38. Blowing the Horn of the Mark
"Let the Wizard first do what he can for my nieces, and instruct Marabuc and the Elf-lady how to treat this illness," he said -- for Malawen had been called in to assist Radagast, the second morning after their arrival. "When the twins are out of danger, you shall take him to Great Smials. And then, see you, as you travel here and there with the Orc, his mate will be prepared to give aid, if you come upon more cases of the fever. So they will be of service in the Shire, and more welcome than they might be otherwise. Most hobbits have heard but little of Frodo Baggins, and nothing at all of Canohando."
Farador grimaced. "And whatever they have heard about Frodo wouldn't please most of them: a harebrained enough fellow, they'd think, traipsing off to the ends of the earth the way he did. You're right, Father, as usual."
So while they waited, Farador showed Canohando over Buckland and the Marish. Hobbits in outlying places were startled and somewhat alarmed to meet an Orc coming along the road, but Farador was well-known as the Master's son, and popular in his own right, and Canohando's air of grave courtesy allayed the fears of all but the most timorous.
Some evenings Farador dragged the Orc, all unwilling, to the public houses in Rushy and Stock, and the patrons were amazed at Canohando's abstemious habits. He nursed his one flagon of ale, keeping a sharp watch on everything around him. After a few visits to the taverns, however, he realized that hobbits were not inclined to the violence he associated with drinking. Even in their cups, they only became more jovial, breaking into long and rather repetitive songs, and laughing uproariously when someone got a thick tongue tangled in the words. At last the Orc began to relax, leaning back in his corner and observing the proceedings with quiet amusement.
One night Farador enticed him into a game of darts, the two of them against a couple of middle-aged farmers. Canohando expected to hold back and let them win; ill manners, he thought, for an outlander to make a show of his skill. But the hobbits surprised him: their aim was as good as his own, and when the farmers took the match, it was fairly won. The Orc had a new respect for the Shirefolk after that.
It was all of three weeks before Radagast and Malawen returned to the Hall one forenoon, with the news that the twins were recovering without any lasting effects that they could see.
"It is an ugly malady," the Wizard told them over elevenses. "I am not clear in my mind if our efforts prevented the withering of the limbs that has been reported, or if the youngsters would have escaped those after-effects regardless, but it was a sharp struggle to bring them through alive."
"Is Marabuc competent to treat any new cases of the fever that may break out?" asked Sariadoc.
"As competent as I am," said Radagast. "We were both racking our brains for every remedy we knew. I hope your uncle brings back some greater knowledge from Rivendell, Farador."
Sariadoc pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Let us hope so, indeed. Will you take a few days to rest from your labors, now? I know the Thain will be eager to have your help, but I would not like to presume upon your goodwill."
Radagast smiled. "Let me rest this day only, and Malawen also. Then we will be ready to go on."
The wizard retired to the Hall's library after the meal, sitting in a deep chair with his pipe, surrounded by books that he pulled off the shelves seemingly at random. Sariadoc kept him company, writing at his big desk, not disturbing his guest with idle talk. But Malawen led Canohando outside, down to the riverbank.
"I have been cooped up too long within doors," she said. "It's good to have the sun on my face again."
Canohando sat with his arm draped over her shoulders, feeling as if he'd recovered the other half of himself. "So now you know how to treat fever, as well as wounds. How did you like apprenticing under the old man?"
"He is a firm master, but it's no burden to serve him. I like him better now, melethron."
She looked up with a smile, and Canohando bent to kiss her.
"Good," he said.
The alarm came that same night, an hour before dawn. Canohando was standing by the window, looking out at the river; he had been roused by moonlight in his eyes, and he'd gotten up to watch the glowing reflection shimmer and dance on the black water. Then he glimpsed a flaming brand being swung back and forth on the opposite bank, plainly a signal, and a few minutes later the ferry started across. The moon disappeared behind clouds, and the only light was a torch lashed to a tall upright on the ferry, and the other torch, no longer moving, waiting on the farther shore.
He stretched, and went out into the passage, closing the door softly, not to wake Malawen. There were lanterns hooked to the wall at intervals, and he found his way back to the great room where they took their meals. There was a hobbit by the door, his chair tipped back against the wall and his eyes half closed. He was awake, however, for he stood up at once as the Orc approached.
"Something you need, sir?" he asked. His tone was courteous, but Canohando noted the sharpness of his glance, and nodded approval. The lad was on the job, however casual his appearance.
"Is Farador about? I just saw the ferry go off across the river, and someone signaling over there."
The young hobbit eyed him thoughtfully. "And why does that bring you out looking for Farador, then? He's in his bed, I should think, at this hour."
Canohando lounged against the doorframe, scratching his back on the carved and polished wood. "Say I have a nose for trouble," he answered. "I am a stranger here; perhaps you are accustomed to get visitors in the dead of night, but it struck me wrong, somehow."
"Well, you're right about that," said the hobbit. "No, we don't get many visitors this late, but as you say, you are a stranger. I'd feel better if you went along back to your room, sir. I'll get the word to those who should know, that someone's crossing the river, and I'm obliged to you for telling me."
The Orc inclined his head. "Tell your captain that my bow is at his service." He went back down the passage, letting himself quietly into the room. Malawen was awake and sitting up in bed.
"Where were you? I woke up and you were gone."
He was still explaining when someone pounded on the door. Before he could rise to answer, Farador burst in.
"There's been an attack! Out in the Marish – a gang of ruffians –" He was out of breath, as if he'd been running. Canohando took up his quiver and settled it on his back, and Malawen reached for her clothes and began dressing under the covers.
"I'll be right out," Canohando told the hobbit. "Wait for me." He shut the door behind Farador.
"I'll be ready in a moment," said Malawen, but Canohando went and put his arms around her.
"I want you to stay here, where you are safe."
"I can shoot! I will not have you go alone into danger, and my eye is as keen as yours!"
Her voice was indignant, and he leaned his forehead against hers, running his hands down her back. "You are a good shot," he admitted. "But we will both be safer if you stay here, Elfling. I cannot keep my eyes on the battle and on you, both at once, and if you are there, I will be watching you. Stay here where I do not have to fear for you."
"But then I will be afraid for you."
He made a face. "A few Men, melethril. They are a threat to these little people. The Halflings are brave, but they are not warriors. But a gang of louts and troublemakers – what will they do when they see an Orc coming down upon them? Scatter like leaves in the wind."
"All the better if they see an Orc and an Elf, and both of us archers," she argued, but he chuckled.
"You are not fearsome to look upon, love - I would have my hands full to keep them from stealing my mate! Elfling, hear me in this. Let me go alone, this once. There will be other times when we must fight side by side, and I will be thankful to have you guarding my back."
She kissed him and let him go, and he hurried after Farador. They came out into the chill of dawn to find the Master of the Hall himself, with nearly two score hobbits, armed and helmeted, mounted on ponies. And Radagast also was there, on a grey horse procured from who knew where.
"We don't have a mount for you," Farador said to the Orc, sounding worried.
"I'll keep up," Canohando assured him. Then Sariadoc lifted a silver horn to his lips, and the Horn Cry of Buckland rang out. Canohando threw up his head, feeling the blood boil through his veins as if Morgoth himself had touched him with a fiery finger.
AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE! shrilled the horn, but its echoes were mingled with the savage bellow of the host of Mordor, bursting out of Canohando's throat in spite of all his effort to hold it back. The animals startled and broke into a run, their riders clinging like burrs to their shaggy backs, and the Master winded his horn again, and yet a third time, before he let it fall to his side and rode in grim silence. Canohando bit down on his lower lip until he tasted blood, forcing his roar back into his throat while he loped along at Farador's side.
They saw the scene of the attack from half a mile off. It had been a prosperous homestead with two barns and assorted outbuildings, besides a wooden house; now all were in flames. As they got close, other hobbits came out of hiding in the fields and ditches along the road, joining the group from Brandy Hall. They carried makeshift weapons, hayforks and butcher knives, a few hunting bows.
"There was a dozen of 'em, at least, Master," one of the countrymen said to Sariadoc. "We had some horses in the paddock, full-size; we put them to pasture for the Rangers, when they're not in use. They're valuable beasts, so we pen them up at night. The ruffians, they come with torches and fired the barns and drove the horses off -- stole 'em -- and we were busy at first fighting the fires and didn't notice. And then they set the house ablaze--"
His voice rose almost to a cry, and he bit it off and fell silent, striding along with his eyes straight ahead. One of his companions finished for him, his voice tight.
"His wife and child were inside - we couldn't get them out."
Farador gave a low moan and instantly stifled it. Canohando's rough fingers closed around the hobbit's hand.
When they came into the farmyard, the fires were dying down in all but one low building; that was still an inferno.
"The wood shed," said the hobbit who had spoken first. "Ten cords of seasoned firewood; that'un'll burn a while." The flickering firelight shone on a dark figure lying on the ground. One of the hobbits bent and turned it over, revealing a young face marred by a bloody wound on the forehead. The eyes were open and fixed.
"Brego Boffin. Just turned twenty-four last month - old enough to fight and too young to know when to run. He won't never grow no wiser, poor lad."
"Stay together," said Sariadoc. "We don't know for sure they're gone."
They kept in a defensive knot as they searched among the farm buildings, and Radagast stayed with them, his eyes darting here and there, as if he shepherded the hobbits. But Canohando fell back, slipping away through the mingled smoke and mist that hung over the scene. The roaring woodshed fire was a background of noise and light, the hobbits' voices an intermittent murmur. His nostrils caught the stench of burned flesh and he stepped around a dead dog, a gaping wound in its side, lying between the largest barn and the house. A few steps farther another hobbit lay face up, his arms flung out to each side as if he had tried to stop himself from falling. There was an arrow protruding from his chest. The Orc leaned over him for a moment, but he was dead.
The house was a wreckage of glowing embers, little flames still dancing here and there. Canohando circled it, eyeing the ground. Once or twice he bent down to look closely at something; the second time he grunted softly and veered off to the right, away from the ruined farmstead.
He tracked the marauders to a patch of woodland in the river bottom, miles away from any dwelling. When he reached the place the sun was high overhead, but under the trees it was dim and moist, and insects buzzed about his face.
There was a soft whicker somewhere nearby, and he froze. He had forgotten the stolen horses, and the danger that they would give the alarm. As he stood indecisive, suddenly he thought of Radagast. The old man seemed so certain of finding friendship in every creature he came upon; he met bird and beast alike with cheerful camaraderie, and they responded. Even a wounded Orc in the desolation of Mordor...
Slowly Canohando extended his hand. "Come on, then," he mouthed. The words were louder inside his head than they were on his lips; indeed, he scarcely breathed, yet after a moment there was a rustling in the underbrush and a horse thrust out its head and pushed its velvet nose against his hand.
"Good fellow," the Orc murmured. He stroked the animal's face, running his hand down along the silky cheek, and it leaned into his touch. "Where are your brothers, Horse?"
The creature took a step backward, shaking its head, and Canohando realized that it was tethered to a tree. He drew the knife from his belt and cut the rope. The horse came right up to him then, leaning against him so that he had to brace himself not to be pushed off his feet, and he stroked the long, tangled mane and the smooth curve of its neck. At last he tipped his head back so he could look directly into one large, gentle eye.
Where are the others? he thought, willing it to understand him.
The beast swung its head to one side, and stepped off in that direction. Canohando followed, and in a moment he saw another horse. His new friend led him to the spot, positioning itself side by side with the other animal, but making no sound, as if understood the need for stealth. Wondering, Canohando freed the second horse and again met the eye of his guide.
There were four horses in all, and one by one he set them loose. Then he led them out from under the trees and pointed back the way he had come.
"Your master is back there," he muttered by the lead horse's ear. "Go home." The animal put its head down, pushing against his chest so that he was forced to step back. "No," he said. "I will come later. Take your brothers home."
And the horse obeyed him. It walked away across the field, slowly at first, and the others followed. But after a few dozen steps they broke into a trot, and Canohando watched until all he could see was a cloud of dust in the distance.
He was amazed and delighted at his success in imitating the old man. What would you say to that, runt? But the thought of Frodo brought his mind back to the hobbits at the ruined homestead: the farmer grieving for wife and child, the dead youngster who had not known when to run.
The horses were gone; they would not give away his presence. Now he could deal with the murderers.
He felt his way into their camp, quiet and deadly as an adder. A canvas shelter was strung between two trees; he entered without making the sleepers so much as turn in their dreams, and made certain that none of them would ever move again. From man to man he went like vengeance incarnate, and when he was finished, his knife dripped blood. Without thinking he raised it to his mouth to lick it clean, and in that moment he came to himself.
He fell to his knees, driving the fouled blade into the ground, hunched over as if he had taken a blow to the gut, retching and shuddering. He had hardly seen the men he slew; in his mind's eye was a hobbit's face, blue-eyed like young Farador, but older, both toughened and made gentle by suffering. It was Ninefingers whose land had been defiled by these marauders, his countrymen who had been murdered and made homeless. For his runt's sake the Orc had meted out justice -- but in that very act he had fallen again into the old way.
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and clutched at Arwen's jewel. I can never give it to you, melethril; I will always need it, always --
A brutal kick rolled him over on his back, and he gasped for breath, looking up the length of a steel blade to a slender figure whose mail shirt glimmered in the dim light of the tent.
"You again, Orc! You have been amusing yourself in your own fashion, I see. But this time there is no one to stop me putting an end to you."
It was Itaril.
Canohando stared back at the Elf in bewilderment. "You said you would go home," he said. He clutched his bruised side, thinking he must have a broken rib, maybe more than one.
Itaril smiled. "Oh, I will, Orc, I will. After Celeborn has sailed, with his band of lily-livers, and left the Grey Havens empty behind him. Then I will take all that region for my own, with my army of Men -- I have others, you know; you did not slay them all! I have been a long time making my plans in secret. There are still Elves in Mirkwood who will not go off tamely to bury themselves in the West.
"I will build Lindon of the Elves once more, and the North will have a new Master. Let Arwen's whelp keep Gondor; in Lindon Itaril shall reign! This will not be an Age only of Men! And this rich little country shall be my breadbasket: with it I shall reward my soldiers, and they will rid it of these stunted peasants."
His eyes glittered with madness. He slid the tip of his blade up Canohando's body to his neck, playing with the chain of Arwen's jewel.
"I will take your pretty bauble after," he said. "I know an Elven lady who will grace it better than you do, Greyskin. It shall be my bride-gift to her, when she comes to me from Eryn Lasgalen."
Canohando stared fixedly at something behind Itaril's right shoulder, his eyes widening. For only an instant the Elf glanced back, but it was enough. The Orc dove at his ankles and jerked him to the ground, wrestling the sword away from him and casting it aside. He threw his full weight on his opponent to hold him down, one hand on the Elf's brow grinding his head into the dirt. Before Itaril could recover, the Orc had slit his throat.
He wiped his knife on the Elf's garment and got up painfully, feeling at his broken rib.
"You will not steal my brother's land, nor murder his people," he told the corpse.
He picked up a cloak, bloodied all down one side, from one of the beds. Tearing off a few strips from the clean part, he bound them snugly around his body, under his tunic. After that he breathed easier, and he pushed aside the tent flap and looked around. The Elf had boasted of a large army, but where was it?
As he stood watching and listening, there was a splash from the river, half-hidden by a tangle of willows twenty paces off. He stepped back under cover as a man, his hair wet from bathing, came in sight. Just before he reached the tent opening, Canohando stepped out and flung an arm around his neck, clamping his other hand over the man's mouth.
"Not a sound," he hissed in his ear, "or you will be as dead as your commander."
He dragged him inside the tent and looked around for something to bind him. One of the men he had slain earlier was wearing a belt of soft leather; Canohando stripped it off him and bound the living man's arms tight behind him.
He was young, with a cocky set to his mouth, but he paled as he gazed around at the scene of carnage. The Elf's dead eyes seemed still to glare, and his lips were drawn back in a ghastly grimace. At last the man looked at Canohando, slack-jawed with horror, and the Orc set his knife to the fellow's throat, the blade light against his skin.
"At least I did not burn them alive! I left that for this shining prince to do, who would make himself a king. Where are the rest of his forces?"
The young man swallowed convulsively, and the Orc growled, beast-like.
"Do not try my patience, youngling! I have remembered today what race I spring from. I would rather have information, and let you live, but if you will not speak --"
"They are coming from Dunland! We were to meet them at the Ford of Baranduin."
"How many?" the Orc demanded.
"I don't know -- enough to stand off any men of the North Kingdom we might run into. Lord Itaril feared we would be late in meeting them; he was delayed on the road from Eryn Lasgalen. That's why we needed horses."
Canohando laughed without mirth. "He was held up in Rivendell, in a locked cell. And then starting back along the road to Mirkwood, while the Brown One watched. Where did he pick you up, hireling?"
The man looked sullen. "He stopped at our farm. North of the Weather Hills. He said he would restore the old Elven Kingdom in the West, and he had land and fortune for Men of courage who would follow him."
"Land and fortune," the Orc repeated. "Whose land? Whose fortune?"
There was no answer.
"Who set the farmhouse afire?" Canohando asked.
The man licked his lips nervously. "Not me! I was rounding up the horses and finding tack for them."
"Are you an archer?"
Again he did not answer, and Canohando flicked a glance around the tent. One pallet was empty of any occupant; there was a sheathed sword on the floor beside it, but no sign of a bow.
"Where did Itaril sleep?" the Orc demanded.
The man shook his head. "I don't think they do sleep, the Elves. He would sit against a tree sometimes, resting, but I never saw him lie down and close his eyes."
Canohando looked round once more. Five dead men and one living, and an Elf who refused to go into the West of his own will, but had gone all the same. "You only had four horses," he said.
"That was all that farm had. Lord Itaril was going on when it got dark, and the men without horses would find them somewhere and catch up."
"And kill more halflings," the Orc said savagely. "Very well, youngling, you told me what I want to know, and I will spare your life. But I will bring you back to face the halflings' justice, whatever it is, and I warn you, I am an archer. Run from me, and you will not run far."
He pushed the man ahead of him out from under the trees, back toward the burned farmstead. The sun was far to the west now, casting a mellow light over the sandy road and the fields of tender green on either side. Canohando carried his bow strung, ready for any attempt at escape.
After a while a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon. Ten minutes later it had become an ox-cart driven by a single hobbit, his long whip standing upright in a bracket at the front of his wagon. He grew bug-eyed with fright when he saw the Orc, shouting at his beasts to turn them and staring over his shoulder as if he could not credit what he was seeing. Before the hobbit could get away, however, Canohando's prisoner launched himself at the cart.
"Goodman, flee for your life! See, an army of Orcs is overrunning the Shire -- raise the alarm! Run!"
The hobbit tumbled out of the cart on the side away from the Orc, falling in his haste, and picked himself up to run wildly out across the cornfield without looking back.
The man glanced slyly at Canohando. "Soon you will have a contingent of the little fools after you with pitchforks. Who will they think is the enemy, you or me?"
Canohando regarded him for a moment with hooded eyes, fingering an arrow in his quiver. "I will take my chances with the halflings," he said at last. The oxen had halted when their driver made off, and the Orc jerked the whip out of its holder and shook it out. "But you will take no more chances with me, manling! Now you run!"
He cracked the whip once over the man's head, then brought it down on his shoulders.
The fellow turned and stumbled away from him, awkward with his hands bound behind him, and the Orc followed.
"I said run!" he shouted, and he laid the whip across the man's back and shoulders without mercy, driving him down the road as stripes of red appeared and widened on the fellow's homespun shirt.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.