Disclaimer: I do not own any of the recognizable characters; I am only borrowing them for fun for a little while. They belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha.
All conversation is assumed to be in Sindarin. Any conversation that is in italics is in Westron, the common tongue of Middle-earth.
Many thanks to my Beta Readers – J. and Marsha.
All conversation is assumed to be in Sindarin. Any conversation that is in italics is in Westron, the common tongue of Middle-earth.
Estel joined his uncle and the rest of the men of the village at a table across the room from the prisoners, ignoring the glares and muttered comments the bandits made as he walked past. Sitting down with a weary sigh, he looked from Ladreníl to his uncle. “Did they cause any problems while we were gone?”
“None that we couldn’t handle, my lord,” Ladreníl replied, staring at Estel with his one good eye, but giving no other details.
He waited a moment for more information, but when none of the men spoke up, Estel decided it was not worth pursuing and that he would speak to Halhigal later. “I see. Did Nestad tell you what we found?” There were grimaces and scowls from the others and Estel was relieved that he would not have to give the details. “Good, thank you, Nestad. Now, I want them out of our village and on the way to Bree first thing in the morning.”
“You are determined to let the men in Bree judge them, then, Aragorn?” Halhigal interrupted him quietly.
“Yes, I had thought to do that. Is that not what my father would have done? Or my grandfather?”
“Yes, but we’ve never caught any this far away from Bree before… not in my memory.” Halhigal looked at Sírdhim and Mellonar, the oldest men there and they both shook their heads. “It is just a long journey and they are difficult men at best and with five of them…,” he shook his head.
Glancing over at the bandits, Estel saw that all five men were watching them and obviously trying to understand what they were saying. “How many men will we need, do you think?”
“At least four.”
“Four?” Estel looked at Nestad with a question in his eyes.
“After what I saw last night, my lord, four is necessary.”
“I agree.” Gilost surprised Estel by speaking up. “After the trouble we had with them yesterday and the way that man attacked Eradan, I believe we need four. It is a long way to Bree, my lord, and we may run into other trouble along the way.”
Staring down at the table, his brow furrowed in thought, Estel considered the men he had in the village. “We cannot leave the village without enough men to feed everyone and to provide some protection from orcs,” he mused quietly, rubbing his hand along his bearded chin as he thought aloud. No one spoke as they gave him time to come to a decision. “Well, Halbarad and Gilost will come with me and,” he glanced around the table at the men wondering if it would be best if he took Nestad or Halhigal or even young Eradan, but he quickly dismissed that thought. “Halhigal will be the fourth member. I think, Ladreníl that Nestad and Eradan can supply enough meat to get by. Some of the older boys will also be able to help. Certainly Alvist and Rosruin are becoming capable hunters and could be trusted to go out.”
“I can hunt, my lord,” Mellonar offered gruffly.
Estel nodded his thanks. “Now we need to…” He was interrupted by a very hesitant Ladreníl.
“My lord, I think if would be better if Nestad went with you and Halhigal stayed here.” At Estel’s surprised, questioning look, Ladreníl continued. “You’ve appointed him your regent and if something happened to you then we will need him. If you two are traveling together there is a chance that both of you could be killed and then where would the Dúnedain be?” He watched his Chieftain’s face darken and wondered if he had overstepped his bounds, yet believed he was right.
“Are you saying that I can never ride out with my uncle again? Not have him show me the other villages of our people?” Estel was shocked at the very idea. He intended to ride around to the other villages as soon as he returned. He depended on Halhigal for his wisdom and guidance and he wanted… needed him by his side when he visited those villages.
“That’s my advice, my lord. I think it’s best for our people,” Ladreníl stared down at the table briefly and looked up and met Estel’s eyes again. “I know you depend on him,” he swallowed hard, wondering once again if he had said too much, but he had started and knew he had to finish. “But, you also seem to look to others for counsel,” he glanced at Nestad, who he knew his Chieftain was close to. “Forgive me, my lord, if I’ve said too much, but I felt it needed to be said.”
Estel slowly shook his head as he studied the older man, seeing his uneasiness and he knew he needed to be careful if he did not want to prevent Ladreníl from freely offering his counsel in the future. He did value it… most of the time. “There is nothing to forgive, Ladreníl,” he finally said quietly. “Whether I agree with you or not, whether I choose to follow your counsel or not,” Estel shifted his gaze to each of the other men at the table before returning to Ladreníl. “I still want to hear it. It does me little good to have men around me… men I trust and then not listen to their honest opinions and counsel.” His voice changed slightly, became a little sterner, “Though, I need to weigh that counsel and make the decision that I deem is best for our people and I do expect you and everyone else to support me in whatever that decision might be.”
“Yes, of course, my lord,” Ladreníl said and there murmurs of agreement from the others and Estel saw approval in his uncle’s eyes.
“Now, in this situation,” Estel paused and looked briefly at Halhigal but he could not tell what his uncle was thinking. “I need some time to think about it because right now my heart says you are wrong, Ladreníl, and that it will be all right if Uncle Halhigal rides with me and the others to Bree. I intended to take him with me to the other villages later this spring as well. But I have never before considered what you just mentioned and perhaps you are right. I think in this I need a little time to make my decision because if I decide that you are right, it will change many things… many plans that I had for the both of us.”
“I understand that, my Lord Aragorn,” Ladreníl gave him a respectful nod and Estel looked around at the rest of the men.
“Do any of you have any thoughts on the matter?”
“I agree with Ladreníl, my lord,” Nestad said with an understanding smile. “Especially as you usually have Halbarad with you.” He continued at Estel’s puzzled look. “I assume that someday you intend to have Halbarad step in for his father.” Estel gave a small nod, not at all surprised at the healer’s perceptiveness. “Then it is not wise to have all three of you traveling the wilds together… no matter how good you are with your weapons.”
“I will take that into consideration as well,” said Estel, knowing even as he said it that the decision had already been made, that both men were right and he felt a sharp pain in his heart. Still, he looked around at the other men to see if they had anything to add and when none spoke he turned back to the original discussion of getting the bandits to Bree. He asked a couple of men to arrange for food for the journey and to check and see what the bandits had in their saddlebags to make sure that they did not have to stop and hunt on the way to Bree. They would purchase food for their return, though Estel was also considering seeking out some of the patrols that were stationed in that area and they could hunt if they were going to be gone longer.
Estel turned to the next question on his mind. “Did anyone go through the things that were on the packhorses? Did you find anything that might help us find out who those families were?”
Halhigal nodded, “We did, Aragorn, though I doubt that everything on those horses was from just those two wagons. There were too many similar things that I think they took from several different raids. But there are no letters or anything like that.”
Nestad gave a disdainful snort, “They probably can’t even read.” The men laughed quietly.
“But,” Halhigal continued, “there are several pieces of jewelry and other items that would probably be recognized by family or neighbors of those people.”
“Good. I would like the families of those people to know what happened to them if it is possible. Hopefully the people in Bree will recognize these things and return it to any surviving kin.”
“If they were from Bree,” Ladreníl reminded him and Estel nodded.
“And, if you can trust those Bree-landers to not just take the jewelry as their own,” Sírdhim sneered, remembering his past experiences in the village.
“Would they truly do that?” He answered his own question with a scowl, “I suppose they would.”
Halhigal bit back a smile at his nephew’s naiveté, though he supposed he should not be surprised considering his lack of exposure to the world of men beyond the confines of the Dúnedain villages. Well, he would learn very quickly. “Yes, Aragorn they would… some of them would,” he clarified. “There are many, many honorable men and woman outside the race of the Dúnedain. But there are those,” he gestured to the bandits behind him, “that are wicked and full of hate and others that are simply petty and grasping in nature and would take advantage of an opportunity like this and would seek to take what is not theirs.”
“We also have our full share of men and women who are petty,” Nestad commented. “Although, I am not suggesting that they take what is not theirs,” he added as an afterthought.
No one argued with his statement.
“Is there anything else?” Estel waited and stood when there was no response. “Oh, I did have one other concern,” he said before they walked away. “I do not think it wise to use my real name in front of these men. Great trouble was taken to keep me hidden from the enemy and it seems foolish to name me openly now. But…” he shrugged. Estel watched concerned looks flash between the men.
“You’re right, Ar…,” Halhigal said, frowning. “I wouldn’t be wise to call you that in front of others nor to give your title. Though, as we are speaking Sindarin I doubt any would know it.”
Ladreníl shook his head, “We cannot take that risk.”
“Perhaps we can call you ‘Captain’ in the presence of others,” Gilost suggested. “It’s what we call the patrol leaders and if others understood Sindarin or if we called you that in common then they would think you were just an ordinary leader of our people.”
Estel nodded his approval and looked at the other men who gave their own nods. With that decided, Estel left the Hall, once again ignoring the bandits. He feared that he could not speak to them yet without losing control of his temper so he decided to put it off until later. There was no pressing need to speak with them now, they would have days together and he could find out any information he needed from them during that time.
As Estel stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine and headed for home, Halhigal and Halbarad fell in alongside him. “Ladreníl and Nestad are right, are they not?” he asked quietly, glancing at his uncle.
Halhigal sighed, fixing his eyes on the far wall of the stockade. “Yes, they are, Aragorn, much as it pains me to admit it. I wanted to be the one to introduce you to the rest of our people, to be at your side as you learn more of the ways of the Dúnedain. But Ladreníl is right and our duty to our people must be put above our personal desires.”
“What about Halbarad? Should he ride with me?” Estel stared at the ground as he walked, ignoring Halbarad’s sharp indrawn breath. He knew that question needed to be answered, though it was not one that he could answer himself, it would have to be decided by someone he trusted.
“I think that as long as I’m alive there is no reason for him not to ride with you. You have him at your side in meetings so that he can learn from you and I see riding with you as no different.”
Halbarad grinned in relief, “Besides you need someone to look after you, Aragorn. Someone has to make sure you don’t starve when all you bring down are these very small deer.”
Estel stopped with his hand on the door of the house and looked back at his cousin with narrowed eyes. “Perhaps I will take Eradan with me tomorrow instead of you.”
Halbarad simply laughed, “He brings in larger bucks than I do most of the time, so at least you’ll be well fed.”
Sighing with resignation, Estel shook his head and pushed open the door deciding that any more words on the subject would only serve to annoy him further.
The bandits were hauled out to the horses one at a time, blindfolded once again – Estel did not want them knowing the way to the village on the off chance that they escaped or had time to speak with anyone in Bree before they were, in all likelihood, executed. Only Galt, who had to be gagged once again, and one other man struggled against Gilost and Halbarad who had to drag them from the building before hoisting them into the saddle and securing them tightly with stout rope. Estel stood off to the side keeping one eye on things as he spoke with Halhigal and Nestad.
“If the patrols start coming in before I return, go ahead and make the changes we discussed earlier. You may lead one of the patrols now instead of assigning one of the other men as we had decided.”
Halhigal nodded absently, his eyes focused on the loading of the horses. His gaze suddenly shifted to Estel. “Be very careful in Bree and do not stay there overlong.” He glanced at Nestad who nodded imperceptibly.
Estel gave him a thoughtful look, “Do you have the gift of foresight as well, Uncle?”
“No. But I know Bree and I know someplace so different might cause both you and my son to want to stay longer than would be wise. There are rough men there and while I do not, of course, doubt your skill… or Halbarad’s… it is best to be involved with them as little as possible. They will only see your youth. In their eyes you appear much younger and they may try and goad you into a fight to rob you. It has happened before.”
“I see,” Estel replied, staring at the ground for a moment before looking back up at his uncle. “I am inexperienced, but I am not a fool, Uncle. Nor,” he glanced at Nestad, “do I need a keeper. However, I will remember you words and will not stay in Bree longer than necessary. But those people, and all the scattered peoples of Arnor, are also part of my responsibility, else why do we guard them? It is a different responsibility than what it is for the Dúnedain, but it is there, Uncle. And, after yesterday I believe I need to learn at least a little bit about those men and women. But I will be careful, both for myself and for those in my company.”
“Forgive me, my lord. I did not mean to suggest that you needed someone to watch over you, but only to remind you of the… differences between us and the people of the Bree-lands and the other villages that dot the landscape of Eriador.” Halhigal voice was quiet, but his eyes were grave as he looked as his nephew.
“I do understand that and, as I said, I will be careful. I will,” Estel glanced sidelong at Nestad, “listen to his counsel. You know that I do not take what you or Nestad say lightly. But I will also do the things I must to learn about the people there.” He gazed steadily at Halhigal with a slight frown, wondering why he was being so persistent when he knew that he did not take risks needlessly.
“Will you excuse us for a moment, Nestad?” Halhigal asked the healer who nodded and walked over to where the others were now waiting, the bandits on their horses. Halhigal looked back at Estel and sighed deeply. “I’m sorry, Aragorn. I think that it concerns me more than I realized to not be going with you, as if I could protect you when you do not need my protection.”
“Perhaps it is also the fact that Halbarad is leaving, Uncle Halhigal.”
“Perhaps. But it is time for him to go and I have long known that this day would come. I think that with you,” he sighed, “it is more that I fear to lose another Chieftain.” Halhigal paused and gave Estel a small smile, “Well, and my nephew, of course. I didn’t mean to discount what you’ve come to mean to me personally as my sister’s son.”
“I know you did not,” Estel replied with his own smile. “You will have to trust me in this and as we have decided that you cannot accompany me, then you will also have to trust the other men that I travel with.”
“I do,” he glanced over to where the men were patiently waiting and he reached out and clasped Estel’s arm tightly. “May the Valar keep you safe, Aragorn.”
Murmuring his thanks and his good-bye, Estel walked over and joined the waiting men. He thanked Alvist for holding his horse before he checked the saddle and bridle and pulled himself into the saddle, carefully maneuvering his legs under the long ropes that ran from his pommel to the pommels of three of the bandit’s horses. Gilost was to lead them this first day and he did not have any prisoners or packhorses tied to his horse so that at least one of them would be completely free of burdens. As Estel settled into the saddle he gave him a nod and the Ranger led the small company out of the village.
Gilost led them north and west, once again skirting around the marshland and then picked up a trail heading west. The woods they were riding through became more and more open the further west they traveled as they rode up and down gently rolling downs and through rock strewn areas. They planned to ride west for several days before heading north to continue their journey to Bree on the Great East Road. By staying off the road for a few days they would be able to avoid coming too close to the Trollshaws. Though no trolls had been seen for over ten years, it was still an area the Rangers avoided.
An hour or so after noon Estel called a halt for lunch near a small stream. The day, which had started out overcast and dreary, had changed and the clouds drifting away had left the sky a brilliant blue. The sun reflected brightly back off the sparkling stream as they dismounted close to its bank.
The prisoners were carefully helped down from their horses by Estel, Gilost, and Halbarad while Nestad covered them with an arrow nocked. Deciding they were far enough away from the village, Estel removed the blindfolds and the men blinked and cursed at the bright light that suddenly hit them and which they could do little to block with their hands tied. Once the bandits were all sitting on the ground, a good five feet between them, Halbarad handed out bread and a thin strip of dried meat to each of them, which they were able to eat even with their hands tied. Estel decided that he needed to speak with them about their journey and to find out the names of the other three men.
Standing in front of the bandits, Estel studied them as he chewed on his own meat and bread. Only Galt and the man that had struggled so hard earlier when they were putting them on the horses could meet his eyes for more than a few seconds and even those two ducked their heads quite quickly. Wiping his hands off on his leggings as soon as he finished his lunch, Estel began speaking in a low voice that was cold, stern, and unyielding.
“You are being taken to Bree where we will let the people of that village judge and punish you for your brutal misdeeds.” The men shifted uneasily, their face’s paling and Galt started to speak but the look of cold, contained fury on Estel’s face stopped him. “I will not tolerate any disobedience from you as we journey and I expect you to follow my commands as well as the commands of any of my men. You will not be mistreated as long as you follow our rules. Do you understand?” There were nods, some very hesitant ones.
“If you try to escape, you will be caught and shot. Each of us is an excellent tracker and archer. Do you understand?” Again they nodded, much more quickly this time, having seen the previous day how quickly their friend had been shot.
“You will never be untied more than one at a time. I can think of no reason that there would ever be a need to do so. Now, I need to know the names of the rest of you.” Estel pointed to the man who, along with Galt, had caused the most trouble earlier in the day.
“Dale Sundew,” he spat out, his eyes furious.
Estel stared at him with his eyes narrowed, his grey eyes piercing and the man dropped his gaze almost immediately. He watched the bandit for another minute as he remembered from his studies that the people in the Bree area had two names and the last one was some type of plant related name. Estel shook himself from his musings and turned to the next man who quickly answered his unspoken request.
“Kenrick Hosta, sir,” he stared down at the ground again. Estel thought he was probably the closest in age to Will, but he simply turned an inquiring eye to the last man.
“Beck Nightshade,” he scowled for a moment and then looked off into the woods.
“Will, what is the rest of your name?”
Galt glared angrily at Estel and then he finally lowered his head as he mumbled his response, “Thornapple.”
Nodding, Estel was turning to speak with Halbarad when Will spoke up, “S-sir? W-what do we call you?”
Estel looked at his Rangers. “Should I tell them our names? Will it matter?” Halbarad and Gilost shrugged and after a moments thought, Nestad did the same. Estel turned back to Will who was looking quite anxious. “You may call me Captain. Halbarad, Gilost, Nestad,” Estel pointed to each in turn. “We need to leave; we have a long way to travel.”
Again Nestad stood back and watched intently as each man was put on his horse and tied. Galt was last and Estel motioned for Gilost and Halbarad to grab the large man and haul him to his feet while he stepped back with his hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword.
“Scared of me, are ya?” Galt snarled at Estel, spitting in his general direction. To Estel’s utter astonishment, Gilost backhanded Galt, splitting his lip and leaving a trail of blood across the bandit’s face. Never would he have thought the normally easy-going Gilost capable of doing such a thing. Though he knew the Ranger, like all of them, had been pushed very near the limits of his self-control yesterday after seeing what these bandits had done.
“Gilost!” Estel called sharply. “We will not treat him or any of them that way… unless they are attempting to escape or physically attacking one of us.” He ignored the cries of protest and anger from the prisoners on the horses, seeing that Nestad had them covered with his bow.
“Forgive me, my… Captain. But I can’t just stand here and let him speak of you that way nor let him spit at you.” Gilost looked at his Chieftain without a trace of remorse, his anger at what the men had done to the innocent travelers very near the surface and Galt’s comment and actions just added to that.
Estel nodded in acceptance of the apology, though he did note that Gilost’s eyes were gleaming with satisfaction as he began to move Galt, who was cursing under his breath, towards his horse. “Get him some water and cloth to wipe off his mouth before you put him on the horse.”
“Yer men are vicious, Captain,” Galt started in again as soon as he had spit the blood from his mouth, but subsided quickly as Gilost gave him a hard stare as he returned with the water. Thrusting it at the bandit, who took it awkwardly in his tied hands, Gilost stood towering over the man and waited for him to clean himself off before he and Halbarad took him to his horse.
Galt did not resist this time, though Estel could hear him muttering under his breath. He turned and gave Nestad an inquiring look as he wondered if he needed to say anything further to Gilost, but the healer just shook his head. Retrieving his horse Estel retightened the girth straps and checked the bit before mounting. As they rode on into the afternoon, Estel realized that this journey was going to be a lot longer than he had first thought.
They stopped for the night in a hollow bordered by trees that Gilost led them to. Again Nestad stood guard as they got the bandits down and Estel was beginning to see how long of a process this was going to take everyday and he wondered if they could come up with some other way to deal with it. Though he doubted they could ever trust any of the men enough to let them mount their horses by themselves. Probably less so the closer they got to Bree and the bandit’s desperation grew. They then had eleven horses to care for as well as setting up the camp and fixing a meal. As soon as the men were on the ground and tied to trees, Estel set Nestad to work on making supper while he, Gilost, and Halbarad started in on the horses.
“We should have brought Alvist and Rosruin with us… Captain,” Halbarad commented as he started stripping the tack from a second horse.
Glancing up from where he was brushing off another horse, Estel grinned as he replied, “I did suggest bringing Eradan along instead of you. He would not have complained… Ranger.” Halbarad grinned in return and turned back to the horse. Estel glanced briefly at Gilost who had been quiet since the break for lunch and he wondered what was going through his mind. He found out as they finished with the horses and began setting up the tent that the Rangers would share.
“My lord,” Gilost whispered.
Estel looked up from where he was crouched down tying off a corner of the tent and saw that Gilost’s eyes were full of regret and shame and Estel finished what he was doing and stood up. “Yes?”
“I truly am sorry for striking Galt, my lord. I shouldn’t have let him get to me like that and I want you to know that it won’t happen again.”
“I am sure it will not.” Estel gave him a long, searching look, “I do understand how you feel, Gilost, and I have been tempted to hit him myself. But you know we cannot, it is not right to do so. It will not bring them back,” he added softly. Gilost nodded and looked off into the woods with a long drawn out sigh. Estel touched his arm and the Ranger looked back at him. “We need to finish getting the tent up before it gets dark.” He knew that there was nothing more that needed to be said, that Gilost would never again strike Galt, or any of the men without true cause.
The bandit’s hands were untied so that they could eat the stew that Nestad had made, though Halbarad watched them closely and their feet remained tied to a tree. After supper their hands were retied and they were given a blanket that, along with the nearby fire, would keep them warm through the night. Estel set the watches so that two of the Rangers were up for half of the night while the other two slept and he and Halbarad slipped into the tent for their four hours of sleep. Nestad woke them around midnight and, yawning and rubbing the sleep from their eyes, the two young men stumbled out to the low burning fire.
“Have they been quiet?” Nestad and Gilost nodded at Estel’s question and headed into the tent. Halbarad took off to make a wide circle of the camp while Estel checked the prisoners, studying the ropes – what he could see of them in the dim light, but none appeared to have been tampered with and he retreated back to the warmth of the fire.
“I didn’t see or sense anything,” Halbarad reported as he joined Estel at the fire, both of them facing the sleeping men. He took out his pipe and began filling it, giving Estel a questioning glance as he did so. But Estel shook his head and looked up at the stars which were shimmering brightly in the late night sky. His thoughts were drawn briefly to Arwen as they often were when he looked at the stars and he wondered if she had returned to Lothlórien or still remained in Imladris. Estel pulled himself from his thoughts and looked back down at the ground.
A couple of hours before dawn, Estel nudged Halbarad and indicated the bandits where one of them was starting to stir. They watched him carefully and he suddenly sat straight up, his eyes wide and fearful. It was Will. Exchanging a grimace with Halbarad, Estel slowly got to his feet and crossed to the man, crouching down alongside him. “Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
Will did not look up but simply nodded his head when he replied, “I’m f-fine, sir. It… it was just a bad dream.” He glanced up, relaxing slightly at the unexpected compassion he saw in the captain’s face.
“I see. Well, you should try and get some more sleep; it will be another long day.” Estel started to move when Will spoke again.
“S-sir? Are we going to be… am I going to die?” he finally whispered.
“It is not in my hands to decide on your punishment, Will. But based on what happened to those families,” Estel’s eyes hardened and Will dropped his gaze and shuddered. “I would think so. What do you think would be an appropriate punishment for men who did something like that to innocent men, women, and children?” he asked softly.
Will shrugged as he replied in a low voice, “I don’t k-know. I don’t want to… die,” he choked out.
“Then you should not have joined these men,” Estel replied sternly. He tried to keep the image of the murdered families, as horrific as it was, in mind as he talked to Will. This man’s youth and fear was pulling at his compassionate nature and he needed to remind himself that Will had helped to kill those people.
“I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice, Will. Always.”
“I-I had no f-food… no money and I was starving and-and Galt said they w-would t-take care of me. I didn’t know,” he said bitterly.
“Were you in Bree?” Will nodded. “And no one helped you or you could not find work… even to be paid in food?”
“I asked in a f-few places and n-no one would take me. T-they were leaving town and-and so I left with them,” he mumbled.
“You had your horse?” Estel asked sharply and Will looked up, puzzled, as he slowly nodded his head and Estel sighed deeply.
“There was a choice you could have made. You could have sold your horse and had enough money to live on for quite some time. Long enough to find a decent job.”
“B-but I love my horse and…”
Estel interrupted him. “And look what it has cost you. Go to sleep, Will.” Shaking his head in dismay, Estel arose and went back to the fire, sitting down next to Halbarad with a groan. “Did you hear any of that?” he asked his cousin.
“No, your voices were too low.”
Estel quickly told him what Will had said and Halbarad shook his head sadly. “I wonder what brought him to the place where he had no food,” he said as Estel finished.
“He did not say and I did not ask. I wonder if all of them have similar tales,” he mused as he looked over their sleeping forms. “That… Kenrick seems not quite as hard and calloused as the other three.”
“He is still young… not much older than Will, I think. And, yet both of them have been in on at least one of these raids, probably more,” Halbarad said broodingly. He shook his head, “I suppose it does not matter how or why they got to this point, they will be dead in a couple of weeks for the things they have done.”
“Yes, they will.”
They fell silent then and the rest of the night passed without much speech between them. It was well before dawn and still dark when they woke up Gilost and Nestad to begin another long day on the trail.
Estel was leading them along the road late in the afternoon on the fourth day out from Dolomar when they approached the Last Bridge that spanned the River Hoarwell. The large stone bridge had been built by elves many centuries past and he looked it over curiously as they crossed, having heard tales of its building when he was a child. The land they were riding through was filled with ancient stone ruins that they caught glimpses of through the evergreen trees and thick brush as they rode past and Estel thought of the great kingdoms and battles that had taken place here so long ago.
The sky was full of dark clouds and it had rained hard, though briefly, earlier in the afternoon. Now, though, the dark clouds just cast a pall over the men as they rode through the gloom caused by the clouds and towering trees. Estel began looking for a place to stop for the night before the twilight deepened further.
“Captain,” Nestad’s voice called to him from behind and Estel twisted in his saddle and looked back at the healer. Once they had begun traveling on the road, they had changed the way the prisoners were harnessed together. Now they were strung out in one long line with one packhorse between Galt and Beck and the other between Beck and Dale to keep the bandits that caused the most trouble apart from each other. Will and Kenrick rode behind Dale. At the front of the line, Galt’s horse was tied to Halbarad’s while Nestad and Gilost rode alongside the prisoners or dropped back as needed.
“What is it, Nestad?” Estel heard the concern in the healer’s voice and he scanned their surroundings with narrowed eyes trying to see what caused Nestad’s uneasiness. Gilost and Halbarad also began looking back and the horses, picking up on their masters’ unease, began to dance nervously under their riders causing the prisoners to curse as they had no means of bringing them under control. Estel turned and rode back to Nestad, motioning Halbarad to keep the bandits moving.
Nestad shifted uneasily in his saddle and glanced back once again to where he thought he had seen a glimpse of something in the woods. Something was wrong, though he could not define it, but he had been a Ranger for far too long to not trust his instincts. “Captain, we need to get off the road,” he said urgently, looking over at Estel with troubled eyes.
Estel did not hesitate, he trusted Nestad and while he did not see anything, something did feel off to him as well. He looked around and a short distance ahead of them and to the right of the road the ground started gradually climbing before rather abruptly taking a sharp upward turn before leveling off again some twenty feet above the road. Estel could not tell how wide the ledge might be because of the trees covering it, but he could not see an end to it from where he sat his horse. It appeared to be about forty yards long before it abruptly dropped off again on the west side. Feeling it was the best protection they would find in the short time they had, for at least they would have the upper hand and could shoot down on anyone who might attack them, he motioned to the area and Nestad nodded.
Cantering back to the front of the line, Estel spoke to Halbarad, glancing back at Galt and the other bandits as he did so. “Something is wrong. We are going to seek safety up in that area,” he pointed it out to Halbarad who simply nodded and urged his horse into a canter.
“What’s wrong?” Galt cried, struggling against his bonds and trying to see over his shoulder. His men followed suit. Estel ignored them and turned to Gilost.
“Gilost, ride ahead and see if it is safe.” The Ranger nodded and galloped ahead. Estel kept one eye on Gilost and the other back towards Nestad as he rode half turned in his saddle. He saw that it was a struggle for Gilost to get his horse up the slope, especially at the top, and he worried about trying to get the bandits up it without them having the use of their hands to guide and encourage their horses. Just as they reached the spot where Gilost had left the road their fears were suddenly realized. Two hundred yards back down the road a large troop of orcs came storming out of the woods.
Estel swore softly under his breath.
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