Halbarad was writing an entry in the logbook when his son Thorbarad stuck his head in the door and said, “Aragorn is here.”
Surprised, the chieftain’s lieutenant looked up, removed the pipe from his mouth, and said, “Aragorn? So soon?”
“He said he must see you at once. He’s stowing his gear. I told him where to find you.”
“All right. Fetch some ale. He’ll be thirsty.”
“Right away, father.”
He resumed writing, but was far from finished when the familiar long stride sounded in the hallway. Aragorn entered without knocking, sat down and began to prepare his pipe. His grey eyes were dark with worry and fatigue, his jaw set in a determination Halbarad knew well.
“I wasn’t expecting you till at least next week,” Halbarad said.
“A change of plans,” the chieftain answered, pausing to draw on the pipe and get a good light on the weed. “I must be off again in the morning. I’ll be heading across the mountains and expect to be gone through the spring at least.”
“Across the mountains? Why, are you going back to Gondor to challenge Denethor in his bastion?”
“Nothing so easy,” Aragorn quipped with a grim smile. “It’s urgent, and I’m here only to give you orders. We’ve got to double the guard on the Shire immediately.”
“Whatever for? We just increased it a few years back. Are the Hobbits plotting a rebellion?”
Aragorn shook his head. “I can’t tell you the reason. It’s on Gandalf’s urging. Be prepared to sacrifice almost anything to accomplish this, save the basic defense of the Keep itself.”
“It’s no easy chore you give me,” Halbarad exclaimed. “The Shire is the most peaceful spot in all Eriador. The men already grumble that we put too many of our forces there.”
Aragorn raised his eyebrows. “Grumble? The usual complaining of cold and hungry men, or do they question my orders?”
To Halbarad’s relief, Thorbarad came in then with the ale. Aragorn was silent while he served the mugs to the two men and then slipped out.
Halbarad took a long swallow. “Usual complaining at this point, I would say, but you know there will be questions. What danger does the Shire pose to anyone or anything?”
Grim amusement lit Aragorn’s eyes. “I do appreciate that,” he said. “Likewise, it is difficult to see why anyone—even Sauron—would seek to harm such innocent creatures. All the same, I can’t tell you what Gandalf’s reasons are. Suffice it to say that only Elrond and I know the full story, and it is the same business that takes me across the mountains. The less anyone else knows, the better off we are. My authority, and Gandalf’s, ought to be sufficient in the men’s eyes.”
“All right,” Halbarad sighed. “I will impress upon them that we are working on the ‘need to know’ principle.”
“If I could, I would stay to speak to the captains myself. I know I’m asking a lot of you: to lead men in something you yourself cannot explain. But the lives of us all may now depend on the Rangers’ vigilance.”
The glint in his eye told Halbarad all he needed to know. A shiver of apprehension prickled up his spine. “I understand,” he said. “What about you? Where are you going, and what will you be doing?”
“Hunting,” Aragorn said. “Wherever the search takes me.”
“You mean to go to Rivendell first, I assume.”
“I’ve already been there,” Aragorn said. “Tomorrow I head for the Redhorn Pass to meet Gandalf. He is taking council with Elrond as we speak.”
“You stayed one night in the Valley?”
“Just so,” he answered.
“Arwen must not have liked that.”
“She didn’t. But it’s hardly the first time.”
“And you are again going into great danger.”
“No doubt,” Aragorn agreed.
Halbarad shook his head. “That will displease the captains just as much as any guard on the Shire.”
“I tire of these complaints.”
“What do you expect, Aragorn? You’re seventy years old. You have no sons, and you refuse to marry. Then you go walking into Mordor every other day. Shouldn’t we be worried?”
“I don’t refuse to marry.”
Halbarad rolled his eyes. “Let me clarify. You refuse to marry anyone but Elrond’s daughter, after you’ve been crowned King of Gondor and Arnor. Is that better?”
“Much better,” said Aragorn.
Halbarad slammed his hand on the table. “Of all the pig-headed, impossible men—you know what I mean. The women will be griping again. At least all those eager to provide you with an heir, and their mothers.”
“The sooner I leave, the better, then. I’m much more afraid of the women griping than the Rangers grumbling,” he said. Only the gleam in his eye gave away his amusement.
“I suppose I would be too, if they chased me around the Keep like that. Soon they will take up hatchets to bring you down.”
“And you wonder why I will marry only Arwen? Would you marry a woman who chased you with hatchets?”
“Somehow,” Halbarad countered, “I don’t think the absence of a hatchet is why you prefer Arwen.”
“You have me there,” Aragorn said, smiling.
Halbarad snorted and resumed his log entry. Aragorn settled into his chair and smoked and drank in silence. In a few minutes Halbarad threw down his quill and rose to fetch a map off the huge rack on the wall. He spread it out on the table, weighting each corner with a polished rock. The Shire lay before them, roads marked in black, streams in blue, villages in pale red. Hobbiton, Michel Delving, Buckland.
“Now,” he began, “the main entry points are the road from Sarn Ford in the south, Brandywine Bridge from the east, and the Great East Road from the Tower Hills. Assuming we place the bulk of our forces at these spots, that leaves less traveled entries. What do you think about…..”
By the time they had formed a plan, the pitcher of ale was dry.