”Look!” Beriador said, his voice trembling with excitement as he unscrolled one of the parchments he had laid down next to the campfire. ”Look! I found this old graveyard less than a day’s ride south from here. Look at the dates! It’s from the Arthedain period! I also found some ruins nearby, ruins of a small settlement. I wonder who lived here back then? The graveyard is from before Angmar was established, during Malvegil’s rule.”
Beriador spread the parchment carefully on the woolen blanket. It was a grave rubbing he had made meticulously using a piece of charcoal. Standing next to him, Lhaindir put his hands on his hips and frowned, not even trying to hide his impatience. He had not been sure what to expect when he had received the message from a raven four days earlier in Tinnudir. The message was from Beriador who had wanted Lhaindir to come meet him urgently in this secluded spot by the River Lhûn, two days march north of Emyn Beraid. Whatever he had expected, he had surely not been expecting this: Beriador gushing over his ruddy grave rubbings like an overgrown child with a new toy.
Lhaindir looked down at Beriador’s small, deep blue eyes glimmering with childlike enthusiasm and felt slightly uncomfortable. Beriador had that effect on him. Lhaindir had never been able to shake the feeling that there was something wrong with Beriador, like he was not all there. Many Dúnedain who spent weeks and months roaming the wilds with no company but their own developed their own oddities and some eventually went a little crazy in the head, but Beriador was an extreme case. Everyone in Tinnudir thought so.
Lhaindir had a pale, cadaverous face and long, sinewy limbs that seemed to hang like rumpled clothes from his body. He was over a hundred years old and getting a little too old for scouting in the wilderness. In the past few years he had grown comfortable training younger Rangers in Tinnudir, and he had not been enthusiastic about a long ride to the banks of the Lhûn. But he had no choice. Lhaindir and Beriador shared a secret they did not want anyone else in Tinnudir to know about. When he had received the message he could only think that something had gone terribly wrong, so he had gotten there as fast as he could. But if Beriador had summoned him here just to show him his damned grave rubbings…
”Malvegil”, Beriador continued his prattling. ”Son of Celebrindor. It was during Malvegil’s rule when the Witch-King established Angmar…”
”Beriador”, Lhaindir interrupted. ”I hope you did not summon me here just to talk about your grave rubbings and ancient history. You do realize I came all the way from Tinnudir?”
Beriador stared at Lhaindir like he was the crazy one there. ”Why, of course not”, Beriador said like he was talking to a child or a dullard. ”I would not have summoned you here just for that. Grave rubbings are just my hobby, as you might say. What do you think I summoned you here for?”
Beriador waited for a moment, but Lhaindir did not respond. After a while Beriador continued:
”You have been living comfortably in Tinnudir for too long, Lhaindir. You have forgotten all the difficulties and complications we face out here in the wilderness. I came here on your orders, because you are my senior and when you command, I must obey. It was your idea to use Felonwort as well, remember? I objected to it many times, as I’m sure you remember. Felonwort, that thug from Bree. He’s not even a Dúnadan. We can’t trust people like that, I told you so many times…”
”So it’s about Felonwort then?” Lhaindir interrupted.
”Of course it’s about Felonwort”, Beriador said, shaking his head. ”What did you think it’s about? Let it be noted once again that I never approved using that man in this operation.”
”What is it then?” Lhaindir asked. ”What about Felonwort?”
”A week ago”, Beriador said. ”We had agreed to meet in a place north of Emyn Beraid. You see, I had found this graveyard and some ruins and I wanted to go make some rubbings…”
”Dammit, Beriador!” Lhaindir snapped. ”I did not come here to talk about grave rubbings! Get to the point already, will you!”
”As I was saying”, Beriador paused, stubbornly refusing to be pushed over by Lhaindir’s impatient barking. ”Felonwort was not there when I got back. And neither was Reed.”
”So? What happened to Felonwort?”
”Isn’t that obvious? Felonwort’s gone. He’s left us.”
Lhaindir suddenly felt like he was choking. The whole operation had been his idea. It had been his plan. The others in Tinnudir would not have accepted the plan. He knew what they would say: that he should have warned the elves in Emyn Beraid about a spy trying to get to Elostirion instead of helping the spy just to see what he was going to do. He had been stupid, so stupid…
”What do you mean gone?” he asked in a raspy voice.
”He took a horse and rode east. When I got to the meeting place he was too far gone already. I could have tracked him, but it would take weeks to chase him down. I suspect he’s reached Sarn Ford by now. Unless he went to Bree first. On his way down to Gondor anyway.”
”You should have chased him, you should have…”
”Don’t be tedious now.” Beriador’s eyes glared a warning at Lhaindir. ”Felonwort did not take Reed with him. Reed was trying to get to Elostirion on his own now. I’m sure you would agree that at this stage it was more important to stop Reed from doing… whatever it was he was trying to do there.”
Reed was the man who had mysteriously appeared in Tinnudir last fall. Reed had told everyone that he came from Ost Forod to ’help the Dúnedain in their fight against the tomb-robbers’, but he had not looked like a man from Ost Forod, or anywhere in Eriador for that matter. There were men of Ost Forod in Tinnudir, but none of them remembered ever seeing Reed before. He had not even spoken Westron in any recognizable accent. But instead of arresting and questioning the man the Rangers had allowed him to stay in the camp to keep a close eye on him.
Lhaindir had gone one step further. He had devised a plan to uncover Reed’s secret mission.
”And did you catch him?” Lhaindir asked. ”Did you stop him?”
”I never trusted Felonwort, let me say it again”, Beriador said. ”I told you so many times. You should not have used him in this operation in the first place.”
Felonwort. A brigand from Bree whom Lhaindir had caught a few years ago trying to rob travelers on the road between Bree and the Shire. Lhaindir must have seen some promise in Felonwort at the time for he had offered him a deal: instead of a death penalty Felonwort could move into Tinnudir and serve the Dúnedain for the rest of his life. It had been an easy choice for Felonwort who appreciated his life.
”So what makes you think Felonwort has fled?” Lhaindir asked. ”And what makes you think he’s trying to get to Gondor?”
”It’s because of what Reed told me. You see, I asked him some questions after I caught up with him.”
”You asked him questions?”
Beriador nodded. ”I did. Reed said he didn’t know Felonwort was working for us. He said he thought Felonwort was his friend.”
That had been the plan. Lhaindir had asked Felonwort to befriend Reed and find out what he wanted to do in Tinnudir, and Felonwort did as he was asked. He told Lhaindir that Reed talked a lot about Emyn Beraid, the Three Towers in the south where the elves kept the palantír. Reed had told Felonwort he could make him a rich man if he could escort him down there safely. Felonwort did not know why, he only knew that Reed wanted to get there.
”And where is Reed now?” Lhaindir asked.
”Oh”, said Beriador. ”I broke him. He told me he was from Mordor – from a place called Núrn – and that Sauron or some Sauron’s servant had forced him to come here. He told me he had carried a letter from Mordor – a coded letter with all his orders.”
”Sounds like you had a nice chat with Reed. And where is he now? Halfway back to Mordor?”
Beriador looked at the cadaverous face hovering above him. ”Well”, he said. ”You can see how this is a problem for the both of us, don’t you? He told me about the letter and that he had told Felonwort about the letter. He had been sent here from Mordor to get to Elostirion where the Eldar keep the palantír. His instructions were to get to the palantír and turn it to face east so that he could communicate with Sauron directly. Sauron would then give him the rest of his instructions. Well, one night Felonwort stole the letter from Reed and bolted. He’s on his way to Gondor with it now.”
”And where is Reed now?”
Beriador stared at Lhaindir for a moment and stood up, resting his hand on Lhaindir’s shoulder. Lhaindir’s cloak was damp from the rain beneath his touch. ”I had to save us both”, Beriador said. ”You understand this, don’t you, friend? You never told me about all this stuff before but Felonwort had fled with Reed’s letter and Reed was useless to us now, do you see? Useless, and a liability.”
Lhaindir finally understood now. When Felonwort had told him that Reed was going to travel to Emyn Beraid with Felonwort, Lhaindir had told Beriador about his plan. He had asked Beriador to follow Reed and Felonwort down to Emyn Beraid. Felonwort was supposed to find out what Reed wanted and then prevent him from doing it. Beriador was supposed to help Felonwort in this. The plan had to be kept secret from the other Rangers in Tinnudir because they would not have approved it.
Cold wind blew and both men shivered.
”So where is Reed now?” Lhaindir asked again.
Beriador looked at him. ”Do you understand?”
Beriador looked at a blanket a few yards from the campfire. The blanket covered up something. Lhaindir felt like choking again. ”How long?” he asked in a raspy voice.
”A week, maybe”, Beriador said. ”He was starting to get ripe. I’m glad you didn’t tarry.”
Beriador walked over to the blanket and pulled it off. Beneath it was a corpse of a man. It was beginning to decompose. The blanket would have been swarming with flies had it not been so early in the spring. The flies had not woken up yet. Lhaindir reeled a step back. He felt nauseous.
”By the love of Manwë, Beriador!” he gasped. ”This is murder, a cold-blooded murder!”
Beriador shrugged. ”Reed was a spy from Mordor”, he said. ”He was not even a Dúnadan. He had no right to be alive in the first place.”
Lhaindir’s face was bloodless. His hands felt cold. ”The others will never accept this. There is no honor in what you have done. You tortured this poor man for information, and then you killed him.”
”The others?” Beriador glared at Lhaindir. ”The others will never know. We will tell them that Reed and Felonwort fled and that we couldn’t find them. In the unlikely event that Reed’s corpse ever turns up, Felonwort killed him and tossed the corpse into the river.”
”I… I have to report this”, Lhaindir said. ”I have to report…”
”Please, Lhaindir”, Beriador said. ”Are you really going to tell them about your hare-brained scheme to send Reed and Felonwort to Emyn Beraid on a mission from Sauron, just to see what would happen next? You should have arrested Reed and interrogated him in Tinnudir. You should have warned the Eldar that somebody from Mordor was interested in getting their grubby hands on their palantír. That’s what you should have done, and that’s what they would tell you. You know this.”
Lhaindir swallowed. ”But they will never believe…”
”They believe such lies all the time”, Beriador countered. ”You have been living comfortably in Tinnudir for too long, Lhaindir. You have forgotten all the difficulties we face in the wilderness, all the hard decisions we have to make in order to survive. You have become soft.”
”Then why did you ask me to come here?”
”But that’s obvious, isn’t it, Lhaindir?” Beriador said. ”I was fairly sure you were smart enough to understand your own good and not make a fuss about this when I got back to Tinnudir. But let’s just say that I sleep a little better if I make sure that you don't. Grab his legs, Lhaindir. We’re going to toss the body into the Lhûn together.”
”Together, Lhaindir. Unless you’d rather grab him by the arms? It makes no difference to me.”
Lhaindir chose to grab the corpse by the legs. Beriador and Lhaindir walked to the ledge above the rocky outcropping over the river, carrying Reed’s body between them.
”This is horrible”, Lhaindir said. ”I have never done anything like this before.”
”The occasion has never demanded it of you before”, Beriador said. ”Ready? In one… two… three… toss!”
Reed’s corpse fell off the cliff. It crashed on the side of the outcropping once and bounced from it, finally splashing into the river. The two men stood on the ledge looking down.
”Beriador”, Lhaindir said.
”Why would Reed carry such a letter with him in an enemy camp? It makes no sense to me. Why didn’t he destroy it?”
”Reed told me he had been ordered to save the letter.”
”But that makes no sense at all.”
”What makes you think Felonwort’s going to Gondor?” Lhaindir asked.
”Where else?” Beriador said. ”That’s what I would do. Felonwort has gotten fed up with us in Tinnudir. But now he just happens to possess a coded letter from Mordor with instructions to steal the palantír of Elostirion. I would think some people in Gondor might be interested in a letter like that. Felonwort knows he can’t go back to Bree anymore, so he would think that the Gondorians might reward him with some gold and a new home in Gondor in exchange for the letter.”
”And what if he gets there?”
”So what?” Beriador shrugged. ”The road from Bree to Gondor is long and perilous, and Felonwort is not exactly what I’d call a woodsman. I think his chances of making it alive to Gondor are between slim to none. But even if he does, what would the Gondorians do with the letter? Emyn Beraid is a long way from Gondor. No, I bet this is the last we’ve heard about Felonwort or the letter.”