Eldacar sits down. He is used to the feeling of adrenalin leaving the body after a fight and tireness setting in, but this is different. He is exhausted. His hand is numb from where the blade cut him and he is cold, so cold. Colder than ever before. He knows he is lucky, for he came close to death this night. He looks at their prisoner, the only one there feeling worse than himself.
The foe is vanquished. The enemy soldiers are crushed, many by Jack’s trap that worked perfectly. On their own side there were only light casualties and none dead, thankfully.
Finally, time has come for Hunter to confront Salabon. It has been inevitable, and all the Companions have feared this moment. Eldacar raises an amused eyebrow, interested to see how these savage Northmen sort their differences, and Jack cringes, grinding his teeth and fearing the outcome.
Hunter: “Now you must speak, and pray your words please me, for else I will slay you believing you the Enemy. You deal in trickery and deceit, hiding your true nature and your origins, betraying those close to you. I counted you brother, but find you poised with knife in hand behind my back. Speak!”
Salabon looks hurt, and glances first away. Then he gathers himself, and crosses his gaze with that of Hunter. He lays one hand on his old friend’s shoulder. The other first jerks clear, but Salabon repeats the gesture, and Hunter, though infuriated, allows it.
Salabon: “Brother, do not judge too hastily, for truly, I am your brother. Hark now, as I recount the tale of Salabon, the tale of Nestaron Mistion, the woe and misfortunes placed upon him on account of his birth, and the wickedness of his people. If my tale moves you not, you may freely strike me down as foe, I will not belay your hand. For this is who I am, and this is why I guard my past and my history.”
Salabon explains to Hunter in great detail the troubled family history and the elaborate social structures of Salabons Black Númenórean heritage. Hunter is baffled by the complexity of Salabons life. Being used to relative ease of living in a black and white world where everything is either good or evil, right or wrong. Hearing his friend talk about being forced into gray areas, spying, lying, stealing for the greater good. Evil people pretending to work for the dark lord but really only working for their own personal gain. Arrogant Númenóreans pretending to be kings when they are as poor as the beggars outside their castles. Hunter quicly sees that Salabon hase curese to live his whole life suffering the worst the Númenóreans have to offer while Hunter was blessed with the best.
Hunter’s hard face softens, and soon there is the glimmer of tear in the corner of his eye. Once the account is over, he grips his brother hard about the shoulders and embrace him as family. “Brother”, says he, “You should have told me. You are now, and forever, my brother. I shall stand by you as you stand by me, this I swear: Feredir, brother of Salabon. Forgive me, Brother.”
“Think nothing of it, Brother. All is well.” They embrace again, and then brace themselves for the tribulations to come. They have won. They have slain the wicked Caremnir, and they hold the traitor Treadstone in chains.
Treadstone looks old, very old. He could easily pass for Hunters father or grandfather in age, not one of his peers. He does not speak, not a word. It was Hunter who realised that Treadstone’s hand movements were something else than a nervous tick, recognizing them as Ranger hand code. He could only figure out two words, though: Library and North.
Their foes, fallen and captured, carry little of wealth, but what they do have the Companions remove and scatter, declaring that each man passing must take one item from the Wight’s possessions. According to Lore, this is the only way to break its evil power. From this loot, Salabon recovers a fine longsword, and Hunter a dagger. But apart from these and some gems and trinkets, there is nothing to indicate their purpose. Surely they must have been bearing something to make sense of their quest? Hunter leads his companions to the boat that carried Treadstone and the twisted Caremnir to these shores, and within is stowed a large trunk. It is cleary of elven design, covered in elaborate carvings of leaves. It is Eldacar that recognizes the design and its function. To open it safely they must first move the leaves in the order that they bloom. Explaining this it is easy for one so learned in such matters as Hunter to pick the right order.
The content of the trunk surprises them, for it is filled with books. Most look to be from the library of Tharbad, but some must come from other places. This brings Eldacar back to life and he begins to go over the books. Suddenly Jack’s eyes light up and snatches a book from Eldacars hands and is soon lost to deep concentration. Eldacar joins him, as he peruses the different books.
«The books deal with Annúminas and the kin strife, but nothing that gives any clear indication why they came here, other than that they wanted to find the library here.» «Then let us search the library. Even though it will be like looking for a needle in a stack of needles, we might get lucky» suggests Hunter. Eldacar agrees.
Slowly, they descend the rickety staircase that leads into the hidden library. Once at the bottom, they see that the stairs are themselves a trap, designed to break and collapse, killing anyone on them, should too much weight be put on them. Below, they locate the door leading to the library proper, but no amount of tickle nor enticement persuades the lock to give way to their ministrations. «They knew what they were doing, your people, when they protected this place» says Eldacar. «Indeed they did» concurs Hunter. The two must give up. They will find no answers here.
It is clear that the cannot transport all the books with them, so they lock them in the trunk again and hide it by the entrance to the library, where it will be safe. Then they cover the hole so no one else should stumble over it.
Having done so the rest of their friends arrive: Baran and Beoraborn.
«I see you have ruined your sword again Eldacar. Give me the hilt and I shall find a blade that will fit it» booms Beoraborns voice.
They return to Nirmolian with the rest of the Rangers. The whole village return from their sanctuary, and the entire community embark on their sojourn back to Nirmolian.
Under way, Hunter rides up to Salabon and beckons him to follow, and then does the same until he has gathered all his Companions in relative privacy upon the road. Relative, as they ride in a column of more than two hundred, but at least their business is their own, and the Dúnedain are trustworthy.
“Friends,” begins Hunter, “now this task laid upon us has come to an end. Briar, I release you from your duties to me; you will find the next step on your journey here among the Captains of the Rangers. I have spoken to Ufrith Owl-eye, he will take you under his wing, as Helvorn requested. You have done your old master proud, as I know well, and you have served this Fellowship with dignity, honour and bravery. Go now! And godspeed.” He watches Briar ride off, cheeks red and grin threatening to remove the top of his head. The Companions consider him, and smile.
“Now,” Hunter continues. “In distant Tharbad did I make a vow, and I intend to see it through. I shall travel to the source of the Rist Angsiril and the lair of the dragon Colargon. Here I will wrest from the drake the fabled Aeglin, and carry it back to wield in the war on the Enemy, to the glory of all Free Peoples.” He pauses. “And I say this unto you, friends: I do not expect you to follow me on this path. It will be perilous, and I might not return. I cannot vouch for your safety, as I cannot vouch for mine own. But I tell you this: Our names will be spoken of in legend, and the dread beast guards a formidable hoard, bound to be made up of gold, gems and wondrous artifacts. To you, the spoils: I claim Aeglin, and an equal portion. That is all.”
Hunter stops speaking and for a moment all is deathly quiet as his companions looks at him with shock and disbelief, some calculating in their heads the imaginary part of an imaginary sum of monie.
Then Salabon stands up, sheaths his new sword, gathers his travel pack and walks over to stand beside Hunter. Sending the message that wherever his friend may go he will follow.
Eldacar is the first to speak: “Noble is this quest, but wise also. For should this drake be awoken and ally with the Enemy, we are all doomed. It is our duty to ensure its wrath does not befall the Free Peoples, and thus I will follow you to the Source of Rist Angsiril and the lair of the dragon.”
Hunter leans over and grips his friend’s shoulder. “Thank you, my friend”.
“Where you go, I go, brother,” volunteers Salabon, and the two shake hands.
“You had me at treasure”, grins Jack.
“I will follow you. Can’t abide dragons.” rumbles Beoraborn.
The only one who does not speak is Baran, who finds pretence to remove himself slightly from the Fellowship, and fall into conversation with an elderly Ranger. His companions do not notice, as they grin and cheer, elated to have purpose and the prospects of glory and riches at the end of the road.
Nirmolian. Good food and good drink is had by all: the Rangers hold a feast of which not the like has been witnessed for many a year! Tales are told and songs sung, and both together to much amusement. Salabon and Hunter willingly produce their instruments upon request, and favour the audience with some of the variations they play on the road. Eldacar bites his tongue, and fill his ears with cheese for the duration, grinning woodenly to all who adress him. And Jack dances. How he dances! The drink propels him, first hither and thither, over table and into bosom, but he does not relent, and soon the entire village is cheering and clapping, praising and encouraging the efforts of his footwork.
Suddenly Jack jumps up on a table and starts to re enact the time he faced down a barbarian chieftain during the battle of Thuin Boid. At first it seems like drunken ramblings but soon the entire village is spellbound by his stories. He recounts much of his travels with his friends from the time he was saved from cursed wolves, to the time he faced down two undead ghouls in Minas Brethil, to the time he was tossed from rooftop to rooftop in Tharbad. He also remembers the times Hunter told stories that gave Jack much of his reputation as the Hero and an unstoppable warrior and he repays Hunter this evening by telling tails of all the noble deeds Hunter has done so all of Nirmolian can hear it and he can see that it goes deep into the hearts of Hunters own people.
Salabon suddenly finds himself in pain, clearing a tear from his eye having laught so hard that his stomach hurts and smiled so much that his cheek muscles ache. He takes a moment to take in the scenery. A sense of community that he has only experienced on the road with his friends but in a much larger sense. After some minutes pass he suddenly realizes that he is looking for prospects and imagining himself as part of the community with a family, a place to call home and children.
Salabon makes discreet inquiries about Feredirs family history. Perhaps his friend could be well suited for his sister’s hand?
Later, Hunter, Eldacar and Salabon withdraw to a comfortable lodge, where the hearth is warm and the lamps bright enough to read by. Before them is spread a wide map drawn on the hide of a deer, with many comments and markings. The map shows Angmar, that dread realm, once home to the terrible Witch-King, whom the Rangers still fear. Throughout the day and most of the evening, Hunter has approached and spoken with the old lorekeepers and veterans of the Rangers, gathering tales, rumours and personal accounts concerning Angmar and the mountains they must venture into. The old Rangers were only too happy to comply, many with a curious glint in his eye. The Companions now hold many secrets belonging to the Rangers of the North concerning this dangerous land; never before has such a detailed map existed, leastways in the last thousand years.
Eldacar proposes to travel through Rivendell, and up along the Misty Mountains but Hunter holds up a hand. “No, we will not venture through Fair Imladris on this quest. I do not wish to put you at odds with your masters, wise Eldacar, but it is my belief that Lord Elrond would oppose such a quest as folly. And folly it might be, but I do not believe the elder Elven Folk will understand the importance these actions will speak for the Rangers, mine own people. Thus, I wish to avoid your masters.” Eldacar frowns, but inclines his head.
“Can we not travel through Bree? Surely we must need a great store of supplies, wagons and mules and…” begins Salabon, before Jack cuts him off, entering the door with an old Ranger.
“Wagons and mules? Foolishness! We must travel directly there and face our foe! Surprise is the only way. And light! We must travel light.”
“What about this Nothva Raglaw? Can we not repair there? Surely they must possess the necessaries we require,” suggests Salabon.
Jack grows wide-eyed and pale. “On second thought, maybe Bree is not such a bad plan after all,” he ventures.
The old Ranger Captain raises his hands. “Friends, I beg forgiveness for interrupting you, but I must needs see you without. We Rangers have need of words, and there are some things we wish to bestow upon you.” The Companions trade bewildered glances, but rise, and follows the Captain.
Without, all the Captains and Rangers have gathered in the village square. All around, torches are ablaze, and all are garbed in their traditional Ranger’s garments, all sombre and expressionless. The Companions fear the worst, when the Captaon speaks.
«Feredir, son of Tauron. You are one of us, of our kin, of our blood. You have shown great wisdom and great courage. Your wit, swordsmanship and knowledge of our ways has served the Rangers and the people of Eriador well. Because of your actions a terrible foe has been vanquished. Your own people may sleep safely in their beds because you were the watcher in the darkness, guarding over them. You have done a man’s job sir! A man’s job. And if what young Jack here tells of your trials all over Eriador are to be believed – of trolls and goblins, Wargs, sea-dragons and werewolves, well then you have proven yourself time and again. It is therefore my privilege to present to you this your father’s cloak to mark you as a true Ranger of the North!»
The pride in Hunters eyes cannot be missed, and each of his companions there knows that it is a pride he has earned and earned again. They give him joy, but the Captain interrupt them. “As for you, Salabon of Gondor and Eldacar of Rivendell. If not for your actions in the past year, many of our people would have been gravely injured or dead. You have proved yourself worthy of many times over, and it is with pleasure I present to you both this, the six-pointed Star marking you as one of the Rangers. Jack Fleetfoot, Hobbit, and Beoraborn of the Beijibar, your services to our cause has been manyfold, and I pronounce you Friends of the Rangers. You may carry this pendant to prove your allegiance, and you will always find succor among the Rangers. Lord Baran Sîdoneth of Minas Brethil…” He looks around, as do the rest. Baran is not to be found. “Oh,” says a young carl, “I forgot, His Lordship left for Minas Brethil earlier in the evening. I was to bring message to his Companions, but then…”
“Well? Speak up, boy! What is the reason of your dallying?!”
“Only, sir, I found myself with face buried in the bosom of Clarea what with the drinking commencing, sir…” The boy blushes a fierce red as all those gathered release a hearty and honest roar of laughter; all save Clarea herself, who positively seethes with anger, and anger that makes it perfectly clear to the carl that he will never find himself with his face down her bosom ever again, not even if he was the last Dúnadan in the Northern Marches.
“Well, that sorts that,” mumbles the old Ranger, but no one is wise to his meaning, for at that moment Hunter steps forward.
“Friends, kinsmen, allies. Hear me now, for I have important words to share. I have taken a vow. A vow to travel into the depths of the Nan Angmarrim to retrieve from the terrible drake Colargon the fabled blade Aeglin, once born by our forefathers. This blade I mean to carry forth in battle against our Enemy, and thus restore the glory of my House and prove myself worthy to carry the mantle of Ranger. My trusted and brave Companions will go with me on this quest, and I shall not return without the fabled blade. This I, Feredir son of Tauron of the Dúnedain vow.”
The Rangers are left dumb-struck. Is the young adventurer a fool, or a brave champion? Either way, only a moments pause gives way to a tremendous cheering. Hunter, it seems, has the blessing of his kin. The old Captain, wipes a tear from his eye. “You damned fool,” he says, gripping Hunter’s shoulder, but his face shows only pride, not judgement.
And thus begins the Quest of Aeglin.