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An insistent, angry buzzing pulled Haleth from black oblivion.
The dwarves were back, pounding the inside of her skull for all they were worth. Ropes secured her ankles and her hands were tightly bound behind her back. It took a few minutes to recall the events that had led to her new headache. She had been looking into a trap door when pain had exploded in her head and reality had faded to nothingness. Someone must have hit her on the head. This had never happened before and she berated herself for carelessness. She must be getting old. More likely being in Inglor's company was making her sloppy. She wondered where her erstwhile companion was. Typical elf, as soon as she needed him he vanished.
The noise gradually resolved into two or three angry voices.
Haleth opened her eyes to slits to examined them through her lashes.
"I wants da boots." The speaker was a tall, evil-eyed man with a thick beard and a jagged scar down the side of his face.
"I tole yous, your clod-hoppers is way too big for dose boots," a smaller, dirtier man replied.
Haleth's feet were cold. They had to be fighting over her boots. Her first impulse was to leap to her feet and challenge them for her beloved footwear. The harsh ropes cut into her skin when she attempted to move, reminding her that her best defense was to remain unnoticed.
"I don't care," Scar-face grunted sullenly, "I'll cut da toes out and den dey'll fit."
"Yous ain't gonna wreck anodder pair of boots!" The smaller was becoming visibly upset. His face flushed to deep purple.
"She's awake." The voice was chillingly familiar.
"Good morning, Barny, you double-crossing snake," Haleth hissed. She struggled against a wave of nausea and dizziness to sit up.
"That's not a very polite way to talk to your trusty guide," Barny purred. "Teach her some manners, Scar."
"I wants does boots," Scar pouted.
"I told you dase too small for your gigantic feets!" Shorty groused.
"I'll teach you to have small feets," Scar grunted. He kicked Haleth squarely in the stomach.
She fell on her side, coughing and groaning. Where was Inglor? He was missing the perfect opportunity to play the daring hero and rescue her. She hardly felt like a princess lying bound and in pain amid the bandit's waste. People in her line of work could not expect fairy tale endings. Haleth would have to rely on herself.
"Now," Barnabus squatted next to Haleth, grabbed her hair and roughly jerked her upright. "What exactly did you expect to find here?"
"A bunch of big-footed idiots," Haleth answered. Barny gestured. Once again Scar kicked her in the gut, grinning at her grunt of pain. The blow sent Haleth onto her back, gasping for air. Scar and Shorty yanked her back to sitting.
"Now, now," Barnabus said, "I'm a busy man. Tell me what is so important that you had me lead you all over the country-side to find it."
So he had put them on a wild goose chase. She should have guessed.
"I forgot," she said disdainfully, tensing her aching stomach muscles in anticipation of another attack.
"I told you she wouldn't voluntarily tell you anything, Barnabus. Let me have a word with her." The words were spoken by the reasonable, cultured voice of a subtle scholar who specialised in pain and fear. Barnabus became very pale. Scar and Shorty slowly backed away.
Haleth wiggled around to get a look at the new-comer. He was short with dark hair and eyes and dressed like a merchant playing woodsman. He studied her the way a bug collector examines an interesting specimen before pinning it to a wooden board.
"Is there anything I can get for you?" he asked. He sounded as though he was hosting a dinner rather than interrogating a prisoner.
"My boots, something to cut these ropes and a really fast horse," she answered.
Scholar threw back his head and laughed. The rest of the thugs laughed, too, their mirth forced and blended with fear. The sound sent shivers down Haleth's spine.
"I can get you some of those things," Scholar smiled.
He motioned to Shorty. "Give her the boots."
Shorty grimaced but did not protest. He dropped the boots in front of Haleth, who jammed her feet into them until the ropes got in the way.
"Thank-you," she said.
Scholar crouched next to her, a companionable smile on his face. "Now I've given you something. I expect something in return. That's how things work here, isn't it, fellows?"
Three heads bobbed up and down like frantic chickens.
"What were you looking for?" he asked pleasantly.
"Go climb a tree," Haleth smiled.
"Tsk, tsk," said Scholar, apparently disappointed. "And here I thought you were fairly intelligent." His hand flicked towards his belt and a jagged blade appeared beneath Haleth's nose.
"I can use this for one of two things," Scholar sounded like a disappointed but loving father putting a recalcitrant child on the straight and narrow. "I can cut your bonds, or I can cut you. It's entirely your decision."
He let the blade dangle before Haleth's eyes. She watched it intently and tried to think of a way to escape. No brilliant, daring plans presented themselves.
"I do hope you'll be reasonable," Scholar said.
A gurgling noise interrupted them. Scar dropped to his knees. An arrow was embedded in this throat.
"Oh no," Scholar said in a slightly annoyed tone. "How many times have I told you men..." He was cut off by the twang of more arrows.
The cavalry had arrived.
The outlaws scattered like leaves in a wind storm, flying into the surrounding trees while arrows whined and whistled through the air.
Haleth, seemingly forgotten, flattened herself onto the ground and hoped that no one with a bow noticed her. She wriggled in her bonds and felt them begin to loosen.
A tall, grim man appeared at the edge of the clearing. He was dressed in greens and browns than blended into the forest. Another man joined him. They moved cautiously into the centre of the camp, watching the woods and checking the bodies as they advanced. The Rangers of the North had arrived.
"Am I glad to see you," Haleth said with relief when one of them reached her. "What took you so long? Did your invitation get lost?"
"You've just gotten a temporary reprieve, thief," the Ranger said. "The King's law will deal with you once we return to Bree."
Haleth let this announcement rattle around in her brain.
"No, no," she said in her best reasonable voice. "They captured me."
"After you double-crossed them. There's little doubt we have interrupted a thieves' quarrel. Save it for the judge. On your feet."
Haleth's mouth thinned to a very fine line. The expression would have made Inglor take one giant step backwards.
"It's a long way to hop," she said, looking significantly at her bound ankles.
The Ranger followed the direction of her gaze. He cut the ropes with a single stroke of his sword. Haleth supposed she should have been impressed and grateful, but the only reaction she could summon was irritation.
The Ranger took note of her boots as she struggled into them without benefit of her hands.
"Where did you get those?" he asked.
"Home," she said defiantly.
"And that would be?" he was obviously not pleased with her attitude.
"Far away from here."
Their pleasant conversation was interrupted by a second Ranger. He was dragging Shorty by the scruff of the neck. Soon the camp was filled with captured thieves and grim, dark-haired Rangers. Barnabus was there but Scholar had escaped.
"On your feet," the leader of the Rangers boomed. Four bandits jumped to their feet like rabbits with a hotfoot. Haleth stood up more slowly.
"You will be taken to Bree where you will be given the King's Justice," the leader intoned dourly. "Anyone attempting to escape will be hunted down and returned to face Justice." He looked significantly at Haleth when he said this. She rolled her eyes.
The Rangers marshaled their bedraggled captives, roped them together and marched them out of the camp in single file. Haleth was placed in the middle of the line.
"I'm going to die. I'm going to die," a soft voice repeated a whiney litany.
"Relax, Barny," Haleth said. "At least the King's men will kill you quickly. It's better than what your leader would do if he caught you."
Barnabus emitted a quiet sob.
They reached the road after two hours of slow march through heavy undergrowth.
"You really did lead us on a wild goose chase, didn't you?" Haleth murmured to Barny. A muffled sniffle was the only answer.
"No speaking among the prisoners," a Ranger called in an authoritative voice.
"So it's alright if I talk to you instead?" asked Haleth brightly. At least two of the thieves chuckled softly at the look of angry consternation on the Ranger's face. The rest of the Rangers pretended they had not heard.
"No," said the Ranger dourly.
"Why not?" asked Haleth with all the innocence of a child.
"There is nothing to say," the Ranger replied after a few seconds of thought.
"Spoil sport!" Haleth made a face and laughed.
This was met with stony silence. The outlaws looked at her with a mixture of admiration and hatred. It was probably time to be quiet.
She could not resist one last comment.
"Don't you ever smile?" she asked the closest Ranger. He avoided eye contact and refused to answer the question.
Haleth's head hurt far too much for her to keep up the one-sided banter. She trudged silently in line with the rest of the thieves.
After four hours of walking with brief breaks for water, they rounded a bend in the road. A tall man on a horse was in the middle of the road, deep in conversation with a familiar blond.
"Haleth?" Inglor was decidedly confused as the line of prisoners filed past him.
"Hello, Inglor," Haleth grinned. "Care to join the party? Lots of rest stops and all the water you can drink. The ropes come free."
"You know this..." the Ranger looked though he was struggling to find a polite description of the disheveled, bloody and mud-caked Haleth. "...woman?"
"She is my traveling companion," said Inglor. "Why is she bound with the outlaws?"
"She will be released at once." The mounted Ranger glared at his men.
"Don't trouble yourself," Haleth grinned as the ropes fell from her wrists. She noted the expressions of the Rangers with carefully hidden glee as she joined Inglor.
"Where did you go?" she asked the elf.
"I heard rumour of the Rangers passing through the area so I searched for them," he said.
"And you didn't bother telling me?" she asked.
"One of us had to keep searching for the palantir." Inglor seemed to be worried. "I knew that you would argue with me if I told you where I was going and that would slow our progress. So I left without mentioning my intent.
"What happened? You're a mess."
Haleth looked at herself. Blood and mud stained the front of her clothing. She rubbed her face. Dried blood and mud flaked onto her fingers. Her hair was matted to her skull with the same filthy combination and her head was still pounding.
"There was a problem," she said slowly.
"You were caught," he said.
"Barny there double-crossed me," she explained angrily.
"I can't leave you alone for a minute." Inglor shook his head sadly.
"I could have managed," Haleth grunted.
"Of course you could have," Inglor agreed soothingly.
"Shut up, Inglor," she snapped.
"As you command," he bowed ironically.
"If you two have finished greeting each other, it's time we were going." The Rangers seemed to be in a hurry.
Haleth and Inglor fell into step behind the rest, then slowly lagged behind until they were out of earshot.
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