By the Road Abandoned – Part 3
Only a hobbit, Llythne had concluded, could go on at such lengths on the merits of waybread, as it was made by the elves as compared to the Dunedain. By this point, the burglar had forgotten how they’d actually came to be on this particular topic, but it was shocking just how much Brassica had to say on the subject. Further to the point, only a hobbit could find flaws with the elvish preparation, and been staunchly certain that she could improve on it, if given the opportunity.
Night had only just fallen, and the character of the terrain around them had changed markedly. Gone were the rolling green hills of Parth Aduial, the lush green grass having grown patchier and patchier, mingling more with the coarse gray-green grasses of the downs, and thickets of gorse and heather ringing the ubiquitous tumbled-down chunks of white rubble. The ground underneath the meager vegetation was stony and hard, flinty rock to which the grasses clung feebly. Where the trees that dotted the slopes had previously been verdant and healthy, here they began to look sickly. More and more of them were dead, bleached like the bones of skeletal hands, twisting upward in the pale light. The light of the moonrise spread around them as the party rode eastward, casting long, pale shadows on the road they left behind. The early summer warmth had faded from the day, and the chill had drawn the moisture from the air, a faint mist beginning to rise from the ground, swirling about the feet of their horses. In point of fact, Llythne was beginning to realize that she’d never come this far east, and never at night. The region bordered on eerie, and the burglar felt the flesh at the back of her neck tighten slightly, drawing taught all the way up to her scalp as she shivered. Brassica was, naturally, completely oblivious.
“…of course, everything being said, at the end of the day, it’s really not fair to compare the two,” the hobbit mused blithely, in a tone that made it sound as though she might be coming to the conclusion of her almost scholarly sounding oratory, “they’re as different as chalk and cheese, when it comes to flavour and how they’re made. Did you get a bite of the elf cake, anyway? They use quite a lot of honey, though I couldn’t say where they’re getting it–if it’s out of that forest, let me tell you, they’re doing themselves no favours…”
It wasn’t that Llythne had never had occasion to come out this way. Though truth be told, most of the reason she hadn’t was owing to the fact she’d always managed to contrive an excuse to avoid doing so. Here the hills that rose around them were different–as though the gentle green swells had had their outsides stripped away, to reveal walls of cold, dark stone beneath, deeply cracked and pitted, and surmounted by crowns of the bone-white trees, rooted in thin gray soil. These crags narrowed to enclose the road that cut through them, a track not often taken, and it’s white flagstones now a pale memory beneath layers of dirt, muting the sound of horse hooves as they passed over it.
“…that’s what I was having a tricky time placing…my cousin keeps bees, you see, and everyone knows you get a different sort of honey depending on where your bees are getting their nectar from. His da keeps an apple orchard–you can imagine how lovely that honey is! He always gives me a jar for my birthday–anyway–did you try the elf cake? It tasted a little bit on the piney-side. Accountable to the honey, in my opinion. I hope they weren’t putting pine needles in it. And dry. Shame of a thing, that it should get dry. And be piney. You know, if I ever do come back up here…”
Truthfully, in the dark and the cold and the slowly rising wind, the only bright spot to be seen was the ruin which was their destination, an old watchtower atop a hill beside the road, its western face kissed by a the light of a fire, from which a small curl of smoke rose slowly in the dark. Llythne reflected, as they drew nearer to the ruin, that it might well be the last time she slept in one of the keeps of the Old Kingdom, if she decided to continue along with Beldrieth and Celebarad, wherever their journey might take them. In fact, she went so far as Trestlebridge, Llythne realized that she might, for the first time in her life, sleep in a building that was less than a century old. She chuckled to herself at the notion that this was a good enough reason to continue along with the journey, at least as far as Trestlebridge, and Brassica took this to be in response to one of her comments, and giggled as well.
“…I know! Isn’t it silly? Bacon, of all things! Now, I’m as a fond of bacon as any hobbit, but I think the Rangers have gone a bit far putting it in their waybread. Oh, it’s not to say I don’t appreciate that they gave some thought to our meals on the road, but I wonder which of them cooked it? I wonder if all Rangers make it this way. If you want to know what I suspect, it’s that one of them had some leftover bacon, and thought folding into his cram was as good an idea as any. Poor silly Ranger, maybe he was just trying to make it special! Well, you know, now I have to come back to Tinnudir, so I can talk to some Rangers about their food…”
Tapping the hobbit’s shoulder and pointing, Llythne indicated the dark-figure that had emerged from the ruin, silhouetted on the hilltop by the light of his fire behind him. “Seems to me you’ll have your chance sooner than you think, I think we’ve found our waypoint for the night.”
Brassica started visibly in the saddle, and gazed around as they began to mount the hill. “Oh, we’ve come further than I thought!” She bit her lower lip and shivered the same way Llythne had. “…bit of a dreary place, isn’t it?”
“To be sure,” Llythne agreed, reining in her mount up behind Beldrieth and Celebarad, who had stopped a respectful distance from the Ranger on the hilltop. The man was hooded and cloaked against the evening’s chill, but his face was unmasked, and Llythne was pleased to see this. To often did the Dunedain hide their faces from strangers, and in Llythne’s opinion it did nothing to endear them to common folk. His face visible, Llythne could see that he was not a Ranger she knew, and made a brief appraisal of him. He was her senior by perhaps a decade, if he wore his age truly, and did not look young or old for his years. He had a rather narrow face, and a jawline shadowed by a few days growth of beard. Lines wrinkled the corner of his eyes, though his face was stern, Llythne had the impression that this was merely because he was required to be stern, facing strange travelers at the gate he guarded, and that if circumstances were different, he’d have been smiling.
Beldrieth broke the silence around all parties taking their measure of one another with a solemn greeting, “Hail, Dunadan. I have been given a message from your Chieftain, Calenglad at the lakeshore, and a writ in his hand granting us passage through this gate. We look to take the east road across the North Downs when dawn breaks. With your permission, we would camp here the night.”
At this, the Ranger pushed his hood back, to rub a hand through slightly receding, short dark hair. “Aye, you’ll have my permission, but only in exchange for the tale that has two elves, a woman, and a hobbit traveling through the Evendim Gate! There’s little by way of traffic on this road, and by that right, less by way of conversation! Writ or no writ, my good folk, approach and be welcome!” The smile Llythne had expected finally broke through the sternness like sunlight through clouds. “Worry more about whether I shall let you leave by morning, for it’s a good month since I’ve had anyone but myself to talk to! Come, come in, I’ll put the water on to boil, and we’ll brew you something hot.”
“I like him,” Brassica whispered to Llythne, as they crested the hill and passed through the walls of the Ranger’s small camp. It was a neatly arrayed outpost, a stout little tent pitched above a bedroll. A barrel of fresh water, from which the ranger was filling a battered old kettle, and a small stack of crates made a leeward wall, where the camp was not enclosed in by the walls of the old watchtower. A fire crackled merrily in the center, and once the kettle had been secured on a tripod above the flames, he went to a pile of firewood, to draw over a few logs for his guests to sit on. The elves had dismounted, and Celebarad was gently stroking the nose of his mare, and talking softly to her in Elvish, as Beldrieth hobbled both their mounts.
Llythne helped the hobbit slide down from the saddle to land on the ground, and Brassica promptly went over to the Ranger, sticking out a hand to introduce herself. “Good evening, Master Dunadan, my name’s Brassica Colewort from Oatbarton. Hobbits sometimes put up a fuss about you Ranger types, but I won’t. We stayed with Rangers in Tinnudir and I quite like the lot of you. What’s your name? Have you ever met any hobbits before? Beldrieth–she’s the blonde elf, Celebarad is the other one, he doesn’t speak the Common-Tongue, but he’s learning…do you speak elvish? That would help–anyway, Beldrieth brought a mess of coneys that she hunted on the way, do you like coneys? It’s a dreary sort of place you’re camping in, does it get lonely out here? Oh! Do you have any waybread? Does your waybread have bacon in it?”
The Ranger laughed, and picked a handful of questions to answer as he bent slightly to shake Brassica’s hand. “I’m called Torogethir, and you do me a very great honour by being the first halfling I’ve met! If your people are indeed fussy about mine, then I think you by yourself may make up for it, if I may be permitted to call you friend so soon after our meeting.”
“Certainly,” Brassica conceded grandly, and glanced up over her shoulder at Llythne, as the burglar joined her by the fireside, stretching her hands out to warm them. “Oh, and this is Llythne. She’s from Ost Forod.” The hobbit frowned sternly up at Torogethir, and waved a finger at him. “And I’ll warn you now that sometimes I’ve seen the Rangers be quite rude to her, and I’m not having any of it, even if she just thinks it’s funny. You be nice!”
With a flourish, Torogethir crossed a hand behind his back and with the other grasped Llythne’s outstretched fingertips and bowed deeply to the mildly startled woman. “No true Men of the West could treat the lady with anything but courtesy. Are you certain you weren’t staying in the company of tomb robbers who merely claimed the heritage of the West?”
“No, but you find yourself in the company of one such robber now,” Llythne answered dryly, shifting her fingers in the Ranger’s to grasp his hand firmly, and cocking her chin at him with a faint air of defiance, as he straightened to stand and meet her gaze. “But I’ll try to refrain from robbing you, if I can.”
“Dear lady, I have nothing worth stealing,” Torogethir chuckled, and shook her hand. With Llythne greeted, as she seated herself by the fireside, he turned to the two elves, who had taken care of the horses. Celebarad carried his book and looked the Ranger over with unabashed curiosity, while Beldrieth carried her three rabbits in one hand, and a folded bit of parchment, the message from Calenglad, in the other. “I am always glad for the company of the Fair Folk!” Torogethir declared, and then, “Mae Govannon, my friends.”
“Well met!” Celebarad answered, beaming at Torogethir and making a polite half-bow. He presented his book, and then waved a hand over his shoulder at the tower. “Your tower is good!” he proclaimed, and then fumbled through the pages, in search of some passage. “I have many of the words about it!”
Several leaves fell from the book, and Brassica, tutting, came over to gather them up for the elf, and to give him a shove in the back of the knee towards the fire. “Come sit down, you’re going to lose all your new words,” she scolded. Herding Celebarad over to the fireside, she stopped to tug on the Ranger’s cloak. “If you’ll skin the coneys, I’ll spit them and roast them. My ma taught me the tricks about roasting coneys, I hope you’ve got some salt.”
“I’m not some barbarian from the hills, of course I’ve got salt,” Torogethir chuckled, and accepted the brace of rabbits from Beldrieth. “You wouldn’t know it from the way the halfling seems to order things, but I take it you are the leader of this queer party, my lady? I hope you’ll come and rest yourself, and while I prepare the gift you’ve brought me, you’ll give me another in the telling of the story of what’s brought you all to my little camp.”
Beldrieth nodded graciously, and smiled at the Ranger. “With pleasure, Torogethir. Though you will want to sit comfortably, for to tell it the way it deserves telling will take more time than you might expect.”