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Story Notes:
This was posted here before, but I have edited and changed it significantly. If you reviewed before, don't feel obligated to review again. Hope you like the changes though.
Author's Chapter Notes:
As of today, February 22nd, I've done some editing to the first four chapters.
Chapter One: Careless

“Well now, what do we have here?”

The brutish-looking man who had been watching him since he entered the bustling inn finally separated himself from his friends and swaggered over to Aragorn’s table. Swaying unsteadily, the bigger man reached out and clumsily grabbed the ranger’s arm. Forcing himself to remain calm, the dark-haired man firmly pushed the stranger’s hand away.

“I think perhaps you’ve had too much to drink, my friend.”

Aragorn smiled placatingly, though in truth, he had grown tired of the boor’s incessant attention since his arrival only a few hours before. After warming his near-frozen hands by the inn’s cozy fire, Aragorn wanted nothing more than to finish his ale and settle in for the night. Glancing around at other customers in the dingy common room, he fervently hoped that the hot bath he had ordered was ready and that the bed that awaited him was free of lice. But a look up at the other man’s irate face, made it plain that he was not to find out so quickly. Clearly, whatever it was the stranger wanted, he was not pleased with Aragorn’s remark.

Liquid from the stocky man’s drink sloshed onto Aragorn’s arm and the elven-raised ranger jerked his arm out of the way and pushed his chair back. Eru! Was this man trying to goad him into a fight? He rose to his feet and found himself staring up at the drunken man. That was unusual! Aragorn was seldom dwarfed by other humans but this stranger towered over him. As Aragorn turned to leave, the other man grabbed him again and spun him around.

“What’s your hurry, stranger?” There was an odd light in the man’s eyes that Aragorn couldn’t quite place and the lout gestured over to a few of his acquaintances, inviting them to come closer.

Aragorn groaned inwardly but carefully schooled his features in hopes of avoiding the confrontation he sensed brewing. The rest of the Fellowship were camped not many miles from here, but as one of the only two humans, it had fallen on Aragorn to come into the town for supplies. Truthfully, except for Boromir, any of the others were more likely to draw unwanted attention and the Gondorian was not familiar with the area. They had made few stops on their journey and the need for caution grew stronger with each passing mile. But now, the storm that had set in made it impossible for him to venture back out into the wild until morning.

The stranger’s grip on Aragorn’s arm tightened.

“Leave off, man.” This time, the ranger’s words were terse and commanding but the other human appeared too far in his cups to notice. He smiled at the younger-appearing man and reached out to touch Aragorn’s face.

“Now, now -- no need to be skittish, friend," the man scolded when Aragorn pulled away. "I just come over to offer my help." The man's predatory gaze belied the conciliatory words and his voice dropped to a rough whisper as he groped at the ranger's sleeve. "Couldn't help but notice when you come in, how froze you was."

Aragorn nodded grimly, determined that the situation not escalate. "Aye, 'tis a bitter night indeed." He glanced over at the fire. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm still feeling a bit chilled. The fire would yet be a comfort."

The burly man's eyebrows knitted together at the ranger's words and his smile transformed into a leer. "You know, there's...other ways for a fine-looking fellow like yourself to warm up...besides a fire...if you get my meaning."

Aragorn’s mouth gaped opened. 'Did he just say what I thought he did?'

By the stars! This was awkward! The heavyset stranger smirked at the look of chagrin that crossed the ranger's face.

“Now, now -- surely 'tis not the first time you’ve had such an offer."

The boorish man snorted loudly at the rush of color that suddenly stained the ranger's face and he draped his arms around Aragorn’s shoulders in a drunken embrace. ‘Morgoth’s balls!’ thought Aragorn, ‘This is the last thing I need.'

The son of Arathorn took a deep breath, his knuckles white with tension. Truly, he was near the end of his tether. Up to this point, only the need for discretion had kept his temper in check, but the man’s behavior would surely draw attention!

“Leave him be, Sertran.”

Thankfully, one of the drunken man’s friends came forward and pushed him away from the exasperated ranger. Somehow, though, Aragorn missed the sly nod that Sertran gave his companion. He turned back towards Aragorn and shook his hand.

“The name’s Brenton. Sorry, young fellow.”

Aragorn suppressed a smile at that for surely he was at least twice the other man's age and he felt his tension lessen slightly at the other's friendly manner. As to his 'youth' -- well, the harsh light of morn would quickly put an end to that misconception!

“Sertran’s usually a good man, but when he’s had too much to drink, there’s no telling what he’ll say or do.” The blond man grinned – though the effect was somewhat diminished by his blackened teeth -- and sat down in the chair next to Aragorn’s, gesturing for him to follow suit. The dark-haired ranger did so reluctantly.

“People are wary of strangers these days and are not as friendly as they used to be...”

Brenton paused meaningfully until Aragorn mentioned his own name.

"Aye, Strider -- a peculiar name that, though I suppose you've good reason for it -- but there are all sorts of villains to watch out for – cutthroats, soldiers for hire, thieves...”

The man’s voice broke off and belatedly, Aragorn realized he had been staring at the spot where the ever present Evenstar lay hidden beneath his clothing. Had he somehow carelessly revealed the luminescent jewel to unfriendly eyes? He remembered loosening his collar slightly upon entering the close, stuffy atmosphere of the inn, but that had only been for a moment. And while the likelihood of detection was slight, he had quickly rearranged his clothing. Surely, no one had noticed, and he was only imagining the glint of greed in the other man's eyes. A wave of exhaustion washed over him and he found himself longing for an end to this conversation and the comfort of a good night's rest.

But Brenton droned on and in time, despite the man’s affable words, Aragorn could have sworn that a dark edge had crept into the man’s voice, and his friendly manner seemed forced. Someone bumped into the exhausted ranger, and he grimaced as Sertran took the chair across from his. He'd rather hoped the brute had left. Inebriated though the man appeared to be, his frank, appraising stare made Aragorn uncomfortable. He was grateful for the dim light that scarcely reached the corner table. Gandalf and Legolas would never believe this -- not that he had a mind to tell them anyway.

“Aye, but to go along with what you said earlier, long past are the times when any of us could easily trust a stranger,” Aragorn opined, hoping his remark was not too blunt. He wasn’t all that sure that he trusted this man any more than the man seemed to trust him, but diplomacy was definitely warranted. He did not want to do or say anything that would cause him to be late in rejoining the others or that would necessitate Legolas and Gandalf having to come looking for him. Still, in the event of delay, a prearranged meeting time had been chosen.

“Innkeeper!” The man called out. “Bring this good man another ale!” Aragorn raised his hands in protest. He had no thirst for any more of the swill that was served here and he was more than ready to call it a night.

“Oh, but you must – to make up for my friend’s loutish behavior.”

At a signal from the innkeeper, a serving girl brought over two large flagons of ale and set them down in front of Brenton. The black-toothed man smiled, then guzzled down his drink, heedless of the foam that thereafter sprinkled his beard. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and set the mug down. He looked at Aragorn expectantly.

"Do not insult me, friend." Brenton still smiled, but Aragorn knew he meant what he said. Refusing the drink was not an option.

The ranger glanced over at the innkeeper, and wondered at his own hesitation. Why, the innkeeper’s face was the very picture of open, honest joviality and Brenton had just drunk from a mug that Strider could just as easily have selected! Surely, it was the stress of the Quest that was making him so overly suspicious. He reached for the flagon and after taking a cursory sniff of its contents, quaffed it down. Perhaps now he could finally escape his oddly persistent ‘rescuer’ and get the rest he so badly needed!

Though he thought little of it, the man’s fellows had also gathered around, and as he made to rise Aragorn could have sworn there was an air of expectancy in their behavior. He swore softly as a shooting pain in his temple made him wince, and the scent of unwashed bodies so close seemed overwhelming.

“There now, that’s enough, gentlemen.” The handsome ranger pushed his chair back with finality. He’d been as polite as could be expected, but enough was enough!

"I thank you for your hospitality, Brenton, but dawn comes frightfully early."

By the stars, his mouth felt dry of a sudden! Did he imagine the quick, conspiratorial exchange of glances between Brenton and the innkeeper?

Still, Aragorn was unprepared as the room spun dizzily as he gracelessly staggered to his feet and moments later, the normally agile ranger crashed onto the floor.

What? Dazed, Aragorn looked up at the grinning face of Sertran, whom he’d ignored since his friend had come on the scene. By the stars, how could he have been so stupid?

Too late, he realized that Sertran hadn’t been drunk at all.

Cutthroats, soldiers for hire, thieves…

There was a sharp blow to his head and suddenly, Aragorn’s world went black.

To Be Continued

Author’s Note: Reviews would be nice and are most definitely appreciated. Thank you.
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