10. Chapter Ten
As one of the group’s scouts, he had arrived at their destination the day before all the rest, ensuring none of the enemies’ servants waited to attack them, relieved to find the place deserted. He took the opportunity to wander around the ruins, climbing over the great stones that had fallen and lain for a thousand years as moss and grass grew in the cracks that formed over time.
No trace of the Nazgûl had been found, and most Rangers breathed a sigh of relief at not having to face Sauron’s evil, but knew that, at some point, they would return seeking that which they’d lost.
Tarkil climbed to the top of a mound, then stood on a slab, standing as a king of old surveying his territory, as he watched Aragorn embrace Elrond’s sons at the edge of their camp, interested to see them head to the east towards the Misty Mountains that rose far in the distance. Whispers that they had another assignment after this one raced through the camp but everyone knew enough not to ask questions, especially of the half-elven brothers. He stood alone, oblivious to the activity surrounding him as he watched the brothers disappear in the distance.
“They go to deliver messages,” a voice quietly informed him.
Tarkil looked over his shoulder and saw Aragorn standing beside him, surprised as he’d not seen him approach. “My lord!” He bowed his head quickly.
Elladan and Elrohir had disappeared from his sight, yet Aragorn continued to look in their direction. Tarkil wondered if his captain still had enough of the elven blood so he could see greater distances than the other Dúnedain. Finally Aragorn turned away and surveyed the dismantling of the camp, calling out a few words recommending who should carry what burden to what destination.
Most Rangers would accompany Aragorn back to Rivendell, a few others would venture across Tharbad’s dangerous causeway to head up the Greenway for the borders of the Shire to guard it once more. Tarkil had not received his orders and wondered which road he would travel.
“Captain?” he asked, “Which group do I accompany? Do I go back up the Greenway or return with your group to Rivendell?”
“Which path do you wish to take? Where do you feel you are most needed?” Aragorn posed a question of his own.
Tarkil considered this for a moment before replying, “I am needed where there are none to guard. I am needed where the weak require strength.”
Aragorn challenged, “And you can offer them that strength? Can you stop the flow of evil that floods this land?”
The young Ranger frowned, vaguely feeling Aragorn was mocking him, “I am a Ranger, my Captain, I am at your command.”
Aragorn grimaced, “Forgive me, I am grown weary and dread what approaches.” He sighed and looked back out to the east. “We are needed everywhere in this land. And there are so many weak to guard. I fear our forces will be stretched even tighter in the coming months, leaving those in most need of our protection without it. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it?" Aragorn paused and considered the younger Ranger in front of him, "Tell me -- when was the last time you were home?”
Home? He would consider sending me home when he talks of such dreadful times ahead? Have I failed him so miserably? He dropped on one knee before Aragorn, bowing his head.
“My lord, I have apologized to Borgil for losing my temper, I have given you my word that I shall maintain the control a Ranger needs. I am sorry if I have offended you in anyway –“ Tarkil stopped as Aragorn placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Nay, Tarkil, I do not consider sending you home a punishment. Stand up, son.” Aragorn chuckled briefly, then grow somber again, “I merely ask because I have some messages that need to be delivered – and some swords that must be returned to the kin of our fallen. I wonder if you could handle that in my stead.”
“Yes, Captain, I can do that.”
Aragorn nodded, “Good, then you shall return with us – I’ll send a scout ahead a few days before so the swords can be brought out to meet us and you don’t have to go all the way back to Rivendell to collect them.” He ran a hand through his hair, “the swords should have been returned a month ago, but so much has happened, and we’ve been spread so thin, I couldn’t spare the men to do it and I didn’t think it appropriate to send elves into the Angle to inform the kin. But it is a task that can wait no longer. It is not a pleasant task, Tarkil, each person you tell will react differently – there may be much anger vented at you.”
“Yes, sir, I’ve accompanied Angrim on a few occasions when he’s had to deliver the news.” And wished I could have done it in his place as his method was so blunt and unkind, he thought.
“Good.” Aragorn nodded and turned back to watch the east as Tarkil stepped off the slab and returned to help pack up the camp.
“It is hard enough having to tell a grieving widow or parent that their kin has died …”
Tarkil stopped Nálo just out of sight of the last cottage and sighed as he ran his hands through the horse's mane, wrapping his fingers around it. “That is not something I want to do again anytime soon, boy!” he leaned over and whispered to his horse. “Forever in their minds shall I be remembered to those children as the man who told them their father was dead. It is not an association I wish to have.”
Tarkil knew Aragorn was right about grief being different to each kin, but his words kept coming back at each stop he made. 7 swords he had delivered to their kin – some took the news with stoic silence; others with wails and tears; another with anger – striking out at the bearer of the news; and one – he closed his eyes as he thought of the pain and anguish he felt from the widow at that house … were she an elf, she would die from the depths of her grief, he suspected.
He breathed deeply and stared up at the sky as grey clouds scudded overhead, hinting at snow. It was his last stop and he had planned his route so it would leave him close to his own family’s farm. It had been -- how long had it been since he’d been there? Six months? No, Seven.
He clucked to Nálo and they moved in rhythm down the road, away from the house with the grieving widow and children, though they would never be far from his thoughts in the coming days, he knew.
A few miles more passed beneath them when he came to the brow of the hill overlooking the valley of his family’s farm. Nálo seemed to sense the end of their journey and restlessly stamped when Tarkil pulled up on the reins, but Tarkil enjoyed standing here at the highest ridge in the Angle to see the Hoarwell on one side, and the Loudwater on the other, both gleaming in the distance, and the neat farmhouse of his childhood below. With a grin on his face, he suddenly kicked Nálo and gave him his head and they thundered down the small path arriving at the gate of their house in a cloud of dust. He jumped off his horse and led him to the barn and saw a familiar bear of a figure standing over a forge.
“Mallor!” He ran to his brother and grabbed him in a hug.
“Tarkil!” Large muscular arms wrapped around Tarkil and grabbed him back, lifting him off the ground. “Little brother, it’s been so long! How long can you stay? Are you well? Have you news of Haldon or Valandur?”
Tarkil’s face suddenly fell, “You haven’t heard? You don’t know?”
Mallor stood straight, his face adopting a Ranger’s dour look; it was an old habit he’d never broken. “Which one?”
“Valandur – he was at Sarn Ford when the Nazgûl came through – it was several months ago, Mallor, I thought you would have had word. Angrim didn’t send anyone, didn’t send any note?” Tarkil suddenly felt guilty for not sending a note himself, “Haldon didn’t drop by or send anything either?”
Mallor shook his head and turned back to the forge, lifting a red-hot iron that had been heating in the fire. “No, we’ve heard about the guards at Sarn Ford, but thought Valandur was safe -- last we heard he was guarding the High Pass. When did he get sent to the Ford?” He lifted his hammer and started striking the iron, bending it to shape.
“They pulled him off the Pass a few weeks before, there’d been rumours of an attack at the Ford so they sent extra people to strengthen it. You had no word?”
“None,” Mallor replied gruffly, not pausing from his work. “Where have you been that’s kept you from coming back yourself and telling us?”
That stung -- deeply, “I’m a Ranger, Mallor. I had … I had other duties. I was at Fornost when the attack happened, then after, “he swallowed, then walked over to the stall and started unsaddling Nálo, “after, I was sent to guard the Last Bridge when the Nazgûl went through there,”
Mallor’s pounding hesitated, “You all right?”
“Yes, though my partner was hurt – I left him at Rivendell and was sent with a group to search for the Nine Riders along the Loudwater as far south as Tharbad.”
“Find ‘em?” The hammering resumed at that question.
“No, all we found were their horses; apparently Master Elrond put some sort of enchantment on the water and they were swept downriver, but there’s been no sign of the Riders themselves.”
Tarkil carried his brother’s sword over to Mallor’s workbench. “Angrim, well, Huznat really, gave this to me after Val died. I’ve been carrying it around ever since.”
“Angrim let Huznat give you the news? That lad? What in Eru’s name does that man …” Mallor grunted, then shook his head. “He hasn’t changed at all. I see you’re still wearing Berior. Why haven’t you been using Arathand since you’ve had it – it’s a fine sword, goes back to the fall of Angmar -- made by the elves that was. Hmmph, what am I telling you that for, Father told that tale to you a thousand times I’m sure.”
Tarkil nodded and leaned against the workbench, “I took it out of its scabbard once and swung it, and it feels perfectly balanced. I just … I couldn’t. It’s not my sword. It was grandfather’s, then Father’s, then Valandur’s. And they …”
“And they each died an untimely death? No matter, ‘Kil I understand. Maybe it’s due for a bit of a rest. Perhaps you should have asked the elves in Rivendell to clean it for you, or perhaps there’s something they can do to see if it’s …” Mallor paused, looking up, a twisted grin on his face, “I don’t know. I almost said cursed, but I’ve always said I don’t believe in such things.”
Mallor shoved the iron in the trough, “I shouldn’t have done that. Pounded it too hard – I guess I took my anger out on it. Never a good thing.”
Tarkil grinned, “Yeah, we ‘sons of Beleg’ do have a problem with our anger, don’t we?”
“Angrim on you about lack of control again?” Mallor ruffled his brother’s hair then put an arm around his shoulder as they walked out of the barn together. “It’s a favourite refrain of his. And besides it's not anger, it's passion.”
“No, actually it was the Captain.” Tarkil admitted.
“Whoo, Tarkil! Do you choose the wrong people to lose your temper in front of! What did you do that caused him to have to talk to you?” Mallor chuckled.
Tarkil began to tell him of the rumours surrounding some of the Sarn Ford guards and Borgil’s accusations. By the time they arrived on the porch, Mallor's jaw twitched as he growled, “He’s lucky I wasn’t in that group patrolling with you, Borgil wouldn’t have woke up one morning, that’s for sure.”
“Tarkil!” a tall, dark-haired woman came running out of the door and threw her arms around the Ranger, pushing the breath from him with an ‘oomph’. “It’s been so long, we’d nearly given up on you. How long can you stay?"
“Tarkil? Did I hear Elaria correctly?” A tall, blonde haired woman hurried out and smiled from the doorway. “It is you, Tarkil. Welcome home. Have you had anything to eat yet? You must be hungry.”
“Hello, Elaria, Bregwyn. I have two days here before I must return, Elaria and yes, Bregwyn -- I’m starving.”
“Did you sleep well, Tarkil? Here, sit down and have some breakfast. Oh! I forgot to give this to you yesterday when you arrived, Gethron brought it by a while back. It’s from Haldon.” Bregwyn reached up on top of a cupboard and retrieved a note that she handed to Tarkil.
“Gethron was here? How was he?” Tarkil anxiously asked of his former partner’s health.
“He seemed healthy enough except for a slight limp. Why?” Bregwyn was automatically suspicious. “He said you were his partner for a while. Did you two get into some tangle with orcs or something?”
“No, it wasn’t a tangle with Orcs, Bregwyn, he got run down by a horse and twisted his leg pretty bad. But if he’s walking already, the elves must have managed to heal it.” Tarkil figured the less his sister-in-law knew, the less she’d fuss and worry. He opened the letter from Haldon:
Great to see you in Rivendell again! Wish we'd had longer together, little brother. Your friend Gethron promised me he'd deliver this for me -- he's a good sort.
I’m off to deliver messages – yes, me, a messenger! Not exactly what I prefer to do -- would rather be off fighting orcs – or Nazgûl as you’ve had the chance to do.
By the way, I haven’t had a chance to get home and tell them the bad news and I didn't think it would be proper in a letter. You’ll probably be there before I am so you'd better tell them -- sorry. In the meantime, I’m being sent up to Fornost after I deliver all these orders – something about upsetting all the parents in the villages I’m assigned to patrol. I'm going to see what I can do to get sent down near you if I can.
May Eru protect you, little brother,
p.s. tell Elaria I didn’t forget her birthday, I still have her present but she’ll have to wait until she sees me.
Oh, Rats! thought Tarkil. I have to remember to give her that bottle of scent. Then he resumed reading:
p.p.s. Almost forgot to mention, I love the barber service in Bree these days, but I might have caused you a little trouble, so you'll want to avoid the Pony for awhile. It was quite a switch to realize, in the middle of it all, that she thought I was you! I did what I could to salvage the situation without letting her know, hopefully I put in a good showing for you. You owe me one! - although, I'd be happy to have another go with her, I'd love to know how you get such a young maid to come along so enthusiastically.
p.p.p.s. ... I have to say, little brother, that I'm both impressed and disappointed in your treatment of such a fine girl. For all the engagements I've broken, I've never left a maid longing for me because she's dissatisfied, and I have to say that she seemed to have an awful lot of need when she came to me. However you managed to touch little Poppi's heart, where I've failed this last year, you've done her a great disservice in whatever promise you made to her, she was in tears over it when I left her.
I expect you to make things right with her, if you can. But I warn you, that next time I'm in the Pony, I won't let her make the same mistake between us. This one's worth keeping promises and if you mistreat her again, I'll be the one to make things right with her.
Tarkil had to read it twice, his jaw hanging open wider with each reading, with a look of horror in his eyes.
“Something wrong, ‘kil?” Mallor came through the door from the morning chores.
“Daddy!” his youngest daughter squealed and ran for a hug,
He swung her up in his arms, “What are you doing up, isn’t it your bedtime?”
“Daddy, you’re funny! It’s morning.” Ivorwen giggled as her father planted her on the bench across from Tarkil who suddenly bolted from the room, slamming the front door behind him. Husband and wife looked at each other wondering what had been in Haldon’s letter this time.
“I’ve got him, you keep making breakfast.” Mallor kissed Bregwyn and followed his brother.
He found Tarkil chopping wood behind the barn, so Mallor leaned against the side of the building and watched his brother work out his anger.
“Arrrggggh” Tarkil finally screamed into the air and threw the axe, jamming its head firmly into a log.
“What’s he done this time?” came Mallor’s quiet question.
“He … he’s …. Arrrggghh I can’t -- I don’t know how to even … “ Tarkil started pacing, unable to form a sentence in his anger and confusion as he pulled the letter from his pocket and held it out accusingly. “She … He …”
Mallor reached out and snagged the letter from Tarkil’s hand then read it, his mouth twisted up, trying to stop from smirking. “Well, that is a switch! He’s been mistaken for you. I can’t remember that happening before. I take it this girl in Bree … “ he pursed his lips while he searched for the right word, “meant something to you? Have you been seeing her for a while now, ‘kil? Because I can’t say I remember you mentioning a Bree girl before.”
“I’ve been asking her out for, oh, I don’t know, 8 months now? And she’d always turned me down, and the last time I was there, she finally agreed to walk with me. Well, actually we did a bit more than walk, but not much more,” Tarkil frowned. “She … well, she’s pretty innocent, Mallor, and so I was trying to take things … slow … and promised her that I wouldn’t press her to do anything she didn’t want me to do. And she agreed to wait for me to return. And now! Now Haldon has gone and … and she thought he was me … and … they … Arrrrgh”
Mallor re-read at the letter, then looked back at Tarkil, his brow furrowed, “Are you sure she's as innocent as you think? Haldon certainly would have known if he took a maiden and I can’t see that he would have written like this if that had been the case.”
Tarkil snatched back the letter and re-read it then looked up at Mallor, “You’re right. But she cried … she claimed that --“
Mallor saw the hurt on Tarkil’s face, “Tears are often a woman’s way to get you to promise things. Tarkil. I don’t know how they know it, but they all seem to know to use tears, and we always seem to fall for it.” He looked around suddenly fearful, “In Eru’s name, don’t let Bregwyn know I said that! I’ll have no peace for a month.”
“Oh, Mallor, there was something about this girl. I don’t know what it was, it was her … eyes and her … hair. And the way she smelled even. And she fit so perfectly in my arms. I mean, she’s a short little thing compared to Elaria or Bregwyn, but she just fit! Do you know what I mean?”
“Oh, sweet Yavanna, you’re in love with her!” Mallor whistled. “You’ve gone and fallen in love -- and with a Bree girl to boot!
Tarkil looked at him in panic, “Love? I never said I was in love!”
“You just did! ‘There’s something about her hair, and her eyes and she just fits me.’ “ Mallor snorted, “You’re in love with her, little brother.”
Tarkil stood staring at his brother, suddenly confused. Love? No, I don’t love her. Do I? He remembered her looking at him in the store, batting those eyes at him, and how he felt warmth flood through him, stirring him, when they did. He remembered those beautiful hazel eyes, brimming with tears, and how his heart broke to know he’d caused them. Was that love?Then her words from the picnic came to him.
I’ve not been married, she'd said. But then he remembered how she'd pressed herself against him, and returned his kisses ...NO! “She was playing me that whole time. That wench just wanted a ring on her finger, or more coins for her treats! I bought her whole innocent act, she batted her eyes and wrapped me around her little finger, and I fell for it! What a fool I’ve been!”
Tarkil crumpled up the letter and threw it at the side of the barn, “What was I thinking? She’s a barmaid! From Bree!”
Mallor leaned down to pick up the letter, then suggested, “Come on, little brother, let’s get some breakfast in you. It’s too early for such upsets. A body can’t think on an empty stomach.”
Tarkil walked beside his brother who put a large arm on his shoulder as he said, “Now what’s this bit about leaving her dissatisfied? After all those visits to Mistress Lathwen’s, don't you know how to please a woman? Oh, and don’t tell Bregwyn about that place either! Even though I haven't been there since before we were married, she'd never believe me and I’ll have no peace for a year!”
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