8. Chapter Eight
“From the looks of it they’re several days old.” He stood but continued looking down, then slowly followed the tracks. “It looks like there were four hobbits, and they took shelter here in this thicket – almost as if they were hiding, see here’s a handprint where one of them may have knelt down and braced themselves while they waited….” Tarkil looked to the horizon as his voice trailed off, his fingers tapped on the hilt of his sword as he thought.
“What?” Gethron asked, “What is it you’re thinking?”
“When we were in Bree, the old innkeeper was rattling on about how the Captain took four hobbits off into the wilds -- to the east. Said they’d left the day before the Black Riders came through Bree.” Tarkil continued to follow the tracks, “Do you think that’s what the Riders were searching for? The Captain’s orders were to strengthen the south and the West against the Riders – he knew they were coming this way, and all the men were being shifted around the Shire. Didn’t that strike you as odd? I know it did me…the hobbits are so oblivious to anything outside of their borders so why would the Nazgûl or anyone want to attack them?” He stopped talking while he bent down to examine something in the dirt, then resumed as if talking to himself, “What if it wasn’t something they were searching for so much as someone. What if one of these hobbits know something, or has something, that the Black Riders want? Look there is a man’s boot print here.”
Gethron hurried over. “Looks to be about the size of the Captain’s boot.”
Tarkil nodded his head once, then shook it as he stood once again. “What could a hobbit possess or know that the Nazgûl would want? That’s what’s got me stumped, yet obviously the Captain sought to protect them both by strengthening their borders and by taking those four out of Bree.”
“I heard talk in the inn – I dismissed it as idle gossip, overblown as gossip is – but they said that a few nights before, the night the horses were set loose, one of the hobbits ‘disappeared’ into thin air – don’t you remember me telling you that story?” Gethron grinned, “Oh, no, you were planning your little ‘shopping’ excursion when I was telling you that. Anyway, what hobbit have you ever known that could disappear like that. Perhaps the Captain knew them, or knew what they possessed to give them such an ability and that’s why he took them east – and from the looks of it they’re heading to Rivendell.”
“To seek Elrond’s protection?” Tarkil breathed. “And that’s why Halbarad and the Captain have been so anxious of late and have been shifting our patrols along this way, leaving other areas unprotected. I’ve wondered about that.”
“Well, if the hobbits and the captain were here two days ago, that means the Nazgûl haven’t found them – yet.”
“And that means the Nazgûl will still be looking for them!” Both men scanned the horizon for movement. “Well, these foot prints mean they’re headed towards the Last Bridge – that’s just a little ways from here. Perhaps we should station ourselves nearby to waylay anyone attempting to cross.”
“I don’t know if that’s what Halbarad meant when he commanded us to patrol the Lone Lands, Tarkil.” Gethron’s brow furrowed, “He …”
“He what, Gethron?”
“I don’t think he meant for the two of us to try and hold the bridge against the Nazgûl.” The old Ranger pulled his cloak’s hood over his head, “Curse this rain! It’ll make it impossible to light a fire tonight, and the wind’s chill blows through my bones.”
“Well, it’ll soon be dark, we might as well make camp close by, for tonight at the least – though I fear you’re right, it’ll be impossible to keep a fire going tonight in this downpour.”
“And not even a fit tree to cover us – just this scrub,” Gethron grumbled. “What do you think – this side of the bridge or the other?”
“This side, we’d have no chance to stop them once they’re over the other side.” Tarkil picked his way through the thickets and scrub looking for a suitable place for a night’s cover. “It’s a cheerless land, especially this time of year. And I doubt we’d find much in the way of firewood anyway, but we’ll need to find some sort of shelter for tonight.”
“Lad, you realize that we’ll not be able to make much of a stand against four Nazgûl – if there are just four, for all we know it might be all nine who have come north. Look how many men couldn’t stand against them at Sarn Ford.”
Tarkil turned on Gethron, “We shall at least try! I’ll not have it said that I allowed them to pass unchallenged!”
“Ah, so that’s what’s on your mind. You’re not worried about the hobbits and Aragorn -- you’re thinking about what Angrim said about your brother. You’re worried people’ll believe him and think the same about you.”
“Arrggh!” Tarkil snarled and stomped away, “I’m thinking about following orders! I’m thinking about protecting my captain and those four hobbits who obviously are very important to Sauron’s servants.”
“And we’ll die trying, is that it?” Gethron’s voice hardened, “Son, you’re still young, but that way of thinking isn’t going to let you grow much older. Standing here at the bridge isn’t following orders – Halbarad told us we were to patrol the Lone Lands as far over as the Hoarwell, he said nothing about coming as far north as the Bridge, nor that we were to specifically block it and hold it. The hobbits and the Captain passed by here two days ago, for all you know the Nazgûl are already on the other side. Now come help find a suitable place to camp tonight so we don’t catch our deaths from an ague. Now that would be a worse way to die.”
It was a miserable night. It was a miserable land. Tarkil pulled his hood deeper over his head as rivulets dribbled onto his face and down his neck beneath his shirt. They sheltered in a small thicket that did little to stop the rain, given how most of its leaves had fallen already, but it offered a meager break from the keening wind.
Gethron had a point Tarkil had to acknowledge as much as he didn’t want to admit it. The Nazgûl might already have crossed, but he still wanted to be here – just in case.
Gethron huddled under one of the larger bushes of the thicket, knees to his chest, his great cloak wrapped around him against the driving winds and pelting rain. “You asleep lad?”
“No! I’m on watch, old man. I don’t fall asleep on watch,” Tarkil snapped.
“It’s too cold to sleep anyhow.”
“You all right, Gethron?”
“Yes, lad, I’m all right, just chilled to the bone.”
“Sorry we couldn’t get a fire going,” Tarkil had tried but they could find no dry wood, and their efforts had been for nought as the wind and the rain denied them that comfort. “Try to go back to sleep, it’ll be your watch soon enough.”
“Can’t sleep. I keep hearing it drip through the brush – it’s ruddy torture! I keep waiting for the next drip, then the next.” Gethron shifted himself so he could look over at Tarkil from under his hood. “So tell me what’s going on with this lady friend of yours – Poppi? I have to admit you played that pretty smooth – and you always said Haldon was the operator in your family. You got her all set up for the next time you visit?”
Tarkil frowned, “I didn’t play her - at least I wasn’t trying to trick her into my bed if that’s what you’re implying. But yes, she’s said she’ll allow me to see her next time I’m in Bree.” I expect I'll see more of her than she allowed this time.
“But she came anyway from what I could tell from the looks of you the other morning,” he heard Gethron chuckling.
“Enough of your word play, old man! She’s an innocent – she wouldn’t allow me much more than a kiss.” Not that I didn’t try, but now I’ve given my word. A sigh escaped him.
“You mean all that day up on the hill, you never...? At all? And then when she came to your room to shave you, you didn’t then either?” Gethron’s voice was disbelieving then another chuckle broke the silence, “No wonder you’re so frustrated and angry, lad!
“Go to sleep, Gethron, I won’t discuss such things with you!” Tarkil turned to the side, removing the bedraggled ranger from his sight. He continued to watch the surrounding area though he couldn’t see far in the night’s gloom, relieved for the silence that followed.
“Can I ask you then, given the fact that she’s a Bree-lander and you won't be marrying her, just what your plans are for this relationship?” Gethron asked eventually.
“What? And why aren’t you trying to sleep – twill be your watch soon. I don’t like the idea of lying unguarded while you fall asleep on your watch.”
“Well, you say she’s innocent. And imply that you didn’t – well, live up to your brother’s standards, shall we say. So what is the purpose of chasing her? Do you love her? Do you plan on setting her up as your mistress? Or do you plan on pulling a page from your brother’s book and are simply thrilled by the hunt, ready to sprint after the next comely maid once you’ve captured this one?”
“Go to sleep!” Tarkil dismissed Gethron’s questions, but as he listened to the rhythm of his companion’s breathing finally settle into a slumber, he began to think on the questions he’d asked.
What do I want?
He desired her; her scent filled his head when she was near, he could feel her soft curves in his arms even now. When he’d first asked her to walk with him, it was because he was intrigued with her, so different from the women back home. Then over the months, that intrigue had changed. That’s strange, he thought, it’s not a momentary whim nor one of Haldon’s chases. He saw her eyes staring back at him, brimming with tears, and felt the regret again that he’d put them there.
He had assumed that the barmaid was...well, willing to tumble into anyone’s bed for a few coins, but thought she was playing hard-to-get, not an unknown ploy to make a few extra coins. Yet some part of his mind knew that she wasn’t. Is that what attracted me? Am I like Haldon? Thrilled by the chase? Or am I more like Angrim perhaps? Willing to use a woman to my own ends?
If she is an innocent, and allows me to claim her, what then?
IF she is an innocent. but is she? mocked a dark part of his mind. She claims she has no experience, yet she certainly was bold enough in the hall last week. And she teased me well enough upon the hill two days before that. Memories of her pushing back against him, her delicious pressure warming his hardness, temporarily drove away the night's chill. Certainly no innocent would react so boldly?
“I can just imagine my father’s face when I tell him I’m courting a Ranger!”
“Orc’s blood,” he quietly cursed. He suddenly understood Haldon better. He’d played his brother’s game too well. He knew she would accept his touch soon if he pressed her, if he'd had another day or two in Bree, her reserve would have broken he was sure. But what did happen after that? He could not imagine sharing her attentions with another, suddenly realizing he felt protective of her. Would she continue to wait for him – months at a time with no attention? Or would she grow lonely and seek another’s warmth? Or another’s coin?
Or more likely would he face the wrath of her father – and possibly the folk of Southlinch as well as Bree? Will I have to leave a message for Haldon to avoid that area?
Tarkil snorted at that thought, then shifted, turning his back to the wind as it howled about him. His watch seemed to grind to a halt after that, the minutes passing slowly as the rain pelted down from all angles, driven by the swirling gale, until Gethron finally stirred and took over the watch.
Tarkil dreamed of lying on that blanket up on Bree hill, warmed by the autumn sun, warmed by Poppi’s form beneath him when she pulled away from him once more and a bitter cold descended upon him. He swam from the depths of his slumber, hearing thunder in the distance, muddled by the windswept rain, and the swirl of the water against the arches of the Bridge. He shivered, tugging his sodden cloak about him in a futile attempt to ward off the cold then realized that the thunder didn’t end but grew louder, closer.
Thick clouds covered the moon, blanketing the land in a menacing dark, not allowing him to see five feet away through the constant pounding rain. Tarkil struggled to stand, fighting a horror that grabbed his heart of a sudden, and drew his sword, aiming towards the hoofbeats that resonated through the earth and up through his feet. “Gethron? Where are you?”
The fear clutched harder when there was no answer. “Gethron!” he yelled into the night. The hoofbeats were near level when he finally realized what – nay, who – would be moving at such speed this time of night.
He charged from their makeshift shelter and scrambled across the coarse field, fighting through brambles that tore at his clothes, But the rain had drenched the land, and thick mud hindered his desperate sprint as it grabbed at his feet, making him slip and fall flat, then stumble again as he tried to gain a foothold. He yelled as he ran, “Gethron – where are you? The riders approach! We have to try and stop them!”
Terror took hold; Tarkil had to force his body to continue, as fright seized his spirit, and dread filled his soul.
Still he continued to struggle towards the pounding hoofbeats, still calling for the old Ranger, fighting the mud and the rain and the fear. But by the time he managed to slide down the steep slope to the Bridge, the hoofbeats rang clear. Upon the bridge then beyond.
A shouted curse went out into the dark night as Tarkil vented his anger and frustration at failing to face the dark Riders, for failing to slay his own doubts.
A groan came from the ground on the other side of the road, startling him from his ire. “Gethron?” He made his way over to the source and found the old Ranger in a heap on the ground, wounded and bleeding. “What happened to you? Why didn’t you wake me?” Tarkil sheathed his sword then turned his friend over, feeling for his injuries in the gloom of the night.
“All that talk of your brother made me doubt that time back in the East, made me wonder. I … found myself standing here on the road,” Gethron coughed, “And of a sudden they were headed right for me. I called but the rain and the wind swallowed my words. I think my leg is broken, lad, and one of them slashed me.”
Tarkil paused, worried, “Was it a Morgul blade, Gethron? I’ve heard tales of what they could do … do you think they are true?”
“I don’t know, Tarkil. Much of what is thought to be old men’s tales to scare little children has turned out to be truth.” Gethron coughed again as Tarkil resumed checking his wounds.
“I don’t think your leg is broken, it looks like it’s been twisted; you won’t be walking on it easily for a while to come. What happened, Gethron? What were …. What were they like? Did you see them,” Tarkil wondered, “being so close?”
“Nay, lad, they were black as the night. I saw more of their horses as they ploughed through me. I don’t think they saw me, as I stood more to the side of the road, I’m afraid to admit. But the last one… he did. He’s the one who pulled his sword and hacked at me as I spun from the impact of the first’s horse.”
“I need to get you out of this rain, and off the road.” Tarkil lifted Gethron, grunting under the weight, his feet sliding on the mud as he tried to climb the steep hill to their shelter.
“Your horse is gone, Gethron. Most probably frightened by the Nazgûl – that stunted tree you tied him to has snapped in half, it’s probably trailing him still. Nálo looks like he was pulling on his too. You’ll have to ride with me.” Tarkil led his own stallion to the injured man, then mounted and lifted him up to ride behind. “Are you up to this?”
“Yes, I’ll manage, thanks, son. Where are we heading? Back to Bree?” Gethron shifted his weight on the horse then grabbed hold of the younger Ranger.
“No, I’m going to head to Rivendell – I’m worried about that wound of yours. I keep thinking of the tales of the Morgul blades. I think the elves should look at it, just in case.”
Nazgûl across the Last Bridge: I’ve arbitrarily chosen a date for them to cross. There were five Nazgûl on the West side when Frodo was stabbed (FOTR – A Knife in the Dark), and then all Nine were on the east side of the Mitheithel by the Flight to the Ford. At some point they would have had to cross the bridge. Whether they met up before or after is unclear, so I deliberately left the number of Nazgûl that crossed that night vague. And on that date, it was raining… “They had been two days in this country when the weather turned wet. The wind began to blow steadily out of the West and pour the water of the distant seas on the dark heads of the hills in fine drenching rain. By nightfall they were all soaked, and their camp was cheerless, for they could not get any fire to burn…” FOTR – Flight to the Ford
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