2. Chapter 2
“I followed the tracks of the cart as far as the Greenway but then they got muddled up with all the other traffic on that path and I couldn’t follow it any further. They turned south is as much as I could tell, but how far they went, I cannot say.” Tarkil pushed his hair back with his free hand as he continued telling the tale to his commander. “I went back to the farm later that day. The littlest girl didn’t survive, but the oldest shall be fine. The neighbours said there was family in Southlinch and they promised they would take her there.”
“This hand is healing well, just keep putting the salve on those burns and keep it clean and dry. The other is not as bad, but take the same care. Burns have a nasty way of getting infected.” Angrim frowned as he rewrapped the bandages. “It is not the first theft of pipe weed in these parts, though I can’t say I’ve heard of any so vicious. There have been several other reports. Farmers in the South Farthing say they've had strangers approach, asking to buy their entire crops at twice the normal price. If you talk to any of the locals, ask them to keep an eye out for these men. I do not know why they are looking to buy up such massive quantities of pipe weed but from what I can gather they are getting desperate and this tale of yours simply confirms it.” The older ranger hitched up his trousers as they walked back to his horse. “In the meantime, your brother is waiting for you at the Pony.”
“Which one? Haldon or Valandur?”
“Valandur. He’s seen a bit of action himself. Take a few days off – either stay at the Pony or head to the Sheltering Pines for a bit of unwinding. Mistress Lathwen just got some new girls.” Angrim winked at his young cousin. “Do you good to sow some oats, son.”
“Yes, sir.” Tarkil looked forward to the opportunity to see his brother after many months without contact. He wondered at the cryptic reference to the ‘bit of action’ his brother had seen but knowing his brother it most likely meant a fight. Hoping to distract his senior from the last suggestion, he asked, “So how’s your new trainee working out?” He gave a small nod of his head towards the gangly youth that accompanied the older Ranger.
“Huznat?” Angrim snorted, “he’s green and weak as a blade of grass. His mother pampered him too much.He can barely sit his horse and that’s the gentlest mare I’ve got. But give me a year with him and he’ll be Ranger material. Though I reckon it will take him a fair bit longer to train him than it took me to train you. He’s got a good eye but his mouth does run on a bit.”
Tarkil grinned in sympathy at the youth. It didn’t surprise him to hear Angrim’s opinions when asked about any of the latest Ranger trainees, though the comment about the youth’s propensity to talk did cause him to chuckle.
Farmers’ wagons moving produce to the markets as well as the newest travelers from the south often blocked his path on the Greenway. He urged Nâlo onto the verge to avoid the slow moving wagons. When they finally reached a clear path north of Southlinch, he gave his horse free rein, allowing him to canter along the grassy path towards Bree.
Angrim had given him a few days off – the opportunity to relax was rare these days – and he intended to make the most of it. He hoped she would still be waiting tables at the Pony. Perhaps this time she would finally talk with him or even allow him to accompany her on a walk about town. Surely one of these trips she would allow his attentions.
The gates of Bree stood open during the day. Tarkil scowled as he saw no sign of the gatekeeper. He slowed his horse and they walked along the cobbled road, pulling up under the archway of the Pony. He tossed some coins to the hostler as he arranged to stable his horse. Tarkil removed the tack and brushed the horse down, then made sure Nâlo had fresh hay and water before he climbed the broad steps to the inn.
Tarkil found Butterbur and arranged for a room. A curly haired hobbit headed towards him with a big grin, offering to carry his bag. “Thanks, Nob, I can carry it myself, but could you arrange for some hot water to be sent to my room? I am in dire need of a bath.”
Nob scampered off with a promise to have a bath set up in the room, especially after the Ranger slipped him a coin, while Tarkil resumed his trek upstairs. The room appeared plain but clean as Butterbur seemed to know what the Rangers endured and made sure they had good rooms. After weeks where he often slept on the ground out in the open, Tarkil found it a welcome change just to have a bed.
He threw his pack on the chair and unbuckled his belt, removing his sword and knife then lay down sighing in contentment. But a knock interrupted his relaxation. He opened the door to find Nob and several lads hauling buckets of hot water. He grabbed his soap and razor as they poured the steaming water into the hip bath that stood in the corner.
Once they left, he stripped down and stepped into the steaming water with a sigh. “Warm water! ‘Tis a luxury indeed.” He sat relaxing for a while, then grabbed the bar of soap and dunked it in the water – quickly pulling his hands from the water and cursing as a lancing pain reminded him of his wounds. He gingerly scoured the dirt that clung to him from the past month. He dunked his head into the water as best he could and rubbed the bar through his dark hair, trying to ignore the throbbing pain of his hands.
He had just shrugged on a shirt when another knock sounded at his door. He pulled on a clean pair of trousers then opened the door expecting to find Nob and the lads wanting to empty the tub. “I’m done now, Nob---“ but found his brother Valandur grinning at him instead.
“I saw you arrive and thought you’d seen me but then you headed up here. I figured you’d want to wash up. You always were the clean one!” Valandur ribbed his younger brother who, though he was a year younger, was several inches taller.
“As opposed to you? I’ve seen you covered in mud and loving it. I swear Mother thought you would prefer to live in the stables rather than take a bath.” Tarkil grinned and grabbed his brother in a hug. “It’s good to see you, Val.”
“Actually she made that suggestion several times.” Val smirked then frowned when he saw the burns on his brother’s hands while Tarkil applied salve and rewrapped them. “What happened to you? Angrim didn’t say there’d been any trouble on the South Downs.”
“He didn’t know about it when he saw you. It was a house fire a few days ago,” Tarkil shrugged. “Some men murdered a farmer and his wife, then set fire to the farmer’s house with the children still inside. I got a bit singed in the process.”
“You probably ran into the burning building like the lunatic you are. Let me look at those.” Valandur frowned as he saw the extent of the damage. “Tarkil, these burns are serious! You shouldn’t be getting them wet – if they get infected you might lose your hands. What were you thinking running into a burning house?”
Tarkil frowned in return. “ There were two little girls in the house, Val. I couldn’t leave them to burn alive. And even then I couldn’t save one, I was too late. Look, I really don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m starving—I missed lunch in my hurry to see you. Let’s go down to the common room and get some food.”
They sat in a corner against the wall and ordered a pitcher of beer be brought along with some stew for Tarkil.
“What’s with the long face? Something wrong?” Val inquired.
“No, just hungry,” Tarkil scowled, unable to admit he was disappointed that he had not spied the girl who intrigued him these past months.
He had noticed her about six months before during a short stopover. Her deep throaty laugh first caught his attention as she joked with another customer. When she came to serve him, a hint of her scent wafted across to entice him. She asked what he wanted, then had to ask again as he stared at her. “Just an ale,” he managed to say finally. She gave him a look as if he had already had enough to drink.
She brought him the ale and he asked for some bread as an excuse to get her to come back to his table. She barely looked at him, just gave another quick nod. But in the brief moment she did look at him her eyes held his attention from anything else in the room. Hazel eyes with flecks of gold stared back at him hinting at a smart mind behind them.
He asked her name that night and she replied very primly, “Poppi, my lord,” then left him alone once again.
She served him the next day and he thanked her by name but she barely looked at him.
He had been back several times in the past few months; he would watch the room to find which tables she served then seat himself in her section ensuring her attention. Each visit since he had asked her to walk with him, even to just sit and talk with him. Each time she said no.
“So tell me of your excitement, Valandur. Angrim said you’d seen a bit of action.” Tarkil hoped to distract his brother from his own disappointment at not seeing Poppi.
“Oh, that! It was nothing really. Just a small skirmish by the High Pass.” Valandur tried to wave off his brother’s questions.
“A small skirmish by the High Pass? I know your penchant for understatement. That means you fought a heavy battle. Just how many orcs attacked in your ‘small skirmish’, brother?”
They spent the evening discussing the increasing number of orcs coming down from the Misty Mountains and the strange migration of southerners into the area but despite numerous conjectures neither brother could come up with a good reason for the incursions.
But there was no sign of Poppi so before the night grew too old Tarkil bid his brother good night and headed for the comfort of his bed.
Tarkil arose early the next morning and headed for breakfast. As he went down the hall, a small smile twitched at his lips, then he reversed directions for a few paces to knock on his brother’s door until he heard a moan of complaint uttered inside. He ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time so by the time Valandur caught up, he had already ordered breakfast.
Valandur approached him suspiciously. “Tarkil. You’re up early this morning.”
“I was about to say the same thing, my dear brother. Something disturb you at this early hour? Or is this a new habit? To rise early after staying up late drinking?” He smiled innocently at his brother.
“Hmmph, yes, ‘something’ disturbed me, and if ‘something’ disturbs me tomorrow morning at such an early hour, ‘something’ will find itself doused with a bucket of muck from the stables when ‘something’ least expects it,” Valandur grumped.
Tarkil chuckled. “Have some tea, Val, and there are eggs, bacon, potatoes and toast coming too. That should improve your temper.”
“You may be taller than me now, ‘little’ brother, but I can still best you in a fight. I remember all your weaknesses. I don’t think you’ve ever won a fight against me.”
“No, Val, I never have won against you. Not many men can best you.” Tarkil grinned at his brother’s ill mood. “Too much ale last night, Val? Or did you get turned down by a maid? You know Butterbur doesn’t hire that type of girl, why do you keep trying?” Tarkil’s grin died. So why do I keep trying? It was something to think about later, he decided.
“No, just too much ale. I had to finish that pitcher of ale you left me all alone with.” Valar missed the look on Tarkil’s face. “Now that you mentioned maids, though, I was thinking that perhaps a visit to the Sheltering Pines is in order.”
You’re starting to sound just like Haldon,” Tarkil observed. “I swear if he wasn’t a ranger he’d live there.”
“Come off it, it’s been at least six months for me, and from what I understand it’s been a lot longer for you. It’s not healthy to go so long without some feminine company, Tarkil. Sours the blood.”
“Now that definitely sounds like something Haldon would say! How is he, by the way? Have you seen him lately?”
Breakfast arrived and they sat talking of their older brother and his debaucherous ways. “No! Another girl? How many broken engagements does that make?" Tarkil shook his head in bemusement.
The two brothers spent the morning wandering the town, picking up various items in the stores that they needed to replenish their supplies. Valandur found a game going on in the stables that he decided to wager on, leaving Tarkil to head back to the common room for lunch.
He stood in the doorway and saw her tying on her apron. A bright smile appeared on his face as he headed to an empty table in her section. “Good afternoon, Poppi. Could I get a pot of tea, please?”
She nodded and headed to the kitchen with barely a glance his way. When she came back, she placed the teapot, cup and saucer in front of him with a polite word, then moved to turn away once more.
“Poppi? Would you ---“ He hesitated as she looked down at him. He found himself tongue-tied and awkward. “Would you go for a walk with me? Or perhaps sit and have some tea with me before you begin work tomorrow morning?”
"No, my lord, I cannot do such a thing," she sharply rebuked him, "and I'll thank you to not ask again."
Valandur came up and slid into a seat across from Tarkil as she turned away. “I’ll just have a cup of tea and some soup, if you’d be a dear.” Tarkil watched his brother’s eyes appreciatively sweep over Poppi’s form. He found himself suddenly angry at his brother and turned his attentions to his tea, wishing he had ordered an ale. It is easier to glower at someone over a tankard rather than a teacup, he thought. He cursed the bandages on his hand when the cup nearly dropped from his grip.
“Brother, from the looks of it, you definitely need some feminine company,” Valandur pronounced. “You should ask out that lovely little serving girl when she comes back with my tea. She looks like your type. Who knows, she might even say yes to you. Though I don’t hold out much hope, what would she want with you?” Valandur smirked, not knowing how closely he hit his mark.
Tarkil glowered at his brother. “And just what is my type, Val? I surely know yours -- it’s the same as Hal’s. Big breasts, and quick to bed.” Tarkil shook his head as an image of Poppi flashed through his mind – those hazel eyes looked up at him as she leaned against him, her fingers running through his hair as he bent slightly to kiss her …
Valandur raised an eyebrow and Tarkil quickly schooled his face into a neutral expression
“You know what, Val, you may just be right. Maybe I do need a trip to the Sheltering Pines.”
“That’s my boy! I’ll go prepare the horses and we can be there by dinner tonight!” Valandar stood with a bound, forgetting his order as he headed to the stables to prepare their horses for the ride to the brothel.
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.