The Shepherd by sian22

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Author's Chapter Notes:

Every year since 1979, the warm, mahogany-rich voice of Alan Maitland is heard reading Frederick Forsyth's wonderful novella "The Shepherd" on the long-running radio series "As It Happens". Listening to it has been as much a part of our Canadian Christmas tradition as turkey and sledding on Christmas afternoon, and silly jokes in paper crackers. To my husband and son's eternal amusement, it is also a tradition for me to be reduced to a blubbering mess by the end of the broadcast. I cannot help it. It happens every time.

I have wanted to write something of Mablung for quite a while and somehow it came to me that the story could be recast: to Mettarë of course, and featuring a hurried Ranger, making his way home in time for the holiday. Of course, the original is the property of Frederick Forsyth and I gain no monetary benefit from this version, based lovingly on its events.

Here then, set in Gondor, T.A. 3011, is 'The Shepherd"

 



For a brief moment I paused at the gate of the garrison, glancing out from its great iron-bound fastness at the river's western shore. I looked upon the land lying white and crisp beneath golden Anor fair and smiled. It was colder than is usual along the river and there had been a little snow. It kissed every bush and swale and hollow, blanketing the country in a soft and dream-like stillness; as if every living thing had tucked back in to sleep the winter through.

Leading Celle out of the gate and down the path, I looked back only once. I was setting out a trifle late. The Captain had bid me safe journey and a warm holiday, asking to be remembered to my sister whom he had met some years before. Behind, the warm glow of the great hearth and the garrison's many braziers seeped through the windows of the tower. Cair Andros looked as welcoming as possible for such a forbidding pile of stone, hewn from the dark grey bones of the isle itself.

Celle trotted smartly across the western bridge, anxious as I to be away and on our road.

Beyond stretched the rich fields of Anorien and in the distance the green expanse of the Druadan. The land rose sharply beyond the river, frosted by the light and fluffy snow that sparkled in the sun. Sparkled, my old Nan always said, with the light of the two trees: the closest in these latter days that Man could get to their fair memory.

Once on the shore I picked up Celle's pace, eager to put leagues quickly on and leave behind the Fort and the foam and rush of Anduin. Inside the barracks I knew I left much warmth and merriment. Candles would be lit. There would be spiced brandy and honeycakes after a large and rowdy feast. A rather brighter Mettarë than in the many refuges, I had certain cause to know.

Still I pressed on underneath a bright, unheeding sky. Though 'twas fair travelling weather there was no one else upon the western road. All was quiet in Anorien for it was Mettarë and I was young ranger trying to get home.

Glad for once of the mask and gloves that we hated so in summer time, I pulled my thick cloak tighter. Celle too had her winter coat. It was bitter, the coldest Mettarë in many years. I knew my comrades thought me mad, but I longest intensely to be home.

A flurry of goodbye whistles had filled the forecourt air and 'safe travels' from both Damrod and Anborn. I was not concerned; I had my pack, and food, and water and my sword. The West River these days was safe, thanks to us.

And it was not far after all, only twenty leagues to my sister's house; a good day's ride, mid-day to mid-night, but one I had made many times. In my mind I checked off each village as I passed. Day slipped to evening and to dusk. We made good time and entered the forest as the sun was setting. It was lovely with the snow.

I rode not too quickly with my hand light upon the reins. I did not want to press Celle too hard, did not want her to slip upon the ice. I settled comfortably into the saddle, let the motion flow, thinking a little wistfully of the party I left behind and that I would miss the Captain being there. For once he was not needed in Minas Tirith, not bound to the formal, joyless celebration he had told me of. The Steward did not keep the holiday, save for their official duties. I smiled to remember the Captain's boyish excitement with the night to come. It was infectious, but only made me want to hurry more.

All over Gondor, in the villages, and towns, and countryside, there would be feasting now, and prayers. Leagues ahead, in Merilen's house beside the Rohan road, the story would be the same: the carols I knew from my childhood home, the same tunes as those sung in Minas Tirith, the same tunes I knew were sung in Firien farther west. Not in Sindarin there of course, but Westron.

Mettarë or Yule, however Men called it, it was same in Gondor between the mountains and the sea. This darkest night of the year there would be goose or turkey and special breads and candles to keep the shadows from the land. Astride the bay it would be fish perhaps. Idly I wondered how the Elves celebrated. Their year's turn, I knew, was spring, but perhaps they too celebrated the return of Varda's light this night.

It was good to be going home.

I rode on as Anor damped her fire and Ithil rose. In the black arching vault of the night sky the first stars flickered as white fire. Soon I would make it to the forest and then, a few hours hence, to home. By breakfast time, my sister's children would be awake, wide-eyed with surprise to find me there, to find the presents I had packed carefully in my saddlebags. The thought made me smile.

No problem.

Or so I thought.

The problem hit not an hour farther on. Perhaps I had not been concentrating, my thoughts instead on Merilen's cooking and her beer. Perhaps she had stepped in a critter hole. I could not be sure, but I knew it when Celle slipped. She stumbled, jerking me out of my reverie. Quickly I leapt down. Easy girl, I murmured in Sindarin. Her soft brown eyes looked pained. She had pulled up her off hind foot and was favouring it noticeably. Valar.

I bent in concern. Feeling Celle's fetlock, I swore another more unseasonal sentiment. She flinched at my touch. My voice seemed startling in the quiet of the forest, but I murmured louder, hoping to settle her agitation. With a sinking heart I knew it would be hard going now. And the nearest village was several hours back, upon the plains.

Things come in threes, I thought wryly to myself. That's one, and quickly I made a sign for Niena. Lady's mercy, that would be the last tonight.

Far back across the dark water of the river, in the warm fastness of the Fort, my men were likely now loud and rowdy, drinking the mulled rich wine the Captain had so generously ordered. I was here. Sighing, I reminded myself to forgive my trusting mount and blame the idiot who guided her: me.

What now to do?

The forest can be a lonely place, even more so on a winter's night. The muffled, soft and dreaming hush that seemed so special not some hours earlier, now felt a little sinister. I looked around. The birds were quiet and not a creature moved. The only sound was the faint jingle of Celle's tack as she shifted uncomfortably foot to foot.

I looked upon her standing in mute pain. The world, it seemed was immune to our distress.

Indeed it was.

I regretted in that moment not going in the convoy. I could have done so some days earlier, but there had been reports to do. I had been loath to let the Captain and Madril shoulder so much work. It was enough that I was taking off on leave, though I had it coming and the Captain had insisted.

A few light flakes began to sprinkle down but they were not enough to hide the way. I needed to make a quick decision. Back or ahead? I was not sure that Celle in this condition could make it back. It would be many hours slog. How much farther to the village out ahead? I calculated in my head: a man can walk about a league an hour in perfect conditions. I shook my head; conditions were not perfect when one is leading a limping horse and snow is falling. Forward would be hours too.

Sighing, I thought wildly then of poulticing. I had some small skill as a healer, but really could it help so fast? No. We needed to be moving now, not later. What ill and rotten luck.

Think man, think. For fifteen years I had been in the army, ten of them a ranger, and a woodsman before that. Rangers were not simply trained to track and fight. All of us had just as surely been trained for emergencies in the wilds. Valar knew they happened right regularly enough. We had woodcraft and leechcraft and lore. Use your training man.

First, take stock of the nature of any disaster. Dark of night, increasing cold and snow; an injured horse. Not certain I could make it to safe shelter in a timely way. I heard in my head a younger Madril, new to his commission, laconic as ever, charged with whipping us into shape. The deep bass voice, rumbling out of the tall, square hulk, as he worryied at a scar upon his hand; a habit I now knew meant that he had been nervous. The first thing, gentlemen, is to hunker down, not to leave and wander, get farther lost: Shelter in place.

Right then.

I looked about. Druadan had not the rockier upland east of the River, it lacked the many overhangs and caves. This was flatter, gently rolling; there would be no stiffer shelter. The edge of the forest track was thick with wet and sodden bracken; nothing helpful lay right to hand.

Scanning farther off to the side, down near the edge of an adjacent stream, I spotted a large upturned tree, its roots arching like a roof. That could do. The branches could be cut for cover and a bed; and in the low we would be sheltered from the wind. I had my tinder box, and food and water. It would not be a comfortable night, but I might doze a bit, and just perhaps, if I treated Celle right, she could move a little easier on the morrow. Sighing, I resigned myself to missing my surprise, but still I would get there right enough.

I hobbled Celle just to be safe and scrambled down the bank to check more closely my makeshift home. Ithil had risen higher. I thanked him for his presence that lit my way as I skirted icy patches along the slope.

It was when I had nearly reached the tree, had almost touched it with my hand, that disaster struck. I slipped. My feet swept clean out from under me and I had not a chance to break my fall. Down I went, head cracking on a root, hip bashed against a hidden rock. Dazed, I could not catch a grip and slipped down the wet, snow-slick slope until I came to rest, at last, upon the frozen creek.
s
Well. Bloody Uinen's tits. That's two.

I lay without moving for moment; let my startled heart and breathing slow. The snowflakes fell soft upon my upturned face; stuck to my eyelashes; piled in little wet pinnacles on my curling hair. Gingerly, I pulled off a glove and reached up to touch the backside of my head. Only a little blood came away upon my fingers, but a right bump was swelling quickly behind my ear. Well, Mab, I thought, now you really need to hunker down.

The cold of the ice began to seep into my legs. I also needed to move.

Gathering my legs, I made to scuttle crabwise on my back up to the verge. With a startled wail of surprise and fear I felt the ice give way. I was dumped of a sudden in a bare foot of filthy, freezing water.

Three, was the idiotic first thought that came into my head. Then: get moving man, you're bloody soaked. Frustrated and more than little alarmed, I dug my boots into the muck and quickly heaved myself up on the shore.

The sudden jerk made a wave of nausea rise into my throat. Panting, I lay still for a moment while it passed. Perhaps I had cracked my head harder than I thought.

Now I was really in it. Mud-caked and sodden, I forced myself to stand. Water ran down my back and pants, seeped into my boots. Damn. Teeth chattering, I climbed the laughably short slope and retrieved my saddle-bags and bedroll.

This time I made it back to the tree without incident, but by the time I pulled out my knife and thought to cut branches for a fire my fingers in the sopping gloves were frozen stiff. Swearing, I tore off the useless cover and shoved my hands into my armpits to try and warm them up. This worked a little and with relief I reached for a spare pair of mits. Not so nimble with which to work, but at least somewhat warm and dry.

Carefully, conscious of my ill luck, I cut branches to cover my makeshift lean-to. Next I broke up some twigs, piled the driest moss I could find and shaved a little wood; all to make a fire. To this I added a bit of my precious tinder, and struck a spark. It flared and with it a little hope. This was quickly crushed as the barest flame lit briefly and then went out.

Resolute, I tried again. My hands were shaking now, but this time the spark caught and a small flame licked up. I could have cheered if my teeth had not been chattering so hard.

The snow, I saw with satisfaction, had finally stopped.

As I worked, lost in my little desperate world, I did not noticed a new enemy had came to trouble that ill-fated eve. The snow had stopped, but now a grey and ghostly fog descended. I looked up the slope, I could barely make out Celle standing patiently above.

Stuck here for sure.

Fighting down a rising sense of panic, I let out a long slow breath. What is wrong with you man?

Panic in the wilds is of course ones' greatest enemy. I was no greenhorn, I knew this well. I stamped my feet, willing the shaking in my limbs to stop, imploring the fire to rise high and fast. Wet rivulets coursed off my cloak and into my boots again. My breeches were soaked and already the edges felt stiff. They were clearly wet and freezing. With a start, I realized I was shivering.

Shivering. Valar, Mablung what are you thinking? A voice inside my head that sounded rather like Madril as his fiercest made me wince. Gentlemen, we always remove wet clothing, it only makes us colder.

I had wasted precious time. I wasn't thinking straight. I had a blanket and enough spare clothes. With fumbling fingers, now thoroughly chilled, I hastily shrugged out of the wet and into my dry gear.

At last feeling a little better, I laid my bedroll on a bed of boughs and sat back upon my pack beside the now dully smoking fire. I grabbed my cup and sat it by the fire's edge, hoping to warm my precious water stash for tea. I munched disconsolately at my meager Mettare feast: a sandwich. Food is fuel and warmth.

As I sat, the shivering gripped me harder, and a sense of loneliness gripped hard my heart. All those things that had seemed so perfect as I had ridden away from Cair Andros now seemed dark and sinister. The stars were no longer brilliant, sparkling away in the timeless, lost infinity of heaven's vault. They were hard instead; mockingly disdainful, uncaring of my lot below. The night sky was became a dark, encroaching shadow, and in it lay the worst of all, the chill and heavy fog, waiting to swallow me up. It would bury Celle and me for an endless age; make for us a ghostly crypt where nothing moved, without pity or compassion or words of consolation. And no one would ever know.

Cheer up Mab, this isn't like you, I admonished my pathetic self.

But my mood did not improve and, more worrying, the shivering did not abate, and even the blanket from my saddle bag did not help. How long I had been lost to my thoughts I was unsure, but now I noticed the flame was gone, of course the wood was wet, and smoke, not heat, was my reward. I tried my steel again, but fingers shaking like a banner in the breeze could not force a spark.

Angry, and with a shameful tear, I threw the steel onto my bedroll. I lay down upon it and wrapped what cover I could glean about myself. Quickly I turned to the other side; my hip hurt where I lay upon the ground. My head thumped and I lay, dispirited and exhausted.

I must have dozed because when I woke Ithil was setting; he hovered as an eerie silver orb, held fast by the dark arms of the encircling trees. My shivering had increased. I thought without a doubt I was now not just going to miss the holiday, I might well die that night. Not from Orcs, I thought with surprise. And though I had never quite thought I would die quietly in my bed, I had not thought to wind up frozen, with none to barrow or find my body.

Manwe, Lord of Air, hear my plea. I forced myself to move lips stuck together by the very moisture I breathed out. What do you say to Him when you need help? Please, Lord, make somebody notice my plume of smoke and send down a shepherd to guide me to a refuge. Please help me, and I promise... What in Arda could I promise Him? Tulkas I had often called on, as any soldier was wont to do. But not Manwe, most powerful of the Valar. It was his air that was thick with the encroaching fog that doomed me now.

A rage of despair welled up and I am ashamed to say I cursed poor Celle standing miserably above. Chagrined, I felt a stronger guilt, and cursed myself the harder.

I thought of Merilen and her family, my comrades and my friends. An enormous sadness overtook me. My heart thumped hard and slow within my chest, dragged down by acres of regret. I thought of all that I had not done and would not do. How had I at thirty not ventured farther than the White City? How had I not found a girl to love? Stupid, sentimental sot. How would any woman have had me, wedded I as was to the wilds?

Maudlin thoughts chased each other round my aching head and before long I realized to my further despair that in a few minutes even Ithil's light would be extinguished. And after that…. a few hours on I would be dead too; frozen and forgotten by the moon.

The shaking grew harder but with it now there came an uncanny sense of warmth and peacefulness. I thought to throw off my blanket and my cape, but once again Madril's voice chastised me. Men taken by a chill will do strange and unhelpful things.

I knew enough to know that this was not good and forced myself to keep my wrap about me. Yet even as I lay floating in my eldritch warm cocoon a shadow crossed the whiteness. Some new figment of my shivering brain, I thought. But then I heard Celle whicker. A bear, that is just what I need. But it had four legs and was taller than a bear. A stag?

Another horse! Blessed Yavanne, there was someone there! I forced myself to rise, shaking, to my knees.

I could not see his face, but by Celle on the track stood another Ranger, hood up and mask covering his face, his mount placidly chomping at the verge. I heard a call, faint over the wind that was rising keenly now. The words were whipped away and I could not understand. He beckoned quickly to me and his hand signal I did make out, it was one I knew, "Follow me".

Somehow I found strength to rise, to scramble up the bank and make my way to this blessed apparition. A few tendrils of red hair had escaped the hood and I noted with surprise his cloak was not recent issue. It was grey and of longer cut; from the Old Steward's time, clasped with a pin shaped like a leaf. If I had had one I would have used it too, all the veterans reminisced about the quality of their gear. Ecthelion had stinted nothing, just as the Captain now fought constantly with the Steward for what we needed most.

The Ranger started down the track and hastily I grabbed Celle's reins to lead her on. From the position of the dying moon I knew we were heading back towards the River side. Why that way? Where had he come from? From his kit he was most likely an older veteran, coming back from the village to his post again. Some hidden refuge in the forest. Poor man, working on Mettare.

Suddenly my fuzzy mind cleared and I remembered with great relief we had to be near to Esgal Lalvin. Yes! That was it. Oh Manwe, we are saved… There was a refuge near, how had I forgotten it?

I nodded excitedly, but quickly brought up my hand at the jolt of pain. The man had slowed down to pace Celle and I, as slowly I stumbling tired and chilled. Does he know that I've been hurt? He needed to know I was half frozen. Reluctantly, when next he looked I made the chopping sign across my arm to signal injury. I saw the grey hood nod in understanding, nearly invisible in the grey and swirling fog

Instinctively he slowed and I kept my eyes on him, afraid of losing sight for even a tiny instant; watching for his every hand-signal. Against the white fog, even as the moon sank, his hood was a most welcome right. Two minutes later he held up his clenched left fist, 'help is near'.

My Shepherd moved unerringly through the fog. This was his terrain and even in the mist he knew every rock and branch, every twist of the trail, as I did the land about the Window on the West. I thanked Manwe once again.

Frequently he looked back to make sure that I was following. I shouted once. "How far?" but the wind and the soupy fog muffled any understanding.

Soon I was stumbling, exhausted once again and my fingers on Celle's reins were none too steady. Valar, let it be soon. I felt dizzy and I could not feel my feet. Hurry man hurry. Just when I thought I could not go one step more, quite suddenly he turned to the left, so fast I almost lost him by continuing to go straight. I caught myself and followed.

I could have cried with relief. Esgal Lalvin. There out of the dim appeared a stone hut, quite large, with a heavy lintel and steeply pitched thatch roof. The Tree of Gondor was carved in the stone above the door. I recognized the design: not one of the refuges planned to be hidden, but one of the old waystations, set at intervals about the land.

My legs nearly buckled under me.

Without a word, a heavy gloved hand beckoned Celle on. Confident, she followed. Next my shepherd pointed a single forefinger at me, then forward to the door. His bright blue eyes were stern above the mask. It clearly meant: there you are, settle in, I will take care of her. I thought to protest and to thank him but the keen eyes were bright and brooked no objection. Surely he would be but a few minutes; rubbing down, feeding and watering the horses. I could warm up first and then thank him and get to know his name.

I made my way, grateful but barely staggering on jelly legs, toward the door. It opened just as I reached to grab the latch.

"Hallow there." A face peered out. By the look of him, flushed cheeks and brighter eyes, the Ranger had already been at the drink.

"By Tulkas, Anen was right, there is someone out here. Come in. Come in, man before you catch your death." He waved quickly, and pulled me through the threshold.

What I saw there was a blessed homey sight; five soldiers arrayed about an oaken table, a fire blazing in a hearth, bows and swords laid by and bunks along one wall. Surprised, they rose as one as I stumbled in.

The tallest of them, graced with a lieutenant's knots, held out his hand to take my arm. "Damned lucky you are to find us. From the looks of you, you are nearly frozen. Come over to the fire. This night is not fit for man nor beast."

I followed and all but fell onto the chair a man hastily set below me. "Damned lucky," I agreed. "But your man found me and for that I am very thankful."

Once by the fire and with a mug of hot spiced wine, I hastily recounted my sorry tale. The thrown shoe, the slip, the dunking.

The Lieutenant, one Saeros by name, spent a few minutes digesting the information carefully. He was a thoughtful sort, with long black hair and neatly trimmed goatee. Something of fineness of his hand and carriage said to me a Minas Tirith man.

"Sounds like too near a thing. How ever did you find the path? I should think in the heavy fog t'would be nigh on impossible." He shook his head, amazed, but turned and looked pointedly at one of the men beside. "Someone should see to your poor horse."

"I'll go." A thin young lad moved to grab his cloak.

I grimaced weakly as my sore hip twinged, but made as if to rise. "I should see to Celle myself, your man will have his hands full with his own mount."

A puzzled look passed between the men. "No need for that" Saeros quickly said. "Yours is the only horse in the stable besides ours, they've been bedded snug since afternoon. Anen will do it fine."

Confused by the statement, I returned my own puzzled look. "What about the Ranger who lead me in? He took Celle for me."

"We have no one else with us, Lieutenant. All the others are off on leave."

My mind was whirling. This was mad, illogical. Yet there had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation. The mystery puzzled me for another minute, then I hit on the explanation. The nearest village. That had to be it. Someone had borrowed the ranger's kit. It was older…

I felt a little impatient. Was the lieutenant into the grog also? "But I was guided in." I explained patiently. Had I not said so before?

The older man shrugged, as if to say if you insist. Finally he said: "Damn lucky, all the same. I'm surprised the other chap managed to find the place."

"I see," I said, but I didn't really.

Lieutenant Saeros was nothing if not practical, he set the confusion deliberately aside for a moment to deal with problem close at hand. He looked up to the same young sergeant who had first greeted me. "Bring the cauldron on, Ambar. He needs warm water for a wash, and some warm clothes. Some of my kit should be big enough." The warm tankard in my hands was refilled and I drank greedily, feeling the warmth run down my gullet and pool in pit of my stomach where ice had settled in.

Grey eyes rested a moment longer on my face. Wearily I tried to smile. "And fetch, Hirlas would you?" Saeros added, pointing to the matted patch upon my hair. "I think I'd like our leech to take a look at you…fell did you say? That looks nasty."

You can say that again, I thought.

I was beginning to shiver again a bit. Ambar bustled back with a thicker blanket that I accepted gratefully. The young man went back through a side door, shouting for Hirlas. By looking through after him, I took in at a glance a hall and another set of doors. Officers rooms no doubt.

"Lad, who are you?" Saeros settled down upon the bench by the waxed and rutted table. Excitement over, a few of the men turned back to their abandoned game of cards.

"Mablung. Lieutenant in Captain Faramir's Ithilien company." I explained my post and, for good measure, my ill-fated errand.

He nodded once in recognition, and I thought, respect. "Well, Lieutenant Mablung, I am sorry to say that this is not a night to send someone out. Your family will be worried."

"Well in fact they won't. I was trying to surprise them."

His grimace spoke volumes of what he thought of a lone man, traversing woods without anyone expect him at the other end.

My hands had ceased their shaking and a welcome bowl of stew was pressed into their midst. As this was Mettarë it had beef in it, and herbs and great chunks of potato and carrot and beet. I thought I could taste a little wine slopped into the broth by whomever had done the cooking. While I ate, which took little time, for I was ravenous, the Lieutenant let me be and the men chatted quietly, obviously reliving some patrol days before. The stew and fresh bread with it tasted in that moment like the best I'd ever had. As good as Merilen's I thought, reminding myself not to tell her that when I finally got to hug her on the morrow.

"This hardly the Fort, or your sister's fireside Mablung," mused the lieutenant with a small half-smile when I had wiped the sauce with a second piece of bread, "But it is dry and we have a bed."

"Better than a bedroll in the snow." I agreed. "Thank the Valar for that man."

A black eyebrow raised and Saeros exchanged a covert glance with the now waiting sergeant Ambar. Obviously they thought my frozen state had affected my head as well, for all seemed a trifle more relaxed when the healer finally slipped through the door and made his way into the warm and heavy room.

Hirlas, a small man of my own age with thinning brown hair and darker eyes, bid me welcome and settled down upon a stool, looked over me intently. He scanned my face for hurts, turned my hands over, checking I presumed for sign of frostbite.

"He's had a fall and a dunking earlier this eve." Saeros explained as Hirlas prodded gently a scrape I hadn't realized that I had gained. "Hit his head. Seems a little disoriented." was the further pointed comment.

"I am not." I protested between winces as the little man inspected my wet head for bumps. "If he wasn't one of yours he'll have headed back to his own home nearby." I ignored the somewhat incredulous looks of the men around.

Hirlas found the goose egg quick enough. I could feel his fingers stick on my matted hair. I hoped fervently the cut would not need stitching.

A look of concern had spread across the healer's face. Without a word he took the bowl from my hands and squared my shoulders.

"Right Lieutenant, look at me." He shielded my right eye and let go, then repeated the performance with the left. He grunted happily. Clearly my eyes responded to the light and my vision was not blurred. I had no nausea, but admitted to a little dizziness and, of course, a headache.

Asked to stand and walk, I sighed mightily but complied. I realized to my chagrin, weaving my way to the front refuge door, that my gait was none too steady. I had been very frozen and fatigued. It seemed not unexpected given the dunking I had received. Gratefully I made it back and sank into my seat upon the chair again.

Saeros and his healer exchanged a knowing glance, the older man's mouth pressed in a thin line that seemed to say "I know what we are dealing with."

Sergeant Ambar was a little more lenient. "Suppose it's possible someone out in t'village happened by. Damned odd they wouldn't stop in after though."

Saeros opened his mouth to disagree but Hirlas, noting my puzzled and frustrated frown, shook his head. "Leave the man be."

I felt annoyed that they doubted me but between the warm food within my belly and the warm air about the room I was too tired to make too much fuss. Even so the puzzle would not let me rest. "He had one of the old cloaks, would someone have passed it on? A veteran, perhaps?"

"Maybe." was all the Lieutenant said, a grim smile upon his face. He rose and clapped a solid hand upon my shoulder. "Twill all be clearer in the morning, I expect."

What a night. Bewildered but grateful, I raised the last of my mulled wine to the unnamed man and his strange passion for ranging the wilds. I tossed the drink back and winced again. Valar, my head did hurt to jerk.

Hirlas caught the look and quickly pointed toward the hallway door. "Lieutenant, you will have to leave the celebrating to us this night. Bed is the best thing for you with that concussion."

I was just about to protest his diagnosis, I knew a real concussion when I felt it, when Ambar put his head round the door. "Lieutenant, I've put his bags in Daeron's room. And the hot water."

The older man nodded, smiling to take the edge off his gruffer voice. "Of you go, Mablung, you have your orders." I stood, reluctant to leave their company, but a feeling of lassitude stole across my limbs.

I followed slowly out into the hall and turned at the door the sergeant indicated. As I entered the room, I got a start. These were real rooms with real fires. What a welcome sight!

"Good evening, sir," An old man rose stiffly from his knees where he had been laying kindling in the fireplace. He held out a gnarled and wrinkled hand. "I'm Sergeant Daeron. Chief dogsbody." I smiled as shook his hand. He was obviously a man of good humour and good wit. His smile was warm in a broad, lined face and his rheumy blue eyes twinkled. "I'll have the fire going directly. There's not a bath as such, but you can have a wash and change into some warmer clothes. Soon as this fire burns up, it'll be right cosy."

He was right. In the time it took me to take the proffered clothes and change into a thick clean shirt and warmer trews, the room was comfortably warm and inviting; the fire burning brightly, the rough linen curtains drawn against the dark.

"Have you been here long, Daeron?" I asked him, curious. Surely he was long past the age of pensioning, but it was not unusual for soldiers with no family to stay on, wedded to their unit and the job.

"Oh, yes, sir, nigh on sixty years; since just before the Old Steward started all the building. We were just opened then." He grinned a little impishly. "Can't seem to leave, though the Captain keeps asking if I'm tired of it. I like to help the men."

I realized with a start that to this man the Old Steward was Turgon, not Ecthelion his son. "You've seen some changes, eh?"

He told me of the early days, brow furrowed with pride and determination. The refuges had been just built, the Orcs pushed back across the River, but their numbers had been too many. They harried constantly the poor people of Ithilien. My father's people. I fought with Ithilien's company with as much reason as any, though born in Druadan. But I had heard my father's and my uncle's stories from before the Clearance. Seen my mother's sad smile to remember the green and fragrant home they would never see again.

While I listened and started my ablutions Daeron took the basin away and refilled it with warmer water. There was no spare nightshirt, but extra blankets had been piled upon the bed. The old steward began to tidy up, taking the forgotten tankard from the table.

I looked curiously about the room. It was sparsely furnished, with a low bunk, a table for the washstand, a clothes press and chair beside the bed. A single candleholder rested on the mantle. I went to reach for it, feeling suddenly like the warmth of a candle's glow could help chase the chill that yet lingered in my heart. It had been too near a thing and all too strange.

It was then I noted the small painting leaning beside the candlestick.

The painting was old, colour cracked and flaking off the grey aged wood, but still clear enough. It showed a young man of a bit less than my own years, in his early twenties, dressed in Ranger gear. Not the green and grey, camouflaged pattern of today. He wore thick sheepskin-lined boots, roughspun grey trousers and heavy grey cloak of Ecthelion's time. Right hand on hip, unsmiling, somehow the artist had caught the grim intentness of the seasoned soldier and with it something else: a certain sadness about the light grey eyes.

I peered closer. No mistaking it. He had red hair.

I was about to say something to Daeron when a cold gust of air ran down my back. The single window had blown open and the foggy chill was rushing in.

"Drat that latch," the old man said, and made to put the basin back down again.

"No, let me."

With a quick jerk that I soon regretted, I lunged and grasped the recalcitrant bar of iron at the window. I stood still as the room spun for a little while, took a few deep breaths, and looked wearily out, hoping to focus a bit better once again.

The fog swirled in waves and somewhere in its greyish dim, I thought I heard the whistle of a familiar bird call. "All safe." But there were no birds, no flutter of wings about the trees, and no men moving in the hallowed dark. It must, I thought, just be a figment of the wind, whistling through some crack within the rocks. I closed the latch tightly and turned back into the room.

"Who's the Ranger, Daeron?" I pointed towards the lonely miniature on the mantel shelf, having thought twice of nodding in that moment.

"Ah sir. That's a picture of Captain Gaeron. He was here before the Clearance, sir." He picked up the tankard and rested it carefully within the basin.

"Gaeron?" I walked back to the picture and studied it closely.

"Yes, sir. An Anorien man and a very fine man, if I may say so. As a matter of fact, sir, this was his room."

"What company was that, sergeant?" I peered at the pin upon the cloak. There was no doubting it. The same design, a leaf. It must be the same man.

"Very first Ithilien Rangers." he answered proudly. Remarkable trackers, all of them. But I venture to say, I believe Captain Gaeron was the best of all of them. But then I'm biased, sir. I was his sergeant, you see."

The whole thing was clear as day. Gaeron had been a superb Ranger, part of one of the Old Steward's elite squads during the Clearance. Men charged with holding back the Filth just long enough to help the stricken people to safety. Ecthelion had welcomed all who could be of service: good men and brave in desperate and trying times. Osgiliath had been recaptured and the bridge rebuilt, but the Orcs had fled not far. Many a foray had been launched to cover the fleeing people as the raids grew ever bolder in Ithilien. Gaeron would be an oldster now if he'd been a young Captain then. Perhaps like many of the men he'd had no time to find a wife and settle down. Pensioned off, he'd live somewhere outside the village, kept himself to himself, remembering his days of glory.

He must, I reasoned, have been journeying back from some trip to the wilds, spotted my fire and taken me in tow. Knowing the land he had once ranged as well I knew south Ithilien, he'd taken a chance of finding his old refuge even in thick fog. It was Morder's own risk. But then, with a shiver, I knew I'd had no time left, it had been that or freeze.

"He is certainly a good Ranger" I said reflectively, thinking of the evening's feat, the fog and the white, pitiless shroud that had nearly swallowed me up.

"The best, sir" said old Daeron from behind me. "They reckoned he had eyes like an elf, did the Captain. I remember many's the time the company would return from a hard patrol, scouting over east of the River, nearer to the enemy. The rest of the men would broach a cask and have a drink." His eyes were soft in the firelight. "More likely several."

"He didn't drink?" I asked, intrigued.

"Oh yes, sir, but it didn't seem to affect him much. More often he'd change his mount and take off again alone, going back over to the River way to see if he could find some injured man making for the refuge and guide them home."

'Tis said that Elves also do not get drunk. I thought of my Captain, Faramir, another man with an uncanny head for drink and eyes that could pierce your heart. Perhaps this Gaeron was another man in whom the blood of Westernesse ran true.

"A dedicated Captain, then." I said, imagining in my mind's eye wounded men, struggling, arrow shot, blindly making for higher ground, despair seeping into bones that ached with the bitter loneliness of the night, the fog blotting out the land.

"That's right, sir. He used to go out for a second patrol in the same night, out toward the River, looking for injured men. Then he'd guide them home, back here to Lalvin, sometimes through fog so dense you couldn't see your hand. Sixth sense, they said he had; something of the Elvish in him, I expect."

I could well believe it, looking on the fineness of his face, the high cheekbones, the light grey eyes. They reminded me also of Captain Faramir. He too knew things at times he rightly shouldn't.

I turned from the painting, draped the forgotten washcloth across the chair back, and sat heavily upon the bed.

"Quite a man, I said, and I meant it. Even today, aged, he was a superb tracker. Found Celle and me despite the wild of the wind and the snow."

"Oh yes, sir, quite a man, the Captain. I remember him saying to me once, standing right here before the fire: "Daeron, he said, whenever there's one of them out there in the night, trying to get back, I'll go out and bring him home."

I nodded gravely. The old man obviously worshiped his old Captain, and justly so. I felt a sudden kinship with my shepherd. Wondered what it would be like to be retired, in solitude, sitting lonely by the fire, safe as it may be. I knew it would not lie easy on me to give up the wilds and perhaps, I too one day would find it hard to be pensioned off.

I smiled my thanks, now at last done in, and laid my aching head upon the pillow. I wondered briefly if I stopped at the village inn, could I leave a message for him, some token of my thanks? "Well, I said, "by the look of it, he's still doing it. Bless him for it, he saved my wet and frozen hide this night."

Now, it was Daeron's turn to smile as he pulled the blankets up and snuffed the candle on the mantlepiece. In the light of just the low-banked fire, his face was wistful, filled with the time and tide of memory.

"Oh I hardly think so, sir. Captain Gaeron went out on his last patrol Mettare of '54, nigh sixty years ago this night. He never came back, sir. Lost to Orcs we think. Have a good sleep sir, and Good Mettare."

.

 


Chapter End Notes:


Merry Christmas everyone...Thank you to the ladies of the Garden of Ithilien for their encouragement and great company



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