By the Road Abandoned – Part 5
“Well!” Brassica broke the silence that had fallen in the wake of Beldrieth’s departure, getting up with a stretch and a yawn. “I think I could do with some sleep.” She leaned over the kettle simmering above the fire, sniffing at the rabbit stew bubbling inside it. “That’ll come along nicely, I think,” she declared, pleased. “And you can keep it going a good long while, too, you know, just keep dumping carrots and onions in, top it up with water, some salt now and again…more coneys, if you catch them. Game hen, too, if there’s any around here.”
“You seem to have given me a gift that will continue giving!” Torogethir leaned over the kettle, to peer inside and inhale the fragrant steam rising from inside. “Ahh, the halflings are a kind folk, little mistress, it’s too long since I had anyone but myself to give a care for what I eat.”
Brassica blushed, and mimicking what she’d seen the elves do, made a shy little bow. “Oh, it’s no great thing for a friend. Your folk in Tinnudir gave me more gifts than I rightly knew what to do with, and I like to pass a little something back.” She paused, and then asked, “May I sleep at the top of your tower?”
“Please!” Torogethir said warmly, and returned the hobbit’s slight bow. “I hope you sleep well. Be mindful on the stairs, the stones can be loose and rock underfoot, but they are sturdy enough.”
The hobbit seemed thoroughly pleased by this prospect, and retrieved a bedroll from her pack. “Celebarad,” she summoned the elf. “Come read to me about Fornost. The Rangers said there were hobbits there. That’s perian. I want to know about the hobbits at Fornost.”
Not for the first time, Llythne chuckled to herself at the sight of the elf, immediately jumping to do the tiny hobbit’s bidding. Torogethir seemed to have caught the same sentiment, and he shared a wink with the Burglar across the fire, as Celebarad was ordered to pick up his book and his own bedroll, and Brassica’s as well, because she was nervous about the stairs and wanted her hands free, and anyway he’d better go up first, but also he should consider himself duly warned that she’d hide him if he fell on her, so the elves had better be as graceful as everybody said, and then he was bidden to remember his manners and tell the Ranger good night and thank you.
“Good night and thank you!” Celebarad repeated dutifully, too occupied otherwise for any of the usually flowery speech that tended to accompany his farewells and greetings.
And then he vanished into the watchtower after Brassica, who apparently considered the old ruin to be an adventure in and unto itself. And shortly, the stairs having been conquered without incident, her tiny face appeared in the upper window, and she called down excitedly, waving furiously, as though Llythne and Torogethir were a mile away, and she hadn’t seen them less than a minute ago. “Good night! Good night and thank you! I like your tower!”
“Sleep well!” Torogethir called up, before dropping his voice for a suspicious sounding laugh-turned-cough.
Now Llythne was alone with the Ranger, and they passed a few minutes in silence, Llythne having retrieved her whetstone again to tend her other dagger, Torogethir puttering about his camp, seeing to the fire and tidying his stores. But Llythne had never been a woman who long endured companionable silences.
“So,” she spoke up, setting her blade aside and rubbing her crooked nose, when the Ranger sat back down on his log with a sigh. “What has you sat by a campfire on the edge of nowhere, watching a silent road and a mouldering ruin?”
Torogethir winced at the question and seemed almost abashed by her forthrightness. He shifted in his seat awkwardly and was a long time answering, and reluctant when he did so. “A trip south. A great deal of ale. A serving girl. And a long ride home, without the supplies I’d been sent for, or the gold sent to buy them.”
Llythne laughed so long and so loudly that Brassica’s head appeared in the watch tower window once more, and she shushed the woman sternly. Torogethir had at first seemed sheepish and embarrassed, but somehow Brassica’s reprimand cut this away, and he grinned ruefully himself. “Ahh, you poor thing,” Llythne sighed, still smiling, slyly now. “Those plump southron lasses, all warm and pretty, with their softness and their curves, you must have been a man unchained. Welcome sight after us women of the north, with all our hardness and unexpectedly sharp edges.”
“No northern woman so much as bats an eye at a Ranger,” Torogethir protested ruefully. “When the Dunedain are a dime a dozen, how does one expect to be distinguished?” He sighed heavily and ran his hand through his short dark hair. By the firelight, Llythne noticed that it was ever so slightly salted with grey, and that silver flashed at his temples. “Aye, but I deserve all I’ve had come to me. Calenglad knows how to make a man pay his dues, that’s for certain, there’s no lonelier post in the whole of Evendim, nor a Ranger made more fretful by solitude than myself. You’ll pardon me speaking so coarsely of my troubles, lass, I forget my courtesies.”
“There’s no call for my pardon, and if you can forget your courtesies enough to drop the ‘lass’, I’ll thank you kindly,” Llythne responded, faintly bemused by what the Ranger considered coarse. “I was half-raised by brigands and ruffians, I can swear a streak bluer than the lady of the lake. You’ve a long way to go towards offending me, Master Dunadan.”
Torogethir’s expression quirked slightly at the title, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “May I be ‘Torogethir’, if you would be ‘Llythne’?” he questioned. “It’s only that ‘Master Dunadan’ is a severe sounding sort of term, and even cresting my forty-first year, it still sounds like a title my father ought to wear. And your name, Llythne, is lovely enough that it should get said as often as possible.”
Reluctantly charmed by the compliment, Llythne shrugged and tried very hard not to seem pleased. “Torogethir, then.”
“If we’re forgetting our courtesies and trading pointed questions, Llythne, might I ask what has you claiming allegiance with the tomb-robbers? It’s not a wise alliance to claim, not in these lands.”
At this, Llythne’s eyes narrowed slightly, and she came to a realization about the Ranger–which she had been on the edges of before, but grew certain of now. “You don’t know a thing that gets said about me,” she marveled, half to herself. “Not one word from your fellows has ever passed your ears, about the wicked thief wench from Ost Forod?”
“If it’s been in the last three months, you’ll forgive me, I’ve been a bit behind in my gossip,” Torogethir answered dryly.
“Last fifteen years more like it, ever since my father deposited me in Ost Forod, and went off on his own ranging. Have you had your ears stoppered up and your head bound up in that silly old hood?” There was a slight edge of bitterness in Llythne’s voice now, but it seemed not to be the warning that might have been expected, for Torogethir was unperturbed.
“Then,” he responded, “I’ve been whiling away a good number of those years in Angmar, and perhaps you’ve not been so greatly talked about as you suppose, since my return to the lakeshore.”
This stopped Llythne cold, for the wastes of Angmar were barren and desolate, black and blasted and dark, and while she’d known Dunedain to make the trek into the country of the Enemy–she’d known fewer to return. And she’d never have guessed it of Torogethir, with his wry humour and his still-easy smile, that he had been half her lifetime in the ashen wastes. The Rangers who had come back had always come back grim and hard and aged an extra ten years. Llythne had to bite her tongue to keep herself from inquiring what devilry had kept Torogethir young and cheerful. Instead she was silent, before drawing on her courage to ask, “Tell me…did you ever in your time in Angmar meet a Dunadan by the name of Lainathion? I couldn’t speak to his age with certainty, but he’d be passing sixty now. As to his height, his build, his hair colour, or whether he’s even like to be alive, I couldn’t say, it’s been too long. But I’ve not had a chance to pass friendly conversation with a Dunadan out of Angmar, and I’d be much obliged if you’d any word of him.”
To his credit, Torogethir searched his memory long and hard, though it was a memory of a dark and painful time and place–but could draw up no recollection of any such Ranger, and told Llythne so regretfully.
“Ah, that’s all right. I was never certain he went to Angmar, anyway, and it’s been too long an age for me to truly be vexed. I’ve had as much time raising myself as he had time raising me, and I’m not certain he’d be pleased with what he came home to, if ever he even did come home.” This was not said with any particular sorrow, or anything really other than matter-of-factness, for it was something Llythne had made her peace with a long time ago.
Torogethir spent a few minutes digesting this, before prompting, “You’ve danced quite elegantly around my actual question.”
Llythne grinned at the Ranger’s sharpness, at least a little impressed that he hadn’t been derailed by her slight tangent. “Aye, well, if you knew what you were listening to, I actually answered it fairly enough. My father was a Dunadan, a good man, and bound in his duty just like any of you. I don’t know where he went, but I know that he didn’t want to bring a stripling of a daughter with him. So, I stayed. And I was angry and rebellious, and I found other young people who were just as angry and just as rebellious. Do you know Bill Tripper and Harry Hinchcliffe? Ahh, you probably don’t, they’re not often out this way, and they’d creep beneath your watch anyhow.”
“That’s painfully unkind,” Torogethir laughed. “Rogues, the both of them, I take it?”
“No, I’m a rogue. I’m all wicked cleverness and gleeful mischief and I know it too well to be humble, so instead I’m quite cheeky. They are thugs and brutes of the worst kind, and they had entirely more years of my youth than they deserved, and more than that besides.” Llythne shrugged. “But it’s over and past, now, and I was pulled out of their company by Basil Gummidge, when he finally managed to catch hold of me.”
This was a name Torogethir knew, and he nodded. “The Arbiter is a good man.”
“He’s an old stick,” Llythne responded, thought not without a certain fondness. “I feel for him now, what I put him through. I was a bit of a hellion, and he owed it to my father to keep me safe. I’d done enough by the time I was eighteen to deserve a fair amount of punishment, and punish me he did. He made a prisoner of me, in the old library at Ost Forod, and set me to copying out the histories.”
The burglar grinned and shrugged. “Well, when you’re eighteen and being shut up for eight hours of the day in a dusty, dark old building that reeks of mold and crumbling parchment, you think of the whole scenario quite tragically. I didn’t want to be locked in a chamber with the stories of dead men and dead kingdoms. I wanted to run and to rage and to plunder. It was the thing that needed to be done with me, though. I didn’t understand.” Llythne trailed off and looked up at the sky above, the glittering stars. Her voice was softer, less brash and more introspective when she spoke again. “I didn’t understand,” she repeated, convicted now. “I didn’t know who–what–my father was. What he served, what our–my–heritage is.” Here she looked at Torogethir and smiled. “What you are, too. We are the children of kings. And the kingdom is not dead, it only sleeps, hidden in the north. We do not ward the tombs of long dead men, we ward our history. I wept, when I realized what I’d done, in my youth and my anger, cracking the stone doors and taking from my forebears what was laid with them when they left this life. I repented with the whole of my heart.”
“You’re no common tomb robber, that’s certain,” was Torogethir’s only comment, and though Llythne thought that some of the warmth had left his tone, she hoped she only imagined it.
“I’d be a liar if I claimed I were otherwise,” she admitted, sighing. “It’s what I know. I know I was wrong, in the way I used the gifts I’ve been given. I’m good with a knife. My father saw to that, at least, before he left. I’ve never known my match when it comes blade-to-blade.”
“Who broke your nose?”
Llythne laughed and tapped the crooked bridge of her nose. “Harry did. Recently. Oh…well, perhaps a year ago. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. But Basil put up a bounty on him, and that got me interested. Ahh, but it’s a long, sordid story. I had something that needed settling. It wasn’t going to be any knife but mine that spilled the life out of him.” Delicately skirting any further inquiry about Harry Hinchliffe, Llythne turned her face in profile and pressed a fingertip against the tip of her nose, highlighting the broken bridge. “I’m used to it now! I think it makes me look quite dangerous.” Then she leveled a finger at Torogethir and narrowed her eyes. “If we’re trading pointed questions, and the rate is one to one, then I think that puts you one up on me. So. Tell me how a man spends over a decade in Angmar and remains as fresh and chipper as yourself.”
The rate did indeed prove to be one to one, and the hours before dawn whiled away as they only do when people are in intimate conversation. Llythne couldn’t have explained what exactly it was that caught her attention and kept her talking. She was fairly sure in Torogethir’s case that he would have talked to anyone, for any length of time, about whatever, just to have some conversation stored up for the next month of solitude. When Beldrieth reappeared in the darkest part of the night, just before the day began to think of dawning, she greeted Llythne with an arched eyebrow and a restrained comment.
Llythne only smiled, tugging Torogethir’s cloak tighter about her shoulders. At some point in the evening, she’d migrated nearer to where the Ranger sat, and another flask of wine had materialized. As Beldrieth circled quietly around them, Torogethir dozed, and Llythne sat thoughtfully watching the fire, as she had for the past hour or so. She sat for a few moments more, reflective and privately content, before getting to her feet and stretching, and helping Beldrieth as she began to reassemble their packs for the road ahead.