NyŠrťoniť: The Fall of the North
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Disclaimer: Middle Earth and all its locations belong to the JRR Tolkien estate. The main characters belong to me and are copyrighted. I do not claim ownership of anything of JRR Tolkienís, and I bow down to him in thanks for his wonderful creations which act as inspirations to us all. *bows solemnly*
The Blood of Broken Friendship
Annaís scream, Lomionís eyes, and the head of a black arrow bored into Tolman before he could so much as gasp in surprise. He was hurled against the doorframe behind him and tumbled powerlessly to the floor. Stars swam before his eyes, and he almost forgot to breathe, but then the world clicked back into focus in front of him. Blinking away a feeling of disorientation, he tried to look around the stable, half-lit by a single lantern. The view that met his eyes was not an encouraging one.
Tolman lay sprawled on the stable floor, half leaning against the door frame. He had dropped Morchaint and it lay now some feet away from him beyond his reach. Just outside the circle of lantern-light, crouching half-standing against a stall door, huddled the dishevelled person of Anna, hugging one arm to herself. Tears were running down the girlís face, and her teeth were tightly clenched, but she did not seem to be hurt. Remembering the scream he had heard, Tolman guessed that she had thrown herself at Lomion to prevent the blow and had been cast away like a dog. Perhaps this was the reason that an arrow now stuck in the wall behind him and not in his heart ...
Blood was trickling down his neck. He raised his hand gingerly to the wound - there was a long cut on the left side of his neck, and it was bleeding profusely. Tolman swallowed. Two inches to the right and he would have joined his father by now. The thought was more painful than the wound. All pain was forgotten, though, in the wave of anger that swept over him. He glared at Lomion, fury and disbelief warring within him equally.
The Manís face was very white, and the crossbow now dangled limply from one hand at his side. He was staring rigidly down at Tolman, but there was no expression on his face.
"Tom," he said finally, sounding almost exasperated, "Of all the people in the world, you had to walk through that door. I could've killed you ..."
"You almost did kill me!" Tolman said hotly, struggling to his feet. He stumbled forward. Blood dripped from his throat, forming a small pool on the floor. "What are you doing, anyway?" he asked.
Lomion looked at Anna, who said nothing. She seemed too frightened to speak, and Tolman couldn't blame her. Lomion's gaze was killer, and he doubted if he could have met it himself.
"I followed this here from the gate," Lomion said contemptuously, "After she opened it. She let the Orcs in, and the blood of Bree-folk is on her hands."
"But I - !" Anna protested, taking a step forward. Then she flinched away from Lomion's eyes and fell silent.
"She opened the Gate ... ?" Tolman asked after a moment, doubtful, "Why would she do that? I don't understand this ..."
"Isn't it obvious?" Lomion said, "An outcast, hated by all, finally gets a chance to have her petty revenge. Oh, I doubt she was in league with them; the Witch-King doesn't deal with pathetic creatures like this. But she made use of the attack to inflict what harm she could. Then she came here, to steal a horse, I suppose, and escape while she could. At least she will not get away with the deed, now. The Guard will take care of her."
Anna was shaking her head, looking more stunned than anything else. "I didn't do it!" she said, sputtering in indignation and forgetting to be frightened, "I didn't!"
Tolman looked at her skeptically. It would not surprise him if she really were the traitor, and everything that Lomion had said about her was true. But ... he couldn't understand, then, why she would have stopped Lomion from shooting him, albeit accidentally. Something didn't quite fit - he just couldn't decide what.
"I didn't do it," Anna repeated. She swallowed, looking both nervous and angry. "It was him!" She pointed at Lomion. "I followed him here! He opened the Gate! He's the traitor!" She glared at Lomion poisonously, her eyes shining with the light of the lantern.
"Are you accusing me?" Lomion said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "I'm afraid you'll have to do better than that for the Guard. I doubt they'll be convinced, even by such a touching display of sincerity..."
"You have to believe me," Anna said, speaking to Tolman now, "I was there, I saw it. He opened the Gate and then ran away. When I got here, he took away my dagger, and told me to dig in the middle of the floor ..." She pointed at the hole behind Lomion with muddy hands, "There's something he wants buried there!"
Lomion didn't even bother to answer, just sighed and looked bored. He crossed his arms and shook his head slightly, his red hair falling over his face.
"He's working for the Witch-King ... he'll betray everyone to the dark lord ..." Anna said insistently. It was obvious, however, that Tolman did not particularly believe her, and there was no one else to appeal to. She stopped talking finally, and began to back slowly away from them until her back hit the stall door behind her. Her eyes flicked nervously from Man to Hobbit. She was caught in a trap, and there did not seem to be a way out.
"I hope you've finished your ludicrous tirade," Lomion said, "So that we can leave this filthy stable and my friend can have his wound seen to." He turned to Tolman, looking rather regretful. "I must admit, I thought you were an Orc - "
"He tried to kill you!" Anna shouted in a last attempt to assert her innocence.
Lomion threw up his hands in exasperation. And it was then that Tolman saw it.
For a moment he thought he must be hallucinating. His ears rang, whether from loss of blood or sheer astonishment he did not know. Lomion still held the crossbow in his right hand, so that the palm was not visible. But his left hand was streaked with black smears of grease, of the kind that is commonly used on gate-wheels to keep them from squeaking when the gate is opened.
"Lomion ..." Tolman said, "There's something on your hand."
A flicker of confusion passed over Lomion's face, and for the first time he seemed not completely sure of himself. He gazed at the smears of black on his palm as if seeing them for the first time. Then he looked at Tolman, and his face darkened, as if some inner door had slammed to shut out the light, or perhaps the light had been quenched.
"Battles are rarely clean," he said with narrowed eyes, "Yes, my hands are dirty. If you are suggesting that that is proof that I am a traitor, then I believe we must get you to a doctor immediately. Apparently my misguided arrow damaged more than your skin."
"I'm not suggesting anything," Tolman said, "You're the one whose hands are smeared with gate grease, and you're the one who tried to shoot me. I would be dead if it weren't for Anna. Why would she save my life if she were a traitor?"
"Am I responsible for the deeds of a half-breed?" Lomion countered, "She is probably as deranged as she is immoral. And you are a fool to believe her. Why would I betray Bree?"
"My father died tonight." Tolman said, ignoring the question, "He was your companion, and I counted you as my closest friend. Swear to me by your honour and by our friendship that it is not your fault he is dead, and I will believe you."
Lomion said nothing. Instead, he drew his sword slowly from its sheath. The blade glittered in the lantern-light as the Man looked down at Tolman with cold, hard eyes. And for the first time, the idea occurred to Tolman that he and Anna were alone with the best swordsman in the land, and it was unlikely that anyone was close enough to hear them if they called.
"You were always far too clever for a Hobbit," Lomion said, "And far too bold. Why did you have to join the battle, Tom? Why didn't you stay in your hobbit-hole like any sensible person would? I am sorry about Adelard, and sorry about this too. But if this is how it must be ..."
Tolman's breath caught in his throat as Lomion stepped forward. There was a soft crunch as he set his foot on the ground. The Man glanced down, then stared, frozen where he stood.
He stood with one black boot in the pool of Tolmanís blood.
It was a moment Trotter never forgot, though he often wished to, horrible as it was. The lantern hanging from one of the stall doors only half-lit the stable; the floor, brown earth and scattered yellow straw, and the plain wooden walls were clear in the dim light, while the ceiling faded upwards into shadow. Golden shone Annaís tumbled hair, while he himself stood in twilight. In the center stood Lomion, tall, deadly, lost, and the blood of friendship betrayed washed his feet.
It was only one moment; then a horse whickered nervously, and the silence shattered like a glass of crystal.
With a cry, Anna leaped to her feet and threw herself towards Lomion. For a second, Tolman thought she was going to attack the Man, but he was mistaken. At the last minute, the girl hurled herself to the floor behind him instead, next to the hole in the ground that Tolman had noticed when he first stepped into the stable. Lomion twisted around, cursing, but surprise slowed him, and Anna had already snaked her arm into the hole before he could react.
"Stop!" Lomion cried, " Do not touch the Starflower! They have claimed it!" Quick as a whip, he lunged after the girl with his sword.
But Anna had already rolled away; the blade struck only air. As she staggered to her feet, Tolman saw that she held a small wooden box.
"Come and take it if you can," she said, and the box sprung open in her muddy hands.
Tolman gasped, forgetting pain and grief in sheer wonder. The lamp light sparkled brightly on a silver necklace, wrought in the shape of a seven-petal flower and set with a white stone in the centre. It did not glow itself, but reflected the light in a myriad of colours, throwing spots of silver and gold and red around it like tinted stars.
Lomion shrugged. "As you wish," he said, and raised his sword.
Anna bent swiftly and scooped up something from the floor of the stable. It was Morchaint, Tolmanís sword, left forgotten where he had dropped it. In the presence of the Starflower, it seemed doubly dark; a twilit blade. So stood Anna, star in one hand, shadow in the other, and now she did not look like an orphan, or a homeless child. Her face was set, and her eyes clear.
Lomion only laughed and brought down his mighty sword.
But before the sword could bite its small victim, Lomion cried out in pain, and forgetting all weapons, clutched at his hand. For Tolman, with a strength he did not know remained in him, had picked up from the ground Annaís forgotten dagger, and leaping forward had cut the index finger from Lomionís right hand.
The Man howled in pain and disbelief; blood dripped from his hand, mingling with Tolmanís own on the earthen floor, the blood of broken friendship. But Tolman still heard a sound that brought his heart into his mouth - the sound of footsteps outside, of many feet hurrying toward the stable.
"Run, fool!" he cried to Anna, raising the dagger in his hand and keeping his eyes fixed on Lomion.
Anna hesitated for a moment, looking confused, then thrust the Starflower into her pocket. Tolman watched as she ran out the door and disappeared into the night, then turned back to Lomion.
The dagger trembled in Tolmanís hand, as he looked at Lomion standing hunched over before him. Their eyes met, grey and grey. Then Tolman dropped the dagger and covered his face with his hands as the Guard of Bree burst into the stable. So it was that he did not see Lomion straighten up, recovering quickly from his shock, and motion to the six Men who now stood around them.
"What - ?" Tolman cried, as his arms were seized. He stared up at the Men holding him, then looked at Lomion with dawning understanding.
"This Hobbit," the red-headed Dķnedan said, "Is a traitor and responsible for the deaths of more of our folk than I like to think about. Take him to the gaol and leave him there until the Mayor decides what to do with him."
The Man to Tolman's right cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, that's impossible, sir."
"What? Why?" Lomion asked suspiciously.
"The Mayor is dead, sir. He was killed by the Orcs, and so was most of the council and the Captains. Those that aren't dead are injured and not likely to live for much longer ... except for you. You are the highest ranking official left, and Bree is in your hands, sir. And if I may say so, I'm happy to serve under you, sir!"
Lomion bowed his head thoughtfully and walked slowly out the door. Tolman might have laughed at the bitter irony of the moment, had he not been beyond caring.
Anna sat with her back against a tree trunk, deep in thought. This was a habit of hers, though few who knew her would have believed it. Nor would they have believed that she had a conscience; but she did indeed, and she was wrestling with it now.
Anna was not a heroic person. She was an orphan; her family, her heritage, her very age were mysteries to her. She remembered the death of her mother when she was very young; after that she had lived in an orphanage in Tharbad, a city on the banks of the Greyflood. In the spring of this year, she had left Tharbad and wandered into Bree, where she had been living in a wood-shed belonging to a kindly old Hobbit who did not seem to notice her presence, to her great satisfaction. Much of Bree considered her a vagabond, liar, and thief - none of which accusations were completely unfounded. Her appearance did not help; though her curly hair was a pleasant golden wheat colour and her eyes clear green, she was thin, with a sharp face, and an air of awkwardness; she also wore a rather unbecoming Dwarven raiment, which was the only vestment fitting her stature.
And then of course, she was a Manling: half Man, half Hobbit. Although there was friendship between the two peoples in Bree, intermarriage was considered to be going too far. A child of such a union caused only uneasiness, and Anna did not know of any others like herself. People did not like her, and so she disliked them in return. She preferred hiding to fighting, and solitariness to company.
But now something had intruded on her isolation; or rather, she had involved herself in something beyond her closed world.
Anna tilted back her head, leaning it against the tree trunk behind her. Through the leaves rustling softly in the night breeze above, she could see the sky and the constellation of Menelvagor. There was a smell of apples in the air. Though she did not know it, Anna sat under the same tree that had been the hidden abode of Tolman only a day before. Her thoughts, however, were far different from what his had been.
There were two voices in her mind; one counselled her to return to the town, to seek out the Hobbit who had saved her life, to thank him, and give him back his sword and the necklace she still carried with her as well. The other, and stronger, spoke of waiting in hiding and, when chance allowed, a silent escape beyond the walls of Bree and to freedom far away from the disturbing events of the night. Anna was afraid, and her first instinct was to flee; and yet, it seemed to her that more was required of her, that there was something else she should do instead.
She hugged her knees to her chest and, shivering slightly, opened her hand to look at what lay in her palm - the Starflower, as the evil Man had called it. The object itself was not evil, though - Anna was certain of that. As soon as she had stepped out of the Prancing Ponyís stable, the light had disappeared, and the jewel lay dark in her hand.
It was of pure silver, wrought so finely and delicately it was hard to believe it was metal. The white gem in the middle was what had reflected the lamplight in the stable. Anna had no idea what kind of stone it was, although it was obviously very valuable. It hung on a thin silver chain. Anna could not imagine to whom such a wondrous thing could belong. An Elf Queen, perhaps, but what was it doing under the stable of the Prancing Pony? When it had sparkled in her hand, she had felt something almost completely unfamiliar to her; it was a sensation of depth and seeing, like looking into clear water, fathoms and fathoms down to an ocean floor.
A gust of wind blew her hair into her eyes, and she closed them, shaking her head briefly. Anna had felt such a feeling of clarity only once before in her life - when she had run into the Hobbit, whatever his name was, and known that he would save her life. It had shocked her then, so much that she could not say a word in reply when he had spoken to her. That knowing, that sense of sight, of seeing with the mind - it was magic of some sort, or witchery, and Anna feared it. She had no use for magic; it was a thing for Elves and Wizards, and she wanted nothing to do with it.
Yet as she looked once more on the beautiful gem in her hand, the thought stilled her mind. It felt right, somehow, as if the Starflower was hers alone now; furthermore, it felt as if she should use it for something, if she only knew what.
Annaís thoughts turned then to the young Hobbit who had not disproven her foreboding and had indeed saved her life that night. Idly, she wondered if anyone else she knew would have done the same. It was a strange sensation, but she almost felt as if he were her friend . . . Though perhaps only because they had met twice in one day and on neither occasion had he insulted her, or thrown something at her, as people usually did. Lomion had called him Tom, but that was a pet-name; she still did not know how he was really called. Anna remembered the expression on his face as he had looked up at the Man who had nearly killed him. She had pitied him then, to her own surprise. Enough that she had wanted to help him. But he had helped her instead; he had attacked his one-time friend to save her life.
She wondered where he was now.
Anna sighed and rested her head on her knees. The sounds of the trees around her were reassuring, and her troubled thoughts trailed off into stillness.
Through the stillness in her own mind, she heard a shout float up from the town below the Hill. It was a manís voice with a note of command in it, though she could not make out the words.
Suddenly uneasy, she climbed slowly to her feet, brushing soil and grass off her clothes. Leaning around the trunk of the tree, she looked down on Bree.
The town was lit, and there were troops of Guardsmen patrolling the streets - only natural, after the assault on the town. Briefly, Anna wondered how many had been killed and what punishment would be allotted to Lomion, the traitor, now that his guilt was known.
All of a sudden, an idea burst upon her mind like the sunrise of a day of execution. Her mouth fell open in utter shock. Then, with trembling hands, she hung the Starflower around her neck and began to creep as quickly as she could down the Hill, into the bright streets of Bree, to look for one Hobbit.
Had Anna been able to see Tolman at that moment, she might have wept. He, at least, had wept for a time, though the tears had died off long ago and silence remained now. He lay upon the cold earth in the gaol of Bree in a small stone cell with a heavy iron door and a single barred window high up on the wall. A single star was visible through the window; all else was blackness. But far worse than this dark cell was the dungeon in Tolmanís head, which had no door nor window, and which no light could penetrate.
He lay upon the cold, wet ground, and the musty smell of earth was on him. His hair dripped with sweat and water, tangled locks falling over his face. His neck burned with a stinging pain; though it had stopped bleeding, the long cut now felt hot and puffy. His hands and feet were frozen, his throat dry with thirst. But he might as well have had no body for all that he felt of it.
Before his eyes Tolman saw not the liquid darkness of the cell, but an endless parade of memories, silent, but clear and sharp as the edge of a knife. He saw his mother, his father, and Lomion. He saw himself as well, the forests, and the Orcs.
One memory kept returning to his mind, floating up out of the strange jumble of colour in his mind to present itself again and again.
. . . He and his father were in the Chetwood, his father teaching him the names of the plants they came across. They were wandering slowly along the bank of a small stream called the Thistledown Trickle. It had gotten its name because in autumn the thistledown drifting on the wind would often settle and float for a while on the surface of the slow-moving, shallow water, making the stream look like a large, fuzzy, white snake. It looked like this now, in his memory. His father had been talking about Mirabella, Tolmanís mother, with the wistful, distant look on his face that was always there when he spoke of her, when he suddenly stopped where he was, standing beneath the boughs of a weeping willow. Tolman could hear his voice now, echoing up through years of memory.
"Look, Trotter! A Sunfeather plant!"
Tolman had looked where his father was pointing, near the roots of the willow tree. What he saw was not inspiring; it was a plant, but seemed to have no qualifications for being called a 'sunfeather'. It was a mottled grayish-green in color with large thorns and poisonous-looking red berries all rolled into a mass which resembled a hairball a giant cat might have coughed up. When he said as much, his fatherís eyes twinkled.
"Look again . . ." he had whispered and pulled on one twisted stalk. As if by magic, the planís leaves unrolled and spread out, revealing their inner side to be a pure golden color. In the center of the plant, heretofore invisible, bloomed a white flower, its delicate petals spreading out like the feathers of a swan.
"Itís leaves in a tea can warm the drinker, and its roots stop bleeding." Seeing his sonís astonishment, Adelard Marchbank smiled.
"Not everything is what it seems . . ."
As Tolman lay there, staring into the dark, it seemed to him that he could hear his fatherís words, over and over. "Not everything is what it seems . . . not everything is what it seems . . ."
Suddenly, he blinked. He did hear voices, but not his fatherís. Someone was speaking outside the cell or several someones, more likely. Then the lock on the door began to grate; someone was opening it, whether to come in or to take him out he didnít know, though he would probably find out directly. Hunching his shoulder, he rolled away from the door and the centre of the cell, ending up stretched flat against the wall. The door opened briefly, and light flooded in, blinding him. Something that appeared to be a sack was thrown in before the door slammed shut once more and all was darkness again. The afterimage of the light burned on Tolmanís eyes, and for a moment he did not realize that the sack was not a sack, but a person. Starlight glinted on dark blonde hair, and suddenly Tolman knew who his companion must be.
"Anna?" he whispered.
"I would whisper your name back in an equally surprised manner," said the girl in an ironical tone, "Except I donít even know your name."
For a moment, Tolman could not think of anything to answer. Then:
"What are you doing here?" he burst out, "I told you to run away!"
"I did run away. But I came back. I still have your sword and I . . . I thought maybe you might need my help. You saved my life and, well, one doesnít leave oneís friends in the frying pan, as the saying goes."
"So you came to rescue me?" Tolman asked skeptically.
"I suppose you might say that."
He laughed suddenly, surprising himself.
"Fine job youíve done."
"Donít be silly," snapped Anna, "I didnít get myself thrown in here for nothing. I brought you your sword."
Tolman realized that he could see her face; a sliver of moon had appeared in the single window and was lighting up the cell. She was holding out Morchaint to him, wrapped in some sort of cloth. He took the sword from her slowly, unwrapping it to look at its familiar shape. It was undamaged and as dark as ever.
"How did you know?" Anna asked suddenly.
"Know what?" he said, glancing up at her.
"That the Guard was coming for you and not for Lomion. I thought they knew he had betrayed everyone and you only wanted me to run so that no one would see the Starflower, and Lomion couldn't try and blame the gate-opening on me again. But he blamed it on you, and they took you . . . the idea that he would use you to hide his own guilt only occurred to me when I was already far away, and so I came back to try and help you. But you knew beforehand."
Tolman put Morchaint back into its scabbard, which had been hanging empty at his side. They had let him keep it because an empty scabbard wasnít much good as a weapon. He looked back at Anna.
"I didn't know," he said softly, "I told you to run because I thought the Guard would seize you on even the slightest premise. But things have taken a darker turn. Among those who were killed tonight are the mayor and the other Captain of the Guard. Lůmin is now the highest-ranking official in Bree. He has control of the town. And it is as you guessed: I am accused of opening the East Gate and letting in the Orcs. It was all carefully planned, and your discovery of him in the end only furthered Lomionís designs; now he can blame the affair on me and on you as well. I heard the Guard speaking so when I was brought here."
They sat for a moment in silence, each with their own thoughts. The moon shone fully through the window now, and Tolman could see clearly: Morchaint in his hands, Anna sitting with head bowed in front of him, the damp cell around them. A thought crossed his mind.
"How did you smuggle Morchaint in here?" he asked. "Surely they searched you."
"What?" Anna said. Then comprehension lit up her face. "Oh, the sword." She looked troubled. "Yes, they searched me, but they didnít find it. It was only under my shirt, but . . . it was almost as if they looked around it. Itís a strange thing, that sword. I donít like it much, and it scares me . . ." Then suddenly, she grinned. "That isnít the only thing I smuggled in!" And reaching into her hair, she pulled out the Starflower, still lightless, but beautiful as before.
Tolman stared at it in awe. What such a treasure would be doing under the dirt of the Prancing Ponyís stable, he couldnít begin to guess.
"What do you think it is?" he said.
Anna looked as blank as he.
"I donít know." She said simply, hanging it around her neck, "But thatís not important now. We have to get out of here before they come to behead you or whatever the punishment for treachery is."
"Disembowelment." Tolman corrected her bleakly. Anna shuddered.
"Even worse. How is your wound? Can you stand?"
Tolman stretched his various muscles.
"Of course," he said, "It's only a scratch. But how are we supposed to get out of here? The door is guarded."
"The window . . ." Anna began.
" . . . is seven feet high." He finished for her, "And barred."
"Iím sure your sword can cut through the bars," Anna said, brow furrowing, "but the height . . ." she stared up at the window.
Tolman sighed, leaning back against the wall. He was tired, and hungry. Escape seemed hopeless and death certain. And he had somehow dragged Anna into the whole business with him. The window was more than twice his height up the wall. Anna was taller than he, but even if they managed to stand on each otherís shoulders, leaning against the wall, they wouldnít reach that high . . .
Suddenly his thoughts froze and a huge grin spread across his face.
Anna was looking at him oddly.
"Whatís the matter?" she asked, "Is there something particularly humorous about being disembowelled that Iím missing?"
"Call me Gandalf the Wise and you wonít be far off." Tolman answered, still grinning.
"Although I doubt that, Iíll leave off arguing for the sake of survival. For now. While weíre on the topic, what do I call you?"
Tolman hesitated for a moment.
"Call me . . ." he said slowly, " . . . Trotter."
If Anna thought this was strange, she gave no sign.
"Well, Trotter," she said, "What is your brilliant idea? Or joke, as the case might be?"
In answer, he held out his hand.
"Help me up," he said, "Please."
Anna pulled him to his feet, looking concerned when he stumbled light-headedly.
"Is the wound deep?" she asked worriedly.
"No," he answered truthfully. "But it feels strange, as if the arrow were poisoned or something. Although if it had been poisoned I would probably be dead outright and not just a bit feverish. But help me, and we shall be out of here before long."
With Anna following him, he walked to the wall under the window, drew his sword, and began to cut.
The sword surprised even him. There was no sound, as he sliced at the borders between the stone blocks, no screech of metal against rock, and nothing to alert the guards. It was tiring work; the stone was hard, and Trotter had only the strength of a Hobbit and was weakened at that. His arms felt like lead, and sweat stung his eyes, but half an hour later a ladder was cut into the stone wall up to the height of his head. Panting, Trotter lowered the sword.
"Iíll have to climb up to cut further," he said, "but I think I should rest a moment first."
Anna looked worried.
"You donít have enough strength," she said, "Let me try . . ."
"No." Trotter replied, "Itís my sword. It wonít work the same for anyone else." He felt certain of this for some reason.
"Then at least sit down and take off your shirt," she said.
"What?" Trotter was dumbfounded.
"So I can wash off the blood!"
"Oh. Right." Trotter shook his head. He really was tired. It was a relief to sit, but he began to shiver as soon as his shirt was off. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. A second later, he felt Annaís hands on his skin, distantly, and opened his eyes to look at her. She was chewing her lip and staring at the wound on his neck, and she did not look very happy. The cut was longer than he had thought, but it did not take long before the dried blood was wiped off his skin. Picking up the piece of cloth she had earlier wrapped Morchaint in, Anna tied it around his neck like a scarf, binding the wound.
"I canít do anything else," she said, shrugging apologetically.
"Thank you." Trotter said quietly. After a few more minutes of rest, he pulled his shirt back on and stood up once more.
"We have to hurry," Anna said, "Itíll be dawn soon and theyíll see . . ."
Trotter nodded and began to climb the wall. His arms ached, but he tried to ignore it as best as he could. For three quarters of an hour he climbed and cut, cut and climbed. At the end of those forty-five minutes, he had reached the window. The sky was now a dark blue instead of the black of night. Six more cuts and he gently pulled the bars from the window, tossing them down one by one to Anna, who put them noiselessly on the floor.
The window was narrow; a Man would never have fit through. But Anna and Trotter were not Men, and their diminutive size stood them in good stead this time. Trotter looked out at the town. It was not asleep; there were lights, and he was sure Guardsmen would be on the streets. He was known to be a traitor; if someone saw him, they would shoot without so much as a warning.
"Come on!" he whispered down to Anna. Then he sheathed his sword and turned back to the window. With some difficulty, he wriggled through the rough stone and tumbled out the other side. Air rushed by him, and he landed hard for the second time that night. For a moment, stars swam before his eyes and he blacked out.
When the world came back into focus, he found Anna beside him, looking at him with round eyes.
"All right?" she whispered. He nodded.
"The West Gate," he said, "Quickly." With Annaís help, he got to his feet, and they started off, hugging the walls and the shadows. It was hard going; three times they were almost seen, twice by Men and once by a lone Hobbit. The Hobbit was Bingo Took, an acquaintance of Trotterís; he had to bite his lip to keep from calling out in greeting. Luckily, it was the hour before dawn, and relatively quiet. They could hear anyone approaching before they were seen. Passing the familiar houses and yards, streets and squares, Trotter wondered if he would ever see them again. Yesterday he had certainly never considered that he would be fleeing from his own town within the next twenty-four hours, with Anna Applethorn of all people.
They passed a house with a large garden. There was a grey horse tethered in front, undisturbed by recent events, chewing on some hay. As they passed, flitting from shadow to shadow, the mare raised her head. For a moment Trotter was sure the animal would whinny or make some other noise and they would be lost; but they passed by, and the horse made no sound.
By the time they reached the West Gate, the sky had lightened to grey. This gate was not like the East one, heavily guarded and protected, but a simple door, with a window at the level of a Manís head and another at the level of a Hobbitís or Dwarfís. There was, however, a guard.
Suddenly, Anna stopped and pushed him into the shadow of a narrow alley between the two last rows of houses.
"Wait here," she whispered.
"Where are you going?" he protested, grabbing her arm.
"What hour is better than that of dawn for the art of stealing?" she said with an impish grin, "Iíll be back soon." With these words, she shook him off and slipped back into the main street.
Trotter tried to slow his frantically beating heart. Whatever she was going to steal, it had better be either extremely useful or unimaginably important. Idly, he wondered how many of the stories he had heard about Anna were true. That she was a thief apparently was, though perhaps the incident that had started the rumour had been in a good cause, like now. But what about the one about the mayorís son and a very large salami...?
Before he could pursue this line of thought, the object of his ruminations returned. She was leading, to his delight, the horse they had seen some streets back.
"A simple matter of touch and go," Anna said, seeing his look, "But I think weíve arrived at the Ďgoí part."
Wasting no time, they climbed onto the horse, whose name, according to Anna, was Dapple. Trotter was in front, and Anna sat behind him; both drew the hoods of their cloaks over their faces. Trotter took the reins in his hands, and they rode into the dusty street towards the Gate.
The horizon was now streaked with pink and red, but as yet the cocks had not crowed, and Bree remained silent around them. They were almost at the Gate, and no one had hailed them.
"Maybe the guard went off to the East side," Anna said behind him, "Maybe thereís no . . ."
"Halt!" called a voice, sounding rather annoyed, and the guard hurried out of his small hut at the side of the road, "Where do you think youíre going?"
An idea occurred to Trotter.
"I have to pass the Gate," he said, trying to sound as if he were not lying, "I have a message from Lomion, the Captain of the Guard, to take to the King in Fornost."
The guard, a middle-sized, stocky Man with greying brown hair and brown eyes, squinted up at him.
"I know nothing of this," he said brusquely, "I canít let you go. My orders are to let no one out. Thereís been treachery in the town, you know."
"Yes, I know," Trotter said, "In fact, that is part of my message to the King. I was told to show this at the Gate." And he pulled out of his pocket his fatherís brooch, the emblem of a white tree and seven stars.
The guard looked at the brooch. He seemed to be considering. Trotter bit his lip, praying for him to let them through.
"So youíre a Guardsman," said the Man, "That proves nothing. Iíll have to send my assistant to ask the Captain if . . ."
"Go!" hissed Anna in Trotterís ear.
He didnít have to be told twice. Kicking the horse in the sides and drawing Morchaint from its sheath over his shoulder, he hacked through the door of the West Gate and they had galloped through before the guard could do more than shout.
"Weíre out!" he yelled, and heard Anna echoing him as they raced away. Within seconds, they had reached the cover of the trees. Elation gripped Trotter and he laughed aloud, throwing back his hood and raising his sword above his head in one hand. The full dawn broke, and sunlight flooded the autumn forest. In a few seconds, the town would be out of sight . . .
Behind them, the horns of Bree began to blow.
Trotterís laughter stilled as the fair voices of Breeís bugles rose behind them. He had heard them sing many times, and loved the sound; but now when they were wound for him they heralded only danger. He reined in the horse and they stopped, still on the road in the autumn forest. A slight breeze rustled through the dry leaves. Then the sound of the horns died, and all was silent beneath the early morning sun.
"Will they come after us?" Anna asked behind his back.
"Yes," He answered without a shred of uncertainty, "They will come because they believe I betrayed them, and that they are right in hunting me. And Lomion will send them for what you now wear around your neck, if he truly wants it."
For a moment Anna was silent, and Trotter thought he knew what she wished to say. But she kept this thought to herself. Instead she said:
"Then we must ride. But which way?"
Trotter turned his head from side to side, looking at the forest around them. He felt the chill morning air upon his face, and in his mind he saw the far leagues of the lands around.
To the north, the countryside rolled away in low hills, sparsely wooded; small villages and farms dotted it, and the Road ran alongside, to Fornost, where the King dwelt. West lay the Shire and beyond it Lindon and the Gulf of LhŻn, home of the Elves. To the East was darkness; southwards the Road led between the downs. Tyrn Gorthad was there, the Barrow-downs, where ancient battles had been fought and dark spirits were said to rest uneasily.
East they could not go, that was clear. Trotterís heart turned to the Shire in the West, where his own people dwelt. But the Shire-folk would not help them now; they were outlaws, and those who hunted them sheltered under the arm of Arnor, with right on their side. In the North was the King, and dearly indeed did Trotter wish to go there, for King Arvedui was a wise man and a just, and it was said of him that he recognized truth and saw through all lies. But Fornost was a week distant, and the two of them on one horse would easily be overtaken by riders from Bree before they could come close to the city. And he himself could not ride hard; his strength was almost spent, and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him. They needed a place to hide and rest, a place close by where they would not be found and their presence not even guessed at.
A cold dread crept over Trotterís heart as their only possible path became clear to him. A place of concealment where their pursuers would never think to search for them . . .
"We go to Tyrn Gorthad," he said, and urging on the horse, they rode south and west into the shadowed downs.
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