Gandalf's horse trotted briskly alongside the Ranger's. Dry weather and stiff winds had dried the trail to a passably hard surface, though conditions had obviously been quite different when Halbarad's mare had passed here. Her prints were easily tracked through the now-dried mud, and alongside them, small human ones. Aragorn's boot prints had disappeared some miles back, when he mounted, apparently leaving the boy to lead the horse onward. Halbarad's face had tightened at that development, and even now his hands were tense on the reins. Weariness and strain were showing in his voice as he fielded the hobbit's endless barrage of questions.
"And then what happened?" Tillfield demanded, twisting in the saddle to look up at the tall Ranger. "Did you kill all the orcs?"
"Only the ones standing between me and the way out," Halbarad replied, the lines of worry relaxing for a moment into a chagrined smile.
"And then Strider's brother let you keep the knife," Tillfield prompted, looking down at the polished hilt poking out of his belt.
"Yes, he did. He told me that it might come in handy if I ever needed to save him someday."
"Because Rangers always take care of each other, right?"
The Ranger's brow tightened once more, and the Wizard caught the note of bitterness in his reply. "Almost always."
"I'll bet you've killed lots of orcs."
"I have indeed, but not nearly as many as Strider's brothers have," Halbarad answered, with a wry glance in Gandalf's direction. "You know, Tillfield, Rangers do other things besides kill orcs."
"Well, we keep the roads safe from bandits, we guard the borders of the Shire, we hunt, we plant a few crops, we train our horses and raise our children - "
"Do you have children?"
"I have three, and two grandchildren."
The hobbit twisted around in the saddle in astonishment. "You have grandchildren?"
Halbarad laughed. "Yes, does that surprise you?"
"You're not old enough," the hobbit declared. "Butterbur is older than you and he doesn't have any grandchildren."
Halbarad winked at Gandalf. "I must have had an early start, then."
"Does Strider have children?"
"No, he doesn't."
"Why not?" When the Ranger failed to answer, the hobbit pressed. "Doesn't he want any?"
Gandalf took pity on the Ranger and decided to intercede. "Strider is a very busy man, Dudo. He just hasn't gotten around to it yet."
"What about you, Gandalf? How many children do you have?"
The look of relieved gratitude Halbarad had been in process of directing at Gandalf dissolved into a delighted guffaw. Gandalf managed to aim a threatening glare at him before turning a kindly but firm smile on the hobbit. "My dear hobbit," he said, "I am much too old to endure this line of questioning. May I suggest another?" At the hobbit's nod, he motioned to Halbarad. "Why don't you ask Halbarad where he got that scar above his eyebrow?"
Halbarad looked daggers at him. "Why, you -"
"Well, Halbarad?" the hobbit prompted.
"Ask Gandalf," Halbarad grumbled. "He obviously thinks it's a - Gandalf!" the Ranger broke off as he caught sight of something up ahead. The wizard spurred his mount to a gallop behind the Ranger's, pulling up as Halbarad leapt down to examine something on the ground beside the road.
Halbarad knelt in the dirt, holding a leather pack. As Gandalf came up behind him, he turned his bowed head slightly. "It's his."
Gandalf knelt beside him and gently wrested the pack from Halbarad's protective grasp. Retrieving the item he sought, he unfolded it and read it.
Halbarad leaned over to peer at the letter. "What does it say?"
"Meet me at Sarn Ford," Gandalf read. "Come quickly, or all will be lost." He fingered the seal, frowned at the meticulously flowing script. "If I didn't know better, I would have sworn this is my handwriting."
Halbarad reached for the pack again and rummaged through it. "His tools are all here, his clothes - my wife made this shirt for him. Gandalf, he wouldn't have left this behind."
Gandalf straightend and and rose to his feet. "Halbarad," he said. "Let's have a look around."
"He wouldn't have left it behind," the Ranger whispered. Not if - "
Gandalf laid a hand on the Ranger's shoulder. "Halbarad," he said firmly, forcing the Ranger to meet his gaze. "Go have a look around." The Ranger swallowed and took a long breath. After a moment he got to his feet and began scouting the area.
"May I get down?" Tillfield asked.
Gandalf hurried to lift him down. "I'm sorry, Dudo."
"What happened?" the hobbit asked, looking worriedly at the frantically pacing Ranger.
"We don't know yet, Dudo."
"Campfire over here," the Ranger announced, brushing a hand against the ashes. He stood and took a few more steps before stopping abruptly. "Oh, no."
Gandalf turned. "What is it?"
Halbarad was staring at the ground. "Footprints. Really big footprints."
Gandalf loaded Tillfield onto his horse as Halbarad secured Aragorn's pack to his own mount. The Ranger jerked the packstrap tight with a yank so hard it drew a snort of protest from the horse. He glanced at the setting sun. "They loaded him up on the horse and left the road here, took this little trail. It crosses some upland and joins up with the Greenway about 25 miles east. The moon is waxing. If it stays clear tonight I'll have just enough light to follow it."
Gandalf took hold of the Ranger's shoulder. "Halbarad."
"They've got him, Gandalf!" Halbarad snapped. "He may already be dead."
"Halbarad, your kinsman was not destined to die at the hands of a Dunlending bandit."
"Do you know that, Gandalf?" Halbarad demanded. "Because I know what he's destined to be, too. I knew it the moment I first laid eyes on him. But I doubt very much that Teburic is a big respecter of Dúnedain destiny."
"You must believe, Halbarad," Gandalf said.
"Believe in what? A three thousand year old legend isn't going to stop a sharp piece of steel against his neck."
Gandalf gave his shoulder a pat. "If you don't believe the legends, then at least believe in him."
Halbarad pushed the horses' pace along the narrow trail under the thin moonlight as fast as he could without running a major risk of injury. It was too dark to track effectively from horseback, especially at this pace, and a nagging voice in his head warned him of the risk of losing the trail, but he forced it down. There was no time to lose.
They had gone five miles, maybe more, when the wolves appeared.
The horses smelled them first and snorted in rising panic. "Gandalf!" Halbarad hissed, drawing his sword even as the first set of yellow eyes appeared in the path. "Wolves!"
The Wizard raised his staff and let a burst of light fly from it to a log lying next to the path as several more sets of eyes appeared to the left and right. Halbarad craned around and saw more still on the path behind Gandalf.
The wolves backed off slightly at the sight of the flames, but now the horses were panicking. Halbarad fought for control of the horse and finally leapt down as it reared. He slapped it on the flank and advanced on the wolves, shouting and waving his sword. "Get some more flames up here!" he called back. He didn't know how Gandalf was doing this, but it was working. A flash of light obligingly ignited a downed tree a few feet from him and he broke loose a burning branch and thrust it at the wolves.
He heard the whoosh of another tree bursting into flame behind him, and saw Gandalf wielding an improvised torch in much the same manner. "Where's Tillfield?" he called.
"Up here!" came a reply from over his right shoulder, and Halbarad realized that Gandalf had managed to get the hobbit safely situated in a tree. One less thing to worry about. He thrust at an advancing wolf with his burning brand and it snapped at him as another made a lunge for his leg.
"Halbarad!" cried Gandalf. "Back up! Stay together!"
Halbarad reacted to the warning an instant too late as two wolves moved in behind him to cut him off from Gandalf. He was surrounded. Teeth tore into his leg as the tree above him exploded in a ball of flame so hot it singed his eyebrows. He felt the satisfying slide of his sword through wolf-flesh. By the time he withdrew his blade, the underbrush was crunching with the sounds of retreating paws.
Gandalf was on him as he dropped to his knees, clutching his calf. "Let me see."
"It's nothing," he grunted, looking around. "Where did the horses go?"
"They've run," the Wizard replied.
Halbarad groaned. "It'll take all night to find them, if the wolves don't get them first."
Gandalf produced a cloth from somewhere and wrapped it around his calf. Halbarad stood up and tested his weight on the leg, wincing. Spying Tillfield in the crook of a branch, staring in wide-eyed amazement at Gandalf, he managed a smile and reached up to lower the hobbit to the ground. "Come on down from there, Tillfield. I guess a tree isn't where you want to be right now."
Aragorn let the hand holding the hoofpick drop to his side and leaned gingerly against the post. It wobbled noticeably as he pressed his weight against it. He did not have much further to go and it would be free, yet the night must be nearly over, he sensed that Teburic would be back by dawn, and he could feel his strength draining from him as water from a leaky barrel. The pain from his leg, his hand, and from the beating Teburic had inflicted on him was nearly overwhelming, and now he began to feel the pounding of fever at the base of his skull again. He flipped the horse blanket back over the base of the post and closed his eyes for a moment. Just for a moment.
“Strider.” He forced his eyes open to consider the small blob of grey shadow in front of him.
"When do you think Teburic will come back?"
"I'm surprised he isn't back already." The most likely explanation for Teburic's extended absence was one which left a queasy feeling in his stomach.
"He's probably drinking again."
Aragorn frowned. Teburic did not strike Aragorn as the type to let the bottle get in the way of a paycheck. And in fact, throughout his several regrettably close encounters with the Dunlending's breath, alcohol was the one foul odor consistently absent. "Maybe so," he responded noncommitally.
"What happens when he comes back?"
Aragorn sighed. "He will ask me more questions." To be more accurate, not more questions, but the same ones, over and over and over again.
"He'll hurt you some more, won't he?"
"That seems likely."
"Then why don't you just tell him what he wants to know?"
"Rolly, I'm not sure I know what he wants to know." This much was true. The thief's curiosity about the Rangers' guard on the Shire could be driven by pure self-interest - perhaps Teburic suspected an unknown mine or hoard. But Gandalf? It was absurd to imagine that the Wizard's activities could have come to the attention of a Dunlending thief-lord, or anyone who would have hired him, for that matter. It made no sense.
"Who is Gandalf?" Rolly asked, as if reading his mind.
"A friend of mine."
"Why does Teburic keep asking about him?"
"I don't know." This, too, was absolute truth. Obviously the Dunlending had no inkling of Gandalf's knowledge of the whereabouts of the Ring, or his own for that matter, and barring that, no other explanation was plausible.
“Strider, why are Men so evil?”
He squinted at the lighter blur in the darkness. “Rolly, all Men are not evil.” When the boy did not answer, he went on. “I am a Man, do you think that I am evil?”
“No,” came the delayed but admittedly reassuring response.
“What about your father? Wasn't he a good man?"
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. The only thing I remember about him is them killing him."
Aragorn sighed. "Rolly, Men, and all thinking creatures, are given the power to choose between good and evil. Many men choose evil. But there are many who choose good, as well. In one person’s life it is possible to make many choices, some of them good, and some of them ill.”
“And what if you make an ill choice?” the boy asked.
Aragorn leaned against the post, silenced by the question. How could he, of all people, hope to answer it, he whose identity, purpose, and destiny had been defined for him an age ago by one Man's single moment of weakness? Even the well-intended choices of his own life had left behind a tragic trail of death and hurt and hopeless uncertainty.
“A friend of mine once told me that it is never too late to make the right choice,” he said.
The boy looked up at him. "Is that true?"
“You can only do the best you can,” he said after a moment.
"How do you know what the right choice is?" the boy asked.
Aragorn sighed. Gandalf would have said to listen to what your heart tells you, but this wasn't a piece of advice he was ready to endorse. He pushed off the weight of philosophical burdens in favor of immediate concerns. “Why does Teburic want to know about the Shire? About Gandalf?”
“It is what his master requires,” Rolly answered after a minute.
“Who is his master?” Aragorn asked.
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. Somebody in Bree." He took the tool from Aragorn’s hand and resumed digging in the soil around the post.
"Has he ever mentioned a name?" Aragorn pressed.
“You said that you were taken in by another after your father died,” the boy said without looking up from his work. “You said that you hurt him.”
Wishing more than ever that he hadn’t brought it up in the first place, Aragorn didn’t answer, but heaved a shoulder against the post, letting the pain of bruised muscles drown out the pain of that statement.
“I never meant to,” he said finally.
“Why would you hurt him if he was good to you?” the boy pressed. When the Ranger failed to answer, he said, “If someone was ever good to me, if someone made me like a son, I would never fail him. Never. No matter what.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” whispered Aragorn. He sank down next to the post as exhaustion overtook him again. "Wake me in an hour."
He was roused from sleep not by Rolly but by the snap of his neck as Teburic yanked his head up by a handful of hair. “I’m back, Strider,” the thief-lord whispered, wrapping a hand the size of a dinner plate across the Ranger's forehead. "Feeling better, I hope?" Teburic said. "Can't have you dying on me. That would be such a waste."
"My offer stands," Aragorn said, as Teburic released his grasp and allowed him to sit up. In the corner of his eye, he could see Rolly cowering in the corner. "Tell me who hired you and I will pay you twice the agreed upon price."
Teburic's eyes betrayed a mere flicker of interest before he laughed. "You hardly look as if you could do that. But in any case, I honor my agreements. I'm sure that you, as a Ranger," he said with a tone of derision, "can appreciate that."
The Dunlending pulled a milking stool from the corner and perched his bulk atop it precariously. "Are you ready to tell me what I want to know? No, I suppose not," he said, smiling at the Ranger's defiant stare. "You really should, you know. I have all the time in the world. You, on the other hand, do not look as if you can take much more of this."
"Kill me and you'll learn nothing."
"Oh, Strider. I've told you already. That's so unnecessary. We have so much to work with right here." The Dunlending stood and heaved a kick into the Aragorn's injured knee. As the Ranger crumpled reflexively, he found himself pinned to the floor by the Dunlendings's knee again. He felt Teburic take hold of his right wrist and release the manacle, and then his head was forced around to face the hand Teburic held by the wrist. As he watched, Teburic drew his dagger and carefully slit the leather glove which swelling had stretched tight across his hand, revealing skin blackened up to his wrist.
The Dunlending shook his head as he held up the ruined hand before Aragorn's face. "Such a shame; I'll warrant you were an excellent swordsman."
“The Shire, Strider,” Teburic prompted, maintaining his unbreakable grip on Aragorn’s wrist but moving a single finger slowly and deliberately to the precise point on the top of Aragorn’s hand where the knife-hilt had shattered bone. "Just tell me what I want to know, and this can end." As the Ranger watched, he began to apply pressure.
Aragorn gasped, his muscles reflexively jerking in spasm to escape the torturous touch, only to be held in place by Teburic’s unshakable grip. As Aragorn closed his eyes against the agony, Teburic withdrew the pressure. “The Rangers,” he said. “Why all the Rangers at the borders of the Shire?”
Aragorn tightened his jaw and forced his eyes open to see his wrist still gripped tightly, Teburic’s fingertip poised an inch from his hand. Aragorn swallowed back bile. This ordeal promised to be a lengthy one. Fevered and nearly spent, Aragorn could not risk the outcome of a prolonged interrogation. He waited until Teburic once again leaned low so as to speak directly into the Ranger’s ear. “Well, Strider?” the thief-lord said softly. “I’m waiting.”
Aragorn waited until the Dunlending's face was inches from his own before he snapped his head upward and felt the satisfying impact of his skull against Teburic’s nose. An instant later, Aragorn felt an explosion of pain from his hand and heard a scream of agony before realizing it was his own. His body fought to curl protectively around the source of the pain, only to be prevented by the restraints. Blows rained down - blows from boots and fists this time – and for a short time he thought he had succeeded.
As he lay in contorted agony, gasping with breaths that hurt almost as much as the beating, he realized it had stopped. "Nice try," the Dunlending said, when Aragorn had gained enough breath to open his eyes. "I told you, I won't kill you. But now you get to learn another rule." The Dunlending stood and went to the corner. He dragged the cowering boy to his feet and heaved a meaty hand across his face, snapping the boy's head to the side. He dragged the boy over to Aragorn and pushed him down on the ground. "Every time you make me angry, he pays. Every time I ask a question, and you don't answer, he pays."
Aragorn stared at the Dunlending. It was not as if he had not expected this. "I have nothing to tell you."
Teburic dragged the terrified boy to his feet. "That's too bad for him, isn't it? I can't kill you, but I can kill him. And if you make me kill him, we'll just get another one. Maybe a little Ranger boy, next time. Or even better - a little Ranger girl. That might be fun." He thrust a fist into Rolly's abdomen, smiling grimly as the boy doubled over and groaned in pain. "Shouldn't have changed sides, Rolly."
As Aragorn looked on, Teburic dropped the boy to the floor and heaved a boot into his ribs. "I'm waiting, Strider," he said without looking up. "You can make this stop anytime you want. Or this boy's death will be on your hands." Another boot landed, and the boy cried out. "Well, Strider? What'll it be?"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.