As Gwaerrenaur trotted slowly along the path in the general direction of Bree, Caethir glanced around, re-familiarising himself with this most western part of the region. It took little strength to resist turning into Buckland after having just left the Shire.
Buckland. For Hobbits who want to leave the Shire, but not really, he mused.
Ahead but to the South stood the Old Forest and the Barrow-Downs, neither of which brought back fond memories, except being rescued by Tom Bombadil when he became trapped in never-ending battle with some Wight-Lord or other.
“I really must remember to ask Elrond about Tom Bombadil, if I make it to Rivendell”, the Elf muttered.
The rain was finally slowing and a gentle breeze had begun to stir, which both horse and rider were grateful for, though it caused Caethir to shiver slightly. The next couple of hours passed by without incident as the Elf had steered clear of a pack of brown bears foraging among the trees, though in doing so they had nearly run into a small herd of boars instead.
A Hobbit Threatened
It was almost midday when the Elf neared a half-constructed building, a waggon and some pitched tents. A small group of shabbily-dressed folk were gathered around what Caethir believed to be a Hobbit. Voices were raised and that meant trouble.
Gently telling Gwaerrennaur to stop, Caethir jumped silently to the ground and softly approached the group.
“I told ya last week, if ya didn’t ‘av another payment ready, it’d go badly for ya,” a man’s voice could be heard.
“And I told you this is a year since you said I had made the last payment and I don’t have any more money!” the male Hobbit’s rising voice stated.
“Well you’re payin’ that worker with somethin’ you little liar,” a rough female voice snarled.
“No, he’s giving his time for nothing, given nothing is precisely what I own right now!”, shouted in exasperation.
Taking a breath and drawing a dagger from his belt, Caethir stepped up to the group.
“What’s going on here?”, he asked, despite it being clearly evident that the Hobbit’s well-being was in danger.
“What’s it to you?” a man, who seemed to be their leader, barked.
“Come now. There are four of you big folk and one Hobbit here. Leave him be.”, Caethir stated as firmly as he could manage.
“Caethir! I never thought I’d see you again – and perfect timing too”, the Hobbit managed to say, his voice somewhat shaky.
“Adso? Adso Haybank? Are you telling me you’re no further along with your project?”, Caethir half-shouted, incredulously.
“Nope. And all because these ruffians keep threatening me, my workers and taking my money”, Adso sighed sadly with a shrug of his shoulders.
“An’ we were just about to arrange for the next payment when you stepped in,” the leader growled, unclipping a crude club from his side. “So it looks like we’ll have to pay Sharkey with what’s left of you instead!”
So, Caethir thought, the situation with the brigands and Sharkey is getting worse. I’ve left fighting Angmar to walk into organised bullies and criminals.
“There’s no need for this to get ugly. Leave the Hobbit alone. Logically, Adso here cannot pay until his project is completed. A completed project makes money, then you can get paid. A dead Hobbit won’t do you any favours.”, Caethir tried to reason, aware that the air was tense with anger.
“Yes, yes, that’s it, do that!”, Adso piped up, sounding braver than he felt.
For a moment the brigand leader seemed to consider Caethir’s proposal.
“Y’know what ‘appened last time we missed a shipment to Sharkey?”, the female brigand asked rhetorically, a mixture of fear and aggression playing in her eyes.
“Sorry Hobbit, it sounds like the boss won’t wait! Get ’em!” the leader yelled.
From Fire to Forest
Immediately, chaos broke out. Adso made a running dive behind some piled-up crates and Caethir ran to take what cover was available near the incomplete building.
“Where’s tha’ Elf gone, boys?”, the leader yelled. “If the Hobbit’s not got coin, we get it from the Elf!”
Caethir was about to let an arrow fly when he suddenly felt the urge to lean back, just in time for an enemy bolt to zip past his head.
“Found ‘im boss!”, the female brigand shouted, loading another bolt into her crossbow.
The Elf took a breath, peered round the corner and succeeded in landing an arrow in the leg of the ruffian who stood next to the leader. With a cry he dropped to the floor, clutching his wound in agony.
“Keep firing! I’ll close ‘im down” the boss shouted and, seeing a shield abandoned by the fleeing guard, he took it up and began advancing on Caethir’s position.
The Elf cursed as two of his own arrows were successfully blocked and, knowing he was running out of time, began backing away one tree at a time. His wood-craft senses were heightened and he knew he was gradually moving away from the brigand leader. He attached his bow to his back and took his dagger back up in his right hand. And he continued his silent retreat into the wood.
Just as he began to feel safer, surrounded as he was by strong, towering trees, his right heel caught a protruding root. Caethir failed to maintain his balance and he fell, and the back of his head hit a hard stone protruding from the path.
As he lost consciousness, he recognised the gnarled, menacing trees of the Old Forest above him. He thought he heard the sound of a horn being blown. Then darkness took him.
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