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Pitfalls of the Palantir  by Haleth

"What's your price?" Haleth asked Barny when the elf was out of the room.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Barny said, not very convincingly.

"You know where the bandits are." She picked up her remaining piece of toast and examined it, slowly turning it in her fingers. "We need to know."

"What's it worth to you?" Barny asked.

"Enough," drawled Haleth. "Name it."

Barny named his price.

Haleth grinned and shook her head. "That would keep you in food for a long time, wouldn't it? But we could always go looking ourselves. We'd find them eventually."

"It would take you longer," Barny pointed out.

"We can wait," Haleth shrugged.

"I am open to negotiations," Barny said, staring at the toast. "But I'm a poor man. You're taking food out of my mouth."

"Save it for the elf," Haleth laughed. "I'm not nearly as sympathetic."

They negotiated the cost and had reached an agreement by the time Inglor returned in the company of a kitchen girl who was carrying a bowl of stew and some bread. She hovered in the Common Room, stationing herself so to get a good view of the elf until Butterbur's wife appeared and shouted at her to return to the kitchen.

Barny tore into his food with the gusto of a starving man. The ensuing smacking, chomping and slurping effectively stopped the conversation.

Haleth examined her ragged nails, waiting until she had his full attention before finalising the plans. Inglor watched Barnabus with mild interest, then turned his attention to the dancing flames of the fire.

"You get half now and half when we get back," Haleth told Barny when he had drained the last drop of his soup.

He burped loudly in response, but there was not much else he could say. 

"We'll leave tomorrow at dawn. Good-bye," she said.

Barnabus belched again and tapped his fingers on the table.

"Was there something you wanted?" Haleth asked lazily.

"My money," Barnabus said, his eyes like burning coals.

"You'll get the first half tomorrow, when we start," Haleth said, kicking Inglor when he reached for his belt pouch.

Barnabus scowled darkly at the smug, smirking woman.

"I'll meet you just outside the western gate," he finally growled as he stood. With one last filthy look at Haleth, he took his leave of them.


Wanting to speak with Inglor privately, Haleth followed him into his room. The bed was perfectly made. She noted a bouquet of spring flowers sitting in the middle of the table. Their delicate fragrance filled the room, enlivening the gloomy atmosphere of the day. Haleth glared at them suspiciously. There were certainly no flowers in her room. The chambermaid must be playing favourites. Haleth could hardly blame her, but the small gesture further soured her already bad mood.

"Why did you kick me?" Inglor asked when she had closed the door. 

"Because I wanted you to be quiet in front of our guide," Haleth said as she flopped into the chair and pushed the flowers to the opposite end of the table. 

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, completely perplexed. He gracefully seated himself on the floor.

"Because I didn't want Barny to know that I wanted you to keep quiet," she answered.

Inglor considered this while the rain tapped steadily on the roof. Haleth stared out the window, forcing herself to watch the raindrops instead of watching him. 

It was a perfect day for sleeping or other indoor activities. Haleth shook her head to clear her mind of the other activities.

"Wouldn't he know that you wanted me to keep quite after you kicked me?" Inglor asked.

"He would after you told him that I'd kicked you," Haleth answered distantly. With a great deal of effort, she forced her mind away from her idle daydreams. "I don't trust Barny. There's something fishy about him."

This was met with a confused pause. Haleth sighed and silently began to count in anticipation of the inevitable comment.

"There aren't any fishermen in Bree," Inglor pointed out reasonably. "There are farmers and merchants."

"It's a figure of speech, Inglor," she sighed. She had made it to nine. "It means that I don't trust him but I don't want to describe the exact reason that I don't trust him."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not going to live forever and I don't have years to analyse everything," she snapped. There was nothing like a little frustration to get her mind off of other things, activities, whatever. 

"Take enough money to pay Barny half and leave the rest with Butterbur. I don't trust our guide to not try to steal anything we take with us."

"If you don't trust him, why are you letting him lead us?"

"We need the palantir back before the bandits learn what it is."

Inglor considered this. It made enough sense that he would not argue the point.

"We should get supplies," he suggested.

"That would be a good idea," she agreed. "I've run out of a few things."

Inglor sprang to his feet while Haleth hauled herself out of the chair.

"Shall we go?" he said, sweeping open the door for her. 

She shook her head and laughed quietly at his gallant manner. While she could appreciate being treated like a lady, it was wasted on her.

"We might as well." 

~*~

Inglor and Haleth left the Inn of the Prancing Pony at dawn the next morning. The female kitchen helpers and chambermaids, all dressed in their holiday best, came to see them off.

Rather, they came to see Inglor off. It seemed doubtful that they noticed Haleth at all. She examined their downcast expressions with a mental shrug.

'If only they knew,' she thought in sour frustration.

They exited the western gate of Bree. Barnabus was waiting for them at the side of the road.

"I want my money," he said the moment he clapped eyes on them.

"Please pay the man, Inglor," Haleth said, returning the guide's intent scowl.

Inglor passed a small pouch to Barnabus. The ragged man spun around. The fine chink of gold coins reached Haleth's ears.

"Follow me," Barnabus said once he was satisfied that he had been given the agreed upon amount.

They soon left the road and followed the wooded paths at the base of the Bree hill.

It stopped raining by nightfall, but the camp was still damp and cheerless. The next day they were walking again.

"How far is it?" Haleth asked as she stepped over another tree root.

"Just a little further," Barny said.

"You said that three hours ago," Haleth said, pushing a branch out of her face.

"Where's Inglor?" She suddenly noticed that the elf was missing. That usually boded disaster.

"How should I know where he is?" Barny said. "I was hired to guide you. Not to keep track of him."

"Relax, Barny," Haleth said. "I'm not blaming you. Where did he go?"

"The price goes up if I have to find him, too."

"You drive a hard bargain, Barny," Haleth gave him her best we'll-discuss-this-later-and-you-won't-like-it look. Inglor might be a lamb in a wolf's den when it came to humans, but he could look after himself in the wilderness. It had been three days since the palantir had been stolen. She had to find it.

"Give me an hour to try to find him," she finally said. "You stay here. I'll be back."

Barny scowled at her but made himself comfortable on a fallen log.

"The price goes up if you're more than an hour," he said.

"Of course it does," Haleth shrugged and retraced their path. It was impossible to tell where Inglor had broken off from the group. Calling his name would only tell the thieves that company was coming. She walked for half an hour, watching the woods for any sign of his passing. The search came up empty, so she turned around and headed back to where she had left Barny.

He was not where she had left him. She was just beginning to get upset about this when Barny sauntered into sight.

"Where were you?" she hissed suspiciously.

"I had personal business to attend to," he answered.

"What kind of personal business?"

He looked at her as though she was an idiot.

"That kind of personal business. Fine. How much further?"

An hour later they were lurking in the woods outside of the bandit's hideout. It was a depressing, ramshackle camp of lean-tos and shacks. The ground was littered with garbage It smelled of rotting food and worse.

Haleth examined the camp with a sinking heart. This was not an organised gang; it was a pathetic assortment of cut throats. There was no way these men could have taken the palantir, even by accident.

She had walked a long way and spent a great deal of Inglor's money. She felt honour bound to at least search the place.

Haleth counted at least three men in the camp. The rest must be busy looking for their next meal. One of the shacks had a lock on the door. That had to be where the valuable treasure was kept.

Haleth and Barny waited. Barny was getting fidgety. Finally one of the men came out of a lean-to holding a wineskin. He called to his friends, who invited him into one of the shacks.

It was now or never.

"Barny," Haleth said. "I'm going to get closer. You stay here and get ready to run if there's trouble."

"Don't worry, I'm already ready," Barny grunted.

She made her way around the camp through the woods, flitting from shadow to shadow. She watched and listened for any signs of the men in the camp. They must have been busy with the wine because she neither saw nor heard any sign of them.

Flattening herself against the wall of the locked shack, she floated to the front, crouched at the door and expertly picked the lock. Fixing the lock so that it looked closed, she entered the hovel.

Bags and chests were stacked against the walls. Haleth began to methodically look through each one, starting at the top.

As expected, the palantir was nowhere to be found.

She was about to give up when she noticed a trap door in the floor. Using her knife as a lever, she pried it up and looked inside.

"Well, well, what have we here?" an unfamiliar voice purred behind her.

There was a splitting, ringing sound in her head followed by blackness.

 





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