Nyáréonié: The Fall of the North
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Disclaimer: Middle Earth and all its locations belong to the JRR Tolkien estate. Main characters and plotline are property of the author.
All Roads Lead To Darkness
Adelard Marchbank lay motionless upon the ground, hoping to be overlooked. Heavy feet in iron-soled boots thudded past him, shaking the earth as he pressed his cheek against it. He listened breathlessly as the rumbling crowd passed by, trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible - something Hobbits are particularly good at. But not good enough, this time.
With a crunch, one weighty boot landed right before his nose, crushing the dry underbrush surrounding him. Adelard threw himself backwards only just in time as a curved sword blade sunk into the ground where he had lain. He crashed into the snarled brush, thorns catching at his cloak as he tried vainly to roll farther away.
"Don't move!" a hoarse voice growled at him, and he froze. Slowly he looked up, his gaze traveling along all the unpleasant length of the personage standing before him: the black boots, black trousers, dull, stained chain mail and dark cloak, crowned by the hideous visage of an Orc. The Orc jerked his sword back out of the ground and called a halt to the company still thundering by. A few seconds later, Adelard found himself surrounded by a jeering ring of goblins, all far too delighted with their find to bode well for the lone Hobbit. A pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him roughly to his feet, stumbling, to set him before the Orc who apparently commanded the company.
"Not trying to hide from us, were you?" the leader said with a sly grin, "One should be hospitable to guests from distant lands! Still, there's a way for you to make up for the discourtesy ... although a little squirrel like you will hardly be a bite for such hungry company!" He laughed, and his followers echoed his mirth dutifully.
Adelard swallowed and wished he at least had some kind of weapon. If he had only had his dagger, he would have tried to cut down one or two of them before they finished him. But all his weapons had been left behind in the troll's cave when he had escaped days ago, and with only his bare hands he was as defenseless as a child.
"I say we slit its throat now!" snarled a different Orc, waving a long, crooked knife in the air gleefully, "There's enough blood in this thing to fill a good kettle!" The Orc shouldered its way eagerly through his companions, its greedy eyes fixed on Adelard. Adelard shuddered, cringing inwardly at the thought of becoming lunch for a bunch of hungry goblins. He was saved, though, for the moment at least, by the objections of the head Orc.
"Hold, you insolent swine!" the leader growled, "You can wait your turn! I'm not finished yet. There's a reason why this little squealer is here all alone, or I'm a troll." he said, poking Adelard in the chest with his sword, "Spying, aren't you? Out with it!"
Adelard stared at the Orc's nightmare face, his heart pounding painfully. What to say? He was indeed a spy, set out from the town of Bree in middle Arnor to learn what he could about the Witch-King, the dark ruler who abode in Carn Dum to the north. He had left his home-town and his son behind two weeks ago on a mission to discover what was happening in the eastern lands, where Orcs were appearing in increasing numbers and driving away the inhabitants of Arnor, the North Kingdom. Hobbits, being small and inconspicuous, often took part in such undertakings, and Adelard was not the least skilled at them. He had found out what he needed to know - why the land suddenly swarmed with evil creatures and corrupted men - by eavesdropping on the conversation of a couple of trolls in the Witch-King's service. Trolls were hardly the brightest of beings, but they made up for it in sheer power. Adelard had been captured and barely managed to escape alive. He had spent the last few days fleeing as quickly as he could back west to Bree, his precious secret weighing ever heavier on his mind.
But he could hardly tell that to the Orc still holding its sword threateningly against his chest.
"I ... I'm going east!" he said, trying to cower and look fearful, which didn't take much effort, "I want to go away from here! Away from the Big People! I'm going back to the River where my people came from. I'm not a spy!"
He hoped tensely that the Orc would believe that he was merely a refugee leaving Arnor in its troubled days to flee east - some Hobbits had indeed decided to return to the Anduin on the far side of the Misty Mountains, and perhaps these Orcs had heard of them. He was, however, disappointed.
"A likely story!" the Orc said, "And I'd be a right fool to believe it ... no, I know a spy when I see one. But no matter - whatever you know will go into the cookpot with you! Have at him, boys!" And to Adelard's horror, the lead Orc re-sheathed his sword and watched in amusement as his followers jumped in a howling crowd upon their victim.
Adelard found his arms twisted and held cruelly behind him. Hands pawed at him as the goblins searched rudely through his pockets for any valuables to steal. One of them leered in his face, its breath blowing hot against his skin, but he hardly noticed; his eyes were fixed on a medium-sized, iron cauldron being carried towards him in the hands of one of his captors. He could hardly believe it - this, apparently, was the end. He was going to expire in the pot of an Orc-band. Adelard watched with horrible fascination as the cauldron was lowered to the ground and coarse hands began to kindle a fire next to it. He thought with wistful longing of his little hole in the Bree-hill, its well-filled pantries and comfortable bedrooms, and of his son, Tolman, who had recently turned thirty-three. Normally Hobbits gave presents to other people on their birthdays, but Adelard was so proud of his son that he had given him a present instead - a short sword, of the right size for a Hobbit but of a unique nature that was yet another of the secrets he kept hidden. One more secret he would never be able to tell now.
Flames sprang into the air before him, devouring the brushwood the Orcs had torn from the surrounding bushes. The crackling of the fire sounded like the cracking of bones in Adelard's ears. Within minutes, the cauldron was filled with water and set up over the fire. An Orc grabbed Adelard roughly and lifted him off his feet, tucking the Hobbit uncomfortably under his arm as he carried him to the cookfire.
Adelard found himself face to face with a steaming, bubbling, hissing pot of water. It looked hot. Very hot.
But surely ... they weren't going to cook him in his clothes?
Luckily, he never had the chance to find out. At that moment he heard a loud shout, and with a curse, the Orc dropped him. He fell with a thud to the ground next to the fire, rolling instinctively away from the flames to come to a halt sprawled upon his stomach. Hardly daring to move, he looked up. A strange sight met his eyes. The Orcs had drawn away from him and the cauldron, and had backed up into a ring, except for the leader, who stood alone in the circle, wearing a grimace that made him look even uglier than normal, if that were possible. As Adelard watched, the rows of the Orcs parted, opening a pathway directly opposite the Orc leader. A tall figure strode heedlessly through the snarling ranks of the goblins.
Adelard's gaze fell on the new-comer's face, and he suddenly wished he could curse as well as an Orc. It was a Man's face, neither young nor particularly old, pale, with dark red hair and large grey eyes that flinched at nothing. He garb was ragged and travelled-stained, but he looked no less noble for it. Pinned onto his cloak he wore a brooch shaped like a tree surrounded by seven stars - the emblem of the Guard of Bree. Adelard had an identical brooch, though it was under his cloak now and well out of sight.
In itself, none of this was disturbing, of course - the problem was, Adelard knew this particular Man quite well. He was one of the four Captains of the Guard of Bree and his name was Lomion. He was, or had been, Adelard's companion.
Adelard had not, of course, left Bree on his own, but had been accompanied by three Men, among them Lomion, who alone out of the company was of the Dúnedain, the Men of the West. His other two companions had been killed by the trolls, before he and Lomion had managed to escape. The two survivors had been traveling together, weaponless and horseless in the wild, until they had stumbled upon this band of Orcs. Adelard had tried to conceal himself in the underbrush beneath the sparse trees, but his friend had disappeared safely into the cover of a nearby stand of trees, or so he had thought at the time. Apparently, however, Lomion had decided not to leave Adelard to his fate, and was staging a hopeless, and all-in-all rather disappointing rescue attempt.
Lomion came to a halt within the circle of Orcs, facing their leader calmly. The goblins snarled but shied away from him in fear. This didn't surprise Adelard - Lomion was the kind of person who could frighten his enemies with a glance while inspiring devotion in the hearts of his friends with the same look. That look was now directed stonily at the Orc leader, and the Man's dark eyes sparkled dangerously as he spoke.
"You have all the insolence and idiocy I would expect of one of your kind," Lomion said flatly, "That you dare to lay hands upon one of the King's subjects in the domain of Arnor! But no matter. No harm was done, as I see, and I will allow you to depart from here peacefully, provided you return my companion to me immediately."
Adelard suppressed a groan. Was Lomion really going to try and bluff their way out of this? The Big People were really impossible at times, especially times like this. Nor was the Hobbit the only one who seemed to have trouble taking Lomion seriously.
The Orc stared at Lomion in surprise, then burst into laughter. "Oh, will you?" he cackled, "How gracious of you! And supposing we don't want to leave, eh? Supposing we want to add some man-flesh to our little stew? What will you do then ... defeat us with your invisible sword?" And he laughed again. Seeing that Lomion bore no weapon, the other Orcs began to regain their courage, creeping closer with sneering grins on their faces. Adelard watched the situation nervously, wondering in frustration what Lomion thought he was doing and why the Man hadn't had the sense to stay away.
"Do you think you will add another dish to your horrid feast?" Lomion asked, seeming unperturbed by the ring of enemies closing in on him, "If you ever fill your belly again, it will be more than you deserve. You are a fool, but since you do not know what you are doing, perhaps I will overlook your stupidity this time. But stand out of my way now, or I assure you, you will regret it."
Lomion's words were quiet, but they cut through the goblin's howls like lightning through dark thunderclouds. The Man looked so menacing that the laughter around Adelard died off, and the Orcs looked uncertainly to their leader. The head Orc licked his lips, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he did not seem amused any longer.
"Who are you?" he growled, "What do you want here?"
"What do I want?" Lomion said in reply, "Many things, of course ... as for who I am, ask your masters, if you dare! They know me well enough, though perhaps they will not be willing to share all they know with you. But look, it seems your questions may be answered sooner than you thought! Here comes your lord!"
Lomion's last words were drowned out by howls of horror from the surrounding goblins. To Adelard's uttermost surprise, the Orcs scattered in all directions, except for their leader, who did not move so much as a muscle. The Hobbit got to his feet carefully, hope returning to him for the first time since he had seen the Orcs bearing down on him. What Lomion had done he did not know, but the way, for all he could see, was clear. Yet the Man did not greet him or make any move to flee, merely stood nonchalantly in his place, a half-smile playing across his lips.
"Lomion!" Adelard said, glancing quickly at the Orc leader and the other goblins, all cowering fearfully in the bushes around them, "What are you waiting for? Come on!"
Lomion made no reply whatsoever. Adelard took a step toward his friend, but he froze suddenly as he realized what it was that had frightened their captors enough to send them trembling into the underbrush. A wave of cold washed over him, quenching all his hope of escape in a chilly blast. He felt as though his heart were gripped by an icy hand. Mouth dry, he stared wide-eyed to the north.
Dust rose into the air from the dried-out autumn earth, raised by a large company speeding swiftly towards them. Even from this distance Adelard could tell who they were: Orcs, a much larger group than that which had caught him, and a great number of Rhudaurians, who had allied themselves with the Witch-King. None of this, however, was what struck him with such dread. A black horse with a shadowy rider was galloping at their head, and fear flew before him like a deadly wind.
The wind rustled softly through the brightly coloured leaves of an apple tree standing peacefully upon the south side of Bree-hill, a good distance above the highest of the Hobbit-holes built into the hillside. The smell of apples was heavy in the air, and the dying red rays of the sun mingling with the orange and crimson leaves made a pleasant scene, had anyone been there to see it. But the inhabitants of Bree were about their business, and the only pair of eyes in the vicinity were fixed on the horizon and paid no attention to the flame-coloured foliage.
These eyes belonged to a Hobbit sitting in the upper branches of the tree, apparently lost in solitary thought. He - for it was a he - was a young Hobbit, barely past his coming-of-age, with curly black hair and grey eyes. At first glance there seemed to be nothing special about him, and only on closer examination would an observer have noticed the short sword that he held in his hands. It had been given to him by his father Adelard on his birthday, against all tradition, and he still did not quite know what to make of the strange gift.
"This is no ordinary sword, Tolman," Adelard had said to his son as he placed the weapon in his hands, "its name is Morchaint, and there's magic in it for sure. It might come in handy, but use it carefully! Enchanted things are always odd, and I have the feeling this one is odder than most."
Odd was definitely the right word, Tolman Marchbank reflected, examining the blade for the umpteenth time. Its scabbard was of plain, dark leather, stained and hardened by age – in some places it even appeared stained by blood. What else could those dark, stiff patches be? That in itself was disturbing, and Tolman had already made a mental note to find a new scabbard for the thing as soon as possible. Old as its covering was, however, that was nothing compared to the age of the blade itself. Slowly, he drew the sword out of its scabbard, listening to the familiar grating of metal on leather.
The hilt firmly in his hand, he held the sword out at arm’s length, examining it with a wondering eye. He knew little of the art of sword-fighting, being more inclined to wandering than weaponry. In fact, he spent so much time exploring the woods in and around Bree that his father had nicknamed him Trotter, declaring with a smile that he would one day be the first Hobbit-Ranger in Middle Earth, and therefore deserved an appropriate name. Yet even with his limited knowledge, Tolman knew that this sword was different. There could be none others like it in the world.
This blade did not gleam and shine like those of the Men of Bree, nor did it glow like some Elven weapons. It was a dark sword, its metal a deep, lightless black, though despite its dull colour and apparent age it was dangerously sharp. The hilt was pure black as well, of a material unfamiliar to Tolman; there was a single round stone set into it, cloudy and sombre as the sky before a thunderstorm. Once Tolman had thought the mist within the stone moved, but it could easily have been a trick of his eyes.
Still, even Morchaint could not hold his attention for long. Tolman's gaze wandered to rest upon the East Road, the sword in his idle hands forgotten. He was thinking, quite understandably, about his father, whom he had not seen for far too long.
Three weeks before, the remnants of a travelling party of Dwarves had stumbled into Bree, bloodied and exhausted, gasping the tale of an assault of goblins out of Angmar. Their words were worrying, telling of Orcs nearly the size of men, and bold as never before, riding upon the backs of Wargs, with cold swords that gave poisoned wounds. It was not the first time that such news had reached Bree, and after much deliberation, the city council had decided to send out a reconnaissance party. Three men and one Hobbit had left the town the next day. Their leader, Lomion, was Tolman's closest friend, and their chief spy, the Hobbit, was none other than his father. No news had been heard of them since they departed, and people had begun to fear the worst.
Tolman kicked at a branch disconsolately, ignoring the quivering of the tree that sent red leaves drifting down to catch in his hair. He brushed them away impatiently, pulling the last one out of his black tangles and looking at it absently. The dark crimson shade reminded him of Lomion - his friend's hair was the same colour. Now, it brought to mind the first time he had spoken to the Dúnedan, all of five years ago ...
... He had been mighty pleased with himself for his cleverness, and could not help grinning insolently with excitement. Not that anyone was around to see it, but that was beside the point ... Tolman was alone beyond the eastern borders of Bree for the first time, and he was going to enjoy every moment of it.
He had gone with his father to Archet, to visit the Brushbars, some distant relatives of his mother, who had died when he was young. Archet was the furthest east of the settlements of Bree-land - how could he have resisted the temptation to step into the wild, dangerous lands so close by? He had stolen out of the Brushbar hole before dawn, careful not to wake anyone, and run all the way to the East Road. There he stood now, triumphantly confident. How far did he dare to go eastwards? The Witch-King had more power there than Arnor these days.
But even the Witch-King could not contend with Tolman Marchbank when he had his mind set on something, he thought stubbornly, and started to walk self-assuredly down the Road. He had a bow, after all - what could happen?
The weather was unpleasant; a cold wind blew and the sky was clouded. The sparse trees lining the road swayed and leaned threatening in the gale, making odd creaking noises. Tolman found his steps slowing, and sped up angrily. There was nothing to be afraid of, he told himself. Everyone was so scared of the wild lands that they wouldn't even leave Bree to find out what it was they were actually supposed to be frightened of. No wonder the Witch-King grew stronger every year, when everyone made it so easy for him! Well, he wasn't afraid, or at least not very much. Somebody had to do something, after all ...
Suddenly, Tolman stopped dead. He was no longer alone. There was a rider coming from the north, hurrying straight to where he was standing. And if someone came from the North, that could only mean one thing ...
He fumbled blindly for his bow as the wind whipped his hair into his eyes. What if it was one of the terrible Black Riders he had heard such awful stories about? What had he been thinking, to come out here by himself? His hands were cold and clumsy, but he finally managed to nock an arrow. Looking up quickly, he realized with dismay that the rider was much closer, and had almost reached the Road. Taking a hurried aim, he shot as well as he could with the wind and his own nerves working against him.
The arrow flew straight and true, to his own surprise, and for a moment his heart lifted. But then, with one smooth movement, the rider drew his sword and chopped the flying shaft in two. The harmless pieces of wood hurtled away to either side. Before Tolman could lift his bow once more, the stranger had reached him.
"Hold there, good fellow!" the rider cried, reigning in his horse. With immense relief, Tolman saw that it was a Man he faced, dressed in brown, not black, and looking rather amused if a bit perplexed.
"What's a Hobbit doing out here alone?" the Man continued, "And shooting at friends, no less!"
Tolman was so relieved that it did not occur to him to ask what the rider, for that matter, was doing alone in these lands. He lowered his bow and stared up at the Man, whose height and face marked him as one of the Dúnedain. His eyes were grey and his hair dark red.
"I was ... uh, I was going for a walk," Tolman answered sheepishly, "I guess I got a little lost."
"I guess so!" the Man replied, laughing, "It's not wise to stray in the eastern lands - one can get lost far too easily." He seemed to sober up at his own words, and looked at Tolman seriously. "What is your name, young Hobbit?" he asked.
"Tolman Marchbank," Tolman said, "What's yours?"
The Man seemed vaguely surprised at Tolman's frankness, but answered anyway. "Call me Lomion." Then he smiled again. "But come! This is an unpleasant place for a conversation. Let us go back to Archet! My horse can carry us both. Say, you're not a bad hand with a bow ..."
The faint sound of bugles startled Tolman out of his reverie. It was the evening call, signalling the closing of the shops and business in Bree. The shadows lay long on the ground beneath the trees, and he realized with a sinking heart that it would soon be dark – another day passed without news, another day further from hope, a hope now fading and barely sustained. He did not want to return to his hole on the lower slopes of Bree-hill, to face another night of nervous wakefulness. And yet, what else was there to do?
Adelard lay still with his eyes closed and tried to assess the situation. He was outside on his back on the ground, next to a tent wall, with hands and feet tied. It was night, of that much he was sure - it was cold and he couldn't feel any sunlight. He didn't know how long he had been unconscious, or what day it was, or where they were going. All in all, things looked bleak.
They had been travelling for several days, that he knew - several very unpleasant days of being carried on an Orc's back. It could be worse though - at least most of the time they carried him head upwards. He had caught a few stray glimpses of Lomion, who was kept as far away from him as the size of the company would allow. Considering that the stray band of Orcs had by this time grown to a small army, this was a fair distance. Still, Adelard had caught sight of the Man's russet head once in a while, and managed to pity Lomion despite being absorbed with his own problems. Lomion was being forced to run on foot within a tight guard of goblins, all of whom were only too eager to see him falter or stumble. In this, however, they were disappointed; Lomion did not tire, merely striding on easily as if it were his habit to run several forced marches a day.
But it was not the running or the discomfort of being around Orcs that had rendered Adelard unconscious and made him lose track of time. He suppressed a shudder as a vision unfolded before his eyes of a tall, black figure with no face and metal gauntlets instead of hands. The Black Rider. He had thought they were only stories, tales spread by the Enemy to cow the free peoples with fear. It was said that they were the servants of the Witch-King, bound to him in will and obeying his every thought, appearing suddenly where they were least expected, so terrible that grown men cowered before them. But who they were and where they came from no one knew.
When the Black Rider had appeared, every Orc had crept obediently into his train, taking Adelard and Lomion with them. They had been tied and forced to join the march westwards. Adelard heard no word about their intended destination, but he had begun to suspect, and his suspicions grew ever stronger as they began to pass lands he knew well. From the back of an Orc, he tried to watch the country, gauge the size of the army and their competence, and keep an eye on Lomion as well as he could. Being a captive did not rob him of his skills ... but then everything had changed. It had been yesterday evening, or at least he thought it was yesterday, that they had taken him to the Black Rider.
He had not known where they were taking him, but from the look of cruel enjoyment on the faces of the two Orcs accompanying him, he had quickly deduced that it was not going to be a pleasant afternoon tea. They had wound through the coarse, grey tents set up in the goblin camp until they reached the largest one, a black monstrosity with a flag flying obscenely from the top. The flag was black as well, emblazoned with a red ring - the banner of the Witch-King. About this time Adelard had begun to wish himself desperately back onto the back of a running Orc, even head-downwards if need be.
The two Orc ushers had hustled him into the tent and withdrawn quickly. Inside, a single lamp hung from the ceiling, burning with bloody light and illumining the three figures standing around it. One was the Orc who had led the company that had found Adelard originally; the second was a gaunt, crag-faced Man unknown to him. The third was the black captain. As soon as he stepped inside, both the Orc and the Man started toward him with hands outstretched.
"Keep your paws away from him, Groga!" the Man snapped, glaring at the Orc, "Your clumsy claws can't handle this kind of work!"
"I found him, didn't I?" Groga growled in return, "You're getting above your station, human. Don't cross me or my boys, Elendur, or you'll regret it yet!"
Elendur seemed about to reply, but he was interrupted by an impatient movement by the Black Rider. Both Groga and Elendur cut off abruptly and glanced fearfully at the silent figure. Then Groga leaped forward and grabbed Adelard roughly, pushing the unwilling Hobbit forward to stand before the Enemy's mightiest servant.
"Here he is, your Lordship," the Orc said, cringing, "The little squealer we picked up on our way."
Adelard did not dare to look up from the ground. The giant black figure loomed above him silently. The air seemed suddenly cold on his skin, as if he had been plunged without warning into icy water, and he felt what courage he had faltering swiftly.
Then the Rider spoke to him. He tried vainly to stop his ears to the sound; the harder he tried, the more it seemed to fill his head until he forgot where he was or who, and the voice was everywhere. Perhaps it was not real, and he could only hear it in his mind. He couldn’t tell; it made no difference. It was a dead voice, flat and without emotion, so dry and smooth that it sent shudders down his spine. There was a hiss in like a snake slithering through dry leaves.
"Tell me what you know," the Rider voice whispered.
Adelard bit his lip without knowing it, his brain working frantically. Memories flashed through his mind. His deceased wife, his son, Bree, the Hobbit hole in the hill, the long leagues in the wilderness, every secret he knew ... what should he say first? What would the icy lord want to know, what would make that voice stop? He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He wanted desperately to speak, but something in him held back the words, something stubborn and angry.
"I..." He said with a trembling voice, "I, I ... I ..."
"You don't have to tell him anything," a calm voice said, cutting through the confusion in Adelard's head. The Hobbit whipped around in surprise, his eyes lighting on the source of the words. There was someone else in the tent after all; in the deep shadow of one corner a man was standing, half-slumped, tied to a make-shift post. Despite the dim light, Adelard had no trouble recognizing him.
"Lomion!" he said, half relieved and half horrified to see his friend, "What ..." But, finding he had nothing to say, his voice trailed off and he merely stared. From what he could tell, Lomion looked rather the worse for the wear; his face was bruised and fatigue was painted in every line on his face. His voice, however, was as cool and proud as ever.
"Don't tell him anything," Lomion repeated, "He's going to attack Bree, you see, and he wants all the information possible about the town. I told him he wouldn't get anything out of you, but he wouldn't believe me. Doesn't know much about Hobbits, obviously." Lomion grinned faintly, but he was not looking at Adelard. His eyes never left the Black Rider.
The Rider hissed angrily and the shadow around him seemed to grow darker. Groga and Elendur trembled and backed away. Adelard 's gaze was pulled back unwillingly to the creature standing before him, hoping desperately and vainly that it had been enough, that they would become bored of him and send him back outside. Instead, the Black Rider stepped forward smoothly, reaching out one gauntleted hand. Adelard shrunk away with a cry, but his feet stumbled and he fell heavily to the ground. He stared up at the Rider, frozen in helpless fear, as the shadow-filled hood bent down towards him. He didn't want to look, didn't want to see what was inside that hood, but he could not look away. Everything seemed to be moving too slowly. It was like being in a dream, a nightmare where his worst fears closed in on him and he could not move no matter how hard he strained his muscles.
Unwillingly, he gazed into the black hood, like a bird caught by the hypnotic stare of a snake. Then he did the thing that was probably most prudent in the present situation; he fainted dead away.
And now he had awoken, after who knew how many hours of oblivion. He tried to shake off the awful memory, to shake off the strange cold that had descended on him then and sunk into his bones. He had to regain his strength somehow ... the Orcs were going to attack Bree. Trotter ...
Then he froze and held his breath as the voices of several Orcs broke the silence. It must have been quite late, since the camp was mostly quiet, but nevertheless, three voices were coming rapidly closer to where he lay. Scraps of the conversation came to his ears. He opened his eyes a slit, peering into the night. He was outside, in a lane between two tents. Sleeping Orcs lay around him; apparently not all of the creatures were willing to make even so much of a concession to civilization as to sleep in a tent.
He bit back a yelp as one of the "sleeping" goblins moved. So they had left one awake, to keep guard on him, most likely. The Orc had not noticed that he was no longer unconscious, luckily; he stood up and called hoarsely to the three voices Adelard had heard.
"What d'you think you're doing, eh? Trying to wake the bosses? They'll have your heads!" he said.
The conversation stopped abruptly, but a few seconds later three more goblins appeared from around the corner of the tent on Adelard's left. They were of the short, squat kind commonly found in the Misty Mountains, suited to the low tunnels they dig in the stone. When they saw the sentry, all three stopped in their tracks.
"Aww, leave off your whining!" said one, peering at the sentry, "You're just jealous because they stuck the watch duty on you. Not that the little creature could get up to much. I guess that's why they made you the sentry - you're not good for much else!"
All three laughed rudely, to the sentry Orc's great chagrin.
"Shut your flapping mouths!" he growled, "I don't need you telling me my job! You all just get where you belong. I hope they shoot you down tomorrow, too, cold stone dead!"
Tomorrow? Adelard's heard leaped. There was going to be shooting tomorrow, and that meant a battle ... were they so close to Bree? How long had he really been asleep?
"I'm thinking there'll be a lot less of us dead tomorrow than of them," said another of the short Orcs, "Everything's in our favour, you see - the boss cut a deal and it's all taken care of."
"What are you blabbering about?" said the sentry, unable to hide the curiosity in his voice, "Who'd he make a deal with?"
"Wouldn't you just like to know!" said the other sarcastically, "No, I think you'll just have to wait and find out! And we'll be back off to our tents!"
The three mountain Orcs grinned once more, jeeringly, at the sentry, then disappeared back into the night. The remaining goblin stared after them disgruntedly, muttering to himself. Adelard caught the words "upstarts" and "kill them myself" among the rest. Then, apparently resigning himself to his fate, the Orc sat back down, glancing at the Hobbit idly. His eyes widened suddenly in surprise, and too late, Adelard realized that his own eyes were open, and the Orc could probably see them even in the dark.
Before the goblin could move, however, a tongue of silver flashed through the night. With a gurgle, the Orc toppled to the ground, clawing futily at the knife stuck in its throat. After a few seconds, it lay still, and all was quiet again.
Shocked into stillness, Adelard lay as still as the dead Orc, wondering what had just happened. His question was quickly answered, however, when a dark shape stepped into his field of view. With a few strides, the figure was at his side, kneeling quickly in the lee of the tent. Another knife appeared in its hands, and it began to cut the bonds on Adelard's wrists and ankles.
"Shhh!" a familiar voice whispered, "A noise at this point could bring them all down on our heads, so I suggest you use all the stealth you Hobbits are capable of!"
"Lomion!" Adelard whispered in return, overjoyed, "You're a marvel! It's impossible! How did you manage it?"
"Later!" Lomion replied. Adelard could not make out the expression on the Man's shadowed face, but he sounded understandably tense. The last of the bonds fell off, severed in pieces, and Adelard stood up quickly with Lomion's help, moving his stiff arms and legs to get the blood flowing in them again.
"Come on!" Lomion said, "We're about twenty miles from Bree. They're going to attack after sundown tomorrow. We have to get there first!"
"What about ..." Adelard began to ask, but Lomion motioned him to silence. The Man started off into the darkness, and he followed without protest. The two of them slipped like shadows through the sleeping camp, and Adelard was far too busy trying to be as silent as possible to reflect on the mysterious ease of their escape.
A few minutes later, they passed the last of the tents and began to run over the plain towards the threatened town of Bree.
The Marchbank hole was dark and silent, seeming almost uninhabited in the late hours of the night. In fact, it was almost uninhabited. There was only one current resident, and he usually spent very little time at home. Now, however, he was sprawled in an armchair in the parlour, dozing the uneasy night away.
Tolman was still fully dressed, and Morchaint lay on a small table next to the chair. There was a fireplace across from the table, but no coals glowed there, and the room was dark. The room, and for that matter, the entire hole, was in rather a state of disorder. Tolman had been much too worried and distracted in the last few weeks to pay much attention to the condition of the house. This was not the first time he had fallen asleep in his clothes in a chair, nor the first time his sleep had been troubled by dreams ...
... He crouched silently under a wagon in the market square, watching the proceedings with great interest. Usually the market bustled with the colours and sounds of business, filled with neat kiosk-stands, the calls of shopping housewives, all types of farm animals, and fascinating items for sale. Now, however, the silence was broken only by the clatter of wooden swords and the excited murmurs of the crowd.
It was summer, and Bree was filled with strangers, gossip, commerce, and entertainment of all sorts. The town market was usually crowded anyway, but today it was filled to the bursting, except for a cleared space in the middle where the contestants in the sword-fighting tournament pitted their skills against one another.
Tolman had found it impossible to get near the front and so had taken refuge under the wagon, where he could at least see some of the action through the forest of legs in front of him. He twisted his neck, trying to get the best possible view, for the match he had come to see was starting now.
"Say goodbye to your reputation!" the first swordsman said gaily, twirling his sword agily in his hand. He grinned, the sunlight flashing on his white teeth. He was a good-looking young man, with sandy brown hair and eyes and a good-natured look to him; his name was Alwin and he was the mayor's son, well-known and well-liked in town. Tolman believed Alwin was probably a good hand with a sword, but he was still convinced the young man would lose this match.
"If you can rid me of some of the less savoury parts of my reputation, I'll be grateful to you," Alwin's opponent joked wryly in return. He was a Man as well, and though he stood with his back to Tolman, the Hobbit would have recognized him anywhere: it was Lomion. He looked perfectly relaxed, which was not surprising - Lomion was widely known as the best swordsman for miles around.
A whistle sounded, the sign for the match to begin, and Tolman held his breath in excitement. Alwin and Lomion began to circle each other carefully; Alwin practically radiated energy and readiness, while Lomion seemed as cool and untouched as an icicle. Suddenly, the two of them leaped at each other, almost simultaneously, and -
"So this is where you are," someone said, interrupting Tolman's thoughts. Distracted, he glanced to his right. His father was sitting cross-legged next to him, seemingly oblivious to the events taking place in the market.
"Hello, Da!" Tolman said, "Look, Lomion's sparring! I bet Isa Elmtwig a silver penny that he'll win. What a joke! Lomion never loses, and he won't now, no matter how good everyone thinks Alwin is ..."
But Adelard seemed not to have heard a word of what his son said. He simply shook his head slightly and sighed.
"The Big People," he said, "Always fighting, even in times of peace ... the shadow touched them too early."
"What?" Tolman asked, confused. He didn't understand what his father was talking about; it wasn't like Adelard to speak like this. Furthermore, at the moment he was far more interested in the match than in listening to the vague assertions of his father, who was obviously in a philosophical mood. Instead of answering, the older Hobbit merely pointed back toward the sparring ring. Wondering why his father was so melancholy, Tolman looked back at the contestants.
In his shock, he forgot to cry out. He tried to jump up but hit his head on the wagon-bed and sat back down abruptly. His head spun dizzily, but the picture before his eyes did not change. Lomion stood alone in the ring now, and the sword in his hand was no longer wood but steel. It was covered with blood; at the Man's feet lay a body. Tolman tried not to look. He did not want to see the tanned young face of Alwin, frozen in death.
"But it was supposed to be a game!" he cried, turning back to Adelard. But the place next to him was empty. He was alone again. Dread weighing on his heart, he looked back at the sparring ring. Lomion was still there, but someone else had taken Alwin's place. Adelard stood there, looking small and very obviously unarmed. Lomion began to circle around the Hobbit now, to Tolman's extreme dismay. He tried to rush to his father, but a wall of bodies held him back as surely as stone would have. He dropped to his knees and started to crawl through the crowd.
"Lomion!" he shouted, "Stop! What are you doing?"
Lomion did not seem to have heard him. The Man continued to close in on Adelard, who made no move to escape or defend himself. The older Hobbit looked impassively at his son.
"I told you," he said wearily, "The shadow is on them. All roads lead to darkness now ..."
Tolman shrieked and closed his eyes reflexively as Lomion's sword slashed through the air. There was a dull thud, and then Bree's trumpets began to blow, sounding the ancient danger signal ...
... Tolman started awake, realizing he had fallen out of his chair. He shook his head, trying to clear the disturbing dream from his mind. Slowly, he got his feet, feeling around in the dark room for a lamp. It seemed to have moved, or perhaps he was still too confused by the dream and the horns ringing in his head to think clearly.
Only then did he realize that the horns really were sounding. They were blowing a series of high notes that every citizen of Bree knew and recognized as a warning. Tolman listened carefully, hardly able to comprehend what his ears told him. It was the attack signal - Bree was under attack! Forgetting about lighting the lamp, Tolman grabbed his sword, buckling it swiftly onto his back - it was too long to hang comfortably at his side - and hurried through the dark rooms to the front door.
The horns blew ever more urgently as he opened the door and ran into the night. He paused for a moment in the front yard. Other sounds came to his ears now; cries and shouts, whistles and screams, and other ominous signs that all was not well. He listened carefully, then leaped into motion, running full tilt along the road towards the East Gate.
In a second he had reached Crown Road, a narrow, dusty street, the first leading from the Hill where the Hobbit-holes were to the town. It was bordered by smaller houses of Men, with occasional flower-pots in the windowsills, now mostly bare and dry, brittle yellow in colour. The houses melted into the night around Tolman as he ran by heedlessly. He did not know exactly why he was running or what he would find, and he did not spend energy thinking about it. He had only one vague goal: to get to the East Gate.
Ahead of Tolman, a street corner became distinguishable. There Crown Road crossed Haven Street, which would take him straight to the eastern wall within a few minutes. Too excited to be tired, he sped up as much as possible, a barely visible shadow flying toward the street corner.
Unfortunately, at that moment someone stepped out from the corner of Haven, right into his path. Unable to stop, Tolman crashed into the obstacle at full-tilt, sending the innocent passer-by reeling into the dust of the street. Panting, he slid to a stop. For a moment he turned, meaning to run on - it hardly seemed important at the moment whether he ran into someone or not. But Tolman was a proper Hobbit and had been brought up to be polite. Accordingly, he grimaced and, quelling his impatience, hurried back to help whomever he had knocked over. When he saw who it was, however, he could hardly restrain himself from turning and leaving without another word.
A girl, too large to be a Hobbit and too small to be of the race of Men lay blinking in the dust at his feet. He knew her by sight, though they had never spoken; she was Anna Applethorn, child of a Man and a Hobbit, though now deprived of both parents. Intermarriage between the races was not looked upon favourably despite the friendship between the peoples . . . and Anna was notorious with the town gossips for her unruly appearance and reputation as a liar and thief, and generally avoided by Men, Hobbits, and Dwarves alike. Reluctantly, Tolman offered her his hand, clenching his jaws slightly as he spoke:
"I beg your pardon, I didn’t mean to knock you over. I’m in a bit of a hurry, you see, and I just didn’t notice you . . ."
The girl just stared at him with wide open green eyes.
"Look, are you going to get up or not?" Tolman asked in annoyance, aching to be away. The horns rang once again through the town, which by now was fully awake and in motion. Lights began to glow in the windows of the houses on the road, and a few doors opened, expelling their sleepy inhabitants onto the street.
Still no answer, just the same startled, though fearless gaze. Tolman was reminded strangely of a doe he had once seen in the Chetwood. The animal had looked at him with the same expression, not of fear, but of surprised recognition, though it’s eyes had been large and brown, not dark green. Shaking off the odd memory, he shrugged, and without another word turned and hurried off down the road. He had no time to waste.
Anna stared after the young Hobbit with the dark sword as he disappeared into the deepening shadows. Dust smudged her face and hands; her palms stung where she had braced herself against the fall. He had been arrogant; he had looked down on her like what she was, a homeless half-breed. But she was not angry.
Anna did not know the dark young Hobbit’s name, but she did know that before the night was over, all the arrogance would be shaken out of him and he would save her life.
"Close the gate!" Lomion cried.
Adelard stood gasping at the Man's side. They had reached Bree in time, just after nightfall, but it had taken all his strength to keep up with his long-legged companion. He felt exhausted enough to sleep where he fell, be it a battlefield even. He grimaced at the thought. In all likelihood it would be a battlefield before long.
The East Gate clanged shut behind them, and Lomion turned away, shouting commands at the Guardsmen manning the walls and the ones arriving, awakened by the horns. The Orcs had been sighted; Lomion and Adelard had barely made it back to Bree before the attacking army.
The bugles and accompanying shouts rang glaringly in Adelard's ears. Where was Trotter? If he had heard the horns, he would be on his way here for sure.
Guardsmen of all shapes and size rushed by him. Adelard felt rather useless. He was a spy, not a soldier. Lomion had disappeared, probably to the East Tower. No matter. In a moment he would go and look for his son. But for now he merely slipped out of the way of the Guard, taking cover in the lee of the wall.
He sat down tiredly, leaning against the cold stone. Just for a minute, then he would go find Tolman ...
Tolman dashed into the small square before the East Tower, the strongest fortified point on the eastern part of the wall, next to the Gate itself. He stopped there, rooted to the spot in surprise and horror. The square was filled with Men and Dwarves and Hobbits, most of them half-dressed but all of them carrying weapons and all of them running towards the wall. The ramparts were already filled with men, and the hiss and twang of bowstrings filled the air.
The scene was lit by torches on the walls, and by fires that had broken out on the nearby houses, started by burning arrows shot by the attackers. Despite this, Tolman could not make out what exactly was happening on the wall. The attackers remained hidden, and he could not tell who had the upper hand.
He took a step forward and was nearly bowled over by a Dwarf rushing blindly by. He grabbed reflexively at the passing figure, his hands catching in something soft.
"Ah!" the Dwarf yelped, "That's my beard! Let go!"
"Sorry!" Tolman said, "What happened? Who's attacking?"
The Dwarf paused for a moment, squinting at Tolman in the faint fire-light. The Hobbit suddenly realized that he knew this Dwarf. His name was Olin. He was young, with a bright red beard, and a friendly enough fellow in the gruff manner of Dwarves.
"Tommy!" he said, finally recognizing Tolman "Come to help out? They need every hand, or so I hear! It's Orcs from Angmar, what do you think? And ..." his voice sank to a fearful whisper, "They say there's a Black Rider leading them!"
With these words, Olin reclaimed his beard from Tolman's grasp and hurried on. For a moment Tolman only stared after him. Orcs? Black Rider? Bree, under attack? It seemed so impossible ... though the Witch-King had been a constant danger as long as he could remember, he had always thought of his hometown as, well, invincible. He looked up at the wall, and caught his first glimpse of the enemy. His lungs felt painfully constricted. A group of Orcs had managed to make it up a ladder and onto the ramparts, where they were waging a bitter battle with the defenders.
Setting his jaw in determination, Tolman pulled his sword from his sheath and followed after Olin to the nearest stairway that would take him to the top of the wall. He felt as if there was nothing else he could do, really. He thought of Lomion and his father, who had disappeared without a trace into the shadow of the Witch-King, and hot anger awoke in him. He began to run again.
Still, it was with wavering heart that he climbed the stairwell to the ramparts to face the shadow and fire.
It was indeed shadow and fire that met the gaze of Tolman Marchbank as he looked out beyond the walls of Bree. The night was dark, but the torches of the army standing before the walls burned red. It was an army; or a horde, a sea of dark faces and darker purposes serving a black master. There were Orcs, and Wargs, and Men as well, Men who had heeded the words of the Witch-King and his promises and sold him their services and their souls. And now they had come for Bree, which had not bowed to the dark lord and so earned his everlasting hatred.
Spreading out before the wall of the town was a long line of leering, snarling, twisted Orc faces, hidden sometimes by rough armour, but more often bare, tainting the cool autumn night with foulness. Behind the first line stood another, and yet another, fading away into the darkness behind until body and night became one indistinguishable blackness. Their number seemed distressingly large, and the sight of the eagerness upon their faces for blood and booty made Tolman shiver. But they were outside the town, and the walls were high and strong; it would take more than ugly faces, he thought resolutely, to take Bree.
Ladders were thrown against the walls and cast off again as quickly. The few Orcs who had made it over had been killed, and now that the ramparts were fully manned, the enemy was finding it difficult to break the line of defenders. But not all went according to the wishes of the Bree-folk; the Witch-King's army was not helpless or unskilled.
Tolman stood frozen, sword forgotten in his hand, his mind slowly filling with horror and pity and sadness. Time seemed to slow around him, while his senses grew more keen; he saw in terrible detail an arrow slice through the neck of a Man, a burning ball of tar strike the breast of a Hobbit – was that Falco Took? - setting flesh and clothing ablaze. Stones were catapulted over the wall, crashing into the nearer houses of the town behind. Some burst into flame as they impacted, lighting the night with a lurid glare. An Orc face appeared over the rampart, and was cut down; more followed, but none yet were upon the wall.
How long he stood there, behind the battle, watching and helpless to move, Tolman could not tell. It seemed only a moment, but an ageless moment, in which time stands still, frozen in the same place for an eternity. A red moment it was, dark and bloody, and Tolman was powerless to escape it, stricken with a horror heretofore unknown. What use in fighting? There were so many of them ...
Tolman, however, was unused to battle and did not fully understand what took place around him. Despite the advantage of surprise, the attack was not succeeding; even this large of a force could not take the walls of Bree, fully manned. Already the Orcs were breaking, pulling away from the walls and crowding toward the gate as if trying to shelter in the doorway. In vain, for there they became easy targets for boiling cauldrons of tar and water from above . . . Yet even this move was not without dark design. The tools of the Witch-King were many, and not all so tangible as swords and arrows.
Tolman, half in a daze, turned away from the scene of blood before him, and so it was he and only he among the defenders who saw the door opening on the doom of Bree. For below and to his right, the great wheel of the gate was moving, and the Gate of Bree was opened from within by the hand of treachery ...
Adelard watched in disbelief as the Gate opened. He had not moved from his spot next to the wall, and had in fact begun to doze, only to be startled awake by a horrendous screeching sound. He had leaped to his feet, knowing the sound for what it was - he had heard it only a half hour ago, when he and Lomion had arrived. It was the gate hinges. The Gate was opening!
But that wasn't the worst of it. Adelard stepped haltingly out of the shadow of the wall, his eyes lighting in disbelief on the bodies of the few guards that had remained here, slain silently by the same traitorous hand that was responsible for the opening of the Gate.
Adelard watched the retreating figure of the traitor in disbelief. Quickly, he stooped and picked up the sword of one of the fallen guards. It was too large for him, but he hardly noticed. Heedless of the battle on the walls, he began to run stumbling after the man-shape as it fled back into the town.
At that moment, the Orcs burst through the gate and into Bree, and he found himself facing the invading army alone.
Anna crept silently through the shadows behind the Prancing Pony, clutching a thin dagger to her chest with trembling fingers. She had no idea now to use the thing, but when Orcs broke into your home, she found it rather prudent to have some sort of weapon at hand. How they had broken in was a question she did not want to contemplate right now; how they would be driven out was the business of others. Though it mattered little if they succeeded or not; how much worse could the life of a captive of Angmar be than that of an outcast of humanity? They was no more joy in one than in the other, and even death should be an indifferent thought, holding little threat. But Anna was young, and youth can not give up the wine of life, be it sweet or bitter, with a hardened heart. She was afraid, and she felt that she should hide; she should climb the Hill or flee into one of the Hobbit-holes with the other women and children of Bree.
Still, something held her back. One thought kept floating to the top of her mind no matter how much she tried to repress it. After flitting silently across the courtyard of the Prancing Pony, Anna took a deep breath, and leaned against the wall of the stable, clutching the hilt of the dagger until her knuckles turned white. Someone had opened the gate, and she had seen who it was.
After the Hobbit with the dark sword who had knocked her down hurried off into the night shadows, Anna had followed, drawn by a conviction stronger than caution or fear that she must see what was to come. Hidden in the shade of the towering ramparts, she had seen him climb to the ramparts; seen the start of the attack; seen the opening of the gate. And she saw clearly before her now the face that belonged to the traitor. As soon as the gate was open, the figure had turned and vanished into the night. But not fast enough, for she had followed in its footsteps, plucking the dagger from the waist of a corpse – a Dwarf, fallen from the battlements.
She had followed the traitor here to the stable of the Prancing Pony. Now she crouched in the shadows, undecided, shivering.
Why had she followed? What did she care about treachery in Bree? What did she care about ... him? It was no business of hers. They hated her, and she cared nothing for them. There was nothing she could do anyway, an orphan girl with no strength of her own and no friends to help her. What made her risk her life for this?
Not like her life was worth anything anyway, a voice whispered in her mind.
Grimacing bitterly, she pushed open the door of the stable and stepped inside.
His ears ringing, Tolman lay stunned on the cold earth. For a moment he floated in a vague greyness, devoid of memory and feeling. Then in a flash of light everything came back to him ... he raised his head slowly, looking up at the battlement from which he had fallen, pushed by the momentum of a staggering, arrow-struck Man. Every bone in his body ached, and he was chilled by the cold air and the earth.
Pushing himself up with immense effort, he saw what he had never thought he would see: the Orcs were inside Bree.
They poured through the gate like a black wave, faceless, soulless, a hating sea of death desiring only to wash away everything in its path with blood. For a moment he was stricken with an urge to run - whether away to safety or into the middle of the attacking force, he wasn't quite sure. Then he saw the defenders throwing themselves against the onslaught, and among them, a familiar face.
"Da!" he cried in relief and joy, running out from the shadow of the wall to join the defending line. Morchaint was in his hand, though he hardly noticed the weapon and had no thoughts of using it. The sword was like a ghost in the night, a spot of vagueness that could have killed before it was seen, had it been wielded with deadly intent. Orcs and Men, Hobbits and Dwarves fought and fell around him, but Tolman saw none of the carnage of battle. Like a shadow he slipped through the storm of death, and the Orcs did not even notice his passing, so dark and silent was he. But he had eyes only for his father.
Adelard fought alone, eyes and sword flashing alike. Man-like he looked, not Hobbit-like, for in that moment a fire awoke in him that does not often kindle in the hearts of the Little People. He was thin and haggard, and his hair that had been black as Tolman’s own now shone pure white. He looked tired, incredibly tired, and much older than Tolman remembered him. Blood drenched him, whether his own or that of others, Tolman could not tell. But a few more steps and they would be at one another’s side ...
An Orc loomed in his path, a spiteful grin on its face, blocking Tolman’s view of his father. With a shout, he slashed at the creature on impulse, but the Orc had been prepared, and parried the untutored stroke. It laughed, broken teeth glinting.
"Silly thing!" It hissed, startling him into stillness. Orcs did not usually talk to him, and he was rather surprised, in fact, that they could talk. He had always assumed that such hideous creatures must be devoid of intelligence; but it was not so, for the Orcs have a cunning that is greater than their appearance belies.
"You’re fighting on the wrong side," It cackled, and seeing Tolman’s look of revolted confusion, laughed harder. "So you don’t know? He made a deal with the Boss! Sold you all out, he did!”
The Orc might easily have finished Tolman then and there, so stunned was he, had not the sword of Adelard Marchbank intervened to save the life of his son. The Orc fell without a sound, head severed from its shoulders, revealing the Hobbit standing behind. The eyes of father and son met, but as Tolman began to cry a welcome, his words died on his lips and he merely stared at his father in horror. The sword fell from Adelard’s trembling hands, and Tolman nearly dropped his as well. There was an arrow bristling from the older Hobbit’s left side, and his face was pale and cold, coloured only by dark streaks of blood. Tolman caught him awkwardly as he staggered and fell to one knee.
"Trotter . . ." whispered Adelard urgently, eyes already darkening with death, " . . . New Year's Eve." He coughed and gripped Tolman's hand.
"What?" Tolman said helplessly, "No ... Da, I don't understand ..."
Then Adelard Marchbank gathered what strength remained to him and spoke strongly for the last time.
"On New Year's Eve ... the tale will be one of tears. Don't trust ... ” Adelard’s voice trailed off.
"Don't trust who? What's on New Year's Eve?" Tolman asked desperately. But Adelard did not answer.
Tolman crouched dumbly by his dead father's side. All his senses seemed to have died as well; he did not hear the shouts and screams around him, or see the Orcs being driven finally shrieking out of Bree, or share in the victory of the Guard of Bree. With numb fingers, he unhooked the brooch of the Guard from his father’s tunic – a white tree surrounded by seven stars it was, symbol of the Kings of Westernesse. Then, putting it into his pocket, he stumbled to his feet and fled into the darkness.
The night was still now, though Tolman felt as if the rushing of all the rivers of the world were in his ears. His feet thudded on the dirt road, leading him to he knew not where – anywhere, just away from the battlefield. He didn't know what to think, and so he busied himself with not thinking as best as he could. He felt like the night himself, dark and cold and empty, and that was much better for the moment than facing reality.
A beam of light fell on his face and Tolman stopped, blinking. He stood at the entrance to the courtyard of the Prancing Pony. The light came from the stables to his right – one of the doors stood partly open. As if in a dream, Tolman walked towards it, clutching the hilt of his sword. Dread gripped him, though he knew not why . But grief had made him reckless, and he had no fear.
When he stepped through the rough wooden door of the stable, however, the sight that met his eyes drove all other thoughts from his mind.
Anna Applethorn stood in the centre of the corridor between the stalls, facing Tolman. Her eyes widened – in surprise or relief? – as she saw him. A few feet to her left lay a dagger, clean and sparkling in the yellow straw. In front of her feet was a hastily dug hole. Facing her, with his back to Tolman, was a Man, swathed in a large, dark brown cloak, holding a crossbow fixed on the girl standing in front of him. It took Tolman only a minute to take this in, and the Man was already turning to see what had caught Anna’s attention.
The Hobbit found himself looking into the grim face of Lomion, his closest friend. The Man of the West raised the crossbow to his shoulder, aiming it unwaveringly, straight at Tolman’s heart.