8. Mid-Summer's Eve
Three more weeks passed slowly. Bridge Fort was packed to the old stone walls, for the other fortresses had been cut to skeleton garrisons, all except Sarn Ford. Canohando was still uneasy about the South Road, and he left that stronghold fully manned.
Hourly they expected attack, but nothing happened. There were a few skirmishes, when a patrol met with an enemy hunting party, but the barbarians fought on the run as they raced back to the security of their camps, and the Guardians were not strong enough to challenge them there. Of Logi there was no sign, though everyone was watching for him: the traitor would not survive an encounter with his former comrades. Presumably he realized that and stayed clear.
"What are they waiting for?" Osta demanded at morning council. "They are not planning to live on our doorstep." Grief and suspense were taking their toll on him; his voice was querulous, his eyes red from lack of sleep.
Canohando tapped his front teeth with the handle of his knife, a habit he had picked up when he no longer had Arwen's Jewel to rub between his fingers.
"Trying to goad us into action, from sheer nerves? Waiting for reinforcements?" He grimaced. "We will be in sore straits if that's the case. Or – what's the date, Osta? We're nearly at the solstice, aren't we?"
"Two days to Mid-summer's Eve. The Mayor sent out word there'll be no Fair this year, nor any merry-making. Caused some complaint, I'm told."
Canohando shrugged. "They've lived so long in safety, they have no conception of danger."
"Not all of them," said Osta. "The Mayor is nobody's fool. He's got stocks of food at Tuckborough and Delving, and he's had the Bounders visiting every household within a day's journey of the river, telling them to leave, go stay with relatives farther from the border." From childhood, Osta had had a close rapport with the Hobbits. The Commander over-awed them at times, but Osta kept a finger on the pulse of the Shire.
"Are the Hobbits going along with it?" asked Canohando.
"For the most part. I sent a few of our lads to chivvy them along. They spread the story of what happened to Haldar, to give them an idea what sort of Men we're dealing with. The far bank of the river is nearly empty now."
Canohando looked thoughtful. "Is it? Well, in that case –"
Before nightfall he had the greater part of his army moved across the river. Only a few score men he left inside the fort, with orders to light campfires and make as much noise as they could, to conceal how few of them there were.
"It cannot be much longer before they come down on us. The river is a natural barrier; it will slow them down, at least. When you see them coming, get out! Make for the Ferry; the Bridge will not be passable."
And he set men that same day to tearing out the middle of the Bridge, to stop the barbarians from passing over it.
"Will they not swim their horses across?" said Osta.
"And we will be waiting for them. Shoot every warrior we can, but spare the horses – with any luck they'll panic in the water, block the way for those who come behind. Some will get to shore, but we'll cut their force in half before they reach us."
"Will that be enough?"
The Commander gnawed at the tip of his thumb. "Send a message to the Mayor. Tell him to get everyone he can to some place of safety. You mentioned Tuckborough and Michel Delving – aren't there some old tunnels in the North as well, near Scary? We may be fighting all across the Shire before we're done. I want Hobbits clean out of sight until it's over."
"They aren't going to like that," said Osta. "Some of them have weapons; they'll want to defend their homes."
"Let them guard the entrance to their hiding places. Their delvings are sized for Halflings, not for Men – they will have the advantage there. When the war is over, then we can rebuild."
But his confidence was feigned for Osta's sake; Canohando's mind was troubled, and Haldar's dreadful end weighed heavy on him. The savagery of setting one friend to burn another to death – from Orcs he would have expected it, but not from humankind. He grew cold at the thought of such Men turned loose upon the Shire.
Midsummer's Eve ran its course peacefully, unmarked by celebration. The day was stifling hot, a swarm of cicadas making an unearthly din in the tall grass by the river. The sun went down at last, on this longest evening of the year, falling blood-red like an omen of ill fortune. Dusk thickened into darkness, but the night was as breathless as the day had been, and then across the river the trumpet of the Fort shrieked like the voice of doom.
The sound shivered across the water and men leaped to their feet – then the defiant peal broke off mid-note. There was an instant's hush before a roaring inferno erupted around the fortress. Against the flames they could see dark silhouettes of the attackers and burning arrows flying over the walls, and soon fire leaped up inside the fort as well.
Those on the Shire side surged to the water's edge as if moved by a single will; they pressed together, shouting and cursing their frustration at being cut off from the battle, while their comrades died within the walls of flame. But there came movement through the confusion like a ship cutting through high seas, and the Commander was among them, pushing them away from the river, giving low-voiced orders.
"Back, get back! Space yourselves out, cover as much of the shoreline as you can. The fortress has a tunnel out to the Forest – our lads may get away in spite of them. But they'll be trying to cross the river at first light; let's be ready for them!"
The men obeyed him. A very few had known of the tunnel; in whispers they reassured those near them as they spread out along the riverbank, but Canohando stood staring across at his burning fortress, wondering if anyone had gotten out alive. The renegade Logi had known the tunnel's secret.
When the sky began to lighten, the Guardians lay concealed along the river, from the confluence where The Water flowed into the Brandywine, all the way to Buckleberry Ferry. The boat there was drawn up on the Shire side; a handful of men had crossed over during the night: the only survivors from the fort.
Canohando was wroth. "Why did you try to fight it out with them? There were not enough of you for that; I ordered you out of there. We're outnumbered ten to one – we need every man we've got!"
The spokesman wavered on his feet, as if he might collapse.
"Sit down," snapped Canohando. "Here, lad, pass this around." He unhooked a silver vial from his belt and tossed it to the soldier nearest him; it held a reviving cordial brewed by Malawen. "What was it, then? Was the mouth of the tunnel watched? Did Logi bring them there?"
"No, Commander. There was no one, only the Trees." He gulped convulsively. "You know where it comes out, deep inside the Forest. And the Trees –"
Another man cut in. "It was as if they'd come alive; we had to fight our way, the branches whipping in our faces – we couldn't stay together; the Trees kept coming between us. When we got to the river's edge, there was only Darrin with me, and then he slipped, fell in and sank like a stone not a yard from shore –"
"Why didn't you pull him out?" Canohando demanded, but the soldier was staring at the ground, shaking his head back and forth as if he'd forgotten to stop.
"The Trees…" he muttered, and Canohando looked on him with pity and forbore to question further. For centuries the Forest had been unmolested; he'd hoped his men could slip from tunnel's mouth to the old Ferry without arousing it, but plainly the Trees were as malignant as they had ever been.
"All right. Fall back to Stock; our base camp's there, and the horses. Catch a few hours' sleep, but come morning you must be ready for battle."
But knowing the Old Forest was alive against intruders gave him to think, and he went in search of Osta. He found him at the end of the ruined Bridge, placing his best marksmen on the broken span out over the water, where they could shoot from cover.
"Those on the riverbank will send a hail of arrows as the enemy comes in range, but they can't aim properly at that distance. Watch for the chieftains and try to take them out: those on the best horses, or wearing helmet or ornament that sets them apart. We cannot stop them all, but we may leave them headless."
"I'll take out Logi if I see him," one man said vengefully; Benar, who had been Haldar's friend, and Logi's also.
Osta rumbled from deep inside his chest. "You leave Logi to me!"
"Unless I see him first," growled Canohando. "Osta, come walk with me; I want your counsel."
Dimly now they could make out men and horses on the opposite bank. A column of smoke still ascended from the fort, then suddenly the sun broke over the horizon, shooting golden darts in the eyes of the Guardians, making them duck and shield their faces with their arms. A roar like thunder broke from a thousand throats across the river, and the barbarians on their horses plunged in the water.
"Wait till they're in the middle; make them wonder!" shouted Osta, then turned back to his father. "Is that our strategy? Drive them south –"
"Hold them to the river as tight as we can, all the way to Sarn if we have to, and the garrison there can join us. But better if we can push them back across, into the Forest. The Trees will fight for us whether they will or no, and any who escape will come out on the Barrow Downs –"
"And from there none of them will come out," concluded Osta. "Very well; it's a good plan, I think. I will be on the bridge, where I can see what's going on and keep an eye out for your foster son." He bared his teeth in grim semblance of a smile. "Where can I find you at need?"
"Stock first, to bring the horsemen up. After that I'll be up and down the line. Have the wounded brought to Stock; we'll have wagons to take them to Malatara in Woodhall."
"Is that where she is? All right, good hunting to you, Afar. The Valar speed your arrows true this day."
"And yours as well." Impulsively Canohando locked his eldest son in a quick embrace before he turned away. He was glad, later, that he had done that.
The war-cries of the barbarians were raucous in his ears as he left the bridge; already there were bodies floating, horses swimming riderless. He met a group of men coming in from Stock and commandeered one of the horses, swinging himself up awkwardly. He would rather be afoot when he had the choice, but speed was essential and he could ride when he had to.
He had kept the horses back from the river, reasoning that they would only add to the confusion, when what he wanted were marksmen picking off as many enemies as they could. But to push a mounted foe across the water he needed horsemen, armed with spears as well as bows.
It will be a shoving match as much as anything, he thought, and the one with the sharpest elbows wins. He smiled inwardly, warming to the day's work. He had been in enough shoving matches in his youth, against his brothers. He had always had sharp elbows.
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.