A thick blanket of snow muffled Nálo’s hooves as Tarkil and his horse trotted down the path behind Southlinch. Soft puffs of mist hung in the air from Nálo’s muzzle, the air chill but not uncomfortably so, though Tarkil knew it would soon drop as the night fell. The quiet beauty of the fields, the undulations of the ploughs that scarred the earth smoothed by a white blanket, comforted Tarkil. He felt the land was being cleansed then lulled into a deep slumber for the winter.
He slowed his horse when he approached the small shelter deep in the forest behind the village, ducking his head under an overhanging bough as they left the path and entered the woods. Tarkil had settled into a quiet routine, patrolling the area, visiting the farmers, warning them of the increasing thefts and trouble the southerners seem to bring with them. There were so few rangers left to patrol anymore, so many of them pulled to guard Rivendell and areas to the east, especially after the Nazgûl attack at the ford over the Bruinen.
Farmers and merchants both grumbled as they told of southerners who came with ready coin and bought whole crops, rather than a barrel or two, then sent the pipe weed south. The locals jealously guarded their small hoards when they realized how little was left for their own consumption. The news of the Greenbanks’ murders had spread like wildfire; Aragorn said there had been reports of other thefts, though none as brutal Tarkil had been relieved to hear at the time, but the farmers who had their crops stolen faced a bleak winter living off their meager reserves. Many times as he rode towards a farm, he found himself greeted by a pitchfork first before the farmer sought his name and business.
His horse unsaddled, he grabbed the brush, quietly talking to his only companion as he wiped off the traces of snow that had fallen from the overhead branches. “We’ve been to nearly every farm in the area now, boy, just a few more farms to visit down that old Andrath road. And each farmer is more nervous than the last, more wary. That’s a good thing I suppose, isn’t it?”
He chuckled as he realized he almost expected an answer from his horse at the question. He sighed and fastened a blanket over the horse against the night’s chill, then scratched his ears and ran a hand down Nálo’s neck. “Happy Yule, Nálo. For today is the end of the year, not that it means anything to you. Let’s hope the new year sees an easier time for us both.” The horse swung his head and nuzzled at the Ranger as if agreeing with his sentiments. “Sorry, boy, I forgot your treat, I’ll bring it to you later.” Running his hand down the stallion’s blaze in farewell, he shut the door to the small barn beside his own shelter then pulled out his pipe and filled it with the last of his own weed.
The twilight had changed to full night as he cared for his horse, though the night didn’t seem so dark now the bright snow covered the ground. Lights from the distant village reflected off the white blanket; no sound could be heard save for the occasional quiet thump as a branch grew too laden and its cold burden fell.
Plumes of smoke from his pipe mixed with his own frozen breath as he stood in the darkness, enjoying the solitude after the turmoil of emotions of the previous months.
She’d gone, fled, he found on his brief stop in Bree. Butterbur said she’d left a few weeks before, just after his brother’s brief encounter with her Tarkil presumed. He’d still not decided if not seeing her was a good thing or bad. Hours of discussion with Mallor and Bregwyn left him just as confused as when he’d first read the letter from Haldon. That letter sat tucked away, pulled out every now and then, as he tried to find some hidden message, some hope that perhaps … He remembered she said she came from this area and he found that as he went around on his patrols, he looked in every farmer’s house and field, in every shop in the village, hoping to see her, yet wondered why he did and what he’d say to her if he did.
“If you say this Poppi is innocent, she may still be. You’re a good judge of character, ‘Kil. Don't put such stock in this letter -- I know you think Haldon can seduce anyone, but I don't think he can. This Poppi may have initially mistaken him for you but you can’t trust that they ... did what you’re accusing them of.” Bregwyn blushed. “You only have this note and he never really says that they lay together.” She finished in a rush as she blushed a deeper shade of red.
Tarkil noticed Mallor’s small frown of disagreement, though he knew his brother wouldn’t voice his differing opinion to his wife.
Still he’d held onto the hope that perhaps Bregwyn was right, that Poppi might allow him to see her, at least to explain the confusion. But when Butterbur said she’d fled from the Pony, he knew Haldon hadn’t exaggerated and his misgivings and fears settled heavy about his heart.
A nagging thought rose once more in the back of his mind, as he stood puffing his pipe in the quiet woods. Did she carry Haldon’s babe?
Is that why she’d run from the Pony, not because she felt betrayed by him, but because she was with child? She would claim to her kin that Tarkil was the father of her babe, not knowing he was really its uncle.
His own words came back to haunt him, “She was playing me that whole time. That wench just wanted a ring on her finger.” Is that what the picnic was all about? Is that what she’d intended all along, to bed him, to trap him, to find herself a husband to take her away from Bree? But then why did she push me away that afternoon?
Did she really get scared – is that why she cried? Then when she saw Haldon and thought he was me, she jumped at the second chance to ensnare me in her plans? Or was Bregwyn right -- was he over-thinking everything as he usually did?
His sigh created a thick cloud that hung heavy in the air as Tarkil entered his small shelter, seeking distraction from the path his thoughts took.
The sun's rays reflected off the melting snow, dazzling Tarkil, though patches of mud already showed through the old Andrath road.
The path wound along the old Downs, away from the Greenway. No one had been down the road today, he could tell, but that wasn’t surprising given that it was the Yule. He passed an abandoned farmhouse, long unused, its windows shuttered and barred, the roof of the barn behind caved in, the fields fallow.
The old house fell out of view behind him as the path curved around a hill, then serpentined back once more.
He finally cleared the path between the two hills and came to the edge of the first farm nestled at the foot of the hill, then pulled Nálo to a quick halt as he sucked in his breath. “Not again!” he breathed, and headed Nálo down the path towards the farmhouse’s burned-out shell.
Curses filled the air as he found his fears confirmed – he faced a repeat of the fire at the Greenbanks’ farm; from the looks of it, the attack had happened the night before the snowfall. The neighbouring hill left the farm bathed in shadow, the snow unmelted, still covering the ground hiding any tracks the murderers may have left, though he hoped some trace would remain for him to find later.
Tarkil saw movement at the top of the hill, so leaving Nálo by the farmhouse, he quietly climbed up the hill grasping at branches and bracken as he slipped and slid in the snow and mud. The crown of the hill was drier, allowing him to move without sound through the thick-boled trees. A soft sound drifted through the woods, the sound of sniffling.
It came from a small wooden structure beneath a giant pine tree –- not large enough for an adult to stand up in, a small door swinging shut. He unsheathed his sword and pulled open the door in one movement to find a small boy, no more than eight, huddled on a bench, a well used quilt wrapped about him. The child squeaked in surprise and pressed himself into the corner of the shack, “Please don’t hurt me! I won’t tell what you did! Honest!”
Tarkil sat on his haunches at the doorway, speaking softly to the boy, careful not to scare him further. “I won’t harm you, son, I want to help. I’m a Ranger and we don’t go around hurting children. Do you live in the farmhouse below?”
The boy swiped his arm across his face. “I can’t find my mum or dad.” The tears continued to flow then Tarkil realized his eyes were fixed on his sword so he stood slowly and sheathed his weapon. “What’s your name, son?”
“Roddy,” Roddy’s teeth chattered and he shivered despite the quilt.
“You been out here all night, Roddy?” When the lad nodded, Tarkil told him, “Come out of there, lad, let’s get you someplace warm.”
“No, I’m going to stay here until my mum and dad come and get me.”
Tarkil sighed. “I give you my word, I won’t hurt you. It’s too cold for you to stay out here by yourself.” He noticed the small bare feet and nightclothes the boy had on beneath the ratty quilt. Yet the lad still shook his head and refused to budge. Tarkil crawled in through the doorway and held out a hand to snag the boy’s pajamas, pulling the lad towards him.
Roddy struggled to pull away from the Ranger. “L-l-let me g-g-g-go!” He flailed his arms wildly at Tarkil who hugged him closer, shushing him.
“Calm down, son. I’ve said twice now, I’m not here to harm you but to help. You’re freezing cold.” Tarkil crawled out of the shack and stood outside, the boy still in his arms.
“I’m going to put you down for a second, but I want you to promise me you won’t try to run. I’m going to take you some place where you can get warm and be safe. I promise, all right?”
The boy nodded warily, so Tarkil put him gently on the ground then reached out to grab the collar of his pajamas as he tried to flee once more. “Now stop that,” he growled. “I just want to get you warm, you’ll catch a death of cold otherwise.” With one hand still firmly on the boy’s shoulder, he unclasped his cloak and flung it about the boy’s thin shoulders, then lifted him up again and clamped his arms around the squirming boy, rubbing the child’s legs briskly to warm them. “See, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to warm you up. Now, is that your home down there?”
The struggle subsided and the boy’s tear-streaked face looked at him, nodding slowly, “Some men came last evening and set it on fire. I jumped out of my window and they chased me for a little ways. They laughed and said I was too little to worry about. I came up here to my hideout my pa built for me and watched them. But I didn’t see my ma or pa get out.” He started sobbing again, “I think they didn’t get out of the house, and they burned!”
There wasn’t much he could say, the boy had the right of it Tarkil guessed. “Are there more farms around here? Some neighbours nearby?”
The boy couldn’t speak through his sobs, but his finger pointed down the road. “Let’s see if they can get you some warm clothes then.”
A mile or so further down the winding road, a neat farmhouse came into sight; Tarkil breathed a sigh of relief to see it untouched. He set Nálo down the small path that led between the house and the barn, calling out as he approached. A stocky farmer appeared at the door, axe in hand, scowling as he called in reply. “What you doing back here? I told you already -- we don’t have any pipeweed left to sell so you can clear off right now! It’s the Yule, leave us in peace.”
“And good Yule to you, sir, I do not mean to interrupt your celebrations, but this lad needs your help.” Tarkil dismounted, holding the shivering child in his arms. He turned to the farmer, but didn’t approach not wishing to antagonize him into using the axe. “I’m a ranger and I found this boy up in the hills – his home burnt down during the night and he’s spent the night in the cold. Could you spare him some clothes and possibly a hot meal?”
“That’s Garth’s boy! Sarah, get out here.” A young woman, a toddler squirming in her arms, came to the door as her husband took the youngster and bounded up the stairs towards her. “Look it’s Roddy! This Ranger here says he found him wandering in the woods and that Garth’s farm has burnt down.”
Tarkil found himself standing alone in the yard, rubbing his arms and stamping to stay warm as his cloak was now in the house with the boy. “Well, come on in then, what are you standing out there for, you fool.” The farmer stuck his head out the door and grinned at Tarkil. “Come have some tea and warm yourself up. Sarah’s heating some soup for the boy, you can have some too.”
The farmer’s wife turned from the woodstove, shyly smiling, as Tarkil entered the house, then she went into a backroom with the boy to change him out of his wet clothes.
“I’m Bregon Appledore, by the way,” Bregon held out his hand, exchanging a quick but firm handshake with Tarkil, then he gestured over his shoulder to the back room, “and that’s my wife Sarah, and this little one is our firstborn, Calder.” The proud father smiled fondly as he ruffled the curly head of the toddler who hid behind his father, clinging to his father’s pant legs as he stared solemnly up at Tarkil.
“I’m Tarkil, son of Beleg. Thank you so much for inviting me into your home, Bregon. From the way you greeted me, I take it you’ve had people bothering you, asking for pipeweed?”
Bregon nodded, then sat down in a chair by the fire, pulling the toddler into his lap, telling the Ranger of the many attempts to buy up the weed, first friendly then threatening. It was the same story he’d heard around the area.
A few minutes later, Sarah lead the lad out and sat him at the table; then took Tarkil’s cloak and spread it over a chair by the fire to dry.
Roddy now wore a very baggy shirt and trousers – obviously hastily grabbed from her husband’s trove. The farmer chuckled, “It’s going to be a few years before you grow into that shirt and pants, Rod!”
“It’s all I had to put on him, Bregon, it’ll be a few years before Calder is his size.” Sarah reminded her husband.
Bregon went over and rolled up the cuffs so they didn’t hang down past Roddy's hands, then grabbed a woollen blanket off the back of his chair, and wrapped it around the boy. “Feel warmer now, son?” The boy nodded; Bregon pulled up a chair at the table and gestured for Tarkil to join him.
“Is it true what Roddy said about those men burning down his house? Is it burnt down to the ground?” Sarah worried as she ladled the soup into bowls, giving one to each of the men at her table.
Tarkil wrapped his hands around the steaming bowl, warming them before digging in, then nodded, not wanting to talk in too much detail in front of the boy, “Yes, I’m afraid it is. It’s not the first time it’s happened in the area, either. That’s why I came down the road today, to warn people to be careful.” He grimaced, “I’m afraid I’m a day too late.”
“I’ve been telling him about those southerners that have been coming around here after our weed, Sarah.” Bregon said gruffly, “I’d figured they might think they could get away with it against a hobbit farmer like the Greenbanks, but now they’ve hit us ‘big-folk’ as well.” He frowned and glanced at his wife, “I think I’m right in keeping that axe at the door, as much as you complain about it.”
“I’ll be glad when those awful men have gone back south,” she declared, “they frighten me with their strange talk and frightening looks. Pop thinks so too, they’ve been after his pipe weed. He ran them off a few weeks back, do you remember me telling you, Bregon? Do you think it’s them that took it?”
“Most likely. Oh, Sarah, I’m forgetting myself, why didn’t you remind me.” Bregon hitched a thumb towards Tarkil introducing him to his wife, “Sarah, this here is Tarkil. He says he’s going to be patrolling this area for a while – check in on us from time to time. So if I’m not here, you don’t have to worry if you see him go by.”
Tarkil thought Sarah gave him a strange look as she collected the plates and put a fresh pot of tea on the table then asked, “Tarkil – is that a common name amongst your people?”
“Actually, no," he admitted. “It's been a family tradition to name their firstborn son Tarkil after an ancient relative. My grandparents decided that since other creatures use the term 'tark' to describe our people, they felt it was time to change the tradition. My father, however, disagreed and finally convinced my mother to allow him to name me after my grandfather though it took four previous sons before he won her over." He sighed, "Unfortunately, he found my grandparents were right -- the children in my village used my name more as a taunt.” He shrugged, “I guess my father preferred to think that people remember the old king, but no, not many people are given it these days. Why?”
She lifted the boiling kettle and filled a sink as she prepared to do the dishes, then spoke over her shoulder, “Nothing, I just thought I’d heard of someone else by that name, ‘tis all. I must have misheard.”
Tarkil thought he heard an edge in her voice as she spoke. I'm Poppi Rushlight -- of Southlinch
she'd said, could it be that Sarah knew her and Poppi had mentioned his name? Worried now, the Ranger turned back to Bregon, “I’m going to come back when this snow has a chance to melt, to see if there are any tracks left that I can follow. I’ll drop by to make sure everything is secure then.”
When they’d finished the tea, Tarkil rose, thanking his hosts for their help. He paused at the door as he fastened his cloak, “Are there any other farms along this path, Bregon? I wanted to go around and warn any others in the area, and now that we know that they’re bold enough to go after a house so close to others…”
“Well, there’s my folks a few miles down -- but they’re away visiting my sister up in Chetwood, she's due to have her first soon. So I don’t think you need to worry about them. Besides they don’t grow pipeweed…so I can’t see that them murderers would bother that place. And then there’s Sarah’s folks, they’re the next farm down – it’s just past the next big bend in the road, won’t take you long to get there if you want to talk to them.”
“We’re going over to visit my folks shortly for the Yule celebrations, you don’t need to worry about telling them, Bregon and I can do that!” Sarah interrupted her husband.
Tarkil frowned, “You need to make sure they understand how serious this situation is becoming. Let them know to be cautious of all strangers and keep themselves safe – especially if they grow leaf.”
“Oh, Bregon will make sure they listen, and my dad is cautious by nature, it’s all right, Tarkil. You don’t have to worry about that. You can head back into Southlinch before it gets much later, they have some nice Yule celebrations going on through the day, you don’t want to miss those.” She grabbed his arm and led him to the door, “You take care now on your way back.”
“Well, thank you again, Bregon. Sarah, thank you for the delicious soup.” Tarkil gave a small bow in her direction as she blushed, lowering her eyes. His breath caught as she briefly reminded him of Poppi. No
, he thought, I'm just seeing things that aren't there, that's all.
Tarkil held out his hand and shook Bregon’s hands in farewell, then turned to the farmer’s wife, “Good bye, Sarah, it was nice to meet you, and thank you very much for the soup and the tea.”
She murmured a response, as Tarkil stepped through the doorway onto the porch, Bregon following, with a glance over his shoulder. “Hmph, don’t know what got into her! Anyway, stop by if you get a chance, Tarkil. We’ll be out tonight and tomorrow though, visiting people for the Yule. Are you sure you won’t stay for dinner?”
“No, Bregon,” Tarkil smiled as he pulled on his gloves, “I’ve taken enough time, besides I want to continue down the road and take a look for myself what’s down it.”
“Suit yourself then,” Bregon shivered and returned to the warmth of the house as Tarkil unhitched Nálo and rode off.
~ ~ ~
Southlinch and Pipeweed:
ROTK (Homeward Bound) “When he came back he brought them enough to last them for a day or two, a wad of uncut leaf. "Southlinch," he (Butterbur) said, "and the best we have; but not the match of Southfarthing, as I've always said though I'm all for Bree in most matters, begging your pardon."
I could find no mention/location of Southlinch anywhere else, and thanks to Barbara, one of the research gurus at HASA (Henneth Annun Story Archives) who confirmed that Southlinch was in the Bree area, I chose to put it along the Greenway, but just south of Bree, figuring most villages would have been situated along such roads in order to transport their goods to other markets. The Andrath Road is my own creation, although Andrath is mentioned in Unfinished tales and also in Karen Wynn Fostad’s Atlas of Middle Earth – showing it just south of Bree where the Greenway breeches the South Down and the barrows.
I'm also speculating that although only hobbits grew pipeweed in the Shire, since the Bree area is made up of both big- and little-folk, farmers of both type would grow pipeweed.
Snow in Bree:
ROTK (Homeward Bound) Butterbur says “…and the fight was early in the New Year, after the heavy snow we had.” In Karen Wynn Fostad’s Atlas of Middle Earth (Climate) she shows in a map that although parts of the shire would more likely have mild winters and mild summers, Bree (and hence Southlinch) appear to be on the dividing line between the two areas, so they might not be as warm as the Shire and that area might have cold winters and mild summers. And since Butterbur mentions the heavy snow, I felt free to use it.
Organization of the Rangers: I used an article by Michael Martinez “Of Thegns and Kings and Rangers and things” as a guide to how Rangers might be arranged. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/64660 I speculated that a Ranger might be set on a specific patrol in a semi-military manner. I also took the liberty of putting Tarkil on horseback – an easier way to guard a country rather than by walking alone, though this would depend upon the territory and what type of threat they faced. Especially, if as Mr. Martinez conjectures, they would be guarding the main roads such as the Greenway. A ranger on foot wouldn’t stand much of a chance pursuing a thief who most likely would be heading pell-mell down a road on a horse or a wagon.
As for the various shacks I describe them as staying in: I grew up in central Ontario and there are often small hunting shacks built by various hunters and trappers to stay in during the hunting or trapping season. I understand that in Texas they are referred to as line shacks. I could see that similar buildings might be erected by other hunters in times such as these, or even the Rangers themselves especially considering they had been protecting the land for so many thousands of years. They would be small, rickety most likely but keep out the cold, perhaps some would even be equipped with a potbellied stove. (A single tea candle can keep a car at 50 degrees F.) So although I can’t see that a Ranger would necessarily return to this building each night in summer, I can conjecture that they might strive to return to it during a cold winter’s night such as is described in this chapter, or given the size of their patrol area, there may be several of these small shelters dotted across the land and they’d journey from one to the next, especially in the northern areas such as Fornost or the Ettenmoors.
A similar principle has been used for Chapter 2, 3 and 13 – the Rangers as I see them would probably head to a central location to report in or pick up supplies where a more senior Ranger would be in charge of them.
Yes, the first scene is an homage to the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" which inspired my title.
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.