The trek has been long, the journey from Dunharrow fraught with terrors beyond my wildest imagining. The Dead follow in our wake. Prickling at the back of my neck, their malice is tangible in the chill of unending darkness. These are their paths, and we ride them lightly. I’m sure that it is only by His will that we do not join them.
“We rest here,” Halbarad calls, and his hoarse whisper seems a shout in the unnatural quiet. The Company reels in lathered horses but for a long moment the mounts balk, white-eyed with fear. When at last gentle words are able to reassure our skittish steeds, we road-sore riders collapse to the ground to pant in the shadows.
I reek of sweat and fear, we all do. What we face is even more dreadful than the horror that follows us. We are Dúnedain, yes, but we are still just Men. And even hardened warriors can be afraid. Can’t they?
He passes among us – ignoring his own weariness – touching a shoulder, clasping a hand, lending courage and strength to warriors on the edge of their endurance. He crouches down to face me where I sit beneath my mount’s neck. I am young among my brethren, though far from being a youth, and he knows I’m frightened. A nicked and weathered hand touches my shoulder as he offers me a grim smile. He acknowledges the terror in my eyes, in my face, and understands them. His words are a needed comfort.
We are all afraid, he says. Be strong in knowing that we are in this together.
I grin, embarrassed as Gîlthîr bumps his shoulder, shamelessly searching for treats. He smiles in return, and rises to scratch my spoiled roan’s starred forehead. Then like the shadows that surround us, he moves on.
In his quiet strength, it is easy to see our King inside the Man.
In the cold and soundless twilight, hunger gnaws at my belly. It’s been much too long since we’ve had time for a proper meal. I snort, rubbing Gîlthîr’s leg.
A proper meal?
The words bring a wistful smile to my lips. How very much like a hobbit that sounded…
I can almost hear my brother Varden’s grumbling words as I sit here.
You’re too attached Vis. Your duty is to protect the periannath, to watch the Shire and guard its borders, not to make them your kin. You shouldn’t let your heart get involved.
My brother’s right of course. I have spent too much time around the Shire, guarding the halflings, defending them, learning over the long years to cherish them. They’ve become a part of my life, a part I would…I may yet…die for. Oh how I’ve learned to love the Shirefolk and their simple, peaceful ways. I think some part of me desires the stability of hearth and home the Shire envisions…a life, as a Dúnadan, I’ve not truly known since my youth.
It’s near spring in the Shire now.
My thoughts wander as we sit in the twilight. Closing my eyes, I drift in a waking dream of warm sunshine and brown earth turned fresh and fragrant for the early planting. There are puddles in the lane and I can almost see the muddy tramp of hobbit feet in the Littlefoot family’s entry hallway. And standing there, little Raith– Beau and Molly’s youngest lad – caked with dirt from curly head to furry toes, beaming at some new treasure he’d found for his nana. He’ll be coming up on four soon, and turning out to be as precocious as any of his five siblings.
I’ve known the Littlefoot family for more than twenty years, having met Beauregarth in the fall of my sixteenth year. I’d been on my first trip away from home, tagging along at Varden’s heels as he made a trip to the Village of Bree. Of course, I’d never seen one of the periannath before, though I’d heard tales of them for as long as I could remember, and I’m sure the denizens of the Prancing Pony thought me rude for my fascinated staring.
“Vis,” my brother had hissed at me time and again, while elbowing my ribs until they were black and blue. “You have the manners of a troll. You’ll never make a good ranger if you don’t stop staring.”
Patience wearing thin, and fed up with what I’m sure he viewed as childish behavior, he’d sent me with coin to the market in search of a gift for our mother. I’m sure the gesture was more to grant him a moment’s peace to drink and gamble with his companions, than a noble urge to bear some trinket home for our Naneth but excited by the new experience, I was glad for the errand.
It was at a cloth merchant’s stall where I’d first met Beau.
“Take care there, lad,” he’d cautioned as hands filled with boyish clumsiness threatened to tumble a careful stack of bolts to the muddy ground. “They’re a mite shaky on that end. Perhaps I could help you find something.”
He’d been young then too – for a hobbit – just past his tweens, and in his final year of apprenticeship under an uncle’s watchful eye. Being an eager youth, filled with questions, I was overjoyed to find the merchant a friendly and talkative fellow. My curiosity kept me at his stall long after my purchases were made. Sitting in the shade of the awning I listened with rapt attention to his tales as he moved smoothly from one subject to the next, all the while smoking his pipe. Even Varden’s bruising cuff when he came to search me out, couldn’t quench my excited wonder. Nor did it deter me from seeking out the hobbit again the following day and each day after that until my brother’s business in Bree was done and we departed.
The friendship between Beau and I had been almost immediate. It had managed to weather many long and happy years.
I’d come to know Beau’s dear wife some four years later. A ranger in my own right by then, I’d been sent to watch the Shire’s borders, guarding them against a creeping darkness that even I did not yet fully understand. Beau had been wed for almost two years, and they’d already been blessed with a healthy son.
Mistress Molly had hidden behind her husband that day, peering with frightened eyes from the dark doorway of the smial. I’d come bearing an important letter for the merchant, and for courtesy’s sake, he’d invited me to join them for tea. I’m sure the towering figure of a man in their home, filled her with anxious nervousness, but she’d quickly come to know and accept me. Within a year, she’d taken it upon herself to keep me fed and cared for whenever my travels brought me near their home in Tuckborough. As I kept my watch on the Shire and its borders, she did her best to keep a watch on me. She’d even learned to knit me socks, though hobbits don’t wear them, for fear my small feet would get cold in the winter’s snows. Such a dear lady she was…she still is…always filling my pack with treats to make my journey just a little easier.
Ah for one of her honey cakes now or better still a warm pastry or sweet biscuit, fresh from the oven…
Groaning, I hug at my belly, fearful that my nearby kindred will hear it’s pitiful rumbling. Standing and pulling my pack from the saddle, I flop once more to the ground and dig inside for something to ease the gnawing. I bypass the wrapped packet of cram, not sure I could bear the thought of it right now, much less the taste. Dried fruit – no, jerked meat – ugggh, none of the standard traveler’s fare appealed, at that moment, to a stomach made unruly by fear-nourished nervousness.
Ready to give up the search as a bad idea, my hand falls upon a small, hitherto forgotten packet and I can feel my heart press into my throat with a sudden welling of emotion.
Could it really be…?
Fingers trembling, I touch the oiled paper wrapping and pull loose the carefully tied string. Folding back the edges, I stare at four broken shards of an ancient sugared ginger biscuit, one that had long since seen its better days.
Oh, it is…how could I have forgotten it?
Molly had made them for me just before I left last fall; had made them in spite of the fact that it was harvest season and there really hadn’t been time in her busy day to spare. She’d known then, that my duties were to take me far from the Shire – though I’d taken great pains to keep the dire nature of that journey a secret from her. She’d wanted to send along a favorite treat for my trip and had brushed away my weak protests with a waving of her hand. Nonsense, Vis. They’re done now, you may as well take them.
Filled with a guilty pleasure, I hadn’t argued too strongly. It was a little bit of their love I could take to sustain me as the Company gathered in preparation for what would turn out to be this path we now followed.
I rationed them, hoarding them greedily like a miser with his gold. I knew even then it would be a long time before the Shire’s earth passed beneath my wandering feet and when it did…well, who could know, what that future may hold. So much will have changed for me before this is done. But the Shire…Eru willing, that will stay the same. It is one of the things that even now we fight for.
And which of us could have guessed a hobbit would eventually hold the fate of us all in his small hands.
When I’d come to the last of them, just past Yule, I’d wrapped it carefully and tucked it away in the bottom of my pack. Even then I’d thought that perhaps there would come a time in my journey when a familiar taste might bring a moment of needed solace. Since then I’d managed to forget it, my mind like the minds of all my brethren, being fixed on far more important things.
Closing weary eyes, I lift the open packet to my nose. The odor of oiled paper assails me first, then the underlying, worn leather smell of my pack. Still, beneath these two familiar scents I can yet smell the spicy sharpness of ginger clinging tenaciously still to the crumbling sweet.
With a smile, I take the first piece between my thumb and fingers and raise it carefully to my mouth. The fragile bit crumbles on my tongue and dissolves without the effort of chewing. It’s stale, tasting more of leather and paper than sugar and spice but I do not care. The flavor – though faint – is still there, a lingering remnant of a happy memory.
Sighing, I savor a second portion with equal relish.
Around me I can hear the stirring of restless bodies and the anxious stamping of horses. Our rest is nearly done. Soon the Captain will call us up, drive us again on our way, pushing us before the storm that follows in our wake.
Quickly, I pop a third piece into my mouth, allowing it to linger there, melting against my tongue. Though there is little sustenance in the dry and crumbling bits, they fill an emptiness in me that even the fine fare of Lord Elrond’s table couldn’t manage.
“All right men. It’s time. Mount up.” Halbarad’s voice is steady, reassuring. Around me men and horses come to life, stamping in the chill while stowing packs and gear before dragging weary bodies into saddles.
Gîlthîr butts my shoulder, anxious to go, and I brush his soft nose with my fingertips.
“Yes, I know,” I whisper at his insistent nudging. “I’m coming.”
Struggling to my feet, body aching from long days in the saddle, I eye the last piece of the biscuit. For a moment I am tempted to put it away – just for a little while longer.
How much longer could it last? I wonder, hoisting my pack into its accustom place. Not ‘til the end of the War, that’s for certain.
Taking the last quarter in my hand, I smell it a final time – committing the fragrance into memory and storing it in my heart for when the darkness that is to come lays too heavily. Then with a happy sigh, I hold the fragment on my palm and offer it to Gîlthîr with a small smile.
“There you are, glutton,” I whisper, as he lips it from my hand. “It’s not much of a treat for you, but it’s all I have to offer for now.”
Nodding, as if in assent, he whiffs softly and once more butts my chest. Chuckling, I caress his neck, then rub the star marked forehead before reclaiming my seat in the saddle. Taking reins in hand, I join the ranks that form around me.
“Everything will be all right,” I whisper, reassuring myself with a newfound confidence. “He leads us. We will prevail.”
Then with a lighter heart, I ride on, and for the time being I am neither hungry nor afraid.