At that moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood motionless looking down. There was no sound. They could not see his face; he was hooded, and above the hood he wore a wide-brimmed hat, so that all his features were overshadowed, except for the end of his nose and his grey beard.
Aragorn flexed his fingers. He couldn’t see the weapon he knew the old man must be carrying, but he didn’t want stiff fingers when it came time to see who was faster on the draw. Gimli inconspicuously moved a little to the left of Aragorn so as to be in a better position should a fight commence. Only Legolas was unmoved. Without turning, he gestured to Aragorn to cool it. He whispered to the other two, “We can’t just attack an old man without even knowing if he’s armed or not. That’s grounds for lynching in this neck of the woods.” Aragorn wished he hadn’t mentioned “lynching,” “neck” and “woods” all in the same sentence.
The old man turned his head, and though the three hunters could not see his eyes, they felt that he was looking at and through each of them in turn. This disconcerted the dwarf, who was sick and tired of people looking at his innermost feelings, especially when he had trouble sorting them out for himself. “First Galadriel, and now this hombre with the 20-gallon hat!” he muttered to himself.
Wind whistled through the trees. A tumbleweed rolled past. The silence was intense.
Aragorn took stock of the situation. Without moving his eyes from the stranger, he noted the topography around them. Best to know what you’re getting into before you’re there, he thought. Hmmm… with this rocky terrain, perhaps Bonnetti Defense? Or Capa Ferro? Or would Agrippa be better in the trees? The question was, how long would he have? If the stranger was a faster draw, he may not have a chance to attack. Make the first stroke count, he told himself.
Then the stranger spoke.
“You gents lookin’ for somethin’?” he drawled.
“Yup,” replied Legolas, before Aragorn could stop him. “Two hobbits who till recently were with a party of orcs.”
“Sounds like you’re on the trail of trouble.”
“We aren’t huntin’ it,” Aragorn retorted, “but if it comes lookin’ for us, we’ll be ready.”
The stranger seemed inclined to talk. “I hear orcs don’t throw much in the way of a party.”
“Yup. Serve nothin’ but maggoty bread.”
“Those wouldn’t be the orcs in that barbecue at the edge of the forest, now would they?” The old man had a keen grasp of the obvious.
“And what if they are?” Aragorn replied.
“You boys do that?”
“What if we did?”
Aragorn was getting restless with all this conversation. How long could they continue asking questions to answer other questions? He knew the old man was just trying to get him off guard, and it irritated him that it seemed to be working. He flexed his fingers again and immediately wished he hadn’t as the old man’s shadowed face turned to stare pointedly at him. Now was NOT the time to make any gestures that could possibly be construed as going for his sword. At that moment, his left knee began to itch.
“Do you boys have any idea where you are?” the old man asked after a silence that seemed interminable, especially to Aragorn, who was beginning to itch everywhere. “This here is Treebeard’s forest. He don’t always take too kindly to folk traipsin’ over his land.”
“His land, eh?” replied Legolas. “I always heard that Fangorn forest was open to all who dared enter its borders.”
Gimli was irritated. He wished he knew better what he was getting into. He had agreed to accompany Aragorn and Legolas to help find the halflings. But this looked like something different. Border disputes were one thing he didn’t like. He reached for his axe.
“No!” Legolas stopped him with a word. “We can’t fight him!”
“And why not?” growled the dwarf.
“He’s obviously on our side.”
“Look!” The elf pointed at the old man. “He’s wearing a white hat.”