Never in her life had Malawen's patience been so tried, as it was during the long trek to Delving. With the pony straining to drag the loaded travois, they could go no faster than a walk, and even then the jostling was hard on the injured Hobbit. His daughter hovered close at hand, comforting him as best she might, and every few hours they had to stop and rest.
It took them two days to reach the place, and then they nearly passed it by. Where the village had been was no more than a low hill grown over with brambles and young saplings, with no sign of houses or streets, still less of Hobbits. The surrounding countryside was familiar, and in the distance a shining pinnacle marked the Tower Hills - Malawen knew they must be near and halted the pony to look about more closely.
"Good morrow, Malatara! I almost didn't see you. What are you doing abroad in such desperate times?" Of a sudden there was a tall man standing beside her, and she startled. Where had he sprung from, that she had not noticed his approach?
"Is the Commander here?" She asked the question foremost in her mind.
"Not now, Lady; he led his men away more than a week ago. Your son Arato is commanding here, under the Mayor."
She bit back her chagrin. Against all reason she had hoped that he would be here – but at least the long journey was over; she was glad of that. "You have the town well-hidden! Will you lead us in? And of your kindness, bring this goodman to the healers, while I see my son."
She saw Daisy and her father led away to what comfort the crowded Delving could provide, returning the child's fierce hug and bidding her be good. But over breakfast with Hodfast and Arato, she found that the town was more than simply hidden.
"We razed it," the Mayor said cheerfully, buttering a muffin. "Better us than the savages, you know, and not difficult to build again, once we're rid of them! But we couldn't hide it, as we can the hill – and that's well-camouflaged, I think you'll grant."
"You might have spared yourself the journey, Mother, although I'm glad to see you," Arato said gently. "We had a call already for aid to Tuckborough – a Hobbit came to say it was under siege, and half our garrison left four nights ago."
"One of the Tooks? I thought them all safe inside – or we believed it safe, until we saw the host that came against us."
Arato cut a piece of ham and spread it with mustard, folded a piece of bread around it. "No, not a Took. Frodo Miner, from Hobbiton. More to the point is how he got to Delving." He took a bite of his sandwich, and Malawen waited impatiently, tapping her foot against the rung of her chair.
"Well?' she demanded at last. Arato, she remembered, had irritated her from childhood with his plodding, methodical ways – so different from her lightning impulses. Time was when she'd questioned in all sincerity if he was not a bit stupid. Canohando had scoffed at that, but now she wondered again. "Well?"
"Someone brought him here, dropped him and fled before the guards could catch him. I think it was Logi."
He knew what Logi had done; they all knew. The story had spread like fire among the Guardians, and it lost nothing in the telling. The Orc had trussed Haldar up while he slept, went the most popular version, and carried him bound into the enemy camp, to barter for the slut he wanted.
"Logi? Here? Name of Luthien, what would he be doing here, carting Hobbits about? The scum is with the barbarians, murdering his kin!"
"Or perhaps not. Don't be wroth with me, Mother; I had no chance to ask his name. Can you think of anyone else the spitting image of the Commander? None of us saw him in the dark, but Frodo is very clear in his description. He says – whoever it was – rescued him from Men who were ransacking Bag End."
"Well, it cannot have been Logi – he would have been ransacking right along with them! It was dark, you said, and the Hobbit was afraid..."
Arato offered no more argument, finishing his meal and wiping his hands on a linen napkin.
"In any event, we have already sent reinforcements to Tuckborough. I'll leave you now, Mother; I have duties waiting. Hodfast will make you comfortable, I know."
And the Mayor himself saw Malawen bestowed in the best bedchamber the Delving had to offer – standing vacant now because he considered himself on active duty as chief civilian authority, and was sleeping in a guardroom close by the front gate.
"You're in the safest place in all the Shire, Lady Mab, and thanks in large part to the efforts of your son. We'd have been hard put to get all these bushes planted, without the Guardians! I'll wish you a good rest from your journey now, for I have duties also, like the Captain."
He bowed and kissed her hand, and she smiled her thanks, but when he was gone she sank down on the bed with her hands over her face.
Logi here? Let him come near me, only once, great Manwe – I'll give him the welcome that his deeds deserve! Oh, Haldar, Haldar... She fell forward on the pillows, weeping.
But after she'd slept, when she came forth from the bedroom, she found Arato and the Mayor in troubled consultation. A messenger had come with orders from Canohando, to send all the force possible to Tuckborough. It was written in the Orc's unmistakable hand, the letters crudely formed, pressed deep into the parchment – he had not learned to write till late in life.
Arato was pacing back and forth distractedly, his hands thrust in his pockets. "We are short-garrisoned now! If they come here next, what then?"
"What would they see, if they did come? A brushy hillock close beside the Road – why should that interest them?" The Mayor patted Arato's arm encouragingly. "Go to your father, lad; we'll stay inside and keep our gates well barred. Better for the Tooks if they could hide Great Smials, but it's too late for that."
Arato made a face. "I can't see them razing Tuckborough, whatever the danger. The Tooks are too proud for wisdom, sometimes. But in truth, the Delving may be all the safer if we're not here – where there are Guardians, there's something worth the guarding. I'll send the men to him– "
Malawen had been listening from the doorway; now she said sharply, "Send? What is this 'send'? You'll lead your men, however few, like a Captain of the Guardians as you are!"
Arato turned his gaze on her. "Proud and valiant, Mother, to the last?" He took his pipe from his pocket and filled it carefully. "He calls for my men, but he does not bid me come. I must suppose he leaves it to my judgment."
Malawen glared, speechless, but her infuriating son seemed not to notice, setting a coal to his pipe and puffing until it drew.
"He wagers high, that he can turn them back in one great effort. If it pays out, it will make no difference whether I was there. But if it doesn't – all his sons are at Tuckborough, save only me. There had better be someone who survives the slaughter, to pick up the pieces if the battle's lost."
"Are you certain you are not merely fainthearted?" she demanded. "Even as a child, you hung back always, while your brothers and sisters threw themselves on life."
He gave a bitter laugh. "The Valar grant he comes in victory, to chide me as fainthearted! No, Mother, I did not grow up a coward – but courage and skill in arms may not avail against this deluge. You overrate my value, if you think my presence there will make the difference, if Tuckborough stand or fall."
"Of course not! But you should be there nonetheless."
"And if Great Smials is over-run, as our men were at the river? There are stragglers of the Guardians here and there, I deem, and Valar save us, some must come out alive, however bad it gets! How long can Hodfast hide? Can you last the winter on the supplies you have?"
"Yes," said the Mayor, but his eyebrows drew together; plainly he had not thought of making the food last so long.
"And how long after that? What if they put up houses, plow your fields – what if you cannot plant next year?"
Hodfast made no answer.
"Could you lead them, Hodfast? If you had to leave the Shire and find your way, search out a place of refuge in the hills?"
The Mayor cleared his throat. "No. Could you?"
"I am not sure," Arato said. "I can find my way where no path is; I can kill game enough for my own need. Whether I could bring the Hobbits now in Delving to some place of safety... I do not know. But between us we might do it, even if neither could manage it alone."
"You are assuming that Tuckborough will be lost, your father slain –!" Malawen was shrill with outrage. "How dare you? You're as bad as Logi!"
Arato sighed. "A traitor, am I? Because I admit a battle may be lost – even with Canohando in command. The greatest heroes of another age were not invincible. Gil-galad was lost, Mother, though the cause he fought for was victorious. I would honor my father by carrying on his task, if he should fall."
She gave a strangled cry and turned away, feeling for the door, but Hodfast went and took her by the arm.
"Come, Lady Mab, sit down. Pour your mother some wine, Arato." He led her to a chair and helped her sit, brought a soft worsted shawl and draped it round her. Arato brought a glass of wine, brim-full, and she sipped from it while the Mayor stood patting her shoulder.
"Now, Lady, we must face it bravely, all of us. Of course we hope that Tuckborough will be saved – I have friends there, too, and relatives – and the Powers send that the Commander remain with us another thousand years, and the Shire prosper in peace as it has done! Yet battles may be lost, despite our hopes – it is wisdom, not cowardice, to admit it and plan accordingly. Will it turn the tide, if Arato goes to the Tookland?"
She shook her head. A tear crept down her face, and then another.
"Then I say with him: send the men, send the whole garrison, but let the Captain stay. For I tell you truly, I would not know how to care for them outside the Shire, and I believe the Commander would have our folk survive, whatever fate awaits him in this battle. Am I mistaken?"
"No. He would want you to survive."
She set down the wineglass then and hid her eyes. Arato knelt and put his arms around her, and she leaned on his shoulder and wept.
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.