The Grey at the End of the World: 11. Retreat

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11. Retreat

Woodhall was like a beehive prodded with a stick. The Hobbit messenger galloped in clinging to a horse twice too large for him –

"They're coming! The Commander says get out, the enemy is coming!" He yanked his horse around at the street's end, pebbles flying underneath the hooves, and rode back to plunge to a halt before Malawen, who had run out of one of the houses.

"Where is he?" she demanded.

"On his way to Kingstown, Lady Mab. They've burned the fortress!"

She asked no more, turning at once to begin issuing orders. Hobbits ran to drag wagons out of sheds and harness ponies to them. Healers rushed about preparing the wounded to be moved, and making pallets in the wagon beds for men who could not walk. Village women scooped up clothes and provisions into bundles, and then turned to packing up bandages and salves for the healers, filling saddlebags and every available corner of the wagons.

Osta was everywhere, the bulge of a bandage visible under his shirt, saddling horses, carrying the bed-ridden, and finding mounts and gear for those of the men who could still ride and fight.

Malawen tried in vain to make him rest. "You will tear it open, Osta! You will have wound fever, and what good will you be to anyone?"

But he laughed at her concern. "You've got me bound up tight enough to hold a raging bull! I'm a soldier, little Mother, tough as an old boot. Here, give your favorite son a kiss and let me do my work. I ought to have been back at the front today, but instead I will try to get you away from it."

She kissed him and stood aside, and in a shorter time than seemed possible a string of wagons was taking the road toward Tuckborough.

They traveled all that day, sheltered by the trees, forced by the lumbering wagons to go at snail's pace as their racing hearts cried out for speed, more speed! Osta had every man who was fit to ride in saddle, and even those in the wagons had their weapons to hand, ready  to defend themselves if need arose. The Hobbit healers sat in the wagons with them, tending them as best they might, and Malawen rode up and down the line, with swallows of her cordial for those who looked wan, and a smile of encouragement for everyone she passed. Her mind was heavy and slow, half-frozen with anxiety for her mate, but she forced her countenance to serenity.

The Hobbit who brought them warning had traded his horse for a pony more suited to his stature, and he rode first by one wagon and then by another, exchanging jests and jibes with the wounded men. He was a dauntless little fellow, and his cheerful badinage did them fully as much good as Malawen's cordial.

Often and often they imagined hoofbeats, a swarm of enemies bearing down on them, but the miles slipped by without event. No rumor of war had reached these verdant woods; birds flitted above their heads from branch to branch, and at twilight they heard the sleepy quacking of ducks on a hidden pond.

They would have preferred to keep moving until they reached Tuckborough and its deep smials, but there was no help for it: they had to rest. Even Osta was worn, his enormous vitality sapped by his injury, and many of the others were swaying in the saddle. They drove the wagons off the road and camouflaged them with leafy branches. The Hobbits went deeper into the forest to kindle tiny, smokeless fires, making hot possets for the most grievous-wounded, and soup for those who had appetite for it.

They set no guard, for on the morrow they must ride again and they had no men  who did not require rest. But Malawen kept watch, perched on a wagon watching the moon come up, for she was Elven and the starry night eased her more than sleep.

The second day brought them out in the open and magnified their fear, traveling exposed and vulnerable under the naked sky. As best they could, they hurried, but no enemy appeared; only the land was strange and foreign-seeming, no Hobbits working their gardens in the sunshine, wiping their brows and waving at the travelers. The road passed through several little hamlets, all silent and deserted.

At sunset they reached Tuckborough, the wagons rattling into the cobbled Yard, and then they saw Hobbits, peering cautiously from cracks in shuttered windows, then rushing out to greet them and carry in the wounded. Osta and Malawen were escorted to the depths of the Smials, to meet the Took.

The title of Thain had faded into memory, but the Family still kept governance of its lands. Feldibar Took was head of the clan, a power to reckon with in his own domain. He met them in the Great Hall, for there the ceiling was high enough for Osta, though Malawen was so tiny, she could have walked any of the main passages without ducking her head.

"So, after an Age being shielded by the Guardians, it comes our turn to succor you," Feldibar said when they were seated by the fire. "Nay, sir, I pray you not to take it ill! I meant no discourtesy. For countless generations  Hobbits have sheltered behind your swords, and I know not how many of your warriors sleep under the sod at Hobbiton, fallen in our defense. Our debt to you is past all reckoning. Do not begrudge me a little satisfaction, that I may make some small repayment. How may we serve you, Lady Mab?"

"Give me a place to tend our wounded, and what we need for them. Do you have room for our horses? Your stables are built for ponies, but my sons will need their mounts when they are able to fight once more."

"We have provision for full-sized horses, Lady. They shall be cared for like our own ponies – and we are famous for our stables! This Hall I will turn over to you for your infirmary, for I think most of your men will be able to stand upright here. Call on our kitchen and dispensary for anything you need."

"Thank you." Malawen touched his hand. "You are very good. Have you a place outside, even an empty stable, to house our men who are not in need of bed rest? They are soldiers, you know, and accustomed to rough quarters. They will regain strength all the quicker in open air and sunshine – and be on hand to help defend the Smials, if that be needed."

The Hobbit rose and bowed solemnly to her. "The Tooks are redoubtable archers, Lady Mab. Ever we keep watch on the Tookland, although for many lifetimes there has been no need, with the Guardians at the borders. But these are perilous days, and having your warriors here at our very door gives me better hope than I did have. I will order a barracks prepared for them."

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.

Story Information

Author: jodancingtree

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 4th Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 02/07/06

Original Post: 06/22/05

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