4. Chapter 4
“Ah, lad, you had me worried there, you did.” Gethron sat on a stool beside him. “You’ve been out about three days now.”
“Where..?” Tarkil croaked, his throat parched.
“Where are we? We’re at the post by the North Downs. I brought you here after the fight. Do you remember the attack?”
Tarkil started to nod his head then stopped as the throbbing in his head changed to pounding. “Yes. Orcs.”
Gethron breathed a sigh in relief, “Yes, that’s a good sign, Tarkil. I’m glad to see you remembered. You hit your head on a rock, as well as taking a couple good slices from an orc blade.”
Gethron slipped an arm beneath Tarkil’s shoulders and lifted him as he brought a waterskin to his lips once more. ”Take a drink, son.” After watching Tarkil take a few sips, he settled him back and resumed, “I couldn’t get you to stay awake so I loaded you on my horse and brought you here. Lucky for you they had our best healer visiting.”
Tarkil became aware of another ranger standing behind Gethron. “Captain!”
“I was just passing through.” Aragorn came to stand beside him. “It will be a few days yet before you should be getting up. It wasn’t just your head wound that had us worried. The orc blades caused quite an infection so you’ve been fighting a fever as well.”
“Sorry, Captain,” Tarkil mumbled. Within a few minutes, he fell back asleep.
“Is it all right to let him sleep, sir?” Gethron worried as he watched Tarkil sleep.
“Yes, it is a healing rest now. When he awakens make sure he drinks an ample amount and try to get him to take some food, though it may yet be a few days before he’s able to tolerate much. But the worst is over." Gethron followed Aragorn as he walked from the small cabin. “I cannot delay my departure any longer, I am needed in Bree. Change his dressings as I showed you, and if he complains of pain or if the swelling starts up again, try using a linseed poultice on those wounds.”
“Thank you, Captain. He’s a good man and a first-rate Ranger. He put up quite a fight back there.”
Aragorn put a hand on Gethron’s shoulder, “He’ll be fine. It’s just going to take him some time to recover. I’ll leave those orders in Bree for when you arrive. And remember don’t let him push himself too hard.” He walked away to talk to the commander of the post leaving Gethron to watch over Tarkil.
“How’s he doing, Gethron? I saw him out walking earlier; he’s pushing himself pretty hard from the looks of it,” Herudil, the post commander, asked.
“Yes, sir, he is. He’s pretty stubborn.” Gethron admitted. “Between the knock on his head and the fever from the infection, his strength is drained. I think it pains him to take a deep breath but he tries not to show it.”
“How long until he’s in fighting condition?” the commander saw Gethron look askance. “Every post in the north is short on men, Gethron. You’ve accompanied him on his rounds and know how our numbers have been cut. We could use his sword. And yours. I notice you got him out of there without a scratch on you. I remember when we trained together, old friend, and your talents could be used here as well.”
“It’s going to take him a bit to get his strength back, not to mention healing the wounds.” Gethron spoke slowly as he considered Tarkil’s condition. “I’m no healer, but I’d reckon it’ll take him a few weeks more before he can hold a sword again and swing it with any strength. And you’d have to ask Halbarad about me, he assigned me to accompany the lad here.”
“Pity. We could surely use a good sword. The orcs that attacked you weren’t the only orcs around. They’ve been numerous. And they’re bolder, too. They’re starting to encroach to the south. Quite a few of the farmers have reported having cattle and sheep stolen during the night. I’ve got one patrol in the south-east who say they haven’t had any sight of a farmer who regularly brings them supplies. I’ve had to send them out to see if that farm has been attacked. We could use the extra support.”
“I don’t doubt it, Herudil, sir. But I doubt he could be spared from his own patrol on the South Downs. He reports to Angrim and I doubt he’d give him up any easier than you wanted to give up any of your men.” Gethron reminded the commander.
“Angrim, eh?” Herudil sighed, “No, you’re right. I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting Tarkil assigned up here. Angrim is even more stubborn than your sick charge there.”
“It must be something in the blood. Angrim is his father’s cousin apparently.” Gethron disclosed.
Herudil grunted, “Then I’ll have no chance at all. Pity. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s a good man. And from the way you speak, he could replace me in a few years.”
Gethron grinned, “He held his ground against Borgil last week. I’ve seen other men cowed by that self-righteous blowhard. But Tarkil held firm. He’ll be a good commander. But he needs some experience still. I think you’re safe for a while, sir.”
The commander chuckled, “Ah, well, I have tomorrow’s patrols to plan.” He left Gethron to his dinner.
“Are you sure you’re up to the trip, Tarkil? You’ve only been up and about for a few days now,” the post’s commander queried. “You’re welcome to stay here.”
“I’m certain, sir. Besides you told me the Captain said I should head to Bree when I was well enough. And I am well enough now.” Tarkil assured him.
The commander sighed, “May the Valar protect you then. Gethron -- you make sure he doesn’t overdo it on the ride down.”
“Yes, sir. I will,” Gethron nodded.
The two rangers left the small post and headed down the Greenway.
“Begging your pardon, Tarkil, but I am not as convinced as the commander about your fitness for this journey. I saw how you got up on your horse -- you’re still in pain. It wouldn’t have hurt to stay a few days longer. They wouldn’t have thought any less of you for it,” Gethron worried.
“I had been abed for too long. Besides I cannot abide sitting around having nothing to do; I cannot fletch any more arrows or sharpen my blades any sharper. I’d rather endure a bit of discomfort on Nâlo here knowing that I’m heading back to Bree the way the Captain wanted.” Tarkil grouched.
“You say so, sir,” Gethron relented. “But we’re only riding two hours at a stretch then we stop so I can check your bandages. I don’t want to find you’ve pulled those stitches out.“
“All right! I will not be treated like an invalid!” Tarkil lashed out then immediately regretted his tone and sighed. “I’m sorry, Gethron. We shall stop regularly. I promise.”
“About time,” Tarkil muttered as they finally reached the West Gate of Bree. “Three and a half days when it should have taken us no more than two.” The two rangers shared a look as they passed a group of men working to repair the heavily damaged gate.
“Wonder what happened here? That was a pretty strong gate,” Gethron observed then responded in exasperation, “And as for ‘about time,” we had to take it slow! You were just too stubborn to admit that you should have stayed longer at the post to recover. I’m glad I stopped us that first day when I did. You cannot deny it -- you couldn’t have gone on much further that day. The ‘slow’ pace we set was no more than you could handle.”
Tarkil frowned but could not deny his companion’s assessment.
Bob hurried to take the reins of their horses, leading them into empty stables.
“Business looks bad for this time of year,” Tarkil noted then exhaled sharply as he slid off Nâlo. .
“Oh, the inn is busy enough, sir, though you should still be able to get rooms,” Bob assured them.
“You all right, sir? You went a bit white there.” Gethron worried.
“I’m fine, Gethron. Perhaps I can impose upon you to look after my horse while I go get us some rooms.” Without waiting for an answer, Tarkil headed up the broad stairs into the Pony to find the hostler was correct; the common room was busy with the lunchtime crowd. Once again, he sought out Butterbur to request lodging.
“Oh, sir, you’re back. Yes, it’s good to see you, it is. I’ve still got the room you had before available if you’d like it. Now that reminds me of something, but I can’t think of what it is just now. Two rooms you need? I can give you one across the hall if that’s all right, sir. Nob!” he yelled, “where are you? Oh, there you are, standing behind me the whole time, eh? Take this gentleman’s bag up to his room for him, looks like he needs a bit of rest he does.”
He followed Nob up the stairs but was puzzled when Nob opened the door to a room down the hall. "I thought Butterbur said he still had the room I had last time?"
"This is the room you had last time, sir. Weren't you here just ten days ago?" Nob missed Tarkil shaking his head as he placed the Ranger's pack on a chair. "Is there anything else I can get for you sir?"
"No, that should be all, Nob, thank you." Tarkil decided not to pursue the matter and closed the door behind the small hobbit.
Removing his vest and shirt without Gethron’s help proved to be difficult but he finally freed himself of both to see a spreading red patch seeping through the dressing. Quietly cursing, he removed the bindings and saw that he had pulled several stitches. A stronger curse issued forth.
A knock sounded, then the door opened; Gethron took one look at Tarkil and uttered a similar curse.
“I knew something was up when you hurried off like that. You’re not getting back on that horse for at least another week!" Gethron ordered as he fixed a new dressing in place. Tarkil winced at the touch but acquiesced as he pulled his shirt back on. “Now you lie down and rest!”
“Yes, Mother,” Tarkil grinned though he wearily lay down on the bed.
“You’ve got a right smart mouth on you, youngster! I’d wager whoever trained you had his hands full.” Gethron stalked to the door and glowered back at Tarkil. “Now get some sleep!”
They seated themselves in a corner of the half-full Common Room, their backs to the wall as Poppi came to their table, “What can I get for you today, gentlemen?”
Gethron waited for Tarkil to order. And waited. Eventually he lost patience, “We’ll both have some stew with some bread, and a tankard of ale each, lass.”
She gave a quick nod then hurried away, a gentle scent of cherry blossoms wafting in her wake.
“Were you planning on keeping the poor girl waiting all evening?” Gethron asked, surprised to see Tarkil blush.
“I – I was just --- waiting for you to order first, that’s all,” he stammered.
“Hmmph, how nice of you.” Gethron said, unconvinced.
Poppi came back carefully balancing a tray with their two bowls of stew and two tankards. Gethron noted the lingering look Tarkil gave the girl, guessing at the reason for the younger man’s interest but kept his tongue.
As he watched the gentle swing of Poppi’s retreating skirts, Tarkil recalled his conversation with Valandur. “You know Butterbur doesn’t hire that type of girl.” Perhaps that was the key, he thought. Perhaps it was not that he asked, but that he asked here. He glanced around the room and saw several other men admiring her then decided to came up with a plan to get her attention outside of the inn.
They turned their attentions to the stew Poppi set in front of them. “Though you made quite a good rabbit stew on the way down, I think I like this one better,” Tarkil noted.
“You just like the person who served this meal better,” Gethron gibed. Tarkil grinned, then started considering how best his plan could be put in action.
“Tarkil?” Gethron inquired again.
Tarkil started, “I’m sorry, Gethron, what was it you said? I was thinking on something else.”
“I can tell. Just what were you thinking about? You had a look on your face as if you were planning some major campaign,” the older man observed.
“I was just planning what to do tomorrow.” Tarkil replied casually.
“Well, your plans better not involve riding your horse. You’re not in any shape for that.” Gethron reminded him.
“No, I just thought that I’d get up early tomorrow and perhaps do a little shopping.”
Gethron’s eyebrows stretched high. “Shopping? You didn’t hear what I was saying because you were thinking about shopping?"
Tarkil grinned broadly as he shrugged, “So what was it you asked anyway?”
“I’d been telling you how all the horses and ponies had been let loose from the stables a few nights back -- the same night the Black Riders came through” His eyes narrowed, “I still think there is more to your words than you admit. I do not believe you were thinking about shopping.”
Tarkil shrugged once more as he finished eating his stew. Gethron followed suit but he continued to eye his companion with suspicion.
Butterbur came towards them, “Begging your pardon, sir, it’s Mr. Tarkil, isn’t it? If I might just have a word with you,”
Tarkil was bemused as he headed to a parlour with the innkeeper. “What can I do for you, Mr. Butterbur?”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. I meant to give this to you earlier. I don’t know how it slipped my mind, especially after the last time with the four little folk. But another ranger by the name of Haldon left this in my care – he asked me to give it to you when you arrived.”
Butterbur held out a single sheet of paper. Tarkil glanced at it, recognizing his brother’s script on the outside then pocketed it unopened. “Thank you, Mr. Butterbur, I appreciate it. But why all the secrecy?”
“Oh, after the trouble of last time when that other Ranger Strider was here, I felt I couldn’t be too careful. He took them little folk out into the wilds, he did. I hope they are all right, though Mr. Gandalf seemed to be pretty happy about it. Anyways, sir, I just thought that after all the trouble that night that perhaps this was just as important as Mr. Gandalf’s letter and I better make sure nobody else saw it.” Butterbur said.
Tarkil did not understand what the innkeeper was talking about but was interested to hear about his Captain and the wizard. They headed back to the Common room, Butterbur still nattering as Tarkil returned to his corner table where Poppi quickly came bearing an ale.
“Thank you, Poppi,” he smiled at her.
The evening passed pleasantly but before the night grew too old, he found himself nodding so he excused himself and returned to his room. As he took off his vest, he remembered Haldon’s letter. Unfolding it, he found a short note -- apparently Haldon must have run into the Captain after Tarkil had been injured
The Captain informed me that you were sorely injured but says the last time he saw you you were starting to mend. I hope your injuries are not too grievous and this letter finds you well.
Valandur has been assigned to Sarn Ford and I find myself removed from my post by the Havens to be sent to guard the area between the Last Bridge and Rivendell. The Captain would not say why there were such changes, but the rumours are flying.
Do not forget Elaria’s birthday is next month. I picked up a comb I thought she would like. So don’t buy one for her, too. If you see Val, remind him too. Let’s see if we can get leave together so we can surprise her.
Keep safe, little brother. May your arrows fly true and Eru protect you.
p.s. I would recommend you do not go near the villages at the base of the Emyn Beraid for a while. I’m afraid they might mistake you for me, and I’m not too popular there right now. Apparently one of their young ladies became a little overly smitten and claims I made a promise that I didn’t. (Well, I don’t remember making that particular promise anyway.) H
Tarkil groaned aloud, “Oh, Haldon! Another one? Soon I’ll have no place left in the north that I’ll be able to go.” He folded the letter, and packed it in his bag.
“Tarkil, you all right, lad?” Gethron called through the door as he rapped lightly upon it.
He opened the door, “Yes, Gethron, I’m fine. What’s up?”
“You feeling well? I thought I just heard you groan.” Gethron worried.
“What are you, my nursemaid?” Tarkil jested. “I’m tired, ‘tis all. And as for the groan, I just read a letter from Haldon who has informed me there is yet another village I mustn’t go near.”
“Actually, I am your nursemaid,” Gethron responded drily. “The captain said I was to stay with you until you were fit for duty. His exact words. Now why can’t you go near this village? What did you do?”
“I did nothing,” Tarkil frowned, “It’s just – well, it’s said that I bear a strong resemblance to Haldon and he keeps bedding the local girls whose fathers don’t take too kindly to their daughters being debauched. And if they see me, they think I’m him. Oh, it’s too long a story but it’s happened before. So now he leaves me a note telling me of the latest village I must stay away from.” He rubbed his jaw ruefully as he remembered the last time he’d been mistaken for his brother.
Gethron raised his eyebrows, “I’m surprised that they let him patrol inhabited areas and don’t just send him out into the wilds. I know the Captain and Halbarad don’t take too kindly to such behaviour. Not a fitting image for our kind. Best we keep a low profile.”
Tarkil sighed, “I know that, but for some reason girls just flock to him like bees to a hive. I don’t think he ever means to create such disturbances… Anyway, I’m turning in, I’ll see you in the morning, Gethron.”
Finally alone in her room, Poppi carelessly unbound her thick hair, dropping the band on her table. She ran her fingers back from her temples to loosen the dark curls then gave a heavy sigh. Mr. Butterbur treated her well, she couldn’t complain. Her wages well compensated her for the sometimes taxing days, and nights, she added with a sigh.
The small mirror drew her attention. She frowned. Pulling her hair back, she checked her profile first from one side, then the other, before tossing the curls loose again. With a deepening frown, she turned the mirror down.
She would like to be courted, she pouted, but farmers were boring. As much as she liked the freedom of living and working in town, she’d not met the nicest kind of boys here. Men came unbidden to her mind. Rangers.
No matter. Much to her family’s dismay, she felt no urgency to marry and settle down. Just as well.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Poppi walked across the room to stare out the window.
Rangers frequented the tavern. Tall men that moved with grace and strength not seen in the Breelanders. Handsome. She tucked back a wisp of hair. Too serious by far, frightening with their weapons and quiet talk at the tables. Some would be friendly on occasion. Too friendly when they were not quiet. She didn’t know what strange ways they might have in their far homeland, so discouraged them sooner than she would a Breelander. Although she would always regret it, remembering later their bright eyes and wide easy smiles. Could it be wrong to walk with one under the stars, as some asked on occasion. As one asked often with a bold grin and a wink that made her catch her breath. She would be safe, she had no doubt, from the dark, but she feared she would not be safe from the Ranger when he asked as boldly for a kiss as he did for the walk.
Poppi thought again of the one that often sat apart from the others, watching the room, his pipe glowing as he drew on it. An infrequent visitor to the Pony, he was familiar to her, but she knew nothing more about him than that he spoke softly in his rich voice and was kind to her. She felt a strength about him, even more than in the others. It drew her to him. She’d looked in his eyes one time, by accident. She looked up to see him watching her as she filled his mug. The depth and strength of what she saw filled her with hope and fear. She would walk with him if he asked. She knew he would not, when his eyes touched her they always slid past. But still she treasured the moments when he would call for a bowl of stew and a loaf, or to have his mug refilled.
Poppi's thoughts returned to the bold Ranger and she smiled at his teasing. Handsome, yes, but she knew when she dismissed him he went down the road to pay for what he wanted. He’d been sweet tonight, and solemn, as he was on occasion. Preoccupied.
Sweet? Hungry for sweets more likely. Poppi blushed to remember how he stared at her. No matter. She leaned against the sill to stare into the night and tried to put his face from her mind.
Thanks to WR for allowing me to use her character in this story and for providing Poppi's point of view.