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Brothers at Heart
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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20
Chapter 20

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 rode up to the South-gate of Bree. He looked around curiously at the deep dike and tall hedge that protected the village. The Great East Road ran directly into the village which was built on and up against a large hill. The road took a wide turn inside the village and then split into two directions as it left Bree once again. Each of the three entryways were protected by strong wooden gates; although on this beautiful spring morning the South-gate was open and a thick pole was down to block the opening. Holding a long sturdy pike the gatekeeper stood behind the pole and it was to this man that Estel now looked.

“Whata ya want in Bree?” The gatekeeper’s suspicious eyes darted rapidly from Estel to the five men tied to their horses and on to the three other Rangers before returning to Estel. Only Faelon, Halbarad, and Nestad had accompanied Estel into Bree as they did not want to overwhelm the villagers with the presence of so many Rangers. Faelon, who had been in Bree more recently than any of the others, had spent time the previous evening speaking with Estel and the others about the layout of the village and what they might expect from its people.

“We captured these bandits and need to deliver them to your mayor for judgment,” Estel responded. His expression was grave as he looked down at the man and something about it made the gatekeeper take a step back. But he quickly recovered and with a scowl he stepped up to the pole once again his hands tightening their grasp on the pike.

“Howda I know that ya aren’t bandits, too?”

Estel blinked in surprise. That was not something that had occurred to him… that they would be thought of as bandits themselves. He knew that people were suspicious of Rangers, but he did not think it ran this deep. “I assure you we are not,” he held his hands out palms up in a non-threatening manner. “We caught these men after they had killed two families and we have traveled for many days to bring them here because we believe those families were from Bree.”

The gatekeeper’s scowl deepened, though it was now directed at the men who were bound as he looked them over more carefully. His eyes widened in recognition and surprise. “They was here a few months back!” he exclaimed. “I remember ‘em leaving around… Yule, I think… it were cold anyway.”

“I believe that would be about the right time,”
Estel replied, wondering what it would take to convince the man to allow them into the village and if the gatekeeper truly thought that he could keep armed men from entering Bree when he was armed with only a pike. “May we take them to your mayor… your village leaders for judgment?” he asked once again. “I think they would be interested in speaking with us about these bandits and the families they killed.”

The gatekeeper hesitated, looking around to see if there was someone he could speak with for their opinion, but the only ones nearby were a few boys who had stopped their play and were staring wide-eyed at the men. Everyone else was at the market that was being held in the village square. He looked closely at the leader of the Rangers who met his gaze steadily and the gatekeeper decided that he would take a chance on trusting him. “I’ll let ya in. The market’s today. The mayor’s probably at the square. Do ya want one of them boys to show ya where that’s at?”

“No, thank you. But, what is the mayor’s name?”

“Lee Appledore. He’s the tanner.”
The gatekeeper set aside his pike and began dragging the heavy pole out of the way. He opened it just enough for the horses to squeeze through.

With quiet words of thanks, Estel led the way through the gate and into Bree. On their right were the houses of men and further up the hill, were the holes of hobbits. To the left of the road was a fenced field where horses, cows, and sheep were grazing and further on was a blacksmith shop and other small buildings. Estel beckoned for Faelon to join him once they were a short distance from the gate.

“Where is the square?”

“Just past the fork in the road, Captain,” he made a small gesture in front of them. “Past the smithy,” he added.

“I see it.” Estel grimaced at the sight of all of the people in the village square. He knew that market day would draw people from the other small villages that made up the Bree-lands; Archet, Combe, and Staddle. Having additional people in the village would make their task more difficult… perhaps not more difficult, but more uncomfortable and would draw additional attention to themselves, which was something he did not want to do. “Is there a stable where we may leave the horses?”

“Near the smithy,” Faelon said.

They rode up to the stable and a couple of boys ran out to them, their greetings dying on their lips as they saw who had ridden into the yard. The boys, whom Estel thought were about thirteen years old, shrank back, their eyes full of fear. Estel did not know if their fear was directed at himself and the Rangers or at the bandits or both, but he spoke softly to them as he dismounted.

“We need to stable our horses for the day. Do you have room for them?” he smiled to try and ease their fear.

Wiping his hands nervously on his trousers, the older looking boy finally answered him, “We-we have room, sir. Though they’ll have to go in the pen and not in stalls… if-if that’s all right.”

“That will be fine.”
Estel turned to his men and motioned for them to dismount. Halbarad was the last one off his horse as all of the bandit’s horses were tethered to his. Estel, Faelon, and Nestad turned their horses and the packhorse over to the two stable boys who immediately led them into the pen while the Rangers turned back to the bandits. Halbarad tied his horse to a post and drew his sword. Estel also drew his while Faelon and Nestad began taking the bandits off the horses.

Kenrick did not resist as he was taken down and led to a fence post and tied securely. Estel did not even watch as he was led away, he kept his eyes fixed on Galt, Beck, and Dale who were struggling against their bonds. The ropes attaching Dale to the saddle had been fixed in such a way that they did not touch his wrists and yet kept him firmly in place. Will was trembling violently as he was led past Estel and it was all he could do to not reach out and comfort him in some way. But all he could do was hope that this mayor… this Lee Appledore and the other village leaders would be just men.

“Cease your struggles, Beck!” Estel called out sharply as Faelon and Nestad began to undo his bonds. “You know it will do no good.”

Beck glared at him with eyes that were full of fury. The gag he wore prevented him from speaking, not that Estel had any doubt what the man would say. The two Rangers dragged the struggling man across the yard and tied him tightly to a fence post.

“Stay back,” Estel warned the two boys as they returned for more of the horses. The boys pressed themselves up against the wall of the stable and watched wide-eyed as the last two men were taken down. The horses were moving and snorting under the struggles of Dale and Galt and Estel stepped up to grab the bridle of Dale’s horse. His eyes never left the bandits as he spoke soothingly to the horse which settled down under his ministrations.

Faelon grabbed Dale’s upper arm as Nestad loosened the ropes holding him in place. As soon as his feet were free Dale kicked out at Faelon and caught him square in the chest. Losing his hold on Dale, Faelon fell back grunting in pain with the breath knocked out of him. Dale leaped off the horse and, ignoring the yells to halt, darted towards the stable aiming for the door or perhaps to grab one of the boys that were now cowering on the ground in fear. He would take them captive if it would guarantee his freedom. Dale was jerked to a stop when a hand grabbed his tunic collar and he felt the cold steel of a blade pressed to his throat.

“Do not move,” Halbarad hissed in his ear. “I will cut your throat and save the men of this village the trouble of hanging you if you do so.”

Cursing quietly behind his gag, Dale did as he was told. Freedom had seemed so close even though he knew that he probably would not have been able to escape these cursed Rangers. They were too watchful and even the fact that he had been able to get free for a moment had been because they had been kinder to him since his injuries and he was not bound in the same way as his companions. He shifted uneasily as the Captain suddenly appeared before him; he had not even heard the man’s approach. Not willing to meet his eyes, Dale simply stared at the ground.

“You are fortunate that Captain Faelon is not hurt, Dale,” Estel said with restrained anger in his voice. He was not surprised that the man would try to escape and his anger was directed more at himself than at Dale. If the bandit had gotten to the boys there was no telling what might have happened. Estel shook himself from that thought and concentrated on Dale. “Come,” he said tersely grabbing one of Dale’s arms while Halbarad took the other. They led him over to where the other bandits were tied and none too gently pushed him to the ground and tied him to a post.

Nestad was holding the reins of Galt’s horse with one hand and a sword to Galt’s chest with the other while Faelon stood brushing off his clothes when Estel and Halbarad returned. “How do you fare?” Estel asked quietly.

Scowling over at Dale for a moment Faelon just shrugged, “I’m all right, Captain.”

“Good.” Estel knew Faelon’s chest would be bruised where Dale had kicked him, but his pride would suffer the most. Seeing that Nestad had Galt under control for the moment, Estel strode over to speak with the two boys who were still sitting on the ground, their eyes wide with fear. As they tried to press back further into the wall of the stable Estel crouched down in front of them. “I am sorry that man scared you,” he said gently. “Those men are bandits and we brought them here to be judged, but we should have done a better job of restraining him. We will not let them hurt you,” he promised.

“Are-are ya going to leave ‘em here?”

“Yes, for a little while, but two of my men will guard them and you will be quite safe.”


Taking deep breaths the two boys slowly pushed themselves off the ground. “All right,” the younger boy said stoutly. “We’ll still take care of yer horses.” The boy started to move past Estel but he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder to hold him back.

“Wait until we have Galt off his horse.” Estel rejoined his men and this time he and Halbarad were much closer to Galt with their swords right near his body to stop him from any sudden movements and he was quickly taken down and tied to a post. Estel then indicated the boys could take the horses away.

“Did you re-injure your hand?” Estel suddenly asked Halbarad as he noticed his cousin carefully flexing the fingers on his left hand which was still lightly bandaged even though they had removed the stitches the previous evening. His broken finger was tightly bound to the finger next to it in order to keep it from moving.

Halbarad gave him a small smile, “I don’t think so… just banged it a little bit on Dale when I grabbed him.”

Estel studied him for a moment before turning to Faelon, ignoring Nestad’s grim face as he did so. “I want you to come with me. You know the village better than anyone else. Nestad, I want you to take charge here and make sure no one disturbs the prisoners. I do not know how long this will take, but hopefully we will not be gone long.” Estel started away and then called back over his shoulder, “You should probably check Halbarad’s hand while we are gone, Nestad.” The amused look on his face died as Estel glanced at Faelon whose face was stern and remote.

“Do you know where the tanner’s shop is?” Estel asked the older Ranger.

“Yes, I’ve seen it but, as the gatekeeper said, the mayor is probably in the square with his wares. I wish the market wasn’t being held today,” Faelon added almost under his breath.

“It would have been better,” Estel agreed. He was becoming aware of the stares that were being directed their way as they neared the square. Many of the villagers standing behind their makeshift stands were staring at them as were the milling customers. Estel’s face was impassive, though his eyes moved around curiously as he looked at the people - especially the hobbits - and the items that were for sale. There were different colors of rough-woven cloth, animal pelts that had been trapped over the winter, baskets, pottery, herbs, dried and smoked meats, freshly baked goods, and many other things. Estel and Faelon ignored the looks they were receiving as they made their way through the crowd looking for the tanner and the leather goods he would be selling.

Estel was extremely uncomfortable at the looks they were receiving and the way that the villagers were moving away from him and Faelon. Never had he been made to feel as if he were less than other people but he could feel the scorn and… fear of the people that surrounded them. It saddened him greatly and yet he knew that there was nothing he could do that would change it, the feelings of these people were long held and passed down to their children at a very young age. Faelon touched his arm.

“That must be him, Captain,” he murmured indicating a stand that was displaying belts, sheaths, pouches, and other things made out of leather. A stout middle aged man was standing behind the makeshift table watching them with keen brown eyes as they crossed to him.

“Are you Mayor Appledore?” Estel asked politely looking the short balding man over a little more closely.

The man nodded as he looked between the two Rangers, “I am. What can I do for you two… Rangers?” There was just the slightest hint of question in his voice.

“We are indeed Rangers and we have brought five bandits with us,” the mayor’s eyes widened at that. “We caught them just after they had killed two families that we believe were from Bree and so we felt it would be best to return them here for you to judge and punish them,” Estel explained.

“Five bandits? You brought five bandits here? Where are they?” the mayor asked sharply.

“We left them at the stable with a couple of my men.”

The mayor took a deep breath as he scratched his head and gave the two Rangers a long look before he spoke again. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to deal with ‘em if those families was from Bree. Can you prove that, though?”

“We have some of their possessions with us that we hoped could be used to tell you who they were. The bandits had stolen them, though some of the things may be from other raids.”
Estel shrugged slightly, “There appears to be too much to be from just this one raid.”

“There were a couple of families that left here a few months ago,”
Appledore admitted with a thoughtful frown. He glanced around the crowded square with a deep sigh. “I only wish you’d come another day. I hate to give up selling my wares now, this is the best crowd we’ve had this spring.” He ran his hands over his leather goods.

Estel glanced at Faelon from the corner of his eye only to find that the Ranger was looking down at the table with a stoic expression. “We are sorry for that as well, though we had no knowledge of your market before we arrived. Is there someplace you would like us to take them? Do you have a place to lock them up?” Estel was anxious to get them away from the stable and into some sort of secure building.

“We’ve a couple of cells behind the Hall, though we don’t use ‘em much. I’ll send some men to help you and to show you the way while I get Clay, Edwin, and Tolman so we can judge ‘em and get it over with.”

“Who are Clay, Edwin, and Tolman?”
Estel asked cautiously.

“They’re the members of the council and help me make decisions for the villages. I’ve seen ‘em wandering around here this morning. You go on back to the stable and wait for my men,” said Appledore as he began to look around for someone to watch his goods.

Surprised at such a casual dismissal, Estel was beginning to respond when he felt a small tug on his sleeve. “We should go, Captain,” Faelon whispered for his ears only. With a reluctant nod Estel turned and headed back toward the stable, again ignoring the looks of the villagers. As they walked back through the market area he noted the stands that had food they could use and hoped they would have time to come back and purchase some for the rest of their journey.

“Is it always like this? The people staring like that?” Estel asked Faelon as soon as they were beyond the last of the market stands.

“Yes,” he answered without hesitation. “Though, I usually don’t see many people when I’m here. I don’t stay around very long.” Faelon gestured across the road at a tall building. “I will usually get a meal at the Prancing Pony and speak to the innkeeper. Butterbur usually knows what’s going on around these parts and,” a small smile crossed his lips briefly, “he does make good beer.”

Estel grinned in return, “Well, then, hopefully we will have a chance to taste some. And a hot meal would be nice as well.” The sight of the bandits sobered him again and he looked to Halbarad and Nestad to see if there had been any problems.

“They’ve been quiet, Captain,” Halbarad said at Estel’s questioning look. “Did you find the mayor?”

“Yes, and he is sending some men to help us take them to some sort of prison they have here while he gathers the members of his council.”

“Then they will judge them quickly? Today?” Nestad asked. He was anxious to leave as quickly as possible.

“It appears so,” Estel nodded glancing at the bandits to see that only Will was watching them, his eyes filled with fear. Estel quickly looked back at his men. “We will need to take the things from the packhorse with us, I believe that we can safely leave the rest of our belongs here.” Faelon gave a small nod. “How is your hand, Halbarad?” Estel asked as he suddenly remembered his cousin’s hand being injured.

“I can still use it just fine,” he answered evasively.

“Halbarad,” Estel growled warningly and his cousin looked at him in surprise.

“I just sprained it a little bit but it doesn’t hurt!”

Estel looked from Halbarad to Nestad who shrugged, “It doesn’t appear to be much worse than it was, Captain.”

“Captain,” Faelon low voice caught Estel’s attention and he looked over to see three men walking towards them. They were large, rough looking men and Estel had the sense that the mayor had used them for this kind of work before. He stepped forward to meet them at the edge of the stable yard.

“Did the mayor send you?” he asked looking down at the shorter men.

The man who was obviously the leader scowled slightly in return at this tall Ranger. “Appledore said ya had some murdering thieves we was ta take to the lock-up.” He turned to glare at the five bandits, some of whom glared right back.

Sighing inwardly, Estel drew the man’s attention back to himself. “We have five bandits that we need you to help us take to the lock-up. You will listen and follow my directions, though. I will not have them hurt if I can help it.”

All three of the men simply stared at him and two of them began to snicker while the leader responded slowly… as if speaking to a dim-witted child. “Whatta we care if they’re hurt? Sounds like they’re gonna hang ‘em later.” He shrugged. “They killed people from what Appledore said so I don’t care if they’re hurt a bit now.”

“But I do,”
Estel said flatly, his grey eyes stern. “These men have not yet been judged or sentenced and they will not be mistreated.”

The three men took uneasy steps back under Estel’s piercing gaze but he ignored them and turned to his own men. “I will lead Kenrick and Will if you three will take the others with the help of these men.”

“Captain, I think Halbarad should lead Kenrick and Will,” Nestad spoke up quietly. “His hand isn’t badly injured, but it could interfere with what he needs to do or he might injure it further.”

“All right,” Estel nodded his agreement and turned back to the village men who were staring at them with puzzled expressions, not understanding what had been said. “Three of these bandits have been more… difficult to handle than the other two and I want you to help us with those three. They will run if given the opportunity to do so.” He quickly paired them up and with the help of the leader of the villagers, Estel untied Galt and dragged the struggling man to his feet. Galt tried desperately to wrench his arms free from the firm grasp of Estel and the other man but they held him steady while Halbarad retied the bandit’s arms behind his back leaving only his feet free. Soon, Beck and Dale were in the hands of Faelon and Nestad along with the two other men from the village. Halbarad turned to Kenrick and Will and quickly untied their bonds.

“Get up, Kenrick, Will,” he ordered quietly. His face devoid of expression, Kenrick did as he was told even putting his hands behind his back for Halbarad to tie them. Will looked beseechingly at Estel as he got unsteadily to his feet.

“Wh-where are you taking us, Captain?” His frightened eyes flicked to the village men and back to Estel.

“To the village lock-ups where you will wait for the mayor and his council to pass judgment.”

Will said nothing further as Halbarad bound his hands and pushed him gently, yet firmly in the direction of the lock-ups, which were down the road and past the Prancing Pony. They would not have to go through the market area but close enough for people to see them and to attract attention. However, it could not be helped; there was no back way to get to the Hall or the lock-ups.

Estel noticed that Beck had given up his struggles and simply walked with his head down while Nestad and the villager kept a tight grip on his arms. Dale struggled furiously to get away from Faelon and the villager holding him, but the two men were more than enough to keep him moving. Galt had decided not to walk and so Estel and his partner were almost dragging him along the dirt road.

“What is your name?” Estel asked the villager after they had been walking for several minutes.

The man looked at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Bill,” he said finally. “Yours?”

Estel realized his mistake too late. In trying to be somewhat friendly with the man, he had backed himself into a corner. He could not give him his real name and he could not very well tell this man to call him captain, yet he did not know what else to do. “My men call me captain,” he replied.

Bill gave a derisive snort, “I’m not one of yer men, Captain.” Shaking his head and muttering under his breath he turned his gaze to the road ahead pulling more forcefully on Galt’s arm to hurry him along.

They did indeed attract a crowd of villagers who clutched their children to themselves as they watched them pass. The Rangers could hear them talking as much about them as they were about the bandits and they exchanged quick looks with each other. Even as he dragged Galt along Estel paid attention to his surroundings as best he could not knowing if he would have time to do so later. These were part of his people… part of his responsibility and so far it was a hard thing for him to accept. That people who disliked him on sight without even knowing him were ones that he was responsible for. Estel chided himself inwardly; he had known this was going to happen. He had been told many times by the other Rangers that the people here treated them with scorn and suspicion. But it was not the same as experiencing it. And whether the people liked or accepted him and his Rangers or not did not lessen their responsibility toward them in any way, it just made it a little more difficult, perhaps. But they were only men and being disliked and scorned by people you are protecting – even without their knowledge - was not an easy thing. Estel could see it in his men’s eyes at times, though they mostly kept their feelings hidden.

When they reached the village lock-ups they found Mayor Appledore and two other men waiting for them. Appledore quickly opened the door and they hurried inside with the prisoners. There were only three cells in the building and, after a very brief discussion, Galt was given his own cell while Dale and Beck shared one and Kenrick and Will were placed in the third.

“Should we untie them, Captain?” Halbarad asked Estel before he left the cell.

Estel hesitated and looked at Appledore. “Should we untie them, Mayor Appledore? Are you going to judge them soon?”

Appledore shook his head. “No, it’ll be a couple of hours yet. Tolman’s already headed home and I sent someone after him. He lives in Staddle. Go ahead and untie ‘em.” He looked at the bandits more closely and then back at Estel. “You have gags on ‘em?”

“Yes, it is not safe to travel the wilds with men who do not know how to be quiet nor would I suffer their disrespect.”

“I see,”
Appledore said slowly and with a sidelong glance at the two councilmen who had accompanied him. “You may remove those as well.”

Estel gave him a curt nod not liking the expressions on the faces of any of the three men. They had obviously never traveled the wilds, or perhaps it was just the same lack of respect they held for all Rangers. The Rangers began untying the bandit’s hands and removing gags. Just as Estel had known would happen, Galt began yelling and cursing as soon as the gag was removed and he was quickly joined by Dale. Only Beck did not join them, he seemed to have given up now that all hope of escape was gone. Most of what the two bandits were saying was muffled by the thick doors of their cells, but enough escaped through the small windows in the doors to cause Estel to make a small comment to Appledore. “That is why they wore gags.”

Appledore shrugged. “We’ll judge ‘em in the Hall as soon as Tolman returns. Where will you be?”

Estel glanced at the other Rangers briefly before he decided. “At the Prancing Pony, we have not had a decent meal for some time.”

“I’ll send someone for you, then.”
He turned to head outside and then paused as he remembered something. “Captain, this is Clay Rushlight and Edwin Goatleaf,” he said pointing to the two men who had been standing silently near him. “Clay is from Archet and Edwin is from Combe.”

As he greeted the two men, Estel looked them over carefully. Clay was a tall muscular man with dark brown eyes that were full of distrust as he nodded curtly in reply to Estel’s greeting. Edwin was shorter and, by his dress, he looked to be a farmer. He appeared nervous and Estel was not sure if it was because of the bandits, though he thought it more likely it was because of his and his men’s presence. Estel and the Rangers followed the mayor outside leaving Bill and the two other village men to watch over the prisoners.

A small group of people had gathered and Appledore began speaking to them as the Rangers slipped through the crowd and headed for the Prancing Pony. In spite of his concerns about what was going to happen later, Estel was looking forward to visiting the inn. He was interested to see what a typical inn of men was like as there was no such thing among the Dúnedain. He exchanged a quick glance with Halbarad as they went up the steps to see his own eagerness mirrored in his cousin’s eyes. Estel ignored the small resigned sigh he heard from Nestad behind him.

Walking through the doorway into the inn, Estel was overpowered by the variety of smells that assaulted his nose. Pipe-weed was the predominate scent but it was interlaced with the smell of beer, baking bread, some type of stews and meats, and underneath it all the unwashed bodies of Men. It was a strange mixture and he stood, unmoving, for a moment to become accustomed to it before venturing further into the building. As they reached a counter a short round man came rushing towards them with a smile that Estel could tell was feigned. The man’s eyes showed the same mistrust as every other villager they had spoken with.

“What’ll ya be needing? A room? Something to eat?” he asked as he wiped his hands off on his stained apron.

“Just something to eat,” Estel replied.

“And beer,” added Halbarad, grinning.

“Parlor or common?” the innkeeper asked.

When Estel hesitated and glanced at the two older Rangers, Faelon spoke up. “Common room, Barclay.” Faelon knew that Estel and Halbarad would not be satisfied shut off in one of the private dining parlors and the common room was the best way to learn what was going on in the Bree-lands.

“This way, then.” Barclay led them to a table in a corner of the room knowing that the Rangers always preferred to sit in the shadowy parts of the large common room. The room was less than half full as it was an hour short of noon and the market was still going strong. “Nibs will bring ya some beer,” Barclay said as he hustled off to another table that was calling for him.

Before they sat down there was a quick shuffling of benches and chairs, as none of the Rangers were willing to sit with his back to the room. Estel looked around and saw that there were mostly men in the room with just a few women at one or two tables. A table at the far side of the room near a window held a party of hobbits that were laughing about something. Halbarad nudged him as the beer arrived. A hobbit with brown curly hair arrived carrying a tray with four mugs and a large pitcher. He slid the tray carefully onto the table.

“Here ya are! Some of Butterbur’s best beer,” Nibs proclaimed with a wide grin as he began pouring the beer into the mugs and handing it out. “Now, do ya want stew or Missus Butterbur’s cooking pork roast special ‘cause of the market today.” He waited expectantly, the smile never leaving his face.

Estel could see it was a genuine smile and he smiled back at the hobbit. “I would like the pork.” The other men ordered the same. “The hobbit does not seem to dislike us,” he commented after Nibs had walked away.

“Hobbits are usually a little friendlier than men here,” Faelon agreed. “And Nibs here has always been uncommonly friendly.”

“He doesn’t look quite like what I thought a hobbit would look like,” Halbarad whispered after taking a long, satisfying drink of his beer. “How about you, Captain?”

“He is not the first hobbit I have seen, Cousin,” Estel responded. “Though this is the first time I have ever spoken with one.” He narrowed his eyes and ran his finger around the lip of his mug as he thought back. “I was ten when a hobbit and a group of dwarves came through Imladris but I was not allowed to speak with them and I only saw them from a distance. I understand now why I was kept away from them but I did not at the time and I was very upset.” Estel smiled slightly. “However, I was not upset for very long as Elladan and Elrohir took me out into the wilds camping and taught me woodcraft and such and I had a marvelous time.”

“That was the group of dwarves and hobbit that took down the dragon,” Nestad said as they had heard some stories of what had happened.

Estel nodded, “Yes, it was. The hobbit, Bilbo, came back through many months later and again I went camping with my brothers, but later Glorfindel told me stories of what had occurred. It sounded very exciting to a ten-year old boy. Glorfindel tried to impress on me what a battle is really like… the noise and the chaos and the blood and the pain… and people dying.” Estel shook his head and then looked up with a brief grin, “But try telling a ten-year old boy about that.” His friends chuckled lightly.

“It was the same with Baisael at that age,” Faelon said, “and I think Balrant is worse. He looks up to both me and his brother.”

“And to the Captain,” Nestad added with a sidelong glance at Estel who shrugged and gave Faelon a small smile that was returned.

The four men continued to speak quietly of their homes and families as their lunch was served and they began to eat. As they spoke they also kept an eye on the room around them and were well aware of the people coming and going and the fact that as more and more arrived for lunch the tables around them remained empty. Nibs returned with a second pitcher of beer as they finished their meal.

“There’s honey cakes if you want ‘em,” the hobbit said grinning.

“I’d like one,” Halbarad said quickly and Estel indicated he would also have some of the dessert as would Nestad. Faelon shook his head. As Nibs left to get the honey cakes Faelon turned to Estel.

“Perhaps I should go and get the things we need at the market while you three finish eating. We may not have time later.”

Estel thought for a moment and then nodded. “If you do not mind going on your own, then go and do so.” He reached into his belt pouch and took out a small leather bag of coins and handed it to Faelon with a wry smile. “It is best you go anyway as I do not know how much things should cost and would probably pay too much.”

Faelon grunted an acknowledgment as he took the bag and weighed it in his hand for a moment before handing it back with a smile playing about his lips. “I do know this much, Captain,” he said softly, “you will have to pay for the food you’ve been eating and the beer you’ve been drinking so I’ll leave this with you. I’ve got money.” He inclined his head and made his way through the room and out the door. Halbarad and Nestad grinned at Estel’s slightly embarrassed look as he put his money away with a small shrug.

They sat quietly then, speaking softly at times but mostly observing and listening to the people in the room… without being obvious about it. All of the tables were now full as it was just after noon and Barclay, Nibs, and the other servers were rushing around trying to take care of all of the customers. Estel was fascinated watching the people but the thought of being in such a place on a regular basis was less than appealing. His attention was drawn away from the villagers when Halbarad and Nestad drew out their pipes and at Halbarad’s challenging look he brought out his as well. He had been using it more and more frequently on this trip and he was starting to see the appeal of it. It was a half an hour or so after Faelon had left when Clay, the councilman from Archet, showed up.

“Tolman’s back,” he announced without preamble as he arrived at their table. The people at the tables near them stopped speaking to listen in; word of the bandits had quickly spread in the village. “Appledore wants to start as soon as ya can get there.”

“We will be there in a moment,”
Estel answered politely not liking this man’s demanding attitude and expectations.

Clay looked pointedly around the table which was cleared off except for the half full mugs of beer and he looked back at Estel with an eyebrow raised in question.

“As I said, we will return to the Hall in a few minutes,” he repeated not about to be intimidated by this man. He also planned to wait for Faelon to return.

“Don’t be long,” he almost snarled as he turned and stalked out of the room passing Faelon on the way.

“What’s the matter?” Faelon asked with concern as he sat down.

“He’s impatient,” Nestad said, “and, I believe, used to getting his way.”

Estel nodded, “Did you get what we need?” he asked Faelon.

“Yes, and I took it back to the stable and packed it in our saddlebags.”

“Thank you,” Estel said as he stood and began making his way towards the door. He stopped at the counter to pay Barclay who barely spoke to them, but Nibs called a cheery good-bye as they left. Estel took a deep breath of fresh air as he stepped out the door.

“It was very good food and beer,” Halbarad said as they headed to the Hall. “But, I didn’t like the way people stared at us and acted around us… like we’re some sort of bandits.” He frowned.

“Best get used to it,” Nestad advised clapping him lightly on the back. “It’s the way we’re treated in almost all villages.”

They went to the lock-ups thinking to help move the prisoners to the Hall and found that they had already gone. In the Hall they were stunned at what they found. All five of the bandits were tied to chairs but Galt and Dale had obviously been beaten as their lips were cut and bleeding and one of Galt’s eyes was swelling shut. Evidently the other three had not resisted because they did not appear to be as bad off, though red marks on their faces indicated they had at least been hit.

Estel turned to Mayor Appledore with a dangerous glint in his eye. “Why have they been beaten?”

“They didn’t come willingly,”
he replied as if were obvious.

“Will and Kenrick would never resist, ” Estel protested angrily shaking off Nestad’s hand as the healer tried to calm him. “And no one should be mistreated while they are prisoners.”

“As if ya didn’t mistreat us,”
Galt snarled.

“Keep yer mouth shut,” Bill ordered raising his hand to strike Galt but stopping at the looks he received from all four Rangers. The people that were filing into the Hall to watch muttered at that.

“Are these men murderers and thieves or not?” Clay asked.

“Yes, they are, but I do not believe they should be mistreated. Punished for their crimes, yes, but not treated cruelly.”

“Enough,”
Appledore raised his hands and shook his head. “There is no point in continuing this discussion. These men are here for us to judge… though it sounds like there is little doubt of their guilt.” He moved to take a seat behind a table and as he did Estel saw that the fourth councilman, Tolman, was a hobbit. The Rangers took seats off to the side leaving the five bandits facing the judges. There was a gap behind the bandits and then rows of benches which were now filled with villagers who had come to watch. Appledore called for the people in the back of the room to quiet down and then looked at the prisoners facing him and the other members of the Bree-lands council.

“I’m Mayor Appledore. This is Mr. Rushlight, Mr. Goatleaf, and Mr. Underhill and we’re here to judge and sentence you for murdering two,” he glanced at Estel who nodded, “two families. Now, I want to know your names and where you’re from. Starting on this end,” he gestured to Beck.

“Beck Nightshade,” he said studying the wall behind the mayor. “I’m not from anywhere in particular.”

“Ya must have a home somewhere,” Clay said sharply as he frowned at Beck.

Beck looked at him briefly and then away again. “No, I don’t, I move from place to place.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Appledore said after exchanging glances with his fellow council members. He indicated that Dale should speak and he wouldn’t until Bill nudged him – hard – in the back.

“Dale Sundew and like Beck, I move from place to place.”

Knowing he was not going to get more information than that from these men, Appledore just motioned the next men to continue.

“Kenrick Hosta.” He didn’t bother saying anything else realizing that the men really didn’t care and it wouldn’t matter.

Estel almost jumped out of his chair as Bill hit Galt twice on the back of the head to get him to speak. Only the fact that Nestad was tightly gripping his arm and his own realization that it would not do any good kept him seated.

“Galt Thornapple,” he muttered glaring at the council members who ignored him and looked at the last prisoner.

“W-Will Larkspur, sir,” he whispered, hanging his head. The crowd stirred at that and murmurs and whispers broke out amongst them. Appledore held up his hand for silence as Clay got to his feet.

“Yer family has a farm near Archet, doesn’t it, boy? I knew you looked familiar. Does yer family know where ya’ve been and what ya’ve been doing?” Clay asked with a scowl.

“No, sir. I didn’t tell them anything. I-I just left. I-I thought…” Will’s voice trailed off and he stared at the floor.

Clay shook his head in disgust and sat back down. He leaned over and whispered to the other council members and there was some quiet discussion between the four of them for several minutes. Finally, the mayor straightened up and looked over to the Rangers and his gaze landed on Estel, though he looked slightly puzzled as if wondering about his age compared to the other, older, men. “Tell us what happened and why you think these men killed the families and why you think the families were from Bree.”

Estel stood and walked over until he was standing next to the bandits and facing the council members and began explaining all that they had heard and seen. “Some of my men and I were hunting when we overheard these men,” he gestured at Galt, Dale, and Beck, “speaking quite loudly about a raid they had conducted and the people they had killed.” He paused at the murmurs from the crowd behind him which were quickly stilled by the mayor. “As I did not want that to happen again we captured them and…”

“Ya killed one of my men!”
Galt shouted out angrily.

Appledore called for silence again, ordering Galt to be silent or he would be gagged and Bill laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. The mayor gave Estel a questioning look. “Is that true?”

“It is. As we were tying them up one of Galt’s men attacked the boy who was tying them and we had no choice but to shoot him,”
Estel met the mayor’s eyes steadily and Appledore nodded for him to continue. Estel did not speak about the village as he saw no reason for them to know about where or how they lived. “Will mentioned that some of the people might still be alive and he told us where he thought the raid had taken place and so a few of us rode to see if we could help. We were too late,” he said softly. Clearing his throat he briskly continued. “There were two wagons and nine people… four adults and five children. We buried them just off the road there,” he added in case any family members were in the room. “The bandits had a couple of packhorses with various things they had stolen… though I do not believe everything is from this one raid.” He turned to his men and they brought up the bundles of stolen things and began opening them and laying them out on the table in front of the council members.

There were villagers in the front rows that were evidently friends or family members of the deceased and they cried out in recognition as a couple of pieces of jewelry were laid down. Several bags of coins were also laid on the table and the council members looked up in surprise. The hobbit, Tolman, spoke for the first time. “You’re returning money?”

“It is not ours,”
Estel said surprised that he would even be asked such a thing. But then he realized that the villagers did not trust them even for something like that even though they were giving back all of the other things. He sighed inwardly. “There are also six horses in the stable and all of their tack as well.” Tolman gave him a thoughtful nod and looked back at the mayor.

“Well, I’ve heard and seen enough… do any of you have anything to say?” Appledore asked the bandits.

“We didn’t do anything wrong! We found those things,” Dale said trying to bluster his way out of it and the council members said nothing.

Galt started cursing, first in common and then in the language that Estel knew was Dunlendish. Evidently some of the people in the room knew what it was because there were gasps of outrage and Bill clapped his hand over the bandit’s mouth and immediately got bit. He hauled off and hit Galt, knocking the chair over. It landed on its side and Estel could hear Galt’s head hit the floor as he jumped back out of the way. Between Bill’s blow and the hard landing his head took as it hit the floor, Galt was knocked unconscious. With a satisfied smirk Bill none too gently set the chair back upright where Galt sat slumped over as the proceedings continued around him as if nothing had happened.

“Do any of the rest of you have anything to say?” Appledore asked the last three bandits. There was no response from either Beck or Kenrick and Will shook his head as he stared at the floor.

Estel could see the young man trembling and decided this was probably the best time for him to speak up. “I would like to speak for Will if I may,” he said quietly and the council members looked at him in surprise.

“Ya’ve already said what needs to be said,” Clay said frowning and with growing distrust in his eyes.

“Why do you need to speak for the boy?” Appledore asked with narrowed eyes. “Let him speak for himself if he wants to.”

Estel looked at the other two members of the council to see if they had anything to say. Edwin had not spoken a single word the whole time, but Estel had seen how he had paid close attention to everything that was said and how he seemed to listen most closely to Clay. Tolman just shrugged and so Estel looked back to the mayor and Clay.

“I would speak for Will because he is too frightened to speak for himself,” Estel glanced at the young man to see that he had looked up with a hopeful expression. “I also would speak for him so that you could hear the truth about him… he should not be judged the same as the rest of the men here.”

“Why not?”
Appledore asked sharply and Estel could see the question on the faces of every one of the other council member’s faces.

“Because while Will made a horrible and foolish mistake by going with Galt and his men and he does deserve some punishment, he does not deserve to die for what he has done. Or, rather what he has not done. He did not kill anyone while he was with them…”

“But he was with ‘em while the others killed ‘em and did nothing to stop ‘em,”
Clay broke in.

Estel nodded and was going to continue when Edwin finally spoke. “How do ya know he didn’t kill anyone, Ranger?”

Estel did not miss the sneer in the man’s voice but he ignored it. “Kenrick told me last night…”

“And ya believe him? How do ya know he isn’t lying to protect his friend?”

“Because I have been around Will for two weeks now and he still has compassion which these other men do not. He told me he only joined them because Galt said he would take care of him. He had no food and no money and he could not get a job here in Bree. That is the only reason he went with them and he did not know what they did.”

“Why didn’t ya go home, boy?”
Clay asked the question directly to Will.

“I-I was afraid…,” Will looked helplessly at Estel. But Estel shook his head and motioned for Will to continue, he would not answer a question aimed at the young man. “I-I didn’t w-want to let my father down,” he finished quietly.

Clay and the other council members looked at Will in disbelief and shook their heads.

“That is why…” Estel began but he was interrupted by Appledore.

“I think we’ve heard enough to make our decision,” he said glancing at the others who nodded. The four council members got up and left the Hall and the villagers in the back erupted into a frenzy of talking.

Estel rejoined his Rangers sitting down between Nestad and Halbarad with a weary sigh. “You did well, Captain,” Nestad said quietly. “You gave him a chance at least.”

“Clay doesn’t seem to like him,” Halbarad said, “but I can’t tell about the rest of them.”

“Edwin seems to follow Clay,” Estel murmured as he leaned back against the wall and watched the people with hooded eyes.

The council was gone less than ten minutes when the door banged open and they returned to their places. Their faces were stern and grave as they studied the five men sitting before them. Mayor Appledore stood and addressed them one by one, even Galt who was barely conscious. “Galt Thornapple, the Council of Bree sentences you to be hanged for the murder of nine people on the Great East Road some two weeks ago. Dale Sundew, the Council of Bree sentences you to be hanged for the murder of the nine people on the Great East Road some two weeks ago. Beck Nightshade, the Council of Bree sentences you to be hanged for the murder of the nine people on the Great East Road some two weeks ago. Kenrick Hosta, the Council of Bree sentences you to be hanged for the murder of the nine people on the Great East Road some two weeks ago.” There was a pause when he got to Will and Appledore turned to Tolman who stood.

“Will, I know this is unusual but I have to ask this. What did you do during the raids?”

“I-I held the horses and then I-I helped,”
Will took a deep shuddering breath, “search for-for things to take.”

The hobbit closed his eyes for a moment and then looked at Will with eyes full of sorrow. “Then you did help rob them?”

“Y-yes, sir, I did.”
Will hung his head in shame and across the room Estel murmured, “Valar, no,” under his breath.

Tolman turned to Appledore and nodded once before sitting back in his chair with a grimace.

Appledore then pronounced Will’s sentence. “Will Larkspur, the Council of Bree sentences you to be hanged for the robbery of the nine people on the Great East Road some two weeks ago. These sentences will be carried out within the hour… as soon as the scaffold is ready.”

“It’s not a just sentence!” Halbarad exclaimed to no one in particular.

Estel sat leaning forward resting his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor as the people began leaving the room. He had been so sure that if he explained the truth about Will the leaders of Bree would understand and would give him a more just punishment. Estel knew that Will deserved to be punished, but he did not believe the young man deserved to die even if he had helped them rob the people. While robbery could not be overlooked, Estel just wasn’t sure if he would equate what Will had done –given all of the circumstances – with someone who, say, had stolen a horse or broken into a house and robbed people. He started when someone touched him lightly on the back and he looked up to see Nestad, his eyes full of compassion.

“We should go, Captain,” he said quietly.

Estel stood and joined his men. “I will not leave yet, not until the sentences are carried out,” he said quietly but with determination.

“Are you sure you want to watch, Captain? It is not… I’ve seen men hanged before and it’s not… ” Faelon shook his head and looked away as he quietly finished. “You don’t want to see it.”

Estel stared at Faelon, surprised not so much by his words but by the way he was acting. Faelon had been fighting the forces of darkness for over forty years and to see him react this way gave Estel pause. He knew that watching a hanging would not be… easy, yet he felt he needed to watch it nonetheless. “I am sure it will be difficult but I intend to be there. Would you go and ready the horses, Faelon, so that we may leave as soon as it is over?”

“I’ll stay with you, Captain,” he protested quietly. “I wasn’t saying I wouldn’t.”

“I know, but I want to leave quickly. In fact, maybe Halbarad should help you.” Estel gave his cousin a searching look but Halbarad was shaking his head.

“I need to stay, Ar…Captain. Just like you do,” he said quietly.

Estel nodded once and turned back to Faelon. He did not bother asking Nestad to go with Faelon, he knew without a doubt that the healer would not leave him and Halbarad. “Please see to the horses and we will join you as soon as this is over.” Faelon turned and left without another word.

The three Rangers watched as the bandits were being taken from the Hall. Beck and Kenrick did not resist as a couple of men led them from the room while Galt and Dale continued their fruitless struggles as they were dragged out. Will did not struggle but his legs failed him and he had to be carried. He cast a pleading look at the Rangers as he passed them, but they had already done all they could for him.

They followed along as the bandits were taken down to the place near the North-gate where a rickety looking scaffold was set up. Estel was thankful that it appeared not to have been used often, though he hoped it was sturdy enough to end the lives quickly and with as little pain as possible. As they stood in the back of the crowd, Estel was shocked at the number of people that had come to watch the hangings. Not only men were present, but women and even some children. It grieved him that people would allow their children to watch such a thing. He did notice that no hobbits were in the crowd, except for Tolman who probably had to be there as a member of the council.

“Are you all right?” Nestad asked his eyes full of concern as his gaze shifted between the two young Rangers. One may have been his Chieftain, but he was still a very young man and Nestad was concerned about the effect this was going to have on him. It had been his decision to bring the bandits here and he could have chosen to leave Will behind at any point. But he had placed his faith in the justice of Men and had had it shattered by the events of the day. And, for both of them, watching a hanging was going to be a difficult thing.

“I’m all right,” Halbarad replied, though he did not look at the healer as he was watching the crowd of villagers with his eyes full of both sorrow and thinly veiled contempt.

Estel glanced at Nestad briefly and then away. “I will be all right, Nestad. I am grieved at the lack of justice in the Men here, though I should not…” his voice trailed off as he saw movement up on the scaffold. He cringed and shook his head as Kenrick and Will were led up the steps.

“At least Will is first,” Nestad murmured with a small sigh of relief.

Estel and Halbarad looked at him questioningly.

“He will not have to see what happens to the others… it is… better for him,” he explained.

They did not wait for the other three bandits to be executed. The three Rangers turned and left as soon as Kenrick and Will were dead. The image of what had occurred would remain firmly implanted in their minds for the rest of their lives. It was not just the hanging itself, which was simply horrifying to watch, but it was also the fact that some of the people actually cheered as the men died. They did not speak as they walked back to the stable and they quickly mounted their horses, hearing more cheers from the crowd as they headed down the main village road in the late afternoon sunshine.

Aragorn rode out through the South-gate of Bree.

~~~

Author’s Note: This was a difficult chapter to write even though I knew from the start it was going to happen. There was really no other choice. During that time death would have been the punishment for Will just by him being there during the raids and being part of the group, etc.


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