Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Summary: The Rangers are expecting a new weapons master. When he arrives, they find him not quite what they bargained for.
Many thanks to my wonderful beta, Calenlass, for her patient work on this, and to Silivren Tinu for the invaluable loan of Tuilinn. *hugs*
Part I: An Unusual Man
A Settlement of the Dúnedain in Eriador
"Why is he not here yet?" one of the boys demanded.
For what he was certain was at least the fiftieth time that evening, Thandraug explained. "He is coming from very far away. He lives in one of the outlying villages. He may have been delayed on the road."
"But Lord Aragorn is here already!" another boy protested. "And he said he would come at the end of next week to see how far we had progressed. If the new weapons master does not arrive today, we will not have time to learn anything to show him!"
"Lord Aragorn will understand better than any other that unexpected things may happen on a long journey."
"Have you ever met him, Master Thandraug?"
"Your new weapons master?" Thandraug asked. "No. My travelling days ended a very long time ago." He indicated his left leg. A hunting accident when he had been no more than twenty had left him with a bad limp, incapable of the speed and stealth necessary for the Rangers who patrolled the borders of Eriador. "I am told he is a valiant warrior and a fine swordsman. I expect you will enjoy his lessons."
"There!" one of the boys said suddenly, pointing. A lone rider was coming up the road, looking around as though uncertain where to go.
"Do you think that is the weapons master? He is a little slender to be a swordsman," Thandraug commented. "But perhaps he only seems so when he is riding. One of you had better go and show him the way here."
On the word, no fewer than half a dozen boys vaulted over the fence and ran down the road to the rider. Thandraug watched with amusement as they waylaid him. Without explaining anything or giving him the chance to speak, two of them seized his horse's bridle. At first the horse set its ears back, refusing to move, but a touch from its master calmed it and it allowed the boys to lead it in the direction of the training field.
Thandraug swung open the gate so that the horse could enter.
The rider dismounted as soon as he was through the gate. He reached up to soothe the horse. The presence of the boys seemed to be making it skittish, although Thandraug could not imagine why. Any horse bred in a Ranger settlement was accustomed to children. The boys, at a gesture from Thandraug, scattered, to make it easier for the newcomer to settle the animal.
Thandraug took the opportunity to study the new weapons master. He was indeed as slender as he had appeared, making the Dúnadan wonder how he could possibly stand up to the rigours of Ranger life. His bright golden hair was bound in warrior braids after the Elven fashion, which, with the sons of Elrond frequent visitors to the various settlements in Eriador, had been adopted by many of the younger Rangers. He carried a bow, a quiver and two hunting knives in a sheath on his back. He wore a light cloak with the hood halfway up, but other than that he had no protection against the cold, which was biting enough that even Lord Aragorn and the most hardened Rangers were wearing heavy coats.
Once the horse had settled down, the young man turned to Thandraug.
"I hope you will excuse the rough greeting," Thandraug said, holding out his hand. "You must be Suiadan."
"Oh. Well, then, I suppose I must be," the young man said, grasping Thandraug's hand with the unsure clasp of one doing it for the first time. Something about his speech struck Thandraug as odd, although he could not determine what it was. "I fear I do not know who you are."
"I am Thandraug. I am responsible for the other aspects of the boys' training."
"Oh," The young man repeated. There was a pause before he went on, again with that unusual intonation. "Do you know why I am here? I believe they forgot to tell me when I left."
Thandraug frowned. Halbarad had spoken highly of Suiadan's skill with all types of weapons and of his proven ability as a tactician and a battle strategist; that was why Thandraug had specifically asked for him. Surely Halbarad had not recommended an idiot?
"I was given to understand that you were coming to teach the young men how to fight," he said a little stiffly. "That was what Lord Aragorn told me, at any rate."
"And of course Lord Aragorn is never wrong, so that must be why I am here. Thank you so much."
Thandraug's doubts were growing stronger by the minute.
"Are you certain? You seem a little... young... to be a weapons master."
"That is a trick of the light," Suiadan explained blithely. "I am old enough to be twenty weapons masters. At least. How old does one have to be in order to be a weapons master?"
"There is not a specified age," Thandraug explained, feeling more and more as though he had wandered into some strange dream. "It is expected that you will have many years of battle experience. That is necessary in order to teach the young what they need to know."
"I think I can safely assure you that I do not lack battle experience. When do I begin?"
"As soon as you are able – tomorrow, perhaps? You will definitely need rest today. You have had a long journey. I will show you where you can eat and sleep."
"I ate on the way," Suiadan said calmly. "And I am not in the least tired. We can begin now."
Thandraug opened his mouth to protest, gave up the idea, and closed it again. "Very well," he said weakly. "If you are certain that you do not need rest, we will begin now. There are still several hours until dusk."
"What happens at dusk?"
"Unless we have a night training session planned, we send the boys to their homes to dine and sleep. Is this not the way things are done in your village?"
Suiadan nodded enthusiastically.
"Of course. I am so sorry. I forgot. The boys must sleep. I imagine I will have to, as well."
"That would be advisable," Thandraug managed to say. "Your days will be rigorous. Let me show you where you can stable your horse. Your quarters are near Lord Halbarad's, and so is the stable."
"Lord Halbarad uses that stable for his horse?"
"We all do. There is only one stable, but it is more than large enough for our needs. Even Lord Aragorn keeps his horse there."
"Oh." Suiadan seemed to consider this for a moment. "I think my horse would be happier outdoors. He does not like stables. They are too... too hot. And they smell of hay." With that extraordinary pronouncement, Suiadan turned to his horse and rubbed its muzzle. Thandraug noticed for the first time that the horse had no saddle. All Suiadan had with him was in a small pack he carried. "You can go where you like, Tuilinn, but stay close enough for me to call you. And keep out of the way."
Suiadan uttered the last few words with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, one Thandraug would have sworn the horse returned. With a shake of his head, he cantered away.
"I do not know if anybody told you," Thandraug said cautiously, eyeing the little pack, "but winters can get very cold here. You will have to wrap up well. Perhaps they are milder in your part of Eriador? I would be happy to lend you any warm clothing you need."
"I was warned of the cold," Suiadan said. "I have brought an extra cloak."
"An extra cloak," Thandraug repeated faintly. "I see. Do you have your sword in that as well?"
"I am expected to carry a sword?"
"We were told that it was your favoured weapon. I had hoped that you would help the boys..."
"In that case I shall, of course, teach the boys to use the sword. My father insists that I am an appalling swordsman, but you must not take his word for it. I doubt he would say so to you, anyway. He is always wary in the presence of strangers."
"But," Thandraug said, ignoring most of Suiadan's words, "where is your sword?"
"Ah, yes, my sword. I... I lost my sword on the journey. Men lose things." Suiadan nodded, as though confirming something to himself. "I only lost my sword. I have known men to lose larger things than swords."
"... And then he said he would use his hunting knives to spar with the boys. His hunting knives."
The group of men around the small fire chuckled, and one of them said, "If he is that strange, why do you not tell Lord Aragorn or Lord Halbarad? They can send for somebody else."
"Because he is a skilled warrior," Thandraug admitted. "I saw that much today. What can I complain to Lord Aragorn about? That he only wears a light cloak while the rest of us are in eight layers of clothing? That he ate an alarmingly little amount of dinner before declaring himself full?" He took a swig from his mug of ale. "Lord Aragorn will consider those frivolous complaints. I will be the one in trouble."
"Perhaps he has taken an injury to the head," another man suggested. "That can make people behave oddly. There have been reports of landslides to the east. He may have been caught in one on his journey."
"That is possible," Thandraug said thoughtfully. "I must ask him if he is injured."
Suiadan, sitting in his quarters, was writing a letter by lamplight.
... You were right. They are strange in this part of Eriador. They have been spending the past two hours sitting by their campfires – I am surprised they have not roasted themselves by now – drinking their ale. Voluntarily drinking that ale.
I have not yet met Lord Aragorn, which is all to the good. I do not know how long I will be able to keep this up. I was told he was expecting me...
"Some consider the sword an unwieldy weapon," Suiadan said, standing before the boys and Thandraug in the grey pre-dawn light, twirling one of his knives idly in his left hand. "Some consider that only fools, Men and Noldor use the sword."
"Is that not a saying common among the archers of Mirkwood, Master Suiadan?" one of the boys asked.
To Thandraug's surprise, the briefest of frowns flickered across Suiadan's face. It was the first time he had seen the young Ranger displeased. But the expression was gone so quickly he thought he must have imagined it.
"Yes," Suiadan said, his voice just as light as it had been earlier. "That is a saying common among the archers of... Mirkwood. Of course, this does not prevent their weapons masters from insisting that they learn the sword... That, however, is neither here nor there, since I have been told that I must teach you both the sword and the bow. Thandraug tells me that we need more light for archery practice, so we will begin with the sword. Would somebody like to spar with me?"
The oldest of the boys stepped forward.
"Are you sure you would not like to use my sword?" Thandraug asked. The boy was not quite as tall as Suiadan, but he was considerably broader. Thandraug did not want to see the young weapons master lose to brute force, as was certain to happen if he faced the boy armed with no more than a pair of hunting knives.
"That will not be necessary," Suiadan said, smiling. He picked up the other knife. "I am not as inept with the blades as my father believes." He turned his smile on the student, who looked suddenly nervous. "Come."
Thandraug had to admit that he was impressed. Suiadan's technique was unconventional, but effective. He moved almost too quickly for Thandraug to follow. None of the boys managed to get past his defences. Thandraug's lack of battle experience made it impossible for him to guess where Suiadan had trained, but he had evidently had a good teacher.
The sun was high in the sky when Thandraug, realizing that Suiadan was not going to tire, called a halt to the exercises and sent the boys to an early lunch, which would be followed by a couple of hours of indoor lessons before they returned for archery practice in the afternoon.
"We can eat now, as well," he told Suiadan as the boys ran off. "You will be welcome in my house – my wife would be happy to meet you."
"It would be my honour to meet your lady," Suiadan replied, inclining his head formally. "Perhaps I should return to my quarters to refresh myself first? I would not present myself to her in this uncouth state."
Thandraug looked at the young man, who had not even broken a sweat with all the morning's exertion. Every hair was still in place, held off his face by a broad leather band around his head and over his ears. His tunic was not crumpled, and his leggings and shoes had only a very light coating of dust from the ground.
"I would not describe your appearance as uncouth," he said finally. "I do not believe Vanyë will mind."
After a brief pause, during which he seemed to be struggling with himself, Suiadan nodded.
"If you think it best. I did not mean to offend. I must confess that many of your customs are still alien to me."
"Our customs? Surely your own are little different."
Suiadan flushed suddenly.
"Of course. Dúnedain have similar customs everywhere. It is just... geography. The weather. The weather causes differences. I have heard that it can get very hot in Harad."
"Your customs are influenced by the weather in Harad?"
The colour in the young Ranger's cheeks deepened to scarlet.
"No, I only meant that the Haradrim have different customs. They do not have Rangers in Harad, but if they did, their customs would be different. But they would still be Rangers. Haradrim Rangers, of course."
Thandraug decided, as he had decided countless times over the past day and a half, to pretend he had not heard that speech.
"If you wish, you may rest after lunch. You will want to be fresh to give the boys their archery lesson."
"I am not tired in the least. If I can be of service in some way..."
"If you desire," Thandraug said, resigned, "I can take you to Lord Aragorn. He always takes an interest in the training of the children. I am certain he would like to meet you. He might even have some suggestions for you."
"I would not like to disturb Lord Aragorn," Suiadan murmured. "I am certain he has much to do. Perhaps I will explore the forest."
Thandraug did not bother to offer the young man a guide. He had a strong feeling that such an offer would be rejected at once, and some plausible but highly irregular reason given. Not for the first time that day, he wished he knew why Lord Halbarad had spoken so highly of Suiadan. Lord Halbarad was not known to favour lunatics.
By this time they had reached the residential area of the settlement. Thandraug could see two figures standing outside his house, although they were still too far away for him to make out their faces. One, he supposed, must be his wife; he had no idea who the other might be.
He pointed the house out to Suiadan. For some reason, the sight of it seemed to make the other man nervous.
"It might be too much of an imposition on your lady," he said, sidling behind Thandraug. "I would not want to put her to any undue trouble. I am not very hungry in any case. Perhaps I should just retire to my quarters and... and... rest."
Since this was the first time the young Ranger was showing an inclination for repose, Thandraug was more than a little surprised. He was also slightly suspicious. In these dark days one could never be certain who might be a thief or a murderer or something even more unsavoury. It seemed absurd to associate treachery and dark deeds with the buoyant, incorrigibly enthusiastic young man beside him, but the fact remained that Suiadan was behaving strangely.
"My wife would be deeply disappointed if you did not come," he said gravely. "She considers it an honour to welcome guests to our home."
Suiadan responded without a moment's hesitation, making Thandraug feel ashamed of his suspicions.
"I should not dream of depriving your lady of any honour that is her due. I must once again ask your pardon if I gave offence, and assure you that none was meant."
He looked so woebegone at the thought that Thandraug hastened to say, "I am not offended at all, my friend. Shall we go? Vanyë will not soon forgive me if I keep you standing here instead of asking you inside." He led the way towards his house. When they drew close enough for him to be able to identify the person standing with his wife, he gave a startled exclamation. "That is Lord Halbarad! I do not know what he could want. I hope nothing has happened to my sons."
He quickened his step as much as his limp would allow.
Halbarad saw them coming and stepped forward to greet them.
"No, no, do not worry," he said at once, seeing Thandraug's anxious face. "Your children have suffered no injury. Forgive me. I did not wish to alarm you. I only wanted to speak to Suiadan, and I expected that you would bring him – you!"
Thandraug jumped. The last word had been uttered with a strange mixture of shock and bewilderment. Halbarad was openly staring at Suiadan, although he only looked surprised, not unwelcoming.
"Yes, my lord," Suiadan said. He sounded even more nervous than he had done earlier. "I... I was told to give the children basic weapons training, my lord."
"Oh." There was a pause. "You have changed a great deal since I saw you last." Suiadan flushed, but he did not reply. "Well... I am pleased to see you again, Master Suiadan. The children are fortunate to be able to learn from you. I will not take up too much of your time. I only wished to enquire whether you found the arrangements for your stay satisfactory."
"They are more than adequate, my lord. I slept in the greatest comfort last night." Thandraug thought he sounded far more grateful than a comfortable bedroom warranted.
For some reason, Halbarad's eyes flickered to a group of ash and beech trees behind the warriors' quarters before he replied, "I do not doubt it. Do not hesitate to let me know if there is something you need. Lord Aragorn, as you are no doubt aware, would be most seriously displeased if he found that you had wanted for anything during your stay."
"I will, my lord, I thank you."
"Then I will bid you farewell for the moment, Suiadan, Thandraug." Halbarad turned to the woman waiting in the doorway. "It was a pleasure to speak to you, Lady Vanyë." He walked a few steps in the direction of his own home, turned, and added, "I believe Lord Aragorn will be busy for the next few days. You may not be able to see him until the end of next week."
"Of course, my lord," Suiadan said. "I understand."
"I am going to see him now – I have a message to give him. He was expecting a visit from an old friend, but the friend appears to have been delayed on the road. Did you chance to see anything on your way here that might explain the delay?"
"The road appeared clear, my lord. Perhaps there were urgent affairs in his home?"
"Perhaps," Halbarad agreed. "I do hope he will arrive soon... I will leave you to your lunch now. Suiadan, once again, let me know at once if you are in any difficulty for any reason."
Suiadan inclined his head formally.
*offers Tuilinn apples and promises him more screen time in the next two chapters*
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