6. Chapter Six
He gave up trying to sleep, his mind roiling in thought, rising to stand with his forehead against the window pane to watch the stars wheel overhead. He felt useless in his present condition; he wanted to be out on patrol protecting his land rather than languishing in the Pony. He wondered if Gethron resented being trapped here, unhurt, forced to care for Tarkil.
Trapped. That’s how he felt within these walls. Enclosed after months of being in the woods and the wilds. His frustration and despair boiling to the surface, he hurriedly dressed, intent on getting out into the open.
He ran down the inn’s wide steps then under the archway and along the cobbled streets until he came to the West Gate only to find it locked. Frustrated at finding his plans thwarted, he changed direction, heading this time for the North Gate, finding it secured as well. Trapped.
Defeated again, he headed back along the Great East Road then came to the small path that led up the hill. On a whim, he followed its winding path past the hobbit holes dug into the hillside. A few hobbits had risen early as candles were lit, small windows brightly shining in the gloom casting long streamers of light down the hill. He reached the end of the path but continued to climb, stopping for breath occasionally as his bruised ribs reminded him of his enforced inactivity.
The Ranger leaned against the trunk of a birch, pulling his great cloak about him to guard against the chill autumn air, as he watched the town awake; more lights appeared in the hobbit holes, and down in the stone houses on the main road, People started hurrying from house to house, carts were dragged along the road, merchants pushed their goods into the street as the market prepared to open. He could see the gates from where he sat and watched as the gatekeepers emerged from their lodges, swinging the gates wide as farmers came with wagonloads of produce to sell. He realized he watched something few ever took the time to notice, from a vantage point high above them all.
Feeling less confined, Tarkil headed back to the town, stopping at the general store as the merchant unlocked the door.
“I forgot to pick up the pipe weed I came in for yesterday,” he told the girl. “Could I get some of the Southlinch?”
“Could I recommend the South Farthing, it is a far superior leaf, sir,” she suggested.
“Yes, I know it is, miss. But it also costs a far superior price. Just the Southlinch for today, thank you.” Tarkil paid the girl then tucked the pipeweed into his pocket and left the store.
He was almost to the Pony when a woman hurried round a corner, bumping into him. “Excuse me, miss,” he apologized then realized it was Poppi,. “How are you today, miss? I didn’t get a chance to ask last night, but were you hurt by that lout?”
“No!” Poppi quickly responded, but added softly. “Only a small bruise where he gripped my arm.” Poppi blushed and lowered her gaze. “Thank you,” she said with a shy smile.
“You seem to be in a rush this morning. I do not mean to keep you from your chores. Please excuse me again.” Tarkil gave a small bow then stopped as he noticed her glancing anxiously over her shoulder. “Is there aught wrong, Poppi?” He looked down the road and saw a group of men lingering a few doors away, the brute from last night amongst them. “Were they bothering you? Perhaps I should accompany you until you have finished your errands. If that is all right with you, of course.”
Poppi studied him for a moment then nodded, “I would welcome the escort.”
She hurried to the kitchen with her purchases as Tarkil stopped to talk to Butterbur then joined Gethron in the Common room.
“So, how’s your little plan going? This is what, the fourth day? No, the fifth, isn’t it, that you’ve walked her about on her errands. What’s your next move? And you’d better make your move soon, lad, you’re healing up nicely – no problems since I took the stitches out?
Tarkil shook his head, “No, no problems. I just don’t want to scare her off.”
“Well, you’ll be back out on patrol by week’s end, so you’d better come up with something. Take her on a picnic, the weather’s still nice enough for that.” Gethron suggested.
“Just a little bit further, it’s right up here.” Tarkil took Poppi’s hand, helping her up the last few steps as they reached the top of the hill. “Look, isn’t it beautiful this time of year. See how the trees are all changing colour? And how the sun’s rays light them up?”
They stood together, still holding hands, looking down over Bree and beyond past the gates and the hedge, over the ditch, across the downs towards the Old Forest.
“I’ve never been up here before, it’s beautiful. So peaceful being above everything like this,” Poppi marveled. “It reminds me of being out in the fields back home at my parent’s farm.” She sighed.
Tarkil brushed a lock of hair away from her face to tuck it behind her ear, then let his hand rest on her shoulder. “I would like to meet them some day.”
His hand moved unbidden to stroke her hair then, gently, he bent down to brush his lips across hers. Her arms went around him, pulling him tight against her as she eagerly returned his kiss.
Poppi abruptly broke off the kiss with a gasp, but hesitated and did not pull away from him. She stared at him, her eyes wide.
Tarkil drew back in surprise though he kept his arms firmly around her, “What?”
She started several times to speak then innocently touched her tongue to her lips and took a step away. Poppi took another deep breath, almost a sob and stepped back into his arms. Her hands rested on his shoulders and she drew them slowly to the back of his neck. “I have been fearful to walk with you,” she whispered, her dark eyes meeting his. “It seems I was wise,” she smiled and dropped her gaze, “for I find I lack all sense of shame when you hold me.”
He arched an eyebrow at her; he found her behaviour confusing yet enticing as he tried to decide if she was a coquette or a tease. Whatever she was, it was going to be an interesting afternoon he decided.
“You have no need to fear me, my dear Poppi,” he smiled, “I brought you here to show you the view. And, of course, to sample your treats.” He watched as her eyes darted over to the basket they had dropped during their kiss. “Come, let’s spread out the blanket and sit down so you can catch your breath from the climb.”
They spread the blanket under the birch, enjoying the bread and meats, tarts and cider she had packed when Poppi asked a question of her own.
“Tarkil,” she stuttered shyly. “I’ve heard that Rangers have other blood, that you’re not truly men. Is that true?”
Tarkil answered slowly, “I have heard those stories too, but I can assure you that I am a man.” He saw she still had questions, “I know that the people of Bree think us different, accuse us of holding ourselves apart from everyone else. My family is an ancient one, our roots go back to the land of Nûmenor far in the west. In fact, my name used to be a nickname for our people, though I was named for an ancient King. But we are bound to this land for it is the king’s land;that is why we protect it so fiercely from the evil that lurks at its borders.”
They talked for the rest of the afternoon, telling each other about their families, Tarkil telling her about his brothers and sister, and she of her sister who had just had a babe before she left for Bree but she hadn’t had a chance to see since it was a few months old.
She stood to look over the town, Tarkil stood behind her, wrapping his arms about her, hugging her to him, enjoying her scent wafting up to envelop him as her head tucked under his chin.
“They wanted me to wed; they were disappointed when I said I wanted to move to Bree to work. Nay, my father was furious! He felt it unseemly for me to work instead of settling down.” Her voice dropped to a whisper and she blushed, “He said the townsfolk would think I was a wench who would tumble into anyone’s bed for a coin.”
“Yet you miss them, I hear it in your voice” Tarkil said quietly. “Have you been back to visit them since you came to Bree?”
“No, I only get one day off a week. But it takes more than half the day to reach my home so I would waste all my day just travelling there and back again. And that would leave me no time to visit,” she said wistfully.
He bent down, lightly kissing the curve of her neck; she giggled, “That tickles -- your beard I mean.”
She turned to face him, looping her arms about his neck, and he bent down once more to press another kiss against her soft lips. Feeling her melt in his arms, he ran his hands down her back to press her hard against him, then picked her up in his arms and laid her gently upon the blanket, never breaking their kiss. She stiffened briefly, making him pause, but then her fingers wound through his hair, pulling him to her, enticing him to grow bolder. A soft moan escaped her as his hand moved along her body to caress her breast. Poppi threw her head back, eyes closed, her hands moved down his chest then wrapped around him, pulling him closer. He shifted his weight, pressing himself against her; she pushed her hips back against his, her writhing intensifying his desire. He trailed kisses down her neck, as he deftly unknotted the laces of her bodice.
“No!” she gasped, startling him. She struggled briefly as she pushed him away. Turning her back, she shook as she retied the laces of her bodice.
“I don’t understand,” he panted, frowning. “I thought ... you ...” Confused by her reaction, it frustrated him to be stopped so quickly. “Poppi? You…wanted ... didn’t you?”. She certainly was eager enough for his kisses. She had pulled him down to her -- hadn’t she? What game did she play, he thought harshly, needing relief from the passion she had aroused. Her demands in the way she moved her hips against him, grinding, teasing him, heightening his desire. So why would she pull away now? She’s a tease, his mind mocked.
He reached out turning her to face him once more then stopped sharply, startled to see tears stream down her cheeks. “Poppi?” he said quietly, “I don’t understand your tears. I don’t mean to take more than you are willing to offer.”
He saw her swallow then shake her head.
“I’ve not been married,” she forced the whisper through her silent tears.
I have been fearful to walk with you,” she had whispered. “I find I lack all sense of shame when you hold me.” Oh, sweet Eru! She had never been with a man.
“Oh, Poppi, I am sorry. I thought...the way you...responded when I kissed you, when I touched you,” he stopped quickly as her shoulders shook again and the tears fell harder. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry Poppi, I will not be...I would not have been so bold, had I known.” He cursed himself for assuming she was experienced with men.
He knelt in front of her, taking a handkerchief to wipe her tears, then lifted her chin, watching her eyes hesitantly lift to his. It pained him to see the tears fall knowing he’d caused them. “It shall not happen again, Poppi my dear, until you are ready. I give you my word.”
Poppi sniffled and took his handkerchief as she wiped her eyes again. “Your touch... I've never desired a farmer's touch." Shrugging uneasily, she finally gave a shy smile. Poppi took the hand he offered in both hers, her breathing deepened for a moment as she studied it. "I'll take you word," she said.
She scrubbed the rest of her tears from her face, and sniffed once more as he pressed a mug of cider into her hand.
“The jug is almost empty, we might as well finish it off,” he filled his own mug and they sat quietly for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.
Finally, Tarkil reached out with his free hand, gently pushing a curl off her face, “I would like to see you again, Poppi, but my duties may take me away for months at time, so you may not see me very often. Would you walk with me again when I return?”
Poppi looked down as she considered this, “Yes, I would walk with you again. As long as you hold to your promise.” She suddenly laughed, “I can just imagine my father’s face when I tell him I’m courting a Ranger!” She stood, packing the platters back in the basket, not seeing his smile suddenly fall from his face, his brow furrow.
They walked arm-in-arm under the archway of the Pony when Tarkil hesitated; Angrim and Huznat walked into the inn ahead of them.
“Is something wrong?” Poppi asked.
“No,” he assured her. “It’s my father’s cousin. I just wasn’t expecting to see him here tonight.”
He gave her a quick furtive kiss, then held open the door allowing her to precede him into the hallway. She headed to the kitchen with the basket while he went to the Common Room to see the two rangers talking with Gethron who nodded his head in Tarkil’s direction during their conversation. Angrim turned as Tarkil headed towards them then said a word to Huznat who gave a quick nod to Tarkil as he went back out the door.
“Tarkil, I’m surprised to see you here. Halbarad told me you were delivering orders to the various posts. If you are finished that, you should have returned to the South Downs. You are sorely needed,” Angrim admonished.
“The lad’s been injured, he’s not been fit for duty, Tamar,” Gethron informed him tersely.
Tarkil slid into his seat beside Gethron during this exchange, noting the tension between the two older Rangers. “I’m getting better, Angrim, but Gethron says it will be a few days yet.”
“Those burns of yours should be healed by now, “ Angrim sat in the opposite seat and scowled. “What’s the problem then?”
“We were ambushed by Orcs a few weeks ago – he took a couple good slices that got infected, and took a nasty knock to his head. He still needs to take it easy for a while more.” Tarkil noticed the tension in Gethron’s voice again and wondered about it.
Huznat came to stand beside Tarkil, and placed a sword on the table in front of Tarkil, “Sorry, Tarkil. I guess this is yours now,”
“Arathand!”(1) Tarkil stared at the sword then looked up in shock at Tamar. “Valandur? What happened?”
Gethron stood abruptly, “Can I speak with you a moment please, Angrim?”
“Later, old man,” Angrim flicked his hand at Gethron as if to dismiss him. “The Nazgûl, of course. They breached our defences at Sarn Ford.”
“Outside. Now, Angrim!” Tarkil was surprised to hear Gethron issue such an order to the commander. Angrim stood slowly, his jaw clenched as he stared at Gethron, then stalked out of the room, Gethron close behind.
Huznat slid into the newly- vacated seat. “Sorry, Tarkil,” the youth said again. “We found him a couple days ago. All the rangers at Sarn Ford died, well, we think they all did. We haven’t found all their bodies yet. We found your brother up near Southlinch. Angrim figures he panicked and ran off. We buried him nice though, the commander even scratched a cirth in a field stone for him at the grave.”
Tarkil gave Huznat an icy glare. “My brother would not have abandoned his post, boy. He lived to fight Orcs. He was a great fighter and would not have ‘panicked and run off’!“ His voice lowered and his fists clenched as anger gripped him.
Huznat missed the warning signs and shrugged, “well, all I know is that Angrim said he was supposed to be guarding Sarn Ford and we found him miles away, his head ten feet from his body. So he must have abandoned his post. That’s what Angrim said.”
Angrim stalked out of the room, stopping once they got to the courtyard. “What is it, old man?” he snarled.
“Is that how you tell someone their kin is dead? You let that boy do it for you? Have you no compassion?” Gethron turned on the other ranger, snarling in return.
“He’s not a child, nor a woman who needs to be coddled. He’s a Ranger, he can handle it.” Angrim rebuked.
“You don’t tell someone their brother’s been killed by letting a stripling youth hand them a sword in the middle of a public room! Even a Ranger!” Gethron stared at Angrim, “I remember when we were training all those years back, thinking then how cold you were. I’ve heard stories of you since, but I chose not to believe them, thinking the widows misspoke. I see I was wrong. You are heartless. Is that how you told Tarkil his father and brother were killed? Did you get off your high horse and hand him and his mother their swords so callously? Or did you let someone else, some child, do your dirty work for you then too?”
Angrim stepped closer to Gethron, a hand on his belt knife, "Why are you still here, old man? You're not injured. You should have left him here to recover and returned to your own post, you know how thin we're spread. What are you doing hiding behind his cloak?"
Tarkil lifted Huznat bodily from his seat and dragged him through the common room, throwing him through the front door raising a cloud of dust in the courtyard as the youth landed on his back below. He ran down the stairs after him then spied Angrim and Gethron near the stables standing nose to nose so he grabbed Huznat by the collar and hauled him over to the two men. “Tell him you’re wrong! Valandur would not have abandoned his post!”
“He was found miles from Sarn Ford, Tarkil. Valandur was assigned to guard it yet he failed. He was nearly to Southlinch when they caught up to him. He ran away. How else can you explain it?” Angrim said coldly.
“He was brave, he was a fighter! You know him! He is your kin yet you say such a thing! How could you accuse him of being a coward?” Tarkil argued, fists clenched again.
Gethron stepped between the two, “Enough! Angrim -- go inside -- give him some time to absorb all this.”
Angrim sneered at Gethron then snapped at Huznat, “Come on, boy, let’s get some supper.”
Gethron grabbed Tarkil, stopping him from attempting to follow his brother’s accusers. “Come on, lad, let’s go sit in the stables for a bit, get you cooled down.”
Tarkil shook off Gethron’s hold. “Valandur wouldn’t have abandoned his post, Gethron,” he said flatly. “Angrim’s wrong. Val was strong, he was brave. He lived to fight. He wouldn’t have run away.”
“It was the Nazgûl that attacked him, lad. They are evil beyond compare. No one knows what happened down there, what they faced. And who knows whether he was running away from them or chasing them. Don’t listen to Angrim, son.” He guided Tarkil into the stables where they sat on some hay bales. “Valandur? Is he the brother you rode with when I met you?”
Tarkil nodded his head miserably, “He’d just come from the High Pass – that was his regular post. He said they’d had a lot of orc attacks lately, that they were getting braver. He said they’d even heard rumours of the Nazgûl on the other side of the mountains, that they were looking for something. He was only a year older than me, but he wanted to be a ranger for as long as I can remember. He would beg our father to take him out, to teach him to hunt and track….”
Gethron let him ramble then saw Poppi slowly approach carrying a tray with bowls and tankards.
“I thought you might be hungry so I bought you something to eat,” she said softly as she put it on a nearby bale.
Tarkil stood and wrapped his arms about her as he buried his face in her hair. “My dear sweet Poppi,” he murmured.
“Are you all right? What happened in there?” she asked cautiously.
“He got some bad news, miss. Come on, Tarkil, sit down and eat some of this stew your lady friend brought you." Gethron held out a bowl and spoon until Tarkil took them from him, then led Poppi to the courtyard. “He just found out his brother was killed by the Black Riders that came through here the other day.” He saw her shiver at the memory of that night. “Look, miss, there’s a sword in there on the table where we were sitting. I don’t want him to have to see those two other Rangers tonight. Could you go get it and bring it back out for him?”
She nodded and hurried away, returning a few minutes later with the long sword in her hands. “The other ranger, the older one, didn’t want to give it to me," she told Gethron, “but I told him that you had asked me to get it for Tarkil. I hope that’s all right and I didn’t cause any problems for you.”
“No, miss, it’s all right. It was his brother’s sword. And from the looks of it, this one is ancient and worth protecting.“ He saw her look anxiously at Tarkil, “He’ll be all right, miss, I’ll look after him tonight and see he gets to his room. You go back into the warmth – you don’t want to catch a chill in this night air.”
She reluctantly agreed and bid him good night; Gethron took the sword back into the stables, placing it beside Tarkil without a word.
(1) Arathand -- Sindarin for 'King's Shield', the name of Valandur's sword - an ancient family sword passed down through the generations since the fall of Angmar..
To see a description of how I think a Ranger's family is informed of their kins' death, read "Swords Returned", though it is not necessary to follow this story.