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Estel gaped up at the Man. His mind seemed to have shut down, faced with this unexpected challenge, but his lips worked at the unfamiliar word. “Dúne...”
Scowler snorted. “Dúnedain,” he drew out slowly. The effect was rather sarcastic, and indignation shook Estel from his stupor. “Don’t think you can hide it, lad.” The Ranger stepped back and motioned vaguely up and down Estel’s length. “Not with looks like those.”
Dúnedain. Now that he was able to think better, the word did mean something to him. It was what Erestor had called the remnant of the fallen Northern Kingdom, Arnor. Usually, his family and the other inhabitants of Imladris referred to his mother’s people (at least, within Estel’s hearing) as … well, ‘your mother’s people’. He had heard, over the years, a few conversations not meant for him that had made him suspect that he and his mother were perhaps of the Dúnedain, but this meant little to Estel and he had soon forgotten. Now, though … Scowler recognized him as he had recognized the Ranger, by his resemblance to Gilraen’s kindred.
What if the Man tried to take him back to where the Dúnedain lived?
Panic surged, and Estel swallowed hard. “No, I …” His mouth was dry, and the words would barely come. “I’m not …”
“Oh you’re not?” Scowler raised one brow and straightened, so that he was no longer looming over Estel. Instead, he folded his arms. “This I must hear. What are you, then?”
Estel scowled, pulling together the fragments of his story. “I am from a village near … to the east of here. My a … my da is a healer there.”
“Aye?” The heavy brows drew down. “And what are you doing here, then?”
“I … one of his—my da’s—patients thought I was his son. He was sick, and his family had all died, and he was mad with grief, and he thought I was his son and he gave me a drug to make me sleep and then brought me here with him.”
The frown had steadily disappeared during this recitation, replaced with an expression of amused incredulity. “And this man … he’s here now?”
Estel hesitated. “No, I … he collapsed on the road. A farmer and his wife—Marks and Luanna—took him in, and the healer’s husband brought me here to look for someone that can take me home.”
It all sounded … utterly ridiculous, even to Estel, and he wasn’t surprised when Scowler didn’t appear to believe a word of it.
“So … you say that you were stolen from your family and village by an ill man who believed you to be his son and who brought you to the Bree-lands, where the man finally succumbed to his illness near a helpful farm and you were able to move on.” It was a semi-accurate description of events. Estel nodded, despairing. The Ranger’s lip curled, and he shook his head. “Come now. Let us be realistic. Would it perhaps be more accurate to just say that you left your home, wherever that might be, and somehow ended up here, in the employ of Darlo Sandheaver?”
“No!” Estel tried to duck away, but Scowler moved to block him.
“I did not run away!” Estel tried the other direction, only to find it blocked as well. Angered to the point of uncaring, he struck out at the Ranger. Scowler captured his wrist and held it, staring down at him. Estel glared back, forcing away the furious tears, and finally the Man sighed.
“If I let you go, will you run?” Estel considered. It wasn’t as if he would truly be able to get away from the Man, and even if he did, Scowler knew he would eventually go back to The Dusty Mathom. “Will you?” the Ranger insisted, and Estel shook his head, staring at his feet. The strong hand released his wrist, and Scowler sighed. “What is your name?”
“Nate.” The word was out before Estel even knew he intended it. When he sneaked a glance up, the Ranger’s eyebrow had risen again.
“Yes, Nate!” It was stupid, and he didn’t know why he insisted. All Scowler had to do was talk to Darlo to discover that it was a lie—and Estel had no doubt that was coming. He scowled up at the Ranger. “What is your name, then? Not really Scowler, is it?”
A twitch of something like irritation crossed the Man’s face, and the barest hint of an eye roll. He stared down at Estel for another moment, then stepped back. “Dorhaur.” The Ranger took a long breath and looked toward the sky, chewing at his lip. Finally, he returned his gaze to Estel. “I should perhaps not have put you on the spot, and for that I apologize.” His eyes bored into Estel, until the boy finally nodded. “That said, you are of the Dúnedain, whatever and wherever else you might claim, and as such you are now my responsibility, alone as you seem to be.”
Estel glowered. “I am not—”
“You are, though, whether either of us wishes it.” Dorhaur shook his head. “The Dúnedain take care of their own.” That sentiment Estel understood, as the Elves of Imladris also lived by such a code. Reluctantly, he nodded—not in agreement with the Ranger’s claims of responsibility for him, but in acknowledgement of the words themselves. He cared not whether the Man understood the difference. Dorhaur swept an arm back toward the inn. “Does Darlo know of your … misfortunes? Perhaps we should have a seat and talk.”
Anxious to return to the Hobbit, who at least believed his story, Estel nodded. Dorhaur motioned for him to lead the way, and fell into step behind as they approached the inn. Despite himself, Estel was faintly amused. It seemed that the Ranger still didn’t quite trust him.
The feeling was more than mutual.
Darlo, who was restocking the bar when Estel slouched in, came to meet him, surprised. “You couldn’t have been there and back already, I …” His words trailed away when Dorhaur entered, eyes moving between the two. The Ranger nodded to the innkeeper.
“Ranger, sir.” Of course, Estel thought. The Hobbit wouldn’t call the Man ‘Scowler’ to his face. Darlo returned Dorhaur’s nod, then looked back around. “Estel, what is this, then?”
“Yes, Estel.” Dorhaur moved into the room, raising an ironic brow at Estel as he passed. He pulled out a chair from the nearest table and dropped into it. “Why don’t you explain?”
Estel sighed, cast another glance toward Darlo, who was looking more puzzled by the moment, then trailed after the Ranger. Darlo set his rag down on the bar and joined them at the table, scowling suspiciously at Dorhaur.
“Now then, you haven’t been bothering this boy, have you? I’ve always treated you Rangers fairly, seeing as how you’ve never caused any problems that I know of, but if you’ve been—”
“Hold, Sandheaver.” Dorhaur held up a hand to still the flow of words. “I’ve done nothing to the boy, other than question him. He appears to be of my people—you may notice a resemblance.” Darlo’s eyes flickered between Estel and Dorhaur, then again, and he nodded slowly. The Ranger seemed almost amused by the Hobbit’s reluctance. “That being the case,” he continued, “I am understandably curious regarding how he came to be here in your employ. His story was … rather fantastic.”
“Who are you to know whether or not the lad’s story is true?” Darlo demanded, stabbing a finger at the Man. Then he sat back, shaking his head. “He ain’t in my employ, anyway. Just helping out for the night until we can get his situation sorted out.”
“And just what is his situation?” The Hobbit narrowed his eyes, glancing from the Ranger toward Estel, but Dorhaur reclaimed his attention. “He has given me a story, such as it is. I would simply like someone of my own acquaintance to verify, if you will.”
“And why should I?” Darlo stood, bringing his eyes more on a level with the seated Man. “What business of yours is any of it? This boy—”
“Is of my kindred.” The Ranger, Estel noted with some surprise, remained steady in the face of the Hobbit’s onslaught. “Surely you accept my interest in seeing him properly looked after.”
It was, perhaps, a reasonable argument. Still Darlo hesitated, but finally Estel shrugged, catching his attention. “It’s all right. As he said, I already told him most of it, anyway.”
Darlo settled back, looking none too happy, but spoke willingly enough. “As I understand it, the lad came to one of the pipeweed farms south of here, in a wagon with a man who was ill with injury and fever. He approached the farmer and his people for help …”
Dorhaur sat silent throughout the Hobbit’s narrative, nodding briefly when called upon to indicate that he had heard or understood, watching not Darlo but Estel as the tale unfolded. The intensity of the Ranger’s grey eyes, so like his own, was unnerving, but Estel forced himself not to look away. When Darlo stopped speaking Dorhaur was silent, until the Hobbit shifted irritably.
“Well then, you’ve heard it. What now?”
The Ranger pursed his lips. “You say you heard this directly from your brother-in-law, who saw this Ferrier with his own eyes.”
“He helped take the man’s arm off, he did!”
The reminder was … unpleasant, but Estel hid his flinch. Now was not the time. Dorhaur seemed to see it anyway, for his voice softened a touch. “And your home is a village near to the Elvish haven of Rivendell?” Estel nodded, confirming again what the Man had already heard. Dorhaur rubbed at his stubbled chin, eyes still fixed on Estel. The boy remained silent, trying to give nothing away. His mother’s people came to Imladris regularly, if not often, and probably knew far more about that area than any Hobbit or farmer of the Bree-lands. It was possible that the Ranger still sensed something off in his story—but like himself, Dorhaur gave nothing away. Instead, the Man sighed and turned back to the innkeeper. “Well then. I’ll take charge of seeing he gets home from here.”
Shocked silence greeted this pronouncement, then Darlo shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”
Dorhaur responded immediately, leaning forward to punctuate his point, but his words, and the Hobbit’s next rejoinder, were lost on Estel as he pondered this unexpected new possibility. He was a bit frightened of the Ranger—there was no denying it. But given the Man’s words and actions over the course of the morning, he didn’t really feel that Dorhaur meant him any harm. No, he rather thought the Ranger saw him as a sudden unwanted burden. Of course, there was that to consider as well. It could be that Dorhaur might say that he would take Estel home, only to change course once they were well away from Staddle and return him to the nearest hold of the Dúnedain people. Estel wasn’t sure where in the North lands the bulk of the Dúnedain might reside—it was not something that Erestor had covered in his surprisingly brief follow-up to the fall of Arnor. It might be much farther away from Imladris than he was right now.
It might also be much closer.
Aside from that, though, Estel understood that the chance of finding someone here in Staddle or even from Bree to take him most of the way to Rivendell was remote. He could tell, although the Hobbit tried to hide it, that Darlo was not hopeful that even Dalton Tanner or his acquaintances would be able or willing to make the trek. And if that was true, where did that leave him? There was always the hope that Glorfindel or his brothers would find him, but if they didn’t—if they weren’t able to follow Ferrier’s trail and then his own admittedly erratic track after—he could be stuck here for …
Estel sucked in a breath. That possibility was far more frightening than a grumpy Ranger and an uncertain path.
“I’ll go with you.”
Both of them turned on him at once. “Now lad,” Darlo began, “that’s not a good—”
“Sandheaver, if the boy’s made up his—”
“He’s twelve years old! He doesn’t—”
“It’s not the same as for a Hobbit child. He’s perfectly—”
“I know the difference between—”
“I’ll go!” Estel cut them both off, gritting his teeth against the tension. His hands were starting to shake, but he ignored them, and ignored the glares as well. “I’ll go.” He looked toward the Hobbit. “I know you don’t really think Dalton Tanner or any of his friends will take me.” Darlo sighed heavily. “And if they don’t, I don’t know how else I’ll get home.”
“It will be all right.” He cast a tentative glance toward the Ranger, who returned it with a nod that was surprisingly solemn.
“Estel!” The innkeeper took his arm and shook. “You don’t even know this Man! He—”
“I don’t know you, either!” The Hobbit stepped back, eyes widening, and Estel bit his lip. Tears formed, but he roughly swiped them away as he had been doing for days. “I’m sorry,” he apologized miserably, but stepped away when Darlo reached for him. “Thank you, I know you gave me a room and food and you’re trying to help me, but I don’t know you either, or Cres, or Arti or Luanna or Marks or …” Estel shuddered, and shook his head. “I don’t know anyone, and I just want go home!” He cast a pleading glance toward Dorhaur, who was watching the exchange silently, an unreadable expression in the sharp grey eyes. “I want to go home,” he whispered, trying very hard not to think of his mother or father or anyone else who would make it impossible not to cry. The Man nodded.
“We’ll see you there, lad. You have my word.”
“The word of a Ranger,” Darlo sniffed, and Dorhaur turned on him.
“And what would you know about that?”
“Nothing!” the innkeeper snapped. “And that’s just the point, isn’t it?”
The argument continued as Darlo rose abruptly and began to bustle about the inn, filling a bag with more food than Estel and Dorhaur would ever be able to eat (‘Don’t argue, lad, what’s in my pack is barely worth having’). It was more than half an hour before they were able to depart. Estel accepted a brief embrace from the distinctly unhappy Hobbit, assured Darlo that he would watch out for himself while in Dorhaur’s company, and then trailed the length of Staddle in the Ranger’s wake. Dorhaur’s pace was ground-eating, and Estel’s own long legs stood him in good stead as they left the boundaries of the town and disappeared into the trackless underbrush beneath the trees.
They traveled for nearly an hour, and Dorhaur sent a couple of surprised and approving glances in Estel’s direction as they slipped silently through underbrush and downed leaves. Estel was just beginning to relax into their pace, thankful for the forest atmosphere and the lack of conversation, when Dorhaur made a hard turn toward the north. Estel froze, his heart racing. The Ranger was nearly out of sight before he realized that Estel was no longer following him. He scowled and started back, but Estel scrambled away and Dorhaur halted.
“You said you would take me home.”
The Ranger frowned. “I said we would see you home, aye.”
Estel pointed toward the east. “Home is that way. Going north will not take us there.”
Dorhaur grimaced. “We have to meet up with my captain first. It will—”
“Where will we meet my captain?” Estel nodded. “East of Archet is our meeting place. It is—”
“Archet?” he exclaimed, dismayed. “That’s days from here!”
Now, the Ranger seemed annoyed. “Only a few. Bree-land’s not that large, you know. In any case, I’ll not be able to …” He had started forward again, but Estel scrambled back. Once they reached this meeting place, with Dorhaur’s captain and possibly other Rangers there, it would be easy enough for them to try to make him go to a Dúnedain settlement … “Estel!” Dorhaur’s voice snapped out. “You cannot question every turn I make. We will never reach …” He strode forward, obviously intent on dragging Estel after him, and Estel broke, dashing back the way that they had come.
He shouldn’t have trusted this Man. He should have …
Strong arms seized him. Estel shrieked, beating on the Ranger, and Dorhaur cursed. He grabbed at Estel’s wrists and shook hard, until Estel’s teeth rattled and he bit his tongue. He spat blood onto the Man and stopped struggling, only just aware that tears were tracking his cheeks. Dorhaur glanced down at his tunic, raised an eyebrow at Estel, and then stepped back, raising his hands.
“Calm, lad. Be calm.” The grey eyes swept him, lingering on his face, and then Dorhaur crouched slowly, resting his arms on his knees. “I am not attempting to force you anywhere that you don’t want to go. I don’t believe for a moment that you’ve told me—or Darlo Sandheaver, for that matter—the whole truth,” Estel blinked at that admission, and the Ranger offered a wry grin, “but I begin to believe that you were in fact taken from your home, wherever that may be.” Estel drew a long, shaky breath and remained still. After a moment, Dorhaur added, “It must be so. If you believe that the two of us can simply pick up and walk off into the wilds of Eriador for such a journey with nothing but my pack and a Hobbit’s picnic lunch, you couldn’t possibly have survived on your own for any length of time.”
Estel scowled, and the Ranger laughed, standing. Realizing that Dorhaur had been teasing him, hoping for such a reaction, Estel relaxed slightly. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and eyed the Man, playing restlessly with the orange and white marble he discovered there. “You believe me?”
“I believe that,” Dorhaur corrected, “and I’ll take it as enough to go on for now. But we must go to meet my captain. I have not the supplies for such a journey, not least of which is a horse. I would not want to walk such a length if it could be avoided. Also,” he started slowly back along his northern route, and after a brief hesitation Estel followed, “it may not be I who takes you.”
“But you said—”
“I said we would see you there. The Rangers.” Dorhaur halted and swung around once more to face him. “Others there are who know the eastern wilds better than I. Depending upon who is available, I may not be the most obvious choice.”
He was to be shuffled off again to yet another stranger. It was becoming the only routine thing about this awful adventure. Estel took a long breath and nodded. It was his only choice, really, other than returning to Staddle—and he already knew that would lead nowhere. The Ranger held Estel’s eyes for another moment, then nodded and resumed his trek. Estel followed, and as they picked their way through the Chetwood, he began trying to picture Erestor’s map of the Bree-lands in his mind. They would be near to Archet in a few days, and it was well to have a back-up plan. If it became truly necessary, surely he could manage to slip away somehow without being caught.
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