The Lord of the Rings and all recognizable characters and places herein are the exclusive property of J.R.R. Tolkien, his heirs and licensees.
The East Road, Eastern Eriador, Spring, 3008 T.A.
"Take the horse, at least," Halbarad said, sliding off his own mount into the half-frozen muck of the road and closing in on his intransigent adversary, otherwise known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain, among other names, some of which did not translate well to the common tongue, particularly the ones Halbarad was thinking of at the moment.
Aragorn, naturally, was resolutely ignoring him and continuing to remove his gear from the chestnut mare's saddlebags. His back was turned through what Halbarad strongly suspected was no accident, and his head was bent over his task, his face obscured by a fall of dark hair.
Halbarad expelled a huff of breath that hung in the chill air and clenched his jaw in frustration as he hovered inches from his chieftain's shoulder, restraining himself from grabbing the worn cloak and spinning that shoulder around only out of a vague awareness that neither of their badly frayed tempers would withstand any further escalation of the ongoing disagreement. All we need is a fistfight in the middle of the East Road to cap off a really awful day, he thought to himself, with an odd glimmer of nostalgia for a simpler time when it seemed that all of their problems could indeed be solved with only a set of sore knuckles and a bloody nose for payment
Biting back a curse of exasperation, Halbarad forced himself into one last attempt at reasoned discourse, to the extent that reasoned discourse is possible when facing only the stiff and unyielding backside of one's opponent. "If this meeting with Gandalf is so damned important you'd better take the horse," he argued, hearing the note of derision in his own voice but finding himself too exhausted to care. "It's 50 leagues to Bree – you aren't going to make it five miles on foot. Go ahead and try – and when I find you lying on the side of the road a few miles further down, your half-dead, arrow-riddled carcass can get hauled into Bree over the back of this mare like a load of wool for market. Quite an entertaining spectacle that will be for the Bree-folk, I imagine."
Aragorn, still crouched in the roadway over his pack, did not bother to look up from his infuriatingly meticulous task of pulling indeterminate bits of moldy food out of it and tossing aside those he deemed too far gone to salvage.
"Don't be so stubborn," Halbarad pressed. "Take the horse. I'll ride with you as far as Bree, if you like." The offer had already been refused twice.
Aragorn spared him the barest glance. "No. Go home to your wife, your men. Your duty is there."
At this casual dismissal, Halbarad exploded. "And what about your duty, son of Arathorn? It seems to be everywhere else! I suppose I should be grateful that you bothered to drop by and help bury a few corpses on your way through this time!"
Aragorn spun around, eyes flaring and fists clenched. Halbarad recoiled reflexively and took a step back, certain that his chieftain really was going to take a swing at him. He lurched backward in retreat from the fury in the storm-grey eyes. "Aragorn…" he whispered as he lowered his eyes and raised his hands in a placating gesture. How did it come to this? The last thing he imagined, when Aragorn had come down out of the mountains those few short weeks ago, seemingly just when he was most needed, was slugging it out with him at a lonely crossroad on the barren edge of the Angle. Over a horse, of all things.
But of course it isn't about the horse.
Halbarad held his breath as the furor in Aragorn's eyes slowly subsided.
"Halbarad," Aragorn finally said, in a voice barely a whisper. He expelled tension from his lungs, and his shoulders, and reached a hand to grasp Halbarad's shoulder. Halbarad returned the gesture, noting anew the troubling sharpness of the bony contours beneath his fingers.
Through stray locks of filthy hair spiked with more silver than Halbarad had remembered, Aragorn lifted his eyes to meet his kinsman's. He released his grip after a moment and pulled away, diverting his uncertain gaze to the barren horizon, a jittery plateau of rock and grass overhung by a slab of gray sky. The barest shake of his head bespoke remorse, or despair, or simple exhaustion. Or possibly just that unerringly accurate sense he always had of what was needed to get the job done.
He turned back to Halbarad with an unsettled look. "Very well. I would be grateful for the horse."
Halbarad opened his mouth to speak, as much unnerved by Aragorn's sudden acquiescence as he had been by his resolute obstinance, but his chieftain had already turned away, re-packing his gear methodically back into the saddlebags. Halbarad rubbed a tired hand over his bruised face. It was no use. They were both weary to the bone from grief and battle, and too many angry words had already been exchanged - about the trip to Bree, about Gandalf, about many things. Halbarad's own words still rang in his ears, and it was too soon to un-say them.
The horse would have to be enough. He silently handed over the reins, and stood in the road watching Aragorn disappear into the west.
The boy yanked the blood-spattered apron over his tousled head and reached up to hang it on a peg in the storeroom. Ducking out the back door of the Prancing Pony, he glanced furtively left and right as he shut the rough door closed behind him and stepped down into the half-frozen mud. Jamming dishwater-chapped hands into his pockets, he hunched his head against the slap of chill wind as he set off at a purposeful pace through the alleys of Bree.
Heedless of the putrid slop squelching between his toes, the boy traversed the familiar odiferous paths with an efficiency born of practice. He barely glanced at three fat rats chewing on a sheep carcass behind the butcher shop.
Few folk were about this chill morning. The winter had been harsh, and rampant banditry on the roads had discouraged whatever travelers would normally have braved the weather. Even now, at the cusp of spring, most of the Pony's guestrooms still sat empty. The merchant trade would not return until the surface and the safety of the roads improved, and there were few Shire-folk willing to travel in such weather.
As for the Rangers, they were scarcer with every passing year, and little had been seen of them since the onset of winter. Though Butterbur would be the last to admit that their lurking, menacing presence was missed, even he could be heard to reminisce that at least they could be counted on to pay their bills.
The boy was aware that the Pony's own storerooms were practically bare. The last of the decent Gondorian spirit, despite increasingly audacious dilutions, had run out a month ago, not that anyone in Bree could afford it anyway. The supper menu of late had succumbed to relentless repetitions of potato stew. The locals had found their credit accounts suspended, and Barley himself was overdue paying the firewood supplier, the ale merchant, and the baker.
The help at the Pony had not been paid for two months, a fact which eased the boy's conscience at what he was doing. Though Barley had so far made good on his promise to keep them all fed until he could make payroll again, even a hobbit could not live by bread alone.
And even in times as bad as this, there was still one commodity in Bree which could always be sold for hard cash. It took only knowing where to find a buyer.
The address the boy sought was five minutes' brisk walk from the Pony on a residential street bracketed by decaying wooden houses of Men. It was but a narrow sliver of a house, wedged uncomfortably between two larger structures and to all appearances, propped upright solely by their close embrace. A single unpainted door marked its ground floor, above which loomed two shuttered windows like the eyes of a sleeping sentinel.
The boy rapped on the door and waited with his hood pulled close against his face, resisting the urge to glance around.
After a moment, the door cracked open with a rusty squeak, and the boy peered into the dark interior nervously, trying to make out the massive shadowy figure beyond. "Mister Teburic? It's me," he whispered urgently. "Tillfield, from the Prancing Pony."
The door swung open abruptly and an enormous hand grabbed him harshly by the arm, oversized fingers easily encircling his bicep. He stumbled as he was yanked across the threshold and into the gloom beyond.
As the door slammed shut behind him, he was swung around to face the familiar looming countenance of the home's occupant. He was a huge Man, much bigger than anyone else in Bree, and taller even than some of the Rangers who sometimes still came to the Pony. His dark eyes glared down at the boy from beneath unruly brows. "Tillfield! What are you doing here?" the man hissed, dragging him by the arm down the dark hallway. "I told you never to come here in the daytime." He released the stumbling boy into the lighter gloom of the back room, its shadows softened by gray light from a single window. "Speak, boy!" he barked.
Tillfield pulled the hood back from his unkempt head and kept his eyes averted. "I thought you would want to know right away," he hurried to explain. "That old man, the gray-bearded one you asked me to watch – Gandalf, you called him - he left this morning."
The other's jaw tightened beneath a fury of tangled ebony beard. "When?" he barked.
"About an hour ago, just after breakfast. He paid his bill and got his horse from the stable and left. He told Barley he was going to Buckland to see friends."
The big man's eyes narrowed. "Has he met with anyone?"
"No, but he gave a letter to Barley as he left."
The man's bushy eyebrows perked up at this. "Did you get a look at it?"
The boy couldn't suppress a sly grin at his own resourcefulness as he reached into his pocket. Withdrawing his hand, he held up a wax-sealed letter and waved it before the man's ebony eyes. "I did better than that."
The rapid arching of the man's brows merely added to the boy's elated self-satisfaction. "This is it?" the man asked, taking the folded and sealed packet from the small hand and turning it over to examine it. "Isn't Butterbur going to miss this?"
Tillfield chuckled knowingly at his master's renowned forgetfulness, self-congratulatory hubris at his own cleverness overcoming for the moment his habitual deference to the massive thief-lord. "Are you serious, Teburic? He's already forgotten he has it. He put it straightaway into his letter drawer and won't look for it again unless it's asked for."
"Stay here," Teburic ordered abruptly, and lumbered, with uncommon quickness for a man his size, up the dark rickety stairway leading to the second floor, still carrying the letter, his boots clomping heavily on the floorboards. Tillfield waited in the gloomy hallway until he came back down a minute later, without the letter. Taking the boy by the arm again, he ushered him back to the front door.
"Go back to the Pony. Speak of this to no one," he ordered, leaning over him until his wiry brows almost touched the boy's own. "Come back tonight, and you will be paid." He paused as his hand touched the doorknob, and the barest smile bent his lips. "You have done well."
Teburic waited until the hobbit rounded the corner at the end of the street before barring the door. He mounted the stairs once again, returning to the upstairs room where the letter had found its way into other hands.
"He's gone," Teburic said. "I told him to come back tonight, like you said."
"Excellent work. I knew that Gandalf would leave us a clue, eventually. He is too trusting of that bumbling inn-keeper." The figure seated behind the desk, fingering the letter lightly, was as slender and fair-featured as Teburic was rough. The hands holding the letter were fine-boned and unmarred by battle or labor, the eyes as clear and sharp as the man's were dull and blood-shot.
"What's that writing on the front?" Teburic asked.
"It is a name," his companion answered. "Strider."
"Strider? What kind of name is that?"
The other laughed. "No kind of name at all. That is what makes him all the more intriguing. Have you not heard of Strider? I suppose not. He is well known in Bree, though I suppose you arrived here after he was last seen in these parts. Don't worry; you will be quite well acquainted with him before this is over."
"Who is he?"
Teburic spat. "A mangy dog."
"You really should be more open-minded, Master Thief. This is the man who is going to tell us all about Gandalf's interest in the Shire."
"Aren't you going to open it?" Teburic asked.
"Patience, Teburic," his companion chided. "I must know first whether I can replicate the seal. I need some more light."
Teburic moved to light more candles, while his companion opened a locked cabinet and removed an earthenware jar. As Teburic watched, he mixed a grayish powder into a thick paste and spread it over the seal. A few minutes later, he peeled off the hardened mold in one piece and examined it. "Good enough," he pronounced. "Likely it will not receive close scrutiny once the message is read."
As Teburic watched, the other slit the letter open and read it. "Elvish, how clever," he commented, a smile of satisfaction spreading across his face. "Well, now. It seems that our friend Mithrandir - Gandalf - is indeed bound for Buckland. He and Strider were to have met in Bree a week ago, but the Ranger has failed to appear. Gandalf has decided to visit with a certain unnamed friend in Buckland to pass the time," he continued, effortlessly scanning the flowing text, "and will return to Bree in a week's time to attempt the rendezvous once again."
Teburic frowned. "Do you want me to send men to Buckland, to get Gandalf there?"
"Absolutely not. Your men would find Gandalf a more formidable adversary than he appears. While I would be interested in learning who his contacts are there, this situation with Strider is the more promising."
"Why? Who is this Strider?"
"My master has long been intrigued by Gandalf's curious preoccupation with the Shire," his companion explained, turning back to Teburic. "For many years the wizard has harbored a strange fascination for the half-witted halflings and their monotonous little Shire. To add to the mystery, the Rangers began keeping an oddly large presence at its borders some years ago, despite mounting pressure from Orcs and wolves further east."
"The Rangers," Teburic snorted. "Nothing but a pack of scrawny dogs scavenging for scraps."
His companion merely smiled. "My Master has discovered that this Strider is a friend to Gandalf. They have been seen traveling together frequently over the past several years. Mystery surrounds this Strider. Some say he is the leader of the Dúnedain – the Rangers of the North - yet he is seldom seen with them. He seems to come and go, disappearing for years, unaccounted for, and when he reappears he is as often seen with the Elves as with the Rangers. Some even say he is Elf-kind himself, though I doubt it."
"If anyone knows Gandalf's business in the Shire, it will be this Man." The slim figure sat motionless for long minutes, until Teburic had begun to fidget. Finally, he looked up. "I have work to do here," he stated simply. "Quietly round up a few of your ruffians. Tell them nothing but that their services will be required. I want experienced, sensible, trustworthy men - but Teburic - choose no one whom you consider irreplaceable. Make no mistake, this man Strider is dangerous. When the halfling returns tonight, pay him and make sure he is on the lookout for Strider."
"And then?" Teburic ventured to ask.
"And then," the other answered, smiling with a chill that the thief felt in his backbone, "we wait."