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Haleth limped next to Inglor leaving a trail of dried mud and worse behind her. The elf did not comment on her appearance. Haleth tried to guess the reason for his restraint; either he was respecting her pride or the dirt made no difference to him because, by his standards, she always looked awful. Inglor had never given any indication of worrying about her dignity before. The internal fretting did nothing to soothe her already damaged pride.
"Did you find it?" Inglor asked abruptly.
That explained his lack of concern. He was preoccupied with the palantir.
"No," she said sullenly. "I was about to look into a trap door when someone turned out the lights."
This was met with the variety of silence that heralded a string of baffled questions.
"You had a candle with you?" asked Inglor.
"No, Inglor, it's just a saying," Haleth sighed. "Someone hit me on the head."
"They put out the candle with your head?"
"Inglor," said Haleth, rubbing her forehead. She dislodged a patch of muddy leaf mold. It slowly drifted to the ground. "This hasn't been one of my better days. I've been knocked out, kicked, punched and almost butchered. I'm not in the mood to explain every single phrase you don't understand so please just save them up and I'll try my best to enlighten you on a day when my head doesn't hurt. Can you do that for me? Please?"
He seemed to consider. Something in his expression made Haleth believe she was eventually going to regret her offer.
"Very well," he said, though he was obviously not satisfied with the compromise.
They entered a less wild area, passing small, outlying farms. The honest farm folk and their children came out to watch the Rangers, their prisoners, and the mismatched pair following in their wake.
"Why are they staring?" asked Inglor.
"They don't see Rangers with prisoners everyday," Haleth answered. "It's exciting for them."
"Seeing you is a thrill, too," she added as an afterthought.
"The Firstborn tend to wander so we Aftercomers can't see them," she said.
"I think that may actually be for the best."
"What?" she asked, annoyed that her verbal musing had been disturbed.
"That boy is wearing my shirt."
A farm family was lined up at their fence. A young boy of about eight summers stood in their midst. He was wearing a grass-stained tunic that was many times too big for him.
"You're certain?" Haleth asked.
Inglor looked at her as though she had finally lost her last wit.
Haleth watched the rapidly disappearing line of Rangers and former outlaws.
"I guess we should try to learn where he found it."
A cry of outrage pierced the air.
"You give that back or I'll kill you, you little scum!" The shrill voice of a teenage girl rent the afternoon stillness. She came running from the farmhouse, bearing down on the boy like a charging troll. "Mom! Make him give me back my shirt!"
Haleth was mulling over the use of the particular possessive pronoun my while Inglor strode to the fence.
"Excuse me," he said to the family in his mellifluous voice. "I believe that is actually my shirt."
The girl, who had been focused on her brother, noticed Inglor, squealed and jumped up and down in excitement. Then she remembered herself and blanched. This was quickly followed by a deep, scarlet blush when she saw the elf looking directly at her.
Haleth sighed, began to rub her face and thought better of it. This was going to take more than a little explaining.
The farm family had been dreadfully embarrassed to learn that their daughter had participated in a theft. It had taken much delicate questioning to get the full story out of the girl and it still seemed too incredible to believe.
One of Butterbur's chambermaids had taken Inglor's pack. She had removed the gold, which she thought was the most valuable thing inside of it, and divided the rest with the elf souvenir hunting young women of Bree.
"I don't either, Inglor." Haleth slowly shook her head being careful not to disturb it too much. She was relatively clean, the worst of the dirt and blood rinsed away beside the farmer's well. But her ears still rang if she moved her head too quickly.
She stumbled slightly. A warm hand was immediately under her elbow, steadying her. She was too tired to pull her arm away.
"I suppose we'll have to speak to Lily tomorrow," she said. "Poor girl."
"You're sympathising with her?" Inglor asked in his tranquil voice. "Her actions nearly resulted in your death."
"But I'm not dead. Plenty of others have deliberately set out to kill me," Haleth shrugged. "I'm certain she didn't mean any harm by it. If this becomes common knowledge it would be her ruin."
"She'll always be branded as a thief," Haleth explained. "Butterbur will no longer want her to work for him. Everyone will look down on her. She'll have a hard time finding a husband. It's a huge price to pay for one moment's indiscretion."
"Haleth?" The inevitable question was on its way.
"Yes, Inglor, that's one of the reasons I always travel," Haleth sighed.
His hand moved along her forearm and beneath hers. Hand in hand, they made their way back to Bree.
Haleth, Inglor and Lily were in Haleth's room. Most of Inglor's belongings, except for the palantir, had been surreptitiously returned throughout the day. The chambermaid looked like a lost soul.
"It's all right, Lily," said Haleth. "We don't want this story discussed any more than you."
"I'm so sorry, Lord Elf," Lily sobbed, ignoring Haleth completely. "I don't know what came over me or why I listened to that Daisy. She was the one who split the things up. She kept most of it for herself."
Haleth raised her eyebrows several notches at mention of Daisy's name.
"Lily, there was a ball in the pack." Inglor's voice was soothing as a lullaby. "Do you remember what happened to it?"
"The ball?" Lily asked.
Inglor nodded encouragingly.
"It was so heavy," Lily said. "I could hardly move the pack for it."
"Did Daisy take the ball?" Haleth asked, half hoping the answer would be yes.
"Oh no," Lily answered. "She never even saw it. I couldn't carry it so I left it at the bottom of the stairs. I hid the pack but when I went back for the ball, it was gone!" She burst into fresh tears.
Inglor tried to comfort her by patting her hand. This only made the girl sob all the harder.
Haleth cast her mind back to their first night at the inn. Her memory was still very hazy. She remembered staggering down the hallway to the Common Room and encountering a group of dwarves who were leaving the scene of impending mayhem.
"The dwarves have it," she said with absolute certainty. "We'll have to follow them."
Somewhere along the Great Eastern Road.
The palantir was heavy, but the extra weight would be more than worth Froi's while. They were going to excavate Durin's doors and begin to return Moria to its former splendour. And that meant many dwarves having many lonely nights with their fingers lonely for the feel of gold and silver.
Froi, the big hearted dwarf that he was, thought he had just the thing to cure some of that loneliness.
The future was golden.
Somewhere further west along the same road.
"What did the Rangers have to say?" Haleth asked Inglor as they went along the Great Eastern Road, two days out of Bree. They were both riding sturdy, blunt-headed horses loaned to them by the Rangers. A mule was tethered to Haleth's horse, a gift from Lily's father. There had been no way to politely refuse it. She also had a new set of clothing courtesy of the women who had taken Inglor's things. Most of the town of Bree had come to see them on their way. Haleth had found it difficult to not laugh out loud at Daisy's sour face. Their departure had taken on a strange half sorrowful, half joyful atmosphere with the women lamenting and the men relieved.
"The Rangers will have to deal with the bandits first," Inglor answered. "Then they will send word of the palantir to King Elessar. He will decide the wisest course of action."
"I hope we can get it back from the dwarves before then," Haleth said, worried. "The King is friendly with the dwarves and both races benefit from that alliance."
"Haleth," Inglor shook his head slightly. "Sometimes you sound like a king's advisor."
Haleth's face froze, then she laughed.
"I am not the sort of person kings seek out for advice, Inglor."
"Why are you still wearing those boots?" he asked to change the subject.
"I like them," she said simply, glancing down at the weathern beaten footware. "They fit well. They were made for me. What's wrong with them?"
"They're worn through," he said. "They look like you've walked the length of Middle-earth in them."
"Almost, but not quite," she said.
"Why not get a new pair?"
"This is unexpected," snorted Haleth. "An elf lecturing a human to abandon the old. What next? Orcs with table manners?"
"Why not get a new pair?" he insisted.
"Because the man who made them was very dear to me and he is long dead," Haleth said, irritated that Inglor had badgered her into giving an honest answer.
"I am sorry," said Inglor with genuine sympathy.
"Don't be," Haleth snapped.
"The dwarves may have gone to the Lonely Mountain," Inglor said.
"Most likely," agreed Haleth, calmer now that the subject had been changed. "It's their closest large settlement. Unless you count Moria."
"Moria was abandoned," said Inglor.
"But the cause of the evacuation is gone," Haleth answered. "There's no reason for them not to go back."
"Except that Durin's Door on the west and the bridge on the east were both destroyed."
"They're dwarves," said Haleth. "They can repair those things. Have you heard any word of them returning to Moria?"
"No," admitted Inglor slowly. "But the people of Rivendell would know. We should stop there."
"Rivendell?" Haleth's mouth went dry. "Didn't Master Elrond pass into the West?"
"Yes," Inglor replied. "You know that. But his sons remain, along with some of my people who yet linger on this shore. We need their advice."
Haleth was silent for a very long time.
"Is there something wrong?" Inglor finally asked.
"Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know."
Inglor laughed. "You are beginning to sound like an elf."
"It must be your bad influence," she answered tartly.
"Have you ever been to Rivendell?" he asked.
"Yes, several times," she admitted reluctantly. "But not since Master Elrond left. I am not certain how happy his sons will be to see me."
She looked at him sharply. "I don't think I want to explain this."
"Very well," he said, lightly. "It likely wouldn't make sense anyways."
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