Treasures in Old Socks by MP brennan

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Story Notes:

This story was written for the January Teitho Challenge "Jewels," where it placed first.  It was nominated for the 2013 Tree and Flower Awards where it placed first in the category "Favorite characterization of Gandalf."

TaFA


Aragorn leaned back and closed his eyes. The walls of the Prancing Pony stood strong and solid behind him and he was warm and dry for the first time in many days. Idly, he puffed on his pipe as he listened to the flow of conversation that ebbed and surged across the common room. Two tables away, three hobbits chattered excitedly about the imminent mushroom harvest—their crops were apparently the best they’d seen “since old Tommy Murdocken quit a’planting on the southern slopes.” Across from them, two Breeland herders bemoaned the rising cost of hay and the falling value of undyed wool. A man at the bar sobbed to all who would listen his fears about his wife and her frequent evening visits to the cobbler down the street, all while diving ever further into his cups.

Aragorn’s lip twitched. Many nights, in these darkening times, the Pony served as an invaluable source for rumors and useful information. This was not one of those nights. Though he’d been here for almost two hours, puffing through a generous ration of Old Tobey and sipping a beer, he’d heard nothing of unexplained disappearances, strange behaviors of Men or beasts, or frightening encounters on lonely roads. Nor would he, he suspected. He had long ago developed a knack for predicting the nights when such rumors were likely to fly. There was a certain feel to the common room on those nights—an undercurrent of distressed watchfulness and impotent anxiety that upset the normal rhythms of the Breelanders’ provincial lives—an uncomfortable staccato. Aragorn wasn’t listening for the words they were exchanging so much as for those patterns and tones. Tonight, though, all was bright and most were cheerful. A few anxious looks were thrown over shoulders, but he himself seemed to be the only cause. That was how it went in Bree; sometimes the active rumor mill brought him an enemy he could fight, other times it offered nothing but mushrooms and unfaithful wives. He would simply have to head back out into the Wilds on the morn and see for himself whether anything was amiss.

A windowpane rattled from a particularly sharp lash of rain and Aragorn’s smile faded. The long drought had broken that morning, and rather spectacularly. He’d been lucky to reach Bree, though it had meant a long slog through roads turned to mud and several flooded stream banks. He sighed. Aragorn accepted the necessity of frequent patrols through Bree and along the borders of the Shire. On nights like this, though, he could at least concede that he didn’t have to enjoy them.

His eyes snapped open at the sound of approaching footsteps and a sudden fumbling. Despite the position of his seat in one of the least-used corners of the common room, a Breelander had come by and managed to tangle his foot in the shoulder strap of Aragorn’s pack. Even as he stood to help the fellow, the other Man let out a curse and managed to upend the whole pack, sending its contents scattering across the floor. “Oh, I’ve made a right mess of it,” the man said, setting his mug aside and kneeling to help Aragorn gather the strewn clothes and rations, “So sorry, Mr. Strider, sir.”

“’Tis nothing,” Aragorn responded, noting with mild surprise that the Breelander, a lad of about twenty, wasn’t one he recognized. He repacked the bag, his practiced fingers taking an automatic inventory. Yes, there were the Shards of Narsil, carefully packed in a flat wooden box. Clothes hastily refolded, waybread and dried meat, a sheath of reports from the other patrols tucked in an oilskin pouch. Nothing missing, except . . .

“Friend,”

The ice in Aragorn’s voice belied his choice of words. The young man had already picked up his tankard and was stumbling away, but he froze at the sound and turned slowly.

“I believe you have something of mine.”

The Breelander swallowed hard. “I can’t say as I know what you mean, Mister . . .”

He trailed off abruptly as Aragorn drew his knife. It was long, for a belt-knife, but otherwise ordinary enough. Aragorn used it mainly to dress deer, but the young Breelander didn’t know that.

The quiet sound of steel scraping on leather should not have carried across the crowded room, but quite suddenly the other patrons fell silent and several sprang to their feet. Every eye was fixed on Aragorn with suspicion and no small amount of fear, but Aragorn kept his own gaze firmly on the thief, not turning even when he heard the creak of a door opening.

“Strider! Strider, my friend!” The new voice was warm and remarkably free of suspicion. Aragorn turned at last, just in time to see a battered blue hat rising above the heads of the assembled men. Before he could quite process this sudden turn of events, the hat’s owner pushed his way through the crowd and strode up to Aragorn, gray robes flapping. “Fancy meeting you here. How have you been, my boy?”

Gandalf pulled him into a hug—a surprisingly firm hug for one who seemed so old—and took the opportunity to hiss in his ear, “Put it away.”

Obediently, Aragorn sheathed his knife as Gandalf stepped back to clap his shoulders, a broad smile on his face. “It has been far too long! Come, you must tell me all about your travels. Barliman, would you be so kind as to furnish a private parlor so that I may catch up with my young friend here?” Aragorn scarcely had time to snatch up his pack before Gandalf spirited him from the room.

Once an oaken door separated them from the suspicious glares of the Bree Men, Aragorn turned to his friend, his voice low and urgent. “Gandalf, I must—“

“Oh, hush your needless fussing,” the wizard harrumphed. Now that they were out of the public eye he dropped the display of overt geniality. “Here is your trinket. Men’s eyes are so easily deceived.” He dropped a balled-up sock into Aragorn’s hand.

Once Butterbur had closed the door of the parlor behind them, Aragorn upended the sock and shook it, not caring that Gandalf could see his urgency.

There. Something small and heavy fell out of the toe of the sock and thudded onto the tabletop. Aragorn snatched it up and examined it in the flickering lamplight. Silver. Brilliant green stones. The image of two snakes, a crown of flowers. The Ring of Barahir. Relieved and suddenly weary, he sank into a chair. “You needn’t have intervened. I was just about to . . .”

“You were about to . . . what?” Gandalf asked sharply, “About to explain to a roomful of peasants how that man had stolen a priceless First Age relic which you’d hidden in an unwashed sock?”

Aragorn scowled, suddenly, inexplicably angry. “I might have phrased it more tactfully than that.”

“Phrase it however you like, you know how these Breelanders look at you, ‘Strider.’ Even if you could somehow convince them that ring was yours, they’d never believe you came by it honestly. They’d certainly drive you out of the inn. And when you’re wet and miserable in the woods outside the gates, how then would you get your heirloom back?”

Aragorn sighed and massaged his temples. “You’re right,” as usual, he managed not to add, “I acted foolishly. When I realized what he had taken, I suppose I just . . .”

“You just panicked and reached for a blade like any common brigand and confirmed for all those simple people what they already believed about you and your kind.”

Aragorn glared at the wizard, but the look lacked heat. “Have a little mercy, Gandalf; I truly do understand.”

Gandalf’s face softened. “Be that as it may, I can’t say that I understand.” He sat down opposite Aragorn at the small table. “You’re not a rash man. That display was entirely unlike you.”

“I know.” He resisted the urge to put his head on the table like a sulky child. “But you said it yourself, the Ring of Barahir is a priceless heirloom. I should hate to lose it like this.”

“Priceless, certainly. And if it were in Rivendell, it would be quite as safe from sticky-fingered boys as it is in the bottom of your pack. Meaning no disrespect to the protective powers of your old sock.”

Aragorn sat a little straighter in his chair. “Elrond entrusted it to me.”

“Ah, and now we reach the crux of the matter.” Gandalf leaned forward, his eyes intent. “Your foster-father gave you that bauble and some fragments of a broken sword, and every day since you’ve kept them close as if they alone could determine your place in the world.” He paused. “Good heavens, Aragorn, it’s not a Ring of Power! If that boy had gotten away with your ring and sold it in the marketplace for fifteen sheckles, the world would go on. Even history would take very little notice. You would still be who you are.”

Aragorn frowned. “I know.” But, he clutched the ring a little tighter.

Gandalf sat back with a sigh and a dismissive wave of his hand. “No, you don’t, but I grow tired of trying to convince you. Come, give me some of that Old Tobey, and let us discuss the patrols.”

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Aragorn always requested a room with an easterly window so that he would be awakened with the first light of dawn. Even so, it was a rare luxury to wake up in a bed with strong walls around him and the opportunity to rise slowly, yawning and stretching, rather than springing to instant alertness. He brewed a cup of tea and sipped it as he repacked his bag, his hands checking the contents, as always. Shards, clothes, food, documents, a whetstone, an extra knife, and . . . an old sock. Stinking and worn and (he turned it inside out) completely empty.

He swore loudly.

Quickly and meticulously, he removed all the contents of his pack and shook them out. His ring was not there. He checked the floor, the nightstand, the mantle of his small room. Nothing. He checked the door. Still locked from the inside. The window . . . he swore again. The window was unlatched, and rose just three feet above the street outside. Surely he’d checked that before he slept?

He strode down the hallway to the common room and was unsurprised to find Gandalf there, sitting on the hearth and blowing smoke rings.

“It’s gone,” he told him shortly, “the . . . trinket we spoke of last night. That pickpocket must have returned and gotten it from my room somehow.”

Gandalf blew a wisp of smoke that coalesced into the shape of a dragon. “Well, don’t look at me, he’s not likely to fence it to me.”

Aragorn hissed in frustration. “You needn’t overflow with concern,” he snapped, “But two attempts in one night? For a treasure hidden in a sock? What if he is a Southron spy?”

Gandalf harrumphed. “More likely, he’s a common burglar. Such men have a knack for telling what’s closest to a man’s heart. Don’t ask me how they do it; it’s practically a kind of magic.”

Aragorn had stopped listening as soon as it became clear that Gandalf would not take him seriously. “He can’t have gotten far. And this town is not so large; someone knows where he’s gone. I must wake Butterbur and find out who this fellow is.”

“Ah,” Gandalf stood and held out a restraining hand, “Best let me handle that. No offense, of course; I’m sure you would be quite tactful. It’s just that poor Barliman would likely think you mean to murder the boy. Here,” he handed Aragorn his long-stemmed pipe, “Have a few whiffs of this. It’s 1356—a very good year.”

Aragorn had only a few minutes to smoke and stew on the selective helpfulness of wizards before Gandalf returned with a spring in his step. “Your pickpocket’s name is Willem Trill. Far from being a Southron spy, he seems to be a native of Archet. He’s known in these parts, but little loved. Apparently, he told a companion last night that he would be heading home at first light. I think it more likely that he struck out as soon as he’d finished his night’s quota of petty crime, but, then, I’m a distrustful sort.”

Aragorn nodded, already shouldering his pack. “If he took the road I’ll never be able to pick out his tracks,” he said, half to himself, “But perhaps I’ll overtake him. At the least, I can reach Archet before he does.” Without pausing for a farewell, he strode toward the door.

“Aragorn?”

He paused and turned. Gandalf held out his hand. “I’ll take my pipe back if you don’t mind. Wouldn’t want you to lose it.” His patience wearing thin, he all but slapped it in Gandalf’s hand. “And, Aragorn,” He spun once more, expecting another lighthearted jab, but his friend’s face had grown serious. “When you find this fellow, mind you remember who you are.”

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The storm had moved on in the pre-dawn hours, so the sun came up on a world that was clear and bright, but very soggy. Aragorn made good time, despite the sucking mud that tried to claim his boots with every step. He took little note; he was too busy castigating himself. Of all the mistakes he’d made as a boy or as a man, this had to be the most foolish—an heirloom from before the time of Beren lost over an unlocked window. A common pickpocket had made off with half his heritage! So much for the great wisdom and keen senses of Aragorn, Hope of the Dúnedain. When Elrond found out . . .

His face suddenly became grim. When Elrond found out, he would finally understand just how . . . unsuited his foster-son was to the task before him. After all, if Aragorn could not safeguard a simple piece of ancient jewelry, how could he hope to protect that which was much more precious to both of them?

He forced more speed out of his legs. Elrond would not find out. He would catch this petty criminal if he had to walk all week.

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At first, the road seemed determined to test his resolve. Though the ground dried out as the day wore on, no distinguishable trail appeared. Aragorn pressed on. Lunch was a few bites of bread and jerky eaten while on the move, and supper was more of the same. Evening fell, and the moon rose, bright and full. After brief deliberation, he decided to keep up the march. Being reasonably well-rested from his night at the Pony, he could easily walk all night. He doubted the same was true of young Willem Trill.

As the rutted path fell into deeper and deeper shadow, Aragorn summoned his will and banished all extraneous thoughts. On the road in the dark, where any distant shadow could be his quarry or something far worse, he needed all his focus on the moment. Self-reflection was a luxury he could not afford, so even the ongoing chore of scolding himself had to be put on hold.

Even with all his senses on alert, he nearly missed the campsite. It was well chosen, situated as it was in a small hollow, invisible from the main road. Only a broken twig and the indent of a boot heel in the soft earth alerted him that anyone had left the road at all. Once he spotted the signs, though, it was simple enough to follow the tracks until the forest opened up slightly, onto a bowl-shaped depression. He kept to the shadows and moved as silently as he knew how, but his caution proved unnecessary; there was a bedroll lying open on the ground beside the ashes of a small fire, but the site was deserted.

Aragorn did not immediately step out of concealment; he’d had several unpleasant experiences involving ambushes, with campsites set as lures. Instead, he loosened his sword in its sheath and scanned the shadows carefully.

All was still, save for the chirping of crickets and the rustle of some small animal in a nearby tree. Still not reassured, he stalked around the site, keeping within the trees along the perimeter. Nothing seemed amiss. At last, he crept to the center of the hollow and knelt to check the ashes with a finger. They were still warm—in fact, a few coals still glowed softly. Working quickly, Aragorn twisted a bit of kindling together and touched the ends to one of the embers. After a moment, he had a makeshift torch that smoldered softly and gave off just enough light to let him read the signs pressed into the dirt.

Here, at last, lay a partial answer. The ground was tracked over by a single pair of boots. Here was a discarded chicken bone, there a soft indent where a pack or rucksack had lain. All of it was a bit scrambled and disturbed by more tracks that tore through the campsite.

When the grasses of his torch were nearly scorching his fingertips, Aragorn dropped it and stamped out the embers. He stood, his face grim, and scanned the clearing one more time. Yes, the moonlight fell on a tangle of bent branches and scattered dirt where Willem Trill—or perhaps some other hapless traveler—had left the hollow. Left it at great speed, it would appear, not even bothering to snatch up his bedroll because there was a wolf pack behind him. The tracks were unmistakable—Aragorn suspected that four or five of the beasts had converged on the site, perhaps drawn by the scent of roasting meat. The lone traveler had fled back toward the road, taking only his pack, but was followed by a pack of another sort. Aragorn followed the broken twigs and crashing footsteps until they connected once more with the road.

For a moment, he paused, frozen with indecision. Hounded by beasts, would the traveler have had the sense to get off the road and up a tree? Or had he actually thought to outrun the wolves?

A howl sounded from up ahead, and he had his answer.

He broke into a run, hoping he wasn’t too late. Soon, he could hear snarling and frustrated yips over the pounding of his own footsteps. He hadn’t gone far—perhaps a half mile—when he came upon his quarry. At a bend in the road, a great elm tree had sprung up, its spreading branches stretching out into the open air of the path. A half dozen wolves paced and snarled at the base of the tree and a faint whimpering sound drifted down from the higher branches.

Aragorn unsheathed his sword with his right hand. When that failed to get the creatures’ attention, he snatched up a stone with his left and hurled it, catching the nearest wolf on its flank. At their pack mate’s yelp, the wolves turned, growling and snapping. The largest paced forward a step, its bared teeth glimmering in the moonlight as it sized up the newcomer. Aragorn met its yellow-eyed gaze steadily and slowly dropped the point of his sword toward the dirt. The beast, thinking it saw an opening, sprang at his throat, but Aragorn side-stepped just as quickly and caught it in an upward slash. The wolf scarcely had a chance to cry out. As their alpha fell, limp, to the ground, the other wolves yowled and scattered in all directions.

As the noise of their departure faded, Aragorn knelt beside the slain wolf and examined it more closely. Yes, it was definitely dead. No, this was no warg—just a common gray wolf grown thin and desperate from the long, dry summer.

He heard a faint rustling from the canopy of the tree. “The wolves won’t be returning,” he called out, his eyes still on the dead alpha, “And I won’t be leaving, so you might as well come down.”

There was a pause. Then came more rustling, a faint scraping, and the thud of boots hitting the ground. Aragorn looked up, his face expressionless. Sure enough, it was the young ruffian from the previous night—Willem Trill. The light was dim, but no so dim that Aragorn couldn’t see how pale the young man’s face was, nor how he trembled like a leaf in the wind.

Aragorn stood and saw the other Man fall back a step. “It is foolish to travel these roads alone,” he said, wiping his sword clean with deliberate strokes, “Especially unarmed.” He put a bit more ice into his voice, “But, then, that is not your only folly these past days, is it, Master Trill?”

The young Man found his tongue at last. “I . . . uh . . . please, Mr. Strider, I didn’t know it was gonna be like this, please don’t leave me out here, I never shoulda left home and—“

“Enough!” The word came out sharper than he’d intended it, and Aragorn drew a slow breath to master himself. “Where is it? The thing you stole?”

Willem blinked. “Um . . . all the stuff I took was in my bag an’ I dropped it, but I—“

“Show me,” he cut him off again, “Where did you lose it?”

After a moment, the Breelander stumbled forward. “I . . . well . . . the wolves were after me, you see, and I tried to hold onto it but one of the straps got caught on a tree branch.” He was walking along the path as he spoke, squinting nearsightedly at the trees. “And I had to drop it, see? Otherwise the wolves would have had me no mistake. But it must be here somewhere, I’d only just lost it when I got to that tree, and, oh, here it is!” Trill squatted and pulled a rather battered rucksack out of the underbrush.

“Show me.”

Reluctantly, Willem upended the sack and its contents fell out with a jangle. Aragorn sifted through it carefully. Two silver candlesticks. A filigreed brooch. A crystal vase wrapped in handkerchiefs. Several purses ringing with coppers. A dozen small treasures, pilfered from simple people. But, one thing was conspicuously absent.

“Where is it?” Aragorn hissed. He knew he looked fearsome to the young thief, but at that moment he didn’t care. “The bit of jewelry you took from my pack. What have you done with it?”

Willem stared at him, genuine confusion mixing with no small amount of fear. “I . . . I ain’t taken nothing from your pack, sir!”

Aragorn glared and Willem quailed.

“Well . . . I mean nothin’ important, you see? It was stupid, I know, but I was drinkin’ with young Pete Appledown, an’ he was saying how you Rangers are dangerous folk an’ I said ‘Well so am I!’ Just in jest, you understand? But Petey, he wagered I wouldn’t dare try to slip something from the likes of you. So, I thought I’d just do a nice simple lift—just to shut Pete up, you see—and take something you weren’t likely to miss. I meant you no ill, you understand that, right? So, I did the lift, but I swear, Mr. Strider, all I took was a sock! An’ I don’ even have that anymore ‘cause it was in my pocket but I must’a dropped it somehow. So, I swear, Mr. Strider, sir, I ain’t got no gems nor jewelry ‘cept what you see there an’ I don’t know what you’re after!”

Aragorn grimaced under the deluge of words. His head was suddenly aching, and he resisted the urge to rub his temples. Instead he sharpened his gaze. “And what did you do next?”

The younger man swallowed. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir . . .”

“Come, Master Trill, after I caught you rifling through my pack, what then? The entire inn saw your failed attempt. You went back to your friend and his jests. You were frightened and you felt unmanned, so what did you do?”

Willem stared at his boots. “Pete, you see . . . it’s like you said, he was a’jokin about it—well, after he got over the fear, you see, ‘cause he was as shaken as anybody seeing you pull a blade, but after he was laughin’ and laughin’, so I told him pickpocketing was stupid anyhow ‘cause the real profit is in burglary—just because he kept on me, sir!—and I said I’d prove it.”

He took a deep breath, with the air of one about to confess his darkest sins. The words spilled out of him in a rush. “And I wanted to be far away from the Pony ‘cause you gave me a right fright, sir so when I finished my drink I went down to the old widow Featherton’s place on the edge of town ‘an she slept right through the burglary of course, an’ that’s how I got them silver candlesticks.”

Aragorn’s face darkened. “And then?”

“An’ then I left town in a right hurry ‘cause I knew sooner or later somebody was gonna report me to the sheriff an’ I made for Archet ‘cause I’ve still got kin there.”

Aragorn’s lips pressed in a tight line. He turned, strode a few paces away, and bit back a curse at the world in general. Trill was telling the truth—the whole truth. He’d never seen the Ring of Barahir and likely never realized it was in his hand. He wasn’t responsible for its disappearance.

Which meant, whoever had taken it was likely long gone and the trail had gone cold. Perhaps it had been taken by a spy after all—his foolish display in the common room had likely attracted attention—and was even now on its way south in enemy hands.

He couldn’t worry about that now. Focus on the moment, he reminded himself sharply. At the moment, he was deep in the woods, more than a day’s walk from Bree in the company of a petty criminal and his loot.

Mind you remember who you are. Gandalf’s words came back to him, the tone chiding but strangely serious. He straightened his back and composed his face. When he turned back to face Willem, his face was stern, his eyes sharp. “When first I found you, you said you didn’t know it would be like this. What did you mean?”

The Man—boy, really, for he looked younger every minute he stood there inspecting his shoes—spoke haltingly. “Well . . . it’s just . . . you hear all the old tales about robbers and highwaymen and the like, and it all seems so exciting. Like it’s all one grand adventure after the next. But then you try your hand a bit and it seems . . .”

“It seems less like a grand adventure and more like stealing from poor people,” Aragorn supplied icily.

Willem scuffed his toe against the dirt. “It’s not that I didn’t want to stop,” he hurried to say, “But, everybody knows, now, that I’m nothing but a no-account ruffian. Won’t nobody give work to a fellow like me. ‘Least not honest work.”

“Certainly they won’t so long as you remain a no-account ruffian.” Aragorn pointed out evenly. Trill did not reply. “You will tell me everything you’ve stolen,” he continued, “And from whom.”

The Breelander’s head came up and for the first time a hint of indignation entered his voice. “Now, just one minute! I ain’t done no harm to you nor yours and you’re not—“

“Willem.” Aragorn’s voice was as sharp and hard as cut diamonds. “Now is your moment to decide. Not all get such a chance. You can repudiate your ways, seek forgiveness, and perhaps become a man of some account, or you can continue on as you have, never amounting to anything and ever bitter of your neighbors and kinsmen. So, what will it be, Willem Trill of Archet? Who will you be?”

Willem met his gaze for just a moment longer, then his shoulders slouched as the fight went out of him. “You’re right, Mr. Strider. I’ve been a right fool. It’s just . . . where do I even begin?”

Aragorn stooped and carefully repacked Trill’s rucksack. “By taking this.” He handed the thief the pack, and with it a small measure of his faith—faith that Trill would not try to run, that his repentance was sincere. “It’s a long way back to Bree. I trust you’ll have time to tell me everything.”

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The return trip took longer, as both men set a less frantic pace. They camped two nights in the woods and did not come within sight of Bree until the second day neared noon. After Willem finished his exhaustive confession, Aragorn put the time to good use by telling him of all the evils that had ever followed thievery. He began with Morgoth and the stolen Silmarils and continued on through the ages until he was discussing the often grisly fates that came to pickpockets and burglars in their present-day world. The tales did their job; by the time they came to Bree’s gates, Willem bore a remarkable resemblance to a guilty puppy.

“We must see the sheriff,” Aragorn told the gatekeeper, “Young Master Trill has something he wishes to show him.” From there, it was a simple enough matter to drop the young Man off at the sheriff’s barracks, where his mumbled confessions and apologies were met with exasperated looks and a gruff word of thanks for ‘Strider.’

Free of the hapless thief at last, Aragorn stepped out into the muggy noon-day glare and stretched, trying to loosen the aches that came with time on the road. This little quest had put him behind on his patrol. Now, he would have to choose to either abbreviate his perimeter of the Shire’s borders or risk being late to rendezvous with his kinsmen.

A wisp of smoke brushed past his ear, smelling of pipeweed and looking remarkably like a moth in flight. Aragorn turned and was less than surprised to find Gandalf leaning against a nearby building, his pipe in his hand.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” The other asked as he drew near.

Aragorn sighed. “No.”

Gandalf’s eyebrows arched and his pursed lips held a hint of a smile. “Really? You’ve spared a town from the whims of a petty criminal and saved said criminal twice—once from wolves and perhaps from himself. Quite a good day’s work, for a common brigand.”

Aragorn smiled, a bit ruefully. “Perhaps. We’ll see if any of them remember it in a month’s time.”

Gandalf puffed on his pipe and waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, as if that matters one whit. You’ll remember it.”

“Still,” Aragorn said pensively, “’Tis a shame my heirloom is gone. After so long a history, I’d hoped to bear it in prosperous times once more.”

Gandalf inhaled a bit too much smoke and coughed lightly. “Oh, that.” He folded his arms. “Check your pack one more time. Perhaps you’ll find that Finrod’s trinket has returned.”

Aragorn lost a moment trying to think of a response to that before realizing there was none. Slowly, he lowered his pack from his shoulders and pulled open the ties. There. His old sock sat atop the other contents, though he clearly remembered stuffing it to the bottom of the pack. With steady fingers, he turned it inside out. When a bit of silver fell into his palm, he almost wasn’t surprised. Green stones stared back at him, glimmering in the light as only Elf-cut gems can.

“Men’s eyes are so easily deceived.” There was a note of amusement in Gandalf’s voice and no small amount of satisfaction.

Aragorn stared at him. “You . . .”

“Oh, don’t look so scandalized. You can’t tell me that ill has come of any of this.” Gandalf’s face became serious and thoughtful. “Nobility is not to be found in trappings, Aragorn. You know it, I know it, and now young Willem Trill knows it too. The treasure of the north was never found in heirlooms. It has always been in the Heir.” He held his pipe out. “Here, have a smoke. You’ve earned it.”

Aragorn took the pipe, his exasperation tinged, at last, with a hint of understanding. He couldn’t resist offering Gandalf a wry smile. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll lose your pipe?”

The Istar laughed warmly. “It can be replaced.”

Fin


Chapter End Notes:

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