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Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Title: 3000 Third Age, early September
Rating: Australian PG
"How do, sir, and can I get you a bite to eat?" I asked him, smiling sweetly and ignoring the scowl he directed at me. A curt nod was the response to my enquiry, so I bobbed him a curtsey, and headed off to the kitchens, well aware of Barliman watching me, amused. He's aware of my interest in the rangers and he's also aware of which of them I get along with, and which I can't stand for longer than I absolutely have to. This Halbarad is one of the latter bunch. I've seen him about six times since I started in my role as intelligencer, and each and every time he's appeared here, he's been here to reprimand me for something, it seems. Even the first time I saw him, and got the job of intelligencer from him, he looked at me as though I were something he'd have to scrape off his boot later.
I whisked out to the kitchens, and spoke with Mistress Butterbur.
"That stuck-up swine Halbarad's here. Can we get his usual, please, Mistress Jenny?"
Jenny smiled at me, a trifle disapprovingly, but assembled a plate of food for him. "Now, Magda," she said, "just because you don't like the man, you don't have to abuse him, girl. Think of the coin he brings to the Pony, coin that pays your wages, I might add!"
I sniffed, and pulled a face. "Coin he may bring, but the face he brings along with it! I'm amazed the cider doesn't turn to vinegar each time he visits."
Jenny chuckled. "Well, to each their own, lass. Possibly he's got a stomach complaint, and that's what makes him so sour. Certainly, he used to visit Mistress Breelindir often, while she was still alive." The memory of the herbwoman brought on a sigh from Jenny. I took the plate and tactfully withdrew. I'd long since got the impression that Jenny had been close to the tiny herbwoman, and that the death of the woman to that wild boar had been something of a blow to her.
Back to the tap, and I deposited the plate in front of the Captain with a smile and a polite word. I received back his coin, and the tiny twist of parchment that he customarily used to ask for information. I took the coin, and pocketed the parchment to read later. My lack of speed at reading (and my need to puzzle out the words individually) was another of his reasons for disapproving of me, along with my being female, and my apparent taste for Rangers to go in my bed. His exchanges with me were usually down at my brothers' farm, where he could pretend to be taking mail from our Dúnadan kin to my brothers for their perusal. That, along with his attitude toward my being a halfbreed and a woman, were my principal reasons for disliking him.
I could remember all too well his behaviour toward my family in the Angle when they'd fostered me up there. It had mainly been exasperation at having another child for his patrols to have to protect (an attitude which had made my aunt Tangliniwen snort and ask him how he was planning to prevent pregnancies, if this was such a problem), but there was a fair amount of anger at having a "half-breed Breelander brat" (I believe those were the words) learning the location of his precious Angle. As if I could have told anyone! Two weeks by covered wagon ride is all I could have said, and couldn't have told you the direction had I known it. My aunt took good care of that - I was drugged for the first three days out of Bree, by which time I had no idea which direction we'd gone. On my journey back, I was drugged again, from the same point in the opposite direction. To this day, I couldn't tell you where the Angle is, nor which direction you'd head out of Bree to get there.
Not that Master High-And-Mighty-I'm-High-Family-And-Important-And-You're-Not-Worthy-Of-My-Notice Halbarad would believe that, no matter how many times anyone told him. Oh no. He got far too much pleasure out of complaining about the standard of my work, and coming down three times a year to tell me off. Hmph.
I hid the scrap of paper in the locket that Jarge had made for me out of great-granda's old Ranger star. It was a lot smaller than the one Ma had used, more suited to the purposes I would need it for. When I'd started intelligencing, it had quickly become apparent that I'd need somewhere to hide small strips of paper, small items. It was Jarge who'd offered to turn the star into a locket for me. I'd agreed, because Jarge was good with his hands, having done some study with the silversmith up at the Angle before Da had died and the farm had come over to him. He'd done a good job. The star had been turned into a small hexagon, while the six points of the star had been turned inward to overlap slightly over one another and lock. Similar to the puzzle rings that the silversmith created, you had to know the key to making this particular puzzle come apart, or else it locked tight. I liked it, for it was a very handy little toy, and none save myself and my brothers need know what the locket had been prior to its current life.
My mother's Ranger star was my own treasure. The six-pointed star was kept in a safe place in the wall of the farmhouse out near Archet. Maybe one day I'd pass it on to a son of mine, in memory of our family in the North. I had offered to Aunt Tangliniwen to get the star sent back to the North, when I'd first returned to Bree, but she'd insisted on me keeping it. She was also the one who sent down great-granda's star, when she heard that I was the Breeland intelligencer. I think it was her way of showing that she had faith in me, and in my fitness for the job, as well as being a subtle way of cocking a snook at the snobs back in the Angle.
Anyway, later that night in my room, by the light of the flickering candle, I read laboriously over the scrap of parchment I'd been given. It was a much-used piece, probably an offcut, so the writing on it was smeared, blobby and hard to make out. I had to guess at some of the words, but it appeared that yes, the rendezvous would be tomorrow, and yes, it would be out at my brothers farm. Oh lovely. I'd have to ask for time off from Barliman, which would be difficult. I'd been out there a week ago on my regular visit, and the inn was currently fairly busy. A party of dwarves had just arrived, going east from the Shire, and Barliman needed me to mind the tap while he tended to their needs.
I didn't get much sleep that night, as I worried over the problem of how to get out to Archet without compromising my job at the Pony. The next morning, I wound up having a word to Barliman about it, and was surprised when he agreed to me having the day off almost immediately.
"I hear that Ranger visiting has news of your kin, and needs to tell it to the three of you all together. I do hope it's not a death in the family," Barliman told me.
Now that frightened me. A death in the family? I couldn't imagine who that might be. The last I'd seen of Aunt Tangliniwen, she'd been healthy and hale, still running the trade route between the Angle and Bree, selling good silverwork and leatherworks, as well as tanned hides, furs, and weaving. None of my cousins had ever struck me as the type to prentice themselves to the Rangers - they none of them had the temperament (I'd been the only one of the lot of us that did, and my status as a half-breed meant that I wasn't welcome in the Ranger corps, never mind that I'd not the necessary physicality for the task), which meant that it was highly unlikely that any of them would have been killed, short of my aunt strangling them for being feckless lazy blaggarts and not helping out on the farm. While this latter was possible (especially with Aunt Tangliniwen in a bad mood), it wasn't exactly likely. Uncle Baran? No, he wasn't the type - he was a calm, stolid man, a counterbalance to my more excitable and mercuric Aunt. Granda Angbor was only eighty, so even for our family, he had a good ten years of life left in him yet. The last I'd seen of him, two years ago, he'd been yoking the oxen for work on the farm up at the Angle, a task that Aunt kept swearing he shouldn't be doing any more at his age.
Rather than work myself into a grand fuss by trying to figure out what that news could be, I lit out for the farm as fast as I could. It would be a couple of hours walk up there at the best of times, and with the rain that had fallen earlier this week, I wasn't looking forward to a "best of times" walk. Thank all the Valar I knew a few shortcuts.
Four hours later, I was tired, irritable, and covered in mud. Not only had the road been nigh impassable in places, but all of my best short cuts had been covered in brambles and mud as well. I was just glad that Halbarad and I got on like cat and dog, as I would have been furious had he heard me cursing and swearing my way along the road. I reached the farm ahead of him, fortunately, which gave me a little while to get myself cleaned up and back into a more amenable frame of mind. I also boiled up some water in the copper, figuring that no matter which way he travelled, he'd arrive muddy and in need of a wash. Maybe just being nice to him would get that scowl off his face. It was worth a try, anyway.
I greeted Jarge and Harald when they came in from the harvest with a good hot meal: harvest in damp grain is never joyous, but this one was looking to be a sour harvest anyway. It hadn't been a storm that had ruined the grain: as most folk said, a storm would be understandable, almost acceptable. Instead, there'd been a week of very steady, constant rainfall, which would have been welcome come springtime. However, at point of harvest, it was enough to soak the grain, to the point where the veriest breeze knocked large amounts of it down. So although the grain was available to harvest, it was almost starting to sprout on the stem, which made it fit only for animal fodder. Thank all the Valar that it was only the wheat crop which was affected. The barley wouldn't be ready for harvest for at least a couple of weeks, and the rye had been harvested about a month ago. I listened to the pair of them grumbling their way through the meal, and was thankful once again that things had been a bit busy at the Pony recently. Busy enough, at least, that I was staying in my room there. If I'd had to be staying up at the farm, I'd have slaughtered the pair of 'em like the oxen they were.
They'd got about two-thirds of the way through the meal when there was a knock at the door. Probably Halbarad, I thought, as I got up to answer it. I was right - it was the Ranger, carrying a large parcel. I admitted Halbarad to the house, offered him food, water for washing and ale for drinking, in a polite enough tone. He looked sideways at me, trying to determine whether or not I was being sarcastic (which at that point, I wasn't), but appeared to accept the offer politely enough. After a wash, he came back into the main room of the house looking slightly less sour than usual. Jarge and Harald had finished eating by this point and were looking to go back out to the field to try to salvage what they could from the crop.
"Magda says that you've information about our kin," Jarge said to Halbarad. "Is it information you'll be needing either of us for, or can we get on with our work?"
Halbarad looked up from the plate of food I'd set before him, which he'd been inhaling at a tremendous rate. "It both is and isn't," he replied. "Neither of you have to stay, but it would be appreciated if you did."
My two brothers looked at each other and sat back down at the table.
"Magda, fetch me another ale," Harald commanded as he sat.
"Fetch it yourself, you great lummox. I'm your sister, not your wife!" I retorted, not looking up from the stewpot I was stirring by the fire.
"Hmph," was the only reply. "For a barmaid, you're lousy at keeping the drink coming."
That did make me look up, to find Harald grinning at me with mischief in his eyes. I raised my eyebrows at him. "If you want me to fetch ale for you, you'll need to supply me with coin. That's the bargain."
Jarge grinned also and flipped a couple of coppers to me. "Fetch the ale, wench!"
I caught the coins, putting them safely into the purse around my neck. "Two ales for the two gentlemen? Why certainly, after being asked so nicely."
I turned, went to the cupboard and got out a couple of very small mugs. In point of fact, they were the ones which were used for drinking the applejack that my brothers made each winter. I filled each mug with ale, then brought them over to my two brothers, placing them carefully on the table. The expressions on their faces were comical to see, making me giggle. Halbarad, who'd been watching the whole byplay with keen-eyed solemnity, was even forced to smile. He reached down beside himself, bringing forth the parcel that he'd carried with him. Presumably he'd brought it all the way from the Angle. Despite myself, my curiosity was caught: after all, usually, if we're getting something from the Angle, it's brought by Aunt Tang, in her trade wagon.
"This is something I've been holding in trust now, for twenty-two years," he told us all. "It was given me by your mother, on her first Yule in Bree. She asked me to hold it in trust for her offspring. She said that one of you might wish to range the world, by which I understood that it was to be given to that one of you who best suited the temperament of the rangers."
He drew forth a bow and a sword, placing them on the table. Both were well-maintained, from what I could see, and both were well-crafted. He looked up at me.
"Magda, although you're not able to become a ranger in fact, you're certainly a ranger in spirit. Normally, we present a new ranger with their bow, sword and star in front of the whole of the community up at the Angle. Will you forgive me for not doing this?" He seemed sincere about it, and he had a smile on his face which made him look a lot younger, and a lot more handsome. I smiled back.
"Certainly, sir. What I do in Bree isn't supposed to be well-known, anyway," I replied. I couldn't believe this. Although it wasn't the same as Aunt Tang's gift of the ranger Star, it was just as much an acknowledgement of what I was doing, and how valuable it was to the Dúnedain as any formal endowment.
"You might be pleased to know," Halbarad continued, "that your prowess and skill in your task has been recognised by the Chieftain himself. He says that you strike him as one of the best ranger intelligencers he's had the pleasure of meeting in years, because you use the intelligence you have, as well as the intelligence you gain."
My brow furrowed. I'm sure I'd remember meeting the Chieftain, and I was certain that I hadn't seen him at all. In fact, about the only new ranger that I'd seen in the whole time I'd been intelligencing in Bree was...
"Strider!" I couldn't believe it. "Strider is the Chieftain?"
That brought a laugh out of Halbarad. Jarge and Harald were laughing too, probably as much out of amusement on the expression that was on my face, as from anything else. Of course, they knew about Strider - they'd heard the gossip, and knew the truth of the tale as well. I'd been hard pushed to stop the two of them from going after Bill Ferny on their own accord when they'd heard it. So there I was, still stunned to realise that the ranger I'd spoken to with such cheek was the Chieftain of the Dúnedain himself, with three men sitting there and laughing themselves silly at me. How nice.
Halbarad was the first to sober himself, on seeing how red my cheeks were, and how embarrassed I looked. He nodded at me. "It was the fact that you were so insistent on not sending that message under your own rune that convinced him that you knew what you were doing," I was told. "Most of the intelligencers would have just sent the message under their own rune, and had it discarded in the inevitable shuffle that comes of trying to stretch too few Rangers over too large an area. That you insisted that he write the note out and affix his own rune to it was a good step, in his eyes."
I blushed even harder. "All I could think," I confessed, "was that if I sent something like that out, I'd be having every single ranger who replied to it coming into the Pony to tell me off for my cheek."
"Yes, and you told him so," Halbarad said, still smiling. "He was quite impressed - most of the intelligencers don't think that far ahead. Anyway, it was on his recommendation that I decided to bring down the bow and the sword. They're yours anyway - you deserve them, and have any time these two years - but I thought that it was worth letting you know that you're the best intelligencer in the ranks."
I blushed even harder. Well, this was something else to add to my list of Halbarad's faults: he couldn't even let me carry on and hold a grudge against him. Ach, was there ever such an infuriating man?
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