Part 3 – The Ranger(s)
The fog of sleep began to slowly lose its grip as Rathbairn blinked sleep from his eyes. He remembered the brigands and the knife and knew that he had changed form. He remembered the singing and the hobbit minstrel had sung a song that had made him drowsy. Pulling himself to a sitting position, he blinked sleep from his eyes and looked around. A small, musty cell and bars; he did not remember being hauled into a cell. Standing quickly to his feet, he approached the bars and looked out. Besides a single guard could be seen lounging idly in a chair behind a desk, there were no other guards. Looking onto the cells next to him, he could see no one. Across the hall to his left, a woman slept fitfully; strangely, her clothing and skin marked her from Dale. Across to his right, a shapeless form lay on the floor. Directly across the hallway, the cell was empty. As if by summons, the door at the far right of the hallway slammed open and two guards dragging a bloodied battered man entered, a leering stranger beside him. Rathbairn gripped the bars in anger as the guards opened the cell door across from him and dumped the man onto the straw. Slamming the door closed and locking it, they laughed disdainfully at the limp bloody form on the musty straw floor. Turning around, they both started in shock as they met a feral set of eyes.
“Let me out of this cell, now.” Rathbairn growled at the nearest guard.
“You can stay in your cage until someone agrees to let you out, freak.” The third man sneered, standing behind the two guards. “The watch hasn’t decided what to do with you.” Maybe we should just put you out of your misery now, you being cursed at all” he laughed.
Roaring with rage, Rathbairn smashed the bars in fury, the noise jolting the Dale-Woman awake and causing the guards to jump back. “I’ll remember you. The next time we meet, I’ll wipe that smirk off your face” Rathbairn growled. Strangely, the bloodied man across the hall did not stir. Rathbairn silently wondered if the man was dead. The guards and the third laughing man left the hallway, slamming the door and leaving the hallway silent. Looking around the hallway one final time, he sat down and stared across the hallway at the man who lay sleeping quietly, his wounds making him look like a pile of bloody rags. Rathbairn wondered why the man was here, what his crime was. A movement to the left drew his eye, as the Dale woman had been staring at him, her eyes haunted. Rathbairn made to stand and move towards the bars but the woman shrank back and turned away from him, facing the wall. Shaking his head in disbelief, Rathbairn sat quietly, musing in his memories.
A few hours later, a noise woke Rathbairn from slumber. ‘I must have dozed off’ he thought to himself. A clank from the far door ushered in one of the two guards and a familiar sight. It was the Minstrel from the Prancing Pony, the hobbit. She spoke quietly to the guard who turned and closed the door, leaning against it. The hobbit approached the bars slowly, cautiously. Her eyes never left Rathbairn as she approached his cell. She stood quietly regarding him for a few moments. Rathbairn neither moved nor spoke. He regarded the hobbit silently, his gaze studying, measuring her. There was something about this hobbit. She was more than she appeared, more dangerous, wiser and her voice held power. She broke the silence with a deep breath.
“You are a Beorning, of the line of Beorn the Skin-Changer?” she asked him.
When he didn’t answer, she spoke again “I guess you have reason not to trust me. Look, I don’t regret what happened outside the Pony, you were going to kill those men, which would have led to your death in Bree. While you may have been justified to protect yourself, the guards would have killed you. So I did what I did to save your life.”
“What is your name?” he asked suddenly, surprising the Hobbit. “You seem to be more than a simple minstrel”
“You can call me Lily, and yes I am a Minstrel, but not a simple one. I would like to speak to you about something important. I heard you tell Barliman that you were looking for Strider. I went to look for him to get him to help you, but I couldn’t find him. Instead, I’m going to help you myself. I will speak to the Mayor of Bree and get him to release you; he owes me more than a few favours, so I can help you and I ask nothing in return, only that you hear me out.” She regarded him steadily, trying to read his face for some sort of idea what he was thinking. His gaze never left her, which unnerved her a little. She looked into his eyes and saw more than a man, more than a Beorning. She saw the beast inside and pulled her eyes away, blinking steadily. They stood for a few moments, the Beorning gazing at this small creature who had offered him help to escape the cage that held him, the Hobbit staring at the floor.
“I will hear you out, but promise nothing” he said.
She nodded and turned away; calling over her shoulder at him “I’ll be back soon” The guard moved aside to let her out and closed the door behind him as they exited the hallway. Rathbairn rested his head against the back wall and waited.
Night came, silent as an assassin and with it no word from Lily. Supper came from a guard, a young one shaking with fear as he slid the meals through a small gap in the bars along the floor. Rathbairn looked at the food and turned his head, meat porridge of some sort, which the Beorning refused to touch. Across the hallway Rathbairn had failed to notice that a hobbit had entered the cell across from him and was washing the wounds of the man across the hallway, who sat up gingerly. The Hobbit washed and cleaned the man’s wounds with tender care, applying salves and bandages. Soon, the Hobbit stood up and exited the cell, stopping at Rathbairn’s cell and uttering a cheery “Hullo!” before leaving. Moments later, the door opened and Lily entered, followed by an elf and two of the guards. The guard pulled out a key and opened the door to Rathbairn’s cell, holding the door open while the Beorning stepped out.
“You are free to go and you have this convincing young Hobbit to thank for that” the elf said. Rathbairn held out a massive hand. “My weapons?”
“Out the door to your right, they hang on the peg on the wall” the elf said. Rathbairn exited the hallway and felt relief wash over him as he stepped into the large room. He turned right outside the door and his axes and pack hung on the middle peg. He collected the twin axes and placed them into the loops on his belt. He pulled the large two-handed axe and used the sling on his shoulder to wear it strapped on his back. He collected the pack and moved towards the exit, Lily in tow. Pushing the door open, he stepped into the courtyard and stopped, regarding the guards training to his left. Some wielded bow, taking target practice on soft targets. Some used wooden swords to practice their swordplay. A steel-barred fence surrounded the courtyard, the heavy gate locked and guarded. Lily stepped past Rathbairn, elbowing him as she passed. “If you want to stay here you can, but I didn’t spend over an hour convincing the mayor you were acting in defense to let you free for nothing. Now if you are done staring like a fool, follow me and we will go somewhere to speak.”
Rathbairn growled in response to being called a staring fool, to which the Hobbit replied “If you think you can scare me with your grumbling, remember that I can put you to sleep whenever it’s needed. So how about this” she rounded on him quickly. “You be nice to me and I won’t make it nap time on your foolish, stubborn hide. Agreed?” Without waiting for a response, she turned and strode to the gate, looking at the guard who stared openly at the two mismatched companions. Impatient with too many delays, Lily tapped the guard on the elbow. “Guard, I don’t know how it works where YOU are from, but I think you’d better open the gate and let us out before my large friend here decides to use your skull as a key.” Smiling brightly, she looked back at Rathbairn, who was too shocked to reply. Collecting himself quickly, he fixed the guard with a stern glare, causing the young man to drop the keys as he fumbled to unlock the door. Finding the correct key, he unlocked the door and jerked it open, nearly knocking himself senseless as he pulled too hard on the door, it hitting his forehead.
“No need to knock yourself out, my my ,are we having a bad day, guard…?”
“Travan, my lady…I’m Travan” the guard said in a shaky voice.
“Well thank you for your help Travan, you have a nice day now! Come Rathbairn, we must go” Without a backward glance or another word, Lily strode out of the gate and turned slightly left, heading up the hill in the direction of the pony. Rathbairn followed, more confused than ever before.
As they headed up the hill, Lily found she had to nearly run to keep up with the Beorning, his massive legs carrying him one stride for three or four of Lily’s. She quickened her pace and pulled up beside Rathbairn. “We aren’t going to the Pony yet, this way instead” she said as the reached the courtyard in front of the Inn. “Let’s go up the hill where there are fewer eyes and ears.”
“I grow tired of your dancing around and foolishness!” Rathbairn snarled, impatient and angry. “I was just imprisoned and it was difficult to keep the…my temper in check, if you catch my meaning”, fixing Lily with a stern glance. The Hobbit sighed deeply, staring at the Beorning, understanding on her face.
“I’m sorry Rathbairn, truly I am. I mean no disrespect to you, but your pride and abruptness may get you killed someday. And you are too fierce a warrior to lose. Come with me to the top of this hill and we can sit and talk. No more interruptions and no more delays” Smiling earnestly, she led the way to the top of a nearby hill, point at a large tree. “We can talk there”.
Setting pack down as he reached the hill, Rathbairn looked around. The town of Bree looked large from this view, the west gate in the distance and beyond, the road to the Shire. Guards and townspeople strode here and there, the noise and smell so different than home. Lily sat easily under the tree, resting her back to the trunk and patting the ground in front of her. “Come sit my large friend. Tell me your story, and then I’ll tell you mine.”
Rathbairn dropped his pack and weapons nearby and dropped to the ground with a thud. He began to tell the tale of the visit by Radagast and the attack by goblins. He spoke of the discussion with his father and the wizard and their decision to send Rathbairn over the mountains to join the battle against the shadow. He spoke of his journey to Bree and his quest to find Aragorn. He finished speaking, staring at the Hobbit in front of him. “Now, tell me your story. I wish to know what you want of me. I need to find this Strider as Radagast and my father suggested.”
Taking a deep breath, Lily began. “I am not a simple Minstrel, as you have noticed. In fact, I am a soldier. Even though it may seem foolish, I am a part of something larger, something great. I am the leader of a group of adventurers, a kinship if you would. We spread far and wide across Eriador and even into Rhovanion. We have members all over, assisting the Free People of Middle-Earth in their fight against Sauron and his minions. We help each other and you can always get supplies or information from each other. In some ways, we are a family. We are called The Rangers of the West by those we help. We wear these blue armbands like you see here” she indicated the deep blue armband on her left forearm. “To make it simple, I think you would be a welcome addition to our ranks. We require nothing from you other than occasional help with a battle or help in assisting the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth. What do you say?”
Rathbairn looked at the ground, his thoughts coursing, raging. The idea of family made him miss his brother and sister, and Father too. He felt conflicted, unsure of what to say. “I need to consider this offer. My heart would welcome this; however I am bound to find this Strider first.”
A shadow fell over the two and a deep, steady voice spoke quietly. “You have found him then. And who may I ask are you who seeks me out?” Surprised, Rathbairn lept to his feet, facing the man standing in front of him. A dark green cloak hid most of the features, however dark hair fell to shoulder length and eyes that seemed older than they appeared stared back. A sword belted at his waist and a dagger opposite made the stranger seem like an ordinary traveler, yet something about this man seemed different. There was power within this one. Something in his voice made Rathbairn calm and reassured.
“You are Strider then?” Rathbairn asked.
“I am” the Ranger replied.
“I have been sent to find you by my father Grimbeorn the Old and by Radagast the Brown. Evil has found us in the Vales of Anduin and we have agreed that the Shadow threatens us all. I have come to help, however I can.” He said no more.
Strider’s face remained calm, however his heart leapt for joy inside. If this man was indeed one of the line of Beorn, he would be a fierce ally. And that he had been found by one of the Rangers of the West was a joyful happening. He clasped the Beorning on the shoulder. “Come my friend, for indeed I know of Radagast and of your family. We can speak at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I have taken a room and we can make some plans. There are indeed many things that require my attention here, but another errand has fallen to me that surpasses all others. That one I cannot lay aside to anyone, but the rest can be taken up by others.”
Rathbairn, Lily and Strider strode down the hill. As they reached the entrance to the Inn, Strider turned to Lily. “Here is where I must separate two new friends my dear Hobbit. I am sure that you two can be reunited soon, but I must take him from you for a time.” Lily nodded and turned to Rathbairn.
“Consider my offer Rathbairn and come seek me out. If you cannot find me here, leave word with Butterbur and he will ensure your message reaches my ears.” Rathbairn knelt down to the Hobbit and spoke gently.
“I will. Thank you, my new friend, for your help. I am not accustomed to life outside the Vale and without your assistance; I may still be in that jail cell. I owe you a debt. So here is the payment. Yes, I will join your band. But first, I must lend help to Strider. There is also Kerchag to deal with. I owe him much.” A dark look crossed Rathbairn’s face at the mention of the brigand.
“Since you are going to become one of us, how about you let my friends and I deal with Kerchag?” Rathbairn was about to protest, but Lily stopped him with a finger to his lips. “No arguing now. This is what we do. You help Strider and leave Kerchag and his friends to us. Farewell for now Rathbairn, be well.” She brushed his cheek with a quick kiss and sped away, her Hobbit sized legs carrying her into the distance.
Laughing, Strider clapped Rathbairn on the shoulder as the larger man rose to his feet, confusion on his face. “Such is the way of new friends. Now, shall we go?” They stepped into the Prancing Pony, the door closing behind them.
Four days later, Rathbairn strode up the stairs of the Prancing Pony, having returned from the Western Bree and the borders of the Shire, carrying new information for Strider. The Ranger was in the common room and stood up to greet Rathbairn.
“Well met my friend, what news from the Shire?”
Rathbairn shook his head, “No sign of the Black Riders, but your Ranger friend Lenglinn was nearly run down by one. I treated his wounds, and he will recover. Also, Crebain were sighted in Crickhollow by one of the Halflings. I managed to defeat some, but the rest fled towards the Old Forest. We will need to find them soon.”
“And we must track them down before they can report to one of the Black Riders” Strider agreed. “I may know someone who can help, but we cannot discuss this here. Come, let’s go to my room and discuss this in private.”
They had no sooner moved towards the right hallway towards the back stairs when Barliman Butterbur called out to them.
“Ah Strider, sir! Can I have a moment of your time? I’ve got messages for you.” He handed a small stack of papers to the Ranger, who took them and glanced quickly over their contents. The Innkeeper turned to Rathbairn. “And I’ve a message for you too sir” he said, handing an envelope to Rathbairn, who took it and quickly began to read. As the words began to come, shock was then replaced by fierce anger as Rathbairn dropped the letter and let out a loud roar, startling the Inn’s patrons.
Strider, his hand immediately dropping to the hilt of his sword, gripped Rathbairn’s arm tightly. “What is wrong Rathbairn?”
“The letter is from my sister Langhar. It seems one of my Kin; Ofolmoth has turned to evil and has been spotted near Ost Guruth. My father has requested I go with her and either convince him to abandon his path of evil and return home, or…” He paused, unable to continue.
“Or what…?” Strider asked, confused.
Rathbairn looked up, his eyes brimming with rage.
“Kill him” Rathbairn said coldly.
Thanks to Andang and the LOTRO Players team for allowing me to put thought to keyboard, thanks to all the fine people at The Rangers of the West Kin and finally, thanks to YOU the reader for taking time out of your day to read!