Fire in the Sky|
Summary: The Rangers enjoy Bilbo’s party,
though only from a distance.
Aragorn paused at the crest of the hill, holding up
a hand to stop those behind him. At their backs, the sun was just
beginning to set behind the Tower Hills. The Shire lay somewhere
before them, though the trees hid it from view; this part of the Westmarch
was heavily wooded. Still, he could glean some knowledge of their
progress by his ears alone. He closed his eyes and listened.
All the usual forest sounds were there. Crickets
were just beginning to chirp. Song birds tittered in the trees.
Someone behind him shifted, causing the dry leaves to rustle.
Aragorn pursed his lips and whistled—one low tone followed by two
higher short ones. To an outsider, it sounded like nothing more
than birdsong, but any Dúnadan under his command would immediately
recognize it as the signal for “quiet.” The rustling stilled.
He again turned his attention to the forest beyond.
Squirrels chattered their autumn gossip. Some distance away, a
large animal picked its way through the underbrush—probably a doe
in search of a buck. The wind brought a whiff of chimney smoke
to his nose.
From behind him, came a sudden chorus of whispers
and a poorly-stifled giggle. He repeated the signal for quiet,
and when the others did not fall silent at once, he cast an annoyed
look over his shoulder. A brief glance was all it took.
When quiet reigned once more, he listened more carefully.
There. The distant lowing of cattle impatient for milking time.
Dogs barking and sheep bleating. Those were the unmistakable sounds
of a pastoral civilization—one less than a league distant. In
fact, if he listened very carefully, he could almost hear . . . a sudden
crunching of underbrush and stamping of feet from just yards behind
him. A cry of protest followed by an indignant rebuke followed
by a yelp of pain and more indignation. Aragorn whipped his head
around, his face hardening, only to discover that the squabble had already
been dealt with; Halbarad had the two combatants by the scruff of their
necks. Breaking up their noisy disagreement had not been difficult
The combatants, after all, were only twelve years
The rest of Aragorn’s undersized “patrol”—two
more boys and two girls, all of a similar age—looked at the two with
expressions that ranged from sympathy to exasperation. Aragorn
knew how they felt.
He was really beginning to regret deciding that the
Chieftain ought to take a greater role in training the young people.
“Are you quite finished?” he asked the boys sternly.
They nodded, their heads hung low, their faces suitably contrite.
One scuffed the forest floor with the toe of his boot, letting out another
rustle and earning himself a terrier-like shake from Halbarad.
Aragorn glared for a moment more before looking away. “We will
make camp at the base of the ridge. And I think the two of you
will benefit from digging latrines. Again.”
The children trotted past him to go about their pre-assigned
duties. Now that the day’s exercises were over, they were free
to converse amongst themselves, which they did with great enthusiasm.
Their voices were low but animated as they talked while digging firepits
and laying out bedrolls. Halbarad released the young brawlers,
handed a shovel to each of them, and came up beside Aragorn. “I did warn you,”
“So you have reminded me,” Aragorn replied at
It had all started out so easily—even charmingly.
The youth were just beginning their formal training in woodcraft and
survival—training some of them would one day put to use as Rangers.
In keeping with tradition, Aragorn and Halbarad had taken them on a
weeks-long “expedition” to test their skills. The young
ones had been on their best behavior at first; they were all a little
awed that the Chieftain had chosen to oversee their progress personally.
They had made their way south and west from Evendim to the White Towers.
It was an easy journey through lands kept safe by the Rangers and made
lovely by Círdan’s Elves. He’d led them to Elostirion, where
the children could see the last surviving palantír of the Northern
Kingdom and receive many solemn lectures on the fall of Númenor and
of Arnor. They’d rested and replenished their supplies.
But now on the return journey, the children seemed
to be fresh out of reverence. They chattered at every opportunity.
They told jokes and played pranks and scared away game with their antics.
Squabbles broke out with alarming regularity, especially between Horon
and Maerven, the two youngest boys.
Tonight’s latrine-diggers were hardly the only source
of such bickering, though; Aragorn scarcely had time to set his pack
down before he was called to mediate a dispute between the girls over
whose turn it was to clean the fish they’d caught. He’d been
cautioned against undertaking this journey with a mixed group, but he’d
found that the minor flirtations that broke out between boys and girls
were far easier to handle than the rivalries that developed between
members of the same sex.
Aragorn settled the girls’ argument, brokered
a temporary peace agreement between the Horon and Maerven, and coached
a thirteen-year-old for fifteen minutes before the boy managed to light
the tinder. Once the fire was finally burning, Halbarad took mercy
on his Chieftain and distracted the children by grilling them on trail
signs and edible plants while they cooked and ate their evening meal.
While the youths learned twenty different ways to not eat poison hemlock,
Aragorn watched the sky. When it had darkened to the color of
lead, he set his plate aside and kicked dirt over the fire. That
got the young people’s attention; in these secure lands, they usually
left a campfire burning until well into the night.
“Come,” he said, rising and gesturing for them
to follow, “No, you will not need your packs. Bring only your
belt knives and a coil of rope apiece.”
Sensing adventure, the children hurried to fall in
line behind him, like a den of fox kits following their mother.
Halbarad arched an eyebrow, but asked no questions as he brought up
the rear. Aragorn led them back around the ridge and up a wooded
trail until he reached a point where the land jutted out to a steep
bluff with trees reaching almost to its edge. He stepped almost
to the edge and nodded in satisfaction. He’d chosen well.
Though a few trees still stood in the way, the rolling fields of the
Westfarthing stretched out beyond them, and away to the south he could
just barely see the chalk hills that gave the White Downs its name.
Nodding, he turned back and gestured for the others
to come close; on this height, the wind could easily carry a careless
voice. “The land beyond,” he told the youths quietly,
“Is mostly cropland and pastures. There are many farms, but
few large settlements. It would be an ideal place of encampment
for a hostile army.”
“Of very small soldiers,” a girl named Glessil
piped up. She had long since proven herself the least reverent
of the group.
Aragorn gave her a smile that was only a little tight-lipped.
“You know your geography. That is something. Yes,
we stand at the borders of the Shire, just a few leagues north of the
Halfling capital of Michel Delving. But, not all lands will hold
such benign inhabitants, nor can we know that this one will be secure
forever. It behooves you to learn how to map an area from a distance,
even if only to help you avoid running into your foes.”
The children exchanged glances. Aragorn could
almost see them silently casting lots to decide who would have to alert
the Chieftain to the obvious. He waited.
“It’s a little dark for mapping,” Horon
said at last.
Aragorn made a show of looking around, as if he’d
only just noticed the deepening shadows. “It is, isn’t it?”
The children tittered a little. “No matter. If you do find yourself
looking out over an army, you can estimate its size by counting campfires.
We’ll teach you lads how to do it sometime next year. Tonight,
you need only practice finding a suitable vantage point.” He gestured
at the trees that stood all around them. “Each of you is to
choose a different
tree and climb until you have a good view of the Westfarthing.
Then use your rope to tie yourself in as if you had to spend the night
in the tree. You will quietly observe for an hour’s time and be ready to report
on what you see.” He waved a hand. “Get to it.”
There were a few squabbles over who had first claim
to the best tree, but before long, the youths were climbing steadily.
Naturally, they made a game out of seeing who could reach the upper
branches the fastest. Aragorn watched for a moment—just long
enough to assure himself that none of them were in danger of tumbling
to their deaths—then selected a convenient pine of his own and climbed
halfway up its trunk. He caught Halbarad’s eye and jerked his
head, inviting his kinsman to join him.
The other Ranger was puffing a little by the time
he reached Aragorn. “Alright,” Halbarad grumbled, rubbing
sap onto his trousers, “I understand why the young ones are climbing—more
or less. But what are we doing up a tree? Besides proving that you are a very
Aragorn smiled as he leaned back against the trunk
and hooked one arm over a higher branch. “Just watch awhile,”
he said softly. From nearby, he could hear the children experimenting,
trying to make their whispers reach their fellows’ trees while magically
avoiding their guardians’. Aragorn whistled for quiet, and after
a moment, he heard nothing but the evening breeze and Halbarad muttering
something about obfuscating Chieftains.
His smile did not waver.
His timing was almost eerily perfect; less than five
minutes had passed when every eye was suddenly drawn east by a flash
of light that resolved into a shower of silver sparks. They were
so far away that a spectacle that might have filled the sky appeared
no larger than the head of a dandelion. The children oohed and aahed all the same; none of them had ever seen fireworks before.
Four more bursts of light followed in quick succession.
This time, the sparks were red and blue and where they touched they
turned gold for some reason. The sound of explosions did not stretch
across the long leagues to reach them, but the children’s excited
murmuring swelled and ebbed in time with the display. Aragorn
did not shush them, this time. They had been disciplined and responsible
for long enough.
“Gandalf,” Halbarad murmured as more sparks traced
a pattern like fiery feathers across the clear sky.
“Yes,” Aragorn replied, “Though these are but
his toys, of course.”
An animated creature of green sparks, no larger than
a dragonfly, spread its wings to arc into the air and circle back down.
“Some toys,” Halbarad said.
As blue and green orbs wove around each other like
dancers, Aragorn had to agree. He’d never asked Gandalf how
he constructed these little diversions. How much was technology
and how much the uncanny power of an Istar? Did Gandalf spend
hours squinting and muttering as he mixed powders and coated fuses?
Did he fold a bit of himself into those ephemeral sparks? Was
he diminished when they faded away?
“So this is why we’re here,” Halbarad did not
sound happy, “Why you insisted on skirting so close to the Shire.
You knew the wizard would be here.”
“When last we spoke, Gandalf told me that he was
planning a show for this particular night,” Aragorn answered evenly,
“I believe it’s a birthday party for one of his hobbit friends.
I hoped we might catch a glimpse of it, even from some distance.”
Halbarad sighed. “Certainly, but you did not
come all this way just so the children could see a few fireworks.”
Aragorn did not respond. Purple flowers bloomed
against the horizon.
“You’re meeting him, aren’t you?” Halbarad
prodded, “You’ve set up a rendezvous and timed this whole exercise
around it. That’s why we couldn’t stay an extra night at Elostirion.”
Aragorn’s silence was evidently confirmation enough.
For a moment, Halbarad was silent. “I hope
whatever the old man has to say is worth all this trouble,” he
said at last. He paused a moment, then said “No, actually, strike
those words from your mind. I hope it is an utter waste of time. I hope you and Gandalf have nothing
to exchange but weather reports and knitting patterns. Because
what the two of you consider ‘worth the trouble’ should strike fear
into lesser hearts.”
Aragorn glanced at his kinsman with a raised eyebrow.
“I seem to have forgotten my knitting patterns, but this is a routine meeting. We
cannot leave all tidings in letters, but I have not heard of any particular
trouble from him.”
Halbarad did not seem comforted. “Just promise
me you won’t let him convince you to go gallivanting off into the
sunset for a decade or three.”
“I’m much too old and dignified to gallivant,”
Halbarad, for once, was not ready to share in the
joke. The moonlight barely illuminated his scowl, but when he
spoke next, his voice was resigned. “When?”
“And when were you planning on telling me?”
“Even a wizard can’t cross all those leagues before
“No, we’re meeting somewhere in between.
I should be back by midmorning tomorrow.”
“You mean to go alone, then,” Halbarad huffed,
“I don’t like it.”
“It’s the Shire,” Aragorn pointed out, “I could scarcely be safer
if I was in my own bedchamber.”
“Then why not bring the children along? We
could all meet the wizard.”
“For one thing, the children couldn’t keep up,”
Aragorn said patiently, “Also, it may have slipped your attention,
but they are not so accomplished in stealth just yet. The hobbits
might take it for an invasion, and I am not ready to teach the young
ones how to flee from a frightened mob. Though it’s arguably
a useful skill.”
Halbarad’s scowl did not fade.
Aragorn sighed. “What is the matter, Halbarad?
This is a routine
meeting. The last time I met with Gandalf, I gave you no more
warning than this, and your greatest concern was that he hadn’t bought
you enough drinks while we talked.”
“This feels different. I cannot explain it
but something is afoot here. No good will come out of this meeting,
at least not for the likes of us.”
Aragorn turned his eyes back to the fireworks, trying
to dismiss Halbarad’s disquiet. He was wrong, of course.
This was the Shire—the most sheltered, contented realm in Arda.
Gandalf might carry ill tidings from far-off lands, but there was certainly
no danger here.
With a pang of wistfulness, he thought of the hundreds
of well-fed hobbits lounging atop their holes, gazing up at the wizard’s
display with the same childlike wonder his young companions were showing.
He glanced at Horon in the next tree over. The boy’s face was
alight with amazement, but Aragorn’s own expression sobered.
In the pleasant confines of the land before them, hobbits could act
like children until they were one hundred and eleven. It didn’t
seem fair that the young people around him were already living through
childhood’s last gasps.
For a moment, he toyed with the idea of asking Gandalf
to arrange a show for some of the Dúnedain villages. He dismissed
the thought with a snort of derision. The secret Dúnedain villages
would be made somewhat less secret by the appearance of sparking, enchanted
beacons marking their precise locations for all the world to see.
Still, he wanted better for their children—better
than this hardscrabble existence keeping other homes safe.
Another winged beast rose into the air. Even
from this distance, the sparkling creature was unmistakably a dragon.
The children aahed
in appreciation, but Aragorn thought of Ancalagon the Black, whose fire
lit the sky during the War of Wrath. He shook off his melancholy
mood. It would be a dangerous world indeed if every race dedicated
itself to hobbit-like pursuit of oblivious hedonism. Eriador needed
Rangers, he reminded himself as the last sparks faded and he climbed
down. There would be work for these children soon. There
was work for him
But, he would provide better for them. Someday.