Morning dawned clear and fair with birdsongs in her golden wings as the
small troop began their way back to Bree, prisoners in tow.
Kaldur watched the landscape pass by them with dark eyes devoid of much
of their usual sparkle. The six surviving bandits walked in a
small knot, their hands tied tightly behind their backs, carefully
guarded by the watchful elves and rangers.
This was a bad situation. Kaldur knew that he and the others
would not last five minutes in Bree or any of the local
villages. They were all dead men as sure as he was standing
there. The only small mercy in that thought was they would likely
be dealt with immediately, sparing them any time in prison. The
others might not have cared much about that, but Kaldur knew he could
never see the inside of another set of bars and remain sane... well, as
relatively sane as he was anyway. Still... that was small
consolation to the fact that they would all likely be lynched or worse
Next to him, Thil looked around uneasily, seeming hesitant to meet the
elder bandit’s eyes. “Kal... I’m sorry I didn’t stand up to
Losmir when he started his nonsense.” The younger man had almost
let himself go along with a plan to kill his friend and mentor the
other night and that did not sit well with his conscience. He
didn’t know how much Kaldur knew about what had happened the night the
ranger escaped them, but he felt he needed to get it out in the
open. If they were going to have to die, he didn’t want anything
left lingering between himself and the older man.
“He wanted to kill you along with the rest of these people and... I did
nothing.” Thil sighed, glancing sidelong at his friend to judge his
reaction. “I should have. I should have from the start,
when he began messing with the ranger and talking about not ransoming
you, when I realized that he let them take you on purpose. Maybe
if I had we wouldn’t be in this mess now. I guess... I guess I...
was scared.” The younger man swallowed roughly, obviously ashamed
of that confession. “I still am... I don’t want to die,
Not... not like this.”
Kaldur considered Thil for a moment. How close he had come to
perishing at the hands of his own men surprised him a little and
renewed the small sting of the fact that he had been betrayed by people
he would have died to protect. Still, he knew Losmir could be
very intimidating, and didn’t blame Thil for looking to his own
interests. Wasn’t that what Kaldur had always told him to
“Shh, none of that talk,” the bandit leader shook his head, smiling at
the boy to cheer him up. “Nobody’s going to die. Have I
ever let anything bad happen to ye?”
Thil chose not to answer that. “What are we going to do?” he
asked quietly instead.
“Wait for just the right moment, lad, and grab it when we see it,”
Kaldur returned quietly. Silently, he hoped there would be such a
Gandalf walked with Bilbo and Aragorn in the front of the party while
Halbarad and the three elves walked perimeter to guard the
Gandalf glanced over his shoulder before turning slowly back to Aragorn
as the borders of Bree became apparent on their horizon. “You
might want to consider your choice of options, Estel,” the wizard said
calmly. “What exactly do you intend to do with these men now that
you have them?”
“Turn them over to the town leaders for justice, and be sure that any
superstitious nonsense is laid to rest. I mean to see that they
are treated as men, not monsters.” Aragorn looked questioningly
at Gandalf. By now he knew the wizard well enough to know that
for some reason, the Istar held a different opinion.
“Ah,” Gandalf nodded. “A good thought. But can you be so
sure justice is what they will receive? How far do you think the
word of a ranger will go in Bree? One who travels with elves
and...” the wizard chuckled, “crazy old men.”
Aragorn looked troubled. Some of the same misgivings had been
weighing on his thoughts as well, but Gandalf’s voicing of them gave
him even more cause for concern.
“Thorongil...” Gandalf used Aragorn’s discarded human name with the
hint of a smile. “You are not in Gondor anymore, not a captain
whom people must respect. Remember the foibles, as well as the
beauties of your homeland. There is no superimposed system of
justice here. These people will do as they see fit, and mob rule
is just as effective as any other.”
Aragorn’s troubled look deepened. It was true, the habits of a
decade or more were not easily put aside, even if it was a past which
he wanted no part in at the moment. He had much to remember and
re-learn about his own home. “You are right Gandalf, we cannot
simply enter and expect no trouble... but my mind is divided.
What then should we do?”
Gandalf kept walking, ignoring Aragorn’s questioning scrutiny for so
long that the ranger thought he was not going to answer.
decide to do,” the wizard said finally.
Aragorn actually stopped walking, clenching his fists in
exasperation. “Why does everyone insist on thrusting some sort of
leadership upon me? Can they not see I do not wish for such, nor
am I equipped to deal with it? When the wise are present, do not
put the choices on an ill-chooser.”
Gandalf’s smile in the face of Aragorn’s frustration was patient and
understanding. He laid his weathered hand on the ranger’s
shoulder, keeping the younger man walking as they talked.
“Because, my dear boy, others see in you what you cannot. Have
learned nothing in all these long years? I trust to your
wisdom. So should you.”
Aragorn had the irritating feeling that Gandalf was trying to teach him
some kind of lesson by all this, but wasn’t sure he wanted to figure it
out. The ranger was still bothered by the trouble he felt he had
led Legolas, Bilbo and his brothers into these past few days. He
had simply assumed the lead without being asked, having become used to
a command position. His friends were all more than ready to give
that task to him, but had it turned out very well? Surely someone
else could have done better than nearly getting them all killed,
trapping he and Legolas in a barrow and perhaps dooming Elrohir to live
his entire immortal life in a silent world.
Legolas had observed the change in his friend’s stance and manner and
knew something was wrong. Sliding away from the others for a few
minutes, he moved up to join Aragorn, Gandalf and Bilbo.
The little hobbit was looking around for something to take his
attention and apparently trying to keep his nose out of business that
he knew did not concern him; Legolas spared him a quick smile before
turning to his friend.
“Is everything all right?” the elf inquired quietly of the ranger.
Aragorn sighed. “Yes and no. Gandalf and I were discussing
the wisdom or peril of taking our captives into Bree.”
Legolas nodded slowly, falling into step with Aragorn and
Gandalf. Bilbo intentionally trailed away a little to give them
some privacy, although he could still hear everything quite
“I see. The same question was on my heart. When I spoke
with Kaldur a night past, he suggested that the Bree-landers and other
folk in this locality might have a rather severe reaction to them
because of the supernatural nature of their charade. As much as I
would see justice done... I do not think the majority of these men
deserve death,” the elf admitted. “And it would not sit lightly
on my conscience to take them to it.”
In the past few years Legolas had learned all too well that even when
seeking justice, people could sometimes unintentionally do grievous
Aragorn regarded the elf thoughtfully. He knew Legolas was
thinking of his own experiences as a captive in Gondor. He had
seen that in the prince’s eyes this morning when he insisted that the
prisoners, bound all night, be untied for at least a few minutes before
they set out, so that their hands did not completely stiffen.
Legolas had rubbed his own wrists lightly, unconsciously... but Aragorn
had seen and understood. As he had understood when Legolas made
sure that the prisoners shared in their morning meal, under guard, but
free. Halbarad and Elladan had been more than a little unsure
about that, but Aragorn had supported Legolas. It was perhaps an
over-compensation, for the bandits would certainly not come to harm
from being bound up for one day or missing one meal, but Aragorn would
let his friend have his way in these matters, knowing that some parts
of Legolas’ mind and heart were still tender and healing.
The prince’s captivity in the name of justice had been hard, and
Legolas was obviously unwilling to replay that travesty upon anyone
else, even if they were truly guilty parties.
Legolas took a cold front with the prisoners themselves, and Kaldur
particularly seemed to delight in attempting to drive the prince to
insanity. The ranger wondered if the bandits realized how much of
an advocate for them Legolas really was. He doubted it.
Legolas would not have wanted it known. Aragorn doubted that even
his brothers noticed Legolas’ actions as unusual in anyway, for the
prince was excellent at masking his feelings. But Aragorn could
see through that mask, just as Legolas could see through the walls and
pretenses that the ranger often presented to the world. Perhaps
that should have been an uncomfortable thought... but it was not.
“Nor would it sit well on mine,” Aragorn agreed with a sigh. “The
question is, if we don’t turn
them over, what do we do? What of
all the pain they wrought, and the damage and loss?
And what of their victims? Do they not have a right to expect
these men to pay for their crimes?”
“Of course they should. But how... I don’t have any answers for
you, Estel,” Legolas shook his head.
Aragorn resisted the urge to feel annoyed. Implied in that
statement was again the implicit thought that he should be the one to
make the decision. The ranger had been the unconscious leader of
their party from the beginning; it was actually a role that he filled
quite easily, but now that his attention was being called to it, as
well as this difficult situation at hand, he felt distinctly
uncomfortable. Although he supposed he should be complimented
that all these beings whom he respected so highly thought that highly
of him in return.
Right now, however, that was little comfort because it still left the
whole mess in his lap.
“The decision may not be yours to make much longer,” Gandalf
Up ahead, a small knot of angry-looking townspeople and farmers were
coming their way. Aragorn had a sudden flashback pertaining to a
small town called Strayton, earthquakes, and accusations of river and
chicken theft. Perhaps he had
forgotten how rural justice
sometimes worked out here, considering that once, long ago, he and
Legolas had very nearly been hanged for ‘stealing’ the Bruinen when an
earthquake dammed it up. These Bree-landers were good people,
just as the villagers of Strayton had been, but as soon as something
they did not understand took place, reason could become a little
“Tell them to keep the prisoners back and quiet!” Aragorn quickly
instructed Legolas as the small knot of men drew near. The elf
The small party, which looked to be made up of hunters and farmers,
slowed and drew to a halt as they approached the ranger, hobbit and
wizard. They were provisioned for a hunt, but the determined set
of their faces suggested they were not after meat or hides.
Legolas had Elladan, Elrohir and Halbarad form a small circle around
their prisoners, moving them off of the road and hanging back a little
from the rest of the group. There was no chance of staying out of
the hunters’ sight, but they could at least act as inconspicuous as
possible until they knew more about these people.
“Who are you?” the lead hunter, heavily armed with a bow, hunting
knife, axe and cudgel asked without preamble, sizing Aragorn and
Gandalf up with a critical eye. He discounted Bilbo as big folk
often did the little people who were their neighbors.
“Just weary travelers passing through your hospitable lands,” Aragorn
returned, more graciously than was warranted by the rude
questioning. He noted that these men were not just well-armed,
they were over-armed.
You wouldn’t need this many weapons to go
after the most ferocious of man-eating bears.
“Most of us are from the north, near Strayton and Rivendell, but some,”
he glanced at Bilbo, “hail from the Shire. I am a Dúnadan,
a ranger. These are my friends, Gandalf the Grey and Bilbo Baggins of
Bag-end.” He hoped that giving them enough familiar and yet
unfamiliar names would put them off of thinking overmuch about the
rest of the party lingering behind them.
“Where are you all off to?” the ranger glanced over their weaponry with
pretended appreciation. “You look ready to take down a
giant! Trouble with wolves going after the livestock? Or a
bear? I certainly hope that it’s not the hill trolls again, I
should not like to meet any on our road.” All of those were
options that had troubled this area in the past, but somehow Aragorn
felt sure that none of them were the reason behind this particular
The lead hunter seemed to rethink his brusqueness when met with the
friendly talk, and someone who was obviously familiar with the area and
therefore more or less ‘from around these parts’. The man stepped
his suspicion back a pace and relaxed a little.
“Neither. Worse. Wights have been terrorizing the
countryside, but now folks are starting to think there’s no wights at
all, but devil men, calling on the evil powers of the wights to give
‘em superhuman abilities. So a bunch of us are going out there to
put a stop to it!”
A ripple of murmurs ran all around the crowd.
“We’ve had enough of them terrorizing our women and children and making
off with our hard-earned goods,” the man finished firmly. “We’re
going to send them back to whatever underworld they came from!”
Aragorn nodded slowly. He had actually expected as much.
This was no doubt the twisted result of his and Halbarad's trying to
convince the villagers that the wights were not to blame. Amazing
how things could become so reinterpreted so quickly. “I see. Do
you think that’s wise?”
The hunter’s jaw clenched grimly, his steely eyes reflecting
determination. “We may not all come back, but we’re going to burn
us a few devil men before this is all over! Right boys?!” the man
mustered their courage and was again met with a ripple of support,
several of the men proudly brandishing ropes, weapons and torches.
Aragorn resisted the urge to bite his lip. These men were only
doing what they thought was right by their families and their town,
and, in their own eyes, being quite brave to attempt anything at all
against what they thought was out there. Aragorn remembered
vividly the terror when he and Legolas were trapped in the wight’s
barrow last night and could not blame these men for the wish to destroy
such creatures. If it truly were some kind of morgul devilry
going on out there, then he would most likely do the same thing... only
perhaps with a little more preparation and a great deal more
Kaldur and his men, however, were not such creatures. They were
criminals, certainly, but you could not equate them with the sheer evil
of a wight, no matter what game they had played.
From where they stood, Kaldur could easily see and hear the men up
ahead talking with Aragorn and felt his blood start running cold.
Not yet, not yet! He hadn’t had a chance to work on a plan yet,
to figure out how to get them out of this! Now it was too
Half consciously, half un-consciously Kaldur moved in front of Thil, as
if blocking the younger man from sight would keep him from the harm
they all knew was coming. He had seen a man burned to death
once... the memory haunted him.
Legolas was watching the understandably nervous prisoners carefully,
but the other half of his attention was firmly fixed on Aragorn and the
“We wish you luck then,” Aragorn nodded to the men, giving the
impression that their conversation was drawing to a close so everyone
could move on about their business.
“And who are they?” the hunter nodded towards the elves and the
prisoners, obviously not ready to let Aragorn end their conversation
just yet. “What’re ye doing carting people around trussed up like
that? Has there been trouble?” the man asked warily, a hint of
suspicion creeping back into his tone and showing that he was not quite
as unobservant or inept as Aragorn would have liked in this
“Halbarad is a ranger, like myself, and the elves are our friends from
Rivendell, as I mentioned earlier,” Aragorn chose to answer the easy
part of the question first, his mind working quickly. “The rest
of these men... are wanted in Rivendell. We are taking them to Lord
Elrond.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, the bandits were considered
wanted men in Rivendell and they had been sent out to catch them.
Aragorn knew that the minute he brought the elves into it the
townspeople’s interest would wane. No one in these parts wanted
to intrude into the elves’ business.
Predictably, the hunters looked them all over one more time, decided it
was none of their affair, and began to move on. “Well then,
there’s a lot of ground between here and the mountains, you be
careful,” the lead man cautioned by way of parting. “And you be
sure to tell us if you run across any of those devil men!”
“Oh we will,” Bilbo nodded with a dramatic shudder and such an innocent
smile that Aragorn had to keep from laughing.
The hunters did not have as much restraint and went on their way
Bilbo’s grin turned somewhat smug as soon as they weren’t
looking. Big folk were always ready to not take hobbits
seriously. Sometimes that was an advantage.
Aragorn glanced side-long at the hobbit, knowing he had intended to
send the men off on a light note, causing them to forget any lingering
doubts they might have had. Gandalf had often told him that there
was more about the Shire folk than met the eye, and he was beginning to
agree, if Bilbo were any indication.
Kaldur didn’t understand what had just happened. He had more than
expected the ranger to hand them over. After all, these people’s
‘civic duty’ had been fulfilled, they could walk away pleased with
themselves for a job well done; wasn’t that what they wanted? Oh,
he liked the ranger and his elf friends all right, they were an okay
sort, if only they hadn’t ended up on opposite sides in this game, but
they were the noble kind, and that kind usually trusted too much to the
justice of those not as noble. The bandit’s respect for these
people went up a notch as he realized that maybe they weren’t as
predictable as he thought. The fact that he and his men had just
been saved from a grisly death didn’t hurt matters either.
“Smart bit about Rivendell there, did you see them VISIBLY lose
interest?” Bilbo remarked with a smile to Aragorn once the men were out
of earshot. “That’s quick thinking, my lad.”
Gandalf chuckled at the assessment and Elladan nodded in concurrence as
the small group re-gathered themselves.
“It’s true. But what are
we going to do with them now, Estel?”
the elder twin inquired.
“Personally I’m for letting them all go so everyone can live happily
ever after,” Kaldur put in helpfully with one of his trademark
Everyone ignored him; they had become good at doing that.
Aragorn shrugged. “We’ll do as I said we would. Take them
to Rivendell. They’ll get no real justice in these parts.
Lord Elrond can judge them for what they have done, and I am certain
that even here no one would dispute his wisdom in such matters.”
“Especially if they find out about it after the fact,” Legolas’ smile
was wry. He knew that if Aragorn had told those men that now,
they would never have let them peacefully take the prisoners to
Rivendell, but if word was brought later that the ‘devil men’ as they
called them had been captured and the Lord of Rivendell took care of
it, then the Bree-landers and everyone else would simply be relieved
that a menace had been removed and go on about their lives not caring
who took care of the threat, so long as it was gone.
“Exactly,” Aragorn nodded, sharing the smile. The ranger looked
up when Gandalf put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“There, you see? Was that so very difficult?” The wizard’s
gently teasing words were met with a playful scowl.
Ignoring him for the moment and bending down to Bilbo’s level, Aragorn
glanced upward at Gandalf. “My brothers tell me you’ve known him
much longer than I have. Tell me, how EVER do you put up with
Bilbo could not help laughing; despite the glare that Gandalf was now
leveling on both of them. “It’s not easy sometimes... but um,
it’s a lot safer than not,” the hobbit quickly added when he saw
Gandalf eyeing him from under the wizard’s foreboding, bushy brows.
“Since you are figuring everyone’s problems out so brilliantly,
brother,” Elladan shook his head with a smile, “perhaps you will tell
me how we can be sure that those poor hunters who walked right by their
quarry do not snag some other unfortunate innocents by mistake?
It has happened before.” The elf was thinking of Legolas and their
friend Moranuen, both of whom had been severely beaten when they were
mistaken for a rogue elf that had terrorized the countryside years
Aragorn’s face clouded as he realized that his brother had a very good
point. This time however, it was Gandalf who answered.
“Well since the dear Dúnadan has been so good about answers thus
far, I believe it is our turn to help out. Bilbo and I will
continue on to Bree and then from there back to the Shire. I was
on my way to see him and how things fared in the Four Farthings after
all. Rescuing elves and rangers from the jaws of evil has merely
been an added benefit,” he said with a merry twinkle in his deep, wise
eyes. “While in Bree and the lands around which we shall cross,
we will be sure to spread the word of what happened in the barrow
mounds last night. If anyone wants proof they have only to go out
there and see the collapsed mounds and blasted earth. It will be
easy to impart that the wights have retreated back to their dark mounds
and that any humans masquerading as wights,” his keen gaze landed on
Kaldur who smiled innocently, “have been dealt with by the
rangers and the elves. Things should begin returning to normal
“It has been a pleasure having your company, Mithrandir, and you Master
Baggins,” Legolas said. “It grieves us to see you leave so soon,
but I believe your plan is the wisest. We would not want any
innocents falling victim to a wight-hunt.”
Halbarad had been very quiet this whole time but Aragorn fixed him now
with his gaze. “I fear that you must also be taking your leave of
us Halbarad, is that not true?”
Legolas looked slightly surprised, but Halbarad did not.
“You read my thoughts, my friend,” the other ranger sighed. In
truth he had stayed longer than he intended already. “I sent
Arendur to do a man’s job, but he is still young and in my
charge. My heart urges me that now that this situation is
resolved, I should hasten to join him as I promised. Although I
hate to diminish your numbers further, for I thought Gandalf would
travel with you a while yet and now I am even more loath to
Aragorn had seen the hesitation growing in the other ranger’s eyes for
some time now. “Of course you must. If I were free I would go
with you, but I know that the cities to the south could ask for no
better help than yours. Do not fear for us; I believe that
Legolas, Elladan, Elrohir and I are more than capable of handling this
lot,” he tossed a warning smile to the bandits. “Go with the
blessings of the Valar, Halbarad, and may we meet again soon.”
Halbarad nodded, stepping forward to clasp Aragorn’s forearm in
“Well since everybody’s leaving we’d be more than happy to go our way
Aragorn closed his eyes. He wondered if Kaldur actually expected
them to ever agree with him or if he just talked because he could.
The side of Halbarad’s mouth quirked upward. “I don’t envy you
your task or the company, Strider,” he whispered with a chuckle.
“Thank you so much,” Aragorn glared ruefully at the other man.
When Aragorn turned to say farewell to Bilbo he found that the little
hobbit was busily scribbling something on a scrap of paper with a small
pencil stub he must have kept in one of his many pockets.
“Half a moment, apologies,” Bilbo said as he finished; folding the
small, but tidy little piece of paper in half. “I had a bit of
something starting to run about in my head since last night and had to
get it down before it ran completely off again. It was good to
make your acquaintance Legolas, Dúnadan,” he shook both of their
hands. “Perhaps I will be able to see more of you in Rivendell in
Aragorn smiled. “I hope you will see much more of me in Rivendell
for a time now.” He intended to stay close to home for a
“Good then!” Bilbo smiled. “SOME of my friends simply wander
around too much for you to ever count on being able to get a decent
visit,” he glanced meaningfully at Gandalf who merely smiled.
“Some of us have better things to do with our lives than spend it
paying social calls to hobbits, however wonderful the company, food and
pipe-weed may be,” he retorted with his usual soft-edged
“I suppose so,” Bilbo nodded with a sly grin, “although I daresay
I can’t imagine any. Elladan, Elrohir, take care, tell your
father hello for me, I will be out that way again in a few months if
all is well.”
“We will warn Celboril!” Elladan chuckled. “He can start hiding
all the seed cakes now! Good-bye Bilbo!”
Elrohir waved when his brother waved, but turned a slightly puzzled and
peeved expression on his brother afterwards. “You know, El,
anytime you want to tell me what is going on would be appreciated...,”
he commented quietly, for his brother’s ears only. “Where are
Gandalf and Bilbo going? And is Halbarad leaving as well?
Are they coming back? Who were those men?”
Elladan smiled and pretended to smack his brother lightly, but made
careful to not actually hit him. He acted like it was funny for
his twin’s sake, but it wasn’t. The fact that Elrohir had to rely
almost solely on him to even understand what was going on around them
sometimes made Elladan’s heart ache.
Lightly touching his twin’s temples, Elladan explained everything
slowly and quietly, since Elrohir didn’t need to hear him, he just
needed to see what he was
Halbarad had already left and Gandalf was taking his leave. Bilbo
paused to shake Aragorn’s hand one last time, before hurrying off to
catch up with the wizard. This action surprised the ranger, but
more so when he found that Bilbo had left the small fold of paper he
had been writing on in the Dúnadan’s hand.
Unfolding it, he read the verses that were written across the paper in
a somewhat thin and spidery script. What he found caught him off
guard and he jerked his head up in surprise, looking to the retreating
form of the little hobbit as he dwindled into the distance beside
Gandalf’s larger and more distinctive profile.
Looking back down at the paper he read the salutation again.
That one line was surprising enough. The fact that the hobbit had
managed to pick up his true name showed that Gandalf was right, he and
his brothers had not been nearly careful enough. But then,
Gandalf had called him that this morning, also in Bilbo’s presence, now
that he thought about it. Yet even more intriguing than the
header were the verses beneath.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not
Deep roots are not reached by the
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed will be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be
Aragorn stared for a moment, dumbfounded, then he started to
chuckle. Bless that little hobbit’s hairy feet! There was
MUCH more to him than met the eye indeed! How many of Elrond's
books and scrolls had Bilbo been into? His verses showed an
understanding that shocked the ranger.
Legolas and his brothers were staring at him now, so he brought the
note over for them to see, keeping it carefully away from any other
“Our dear Mr. Baggins has indeed been spending a lot of time in
Rivendell, apparently where many tongues wag freely,” he glanced with
amused accusation at the twins.
Elladan and Elrohir both held up their hands in innocence. “Nay,
Estel, we spoke of you as our brother but nothing more and I doubt
Father would have said anything.”
Aragorn believed them. He also believed that somehow Bilbo had
simply figured it out on his own, pieced together from his long study
of lore, many visits with Gandalf and to Rivendell, and most likely
their own conversations the past few days. The ranger hoped he
wasn’t being that transparent to everyone. Whether he wanted his
heritage or not, it was still dangerous. But Bilbo was a friend
of Gandalf’s, a close friend,
so Aragorn was willing to trust him,
since indeed it seemed he had no other choice.
Legolas was still looking at the words. Elves appreciated good
prose, and Bilbo had a nice meter to his style, but that wasn’t what he
was thinking about.
“It is you, Aragorn,” Legolas
said softly in Elvish. He placed
his hand lightly against his friend’s chest with a smile. “Not
all those who wander, or who choose to wander, are lost.”
Aragorn’s smile gentled slightly as he folded the note and tucked it
away, catching Legolas’ eyes. “Well these deep roots may not have
been touched by frost, but they have been very cold of late,” he said
with equal quietness. It was true, the essence of the poem had
spoken to his heart and he wondered if somehow this was the hobbit’s
answer to what he and Gandalf had been speaking of earlier, and the
unspoken doubts and questions still plaguing the Dúnadan’s own
“However, I’m not so sure about that last part...” the wry glint
returned to the ranger’s eyes. “I think he’s in league with
“With him it’s wiser to be in than out!” Elladan shook his head and
they all laughed.
“Excuse me, not to interrupt if you’ve forgotten all about us, which
mind you, I think is a grand idea, but it’s getting a little hot out
here. You think we could move on before we all grow roots?”
Kaldur spoke up, disappointed that although the four guards were
occupied with their own private conversation, their watchful gazes
never left the prisoners long enough to make any escape attempts
plausible. He remembered how fast the elves were with those
bows. Suicide. Definite suicide. And since the
alternative no longer seemed to be roasting alive like a pig on
a spit, he could afford to be more patient.
“You’d be a lot hotter if we’d left you with those hunters,” Aragorn
pointed out with a patient, but meaningful look as Legolas and his
brothers connected the bandit’s bound wrists together with additional
lengths of rope, stringing the prisoners out in a long line and making
them easier to guard since the company was now down to just the three
elves and the human again.
“Point taken,” Kaldur smiled as they adjusted their course towards
Rivendell and started walking once more. “Thanks, friend.
Now we just have to work on this whole prisoner situation...”
Legolas, walking beside Aragorn on the bandits’ left while Elladan and
Elrohir took the right, rolled his eyes. “Do not encourage him
Strider. I may soon begin to envy Elrohir.”
They had a surprisingly easy time for the first few days of the return
journey. The sky was clear and aside from one ill-conceived
escape attempt by a few of the men, which, knowing what a useless idea
it was, Kaldur hadn’t even bothered to take part in, there had been no
Unless you counted the fact that the bandits were a vocal
bunch. Once they realized that their captors were not going to
beat or mistreat them for complaining, the whining grew frequent and
increasingly irritating. They complained about the rigorous pace,
the long hours, the tight ropes, and just about everything else until
finally Elladan had lost patience and threatened to bind their mouths
shut for the rest of the journey unless they shut up. That had
silenced them at least for the time being, for which Aragorn and
Legolas were grateful; they had both begun to envy Elrohir his blissful
Night was coming on and a campfire ahead drew the small party with wary
curiosity. Elladan advanced cautiously to check it out, and
returned to inform them that all was well. The camp belonged to a
hunter, his wife and some of their companions. They had welcomed
the elf and his party to join them if they so desired.
“Real hunters,” Elladan had
assured quickly when met with Legolas’
dubious look. “Ones after food and pelts, not people.”
“Are they aware of our situation?” Aragorn waved at the line of
prisoners strung out between them.
Elladan nodded. “I told them, but they said it mattered not. Any
elf from Rivendell was welcome in their camp. I will admit I was
a little surprised, Estel. We are not always met with such
Aragorn could see suspicion written all over Legolas’ face and knew
that an overly friendly welcome aroused the prince’s wariness. “I
don’t know if that’s a good idea, since we don’t know anything about
“And the less we have to do with humans we don’t know, the better?”
Aragorn asked mildly, the corners of his mouth twitching up
slightly. He understood why Legolas would feel that way; heaven
knows the prince had a right to after everything he had been through in
“I didn’t say that, Strider, you know I didn’t say that,” Legolas shook
his head, his lips depressing in a slight line as they did when he was
irked. He wasn’t really irritated with Aragorn; he was more
frustrated with his own heightened paranoia when it came to strange
humans. Gondor and Umbar had left him a little over-sensitive he
supposed, but it would pass, he knew that. It had done so
Elladan shrugged indifferently. Aragorn had been right earlier;
the Noldorian elf did not share Legolas’ experiences or heightened
wariness of human kind. He was ready to take the hunter at his
word, but not if it made the prince uncomfortable. “I really do
believe he was being sincere, but if you would rather not, Legolas,
that’s perfectly all right.”
“No,” Legolas said quickly. Too quickly. “It will be
fine. If you think all is well, then there is no sense in being
rude. Let us just act with caution.”
Aragorn sighed inwardly. Legolas’ back was stiff and his posture
rigid. The ranger knew he was only consenting because he felt he
would be giving in to his own fears to do otherwise.
“Legolas, what I said before, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he
tried a soft apology as they headed towards the campfire ahead, herding
the prisoners ahead of them. Legolas had healed so well, Aragorn
almost forgot sometimes that the prince’s reasons for distrusting most
humans had recently been painfully refreshed.
“Yes you did,” Legolas returned just as quietly. “And you are
right. I know I can be overly suspicious at times and it is not a
trait of which I am fond. It reminds me too much of my father,”
he laughed slightly.
Aragorn smiled back, glad the elf truly wasn’t upset with him. “I
suppose we all have more of our ancestors in us than we would wish
sometimes. I promise I’ll be watchful. If it even looks like
there might be trouble, we will leave quickly. You have my word,
Legolas squeezed his arm. “Estel... please, do not worry so about
me. I am all right. If I do not face the things that make
me anxious, I will never get over them. That is something you taught me
a long time ago, my friend.”
Aragorn nodded, but kept a discreet eye on the elf anyway as they
entered the camp, judging the prince’s state of unease. It was
not severe, but he was not relaxed either.
The camp was small, but well-stocked and it seemed that this hunting
party had already done most of its work. Cleaned pelts were tied
neatly in bundles, large slabs of cured meat were wrapped in packages
and more hides were stretched between pegs near the ground as they
There were several hunters present, most of them younger men in their
teens. The older hunter, who seemed to be in charge, was still
not very old and Aragorn would have guessed early to mid-thirties, but
he couldn’t be sure. The man had been sharpening a skinning tool
against a grindstone, but laid it aside when the guests entered.
The only woman of the party, presumably the man’s wife, sat nearby,
working some greasy substance into a buckskin to keep the curing
leather supple and soft.
The hunter stood to his feet to welcome them.
Aragorn was surprised that the younger man seemed familiar to him
somehow, but he could not put his finger on the reason. Come to
think of it, his wife seemed familiar too in a vague sort of way.
Legolas also was struck by that sense of familiarity and his brows
knitted slightly. He studied the young woman as she looked up
from her work, amber hair spilling in curly waves around her
shoulders. She was younger than her husband, only in her twenties
perhaps, if that much. She smiled shyly at the elf staring at
her, but there was no flicker of recognition in her eyes to tell him
where he could possibly have known her from.
The hunter, however, was another matter. As soon as he locked
with the new arrivals, a large smile lit up his face.
“Strider? Legolas? Is that really you? By the stars
but neither of you have aged a day since I last saw you!”
Aragorn blinked several times. When the other man smiled he
looked younger and Aragorn could see past the short beard and the
“Garith? Young Garith? My WORD but you make me feel
old!” he laughed, returning the younger man’s welcoming
embrace. “Last time I saw you, you were still a half-grown pup
tagging along on Taradin’s heels. Now look at you!”
Garith laughed. “I haven’t seen you in forever, Strider, not even
with the rangers. Taradin and I thought you died. I’m glad you
“No, I’ve just been... away,” Aragorn avoided saying any more on that
subject. “Garith, you remember Elladan and Elrohir? Lord
Garith nodded, now he did remember them, although before he had
not. He remembered Strider and the blond elf better.
“And let’s not forget the faithful tag-alongs,” Kaldur put in as if he
actually had a reason to be speaking. “The infamous
bandits-on-a-string at your service...” he shook the line keeping them
all together ruefully.
Garith raised a questioning eyebrow and Aragorn just rolled his
eyes. “And this is
Kaldur DeCahr, whom you may please feel free
to ignore. We are taking him and his men back to Rivendell for
sentencing by Lord Elrond.”
“Well you do get all the fun jobs, Strider, no mistake,” Garith shook
his head. “But you are welcome here for the night, longer if you
wish. We’re waiting for Taradin and the rest of the group, but it
could be a few days or a week, depending on how the hunting was.”
Taradin was actually late already for the rendezvous, but that was not
unusual and no one was concerned.
“We can only stay for the night, but thank you,” Aragorn accepted when
Garith led them further into the camp, showing them a safe place to
deposit their prisoners around the fire before taking seats
themselves. Aragorn glanced at Legolas and noted with relief that
the elf seemed much more relaxed and at ease now, although he was still
stealing curious glances at Garith’s wife. “How is Taradin?”
“Healthy as a boar and STILL holding the title for the most pelts per
winter,” Garith smiled as he sat back down next to his wife. “And
this is my wife, Estelle. Estelle, these are some old friends of
mine, Strider, Legolas, Elladan and Elrohir.” He introduced the
pretty young woman sitting next to him.
A small flash of understanding crossed Legolas’ face and his smile
widened slightly. “Estelle... that’s a beautiful name,” he
complimented with a small twinkle in his eyes. He had not seen
her since she was a wee babe, but she looked enough like her mother to
“Thank you,” the girl smiled back. “It is different, I know, but
my mother tells me it is an elvish name; that it means hope.”
“It does. How is Maraen?” Legolas couldn’t help asking.
The girl blinked, obviously surprised. Of course she would not
recall the elf prince that delivered her into this world and saved her
and her mother’s life before she was old enough to remember, but she
guessed rightly that this elf, who looked no older than she, must
somehow know her mother and father.
“They are well, thank you, sir,” she replied politely. “At home
with my three youngest sisters. My brother is with Taradin’s
Aragorn and Legolas smiled at one another. This certainly was a
night for reunions and chance meetings. It was unexpected, but
somehow... unexplainably nice,
to be walking back into all these old
memories. Into these parts of themselves that had seemed so long
ago, but now felt not quite so removed and distant as they had before.
Legolas had not thought he would be able to sleep in a strange human
camp that night, but to his surprise he slumbered easily and his dreams
were light and as free as the night birds soaring above the darkened
trees in the moonlight.