The Grey at the End of the World: 4. Temptation

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4. Temptation

Logi crouched under the brow of a little hill, staring down the valley at the flicker of at least a hundred campfires. He was a couple of hours from Bridge Fort, no more than that.

"How many do you make it?" the man beside him murmured.

Logi made a quick calculation: one campfire for how many men? Eight, maybe – so not less than eight hundred warriors encamped practically on the Shire's doorstep. He swore quietly, savagely.

"The Guardians can field a thousand, Logi. We're about evenly matched, if this is the lot."

"If," said Logi. "How many are at Fornost? Three or four hundred? So far we've heard nothing from them; no one has gotten through to call for aid. We'd better cast about, Mazik, make sure there are no more. Take the lads upriver a bit. I'm going in, see if I can hear anything."

Mazik frowned but didn't argue; Logi was known for taking risks. Sneaking alone into an armed camp was about what you'd expect from the Orc. Better if Haldar had been with them on this jaunt; he was the only one who could talk sense to Logi. The Elf, folk called him: as finely featured as Malatara herself, but tall. You could get an idea what the Eldar People must have been, looking at him. It was an old joke, the Orc and the Elf.

"Meet where, back here? At dawn?"

"No. Have a good look round, then go on back. I'll see you at morning report." Logi slapped Mazik on the shoulder, then turned and began cautiously working his way downhill. Halfway down he dropped to his belly until at last he crawled, snake-like, in among the tents.

They were crudely made of hides, sewn with the hair side out, stretched over bent poles. Low to the ground; Logi doubted he could have stood upright inside any of them. But it was an orderly encampment; he would give the barbarians that much. The tents were set in circles with a fire at the center - five tents to each fire, and the circles in turn formed the rim of a larger ring, and inside that another one, always five tents around each campfire. The Orc nodded grudging approval: there was strong leadership here. Then he sucked in his breath, appalled.

There were children sleeping on the ground beside one fire, quite small children. A woman sat by them, her hands busy at some task he could not make out.

Women and children in the camp – this was no raid for plunder and run for home when they had enough. This was a movement of the whole tribe, seeking new lands.

We're getting too much of this, he thought. He paid scant attention to statecraft, normally; that was Adah's concern, as his part was to fight. But twice since he'd been old enough for battle, the Guardians had faced wandering hordes in search of new pastures. Both times they'd held the invaders off, but the losses had been heavy. We've not made up our numbers yet! We are not ready –

He groped his way deeper into the camp, prey to a smoldering resentment that attacks on the Shire were coming so relentlessly, before the Guardians had time to regain their strength. Many of the barbarians were sleeping outside – it was a warm night and no doubt the little tents were stuffy inside. He would have slept out under the stars himself, given the choice.

There were sentries, but only at the edges of the encampment. Now that he was well inside, there seemed to be no one keeping watch. It was a sign of how secure they felt, Vengeance take them! I would put some caution in you, he thought grimly. Not everyone was sleeping outside; he could hear snores inside some of the tents, but he passed more families stretched out around their fires, women and children. Many children.

He stopped to look more closely at one pair. A man of middle years, his sword ready at his side even as he slept. And on the other side of the fire, a girl – no, a woman, he corrected himself, his eyes following the swell of breasts under her deerskin dress – with a mass of tangled curls obscuring her face. Her long hair spread like a mantle over her shoulders, luxuriant and soft – he clenched his hands, massaging his fingertips against his palms, aching to touch it. He circled round the sleepers, trying to see her face, and as he came opposite her she sighed and moved in her sleep, her arm brushing back the hair. He smiled slightly; she was lovely, with eyebrows that swept up like the wings of a swallow, and a firm little chin that promised a strong will.

A man might strike sparks from you, he thought, wishing he could see her with her eyes open, could bury his fingers in that cascade of hair and trace with his tongue the enchanting hollow of that slender throat. Was the man her husband? He went back to take another look, but he seemed too old for her, and the way they slept, so far apart – her father, perhaps.

He looked around, committing to memory where he stood in the encampment. Without admitting it to himself, he was already determined to see her again. Then he found his way soundlessly out of the camp. Once he had the fold of the hill shielding him from view, he broke into a dogtrot back toward the fort.

He gave a clear report of the placement and strength of the camp – he guessed that half of those in it were women, or children too young to fight. But his earlier estimate of eight to each campfire was too low: if there were three souls to each tent, which seemed reasonable, they would have to figure fifteen to each fire. Fifteen hundred at least, perhaps eight hundred warriors.

Mazik had more bad news. His patrol had found two more encampments, one next to the river, the other a mile or so east. Each was at least as large as the first camp.

"And they may have more fighting men: the others are closer to our border; they may have gathered all the children in the farthest camp, better to protect them. They may have as many as three or four thousand warriors."

"The Commander should be already on his way; Haldar left yester morn to warn him, and he will make all speed when he gets the message. Dare we wait until he gets here to take action?"

The fort's chief officer at this time was a cousin of Logi's father, a worthy soldier, but not of the first rank of command. Canohando had lost some of his best captains in the last war; he hoped to put Logi in command a few years in the future, but considered his grandson still too green in judgment.

"What action can we take, with a garrison of two hundred?" Logi asked impatiently. "Four thousand of the enemy – we can get word to the other forts to send reinforcements and hold themselves ready to come en masse at short notice. Bring in supplies, and watch every move they make. Beyond that, we will have to wait for Adah."

Unconsciously he used the pet name of his childhood, but it carried authority. They were all of them descendants of Canohando, at whatever remove, but only Logi was close enough to call him Grandpa. The officer nodded agreement.

"Also we must warn the Mayor," he said. "He can prepare the Hobbits to take cover, if it comes to that, and hide their food, in case the enemy cross the border."

"We won't let them cross," growled Logi, but the captain shook his head.

"We won't if we can help it, Logi, but look at the odds against us. We will fight them off, but they are very close, in great numbers. I think the Hobbits would do well to move deeper inside the Shire, maybe even to the old delvings in Tookland, until this is all over. But only the Mayor can order that."

"They won't want to leave their fields and gardens," said Mazik.

"Their fields may be sprouting men's bones instead of wheat, a month from now! They have food enough in store, but what use if they are slain? This much I am certain of: we must warn them to be ready for invasion."

And having made up his own mind in one thing, at least, the captain held firm to his decision. That same morning a letter was carried hotfoot to the Mayor in Hobbiton, and that descendant of Sam Gamgee was a cautious and competent governor. Within a few days Hobbits all across the Shire were packing up grain and pulse and dried meat, heads of cheese and barrels of ale, and carting it all to safety in the ancient tunnels of Michel Delving, Brockenborings, and Tuckborough, where once the Thain held out against the Ruffians, in the days of the Ring War. As much as to anyone, the Hobbits owed their survival to this lackluster captain who, as his one act of military wisdom, sent warning to the Mayor. He fell in the first battle with the barbarians, but his name was never forgotten among the Little People. His name was Horner.

Once they had sent out their messengers, the fort's garrison set to work refurbishing weapons and armor and strengthening the walls as best they might, until the Commander should arrive. But Logi went back again to the barbarian encampments, taking his usual patrol, and scouted all the area between the Brandywine and the Greenway, south to the Old Forest, and north to where the river bent eastward away toward the north.

Ten days they were gone from the Bridge, and they went all the way to Fornost. What they found there dashed their hopes and underlined the magnitude of the threat. The fort was broken open, its gates and the sprawling village around the walls were burned, and bodies lay unburied in the ruins. They gathered the remains in a funeral pyre, and brought away with them what weapons they could find, but there were not many. The barbarians had been thorough in sacking the place.

"That is what the Shire will be, if we do not hold the line," Logi said grimly, and no one contradicted him. In their scouting they had found yet another nest of the enemy, larger than the others, on the very border of the Old Forest.

But on their return, when they came near the first camp they had discovered, where Logi had seen women and children, he sent the patrol on without him. Again that night he made his way inside the defenses and found the tent where he had seen the girl. This time she was sleeping close by the fire, and there was no one else in sight.

He lowered himself to the ground beside her, devouring her with his eyes. The firelight gleamed on her face, her cheek pillowed on her hand, and her hair fell back from an ear as finely shaped as the seashell Malatara had kept in her sewing basket, when Logi was a child. With one cautious finger he traced the delicate curve and let his hand wander to the mass of curls – they were as soft as they looked, utterly irresistible.

She sighed and moved, and hastily he backed off with one hand on his knife. But she did not waken, and after a last, long look he slipped away. He found a fire where a few men sat talking in a clackety language he could make nothing of, but their faces caught his interest.

Bearded and long-haired, unlike the Guardians who wore their hair close-cropped, and many of them sporting chokers of boars' teeth round their necks. They punctuated their speech with sharp, chopping motions of their hands, and their voices were loud and rough. Even lying around the fire in supposed security, there was something ferocious about them.

Logi watched for a long time, until one by one they went to sleep. He had wondered sometimes what Orcs were like – true Orcs, not like his grandfather. He had never dared to ask Adah about it, but he and Haldar had speculated on the question when they were lads.

"Like you on a three-day hunt when you've taken nothing!" Haldar had teased him. "Mad as hornets with their nest torn down, and stinking worse than pigs." He lifted Logi's knife deftly out of its sheath and skinned up a tree with it before the older lad could catch him.

"What I want to know is, can an Orc climb like an Elf?" he'd shouted down, and Logi had swarmed after him, the question of Orc nature forgotten for the moment, except that one Orc could climb fast and high, and a little cousin was not quick enough to elude him.

But Logi had continued to wonder, and more so as he reached maturity. The other Guardians were brave warriors, but he did not think they drank warfare like a draught of wine – they used their weapons well, but they did not revel in every sword-thrust, every arrow that found its mark. Logi was never so alive as on the field of battle, pitting his life, his blood, against the foe.

He thought he saw something of this in the barbarians, and it roused a hunger in him to know them better. These were Men, not Orcs, and yet –

He tore himself away. The next morning he said only that he had wanted to confirm his opinion that there were more women and children than warriors in the camp.

"And what of that?" Mazik demanded. "If the men do not come forth to battle, if they stay behind to defend their brats, with the new camp we found there are still six thousand warriors to beset us – more than enough, I'd say!"

"We might raid that camp and steal the women," Logi said abstractedly.

"Have you lost your wits?" Mazik's voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "We want to drive them off, not send them mad! What maggot's got inside your head, Logi?"

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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