single unfinished space, with ancient timbers propping up a slanted roof hung with generations of cobwebs. The rear half was cluttered with cascading stacks of dusty crates and other dust-draped storage items. The front half had been in recent use as a living space, reasonably clean and orderly in appearance, containing a bed and several pieces of furniture. A desk dominated the center of the room. When Halbarad had satisfied himself that no one was lurking beneath the bed or in hiding in the wardrobe, he came to join Gandalf, who was inspecting the items on the desk.
“I fear there is more evil at work here than can be accounted for by a mere thief-lord,” the wizard said, fingering a quill pen made of some shiny black material. “See, these are detailed maps, and even the writing materials here are of high quality, fine inks and papers, very expensive. A thief would not value such things. But I think there is more here yet.” He turned his attention to a plain cabinet next to the wall. It was unadorned, made of painted wood, yet its door was fastened with a lock.
“This lock is enchanted,” announced Gandalf gravely, casting a dark glance at the Ranger.
Halbarad swallowed. “Does that mean we can’t open it?”
"No, of course not," Gandalf replied, looking a trifle indignant. “Though it may take a bit of time.”
Halbarad emitted a scornful grunt and stepped over to the cabinet. Inserting the blade of his dagger between the frame of the cabinet and the door, he pried the wood apart far enough to wedge his fingers in between. With a crack of breaking wood, he ripped the door off its hinges. He tossed the remains of the door into a corner and waved Gandalf to the cabinet, returning the wizard's look of diminishing patience with a shrug. “I guess they didn’t bother to enchant the wood.”
Gandalf sighed and leaned over to peer into the interior of the cabinet. Deep in its recesses, he spied a folded paper. He reached in and removed it. As he recognized the handwriting on it Halbarad heard him expel a faint groan of dismay.
“What is it?” Halbarad asked.
The wizard handed the paper to Halbarad, closing his eyes in painful realization. “It is my letter to Aragorn.”
“But Butterbur gave him your letter at the Pony,” Halbarad said, frowning as he picked his way with difficulty through the Elvish text. Suddenly he looked up in dawning horror. “It was a different letter. He’s being led into a trap. Teburic replaced your letter with – something else.”
“Teburic – or whoever owns this cabinet,” Gandalf said. “It appears that someone wanted our friend out of Bree in a hurry last night. We can only guess why.” He removed several jars of ink and blocks of sealing wax from the cabinet before sweeping a hand into its recesses and producing a small object.
Halbarad frowned at the yellowish bauble Gandalf held up to the glow of his staff. "What's that?"
Gandalf squinted at it and shook his head. "I don't know. There is something sealed within. I have seen such containers used before, to preserve caustic or dangerous substances." He shot a disapproving look at the ruins of the cabinet and began scooping up papers and stuffing them into his robe. “Any thought we had to secrecy is lost. Take what you can. We must make haste.”
“But what about - ” Halbarad broke off in mid-sentence as a hobbit-sized scream issued forth from the first floor. The fading cry was followed closely by the rough sounds of Men’s voices and Men’s footsteps.
Halbarad immediately turned to face the stairs, raising his dagger. “When we get downstairs, run, and don’t stop for anything,” the Ranger ordered tersely. Pausing for a mere instant to make sure the wizard was close on his shoulder, he plunged down the stairs.
Straight into a quintet of hefty, dagger-brandishing ruffians, one of whom held a terrified, struggling Tillfield tightly by both arms.
“Cover your eyes!” Gandalf hissed into his ear.
“Close your eyes! Now!” Halbarad barely had time to comply when a blinding flash of light exploded through his closed eyelids. He opened them as the light began to fade, and found even then that he could barely discern shapes through the wild afterimages floating in his vision. As he fought to orient himself, surrounded by a confused cacophony of angry shouts, he felt a hand grab him firmly by the arm and propel him forward. A moment later he found himself out in the dark street.
“Where’s Tillfield?” he managed to gasp, stumbling on the rough ground.
“Right here,” Gandalf’s voice answered from behind his left ear. “Keep moving.”
By the time they made it back to the Prancing Pony, Halbarad’s vision had returned to normal, though the lack of pursuers testified to the lingering effects of Gandalf’s light trick on the unprepared. Tillfield’s reaction had apparently been a moment too slow, and he allowed Gandalf to steer him through the corridors of the Prancing Pony and into the guestroom which had become their unofficial headquarters, still rubbing at his smarting eyes.
Halbarad bolted shut the door to the room and slumped onto the bed in exhaustion and relief. After he had caught his breath he opened his eyes to meet Gandalf’s. “Thank you,” he said simply.
The wizard smiled. “I may look decrepit to your eyes, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeve, young Dúnadan.”
“Thank the Valar,” Halbarad murmured. He rolled over onto his elbow and eyed the trembling boy slumped in the chair by the fire. “Tillfield?”
The boy's eyes were filled with undisguised terror. “They’re going to kill me.”
Halbarad shrugged out of his cloak as he entered Gandalf's room and hung it on the drying rack next to the fire. He swatted futilely at the pall of pipe-weed smoke hanging at chest height and knelt next to the hearth, warming his hands. A glance about the room revealed a hobbit-sized mound under the blankets on the bed.
“Any luck?” asked Gandalf without looking up. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a stolen map spread out before him. Scattered around him, illuminated better now by the morning light, was the hastily-gathered booty of their pre-dawn raid: assorted bottles, leather pouches, and finely-lettered writings in several languages Halbarad was not familiar with.
“Yes,” the Ranger answered, leaning to peer over the wizard’s shoulder. “That's Dwarvish, isn't it?”
The wizard nodded in assent. “The Dwarves are excellent map-makers,” he commented absently. “What did you learn?”
“He was seen leaving the west gate on horseback. I found his tracks a few miles south, along the Greenway. I would say he is making for Sarn Ford.”
“Are you sure?” Gandalf asked.
Halbarad shot him an injured look. “It’s my horse,” he explained, as if every responsible horseman should be able to pick his mount’s hoof prints out of a sodden quagmire of churned mud. “Besides,” he added, “he didn’t get far before he had to dismount to lead the horse around a bad patch of road, and he has a gouge in the sole of his left boot where he stepped on an orc-blade. It’s him.”
Halbarad sat next to the fire and pulled off his boots, setting them next to the hearth in an optimistic attempt to dry them. He stretched his bare feet toward the fire with the unself-conscious manner of a man accustomed to handling the necessities of life in the open air.
“Aragorn dislikes traveling by horseback with no one to share the watches,” Gandalf observed without looking up.
Halbarad, too, had wondered if he would find the horse left behind in the stable. “He's got an arrow wound in his leg. It must still be bothering him. I also checked up on this Teburic,” the Ranger continued. “He turned up in Bree last summer, along with the rest of this Dunlending rabble. Seems to be their leader. He managed to take over the Bree underworld with amazing ease. Seems everyone who crosses Teburic ends up in an alley with a slit throat. Or just disappears. Now he takes a cut of every picked pocket and lost load of potatoes in Breeland.” He leaned over and looked down at the subject of Gandalf’s scrutiny. “What have you found?”
“There is more afoot here than common thuggery,” the wizard said. “I fear the involvement of greater forces. Only that would explain this ink,” he gestured at a purloined bottle. “It is enchanted, probably to facilitate such forgery as was directed at Aragorn. There are several herbs and drugs here with strange properties as well, most of which I do not fully understand. I have not been able to decipher these writings as of yet, but the very fact that I have not bodes ill. Aragorn was lured away on a false errand, to what end we can only guess. We must make haste.” He looked down on the maps. “But there are no markings here to indicate where he might have been led.”
“I don’t need markings on a map,” said Halbarad, pulling his boots away from the fire and jamming them onto his feet. “There’s only one tracker in Eriador better than I am, and right now, he’s riding my horse.”
“Please take me with you,” pleaded the hobbit, his tousled head barely grazing the bottom of the horse’s saddle.
Halbarad continued to tighten the girth strap, pressing a shoulder into the horse’s belly to force it to exhale. “No,” he repeated for the third time. He cast a furious glare over the back of the horse at Gandalf and mouthed “No!” again silently.
“Please,” Tillfield insisted, his small hand grasping the sleeve of the Ranger’s cloak. “It’s my fault this happened. Please let me help to make it right.”
Halbarad’s fingers paused in fastening the bridle. He winced and glanced again at Gandalf, who was merely standing patiently next to his own horse, his weathered features bearing a benignly unhelpful expression. Oh, sure, make me be the bad guy, thought Halbarad. You know as well as I do we’ll end up getting this halfling killed. If he doesn’t get us killed first. He leaned over the young hobbit and put a hand on the small shoulder. “Listen, Tillfield, I appreciate your concern, but you’ve helped us enough already. This is going to be a dangerous journey. I can’t be responsible for your safety.”
"I won't be safe here either," the hobbit countered. "Teburic's men will kill me."
Halbarad hesitated. He hardened his jaw with more effort than he would have thought necessary. "You're safer here than you will be with us," he argued. "Butterbur will look after you."
To his dismay, the hobbit’s eyes welled up with tears. “I’m no good for anything,” he sniffed. “Nobody wants me and I can’t do anything right!” The shoulder under Halbarad’s hand hitched once, twice, and then broke out in a series of violent shudders as the hobbit collapsed into sobs of despair. Halbarad looked at Gandalf helplessly to find the wizard still favoring him with that infuriating look of patient expectation. Does he do this to Aragorn? Halbarad found himself wondering.
“All right, all right,” he found himself saying, against all logic. “You can come.” The hobbit’s gasping breaths slowly subsided, and he swallowed a few last sobs to look up at Halbarad with an expression of worship that the Ranger had only seen directed at Aragorn before. “Go on now,” he said, shooing the small being away, uncomfortable not only at the attention but at the whole entire melodramatic display which had just transpired. “You’d better run home and tell your mother that you’ll be gone for a while.”
The young hobbit looked up at him blankly. “I don’t have a mother,” he said. “She’s dead. I’ve been on my own for five years.”
Halbarad frowned in confusion. "What do you mean, you don’t have a mother? What about –“
“Oh, that,” said Tillfield. “I thought if I agreed with you I’d finally get something to eat.” He wiped the tears from his face with a small fist and gestured back towards the inn. “I’ll go get some food from the kitchen.”
Gandalf smiled at the mortified expression on the Ranger’s face. “Hobbits really are amazing creatures,” he said, and went to gather his belongings.
“Rolly.” Aragorn reinforced the name with a gentle shaking of the boy’s shoulder, and finally the gray eyes opened, taking in the still, snowy landscape just emerging out of the shadows of pre-dawn. The boy clutched his blanket protectively to his chest as he sat up. Aragorn, himself huddled against the cold, handed him a chunk of bread and a piece of hard sausage. “Hurry and eat. We must be on our way; we’ll make better time while the ground is still frozen.”
The boy was staring at him with a shocked expression, and he realized what a sight he must look even in the dim gray light. By now, livid shades of red and purple must be evident on his face. His vision was restricted by a right eye that had swollen nearly shut. The cut on his forehead had finally stopped bleeding, but the cut to his arm had not, as was obvious from the soaked bandages wound about it in haphazard layers.
“How is your head?” the boy asked, getting to his feet and reluctantly casting off his blanket in order to roll it. Aragorn had already turned away, barely twitching his shoulders in reply as he set about breaking camp. Standing over the failing fire, he kicked snow impatiently over its last glowing embers before going to check on the horse.
“She will have to be walked for at least another day,” he announced, rising with some difficulty from a kneeling position next to the mare’s front legs. He gave her a reassuring pat and scanned the morning sky. “We had best be on the road, for as slow as our progress will be in this snow, it will be worse once the ground softens.”
The boy gathered his cloak tightly around him and followed him out from beneath the shelter.
By mid-day, Aragorn could feel both his steps and his breath shortening as he struggled along the muddy trail. The rising temperatures had indeed softened the frozen ground once again into a sloppy quagmire, slowing the trio’s progress to a crawl. In better weather a rider on horseback could make good speed through this flat stretch, sloping gently as it did from the downs to the broad plain of the Brandywine, but a lame horse and a lamer Ranger in spring mud make for a slow pair. It was encouraging to see that the horse, at least, seemed to be walking more easily as the soreness worked out of her joints. Perhaps by tomorrow she could be ridden for short periods, which would be helpful since his own leg was not going to hold out much longer. You win another argument, my old friend, he reflected, although when you see what condition your horse is in you may wish you had not…
The day warmed rapidly as the sun marched high in a flawless spring sky, its heat comforting to long-chilled bones but its brightness a stabbing assault to eyes more accustomed of late to the gray gloom of winter overcasts and the dark recesses of Orc-caves. Aragorn fought not to squint in the harsh sunlight, as the slightest movement of his forehead immediately evoked a throbbing reminder of the gash above his right eye. His arm was throbbing as well, and still bleeding, a situation he was choosing to ignore for the time being, beyond occasionally adding another layer to the growing wad of bloody rags decorating his left sleeve.
The wind had turned out of the south, and a delicate breeze was wafting across the plain, carrying spring-scented traces of fallow earth and ripe bog. He realized he was sweating under the cloak and shrugged it off, throwing it over the back of the horse. He glanced back at the boy, who was trudging along in silence ten paces behind, his own cloak wadded up under his arm. He looked tired. No doubt the pace of the march was not pressing him, but he had slept only two or three hours after Aragorn had insisted on taking the watch.
Aragorn still felt a lingering uneasiness at allowing the boy to walk behind him. He would rather have kept the boy where he could keep an eye on him, but he couldn’t very well put him out front, mere youth that he was…. Aragorn paused in his tracks, struck by the realization that in deciding the boy couldn’t be put on point, he was already past considering him a prisoner. When did that happen?
Surprised at himself, and conscious suddenly of the weight of his own weariness, he frowned and rubbed his aching head, pushing sweat-dampened hair off his face and stubbornly summoning fading alertness as he fought the overwhelming urge to cast himself down in this very spot and not get up again for a very long time.
He looked down. The boy was standing next to him, looking up at him with that wide-eyed look that he was still not sure he trusted. “Do you think we could stop for a little while?”
Aragorn nodded after a moment, feeling a rueful smile pull at his sore face. “I think that might be just the thing.”
Ahead was a high bank overlooking the stream. In summer it would be shaded by the immense willows lining the bank here, but on this day their draping green strands were bare of leaves, barely filtering the sunlight. The ground beneath the trees was fairly dry, and Aragorn spread some grain out on the ground for the horse before sinking down against a very solid trunk. Behind him, he could hear the boy foraging through their disorganized and salvaged collection of packs, presumably for food.
Aragorn didn’t realize he had dozed off until he felt a nudge against his shoulder. He cracked open his eyes – the left one, at least, the right was still only partially cooperating - and took the proffered sausage from the boy. It was Butterbur’s sausage, a fact which Aragorn found strangely comforting, though the thought of food had little appeal. The boy’s gray eyes were boring holes into him again. “I think you have a fever,” he announced solemnly. “Do you feel like you have a fever?”
Oh, probably, Aragorn thought to himself. I’ve been walking around with an infected arrow wound for nearly two weeks; I’d say I’m due.
“No,” he answered firmly. “I’m just warm from walking in the sun. I should have taken my cloak off earlier. Sit down and eat.” The boy threw him a skeptical look but complied.
“Where are your parents, Rolly?” Aragorn asked as the boy settled down next to him. He took a disinterested bite of the sausage, wincing as a jab of pain shot through his jaw as he tried to chew.
The boy seemed taken aback. “My parents?” He frowned as if the memory was locked behind a heavy door which had not been opened in a very long time. “They’re dead,” he answered presently. “They died a long time ago.” He fell silent, picking up a stick and scratching it absently on the ground.
The Ranger shifted carefully against the trunk of the willow, trying to find a comfortable position. “I lost my father when I was very young, also,” he offered by way of reciprocity.
The stick paused in the boy’s hand. “You did? What happened to him?”
“He was killed by orcs.”
“My father was killed by bad Men. And my mother, too. And the baby.” The boy picked up the stick in both hands and gripped the ends tightly in his small fists. He began to bend it, his face and arms rigid with effort, as if to snap it. But after a moment he pointed it down at the ground again and resumed drawing in the dirt. “But my father first,” he whispered, delicate brows drawing together in unspoken anguish.
Aragorn sat in silence for a moment, only too sure that the boy knew exactly what had happened. Had probably seen it. He swallowed, suddenly reminded of how sheltered his own childhood had been in comparison to such horrors.
“And then what happened to you?” he asked.
The boy stared at the ground, his pale face blank with memories purged by necessity of all emotion. “The men took me and my sister to a town in Dunland and sold us, along with the animals,” he said woodenly, hunched in on himself. “I never saw my sister after that. I was so little, but I had to work for a brick-maker. I had to work from sunrise to sunset and he hardly fed me anything. I was so hungry all the time. I was so hungry that I couldn’t sleep at night. I had no shoes, I had no cloak. I slept with the animals to get warm. I knew I was going to die. I was going to die and nobody was going to care. Until….”
The boy breathed sharply, as if jarring himself from the hold of the past. He straightened he shoulders and tightened his jaw. “Until I ran away, and Teburic found me,” the boy said. “And at first it was better, because at least he gave me some food. He taught me to steal and pick pockets. He used me to sneak into houses because I was so small. When he came to Bree he brought me with him. But then he started to beat me all the time. He beat me with a board, he beat me with a strap, he beat me with the hilt of his knife. He does bad things to people, and I was afraid that he would kill me, too. So I tried to run away, but his men found me and brought me back. And he beat me and beat me. And then- ” his voice choked suddenly, his thin face screwing up into a mask of pure agony and his thin frame collapsing into silent sobs.
“Don’t worry,” the Ranger found himself saying, reaching a hand to steady the trembling shoulders, setting his jaw set against whatever horrors the boy had endured that were worse than being beaten with a knife-hilt. “You won’t have to go back to him. I promise.”
“You promise?” The thin face turned upward in a desperate search for reassurance.
“I promise,” he answered, knowing that the resolve on his face was plain to read.
The boy smiled and got up from the ground. “I think I should make some more tea for you, before we leave again. You do have a fever. I can see it in your eyes. And you should let me look at your arm while the light is good. You don’t want to leave a blood-trail all the way to Sarn Ford, do you?”
Aragorn forced a smile in reaction, battling a recurrence of uneasiness. There was too much about this boy that he still did not understand, and his own lapses in wariness worried him. Had he told the boy he was headed for Sarn Ford? He couldn’t be sure. “All right,” he said finally, leaning his head back against the bole of the tree. “Just don’t waste too much time. I intend to make the Brandywine by dusk.”
The boy retrieved supplies from the packs and convinced the Ranger lie down before he carefully cut through the layers of blood-soaked fabric as water heated over the fire. Aragorn removed his coat to expose the wound and held his arm outstretched as the boy poured warm water onto a clean rag and carefully washed the blood from the gash. The cut was straight, even, and fairly narrow, but deep. Even now, fresh blood welled up and flowed freely from the wound. Aragorn patiently suffered his right hand to be placed into service against the fresh bandage for pressure while the boy searched the packs for more clean cloths. “It needs to be stitched,” the boy announced solemnly.
“No.” There was no way he was going to let this child sew him up.
The boy persisted. “Do you want it to keep bleeding? You’ve already lost a lot of blood and we have a long way to go. I know how to do this. You have a needle and gut in your pack, I saw it.”
Aragorn considered his options. The wound was not serious, but it was just as obvious that it was not going to stop bleeding, and he couldn’t spare the blood, in the shape he was in. If the boy proved not up to the task, he could simply order him to stop. “All right,” he said reluctantly.
He insisted on sitting with his head propped on a pack so as to supervise the boy’s efforts, but the pain soon overtook his professional interest and he found that he needed all his strength just to keep his body still under the probe of the needle.
When it was over, he found himself lying flat on the ground again, squinting against the early afternoon sun, as clean cloths were wrapped around the injury. He lay still as the involuntary shudders of pain slowly subsided and the repressed, overwhelming urge to struggle abated. As the spring breeze wicked the moisture from his sweat-soaked shirt, he began to shiver.
Feeling the weight of a blanket being placed over him, he opened his eyes and threw it off. “We have to get moving in a few minutes.”
“In a few minutes,” the boy responded, handing him a mug of tea. Aragorn propped himself up on an elbow and sniffed the liquid surreptitiously before taking a sip, but could detect nothing beyond the starwort left over from his own supplies.
“Thank you,” he said hesitantly, and the boy smiled shyly.
“What about you?” the boy asked, seated next to him on the ground, watching him to make sure he drank all the tea.
“What about me?”
“After your father was killed. What happened to you?”
Oh. Well, that's what you get, he told himself. The truth then, as much as was possible. “Another family took me in.”
“What were they like?”
“My foster father was wise, and kind, and gentle, and patient,” Aragorn answered softly.
The boy had heard something concealed within his words. “Is he dead, then?”
“No. He lives.”
The boy’s face tightened in confusion. “Did he beat you?”
“No, child!” Aragorn almost yelped in denial, startled by the absurdity of the very notion. “What made you think that?”
“You look sad,” the boy responded. “I thought that he had hurt you.”
Aragorn wadded up the blanket and pushed himself to his feet. “No, lad. It was I who hurt him,” he confessed, biting back a familiar but unwelcome wave of longing entwined with sick remorse.
"Why?" The boy was still at his elbow as he limped over to the riverbank and bent stiffly to rinse out the crockery.
"It's complicated," he said irritably, shaking water from the mug and shoving it into a pack. "You're too young to understand."
"No, I'm not."
Aragorn slung the pack onto the horse and grabbed hold of the reins. "Lad, I'm too young to understand. Now let's get moving."
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