13. Chapter 13
“Could the boy’s parents recognize the men that abducted them? Do they know where they were headed?” Angrim sighed as Tarkil shook his head.
“They headed south down the Greenway without stopping anywhere. Once the couple realized they had gone south of the Andrath pass, they grew afraid of what might be done to them, especially to the woman. They made their escape while it was still dark and the men guarding them in the wagon fell asleep. They said as far as they knew, the wagon continued on without stopping.”
“We cannot stop the wagons of weed that have been heading down the Greenway, as we cannot prove they have been stolen.” He shook his head and slapped his gloves in the palm of his hand. “Well, if that is all you have to report, go get yourself some lunch before you return to your patrol.”
Tarkil gave a small nod and started to leave when Angrim called out. “Oh, and Haldon is here, he should be off his watch by now. You should probably have a bit of time to talk with him before you need to leave.”
Tarkil stopped halfway through the doorway, turning his head only slightly to ask, “I thought he was up in Fornost, away from people -- what brings him here?”
“Because he is needed!” Angrim barked, “We are having to pull more and more rangers from the north and move them to the borders, why do you think he is here? I’m left with a handful to cover the whole area! And still Halbarad requests more people be pulled from this land! So for now Haldon guards the Greenway between your post and here -- now close that door behind you before you let all the heat out of this wretched shack!”
Anyone around the small clearing would have noticed Tarkil’s hands form into fists as he stalked over to the rough building the small contingent used as a kitchen and gathering spot in the winter. He threw the door wide and stood in the opening, allowing his eyes to adjust to the smoky darkness within, when he saw him.
“Tarkil! You made it! Angrim said you should be reporting in today. Come sit by --- Oooph” Haldon found himself torn from his seat and flung violently against the wall with Tarkil’s hands around his neck, throttling him.
“What did you do to her, you lecherous maggot! Why could you not keep your hands to yourself for once! Just ONCE!” Tarkil fought as two other rangers tried to pull the brothers apart. “Have you not seduced enough women without going after mine?” The other rangers finally managed to separate the pair, though Tarkil continued to struggle against the hands that held him away from the object of his malice.
“Who? Which one are you talking about?” Haldon coughed and spluttered as he tried to catch his breath, “You really need to do something about that temper of yours, brother! Now who are you talking about? Which girl?”
“Poppi!” Tarkil spat back. “The girl in Bree? Remember her? You rode into town and seduced her and then left her in tears? The girl you wrote me about -- that you knew she mistook you for me yet you went ahead and seduced her anyway! THAT girl!”
“Oh, right! I remember her,” Haldon grinned brightly, “She was a delicious little thing. Big eyes, curly hair, right? I hope you made it back there and straightened things out with her, because if you have not, next time I am in Bree I shall. She was most obliging.”
“Arrrgh,” Tarkil launched himself again at his grinning brother only to be firmly caught again and shoved face first into the wall, his arm pulled behind him as a familiar voice growled in his ear, “Tarkil, lad, stop this! You’ve got to learn some control.”
“Gethron?” Tarkil realized who held him restrained. “I did not know… Owww, enough! Let go -- I will not fight you.” A moment passed before Gethron released his hold on Tarkil who wheeled on Haldon. “I finally find someone I am interested in and the moment my back is turned you have seduced her by pretending to be me!” Gethron grabbed his arm again. Tarkil shook it off and started addressing the older ranger rather than his brother. “Let me go, I gave you my word I would not fight! He lay with Poppi, Gethron. He took her maidenhood! My own brother! I had been working so hard to get her to trust me and he has destroyed everything!”
“I did no such thing, little brother, though it was not for lack of trying. Believe me, she is such a sweet little dish, if I had had the opportunity I would have but there just was not time.” Haldon hadn’t lost his wide smile. “Why don’t you ask her next time you’re in Bree; she’ll tell you.”
“She is not in Bree anymore – she ran home because you scared her off! Her brother-in-law and sister made me visit her parents. Now I have to court her with a chaperone! Why could you not just leave well enough alone?”
Haldon bent over laughing hard, “Oh, little brother, that is priceless! For once it is not me an angry father is after! Now you see what I mean about the girls of this land? They are starved for a good strong man.”
“It is not funny! I had hoped we could set up some sort of arrangement if she had stayed in Bree, but you went and scared her off home and now I am trapped!” Tarkil railed.
“Oh, you poor uneducated soul, that is easy enough to deal with -- just ask Angrim to reassign you; that is what I always do – and soon they grow weary of waiting and you are free.” Haldon chuckled.
“You both are idiots,” Gethron growled. “You should know better than to treat women in such a way, Breelanders or Dúnedain.”
“I have to get back out to my post,” Haldon grinned wryly at his brother, “I will leave you to suffer one of Gethron’s tongue-lashings by yourself, little brother – I have heard all his lectures before. He is almost as bad as Angrim.”
“Trapped?” Gethron raised an eyebrow as they watched Haldon leave. “Is this the same ranger who so carefully stalked that girl? Yet now you claim she has trapped you? You know that is not true, boy, I do not think anyone could force you or any ranger to do anything they did not want to do.”
“I just thought –“
“You just thought you would have a little fun with her? You are more like your brother than you realize perhaps.” Gethron pulled out his pipe, pausing before he lit it, “No, I do not buy your protests. I watched you with her that week in Bree; she mesmerized you. You care for her more than you are willing to admit, otherwise you would not have come bursting in here attacking your own brother. It drove you wild to know another man touched her. If it were a casual liaison, knowing she slept with another man would not drive you so crazy. Are you in love with her? Are you thinking of marrying her?”
“That is what Mallor asked, too.” Tarkil plopped down onto the chair opposite Gethron. “But I cannot marry her, Gethron. She is a Breelander. You know how our people frown on such relationships. I saw it happen when Mallor brought home his wife. She is a Rohan woman he met delivering messages to that land’s king. You met her when you brought Haldon’s letter to their farm before the Yule. He would not say much but he left ranging. I think it was because of the comments people made, both to him and to her.”
“I know Mallor, Tarkil. We were serving at the same post when he decided to quit ranging. He did not leave because of the way our people treated them; he left because he could not stand being away from his family.” The pipe finally lit and Gethron spoke with it clenched in his teeth. “He could not bear the thought of his wife and children being left alone if anything happened to him. It was not our people that caused him to make that decision, but the life that he led. You know how long it can be before you get home sometimes. And I notice you did not answer my first question, son, only my second. You do love her, do you not? You are going to need to think about what you would be asking this girl of yours – she had better get used to being alone for long periods of time.”
“But Angrim says …”
“I know what Angrim says, and yes, there is some truth to your words. There are those among us, like Angrim, who believe it is wrong to marry outside of the Dúnedain; that it thins our blood and weakens our people. But if you love this girl – should it matter what other people think? Because if it does make a difference to you, then you had better not see her again. It would be downright cruel to lead a lass on like that only to walk away.”
& - & - & - &
That conversation repeated itself in Tarkil’s head on the ride home. Is it fair to ask Poppi to put up with his long absences? He himself had told Sarah it had been 7 months between visits home. But that was my choice, so others could visit their kin; I volunteered to take their duty. I had opportunities to go home if I had wanted, I just turned them down.
He and Bregon had eventually gone back into the house the night of the storm to find Poppi drying her eyes and Sarah comforting her. Sarah took him aside asking why he thought Poppi carried a babe. When he told her as he had Bregon, she laughed aloud and patted his arm. She shook her head. “Calm yourself, Tarkil dear, my sister has assured me you are not about to become a father.” She spoke quietly to Poppi who nodded and reluctantly joined the rest of them by the fireplace. He hadn’t found out what Sarah said to her sister that evening, but slowly the frost between them melted. And he found himself once again unable to remove his gaze from her – entranced, but very aware of Sarah and Bregon’s presence.
Mallor said that I love her, and Gethron suggested it, too. Are they right? Do I? And while Angrim is correct too about keeping the Numenorean blood pure, it is possible to marry outside of our people – Mallor’s done it. Would my people accept her as my wife? Would hers accept me as her husband? And what about my family’s heritage, would I weaken it? There’s still Haldon to carry on our line. He groaned aloud at that thought.
& - & - & - &
The next few days as he traveled to various corners of his patrol, checking in with the farmers, he noticed a few children who suddenly clung to their parents at his arrival. Were they frightened because of warnings their parents gave them about strangers, or were they frightened of him simply because he was a Ranger. Had they always hidden?
Whenever he visited Bree, he always sat in the corners, cloaked in the shadows, keeping away from the locals, and they had kept away from him. It had been in his training to stay detached from the people he guarded. He’d never thought much about it before, but what did the Breelanders think of the Dúnedain?
Poppi’s father, Henry, scowled at him when Bregon and Sarah escorted him to Poppi’s house to make the introductions so he could ask permission to court Poppi. Was it because he was a Ranger or simply because Tarkil was a man coming to court his daughter. Would any Dúnedain father act any differently? Certainly Titheniel’s father hadn’t been pleased to see him come calling for his daughter during that ill-fated courtship.
& - & - & - &
“That didn’t go well,” Tarkil groused to himself. “Perhaps Haldon is right, Nálo, perhaps I should just ask to be transferred.” But even to him, his words sounded hollow.
The afternoon’s visit with Poppi had been particularly tense to the Ranger: from the acerbic comments Henry muttered his way, to the excessive fussing of Poppi’s mother. Tarkil felt unnerved in that house each time he went to see Poppi. He could only hope neither Poppi, Bregon nor Sarah breathed a word to her parents about what had happened in the stables. He certainly didn’t want to have to explain that to her parents. He’d never told Poppi that it had been his brother not he, figuring he’d take the lumps. After all, he reasoned, he’d been after the same thing on their picnic.
But to be chaperoned! Having Poppi in the same room and unable to touch her, having every movement he made scrutinized, being aware that every glance in her direction caused Henry to ‘hrumph’ annoyed Tarkil beyond endurance.
He stopped at the small general store in Southlinch to buy some supplies, and after he tied Nálo securely to the hitching post, he held the shop door open for a woman carrying a small child to leave. The other people in the store stopped talking briefly and stared as he entered. Tarkil picked up the supplies he needed while he listened to the locals discussing the southerners who flooded their land of late. He paid for his purchases and left, mindful that the eyes of the locals never left him the whole time he’d been in their presence.
Further down the road, he passed the woman who had left the store as he entered. She struggled carrying her packages and the small child who now whined in her arms so he turned Nálo and dismounted.
She appeared nervous at his approach. “I do not mean to harm you, good lady. You look heavily laden; may I offer you some help in carrying your packages?”
She ducked her head, “I can manage. I’ve not far to go - just up the road here.”
“You’re from the south I’m guessing? Dunland perhaps?” Tarkil continued to walk with her. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some help?”
“I’m sure,” she shifted the child in her arms who pulled her cloak aside briefly. A small locket drew his gaze, for he recognized it as one Ruby Greenbanks wore the last time he’d seen her. “That is a pretty necklace you have, mistress.”
“My husband gave it to me,” she fingered it as she looked at him warily, “now leave me alone. It will not be good if my husband sees me in the company of a strange man.”
He nodded his head and slowed his pace allowing her to proceed along the road ahead of him. He made a show of stopping to light his pipe as he watched her turn along a narrow path between two fields. As the distance between them grew, he slowly led Nálo down the same path, following her, hoping she could lead him to the miscreants who stole the locket and murdered its owner.