Rangers of the North

S02E13 - The Quest for Aeglin: Journey's Beginning

Wherein our heroes set out on a new and deadly adventure.

Bree, two weeks later. Barliman Butterbur, the proprietor of The Prancing Pony in Bree, is often host to many strangers and vagabonds, as it is the most famous inn on the final frontier to desolate Arnor. This morning, its inner-most table, the table the mysterious Strider often claims, the Prancing Pony is hosting four of its semi-regular patrons, no strangers to these parts. At the far side of the table sits the Huntsman, known as the best tracker in Bree-land and a friend to the Folk, for all his strange airs and habit of going walkabout. As with most of the Rangers who frequented the Prancing Pony, both Butterbur and the locals distrust the Huntsman, but grudgingly accepts him. There is, after all, no use in denying the deeds he has wrought for Bree and Bree-land, if the tales are to be believed. Curiously, unlike his last stay, he seems to be wearing the same colours as the illustrious Strider himself, though why Butterbur knows not. Must be some Ranger-thing. To his left sits the the regal yet popular Salabon, philanthropist and celebrated healer. He might be reminiscent of the hated Nobles of old, but everyone who knows of him agree that Salabon ain’t no nob, nor no common surgeon neither: physician, he is. To the Huntsman’s right sits Eldacar, the constantly hooded enigma who some claim to be an actual Elf. He speaks little, and keeps to himself, but rumour has it he can appear as a spirit and visit maidens in the night, earning him suspicious glares from the menfolk and intrigued glances from the women. The last person in their party, with his back to Barliman, is the Hobbit rogue Jack Fleetfoot, all mirth, fast hands and illustrious ideas. Butterbur likes him well, but keeps an eye on the silverware nonetheless. “Any more then, lads?” asks Butterbur.
“Nay, thankee, Barliman,” says the Huntsman, but one look at Jack makes him modify himself: “Oh, very well, one more round of spiced ale, if you please.”
“Certainly, sir,” says Barliman, collecting the empty clay mugs. As he leans across, he espies the large map drawn out over the table, eschewing lands more nothernly than quiet Bree-lands, with much scribbling and writing about it. He does not read, but one thing he understands, and that is a small drawing of a dragon.
“So, hunting a dragon are ye, lads?” he says, smiling lightly at his own mirth. To his surprise and consternation, all four grow dead-eyed and serious, turning towards him with suspicious stares. “Oh, er, don’t mind me, I’ll get out of your way, sirs,” mumbles Barliman, and scutters off.
The four turn back to their table.
“I’ll have no wicked word against him, but…” begins Hunter.
“…but he is not known for his close tongue,” finishes Eldacar. Hunter winces but nods.
“So brother,” says Salabon, “you really intend to travel all the way to Edoras for words on this Fram the Dragonslayer?”
“Aye, brother, he is the only man of whom I know to have slain a dragon. Though many generations ago, before the Founding of Rohan, there must be lorekeepers who can tell me of his story.”
“But they have no books in Edoras,” interjects Eldacar. “They do not write down their tales. How can we trust such spoken words from mere…” He checks himself when he sees the others.
“Mere Men?” finishes Hunter.
“No, I did not intend…”
“I will have you know that the oral traditions of my people are held in the highest regard, even among the Elves of Rivendell. The Rohirrim are an honourable folk; why, even my Chieftain served among them for a time.”
“Your Chieftain?” asks Jack. “Helvorn?”
“No, no, his name is…” But he doesn’t stop, because Barliman is back with their cups.
“Now, lads, far be it from me to play the nosy bugger, but see, there be one in these parts who knows about dragons and the slaying of them, and no mistake.”
“Really? Who?” asks the Huntsman.
“Why, the Baggins of Bag End. Everyone knows of the Baggins! Why, he gone on some adventure with Gandalf and a bunch o’ Dwarves, and come back richer than Castamir, having slain a dragon in yonder Esgaroth the Lake Town, east of the Misty Mountains.” The Companions stare at the barkeep in disbelief. “No, no, I do not tell a lie, I swear!” says Barliman, reading their faces. “He lives in Hobbiton, past Frogmorton on the other side of the Old Forest. Just ask around, everyone knows of the Baggins!” He meanders off again, leaving the group flabbergasted.
Eldacar is the first to break the illusion. “A Hobbit dragonslayer?! Of all the…” For the second time he checks himself, this time from looking at Jack.
“All the what, Elf?”
“Well, it just seems highly unlikely, is all,” declared Eldacar, crossing his arms and jutting out his chin.
“Simmer down, lads,” says Hunter, already pouring over the map. “Hobbiton is here, in the heart of the Shire. We need to go see this Baggins. I have to say, the name does sound familiar to me.”
“I must admit it does to me, as well,” adds Eldacar. “I believe it might be the Hobbit-friend of Lord Elrond, who lives in Imladris.”
“That ghost?” asks Hunter. “I’ve chanced upon him. There was nothing to be had from his words. But from what Butterman seems to opine, it can hardly be the same Hobbit. He speaks as if this Baggins is still around. The one I met in Rivendell certainly was no adventurer, let alone dragonslayer.”
“I’m just saying that you can’t rule it out as a possibility that a Hobbit can…” mutters Jack, arms crossed and pouting.
“We cannot all go gallivanting into the Shire,” Salabon points out. “That would be attaining unwanted attention.”
“True, brother,” considers Hunter. “There is the matter of the research in the library of Tharbad; I have no business attending to that. Why do not you two scholars venture to yonder library, while Jack and I visit the Shire?”
“What?” Jack sits up. “Why do I have to go to the Shire? Can’t I go to Tharbad?”
Hunter smiles overbearingly. “My stout friend, you among us is the only Hobbit. Travelling together we will attract less attention than Beoraborn and I. Besides, would you not enjoy seeing the origins of your kin?”
“Yeah,” says Jack with doubt in his voice, “that will be great…”
“What of Beoraborn?” Eldacar asks. The Bejibar is currently out attending to his cottage outside Bree, and his veritable menagerie of animal friends.
“I fear he will cause unwanted attention. Take him with you to Tharbad.”

The Shire. The sun shines, the birds sing, the leaves rustle gently in the breeze as to travellers, one Hobbit and one Tallman, saunter down a well-kept country road. The Tallman seems to be taking in and thoroughly enjoying the immaculate rurality, with its copses, hedges, fields, paddocks, brooks and fences, and sheep. If there is one thing his companion could do without, it’s another sheep. The Wilderness does not carry this ever-present stench of sheep droppings, nor does he have to endure the falsely polite fops seemingly encountered at every corner here. Ever since they crossed the bridge into the Shire, he has found an oppression that he did not expect. These are the false, lying, back-stabbing liars his grandfather told him about: these people will label you a thief and have you banished with never so much as a how-do-ye-do. Bah!

With the sun gently descending, the two find themselves outside a picturesque inn, aptly named The Green Dragon. Hunter perks up at this, nudging his friend and pointing. “Surely a portent of our success!” Jack only frowns and pouts. Full of more blasted Shire-Hobbits, no doubt. Only one thing do these valleys instil in him a longing: food. It seems that from every house they pass – or hole in the ground, as the case might be, there swims the mesmerising odour of cooking, and the most enchanting, wonderful cooking imaginable, at that. Every window seems blessed with a pie to cool, or some pot, stew, casserole, fry-up, roast, or else something boiling, baking, simmering or indeed being smoked. Say one thing for these Shire-Hobbits, say that they know their food.

Within, much merriment and indeed the succulent smell of simmering stew. Jack’s mouth is a-watering, but he does register how the world has seemed to stop in its tracks, every eye upon them, every body still. Of course, the big man. Jack opens his mouth to greet them, but Hunter beats him to it.
“Blessings upon this house, Gentlehobbits, weary travellers are we, my companion and I, seeking shelter, a bite to eat, and some cups of ale. Innkeeper, a round on me, if you please.” And he produces a copper piece, to raucous cheering, and the music starts up again, everyone returning to their business, the promise of a free cup of ale on the way stilling the most fluttering of hearts.

The innkeeper, a burly Hobbit with big sideburns, pours them ale in small, Hobbit-sized cups. Hunter is polite enough in strange company, but Jack, accustomed to the pint-sizes of Men, is visibly disappointed.

“So, what brings a big fella ’round these parts?” asks the bartender.
“Why, we’re seeking directions to a place called Bag End,” replies Hunter.
“Bag End? Why in the world do you want to go to Bag End? That’s the house of that mad old fool Baggins.” says the Innkeeper.
“Aye, the very man, er, Hobbit we seek,” says Hunter.
“Dunno why you would,” scoff the Innkeeper. “’E’s mad as a bag o’ cats, and gots a mean streak in’im, too. Right rude, one might say pugnacious, if’n I gots me definitions right (which I does).”
“The way we hear it, this Baggins has had some sort of confrontation with a dragon, leaving said Hobbit victorious and richer than Castamir?”
“Oh, aye, there be that. What kind of Hobbit has it in ‘im to go a-gallivantin’ and a-traipsin’ about the wilderness like some sort o’ Ranger, gettin’ up to who knows what with who knows who, who knows where?” He pauses, and considers his audience, a tall, grey-cloaked traveller in a broad-brimmed hat, his Hobbit friend clearly no clerk or farmer.
“Say, you don’t know Gandalf, do you?” says the Innkeeper, scowling at Hunter’s hat.
“I can’t say as I do, though his name is known to me,” admits Hunter.
“Well, good an’ all, he’s trouble, that one. Tangled up with Baggins, and no mistake.”
“Here, now,” interjects a patron, “Mad Ol’ Baggins doesn’t live up Bag End no more, ’e’s gone off to live with the fairies, so I heard tell. Bin gone the better part of ten years. There be a different Baggins up Bag End nowadays.”
“Oh, yes, indeed there be!” cries the Innkeeper. “Frodo Baggins! A distant nephew, I believe. Took over years ago. Now, Master Frodo, there’s a respectable Hobbit for youse. Keeps to himself, frugal with his finances, but not as one should call miserly, oh no no no. Keeps a lovely garden, polite and well-mannered. Yes, Master Frodo is all right.”
“Splendid!” cries Hunter. “And might one trouble you Gentlehobbits with directions to this Bag End? You see, we have business with Mister Frodo, and we’ve come rather a long way.” As he says this, he absent-mindedly places another copper on the bartop. “Oh, and please, another round for these respectable Hobbits. And one for yourself, of course, Innkeeper.”
This buys them not only the eternal gratitude of a parcel of Hobbits, but also the directions to that famous Hobbit abode, Bag End.

**

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Not just a dirty old rabbit hole or anything, oh no: a smial, a fancy and grand excavation built in the side of a hill, in this case The Hill in Hobbiton, with beautifully wood-panelled walls, ornate doorways, and round, glazed windows. Bag End, as it was called, lay off a path leading from The Hill Road on the north side of Hobbiton. It sits above its three closest poorer neighbours on Bagshot Row. Hunter and Jack came upon it from this side, quite late in the evening, having hopped a fence, run from a bull, crawled under a hedge (or, in Hunter’s case, simply stepped over it), and finally jumped across a brook to stand where they now stood, on Bagshot Row. Both Dúnadan and Hobbit were impressed by its grandeur, it’s immaculate garden, and beautifully painted wooden arches and doors. They approach the main entrance, and Hunter pauses to notice faint markings on the door, at his own eye-height. A rune in Tengwar, painted over? “G”? How curious! He reaches to knock, but Jack stays his hand, having discovered an ornate door bell, of obvious Elvish design.
He pulls it. A tune very familiar to Hunter plays, and he has to ask Jack to pull again to catch it. He is about to ask once more, when the door abruptly opens, and a young Hobbit wearing an apron, holding a frying pan with a pair of kippers in it, looks them up and down.
“Yes?”
Before Hunter can open his mouth, Jack steps in front of him and extends his hand. “Ah, we seek mister Frodo Baggins of Bag End. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Jack Fleetfoot formerly of Reedhaven in the Angle, and this is my companion the Huntsman, a ranger.” Hunter, unused to playing second-fiddle, remains perplexed.
“I am he,” replies Frodo, equally perplexed. “May I enquire what this is about? It is very late, I was just about to have supper…”
“Oh, we don’t mind at all, how kind of you!” says Jack, and pushes his way in. Hunter, stooping, follows.
“I say, what is your business?” cries an indignant Frodo.
“I beg your pardon, we should have stated so” says Hunter. “We come about dragons.”

Frodo Baggins turns out to be quite an amiable fellow, if somewhat inexperienced and, as Jack would later describe him, “wet behind the ears”. He is only too happy to talk about his old uncle Bilbo’s travels, and allows Hunter to peruse Bilbo’s old journal, “My Diary. My Unexpected Journey. There and Back Again. And What Happened After.”. Jack initially is lost in marvel at a clockwork cuckoo clock in the hallway, and stays mesmerised for minutes while Hunter explains their plight in no uncertain terms. Frodo invites them both into the parlour, and offers tea, cake, biscuits, kippers, wine, more wine, port, ale, cheese, smoked meat, bread, butter and cookies, all the while talking about his own adventures, which amounts to nothing more than a few boyish pranks about the safe countryside.
As Hunter immerses himself in Bilbo’s tale, Jack is left to entertain the younger Hobbit, who will not stop prating about his “adventures,” chattering happily away as Jack finds himself growing increasingly annoyed and impatient with the youngster. Finally, Frodo finishes with, “Do you not think that was quite an adventure, Mister Fleetfoot?” and Jack can no longer contain himself.
“As it happens…”

Ten minutes later, Hunter and Jack find themselves evicted in the most uncouth manner, Master Frodo Baggins of Bag End crying, “And stay out!” before slamming the door. Hunter, bewildered, cries, “I believe I had a hat?” The door reopens long enough for Hunter’s hat to be flung in his face. He replaces it, and looks in astonishment down on Jack. “By the love of the Valar, what in the world did you say to him?”
Jack shrugs and grins impishly. “I just told him of our adventures. Somehow I don’t think he believed me…”

The following morning, Frodo Baggins’ gardener, Samwise Gamgee, finds his master fuming on the bench outside Bag End.
“Mornin’ Mister Frodo, may I enquire as to what is the matter?”
“Rangers, Sam, vagabonds and wanderers, charlatans and renegades. I tell you, Sam, I shall never trust one of the Rangers again!”
Sam is about to sit cautiously down next to his master when he remembers himself. He clears his throat. “Oh dearie me, Mister Frodo, why I don’t know about that at all. What I do know is that them tomatoes ain’t setting themselves, so pardon me…” He leaves the seething Hobbit alone. “Oh dearie, dearie me. Rangers and Elves and ghosts and goblins, what will be next?” he says to himself.

**

Tharbad. Eldacar, Beoraborn and Salabon arrive in Tharbad finding it like they last left it, but this time derelict once more. Still cautious, they first of all locate and establish a secret shelter where they can operate unseen in case of new, enemy incursions.

Once that is taken care of, they start the arduous task of fine-combing the library for information about dragons. It is a long and painstaking task, and one that requires hours and hours on concentration from Bragol and Salabon especially. Salabon takes great care and time in perusing the library for books, while Bragol scans page after page of the books found after any useful information. The Great Library is in disrepair, having been derelict for more than sixty years, but it has not seen proper usage for hundreds of years, its last caretakers operating symbolically more than anything, and as such its cataloguing system is in disarray. Many long hours do they spend cross-referencing only to find the reference missing or gone, some times entire shelving systems being amiss. There is, perhaps, little to be found in the first place: Dragon Lore is not a common subject, even among the great scholars. They unearth certain information about the region of Angmar that surely can prove useful later in their quest, but they finally come across a book that discusses dragons in certain detail. Deciphering the author’s script, let alone his syntax and general phrasing, is difficult, even to a skilled linguist such as Salabon. What they are able to gather is that the book claims all dragons to have a weak spot, a chink in their thick dragon scale armour, exploitable by the would-be dragonslayer. Supposedly a careful blow to such an area could slay the beast.

Some days later, Jack and Hunter reappear. Eldacar explains what they have found, and Hunter confirms that this fits with what he could extrapolate from the Hobbit’s tale. “With one arrow, carefully aimed, Bard fell the beast.”
“If it is so, it can be done. But what of our next move?” asks Eldacar.
Hunter is silent for some moments while the others chatter. He raises a hand. “I will go to Edoras, the Hall of the Rohirrim, for there may be knowledge there that will aid us. How one man can slay a mighty dragon is beyond my understanding, yet it has been done. Not only by Bard of Dale, but by Fram, one of the kings of the people who would become the Rohirrim. I remember his name in legend as if smoke from a fire: he is veiled to me, so little do I know of him. But I know that the Rohirrim are renown for their strong oral tradition, each generation meticulously passing down their lore to the next. Their loremasters will know how Fram slew the dread worm Scatha by his own hand.”-
Bragol nods his head. “There is wisdom in what you say.” he says.
“Very well, then tomorrow we set forth” proclaims Hunter.

As is their custom, the Companions share the duties in camp. This night Beoraborn forages for food, Hunter builds shelter and a fire, Salabon cooks, Eldacar gathers firewood, and to Jack falls the cleaning after the meal, leaving him idle to peruse the library at his leisure, something he greatly enjoys. Later, the friends have enjoyed a few nice, fat salmon Beoraborn gathered in very short order, and are passing around a bottle of brandy Salabon bought from Butterbur. Beoraborn throws another log on the fire.
“You look lost in thought Eldacar, What is amiss?” asks Hunter.
“No, my friend, nothing is wrong. I was simply reminiscing of ancient history. Not far from here, along where the Glanduin meets the Sirannon river that springs form high up in the Misty Mountains, showing the path to fabled Moria, lie the ruins Ost-in-Edhil.”
Beoraborn sits back down and looks at him and asks: “Ost-in-Edhil? Sounds Elvish. Where there Elves in these part, pray”
“Yes, it was a grand citadel, many claim the grandest built by the Eldar, and it was the capital of their realm here, Eregion, the land of holly. It was home to the Gwaith-i-Mírdain.” “People of the Jewel-smiths?” translates Salabon.
Jack’s eyes lights up and he leans forward to Eldacar: “People of the Jewel-smiths? You mean smiths who worked with jewels?”
“Yes, and other things as well, Master Fleetfoot. They were the legendary smiths of the Noldor, indeed they were said to be the most skilled artisans to have worked since the time of Fëanor himself. Celebrimbor was their chief, and only master-craftsmen did he surround himself with.”
“And this is near?” asks Beoraborn.
“Relatively so, I would wager a hundred miles.”
Jack scuttles nearer. “On the way to Edoras?”
“No, I should not think so, unless we were to stray a hundred miles off our course, and it is already more than three hundred miles through Dunland.”
“Only one hundred miles off course! But oh, may we not go there on our way? Verily there must be so much to be learned from such a place!”
Eldacar smiles. “I believe there is naught but ruins left there: the Enemy infiltrated their ranks and destroyed the citadel.”
Jack jumps to his feet, visibly begging. “I’m sure there are many things to see and learn nonetheless, would you not like to see it, the history of your people?”
Eldacar looks at Hunter, who shrugs.
“If its all the same,” rumbles Beoraborn, “I should like to see it myself. Imagine the treasures a smith could find!” A dreamy glaze has come over his eyes.
“Sure and all,” says Hunter. “It is not so far off our chosen path, and I admit to being curious about this ruined Elven city.”
“Are you being serious?” asks Salabon. “This is a bad course, we will lose at least a week! And on foot! How will we bring our mounts across?”
“As to that,” smiles Feredir, “I believe I have a solution. What say you, Eldacar, will we see this ruined city of yours?”
Eldacar shrugs. “I don’t see why not. What possible harm could it do?”

**

A day and a half later the companions cross Tharbad once more, this time below its broken bridges, in small watercrafts. Resembling canoes, these durable and nimble boats have been purchased in a small hamlet half a day down the Gwathló, where the mounts have also been taken care of, for a reasonable price. Thingol and Beoraborn’s nameless cat run along the banks, while the Companions have divided themselves in three boats. Beoraborn rows alone, while Salabon shares with Eldacar, and Jack with Hunter. Up, up they go, up the Glanduin, and towards fabled Ost-in-Edhil, neither wise to the fate awaiting there. Now, Salabon is not the only one with doubts about the venture: Jack finds himself once more on the water, an element he does not like, nor masters. When last he found himself afloat it was on the deck of a ship: This time only a finger of leather separates him from the cold, murky water and whatever can be found below it.
“What of the dracodiles?” he stammers.
“Nonesense!” cries Feredir jovially. “I do not believe those beasts are natural to these waters: they were an anomaly. I would wager my Ranger’s cloak that we will not see such beasts upon these waters again.” He turns to Salabon across, “Which is a shame, of course, for they were simply incredible to behold.”
“Oh, indeed!” agrees the other. “What I would not give to be able to study them again…”

They navigate by landmarks, having had the road all the way to Edoras explained to them by an ancient guide. Thus they establish their first camp after having exited the Nîn-in-Eilph marshes that abound Tharbad, near a small tower. They set to their customary tasks, and Eldacar calls to them, “Do not stray too far! Little do we know of these lands, and our guide was quite reluctant to share too much. There might be dangers.”
“Eldacar!” calls Hunter. “See these markings? Do you recognize them?” Hunter stands over several fallen rocks, carved runes set into each of them. “There are more over there.”
Eldacar looks them over, but they do not seem familiar to him. “It is some sort of ancient Elven tongue, more than that I do not know. Nor their design. Best to stay away from them, I wager.”
“Very well, we will set up camp further away.” And so they do.

**

The meal is cooking, and the Companions have gathered to sup.
“Ho, Jack!” calls Hunter, but the Hobbit, standing some fifty feet away with his back turned, does not stir. Hunter shrugs to the others, and thinks nothing more of it. They are all used to Jack Fleetfoot’s odd ways. When they have finished their meal, they start getting worried, and Eldacar goes over to him.
“Master Fleetfoot, are you not hungry?” He touches Jack’s shoulder, and the Hobbit turns around. His face is masked in an unfamiliar expression, his eyes not the eyes of Jack Fleetfoot. The Hobbit cries out unfamiliar words, indignantly so. To the others, the words are unfamiliar, but to Eldacar they are unmistakably old Quenya. Small wonder Salabon and Hunter, versed in the Noldor tongue, do not recognize it: only Elven ears could understand the tongue as it was spoken thousands of years ago. Eldacar quickly understands.
“He is bewitched!” he calls.
Hunter grabs the medallion around his neck. True enough, some weird sensations emanates from it. Jack is under a spell. “But how?”
It dawns on Eldacar. “The stones! The runes! They’re ancient curses – traps set by the Noldor of old, called Haunts! Do not touch them!”
And true enough, behind Jack they can see that a moss-covered rock in reality is a standing stone with one of the ominous symbols on it. Jack must have brushed away the moss and thus touched it, and become possessed!
Salabon rushes to his friend. “Jack! Let me aid you!”
Jack visibly spits out a string of syllables at him, and draws his blade.
“What did he say?” asks Salabon.
Eldacar winces. “I do not wish to say. Just keep him talking!”
Salabon desperately tries to hold Jack’s attention, while Eldacar creeps up behind him, clutching the frying pan. He strikes the Hobbit sharply across the back of the head. “Quickly! Move him away from the stones!”
His friends comply, and soon they have Jack Fleetfoot back among them, albeit somewhat disoriented. “What happened?” says he. “I was just about to enter the Halls of the Elven Smiths! Oh, it was wonderful!” His friends smile benevolently, but the rest of the journey they remain a lot more vigilant.

**

As the sun sets on the third day, they reach Ost-in-Edhil.

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