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Enter the Ranger  by Larner

Sitting in Judgment

          Dawn broke over Eriador, and all gathered to the meeting hall in the center of the village to break their fast and wonder anew at the return of their rightful chieftain, Aragorn son of Arathorn, thought for eighteen years to have died of fever so shortly after his father was slain by an orc arrow whilst out on patrol.

          “He went out on the training patrol with the others, and with none knowing who he was,” went the comments to be heard throughout the room.

          “Only Halbarad of all the trainees knew who he was,” Baerdion corrected as the statement was made anew near to where he sat with Túrin and Malvegern.  “We knew his true lineage, of course.  It was his own choice to go under the name of Peredhrion that the others should come to know him for his skills, choices, and actions rather than to merely defer to his heritage.  We found no reason to question the wisdom behind this decision.  And, lo!  Has not he demonstrated he is worthy of the respect of all for his skills in defense, tracking, healing, and strategy?  Within days the other trainees were overcoming their reactions to the Elvish dress and habits to respect his innate intelligence and experience—and leadership.  It is left only to demonstrate his ability to make proper judgments, although even there what I have seen of his choices indicate that Master Elrond has prepared him well to lead and rule with forethought and unparalleled wisdom.  Know this, also—our Lord Aragorn learned all of this while ignorant of the place he might ever know amongst us!”

          “Living within the confines of Rivendell, with our Gilraen caring for him, he remained ignorant of his father’s name and his proper place as our Chieftain?” demanded Duinhir, who sat nearby with several from his own village.  His voice carried over the noise of the throng within the building, and all quieted to hear the answer that might be given him.

          Malvegern signaled for Baerdion to hold his tongue, rising and looking to where Aragorn sat at the high table beside his uncle.  “It is for you to answer Duinhir, Arathorn’s son” he noted.

          The tall young Man first flushed, then went pale.  At a nod from Halbaleg, he rose to his feet.  “Yes, it is true that I was raised without knowledge of my true name and parentage,” he admitted, his head high.  “I am told that this was done for my own protection.  I knew that my mother was held in great respect by the people of Imladris, and that my father was remembered with honor.  But I was not told their places amongst the Dúnedain, nor what my own place might be once I returned to our own people.  Not until I had proved myself worthy of respect as a Man grown did m-Master Elrond tell me these things, giving at last into my keeping the Shards of Narsil and the Ring of Barahir to mark me as Elendil’s heir through his older son, Isildur.  I do not feel guilt for hiding my true name from any since I came out of that concealment.  I wished the chance to prove myself, and to learn if I wanted to serve as your Chieftain before I might claim that position.”

          “And had you chosen not to accept your place as our Chieftain, then what might you have done?” demanded Duinhir.

          Aragorn shrugged.  “I cannot say.  Perhaps I might have gone outside the accepted bounds of our lands and drawn to my side those who wished to follow me from whatever lands had given them birth.  Perhaps we should have carved out a realm of our own as did the Faithful when their ships bore them here to Middle Earth.”

          The sound of muttered responses began to rise until Orominion threw off a brother’s restraining hand to stand, feet in a fighting stance.  “And I, for one, would have followed after him to help in carving out such a realm.  As would have all who trained with him.” 

          All others who had been members of that patrol rose, as did Túrin and Baerdion, followed more slowly by several of those who’d fought against the Angmarian invaders with him, some tentatively, others deliberately, arms across their chests or hands on sword hilts.  Halbarad, giving a glance around the room, noted that Lord Iorgil from the village where the troop of trainees had labored was present and standing proudly, along with his daughter and several others from that village, as well as the healer who’d examined Nardir and several who’d been in his patrol.  Even his father, Uncle Sedras and the members of his escort had risen to their feet. 

          Malvegern smiled.  He, too, glanced about the room before turning his attention back to Duinhir.  “I would say that there are many within this hall who would be willing to follow our young Ranger here out to found a new realm were it to come to that, friend Duinhir.  I have seen him fight.  I have seen him examining signs of the passage of enemies and making accurate predictions as to how many we might face, where we might find them, and how they were likely to be armed and best approached.  I have seen him recognize that we were in danger of being ambushed.  I have seen him warn of possible dangers and being proved right.  I have seen him disarm would-be thieves and deal with them in keeping with their straits.  I have seen him working with herbs and the healer’s knife and bandages.  I have held him when the King’s Gift overwhelmed him.  And I saw the first killings of Men he was forced to execute, as he realized he could not stay the blows no matter how much he pitied them.”

          “Halbarad was nearly lost us because of that hesitation,” Duinhir proclaimed.

          “True enough, but as both pointed out at the time, Halbarad should have been ready for the one youth to reach beyond Peredhrion’s guard.”

          There was consternation from the high table as Halbarad’s parents realized how close they had come to sharing Bregorn’s parents’ grief.  Halbarad, however, was not focused on either his mother’s shock or his father’s concern.  When Malvegern had begun his speech there had been an unusual darkening and lightening of the room near the door, and he had realized that several from Lord Elrond’s party had just entered, including Lady Gilraen and Elrond himself. These had paused just inside the door to listen to Malvegern’s comments.  Gilraen stood still and pale as marble; Elrond was quietly intent.

          “How is it that he became overwhelmed with the King’s Gift?” Elrond asked.

          Malvegern gave Aragorn an apologetic glance before explaining, “It was in Bree.  Peredhrion helped to unmask a murderer and thief, who was to be hanged after we left the village.  At the time the Man died we were several leagues east of Bree, and Peredhrion apparently felt him flee his body.  It took him quite by surprise.”

          “You call him Peredhrion?” the Lord of Imladris asked.

          “Even so.”

          The half-Elf searched his fosterling’s face, and his expression softened.  “I am honored that you should take to yourself such an epessë, Estel.”

          Aragorn bowed.  “It was the greatest of honors to be raised in your house as if I were a part of your family.”

          Was there the slightest hint of pain in Elrond’s expression?  Halbarad realized that there was something that lay between his kinsman and Elrond Eärendilion that Peredhrion—Aragorn—had not yet revealed, and wondered briefly as to its nature. 

          Duinhir was already interrupting, demanding to know how it was that one thought to be a mere trainee had managed to unmask a killer in the Breelands.  Malvegern and Baerdion explained how it was that the patrol had come to take charge of four boys from Bree and see them home again, and what came of that.  Then there was the battle of Lifewater Farm to describe, and at last how it was that their new Chieftain joined one of the parties sent north against the raiders from Angmar in spite of the fact his ankle was injured.

          “And so, you allowed our untried hereditary Chieftain to be exposed to danger in a possible fight against our greatest foes?” Duinhir asked.

          Aragorn again rose from where he sat at the head table.  “Duinhir son of Belechar, there is one thing that you need to appreciate about me.  I will never ask anyone to put himself—or herself—at risk unless I am willing to hazard myself as well.  I will not send others into dangers I am unwilling to face.  I will not send anyone into battle while remaining safely behind the swords of our warriors.  I have been trained as a warrior, and I will serve as is necessary as a warrior whenever those I am responsible for are in danger.  Do you understand this?  I am assured that I am the best swordsman among Men that those who trained me have yet seen, and I know that I am a consummate tracker as well.  I will never lead our people from behind.

          “That means that, as was true of most of my ancestors, I will always be in danger of being wounded or slain.  But that is true of every warrior that has ever been.  Did the risk of possibly being wounded or slain stop you from going forth to seek out those reported to be raiding our lands?  Nor will it stop me.”

          The tall youth held Duinhir’s gaze for some time, and it was the Man who at length shivered and looked away.

          One of Elrond’s sons spoke.  “I will remind you, Master Duinhir, that your young Chieftain is anything but untried.  He has ridden with our patrols since he was but fifteen summers, a right he earned by proving himself both a skilled swordsman and strategist.   He has fought and killed as many orcs as any Dúnedain Ranger of at least five years’ service, perhaps more; and has amply demonstrated that he can both fight well in concert with others and by himself as may prove necessary.  He has defended the lives of every Elf with whom he has patrolled, and has been equally defended by them.  Do not seek to understate his abilities in sword craft.  He did not need further training as a warrior on coming to you—but he knew he must prove himself as is true of every young Man who seeks recognition as a Ranger of Eriador.  From what Malvegern and Baerdion have said, they are more than satisfied that he shows the skills desired of your Chieftains in protecting your people.  You would do well to heed them, for they have seen him demonstrate all of his skills over the space of many weeks.”

          There was a quiet buzz of talk throughout the room that lasted for some time.  Again their new Chieftain sat down between his uncle and his mother, who had quietly joined those at the high table, although he did not resume eating.  Duinhir collapsed back into his own seat, picking up his drinking goblet and taking a deep draught of its contents.

          At last Iorgil rose and addressed Halbaleg.  “So, in Arathorn and Gilraen’s son we have one who is a more-than-competent warrior, and one whom we have seen already displays a marked ability to command others.  I myself can speak to his ability as a healer, for I would not have been able to come here were it not for relief given me by him while his patrol worked in our village.  He worked uncomplaining alongside his fellows and our men and boys in grading roads and raising walls that the village be ready for the autumn rains and winter snows we will face, demonstrating he would not put his own comforts over those of anyone else.  He has shown that he is reluctant to strike an unnecessary blow, but that he can and will overcome such reluctance when it is shown that such a blow is necessary.  Malvegern has spoken of his part in unmasking a thief and murderer in Bree, and that he has shown forth the King’s Gift of Land-sense by reacting to the execution of that malefactor even though he was miles away when the Man was hanged.

          “So, it appears that the one skill he had not yet demonstrated in full is the ability to provide justice.  Are there any such cases that are to come before you, Halbaleg, that he might judge in your stead that we might test his ability to discern truth and render rightful findings and judgments?”

          Halbaleg exchanged meaningful looks with Dírhael, his father, who served as his closest counselor.  “Shall we see how he does judging those who attacked Lifewater Farm and the invaders from Angmar?” he asked.

          The older Man shrugged.  “Judgment is needed for the two parties.  Also, he has now come to know the offenders in some manner—indeed, has served as healer to several of them.  Let us now give him responsibility for their ultimate fate.”

          It was not lost upon Halbarad that neither his father nor his grandfather saw this to be merely an honor.  Nay, if anything this would be their own test of their new Chieftain’s ability to rule the Northern Dúnedain.  Feeling uncertain, the youth glanced sideways at Malvegern, and saw that the lead trainer of the new Rangers was smiling with mixed satisfaction and anticipation.  Halbarad released a breath he’d not realized he’d been holding.  If Malvegern believed Peredhrion—Aragorn!—would easily pass this additional test, how could he, the new Chieftain’s own cousin and closest companion these past few months, doubt him?  Unconsciously he straightened, mirroring Malvegern’s attitude of surety that by the time Aragorn had interrogated and judged the two parties none would question he was indeed as capable as they’d been advised was true by Elrond’s sons.

 *******

           Once the meal was finished, all gathered within the village moved into the common space before the hall in which they’d broken their fast.  The High Table had been brought forth and set near the doors to the hall, and Halladan and Hardorn, Halbarad’s two younger brothers, were busily bringing out chairs to set behind it for the high-born to sit in so as to observe the heir of Arathorn as he wrought judgment on those to be brought before them. 

          The one person he could not see was his cousin.

          His sister Eliessë came hurrying from the Keep, her expression self-important, clutching the Record Book to her chest with one hand and holding their father’s favorite inkstand in the other.

          “I hope she doesn’t drop his steel pen on the ground,” he muttered to himself.  “Ada will be most wroth if it is damaged!”

          She didn’t drop anything, however, and he breathed a sigh of relief as all was set safely on the table in front of his father’s chair.  He moved to intercept her as she headed back to the Keep.  “Have you seen Peredhrion?” he demanded of her, catching her arm to stay her return.

          Eliessë shrugged.  “He’s inside.  He is changing his garments.  Now, let me go—Naneth has more for me to do.  She says she does not trust Halladan or Hardorn to do it right.”  With that she pulled away from him, headed toward the door back into the Keep, shaking her head at the foolishness of older brothers.

          Halbarad shook his head at this news, and followed her indoors.  Eliessë received instructions from their mother, nodded her understanding, and headed down the passageway toward their father’s study.  Anneth stopped her eldest son with a hand upon his shoulder.  “Just the one I wished to see at this moment.  Go and change out of those boots—they are badly scuffed from a summer on patrol.  You might smooth your hair as well, and you should then don a formal surcoat over the shirt you are wearing.  Then go to the room given to Aragorn’s usage, and learn if there is anything you can do to help him.”

          “And why is he changing his garb?” Halbarad asked.

          She cast her eyes upward as if asking the Powers to observe his lack of understanding.  “My son, today your cousin is assuming the first of his duties as the Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Eriador.  Do you not believe he should look the part?”

          He felt his scalp twitch, but hurried off to follow his mother’s directions.  That was right—his cousin was intended to be their new Chieftain, and would be demonstrating his abilities as a judge before all gathered to recognize the newest Rangers as well as those taken prisoners at Lifewater Farm and from the raids from Angmar.

          He found Peredhrion—Aragorn!—clad in a shirt he’d not seen before, undyed wool embroidered with green vines and flowers of gold and wine-colors vertically across its front under a long surcoat of gold to his knees.  The tall youth was standing before the clothes press, looking down into a flat box with a considering air.  Halbarad moved to stand beside his cousin, looking down into the box also, and found his breath stopped as he saw it contained two circlets, one of silver and the other gold, each crafted for a prince.

          “Are these yours?” he asked in an awed voice.

          Aragorn nodded.  “Naneth tells me that the gold circlet belonged to my father; and the other was ordered made for me by m-Master Elrond, his recognition that I am to take on the rule of our people.  He told me that the leaves upon it are those of the White Tree, which is the sigil of Gondor, over which I may one day also rule, should I meet all of the terms of the prophecies made for my future, with the kingdom of Arnor restored as well.”  He looked up to meet Halbarad’s eyes.  “What think you?  Which should I wear today, now as I take on the role of judge for the Northern Dúnedain?  Or, should I go bareheaded in token of the fact I have not yet been fully accepted as Chieftain of our people?”

          Remembering Aragorn’s declaration at the dawn meal, Halbarad felt a smile growing on his face.  “Have you decided, then, to remain as our Chieftain after all?  I must admit that I am more than half tempted to follow you out into the wilderlands to found a new realm here in the North.”

          Aragorn first appeared surprised, but then began to smile, and soon both were laughing.  “I suppose that this remains still an option,” he said at length.  “Then it is bareheaded I shall be, this first time that I sit in judgment.  Let us go out, brother of my heart!”

          Warmth filled Halbarad as he followed his young, royal kinsman out of the Keep, out to the square before the meeting hall.

 *******

          All gathered to observe their young Chieftain’s first official judgment went silent as he and their Steward’s oldest son came into view.  The change to such formal garb appeared to impress the company, and Halbarad noted that all seemed to straighten to attention as Aragorn son of Arathorn approached the table brought out of the hall.  Even Halbaleg had risen to his feet, and when he bowed his head in recognition of his nephew’s approach most others followed suit.

          Most, but not all.  “Does he think that we shall bow the head to any raw youth who comes to us?” one Man from a different village asked his fellow in a murmur that was not as quiet as he’d intended.

          Lord Iorgil answered him rather more loudly, “It is no more than the respect we gave his father or grandsire.  He is, after all, Arathorn’s own son.  Now, keep silent if you have no wisdom to impart!”

          Aragorn gave no response to the comments, other than his ears going somewhat red.  He continued to walk, upright and full of dignity, until he rounded the table to stand before his uncle, who had been his father’s Steward and who had ruled the Northern Dúnedain all during his, Aragorn’s, minority.  Halbarad was somehow surprised to realize that his father had to look decidedly upwards to meet Aragorn’s eyes.  How tall, how lordly, Aragorn son of Arathorn was!  Suddenly Halbaleg son of Dírhael, Steward of what remained of the people of Arnor, smiled, bowed deeply, and stepped aside, indicating that Aragorn should take the seat he had just vacated.  Aragorn’s uncertainty lasted but an instant, and he bowed his own head in recognition of the honor given him by his uncle, and stood before what had been the Steward’s chair.  “All may sit,” he said quietly, and those gathered sank onto the benches that had been brought out for them.

          He looked out at the assembled crowd for a time, and finally announced, “I will have you know that I have been raised within a noble house by a Lord among the Eldar.  I served as page to Lord Elrond, and then was his squire.  I learned to give proper reverence to Lords among both Elves and Men.  Although I did not know the name or rank of my father, yet my naneth saw to it that I learned the proper courtesies to be used amongst our people, and in particular how it is customary to demonstrate proper respect and deference to our Chieftain, who is, after all, the Heir of Isildur and his father Elendil.  That I was that august individual I did not learn until, at the age of twenty, after having ridden out on a long patrol with—with the sons of Elrond and helped win desperate victories over two particularly vicious parties of orcs, at last I was told the secret of my proper rank and heritage.  To learn that I was son to Arathorn and that my grandsire was Arador, whose glorious deeds are spoken of in tones of honor even in Elrond’s house, was a surprise to me.

          “I will not insist on full royal honors such as were given to my forefathers, Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion, or even to Arvedui and Ondoher.  After all, Aranarth recognized after the great wars with Angmar that there was not sufficient of Arnor remaining over which he might claim to be King.  But I do expect that I should receive at least the same level of respect and deference that is shown to this, my mother’s brother, who has served in my father’s and mine own stead these last eighteen years as Steward over those who are descended from the Northern Dúnedain.  This shall be especially true when I must sit in judgment over those who rebel against the laws of our people or who attack our land and citizens.  Is this understood?”

          There was a subdued rumble of agreement from the gathering, at which their new Chieftain sat, looking down at the open record book that sat before him.

          “I am told that I am to hear the cases of two parties:  those who attacked Lifewater Farm that survived the battle, and those from Angmar who raided our settlements and farms near our northern borders, and again those who survived the encounters with our defenders.

          “Let those who came to assault the residents of Lifewater Farm be brought before this assembly.”

          Several residents of the village, including Hedron’s father, led the Men who had been taken during the attack on the farm out to form a line before the table where Aragorn was to sit in judgment upon them.  They appeared to range in age from perhaps eighteen to their late thirties.  All Aragorn had treated appeared to be destined for a full recovery—if, of course, the rulings passed down upon them this day allowed them to live longer.  The Man who’d had his hand removed by Baerdion appeared to be the eldest.  The one whose side had been so badly wounded was the youngest, a sour-faced stripling who already sported a dark stubble.  The one who’d been impaled upon the fence was somewhere in his early twenties, his attitude wary and rather sad.  All spoke the Common Tongue, although their accents were rather uncouth to the ears of the residents of the Angle.  They gave their names.  Two were from Rhudaur, and the others were from Dunland.  Why had they come so far from their own lands?  No, the harvests of their own people had not been particularly bad, although they hadn’t been particularly good, either.  Mostly they were loners who had not gotten along well with their neighbors in the regions that had seen their births.  Several had been accused by their own of thefts and bullying, and so had been thrown out of the communities in which they’d lived.  Somehow four of those who’d formed the core of their troop had banded together, drawing other malcontents into their company, and they’d ranged through Dunland and the northern borders of Rohan, stealing and looting as they could.

          One day they’d awakened to find newcomers had stolen into their campsite during the night, Men, dark, well-armed, and supercilious in their manner, who had a proposition for them.  Far to the north, they were told, were lands that were rich with crops and herds ready for the picking by those ruthless enough to go forth and attack them.  These newcomers had a sponsor who would pay well for grain, produce, and cattle brought to him from those distant lands, and he would provide them with arms, steeds, wagons, and even allies to make raids upon those lands in return for the major share of foodstuffs they could send him.  They could keep the plunder in goods and treasure—and women.

          Who was this sponsor?  They were not certain.  They knew him only as Nimir, and believed he dwelt somewhere nigh to the Dread Forest.  What little they had learned of him was that he sought to make of himself a warlord, although as yet his forces were small.  Small, but growing, or so they’d been assured.

          So, they’d become ravagers of farms and villages in those lands they crossed as they drove further and further north.  At first there had been sufficient wagons to carry the stolen grain and harvests, and other troops of marauders had assisted them at the direction of the dark Men.  But the farms they attacked were nowhere as large or rich as they’d been advised.  They were advised the truly rich lands were still further north—they only needed to persevere, and they would be led to such places.  In the meantime, what they were able to take now was welcome to Nimir.

          Did Nimir wish nothing but foodstuffs?  Well, as well as foodstuffs he did wish all rings they found.  As those few steadings in which they found rings tended to have even richer jewelry and possessions, this seemed but a small tribute to pass on to their sponsor.  Iban, the one of the dark Men who’d stayed with their party throughout, had been the one who took all rings found, placing them in a velvet bag that he then locked into a small, bound chest.  What had become of that chest?  Well, each time that a wagon was ready to return to Nimir’s fastness, Iban had taken the velvet bag out of his chest and had placed it in a similar chest fastened within the wagon, locking it somehow so that the courier could not empty its contents, and received a new bag in return.  The last wagon had left them near the tall mount of the ruined fortress perhaps a week before they found themselves fighting the young Rangers.  Did he mean Amon Sûl?  Was that its name?  The raiders did not know the names used by those who lived in these parts.  They’d raided perhaps two more farms since then, very small ones, unfortunately, and they’d taken but one ring, and that one most likely worthless.  What had Iban done with it?  Who was to say?  They’d not brought much with them on their intended raid on Lifewater Farm, having camped in the ruins of the last farm they’d raided.  They’d left their goods there to pick up on their return east and southward once more.  Why had they left their goods there?  Because these Men were tired of the prolonged raiding for so little profit for themselves, and had secretly agreed that this proposed raid on the larger farm would be their last for the benefit of Nimir.  They were ready to turn south again, to return to their own lands.  They wanted from now on to work solely for themselves, not for any sponsor they did not know personally.

          Halbarad was fascinated to watch his cousin leading the questioning of the prisoners, and realized that not only did Aragorn appear to be able to tell when whoever answered a question was lying, but something in his tone as he restated the question would inspire the Man not to lie a second time.  Certainly the questions he framed were clear and to the point, and often the one giving the answer appeared surprised to realize how much he’d revealed.  Also, the young Man seemed to be aware of the desire of one of those seated with him at the table to ask his or her own question, and would indicate that said individual should do so.  Yet he did not actively search the countenances of the lords and ladies who counseled his uncle for signs they had their own questions—Halbarad could not easily see how Aragorn could sense when such a question was rising in the minds of those sitting by him.

          There was one question that had not yet been asked that Halbarad felt needed to be answered.  Yet, when Aragorn turned to him and suggested he ask his question, Halbarad was surprised that he, who was only last night recognized as a Ranger of Eriador, would be allowed to question the prisoners.  He glanced at his father, who gave the slightest of nods of encouragement, took a deep breath, and asked, “How was it that you were allied with a troop of orcs?”

          All those at the table looked his way, most of them with surprise.  Apparently the fact that there had been strange orcs prepared to join the destruction at Lifewater Farm had not been shared with many of the Dúnedain observing the trial.  “Orcs would fight alongside Men to see to the destruction and despoilment of a farm along the East Road?” demanded Duinhir from his seat among the spectators.

          “What are orcs?” asked the Dunlander who’d lost his hand to Baerdion’s sword.

          One of the Rangers who frequently patrolled as far south as the site of Tharbad translated the word to its Dunlendish equivalent, adding in the Common Tongue, “Goblins, or Uruks.”

          Halbarad answered Duinhir’s question.  “When we were scouting around the area where we were camping, we saw movement as of Men approaching Lifewater Farm from more than one direction, and two of our scouts who’d gone east rather than west found a line of twenty-two fighting orcs of a sort we have not encountered before hiding in a defile, apparently awaiting some signal to join in the assault on the farm.”

          “You counted how many orcs there were?” Duinhir responded.

          “We certainly did once they were all dead,” Halbarad assured him.  “It was how it happened that Peredhrion—our Lord Aragorn here—injured himself, leaping into the defile to attack them and landing so as to turn his ankle.”

          “You are certain that they all died?” asked Orominion’s uncle.

          “We saw none anywhere but in the defile,” Aragorn said.  “Dirigil and I found them hiding so, and I sent him back to report while I kept watch.  When I noted they were ready to move forward to apparently charge the farm, I leapt in front of them to keep them from escaping.  Dirigil and Halbarad returned to my assistance, and amongst the three of us we managed to kill them all.  Once all were assuredly dead, we three then ran to assist those who’d gone before us to the defense of the farm.”

          “You ran on an injured ankle?”  Duinhir seemed intent on questioning their young Chieftain’s judgment.

          “If you knew that those under your protection were in danger, and had good reason to suspect your own injury was minor, would you have decided to sit out the fight?” 

          Something in Aragorn’s tone of voice caused Duinhir to sit back and close his mouth, sensing that the young Man in charge of the inquiry was not willing to accept further questioning of his decision to continue the defense of the farm and its inhabitants.  Aragorn maintained his attention on Duinhir until it was plain that there would be no further objections from that quarter, at which time he turned to those before him.  “You will please answer Ranger Halbarad’s question.  How was it that you became allied with a troop of orcs?”

          The raiders exchanged uncertain looks.  It was the one who’d been impaled upon the fence who answered.  “We got the wagons promised us.  We got weapons.  We had other Men sent us.  But not the gold nor silver we’d been told we’d get for the grain and foodstuffs.  When we got far north to the Road, the dark Men were full of excuses why no pay.  Now, they weren’t dressed any different from us by then, so it was harder to tell they were different folks.  The last time the wagon came, with it came the goblin-men.  None of us wanted them with us, but we were told that Nimir wanted to see how well they’d fight by us, and we had no choice in the matter.

          “They were with us when we went after the last two farms, and we took nothing of note—the goblin-men got ahead of us, and they wouldn’t stop until they’d destroyed almost everything of value, and until all the farm people and animals were dead and gone.  We weren’t none too pleased, and we insisted that the next farm, they had to wait for a signal—let us go first so as to limit the damage.  The dark Man who was in charge of the goblin-men had to agree—no use planning to take the stock if there’s none left alive.  So, he made them go into that defile and wait there.  He was to shoot a fire-arrow up into the sky as the signal for them to come.  Only he was cut down early on, so that was that.  It was because of the goblin-men that we decided we would do but this one last farm for the sake of Nimir—none of us wished to be forced to continue to travel with them or fight further by their sides.”

          Even their Elvish guests were curious about these goblin-men, and Elrond himself asked, “These yrch were different from those with whom we are familiar?  How?”

          Aragorn himself described them.  “They were far taller than those common to the Misty Mountains—taller and more manlike.  They walked upright, straighter than I’ve seen the orcs to be encountered on the patrols we’ve made around the boundaries of Imladris or up into the High Pass.  But their visages were still distorted from the faces of Men, and their blood black.  Nor did they carry the scimitars common to the orcs I’ve fought before.  Their swords were straight, crude and brutal, but effective.  They were designed to be used to slay and destroy, not for any prolonged or nuanced fighting.  When we are done with this tribunal, I will have Túrin bring out all of the weapons taken that they might be evaluated and their implications discussed.”

          No one demurred with this suggestion, and the questioning went on for perhaps another half hour.  Aragorn then asked about the findings and judgments given the raiders taken with the wagon earlier during the trainees’ patrol—what had happened then?  Was it possible that the two cases were related?  Were those, too, sponsored by this Nimir?

          It was possible they might also have been sent by Nimir, although none had spoken of anyone other than themselves who had profited from their actions.  It had been found, however, that those were all from Rhudaur, and none of them from Dunland.  Their gear was common to the Rhudaurim usually encountered by the Rangers, and they indicated that the wagon they drove had been taken from one of the farms they had raided earlier in their circular path of destruction.  No chest was found fastened into the wagon they drove, nor any sign such a thing had ever been part of the wagon’s fixtures.  Two Rangers familiar with such raids had been sent to retrace their path, and the last farm they’d raided had been found.  The farm had been small, but had been successful until the coming of the raiders.  All its inhabitants had been found to have been efficiently slain and bestowed within its barn ere that structure was razed by fire.  Nay, it was likely that they had been separate from this new batch of raiders.  Once the report had been received as to the nature of the raid they’d made upon the farm, the decision was made they should be hanged, and the sentence had been carried out within three weeks of their arrival here.

          This party had not been active so far north within Middle Earth prior to the last three farms raided, however.  Again, the two Rangers familiar with raids had been sent to investigate.  They’d found two farms south of the Road and east of Lifewater Farm that appeared to have been the targets of this party, and the destruction was found to have been far more complete and violent than either had ever seen before.  Only a stout stone storage shed had survived during the last raid, and it was apparent that Men had camped within it for several days after the other structures of the farm had been destroyed.  Much gear had been left there consistent with the story told by these captives, and hidden behind a notably loose stone they’d found a small wooden chest that had contained a velvet bag in which lay a single ring set with a poorly cut amethyst.  Other jewelry had been found, little of it particularly valuable, stowed with other gear that appeared to have been deliberately left to be collected later.  As for the nature of the kills—they were crude and especially vicious, and in at least two cases it appeared that parts of bodies had been hacked away and carried off, such as was oft seen in raids by orcs.  If the Men had camped within the stone shed, it was obvious they did so in order to separate themselves from the orcs, who had taken shelter under the eaves of a tumbled cow byre.  In front of the byre a firepit had been found that contained both animal and human bones.  All gear found within the shed had been gathered and was now brought out to be displayed, while what was found within the damaged byre was described—it had all been cleansed by a fire set by the two Rangers.  The remains of the inhabitants had been buried with respect.  Most of the farm’s stock lay where the animals had been slain, many with legs crudely hacked away, the corpses buzzing with flies.  The Rangers had dragged these carcasses to the manure pit and had tipped them into it, covering it with what remained of the razed farmhouse and outbuildings.

          Did the raiders typically slay all inhabitants of the homes and farms they’d raided?  Yes, usually.  Why would the raiders wish for witnesses to be left alive to draw attention to their activities?  Did all the raiders usually take part in the slaying of the victims of such attacks?  Now the prisoners paused, searching one another’s faces.  The answer was slow in coming, but at last it was admitted that the only one who routinely stood back from such slaying was the one who’d been found impaled upon the fence.  Why was this true?  The Man finally admitted that he always found himself imagining that it was his own family that was being slaughtered, and he could not bring himself to take part in the killing of families who dwelt on the farms they’d attacked.

 *******

          Once the questioners appeared satisfied they had enough information on which a judgment could be made, there was a period of discussion, conducted in Adúnaic, in which Aragorn made inquiries regarding points of law as followed by the Dúnedain of Eriador, what was required in order to make a finding of guilt requiring execution, what other forms of punishment were commonly imposed upon wrongdoers, what form or forms of execution were followed….  Halbarad saw several of their fellow trainees exchanging thoughtful glances as it was generally realized that their attempts to hide discussions from him while on patrol by using that language had been pointless, seeing his Adúnaic was fluent.  Well, he thought, at least I believe they all recognize that he is not petty enough to hold what was said at the time against them.  He watched Finwë shrug expressively to Orominion, who gave a silent laugh in response, and knew he’d judged the situation rightly.

          In the end, Aragorn judged that all save the one who’d been impaled upon the fence should be hanged, while the one allowed to live would labor upon a farm for what remained of his life that he might realize just what his participation in the raids had cost the victims of his crimes.  He would first spend ten days imprisoned, he would be branded with an R glyph to indicate he was guilty of being a raider, and after a second period of ten days he would be transported to the farm on which he would spend his sentence.  The others would all be hanged in a fortnight’s time.

          No one questioned he’d judged rightly or suggested that the punishments were unwarranted.  All watched as the Men were led away save for the one who’d been spared, back to their prison, most observers shaking their heads at the waste of their own lives the raiders had embraced. 

          At a word from Aragorn the weapons taken with the raiders were brought out, and the one who’d been impaled upon the fence was questioned about them.  He explained that the dark Men had brought weapons they’d said were being provided by Nimir for their use, although several of his fellows had continued to use swords, knives, and cudgels they’d carried for years.  All of the weapons were set upon the table.

          Halbaleg rose to approach the collection and eyed it with interest.  Then he raised his head and called for three Men to come forward.  “These,” he explained to Aragorn, “are among those who have served in the armies of the South Kingdom over the years.  Always there are those of us who go south to Gondor to serve for a time among their forces.  In this way we are able to keep abreast of the fortunes of our southern brethren, and to maintain some degree of communication with Gondor.  Some go openly as northerners, while others merely declare themselves sell-swords for a time with no explanation as to their origins.”

          “Then these can perhaps tell us of the origin of these weapons?” Aragorn asked.

          “Even so.”

          The first, Evamir, was not as old as Lord Iorgil, but was certainly older than Halbaleg himself.  The second, Mardorn, was perhaps ten years younger than Halbaleg, and had marked scars on his face indicating he’d barely managed to escape being blinded in battle.  The third, Gilthor, was as beardless as Aragorn himself, his age unclear, although his swordsman’s build and stance, calm demeanor, and steady gaze indicated he was most likely seasoned both in war and council. 

          “Tell us what you can of these weapons,” Halbaleg invited.

          Mardorn and Evamir sorted through the weapons, laying similar examples together, sometimes consulting quietly as to which group a specific sword or knife might belong.  At last they straightened.  Evamir indicated the first two groups.  “These are common samples of Rhudauri and Dunlendish forging.  I think most of us would recognize them easily enough.  While these—” he pointed to the largest group, “are Rohirric in origin.”

          Mardorn was nodding.  “This sword and knife are typical of Gondorian design, although the manner in which the hilt was applied to the knife is more commonly seen amongst the Rohirrim.  It is not uncommon for those in the fiefdom of Anórien to trade with Rohan, so it is possible that it either was forged on commission by a Rohirric smith, or perhaps the hilt was replaced by such a one.  Thengel of Rohan spent many years in Gondor, and married a wife from Lamedon or Lossarnach, I believe.  Perhaps one of his Men once carried it.”

          “You do not recognize these?” Halbaleg asked, indicating three swords and two knives that had a distinct greyish tint to their blades.

          Gilthor leaned down to take one of these up, turning it carefully in his hands.  “I know them well enough,” he said.  “They were carried by warriors from Khand.  Note the vulture motifs.  My battalions saw them on occasion when we fought along the Poros.  And that scimitar there is from Rhûn.”

          “As for those,” Mardorn commented, indicating the rough swords that had been identified as having been carried by the Orcs Aragorn, Halbarad, and Dirigil had fought, “I have never seen such forgings before.  They were not made by any smith who takes pride in his work.  Nay, they were designed solely to slash without subtlety or any likelihood of skill.”

          Aragorn considered the collection for some time before summoning forth their prisoner.  “Tell us, please, which weapons were carried by those of your party.”

          The sword and knife of Gondorian design had been carried by one of those slain in the battle of Lifewater Farm.  “He was one of the earliest members to join the group, or so I was told,” the young Man told them.  “It was said that he dwelt for a time in northern Gondor near to the Mering Stream, although his people were from Dunland.”  He indicated several of the Rhudauri and Dunlendish weapons and told that they had been used by various of his fellows, as had been three sets of weapons of Rohirric origin.  The remainder of the Rohirric weapons had been brought by the dark Men who’d been sent by Nimir to assist the raiders….

          “And these?” asked Aragorn, indicating the grey weapons identified as being from Khand.

          “Oh, but those were the personal weapons of the dark Men.  And that one—” he pointed to the Rhûnish scimitar, “—was kept by one of them in case his own sword might break.  He told me when I asked that he’d taken it from a former prisoner he’d tortured to death.”

          Those gathered closely about the weapons exchanged searching looks.  At last Aragorn asked, “Is it not true that Khand is south of Gondor and Mordor, and east of Harad and Umbar?  How did such people become agents of some unknown would-be warlord living somewhere between Dunland and Rohan?  It does not make sense to me, but perhaps I am mistaken in my memories of the geography of the known world as I was taught it in my youth….”

          But Gilthor was shaking his head.  “Nay, my Lord Kinsman—you are not mistaken.  I, too, am at a loss to understand how this might happen, that Men of Khand should serve the interests of this Nimir.  Nor can I imagine whom this Nimir might prove to be.  I know of no lords of Men who live in that region who do not owe allegiance to either Rohan or Dunland.  Plus, the citizens of Khand and their lords live under the rule of Mordor.  The idea that Sauron is allowing his vassals to go so far north to assist a warlord in the making is something that boggles the mind!  Unless this Nimir is in alliance with the greater Uruks of the Misty Mountains….”

          The prisoner could not help with this matter, repeating only that Nimir was said to dwell near the Dread Forest, but he knew not where that was.  Where might that be on a map?  How would he know?  He had never even seen a map!  He had no sense of direction, and inevitably would choose the wrong way at the splitting of a road or footpath.  He’d merely gone along with the others, following where the leaders led, until he’d fallen over that fence….

          Elrond and his sons could add no enlightenment to the question.  “It is true that I have been many places within Middle Earth,” the lord of Rivendell stated, “but not everywhere.  Other than patrols about my own lands and visits to our kindreds elsewhere I have rarely left Imladris during the last few yeni to do more than visit here within the Angle, and even that seldom.  My sons are more familiar with Eriador as it is today than I am, but even they may visit a particular place only once or twice a hundred sun-rounds.  Villages and even cities may easily spring up and die away into ruins ere they visit any area more than once.  But I do not recognize this Dread Forest, unless it be either the Old Forest or Fangorn, or possibly Mirkwood, all of which mortals have good reason to fear and avoid, and which are far separated from one another.  It is possible that Saruman, also known as Curunír, might add to our understanding.  However, he rarely leaves Isengard in these days.  Perhaps the next time he comes this way you might ask Gandalf to enquire of him.”

          “What I do not understand,” Gilthor said, his words measured, “is what induced these Khandri to leave their own land.  We saw few of them even along the Poros.  We were far more likely to face the Haradrim or Umbari mercenaries as we patrolled the river than anyone from Khand.  They are a secret people and fierce fighters. However, they ventured into Gondor’s territories but seldom without direct orders from Sauron.”

          And so this question was left unsettled to anyone’s satisfaction.  The prisoner was sent back to his incarceration, and all returned to their habitations or camps for a noon meal before the matter of the Angmarian raiders might be dealt with.

 





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