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The Dead Ringer Cometh, Part II
by Max von Lindern

The village of Harlan rose in the night at the hue and cry of it’s Smithy. As the people poured from hovels and houses, they were met with startling news. Wargs had come back to the forest! The townfolke huddled and gathered in Gasgaroth’s scrapyard, placing felted boots upon the two halves of the beast that lay there. Children ran in circles around the messy pool of blood, dragging sticks through it and daring each other to run across the Wolven’s peachia.

For the adults present, there was worse news than that of Wargs, if the Smith was to be believed. A Wraithe had made its presence known, and tried to murder Gasgaroth and some rascal-boy that Gas swore was an elfchilde. If the frost and frozen coal bales were not there to be seen, and if Gas had not been such an honorable man, the elders of the village would have thought that Gasgaroth’s mind had left him after the attack of the Wolf. But the evidence was there for all to see. Everything in that smithy’s workshack, from the open rafters on down, was covered in a blackish ice and silver frost, and here it was, only the first moon of harvest. There could be no better explanation than the one the Smith gave them, and they all looked askance at each other when brought to the possibility that a Ringer was abound in their lands.

Ol’ Tyke, the resident gaffer, had much to say, and for the first time in a long while people really listened to his yammer, because they all knew there was no better authority on Wraithes and Ringers for leagues around. He knew of the old days, and many knew him to be a friend to Shirefolk. They had seen halflings come and go from his little ramshackle, ever since he moved to Harlan nigh on fifty years ago. He had told them all the Tale of Frodo the Nine Fingered, and they believed him when he said that he actually had known Samwise Gamgee personally. They looked to him now for comfort and direction.

"‘Tis a rueful thing this...if what ye say be true.’ and Tyke looked hard at the smith, his watery blue eyes sparking beneath bushy brow.’ How did ye come by such a customer, Gas? Did ye not know what manner ye were being dealt?"

Gasgaroth looked at the ground, the excitement of battling a Warg flushed by the guilt he now felt, and did not look up when he spoke. "It was the gold, I could see only winter without it, and though I cared not for his looks, the blade was to bring plenty, and I’ve had me a bad season…" He knew this to be lamespeak, and he was ashamed, yet it was all the truth he had in the matter.

"Aye, ‘tis a hard winter we all be alookin’ at. Cannae say that I blame ye. Now the question be, what do we do?" Tyke played his old glance upon the crowd.

The men of Harlan stood in the night, staring at the cleaved remains and knowing what the answer should be. Wolves in the forest meant beating the brush, hunting them down, and clearing the forest before winter. But was there a Ringer, a Wraithe in the woods as well? The men of Harlan fell silent, and the Gaffer knew their minds.

"Very well,’ he said,’ I know of a Took what keeps a brace ‘o Wargdogs, and he keeps ‘em in the olde manner. If we have those dogs, we’d be sure of a quick Brusher Week, and have this shore of Evendim safe till the lake freezes, leastways.’ Tyke counted a few heads,’ Torn? Can I count on ye rusher boys to get me to the Brandywine? We’ll be gone three days there and three days back by cart, that is, if livery John can give me two ponies..."

Torn Fisher blanched in his face, but pride at being called for this made him speak up, "Aye, sir, me an’ Davie an’ Bret’ll go, but we’ll need food and axes." Gasgaroth, who still said nothing, turned and disappeared into his shack. He came out with four broad-bladed, Dunnish axes, two under each arm. "Here," he said, "these were never paid for, and I’d not the heart to melt ’em down." He loaded them into Torn’s arms and felt a little better about things.

Ol’ Tyke smiled for the first time that late evening, for the boy could barely hold the War weapons, and he doubted any three of the Rushers could swing them with any real purpose. Then it got him that these lads were to be an escort of his own choosing. That grimmed him up, quick. "Carly-boy!" he hollered at one of the children now poking fingers in the Wargblood, "Run up quick to the Bane, find out if the rough customer that had the back table tonight is still there!" The boy turned with wide eyes to speed off, up the track, but there was no need, for the stranger that had drank all night at the Wood Rogue’s Bane parted the crowd and stood before the Gaffer.

"Aye, Gramps, you wanted of me?" The curl of his lip, the glint in his eye, the stubble on his face, all dark, all rough. But what Ol’ Tyke was interested in was the sheathed long-sword that the new man wore on his hip.

He was tall, long of arm, long of shank and filthy. Road dust clung to him as though it had a home other than the cartwheels and pony hoofs that would normally drag it around. It was his eyes, though, that all people marked. A peering, piercing gaze of grey and gold steel, he looked right through most, as if their measure was bantered and checked on a scale that he held thumbs to. And so far no one who had met him seemed to measure up. That’s why Tyke liked him right off.

"Ye seem to be the road sort, traveler, and I’ve a small journey to make it seems. Would yer arm be fer hire?" The Gaffer looked hopeful, but a snarl met his sidewise smile, and it died on his olde lips.

"What could you, or any, offer besides pennies, Gramps? This towne is a natterhouse, Dad, I’ve seen more riches in a bowl of cream. My steel is sharp and not cheap." the stranger glared with contempt before he turned back towards the Inn.

Suddenly three bright shots flew from the doorway of Gasgaroth’s workshop, striking the swordsman high on the shoulders. He turned only his head, and with a flashing eye, caught sight of Gas standing there, his own sidewise smile colouring his rustic face and his hand deep in the Ringer’s forgotten purse. "It seems tha’ if it be gold you want, I have some." Gas folded the coins in his fingers, and looked like he’d throw more.

The stranger turned slowly, bent, and picked up the coins at his feet. He jingled the coins in his palms, as if to assure himself that it was gold, closed it in his fist and made his offer. "I’ll take half the purse, and a good horse." Without even waiting to see if it would be taken up, the tall man strode stiffly back towards the Inn.

The Smithyman spoke without Tyke having to say a word. "Half-finished job for a half filled purse? That’ll do with me,’ he said,’ but I cannae speak for livery John." Gas squatted and began to separate his newfound gold on the ground before him.

Stableman John was less easy to convince, yet the thought of Wargs closing on his pony corral all winter long did turn up a fine horse. ‘Twas a flecked coat Poloosa, rare in these parts, and yet it did not hurt John all that much to let it go for it was mean. Not unridable, but mean nonetheless, and many of the boys in towne had suffered bites just trying to feed him. Gas gave the Liver two gold for his horse and his trouble, and though the horse was worth four more, the Smith did not twinge about it for he knew the temper of the beast.

Arrangements were made, the carcass was burned and buried, and all the good folk of Harlan when back in and bolted the doors tightly behind them. All except Ol’ Tyke that is, his rusty bones still had a man to see at the Inn.

For Gasgaroth, the night ended not. He hadn’t spoken much about the Elf-squirt that saved his life and home, and no one seemed a care or worse for the lad because no one said aught about him. When Gas blurted out that part of the story, the townefolk went wide eyed and silent, such as it was with tides of Elves.

To most people in Harlan, the Elves were a bad part of old memory, a reason many of their great grandsires went to War with Ringers. ‘Twas not like that now. Elven tales and Elven lore was a reminder to them that fell things come with Elvish beauty and battle. Rings of power and Evil to wield them, that’s what elvish brings you.

Gasgaroth, who never thought one way or another upon it, was now cemented in the superstition of the rest of the towne. The Ringer and the Elf were two sides of a coin with no eagle, one he would never flip for jinx if he could ever help it.

Yet after wife and children went back to bed, and after he banked the fire high and hard, Gas found himself looking at his bow, his axe, his long dagger. He was a man, he was well armed. The Elf was a boy, he was not. All Gas’s weapons shivered with edges that promised deep wounds, the boy carried a blade that had never touched a shiverstone. Gas had furs and clothes, warm winter boots. The Elf wore a ripped gartet, no jerkin, and no shoes of any kind. Gas could even arm a shield of bossed leather and wood. The boy had only skinny arms... Gas, he decided, you are a coward.

‘Like as not,’ he thought, as he put his boots back on, ‘you’ll be finding an elfboy corpse. Probably no more than a length or two into the forest.’ As he armed up and searched out a torch, it crossed his mind that the Ringer might be out there, waiting to get his gold back. But Gasgaroth convinced himself with words like "just a few steps in" and "I’ll have a torch", and continued getting clothes and equipment.

Once he was out and headed for the treeline, the thought of a Wraithe became more chilling, as the cold of the night stole upon him.

1999 Max Vonlindern

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