9. The First Wave
The sun climbed up the sky and still they came. The river was clogged with bodies, and riderless horses scrambled up the banks on both sides of the river. But however many barbarians were picked off, more came behind, and even as they rode, their arrows sped toward riverbank and bridge, a deadly rainbow flashing in the sun. The Guardians kept hidden as best they could, but the hail of death from above needed no eyes. Not a few of the defenders were transfixed where they lay, pinned dying to the ground.
A trumpet blared, and Osta craned his neck to see behind him. A phalanx of horsemen was thundering toward the river – the Guardians' cavalry, as he'd planned with Canohando hours ago. A lifetime ago. He arched his back, trying to stretch away the stiffness of hunching all morning behind the parapet.
There was a shout from a man farther down the bridge.
"There he is, there's Logi!" he howled, and the tip of his arrow followed one figure in the river for an instant, two instants, before he let fly.
"Damn! I missed – but I'll have you, traitor, just stand one moment, Logi, and I'll have you –"
Osta rushed to the railing, heedless of concealment, nocking an arrow to his string. "Where? Where is he – wait, I see –" Before he could fire, an enemy arrow found him, took him in the right breast and spun him round to sprawl across the bridge.
"Captain!" The archer who a moment before had been sure he would have Logi, fell to his knees by Osta. "Captain –"
Gently he turned him, fearing, but Osta was alive and furious. "Kill me that traitor!" he gasped. He pressed a hand where the arrow stood out from his chest. "This will keep. Get Logi!"
The archer hurled himself at the railing, careful to stay under cover, but Logi by now had passed beyond his range. The Orc had not once looked up, and he rode with both hands on the reins, his bow unstrung and strapped across his back.
Soon after, they had to abandon the bridge. Too many enemies had fought their way to shore; the Guardians were forced to give ground, and those on the bridge must retreat or be cut off. They could not even bring away the dead with them, but the wounded they half dragged, half carried as they fled.
Osta walked, one hand clamped against his wound to slow the bleeding. He refused any help, holding his sword left-handed, but his men surrounded him protectively. In that way, fending off the barbarians clustered at the end of the bridge, they fought their way across to their own side.
Guardian horsemen were pushing hard against the invaders, holding them to the river, heading off any who threatened to break away. The air rang with steel, with battle cries and dying screams, the squeals of horses with their harness dangling, plunging through the melee. In the thick of it all Canohando fought on his two feet, hacking this way and that with a great two-handed sword and shouting like a madman.
Once he spotted Logi and roared at him to stand. Logi heard – their glances inter-locked for the space of a heartbeat, but then he spurred away. A chieftain in a helmet rimmed with fur drove down on Canohando, demanding his attention – by the time the barbarian was dispatched, Logi had disappeared.
Slowly they herded the invaders southward. The enemy had been decimated crossing the river; the Guardians were no longer as outnumbered as they had been. Their hopes rose as the sun inched toward the west.
Evening found them in the rich bottomlands of the Marish, fields of corn dotted with barns and houses, not far from Rushy. The country was deserted, the inhabitants all fled, and the opposing armies tramped down the Hobbits' crops and churned up a slurry of mud and gore beneath the horses' hoofs. As the light faded, the barbarians drew off closer to the water, and the Guardians let them go. It was too dark any longer to distinguish friend from foe.
"At dawn we will finish; drive them back across. The Forest is thick on the other side of the river." Canohando was weary, but satisfied with the day's work. "Post sentries and get the supper fires going. Where is Osta, has anybody seen him?"
The men around him shrugged, and he went to search, taking a horse and riding back toward Bridgefields, asking as he went. When at length he found an answer, they told him Osta had been taken to Malatara at Woodhall.
"Complaining all the way, Commander. He was bound to stay and fight – 'Just get this blasted stick out of me!' he said. Wouldn't ride in the wagon. We got him on a horse, finally, and begged him, as a favor, to go along as escort – and while he was there, just let the Lady look at him."
Canohando gave a hoot of laughter – that sounded like his son, indeed! Osta had ridden before he could walk, and he rode like the centaurs in the ancient tales, one body with his horse. Small wonder he refused the wagon.
He handed his own steed over to the horse-lads, and started back on foot. He would have to be at the front when morning came, to lead the onslaught that should thrust the invaders out, but there was no hurry. Walking rested him better than sleep after a battle.
Campfires winked here and there across the fields, men heating water to soak parched grain and meat, and bandaging up small injuries that did not warrant going to Woodhall. Passing through a little grove of trees, Canohando found a burial party working, and the slain laid out in rows. He walked among them, looking at each in turn, and sorrow smote him. There were no unfamiliar faces; he was father to them all, however many generations stood between them. He clenched his teeth, refusing tears. When the enemy was driven off, there would be time to mourn.
"The Valar give you peace," he muttered.
He moved on with his head sunk to his chest, picking his way among the campfires and soldiers wrapped in their cloaks, sleeping on bare ground. Haldar gone and Logi renegade – how many others fallen, and the war not finished yet. But the Hobbits were sheltered from it. Hodfast would have had gotten his people to safety when the warning came. He was a good Mayor.
For this we came to the Shire, to be protectors.
Death had been part of the bargain from the beginning, but in spite of that they had been happy here. Fragments of bright memory slid into his mind: Haldar and Logi as young cubs, following at his heels as they learned to track, running ahead of him along the trail and dropping on him out of trees, trying to surprise him. He had trained them in the Old Forest, showing them how to calm the Trees as Malawen had taught him. If those two had led the escape from the fort last night, he would wager his head there had been no man lost to the Trees.
If he had arranged a marriage for his grandson, would he have been turncoat? He should not have left Logi to find his own mate, knowing how rough he was, how little grace he had to please the fair ones. Then Haldar would be alive tonight.
He shut his eyes and groaned, for a moment standing still. Better if he had drowned Logi in infancy, when he knew him for what he was – as Malawen drowned her misbegotten Orc in the days of the Ring War. If he had not deluded himself that he could tame the lad, as Frodo had tamed him –
I am not Frodo, he thought bitterly. I have no gift of healing.
There was a shout and hoofbeats hard behind him. He sprang out of the way, trying to see through the dark who it might be.
"Commander!" The horseman reined, and Canohando gaped at him. It was a Hobbit, clinging like a burr to the back of a full-sized horse, without a saddle. "Commander, I come from Dwaling – the barbarians fired Kingstown two days ago at dawn – I don't know if any of the Guardians survived! I came to warn you."
His voice was cracked with fear, and the Commander reached up quickly to lift him down, setting him on his feet and holding him steady.
"Easy, lad. Let's get something warm inside you and let you catch your breath; then you shall tell me all you can. Come on." He took his hand to lead him, but the Hobbit was exhausted; after a few steps Canohando picked him up and carried him like a child. He paid no attention to the horse, but the animal followed them.
"What of your people; were any of them caught by the barbarians?"
"Not caught. Three wounded, and one killed. We were bringing milk and meat to the fortress; they buy from us, you know – "
Canohando nodded; it was a good arrangement, providing the Guardians with fresh food while it gave the Shirefolk a reliable market. "This is no time for trade, though; this is war," he said.
"Even in wartime men must eat!" the Hobbit retorted, and Canohando repressed a smile; there spoke the Shire, indeed!
"What happened – had you reached the fort?"
"No. We were on the road and they came barreling down the hill. We cut the pack ponies loose and ran – scattering, you know, to make it hard for them to follow. But Hamish tried to race ahead, to warn the fort – " there was a sob in his voice, and Canohando realized for the first time how young he was, hardly more than a lad.
"They shot him down," he guessed, when the youngster did not continue.
"They used him for target, him and his pony both! They were like pincushions –"
"You are a brave fellow to come and bring us word," Canohando said bracingly. "All right, now down you go." They had come to a campfire, a few men sitting around it still awake, and a savory smell of stew. "Here's a small messenger with a hearty appetite; give him some of what you have in the pot there."
*Kingstown – Guardian fortress near the old city of Annuminas
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