The Old Grey Wizard
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The Chronicles of The Kelvar: 9. The Battle of Amon Sul
Part 4. Witness: Queen Rosa Mae, Dowager Vixen of the Weather-Hills Troop.
Chapter 9. The Battle of Amon Sûl
The Horse and I have made our peace, and he has ceded the telling of this tale to me for a while. I have granted him my forgiveness and my respect, no small thing to give from a fox to a horse. For second only to those wretched half-tame beasts, the Hounds, are Horses named dire enemies among Kelvar to the Rusk Folk* of whom I am Queen. And rightly so, for many a proud-tailed reynard or vixen has been trampled by their harsh hooves, and all too oft they ally themselves with Hounds and their Two-Foots. But for the friendship of another we have set aside our differences, so that this tale can be told in full by those who were there.
The Sun was westering on a pleasantly warm day of autumn. In a snug recess between the old stones laid by Sea-Men atop the old Hill of the Watch Tower I had denned with my kits that year, as was my right as Queen of the Troop of Weather Hills. By the waning of the year, of course, my kits were nearly full grown, and the three vixens had already chosen mates for the coming spring. Only my sweet little runt, my sole reynard of the year, still stayed by my side, and not for long, for when the snows came I would chase him from me—for his own good, of course. I had named him Ross, and he was the child of my heart.
My Ross and I were trotting up and down the ridge that leads from the line of the Weather Hills toward Weathertop, as the Mortal Two-Foots name the old King's Hill. Ross it was who first had the sense that something evil was before us. He halted, quite unexpectedly, planting his paws in the fading turf so quickly that I slammed into his rump.
"What in Vulpë's name…" I yipped, invoking the Immortal Vixen of the Lands Beyond.
"Hush, Mama!" my son whispered.
"What's that?" I growled at the same moment.
For through a gap in the remains of the King's Tower, we could see a dark shade moving. Nothing unusual, in a way, for the Sun was lowering Her Golden Fire-Flower toward the horizon, and the shadows were long. But Ross and I both felt oddly cold for such a warm afternoon. I will admit we were disturbed by the sight—for this Shadow was not cast by the Sun, and in the very next moment we saw that it was not alone. In the passage of but a few heartbeats I saw that many tall Shades moved about behind the ruined walls of the Tower of Amon Sûl. We foxes do not in general name numbers in the manner of the Two-Foots, but I knew that at least as many Cold Shades had gathered as I had whelped kits that spring!
I stood shoulder to shoulder with my son, and muttered low into his pointy ear.
"We must investigate," I said firmly. "Whatever is there does not belong! They are invading our home… and we must see who it is…"
With a twitch of his long nose he indicated his assent, and side by side we trotted forward, taking great care to hide behind fallen rocks, shrubs and stumps of old trees. Never have I felt so strangely apprehensive. For we Folk of Rusk are very brave for our size, and are well known for our quick wits and willingness to enter into battles that, mayhap, we might better have run from. And as the Troop's Queen, I am even bolder than most vixens—yet, that afternoon, my heart thundered beneath my red fur, and my amber-gold eyes were wide with anxiety.
We crouched, half-hid behind a low wall upon the northern shoulder of the hill, looking out upon the hollow-between-stones that crowned it. There, circling in swirls of Darkness, strode many Shades that had the forms of Two-Foots, yet my sharp nose told me these were no Living Men, for they stank of decay. My Ross nodded his head slowly as he looked about—he was the cleverest of foxes, and had begun to learn to count, as our allies the Ravens do—and he shivered.
"More than twice the count of my kit-mates and me," he whispered.
That the fell forms we saw there were evil I had no doubt. They were as black and as cold as the thick ice over the deepest waters in the frozen winter. I knew not what they were, only that they were unnatural and as deadly as the Frothing Jaw Sickness. I was afraid, yet my fear was for a moment overcome by my fury. For they had no right to be there upon the very grass where my mate and I had joined—where new life had quickened within me—where I had delivered my kits! The sheltered space on the King's Hill where my kits had nursed upon my paps—the grassy knoll where they had learned the joy of leaping and the fox's quickness! My home—my sacred place—had been invaded. I felt a growl rise in my throat and was about to rush out to snap and slash at them with my needle teeth when my Ross stepped forward a pace and bumped his forequarters against mine. For he knew me and my rash ways.
"Mama," he whispered. "Don't go out there, I beseech you! These are bad, soulless creatures… A fox, even the Vixen Queen, is no match for Undead Things! They will slay you without hesitation!"
Alas, my son was wiser than me, and I knew he was right. I halted, and bowed my head, ashamed. For I could feel it in my bones: these things had done great evil, and would do evil again, and again. They should be stopped—they must be stopped. But I, Queen Rosa Mae, was not the one to do it.
And so I stayed in my hidden place, and my Ross and I watched the Black Shades. And we learned much, he and I. At first it appeared that they moved about in a current of darkness with no purpose or pattern. But after a while it became clear that they were watching… Nay, more precisely, that they were searching the lands below. And not all of them moved about. Two, the tallest and coldest of the creatures, stood together near the center of the open space, where the flattened crown of the hill rises above the rest of the encircled ruin by the height of a few fox-leaps. The others moved restlessly, and their heads, draped in black woven stuff, faced outward. From the high Hill of the Kings one can see a great distance, and my people have used Weathertop—and even the Sea-Men's ruined walls—for a perch upon which to see if any enemies approach. So it appeared that these Shades did also. Ever and anon, one of them would turn and pace inward to approach the two Tall Shades in the center. He would grovel and bow to the Tall Ones as if in obeisance or fear. Then my Ross and I would hear the sound of their horrible voices: thin, high scratchy sounds, painful to our sensitive ears. I wondered at what must have been their great thirst, that their throats must be parched to make their voices sound so. It was clear that those on the perimeter were giving their report to their masters, and I was curious to know what—or for whom—they searched, and what evil deeds they intended, if and when they found what they sought. I found my heart reaching out to those unfortunate enough to be their prey, wherever they hid, and I wished them the blessings of Lady Vulpë.
The Sun had nearly reached Her Evening Destination. The light was the beautiful color of a red fox's soft fur, and I relaxed a little at the sight. But I was jerked back to full alertness when the Shades all turned in the same direction at once—toward the West. In one rush of movement the Black Things strode swiftly to the edge of the crown of the hill. Though they had no eyes—or faces—that we could see, it seemed that they stared down from that high place onto the Two-Foot Road that curved near the foot of Weathertop. My Ross and I snuck quietly around the edge of the ring of fallen stones until we could peer downward as well.
There, upon the Road, we saw a remarkable sight. It was a Two-Foot upon a horse—and even though Horses and Foxes are seldom friendly, I will admit that this Horse was very handsome. Silver and white he was, and magnificently large. Upon him was perched a grey-cloaked Two-Foot who appeared very aged, with unruly long grey hair and a sweep of beard, gripping a long branch of gnarled wood. They were thundering along upon the Road at a great pace, seeming intent on passing Eastward without a halt, when suddenly the old Two-Foot's head jerked upward, his piercing eyes focused on the crown of the Hill and his lips curled back with a wrathful snarl. At nearly the same moment, the Black Shades all began hissing and muttering in their awful screechy voices, and several pointed down at the one approaching.
"They know this new one," I said to my Ross. "Mayhap he is the one for whom they search…"
"I think not, Mama…" Ross replied. "…for he rides openly… I'll wager that this new one has been searching for them! Do you see? He has turned aside and is climbing the Hill!"
And so it was. My Ross was such a clever lad, and he had it right. This Old Two-Foot upon his great horse was racing back and forth up the slope of Weathertop, moving up and up with remarkable speed. Above, between the stony ruins, the Black Shades raced about, as agitated as a swarm of angry wasps. The Tall Shades hissed and screeched, pointing this way and that, and the others scrambled about to do their bidding. We heard the shriek of metal grating against metal, and saw great gleaming swords drawn from hidden sheaths. The light of the Sun set a fire upon those deadly blades, and my Ross and I shuddered in fear. We hunched down as close to the earth as we could. We feared to stay and witness what was to come, yet we feared to run and reveal ourselves even more.
The last rays of the Sun spilled blood-red over the stones of Amon Sûl as all the Black Shades raised their horrid voices into a single, terrible cry. I dared to raise my head, and saw that the Old Two-Foot had abandoned his huge white steed—for of course, no spindly-legged horse could climb the final slope that led to the crest of the King's Hill. My eyes were wide as I watched him leap up onto the low wall of the ruin, a long bright sword in one hand and the gnarled branch in the other. He was a shadow against the red sky, and his cloak flapped about him. A tall hat he wore, but in the next moment as he jumped forward with a great shout into the circle, the hat flew from him and floated to the ground. It lay there, forgotten, for a time.
Angry words he fairly spat at those Dark Shades, with sword and branch raised high. Though they hissed and cursed in reply, they shrank back, some cringing in fear, others stepping back hesitantly. The Tall Shades stood together for a few moments, then one retreated, joining the rest on the far side of the circle of stones. Alone now, the Tallest Shade—their King, I deemed—remained to face the newcomer. The Black King's sword was long and curved, and I saw now that as he raised it, his hands appeared from the loose-sleeved black robe. Hands, yes—but covered in glittering metal that appeared stained with blood in the fiery light. Behind him the other Shades spread out, slinking slowly across the circle, and I could discern their evil intent: to come against the Old One from behind his back.
Two now stood face to face near the center of the hollow: one garbed in black, the other in ash-grey. Words I heard them mutter to one another—spells, I suppose, for it came to me at that moment that these two were Spell-Casters of great Power, one Dark, and, I sincerely hoped, the other Light. I remembered then a tale I had heard when just a wee kit, of a Spell-Caster who had come to the aid of one of my own folk, long ago… But my musings were dashed aside when the fading red light was split by a blinding blue-green flash!
Horrible cries rose up into what seemed a sudden deeper twilight. My Ross beside me whimpered and hid his snout beneath his paws, and I had to bite back my urge to whine in fear and hide as well. Yet I did not, and thus I saw that it was the newcomer—the Grey-Robed Two-Foot—who had been the Thrower of that bolt of blue-green light, and the Tall Shade who had been his target!
The Black King staggered backward, and my spirits rose for a moment, thinking he would drop to the ground—but no! He regained his footing and stood tall again. He hissed and screamed, brandishing his weapon, and the rest rushed forward. I admit I squeezed my eyes shut then, for I had no desire to see the Grey Two-Foot impaled upon their fell blades. But I heard a loud voice call out, naming the Stars and Powers I have heard invoked by the Shimmering Two-Foots of the Forests; dreadful curses and spells were hissed in reply. Steel clanged on steel, and I heard a tumble of falling stones, and a shrill shriek of alarm. I opened my eyes then, and saw that the Black Shades were retreating over the far eastern wall of the Old Tower, and the Old Grey One was chasing them before him!
Before long the crown of the Hill was completely empty, save for the Old Two-Foot. Round and round the circle of ruined stones he paced, gazing outward, as if trying to assure himself that the Black Shades were truly gone. I raised myself to my full height then, and with a little kick, I nudged my Ross to gather his courage and get to his feet. But we were unnoticed in the last glimmers of daylight by the strange old Two-Foot, so keen was he to be certain his foes had left.
I was about to hop over the low wall of rock and address him—something told me that he might just be the Spell-Caster I had heard tales of in my youth, and that One was reputed to understand the speech of many Kelvar folk—when he moved swiftly in the direction he'd come, with his long shadow trailing behind him. Over the western edge of the old ruin he stepped, and down the steepest part of the upper slope. He placed his hand near his bearded lips, took a deep breath, and… My! The high clear note that emerged from him was astonishing! Like unto the call of a merlin it was, piercing and singular. I could not fathom what such a thing meant, when in a moment I had my answer, for the great silver-white horse appeared upon the slope just below him!
Now, many tongues of the Kelvar are foreign to one another, and we beasts suffer for the lack of ability to speak clearly between races. Yet we Folk of Rusk had a tradition to learn at least some words of those of our closest allies, and also of our deadliest enemies. Thus I could comprehend most of what they spoke to one another—for the Two-Foot conversed in the horse's own language.
"They are gone… for now..."
"So I see… and their ensorcelled beasts sped away as soon as you drove the Ugly Demons off…"
"Which way did they flee?"
"East, and South of the Road…"
The Grey One leaned on his branch then, and nodded slowly as he gazed in that direction. "Good… good… that is the least likely place Aragorn would guide them…" He straightened and looked up into the horse's eye, while he lay his palm upon the stallion's withers. "I will remain here…"
"You will draw them to you, Old One… In the darkest hour of night they will return, seeking revenge for their humiliation…"
"I certainly hope so… I intend to keep them occupied for a good long while…"
The horse tossed his head and snorted. "It irks me that I cannot join you upon the crest of this ridiculous hill, Gandalf!"
The Two-Foot stroked the horse's neck. "I know, my friend… But that last pitch is steep indeed, and not a path intended for the Lord of the Mearas. Whatever comes of this night, you will do neither of us any good with a broken leg! Besides, there will be plenty for you to do, once they return… for they will come riding upon their steeds! I have no doubt that you shall find some way to make their wait for their Masters most unpleasant…"
The horse's neighing laughter rang out into the twilight. "Hah! I have seen those pathetic mules... Half are geldings, and the rest look as though they've been gorging on poppy… I'll have the easier time of it, you can be sure of that, Old Man!"
"I will be glad of it, Shadowfax, for I am already greatly in your debt. Now—if I am in need of you, I shall whistle again…"
"And I shall come, friend, as swiftly as I can…"
And with that the great horse made his stiff-legged, halting way back down the slope, and once upon a less steep portion, galloped off into the darkness. The Old Two-Foot clambered back up to the hilltop. As he came near to the ring of stones he leaned down. In the growing darkness I could not see what he did—until he stood up. The tall hat was perched once again upon his head.
I clambered up now, and with my Ross a step below me I perched upon the very top of the ruined wall beneath which we had hidden ourselves during the fray. Yet the Old One did not notice us, for he busied himself with a strange task. Stones he gathered in his hands—he had laid down his branch for the moment—and brought to the highest crest of the hill. Again and again he bent and retrieved stones, placing them one atop the other in a neat little pile. When he seemed satisfied that he had enough, he crouched upon his knees and arranged them in a miniature hill, pushing and pulling at them until they lay just so. It seemed very odd to me, for if he meant to build something secret, he could not have failed more miserably. For the small hill of stones was as clearly the work of a Two-Foot's hands as any worked piece of metal or carven wood.
But it was apparent that he was not yet finished with his odd task, for again, as the light truly fell and the darkness of Night swept over Weathertop, he walked about, head bowed, searching for something upon the ground. At last he bent and grasped… yet another stone! But this one was light in color, almost white, and was flat and round. Strange and stranger still: he then crossed quickly to where he had dropped his stick, retrieved it, returned to the stony hillock and plopped onto his haunches upon the ground next to it! And then the strangest of all: he grasped his stick, murmured a few words, and the tip of the branch began to glow with an uncanny soft light!
I know not what my Ross felt beside me, but even though this was the queerest sight yet of that singularly unusual day and night, I did not feel afraid of the Old Two-Foot's glowing branch. Indeed, I felt peace descend upon my vixen's heart, and wondered at the sense that the Lady Vulpë—or one of her Two-Footed Companions—was near. As I watched I saw that now he cradled the round white stone in his hands and balanced the branch across one knee so that its tip illumined it. In the warm light he took up a sharply pointed stone and began to scratch upon the white one. Several marks he made, and he peered closely at his handiwork, as if inspecting it with great care. Then he knelt beside the hill of rock and carefully placed the white stone upon the very top. Seemingly finished at last, he stood, and with another whisper, the light at the tip of his branch went out.
Deep silence fell upon the Hill of the Kings. The Moon had grown to a quarter of His fullness, and was already dropping Westward. The night would be a dark one; and I judged that when The Moon had reached His Destination, the Black Shades would return. I whispered to my Ross.
"I would speak to this Two-Foot… Come, my son, and stand beside me if you will…"
Ross and I hopped down from atop the crumbling wall and trotted forward, and at last the Old Man took notice, for he spun toward us and focused his eyes upon us. As he watched our approach I saw his countenance shift from alarm to curiosity, and I sensed no enmity or fear from him. In the Moon's silver light I saw that one of his great bushy brows was raised. He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
When we were twice the length of his stick from him, I paused, and my Ross stood a pace behind me. I bowed my snout once, not taking my eyes from him, and spoke.
"Greetings, Elder," I said with an air of regal politeness yet a note of respect for the Old Two-Foot's obviously advanced years. "You are come within the domain of the Rusk Folk Troop of the Weather Hills. I am Queen Rosa Mae, Chief Vixen of my people. Whether you are welcome to remain here or no, I will not yet say… But your actions this night speak well enough of you… so far…"
I heard Ross grumble softly behind me, and it was true—my manner toward him was rather pretentious. But such is who I am—the boldest, proudest vixen of my troop and my time. But the Two-Foot behaved as was proper, and bowed low, his grey beard sweeping the earth.
"I am honored to meet you, Queen Rosa Mae," said he. I nodded, for it was as I had guessed: this Spell-Caster could understand and speak the tongues of many folk of the Kelvar. He went on. "I am called Gandalf the Grey… I beg pardon for having invaded your realm, but I had no choice, for I am in pursuit of others who came here before me…"
"We bore witness, Gandalf the Grey… You drove off the Shades of Cold Darkness… As I said, you did well to do so, and we thank you for that…"
His countenance changed again; the curious amusement faded and was replaced by a sterner look. His gaze drifted away toward the South. "They are not gone for long, I fear…"
"What were they, Old One?"
"They are called Nazgûl," he said with a tone of disgust in his voice. "Ring-Slaves of Sauron, the Enemy: living yet not truly alive; wraiths that once were rulers of men and have fallen under the Shadow. Few can face them, and fewer still all Nine gathered together at once…" He gripped his branch of wood and clasped the hilt of the sword at his belt. "But it so happens that I am such a one…"
I sniffed at his words, for his manner seemed overly prideful, and oft in Two-Foots, I have observed, such boasting goeth before dismal failure. But my Ross stepped up and stood shoulder to shoulder with me, and spoke words I shall not soon forget.
"Who are you, Master?" he said. "For I am but Ross, of the Folk of Rusk, yet I sense something about you, as I sensed the cold Dark Power that wrapped about the Shade-Men, but yours is greater…and is kindled with Fire and Light…"
I stared at him, astonished, and when I looked up I saw that the Old Two-Foot did the same. Then the Man crouched down so that his eyes were level with ours, and into my Ross's narrow and handsome face he gazed intently.
"Well met, Ross of the Folk of Rusk. You are a wise and canny fox," he murmured. "The keen intelligence of Lady Vulpë runs strong in you, I deem…" I started at that, for none but our own folk have ever named our True Queen! How did he know of her, I wondered? But he went on in a soft voice that ended in a whisper. "And as for who I am, you have called it right: I am in all things opposite to those Shades of Cold Darkness, and in all ways I oppose them, and their Master…and their Master's Master, for Sauron is himself but a slave…"
He sighed and frowned, and his eyes dropped for a moment. Then he looked up again and put forth his hand toward us, and to my shock and alarm, my Ross trotted forward without hesitation! I yipped at him to stay, but he would not—and before I could stop him, he had placed his snout against the Two-Foot's outstretched palm!
"Ross!" I barked sharply. "Come away from there at once!" And I jumped forward, my jaws snapping at the Old One in a warning.
But my Ross turned to me with the squint of his eyes that is like the Two-Foot's grin. "There is no need to worry so, Mother," said he. "This Grey Gandalf is a friend…" Then he leaned against the Two-Foot's knee! And at that, the Old Two-Foot placed his hand upon my son's brow! A Two-Foot, touching my son! The most dangerous and cruel creature in all the Earth! I could hardly bear it.
"Get away! Get away from him!" I leapt and hopped in a frenzy as my jaws snapped and I snarled—I could no more have ceased my dance of rage and alarm on behalf of my favorite kit than I could have stopped the Moon in His course across the Sky.
It seemed to me later, when I had calmed, that then the Old Two-Foot showed some sense, for he gently pushed my Ross away from his hand and stood. He took a step back and spoke to my little runt reynard.
"Best do as you Mother tells you, Ross," he said. "She is wiser and more experienced than you…and though I for my part am in truth your friend, there are many other 'two-foots' of whom you should be wary indeed…"
Ross looked up at him for a moment, then as if he had reached a conclusion, he nodded once, then trotted back to my side and remained there. But now I felt it was time indeed to assert my dominance, for my own kit had behaved most brazenly! I stepped forward again and spoke sharply to the Old One.
"I demand that you state your intentions, Grey One! For this place is mine—it belongs not to you, nor to the Two-Foots of old who once claimed this hill and placed stone upon stone here many a season ago. It is ours—the Troop of the Foxes of Weather Hills—and we shall defend it if we must…" I hesitated but an instant before continuing. "…even against those Shades of Black…or against you."
But the old Man seemed to pay little heed to my strong words. He looked away to the South. "The Black Shades are my concern, Queen Rosa Mae. One way or another, I suspect that I and all of the Nine shall be gone from here ere morning, and you need not risk your lives in defense of your home." He turned toward us then, and I could see his eyes gleaming in the dying light of the Moon. "Indeed, you must find a safe place, Queen Rosa—and you, Ross—far away from here. For the Nine will return, and I will fight them, here, and I hope for little but to keep them from their true search for as long as I can. And this…" and with those words he swept his hand out in a circle. "…this is not a place you will want to be, not even hid behind the crumbling stones. For as your son Ross has sensed, I shall use what is within me to fight their cold darkness. And if I know that you are here, I might hesitate to do what I must, for fear of harming you… and so I beg you to retreat, for now."
Once I might have growled and bristled at such words. Retreat! Why, a Queen Vixen knows not such a word! But my bold pride and fierce stubbornness melted a little that night, for I remembered what I had seen earlier, when my Ross hid his head. And I shivered to imagine that bolt of light and fire coming again—indeed, perhaps many times! And then it came to me, that this Two-Foot who knew us not and had no allegiance to my folk had expressed concern for me and my own—how confusing it all was!
It was my Ross who broke through the confusion. "We shall leave, then, Gandalf the Grey… but is there anything that we Folk of the Rusk can do to aid you in your struggle against these dark Creatures?"
I felt my heart leap up within me at the rightness my son's wise words. Yes! We would do our part in this, I thought. Anyone—Kelvar, Olvar or Speaking Creature—could feel, indeed smell the evil in those Cold Shadows, and all should stand together against them. I leaned forward with an eager whine, and my Ross did the same.
"Yes… yes, of course you can," the Old Grey One said. "You could help Shadowfax… the great silver horse that bore me here… Did you see him?" We nodded together. "The horses of the Nazgûl will return as well, and I suspect that my friend Shadowfax will not have quite an easy time of it against Nine steeds enslaved to Darkness as he believes… Find him, if you will, and give him what assistance you can…"
"We will do so, Grey Gandalf," I said. "And we have many allies…"
"Yes, our friends the Ravens, and Magpies, and even the Crows…" Ross cried with an excited hop.
"Excellent… They will be most helpful, I am certain…" Suddenly his head snapped to one side, and he stared intently at the edge of the ruined tower along the South and Eastern side. It was then that I noted that the Crescent Moon was setting, and His shimmering light would be gone in a moment. "They come… You must leave here at once! Go, now, Rosa Mae… Ross… be safe, my friends… Farewell!"
And with that the old Two-Foot swept his hat from his head, dropped it upon the ground near the little hillock and drew his great long sword. He strode to the far side of the circle and peered downward; then he placed himself upon the small rise at the center of the space to wait. As darkness fell, I could smell chill rank air flowing up the side of the Hill from the South, and my Ross made no protest when I whispered to him to run.
When I think back on that long and dreadful night, I recall how sore were my paws from how far I ran over stony ground, speeding the news to my folk and allies, pleading with them to return with us to the hollow beneath the Great Hill of Weathertop. So easily to my mind's eye I can bring the image of the White Horse encircled by Nine Black Ones, and how their deadly hooves flew up and sparked against one another, while all about their heads the air was filled with the rush of wings and about their legs snapped the sharp teeth of fox and marten and even a stubborn old badger we roused from sleep. The sound of ten horses screaming and neighing, of the thudding of heavy hooves against muscled flanks and shoulders is mixed for me with growls and snarls, with the Crows' caws and coarse deep cruck! crucks! of the Ravens as they dove at the black beasts, and the crazed laughter of the foolish Magpies as they swooped with sharp claws extended. It was the most exciting, deliriously joyful, terrible, sorrowful night of my life, and one I would live through again and again if I could, save but for the last of it, which broke my heart.
The trickiest moment, it seemed at the time, came early, when we reached the place where the great White Horse waited for the Two-Foot in the hollow upon the North and Western flank of the Hill. He was wary of us, and impatient with our attempts to speak his tongue, for of course he had no knowledge of ours. He refused our aid at first, and was scornful and scoffing at our small size. We left him then and went about our task as we saw fit, gathering our folk and friends for the battle we knew would come—and well it was that we did so. In the end he thanked us one and all, and was humbled and subdued.
But I get ahead of myself and my tale. My Ross and I ran off from the Horse and set about spreading the word, so that when we returned to the place and found him surrounded by the Black Beasts we were well prepared. It appeared to me that they might well have got the best of him, Shadowfax King or no, for upon his gleaming silver hide were already several ugly round marks where a black hoof had landed a blow. But with a rush, we Fox and Raven and Crow and Marten swept into the attack, and with a thundering, frightful neighing and screaming, the Nine Black Steeds ran off! So easy it appeared—and of course it was not so, for they returned, their strength renewed.
Again and again they were driven off, only to reappear with greater viciousness, it seemed. Five times they attacked, were pushed back, and returned. But to my eye it appeared that these beasts were weary beyond accounting—ready to drop of exhaustion. That they attacked again and again despite their weariness was, I could see, part of some hideous ensorcellment of the Shadow King Spell-Caster I had seen upon the crest of the Hill facing Gandalf. Were the spell to be interrupted, I deemed, every one of those pitiful beasts would fall dead to the ground.
And that made me wonder how the Old Two-Foot fared, all alone up there. I turned my head and looked up and behind me. I saw to my wonder and awe that the whole of the crown of the Old King's Hill flashed with blazing light. On and off it flickered in fierce blues, violets and greens, and a red glare glowed and shimmered constantly. Waves of black smoke flowed from the hilltop, and I knew how right he had been to warn us away. Yet my own curious nature got the better of me.
I sped to my Ross's side and yipped. "I am going to Weathertop," I said. "I want to see what the Old Grey One is up to!"
"I'm going with you, Mama!" Ross cried excitedly.
"Nay, my son, obey me!" I snapped. "Stay here, I command thee!" And my Ross lowered his snout and did as he was told, and for all my days I must wonder what might have been.
The Black horses had run off again, and my nose told me that the night was growing old. I heard a Thrush calling from the deep forest, and they are always first to announce the Dawn. The Old Man had said they would all be gone from there ere Daybreak, I recalled, and if I was to see what had happened to him, I must move swiftly.
I ran over paths that only my folk know, shifting and weaving over trails so steep few other creatures can use them. The flashing lights grew ever stronger as I came nearer, and so did the stench of smoldering grass. I began to feel afraid, and felt a shiver run through me as a little whine of alarm escaped from my mouth. But on I ran, all the faster.
I reached the crumbling wall upon the North side of the summit of the old Hill and slowed my pace to a trembling creep. Shuddering with fear I hunched down and crawled the final few steps. With my ears tucked back, I placed my narrow head and snout into a crevice between two stones and peeked through to the scene upon the crown of Weathertop.
Everywhere I looked, the earth was blackened. Yellow flames flickered upon the far side of the circle, and a curtain of smoke rose into the Night. Just as we had found the white horse surrounded by nine black ones, so did I see that Grey Gandalf was encircled by Nine Tall Shades in Black. Knives and swords they brandished, pushing forward whenever his back was turned for even a moment. But he gave them little chance—for he was never still, always moving, whirling, and in his turn sweeping his shining sword at them or lashing out with his branch of wood. It was from that branch that I saw forked lightning leap and fly at one, then another of the Nine attackers. They feared his sword—I could see it—and hated his Fire even more. They fell back hissing and cringing from the flash of light each time it appeared.
I watched from my hidden place, my heart pounding within me. For it came to me then with a start—what would happen to us Folk of Rusk if this Grey One fell? Would the Shades know that we had stood against them and their steeds? Would they take revenge upon us, trample us or slash us to bits? Blame for that would fall to me, for I was Queen and had agreed to help him. And then I thought, what would become of the World itself, if this Old One failed to stop these evil Shades? Would every wood, hill and hollow be lost beneath a wave of cold black Shadow? And then my heart reached out to Grey Gandalf, and I found myself full of worry—not for my own, or for the rest of the Earth, but for the Two-Foot himself, and what dreadful fate he might suffer were these creatures to overcome him.
But help him I knew I could not—only hindrance would I cause, were I to dash out into that circle. I could but watch in growing fear at the flashing lights, the flames, the smoke and the glittering blades. Back and forth the battle raged, and though Nine were 'gainst one alone, an even match it appeared—for a while. But then I caught a howl behind my tongue, for the Grey Two-Foot failed to protect his back for a moment—and a long curved sword rushed out and caught him behind his right shoulder. He spun, and the Shade was thrust back, but in that instant another of the Black Shadow-Men stabbed out. A second dark stain appeared, this time upon his left arm. My heart faltered for a moment and a low whine escaped from me, for I was sure I would soon witness the Old One's doom.
But lo! In the East the Dawn stirred, and light began to seep upward. At this sign of the return of The Sun, the Shade-Men grew uneasy, it seemed. They withdrew a pace, failing to press what to my eyes seemed their advantage—and at once, Grey Gandalf pushed 'gainst them fiercely. With a twirl and a loudly shouted spell, he tossed a great spiral of flashing lightning! Ah, what a sight it was—an ever expanding, sparkling ring of violet-green flame! The Black Shades fell back, their screechy voices hissing and howling. A gap in their line appeared, along the North and West of the old ruined stone circle—right where I was hid! And even as I yanked my snout from between the rocks and scurried backward and out of the way, the Grey Two-Foot took three giant leaps in my direction. Over my head he flew and down the slope! Behind him, the Black Shades joined their voices together in a shriek of rage.
Up I leaped in an instant and galloped after him. I heard his shrill high whistle, and I knew that he signaled to the great White Horse who awaited him in the hollow at the base of the Hill. But I knew also that my Ross would have heard that sound—for a fox's ears are keen—and he and that Horse had made their own plan. For Ross—clever reynard that he was—had foreseen that the Old Two-Foot would have but a brief time to escape, if indeed he escaped at all. And what would it avail him to come careening down the hillside with the Nine Shadows at his back, if all their horses stood awaiting them as well? And so, Ross and Shadowfax decided, when Grey Gandalf's whistle sounded, all we Kelvar defenders would join in and drive the Black Horses off as far as we could make them run. Then, even if the Shades were on his heels, the Old Two-Foot and the White Stallion might have a chance.
Sounds of horses' angry neighs and screams came from before us in the Night that still clung to the West and Northern slopes. I caught up with the Two-Foot and soon passed him by. He called out to me as I ran, but I veered not from my path—for suddenly my heart was gripped with terror. My Ross was down there, alone, without his Mother, in the middle of a great battle! I must come to him, at once!
Alas, alas, a mother's heart is the most tender of all—even the heart of a bold and fearless vixen. For when I came to that place and saw that indeed, all the Black Steeds had been driven away, joy leapt up—only to be dashed to earth.
The Great White Horse stood, his head drooping, near a red lump upon the ground. When I saw it I knew. Other bodies there were, but I saw them not. I ran to him, but I was too late.
"The biggest and vilest of those ensorcelled beasts did it," Shadowfax murmured as I drew near to where my beautiful Ross, my lovely little boy-kit lay, all broken and bloodied. My heart shattered as I dropped to the ground beside him. "Trampled him… I am so very sorry, my Lady…"
My howling could not be contained as I wept for my Ross, the child of my heart. My claws frantically dug into the earth as I yipped and yowled and snapped for my grief. I felt others of my folk near me, and knew my three vixens—Ruby, Belle, and Fair Fiona—by their scent. They leaned into me and we all howled together for our Ross, our little runt, our joy.
I heard breathless voices near me, but hardly heeded them.
"By the Stars… what has happened here… Ah! No! So many…"
"They were very brave, Gandalf, every one of them…"
"And you've driven their mounts away… Exceedingly clever of you, my friend…"
"Not my idea… It was the little fox who thought of it…"
"Ah!… Is it… Ross?"
I smelled a Man near me and I tensed with fear—for even after all that had happened, I could not conquer my instinct to judge all Two-Foots as dangerous creatures. But his touch was gentle as he lay his palm upon my Ross's tangled body.
"I am so sorry, Queen Rosa Mae," he whispered. "So very sorry…"
"Gandalf," I heard the Horse mutter. "We should away from here… else all their sacrifices shall have been for naught…"
"Yes… You must tell me everything, Shadowfax—everything…" Then I saw his hand withdraw and I sensed him rise.
"Folk of the Weather Hills—Raven, Crow, Badger, Marten, Magpie—and especially the Folk of Rusk—I thank you, for everything you have done here this terrible night. Know that you have stood against the Enemy of All… Know that you have helped All Free Peoples by what you have done this night... and you have my undying gratitude! Farewell!"
I heard the swish of robes and then the thudding sound of the horse's hooves as they galloped away. In a moment they were gone, and in just minutes after they departed from our lands, the chill evil sense of the Black Shades was gone as well.
What came of Grey Gandalf, I did not learn until almost another turn of all the seasons had passed. But those we lost—three of the Raven Clan; four of the Magpie Folk; a pair of Pine Martens; and two Fox of my Troop, my Ross and another of my kin, my great-uncle Rufous—shall be remembered with joy, and when their names are called, we shall stand with snouts held high and tails in the air with pride. For they fell with courage, and every one of us of the Folk of the Weather Hills did our part in the Great War. Together with the Bolt-Caster, Grey Gandalf, and his massive friend, Shadowfax of the Horses, we stood 'gainst the Darkness on that dreadful Night.
....to be continued....
*Author's note on names: I named my protagonist Rosa Mae for the Sindarin rus or ros for red, and mae for clever, as in clever as a fox, and her son Ross for the same reason. A female fox is, of course, called a vixen, and a male is called a reynard. "Fox" is rusc in Sindarin, thus the Folk of Rusk, and vulpes vulpes is the name of the species so I called their Maia protector Lady Vulpë.
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