They left Bree by ways of an overgrown southern road known as the Greenway. They were not alone – many were coming up it on their way to Bree. Some were Hobbits driving carts of goods, others appeared to refugees, carrying what they owned on their backs and looking about with haunted eyes. Others made Amaril’s skin prickle as they passed.
As the day lengthened they came within sight of rolling green hills, and Amaril could feel the darkness looming over them. “Those are the Barrowdowns, the graves of knights who fought and died battling the Witch-king of Angmar,” Aragorn explained. “We have a choice. We can camp here or push through, though that will mean night will fall before we can stop, for I have no wish to camp among these graves.”
“I feel the same,” she replied. “They are haunted with a forgotten evil. But it is not even noon yet. I say let us push on.”
“Very well.” They continued south, though the closer they came the deeper the chill on Amaril’s heart became, and as the mists rolled in she heard Aragorn say, “Hold your path and do not stop.” It was evening before the mist cleared and they passed out of the Downs, though there was no good campsite around, though the Ranger knew of a fair spot to rest some two leagues on. Amaril was quite tired but she said nothing until she felt another pricking on her the back of her neck and face.
“Aragorn,” she hissed, “I feel something.”
“Is it moving?”
“No, but we draw near.” Aragorn slowed Roheryn to a walk and listened. “It’s not on the road,” she added.
“Well, it’s not wolves at any rate. How far ahead?”
“Not far. We draw close.” Aragorn thought for a moment, then dismounted and hid his horse behind some bushes. Amaril followed, not sure what he had in mind. “
“Come on,” he said, “If it’s not wolves it’s probably Men. Let’s take a look.” He threw up the hood on his great green cloak and beckoned for her to follow.
After a short walk they came upon a campsite. Three large, swarthy men sat about it, talking low. Their gear was old and travel-worn; clearly they’d been on the road for some time. Then one more came among them, coming in from the northeast. He was neatly dressed, and something about his stance was familiar. Amaril took a hard look and suddenly recognized him as Bill Ferny’s Southern companion from Bree. The others greeted him as they would a friend, and he answered with a low contemptuous voice, and they tossed a bag of money to him.
Amaril went cold as he spoke, counting the coins in the bag as he made his report. “I have little to tell you,” he said. “No one interesting has come out of the Shire, and we haven’t been able to go in. The Gray Wizard has come through Bree, on his way to the Shire. I tried to follow but was turned away at the bounds of that land. No word has come to me of him leaving, and the only Shire-folk to come to Bree since that old one came through mor’n ten years `go haven’t said much of interest.”
“Any word of valuables?”
“None, though I know for a fact that there’s some rich little rat-folk down there.” Amaril hardly believed her ears. Were they planning to rob hobbits? They were quiet for a moment, with only the cold clank of coins breaking the silence in the still night air. “Four-fifty. Half the promised. What game are you at?” the spy suddenly growled.
“The rest depended on your news, but you won’t be seeing it.”
“Oh?” He drew himself up to his full height, hand on his knife.
“You disappoint us. We hoped you and your assistant could do better,” the leader growled.
“The Grey Wizard speaks little of his business, and the Rangers have been out in force.”
“You have failed in your duties. What’s this excuse about Rangers? We’ve encountered none.”
“Yet. Bree and the rest of the country’s been crawling with them of late, though none of `em ever say much about what their hurry is. They plague the roads, like they’s suspecting something.”
“That Gray Wanderer might have something to do with it. Maybe there’s something to be found in the Shire after all,” one of the new Southerners commented.
“Find it and you’ll get your other half,” the leader snarled. “We’ve a contact in the Shire. Try to find `im.”
“I’m due to meet him in another week. The pipeweed crop is looking fine this year, I hear,” Ferny’s friend grunted.
“Now this is most interesting,” Aragorn murmured in Amaril’s ear. “Shall we listen more or spring a trap on these spies?”
“They are evil,” Amaril replied, “And they mean harm. They should go no further.” Aragorn nodded in silent agreement.
“Try and get around to their other side then. Be on your guard. I know this breed. They will sooner run than fight, but it is better not to let spies such as these escape.” She nodded and crawled through the grasses, around to the other side of the campfire. The four were talking heatedly, of what she cared little to hear. What harm could these louts possibly mean to do to the hobbits? If Bilbo was any sort of example the Halflings were as harmless as a morning breeze. Chills ran over her as they spoke. They were evil. She denied evil. Evil did not exist, could not exist. They were not men, with wives and families. She could kill them as she had killed other evil things, and feel no remorse. She watched intently as Aragorn rose from the grass and walked to them, his hood up and cloak pulled about him to conceal his sword and large elf-knife. He wore his quiver, but the bow was not strung. He walked tall, with dignity, but quietly, so while he was not exactly sneaking up on them he wasn’t calling any attention to himself. Though shadow hid his face the firelight glinted on the bright silver brooch he wore – a star with seven shining rays. The badge of the Dúnedain, he called it. It was fair enough; if her people joined the Rangers they would not mind wearing such a symbol, though in the meantime her cloak would stay closed with the golden sun or the Harachin.
She kept her hand on the hilts of her sword, ready to draw and spring if she needed to. She ignored the chill on her. She denied the evil, the promises of riches and power being made. The Rhûnic had made such promises once, and some of their people had followed. These men were being as honest with their spies as the Rhûn had been with the Harachin, but unlike the Harachin this spy seemed aware of his eventual betrayal and was busily looking for an advantage of his own in a dangerous game of power. It was a game that neither could hope to win, for the prize they sought was not in their hands and never would be. Amaril wondered how they could not understand that.
Conversation died when they spotted the Ranger approaching. Instantly they were on their feet, blades drawn. “Devils in the night!” one Southerner spat. “We tol’ you to make sure no one followed!”
“I did,” Ferny’s friend snapped. “I don’t know who he is. There’s many footpads and thieves in this country.”
“There are indeed,” Aragorn replied. “That is why it would behoove honest travelers to be wary of what they say in the wilderness, lest they be heard by unintended ears.” There was that strange secretiveness in his voice again, as well as an undertone of malice.
“I haven’t said nothing,” one of the Southerners said.
“Oh I agree. You said nothing. Your friend from Bree here was much more interesting.” Aragorn shifted his arm so they could see the hilts of his knife under his cloak.
“Who are you stranger? What business do you have walking into our camp at night?” Aragorn chuckled darkly.
“That question would be mine to ask, stranger, for this territory has been mine for many a long year now.”
“He’s a Ranger,” the spy hissed. “Filthy, wandering folk. The walk about this country, all by themselves, and order folk about like they have some sort of right to command `em.” He spat in Aragorn’s general direction and raised his voice. “Be off, footpad, else you’ll taste our steel.”
“That’s a foolish threat to make,” the Ranger cooly replied, “for I travel neither unarmed nor alone.” He flipped back his cloak so they could see the weapons he concealed, and then raised a hand and pointed behind them. Slowly they turned and into the firelight stepped Amaril, ready to draw. “Now, I ask again. Who are you and what brings you North? We suffer no troublemakers to enter our lands, and trouble sounds like your business until you can prove otherwise.” This of course was impossible and one of the bunch opted for what Amaril thought was the more foolish of the choices available.
“You are not as a king to command us!” he snarled and charged. Aragorn had him on his back with his chest opened up in a matter of seconds.
“Leave,” the Ranger barked. “All three of you. Go South and never return.”
“That was my brother!” one of the others bellowed, lunging at the Ranger, but Amaril was faster and caught him by the wrist, digging her fingers into the tendons as she pulled him in close, knife to his throat. His big knife fell to the ground and he gurgled as she pressed the flat of the blade to his neck. She could almost smell the foulness of his heart and grit her teeth against the chill it sent through her. She denied his evil. He could not touch her.
“Stupidity must run in your family,” she growled into his ear, deepening her voice to make it sound manly. He struggled, incensed by the insult, and finally, though she knew Aragorn would thoroughly disapprove, she could bear the foul malice of his soul no longer and slit his throat. “Be gone with you, filth of the night!” she snarled, casting him away from her. That was enough for the survivors. They lit off like their heels were on fire and she gave chase while Aragorn notched an arrow and let fly. Something squealed like a pig and Amaril saw one stumble on the road, the arrow sticking from his side. Aragorn fired again but missed, and then whistled like a bird. A Ranger command no doubt, and knowing that further pursuit was pointless she turned and jogged back. Aragorn was heaping the bodies off to one side. She could see that neither was their spy. “Will you bury them then?” she asked, panting slightly as she drew to a halt.
“No. The carrion birds can have them.” He turned from her, shoulders set, face cold. She knew he was angry, and she knew why. She was half inclined to let him stew on it. After all, exactly what else should she have done? No sooner did she ask herself that question than a couple dozen bloodless answers popped into her head, and she realized her error.
“I’m sorry I killed that man. He reeked like the orcs at High Pass, and the way he struggled I wasn’t going to be able to hold onto him.”
“There are ways to scare men off that don’t require bloodshed,” Aragorn replied. He wasn’t going to let her off so easily.
“You killed one.”
“He attacked me. It should have ended there. That second one was needless and it is wise not to kill without need.”
“He was evil to the core, I could feel it in him, and I reject evil.” He only nodded. She’d said this many times before.
“It is not so easy for most to judge that.”
“Well, be assured this one deserved it. All four of them deserved it really, but at least we have hope that whatever those spies were talking about it won’t get any further down the Greenway.”
“Yes, this is true, and that is the only reason I will not call that slaying an evil one.” He was right of course, she realized after a stunned moment of silence. To slay a man without good cause was evil. “Gandalf won’t be happy to hear of this, though I think we’ve put a damper on their activities for a while.”
“You’ll alert the other Rangers then?”
“As many as I see, and the bodies will tell anyone else passing through all they need to know, but I expect more of these spies will slip through.”
“Can’t you just turn back the wicked ones?” Aragorn laughed shortly.
“If only it were so easy. You’ve a rare gift, Amaril. Remember, for the rest of us it is not so easy to tell an evil man from a misguided or desperate one. Here, wipe your blade.” He tossed her a stained cloth and looked up at the clear spring sky. “The night grows old and we have to hurry. We’ll make camp a bit further south, and push along side the Old Forest on the morrow.”
Aragorn was somewhat torn as they followed the edge of the Forest. He could make a shortcut here, and be at Sarn Ford a day early if they maintained their present pace, and old Tom Bombadil did an effective job of keeping darkness out of his woods. That would give Amaril some respite, for she was looking a bit paler than usual, and he feared that she might fever again. On the other hand, he needed to watch the road, and the Forest was not without its own perils. Finally he presented the choice to Amaril, who elected to stay with the road. “If you and I are the only barrier between Bree and the foul things coming up this road we’d best do our jobs, don’t you think?” she scoffed and Aragorn did not argue.