9. Chapter Nine
Names were called as the division was made, Tarkil noted that most of the rangers were sent in the group that would follow the river, while mainly elves took the path closer to the mountains. They repacked their horses as provisions were equally split between the two groups, and soon the two groups bid farewell to each other and headed off in their separate directions.
Rumours swirled amongst the Rangers about why the land must be cleared, and the reasons for the Nazgûl’s entry into the north. Aragorn said little, and Elrond’s sons would say nothing at all which only fuelled the rumours.
The first days out before they split into their separate patrols, the group discovered the stiff and swollen bodies of five dark horses on the rapids of the Bruinen; a black cloak had also been found Tarkil heard. Yet no sign of the wraiths could be traced.
The group traveled in a ragged line, spread out across the land from the river, searching for any sign of passage by man or beast. When they stopped each night, watches were drawn, and firewood gathered, as the men quietly murmured to one another of the latest rumour, or made half-hearted attempts to tell jokes to relieve the tension.
Tarkil found himself paired for his watch with Borgil who scowled at him when the assignment was called. He knew no jokes or light banter would be made between them. The pattern was set for many nights, and most nights passed without a word between them, though during the day he would often see Borgil ride beside a friend, murmuring as they both glanced in his direction. Occasionally, a voice would raise slightly, deliberately he thought, their words aimed across the space in his direction – words like “coward” and “deserter” that raised his ire. He tried to shrug off their taunts, yet could feel them fester deep in his heart angering him more.
“So they stole the pipeweed then set the house on fire with the kids still inside?” Meglin lit his pipe, then shook his head as they sat at that night’s campfire. “I’ve heard complaints by people coming from Bree about all the southerners heading north, though not many of them have come as far as Fornost. But I hadn’t heard of anyone stealing pipeweed.”
A chuckle went round the fire, “Not many venture that far north these days, Meglin! Save us Rangers, that is.”
“What do they want with the pipeweed anyway? It’s only us northerners who smoke it, I didn’t think anyone in the south had such a habit.” Meglin wondered.
“No, it is known by many names in the south – Westmansweed by the lower classes, Galenas by the noblemen -- though it is not as fine as the South Farthing leaf. Fortunately for us, the Shire does not send its leaf to Gondor.” A hush came over the group as they realized it was Aragorn who spoke, standing in the shadows behind them, his own pipe in hand. “I received reports of that theft and a few others beside, though that was the most vicious I’d heard reported, and I’ve sent orders to the various fords and crossings to check any shipments of weed heading south.” Aragorn gestured with his pipe towards Tarkil, “I sent them with Haldon just before we left Rivendell. It is fine if the farmers wish to sell their weed for a profit, but if it’s being stolen from them we need to stop it from heading south so the thieves may profit from another's misery.”
At night the men around him settled onto their bedrolls as the fire dimmed to red embers, throwing eerie shadows out amongst the trees and rocks that surrounded them as an occasional knot hissed and popped, then briefly flared into a small flame that soon struggled and died.
The two Rangers quietly walked the perimeter of the camp, ignoring each other, as they searched with their eyes and their ears for any signs of trouble, finding none. Tarkil found it unnerving that there were no hoots of owls, nor night jars screeching, even the crickets didn’t call through the night.
Tarkil pulled his cloak about him against the night’s chill and breathed out, his breath forming a small cloud before it dissipated in the air.
The waters of the Bruinen swirled and bubbled nearby, the only sound other than the groans and snores of the quiet sleepers on its banks; its waters warmer than the surrounding air caused eddies of mist to rise in ghostly ribbons that wrapped around the treetops in strange blankets.
“Are you scared, son of Beleg?” Borgil hissed as he passed.
“Why are you here, Borgil? I thought you were to help patrol Sarn Ford? How is it you survived when so many others didn’t” Tarkil finally allowed himself to voice the question that haunted him since he’d first seen the former commander join their group.
“You failed in your mission! You were too late in sending me, the attack had already happened. You removed me from my post and still didn’t help save your brother from disgracing himself.”
Tarkil’s face froze into a mask, but his voice betrayed his anger as it dropped into an icy tone, “Be careful how you speak of my brother, Borgil.”
“I was there when they found him, miles from the Ford. He’d run away, a coward who deserted his post, abandoned his fellow Rangers when they needed him most,” Borgil needled.
Tarkil’s hand curled around the hilt of his belt knife, wanting to draw it but restrained himself with difficulty. “I have warned you this night, Borgil, to stop this prattle. You were not there to face the Nazgûl, you do not know what happened. Do not disparage my brother.”
“I even helped bury him, while Angrim’s young trainee retched like a babe.” Borgil ignored Tarkil’s warning, continuing to jeer, “He’s a cousin of yours, isn’t he? This Huznat? I see he has the family’s trait of weakness.”
Tarkil launched himself at the other Ranger, pulling his knife, pressing it against his neck, then felt a hand staying his as he was pulled off of his antagonist.
“Gentlemen! That is enough! We have enough battles to fight against Sauron’s minions without fighting ourselves!” Aragorn angrily stood between the two men.
“I believe I shall keep this for now,” an elegant yet steely voice said in his ear as the hand prised the knife from his fingers.
“Lord Elrohir!” Tarkil breathed as he gave no more resistance, willingly handing him the blade.
“Over here, both of you!” Aragorn commanded as he lead them away from the camp where the curious heads that had risen at the disturbance finally settled down after some muttering.
“I have heard what has gone on between you two – it is why I put the two of you together for your watches. I had hoped you would work it out privately. But this behaviour is intolerable and it will stop. Here! Now! You are Rangers of the North, Dúnedain both!” Aragorn paced in front of them as they stood a few feet apart, still tense in each other’s presence.
“Borgil – you will cease this harassment of Tarkil. ALL those that fought at Sarn Ford fought bravely against a dreaded foe; you have not faced the Nazgûl, you shall not judge those that did. When you belittle one Ranger of Sarn Ford, you discredit us all. I will not have such talk in our ranks anymore. Is that understood?” Aragorn stared hard at the former commander.
“Yes, my lord Aragorn, it is understood.” Borgil nodded his head though Tarkil thought his jaw ground as he said it.
“Leave us – resume your patrol,” their leader dismissed him.
“Tarkil,” Aragorn stood in front of him, staring down, his eyes narrowed. “You seem to have a problem controlling your anger even though you know a Ranger must maintain control at all times.”
“Yes, my lord,” Tarkil had trouble maintaining eye contact with the older man, feeling as if Aragorn could reach into his very soul and feel the conflict that raged.
“No one here thinks any of the Rangers who died at Sarn Ford are cowards, Tarkil. And anyone who does has not faced a Nazgûl and so cannot speak of how they would react to such terror. I’ve watched Borgil needle you the last few weeks, he’s doing it because he sees you react. Stop reacting, and his harassment will cease.”
Tarkil doubted that Borgil would stop, and realized his doubt must have shown on his face when Aragorn continued.
“No one except you is listening to his talk; everyone here knows Borgil is angry that you relieved him of his command. And everyone here knows exactly why you did that and under whose orders you acted. It is he who should be worried about his own character instead of harassing you about your brother.“
The captain began pacing in front of Tarkil once more, “Halbarad said you did well in how you handled delivering his orders – my orders – to the posts. He speaks highly of you and the way you command others. It would be a shame to lose your abilities; we need all the men we can get right now for the war is coming to our very borders. Sauron is rising again and the fight we have feared for an age is upon us. I would not lose your sword, or another’s, to such petty anger. I cannot allow such behaviour amongst our ranks, Tarkil. It is hard enough having to tell a grieving widow or parent that their kin has died at the hands of an Orc, I will not deliver the news that they died at your hands because you were too weak to control your temper.” Aragorn stopped his pacing and stared down at Tarkil once more, “If you cannot learn to maintain control of your anger, then you do not belong here with the Rangers.”
Tarkil flushed and dropped his eyes briefly before returning to meet the stern gaze of his captain, and stood straighter, “Yes, sir. You will not need to deliver such news. I give you my word that I will learn the control you require of a Ranger.”
Aragorn nodded, “Good. I know you shall keep your word. Now resume your patrol.”
The next morning found Borgil and Tarkil sleeping on opposite sites of the camp, keeping as much distance between them as possible. A few of the men gibed Tarkil over the incident, mainly about how he had disturbed their slumber, but most left him alone to mull over his captain’s advice.
“Tarkil,” Aragorn called out.
“Oh oh,” one of his friends muttered to him with a wry grin, “You’re in trouble now…the Captain’s had the night to think it over and come up with a suitable punishment. Better keep your head low, ‘kil.”
It wasn’t a punishment, he soon found, but an assignment.
Tarkil squatted by his bedroll, packing provisions for his journey, when a shadow fell upon him. He looked up to see Lords Elrohir and Elladan standing over him, Elrohir holding out the belt knife, “I believe this is yours. Perhaps your next opponent will be a more worthy and deserving one.” He held Tarkil’s gaze with his own, “Aragorn needs all the help he can get, Ranger, do not desert him. Indeed all of middle-earth itself now looks to our brother. We cannot allow him to be distracted because a child like yourself throws a tantrum.”
The ranger swallowed and returned the peredhel's gaze, “He shall not be distracted by me again, my lord Elrohir. I would not break my oath as a Ranger or go back on my word to him.” Elrohir raised an eyebrow, then glanced at his brother; they both gave a slight nod of their heads, then turned back to the group.
Tarkil mounted Nálo, and turned him towards the Bruinen – picking a path along the riverbank, away from the camp.
Poppi untied her apron and laid it, folded, on the counter. "Cookie? I'm off to my room unless there is a last order."
"Just one," Cook bustled out of the pantry with a filled bag. "One of them Rangers, if you can be a dear, tote this out to the barn. He's only stopped long enough to change horses they said, but he asked for a bite for the way."
Poppi nodded and took the bag. Adding an apple before she tied it closed she bid the cook good night and headed for the stable. The cool night breeze lifted stray tendrils that fell loose about her face, and tempted her to loosen the ties at her throat, but at hearing a familiar voice murmuring to his horse in the barn, she rushed into the dark alley.
The horse threw up his head when she ran in, but the tall, cloaked Ranger easily settled him with a few calming words, then continued adjusting the tack. Poppi waited quietly, abashed that she'd startled the beast.
"I brought your treats," she said softly. He spun around to face her.
The sliver of moon slanting in gave enough light that she could see his beard already covering his face. She stepped hesitantly toward him, all her doubts, her fears suddenly rose in her mind. Would he have ridden on without even speaking to her? He took the bag she offered and fastened it to the saddle. Her heart pounded to be so close to him and as he turned back to face her, she knew only that she couldn't let him go without stealing a few moments. Without having a taste of him.
Looping the reins on a post with a smooth motion he took her lightly in his arms and tenderly, chastely kissed her. She stretched up to slip her arms around him, closing her eyes to savor his touch.
"You should stay long enough for a shave," she murmured before his lips touched hers again.
"Aw, Poppi dearest," he groaned. His tongue teased her lips before he dipped his head to sample the curve of her neck. Sensations coursed through her: the heat of his lips and tongue; the night's chill where he'd touched as he trailed nips and kisses across her. "You know it isn't a shave I want," he whispered between delicate nibbles on the lobe of her ear, deliberately brushing her with the warmth of his breath.
Dizzy with want of him, she leaned into him as his hold tightened about her. His lips returned to hers and she eagerly opened herself to his bold, demanding kiss. With a swift, sure movement he lifted her from the ground, pressing her hard against him and leaving no doubt as to his desire of her.
“Do not doubt how much you affect me," Tarkil said in his good-bye to her. "But do not fear me either. I am a man, and I react the way a man would to a beautiful woman’s kiss."
She'd not felt him turn and step into the stall, only the dangerous, delicious, pressure of him. When had she wrapped her leg behind him? Then the fragrance of clean hay beneath her and his arms loosened to allow her to thrust against him. She cried out with her want of him and he rolled so that she straddled him, his hands on her hips encouraged her movements to match his. How had her skirt bunched about her waist? His leggings strained at the laces to fill the emptiness that came near to consuming her.
"You're too bold," she gasped. "You said... "
"..do not fear me," echoed in her memory. Then a light kiss.
She trembled to feel his gentle touch, featherlight, on her thighs. "I'm not ready," she whispered, "please, I'm not ready." Was this the way of promises in the Ranger's land?
He paused and rolled her back down beside him. When had he unlaced her bodice? Dipping his head, he gently nipped along the top of her breast, she cried out and arched against his hand teasing lightly between her legs. "Poppi dearest," his low voice was husky with need, "you are ready." He lowered his head to take a deep breath of the curve of her neck, his tongue flickered out and his lips drew on her flesh as he released his breath to caress her. He took her hand and guided it to rest on the laces of his leggings. He groaned as she moved her hand, feeling the heat of the hard ridge beneath her fingers.
"I'd not have been so bold if I'd known," Tarkil had said, "...do not fear me."
Liar! "You promised," she whispered, near tears as she moved away from him.
"Oh no, Poppi, don't go."
The sincerity in his voice paused her for a moment and she allowed him to cup her face in his hands when he sat up beside her. She lowered her gaze, unable to stop a few tears. "I didn't mean to tease you," she stammered, "I only wanted to ... to kiss you again. You said that I shouldn't fear you, that you wouldn't ask so much."
He stiffened and took his hand from where he'd rested it, gently holding the back of her neck. He leaned back, slowly stood, then turned away from her. "Lace your bodice," he said in a gruff voice.
Confused, angry, still weak with desire, she stood and did as he said. When her movements stilled, he turned back to her. After a moment of study, he offered his hand, which she took, and allowed him to escort her back to the horse's side.
"Apologies, Lady." He bowed over her hand before he released it. "Indeed, you should have no fear, we are here to serve and protect."
Dismayed at the humor in his voice, she drew back her hand and stepped away. "I don't feel as if I know you anymore," she said quietly. Her anger flared to see his wicked grin.
He smoothly, quickly, stepped close enough to rest his hands on her hips. She stiffened and would have drawn back but he didn't pull her to touch him. "A last kiss then," he said. His hands slipped up, around her back and his lips covered hers with a bold kiss before she could deny him. Poppi wrenched back and slapped him soundly with all her strength.
"Maybe next time," he said with a wink and his familiar grin.
Emotions swirled in her; hurt, anger, confusion. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she watch him mount his horse and ride into the night.
* * *
In FOTR (The Ring Goes South) Gandalf says : And Aragorn has gone with Elrond’s sons. We shall have to scour the lands all round for many long leagues before any move is made.
Then later: …and with the help of Aragorn and the Rangers had searched the lands far down the Greyflood, as far as Tharbad, where the old North Road crossed the river by a ruined town.
Thanks again to WindRider for allowing me to play with her Poppi character and giving her a voice.
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