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5
A Game of Ninepins

A Game of Ninepins


Strider the Ranger had seen many strange things in his lifetime. High in the passes of the northern Misty Mountains, in spring and fall when the weather was most changeable, he’d had the chance to watch the frost giants of Middle Earth at their rough games of boulder rolling and tossing. When he was in his early twenties he’d traveled with the Wizard Gandalf and his Elven brothers across the mountain chain into the valley of the Anduin, visiting Radagast the Brown in his house formed by the growth of living trees, Beorn the Shapechanger with his bee skeps and lodge-like home and servants of sheep and dogs and his watchful sons and folk, the great spiders of Mirkwood, the rebuilt wonder of Esgaroth on its pilings sunk deep into the bottom of Long Lake, the still-deteriorating remains of the Dragon Smaug lying visible yet well below the surface of the lake where he’d been felled by Bard the Bowman, and the newly recovering lands that had marked the Devastation of the Dragon.

He’d faced the wights of the barrow-mounds of what had been Tyrn Gorthad and had once, while in service to Thengel of Rohan, watched the flickering of activity about the mouth of the cleft leading to the Paths of the Dead from the high plateau of Dunharrow. He’d passed through Moria from east to west, evading orcs, cave trolls, and worse; he’d looked down into the beauty of the Mirrormere and the horrors of the Dead Marshes. He’d been pursued by what he was certain were werewolves and vampires outside the remains of Dol Guldur. He’d looked in horror and revulsion on the scabrous structure of the Red Temple where rites to further empower Sauron were carried out near the Haradri city of Thetos, and had experienced the soothsaying abilities of the Priest of Amun in the Valley of the Sun during a visit to the temple of Neryet. He’d been accepted as a guest in the hidden land of Lothlórien and had grown up in the Last Homely House of Rivendell.

In short he’d seen great wonders and terrors during his many journeys throughout his own lands and those of the other peoples of Middle Earth. But nothing had prepared him for what he saw now....

He was returning westward from the forest realm of Thranduil when he found himself somewhat lost--something that ought never to have happened to Aragorn son of Arathorn. He was tired, and relieved to at last be free of the company of the creature Gollum. Had he ever been tempted to seek the Enemy’s Ring to enhance his own power, that was now firmly passed--how could anyone ever consider such an idea once they’d seen to what the Ring had brought the one once known as Sméagol? And it was Gandalf’s belief that Gollum had once been a Hobbit--a distant relative perhaps of Bilbo Baggins, who now dwelt in his adar’s home? He shuddered at the idea as he stood in these unfamiliar hills and tried to discern how he might best return to his intended route.

However, he had to admit that he wasn’t even certain which direction he was facing. It was noon, and what little could be seen of the Sun through the thick fog that had managed to envelop the rolling lands he’d entered in the early morning hours appeared to be right overhead, leaving him to question which direction was north, even. All he could see was roiling mist. All he could smell was the scent of damp soil and stone. All he could hear----

He turned, trying to determine the source of the rolling thunder he could hear. No, not proper thunder, for there were no flashes of lightning to precede the bursts of noise, and there was a certain uniformity to the length of each burst of sound that indicated that this was due to purposeful activity of some sort. Purposeful activity was indicative of living creatures of some kind, he knew; but whether said creatures were sentient or dumb, benign or malevolent, given to evil or to good or merely to their own interests could not yet be discerned. Well, he had no means of determining the nature of the inhabitants of this region if he did not seek them out; so he at last set himself to following the sound as best--and secretly--as he could. Quietly he climbed up onto the flank of the nearest hill and set off around it, following the sound to its source as soundlessly as only a Ranger and tracker trained by Elves could move.

It had to have taken at least three hours to reach the cleft from which the sound emanated. The fog was much thicker, and must reach quite high now, as he’d not been able to even determine the location of the sun for some time. He’d seen only a rabbit and a single fox as he’d picked his way carefully though the rolling and rocky lands in which he found himself. No birds called; he couldn’t even hear the sighing of a faint breeze through the narrow valleys and tumbled stones and the sparse heather and low brush that clothed the thin soil. All he could hear at irregular intervals was the nearly uniform sounds of something rolling against a hard surface followed by the boom of an impact of some sort and then the falling of heavy objects in an echoing space. He had to be close now! Once he peered around that large outcrop of stone he ought to be able--at last!--to see whatever it was that sounded like this.

Carefully he prepared to move forward, first making certain that no one lay in hiding watching for intruders. Once he was finally assured the great mass of stone was not itself being watched he moved forward warily, again carefully ascertaining no one was secretly watching him before he finally looked out of his hiding place, hopeful at last to learn what might be the source of the noise.

Were they Dwarves? It appeared they might be, but they looked like none he’d ever seen. They were smaller than the folk of the Blue Mountains or Erebor or the Misty Mountains he’d ever met. Their hair was darker than most of the Dwarves he’d known, and although some had their hair pulled back from their faces and bound into a tail with a leather thong, none exhibited the often elaborate braids and gold beads the Dwarves he knew had always woven into their beards and often their hair as well. Nor was their hair as thick and curly as that of any Dwarves he’d seen before. They were about the size of Hobbits and dressed much as Hobbits and the folk of the Breelands dressed, actually, and certainly he’d known his share of Hobbits with hair that color; but no Hobbits grew beards of any sort, much less wore boots. But from where might such boots have come, with their squared toes and odd brass buckles? And these wore not hoods but hats--mariners’ hats, from what he could tell, with wide brims folded up in a most odd triangular design. Aragorn felt himself shivering with the unreality of it.

At least he could see what it was that was making the noise--a long flat expanse of stony ground had been cleared of all obstructions, and what appeared to be nine stone bottles had been set up at the near end--indeed, one of these odd folk was setting them into a precise alignment. When at last he was satisfied with his handiwork he stepped well out of the way, and one of the others who waited at the other end of the cleared space took up what appeared to be a heavy ball of some sort--was it made of stone?-- readied himself, approached a few steps and rolled the ball across the ground at the arrangement of bottles. The ball rumbled across the stony ground until it struck the stone bottles, sending them toppling and spinning, and all those watching laughed, cheering and applauding.

Their language was clearly not Khuzdul--indeed it was one that the Man had never heard before. Their voices were deep enough, he supposed, but not as rough as any Dwarf he’d as yet met. The one who arranged the bottles had stepped forward, retrieved the ball from a purposely made depression behind where the bottles had stood, and rolled it expertly back to where the rest waited. He then set himself to resetting the bottles each in its place. The rest were talking, and one, with a sly grin said something in low tones to the others before he hefted the stone ball and made his approach, aiming it precisely at the legs of the one who was busy at this end. At the sound of the rumbling of the ball the one setting up the bottles turned, only just managing to leap out of the way before the ball reached him, knocking down four of the bottles and just missing his feet before it fell into the depression. Alarmed and angry, he yelled at the bowler, shaking his fist. The rest all laughed as the offender affected an air of innocence, clearly insisting he’d only thought the fellow at this end was done. Aragorn watched, amused, as the bowler apparently begged for the return of the ball, the one setting the bottles shaking his head, going back and replacing the downed bottles swiftly before fetching the ball and rolling it back and pointedly moving well out of range. The bowler shrugged, made his approach, and set the ball rolling once more, managing to send all the bottles toppling before it fell into the depression. One of the others brought forth a tankard of some kind and pressed it into the hands of the one who’d bowled, clapping him on his back as the fellow drank.

The one who arranged the bottles was again busy about his task, then picked up the ball from its depression, this time carrying it back to the others and indicating it was the turn of another to labor at replacing the bottles once struck for a while. There was some good-natured argument, but at last the new one started down toward where the bottles stood, carefully walking well out of the way of the one who now approached with the ball. He who’d quit his duty with the bottles approached a roughly hewn table and picked up a tankard, filling it from a large pitcher and turning to watch the competition as he took a deep draught, laughing in derision as the ball this time just missed the arrangement of bottles and landed in the depression hard enough to almost bounce out of the opposite side. The bottle setter laughed also, calling out what must be a friendly insult to the bowler, who made a rude gesture with his hand. The new one at this end fetched the ball out, and as the other had done rolled it back to those waiting, and the failed bowler, plainly frustrated, tried again. He managed to clip a single bottle, and the rest were all making rowdy comments as he sought to excuse himself. Once the fallen bottle was righted and the rest checked to see to it their alignment was proper, the one this end again returned the ball, managing to catch the protesting bowler in the back of his legs and knocking him into the arms of the rest. Once he was upright on his own again he turned back and yelled his own protests and threats until another impatiently pulled him back and indicated he should go to the table to fetch more drinks.

It was as this one approached the table and the one who’d set the bottles in their places before that the Ranger saw the Man who sat slumped over the table, and all laughter at the antics of these strange folk fled him. There rested the form of a Man, dressed in shabby clothing similar to those of the shorter folk and with the battered straw hat of a farmer by him. He had long hair, once dark and rich but now greying, and a ragged long beard lying across the tabletop. Whoever he was, he was plainly asleep--and had obviously been asleep for quite some time, considering the spider web that ran between the nearby shrub and the Man’s shoulder. A dusty tankard sat near his motionless right hand, and by his sideways-turned face sat a plate empty of all save a portion of a bread roll of some sort, one that looked as grey and dry as stone. Leaning against the table was a belled metal tube of some kind, and lying the other side of his head from the plate was something similar to a water skin, but made of heavy cloth rather than leather, and with a brass cap rather than a cork. One of the two at the table looked at the Man, then made what seemed to be a comment about him to the other, who shrugged, gave the Man his own dismissive glance, and returned his own attention to the ongoing game.

Aragorn couldn’t later explain what it was about the realization someone was in what appeared to be an unnatural sleep at that table that so disturbed him, but he found himself retreating from the place of the bowling game to somewhere else as far away as he could find. At last he found an overhang where he felt he could take shelter for a time, and after placing his pack in a protected corner he unrolled his blanket and wrapped it about his shoulders, still shuddering about the unknown fate of the Man he’d seen. He at last fell into a light doze, waking frequently as the rolling of the stone ball and the toppling of the bottles could be heard. Near the middle of the night, however, the noise abated at last, and somehow feeling relieved he managed to sleep more deeply until shortly before dawn.

After readying himself for the day and eating a sparse meal, he set himself to retracing his steps of the day before under a now-cleared sky and crisp autumn day. But although he could follow many of his own tracks, he could find little that corresponded with what he’d seen in the previous day’s fog. It was as if the landscape had changed completely since yesterday afternoon. There was no maze of rocky hills and shrubbery, but a formation of four hills reaching out from the roots of the Misty Mountains, a formation he recognized well enough as standing somewhat south of the pass he’d been seeking. As for the rocky outcrop behind which he’d watched the game of bowling--he failed to find it at all, much less the place where the group of short folk had rolled their stone ball at the formation of stone bottles. At last he returned to where he’d camped to retrieve his pack and healer’s bag, bow and quiver, and only then realized he’d apparently lost his dagger. Hefting his goods, he again followed his steps through the four hills, but after an hour of searching he realized the knife was nowhere to be found. Cursing himself for a careless fool, he at last turned toward the mouth of the pass. He had plenty of other daggers, of course, and the one lost hadn’t had much in the way of significance; but for a Ranger to misplace his gear was a most unusual occurrence, and he knew his Elven brothers wouldn’t let him hear the end of it when they learned what he’d done. As for what he’d seen--again he shrugged. He shook his head, then turned to the pass. In four days time he’d be back in Rivendell--orcs permitting, of course. Rivendell--the companionship of his Elven family for a couple days, a hot bath, adequate and well-prepared food for a change, clean clothes, and the retrieval of Roheryn so he could return to his place amongst the Dúnedain once more.

*******


He awoke to find he’d been settled against the stone walls of the canyon where he’d watched Henrik Hudson’s folk playing at ninepins. He rose and stretched, amazed at how stiff he felt. The tankard in which they’d plied him with beer sat on the ground by him, but it was empty and long dry, now filled with dust and the corpse of a large fly. He shuddered to look at it.

Where was his musket? He couldn’t afford to have lost it. But what he found, although it was the make of his own firearm, was clearly something the strange folk had left in his own piece’s place, for it was rusty and the stock gone grey from exposure. His bag of powder had obviously been treated badly, for the fabric was torn away and only the straps and brass cap appeared to be left. The smaller leather bag of shot in his pocket was cracked and dry, although the lead shot itself appeared unharmed. And where was his hat? Unable to find it, at last he moved off toward the mouth of the canyon where the game had been held, noting that a single ball, split in two, lay in the depression into which such things had fallen during the game he’d watched. But as he passed the outcrop of stone at the mouth of the canyon, Rip saw something lying in the path--a sheathed dagger with what appeared to be a crystal set into the hilt in the midst of a silvery star. Intrigued, he picked it up. He saw where someone with odd boots had knelt behind the stone, apparently watching the game. Where that one had gone, however, he had no idea, for there was no sign of any prints leading away from there.

He looked up--he’d obviously been out all the previous day and the entire night. The leaves on the maple tree rustled in red and gold glory, and he smiled at it. Well, he’d best be home, he supposed. But the thought he’d spent the eve of All Hallows out in the wilds of the mountains disturbed him. Tucking the odd dagger into his belt, Rip Van Winkle turned toward home, but quickly realized that somehow trees and shrubbery had apparently grown mightily in the space of a single night. Still bemused, he set himself to finding his way back to the village.



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