May Heathertoes bent down and picked up the note that was sticking out from under her front door. She unfolded it with interest, wondering what kind of surprise it would be.
I am afraid I have to leave for some time on personal business. I cannot discuss it further but it is something I feel I have to do. I entrust you to take care of all my affairs and I have placed the keys to The Stoop in your mailbox. You will also find keys to unlock the storage chests. Please take good care of the library; there are many rare and important books contained within it. One thing might be of interest to you. On the table in the guest bedroom is a small brown book with a drawing of a leaf on the cover. This contains some of my old diaries and an account of how our kinship came to be. I trust you will keep this safe, it contains information that has never been revealed.
Apologies for rushing off like this, but my errand really cannot wait.
Yours, Rose Brownleaf"
~ THE HISTORY OF THE SILENT MINORITY ~
“That cloud. It looks just like a pig.”
“You hobbits say the strangest things.”
Rose Brownleaf brushed the pie crumbs from her mouth and leaned back into the grass. It was a lovely day; the sun was shining brightly, the only clouds in the sky were thin and whispy (excepting those shaped like farm animals) and there was a light breeze on which the faint scent of a nearby flower garden drifted. Behind her, the soft gurgling of the Brandywine river could be heard, along with the occasional splish-splashing as some rather adventurous hobbit children played.
“It seems my presence here is drawing some attention,” said her companion, indicating the small crowd of hobbits that were failing to look nonchalant and uninterested on the path nearby.
“Well it's not often you get to see an elf wandering around the Shire in daylight,” said Rose, “And bringing one of the big folk too...wherever he has got to...is likely to cause some nice gossip for weeks.”
“I'm sure it shall,” replied Nuinloth, brushing back some strands of her long black hair as it caught the wind. “You are a merry folk, but you do seem to concern yourselves with the most trivial gossip at times.”
“There are two things that are most important in life, my good elf,” said Rose, leaning up on one elbow, “The first is a good bit of gossip and the second is a lovely meal over which to spread said gossip.”
The elf smiled. “Then I must watch my behaviour with so many eyes upon me. Goban did warn me that it might be best if I did not come.”
“Nonsense!” cried Rose, “I've been wanting to meet you for an age; to find out who it is that has had the skill to tame that wild boy!”
“It is not my skill alone,” said Nuinloth, “I am just one of his teachers.” She paused for a second as if in thought. “It surely takes many ingredients to make a fine stew, would you say?”
“I would indeed!” said Rose, “And lo! Here comes our stew now.” She gestured at the man trotting barefoot across the grass to them. He was still fairly young, by the reckoning of men, with slightly unkempt brown hair and an almost wild glint in his deep, piercing eyes.
“You took your time!” shouted Rose as he approached. The small crowd of onlookers still kept careful distance, albeit with renewed interest.
“You know Rose, it's mighty hard to find a good cobbler in the Shire!” said Goban with a broad grin on his face. “And the one poor leatherworker I found at the market almost jumped out of his skin in fear when he saw me. Still, I convinced him to take a look at that hole in my boot, I should be able to pick it up tomorrow.”
“He's a fine craftsman,” said Rose, “Although Mrs. Oldweed says that she caught him using rat skins once. Mind you, she's held a grudge since her sisters cousin from Budgeford ran away with his son a few years back, so I wouldn't be surprised if she made it up out of spite.”
“Is there anybody you don't know everything about?” he chuckled.
“Only you my friend, only you.”
Goban winked at her. “Go on Rose,” he said with a conspiratorial tone in his voice, “Do the thing.”
“Do I have to?” she said, lifting herself to her feet, “I'm getting a little peckish here.”
“You just had a pie!” Goban said, pointing at the flakes of crust as Rose busily dusted herself off. “And yes you do. I want Nuinloth to see it.”
Rose glanced around. “Oh very well,” she said, “But I really don't see what all the fuss is about.” She aimed herself at the marketplace that Goban had just returned from and set out at a brisk stroll.
They watched her for a few moments, then Nuinloth turned to Goban. “What are we waiting for?” she asked. Goban waved her quiet and pointed into the distance.
Although nothing seemed unusual at first, as they watched, it seemed that gradually there was a small trail of hobbits forming behind her, including some of the onlookers from the path. As she reached the market stalls, she seemed to be in the centre of a continually flowing river of bodies, never quite a crowd, but more of a steady trickle that formed, moved and dispersed with almost military precision.
“Has she mentioned her theory on gossip to you yet?” asked Goban.
“She said something about gossip and food,” replied the elf.
“Yes,” said Goban enthusiastically, “ You are witnessing the power of pure gossip in action.”
Nuinloth seemed to be mulling this concept over when Rose returned. Goban clapped his hands together, “Well, what did you learn?” he asked.
“Well,” began Rose, “aside from all the talk about you two, it seems that Frego Bottleworth has been putting less salt in his bread to save money, Rosemary Took has been seen taking walks with one of those nasty Blackwater boys from Overhill, one of Hob Harfoot's pigs got loose and dragged poor Mrs. Pennypether's washing all through the mud, there's been some bandits on the road to Bree causing a fuss, Molly Boffin has decided to eat less to slim down if you can believe that nonsense, young Hal Featherfoot swears the trees are coming out of the Old Forest at night and tapping on his window, Mr Pennypether is planning to steal Hob's pig as compensation for his new waistcoat which is now quite ruined and they are planning to build an extension to Brandy Hall but don't tell anyone because it's a secret.”
“Most impressive Miss Rose!” cheered Goban. “Your skills at gathering information have yet to be beaten.”
“It's a talent,” said Rose folding her arms, “All they wanted to talk about was you two, but I managed to find out things they didn't even know they knew. Now let's get something to eat.”
The three companions took a leisurely stroll up the long path, back towards the Buckland gate, talking and laughing as they went and mostly ignoring the attention from the locals. Eventually they came to the house of Merimac Brandybuck, who lived just south of the gate and often took it upon himself to keep a look out for any vagabonds that might come this way (although most people were of the opinion that he just used this excuse to be extremely nosey about other people's business). Rose had arranged for them to stay at Merimac's house for the night, and in the morning they would cross the bridge and take in some of the sights around Stock as they worked their way towards Rose's home in the north farthing.
Merimac's wife had prepared an ample meal for them, and they all sat outside in the garden, talking of things past and present as the sun wound its way down the sky. The conversation went from food to farming, from pipe-weed to politics. Eventually, the meal reached a natural break and pipes came out as they sat and enjoyed the calm silence that early evening brings.
At the suggestion of Nuinloth, the three of them, accompanied by Merimac (no doubt afraid to miss anything that could be talked about later at length) decided to take a stroll out to grassland beyond the gate. The elf was curious to see some of the local landscape in what she described as the 'ideal time of day to converse with nature.'
They were not out long when a clattering came from the distance; somewhere up the main road, although the view was blocked by the overgrown bushes. Curious, they waited for a moment to see the most strange sight: two hobbits pulling behind them an empty cart with a rather rickety wheel. As the hobbits approached, they were clearly somewhat flustered and quite distressed.
“Oh my! Oh Mr Brandybuck, thank goodness it's you,” puffed one of them, “The most terrible, awful thing has happened!”
“Tombo Thistlefoot, pull yourself together,” said Merimac, “What is wrong? Did your pony run away again?”
“Not this time, it was stolen. By thieves no less! Big folk from – aagh!” He gave a start as he noticed Nuinloth and Goban standing there.
“These are my friends Tombo,” said Rose, “You've nothing to fear from them.”
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, holding his head in his hands, “We lost everything. The pony, all our supplies. It was finest quality Bree-make too. Oh misery me!”
“The brigand groups in Bree-land have been more active of late, it is true,” said Nuinloth.
“Perhaps we should do something?” said Goban, “These people should not be allowed to run free and prey on innocent folk like this.”
“Your intentions are well meant,” said the elf, “but there is little that we can do alone and weaponless! Besides, they will be have fled with their spoils long before now.”
They helped the hobbits pull the cart to the gate. Merimac decided to stay with them and gather details, assuring the others that no fuss was necessary and they could go about their evening walk as planned.
“Such a terrible thing that even the safety of Shire-folk is becoming uncertain,” said Nuinloth as they watched the three hobbits drag the empty cart out of view. “Sometimes the world grows so dark that even I consider taking the long journey over the sea.”
“That's proper elf-talk that is!” said Goban, “Always running from your problems. Now if this was Bree, you would have a search party out looking for those brigands by now. That's the problem with elves, Rose, always keeping themselves to themselves.”
“You are a brash one indeed, Goban,” Nuinloth replied, “Although you speak a certain truth.”
They stood in silence for a time, as if each in deep in their own thoughts. Birdsong died down as the light began to fade, leaving the faint chirping of insects as they awoke from their daytime slumber.
It was then that they heard a distant noise, as if a crowd was cheering. But it did not come from the houses of Buckland, rather from somewhere along the road to the east. There was a sharp clang as of metal, and another sound of many voices, as if from afar but drifting down to them on the breeze.
“A strange sound for a night such as this,” said Nuinloth, leaping effortlessly onto a nearby rock and looking eastwards, “Is there some sort of hobbit party that I am unaware of?”
“Is she serious?” asked Rose.
“I think it was a joke,” said Goban, then bent down to whisper, “It's sometimes hard to tell.” He brushed aside some foliage to get a better vantage point on the high bank next to the road. “She knows full well what that could be. Do you see anything?”
“There is no clear line of sight from here,” said the elf, “although there may be some light, as if from torches. I saw a flicker for a brief moment.”
“Do you think they could be celebrating their haul?” said Rose, “Tombo often keeps a small barrel of ale on his cart, maybe they decided to crack it open?”
“I think we should go and investigate,” said Goban, “At least if we can do nothing, we can evaluate the danger to others.”
Nuinloth hopped down from the rock. “I am not eager to leave this world by any means other than a ship to the west, however I think you are correct. We should take a closer look, but we must be careful not to be spotted.”
They left the path and headed east and a little north, as far as they could guess the direction the sound had come from. They heard nothing more for several minutes, then another roar, this time much closer. They stopped amongst some thick bushes that led up to a ridge, as the flickering orange light could clearly be seen reflected on the far hills.
Nuinloth was motionless for a moment. “I can hear talking,” she whispered, “I cannot make out what is being said. Rose, you have a hobbit's stealth which rivals even my own. Can you creep to the brow of the hill and take a look?”
Rose nodded and started up the slope, quieter than a mouse in soft shoes. They saw her reach the top, then disappear over the brow of the hill. Then for a few minutes, nothing.
Goban turned to Nuinloth as if to speak, just as there was a rusting sound behind him and Rose stepped out from the bushes. “It's those ruffians for sure,” she said, “They are in a shallow dell beyond the ridge. They have a man surrounded, he is hooded, perhaps a Bree man, I cannot tell. But he is weaponless and there are at least ten of them, hissing and jeering at him. Pretty foul they look too.”
“Perhaps we could get help back from Buckland?” said Goban.
“No my friend,” said Rose, “It takes a lot more than a few brigands to get the Shire out in arms I'm afraid.”
“Then we are helpless and the man will die. If only we had a weapon, those cowards would probably run!”
“If they saw you wield a weapon, they would probably laugh,” Nuinloth said. As she spoke there was a sound behind them; a scuff, a thud and what sounded like a curse. Turning quickly, they headed back through the undergrowth, trying to locate the sound in case it was some sort of ambush.
They came to a small clearing, thick with low-lying gorse bushes. In the centre was a hunched figure, indistinct in the failing light. It seemed to hear them and quickly sprang up, a long handled axe grasped firmly and raised for action.
“What be you-” bellowed the figure, now quite obviously of dwarven build.
“Shhh!” hissed both Rose and Goban together. The dwarf stopped in his tracks, looking a little confused. He scratched his short beard with a gloved hand.
“An elf, man and hobbit together in these parts? “ he said, leaning on his axe, “What an unusual sight.”
“No more unusual that a dwarf creeping around the undergrowth!” said Rose, “Now be quiet, there is a mob of angry bandits nearby.”
“Bandits you say?” whispered the dwarf, raising his axe again, “Did you catch a look at them?”
“Yes, for a moment,” said Rose, “There are about ten or twelve of them, they have an innocent man captive. We must do something to help him.”
“What did these scoundrels look like?” asked the dwarf.
“Oh, pretty rough,” said Rose, “Their leader had a foul look to him, he was wearing a wolf's head as though it was a hat, can you believe it?”
“Wolf's head eh? I am rather fond of wolves, so I think I would like to meet this scoundrel face to face.”
Nuinloth stirred. “You appear brave master dwarf, but even you could not take on that many on your own.” she said.
“We can at least scout the situation, can we not?” he said, “Just point me in their direction.”
They made their way back up the slope towards the ridge, moving as quietly as possible. The voices of the mob could be heard again, as well as another, deeper voice. Rose counted that as a good sign that the captive was still alive and still in a fit enough state to protest.
Beyond the ridge the ground sank down into a shallow dell, with groups of trees framing an open circle of land. There they saw the group of shabbily dressed and dirty men; they were surrounding another man, who was bound and sitting on the hard ground. Several paces before him, the brigand with the wolf's head was waving around a sword as if it were some kind of trophy. One of the men moved forward and kicked at the prisoner, knocking him on his side, which caused a burst of mocking laughter from the rest of the group.
“You may be right after all,” whispered the dwarf, “Although there are likely unskilled at combat, their numbers are too great for a single dwarf like me to succeed.”
“It would be too much to risk for just one man,” said Nuinloth, then turned slightly, “What do you think, young Goban?”
“There is more to winning a battle that numbers,” he said, “I have an idea.”
* * *
Baralan swung his sword to clear some of the rapidly increasing undergrowth ahead. His companions, two elves, gave each other what most people would term as 'a look'.
“Really Baralan,” said Methiel, “Must you hack away at the bushes like that?”
“It wasn't my idea to go cross-country, just remember that ladies.”
“You should take more time to enjoy nature my friend,” said Araeth, “I thought Rangers spent most of their time outdoors?”
“Indeed, however some paths are better avoided.” He sheathed his sword as the ground began to climb.
“Well it's awfully kind of you to accompany us.” said Methiel, smiling, “I must apologise if our choice of route is not to your taste. But we do so prefer to travel away from the paths.”
“It's no trouble really,” he replied, “I would be taking a similar route myself, as time is pressing and I must meet my friends in Barandir with little delay.” He looked up at the moon and breathed in deeply. “I do prefer to travel at night. It keeps the senses keen.”
“A lover of the night,” said Araeth, “I can see why you were chosen to accompany us. I am saddened that we must part ways soon.”
“Not as saddened as others will be when you reach your destination and leave these shores for ever.” he said, and a thoughtful silence fell on the group.
After a few minutes more walking, the ground began to clear and became firmer underfoot. There was a steep rise to their right, and some distance ahead what seemed like the glow of a fire, or many fires, flickering against the rock. They approached silently and with some caution, and looked down into a shallow clearing from the trees.
There was a sight that they would have never expected: a circle of men, rather uncouth in appearance and manner, were gathered around a group of what could only be described as prisoners. Tied with ropes and sitting on the ground, there was an elf, a young hobbit and two other men, one of which was clad in gear that immediately caught Baralan's attention.
“That one is a Ranger.” he said, “I can't make out who from here, but I would guess it is Saeradan; he has a small cabin somewhere in the hills near here.” He looked around, but one of the elves was not to be seen. Only Methiel stood beside him, her bow now in hand as she pulled a slender arrow from her quiver. “Draw your sword,” she said and he did so.
* * *
“Oh, great plan Goban, really great,” said Rose as she tried in vain to wriggle her hands free from the bonds. The brigands were all around them now, some watching in silence, others grouped up and talking quietly amongst themselves. The man wearing the wolf's head was in a heated debate with some of the others and it seemed clear that there was some disagreement over what to do with them.
“At least none of us were hurt,” said Nuinloth, “Be grateful for that.”
“Not hurt?” said Goban, “I got hit on the head!”
“Well it was less than you deserved,” said Rose, scowling in his direction.
“What happened to the dwarf?” he whispered, “Do you think he is still out there?”
“Perhaps your tactics scared him into running away.” replied Rose, “I certainly can't see him taking all this lot on by himself.” She looked around fruitlessly for any sign of escape routes. Her eyes stopped briefly on the captured man who was sitting behind them in silence, his hood pulled over his face so his eyes glinted in the darkness. She fancied she saw him wink and opened her mouth to say something.
“Do not fear little one,” he said quietly, his voice deep and a little broken, “For weak bonds alone cannot hold the Ranger Saeradan for ever.” Behind him, a small, but sharp edged stone dropped lightly to the ground.
However, before he could make any move, events changed drastically in their favour.
Two of the brigands suddenly dropped to the ground, clutching at the arrows that speared their hearts. Before anyone could react, there was a whistling in the air and another two fell, one screaming as if in agony.
The camp was thrown into panic. Arrows rained down as they rushed about trying to locate the source. They seemed to be coming from all sides, and their aim was deadly. Then, from the shadow of the trees to the east a man burst forth, his sword gleaming in his hands. He rushed forward, cutting down two men with ease. As he ran towards the captives, they heard an almighty roar as the dwarf emerged from the other side of the clearing, brandishing his long axe with startling power as he ploughed into the group that were running for cover.
Behind Rose, the Ranger Saeradan leapt up, running straight forward to where his sword had been thrust into the ground. The wolf-headed bandit was frozen to the spot as two more men dropped beside him. Saeradan grasped the hilt of the sword and as he pulled it out he span around in a circle, raising the blade and hewing the wolf-man's head clean from his shoulders.
As the remaining few bandits tried to flee, they were either cut down by axe, or fell limp with arrows in their backs. Then the camp was silent. Saeradan walked back to the captives, whose bonds were being cut by the man with the sword. “Well met friend,” he said, raising his hand in greeting.
“Well indeed Saeradan,” he replied, “And not a moment too soon it seems.”
Methiel and Araeth emerged from the cover of the trees and nodded towards the group as they began to retrieve arrows from the corpses.
“Well that was a fortunate turn of events,” laughed the dwarf as he cleaned the blade of his axe with a scrap of old boar hide. “I very nearly left you to your fates.”
“Quite a party you have gathered here Saeradan,” said Baralan. “Will you not introduce me?”
“I would if I knew them for they made a truly brave, although somewhat misguided, attempt to save my skin!”
“I am Rose Brownleaf,” said Rose, her voice a little shaky from the ordeal, “These are my friends, Goban and Nuinloth. And...well we have not had your name yet my good dwarf.”
“You may call me Glim, Miss Rose,” he said, “At your service.”
Saeradan sheathed his sword and cast back his hood. His face was grim yet not unkind, his head shaven. “I owe you all a debt, but we should not tarry in this place. I would be grateful if I could repay it in part with some simple hospitality. I have a small cabin up in the hills close by; will you join me?”
“Of course we will,” said Rose, eager to get away from the sight of the bodies.
“Alas my friend,” Baralan said, “I am escorting these fine ladies to the river, then turning north. My errand is somewhat pressing so I cannot linger, as much as I might like to.”
“That is sad news, but I do not wish to keep you from your duty,” said Saeradan, “Take care in your travels.” He turned to Rose, “Come little hobbit and bring your friends for food and fire await!”
* * *
The cabin was not far, and they walked mainly in silence. Inside, the Ranger set to making the fire as they sat themselves down on the simple wooden furniture. It was not a large building by any means; one main room, another bedroom and a small storage cupboard. It was definitely built more for shelter and practicality than comfort.
Searadan brought out a loaf and some cheese, then set a pot above the fireplace in which a stew began to simmer, releasing the scent of the fresh herbs that he lightly spread on top of it.
“So, do you live out here alone?” asked Goban, “It's unusual for a man to be living this close to the Shire.”
“Unusual perhaps,” replied Saeradan, “But I am a Ranger and it is my duty to watch over this land and keep it safe.”
“All by yourself?” asked Rose with a mouthful of bread.
“No, not by myself. You see there are many things hidden from the jolly Shire-folk, and also from the men of Bree I might add. We Rangers have tasked ourselves to protect the lands of the north. We are the secret eyes that see in the darkness; you would most likely be surprised if you knew the lengths we have gone to. But there is a growing unrest in Bree-land. Rival bands of bandits and brigands are gaining control, and we are too few to prevent it for our numbers are spread thin and the locals who know of us trust us less than the brigands themselves perhaps.”
“Yes, I am always hearing the gossip from Bree,” said Rose, “I would say they are mostly coming down from the North Downs, and in increasing numbers. Only yesterday the old farm in the Horsefields was burgled.”
“How do you know of that?” the Ranger asked, surprised.
“Oh, don't worry about her,” said Goban, “If as much as a dog barks between here and Bree, Rose gets to know of it. She has quite a little information network going for gossip you know.”
“Well I don't like to boast,” said Rose, “But I do hear a thing or two from my travelling contacts.”
Saeradan stirred the stew for a moment, then filled some dishes and handed them out to his guests.
“So you think they are coming from the North Downs? How so?”
“Well, there have been some groups of strangers passing through Trestlebridge recently, at least as I hear it. They could of course be coming in from the pass near the marshes to the east, but that seems unlikely to me, although I know little of the lands beyond Bree itself, save what Goban tells me.”
“You have keen reasoning, as that matches our guess also. It is a pity that the authorities in Bree are not trusting of my kinsmen, as this kind of information could be valuable to those willing to act upon it.”
“I am acquainted with one of the watchers in Bree,” said Nuinloth, “He ranks quite highly and could certainly get information to the chief watchman if need be.”
“Bah!” said Glim, “The watchers in Bree would do nothing outside the borders of their own little town. Now, give me a small group of sturdy dwarves and I'd soon clean the wilderness of those wolf-headed scoundrels. Curse them, they think they can drive people out of land that is rightfully theirs, well my axe would disagree with that!”
“You seem quite passionate about it,” said the Ranger, “Would this not be the first time you have encountered them?”
Glim scowled under his short beard. “I just can't abide innocent people being pushed around by those bullies. I long for days where we could go about our business without trouble.”
“I will drink to that,” Saeradan said, rising from his seat, “I hope you will join me.”
He stepped out of the room for a moment, then returned carrying a small wooden keg. “I hope this is to your taste. I acquired it from an Inn in Bree some time ago.” He filled several wooden mugs with the frothing ale, then took a tall bottle from the shelf and poured a small cup of rich red wine and handed it to Nuinloth.
“Thank you sir,” she said, “I do not care for the taste of ale.”
“As I expected, of course. I hope you enjoy the wine, it is of elvish make. I obtained it only a week ago, as chance would have it; little did I know I would be having an elvish guest so soon!”
“Chance perhaps, or fate maybe.” she said, “Does it not seem an omen of sorts that we; an elf, man, halfling and dwarf came together this very day to come to the aid of a guardian of the north?”
“Not at all,” said Goban, taking a swig from his tankard, “These things just happen.”
“Do not discount such things lightly, young lad,” said Glim, “There are signs that are best not ignored. Such a meeting of the four free peoples must surely have some meaning?”
“It all sounds like poppycock to me,” said Rose, “Besides we hardly came to his aid. At least it didn't feel like that when they were tying that rope around my wrists.” Goban winced.
“Yet here we are,” said Saeradan, “Aid came regardless, and perhaps without your distraction I would have been dead before it arrived. Do not play down the role you had tonight, for others may have run scared and showed far less bravery than you did.”
“A dwarf with an axe tends to give you a certain amount of courage I admit,” said Rose.
“Then perhaps you should keep one with you at all times Miss Rose!” laughed the Ranger, and filled their mugs once more.
After a slight pause for drinking, Rose broke the silence. “You say you...Rangers...are few, yet protect this whole land. How is that possible? Surely you would need an army to do so?”
“It is a heavy burden for sure, but one we are willing to bear until the day comes when this land is truly free. But perhaps you do not realise that the actions of a few can be just as effective as the actions of many, be they Rangers, men, or even hobbits.”
“I'm sure us 'common folk' could make little difference. Why the gangs of ruffians would just laugh and string us up by our toes!”
“Do not be so sure. Not all aid comes from confrontation or battle. You know yourself the power of information. If that power could be focussed, then that may be worth more than a dozen good fighters. It is the man that keeps an eye open for danger that knows best how to avoid it.”
“Avoid danger!” yelled Glim, who had been filling his own mug when the others were not watching, “Why if someone had the right information, I could clear Bree-land of those wolf-headed cowards once and for all.”
“Then let us do it!” said Goban, “Rose has more than enough contacts to gather news of their movements and Nuinloth is a fine warrior, though she will not admit it.”
“Are you mad?” said Rose, “You would expect just the five of us to clear the lands from here to Bree of armed bandits?”
“I may be able to help you at times,” said Saeradan, “but if you take on this challenge, it will be you four alone that must guide its path.”
Rose threw her hands up. “You see?” she exclaimed, “We are one man down already and we haven't even started! I think that drink must have gone to your head.”
“Be calm,” said the Ranger softly, “Every great task starts with small steps. Nobody is suggesting that you all go to war, although toning down your ambitions would be advisable. Merely stay watchful and gather news. Given the right information, I'm sure the authorities in Bree would not fail to act. Gain their trust, and recruit others of similar mind. There are many in middle-earth who are looking for purpose in their lives. Good, decent folk who need someone to shine a light and point the way. Have no doubt that times are becoming increasingly grim; there are shadows on the horizon that few have foreseen and people like you must do their part to help keep others safe.”
“You mean a kind of secret society of spies...” said Rose, “That actually sounds quite exciting. And I know plenty of people who like to stick their noses in others' businesses.”
“This idea begins to make sense,” said Nuinloth, “As a teacher, I meet many people and those that are trustworthy could make valuable allies to such a cause. But what of our Dwarven friend here, is he not travelling to his kin to the west or far east? Or perhaps you live in Bree?”
“Nay lady,” said Glim, “I tend to, let's say move around a bit. A dwarf of no fixed address, which is a positive boon for us you could say.”
“Very handy indeed, but you should have somewhere to call home,” said Rose, “At least let me prepare you a room in my smial so you have somewhere to rest in peace and quiet when you desire.”
“That is very kind,” said the dwarf, “I accept your hospitality.”
“Then it is settled!” grinned Goban, “Now let's finish up that ale before we sober up!”
They drank and talked further into the night, eventually falling to sleep in front of the dying embers of the warm fire.
* * *
Rose shuffled the reports neatly and placed them in a drawer. She looked thoughtfully out of the window at the trees; the evening sun was glinting gold on the branches and they seemed to glow as if tiny fire sprites danced in their boughs.
Had it really been three years since that fateful day? So much had happened since then. Goban had shown an unexpected skill in planning and strategy, aided by the teachings of the scholars that he was apprenticed to. Nuinloth had provided many invaluable contacts in and around Bree, and Glim had proved his skill in a fight many times over, being a strong and aggressive leader of the small band of amateur warriors that they had recruited over time. They had not intended to start their own fighting force, but the many frustrations as the Watchers in Bree continually failed to act upon information had given them little choice. Rose herself had grown her network of spies and compiled many reports from all the information that she received. They were quite the secret society indeed.
They had scored a few successes over the years. Glim had a seemingly endless determination to see the wolf-bandits wiped out, and often spent weeks tracking their movements. They had prevented many attacks on innocent people, but their true victories were in the ambushes that Glim had led on any bandits found wandering in the wild.
On occasion, the men they had captured were set free by the Bree watchmen, no doubt corrupt with bribery. Although the others had discouraged it at first, Glim had grown increasingly inclined to kill the brigands outright rather than capture them. His tenacity had paid off though, as less than a month previous, he had located their base of operations and personally slain the new wolf-headed leader that had taken the crown after he predecessor was killed all those years ago. After that, the wolf-bandits were seen no more.
But that had not been the end; there had always been several rival groups working in the area, and their concentration on one of the groups had allowed the others to grow in strength. Goban had begun to plan a series of strategies for scouting them out and bringing them to justice, but as yet Glim had been unable to track them.
That was until he had arrived at Rose's smial earlier today. He was clutching a handful of papers that he had 'acquired' from a ruffian out in the wild; probably a runner headed to an outpost. The papers were crudely written and had rough diagrams, but were undoubtedly a plan. They indicated that a guarded caravan would be heading south out of Trestlebridge several days from now, and showed the ambush that would be set. But this was no ordinary ambush – this was a big one. It looked like the whole gang would be there, waiting for the caravan in a cleft in the hills beside the road. The perfect place to hide, but also the perfect place to be ambushed.
This could be their chance to rid their land of these thieves in one fell swoop. It was a risk; they would need their entire fighting force, but by Glim's estimates they would just about outnumber the bandits. They would also have the element of surprise, particularly if they attacked at night, and Glim's band was trained to a higher standard that a group of ruffians.
But she would worry about all that in the morning. Goban and Nuinloth were coming to visit to help prepare her birthday party. It was an important year for Rose, as she would finally turn thirty-three and come of age by hobbit reckoning.
She pulled her curtains closed and decided to go to bed early. She had indigestion, probably from eating her second supper too quickly, and would have a nice sleep and reflect on things in the light of a new day.
* * *
The knocking on the door stopped after a few minutes. There was some rustling outside, followed by a tip-tapping on the window.
“Rose?” said a muffled voice, “Are you in there?”
Rose lifted her head from the pillow and stretched. “What?” she called, “Who is it?”
“It's me, Goban,” said the voice, “I'm here with Nuinloth. Are you not out of bed yet you sleepy-head, it's afternoon already!”
“Aft..afternoon?” she said.
“Yes,” said Goban, “Well are you going to let us in or shall we conduct our meeting through your bedroom window?”
“Half a moment,” said Rose, climbing unsteadily out of bed. She felt groggy, as though she'd woken in the middle of a deep sleep, her head swam for a few seconds. She grabbed some clothes and dressed, then headed down the hall and opened the front door, wincing as the light hit her eyes.
“Up all night drinking were you?” Goban said mockingly as he bent over to enter the hall.
“Oh please,” said Rose, nodding a hello at Nuinloth, “I think I ate something rotten yesterday, my stomach is still a little giddy.”
“Well with the amount you hobbits eat, it had to happen sooner or later” said Goban.
“Now now,” said Nuinloth, “Have some compassion Goban. You really don't look well Rose, you are very pale.”
“I'm sure it'll pass,” she replied, “Now come inside, I have something a little more important than birthday plans to talk about.”
They followed her into the study, where she showed them the papers that Glim had given to her the previous day. They spent much of the afternoon in deep discussion over the course of action to take, and finally decided that it was an opportunity far too important to waste. A chance like this may never come again.
By the time it came to discuss Rose's party celebrations, she was again feeling queasy, and decided to retire for the night. Goban and Nuinloth stayed up for several more hours, talking in front of the fire.
The following day Rose awoke late again. She ventured out to the kitchen to find a note on the table. It read: “Dear Rose, forgive us for leaving so early, but we did not want to wake you, especially if you are feeling unwell. We have to move quickly if we are to stop this ambush, so are making our way back to Bree to arrange everything. We shall ask Saeradan to check up on you as soon as he can, as we will meet up with Glim at his cabin. Please wish us well for this, our most important task yet undertaken. Will will be back soon to discuss your birthday. Your friends, Nuinloth and Goban.”
She tried to eat some breakfast but had no appetite, so went back to bed.
* * *
The old graveyard north of Bree might not have been the most fitting place to gather their modest 'army', but it was quiet and secluded. Glim had gathered forth all the skilled and semi-skilled fighters he could. It was not a large group by any means, twenty-three in total, but more than enough for the task at hand.
Nuinloth was there, and so was Goban, for he refused the requests of his elven teacher to stay in safety, goaded on by Glim who was ever the one to give grand speeches on the glory and pride that comes of battle. Tonight he would prove that he was more than just the wild young boy of his youth.
Glim had finished moving down the ranks, checking weapons and giving last minute advice. He called out to the group and they set out on their march northward.
* * *
The door buckled and splintered as the Ranger came barrelling into the hallway. He ran at speed down the round passage and made a sharp turn left into Rose's bedroom. His fears of what he had seen from the window outside were borne out. She lay on her bed as if in a swoon, her face a sickly greyish-purple, her skin spotted with large blisters. Saeradan lifted her head and teased her mouth open. Her tongue was almost black in colour, and her breath was the smell of decay.
“Keep breathing young hobbit,” he said quietly, “Don't let it win. Be strong.” He turned her gently onto her side, then rushed back out to the kitchen. He returned to find Rose still on her side, but her eyes were half open and she was coughing spots of blood onto the floor.
“Rose!” he called, kneeling down beside the bed, “Rose can you hear me?”
She smiled weakly. “Have I...missed breakfast?” she croaked.
“You hobbits certainly are resilient, but this is no time for levity. Lay back and try to drink this.”
He helped her turn back again and held a cup of bitter smelling liquid up to her chin. She took a few sips, then began coughing again. “That's good,” he said, “Get it out of your system.”
“It...it hurts,” she wheezed between coughs.
“I know and I'm sorry,” the Ranger replied, “But you must drink it all.”
She finished the cup and eventually the coughing died down. Saeradan lay some damp cloths over her head to cool her down. “Well this is certainly no indigestion you have my friend.” he said, “Tell me, when did you begin to feel unwell?”
“A...a few days ago,” said Rose, “The day we...found out about the ambush.”
“There were papers.” he replied, “Tell me, do you still have them?”
“In..” Rose waved a hand vaguely to her right, “Study drawer”
The ranger rushed to the study and started looking carefully through the drawers. He used some cloth to cover his hand and lifted the papers from the drawer, eyeing them closely in the light. But he saw nothing unusual. He tried to detect any scent on them, but nothing. Puzzled, he went to place the papers back again when he noticed a large brown envelope in the bottom of the drawer.
Pulling it out cautiously, he held it up and turned it slowly. There! On the surface, a faint yellowish powder, barely noticeable. He tossed the envelope into the back of the fireplace and returned to the bedroom.
“The envelope was poisoned. I detected a light powder covering its surface. This was no accident. It is lucky that your dwarven friend never takes off his gloves or he may have already succumbed to its effect.”
“Poison..?” said Rose, “But...that means...”
“Yes, this did not happen by chance. You must forgive me Miss Rose, Glim and the others are in great danger. It may already be to late for me to reach them. I must go.”
“Go..” said Rose, a tear rolling down her cheek, “Please..”
A half-hour later Saeradan was riding eastwards. He had given strict instructions to some of the neighbouring hobbits how to care for Rose in the short term while he was gone. He hoped dearly that they had taken it all in, as there were more than a little surprised to have one of the big folk running around telling them what to do. He had managed to borrow one of the few horses in the Shire from someone in the next village; luckily for Rose she was a popular hobbit and people were more than happy to help.
The sun was already low in the sky. He was running out of time.
* * *
The sky was dark and the rain lashing the ground did much to cover the sound of their approach. They were to the east of the great north road; ahead of them the high hills split and branched off like the roots of some huge tree, forming a wide rift in the rock. They could clearly see torchlight ahead, and some of the keener eyes could make out what looked like simple tents and canopies as they squinted through the rain. This was it.
Glim indicated for everyone to move forward, and he led them slowly towards the camp, the rocky arms either side rising ominously around them as they did. The dwarf raised a hand and signalled for them to stop as they reached one of the outlying tents. The rain slowed to a drizzle and there was a low rumble from the clouds above.
* * *
Saeradan steered his horse up the steep slope to his cabin. He needed to be prepared, although this was a delay he could barely afford. He could smell a freshness in the air as though a storm was approaching. Reaching the top of the slope, he quickly dismounted and rushed into the cabin. He grabbed his quiver and bow, picked up a leather wrap that concealed a small set of throwing knives and headed back for the door.
He reached for the handle and pushed the door, but it opened only a crack before it snapped back at him. He pushed at it again and saw a heavy metal chain had been fixed to the outside. Alarmed, he moved over to the window and swung open the small shutters.
Outside was a group of men, throwing down great armfuls of hay around the cabin. One of the men was watching Saeradan with a wry smile. He said nothing, but walked a pace forward and tossed a burning torch that he was holding onto the ground below.
The hay burst into flames; a vast wall of fire that would soon ignite the cabin itself. The men stood beyond the fire, laughing and jeering. Saeradan moved to the small window at the back of the cabin, but they had set the fire all around, and had many men circling the cabin to prevent escape. He began to pace back and forth, trying to figure a way out. Was their plan to kill him? They could have done that already with their numbers. Or was it to delay him? No, that made no sense; they wanted him dead but also wanted to make him suffer for their own twisted amusement.
After a while smoke began to seep into the cabin. Saeradan looked up and saw some flames creeping through the thatched roof above him. He grabbed a piece of cloth and wrapped it across his nose and mouth for protection. One way or another, he had to get out of here soon.
It was then that fate smiled upon him. The weather changed, and heavy rain suddenly fell in a torrent onto the cabin and fire outside. He could hear the cries of the men as they panicked to keep it alight, and while they were distracted, he had his chance.
With all his strength, he smashed through the window and landed in a roll on the ground outside. With cat-like reflexes, he sprang up, unsheathing his sword in one hand and gripping a long knife in the other. He quickly cut down the two closest men blocking his way, then made a run southwards and dived into some thick bushes that lined the cliff edge. The drop was fairly steep here, but he had little choice. He half slid, half fell down the slope, grasping onto shrubs and small trees to slow himself as he went. Above him he could hear shouting, no doubt as the leader gave the order to follow.
But he was fast and agile, and they either could not or would not risk it. He made it to the bottom, a little bruised and cut, and ran into the cover of a thicket nearby. He had lost his horse, that was for sure, and it would be both futile and foolish to go back to search for it. There was little choice to continue on by foot. And this he did at a great pace, keeping to the rough paths that only Rangers use, all throughout the night.
* * *
It was still a few hours before dawn and the Hengstacer Farm was quiet as young Tom dressed himself and went out to the stables in the yard. He loved this time of morning before the world sprang into life: the stillness of the air, the quiet before the birds erupted in a symphony of noise. There was a freshness from the storm the night before and the ground was muddy under his feet.
He mounted his horse then leant down and patted its neck lovingly. It was a fine steed, newly acquired, and he was eager to see how far he could push it. Quietly, he guided the horse out of the yard onto the wide grassy plain beyond, then with a word and a quick movement, he set it at a gallop towards the distant hills.
He had been riding for some time and scattered clouds on the horizon glowed red as the morning light began its slow crawl over the land. He had taken the horse far to the north and was more than satisfied with its progress. He was about to return to the farm when he noticed a large trail of mud, as though many men had passed by, leading to the hills just east of the road to Trestlebridge. Figuring that they must be recent, for yesterday had been the first rain in over a week, his curiosity took him and he began to follow it northward.
The trail began to vanish as the ground became firmer and the grass thinned out, but the direction was clear and it was not long before he found himself moving through a shallow cleft as the hills met the plain below. There were signs of an abandoned camp here: some broken wooden poles and tattered sheets of leather that were flapping around in the dirt. Some way ahead there was what looked like a large mound, perhaps of wood and leather; it was hard to tell in the low light of the morning. But as Tom approached, it became clear that this was something completely different. They were bodies.
Shocked, he turned his horse around quickly, ready to make a swift departure from this place, but stopped as he heard a scraping sound to his left. Turning quickly, he saw on the ground a dwarf slumped against a rock, his face scratched and beaten, his hands and legs tied and his long beard covered in blood and filth. Tom leapt off his horse and knelt down, cutting the ties with a short knife that he always kept in his belt. He grabbed a small water pouch from the saddle and splashed it onto the dwarf's face, rubbing away some of the blood with his sleeve.
“What happened here?” asked Tom.
The dwarf's voice croaked as he spoke, “Am..ambush. We had no...no chance.” He winced as blood dripped down into his swollen eye.
“Who did this?” said Tom, tearing some cloth from his shirt and wrapping around the dwarf's head to stop the bleeding.
“Brigands,” said the dwarf, “They...they were ready for us. Everyone was killed. I saw...Glim, our leader, swallowed up in a tide of bodies. Then young Hordrec, then...” his throat rasped and he lowered his head, trying to cover the tears. “I was left alive only as a witness to these events. I am shamed.”
“I'm sure you fought well,” said Tom, “But I can do nothing for you here. I must get you back to the farm. Can you walk?”
“I will try,” said the dwarf.
“What's your name?” asked Tom, helping him to his feet.
“Hrethmund,” said the dwarf.
* * *
Saeradan sat on the doorstep of the Hengstacer Farm, his head in his hands. The farmer's wife touched his shoulder and muttered some words of comfort that he did not hear. He was lucky in that he had encountered the young rider with his dwarven passenger riding swiftly down the Greenway, not far from the Hengstacer Farm. He had followed the boy back and his healing skills had done much to keep the dwarf alive. But the news he heard was grim and he fell into a mood of despair.
Despite his protests, the farmer had taken a few farmhands and ridden off to burn the bodies, fearing they may attract wolves into the area if left untouched. Even now a distant plume of black smoke could be seen rising into the sky far to the north.
He had let down his friends.
He had failed.
* * *
Rose Brownleaf stood solemnly with her back to the fireplace. The room at the Prancing Pony was large, certainly large enough for the small group of people that sat around her.
“My friends,” she said, “By now you all know what happened to our group two weeks ago. We few are all that remain of our network. We have lost, our efforts have been in vain and now our friends were the ones that paid the price.” Her eyes dropped to the ground in thought for a moment then she continued, “The founders have fallen, and with them our hopes. We should go back to our daily lives now and enjoy what we still have. This is our final meeting.”
There was a silence in the room, save for the shuffling of feet. Then a young hobbit girl, brought here by her mother, looked up and said, “Why don't you lead us?”
“Glim was our leader,” said Rose, “I am just a simple hobbit. I couldn't do such a thing.”
“I trust you,” said one of the Bree-men resolutely, standing up as if to attention.
“So do I,” said a old hobbit, blowing smoke from his pipe.
“I do to,” said another, “Please lead us Rose, give us hope again.”
“I'm...sorry,” said Rose, “But what can the few of us ever achieve?”
At that moment a hooded figure emerged from the shadows at the back of the room. He cast his hood back and fixed Rose with his keen eyes.
“Saeradan...” said Rose
“You were but four when you began many years ago, Miss Brownleaf.” he said, “Look what you achieved in that time. The roads from Bree became safer to travel, many brigands were imprisoned or killed. The people of this land owe a debt to you though they may not know it.”
“But we are not fighters. Please, I can't go through this again.”
“No, you are not fighters. And perhaps your growing strength was your ultimate downfall. Do not abandon your task Rose! You may have to take more subtle paths to reach your goals, but take them nonetheless. You owe this to those who have suffered, and to those who will suffer in the future.”
“Perhaps you are right,” she replied, “To stop now would show we are beaten and our friends would have died for nothing. We must go back to the old ways; keep careful watch, trade information, inform the authorities. Now is the time to remove ourselves from view. We may be unseen, we may be few, but this silent minority can still make a difference.”
“I'll drink to that!” shouted a dwarf, and they all did.
* * *
The next morning Rose and Saeradan stood talking by the fountain outside the Prancing Pony.
“So where will you go?” asked Rose.
“Since the brigands returned to my cabin and burned it for good I have been wandering in the wilds.” said the Ranger, “But I have new instructions now. I will build another cabin nearer Bree, so better to keep watch on the lands to the north and east. There are fouler things than bandits in this world and we must be ever vigilant. I hope that you will visit me from time to time.”
“Of course I will my friend.”
“Take care Rose,” said Saeradan, shaking her hand.
As he walked off into the distance, Rose turned back to the inn, pulled up her belt and sighed to herself, “Here we go again.”