10. The Inundation
The Hobbit talked while he ate, but he had little to add to what he'd said already. Canohando asked a few questions and then sat whetting his sword.
He would have to divide his forces. He hated doing it, for both companies would be woefully overmatched, but –
The Hobbits might have over-estimated the number of barbarians on the road, but there should have been none at all. There'd been no report of enemies up there. If Kingstown was destroyed, the nearest stronghold to Scary was twenty miles west, and that was undermanned. The entire Shire lay open to the north, and here he sat defending the river! Did his foemen have a spy among his counselors, that they could so outwit him?
Of course they did; they had Logi. He swore under his breath. Let me only catch that Spider-spawn!
So, then. He would go north himself, for there the greater danger lay. A captain must finish things here, hound this lot into the Forest. He tested his sword blade against his thumb and slid it back in its sheath. Once he would have picked Logi for such duty; the Orc would not have rested until every man of them was harried out or slain. Who now did he have on hand that he could trust?
In the end he put his son Tulco in command. Tulco was popular; the men would follow him. He would throw his whole heart into any mission he was given, but – not stupid, but not quick enough on his feet. He might not notice if conditions changed, if some other strategy were called for.
It can't be helped, and he needs only to push them in the water. The river can have them, or the Trees; it makes no difference.
And there was no one else, so Tulco would have to do. The best captains he had left in charge of the half-manned fortresses; all the more need of strong commanders, where men were in short supply.
While it was still dark he took the half of his army and started north. The Hobbit lad from Dwaling rode with them; Canohando thought he would send him as messenger to Malawen, when they got near Woodhall. She would have to get her wounded to some place more secure – all the way to Tuckborough if she could.
The Black Ones fly away with Logi, he thought bitterly.
But Logi had not known about the army on the northern frontier. When daylight came he saw in amazement how the ranks of the Guardians had shrunk, and realized afresh how little his new companions trusted him, when they made sport of his surprise.
"They've gone haring after the lads as took the northern route – we had to split up, didn't we? There wasn't forage enough to feed the horses. Now we've got 'em in between mortar and pestle, and we'll grind them into meal! Still game for it, Greyface? "
Logi bared his teeth and spat, saving his words. It was no use to answer them, he'd found that out already. His only friend among these men was his own strong right arm, and his safety lay in the fear he could inspire. He kept one eye constantly over his shoulder, lest someone come behind him.
Yet Freiga loved him! He had fallen into nightmare – surrounded by malice and wracked by dreams that made him dread the dark. In Freiga's arms was respite, yet even her devotion tortured him. He was befouled; he had no claim on loyalty. He loved her and he loathed himself for loving; his tenderness curdled to a passion to give hurt. Haldar screamed through nights of fire, and Logi groaned, and Freiga ran caressing fingers across his eyelids until he quieted, lulled for a while to peace.
But Freiga was beyond the river now, safe in the camp behind the broken bridge. The barbarian women could handle arms, but they did not march to war, their task to guard the encampment and the children, until the men returned.
Logi looked across the river and understood at a glance what the Guardians intended; not for nothing was he trained by Canohando. Had Adah forgotten that he could tame the Trees? Or did he risk it, hoping he was dead in yesterday's battle?
He pulled a strip of dried meat from his pocket and chewed it while he went to find his horse. Oh, he had one friend; he had Cambar, the chestnut mare he'd been given for bridal gift by Freiga's father. It was a measure of his loneliness that he counted the mare as friend; he had ridden all his life, and given no more care to his mounts than the least that was required, that they might carry him. Animals had been prey for the hunt or objects for cruel play; his horses he had treated better for his convenience only. Yet Cambar had warmed to him from the moment his father-in-law put the reins in his hand.
She came now at his whistle, arching her neck and sidestepping coyly when she reached him.
"Get on with you. Here, I saved some corn for you." He held it out on his palm, parched grain from last night's supper. She took it daintily and mouthed his tunic, asking for more. "That's all there is, Greedy. This is a battlefield, not a king's stable."
He drew a cloth from his pouch and started rubbing her down, feeling the smooth skin ripple under his hand, warm and alive. "No time for much this morning," he told her. "Very soon now we'll be going for a swim, or I don't know my grandfather." He lifted her feet in turn, looking for stones.
"You'll do, my lady. Don't wait for me, if I get knocked off your back. Straight through the water and out the other side – the Trees don't care for horses. It's human blood they want."
She bumped her head against him and he fingered the whorl of hair between her eyes. The Trees could slake their thirst today, for all he cared. He'd not calm them, not for this rabble, not even for himself. He swung onto Cambar's back and looked around. All over the field the barbarians were mounting up, and across the empty space between them, so were the Guardians. Logi did not wonder if Canohando were there; he knew without telling that his grandfather would have led the foray north. He did wonder who was commanding in his place.
Whoever it was, he was not equal to it. The barbarians broke through the line as if it were made of daisy chains, and charged north along the road with the Guardians yelping at their heels.
Tulco fell in the first onslaught, and without a commander the Guardians gave pursuit, knowing they must stop the invaders somehow, and unable to do so. Practically together the two armies reached Stock, and the barbarians raced down the main street and at the end divided into two columns, as if they had planned it so, veering off to right and left and doubling back to circle round the village. There was not a Hobbit left in the place; they had all fled when Canohando rode through that morning, but the Guardians were surrounded.
Before they could fight free, a dozen barbarians dashed into the outmost houses, emerging with flaming sticks of wood, or in one case a broom, which they'd kindled at the deserted hearths. Gleefully they set the thatched roofs ablaze. Inside the ring of fire, the Guardians shouted frantically and tried to rally; finally they formed a rough phalanx and charged, as the houses on either side caught and blazed up like torches.
The men in the vanguard were cut down by arrows, making those behind them stumble and run against each other, trapped in the narrow street. Some were thrust against the fire, and the air was filled with screams and the reek of burning. Horses reared in terror, spilling their riders on the ground to be trampled by slashing hooves. And through the hideous, fiery maelstrom came arrows like black hail, piercing man and beast impartially.
Yet some of them broke free. Smoke filled their eyes and nostrils, the attackers as much as their hapless victims, and some of the Guardians blundered through gaps in the encirclement to the clean air beyond. Those who had been unhorsed ran while they could, but the men who were still mounted clustered on a knoll beyond the village and charged from behind, trying to force an escape for their comrades within the cordon.
At first it seemed they might succeed, and a few more of the Guardians slipped out through the opening they made. Then the barbarians closed ranks and rode them down; those who got away fled toward the horizon, where black trees reared against the sky. When there was no more sound but the fire's roar, when no more panicked horses plunged out of the inferno, the barbarians resumed their advance along the road. They had wiped out Tulco's company in less than an hour.
Logi's apathy of the morning had burned away in battle. The flames, the smell of blood, the screams, the sweating, charging horse between his thighs, all maddened him to frenzy. Fire filled his brain and his bow throbbed in his hand, arrows flying from the string as if they leaped out of the quiver and propelled themselves away, without help or hindrance from his will. He was in the forefront when they rode down the would-be rescuers, and when it was over his sword was bloody to the hilt. He fell in at the tail-end of the column, slowly coming to himself again, the berserker fury ebbing and leaving him cold and sick.
He was no battle virgin. With the Guardians, under Osta's generalship, he had ridden years before against tribes attacking along the southern border. Canohando had led a diversionary force deep inside enemy lines, while Osta followed with the main army. The Guardians had suffered heavy losses, but Logi had ridden home unhurt and cocky, well pleased with his own performance.
Now he felt hollow, as if a knife had emptied out his vitals and let the north wind whistle through his bones. He shivered and drew up his hood, pulling his cloak around him. There was blood on Cambar's withers, and he spat on his hand and tried to wipe her clean, but it was crusted dry. It would take more than spit to cleanse his horse. As for washing the blood off himself...
He shrank into the saddle, looking straight ahead but seeing nothing.
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