20. When Heroes Fall
A few nights after he encountered Logi, Canohando at last found a way past the barbarians, all the way to the foot of the hill. It was very steep at this point, and above him were some of the arrow-slits Feldibar had ordered cut into the sod. The Orc clambered up as if he were climbing a wall; when he was high enough, he drew his knife and held it by the tip, extending it slowly into one of the slits, hilt first.
There was a startled exclamation inside, the knife was taken from him, and someone asked softly, "Who's there?"
"Canohando. Is my son Osta here?"
"Commander! Is it really you?" A Hobbit voice, but it was unfamiliar. "Wait, I'll fetch him for you."
He waited, leaning his weight against the hill and digging in his toes, to keep from sliding down. It was only a few minutes until he heard Osta's greeting.
"She found you, Afar! I feared to let her go, but you see how far I got, trying to change her mind –"
"No one found me; I was hunting for the jackals. Do you mean to tell me Malatara's gone?"
Osta's chuckle whispered through the slit. "And well that she is – Tuckborough's not such a refuge as we hoped! More like a trap – have you come to spring us from it?"
"With half five hundred Guardians? Tell me how!"
For a quarter hour they held murmured consultation. "Agreed," said Canohando finally. "Take them to Delving, but not by any direct route – be certain you're not followed."
"The Holy Ones defend you, Afar!"
"And you, my son."
He climbed back down the mound. At the bottom he sat and massaged his legs before he crawled away. The muscles were sore and knotted from keeping his precarious balance on the hill.
At least we have a plan. A suicide mission for his diminished company, and hardly less so for the Smials' defenders, but they had not been able to think of anything better. A full-on charge at nightfall, to draw the enemy from all around the hill – the Guardians inside would send a rain of arrows, while Canohando fell on the barbarians from behind.
If we had the men that Tulco squandered –! But no, that was unjust. Tulco had done his best, no doubt, and fallen in the effort. They still might save the Hobbits, if only the back of the hill were left unguarded. While the attack progressed in front, Osta would bring them out with a score of men, through the little hidden door that Malawen used.
"Yes, you!" Canohando had hissed into the hill, when his son protested that someone else could lead them, his place was at the front. "It will take sharp wits to bring them safe to Delving, and all the Shire a-crawl with enemies. I need a living captain who can think on the run, not a dead hero at the gate. Do as you're told, Osta!"
And Osta must survive, if possible, to command the men in future, those who remained. The reinforcements from Michel Delving had arrived that morning. There'd been no time for conversation, but the Commander had noted with approval that Arato was not among them. He knows my mind as well as I do myself. He'll make a good second for Osta. He allowed himself a pang of grief that he would not see his melethril again – and thought, But wait, where is she?
Roaming the countryside on a Hobbit pony, alone and unprotected! There was yet one thing for him to do, before the attack this evening. He sought out the best scout in his company, a man called Owain.
"Find Malatara and bring her safe to Delving. And give her this." He handed over a small, wrapped bundle; inside were a letter of farewell and Arwen's Jewel. He walked with Owain out beyond the pickets and watched him ride away.
The barbarians that Canohando had hounded into the North rode all the way to Oakbarton, destroying as they went. But when in the distance they glimpsed the Evendim Hills, they made up their minds they had gone far enough. Southward they turned again, until they came like their fellows to the East Road, but they did not follow it. They rode down the wheat that stood ripening for a harvest that would never come. They climbed into the hills, dotted with tidy farmsteads here and there, no villages, but smials dug into the hillsides, with maybe a stake fence round the garden, and foxgloves by the door.
Only a few of these smallholders remained; most had already fled. The barbarians fell like wolves on the ones who were left, and only those Hobbits survived who took warning from clouds of dust on the horizon, and shinnied up a tree where they escaped notice. Those who did not hide themselves in time were slain in their own dooryards.
As the sun dropped toward the west, on the day that Owain departed to look for Malawen, the northern army of Tribesmen came to the Tuckborough road.
Afterward it was all a jumble in Canohando's memory. Wanting to create the greatest confusion possible, he held off the attack until it was fully dark. Then he sent his men in squads of four, each carrying a long stick of pine with pitch daubed on the end; when they broke from cover, spurring their mounts between the enemy watch-fires, they thrust their sticks into the flames, and rushed the barbarians with swords in one hand and blazing torches in the other. From every side they charged, weaving back and forth in seeming wild abandon, though in reality each squad was following a pre-set path, planned to keep them out of each other's way while spreading them as widely as possible through the camp, giving the illusion of greater numbers than they truly had.
From inside Tuckborough came arrows tipped with fire, and throwing spears, and even knives flipped skillfully, end over end, to wound any enemy rash enough to venture near the walls.
The barbarians rallied quickly, trying to mass together but hindered by the flaming shafts continually raining down. And the Guardians were quick to take advantage, thundering into every gap that opened, breaking lines of battle all to pieces. Canohando seemed everywhere at once, thrusting with torch and spear, but he roared no battle cry this night, nor did any of the Guardians.
"We are too few to make a mighty din, and they would drown us out. Flame and blade and speed, and silent as the grave: so we may unnerve them –" for a while, he thought. Long enough to catch them off their guard, to make them leave the rear, till the Hobbits have escaped.
He thought the ploy was working, and then he heard – Great bloody death! He'd heard no sound like that since Mordor! A Troll had broken its chains on the Morannon, an Age ago in his vanished other life; it had picked up the Orc who'd been whipping it and snapped him like a toothpick. The horror of it had stayed with Canohando all his life, the sound of that furious bellow, and for an instant he dreaded to see another Troll.
But it was not Trolls; it was more barbarians, a thousand more, five thousand more barbarians, mouths wide open, roaring. The northern half of their army had arrived, and they held the Guardians trapped between two fires.
Inexorably the northerners moved in. When they were so near that Canohando could see their teeth, grinning like death's heads in their shadowed faces, without warning the gates of Tuckborough burst open. The closest warriors shouted and pressed forward, but they were driven back by a phalanx of mounted Hobbits, their arrows flying as they charged ahead, and Feldibar in the lead. He alone, of all of them, wore armor, and above his head he brandished a naked sword. Twice the blade flashed down, and rose again; then it rose no more, and Canohando lost sight of the Hobbit paladin.
He spurred for the gateway, screaming his rage and sorrow, and the scene dissolved in a swirl of blood and flame. His next clear awareness found him on the ground, where he lay unhorsed with his leg bent up beneath him. His sword was gone, and a wound was pumping blood from somewhere near his knee.
"Holy Ones, save them!" Here was death at last, and his guardianship was over – now must the Valar take a hand, or all was lost.
A horse leaped over him and doubled back. "Afar!" cried a voice, and someone caught him underneath the arms and heaved him up, over the horse's back. He had just wits enough to twist his hand through the chest strap of the harness; then the beast plunged down and the blood rushed to his head, and everything went black.
He came to in a space of blessed quiet, the clash of battle echoing in the distance, like thunder far away.
"He's still alive, I think – he was, when I picked him up. We have to stop the bleeding."
"I can't see where it's coming from; give me a light."
A tiny flame appeared, and Canohando shut his eyes against it. A weight pressed on his leg, and he winced away.
"Sorry, Afar. Hold on; we'll have you trussed up in a minute, enough to get you out of here."
"Leave me." His voice was a croak and he tried again. "Go after Osta, help him save the Hobbits –"
"He doesn't know?" said a whisper by his feet.
"How would he, at the gate? They're in the woods, Commander – safe for the moment."
"Get them away! You fool, there isn't time – I'm done; give over! Tell Osta get them out– "
Another voice: "Osta held off half their stinking army – he gave us time to run. You can be proud of your eldest son, Commander."
Canohando strained his eyes to see who spoke. "Where is he?"
"He died a hero, Afar." That was the first voice, the man who had plucked him off the battlefield.
The bleeding had nearly stopped; the bandage was a tourniquet round his leg, painful, but the sensation of sliding into darkness – that was gone. Osta, dead?
"Who are you men?"
One of them held the candle beside his face; it was the young captain who had spoken up in council, the day they found the barbarians at Tuckborough.
"The others were inside; they led the Hobbits out. The whore-sons timed it well – the rearguard was still in sight; another moment, and they'd have got away. These men got the Hobbits under cover, but when they came back to help their comrades, everyone was slain."
"And so will we be, if we linger here. Commander, can you ride?"
"Where's my son's body? Put him on the horse with me."
The man would have argued, but the young captain said quietly, "There is no time. Where is he?"
And he led the horse to the place where Osta lay and hoisted him across the animal's back, before he helped Canohando on. "There, Afar – hold on tight! You're hardly fit to ride, but even less to walk, with your leg broken and half sawed off besides."
Canohando sprawled across Osta's body, clinging to the horse's mane. The captain guided the beast, one hand gripping the Commander's belt, helping him stay on, and slowly they moved deeper among the trees. The Orc was only half aware when a crowd of Hobbits joined them, walking behind and ahead – one of them led the way, and the two Guardians who had been of Osta's company brought up the rear. There was smoke in the air, stinging his eyes.
He tried to rouse himself, to lead them, but it was beyond his strength. Even riding was too much for him; his wound kept breaking open, and they could not stop the bleeding while he rode. At length they fashioned a makeshift litter and laid him down. They put the littlest children on the horse.
Two girls and a boy – they shied away at first, not wanting to share the horse with Osta's body. It took an old gaffer to persuade them, riding with his back against the corpse, soothing them in whispers.
"Now duckies, steady on, no need to be afraid. It's only the 'Kickshaw Man', and you know him. Don't tell me you never had some trinket from him! Eh? A whistle, or some sweets? Aye, then, I thought so. Never without a trifle in his pocket, carved dollies for the lasses, or knucklebones – I got a fox cub from him when I was a lad, made from a river stone. Carved all curled up, you know, like it was sleeping. I wonder what ever come of that," he interrupted himself, distracted by the thought.
"Well anyway, ye needn't mind Captain Osta. He's been friend to Hobbit childer time out of mind, and your grannies and gaffers back when they were young. There never was a Big'un like the Captain! Why, I mind the time – "
He spun them tales until they fell asleep, and he kept muttering to himself for a long while after. Now and then his voice would rise a little – "Best friend we ever had, you was," and "What'll we come to now, with you gone and the Commander like to go?"
By the time they reached the Delving four nights later, taking a circuitous route and traveling by night, Canohando was delirious. Malawen's cries of joy at seeing him, turned to fear that he'd been rescued only to die in bed. The Mayor sent a call for healers through the Hill, and they ransacked their stores of medicine while Malawen hung over her melethron night and day, plying him with remedies and, when she could no longer stay awake, curling up beside him on the bed, to sleep against his shoulder.
Meanwhile more and more Hobbits trickled in. From the Four Farthings they came: a rumor seemed to run along the ground, that in the Delving there was sanctuary. The Mayor assigned them places in the warren, but his face grew long with worry, dreading the coming winter and food stores running short. Already supplies were rationed. He had been afraid that might cause trouble, but it did not: there was not a Hobbit in all the crowded tunnels who did not count himself lucky to be alive, while fire and sword raged up and down the Shire.
One day refugees came who were not Hobbits: women and children from a fort to the southwest. Hodfast went outside to talk with them.
"We have no space for horses. Yourselves we will make room for with goodwill; the Guardians have been our shield and fortress! But the horses you must strip of their gear and turn them loose, and far from here, lest they draw the enemy to our hiding place."
The women conferred among themselves, but in the end they were unwilling to do that. "We'll go to Tower Hills, then. That were better refuge, maybe, for us taller folk. Are any of our men there, do you know?"
"There are a few," said Hodfast. "The Commander we have here, but not fit to command – we hope that he may live."
That brought smiles to their faces, strained and weary though they were. "That's better tidings than we'd heard; we thought him lost at Tuckborough." They begged a little food and Hodfast gave it; then they rode off toward the west.
The autumn chilled to winter. Arato dug himself in at Tower Hills, with a few survivors of Tulco's army and men from other garrisons, who had set out to the aid of Tuckborough and arrived too late. He sent out scouts, to search in secret for other straying Guardians and bring them to the fortress.
"For what, a final stand, before the darkness falls?" demanded Malawen. Too well she remembered the fading of the Golden Wood. Another Age had passed, and ended again in sorrow.
"What good would that do, Mother?" he asked her gently. He had come to Delving hoping to see his father. "No, we must get away, and take the Hobbits with us. How should they fend, to plow their fields next spring? We will not let them starve, or starve ourselves."
But she had no heart to make plans for tomorrow. Canohando had recognized her the day before, for the first time since the battle; that was all her thought, and trying to make him eat, to get his strength again.
"Don't wear him out, Arato. You've taken the command. Don't shift it to his shoulders; he's in no state – "
She lifted the bedroom latch without finishing her sentence, entering the room with pretended cheerfulness. "See, melethron, here's your son to visit you. Let me tuck a cushion behind your back, and fetch some wine."
Arato watched her for a moment; she seemed thinner and somehow shrunken, and the golden of her hair had lost its shine. His gaze moved to his father.
Canohando was greyer-skinned than ever, the color of ashes left out in the rain, but the black eyes were shrewd in his worn face, and he nodded at a chair beside the bed.
"Have a seat, General. Tell me of the war."