12. The Shire Takes Cover
Canohando found the barbarians south of Scary, and the Hobbit lad had not exaggerated their numbers. The Guardians fought like heroes out of legend, like H?rin and Huor on the banks of Rivil, but they could not prevail against this mighty host. They were a plague of locusts out of the very ground, and the best Canohando could do was turn them away from the Road that ran to the heart of the Shire. Stubbornly the Guardians beat them back, until suddenly the enemy gave way and thundered away toward the North Farthing.
"Let them go!" Canohando roared. He spurred ahead to call back those who were taking off in pursuit. "Let them go; the day is nearly over. Less action now, and more thought."
"Where are the Hobbits?" he demanded of his council. It was night, and they were stretched out on the ground without a fire; no need to draw enemies, if any were about: the dark was restful after such a day.
He continued, "We cannot best them now in open battle; there are too many. We must position ourselves near where the Hobbits are, make certain they're protected. The Mayor was stocking Tuckborough and Michel Delving – where else would they be?"
"There's caves and tunnels all through the Green Hill Country," said one man. "Poor place for cavalry, rough ground and thickly wooded. Likely a lot of the Little Folk are there, and none so badly off."
Canohando gnawed at his thumb. "So long as the barbarians keep to their horses. There may be some Hobbits in Brockenborings, but the enemy was in that neighborhood already. Did they all ride south? We'd best send scouts and find out. Tuckborough – deep tunnels all connected, and the Tooks are sturdy fighters. Delving is good shelter but it isn't fortified; we need some men there."
One after another, they considered the most defensible places in the Shire and made their plans. Four men Canohando sent out as messengers.
"Get the Hobbits to safety. If there's no hiding place near-by, bring them inside the nearest fortress. Tell the captains – empty the forts that are not needed, and the Guardians move to a stronghold where they'll be some use. Better half the forts deserted and the others stronger manned. Bring word to me where the Hobbits are."
"Where will you be, Commander?"
He tapped his front teeth, considering. At length he said, "I would like to follow and hinder them all we can, but we cannot afford more such losses as we've had. I will be at Delving; I think we can make it a refuge to repel whatever they throw at us. Any Hobbits who can reach it, bring them there."
He reached Michel Delving two days later, and at last he found some cause for hope. Mayor Hodfast came out to meet him, looking as military as a comfortable middle-aged Hobbit well could, in a Gondorean helmet and the Ring-bearer's mithril shirt, brought out of the Museum for this emergency. The main entrance of the Delving had been rebuilt and cleverly hidden, and the side doors rendered impassable by deliberate cave-ins.
"They'll not force their way in here in any hurry," said Hodfast. "We've tightened the doorway so only one at a time can use it, and it was low already for a Man, you see."
Canohando saw that very well; it was no easy matter for him to get in, bent over nearly double and scraping his elbows against the walls. The new entrance was a narrow tunnel nine paces long, and he did not envy the general who tried to stage an attack here.
"Very effective," he complimented the Mayor. "But have you left yourselves some way of escape? Best be prepared for the worst."
"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Commander!" Hodfast was so pleased with his own astuteness, he positively twinkled. "Of course we have escape routes – three, in fact – but hidden away, and there's no one but yours truly who knows them all. Nor I won't show them to you – not that I don't trust you," he added hastily, "but someone might notice me doing it, you see. Folk like to talk, and Shirefolk more than most. I don't want anyone popping out those tunnels at the wrong moment, and giving away the secret."
"You are wise," Canohando said solemnly, and in truth he was impressed, although conferring with Hodfast always tickled his sense of humor. "And you're well supplied with food? What about water?"
"There's a well dug in the lower level, from nigh a century ago when the Boffins were making cheese here. We can stand a long siege if we have to, though I hope it won't come to that. I suppose you know your men have been coming in from the fortresses north and west of here. They're planting trees and bushes all over the hill, to camouflage it.
Canohando clapped him on the back, careful not to bowl him over, and crawled back out to find the Guardians and learn who was in charge. It turned out to be Arato, his fifth son, and he felt better than he had any time since he learned of Haldar's death. After Osta, Arato was the most reliable captain he had, cool in battle and armed with more tricks than a hunted fox.
"Just seeing your mug here gives me better cheer," he said, greeting his son with an embrace to bruise his ribs.
"We'll keep this stronghold, if all the Shire goes begging," Arato promised. "But I disobeyed your orders. I left men at Tower Hills."
"So? What good, with enemies roaming the Four Farthings?"
Arato took time to light his pipe; he had tried smoking in his youth, like many of his brothers, but he had never stopped. "I cannot tell you why, exactly, Afar. I like having an eye on all that country – from the topmost point you can see the Gulf of Lhun! I know, I know – " he held up a hand, forestalling objection. "It makes no sense, yet I thought we should keep the Tower. I only left a token garrison; they'll be in trouble if anyone attacks."
Canohando stretched, massaging the back of his neck; he felt twisted out of shape after two trips through the Hobbits' defense tunnel. "Very well, if you think it worthwhile. A dozen men up there won't make much difference."
"Actually, I left five."
"Five! No one you couldn't bear to lose, I take it."
Arato gave a snort of amusement. "They're safer there than we are. Have you heard anything from those you left in the Marish?"
"No. How did you hear of that?"
"A Hobbit from Woodhall. When he got the word to flee, he fled indeed – all the way here! He told me Mother got to Tuckborough safely, with her wagons."
Canohando gave a great sigh and grinned. "The Valar give you blessing for that, my son – I think I've been holding my breath for the last se'enight! Well, then, it's time I hunted out Tulco and his company, and found some work for them. They should have moved up the East Road when they finished at the river, but you haven't heard anything at all." His look was questioning, and Arato shook his head.
"We'll head east in the morning, then, and look for them. Have you enough men here?"
"Enough for what?" Arato asked dryly. "If the whole barbarian nation falls on us, we won't survive – but I doubt they'll get in the Delving, even then. Yes, we have enough, for any reasonable contingency."
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