Chapter One, A Grey Night, Section 9
by Stephen N. Barnes, Jr.
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He looked at Lendy, who had returned to the crate and resumed his attempt to light his pipe. "Hmm," Lendy grunted with halfhearted interest.
Brogund leaned against the tree and tapped his pipe. He grimaced and then spoke softly. "We must be sure no one hears us. Something terrible has happened here in the Shire! Something so dangerous and deadly, that even my own knowledge places you both in dire jeopardy." He halted and lowered his voice further. "We are in grave danger. There are folk in our beloved Shire who mean nothing but ill." He paused for effect, "And I have seen them." Brogund was now whispering.
"Whatever do you mean?" asked Lendy, loudly and incredulously. Uninhibited by Brogunds show, he continued to strike his tinderbox.
"I have explored west from Brookton, through the Finterwood near the Far Downs, to Lettleton. There I have heard and seen these evil folk. They are north men, of ill-favor, and they are traveling through the Shire on an evil errand!" Brogund had leaned forward slowly as he spoke, and at his last statement, he stood up and raised his arms for effect.
Lendy stopped striking his tinderbox and looked up at Brogund, obviously displeased with both his cold tobacco and Brogunds enlivened gestures.
Brogund continued, "And there is more to it than that "
"I know!" Del blurted, startling both Brogund and Lendy. "A murderer has escaped from the northlands! And this group of Northlanders are searching the countryside to find him." He looked at Brogund, whose mouth was gaping in mid-sentence. Del shrugged, and then continued, "This is common knowledge, Brogund. I heard the same from Sandy at the Brookton gate this morning. These evil folk, as you call them, are nothing but a pack of Northlanders looking for a thief."
Brogund, visibly shocked, cried, "What do you mean, you heard this from Sandy?"
"He told me this morning to watch myself on the road. He said that Nab had told him about the north men in Lettleton." Del enjoyed the surprise on both Brogunds and Lendys faces as he explained Sandys urgent message.
Lendy turned to Brogund. "I dont see whats so exciting about some neer-do-well from the north. From what weve heard theres plenty of lowlife there anyhow, and a thief escaping from some north men isnt all that strange if you ask me."
"Well, you can be sure if Sandy knows of it, the whole Shire will know soon enough," Brogund pondered while shaking his head. "But I am afraid that is only the beginning, Lendy. These men have traveled beyond Lettleton into the Shire for a purpose. I saw two of them myself just four days ago. They were searching north of Brookton near Hobbiton. Very odd men, all bundled in fur, with large horses."
"Strange Big Folk searching for a criminal is not terribly pleasant," said Del, who was picturing wild north men stamping in and trampling his garden. "But thats no more exciting than when Farmer Toppers pony was found dead last year in his pasture some even say she might have been killed by wolves," Del mused.
"Well," said Brogund. "No matter what the rumors say, I know for a fact that this fellow theyre looking for is no ordinary thief. I overheard the men talking about tracking him from Celderin, a city in the far north. They have their best trackers on him, and he still has eluded them like a spirit. It was this reason they moved quickly through the Shire. In fact, they have traveled westward and south into the valley beyond the Finterwood," Brogund paused and lowered his voice almost to a whisper, "and they have entered the Bænde-hullow valley."
At the mention of that name, both Del and Lendy gasped. Lendy stopped striking his tinderbox. Since the end of the infamous Quelling War over four hundred years ago, no hobbit had deliberately set foot in the Bænde-hullow valley. It was a place dark-stained with death. Old hobbit tales marked Bænde-hullow as the Valley of Secret Darkness, for many of their kind had fallen there in the first war of the Fourth Age. In that time the High King Eldarion had enlisted many hobbits to join forces with a battalion of men from Gondor and do battle with a last bastion of foul creatures in that valley. The battle was long, fierce, and gruesome, and many hobbit-wives lost their husbands that day. Even in the bright times after the Quelling War, no hobbits inhabited or indeed passed through Bænde-hullow without deep fear.
The two hobbits looked at Brogund intently. The mention of this dark place had sparked their interests. "They must be desperate to find this fellow," said Del. "Where are they now?"
Brogund looked around, then leaned further toward the other hobbits. "They pursued the fellow into the valley, but none have yet come out alive.
"Two days ago, I wandered west of the Far Downs, following the mens trail. They had ridden long and hard from Lettleton, and their trail led southward into the valley. I did not enter the valley, but I saw where several horses had turned and backtracked northward. I did not find any men, but I found this." He reached into his cloak and pulled out a leather pouch. He tossed it onto the wooden crate.
The pouch was man-sized, tied together at its top with a worn leather strap. Dark red splotches spotted the tattered leather.
"Blood stains?" wondered Lendy.
"Yes, at least, I think so," whispered Brogund. "I found it alongside the road, next to this dagger, here." He pulled out a long thin blade and sheath and laid it beside the pouch. The hilt of the dagger was bone, with strange marks and carvings on either side. Lendy picked it up gingerly and pulled it from its sheath. The edge was thin and sharp, and the carvings continued down the blade. Merely a stabbing dagger for a man, to Lendy it felt more like a sword. He sheathed it and laid it back on the crate.
"What is in the pouch?" asked Del.
"I dont know. I havent yet opened it." Brogund billowed smoke from his pipe. "It is fairly heavy."
"Perhaps it is filled with gold," cried Del.
"Or bones," said Lendy hauntingly. "Should we open it now?"
Brogund knelt at the crate, and the other hobbits gathered around. He tugged at the leather strap. With some work it untied, and the pouch slid open slowly.
Inside were several large coins of foreign origin, and a few vials of strange liquid of various tints. Brogund lifted the pouch and tilted it to one side to reveal its contents further. Pieces of metal and a bone carving fell to the crate, along with a small book with a golden clasp. The book had blood stains on its sides and back, and the clasp shut it tightly. A blue gem was embossed on its front, but no lettering could be seen.
The hobbits stared quietly at these items, each deep in thought. Finally, Brogund took the book and carefully snapped the clasp open. He opened the cover. Outlandish writing adorned each page. It appeared to be a journal of sorts. As Brogund flipped through the pages, a yellowed paper fell to the crate. A ring encircling a glaring eye was scribbled on the paper.
"I have never seen anything like this," said Brogund, half to himself.
"Does not look good, if you ask me," said Lendy. He picked up the paper and held it up to a ray of sunlight. The eye stared back at them, and after a chilling moment, Lendy quickly placed the paper back within the pages of the book and snapped it shut.
Del shuddered and scratched his head. "I do not like this one bit," he cried. "Plundering in other peoples business, reading their journals, sneaking around behind them. It does not feel right."
Brogund glanced at the pouch, then turned to Del. "Well, we did not read the journal, unless you understand Northlander writing. And I wasnt sneaking. I was following a trail."
"Well, who knows what poor soul is missing his journal, not to mention several coins," urged Del.
"From the looks of it, whoever lost this pouch wont be needing it any time soon, if you understand me." Lendy spoke quietly.
Del continued, "Well, I think that we well I mean, you, Brogund should take this back to wherever you found it." Del was plainly nervous about this discovery, as large Northlanders with daggers traipsing through the Shire searching for a missing diary were distracting his thoughts.
"We cannot," said Brogund thoughtfully. "Not without even greater risk." He stepped back from the crate and stared into the woods behind him, his thoughts far away.
Copyright 2001, Stephen N. Barnes, Jr. All Rights Reserved