7. Chapter Seven
Tarkil nodded, his back to the door as he stood at the window, watching Angrim and Huznat pass through the West Gate. “I know.”
“Don’t let him get to you, Tarkil. Angrim is a tough man, but I can’t believe he really thinks your brother is a coward. Not many of us have had to face a Nazgûl but I can’t see any one thinking such a thing.”
The younger ranger tore himself from the window to pace the room. “He said as much, Gethron. He said that Valandur abandoned his post. He may not have used the word, but that is what he implied. I’ve spent too many years under his command not to be able to read his words for what they don’t say as well as what they do.”
Gethron closed the door, then crossed his arms as he leaned against the solid slab, “You’re over-analyzing things, Tarkil. The grief is too close still. Give it time. No Ranger will think such a thing of those who ran from the Nazgûl.”
Tarkil stopped pacing to glare at Gethron. “You didn’t know him. You don’t know how brave Valandur was. He wouldn’t have ‘run’.” He shook his head and turned back to stare out the window. “I’ve never had to face a Nazgûl, have you? Are they as frightening as that? Could they make a battle-trained man – a Ranger – run from them in fear rather than stand and fight?”
Gethron answered slowly, “I’ve only had an encounter with a Wraith once, and that was when I was running messages many years ago. We were heading for Mirkwood when we felt one nearby. I never got close, but we could feel it.” Gethron struggled to find the words to describe the horror that still filled his memories. “It was like the hand of death lay over us, pulled all the joy out of our very beings. We nearly ran our horses into the ground trying to get away from it. Do you call me a coward for running?”
Tarkil shook his head. “Nay, I’ve seen you fight. You are no coward.”
“And these lads faced more than a single Nazgûl – your scroll says that the full Nine were heading this way. Anyone who accuses the guards at Sarn Ford of cowardice is a fool. No one thinks less of your brother for where he was found. ”
He could see he hit a mark with his words as Tarkil heaved a sigh and looked over at him finally.
“Come on, lad, come downstairs and get something to eat. You’ve hidden out in your room avoiding everyone for long enough this morning.” Gethron urged. He opened the door then paused as he looked back at the younger ranger. “You look good without the beard, you know -- different, but good. And you’d better watch yourself, son,” Gethron warned.
Tarkil looked over his shoulder at the older Ranger, puzzled.
Gethron grinned, “You’ve just started courting her and already she’s got you to shave off your beard. What’s next?” He saw a smile break out on Tarkil’s face and saw him reach out for the bed then closed the door quickly, chuckling as he heard something hit the other side.
Tarkil picked up the pillow and put it back on the bed, then ran a hand over his newly shaved face, remembering how Poppi had come to his room earlier that morning and how such a simple act of shaving had become such an intimate moment.
He answered the knock on the door to find Poppi standing in front of him.
“Mr. Butterbur said you asked for a barber,” she said, as a blush spread up her neck and across her cheeks. Her head bobbed down and she looked up at him through the fringe of her curls. “I didn’t realize this was your room when he told me to come up.”
“I did ask him to arrange for a barber. But I didn’t know that he would send you, Poppi, I didn’t think he allowed his girls upstairs. You do not have to do this if it makes you feel uncomfortable; it can wait,” he assured her.
“He allows us to offer such services to earn a few extra coin, twas my turn.” she hesitated, then smiled shyly as she came into his room, “No, I shall barber you. You gave me your word yesterday and I accepted it. But I must insist that the door stays open. To protect my reputation, you understand.”
“Then the door stays open,” Tarkil assured her, worried that she held ill feelings against him after yesterday’s misunderstanding. “I would not wish to face Butterbur, or the wrath of your father for that matter, at having sullied your reputation.”
She started by seating him in the chair, and he had to smile as she obviously tried to keep a professional manner. She unbound his hair and ran her fingers through it, using brush and comb to remove small knots, then took a small pair of scissors and snipped the ends even. He found himself relaxing at her touch, allowing the tensions of the previous evening to ebb. She must have sensed his mood as she worked quietly, murmuring occasionally to him.
Poppi came to stand in front of him as she soaped his face then she picked up the razor and leaned over him, lifting his chin gently with her hand. He found himself looking into her eyes. Tarkil allowed his gaze to fall, then realized where he was looking and quickly glanced away, chiding himself as he felt his pulse quicken at the memory of yesterday’s picnic.
Too soon, she wiped his face then stood back, admiring her handiwork, smiling, “I definitely like you without the beard better,” she pronounced.
He rose slowly, catching her hand with his, lifting it to rub her fingers against his face, then kissed them. “Does it tickle you now?” he smiled.
Her gaze flitted away briefly and she blushed again before shyly looking up at him, “Nay, my lord, ‘tis quite smooth.”
“My name is Tarkil, Poppi, you do not need to call me ‘my lord’ for I am not a lord, merely a ranger.”
She grew serious. “I’m sorry about your brother, Tarkil.”
His playful mood quickly vanished at the reminder. He frowned, “It is a fate we must deal with each day – the women of my village grow up with our absences and the worry that causes but I would understand if you wished not to see me again. ‘Tis unfair of me to ask you to deal with such concerns.”
Her brow furrowed as she considered his offer before finally answering, “There is no other that interests me, and I would like to walk with you again.” Her voice grew firmer as she seemed to win an inner battle, “I shall be here when you return and we can talk more then.”
“Thank you, Poppi, my dear” he repeated as he moved aside a curl that fell in her eyes then gently traced a finger down the side of her face. “That is all I ever hoped for, and more than I expected.”
She hesitated then lifted her face to him as she tentatively put a hand behind his neck, “Just one kiss perhaps,” she whispered, “I would not mind.”
Tarkil bent down, cautiously accepting her invitation, pressing his lips against hers. He kept his eyes open, watching hers flutter closed. Poppi molded her body against his, her hand twined about his hair, pulling him closer, her breath soft on his cheek. Then she stepped away, blushing, suddenly unable to meet his gaze. She set about gathering her tools, “I must be getting downstairs. Mr. Butterbur will be wondering what is taking me so long.” She fled the room leaving him to catch his breath.
He shook himself from his reverie as the chambermaid knocked then stuck her head inside the door asking permission to clean the room. He nodded, and headed downstairs, surprised to find Gethron seated with Halbarad.
“So, Tarkil, Gethron tells me you are nearly healed and ready for patrol. I know you normally patrol the South Downs and are desperately needed there, but the Nazgûl headed east towards Rivendell so we need more men guarding the East Road. Are you up to that?”
“Yes, sir, I am,” Tarkil replied confidently, ignoring Gethron’s quick glance askance.
“Good, then you and Gethron can head out tomorrow morning. Head along the Old East Road towards Amon Sul, then turn to the south and patrol from there to the Hoarwell through the Lone Lands." Halbarad rose, “I understand I just missed Angrim – I take it he’s heading down to the Greenway?”
Gethron nodded, “Yes, sir, he’d just gone out the West Gate -- must have been about the same time as you were coming in the south one.”
Halbarad stood as he nodded at Gethron’s words, then paused. “By the way, Tarkil, I was sorry to hear about Valandur’s death. He was a brave fighter, I know.” He put a hand briefly on Tarkil’s shoulder then side-stepped Poppi as she came to take their order. “I’m going to see if I can catch up with Angrim then. Gentlemen.”
The common room was nearly empty late that evening before Tarkil had a chance to talk privately with Poppi again.
“You leave so soon? When will you return?” she asked quietly as she hesitantly sat down on the bench beside him.
“I don’t know. We lost a lot of good men at Sarn Ford – our numbers are thin enough already,” he admitted slowly, then saw her puzzled look. “Do you not know what Rangers do, Poppi? Do you not know that we protect this land from creatures like Orcs and the Black Riders that came through here last week? That we patrol the roads and the wildlands, between the Misty Mountains and the sea so the people of the north – Bree, the Shire, even the lands as far north as Fornost -- are safe?” He frowned as she shook her head.
“I think I’ve heard my father mention Rangers once or twice, and I’ve seen them riding by my parent’s farm a few times, but I didn’t really know what you did,” she allowed.
He sighed, recognizing the common refrain. “Much has been happening of late – you’ve seen the southerners coming to your villages? They flee the troubles of the south, and now that trouble is heading this way. That is why I must leave and cannot say how soon I will return. But we are granted leaves from time to time; I shall head back here to find you. So we may talk some more.” He reached out to place his hand over hers, gently squeezing it.
“I shall be here. And if I see you, we can talk again,” she assured him. “I must get back to my duties.” She removed her hand and walked slowly back to the kitchen.
Poppi woke from an uneasy sleep and went to stare out her window at the stars. She'd been such a fool to pretend it was the few coins she'd wanted when she shaved him. Unbidden, the image of her uncle's stallion came to mind, how he danced and called to the mares, proud of himself and how ready he was for them; how they called back to him and how eagerly they came and stood for his attentions.
She clenched her empty hands against the memory of the soft weight of Tarkil's hair. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, allowing, for a moment, the feel of him to wash over her; how he had lain against her on the blanket in the bright sunshine, the pressure of his movements letting her know how ready he was to fill her. The emptiness ached in her, came near to consuming her even as she fought not to remember how smoothly he slipped his leg between hers and how she'd welcomed him, even demanded more, then pushed him away.
With a cry, she dropped her face into her hands. She'd come to his call easily enough.
She tried to slow her racing heart. A fool, they would call her, or worse. Why did she lose her sensibilities when she was near him, when he touched her? She shuddered as the heated memories tingled through her. She took and released a deep breath.
"Just one kiss perhaps,” she'd whispered, “I would not mind.”
Mind? She choked back a sob. Since the picnic she'd been able to think of nothing but how she craved his touch. "...until you are ready." He'd promised much with those words and the memories of his lips trailing across her bare skin tormented her at all hours. As she'd seen the stallion breath deep of a mare's scent and lightly nip her neck and shoulder to test her readiness, dancing away from her kick with delight, sure he would have her the next day, or the next.
She'd angered Butterbur that evening with her inattention and seeing her flush, he'd questioned if she had a fever.
And now Tarkil was leaving.
She let out a heavy sigh. She'd promised to wait for him. As if she wanted anyone else. She thought on other kisses she'd shared, others who'd touched her. Stocky, curly-headed farmboys, smelling of sunshine and the good earth they plowed, hesitant as they fumbled with her. Concerned only for their own pleasure, but fearful to offend, they'd touched her only in 'safe' places and not tried to part her lips with their tongues. Poppi's hand flew to cover her mouth at the heat that filled her with the memory of Tarkil's taste and smell.
Slowly, her mind traced back over the last few months. He'd asked many times for her to walk with him, sometimes with a bold wink and a grin, sometimes sweet and solemn. She leaned against the window frame, slumping in defeat. However grateful she'd been for his defense of her, and touched by his pretence of selecting scents in the shop; she should have remembered how he'd reach for her in the Pony. Taking any chance to brush her, his mischievous apology always betrayed it hadn't been an accident. Many times, he'd playfully tried to take her in his arms. Taking her hand, he'd beg to pay for the ale with a kiss in a husky tone that promised more than a kiss. She'd been unable to keep from laughing at his too obvious disappointment with her decline, but always she'd been touched by the honest spark of admiration in his eye.
Honest? Poppi sighed again. He'd only changed his tactics and she'd fallen right into his arms. ...his arms... She looked longingly, suspiciously, at her bed, then back at the stars. She'd been warned, always, against the Rangers. Dangerous men, people whispered. Handsome, echoed in her mind. Tarkil's height; he would tower over her father and the farmers she knew. His strength amazed her, how easily he lifted her, how lightly he held her. His smooth dark hair; how she had fought not to bury her face in it, trying to capture the scents that hinted of wild woods, fresh after a rain. She gave herself over to trying to capture the memories rather than push them away. The taste of his lips, his neck; the scent of the leather he wore providing a delicious mix with the taste of a man full-grown.
A man? He'd said he was, but then spoke of Númenor as if it were fact. She knew the legends, how the Half-elven turned against the Elves because they were long-lived but not immortal. How the land sank beneath the waves in punishment for their wickedness.
Her blood chilled. Protection, he'd claimed. She wondered now at the things he hadn't said, how his grey eyes would sometimes be hidden by lowered lids when he answered her questions. He'd not told her his age. He spoke of defending against fell creatures of myth, did he have use of magic?
Poppi gasped at the realization. He'd enchanted her! All the legends spoke of the dark hair and grey eyes of the Elves, of their height and strength, of the danger of speaking to them. Of touching them? Of allowing their touch? He'd told her the truth then, in Elvish riddles.
Was she lost to him? Searching her mind, she'd heard of no defense against such things. Did she want to be disenchanted? He'd asked her to wait for him, spoken of meeting her family. He meant to court her, didn't he? He'd promised to wait, to satisfy his attentions, until she was ready. Ready to marry? What did that mean to his people? She remembered his tales of the women waiting in a lonely village, waiting to hear that their husbands and sons would never return.
Poppi turned to sit on the sill where she'd been leaning, tucking her knees to her chin, she rested her head on the sill until the graying told her the dawn wasn't far behind. She dressed for the day and slipped into the hall.
He turned towards the quiet voice that came from a narrow hall behind the kitchens as he passed by.
“Poppi? You’re up early, the sun hasn’t risen yet.” The ranger went down the hall towards her, “It looks like you’ve not slept well. Is there aught wrong? Are you ill?”
She took a step closer to him then hesitantly placed a hand upon his chest, confusion written on her face as she stumbled over her words. “I wanted to … say good-bye before you left… I wanted to… I shouldn’t be doing this, I know, but I just… wanted to … “ Poppi stood on tiptoes and kissed him, lightly at first, then with more fervour as her tongue darted out, tasting him, testing him.
At first Tarkil was surprised by her boldness, then he groaned and wrapped his arms around her, allowing the kiss to deepen. He felt his body reacting, desiring more than a kiss so, reluctantly, he pulled himself away.
“Do you not like it? You did that at the picnic. I thought--” her consternation was plain.
“Nay, I liked it, Poppi. I liked it very much. But it is too tempting; it would be too easy to make me forget my promise.”
She blushed; her eyes flew down to avoid his gaze, then her face blazed scarlet when she saw the reaction she had caused. “Oh!”
He flung his great cloak about him, trying to spare her further embarrassment. “Do not doubt how much you affect me, Poppi, but do not fear me either. I am a man, and I react the way a man would to a beautiful woman’s kiss." He reached out to stroke her face, then leaned down to lightly kiss her once more.
“Oh!” she squeaked again, jumping back. “I have to…I’d better be… Mr. Butterbur will be looking for me. Good-bye, Tarkil!” She scurried down the hall, bolting through the door to the kitchen.
Tarkil leaned heavily against the wall, waiting for a time when he could go out into the common room and seek Gethron for he had no doubt his current state would elicit unwanted snickers.
“There you are, Tarkil, you ready to go?” he heard Gethron approach from behind. “What are you doing down here?”
Curse him, too late! “Nothing, I was just… Poppi just said good-bye.” He chided himself, I’m behaving like an inexperienced lad!
“Tarkil? Everything ok?” Gethron sounded worried. “Didn’t reopen a wound, did you?”
“I’m fine, Gethron,” Tarkil ground out. He waited for Gethron to leave then realized that wasn’t going to happen so he rearranged his cloak and turned slowly, “let’s go get some breakfast before we leave.”
The older ranger cocked his head and considered the younger man in front of him then grinned, “Bit warm for wearing your cloak indoors, isn’t it, lad? Why don’t you take it off, make yourself more comfortable?” Gethron didn’t wait for an answer but headed back to the common room, chuckling as he called over his shoulder, “Then again, cloaks are useful to cover a multitude of sins, aren’t they?”
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.