14. Chapter 14
A woman’s voice asked a question of him, and he snarled his reply “When I’m good and ready. Now shut up, woman!” The southerner slammed the door slammed and spat, “Always nagging me, bring her little trinkets and still she nags.” He grumbled as he trudged down the small path towards the Greenway, not seeing a shadow slip slowly behind him.
Tarkil stayed in the shadows of the hedges lining the fields. He had repeated the pattern for four nights now, since he had first discovered the location of the abandoned farmhouse the family squatted in. Each night the man left at dusk, heading across the Greenway to meet with others in a crumbling barn a few miles over the downs.
A half dozen men gathered there each night, drinking and gambling the first night he guessed from their raucous laughter, not leaving the shelter of the barn. He’d scouted the area during the gloam of dawn when he could hear the snores of those that remained. Still he returned each night, hoping they might lead him to the killers of Lilly’s family.
Yet tonight the southerner stopped at the Greenway, waiting, not heading across the downs to the barn. Eventually Tarkil heard hoof beats in the distance then the creaking of a wagon that stopped as it drew nigh to the man. “You’re late.”
“Cursed horse threw a shoe, so I had to steal us another one. We’ll make up the time and the others should be there already.”
The wagon creaked again as the man’s weight settled upon it; the harness jingled as the horse trotted along the Greenway towards Southlinch. Tarkil waited till he felt no one would notice him then sprinted to where Nálo stood tethered in a nearby spinney.
“Tarkil,” he heard a hoarse whisper calling. He spun around to see two dark shadows form into Rangers on horseback and he recognized Haldon and Gethron.
“I have to follow that wagon, I think it is the same men who have been stealing the pipe weed.” Tarkil untied Nálo and jumped onto his horse, guiding him to stand beside the other two, ignoring his brother for the moment. “What are you doing this way, Gethron? I thought your patrol was far to the south.”
“We’ve been following that wagon too. I have had reports of horses being stolen from my patrol lately and tonight they hit near where I happened to be; I found the farmer trying to chase after them so I followed the tracks, and ran into your brother here. We figured that anyone who stole a horse and moved a wagon at night was up to no good. You need help?” Gethron grinned in anticipation.
“I am not going to turn it down if you’re offering - three swords are better than one.” Tarkil grinned back so they kept to the shadows along the verge of the Greenway, leaving a distance between themselves and their quarry.
“What is the matter?” Haldon noticed his brother stiffen when the wagon slowed and turned.
“This is the Andrath road -- there are only two farms down that road that grow weed -- Poppi’s brother-in-law’s farm and her family’s!” Tarkil suddenly realized that if only two men were on the wagon, the others might already be at their destination. “Come on, we might be too late.” He urged Nálo into a canter, closing the distance between himself and the wagon; the two other Rangers following close behind.
“What is the plan, lad?” Gethron asked. “Catch up to the wagon and take them, then head for the farms?”
“I figure that is probably best, rather than letting them gather; better to keep the two groups apart.” Tarkil pulled his bow from his back and strung an arrow, holding both loosely, waiting to draw within range.
The men on the wagon realized they were being chased and urged the horse to go faster. The wagon bumped down the hill, then careened around the corner as the rangers drew closer, bows in hand. Three arrows shot through the air.
One of the men on the wagon took two of the arrows and tumbled off the wagon, falling heavily onto the ground, Haldon pulled up his horse, yelling, “Keep going, I have him.”
The two rangers thundered by the fallen men, arrows quickly replaced in their bows. The remaining man, an arrow embedded in his shoulder, urged the horse on still faster round the tight curve. Tarkil loosed his arrow just as the wagon clipped a tree, throwing the man free. He reined in Nálo, Gethron quickly turned his horse to stand over the man while the horse harnessed to the wagon panicked and ran through the woods, the wagon disintegrating at each tree it hit.
“Which farm are you going to?” Tarkil grabbed the man’s shirtfront as he bent over him, “Which one?”
“Hurts… I think I’ve broken something. Help me,” he choked out.
Tarkil threw him back down, “Help you? Like you helped the Greenbanks?”
Haldon came up, Tarkil threw him a glance to see him shaking his head, “No help for the other one, he is gone.”
“Which farm and how many?” The man didn’t reply. “How many are there already?” Tarkil yelled as he grabbed the man. But the man’s eyes rolled into his head as he went limp. Tarkil threw him down in disgust and got back on Nálo, “Haldon, bind him and join us when you can! But be quick about it!” He and Gethron turned their horses and continued down the road as fast as they dared in the dark of the night.
As they approached Bregon’s and Sarah’s small farm house, Tarkil pulled up on the reins to slow Nálo down, gesturing for Gethron to do the same. The house stood dark, the area quiet. “It does not look like they are here, at least not yet, perhaps they are at the next farm,” Gethron surmised.
“That is Poppi’s family,” Tarkil’s blood chilled to think what they might be enduring.
“How far is it?”
“Just around the next bend.” Tarkil ran onto the porch of the dark farmhouse and pounded on the door. “Bregon! We need your help! Bregon!”
A few moments later, the young farmer threw open the door and stared in amazement at the two Rangers who quickly explained the situation. He ran back and hurriedly dressed, returning with his axe in hand.
They stopped their horses as they rounded the bend bringing the house into view. “No lights in the house, but look at the barn. Looks like there’s a fire – a torch, do you think?”
“More a torch than a lantern from the flicker,” Gethron agreed. “How many do you reckon? Could you tell at the last two farms that you scouted?”
“Possibly six or more.” Tarkil’s frowned, “They hit the last house during the snowstorm and a lot of the tracks were muddied by the snowmelt so I could not tell.”
They left their horses and crept as close as they could, approaching the far side of the house. They decided to split up, one heading around each side, Gethron and Bregon slipped away in the darkness of the back of the house while Tarkil headed around the front. He froze when he heard a sound from inside – a slap and a cry. “Stupid women! Thought you could run away from us, did you?”
Tarkil crept up the steps, listening; the voices came from the back of the house – the kitchen? Silent as a shadow, he slid down the hall towards the voices, hearing the sound of a struggle.
“Just take the weed and leave us alone!” Tarkil heard defiance in Poppi’s voice and took a grim pride in her resolve. Hang on, my love, I am almost there.
“Put that down!” A series of heavy thumps and curses followed the hoarse command.
The door stood slightly ajar; he pushed it open wider to spy Poppi and her mother, armed with a frying pan and rolling pin, beating the intruder. The burly man threw up an arm to protect himself then grabbed Poppi’s mother by her neck, “You’re going to regret doing that!” he snarled. She dropped the pan to grab his arms, desperately trying to free herself as Poppi continued to beat him with the rolling pin. The man sagged when Tarkil’s knife buried itself deep in his back.
The Ranger strode into the room, quickly bending down over the man to ensure he could do no more harm as Poppi threw her arms about him nearly knocking him over.
“Tarkil! They’ve taken Pop – he’s out in the barn. You have to help him!”
He pulled his knife from the body and wiped it clean on the man’s trousers. “Gethron and Bregon are headed to the barn now. That frying pan will come in as a handy weapon, but do you have any good strong knives? I do not want to leave you here alone unprotected.”
Poppi’s mother opened a draw and pulled out a wicked carving knife and handed another blade to Poppi. “You go help Henry,” she sternly bade the ranger. “We’ll be able to look after ourselves here, don’t worry.”
Tarkil stopped as he heard footsteps coming downstairs. “Hey, Burl, there’s not much to take upstairs, let’s just take the women and have our fun here before the others want their t---” The man’s eyes went wide to see the door to the kitchen swing open and a Ranger come charging down the hall. He turned tail and ran out the front door, Tarkil hot in pursuit shouting to Poppi and her mother “Lock the doors – bar them with chairs until you hear Gethron or myself at the door.”
The man ran across the lawn towards the barn yelling “Ranger!” Tarkil saw Gethron and Bregon run into the barn meeting the thieves as they turned to help their companion. Tarkil caught up to the man from the house and tackled him.
One of the men pulled his own sword and swung at Gethron, the other threw himself at Bregon, preventing the young farmer from swinging his axe. A third man paused in indecision at seeing the sword fight and the two men wrestling on the ground. He ran over and grabbed the dropped axe then sprinted for the house. Bregon swung wildly, finally connecting with his opponent’s jaw and levered him off so he regained his feet. His foe rolled to stand and the two men attacked each other once more, grappling and pounding each other in turn.
~ ~ ~
“Mum! Are you all right?” Poppi anxiously asked her mother as they shoved a chair underneath the door handle of the front hall. “When I saw him with his hands around your neck, I thought ….”
“I’m all right, Poppi, he just winded me. I’m glad that lad of yours arrived when he did. Might be useful to have a Ranger around these days. Don’t you worry about me.” They went back to the kitchen where Poppi’s mother sat on a chair while she caught her breath. “You keep an eye out that window and make sure none of them thieves try to make a dash for it back here.”
“I can’t see much, Mum it’s so dark!” Poppi stood peering out the window, “I think Bregon’s fighting with one of them, and the older Ranger is too, but I can’t see Tarkil or Pop!”
~ ~ ~
Tarkil wrestled the burly southerner, struggling to keep the knife in the man’s arm from slicing into him, finally getting hold of the man’s wrist to slam it against the ground till the knife fell free of the man’s grasp. The man twisted and pushed Tarkil, kicking out at the Ranger who rolled out of the way, and quickly unsheathed his sword and ended the match. With a quick check to ensure the man’s death, Tarkil dashed into the barn as he saw Henry grappling with a man holding a torch to the hay bales.
“Mum! There’s one coming this way – he’s headed towards the front door and he’s got Bregon’s axe! Quick, we have to get out of here!” Poppi grabbed her mother’s arm, then pulled the chair from the back door and threw the bolt. “Come on, I just saw Tarkil out back.” As the front door splintered, the two women ran from the back door heading towards the tall Ranger running by. “Tarkil – there’s another one in the house!”
Haldon grabbed Poppi and swung her around behind him, ensured her mother was also safely out of harms’ way then drew his sword and met the robber who barrelled through the back door.
Gethron despatched his man to see Bregon wrestling with his opponent still. He ran over to shove his belt knife up under the man’s ribs and pulled the body away from Bregon who turned to fight his new opponent. The young farmer stopped short, grinning, “Sorry, thought you were one of them thieves. Thanks for the hand, but I could have taken him out myself. Where’s Tarkil?”
The man grappling with Henry saw Tarkil running towards him, sword in hand. He grabbed the farmer and tried to throw him at the Ranger, but Henry stumbled; Tarkil jumped over Poppi’s father as he rolled out of the way. The thief drew his own blade, parrying the Ranger’s assault as Tarkil advanced.
Gethron and Bregon hurried into the barn to find Tarkil finishing off the last man. Bregon pulled Henry to his feet. Both men ran to the well and grabbed buckets of water, returning to throw them on the torch where it had fallen on the floor lighting a nearby hay bale.
“Pop, are you all right?” Bregon finally managed to ask his father-in-law once the last of the flames were extinguished.
“Yes, I’m fine, thanks to Tarkil here,” Henry gruffly admitted, then worriedly asked, “What about Ma and Poppi? There were a couple men in there with the women.”
Tarkil straightened from checking the body of the bandit, “I got one in the house, and the other is out in the yard. I have armed Poppi and your wife, Henry, and told them to bar the doors.”
“But another of those fellows grabbed my axe and headed to the house,” Bregon realized. “I’m not sure if they’re safe anymore.” The four men dashed out of the barn heading for the house.
“There you go, Poppi my dear, you are safe now.” Haldon resheathed his sword once he’d cleaned it after felling the last thief. She threw her arms about him, sagging against him in her relief. He gathered her in his arms, pulling her close and firmly kissed her.
Tarkil slowed his pace as he saw Haldon deal with the latest threat, knowing Poppi and her mother were now safe, then watched in disgust as his brother embraced Poppi. His disgust turned to horror as she wrapped her arms around Haldon’s neck to reach up, returning the kiss, her unrestrained breasts straining against her thin shift. Tarkil gasped as one of Haldon’s hands roamed freely down her back and over her billowing nightgown to settle on her gentle curves, pulling her harder against him.
Tarkil started to run towards them once more but Gethron grabbed his arm, “Just wait, son, she will realize it soon enough.” Gethron chuckled when he saw Poppi pull back and slap Haldon soundly. “See, I told you!”
Haldon rubbed his cheek and grinned, “Whatever is wrong, my dear, you were not so shy in the stables.”
Tarkil glared at Haldon as he removed his cloak and placed it around Poppi’s shoulders then put a possessive arm around her waist as she stared at them both. “That is my brother Haldon – I believe you have already met,” he raised an eyebrow at her to double over as Poppi pounded a fist into his stomach. “What did I do?” he gasped.
“You! Both of you! You played me for a fool!” her eyes narrowed in anger. “You played me between you,” she whispered the accusation, disbelief in her eyes. “Is this a game the noble rangers play,” she asked bitterly. She stared hard at Haldon, ignoring Tarkil’s protests.
Haldon shook his head. “No, Poppi dearest, it was no game. We did not realize until...” he paused and glanced at Henry. “I would never have made that promise Poppi,” he said quietly.
Poppi shifted uncomfortably and looked down to avoid Haldon's sudden wide
“Wait a minute – you thought Haldon was me? So when you finally agreed to walk with me? Who did you think you were accepting?” Horror crept into the edge of Tarkil’s thoughts – surely she hadn’t thought it was Haldon courting her all this time!
“You! Him! I don’t know! I thought you were the same man!” She stared at them standing together and realized, even in the moonlight, they were different: Haldon, a tad shorter, Tarkil broader across his shoulders. “Sometimes you’d reach for me with this bright smile and a gleam in your eye –and other times you’d be solemn and quiet. I thought … You look so … “ Poppi shook her head and took another step back.
"Oh no, Poppi, do not go," Tarkil reached for her, but froze as she stiffened at the familiar words. “Poppi?”
Then she saw Haldon’s bright grin. “THAT gleam and that SMILE!” she pointed at Haldon. “Oh!” She stomped back into the house, slamming the door.
Tarkil glared at his brother, “Oh, wipe that smirk off your face!” He strode to the back door calling out to her, “Poppi! We had no such plans; I had no idea that Haldon was asking you as well. We rarely see each other as it is.” He found her in the parlour, slumped in a chair, her head in her hands. “Poppi,” he said quietly as he went to kneel beside her. “Haldon and I had not seen each other in months. I had no idea he was asking you out or that you would not be able to tell the difference between us. We were not playing games with you. I promise.”
“The stables” Poppi kept her gaze to the ground. “That was Haldon. You thought... you thought he didn’t honor your promise,” she finally said. She gasped as her head flew up to stare at him. “You knew about that! That’s why you thought I was … I was ‘in that condition’ … And I thought you meant … that I hadn’t, and you thought I had – with your brother! You KNEW and you never said a word to me all this time! You let me think it was you! You were playing games with me!”
“No, Poppi!” Tarkil sighed and took her hand, holding it firmly as she tried to wrench it away. “Listen to me, please. I would have told you at Sarah and Bregon’s but you would not speak with me alone and since then we have always had a chaperone. I figured it would be more embarrassing for you to find out that it was not me in the stables. I was not trying to play any games, nor was either of us trying to hurt you. Haldon did not know I had asked you to wait for me, to walk with me again when he came that night. He left me a letter after he met you in the stables but he did not say exactly what happened, only that you had mistaken him for me. I … assumed where I should not have and made that accusation against you about … your condition – because I was jealous. I could not stand the thought of anyone else touching you.” He reached up and tucked her curls behind her ear, “And once I saw you again the night of the storm, it did not matter to me any more. I just wanted to be with you. Only you. That is why I asked your parents’ permission to court you.”
“I thought that was because Bregon forced you down here,” she sniffled.
“Nay, my love,” Tarkil smiled as he shook his head, “I do not think Bregon would have been very successful if I had not wanted to come. He is a strong farmer and handy with an axe, but I am a Ranger and I am very good with my sword. Besides, Bregon’s smart and I think he knew I did not need forcing, just needed a nudge perhaps.”
“So you wanted to court me? You’re not doing it because you feel obligated?” Poppi lifted her eyes to look at him finally. “Because Bregon and Pop forced you?”
“I am here because I choose to be.” He grew solemn, and traced a finger down the side of her jaw, “When I saw you tonight– with that murderer in the kitchen – I have never felt anything like that in my life. The thought that someone might hurt you or that I might lose you -- I could not bear such thoughts.”
She slowly reached to him, placing her palm against his cheek. Tarkil rose as soon as she touched him and lifted her in his arms then sat in her place, settling her in his lap, his cloak draping over them. He wrapped his arms around her and touched his lips to her hair then Poppi lifted her face to offer her lips to his. He brushed his lips across hers, testing. Feeling her heart race beneath his hand, his lips touched her again, demanding more. She pulled away finally, breathless, resting her head against his shoulder, “I thought you were coming to see me because you felt you had to,” she admitted shyly.
He smiled as he shook his head, “I came to see you because I love you, Poppi.” And he realized he did: he knew he could want for nothing more than her love.
He bent his head over her once again, firmly kissing her, as she eagerly leaned into him, yielding to him. She slipped a hand around his shoulder, toying with the hair at the nape of his neck, her other hand traced light circles across his chest. She equaled his passion, tasting, teasing, seeking him in return. Her breath caressed his cheek sending a spiral of warmth through him; he slid a hand beneath the cover of the cloak to boldly wander over her. Only the thin cloth of her nightgown came between them as she quietly moaned and arched up into the warmth of his hand.
“Harrumph,” they heard from the door, “Go get dressed, girl, your mother needs a hand cleaning up the kitchen.”
Poppi scrambled to her feet, blushing, as she rushed past her father while Tarkil slowly stood to face Henry’s glower. Once his daughter was out of earshot, Henry came into the room, placing a lantern on the table, and folded his arms across his chest, “We appreciate the help you gave us tonight but it does not allow you to take such liberties with our daughter.”
“Of course, Mr. Rushlight, please forgive me.” Tarkil dipped his head to the farmer. “I meant no disrespect to you or your daughter.”
“Just what are your intentions towards her, Tarkil? You asked if you could court her but to what end?” The farmer cut right to the heart of the matter giving Tarkil no quarter.
They talked about the Ranger’s intentions and his plans for the future; Henry asked pointed questions about how Rangers supported their families, where they lived, and Tarkil’s age. Poppi returned to find the room quiet, Tarkil staring out the window watching the sunrise as her father sat in his chair, pulling on his pipe.
“Pop, Mum needs some help with the stove – the damper’s sticking again.” Poppi watched her father give a glance at the Ranger as he passed by her.
“Tarkil, was Pop angry with you?” Poppi laced an arm through Tarkil’s once her father left the room. “Can you still court me?”
“He is worried about you, Poppi, as any father should be. He is afraid that I may take advantage of you – and rightly so I suppose after some of the things that were said in front of him this morning and then …” he gestured to where they had sat together earlier, “But yes, I can still court you.” He tipped his head to the window, “Bregon went to get Sarah from the looks of it.”
Poppi nodded, distracted by his solemn manner. “He left a little while ago after they got the … bodies … out to the barn. And your friend Gethron’s gone too; he said he needed to report in. I guess you were talking with Pop when they left.”
Tarkil nodded as Sarah swept into the front hall anxiously calling to her parents who hurried from the kitchen followed by Haldon who casually leaned against the kitchen doorframe.
“I was all alone there, and I had no idea what was going on, if any of you were hurt or worse! Tarkil – I’m so glad you were here, thank you so much.” She handed Calder over to her mother then glided over to Haldon and reached up to kiss him, then pulled back, “Oh dear! You’re not Tarkil.”
“No, it’s not Tarkil, that’s his brother Haldon,” Poppi smugly informed her from the parlour where she still held Tarkil’s arm.
Sarah tilted her head to the side as she looked at Haldon and glanced over at Tarkil, “I guess because it’s still dark in here that you look rather similar though I don’t think I’d get you mixed up in the daylight.”
Tarkil bowed to Sarah, a small smile finally tugging the edges of his lips, “THANK you, Sarah. But there are those who do seem to have trouble telling us apart.” Poppi narrowed her eyes at him, but she smiled, hugging his arm close, and laughed as she saw Haldon boldly wink in her direction.
Henry settled down in his chair and lit his pipe, scowling as the smoke curled about his head. "Why don't I want to hear the rest of this story?"
Tarkil frowned and pulled Poppi close. "I have to report in once we’ve delivered the wounded man to the Mayor. And I want to let Lily know that we caught the people who killed her parents." Tarkil bent to kiss Poppi good-bye as Henry folded his arms and glared. "But I will be back soon. I will drop in on your family each day I am in the area to make sure you are still safe."
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.