By the Road Abandoned – Part 4
Whatever her opinions were about waybread, Brassica proved to be more than familiar with the way around rabbits, and had expertly dressed them with salt, honey, and some peculiar blend of herbs she’d acquired from the Ranger’s stores. She had eyed Beldrieth’s quiver of arrows speculatively, before thinking better of it and assigning Celebarad to go and cut her some stout sticks, which she had then directed Llythne to sharpen them into spits. When this was accomplished, she had skewered the rabbits expertly, propped them over the fire, and then proceeded to fuss and cluck about them as they roasted, until she deemed them worthy to be served, and they were dished out to the party, with chunks of tough dark bread, and a flask of pale, fiery wine that Torogethir had been saving for just such an occasion.
It would have been difficult to say who had most enjoyed the little feast and the rousingly told tale of their adventures so far, but Llythne would have put her money on the Ranger. Once the meal had finished, and a companionable silence had fallen over the camp, he sat on the ground, leaning back against one of the logs by the fire, long legs stretched out and a hand resting comfortably on his stomach. He grinned broadly, unthinkingly, and after the meal and the conversation, seemed content for the moment merely to sit and relax in the company that surrounded him.
Brassica, having taken custody of the coneys once they’d been skinned, had persisted in this charge now that they’d been eaten. Humming softly to herself , she was picking over the carcasses and layering them in Torogethir’s dented kettle, along with a handful of vegetables she’d raided from the crates at the campside, to be topped over with water, and allowed to simmer slowly on the banked fire overnight, so Torogethir might have a nice stew the next day. Celebarad had returned once more to his book, and Beldrieth had seated herself nearby, occasionally answering questions Celebarad posed about some passage or the other, but otherwise methodically occupied with restringing her bow.
Lacking anything else to do, Llythne with drew a worn, flat whetstone from a pouch at her belt, unsheathed the knife she wore at her right hip, and began to tend the blade, running her stone rhythmically down the edge. Her thoughts spiraled down some inconsequential course, until a memory snagged in her mind, and she looked up. “Beldrieth,” she addressed the elfess, “have you given Calenglad’s message to Torogethir yet?”
Apparently this had slipped from Beldrieth’s mind as well, and, now reminded, she retrieved the folded and sealed piece of parchment, and handed it to the Ranger, leaning forward and stretching so he could reach and take it.
Torogethir groaned slightly at the effort of sitting forward, and then chuckled ruefully as he grasped the parchment between the tips of his fingers, straightening to sit up properly, with a sigh, and holding the message up in the light, unopened. There was a wry twist to his lips, and he made no move to break the seal. Instead, he flipped the parchment nimbly between his fingers, and sighed.
“I don’t suppose,” he began, looking hopefully at Beldrieth, “that when he gave this to you, he seemed as though he might be wanting to send someone to replace me out here at this lonely old outpost?”
Beldrieth shrugged. “I could not speak to the plans of your chieftain.”
Torogethir sighed again, and continued to stare broodingly at the folded parchment. “Ah, and I should not ask you to speculate, we’re a cagey bunch” (and at this, Brassica felt the need to let out a “hah!” under her breath) “and don’t much care for prying about our plans.” He’d noted Brassica’s huffy exclamation, and grinned at the hobbit. “Tell me, are the halflings a people of the wagering persuasion?”
“My ma would have my hide if she ever found out,” Brassica declined apologetically. She paused to think for a moment. “Of course, she’s liable to have my hide anyway, for throwing my little brother off a cliff, and stabbing a goblin, and then cutting down some more goblins, and then taking up with Rangers, and getting kidnapped by brigands…but I feel like I should at least try and make some effort.”
The Ranger chuckled at this, and then cocked an eyebrow at Llythne across the fire. “How about you, lass? Seems to me they fancy a flutter in Ost Forod every now and again, what would you stake on the notion that I can tell you precisely what words my commander has bidden you carry to me, and that it would not make one whit of difference if I were to throw this note in the fire, unread?”
Whether it was some insight that had told him, or merely chance, Torogethir had hit upon a rather dangerous element of Llythne’s personality, and the slow, almost wicked smile that dawned on her friendly face along with the abrupt cessation of the scrape of stone on steel, should perhaps has served as a warning. “It seems to me,” she said archly, “that you claimed to have nothing worth stealing. But tell me this, Master of the Eastern Gate, have you a spare cloak in your stores?”
“Aye,” Torogethir confirmed, suddenly made wary, “A spare, though, not so warm and sturdy as this one. Why?”
Rising lithely and stretching lazily, Llythne took a few steps forward and snatched the message from the Ranger’s fingers, and held it speculatively between the tips of two fingers. “Because I should hate to leave a poor man shivering in the cold, for no greater crime than being foolish enough to gamble with me. And I’ll be taking that fine cloak of yours, on the stake that this writ needs reading.”
“Hah!” Torogethir laughed, and slapped his knee. “I’ve been sat at this gate for the better part of three months, and the only word Calenglad ever sends to me is that I am performing my duty admirably, and that he has no other orders waiting for me. I have no reason to expect that this has changed.” He folded his arms across his chest and mock-frowned at the younger woman. “And you’ve put up no similar stake, Llythne, self-proclaimed Tomb Robber of Ost Forod, or do you merely intend to rob me under the guise of a friendly gamble?”
“Be nice,” Brassica growled, as menacingly as is possible for a hobbit (though this is considerable menace, when good manners are under siege).
Llythne handed the writ back to Beldrieth and cocked her hip towards the seated Ranger, prominently displaying her newly sharpened dagger. “I’m of the mind that the man who proposes the wager is the man one should be wary of,” she said, but she gestured at the knife at her belt. “But I’d put the better of my blades behind my claim.”
At this Torogethir balked slightly. “Oh, I would not deprive you of your protection on the road ahead…”
“You won’t,” Llythne said firmly, eyes gleaming in the firelight. “Or would you insult me by backing out of our ‘friendly gamble’?” She removed the blade from its sheathe and offered it, hilt first, to the Ranger. “It’s a fine blade. You should be tempted.”
Torogethir laughed again, now a little nervously, and took the dagger. “Lass, at this point, I feel as though I should be afraid.” But still, he held the knife lightly, feeling the balance, and hefted it appreciatively, then held the blade up to sight down its edge. “Fine indeed! Old Westernesse steel, unless I very much miss my guess. A relic of Arnor? I could not begin to guess at the age of it, though I think there is some faint history still inscribed on the blade…which is as sharp as a winter wind, I see, you keep a keen edge. Have you rebound this hilt, recently? I can still smell the freshness of the leather. Ahh, you had to put it in my hand, and I am tempted.” Regretfully, he handed the dagger back. “I cannot in good faith take a blade so loved from you, not when you have only made designs on my old cloak, however warm and sturdy it may be.”
“I would not have put it up if I feared to lose it,” Llythne answered, shrugging and sitting back down. “If I lose it, I’ll have lost it well, to one who at least knows the weight and the worth of it. It’ll be worth all the more if you carry with you the tale that you took it off me. The Dunedain, at least, will like that.”
Now the Ranger seemed torn, and looked warily at Beldrieth. “I begin to wonder if you know something I don’t, Llythne the Duplicitous. You’ve fired my curiosity for a message I usually dread receiving, but I wonder if this is a curiosity you’ve already sated for yourself?”
Beldrieth had been listening passively to this exchange, still absorbed her task, though now she oiled her bow with a cloth and a small vial of clear wax. At this, she looked up and shook her head. “It has been in no hand but mine, since it passed from Calenglad’s. Before that I could not say, but to my knowledge, you shall be the next to lay eyes on it.”
This seemed to push Torogethir into a resolution. “Ah, then read it, Lady! For good or ill…or shall I say, for blade or chill…I would put an end to the waiting.” He pointed at Llythne with a stern finger. “Lass, if this is a writ telling me that I have another month to wait at this lonely gate, then I’ll see you burn it for me!”
“Burn it either way,” Llythne answered, with a shrug and a grin. “If the wager goes my way, you’ll be needing all the warmth you can get.”
Smiling faintly, Beldrieth began to break the seal on the folded parchment, then paused, picked up her bow, and used it to reach over and poke Celebarad in the knee. “Here,” she said, holding out the writ, “read this for the good Dunadan.”
The dark-haired elf started as his attention was roused from his book–he seemed utterly ignorant of the whole of the conversation that had gone on around him, but he took the parchment and broke the seal. He studied it seriously for a moment, and then, “Suillaid, Torogethir, Tirith a na Ven Amrun…”
“In Westron,” Beldrieth corrected, gently.
Celebarad frowned at this and gestured with the parchment. “They are not words writ in Westron!” he protested. “Does not the Dunadan read tengwar?”
“I am certain that the Dunadan does, and all the better for the safety of their messages that they do,” Beldrieth answered. “But we are not reading Sindarin for the Dunadan’s benefit, we are reading in Westron for yours.”
Sighing, Celebarad furrowed his brow and studied the writ for a few more moments. Brassica, her rabbit stew seen to and simmering, came to join the Elf on the log where he sat, climbing up to stand beside him and peer over his shoulder at the writ. “You’ll do fine!” she encouraged him, cheerfully patting his shoulder. “Go on, you can do it!”
“Greetings, Torogethir, Watch on the East Road,” Celebarad began, and then more slowly, “The Isle of Rantost is felled, and I have…given task…your…father–ai, tarias. Tor…brother? Orchalwe. Your brother, Orchalwe. He searches now the…estates? What is ‘estate’?”
“The lands that belong to lords,” Llythne explained. “You’re reading well, go on.”
“Le hannon,” and then continuing, “…searches the estates of Arnor. Ost Heryn lies to the south-west of your watch. Seek inside for the enemy, and give your words to the raven when you have found them.” The elf was quite put off by this passage and exclaimed at length in exasperated Elvish, before remembering himself and lapsing back into Westron. “Why give words to ravens! Ravens need not the words more than I do.”
At this there was a rare laugh from Beldrieth, who apparently had no share in Brassica’s compunction about laughing at the younger elf’s efforts, and she held her hand out for the parchment, to pass it along back to Torogethir. “Read the Sindarin, if you wish to understand what was meant. Send word by raven.”
“Well done!” Brassica cheered, and picked up the elf’s book for him. “See, I told you you could do it!”
Celebarad shrugged modestly at the praise, and demurred, “I am greater in the listening than in the speaking of Westron.”
“If one day you are a greater in the listening than the speaking of any tongue, I should feel I have wrought some good on these shores,” Beldrieth commented dryly, and stood, holding her bow, to give the fresh string an experimental tug and then, draw it back through the fullness of its pull. Apparently satisfied, she turned to address her charges and Torogethir, who was musing over the writ from his chieftain. “The morning will come all the sooner and seem all the harsher, on those who do not take their rest now. We leave with the dawn–before the dawn, if possible, to cross the Fields of Fornost. Master Dunadan, I thank you for the warmth and comfort of your fireside. If you would take your rest as well, I will walk the rounds of your watch, that you may have a night’s respite.”
Torogethir looked up, surprised, and hastily got to his feet. “Good huntress, I could not ask it! My charge here…”
“Is a weary and lonesome one, and I would be glad in gifting you a night of peace,” Beldrieth answered firmly, in a tone that brooked no argument, as she slung her bow across her back. “I am a long time on the road, and my legs ache to walk after a day of riding. Grant me your leave, and take your ease, Torogethir. There is nothing that could come down this road that would be beyond my scope.”
Bowing deeply to Beldrieth, Torogethir smiled at the elfess. “I could not refuse so gracious an offer, and I thank you.”
“Then by your leave, I go to walk the road.” Beldrieth cast one more glance about the camp, and then passed some instruction to Celebarad in Elvish. Listening intently, Llythne managed to make out the thrust of it. “The camp is in your charge, guard our companions well. Take your rest for the night in the tower, but remain in wariness. We are on the border of a land scarred by war, and the dead may not lie quiet.”
This seemed to Llythne to be a silly thing to worry about, but she recalled the tales that had kept her from this road in the past, and wondered if perhaps that was where Beldrieth drew her caution. In the warmth and the safety of the watchtower’s shadow, however, these seemed frivolous concern, and more pressing to Llythne was the fact that she was owed her winnings.
“So,” she said, holding out a hand to Torogethir. “I’ll be taking my new cloak now.”