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Quenta Roqueni, Book One


An Adventure in Middle-earth*

By Vincent Roiron and Lowell R. Matthews
With Gavin Carey, Woodrow H. Kroll III, George Photopoulos,
Trevor Sanders, and Christian Wirtnik
Copyright 1999

Chapter XI: Reunion in the Square

The town square was clear and open, with a tall stone fountain at its centre. On market days it was bustling with activity, but on ordinary days like this one only a few herders had come to sell fresh milk, cheese, and butter. Leaning against the fountain, Kirdan waited patiently, looking at the spectacles of housewives and house servants who came to buy diary products, until he saw Aeglorias and Berek. He came to meet them, and was greeted by the Elf.

"Did you find a new place for the night, my good Kirdan? Do you intend to wait here or do we go back to the Thalion to meet Carangil and Elen aacute;rion?"

"I have purchased lodgings at the Blue Oak, a fine inn by my standards. The innkeeper was an honest man and I have heard that their cook is very skilled. I look forward to sampling his dishes," Kirdan answered the Elf, his tone respectful. "I noticed the mounts of both men at the Thalion, as I have given the care of our belongings and mounts to the men there. I shall have to return to gather up our things, but they are in good hands. I shall wait for his lordship here as I suggested this place to meet."

"Hmmm, Kirdan, thank you for taking care of our new lodge.... At Oget's, unfortunately, we did not find any major clues." Berek briefly told Kirdan about the events at Oget's, including Tilva's smelling of a greasy, curly head that night as well as Aeglorias' raising the possibility that someone might have tried to pass as a Dunlending. "Concerning that grease, it really seems to be the one thing we know for sure about our thief, hmmm.... Is this grease very common? I mean, if it was a certain type of smell, we might try to find a shop selling it and think about the people who might have shopped it...."

Meanwhile, Carangil, Elen aacute;rion, and Jiff had left the Dunnish high town for the town square, in the company of Drukha. Berek, Kirdan, and Aeglorias were already there, and the Elf asked what them what they had found.

"I suppose the most amusing thing was that the Dunnish elders had arrested Jiff," Carangil grinned. "Fortunately we were able to clear up the misunderstanding."

"Well, for my part, as Sir Carangil noted," added Jiff, "unfortunately, I seemed to have made too good a thief of myself as I was arrested by Drukha here," Jiff cast a smile towards Drukha, and chuckled. "But fortunately that trouble has been attended to now and these Gentlemen have agreed to help us in the search for our thief.... But I am being rude, excuse me. Sir Drukha, son of the Dunnish chief," Jiff indicated the Dunlending, "please meet our other companions: Sir Berek; and Sir Kirdan, the squire of Sir Carangil; and Lord Aeglorias, their travelling companion...." Aeglorias bowed gracefully, then Kirdan and the clumsier Berek followed suit.

Following the introduction, Jiff continued, "Lord Aeglorias, during your time locked inside the food cellars, did you chance to notice a ventilation shaft? As I believe that to be the route of escape taken by our thief, and it was most certainly a premeditated one... it seems you fell right into his trap, Sir...." Jiff allowed himself a quiet chuckle. "But perhaps we could eat whilst we discuss our findings. I myself am hungry and I'm sure, if I know friend Berek well enough, he could eat a boar by now...." Smiling again, Jiff waited for a response from the gathered peoples.

"I saw the shaft, young Jiff," Aeglorias replied, "but I certainly could not have used it to go out. As for the meal and the new place, that would seem to be a good idea."

Kirdan, who had been listening silently, was happy to remind them that the new place for the night was obviously far superior to Mich's Fattened Ewe. "Excellent work, Kirdan," Carangil clapped Kirdan's shoulder. "How in the name of all the Valar did we miss this place the first time? But I suppose if we had found it then, we would not have met our new friends," Carangil smiled at Elen aacute;rion, Berek, and Jiff in turn.

"We went there in the first place, M'Lord, but the Blue Oak was full yesternight. And young Jiff will certainly appreciate the good food!"

"I, for one, am not far behind Berek," Carangil laughed. "Then the Fates must have directed our steps, then, because to a certain degree we would have been better off staying in the hayloft at the Blue Oak than in a private room at the Fattened Ewe. Well, we won't make that mistake again, will we, gentlemen?" Carangil smiled wryly.

After Jiff finished his story, Berek accounted for the events at Oget's. "Well, young Jiff, at least you found a clue despite the trouble caused.... Aeglorias and me, we questioned the, hmmm, women at Oget's. One of the women called Tilva said she saw someone passing, curly hair and smelling like grease. But then," Berek sighed, "another one called Zeuga shut her down a little, saying that this Tilva disliked Dunmen anyhow and would therefore probably be, hmmm, biased."

Aeglorias nodded, "Such was also my feeling about this Tilva. Zeuga might not be all that honest, but for her a client is a client; she has no prejudice against Dunnish men."

"And since we still are not sure about our thief... well, no new tracks gained. But we know that the thief seems to prefer stormy nights, because it was that kind of weather during that three thefts occurred... and otherwise it would be nearly impossible to pass next to Oget's without being noticed. So, not much information for a silver piece.... Here's your pouch, Jiff," Berek said, handing the pouch back to Jiff.

Taking the pouch, Jiff smiled at Berek, "Well, at least our morning wasn't completely wasted. We know more about our thief then we did the previous night... but, that reminds me, I should return this money to Kirdan, along with the remainder of my money to cover what I used during the day...."

"Interesting," Carangil mused. "Aeglorias, I thought of something at Rogda's which leads to a question only you can really answer." Aeglorias turned his serene face toward his ward, and listened attentively. "Have you noticed that this thief appears to possess a great many abilities which are common to the Firstborn? He (or she)," Carangil's voice dropped with the addition, but he was now thinking that the likelihood of the thief being female was increasing, "has shown exceptional quickness, agility and light-footedness, and operates very well even in the darkest stormy night. Do you think any of this might be significant?"

"Not only the Firstborn are light-footed and agile, though the idea crossed my mind. But unless your thief is a child Elf, I don't think this is possible: The figure I followed was small, though not exactly diminutive."

"So the idea was not totally ridiculous, then. It is improbable, yes, but not impossible," Carangil said with a shrug.

Aeglorias nodded, lost in his thoughts, and then added, "Now that I think about it, he could have used some trick to confuse me in the cellar; however, I certainly felt dazed...."

Carangil's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and he exchanged a look with Kirdan. "Some kind of magic?" he asked Aeglorias.

"Magic?" Aeglorias' brows arched gracefully. "If by magic you mean what was seen in the battles of old, or what makes this bow greater than any Mortal's bow, no, this was not magic, but delusion, illusion of the mind or of the eye—more the kind of things trickster servants of the Shadow can do. Real magic creates; this was only confusion." The Elf looked preoccupied, and added, "If such is the case, we really must find this thief. Those could also be minor tricks, of course.... Yes, I think such is the case, because a servant of the Shadow would not be able to bear the touch of Berek's medallion."

Carangil's surprise grew. "Really? Why not?"

Aeglorias hesitated for an instant, and then said, "Berek, the Elf your grandfather saved was a captain of my king's guard. He gave your ancestor a symbol of his office, forged long ago by marvellous Noldo smiths who made sure no creature of the Dark could indeed bear their touch." He reached inside the neck of his tunic, then drew forth and displayed a breeze-shaped medallion. Berek gaped, for this was a close cousin of his own amulet. "This would grant you entry and safe passage in the Greenwood, and any Elf who saw it would try to help you by any means, for indeed nobody wears it if he is not entitled to wear it. As I told you before, your family must have a long history of connection with the Elves, far beyond the day your grandfather saved a captain of Thranduil's rangers. I will indeed do all that I can to help you to fetch it back, for indeed such a gift cannot end in unwanted hands," he added with a passion seldom seen before by Carangil and Kirdan.

Carangil's brow rose as high as it could possibly go from surprise, but he quickly recovered his equilibrium. "Then where you go, Aeglorias, we shall follow from bonds of both friendship and duty. My father would certainly agree and suspend his order for the duration; no Elf-friend could do otherwise."

Bending over, Berek stared at the medallion. First, there was a frown upon his brow, but it soon vanished as he recognised minor differences in the artful design of Aeglorias' amulet compared to his own heirloom.

Nearby, Jiff handed over all the funds about his person to Kirdan, saying, "...though I fear I will certainly have to borrow some money again to pay for food and such; I apologise for that in advance...."

Carangil heard the last part of Jiff's comment, and was reminded of something that he had thought during the "trial" at Rogda's house. "Elen aacute;rion, here's something I've been thinking about for a while," Carangil mused. "Maybe you really should make Jiff your squire for real. It might solve some problems. Or maybe Berek should do it if he carries the status of a knight. Or I suppose for that matter I could do it myself, if he'd be willing, but he's known you longer."

"Hmmm, a Squire.... I feel honoured, but," Berek grumbled with a smile, "not even my father, Hembar an Gladdor, chieftain of Emoro, has one.... And I haven't seen any person sitting at Breon's table who called himself his squire neither.... To my mind, a son should honour his ancestors by his deeds, and not try to surpass in this way... hmmm... and therefore," Berek chuckled, "I have to decline, Sires...."

Seeing the questioning look of Jiff, Berek added, "Hmmm, young guy, you don't even know the tale of Breon, Bull, and Bear. A good story, and... hmmm... nearly true. I will tell it to you given the time."

Well, this young man seems resourceful enough... but... that would be presumptuous of me, thought Elen aacute;rion, who mulled over Carangil's suggestion before answering, "Sir Carangil, I am not a full knight yet and so I am not ready for a squire. Should any problems arise concerning Jiff's status, he can always be introduced as a page."

Jiff looked surprised, and answered Carangil, "A squire, well, I would seriously need to give such an offer some thought, whilst it would be an honour, I don't know that is the direction in which I would like my life to take.... But, for now, shall we simply leave and go for food—if what Kirdan says is true then I can't wait to try it..." his voice trailed off. "And I will consider your offer deeply and well, Sir, and if I choose to accept, be it now, or some date far from today, I promise, on what honour I have, that I would serve you to the utmost of my ability." He looked back at Berek. "As for the story, I'd like to hear it, perhaps this evening?"

"Then today is already a good beginning!" Carangil smiled, stretching his right hand towards Jiff. "To celebrate, and to make matters easier on everyone, lunch will be on my coin. You are of course invited too, Master Drukha—in fact, you will be the guest of honour."

"Where did you say you are? The Blue Oak?" Drukha asked, with a happy and expectant look. "I know the cook...."

"Apparently his reputation precedes him," Carangil smiled slightly. "What is your preference, Master Drukha? I am open to suggestions."

"Mistress Mariah is well known for her p acirc;t eacute;s, pies, and stewed beef. You could also try her hare in a mustard sauce, or her coq au vin. One of the best cooks around, she used to work in the Thalion for the lords there!"

"Indeed. I wonder why they let her go, then. But I shall definitely take your advice, Master Drukha. What is your own preference?" Carangil asked, honestly curious.

"The coq au vin, I think...." Drukha mused, but Jiff overrode any additions he might have offered.

Taking Carangil's hand firmly, Jiff agreed, "A good beginning indeed... but, can we please continue our conversation over food as I am starving...." he finished his sentence with a chuckle.

"That we can," Carangil laughed. "Lead the way, good Kirdan."

Chapter XII: The Blue Oak Inn

Kirdan led them to the Blue Oak, which was not far from the Thalion, on the southern outskirts of Metraith. Elen aacute;rion and Carangil immediately noticed the obvious superior quality of the place, its rich carpets and precious wooden furniture signalling the wealth of its owner. Berek was surprised to see some woods that obviously came from Rhovanion, and everybody noticed the delectable cooking odours that came from the dining area. Aeglorias approved Kirdan's choice, but said he was not hungry and went to the Thalion to recover the party's horses. Kirdan went with him, while the others asked the innkeeper for a good meal. They had finished the first course, a nice p acirc;t eacute; de canard, when Kirdan came back and sat among them alone, for Aeglorias had decided to take a ride; he would come back for the fruits.

Elen aacute;rion smiled at Carangil's squire, and made some room at his side. The young squire sat, and took a small piece of the p acirc;t eacute;; he usually ate frugally, not unlike their Elven friend. "You are lucky indeed to travel in company of a Firstborn," said Elen aacute;rion. "I didn't dare ask him, but perhaps you can tell us a little more about him, Carangil?"

"Yes, I have been wondering about Aeglorias also," Jiff nodded. "It is rare to find one of the Firstborn travelling in the company of a group of us Mortals, yet he seems to me to be a good friend of both yourself and your squire, Sir...." Jiff's eyes shone with the genuine curiosity of the young. Beside him, nodding and humming, Berek tried not to lose contact with his jug of beer, a little starter while waiting for the main dish to arrive.

"Of course," Carangil nodded after washing down a succulent morsel. "I told you that my mentor, the Hir Gilnor you may have heard us mention, introduced us to Aeglorias; or more to the point, Hir Gilnor asked Aeglorias to escort us to Fornost. I'll be the first to admit I don't know everything about him, but what I do know is that he is an experienced adventurer who has travelled into the Deep South, beyond even Far Harad.

"Apparently while he was in the Utter South several of his companions were killed. At least two of them were Men and one was an Elf named Celebil who just happened to be the half-brother of the Heri Mell oacute;ni euml;, Hir Gilnor's wife.

"We were present when he broke the news to her, and I swear that's the first time I ever saw her sad. I hope I never see that again, but I fear it will happen soon or late."

Hearing the dropping voice of Carangil, Berek lowered his mug. Though raising his eyebrows with a questioning look, he did not utter the obvious question, leaving the decision on more details to Carangil.

Carangil caught Berek's look and shrugged, his face downcast. "I have had several warnings of dark days ahead for the North; the most direct was my lord father's prophecy of a terrible war. Now, to answer your question, young Jiff, he seems to think we D uacute;nedain are exciting, that interesting things happen when we are near," Carangil smiled indulgently. "As for being good friends, yes, I think he is, as much as a few months of travel can make us. You should have seen the excitement he caused at my brother-in-law's estate."

Judging by the reaction of the serving girls of the Fattened Ewe, Jiff could easily imagine how the Elf could leave an unforgettable mark in a provincial estate. "And do you think he could be a lord?" asked an excited Jiff.

"Come to think of it, even Heri Mell oacute;ni euml; called Aeglorias a lord," Carangil mused. "That must mean he comes from the Sindarin nobility of the Greenwood, with high standing in King Thranduil's court. He's certainly different from the Eldar of Dol Elenna, who are mostly Noldorin or Silvan with a few of blended Kindreds."

"Hmmm..." Berek mused. "Aeglorias mentioned to me that he patrolled the Greenwood for some time. He even speaks the language of the woods, nearly as good as I have ever heard an outsider before...." Carangil grinned at the notion of an Elf of Greenwood being called an "outsider" in the woods, while Berek added, "and I agree he is different, compared with the few Elves of the Greenwood I have met, being more oriented towards Men.... But the most, he really seems to be an experienced hunter, and a capable leader. That's what makes a, hmmm, man's worth!"

"I will not argue with you on that score," Carangil nodded, then attacked a tasty meat pie.

Carangil began to feel more satisfied from a meal than he had since Dol Elenna. He leaned back in the comfortable chair, sipping his cup of fine wine. "Elen aacute;rion, I did not fully understand something you said back in the square. If you are not yet a full knight, what precisely are you? How does a roquen of Arthedain differ from a full knight?"

Elen aacute;rion smiled to Carangil, and said, "It appears that some differences exist between our countries. Among the Arthedain, there are various classes of knights. First, there is the division between royal and noble knights." Carangil nodded, for it was much the same in Gondor. "The ten company commanders of the royal army, the commander of the royal guard (he's the one you said is your mother's cousin)...." Elen aacute;rion was not sure what to think about that. Carangil's father must rank near Hir aacute;ratar Orros himself! "...its six squadron leaders and a few of the members of the Othrind. The squad leaders of the royal army bear the formal title of ohtar, 'squire,' but are also considered knights. Among the nobles, there are two kinds of knights: landed knights, or gentry, oath-sworn to the nobles of Arthedain who will transmit their titles to their elder sons; and 'solitary knights,' who are either men of common birth knighted for their deeds or non-inheriting sons of nobles and landed knights who provide the noble armies with a mounted element. I am an erroquen, as is, if I understand well his coat of arms, Kirdan. A full knight is either a landed knight, noroquen, or a royal knight, aroquen. I was dubbed some months ago, when I reached my majority, and this is my first official mission for my House." Elen aacute;rion's pride in his service to his liege was obvious.

"Ah, I see now," Carangil nodded. "I suppose then in some ways I am somewhere in between one of your erroqueni and aroqueni, as I do not yet know for certain whether or not my lord father, or the King himself, will enfeoff me. Thank you for your explanation. In Gondor things are somewhat different."

Elen aacute;rion had kept to himself as the others talked about Aeglorias, but after explaining the structure of knighthood in Arthedain, he thought he should bring the conversation back to the main topic. "There is something that has been bothering me ever since I heard of the thief's talents. I have never heard of a thief among the Firstborn. Crime is very rare in their society, or so it is said in the books, and their few crimes are crimes of passion. So, if our thief is an Elf, he is one of the Dark Ones, maybe even a servant of the Witch-king."

Carangil thought for a moment, his brow furrowed. "You are quite right in that crimes in general and thefts in particular are very rare among the Firstborn, but they have happened. Perhaps the greatest crime of the Noldor was their theft of the White Ships of the Teleri of Alqualond euml;, because it precipitated the Kinslaying, which brought about their Doom. (In Gondor such an act would be called 'felony murder' and subject to the same or worse punishment as murder in cold blood.) Another great crime was the attempted theft of the Silmaril of Elwing at the Havens of Sirion, which also led to murder.

"But even considering all that, according to everything I've ever heard or read, no Elf has ever willingly served the Great Enemies. Some have been forced and others deceived into service, but none have chosen it."

"The 'witch king'?" Jiff asked. "Who's that? Whoever he is, his name doesn't make him sound like someone I'd like to meet!"

Berek also expressed his puzzlement. "'Witch king,' hmmm.... Can you tell us more about him?"

"Yes, I can," Carangil replied, lowering his voice. "But I would prefer not to discuss him until Aeglorias has returned."

Berek spoke up, "And as for the Dark Ones, as you call them... hmmm.... I have heard of Elves who strayed from the righteous path, but thought them very few, single individuals. Yet this sounds as if there is a brotherhood or something alike...."

"I fear we wander from the path into blind alleys," Carangil shook his head. "But consider this: A single Elf straying from the right caused whole nations to do the same. It was all a question of leadership." Though Elen aacute;rion appeared to understand as he nodded in agreement, Jiff and Berek looked at Carangil with puzzled expressions, so he added, "I mean F euml;anor, whose Oath of vengeance brought on the Doom of the Noldor. If you want a more recent, Mannish example, remember the pride of Ar-Pharaz ocirc;n and where it led him."

Elen aacute;rion shuddered at the mention of a name best left unspoken. "Let us return to the present question. We know the thief had impressive talents, I agree. But then, does this mean he has to be an Elf?"

"Of course not. I was just thinking, as did Aeglorias himself, that a lot of the thief's talents coincide with those of most Elves," Carangil replied.

"A well-prepared route of escape, a stormy night, a skilled burglar moving in familiar surroundings.... Maybe he did not even notice that he was followed and chose the food cellars as a simple precaution," Elen aacute;rion offered.

"That seems unlikely," Carangil disagreed. "Aeglorias thought the thief was actively evading him."

"Although it hurts me that the Elven amulet I inherited, hmmm... has fallen into the hands of a criminal for a few moments, let's not be hasty in assuming a reason apart from burglary... Or do you have any thoughts hinting at more than a skilled thief?" Berek inquired.

"Why you and no one else in the Fattened Ewe that night?" Carangil asked. "One would think I would have made a more tempting target than you or Sir Elen aacute;rion."

The door to the lunchroom opened, and Aeglorias came over to their table. He helped himself to some fruits. When he spoke, it became obvious that he had heard Carangil's last words. "I think he also had you in mind, since there were muddy traces in front of your door, but our thief must have had keen ears and heard me, for he was already in the stair when I decided to go see what happened in the corridor."

"Then we are doubly in your debt," Carangil raised his cup towards Aeglorias. "We would not have proved easy pickings, I think, but if caught asleep and unawares our blood might have been spilled in the defense."

When both Elen aacute;rion and Berek asked in a rush what he thought of the notion of an Elven thief, Aeglorias answered, "I don't think your thief was an Elf, Elen aacute;rion, Berek. First of all, because the silhouette I followed was too small—but, granted, this could have been a false impression made by the night. On the other hand, some Sylvan Elves are quite diminutive compared to my kin or the Noldor.

"Well, let me think," he continued slowly. "A Noldo is out of question—I would have felt his aura, even if he was only from the common folk.... Though a Sinda's aura is more difficult to perceive, I think I should have sensed it. Anyway, this doesn't seem likely. I cannot imagine one of my kin reduced to such a vile way of life.... An Avare... many things can happen where Avari are concerned, but anyway, this is not the most likely thief, though that could explain why he stole your amulet, Master Berek. But once more, one can be light-footed and find his way in the night and be a Mortal."

Carangil nodded. "Very true, and I agree with everything you said. No Noldo would ever stoop to common theft; no, when they fall from virtue, they do it in much grander fashion. I think we must re-consider him—or more probably her, now—as a Mortal, for sake of the odds...."

"Indeed," Jiff said, "a woman or, and perhaps Aeglorias can answer this one, could it have been a man of my frame? But whatever, I agree that this speculation, without any proof or other information will get us nowhere!"

"Well, then," Carangil smiled indulgently, "I think I shall speculate upon the merits of our chef's desserts. Maybe it will prove inspiring."

"Yes indeed," replied Jiff, "and I think I shall join you. If that sweet smell is anything to go by, I can't wait!"

"Perhaps Aeglorias and Berek are right?" Jiff asked later. "I mean, I am fairly sure I could move around Tharbad, or at least areas of Tharbad that I know well, almost as easily during a stormy night as I could during a summer's day, though doubtless in less comfort.... And perhaps I could also claim that I could lose almost anyone on those streets, should I wish to, especially during conditions such as those!"

"You have a good point," Carangil agreed. "There are rooms and corridors in D aacute;cilion and Dol Elenna which I could use to the same purpose. So we are looking for someone who knows Metraith like the back of his hand, and is Jiff's size or smaller. I am leaning more towards it being a woman, and not a Dunlending, as Drukha suggested. Still, I am afraid this speculation not helping much. Now, this meat pie, on the other hand..." Carangil grinned. "Kirdan, we are all in your debt, my friend."

But Carangil's expression soon turned sombre if not grim, and he lowered his voice, drawing the others into a huddle around their table. "Jiff, Berek, now that Aeglorias has returned, I will answer your questions about the enemy of the North. Indeed, he is not someone you would like to meet, young Jiff. 'Witch-king' is another name given to the ruler of Angmar, who is also called 'the Shadow of the North.' Hir Gilnor told me, 'He is no ordinary man, but a mighty sorcerer and a cunning lord of Men.'

"And as impossible as it sounds, Hir Gilnor also said that he was a former prince of the D uacute;nedain, born in N uacute;menor before its fall! That was right before he told us that 'the fate of Arthedain is the fate of the North!'"

"If that's true then someone should definitely do something to stop him!!" Jiff exclaimed. "But aren't there tales of other Mighty Sorcerers... good ones I mean? Couldn't they help against this Witch-king and save the North? Wouldn't that be an interesting tale to tell around the fire, a huge battle of magic versus magic...." Jiff's eyes showed signs of daydreaming as his voice trailed off.

"Yes, there are such tales indeed," Carangil shared a glance with Aeglorias. "But I fear the days of heroic duels of sorcery, like the battles of Finrod Felagund and L uacute;thien Tin uacute;viel with Sauron Gorthaur upon Tol-in-Gaurhoth, or between Ecthelion of the Fountain and Gothmog Lord of Balrogs at Gondolin, are long gone. Over fourteen centuries gone, if we consider that the last such great battle was that of Ereinion Gil-galad and Elendil the Tall against that same Sauron Gorthaur which ended the last Age.

"No," Carangil added, "I fear that if the North is to defeat the Shadow of the Iron Land it must be with steel and sinew, blood and courage—not with sorcery, save perhaps that of the Eldar of Lindon and Imladris. And the three great powers of the North, Arthedain, Cardolan, and Lindon, must surely stand together or face defeat."

"So, you expect that we shall soon see glorious battles between good and evil.... Well, maybe those stories would be almost as good?" Jiff asked.

Aeglorias posed his immortal stare on Jiff, who felt very odd. "All young people dream of battles and high deeds, but real battles are more blood and tears than glory and feats. I hope you will live a long and peaceful life, but I'm afraid that is not what you will have, and then perhaps you will wish you had stayed to live your parents' life? One seldom finds what he thought he would in 'adventure.'"

"Hir Gilnor said almost exactly the same thing to me," Carangil noted.

"I understand what you say, sir," Jiff shrugged, "that battle often ends more in misery than glory, but if you find the idea of adventure so repulsive, why is it I have heard tales that you enjoy such things? And, might I ask, what exactly it is that you know of my parents' life which you have mentioned I find to be not to my taste?"

"If you heard that I enjoy adventure, then indeed you heard a tale, for I serve my lords and obey their orders, but in adventure I have seen little other than pain and suffering, though I like the travels that went with my lords' service. As for your parents, what I meant is that though now it appears that you consider their life as boring, for you left them behind you in hope of finding something more exciting, you may discover in the future that their peaceful trade suits your heart. Or, like some few people, you might learn that you prefer a quick and exciting life over a long and calm one."

"Indeed, I follow your reasoning, sir, but at the moment I find that I cannot stomach the life my parents have. I would rather my short time here be less than it were long and dull, though I would also rather feel little pain than to die on a battlefield...."

Aeglorias smiled indulgently at Jiff, and then added, "We are in peaceful countries; you should not die on a battlefield, or so I hope, even though Hir Gilnor's predictions lead me to believe that something is at hand. But there are few things we can do right now."

Elen aacute;rion puzzled over the words of his comrades. After much thought he said, "Sir Carangil, since you hail from Gondor you may not have heard of them, but we have our own burrowing, stealthy, diminutive thieves here in the North, and they are called Periannath, 'Halflings,' or 'Hobbits' in their own rude tongue."

Carangil's eyebrow raised in an expression of interest. "Who or what are these ... Hobbits?"

But Elen aacute;rion's thoughts were rolling and he did not answer. "As for the Witch-king, his exact nature is but speculation. Those who have glimpsed him from afar in the din of battle—for no one has confronted him and lived to tell of the encounter—speak of a tall man clad in black armour and of a sinister presence, an unseen claw gripping their hearts and filling them with fear. Whatever he truly is, he an unnatural, evil being, an abomination which defies the One's will. To name him a D uacute;nadan is a curse upon our people and I will not stand for it! Whatever he once was, now he is a monster!"

"Yes, he is most definitely a monster, and a defier of Eru's will," Carangil replied carefully, taking note of Elen aacute;rion's heated tone. "But I trust Hir Gilnor's wisdom in these matters, as does Aeglorias, and if you ever have the opportunity to meet him, you will too. In truth I do not name that servant of the Dark a D uacute;nadan, now or ever, for such name by right is held only by the Faithful, first in And uacute;ni euml;, then in our Realms in Exile. But Hir Gilnor said the Dark Servant's origins trace to N uacute;menor, and I believe he speaks the truth, however implausible it sounds."

"Indeed, Elen aacute;rion, you should trust Hir Gilnor's words, for he is a wise lord among the Noldor," said Aeglorias. "But perhaps you do not know that some dark heirs of the N uacute;men oacute;reans live south of Gondor, and some are even said to revere the Great Enemy! I have seen strange things in the South, and if Hir Gilnor indeed said that the Shadow of Angmar was once a king among your kin...." Carangil nodded sadly. "But perhaps I misunderstand what you mean: he serves the Dark now, and a friend of the Elves he is no more, and as such cannot claim the title of Adan?"

"Yes, that is what I meant," Carangil replied sombrely. "If one of our kin turns against the One, no matter what the degree of his blood descent from N uacute;menor he can no longer be called a D uacute;nadan. To us descendants of the Faithful of And uacute;ni euml;, the survivors of the King's Men may be N uacute;men oacute;reans, but they are not D uacute;nedain."

Chapter XIII: Cousin Phillip

The voices of Aeglorias and Carangil had trailed off in thought when a man entered the room. He was tall and good-looking, which fact did the girls and women in the room immediately notice. And not only by the females: Berek noticed a sharp intake of breath from a reddening Jiff, who soon mastered himself but kept a guilty, childish look.

Hmmm... this is interesting, thought the bear of a man.

Oh, oh, trouble and problems ahead, thought Jiff, here is my cousin.... As his cousin approached, Jiff stood and held out his hand to greet him.

"Greetings, Cousin Phillip!" Jiff exclaimed. "How did you find me, and what in the world are you doing here?!"

Phillip smiled. "As for finding you, I spoke to that surly innkeeper on the other side of town, and he denied ever seeing you. But something smelled funny about him, so I spoke to the stable boy, and he said you were coming here. And as for why I'm here, I can see the world, too, can't I? Besides, your mother wanted me to give you this..." at which Phillip threw Jiff a small washed-leather coin purse. "She didn't want you all alone in the world without any money!"

"Well, then, welcome, cousin!" Jiff answered, astonished at the gift. "Oh, please join us..." he motioned to the others.

In answer to Jiff's welcoming gesture, Phillip took a place at the table and greeted the others. After a while Jiff spoke. "This is my cousin, Phillip of Tharbad." A wave of greetings flowed around the table. "So, Phillip, you have heard a little of our conversation? Perhaps I should explain a little better, if the others will allow it?" Jiff asked.

"Do you vouch for him?" Carangil inquired.

Jiff replied, "Indeed I do, sir, Phillip is as good a person as I could care to name, as trustworthy as myself, perhaps more so!!"

"Then I do not object," Carangil nodded his head graciously towards Phillip, and quickly glanced towards the others to see if anyone else would object. "Welcome to our council, Phillip. May I ask how you knew where to find Master Jiff?"

"I went to the first inn on the road, the Fattened Ewe. His owner told me Jiff was gone, so I nearly departed for the next village, but by chance, I had the idea of asking the groom of your whereabouts. The boy told me a man had taken all of your horses, and that you were probably gone to another inn. I told him I was Jiff's cousin, and he told me you were probably in one of the two other inns of the town. I went here in the morning, and the good innkeeper was kind enough to tell me that Jiff was indeed among his clients, and would probably be back for lunch." Phillip took on a dreamy air, remembering the nice serving wench of the tavern in which he had spent his morning. "So I came back for the lunch, a little late, granted...."

Carangil smiled. "You must have made a friend, Jiff."

Then Jiff began to explain what had led the six companions and their Dunnish guest to this time and place. "Sirs Elen aacute;rion and Berek along with myself travelled from Tharbad over a number of days before arriving here in Metraith rather wet, cold, tired, and hungry. We chose rooms in the Fattened Ewe for the night. During the night we were burgled—the thief took money from both Elen aacute;rion and Berek, whilst they also stole an amulet from Berek which was gifted to him..."

Actually it was my grandfather, Berek thought but did not interrupt.

"...by some Elven folk of Greenwood the Great. I seemed to have escaped as the thief left my meager purse well alone.... We awoke and discovered the theft in the morning. We also found a few clues, though none that have yet taken us to our thief....

"During the morning we happened to meet with these other fine people, Lord Carangil, and his squire Sir Kirdan, and later, we also met with a man whose figure was that of Lord Aeglorias here, though slightly muddier...." Jiff chuckled a little while remembering the sight.

"The rest of today has been spent in search of our thief, though we seem to have made little progress, only I was arrested by Sir Drukha here when I was posing as a thief in an attempt to discover ours!

"And I think, there we have a brief account of the last few days? Unless I have left out anything, Sirs?"

Elen aacute;rion and Berek both shrugged, waiting for Jiff to continue. After all, only Jiff would know what to tell to his cousin. "So, Phillip, cousin, what do you intend to do now? Does your road lead you elsewhere? Or maybe you will tarry here with us for a few days? And help us in our search perhaps?"

"So," Phillip said while looking around the table, "I think I would like to stay around for a while if you gentlemen will have me. What took you out of Tharbad in the first place, Jiff?"

"What took me from Tharbad?" Jiff echoed, pausing to find the right words. He continued, "Well, I guess I had seen the place for long enough. There was nothing new to me there. Do you perhaps think, like me, places, and the people there, can get too familiar? Not friends or family, just the people you don't really know?"

"Understand that." Phillip caught the eye of that server girl and smiled at her, then turned back to Jiff. "But what made you decide to go now? What's going on?"

Seeing Phillip distracted, Jiff said, "We have room for one more, Phillip, but I don't think any more than that.... The serving girl won't be coming with us," Jiff chuckled. "I apologize, Sirs, he has always been one for the ladies!" Jiff chuckled again.

Phillip laughed, "Sorry, gentlemen, but my cousin is right. I have a certain weakness when it comes to women." Phillip laughed again, "It's a curse. I'm hungry—what's good to eat?"

"A curse, hmmm...." Berek said, looking at Jiff's cousin, who bore a family resemblance to Jiff in also being of slight build, but he was obviously far more athletic than was his younger cousin. "I doubt that to be a curse. A weakness of flesh, perhaps, but nothing a, hmmm, man can't stand against. However, welcome, cousin of Jiff, I'm Berek. Sit down and have a mug."

Carangil laughed fondly, but why was there a sour note to it? "Master Phillip, I think we all have certain weaknesses in that regard. As for what is good, really, just about everything. The chef here is a true mistress of the culinary arts. Try one of these meat pies, and finish with the ambrosia."

"Hmmm.... Thank you, Berek. Nice to meet you," Phillip smiled and took a seat next to Jiff. "I think I'll try a meat pie, Carangil, and please, just Phillip."

"In our company, certainly, Phillip. But there will be times, such as our recent interview with Master Rogda, when we must stand on formality. Besides," Carangil grinned wryly, "sometimes we D uacute;nedain must maintain our reputation for stuffiness."

Hearing his fellow D uacute;nadan's irreverent remark obviously gave birth to many mixed emotions in Elen aacute;rion's mind. Anger and stupor were the two most obvious feelings.

Feeling the tension growing, Berek stood up, stretching his body as if stiff from the meal. "Formality, hmmm.... My grandfather said manners matter, and respect. So if we pay special respect to someone without knowing his rank we prefer to call him 'master,' for example. I am not very accustomed with formality, I apologize, and I still am not sure about the difference between a Gondorian knight and a, hmmm, well what you discussed earlier. But be assured that I do hold you in high respect, as well as we all here do. And I hope," his eyes wandered especially to Phillip and Carangil, "that I will learn the formal way of reflecting that attitude, given some time."

Sitting down, Berek addressed Aeglorias. "To, hmmm, start my learning, Master Aeglorias, what would be the proper, formal way of addressing you? Belonging to nobility and being a Firstborn both surpass my small knowledge of ranks and titles."

"'Master Aeglorias' is perfect, friend Berek. This would sound a little more formal in my native Sindarin than it does in this Western vernacular. 'Hir Aeglorias' is what most of the Elves of Greenwood would call me, except those of higher station, like the king's family, or members of the King's Rangers would call me Captain."

"'Hir' or 'Lord' would be proper for me as well," Carangil added, "but I will admit this once to being still young enough that either sounds strange to me yet. When I hear it I almost start to turn around expecting to see my lord father, Hir Anrohir, or Hir Gilnor. Both of them manage to make their honors weigh much more heavily on the mind than do mine at present. I would love to witness a conversation between either one of them and your father, Master Drukha."

"My father says that the attachment to the titles comes with the role, my lord. Neither me nor you are yet what we will be—but a lord you are, whatever you say."

"Indeed," Carangil nodded soberly. "And I strive always to honor my noble parents and teachers. I do not always succeed, but I do not fail for lack of trying." Towards the end of his sentence, his voice took on a strangely intense tone inappropriate to the rather dry subject matter.

Ever since the youth who called himself Phillip had come to their table, Kirdan's piercing grey eyes hovered around him. He sat, silently sipping from a goblet of red wine as his companions talked amongst themselves, an impassive expression on his face. His expression matched his taste in clothes, which lacked any but the most modest adornments with the exception of the sword at his hip. It appeared to be a fine quality blade, its hilt ornately decorated and its scabbard tooled with intricate designs. It contrasted oddly with his choice of attire. Kirdan moved his gaze from the newcomer to the fire. He stared into it for several moments, something in his eyes betraying a hint of sorrow. Shuddering slightly, he looked down into his goblet, his braid of long raven hair, held only by a simple leather thong, slipping down his shoulder.

Chapter XIV: Afternoon Investigations

"Hmmm, master Drukha, you now listened to what we know of the thief," Berek said. "Do you have any suggestions whom to look after? Have there been seen some people of these, hmmm, 'hubbits,' among your folk? For sure, the thief knew the food cellars, and therefore is no stranger to that part of town!"

"No, there are no Halflings—and I am as anxious as you are to learn who the thief is, for he indeed knows our town and I'm not comfortable with the thought of a thief that has access to our food cellars. Which reminds me—even if we ate like famished men, perhaps it is time to have a look at the vent in our cellars, what do you think?"

The companions smiled, for they had indeed wolfed down the meal as if they had been at a king's banquet. They stood and proceeded slowly, on foot, toward the Dunnish town. While walking, Drukha thought about something that had been put aside. "Lord," he said, turning to Aeglorias, "I didn't dare ask you before, but I've been wondering—how did you enter our town last evening?"

"I scaled the wall, and so did the thief, of course. I see what you mean, I should have thought of it. If we are lucky, perhaps he has left some traces while going out of the town again. Mellyn," he said to Berek and Kirdan, "will you come with me? Both of you have some hunting experience. Elen aacute;rion? Would you like to come?" As the tall D uacute;nadan nodded, Aeglorias added, "Carangil, you should go with young Jiff and Master Drukha. Master Phillip, I suppose you want to stay with your cousin?"

"Yes, sir," Phillip said smiling, "we have much to talk about. I'm going to have to work on addressing you gentlemen properly as to not offend anyone," Phillip smiled at Elen aacute;rion. "Jiff will have to help me with that."

"Indeed I will, Cousin, though I think you will find that duty easily met.... But we should depart to the food cellar before the sun falls and we are forced to return here to suffer another meal..." Jiff grinned.

"Certainly, Master Aeglorias," Kirdan replied politely, looking to Carangil for a nod of approval. "I shall help you as much as I am able." Kirdan made his way over to the Elda, standing close to him. He adjusted his belt and scabbard with some scrutiny, smiling as he gazed on the intricately designed scabbard.

* * *

Carangil nodded to Drukha, Jiff, and Phillip. "Come, gentlemen. Let us meet them on the inside. Drukha, what lies on the other side of the wall here? Is there something recognizable we can find again easily?"

While Aeglorias and his companions departed, Drukha, while moving toward the Dunnish town's gate, answered Carangil, "As you can see, this is a rampart, albeit a crude one. I know it can be climbed, all the more so on a stormy night, when our guards are not as attentive as they should be. But if you want to go to the food cellars, they are not against the wall, so what do you want to do?"

"Show me the cellars, if you please, and then I will let Jiff start his examinations while I, or we, find the others when they're done with the wall," Carangil replied.

"Well," Phillip said looking around," I'll follow you, Jiff."

"Well, for my part, sir, I would like to take a look at the food cellars, as it would be senseless not to, having got into all that trouble..." Jiff mused. "But perhaps we should meet with our friends on the far side of the wall first, and undertake any investigation there, is it may prove quite useful to have us all at both sites."

"I think I like your idea better than my own, Jiff," Carangil replied. "Let us meet the others. Lead on, please, Master Drukha."

"As you want, please follow me," answered Drukha, who then passed through the gate, and then turned toward the left part of the wall, where he climbed up a stair. The four men arrived on a crude catwalk, and began to walk around the Dunnish town. The rampart was higher than most houses, and Carangil noticed that most of them were poorly made from moldy straw coverings and dirty walls. Some richer houses had a slate covering, but even these houses looked poorer than in the lower town.

"Is there a shortage of wood or stone here, Drukha?" Carangil asked, genuinely wondering why the residents would choose to live in such squalor. "Or do the people here work so hard they can't keep better houses?"

"Times are hard for everybody," answered Drukha in a somewhat evasive tone.

"True enough. Even Gondor is not what it once was."

Carangil noticed that the sewage system was primitive: garbage was dumped in the streets and then taken away by the rain. Jiff and Phillip looked moderately surprised, as there were some dirtier and poorer neighborhoods in Tharbad. Carangil sighed sadly, and wondered why the local D uacute;nedain did nothing to improve their subjects' living standards. So he asked, somewhat obliquely, "I suppose the town is fairly new. Are there plans to build permanent sewers and other civic improvements?"

Jiff visibly flinched, and a kind of blank mask fell on Drukha's face. "You must have looked too superficially, my lord. This town existed before your people crossed the ocean."

"Indeed?" Carangil asked with genuine surprise. "Then I apologize, Master Drukha. I think someone must have told me that your town grew up around Metraith, which in turn grew up around the Thalion. I was obviously misinformed. Please tell me the truth of the matter—if not here and now, then perhaps over another meal."

The men had crossed a third of the left catwalk when they saw Berek on the other side, crouched on all fours and seemingly sniffing the earth, his face already covered with some mud, but speaking with Aeglorias from this awkward position nonetheless.

* * *

With an approving nod, Berek followed Aeglorias, Kirdan, and Elen aacute;rion to the point where the Elf had scaled the wall the night before.

On the way to the wall, Berek walked next to Aeglorias. Creating some distance between them and the other two, he spoke softly using Atliduk, his native language. "Master Aeglorias, one thing is bothering me since you showed me your amulet. I thought my heritage to be unique, not only due to its design, but also due to its, hmmm... properties... for it can dampen the aggressiveness of foes, even calming them to not attacking at all. Do all medallions used by the Rangers in Greenwood, and yours as well, contain this power?"

"No, friend Berek, rest assured, your heritage is still unique," answered Aeglorias, also in Berek's native Atliduk. "As far as I know, only a few of them had exactly the same 'properties,' as you say. But the medallion you received was precious if it contains some magic that allows it to calm foes...."

"Look! Here!" Kirdan's clear voice interrupted the conversation. Berek and Aeglorias quickly moved to their companion's position, and also noticed the muddy tracks on the wall and the thin path that went back to the lower town.

"Hmmm... let's see what we—you—found...." Berek bent over, nearly moving like an animal on four pads, and cautiously investigated the floor at the bottom of the wall, swerving first left and then right. There were no obvious tracks apart from those left by the thief during the night, so this was not a usual route.

"Once again, Master Aeglorias," Berek said, "I wonder at your abilities. The stable boy did not see you leave the inn, and neither can I find your tracks though you must have followed the thief's route closely. To track an Elf seems to be as easy as tracking a bat during a moonless night!"

Aeglorias crouched, smiling, and said, "Look, here! This is a trace of mine, but don't forget that all Elves are light-footed.... But I am not only an Elf, I'm also a Ranger of the King, and a hunter.... Don't ever leave tracks if you want to catch your prey...."

Then Berek's attention shifted towards the wall, looking for hand- and footholds. "Maybe we can find a preferred route of our prey...."

"This seems unlikely.... The wall is rough, so a good climber would routinely climb it from different spots.... But perhaps we should make sure regardless, since there shouldn't be that many places where one can climb unnoticed," answered Aeglorias. "Perhaps we should investigate those tracks first?"

"Certainly, let's take a closer look!" And so Berek did, crouching on all fours, his face brushing the muddy earth.

* * *

At the same time, on the catwalk, Drukha had reached the same position with the other companions.

"Drukha, have they moved far from where we saw them last?" Carangil asked. "I do not yet recognize the landmarks. Is there anything special about that area of the wall?"

The Dunlending shrugged and said, "Well, we are no further than a hundred yards from the gate." He looked around, and added, "There is nothing special here, as far as I know."

Jiff observed the place, looking on the other side of the rampart, then turning his gaze towards the tower on the northern extremity of the rampart, and pondered his observations for a while. He had noticed that the town had an oblong shape, and one could probably climb the wall unnoticed from this point. "If I wanted to creep past those walls unseen that would be one of the places I'd use."

"Why? What's special about it?" Carangil asked.

"I forget, Sir, that perhaps you, as a child, may not have spent as much time trying not to be found by people as the rest of us.... I often chose the city as a place to hide from my parents for a few hours and you get used to spotting the best ways for unseen travel.... In fact, I recall, as a child, Phillip and myself playing games of hide-and-seek around our homes... though if I remember correctly you always had a hard time finding me, right, cousin?" Jiff gave Phillip a friendly jab and smiled. "But my reasoning, sir, if you note the shape of the town from this point, and the place at which someone climbing here would enter the town, they are afforded a great deal more protection than through an approach at a different position along this wall, and certainly from the other, longer walls...."

"Listen to my cousin, good sirs. If anyone knows about good hiding places, it's him," Phillip said.

Carangil nodded acknowledgement to Phillip and exclaimed, "Excellent observation, Master Jiff! That's the same kind of thinking needed to conduct a siege."

"Well.... Thank you for the complement, Sir.... It is well received," Jiff replied.

"You are welcome. Part of my goal on this life-journey is to seek talent where it may be found, and like I said before, I like your quick wits," Carangil replied seriously, then smiled. "Oh, and for the record, I did play hide-and-seek as a boy—just not in the city streets. It was always either in the woods or in a castle."

"My apologies, I didn't wish to cause offence..." Jiff said hurriedly.

Carangil's eyebrow went up in a questioning look. "Why would you think I had taken offence? We grew up in very different places, but even so we have many things in common." He smiled conspiratorially. "I'll tell you what. If we have to play hide-and-seek in a city, I'll follow your lead, but in the woods or a castle maybe you should follow me."

"Indeed, sir, you are doubtless correct.... Trees and bushes are far different from a building and a man.... But perhaps having talent in one will speed learning in the other?"

"Perhaps we shall have the opportunity to find out," Carangil smiled.

* * *

From the bottom of the rampart, Aeglorias had noted their arrival and heard Jiff's comment. "He most certainly used the place."

Berek, while still observing the tracks and still on all fours, also added his own comment. "This spot seems to provide easy climbing... maybe we should scale the wall, take a look at its top and then proceed our investigations on the other side of the wall? Hmmm, I didn't notice our friends up there. What is on the other side, young Jiff?"

Jiff turned back to the other side. "Well, somebody obviously climbed down here using the roof of one of these houses. I can still see the marks that he left.... As for anything else? It's just a simple town.... Did you also use the roof for your descent, Lord Aeglorias?"

Aeglorias smiled wryly. "No, I was locked in the cellar until morning. After I was released, I simply walked out."

Down at the bottom of the wall, Berek got up from his bent-over position, scratching away the mud from his hands. "Hoo, up there!" Berek did not yell at all, but seemed to fill his whole body with a deep-sounding voice. "These tracks are leading away from the wall into the lower part of town.... So we have two choices again, hmmm, three in fact! Proceeding our investigation at the food cellar and tracking these footprints in both directions... for maybe we find out the point where our nightly burglar started his, hmmm, shopping trip, and maybe we find some other place where the burglar dropped in before he went to our inn!"

"Lord Aeglorias," Berek turned to the Elf, who visibly flinched under the Beijabar's voice. "We could split up to investigate the two tracking options. However, I would propose to do the tracking together, for I haven't met a tracker with your abilities for a long time and long to increase my knowledge.

"So how about following the tracks into the lower town first. Then we should return to the wall, and pick up the footprints tracking back along the way the thief used in the upper part of town. There we could meet with the other part of the group who might take a look at the food cellars during that time.

"Master Drukha," Berek turned and looked up the wall again, "would you lead Sir Carangil, Jiff, and Phillip to the food cellars and search for hints in there? We shall try to meet you at the food cellars. If you have finished your investigation before we arrive, simply leave word at the guards of the food cellar and we will meet our companions in the inn. Sir Elen aacute;rion, Master Kirdan, would you prefer to come along with us?"

"Hold, Master Berek," Carangil called back, "do you really think it wise to divide our forces? Master Jiff and I had second thoughts on that matter, which is why we came back to find you rather than going on to the cellars already. What say you, Elen aacute;rion? Aeglorias?"

"Carangil speaks wisely," said Aeglorias. "Now that we are together again, the best thing to do is probably not to split up again. Perhaps we can have a look at those cellars?" Elen aacute;rion shrugged, obviously uncertain of the best thing to do.

"Hmmm...." Berek grumbled, and although he did not seem quite convinced, added, "Certainly every one of us can contribute to the investigations at the different spots. So staying together has certain advantages, I won't disagree. What about proceeding with the tracks inside the town first, searching for the place the thief came from? Then we could take a look at the food cellars, and finally, try track the thief's route into lower town that starts right here."

They agreed to meet at the town's gate, and soon enough, Berek was crouching under the gate's low ceiling, grumbling and probably making sarcastic comments under his beard. If Aeglorias understood, he didn't react, and smiled gracefully to his ward and Drukha, inviting them to show the way to the food cellar. Drukha led them, and once in front of the cellars, they chose to investigate the ventilator before anything else. They climbed up the street, and soon were in front of a small ventilator. From its size, it was obvious that an adult male would find it quite difficult to use it even in emergency. As Jiff had told them before, the iron bars that closed the vent had been carefully loosened.

Leaning over, Berek took a look at the area in front of the ventilator. "Hmmm, Master Drukha.... I am not familiar with your buildings.... Where does that ventilator lead to? Does it go straight into the food cellar, or is it possibly connected to some other air shafts?"

"As far as I know, it goes directly to the food cellar," answered Drukha. "Jiff can try to climb down it, however, if only to make sure there are no other surprises in reserve."

Though not exactly enthusiastic over the prospect of climbing down the vent, which was of course inhabited by a number of spiders and other disgusting things, Jiff agreed, but he preferred to do it from the interior of the cellars. Thus they all went back to the lower part of the building, and entered it by the same door Aeglorias and the thief had used the day before. While Jiff climbed up the vent, Berek and Aeglorias had a closer look at the footprints in the cellars. Though they couldn't find any more clues about the thief himself, they found some traces of a passage near the ventilator's opening which proved that the thief had used it.

They found Jiff in front of the door, and the young man told them that even he, thin as he was, had had difficulties in climbing the whole ventilator. Elen aacute;rion looked like somebody whose suspicions are proved true, and said that the thief was surely one of those Halflings he had spoken of earlier.

"Perhaps, Elen aacute;rion," Carangil mused, "but back at the Blue Oak you never got the chance to finish telling us about them. Who are they, from where do they come, where do they live now, and what do they look like? Are there any Halflings in any part of Metraith at all?"

"I don't know much about those scurrying things. They appeared out of nowhere, seemingly coming from the east, but there lies only Rhudaur and its dark denizens. There are a number of them in most of the southern reaches of Arthedain, and they live among the commoners in towns like Bree," Elen aacute;rion replied.

"Are they generally troublesome folk, then?" Carangil asked.

But Elen aacute;rion only muttered about what scurrying thieves they were, while Drukha asked a question: "Halfling? You mean the small Men with hairy feet?" asked Drukha. At Elen aacute;rion's affirmative grunt, he added, "Yes, there are some of them, but they look like nice people."

"Then maybe we should interview one or two, to get a look at them at least. Where might they be found?" Carangil asked.

"I don't know exactly—in the lower town?" answered Drukha.

"Jiff, maybe you and I should try to find some of these little folk," Carangil suggested. "You'd be the best judge of whether or not one of them would be able to fit through that air vent. But I suppose that's an idea for later." Jiff nodded his silent agreement.

"Hmmm..." Berek rumbled. "We surely know that the thief is of equal or less built than young Jiff, but a hmmm... Halfling... we still don't know. Master Aeglorias, the tracks I saw in the inn and next to the wall did not carry any uncommon characteristics to me, and seemed to belong to a normal man. However, I have never seen a Halfling nor his tracks. Do you think of anything particular considering our burglar's feet?"

Elen aacute;rion, though he remained silent, obviously had many things to say on the judgement of commoners. Perhaps because of the stares sent by Berek and Carangil, he chose not to express them. Those commoners are really peculiar, to say the least, he thought.

Carangil turned to Drukha. "Drukha, what should we call the various parts of this town, or collection of towns?" Carangil's sweeping gesture took in all of the nearby habitations.

"Well, the lower town is called Metraith by the D uacute;nedain, this comes from the old Dunnish name of our town, which you would find difficult to pronounce. The people from the lower town call this place the slum, the Dunnish town, the high town, depending on their friendliness toward us."

"Which unfortunately is not constant," Carangil shook his head. "Oh, well, there are always problems like this when two different peoples come together, I suppose. I, for one, wish for no friction between our peoples, and so I shall call them the upper and lower quarters of Metraith—for it appears to me they are in truth parts of one city, not two. It is unfortunate that the rulers hereabouts have not taken more pains to enhance the living standards of the upper quarter."

While Drukha looked like a man offended by this proposal of charity, Elen aacute;rion looked like a man on the verge of a fit, and would probably have launched himself into a speech on what he thought about the Dunlendings, but when Aeglorias spoke, neither of them dared interrupt the Firstborn. Both hid their feelings, and listened to the quiet Elf. "I'm afraid we must try to follow those tracks, because there is seemingly nothing more to find here," said Aeglorias, who looked around, waiting for his companions' decision.

"Lead on, then, if you please," Carangil nodded.

"Hmmm, let's follow those tracks. I want to get close to that villain before rain or even snowfall washes away his marks!" Berek added.

The Elf half-crouched, and then began to follow the thief's light tracks. Berek, close on his heels, crouched even closer to the ground, and they soon re-entered the lower town, where the tracks were soon lost on the cobbled streets. The Elf was not an ordinary hunter, however, and with Berek's help, he soon discovered near-invisible traces of the thief. They resumed their half-crouched walk, and their following companions soon realized that they were not so far from the Fattened Ewe when Aeglorias stopped in front of an old, decrepit house. He signaled the others to follow him to the next alley, where he told them, "The tracks end in front of this house. The thief entered there, I have no doubt about that. Perhaps we should have a look inside. Elen aacute;rion, I don't think we could convince the guard that we followed the tracks; they would probably see the evidences for what they are. Perhaps we can try to enter at night?"

The tall D uacute;nadan knight looked once more at a loss. Why do we have to ask permission? But if Aeglorias says so, I'd better agree. "I don't know. But how will we open the door? Will we break through?"

"I suppose we could try to enter by the door, once we have announced ourselves. Of course, this does not preclude the fact that we round the house and make sure no one can escape," Aeglorias replied.

"Aeglorias, I'm fairly sure I can secure the guard lieutenant's co-operation," Carangil smiled. "I think we got along rather well. And if Master Drukha made the request with me, I'm virtually certain he would honor it, and perhaps lend us a guardsman or two. While we're gone, the rest of you could make sure no one goes in or out of here without your knowledge—and for that matter maybe someone should keep an eye on the Fattened Ewe just over yonder."

"'You don't have to knock to enter a spider's net,' the saying goes, hmmm.... I would say let's do some investigation first about possible escape routes before knocking at the door right-hand. How about if one of us took a closer look at and around the house, maybe just after dawn, so we all can plan where to enter the house and where to position ourselves. I think that might very well be a task for young master Jiff," Berek nodded approvingly, "or, maybe even more for you, Sir Aeglorias. For the Firstborn eyesight is unsurpassed and, hmmm..." Berek took a small break and looked around at the members of the group. "Master Aeglorias and I can communicate, hmmm, a least some rudimentary signals, without being noticed by others, therefore the two of us should split. Hmmm... that might as well qualify myself for that task, for though I am, hmmm... not a small person I am capable at, hmmm... not being noticed in the open.... Perhaps we should form a team, young Jiff, what do you think?"

"I would like that, Berek, my friend...."

"I am not sure I would be the best man to spy on the house," answered the Elf. "I can be easily noticed, while Jiff would certainly remain unnoticed for much longer."

"Gentlemen, shall we go pay our friend a visit?" Phillip asked with an evil grin, "I think maybe I should go first as he would probably recognize all of you."

"Hmmm, Phillip, let's not be hasty.... Although I am not, hmmm, accustomed to that formalism when pursuing a thief, I think Carangil has a good point: If we break into the house, then, informing the guards before we do so might save us trouble afterwards, right, Master Jiff? And if you, Drukha, agree, and Aeglorias gives you and Sir Carangil company I doubt that the guards would not follow your, hmmm, request to investigate that house.

"In the meantime, Jiff and myself go take a look at possible escape routes. We must gain further information before we try to enter. So when we meet again at this spot in the side alley we can discuss where to enter the house and what places have to be watched. Hmmm.... How about you, Sir Elen aacute;rion, Master Kirdan, Master Phillip? You could either join or stand watch...."

"I shall stand watch," Kirdan replied calmly, "just in case this man is not home and returns while some of us are... looking for him." He looked to Carangil, not knowing if his master wished him a differing task or not. He stood patiently while the others discussed their tactics, his eyes keeping watch on the streets near the house.

"I think that Elen aacute;rion and Carangil should go with Drukha to pay a visit to the guard lieutenant," answered Aeglorias, "but I might be more useful here. Kirdan, your idea is a good one. I'm sure our friends will benefit from your attentive watch."

Carangil nodded and smiled. "We will hopefully return soon, my friend. Stay well until then."

"Very well then, let's meet right at this spot!" Berek exclaimed. "Jiff and I will do our investigations and come back here once we are finished. Jiff, how about if you took a look on top of the roofs? I will try to get a look at the different sides of the building."

"Indeed, friend Berek, I'll check the rooftops, for I fear if the task was left to you, you might first climb to the top, but then simply fall through and to the floor...." Jiff laughed.

"Is it agreed then? Shall we all begin?" Phillip asked.

Jiff looked around, attempting to spy out a position from which he could watch either the Fattened Ewe, or else this place—perhaps both?—without being seen from either. He soon saw a shadowy back alley, and decided to go spy from there. Meanwhile, Berek had a look around the house, but he noticed nothing extraordinary. There were no back doors, for the house was attached to its closest neighbor, but Berek noted that a nimble man could easily run from roof to roof if there was an access from the potential thief's house. He then went around the block to meet with Jiff unnoticed.

Jiff then used the shadowy dusk to climb up the houses, and he surveyed the roofs. As Berek and he had expected, there was an exit on the roof, which the thief would probably try to use in order to escape. The roof door looks too well used for a normal house... hmmm, thought Jiff. "Berek, the roof door is obviously well used, do you think I should take a position nearby so I can see, or else pursue our thief?"

"Hmmm, young Jiff, you sure have found an exit worth watching. But I would not like to lose our possible thief again on the rooftops, so I would propose to try to block the trapdoor or to make sure a thief coming out can't escape or even fight his way through. Was there perhaps a bolt or was it opened from the inside? Do you think it possible to block it by simply putting weight upon it? It would be wise for one of us to join you on the rooftop, waiting for an escaping man. I am sure a trapdoor opening to the outside won't budge if I take a seat upon it..." with a smile on his face, Berek clapped at his impressive belly, "...though I am sure a roof like this will withstand my weight."

Smiling back at his large friend, Jiff said, "I don't believe there to be a locking method, from the outside, but indeed my friend, I would expect that your weight would prevent our thief, especially if he is one of these small people, from leaving the building.... Though I ask you to move as silently as possible across the rooftops, for I fear the buildings' occupants would otherwise give away our secret!" Offering Berek a helping hand for the climb, Jiff started to lead the way back to the roof of the suspected thief.

"Ho, young Jiff, do not rush. We, hmmm, should first share our findings with our friends and tell them what we are up to. Then I will gladly accept your lead on top of the roof, and ready myself there." Saying so, Berek turned to meet Kirdan in the side alley.

"Ah, of course, Sir, I was getting overexcited...." Jiff climbed, easily, down from the rooftops and joined the small group at Berek's side.

Coming back from their investigation on and around the house, Jiff and Berek joined Kirdan and the others in the dark side alley. With a muffled voice, Berek told them about their findings. "Hmmm, Master Jiff found something important on the roof: a trapdoor, opening to the outside on the roof..."

"...and often used, it seems," Jiff interjected.

"Hmmm, we surely have to keep an eye on that exit. As for me, while I took a look around the house I did not see anything special, apart from windows of course, which might suit a desperate thief as a last exit as well. Jiff and I thought it might be best if we both climbed back on the rooftop, once the others have returned and proceed to knock at the front door. We will block the trapdoor on the roof, and if we feel someone opening it, trying to escape we will yell and enter the roof from above. Still, I would propose to have two of us standing at different sides of the house, watching these windows. That would leave another three, hmmm..." Berek halted and juggled a little with his fingers, "...or so to knock at the front door. Let's hope the rabbit is at home, so we can hunt him down!"

Phillip looked at the house. "Why don't I go to the front door and knock? I think I can hold him off if he tries to run."

"Cousin, be stilled, the others have gone to fetch the guard, and then we'll have some 'official' help in addition to our own wits and strengths.... Besides, if we were simply to manhandle our thief, surely we would be breaking the laws of this town as much as he, perhaps more besides...."

"You are right, but I do not really approve of these, hmmm, laws of town.... I wish we could be out in the woods..." Berek mumbled, more to himself than to his companions. Checking his woodsman's axe clinging to his side, its blade covered by a leather pouch, Berek remembered that he had decided against wearing his armour, spear, and shield so he would not frighten any of the townspeople.

"I just don't like waiting," Phillip said, looking around nervously.

* * *

Meanwhile, Carangil, Drukha, and Elen aacute;rion had quickly arrived at the Thalion, were they were soon ushered into Lieutenant Gailen's presence. They told him about their discoveries, and Gailen agreed to investigate the house. He called a sergeant in from the corridor, and the D uacute;nedain and Dunlending soon rode back toward the alleged thief's house, in the company of five guardsmen and their sergeant.

Seeing the guards approach the house, Berek whispered, "Here they come.... Jiff, let's move silently on top of the roof. Aeglorias, Kirdan, and Phillip: Could you stand watch in the streets in sight of the house, just to cover all sides of the building?"

Phillip turned to the others as Jiff and Berek left. "Where do you want me, gentlemen?"

Kirdan did not answer; he was already striding rapidly to the east. Aeglorias glanced around quickly and replied, "Kirdan is already going east, so why don't you go north? I should be able to cover both south and west." Phillip nodded and took Aeglorias' advice.

Jiff led Berek to the spot where he had climbed the building before and gave him a helping hand in scaling the roof. Silently, they moved to the trapdoor and stood behind it. Berek took his woodsman's axe out of his belt. As the Beijabar held the "tool" in both of his hands, Jiff gasped. While clinging to the giant's side, the axe had looked like a normal working tool, but from a closer perspective, it clearly was made for a giant. Jiff was not sure he could swing it at all. Recovering from the shock of Berek's unsheathed axe, Jiff stood just out of the way of the large Man, to the side of the trapdoor. From this perspective he thought he could get a better look should anyone try to exit through the roof, and might be able to stop him or give chase, should he evade Berek's grasp!

Berek crouched on one knee, ready to drop his weight on the trap door if it should open and a person should start climbing out. Waiting in his clinched position, Berek's tension rose. Hmmm, won't they knock on the door soon? Usually they are so hasty in all they do! he thought, unable to see the door from his position up on the roof.

Editor's Note

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