16. Malawen's Ride
In Tuckborough, Malawen went from bed to bed, giving medicines and changing bandages, and sometimes cradling in her arms a man who died for all her ministrations. She heard the last farewells, the stammering messages for wife or sweetheart. There were not many who died; most of the gravely hurt had not lasted so long, but each death tore her heart.
Osta meanwhile had taken charge outside, helping the Hobbits strengthen their defenses. He made them put tubs of water all round the enclosed courtyard; too well he remembered the flames engulfing Bridge Fort. But Feldibar had arrow-slots cut in the upper level, right through the hill; his archers would command the gates from there, without leaving the security of the Smials.
One cloudless summer day followed another and nothing disturbed their peace. Almost the invasion seemed unreal, an evil dream from which they soon must wake, were it not for the wounded lying in the Hall, the fresh mounds in the graveyard. And questions hung unspoken which nobody could answer: where was the Commander? Had he turned back the marauders in the north? And what of the Guardians left by the Brandywine?
They planted sharpened stakes outside the wall and braced the gates with iron. They brought in food and water, piling up supplies until the storerooms overflowed, and casks and barrels lined the narrow passages. The Hobbits of Tuckborough village moved inside the Smials, till every room was filled, families doubling up with one another, and all the while they hoped that their preparations would be prove to be unneeded, that the war would pass them by. But on a bright, hot morning when they would have been a-haying, in any other year, the barbarians fell upon them like a whirlwind, surrounding Great Smials in a flood of screeching demons.
It was mercy that the town was deserted. The invaders spent the forenoon rioting through the streets, stealing what they wanted and despoiling the rest. They brought up ale and wine and brandy from the cellars of the inn, and soon most of them were drunk. As the sun passed from its zenith, the fires began, houses and barns and shops, the inn, the blacksmith – even the earth-built smials were put to the torch, the destroyers heaping up straw and raiding the tidy woodsheds for wood to throw inside. They tore down the doors and chopped them into pieces, adding them to the pile, and the round doorways glowed like the maws of furnaces. The very hills seemed to be melting.
From behind their barricade, the Hobbits and their Guardians watched aghast. There were no people in the village, but there were animals, chickens and cows, a few ponies – there had not been space enough to bring them all inside. A small brown dog ran yelping through the maelstrom, its tail between its legs. One of the barbarians made a grab for it, but it dodged away and escaped into the woods. For several minutes they could hear its frantic howling in the distance, and a child inside the walls began to wail.
The order came to take the children in, and all the women: inside the relative safety of the Smials. Outside, the killing had begun, as the marauders slaughtered what animals they could catch, building cook-fires to companion the inferno of burning buildings. They seemed intent on devouring every living creature left in the village.
Osta had been at the gate throughout the day, ready to throw back the assault whenever it came. But as evening fell, the barbarians settled down to drunken feasting, and Osta went inside to rest. He left a captain in charge with orders to call him at the least alarm, and sought out his little corner of the Hall, screened off to give him a bit of privacy, throwing himself on the bed and scratching under his bandage.
"Leave that wound alone; you'll have it open." His mother poured a glass of wine and handed it to him. "I've sent to the kitchen for some supper for you; then you'd better sleep."
He stopped scratching and sipped the wine. "It itches like the sandflies of Mordor. You'd better get some sleep yourself. Tomorrow will be worse, or I'm no prophet."
"Send for help, before tomorrow comes. We must have reinforcements; we cannot hold so many off alone."
"How would anyone get through?" Osta's broad face was lined and haggard; he coughed and took another drink, and coughed again.
"It's only the smoke," he answered her worried glance. "I'll be all right. They have us well surrounded, Malatara. There is no way to send for help." He felt stirrings of disquiet; she was wearing her stubborn look. "There is nothing you can do, dearest; only care for the wounded."
"And you will keep me well supplied with those, until they break in and everyone is slain!" Her voice snapped like a whip. "You are a better commander than that, my son. None of the Guardians can get through, perhaps. But I can."
He protested, but he might have saved his breath.
"Get me a pony, one of the Hobbit steeds. Black, the very swiftest one they have. Think – where will he be?"
Osta had no need to ask who he was. "He rode into the North; he may be anywhere. Can't you ask the birds? Didn't the Elvenkind befriend them, in the old days?"
Malawen smiled faintly. "That is ages ago, and well before my time. Yet once I knew a man... Get me the pony, Osta, while I think on it."
She swept out, as regal as the queen the Hobbits named her, and he groaned, massaging his forehead with his fingers, as if he could rub away the pain of his aching head. "Afar, why do you leave me to take care of her? You'll not forgive me if she comes to harm!" But he knew better than to balk her will, and he sent one of the Hobbits to find a pony, the swiftest and the blackest there might be. Meanwhile he ate his supper stolidly, knowing he would need the strength it gave him, for all it tasted like sawdust in his mouth.
In the darkest hour of the night, a slender figure emerged from a crevice near the back of the mound. Cloaked in black, her pony's hooves muffled in cloth, all but invisible she drifted past two sleepy sentinels, the only men the barbarians had posted here, so far from all the action.
By sun-up, she was well away from Tuckborough, whistling and chirping at every bird she saw, trying to coax one to her. Her voice grew sweeter as she grew more desperate, and at last a bunting alighted on her hand.
"Find the Commander for me," she entreated. "Will you be my messenger?"
She had prepared a note for Canohando on a scrap of muslin, tightly rolled. But the bird struggled and squawked when she tried to attach the message, and finally pecked her hand and flew away. She nearly wept in chagrin. Not till the following afternoon did another bird flit to her shoulder, and she had no better success with that one.
I should have had Radagast teach me long ago. But it's too late for that, so what's to be done? Osta was right; Canohando might be anywhere. But the Mayor is at Delving; he may know where to find him – and anyway the fort at Towers can send aid.
She pulled her pony round to face the west. The sun hung at tree level like a fiery dragon, making her squint against its radiance. She had lost time wandering; now she knew where she must go, but was it too late already? How long could Osta hold them off at Tuckborough?
She turned onto a narrow sheep track, pursued by anxious thoughts. She had little worry for herself; her contempt for the barbarians precluded being afraid of them. To the Hobbits they were deadly, but how should she fear these bellowing After-comers, she who by birth was of the Galadhrim? Then she remembered Haldar, so Elf-like that he might have been born himself in the Golden Wood. For a moment her confidence wavered – yet surely she could outwit these savages. She would lead them like a fox over hill and dale, if she encountered them, till she left them tripping over each other's heels while she slipped safe away.
But Osta and his men were trapped inside the Smials, and as for Canohando, who could say where he might be? Except he would be in the forefront of any battle, and an arrow was an arrow, however coarse the hand that bent the bow.
Melethron, where are you? The war was not going well, else that mob had never got to Tuckborough, and unless reinforcements reached them in short order, they were doomed. If Osta were slain – no, not Osta, please! Haldar's death had left them desolate, but Osta – he was the firstborn; he had been hand in glove with his father from babyhood. Though the Commander eluded every other danger, the loss of his firstborn son might bring him down.
"Please, oh please, not Osta,"she said aloud, and trembled at how her voice shattered the silence.
Rough pasture spread around her, shallow hills rising and falling against the sky, with here and there a stone shanty for shepherds to huddle in from the wind and rain. But the day was clear and bright with never a cloud – no shepherds to be seen, nor any sheep. She wondered where they'd gone.
Familiar, too familiar, this golden sunlight on an empty land. So, too, Lothlorien when they all departed, the sad-faced Elves on dappled horses, silken trappings fluttering in the breeze, riding away and leaving her behind. The sun had glittered on the grassy carpet, spangled with niphredil and elanor, and the silence had pressed on her like something tangible, a weight on her chest that made it hard to breathe. As it did now again: no sound, no motion, not a sign of life – then in the far distance she saw a vulture circling. A sign of death, not life: she put her head down and refused to look, letting the pony pick his way unguided.
"Queen Mab! Queen Mab!"
The voice shrilled from her left and her head jerked up; her pony stumbled, betraying his own surprise. A Hobbit child, hair tangled to her waist, dirty, unkempt – she threw herself in Malawen's path, trying to catch the reins.
"Get back before you're trampled!" Malawen pulled up sharply and slid to the ground, snatching the child away from the pony's hooves.
"Lady, hurry! Hurry, before he dies!"
"Who – ? No, never mind; take me to him." She let the girl drag her by one hand, leading her pony with the other.
A quarter mile, no more, to one of the shepherd cots. Malawen hobbled the pony hastily before she stooped to enter. She would do what she could here, but quickly, quickly – she must reach Michel Delving, she must not be delayed.
Within was darkness. It was a moment before her eyes adjusted enough to see the Hobbit lying on a heap of straw, his head thrown back in pain, hands clutching the straw. The child crouched at his side, stroking his cheek and forehead in helpless tenderness.
"Da, it's Queen Mab! She's come to help you – now you'll be all right – "
Malawen knelt beside them, noting the clumsy bandage across the Hobbit's shoulder. "What caused the wound? How long ago?" Her hands were busy as she spoke, unwinding the linen, stiffened with dried blood.
"An arrow, Lady." His voice was clearer than she expected; weak and in pain, but not at his last gasp. "Four days ago – we was hiding up a tree when they fired the house. One shot into the branches and I fell; broke my leg, belike. It knocked me silly; guess they thought they finished me."
"And they didn't even see me," the child piped up, "but I got you away, Da, didn't I? I got you here and I took care of you."
"Oh aye, you're a grand lassie. She dragged me here on a sheepskin, Lady! You wouldn't think she'd have the strength, a little thing like her." He closed his eyes and lay back, visibly exhausted.
"What's your name?" Malawen asked the girl. "Have you got water here? I'll need to wash the wound."
"My name is Daisy, Lady. I'll get you water."
The injury was badly torn, puffy and suppurating. It must have been Daisy who got the arrow out and bandaged it up; she'd done well for her age, but – Malawen ducked outside to untie the bundle from her saddle. She never traveled without her healer's packet: bandages tightly rolled, a collection of dried herbs, some vials of medicine, and a small copper pot with a bail to hang over a fire. She'd packed it even fuller than usual this time, thinking her skill would be required when she found the Commander's men.
The Hobbit swallowed some of her cordial and was asleep by the time she finished with his shoulder, cleansed and spread with a salve of lady's-mantle, bound in fresh bandages.
"Dump that dirty water, and wash the kettle well before you fill it again. And wash out that soiled bandage, telella*, and spread it on the grass – the sun will purify it."
She turned her attention to the broken leg, unbinding the brychan wrapped around it. Daisy had tried to keep it straight with a stick bound inside the cloth, but of course she had not been able to set the bone. Malawen bit her lips, running her hands over the fractured limb. At least the bone had stayed inside the skin; it wasn't as bad as she'd feared it might be. But she could not leave them here, alone and helpless; she'd have to take them along with her to Delving, though she had no idea how that was possible.
But the bone must be set and made immobile somehow; she dared not move the Hobbit till that was done. She roused him gently, making him take a strong dose of poppy juice in some more cordial, and waited, fretting with impatience, until he lapsed unconscious. Then she pressed Daisy into service to help her get the bone repositioned and securely splinted.
The girl was quick to obey and steady-handed; Malawen thanked the Powers silently for that. How she could have managed, if the child had been given to tears or hysterics – but they would not have survived this long, either of them, in that case.
And Daisy had an answer to the problem of transporting her father. "We have a travois, Lady – sometimes we have an injured sheep, you know, to bring down to the house –" She swallowed convulsively; there was no house any more.
"What became of your sheep?" The words were hardly out of Malawen's mouth before she could have bitten her tongue off short. Fool! What do you think became of them? she berated herself, and the child's face confirmed her guess.
"Never mind, melyanna*," she said softly. "You're alive, you and your father, and we'll get you to safety soon. There was none of your family lost, was there? It was only the two of you?" She thought it must have been; neither of them had mentioned anyone else.
"Yes, just the two of us." Daisy offered no explanation of her mother's absence, and Malawen forbore to ask. They had enough to deal with in the present, without digging up past heartaches.
"Come, then, let us see if we can harness my pony to your travois, and fix it to carry your father as comfortably as may be. I have no time to spare; I must reach Delving."
*Telella (young elf) and melyanna (dear gift) are endearments Malawen remembers from her own childhood – perhaps her earlier musings on the Golden Wood brought them back into her mind
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.