7. For A While, Hope Left
Part 3. Shadowfax. Chapter 7. September 30. For A While, Hope Left
The slimy-appearing small Two-Foot and the unattractive elderly female watched me cautiously from within their strange half-underground habitation while my Grey-Robed companion rushed down that odd little lane. I stared back at the creatures, and I do believe that my stern and royal countenance subdued them, for they retreated behind the flimsy woven stuff that hung across the opening through which they peered. But I knew they were still there. I could feel their hungry little eyes upon me—admiring, jealous, greedy eyes. I studiously ignored them, for they were, I could see, of no consequence. But my impatience rose as the minutes passed. I could hear the voice of my companion, though not the words he spoke, and much more of the droning, slow-witted voice of the one he seemed to be questioning—another old and wrinkled little Two-Foot. I caught a glimpse of one of this dreadful country's drab and overweight ponies, gawking at me with uncouth boldness. Ah, it was all too dreary, to be watched so—and to be still, when one is born and bred to be in motion. Yet, I bore it with equanimity, as is befitting my noble self.
Finally, the voices seemed more urgent, as if at long last something of true import was being discussed—and then suddenly the voices ceased. In but a few seconds a flash of grey appeared, and the Old Man was at my side once again, his hand unwinding the reins even as he grasped my bridle and swung himself onto my back.
"Hurry, Shadowfax, my friend!" he cried, as he pointed toward the darkening East. "We must away at once!"
The stone-paved Road we followed now was significantly broader and sturdier than any other paths we had yet seen. Though I longed for grass beneath my hooves, I noted that at least upon this curbed and well-formed track our pace would be swift. I mentioned this observation to my Two-Footed companion and, as was his wont, he had an opinion on this very topic. He did not hesitate to speak of it at some length, continuing to opine long after I had my fill of it.
"This is the great East-West Road of yore, and many of these very paving stones were laid down in the time of the Sea-Kings," he said. "Indeed, the origins of this Road are far more ancient than that. The Fathers of Mortal Men have lived here for millennia… Dwarves have delved beneath the peaks of the Ered Luin for three ages or more, and Elves have lived on the Western flanks of that range for longer than either Dwarves or Men… All such folk have felt the need for the means for trade, and to travel to their kin and allies hundreds of leagues from here…" And at this he waved his hand vaguely toward the East. "…in vales and secret places hidden 'neath other peaks, other forests, along other great Rivers… And beyond those lie older places, long forgotten…" His voice fell to a whisper. "Who can now say where this Road ends? Perhaps far away it passes by what remains of the Waters of Awakening, shimmering beneath those tall cliffs… Perhaps it reaches to the Great Sea of the East, so far away that none have counted the miles from shore to shore… Mayhap it goes 'ever on and on,' as a certain poet-friend of mine would say…"
I lost the thread of his rambling, attending instead to placing as many miles behind us as I could before the fading twilight was gone. I only noticed that his overly long speech had drifted to a close when a few minutes of stillness passed. He said nothing more. I asked him no more questions, for at last, after so many miles of cursedly small and intersecting paths, the Road rolled out broad and smooth and the way before us was clear.
The peculiar land of the Hole-Dwellers and their stout little beasts was falling to sleep as we continued onward. Here and there torchlight glimmered, or the fainter glow of a candle or a lantern shone. No others did we see in passing; the Road was empty, and we were alone. My companion fell into silence, and the only sound was the thudding of my hooves upon the paved way.
I recall little of that part of the journey I took with the Old Man. I am told that we must have passed by a great mill upon a large body of water, its wheel churned by a running stream; through several large villages of these small Two-Foots would our route have brought us, and by and by to the confluences of other, smaller roads tracing north and south. I remember none of it. All I can recall from those hours was that my companion's mood was as dark as the night through which we traveled. Brooding, full of doubt and anxiety—and well should he have felt so. For every sign had been dark and doubtful. Nothing but ill news had come to us. Everything seemed to indicate that the small friend he sought must have at last fallen prey to those demons in black, the Riders we had pursued for so many leagues, for so many days and nights. For we knew with certainty that they had been upon his very heels, and who of Mortal race could have escaped from their icy clutches?
And yet more hours were before us. I had taken no rest since the evening before, other than a brief halt on the little lane where I waited as the wizard questioned the old Two-Foot. I had caught a few mouthfuls of grass here and there, and had drunk a time or two, but I felt a hollowness in my belly, and my throat was once again dry. I knew my companion was worse off than I, for nothing but water had passed his lips for many days, and as for sleep… Well, as far as I knew, if he had allowed himself any sleep since we left Rohan, it was fitful and brief. How he endured it I know not—save that the ways of wizards must be different than the ways of the Gold-Haired Men I know best, for no Rohir could have matched his tenacity.
Still, I kept silent, and carried on through that wearisome night. The small folks' villages grew farther apart, and we passed 'tween broad planted fields where no lights shone, and saw in the distance thick woodlands that rose into hills far away. Streams we crossed, and I could slake my thirst, though never would he allow me time to drink to full content.
The Moon, thin and half hid behind shreds of cloud, set early, before the middle of the night. In deeper darkness we passed swiftly through the farthest East portion of the Hole-Dwellers' country. The sky before us was barely grey as we came to a fork in the Road. My companion bade me halt while he gazed down the well-worn but unpaved path* that veered away South and a little East, muttering to himself as he leaned upon his stick and stared intently into the distance. What drew his eyes there, I cannot say, for I could see nothing. After a long moment and without another word he mounted my back again and we rode on toward the Dawn.
The Sun had slipped o'er the horizon when I saw a well-built bridge that spanned a wide, deep river of ruddy color. The banks of the river were of rich brown mud and overgrown with lush vegetation.
"The Brandywine Bridge," he said, the first words he had uttered aloud in many hours. "We now leave the Eastfarthing and enter Buckland… and what will we find here, I wonder…"
Afar, upon the opposite bank and to the right of the Road, a wall of green rose up directly, it appeared, from the edge of the flowing waters. As we drew closer I saw that the wall seemed made of a thick meshwork of intertwining, living shrubs, neatly trimmed. The wall curved South and East. I mentioned my observation and my companion explained the odd sight as we approached the bridge.
"They call it The High Hay," he mused. "A great Hedge, many hundreds of years old… Planted from the East bank of the Brandywine, it continues 'round the entire perimeter of their land, serving as a means of protection from the World Outside. The Hobbits of Buckland care for the Hay as carefully as they guard their gate…"
I cantered across the bridge, my hooves clattering sharply upon the smooth planks of its surface, and my footfalls echoing loudly. Even to me, it sounded as though a half-dozen steeds might be crossing, for the noise my footfalls made upon the construction of Mortal hands was great. And so, it seemed, did others believe—that an invading éored had come—for as we reached the opposite end of the bridge we found our way blocked by a veritable phalanx of half-grown Two-Foots, bearing all manner of iron-works! Daggers, arrows set to bowstring, hoes, rakes—a veritable army of small folk milled about in a state of apparent frenzy, shouting and pointing, blowing their little horns… My, but they were in an uproar!
As we reached the far shore and left the echoing planks of the bridge behind, I saw that here, in this far Easternmost part of the country of the Hole-Dwellers, my companion was apparently known upon sight. For as we approached what appeared to my discerning eye to be a low gate—one that spanned a gap in the great tall Hedge and blocked the way to another somewhat smaller Road that led to the South—the old Grey-Beard pulled up smartly on my reins and dismounted. In less than a moment, he was surrounded by more than a dozen of the diminutive creatures, all shouting at once.
"Why, if it isn' old Gandalf, that Wizard-friend of Master Rory's and the Old Took…" "Yes, it is I… Mr.…Banks, is it not?" "Aye, that's me, s'kind o' ye to recall, sire…" "Pay no attention to 'im, Master Gandalf, come this way, at once, you must see what's happened…" "Here now, Marsh, no need t' be rude 'n all…" "What has happened, Mr. Marsh?…." "What a coincidence it be: you, another o' them Big Folk an' all, a'comin' on the very same morning as them riding out a' nowhere…" "'Them'? Who?" "Rode 'em down, crushed them…Mercy! T'was a horrid thing to see…" "Rode them down…! Who? By all the Stars in the Firmament, will one of you tell me please what has happened at once!" "We'll do better'n that, Master Gandalf… We'll show ye!"
The small folk nearly carried him off in their eagerness to not simply tell him, but demonstrate whatever calamity had stirred their sleepy little land into a fit of anger and activity. The bustle of their movements 'minded me as when, from boredom, I have scratched my hoof into an anthill and watched the wriggling creatures boil up from beneath the earth. I followed a few paces behind as, tugging upon his hands and bits of his cloak and robe that they clutched in their little fists, they all but dragged him to the scene.
We came to their little wooden gate, where an even larger crowd of the tiny Two-Foots had gathered before the structure. Again I noted how it appeared that each one of the small folk had armed himself with some implement or weapon. As accustomed as I am to the fierce Gold-Hairs and their habits, I sensed that these little mortals were unused to carrying knives, swords or other devices of war. They seemed ill at ease in handling such armaments, yet I also felt that once roused to the defense of their own, these miniature creatures might prove tenacious and brave in their own small ways.
But then my attention was drawn to the center of the milling crowd, and to my grey-robed companion. Gandalf had set down his ever-present stick and crouched on one knee upon the paved way. Before him lay two small, still figures. That they were dead was clear, for upon their faces and bodies were dark stains of blood, and their open, staring eyes were unmoving and cold. They were dressed in similar fashion: wine-colored cloaks, brown jerkins and green breeches. The curled hair upon their heads was brown, as was the curling hairs upon their feet, which, displayed to me by their supine position, I noted for the first time to be a normal feature of these odd little Two-Foots, and not some peculiarity of the two lying in the Road. The others gathered solemnly around them, murmuring in a quiet sustained rumble.
Near the bodies of those whom I now surmised must have been guardians of the little gate stood a Hole-Dweller of apparent import, for he stood with a manner of responsibility and authority that I have observed in the leaders of the Rohir. But he, like all the rest so gathered, was distraught with horror and grief—full of fear, but also anger.
"Tim Buckbank and Will Thorny," their apparent leader said in a whisper, directing his comments to the wizard. "The Gate Guards, on duty through the night… I came as soon as the dreadful news came, but too late…"
"…Of course I commanded that the Horns of Buckland be sounded… such a thing has not happened in… in I know not how long…"
"Saradoc… Tell me everything, Master Brandybuck," Gandalf said in a low voice as he placed his gnarled hand firmly on the little one's shoulder. "Begin with the 'dreadful news' of which you speak and continue from there…"
I stood near enough to hear the tale in full. In the dark hour before dawn, the large and important Man-Stable of this diminutive leader—a place that my companion seemed to know, called Brandy Hall—had been rudely awakened by a frantic pounding upon their door. A frightened—nay, terrified—Hole-Dweller was found near to collapsing upon their doorstep. Though he was, it seemed, nearly incoherent with fear, the little fellow had been able to blubber out the message that their land was under attack by Big Persons—as they call them—wearing black cloaks and riding upon black steeds. My equine blood ran cold at the description, and I saw a shudder pass through my grey-robed companion as he listened. The Master—the tiny personage to whom my companion now spoke—had commanded that their warning signals and horns be blown and messages sent throughout.
"'Fear! Fire! Foes!'" the little leader said in a solemn whisper. "Never in my lifetime, or old Rory before me, or the Master before him… What is the world coming to, Gandalf?"
"Dark times, I'm afraid, Sara," the wizard replied. "Please, do go on…"
Numerous witnesses had reported the thudding of galloping hooves in the early hours, and cold fear spread as they passed. But swifter still was the sound of the horns spilling onward through the night, and by the time the Riders reached the Gate, the Gate-Guards were roused and ready at their posts.
"Lot of good it did them. Tim and Will did their best to impede their escape," the Master said as he shook his head sadly. "Though what we would've done with a pack of Big Folk on horseback if they'd succeeded, I can't say…"
"Indeed… With whom did the warnings originate?"
"Why, with Fatty… With Fredegar Bolger, I mean… Staying out at Crickhollow, with Frodo and my Merry…"
My friend's grip on the little fellow's shoulder suddenly tightened. "What of Frodo—have you news of him?"
"Why, no, now that you mention it, and nary a word from that rapscallion lad of mine, Merry, either… 'Course, Fatty was mightily upset by the whole affair… Could hardly get a coherent sentence out of him…They could well have sent a message with Fatty, but he was no in shape to deliver it..."
Abruptly, my friend the Greybearded Two-Foot stood, a look of alarm—nay, of dread—in his eyes. "How far is it to Crickhollow, Saradoc?"
The Master of Buckland scratched the back of his head. "Can't say I've ever measured the distance… Twenty-five miles to the ferry, that's certain, and Crickhollow's a ways to the north of the east-landing… Say there, you leaving already, Gandalf?"
As my companion strode toward me, I saw by the blaze of his eyes that another race was upon us.
"I must see the place myself, Sara…" He swung himself onto my back, and as I gathered into a spring for the gallop southward into the Little Folk's land, he shouted one last thing. "A favor, Saradoc…"
"Aye, what is it…"
"Find Fredegar and send him to Crickhollow at once… I would speak with him…"
"I'll see what I can do…"
With that, the voices of the small Two-Foots faded and the crowd at the gate was left behind.
Despite the full clear light of day and a pleasant autumn morning, the old wizard's mood was desperate now. Ever faster he urged me, and I forgot my weariness and pangs of hunger. The miles sped beneath my hooves, and the wind in my nostrils and through my silver mane was more than sufficient to assuage any discomfort. The race—ah, the race! It is why I breathe—why I was foaled. For what a Mearas does is run… For that I came…** For that I had agreed to carry such an odd companion… And for what came he? I wondered as I flew southward.
My answer would come, soon enough.
But for now, the eight leagues or so 'tween Gate and our destination were quickly behind us, and by noon we came to another smaller lane where he hoped to find some sign of his friend. I spied a small dwelling, low to the ground, with round openings alike those in the village where we had first halted in our search. It was, I deemed, a pleasant enough stable, for a small-statured Two-Foot. And yet an air of dread hung about the place. It seemed draped with shadows even as the Sun reached her zenith and all shadows should by rights have been brightly dispatched. The thick fur over my spine pricked up, and I slowed my pace by instinct.
The small house was eerily silent. As we reached the hedge I saw that the gate hung by one hinge, as though it had been wrenched open by a powerful hand. I stood still as he slipped from my back and hurried up the path to the door. As my eyes were drawn to watch, I saw that the round door to the house itself also stood open. Then I saw that the wood of that door was splintered; a goodly portion of it had been crushed inward, and the latch dangled from where it had been twisted loose from its iron fasteners. Someone had broken into the pleasant little house—someone of tremendous strength.
My companion reached the threshold. I saw him reach down—then he flinched, and his hand jerked up. He seemed to stumble as he crossed within. I could not penetrate the darkness of that small abode; all I could see of the interior of the structure was shadow. Into that inky blackness he had vanished. I could neither see him nor hear a sound, save for the thrumming of my own heart.
I waited, and waited, and still he did not reappear. Despite my well-known courage, I felt increasingly anxious, and brief grunts of alarm escaped from deep within my curvaceous throat. I pranced delicately toward the doorway on the narrow path that led to the miniature building, considering whether I should attempt to enter it. I lowered my head in an effort to measure the height of the door frame, when my eyes happened to fall upon an object lying directly in front of the opening.
It was a slip of woven stuff—cloth, as is made by Two-Foots of all varieties as a paltry substitute for properly covered skin. As the hides of the majority of Two-Foots are nearly entirely naked, they must make do with something to keep the wind and cold from them. It seemed an odd place to have left an article of clothing. I was about to tread upon it and continue in my attempt to enter when I noticed that this particular length of blue cloth—a cloak, I could now discern—had been slashed by an exceedingly sharp blade.
My head rose once more as I stared through the opened doorway. My companion had clearly seen this cloak—perhaps had even recognized it. And he and I both knew what that slash signified.
Suddenly I started backward as the thudding sounds of someone moving rapidly came from within the little house. Something fragile—crockery, or glass, perhaps—crashed and shattered… and then he staggered through the doorway.
"They are gone," he whispered, and with that he crumpled to his knees. He reached out and with trembling hands he grasped the slashed cloak. "This… I know this cloak… It was his… Frodo's…"
He bowed his head and clutched the woven thing to his brow. From somewhere deep within his chest came a moan—a low keening groan of piercing anguish.
His hope of finding his friend alive was gone, and with it—all hope left us.
To be continued….
*I imagine Gandalf sensing the Black Riders attack at Crickhollow before dawn, and looking down the Stock Road at its juncture with the East-West Road, he would have been facing nearly directly toward Crickhollow.
**A tiny tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
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