A dark stone hallway. Grimy, black feet shuffle through the corridor, tattered cloak dragging on the floor, soles slapping on the cold stone.
A door opens, the feet cross a threshold. Raised voices, all gravel and rasping. Fire. Fists slamming on the table.
“Silence!” A clear, commanding voice. “How fares establishing the new trade routes?”
“With difficulties, your worship”, croaks another Man. “There hain’t no comin’ through the mountains without them Gundabad rabble, and still that’s days through Elf-lands” The last few words were spat. “There’s always the possibility of goin’ ‘round, though that’s difficult to arrange in your what you might call incongruous manner. If only there was some way of goin’ through The Angle..”
“Yes, your worship, if we could use the crossings, we’d cut transportation times manyfold.”
“So if we had a route through the Egladil, that would solve it?”
“Yes, your worship, but where’d we find that?”
Flying across the Angle, over the Vale of Brethil, to the keep at Minas Brethil. A troop of Red Lances ride across the open terrain, on patrol. The keep is being rebuilt, a scene of bustling activity. The only tower still standing, marred by fire, a man, Baran Sîdhoneth standing there, surveying the domain. He holds a mug of steaming tea, a look of fulfilment on his face. Another approaches him from the stairwell.
“If you please, m’lord, but the Hobbit wishes to know what you’d have done with the tunnel. For his plans, m’lord.”
“The tunnel? Why, I’m sure there’s a way for us to capitalise on it…”
Two weeks earlier.
Feredir, disappointed in Salabon, leaves Fennas Drúnin and returns to patrolling the South Downs, putting off returning to Bree as long as he is comfortable with. He takes his tasks seriously, visiting old contacts and exploring new territory, even going as far West as Sarn Ford, hailing the Rangers stationed there. But nothing. There are no news, nothing stirs, not since the bandits in Tharbad were routed, and Feredir did that task himself, with his companions… His former companions. He is brooding, using his charge as a means to keep himself occupied; methodically occupied, but after three weeks he knows that it is time. Time to return to Bree, to face Agarwaen, and to find out how much the latter is going to complicate his life on account of the recent events.
After Feredir, Salabon and Bragol respectfully declined Paetric offers, Baran entered, and immediately accepted. The offer goes a long way for Baran to realise his dreams, and being able to return to his father having gained the respect he deserved. After working out the deal – and the initial budget – with Paetric, he sets forth to Minas Brethil, to join Jack Fleetfoot and Beoraborn. They also have a right to a stake in the keep, and Baran has a fairly good idea of how to take advantage of that while giving as little as possible away…
Salabon is initially unsure of what road to take, but eventually he ends up traveling to Minas Brethil to join up with Baran, Jack and Beoraborn, to help the survivors of the brutal reign of the Dark Forces.
Bragol ties up loose ends in The Angle, and travels to Bree to see to his agent there.
In Bree, Feredir discovers that Agarwaen has been on extended Rangings with a strange Ranger, seldomly bothering with the affairs of the Bree-folk. Feredir opens a letter from Salabon, with a sketch of a suspected traitor or undercover agent within the Rangers. Feredir has seen him before:
FLASHBACK: A mysterious man strides into the clearing where Feredir has made his most recent temporary abode. He gives no name, but is garbed as a Ranger, and says he comes from Rivendell. He charges Feredir with a secret duty: In Deadman’s Dike birds have reported seeing shapes lurking around the collapsed lower levels of the citadel. Feredir must find his way there, and find answers to what is transpiring. While snooping around the ruins he is accosted by and taken prisoner by a band of brigands. Unbeknownst to Feredir, among them is the Hobbit he will later come to know under the name Jack Fleetfoot. From the low murmur of the brigands he gathers that they have been hired to locate something, but having been badly beaten he is unable to glean exactly what. In his faintness he is vaguely aware of someone rifling through his effects, but he soon discovers that his bonds has been cut. He seizes the opportunity to overcome his one guard, and makes his way, weary and beaten, from the bandit’s camp. Later, he is sought out by the strange Ranger once more, and tells him the tale. The man is not impressed, and leaves in rage, very unlike a Ranger, but Feredir is still injured, and so is more apprehensive of his wounds. He is also aware of being stalked, or attempted to be stalked, but manages to elude his would-be assassins at every turn, his animal companions leading them astray time and again. Eventually he recovers, but he pays no heed to the strange mission and its outcome. It had been a mistake, and he had been played for a fool.
He knows what he must do; Agarwaen is clearly being influenced and tricked by this traitor, and Feredir must stop them. He quickly goes to the Prancing Pony to locate any allies to alert, but finds neither Goodthought, Isig, Strider or Gandalf there, nor any of his own companions, of course. Barliman Butterbur confirms that the man in the sketch is Agarwaen’s mystery companion, and Feredir realizes that although his initial reaction is to go after Agarwaen and the traitor, that is also the surest way of being killed without accomplishing anything. The wisest course is to go to Rivendell with his news.
But as he is leaving, there is Bragol in the doorway. Glad to see old companions, they shake hands and settle over a cup of mulled wine. They confer, Bragol having the same information about the traitor. They bid each other well, with arrangements to meet on the morrow. Feredir sees to the many locals who need aid and succor, helping those who has no one else. That night he mended the roof of an old widow’s cottage, kept an old man company for supper, captured a poacher and recovered some lost lambs. All the while Bragol consolidated with his agent, laid plans and continued building his web. Although their methods were seemingly without common ground, both of them did what they did for the good of Eriador, and both strove to make the world better, one small deed at the time. In a sense, they recognised that in each other, and so it was, on the following morning that together they set out for Rivendell, following the less-walked paths, the less-traveled roads, braving a harsh winter in a dangerous, wild land.
In the thickest Trollshaws, some days out of Rivendell. Bragol is busy setting up camp while Feredir is taking stock of their stores, sorting out what will be needed to arrange the meal of the day: roast rabbit. A drop of good wine goes a long way, as does the collection of precious herbs the Ranger has busied himself collecting in the South Downs. As they ordinarily do, the Elf and the Ranger prefer to sleep in the open, but on account of the unusual snowfall they have decided to dig a pit, and raise their canvas tarpaulin across it. Under their cloaks and blankets they will be snug as anything. Bragol has just finished scooping out the main lair, and is about to fix a rope between two trees to suspend the tarpaulin over, and Feredir is carefully pouring a measure of wine into a cup, for reference. He has dug away most of the snow, so the cup is sitting on the bare ground. He hesitates, a questioning look crossing his face. No, he didn’t imagine it, the surface of the wine gave a little, as if there was a tremor.
And a third time.
“Uh, Bragol…” Feredir slowly comes to his feet. His mind races, trying to place a creature large enough to cause the slight vibration. A troll? Surely not large enough, but a giant…? Giants do not usually come down this far, even in the Trollshaws. These were open hill countries, with patches of small woods clothing the hills only partially, not the usual stomping ground for giants. But still…
Bragol looks up. “What is it?”
“I am not entirely certain, but to be on the safe side…” He gestures Bragol to throw him the one end of the rope.
“What are you about?”
“Let’s just carry out what is on my mind, and if I am mistaken, no harm done.” Bragol needs no conviction, his inquisitive Elven nature often leading him to follow along to see where things go, and soon they have secured the rope between two thickening birches, a good thirty feed from the hollow that makes up their camp. A simple tripwire, but about two feet from the ground, useless to stop most foes, as Bragol subsequently points out.
Feredir, watching the darkening hill precipice, retorts; “Not Giants…”
Bragol’s brows knit, but not for long, for he, too, senses it now. Not only the minute, almost non-present vibrations in the snow-covered ground – even weaker when muffled by the snow, and probably indeterminable had it not been for Feredir’s grounded cup. No, there is more; a crude, rumbling humming, as if large boulders gnashing together, and then a silhouette forms over the dimming hills… Quickly, quietly, the two secret themselves in the thickets, finding good vantage points to be able to strike when their quarry is down. And sure enough, here comes the Giant; an ambling, round-faced character, with great dimples and full, lidded eyes, turned as if in a gentle smile. Both Feredir and Bragol hesitate; this isn’t one of the blood-thirsty Ogres of legend? This fellow looks more like some sort of mirthful, overgrown Hillman. His loins are covered by a treated skin, his feet bound with leather straps, like shoes. He wears adornments in the form of primitive bracelets and charms, and is much more hirsute than most men, but there is something about this creature… Who subsequently stops up, its brows scrunching, and looks down. It gives a sort of quizzing sound, and bends down, it’s enormous hand closing in around the tripwire. Feredir groans inwardly, as the twelve-foot Giant pulls at the rope as it stands back up, not tearing the rope free of the birches, but rather pulling the trees themselves from the ground. The Giant exclaims in a resounding laughter, and wipes his eye, before suddenly noticing something. Bragol and Feredir follow his gaze, and both feel a shudder as they see what the Giant has noticed: The horses. Though too snowed-over to offer grazing, the ground has been littered with hay, but the horses are no longer feeding; both have raised their heads, and are looking straight at the Giant, as if considering their options and unsure of the situation. The Giant licks his lips, and slowly begins to spin the rope-and-trees around its head like a make-shift bola. Bragol and Feredir stare in horror as the “bola” is picking up speed, knowing that their invaluable mounts will be crushed to pieces from the weapon. Feredir’s eyes widen, and his hands dart to his ever-present herb kit. He slides it impatiently open, and rummages through his labels, before his fingers close on his target: Kingsfoot! He grabs the bottle of wine he was using for his cooking, yanks out the cork with his teeth before carefully emptying the entire pouch of dried Kingsfoot-leaves into the bottle. All this done in seconds, he rams the cork back in, and underhandedly sends the bottle rolling over the packed snow, softly hitting the Giant’s feet. This distraction causes the Giant to slip his “bola”, sending it crashing through the trees uncomfortably close to Bragol. But the distraction worked! The Giant picks up the bottle, gazing at it, shaking it, sniffing it, before picking out the cork between two huge fingers, and peering into the small hole of the neck. He sniffs it again, flinches, sniffs it again, his face turning to mild consternation, before venturing a small sample. He jolts as the brew hits his tongue, and looks at it in amazement, before trying again – - and again – - and again, having emptied the contents of the large bottle in three, small sips. Feredir grins like a small, expectant child, but while the Giant lurches slightly on his feet, it recovers, and then suddenly begins singing. In a loud, loud bass voice. The horses scatter, and birds lift from the nearby trees, shrill voices sounding the alarm, and the two Rangers feel an urge to cover their ears. But as unexpectedly as it appeared, the Giant makes it’s sortie, carrying on in the same ambling gait as before, down the hills towards the streams. Bragol and Feredir look at each other, both having the same though, and both acknowledging said fact with a nod; better to follow it and find out where it keeps its lair, in case it proves a threat. They stretch their considerable skill at stalking, but might as well have walked along right behind the Giant, it is oblivious to everything but its own singing, clearly enjoying itself immensely. But there is no lair; its footprints do not cross, there is no particular pattern, and looking at the Giant’s gear it is likely that it has strayed down from the mountains because of the unusually hard winter. Eventually, the Giant sits down by the stream, brushing away some snow, and in slow stages gradually falls asleep, smiling and warm.
Feredir makes an utterance, and shakes his head, looking bemused. “I feel richer for having witnessed this creature,” he confesses. “Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have continued believing the tales of their evil natures. This creature is not evil, I’d be suprised to find that it is even wicked. Sound sleep and safe travels, big fellow”, he murmurs, squatting down to pat its immense head.
“I concur,” offers Bragol. “This creature is no more a threat than any number of natural beasts. It is not in league with any dark powers, we would have noticed it.”
Feredir nods. “But unlike natural beasts, this one clearly has a manner of intelligence. Did you notice the analytical glean in his eye as he tore out those trees?”
“Indeed. There is wisdom and cunning in that overgrown, slightly misshapen head, this much is evident.” A pause, then Bragol continues, “What did you give him?”
“Kingsfoot. A powerful sleep draught when mixed into wine, like a cold tea. For a moment I was worrying that I’d have given him a too-powerful dose; what he drank should have felled six grown Men.”
“It doesn’t look as if you’d have needed to worry,” interjects Bragol. “He seems to have handled it admirably.”
The two make their way back to camp, sleeping soundly that night in the knowledge that the sleeping Giant’s presence will have scared off anything that might have posed a threat, and the next day they carry on to Rivendell. Richer, as Feredir said, and wiser in a way. Neither of them can shake the feeling that this chance encounter with such a legendary creature means something more, but if so, they cannot form it into coherent thoughts, let alone words. But they have changed, and their task to save Eriador from Darkness is now both harder – and weirder.